Saturday, February 6, 2016

Resident Evil


   "No one else is going to die..." is probably the worst thing you could ever say in a horror movie. It's like a bad telltale mantra that only ever means someone is totally going to die, and probably very soon. You'd think people in this movie would stop saying "No one else is going to die..." after maybe the third time? "I'm going to try my damndest to keep you alive." sounds like a better, more genuine alternative. I'm not sure writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson cared enough about the dialog to seek out more genuine sounding alternatives though. But, honestly... who cares? This is a movie where the sexy heroine uses super kung-fu to kill zombies and even zombie dogs. It wears the fact it's based on a video game with pride, like a merit badge- showcasing it's set pieces like game levels, and pulling out all the stops on the kinetic action scenes.

   You're either someone who thinks this sounds awesome so far, or... you're not. In which case I don't know why you're even reading this review. I guess the entire appeal of this movie is basically summed up in "sexy heroine uses super kung-fu to kill zombies". I mean, that sounds pretty good to me. I like violent and energetic movies with sexy heroines and zombies. If those two things happen to end up in the same movie, hey! Awesome! It's pointless to engage Resident Evil on any logical level, which is sad because despite the franchise's reputation, this movie is actually not entirely brainless. It has a solid plot, and some interesting twists that you wouldn't normally find in the zombie genre. Unfortunately, there is some pretty subpar acting here. I point fingers at Eric Mabius, Michelle Rodriguez, and James Purefoy.

   Purefoy and Rodriguez surprised me, because I'm actually used to seeing better performances from them. Especially Purefoy. Either they're dry and stilted or hamming it up to the point of breaking the scene. Thankfully, they occasionally sell their dialog well enough that you can somewhat care about their characters. However, the real pleasant surprise in revisiting this movie from my pre-teen years is how good Milla Jovovich's acting is. Like, I was betting her performance wasn't going to hold up at all and she'd just be eye candy. Nevertheless, while she is still eye candy- she's also the strongest actor/actress in the whole movie. It helps that she also looks completely badass while launching kicks through the air in slow motion.

   I played enough of the games that I can appreciate the nods and elements from them that the filmmakers saw fit to incorporate in the movie. Instead of direct adaptation of one of the games, they put together an original story with new characters, and I can't complain. If a video game movie screws up a fan favorite character by doing something different with them, then the movie becomes unwatchable for fans of the games. (See; Super Mario Bros. the movie) So, I've no complaints about them using original characters and such. It didn't stay that way for long though as the franchise was fated to include Jill Valentine, Claire and Chris Redfield, Albert Wesker and others. That always got mixed reception from the fans. I never cared either way.

   I like the games a lot, but not for their story or characters. I liked the puzzle solving, the atmosphere, the cinematic feel to them, and of course the timeless satisfaction of shooting zombies. All of those elements are present in this movie and more. There's the zombie dogs, a killer artificial intelligence, and a mutant creature called the 'Licker'- taken straight from the games.  The killer A.I. ends up being probably the most fascinating thing in the movie and honestly ends up feeling underused. Even if that's only because the actual zombies in the movie are boring by comparison. They're a simple threat that we've seen before in many other movies and this movie doesn't have the guts or the imagination to dole out any truly wickedly gory demises.

   Which was surprising to me now that I'm older. Resident Evil doesn't make much use of it's R rating besides some brief nudity and bad language. Sure there's blood, but no real guts and gore. Maybe I'm just an old jaded gorehound at this point, but some of the best moments in zombie movies is seeing people get eaten and torn apart. All the truly icky stuff happens off screen in this one. It's annoying, but maybe for the best. I can imagine this being a decent entry into the genre for me to share with my little brothers when they're old enough. There's enough craziness in the movie to keep even the most ADHD viewer entertained persistently, and just enough competent story telling to make the movie interesting beyond it's lurid thrills. If you look too hard, you'll find it's all rather basic. Yet, unlike later stale genre efforts like Doom, there was a serious effort made on Resident Evil to create something at least unique and interesting- even if it doesn't always work.

   When all is said and done, there's lots of shooting, biting, running, kung fu, espionage, mystery, and creature effects. It feels like a B movie with all the style and budget of an A movie- which is actually pretty cool. So while there's lot of acting that leaves much to be desired, the movie makes up for it with plenty of frenetic action scenes, lots of ass kicking, cool sets, slick production design, and a fair share of slimy creature feature nonsense. Resident Evil is a colorful and fun time when not taken seriously. It was exactly the fun time I remember having when I was younger, which was a treat because I was expecting it to age really badly. If you've never seen it, I recommend it. It's a silly, over-the-top, sci-fi/horror romp with some light scares and a little blood splatter here and there. Come for Milla Jovovich... stay for Milla Jovovich killing zombie dogs in slow motion.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Highlander


   I've always had a hard time convincing my friends who haven't seen Highlander that it's a movie they should watch. Granted, I don't have many friends who haven't seen Highlander to begin with, but still. Even the more cinematically open-minded among them tend to be hard to sell on it. And, I get it. I do. It looks awkward. Highlander looks rough and cheap. It looks like, at a glance, like a hard movie to sit through. People who love Highlander have a hard time agreeing with that because they love it so much, as do I. But, then again I saw it when I was 11. I was young, wide-eyed, impressionable, and able to look past the visible wires and the slapdash effects. I still am. Those who can't? Well, they're missing out.

   If you bother to give Highlander a shot beyond watching a trailer or eyeing the cover of the DVD at your local Wal-mart, you might actually be impressed. It's a movie about immortals and swordplay, revenge and superhuman powers- and it's all of this wrapped up in a hyper-kinetic, music video styled, package. Which isn't so surprising when you realize that the director, Russell Mulcahey got his start directing energetic commercials and music videos for Duran Duran, among others. He brought that same electric vibe to Highlander. Even in it's low key, more soulful moments, there's always a feel to it- like a heavy metal rock ballad, or a (then) modern day fairy tale- kitted out in full blood, gore, grunge, neon, and inner-city grime.

   From the genius scene transitions from 1985 New York City to 1700's Scotland, to the intensely edited action scenes, and sweeping panoramic camera shots, there's always a larger than life scope to Highlander. It's a movie that's constantly in motion. The camera is always zipping through the action as blades swing- narrowly missing heads, or clashing with other swords, sending sparks flying into our faces. We're always in the action. Low shots keeping up with Christopher Lambert as he runs through the parking garage at Madison Square Garden- fighting a duel to the death with another immortal- his heels kicking up water and trash. That's just one of my favorite shots in this movie, and there's many.  Highlander is a visual treat- total eye candy.

   But, it's eye candy in a way that's lost on modern audiences. Unfortunately, "eye candy" nowadays is a term that has become synonymous with the abuse of CGI and other phrases like "check your brain at the door" and "mindless entertainment".  Highlander is neither mindless, nor does it require you to 'check your brain at the door'. Sure, it plays fast and loose with historical fact- sword nuts will probably go mad because of factual inaccuracy, but that's nothing compared to the plot holes, the abuse of physics, and massive logic gaps that modern "mindless entertainment" would have us overlook and forgive.

   Tonally, Highlander is a bit wild. It deals with castles and countrysides, sword fights and evil knights, and yet the movie has an ever-present hard rock, heavy metal vibe to it. Due in no small part to the phenomenal soundtrack by Queen, the score by Michael Kamen, and the wow-worthy cinematography. It's hard not to get sucked into this world and invested in these characters. Christopher Lambert is positively iconic as Connor MacLeod. A 700+ year old immortal who has made a life for himself in New York as an antiquities dealer. Yet by night he finds himself, as always, engaged in life or death battles with other immortals which will eventually lead to a mysterious power called 'the prize'. If that's not a perfect example of a modern day fairy tale... I don't know what is. It has a storybook flavor, but comic book visuals. It's colorful and brooding, energetic yet passionate.

  Of course, not all of it has aged all that well. Like I said before, some of it looks rough and more than a little slapdash. But, I think that's part of the charm. The movie is so fast and engaging, that once you're into it, you can't be bothered with little things like that. It's stuff like Clancy Brown's insanely entertaining performance as the evil Kurgan, and Sean Connery's charisma as Connor's mentor- Ramirez, that ultimately make Highlander something special. It doesn't have the most impressive special effects, or the best writing ever, but... There's a special charm to any movie that can open on a wrestling match in a crowded stadium, then yank us into a bloody battle on the hills of 1700's Scotland, right before throwing us into the middle of a contextless sword fight between two men in a modern day parking garage-...all without missing a beat, AND all within the first five minutes of the movie...

   There's something special about that. I guess... it's a kind of magic.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse


   Believe it or friggin' not, but Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse actually takes it's time to get going. I mean, prologue scene aside. It's actually kinda slow for the first hour or so. I was beginning to feel like I dropped $20 on the wrong movie and that I probably shouldn't blind-buy anymore. I'm not saying it's a total bore for the first hour, don't get me wrong. I enjoyed watching Tye Sheridan's character- Ben, and eventually Sarah Dumont's badass cocktail waitress, Denise. Yet, things don't really get cooking until well past the hour mark. Which is kind of a long freakin' wait for a movie that was advertised as a non-stop, gross-out, splatterfest- with boobs.

