Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Getting the point


  It's not hard to see why the makers of Thunderball thought it would be the best Bond yet. Afterall it has all the basic fundamental elements of a fantastic old school 007 outing. The tropical setting, the nefarious villain, his dastardly plot (bonus points for it involving stolen atomic bombs), gadgets, and beautiful women. Yet there is something about Thunderball that keeps it from being great. Certainly far from being the best, it is at the very least still fun escapist fantasy. I had seen it prior to this viewing, (as I have all the 007 movies) but I didn't remember it well. What I did end up remembering was how this movie never really held my attention. A problem I faced this time as well. I feel bad for that too, because once you get past a lot of it's flaws, Thunderball is still pretty good. As far as these sort of things go.

  It's the fourth movie in the ever-growing franchise and they pulled out all the stops. It opens with a bang as we join Bond hunting down an adversary who tries to evade capture by sneaking around in drag. Of course Bond sees right through his disguise, and gets into a rather gritty brawl with the skirt-clad man. Bond finishes the job and escapes via Rocketbelt no less, and then straight into his Aston Martin DB5 to make his final getaway. It's a great opening, if not a little weird and overdone. It just plain old fun. It's the kind of stuff you'd never catch Daniel Craig doing, yet Sean Connery pulls it off and can still walk away with his trademark swagger and be taken seriously. Mostly. Far be it from me to throw him under the bus now, despite how utterly off Thunderball is, Connery is a constant. He was great in the previous three, and he's certainly a highlight of this one.

  It would be ignorantly dismissive of me to call Thunderball a stinker, but it doesn't have the same flow as it's predecessors. It's more than a bit overlong as well, clocking in at just over a very full two hours. When honestly, the movie needed nothing more than 90 minutes. I think I liked it more this time than the first time I saw it though, and I think it made a bigger impact on me this time around. I feel it qualifies as a guilty pleasure. I know a lot of retrospective praise gets heaped on it, but it's really sort of dull at times. A very drawn out dullness that not even the wittiest wisecracks from our stalwart protagonist was able to alleviate. It's not a persistent dullness though. It's broken up by some rather fun scenes here and there. However you quickly realize that the movie is just taking way too long to simply get going.

  Once it does though, it's very enjoyable in a strange sort of way. As if in direct response though, to Bond's 'roll in the hay' with Pussy Galore in the previous movie, turning her 'good', Bond's efforts to do the same thing this time... completely fail. The femme fatale in this movie doesn't fall victim to Bond's... "charm". Her character is all the more engaging for it and she has several great moments with Bond. I don't know exactly why the Bond girl in this one, Domino, is a much more fun character than Tatiana Romanova in From Russia With Love, but she is. Despite her being little more than a damsel in distress primed to fall in love with Bond, she manages to hold her own. In point of fact, Bond invites her to dinner and she outright refuses him with a simple and to-the-point "No." She's gorgeous and a little naive, but she's not a wimpy rag doll, and she's not about to swoon for Bond. Something which I felt Tatiana did just about every eleven seconds. "Oh James!"

  Thunderball explores the secret criminal organization of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. a little closer in this movie. Opening up their scale considerably showing us an intimidatingly big board room in which it looks only fit to discuss plans for taking over the world. Not to mention the entrance to this room is a secret sliding door. Of course. Which brings me to the villain of the movie. Emilio Largo. Sporting an eye patch, Largo looks the sinister part. A part he wholeheartedly lives up to, feeding his enemies to sharks that he keeps in a pool on his property, stealing a whole bomber plane and the two atomic bombs on board, and leveraging them for ransom. (If I remember correctly that is) Thunderball is the type of movie that introduces elements that become so iconic, they can and have become cliche. Any plot where a villain steals bombs, has pet sharks, and/or wears an eye patch isn't ripping off Thunderball, (maybe it is a little, but-) it's just being maddeningly cliche.

  Largo isn't a bad villain, he just isn't a memorable one. Same goes for the movie itself. It isn't necessarily a bad movie, and I can't say it isn't memorable, but it's devoid of that cracking energy that made the previous three so great. There's a lot to love about Thunderball and I believe that it is underrated, but with it's lethargic pacing in the first half, simplistic story, and semi-forgettable villain, it'll never be one of the greats. However... however, as it is, it's still a really fun action movie. The underwater climax is as thrilling as it breathtaking. Bond's heroics have never been more in-style and his one liners are as witty as ever. If you want some good ol' back-to-basics spy thrills, you could do a lot worse than Thunderball. I wouldn't even mind seeing it again someday.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Shocking... positively shocking


  There's a scene in Goldfinger where 007 is making his getaway in his tricked out Aston Martin DB5 from some enemies. He flips open a panel between the seats, and flicks a switch, sending thick rows of vision-obscuring smoke billowing out the back of his car. The woman in the passenger seat smiles at the neat gadget, and Bond smirks. This scene perfectly embodies the spirit of the 007 movies, and of Goldfinger specifically. Bond is back, in style, and showing off all his new tricks. He's proud of it too. The movie is aware of this, and rightfully so. This is the stuff we like to see when we watch 007 movies. Tongue planted in cheek, but not too firmly. There are levels on which you can't take any 007 movie seriously, but for the most part, they play it straight and deliver good old fashioned spy thrills. Goldfinger is no exception, and even raises the bar even higher for all it's successors.

  Bond wouldn't be as fun if his gadgets did all the work for him, so of course Sean Connery proves yet again that his rough-and-tumble take on the British secret agent is a perfect fit. Sure, 007 uses a gadget here and there, but he's always ready to throw down, or more importantly- think his way out of a situation. They really do show his deductive skills at work here, and not only here but in the previous two movies as well. I feel that's something always overlooked about Bond. He tends to use his head more than his gadgets. He thinks ahead, anticipates, and prepares. Even as the situation evolves, he's constantly assessing a new way to approach it. Granted, eventually, given the nature of these movies, it's obviously going to boil down to fights, shootouts, or a chase scene. However, that doesn't negate the fact that 007 is one smart cookie, and Connery knows how to play that up quite well.

