Monday, 15 December 2008

The Punisher (2004)

In Soviet Russia, Wally finds you.

So by 2004, comic book movies were big business and Marvel was busy digging up old properties to give the big screen treatment. Sadly, my dreams of a Dazzler film went unfulfilled, and instead they called mulligan on the '89 Punisher and decided it was time for a do-over. In order to get the bad taste of the first movie out of the public's mouth, they moved the setting to sunny Tampa Bay, Florida. I salute their originality in not basing it in New York like every fucking other vigilante movie, but seriously, fuckin' Tampa?

This time Thomas Jane picks up the mantle of Frank Castle. He's buff and can look pretty menacing, but he definitely looks too much like a pretty boy to play the Punisher. His acting is pretty wooden, but it's a pretty wooden character so it's a good fit. In order to pacify the nerds he wears his famous skull t-shirt this time around... apparently his kid bought it for him as a gift to ward off evil spirits or something. If I had a choice between no skull and that goofy explanation, I'll take no-skull thanks. It would have been a very different (perhaps better) movie if his kid had bought him something like this instead.

In this version of the story, he's an ex-Special-Forces undercover FBI agent. His latest sting involves getting shot for pretend, which seems like a pretty stupid plan because the criminals predictably freak out and one of them ends up getting shot for reals. Unfortunately, this criminal is Bobby Saint, son of notorious crime boss Howard Saint (John Travolta).

Howard would have probably been happy with murdering Frank's wife and kid, but he has a wife named Livia (Laura Harring) who is a real ice-cold manipulative bitch, like Lady Kaede in Ran except that she has eyebrows. She insists he send his crew of black-clad assassins to his family reunion in Puerto Rico, where they wipe out his entire family. Cousins, uncles, parents, everybody. People try to escape on foot, on motorcycles and even dinghies (that guy must have been really desperate) but the bad guys chase them down and shoot them. Frank's wife and son try to escape in an SUV (with a boat on a trailer still attached!) but eventually they are chased onto a pier and the bad guys run them over in their truck. Then they shoot Frank and blow up the pier. As far as revenge goes, it's pretty harsh. I guess murdering the wife and kids isn't X-treme enough for the Mountain Dew drinking kids of today.

Frank washes up on shore and is nursed back to health by the local witch doctor, and it's from here that Frank enacts his elaborate plan for counter-revenge (he says it's "punishment", but we all know it's revenge Frank, who do you think you're kidding?) He enlists the help of Mickey (Eddie Jameson) one of Saint's low-level flunkies, to frame Saint's second-in-command, Quentin Glass (Will Patton), and make it look like he is having an affair with Saint's wife. Quentin's gay, but Saint doesn't know that. After Saint stabs Quentin to death and tosses his own wife in front of a train, he goes for a drink at his nightclub with all his henchmen, and that's when Frank kicks things into high gear. Needless to say, all the bad guys ends up punished, especially Saint. This is a pretty good act of re-revenge, but I can't help but feel it doesn't seem like a Punisher story. The REAL Punisher would just walk in and shoot Quentin, Saint and Livia in the face.

During Frank's criminal rampage, he takes up residence in a crumbling apartment building that comes with free comedy sidekicks and a damaged love interest. There's a fat guy who loves food and opera, a weaselly guy with lots of piercings and low self esteem plus a woman with terrible taste in music and a string of violent ex-boyfriends. She mentions how she always manages to fall in love with the guy who treats her the worst, and considering she immediately falls for a guy nick-named the Punisher, I'd say she's pretty much right. They teach him the meaning of friendship and family and cook a meal for him. I don't know, it's pretty cheesy.

As Frank and Saint's war escalates, Saint enlists a couple of colourful assassins to try and take him out. One of them is a Johnny Cash motherfucker who walks into a diner where Frank is eating and then pulls out a guitar and sings him a song. Then he says "I wrote that song for you... I'm going to sing it at your funeral" and walks out. Pretty awesome. Would have been cool if he just disappeared from the movie for a while, but tries to kill Frank in the very next scene. The other assassin is a big-ass dude in a goofy striped shirt with bleached hair. He's known only as "The Russian" and the first time we see him is when he suddenly busts into Frank's house and starts beating the shit out him. I don't think he ever speaks a word.

The film is directed by first-timer Jonathan Hensleigh. I like that everything is shot in a very down-to-earth, old-school action style. No shaky camera, no music video quick-cuts. It's very refreshing to watch a fight and be able to tell who is punching who. There's a good bit where Quentin Glass menaces the pierced guy with a pair of pliers. It's pretty scary, and they draw out the tension in a way that you don't see too often these days. There's a few bits that didn't work for me, though. There's a Leone homage that's pretty groan-worthy, and there's a fake-looking bit where Castle blows up dozens of cars to create a big flaming Punisher logo. I don't know what the owners of those cars did to deserve that, maybe their parking permits were expired.

