Et Al. May23

The Master Mystery (1919, 15 chapters)

International Patents Inc. is a company that makes its profits by buying patents on the promise of marketing products for their inventors, but then suppressing them for the benefit of those products’ competitors. The company’s testing laboratory is managed by Quentin Locke (Harry Houdini), who is actually an agent for the Department of Justice, working undercover to expose the fraud. Peter Brent (Jack Burns) is beginning to suffer remorse, but his partner, Herbert Balcom (Charles Graham), is determined to keep the scheme going: he plants his own spy, Zita Dane (Ruth Stonehouse), as Brent’s secretary; and he blackmails Brent into agreeing to a marriage between his daughter, Eva (Marguerite Marsh), and Paul Balcom (William Pike), which will give Balcom control of the company and Eva’s money. However, Eva is secretly in love with Locke; while Balcom is involved with an underworld figure, “De Luxe Dora” (Edna Britton). Meanwhile, lurking in the shadows is a dangerous gang headed by a mysterious Automaton… The Master Mystery was conceived as a vehicle for Harry Houdini and on that basis it works admirably. The confusing plot is merely an excuse to have Quentin Locke tied up, handcuffed, boxed or otherwise confined in some sort of death-trap at the end of each episode, in order to begin the next episode with Locke / Houdini escaping on camera—without, we must acknowledge, any cutting away or other kinds of cinematic assistance. Unfortunately, nearly everything else is just filler; and despite criminal gangs, mysterious Orientals, underground hideouts, secret passages and “Madagascar” becoming a touch-phrase for all sorts of strange and nefarious doings, pretty dull filler at that, particularly over fifteen chapters. The exception is the hilariously designed Automaton, which makes the robots in The Phantom Empire look menacing. Most commentators seem to focus on its cartoonish eyes, but I was entranced by the small oil-drum that represents its hinder-parts (I like big robot butts, I cannot lie). But alas, as soon as he lays eyes on it, Quentin Locke declares the Automaton to be no more than a man in a suit—but who could it be? We’re destined not to know via the surviving prints of The Master Mystery, which have chunks of the serial missing—including the last episode wherein all is explained! A restoration of sorts has been undertaken, with titles inserted to explain the missing footage. The terseness of these paragraphs begins to suggest an entirely justified exasperation with Locke and Eva for their relentless determination to keep walking into obvious traps, or alternatively with the Bad Guys for not just killing Locke—if that’s actually what they want to do. (Barbed wire and creeping acid, really…??)

Possessed (1931)

Based upon the play The Mirage by Edgar Selwyn. In a small town, factory girl Marian Martin (Joan Crawford) tells her construction-worker boyfriend, Al Manning (Wallace Ford), that while she cares for him, she won’t marry him: that she wants more than he and the town can give. On the way home, Marian stops by the railway tracks, where a cross-country train is coming to a halt: she gazes enviously through the lighted windows at the first-class passengers in their private cars. One passenger, Wallace Stuart (Richard “Skeets” Gallagher), is drinking champagne on the rear platform: a little drunk but rather charming, he invites Marian to join him and listens sympathetically to her woes—and tells her to look him up if she’s ever in New York. When she arrives home late, a little the worse for the champagne, a visiting Al is enraged at her behaviour; while his assumption of control over her is, for Marian, the final straw. Impulsively, she packs her bags for New York and tracks down Wally Stuart, who – now sober – is horrified; though, asked for his advice, he tells Marian frankly that there is only one way a girl like her can get what she wants—but he won’t help her. However, with the arrival of two of Stuart’s friends, the matter is taken out of his hands: Marian catches the interest of wealthy attorney, Mark Whitney (Clark Gable)… Three years later, known to society as “Mrs Moreland” and posing as a divorcée, Marian has everything she ever wanted—except a wedding-ring… Possessed was the third of the eighth films that Joan Crawford and Clark Gable made together, made when she was established and he still on his way up—and it is Marian who is the film’s focus. This is a full-blooded Pre-Code melodrama, perfectly frank about the nature of Marian’s relationship with Mark Whitney, and having it both ways by sympathising with her and allowing her and Mark to be in love and happy – up to a point – but also subjecting her to all the particular indignities of her situation. Mark’s friends are all very nice to Marian but, when the surface is scratched, it is made very clear to her that they consider her a whore like any other whore. As for Mark, having suffered through a failed marriage that ended not merely in divorce but a humiliating public scandal, he makes it very clear to Marian that he will not marry her: it is for her to decide whether she can stick it out or not. A double crisis is reached when Al Manning, now a successful contractor, arrives in New York: with no idea of Marian’s true history, he still wants to marry her. Meanwhile, having risen through the legal and political ranks, Mark has the chance to run for governor—but his backers insist upon him first ridding himself of “Mrs Moreland”… Possessed is an amusingly clever example of a film having its cake and eating it too: it punishes Marian as much as the most censorious viewer could demand, while at the same time saving its real contempt for the selfishness of Mark and the hypocrisy of his friends—and of Al, whose righteous indignation when he discovers the truth suddenly evaporates when his profitable new building contract is threatened and only Marian can save it for him. The film’s ending is strangely naive and not very convincing, but we can’t blame it for wanting to offer Marian a ray of hope.

Flying Blind (1941)

After a terrible landing, pilots Rocky Drake (Roger Pryor) and Jim Clark (Richard Arlen) are called to their boss’s office. Initially Drake promises to accept responsibility, but instead he keeps his mouth shut and the scene ends with Jim quitting before he is fired and taking stewardess Shirley Brooks with him—although not before giving Drake a sock on the jaw. Jim and Shirley, together with aviation mechanic Riley (Eddie Quillan), found a one-plane company called “Honeymoon Express”, which flies couples between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The venture is a success, but between the work needed and Jim’s growing cynicism about marriage, he neglects Shirley, who begins to listen to the overtures of Bob Fuller (Dick Purcell). Matters still hang in the balance when the two and their plane are caught up in an attempt to steal a top-secret bomber component… Flying Blind was the third of the three films made by pilot-actor Richard Arlen and the producing duo of Pine-Thomas, after Power Dive and Forced Landing. The first half of the film is painfully unfunny comedy, with lots of yelling and scrapping between Jim and Shirley, Jim behaving like a selfish jerk, expectant father Riley in a constant panic, and comic-relief Vegas-wedding couple Veronica (Marie Wilson) and Chester (Grady Sutton) to top things off. Thankfully, this being 1941, Flying Blind then changes gears for an espionage plot that finds Rocky Drake turning traitor for money, taking delivery of a stolen transformer from a new secret bomber and killing the thief rather than paying him off. He escapes the police by begging a lift from Jim: already onboard are his contacts, who are posing as another honeymoon couple. A radio message to Jim alerts him to the danger, but as he tries to turn the plane he finds himself held at gunpoint by Colonel Boro (Nils Asther), under orders to fly to Mexico… The comedy never quite goes away in Flying Blind, but this is somewhat compensated for by fisticuffs and gun-play, an emergency landing and a wildfire; plus a fair amount of contemporary hardware and stunt-flying (some of it by Richard Arlen himself, I gather).

