Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Truly Cool


  Simply put, this is one of the coolest animated movies I've ever seen, right up there with Wizards and Heavy Metal. It also happens to be one of the few animated movies that explains why all the characters are anthropomorphized (animal looking). It's set "after the war" so basically this movie is also a post-apocalyptic tale. On top of that, it's also a love (via rock n' roll) conquers all tale. Damn, can this get any better? It sure can. The animation is fantastic. This is classic Disney quality stuff. It could easily contend with any other animated movie of the day. I'd take one traditionally animated movie like this over 50 more modern CGI cartoon movies anyday.

  When all is said and done, Rock & Rule works so well not just because of it's amazing soundtrack, or it's great animation, it works so well because we like the characters. Small time rocker Omar and his band, consisting of his girlfriend Angel, and their two comic relief buddies are just super endearing. Omar and Angel have palpable onscreen chemistry. It's so easy to get wrapped up in their story and completely forget they're animated. I'd single out the voice work and say it's great (it is) but it's also so much more than that.  Everything just works so well together. The writing, the voice work, and the animation. It all breathes life into these great characters who might have otherwise slipped into cliche. They don't.

  Omar has big dreams, wants to be the biggest rock star ever. Bigger than Mok, who, aside from looking like a demonic blend of Iggy Pop and Mick Jagger, happens to be an evil rock star tyrant who controls everything. I guess being super famous gives you a lot of power, and Mok is the poster boy for that phrase... "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Granted Mok is a great old school villain, evil to the bone and knows it, but... he's a rather 2 dimensional baddie when I felt like he could've been so much deeper. He's a rock star. There's no tiny part of him which remembers his idealistic youth playing out of garage bands and struggling to get a gig? No pure love for rock n' roll? I kept waiting for him to end up being a slightly tortured person, but he's just pure evil.

  However, back to Omar. He's sort of a selfish guy. Well meaning, but selfish. He wants it all, and is willing to sideline his friends to hog the spotlight. Unfortunately for him, his girlfriend isn't just his groupie. She wants it all too, and she's perfectly willing to take the spotlight from him whenever possible. Which is an interesting dynamic and it sets up the ending perfectly. These two have to learn how to share the spotlight, not constantly steal it from each other. You really do get the feeling though that Angel and Omar actually care about each other. Angel is given an opportunity to have "it all" if only she left her friends behind... she turns it down, over and over.

  This is also when the plot kicks in pretty much. See, Mok is so evil he wants to unleash a super-demon on the world. I'm not sure exactly why, I guess it's a big power-trip. But don't most megalomaniacal bad guys like to do stuff like this? Anyways, in order to open the portal so the demon can come through, he needs the a specific voice to sing a specific tune. See? The vocal vibrations are the key... and it just so happens he finds the exact voice he needs in Angel. So after she turns down his advances of money, fame, and power- he just kidnaps her prompting Omar and Co. to come to her rescue. It's a great little story, very uncomplicated, but so much fun.

  Rock & Rule also does a great job playing all of this straight. It's not a musical, but has musical scenes. Omar and his band has a gig at this seedy little place, and we're treated to a couple great songs. Instances like this pop up all over. It never gets Disney on us. Characters don't just spontaneously break into song, prompting gigantic choreographed musical sequences. Those would be very out of place here. Instead, context is key. Everytime the soundtrack takes center stage, it fits the context of the things happening in the plot at any given time.  Great stuff.

  Overall this movie is just... cool. It's a simple movie, but incredibly well made, and surprisingly endearing. Being a fan of the era, the genre, and the music, I can't believe I haven't seen this movie ages ago. It stands out as being far more coherent than Heavy Metal, and manages to infuse rock and roll with the basic 'good vs. evil' themes of Wizards, making it just as awesome if not more than both of those movies. Which is saying a LOT coming from me. I adore Heavy Metal. It's one of my all time favorite movies, period. Animated or not. So, even saying Rock & Rule is on par with it has guaranteed it a spot on my favorites list, which is a pretty hard list to get on to.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Roman Numerals II: The Sequel


  I almost scrapped this entire article when I realized just how long both of the games pictured above had actually been out. Yet, the one thing that stopped me from pressing the 'delete' button, so to speak, was the fact every time I bring up these two money making juggernauts in a comparative way there's never a shortage of impassioned discussion. Saints Row, or Grand Theft? GTA V was well received the world over, making more money on it's opening weekend than any other ga-blah blah blah. We all know. Then there was Saints Row IV, coming out before GTA V to get a jump on things... it was surprisingly well received. I mean, critics liked this game. I really didn't see that coming back then.

  Yet, having finally played both, I'm nothing short of angry about SR:IV. Why? Because of it's lack of innovation. I want to show you this picture right here:

This was obviously made by fans of SR:IV, but lets break this down really quick. It... "adds in a DLC that was originally made for The Third, so that... people wouldn't complain the game is too similar to previous DLC"? I can't... I can't even. So, basically what they're saying is... it carried something over from the third game so people wouldn't complain it was too much like the third game? WHAT?

  Moving on. "Adds in new weapons"... oh. Yeah. Sorry, I totally played the third one and felt the only thing missing was a fucking cheap-shit dubstep gun. "New characters"? Yeah. One. Three if you also count Keith David and a cameo by Roddy Piper. "More enemy types than previous games"? In Saints Row 2, I had to fight the police, the military, The Brotherhood, Sons of Samedi, The Ronin, and Ultor. In Saints Row: The Third, I had to fight the cops, the army, The Luchadores, some hacker guys, and the Morningstar gang- who do you fight in SR:IV? Aliens. That's it. Just Aliens. The same repetitive-ass Aliens for the entire game.

  Paragraph break because my complaints are still going... "65 super power upgrades"... for, about 5 or 6 super powers. That's like upgrading your gun five times. It's not five different guns. It's the same gun, just upgraded. So yeah, lets single out all 65 upgrades, especially the upgrade that lets you glide two seconds longer than the previous upgrade. Wow. Them are some purty big numbers. How about we take that "65" off the table and just say you get like... "some superpowers". Sounds less impressive? It fucking is less impressive. "Multiple homies"? You mean like, the same exact feature from the previous games? Gotcha. "More body customization"? Oh, theres a few new hairstyles! How innovative! NOT.  "More weapon upgrades"? Actually no, there's less. "111 Weapon skins"? What he's not telling you is that about... 100 of them are just sucky palate swaps. "More vehicles"? After 20 minutes into the game, you never need to use another vehicle again because you can super-run across the entire game-map in 2 minutes. (I personally timed that)

  Another paragraph break. I'm going to breeze over the stupidity of whoever made this pointing out the whole "1600 collectibles" thing, because... you know... running around and collecting sixteen hundred identical looking things monotonously for hours and hours is fun. Right. "New activities"? More like, new whatever. These are just copied from missions in the game, so it ends up being super redundant. Boring. "Brings back Gat."

...Okay.
   I'll give you that.

  "Brings back old Shaundi to please Saints Row 2 fans." WAIT A MINUTE. You're either a Saints Row fan- or not. You gotta judge these things unbiasedly. I'm breaking this down to the numbers folks, and whoever made this is separating themselves from the fanbase of the best game in the entire franchise. That alone should be enough to show you how ridiculous this game's staunch defenders are. Not to mention they don't really bring her back. She has a fucking glorified cameo for god's sake. And the whole Keith David thing was a lot more underwhelming in execution than one might think it'd be. It was worth it for a ten minute They Live joke and a NPC holding a sign that says... "I LOVE GOLIATH" (or something). Whatever. "Old upgrade system from Saints Row 2"? No it fucking doesn't. Your weapon upgrades in this game are permanent. You can't un-dual wield once you employ that upgrade. You're stuck. That's just... a straight up lie. Unless I don't know what he's talking about. 

  "Takes you to multiple locations such as Stillwater to satisfy old fans and various other great stuff that"- you'll probably get tired of in a few weeks. But no, let's point out Stillwater. They let you run around one square block of Stillwater (the town from SR2). One. Square. Block. And honestly, not even that. Stillwater in SR2 was ginormous. In the fastest vehicle, it takes you six minutes to get from farthest point to farthest point on that map. (I timed that too) Now, against something like Skyrim that's pretty small, but then in Saints Row IV, the entire game map, setting aside the fact it's the same city you already spent days playing around in, in the previous game... you can now cross the entire map (at roughly the same speed) in TWO MINUTES. It's so small. There's maybe five or ten different pedestrians total, and nothing to really interact with in the city itself.

