• Film reviews

    #464 – The Great Alaskan Mystery (1944)

    The Great Alaskan Mystery (1944)

    Film review #464

    Directors: Lewis D. Collins, Ray Taylor

    SYNOPSIS: Dr. Miller, along with Dr. Hauss, has invented a new death ray called the paratron. However, Dr. Hauss is secretly a Nazi spy, who intends to steal the death ray to give to his home country. Jim Hudson, an adventurer of sorts, tells Miller that the material he needs to complete the paratron may be found in the Alaskan mines, and so they set off there, only to have their plane crash on the way…

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: The Great Alaskan Mystery is a 1944 serial released by Universal pictures comprised of thirteen chapters. The serial centres around the invention of a death ray called the “paratron,” invented by Dr. Hauss and Dr. Miller. However, they are having trouble completing it. Jim Anderson, an adventurer who knows Dr. Miller’s daughter Ruth, visits and remarks that a rare mineral that can be found in mines in Alaska might be what they are looking for. They all set out on a boat to Alaska, but various machinations are at work, as Dr. Hauss is secretly a Nazi spy, and intends to steal the paratron for his own country, getting the Captain of the ship to aid him in his scheme. The ship sinks and the cast are forced to survive in the Alaskan wilderness until they are rescued. The first two or three episodes are quite varied and dump the cast straight into the Alaskan wilderness doing what you would expect them to di in Alaska: getting caught in the snow, visiting Inuit natives, and such. After chapter three, the serial settles down into a more typical format, with the heroes and villains engaging in a back and forth as they try to get a hold of the paratron and stop each other. In terms of story then, it’s a standard serial affair. The stakes aren’t particularly high as everything revolves around this death ray which while is indeed powerful, doesn’t seem as revolutionary as some other inventions used in these serials (maybe because the idea of the death ray has been done to death). Also this is a wartime serial, and the stakes here probably pale in comparison to the real war going on at the time. There’s also perhaps something to be said for the fact that the setting of Alaska makes the serial feel somewhat removed from any wider context. However, the serial does make good use of the Alaska setting, as we get a decent amount of shots of the wilderness and unique set-ups in the mountains and snow, even if they rely heavily on stock footage.

    The cast for this serial is fairly large. However, none of them really stand out, and fall into very typical serial roles. The cast does however, consist of a number of popular and well-known actors of the time, which enhances the serial with some decent performances. You have the typical protagonist, the sole female character, and the elderly scientist, along with the villains and their henchman. There’s also plenty of characters pretending to be helping the heroes when they are the villains. it all adds up to quite a mystery, but never really flows into a coherent experience as all the characters are easy to get mixed up and don’t form their own unique performance.

    As mentioned, the depictions of Alaska are perhaps the most unique part of the serial, with plenty of scenic shots, lumberjacking, and wilderness sets that make it look the part. The dialogue is what mainly drives the story though, as with most Universal serials. There’s not a lot of action scenes outside of some classic shoot-outs and chase scenes, and again that is typical of a Universal serial, which usually are less action-oriented than the ones from rival serial producer Republic. Overall, The Great Alaskan Mystery has many of the serials tropes that it needs to, but fails to bring it’s busy story and large cast together to create anything special. It’s got everything it needs, but is ultimately a bit forgettable, leaving it to be remembered as just another average serial amongst the many of the format.

  • Film reviews

    #463 – Alien Invasion (2020)

    Alien Invasion (2020)

    Film review #463

    Director: Yun Xiang Lin

    SYNOPSIS: Private detective Xu Siwei is hired by Yang Lin to investigate the disappearance of her Father. They are led to a secret underground facility where they encounter a strange portal to an alien world. Barely escaping the alien horrors within, Xu is haunted by strange dreams that relate to this alien species, and heads to the town where Yang Lin was raised to find answers…

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Alien Invasion is a 2020 science fiction film. The film starts off in a secret laboratory where an experiment on an alien portal goes wrong and a creature escapes into the laboratory, forcing it to be sealed to prevent the alien’s escape into the world. Next, we are introduced to private detective Xu Siwei, who after capturing a thief returns to his home to find Yang Lin, a young woman who wants to hire him to find her Father, who went missing fifteen years ago. The two are led to a secret laboratory where they stumble upon the alien portal from the opening of the film. They manage to escape, but Xu starts having recurring nightmares about the aliens, and seeks to unravel the mystery further by visiting Yang Lin’s hometown, where strange things are happening. The plot of the film is inspired by the Cthulhu and other such eldritch horror, as the alien in the opening scenes shifts its amorphous form and impales people with its tentacles. The film is essentially a science-fiction thriller, attempting to build tension in the mystery it creates and the environments in which it is set. The film struggles to do this successfully because the whole tone of the film is very inconsistent: at the start there’s some more action and quirky light-heartedness, as Xu is clearly emulating Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. The film leans more towards a horror theme as Xu and Yang investigate the laboratory, and more of a slow-paced thriller as Xu and Yang investigate what happened to her parents in the town she grew up. With these constant shifts in tone, the flow of the story is constantly interrupted and it it becomes difficult to maintain engagement in the story.