  In this threequel, Bond is sent out to investigate Auric Goldfinger, the eponymous villain of the movie who's supposedly smuggling his gold illegally. Of course, a much larger plot is afoot, and soon a very dangerous game of cat and mouse evolves between Bond and Goldfinger. The thrills come fast and hard in this one. From the explosive opening gambit, to Bond's repeated encounters with Goldfinger's iconic henchman, Oddjob. The movie opens up the throttle even more than it's predecessor did. Also introduced in this one, is Bond's trademark Aston Martin. The gadget filled Bond-mobile has rather limited screentime in this one, but makes a hell of an impact nonetheless. It's sleek, sexy, and full of surprises. Coincidentally, that statement fits the movie on the whole.

  I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention the Bond girl of this outing... Pussy Galore. A vast improvement over the previous Bond girl. Ms.Galore is much more of an equal to 007 than either of the prior two Bond girls. She's tough, no-nonsense, and not afraid to judo-flip Bond on his ass. Granted, James wins her over eventually and she actually helps save the day, but this brings me to my first (and really my only) point of contention with Goldfinger. This is a little spoileristic I guess? So if you haven't seen it... whatever. At one point, Bond and Galore have some time alone, with the impending climax mere minutes away (no pun intended) and they have a playful little sparring match in a barn on Mr.Goldfinger's ranch in Kentucky. It ends with Bond physically forcing himself on her. She's trying to push him away, and he's leaning in for a kiss, overpowering her. She of course ends up melting into his arms, but that doesn't negate several glaring problems with this.

  One, it's basically rape. Half the world would be up in arms if the current James Bond did this in the next movie. I don't even feel I should have to elaborate on that point. It's extremely cut and dry. Secondly, it undermines her character. Obviously the two characters were going to have sex sooner or later, but it doesn't happen on her terms, and the fact Bond forced her into it ends up being semi-essential to the plot. Her uniqueness, her identity, everything about her becomes instantly irrelevant because she's useless until Bond has sex with her. Only then does she realize she should do what's right. It would've been much more compelling if the balance of power had been in her hands still when this happened. Of course, that was probably unthinkable for the 1960's, but it's still lazy writing in my opinion. The whole scene, and the subsequent effects of it make me very uncomfortable.

  I do understand that society and it's view on women and their roles was all very different in the 1960's. Let's just say I'm glad we've graduated past that. Nobody is denying that Bond girls are largely there to be eye candy, but saying that's all they should be is ridiculous. A dumb, wimpy Bond girl is annoying and frustrating to watch. The most interesting ones? The ones people remember? Those are the smart ones. The ones that can hold their own with Bond. Isn't it interesting that the best ones are the ones that rival 007 as an equal? If not an equal physically, then emotionally, or intellectually. Food for thought if nothing else. Pussy Galore was a victim of bad writing, but for the most part was a very fun character who didn't let Bond push her around... until she landed on her back. Then all bets were off.

  Anyway, what's a 007 movie without it's villain? Auric Goldfinger isn't the visual image of menacing. He has neither the well worn scowl of Rosa Klebb, nor the icy cold demeanor of Dr.No. He's rather rotund, greedy, and perhaps a bit over confident. He makes a unique villain for Bond, and one that comes quite close to killing him on several occasions, not the least of which is the iconic scene involving an industrial laser. "Do you expect me to talk?", "No, Mr.Bond! I expect you to die!" Goldfinger retorts, as the laser beam inches closer to Bond on a fixed trajectory to cut him in half, right down the middle. At this point, I was legitimately on the edge of my seat. I've seen the scene several times, and it never loses it's biting tension. It's a classic moment, and it's only one of many. The movie is full of great scenes. For certain reasons, it'll never be my absolute favorite, but it's in my top five. You can expect this one to deliver. As if you needed me to tell you that...

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Smashing!


  James Bond's return to the big screen was a fantastic success. All the rough edges that were present in Dr.No were sanded down, delivering a much smoother film. From Russia With Love is a movie I like more each time I see it. It's faster, bigger, and more intense than it's predecessor. And while Dr.No introduced a few iconic mainstay elements, this one completed the package. From top to bottom, From Russia With Love gives us the rest of what makes the classic 007 films so much fun. The dry wit, the gadgets, Q, and the faceless cat-stroking villain, pulling the strings behind the scene. It's hard not to enjoy this movie. Pound for pound it's one of the best of the franchise.

  In this sequel, we have Bond being sent to Istanbul on assignment to steal a top secret decoding device from the Russians. The device is called a 'Lektor', and is actually of little importance to the story, besides the fact that everyone wants it. The whole scenario in reality is a trap set up by SPECTRE to obtain the Lektor, and kill James Bond, exacting revenge for the demise of their operative Dr.No. Of course 007 is wise to the face not everything is as it seems. He partners up with his ally in Istanbul, and with the help of a young and beautiful Russian intelligence clerk begins to work out the details of acquiring the Lektor. A simple task made excruciatingly difficult by assassins, explosions, and endless shootouts.

  The movie doesn't skimp in the action department. From a guns-blazing enemy raid on a gypsy camp where Bond is hiding, to a high-speed climactic (and explosive) boat chase, the movie delivers thrill after thrill. It also takes us to fantastic locations as well, including secret underground canals, a great set piece on the Orient Express, the vibrant and colorful Gypsy camp, and the wonderfully eye-catching streets of Istanbul itself. Which were shot on location I believe. And of course, Sean Connery's Bond glides through the movie with confidence and swagger, dispensing punches and bullets as he sees fit. The guy is a balls-to-bone brawler. He doesn't fight with the calculated precision and learned skill of some of the later Bonds. He fights like he learned on the streets. I think it adds something to the character. Whether or not it was a conscious thing they did, or just something Connery brought to the role, it's a fantastic little touch.

  I don't want to say these movies invented the spy genre, but it sure sensationalized it. James Bond became not only the archetype for secret agents, but the standard... and it was movies like this that helped him get there. The worst thing From Russia With Love could've done is tried to replicate the precise formula of Dr.No. Another tropical setting, another ominous villain in an underground lair, et cetera et cetera... Instead, they stuck reasonably close to the source material, and produced another great adventure that takes us to a very different corner of the world, forsaking palm trees and bikinis for cobblestone streets and cold war espionage. As much as the blue skies and sandy beaches suit the aesthetic of an ideal James Bond movie, so does a setting like this. Though that's not to say it's without it's own host of wonderful characters.