  Saints Row 2 had spontaneity outside of the story missions. I found a lawyer NPC committing suicide by jumping off a courthouse as I drove by it. I found two goth chicks playing rock paper scissors in the sewer once. I ran into random things like that, and still do, ALL THE TIME in Saints Row 2 (which I still play). That sort of random world occurrence was entirely absent from Saints Row: The Third. So, subsequently, since SR:IV is built on the exact same engine, and set in the same damn city, using the same damn maps and character models... don't hold your breath expecting anything fresh or surprising after the story is complete.
You have less clothing options this time around, virtually nothing to explore, and the game is actually devoid of any original ideas. The plot is Independance Day plus The Matrix. And 99% of all the jokes and laughs to be had, poke fun at pop culture. There's a long running spoof of the Mass Effect games in there too. Which was really funny... for like, two minutes.

  As if the plot being identical to a forced mashup of ID4 and The Matrix wasn't enough, in one part as you escape the alien mothership in a little fighter-ship, the big bay doors start closing in front of you... your character says "Must go faster! Must go faster!"... which as if I needed to explain, was one of Jeff Goldblum's lines in ID4, which... he copied from Jurassic Park. I felt positively guilty even for the weak derisive chuckle I let out. It wasn't worth it. Though, granted, we're moving into the bounds of personal preference here. So, I'll stop pointing out how the game would be nonexistent if it didn't endlessly poke fun at every movie in existence until it quite literally stopped being funny... and move on to the GTA V section of this article.
  Aside from being probably the best, most realistic looking game available for the PS3, it's probably the most well made. I read internet comments from people not a week after it came out, explaining how underwhelmed they were with it. Oh for fuck's sake. In stark contrast to the Saints Row series and it's latest sequel, GTA V's strength is surprisingly not in it's story. Not to say that it doesn't have an awesome and engaging story. But... think about it, what does the story do in any open world game? It shuttles you from this location to that location, only highlighting selective parts of the world's impressively rendered geography. Take five minutes, man. Travel off the beaten path. Go to some loading docks, go beat up someone in an alleyway. Get stuck in shitty traffic. Go run through the hills, fall down a mountain, get carried off by a waterfall. Go play tennis. Go rob a liquor store. Go do stuff. Go do anything. Anything you want. Why? Because GTA V lets you. It reminds us why these games are called "sandbox" games. Because you can do whatever you want in them. It gives you this big area to let your imagination run wild in. 

  And  the Saints Row games? For a series that now prides itself on being a rule breaker and giving you what other games won't, it doesn't give you much. It gives you a bland world, and fancy superpowers. I'd rather have no superpowers and an incredibly rich and vivid world. Because discovering new things is always awesome. Throwing people across the city is also awesome, but... it does gets boring after the 50th time. One franchise has to rely on jokes and dildo bats to get people's attention, leaving them with nothing to do afterwards. The other franchise builds a rich and engaging world for you to get totally immersed in, giving you a realistic environment that rivals anything on the market. If you've ever wanted to climb on top of one of those oil rigs out in the desert... and take a selfie? GTA V lets you do that. If you've ever wanted to piss off a bunch of mexican gangsters and then run for your life through their barrio while a bunch of them shoot at you? GTA V lets you do that. If you've ever wanted to go scuba diving, and then stab a shark with a hunting knife... GTA V lets you do that. Have I made my point?

  GTA V's story is innovative in the fact that you play as three different protagonists. All with wildly different points of view. This is not only new to gaming period, it's also new to the GTA franchise. Usually you have a single protagonist, and a single storyline. But not in GTA V, you have three guys. You get to know each one, his daily habits, how he handles stress, and how good he is at killing... driving... shooting... stealing. Best of all though? You can switch between each character at will. Want to check in on Michael after you get tired of playing as Franklin? Press the right button, and you're taken across the city and given control of michael right in the middle of whatever his character was already doing. Whether it be driving, jogging, eating, or watching TV shows. It's so immersive in these things, you almost forget you can go apeshit and do whatever you want in this game too. It has a story that goes from point A to point B, like a movie. It's very cinematic. So you feel compelled to just keep shuttling from one mission to the next because you feel like you're operating inside a narrative construct. Which is restrictive.

  But that's a restraint only the gamer makes real. The game is there for you to do whatever the hell you want. Do yourself a favor, next time you have to cross town in the game? Don't get in your car, or on your bike, OR call a cab... just walk it. Or jog. You'll find such cool and interesting things, and probably get in a ton of trouble, and have a great story to tell afterwards. This is why I love GTA V, and this is why it's just the better game. Plain and simple. From it's graphics, to it's interactiveness, to it's story, and sheer gameplay... it's just...

Better.
  
  SR:IV was worth every dollar I paid for it, of which there were ten. Ten dollars. Which these days is about the price of a good DLC add-on. It looks like the previous game, it handles like the previous game, and the only real new things are superpowers and aliens. Which, if they didn't get so repetitive after a little while... might have almost made the game worth it's full price. It can be VERY fun, but in small doses. I find myself easily tiring of it, and getting frustrated at the ultimate lack of things to do in the game. Just like it's predecessor, it's a game with next to no lasting play value.  Whereas I'm only scratching the surface of GTA V. I haven't done a fraction- a FRACTION of the things it lets you do, and already I've done 100x more than what SR:IV let me do. I'd like to reiterate both games are fun, even SR:IV is a lot of fun. Don't get me wrong. It is one of the most fun games I've ever played. But, that doesn't mean it's good. Or even worth it beyond a rental, or a borrow. Or a bargain bin. One feels like a lazy and effortless cash grab, and the other feels like the pinnacle of open world video games. GTA V is the full price winner for me, hands down

Saturday, June 21, 2014

They're back!


  I think any sensible complaints about this movie (of which, in my opinion, there aren't many...) should be about the fact it was tailored to pair up with the ongoing cartoon at the time, which... essentially (in the eyes of more than a few, apparently) made it to seem like a huge toy commercial. Now, I wasn't a kid when this came out. I wasn't even a bad idea. I wouldn't be born until the early 90's. I didn't even see Ghostbusters until I was about... eleven? Ghostbusters II came much much later. I never even saw the cartoon until I was young teenager. The point is, I wasn't super sweet on Ghostbusters II when I was a little kid, and I wasn't around when it came out so I couldn't have been ultra disappointed along with the hype either. So my love for it doesn't stem from biased nostalgia. I'm telling you I love this movie on it's own merits.

  I heard someone else say that the plot is a basic step-by-step repeat of the original. Ugh. Okay. These guys, the Ghostbusters, are basically ghost police/detectives. Now, imagine a murder mystery movie. Something happens (i.e. a murder), the cops find out, gather clues, investigate, then in the climax- the cops run all the red lights to catch the killer before the innocent girl dies. Very few cop thrillers break that mold. In fact, that's basically every episode of C.S.I. and Criminal Minds... ever. So, how would it even be much different with the Ghostbusters? Something HAS to happen to get them involved- they have to investigate, gather clues, and then bust the bad guy. So, the basic plot structure is obviously going to be the same regardless. I don't mind this.

  I mean, sure they reset all the character development in order to retread familiar territory. Like, Peter trying to win Dana over, the Ghostbusters trying to get their business back up, and a pesky government idiot trying to shut them down. Yeah, okay. But all of those things end up leading to some great scenes. Whether or not you hate the movie, that courtroom scene though. Arguably a reason to watch the movie in and of itself. Complaining about this stuff to me is like complain that Rocky has to re-train himself in each movie. I guess that might be a little extreme... but c'mon! This is another Ghostbusters movie! Complete with some of the funniest one-liners and dialog since the first movie. Which is saying alot. As far as things they changed to suit the cartoon... uh... Janine's hair? I mean, I suppose they changed some other things too but... for the most part, if you haven't seen the cartoon, you'll just think it's regular sequel tweaking. Who knows what those silly filmmakers were thinking?

  The strangest thing for me is Louis spontaneously becoming a Ghostbuster at the end. It was pretty out of the blue and was a little too silly for my taste. However... in an article I just happened to stumble across here, explains why this happened. In a series of deleted scenes, which basically removed an entire sub-plot from the finished movie, Louis is doing his usual business about the firehouse but keeps running into that pesky Slimer. Who... he decides to try and 'bust'. So we have scenes of him trying on a proton pack to catch Slimer, and more scenes of him trying to trap Slimer, etc. Yet, most importantly is when Janine catches him doing all this. He has to explain his secret aspirations of becoming a Ghostbuster himself. Which impresses her, leading to their romantic sub-plot later in the movie.