Belle Le Grand (1951)

When her husband, a riverboat gambler, flees after killing a man who accused him of cheating, Sally Sinclair (Vera Ralston) stands trial for the murder and is sentenced to five years as an accessory, to the final, profound shame of her embittered father. When Sally is released, she returns to the home of her former maid, Daisy (Marietta Canty), who must tell her that after her father died, her young sister was placed in an orphanage. Sally vows to devote her life to seeing that her sister suffers no more for her sins; and, knowing no other way to earn the money she needs, she becomes a professional gambler… Some years later, “Belle Le Grand” is the owner of one of the biggest gambling establishments on the Barbary Coast, and much admired – if not respected – by the wealthy men of San Francisco. Visiting the Stock Exchange, Belle overhears a conversation between “Lucky John” Gilton (John Carroll) and his partner, Bill Shanks (William Ching), who have received private notice of a new strike at Gilton’s supposedly worn-out mine: she buys shares just before the news becomes general. Montgomery Crane (Stephen Chase), a shady businessman whose own schemes are foiled by these events, vows to destroy Gilton. Belle is thrilled but frightened when she learns that her sister, Nan Henshaw (Muriel Lawrence), now an opera singer, is to perform in San Francisco—but there are no words to describe her horror when she learns that Montgomery Crane, the impresario who arranged the concert, is really her long-missing husband… Vera Ralston has copped a lot of flak over the years, but I admit to a soft spot for her: if she was never (to put it mildly) the world’s greatest actress, she always did her best and did improve over time; plus a number of the films she made at Republic for her mentor-turned-husband, Herbert J. Yates, are rather interesting. In this respect, Belle Le Grand isn’t quite “there”, but it has its moments. Not a western as such, but a melodrama with western settings, it carries its characters from New Orleans to San Francisco to Virginia City, Nevada, just struggling through its transformation from rough-as-guts mining camp to proper city. As part of the latter, a new opera-house has just been built, and a smitten Gilton arranges for Nan Henshaw to perform there: thus setting up something of a love / hate quadrangle between Gilton, Nan, Belle and “Montgomery Crane”. Belle has already warned the latter away from Nan, who she is determined to protect without giving away her identity; but she is little less dismayed by the attraction between her sister and the likeable but unscrupulous Gilton—with whom she is also falling in love. In parallel with this emotional tangle, Belle Le Grand unfolds a plot about Crane’s attempts to destroy Gilton, which lead him to acquire his note for nearly a million dollars and then take drastic steps to ensure he cannot pay it… The western-ish action parts of Belle Le Grand keep the soap in check and make this quite an enjoyable drama. On the other hand, this was not just a vehicle for Vera Ralston but for Muriel Lawrence, real-life opera-singer turned actress, who gets several singing scenes along the way that stop everything dead. (That said, I could hug this film for how it resolves Nan’s subplot.) At this point Ralston’s struggle with her English was getting in the way of her acting – and how the three members of the Henshaw family ended up with three such distinct accents is unexplained – but she has some nice moments opposite John Carroll (when Gilton calls Nan, “A delicate flower in a weed patch”, Belle responds bitterly, “As one weed to another…”) and, in particular, Hope Emerson, who shines as accidental mining magnate Emma McGee. Henry Morgan appears as the saboteur that Crane sics on Gilton, and James Arness has a bit-part.

Clash By Night (1952)

Based upon the play by Clifford Odets. After a ten-year absence, Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) returns to her home town on the California coast. Her brother, Joe (Keith Andes), views her with suspicion but allows her to move back into the family house; she is more warmly welcomed by Joe’s girlfriend, Peggy (Marilyn Monroe). Mae is terse about her past, but it is clear that a failed relationship with a married man has left her cynical and gun-shy. However, she soon attracts the worshipful attention of local fishing-boat owner Jerry D’Amato (Paul Douglas) and, with little else to do, allows him to take her out. Through Jerry, Mae meets Earl Pfeiffer (Robert Ryan): she is repulsed by his bitterness and cruel streak, which are fueled by his unhappy marriage, but even more so because of her sense that they are alike in their frustration and unhappiness. Though she does not love him, Mae finally agrees to marry Jerry, hoping that the stability and security he represents will anchor her. For a year, during which Mae has a baby girl, all is well; but at the last the narrowness of her life begins to stifle Mae; and when Earl returns, newly divorced and more bitter than ever, she finds herself drawn to him… Fritz Lang’s Clash By Night is an intermittently interesting but rather turgid adaptation of Odets’ pre-war drama, which has been relocated from Staten Island to post-war Monterey (at least by implication: Cannery Row, you know). Nevertheless, it cannot entirely escape its stage origins, and much of it is given over to dialogue expounding the limitations and frustrations of life, and the opposing choices – and that you cannot have both is taken for granted – of security and passion. The film overall is bleak and depressing; none of the central trio is likeable, although we do feel for Mae in that her options are so unappealing. But given her track record of running away from responsibility, something she recognises in herself only belatedly, and given that her marriage is undertaken in that same spirit, we know that she is courting disaster—and it manifests as an affair with Earl… Clash By Night does push the boundaries of the Production Code, though it had to eschew the play’s much bleaker ending. It dares demand a measure of sympathy for Mae despite her adultery and her contemplated desertion of Jerry: it is the baby she can’t / won’t leave, something which finally pulls her up and forces her to examine herself as she has always avoided doing (and to the film’s credit, this feels like a real emotional response from Mae, not a Production Code platitude). Notable these days is Mae’s frank demand for a man who makes her feel better about herself, instead of tearing her down; yet set against this is the film’s pervasive suggestion of – if not argument for – women needing to be kept in line through violence. “The whip!” urges Jerry’s Uncle Vince (J. Carroll Naish) when gossip about Mae and Earl starts to spread; while we watch with dismay as Peggy slides into a relationship with a man who is clearly only waiting for the ring on her finger to let his anger and need for control off the leash. This was an important early film for Marilyn Monroe, though she still has only a supporting role; the well-established central trio, meanwhile, struggle against their unpleasant characters. Barbara Stanwyck holds her own, as always, but this is one of Paul Douglas’s “shouting roles”, and he was always more effective quiet; while Robert Ryan brings the worst of himself as Earl. Clash By Night was shot at RKO and features the black-and-white cinematography of Nicholas Musuraca.

