Wednesday, June 30, 2010

“I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.”

This one is a bit daunting because honestly, what can I possibly add that hasn’t been already said about 1942’s Casablanca, which is one of the most universally beloved films ever made? Oh well, let’s give it the ol’ college try.

WAR! It’s the early 1940s and the Third Reich is pushing its way through Europe like a hot knife goes through butter. France has fallen and a puppet government in Vichy has been established. This matters to us because in French-controlled Morocco, the authority of the Vichy government is somewhat weak and the city of Casablanca (DUN DUN DUN) has become a point of departure for countless fugitives and refugees trying to leave the horrors of the Second World War. In the middle of this tumult is an American who owns a nightclub/casino that is neutral ground for everybody. While professing not to give a damn about the war, he’s got a shadowy past that indicates otherwise. Then everything changes when an old flame of his enters his café one night looking for his help.

Rick Blaine: Humphrey Bogart plays the owner and proprietor of Rick’s Café Américain. Cool, collected and totally the king of the little world he’s made for himself, Rick is an awesome guy who’s been emotionally wounded by a lot of stuff in the past and hides it all under a tough exterior. He gets a jolt when an old lover reenters his life, looking for help with her husband in tow. So now Rick’s torn in a bunch of directions: Does he give her the brush off for leaving him all those years ago? Does he help her and her husband escape German soldiers? Does he send her hubbie up the river in and abscond to America with her? Some fantastic drama comes out of the situation and while Rick gets challenged, he never really loses his competence or badass nature.

Ilsa Lund: The beautiful Ingrid Bergman plays the old lover. She and Rick had a whirlwind romance in Paris right before the War. She fell in love with him while she believed her husband had been killed by the Germans. When she found out about his survival, she left Rick without explanation. Understandably, his feelings were hurt. Now in Casablanca, some of that old romance bubbles up and causes no end of drama.

Victor Laszlo: Paul Henreid plays a Czech resistance fighter who is like a cockroach the German’s can’t kill. He’s technically the hero of the film (and the most heroic), an idealist, but he’s also got a stick up his ass. Yes he loves Ilsa, but when you see the pain written on Rick’s face, you can’t really blame the guy for considering giving Victor over to the Germans.

Captain Louis Renault: Claude Rains (who is quickly becoming one of my favorite 30s-40s supporting actors) plays the affably corrupt chief of police. He’s a womanizer, takes bribes and is completely willing to arrest people on trumped up charges, but he’s also a pragmatic man with little love for Vichy or German interference. Renault is something of a wild card in the film, working toward his own benefit, but he also gets the lion’s share of funny dialogue, especially the banter with Rick. Captain Renault is awesome.

Major Strasser: Conrad Veidt (the sleepwalker Cesare from silent classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) plays the German officer who arrives in Casablanca looking for Laszlo. Tall, aristocratic and actually somewhat reasonable, he’s also unwavering in his pursuit of any kind of reason or excuse to arrest the freedom fighter and bring him back to Germany. Clearly the Villain, but nuanced enough to have a bit of sympathy.

Signor Ferrari: Sydney Greenstreet (The Maltese Falcon) plays a “rival” nightclub owner who has extensive underworld connections and information. Fairly minor, but Greenstreet does a great job of it.

Ugarte: Peter Lorre (also The Maltese Falcon) essentially has one scene, but it is crucial to the plot. He’s a shady character who gets his hands on some letters of transit, a legal, valid means for anyone who has them to leave Morocco, no questions asked. He hands them over to Rick for temporary custody while he lays low, but he gets arrested soon after, so Rick just keeps them for himself. These letters become the film’s maguffin.

And then there are the tertiary characters; the staff of Rick’s Café led by Dooley Wilson as the pianist Sam. While minor, they’re all well defined and have some great scenes & dialogue.

Michael Curtiz (The Adventures of Robin Hood) with director of photography Arthur Edeson created one hell of a picture. You have some elements of noir in the lighting, but the atmosphere and exotic setting (through the miracle of soundstages) really give the film a completely unique feel. Masterfully done.

Based on the play Everybody Comes To Rick’s by Murray Burnett & Joan Alison and screenplay by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein & Howard Koch (and Casey Robinson uncredited). The plot, characters, dialogue and general interplay are all excellent. There’s a lot of quotability in this film and a lot of good turns and some outstanding scenes. Possibly my favorite is the one where Rick is in the bar after closing, bitter, confused and trying to drown the old wounds Ilsa just reopened. It’s powerful, and Bogart nails it with the right amount of pathos.

The original score by Max Steiner is excellent in every possible way, but a number of songs have huge parts in the success of the movie. The “theme” is “As Time Goes By” written by Herman Hupfeld for a Broadway show from the 30s and sung by Dooley Wilson, then hummed here and there and even worked into Steiner’s score. Then there’s a key character moment in Rick’s where the Germans led by Strasser sing “Die Wacht Am Rhein” and Laszlo rallies the rest of the bar to drown them out with the (Free) French anthem “La Marseillaise.” It could have easily been a cheesy scene, but here it works and is one of the classic moments of the film.

It’s Casablanca. It could have very easily been a cheap, cheesy melodrama/call to arms for the United States to get involved in WWII, but instead we get a tender, character driven Romance that uses the war as a grim backdrop that weighs heavily on every character. In blunt terms, this film is Art. Required viewing.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

“I spent six months in a Manchurian slave camp because of you. They were gonna cut off my fingers.”

Here at Castle RMWC, ADVENTURE! is always a welcome guest, so when a two-fisted retro-pulp adventurer with a tricked out P-40 Warhawk from 2004 comes a’knockin’, I’m listening. Here’s 2004’s Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow.

Scientists are disappearing around a sort of 1930s-40s world where things like the Hindenberg III can dock at the Empire State Building without exploding. Suddenly! Giant Robots attack New York and our Heroes, a high flying adventurer for hire and a plucky female reporter have to find out what the hell is going on. Sure sounds like ADVENTURE! to me.

Joe “Sky Captain” Sullivan: Jude Law cuts a dashing figure as a pulp hero. He does a good job of looking determined and overcoming every obstacle that comes his way. Just like in the old Adventure serials. He’s also got connections across the globe, a sweet modified fighter plane and an island base outside of New York City that is staffed by a small army. Sky Captain is quite badass.

Polly Perkins: Gwyneth Paltrow does all right as a stereotypically inquisitive reporter who keeps getting in trouble. She & Joe have a…rocky history, to say the least.

Dex Dearborn: Giovanni Ribisi plays Sky Captain’s go-to tech guy, a young mechanical genius who’s helped design some of the crazy tech in the movie. He gets captured by robots fairly early on, which of course, makes things personal.

Captain Francesca “Franky” Cook: Angelina Jolie in what amounts to a glorified cameo as they eye patch wearing leader of a British Helicarrier mobile reconnaissance platform. She’s also got a squadron of amphibious fighter planes at her command.

The Mysterious Woman: Ling Bai is the villain’s, er, mysterious henchwoman. A black-clad, goggled silent killer who is also in control of the robotic minions sent to plague the world.

Dr. Totenkopf: Sir Laurence Olivier (well, through the miracle of computers he’s able to live again in recorded images) is the mysterious and reclusive genius behind the disappearances. Discovering the reason why he’s doing these things and has a robot army is the driving action of the plot.

