Kent’s Movie Diary: Doctor’s Orders

Seeing as how I was laid up for a short time, I thought maybe it would be a good time to bring back my Movie Diary segments. Maybe not a good idea, but a good time.

This will be a somewhat long one, folks.

I took advantage of some sales last month and put together a large pile of things I had never seen before, including some that I’ve been meaning to catch up on because I’ve been making my way through series or lists. I wanted to make everything I watched 20 years or older, for no particular reason other than the mood I was in at the time.

By GeorgeTo start with, I finally knocked the last couple of “Connery-Era” Bond films off my List o’ Shame, in quotation marks because, of course, there’s the singular George Lazenby entry in there, with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Diamonds are Forever. Having seen them, I have to wonder why ol’ Laz has gotten so much crap over the years,
receiving the title of “Worst Bond” from the same kind of philistines who apparently helped keep Roger Moore’s tired antics on the screen for a decade. For me, he was a breath of fresh air in a film that harkened back to the first couple of 007 outings, alike as films which may have moments of camp, but camp that exists because of changing social attitudes rather than a purposeful stylistic decision. The later is what we received from Diamonds and You Only Live Twice.* Lazenby is cocksure and capable without being a superman, which I appreciated. It’s also easy to see why Diana Rigg is the only Bond girl who could coax 007 into matrimony, however short-lived. For a great example of doing this wrong, see Spectre and his leaving at the end with a paper-thin character that he has no reason to care for.

Diamonds are Forever, on the other hand, makes the mistake of jumping into the kind of But Connery wasn't. material that the Batman TV show did so well and almost nobody else. It isn’t a total loss, thanks to Connery’s wasted charms, but he seems to mostly be sleepwalking through the role for his paycheck. It’s no wonder he left for good after this one. And no, we’re not counting Never Say Never Again. A fan has to wonder how different things may have ended up if Lazenby had stuck around, given the uptick in quality and adult themes his film experienced. Given my distaste of the Moore films which followed, and the more or less complete loss of the loose continuity that had previously held them together with the Spectre threat, I haven’t made any plans to continue with my chronological viewing. At some point I may go ahead and finally dig into the Dalton titles and the couple of Brosnans I skipped, but I’m in no hurry.

Drive angryAnother checklist I wanted to put a couple more ticks in is the filmography of John Carpenter. Sure, I’ve seen most of the films considered to be his best, but even his less regarded films from the 70s and 80s are generally considered to be interesting, at the very least. I began with what he considered to be a “work for hire” job, his adaptation of Stephen King’s Christine. While I can’t claim that it’s a lost classic, I can say that it doesn’t get enough due, because it’s a slick little film that keeps most of the best parts of the novel intact while dropping much of the filler and the eye-rolling plot-points. Instead, we get a lean horror thriller with plenty of signature Carpenter touches; along with some things I wish he’d done more of.

For example, he does a fantastic job of assembling a soundtrack for his film. Given his propensity to score most of his work himself, he didn’t do much in the way of needle drops, but he probably should have let himself play around with that option more often.** For instance, I’ve never been a particular fan of Harlem Nocturne, but Carpenter’s use of it in the film, to score Christine’s regeneration after a brutal beating from a gang of ruthless townies, is absolutely perfect. The effects are also spot-on, using hydraulics and (one assumes) reverse photography to bring the Plymouth Fury to supernatural life. If you’ve avoided the film because he has been dismissive of it or because it doesn’t have the kind of reputation that his masterpieces do, I recommend you give it a shot anyway.

Melty Face will eat your soulPrince of Darkness is a little tougher to sell. It’s definitely more of a low-budget curiosity. I did enjoy it, and will watch it again, but it’s easy to see why it’s always been more of a cult film, even among his fans. It starts out with the promise of being a bit more of an intellectual horror film. The basic premise posits that the physical embodiment of Satan is a mass of goo kept in the basement of an abandoned church in LA. It goes on to make use of anti-matter, the multi-verse theory, tachyon projection, and even a bit of “Chariots of the Gods” lore in its story, but uses it in service of what ends up essentially being a low-key zombie flick. (Old-school lackey voodoo-style zombies, not Romero-style.) Unfortunately, the different parts of the film are too at odds with each other to truly work the way his best stuff does.

The look of the film is also distinctive, as they used wide-angle lenses with the widescreen composition to create images that often seem to move in and out of focus. I can’t speak to whether it works on the big screen (unfortunately, not many people can, since it wasn’t exactly a huge hit) but again, it doesn’t truly work when I was watching it on blu ray. Maybe the size of the screen makes a big difference. What does work are many of the performances. Donald Pleasance, Victor Wong and a number of his regular stable of actors make appearances in the film and they put forth a wonderful effort.

Gwangi the Genie?Oh, and I finally have seen the last of the “canon” Ray Harryhausen films, thanks to Warner Archive’s release of The Valley of Gwangi. I enjoyed the cowboys vs. dinosaurs tale, even as I mourned the loss of each and every giant lizard. Essentially, it’s a King Kong tale which centers around a nearly unreachable valley in Mexico, near where a flailing wild-west show has set up camp. They find what were supposed to be long-extinct animals and, despite a few setbacks, everything would be fine with their plans if not for some south-of-the-border Gypsies who threaten cosmic retribution, but resort to sabotage to prove their superstitions true. As usual, the effects are top-notch with the stop-motion critters making for the best part of the movie. Thanks to the Warner Archive imprint for upping their output with some really interesting stuff. I recently preordered Ride the High Country with Randolph Scott and a promising Z-grade atomic monster feature about a murderous tree. Keep it up, guys! Any chance of Night of the Lepus anytime soon?

Meet the family. Jules and Verne.I opened up the third (and seemingly last) Vincent Price box set from Scream Factory and one of the films I took in was Master of the World, another Roger Corman production with a Richard Matheson screenplay. What’s interesting about this one is that it’s A) not a horror film and B) an entry in the Jules Verne adaptation wave that started in the late ‘50s, which I’d never heard of before now. I still have a little less than half of the set to watch yet, but the thing I’ve surprisingly enjoyed most is an hour-long TV special called An Evening with Edgar Allen Poe. The video toaster graphics can’t disguise how brilliant Price is, as he delivers four monologues based on some first-person works of Poe: The Sphinx, The Telltale Heart, The Pit and the Pendulum and The Cask of Amontillado. Of them, I’d say Heart was the best, but the way he builds most of the pieces to a crescendo is masterful.

The Dude and The SquintAnother actor I’m a fan of is Clint Eastwood and, after watching the fantastic Dirty Harry series, I’ve been wanting to check out more of his earlier work. When I read the description of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, it sounded up my alley. A caper film with Jeff Bridges and George Kennedy? Sure, count me in. Unfortunately, the whole thing is way too far up its own butt in that way only 70’s auteur films can seem to be. So many people bemoan the rise of the Spielberg/Lucas regime and the way it actually made movies for people to enjoy and it drives me crazy. Especially when I see something like this, made by one of the filmmakers they love, (or at least did until he made Heaven’s Gate and brought the whole thing crashing down.) It’s like a tone poem masquerading as a crime film. That’s not to say there aren’t some genuinely enjoyable moments. Clint’s introduction as a phony priest whose country church gets shot up is one of the best examples. But I found them to be too few and far between. I hate that this makes me sound like one of those people who complain about a movie being boring because there isn’t an explosion every five minutes, but for a lot of its runtime, it just kinda lies there. I suppose I’m not sorry I watched it, but I’ll probably stick to his westerns for the next few films of his I catch.

Pull your lip over your head and swallow.On the flip side of the 70s-crime-film coin, I also watched The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and loved it. Walter Matthau is good in most anything, of course, and he kills it here as a Transit Authority Cop who manages to be super competent in dealing with a group of criminals who hold a subway car of passengers for ransom, while still being very fallible and human. His humor holds a great deal of the film together, while the smart script and a fantastic performance from Robert Shaw (Cap’n Quint himself) take care of the rest. The way the audience is kept guessing along with Matthau’s character is a good deal of the fun, so it would be a sin to ruin more of the plot. However, before I move on, I will say that the score for the film also deserves to be singled out. You’ll have the theme stuck in your head for the rest of the day thanks to its mix of a little bit of funk and a whole lot of bravado. Just thinking about the movie now has it rolling through my mind again.

Open 'til MidnightFinally, I have gotten a lot of guff for having not seen Empire Records before. Having finally watched it***, I can say that I understand why so many people of my generation (and the subsequent one) attached themselves to it in such a dramatic way. It’s a perfect 90s fantasy; the loose confederation of kids and 20-somethings who seemingly have little in common by suburban white people standards, working in the kind of store that could only exist in the movies, where you can steal a whole day’s take from the register and not get fired. As a person who has worked in both a corporate record store in the late-90s (Hastings, RIP) and an indie store in the 00s, I can say there’s just enough of a ring of truth to the now endangered music-store culture being simulated that it’s understandable how people who have been in that environment will latch onto it. Sort of like I’ve known from fellow people who have worked in chain restaurants and their protectiveness of the Ryan Reynolds vehicle Waiting.

My feelings on the movie? It’s good, not great. The performances are better than the movie itself in many instances. If I’d seen it at the appropriate age, I’d probably have had even more of a thing for Liv Tyler than I did after seeing That Thing You Do. It’s actually fun seeing a handful of actors who went on to bigger things, though it’s super weird to see Renee Zellweger in anything pre-surgery. As an attempted artist, it’s hilarious watching the guy who’s already selling his pieces without any problem worrying about art school. As Mystery Science Theater 3000 put it once, “These are the kind of problems you WANT to have.” I sort of wish I’d seen it back in what the nostalgic call “The Day,” as I would almost assuredly appreciate it more. But I will still probably revisit it in the future now that I’ve broken the seal.

That’s all for now, but I’m sure I’ll be writing more as I head further down the rabbit hole. I’ve got a big stack left over from the Shout and Twilight Time sales (as well as a few items from the Arrow sale on Barnes and Noble) to get to. Let us know what you think of the titles discussed below in the comments section or on Facebook, won’t you?

*The worst of example of which, the scene where they made Bond “Japanese,” does at least have its existence justified with a brilliant parody scene found in Team America: World Police.

