Tuesday, September 30, 2014

John Carpenter's Escape From L.A. (1996)

Starting with this post, I will be examining a selection of films from 1995 to 1999 that I either haven't seen in a while, really enjoyed or just feel like taking another look at.  Kicking this little unofficial project off will be Escape From L.A., the sequel to the 1981 classic Escape From New York and a film I really wish I had seen in theaters instead of Independence Day.  Not because it's that much better than the biggest hit of 1996 (in terms of overall quality they're about even), but I just never got a chance to see a John Carpenter movie first run on the big screen.

Set 16 years after the original, 2013 to be precise, Escape From L.A. follows the first film's beats more or less exactly with a few exceptions.  Snake (Kurt Russell) is once again sent into a futuristic prison city, this time under orders from the ultra right wing President, played by Cliff Robertson.  The mission is to stop a mad rebel named Cuervo Jones (George Corraface) who has brainwashed the President's daughter and gotten her to steal a super weapon that can effectively wipe out civilization as we know it with a press of a button.  The daughter is also marked for death by her dear old dad, which doesn't sit well with Snake (but then what does?) and there are tons of action scenes, character actors and shootouts.

Everything is beefed up for the most part from the theme song which now sounds like its on the juice to the action which is peppered with some dodgy CGI work.  The cast is solid enough with Steve Buscemi in a fun role, Robertson and Stacy Keach in decent turns and fun parts for Bruce Campbell as a gruesome plastic surgeon, Peter Fonda as a surfer and Pam Grier as a guy Snake once knew who had a sex change but the real star of the show is Kurt Russell.  Russell has always loved the role of Snake and you can tell by just how hard he works to make every scene he's in as cool as possible.  He nearly single handedly makes this a really, really good movie.

It falls short, sadly, simply because it tries too damn hard to echo the first movie.  I can sort of see where Carpenter was going with it, some of the echoes are amusing (Snake is constantly told he shorter than expected whereas he was mistaken for dead in the first one all the time) but the overall effect is that it makes you not really need to see the movie since Escape From New York has been consistently available for purchase or rental since 1984.

There is good stuff to be found, however.  Carpenter and Russell inject the film with a wickedly dark streak of humor, taking shots at political correctness the whole way through, there's a fun showdown quick draw scene and coming up with a grimly hilarious, audacious finale as Snake shuts down the entire planet.  It's a hell of a nice ending, though it would be even more effective if the movie were better.  This is right around the time Carpenter stopped giving a damn and it kind of shows, sadly.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Diamonds are Forever (1971)

For post 400, I present you, dear reader, with the last James Bond film I have yet to give a full review to.  It is also the last Bond related bit of writing I plan on doing until the new film comes out next year.

This is a reworking of an article I did a long time ago, my general opinion on the film remains the same.