  I did end up enjoying the hell out of Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, but it really does take too long to hit it's stride. I'm thankful it's funny and gory once it does though. After the pretty phenomenal Deathgasm, I was in the mood for more over-the-top gore and such. So I swung by Wal-Mart and plunked down $20 on this flick. I remembered the red band trailer from ages ago and the imagery stuck in my head so I figured, why the hell not? I am glad I bought it, because the last 45 minutes is pretty great, and overall it's a fun movie, but... there's a but. That's the problem. There shouldn't be a 'but...', but there is a but. A few in point of fact...

   But, it drags for a while. But, I don't really want to talk about all the pointless teenage drama that goes on in the movie. But, I don't really care about 2/3rds of the characters in the movie. But, it's literally impossible to write a dumber character than this asshat, Carter. This is all stuff that dragged the movie down for me. I won't deny that once it gets going, it's a hell of a time and a lot of fun, but it's like a slightly second rate Zombieland. I wanted to like it a lot more, and while I like it a lot, I feel like it could've been better, and thus more deserving of being liked more. But... it's not. Tye Sheridan plays Ben, one of the only characters in the movie who uses his brain- him, and Denise. So, yeah, they're fun to watch. Ben's friends... not so much.

  Carter is the girl-crazy idiot who's literally written too stupid to be funny. Then there's Augie, the innocent fat one. He's like, way too innocent to be sympathetic. I was dying for this kid to get a brutal wake up call. E-fucking-ventually the characters get with the damn program and start functioning like human beings instead of the comedic equivalent of crash dummies. When that finally happens the humor flows more naturally and there's plenty of cool scenes to enjoy. For example, a scene where Augie comes face to face with a zombie wearing a Britney Spears t-shirt and manages to distract it by getting it to (somewhat) sing along to 'hit me baby one more time'. That was hilarious, and the first couple acts of the movie could've used more stuff like that.

  I don't know how it happened but I wound up getting really invested in Ben and Denise as characters. Both Tye Sheridan and Sarah Dumont breathe a lot of life into their characters and they're a lot of fun to watch. They have chemistry that's pretty electric onscreen. I'm actually pretty remiss that Ben's love interest was a girl who barely gets four minutes of screentime, instead of them just sticking Denise and Ben together as an ill-fated awkward couple who's 'thing' could never work out. Sheridan might only be 19 and Dumont is 29, but she's that awesome older chick that all the guys have a crush on. At the end she could've given him some tried and true speech about how it simply couldn't work out, kissed him, and rode off on her motorcycle into the sunset.

   Anyone remember Squints from The Sandlot? He made out alright. I dunno, I just feel like it would've made more sense thematically, not that I'm complaining about what they did do- but still. I think it would've been a bit cooler that way. Anyways, the movie does end up getting really creative, pulling out all the stops for it's appropriately balls-to-the-wall climax that plays like a love letter to Peter Jackson's Braindead and Capcom's Dead Rising all at once. It's gloriously gory and a blast to watch. The movie had a solid bunch of really funny moments throughout to warrant re-watches and keep it on hand as a party movie. I think it'd make a killer double feature with either Zombieland or Deathgasm, or maybe the middle movie in a triple feature of all three.

  It's silly, juvenile and frequently stupid, but it's all in good fun. Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse is not meant to be taken seriously in the slightest, and despite a slow start, the movie ends up being buckets of fun. If you like gross-out humor and dick jokes with your zombies and gore, you owe it to yourself to check this one out. You'll dig it. I for one am glad that I did not waste my $20. Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse is one Blu Ray I'm glad I've added to my collection.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Last Witch Hunter


   From the trailers for this Vin Diesel vehicle (no pun intended, I swear) it looked like a throwaway mish-mash of ill-fated efforts like Season of the Witch, The Seventh Son, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, and a dash of Constantine for good measure. With the guilty pleasure exception of Constantine, all of those other movies I just mentioned range from outright bad, to pathetically forgettable. I figured Diesel's charisma might at least make The Last Witch Hunter fun enough to be harmless fun, albeit mindless as well. Well, at first I thought I had an exception to the rule here and I was really happy with the movie, but that feeling has quickly faded. It's certainly not as bad as Season of the Witch, but that doesn't mean it's any more worth watching.

  First off, The Last Witch Hunter is not a slam-bang action extravaganza. It's totally not. It might still be more or less forgettable and somewhat mindless, but it's actually a whodunit mystery with Vin's character, Kaulder, actually having to investigate a crime and track down a nasty bad guy. There's a conspiracy, a few solid plot twists, and some really intense parts. It just so happens that all of this involves witches, warlocks, and a vast underworld of magic-wielding beings. This all sets the movie in a very different tone and pace. It's not a 'quest' movie, where a bunch of sword-wielding macho men set out to slay a dragon or something. Although you might be forgiven for thinking it's exactly that- because at first that's what it seems like it's going to be. But, I'll say it again- it's not that. 

  Instead, the movie is a thoughtful mystery flick that's brought to life with clever usage of CGI special effects and a surprisingly focused eye for little details. There's lots of interesting supporting characters that add to the settings and the rich world that the filmmakers have built here. It's funny, because there's a scene early on when we see Kaulder's witch hunting arsenal- which looks like exactly what you'd expect every Vin Diesel character ever to have in their closet, but no weapons actually come out of their until the climax. I found it neat how his character had to rely on his wits and his knowledge instead of brute force and big guns. At the risk of sounding like a broken record- this all was very unexpected. 

   Alas, the movie is not without it's faults. Massive and intricate fictional worlds with extensive histories tend to have a lot of rules to follow and more often than not, writers can't keep up with it all, even if it's their own creation. The world of The Last Witch Hunter plays fast and loose with it's own established rules, leading to some unfortunate gaps in logic and minor plot holes. See, Kaulder is immortal- a parting curse from a dying witch queen.  This all happens in the prologue, back in medieval times. The next time we see Kaulder, he's flying coach in an airplane- very modern day. He's a 'weapon' for a secret society called the Ax and Sword. They're very knowledgeable about magic and all kinds of stuff. Seeing as how Kaulder's immortality is a curse, and not a blessing- you kinda wonder why he's never tried to break the curse in the 800 years he's been alive. Huh.

   You're asked to buy that he's been cool with it this whole time- despite the fact that we know that everyone he loved has been killed. So, he never once even tried to break the curse? Of course, this kind of plays a major part in the plot later on. Granted, it was an "Ohhh.." moment, but still. The writing around that reveal should've been more airtight. 800 years is a long time, and the audience doesn't even get any throwaway lines about Kaulder trying to break the curse. I can't even elaborate on why this is silly because it would spoil the twist. But, Kaulder knows a lot about curses and he should know something about his own. But... if he did, that would unravel the plot. 

  Or, the writers could've upped their game and patched up these holes. It wouldn't have been hard to do. I can only try to overlook those faults because the rest of the movie is kinda entertaining, interesting and ultimately unexpected. Vin's acting here is solid, if not occasionally hampered by uneven writing. The rest of the cast is similarly solid. Elijah Wood, Michael Caine and Rose Leslie. That's no B-grade cast! I'm well aware that I might be over-praising the flick because I went in with rock bottom expectations, but with movies like this, I always do and always come away disappointed. I wasn't this time. It's a deeply flawed movie, but it's also a well-acted and very interesting one.

   The Last Witch Hunter is nothing I'd suggest going out of your way to see, but if you're a Vin Diesel fans, or just a fan of the genre, you'll probably enjoy this flick. It's colorful, energetic and creative. There's a lot of imaginative special effects, characters, and production design. On that note, The Last Witch Hunter scores big and is helped along by Diesel's trademark charisma- which I'm convinced can make almost any movie at least watchable. Unfortunately, the more I talk about this movie, the more I feel like I'm trying to convince myself it was worth it. However, it is not. It's so riddled with plot holes, shoddy writing, and a seriously uneven tone that despite the fact it avoids the usual pitfalls, it finds other ones to fall into right away. It's not so bad that you'll hate it, but it's not good enough that you'll be glad you saw it either. I really want to like the movie, but the more I think about it, the worse it seems.

   Find a copy of Solomon Kane and watch that instead; you'll thank me after.

Deathgasm


   Deathgasm is pretty great. Like... really great. I can't imagine it's for everyone, but if the idea of a teenage metalhead beating the piss out of a demon possessed person with a long black dildo sounds amazing to you, then you'll probably think Deathgasm is pretty great as well. The movie isn't balls-to-the-wall nonsense right away. As crazy as it does get, it does have characters, and a story, and a plot and all the things that movies kinda need to have to... you know, be movies. Interestingly enough, the story and plot structure feel like a throwback to 80's teen flicks. Back when teen movies were made about teens, not made to pander to teens. Either that, or teens in the 80's were just a lot cooler. I dunno. Anyways...

   Milo Cawthorne plays Brodie. A newcomer to town, and an instant outsider. His metalhead style clashes with his adoptive family and just about everyone else except bad boy Zakk- who's also a metalhead. In no time at all, the two form a band with a couple other social rejects from the high school, and they name it... DETHGASM. In all caps. Because "lowercase is for pussies".  Of course, one thing leads to another and the boys end up getting their hands on something called The Black Hymn. Which... when played, brings about a demonic apocalypse. There goes the neighborhood. The movie is in love with metal as much as it understands how metalheads look to non-metalheads. In the same way Galaxy Quest loves Star Trek, but can poke fun at trekkies at the same time. It's all in good fun- just like Deathgasm.