Goliath And The Barbarians (1959)

Original title: l terrore dei barbari (Terror Of The Barbarians). The Mongols carve a wave of brutality and destruction through Italy. In Barona, the city’s governor sends his daughter, Lidia (Giulia Rubini), to bring back her brother; but by the time she arrives with Emiliano (Steve Reeves) and his friend, Marco (Luciano Marin), their father is dead and the city has been sacked. The invaders occupy the city, where their leader, Alboino (Bruce Cabot), makes plans for further conquest with his right-hand man, Igor (Livio Lorenzon), and his subordinate, Svevo (Arturo Dominici). Delfo (Andrea Checchi) is put in command of a distant province, chiefly because Igor is obsessed with his beautiful daughter, Landa (Chelo Alonso), and trying to curry favour with her. Landa despises Igor, but plays along for her father’s sake. Meanwhile, Emiliano vows revenge and tries to rally the survivors, but most are too frightened and dispirited; however, at last he succeeds in bringing together a band of rebels, who wage guerilla warfare against the invaders. Emiliano himself dons a lion mask, both to conceal his identity and to strike terror into his enemies… After completing Hercules Unchained, Steve Reeves tried to break away from the pepla that made him a star—though he didn’t make it all that far, as we can see from his first post-Hercules film. Goliath And The Barbarians is based upon the Lombard invasion of Italy in the 6th century, but – presumably not wanting to confuse the audience with a lot of, you know, history – the English-dubbed version of the film refers to the bad guys in passing as “the Mongols” (who would do duty again and again in later pseudo-histories) and leaves it at that. On the other hand, Steve Reeves is allowed to keep his character’s name in-film, with Emiliano being described by a surviving invader as, “A Goliath, with the strength of ten men”; and since the rest don’t know his identity, “The Goliath” he remains in dialogue. Goliath And The Barbarians is a fair actioner, though overlong and rather predictable. One unique detail here is Emiliano’s lion mask, though frankly it’s more cute than terrifying, and the film abandons it pretty quickly; more of the clawed glove Emiliano uses to go along with it would have been a better idea. Naturally we get a star-crossed romance too, with Emiliano and Landa falling for each other and causing trouble for their people on both sides: Landa’s hatred of Igor can no longer be contained or disguised, much to her father’s alarm; while Marco enrages Emiliano by accusing him – and rightly – of dragging his feet with regard to an attack on the fortified town where Delfo has his camp. Posing as “a peaceful woodcutter”, Emiliano is captured one day, and subjected to various tortures to try and get him to admit to being “the Goliath” (what does it matter? just kill him!): this turns into a full-on trial of his strength that so wins the favour of the people that Delfo is moved to let him go—a decision he will live to regret. Back in Barona, dissatisfaction with Delfo’s command gives Igor an excuse to go in pursuit of Landa. He exchanges missions with Svevo, sending him to bring back “the sacred crown” (presumably an artefact that automatically bestows authority); but when the rebels attack and gain possession of the crown, the invaders wreak a terrible revenge… Perhaps the most striking thing about Goliath And The Barbarians is its level of violence—particularly the mass slaughter carried out in reprisal for the theft of the crown; and it is an uncomfortable fact that (as is often the case in reality) innocent bystanders pay an appalling price for the activities of Emiliano and his rebels. Steve Reeves gives a fair performance as Emiliano, though his strength-scenes are more convincing than his general acting, particularly his angst over Chelo Alonso’s Landa. It was nice to see Arturo Dominici skulking around as Svevo; while Bruce Cabot’s brief appearance as Alboino is perhaps the earliest example of an American Guest Star (or anyway, Embarrassed Actor) in these sorts of things. There would be others

I Don’t Want To Be Born (1975)

Also known as: Monster, The Devil Within Her. As Lucy Carlesi (Joan Collins) suffers through a protracted and difficult labour, her obstetrician, Dr Finch (Donald Pleasence), mutters that it is as if the baby doesn’t want to be born… The baby, a boy named Nicholas, is healthy, but very big. Immediately, Lucy begins to have trouble with him: as she holds him, he scratches her cheek; and, since he was born with teeth, she recoils from breast-feeding. When Lucy and her husband, Gino (Ralph Bates), bring the baby home to their London house, they are welcomed warmly by their housekeeper, Mrs Hyde (Hilary Mason), but her initial pleasure in the baby changes to dislike when he bites her. As Lucy continues to struggle, she finally confides her fears to her best friend, Mandy (Caroline Munro), an exotic dancer—as Lucy once was herself. She tells Mandy about an incident at the nightclub where she used to work, when “Hercules” (George Claydon), a dwarf who was part of her stage-act, suddenly made a crude pass at her. When she spurned him, he threatened her with a baby, “As big as I am small, and possessed by the devil…” Even as Lucy tells her story, crashing noises come from upstairs: she and Mandy rush up to the nursery, which they find in a shambles… So what do you get when you cross The Exorcist with It’s Alive? This, apparently: a film self-evidently completely absurd and yet – at least on this second viewing – oddly compelling. It had been some time since I had seen I Don’t Want To Be Born, and I was surprised to find it a much better, or at least more interesting, film than I remembered. The first time around I think I was too caught up in its distasteful premise – and too distracted by the awful accents put on by Ralph Bates and Eileen Atkins as his sister – to do it justice. I found the premise no less offensive this time, not least because the film never offers an explanation for Hercules’ “powers”. Be that as it may, it is made clear that the issues with the baby are not all in Lucy’s mind, but are indeed the result of the curse placed on her. This is where the film gets interesting: I was very struck this time by how respectful it is of Lucy. The screenplay doesn’t judge her for her professional or her sexual past, nor blame that for her troubles. Her initial problems with the baby are put down to post-natal depression and, far from criticising, everyone tries to help her; and when things get worse, people actually do consider that there might be a problem with the baby. And meanwhile, Dr Finch and Gino’s sister, Albana, who is a nun – and a medical researcher! – are able to have a civilised debate about science and faith. It’s all very unexpected. Around this, however, swirls a plot of escalating idiocy, as the baby racks up an impressive body-count through a series of delightfully stupid death-scenes, and as Sister Albana starts contemplating an exorcism… Don’t get me wrong: I Don’t Want To Be Born is a very silly film indeed, one quite lacking the intelligence and thoughtfulness – and the conscious absurdity – of its apparent model. But it certainly does have its strong points, including a surprisingly good cast—and I really can’t close without a word of praise for whoever cast the baby playing Nicholas, who is absolutely perfect as the film’s little demon.

My Brilliant Career (1979)