    The film centres around the two main characters Xu Siwei and Yang Lin, who investigate Yang’s father’s whereabouts after he disappeared some fifteen years ago. As mentioned, Xu is clearly ‘inspired’ by Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, but that part of his character doesn’t really factor in after the first act when the film shifts to a thriller and the mystery overshadows any character quirks. Yang has plenty of mystery about her, but there’s nothing too special about her character. The chemistry between the two is alright, but could probably have been pushed further to increase the stakes. Overall they’re pretty standard characters from the genre, but still fairly likable, and supplemented by decent acting on behalf of the actors.

    The film is very much on par with other Chinese science-fiction released around the same time in terms of production, which means in terms of the CG is that it doesn’t look too bad, but it also typically looks like someone put it together in After Effects in an afternoon. The colour is one thing that I think stands out, as it is vivid without making the scenes lose their tense atmosphere. The practical effects look pretty daft, particularly the aliens which are obviously people in very silly looking masks that are quite distracting. The fact that we don’t see any of the aliens for a good majority of the movie again breaks the sense of flow, as we are treated to this set-up at the start, then nothing really comes of it for most of the movie. The whole mystery surrounding Yang’s mother and father also never gets a satisfactory payoff, as everything is delivered in cryptic riddles and not explained properly. Overall, Alien Invasion is a fairly standard Chinese science-fiction film of its type, and is unremarkable in terms of story, characters or production. It’s inspirations are obvious, and does little to develop or explore them in any unique way, making it a fairly forgettable experience.#movie#movie review

  • Film reviews

    #462 – Mysterious Island (1951)

    Mysterious Island (1951)

    Film review #462

    Director: Spencer Gordon Bennet

    SYNOPSIS: A group of soldiers fighting in the American civil war are captured by Confederate forces. They eventually escape on an observation balloon, but find themselves drifting for days, eventually landing on a desert island far from civilisation. However, the island is far from deserted, as a native tribe, pirates, aliens, a castaway, and a mysterious masked man are all up to various schemes on the island, and the new arrivals must find a way to survive against all these different factions and find a way home…

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Mysterious Island is a 1951 science-fiction serial comprised of fifteen chapters. It is based on the novel of the same name by Jules Verne. The serial is set in the year 1865, during the American civil war, where during the siege of Richmond, Virginia, Captain Cyrus Harding is captured by Confederate forces and taken prisoner. he engineers an escape with some other prisoners by hijacking an observation balloon. Unfortunately, a storm sweeps the balloon way off course, leaving it to drift for many days. When it lands, the crew find themselves on a desert island far from any civilisation, with no way home. They quickly find that the island is far from deserted however, and the new arrivals must contend with multiple factions and their schemes. As mentioned, the serial is based on Jules Verne’s novel of the same name, and incorporates a fair amount of the novel’s structure and characters. This is in contrast to a lot of serial adaptations of comics and books, in which usually only one or two main characters are made to fit into the serial format, omitting a lot of the original’s world and set-ups (such as things that would be too expensive to implement). As such, the serial has a good flow and pacing that keeps things interesting across the fifteen chapters. There’s still plenty of tried serial tropes when characters set up elaborate deaths with plenty of opportunity to escape rather than just killing them, but on the whole there’s plenty going on between all of the different factions to keep things varied and interesting. Even through the fifteen chapters, which is at the longer runtime of these serials, it keeps things consistently entertaining.

    Let’s talk about the characters in this serial: there is a very large cast, and multiple different factions that are working against each other. Apart from the main cast that wind up on the island, there’s the native population, a castaway that has gone mad, pirates, aliens from the planet Mercury, and a mysterious masked man. In keeping with the novel, all of these characters are from the source material apart from the aliens from Mercury, which were added for the serial. The serial could have easily got away with not adding them, as there’s plenty of characters and plot anyway, but I suppose they were added to keep up with trends, as sci-fi serials and films started to get more popular after World War II had ended and the subsequent years in which war heroes were the protagonists of choice. The alien characters and plot fit in fairly well and are incorporated into the story so that they don’t stick out as a forced inclusion, which is good. While none of the characters are really unique or memorable, they have a consistency in their acting, and you know who they are and who they’re aligned with when they’re on screen. The heroes are perhaps the least interesting bunch, as they’re all typical young male leads without any special talent or occupation. Nevertheless, you will be on their side as they try and make their way home.

