Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane

1976 was a big year for Jodie Foster.  She had her breakout role in Taxi Driver, a commercial hit with Freaky Friday, and she made The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, a horror/thriller.  Kudos, Jodie, for adding variety to your work schedule.  Variety might be the spice of life, but that's usually said when the variety is pleasant; you don't say that after someone get punched in the face, right?  Unless you're the one doing the punching, I mean.  In that case, you're awesome.

Rynn (Jodie Foster) is celebrating her thirteenth birthday alone on Halloween.  The doorbell rings, and at the door is Frank Hallett (Martin Sheen), the son of the woman who is renting the house to Rynn and her father, a poet.  Frank is obviously a pedophile and he is definitely on the prowl; he more or less forces his way into the house and makes some not-so-subtle passes at Rynn.
Side note: If there is a good thing about pedophiles in popular media, it is that they're not very difficult to pick out.  That creepy guy who touches your hair and smells you?  Don't accept a ride home from him, kids.
While Rynn threatens to wake her father up, the appearance of Frank's trick-or-treating kids is the main reason Frank leaves.  Rynn doesn't go to school, her father is never seen out of the house, and some of the townsfolk are starting to get a little curious.  Cora Hallett (Alexis Smith), the landlady and Frank's mother, is one of those people.  When Mrs. Hallett inquires about Rynn's father a few days later, Rynn says that he is in New York, meeting with a publisher.  That doesn't sound fishy at all, does it?  And while Mrs. Hallett is snooping around the house, Rynn won't let her into the cellar.  Of course, that means that Mrs. Hallet just must take a look.  She does, but she sees something horrible and, in her panic, accidentally knocks the support rod for the cellar door; the door hits her in the head, killing her.  That sucks.  I guess Rynn will have to call the police, explain the situation and hope they agree that it was an accidental death.  Or she will hide Mrs. Hallett's body in the cellar and cover any evidence of her visiting the house that night.  Why would a little girl do that?  What exciting adventures await young Rynn?  You'll have to watch to find out!  Or, I could tell you: she pops her cherry with a limping kid, has a battle of wits with a pedophile, and explains the importance of preservatives.

The screenplay was written by Laird Koenig, who also wrote the novel this film is based on.  On the bright side, the movie never gets too ridiculous; Rynn is never revealed to be a demon witch or anything.  This is definitely a movie that wants to slowly build suspense and make its characters feel the claustrophobia of the proverbial walls of their lives closing in.  Despite being only 100 minutes long, though, this movie feels like it takes forever.  Taking forever is usually a sign of a failure to build suspense properly, so I'm going to make a radical claim and say that director Nicolas Gessner's pacing was underwhelming.

The acting is pretty good, but nothing spectacular.  Jodie Foster was Jodie Foster, although she was definitely still a child actor in the movie.  She wasn't bad, just unintentionally awkward in parts.  Oh, and in case you were weirded out by her nude scene here at age fourteen, chillax --- that was her older sister.  Foster's slight hesitancy in this role (and not Taxi Driver that same year) leads me to believe that this wasn't one of her favorite movies.  I have no facts to back that up, it's just a hunch.  Martin Sheen turns in a good performance as a creepy child molester.  His version, though, is a lot craftier than most film pedophiles.  Not more complex (he's still unquestionably the one-dimensional bad guy), but definitely smarter.  Congratulations, Martin.  You're a great pedophile.  The rest of the small cast was just okay.  Mort Shuman, author of "Viva Las Vegas," plays a local policeman, and does so in a straightforward way.  Alexis Smith plays the unsympathetic Mrs. Hallett unsympathetically.  Aside from how eerily well Sheen plays his part, the rest of the cast basically just reads their lines.

I like the idea of this movie much better than the execution.  Why is this girl alone, and why does the poster claim that everyone who knows her secret is dead (not true, by the way)?  The movie poster implies that this will be a tale terror and intrigue, but it's really not.  And that's the problem.  There are some horror elements and a plot twist that you will almost definitely see coming.  SPOILER: Rynn doesn't want people in the basement because that where she keeps the dead bodies.  Yes, the heroine is shown killing people in a sympathetic light.  Not because they deserve it, but because she deserves to be free.  If that makes you confused, watching the movie won't make it any better.  The justification for that twist is sorely lacking.  Actually, the justification for the entire premise is pretty weak.  This is a movie that is plot-driven, so it's not a problem that only Martin Sheen gave a good performance.  However, plot-driven movies need to have well-written and paced plots, which this lacks.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Expendables

What you get out of The Expendables depends entirely on what you expect to get out of it.  If you watch this, expecting it to be drenched in testosterone and blood (ugh), to have awful dialogue with worse delivery, then you're absolutely right.  On the other hand, if you're expecting it to be drenched in testosterone and blood (woo!), to have awesome action and ridiculous amounts of violence, you're still absolutely right.  As long as you're not expecting an Academy Award-winning period piece romantic comedy, you pretty much know how much you'll like this movie before the opening credits.

The Expendables are a group of mercenaries that handle the dirtiest jobs.  Barney (Sylvester Stallone) is the group leader, with Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) and Ying Yang (Jet Li) as his trusted confidantes; the other members of the group include Gunner (Dolph Lungren), Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) and Toll Bridge (Randy Couture).  While those names aren't quite descriptive enough to be GI Joe names, they're amusing nonetheless.  The film opens with the Expendables on a mission to save hostages from pirates.  Obviously, that doesn't end well for the pirates.  In fact, Gunner blows the torso off a guy --- he doesn't cut the guy in half, he blows the torso off the rest of his body.  Gunner later decides to hang a pirate for fun, but that is crossing the line for the rest of the group, so Gunner is stopped and kicked off the team.  So, keep that in mind: blowing people to bits is a job well done, but hanging pirates is taboo.

Barney is later approached by a mysterious Mr. Church (Bruce Willis) for a dangerous mission; actually, Barney's group isn't the only group being considered, but the other group, led by Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger), is allegedly too busy.  The mission is to kill a drug despot, General Garza (David Zayas, of Dexter fame), on the Gulf island of Vilena.  Barney and Christmas go to the island to do some reconnaissance and discover that General Garza is obviously a puppet dictator, with former CIA operative James Munroe (Eric Roberts) pulling the strings and Paine (Steve Austin) providing the muscle.

The film takes a slight detour to add emotional depth and (probably) earn its weight in Academy Award nominations.  Apparently, mercenaries don't have rich family lives.  **PSSST!!!**  Pick your jaw up off the floor!  Christmas stops by his girlfriend's (Charisma Carpenter) house, only to find that, after being gone for an entire month without warning or communication, she has gotten a new boyfriend.  What a tramp!  The boyfriend is a prick and beats her up, so we get to see Statham beat the jerk up and then tell his ex-girlfriend that he was worth waiting for.  That, Charisma Carpenter, is the sound of you being served!  Tool (Mickey Rourke), the group's resident tattoo artist/bar owner/pretty boy is a former member of the team who now spends his time surrounded by slutty young women; he actually is required to cry while giving a monologue about being alone.  For his part, Barney has become obsessed with his contact on Vilena (Giselle Itie), a woman who opted to risk her life on that island hell hole instead of coming to the US with him.  Barney's is not a romantic obsession, but and idealistic one.  He hasn't cared about anything in so long that the notion is incomprehensible to him.  To be fair, the word "incomprehensible" is probably also incomprehensible to him, so it might just be a vocabulary issue.

After the recon mission, Barney and friends (Why didn't they call the movie that?) were going to pass on the offer, but Barney's obsession drives him to take out Munroe, General Vargas, and anyone else that might threaten his idealistic contact.  The rest of the team agrees to go with, because the bond of brotherhood that is formed when bathing in the blood of a common enemy is stronger than any other.  Or, you could just say that they all have a major bromance going on.  After a brief battle against the angry Gunner, the team decides to topple an island dictatorship by blowing the whole island to hell and shooting whatever is still breathing.  Whoops, did that need a spoiler alert?

This film was directed and co-written by Sylvester Stallone, with all the subtlety you would expect from him.  As in any of his action movies, Stallone's direction is hard to gauge.  The action sequences are awesome, particularly the hand-to-hand stuff.  The acting...well, what do you expect?  The top three billed actors are Stallone, Statham and Li; only Statham can speak English fluently.  Actually, Statham's acting was much better than it needed to be in such a dumb movie, and Stallone was correct to give him one of the more emotionally complex roles.  Judging from the rest of the movie, though, it is clear that Stallone can't direct (or write) witty dialogue to save his life.  The plot is (mostly) perfect for a big, dumb action movie, but the dialogue is often awkward.  Do we really need to put up with Stallone, Couture, and Jet Li trying to deliver funny lines?  They couldn't get the timing right for a joke if they had a DeLorean.  That is forgivable, since action movies require poorly executed one-liners, but there is a glaring flaw with the plot.  Why does Stallone bother with the attempt at depth?  Look, I don't give a flaming crap about how these guys feel.   Aww...the elite murderers for hire are lonely when they go home!  >:-[  Did we ever need to understand Schwarzenegger's backstory in Predator?  No!  That is just 40 minutes that could have been better spent shooting people's faces off.  Or they could have had Arnold's team try the mission and die!  That would have been awesome!  Or they could have added a Predator on the island!  Or...well, pretty much anything would have made more sense in this movie than talking about feelings.

