Friday, December 31, 2010

The Obligatory Lazy End Of Year Lists

Another year has gone by and its time for some more end-of-the-year filler-- I mean, a retrospective of what’s gone past. Yeah. That’s it.

Soooo, with that in mind (and the fact that updates were interrupted at a few points in time this year) here’s the 10 Best Surprises of the Year (because I‘m too lazy to dig up 20 this time). Like last year, it excludes all the stuff that I’ve watched multiple times in the past, like the Star Wars Trilogy and Ghostbusters. So, keep in mind, this is all stuff that I saw for the first time for this project this year and covered in reviews.

10) Legend of Drunken Master
Jackie Chan and booze. It’s a recipe for comedy. Definitely light on content, its heavy on slapstick and fight scenes and is a perfect kung fu ADVENTURE!

9) Flash Gordon
Thoroughly insane, campy as all hell and so British it shits the queen (pun not entirely intended), it manages to be an epic example of “so-bad-its-awesome.”

8) Stripes
Incredibly subversive yet warm and fuzzy at the same time. That’s impressive.

7) Lethal Weapon
Great characters, great chemistry between the leads, great action and some pretty despicable villains gives you a really well-made buddy cop actioner. And its a Christmas movie.

6) Road House
It ranks up there with the guiltiest of pleasures. A story about the two-fisted adventures of a philosophical bouncer is about as dumb as it sounds, but its also way more awesome than it has any right to be.

Top 5
5) Reservoir Dogs
Simple and made on the cheap, Tarantino’s debut is witty, disturbing and gritty as hell and totally worth watching. Liked it more than Pulp Fiction.

4) Layer Cake
Its like Snatch., only not astronomically overrated.

3) Black Dynamite
Oh yes. Oh. Hell. Yes. And its getting an animated series on [Adult Swim]

2) Murder, My Sweet
Quite possibly my new favorite film noir movie because of the engrossing characters, killer dialogue, and some clever hallucinatory effects. Nothing but love for this.

1) Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Take 1 part Robert Downey Jr., 1 part Val Kilmer, 2 parts Shane Black, add film noir to taste and you get one of the funniest movies ever made.

And now once again, its time for the Bottom Ten Biggest Disappointments of the year, because who doesn’t want to end the year on a list of downers?

Honorable Mention since I haven’t officially reviewed it yet.
Troll 2
One of the true claimants to “Worst Movie Ever Made,” it rightly deserves its place in the pantheon of schlock. However, actually watching it creates a kind of narcotic effect where your mind gets numbed to the pain and all you can do is laugh at the madness on the screen lest you go insane yourself. Come to think of it, that’s probably how Elder Gods make movies.

10) Horrors of Spider Island
Terrible. Truly awful in that wonderfully bad sort of way. Watched this and riffed on it before I was even aware that MST3K had done the same already.

9) Robot Monster
Same reason as above. It’s dreadfully bad and ineptly made, but still manages to have a grim, bleak and weirdly absurdist quality movie. And there’s a gorilla costume with a diving helmet. And a bubble machine.

8) The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy
Badly made (and consisting mostly of flashbacks to the previous movies in the trilogy), the Aztec Mummy Popoca is oddly likable and the villainous The Bat is a gleefully hammy mad scientist. Terrible but oddly fun, and what’s more: A boxed set of the Aztec Mummy Trilogy exists, I have it, and I am waaayyy more enthused than I should be about it.

7) Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines
While Arnold is still fun to watch as the future-sent kill robot and the effects are overall very impressive, this movie in an egregiously unnecessary sequel and considering its subject matter (the activation of SkyNet and the triggering of Judgment Day) completely fails to deliver any kind of dread at the inevitable devastation of the human race. Judgment Day happened, and I wasn’t invested in it.

6) Beowulf & Grendel
Beautiful landscape cinematography and some good performances are not enough to elevate the ponderously boring script that manages to completely misunderstand the reason why the Beowulf story is so popular in the first place. Hint: Its because Beowulf is supposed to be awesome and great at killing monsters, not a navel-gazing existentialist wondering if he’s wrong for wanting to kill a monster.

5) The Brothers Grimm
Talk about wasted potential. What could’ve been a great way to reconstruct the horrific elements of classic fairy tales falls flat due to some face-palmingly bad script/story decisions and sketchy CGI. I didn’t expect it to be great, but I definitely hoped more of Gilliam’s crazy-man genius would shine through.

4) Zardoz
While not the worst movie ever made, it is certainly one of the most incomprehensible science fiction films ever. The core of the story is simple enough, but so much drug-fueled insanity is tacked on that it completely buries whatever it is that the filmmakers were trying to say. Stuff like this should be used by D.A.R.E. to keep kids in line. “Don’t do drugs kids, or else someday you might make Zardoz”

3) Jungle Goddess
Now this one’s just an offensive and bland product of its time. I’m not really one to judge the past for being the past, but a bad movie that’s both blindly racist AND boring has no redeeming features.

2) Robot Holocaust
So bad I keep forgetting that I sat through this piece of dreck. That’s how much my mind wants to erase this from my memory. It’s a bad Star Wars AND Conan rip off.

1) Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women
No movie since Napoleon Dynamite has filled me with such seething vitriol as this waste of time. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Fuck. This. Movie.

Monday, December 27, 2010

“Integrity is something you sell to the public.”

1968, a year before Michael Caine and 3 Cooper Minis went on a merry chase through Torino in The Italian Job, Steve McQueen took his Ford Mustang through the streets of San Francisco in Bullitt. You bet your ass its time for the greatest car chase in cinema history.

Lieutenant Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) is a tough detective, a man who’s known to get results, even if he is a bit of a loose cannon at times. That reputation for results at any cost is what brings him to the attention of ambitious District At tourney Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughan), a man looking for dependable cops to protect a key witness against the mob, a key witness who also happened to run off with a large chunk of said mob’s money. Bullitt and his team are put on babysitting duty, and then it all goes to hell. The witness ends up dead and one of Bullitt’s men is in the hospital. Frank…doesn’t take it well, and he makes it his personal mission to find the guys who killed the witness and along the way uncovers a few interesting twists and turns. Bullitt is clearly a cowboy cop, but this isn’t an action movie. There’s a lot of investigation, a lot of angry scowling, and a lot of really thick tension as we watch Bullitt blur the line between doing his job and going rogue.

Directed by Peter Yates, the obvious thing to talk about is the almost ten minute long car chase ¾ of the way through. In it, McQueen (who did his own driving in the scene) chases after a Dodge with two shotgun toting hitmen in it. It lacks the flash and busy editing of modern car chases, but more than makes up for it in narrative punch and character moments. Yes, a car chase with no dialogue and not much music is able to tell a self-contained story of cat & mouse between two cars while still being exciting. It starts off slow, builds and ultimately explodes onto the freeway. It sounds kind of silly to always look to Bullitt as the best car chase ever, but after having seen it (and in the context of the movie), I’m inclined to agree. Yes, its an impressive set piece, but its also building tension and moving the plot forward without words. There should be a “Car Chases 101” class for this kind of storytelling.

And that’s really something the movie does well. It escalates tension in a methodical and deliberate way. This isn’t a “blink and you’ll miss it” action movie. Some scenes, like a chase through a hospital, seem to go on for a very long time, but its all tightly calculated to keep you guessing and wondering.

Screenplay by Alan R. Trustman and Harry Kleiner. Based on the novel “Mute Witness” by Robert L. Pike. The story is full of interesting details, and much like real police work, the majority of it involves investigation and a lot of boring legwork occasionally peppered by violence. The medical scenes (a lot of the movie takes place in a hospital) are also quite interesting to watch, since you get a decent look at medical practice in the late 60s. And yeah, there’s a really interesting twist along the way.

Original music by Lalo Schifrin, and my only complaint is that there wasn’t enough of it. Seriously, Schifrin was an awesome composer, but there really wasn’t a lot of music in the movie. It is surprisingly quiet and restrained.