Directed by Kerry Conran with cinematography by Eric Adkins, I have to admit, for a modestly budgeted project, the visual style is incredibly distinctive. It’s the same kind of mostly blue screened, heavy on the CGI method used in Episode II and later 300, and the art direction here is stellar. The movie has a great diesel punk atmosphere that’s filled with retro robot designs and art deco architecture. The camera movements are also subtly impressive, with pans and turns that achieve some interesting angles.

However, I have a huge gripe about the visuals. While the movie goes for a very retro visual style that includes blown out lighting, it’s in color. And somehow that just makes it look a bit too off in a way I can’t quite explain. This bugs me on a pretty substantial level, since I watched the whole thing thinking that it would’ve been so much better in black & white.

Kerry Conran again on script duty. You can tell this is a real labor of love. The characters, the globe-trekking plot, the crazy inventions and the dialogue are all deeply rooted in the old school pulp science fiction stories that inspired it. On the downside, it does seem to hew a little too closely to the old serials. Things like dialogue and some bits of characterization could have used a more modern polish, but overall, it’s a satisfying result.

Original score by Edward Shearmur and it kicks ass, balancing the right blend of high flying Heroics and ADVENTURE! Shamelessly retro and totally appropriate for the movie.

I really wanted to love Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow. It’s got a laundry list of elements I like: Giant robots, mad science, fedoras, fighter planes, dogfights, blimps, great music, teals coils and more. I’m quite convinced at this point that a lot of the CGI elements and the color bloom would’ve been better masked by the film being in black & white with a touch of film grain added for extra atmosphere. Interestingly enough, the six minute short that led to the feature length movie WAS in glorious black & white with a bit of film grain, and it is awesome. As it stands, Sky Captain is a valiant effort at recapturing the feel of old school sci-fi ADVENTURE! I respect and rather like the film, but I don’t want to name my firstborn after it.

And for comparison's sake, the original "Sky Captain and the Flying Legion" short:

Saturday, June 26, 2010

“Up? I’ve been up all night with dead people!”

Bela Lugosi had some awesome roles in Universal Horror franchises like Dracula and Frankenstein. Unfortunately, he also made some serious stinkers. 1942’s The Corpse Vanishes is just such a dose of schlock.

So there’s this scientist/horticulturalist who is trying to keep his aging wife alive. To do so, he orchestrates an extremely convoluted plot that involves breeding a kind of poisonous orchid that he delivers to brides on their wedding days that seemingly kills them. Then he and his henchmen steal the body by pretending they’re ambulance/hearse drivers and after that unnecessarily labor-intensive phase of the plot, takes the brides to his mansion’s basement and drains bodily fluid from their glands in order to restore his wife’s youth and beauty. That sound you hear is the collective thud of the heads of every science major reading this slamming their heads against their desks. There’s also a plucky news reporter trying to figure out all this, because it’s that kind of movie.

Dr. Lorenz: Bela Lugosi is arguably the best thing in this movie. I say “arguably,” since its pretty clear he’s not really trying here. Part mad scientist, part riding on his “Dracula” image (they even have Lorenz & his wife sleeping in coffins for one scene), there’s a little bit of pathos to the character in that he’s doing some pretty evil stuff in the name of love. And while his scheme is suitably insane (a staple of these low budget mad scientist films) its not a memorable performance. Doesn’t stop him from being the badass of the film, but that’s really more of a commentary on the quality of the other actors.

Patricia Hunter: Luana Walters is our plucky young reporter. She’s a real go-getter and like Lois Lane, this gets her into all kinds of trouble later on and like the mythological Cassandra, nobody really believes her when she starts figuring out the mad doctor’s plot. Then she gets saddled with an extraneous (and rather useless) love interest.

Dr. Foster: Tris Coffin is the extraneous love interest. He’s a small town doctor in Dr. Lorenz’ town that takes Patricia up to the spooky looking mansion and is completely naïve to the possibility that Bela Lugosi might be up to no good in a B Movie.

Countess Lorenz: Elizabeth Russell is the wife who’s life is being unnaturally prolonged. She’s kind of a bitch and I’m not really sure why she’s a “Countess” unless…oh…. Really? They’re trying to make this a modern spin on the Elizabeth Báthory story? Oh geez.

Fagah: Minerva Urecal plays Dr. Lorenz’ servant, an old crone who’s two sons Toby (Angelo Rossitto) and Angel (Frank Moran) serve as henchmen and whipping boys (literally in Angel’s case) for the Doctor. (Like that ever ends well in these kinds of movies). Toby is a dwarf and Angel is a mentally challenged hunchback.

Directed by Wallace Fox, there’s really not a whole lot going for this movie visually outside of the wedding scene at the opening where you get the setup of a bride dying right after saying “I do.” And I suppose there’s also the shot of Dr. & Countess Lorenz sleeping in coffins, but other than that, its pretty dull. Very dull, considering its only 64 minutes long.

Sam Robins, Gerald Schnitzer & Harvey Gates on story duties. Terribly impractical scheme, cardboard characters and bad dialogue notwithstanding, the initial premise of a mad scientist kidnapping comatose brides on their wedding days in order to drain their still-living bodies of fluids is a legitimately disturbing one. Hell, it almost sounds like one of the modern gorn (which is actually not a word I just made up) films making mad bank at the theaters.

There is no original music. There is no music whatsoever. That’s the kind of film we’re dealing with.

The Corpse Vanishes is pretty damn bad. It gets some redeeming points for having an interesting (if thoroughly impractical) plot and some small interesting parts, but the characters are awful and misused (how do you NOT use the hunchback for more than just opening up doors?) and the whole thing is plain old boring. A complete waste of time if you watch it as-is.


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

“Are those sad tissues or happy tissues?”

It seems you can’t really go a year without a comedy from the juggernaut that, in an attempt to sound hip and edgy, I’ll call the “Apatow Collective” (to include films directed, produced or in some way involves Judd Apatow or people closely associated with him). This is by no means a bad thing, since I rather liked The 40 Year Old Virgin and from what I saw of Superbad in a bar with the sound off it looked amusing. And that rather awkward segue leads us to 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which features a number of Apatow confreres.

So our hero is a musician working in Hollywood writing scores for television and film and he’s dating a successful actress. Life should be great, right? Well, turns out he’s kind of a slacker in general and his girlfriend unceremoniously (to say the least) dumps him and starts going out with a big rock star. Miserable, our hero is eventually convinced to take a trip to Hawaii to help him in forgetting Sarah Marshall (DUN DUN DUN!). Guess who happens to be vacationing there at the same time? Can you say “hilarity ensues” in Hawaiian? No, really, can you? Because that would’ve made that last line seem a whole lot wittier.

Peter Bretter: Jason Segel (who also wrote it) is our hero, a decent guy who’s also kind of a schlub. After Sarah dumps him, he tries to get over her by having lots of random, meaningless sex to no avail and ends up in a deeper funk. When he gets to Hawaii, he gets thrown for a loop when Sarah & her new boyfriend show up and things get complicated when befriends the cute employee at the resort. As far as protagonists go, Segel does a good job of keeping Peter likable without making him a one dimensional sad-sack. I mean, yeah, he spends most of the movie bemoaning his fate, but at least he tries to learn something.