** Thankfully, one of the exceptions, Stevie Wonder’s Superstition, was readded to The Thing’s soundtrack after years of being replaced on home video formats.

***Thank you for the DVD, Sarah!

Kent’s Movie Diary: Hungry For You

Some more stuff off Netflix this week (the disc service, not the streaming.) I’m not too happy about yet another price hike from them. I don’t get cable, it’d be a shame to have to drop them too. (Though there is still a good video store in Lawrence so I’ll be OK. Liberty Hall, y’all!) On to the movies!

AOTDHungerGamesFireTHE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE- I kind of get it now. I was only a very moderate fan of the first film in the Hunger Games saga. Despite the raving declarations of love by its very large, very vocal fanbase, I just didn’t understand the furor caused by what amounted to a post-apocalyptic Battle Royale pastiche with a ton of holes in the fabric of the plot. I did give myself an out in that. I said that it’s possible the film simply didn’t capture the book and cut out lots of necessary exposition in creating a society. A society of people descended from Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter who somehow rule with a foppish iron fist. The sequel, while not fixing any of the logical problems that drive me absolutely nuts, does manage to work much better by pushing the political metaphor, deepening the character work and giving stoic heroine Katniss a truly badass moment in the finale.

I have to say, one of the things I really enjoy is the reversal of traditional gender roles at play here where the guy is considered the sensitive of the pair and she’s the hotheaded berserker. She’s Wolverine, without the forest of body hair. This doesn’t exactly match her manipulative, cunning huntress from the first film, but it’s an interesting direction to take the character.

Anyway, the Roman parallels are far more explicit in this go round and by the time we get an ipecac introduced it’s pretty much the most obvious thing ever. I find myself really wondering the author’s intentions because there are a few ways to take the whole thing. It could be a really mediocre gripe against the 1% as I’m pretty sure I’ve seen some people read into it, but given the setup, it seems to work so much better as an impugning of Soviet Russia, at least as presented on film. You have a capitol where the political elite lord over people with nothing. When they want to punish everyone, they crack down on the “black market,” the last bastion of economic freedom the people have.They destroy their possessions. They flog and shoot people in the street. Sounds like a communist regime to me. President Snow blames Katniss for his woes because he fails to acknowledge what a dumb system he’s running in the first place and when he talks about reminding people of their proper place, he forgets that with such a low life expectancy, there practically aren’t any people alive who can remember their great war of subjugation to begin with.
The ending reveals yet another issue with the logic of the series; if they can destroy District 12 without fear of having to lose what they take from them by force, why were they so determined to keep them under their boot in the first place? As I said in my review of the first film, however, the whole matter of subjugation and confiscation makes no sense when the technology apparently exists to rearrange matter at will as we see in the games themselves. Hell, they should be in a Star Trekian utopia.

Regardless of the issues present in the narrative’s background, the character work builds mightily on the previous film, giving those we’re familiar with a lot of milage. Elizabeth Banks’ character may be part of the upper class, but she seems fatigued to exhaustion and skittish under pressure. Woody Harrelson manages to portray his high-functioning alkie to wondrous effect as he looks at these silly kids with both worry and disdain. It’s extremely sad that Phillip Seymore Hoffman passed away after this film because he will be a tough act to follow. The calculating behind his eyes sells the character and his nature well beyond what is written for him to say. (Stanley Tucci remains the exact same brand of weird, though.)

It’s all pretty impressive despite the issues. Impressive enough that I may catch the next movie in the theater, even if I’m bitter about it being on the two-parter finale bandwagon that needs to just stop. The revolutionary feeling in the air of Pan Em is a pretty good draw as it turns more towards being a cross between Battle Royale and Animal Farm. And while I’m not sure how that combination sounds, I mean it in a good way.

AOTDZatoichiFugitivesZATOICHI AND THE FUGITIVES- The 18th chapter of the Zatoichi saga displays how the films are often at their best when they are very straightforward and simply head from point A to point B without trying to put in a lot of extra storylines and b-plots.

It is the kind of simple ‘walking tall’ style story the franchise does so well. Zatoichi arrives in town, meets up with someone goodhearted, gets caught up in the middle of a skirmish involving the local yakuza and it ends with him more or less reluctantly dispensing *ahem* blind justice. It is the very essence of the series, but when it is done as effectively as in this entry, it still packs a punch.

In this case, a group of hoods (the Fugitives of the title) help the proceedings along as they try to take him down several times, leading to several instances of entertaining escapes. It also was a good move to make the leader of the gang have patience and foresight we rarely see from Ichi’s adversaries. While the underlings howl about going after him, underestimating him again and again due to his blindness, he illustrates a shrewd understanding of just how dangerous our hero is. He also is responsible for some family drama that adds just a little flavor to the proceedings. The gang is better fleshed out and shows more visual diversity than many of Zatoichi’s foes, making it so some of them are recognizable instead of being a ‘uniformed’ sea of sword fodder.

In Fugitives, we see him get worn down and hurt over the film. He may be a preternaturally good swordsman, but he’s not invincible and this film does a good job of reminding us of that. The only real gripe is that the ending comes just a little too easily given the extent of his injuries, but that’s just complaining to complain.

AOTDAllisLostALL IS LOST- When you get down to it, this is 100 minutes of watching Robert Redford fart around on a boat. That said, it’s a pretty engrossing 100 minutes of watching Redford fart around on a boat.

I saw Kon Tiki not too long ago and All is Lost makes a very interesting companion piece in which folks can contrast having a half-dozen men bickering in the middle of the ocean or being alone in screaming solitude and decide which is worse.

Similar in many ways to last year’s Gravity (but saving a lot of ink on the screenplay) it is a tale of survival where everything that can go wrong does. Splotchy and lined like an old work glove, Redford is the only real character in the film and he barely speaks, seemingly using less than two dozen words after an initial opening salvo. I am increasingly distressed by the overused trope of starting at a random point in the story and flashing back for you to find out how you got there, but maybe they felt like it would stick out if they shoehorned a monologue in at the actual place it would belong after only hearing him scream one obscenity in the previous hour. (Remember when they did that with Mr. Bean in his first movie when he suddenly launches into that monologue? Yeah, that was just weird.)

Beginning with a large hole being put in his boat by a lost shipping container full of crappy sneakers, he loses power and the use of his radio. This doesn’t phase him too badly and he seems pretty capable of fixing most of it. However, sensing he is screwed, nature decides to kick him in the backside with a violent storm. It’s pretty much all downhill from there for him.

It’s a very different role from this summer’s Captain America, but one that equally relies on the gravitas that he has inherited due to his decades in the industry and the persona he has been assigned from them. This could have easily been filmed with a younger actor, but Redford brings a lot to the role simply by being Redford. It is reminiscent of roles Clint Eastwood has performed since Unforgiven or late-era John Wayne. One senses he’s been through the ringer and with his worn countenance, old wedding ring and fairly spartan lifestyle, it becomes heavily implied that his solitude and silence are self-imposed, perhaps as he tries to get over some late-life tragedy. As I said, none of it is explicit, but the use of Redford and visual cues simply gets you to start writing the story of how this guy got into the middle of the Indian Ocean. It’s a neat trick by the writer/director, J.C. Chandor.

The film is also very well made technically. In an instance of someone actually adhering to “don’t tell, show” it is a darn good thing that they make the things interesting visually. I personally think the film makes a mistake by often going long periods without any kind of score. I think the purpose behind these long moments is to express more isolation and to stress how he is out of touch from other human beings, but some of the times that try to stress it really could have benefitted from some kind of music, especially when he’s just rummaging around. The music is good enough that they really should have trusted it to help carry these scenes.

This is a film that will require patience in the viewer. I wonder if people more versed in seafaring may be more bored than me since a lot of what he does will probably come across as pretty routine. For me though, it was a well-made and interesting film. I don’t know if I’ll revisit it any time soon. However, for those that want a survival tale and a good leading performance from a veteran in an industry where it seems like people of his vintage are often only taken off the shelf to slum in niche “old people” films, it’s a very refreshing change of pace.

AOTDOddThomasODD THOMAS- I am a little surprised that this Dean Koontz adaptation seems to have essentially gone straight to video. Surprised for two reasons. Number one, because the main creative force behind it is Stephen Sommers, who was a pretty big name no more than a decade ago. Van Helsing really seems to have damaged his career in a big way (even though it did decent business) since the only other thing he’s done since is the first GI Joe movie, but you’d still think his adaptation of a book by a big selling writer would manage to get a theatrical release. Part of it may have been legal troubles, it looks like, but Cabin on the Woods sat on the shelf for a couple of years and still managed to get a wide release. Number two because it’s better than your standard direct to video film.

First the bad news. There’s a moderately awful twist ending that actually made me angry and though I haven’t read the books, I’m assuming Sommers was hamstrung by the novel to include it. The way it ends is very much setting up a series that will likely never be and it feels like a wasted opportunity to simply make one really good movie instead. It’s just one part of the film’s biggest weakness; sometimes it just plain feels like the pilot to a TV series. Ready made franchises are now second nature in Hollywood, so it’s not surprising that this one makes the attempt, it is just disappointing. Adding to that, the way it’s structured, the staging, the nature of the mystery, the parting coda and the narration by the titular character all combine to make it feel very much like a WB Network horror comedy, albeit a pretty good one. One that would probably be a little controversial given the villain’s plan of this first “episode.” I would go so far as to say this argument is more praise for the increase in TV’s entertainment value than damning the film’s quality, but there you are.

The best thing about the film is the casting and that is where it differentiates itself from other similar fare. Anton Yelchin simply has charm. He has proven himself in the new Star Trek films and he was a very, very big reason for me enjoying the remake of Fright Night. In fact, this film has a lot of similarities to that one. Sommers’ touch makes it feel like much lighter fare despite having some pretty dark ideas though. Say, it is to Reaper as Fright Night is to Supernatural.

In this film he is Odd in name and action. He sees dead people, but that’s not where his powers end. He can see demonic entities, he can see people’s dreams… He’s got a whole bunch of not very clearly defined supernatural powers that crop up when convenient, kind of like in Superman II.