   Consider a scene where Brodie is asked out to ice cream by the school hottie (who's not actually a bitch for a change of pace) and she confesses that she just doesn't... get metal. So, seeing his opening, Brodie pulls a stack of CDs out of his bag for her to listen to- just to get her started. As she starts looking through them, the album art is all horrific mutilation and gore. It's a funny and endearing scene, and the movie is full of moments like this. On the flip side, it's also full of scenes where people vomit blood in such a fashion that would make Sam Raimi proud. On that note, the blood-spewing is not solely limited to vomiting either. I'll let you imagine that for a minute. Yeah. Anyways, the movie is gleefully over-the-top and full of some of the bloodiest stuff I've seen in a while.

   None of it is played too straight, it's very tongue in cheek- but it's also put together in earnest. This is not a parody movie of any kind. It's genuine towards it's characters, and it's not poking fun at them so much as it is acknowledging how silly it might seem at times. I won't lie though, I did expect more from the movie. I'm not sure what I expected more of though. Maybe it was the music? I have noticed that some actual metalheads were rather let down by the soundtrack- and I have to concur. None of the music in the film really jumped out at me, and I felt it should've. But the manic visuals and the style of the movie is spot on. As bloody and wonderfully juvenile as the movie was, I expected it to actually get a bit darker and more serious towards the end. I think it could've been stronger if it did. Instead, characters are killed left and right and it's kinda hard to care.

   At the same time, as much as I wanted and expected it to get darker- I expected more gratuitous nudity throughout. This is as much of a throwback teen comedy as it is a metalhead splatter-horror flick. Where's the copious amounts of boobage? Granted, the movie makes up for the lack of nudity with plenty of guts and gore. Which is nice. When all's said and done, Deathgasm owes a lot to early Peter Jackson flicks like Braindead and Bad Taste. It really is a throwback flick, and I feel that aspect was strangely absent from it's publicity. It has it's fair share of missteps, including some occasionally stiff acting from the leads, and some unnecessary subplots that slow the pace down. But, those sins are easily forgivable considering how fun and instantly engaging the movie manages to be throughout.

   On the whole I feel like this movie is something to celebrate honestly. Deathgasm hooks you right away with it's crazy animated opening credits, immediately setting the tone for the rest of the flick. The movie runs on such an intensely cool concept and it's one that Hollywood would've never banked on. So I'm glad to see that the people behind it, namely writer/director Jason Lei Howden, actually got it made. We need more people making more crazy movies like this. Above all though, Deathgasm is just pure fun. It doesn't pretend to be anything more than it is. It's wall-to-wall gore and gags, and has some genuinely hilarious scenes in there as well. I loved it's style and I found it's energy to be positively infectious. As good as all this is, it gets even better... Jason Lei Howden is making a Deathgasm 2. Fuck yeah.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Ash vs. Evil Dead - Season 1


   I previously reviewed the pilot episode, by itself here. And, a lot of my worries about the show were allayed fairly quickly. The 'rock star' tone of the pilot persisted throughout the season, but the showrunners blended it into each episode a little better. There were plenty of genuine scares throughout the season, but nothing on the level of the 2013 movie. What I had figured after seeing the pilot still remains true, the show is Evil Dead II with a modern day budget. It never tries to be serious like the first movie or the not-a-remake. It also never tries to be as goofy as Army of Darkness. I'm fine with this for the most part because Evil Dead II is my favorite Evil Dead movie. Unfortunately, right around the time this show premiered, I'd revisited Evil Dead (2013) and fell in love with it.

   I'd really hoped they'd blend in some of the uber-dark and disturbing horror elements that you'd see in the 2013 movie, but they didn't. Each episode is a bloodbath, and there's plenty of creepy or unique situations Ash and his friends find themselves in, but it never gets downright unsettling. Then again, maybe that's just me. But, I'm also assuming most of the target audience for this show, is fans of the movies. So, you'll probably be on the same page with me here- depending on how much you liked the 2013 not-a-remake. Anyways, that minor gripe aside, the show is a blast from start to finish. If you don't need anymore convincing to see it- just go watch it now. You don't need a six paragraph review to tell you that you know you wanna watch it. Believe the word of mouth. Ash vs. Evil Dead is really good.

  Due in no small part of course to the return of Bruce Campbell to his most iconic role- that of Ash Williams. They don't try to pretend that Ash is still a young guy, and though the pilot episode poked a lot of fun at his age, as the show goes on, his age plays a very serious part of the direction the story takes. Ash has been living a life affected by horrific demonic unspeakable tragedy, and he's never escaped from the shadow of that. Worse yet, he's fucked everything up and unleashed the evil that had been lying dormant for some thirty odd years. He's kind of a pathetic character, but as the show eventually reminds you- Ash wasn't always like this. Before the cabin, way back when- he was a young man with a girlfriend and a future. Now? He's a middle aged playboy with delusions of grandeur and a big ego.

   It adds a layer of depth to his character that I didn't expect them to explore. He's tired of all this. As much as he loves the idea of being a hero and kicking ass, he just wants the life he never got to have back. It presents a very ever-present temptation for him. I dug that a lot. This is probably the most I've ever actually cared about his character. Ash has to learn how to work with others, how to keep friends, and while that all sounds kind of silly, it's really not. He's so used to ending up the sole survivor of these crazy things that he doesn't know how to cope with having legitimate sidekicks. He's torn between the idea that they're expendable, and that maybe they're not and he should do this alone. When he finally realizes that working with them is also an option, it's a pretty great moment.

   There's also a handful of supporting characters that I don't feel ever reached their full potential. Lucy Lawless shows up as an enigmatic deadite-killer named Ruby. We sense that she has some history with this specific brand of evil, but the twist regarding her character kinda fell flat for me. I don't think she had the gravitas to pull off what they had in store for her. Then there's Jill Marie Jones as Amanda Fisher. I feel like her character was kind of dead weight (no pun intended) until the latter half of the season- but when she started seriously getting involved, I just wasn't buying the role they'd kind of shoehorned her into. It wasn't lazy writing per se, just... awkward writing. Needless to say, I don't think her resolution was what it should've been. She was built up to be a very important character, or one who would soon be a very important character but in the end she really wasn't.

   On the flip side, Ash's sidekicks- Ray Santiago as Pablo and Dana DeLorenzo as Kelly, are both fantastic. I wasn't sure about Pablo for the first couple episodes. I wasn't sure if he was going to be a mainstay character, and if he was, if I would like him or not. He seems like a character that has the potential to be annoying. Thankfully that's not the case at all. He's actually a very interesting counterpoint to Ash. Where Ash is a womanizing, reckless, moron most of the times, Pablo is innocent, cautious, and rather smart. Though due to his lack of self confidence, he often defers to Ash's moronic plans, which lands them in deep shit. His character grows a lot throughout the show and it was fun to watch him progress.

  Same goes for Kelly. She could've easily been a throwaway character, but I'm glad she wasn't. She ends up being a real badass, and she rounds out the group into a perfect trio. She might not get the arc that Pablo has, but she's just as fun to watch. When all is said and done, despite some writing missteps along the way, Ash vs. Evil Dead has been a blast. The special effects, both practical and otherwise are fantastic, the show is very atmospheric and colorful. It's very action packed and the humor is well written. In many ways, I'm glad we got this instead of another movie because we get so much more of Ash and these characters in this format. This show is many hours of blood soaked, over-the-top, classic Evil Dead fun. It's not perfect, but it doesn't need to be. I loved it and all it's creepy monsters. I can't wait for season 2!

Monday, February 1, 2016

Natural City


   Natural City had the budget behind it to produce stunning visuals and massive sets. It's not a low budget outdated charmer like Webmaster, nor is it a low budget guilty pleasure like The Gene Generation. The people behind Natural City had a lot of money and talent on their hands. So why isn't it better? I think this movie gets tripped up in it's ambition of trying to be the next Blade Runner. They draw so much inspiration from Blade Runner that it gets kind of ridiculous. In Blade Runner, you have replicants. They live only four years. In Natural City, you have cyborgs. They live only three years. The whole plot of the movie is about an MP (I guess that still stands for Military Police) named R, who falls in love with a cyborg named Ria, and her lifespan is almost up.

  It's not terribly original, and it's not terribly engaging. There's also a subplot about transferring bodies that goes ultimately nowhere, and there's another subplot about a renegade cyborg which ends in explosions and slo-mo kung fu. Natural City clearly had it's heart in the right place, and if you're not expecting much, the movie is a decent bit of entertainment. But, I'm being hard on it because they should've and could've done more. I've seen crappy low budget movies with more originality in them Natural City has in it's entire runtime. It doesn't show me any technology that isn't genre-standard, and it's characters are boring as well- though thankfully not annoying. At times, I saw glimpses of greatness in the movie, when it was somber and meditative. I feel like it should've stuck to that tone.