Based upon the novel by Miles Franklin. In the late 19th century, the Melvyn family struggles to survive on their poor, drought-ridden farm located in the Australian outback. Eldest daughter Sybilla (Judy Davis) hates every aspect of her life and dreams of an escape through a career in the arts. Her attitude exasperates her parents, and at last Sybylla is threatened with being sent out into service, so that she may cease to be a burden. But finally, wanting better for her daughter, Mrs Melvyn (Julia Blake) arranges for Sybilla to visit her maternal grandmother, Mrs Bossier (Aileen Britton), who owns a far more extensive and successful property in another part of the state. On the last stage of her journey, Sybilla is met by Frank Hawdon (Robert Grubb), an Englishman working for a year as a jackaroo on the property: he is attracted to Sybilla but his condescending attitude infuriates her. Mrs Bossier and her daughter, Helen (Wendy Hughes), welcome Sybilla, but are dismayed by her independent ways and lack of social graces: she submits to their attempts to turn her into a young lady, but their insistence that marriage is her only option in life makes her cling even more tightly to her dream of a career. Sybilla’s stubbornness on this point only increases when she is reunited with childhood friend Harry Beecham (Sam Neill), a wealthy young property owner and the district’s most eligible “catch”… Despite being Gillian Armstrong’s first film as director, and featuring Judy Davis’s first starring role, My Brilliant Career is a remarkably assured piece of film-making, one which captures the essence of (appropriately enough) Miles Franklin’s first, autobiographical novel while also making certain softening changes; though it rightly keeps the uncompromising ending. The film, like the novel, is shot through with a disconcerting note of irony that occasionally makes it hard to know how to take it: Franklin’s wry attitude to her alter-ego undermines most of our expectations—particularly those surrounding Sybilla’s “career”, which functions more as a psychological defence mechanism than a real ambition. (That Sybilla’s / Franklin’s career actually eventuated seems like the punchline to a shaggy-dog story.) Increasingly convinced, by observing the experiences of her mother and her Aunt Helen, that marriage for a woman means losing herself, Sybilla holds Harry off in spite of her feelings for him; though it is perhaps less this, and more that he is the first real friend she has ever had, that makes the battle so bitter for her. (“I thought we were mates,” she says desolately, when he hurts her out of jealousy.) When he continues to pursue her through misunderstanding and financial disaster on both sides, Sybilla faces a tortuous choice… Shot on location around Monaro in New South Wales, My Brilliant Career successfully evokes its period and its settings, shifting joltingly between the Melvyns’ failing farm, the luxury of the Bossier and Beecham properties, and then the squalor of the McSwats’ squat, where a horrified Sybilla is sent to teach the swarm of children to pay off her father’s debts. Donald McAlpine’s gorgeous cinematography is a critical aspect of the film—and never more so than in its capturing of its leading lady: whatever this film’s challenges, there is certainly none greater than its repeated insistence that a radiant young Judy Davis is “plain”. (And that hair!) My Brilliant Career also features Peter Whitford as Uncle J. J., Patricia Kennedy as Harry’s Aunt Gussie, and Max Cullen and Carole Skinner as the McSwats (with Mark Spain and Simone Buchanan amongst the children).

Backdraft (1991)

As a child, Brian McCaffrey witnesses the death of his firefighter father on the job. Twenty years later, following in the footsteps of both his father and his older brother, Stephen (Kurt Russell), the adult Brian (William Baldwin), too, graduates as a firefighter. But he receives no welcome from Stephen who, as lieutenant of Engine 17 of the Chicago Fire Department, doubts that Brian has the capacity to do the job. Chicago is plagued simultaneously by administrative cutbacks that result in the closing of fire stations and an increase in fire-related deaths, and from a series of strange incidents in which individuals are killed by a backdraft: a method of arson mimicking that of convicted pyromaniac Ronald Bartel (Donald Sutherland); however, Bartel is incarcerated. Ridden hard by Stephen, Brian struggles on the job and finally quits, accepting a position as assistant to Donald Rimgale (Robert De Niro), the arson investigator in charge of the backdraft cases. Stephen himself then faces a crisis when his reckless handling of the fourth such incident leaves probationary firefighter Tim Krizminski (Jason Gedrick) critically injured… Backdraft may perhaps be best summed up as a film of good intentions—and we all know about those, right? In all sorts of ways other than those intended by director Ron Howard and screenwriter Gregory Widen, this is a fascinating film: it manages either to make the wrong choice, or to go about its business in the wrong way, at almost every turn. Clearly intended, within its action-movie framework, as a tribute to the heroism of those in the firefighting profession, Backdraft poses a problem for the viewer right from the outset by making its central characters a bunch of assholes, well beyond the expected level of alpha-male posturing; and this (apparently unconscious) contradiction carries right through to the film’s staggeringly wrong-headed final plot-point. (It’s a real Artie Ziff moment, if I can put it like that). The other significant issue is that the film needed a more naturally likeable actor than William Baldwin as Brian: as it stands, it’s hard to keep in sympathy with him—although for me, that was partly personal: I found the film’s treatment of his move to fire investigation as a shameful failure more than a little exasperating. Ironically in context, Robert De Niro’s Donald Rimgale is the one person here who didn’t make me want to slap him—though he too ultimately falls victim to bad writing: the clue to the backdraft fires, extracted by Brian from Ronald Bartel, should have been obvious to someone of Rimgale’s experience; and what he does at the end is entirely out of established character. As an action movie, Backdraft is so heavy-handed, and so clichéd, that at times it feels more like a parody than the real deal (I’m sure I wasn’t meant to laugh at the opening sequence, but…); while the only thing less subtle than the screenplay is Hans Zimmer’s score, which is ABSOLUTELY DETERMINED to be heard over all the explosions, the fires, and the actors’ shouting. It is of course entirely possible just to watch Backdraft for its fire scenes, which in fairness are pretty amazing, particularly when we remember that they were largely achieved through practical means; but even here the film messes up: it’s so proud of its fires that it wants us to see them—so there’s no smoke. Likewise, though the cast trained hard before shooting to behave realistically as firefighters, the film wants us to see them, too, so too often they’re not wearing enough protective gear. That cast includes Scott Glenn as John Adcox, a senior member of Stephen McCaffrey’s crew; J. T. Walsh appears as a slimy politician, Clint Howard gets a cameo as a morgue attendant, and Rebecca de Mornay and Jennifer Jason Leigh are wasted as the film’s Token Females.

(The other personal issue I had while watching this was that I kept flashing back to an afternoon once spent at Universal Studios, going back and forth between getting soaking wet on the Jurassic Park ride and drying off at the Backdraft special-effects show; having spent the morning visiting with Bruce the Shark…)

Bedevil (1993)

Apart from the fact that this was the first Australian feature-film directed by an indigenous woman, it is generally easier to say what Bedevil is not than what it is. It is often sold as a horror movie, but that gives the wrong impression of it, as does the assertion that it offers ghost stories: it does, but… What struck me most forcibly upon watching Bedevil – and perhaps this is the best way to convey its various qualities – was its overarching resemblance to Kobayashi Masaki’s Kwaidan: both anthology films, both dealing with hauntings, literal and otherwise, both using artificial settings and striking colour palettes to make their effect. In other respects, the two could not be more different—with Bedevil set in the far north of Queensland and drawing upon stories from both sides of Tracey Moffatt’s mixed ancestry. The first segment, Mr Chuck, is overtly about a young aboriginal boy’s encounter with the malevolent ghost of an American GI who died in a swamp during the war. The second, Choo Choo Choo Choo, is about an extended aboriginal household living in isolation near a stretch of railway tracks on which runs a ghostly train that people can hear but not see. The third, Lovin’ The Spin I’m In, is about a Torres Strait Islander woman clinging to the abandoned warehouse in which the spirits of her dead son and daughter-in-law still linger. And having said all that, I’ve given you quite an inaccurate sense of Bedevil, which is fractured and idiosyncratic: visually striking, but frustrating and ultimately unsatisfying, if never less than interesting. Certain themes do emerge: domestic abuse is a recurrent motif, as is white encroachment upon black land and the forced displacement of the indigenous population. However, Tracey Moffatt is more interested in her mise-en-scène than in her narrative, and repeatedly interrupts herself either for a startling visual composition or a non-sequitur detail—as in the second story, when the tale told by a young woman (played by Moffatt) is interrupted by her older self, who delivers a short lecture on bush-tucker cooking, including – ulp! – how to prepare snake. It’s that kind of film. (Apropos, I should also mention the minor supporting character made up, without explanation, to resemble Frida Kahlo.)

