Sunday, January 18, 2015

Zardoz (1974)

Before we begin, I want to give props to the fine folks at Her Majesty's Secret Podcast not only for inspiring me to write about this movie but also the other Connery films I've covered in recent months.  And now, for the third and last entry in this look at the cinematic choices of Sean Connery, prepare to have your mind blown right out the back of your head.

Submitted for your perusal (because approval might be asking a little too much), one of the most bizarre pieces of 70's sci-fi I have ever seen.  Zardoz is one of those movies that makes you just stare at the screen in amazement at what you're seeing.  It's... It's just bizarre on a level that even David Lynch would say "That's frigging weird."

Directed by John Boorman of Deliverance fame, Zardoz is a baffling, utterly bizarre, sort of tedious yet fascinating sci-fi film with some deep, pretentious aspirations which are more or less muffled by simply being too bizarre for words.

The plot, in a nutshell, involves a post-apocalyptic society that has been divided into an upper class of immortals called Eternals; a working class called Brutals and a bunch of Exterminators who... Well, they exterminate.  Connery is an Exterminator named Zed who one day finds out their god Zardoz, personified by a ginormous stone head that flies around is just a sham put on by an Eternal.

Disillusioned, he ends up with the Eternals, led by Charlotte Rampling and the ensuing events are part self-discovery, part fulfilling a prophecy and all incoherent.  The basic gist is that Zed has been allowed to find out the truth about the world and out an end to the lie in the most roundabout, pretentious way possible.  To put it bluntly, a bunch of immortal hippies get tired of being bored in their self-imposed exile and decide to annihilate themselves in the most Rube Golbergian way they can think of.  A word of advice, if you need to resort to genetic manipulation to find a way to off yourselves, you're over thinking things just a wee bit.

John Boorman has gone on record as saying he's not really sure what he was going for and I gotta say, he's not lying.  The film is a mess for the most part with a vague plot, desultory performances (though Connery manages to have one or two decent moments just by being Sean Connery) and a final half hour that would be explainable if the necessary drugs needed to make it coherent were legal anywhere on this planet.

Another issue, and this is just my personal sense of taste here, is the abundance of nudity on display.  I have no problem with the female form, however I do prefer it to not be that skinny, pale, underfed 70's look that was popular in... Well, the 70's.  It's sort of a good news, bad news thing.  Good news is that there are plenty of naked women.  Bad news is that most of them look in dire need of a cheeseburger.  It's rather hard to find a woman attractive when you're worrying she's about to keel over from starvation any minute.

That being said, there are some genuine merits to the movie.  First off, it's quite nice to look at with some really nice locations in Ireland.  Second, and this is really where I get a chuckle from this hunk of strange, is the utterly bizarre way the film throws images at you.

From the giant floating stone head that barfs guns and lectures on the evils of reproduction to Connery turning into a grunting caveman every now and then to the completely odd way the Eternals function and operate, this movie is a smorgasbord of weirdness that will either have you giggling with amusement or staring slack jawed at the screen, wondering how the hell you'll get that 106 minutes of your life back.  The revelation that Sean Connery's sweat is pure concentrated adrenaline is maybe the most amusing twist the film tosses our way.

I sort of fall in the middle on this one.  The first 75 minutes or so are actually pretty damn intriguing but once it gets into the last thirty minutes it just falls apart.  Instead of a satisfying conclusion, we are given a typical 70's "everyone dies" type ending along with a montage of Connery and Rampling as they age and turn into skeletons.  Not exactly 2001, and even in that case I have some issues.

Zardoz is worth seeing at least once, just so you can say you saw that weird film with Sean Connery running around in a red diaper and knee high boots.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Tales From the Darkside: The Movie (1990)

Based on the enjoyable 80's horror anthology series George Romero produced, Tales From the Darkside: The Movie is a fitfully effective, sometimes ghoulishly fun horror film with a decent wraparound story and three perfectly acceptable horror tales, one of which is from Stephen King.