The seventh James Bond film is a bit of a flawed gem, it sees Sean Connery returning to the role (for quite a bit of cash, I might add) in a high-spirited, generally enjoyable romp that unfortunately falls apart towards the end.  Let's take a closer look.
  • Solid enough pre-title sequence that reestablishes Connery quite nicely in the role.  He doesn't look that great, yeah, but even an out of shape Sean Connery could probably still kick the head off of anyone who called him on it. Bond remains unseen for the scene in Japan and the following Casino scene in Cairo.
  • While the audience knows Connery is back as Bond, Connery’s return was the primary marketing piece of the film, it makes good story sense to give a decent “movie star” buildup to the actor’s return.  The reveal of Connery is handled very nicely with Marie glancing up and Connery walking down into frame uttering the line “My name is Bond, James Bond.”  He even gets a nicely nasty bit, choking a woman with her bikini.  It's been criticized in some circles but for me, it fits Connery’s Bond and the character in general.  Bond has always been portrayed as a good man but not necessarily a nice man.  Granted there is some subtext that can be found, but I feel it adds to the complexity of the character more than anything else.
  • The sequence in general also works as a covert follow-up to the ending of the previous movie which saw Bond's new bride brutally gunned down in front of him.  It's never stated that Bond is gunning for Blofeld (now played quite nicely by Charles Gray) here for revenge but one can make a reasonable assumption that this is the case.
  • As for the new Blofeld, Gray’s Blofeld casting works just fine.  Gray is a very good actor and plays the role with suave menace.  Whatever faults the character has have more to do with the screenplay than the performance.  Making Blofeld British also makes some sense in terms of story.  It’s fairly clear in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service that Blofeld wants to disappear at some point; the usual hefty ransom is replaced by a request for a full pardon and recognition as a Count.  Here, we see he’s using plastic surgery to get doubles, possibly to fake his death if Bond finds him.
  • One interesting aspect of Blofeld in this film as well as the previous one is the lack of SPECTRE being mentioned in any way, shape or form.  This could be because Bond basically smashed the organization in Thunderball and You Only Live Twice and possibly finished off whatever was left between You Only Live Twice and On Her Majesty’s Secret ServiceDiamonds Are Forever is not just significant because of Connery’s return; it also shows the final downfall of Ernst Stavro Blofeld and what is left of SPECTRE.  The touch of Blofeld using plastic surgery on volunteers so he can have doubles is also cool.
  • Connery's performance is strong, even if his physique has slipped a little.  While he’s rather down to earth and laid back for most of the film, Connery plays it rather dark and violent in the pre-title sequence which lends some credence to my theory stated above.  This is Bond out for revenge, calm and methodical with an added brutality, understandable given why he’s looking for Blofeld.  This is in stark contrast to the somewhat out of control Bond we’ll see in Licence to Kill.  Needless to say, I think this one works better.
  • Good main title sequence accompanied by Maurice Binder’s lovely visuals and the title song sung by Shirley Bassey which is low key and very easy on the ears.  The same can be said for John Barry’s score which fits the film perfectly and keeps the low key, relaxed level the film itself carries.
  • The film proper throws us right into the main plot with Bond and M looking over some diamonds.  We see Bond relaxed enough to toy with M a bit and question whether or not the 00-section is really needed for what he calls a “relatively simple smuggling matter”.  The scene with Sir Donald is one of the best in the film and flows with a smoothness that makes the rather large amount of exposition  regarding the smuggling pipeline problem go down quite easily.
  • The scene is also a chance for a bit of humor, Bond’s exchange with M about the sherry.  Its little bits like this that make the script for the film so good, it’s a pity the film doesn’t sustain itself as well towards the end.
  • The exposition itself is also handled brilliantly by screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz who takes the words and makes them cinematic, adhering to a big rule of film:  show, don’t tell.  The sequence of scenes is very interesting, the cross-cutting between Bond’s briefing and Wint and Kidd eliminating the links to the pipeline gets a lot of story out of the way in a matter of minutes but still, the plot is very easy to follow.  Like the rest of the screenplay, this is a fine example of good, lean storytelling.  Mankiewicz spends just enough time with exposition to give you the points you need for the moment and moves on.  Same goes for general storytelling as he gives you a fairly complex plot in a brisk manner that still allows for understanding.
  • Within the quick explanation of how the diamond mining’s security precautions work we also get an introduction to the henchmen Wint and Kidd as they kill two contacts and make off with a shipment of diamonds.  This is done in a low key style with the villains being as casual as possible yet still maintaining a menacing quality.  While some might think this is a mistake, I like the fact that unlike most Bond films, this one keeps the pace relatively low key.  Even a broader entry like Moonraker operates at a faster pace due to the over the top style it uses to tell the story.  Diamonds Are Forever is over the top but in a more muted, calm fashion.
  • The characters of Wint and Kidd have been criticized for being too humorous but I think that that element makes them more effective as villains.  And honestly, Bruce Glover and Putter Smith do play the characters as menacing as they can while still staying light and low key which seems to be what director Guy Hamilton wanted.  Their glib remarks about their victims is a nicely dark touch.