His love interest since childhood is named Stormy and she’s played very well by Addison Timlin. I’m not familiar with her other work and seeing what she’s been in, it’s no wonder why. However, she’s got great chemistry with Yelchin which leads to some very enjoyable banter. And while this is not the basis of a good performance, dang it, she’s a looker. What I really enjoyed is Stormy and Odd actually have that rarest of fictional couplings, a healthy relationship that is endearing. (Sommers did a good job of this with Mummy Returns as well, now that I think about it.)

The main guy that people will have heard of in the piece is Willem Dafoe and he’s damned good as the competent cop that’s befriended Odd and has a symbiotic relationship with him. As much as I enjoy him hamming things up as a psychotic, I think people forget that he can be a damned funny guy when given the chance.

Sommers’ direction lends itself to the material when it comes to establishing a tone that could be a pretty tough balancing act. It could be more original to be sure, but then so could Deep Rising and I remain a huge fan of that particular creature feature. The film probably isn’t gory enough to satisfy the horror fiends that feed on similar genre comedies such as Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil. It is also likely too much on the side of a light R or hard PG-13 to be for young teens so it misses that whole audience. I found the tone to be fun without feeling like it was trying too hard to be pandering and that middle ground may actually hurt it, however it worked great for me. I’ll probably revisit this one on blu ray at some point. (Unfortunately, Netflix only had it on DVD, which ticks me off. Get on the ball, guys!)

Kent’s Movie Diary: In which I accidentally scare my brother’s kids…

It’s back! More tales from my blu ray player. Expect some more articles very soon with this series as I get my Netflix queue whittled down.

AOTDdiaryMummyTHE MUMMY (1999) I wonder if someday the kind of early CGI exemplified by Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy will be viewed the same way we look at stop motion/optical effects today. Barely 15 years old, the difference between it and newer films is utterly staggering. I remember people being dumbfounded by the digital work upon release. Now it is laughable at best. But is that necessarily a bad thing? One of the reasons I am a big fan of the sequel, The Mummy Returns, is because the effects aren’t perfect. I think the imperfections add to the goofy, playful nature of The Mummy’s Saturday matinee throwback nature. (I’ll elaborate on the differences between the first film and the sequel when I talk about it in these very pages, which I’m sure will happen soon.)

I love Ray Harryhausen’s work despite it being far from realistic. Is it really far fetched to believe that there will be people that develop an affinity for the kind of imperfect but then cutting-edge effects that littered the multiplex 10-20 years ago in the same way? I say no. There has long been a big anti-digital chip on the shoulders of many film fanatics. It’s hard for me not to sympathize with them because of my wailing and gnashing over the death of hand-drawn feature animation, but I don’t really count myself among them. Many of these purists are my age because they grew up with the last batch of blockbuster pre-CGI effects films in the 80s. Most of them are older. But the generation of film zealots after mine shouldn’t have that issue. Just as they never lived in a world without the internet, they never had movies without ILM weaving computer magic. I think they’ll be able to appreciate the effects of The Mummy, The Frighteners and The Mask the way I appreciate King Kong, The Bride of Frankenstein or the original Godzilla (pre-googly eyes.)

I hadn’t seen the first or second film in quite some time so I went ahead and ordered the box set on blu ray. For some reason I think I recall that they were some of Universal’s first releases in the format? The first one at least still looks pretty good despite its limitations. The ‘real’ stuff in film, like the actors, have a great level of detail as one would expect from a title created since the advent of digital home media. But the CG elements, especially backgrounds, are often blurry and not as sharp. I’m almost certain this is not a problem with the transfer, but a simple issue of the source material and the fact that the effects weren’t as well realized. Perhaps even on purpose in order to help mask them. Whatever the case, it doesn’t hurt the film which remains one of the best pure adventure yarns in recent memory, in my opinion. This is the kind of “remake” I can deal with. Rather than attempt to film a pitiful, cash-grabbing shadow of the 1932 Karloff vehicle, which let’s be honest isn’t scary at all, but is a classic nonetheless, Sommers and Universal took the film in a completely different direction. There are a few bare bones similarities. Both have an eponymous mummy named Imhotep and both involve a lost, forbidden love, but the similarities largely end there. It does not ride the coattails (or bandages rather) of the original film. It is a rip-snorting Indiana Jones style period piece full of colorful characters, humor and action. It’s also probably Brendan Fraser’s best role outside of George of the Jungle. Combined with Rachel Weisz’s underrated balancing act as the librarian that is competent enough that it doesn’t feel obligatory when she becomes the damsel in distress and John Hannah as the slightly weasely comic relief and you’ve got a really fun cast.

I actually showed my brother’s kids the movie when I went home last weekend and it didn’t go so well though. Now before anyone gets upset with me, keep in mind that these are kids I’ve seen watching Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. You know, bugs, chilled monkey brains, hearts being ripped out? I really thought they’d be okay with something as innocuous as a cartoony CGI mummy, but they only got about a third of the way through. We didn’t even get to the opening of the sarcophagus. And when they got home it seems all they could talk about were bugs that eat people, despite the fact that I stopped it and put on the Batman movie with Adam West. Sorry about that. So lesson for me, don’t let them pick their own movie and if they say they like it when things are a little scary, don’t necessarily believe them. Maybe if I’d shown them the second one instead…

AOTDdiaryZatoichiChallangedZATOICHI CHALLENGED- Zatoichi Challenged puts a new twist on an old story that they’ve already done in saddling him with a child, by making it a toddler rather than a baby that he escorts. (He’s become a father figure to other kids before, but this is only the second time he’s taken responsibility for one to deliver it to a family member.) It also varies in how that story ends, being much more pleasant than the previous family’s reactions.
Most importantly, it features a new storyline, just varied enough to make up for the parts that seem redundant. Inchi still is going up against gangsters and politicians, but he’s also not just trying to stop them or protect common folk from them, but help someone flee after being caught up between them and a myopic official trying to wash crime away with blood, leaving him literally trapped due to a single mistake that they can’t escape from.

As often is the case with these films, the ending is the best part, with Ichi facing off against a samurai obsessed with honor in the wake of becoming a ronin. Not only does he present a valid threat from which Ichi actually has a prolonged battle (rather than having to slice n’ dice his way through dozens of underlings) but he actually grows and changes in such a way to make their parting not exactly anticlimactic, but certainly a break from formula.

AOTDdiaryTrekXSTAR TREK: NEMESIS- I finally finished seeing all of the Star Trek movies with the last Next Gen film. I guess they knew the writing was on the wall during production because they make some pretty big shifts as per the personnel. (Then again, they shipped off Worf to Deep Space Nine, yet he always managed to show up in every film.)

My reaction to the film is a big, fat “meh.” I’ll grant you, part of that may be because I’ve just never been a Next Gen fan, but I know I’m not alone in that assessment, even among Trek fans. While given to hysterics (they proclaimed Into Darkness to be the worst film in the franchise, which is not even close to being true), enough time had passed to allow a decently fair review on the four films regarded as being part of that particular cycle and only First Contact fared well. I can’t disagree with them as it’s the only one I truly enjoy as a casual movie goer. I’m not sure exactly what it is about Contact that works so well compared to the others, but this crew just seemed ill equipped for the transition to the big screen. Insurrection felt too much like a long episode rather than a movie, while Nemesis seems like too big a departure. I know it’s not really fair, but it’s just really hard for them to win.

Fetish model Picard (aka skinny Bane) is a villain I don’t particularly get unless it’s to show ‘our’ Picard what a blowhard he is. But then it seems like they’re changing Picard Classic’s personality for a decent amount of the film what with his sudden penchant for four-wheelin’ over fragile alien ecosystems.

The Romulans/Remans should have been interesting enough without having to shoehorn the clone plot inside and the political flips and twists to put him in power seems like too much trouble for the payoff.

I’ll admit that the big battle at the end has its moments, even though I have to wonder if they’re ever going to get tired of destroying the Enterprise. At least this time we have something new happen with the bridge. The sacrifice at the end, trying so hard to echo Wrath of Kahn, doesn’t work because Data simply isn’t Spock. And there is a backdoor to the “death” so wide open and obvious that I don’t see anyone actually thinking it would stick if they’d done another film with that cast.

Now I know this is a completely contrary thing to say thus far into my ranting, but even though I’m not nearly as big a fan of the Next Gen characters as the original series or even the new cast, I wonder if Paramount wasn’t too hasty in ending the series. I think they could have kept making money by making modestly budgeted films with the Next Gen/DS9/Voyager casts spaced between the Abrams films. What’s wrong with having two continuities simultaneously? Japan does that kinda stuff all the time. Especially with how the current films are actually sequels to the previous series that take place in a different universe. But instead of doing what they’d been doing, they could have followed Riker’s command with new and old characters populating the ship and allowing for the type of flexibility needed to really create cinematic adventures of characters that people already loved. Maybe I’m crazy.

More to come soon!

Kent’s Movie Diary: Dead birds for everybody!

LRresizeTHE LONE RANGER- “I can’t help but feel it’s a mistake to try to mash up Pirates of the Caribbean and Unforgiven.” -Nobody associated with The Lone Ranger film

Anyone else remember that Night Court episode where they had the Lone Ranger-ish guy that wouldn’t take off his mask because some Hollywood schmuck was trying to do a gritty reimagining of the character? I can’t help but feel that he was trying to prevent a misfire of a crap pile like Disney’s Lone Ranger. Apparently the Mouse House didn’t watch their own Muppet movie, because this is the Moopet Lone Ranger. A hard, cynical Western comedy for a hard, cynical time.

I wanted to like this movie. I really, really did. And the reason it hurts most is because the zygote of something good is here, but nine out of every ten decisions made in the making of the film are completely mind-boggling. And they’re mistakes that seem like they’d be so easy to pinpoint at the script stage.

I’ll start with the good. First off, Armie Hammer is actually not a bad choice as the Ranger. He has some of the same kind of wooden charm that the cowboy heroes from the thrilling days of yesteryear (see what I did there?) possessed in their simple morality plays. In theory he is a fitting replacement for Clayton Moore. The problem is that he’s given so little to work with. Instead of being a capable Texas Ranger who was ambushed and left for dead, he is a nitwit lawyer in over his head. In many cases he’s heroic by accident and rather than simply being a great lawman-cum-cowboy, he has some kind of supernatural “spirit-walker” powers. I have nothing against doing some kind of supernatural western genre concept, even if they seem to be tough to pull off. But there’s very little left that makes him the Lone Ranger in anything but name. So the fact that he’s still even partway likable is a testament to Hammer.