Bullitt has a well deserved reputation for having one of, if not THE best car chases in movie history, but that same reputation works against it, since it makes you think its an action movie. It is not. In a lot of ways it’s an early Neo Noir where you have a deeply flawed protagonist finding himself falling deeper and deeper into an ugly situation where there’s no easy way out of. Taken with that mindset, the movie is an incredibly taut thriller and totally recommended.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

“What I do not give, you must never take by force.”

Remember Hero and House of Flying Daggers? (Oh, crap, haven’t reviewed House of Flying Daggers yet. IGNORE ME!!) Well, that same director, Yimou Zhang made yet another period martial arts movie, this time with Chow Yun-Fat and a grandiose sense of scale that would make Cecil B. DeMille jealous. Here’s 2006’s Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia aka Curse of the Golden Flower.

Take a whole bunch of plot elements from Shakespeare’s Tragedies, throw them into ancient China and wait for the body count. Explaining it further will simply complicate things, but here goes. Emperor Ping (Yun-Fat Chow -- using the names as they appear on IMDB here) is a bearded badass warlord who rules with an iron fist. He’s got a beautiful wife, Empress Phoenix (Li Gong), whom he is poisoning daily in order to drive her insane (he can’t kill her outright because her father is a powerful lord). Thing is, she knows he’s poisoning her and she’s planning a coup to get her revenge. Between the two of them, they start manipulating the three Princes: Prince Jai (Jay Chou), Crown Prince Wan (Ye Liu) and Prince Yu (Junjie Quin) like pawns on a chessboard. The plot gets heavy.

And then ninjas show up. Yes, this is China, but damn it, the Emperor has a small army of guys who dress in black, strike from the shadows and generally behave exactly like typical movie ninjas.

Directed by Yimou Zhang and cinematography by Xiaoding Zhao, the first thing that strikes you (and continues to strike you throughout) is the sheer volume of color that explodes onto your eyeballs. Gold figures prominently, but next to that, there’s a dazzling rainbow that is constantly assailing your brain. I imagine if you this movie was combined with LSD, heads would physically explode.

Color saturation overdose aside, the movie, like Yimou’s other films, is strikingly beautiful. The fights are breathtaking and brutal and have a punctuate the narrative nicely.

Written by Yimou Zhang and based on the play “Lei yu” by Yu Cao, the plot really does feel like Shakespeare’s Tragedies were stitched together into a Byzantine framework of subterfuge, betrayal, rebellion, tyranny, lust, incest, poisoning, shocking revelations and so on. All that’s missing is cannibalism. I’m saying this is a bad thing, since the end result is a complex but coherent creature with its own personality. Just don’t go into it expecting a happy ending.

Original music by Shigeru Umebayashi. The score is quite appropriate for a movie of this grandeur, with the action sequences being accompanied by a thunderous score.

Curse of the Golden Flower is one hell of a visual trip, and its helped by a significantly deep storyline that is full of crazy twists and turns. It begins as a slow boil, but by the time shit hits the fan, it REALLY hits the fan. Very recommended.


Wednesday, December 08, 2010

“I refuse to be embarrassed by a car that looks like a Trapper Keeper.”

2008’s Sex Drive gets judged a lot by its title. After all, it kind of indicates that its going to be a raunchy teen sex comedy along the lines of Superbad, full of awkward teens trying to get laid. Having seen Sex Drive, that’s really not what its about. I mean, it is, but its not, but it is, but its not. Its a kind of Shroedinger's Cat situation.

Ian (Josh Zuckerman) is a senior in High School, a nice, fairly shy guy and still a virgin. He’s not happy about this, but there is a spot of hope in his self-conscious life: He’s been chatting up a hot blonde online who goes by the handle “Ms. Tasty” (Katrina Bowden). He’s been lying about being on the football team and owning a badass car to her and she (if it is a she) invites him to Tennessee to “give her the D,” as it were. Ian ultimately decides to go through with it, and steals his older brother Rex’s (James Marsden in an epic show of scene stealing hamminess) Pontiac GTO “The Judge” and drive down from Illinois to Tennessee with his best friend Lance (Clark Duke). Along the way, his hot female (Friendzone) friend Felecia (Amanda Crew) joins them and they set off on the road for ADVENTURE!

Along the way they run into Ezekiel (Seth Green) an incredibly sarcastic Amish man who knows a great deal about car repair and cameos by Brian Posehn and David Koechner (trust me, you’ve seen/heard them before)

Directed by Sean Anders, the movie certainly looks fine but doesn’t have a whole lot of “gee that’s awesome/new” visual elements. It is however, a solidly told road movie with a lot episodic moments that all kind of come together. Also, that donut costume you see on the poster? Yeah, that gets used in a really hilarious way.

Screenplay by Sean Anders and John Morris, based on the book “All The Way” by Andy Behrens. The story certainly IS about sex, but its also, interestingly, about exploring teen angst, sexual frustration, shyness and lots of other not-exactly-raunchy concepts. There’s a lot going on under the surface of this movie, and I appreciate that. Also, it makes the Amish cool and Rumpspringa really funny.

Original music by Stephen Trask. We’ve also got Fall Out Boy appearing as themselves at the Amish party. And The Judge appropriately enough gets AC/DC associated with it.

I really enjoyed Sex Drive. A lot. It’s a surprisingly heartfelt examination of teen angst about virginity and a look at relationships and the lengths people will go to for some really stupid reasons. That’s high school in a nutshell right there. It doesn’t hurt that the movie is wickedly funny as well. Sadly, the movie didn’t find an audience in theaters, and I’m noticing a curious trend about modern comedies that the ones I enjoy the hell out of are the ones that don’t find an audience in theaters, while the ones that DO prove to be commercial giants (like The Hangover, which I thought was just okay), I’m significantly lukewarm about. Okay, I realize that I sound like a major snob right now and I’ll stop.

Monday, December 06, 2010

“You weren't listening. We never give anything away. What we do is bargain, trade.”

In case you haven’t noticed before, I’m a little bit… off-center in a lot of matters regarding taste. Case in point: while many who’ve read fantasy turn to the big named series as their preferred series (I’m talking about The Lord Of The Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Dragonlance Chronicles (yes, I’ve read it, I have no excuse), Harry Potter or even The Inheritance Trilogy Cycle (no, I haven’t read it and need no excuse)) the series I look to with the most fondness are The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander. Long story short, it’s a high fantasy series of five books that are based (somewhat loosely) on Welsh Mythology. It’s a tremendously underrated series that manages to cram in a lot of heavy themes and is just as deserving of the cinematic adaptation treatment as the others.

In fact, the series has already received the movie treatment back in the 1980s from no less than Disney itself with The Black Cauldron in 1985. Unfortunately, its got a reputation as the black sheep of the Disney animated canon. Let’s explore!

Well, uh, considering it’s a movie based on the 2nd book of the series, its really radically different from the books aside from some of the core characters and themes. There is a legendary evil cauldron that can create invincible undead soldiers and a powerful evil lord is trying to find/use it to take over the world. Our hero, Taran (voiced by Grant Bardsley), is an orphan who grew up in a wizard’s remote cottage/estate and serves as Assistant Pig Keeper to an oracular pig. Taran is a headstrong youth who dreams of great heroic deeds and mostly by chance he gets caught up in ADVENTURE! Along the way, he encounters the Horned King (voiced by the ever-awesome John Hurt) (an amalgamation of the books’ villains Arawn Death-Lord and a warlord named the Horned King), the Princess Eilonwy (voiced by Susan Sheridan) (who sadly doesn’t have her signature red-gold hair, here its just blonde), Gurgi (voiced by John Byner) a short, furry, cowardly…thing, and Fflewdur Fflam (voiced by Nigel Hawthorne) a old bard (probably the saddest change from the books where he’s a young king of a distant land who prefers to go wandering around as a bard because ruling his kingdom is boring).

Right, so the storyline of the movie really diverges from the books, but I really don’t think they could’ve done otherwise back in the 80s, since animated movies didn’t really get sequels or series. For what it is, the changes from the book are a bit disappointing, but nothing actually deal breaking.