  • From this, we get Bond being assigned to impersonate Peter Franks in Holland.  We get a fun transition into the Bond Theme as a hovercraft takes Bond into Amsterdam for his undercover work as Peter Franks who he impersonates.  During this, we come to the introduction of our Bond Girl, Tiffany Case (Jill St. John).  Tiffany is both a high point and a low point in the film.  She starts off very well but unfortunately takes a downward turn in the final quarter of the film.  Despite that, her first scene is an excellent introduction, full of great dialogue and surprises.  From the get-go Tiffany proves to be unpredictable, first appearing to be a blond and then turning out to be a redhead.
  • We get a clear idea of the type of person Case is in her first few seconds on screen.  A cocky, smooth operator who is not fazed by Bond’s flirtations and knows how to take care of herself.  She also seems to be well-funded; the fingerprint scanning gadget in her bedroom is a nice touch to the character and gives an air of professionalism to her.  Bond’s amused reaction to the glass is a nice touch as well as is the payoff to the scene when we learn Bond has actually faked her out with fake fingerprints.  Her professionalism and efficient is a nice change of pace from what the genre usually gives us, sadly it won't last through the entire movie.
  • The scene with Bond and Franks is a great set-piece, starting off with Connery’s humorous fake accent that lulls Franks into a sense of security.  The ensuing fight is wonderfully choreographed and unique with the tight quarters making for a surprisingly brutal fight considering the light tone of the film.  The fight also shows Connery to be fine condition.  Has he put on some pounds?  Yes, but the fight still looks great and Connery seems to enjoy himself throughout the film.  His ensuing scene with Tiffany walks the fine line between effective writing and shameless self awareness.  Still, it makes sense that a diamond smuggler like Tiffany would at least know Bond by reputation, even if her knowledge was restricted to overheard conversations and second-hand information.  The scene also works to get Tiffany in an actual working relationship with Bond, showing him where the diamonds are and tying them in with Mrs. Whistler.
  • The stuff with Bond getting the diamonds into L.A. is a solid sequence that moves with a brisk pace quickly showing the ruse Bond is using and that he and Tiffany are being tailed by Wint and Kidd.  Bond’s arrival in Los Angeles brings us to the only real casting problem the film has as Felix Leiter is introduced posing as a customs agent.  While Norman Burton gives a capable enough performance, the character is a bit too old and lacking in energy, a stark contrast to the character’s previous appearance in Thunderball.
  • The funeral home sequence is another triumph of lean, efficient storytelling.  The opening dialogue with the contact is dead solid perfect, both men know exactly what they’re doing and what they’re talking about but the screenwriter is intelligent enough to not spell it out for the audience, letting the dialogue and story speak for themselves.  The scene also shows us the cremation chamber, a wonderfully gruesome way of getting the diamonds out of Franks’s corpse.  The chamber established, the film quickly lets us know that Wint and Kidd are present and does a fine job of quickly moving the story along as Bond is almost immediately knocked out after getting the envelope of money.
  • The scene with Bond in the coffin is a personal favorite as the screenwriter actually paints himself into a corner, trapping 007 in a coffin that itself is trapped inside a very small space.  His rescue by Shady Tree, whom we have already seen taking the urn of diamonds is fun because it accomplishes two things.  First off, it gives the character of Tree a distinctly memorable introduction and personality so Bond can recognize his face later.  Second, it plays with the audience’s expectations as generally one would not expect an escape from a deathtrap to come in the form of a low rent Don Rickles.  It's a wonderfully insane bit of cheating that works simply because the film is so damn likable.
  • The whole trip from Amsterdam to L.A. might seem pointless after this scene, but I like the feel of unpredictability the twist gives.  It shows that Bond can’t really trust Tiffany and this “relatively simple smuggling matter” should be handled otherwise.  As far as first act twists go, it takes a lot of balls to have the entire first act turn out to be nothing more than an elaborate means to get Bond into Las Vegas.
  • The first part of the Vegas sequence, is a blend of good, quick storytelling: Willard Whyte and Shady Tree are established fluidly in the same shot and casino boss Saxby is introduced along with the fact that Wint and Kidd appear to be working for him and by default, Willard Whyte and classic Bondian style: Bond winning at craps and his introduction to Plenty (Lana Wood).  The fast pace helps cover up a rather glaring flaw in the film, namely that Plenty has practically nothing to do with the rest of the film and only serves as a way to get Bond into a room alone with Tiffany.  Well, at least she's pretty.
  • This brings me to a realization I had about the film.  It plays, especially in the early Vegas parts of the film like a Rat Pack film.  The tone is relaxed and the plot is not really focused on too heavily, in fact the plot seems to be on autopilot for the most part.  One could easily replace Connery with Frank Sinatra and cast Dean Martin as Felix Leiter and end up with a very good Rat Pack caper film.  Quite appropriate given the Sammy Davis Jr. cameo that ended up on the cutting room floor.  This ends up being both a blessing and a curse as we will see.
  • The light, brisk tone continues into the Circus Circus sequence and Tiffany evading Leiter’s men and performing an artful double cross.  I like how the filmmakers subtly show Tiffany spotting the agents and immediately figuring there is some sort of setup.  The scene is carried out quite well with the only dialogue being the usual circus chatter.  The following scene at Tiffany’s house engages in a nice little turnabout as Tiffany and Bond switch positions of power with Bond now in control.  It’s not executed perfectly though, the writing seems a bit rushed, a phenomenon that will reappear later as the film progresses.