This film seems to have a bit of an identity crisis. Comic relief jostles uncomfortably next to serious moments. In some places it's sadistic and violent, but not in a fun way like in Shoot 'Em Up. In Ennis' Punisher: MAX comics, he knows how to ratchet the violence and sadism up to such an absurd level that it becomes funny again. Here it just seems out of place. No doubt this film was supposed to spawn a franchise, but I guess it didn't happen because here we are just a few short years later and they've decided it's time for another do-over.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

The Punisher (1989)

Why yes, this film was made in the 80s.

Dolph Lundgren is a pretty interesting guy. If all you knew of him were his film roles, you'd assume he was just a big dumb action movie actor. You'd be wrong (and a bit prejudiced too... actors are people too, man. Have a bit of respect.) Here is a strapping 6'5" blonde who is a world class karate champ, speaks five languages and has a Master's Degree in Chemical Engineering. I'm not a supporter of Nazi eugenics (how's that for a qualifying statement) but I think Dolph Lundgren makes a pretty good case for the Master Race.

In this version the Punisher wears head-to-toe leather and combat boots, accessorising with knives and ammo pouches etc. He doesn't have the big skull emblem on his shirt, which isn't a big issue for me but it's pretty funny because that's the only thing separating him from any other garden variety vigilante. They've dyed Dolph's hair black and to be honest it looks pretty stupid. He's also got a five o'clock shadow that looks like it's been painted on. That, along with his pasty skin and unkempt appearance, makes him look like a guy playing dress-up at a comic book convention. Minus the beer gut. However, he's a pretty big dude and when he's fighting he looks pretty skilled and intimidating.

The film opens with a news report ("Channel 5 News - All Movie Exposition, All the Time") that fills us in on the Punisher's rampage. His killing spree has been going on for about 5 years, and in that time he has killed about 125 people. Over the course of the film he racks up about the same amount in a couple of days, which means he's really been dragging his ass over the last half-decade. A mafia Don's trial is acquitted and he brags to the press that he is untouchable. Of course, the Punisher busts into his fancy mansion and kills everybody before blowing it up. It's a good introduction.

They don't spend a lot of time on Frank's origin, which is good because it's pretty standard fare. It's been changed a little from the comic book, but the end result is pretty much the same. Family killed by criminals... goes on vigilante rampage. In this version, Frank Castle was a police officer instead of a Vietnam vet, and his family was killed by a car bomb instead of being executed after witnessing a mob hit. His former partner Jake Berkowitz (Louis Gossett Jr.) is now head of an anti-Punisher task force and is convinced that the Punisher is Frank Castle (who is believed dead in the explosion that killed his family).

Now, I'm not the kind of guy who reads homosexual subtext into everything and then giggles at every little innuendo. Okay, maybe I am. Still, the way Berkowitz single-mindedly pursues Frank really makes me wonder. This reaches a high note when Berkowitz, on the verge of tears, shakes Frank by the shoulders and shouts "Let me in! Let me in!" After the Punisher spurns his tearful plea, Berkowitz's new partner (female, by the way) tells Frank that Berkowitz lives for him and asks him "how long can someone live after you've cut out their heart?". Enough with the homoerotic melodrama. What is this, a John Woo film?

Okay, five paragraphs in and I haven't even started on the main plot. Basically, Frank's crime spree has weakened the mafia and left them vulnerable. The Yakuza, led by Lady Tanaka (Kim Kiyori), swoop in and take over, demanding a 75% cut of all the mafia's crime operations. They refuse, so the Yakuza kidnap all of their kids and hold them for ransom. Regardless of whether the mafia pay up, the Yakuza are going to sell the kids into slavery, so the Punisher steals a school bus and heads in to rescue them. It's like Warbus except it's in New York instead of Vietnam and he's fleeing the Yakuza instead of the Viet Cong. Actually I guess it's pretty different, I just couldn't let go of an opportunity to mention Warbus.

Because the bad guys are Yakuza and it was the 1980s, they try to cram in as many Japanese stereotypes as possible. The Yakuza have a kendo school at their headquarters and Lady Tanaka does a Geisha dance and spends the whole climax of the movie in full makeup. And of course, there are lots and lots of ninjas. The Punisher even gets ambushed at Coney Island and a bunch of ninjas with machine guns come racing down a big slide. "Wheeeee! Last one to the bottom has to polish all the shuriken!" Lady Tanaka has a mute American adopted daughter, who has all these hidden knives and shuriken earings and things.