Here’s where things get really interesting. Directed by Ted Berman and Richard Rich, the movie’s art direction and animation are right up there with the rest of the accepted Disney canon. The Black Cauldron looks gorgeous. Not just gorgeous, but there’s a lot of creepiness involved too, with the Horned King being one of the most malevolent looking villains I’ve ever seen in a Disney movie aside from maybe that guy from Night On Bald Mountain in Fantasia. And the guy gets one hell of a villain death scene (like that‘s a spoiler. It‘s a Disney movie for crying out loud). It’s not a fully unified artistic direction however, what with the Fair Folk looking and behaving like your standard Disney fairies (Doli is supposed to be a Dwarf, not a Pixie), but overall, the art department really brought their A Game to the movie, and it really made me nostalgic for traditional cell painted animation.

Okay, this is going to be long. Based on “The Chronicles of Prydain” by Lloyd Alexander, story by David Jonas, Vance Gerry, Ted Berman, Richard Rich, Al Wilson, Roy Morita, Peter Young, Art Stevens and Joe Hale; additional dialogue by Rosemary Anne Sisson and Roy Edward Disney; and additional story contributions by Tony Marino, Steve Hulett, Melvin Shaw, Burny Mattinson, John Musker, Ron Clements and Doug Lefler. Whew. The writing is not bad but struggles with trying to cram in and adjust two books worth of material into one movie. That’s really the biggest flaw of the film. Characters behave like they should, but the whole thing feels very rushed, which is unfortunate. Still, the general theme of Glory and ADVENTURE! carrying a much heavier price than those who would seek it out understand are right there from the start, and there are a couple of misty-eyed moments to be found by the end. Its quite dark for a Disney animated movie.

The soundtrack is by the legendary Elmer Bernstein and it works brilliantly with the movie. Can’t complain about it. Also, in a departure from essentially every other Disney movie, there are no songs. Yep. Not. One. Song. That should tell you this movie means serious business.

The Black Cauldron has a large number of flaws. It also bombed in theaters and kind of drove Disney’s animation arm into the ground until The Little Mermaid, which is a damn shame really. The movie has some of the most impressively fluid animation work I’ve seen in a while and a story that, while divergent from its source material, isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty with some pretty dark themes. It’s definitely worth checking out if you get a chance, and it really makes me wonder what a big budget, live action, book faithful take on the series would be like. Hmm. Guess I’ll just have to become a famous writer and some time in the future adapt the screenplay. Obviously.

Curiously enough, its not easy to find the actual trailer for it.

Friday, December 03, 2010

“My god! Do we really suck, or is this guy really that good?”

Guns, guns, guns, guns. That’s the be-all and end-all of Shoot ‘Em Up, a hyper-stylistic, hyper violent action flick that carries around a hefty dose of black comedy. Its kind of a one trick pony in that regard, lets see if it’s a good enough trick to last the whole movie.

We have a pregnant woman being chased by gunmen who passes a homeless looking “Mr. Smith” (Clive Owen) who has a mysterious past, a surprising competence with firearms and a fondness for carrots. He intervenes in the struggle (by jamming a carrot through one thug’s head, which right there should tell you exactly what kind of movie this is). The woman gives birth but is killed and Mr. Smith ends up an erstwhile nanny for the baby. Turns out, it’s the baby the bad guys, led by Hertz (Paul Giamatti) want and we get one giant gunfight of a movie. Oh, and we also get an ally/mother figure in the shapely form of a prostitute named D.Q. (short for Donna Quintano/“Dairy Queen” and played by Monica Bellucci).

Directed by Michael Davis (who also directed personal guilty pleasure favorite 100 Girls), the movie certainly moves at a quick pace. The gunfights are pretty fun and provide a hefty dose of visual comedy. Physics does tend to get broken over one knee in this movie FREQUENTLY, so if that’s something you feel very strongly about, you’ll probably hate this movie. A lot. Still, the fights just go on into increasingly bigger and more audacious scenes, and the fight choreography is really solid too.

Written by the above mentioned Michael Davis. The writing has some funny lines and moments here and there, but its really a weak point of the film. The plot, if it can be called such, is insanely convoluted AND contrived and by the end of the movie. I called bullshit a few times. As far as a “message,” I don’t think there really is one. There’s kind of a half-assed anti-gun bit, but the movie’s answer to everything is to add more guns, so really, I think its just intended as a big, loud, stupid action movie with a nihilistic tone its violence.

Original music by Paul Haslinger, but the licensed songs that go along with the action scenes are a huge part of the awesomeness of those scenes, particularly Wolfmother.

Shoot ‘Em Up isn’t a particularly great movie. The writing is crude and juvenile at a LOT of points, but the three leads give it enough weight to make getting from Point A to Point B a reasonably fun ride. The movie is at its strongest during the plentiful (if not the actual bulk of the movie) and inventive action scenes. The schtick was enough to keep me entertained, but I know of several people who absolutely hated it. Approach with caution, I suppose.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

“Negative, I am a meat popsicle.”

Its kind of hard to preface a movie like The Fifth Element. After all, it’s a brightly colored, shiny, largely optimistic space opera/Adventure! that was released in 1997. And its got Bruce Willis in it.

Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) is a former military pilot who’s now a down on his luck cabbie (in THE FUTURE!). His mom nags him, his wife divorced him, and he can barely afford to keep up with his traffic violations. He’s about to have bigger problems. See, there’s this ancient EVIL which manifests physically every couple of thousand years in an attempt to kill all life in the universe. So it falls to Commander Shepherd and his crew to--wait, sorry.

The only way to stop the EVIL is the lost “Fifth Element” (as opposed to fire, earth, air & water, oh, and DUN DUN DUN!). There is a faith based around this Elemental power, and its current priest, Father Vito Cornelius (Ian Holm) is desperate to convince the Earth government that the only thing that can stop the EVIL is this element. Some friendly aliens try to deliver said Maguffin, but get shot down by mercenaries. The Element is recovered and reconstructed by SCIENCE into Leeloo Minai Lekariba-Laminai-Tchai-Ekbat De Sebat (Milla Jovovich), a smokin’ hot little mama jamma fully capable of kicking anyone’s ass. She escapes from a hospital and falls (literally) into Korben’s cab, and a course is plotted for ADVENTURE!

I should add that along the way, we run into a DJ named Ruby Rhod (Chris Tucker) and the villainous Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg (Gary Oldman), and it seems to me that the two spend their screen time trying to out-ham each other. I’m okay with this.

Directed by Luc Besson, the film is, again, very, very bright and colorful. It really jars against the more cynical and darker visuals of its contemporary sci-fi movies (like Dark City and The Matrix). There’s a lot of makeup, model work and wacky outfits, and all of it (aside from some of the weirder costumes) is really well done. And the fight scenes are really badass, which is a plus.

Screenplay by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen and based off a story Besson wrote back in the 70s. It’s got action, its got a LOT of comic moments and funny dialogue, and its got some reeaaalllly memorable characters. About the only complaint I have is that the ending is a little bit anti-climactic.

The original music by Eric Serra is an interesting blend of electronica, opera and a blend of international touches. It’s a bit hard to describe, but the one fight scene juxtaposed with the opera scene is easily one of the best in the movie.

Yeah, so I will admit to being late to The Fifth Element party. I’d seen clips here and there and thought it was cool and all, but never sat through it all the way before. I concede the awesomeness of the movie and feel a little ashamed that I haven’t experienced it until now. It’s good. Real good. One of the better surprises this year. Hell, if I had seen this back in the 90's like God intended, it might've become one of my favorite movies ever.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

“You fight like a baby. A DEAD baby!”

Not a whole lot I have to say in prologue about this one other than I’ve got a fondness for ninja movies and a fondness for Flight of the Conchords. 2002’s Tongan Ninja happens to combine elements from both, considering it’s a ninja action-comedy-musical set in New Zealand.

So we have two martial arts students on the island of Tonga, one a heroic, honorable and naïve student named Sione Finau (Sam Manu) and his childhood rival, the arrogant, cheating Action Fighter (formerly Marvin) (Jemaine Clement). Sione gets sent by his master to help out a restaurant owning friend who’s been beat up by the goons of the So-Called Syndicate. He gets to Wellington, New Zealand and finds the onwer’s daughter, Miss Lee (Linda Tseng), being shaken down by the So-Called Syndicate and of course, has to fight his way through a bunch of Mr. Big’s (Victor Rodger) goons, including Asian Side-Kick (Raybon Kan), Herman the Henchman (David Fane), Knife Man, Gun Man and a final showdown with Action Fighter. Its fairly standard martial arts plot stuff, but that’s the point of the whole thing.