  • This brings us to maybe the best sequence in the film, the tracking of the diamonds.  The writing and execution of this is sequence is almost perfect with Tiffany’s distraction and the expository information given prior to it delivered smart and efficiently.  I especially love the music as Dr. Metz enters the underground complex with Bond casually tailing him.  His snooping around and toying with Metz is done wonderfully by Connery.  The ensuing moon buggy scene is something of a mixed bag for me.  While the design is impressive, the music for the chase and the chase itself are somewhat underwhelming. 
  •  Much better is the car chase in Vegas following the moon buggy chase.  The stunts are well done and the action is filmed much better and has a more dynamic feel to it, largely thanks to the Vegas scenery in the background.  Odd since the same second unit was at work in both scenes.  Strange.
  • The chase also gives a rather amusing (your mileage may vary on this) bit of foreshadowing as, like the following two entries in the series, Bond is involved with a rather dumb member of law enforcement.  It's not done as badly here, but it does make one hesitate to watch the next two films right after this one.
  • This leads to my favorite sequence in the entire movie, Bond scaling the Whyte House.  The casualness with which Connery plays the scene is great and perfect for the tone of the film.  It also leads the audience into expecting a confrontation with Whyte.  The subsequent revelation that Blofeld is posing as Whyte is handled rather nicely in my opinion.  While some may complain that Bond doesn’t show much surprise, I feel it’s a perfectly reasonable response on his part.  After all, this is the same man who managed to get out of an exploding volcano and survive an apparent broken neck.  He has very few surprises left for Bond.
  • The dialogue scene is wonderfully written with Gray providing an elegant, suavely menacing version of Blofeld.  This scene is also a fine example of why good screenwriting is so important.  Put bluntly, this scene is basically roughly five minutes of raw exposition.  Gray and Connery are very charming and charismatic and they play the scene in a smooth fluid manner that makes it go by quickly.  The trick with the cat is also a neat touch.
  • For me, the most interesting part of this scene is the fact that for the first time, a Bond villain actually chooses to not spend five minutes explaining his plan to Bond in full detail.  This leads us back to my earlier theory about Blofeld over the course of the film and the two preceding it.  Apart from a passing reference, SPECTRE isn’t mentioned in either this film or the previous two.  I maintain that Blofeld is at this point desperate for money and really doesn’t have that much of a plan to begin with.  Why else would a clearly insane megalomaniac choose to not revel in telling his arch nemesis his plans?
  • The scene with Bond being dumped in the pipeline is also nicely done, a neat little blend of humor and some tension.  I especially enjoy the “Snidely Whiplash” laughing that Wint and Kidd indulge in as they drive away from the pipeline.  The ploy with Bond impersonating Saxby is a wonderful way to get Bond to Whyte’s location.  A small flub is that Saxby turns up later even though Blofeld was talking with Bond, but it’s reasonable to assume that he called Saxby to check on his progress at a later time.
  • The Whyte rescue works well with Bond surprisingly getting beaten up by Bambi and Thumper, Blofeld's female gymnast henchwomen.  The actual rescue is amusingly low key, as is the rest of the film.  This is one place I think the low key tone doesn’t quite work as Whyte seems to be way too laid back considering he’s been kidnapped.
  • Sadly after the rescue, the film goes downhill with the most glaring change being with Tiffany.  For some reason the intelligent, resourceful character in the first ninety minutes is replaced by an annoying idiot.  The less said about Blofeld in drag the better, in fact I try to forget it whenever I see the film.
  • For the life of me I have no idea why the script ended up falling apart in the third act like it ends up doing, but there you go.  It has a very rushed, unsatisfactory feel to it with the lone exception being Bond almost by chance finding Blofeld’s oil rig.  The script also for some reason abandons the sleek, streamlined storytelling in favor of a muddled, unsatisfying resolution.  It's a real bummer and it ends up dragging what was up to that point one of the best films down to the middle of the pack.
  • The buildup to the oil rig is fine but once we get there the story just falls apart.  Too many questions are left unanswered.  Why does Tiffany suddenly appear to be on Blofeld’s side?  Why would Blofeld have had the satellite controls run by a tape that can be accessed as easily as humanly possible?  What exactly is Blofeld’s plan again?  All we get is something about a ransom for him to not melt the world and the ploy of world peace he used to get Dr. Metz on the team but apart from that there’s really isn’t that much.  On the other hand, it does fit with my theory that Blofeld doesn’t really have much of a plan this time out.
  • The countdown and battle aboard the rig is incredibly uninspiring, nothing really noteworthy aside from machine gun fire and some explosions.  The death of Blofeld is also not very well done; he doesn’t even get a moment where he sees he’s about to die.  A last look between him and Bond would have been just fine.  That or the original idea of a boat chase followed by the fight between the two characters.  The third act partially redeems itself with the coda aboard the boat.  The fight with Wint and Kidd is decent and ends the film on a relatively good note.
The film falls apart in the third act.  In actuality, as I noted, for the first hour or so it’s one of the best Bond films ever.  The pacing, writing and performances are great with many great moments and scenes.  For whatever reason, everything that works in the film’s favor works against it as soon as Willard Whyte is rescued.  While the light tone worked at first, I freely admit it kills the ending by making Blofeld’s plan murky and the action uninspired.  That being said, the first three quarters of the film are quite good and as a whole, the film is certainly worth giving a second glance.  The good far outweighs the bad and this was always one of my favorites.  If I were still rating films, this would probably merit a solid 7 due to the third act crapping the bed.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Esoterica VIII: Four Noble Truths of Used Bookstores