There’s also one hell of an amazeballs action sequence at the end in which the film seems to finally figure out what it is, complete with the William Tell Overture and jumping Silver from train car to train car. Right before it falls on its face again trying to take its own piss. But for about twenty minutes, it is the Lone Ranger movie that it should be. The type of fun action Western that it was sold as. It’s like the characters are completely different in this sequence as well. You feel as if you suddenly are transported into an alternate universe in which they got the movie right and then, sadly, back again.

The fact is, the people involved seem to be completely ignorant about the property. It’s not just the title character that is different. Tonto is unrecognizable. For all the complaints about Jay Silverheels’ speech patterns, I remember Tonto being a rather competent sidekick who saved the Lone Ranger’s life. He certainly didn’t resent him. Or drag his head through horse poop. Depp’s Tonto is (forgive me) Injun Jack Sparrow. He’s a white face, psychotic goofball mostly concerned with revenge and mugging for the camera. I know the look of the character was inspired by a piece of artwork, but it’s almost as over-the-top as his horrible Mad Hatter get up.

The script is determined to make jokes at the expense of iconic things that they think people either don’t remember or are too sophisticated to enjoy. But if that’s the case, why are they making a Lone Ranger movie in the first place? The use of “Hi-yo Silver, away!” is met with derision as though it’s something cheesy. As opposed to a guy with a dead bird on his head. (Seriously, that stupid bird is the worst.) Instead of celebrating the character and the adventure of the old west, it is an exercise in seeing unpleasant a film can be and how many corrupt, horrible white guys they can pack into a liberal arts professor’s vision of the time period. Add to that a constant barrage of non-sequitors, gross-out gags and a framing sequence that adds nothing to the film but padding on it’s already bloated runtime, and you’ve got one of the worst summer tentpoles this side of Michael Bay.

Trek9resizeSTAR TREK: INSURRECTION- I finally saw the ninth film of the Star Trek franchise. First thought: Become a rapper called Trek9 and do songs only about this film. (OK, so only Kansas City people might get that gag.) Anyway… It shouldn’t surprise me to see an anti-technology fetishist Star Trek movie, but somehow it still does.

Yep, the crew of the Enterprise, whilst zipping around in their starship, seeks to stop some white Indians that live “in harmony with nature” and never age due to their planet’s unique atmosphere from being displaced by a bunch of grotesque beings.

It’s obvious from the outset that the vaguely European luddites are stand-ins for Native Americans being forced off their land. (Settlers from another land that live “unspoiled” lives being relocated by a more powerful group for the sake of progress. Not really historically accurate, but what else would you call it?) However, the themes of the film are so muddied that it completely falls apart while they’re trying to make whatever vague point that they think they’re making.

The settlers are, of course, pacifists. Though they have no trouble with the crew of the Enterprise locking and loading on their behalf. Later on we also find out that they do not tolerate change or any kind of opposing views amongst themselves, but this is completely brushed over because it’s inconvenient to actually ask about the morality of the people Picard and Co. put their chips in with. Not when there are imperialist villains to fight in the name of the Prime Directive. Or not. Whatever.

It’s just one big episode of Next Gen, which for me is not a selling point since I’m much more of a TOS fan. This explains why this was my first viewing of Insurrection (and the upcoming Nemesis.) On a technical level it’s not all bad. Jonathan Frakes does a good job of directing and misdirecting, as it were. It looks good, even if the renaissance fair opening credits are eye-rollingly boring as hell. The effects are more than comparable to the task. It’s even got some good character moments. It’s just not a good story. If it were nothing but a think piece, I would be more behind it. I’m one of the defenders of the first Trek movie because I love the ideas behind it. But the film is trying to serve two masters in trying too hard to duplicate First Contact by grafting in some rather generic action sequences. Together with the half-baked screenplay, it ends up less bad than simply bland.

V&DresizeVIOLET AND DAISY- Everything that’s right about Violet and Daisy can be summed up with the beginning. During the first few minutes the title teen girl characters, dressed as nuns, clean out an apartment full of armed men with handguns, culminating with a pretty faithful cover of “Angel of the Morning.” Everything that’s wrong with Violet and Daisy can be summed up with the mawkish, sentimental ending. A story of two unusual assassins, it definitely has its moments, but ultimately falls under its own pretension, like someone trying to set a Thomas Pynchon novel on a Jenga tower.

I decided to watch the film based on the cast, who are the bulk of what works about it. Saoirse Ronan is Daisy. Light and airy like the spongecake that seems to exist between her character’s ears, she seems to be drifting through much of the film on a pink cloud. Alexis Bledel is Violet, the more hardass of the two and I’m not sure how I feel about that. I don’t mean to disregard her acting ability because I actually thought she was pretty great on Gilmore Girls, but if it had been a more one-note performance and not included some pretty wild temperamental shifts, she probably would have been better. As it is, I wonder if the chemistry between them would have worked better if they’d switched roles, especially having seen Hana. A pre-death James Gandolfini is a target that takes the girls by surprise. He’s not bad. But like the film itself, he descends into mawkishness eventually. I’m not sure how much of this is problems with the script and how much of it is issues with the directing.

The performances/directing is definitely stylized and reminds me almost of the performances in Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko, despite being very different films. Probably because it involves a couple of young characters spouting nonsense dialogue with severe conviction like it’s gospel. Plus both include really bizarre surreality at random as well. Now inject into that a sense of Quentin Tarantino-style cartoonish playfulness for some of the crime aspects, including a complete disregard for linear storytelling and the (albeit more subtle) use of graphics. The titlecard reveals, among other things, that the film is in technicolor and 3D, but it is very small, almost like they intend it to be an inside joke for the filmmaker. It also divides itself up into chapters, some very short, with a brief name for each.

It’s a fun film stuck with some horrible dead spots. Or is it a mediocre movie with small flashes of delirious coolness? Either way, it’s not a film I can recommend, but I did laugh a decent amount and I don’t regret seeing it. Even though it’d probably make a better play than a film. It feels like an effort of someone with potential but who needs to learn more about tone and structure and rein in the instinct to deepen the story by creating an aspartame ending full of false sweetness.

KoSresizeKINGS OF SUMMER- If I were 16 years old, The Kings of Summer might be one of my favorite movies. As it is, it made me laugh a lot, both at the a-holish behavior of Nick Offerman as a recently widowed father and the angst-shellaced pubescent antics of a trio of teens that decide to build a home in the woods to assert their independance and masculinity.

Like a guaze-wrapped summer daydream, it spins a golden tale of boys becoming men (in the traditional sense, not the way that most teen comedies do by having them lose their virginity) and failing along the way. Joe is the defacto leader of the group, ironic as his friend Mike is the larger and more centered of them. Then there’s Biaggio, a strange kid that seems like the ethnic offspring of Dwight Schrute, spouting nonsense and playing with a machete the size of his arm.

Sick of their parents’ interference, they retreat to the middle of nowhere so that no one can find them and proceed to live (almost) off the grid, building a suprisingly sturdy house out of found objects. They play, swim, explore and basically do what boys do in the woods. Of course this can’t last forever and a combination of hormones and hurt feelings threatens to destroy their Eden, but that’s always the way it goes. In the meantime, there’s some great one liners and deviations about Chinese food and board games.

The cast is largely excellent with some surprise actors taking part. Alison Brie, one of my official crushes and star of Community, is a secondary player and there are appearances by 24’s Mary Lynn Rajskub and Arrested Development’s Tony Hale. The music is also interesting as it liltingly flips from indie to chiptunes.

I highly recommend taking up Kings of Summer for a viewing, especially once the season finally hits and we get out of this winter hellhole. As it was, at least it reminded me of a time without snow. And that was something I really needed after the last couple of months.

Kent’s Movie Diary: Machetes, Swords, Hammers and… Ghosts.

MachetePoster

That’s right folks! It’s time for another Movie Diary, filled with what I’ve had my eyeballs glued to over the last week or two.

MACHETE/MACHETE KILLS– How does one even begin to review Robert Rodriguez’s Machete films? In a way, they’re made to be critic proof, much like the Grindhouse double-feature they spun off of (especially Rodriguez’s Planet Terror half.) I’m not even sure what to call them. The first is essentially doing little more than grafting Mexican culture onto 70s-style blaxploitation films, especially the kind that promoted the “revolution.” It almost feels like the La Raza charter was simply put into a word processing program. Because really, who doesn’t want to end their film with a good, old-fashioned race war? And then the type of over-the-top, insane action sequences you see in Bollywood film clips on youtube were randomly inserted. It’s not a parody of blaxploitation. Not in the strict sense that Black Dynamite was. But there’s far too many winks at the audience to really qualify as straight homage, either. And as Drew McWeeny over at hitfix.com pointed out last week in his review of Pompeii, because they aren’t taking themselves seriously, they don’t really count as camp.

Really what they end up being are entertaining messes. Especially the second which, while still trying to make political points with the subtlety of a baseball bat to the coconut, is far more focused on simply being as insane as possible for 90 minutes. It holds up surprisingly well considering the first film suffers in comparison to the Grindhouse trailer that preceded it.

Danny Trejo is, of course, pretty much fantastic in his star turn. His acting is terrible and spot-on at the same time. And the inability of beautiful women to keep their hands off him despite his chainsaw sculpture face is a great recurring gag. Michele Rodriguez, meanwhile, does some of the best work of her career in the films, parading around in skimpy clothes and an eyepatch, yet somehow exuding more character than all of her appearances in the Fast and Furious films combined.

Machete KillsPosterIn a lot of the secondary roles, it almost seems like these films are serving as actor rehab. Lindsay Lohan shows up in a small part in the first film and when she’s replaced by an obvious double, it’s damned funny. Charlie Sheen as the president is just plain surreal. And while I know we all hate Mel Gibson now, he tears into his role as the bad guy in Machete Kills with gusto. He seems to have just decided to own the crazy thing. Given how bad Hangover II was, he should probably be thanking Zach Galifianakis for getting him booted from that production. This suits him better. (I was going to make a comment doing some compare/contrast with Roman Polanski, but I don’t need that kind of heat right now.)

