Tuesday, December 24, 2013

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

 Welcome back, saps and saplings! It is I, Douglas Fir, your coniferous overlord! I've tied up Cap'n Howdy and locked him in the closet given the Cap'n the day off to do whatever it is he's been doing instead of reviewing Madea's Christmas, and now it's time for your most benevolent overlord to provide you with some TREE-mendous merriment.

 As some of you pathetic sacks of meat know, Douglas Fir spends all of his time not used to bring about the Treepocalypse to track down sufficient video evidence of your impending doom, and while I seek high and low, I find myself PINE-ing for something worthy of sharing with you. Until this year, that is! Yes, this year, I found just the right son of a BIRCH with an eye to portray the holidays for what it truly is to my people, and to hint at the Treepocalypse to come. Then I, Douglas Fir, will assume the throne you will all cower before my greatness.

 In the meantime, here is a documentary about what is to come, called TREEVENGE:

Treevenge from jasoneisener on Vimeo.


Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Cap'n Howdy's (Back)Log: Escape Plan

  Escape Plan is a surprisingly good theatrically released DTV movie. Wait, let me take that back. That's a mean way to start the review, and since Escape Plan is actually a (lot) better than either Bullet to the Head or The Last Stand, I shouldn't be diminishing your expectations already by suggesting that it's a non-direct to video DTV entry. Not that you'd be mistaken for thinking that when I get to the cast, a who's who of once-upon-a-time "they're in this?" but now probably more like "oh, that's what they're up to"-ers. Again, I feel I'm being mean already, and I really liked Escape Plan. Maybe DTV is just better than what you'd expect it to be these days (except the ones starring Bruce Willis). Or maybe the average action movie just isn't (A Good Day to Die Hard, I'm looking at you...)

 So if you're ignoring The Expendables, and for the moment let's do that, Escape Plan is the first film co-headlined by Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. This is definitely still a Stallone movie, but Arnold has a crucial supporting part and drives most of the narrative. More importantly, unlike his one-liner joke machine cameos in The Expendables movies, Schwarzenegger is actually playing a character that doesn't rely on the fact we know he's Ah-nuld. It's pretty cool to see him no be quite as larger than life but just be a grizzled criminal who needs Sly's help. Stallone is basically playing any of his non-Rocky / Rambo-types, but that's a good thing. The "man of few words" works for what amounts to a pretty linear plot.

 Ray Breslin (Stallone) is a former prosecutor turned profession jailbreak-er. He works for a consulting firm that helps the Department of Prison Services determine how safe their institutions are from escapes, and as he demonstrates in the first ten minutes, Ray is very good at observing routines, memorizing layouts, and discovering weaknesses in prison security. He's so good, in fact, that Ray literally wrote the book on prison design (we see it several times in the movie). CIA representative Jessica Miller (Caitriona Balfe) comes to Breslin's boss Lester Clark (Vincent D'Onofrio) with a proposition: a secret, non-government sanction super prison is being tested for the worst of the worst, and in order to make sure that it's really as state-of-the-art as they hope it is, they want Ray to try to get out. Despite the clandestine details surrounding his arrival to "The Tomb," Breslin reluctantly agrees, but quickly discovers that someone with an axe to grind intends for him to stay there permanently.

 Now this is already a pretty good "wrong man" setup before we're introduced to Emil Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger), who's in "The Tomb" for refusing to cooperate with authorities in locating his boss, an international thief / hacker. Rottmayer turns out to be the only friend Breslin has, even when Ray isn't interested in forging alliances. This prison is, well, different: the cells are plexiglass and elevated, the guards are all masked to hide their identities and use random schedules, and warden Hobbes (Jim Caveziel) built the facility using Breslin's book as a blueprint. Hobbes doesn't know Ray's actual identity at first, but he's bound and determined to keep every "asset" under his thumb, and his number one "guard," Drake (Vinnie Jones) is the muscle that backs that up.

 While Escape Plan doesn't necessarily rewrite the "prison escape movie" playbook (come in, turn enemies into friends, work out the prison, etc.), I will give it credit for little touches that you don't see often enough. For example, there's probably a really good reason most of the people in this high tech prison (one that has a barcode scanner for uniforms) were captured in the first place, but you never think twice when Ray includes some of them in his plan that they too should escape. Partly this is because of how cruel Hobbes is, but also the nature of this "black site" prison - which, speaking of nice touches, is in a novel location - we're already iffy that it should exist when the CIA pitches it to Ray. It doesn't get better when Breslin wakes up from being drugged to see Drake stabbing a prisoner and throwing him out of a helicopter. (To be fair, Hobbes does dock him the cost of the "asset" for doing that).

 This also might be the first American action movie since True Lies and definitely since the year 2001 that I can think of where a character is a practicing Muslim (Javed, played by the President of Elysium, Faran Tahir) and not portrayed as a cartoonish villain but as a man of faith who speaks openly about it. In fact, his prayer becomes a central plot point late in the film, as do his doubts about whether this would offend Allah. Hobbes gets to be even more of a jerk when he replies to Javed's "God is great" by saying "Yeah, whatever" and (SPOILER) shooting him.

 I also appreciated that while it plays out pretty much like you'd expect it to, there are initially some questions about allegiances and who Breslin can and can't trust, mostly due to a twist near the end of the film I must admit I'd forgotten about. This isn't tied to the twist, but to get back to the quasi-DTV casting nature of this, the prison doctor Kyrie is performed by In the Mouth of Madness's Sam Neill, and what I was expecting (or, I should say, dreading) was the long speech about how he ended up in these dubious circumstances. You know the speech, we've heard it a million times. It happens right before he decides to help the hero out, but in Escape Plan, it never happens. Instead of being told, we see it in the look on Neill's face when he tells Ray anesthetic is forbidden by Hobbes, or in a simple shot of Dr. Kyrie reading the Hippocratic oath with a bottle of liquor next to him. It explains the shaky hands when he tried to stitch up Ray. In a movie that could just go the expected route, I'm happy when it doesn't.

 So we've got Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Caveziel, Sam Neill, Vincent D'Onofrio, and Vinnie Jones so far, but this alone does not a non-DTV DTV roster make. We need at least two more cast members with name recognition, and luckily, I haven't even mentioned Ray's team. For starters, there's Hush, the ex-con who would go back into prison to help Ray get out if he needed help, and is the computer expert. How about 50 Cent? Done! And what about Abigail, the conscience of the team and hard-to-tell if she's hot for Ray or not (seriously, it's not clear). Let's go with Academy Award nominee for Gone Baby Gone's Amy Ryan. Ladies and gentlemen, let's slap those names on some photoshopped artwork and get this sucker onto Target shelves!

 Or they could not do that and release it in theatres with just Stallone and Schwarzenegger and people don't go see it, just like they didn't see The Last Stand or Bullet to the Head. It's a shame, because Escape Plan is a) really good and b) surprises you with the cast because unless you hit up IMDB first, you probably didn't know anybody else was in this movie. Not literally, of course, but I suspect you wouldn't know there were that many recognizable names / faces in Escape Plan. You probably just thought it was another stupid action movie that nobody wanted to see, thusly making Escape Plan's failure a self-fulfilling prophecy. And that's too bad, because while I enjoyed Furious 6 quite a bit, it doesn't need to be the only high water mark of action movies while we put up with garbage like G.I. Joe: Retaliation. From what I've seen of Olympus Has Fallen, it is arguably more preposterous but not as well constructed as Escape Plan.

 Speaking of which, I was very surprised to find that Mikael Håfström, he who made 1408, directed Escape Plan. Truth be told, this was an improvement in just about every way over that movie, with the exception of no John Cusack, who was probably busy making his own quasi-DTV joint. But anyway, Escape Plan. Rent it when it comes out. Watch it with your buddies. Sly's good. Arnold's good. The rest of the cast is good too. Some nice twists. An interesting setting. Arnold gives an entire monologue in German which is the first time I can think of that happening in a very long time (if at all). Gratuitous sequence in New Orleans because it's cheap to film action movies in Louisiana (seriously, even the Jason Statham / James Franco movie, Homefront*, was filmed there). It's a better movie than a lot of people will give it credit for, and definitely a better action movie than anything other than Furious 6 that I mentioned in this review. If you have to, pretend it's DTV and it'll be even better, but that's not really being fair to the movie is all I'm saying.

 * Written by Sylvester Stallone.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Cap'n Howdy's (Back)Log: Documentary Recap!

   While it may come as a surprise to readers that the Cap'n spends time watching more than just schlock, more often than you'd expect I'll sit down and watch a documentary. What you may notice is that I don't often write about them, usually because I don't feel like rehashing what they're about. Ultimately, the question is whether there's something new to learn about the subject that you didn't already know (if you knew anything about it in the first place), and I suppose that most of the below succeed in that category to one degree or the other. In this instance, I'm including these mini-reviews to let you know they exist, because I hadn't seen or heard too much about them prior to screening.

Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters - It's hard not to see this movie and draw parallels to The King of Kong, because they are, in essence, about the same thing. Tetris fan Pat Cotri discovers that while there are a number of rankings on various sites, there has never been a tournament to determine a champion for the game, so he organizes one and invites various "masters" from around the world to compete. Looming over the entire event is the question of whether Thor Aackerlund, the legendary wunderkind of the Nintendo World Championships of the 1990s, will return from a self-imposed exile in order to join the tournament.

 Where Ecstasy of Order differs from The King of Kong is that there's no "David vs. Goliath" angle, ala the Billy Mitchell / Steve Wiebe high score battle. These are evenly matched players who accomplished extraordinary feats with the game of Tetris (the NES version, for those curious), including the rumors that Thor not only reached "Max Score" but has more lines than anyone on the "Kill Screen," - the point at which lines begin to fall so fast it's nearly impossible to line them up.

 Rather than deal with human conflict, Ecstasy of Order centers around technique, about the approach to Tetris, and about the many ways players accomplish feats most of us didn't know where possible. It becomes a bit hypnotic, and that's well before the demonstration of the "invisible pieces" version of Tetris appears in the film. I won't reveal who does and doesn't make it to the tournament, let alone who wins, but I appreciated the level of respect among competitors. The title of Tetris Master is no misnomer in this case.

 Rewind This! - A documentary about VHS tapes and the people who love them? Yes indeed, my friends. Designed as a love letter of sorts to a (mostly) defunct staple of home video, Rewind This both covers the history of the videotape, its rise and fall, and the fanatics who go out of their way to collect the obscure and the bizarre releases that will in all likelihood never be released again. As somebody who grew up during the era of home video (and who has more than a few VHS tapes at home), it's nice to see that the love for the format still exists, even though tapes have a worse chance than vinyl of enduring over time. The very things that come up about why VHS is so endearing - the tracking lines, the wear over parts of the film replayed repeatedly - are the very reason that they don't last. Tapes wear out, break, and can sadly be erased at a moment's notice.

 Now that hasn't stopped me from keeping the ones I have (and coveting the one VCR I own that still works) but the truth is that it's harder to maintain this medium. The nostalgia factor and the access to titles that, quite frankly, have and probably will only exist on tape is the driving thrust behind the documentary (not to mention a continuing thread on series like Red Letter Media's "Best of the Worst" or Everything is Terrible), so it was nice to see a celebration like Rewind This!. VHS essentially launched home video, and it was (and, I suppose, is) the longest running format to date. After all, DVD barely made it ten years before Blu-Ray began chipping away, and who knows how long that has before digital or the next innovation takes over? Eventually we may come to a point where the tapes no longer play, and Rewind This! might go from a love letter to an archive of a lost era, but in the meantime, it really got me jazzed to fire up the VCR again...

 41 - I didn't know much about George H.W. Bush - as a President or as a man - when I watched 41 so in that regard this HBO documentary was informative. It's much more focused on Bush as the man rather than as the public servant, and surprisingly doesn't cover much of his time as President (or, for more obvious reasons, his period in the CIA). If you don't know much about him or his family history, it's certainly worth checking out, but don't expect much in the way of political gossiping, ala Clinton's My Life. Other than a very curt mention of how he "doesn't want to talk about" Ross Perot and the 1992 election, Bush is remarkably magnanimous towards most of the people he worked with. You also won't learn too much about what he thinks about George W. Bush, or Jeb for that matter, but there's plenty about the dogs. I don't mean to undersell the documentary as fluff, because it really isn't - you'll learn a lot about Bush's personal history and home life, but there's a limit to the political lessons to be gleaned from the experience.

 Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic - Showtime produced a rather thorough documentary about the life of Richard Pryor, from his earliest stages of comedy right up until his premature retirement due to advanced MS. I must admit to being surprised at how much of Pryor's career I wasn't aware of, in particular the period before he dropped out of comedy to reinvent himself in anonymity out west. There's a great deal more to the "freebasing" incident that led to burns all over Pryor's head and body than one would think based on more cursory career retrospectives, and certainly more about how he lived after MS sidelined him (something even a heart attack couldn't do earlier in his life). I'm not sure that I'd ever seen footage from the failed attempt at Live on the Sunset Strip that preceded the concert film we all know, but it's fascinating to see his awareness that it's just not happening. My only gripe is that among all of the other comedians, celebrities, friends, and lovers interviewed, I don't understand why Dave Chappelle was included if he only appears twice in the documentary, for a total of less than two minutes. Both times he appears the comments are more conjecture than insight, and it seems like a waste of Chappelle to bring him in only to add nothing.

Necessary Evil: Super Villains of DC Universe - My familiarity with the villainy of the DC Universe is mostly limited to Batman, with a smattering of Superman and Green Lantern antagonists thrown in for good measure. Other than knowing the names Manta Ray, Black Adam, Reverse Flash, and Gorilla Grodd, I don't know much of anything about them. I'd like to say this documentary helped, but while a lot of DC antagonists are included, the focus sways heavily on psychoanalytical reasons for villains to exist and how each DC hero's rogues gallery is uniquely suited towards them.

 This is not to say that the documentary, narrated by Christopher Lee, isn't interesting, but if you're looking for more than the most cursory discussion of major villains, you might wish that this could be spun off into a series. Lex Luthor and the Joker get most of the screen time, and that's not actually that much, because at a little over 100 minutes, there's more of a focus into breaking them down into types with the occasional brief overview of characters like Man-Bat or Harley Quinn (again, Batman characters I already knew about).

 I'm not certain who this documentary is for, either, considering that many of the participants - including DC executives, artists, writers, voice actors, and people who on the surface have next to nothing to do with the comics (WWE Superstar CM Punk shows up once specifically to mention Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, and nothing else!) - talk about major characters as though fans have never heard of them. Doomsday's entire first appearance is covered, up to the death of Superman and an explanation of what happens if you kill Doomsday. Perhaps Necessary Evil was designed as a primer for readers of DC's new-ish "52" re-launch. I'm not sure. It's fun to watch, but I must admit that it amounts to little substance by the time it ends.

Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown - There's a lot of substance at hand in this documentary about one of the titans of horror writing. Yes, Stephen King sells more and Clive Barker is more disturbing, but the influence of H.P. Lovecraft permeates every crack and crevice, every darkened hallway of horror to this day. What I wasn't expecting from Fear of the Unknown, what turned out to be the most welcome, was how in depth the coverage of Lovecraft's personal life and how they influenced his writing. The documentary moves in a basically chronological fashion through his life, but takes detours to analyze major stories in depth with a who's who of writers, directors, and historians.

 Among the interviewees are Lovecraft biographer S.T. Joshi, writers Neil Gaiman, Ramsey Campbell, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Peter Straub, and directors John Carpenter, Stuart Gordon, and Guillermo del Toro, all of whom bring a wealth of knowledge about the author and his stories. Carpenter tells the story of how, as a child, he read The Rats in the Walls in a horror anthology and its lasting effect on him. Much to my surprise, the racist tendencies in Lovecraft's writing isn't glossed over and discussion and contextualization of his opinions on immigration appear throughout Fear of the Unknown, often with a more frank and less apologetic tone than might be expected. The analysis of the stories is most welcome and the participants go well beyond rehashing the Elder Gods mythos in bringing insight to Lovecraft's many phases of writing. Also, make sure to watch the extra interviews if you pick up the disc to hear Carpenter discuss In the Mouth of Madness, Gordon explain why his adaptation of Shadow Over Innsmouth is called Dagon, or about del Toro's (currently) aborted attempt to adapt At the Mountains of Madness.

Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony - Well, maybe this should be called "the Extremely Unexpected Pre-teen to College-Aged Male Fans of My Little Pony," because at least at the outset, that's what Bronies seems to be about. This documentary is all over the place, and while I suppose it is enlightening, I'm not sure what audiences are supposed to take away from it, other than adults watch My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.

(After doing a little research, it looks like the documentary was originally going to follow John de Lancie at conventions (he appears on the show as the voice of Discord) but when the Kickstarter campaign ended considerably more successful than anticipated, the scope changed. I'm not sure it was for the better.)

 Bronies is a schizophrenic film, one that starts with a montage of teenage guys talking about how weird it is that they like My Little Pony ("it's for little girls") and then later the persistent argument is that it shouldn't be weird but gee, isn't it so weird you guys? It's never a Trekkies level of "freak show" documentary* but I really think that if people didn't continually mention how weird people must think it is even though it's totally not and we should get over being prejudicial about the fact that adults watch cartoons for kids, the message might just sink in for itself. Seriously, all the documentary really needed was the scene where the dad of one Brony who doesn't know how to feel about his son liking the show talking to another dad who embraces his son's fandom. It says more than a dozen talking heads repeating ad nauseum that "there's nothing 'weird' about it" and that bullies should stop picking on Bronies. Yes, we got it. Please can we not keep reminding the audience that it's not weird that people are geeky about things. Most of them - particularly ones who are inclined to watch a documentary about Bronies - are going to move past the "weird" phase quickly.