Bit of a change here as I'd like to do some things other than just reviews for the blog.

Being an avid reader, I've spent a crap load of time in used bookstores.  If there is a heaven, and if it is tailored to the needs of each individual, my version would probably feature at least one used bookstore.  In light of the rather remarkable amount of time I've spent in them, I've come to realize several truths about them.

1.  There's always room for Congo

When the movie came out in the summer of 1995, there was a "making of" book, as tends to be the case with potential blockbusters.  Since 1996, virtually every single used bookstore I have been in has had at least one copy of this.  I've looked in it, and to be frank, I can see why this is the case.  Chances are that any person buying this book probably looked at it once and then muttered to themselves "What the hell did I do this for?"

2. Space might not be the final frontier

 You will always find tons of paperbacks which is always good if you prefer to have a few dollars left to your name when you leave, and you can always find tons of old Star Trek novels.

 Usually they will be the ones from the late 80's and early 90's when the franchise was running strong.

 Incidentally, this one is one of the best TNG novels, any time you get that crew going against The Borg, it's good times.


 Funnily enough, you can usually find less Star Wars stuff for some reason.  Not sure why, really.

3. It's always easier to try new things for less than three bucks

I'm a big horror fan but for some reason, the only writer I really read for the longest time was Stephen King.  Now granted, part of that is because his average novel runs about 700 pages and I have other stuff to do during the day but that's really not much of an excuse.  Thankfully, I feel $2.50 is a perfectly reasonable price for a forty year old horror novel which brings us to the above book.  Shadowland by Peter Straub is a fascinating, creepy tale about two students at a hellish private school (aren't they all?) who find terror not only in the course of an average day at school, but also at the home of one of the boy's uncle who is an evil wizard.  Straub does a fine job drawing his characters in rich detail and if there is a flaw, it is that the stuff at school during the first half is far more creepy and unsettling than anything supernatural that goes on in the second half.  Maybe it's just that I'm a middle class dude.