  These scenes were apparently removed because Ramis and Reitman didn't want Slimer in the movie at all because at the time he was inexorably linked to the cartoon more than the first movie. So, to recap, a sub-plot which would've made the movie make 70% more sense was axed because they wanted to get rid of Slimer. Ugh. Not to mention all these scenes were completed 100%, complete with ILM effects, before they were axed. Double ugh. There was also an axed sub-plot that expanded on Ray being possessed by Vigo. Triple ugh. Why did they cut that? Dammit. Having said that, I'll reiterate that the humor in this movie is as funny as the first and in my mind- just as iconic. Not to mention the fantastic special effects, still amazing.
But let me tell you why I really love this movie...

  About 1/3rd through, it captures the essence of being a sequel perfectly. Why do we like sequels? Or rather, the concept of sequels? Why do we get excited about them? Because it promises that the characters we loved the first time around, are back! We get to watch them do their thing again! We want to see our heroes triumph again. Ghostbusters II translates that directly into it's story. Inexplicably, in this one nobody believes in the paranormal anymore. Not even the mayor. This is only five years later mind you. I always felt that rather it being a strange oddity of the plot, it just went to show you how busy and cynical new yorkers are. They're so obsessed with everything in their own little world, the climax of the first movie might as well have been an Ozzy Osbourne concert light-show up on that building for all they cared. Granted that does require some suspension of disbelief but stay with me here for a moment...

  When the Ghostbusters are finally arrested and put on trial, things can't get any lower for them. Yet, the scene takes a turn for the better when two horrible ghosts are unleashed in the courtroom, and the Ghostbusters are given license to start busting again. It's such a great scene because clearly, they're all a little out of touch with busting. Yet here they are, busting. It's the definitive "we're back!" moment. They're back in the saddle, and back in the public eye, the same way they're back in a sequel. The public loves seeing them do their thing again, and we love seeing it on screen. It's such a great comeback, I wanted to get up and cheer just like the crowds in the movie. Yet, hey, if you've already decided to dislike this movie, that (awesome) scene probably won't change your mind. For me, it only gets better from there.

  As far as what else the movie does right, the slime itself is worth pointing out. It's essentially their new enemy in this one, alongside a possessed painting of a murderous mad man who was probably buddies with Vlad the Impaler. Think about the slime for a moment. In this one, it's "mood slime". It feeds off of negative emotion... and this stuff is flowing en masse under New York. Arguably the hub for bad vibes and negative emotions. What a villain. You're up against the emotional state of an entire city. Their solution for this, turning everyone's mood around in the end has to be one of the best solutions ever. I love the climax of this movie and it worked on me as much as it worked on the citizens of New York. I mean... doesn't Jackie Wilson work on everyone? In the end, if you just accept it as is, Ghostbusters II is a feelgood comedy that's also a surprisingly effective horror/adventure. Sure it's not AS good as the first, but the comedy itself is, and so is the acting and chemistry of the cast. I fail to see much of a downside to spending another hour and a half with the boys in gray. To quote Pete Venkman...

  "-I think what I'm saying, is that sometimes, shit happens, someone has to deal with it, and who ya gonna call?"

I dunno about you, but I'm still gonna call the Ghostbusters.
If you're still on the fence, I give you this. You're welcome.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Carefree fun


  Let me get this out of the way, this is not an Indiana Jones knock-off, rip-off, or imitation. It doesn't even have a hint of Indiana Jones. Not even. It has more in common with the themes present in Last Action Hero than it does with Indiana Jones. When the eponymous Dr.Jones makes it to paperback novelization, and becomes as iconic in print as he was on the silver screen... then we can start making comparisons. Not before then.  Jake Speed however, is about heroes. Old fashioned heroes who had sidekicks, like Dr.Watson to Sherlock Holmes. Heroes who didn't need to get paid to rescue a damsel in distress, guys who take the hard way... because it "reads better!"

  I heard about this movie in an old movie reviews book from the 80's a long time ago in a dusty old library run out of the basement of a big church. I was flipping through, reading reviews and... the title "Jake Speed" stuck out to me. It sounded like a comic book hero. As it turns out, I wasn't far off. In the movie, an American woman is kidnapped in Africa, and her family has no idea who to turn to for help. The government isn't being much use, and they're desperate. Yet, at a rather glum family dinner, good ol' grandpa says he knows exactly who can help get her back. Guys like, "Remo, and Jake Speed..." Of course, someone asks "Who?", and without skipping a beat, he presents a stack of dime store paperback novels with the flashy action packed covers and the catchy taglines.

  These are the guys grandpa suggests to help. Fictional heroes. Guys who fight evil no matter where it is. Of course, everyone dismisses him as a senile old man, but the woman's sister, Margaret, gets a mysterious phone call that soon has her face to face with a guy claiming not only that he can rescue her sister, but that he is in fact... the real Jake Speed. The movie takes off from there, as Jake, his sidekick Des, and Margaret race to Africa to save her sister from white slave traders, and "a couple thousand poisonous snakes"...
if they're lucky. See, Margaret is enamoured with the idea of a paperback hero who can come to the rescue, she wants to believe that guys like that exist. Yet, the realist side of her is in constant doubt of Jake. Wondering if he's some sort of con artist or something.

  On the other hand, Jake and Des don't dodge the fact they have books written about them. They're always trying to do what "reads well" instead of taking the practical way out. Which means lots of bar fights and shootouts and the like. Margaret, in one of many arguments with Jake, asks him if he's so real... why hasn't anyone made a movie about him? Of course, he simply retorts that Hollywood types are a pain to work with. I wanted to believe Jake was indeed Jake as much as Margaret did. The movie strings you along, doling out doubt in small doses here and there... but after a certain point, you don't care if he is a real Jake Speed. Because regardless, he's a real hero. The movie has a certain charm to it. It's the kind of 50 cent find that makes you feel like you've found a lost treasure.

  However, the movie is not without it's flaws. For one, Wayne Crawford is terribly miscast as Jake Speed himself. The dude's biggest hit on imdb was the writer's credit for Valley Girl. He looks like a sitcom dad, not a paperback action hero. He has a... low rent brand of charisma that makes him likeable enough to enjoy the movie, but you can't help but wonder what it would've been like with a better leading man in the role. Crawford just barely cuts it. You'd almost think he wrote the role for himself (he did write the role regardless) as a way to break into the 'Michael Douglas' bracket of psuedo-action stars. He never quite gets there, but he's charming enough that you enjoy the movie. I've said that twice already for lack of a better compliment. He's not bad in the role, but it sure as hell should have been someone else. Wayne Crawford is nobody's idea of an ideal action hero.

  Secondly, the pacing in the first half of the movie is really languid. This is an action movie, yet I don't think any action actually happens until almost forty minutes into the flick. It's ridiculous. However, I think this was probably a budgetary thing and not a misstep with the script. It feels like they saved the budget for the climax, and in my opinion... it paid off. The movie ends with a huge bang, and you're left with a good impression. You feel like you've had a really good time, and if you stuck around- you probably really have.
Next issue though is the story. The concept of the missing sister is fine, but this movie is too lighthearted for it. The hero is constantly procrastinating and taking the hard way to do things because it would read better in a paperback novel- yet human lives are hanging in the balance. He often comes off as irresponsible instead of witty. Had this been a treasure hunt movie instead, like Firewalker with Chuck Norris- I can understand that. But it's not. It's a movie where innocent people can die, a movie that is centered around human slave trading, and... this is lighthearted?

  The movie is at odds with itself for most of the time. I feel like these flaws could've been ironed out with a few more drafts of the script, or a better director behind the camera, but they weren't. However, the movie is a lot of fun, and however unintentional it might have been, juxtaposing a old fashioned good guy and the lighthearted adventurous tone of the movie, against a cutthroat villain (albeit an occasionally cartoonish one) and some very dark themes creates an interesting vibe. It's almost thought provoking. Almost. You wonder if old fashioned heroics like that can ever succeed in the real world. The side of you that wishes heroes like that exist, wants to say "yes", but the side of you that's stuck in reality 24/7 is far more skeptical. The movie however is content to deliver a happy and optimistic ending, leaving you on a hopeful note.

