Mystics in Bali (1981)

In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, the Indonesian government apparently discovered that films could be a lucrative source of foreign revenue, so a number of B-movies were produced, and then exported them to the West. One of these films was Mystics in Bali, a B-movie that is somewhat notable for its focus on black magic and Balinese mythology, particularly the leyak, a vampiric creature that takes the form of a flying head with hanging entrails. This is one of those low budget horror films that seems to playfully embrace its unbelievable premise to gory effect, and this sort of thing made it a hit among fans of cult horror films, and somehow, this film is in the public domain.

The plot centres on a woman named Cathy Kean, a foreign woman (depending on the dub, she is either American or Australian) who visits Bali in order to write a book on black magic, and therefore sets out to learn Leák magic, which she first heard of through her Balinese lover Mahendra. She takes lessons in black magic from the Queen of the Leák, who takes her in as her disciple and teaches her some powerful black magic, but at the price of turning her into a Leyak that must feast on the blood of newborns in order to give her master power, and it is left to the local holy men of the village to stop the forces of evil from gaining too much power.

I would call it standard horror stuff but it isn’t. The premise is very original, but the writing isn’t very good. It’s very obvious that the writers weren’t taking the film very seriously, and this is shown by the cheesy way in which the witch acts. Another flaw is that you have characters that appear from out of nowhere, and are given little screen time, so when they do appear, you’re wondering “when did they come in?”, which isn’t exactly good writing.

The acting isn’t terrible, but it’s cheesy. In fact, the English dub actually plays into the silliness of the film, which I guess is not the worst thing in the world for something like this. Here’s a fun fact though. Apparently Ilona Agathe Bastian, the actress playing the lead role, never actually acted before this film, and was a German tourist who was chosen at random by the wife of one of the film’s producers to play Cathy. That explains a fair bit.

Given that this is a low budget horror film, except a lot of cheesy special effects, and you’ll notice that the film itself looks drastically more computerised when some of the magical transformation effects happen. It’s not the cheesiest you can get out of special effects, but it can get pretty comical from here. The film isn’t terribly gory, but if you have a weak stomach, I wouldn’t recommend it.

I don’t think there’s much more I can say about this particular film. Other than its unique premise, it’s not very special, but it does have its moments.

  • Score: 57%
  • Grade: D

Angel’s Egg (1985)

I’ve long been a champion of animation, if not here then on Stef’s Cave, where I have a history of expounding the supremacy of animation over live-action filmmaking. This is one of those films that proves that I am right. What live-action film is there that is like this in terms of strange brilliance, sense of adventure, and ambition? Only the Czechoslovakian rendition of Alice in Wonderland is comparable, but this is an even greater mystery. We have in our midst a film whose meaning can, no, must be deteremined by the viewer, as not even the film’s creator, the famed anime film director Mamoru Oshii, seemed to have any idea what the film was about.

Here’s what I can get out of the film. An unnamed girl is travelling a vast, decrepit gothic city searching for food and water, all while carrying a large egg, seemingly with an intent to look after it. She eventually crosses paths with a boy carrying a wooden cross, who accompanies her for the remainder of the film. Neither seem to have any clue of how the world got to the way it is, but while they’re together, they reflect on their amnesia and discuss the bizarre few things they recall seeing.

The film’s most obvious trait is that there is little if any dialogue. In fact, out of the film’s entire 71-minute runtime, there may as well only have been about a few minutes worth of dialogue. The rest of the film is tension building and ominous atmosphere, all seemingly without a linear plot. You would think that I would be repelled by such a prospect, but the director seems to have done a good job of creating a film that sucks you in despite the lack of a clear plot. It makes you wonder about the world the film explores, and you ask yourself how long it might have been around in the context of the film, wondering whether it has been around forever or is the product of someone’s imagination.

The characters, though they don’t talk much, still have you invested in them. You want to know if the girl will ever see the egg hatch, and you want to what the boy’s true intentions are. Some questions are answered, but the most obvious ones are left unanswered, adrift in a sea of religious symbolism. Speaking of which, Oshii left a number of surreal, evocative imagery throughout the film. Why is the soldier boy carrying a cross? Is he the messiah, or perhaps a false prophet? The boy recounted his own, fatalistic interpretation of Noah’s Ark, and later on the entire city is flooded. Is the film’s plot a surrealistic version of Noah’s Ark? It’s worth noting that Mamoru Oshii used to be a Christian, but lost his faith before the film was produced. This has been called Oshii’s most personal film, and by that token, is this perhaps a reflection of his lost faith? An allegory of belief?