    Mysterious Island is a nice surprise in the period of the serial format’s declining popularity. Obviously helped by being based off a famous novel helps give the story an interesting set of characters and set-ups, the serial also incorporates its own elements which, while nothing unique, is integrated nicely with the rest of the source material, even if the sound of pirates, American Civil War, and aliens together sounds like an absurd mix. The acting is decent, the sets convey a consistent sense of location, and the story has a good sense of direction that maintains interest and excitement. Spencer Gordon bennet, the director, was a serial veteran by this point, and delivers his usual developed choreography in fight scenes and keeping the pace of the serial steady yet energetic. Overall, Mysterious Island is a surprisingly decent addition to the serial format, at a time when good examples of it were few and far between.

  • Film reviews

    #461 – Ninja Apocalypse (2014)

    Ninja Apocalypse (2014)

    Film review #461

    Director: Lloyd Lee Barnett

    SYNOPSIS: in the post-apocalyptic wasteland, a summit is called between the various ninja clans for peace talks, as clan leader Fumitaka believes the clans must come together to overcome an external threat that threatens all of them. The clans agree to the terms, but Fumitaka is suddenly assassinated, with witnesses saying that Cage, leader of the Lost Ninja clan, was the one who did it. Cage and his fellow clan members are forced to flee, and must find a way out the bunker where the peace talks are being held, with all the other ninja warriors out to get them…

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Ninja Apocalypse is a 2014 post-apocalypse martial arts film. Set after the collapse of society through nuclear war (as with most post-apocalyptic films), what remains of humanity seems to have banded into various ninja clans (for some reason). Fumitaka, the leader of one of the clans, holds a peace conference between the clans at his bunker, where he claims they must unite to fight an “external force” that threatens them all. The clans agree, but Fumitaka is suddenly assassinated, and three witnesses claim it was Cage, the leader of the Lost Ninja clan, that did it. Cage and his clan ninjas flee, attempting to escape the bunker while fighting off the remaining clans. The story is fairly simple to follow, even if it doesn’t make much sense: why is everyone a ninja in the post-apocalypse? Why do they have magic powers? Are they mutations or supernatural? Not much is explained, but then again it is a martial arts movie, and doesn’t need too much explanation. The whole premise is very silly, and manages to get even sillier when it introduces zombies. Overall it’s not a story that will keep your interest, and while there’s a few twists and surprises, doesn’t offer too much.

    The various clans of ninjas we see at the beginning of the film all have unique special powers, including lightning, fire and illusion. As mentioned, there’s no explanation of these powers and whether they are mutations or supernatural, but it’s not too much of a concern. Apparently their powers have a certain limit and have to recharge, but it’s mechanics are not explained any further. These abilities make the film a bit more over-the-top and unique, but they’re not utilised in a massive way to bolster the film as a whole into a unique experience. The characters themselves are a fairly typical bunch of tropes, with Cage and his brother Surge being at odds with one another forming the most notable relation between characters. Cage’s rivalry with Becker, leader of the fire-based ninja clan, is also fairly interesting, and it’s fun to watch them interact, but there’s too little of it. The big reveal of the villain at the end has little impact too because we see very little of Cage and the villain actually interacting, so we are left only with exposition to fill in the gap.

    This is not a high budget production. The film is almost exclusively set in this nuclear bunker, which means there is no need for complex sets, and most of the action takes place in non-descript corridors, stairwells and industrial empty rooms. The CG is pretty basic stuff and probably something anyone could make in After Effects, but it’s not overused too much, and is mainly just to create blood splatter, which the film doesn’t linger too closely on (although sometimes the physics of the blood is noticeably off). The acting can sometimes be alright, but other times is very stuff and wooden, making the whole experience very uneven. The most important aspect of a martial arts film has to be the fight scenes, and the ones in Ninja Apocalypse are…fine I guess. The actual stunts and fighting are good, but the editing of them is often too sharp and ruins the flow. There’s plenty of variety though, from the various ninja clans and their unique powers to slicing up zombies. Overall though Ninja Apocalypse is a fairly forgettable affair with a threadbare story and limited characters. There’s a few decent stunts and fights, but they are ultimately hampered in their editing and composition. There’s not much to really take away from this film, apart from the premise should be much more interesting than what is delivered on screen.