  Not the least of which is Bond's charismatic ally, Karim Bey. As resourceful as he is hospitable, the movie wouldn't be as much fun to watch without him. He certainly makes an impression and ends up being a real memorable character. To be a memorable secondary character in a franchise that has 24 installments is no small feat. Karim Bey, and his many sons are great. Loyal allies to Bond, and interesting to watch, From Russia With Love is all the richer for it. It also wouldn't be as classic if it wasn't for the trademark henchman, Red Grant. Lackey to the sinister Rosa Klebb, Grant follows Bond around the entire movie, watching and stalking him from the shadows. His presence is felt throughout, even when we don't see him. By the time Bond and him meet face to face, the tension is beyond palpable. Grant sets the bar high for any possible successors in the villainous henchman department. He's smart, strong, and ruthless, but he too feels like a well rounded character. Which is fantastic because his is the sort of character that could've easily wound up with a personality not unlike a brick wall.

  The weak link for me is the 'Bond girl', Tatiana Romanova, played by Daniela Bianchi. I understand how some might like her, but she's a drag.  A doe eyed damsel in distress who falls madly in love with James Bond. She doesn't seem like the type that would take it very well when she finds out that he doesn't really care about her, and he'll move on to another three women before the week is up. I understand the need for a female counterpoint to Bond in these movies. Whether it be a damsel in distress or a more capable woman, more his equal. But Tatiana is a stock character. There's nothing exactly groundbreaking or even interesting about her. She fawns over Bond the entire movie, and does little else. The only moment in which she's really required to do anything comes at the very end. Which is a shame because the role her character filled could've been brilliantly tweaked to straddle the line between femme fatale and damsel in distress. As it is, all we have is a damsel in distress, and not a very interesting one at that. She's about as engaging as a fangirl or a groupie, following their idol around for a week.

  On the flip side, she's not bad enough to bring the movie down either. She's just a fixture, little else. Which is fine because there's so much else going on regardless, there's no time to really stop and think about her. The movie clicks along at an even faster pace than Dr.No which is actually very welcome, but somehow it never feels quite as alive. There was an energy to Dr.No which to this day allows it to edge out as my favorite Bond movie ever. Maybe it was the newness of it, maybe it was the setting, or the villain. I don't know. It could be any one of a hundred things that From Russia With Love doesn't have, but that's not to say From Russia With Love doesn't have it's own incorrigible likability. It's a great action movie, and a great James Bond movie. A solid entry in the franchise which is as memorable as it is exciting. It's set pieces are immediately recognizable, and it's characters unforgettable. I have a feeling I'm going to run out of adjectives before I reach the end of the Connery era. Yet as the credits roll, they tell us that James Bond will return in "Goldfinger", and I too will return, with my review of "Goldfinger".

Saturday, November 15, 2014

A Fantastic Start


  For my 400th post, I'm pleased to kick off my 007 marathon with a review on the first ever James Bond film, the  undeniably classic... Dr.No. I've seen this movie several times, but my first encounter with it was on ABC when I was 7 or 8 years old. It was the movie of the week I believe, and I didn't catch the whole thing, but what I saw was simply entrancing. It wasn't the quickest paced movie for a kid who's attention span was catered to by the likes of Power Rangers and Star Wars. However, even back then, there was something captivating about Dr.No. Sean Connery's James Bond glided through the movie with uncanny grace under pressure and a suave yet steely resolve. It certainly left an impression on eight year old me. Yet it wasn't just one thing. It was also the vibrant colors, the massive sets, the architecture of the villain's lair, the tropical setting... It was all top shelf escapist fantasy. It didn't need a breakneck pace or non-stop action. It still doesn't.

  I'm glad to report that it holds up better than one might think, especially in the face of the modern 007 with it's tightly edited, faster paced, and far more brutal sensibilities.  Dr.No wasn't a slouch either. For those who would say it has languid pacing, I would ask them "Where?". Right as the film starts, a trio of seemingly blind beggars turn out to be ruthless hitmen, killing a man and whisking his body away immediately. It kicks off the movie with a bang, and it rarely lets up from there. Providing of course you're not expecting an action thriller that moves like one today would. It was a movie made in a very different era and by a different set of standards. Even so, it's fairly action packed, and at times toes the line between action and violence.
There's a classic scene in which Bond corners a man who was sent to kill him, the man tries to shoot him but his gun is out of bullets. Bond makes a quip, and shoots him dead in cold blood. It's a chilling scene regardless of what era you're in.

  The movie clicks along at it's own pace, recognizing that Bond is a secret agent, not a soldier or an assassin. If this were a movie about soldiers or assassins, I'd expect something entirely else. As it is, James Bond is sent to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of a fellow agent, and from the get-go runs into all kinds of trouble. Assassins, traitors, femme fatales, poisonous spiders, and all this is before we even get to Dr.No's island fortress in time for the climax. The film is a bit rough around the edges, overly eager in it's execution sometimes. Certain music cues run too long and spill over into the next scene quite needlessly, or certain shots feel way too short, but this was the first James Bond movie. Everyone saw the bigger picture, and without this fantastic starting point we wouldn't have the more refined movies that followed. I do think that this roughness is also part of the appeal to Dr.No. It still feels a bit fresh. Hot off the presses, if you will.
 
  None of Bond's cliches really even exist yet. It's just as raw as say... Casino Royale. There's no Q yet, no real gadgets, and Bond is seen really thinking his way through situations, not just magically knowing what to do, as it would end up in some of the later movies. Bond is much more of a brawler here, though of course that could be said about Sean Connery's take on the character in general. Speaking of Connery as Bond, he's the top dog in a cast full of entertaining and vibrant characters that feel pulled right off the page of a thrilling spy novel.  You have the American CIA agent, Felix Leiter, the local boatman, Quarrel, the beauty hidden away from the world, Honey Rider, and of course the eponymous Dr.No. The actors bringing these characters to life couldn't have been better cast. Even though makeup prosthetic was used on actor Joseph Wiseman to make him look slightly more Chinese, it manages to be less noticeable and less offensive than the same methods used on another peripheral character earlier in the film.