Sarah Marshall: Kristen Bell plays Peter’s much more successful and popular ex who’s the star of a CSI type show. She’s not a terrible human being, but she is a bit on the callow and self-centered side (well, to be fair the movie takes Peter’s side in the split).

Aldous Snow: Russell Brand is the outlandish, over-the-top British rocker and front man for “Infant Sorrow” that Sarah leaves Peter for. Amusingly enough when Peter & Aldous are forced to be near each other in Hawaii, they start getting along rather well (they are both musicians after all).

Rachel Jansen: Mila Kunis is a receptionist at the Hawaiian resort that Peter ends up at and dontcha know, he takes a fancy to her and they hesitatingly start going out. She’s extremely likable in this.

Brian Bretter: Recent SNL veteran (though I won’t hold it against him) Bill Hader (who was also in Tropic Thunder as a minor character) plays Peter’s married stepbrother who tries to provide constructive criticism.

Kimo: Taylor Wily plays a large Hawaiian employee at the hotel who hangs out with Peter, keeping him effectively busy and less concerned about his former relationship. Kimo’s a bro, and gets the funniest single line in the movie, making him the film’s badass.

The rest of the B team consist of mostly hotel/resort employees who interact with Peter, like Matthew the Waiter (Jonah Hill), Dwayne the Bartender (Da’Vone McDonald) and Chuck the Surfing Instructor (Paul Rudd) as well as awkward newlywed couple Darald & Wyoma (Jack McBrayer & Maria Thayer).

Directed by Nicholas Stoller and DP Russ T. Alsobrook (Apatow produced). This is Stoller’s first film, and you know what, he does a fine job of it. The movie keeps moving along, and even when there are moments where it feels like some conversations Peter is having are repeating, at least the scenery changes. Hawaii looks good in the film too, though its mostly limited to the area around the resort.

Writen by Jason Segel the film juggles the main and several subplots fairly well. There are some points though where you realize some characters are more “quirky” than “funny” (like Matthew the Waiter and the newlywed couple) but it doesn’t detract much from the movie. The jokes are generally amusing, but ultimately the movie is more like a clever, self-reflective dramedy than an outrightly hilarious knee-slapper.

However, there is one idea in the film that is an absolute stroke of comedic genius and that gets revealed when Peter is talking about his old ambition to finish writing a rock opera about Dracula with an all-puppet cast. Let that sink in. Dracula. Puppet. Musical.

Hell, I’d pay to see it.

Original music by Lyle Workman and a bunch of songs from performers like Cake, Prince, The Smiths, The Time, Russell Brand himself and stuff from the fictional vampire musical “A Taste For Love” (see above) written by Jason Segel himself (who actually can write music).

Forgetting Sarah Marshall isn’t exactly something that had me rolling on the floor begging for death because my sides hurt so much from merriment. Nor is it mightily quotable compared to a lot of other comedies. HOWEVER, it’s actually got a lot of heart and moxie where it counts and the “quirky side characters” do end up growing on you (mostly). What really saved it from the “OK But Forgettable” pile was the Dracula Musical, though it was a success and got its own spinoff, Get Him To The Greek, which I’m in no rush to see since I thought Aldous Snow was an all right secondary character, but wasn’t blown away by him.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Pop quiz time. What movie is as campy as the summer solstice is long, features a cast of notable (mostly) British actors in ridiculous costumes and features a soundtrack by Queen? It can only be 1980’s Flash Gordon, possibly one of the largest single servings of cinematic ham AND cheese to ever grace the screen.

Well, it’s Flash Gordon. The Emperor Ming of the planet Mongo decides on a lark to destroy Earth and its up to Flash (AHHHHH-ahhhhh!), a mad scientist who’s invented a rocket and a random girl swept up in things to challenge Ming and save the Earth. ADVENTURE! ensues.

Flash Gordon: Sam J. Jones is kind of dull as the square-jawed hero and former quarterback of the Jets. I mean, sure, he cuts a dashing figure, but really, Flash (AHHHHH-ahhhhh!) is far from the most outrageous figure in the movie. Although he does fight a squad of goons early in the film as though it were a football game, so…yeah…

Dale Arden: Melody Anderson plays Flash’s (AHHHHHH-aahhhhhh!) mild-mannered, somewhat dull love interest. They met by chance on a flight that went down thanks to the chaotic weather created by Emperor Ming. Like her old school counterpart, she gets captured a lot.

Dr. Hans Zarkov: Topol (who was Tevye in the 1971 movie of Fiddler On The Roof) plays the merry mad scientist Zarkov, who uses his crazy ideas for good instead of evil. He gets some good, cheesy lines as one of Flash’s (AHHHHHH-aahhhhh!) main supporting characters.

Emperor Ming the Merciless: The ever-awesome Max von Sydow really hams it up big time as Ming the Merciless. Ming is part hedonist, part bored aristocrat and all tyrant. He presides with an iron fist over his court and is so brilliantly, gleefully evil that you can’t help but like the guy, even as he threatens to crash the Moon into Earth for kicks. Totally badass.

Princess Aura: Ornella Muti plays Ming’s beautiful, selfish and somewhat less evil daughter. She takes a liking to Flash (AHHHHH-ahhhhhh!) and doesn’t want to see him killed (until she’s had a go with him at least).

Klytus: Peter Wyngarde plays Ming’s second in command, a robed, metal-masked, probably robotic fellow with a laconic voice. Visually, he looks a lot like a gold-faced Dr. Doom with a more laid back attitude about things. I rather liked him.

General Kala: Mariangela Melato plays general of Ming’s military, and eventually dispatches the flagship (and apparently ONLY ship) of Ming’s fleet, War Rocket Ajax, to retrieve the body of the seemingly dead Flash (AHHHHH-ahhhhhh!). She’s a cruel woman who also oversees tortures & interrogations and kind of has a dominatrix look to her. She’s quite evil, all right. Sexy evil.

Prince Barin of Arboria: Timothy Dalton (yep, one of the James Bonds) is the lord of the Moon of Arboria, a forested planetoid with all manner of dangerous creatures. He’s got a love/hate thing going with Princess Aura and tries to kill Gordon at first before joining him with his swashbuckling, Robin Hood-esque swordsmanship.

Prince Vultan of the Hawkmen: Brian Blessed in arguably his most recognizable role, shouting his way through the movie and dressed in a ridiculous set of wings commanding a flying legion of similarly dressed hawkmen. He’s no friend of Ming’s, but he’s Barin’s rival and doesn’t trust Flash Gordon when he arrives. Vultan is so insane he’s awesome.

Mike Hodges as director and Gilbert Taylor as director of photography really give the movie a distinct visual look that is sort of a cross between the old black & white serials and what I’m assuming is an acid trip on drugs left over from Zardoz. The special effects are…spotty, but the whole feel of the movie is self-aware of its own cheesiness, so the often bad effects kind of work in the film’s favor. It’s also colorful as all hell.

So Flash Gordon was originally a comic strip created by Alex Raymond in 1934 (and been adapted several times). This version was adapted by Michael Allin with the screenplay by Lorenzo Semple Jr. (who was one of the writers for the 1960s Batman series and boy howdy does it show. In a good way, I mean).

Orchestral score by Howard Blake, but in all honesty, that doesn’t matter when you’ve got Queen on soundtrack duty wailing away with electric guitars.