The wraparound is a pretty nice structure for the film as rock star Debbie Harry plays a cannibalistic suburban witch planning to make a meal out of a young kid played by Matthew Lawrence.  Lawrence is the one telling the stories in order to stave off becoming the main course and both performers do their jobs fairly well.

The three stories are equally competent.  "Lot 249" is based on an Arthur Conan Doyle story and it is more interesting for the cast than the rather typical revenge tale composing the story.  Steve Buscemi is a college student who has been screwed over by a dumb jock and his girlfriend (Julianne Moore) who happens to be the sister of his roommate, played fairly well by Christian Slater.  Buscemi is a collector of rare artifacts and has come into possession of a mummy, complete with the scroll to bring him back to life.  Needless to say, he gets his revenge.

The second and best story is based on a Stephen King short story called "The Cat From Hell" and concerns a hit man played by David Johansen who is hired by a rich, mean old bastard played by William Hickey (who was one of the best when it came to playing mean old bastards) to kill a cat that has been steadily taking revenge on him for the 5,000 cats he killed while perfecting the drug that made him his fortune.  It's a nicely done, taut little story with good acting and a nice gross-out gag at the end.

"Lover's Vow" is the last tale and it is a fairly plain romantic tragedy as James Remar plays an artist who has an encounter with a gargoyle who spares him if he promises to never tell anybody about it.  Shortly thereafter, he falls for a beautiful woman played by Rae Dawn Chong and if you can't see where this one is going, I really will need you to hand in your movie viewer card.  The acting is fine, funnily enough, Remar always seems to play guys who just can't help but make dumb life decisions whether it's charging a pissed off Nick Nolte in 48 Hrs. or pissing off a gargoyle as he does here and the gargoyle is great looking but as I said, the payoff is rather obvious though nicely done.

Tales From the Darkside: The Movie is an adequate enough horror anthology film with solid acting, great KNB f/x and a brisk pace that helps it not overstay its welcome.  The first and third stories are rather pedestrian but the middle one is enough of a gem to warrant at least one viewing.

Doctor Sleep (2013)

Not too many Stephen King novels lend themselves well to sequels (the number of people who want to know what happened after Firestarter ended is probably rather low) but The Shining is one of the ones that does.  Doctor Sleep starts off with a nicely creepy prologue that reintroduces us to what is left of the Torrance family.  Wendy and Danny have gotten a rather decent settlement from the owners of the Overlook Hotel but Danny is still haunted by ghouls from the first novel.

We jump forward to Dan in more or less the present day, now a recovering alcoholic (the description of his rock bottom point might be more squirm inducing than anything overtly supernatural that goes on in the rest of the book) who works at a small hospice where he offers comfort to the dying.  He ends up developing a psychic bond with a young girl named Abra who, like Dan, also has psychic abilities (to the point where she's even more powerful that Dan) and as a result, is being targeted by a roving band of pseudo-vampires known collectively as The True Knot.

The members of the group are both one of the novel's biggest strengths and also a bit of a weakness as while they're adequately monstrous (they torture kids with psychic abilities to get an essence called "stream" from them which keeps them young and healthy) the few times they go up against Abra and Dan, either separately or as a team, the end result is a bit of a curb stomping from the good guys.

Even the climax counts as the last member of the group is rather easily shoved off a cliff after putting up what I would call a bit of token offense given that she's going up against a psychic who has already wiped out her entire group in one move.  I do like the touch of them rapidly dying off because their last victim had measles. It's a neat bit and makes perfect sense.

Issues with the finale aside, there is plenty in the book to enjoy.  This is old school King in terms of plot mechanics (kids in peril, vivid descriptions of things designed to make you lose sleep) with the focus and control he's developed over the last few years.  King really gets into the meat of Dan's alcoholism (being a former addict himself, King can speak from experience) and keeps you interested without ever smashing you in the head with it.  That, as usual, he saves for describing gross stuff which is always fun.  The other characters are pretty solid as well with Abra coming off the best and for the most part, main villain Rose though as I said above, she does sort of go down like a punk at the end.