  • Film reviews

    #460 – Spy Smasher (1942)

    Spy Smasher (1942)

    Film review #460

    Director: William Witney

    SYNOPSIS: The masked hero “Spy Smasher” is captured in Paris on a secret mission to obtain plans for sabotage operations in the United States. He escapes back to his home country, where he is reunited with his brother Jack. However, the Nazis have also made their way to America shores, and the two team up with intelligence officer Admiral Corby to counter the threat…

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Spy Smasher is a 1942 movie serial comprised of twelve chapters. It is based on the comic book series of the same name. The serial opens up in Paris, where the eponymous masked hero “Spy Smasher” is on a secret mission to obtain plans for a sabotage operation to be carried out in the United States. He is, however, captured, and after unsuccessful torture attempts, he is sentenced to death in front of a firing squad. Fortunately, a member of the French resistance, Pierre Durand, fakes his death, and is able to smuggle him back to the United States. The opening of this serial is quite uncharacteristically dark compared to others of the genre: The scenes of torture (implied, but shown just offscreen), and the firing squads are perhaps a more authentic look at what was happening during WWII at the time than other serials portrayed. From the outset, the serial feels a little more grown up than others, which is odd considering they were mostly aimed at younger viewers. Back in the United States, the Nazis have snuck in and are on a train to carry out their plans, when one of them recognises Spy Smasher and attacks him. It turns out that it is not Spy Smasher at all, but his brother Jack, and Alan (who is Spy Smasher in disguise) defeats the Nazis and reveals himself to his brother. The two team up with navy intelligence officer Admiral Corby and his daughter Eve (Jack’s fiancée) to counter the Nazi threat that Alan/Spy Smasher helped to expose. The rest of the serial’s story is simple enough to follow, but there’s a lot of different locations, such as Spy Smasher returning to Paris to free Pierre from the Nazis, which helps keeps things varied and interesting. The variety slows down in the latter half of the serial, but the finale has plenty of action and consequences to make it pretty enjoyable.

    The characters are (as always) a familiar bunch insofar as they all follow very specific tropes that form the backbone of the serial format’s character roster. Jack and Alan are the typical young male stars that do all the action sequences and punch plenty of Nazis in the face. Admiral Corby is a typical older man that serves as the boss who receives intelligence and gives instructions. His daughter is the token female, who serves the typical role of simply being a family relation to a male character. It’s a pretty small cast, but it means that more time is focused on the actions of Spy Smasher, which is what you want to see really. The villains are Nazis. That’s it. They are mostly in their full uniforms somewhat faithfully recreated, whereas a lot of serials simply imply that the villains are Nazis, or working for a “foreign country.” The villains are led by a masked individual known unsurprisingly as “The Mask.” Despite the fairly decent costumes on the villains, the mask for The Mask is literally a piece of white cloth covering his face with some holes cut out for the eyes. I’m not sure why they bothered, since his identity isn’t of any importance, and he routinely removes it when communicating to certain people. The mask is apparently the villain from the comics, so I suppose he was just added to tie in with the comic, but he doesn’t stand out as a unique villain.

    The production values are pretty good for a serial, and although there’s no exotic or novel sets, what we do get is sturdy and has a decent scale. The action scenes on top of speeding trains and the like are also well done, and deliver a good sense of danger. As mentioned the costumes are pretty good as well…apart from The Mask’s “mask” anyway. There’s also some plots involving planes and ray guns, which again add to the variety. Overall, Spy Smasher is a serial that stands above the average in terms of quality in the genre, thanks to it’s variety in the story and its grounded, consistent logic, alongside some good production values and camerawork. It’s a very good example of the wartime serials that portrayed the Nazis as the villains, without the film being simply propaganda. All in all, worth your attention if you’re a serial fan.

  • Film reviews

    #459 – A Great Space Journey (1974)

    A Great Space Journey (1974)

    Film review #459

    Director: Valentin Selivanov

    SYNOPSIS: The All-Union Children’s Space Competition aims to find three children that will be the first youths in space aboard a new spaceship. Sveta, Sasha and Fedya are chosen from the one hundred thousand applicants to embark on the mission with the sole adult on board, Captain Egor Kalinovsky. After the ship is launched, Egor is found to be sick, and placed in quarantine, leaving the children in charge of the spaceship…

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: A Great Space Journey is a 1974 children’s science-fiction film based on the play The First Three, or the Year 2001 by Sergey Mikhailov. The film opens up introducing a space program that will choose three children to be the first young people in space. Out of one hundred thousand applicants from across the Soviet Union, three children are selected: Sveta Ishenova, Sasha Ivanenko, and Fedya Druzhinin. The three are sent into space on the spaceship Astra with the only adult on the voyage, Captain Egor Kalinovsky, who is in charge of the mission. When Egor is found to have a fever, that may spread to everyone else, he is placed in quarantine, leaving the children having to take charge of the ship and the mission. The story is fairly simple, being a film aimed at children, and is fairly light on the details concerning what the mission they are on actually is. Nevertheless, there is plenty that is going on in the film, as the children have to navigate through a fair amount of emergencies and strange situations as their journey continues. Not having an overarching objective hinders any sense of direction and accomplishment the film has, but nevertheless, there’s a good sense of adventure and enough variety to capture viewer’s imaginations. There’s a bit of a twist in the story that explains most things at the end, but I’ll discuss that at the end too.