  Wiseman ends up being absolutely fantastic as the villain of the movie, seeming like he'd been playing this role for a long time in a well established franchise. He is instantly recognizable, not just as a villain, but as a Bond villain. When you finally see him, you can see how he clearly set the bar for all future Bond villains. His performance instituted the formula for what makes a good nemesis in this universe. He doesn't even need to be seen for the first 3/4ths of the movie. His assassins do his bidding throughout the movie, upping the body count every chance they can, building Dr.No up to a very ominous and all-seeing status. By the time he has any direct onscreen role to play, it's just his voice. It's a chilling scene, and incredibly effective.   Dr.No is one of my all time favorite villains, not only of the franchise, but in general. As simple as the concepts were bringing him to life and to the big screen, I don't think I'd have it any other way.

  Of course, there are plenty of things about this movie that would clash with modern audiences. The 60's was a very different time and as much as Ursula Andress brought Honey Rider to life with a fiery and independent personality, most of the women in Dr.No were little more than decorative objects. They're all attractive, and moreover they're all attracted to James Bond. It's played up to an extent that at times, it comes off as hokey. Even in later movies in the franchise. I never got over that. One girl, two girls yeah. But random peripheral characters? Waitresses? Receptionists? Every single female? Perhaps Q branch developed some sort of double-o pheromone for Bond. This early in the series, that seems more likely, as Connery was still working on the finer points of the character's charisma and charm. He's suave, but he's also a bit of a thug. Which of course, isn't a bad thing here.

  I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about the last quarter of the movie all by itself. When Bond finally gets to Dr.No's fortress island, things really kick off. Bond, Rider, and Quarrel try to escape No's soldiers and run into all kinds of harrowing situations. Of course, all is for naught when they're eventually captured and taken inside the underground complex. The complex is massive, seemingly. It has a decontamination area, laboratories, an ornate and flamboyant dining hall, which seems to double as a trophy room no less, and a whole wing that seems like a floor of a five star hotel. The sets are gigantic, lavish and colorful. They are perfectly suited to the larger than life performance by Wiseman as Dr. Julius No. It's a fantastic setting for Bond and No to match wits and brawl with for the explosive finale. Bond has to sabotage the facility before No and his scientists can execute their plan, and as per usual, in trademark 007 fashion, it's quite thrilling.

  I can't help but fall in love with this movie every time I see it. It's classic escapist fantasy.  It's because of this movie that we think of villains as hiding out in underground fortresses and having huge wall-sized aquariums, and the like. Many subsequent Bond movies, and even movies that had nothing to do with 007, took a page from Dr.No when it came to creating their villains. Despite the fact he barely has 10 minutes of screentime, Wiseman's Dr.No is the real star of this movie. Without him, without that island fortress, this movie would've been worse off. Maybe even a total waste of time. Connery is great as Bond, but a hero is only as good as his villain. I've said it before, the success of a 007 movie lies in whether or not you can market the movie around the villain, and people would still want to see it. With a character as ruthless, enigmatic, and larger than life as Dr.No... you can't go wrong. Dr.No manages to not only be one of the best James Bond movies in a 24 movie franchise, but it's one of my personal favorites as well.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Slimefest!


  I was thoroughly surprised I had not seen this before. Right off the bat it combines some of my favorite things of all time. The 80's, horror, science fiction, practical effects, and the R rating.  Oh boy. Not only is this movie better than I thought it would be, I think it's a prime example of how amazing remakes can be. This holds up right next to John Carpenter's The Thing. In fact, they'd make a fantastic double feature. It's worth noting that this movie would not have the same impact made nowadays. The blob itself would more likely than not be made using CGI. Part of what makes this movie amazing is the practical effects. Each one looking painfully realistic in a way that CGI has yet to capture entirely. The Blob is a good movie, with a smart script and even some timely humor- but it's special effects are the real attraction here.

  Of course all the special effects in the world are moot if you can't care about the characters. The characters in The Blob may be basic archetypes, but the actors playing them infuse a lot of personality and authenticity into the roles. They're residents of a Norman Rockwell-esque town where the football players date the cheerleaders, the kids sneak out to horror movies, and the town rebel is always in trouble with the sheriff. It's endearing, and I think that goes a long way towards making these characters effective. We can't help but care about them. On the same train of thought, something I think this movie does well is toy with your expectations of who's going to live or die. Surely he'll live. He's an important character. Oh. Well. Not anymore I guess. You really can't predict who's gonna buy it, when, or how. The gooey slime blob is the only common denominator. Each death scene is unique and extremely cool. I can't stress that enough.

  The effects are amazingly impressive. Normally I can not only spot 80's special effects, I can tell you exactly how they were made at little more than a glance. I've seen way too many 'making of's'. Yet the effects in The Blob are just mindblowingly good. They're extremely gross and gory and it's wonderful. The blob itself is a true antagonist here. It feels like the slasher in a slasher movie, but amazingly it has far more personality and the sense of danger is much higher. Due in no small part to the movie's explanation of it's origins. Yes, it is from outer space, but the twist is... mankind put it in outer space. It's a man-made biological weapon that they've decided to unleash on this small town for a test run. Even without this plot, it would've been a scary enough movie, but the notion that our own government is behind it, is just downright terrifying. Not to mention probably more relevant than even in the current social climate reacting to things like drone strikes and privacy acts.

  The story is effective and haunting in that regard. A malicious space entity is bad enough, but one that was intentionally set on innocent people by their own government? That's the true horror here. Scary as hell too. It's a warm and fuzzy concept that in times of trouble we can turn to and rely on our own government to help us, as a people, as an individual. Even though a movie like this is just a fluffy piece of sci-fi/horror matinee it's the idea that a concept like that is dangerous. Under the light of a movie like The Blob, it's shown that the government very easily views its citizens like lab rats. The idea is so scary because it's probably very true. Maybe not every facet of our government, but when they show up in unmarked vans and carrying automatic weapons... you know you're screwed. Who can you turn to for help? The answer, or the lack thereof is truly disturbing.