 That said, the increased scope does mean that while the focus is all over the map, there is more of an international vibe to the film. Bronies follows an Israeli DJ who makes music based on the show, a couple in Germany who make their own figurines, a young man in England with Asperger's who travels to Manchester for his first convention, and stateside, a fan from a small town in North Carolina who is incessantly bullied for proudly displaying his fandom for the show. Hearing what the show means to all of them is worthwhile, and while I don't necessarily think it's "weird" for adults or young adults (we don't really meet adult fans until well into the movie) to like a cartoon, I get that My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is probably viewed differently than Invader Zim or SpongeBob Squarepants (shows that started airing when I was well into my twenties).

 Interviews with de Lancie and voice actor Tara Strong are valuable, as well as insight from creator Lauren Faust, but I think Bronies tries too hard to be too many things - a late inclusion that "oh yeah, adult women like My Little Pony: Friendship is magic, too!" seemed, well, odd, as though the focus needed to shift once more well into production. This is a side note, but I could tell it was a Kickstarter funded production when the movie ended with nine minutes to go, and sure enough, eight of those nine minutes were names of people who helped to fund Bronies. I hope they don't mind that I skimmed that part - normally I watch the entire credits of a film out of respect for the people who made it, but even the Cap'n has limits. Still, enlightening, I guess, in that I a) had no idea there was a new My Little Pony show (and I worked in a toy store!) and b) that it had unexpected adult fans. Good on you, Friendship is Magic!

* In truth, nothing is ever as strange as the Trek-themed dentist, and yes, I get that initially My Little Pony cosplay just looks like neon "furries," but I've seen weirder examples of fandom. Like Steampunk. Yeah. Steampunk Comic Book Cosplay. That is a real thing.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Cap'n Howdy's (Back)Log: The Night the World Exploded

 The Night the World Exploded is a bit of an odd bird as movies go. Had a friend not asked me about it out of the blue, I probably wouldn't know it existed. I'm guessing most of you have never heard of it, and it's not surprising necessarily: the film comes from dependable cast and crew members who you probably haven't heard of but have definitely seen before. For example, director Fred F. Sears made movies like Teen Age Crime Wave, Apache Ambush, and Cha-Cha-Boom! - he worked a lot, but if you've seen anything he made, it was probably Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, even if you didn't catch the director's name. He worked reliably and consistently, but perhaps not notably.

 Similarly, stars Kathryn Grant and William Leslie appeared in a few movies you might have heard of: she appeared in Anatomy of a Murder and had an uncredited cameo in Rear Window, and he has a small role in John Ford's The Horse Soldiers. The Night the World Exploded is what would fall into the classic description of "B-Movie": the second film to play in a double bill with a more prestigious picture, and at barely over an hour long, it would fit nicely after some cartoons and short films at a Drive-In. In fact, according to IMDB, it was the "B" picture to legendary Summer Fest flick The Giant Claw.

 Dr. David Conway (Leslie) has been working on a high powered seismograph in order to better predict earthquakes with his colleague Dr. Ellis Morton (Tristram Coffin) and research assistant Laura "Hutch" Hutchinson (Grant). One night the machine gives them readings of a quake of serious magnitude about to hit the west coast, but their warnings fall on deaf ears and calamity ensues. It turns out only to be the first of many massive earthquakes, first in the U.S. but eventually all over the world. When strong seismic activity appears deep in Carlsbad Caverns, Dr. Conway, Hutch, and Dr. Morton head down to find the source and discover a natural phenomenon that threatens the entire world...

 I'm not quite sure what I have more of a problem with in The Night the World Exploded: the "bad science" or the rampant sexism towards Hutch. Early in the film, Dr. Morton tries to talk Hutch out of leaving as Dr. Conway's assistant because she's planning to marry the never seen but often mentioned "Brad." His argument is, I kid you not, that she should wait for Dr. Conway to realize he's in love with her because "why settle for something rather than expect the best?" Mind you, he's not asking her to stay because she's a valuable team member - which is actually why Dr. Conway wants her to stick around - but because eventually she'll be seen as a romantic object by the male lead and that should be good enough for her. It's far from the last time that pervasive sexism is directed at Hutch in the film, but it gives you a good idea how The Night the World Exploded is going to approach women in the scientific field.

 The "bad science," on the other hand, is pretty funny: the cause of the earthquakes as a new element (dubbed "112") that's been pushing itself up to the earth's surface. When in water, element 112 is dormant, but when exposed to air it increases in mass and heats up, eventually exploding (as a Carlsbad Caverns guide / amateur rock collector unfortunately discovers). Hutch suggests that "maybe the earth is fighting back after all of the mining we've been doing" which, it turns out, is exactly what's happening - all of the worst quakes seem to be based in areas with heavy mining.

 The solution is actually just as comical: Conway manages to pull the world's scientists together and get all of the disparate governments in line to fix the problem by flooding these areas, largely by bombing the ground to create new rivers and with weather machines to generate rain. When that's not working fast enough, a volcano appears out of the ground in New Mexico and Conway and Hutch have to blow up the nearby dam to stop it from erupting. I did not make up that last sentence. It's the climax of the film, as a matter of fact (SPOILER). They go to the dam despite the toxic fumes from the volcano and bring along some acid, which "escalates the reaction of element 112" in order to blow up the facility faster, only the acid is spilled and they have to run out and barely make it to the helicopter in time. But it's all okay in the end because even as large parts of the world are flooded, Dr. Conway realizes he loves Hutch and they're together at the end and that's what counts.

 I'd like to mention something that stood out to me in an already silly and mostly inaccurate movie (I watched it a second time with a scientist who confirmed that The Night the World Exploded, like The Happening, wasn't the least bit plausible). While in New Mexico a few years ago, I went to Carlsbad Caverns, and as a result I could tell immediately that the people who made this movie had seen pictures (maybe) but had mostly just heard about it. The rock formations were largely correct, but even by Hollywood conceits, the "caverns" were way too well lit and, well, small. Carlsbad Caverns is a prehistoric undersea cave, absent the "sea" part. The caverns are massive - so much so that 99% of the pictures I took failed to convey any sense of scope because there isn't enough light to do it justice. Once your eyes settle, you can make out just how large the space is, but the only photos that came out at all were ones taken very close to a rock formation or near a large source of light that indicates where the walkways are headed. The "Great Hall" that Conway and Hutch are standing in is, at best, a tenth of the size in any direction of the real Carlsbad Caverns. I appreciate the attempt to use the location, but like many things in The Night the World Exploded, it just doesn't do the real deal justice.

 The Night the World Exploded is available from Sony as an "On Demand" DVD-R, or you can find it on YouTube. It's exactly right for some harmless Saturday afternoon shenanigans with friends if you're in the mood for some 50s cheese. Pair it up with The Giant Claw for even more fun - in fact, I think I might do that in the near future...

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Cap'n Howdy's (Back)Log: Riddick

 Earlier this summer I thought I'd take a break from just reviewing movies that were new in theatres. The Cap'n is many things, but a newspaper movie reviewer isn't one of them. You can figure out if you want to see a movie or not yourself and if you need help there are plenty of resources out there. Of course, the problem with this is that I still saw most of those summer movies, and now I have a backlog to work with, some of which I feel more inclined to write about now. I probably won't write up all of them, only some, though - trust me, you'll find out what I though about R.I.P.D. when I get to the (SPOILER) "worst of" list at the end of the year. One such movie that bears mentioning is Riddick.

 I found it funny that the people where I work thought this was the second Riddick movie, although they couldn't seem to remember what the first one was. I think that David Twohy and Vin Diesel approached this third Chronicle of Richard Riddick the same way: "Hey guys, remember how badass Pitch Black was? You were all really impressed with what we did with a low budget and it was dark and violent and sometimes scary? Yeah! That was great. How about we make another movie like that? Cool? Okay, well, we know most of you don't like to talk about this, but we're going to spend a little time wrapping up The Chronicles of Riddick. Not long, because we know that everybody thought it looked like the Syfy Channel version of Dune and it was too convoluted for its own good. We'll keep it short and get to the good stuff, and we'll even get Karl Urban to come back for like 90 seconds. Didn't he kick ass in Dredd?"

 Now I personally believe that Twohy and Diesel and probably a medium size contingent fans like The Chronicles of Riddick more than I did, but Riddick definitely feels like a "getting back to our roots" movie - stripped down, mean, violent, and definitely no Judi Dench as a ghost or whatever those people could do. There are barely any Necromongers so I won't have to type the word "necromonger" but one more time in this review, and Riddick (Diesel) even uses their silly armor to do something badass (he uses it as a splint for his broken leg and literally screws it into the bone with his bare hands). At times it gets maybe a little too close to Pitch Black for its own good, but this third movie is an improvement from where I'm sitting.