Carnosaur 2 (1995)

Also known as: Carnosaur II. In an isolated government facility, a worker sent underground to look into an electrical failure finds wire damage—and something else. When the facility’s automated functioning is impacted, a request is sent out for a repair crew. That night, something attacks and slaughters the workers… With time of the essence, Major Tom McQuade (Cliff DeYoung) of the Department of Defense hires a team of civilian contractors to do the repair work. After flying in by helicopter, the team finds the facility apparently deserted: their search discovers a teenage boy, Jesse Turner (Ryan Thomas Johnson), in the wreckage of the mess hall; he is in deep shock and unable to tell them what happened. Despite this, McQuade insists that the repairs to the facility’s control system go ahead. Helicopter pilot Joanne Galloway (Neith Hunter) and computer expert Ed Moses (Miguel A. Núñez Jr) stay in the control centre with Jesse, while the rest search below ground. Suddenly, a dinosaur appears from out of the darkness and kills one of the contractors, Ben Kahune (Don Stroud). Another breaks into the control room: Galloway and Jesse escape, but Moses is killed. Galloway flees to the helicopter but another animal is before her: as she tries to take off, it attacks and the helicopter crashes, stranding the others… After Carnosaur rode in on the pre-release hype of Jurassic Park, the makers of Carnosaur 2 turned to a different source of inspiration for this (first) sequel: the film is an unabashed reworking of Aliens—which for some of us means it’s a lot less interesting than its predecessor, since it is likewise an action movie rather than science fiction. There’s no mad scientist here, and no loopy science to explain the dinosaurs: the events of the first film are no more than vaguely gestured at in McQuade’s hasty explanation for why someone thought storing dinosaur eggs in a uranium mine / atomic waste facility would be a good idea. (It’s supposedly two months [!] after the first film, so “radiation”, I guess.) Meanwhile, though the relationship that develops between Jesse and team-leader Jack Reed (John Savage) also mimics its model, “teen hacker” Jesse is more John Connor than Newt as he finds ways to defeat the rampaging lizards. As you’d expect, most of the film consists of the characters creeping along dark passageways, encountering something big and toothy, swearing a lot, and surviving or not—and frankly, I found the film saving its most graphic onscreen deaths for its two female characters and a black guy a bit…questionable. John Carl Buechler was again in charge of special effects, which mostly meant him giving the models and suits from Carnosaur a makeover: we’ve lost Deinonychus along the way, though, with only velociraptors in evidence—plus the T-Rex, of course (which by this time had appeared in Dinosaur Island as well), with the film’s climax managing to invoke Aliens in a way that also allowed it to reuse footage from the first film. I should rather say, though, that’s one of the film’s climaxes: the other has to do with the stockpile of nuclear warheads in the facility’s lowest levels…

(Potential drinking game: try knocking one back every time someone here calls Jesse THE KID.)

Mirror Mirror III: The Voyeur (1995)

Though she is married to a dangerous criminal, Julio (Richard Cansino), Cassandra Duncan (Monique Parent) embarks on a passionate affair with artist Anthony DeMarco (Billy Drago). Becoming obsessed with Anthony, Cassandra begins performing certain rituals in front of her antique mirror, to ensure that they will be together forever… Some months after Julio is murdered and Cassandra goes missing, also presumed dead, Anthony moves into her former house, which he believes will inspire his art. He is not sleeping well, and begins to experience erotic dreams in which Cassandra comes back to him. His ongoing fixation on Cassandra annoys Anthony’s agent, Carolyn (Elizabeth Baldwin), who in spite of being involved with him begins a secret side-affair with his younger brother, Joey (Mark Ruffalo). Meanwhile, a corrupt DEA agent, Detective Kobeck (David Naughton), surveilles the house looking for the proceeds of Julio’s last drug deal—but discovers more than he expects… I hope that synopsis doesn’t make too much sense: I’d hate to give you the wrong impression of Mirror Mirror III, which after the two earlier teen-angst franchise entries takes an abrupt turn into soft-core erotica—but which also, God help us, aspires to be an art movie (which may be why we have to wait 17 minutes for the opening credits). Occasionally it’s bad enough to be funny, but mostly it toggles between tedious and embarrassing. Billy Drago co-produced this thing, which no doubt explains why he spends most of the film just lying there while naked women writhe on top of him. You could reasonably ask yourself how Mark Ruffalo managed to have a career after this (and what the heck was up with that dramatic “making a P&J sandwich” scene??); though if I had to nominate a single low-point here, it would probably be Richard Cansino’s Tommy-Wiseau-meets-Ricky-Ricardo performance as Julio. Meanwhile, David Naughton picks up a paycheque for maybe a day’s work. I’m not sure who “the voyeur” of the film’s subtitle is supposed to be: I can only imagine they meant the mirror which, like the rest of us, sits there bored and unresponsive as Monique Parent and Elizabeth Baldwin show off their boobs in a series of numbingly repetitive sex scenes. It does get smashed along the way, as Anthony tries to fight off Cassandra’s influence, but of course it doesn’t take—so I imagine we’ll be looking at MMIV next time…

Grace Of My Heart (1996)

Though born into a life of privilege, Edna Buxted (Illeana Douglas) is determined to have a career in music. She performs in a singing talent show, winning a recording contract; however, the reality she faces in New York is that no-one wants a female singer. When she reveals that she wrote the song she recorded, she is sent to meet with producer Joel Milner (John Turturro), who is impressed with her talent—but only as a writer-composer. Telling Edna that her real persona won’t work, Joel changes her name to “Denise Waverley” and invents a blue-collar background for her. In this guise, she sees her female-focused song reshaped for a male doo-wop group. Denise finally gives the makeover her blessing and is rewarded when the song becomes a hit. When the songs she writes for her friend, Doris Shelley (Jennifer Leigh Warren), break the tacit embargo against female singers, with Doris’ trio, The Luminaries, finding success under Joel’s guidance, Denise is thrilled but also ambivalent—feeling that she has lost another chance. She begins writing in partnership with Howard Caszatt (Eric Stoltz) and, despite their initial antagonism, the two begin a relationship; marrying, reluctantly on Howard’s part, when Denise falls pregnant. From this time Denise must increasingly divide her time between her work and her private life—but the dream of a singing career never goes away… Loosely based upon the career-arc of Carole King and, in the film’s early stages, upon her experiences writing in the Brill Building, Allison Anders’ Grace Of My Heart follows its protagonist from the late 1950s into the early 1970s—and through all the musical tastes and fads in between. Edna / Denise is an engaging character, and the viewer suffers with her as she repeatedly becomes a victim of bad timing and of shifting tastes and approaches and dogmas: she can’t be a singer because no-one wants a female singer, singers don’t write their own material, all singers write their own material… Despite these setbacks and others, the first half of the film has a cheerful, optimistic air matched by the film’s doo-wop and girl-group soundtrack. Over its second half, it does bog down somewhat as it shifts perspective away from the music to Denise’s personal life, with her career taking second place to a series of dubious relationships—particularly after her one big attempt to break into singing under the guidance of musician-producer Jay Phillips (Matt Dillon) backfires badly. Meanwhile, though the film’s feminist credentials are solid, it occasionally bites off a bit more than it can chew in its subplots dealing with the various (though not necessarily personal) real-life inspirations for Denise’s songs: a secret lesbian relationship, an unwanted pregnancy, and so on. But whatever its missteps, as a piece of musical history Grace Of My Heart is a remarkable work: one that boasts an equally remarkable array of musical contributors. Perhaps the most daring touch here is having the Burt Bacharach-Elvis Costello-penned “God Give Me Strength” become Denise’s singing failure: a different arrangement plays over the end credits. Illeana Douglas is dubbed throughout by Kristin Vigard; while The Luminaries were dubbed by the quartet For Real. On the acting front, the film also features Patsy Kensit, Bruce Davison, Bridget Fonda, Chris Isaak—and the voice of Peter Fonda as Denise’s guru.