Directed by Jason Stutter, “low budget” perfectly describes this movie. This is not a bad thing, since it helps the lowbrow comedy of the movie since a lot of otherwise “big budget” encounters are explicitly pointed out and denied to the audience. There is also a healthy dose of CGI which is comically obvious as well. Fight scenes are decent but also intentionally not very good.

The writing team of Jemain Clement and Jason Stutter are perfectly aware of the kind of low budget movie they are making and they’re also very aware of the genre they’re making fun of. There’s also a healthy dose of deadpan, self-deprecating Kiwi humor.

The original music by David Donaldson, Plan 9 and Steve Roche isn’t fancy but it gets the job done. The original songs on the other hand, especially the title song sung by an Elvis-dressed Jemaine Clement, are quite catchy.

It is easy to dismiss Tongan Ninja as a silly little fluff parody, and, well, it is. But its also a surprisingly clever little movie and a testament to the “can-do” spirit of independent filmmaking. I actually like it quite a lot, and it has a feel very similar to Black Dynamite (though lacking the production values) but I’ll admit its probably not for everyone.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

“Why, my Uncle Thumper had a problem with HIS probate, and he had to take these big pills, and drink lots of water.”

Been a while since we’ve dipped into the inky black pool of Film Noir, but 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a good solid twisting of the genre into a curious balloon animal shape.

Uhh, that was a weird metaphor. Let’s just get right into it.

Take bitter, drunken hard-boiled private eye Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins doing an incredible job hiding his British accent) and have him working in 1940’s Hollywood. Pretty noir-ish so far, right? Now add Toons, living, breathing cartoon characters that are a staple part of the entertainment business. Eddie, who very clearly does not like toons (for the simple fact that one murdered his brother by dropping a piano on his head) is hired by studio mogul R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern) to do a little snooping on the wife of Maroon Studio’s star player, Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer). When Valiant shows Roger pictures of his wife Jessica (voiced by Kathleen Turner) playing literal patty cake with the recently murdered Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye) owner of Toontown, the plot starts adding up and all signs point to the sinister Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd hamming it up BIG TIME) having something to do with the murder. And then hilarity ensues.

The live action cast is very solid and really gets it done, but since this is a hybrid live action/animation film, the real scene stealers are all the toons that populate Hollywood. And the movie does the near impossible feat of getting all the various companies to grant permission to include their characters in this one film. So you get Betty Boop, Woody the Woodpecker, Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse and so on. What this also means is that the movie features quite possibly the most impressive collection of voice actors ever assembled on screen. In addition to voice work god Mel Blanc (in one of his last performances), you get guys like Frank Welker, Nancy Cartwright, Jack Angel, Tony Pope, Jim Cummings, Wayne Allwine, Russi Taylor, June Foray, Joe Alaskey, Mae Questel (in one of her last performances) and more. You probably don’t recognize any of those names, but I guarantee that you’ve heard them plenty of times. Look them up and you’ll realize just how much respect is due to these incredibly talented people.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis with cinematography by Dean Cundey (who worked with Zemeckis on the Back To The Future Trilogy). The movie has two objectives: Look like the 1930s and blend live action with animation. It works brilliantly. Yes, its in color, but they had color back then (Adventures of Robin Hood, Snow White) and it fit’s the, well, cartoonish nature of the population.

Based on the novel “Who Censored Roger Rabbit? By Gary K. Wolf (bet you didn’t know that) and screenplay by Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman. The snappy dialogue is really what cements the movie together, since it effectively blends the madcap cartoon wordplay with the double-entendre of noir. The plot itself is pretty tight and includes the obligatory third act twist.

Original music by the always solid Alan Silvestri. Also, the movie gets major props for including a dueling pianos act between Daffy and Donald Duck that is entirely in character for those two hotheads.

A love letter to film noir, the Golden Age of Hollywood and old school animation all rolled into one. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is just about perfect.

Monday, November 15, 2010

“Your knowledge of scientific biological transmogrification is only outmatched by your zest for kung-fu treachery!”

Arguably the most (in)famous exploitation subgenre is Blaxploitation. It arose in the 1970s and essentially comprised gritty crime plots, shootouts, sex and frequently martial arts starring a predominantly black cast. The soundtracks were funky and/or groovy, production values were generally low and the acting was spotty. In short, perfect fodder for cult films (and believe me, brother, we’re gonna get to some of them in due time). Today’s subject is actually 2009’s homage/parody of the films, Black Dynamite.

This is gonna get complicated. It starts with the mob killing a police mole. That mole turns out to be the younger brother of Black Dynamite (Michael Jai White), a kung-fu master who’s a veteran of the Army AND CIA who sets out on an investigative rampage of revenge to get the bastards who killed his brother. Along the way, he recruits a team to help him: Cream Corn (Tommy Davidson), the rhyme-spouting Bullhorn (Byron Minns) and a group of Black Power militants led by Saheed (Phil Morris). He also starts up a relationship with community activist Gloria (Salli Richardson-Whitfield). Black Dynamite and his crew proceed to wage a ruthless war on drugs and uncover a conspiracy that connects to the mad science of the Fiendish Dr. Wu (Roger Yuan).

If I say anything else, it’d be spoilers of the worst kind, and that would be a real shame. Suffice it to say that there is no shortage of gunfights, car chases, kung fu, boobies and dirty words.

Directed by Scott Sanders with Cinematography by Shawn Maurer, the film is shot in the old Blaxploitation style and set in the 70s, so it really plays up the color saturation and so on. Some of the greatest gags the movie offers are visual, where all manner of “errors” (like bad editing, continuity, and crew goofs) abound intentionally. It is outstanding how they’re integrated, like when Black Dynamite is giving a serious speech and occasionally looks up at the boom mike dangling into frame but keeps talking. Stuff like that.

Screenplay by Michael Jai White, Byron Minns & Scott Sanders. The screenplay is just as solid of a parody as the visual style and acting are. The plot starts out simple but spirals into something sublimely ludicrous. The dialogue is fantastic, even when it’s not spinning new and exciting variants on established profanity.

Original music by Adrian Younge and it is FUNKY in the best possible way. Some of the songs provide hilariously unnecessary exposition as they narrate what’s going on. Black Dynamite himself has an audio sting that hits whenever he does something incredibly badass. It’s good stuff.

Black Dynamite is a work of genius because it works as a comedy and a straightforward Blaxploitation film. I can’t sing my praises for it enough, and the many people I’ve forced to watch it can attest to it. And every one of them has walked away satisfied. Watch this movie ASAP.

Friday, November 12, 2010

“Hey, its wet-willy time”

1993 brought about one more Turtles movie. Only this time, the Jim Henson Creature Shop was not involved. And… Well… nobody really likes it. Like, at all. Sounds like a good enough reason to take a look at Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III.

April O’Neil (Paige Turco) visit’s the Turtles spacious underground digs and tells them she’s going on vacation. She also brings some gifts for the gang and an antique scepter that for some reason, starts glowing and April gets thrown through time to Feudal Japan and replaced with Kenshin (Henry Hayashi), the son of a powerful daimyo with daddy issues. Why? Through the age-old storytelling crutch of an ancient prophecy, of course!