    The three main characters are the children that were chosen through the space program. Each of their characters are developed through flashbacks to when they were undergoing the testing, highlighting their relationships with their parents and each other. There’s also Egor, the only adult on the spaceship, who is placed in quarantine, but can still communicate to the others. One of the children, Fedya, is placed in command of the mission after Egor is quarantined, and it is hinted that he is troubled by something about the mission, but refuses to disclose it. Sasha is very animated, and teaches the other children dance moves to keep them entertained. Sveta is more headstrong and quick to rush into situations (contrasting with Fedya’s more reserved nature) and perhaps has some romantic feelings for Sasha. Between the three children, they have a good range of personalities, and at least one of them will appeal to children that the film was aimed at. Their interactions feel genuine in this extraordinary situation, and are generally likeable in their own way. There’s also a good balance between the children needing to act like adults, and also like children; such as when they complete their task running the spaceship, and immediately go get some ice cream from a nearby fridge.

    The ending of the film reveals that the entire mission is actually just a simulation for the children to test their abilities. Fedya initially works it out, but keeps it secret for the remainder of the mission. You might think this is a bit underwhelming and disappointed that the children do not actually go into space…and in fact, that’s why actual soviet cosmonaut Alexey Leonov appears at the end of the film saying this exact thing. He also says that the time will come soon (?) when children will really go into space, and encourages children to continue looking forward to it and chasing their dreams, which is nice. The film also rewards the children for the completion of the simulation with a celebration and fanfare, so it still feels rewarding, and as if the characters accomplished something.

    The quality of the sets and production values of the film certainly deserve some mention. The set of the spaceship is detailed, and the shots of the ship travelling through space are quite convincing given the time it was released. the model shots of the spaceship and other things also have quite a lot of detail in them. The whole aesthetic evokes the look of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I’m sure is no coincidence. Given that the play the film is based on is called The First Three, or the Year 2001, it would certainly there’s a connection, but whether it is an homage, a parody, or knock-off, I’m not sure. The film was also apparently in production for two years, which I think shows in the look of the finished product. There’s also some musical interludes which don’t really fit in too well, but again probably something children would enjoy. Most notably, the song’s were written by a young Alexey Rybnikov, who would become one of the Soviet Union’s and subsequently Russia’s most famous composers, apparently in no small part due to the popularity of the soundtrack of this film.

    Overall, A Great Space Journey is a fun little adventure that I’m sure its target audience would have enjoyed. The film is well constructed, and great effort had obviously been taken to make detailed and engaging sets. The characters themselves are relatable and distinct, without being too much of walking tropes, and the story has plenty of things going on in it, even if it lacks direction or purpose sometimes. It packs in a fair amount of detail and adventure in just over sixty minutes, and with some decent editing, always has something interesting going on.

  • Film reviews

    #458 – Blackhawk (1952)

    Blackhawk (1952)

    Film review #458

    Directors: Spencer Bennet, Fred F. Sears

    SYNOPSIS: The elite group of air pilots, The International Brotherhood, led by the heroic Blackhawk thwart threats to the country without the use of weapons. They are tasked with stopping a foreign spy and her various schemes, leading to a series of daring adventures.

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Blackhawk is a 1952 serial comprised of fifteen chapters, based on the comic series of the same name. The action centres around the group of air pilots called The International Brotherhood, a group of former WWII pilots led by the heroic Blackhawk. They are assigned the task of bringing down a foreign spy named Laska, who is working for a mysterious Leader. The story revolves around Blackhawk and his boys foiling Laska’s plots which are fairly varied throughout the fifteen chapters. There’s no real overall plot other than just stopping Laska; there’s some smaller plots concerning death rays and recovering new energy sources which would be the full plot to some other serials, but this one condenses each of these plots into two or three chapters, which keeps things somewhat varied and interesting, as some serials that hinge around just one of them get stale very fast. However, having very little to tie the whole serial together makes it suffer a lack of direction. On the other hand however, it’s just good guys chasing bad guys, and that’s all it needs to be. If you’re watching a serial, you won’t be expecting a complex narrative, and they’re mostly for younger viewers as well, so they just want to see the good guys fight the bad guys, and on that point the serial has enough action to make it interesting enough. You also have three or so chapters in Mexico in a more self-contained story, which would have been an optional part for cinemas to purchase depending on whether they bought either the twelve chapter or fifteen chapter version of the serial (a fairly standard practice at the time).