  So, is Jake Speed a good movie? I'd say so. It has enough fun and adventure to warrant a watch. The climax is simply awesome. A huge destructive shootout at the bad guy's lair, complete with James Bondian dialog, secret traps, man-eating lions, and a jeep with machine guns mounted on either side of it. Also, Jake has this amazingly badass shotgun he totes around through the movie, and eventually you realize he's named his shotgun. I didn't catch the name, but how cool is that? Not only did he name his shotgun, he goes back for it when he loses it. I hate it when the good guys leave their cool weapons behind in movies. That scene alone made me smile. The movie is pretty self aware, and I think it avoids most awful pitfalls a genre movie like this could fall into, sure it's as full of plot holes as the bad guys are full of buckshot... but despite being pretty flawed, it's funny, charming, and just flat out fun. I'd gladly trade most big budget box office action movies of the past two decades for just a few more good-natured adventure flicks like Jake Speed.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Misfires on All Cylinders!


  I don't know why I'm watching this, or reviewing it. I suppose I should reach for answers to both of those things in order to continue with a proper review of the movie. I suppose I'm watching this becaaaause... I get curious about movies I've seen in the past and I often wonder if they're how I remember them. I got the movie for free the other night to complete my 90's nostalgia shelf (along with Street Fighter, Super Mario Bros. The Movie, and others...) and my curiosity gets the best of me in the middle of the night when I'm super friggin bored. As for why I'm reviewing it, I'd have to say because I disagree to a certain extent with the general consensus that it's a godawful movie...
Though not entirely.

  The movie's detractors for the most part seem to be divided into two groups. People who have seen and loved the original TV from the 60's, and ones who seem to have just jumped on a hateful bandwagon. The former actually have every right to be angry with this movie. I did my research in the past and I actually watched some of the show. It's a great show. Inventive, unique, adventurous and funny. The movie might be creative, but it's far from unique and it's humor is wildly subjective. There's plenty of issues to tackle with Wild Wild West, but I suppose it's easy enough to start with the writing. The two leads West and Gordon (Smith and Kline, respectively) in the movie seem to be at odds. They're in constant competition. Their arc is having to learn to work together. Yet by comparison to the original characters, this backfires sorely.

  The original West and Gordon were buddies. Best of friends and a hell of a duo. This movie however decides to generate conflict between them. It's not funny, and the movie drags because of it. I think the casting was fine. Will Smith would have made a great Jim West, and Kevin Kline as Artemis Gordon would have made a great sidekick for him. If their characters were friends. The show never had to explain how they met, or anything. They were already friends. It just clicked. The "learning to work together" arc is not only cliche, but it takes up so much of the story and the runtime. It's just... annoying. To think how much better this movie would have been if West and Gordon were buddies... almost gives one a warm and fuzzy idea of a legitimately good Will Smith summer blockbuster instead of what we got.

  Secondly, in casting Will Smith as Jim West, the movie ends up having an unhealthy focus on his race. This is a woeful misstep. Will Smith goes through the movie being subjected to making racist jokes and explaining his circumstances as a black man. This messed up the character and adds a lot of scathing humor to the movie. They should've played it colorblind and just focused on making a well rounded character for Smith to inhabit. In Men In Black, did his skin color matter? Was it a huge focus of the movie? At all? No, no and no.
Just because the movie is set in the wild west is no reason to continually justify Jim West's race, over and over and over... and over and over. So what, he's black. Slavery exists. So what, let's move on. I really don't mind Kline as Gordon, because I feel if the writing was different him and Smith would've had a great buddy dynamic. The rest of the cast is totally unremarkable, yet... I'd be remiss if I didn't point out the villains.

  Kenneth Branagh plays Dr.Arliss Loveless. He plays the part doing nothing but chewing as much scenery as possible. His comedic timing is spot on, but the material he has to work with is woeful. There's a back and forth he has with Smith's character, they simply trade thinly veiled insults. See, Loveless has no legs, and West is black. So here comes the 'half-a-man' and slavery jokes. Oh god. It's painful. It's elementary school level insults. Nobody in this entire movie behaves like a grown adult. It seems like a bunch of hardheaded, hormonal teenagers running around blowing up the entire west. This is a far cry from the classy and cool handed, sci-fi, action stylings of the original show- and then some. So for all logical reasons, this movie is just... not good. It betrays the source material, and it fails to be as funny as it thinks it is.

  On the other hand...


I'm taking a deep breath here...

Okay.

  There are a few reasons why this is a guilty pleasure of mine. Mostly nostalgia. This is a huge summer blockbuster with Will Smith, granted it's not a good one- but the whole feeling at the time was pretty exciting. There was Burger King toy tie-ins and exciting commercials and even the theatrical trailer made it out to be pretty damn fun. That whole atmosphere of reckless and mindless fun carries over into the movie itself, despite all logic and odds.  I vividly remember trying to collect all the happy meal toys...


  That image itself perfectly captures the nostalgia I feel about this movie. It's not so much the movie itself I'm crazy about, it's the whole atmosphere surrounding the movie when it was coming out. It looked crazy fun. And then there's the production design. The movie looks great. They captured that western sci-fi vibe in spades. I LOVE all the little gadgets and guns and visual flairs, and thankfully there's a lot of this stuff. Bordering on overkill, but I love it anyways. Will Smith's look in this movie is arguably very iconic despite the movie itself. His wardrobe is impeccably suited to his persona. The cocky, edgy, wild west gunslinger. Not the goofball who makes slavery jokes in a few scenes. Smith has moments of badassery here and there, and it's enough to illicit a smile from me now and then. And when they're working together, and not trying to kill each other, West and Gordon make a strangely appealing on-screen duo.

  So, if this movie seems like it might hold any kind of appeal to you, think of the giant mechanical tarantula that highlights the climax of the movie. It's odd, impractical looking, and just about hammers the last nail into the coffin filled with the nonsense spider theme that's tacked onto the villain. If this makes you facepalm and think "Oh god why?" then you have every right to join the hateful bandwagon and bash this movie to death. Yet, if the same thing seems like it's crazy cool and ridiculously fun looking... then you might want to give it a watch. Complete with mindless action scenes and humor of the lowest-brow sort, you might find it fun. It's not without it's supporters, yet in no situation does it deserve any sort of support or defense- god forbid an actual recommendation. For me? It's stupid nostalgic fun. For the critical me? It's just stupid. I guess it's all a matter of perception. Yet... there's no arguing 'stupid' factors into the end result no matter how you look at it.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Evolution of an Icon: Nine Fridays


  Freddy, Michael, Chucky, Pinhead... I'm familiar with those guys. I'd set aside time to watch those franchises in the past. (Well, I saw the first Halloween at least...) Yet, I'd never ever saw a Friday the 13th. Being a fan of 80's horror- many of my friends told me this was a grievous error I needed to rectify. Immediately. I was not convinced I'd like these movies. Jason seemed like the type of slasher villain I wouldn't like. From what I knew about him, he just seemed so damn basic. Freddy came after you in your dreams, Chucky was a possessed doll, Pinhead wanted to take you to another dimension and torture you for all eternity... but Jason and Michael always seemed from afar to just be lumbering knife-wielding... slashers. Basic as hell. Well, I finally got around to seeing Halloween last... Halloween, mainly because I'm a huge John Carpenter fan... and I liked it! But Friday the 13th? Eh... skeptical still, I decided to give em a shot anyways.

  It was an all or nothing deal I made with myself- you watch one, you watch em all. It was the whole franchise... or bust. I quickly realized though, that Jason X stood for Jason 10, and I said to myself... "Oh." Ten movies is daunting, and then you have Freddy vs. Jason too. So... eleven movies total? No way. Since fans derided both Jason X and Freddy vs. Jason (neither of which seem wholly canonical) I decided to politely excuse them from my "all" ultimatum. I'm not quite sure what prompted this whole thing, but I've been at it for about two weeks (including a hiatus) and just now finished. I had to sit through a few trailers just to jog my memory about which is which. They tend to blur together when you watch em back to back. It's been a really fun experience though and I can safely say I respect the franchise now. Jason himself is a pretty neat antagonist, especially when you have the whole franchise in perspective.

  But without further ado...


