Saturday, March 22, 2014

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine


  I don't usually review TV shows. I might have reviewed 2 or 3 total since I started the blog. I've always intended to review more, like Breaking Bad, Cowboy Bebop, and stuff I've put serious time into. Alas, reviewing an entire show is a daunting undertaking, and I really dislike reviewing seasons because you have to dive into minutiae and talk about stuff a casual reader might not know about. "X character in this season finally married Y character over here! This was a BAD move and really brought the show down." Why? Does someone who's never seen the show have any idea who X and Y might be? Not to mention it's a major spoiler. Would they know why that particular pairing cheapened the show? No. So I prefer to review an entire show, so I can let people know if at the end... you'll feel like it was worth your time as a whole.

  Enter: Deep Space Nine. My love for all things Star Trek feels like I was born with it, but in truth, I merely grew up with the franchise. I was watching episodes of Star Trek: Voyager when I was just a toddler, and I've seen a couple of the Next Generation movies in theaters. Even at the ripe young age of 6 I knew that The Wrath of Khan was the greatest. I used to rent it often. So, in short- I was a Trekkie in the making. I don't feel like delving into my history with Star Trek (as a frame of reference to know where, I, as a viewer am coming from with my point of view on this show) is complete without talking about how I really got sucked into it. Star Trek was always around in my childhood, but it wasn't something we were religious about. We watched the movies pretty often, but even then...

  One fateful day, at a garage sale back in the mid 2000's (mind you, even 2004 was a decade ago) I was digging around for movies or video games and I found a box full of VHS tapes. I do mean full. There must have been about 50 tapes in this box. As I read the label on each tape, I quickly discovered that each tape had two episodes of Star Trek: Voyager recorded on it. This must've been a full third of the entire show. My mom quickly insisted that we buy it. The guy only charged us $5, and then said... he'd have someone help us load up the rest of the boxes. There were two more boxes. Both full. After going over all the tapes at home, we realized we had every episode of the entire show. It took us a good two months to watch them all, in order of course. It was amazing. We'd never had the opportunity to watch any Star Trek show from start to finish before. We'd always happen to tune in a season too late to watch The Next Generation in it's entirety when it was airing on the Sci-Fi (now called SyFy) channel. Couldn't even find the original series anymore.

  In short, we fell in love with Star Trek: Voyager. We started the whole series over again at least once a year. Then, life pushed my family and I around for a while and we moved, things happened, and we kinda gave up watching the show. We'd watch a bit, here and there, but mainly we were back to the movies and whatever out-of-order episode of The Next Generation was on SyFy. Then came Netflix. A proud owner of a PS3, when Netflix streaming hit... it pretty much was the most amazing thing ever. About a year later, all the Star Trek shows appeared on Netflix. Sheer bliss. Naturally, being able to watch Voyager without having to fast forward commercials was my first instinct... but not for long. I now had access to The Original Series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise.  All of them. So of course, being ever familiar with Kirk, and Picard, we powered through The Original Series, and The Next Generation. At least twice over. But even then, I knew there was one show I simply couldn't ignore anymore. A show not even my parents bothered with, much less even liked... Deep Space Nine.

  I'm not sure if I started watching it because I'd already seen everything else (excluding Enterprise. Which I just don't like) or if I genuinely wanted to discover it. It was always "that one show" in my family. Nobody cared for it. My mind had been made up for me, before I even had a chance to find out on my own. So I started watching it on Netflix. The series premiere didn't grab me. I saw it. Forgot about it. Moved on. After starting Voyager again with my family I thought to myself, the premiere of this wasn't so great either... and neither was the premiere of Next Generation... maybe I should give Deep Space Nine another shot? So I did. I won't lie, it was a timely mix of sheer boredom and inertia that carried me through the first couple seasons of the show. They were unbalanced, and they struggled to find a rhythm. Yet... even Next Generation and Voyager stumbled through their first couple seasons.

  Deep Space 9 however is almost frustrating to watch in it's sophomoric seasons. You get the sense that it's much more story driven than the other shows, and by that I mean a single story. One big unfolding plot that threads through the entire show. Yet, this big plot isn't handled so well in the beginning. Everything sort of... doesn't fit. The show had potential for chemistry, but only glimpses of when everything truly 'clicked' in seasons 1 and 2. It tries to maintain the "monster of the week" formula that served it's predecessors so well, but the catch is, Deep Space Nine is set on a stationary outpost. You can't "seek out new life forms and new civilizations". You're stuck. On a very confined space station. So you're left with mainly character episodes. Unfortunately for the show, the characters are in their infancy development-wise this early on. Usually episodes like this come during seasons 4 or 5 in any other show. You simply don't know these characters that well so early. Certainly not well enough to care by default.

