Alien: Harvest (2019, Benjamin Howdeshell)

Alien: Harvest operates at that all too familiar intersection of bad and stupid. It’s a stupid idea badly executed, though it’s not clear whose at fault for each. For instance, the short is about four survivors on a space ship trying to get the lifeboat before the ship blows up in seven (or eight) minutes. It’s a seven or eight minute short. You’d think it’d be real-time… but no. So who decided to do stylistically weak montage (the second time jump, the first they just cut), director Howdeshell or writer Craig Dewey?

Howdeshell’s direction is bad throughout, sure, but Dewey’s writing is stupid throughout too. For instance, how is it possible no one in the Alien universe knows how to read a motion tracker? Especially given lead (or at least character given the most reaction shots) Agnes Albright ought to know how to read one, given her character’s background. Though Albright’s background is yet another of the script’s stupidities; for an officially produced “Alien Universe” short, Harvest plays pretty fast and loose with the franchise “rules.” And always just for shock value. Dewey and Howdeshell don’t have anything good up their sleeves so they’re just going for the jumps. They don’t get any. They get some eye rolls, which is impressive because it’s usually too stupid to bother wasting the energy to roll the eyes.

There’s one good performance—Jessica Clark, as the pregnant and therefore sympathetic survivor. Adam Sinclair’s pretty bad as her dude, James C. Burns is even worse as the mansplainer. Watching Burns makes you appreciate how even some bad actors are at least not godawful at it. He’s fairly godawful.

Albright’s… not good. It’s a crap part but she’s not good.

Nothing’s good about Harvest, though the space CGI exteriors aren’t bad and Danny Cocke’s music could be worse. At least it’s not too derivative of the source material, whereas Dewey reuses lines from the real movies.

Bad editing from Jake Shaver, though it’s unclear if its his cutting or just Howdeshell’s footage. It seems more like the latter… if you forget the ineptitude of the fifteen second montage to show the characters passing forty-five seconds of present action.

It’s never any good, but the utter stupidity of the finish (and the real-time fails) make Harvest much worse than expected.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Benjamin Howdeshell; screenplay by Craig Dewey, based on characters created by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett; director of photography, Chris Saul; edited by Jake Shaver; music by Danny Cocke; production designer, Troy Spino; costume designer, David Tabbert; produced by Shawn Wallace; released by IGN.

Starring Agnes Albright (Mari), Jessica Clark (Hannah), Adam Sinclair (Alec), and James C. Burns (Sturgis).


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Pale Flower (1964, Shinoda Masahiro)

Pale Flower opens with lead Ikebe Ryô narrating his first day out of prison. Not what he does—we get to see what he does—but how he feels about being out, what he notices. He’s killed a man, been in prison for three years, and nothing has changed in Tokyo. The dead man’s absence doesn’t matter, Ikebe’s absence doesn’t matter. Ikebe’s indifferent to existence, particularly his own; so what better thing to do with one’s time than the endorphin rush of gambling. Oh… right: Ikebe also talks a little about the thrill of killing. Not anything to get a rush—dope’s out, for example—but almost anything. Ikebe’s looking for a (relatively) safe rush, whether it’s from gambling or hooking up with lady friend Hara Chisako. Hara’s in a bad situation—abused by a now senile stepfather she now cares for, romantically pursued by a civilian at her office, she too is looking for a rush, one only bad boy (again, relatively speaking) Ikebe can provide.

But Hara doesn’t offer Ikebe that same rush. Especially not after he goes gambling and discovers things have changed a little since he’s been gone—there’s now a girl (Kaga Mariko) in the gambling scene. At first, Kaga just slightly piques Ikebe’s interest—he’s busy trying to adjust to the new yakuza ground situation. Ikebe went in for killing one of Tôno Eijirô’s men, on boss Miyaguchi Seiji’s orders. Only there’s a new player in town and Tôno and Miyaguchi have had to team up, something not all of Tôno’s men are all right with; they want to avenge themselves on Ikebe, which ends up providing Ikebe with his only steady acquaintance. Foolish young yakuza Sasaki Isao tries to take on Ikebe and botches it, leading to Sasaki having to apologize (multiple times) and Ikebe taking Sasaki under his wing. Of course, since Ikebe doesn’t do much besides gamble, it just means he and Sasaki play cards a lot.