  Unfortunately, it's during those moments when it's emulating Blade Runner the most- and one wonders why would I be watching this when I could just be watching Blade Runner instead? Well, for every ADHD moviegoer who ever complained that Blade Runner was too "boring", Natural City has tons of frenetic action scenes that buzz along at that fast-fast slow pace, hurling indecipherable amounts of visual information at you right before snapping into slow motion so you can appreciate exactly which person is getting shot in the head, or precisely what it looks like when a combat cyborg literally punches someone's leg off. There's explosions, gore, guns, and while none of this is constant or even frequent- there's a solid few of these action scenes throughout the movie.

   I realize I sound rather critical of them, and I kind of am- but I also enjoyed them. It's like John Woo stepped in every so often and started taking over for five minutes at a time. Sure, the action elements are kind of at odds with the tone of the movie overall, but I can't complain. They're well done. Better well done action at odds with the overall tone, than stupid looking action still at odds with the overall tone. Natural City excels when it's focused on the futuristic cityscape it's created. Flying cars zip by, massive holograms advertise products, it's very... very... Blade Runner. But, at times that's not a bad thing in the slightest. Especially when it comes to the visuals, Natural City uses other genre juggernauts as inspiration- and it works. Works well, even. I loved the visuals in this movie.

  There's plenty of stunning shots and gorgeous cinematography to look at. I can't complain there. This movie really took me to this place. It was rainy and atmospheric and full of life. The visuals and the sets were almost their own character, affecting the story the whole way. As you all know, stunning visuals and rich atmosphere score major brownie points with me. Natural City is a movie I could easily watch again just for that stuff. It's unfortunate then that the characters feel in the way of the movie itself. R is a burn out who seems to be having some sort of breakdown as Ria's expiration date nears- and speaking of Ria, she's only sympathetic by default. Never once does she show enough personality for us to actually feel sad about her dying. We feel the loss because of R, he does a good job of being distraught if nothing else.

  Then there's a local prostitute girl named Cyon, who R actually kidnaps at one point to try and use her body as a host for Ria's consciousness. This was a fascinating moral and ethical dilemma that could've taken up a whole movie, but here it's merely a sub plot that is abandoned all too quickly- taking the choice away from our protagonist, and sending the story careening down another path. Cyon had potential to be an interesting character, but was ultimately wasted on an underwhelming story. The last act of the movie involves a cyborg rebellion as they take over a lab which contains all kinds of DNA stuff they hope can prolong their lives.

  It's at this point the movie is ultimately done with all it's emotional stuff, and becomes a straight-forward action flick- complete with a ticking clock countdown leading up to a climactic self-destruct sequence. Of course, in this time, our heroes will have to fight the main bad guy, with guns and slow motion kung fu stuff before the building explodes. All this is fine and dandy, but it says a lot about the emotional heft of your movie when instead of feeling sorry or depressed about all the dead characters the story leaves in it's wake... I'm wondering why 'self-destruct' still means explosions in this day and age. I can do enough irreprable damage to my computer without exploding it. Why, in the future, have they not figured out EMP pulses, or computer viruses to reset all the chips and cyborgs? These are the questions Natural City left me with...

   I wanted to love the movie, but instead I only like it. It's fun if you don't pay too much mind to it. I found the visuals to be completely engrossing, and on their own merit- the action scenes were a lot of fun too. Everything else is just over-the-top melodrama that failed to make me care. I recommend it if you're going on a cyberpunk binge. It's worth watching for the visuals and the atmosphere, just don't expect any emotional payoffs. This is little more than watchable cinematic junk food, which is enjoyable of course, but also sad because this had the potential to be some seriously fine dining.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Gene Generation


   The Gene Generation is quite a mixed bag. On one hand, it's a trashy and stylish cyberpunk thriller with cool technology and cracking action scenes. On the other hand... it's meandering pace, weak story, and a few bad apples when it comes to acting ability, drag the movie down fairly badly. Having said all that, I did enjoy the movie. Bai Ling was fantastic and her acting skills surprised me. I thought this would be a movie where she was only cast to be a pretty face who can kick ass, and while that might very well be true, she certainly transcended the material. On the flip side, the movie focuses as much on her character's brother, Jackie, as it does on her. He was annoying and sucked a lot of the life out of the movie. It's doubly unfortunate then, that the plot revolves very heavily around him. Ugh.

  The movie revolves around technology that can alter genetics and DNA, and there's a lot of world building involving all this. There's some unfair class separated society thing going on, and you can't leave this city-slum unless you have 'good genetics'. Yet it's also implied you can buy or fake a pass? The Gene Generation has plenty of great ideas, and enough visuals and atmosphere to make them interesting. The problem is, some of it's ideas conflict with each other, or details were skipped over. There's also a lack of explanation about a lot of it. The plot revolves around a specific gadget called the 'transcoder'. It can 're-sequence DNA' and heal people instantly. Apparently it could make disease itself extinct. The downside is, the transcoder can also be used as a weapon. It sprouts worm-like tentacle things that can tear you apart from the inside out.

  Dated/low-budget special effects aside- on it's own merits, these things look horrifying. The filmmakers went through a lot of trouble to make the effects convincing. I'm sure that there's the digital equivalent of smearing vaseline on the lens in there somewhere. As fake as a lot of the visuals look in this movie, they also do feel like they inhabit the same space/time as real objects and actors. That's no small feet with effects like these. Anyways, the transcoder is this major maguffin-type object, but despite lots of technical jargon and rambling, I'm never quite convinced this thing could save or damn all of mankind. The prop itself looks interesting at times, and hokey at others. Which reflects the movie itself. It's interesting at times, and hokey at others.

   When Bai Ling is on-screen, the movie is really good. She has solid on-screen presence and kicks a lot of ass. She's not always fighting and shooting, because despite having several really neat action scenes, The Gene Generation is not an action movie. Which is almost a shame because I think they had a better handle on their action sequences than they did on the science half of their science fiction. Not to say it's not actually quite original, unique, and even fascinating at times- but too often is it left by the wayside in favor of an overbearing, runaway sub-plot involving Jackie's gambling problems. I say 'overbearing' and 'runaway' because this sub-plot ends up being way too essential to the movie. I'm sure the writer was well-intentioned, but I never once gave a crap about Jackie or his problems. It's a real shame that so much of the main plot revolves around them.

  This is crazier once you realize how interesting Bai Ling's character, Michelle, is. She's a contract assassin who's often hired to kill 'DNA hackers'. If the movie focused more on her life, and her job, instead of on her idiot brother and his gambling problems- the movie would've been ten times better. I feel I'm being a bit too harsh on it though. It is entertaining when all is said and done. The villain is grotesque and vile, Michelle is a really cool character, the visuals are stunning, and the set design is ambitious- fantastic at times even. There's definitely shades of Blade Runner in the movie, but what cyberpunk doesn't owe it's right arm to that movie? The cool thing about The Gene Generation is how strikingly different and unique it's style and concepts are.

  Obviously, the movie is far from perfect- and fuck me running, I really don't like Alec Newman, who plays a main character here, BUT... again, the movie is entertaining. It has high production values and it looks like a lot of effort went into it. It also seems like the filmmakers tried to make a truly thoughtful, emotional, and serious movie. They didn't always hit that mark though- but their ambition counts for a lot in my book. I loved the action scenes- short but intense and powerful. I loved the set design, and how colorful the movie was. I've seen far too many movies that promise ass kicking violence, stunning visuals, and smart sci-fi, and deliver precisely none of that. Bland looking, low budget garbage, without any competent action scenes. The Gene Generation isn't that, thank god. It was $4 well spent, and I'm glad I own it now. I'd watch it again. I feel like it has a strong cult appeal to it. I liked this movie, despite all it's glaring shortcomings- but not everyone will.

Tank Girl


   Zany, ridiculous, and energetic- only the most rigid and anti-fun people could find Tank Girl devoid of a good time. Granted, it could've used more of an edge- been more explicit, more violent, but it's only not- because of studio interference. What more can I say really? Tank Girl is a movie that exists in a world where the good guys never get shot, despite zipping by in plain sight of dozens of enemy troops. It's not a movie you're meant to take seriously, so why are so many people being anal about it? Well, half of the anal crowd I can perfectly understand. See, Tank Girl is based on a comic book with a hell of a following, and the movie didn't do the comic justice properly.

   Then again, few 90's comic book movies ever did. (See: The Phantom, Judge Dredd, The Shadow, et cetera...) All we can do now, is look back on those movies and try to find something enjoyable about them. The Phantom is a swashbuckling old school adventure with high production values, and the practical effects in Judge Dredd are amazing, as well as the style and set design. Similarly, Tank Girl is a visual treat, if you dig it's style. This post apocalyptic world is eclectic and very out-there. Far from the all-too-serious setting of your average Mad Max movie, Tank Girl is bright and colorful. It finds uses for everything and then some. Our protagonist is as crazy as one has to be to survive in such a world.

  Of course, the villains are the government-like tyrannical types, sporting muted dark colors and hanging out in stainless steel lairs. As Tank Girl would say, "Boring!" But, at the same time, our villain is anything but boring.  Malcolm Mcdowell plays the main villain, Kesslee, and he's in full scenery chewing mode. He might not be playing a wholly original or engaging villain, nothing he couldn't play in his sleep- but it's Malcolm Mcdowell! As a bad guy! How could you complain? This is what this man was born to do! The rest of the cast is similarly great. Lori Petty is fantastic as Tank Girl. She perfectly embodies the character in my opinion. She's adorable, kick ass, and all around fun.

