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 MollĂ ) 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.