Kids Return (1996)

Though they should be completing high school and studying for final exams, Masaru (Kaneko Ken) and Shinji (Andō Masanobu) would rather cut class, prank their teachers, and extort money from other teenagers by threats and even violence. Hanging out in cafes, the two cross paths with the local Yakuza boss (Ryo Ishibashi) and his lieutenants, inspiring Masaru with thoughts of a life of professional crime. However, one of the boys’ young victims hires a  fighter to exact revenge, and Masaru is badly beaten. He responds by joining a boxing gymnasium and learning to fight: typically, from mere self-defense he is soon foreseeing for himself a brilliant boxing career. Shinji, following Masaru’s lead as always, also joins the gymnasium and begins to train. One day he is called into the ring as Masaru’s sparring partner. To everyone’s astonishment, he proves to be a natural fighter, easily sending his friend to the canvas. When the head boxing trainer (Yamatani Hatsuo) begins to work seriously with Shinji, Masaru quits the gymnasium and is accepted into the Yakuza… Kids Return was also the return to film-making of Kitano Takeshi after his near-fatal motorcycle accident, and a clear declaration that he was back in business. This coming-of-age drama demands a lot from the viewer, because over its early stages it offers little reason why we should sympathise with its feckless young protagonists and their destructive, and self-destructive, ways. It is only later, as we grasp the bigger picture, that we fully understand their place in their society. Kids Return was made at a time of economic depression, and the world it depicts is one of struggle without reward,. The misadventures of Masaru and Shinji play out as a hardworking acquaintance quits his exploitative, blame-gaming sales job for even longer hours as a taxi-driver; as the teachers at the school shrug at their class’s poor results and prepare for the next wave of “airheads” and “morons”; as a mother expresses thanks her daughter has no life of her own to distract her from work at the family business. The irony is that Masaru and Shinji do just as well as those who follow the rules and strive to fulfill expectations, in fact, better. Shinji has genuine talent as a fighter and builds a successful career, and Masaru rises to become a Yakuza lieutenant; both could have beaten the odds but for their own ill-discipline. After an act of rebellion, Masaru is severely punished and expelled; while Shinji, a follower as always, is led astray by a surly failed fighter and wrecks his life. Or does he? The film ends with the estranged friends reuniting and an odd note of hope: surrounded by alienation and unhappiness, they at least have each other.

Komodo (1999)

During a black-market operation in North Carolina, an animal smuggler dumps a load of large eggs which he suspects are rotten… Nineteen years later, the Connolly family catches the local ferry to Emerald Island, where they have a holiday house; though they are dismayed by the encroachment of an oil refinery which has a drilling operation on the island. Young Patrick (Kevin Zegers) spends the ferry trip talking with its captain, Martin Gris (Michael Edward-Steven). On the island, Patrick revisits his old haunts, staying out until dark. When his parents come looking for him, they encounter something in the jungle-like vegetation—and Patrick witnesses their terrible fate… Released from hospital, Patrick is taken in by his grandmother (Melissa Jaffer) and his Aunt Annie (Nina Landis). The former calls in therapist Dr Victoria Juno (Jill Hennessy), who specialises in helping young victims confront and deal with their fears. Explaining that Patrick is suffering from PTSD and traumatic amnesia, Victoria plans to take him back to the island. Though violently opposed to this, Annie agrees to go along to help care for the boy. By now, the oil company has taken full control of the island and forbidden outside visitors; however, Martin Gris smuggles the three across, even offering to stay and help. As the women set up in the Connollys’ house, Patrick begins to struggle with his fractured memory. That night it receives an appalling jolt, when the house is invaded by a huge, aggressive lizard… Komodo is a competently made and reasonably enjoyable killer critter film. It offers no surprises other than the critter in question—though that said, knowing anything about Komodo dragons doesn’t exactly help with suspension of disbelief, particularly since these are meant to be real lizards (they are bigger than normal, though not too absurdly exaggerated). There’s a lot I could say here, but I’ll confine my objections to the one that most impacts the plot: Komodo dragons are diurnal, but all the film’s attack scenes all happen at night. I suppose we can justify this in-film by the island running out of natural prey; a bigger problem is that, most of the time, you can’t really see the dragons. In fact the film that kept coming to mind was The Relic, about which I made the same complaint: why go to the trouble of having good special effects and then hide them in the dark? And as far as we can see, the dragons – a mixture of animatronics and CGI – are, for a film of this sort, pretty good. The surrounding story is less so. As Victoria and Patrick – not so much Annie – try to evade the lizards, they first come across a wounded Martin, then literally run into biologist Oates (Billy Burke) and maintenance worker Denby (Paul Gleeson), who have been sent in by eee-vil oil executive Bracken (Simon Westaway) to “take care of the problem”. The night becomes a desperate fight for survival, when Bracken ignores Oates’ radio-calls for evacuation… Even if we accept the dragons, much of the plot of Komodo is ridiculous, particularly Oates’ back-story and the behaviour of Bracken; and both Oates and Victoria get several outrageous Hero’s Death Battle Exemptions©; but I was struck by the scene in which Victoria confronts her responsibility in the deaths of some of the others: something films like this rarely acknowledge. Moreover, far from helping Patrick, her tactics end in the boy having a psychotic break and going full-on Rambo…which, as it turns out, is just as well… Komodo was shot at the Village Roadshow Studios on the Gold Coast, with Queensland standing in for North Carolina and the supporting cast mostly local actors doing accents.