The acting is a lot like the writing and directing: not too surprising.  Bruce Willis is good in his cameo, Arnold gives us a reminder that English is not his first language, and Mickey Rourke cries to remind us that he has a Best Actor Oscar.  Randy Couture shouldn't have been given the "smart guy" role, but everyone else is as good as you expect them to be.  Statham is obviously the best actor out of the bunch, Terry Crews is amusing, and Stallone and Li are both pretty bad.  Fulbright scholar Dolph Lungren, while not a good actor, was much better than I remember him from the 90s, so that was a pleasant surprise.

I feel the same way about The Expendables that I feel about Transformers: I paid to see giant robots fighting, and I got my money's worth.  I wanted to see a bunch of action heroes kill the faces off of some bad guys, and The Expendables delivered.  As usual, Stallone tries to give his characters emotional layers, but does it in his typically inept way.  The violence was great, even though the blood was clearly CGI at times.  If Stallone had cut the emotional crap and just blown stuff up and garroted butts off, this movie would be perfect for what it is.  Since he tries to reach for something more than a stupid action movie --- nay, the stupid action movie --- it ends up falling a little short of perfection.  Still, this is a great example of the brainless fun that action and explosions can provide.  I would like to offer one more bit of criticism, though: in a movie called The Expendables, how many team members should die?

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Dead Snow

Two words: "zombie" and "Nazis."  Of course I had to watch this.  Dead Snow (or Dod Sno) is a Norwegian film with subtitles.  If you, like many of my slacker friends, have a problem with subtitles, 1) you're lazy and 2) I think zombie Nazis can maintain your interest, even if you have to **sigh** read.

The story is your basic horror plot.  The film opens with a woman running for her life in a deserted snowy area.  It's a Norwegian film, so that could be Norway's largest city for all I know.  She is caught, more or less torn apart and we see someone in a German Nazi uniform dragging her body away.  Later, we see seven students are on their Easter break, hiking (or in one guy's case, snowmobiling) to a remote mountain cabin.  The group seems pretty normal, except one of them seems obsessed with making movie references.  Here's a tip for the rest of the cast: if you want him to stop, just leave a severed horse head in his bed --- it's a reference to...um...Ace Ventura 2, I think.  That should scare him straight.  When the group arrives at the cabin, the snowmobiling dude mentions that they are missing someone; one of their girlfriends was supposed to hike to the cabin on her own, and should have arrived last night.  Hmm...I wonder who that could be?  Anyway, the the requisite random dude shows up that night to warn the kids to leave the mountain.  You see, in the closing days of World War II, some jerk Nazis (as opposed to the big hug Nazis), after years of terrorizing and looting the locals, finally had to face a local uprising; the Nazis ran into the mountains and presumably froze to death --- and these were those very same mountains!  Naturally, the teens end up facing undead Nazis by the next day and gore is the result.  The Nazis have a reason for attacking people, but it's not explained very well and I stopped caring by the film's end.

This film is an example of that rare hybrid beast, the horror-comedy.  I, personally, cannot attest to the quality of the comedy.  Very few comedies can transcend a language barrier; unless the script is particularly witty, it's hard to miss the timing of jokes and still find them funny.  I can tell that the film is trying to be funny, I just didn't laugh much.  The horror aspect does translate, though.  This film has some pretty good zombie effects.  Bodies get ripped apart, limbs chopped off, and more.  The supposedly humorous tone prevents the movie from being scary, though, and I think that was a mistake.  If you're going to put that much time and effort into intestines being ripped out of a person on-screen, you might as well just ratchet up the suspense instead of occasionally just being silly.

The change of tone is just one example of this film's inconsistency.  At times, the zombies move fast enough to be only a blur on the screen.  I'm not talking about the old horror trick of having someone in the foreground quickly move past the camera, either; there are scenes where a soon-to-be victim is standing still, freaking out and then zip! they're gone.  I have no problem with super-fast Nazis, but it shouldn't be something that gets turned on and off.  Also, these are zombies, but they don't appear to follow all the normal zombie rules.  While they do die from head shots, they can also be revived.  They will bite you and rip your flesh off the bone, but I don't know if they eat people and their bite is not contagious.  I wouldn't mind these inconsistencies if they were explained, but they just show up and are accepted at face value.  That just seems like lazy writing to me.

The actors and director are unknown in America.  Some appear to have healthy careers in Norway, but it's hard to tell.  Norway's not exactly Hollywood's hot cousin, you know.  I'm not going to bother to list the actors in this movie because they're not in any American films.  It's just as well.  The acting was inoffensive, but definitely in the realm of mediocrity.  The characters were not very well-developed, so some of the blame lies in the script; this movie doesn't even have the jerky guy.  Haven't these people ever seen a horror movie?  Tommy Wirkola directed and co-wrote the movie and he clearly has an eye for action and gore.  I'm less convinced with his writing (and therefore, humor) touch.

That's not to say that there aren't some pretty good moments, they just aren't big laughs.  I thought having the movie buff character wear a Braindead T-shirt was pretty clever.  The horror cliches are handled with a knowing wink, so even the "we're in danger...time to split up" idea didn't come off as (unintentionally) idiotic.  There's a pretty good moment where one of the characters is bitten by a zombie and makes a creative choice for survival that is actually the highlight of the movie for me.  I'd tell you, but it's better watched.  These aren't belly laugh scenes, though; I think the film focused far too much on the humor and not enough on the generally entertaining horror parts.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Pray For Death

When you look closely at this movie poster, one question comes to mind: why do ninjas wear guyliner?  The answer, of course, is style.  Deadly style.

Many years ago, a young man named Akira (Sho Kosugi) was being raised as a ninja in a secret ninja temple.  One night, he interrupts another ninja from stealing something ninja-esque from the temple.  You can guess what happens next.  They hash out their differences over some herbal tea and a bowl of noodles.  They fight.  The masked ninja has a sword, so Akira grabs a torch holder.  They fight for a little bit, flipping and diving all over the place, until the masked ninja finally disarms Akira and stabs him through the heart cuts his head off throws his sword at the now helpless do-gooder.  He misses, although he threw it hard enough to stick in a two-foot wide wooden pole and have the sword tip sticking out the back (impressive!).  The masked ninja then trips and falls onto the sword, killing himself (less impressive!).  The masked ninja was Akira's brother.  Gasp.  And Akira felt so guilty that he hid his ninja past from the world, later becoming a respected businessman, husband and father.

And that's just the back story!  As an adult, Akira and his family (who speak English all the time, like all Japanese people) move to America and buys a storefront with living quarters for his family in the back.  This storefront has been out of business for years, and local mobsters have taken to hiding loot under the floorboards in part of the building.  When the mobsters arrange for some valuable jewels to be stolen and hidden in the storefront, the jewels get stolen; a crooked cop on the mob's payroll decides --- oh, what do you care?  The point is that the mob targets Akira's family, killing his wife and kidnapping one of his two sons.  Uh-oh...when Akira busts out his ninja moves, these baddies had better pray!  ...For death!

If you are unfamiliar with Sho Kosugi, then you have watched far fewer 80s ninja movies than I have.  Sho was in a slew of B-movie (or worse) quality pictures for about ten years, beginning in 1983.  His acting style can be described as wooden, but you wouldn't want to leave it that vague; soft woods, like pine, are far more expressive than Sho.  When you add little to no acting skill to a gruff voice and thick Japanese accent (yep, the stereotypical one where Ls become Rs), you get two things.  One, you get the only Asian actor that bothered to make (American) ninja movies in the 80s.  Two, you get some of the least convincing romantic subplots since the Death Wish series.

As far as the acting goes, this is one of Sho's better efforts.  It's not good, mind you, but he at least makes an effort here.  There's a montage (it's the 80s, of course there is!) where Sho is training to take down the mobsters and he caps it off by breaking a necklace and pouring water all over himself...in slow motion.  While that scene failed to convey grief or anything but a vague sense of irritation, it was light years beyond what I've seen him do in other films.  The supporting cast isn't particularly notable.  Kane Kosugi, an occasional supporting cast member in bad martial arts films and (not coincidentally) Sho's son, gets an early role here as (wait for it...) one of Akira's sons.  The film's villain, Limehouse Willie, is played by the screenwriter, James Booth.  Booth is as good of an actor as he is a writer (he wrote American Ninja 2: The Confronatation, as well), both of which are nothing when you compare them to his skill for naming characters.  Limehouse Willie?  That's awesome; I think I just figured out what my Halloween costume is this year.  With this much acting talent, you would think that this was Gordon Hessler's finest moment as a director.  It's up there, sure, but he has worked with a lot of talented people over the years, so this might be his third-best work.