There’s no denying that Flash Gordon is a weird-ass movie. At several points, you get the feeling that the budget was spent on paying Queen and supplying the art department with mind-expanding substances to abuse. That said, there is an infectious spirit of fun present in the film that completely overrides the many, many flaws of it. It’s a big cast dressing up in silly costumes, spouting crazy dialogue and flinging understatement and restraint to the wind. The film kind of flopped in the US, but is apparently very fondly regarded in the UK, so make of that what you will. For my part, I thought it was a hell of a lot of fun in a “so weird it’s awesome” way, though I have no doubt that your mileage will vary.

So many drugs...

Saturday, June 19, 2010


Ah what the hell, let's have some more schlock. This time its 1966’s science fiction stinker Women of the Prehistoric Planet, which can be accurately summed up as “too much prehistoric planet, not enough women.”

Okay, so we’ve got two spaceships on their way home from Centauri (where “home” is I have no idea). On one rocket, the Centaurian crewmembers rebel against the others, causing it to crash on a nearby planet in the “Solarias System.” The other ship in the “fleet” turns around to look for survivors, but gets there 20 years later because of some time paradox/dilation thingy. After some initial exploration, a Centauri woman from the rescue ship stumbles across the son of some of the survivors of the crash.

Oh yeah, and the “Prehistoric Planet” that all this takes place on? Big surprise, it’s Earth. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie.
**End Spoiler**
Admiral David King: Wendell Corey is the stone-faced admiral of the fleet, a humorless, serious man who is sympathetic to the Centaurians (who were apparently on the losing side of some galactic war and are all now forced to wear purple as punishment).

Commander Scott: Keith Larsen is the square-jawed second in command. He doesn’t like Centaurians and that’s about all the characterization he gets.

Lt. Red Bradley: Paul Gilbert plays the ship’s engineer and comic relief character, and if there’s a memorable character, this is it. Cocky and quick with a stupid quip, he never really shuts up, though he is responsible for the most memorable line of dialogue in the whole movie. HI-KEEBA!

Linda: Irene Tsu (who’s done a lot of TV acting) is, basically our main character. An attractive young Centauri woman who’s seen as a kind of surrogate daughter by Admiral King. Anyway, once she finds Tang, she starts to fall in love with him and tries to bring him back to the ship to show the crew how Centaurians and whatever-the-white-guys-are can get along.

Tang: Robert Ito (who’s doing a hell of a lot of voice over work) is the heroic son of a Centauri woman and whatever-the-white-guys-are race, which is awfully progressive for 1966 when you think about it. Yes, he runs around in a little tunic and his parents are frozen in a block of…something for no good reason, but he’s actually very competent at surviving alone against the savage residents of the planet (humanoid and otherwise). He’s even built himself a little crossbow. All of this makes him the defacto badass of the movie, even though his name’s a powdered breakfast drink.

Directed by Arthur C. Pierce, the effects are largely awful and the pace of the film is languid at best. We’re talking Rocketships on obvious strings here.

Arthur C. Pierce again, and while the plot is pretty bland and predictable, I will give him credit for at least trying to make some commentary on race-relations. There’s not a whole lot of American movies from the 60s that feature a large chunk of the cast played by Asians in three dimensional roles. For as much as the movie stinks, Linda & Tang are the most sympathetic characters and the issue of racism comes up a few times, mostly in portraying the “Centaurians” as second class citizens after being on the losing side of a costly war. Now, if that makes you think of the Japanese and the immediate aftermath of WWII, well, that’s probably the filmmakers intent.

But trying alone does not save a script, and the movie is boring, the dialogue bad and the twist at the end is silly.

No idea who did the score for the movie, since there’s nobody listed on IMDB for it. Not that it matters, really, the music isn’t very good either.

Women of the Prehistoric Planet is pretty bad. As a science fiction film, its just plain boring. As a clumsy pseudo-commentary on race relations, it stands out as a mild curiosity, but that’s about it.

Go figure, I can't find a trailer for the film, but here's really all you need to know about the film...

Thursday, June 17, 2010

“I'm the dude playin' the dude, disguised as another dude!”

So The Silence of the Lambs was some heavy, well made and deeply disturbing cinema. Let’s wash that out with some comedic brain bleach. To that end, here’s 2008’s Tropic Thunder, written by Ben Stiller, directed by Ben Stiller & starring Ben Stiller.

So we start with a few fake ads and commercials featuring the characters of the film before getting into the plot. This is a movie about making movies, and the movie in question is an astronomically big budgeted Vietnam War movie “based on a true story” and starring three of the most egotistical and temperamental figures in Hollywood. The movie is over-budget and woefully behind schedule, and the producer gives the greenhorn director an ultimatum; get the movie back on track or he’s fired. The writer of the novel that the movie-within-the-actual-movie is based on (man, this is getting meta) suggests taking the actors off the grid into the jungle for some guerrilla-style filmmaking, at which point everything goes to hell when they enter the territory of a drug cartel called the Flaming Dragon and hilarity ensues.

Damien Cockburn: Steve Coogan is the hapless director who is in way over his head and unable to get his actors under control. He does a good job of the role, though there’s not much to it.

Kirk Lazarus: Robert Downey Jr. blows the movie away with his portrayal of a belligerent Australian method actor who undergoes a skin darkening procedure in order to play the movie squad’s black sergeant, “Lincoln Osiris” and refuses to break character. Far and away the movie’s badass.

Jeff Portnoy: Jack Black plays a boisterous comedian famous for lowbrow comedies that are pretty clearly based on Eddie Murphy’s Nutty Professor films. He’s got a serious drug problem too.

Tugg Speedman: Ben Stiller plays a largely washed up action star who’s Scorcher films aren’t making the money they used to. He took the lead role in the shameless Oscar-fodder film Simple Jack which bombed because he went “full retard” for the part and this role is acknowledged as pretty much a last gasp attempt at saving his career.

Alpa Chino: Brandon T. Jackson plays a popular and highly commercial rapper famous for shilling products like “Booty Sweat” energy drink who is trying to branch out dramatically to prove he has range. Naturally, he’s not particularly fond of Lazarus playing a very over-the-top black man, but he’s also got some surprises.

Kevin Sandusky: Jay Baruchel plays a really young character actor who’s trying to get a big break in the business. As such, he’s more or less ignored by the rest of the cast, but also happens to have been the only one to attend the cast boot camp and has some idea of what he’s doing. Easily the most level-headed character in the film.

John “Four-Leaf” Tayback: Nick Nolte plays a full-blown crazy man and the author of the book that the film is based on. His hands were blown off during the war, so he has to use hooks, but there’s a lot more going on with him than he lets on.

Cody: Danny McBride plays the pyrotechnics chief for the movie, a boorish, crass pyromaniac who loves making stuff go boom. And boom stuff goes in this movie.

Rick Peck: Matthew McConaughey plays Tugg’s agent who’s been with him for years. Mostly, he’s concerned with getting Tugg a TiVo that was promised in the contract.

Les Grossman: Tom Cruise in a surprisingly entertaining glorified cameo as the executive producer of the film. Grossman is a foul-mouthed, amoral crazy pants who is funding the movie and steals the show when he’s on screen. If he & Downey Jr. were on the screen at the same time, I fear the television would magically transform into a ham and cheese sandwich fit for the gods.