  Spoiler alert? I didn't know going into the first movie that Jason wasn't the main antagonist. Despite plenty of shots which made the mostly unseen killer look incredibly masculine, it turned out to be Jason's mom in the end. A decent twist I didn't really expect. Actress Betsy Palmer, despite purportedly thinking the script was "a piece of shit" turned in a great performance. Pamela Voorhees came off as a true psychotic woman, one you didn't want to cross under any circumstances. It'd be easy for me to dismiss this movie though if I hadn't watched it in the right mindset. I've seen countless slasher films. I can't even remember how many, but I had to remember- this was one of the trendsetters. Things we take for granted now were being innovated in movies like this.

  With that in mind, it was easier to enjoy the movie. It's a well crafted suspenseful slasher flick which has a couple classic kills and jump scares. On it's OWN merits, I'd say it's aged very well. Yet, when the movie itself is a hollow excuse for 90 minutes of scares, nudity, and blood... you wonder objectively what makes it so special when there's similar, scarier, movies with way more nudity and boatloads more gore. So many movies came after it and improved on it's formula. Thus, it's hard to feel impressed by the original. Having said that, I do respect this movie, and appreciate it. I think it's a genre movie to be revered for it's innovations. Yet on the whole, it's not one I'd return to anytime soon, simply because there are so many "better" slasher flicks around.
--


  Yes! Okay, part two, Jason is the main antagonist this time! Yet, never ceasing to surprise me... his trademark hockey mask is nowhere to be found. Shows how little I actually knew about these movies going into this whole thing.  Instead, he looks like the villain from the movie The Town That Dreaded Sundown. Which is not a bad look in all honesty. Jason looks scary. No lie. The sackcloth is effective, and we see a cultural icon of horror emerging here. The movie itself is a close follow up to the first one in tone. Teens getting killed at a camp in the woods near Crystal Lake. I found the characters marginally more relatable this time around. There's a neat scene not too far into the movie, before the first kill I think- where all the camp counsellors huddle around a campfire at night to tell spooky stories. The movie utilizes this scene as an exposition drop to explain why and how Jason is now the antagonist- when his mother was avenging his death in the first movie.

  It's pretty much a blurry hour from that point on with your run-of-the-mill stalking and killing until the climax. The climax in each movie is always the best. Jason has killed everyone else and there's usually only one or two people left and it's a good 20-30 minutes of non-stop scares and straight-up tension. This movie does the climax well, I was really on the edge of my seat. As the hooded Jason chased around the pair of survivors until they stumbled across a shrine built around the decapitated head of his mother. The heroine has to get really creative at the end here to save not only her own life, but her friend's life too. It's a really cool scene, if not a bit kooky. Yet, it was handled well and is quite memorable. Kudos to this one.
--


  Finally! The hockey mask! At this point, I was legitimately smiling when it showed up. Seeing him finally don the iconic hockey mask was like seeing Clark Kent finally rip open his shirt, and you get to see the Superman logo for the first time. Part 3 was the beginning of the Jason that's so embedded in pop culture. The film was made for a 3D presentation. So naturally you have yo-yo's in your face, and the like. Yet, I feel like it would've been neat in 3D. This was the first turning point for the franchise. This is when it started embracing the fact it's become a formulaic series and all you can do is try to outdo the previous one. Which means more nudity, more gore. Not really high brow cinema. That whole mentality goes hand in hand with the kitschiness of 3D. It's a hollow, somewhat effective, gimmick that feeds on hype and nostalgia. It's now married to a movie that's a hollow, somewhat effective scare machine, that produces tons of blood and death to cater to hype and a teenage crowd. Fitting... and, I'll admit (albeit begrudgingly) it sounds like it'd be fun.

  Part 3 has Jason killing more stupid teens who return to Crystal Lake. Either I'm used to 2-dimensional archetypical characters in these movies, or they're actually getting to be more sympathetic. Granted, everything still boils down to smoking weed and having sex, but some of these characters... I really didn't want to see die. Yet on the other hand, I know they're just Jason-fodder. Interestingly enough, the whole camp situation provides the viewer with plenty of plucky would-be heroines to choose from. Which one will survive? Sometimes it's not so obvious. When it's a surprise, I like it. I don't think it was much of a surprise here, but overall the movie was handled deftly. The movie ends up as an iconic exercise in crafting scares out of a formulaic concept. The kills this time are very crazy and exceptionally bloody. Including a series favorite of mine involving a harpoon gun. Bullseye...

  I think this one is the pinnacle of the franchise. Certainly the best one. Yet... had the series ended here, I think Jason would be little more than a footnote in the annals of horror. It's the overexposure to the public that cemented him as a cultural icon. The very fact there's so damn many of them allow us by contrast to appreciate the really good ones. Like this one. It's a by-the-numbers killer thriller that somehow manages to be more than the sum of it's parts. Dare I say it's... charming? It has an old fashioned (from a modern perspective) sensibility to it that's very refreshing in the face of a current trend of obnoxiously gritty horror movies. Part 3 is more than just effective, it's a go-to film for how to make a classic slasher movie fun. This marks the beginning of the escalating creativity with the murders, yet none of the following films would quite strike the balance that this one did. Really fun movie.
--


  This time, Jason's going to die for good. Obviously right? It's titled the FINAL chapter! Psh. Of course it's not. It made more money than A Nightmare on Elm Street. Obviously there will be more, but lets appreciate this one first. While not as iconic as Part 3, The Final Chapter has it's own appeal. It continues the more trend in this franchise, but it does so with gusto. Not to mention a decent story, decent acting, and some humor. Crispin Glover and Corey Feldman steal the show, completely independent of each other. If you're an 80's freak like me, you're thinking "Aw snap, that's George McFly and Mouth". They both add some levity to an otherwise brutal and grim entry (aren't they all?) into the franchise. Whilst Glover's character is just a victim, waiting in line basically, Feldman's character, Tommy, edges out as a clear cut protagonist. 

  It's kinda jarring seeing a young kid in a horror movie. Very few movies have the balls to kill off a kid, but I felt like Friday the 13th, as a franchise wasn't 'above' pulling a move like that. That dynamic alone added some genuine tension to the movie which could've very easily been very formulaic. Also new is the fact that this time, Jason is killing just a bunch of teens. They're not camp counsellors and they're not campers. They're just teens holed up in a house for the weekend. I didn't really like any of them, and beyond their basic intrinsic function of being meat for the grinder, it's hard to care whether they live or not. Especially since their characters only exist to be killed. Speaking of which, The Final Chapter has some really great kills in it, showcasing a lot of creativity this time around, and it's fun. 

  There's a character in here who's hunting Jason if I remember right- or something, but in the end he kinda just... gets killed anyways. Big surprise who the actual hero turns out to be, only it's not really a surprise at all. Yet, it's nice. It gave this movie something unique, and a climax that definitely stands apart from previous entries. In both Part 2 and Part 3, it was plausible that Jason survived. In this movie? Not so much. The fantastic practical effects work of the great Tom Savini are a definite highlight. He returned to this movie (having also done the first film) to "kill the creature he created", and he did so with gusto. The Final Chapter and Part 3 stand out to me as two of the best in the franchise. I can easily recommend them both.
--


  Well having killed off Jason in the FINAL chapter... the inevitable next movie tried to hold true to that, and is titled A New Beginning. Pound for pound it's not a bad slasher flick, though technically... Jason's not the villain. It's just a copycat killer. Some of the characters seem worth investing your time in, but not enough. Largely, the cast of characters is just full of jerks and weirdos. The formula of the slasher flick feels actually tired in this movie. Probably for the first time in the franchise, an entry truly feels ho-hum. There are some great scenes, but it's hard to care in the end. Partly because the actor who picked up the role Corey Feldman was playing in part IV is totally unlikeable. He has only a few modes. Blank, scary blank, and freaked out. There is no pleasant moment with him, unlike the pot smoking, bed hopping teens of the prior films. 