4. Sometimes you can find exactly what you never knew you wanted

This is one of my favorite purchases of all time.  Pretty rare, it's an on the set journal of the making of The Empire Strikes Back, along the lines of The Jaws Log.  Tons of interviews, some nice photos and you get a real sense of what an absolute ball breaker of a job it was to get the movie to the big screen.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Howling 2, 4 and 7

While I love the first Howling movie and think it is a truly terrific horror movie, the same cannot be said for the sequels.   Oh, one or two are guilty pleasures for me.  But the rest... Dear lord, even I have to have some standards.  Let's get started because we're going for parts 2, 4 and 7 in one shot (haven't seen the most recent one and really don't want to have to).

Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf (1986)

Didn't include this in my 1986 series mainly because I try to go for the U.S. release dates on these things and I'd already done the guilty pleasures post by the time I realized it was unleashed that year, but also for purposes of space.  Besides, a movie this amazingly bad really has to be singled out.

Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf is quite possibly my favorite bad movie of all time.  I wrote a huge article on it for The Agony Booth several years ago so I'll try to be as brief as I can.  Horror legend Christopher Lee plays Stefan, a professional occult investigator who confronts the brother of Dee Wallace's character from the first film (the only connection to the first, really and the last for the duration of the series) and ends up enlisting his aid along with that of his girlfriend to take down an ancient and powerful werewolf named Stirba, played by Sybil Danning.

Objectively, the movie is just terrible with bad f/x, inane editing (transitions are done in as cheesy a manner as possible and there are flash cuts to random imagery throughout), a worthless plot and shamefully bad acting from a disinterested Lee.  Hell, even Reb Brown and Annie McEnroe fare better as the two leads and they aren't that good either.  Sybil Danning is... Well, her character is really only interesting in that she seems to have a taste for the worst in 80's fashion with some truly butt ugly outfits and a hairstyle that inspires screams of "Get that woman a comb!" rather than terror.

In spite of all that is wrong with it, I sort of love it to death as it is bad in an utterly fascinating way.  It fails in about every way possible but it's certainly not boring.  Director Philippe Mora does what he can but his second effort in the series is a marked improvement... though not by much.

Howling IV: The Original Nightmare (1988) 

 Here's where the wheels begin to come off as the fourth entry purports to stick a little closer to the original novel by Gary Brandner.   Romy Windsor plays an author who has been having strange and disturbing visions of nuns and werewolves.  Her shrink sends her to a small California town called Drago where she, along with her husband (Michael T. Weiss) proceed to follow more or less the same path the characters in the first one went down.  The wife gets spooked by wolf howls, the husband gets bitten by a werewolf and has an affair with a wolf woman, the climax has a huge fire with lots of folks turning into werewolves.

Really, this movie plays like the first one only without any of the energy and humor Joe Dante brought to the first one.  About the only notable things in the film are the typically awesome Steve Johnson f/x (they don't really come into play until the last ten minutes or so) and introduction of Clive Turner into the series.  Turner is the film's co-writer and co-producer and would play a part in the fifth and seventh films as well but we can get to him later.  The Steve Johnson f/x work at the end is quite good and almost makes the movie worth sitting through.  Thank God for fast forward, that way you can just see the rather impressive meltdown scene that leads to the first werewolf transformation.  Not sure who came up with that but it's nicely goofy and the only small saving grace of this dull movie.

The Howling: New Moon Rising (1995)

Ladies and germs, welcome to rock bottom. Some film franchises go on and on, changing and evolving, some merely fade away and then, sometimes, a franchise will blast itself out of existence in a blaze of glory.  The Howling: New Moon Rising is maybe the most incredible case of a franchise shooting itself in the head with a high powered rifle I have ever seen.  Clive Turner's ultimate contribution to the series, he not only wrote and produced it but also directed and took a starring role in it.  Oh yes, folks, we are in the land of vanity projects and based on what we see here, Clive Turner's vanity is just frigging weird.