  So despite being a fairly basic horror movie, in concept at least, it's still pretty thought provoking. There is still a hero, a damsel in distress, a bad guy, and the general theme of having to save the town, so it's not exactly high-concept stuff here, but it works on just about every level. I gotta fault them for one thing though... when the military rolls in to try and contain the blob, they're hellbent on killing it with fire and explosives. This doesn't work. At all. The protagonist discovers however that it's the cold it can't stand. It's fatal to the blob. Why did the military scientists not know this? They created the damn thing. You mean to tell me they had no idea how to stop it? One scientists points out that at the rate it's growing, it could over take the entire country in a week. The chief scientist assures him that they know what they're doing. Yeah right! Bullshit! In my opinion, that was pretty lazy writing. Especially from a script that otherwise is pretty smart.

  Nevertheless, as the blob it oozes it's way under every door, and into every vent, the suspense builds and builds, and so does the body count in. It's infectious fun. There's no denying that. When all is said and done, you can't go wrong with this movie. From the pacing to the music and the casting... it's all great. I had a few nits to pick, but it's hardly worth the effort when the movie itself is so good. I'd love to own it, I can easily see it becoming a favorite. Which is saying something because I'm not easy when it comes to letting new movies onto my favorites' list. The Blob might be a serious contender for a spot though. With it's smashingly cool special effects to it's irresistibly likeable cast, it's hard not to fall in love with this gory 80's slimefest. One can only imagine what the Ghostbusters would've done, confronted with this pink slime. I don't think playing Jackie Wilson would've worked this time.

It's morphin' time!


  I can't hold back the five year old kid inside me whenever someone mentions Power Rangers. I want to do an epic slow motion back-flip complete with the trademark "HI-YAH!" but alas, nobody is going to cue theme music for my embarrassing misfire of a flip. These color coded teens on the other hand, they still got it. The history of the Power Rangers franchise is a very interesting one. It originated in japan under a different name entirely. The hit kids TV show of 1993, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was in fact spliced together from an altogether different show called Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger. The show had a very different story, different characters, and a different tone. In America, they mined usable footage and assembled a new cast to film new stories and plots. Thus Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was born. I'm skipping a few details here and there, but I'm getting to a point...

  Part of the appeal of the show, in retrospect, was the cheesiness of it. It's very hard to take brightly colored guys in spandex fighting big hokey looking rubber monsters seriously. Yet... it had that trademark Japanese craziness to it and somehow it just worked. It was great. It defined many an afternoon of my childhood. Imagine my wide eyed surprise as a little brat when I finally discovered they made a Power Rangers movie. This was big leagues stuff. The rangers no longer wore the shiny spandex suits. They had armor! Hollywood crafted Lycra armor, but still. This stuff was serious business! There was a big movie with the Power Rangers, they had legitimate outfits, a new villain, new zords, and tons of new special effects! What's not to love? As a kid this movie was without flaw.
I loved every line (and probably knew them by heart too) and every silly fight scene.

  Now that I'm older, obviously it holds a special place in my heart... but I realized something at some point. This was an American movie. No Japanese footage at all. This movie had nothing from the show's Japanese counterpart. Watching it now... I think part of the appeal inherent to Power Rangers is absent from this movie. It's a piece of nostalgia in it's own right, but it's not the same as watching the show. For one, the fight choreography (after they're morphed) isn't as good, and the crazy hokey aspect is gone. The movie tries to be taken as seriously as possible. Even going to far as to cutting franchise mainstays (and comic relief) Bulk and Skill down to just a minuscule handful of scenes. Not that I'm complaining about that. Those two were never above groan worthy. Yet if they had been entirely absent... I would've had to complain about it. It's not Mighty Morphin Power Rangers until Bulk and Skull make asses out of themselves.

  Alas, you have to meet this movie on it's level. It is a kid's movie. For better or worse, despite all the "serious business" it's still not meant to be taken all that serious. It functions as well as can be expected without the charm of the Japanese footage. Your enjoyment of the movie will hinge on how much you like the cast of Rangers and how much you dig those Lycra armor suits. The floppy rubber monster suits are gone, the ridiculous mini-Tokyo looking cityscapes are gone, the spontaneous explosions behind the Rangers are gone, and I mean... I could go on. This movie from the ground up is American. You're either cool with that, or you're just... not. I think I am. I accept it at the very least. I don't think there's any situation in which I couldn't accept it, seeing as how it was such a gigantic part of my childhood.

  It should go without saying that objectively, this movie is bad. Really bad. The story barely holds itself together, the dialog is frequently flat and ridiculous, and the fight choreography is... adequate. For a kid's movie. I'll be a nice guy and not talk about the extremely dated CGI effects. At the same time, I don't think anyone who's seen an episode of the show expected anything else from this movie. It was destined for a low score and a critical lashing. That's Power Rangers though. It's all about the exaggerated karate yells, the ridiculously high back-flips, the cheesiest one-liners, and the well worn catchphrases.  I've said it before, and I'll say it again, when the Rangers are all suited up... kicking ass, and spouting silly one-liners, saving the day in all six colors... I'm in love with this movie and I'm five years old all over again. No matter how bad this movie is, the five year old kid inside me loves it, and I hope he always will.

  The movie also has an amazing villain. Ivan Ooze. A villain couched in self awareness and sarcasm. He's great. Ooze transcends the trappings of a kid's movie and delivers line after line of witty dialog that it would be impossible to appreciate at such a young age. Like every single villain from the TV show, he's been locked away in a 'hyperlock chamber' for thousands of years or something. When he finally gets to confront the one who put him there, he starts angrily recounting all the things he's missed, which include The Black Plague, The Spanish Inquisition, and... the Brady Bunch reunion.  I love Ivan Ooze. He's a smartly written villain fully of sly nods for the older audience. A demographic I finally fit into... wow.

  All in all it's exactly what you'd expect. It's a shiny, epic, 90 minute superhero romp complete with all six colors, high-flying stunts, spin-kicks, bells, whistles, and beepy-gadgets one could hope for. I love it. It might not deserve that love, but since when does nostalgia discriminate? The moment you can no longer enjoy your childhood favorites, at least on a guilty pleasure level of nostalgia, then you've truly lost something. What's worse is that you may not even realize you've lost it. Such a shame. But you know what's not a shame? Enjoying Mighty Morphin Power Rangers The Movie. It's morphin' time!