  The victims in the other movies usually had at least something about them that made you wanna see them live. Even if they were ignorant for the most part, it was an innocent ignorance. Most everyone in this movie is either a prick, selfish, annoying, or just... blank. I found myself not caring who died or not. I mean, I know the characters aren't usually the strong suit of these movies, but they're exceptionally vapid in this entry. The most personality, comes again, from a little kid. They should just pit Jason against a bunch of kids at this point. It might actually be a lot of fun. A New Beginning's climax is no slouch though, it's really exciting if only on a very basic level. There's lots of running and chasing, and the final showdown is in a barn, which is always interesting seeing how they make use of their surroundings. Beyond that though, the ending is kinda silly and the movie isn't really all that memorable. It's not bad enough to loathe, but it doesn't exactly achieve anything higher than mediocrity either.
--
  


  Realizing that for better or worse, fans only want the real mccoy I'm sure you can guess that in this one... Jason Lives.  This movie is self aware. It realizes how silly it's premise is, and rather than fumble around with it, it embraces the entire concept. They're resurrecting a classic movie villain from the dead. Thus the movie isn't as serious as previous installments, yet they really put effort into making this as creepy as possible. For once, Camp Crystal Lake has kids at it, and while you're aware that Jason probably won't be the movie monster to break that inviolable rule of 'no killing kids', it's still a really tense dynamic. He's also super strong this time around, punching people's heads in and such. They've basically accepted his status as film icon, and by infusing his ongoing mythos with some supernatural elements, they're essentially saying... he's here to stay.

  Also returning is series (semi-)mainstay Tommy. Of course he's yet again being played by another actor. Yet I'd say this guy is way more likeable than the last actor. No complaints there. Actor Thom Matthews, along with co-star Jennifer Cooke manage to carry the one-liners and humor in the movie really well. It certainly lends a different tone to the movie, but since they're not skimping on the scares or gore, it didn't bother me too much and didn't stick out like a sore thumb. Alas,you realize that this is another turning point for the franchise. You could kill him in each subsequent movie, and they'll find a way to bring him back each time a sequel seems like a good idea. Unfortunately, this was the last really strong effort in the franchise and the last one I thoroughly enjoyed. Jason is as iconic here as he ever will be.
--


  This is where the franchise really really lost me. The New Blood is so middle of the road as far as slashers go, I could barely keep myself awake during it. It broke my stride and I ended up putting a week between this one and the next one, which ended up taking me a week to watch itself. Part VII is pretty standard. Jason kills a bunch of unlikeable teens having a house party near Crystal Lake. The fact that the heroine has telekinetic powers is so random and left field, AND underdeveloped that we don't really give a shit. OR see her as a formidable opponent for Jason. It's just a movie full of characters I didn't really like, and a story that was super uninteresting. It lacked the kinetic pacing and enjoyable feeling of the last one, and ended up being super mediocre.  

  This movie just seemed so un-memorable stacked up next to the others. I had some good effects, and great gore as always, but I never found myself really engaged or interesting. I think a likeable lead is essential. This movie didn't really have one. The actress does well, but not well enough. She pales in comparison to the secondary character Jennifer Cooke played in the previous movie. That girl had so much charm and charisma, she could've carried the movie by herself and I wouldn't have minded. This girl does a serviceable job as the main character, but little else. Disappointing at best. I would elaborate even more, but what can I say? This movie fell so flat for me, it hit the ground harder than one of Jason's victims. This one is pretty much on par with A New Beginning. For me? Those are the two worst of the franchise thus far.
--


  Quickly coming up on the end of my mega-review, we're down to the second from last: Jason Takes Manhattan. Honestly, the title is misleading. Jason doesn't really take Manhattan at all. The title should be Jason Takes a Long-ass Boat Ride. Because 3/4ths of the movie is set on a boat headed for New York. If I wasn't expecting so much New York, this might be fine, but... alas. Surprisingly, all that aside, this one wasn't awful. If anything it was a decent change of pace from the previous movie and it has a cool new setting. The boat is as creative as anything we've seen so far, so I can't complain that much. Granted, it's either shitty writing, or shitty marketing, but at least this one is different? It also has some really cool kills. Jason shoves a huge flaming sauna rock into this dude's stomach, and then crack's this other chick's head open with an electric guitar. Fun stuff.

  Then there's also this scene where Jason chokes a girl to death on an empty dancefloor while hip 80's pop music plays in the background. I kinda feel like that scene is emblematic of the state of the franchise at this point. Jason is so much of a cultural icon as well as a horror icon that in a weird way, he's become sort of like a protagonist in his own movies. He's in the public consciousness on par with their favorite pop song or favorite music video. He's like a rock star of horror movies. Granted, he's no Freddy Krueger, but he has his own standing. Anyways, the movie might feel like it drags a bit if you're constantly waiting for New York, but because the leads are at least sorta fun to be with I didn't mind as much. However when we finally get there, it's so worth it.

  Seeing Jason out of his element is so much fun. From a little visual gag about Hockey Masks, to a great scene in a typical NYC diner. "Help! There's a maniac trying to kill us!" the lead heroine says. "Welcome to New York, honey." the waitress retorts. Of course, as if on cue, Jason bursts through the diner doors with the grace of a bull in a china shop. He slowly struts past everyone who just stares on in shock, and you see his fractured reflection in the mirror. It's a great looking scene, both semi-funny and really haunting as well. No matter where he goes, he's a force to be reckoned with. Even in front of jaded New Yorkers. The ending is weird and all, and you can tell this was really meant to be the last one because of how it ends but... you know Jason. You can't keep him down. This one wasn't really a good one, but it gets plenty of points for creativity. Despite that, it's one of the poorer films in the franchise, and not one I'd be eager to return to. Still better than A New Beginning and The New Blood though.
--


  Here we are at the final movie I intend to review. Jason Goes to Hell. Well, apparently Jason is no longer a legend. He's a nationally acknowledged serial killer who has a whole police task force dedicated to killing him. The beginning has Jason falling into a trap, and getting blown apart by said task force. Which is a hell of an opening. Starting the movie by killing the villain was a pretty interesting move, and this movie succeeds in being creative without screwing with the slasher format. I liked that.  Jason's spirit or what-have-you can now possess other people and use them to go on killing sprees as he tries to make his way back to Crystal Lake. Okay... I'm on board so far. I really liked the lead hero. He started off as a major dork, but he ended up being REALLY likeable. This was very unexpected. There's also tons of scenery chewing characters in this one which is so much more fun than blank and unremarkable machete-fodder.

  I felt a more emotional connection to the leads this time. They're well written and well acted. Arguably some of the best characters in a franchise known for having weak characters. The plot meanders too much though and has to go out of it's way to find people for Jason to slaughter on his way to find his only living relatives. Because... apparently, they're the only ones who can kill him for good? I guess? This one bounty hunter guy seems to have all the answers, and we never know how he knows all this stuff either. He just... does. He's a fun character though, if a bit out of the blue. Some parts of the movie dragged, but it was interesting enough, and with plenty of unexpected moments to keep me engaged. Which is something the past few movies have had serious trouble doing.

  It's the most ridiculous movie in the franchise, and while creative, feels like a world apart from the dark and foreboding atmosphere of the original three. They were more grounded and this one is full on science fiction. I mean, the next Jason movie they made is essentially Jason in Space! So take that for what you will. Possession, resurrection, soul creatures, sacrifices? This movie is so far removed from a conventional Friday, that it's almost off-putting. You either embrace it or hate it. Fans who prefer a more grounded and brooding Jason will be turned off by this flashy and sci-fi-ish entry. On the other hand, people who embrace a wilder Friday, in vein of Jason Lives, you probably won't have too much of an issue with this one. I commend them for going out with a bang, especially since it was a rather risky story to take on. I enjoyed it. I'd put it firmly in the middle of the good/bad scale. It has enough good elements to warrant a viewing, yet enough weird crap and nonsensical happenings to keep it from being one of the better ones.
--

All in all, pound for pound (of flesh?) this franchise earns it's place in the pantheon of horror movies, and with gusto. Jason Voorhees is one of the most memorable horror movie icons ever, and it's not hard to see why. Some of these movies are fantastic scare fests, and some are just silly mindless entertainment, but where they really succeed is blending both attributes into a few really special films. I enjoyed this experience, and I'm eyeing more franchises to binge watch in the future. Bring it on! Ch ch ch... ha ha ha...

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Maybe I'm jaded?


  You can only be an exploitation fan for so long before you have to see Cannibal Holocaust. It's incomparable to other genres and other movies. There's no 'Cannibal Holocaust' of action movies. This movie is notorious and nasty. It earns it's reputation and doesn't pull any punches doing so. On one hand this movie is obviously an exploitation classic, but on the other hand... it's very far removed from it's own genre.
Most exploitation movies are graphic and nasty and crazy, but they're usually always very 2 dimensional. Even the best of the genre, will be very 2 dimensional. Cannibal Holocaust at first glance is just another gory, controversial, schlock-fest, but if you want to call it 2 dimensional... you've got another thing coming.