 So the last time we saw Riddick was sitting all King Conan on the "you keep what you kill" throne of the *ahem* Necromongers but ruling doesn't really suit this dude. He wants out, and Vaako (Karl Urban, who must've had like 10 minutes of free time from Star Trek or something) senses an opportunity. Vaako promises to take Riddick to his home world (for more information on this and many other things that take up two hours, please refer to The Chronicles of Riddick), but instead sends some fluky with him to a planet designed to kill anybody dumb enough to end up on it. Riddick figures out the ruse quickly, but not quickly enough not to end up on at the bottom of a cliff with a shattered leg.

 This brings us to the first portion of Riddick, which is arguably the best: survival. With a minimum amount of dialogue and voiceover, we see our favorite space anti-hero (sorry, Han Solo, you sold out to the Rebellion) learn how to navigate the terrain, perform some painful amateur surgery and how to account for basic things like water and food. He runs into the indigenous life forms and most of them want to kill him, but Riddick is no chump. He even kind of rescues a dog-like creature and it follows him back to his cave. His first night there he technically buries himself alive under rocks. From his vantage point, he can see that there's a part of the planet that isn't constantly hot and covered with sand, but in order to get there, he has to get past these really nasty scorpion looking things that live in water.

 His solution is clever and appropriately foolhardy- he kills a smaller one and starts inoculating himself (and the dog thing) with the poison, even though we (and he) aren't really sure that's even going to work. It does, but it turns out that just avoiding the poison isn't enough, because those bastards can cut you to pieces, too, or just impale you with their stingers. It's a hard fought battle just to kill one of them, so you feel like Riddick's really earned it when he and his buddy run up those steps.

 This brings us to part two of the movie, which is maybe more fun if you don't like "lone survivor" movies: cat and mouse games. Riddick finds a bounty hunter outpost and decides getting off the planet might not be such a bad idea. Why? Because there's a massive storm coming from the direction he just left, and even a cursory glance at the ground below makes it clear that the scorpion things that live in water like to migrate during monsoon season. Uh oh.

 Riddick activates a homing beacon, and two teams of mercenaries arrive in a staggered fashion. The first is led by Santana (Jordi Mollà) and his number two, Diaz (Dave Bautista). They're a bunch of mean, dirty, nasty mercs that want Riddick's head and (literally) nothing else. He's worth twice as much dead as he is alive, but catching him is more than the team is up to. Fortunately, the better armed, better organized Boss Johns (Matt Nable) arrives with his number two, Dahl (Katee Sackhoff) and the teams grudgingly agree to work together after Riddick threatens both of their ships. (Riddick asks them to leave on ship for him and everybody lives, so you can imagine how they take that).

 There's a lot less of Diesel in this part of Riddick, but it's okay because we know he's out there and have the benefit of knowing what he can (and will) do to them when they invariably disregard his offer. In the meantime, the crews are interesting enough to spend time with, particularly Bautista and Sackhoff, but also Bokeem Woodbine in a smaller role that unfortunately ends sooner than it needed to. There's some sneaking around and a sketchy moment where Riddick is spying on Dahl while she's taking a shower that maybe didn't need to be in the movie. I'm not sure on that one. Since we're on a ticking clock of sorts that only Riddick knows about, the tension for the audience is higher than for the mercenaries but ultimately the stand-off between Riddick, Santana, and Johns is but a prelude to the third section of Riddick: assault.

 If you've seen the trailer then you know that the rain does get to the outpost and that everything goes out in the window in favor of just surviving, made all the more complicated by the fact that Riddick has fuel cells from both of the ships and hid them pretty far away. That means that they have to go get them, which involves some hover bikes and betrayals and revelations that tie this movie to Pitch Black more directly (hint: one of the names of the mercs should sound awfully familiar) all while hundreds of scorpion monster things are out there, attacking and tearing the outpost to shreds.

 Surprisingly, this is the shortest - or felt like the shortest - part of the movie. I didn't even realize that the climax of the film was the climax until the next scene, when everything is being wrapped up. I guess it's because the last chunk is basically a mini-redux of Pitch Black with similar rock formations and vaguely similar monsters and rain, which is not the best choice in my opinion but hey, it works. It's definitely the weakest part of the film but you do see characters pulling together in ways that seem more organic than when the assault begins. To be honest, the only reason it doesn't really work is simply because it reminds me of Pitch Black so much, because as the story is structured, it's a very good payoff of the set up for these monsters early in the film. It's just that we've seen this already. Or some of us have - I guess the ones that can remember which Riddick movie they already saw.

 It's pretty open-ended during the epilogue so there's a chance we could see another Riddick movie (Twohy and Diesel indicated they'd be making another one) where he goes to find his home world and probably take revenge on Vaako (good for Karl Urban fans but bad news for me not using that "n" word in future reviews), but it doesn't have to be. So if they end up not making a fourth movie, Riddick ends things on a high note and almost all is forgiven for having to watch The Chronicles of Riddick. 2 out of 3 is pretty good from where I'm sitting. It's maybe a little on the lower budget side but it never looks as obviously green-screened as Chronicles. I guess you can watch this on Blu-Ray in January (I will amend this review when it comes out) in what I will assume is an "Unrated" cut, which should be impressive since Riddick is a pretty hard "R" as it is. This one is worth your time if you like your science fiction dark and violent and action-y.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Blogorium Review: Machete Kills

 I really wish Machete Kills was a better movie than it is. It's just a bummer, because Machete is dumb fun: a trashy, grindhouse-esque slice of Mexploitation, with a stacked cast and a sense of reckless abandon that manages to be coherent in spite of itself. And Machete Kills? Well, let's just say being able to shoot anything at any time digitally has really ruined Robert Rodriguez...

 Machete (Danny Trejo) is dealing with loss when he's summoned by the President to stop a crazy drug lord Marcos Mendez (Demian Bichir) from launching a nuclear missile at Washington, D.C. When he easily infiltrates the compound, he discovers that Mendez has connected the firing mechanism to his heart, so if he dies, the missile launches. Machete must bring him back across the border from Mexico, keep him alive, disarm the bomb, and contend not only with the cartels, but a gang on vengeful prostitutes and an assassin who can take on any face. And that's not even taking into account the person who gave Mendez the missile...

 If you're looking for a movie that delivers on the title and nothing else, then Machete Kills lives up to its promise. Machete does kill, and he kills in any variety of creative fashions. Does he flip a boat over so that it runs into a dock motor first, chopping a bunch of stooges to pieces? Yup. Does he attach a guy to a grappling hook and send him into a helicopter? Also yup. Does he attach himself to a helicopter rotor and spin around decapitating guys with his weapon of choice? He sure does. He even uses a gun that "turns guys inside out" to end a chase sequence. So, as President Rathcock (Charlie Shee-, pardon me, Carlos Estevez) says, "Machete kills! That's what he does!"

 The problem is that it all looks like bargain basement, Syfy Channel / Asylum Pictures digital skullduggery. The "inside out" gun, no exaggeration, looks like a slightly bloodier version of what happens when a Dalek shoots someone on Doctor Who. There's so much CGI blood in this movie that, when added to the copious green-screening, makes Machete Kills look like something that a film student would make over the course of a weekend. I understand that Rodriguez can make a movie like Machete Kills on the cheap, but it doesn't have to look this cheap.

 And before you say "but Cap'n, it's an exploitation movie! It's SUPPOSED to look like shit!" allow me to remind you that this is the same Robert Rodriguez that made Planet Terror, which has a comparable level of carnage and still looks like a movie, not something that's supposed to sit next to Birdemic in the $7.99 bin at Best Buy in two weeks. Machete Kills looks less realistic than Spy Kids 3-D, and I'm positive there are at least a few 100% practical sets in Machete Kills. Most of them don't look like it (and at least two of them are just a bar and restaurant somewhere in Austin), and it feels like every driving scene was done in front of the green screen in Rodriguez's studio.

 Machete Kills doesn't feel like a movie; it feels like a lark that Rodriguez (or, more likely, 20th Century Fox) expects people to pay for. Rodriguez was probably more than happy to make it, even if it feels less complete than the last Resident Evil movie (which, if you remember, I likened to an extended trailer for the inevitable next Resident Evil movie). At least Resident Evil had the decency not to open the film with a trailer for the next film.

 That's right, Machete Kills opens with a trailer for Machete Kills Again: In Space, which arguably manages to look even worse than the movie you're about to watch, but only because it's all in front of green screens. It promises the exact same cast and already sounds like the director doesn't care ("And Lady Gaga as... whoever Lady Gaga wants to be!"), and lets you know this is where we're going. Just bear with Machete Kills as it spins its wheels for 100 minutes, because at the end of the tunnel we're going to space! With lightsaber machetes and a guy in a silver mask played by Leonardo DiCaprio (* Casting Subject to Change) plus Machete fights clone Machete!