(PSA: this film features a helicopter, which survives; and a dog, which doesn’t…)

Shark Hunter (2001)

As the Northcut family enjoys time on their boat, the vessel is attacked by something enormous. The only survivor is eleven-year-old Spencer (Kiril Hristov)… As Dr Spencer Northcut (Antonio Sabato Jr) teaches a university class, discussing the uses of deep-sea vessels, he is interrupted by Dr William Atkins (Christian Toulali), who must tell him that the company for which he designed a state-of-the-art research submarine is refusing him permission to join its crew. Soon afterwards, however, a deep-ocean research station is attacked by a gigantic shark… Unaware of the cause of the disaster, the company that owns the Argus puts together a team to investigate that includes both Northcut and Atkins, as well as the young woman who Northcut wrongly assumes is Atkins’ girlfriend: Cheryl (Heather Marie Marsden) informs him frostily that she is an ichthyologist and in charge of the vessel’s laboratory. Northcut finds himself in confrontation with Harrington (Grand L. Bush), the pilot of the Argus’ mini-sub, who is hostile and territorial. The Argus descends to the location of the research station where, donning a specialised diving-suit, Northcut ventures out to investigate. His first discovery is that the disaster was not caused by an explosion: the station seems to have been struck by something. Then he finds embedded in the wreckage an enormous shark tooth… The first of the three competing Megalodon films that appeared across 2001-2002, Shark Hunter is also one of the drearier examples of the low-budget, direct-to-DVD killer-shark films of that time. Its problems are two-fold – okay, three-fold – but two overarchingly: first, as always, there’s not enough shark, just what they could afford to show us (or dared show us) of the results of an inadequate effects budget; and of course the animal changes size from scene to scene, as required, as it wastes its time and energy chasing its small and unnutricious targets. And second, Spencer Northcut is a thoroughly unpleasant individual, for all that he’s supposed to be the film’s “hero”. Part of this is the way he’s written, part of it is that he’s Antonio Sabato Jr. Furthermore, it feels like screenwriter Sam Wells has tried to offset this by making everyone else even worse—so that, sure enough, the scenario devolves into unlikeable characters sniping at each other in a confined space. Well, “confined”… The Argus is absurdly huge, with an infinity of wasted space. It also has torpedo-bays—with which Northcut, rapidly descending into Ahab-mode, becomes fixated… While it gets nearly everything wrong, from its technobabble about deep-sea diving to how long Megalodon has been extinct (and you better believe we get the coelacanth speech!), the main stumbling-block to any enjoyment of Shark Hunter is that Northcut has only one idea in his head from the moment he sees the shark, and that is to kill it in revenge for his parents’ deaths. Now—of course killing the critter in a critter film is sometimes necessary; but having this the lead character’s sole motivation is off-putting; so is the film’s tacit justification of Northcut by having Atkins and Cheryl unable to come up with a cogent counter-argument for the shark’s survival. (How about IT’S A LIVING FUCKING DINOSAUR??) Oh, and get this: these two don’t just want to tag and document the shark: they want to capture it, all eighty feet and forty tons of it! – by doping it and towing it back to base…which would, if anyone had stopped to think about it, surely have fulfilled Northcut’s darkest desires. Of course events play into Northcut’s hands, after the shark damages the Argus by lunging in through the mini-sub exit hatch (one of only two decent scenes here); with the crew’s subsequent attempts to kill the animal turning into a battle for survival… There’s precisely one really interesting thing about Shark Hunter, and that is its final sequence—but since getting to that requires sitting through the rest, I don’t recommend that you bother.

(Consecutive films  – consecutively watched films – predicated on a kid seeing his parents killed: that was weird and icky…)

Into The Mirror (2003)

Original title: Geoul Sokeuro. Having quit the police force after his partner was killed during a hostage situation, Woo Young-min (Yoo Ji-tae) has a job created for him within the security team overseeing the reopening of the huge shopping centre headed by his uncle, Jeon Il-sung (Gi Ju-bong), which was damaged in a fire. There is some community outrage about the reopening, since the families of those killed have not been compensated. The situation becomes more difficult when a young employee of the store is found dead in a ladies’ room, her throat cut. A cursory police investigation declares it a suicide; Woo believes otherwise, but his uncle dismisses his concerns. When a second employee dies bizarrely in a lift, the matter is treated more seriously. The case falls to Detective Ha Hyun-soo (Kim Myung-min), who rejects Woo’s assistance and goes out of his way to let him know he holds him responsible for the death of their colleague. While Ha pursues a grounded theory of revenge killings, perhaps by a relative of someone killed in the fire, Woo has a strange encounter with a young woman, who then disappears in the dark… Writer-director Kim Sung-ho’s debut project, Into The Mirror is an ambitious but unsatisfactory ghost story that mixes an unearthly revenge plot with questions of identity and dualism and the nature of reality. That brief description sums up the film’s issues: in trying to do too much, it does nothing quite successfully, with each set of elements working against the other. Having opened with an unambiguously supernatural murder, with a young store employee watching her reflection cut its own throat before collapsing to bleed to death, Into The Mirror begins to play psychological games via both Woo Young-min, who suffers from recurring nightmares and sleeplessness and is a heavy drinker, and Lee Jeong-hyun (Kim Hye-na), the sister of one of the fire victims, who has a history of mental-health problems. The film also suffers from structural and pacing issues, with the police investigation allowed to take over the middle third of the film: while this is important in elucidating the underlying mystery, it ends up pushing aside both other threads for too long. Furthermore, the film’s climax – its real-world climax – is too dragged out and action-movie-y, with a speech-making villain and serious injuries (including eye violence, thank you so much) being shrugged off. As a result of these missteps, Into The Mirror is never really scary, though the reflection business offers many unnerving moments.

(I saw and reviewed this film’s remake, Alexandre Aja’s Mirrors, some time ago. The two films really have very little in common, so it was interesting that, of all things, Aja chose to keep Into The Mirror‘s contentious ending.)

Dark Mirror (2007)

Relocating to Los Angeles, Deborah (Lisa Vidal) and Jim Martin (David Chisum) finally choose a house that was once owned by an artist who notoriously disappeared with his family. An aspiring photographer, Lisa is particularly drawn to the house’s elaborate windows and their patterned glass, which make striking lighting effects. As the couple is settling in with their young son, Ian (Joshua Pelegrin), Lisa notices someone in a dark hooded coat who seems to be watching the house, though Jim sees no-one; it also becomes apparent that their elderly neighbour is spying on them. With Jim’s new job taking up most of his time, Lisa fills in hers by working on her photography. She attempts to capture a double-reflection shot via her bathroom mirrors, which are positioned opposite one another, but her flash sets off an explosion of reflecting light that causes a physical shock. From her mother, Grace (Lupe Ontiveros), who turns up unexpectedly, Deborah learns that the decorative glass is a feng shui device intended to trap evil spirits and protect the occupants of a house. She also finds a hidden painting and a diary, which suggest that the vanished artist had been passing his wife’s art off as his own. However, Deborah is distracted from both of these discoveries when she learns that two different people whom she randomly photographed have disappeared… It was a curious experience watching Dark Mirror so soon after Into The Mirror: whether the former was influenced by the latter is unclear, but what is clear is that these two mirror-based ghost stories suffer from almost identical flaws—though what is, in Kim Sung-ho’s film, a matter of trying to do too much, feels here as if writer-director Pablo Proenza was simply cramming in disparate elements in the hope of disguising an incoherent plot. I have the same base issue with both films, though: that after setting up a complex haunting situation, they then call their protagonist’s mental health into question—though without ultimately denying the haunting. The suggestion may be that people with mental-health issues are more susceptible to haunting, whatever we make of that; but in the case of Dark Mirror it seems there chiefly to pave the way for a series of it’s-all-in-her-head-oh-wait-no-it-isn’t scenes that grow rather tiresome. The film also falls into the trap (hard to avoid in these episodic haunting scenarios, granted) of having Deborah freaked out by this or that, and then just shrugging it off—until next time. There are some nice visual and lighting effects here, though it helps to be tolerant of flares; and the concept of a differently constructed house accessible only through its reflections is quite powerful, though the film doesn’t do enough with it. The three main actors are unconvincing as a family, so it is hard to feel there’s much at stake: Jim is the usual absent / doubting horror-movie construct, and Ian is just a plot device. It also occurs to me to wonder if we’re supposed to read this film as Deborah being punished for wanting more than being a wife and a mother, since it is both because of and through her photography that all hell breaks loose—with Dark Mirror eventually trading jump-scares for bloody deaths that don’t make much plot sense (and none at all in real-world terms), as Deborah battles to save her family from the force she has unwittingly unleashed…