Given the lack of a coherent plot and sparse dialogue, the film has been treated as a work of animated art rather than a conventional film, and that fits because the film is a triumph of animated art. The art style is distinct in its brilliance, with characters and illustrations by the one and only Yoshitaka Amano. The dark and dreary colours represent the ominous mood of the film, which is captured by a beautiful, spare music score. The film itself leaves a great deal of answered questions in its wake, and a shock ending, but it’s very much worth it as a piece of bold, avant-garde animation. If you insist on only watching anime films for your whole life, please make this one of them.

  • Score: 86%
  • Grade: A

Alice (1988)

I’ve been seeking out obscure films for a good long while now, and sometimes you find an obscure film that is so unbelievably bizarre that you have to compel yourself to watch it, and it was more spectacular that I was perhaps prepared for. This of course is the bizarre Czechoslovakian retelling of Alice in Wonderland, as written and directed by Jan Švankmajer. His vision of the story rejected the conventional fairytale style of previous adaptations, and instead offers an amoral, surreal adventure that defies logic at every turn, and it’s an artistic triumph.

The plot of this film loosely follows the plot of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, following a bored Alice narrating herself in what appears to be a series of events that she has no idea how to navigate. She chases a taxidermically stuffed rabbit that suddenly comes to life, and finds herself working her way through Wonderland and its perils. Not many of the familiar characters can be found here, but the white rabbit, Mad Hatter, and the King and Queen of Hearts are here, recreated with what appear to be common household items. It’s also worth noting that the little girl who plays the role of Alice is also voice for all other characters in the film.

There’s only one actor in the whole film, but she manages to deliver a good performance as someone genuinely baffled by her surroundings, though surprisingly clever. The entire him is in Czech (sadly, without subtitles), but I didn’t care, because I didn’t watch this film for the acting. The plot is a very bizarre rendition of the familiar story of Alice, noticeably darker than fans of the old Disney adaptation might be used to, but it’s this unvarnished, sometimes nightmarish slant that makes it superior to all other adaptations if I must be frank.

Adding to this surrealistic twist is the film’s captivating use of stop motion animation, which fluidly creates the impression of a world that is removed from ours, one that comes to life and is ready to pounce on you at any moment. I should note that Švankmajer did not use miniature models to portray the special effects, which is rare and impressive considering the dearth of stop-motion feature films during the time the film was made. The film’s overall style of presentation and production design were also brilliant. The whole film reads like somebody took the book upon which every retelling Alice and Wonderland is based, ripped up the pages and turned it into a kind of abstract art.

And art is pretty much the best word to describe it. The Disney version of Alice was basically a familiar, but almost camp fairy tale that was saccharine to the point one could argue that it’s superficial. This version, however, says “to Hell with all that”, freeing Alice from the hypnotic spell of family-friendly sweetness, taking her to new realms without necessarily deviating heavily from the source material. In summation, it’s a classic of experimental fantasy, and I personally recommend it instead of any other version of Alice in Wonderland.

  • Score: 87%
  • Grade: A

Jubilee (1978)

Journeying down the rabbit hole of avant-garde cinema can be as rewarding as it is confusing. Rewarding in the sense that you get to see all sorts of weirdness unfold on screen, and confusing in the sense that there’s no guarantee that you’ll have any grasp on what’s going on. That’s the bizarre state of Derek Jarman’s Jubilee, a punk-themed art film that lurches from meaninglessness to meaning at no consistent rate.

What is it about? I’m amazed I even know at this point! But seriously, the film starts off with a scene with Queen Elizabeth I and a man named John Dee, who are transported by an angel named Ariel into a desolate Britain where there is apparently no law, no work, no point to living. In that vision of the future, there live a group of nihilistic punks who live by their own interpretation of history, morality, and desire, and sometimes murder people for no given reason.