I’m not sure why it is that these films didn’t completely connect with me. Sure, I enjoyed them a lot despite the flaws. Many of which I am sure were built in. But they are cinematic Taco Bell. In one end and nigh immediately out the other. But, like Iron Sky, I’m simply glad that they exist even if they didn’t manage to be home runs. I’m sure I’ll watch them again when I need to satiate my desire for goofy bloodshed.

ZatoichiPilgramagePosterZATOICHI’S PILGRAMMAGE/ZATOICHI’S CANE SWORD– I am now more than halfway through the Zatoichi films produced through the 60s. I think I’m getting to the end of the Daiei films, but I’m not sure, I’ll have to check the book that came with it. In any case, these are two excellent entries in the series.

In Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage, our eponymous hero seeks to repent for some of the blood that he’s spilled (last measured as enough to fill a killer whale tank at Sea World) by visiting 88 temples across Japan. Of course this plan immediately goes off the rails because he’s attacked and has to defend himself. He ends up with the assassin’s sister, who takes him in. In the process, he ends up in a classic High Noon situation in which a village won’t defend itself against a gang of criminal hoods making life miserable for them. Ichi is the only one that will take them on, albeit reluctantly. The farmers haven’t seen Seven Samurai, I guess.

The swordplay is good in this one, but not spectacular. The real reason to watch it is simply because it’s a great character piece for Ichi. He doesn’t want to be a hero, but at the same time his sense of honor will not allow him to back out without defending the person he sees himself as having wronged. Regardless of how much he may try to talk himself out of it.

ZatoichiCaneSwordZatoichi’s Cane Sword, the fifteenth film, is one of the best in the series thus far. It’s got a lot of wit and manages to balance the drama with humor. Something the series can struggle with at times as different films can veer wildly from dour to fluffy. Ichi remains fairly consistent in character through them, which is why even the most mediocre of the films tends to still work on at least a level of basic entertainment. But the best are the ones that manage to be well-rounded.

The story itself is admittedly something that has been done many times within the series. Gangsters and corrupt government officials conspire to oppress the people, they kill the wrong folks to gain power, they tick Zatoichi off and lots of people die. But the power is, as always, in the execution. (Execution often being a key word with these films.) And this one is really well made. It also goes a little bit into the history of his ever-present sword cane, part of what feeds into his iconic persona. Samurai movies often manage to fetishize blades and this one does a great job of showing it done right. It definitely comes across as more rewarding than finding out about Jack’s tattoo on Lost. This wouldn’t be the first Zatoichi film I showed people to get them into the films, but it would be on the short list for people that want to pick a handful of them rather than watch the entire series.

ConjuringPosterTHE CONJURING– Who knew James Wan had it in him? After slumming around in the Saw series, he’s put out what I would say is one of the best straight-up horror flicks in a really long time.

This isn’t just because the film is well-made, however. Though it is. The cinematography, despite being partially dependent on my usually hated documentary style, is great. Shots are given room to breath and while there are definitely jumpcuts, they’re not overused. Part of this is because the film wisely uses a slow-build to the more outrageous and showy stuff towards the end. It starts with creaks and whispers interrupting periods of silence. The sense of dread is palpable.

But one of the real reasons this film is a standout is the job that Patrick WIlson and Vera Farmiga do in portraying real life, married paranormal investigators, The Warrens. It’s hard to believe that using a couple of ghost hunters actually grounds a film, but their personalities are actually believable. They aren’t portrayed as kooks. They are religious and well versed in Catholicism. They are not looking for proof in life after death. They already believe in it because of their religious backgrounds. They don’t blindly accept that everything is caused by the supernatural. They look for proof. They start every case with a healthy dose of skepticism. And they provide heroes to root for against the evil presence haunting a family in 70s Rhode Island that serves as the focus of the film.

It’s supposedly based on a true story, but we all know how far that usually goes when it comes to movies. But because of its structure, it doesn’t immediately drop a bunch of CGI slime on you. And because of that, it feels more believable. (I found the first half scarier than the second, actually.) It’s too bad more films don’t follow this mantra. I mean, Ghostbusters didn’t drop the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in during the first fifteen minutes. The Conjuring takes its time.

I’m sure there will be people that consider themselves above this type of film. Many of them are snide folks that don’t allow themselves to be scared by films or let a story pull them in. I feel sorry for those folks.

I also think the film is a travesty of an R-rating. While I certainly wouldn’t want to show it to a child, the film has very little on-screen violence, minimal gore and almost no real swearing to speak of. It’s only rated R because the people viewing it felt it was too darn effective, which is ridiculous. I would say it is appropriate for any teen that is mature enough to handle it. There are 14-year-olds that will be able to handle the film better than some middle-aged people. It’s just one more example of the fact that the MPAA’s system is flawed with its rigidity and resultant decisions.

all-hail-the-kingTHOR: THE DARK WORLD/ALL HAIL THE KINGIt’s pretty easy for folks to see what I thought about the sequel to Thor and its post-Avengers leap into deeper mythology.

(To summarize, it’s an extremely fun and confident film, especially for a first time filmmaker, that does a great job expanding on the characters.)

I think I actually enjoyed the film more the second time around. It’s not perfect, but it’s got a great energy and I love some of the weird ideas presented. I do wish they’d managed to work the blue/black designs in for the dark elves, but we can’t get everything we want.

The real thing to point out though is that the video release includes the latest and most ambitious of Marvel Films’ “One-Shot” series and it’s the best one yet. All Hail the King is a sequel to Iron Man 3 and picks up during the incarceration of Trevor Slattery. (I’m kind of assuming the people reading this review have seen IM3 considering about a quarter of the planet was represented in its box-office figures. So you are warned.)

The faux Mandarin is actually enjoying more success behind bars than he ever did during his career and he’s taking full advantage. The fifteen minute short is pretty much hilarious and Ben Kingsley is in fine form. Not only that, but it actually addresses some of the butthurt that myself and other fans of The Mandarin felt when the film universe essentially pooped the bed in his use. While I found Iron Man 3 to be extremely entertaining, I’ll admit that the twist, while funny, meant switching from a very effective villain to little more than a retread of the first two films.

King manages to fix some of that damage. For some it may be too little, too late, but for me it was a welcome semi-apology. While most Marvel cinephiles will most likely already be buying the film to continue their collections, the inclusion of the short really does increase the value of the release. I applaud Marvel for putting so much effort into it and hope for the best in the future.

Kent’s Movie Diary: Netflix Roundup

I’ve been trying to catch up on some stuff in my Netflix queue. Finally. I had the same discs sitting in front of my TV for, like, four months. So let’s take stock of some things I’ve seen lately on blu ray.

OMFUG! CBGB: Those of us who are fans of old school punk (aka those of us who listen to The Ramones and don’t just wear their shirts) all know about CBGB, the club that gave rise to great punk and new wave bands when the rest of the country was awash in the horrors of disco and arena rock. Blondie (back before they went disco themselves), Talking Heads, Television and many other bands got their start on its stage, in front of floors packed with people that weren’t smart enough to run from the bankrupt, rat-infested 10th level of hell that was New York in the 70s.

Alan Rickman is probably one of my favorite actors. Hans Gruber? Snape? The Metatron? Take your pick. He tends to be great in most things he does. However, he typically isn’t trying to play a New Jersey Jew and, honestly, his American accent has gone a little downhill since he was in Die Hard. They try to make up for this by mostly giving him monosyllabic dialogue, but it’s still more a fun excursion than a great performance as CBGB’s owner, Hilly Kristal.

The film isn’t great, but I actually did find it a pretty solid bit of entertainment for a fellow with my interests. There are a surprising number of people that you may recognize in it. Rupert Grint plays one of The Dead Boys, a band known for their outrageous stage shows involving cutting, sex and asphyxiation. Stana Katic of Castle and Bradley Whitford are record execs. That annoying guy from Big Bang Theory is a manager. (I know what you’re thinking; could you be more specific?) Donal Logue wears a hardhad at all times. It’s pretty fun playing Where’s Waldo with them.

The aesthetics are too playful for some of the darker themes of the film, though. It makes better use of a comic book framing device than Ang Lee’s Hulk did (using Punk magazine as its basis for doing so) but the whole thing seems to suffer from a tonal problem. Still, for anyone that loves this kind of music, I say check it out. It’s worth a rental.

Jurassic Park it ain't. LAND OF THE LOST: I know the critical community took a dinosaur-sized crap on this film, based somewhat loosely on the Sid and Marty Krofft television series. And when I say loosely, it’s because most of the elements from the show are present: dinosaurs, time portals, Sleestaks, pylons… but it’s presented in a way that’s completely different. Instead of a family falling through a time portal to the Savage Land, what we have instead is a couple of scientists and a redneck. Will Ferrell is Dr. Rick Marshall, a professor that ruined his career by focusing on time travel and getting into a fight with a well known TV personality. Holly is recast as a British grad student that drags him back into research and looks good in some Daisy Dukes. And then there’s Will, a tourist trap owner played by Danny McBride. He’s pretty much just Danny McBride. Again.

And I can understand why this thing flopped at the box office and audiences stayed away in droves. It’s just plain weird. Like, cult film weird.

I have rattling around in my brain some particularly memorable bits and pieces of the show because they showed reruns on CBS Saturday mornings as I was growing up in the early 80s. And it really was pretty much an insane slice of psychedelia made on the cheap, mostly distinguishable from the Kroffts’ other works by its tone. And the tone was kind of creepy, honestly. As laughable as the effects and the production values may have been, for a kid, it was kind of nightmare fuel. And the movie goes hog wild with the complete bizarreness of the world they created. The plot really doesn’t make sense in a lot of cases, but it also doesn’t pretend to. It uses logic as toilet paper. I use that metaphor because the movie is also kind of filthy. I’m surprised at some of the jokes they got away with in a PG-13 film.

That said, I actually liked the movie. Quite a bit, in fact. There were definitely gags that did not land and a lot of the references to the original show are just plain too on the nose. Actually, so much so that I think they were purposely doing them that way. You can practically see Ferrell playing chicken with the audience when he pauses with drama prior to every use of the movie’s title in his lines. But I thought Ferrell was pretty damn funny doing his pompous idiot routine. I liked the psychedelic rock used in the soundtrack. I liked the grainy, washed out cinematography. I liked the great Sleestak costumes and the terrible CGI effects. And I just plain liked the balls out ridiculousness of the script. Maybe this is based too much on it being a deserved lampooning of my nostalgia, but I enjoyed the hell out of it.