   I can understand how the relentless energy of the movie can actually wear on some people, but I was certainly never bored. I loved listening to Tank Girl talk, as if every conversation is moving 5x too slow for her. The movie clips along under the same kind of mentality. One second there's a massive shootout, the next- a song and dance number. All's normal for a movie like this! I can't say the tone of every scene or all the directorial choices director Rachel Talalay made clicked with me %100. They didn't. Some scenes were a bit too silly for me, some scenes lacked punch. I'm also not willing to write the whole movie off as a misfire because it's somewhat uneven. I see where there was a lot of studio interference, and that's sad because I can see what Talalay was trying to do.

   She might not have nailed Tank Girl completely, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. It felt like a kid's movie for grown ups. Like a raunchy action-comedy with all the colors and eccentricities of a post-apocalyptic kid's show. It's wild, over the top, and lots of fun. It was a blast to watch on a boring Thursday night while I was being all nostalgic for old Blockbuster Video stores. Back in the day, this is the kind of movie I would've rented all the time. It packs in the action and laughs and doesn't give your attention a chance to wander. I feel like this movie fits right in with all my guilty pleasures from the 90's. A double feature of this and Judge Dredd would absolutely kill. The most important difference between the two movies? Tank Girl is actually funny, Judge Dredd is not.

  Tank Girl has if anything, an excess of personality. She's larger than life and in-your-face, and I loved it. I give the movie a solid thumbs up. Not, two thumbs up- just one. Like I said, it's not perfect and lacks a bit of focus as well as being sorely hacked up in post by the studio- but that didn't stop me from enjoying it. It's easily better than many comic book movies from the 90's, being a full grade above tripe like Spawn, Batman & Robin, Steel, and Captain America. It's more in line with Batman Forever, Darkman, and especially Mystery Men. If you're sweet on any of those movies (I know I am) you'll probably enjoy Tank Girl for what it is: a silly, over-the-top, comic book romp.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Nirvana


   This is more my kind of Cyberpunk, and boy... how the hell have I not seen this before? Nirvana is a slick and stylish treat, full of stunning visuals and an engaging story. It's biggest shortcoming is not having a better American release. I recommend this movie right out of the gate, but that leaves you- the potential viewer, with a problem. See, Miramax released Nirvana in America, and they butchered it. A horrible dub and they also chopped up the movie itself, for reasons I can't even fathom. Unfortunately, you're screwed on both fronts. The original Italian copy with English subtitles fetches somewhere around $90 on eBay and might be region locked- leaving you completely unable to play it on your DVD/Blu Ray player. It gets worse, ever so slightly. The only version on Netflix... is the Miramax release.

  I got my hands on the Italian version without having to rape my wallet, but it's not freely available to all that way either. Nevertheless, it's worth seeking out. Skip the Miramax release, because you'll likely be saddled with a horrible version of a great movie. I tried watching ten minutes of it in comparison to the original version, and the differences were stunning. The original cut is only an hour and forty six minutes, and as is, that's thirteen minutes longer than the Miramax cut. Starting to see the severity of this? Anyways, point being... Nirvana is great. It's a total gem I had no idea would be so damn fun. If it wasn't for my cyberpunk kick lately, I probably wouldn't have gotten around to this one for another couple years.

   The movie is set in the future and is about Jimi, a game programmer for a company called Okosama Star. His Christmas day deadline to deliver his new videogame "Nirvana" is closing in when while putting the finishing touches on it... he discovers that the main character, Solo, has become fully sentient and self aware. Once Solo realizes he's just a character in a video game, he asks Jimi to delete him. Jimi feels obligated to oblige and sets off on a journey to try and delete Solo, and erase the backup of Nirvana from Okosama's servers before the game is released worldwide. This is actually a lot crazier than it sounds. Solo is a tragic and funny, yet fascinating character.  He constantly tries to convince other characters in the game... that they're not real. It doesn't work out so well for him.

  Of course, the movie also doesn't neglect to tackle the all-time cornerstone of video gaming: dying. You die, you restart. What kind of life is that? Well, it's not so much of a life as it is just a headache for Solo. He doesn't want to play, to shoot, to kill- but being that he's in a video game, he's dogged by madmen, mafia men, yakuza footsoldiers, and even "organ hunters". Yeah. It's also kind of funny that Solo doesn't look anything like your typical video game hero. He's a middle aged, kinda portly fellow with a mustache and neck length hair. He looks more like he'd be running a pizza parlor instead of running for his life. At first, it was hard to reconcile his appearance with his role- but he grew on me, and ended up being a total delight to watch.

  Yet, his whole struggle is just part of the movie. The rest is Jimi's very-real struggle to try and acquiesce Solo's request. In search of hackers and black market experts to help him out, his mission leads him to some very dark and gritty places. But, the movie is no slouch. Every location is visually stunning, from the slums to the big cities. The sets are fantastic and eye catching as much as anything you could see in a middle-budgeted cyberpunk movie. This isn't a genre juggernaut like Blade Runner, but it doesn't need to be. It pops with color and neat gadgetry, oozing pure 'cool' and pulsing with energy. Much to my surprise, it's also a very emotional movie. Like, that aspect totally blindsided me.

   Solo falls for a fellow game character and spends his time in the game desperately trying to get her to 'see' what's really going on. This mirror's Jimi's side quest (for lack of a better term) to find his old flame- the love of his life, who one day had up and left him. This ends up being very important to the main plot, and I commend the writer for weaving everything together so neatly. There's two or three absolutely stunning character driven scenes in here that had me all but choked up. Great acting from all involved, and they had great material to work with as well. Speaking of emotions and love stuff- I'm in love with the technology of this movie. I exaggerate, but only just. From eye-impants, to hacking gear, and old computer interfaces, all the cyberpunk tech in the movie is well thought out, and designed with a unique artistic flair.

  It's also worth pointing out that the movie never goes wild with virtual reality environments. In fact, for a cyberpunk genre flick made in the 90's, this movie shows astonishing restraint. Maybe that was a budgetary restraint, but it works in the movie's favor. It feels much less dated that way and more in line with The Matrix or The Thirteenth Floor- showing a 'real world' simulation when necessary, instead of the shiny plastic-looking virtual worlds of The Lawnmower Man and Johnny Mnemonic. When they finally do indulge and show those visuals, they look really good for their age and I was pleasantly surprised. Visuals and such aside, Nirvana is not an action movie. It's solid science fiction with high stakes and a chase scene or two, but don't go in expecting shootouts or kung fu.

   It's simply not that kind of movie. But, what's great it, it's still wildly entertaining. It's full of wit, humor, and gadgets galore. If you're the type of genre fan who appreciates cool looking props, and well designed sets, you'll find a lot to like about Nirvana. By no means does it feel like a small or low budget movie. It just feels like a low key sci-fi thriller. I loved it. It was a lot of fun, and while not perfect- it is definitely worth seeking out. Maybe my standards regarding this genre are fudged, or maybe I'm just a sucker for cyberpunk flicks- but maybe you should find out for yourself. I give Nirvana a full recommendation. It might not have the spit-and-polish of a big budget American sci-fi flick, but it has a certain charm to it that's unshakable. Nirvana is an atmospheric, colorful, engaging, fast paced, and gadget-filled cyberpunk blast.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

√ 964 Pinocchio


   My impromptu exploration of the cyberpunk genre has brought me here. A movie I've wanted to see for as long as I've also been avoiding it. Far from the stylized techo-lingo and futuristic urban landscapes of William Gibson novels and movies like Blade Runner√ 964 Pinocchio belongs to it's own brand of cyberpunk. Namely, Japanese cyberpunk. Without the budget to create sprawling epic visuals, Japanese cyberpunk relied on intense and frenetic camerawork, rapid-fire editing, and readily available sets, displaying urban-industrial decay- such as boiler rooms, abandoned buildings, warehouses, and the like. This gives Japanese cyberpunk a unique and unsettling flavor. As such, calling √ 964 Pinocchio unique and unsettling would be a massive understatement...

   The internet has been my portal to exploring cyberpunk. Articles, lists, and databases have helped me compile my own to-watch list of all these cyberpunk movies. But, my infatuation with the genre is not new. I've been into cyberpunk for a good long while. I explored a lot of the anime in the genre, and obvious genre juggernauts- like Blade Runner and The Matrix. But, I never really got around to watching Japanese cyberpunk. I was very familiar with Tetsuo: The Iron Man, and have seen some of it before- but it was as off-putting as it was interesting. I quickly deemed that I simply was not ready to digest something like that, and I stuck to more familiar flavors of cyberpunk, leaving Tetsuo- and by extension, all Japanese cyberpunk, to be explored at a later date.

  I'd heard and read a lot about √ 964 Pinocchio, and it looked to be even more off-putting than Tetsuo. Although, I was just as interested. A low budget cyberpunk thriller about a defective sex android who's thrown out onto the streets, left to wander the city aimlessly. Crazy stuff! Anyways, I'd avoided the movie for the longest time because I'd also read that it's not much more than 90 odd minutes of running, vomiting and screaming. Well... they were only half wrong. Yeah, it is 90 odd minutes of running, vomiting and screaming- but it happens to be a lot more than that at the same time. It donned on me about halfway through, this movie looks and sounds like how it feels to remember a nightmare.