Friday, October 17, 2014

A Should-be Classic!


  The Beast Within is one of those movies that feels a lot older than it is, which is saying a lot seeing as how it was made over three decades ago. It feels like a black and white horror movie from the 50's or so. The way it opens, with a creepy swamp monster, shrouded in shadow, attacking a woman in the woods in the dead of night... It's terrifying and creepy. It's also reserved, the scene ends up being less about what you see and more about what you don't. A lesson horror movies forgot for a while. The movie's story is very un-fifties though. The creature doesn't just attack the woman. It knocks her out cold and rapes her. Of course, the movie's plot asks you to maintain the suspension of disbelief that she wouldn't get an abortion. It tries to make this as plausible as possible, but if you can't get over that hurdle, you won't get into the movie. Which would be a shame because this twisted piece of 80's cinema needs more fans.

  The main plot picks up 17 years after that fateful night and follow's the woman's teenage son, Michael, as he's going through some very strange changes... The movie has a strange rhythm to it and at first I was unsure where it was going. Hell, at first I think it was unsure where it was going. Nevertheless, it found it's groove after a short while and went straight to work crafted a twisted supernatural revenge tale. I'm not sure I followed any of it, it gets pretty convoluted at times, but you can it follow from one scene to the next. The key elements that are necessary for a movie like this to work, really work. The suspense is raw and the scares are genuine. The atmosphere is properly haunting and unnerving and the main protagonists are very endearing. Michael's parents love him, and the family dynamic is very heartfelt. Ronny Cox, who's always a delight to see playing a good guy, is a real treat as Michael's father. I'm not familiar with the actress playing his Mother, but she does a great job too.

  His parents try to avoid the fact that Michael may not be his father's son, and "might" in fact belong to that swamp monster man instead. As people start turning up dead in the town in which Michael is staying in a hospital at, his parents are forced to try and dig into the past to uncover the truth about that monstrous man-thing. Then apparently there's something about the cicada bugs...? It was almost an afterthought it seems, but both the monster man and Michael have something in common with the bug, including but not limited to shedding their skin. Which is a great icky effect, the aftermath of which is shown to us in the last act in all it's gory glory. The special effects in this movie are pretty great for it's time. I love seeing practical effects in movies because they took real craftsmanship to come to life. Someone had to design the effect with their bare hands. There's an authentic feel to this stuff that you'll never get with computer generated effects.

  No matter how dated or silly some of these effects look, they're still scary because they exist within the same tangible space as the actors around them who are reacting to it. It's quite shocking and visceral. The movie saves the big special effects for the climax, but that's not to say Michael himself isn't already a scary dude. He plays the tortured teen bit quite well. He clearly loves his family, but the 'beast within' is ready to split some heads open. Which it does. The movie feels like a werewolf movie, but it's not. It's closer to a Dr.Jekyll/Mr.Hyde situation, and actor Paul Clemens, playing Michael, dives into the role with gusto. Playing both the sadistic murdering beast, and the innocent teen, he does great. Able to generate tension in a room with little more than a glare.

  As the beast starts to take over, Clemens performance gets wilder and crazier and it's awesome. The film starts dropping clues that Michael is simply part of a much bigger cycle that's going to end up perpetuating itself, violently... and soon.  The Beast Within excels when the movie operates on it's most basic level, having Michael, tortured as he is, hunt down his prey. Sometimes we don't see the kill, but we see the aftermath. Which... in this case is more than enough. Fret not gore hounds, the practical effects of the 80's are indeed put to good use right in front of your eyes and in plenty of standout moments too. Not the least of which is a shocking scene when Michael, in full-on beast mode aims to get at one of his last victims... who's "safely" tucked away in a prison cell.

  Plenty of these movies degenerate into a very basic slasher flick formula, and you end up having to enjoy it on very basic levels, but The Beast Within makes every effort to rise above that and deliver a unique experience, if anything. It's not the be-all, end-all of 80's horror flicks, but it has the right combination of elements to put the eeriness into a midnight horror flick. Instead of watching something you've seen a hundred times this Halloween season, why not give this one a chance instead? I'm glad I did, and I'm glad I added it to my personal collection. There's always something to be said for a proper creep-out, The Beast Within succeeds with flying colors despite it's strange story and muddled plot. It makes for a weird but fun late night horror flick, I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

An Epic Effort


  There's much to love and hate about Rage honestly. If it was a movie, this would be a guilty pleasure. As it is, Rage is a breezy little game with eye popping visuals, well crafted game mechanics, and a weak story. It's not just the weak story that kicks Rage in the pants though. Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas both have had weak stories. They're still two of the best video games I've ever played. No, the problem here is that the whole game is riding on the story. In the Fallout games, you could explore and discover and craft your own little world in a way. There were choices, and your choices had consequences. The story in the Fallout games was hardly even the main focus. It was merely a vehicle to have you tour the massive world it had waiting for you. You knew, going along with the story, that there was even more to see- it encouraged you to go out and find new places and things. Rage does almost the opposite in every single way.

  Rage isn't an expansive game, and although it's "technically" sandbox, you'd be forgiven for thinking it wasn't. There's nothing to really explore. Everything there is to see and find is explored through the main story. There isn't anything off the beaten path. It's a restrictive game when all is said and done. It teases you with a massive world to explore and discover, but you'll never find an area that isn't crucial to the ongoing story. The maps are confined and the key locations are just spaced far enough from each other in order for you to have driving sequences back and forth. You feel like your hands are tied. It's such a tease. Looting isn't really a thing in this game either. You collect stuff to sell but it's a half baked mechanic that got to me later on. Same thing for plenty of things you have to do in this game. The missions feel like menial tasks, and all in all... they are. You go someplace to get something, you kill a bunch of enemies, you return when said task is done. Repeat 50 times. Game complete.