Anyway, our heroes Leonardo (Mark Caso & voiced by Brian Tochi), Raphael (Matt Hill & voiced by Tim Kelleher), Donatello (Jim Raposa & voiced once more by Corey Feldman) and Michaelangelo (David Fraser & voiced by Robbie Rist) resolve to use the scepter to go after April and bringing four samurai warriors to New York in the process. Can Splinter (voiced by James Murray) and Casey Jones (Elias Koteas) keep these five samurai out of trouble? Hilarity of course is supposed to ensue (and well, kind of does, since Koteas’ Jones is a welcome return to the series)

Moving on, the Turtles end up in Japan circa 1603 and find out that April’s been captured by the daimyo’s men because of the whole magic thing. The Daimyo, Lord Norinaga (Sab Shimono) is apparently a bad dude, since his army is putting down a rebellious village for…being rebellious I guess. It’s really vague, but it’s the kind of movie where “rebels = good because that’s what Star Wars did.” Anyway, Norinaga forms an uneasy partnership with a much more clearly bad guy: the Englishman Walker (Stuart Wilson, who was the bad guy in Lethal Weapon 3) and his thugs. Walker’s a bit of a dandy and a gun for hire that is really in it to make a profit. He’s got a crew of thugs, led by Niles (John Aylward as one of the funnier characters) and there’s Whit, a dissenting member of the crew that kind of latches on to April that reminds her of Casey Jones (and happens to be played by Koteas as well). The Turtles (who are regarded by the Japanese as fearsome kappa demons, which actually makes a fair bit of sense) rescue April, escape to the village and team up with the rebels and their leader Mitsu (Vivian Wu) who is also Kenshin’s lover. And you can see where the plot goes from here.

There aren’t any really terrible performances, but there aren't any really good performances either.  You can kind of tell that there’s not much heart being poured into it. There aren’t even that many fight scenes compared to the first two films. Still, Michaelangelo & Raphael get some character development spotlight, which is not a bad thing.

Directed by Stuart Gillard, you can tell the budget was much lower than the previous outings. The animatronics and Turtle costumes are a definite step down from the Henson creations. There’s also the infamous falling scene from the end of the movie where a character drops off the fortress into the water below and simply vanishes through the miracle of bad editing (though there is a splash sound).

Characters created by Eastman & Laird and screenplay written by Stuart Gillard. The story runs along on rails rather predictably and the Turtles’ schtick is wearing kind of thin at this point. Some of the comedic bits hit, but more often than not they don’t. Such as all of Donatello's increasingly grating catchphrases and one-liners.

Original music by John Du Prez yet again, which amps up the Japanese musical cues and the soundtrack also includes ZZ Top’s “Can’t Stop Rockin.”

There’s no way I can ever call Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III a good movie. HOWEVER, it isn’t really as bad as people say it is. It’s bad, but compared to dreck like Robot Holocaust, it’s totally watchable. I will admit that part of it might be nostalgia goggles (I did watch this one quite a few times as a kid), but honestly, I don’t hate it at all, but it does get quite annoying at times.

Monday, November 08, 2010

“First, we must observe the ancient ritual of the, uh, uh... traditional pre-fight donut!”

Turtle Power was still in really high gear in 1991 and a year after the first movie, there was a second: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret Of The Ooze.

Now that the characters are established, we can get into the meat of the plot. The Turtles are regarded as urban legends in New York City, still doing random delivery work and eating pizza, rescuing a delivery boy/martial arts enthusiast Keno (Ernie Reyes Jr.). After their home got trashed in the last movie, they’re staying with April O’Neil (Paige Turco) and the apartment is a little crowded for six people/mutants. April covers the story of a company, TGRI, and its efforts to clean up some of their old radioactive messes, led by Professor Jordan Perry (David Warner in a surprisingly non-villainous, non-sinister role) Splinter (voiced by Kevin Clash again) informs Leonardo (Mark Caso & voiced by Brian Tochi), Michelangelo (Michelan Sisti & voiced by Robbie Rist), Donatello (Leif Tilden & voiced by Adam Carl) and Raphael (Kenn Troum & voiced by Laurie Faso) that TGRI was the company that created the Ooze that made them. They set out to discover the secret of the Ooze (DUN DUN DUN!) but so does a revitalized Foot Clan, led by a returned and decidedly un-squished Shredder (François Chau & voiced by David McCharen) who gets some Ooze for himself and uses it to make some new mutants, Tokka & Razhar (both voiced by voice over legend Frank Welker).

Like the first movie, this one throws a LOT of plot at the audience and manages to keep things moving. Since its Science oriented, Donatello gets a lot more character development as he & Dr. Perry swap techno babble.

Oh yeah, and wrestler Kevin Nash is in it as the Super Shredder, for all of 30 seconds.

Directed by Michael Pressman, the movie lacks some of the visual “edge” of the first one. This one’s cleaner, more polished, less gritty. A bit goofier than the previous one, though the fight scenes remain one of the high points, though its more fist fighting than using weapons.

Eastman & Laird get creator credits and screenplay by Todd W. Langen. The script really amps up the more cartoony aspects of the series than the comics to be more in line with the target audience. But here’s the rub, we seven & eight year olds at the time liked the first movie because it was gritty. Because it was, by our standards, “hardcore.” Sure, we still liked the sequel because it was the Turtles, but we all noticed the toned down violence and wondered “what the hell?”

Original music by John Du Prez again, but really, what’s going to stick out in your head is the on-screen “impromptu” rap performance of “Ninja Rap” by Vanilla Ice & Earthquake. And it will Never. Ever. Leave you.

Eh, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret Of The Ooze is, ultimately okay. It’s not great. Not even as good as the first one. But it’s kind of charming in its harmless stupidity.


Friday, November 05, 2010

“Wise man say forgiveness is divine, but never pay full price for late pizza.”

1990 was Twenty Years Ago. Which just makes me feel old and arthritic just thinking about that tidbit. But there’s a bright side to this trip down memory lane, since it gives us a chance to look back at the live action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a film that was essentially tailored to my seven year old movie going self. That’s right kids, I saw this beeyotch in theaters. Let’s see if it’s aged well.

To those of you not clued in to just how big of a phenomenon the Turtles were in the late 80s-early 90s, the premise revolves around this radioactive stuff called “Ooze” presumably a byproduct of nuclear…scientific…sciencey…things. Anyway, this Ooze is capable of rapidly (and nonlethally) mutating anything that comes in direct physical contact with it into some kind of anthropomorphic creature/monster. Because comic books, that’s why.

Anyway, it also involves the backstory of a guy named Hamato Yoshi getting killed by Oroko Saki and Yoshi’s pet rat getting covered in ooze. The rat mutates into a human-sized puppet named Splinter that’s voiced by Muppeteer Kevin Clash (the voice of Elmo) who takes up residence in the New York City sewer system. Some time later four baby turtles were abandoned and exposed to the Ooze and Splinter adopted them, taught them, trained them in ninjutsu and named them after famous Renaissance artists: Leonardo (David Foreman and voiced by Brian Tochi), Donatello (Leif Tilden and voiced by Corey Feldman), Raphael (Josh Pais and voiced by Josh Pais) and Michaelangelo (Michelan Sisti and voiced by Robbie Rist). Because comic books, that’s why.

Anyway, this all leads up to 1990, where a crime wave of theft & burglary has the city paralyzed and the police stymied. The thieves strike and vanish without a trace, and there’s only one reporter in town willing to ask the hard questions and get to the bottom of this: April O’Neil (Judith Hoag).

Yadda yadda yadda, turns out the thieves are a legion of maladjusted teens that are taken in by the Foot Clan, a criminal group of ninjas led by the Shredder (James Saito). April runs afoul of them, is rescued by the Turtles, they eventually get joined by a sports themed vigilante named Casey Jones (played by a gloriously hammy Elias Koteas) and ADVENTURE! ensues.

So the plot is complicated and out of the Turtles, it’s really Raphael that gets the most development. He’s angry. A lot. Which causes him to go off on his own and get his ass kicked by the Foot (ba-dum-tsh). After clashing with Leonardo (who’s the Responsible One), Raph ends up learning more self control and how to play better with others. It’s actually fairly well done. The cast all handle their roles pretty well and despite the really cluttered plot, it stays coherent.

Directed by Steve Barron, the film is competently shot, but the art direction does end up straddling that line between “realistic” and “cheesy” with some of the sets (like the Foot Clan’s ludicrous-but-awesome-if-you’re-seven indoor arcade & skate park). However, the movie moves along very quickly and the fight scenes are generally pretty good. The most pleasant surprise is that the special effects have largely aged well, and I credit this entirely to the Jim Henson Company for their work on Splinter & the Turtles. Again, it’s all fairly well done.