It’s worth noting that throughout the whole film, the queen has barely any interaction with the world or its characters. That would have given the film some structure, and apparently that’s not what Mr. Jarman had intended. The film’s story, if it has one, is essentially 100 minutes of pure, empty anarchy. There’s no real thread that binds the scenes together, and that’s a terrible shame because it seems as if there could have been a good story. The film itself explores many themes, but its central theme is abject chaos, and I think that this could have been explored in a much better way than it had been. That said, one might be able to argue that the film itself is an accurate representation of the kind of chaos it intended to show.

Equally insane is the film’s cast of characters. When they’re not shouting curse-laden rants about whatever they feel like at the time, they’re having sex and murdering people for no real reason. The acting isn’t terribly bad. In fact, the actors play their parts well enough that they can convince you of the characters’ insanity. To a certain extent, I liked the way the characters were portrayed because they were raw personalities, but they were hampered by their aimlessness in the plot. Amyl Nitrate was perhaps my favourite character because I think she had the most potential, and despite having a decent performer playing her, even she suffers from the same problem.

There are some positives though. For one, the film captures the punk style quite accurately, even though it misrepresents the punk scene generally. On another note, the film doesn’t really represent punk at all, but rather should be taken as a metaphor for the pessimism of the time in which it was made. If the film accomplishes anything, it’s that it unfailingly depicts the logical conclusion of what a nihilistic outlook on life can possibly lead to, at least without any sort of intervention. Perhaps that’s about all the sense I can make out of a film like this. It’s not really bad at all, but despite some delightfully quirky moments, it makes so little sense that it may only appeal to the nerdiest film enthusiasts, or film studies students.

  • Score: 62%
  • Grade: C

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

Oh Tim Burton, I grew up with your movies when they used to be good, and now I find you languishing in typical Hollywood fantasy fare. Not that this was a particularly bad film. In truth it was quite decent, and the premise was certainly original, but in practice it ended up as a sort of paint-by-numbers affair, showing once again that Hollywood always tends to squander any squint of potential.

The film revolves around a young boy named Jake Portman, who after witnessing his grandfather’s death at the hands of a monster that only he can see, is given permission by his psychiatrist to go to the Welsh island of Cairnholm in order to find an old home for children with certain magical abilities. He finds that they live in a time loop, and winds up upending their fragile equilibrium in order to help save them from the crazy scheme of a mad scientist wanting to gave himself eternal life.

I have probably oversimplified this to a vast degree, but that’s essentially what happens. Anyway, the story itself isn’t bad, but from the beginning I find that the producers put in a bunch of often cringeworthy scenes that seem to have been written in just to pad length in a film that already straddles a somewhat convoluted plot. Honestly, it seemed to me that this could have been much better as an anime film, not that the Hollywood elite would ever entertain such an idea. Also, full disclosure, I know this is based on a book, probably another one that you won’t have read prior to watching the film, and I don’t care, the reason being that a film should be able to stand on its own (this is why I was so critical of the Harry Potter films, which tended to ride on the coattails of J.K. Rowling’s novels), and this film just barely does that.

The characters aren’t bad, but they’re hindered by the typical Hollywood practice of having them overact nearly every line, and even Samuel L. Jackson, arguably the best actor in the whole film, couldn’t escape this trend. The film presents itself decently, but I can’t be the only one who’s tired of every Hollywood film having such an overly polished look, to the point that it’s barely real anymore. However, the film’s special effects make for decent fireworks, and the film’s saving grace can be found in the climactic showdown, although the ending showed that the writers were content with some good old-fashioned schmaltzy closer.

Again, this wasn’t a bad film, but it’s fairly indistinguishable from an average 2010’s-era dark fantasy film (never mind that most if not all films made in the genre are pretty much the same now anyway), and it could have done much better if Tim Burton were at least more willing to think outside the box. With this film, he looks more like a lazy hack than the artist of his prime, having undergone a similarly ghastly transformation as several other Hollywood directors from his era.