  Having said that, it doesn't mean it's not fun.  Shooting in this game is really satisfying. From a company that made their fame on the quintessential shooter game, Doom, I expected nothing less from them. They've introduced some nice new shooting mechanics as well. All in all, it's exciting and thrilling to play. The sound effects are meaty and the weapon models are slick. You'll find yourself thinking of Doom 3, but clearly way more refined. I was really tempted to load up Doom 3 here and there whilst playing Rage. The fantastic locales keep you glued to Rage though. Every place you go to in the game seems to be crafted with a lot of care. These little towns are full of personality and are really interesting and fun to walk around in and interact with the people, however limited said interactions might be. Visually, these places pop. From the dusty and rusty post apocalyptic stylings of Wellspring, to the subterranean cyberpunk neon flair of Subway Town. All these locations are fun to visit. Even though in the end there's not all that much to do there.

  The racing is fun if it's something you want to do. However, all too often do you find yourself having to race to buy necessary upgrades for your vehicle. It ends up being stressful. You've thousands of dollars to spend, but you can't buy vehicle parts with money, you need racing certificates. It ends up being a quick and easy way to shoehorn another painfully basic game feature in there. Racing. I raced only when I had to because it wasn't particularly fun or unique. It wasn't awful, and it felt like less of a chore because it was fairly easy... but I beat the game without trying a fraction of the races available. If there were lots of side missions, I probably didn't finish them either. The game shuttles you along from one point to the next with some odd interactivity. Sometimes I didn't know if I had actually completed a mission or not. It was largely frustrating.
No more frustrating than the lack of stuff to do, so I can't level it as a serious complaint since checking my missions list from the select button quickly resolved that.

  The visuals of Rage tend to be absolutely fantastic, though sometimes only in theory. You can see the big sprawling post apocalyptic landscapes, and it's really impressive. Even after playing the Fallout games. They've done a lot to pack a lot of visually interesting things into this game. Never is it dull looking at Rage. It's always full of fascinating things. Frustratingly though, the game has serious issues with loading textures. The impressive scenery will often be marred by textures that take their sweet time to load. By the time they do, you're probably 500 bullets into a big four way vehicular deathmatch with some ill-fated bandits. The spotty reliability of the textures actually loading in the bigger environments really take you out of the game. Which sucks, because when it looks pretty, it looks really damn pretty.

Thankfully the towns are so full of personality and brimming with fantastic detail and visual nuance, you tend to overlook the texture issues.On the flip side, all the neat stuff to look at in the town is just that- stuff you can only look at. In stark contrast to the Fallout games, walking through the towns in Rage is often like walking through a museum where the exhibits can recite prerecorded lines in your general direction. Regardless of all this, when you're in the throes of blasting away mutants and tossing wingsticks (like triple bladed boomerangs) at bandits the game is not only fun, it's ridiculously fun and addicting. I found thoroughly enjoying the game when it was like this. I couldn't get enough of the gloriously gory shootouts that take place in the craziest looking places. It's a much more atmospheric game than those of it's immediate ilk. It's playing the straight man to games like Borderlands, being somewhat of a mid-point between the ideas of Fallout, Gears of War and the simplicity of Borderlands. Yet it manages to be sub par in most ways to all of those games.

  At it's best, it's a great freakin' shoot 'em up. At it's worse, it's a lackluster story that's barely worth mentioning or critiquing because it can't be bothered to be immersive enough or emotional enough to make you care. It manages to unimaginatively rip off everything it has from the Mad Max franchise to The Terminator and beyond. Yet at the same time, the characters you interact with are so much fun. Even if they're all derivative. There's hardly an original idea anywhere in Rage, and the recycled ones only work half of the time. YET that's 50/50. That's not bad. I've seen extremely well polished games that can't elicit a single critical thought from me at all and end up being a waste of time honestly. Namely, anything with the words "Call" and "Duty" in the title. So in that light, Rage was not only worth playing, it might be worth replaying- but I wouldn't hold my breath on the latter.

  The biggest complaint I can level at Rage is that it was too friggin simple. It was simple, short, and easy. It didn't involve me in any significant way, and I was left wanting a lot more. It would've been better as a level by level shooter, and not as a half baked sandbox game. Having said all that, the game tries to be something amazing. You can see it too. In it's best moments, you get completely lost in the game and it's wonderful. There are enough glimpses of greatness that I can recommend playing it. Don't expect anything fancy, and you should have fun. For it's current four dollar price tag at GameStop, it's hardly a waste of money. I've bought superfluous DLC packs that cost me more money and gave me less content for worse games than this. Rage is short and simple, but it can be really sweet and fun if you let it. If you never play it, you won't be missing all that much, but it's a nice companion piece to games like Bulletstorm and Borderlands. Regardless of your opinions on this game, or those, at least we can all agree Duke Nukem: Forever sucked balls.

They're baaack!


  Admittedly, I'm a late bloomer when it comes to horror movies. Most of my friends were into horror movies at a very young age, but not me. I was a kid out of time. Growing up in the 90's, but fed a steady diet of 80's sci-fi/adventure. I grew up on Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and the like. So it's only been the past few years I've been digging into horror. Nonetheless, it looks like I've been making up for lost time seeing as how I only saw the first Poltergeist just last year. What better time to catch up on some horror sequels than October? Falling right in line with one of my favorite hobbies, VHS collecting, I happened upon some swank old big boxes of Poltergeist and Poltergeist II at a local Salvation Army. I was beyond ecstatic, because as you all well know, I was extremely fond of the first movie. It was time to settle back in with the Freeling family.

  Given that both director Tobe Hooper and producer Steven Spielberg were absent in every way from this sequel, it gave me pause. Rarely is this ever a good sign. Yet, just about the entire cast returned. Certainly everyone that mattered. I was excited, but cautious. I really loved the first one, and I knew there was more than a good chance this one would suck... but I was going to go ahead anyways. Well, I wasn't disappointed in the least. Poltergeist II was a surprising little treat that serves as a nice followup to the first movie. Like I mentioned, everyone's back!  Nobody got recast or replaced. It helped to preserve that tight-knit feeling. Had the family been broken up, it wouldn't have worked.