    The heroes are a group of former WWII air pilots that work together to take down foreign enemies in their planes. They also make a point that they don’t use guns or weapons, but never explain why. Perhaps it’s something they did in the comics. The head of these pilots is Blackhawk, who is a very typical protagonist, being the young-ish, stocky man who gets to throw plenty of punches. The rest of his team don’t have much character themselves, and just serve as an extra pair of hands for piloting planes and throwing fists in a fight. The villains are also fairly forgettable, with the usual cast of henchman identified as working for the “Reds,” signifying the shift in America’s enemies after WWII. Laska, who serves as the main villain is played by Carol Forman, who played quite a few similar lead female villains in serials such as The Black Widow and Superman. She knows how to play the role, but her character is never given any motivations or depth, and simply serves as a simple villain. There’s also a mysterious Leader who gives Laska her orders, whose identity is kept secret until the very end. He only appears very sporadically, and his identity has no impact on the story. In fact, I didn’t even recognise his character as it was one that was apparently killed off early in the serial.

    Produced in 1952, after both WWII and the peak of the serials, Blackhawk has little to offer the genre. With serial veteran Spencer Gordon Bennet being one of the directors, the fight scenes are decently co-ordinated, and there’s some variety in the shots, but nothing too special. A lot of the climaxes of the chapters seem to end up in factories for whatever reason, but there’s some aerial combat too and the usual vehicles going off cliffs. As mentioned, the serial was released after the peak of the format, so there’s nothing special to write about. Even the spike in the popularity of war heroes as characters in serials that started after WWII was starting to wain in 1952 in favour of looking to the future with science-fiction and the space race. As such, this is the last serial that focused on air combat and planes. Overall, Blackhawk is a pretty standard serial, but fails to offer anything special.

  • Film reviews

    #457 – My Girlfriend is a Duplicate (2021)

    My Girlfriend is a Duplicate (2021)

    Film review #457

    Directors: Xing Guangjun, Tu Biao

    SYNOPSIS: Chen Fei often wakes up after having a dream where her boyfriend Ma Jia tries to choke her. Ma dismisses it, but when Chen gets suspicious about Ma’s work, she discovers a secret laboratory under their home, within which a number of clones of her are being stored. It turns out that she herself is one of these clones of Ma’s girlfriend that he accidentally killed, and that the cloning technology is being sought by a nefarious organisation…

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: My Girlfriend is a Duplicate is a 2021 Chinese romance sci-fi film. It is based on the novel “Dragon Fleet” by Tu Biao, who also co-directs this film. The film centres around the young couple Ma Jia and his girlfriend Chen Fei. She is beset by bad dreams about being choked by her boyfriend, which he dismisses as just stress. Ma himself is heavily distracted by his research, which brings in no money for them, and is an added source of stress. When Chen gets curious about the basement of their house, which Ma maintains is just full of junk. When Chen eventually makes her way down there to investigate, she makes a startling discovery: a large number of clones of herself in suspended animation. She eventually learns from one of the other clones that they are all – herself included – clones of the original Chen Fei, who was Ma’s girlfriend before he accidentally killed her. However, he was able to “print” clones of her thanks to the research he has been doing that builds upon his Father’s own research; part of a secret government project to enhance the health of its citizens. The story has a fair amount of different elements in it from romance and science-fiction, so the story has some variety in it. The science-fiction aspect is the most interesting aspect of it, as we learn about the couple’s past. The romance aspect isn’t developed very much, and plays out with beginning as a typical young couple, and never really exploring how this discovery would affect their relationship. When Chen makes the discovery, the film shifts almost entirely to the science-fiction genre, with a lot of the story told through flashbacks. At just over an hour long, we don’t see anything more than these series of flashbacks and a brief follow-up focusing on the consequences of it.

    The cast of the film is minimal, with the couple being the main point of focus for relationship drama, and a villain who emerges near the end. There’s some dialogue involving another clone of Chen, referred to as No. 126, and the ‘current’ clone of Chen, but it seems to set her up as her own unique character and then never go anywhere with it. I’m not sure if you’re supposed to empathise with Ma, given that he did kill his girlfriend, and has to continue re-cloning her as the clones have a fairly short lifespan. The ethics of the whole process seems very much unexplored, which seems odd for a science-fiction film, but less odd when you consider which country it is produced in.