  • Score: 60%
  • Grade: C

Last Action Hero (1993)

lastactionheroI’m not surprised that Last Action Hero was maligned by critics back in its day, and is still generally ignored by the public at large today. It was a ludicrously ridiculous action flick in a time when action films were just starting to go out of vogue. Of course, I’m certain this was intended as a satire of Hollywood action films (particularly the ones set in L.A.), and in that spirit it’s certainly more well-produced than a similar film named Loaded Weapon 1 (a cheesy National Lampoon parody of Lethal Weapon). It wasn’t a bad film, but perhaps it was a bit too silly for your average moviegoer.

A big problem is the ridiculousness that is the film’s main premise. A movie-obsessed young boy is given a magic ticket, and he’s somehow transported into the latest entry in the “Jack Slater” series, where he gets to see the world of a badass action hero, and Jack realises that he is just a film character. For me, the film could have been more satirical if the whole film played out like an action film that didn’t always take itself seriously, as opposed to the whole “magic ticket” approach. As it stands however, it’s essentially a matinee film with a goofy plot and wasted potential.

To be fair there’s plenty of humorous moments where the film essentially deconstructs its own genre, but that’s hampered by an often hackneyed script that, sadly, tends to rub off on the characters. Arnold Schwarzenegger still managed to play the lead role effectively, but mainly in his capacity as an action film star. The other characters seem to wilt in the background for the most part, if that is they aren’t hamming their way out of it. One silver lining I can count on is the skilful performance of Charles Dance in the role of the lead villain. A lot of times he unapologetically steals the show, even though he’s not immune to the iniquities of the film’s numerous script problems.

The way I see it, the problem with a setting that gives the characters licence to act like they’re in a Hollywood movie is that they always take it too far. To take this film for what it is requires not so much a suspension of disbelief, but a complete silence of disbelief, but that’s not to say it’s a bad film. There are many enjoyable fantasy films that constantly skirt the issue of suspension of disbelief, often to the point that they risk butchering it, but we still enjoy them. Besides, I kind of like the film’s obvious ridiculousness, which sometimes has a weird comic charm, but I think that comes from the fact that I’m familiar with it (having seen it roughly four times to date).

It also helps that the film had some good production values on its side, but I think they used way too much special effects, which lead to the film having a bloated budget so big that the seemingly plentiful box office returns could be considered a disappoint (a film needs to make more than double its budget to turn a profit, and Last Action Hero costed $85 million to produce).

In terms of ridiculous matinee fair, Last Action Hero isn’t actually as bad as people say it is. I’d say it’s mediocre, but with more than a few good moments. The problem, however, is that the producers wasted a lot of the potential that might have been capitalised on to great effect, and the end result can’t be anything better than a mildly humorous parody film with a choppy script.

  • Score: 60%
  • Grade: C

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)

hansel_and_gretel_witch_hunters_There are those who would defend this movie on the basis of it being “pure escapism”, or “unpretentious entertainment”. Did any of the film’s defenders actually sit down and watch it, or did they focus on that scene where one of the characters gets naked? With all seriousness, however, this film was truly awful stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen worse films, but few films could ever expect to sink lower than this dribble. In this regard, the biggest problem is the film’s unbearably hackneyed writing. I’ve seen films with blatantly terrible writing, but let it be known, this film has the absolute worst writing I’ve ever seen.

Back when it was new, the film followed the reprehensible trend of gritty, action-oriented fantasy retellings of public domain stories. In this case, it pretends to be a continuation of the story of Hansel and Gretel, but this film bastardizes the story so badly that it made its own events for before the story (which make so little sense that it’s simply baffling). The script itself is an intense atrocity, but what’s even worse is how the film exploits every possible cliché from the Hollywood playbook, including a drawn out final showdown.

Another thing I noticed is that it seemed as if they were aiming to create a strong female lead working alongside the male lead (not that either are particularly good examples), but the film’s writers, the hacks that they are, bungled the opportunity. Towards the end, the writers figuratively beat her to a bloody pulp so that the lead male could have all the glory in saving the day. It’s truly an example of terrible writing, plagued by shoehorned clichés that are long past their sell by date. It doesn’t help that the characters are played by people who don’t even know how to act.

The other big thing that bothers me is the visuals and props. This film is essentially the unholy lovechild of Van Helsing and Wild Wild West, with deliberately anachronistic weapons, costumes and accents. The action scenes should have been the best part of the film, but instead, they feel so empty and badly done that they serve no purpose other than for the sake of adding in gratuitous violence wherever the writers can. These are all the cries of a truly talentless film-maker as he drowns in his pitiful mediocrity for all eternity, just like this film in all its tawdriness.