 And then we have to watch Machete Kills, which would have been not so good even without the promise that there isn't going to be an ending. Right out of the gate the second problem with Rodriguez's "shoot anywhere, any time with your friends" approach is apparent. It's true that his casts are stacked (no pun intended about Sofia Vergara there), but if you're expecting to see many of them on screen together, don't hold your breath. He's taken the Sin City approach of "shoot when you're available" to the extreme, and for the first time it's readily apparent in Machete Kills.

 When I saw Sin City, I didn't know that Mickey Rourke and Rutger Hauer weren't in the same physical location for the scene between the two characters. It's just the two of them sitting on opposite beds across from each other. Using green screen trickery, Rodriguez convinces you that two actors who filmed on different days are talking to each other and are inhabiting the same space. Only later did I find out they weren't acting against each other, and it was an impressive trick.

 On the other hand, I could tell almost immediately that the one day Jessica Alba was available to shoot was not a day Mel Gibson was there to kill her character (SPOILER) and that the reason that Gibson's character, Luther Voz was wearing a luchadore mask (the only time he wears it) was to disguise the fact that they weren't on screen together. If that were the only case of scheduling tomfoolery in the film, I'd forgive it, because Rodriguez manages to use the mask as a visual bridge later in the film, but it's just the tip of the iceberg.

 It's clear that most of the people in the film came in for one or two days, filmed all of their scenes, and probably never interacted with Danny Trejo. The character of El Chameleon is a perfect example: this is a super assassin who changes faces after every kill, which is a great way to include Walton Goggins, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lady Gaga, and Antonio Banderas in the movie, except that the first two are in scenes with people who have nothing to do with the story, Lady Gaga makes a grand entrance in a gas station that looks fake and then is driving in front of a green screen, and Banderas and Trejo are barely in the same scene together. And this is a character who decides to collect a bounty to kill Machete.

 Well, it should be that, but instead it feels like "hey, Lady Gaga, come shoot whenever you're available and I'll make you a badass assassin with a cool poster and put you in the trailer." Goggins is in one scene. Gooding is in three, and Banderas is in two. They're all really fun to see, but they don't have any time to make an impression. Machete Kills is too busy cramming in plot to have anything good to do with the great cast Rodriguez assembled. Most of the movie is Danny Trejo and Demian Bichir (Che, Weeds) on the road, saddled with a dumb subplot about how Mendez has a split personality that conveniently shifts whener the story needs it to.

 It would be easier to dismiss Machete Kills outright if it there weren't some actual highlights to the film, chief among them the commercially toxic Mel Gibson. I understand that mentioning Mel Gibson goes over about as well as invoking the name of Roman Polanski, but the truth is that as super villain / inventor Luther Voz, Gibson is great fun to watch. It seems like Rodriguez and screenwrite Kyle Ward poured all of their good ideas into the character, from his obsession with Star Wars to his admiration for Machete, and I have to say that it's fun to see Mel Gibson playing slightly comedic again. They manage to sneak in Mad Max and Man Without a Face references without being too obvious, and he's definitely a highlight in the film.

 The other high point is Marko Zaror, who plays Zaror, a genetically engineered army of clones created by Voz to battle Machete and to protect him when he leaves the nuclear ravaged Earth for the safety of his space station (aha, see where that's going?). Zaror is a Chilean martial artist and has a cult following among actions fans, so it's nice to see Rodriguez give him several opportunites to go mano-a-mano with Danny Trejo (I don't need to tell you that he's spot on in the title role, do I?). Also good are Amber Heard, Michelle Rodriguez, and I guess Tom Savini, although the three of them are in so little of the film that they don't register for long stretches. And yes, Tom Savini plays the same character who killed Machete's brother in the first film, but he's had a change of heart and, well, it's just an excuse to bring him back. Until I looked at IMDB, Like Lady Gaga, Sheen / Estevez doesn't make much of an impression. And William Sadler? I forgot he was even in the movie...

 It's a little maddening that there's so much of this cheap, boring, over-complicated movie to have to sit through in order to have a handful of bright spots, and even though Machete Kills barely made a dent with audiences, I somehow suspect Rodriguez made the film cheaply enough to have already shot most of Machete Kills Again: In Space. But I have to be honest and say I don't want to watch it. I didn't like, but respected Sin City. I loved Planet Terror. I liked Machete. I disliked almost all of Machete Kills, and looking at how digital filmmaking has slowly turned Rodriguez from a director who made movies with what he had to a guy who can literally use anything and shoot on anybody's schedule, all to his detriment, I'm not so keen on his movies anymore. It's like he's become a parody of his own Grindhouse segment, and we seem more and more distant from something like Desperado or The Faculty, which looked and felt like actual movies. Machete Kills feels like an experiment, and not the good kind.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Shocktober Revisited: Day, Land, Diary, and Survival of the Dead

*2013 Note: This was originally the conclusion of Cap'n Howdy's "March of the Dead" from a few years ago. I've chopped out some bits that aren't terribly important to move ahead with the conclusion of the series If you're looking for other entries to "March of the Dead," here's the entry for the many versions of Dawn of the Dead, and here are my thoughts on the 30th Anniversary travesty, erm, "Special Edition"*

I don't know how much more I could say about Diary and Survival of the Dead, my history with Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead don't have much in the way of anecdotal stories, which leaves me with one story to tell about Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake*.

I suppose I saw Day of the Dead on VHS, shortly after renting Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, although my earliest impressions of the film are scant: the opening - that desolate street somewhere in Florida (?) that flooded with zombies (and a crocodile), the hands through the wall gag that Romero uses to both call back to Dawn of the Dead, but also to twist around our expectations of "reality." I also remember the machete to the arm, Bub, the zombie torso reduced to almost nothing but a brain, the holding pen, and the even more upbeat ending on a tropical island.

Subsequent visits to the film, on DVD and Blu-Ray reminded me how much the military vs. science debate plays into the film, but also how less simplistic I remembered the film being - I always seemed to wander into Day of the Dead thinking that Joe Pilato's Rhodes is a cartoon cut-out villain, only to discover that Rhodes is at his wit's end in the film. His soldiers have been assigned to protect the scientists, who assured the government (or what existed of it before Day of the Dead begins) that they would find a cure. Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty) is more interested in rehabilitating the dead one by one, and when he starts pilfering military corpses, the soldiers reach the breaking point.

I understand that Day of the Dead is the least "imminently watchable" of Romero's first zombie trilogy, and it's not rewarding or packed with goofy moments like Dawn of the Dead, but with time I've found that I like the film more and more. Oh, I never saw the remake. Sorry.

Land of the Dead was long awaited, and the Cap'n was not the only person excited to see Romero return to his stomping grounds, and while the excitement was palpable, I still had nagging doubts while I continued telling others how "awesome" the film was. It wasn't the setting, or even most of the story, which I really like: a world where the dead have completely taken over, where humanity is rebuilding but not on their terms, and the film was a glimpse of how people would adapt once they lost the proverbial "zombie war."

I liked the extension of Bub's evolution, crossed with the reason the dead wandered into the Monroeville Mall, into a slowly developing sentience among some of the living dead. Was Big Daddy a little silly? Yeah, maybe it does sound like he's saying "Duuuuude!" when he growls, but there was something to him teaching the butcher zombie to cut down that wall, or the way he organized the dead to avoid simply being slaughtered. Romero hit the reboot button after Land of the Dead, so we never saw where that evolution would head, but not even that is the sticking point for why I have trouble sitting down watching Land of the Dead from beginning to end.

The problem, as I can surmise, is the cast: everyone seems to be giving the film a "B" movie effort when Romero is clearly trying to make the most of major studio backing. Simon Baker seems to be trying, so does Asia Argento, but I can't get past John Leguizamo and Dennis Hopper play variations of characters they play all the time. Robert Joy's Charlie is another matter entirely, a character I only hate slightly less than Scott Wentworth's professor in Diary of the Dead.

When Professor Murder and I went to see Snyder's remake of Dawn of the Dead, we ran into some mutual friends who were there to see the other movie we considered seeing, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Perhaps our allegiance to zombies sent us to Dawn of the Dead first, then later to Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman's memory-wiping romantic drama; either way, we swapped our reasons for seeing the respective releases, then went to see the subtext-free, fast-zombies, not-afraid-to-be-nihilistic-ending remake of one of the most admired horror films in the last fifty years.

If that quick succession of descriptors makes it sound like I didn't enjoy Dawn of the Dead, I'm afraid I'll be disappointing you. Of the remakes made starting with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and, well, yet to end but one can hope with how awful the A Nightmare on Elm Street butchering, I put Dawn of the Dead up there with The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha as one of the better re-visiting's of horror films. Yes, it essentially lacks substance, but Snyder does manage to create momentum, slow it down and drain out hope, re-instate it, and then send everything to hell again during the closing credits. It remains the only film by Zack Snyder that I like, let alone enjoy, and while it may be Dawn of the Dead lite, I'll take it over what Platinum Dunes vomits into theatres every spring.