Most of Ikebe’s time—and Pale Flower’s runtime—is spent with Kaga. She wants a bigger game, bigger thrills, and Ikebe lines it up for her. She’s something of a mystery; besides getting her name and having some suspicions about her day life, Ikebe doesn’t find out much and doesn’t care. He’s protective of her, worries about her, but is also a little awestruck. As the film progresses and the pair reveal more of themselves to each other, it becomes clear just how much they’re alter egos, bound by the thrill seeking. One of director Shinoda’s great successes with Pale Flower is not making it icky as Ikebe’s concern goes from paternal to romantic. He goes from mild disapproval of youthful, apparently wealthy Kaga’s excesses to longing for them, even as his obligations to Miyaguchi make it hard if not impossible for their relationship to continue. Or, at least, to intensify.

When Hara finds out about Kaga, she gets extremely jealous without ever understanding the nature of the relationship, which is an excellent, subtle device for Shinoda to examine it as most of the time spent with Kaga and Ikebe is about the thrills. There are the exquisite gambling sequences—Shinoda could care less if the audience understands the gaming being played (at one point, Ikebe asks Kaga if she understands a new game and she says she’ll figure it out on her own as she plays; the audience has to do the same as they watch)—and then a fantastic, out of nowhere car race. Shinoda’s direction, Kosugi Masao’s photography, Sugihara Yoshi’s editing, and Nishizaki Hideo’s sound design sit the viewer next to the leads, encapsulating their visceral experience of the moments. The down time, when Ikebe sits around his sparse apartment with pals Mikami Shin'ichirô and Sugiura Naoki, is just treading water until he can get to the next game with Kaga.

There’s also the completely silent Fujiki Takashi, a half Chinese yakuza dope addict psychopath; Fujiki interests both Ikebe and Kaga, but for different reasons. For Ikebe, Fujiki presents a threat to Kaga’s attention. Dope’s the easy thrill and Kaga’s too young to understand why easy thrills are wrong. Ikebe’s jealous of Fujiki before he and Kaga even discuss him. And since the exposition is always delayed about ten minutes in Pale Flower, Ikebe’s got to convey the character development in his performance. Shinoda and the crew help, obviously, the way they present Ikebe and his experience of the situations, but Pale Flower doesn’t rush to explain anything. Explanations are overrated anyway, something the film all of a sudden forgets in the epilogue.

After a flawless finale, Shinoda and co-screenwriter Baba Masaru jarringly sync the calmly delayed exposition to scene. Worse, they do it with narration. It makes sense, there’s not enough time left in the film for the traditional delay, but it’s also a needless gesture. Pale Flower needs to be five minutes shorter or five minutes longer.

Great performances all around—Ikebe, Kaga, Hara. Bosses Tôno and Miyaguchi are awesome together, these almost adorable old men as they determine the fates of those around them.

The plotting is excellent; Pale Flower’s expansive but concise. Shinoda’s got these specifically directed sequences with different styles but the same tools used to create them. The car race, for instance, looks and feels entirely different than the foot chase, but it’s the same tone, it’s the same filmmaking techniques applied. And the narrative distance is the same. It’s almost always about Ikebe’s experience of the moments; when it’s not, it’s about Kaga’s and Ikebe’s experience of observing her experience of them.

It’s phenomenal.

It just needs to be a little shorter, or a little longer. Pale Flower’s an objective lesson in the trickiness of epilogues.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Shinoda Masahiro; screenplay by Baba Masaru and Shinoda, based on the novel by Ishihara Shintarô; director of photography, Kosugi Masao; edited by Sugihara Yoshi; music by Takahashi Yûji and Takemitsu Tôru; produced by Shirai Masao and Wakatsuki Shigeru; released by Shochiku Company.

Starring Ikebe Ryô (Muraki), Kaga Mariko (Saeko), Fujiki Takashi (Yoh), Sugiura Naoki (Aikawa), Mikami Shin’ichirô (Reiji), Sasaki Isao (Jiro), Nakahara Kôji (Tamaki), Miyaguchi Seiji (Gang leader), Tôno Eijirô (Gang Leader), and Hara Chisako (Muraki’s lover).