I can safely say on behalf of the entire cinema-going public that this goes beyond B-movie territory. In fact, this is the kind of film that belongs on Syfy, or at best Channel 5, rather than the silver screen. I know that Blades of Glory is still worse on a different level, but this film is so deeply mindless and devoid of substance or artistic merit that it shouldn’t exist, nor should I have laid eyes upon it, almost as if reviewing bad movies had at one point become a depressing pastime in my life. It may in fact be the worst action film of all time.

  • Score: 5%
  • Grade: F

Rogue One (2016)

rogue_one_a_star_wars_story_posterI’m absolutely certain that Star Wars premieres at around Christmas time are going to become a yearly occasion, starting off with the previous Star Wars film. With Rogue One, which I think is very much on par with The Force Awakens, Disney proves that they can take great care of the franchise, much more so than George Lucas ever could. I think Rogue One represents an amazing amount potential for future standalone Star Wars films in the foreseeable future.

Rather than the obvious throwback plot of The Force Awakens, this film essentially carves its own niche between episodes III and IV, with a cast comprises almost entirely of new characters. The plot of this film concerns a new character named Jyn Erso, who bands together with a group of unlikely heroes with one goal – stealing the plans for the Death Star, the empire’s ultimate weapon of mass destruction.

Right off the bat I knew that Rogue One was going to be a different kind of Star Wars film, and I got that impression from the opening scenes. I expected the Star Wars title crawl, but instead we get the film’s prologue, which, if I must be honest, was a great way to start the film, and certainly quite a shake-up to say the least. I think the writing definitely improved, and I say this because the last film overtly attempted to recapture the spirit of the older films. Rogue One, meanwhile, even though it is replete with throwbacks, takes a rather surprising character-oriented approach, and I say this because I didn’t know anything about the newer characters, nor did I expect them to have any sort of chemistry.

I honestly thought that Jyn was going to be written as an overpowered Wonder Woman type character, but instead she’s kind of like a Han Solo type of character, and as that character she sort of outclasses Rey from the last film. However, I like the other characters much better, especially the film’s villain, Orson Krennic. To be honest, all the characters worked very well, with stellar performances across the board, and it was an even bigger treat to see Darth Vader once again.

As I would undoubtedly expect, the film is a special effects bonanza, and the film looks extremely well-polished. I also noticed that the film seems to have dedicated itself to recreating the look and feel of the original trilogy. Aside from the sound effects, many scenes look as if they’ve been lifted straight from the 70’s, and I think it’s amazing that Disney is apparently capable of producing this effect. Maybe we’ll see this in episode VIII and possibly in other films. I also noticed that two characters that appear here have had their likenesses from A New Hope digitally recreated and used for their appearance in Rogue One (for a moment I honestly thought that Grand Moff Tarkin was being portrayed by Charles Dance). That’s very impressive, though I kind of wonder to what extent this will be used in later films.

On the whole, Rogue One was a terrific cinematic experience, and I think it’s a great way of showing what Star Wars is capable of in the coming years. I predict that in a decade or two we’ll be looking back on Rogue One and last year’s film the same way we look back on the original trilogy today, with awe and enthusiasm.

  • Score: 94%
  • Grade: A

The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982)

sword_and_the_sorcererposterA lot of American fantasy films back in the 1980’s essentially boiled down to Conan the Barbarian clones, and sadly this film was no exception. As implied by its very title, The Sword and the Sorcerer is basically a by-the-numbers sword-and-sorcery fantasy film, with all the tropes that one might expect, and there isn’t a lot that makes up for it either, save for one rather mediocre gimmick. It wouldn’t have been too bad as a made-for-TV movie, and might have actually been better as a TV show, but as a feature film, it is very underwhelming.

The story of this film sees the fictional, prosperous kingdom of Ehdan being taken over by the brutal despot Titus Cromwell, who uses the power of the sorcerer Xusia of Delos to take over the kingdom with little opposition. Years later, a young mercenary named Talos, who wields a three-bladed sword that can fire off its extra blades with the push of a button, discovers that he was a prince of Ehdan, and takes on a quest to help the princess Alana rescue her brother Mikah and restore the kingdom, and exchange he will have one night in bed with her.