  Season 3 was a godsend. The writers seemed to get wise to how these characters could interact successfully. Bam. Sparks. This was the turning point for the whole show. Am interesting cosmic conspiracy began to form coherently, eventually they were given a swank little ship, the characters blossomed, chemistry flowed and the show mostly dropped the "monster of the week" formula. Some shows NEED that (ahem. X-Files, looking at you...) others can't sustain it at all. Just like DS9.  The cast really came into their own in the seasons that followed and so did many other things. The space station stopped feeling like a hotel, Benjamin Sisko stopped feeling like a hotel director, and everything started feeling important. The station became the lynch pin in a war against a powerful alien enemy, and Sisko, the show's main protagonist, became more than just an explorer and a diplomat like Kirk, Picard or Janeway... he became a soldier. A soldier on the front lines of an intergalactic war.

  The setting of a war like that gave the show some very interesting material to deal with. The show becomes very political and intricate. Cause and effect lasts beyond any singular episode. Things happen that have lasting repercussions for seasons to come. This is also why it's hard to watch out of order. All the other Trek shows can be casual viewing. Not Deep Space Nine. No way. You have to follow the story sequentially to get the full effect. This I imagine, robbed it of some of it's larger audience. Even Trekkies. This show demands your full attention and continually too. Miss an episode of Next Generation, and you're fine. Catch it on a rerun. Miss an episode of Deep Space Nine, and the tides of the entire war might have shifted, a crucial character might have died, someone might be missing, and the station might be under siege. It could be any... or all of these things. And any one of those plot threads might extend over five or six episodes, with measurable effect on the rest of the entire show.

  Deep Space Nine is a show you have to follow intently. Things are mentioned from earlier episodes, even earlier seasons, and you have to know those things in order to understand what's going on. It'd be incredibly hard to simply 'tune in' halfway through the show and expect to enjoy it. However, because the show demands so much of it's viewers in a franchise that's so very very different, it's easily way more rewarding. The characters in the show form a much tighter bond in my opinion. The kind of lasting friendship you can see in Kirk and Spock can be seen amongst the crew of DS9. The camaraderie is palpable because you're watching a group of people bond not just over regular day-to-day situations, but over the course of a war where their lives are constantly on the line in a way previously unseen in a Trek show.

  Deep Space Nine is definitely the red headed child of the Star Trek franchise, but that is no reason to avoid it. Especially not now when awesome services like Netflix have made it available in it's entirety right at your finger tips. It's an incredibly rewarding show with top shelf stories and sci-fi concepts for the ages. The characters end up feeling like family in a way that only certain singular episodes of the other shows were able to relate to the audiences. Having finished the whole show, I feel more complete as a Star Trek fan. Is this a good jumping-on point for people who've never seen any Star Trek shows before? No... I don't think so. For that, I suggest Star Trek: The Next Generation, season 3 and onward. Arguably the most polished and well defined seasons of the entire franchise. Or, fall in love with the movies. Make no mistake though... if you're a newcomer, no matter where you choose to start, Deep Space Nine more than deserves to be a stop on your tour through the vast Star Trek universe. While not my favorite Star Trek show, it is undeniably, a fantastic show, and even a worthy hallmark in the Star Trek franchise. It's one I wholeheartedly recommend and one I can't wait to revisit sometime in the future.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Bounty Killer


  It's movies like this that just... make my day. While the art of exploitation may not be the general norm these days, there are movies and people who try to keep it alive. Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, and maybe even Eli Roth are some of the few who did so, quite famously. Yet, the indie/low-budget/straight-to-video market is chock full of wannabe exploitation movies. Movies that try to be grindhouse... but never really get there. Oddly enough, the original genre was born out of greed. These movies weren't made for the fun of it, or for the 'art' of it. They were made to make as much money as possible. But in the 70's and 80's, you had to compete with box office juggernauts like Jaws, and Star Wars. So, what do you do...?

  Of course, you obviously make ripoffs of those movies, with a few... changes. Mainly, boat-loads of nudity, tons of gore, and some of the most off the wall insane concepts you could possibly imagine. Sometimes exploitation movies didn't directly ripoff any specific movie, but you'd be hard pressed to say the concept, look, or general story wasn't painfully familiar, if you could only put your finger on it... Often times these movies simply took a very tried-and-true concept, maybe even overused and made it it's bread and butter. The rape/revenge genre for example. Tons of exploitation movies boil down to that. Thriller: A Cruel Picture, I Spit on Your Grave, Savage Streets, Ms.45, I could go on...