Ben Stiller directed with John Toll as director of photography. The film looks very, very good and when it goes into action-movie mode, stuff blows up real good while still remaining wickedly funny. The pacing of the film is also incredibly well done, with even the director’s cut moving along at a nice breezy pace.

Screenwriters Ben Stiller, Justin Theroux & Etan Cohen have a lot of characters to juggle, and the manage to do so well. Everybody important goes through some kind of arc and the dialogue is both incredibly well written and incredibly profane, so there’s not much I can quote here. Suffice it to say, the movie throws a lot at you, and it is very, very funny. Even the film’s point of controversy, the abundant usage of the word “retard” in discussion of the mentally handicapped is actually rather well handled, with the point within the movie being about Hollywood’s exploitation of such disabilities in order to create maudlin Oscar Bait tearjerkers.

Original Music by Theodore Shapiro, but that gets overshadowed by the excellent and appropriately placed licensed music, like Quiet Riot, M.C. Hammer, The Temptations, The Mooney Suzuki, The Crystal Method, Steppenwolf and others.

Not a whole lot to say other than I love the hell out of Tropic Thunder. It’s a smart, genre savvy skewering/tribute to big budget action movies that is one really successful action comedy. Totally recommended.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

“It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again.”

Yet another film from the “you HAVEN’T see this one yet?” pile, here comes 1991’s The Silence Of The Lambs, from Jonathan Demme, director of the blunt force drama Rachel Getting Married.

So, we’ve got a young, ambitious FBI trainee called in to try and persuade a former psychiatrist-turned cannibalistic serial killer into helping her (and by extension the government) track down a serial killer on the loose. The movie and book it’s based on are both the sequels to a novel called Red Dragon that was the 1986 movie Manhunter. Silence itself got a sequel: Hannibal, and then a new version of Red Dragon/remake of Manhunter. Confused yet? Don’t worry too much about it since Silence is the most famous of the franchise.

Clarice Starling: Jodie Foster is our plucky young hero who’s trying to crack this “Buffalo Bill” serial killer case wide open. She’s fine enough in the film, though I can’t say I’m impressed with the performance, largely because I can’t get over her Southern accent. Still, as far as protagonists go, she’s not bad and happens to be the only person that Hannibal Lecter would even consider talking to about the case. She’s also got a lot of baggage in her past, like her father being murdered and her being raised on a farm where, among other critters, there were sheep, which eventually gets around to explaining the title of the story. Though I have to wonder why the FBI would place so much reliance on a young rookie instead of, oh, I dunno, one of their BEST agents?

Jack Crawford: Scott Glenn is Clarice’s boss and the guy who pulls her into the case, appealing to her sense of ambition.

“Buffalo Bill”: Ted Levine (who’s done a surprising amount of voiceover work) is the film’s primary Villain and… Jesus… It’s. Fucked. Up. I mean, the guy’s a bisexual white supremacist (or something like that) who is killing overweight women and skinning them in order to make a “woman suit” so that he can transform into a woman in his sick mind. Great. There goes my appetite for the rest of the day. About the only thing in the world he likes is his little dog, Precious.

Catherine Marton: Brooke Smith is “Buffalo Bill’s latest kidnapping victim who also happens to be a Senator’s daughter. This naturally ramps up the pressure for the FBI to find the killer before he can kill her.

Dr. Hannibal Lecter: Anthony Hopkins is, of course, the reason to watch this movie. He is the suave, cultured and thoroughly unhinged cannibal that the FBI reluctantly turns to in order to help profile Buffalo Bill. And it is a command performance, even though he’s technically a secondary character and not even in the movie all that much. There’s no question that the guy’s a remorseless killer who manipulates people to his own ends, but the dangerous part about him is that he’s just so damn charming about it. Hopkins is a fantastic actor and, somewhat begrudgingly (because Hannibal is a SERIAL KILLER himself) the badass of the film.

Directed by Jonathan Demme with cinematography by Tak Fujimoto. The film is well shot with lots of incredibly tense scenes. Mostly these are quiet dramatic conversations that wind up the characters and watch them interact, but there is one action scene that kind of comes out of nowhere about ¾ through that displays just how dangerous Lecter really is.

Screenplay by Ted Tally and based on the novel “Silence of the Lambs” by Thomas Harris. It’s well done. It hits all the notes required for an effective psychological thriller about serial killers doing terrible things to people. Also quite quotable, evidenced by the sheer number of times it gets pop culture referenced in other works.

Howard Shore did the score and its been a while since I saw it, so I don’t remember any of the music, unfortunately. But it’s Howard Shore, so by no means is it bad.

The Silence of the Lambs is a very well made film and kind of required viewing for modern cinephiles. Artistically successful in its ambitions and thoroughly disturbing, I respect the film a hell of a lot for holding up a mirror to some truly gruesome stuff. But I don’t actually like the film, though I'm glad I saw it. I wouldn’t want it in my collection. Hell, I don’t even think I want to see it again. Ever. Just remembering it makes me want to go take a scalding hot shower. So well done, movie, you’ve earned my respect AND revulsion.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

“How come I have to have these straps on, Doc?”

Time for more schlock! Its 1942’s The Mad Monster, which features both a Mad and a Monster. That's really about the only preface it needs/deserves.

So, there’s this mad scientist who’s moved out to an estate in the swamp because his colleagues in Science have all laughed him out of academia. But he’ll show them! He’ll inject the blood of a wolf into a man to create a man-wolf to kill his enemies and prove that scientifically created army of man-wolves is exactly what the allies need to beat the Nazis. It’s the kind of movie that ends with a building burning down and a man and a woman barely escaping it so they can hug each other as they watch it burn in the final frame.

Dr. Lorenzo Cameron: George Zucco (one of the solid horror movie actors of the 30s & 40s) seems to be slumming here for a paycheck. Slumming he may be, but that doesn’t stop him from chewing the hell out of the scenery as a scientist who is quite obviously insane. How insane? Well, aside from injecting his servant/groundskeeper with wolf blood, he starts off the movie monologuing to imaginary versions of his enemies in the scientific community for a good five minutes, so yeah, I’d say he’s cracked. Still, as far as everything goes, he’s the badass of the film.

Lenora Cameron: Anne Nagel is Cameron’s loving and incredibly oblivious daughter. She doesn’t pick up on the fact that he’s a loon. She just want him to be the best darn scientist/dad in the world.

Petro: Glenn Strange (the guy underneath the makeup for the latter day Universal Frankenstein films and a staple of Westerns like Gunsmoke) isn’t exactly given a chance to branch out into complex speaking roles. Petro’s just a big dumb, almost likely mentally challenged lug who’s pretty gentle and takes a liking to Lenora. When he’s not a werewolf. When he is a werewolf, he growls a lot and lumbers around somewhat menacingly and occasionally kills people. Pitiable more than scary.

Tom Gregory: Johnny Downs plays Lenora’s boyfriend, a plucky, justice-minded reporter, because that is exactly the kind of movie this is. Bland and boring, he’s more or less the “hero” of the movie though he doesn’t really do much.