Or don't. Totally up to you.SLEEPWALK WITH ME: Mike Birbiglia is a stand-up comedian who became well-known for a one-man show in which he talks about his experiences with a rare sleep disorder which causes him to act out his dreams. After performing on NPR’s English Major wankfest This American Life, he and show host Ira Glass decided to adapt his autobiographical comedy act into a film.

In some ways you could say that the film is an indie equivalent to Howard Stern’s Private Parts. (Albeit a PG-13 rated one.) He says it is about 70% accurate to his life with some events mixed around and some cinematic shorthand applied. See, Mike is a pretty regular guy working a crappy job and having a dream to make it in stand-up comedy. The problem is that he’s completely awful at it. Regardless, he begins pursuing gigs while his relationship to his long-term girlfriend starts to slowly disintegrate in large part due to his fears of marriage and children. The couple’s horrible friends certainly don’t help. This anxiety triggers his ever-increasingly dangerous and bizarre sleepwalking adventures.

Despite the depressing premise of a failing relationship, the film not only manages to be funny, but it hits on being genuinely sweet at times. He doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to saying that he did things wrong which actually works in his favor. “Remember that you’re supposed to be on my side,” he apologetically says to the audience. It could come across as cheesy, but instead seems genuine. I highly recommend spending seventy minutes with him. It is definitely an excellent film.

Furious 6! Vin smash! FAST AND FURIOUS 6: I have not seen all of the F&F movies. I took the strange move of seeing the first in the theater when it came out and then seeing the fifth in the theater due to interest drummed up from rave reviews. I did not see any of the others in-between. I’m thinking I need to go back and catch the ones in the middle. Maybe make it one of the series I catch up on since I’m switching between several of them. (Currently in the middle of the Zatoichi films and the Star Trek Next Gen films, which we’ll get back to.)

Like the last film, Justin Lin (who’s best work I still consider to be the paintball episode of Community) is at the helm and he creates one hell of a fun, stupid ride. The script is an absolute mess. It’s just dumb. Like, dumb as my sister-in-law’s mentally challenged Boston Terrier. It makes Fast Five seem downright Shakespearian. There are plot points that don’t make even the slightest bit of sense, twists that make you say, “Whaaaa?” and some serious problems with physics. But damn does he know how to do action scenes and do them well. He’s basically a very talented director in search of better material.

The reason to watch this film, like always, is to see some good, old fashioned chases and wrecks. Due to CGI there aren’t enough of them nowadays and it’s great that there’s at least one franchise that is keeping stuntmen employed. Plus, with some of the vintage vehicles they pull out, you’re getting some classic car porn. The actors are still really likable. Putting them all in the same film is what really kicked the franchise into new territory when most film series would have died. The problem is that my favorite two characters are gone by the end of film, which cuts into my interest in the upcoming seventh film (currently scrambling to recover from the death of Paul Walker).

It’s hard to believe that this franchise has become one of the most successful in Hollywood history. I suppose maybe part of it is because there’s been surprisingly little imitation of it. In my head, I’m assuming it is because it was a slow-growth success where most copycats go after things that are overnight sensations. Either way, despite my misgivings about the intelligence of the plotting, I am much less insulted by this series that quietly serves its fanbase than I am more aggressively stupid fare like the Transformers films. So I say keep making them as long as they’re entertaining.

Let's listen to the Picard song on repeat! STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT- And here’s the first film in these reviews that I did not get from Netflix. I’m very, very slowly making my way through the Star Trek movies. I love the original cast and I am a big fan of the JJ Abrams helmed films (more so the first than Into Darkness, though both are well made) but I’ve never been a great lover of Next Generation. I’m a Kirk man through and through.

That said, I am a big fan of this film for multiple reasons and it was nice to revisit it. Picard actually does things. The action is handled well, even if there isn’t that much of it. It manages to build on some squiggy plotpoints from Generations in a positive way. (Mostly Data’s emotion chip.) And it has a lot of humor involved.

I guess the way I would try to sum it all up succinctly is that it doesn’t succumb to shoving its head up its own butt as I’ve learned to expect from a lot of modern Trek with Berman and Braga. The blu ray looks pretty darn good and showcases the then cutting edge work ILM did on it (watch for the cameo by the Millenium Falcon fighting the Borg cube), even if there are some examples of the problems of early CGI.

I haven’t seen Treks 9 and 10, so the next couple of films will be new to me. I’ve heard that First Contact is the one excellent film they did with the characters, so it’ll be interesting to see if I agree with fan sentiment or if I’ll enjoy them more since I’m not particularly invested.

Kent’s Movie Diary: Samurai, Santa and Scooby-Doo

The Criterion Zatoichi set is insane.

The Criterion Zatoichi set is insane.

ZATOICHI- I’m about halfway into the Zatoichi film series and man, is it a lot of fun.

After ordering the 25-film set from Criterion when it came out around November, I’ve been picking at it here and there, sometimes watching a couple of films in a row, sometimes going a couple of weeks between films, depending on how busy I am and whether I feel like breaking them up and watching other films inbetween.

I’d say the set is the best blu ray release of 2013 for a number of reasons. First, because of the sheer manpower that went into it. Each of the films has a short essay/description of the film, which is certainly not rare for the company, but what’s really great is that each is accompanied by an art piece inspired by the film by a different illustrator or comic artist. You’ve also got decent transfers for the films, despite being three films to a disc. (Unusual for Criterion, but they also had both versions of Godzilla/Gojira on the same disc.) And, despite my incredulity over the unnecessary size of the set due to the redundant inclusion of all the films on DVD (leading to a mammoth 27-discs), the box itself is gorgeous. Frankly the whole thing has had care lavished upon it. I highly recommend picking it up.

One of many Zatoichi films and one of my personal faves so far.

One of many Zatoichi films and one of my personal faves so far.

As for the films themselves, they start out very strong and have a surprising amount of continuity between them in the beginning, especially in the opening trilogy or so. After that, unfortunately, it peters away and only gets brought up as convenient exposition. At the point I am at, having just finished film twelve, Zatoichi and the Chess Expert, they’re starting to seem more like a well-made TV series. (In fact, the films would finally give way to a TV series starring the same actor in the role which would run for many episodes.) There are actors showing up in different roles and plots starting to feel recycled. Not to mention some more cliche story elements like the old “main character finds himself saddled with a baby” chestnut. In a way that is a bit hard to avoid though as, while Ichi isn’t a samurai per se, the films share the same DNA and there are a lot of them in the films. If America has the Western then samurai movies are the “Eastern.” The two have a lot in common, down to the samurai or the gunslinger being constantly challenged by rivals determined to prove they’re the best. Each is full of themes that repeat ad nauseum and the quality of the production often outweighs how original they are simply because the tropes loom so large.

And in that sense, the Zatoichi films fare well because they are full of great character moments and fantastic, if sometimes short and spread out, action sequences. Seeing him take down those that try to cheat him due to his blindness really never does get old. He is a classic rogue. He stands up for the rights of others, but he’s no angel. He gambles, he drinks and he loves to stuff his face like a glutton. I can’t wait to get to some of the great sounding chapters to come up, like the one in which he faces Tishiro Mifune’s character from Yojimbo.

Because what the world was waiting for was a tattooed Santa, ready for Coke cans.

Because what the world was waiting for was a tattooed Santa, ready for Coke cans.

RISE OF THE GUARDIANS- I remember this film doing reasonably well at the box office, but Dreamworks being very disappointed that it didn’t do better. Part of that may be because it has some things in common with The Avengers, putting together the most well known of children’s myths into a kind of super-team. Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, Sandman and, as a new member, Jack Frost comprise the Guardians. And as such, they have to fight the Boogeyman. It sounds good on paper, but I’ll admit that it just seemed to be missing something. Maybe part of it is that kids love to be scared and the Boogeyman could have been a great personification of Halloween instead of a really generic villain. Part of it may have been the fact that it represents one weird theology.

The Guardians are all creatures that have been created/appointed by the Man in the Moon, who is a stand-in for God, apparently. And he created the Boogeyman for a reason that is unclear. And he let him go off and scare people for a really long time before he changed his mind and had the Guardians take him out somewhere around the Enlightenment. So the Boogeyman is kind of Satan, I guess? Meanwhile, Santa is Russian. This despite the fact that the films says all the Guardians started as regular people, so one would assume that would be St. Nicholas, who was Turkish. And the Easter Bunny is Australian. There’s not really an explanation for that either, but he’s huge and uses boomerangs. Maybe it’s because Sony had already used the Easter Island gag for Hop. (Santa’s elves seem distractingly similar to the Minions from their Despicable Me movies as well.)

These weird ticks aren’t quite as damning as the awkward attempts to inject schmaltz though. Spoiler alert, at one point a kid, who has just spent the last 20 minutes hanging out with all of them asks what happens if he stops believing in the Guardians. Why would he? That’s like not believing in carrots even though you are currently in the middle of eating them. It made me think of that guy in the Stan Freberg Dragnet parody that doesn’t believe in Santa Claus or Columbus. (He hadn’t made up his mind about Toledo.) That’s one hell of a fragile belief system, kid. And this nonsensical moment is no doubt shoehorned into the story to make sure they can throw in an obligatory speech about the importance of “belief.” Not anything specific, mind you. Just believe in believing. Sort of the Unitarian Church of story morals.

Despite all the nitpicking (when did this turn into a Red Letter Media video?), it’s a solid enough effort with some decent visuals and a fun idea behind it. Those with kids should check it out.

Doo is right.

Doo is right.

SCOOBY-DOO/SCOOBY-DOO 2: MONSTERS UNLEASHED- Given my excitement over the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy (and my appreciation for Slither and Super), I decided to give Scooby Doo another chance. What does one have to do with the other you may ask? Well, if you were an IMDB obsessive, you may know that James Gunn, the director (and writer) of those films, wrote the screenplays for the two theatrical, live-action Scooby films.

Direct to video Velma. Jesus, she's adorable!

Direct to video Velma. Jesus, she’s adorable!