   Nothing quite makes sense, but you still know what's going on. Things take forever, yet happen extremely fast. Sounds, sights, and textures blur together- creating uncomfortable and unsettling feelings and moods. That is √ 964 Pinocchio. It's a cyberpunk nightmare. Sure it's 90 minutes of crazy, gross-out, frenetic lunacy- but that's not a bad thing. This is the dark underside to a genre about high tech vs low class. Yet, in Japanese cyberpunk- the low budgets have brought things down a notch, making it low tech vs low class. There's no aesthetically pleasing angle to this, it's all ugly and in-your-face. But, it's wildly interesting- both the movie itself, and the background of Japanese cyberpunk in general.

  I'm glad I waited until now to watch √ 964 Pinocchio, because I couldn't have appreciated or even sat through this movie four or five years ago. I would've been woefully out of my depth. Back then I just wanted dark and violent, science fiction, adventure. √ 964 Pinocchio is dark, and violent, but it's not an adventure. It has more in common with the story of Frankenstein than anything else. As a failed product, the sex android- called Pinocchio, eventually sets out to confront his maker. It should also be noted that Pinocchio isn't really an android. He's more of a cyborg. He was once a human, but captured (I'm assuming) and experimented on to create a product. A living sex toy. So, in essence, Pinocchio is the opposite of his namesake. He was a real boy, and now is anything but. He is basically post-human.

  If that's not a cyberpunk concept, I don't know what is. Furthermore, if that happened to you... wouldn't you spend the next few days of your life running, screaming and vomiting? Hell, I know I would. It would be like living a nightmare, and in some ways I feel like the surreal stories and experiences of Japanese cyberpunk movies are so raw and in-your-face because we're meant to experience them like the main characters in the movies do. Things are exaggerated, scary, and non-stop. Just like √ 964 Pinocchio. It's a crazy, wild, gross, trippy movie that will never be for everyone. Genre fans will eat it up (bad choice of words...) and everyone else will just look on in disgust and confusion. It's okay though... that's kind of the point, I gather.

   Fair warning, as interesting as I found √ 964 Pinocchio, and I liked reading about it, writing about it and such... it's really hard to sit through, at least it was for me. It really is truly 90 something minutes of running, screaming and vomiting. Sometimes all those things happen at once, and then keep happening for uncomfortably long stretches of screentime. The movie is almost constantly incomprehensible, only stopping for brief moments to deliver a few choice lines of dialog to keep you invested in the characters. There's a solid five minute sequence towards the end of Pinocchio yelling, screaming, and running through the streets, towards the end of the movie. It's almost headache inducing.  I can't believe there's people who sit back and enjoy this as a regular movie.

   As partial as I'll always be to the neon rife cities of Blade Runner and Akira, the hi-tech cybernetic gadgets, and the violent action of western cyberpunk, I could stand to explore the eastern side of things for a while longer. I'll probably be digging back into the Tetsuo movies before long. Stay tuned!

The Paperboy


   Matthew McConaughey, Nicole Kidman, and John Cusack in a lurid pulpy mystery flick? Yes please! Oh and, this most importantly stars Zac Efron. Hot damn can this guy act. If he ever wanted to leave his Disney roots in the past, this is definitely the kind of role to take. What's even better is that he's damn good at it too. The Paperboy is a fairly unfocused movie, and my even telling you what it's about won't do you much good. It's better to talk about this movie by it's content, and it's mood. The story, in my opinion, was very much secondary to the characters in it. It was very engaging, watching these characters do their thing, but after a point, the story ultimately gets lost in the hustle of the movie.

  The Paperboy is a violent and dirty movie, but not a gratuitous one. It's characters are flawed and unique, and fun to watch in a seedy sort of way. It's an interesting slice of entertainment, and one that kept my attention throughout. It feels like an old dime store pulp-crime novel come to life. There's sex, murder, fetishes, criminals, reporters, a story to uncover- and all set in the searing heat of a small town in Florida. As the plot finally finds it's way to having all the main characters present, you can kinda see where the story is going- but even then, it's not the easiest movie to predict. So, I surrendered myself to experience and just went along for the ride.

  It's a crazy ride. John Cusack plays a villainous type and for the role he's donned a thick accent complete with a slow drawl. It's delightfully vile. I loved it. Nicole Kidman went full 'trailer trash' for her role here. She dove into this performance and it shows. She's great in this, and I'm not normally a huge fan of hers. Matthew McConaughey is also great, this is just another credit on his filmography now full of movies to be taken seriously. This is no rom-com, and no lighthearted adventure flick- The Paperboy is dark and grim, and runs on a fuel reserved for the pulpiest sort of stories. It's also frequently stylish and full of interesting cinematography, which helped it a lot I think.

  In lesser hands this movie would've been nothing remarkable, and as is I'm still not sure it's even 'good', but it sure was entertaining. It's a lurid ill-fated romance story, with prisons, criminals, and a murder in the mix. I enjoyed it's energetic pace and it's interesting characters- but I don't think the movie was more than the sum of it's parts. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't great. It was just sorta... there. There's great performances, and pieces of a great story, but something about it wasn't cohesive enough to me. As if the parts of the movie itself were as rough and dirty as the content it has on display. That's not necessarily a good thing.

  The one thing above all I think the movie was lacking was focus. You weren't sure whose movie it really was until 3/4th's through. I think that hampers the movie from being a better film. More than not putting a leading main character forward right away, the story itself also takes it's time focusing on a specific plot. Once you get interested and invested in one plot, it shifts focus onto a different aspect. It could've just been trying my patience, or my attention could've been wandering, but I wasn't fond of the way the story unfolded. I would've preferred a more straightforward storytelling structure. I think it would've made the movie easier to watch. Thankfully, most of that nonsense dissipates about half an hour into the movie.

  There's a lot of lurid craziness here, with violence, sexuality, and all kinds of criminal stuff- but it all rides on a weak and ultimately uninteresting story. This movie is fun to watch, until you realize you don't care as much about what's actually happening as you for the characters it's happening to. So, no... it's not a good movie. It's okay, it's engaging and even energetic at times, and filled with memorable performances and scenes, but what does it all amount to? Not much. There's not many likable characters in the movie, and the story won't grab you all that much, but the style and the acting is fantastic. So, you could do worse for a little pulp nonsense, but make no mistake... you could do better too.

  As for me, I'll be paying closer attention to Zac Efron's career. I hope he gets more interesting roles in the future. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a mountain of crappy sci-fi movies I've been neglecting.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Spectre


  Nothing can get me to stop a 'kick' (in this case, a cyberpunk/sci-fi kick) faster than the prospect of watching a James Bond movie. I'm always in the mood for a bit of fashionable spy business, and fashionable spy business is exactly what Spectre is. The latest installment in the immortal 007 franchise is quite good. I mean, that's what matters at the end of the day. It's not perfect, and it's no Skyfall or Casino Royale, but I let out a long sigh of relief at the end because it's also definitely not a Quantum of Solace. Spectre has it's fair share of missteps, and a few unsavory plot elements, but for every time it stumbles... it picks itself back up, dusts itself off, and proceeds to kick ass- just like Bond himself.

  As a die-hard 007 fan, I'm very familiar with SPECTRE itself, the secret criminal organization that became a staple of Bond movies throughout the Sean Connery era of movies; the head of the organization Ernst Stavro Blofeld is quite possibly the most iconic Bond villain ever, if not one of the most recognizable movie villains of all time, period. Thus, titling the latest Bond movie "Spectre" promised those two things from the outset. There was some mucky pre-release press saying that Christoph Waltz wasn't playing Blofeld. Right. Right, right, right. Of course not. And, Benedict Cumberbatch wasn't playing Khan. Right. Any Bond fan with half a brain saw this coming from a mile away. Even the movie tries to play it like a big reveal, though thankfully not with the show stopping awkwardness of the "I am... Khan." line from Star Trek Into Darkness.

  There's no real explanation to it though, no more than it being a nod to the fans- like the inclusion of the Aston Martin DB5 in Skyfall. The story of Spectre, intertwines Blofeld's past with Bond's and it's... okay. I mean, I've seen worse. But, it's a bit shoehorned. The movie would have you believe some very preposterous stuff. Yet none of that is worse than this movie's cardinal sin. It retreads some not-so-old ground. One big theme of Skyfall was that some 'old' things can still be useful. This was a very literal theme, and it was played on a broader level as well. Skyfall brought back some classic elements to James Bond, and made a solid case why he's still relevant- why spy movies and assassins are still relevant. As Skyfall made this case to audiences, characters in the movie were also tasked with making the same case to the powers that be.

  Skyfall succeeded with gusto. It was yet another jump start to the franchise and promised us the clean slate that Quantum of Solace was supposed to leave us with. Yet... here we are, four years later, and there's an antagonistic element in the movie, beating on that same drum- that the double-O section is antiquated and irrelevant. Didn't we just go over this? I don't want the section to be in jeopardy of being mothballed every time a new Bond movie comes out. It's tedious and worse yet, it's redundant. In fact, it's borderline insulting. Such a huge chunk of the plot of Spectre rehashes a huge chunk of the plot from Skyfall- and that's not okay.