The Toyman Killer (2013)

While testifying as an expert witness, Dr Kate Kovic (Sarah Carter) is approached by her mentor, Dr Edward Brazer (Garwin Sanford), and asked for her assistance with the case of Christine Solter (Magda Apanowicz), a young woman scheduled for execution for her murder of a police officer. Dr Brazer tells Kate he believes that Christine is showing signs of multiple personality disorder, and that the real Christine identity may be innocent. Though discouraged by an off-putting first interview, in studying Brazer’s files Kate learns that it was during a blackout that Christine showed her true self to him: she arranges for a lights-out at the prison and, as anticipated, a very different personality – personalities – emerges. Equally staggering is that Kate’s interview elicits a connection between Christine and a serial killer known as “the Toyman”, who was never caught… The Toyman Killer plays out like screenwriters Roma Roth and James Womer wrote a bunch of disparate Lifetime plot-lines on strips of paper, threw them in the air, and then tried to blend whichever ones landed writing-upwards into a single script. The film uses a serial killer as its basis, but it’s not really about that; it features a race against time to save Christine’s life, but it’s not really about that either; it gives Kate a catatonic mother for no reason at all, and an entire traumatic back-story just so she can convince Christine to talk to her by revealing it; it uses multiple personality disorder simply as a conduit to yet another plot-thread; and finally it remembers there’s an uncaught killer out there, who went dormant for no reason the script ever shares with us (and who gives himself away by resurrecting his calling card, a doll). My favourite idiotic touch, though, might be the social worker who remembers in detail every kid she ever dealt with and keeps comprehensive files on all of them, so that she can point Kate in the right direction any time she gets stumped. Along the way, Kate acquires an enemy in the form of Detective Turbinado (Tom Butler), who resents what he perceives as her “grandstanding” attempt to save the woman who murdered his colleague; but also a partner in Detective Ray Santana (David Haydn-Jones), who assists her in her attempts to link the murder of the police officer to the Toyman killings. Kate’s efforts do not go unnoticed—and a death threat over the phone is followed by a doll on her doorstep, and the knowledge that she has attracted the attention of a psychopath…

Bleeding Steel (2017)

As Lin Dong (Jackie Chan) races to the hospital where his young daughter, Xi-xi (Elena Askin) lies dying of leukaemia, he is contacted by his colleague, Xiao Su (Erica Xia-Hou), who tells him that Dr James (Kym Gungell), a witness under protection, is in danger. After a moment of agonised hesitation, Lin joins his unit in their attempt to move the scientist to a safer location. They are ambushed by a squad of black-clad, helmeted men who the subsequent battle proves are not fully human. Most of the police unit is killed, with Lin himself barely surviving his attempt to kill the leader of the squad (Callan Mulvey) by triggering an explosion. Dr James survives, however; it is he who picks up Lin’s phone and learns that Xi-xi has died… Years later, best-selling author Rick Rogers (Damien Garvey) publishes a novel, Bleeding Steel, about a marine given a biomechanical heart. Revelation of his book’s plot brings Rogers under attack from three different durections: a young man, Li Sen (Show Lo), disguises himself as a prostitute to infiltrate Rogers’ hotel suite and, after incapacitating him, downloads data from his computer. He is still there when a black-clad woman (Tess Haubrich) storms the room and tortures Rogers into revealing the source of his novel. She in turn is attacked by Lin, who has also come for information. When the police arrive, all three intruders retreat. Li Sen’s stolen data leads him to Nancy (Ouyang Nana), a young woman plagued by recurring nightmares of a laboratory and strange experiments… All the way through Bleeding Steel I kept expecting Jackie to turn to the camera and say, “I’m getting too old for this shit”, because really… This is the worst kind of sound-and-fury film, so intent on “looking cool” that it fails entirely to make any particular sense, or to bother joining the dots of its plots—though I’ll be honest, it’s possible I phased out. Given the scenario, we are left to assume that this is “the future”, though the blending of cyberpunk elements with both normal(-ish) reality and a grungy, society’s-going-to-hell vibe gives us little real guidance on that point, until a random detail reveals that it’s only meant to be 2020—by which point, apparently, cyborgs flying around in their personal spaceships don’t cause any particular kerfuffle. (Then again, as we might recall, the real 2020 was even weirder.) The plot of Bleeding Steel eventually settles down to a pursuit of Nancy who, to no-one’s surprise, turns out to be Xi-xi resurrected via Dr James’ Super Secret BiotechnologyTM—although exactly when and how he managed that is one of the film’s little mysteries. James, moreover, embedded the details of his work within’s Nancy’s body, which makes that body of intense interest to both the lead cyborg, Andre, held in stasis on his spaceship due to the damage inflicted by Lin Dong, and to various parties who want to follow up James’ original design for “Bioroids”, technologically enhanced soldiers… Bleeding Steel‘s abrupt translocation to Australia, and its filming in Sydney, then adds an amusing / embarrassing note to proceedings; while there is also something uniquely risible about an Australian accent issuing from a (near) unstoppable cyborg. This switch does, however, allow for the film’s central stunt-piece, with Lin and the black-clad woman duking it out on top of the Opera House. Explosions, car chases, gun-play and hands-on fights then pad out the running-time until Lin, Xiao Su and Li Sen succeed in infiltrating Andre’s spaceship, where he plans to achieve his regeneration by means of Nancy’s blood…

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8 Responses to Et Al. May23

  1. RogerBW says:

    [The Master Mystery] “makes the robots in The Phantom Empire look menacing” – you are a Good Thing, Lyz. I picture the bad guys saying “sure, he’s on our tail, but we get a free private escape show each time we lock him up”.

    [Backdraft] This is one we might consider for Ribbon of Memes – not that it’s particularly great in itself, but a lot of other films have pinched elements from it.

    [Mirror Mirror III] The voyeur is you, dear viewer.


  2. KeithB says:

    I assume this was Universal Studios Hollywood so you could see the real sets.


  3. KeithB says:

    They have been playing Bleeding Steel on SyFy this month.


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