Directed by Sam Newfield (who apparently did a lot of Westerns in his long career), the movie has occasional moments of watchability, but by and large it’s a clumsily plotted, not very well edited lump of celluloid that doesn’t really go anywhere. Its not terribly shot, which is something, and the transformation sequence that Petro undergoes isn’t any worse than any other ‘40’s werewolf transformation. Unfortunately, the movie blows that wad early and every transformation afterwards is much less interesting. Also, it’s a bit hard to take seriously a werewolf that walks around in denim overalls. I’m just saying.

Written by Fred Myton (who apparently ALSO worked on a lot of Westerns in his career), there’s not a whole lot of new stuff that gets brought to the table. Let’s see, there’s a little girl killed off camera by the monster, but that was already done in Frankenstein. There’s a creepy old mansion in the swamp-- no, seen that already too in Son of Dracula. A werewolf created by injecting Science into them instead of a curse, I guess that’s something, but really, kind of a moot point when push comes to snarl. Ok, I got something. I really dig the scientist’s plan to use his Science-made werewolves to fight the Axis Powers in World War II. Its kind of a throwaway line and nothing ever comes of it, but that’s the kind of crazyness that I want to see in a B movie.

The score by David Chudnow is very bombastic and fully committed to the movie. I’ll give it that.

The Mad Monster is pretty boring when George Zucco isn’t on screen, unless you like people wandering around a swamp set. Glenn Strange’s Petro is a little sympathetic, but doesn’t get a whole lot to angst about like Larry Talbin of the Wolfman movies does. And here’s where the movie really fails: its just boring. The Crawling Eye & The Robot Vs The Aztec Mummy were both bad films, but there’s a kind of insanity to them that gives them some charm.

Even the trailer narrator doesn't seem interested.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

“It's a moral imperative.”

So apparently one of the major gaps in my childhood was an incredible lack of 1985’s Real Genius in my life. This has been corrected.

So a teen genius graduates high school early and gets a scholarship to a fancy pants science school. He moves in, feels terribly out of place and meets his roommate, a free spirited genius who takes the kid under his wing as they work on the same project for their professor, a jackass working on a brand new laser that, unbeknownst to the students, is intended for military purposes. Hijinks ensue.

Mitch Taylor: Gabriel Jarret is our hero, a 15 year old scientific prodigy that gets a scholarship to a prestigious California school that is totally not an analog for Cal Tech. Anyway, he’s a fish out of water, but he finally finds a group of friends that he can relate to, but also a bunch of bullies (genius bullies). Likable enough, but kind of bland.

Chris Knight: A young Val Kilmer chews up the scenery and completely overshadows his new roommate Mitch. Chris is an irreverent academic rebel who refuses to submit to the Man and play by the rules, which explains why he’s kind of old to be a college student (making him sort of like an 80’s genius version of Van Wilder, I guess). Anyway, he gets the lion’s share of the quality dialogue and jokes and is the badass of the film.

Jordan: Michelle Meyrink plays the obligatory love interest, a shy, reclusive and particularly eccentric girl that Mitch takes a liking to.

Professor Jerry Hathaway: William Atherton (the guy who played a jerk in Ghostbusters and Die Hard) plays, guess what? A jerk in this movie. This time around, he’s the professor on campus that’s basically using his students to develop a high powered military grade laser for him so he can get rich off the government contract he has. Typecast or not, the guy’s just so damn good at being an asshole.

Lazlo Hollyfeld: Jon Gries plays the eccentric homeless-looking guy who lives in Mitch & Chris’ closet. That goes from a simple running gag to a reveal that he’s a former genius student at the school who snapped at some point, becoming a wild-eyed recluse living in the dorm’s boiler room.

Kent: Robert Prescott is a student who uses underhanded tactics and asskissing to get in good with Prof. Hathaway. He is a genius who happens to be a bully, though Chris & co. exact a lot of comical revenge on him, like rigging his teeth to be able to receive transmissions from Chris who’s pretending to be God sending messages to Kent.

Directed by Martha Coolidge, the film is a competently shot 80’s comedy with a dose of special effects to reflect the wacky science going on (mostly lasers, but also stuff like somehow flash-freezing the hallway of a dorm in order to skate around). Things move at a nice clip, too, aided by the fact that there are four (I counted) montages scattered throughout. That’s actually a bit excessive, but doesn’t hurt the movie.

Screenplay/Story credits go to Neal Israel, Pat Proft (from the Hot Shots movies and also having the dubious honor of being one of the writers for the Star Wars Holiday Special. A word of advice: don't watch it), and Peter Torokvei. Like any self-respecting 80’s comedy, its full of one liners and questionable science and the occasional plot details that don’t hold up to close inspection. For instance: what is stopping the military from simply building another satellite if the heroes destroy the first? They’ve got the plans.

Anyway, to the writers’ credit, they avoid making the nerds freakishly maladjusted misfits unable to communicate with other human beings without resorting to stereotypically dense science dialogue all the time. They talk like normal quirky characters in a screwball 80’s comedy, only smarter, which is far better than *coughBigBangTheorycough* other attempts at comedies about geniuses.

Original music by Thomas Newman which is fine, as well as Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants To Rule The World,” Don Henley’s “All She Wants To Do Is Dance” and Bryan Adams’ “One Night Love Affair” among other stereotypically 80s songs.

I liked Real Genius. It’s a fun, harmless and often witty 80s comedy that mostly rides on Kilmer’s personality. Sure, there may be an inordinate number of montages set to music, but whatever, its an amusing movie. Recommended.

Wow, way to spoil the movie, trailer. And ignore the main character.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

“I will shoot you. And I know robot karate!”

Leaving aside monstrously budgeted franchises filled with *BOOSH* and/or *KA-KOW!* we turn to indie film sensibilities, where acoustic guitars and general quirkiness reign supreme. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you, its just another set of storytelling clichés that get used for good or for ill.

This intro kind of sucks, so let’s just get right into Michel Gondry’s 2008 film, Be Kind Rewind.

So, we’re in Passaic, New Jersey and a guy named Mike works in a failing video store that is still stocked only with VHS tapes. The store is in danger of closing, and our hero doesn’t want to let that happen since he’s convinced that the building was the birthplace of Jazz pianist Fats Waller (he’s totally wrong about this which is kind of the point, but whatever, it’s motivation enough). When his boss leaves town for a few days, he’s put in charge of the store. At the same time, his quirky sidekick best friend Jerry, who lives in a trailer in a junkyard next to some power lines from a power plant, tries to sabotage the plant one night and gets zapped. Instead of dying horribly, he gets magnetized and the next time he enters the video store *BAM* every tape gets wiped. In a desperate move, Mike & Jerry decide to film new versions of those films themselves. Surprisingly, these “Sweded” films (under the pretense that they were imported from Sweden) become a local hit and our two heroes become smalltime filmmakers until they get the attention of the big, bad film industry because of the questionable legality of these sweded films. Also, some developers want to come in and tear down the old shop to put up condos or something.

Mike: Mos Def plays our meek, slightly gullible (well, he IS convinced that Fats Waller was born in New Jersey) hero, and he’s a likable enough guy. He’s also the responsible one of the duo, though Jerry tends to walk over him when he gets over-excited.

Jerry Gerber: Jack Black doesn’t constantly play the standard “over-the-top Jack Black” character in this one. Sure, he’s still got a lot of moments where he hams it up royally and mugs for the camera, but most of those are done in the Sweded films. Jerry is a character that’s half funny and half annoying, since he’s a largely selfish guy with little regard for all the crap he’s putting Mike through and starts to get a swollen head when their bootlegs become a hit. On the other hand, he’s pretty damn funny in the Sweded films, which I guess makes him the badass of the movie.