Characters created by Kevin Eastman & Peter Laird, story by Bobby Herbeck and Screenplay by Todd W. Langen & Bobby Herbeck. It manages to juggle the origin and a surprising amount of plot quite well. The characters are all recognizably so and (having never read the comic so I’m not 100% sure) but it seems to blend the catchphrase spouting style of the cartoon with the darker visual look of the comics. Which sounds like it shouldn’t work, but kind of does. The movie is not starved for one-liners and a surprising number of them are pretty good though there are also quite a few stinkers that are heavily dated to the period. And Raph screams out “DAMN!!!” at one point, which, when you’re seven, leaves an impact.

Original music by John Du Prez (UHF), and the score, while heavily influenced by digital touches, does work well and there are some eastern influenced “ninja” style cues. There’s also a licensed soundtrack that includes “This Is What We Do” by M.C. Hammer and “T-U-R-T-L-E Power!” by Partners In Kryme as the end credits song. It’s cheesy, but catchy.

While the nostalgia goggles probably helped in watching this, I have to admit I was a little afraid to revisit Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I’m glad that it still holds up pretty well on its own merits. Yes, it’s extremely cheesy. Extremely cheesy. But that’s kind of the charm of it too. It’s not great, but its definitely way better than it could’ve been.

And yeah, the dubbing on the trailer doesn't match up the finished movie. It's likely the trailer was cut before all the voice over work was done.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

“Venus... Venus... the planet named after the Goddess of Love.”

A lot of old B Movies I’ve been watching certainly deserve a fair amount of ribbing for bad effects, acting or storytelling, but most of the time it’s of a good natured sort. I don’t usually “hate them” hate them, because with the best cheesy B Movies, there’s at least one or two elements of quality and/or effort involved.

The next film flat out pissed me off. So much so that I almost decided to throw in the towel and quit this entire reviewing project. It was THAT BAD. So instead of doing that, I figured I could try and briefly explain why 1968’s Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women almost did me in.

First, some context. The bulk of the footage is from a 1962 Soviet film called Planeta Bur which features a group of cosmonauts and their robot landing on Venus and fending off various monsters as they explore it. It was dubbed with some new footage of Basil Rathbone dropped in to make 1965’s Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet, and then the new footage was replaced with newer footage of Mamie Van Doren as Venusian leader Moana and a group of bored looking clamshell clad women standing around on a rocky shoreline and all new dubbing.

So basically, this movie is thrice recycled. Which is a bad sign. The plot jammed together from this awful collision is something about American astronauts (with suspiciously red stars on their rockets) trying to rescue a downed exploratory rocket on Venus and as they wander around, one of them thinks he hears a woman singing and frequently gets distracted. The search party eventually shoots down the Venusian women’s pterodactyl god Terah (I wish I was making that up) and after some surprisingly boring gyrating, the women conjure up several natural disasters for the astronauts.

It’s godawful.

So the new shots were directed by Peter Bogdanovich (as Derek Thomas) as one of his early gigs and they look like they were filmed in a day or so. The women are attractive, certainly, but all have that zoned-out, bored look, and they really don’t do much of anything. The original Russian footage is actually of a much higher budget and quality than the new stuff, and includes all manner of costumes, a pretty good robot that gets called “John” and moments that are genuinely interesting.

Henry Ney is the writer given the unfortunate task of trying to make this mashup make sense. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. It’s obvious that it’s made from two different piles of footage and the things that tie the two together are so stretched that its painful. As a writer, I really feel for the guy, especially since this is the only thing he’s credited for on IMDB.

Original music by Keith Benjamin and its par for the course. The dubbing is also standard for the Russian parts of the film, but the new footage is completely dubbed over with the excuse that the women are all telepathic. I realize this is probably a workaround for the constant sound of waves crashing against rocks, but it’s still really lazy.

I think what really cheeses me off about this movie is the fact that it was so shamelessly hacked up, repurposed by a new crew that did a bad job of it and still had the gall to call it “their’s.” It’s like a storytelling smash and grab, and it really pisses me off. Sure, showing a Russian Sci-Fi film in the U.S. in 1968 wouldn’t have worked either, but to be totally honest, the original movie looks so much more interesting and better than this bastardized version. And I don’t just feel bad for the original Soviet moviemakers. I feel bad for the American crew and actresses that were hired to try and make this version work. It’s not a matter of stealing ideas, since I think the rights were bought fair & square, but the whole shameless laziness of the whole thing is shameful. But that’s not all. It is painfully clear that the source material is superior and that this edit does nothing but lower it.

Don’t See Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women. Just don’t. It’s not worth it. I really want to make it a point to track down Planeta Bur, actually, and while I haven’t seen the Basil Rathbone version, it can’t possibly be as bad as this.

I am not joking or exaggerating when I say it’s terrible. It’s nigh unwatchable. It is mind crushingly boring. It made me out-hate Napoleon Dynamite, which I never thought possible. This is now officially the worst movie I have seen.

Fuck this movie.

“Men! Every time you search for an answer, you always come up with women.”

Alright, so everybody knows not to piss off wasps, right? They’re like surly bees that don’t make honey for us. Splicing wasp genetic material with human genetic material is recipe for… well, I’m not really sure. I guess you’d get something like 1959’s The Wasp Woman, and it looks nothing like the poster for it.

There’s an expository prologue showing the kindly but clearly mad scientist Dr. Eric Zinthrop (Michael Mark, who was in quite a few of the Universal Horror movies from the 30s & 40s) getting fired from a honeybee farm for conducting experiments on wasps, which is a pretty justified firing. Anyway, he eventually finds his way to a cosmetics company run by Janice Starlin (Susan Cabot) that’s suffering from decreased sales for the simple reason that Starlin continues to be the “face” of the company despite her advancing age. The doc gives her one hell of a sales pitch that deserves a new paragraph. Mark and Cabot both give very good performances, all things considered.

By mixing wasp royal jelly with some enzymes and other science-y stuff, he’s concocted a serum that can reverse the effects of aging dramatically (and turn a guinea pig into a mouse somehow). Janice starts taking the serum with slow results. Unsatisfied, she breaks into the doc’s lab one night and takes a big hit of the stuff and the next morning, all that makeup on her to make her look older is gone. Her employees, Mary Dennison (Barboura Morris), Bill Lane (Anthony “Fred” Eisley) and a couple others start to get suspicious, Janice takes bigger doses despite the increased risk, and Dr. Zinthrop gets put in the hospital by randomly stepping off a curb into traffic (really). All of this leads to the inevitable conclusion of Janice turning into a bloodthirsty were-wasp at night and eating people late in the movie.

Roger Corman is an insanely prolific director and producer who’s been responsible for a staggering number of movies. Look him up on IMDB and you’re bound to see a familiar title or three. Of course, with that kind of volume, there’s bound to be some bad ones, and he was the producer of Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (which almost made me ragequit this project) and I’m not sure I can forgive that one yet. Still, the movie is decent enough on a visual level regarding the normal scenes. The prologue was shot by Jack Hill (uncredited) for a later release. It’s when it comes to special effects that the movie shows its true budget. Any footage involving wasps is actually footage of honeybees, and the wasp woman costume at the end is… well… a mask and two monster hands in bad lighting.
Story by Kinta Zertuche and screenplay by Leo Gordon, and there was some promise to be had. You have a faded beauty turning to mad science in order to preserve her good looks and things result in tragedy. You have a scientist who is clearly off his rocker but is actually a misunderstood good guy. You’ve got a ravenous were-wasp. But the pacing of the plot is the movie’s downfall. There are large stretches of time where not much of interest happens and the big reveal at the end is fairly brief, doesn’t make much sense, and is shot in pretty dim lighting. I understand that the wasp mask wasn’t great, but for a monster movie, the big payoff is being able to clearly see the monster. Sadly, it takes quite a while for the Wasp Woman (DUN DUN DUN) to show herself.

Original music by Fred Katz, and it’s par for the course.