Emma (1996, Douglas McGrath)

Emma keeps misplacing things. For a long stretches, it misplaces second-billed Toni Collette (who goes from being the subject of the first half to an afterthought in the most of the second half to just a plot foil in the third act). There’s also lead Gwyneth Paltrow’s painting. The film opens with Paltrow’s paintings of her friends, home, and familiar places, which get used again to identify locations for a bit in the first act, and then the painting becomes a plot point… but then it’s gone, both from the narrative (which could make sense with the plot point if you’re being generous) and the film’s visuals. It’s indicative of Emma’s greatest problem—even greater than Paltrow not really being up to snuff for the lead and often mugging her way through scenes, her costars all doing the double duty of load-bearing and acting—is director McGrath. He’s got some ideas, but he’s rarely consistent with them (outside he and cinematographer Ian Wilson’s astoundingly ill-advised attempt at “natural” lighting), and even if he were… he doesn’t have the chops to pull them off. Not in directing actors (there are some rather oddly bad performances throughout), not in composing shots, and definitely not in establishing a narrative distance. Particularly bad form on the last one, as McGrath adapted the Jane Austen novel himself.

The film’s got two competing narrations, one from Paltrow and one from what we assume is one character but is actually another because getting in a pointless wink is more important than verisimilitude. But the misleading narration—which only works because the supporting cast is so thinly drawn—is just a third act problem. Paltrow’s narration, which kicks off in earnest somewhere in the second half, is from the character’s diary. The diary doesn’t come into play until well after the narration is established and has very little interesting to convey. It’s good writing (so presumably from the source novel) but it doesn’t add anything to the film because the film’s already established itself without needing diary or narration. McGrath’s constantly introducing elements the film’s already shown it can do without. Sometimes they’re competent, sometimes they’re piddling.

Ewan McGregor, for instance, is piddling.

McGregor plays Paltrow’s eventual de facto suitor. So, the film starts with Paltrow just having succeeded in marrying off governess Greta Scacchi to local widow James Cosmo and deciding she’s going to become a matchmaker. Her next subjects? Vicar Alan Cummings (who’s more middling than piddling) and aforementioned second-billed Collette. Now, Collette doesn’t have any money and Cummings is out for a rich dowry only Paltrow thinks love will conquer all. Except the condescending, gently demeaning way Paltrow treats Collette is duplicated in how the film treats her. Collette, and many of the other women in the film, are often used for laughs. Weird since Paltrow getting her eventual comeuppance involves her punching down, you’d think McGrath, adapted the novel, would be able to do something like foreshadowing… but he cannot because he does a poor job of adapting the novel. Seriously; you get done with Emma and don’t even wonder if you should read the novel. Given the film’s from the renewed era of Austen adaptations… it ought to at least encourage readership.

Anyway.

Eventually McGregor shows up as Cosmo’s son and, presumably, Paltrow’s intended. Except he’s playing the part like he’s in a bad Muppet Jane Austen’s Emma and not just because of the hair. In some ways he perfectly compliments Paltrow’s performance; they both mug for the camera, he just does it with more volume, more bluster. Their similarities even potentially become a plot point but not really because of the way McGrath directs the scene, which… is again the biggest problem with the film. McGrath’s well-meaning enough in his direction, just inept with it. And when he does try to show flourish, usually with a silly camera move—one does have to wonder about cinematographer Wilson’s agency—it ends up silly at best.

There are some okay supporting performances: Jeremy Northam’s fine as Paltrow’s male friend, though there’s a way too big performance differential between the two of them and never the right chemistry, Collette’s good, especially given the circumstances, Sophie Thompson’s probably the best, as the woman Paltrow meanest girls. Sacchi’s all right. Cosmo mugs. Denys Hawthorne, as Paltrow’s father, is literal scenery. Juliet Stevenson, as a second half punchline, does a lot better than she should given the part and the direction.

Not great editing from Lesley Walker doesn’t help things. Rachel Portman’s score has its moments but also the ones where it seems more appropriate for an ostentatious adventure picture, which then just introduces the false promise of personality to the filmmaking and what could be, if only McGrath had the chops.

The third act’s particularly disappointing as all it really needs is some narrative sincerity. It doesn’t even need to have Paltrow step up… though I guess it does make some sense how McGrath then takes the movie away from her. It’s like he gives her a vote of no confidence after he’s just made a two hour movie of her.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Douglas McGrath; screenplay by McGrath, based on the novel by Jane Austen; director of photography, Ian Wilson; edited by Lesley Walker; music by Rachel Portman; production designer, Michael Howells; costume designer, Ruth Myers; produced by Patrick Cassavetti and Steven Haft; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Gwyneth Paltrow (Emma Woodhouse), Toni Collette (Harriet Smith), Alan Cumming (Mr. Elton), Ewan McGregor (Frank Churchill), Jeremy Northam (George Knightley), Greta Scacchi (Mrs. Weston), Juliet Stevenson (Mrs. Elton), Polly Walker (Jane Fairfax), Sophie Thompson (Miss Bates), James Cosmo (Mr. Weston), Denys Hawthorne (Mr. Woodhouse), and Phyllida Law (Mrs. Bates).