For the most part, this is a fine sequel to the original with some nice callbacks (there is a subtle cameo at the end I will leave to you to discover) and some great passages though the subplot about Dan helping the dying could have been fleshed out a little more (his nickname is Doctor Sleep and he basically just psychically comforts people until the end) and the climax, while pretty fun is a bit of a letdown.

Still, Doctor Sleep is one you should probably make an effort to not miss.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Esoterica IX: Random Randomness Presented Randomly

Some assorted tidbits for your post-holiday enjoyment.

Enjoyable TV movie that saw the return of the Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno version of The Incredible Hulk to the small screen.  Dr. Banner is back, looking as always for a cure to his rather impressive anger management issues and he ends up teaming with fellow hero Thor to beat up some baddies led by b-movie staples Tim Thomerson and Charles Napier.  It's a little flat (as tends to be the case when you try to do a superhero thing on a TV movie budget) but the stuff with Hulk and Thor is amusing enough to warrant a viewing.

Probably the first really huge major event series for Marvel Comics, this takes a bunch of superheros (Spiderman, The Fantastic Four and a bunch of X-Men and Avengers) and pits them against a bunch of villains on an alien planet.  Great artwork, some cool action and a pretty neat story make Secret Wars an easy pick-up for Marvel fans and fans of epic storytelling in general.

There have been a lot of good Star Wars games but against all odds, this one has ended up being my favorite.  Combining the simple childhood joy of LEGO and the great fun of the original Star Wars trilogy, this is a great looking game with a nice sense of humor, fun action and great controls.  It's just plain fun and really, when you sit down to a video game that's really all you want.  Isn't it?

This Wes Craven-directed sequel is actually quite terrible (a series of flashbacks to the first film are fine but even the dog that survived gets one. WTH?) but for some ungodly reason, I find it entertaining.  A team of young dirt bike riders end up in the desert this time and are menaced by a shockingly still alive Michael Berryman (his character apparently can shake off a snake bite and fall from a cliff which is impressive, I will admit) and the gigantic mutant brother of the main bad guy from the first film who is called only The Reaper.  Craven directs things well enough but his heart isn't in it and it shows.  The climax is rather nice in a 80's "let's just blow stuff up" sort of way and the Final Girl being blind is also an interesting touch.  Still, The Hills Have Eyes Part II is pretty damn bad.

Next up, before we move on to our main course, I'd like to share two rather cheesily wonderful VHS sleeves I came across.

Now granted, Godzilla vs. Megalon is pretty cheesy by itself but this cover makes it even more so.  I especially like that Megalon is ten times more flexible in the front cover than he is in the movie itself.

This one though takes the cake.  Not often you see purported word killer Ghidrah looking that goofy (at least not before getting his contractual curb-stomping from Godzilla at the end of whatever movie he flies into) and I also love the "For kids only" stamp on the front.

And now we finish one of my favorite Stephen King offerings.

The comic book version of Creepshow is a beautifully drawn piece of work that lovingly recreates the movie in comic form.  Stephen King's stories are interpreted fantastically by Berni Wrightson and you can tell just how much both author and artist love the old EC Comics.  Creepshow is one of my favorite horror films and this adaptation is one of my favorite comic books.

Until next time...

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Great Train Robbery (1979)

Back to my look at 70's Sean Connery, our next subject is the 1979 heist film The Great Train Robbery.  Written and directed by Michael Crichton (who also wrote the novel), it stars Sean and Donald Sutherland as two British thieves (Pierce and Agar, respectively) who plot to steal a large amount of gold taken being used to finance the Crimean War.

Based loosely on events that occurred in 1855, the film is a dryly funny caper film with a clever heist plan, engaging comic performances from Connery and Sutherland and deft direction from Crichton who keeps things moving fairly well.

The overall production is quite effective with a great period setting, a fun Jerry Goldsmith score and some good tension towards the end as Pierce climbs around the top of the train while trying to pull off the heist.