  It's also not a crippling issue either. It very well might be tedious, redundant and insulting, but the movie is so much fun otherwise that while you're watching it- it's never more than a minor nuisance. At least the story makes sense, and the plot doesn't trip over itself from scene to scene. Moreover, Christoph Waltz is a fantastic Blofeld, complete with ├╝bervillain lairs, and a larger than life plot. Some could very easily make the case that we didn't need SPECTRE or Blofeld in this current iteration of James Bond, and those people are entitled to their completely valid opinion... but I loved it.  Quantum, even at best, only ever felt like a stand-in for SPECTRE, and now SPECTRE is here. Hopefully, here to stay even. I felt that Waltz's performance as Blofeld was fantastic and a true highlight of the movie.

  Another highlight was Spectre henchman Hinx, played by the ever-intimidating Dave Bautista. Complete with a deadly and unique one-off gimmick, Hinx earns his place in the pantheon of great Bond movie henchmen. Never saying a single word (far as I can remember) he was an absolute juggernaut of a villain, and one that could've probably killed Bond for keeps. His scenes with Bond crackle with energy and hit hard with the kind of violence I fell in love with in Casino Royale. It really does feel like Bond's life is on the line here. Given that the character is arguably immortal, that's no small feat. All the action scenes in Spectre are great. They make the movie fun and exciting, alongside it's razor sharp wit, and genuine humor.

  It also helps that Spectre looks gorgeous. The cinematography is beautiful and there's so many stunning locales and settings to look at- like there should be.  On top of this, the movie manages to capture an old school spy flick feel. The feel of the Connery movies is alive and well, pulsing through the movie, lending a golden era style and retro aesthetic that makes it all that much more fun. This is a throwback in all the way that count, not just to old Bond movies, but to old spy movies in general. Spectre is a globe-trotting adventure full of class and style. I wouldn't want it any other way.

   I'd also be remiss if I didn't talk about Lea Seydoux's character, Dr. Madeleine Swann. I like her, a lot. Yet, I don't like how she's angled as the new Vesper Lynd. I enjoyed her scenes with Bond and it's obvious they have all the right chemistry- but I think her position in the story is less dictated by her character, and more dictated by the movies that came before Spectre. This iteration of Bond is walking a tightrope; breaking outdated conventions, but embracing the old style of things. The obligatory 'Bond girl' is an outdated convention. They fixed that in Casino Royale by making Vesper Lynd intrinsically essential to the story and Bond himself. She felt like a real character, and not just eye candy that was there by an unspoken contract with the audience.

  Quantum of Solace failed to maintain that. The 'Bond girl' in that movie was a waste of space, completely irrelevant to the plot after a certain point. Skyfall was hardly better, although some made the case that Moneypenny herself was the Bond girl, or even M. In that case, Skyfall gets a hall pass. But, it seems that Spectre didn't quite know what to do. The idea that every woman Bond encounters ends up dead sooner or later seems horribly mysoginistic and ugly in this day and age; so the filmmakers could have swept it under the rug, or faced it head on. They chose the latter. This is tricky because they're also not giving up the institution of having 'Bond girls' in their movies. So, Swann is left with either being a tough no-nonsense woman who will have no romantic ties to Bond whatsoever, or being a new genuine love interest.

  The movie goes with the latter, and amazingly sticks with it. Not that I'm fond of that, but I'm at a loss for words honestly. The problem for me is that Swann feels like a character created by committee. She feels less like a real person that Bond would run into, and more like an accumulation of votes- dictating what she needs to be for Bond. I'm not speaking ill of Lea Seydoux's acting though, she breathes life into Swann in a way that few other actresses could, given the restraints of the role. In the end, Swann is a pale imitation of Lynd because she's not given the room or time to be anything else. She's a plot device, albeit a well acted and beautiful one.

  I could go on and on about this movie, but I think I've covered the essentials. Ralph Fiennes is great as the new M, Ben Whishaw is still great as Q, and of course... Daniel Craig is still fantastic as Bond... James Bond. Spectre isn't a perfect movie, but it's a fun one. It seems to have a good sense of rewatchability to it, which is good. I have no mixed feelings about it. It's not a great movie, just a good one. An exceptionally fun time, even if it's not a perfect one.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Avalon


   I'd actually had this movie on my radar for a good long while. Avalon has been one I've been meaning to watch for ages, and I guess my new cyberpunk/sci-fi kick was all the push I needed to finally sit down and give it a look. I'd also been poking around on message boards, as I do, seeing what people thought of the movie. This is almost always simultaneously a good and bad idea, but the general consensus was that this was an underrated movie that people seemed to really like. On one hand I completely get it, but as impressive as Avalon is... there was something about it that was just off, for me at least. Not unlike the director's more famous work, Ghost in the Shell. Mamoru Oshii is clearly a man of artistic vision, but I'm not sure why he has a penchant for expressionless protagonists.

  Most of the people in Avalon are zombies. Not literally, but they might as well be. Zombies, or mannequins. Even our protagonist, the beautiful and skilled Ash, is blank and emotionless 90% of the time. This doesn't make for compelling viewing. The atmosphere and the technology of the movie propels it forward, as does the promise that something will happen. See, Avalon is a hi-tech and illegal virtual reality war simulation game that seems to be the only source of entertainment in this world. But, doesn't... entertainment, you know... entertain? Not here apparently. The game is a horrible escape in my opinion because it's every bit as drab and washed out as their real lives- just with lots of shooting and such.

  It also doesn't help that it's not all that exciting either, due in no small part to the ominous, downbeat, and orchestral soundtrack. Visually stunning action scenes come and go with the impact of a melancholy sonata. I'm not sure what vibe Oshii was trying to evoke, but if this was all by direct design... count me out. There was nothing engaging in the movie. It never hit a turning point where things got more interesting than they had been in the previous scene. The plot builds to some big secret at the end, and it was a let down for me. I wasn't impressed. Having said all that, I feel like I'm missing the point. Something about the movie probably escaped me. I liked a lot of the visuals, and despite the droll soundtrack, some the action scenes were fantastic.

  It's not an action movie though, not when the climax is intercut with absurdly long and distracting shots of a symphonic concert for no discernible reason, and there's a good two minute long sequence of Ash cooking.  Nothing but cooking. The movie has a slow pace as is, and I'm struggling to say it was worth it... but I guess it was. There was enough striking visuals, and solid acting that I can recommend it, but you'll be chasing a sense of closure and understanding that never comes. I think this movie just isn't my personal cup of tea. There was no palpable mystery, or conflict. In moments, in parts, sure- but the one continuous subplot didn't really lead to anything substantial.

  Avalon is an extremely meditative movie. One that functions on moods and visuals rather than story and characters. When it comes down to personal preference, I needed more story and character to enjoy this movie thoroughly. More things needed to happen. There simply wasn't enough in the movie for me. A slow deliberate pace is fine so long as the story is going somewhere, and I never got that impression from Avalon. It's about this game, and the people who play it... and that's it. There's no major revelation, just a backhanded twist at odds with the rest of the movie.  Ash isn't a compelling protagonist, and none of the other characters are either for that matter.

  I respect the ambition behind Avalon, and the skill it took to craft such a visually detailed and atmospheric movie. It's very stunning and stylish, and the special effects hold up surprisingly well. I was enamored with the look of the actress who played Ash, Malgorzata Foremniak. She was very beautiful, and she inhabited the movie very well. Despite her role not calling for lots of expressive moments or lots of dialog, she was engaging to watch and pulled off the action scenes with gusto. For her, and the stylish visuals alone I can recommend watching the movie. But, be prepared for a very slow and meditative movie. I knew this going in and I still found the movie dragging in some areas. I think Oshii had good concepts here but a hollow and lacklustre story.

  On a side note, the one thing I hated about the movie was the unrelenting yellow-brown hue. It was so distracting and visually uncomfortable that it hindered my immersion in the story. I'm all for manipulating the color palate of your movie to give it a very specific feel- but why you'd ever want your movie to feel like it was shot through a bucket of piss is beyond me. There is actually a point to it in the story of the movie itself, and it was neat, but not enough to justify it in my opinion. I was dying for more color, or even just less yellow- and I'm well aware that was probably the point, because of what the last act led to- but I wasn't thrilled with it. It made for unpleasant viewing.

  It says a lot though that despite all that I can still give this movie a full recommendation. I think there was enough interesting scenes and stunning cinematography that anyone can find at least something to like and/or appreciate about Avalon. It's different, off beat, and unique. I support movies like this even if the end result is something I'm not overly fond of. It's still something different, something created with a distinct artistic vision. I love that. I may not love Avalon, but I admire it, and someday I might even watch it again. I hope I'll find a new appreciation for it eventually because there was enough of it I liked that I wished I liked it even more.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Webmaster

 
   I've come to realize that Webmaster, like so many other direct-to-video movies, is not necessarily underrated... but underestimated. It's crafted with care and detail, milking it's modest budget for every penny, creating atmospheric sets and vibrant digital landscapes. Yet, for years I'd dismissed this movie based on nothing more than poor looking cover art, a crappy title, and a complete lack of word of mouth. You don't hear about movies like this, they kinda just take up space in bargain bins and they used to be video store shelf filler. It's a shame because this movie is really creative and fascinating. It's a bit dated, but manages to be the noir-ish cyberpunk flick that Johnny Mnemonic wished it was, and it holds up considerably better.