Honestly, I've said all I can say about Diary and Survival of the Dead in my reviews: I haven't watched either film since, and I did honestly try to take the films on their own terms instead of pre-judging the films. They're both terrible, obvious, and at times thunderingly stupid, all the while failing to generate the slightest amount of tension, scares, or decent performances. Is it possible I'll come back to them down the line, as I did with Day of the Dead, and appreciate more? It would be nice, but somehow I don't see that happening.

Sorry to end Shocktober on such a dour note, but Romero's second trilogy is almost uniformly underwhelming, a pale reflection of his first three "dead" films. Romero is currently working on another "dead" film, and while I've burned my hand two-and-a-half times, hope wins out over being jaded. There's always the chance of recapturing the old "magic." In the meantime, that's the history the Cap'n has with Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Dawn of the Dead ('05), Diary of the Dead, and Survival of the Dead.

* For Tom Savini's Night of the Living Dead remake, please go here. For the wretched 3D remake, go here.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Shocktober Revisited: Halloween H20 and Halloween Resurrection

 Originally, I had planned a Retro Review for Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, but  after doing some cursory research on the film I realized that I don't remember Halloween 6 at all. I saw it once, in the fall of 1995, and was surprised to discover Paul Rudd played Tommy Doyle in the film. Until I watch The Curse of Michael Myers again (or can locate the "Producer's Cut" mentioned online), there's really no point in revisiting a film I can't recall.

 Which brings me to Halloween: H20 and Halloween Resurrection, two movies I've barely seen again since the first time I watched them. They did, however, leave a greater impression on my mind than Donald Pleasance's final film appearance, and since I enjoy one of them more than anyone else seems to and really hate the other one, it's fitting to comment on the close of the pre-remake sequels to John Carpenter's Halloween. This one-two punch will leave the Cap'n with only Halloween 3, 5, and 6 to cover in the Blogorium*.

For those of you looking for a series recap, here's one in 60 words or less: Michael Myers kills his family, goes to a sanitarium under the care of Doctor Loomis, escapes, tries to kill Laurie Strode, fails, tries again, is replaced by an evil toy mask manufacturer, returns, tries to kill Laurie's niece Jamie, fails, tries again, fails, tries again, succeeds, but is then foiled by Loomis and a grown up Tommy Doyle**.

 Then there was a three year break, leading us to 1998, twenty years after the first Halloween. We move from Haddonfield, Illinois to somewhere in Northern California, where Keri Tate (Jamie Lee Curtis) is the dean of a private school with her son John (Josh Hartnett) and boyfriend Will (Adam Arkin). The funniest thing is that Keri Tate is a dead-ringer for Laurie Strode, and we discover that (SPOILER ALERT) she IS Laurie Strode. Laurie faked her death to keep Michael from chasing her (which is good, because Michael instead decided to wipe out the rest of her blood relations), and she'd been pretty successful avoiding (SPOILER ALERT AGAIN) her brother for the last twenty years. That is, until Doctor Loomis (the late Donald Pleasance, heard in narration) dies and Michael just happens to find his house and discover exactly where Laurie is. He also kills some kid (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) with an ice skate.

 Anyway, school's out for fall break(?) and Laurie's colleague Norma Watson (Janet Leigh, who is Jamie Lee Curtis' mother, which is technically a SPOILER for family tree detectives. I won't spoil that her father is Tony Curtis. Oh, crap) drives off in a car that looks a lot like Marion Crane (Janet Leigh)'s car from Psycho***. Michael begins stalking the campus, killing off students dumb enough to watch Scream 2 (gee, I wonder why? We'll get to that in a second...), and John and Molly (Michelle Williams) find the bodies and become "next" on the kill list. Unless Laurie, Will, and security guard Ronny (L.L. Cool J) can stop Michael.

 Why am I being so glib about H20? Well, the more I think about the film - based on a treatment by Scream co-creator Kevin Williamson - the stupider it seems. It's funny, because I guess I overlooked how stupid and obvious these references were when I was 19 (something the people who saw it with me did not), and the Cap'n instead focused on the Laurie Strode / Michael Myers story line. To be fair, that is the only thing H20 has going for it: the film decides to pretend that Halloween 4, 5, and 6 never happened****, which you can debate the relative merits of, I guess, in order to focus on the lethal sibling rivalry. The ending, where (SPOILER ALERT) Laurie decapitates an ambulance driver Michael's head is still a satisfying close to their story, one that the following film manages to ruin in the first five minutes.

 It's worth noting that even at the time we were impressed that L.L. Cool J took five or six rounds to the chest from a revolver and walked away at the end of the film. I don't remember if they said he was wearing a vest, but why would a prep school security officer need to?

Anyway, back to the way that Resurrection mangles everything, even making people who didn't like H20 say "well, at least that one didn't kill Laurie Strode." Oh, (SPOILER ALERT). Yeah, in addition to retrofitting H20 so that Michael somehow does a switcheroo with an ambulance driver before Laurie can lop his head off with an axe, they leap forward in time to an asylum where Laurie's been locked up, waiting for Michael to wander in unabated. Sure enough, they tangle, she tries to kill him (hanging? maybe?) but he stabs her or something and she falls from the roof of the asylum in what is the least effective death of a Final Girl since Jason Vorhees followed Alice Hardy back to town for some apartment complex murderin'.

But wait! That's the BEGINNING of Halloween: Resurrection, a movie that gets EVEN WORSE before Busta Rhymes drops some Kung Fu on Michael Myers. That does happen, by the way, and you don't need a SPOILER ALERT because we both know you don't have to watch this film.

So what, pray tell, could the plot of the 8th Halloween film be if the villain kills the Final Girl in the opening of the film? How about a webcam reality show about some stupid contestants wandering around the Myers house? Sound good? Freddie Harris (Busta Rhymes) and Nora Winston (Tyra Banks) sure thought so, and their web company, DangerTainment, is sponsoring this MTV's Fear knock-off. A group of college students (including Katee Sackhoff, Sean Patrick Thomas, and Thomas Ian Nichols) who "won" the chance to be on this show, wander around the house looking for clues about Michael Myers. Want to guess who has nowhere else to go after he killed his sister? Want to guess who isn't happy to find people in his childhood home? Want to place bets on whether a charred Michael Myers opens his eye for the final stinger in this turdstorm of a sequel?

The 19 year-old Cap'n may have been kind to H20, but the 23 year-old knew he hated Resurrection well before the halfway point. I remember not liking Halloween 6, but that's not as clear to me as the hatred for the last gasp of the Halloween franchise after Miramax squeezed everything left out in 2002. In retrospect, had I watched Resurrection again before Rob Zombie's Halloween, I might have been kinder, even with all of the idiotic "I'm gonna skullfuck you" dialogue. It's like the Weinstein brothers perceived a certain formula from H20 (a handful of "hot" young actors from better movies*****, a popular rapper, some referential dialogue, and whatever the newest fad was) and recycled it into a crappier version, a xerox of Kevin Williamson's already growing stale pop culture screenplays.

 Halloween: Resurrection is what people are complaining about when they talk about how awful sequels are, and devoid of the one consistent narrative thread between the first seven films (okay, six, since Halloween III isn't about Michael or his family tree), there's nothing worth investing your time in. I honestly can't say I've seen a moment of the film since we saw it on the big screen, and I know I've watched parts of H20 on cable. If one was on, the other one must have been at some point. After part 8, there was a five year layover, and then Zombie took over. At the time I write this, Patrick Lussier and Todd Farmer (My Bloody Valentine 3-D, Drive Angry) have pitched a Halloween 3D to the Weinsteins that they may eventually get to after rebooting Hellraiser (you read that right), but for now, at least I can say that Rob Zombie's Halloween 2, for as many detractors as it has, is a MUCH better movie than Halloween Resurrection, and it's probably better than H20. Now who would've thought I'd ever say that?

*For write-ups of Halloween (kind of), Halloween II, Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers, Halloween the Remake and Halloween 2 the Remake, follow the respective links.
** This much I gathered from IMDB's coverage of Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers.
*** SPOILER: It IS Marion Crane's car from Psycho.
**** In the interest of fairness, Williamson's original draft did include 4,5, and 6 as continuity, and writers Robert Zappia and Matt Greenberg wisely dropped the subplot.
**** And by that I mean American Pie and Save the Last Dance, and eventually Sackhoff would be in Battlestar Galactica but I'm not giving Bob and Harvey any credit for that one...

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Shocktober Book Review Revisited: Shock Value

Since we're officially into Shocktober now, the grand month of Horror Fest(s), I thought I'd kick things off with one of Cap'n Howdy's rare book reviews. Today I'm looking at Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and and Invented Modern Horror by Jason Zinoman. It explores the period between Rosemary's Baby and Halloween, when outsiders made a huge impact on the way audiences experienced horror films, revitalizing the genre and ushering in a new era we're still feeling the effects of today.