While all this is well and good, the film really soars whenever Connery and Sutherland are on screen.  Both have a fairly decent amount of comic chemistry and in the case of Connery, we find a wonderfully deft light comic role well played by an old pro.  Sutherland has one or two nice bits too, as does Lesley-Anne Down as Pierce's mistress and accomplice.

Despite some slight pacing issues, The Great Train Robbery is a fun, entertaining romp that is a fine piece of light entertainment.  The planning of the caper is laid out quite nicely and the payoff is gleefully enjoyable.  I definitely recommend you check this one out.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)

Robert Rodriguez' Mariachi Trilogy wraps up with this fun, though in some ways disappointing epic that sees Antonio Banderas returning as an even more mythic version of the lead character.  This time, he's brought in by FBI agent Sands (Johnny Depp) to kill an old rival who has ties to a drug runner trying to gain control of Mexico.  As tends to be the case, things get complicated and Rodriguez leaves no stops un-pulled in this twist-laden action flick.

As one would expect, the film is full of style and good action but what really makes it fun is the cast.  Banderas is cool as usual as the hero but Depp is the real star of the show.  Sands is just hilarious, slimy and conniving but also viciously competent when it comes to killing.  It's a real enjoyable turn and I'd say it's even better than Depp's other 2003 action role in Pirates of the Caribbean.

The rest of the cast is fun too with good turns from Willem DaFoe as the drug runner Barillo (for me, it's always a good sign when the man keeps his damn clothes on as he does here); Mickey Rourke as an associate of his, Danny Trejo as a nasty piece of work named Cucuy and Ruben Blades as a retired federal officer with a grudge against Barillo.  Eva Mendes is also on hand as a treacherous cop who turns out to be Barillo's daughter as is Cheech Marin as an informant for Sands.

Really, the only huge disappointment for me with this film is the criminal lack of Salma Hayek for most of the movie.  Scheduling conflicts led to her role sadly being a cameo in flashback but she does get one or two nice moments.

This all comes together fairly well, though the plot is probably a little too intricate for its own good.  Still, Rodriguez keeps things moving and the film is over the top enough to be entertaining as hell.  It's not as good as the first two but is does offer enough bang for one's buck.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Face/Off (1997)

John Woo's career stateside was sort of mixed bag.  His debut, Hard Target, was okay and Broken Arrow is a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine but his one indisputable great American action movie is Face/Off.  John Travolta is FBI agent Sean Archer, obsessed to the point of neglecting his family with taking down ruthless criminal Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) who accidentally killed his son right in front of him.

After a fantastic shootout at an airstrip, he finally nabs the villain and outs him in a coma but then has to track down a he bomb Troy has planted in Los Angeles.  Since this is an over the top action film, he takes an offer from some colleagues to go deep undercover to get info from his imprisoned brother... as Troy.  Doing do requires a face transplant and in one of the better sequences in the film, we see the procedure complete with some nice f/x work from Kevin Yagher.  This is the sort of over the top plot idea I love and here, it;s done very well.  It's silly, it's unrealistic but nevertheless is works.

Naturally, things can't go easy so Troy wakes up from his coma and naturally wants a face so he takes Archer's.  The rest of the film is a real treat as we see Travolta playing Cage and vice versa.  It's almost to the point where the great action scenes are an added bonus.  Both lead actors do a nice job of emulating each other without lapsing into a simple impression of the other.  Though it probably helps that they have similar acting styles (start with some level of realism and then add ham as needed).

The rest of the cast is pretty good too with highlights being Joan Allen as Archer's wife and Gina Gershon as Troy's girlfriend.

The action is, as one would expect from a John Woo film, top notch and full of style.  The finale is a great boat chase that looks like something out of a James Bond film and the fight at the end between Cage and Travolta is nicely brutal.  There is a little cheese, Woo does tend to go overboard with some of his stuff but honestly, that's all part of the fun.

Face/Off was the second half of a nice one-two punch for Cage in 1997 with Con Air being the first.  Both films are nice, huge hunks of ridiculous action fun and it still holds up fairly well today.  Good stuff.

About Me

I've been a huge fan of action, horror and comedy for as long as I can remember.