Elroy Fletcher: Danny Glover (which makes this five Danny Glover movies in the span of three weeks) plays the owner of the store who’s trying to come to grips with modern technology pushing his business under (well, he does own a store renting VHS tapes in 2008, so saying he’s behind the times is an understatement). He goes on “vacation” for the purposes of doing research on successful video stores and their tricks, like DVDs. He does a good job with the character.

Alma: Melonie Diaz plays an employee of a nearby cleaners that gets drawn into the Sweded films since the guys realize they need a female character from time to time.

Miss Falewicz: Mia Farrow in a small role as a woman who rents Ghostbusters only to find out the tape’s blank. This starts the whole ball rolling.

Sigourney Weaver also shows up in a small but important cameo.

Directed by Michel Gondry (the Frenchman who directed the lauded Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and a number of music videos) and cinematography by Ellen Kuras. Gondry knows his way around a camera quite well and makes the urban decay of New Jersey somewhat heroic. It’s hard to describe, but his visual style really celebrates things that are quirky and off-center. Best example: The Sweded films themselves, which are easily the best parts of the movie. Simply, its two guys with a VHS camera using makeshift props, cruddy special effects and costumes and more-or-less improvising the thing. They start with Ghostbusters and move on to stuff like The Lion King, Robocop, Driving Miss Daisy and so on. This culminates in documentary shot by Mike & Jerry about the life of Fats Waller done in the same Sweded guerrilla style, and you know what, it’s actually quite impressive.

Written by Michel Gondry, the film starts out with a quirky, slightly sci-fi premise which isn’t rare in indie films, but once you strip away the initial premise, this is a movie about making movies and the MacGyver-like ingenuity that goes along with not having a budget. Except Gondry has a budget and…well, it’s a metaphor, okay? The emphasis on Fats Waller is interesting too. Thematically, he’s a mostly forgotten musician who was huge in his lifetime, and that whole faded glory aspect ties in nicely with, you know, New Jersey (I’m not being facetious here, I’m from Cleveland, Ohio, so I’m a little familiar with urban decay).

Original music by Jean-Michel Bernard and a soundtrack that features Booker T & the MG’s, The Gap Band and naturally Fats Waller.

Be Kind Rewind certainly has that “indie movie quirk” hovering over it, but here it works in the film’s favor. Its certainly not perfect (the pacing in the beginning could be quicker) but overall, it’s a warm, satisfying love letter to the movie making spirit. So…recommended, just not enthusiastically.

And speaking of Sweded...

Friday, June 04, 2010

“This picture is a combination of factual data mixed with fiction.”

Well, time for some bonus schlock. Here’s 1958’s La momia azteca contra el robot humano (aka The Robot Vs The Aztec Mummy), which was apparently the third in a trilogy of films centering around the titular mummy.

And let me tell you, this one is insane.

Well, most of this movie is exposition told through flashbacks to previous movies. The basic gist is that Mr. Scientist/Narrator had some ideas about past life experiences and hypnosis, did that on his wife, found out she used to be an Aztec princess back in the day who was sacrificed and buried along with an ancient breastplate and bracelet that apparently was also the guide to more Aztec treasure. Of course, when they got there they also find out that the treasure is guarded by a mummy. Stuff happens, another scientist guy, who’s evil, wants the treasure for himself. The evil scientist hypnotizes the good scientist’s wife, has her show him the tomb where the mummy set up shop and then decides to build a robot to fight the mummy so they can steal the bracelet and breastplate, which is a completely logical thing to do.

Dr. Eduardo Almada: Ramón Gay (who looks like a Mexican J. Jonah Jameson) is our Hero, a man of Science with a hot wife and grave robbing tendencies (well, he DID activate the Mummy by stealing the breastplate & bracelet in the first place). He’s pretty boring though.

Flor/Flora Almada: Rosa Arenas plays Eduardo’s hot wife who’s got the unfortunate habit of getting hypnotized a lot and/or kidnapped.

Dr. Krupp aka The Bat: Luis Aceves Castañeda devours scenery as the mad-eyed rogue scientist. Easily the most entertaining character, largely because he really is insane. I mean, after getting his ass beat by the mummy before, he finds the mummy’s new resting place, then disappears for five years, spends a fortune to build one of the worst looking robots ever so that he can steal the mummy’s treasures, find a horde of Aztec gold and then get rich and/or take over the world. That’s commitment right there.

Popoca: Ángel Di Stefani (who was Popoca in the other two Aztec Mummy movies) is probably the most fleshed out character in the movie, and he just growls. Turned into a mummy for his forbidden love, he’s doomed to forever guard a cheap set of “treasure.” And he kills people who steal the treasure (unless they give it back). You know, I actually don’t have any real complaints about him. He’s the one who does everything. I’m convinced he’s the actual protagonist and not boring ol’ Doctor Exposition. The badass of the film.

The Robot: Special. Effects. Failure. He makes Popoca’s costume look top notch. At least Popoca’s got knees.

Raphael Portillo was the director of this. Pacing is all over the place. A lot of stuff happens, but most of it is told in expository flashbacks. The movie is only around 65 minutes and about two thirds of it are flashbacks. That’s…not good at all. I understand that this was the third in a three movie cycle, but really, it doesn’t have to go THAT overboard on exposition and recycled footage. The sets look cheap and the special effects are awful, although the mummy’s costume isn’t actually that bad, all things considered.

Guillermo Calderón and Alfredo Salazar on story duty. I think a large part of the blame belongs to them, largely because most of the movie is a flashback. I understand they probably didn't have much of a budget to start with, but still.

Now, I watched the English dub, so I can’t really say anything about the dialogue, but, well it can’t be much better than the bland nonsense of the dub. And either way, I’m sure Dr. Krupp remains quite loquacious, which is a positive.

Original music by Antonio Díaz Conde. Mostly it’s just there, however, the Aztec singing done during the flashback ritual is godawfully annoying (of course, the god in question might be Itztli or Chalmecatecuchtlz, but who can be sure?)

You know, for a movie called The Robot Vs the Aztec Mummy, there isn’t a whole lot of Robot vs. Mummy action. The bulk of the film is a boring piece of dreck and the human characters (aside from the Bat) are stiff, wooden and boring. Still, there are some bright spots. The Bat is a goofy as all hell villain and the actor really hams things up. Popoca isn’t too bad as far as mummies go and the robot is so hilariously awful that it goes through some kind of quantum state where it transforms into something sublimely brilliant. I mean, it IS the creation of a MAD scientist after all.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

“Oh, gunfight, explosions, sharks, you know, the usual.”

Well, here’s 1998’s Lethal Weapon 4 (Director‘s Cut), the last in the series. 3 wasn’t bad, but it did feel a little dull around the edges. I have to admit, the modest 2 disc set with all four movies has so far been a totally worthwhile investment for 10 bucks.

So our heroes are facing the very real fact that they are getting on in years, but on the bright side, Riggs’ lover is pregnant and so is Murtaugh’s eldest daughter, so life springs eternal, yes? After a chance encounter on a boat, they stumble upon a boat smuggling Chinese slave laborers into the country to work for a counterfeiting ring run by the Triads, who are looking to expand their operations in the US considerably.