  The point is, exploitation movies sought to lure in a crowd by being vulgar, graphic, in-your-face, and... well... exploitative. You could see in these sleaze-fests what you couldn't see in mainstream movies. They had no holds barred, and without anyone much trying, they were often a hell of a lot of fun. Usually because they were unpredictable and overly violent. Simple, bloody, to-the-point, fun. If X villain killed your family, you grabbed a bunch of guns, and killed him to death. What's not to love? For some people... nothing. It's not their bag. I get it. It's not for everyone. These movies are glorified trash. Even fans admit that. But there's something irrepressibly fun about exploitation movies. Which is why filmmakers romanticize the genre even to this day.

  It's become something of an artsy sub-genre of movies because nowadays, you have to replicate the look of how exploitation movies looked back then, or at least replicate the atmosphere and design of things. Back in the 70's and 80's, these movies were grainy, dirty looking, and low budget. That stuck with the genre like white on rice. So when guys like Rodriguez and Tarantino made their movies, they of course replicated the dirt, grain, and grime. You just had to. Unfortunately, not all efforts are as successful. Some movies over-complicate things, or overuse the grain filter, or use CGI too much (which REALLY kills the experience) and it just... doesn't feel right. Lemme tell you something, low budget CGI is ugly, clunky, and could only possibly be seen as nostalgic in maybe another 20 years. So when these wannabe exploitation movies have like... CGI blood... it's lame. Fail.

  I get tired of getting my hopes up for some of these movies, and since so many of them sail under my radar, I rarely touch any of the new exploitation movies. Then this movie came along... I happened to like the lead actors, so I thought to myself, I give it five minutes- if it hasn't hooked me by then... I'm turning it off and going back to bed. As if it read my mind and said "Chill out bro, we got this..." it hooked me immediately. The movie opened with a big bloody shootout in a bar. Blood? Not CGI? Check. Beautiful woman who's in a lead role wearing impractically sexy clothing? Check. Ruggedly handsome lead actor who shoots a lot of guns? Check. Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy. This was promising. Yet it could have gone so wrong...
and didn't.

  This movie is like The Road Warrior (a genre classic in anyone's book) and Mr. & Mrs.Smith, smashed together. It has all the trappings of a fantastically fun exploitation flick and good looking stars with plenty of chemistry between them. The concept is a bit wonky, but like any good grindhouse flick- it's almost unbelievable yet... scarily enough, could actually happen. It brings to mind the state of society as seen in the movie Death Race 2000. A society so desensitized to carnage and death, it became a national pastime. Completely ridiculous, no?  Yet... we enjoy movies like that, don't we? Such meaty food for thought. In a similar manner, Bounty Killer shows us a future where big corporations ended up controlling the world- overruling governments, and starting business wars between each other. Literal wars. I found it funny how brand name corporations brought about the nuclear apocalypse and not warring governments. Yet, are they really any different when all is said and done? More meaty food for thought!

  Yet, the movie isn't a thinking man's movie. It's a movie where people get chopped in half, decapitated, shot to pieces, stabbed in the eyeball, explode, and ultimately die in various horrible yet awesome ways. This is why you come to exploitation movies! The killing! What else? This movie is spectacular in it's gratuitous violence. Few low budget movies have the guts to forego CGI blood, which is definitely cheaper these days, and use loads of real fake blood. Real... fake... blood. It's a funny phrase, but a necessary distinction, albeit one I'm sad I have to make. CGI blood, just... shouldn't be a thing. If it's existence is necessary, it wasn't meant to be used for something so trivial as shooting someone in the chest onscreen. More or less, it's about believe-ability. You have to buy into what you see on the screen to a certain extent. Sure, bright red blood isn't exactly realistic- but it is tangible, and as far as something that exists in reality, and is on set, being sprayed all over the actors... it has a certain gravitas to it that can still make you cringe. CGI blood... takes you out of the experience. It just looks extra fake, to the point where it doesn't even look like it's there. So very bad.