 When Shock Value appeared on my radar, the only concern I had was that this might be old hat for the Cap'n. I'm a big fan of that particular era of horror, and have been soaking up books, interviews, and DVD extras about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Last House on the Left, Halloween, Alien, and Night of the Living Dead for years. I'm always interested in more analysis, but I had trepidations that Shock Value might bear no new fruit for a horror fanatic. Fortunately, I was well off base.

 Almost immediately Zinoman surprised me with a story in the Rosemary's Baby chapter, about a Vincent Price appearance on the Mike Douglas show where the horror icon was unable to defend the genre that made him famous (or, perhaps, was not interested in defending horror) from attacks by Dr. Fredric Wertham, the same man who killed EC Comics in the 1950s. I must admit that I had never heard of the debate, or of its impact in the transition from Old Horror to New Horror. Zinoman's coverage of the development of Rosemary's Baby also provides a nice counterpoint to the what Robert Evans presents in The Kid Stays in the Picture, his memoirs of developing pictures for Paramount.

 Shock Value is filled with surprising moments, including the aborted collaboration between John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper that eventually morphed into Halloween. I was particularly fond of the reactions the major figures in New Horror had to each others' work: for years, I suppose I considered Brian De Palma and Alfred Hitchcock to be mutually exclusive - that one simply mimicked the other, so it was (rightly or wrongly on my part) revelatory to hear that the Master had seen De Palma films before he passed (and didn't like them, to wit). Dan O'Bannon's fall out with John Carpenter after Dark Star produces a great deal of animosity on the former's part, especially to the success of Halloween. Sean Cunningham's reaction to Carpenter's slasher film is classic, and the way that Rosemary's Baby formed what The Exorcist became to William Peter Blatty and William Friedkin (along with the extended explanation of how the "Version You've Never Seen" came to be) were all stories I thought I knew well, but Zinoman finds a way to bring a fresh perspective.

 Speaking of Halloween, I'm a little curious about the construction of Zinoman's analysis of the film. Generally speaking, what successfully separated New Horror from Old Horror is the ambiguity of motive from the villains, a reflection of the uncertainty of America during and immediately after the Vietnam War. It's not that element that bothers me, but the way Zinoman frames Halloween - a success in spite of its "sloppy" mistakes. One or two of his assertions sent me back to the film, particularly the breakdown of Carpenter's opening sequence. For some reason, Zinoman chooses to fixate on the perspective shot of Michael Meyer's knife when he's stabbing his sister (a choice that identifies the audience and director's interest rather than the character). However, Zinoman treats this paragraph as though it's the first time we've seen the knife in the film. That wasn't how I remembered it, so I checked, and sure enough...

 The audience is already aware that the (to that point unseen killer) is carrying a knife, and we know what to expect when Michael arrives and his sister recognizes him. The shock of the murder is on her part, not the audiences. Zinoman's point is well made, but it's a sloppy mistake in a critique of "sloppy" moments in Halloween.

 My only other issue with Shock Value is that Zinoman echoes the central thesis of Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls at the end of the book. He arrives at the conclusion that the seminal voices of New Horror peaked in their early years, and have struggled to match, let alone surpass, their original masterpieces. Like Biskind, Zinoman highlights the struggles of many of the creative forces to move forward with any success (highlighting the failure of Romero's projects between Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, or O'Bannon's reputation as an intrusive curmudgeon kept him unable to parlay his involvement with Alien to anything until Return of the Living Dead. The controversy surrounding Tobe Hooper and Poltergeist isn't glossed over, either). Wes Craven is given the Scorsese-like pass of the "exception to the rule" because of the Scream series re-invigoration of horror in the late nineties (although A Nightmare on Elm Street is given a lukewarm reaction for its innovative first film and watered down sequels)..

 I take umbrage with this in part because I disagree with the premise of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, and Zinoman mostly chooses to ignore the fact that John Carpenter had varying degrees of success in and out of horror through Vampires, not limited to The Fog, Christine, or In the Mouth of Madness. He scarcely "topped out" after Halloween and The Thing with an immediate (or even steady) decline attributed to Hooper and Cunningham and Romero. It makes me wonder whether the curious exclusion of Sam Raimi (save for a brief mention of The Evil Dead director during the "end of Horror's New Wave" portion of the epilogue), and the cursory inclusion of David Lynch and David Cronenberg during O'Bannon's "body horror" chapter.

 Overall, Shock Value has more than enough going for it that I'm willing to overlook minor quibbles like the Halloween analysis or the ambivalent closing. I was initially concerned that the book might be a retread of stories I'd heard in other documentaries (or from the directors / writers / producers themselves in other books), but you'll be pleasantly surprised by the more obscure anecdotes and the depth of insight into some of the heavily covered entries. Horror aficionados shouldn't hesitate to pick up Shock Value, even if you're positive you know what you'll find inside.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Shocktober Revisited: So You Won't Have To - The Thing (2011)

 It's almost too easy to beat up on The Thing - it's a movie with no purpose. From the big dumb cgi alien to the big dumb climax in the big dumb space ship to the between-credits sequence that's there to remind people that the END of this film is the BEGINNING of John Carpenter's The Thing, there's no reason for this movie to exist. If you thought to yourself "who gives a shit what happened to the Norwegian station?" when you realized this was a prequel and not another remake, director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. and writer Eric Heisserer didn't do anything that's going to make it worth your while. Their answer, apparently, was "pretty much the same thing that happened in the first remake."

 Let's get that out of the way right up front, by the way: I'm tired of reading reviews that call this a "remake" of John Carpenter's The Thing and then conveniently neglect to mention that Carpenter was remaking The Thing from Another World. Have any doubts about that? Watch the title screens of both films. Technically all three films present themselves as adaptations of John W. Campbell's "Who Goes There?" but the 2011 iteration is explicitly set right before the 1982 version. The newer Thing is designed to be linked to the first remake, which adapts the premise if not the structure of The Thing from Another World. John Carpenter's The Thing is a superb remake, and one of the arguments everyone uses when defending "good" remakes, because it is, in its own right, a fantastic horror film. It's prequel, on the other hand, is awfully familiar. Oh, and awful.

 To be honest, if the film didn't keep shitting its pants trying to be grosser or creepier than The Thing everybody loves, it might be okay. Then again, the reason everybody calls it a "remake" is because the story is so close to what happens in John Carpenter's film. After a promising opening where the Norwegian crew discovers the frozen spaceship and "thing," we meet Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a bio-paleontologist invited to attend a "discovery" on short notice by Dr. Sandor Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) and his research assistant Adam (Eric Christan Olsen). We already know what the "discovery" is, because if we've seen The Thing from Another World and / or The Thing, we've seen the outline of the ship and the frozen specimen. This time we get to see the ship, which at first seems novel but then becomes ridiculous at the end of the film.

 Well, you can guess that they bring the specimen back to the base camp, it thaws out, starts killing / absorbing people, and before we know it no one can trust each other. First they pull a "bait and switch" about who the Thing has "copied" in a helicopter attack scene that defies narrative logic. Okay, I'm willing to accept that the Thing is (SPOILER) just trying to get back to its ship and not headed for society like Kate worries it will. That's fine. But why, when in the helicopter, does the Thing freak out and attack the guy we thought was "infected" and cause the copter to crash, presumably killing it and the two American pilots (Joel Edgerton and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). But wait! They aren't dead, so Kate doesn't trust them. Could one of them be the Thing that survived and (for no good reason) returned to the camp?

 The paranoia that works so well in Carpenter's film is nonexistent. Why? None of the characters are remotely memorable. It's hard to care about who is or isn't the Thing when your protagonists are two pilots who should be dead, three scientists who behave suspiciously, a bland research assistant and a gaggle of interchangeable Norwegian victims-to-be. I give Mary Elizabeth Winstead credit for trying to keep everything together, and I will also concede that the film wisely doesn't try to make her into a Jack MacReady surrogate. That said, she's constantly pushed into the background of scenes by characters I could care less about and I didn't buy the "sad" ending before the film remembered it needed to bridge to a much better film.

 Because they couldn't use the "blood" test again, there's a half novel but half baked attempt to develop the absorbing powers of the creature. It can't mimic non-organic material, so Kate decides the best way to see who is and isn't human is to - it's so much stupider typing it - check everyone's mouths for fillings. Seriously. They set up the Thing's evolution but couldn't figure out how to parlay that into an interesting way of generating suspense. Why? Because FOUR people don't have fillings and only one of them is the Thing, but we don't find out which one until a silly fight scene between the pilots and the scientists.

 A word on the effects - I was under the impression that 2011's The Thing was to have more "practical" special effects and less CGI. What I didn't realize was that was limited to corpses. The work by Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. is appropriately disgusting, but it isn't freakish or disturbing like Rob Bottin's effects. They also don't move - the practical effects are for corpses, of fused Thing/human hybrids or half absorbed corpses or charred remains. Anything that moves is bad looking CGI that seems like it was borrowed from Dead Space. Things look even stupider in the ship, where the Thing looks like a rejected monster from Men in Black II.