    In terms of production, the film isn’t up to the standard of big budget Hollywood films: the editing is awkward, and things often move around between shots, which disrupts the continuity. There’s also the rather unconvincing special effects and the wooden acting that doesn’t convey the powerful feelings that this couple are supposedly supposed to have for each other. The most interesting aspect of this film, as with most films produced in country’s with strict censorship programs, is how the film has to do and show certain things to be approved for release. At the start, we are told about a secret government bureau made to improve the health and wellbeing of the Chinese people, but it is done in such a way that it doesn’t make the government look bad or keeping dark secrets from the public. As such, any more details about how secret the bureau is and what it actually did is not addressed. The villain is outlined as being a traitor who wants to steal the Bureau’s research in order to sell it to China’s age-old enemy Japan. There’s also a scene where the villain goes to pray at an altar with what I presume is meant to be the Chinese Premier, to which Ma calls him out to “stop pretending” that he is paying his respects. This again is obviously reinforce the message that the villain is not part of the government and is this traitor that deserves no sympathy. As mentioned earlier, sci-fi films such as this would usually address the ethics of the concept of cloning, and whether it is right to do it. This film completely avoids saying whether it is right or wrong: the only wrong it highlights is selling the secrets to a foreign enemy. It is perhaps important to highlight that the Chinese government is often found at the forefront of cloning research, and any kind of critique could easily be seen as a critique of government research. The trouble is that such explorations of ethics and possibilities of science and technology really is at the core of the science-fiction genre, and in completely avoiding that part of it, this film feels quite pointless and empty.

  • Film reviews

    #456 – The Phantom Creeps (1939)

    The Phantom Creeps (1939)

    Film review #456

    Directors: Ford Beebe, Saul A. Goodkind

    SYNOPSIS: An evil scientist named Dr. Zarko has developed inventions that he intends to use to take over the world. With the government and foreign spies constantly trying to get him to get a hold of his inventions, Zarko is uninterested until his wife his killed, when Zarko swears vengeance against the world. Faking his own death, he adopts a new disguise and sets to work. Bob West, a government agent, works together with Dr. Frank Mallory, Zarko’s once-assistant, and journalist Jean Drew to try to foil Zarko’s various attacks and the spies who want his work, while beginning to suspect Zarko is not dead after all…

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: The Phantom Creep is a 1939 film serial composed of twelve chapters. Most notable for featuring film icon Bela Lugosi as the villain, it would also be the last movie serial he would star in. The serial starts off introducing Lugosi’s character Dr. Alex Zarko, a brilliant scientist but a bit eccentric as he likes to play tricks on the government agents and foreign spies that are attempting to buy or steal his inventions. He takes everything in good stride until his wife is killed, and the thought of vengeance on the world completely consumes him, and begins using his inventions for evil after faking his own death. Government agent Bob West teams up with Dr. Frank Mallory, who was Zarko’s assistant who wanted him to donate his inventions to the government for the benefit of mankind, and left when he refused. Also working with Jean Drew, a journalist at a national newspaper. Together, they take on the spies that are attempting to get a hold of Zarko’s inventions, and investigate whether Zarko is really dead. One thing that stands out in this serial is all the various inventions that Zarko uses. He has invisibility, an eight-foot robot, robotic spiders that can paralyze people and also a device to put people into suspended animation. Normally, only one of these inventions would serve as the main plot point for a serial, but this serial gives us all of them. While all of these inventions have been the focus of other serials, having them all together like this gives some much needed variety, as different chapters focus on different things, and are used fairly creatively in the various schemes and set-ups. The plot has a lot of back-and-forth with the characters ending up at Zarko’s old home many times, only to be continually come under attack and being surprised when they do so. The story goes round in circles and lacks some direction with so many different things happening, but it’s better than nothing happening, which is what many serials do when they try to stretch very little over twelve to fifteen chapters.

    In terms of characters, they are nothing special: there’s all the usual characters from the young action-hero, the sole female etc., but the star of the serial is obviously Bela Lugosi, who gets first billing, and is always the star of every film he is in. His performance is similar to his usual roles (he is the villain in a few serials), but he undoubtedly draws in the audience for those very roles. He also has an assistant called Monk, who plays the role of the idiotic assistant who bungles and sometimes intentionally sabotages Zorka’s plans provides some comedic value, but is mostly there to give Zorka someone to interact with and get his wrath out on.