  Bounty Killer uses real fake blood. A LOT of real fake blood. This made me smile, and the sheer variety of ways in which our protagonists kill the bad guys. Oh boy. So much fun. Yet despite the desert-punk, post-apocalyptic, motorcycling, gun-toting, good time this movie is- there are a few drawbacks I'd be remiss if I didn't point out. First, there is a lot of CGI usage. Understandably so though. Since matte painting and miniatures are such dead art forms, hiring people to do that stuff for you now could be insanely expensive. Especially when you can hire some college dude to whip up a serviceable background or helicopter shot on Photoshop for next to nothing. This is why I'm not holding it against the movie. It doesn't feel like they were copping out, but more like they had budget restraints. I can understand that. To be fair, they do a damned good job of trying to blend the CGI bits and pieces in to plenty of practical effects. Most of it is really well done. Great job.

  Secondly, you guys had Gary Busey... and wasted him. The granddaddy of scenery chewing, and he gets one little scene where he does next to nothing. This guy could've been walking, talking, gold in a movie like this! Yet oddly enough, he seems to be the one person sleepwalking through his screentime, all five minutes of it. Shame on whoever's fault this was. For once, Busey isn't funny or outrageous. He walks into the movie, and is forgettable five minutes later. Matthew Marsden does a fantastic job as the leading guy. He has the gruff post-apocalyptic hero shtick down to a T. He looks good attached to the trigger of a gun, and thankfully, that's where he spends most of the movie. This movie is full of action, as any good exploitation action flick should be. Gunfight after gunfight, each one eclipsing the last. It's a thing of beauty. And then there's car chases through the desert so friggin cool that they would have Max Rockatansky sending flowers.

  Lest I forget to mention Christian Pitre. She is a quintessential exploitation lady of action. Strangely enough though I can't find a damn thing about the actress online. A bare bones iMDB page, no wikipedia page at all, and only a handful of credits to her name. Shame. She's amazing. I do think though she's a bit older than her character was supposed to be, and sometimes it showed and was odd, but it wasn't a cardinal sin or anything. She got into the role, got bloody, dirty, and all messed up... repeatedly. As much of a star as Marsden, if not more, she was a shining delight to watch in this movie. There was even a comic relief guy who wasn't unbearable. I want to fault the movie for including him, because exploitation movies didn't really intentionally inject humor into their movies. They ended up being unintentionally funny, which is something Black Dynamite understood in spades. 

  Yet, I can't fault Bounty Killer for this, firstly because the guy is actually funny, secondly because this movie walks the line. It doesn't employ film grain or anything and it's not overly gimmicky of being an exploitation movie. It just is. It's not trying to be a grainy, drive-in, bloodfest from the 70's, anymore than the exploitation movies in the 70's were trying to spawn a retro-cool sub-genre. Bounty Killer is simply inspired by those movies, influenced by them, and fueled by them. It has no problem existing in 2013 though. More stupid fun movies should be like this. It knows it's entirely batshit crazy and off-the-wall, and like any good movie in the genre does- it embraces it. 

There's a scene in the movie (semi-spoilery but not really?) where the villain is trying to coerce the hero into joining her- someone knocks on the door, and the villain says "We're in the middle of a meeting!" Of course the person knocks the door down and it's our hero's leading lady. Who of course, promptly punches the villain in the face with a quip. The hero then says... "I would've said 'this meeting is over!'"
Which is exactly what I was hoping would be said. If you thought the same thing, then undoubtedly, you'll love this movie. If you rolled your eyes and groaned, stay far away. 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Spawn


  A dark, Gothic comic book to begin with, Spawn never had an easy transition to the big screen. At the time, when you said "comic book movie" you obviously meant something like Superman: The Movie, or Tim Burton's Batman. Both well respected movies. Both relatively family friendly. (In Superman's case, maybe excessively so...) Then you try to pitch the head honchos a comic book movie... about a hero who gets his powers straight from Satan? The more you try to explain, the worse it would seem. See, he's an assassin who's a borderline psychotic who gets killed and winds up in Hell and makes a deal with the devil to lead his satanic army against god and his angels in exchange for seeing his wife again... and then there's John Leguizamo's character. Oh boy.

  There is no part of this that sounds PG-13 or even remotely family friendly. For movie studios looking to make some money, this is a very uncomfortable prospect. After all, their #1 priority is to maximize the appeal of this movie- of any movie -so that more people will see it. Obviously. More people = more money. Would Spawn have been better without studio imposed restrictions? Most likely. Would it have been that much better? I doubt it, and... this is the first time I've doubted it. In a roundabout way, I grew up with this movie- although I wasn't allowed to see it as a kid, it's always one I wanted to see. Much like Small Soldiers, and Mars Attacks. My parents lumped it in with that 'edgy' group of movies that was just out of reach for a kid like me.