  Maybe I'm being a bit generous- it's not a bit dated, it's very dated. Cyberpunk concepts have evolved over time in response to how real technology has updated and evolved as well. The internet and 'surfing the web' was pretty revolutionary back in the early 90's. It was a new thing and still very unexplored. Thus, a lot of science fiction at the time, in particular- Cyberpunk stuff, treated the internet as something very 'out there'. At that time, the future of the internet was a digital environment where websites were physical things your blocky digital avatar could reach out and grab like a newspaper. Nowadays people might chuckle at the concept, but because we've never actually had anything like that... I still find it interesting and rather cool looking.

  Yet, despite it's outdated hardware, it's concepts are still unique and fascinating to me. In Webmaster, you don't just have digital avatars- you have virtual 'egos', which interact with you like Jarvis interacts with Tony Stark in the Iron Man movies. Your ego is set up to act on your behalf when you're away, which is something I hope doesn't catch on nowadays. In a culture so obsessed with being plugged in, connected, and online as much as humanly possible- that would be horrible. Pretty soon, social media would just be our virtual selves autonomously 'liking' and sharing info. Who needs to interact with other people when you can have a computerized -you- do it for you? Scary. Webmaster didn't have the foresight to realize it's implications, but still- it's interesting stuff.

   I do have to clarify my love for the virtual CGI scenes in the movie- they're horribly dated, like so many other aspects of this movie, but at this point, they're practically retro. Yes, they're crap effects but they're also emblematic of how people imagined interaction across a virtual environment would look at one point in time. Specifically, the 90's. Unfortunately, there were better special effects to be had in 1998, but it doesn't matter in 2016- the past is the past. Am I going to gripe that they didn't have the 'polish' and glossy shine that the effects in Lawnmower Man had? No, because Lawnmower Man's effects are still just as dated. I think I prefer the rough and unfinished look of the virtual scenes in Webmaster though, it feels very... bootleg. And, if that's not 'cyberpunk', I'm not sure I know what is.

  Anyways, the story is about JB, a hacker of sorts who gets framed for screwing over Stoiss, the webmaster of "the Domain" (a massive bootleg internet, best as I can figure) and stealing his money. JB insists that he can find who set him up, and Stoiss agrees to let him try and figure it out, but not without a deadline- literally. Stoiss, in typical big bad boss guy fashion, fits JB with a mechanical heart that takes over his pulmonary system and will shut it down in so many hours unless Stoiss himself deactivates it. This is all really interesting stuff and it helps that it's married with interesting visuals, and good acting. Unfortunately, the movie is dubbed to English from Danish- and it's a pretty horrible dub. It rarely matches lip-movement at all, and plenty of voices look ill-fitting to the actors they're put with.

  Alas, that's but only one serious gripe with the movie. Despite all it's unusual concepts and technology, there's fatal flaws to all of it. For one, the virtual 'egos' are unique to each user via a disc. But, anyone can use your ego if they have your disc. That's a horrible design flaw. The egos aren't even password protected. Not that it'd make much difference, since almost everyone in the movie is a hacker. Tron did the 'identity disc' concept, but did it better. As interesting as the egos are, their implementation is fairly flawed. On top of this, most of the technology in the movie is irrelevant to the plot when all is said and done. It might have some great visuals and such, but the story should've been more inclusive of it's own cyberpunk concepts and dependent on the technology it invented.

   At it's heart, Webmaster is a noir mystery with hi-tech cyberpunk concepts but the two rarely go hand in hand. I had lots of fun with the movie and it's visuals, and the story is fine, but it suffers from a disconnect with it's own material. But, at least the characters are fun! JB is a neat protagonist- really meticulous, witty, and very physically fit, yet despite all that he's basically a hermit nerd. He'd much rather interact with other virtual egos over the Domain instead of meet people in real life. He has maybe one good friend who he sees in person, and only because she's tech-illiterate. So it's interesting to see JB forced to interact with people and investigate this mystery without his virtual safety net. He ends up in some really cool looking places with fantastic set design that any cyberpunk genre fan would go nutty for.

  I was especially impressed with the designs and sets in this movie. They made great use of their shooting locations and everything looked futuristic and very grungy. There was a real lived-in and worn out feel to the world in Webmaster, like people had become so caught up in technology and virtual lives that the real world has become collectively neglected. Except, of course, by people looking for interactions that simulations can't top. Underground fetish clubs, nightclubs with neon-lit dance floors, and any other place that caters to the flesh. All places that JB ends up having to be, tracking down leads and such. It's also unfortunate that so many of these places seem to only just barely maintain their relevance to the plot.

  When all is said and done, Webmaster is a fast paced, sci-fi, tech-filled, violent, erotic, hip and exciting thriller that has a wealth of surprisingly interesting characters and a moderately solid story. I was very impressed by this 90's flick as it transcended it's low budget trappings, over and over. Despite being dated, it manages to escape that ugly pit of unwanted bad-nostalgia that an old IBM commercial has. Instead, something about Webmaster feels a bit more slick. It's rough-around-the-edges visual aesthetic make for interesting viewing as does all it's imaginary tech- looking at least plausible and cool- instead of old and clunky like a dial up modem. Webmaster is energetic, atmospheric, and fascinating, and for my money- was quite good, despite several big flaws.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Looker


     "Look at them. They're fascinated..."

   Looker is a pitch perfect commentary on consumerism and modern media, and despite being over three decades old it's still completely relevant, if not even more so. Our protagonist is a plastic surgeon who ends up entangled in a strange murder mystery as a very specific few of his patients have died weird deaths. What follows is a web of science fiction intrigue and conspiracy thrills. There's some incredibly suspenseful scenes in the movie, as well as some of the most imaginative action scenes I've ever seen in a movie of this kind. A good deal of the story revolves around a light-gun that can immediately render anyone it's fired at, momentarily catatonic. Imagine a shootout with those guns... during a high speed car chase. It's scary ain't it?

  As much as Looker points at things like plastic surgery, commercials, and pointless television programming, it's pointing a finger at modern technology in general. One character makes a point that to coerce someone to do something, you could force him to stare at something with flashing lights and subliminal images, then after a dramatic pause, he says that was 15 years ago- now? People willingly watch that stuff, and it's called 'entertainment'.  Granted it's a rather xenophobic and narrow view of television and advertising, but look at it now- unskippable ads on YouTube videos, ads on Facebook, ads on your phone. Ad banners, ad footers, pop up ads, targeted ads- ad spam-ware, ad spyware. I'd say the cautionary messages in Looker are still necessary to hear today.

  I found it interesting that the dangerous trance the hypnotic commercials in Looker puts viewers in can be broken simply by looking away. But, why would anyone bother? After all... it's only a commercial. Right? Again, someone in the movie points out that (at that time) the average American watches over an hour of commercials a day. Which is exactly the frontier the antagonists of this movie have literally been killing to try and exploit. Commercials that can do more than just pitch you some product, they can make you want to buy these items, as soon as possible. It's direct, and it's effect, and the viewers are willingly submitting themselves to it. It's horrifying. It's also a bit ironic that the protagonist of the movie, who stumbles onto this vile hi-tech corporate scheme, is a plastic surgeon- a veritable symbol of the decadence of the rich and famous.

  As you might've guessed at this point, this movie has a lot going on. Thankfully, it never gets complicated. It manages to keep all it's ducks in a row throughout. Now, when I sat down to watch this movie, I had heard a bit about it, and I wasn't sold on the concept. But, positive word of mouth online suggested this movie was definitely worth a watch. Skeptical as I was, my attitude immediately shifted, and I was hooked. Whether it was the music, or the acting, or the writing, but whatever it was- the opening to this movie hooked me something fierce. The movie continued to keep my attention throughout. It's an incredibly entertaining movie. I tip my hat to writer/director Michael Crichton for spinning such a fascinating tale here.

  It's also worth mentioning that this movie basically predicted the widespread use of CGI, an effect that would later bring dinosaurs to life in Jurassic Park, which was based on his best selling book. Looker is quite a bit dated, visually, and the last act or two of the movie are somewhat hokey, but only somewhat. If you can suspend disbelief, and put yourself in the right mindset, there's no reason why this movie won't thrill and entertain you from beginning to end. It's not perfect obviously, but it's decent science fiction with a lot of really good acting. I feel like I'm on a lucky winning streak here. First Timescape, then The Arrival, Circuitry Man, and now Looker. A whole handful of good sci-fi movies I'd never seen before.

  I certainly recommend Looker for a healthy dose of early 80's science fiction social commentary. I can't believe this hasn't gained a bigger cult following over the years, there's a lot of really cool moments in the movies and it has a few really interesting concepts on it's hands. We need more modern movies that can walk that line, balancing relevant social commentary with excitement and suspense. This was done expertly to a much darker and brooding effect in David Cronenberg's Videodrome, a far superior movie- but it was also put together by superior filmmaking talent.  Both Videodrome and Looker make very similar points, but where Videodrome is a bit nihilistic and downbeat, Looker tends to be a bit more straightforward and lighthearted. (By comparison if nothing else)