  The first movie took it's time becoming horror. It evolved into something scary, despite it's ominous feeling from the get-go. There were moments of sheer spectacle that were nothing short of awesome, in the most literal and faithful sense. The family dealt with what came their way and it was epic. In Poltergeist II, there's no real build up like that. Not that I expected it of course, we already know what we're in for. And if we're lucky and the filmmakers delivered on the basic promise of a sequel, we get more of the same. To a certain extent, that's exactly what sequels are all about.  In that case, this sequel delivered. They didn't try to duplicate the scares of the first movie, or the pacing, or even the innocent suburban vibe.  They cut straight to the chase, more or less.

  The movie has it's own rhythm, but from the beginning scary and mystical things are happening. We're introduced to a couple new characters, one the chief antagonist, and the other a protector/guide of sorts for the Freelings. The spirits they picked up back in Cuesta Verde had no intentions of leaving them alone after they moved apparently. Given that Carol Anne can communicate with "the other side", they found a connection to life again. No way they were about to give up so easily. That's 'basically' the notion behind this one. It's not bad either, I dig it. The inclusion of a direct protagonist was a neat move as well. An evil spirit incarnate, stage actor Julian Beck breathes 'life' into the creepy and unsettling character, giving a face to the horrors the Freelings must face this time around.

  All the actors are fantastic, the new additions and the returning cast alike. Craig T. Nelson is still irresistibly fun to watch in his wide eyed portrayal as the dad, Steven Freeling. He has a very middle-class sensibility about him. Clearly, he'll do whatever necessary to save his family, but at the same time he has this look cemented on his face that simply screams: "I can't believe a damn thing I'm seeing." He's fun, because he's relatable. That's exactly how anybody would react. He nails that look and the whole attitude. He's a regular dad with a nice family that just so happens to be plagued by evil spirits. Of course, he does what he has to do to keep his family alive, but as the movie elaborates, it's his 'destiny'. So to speak.  More than anything, Nelson is a definite highlight of both movies.

  Enough can't be said about the wonderful Heather O'Rourke, who was taken from us much too soon. She's absolutely fantastic as Carol Anne. A perfect blend of childlike intuition and innocence. She's able to keep up with all the other actors in the film, and even stealing the scene as often as possible. Make no mistake though, it's very much an ensemble movie. It wouldn't be complete with the whole family as a unit. Which is part of why I suspect Poltergeist III wasn't as well received, I've not seen it yet, but I know that Carol Anne is the only returning cast member.  The chemistry between these actors are fantastic. Any 'franchise' they had planned was doomed the moment they split that up. Any movie can give you evil spirits and special effects. Poltergeist was special. It was a whole family under siege. It was that relatable dynamic which made the movie so much more intense.

  That same dynamic returns for Poltergeist II, along with some stunning special effects, and plenty of scares. The movie, like the first, isn't just horror. It's a blend of horror and adventure. There's a good guy, a bad guy, and the battlefield just happens to be burial grounds and creepy old houses. There's much fun to be had between the first two movies. The sequel plays out like a serviceable 'part 2', it's not as big or as grand as the first, and it's even a little shorter, but it's still a lot of fun. There's hardly any drawbacks to returning to visit the Freeling family as they're thrust into chaos once again. The movie isn't as polished as it's predecessor, but the filmmakers preserved the feel of it, so they get the brownie points for a job well done.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Woah...


  Woah. Zack Parker's Proxy is one to watch out for. In both meanings. Keep an eye out for it, and be wary of it just as much. It's not an easy movie to watch. It goes into sacred territory, thematically, and starts screwing around. It's not quite like any other movie I've ever seen. It's confident in the way it casts aside conventional storytelling structure to deliver a wholly mind boggling movie. You could follow every subtle cue, pay attention to every single twist and plot turn, but it wouldn't matter because Proxy doesn't care. It's biggest shocking moments are things that have stepped entirely outside of the plot. It's impossible to see these moments coming. Each one drastically changes the landscape of the story, tossing all your predictions and expectations to the wind.

  The movie suffers from it just as much as it benefits. Having these drastic shocking things happen almost out of the blue can either frustrate an audience, or intrigue it. If you're looking for atmosphere, character, suspense, and pure shock value- this is the movie for you. If you're looking for a coherent story and conventional scares... look elsewhere. Proxy gets under your skin by letting you think you know how things are. It lets you think you know what's going on. But there's a nagging feeling you haven't seen all the cards, and no matter how many more end up being revealed... Proxy is still hiding more from you. It does get to a point where the twists stop making any sort of conventional sense. But not because they're random, because there's probably yet another piece to the puzzle we're missing.

  Considering how the movie is, it's not hard to wonder if you'll ever see the whole picture. I can't say either way, but I was strangely satisfied with the conclusion. Something you really shouldn't expect from this movie, is horror. It's a very disturbing movie for sure, but it's a very slow and methodical film at the same time. It lulls you into a false sense of security before things go very very wrong. It's hard to discuss this movie at all without giving away some of the things that make it great. So I'll try to refrain from over-reviewing it, and stick to the facts of the matter. Is it a good movie? I wish I had a definitive answer. It feels experimental in nature, but not to any avant garde extreme. It's engaging and endlessly engrossing, but it violates so many basic rules of storytelling that I can't in good conscious say it's precisely good either.

  Is it worth watching? I do wholeheartedly believe so. It's really unconventional and interesting in very unexpected ways. The lead characters are incredibly well acted. They bring the movie to life with gusto, proving to be willing pawns on a blood stained chessboard. The movie is lurid and depressing at best, but it's in this depression that it also manages to be inspired. It's a movie about loss, pain, recovery, insanity, forbidden love, and violence. It's as much about what's said as it is about what's not said. Which in this movie, is incredibly important. The cast is fantastic, even if a few members are shortchanged of any significant screentime, I felt they got their due throughout.

  I feel that there was a bigger goal with Proxy, that maybe it was originally going to be something else. There's enough crazy and madness here for a few different movies. Yet Parker has wove them all together with a deft hand, crafting a surreal and shocking tale that I won't soon forget.  See it. You may or may not regret it, but I warn you... it is violent. Brace yourself. It's crazy, emotional, dark, slow, sad, and bloody. I've never been so engrossed in such a languid and sordid affair like this before.  I normally try to hold myself to a six paragraph minimum when reviewing a movie, but there's simply nothing else I can address without spoiling this movie I'm already recommending to you.