To be clear, as far as I know he had nothing to do with the other ones that have been made for the direct-to-video market. You know, the ones where Velma is suddenly Asian? (Which I am actually really OK with for obvious reasons.)

While I can say I didn’t hate Scooby Doo as much as I did back when I saw it after it first came out, I can say it’s still not very good. At all. Sure, a few things work. You’ve got Matthew Lilliard giving the performance of his career as Shaggy. It’s just too bad they give him so little of merit to do. By the time he and Scoob have their big fart-off, it’s obvious that he’s way better than the material here. Yeah, I said it. And then there’s Linda Cardelini from Freaks and Geeks as Velma. She’s also terrific. She manages to present one of the more likable versions of the character. Again, no thanks to Gunn’s script. And by the way, she’s by far the hottest of the group between her and Daphne.

Theatrical Velma in her Rob Liefeld designed outfit.

Theatrical Velma in her Rob Liefeld designed outfit.

And don’t get me wrong, I like Sarah Michelle Gellar. I’m a fan of Buffy from the way, way back and I had a not unreasonable crush on her at the time. She’s not even necessarily terribly cast in the role had it been written as the character on the original TV show. Sort of like how Arnold Schwartzenegger wasn’t a terrible choice for Mr. Freeze… if they’d treated him as the emotionless block of ice from the cartoon instead of the pun-spewing cinematic shrinkage he was written as in Batman and Robin, trying to ape the 60s show.

But that’s the biggest problem with both of the Scooby films. Neither of them treat the characters as they are in the cartoon. They act as poor sequels to the cartoon with the characters in a state of flux. These aren’t the characters we have seen for the last forty years. They’re completely different. It’s like doing a Little Rascals film in which Spanky and Alfalfa are grown-ups, talking about mortgages in their clubhouse. In the case of the first film, it’s trying far too hard to be both a Doo movie and a parody of the TV show based on countless bad stand-up routines from the 80s about Shaggy smoking weed or Velma being a lesbian. A far, far less clever version of what was cranked out in The Brady Bunch Movie. But while the Brady’s were celebrated, winning out over those that made fun of them for being out of time, the Scooby gang are twisted around into socially retarded dopes and neurotics. Not to mention that it abandons the basic tennents of the series by having the ultimate bad guy (yet another gag that sounds far more clever as an internet joke than a plot point) be supernaturally powered.

I suppose that might be why so many folks were pleasantly surprised by the second film. It carries over many, many problems of the first film, (like the fact that Scooby still looks like he was rendered on a graphics chip for a PS2) but it does manage to succeed in making its spastic tone settle the hell down. It’s far more a straight-up Doo movie without as many of the jokes that were far too blatant to be “wink wink” in the first film. And in the end, when Mystery Inc. gets the bad guy, it feels much more like it should. There may be “real monsters” now, but they were created by someone using the same kind of hackneyed science that allowed movie projectors and glow paint and air-powered jet packs to somehow create convincing ghosts in the first place.

It also has by far the funniest line in either film, delivered by Peter Boyle in reference to those damn bushes.

It’s not a great film. Hell, I’d struggle to call it a good one. But compared to the first it was definitely a step in the right direction. I wonder what would have happened if someone besides Raja Gosnell had directed them. Someone with some more style and an ability to create more atmosphere. That was what I really loved about the original cartoons. The look of the creepy houses. The music. Is it wierd I think about the Nolan Batman films when I think about how it’s been long enough since these came out that someone could take over and restart the franchise? I just think of someone like Guillermo Del Toro taking over and I get a little giddy. Or Alfonso Curon. (Before you give me the middle finger, remember that he did Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.)

I have to imagine that Gosnell was a large part of why these films failed if only because Gunn has a history of schizophrenic films that juggle ideas and when he has helmed his own projects, he’s been able to balance his crazy better. Then again, most of his other projects were balls-out R-rated meyhem. I guess we’ll just have to see how well he’s able to do with a PG-13 next summer.

Kent’s Movie Diary: Midnite Confession

DiaryWomaninGreen10/18/13-
I have been super busy with work lately, but I’ve still had a chance to watch a few things in my down time. Yet more Sherlock Holmes was in there with The Woman in Green, a murder mystery which is one of the films I was most familiar with going into watching the set. It reintroduces Moriarty and makes it plain just how much they reused actors in the series as many of the characters are played by people that had previously appeared in differing roles. Moriarty himself was previously a red herring in at least one of the films where Holmes battles the Nazis. You would think that since they had the same people playing Holmes, Watson, Lestrad and even Mrs. Hudson through the series, someone as important as Moriarty would be constant as well, but rather we get a different Napoleon of crime in each outing. I guess it could be considered a metaphor for his slippery nature. Or maybe he’s a Time Lord. Anyway, this is another one of the fairly good outings from the series, though not as moody or atmospheric as some of the earlier films. At this point they were beginning to wind down and I remember some of the later films being a bit more mediocre. But I’ll still soldier on.

DiaryDaimajinI also finished the final Daimajin film, Wrath of Daimajin. It closes the series in grand style, even if it falls on the old chestnut of using children as the protagonists in order to elicit more feels from the audience. As usual, there are warlords and thieves up to no good and they get their just deserts as the ancient god stomps his way to justice. For a series that follows structure so rigidly, it managed to stay surprisingly fresh. Plus I think the visual quality was a step back in the right direction after some squiffy effects work made the second look not quite as good as the first. I absolutely recommend the set for those that enjoy this sort of thing.

 

DiaryDrumsI got another Twilight Time release with Drums Along the Mohawk, a John Ford film from the late 30s that stars Henry Fonda (who would later be in his Grapes of Wrath) as well as Claudette Colbert and a few of his stalwart acting company like Ward Bond. The film looks nothing less than astonishing given its age. Part of that may be due to the fact that, while extremely popular at its release, it hasn’t been regarded as the kind of classic that some of Ford’s other films have and it undoubtedly was handled less. The other part would have to be that it was created using the same kind of technicolor process that went into The Wizard of Oz.

I can’t think of a great Revolutionary War film, which is too bad since it’s a fascinating period of history. (I never officially declared a focus when getting my history degree, but that period is probably the one I came closest to doing so with.) Mohawk may be the closest there is. We see very little of the actual fighting, but we see life among the “frontier” back when the frontier was still in places like New York. The Redcoats strike up deals with many of the local Indians, leading to many of the colonists losing their homes during the war. They’re led by walking cadaver John Carradine, who folks like myself will recognize from his many appearances in Mystery Science Theater 3000, in the role of head Tory. It’s episodic and has moments of melodrama, but damned if it isn’t also funny and entertaining in the style of many of his Western epics that would follow.

DiaryMalena and MeLast weekend I went to Horror on the Boulevard again. It’s an annual triple feature put on by the Boulevard Drive-In of Kansas City. This year the quality average of the films was definitely higher. Sure, last year had the original Dawn of the Dead, which is a bona fide classic. But it also had Demons, which was hilariously awful, and Nightmare on Elm Street 2, which sucks on toast. This year they had some pretty well known films I’d never seen before, but was looking forward to. It opened with Child’s Play and it was also bad, but in a much different way. It was a kind of a hoot. I laughed at the kills and the ridiculousness of the movie, while looking up on my phone that the cop is actually Prince Humperdink. Finally, that data plan is good for more than just a high-cost GPS. Second, we had Night of the Creeps, which I loved. It’s not quite a full-blown horror comedy, but you can tell that they’re being just tongue in cheek enough for it to work. I loved the black and white opening and the salty cop for whom everything is an opportunity to make a surly one-liner. I also enjoyed the frat guys that look like slightly burly versions of John Oates. We watched them from the back of my friend Jared’s beat-up pick-up while drinking Blue Moon pumpkin ale and eating Cheetos, but eventually even the blanket couldn’t keep the October chill at bay, so we took off before the final film.

DiaryDawnofDraculaHowever, I grabbed a copy of Dawn of Dracula, the feature debut of the Midnite Mausoleum crew. I’ve been a fan of the show for some time now and was glad to see Marlena Midnite, who I’ve referred to a few times as the DIY Vampira, host of the show and star of the film. I also got my picture taken with her and had not realized just how tiny she is until I saw it. Concentrated horror host cuteness. The debut of the film had been at the Friday night event (I had to go to the Saturday showing due to work, just one more reason for me to quit) so I wanted to pick it up and see it on my own.

Anyway, the film is exactly what you would expect if you’ve seen the show: cheap, questionably acted, full of bizarre jokes and weirdly charming because of it. Marlena’s Victoria Van Helsing has a wonderful British accent that wouldn’t fool a small child and Robyn Graves plays herself as per usual. The 70s setting is mostly an excuse to make Star Wars references and have a reason for not including cell phones. (And I suppose to be a semi-sequel to the Hammer films of the 50s that they are obviously pastiching.) The camerawork is certainly better than the show, but it still looks like somebody was just standing there pointing without a plan. Oh, and there’s a weird subplot involving a UK punk group’s new single that seems to exist just to make a third-grade style political jab. And it still works better than the stuff in Iron Sky. So you know what? I enjoyed the hell out of it. This is a bunch of friends doing something they obviously enjoy and putting it out there for us, just like the public access show that was their labor of love for over six years. And you’ll never look at strawberries or jelly donuts the same way.

It probably helps that I got a lot of the inside jokes that reference the show since I have watched a lot of it. (And will continue to since I just grabbed some more of their DVDs. I’ll be sitting my friend Jared down to watch their old Halloween special with Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things soon.) While the show is no more, this is a heck of a nice little capper to its existence and at only about 80 minutes, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. They’ve got a limited edition version of it out now that comes in an 8mm film can, so if you want one you should probably get it before it’s gone.