  It's also impossible to talk about this movie without pointing out that the director got arrested for it. Yessir. He wanted so very badly to make everyone think that people actually died in this movie, that he wasn't really ready for when they did. He had his actors sign a contract that stated they'd stay out of the public eye for up to a year after the film's release. Of course when the director got arrested, he had to call them up and prove to the authorities that they were, in fact, alive. If that doesn't set the stage for how gruesome this movie is, nothing will. I thought I was prepared. I've seen such awful acts of violence and brutality on film without so much as batting an eyelash that I thought I was fully prepared for Cannibal Holocaust.

  As it turns out, I was right, and I wasn't. Yeah, the violence itself didn't unnerve me that much, but it was the characters and the story behind the violence that got under my skin. Also this movie features more real animal killing than the infamous Faces of Death, a 'movie' that became notorious for it's supposedly real scenes of death (not gonna lie, some are very real). Yet, still, Cannibal Holocaust takes the cake. In a way, the actual onscreen violence towards the animals is more stomach turning than any of the violence towards humans. Simply because the former is real, and the latter isn't. A real turtle gets his head chopped off, and his twitching corpse hacked from it's shell with a machete. The scene would be unnerving if it were fake, but it's downright stomach-turning because it's real. It's real, and it's forever preserved on film. As are the deaths of many other animals.

  Yes, I know, animals get massacred every day in the wild. However, there's something terrifying about the fact that they weren't killed for any concept so noble as survival. They were killed for entertainment. The simple fact that they messed up a scene in which they had to kill a monkey- so they shot it again, and killed another monkey should illustrate my point nicely. Anyways, the plot of the movie is kinda choppy, but I'll summarize as best as I can. A four person American film crew (three guys and one girl) goes to the Amazon rainforest to shoot a documentary about actual cannibalism. Suffice to say, they go missing, and a rescue team is dispatched to find them. However, all they find is corpses... and film footage. They return to the states with the footage, where the professor who led the rescue team, and a few executives from the company that backed the film crew start watching it. What they find... is more horrific than anything they expected...

  As it turns out, the film crew staged a lot of their controversial footage, by maiming, killing, and burning villagers themselves, with glee no less. It was a shocking twist honestly, at this point in the movie you just know that the real villains aren't the savage cannibals at all. The movie is a tour of depravity from that point on full of human sacrifice (basically), rape, and brutal senseless killing. The film crew takes to terrorizing anyone and anything they come across, and filming it all. Their whole idea is to edit out the parts that show it was them doing all this, and string everything together as a documentary on the savagery of cannibals. In one scene, the three guys rape a native girl, and then offscreen during the reel change, they impale her onto a tall pole. As they then "discover" her corpse, they all feign disgust and shock. Except one guy, he smiles at his handiwork... and the camera guy has to remind him that they're filming, he quickly and effortless changes his expression to match his buddies'.

  It's such a simple scene, yet an iconic one, and one that really worked on me. It got under my skin, and is now probably what will always stay with me about this movie. The twisted evil these guys were able to portray far outdid the bloodthirsty ways of the cannibals in the movie. The movie would have you think that it has something to say about the nature of man, and if it does, it's lost on me. But the movie is just so-so. Beyond it's shock value this movie isn't really one worth seeking out unless you're an exploitation completionist like me. I mean even the cannibal aspect is undercooked. Especially when I'm able to eat barbecue ribs not an hour later without so much as a second thought.

The two aforementioned scenes were the two scenes I found actually hard to watch. I mean, the rest is admittedly gruesome, but there was just only those two scenes I found really truly hard to watch. A lesser (or better?) movie would have cut away, but both scenes just keep going on and on. I think this movie is more interesting to talk about than it is to watch. I may buy it though. It's a hell of a conversation piece, sort of a merit badge, and like I said, I think it's worth talking about. Also worth noting is the theme tune. It's... deceptively serene. Even the scenery. Some parts of this movie, both despite and including it's brutality is almost artful.

Those parts make me wish Francis Ford Coppola or Kubrick made a cannibal movie. Like it would be in better hands. There are scenes that flirt with nuance and beauty (go figure) but it's almost like it was on accident. Like nobody meant for this to be as good as it was. As an exploitation movie, it's deliciously notorious. Yet the stories around it are more fun than the movie itself. Yet unlike most exploitation movies, it's not "fun" at all. There's no humor, no lighter moments, no silliness- unintended or otherwise.
The level of competency in the making of this movie is too high for it to be considered mindless dreck, and it's too low to be taken seriously as an artful experience. So you're stuck with an exploitation movie you can't have fun with. One you can only endure.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Cosmic Dust!


  I'll never pass up a chance to talk about this movie. This movie is such an under-seen gem that if I have to publish a new review of it every year, just so people will notice... I will. When I was younger, I would boast to my friends, "This movie has everything! Dinosaurs! Roman Gladiators! Post apocalyptic mutants! Alien warp engines! Viet cong soldiers! You name it!" Of course, seeing as how I saw this in third grade, the reaction was usually "whats a postal-pocket-lip-tick?" Even worse, when I finally coerced a friend into watching it... he burst out laughing at the scene with the T-Rex. An entire generation... spoiled by Spielberg and his realistic looking dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Dammit Steven.

  As I got older, my love for this movie didn't change or diminish. Seeing it still makes me feel 9 years old all over again. A simpler time when even antiquated Harryhausen-esque effects still could illicit my "ooh"s and "ahh"s, and most importantly, capture my imagination. Which this movie still does. However, I will say this- those hoping for an 80's phantasmagoria of wild special effects will probably be bored by most of the movie. It's 3/4ths a high school comedy, and 1/4th a crazy sci-fi adventure. Also, the cast and crew never went A-List. Unlike movies like The Goonies, or Weird Science, My Science Project is helmed by a relative unknown. The guy's only four directing credits were Theodore Rex, this movie, an episode of CBS summer playhouse, and a couple episodes of the Nightmare on Elm St. tv show, Freddy's Nightmares.

  Then we have the star, John Stockwell. His only notable role was probably Cougar in Top Gun, and then poof. He's been in a bunch of TV stuff, and then directed some movies, but he was never insanely popular or anything. So I understand why this movie didn't really hit it big. It's pool of recognizable talent is very small. In fact, the only major star in the entire production is Dennis Hopper. Who actually seems like he's just playing himself... as a high school science teacher (named Bob). Which is pretty friggin awesome, and frequently hilarious. Yet despite all this, the cast has great chemistry, and someone forgot to tell the screenwriter that this script was going to an A-list production. All the jokes and gags are funny, the dialog is on-point and witty, and the pacing is pretty relentless. This is the big 80's sci-fi comedy that never got anywhere. That doesn't mean it's not awesome though.

  The movie is about high school grease monkey Mike Harlan and his little problem in science class. Teacher Bob doles out the ultimatum: "No (science) project... no diploma, babe." Harlan 'can't do anything' scientific, all he's into is cars- see? So he sneaks into an old military junk yard to find something he can fix up and pass off as his project. He ends up stumbling across a mysterious crate... with an even stranger object inside. As it would turn out, the 'gizmo', as they become fond of calling it, is actually the engine to an alien spaceship that crashed there in the 40's or 50's. Of course, he thinks he's hit the jackpot, but in reality he's just doomed the town. Accidentally opening up a time-space warp inside the high school, creating a real problem for the entire world as we know it. Mike and his buddies go through tons of trouble trying to shut it off, which makes for some real fun scenes.

  Overall this movie is just plain fun. It's completely on-point with the teen comedies of the era. It would be on par with genre classics like Back to the Future if it had a bigger budget. I think the budget is probably the biggest problem here. Don't get me wrong, they stretch that budget til it doesn't look cheap. But the adventure in the climax, probably should've been most of the movie instead of just relegated to the climax. As a result, the movie feels sort of like a tease. Yet I enjoy the characters enough to enjoy the whole film without issue. It's not a perfect movie, but it's a damn fun one, and one I wish more people would see.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Legend Returns...


  The predecessor to the fantastic Godzilla vs. Biollante is no slouch either. This sequel to the original 1954 classic pretty much re-introduces us to the King of the Monsters, and it does so with gusto. I hesitate to call it a re-imagining or a reinventing, but it is certainly an update on the material. Godzilla is straight-up badass here. He seems more like a gigantic creature and less like a man in a rubber suit. This movie takes it's material as serious as you can, which is probably more serious than you might think. Godzilla is not a hero in this movie, nor is he a villain. He is a force of nature, akin to a hurricane, a typhoon, an earthquake, or a volcano. In any case, Godzilla is a decent entry into the franchise.