Are there some awesome moments in this movie?  Absolutely.  Some bad guys get shurikens in their skulls, others get slashed by a katana blade, and still others collapse after receiving a clearly non-fatal hit.  The best moment has to be when one of Akira's kids breaks out his tricked-out bicycle, complete with weapons like a smoke screen, blow dart, nunchucks, and a testicle basher --- it's a ninjacycle!  And while the ninjacycle was clearly the greatest invention of the 1980s, it just isn't enough to overcome the stupidity of this movie.

The stupidity starts with the conflict.  Why would anyone hide valuables in a stranger's house and then get mad at the owner of the house when the valuables go missing?  If I find twenty bucks in my winter jacket pocket, I'm not going to leave it there; found valuables are the sweetest kind.  That could just be a difference of philosophy, so I'll leave it alone.  But these bad guys stake out Akira's house and every time they do it, they park in front of a fire hydrant.  Every time.  Way to keep a low profile, geniuses.

The main reason anyone would ever want to see this movie is to see some serious ninja skills, right?  Well, that's not the case here.  I would say that about a third of the ninja sequences are edited so you miss the most impressive parts.  For example, if there is a ninja-powered leap being shown, you see the lift off, then there's an edit, and then you see the landing; the edit implies that the guy jumped over a semi truck or something equally unrealistic.  This is a constant problem with Sho Kosugi movies.  I have no doubt that, in real life, Sho is a trained martial artist.  As his fellow karate master, Steven Seagal, can attest to, those skills don't always translate to the big screen.  As a result, a movie that should be pure dumb fun with ninja skills frequently on display ends up being a very dumb movie with some guy wearing black pajamas practicing karate kicks.  The ninjacycle was pretty awesome, though.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Order of the Black Eagle

I love James Bond.  I've read the original books and have seen every film multiple times.  They're not always good, but Bond is just an appealing character for guys to watch.  He's a charming, womanizing, deadly, hard-drinking jerk; obviously, he's a male role model.  It doesn't surprise me, then, that other movies have tried to recreate the Bond formula.  It does surprise me that The Order of the Black Eagle was able to fail in this attempt so spectacularly that it went from "film travesty" to Lefty Gold.  The bare bones of the plot isn't too outlandish --- neo-Nazis are planning to use laser technology to destroy all communications satellites because Nazis, like all men, hate talking on the phone --- but the path they take to get there...bravisimo!  It's a work of art.

Let me give the plot a once over for you before I get into the awesome specifics.  Duncan Jax (Ian Hunter --- no, not the guy from Mott the Hoople, although he's undoubtedly a better actor) is the Bond substitute that is given the task of infiltrating the Nazi Order of the Black Eagle.  Like all Nazis in the 70s and 80s, they're hanging out in South America.  It doesn't get any more specific than that, so I guess everyone in South America knows which house is the Nazi house, just like all kids know which house has gross Halloween candy.  It turns out that the Nazi stronghold is inside an abandoned temple.  Of course it is.  When I think "secret base to launch a laser-related attack," I immediately think of catacombs surrounded by miles of jungle, with no access to electricity.  How is Jax supposed to infiltrate this secret organization?  Surely, it will involve an elaborate plan with all sorts of high-tech gadgets and pinpoint precision.  Or...Duncan Jax could be a doppelganger for an important Nazi.  But --- wait for it --- he has to disguise himself with a fake mustache!  That sounds like a foolproof plan.  You might be concerned that perhaps Duncan's German accent isn't fully authentic, but it turns out that Nazis speak English now.  Shockingly, those clever Nazi bastards are able to sniff out Jax and briefly imprison him.  He escapes during the inevitable inept-death-trap scene and makes it back to his people...wherever they are.  Jax teams up with some mercenaries that look like they came fresh from a GI Joe audition (their code name matches their specialty, so someone named GoatTosser throws exploding goats, etc.) and, after a brief detour into the plot of a Sergio Leone movie, they attack the Nazi stronghold and kill Hitler.  That's right, they kill Hitler.  In 1987.

"Sounds like a fascinating art house film, Brian.  How was the talent in this tour de force?"  Absolutely wretched.  The writer (Phil Behrens) and director (Worth Keeter) doe not have impressive resumes; they both worked on this, as well as its prequel, Unmasking the Idol.  That's right...this is a sequel.  Behrens seems to have done the smart thing and ditched the screenwriting career, but Keeter does a lot of Power Ranger video releases, with all the subtlety and talent that implies.  Here's a sample of this movie's writing (if you read it slowly out loud, you will have a feel for how it was spoken in the movie):
Duncan Jax: How do we stop [the laser device]?
Scientist: You can't.
DJ: Doctor, there's got to be a way!
Scientist: There is only one.
Rarely do you see screenplays blatantly contradict themselves in the same series of dialogue.  The acting in this movie is some of the worst I have seen.  I'm not exaggerating, either.  Since this is a James Bond knock-off, there are naturally a few romantic interests; I chose to omit mentioning them in the synopsis because it's easier when I don't reflect on them.  Let's just say that their attraction to Duncan Jax convinced me that the script told them to be attracted to Duncan Jax in that scene.  There's even a gadget guy, like Q from the Bond movies but so much worse.  This movie gets pretty depressing when you compare it to the movies it is trying to emulate.  The most convincing actor in the whole movie was a baboon that flicks people off.  I know how he felt, watching this movie.

Oh, didn't I mention it earlier?  That's right, this movie has a major supporting role reserved for a baboon.  Boon the baboon is Duncan Jax's pet/love interest/life partner.  He and Duncan wear matching clothes, including a tuxedo, and work together on Duncan's secret missions.  Now, you may be thinking that Boon fulfills the role that Rob Schneider has since taken over, that of lovable goof to the main character's action hero.  That's not the case, though.  Nobody points out how unusual it is to A) have a tuxedo-wearing baboon flicking them off B) have said baboon on a secret mission or C) have said baboon drive a baboon-sized tank and blow a bunch of South American Nazis to hell.  I take that back.  After Duncan completes his look-how-cool-I-am-in-the-opening-credits mission and lands his getaway propeller plane (which Boon may or may not have been flying) in middle of a dinner party, one guy asks "Is that legal?"  He might have been referring to parking the plane in the yard, but the response he got would be appropriate for either: Boon flicked him off.

When Jax meets his mercenary GI Joe people, the film makes a brief detour into spaghetti-western territory.  For whatever reason, the local leader of the poorly shaven, sombrero-wearing, mean-looking Hispanic bandits shows up with a lot of backup.  I guess the plan is to shoot the heroes and take their money.  The heroes are outmanned and outgunned.  What will they do?  What can they do?  If you guessed "Have Duncan Jax pretend to be flamboyantly gay until the thugs are rolling on the ground with laughter," then you cheated.  There is no way you guessed that without seeing this movie, and I know you haven't seen this movie.  It doesn't even have a Wikipedia page.  The cherry on top is when the bandit leader, after several of his men have just died, shrugs and says, "Some days you can't make a peso."

Perhaps the greatest moment in the movie is when Duncan Jax kills Adolph Hitler.  Hitler (who was played by himself, according to the credits) was cryogenically frozen in 1945, seventeen years before the first major book on cryonics was published.  Apparently, the Nazis have figured out how to defrost their fearless leader safely, although that is never actually stated.  Focusing on solving the persistent problems of cryonics would explain why their laser death ray plan was so poorly detailed, though.  Anyway, Duncan doesn't do much to kill Hitler except break open his freezer bag.  Hitler's paper mache-looking face (a presumed side effect of the freezing process) splits open, revealing what is beneath all of our faces: red jello and a skull with eyeballs.

There's so much more to this movie that deserves mentioning, but there is something to be said for discovering the joys of The Order of the Black Eagle on your own.  But, in case you're not intrigued, here's a taste of what you might be missing:
  • Hot air balloon romance
  • A monologuing villain allows Jax to throw a spear through his body, despite the spear being mounted on a wall and Jax being held at gunpoint
  • The GI Joes manage to fight only the Nazis they're equipped to battle
  • A hoverboat chase that ends with the hoverboat's in-board rocket launcher
  • Nazi dirtbikes
  • Jax's boss's reaction to Hitler being alive: "What?"  And that's it.