  I saw the toys in stores, the ads on TV, the trailers, the box art at the video stores, the posters, the comic book adaption. I wanted to see Spawn very very badly. It looked awesome. So when I finally saw it, I was 14 and admittedly, it was a pretty cool experience for me. So when it came time for me to assess the movie with my underdeveloped movie critic sensibilities, I blamed all of it's flaws on the studio interference. Honestly, it's quite easy to do because without studio interference this movie might have been Rated R. I would've like that, and fans would've too. Yet, the Director's Cut is Rated R, and that doesn't fix any of it's problems. Mainly because it was still shot with PG-13 in mind, so a little Director's Cut can only restore what was altered or cut our prior to it's release. Sigh.

  Anyways, the problem does not solely lie on the studio involvement, much blame can be placed squarely on the shoulders of first time director Mark A.Z. Dippe. As I read what I'm writing here in my head, I say his name with a slow and over-articulated draw that is dripping with disdain. Yeah, the guy has done good visual effects work on movies like Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park, but why on Earth they handed him a forty million dollar summer blockbuster like this will always escape me. You need a tried and true director for stuff like this. Dippe is out of his league and it shows. This sophomoric effort is disjointed and lacks any real bite. A movie like Spawn needs teeth, so to speak. You have all this wonderfully dark and grim thematic content, yet you squander it on the most banal humor that only a five year old would find funny, and you shortchange the movie in the action department as well.

  Spawn is a mess. Entirely. There are some cool parts, no doubt. Michael Jai White makes a good hero, and he has several really cool scenes in the movie. The alley fight with the giant demon-gecko, The Violator, springs to mind as one of the few times this movie worked really well. The setting is another example. Much of Spawn's journey has him returning to an alleyway that the homeless have turned into a makeshift city. It's a grim set and filthy, yet it's also interesting and fully realized. Something that most of this movie isn't. When it comes down to it, I argue Spawn needed more action scenes to qualify as a guilty pleasure. It's stunning that this movie is so short on action. So much of the movie is chewed up by awful voiceovers that overly explain everything, and stupid scenes between Leguizamo's Clown and (a horribly misused) Martin Sheen, that Spawn is almost a leftover character- scrambling to find time to make use of his new powers and kick some ass.

  He's relegated to operate under some terrible pacing issues that makes the film suffer so badly that it can't even scrape up enough energy to be a fun bad movie. For anyone who owns the movie, and has willingly sat through it more than once, it's appeal must lie in some warped sense of nostalgia. I know it does for me. It's an hour and thirty eight minutes of wasted potential in all areas, save a few. Like I said, there are some scenes that work so well, you're almost impressed. In those scenes you get a glimpse of what Spawn could have been, and sadly wasn't. But first and foremost the one aspect of this movie I find absolutely awesome, is the design aspect. Spawn looks really damn cool. The way his armor activates and adheres to him like a second skin, the look of his mask, his cape. He looks awesome. The movie does him justice, if nobody and nothing else.

  Unfortunately, this is not the "special effects event of the year!" anymore, and I doubt it ever was. The computer effects in this movie for the most part, are just... painfully outdated. I'm not one to rag on old effects, but these are so bad, someone should've reconsidered making this movie like they did. The scenes of hell are entirely computer generated and it's bad looking. Objects float around looking like a Windows 95 screensaver, textures are of such a low resolution they look flat and fake, pixels and other artifacts crop up frequently, oh and they couldn't render hair worth a damn. The devil himself, Malebolgia, looks just as awful as the setting he's trapped in. If I was him, I would most certainly enslave Michael Jai White to try and murder God so I could finally escape that flat 2D looking Hell and find myself some better looking CG accommodations in... maybe a Pixar flick?

  So, in closing, Spawn has all the ingredients there to have at the very least be a guilty pleasure movie. Fantastic design, some cool scenes, Michael Jai White, some occasional cool effects, and that's about it. It's up to you to decide if that's worth the stilted acting, gross humor, terrible pacing, and amateurish direction. For me? Eh. I watched it as an excuse to review it. Or... did I plan to review it as an excuse to watch it? It's such a misfire of a movie, but one that I have nostalgic feelings for. A movie that is nothing like what it should've been, yet still so different from anything else of it's time. It's a mixed bag, and one that I'd love to remember fondly, honestly, yet I just can't.

    Ladies and Gentlemen...
                                           Spawn.