  The movie's plot is largely ho-hum, and the characters are lost on me amidst a blur of similar characters from marathoning other Godzilla movies so close after watching this one. Yet, behind the bad dubbing and some comical acting, the effort put behind Godzilla 1985 is admirable. Godzilla is made to look like a serious threat again. He's not shaking hands with giant robots, or doing a happy dance when he scores a victory. He's rampaging through cities and terrorizing the way only the King of the Monsters can. The build up to his reveal is quite suspenseful, and effective. Yet overall, Godzilla 1985 feels more like... a nostalgia trip I guess. It's a basic Godzilla story. There's no real surprises. It's just a well crafted movie that in it's effort to evoke the feeling of a darker scarier tale, ends up being rather predictable. Dare I say, even formulaic?

  It's not necessarily such a bad thing here, but I'm not saying it's a great thing to be either. Yet in spite of all it's issues, including some really badly dubbed dialog... Godzilla 1985 prevails. It serves as a semi-reboot as it still acknowledges the existence of the 1954 original, but ignores everything else in between. As a sequel to the 1954 classic, it works well. The miniatures are fantastic, and Godzilla himself looks great. Surprisingly, this stands up well on it's own without another monster to propel the plot forward. The movie still ends up being a really good time, at least for Godzilla fans. Even then, you gotta be the right type of fan, and trust me there are many different types. Those looking for the carefree monster brawls of the showa films won't find too much to like here. Even though Godzilla is front and center- it's only Godzilla. A very dark Godzilla at that.

  There's also lots of build up trying to infuse a sense of plausibility, or at least seriousness. Utilizing an endless supply of sour looking military generals and gung-ho ignorant American types, the movie tries to humanize the problem of Godzilla. They show us lots of planning and military details, conferences and reporters. Nothing we haven't seen a hundred times, but all handled with a renewed sense of seriousness. They're not playing this for laughs, although you might think so with how some of the boneheaded American characters act. Instead it's just groan-worthy. Anyhow, there are a smattering of epic set pieces, and a fantastic musical score to accompany them, however... Godzilla 1985 is still a mixed bag when all is said and done. It doesn't do anything ENTIRELY new with the concept, instead it's content to remind us that it's okay to take it serious too. So on one hand it can seem very familiar, almost tired and done-to-death, but on the other hand you'd be overlooking what's actually a very fun monster movie at heart.

  Your call, personally I really liked it and I recommend it if you're into Godzilla. If not? It's not a bad place to start either.

Monday, June 2, 2014

In no particular order...


  With the new Godzilla movie stomping it's way into theaters I figured now is as good a time as any to catch up on all the 'Zilla movies I've always wanted to see, until I actually get to go see the new one. First and foremost, Godzilla Vs. Biollante. When I was a little kid, I only ever saw two Godzilla movies. Godzilla vs. Gigan, and Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla. You couldn't pry me away from them. They were awesome. Still are. Then, I went through a legitimate obsession phase about Godzilla. I would check out this book from the library called "The Official Godzilla Compendium". Back then, it was like the Godzilla Bible. The huge full page glossy movie stills, posters, stats, info. You name it. That's where I first saw Biollante.

  He was huge. He made Godzilla look small. He was freaking scary looking too. He was like a Satanic/Botanical version of Godzilla. Pure evil. I knew I just had to see that movie. It was going to be the most epic giant monster throwdown, ever. There was no way it wouldn't be. Unfortunately... for reasons I don't even remember, my 8 year old self gave up on the movie prematurely, barely 15 minutes in. Anyways, fast forward a gajillion years to like, now. My curiosity always maintained over the years, so I finally decided to give it another shot. It... didn't disappoint. It's a surprisingly dark and serious entry, but still action packed and very well made. As soon as the credits rolled I knew this one was already edging it's way into my favorites.

  Something that sets this one apart from a lot of others is how it dips into so many different genres. By nature, Godzilla movies are scary. On some level, the concept of a giant monster rampaging through cities- ignorantly killing thousands is frightening. Even if said monster looks like a guy in a rubber suit. However it's for that reason exactly that Godzilla movies are more sci-fi than horror any day of the week. The franchise evolved into having each movie revolve around monster vs monster brawls. So yeah, it's more sci-fi fantasy than horror. However, Godzilla vs. Biollante makes a strong effort to deliver some very scary stuff. The creature itself is a laboratory experiment gone awry. It spawns botanical tentacle vines which grab people, and drag them off to their doom. It's scary and a change of pace for a Godzilla movie.

  The sequence in mention is a great scene which gives us a taste of things to come, but on a human scale. This creature eventually will grow and fight Godzilla himself obviously, and is just as scary then as it was when it was human-sized. Out of context, the scene looks like something from your average 80's sci-fi horror movie. If you happened upon it without knowing what movie it was from, you'd be forgiven for not knowing it was a Godzilla film. The other genre dips into, again on a very human scale, is action. All the characters in the movie are fighting over some super powerful Godzilla cells. Thus you have countless shootouts and car chases. Assassins, soldiers, you name it. There's one guy in the movie, who looks like a Middle Eastern 'Terminator'. Right down to the black clothes and 80's Gargoyle shades. He's always toting big guns, and if I recall- doesn't really speak much either. Funny enough, he's not physically imposing at all and almost looks silly given how hard they tried to make him look like the Terminator. They could have at least ditched the overbearing facial hair...

  Anyways, most of this is of little consequence unfortunately because when all is said and done... the human characters in this movie are wholly unremarkable. The only one who really even registers as somewhat fun to watch is an older scientist gentleman who ends up being responsible for spawning the film's eponymous antagonist. Yet even he seems like he's sleepwalking through the part. All the horror elements and action elements which dominate the first forty minutes would have been more engaging if we cared about the characters. I know the humans will never be the main draw in a Godzilla film, but if you're going to keep Godzilla himself offscreen for almost half the movie at least give us interesting or endearing human characters to watch. Again, that's more of a complaint leveled at the entire franchise, but now's as good a time as any to bring it up seeing as how Godzilla vs. Biollante gives these human characters so much intense and exciting stuff to do, yet neglects to really make us care about them first.

  Fear not though, you didn't come to see a movie called Humans vs. Other Humans, you came to see Godzilla vs. Biollante. This giant monster showdown is one of my favorites in the entire franchise. When Godzilla finally does show up at the 40 minute mark (almost precisely, dang...) it's a mind-blowingly cool scene. He makes one hell of an entrance rising up out of an erupting volcano as the ever-classic theme music plays with gusto. His design in this movie is also probably my favorite out of the entire franchise. He looks lean, and mean, whilst also looking heroic and without looking strange and sort of un-Godzilla-like, like he does in some of the later Heisei era films. (For those who don't know, the older more kid friendly Godzilla films are classified as being the "Showa" era, and from around the 80's on, when Godzilla took a semi-darker turn, those films belong to the "Heisei" era.)

  Almost right away you have Godzilla fighting a new human-built flying machine called the Super X-2. This whole sequence is really cool, and gives the big guy something to do right off the bat instead of just stomping around Tokyo. Not that he doesn't get a chance to smash and bash a few miniature cities, but his introductory scene is a decent action scene that doesn't disappoint. From that scene on, we're strapped in for a roller coaster ride of giant monster battles, car chases, shootouts, and more giant monster battles. I'm just gonna say now though, I love Biollante. The creature itself is amazing. In both design and execution. It has a very scary on-screen presence and manages to dwarf Godzilla, lumbering next to him. He's frightening in his final form, tentacles, claws, fangs, thorns, and rows of jagged sharp teeth. He's a truly imposing monster who's look is not easily forgotten. I love it.

  His two climatic battles with Godzilla are hall of fame stuff in my opinion. This is one movie which goes all out with the monster vs monster brutality. I dare not spoil more, but years of curiosity and anticipation were paid off with this climax. Worth it all. Some may not like Godzilla's hero angle in this movie. Which while it's not direct (ala Godzilla vs. Spacegodzilla) it's there. He's the hero. It's fairly obvious. Even if it is a 'choose a lesser evil' type of situation. It seems like a departure from the tone set in Godzilla 1985, which this is almost a direct sequel to. Despite all that, Godzilla vs. Biollante edges out as a favorite of mine, and one I'd love to watch again, and soon.