As a movie, I give The Order of the Black Eagle

As an amazing social experience to share with your friends and beer,

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Snake Pit

It's difficult to gauge the quality of movies that seek to inform their audiences after a few years have passed.  The Snake Pit, released in 1948, tackles some of the then-prevalent issues in America's mental institutes.  Obviously, things have changed a little in psychiatry and psychology since then (like gaining widespread acceptance), so a lot of the things this film argues against have already been overcome.  Does that mean this movie is not worth watching?  Well...

Virginia (Olivia de Havilland) wakes up and doesn't know where she is.  She is recently married --- or is she? --- to Robert (Mark Stevens), but she can't find him anywhere.  Virginia is surrounded by a large group of women who appear to be following orders; Virginia doesn't want to follow, but someone she doesn't know implores her to, for her own safety.  As she follows the group, they move into a building, then into a secure area and into a mental ward.  Virginia has obviously gone crazy, but just as obviously doesn't realize it.  Most of the staff in the hospital are rude and abrasive, many of the doctors are cruel and prescribe shock treatment regularly.  There is one doctor, a young upstart with some wacky ideas about the human mind, who wants to cure Virginia through psychotherapy.  With the help of Doctor Mark (Leo Genn), Virginia begins to piece together her life before the asylum and what caused her breakdown.  The title comes from an archaic practice for treating the mentally ill.  The inflicted would be thrown into a pit of snakes, reasoning that something that would drive a normal person crazy would do the reverse to a nut.

The most obviously successful aspect of this movie is the performance of Olivia de Havilland.  Playing a crazy person is always an opportunity for overacting (like Brad Pitt in 12 Monkeys), but she plays this role fairly low-key.  When I watch older movies, I often find that the female lead role is pretty bland and boring to watch.  While de Havilland's dialogue doesn't give her much to work with, she was able to carry the film through sincerity and sympathy.  This was Anatole Litvak's biggest critical success as a director, and it depended entirely on his work with de Havilland.  The rest of the cast is nothing special.  Leo Genn and Mark Stevens are faceless ciphers, just filling the film's necessary roles and adding nothing to them.  Celeste Holm is a little more interesting as one of the crazies, but she's more of a cautionary character than a three-dimensional one.  It is worth noting that the opening credits show that Alfred Newman and Leif Erickson are both members of the cast and/or crew.  I guess that makes this film both historically important and funny.

The main thrust of this plot is the importance of psychiatric treatment over punishing treatments.  That might sound odd now, but it was a relatively new idea in the 1940s.  According to this movie, shock treatment, isolation, badgering, and vindictive punishments are not the way to cure the mentally ill.  I'm not saying that's true (who doesn't love being berated in front of others?), but the film suggests that Freudian treatment is the path to sanity.

I get that this was an important movie when it was made.  It won an Oscar for Best Sound Recording and was nominated for five others, including Best Actress (de Havilland), Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay.  With all of those accolades, you would think that this would age well, like a fine wine or an expensive cheese.  It has aged about as well as a box of Better Cheddars would.  One reason for this is because, for better or for worse, film can be a snapshot of an era.  And, like a snapshot, you can look back and notice how funny people dressed, how lame their music was, and how their big social problems are non-issues today.  This happens a lot with "issues" movies; I have a hard time watching Philadelphia and Do the Right Thing for basically the same reason.  The performances are good and the movies were clearly important at the time, but since then our culture has acknowledged that the stances taken in these movies is the correct one.  "Issues" movies are made because they want to draw attention to their subject matter and show it in a different light; when society embraces that new take on the subject, the "issue" doesn't seem as bold as it once was.

Having said that, I would like to point out that this movie was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre won) because there are some goofy parts in this script.  When Virginia is discussing her courtship with her husband, she lists all the things they had in common: music, walking together and soda.  I am shocked that she could find anyone, much less a single man, with such deviant likes.  Let me just say that, if this was the pinnacle of compatibility in 1948, I am so very glad I am getting married now.  When Virginia is first placed in the mental home, she is given a dose of shock treatment.  She asks her doctor if there was any other way.  His response was "Yes, if we had more time."  Right.  Shock treatment is a quick fix, and psychiatric treatment is renowned for its quick results.  There is also a scene that looks like it is symptomatic of poor writing, but I did a few minutes of research and confirmed that it actually happened: insane asylum prom.  Apparently, it was totally acceptable for the men and women of the mental wards (the sexes were kept in separate buildings then) to mingle at dances.  Everyone seems to have been invited, including the violent patients.  It just goes to show...people back then were weird.

As a film that entertains, The Snake Pit doesn't hold up too well.  Olivia de Havilland does a good job in the lead role, one that still stands the test of time, but she is only one actor.  The rest of the film has aged poorly because the subject matter is no longer controversial.  The film is well made, though, and its purpose is clear.  This film works better as an educational look at how the mentally ill were perceived not too long ago.  Unfortunately, just because a film was once important does not mean it still is.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Slap Shot

It would be an exaggeration for me to claim that I am a big hockey fan.  And by an "exaggeration," I of course mean an "outright lie."  I don't watch hockey.  I don't know the rules or even most of the professional teams.  The last time I can remember watching hockey was when I last saw The Mighty Ducks --- no, wait, make that Van Damme's Sudden Death.  Obviously, it takes roundhouse kicks to the face and/or the least successful Sheen to convince me to watch a hockey movie.  "But Brian, Slap Shot is really funny!"  Who cares?  It's not like I need any help ridiculing Canada.  Do you know how they named their country?  Well, they started with a C, eh? and an N, eh? and a D, eh?  Oh, xenophobia...you so consistently crack me up.

Actually, it turns out that my imaginary protesting voice is right; this might be the hockey movie, but it is also a movie that hockey ignoramuses can easily enjoy.  Slap Shot tells the tale of the a minor league hockey team, the Charlestown Chiefs.  Led by player/manager Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman), the team is a frequent loser.  Their only bright spot is Ned Braden (Michael Ontkean), a graceful player, although he is criticized for not being aggressive enough.  When the local mill closes down, attendance takes a dive; the team eventually learns that the franchise is going to be disbanded after the season.  Dejected, the Chiefs start to play even worse than before.  Reggie has spent his whole life playing hockey, and managing a terrible team won't get him another managerial job, so he has to think fast.  Why not, he reasons, start a rumor that the team will be sold, not disbanded, after the season to a city in Florida?  Reggie doesn't know who the Chiefs' owner is (and he's tried to find out), so who is going to prove him wrong?  The idea of moving to Florida appeals to the team's players, and their attitudes rapidly improve.  They're still not very good, though.

Enter the Hanson brothers.  The team's general manager (Strother Martin) makes a trade one day and ends up with three young kids with long, blonde hair and an annoying hit single and the ladies (and pedophiles) couldn't get enough --- whoops.  Wrong Hansons.  These Hansons were three young simpletons with coke bottle glasses, loud voices and short attention spans.  Reggie refuses to play them because they are idiots.  Fair enough, I suppose, but this is back when only goalies wore helmets, so this isn't exactly a sport for geniuses.  Eventually, a game gets so bad that Reggie puts the three in to see what they can do.  As it turns out, they can beat the snot out of everyone on the ice.  It doesn't matter if you're by the puck or if you're the referee, you're going down when these guys take the ice.  The three played only a few minutes before being ejected, but the crowd went wild.  Reggie takes note and starts egging his other players on to act more like the Hansons.  The Chiefs start to win and their fans start to take notice.  At what point, though, does playing rough stop being hockey and start being a brawl with nets?

The direction of George Roy Hill is entirely responsible for why this movie works.  The cast is full of professional hockey players, not actors.  Aside from Newman, there are few recognizable actors, just a few occasional television bit players, M. Emmet Walsh, and Brad Sullivan.  And yet, the movie doesn't suffer from a lack of polished acting.  The players basically just play and mispronounce things, eh?  It helps that there are only two characters in the movie, Reggie Dunlop and Ned Braden, and their relationship is a microcosm of the film's primary conflict.  And then there are the Hanson brothers.  If you haven't seen this movie, but have heard hockey fans talking about it, you have heard about the Hansons.  Telling you that they knocked this one guy really hard when he wasn't looking doesn't do them justice.  They're dirty players and the things they do are so obviously wrong, you can't help but laugh.  Their dialogue and delivery are in line with their tough play, just as easy to laugh at and just as difficult to describe.  Let's just say that they're funny.

While the Hanson brothers are what make this movie memorable, Paul Newman's performance is what gives it a semblance of substance.  This isn't the Newman I'm used to seeing in movies, either; he is sneaky, manipulative, and an unrepentant womanizer.  In other words, he's a jerk.  He's still likable (he is Paul Newman, after all), but that edge gives the movie a cynical dark side that most sports movies avoid.