As far as B movies go, The Wasp Woman isn’t atrocious. There are some great crazy moments, the lead actors are both quite good and the ending, while brief, is the shot in the arm the rest of the movie needed. It’s quite riffable. Bad, but not un-enjoyable. And yes, I’m ending this review with a double negative.

Monday, October 11, 2010

“The werewolf is neither man nor wolf, but a Satanic creature with the worst qualities of both.”

The end of our journey into Universal’s classic werewolf movies jumps back to the 1930s. 1935 to be specific, with the very first Hollywood werewolf movie, Werewolf Of London (sounds familiar, yeah? Where do you think Warren Zevon got inspired from?). As far as werewolves go, its much different from the classic Lon Chaney one, but is that a bad thing? Well, the box office seemed to think so, since the movie didn’t do well.

What it boils down to is the search for a rare flower, the mariphasa in Nepal. Botanist Dr. Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) enters a forbidden, remote valley and finds bit, but is attacked by a werewolf almost immediately. He manages to fight it off, but is bitten in the process. Glendon returns to England with the plant but can’t seem to get it to bloom (it only does so under the full moon). At a party he meets the mysterious Dr. Yogami (Swedish actor Warner Oland who is best known for playing Asian Detective Charlie Chan) who knows an awful lot about the flower and lycanthropy. The flower is apparently able to stave off (but not cure) “werewolfery” during the full moon. Glendon’s obsession with the plant strains things with his wife Lisa (the very attractive Valerie Hobson) and she turns to an old friend Paul Ames (Lester Matthews) for help.

Directed by Stuart Walker, cinematography by Charles J. Stumar. Visually, there are a lot of ambitious and impressive shots in this film, particularly during the werewolf scenes. The werewolf makeup by Jack Pierce is radically different from the later Larry Talbot version, with most of Dr. Glendon’s face visible and a passable similarity to some versions of Mr. Hyde. Regardless, I rather like some of the werewolf’s “going out clothes” with the scarf and flat cap. It’s a distinct look.

Story by Robert Harris, Screenplay by John Colton & the uncredited Harvey Gates, Robert Harris and Edmund Pearson. The movie was compared to Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (and part of the reason it didn’t light up the box office). There’s also some weird word choices, like calling lycanthropy “lycanthrophobia.” Still, it is very much a werewolf movie, just from a time before those things were codified.

The original music by Karl Hajos works fine but isn’t up to par with the more iconic Universal soundtracks.

Werewolf of London is actually a very impressive and well made movie. I don’t mean to knock the Larry Talbot version because I love watching Chaney as the Wolf Man, but its unfortunate that a gem like this was so thoroughly overshadowed. Thankfully sets like the Universal Horror Legacy Collection corrects this. Wholeheartedly recommended.

Friday, October 08, 2010

“I’d say it was highly unusual. A man being attacked by a werewolf in a London park.”

1946 brought in a different wolf-themed horror movie from Universal. Instead of the familiar faces of Lon Chaney Jr. or Bela Lugosi, She-Wolf of London is completely unrelated to any of the other Universal Horror films and doesn’t figure into loosely connected continuity of them. Is this a good thing? Maybe. The film does tease the idea of a female werewolf, and Jack Pierce did do the makeup for the film, so this might be another forgotten gem.

Phyllis Allenby (June Lockhart) is an heiress with a problem. While on the one hand she’s engaged to marry Barry Lanfield (Don Porter), the park near her London home becomes the site for a series of grisly murders. Phyllis fears the Allenby Curse running through her blood is to blame for her becoming a werewolf and stalking the night. Her aunt living with her, Martha Winthrop (Sara Haden) tries to keep her in bed and feeds into her werewolf delusions by denying them all the time (thanks, reverse psychology!). Meanwhile, Martha’s daughter, the less wealthy Carol Winthrop (Jan Wiley) is told not to see her own fiancée and seems to also disappear into the night.

Scotland Yard sends detectives into the park to investigate and the populace are murmuring rumors about werewolves.

Directed by Jean Yarbrough, the visual style is competent but nothing particularly interesting. There are long stretches of not a whole lot happening and to be honest, there are none of the visual or makeup effects you would expect from a monster movie.

Dwight V. Babcock on Story and George Bricker on Screenplay credits. The plot I listed above is not a bad idea on paper, but the execution did not deliver. While the acting isn’t bad, the characters are pretty flat and its obvious who the villain is from very early on. There’s also a “twist” that is the equivalent of monster movie blue balls that I’ll spoil only because the movie isn’t very good. There is no werewolf, its all just a scheme to drive Phyllis out of her mind so that someone else can inherit her money. That’s it. Again, sounds good on paper, but when the execution is uninspired and you end up with a non-werewolf movie in a Wolf Man boxed set, that lowers my esteem of the movie pretty low.

An uncredited William Lava on score. The music is fine in that standard 40’s style.

Well, its only 61 minutes, so She-Wolf of London has that going for it. Other than that, this is really not recommended. It doesn’t have werewolves, it doesn’t have good characters or memorable dialogue and its really boring most of the time. Kind of interesting but largely predictable, this is sadly one of the lesser Universal Horror films.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

“He is not insane. He simply wants to die.”

1943 ushered in what’s best called the Universal Monster Mashups. Universal had the rights to their big three horror franchises, so it was only a matter of time before they started crossing over with each other. Last year two of those mashups were watched (out of sequence, I might add) but here’s the one that started this ersatz trilogy: Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (which would be followed by House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula in that order).

So, Lon Chaney Jr. reprises his role as Larry Talbot/the Wolf Man, but there’s a bit of a problem, since he’s kind of dead at the beginning of the movie. The movie quickly works around that and he’s up and running again, checking himself into a psych ward seeking either a cure or a way to stay permanently dead. Normal science doesn’t do jack for him, so with gypsy woman Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya again) in tow, he heads to obscure central/eastern European-ish Vasaria to find the notes of the late Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein (the protagonist from Ghost of Frankenstein). Talbot finds the doctor’s daughter Elsa (Ilona Massey), now the baroness of the estate and a scientist herself. A scientist, Dr. Frank Mannering (Patric Knowles as a completely different character than in The Wolf Man) chases after Talbot, trying to help him, but growing obsessed with bringing the recently thawed/revived Frankenstein Monster (this time Bela Lugosi) back to full strength.

All of this secretive activity doesn’t sit well with the citizens of Vasaria (including a particularly bloodthirsty innkeeper) and the Mayor (Universal Horror vet Lionel Atwill) has a difficult time restraining the torches and pitchforks crowd (which includes Dwight Frye among their number).

Whew. Got all that?

Directed by Roy William Neill With George Robinson as Director of Photography, Jack Pierce’s effects continue to be solid and the werewolf transformations are incredibly impressive. Easily the best scene in the film is the first, where two grave robbers open Talbot’s tomb and accidentally revive him.

Curt Siodmak once again, and despite the fact that the continuity of the series turns into a complex snarl worthy of any fanboy obsession (you should browse Wookieepedia sometime if you don’t believe me), the fact that Siodmak was able to take two completely unrelated franchises and slap them together with any sense of coherence at all is an achievement. And it still hits all the expected notes of mad science, an angry mob and the Monster & Wolf Man fighting, while adding some new twists.

Original Music by Hans J. Salter (uncredited) is the standard 40s horror sound that I’ve grown quite accustomed to.

Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man isn’t exactly great and probably marks the downward turn for Universal’s horror series, but its still a lot of fun watching the very first monster mash. Lugosi’s Monster isn’t that great (partly due to script cuts that removed the Monster’s blindness and partly due to the fact he was sixty years old at this point) but it succeeds in giving you exactly what it says it will.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

“Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”

Ah, here we go. Wouldn’t be an Octoverride without some classic Universal Studios pictures. Last year we had Dracula and Frankenstein, this year we’ve got werewolves, starting with 1941’s The Wolf Man.