Sergeant Martin Riggs: Mel Gibson’s Riggs is finally starting to slow down as a cowboy cop. He’s got a girlfriend and a baby on the way. His life is finally turned around from where it was in the first movie. Its kind of nice to see him finally in a stable, happy relationship after four movies.

Sergeant Roger Murtaugh: Danny Glover’s Murtaugh is finally going to become a grandpa, though he doesn’t know it yet and his family is keeping it a secret from him. He also takes in a family of Chinese illegals from the boat because he kind of sees himself “freeing slaves” as he puts it (cheesy, yes, but also kind of nice of him).

Detective Lorna Cole: Rene Russo spends the whole movie pregnant, so she doesn’t get to beat ass like in 3. Still, she’s fine in the role for what it is.

Leo Getz: Joe Pesci’s character is now a private investigator, much to the endless amusement of our heroes. Still the same foul-mouthed rascal he was in the other films, he also gets a moment near the end where he gets to develop the character past the second dimension in a surprisingly touching monologue.

Rianne Murtaugh Butters: Traci Wolfe (who’s been in all of the Lethal Weapon movies as Murtaugh’s eldest daughter, I just left her off the reviews because each time previously would’ve read: She feels somewhat attracted to Riggs and at some point gets threatened or captured in the movie) is daddy’s little girl all grown up. She’s secretly pregnant and engaged to:

Detective Lee Butters: Chris Rock is a new cop on the force and an eager go-getter. And, since he’s going to be Roger’s son-in-law, he tries to make nice to him all the time. Murtaugh, amusingly enough, mistakes Butters for a homosexual for the level of ass kissing done.

Wah Sing Ku: Jet Li gets to be the badass of the film not just because he’s a martial arts superstar, but also because we’ve finally got a layered villain with some sympathetic qualities who remains a total bastard. He’s a bad man who’s big in the Triads and in charge of the counterfeiting ring. His goal is to secure the release and delivery to America of the “Four Fathers,” a group of very high ranking Triads.

Richard Donner and director of photography Andrzej Bartkowiak handle the visuals very well in this one. And it’s got all the expected Lethal Weapon touches: car chases, shootouts, occasional fistfights and explosions. Nothing wrong with being consistent. Particularly memorable is the opening scene where our heroes have to take out a guy with a homemade flamethrower and suit of armor. Its not really important to the plot, but who cares? Its like Ned Kelly with a flamethrower vs. Riggs & Murtaugh.

Characters created by Shane Black, with Jonathan Lemkin, Alfred Gough & Miles Millar on story and Channing Gibson on screenplay. That may be a lot of names, but you know what, the story is quite a bit better than 3 and 2 in a lot of ways (Major points for giving us a good villain again). What I do have to admit (and this is for the whole franchise) is that despite the different writing teams and the constant additions of new characters to the recurring cast, the series really handles character growth and interaction really well. The characters click together very nicely which helps elevate the series above the often silly and implausible turns the plots take.

Michael Kamen, Eric Clapton & David Sanborn once more, and why break up a team that works, I say. There’s also songs from Van Halen & War.

Lethal Weapon 4 is a solid cap for the franchise, and you know what, it’s a fun series. Sure its not pretentiously high art, but it does deliver solid character-driven action/comedy with great banter and great action scenes. These are not bad things by any means. There are considerably worse ways to waste your time. I suppose the inevitable comparison to Die Hard must be made, what with the first films in each series being awesome (initially) Christmas-themed action thrill rides, but ultimately its really a case of looking at Coke & Cherry Coke. Its still the same sugar water, just with enough variations in flavor to justify appreciating them independently.

Now if only there had been a crossover film at some point with John McLane teaming up with Riggs & Murtaugh. Now that non-existent film would’ve had some killer explosions. Le Sigh.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

“I got 8 days to my retirement, and I will NOT make a stupid mistake!”

1992 brought Lethal Weapon 3 to theaters, promising more Riggs & Murtaugh antics, which should never be a bad thing. Time for the Director’s Cut.

So Roger Murtaugh is eight days away from retirement and very, very, very aware of the danger that means to a buddy cop such as himself. So of course he & Riggs screw up royally in a bomb defusing situation and get busted down to patrolmen, where they stumble on a gunrunning scheme that’s putting a lot of high powered “cop killer” ammunition and guns in the hands of the LA street gangs (which restores them to sergeant status). Car chases, big explosions, buddy cop banter and shootouts ensue.

Sergeant Martin Riggs: Mel Gibson’s character is now trying to quit smoking, so in desperation he resorts to dog biscuits, displacing his addiction onto them. Its funnier than how I explain it. His whole arc is about starting a relationship with a new woman, finally having coped with (and avenged) his wife’s death.

Sergeant Roger Murtaugh: Danny Glover’s character provides some fun meta-commentary on the old cop movie cliché of the guy who’s “one week away from retirement.” Then he goes and shoots a gang kid in self defense who happened to be his son’s friend and falls into a guilt-ridden depression. Character development!

Leo Getz: Joe Pesci returns, only this time as a real estate agent for the Murtaughs’ who are trying to sell their house after Roger retires. Again, he’s a largely unwanted sidekick, but provides some useful information.

Detective Lorna Cole: Rene Russo plays an Internal Affairs officer looking into how the heavy firepower is getting onto the streets. She gets involved in the case with our heroes, then she gets involved with Riggs in particular, if you know what I mean. She also gets to kick some serious ass in the film, so why not, she’s the badass.

Jack Travis: Stuart Wilson is our bad guy, a cop gone rogue who’s running a massive gun smuggling racket because he wants to… wants to… get back at the police force for some reason? It’s been a little while since I saw it, but I’m really drawing a blank here on his motivation. That’s not a good sign in a villain. Though in his defense, he’s a very hands-on kind of villain who does his own dirty work.

Richard Donner again, but this time with Jan de Bont as cinematographer. It’s a Lethal Weapon movie, so we get a lot of finely done action sequences. The shootout at the end is particularly memorable because it involves a construction site being lit on fire.

Jeffrey Boam and Robert Mark Kamen on screenplay & story duty with Shane Black getting credit for the characters. The movie hits all the right notes to qualify as a Lethal Weapon movie: witty character banter, simple villains you enjoy seeing get their comeuppance, the occasional heavy-handed social commentary and so on, but while the script gets more right than it does wrong (Riggs & Murtaugh are so fun that I just don’t really care about the “villain of the week” in these movies) there isn’t all that much that’s impressive from a storytelling standpoint. Happily, the “blowing stuff up” standpoint gets top marks.

Michael Kamen, Eric Clapton & David Sanborn are joined by Elton John on the score, which yields some pretty fun results. We also get songs by Eric Clapton, Elton John, Boyz II Men and Cypress Hill. It’s a pretty good spread.

Curiously, these Lethal Weapon reviews are relatively short, largely because I don’t have any reason to tear them to pieces or raise them up onto a pedestal. I’m also repeating myself a lot, like when I say this: Lethal Weapon 3 is a fun action movie with some great set pieces and entertaining characters, though it’s not a particularly original or transcendent film. So far, I’d say Lethal Weapon 3 was the runt of the litter.