It's too bad that other sports movies haven't followed Slap Shot's style over the years.  Most sports movies are formulaic and a little cheesy.  I like having the main characters be a little bad.  It adds some spice to the story and throws their inevitable victory at the end into question.  This is a film that stands out among sports movies for playing dirty and being rewarded for it --- oh, and those Hansons are pretty awesome, eh?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Devil's Rejects

The Devil's Rejects is a mathematical anomaly.  The film is a direct sequel to House of 1000 Corpses, which is one of my Most Hated Movies, and is a sequel that is better than its predecessor.  That's unusual, but not unheard of.  What is unusual is just how much better it is.  In my own conservative estimate, The Devil's Rejects is at least thirty bajillion times better than House of 1000 Corpses.  I know, riiiight?  And I proved it with math!

You might have noticed that I call this a "direct" sequel.  That means that the events in this film have definite and explicit ties to those in the previous movie.  Does this mean that you need to see House of 1000 Corpses to understand or appreciate this movie?  ABSOLUTELY NOT.  Do not, under any circumstances, watch House of 1000 Corpses, unless you want to not enjoy six hours of your life; it might only be an hour and a half long, but you'll spend close to five hours scrubbing your eyes raw in the shower.  All you need to know about the evil Firefly family is explained in this movie.  Trust me.

The movie begins with the Firefly family in their home (of 1000 corpses), sleeping in after a night of killing, skinning, raping, or whatever they do at night.  Unfortunately for them, Sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe) is leading a bunch of state troopers to their house (of 1000 corpses) with a Search and Destroy order.  The troopers attack, the family fights back, and all of a sudden the house has more than a thousand corpses in it.  One family member --- this is more of a Manson family than a blood family, mind you --- is captured, a few die, and two escape.  Well, two escape and Tiny (Matthew McGrory, the giant from Big Fish) happened to be wandering through the woods with a body, so he misses the whole ordeal.  The two escaping members are Otis (Bill Moseley), a frightening and hairy creep, and Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie), a psychotic but busty blonde with an annoying voice.  They meet up with Baby's father, Captain Spaulding (Sig Haig).  The Captain is a loud, fat man in clown make-up, who runs a oddities tourist trap.  Together, the three remaining Firefly family members attempt to avoid getting caught by the police.  On the way to their hideout, these three opt to torture and murder a family-style country band (which included Brian Posehn) as a time-wasting activity.  Their hideout is actually a brothel run by an old friend of Spaulding, Charlie (Ken Foree).  While they were on the run, Sheriff Wydell learned from his captive that the Fireflys had killed his brother; he decides to go around the law, and hires two bounty hunters (Diamond Dallas Paige and Danny Trejo) to help him hunt, capture, and torture the remaining Fireflys to death.  I would like to tell you that Charlie's place is a secure womb of safety for the Fireflys, but bad things happen to bad people, too, sometimes.

Writer/director/rock star Rob Zombie did not impress me with his first attempt (the prequel) in any way, shape or form.  This movie, while vile, angry and somewhat gory is actually surprisingly entertaining.  The script, which could be described as an F-bomb minefield, gives the characters some decently smart dialogue.  Some of it is funny, some of it is just angry or mean, but I thought it fit the characters well.  The characters are all unsympathetic, but that's okay --- this isn't the kind of horror movie where you root for the bad guys.  Otis, Baby, and Captain Spaulding are all terrible people, and you're hoping that they get what's coming to them.  There are many points where one of the innocent victims of the Firefly family could conceivably escape or overpower their tormentors, but these situations are handled so brutally that you have to admit it...these villains might be bad, but they're really good at it.

Rob Zombie also deserves a special kudos for the best use of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird" in any movie.  Ever.

The acting is a little overwhelming at times, especially from Otis and Baby, but it generally fits the tone of the movie.  They are all horrible, dirty characters, and the world they live in is a horrible, dirty place.  Bill Moseley, in particular, was especially vile as Otis, the male lead and the man who mentions the title in his dialogue.  Sheri Moon Zombie, Rob's wife, was one of the worst things about House of 1000 Corpses, but she's pretty tolerable here.  She's nothing great, mind you, but seeing an attractive person being so evil makes her actions seem so much worse.  Veteran horror movie actor Sid Haig rounds out the titular characters; he's always been a B-movie actor, but never tries to be anything else.  He delivers his lines well and is pretty disgusting to look at, so I think he performs above and beyond the call of duty.  William Forsythe isn't a great actor, either, but this is the best role I've seen him in; he plays a skeevy guy so often that having him play a vigilante cop is interesting and yet a logical extension for him.  The rest of the cast might be noteworthy, but they have little screen time and less development.  Still, it was nice to see P.J. Soles pop up as a prostitute, Ken Foree (from the original Dawn of the Dead) as the brothel owner, former pro wrestler Diamond Dallas Page as a thug, and Danny Trejo as a tough Hispanic guy (way to try something new, Danny).

I think what makes this movie effective is that it takes place out in the open.  Instead of some stupid teenagers that are having sex and abusing drugs wandering in the woods, the victims in this movie are seemingly nice people.  The film doesn't focus on these characters too much, since it is not their story, but it is rare to see a Good Samaritan getting shot in the face in any movie, even a horror flick.  I think the notion that, at a moment's notice, a normal group of people could be getting ready for a road trip, minding their own business, and the next moment be living and dying at the whims of psychopaths is a frightening thought.

This is, in my opinion, one of the best horror films ever.  It is dark, disgusting, and horrifying.  It is also sincere, which makes some of it kind of funny.  The acting is excellent (for a horror movie), if only because there are no terribly designed characters that take you out of the moment, forcing you to acknowledge that there is no such thing as a razor-fingered dream monster and that you're watching a dumb slasher flick.  This manages to avoid the trappings of other villain-focused horror movies by giving the bad guys some serious (and seriously painful) obstacles to overcome; even though the Fireflys are big and bad, this movie never becomes a snuff film for their victims.  This is not a movie for casual horror fans.  If you get nightmares easily, you should avoid it.  If you watch the scary parts with your hands over your eyes, don't bother taking them off during this movie.  This is a film for the discerning horror fan.  It might not have the widespread appeal of Halloween, the rawness of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or the art of The Shining, but this is the meanest and strangely unembellished horror movie in years.

Friday, August 20, 2010


Many, many years ago, plague rats on an isolated island managed to rape some tree monkeys, and the Sumatran rat-monkey was the result.  If you're not sure if this movie will meet your definition of good taste, just reread that sentence.

This is an early directorial effort from Academy Award-winning director Peter Jackson, so some people that are big Lord of the Rings fans might look to this earlier work as an indication of things to come.  They shouldn't.  Back in the day, Peter Jackson was known as a master of splattering gore, usually used for humorous purposes.  The term "splatter gore" alone should give you a pretty good idea of what this movie is about.

A Sumatran rat-monkey bites an overbearing mother (Elizabeth Moody) and infects her with a zombie virus.  Her son, Lionel (Timothy Balme), realizes that his mother has become a natural abberation (instead of just an awful person), but doesn't want to alert the neighbors or scare away his new girlfriend, Paquita (Diana Penalver).  His solution is to hide his mother in the basement.  As you might guess, that doesn't work out so well.  Mummy dearest gets loose, bites other people, and kick starts a miniature zombie apocalypse, focused on Lionel above all else.  Lionel isn't on his own, though.  Aside from Pequita, he receives zombie-fighting  aid from a local priest (Stuart Devenie), who issues the film's most memorable line: "I kick ass for the LORD!"  And then he gets bitten and eats the lips off of a woman zombie, who later bears his zombie child.  Let me tell you, the living dead love child of a zombie priest and a zombie woman with no lips is less cute than you might think.  In the end, it is ultimately up to Lionel to kill the zombies, stand up to his monstrous mother and earn the love of his girlfriend.

When this movie gets boiled down to its main concept, Dead-Alive (AKA Braindead in its native New Zeland) is a zombie movie turned around.  Instead of discovering zombies and trying to barricade them out of his home, Lionel opts to barricade them in, so nobody notices.  This opens the movie up to a lot of comedic moments, most of which are alien to traditional zombie movies, although not less gross.  For example, there's a scene that involves zombie puss and pudding that is worth pointing out, but probably not polite to describe in detail.  That's not the only type of humor, though.  There's some slapstick and there's some socially awkward stuff, too.  I wouldn't go as far as to say that there is something for everyone in this movie, but it's funnier than zombie movies tend to be.

The star of this movie is really the gore.  It's a zombie movie, so you naturally expect to see some heads get blown off, but I don't think (though I could be wrong) there is a single gun used in this film.  Instead, the gore is very personal, and it gets all over.  When the zombies attack, they pull their victims apart.  There are many zombies that look relatively unmangled, but there are others that are less fortunate.  One might have just his head with his body always looking for it, another might have a torso with independent legs, and another might have had his chest ripped out.  These wounds don't happen off-screen, either.  You witness the violence, in all its glory.  The best scene involves a room full of zombies and Lionel resorting to a lawnmower shield to push his way through, but it is far from the only imaginative kill in this movie.