Upon hearing of the death of his brother, Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) returns home to Wales (according to the commentary) after a long absence. So long he’s got an American accent. He reconnects with his father Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains) and the two share a moment about astronomy. The Larry does a little peeping tom action on a room above an antique store in the village and introduces himself to Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers). She’s engaged to Frank Andrews (Patric Knowles) but that doesn’t stop Larry. They all go out to a gypsy carnival in town, but Gwen’s friend Jenny Williams (Fay Helm) has her fortune read by Bela (Bela Lugosi) and is attacked by a wolf on the way home. Larry beats the wolf to death with a silver headed cane, but is too late to save Jenny and is bitten in the process. As Larry begins to suffer the symptoms of the curse of lycanthropy, the gypsy woman Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya) tries to help him deal with the affliction.

Directed by George Waggner with Joseph A. Valentine as director of photography, the movie is tightly paced and really well shot. The real visual star is of course the werewolf makeup effects done by the temperamental Hollywood genius Jack Pierce (who also did the makeup for Frankenstein’s Monster and a bunch of other Universal monsters throughout the 30s into the 40s).

Written by the very prolific Curt Siodmak (he was responsible for many of the Universal horror scripts from the 40s and showed up in last year’s Octoverride), a lot of the lore and mythology of the modern werewolf was solidified or outright invented (like the vulnerability to silver) by Siodmak for this movie. Bluntly, this is THE werewolf movie that all others follow, whether they’re aware of it or not.

Original music by (uncredited) Charles Previn, Hans J. Salter & Frank Skinner, the score is sweeping, menacing and really good. So good that cues were taken from it for later, lesser Universal movies.

The Wolf Man is top shelf Universal horror and the film responsible for vaulting werewolves into the pop culture gestalt as part of the Big Three of monsters (Dracula & Frankenstein’s Monster being the other two). This is required viewing for horror buffs, werewolf buffs and effects fans.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

“You crazy, wonderful zombie!”

And speaking of weird Canadian horror influenced movies, 2006 brought the world Fido, a touching story set in the 1950s about a boy and his zombie. This is gonna be a fun month.

Well, we’re in an alternate 1950s, one where the zombie apocalypse has taken place but humanity endures in fortified, walled cities. Trouble is, anyone who dies can rise as a zombie unless special funerary precautions, such as burying the head in a separate coffin, are taken.

However, there’s a silver lining to this. The zombies are the slow, shambling kind, and they can be fitted with special control collars and trained to do menial labor. What could go wrong?

Timmy Robinson: K’Sun Ray is our main character, a cheerful lad who’s family gets a zombie

Bill Robinson: Dylan Baker (from the Spider-Man movies and Trick ‘R Treat) is the straight-laced patriarch of the Robinson family who’s kind of a jerk and obsessed with not rising as a zombie when he dies.

Helen Robinson: Carrie-Anne Moss (from The Matrix) is Bill’s wife and not exactly happy with the marriage.

Fido: Billy Connolly is awesome (and barely recognizable under the makeup) as the title character. He really conveys a lot of emotion with nothing but growls, groans and expressions.

Directed by Andrew Currie and DP Jan Kiesser the visual look of the movie is pretty much “Leave It To Beaver” meets the Zombie Apocalypse with a little dose of the tongue-in-cheek attitude of the Fallout video games. Makeup effects on the zombies are all quite good too.

Written by Robert Chomiak, Andrew Currie & Dennis Heaton and story by Dennis Heaton. It’s not as uproariously funny as Zombieland or Shaun Of The Dead, but there’s a more restrained level of satire going on here. There’s plenty of social commentary here, but the bulk of the story is also character driven, so it’s a generally solid storyline.

Original music by Don MacDonald, the music really plays up the dichotomy of the 50’s iconography and zombie presence.

Fido is a really fun indie zombie comedy with strong performances and a great satirical bent to it. Maybe not the best movie on the Octoverride, but by no means is it bad. It was recommended to me, and here I go passing the savings on to you. Recommended.

Monday, October 04, 2010

“All right. We're gonna do this the scanner way. I'm gonna suck your brain dry!”

David Cronenberg has a reputation for being a mad Canadian filmmaker who makes weird stuff. Stuff like the remake of The Fly or today’s entry, Scanners from 1981. This one’s all about a tiny segment of the world population with the ability to read and affect minds. And, yes, its weird.

So we’re in Canada in a near-future 1980s and a vagrant named Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) has an outburst of psychic energy and is taken into custody. A government scientist, Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) informs him that he’s a “scanner;” someone who can mentally merge nervous systems with other people in order to read their minds, make them do stuff or overload them.

Overloading is something a rogue scanner named Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside, with hair!) can do. He’s a scanner supremacist who has an underground army of scanners that hate normals. Revok is our Villain and has that famous scene where he pops the head of a government sanctioned scanner.

Cameron undergoes some training and is sent out to hunt Revok and things go badly for a while. However, Cameron does meet up with another scanner, Kim Oberst (Jennifer O’Neill) who also has a habit of surviving Revok’s attacks.

Directed by David Cronenberg and Mark Irwin as director of photography, the film has a very 80s feel to the look. Effects are sparse but pretty well done, especially the famous head popping scene and some of the later scanner fights. Pacing is a little hit and miss with a lot of scenes where not much happens, but its nothing too detrimental. The whole movie has an air of uncertainty and weirdness that works in its favor.

David Gronenberg wrote the script, and its full of a lot interesting ideas. The whole concept and nature of the scanners themselves is really interesting, what with their odd origins and the fact that its really not a comfortable thing being a scanner. The script does stretch the willing suspension of disbelief when they talk about scanning a computer, but that’s really only for one scene and leads up to a cool explosion, so I’m willing to let that slide.

Howard "Lord Of The Rings" Shore on score duty, the soundtrack is full of 80s science fiction-y sounds and odd touches that add to the unsettled vibe of the movie.

Scanners is a really cool movie with a lot of creepy, gory and darkly comedic touches that keep things interesting and the ending was pretty impressive. Recommended.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

“Let this remind you why you once feared the dark…”

Hellboy was awesome. More Hellboy should continue to be awesome, yes? 2008 seemed to think so, because that’s when we got a sequel. It promised more “fairy tale adventure” than “Lovecraftian action flick,” but when that’s filtered through the mind of Guillermo del Toro, you’re definitely not going to get the sanitized, Victorian notion of fairies. It's time for Hellboy 2: The Golden Army.

So Hellboy (Ron Perlman), Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) and Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) are conducting business as usual with the B.P.R.D. They stumble across a scheme of the elven prince Nuada (Luke Goss) to activate a mythical force of invulnerable clock punk golems called the Golden Army. Unfortunately for Nuada, his twin sister Nuala (Anna Walton) steals an item vital to that scheme and runs off.

Now, Hellboy is chafing under the policy of staying under the radar and his boss Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor) calls up to Washington DC for another agent. That agent turns out to be Dr. Johann Krauss (voiced by Seth MacFarlane) a German ghost in a pressure suit and a stuffy, by-the-book attitude that naturally chafes with Hellboy in suitably amusing ways. (man, no wonder you non-comics fans don't find this stuff accessible).

Nuala runs into Abe, Nuada’s henchman Mr. Wink (Brian Steele) runs into Hellboy and things build to a head where the Golden Army is confronted, Hellboy has a close encounter with the Angel of Death (Doug Jones again) and things get…interesting.

Directed by Guillermo del Toro and Guillermo Navarro on cinematography, so we continue with Double Guillermos again. The movie looks great and there are a couple of really nice set pieces that fill out the action quota nicely. Of particular note are the Troll market, the fight with the Earth Elemental, the Tooth Fairies and the fight with the Golden Army. Del Toro continues to use practical effects with computer graphics to supplement things.

Hellboy created by Mike Mignola and adapted by Guillermo del Toro and Mike Mignola. The story builds on the previous movie in some interesting ways. The franchise is clearly building toward something…apocalyptic, but until a third movie gets made, that’s a big question mark.

There’s also a strong theme of the death of magic and wonder in the world. Nuada even tells Hellboy as much during one of their confrontations.

Original score by Danny Elfman this time. The music works well for the movie and Elfman’s signature oddness is a perfect fit for a franchise about a demon that fights for the good guys, smokes cigars and says “Aw crap” a lot.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army is a fine sequel. It embraces the mystical and mythical elements of the premise and expands the world in some very ambitious ways while keeping the humor and general eldritch feel of the series.