The plot is vague as hell as Turner plays a drifter who finds his way to a small western town (the film uses the famous Pioneertown, location for tons of old westerns and also uses some of the residents as actors), evidently looking for a werewolf (the film is sort of vague on this point) but, as tends to be the case, suspicion falls on him.  Most of the film is pointless padding: country line dancing, weird comic bits, toilet humor, in total the film has only a few seconds of actual werewolf footage in it.

Said footage consists of a really bad morphing effect and a crappy werewolf mask at the end.  The rest of the film uses stock footage from the fourth and fifth movies as a way to set up the shock reveal of the real werewolf (turns out it's a side character from the fifth movie who turned out to be the werewolf then as well).  The film is just an incoherent, bizarre, pointless string of footage cobbled together in a vain effort to make a movie.

Like I said, the franchise goes out in a blaze of glory.  Of these three, the second movie ends up being the best by sheer virtue of being absolutely insane.  The others... Well, I'm not covering them so that should tell you something.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Shadowzone (1990)

This is an early release from Charles Band's Full Moon Pictures, many years before they got stuck in a "all things small" horror film rut.  Shadowzone is an entertaining, brisk little bit of horror/sci-fi about a secret military research project that goes sour as a portal to another dimension is opened and a alien starts munching the scientists and staff, led by character actors James Hong and Oscar winner Louise Fletcher.  Hong is the highlight for me as not only does he deliver his usual solid performance, he also makes me chuckle by apparently playing his scientist character as a German.  It's a fairly brief role but he certainly stands out.

The f/x work is pretty solid too with some nice goopy kills and a rather neat looking alien that isn't seen until the last few minutes.  As entertaining as it is, the film does get bogged down in its plot which starts off as an interesting flick about experimenting with sleep states and ends up being a riff on Alien with the cast being picked off one at a time while a soundtrack that sounds very close to that of Aliens plays.  Apart from Hong, the cast ranges from bland to annoying to rather bad in the case of Louise Fletcher who plays maybe the least enthusiastic version of the "obsessed scientist" trope I have ever seen.  She has one or two okay moments (a rather funny bit comes at the end when she enters the alien's dimension briefly and slides back out casually before being skewered by the beast) but overall she just looks bored.

It's worth a glance, just nothing to get too worked up over.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Expendables 3 (2014)

The third Expendables film is a bit of a mixed bag, though pretty satisfying in the end.  The regular crew is back (some with more screen time than others), this time joined by Wesley Snipes, Antonio Banderas and four new recruits played by Kellan Lutz, MMA star Ronda Rousey, Glen Powell and Victor Ortiz.  They're matched up against a former member and co-founder of the team, Conrad Stonebanks, played rather well by Mel Gibson and Harrison Ford and Arnold Schwarzenegger are also on hand lending help to the team.

After one of their own is gravely wounded in battle by Stonebanks, Ross (Sylvester Stallone) disbands the current team and recruits the aforementioned four new recruits in an effort to take his former partner down.  Things go sour and the newbies are captured, which brings the original team back into the fold for an epic finale.


When the film is dealing in bullets and things blowing up real good, it's top notch.  There is plenty of action throughout and Gibson makes for a pretty damn good bad guy.  Banderas and Snipes are also fun in their parts and while the four new team members really don't have that much more to do, Ronda Rousey does have one nice scene where she absolutely beats the hell out of a couple of bad guys.  Harrison Ford is also dryly funny in his role as the team's CIA handler.  I also get a kick out of seeing Robert Davi in a small role as an Albanian gangster Stonebanks meets with along with Kelsey Grammar as Ross' friend who helps recruit the new guys.


 As tends to be the case with Stallone scripts, there is a little too much brooding, sometimes to the detriment of the film.  It sort of dragged the first movie down a bit and it does so again here.  Making things worse is the rather thin writing for the team as a whole, and not just the new members who we don;t really get to know all that well.  The usual banter between Stallone and Jason Statham is there but it feels a little tired.  Dolph Lundgren has one funny moment but is underused and Terry Crews gets shot in the first ten minutes and is sidelined until the last scene.