For such a gross, gory movie, the tone is surprisingly light.  Most of the time, gory films tend to have dark humor and rely heavily on the script for their kinda funny moments.  The lighter tone here allows the film to get away with a lot of socially awkward moments and visual jokes that are usually reserved for second-tier comedies.  Would this movie be any good without the zombie aspect?  No, the zombies, violence and gore are what make this worth watching, but the lighter tone makes it more fun.  How many zombie movies have happy endings?  Almost none, and there are even fewer that fans want to end happily.  Dead-Alive manages to walk the line between traditional zombie movie (excessive gore) and romantic comedy and still appeal to the hard-core horror fan, although it undoubtedly repels the traditional rom-com fan.

As time passes, this film becomes more significant in a historical context.  I doubt Shaun of the Dead would have ever been made if this had not.  This is also an early example of the special effects from the people who would eventually form the Weta Workshop, which did such a great job on the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  This is also an early example of Jackson's screenwriting partnership with his wife, Fran Walsh, with whom he writes all his screenplays.

Is this a movie for you?  It is a messy and gross movie.  I'm not particularly squeamish, and there are some scenes that make me wriggle in my seat.  Still, this is a unique film experience and it is interesting to see the obvious talent of the filmmakers and the special effects team in a movie that doesn't take itself seriously at all.  That's just an intellectual argument, though.  You know you should see this movie if you like seeing zombie movies and you enjoy a varied, humorous approach toward disposing of the undead.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Independence Day

There are movies, and then there are films.  The difference can be subtle.  Sometimes, all it takes to move from traditional popcorn fodder to artistic statement is a single performance.  Other times, it requires a hefty dose of Jeff Goldblum and exploding the living hell out of America's landmarks.  Roland Emmerich has never directed a subtle movie (aside from Godzilla (1998) of course), so guess which route he took?

Independence Day answers the question of whether humanity is the only intelligent life in the universe.  The answer is "No, and where do you get off calling humanity 'intelligent'?"  So, yes, Elliot, there are aliens, and of course the aliens want to kill us.  Do you blame them?  Look how well we take care of things; America is now surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, and the Gulf of Inkwell.  Actually, this movie takes a much more intimate look at how Earthlings (by which, I of course mean Americans) might handle a hostile alien invasion.  Maybe, if all of America were wusses like Arizona, we would just pass a ridiculous law or two.  Luckily, the other forty-eight states (I'll be dead and buried before I recognize Mizzoura) play for keeps.  When aliens come into our atmosphere and blow all the major cities in the world to hell, that just makes us mad.  Well, it makes us panic and despair first, but after our greatest president gives a speech to a bunch of semi-professional pilots, we are ready to kick butts and mispronounce names.  All we need is a hero and a nerd to lead us to victory.  As far as heroes go, it's hard to top mid-90's Will Smith.  The man has charm, talent, and is fun to watch.  As far as nerds go, Anthony Edwards must have been busy.  Still, Jeff Goldblum is a respectable substitute.  Like many mid-90's movies, it turns out that the cure to everything is computer knowledge, so getting a cable repairman/Mensa member to go into space and launch a computer virus into the alien spaceship network sounds waaaaay too easy.  And it is.  But this isn't a movie that ever tried to be smart, so just be happy it's loud and dumb and never gets pretentious.

Is there more to the movie than that?  Of course there is.  This is a big, blockbuster film, so it has an enormous supporting cast.  In the apolitcal and non-military side of things, we have Judd Hirsch playing the broadest Jewish stereotype I have ever seen outside of Seinfeld.  It works, if only because Hirsch is funny, but damn, he is kind of offensive.  Harvey Fierstein plays an obviously heterosexual man at the cable company and Randy Quaid is a drunk pilot (with something to prove to the aliens) with James Duval as his frustrated son.  Randy is drunk in this movie, which is what I expect from all of his roles, but Duval manages to exude frustration, tenderness, and the slightest hint of acting talent in his supporting role (which is surprising, since he stars in my Most Hated Movie, The Doom Generation).

Interesting side note...I am reasonably sure that Randy Quaid wasn't even cast in this film.  He just showed up, drunk as a Senator, and wouldn't leave.  He had some story about being abducted by aliens, and the filmmakers decided "Why not?"  The rest is history.  "Uh, Brian, if that's the case, why isn't his character named Randy?"  Because he was drunk for a solid week.  He might not respond to the name Russell at first, but it only takes four or five tries to convince him of his new identity.

And then there's Jeff Goldblum as a genius/cable repairman.  He has always had a unique speech cadence, but this is the movie that makes it his calling card.  Like Christopher Walken before him, Goldblum is able to channel awkwardness in such an unexpected way that the rest of the cast simply has to bow down before him. This is also the movie script that took his vocal mannerisms and gave him a script just as ludicrous.  Whenever he has an epiphany, he speaks his train of thought out loud and it is beyond believable.  But that's how this movie works.  It takes a decent idea, makes it overblown to the point of being absolutely terrible, and keeps going until it becomes ironic.  This is the epitome of so-bad-it's-good movie making, and Goldblum's character is the best illustration of this.

The President of the United States is Bill Pullman, with a First Lady (Mary McDonnell) that seems to want him to learn to lie better than he does.  Hmm.  He has a capable adviser and a former wife of Goldblum on his staff, Margaret Colin.  Robert Loggia also serves as a military advisor, as does Adam Baldwin (to a lesser extent), but they basically just grimace and shoot things in the movie.  Will Smith is a fighter pilot with Vivica A. Fox as his stripper girlfriend.  He is buddies with another pilot, Harry Connick, Jr., who is less talented (as a pilot) and used as alien cannon-fodder/don't-ask-don't-tell jokes.  Brent Spiner also makes an appearance as a scientist that is clearly not as intelligent as Goldblum's cable repairman.  How embarrassing.

This is not a smart movie.  It is big, loud, and stupid.  The characters are shallow, the dialogue is full of cliche one-liners ("Now that's what I call a close encounter").  You don't care when somebody dies in the movie; this is basically a disaster flick, so that stuff happens sometimes.  This movie is all about the spectacle.  Want to blow up the White House?  Done.  You want Will Smith to punch out an alien?  No problem.  How about an embattled president giving the best damn speech any president has ever given, where he calls for international cooperation in front of an exclusively American audience?  We can make that happen.

I will give Roland Emmerich credit where it's due --- this is a big movie, filled with big moments.  The fact that those moments are effective (or, at least, cool looking) shows the success of this movie.  Emmerich's other films are just as stupid as this, but they lose momentum by the final act.  The pacing in Independence Day is pretty good, with a nice build-up and then waves of action from there on out.  The acting and script are definitely second to the big dumb stuff, but that's okay.  Sometimes, details like characterization get in the way and force movies to spend less time on blowing up the White House.  And we wouldn't want that, would we?

In a way, the silly things are what makes this such an enjoyable movie for me.  It's easy to go back to the special effects blockbusters of years past and be unimpressed; the effects are dated, the characters are cliche, and the personal style of the cast is questionable, at best.  Independence Day still stands up because it is not so serious.  The fact that the dialogue and plot are bad enough for even dramatic characters to be kind of funny defies the odds and enhances that attitude.  This may be a disaster movie, but it's a fun movie, too.  Is this an artistic film?  God, no.  It is the kind of big, dumb action movie that Hollywood loves to make, but rarely completely succeeds with.  And if that doesn't make you feel patriotic, I don't know what will.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

If I was going to get a tattoo, the short list for choices would include the Triforce from The Legend of Zelda video game series.  Sure, I could go the boring route and get my soon-to-be-wife's name, but marriage is 'til death do you part.  Zelda goes beyond death; when you die in the game, you just start over from your last save point.

I would like to point out that I am not a huge video game nut.  I don't own a Playstation 3 (or 2, for that matter), or XBox 360, or even a Wii.  Even as a kid, I was never a huge gamer.  I point this out to illustrate how much video games, particularly the ones from my childhood, still impact my life, despite the fact that they haven't been a big part of that life for many years now.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a love note to classic video games, wrapped around a love story.  Basically, Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) meets the (literal) woman of his dreams, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and ineptly attempts to woo her.  Before their first (pity) date, Scott gets an email.  It's not from anyone he knows, and it includes the sentence "duel to the death."  His reaction is, "This is so...BORING.  Delete!"  That gives you an idea about Scott Pilgrim.  He is nerdy and nervous (you knew that because Michael Cera plays him) and absolutely idiotic.  That also indicates the attention span of this movie; there isn't much plot or character development, but everything moves so fast that you barely miss them.