The Super Inframan (1975, Hua Shan)

Until the third act, Super Inframan at least keeps a brisk pace. The movie’s got almost nothing going for it—other than Chen Yung—yu frankly courageous very seventies score and even it’s a small blip of goodness, not a positive feature—but at least it moves. It doesn’t drag through the entire third act, there are a couple good (out of nowhere the fight choreography gets interesting) fight scenes, then some terrible fighting and some silliness, but once the good fight scenes are over, it starts to crawl. Though I assume the general annoyance at the pace slowing instead of the movie ending contributes.

Super Inframan is a low budget Chinese giant monster movie, only with the superhero, Inframan, able to grow big to fight the monsters. There’s a name for the genre; I’m not Googling. The miniatures—outside the opening scene city fire—are bad. But even bad, when it’s giant Inframan fighting a giant monster, Inframan is at its best. That fight is actually successful, whereas the good ones at the end both go bad for various plot-related reasons. They’re a bummer; the Inframan versus kanji is cool.

Danny Lee plays Inframan, which requires he wear a crafting-enhanced motorcycle helmet with antenna so he looks a little like a bug. He’s kind of a cyborg. It’s unclear what scientist Wang Hsieh’s doing to Lee during the transformation scene. Apparently he’s turning him very straightforwardly into a cyborg because there are these illustrated cards flashing over Lee’s body showing mechanical stuff… but they never talk about it. There are monsters to fight. Super Inframan doesn’t have childlike wonder it has childlike stupidity. Screenwriter Ni Kuang is targeting two year-olds and managing to talk down to them.

The effects are mostly silly illustrated lasers. There’s no ingenuity to how director Hua does any of it; he doesn’t even care what blonde-haired, thigh-high booted, supervillain dragon lady Terry Liu whips when she whips. She just likes to whip. She’s got a scantily clad sidekick (Dana) to keep dad awake and Lee’s a very square-jawed handsome leading man type for mom. Though Lee never does anything in the movie after the opening scene. He saves a baby in a fire. Later on, when he’s Inframan, he does all sorts of stuff but it’s probably not Lee and even if it were, Inframan doesn’t talk much (if ever) and so there’s no character development. It’s a fail on some really basic levels.

Still, besides Yuan Man-tzu, none of the acting is too terrible, all things considered, so maybe if it just knew when to stop being bad and roll the credits, Inframan would be all right. But not with the third act slowdown. Not after the fight gets too cartoony. It goes from being a fairly solid albeit boringly directed fight scene between Inframan and his fellow motorcycle-helmeted stunt men, only they’re supposed to be skeleton men to some bad exposition to Inframan doing this almost silent fight against these two robots with slinky missiles and stuff. It’s dumb, but it’s just about to be accidentally really nice and then it stops and the next fight scene is terrible. And the end of the movie’s too dumb too.

Inframan’s a big fail.

Oh, and Bruce Le—not Bruce Lee—is pretty good as Lee’s teammate who fights a monster. See, they’re not all giant, they’re usually just man-sized rubber-suit monsters. And they all talk smack. And Le fights one all by himself and you’re sympathetic to him because he’s being heroic, while Lee’s got the Inframan gig and is bad at it. Scientist Wang, charged with protecting the whole planet from these monsters, he doesn’t make a good choice with Lee. Le’s better. Just not square-jawed.

There’s nowhere near that much angst in the film; no one except monsters get hurt. Okay, one guy but he doesn’t count.

Inframan would be better if it were worse. Though maybe if they just got rid of the backflips it might be a little better too. The backflips are obnoxious.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Hua Shan; written by Ni Kuang; director of photography, Nishimoto Tadashi; edited by Chiang Hsing-Lung; music by Chen Yung-Yu; produced by Runme Shaw; released by Shaw Brothers Studio.

Starring Danny Lee (Rayma / Inframan), Wang Hsieh (Professor Liu Ying-Te), Terry Liu (Demon Princess Elizebub), Yuan Man-Tzu (Liu Mei-Mei), Dana (Demon Witch-Eye), Bruce Le (Sergeant Lu Hsiao-Lung), Chiang Yang (Liutenant Chu Chi-Kuang), and Lin Wen-Wei (Chu Ming).

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