    With all of the inventions and devices that form the backbone of the action, the effects are fairly well pulled off. Of course, the mechanical spiders and the floating objects being carried by an invisible Zorka aren’t convincing nowadays, but there’s definitely worse I’ve seen in the serials of this time. One thing of interest is that there’s not many fistfights or gun shoot-outs, which is usually what most of the action in serials consist of. This serial has all of the inventions to replace that, but also focuses a little more on setting up large scale explosions or vehicle crashes that form the chapter’s cliffhangers. The chapters are also fairly longer than usual, going to about twenty minutes whereas some serials only have fifteen minute chapters with a lot of reused footage from a previous chapter. As such, I think you would get your value for money going to watch this at the theatre in comparison to others. Overall, The Phantom Creeps has a fair amount to offer viewers with its imaginative inventions, and Lugosi’s star quality. The story lacks direction sometimes and the other characters fall flat due to some dull acting and lack of anything unique about them, but overall the serial has enough to make it an above average venture.

  • Film reviews

    #455 – Turbo Kid (2015)

    Turbo Kid (2015)

    Film review #455

    Directors: François Simard, Yoann-Karl Whissell, Anouk Whissell

    SYNOPSIS: In the post-apocalyptic world of 1997, a boy known only as Kid, who idolises the “Turbo Rider” comic book character, stumbles upon a girl named Apple, who starts following him around everywhere. When the local warlord Zeus starts pressing his terror across the wasteland, Kid discovers the remains of the real Turbo Rider, and along with them, the superhero powers he needs to take on Zeus himself…

    THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Turbo Kid is a 2015 post-apocalypse sci-fi film, it is an expanded version of the six-minute short film T is for Turbo from 2006. The film is very much an 80’s retro-styled post-apocalypse film that were produced in overwhelming numbers throughout the decade (mostly inspired by the success of Mad Max). The film starts off introducing Kid, a teenage boy who lives in this wasteland by scavenging, and who idolises the comic book character “Turbo Rider.” One day he stumbles upon a bizarre young woman named Apple, who starts following him around everywhere. The pair get caught up in a fight with the local warlord Zeus. The story of the film is fairly straightforward and easy to follow, and while the stakes never seem to be too high, the focus is on the characters and their relations to each other, rather than saving the world. It definitely has that Mad Max feel in terms of the story, with minimal worldbuilding or lore into how everything was destroyed and how people survive in this world, which is more or less in keeping with the genre, which usually gives off an “end of history” vibe in that after the world is destroyed, the question of “why?” doesn’t have much meaning, particularly in comparison to the question of survival.

    Kid stumbles upon the remains of the real “Turbo Rider,” and takes his superhero suit and laser blaster thing to become him, and this gives him the power to take on the villains. This also feels very much like another classic 80’s trope: the revenge flick, in which a wimpy teenage kid suddenly gets the power to take revenge on everyone that wronged them. The obscure film Laserblast (though released in 1978) is one that particularly stands out to me. This is also a very sudden realisation that Turbo Rider isn’t just a comic book character, but is apparently a real person in this universe, which is not hinted at all before this reveal. Perhaps it is a sign that a destroyed world has no need to remember superheroes. When Kid puts on the suit, he takes up the mantle of the superhero in this strange new world, and as his connection to other characters and his past is revealed. The cast of characters on the whole have their own personalities and roles, and while none of their characters are particularly noteworthy or unique, you get a sense of the entirety of their character, given that in a post-apocalyptic world, most people don’t have multi-layered personalities and interests, and instead rely on their base instincts to survive.

    The 80’s aesthetic extends to the soundtrack, which is very synth-driven, and while the budget is fairly low for the film, the cheaper CGI also feels more suitable to its aesthetic. The majority of the film relies on practical effects, particularly in relation to the use of gore; and there is a lot of gore. This is also very much in keeping with the exploitation and revenge films of the time where those who have wronged our hero often end up being disembowelled or mutilated in some way. There’s a nice contrast between the colourful superhero element of the film and the excessive gore that again reflects an age of cinema when age ratings were all over the place. The practical effects of the gore lead to some pretty fun and absurd situations, particularly when the body parts land on someone’s head and a totem pole of severed torsos start piling up. It’s this sort of thing that makes the film quite creative. Turbo Kid is overall quite minimal in it’s story and world setting, but excels in some ridiculous and over-the-top special effects that create some visceral gore which equally nasty and funny. While there are many films that set themselves up as a love letter to the 80’s, Turbo Kid also follows that trend while not feeling like its not afraid to push itself further, and allowing itself not to be constrained by the usual tropes associated with it. The low budget I think hampers the ability to do something more grand and spectacular with the whole superhero element, but it’s a fairly decent film that has you connecting to the characters and immersing you in familiar tropes that are comfortable and recognisable, but still able to throw in a few surprises.