That boring email was a notification that, to date Ramona, Scott would have to fight defeat her seven evil ex-boyfriends exes.  The word "defeat" implies a certain amount of violence, and this movie happily supplies it, but in a very non-traditional form.  Instead of gruesome gore or ultra-realistic fighting, this movie opts for a fighting style reminiscent of early '90s video games, like Street Fighter II.  For those unfamiliar with games like that, let's just say that impossible physical acts, like flying, shooting energy blasts, and being thrown through buildings are par for the course.  There is no blood or torn shirts or jeans after the fight; if that alone didn't indicate that this film's violence is cartoony, then this would: defeated enemies turn into a pile of coins...just like in video games.  In between these fights, Scott tries (with varying levels of success) to understand Ramona, rock out with his band, Sex Bob-omb, and generally get a life.  In the process, he pitches some woo, breaks some hearts, kicks some butt, and gets his own kicked.  It's all academic, though.  Defeating the evil exes doesn't earn him the girl; he has to do that on his own.  This movie was set in Toronto, but but Cera, sadly, does not say "aboot" even once.

For a movie that exudes so much love for video games, I found it pretty friendly to non-gamers.  Sure, you'll get more from the movie if you know the references (I got chills when they played the respawn music from the original Zelda), but a basic knowledge of mid-80s games would be enough.  When Scott hits a bad guy, points appear on the screen, like in any old Mario game.  When bad guys die, they leave behind no body, but money, like in role-playing games, Zelda, or dozens of other games.  When Scott does well enough, an extra life appears.  It's not terribly in-depth stuff, but a lot of the sound and visual effects are taken directly from classic games, so there are levels to appreciating it.

Of course, if you are completely unfamiliar with video games (Hi, mom!), then a lot of this would appear absolutely random.  How that might affect your enjoyment of the film can be reflected in how much randomness you can take.  If you thought The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was quirky and fun, then you're pretty safe.  If you get frustrated and confused when classic Looney Tunes characters mimic Edward G. Robinson or Peter Lorre, then you're beyond my ability to help.

Normally, I would think action scenes featuring Michael Cera would also be beyond helping, but this movie disproves that theory.  The fight scenes, while basically relegated to the possibilities of classic 2-D fighting games, are varied and very well assembled.  Cera actually looks formidable, which is noteworthy on its own.  When you factor in seven separate fights, many featuring faceless underlings (how very Nintendo!), that means that Cera fights dozens of enemies, and each fight has its own style.  He is able to pummel ex number one, Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha), but he has to outsmart number two, and challenges others to musical face-offs.  These scenes could easily have been repetitive, but each one felt fresh.

The cast is an interesting blend of known and unknown actors; you usually don't see so many recognizable actors in small parts in the same film, with less known actors playing larger roles.  Cera's impeccable timing and geeky charm are perfect in the lead role.  Mary Elizabeth Winstead is almost as likable as the too-indie-cool Ramona, and she does a good job when she must give her character some depth.  The rest of the characters are completely one-dimensional, but the movie does not demand (or, honestly, deserve) depth from them.  As such, the supporting cast is just a series of likable caricatures.  That's not a bad, thing, mind you.  This movie doesn't slow down enough for genuine emotion to get in the way, so caricatures is exactly what this movie needs.  The supporting cast is surprisingly good, too.  Chris Evans, Brandon Routh, and Jason Schwartzman make up the most notable evil exes; they are all suitably varied, angry, and amusing.  Anna Kendrick has a small role as Scott's mean sister and Kieran Culkin is supremely entertaining as Scott's indifferent gay roommate.  Thomas Jane makes a cameo as a member of the Vegan Police, too (did I mention that this movie is random?).  The other important roles are handled by relative unknowns.  Ellen Wong, in particular, is impressive as Scott's fake high school girlfriend.  The rest include Scott's band (Alison Pill, Mark Webber, and Johnny Simmons) and his own evil ex, Brie Larson.

Director and co-writer Edgar Wright has an excellent instinct for blending stupid and charming in comedies.  His last two films, Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, show this instinct off well.  Scott Pilgrim doesn't have as much heart as Shaun or the bromance of Hot Fuzz, but it does have more energy and enthusiasm than those movies combined.  This was obviously assembled with a love for the source material.  I haven't read the Scott Pilgrim graphic novels, but there is just so much going on, with so many distinctive characters, that it has to be the case.  I knew from his other work that Wright could handle jokes on film, but I was very impressed with the action sequences and the post-production work.  Certain sounds appeared as words (when the phone rang, for example, you see "rrrrring!!!"), 8-bit video game graphics popped up on occasion, and the battle effects looked great.  In short, this movie felt like it was adapted from a comic.  Not because it has super-heroes or stilted dialogue, but because it takes the visual and the written and blends them in a way unique to that medium.

While I enjoyed the breakneck pace, quick wit, and general fun this movie has to offer, I admit that the movie is open to some very just criticisms.  This is not a deep movie.  There is no emotional core to it, beyond some pretty simple teen drama stuff.  The characters are essentially character sketches, typically more suitable for Saturday Night Live than feature films.  The focus on the fight scenes ruins any chance of the movie having much of a plot.  The jokes, action, and editing in this movie are so fast that it's difficult to pay attention to anything, even if there was a plot.    Oh, and Aubrey Plaza's character was obnoxious.

And yet, I loved it.  This isn't a movie that is going to make you think, it's going to make you laugh.  While the target audience is clearly aimed at the video game generation (1980-present), the dialogue is really sharp and there are several moments that made me laugh out loud.  The soundtrack is clever, abrasive and funny, like the scenes it is featured in (bonus cool points to Edgar Wright for getting Canadian bands on the soundtrack).  I recognize a charmingly simple stupidity in Scott Pilgrim's character that reminded me of one of my favorite cinema characters, Navin Johnson from The Jerk.  Both are essentially nice, but absolutely clueless and the choices they make are as misinformed as they are.  Like Steve Martin's movie, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is not a film that tries to to do more than be fast, popcorn-light entertainment.  And in that, Scott Pilgrim is victorious.
UPDATE 11/10/10: Okay, I just re-watched Scott Pilgrim for the first time.  I was a little worried that this movie wouldn't stand up to repeated viewings because it is such a shallow film.  As it turns out, I still loved it.  I picked up on many more details (especially with how the soundtrack plays off the plot and characters) the second time around and was generally entertained throughout.  I have finally read the complete Scott Pilgrim graphic novel collection, and that gave me a greater appreciation for some of the detail that went into the movie.  Like The Watchmen, this film is ridiculously faithful to its source material, but Scott Pilgrim is not beholden to it; little things were changed to make a great comic into a great movie, as it should be.  The movie is still very shallow and has a pretty niche intended audience, but it is, above all else, a lot of fun.  Oh, and if you haven't seen the mock movie posters for Chris Evans' character yet, check them out here.  They're fantastic.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Big Chill

Have you ever watched a TV show or movie that your parents used to swear was great, but when you watched it, it seemed...quaint?  It happens with me all the time, partially because I'm a little snotty, and partially because my dad still laughs out loud at Barney Fife.  It's not a bad thing, but it just goes to show how certain things age differently than others.  It also serves as an example to generational gaps.  I understand that; I still look back fondly at Homer Simpson falling down Springfield Gorge, but objectively, that Simpsons episode is pretty old and not very funny.  It just holds nostalgic value for me that my children will never understand.

Keep that in mind as I take a look at The Big Chill.

Alex (an uncredited --- because they left his face on the cutting room floor --- Kevin Costner) commits suicide.  His college buddies from the '60s show up for his funeral and get to catching up.  They include a married couple, Harold (Kevin Kline) and Sarah (Glenn Close); a successful Magnum, PI-style television actor, Sam (Tom Berenger); an unhappy public defender, Meg (Mary Kay Place); a professional drug-dealing Vietnam veteran and former radio shrink, Nick (William Hurt); a "journalist" for People magazine, Michael (Jeff Goldblum); and a housewife that regrets marrying a "safe" husband, Karen (JoBeth Williams).  They are joined by Alex's much, much younger (and very flexible) girlfriend/amateur space cadet, Chloe (Meg Tilly).  This group (minus Chloe) went to a Division I college and more than half of them got rich.