It is pretty much typical a fantasy yarn, but if there’s anything good about it, it would be the fact that it’s only 99 minutes long, and that’s not saying much, considering the film’s meandering pace. The story is boring, but it’s not tastelessly bad. It’s the kind of writing I would probably expect from a TV show, which is a shame because I haven’t seen many TV shows like it. Not even the few interesting twists (and believe me, there are) can save a mediocre plot from the clutches of its own mediocrity. Also, the three-bladed sword literally across as a pointless gimmick. I’m a connoisseur of fantasy, and even I can’t suspend my disbelief for this, and if a sword that fires extra blades like missiles doesn’t convince a fantasy nut, you know you’ve failed.

The characters aren’t too convincing either. The hero of the story comes across as the producers’ attempt at creating a knock-off Han Solo and failing. Given that the man playing him, Lee Horsley, had plenty of experience as a TV actor, his character might have worked better on TV than on film. I can say the same thing for the other characters, who seem to have been written rather lazily as clichéd stock characters. The acting is fairly decent, but it’s the at least they’re trying kind of acting, and it’s not that hard to tell in this film.

The special effects aren’t too bad, but they aren’t exactly stellar either. The film looks and sounds like a made-for-TV production, just with a bigger budget than most. The music sounds rather generic, but then, the action scenes have the same quality, with an added air of ridiculousness. How am I meant to believe that the hero, after being crucified, can muster up the strength to free himself without causing unbearable pain to himself? All in all, while not a terrible disaster of a film, it certainly wasn’t very good either, and it seems more like a disservice to a genre already stuffed with cheap genre films.

  • Score: 58%
  • Grade: D

A Chinese Ghost Story (1987)

chineseghoststoryTonight’s film of choice is a peculiar one, in that it’s not a film you can easily put into a box. If you believe Wikipedia then this is a horror film, but although it has horror elements, it’s not quite a horror film. It’s more like a romantic folklore-based fantasy with a humorous touch. That’s about the best way I can describe it, and it’s actually quite a good film. Unabashedly original and teeming with flair, this film is perhaps a very good choice for those who get a good kick out of well-done fantasy. In other words, this is my sort of film.

The story revolves around a man named Ning Tsai-Shen, a debt collector who arrives in a small town to carry out his job. Of course, nobody gives him shelter for the night when it rains, so he spends the night in a haunted temple. While there, a Taoist swordsman, Yin Che-Hsia, warns him to stay out of trouble, and he also meets a beautiful woman named Nieh Hsiao-Tsing, who he falls in love with. However, she is a ghost bound for all eternity to serve an evil tree demon for as long as she remains buried near the tree.

In all honesty, I think the premise reads like an interesting tale, keeping in mind that this isn’t an overly serious film. Of course, since the film was released in Hong Kong, it was nice that I found a subtitled version, and the translations were actually quite consistent, though I don’t know if they were necessarily accurate. In terms of substance, the film’s intermittent comedic approach seems to help the film, since I don’t really believe it’s a horror film, not if it has upbeat music on the title screen.

Regarding the characters, I think the actors performed rather well. The main actors did a good job, though I think the best performance came from the man who played the swordsman Yin, if mainly because of the hilarious musical number he does in the middle of the film. It seems like it would be jarring, but it’s so ridiculous that it actually scored big laughs from this reviewer.

The film’s speciality is definitely presentation. There’s certainly plenty of stylish set pieces, and the film’s flair maintains a constant presence throughout. The special effects were actually quite good, and compared to other similar films I’ve been seeing over the past two months, its a marked improvement. Added to that would be lovely musical score, along with the typical Hong Kong-style action choreography, which comes into play irregularly, but it’s evident that the producers implemented them with care.

All in all, I wouldn’t say it’s perfect, but its certainly a film you ought to see, with its unusual blend of romance, comedy, action and horror elements into a film that’s one of a kind. At any rate, I certainly enjoyed the film, both for its serious and its less than serious qualities, and I would strongly recommend it for any serious film buff.

  • Score: 75%
  • Grade: B