The end result is an acceptably entertaining action film, though it is nowhere near as fun as the second.  If the first two felt like Cannon films from the studio's prime, this one feels a little more like one of their later entries.  Solid fun, but decidedly undercooked.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Starting with this post, I will, from time to time, review newer that I enjoyed either the first time I saw them in the theater, or stuff I just never got around to paying to see in a dark room surrounded by strangers wondering if I would ever see the money I spent on concessions ever again.  Part of this is so I can get newer material on the site, incredibly enough there are movies I have opinions on that were released in the last ten years or so. 

It's also because sometimes your first thoughts after seeing a movie in the theater aren't quite as coherent as they could be.  Basically, this saves me from having my fun time on a day off feel like work that I'm not getting paid for.

I will also be restructuring the blog in the coming weeks.

In April of this year, the second Captain America movie made a killing at the box office, becoming the top grossing movie of the year... At least until Guardians of the Galaxy came along and thus far has made even more. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is leaps and bounds better than the first one, a rather impressive feat as the first film was pretty damn good in its own right.

First and foremost, this is one hell of a fun action movie.  From Cap (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) taking out a bunch of bad guys on a boat in the opener to Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) being ambushed in his car to the showdowns with The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), the action is top notch and I'm even leaving out some sequences just because there are so many.

The cast is fantastic: Evans is great as Cap; Jackson and Johansson are fun, Robert Redford is terrific as senior SHIELD member Alexander Pierce (the reveal that he's the bad guy works rather nicely, though if you really think about it, it becomes a little obvious) and Stan does quite well as Winter Soldier.  Also, as a fan of 70's and early 80's Marvel, I love having Anthony Mackie present as The Falcon.  He's cool and  makes a nice addition to the world these Marvel movies have created.

The film moves along at a nice clip, giving us a very cool 70's style conspiracy thriller (which makes casting Robert Redford an especially nice touch) with a modern flair.  Great action, a fun cast with some nice laughs and surprises (having Black Widow impersonate a security council member played by Jenny Agutter is terrific) plus some nice big changes to the overall world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Captain America: The Winter Soldier is quite simply one of the best superhero movies I have ever seen.  Period.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

P.O.W.: The Escape (1986)

In the mid-80s, there was a glut of action movies dedicated to plots concerning rescuing prisoners of war from Vietnam.  Generally these were made to just cash in on the then current real life political debates over the matter, but it was also an excuse to re-fight the one war we took a major butt whooping in (at least in the 1900's).  Notable titles were Rambo: First Blood Part II and Uncommon Valor and naturally, Cannon Films got into the fray with the first two Missing in Action films and our feature today.

P.O.W. The Escape, also known as Behind Enemy Lines and Attack Force 'Nam stars David Carradine as Cooper, a colonel sent in to rescue prisoners after the fall of Saigon in 1973, only to be captured himself, necessitating him breaking out of the prison with as many fellow soldiers as possible.  Before doing so, the camp commander, Captain Vinh (Mako) makes him a tempting offer, noting that he will let the entire camp go free and escort them to American lines if Cooper helps him get to Miami where he has family.

The film is pretty basic in terms of plot and characterization with Carradine doing a serviceable hard ass routine and Mako delivering an adequate enough job, though with a better script his rather interesting character could have been even better.  As it stands, he's interesting for the first half of the movie and afterwards, just a stock bad guy.  Steve James is given little to do, which is typical but Charles Floyd is decent enough as Sparks, the obligatory jerk soldier who is only interested in himself.

Action is plentiful but rather predictable as we get a selection of shootouts with some fist fights and a rather nice bridge explosion.  There is one pretty amusing bit towards the end as Carradine literally wraps himself in the American flag before mowing down a bunch of enemy soldiers.

P.O.W.: The Escape is a predictable, modestly entertaining piece of action fluff that is fine for the time you are viewing it but not necessarily essential.  It could have used more of the plot line of the deal between Cooper and Vinh and in some parts it feels quite disjointed with scenes ending a few beats before they feel like they should.  It's a decent enough time waster, though.  If nothing else it's more enjoyable and less unpleasant to sit through than Missing in Action 2.

About Me

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