And yet, none of them are truly happy.  Sadly, the lovely Motown soundtrack does not include a track of the smallest violin in the world playing a sad song, just for them.  Sarah once had an affair with Alex, and her relationship with Harold never had the same level of trust again; this is compounded by their decision to help financially support Alex in the months preceding his suicide.  Sam feels cheapened by his lame acting gig and wants, more than anything else, to fulfill his long desire to be with Karen.  Karen feels trapped by her boring husband and kids.  Michael is unfulfilled, writing journalistic tripe for a magazine you read in the bathroom or at the doctor's office.  Meg wants a baby, but has no suitors and her biological clock is ticking away.  Nick felt like a fraud as a radio host and balances that with his lack of self worth as a drug dealer.  Oh, and he apparently has erectile dysfunction as a side effect of going to Vietnam.  Or he has a war wound in his crotch.  Or he has a terrible STD from Vietnam.  Whatever.  The big guy has a problem with his little guy.  Chloe is just bizarre and seems attracted by damaged men.  By the time the weekend ends, all of these problems are addressed and (more or less) solved.

I think my favorite thing about this movie is the script.  It is clever and witty, and it leaves out a lot.  That might sound like a drawback, but there is a lot of great dialogue, and real conversations do not spell everything out for onlookers.  There are dozens of funny one-liners, but the script is deeper than that, forcing the viewer to come to their own conclusions about how each character feels about the rest.  As the least sexually-successful member of the group, Michael has a lot of great lines that work, regardless of context, and Jeff Goldblum delivers these lines with panache.  There is a lot of sarcasm in the script, and everyone gets a turn eventually, but I think Goldblum's lines make him the most memorable supporting character.

The acting and direction (by Lawrence Kasdan) are both pretty good, too.  Kevin Kline and William Hurt are usually pretty dependable, and they both are given some solid dialogue, so it's a win-win with them.  Jeff Goldblum is sarcastic, witty, and nobody has sex with him, which is probably as it should be.  Meg Tilly was surprisingly wonderful as the spacey young member of the group; she is alternately distant and intimate, random and on-the-nose, throughout her performance, and I imagine that is hard to pull off.  The rest of the cast (Bernenger, Place, and Williams) are decent, but nothing special.  There was one character that I outright disliked.  Glenn Close's character struck me as particularly disturbing and unrealistic.  I know Close can act, but her emotions in this movie are so unpredictable and inconsistent that I just can't deal with her.

It's not all her fault, though.  The plot for this movie is absolutely ludicrous.  I know coming-of-age stories with ensemble casts usually have a suspicious number of characters come to important conclusions by the end of the film, but this is ridiculous.  Everyone in the principal cast has a life-changing weekend?  What is this, The Breakfast Club?  I don't appreciate some of the plot devices, either.  Why would anyone sit in front of a video camera and be bluntly honest and emotional if they were planning on watching the video in front of their friends?  That is beyond awkward.  I think my biggest problem with the plot deals with Glenn Close's character.  ***SPOILER ALERT*** So Meg wants a kid, but can't find a daddy.  She asks around, and Sam won't do it, Nick can't do it, and she doesn't want Michael, so Sarah suggests her husband?  I'm sorry, but that makes no sense to me.  One the one hand, I would feel uncomfortable (at best) if Glenn Close encouraged me to cheat on her.  She is Ms. Fatal Attractions, you know.  On the other hand, where do you go after that?  How does sympathy sleeping with a friend not attract jealousy and discontent within a marriage?  It's one thing to be married to a crazy woman, but to have her allow you to cheat...well, it may seem like a blessing, but I see a death-by-butcher-knife in your future, my friend.  

If this was almost any other movie, I would give it a few stars for the clever dialogue and dock it points for the ridiculous story and predictable plot.  As it happens, though, my parents were pretty big fans of this film when I was growing up and, while the film doesn't carry as much weight for me as it did them, my early exposure left a soft spot in my heart for it.  Despite the clumsiness of the dance scenes, the implausibility of most of the romances, and almost everything relating to William Hurt's character, I am going to give this movie the benefit of the doubt.  That said, I cannot forgive the egomaniacal self-centeredness of the Baby Boomers, no matter how handsomely it is disguised.  As such, I give this tribute to rich people schtupping each other...

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Vampires: Los Muertos

How does one make a successful sequel to John Carpenter's Vampires without James Woods and his incredibly foul mouth?  Apparently, the answer is by casting Oscar nominee John Bon Jovi as the vampire slayer du jour.  If that doesn't whet your vampire slaying appetite, then howzabout this?  He's backed up by the guy who played Eddie Winslow in Family Matters.  Can I get a "Hell yeah"?

Anybody?  No?

The film opens with Derek (Bon Jovi) doing his thing in Mexico: staking a vampire and dragging it into the sun, so it burns and dies.  Derek is a professional vampire hunter, who is paid for his work by the Van Helsing Group.  Get it?  Van Helsing was the original vampire hunter...and was later adapted into a terrible movie.  Just like this one!  The group offers him a new job through a mysterious benefactor, which doesn't sound suspicious at all.  The job requires Derek to assemble a vampire hunting team; he gets a list of hunters from some vampire hunting priests and goes about recruiting.  There is a problem; every time Derek reaches a hunter, the hunter has just been murdered.  To make matters worse, Derek is getting occasional visions of bloody butchery.  His priest buddies hypothesize that vampires must be linking to Derek.  Eventually, Derek arrives at a diner where the resident hunter hasn't been killed.  Derek makes a bathroom stop while the hunter gets ready to leave and, in the time it take Derek to toss a paper towel away, the film's villainess, Una (Arly Jover), arrives and kills everyone in the diner.

Derek eventually manages to assemble a team that consists of veteran hunter (Darius McCrary), a poor Mexican kid (a slumming Diego Luna), a suspiciously buff priest (Christian de la Fuente), and vampiress that is taking anti-vampire medication (Natasha Wagner).  It turns out that Una is looking for the Berziers Cross, which is the key in a ceremony that can allow vampires to walk in daylight unscathed.  Fans might recognize the artifact from the original movie, one of the few ties this sequel has to its predecessor.  Basically, Una was reading Derek's list telepathically and killing off the local hunters until she finally found someone with the Berziers Cross.  That means that she's his mysterious employer.  Doesn't the Van Helsing Group do even a little bit of research into their contributors?  Like, maybe a questionnaire asking what their favorite flavor blood type is?  Una never finds the cross, but Derek's buff priest has it.  To convince the priest to perform the ceremony that will make Una vitamin D-ready, she decides to go to convoluted lengths.  Reasoning that Derek kind of gives a crap about his pet vampiress, Una plots to get her hands on the anti-vampire medication.  To do this, she approaches the group at night, when only Darius McCrary is on guard.  She pretends to be incredibly attracted to him (this is the middle of nowhere, mind you) and her first act is to fellate him.  I'm a man, too, but if some strung out chick wandered into my campground from the middle of nowhere, I wouldn't be immediately dropping my drawers.  I could just be a prude, though.  Anyway, in a surprise turn of events, when you receive oral sex from a vampire, you get bit.  Darius then begins to follow Una's commands and steals the medicine for her.  Una then uses the medicine to walk in the sun and kidnaps the group's unwilling vampiress.  This is the bait for the final fight.  Will Derek give up the life of a casual acquaintance that doesn't like being a vampire?  Will the buff priest perform the ritual ceremony?  Will Una reign supreme?  Will Family Matters be the peak of McCrary's career?  In order: no, yes, no and yes.

Okay, I'll ask.  If Una is so damn fast, why is Jon Bon Jovi still alive?  She encounters him a couple of times, and he is still left alive.  I get tracking down the cross and keeping a priest alive.  All the others should be inconsequential collateral damage.  Perhaps more to the point, if Una's ultimate goal is to become a daywalking vampire, why doesn't she just start taking the same medication that the unwilling vampire is taking?  And what's with the unwilling vampire?  We later learn that replacing vampire blood through transfusions cures vampirism, which I admit could have been a scientific leap that was only discovered as this movie took place.  I'm fine with that.  My question is what kind of multivitamins are needed to make vampires less vampy?  Echinacea root?  Cod liver oil?  Sugar that causes cavities that attack vampire fangs?  And why is Bon Jovi having visions?  The original movie and this one feature bitten folk having a psychic connection to their vampire donor, but there is never an explanation given as to why Bon Jovi is so lucky.  Does it even matter?  The visions add nothing to the story except maybe five minutes of running time.

Surprisingly, the acting isn't actually all that terrible.  Diego Luna and Christian de la Fuente were both pretty likable.  The rest of the cast was less impressive --- Darius McCrary was especially unconvincing as a tough guy --- but nobody made a direct reference to being wanted dead or alive, or even about living on a prayer, so I'll give credit where it's due.

That credit is definitely not belonging to writer/director Tommy Lee Wallace, whose last theatrical work (direct-to-DVD or otherwise) was Fright Night Part 2.  The story didn't make much sense and the acting ranged from poor to mediocre.  The plot was essentially a retread of the first Vampires, substituting a female for a male head vampire.  Other than that, this was an artful tour de force from a cast and director that deserve to share every star this film earned.