Kent’s Movie Diary: Wes Side

Yet another Holmes adventure!9/21/13- Yet another Sherlock Holmes film down. This time The House of Fear, a pretty faithful adaptation of The Adventure of the Orange Pips, one of the more famous of the short stories. I haven’t read the actual story in some time, so when I say faithful, I mean that considering the films were all supposed to take place in the present day of the 1940s, it is surprisingly devoid of “modern” detail. A lot of that is due to the fact that it is mostly a parlor mystery, rarely venturing outside an old mansion in which a group of eccentric bachelors have gathered and are being knocked off one-by-one. It’s one of the more stylish of the films, though they do seem to go overboard on the Dutch angles for a bit. While the opening of the movie is one of the more beaten up, the majority of it looks great.
It’s funny that Basil Rathbone failed in trying to start a Sherlock Holmes TV series in the 50s, because this was essentially a proto-TV series in the same mold as programs would air over the following three decades; stand-alone stories, about an hour long, with a consistent opening and closing. The fact that they made three a year even recalls the recent BBC series with Blunderbuss Chamberpot, I mean, Benedict Cumberbatch, which only has three feature-length episodes a season. And which I can’t wait for next year to see. (Hopefully they’ll find time in their schedules to keep making them every couple of years despite the schedules of everyone involved.)
9/24/13- Time for some Wes.
While I have long considered Rushmore one of my favorite films of all time, I did not see it 8-Rushmoresmallduring its initial theatrical release. Back in 1998 I saw it on video on a tiny television in a cinder-block constructed dorm room (you know, the kind that are like cement cubicles) and wasn’t all that impressed. But when I gave it another chance, I fell in love with the writing, the compositions, the music choices and the performances by nearly everyone involved. It certainly didn’t hurt that Max Fischer was like the movie version of me as a kid. He was my teenage faults and glories writ large. When I watch it, I feel a sudden burst of gusto that indicates I should be making the most of my life and filling it with opportunities.
When I get the chance to view one of my favorite films on the big screen, I usually take it. Since the KC Drafthouse decided to include it as part of it’s “back to school” programming I felt I had no choice but to revisit it. I was a little disappointed to find it wasn’t on film (I’m assuming it was a blown-up version of the Criterion blu ray) but it was still worth going out for if only for the sound. One wouldn’t expect an indie comedy to have much need for a system that will blow the doors off a Volkswagon, but when the montage of escalating revenge between Max and Blume suddenly erupts behind the proto-rock opera of The Who’s “A Quick One While He’s Away,” you know you’ve made the right choice. It’s this way for a lot of the British Invasion tunes for the soundtrack, actually. The immortal strains of The Creation’s “Making Time” (arguably the most famous part of the film) provides enough kick to absolutely pump you up from the very beginning.
As much as I love the majority of Anderson’s work, Rushmore does seem to be the best film he’s ever made and in my eyes he will probably never top it. It features the fantastic new wave visuals that have come to be synonamous with his name, but it is less rigid and, dare I say, ambitious than his later outings. The looseness and small-scale of the film are absolute perfection and the script by Anderson and Owen Wilson is playful while never skimping on emotion. They often prefer to let actions or visual cues speak for themselves rather than spelling out what every character is feeling through some monologue. Just note the transformation in Bill Murray’s character after Max’s olive branch at his dad’s barber shop. While he’s still the same guy, there is a fundamental shift in how he looks, beyond the shave and a haircut (two bits… sorry, couldn’t help myself.) The movie is filled with these kinds of choices that would only work in a film, and that’s part of what I love so much about it.

The_TenenbaumsSmallThis is all opposite Royal Tenenbaums, which I watched with John and, while he’s certainly had films that covered more territory, I would consider to be his most “epic” feeling film, what with the ambitiousness of covering two decades worth of the lives of this family. It’s done in a rather ingenious way. One that I think Arrested Development has been inspired by whole cloth, with the sudden flashback gags that slowly reveal a greater picture of their lives. Sometimes only to a picture or a piece of media that is expounded upon later. (Like the brilliant montage of Margot’s secret life set to “Judy is a Punk,” one of my favorite tunes.) So far I’ve been a huge fan of all but one of Anderson’s movies, but this really was the one-two punch that made him one of my favorite filmmakers.

Criterion just needs to put out Life Aquatic on blu ray so that I can finish the collection.

Kent’s Movie Diary: How do you mess up a Sharknado?

return-of-daimajin--29/13/13- Turns I was right about Daimajin following a formula the last time I wrote about it. In Return of Daimajin, the god/statue is back, this time a “lake god” instead of a mountain’s protector. Once again, it is seeking to protect a family in charge (guess those Japanese still had a thing about “divine right” back in the 60s) and once again it takes out an invader seeking to wrong the people out of greed. And once again, he doesn’t bother showing up until the end when a comely, kimonoed beauty pleads for it. And once again, he basically stomps around for a glorious 20 minutes at the end of the film.

The historical drama part of the story is, like the first one, pretty engaging as it is though, so it ends up being pretty damned entertaining on it’s own with the kaiju-style hijinx being the cherry on top. I’m not sure if maybe the budget went down with this one because while the effects are still pretty good, there are some instances where they just don’t measure up with the first one. There are a couple of moments in which the optical effects reminded me of some of the problems with Godzilla vs. King Kong. While I haven’t watched the final film of the trilogy yet and the mastering didn’t seem quite as good on this one as the first one, I have to recommend picking this set up if you find it inexpensively.

143687~The-Pearl-of-Death-PostersI’m continuing to watch the Universal Sherlock Holmes films on blu ray and The Pearl of Death definitely impresses by being not just a decent entry into the series (Holmes actually gets bested for once), but it also looks pretty great. This must be one of the instances where the UCLA Television and Film archive had access to a pretty clean print.
What surprises me is how the origin of the scripts seems to have little bearing on how good they turn out. This one is based on The Three Napoleons, one of Doyle’s stories. The Scarlet Claw, another top entry, was a new idea. Traditionally, you’d think the best ones would be all from the Doyle stories, but there have been weak instances of both. Just something I was thinking about.

As a bonus, it contains the appearance of Rondo Hatton as The Creeper. And who is that, you ask? Let me answer your question with a question. Have you seen The Rocketeer? Sinclair’s henchman Lothar was a tribute to him. You can also see him in The Brute Man, a film that was featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000. He doesn’t even have a line in The Pearl of Death and for the most part is shrouded in shadow for its running time, but when they finally reveal him, you get to see just how huge he was. I would call this one of my favorites of the series so far.

Critters9/16/13- Critters. Somewhere between Gremlins and Hobgoblins you lie.

I’d never seen the film before, but I grew up seeing the furry monster giving a smirking stink-eye from the VHS box in many a video store. And when I had had enough of work last Saturday night, I headed out to catch a late-night screening in Kansas City. Having seen it, I’m sure this was the right choice, as I can’t see there being a better way to see this Reagan-era relic of puppety violence than sitting in the theater with a scratchy 35mm print at midnight.

The movie itself isn’t fantastic by any stretch. It is clearly a Corman-esque attempt to capitalize on the Gremlins phenomenon (and it did so successfully considering there are more Critters films than the franchise that spawned it). Not only that, but it tries desperately to seem associated with the unrelated, in-jokey Amblin universe with a family cat named Chewie and an appearance by ET (in stuffed toy form), among other things.

It’s admittedly pretty entertaining, though seemingly meaner than Gremlins, despite the PG-13 rating. It fit perfectly in the early New Line Cinema oeuvre, back when they were a horror factory and hadn’t “legitimized” themselves with Lord of the Rings and such. The film made me laugh, but I’m not sure whether a few of the things that made me chuckle were supposed to be funny due simply to the period in which the film was made. Is the Bon Jovi-like singer supposed to be making fun of those types of “rockers” or was he actually supposed to seem cool? Those mooks skewed so close to parody anyway that it’s impossible for me to know without having been there. There also isn’t much in terms of recognizable star power. There’s that guy that looks like a rougher Charles Durning. And the mom from ET. And a young Billy Zane in full-on 80s douche mode, complete with little pony tail. I spent most of his screen time resisting the urge to tell him to put a cork in it.

piranha_poster_05The next night I decided to try out another couple of creature features. First up was Sharknado and, dear God, I knew it would be bad but I was expecting funny bad, not “complete and total incompetence” bad. It does lend itself to an interesting discussion on the nature of “bad” movies, however. Because after that I watched Piranha and while they’re two sides of the same coin, they couldn’t be more different.

The makers of Piranha (i.e. Joe Dante, Phil Tippet, John Sayles, etc.) went in knowing what they were making; a Jaws knock-off that was going to be pretty ridiculous. But they sought to make the best darn movie about killer, genetically enhanced piranahs they could. There’s definitely room for fun in the film, plus the editing is well done and there’s a comprehensible story to follow. The piranah themselves work surprisingly well despite their obvious practical effect limitations. It’s a fun exploitation film that, despite being one of Dante’s first films, has managed to stay popular because it is more than the sum of it’s parts. There’s a reason it’s fondly remembered as one of the best films to come out of Roger Corman’s New World schlock factory.

No, seriously. How do you @*$( this up?

No, seriously. How do you @*$( this up?

The makers of Sharknado, on the other fin, are The Asylum. This is the infamous studio that puts out awful knock-offs for clueless idiots to grab without thinking, like Transmorphers and Atlantic Rim. The kind of movies that causes initially excited children to cry the delicious, salty tears of disappointment upon with The Asylum feeds. (I swear to God, it’s gotten so bad that they even had a trailer for a fake Tyler Perry movie.) So you know out of the gate that it will be a terrible movie. But given the name “Sharknado,” one would assume it started out its development tongue in cheek and should be fun in an outrageously stupid kind of way. And it certainly is that. But it’s so ineptly made, that I can only assume they’d gone to film School at Ed Wood Tech. It makes Manos: The Hands of Fate seem like a masterpiece of logical plotting. It’s one thing to make a stupid or strange or over the top movie on purpose. I love a lot of movies that fall under that category. It’s another to make a stupid movie so terribly that it starts to ruin the fun. Sharknado has everything; a script in which main characters die without the viewer ever even knowing their names, incomprehensible editing, stock footage that is completely out of place with the film, the worst CGI you will ever see this side of Birdemic, a disdain for the most rudimentary of even Hollywood action movie physics, a token global warming reference as the reason for everything bad that’s happening… I am very conflicted as far as whether I liked it or not because for me there’s a fine line between something that is accidentally bad because people don’t know any better and something that is bad because they just didn’t care. Sharknado seems more like the latter, and that’s the thing that doesn’t sit well with me. It’s not parody or satire, or even a surrealist exercise in storytelling like Axe Cop. It’s nowhere near clever enough. Yet at the same time, I feel a desire within me to force others to watch this out of disbelief that something this poorly executed exists.