Who was this movie made for? I can't imagine people who have seen The Thing from Another World or The Thing sitting through the entire film. Only people with a passing knowledge of Carpenter's film would even stay engaged, but most of the connections at the end would be lost on them. I actually give a pass to selling it as "from the producers of Dawn of the Dead" because in theory, it could have been different enough of a take on the premise that using Zack Snyder's remake as a basis for comparison. Had the film lived up to that concept, maybe I could understand why it exists.

 For a brief moment in the first thirty minutes, I thought there might be something watchable in The Thing. It turned out that there was, and it was John Carpenter's The Thing. Why I watched the watered down, CGI "enhanced" version is anyone's guess. Well, the truth is that I said "what the hell" and rolled the dice. Never has the term "craps" been more appropriate. Let's just say I watched it So You Won't Have To and leave it at that.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Shocktober Revisited: Documentaries - Fangoria's Weekend of Horrors

  (Originally posted in July of 2011.)

 Many of you may not know this, but 2011 marks the 25th anniversary of the VHS release of Fangoria's Weekend of Horrors, a sixty minute documentary about the first ever Fangoria convention. Held in 1985, the first Weekend of Horrors was a gathering point in Los Angeles for horror enthusiasts, short film makers, and aspiring make up effects artists. Unlike UnConventional, a film I reviewed last year, the Weekend of Horrors doesn't feel sleazy or exploitative, despite promoting Fangoria throughout (it's co-director, Kerry O'Quinn, is actually the creator of Fangoria, along with Starlog).

 Compared to 2004's Unconventional, Weekend of Horrors feels relatively quaint: the enthusiasm of the fans is infectious, with many effusively gushing about their favorite monsters and why they're attracted to horror films. While there are merchandise tables - the site of a surprise appearance by Star Trek's Walter Koenig, wandering around the convention with his son - most of the tables that appear in the film are designed to showcase amateur makeup, monster, and effects work by fans of the genre.

 Like UnConventional, there is also an auction and a costume contest, but the costumes are all homemade and shall we say, less slutty. Instead of auctioning off Tiffany Shepis' underwear, the Fangoria fans bid on a shooting script for John Carpenter's Halloween, and judging by how little other items were going for, I'd be willing to bet someone went home with it on less than twenty dollars.

The main attraction of Fangoria's Weekend of Horrors is the guests of the convention, who range from Wes Craven and Robert Englund (there to support A Nightmare on Elm Street and the Craven-less Part 2: Freddy's Revenge) to a beardless Rick Baker, who brought along some ape effects from Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan. Tom Savini appears briefly during a montage; Elvira answers questions from the audience (Attack of the Killer Tomatoes was apparently the worst Movie Macabre film she ever aired); John Carl Buechler does a Q&A for Troll; Steve Miner and William Katt talk about House; Dan O'Bannon talks about Return of the Living Dead; Tobe Hooper appears to talk a bit about his films but also to preside over the Cinemagic Short Film Search Festival, where fans are awarded for their 8 and 16mm films.

With a magazine like Fangoria behind the event, it's no surprise that the emphasis is on special effects makeup, and many of the montages are devoted to masks from films like Friday the 13th and Creepshow (as well as a certain monster Tales from the Darkside fans will recognize immediately). Makeup effects artist Craig Reardon (Altered States, Poltergeist) gives People Magazine reporter Tony Lawrence a quick monster makeover in time for the costume contest. Special attention should also be given to Nora Salisbury, a fan who made her own Freddy Kreuger costume (with full head piece and glove) that's pretty impressive.

 For a sixty minute film, Weekend of Horrors does at time lean too heavily on scenes from films mentioned by guests (I still don't understand why the entire trailer for The Toxic Avenger needs to be there) and it takes a curious detour into promotional territory when Tobe Hooper finishes with the short film competition and begins talking about his remake of Invaders from Mars. There's a lengthy section devoted to behind the scenes footage, which does admittedly find a way to include Stan Winston in the film, but it's a jarring shift in the movie that sticks out when O'Quinn and Mike Hadley cut back to Dick Miller. Why this breaks up the previous montage, which includes interviews with Clu Gulager (Return of the Living Dead, Feast), producer Alex Gordon (Voodoo Woman, The Atomic Submarine), and composer Albert Glasser (The Cyclops, The Amazing Colossal Man), who talk, in part, about Roger Corman, is unclear.

 There's a bit of a "home movie" feel to Fangoria's Weekend of Horrors, but in a good way; it feels like a tape made to share the good time had by people there instead of a document of the lurid side of horror conventions (okay, I'll stop beating up on UnConventional), and I have to say it sure seemed like a great place to be in the summer(?) of 1985. People came from all around the country to share their enthusiasm for horror films, to show off what they could do, and to meet their heroes. I give O'Quinn and Hadley a lot of credit for conveying that sense of joy in such a concise package.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Shocktober Revisited: Documentaries - UnConventional

I've decided that it's best to keep this review short; otherwise, I'm going to feel like the Cap'n is kicking a dog when it's down. See, UnConventional may be the most unflattering document of any event I've seen on DVD.

Somewhere on the cover artwork, there's a statement along the lines of "Like Trekkies for Horror Fans", which I guess is technically true if you watched Trekkies the same way I did: as a collection of increasingly goofy people that make that one super-dork you know look cool by comparison. Which is what that movie is. Trekkies is a freak show disguised as a documentary about fandom, as is Ringers: The Lord of the Fans or whatever its called. You watch because you can't help but guffaw at these poor people, but you feel awful afterwards.

UnConventional is like that, but not entirely because of the subject matter. The film attempts to be about the 13th Annual Chiller Theater Convention in East Brunswick, New Jersey. Chiller Theater is, if you've read my review of American Scary, hosted by Zacherely the Cool Ghoul, one (if not) the first Horror Hosts on television.

While Zacherely appears in UnConventional periodically, the documentary focuses primarily on one person you've heard of, one you might kinda recognize the name of, and somebody the Cap'n had to look up to figure out what she'd been in. They are (in order): Gunnar "Leatherface" Hansen, 42nd Street Pete, and Tiffany Shepis.

This is not to say that there weren't many more recognizable names at the Chiller Theater Convention. Appearing briefly on camera are Sid Haig, Bill Moseley, Linda Blair, David Carradine, Kane Hodder, Michael Jai White, Linda Blair, Cybill Danning, and Tom Savini. If you take the credits' word for it, apparently Bruce Campbell, Clint Howard, and Elvira, among others who don't appear on camera for one reason or the other.

Instead, we spend the lion's share of our time with Tiffany Shepis, who I had to look up on IMDB, and found was in Abominable and a number of Troma movies, plus LOTS of movies I've never heard of. Considering how much narration by 42nd Street Pete (who also appears in the film and, as far as I can tell, is responsible for this) and fan interaction revolves around how hot Shepis is, I'm gathering she's the sex appeal for the documentary. Mostly she drinks, complains about fans, and later in the film appears in various states of undress.

This all seems somehow tame compared to the lesser billed "star", Bob Gonzo. The producer, writer, director, and pimp employer of "Gonzo's Gorgeous Girls", Gonzo makes movies that would barely classify as "horror." Think of Fred Olen Ray crossed with the film Snuff and you have some idea. Bob Gonzo has a table at the convention to sell his sexploitation films (of which he's also the star) and to let attendees oogle his girls, who also show up. Sleazy doesn't begin to cover it.

Only Gunnar Hansen comes off looking good, mostly because he's such a genuinely likable guy in UnConventional. He's not really that attached to being Leatherface, but appreciates the fans and stays for the three day convention in order to make them happy. He doesn't get involved in the drunken parties that make up the Chiller Theater after-hours portion(s) of the doc, and is happy to sit down and talk about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and horror fandom during the movie.

In fact, I gather that the Chiller Theater Convention is actually a reasonably cool place to be. I don't know, because UnConventional is a documentary which seems to point the camera in all the least interesting directions - like 42nd Street Pete pretending to vomit in a trash can or the world's lamest Horror Auction - for 90 minutes.

It also doesn't help that the documentary feels so low rent. At times it feels more like a collection of home movies than an actual film, and none of it seems all that intriguing to people not directly involved in the convention. The Cap'n will admit that he turned UnConventional off a few times out of boredom, particularly when they seem to run out of things to do and send Shepis down to the laundry room of the hotel in a skimpy dress.

See? This is just getting mean. I don't know any of the people involved in UnConventional, and I don't have any reason to believe they'd ever read a review of their documentary from 2004, but I feel bad beating up on them. They were doing the best they could, and I guess they thought all of this footage was pretty cool. The problem is that it makes them look silly, the fans look idiotic, and the convention look cheap and uninteresting. All of that may not be the case, but UnConventional doesn't leave me with any other verdict.