So with all these blades and guns, you'd be pretty annoyed if you ended up with some sissy PG-13 film, but luckily they pushed the R rating pretty far. At one point Lady Tanaka ambushes a bunch of the mafia gangsters at a restaurant. At her command everybody else at the restaurant (old ladies, young couples, bespectacled accountant-looking dudes) pulls out a piece and blows away all of the gangsters' bodyguards. This is after she'd poisoned the gangsters by the way. That's the kind of overkill I'm hope for when I go into a film named The Punisher.

One more thing that is really worth noting, when the Punisher isn't out Punishing, he hangs out in the sewer butt naked and surrounded by candles and mumbles to God. Didn't Jesus suffer enough on the cross, Frank? Don't make him look at your wing-wang too. So they kind of botch the tortured loner thing, especially since he has a comedy sidekick, a homeless Shakespearean actor who talks in rhyming couplets, which probably looked better on paper. At one point the Punisher lures him into an alley with a bottle of whiskey attached to a remote control car. Pretty elaborate plan, why couldn't he just whistle?

Okay, I'll come out an say it... I kind of liked this stupid film. It is extremely 80s with enough ridiculous touches (ninjas on slides, Berkowitz emotional plea, naked prayer) to kick it over the line of enjoyability. The Punisher... not particularly punishing.

The Punisher

The Punisher must be a deceptively simple character. I say "must be", because I can't really think of another character who has had three separate movies made about him, each with a completely different actor/plot/director etc, and have each movie be uniquely terrible. The third movie still hasn't come out here yet (Australian websites list it's release date as late February, what the hell?) so in order to prepare for it I watched 1989's The Punisher starring Dolph Lundgren, and 2004 The Punisher starring Thomas Jane. I've also been reading through some of the Punisher: MAX trades (which are great fun).

When the Punisher started out, he wasn't a hero, he was an antagonist to the spectacular Spider-Man. He actually killed the villains, something that was considered way out of bounds by the super-heroes of the day. He was a Vietnam Vet whose family were executed after witnessing a mob killing during a family picnic. Frank went underground and uses his knowledge of weaponry and military tactics to wage a one-man war against the mob. I guess a problem with making a movie about the Punisher is that this is not a particularly compelling story. It has been executed about a thousand times, with varying levels of success.

Another big problem with The Punisher, or indeed any revenge-based entertainment, is that most of them at least pretend that the protagonist is "going too far" in quest for revenge. They act like you're not supposed to be rooting for him. He is sick and disturbed. The problem is that everybody knows that you can't stop crime by killing criminals, except the mentally ill and Texans. That's why I go to the movies. It's an escape to a fairy-tale land where the world is neatly divided into good guys and bad guys and violence is a viable solution to most problems. I can't imagine anyone not cheering for Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood or Frank Castle. Fascistic approaches to crime prevention make for a fun time at the movies.

What I'd like to see in a Punisher film is something like Death Wish 3. Here is where the Death Wish series where it abandoned any notion of subtlety, and it was not particularly subtle in the first place. Any of the hand-wringing politics or conflicted morals of the first couple of films are tossed straight out the window (most of it was bullshit anyway), and goddamn if the result is not entertaining. The final fifteen minutes must be seen to be believed, with Bronson and his partner running through an open street, mowing down criminals like they're in a shooting gallery. Old women and children cheer as they beat injured punks to death, and it all played completely straight. It's really quite incredible. I'll have to do a review of that film sometime.

Anyways, commence the Punishment.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Cannibal Ferox (1981)

Insert eye pun here

Umberto Lenzi had pretty much created the cannibal genre with his 1972 film Man From Deep River. By the late 70s, every exploitation filmmaker with access to a jungle and a handful of bearded Italian actors were in a cut-throat competition to see how much pig guts they could fling at the screen. In this barf-inducing limbo competition, Ruggero Deodato lowered the bar of good taste as far as it could possibly go in his 1980 cannibal classic, Cannibal Holocaust. Umberto Lenzi promptly gathered up a handful of Italian exploitation flick veterans and booked the next flight to the Amazon, determined to out-gross (both in a financial and nausea-inducing sense) Deodato's epic. Was he successful? Kind of. It's certainly dumber.

Gloria (Lorraine De Selle, from House on the Edge of the Park), her brother Rudy (Bryan Redford) and her slutty best friend Pat (Zora Kerowa from New York Ripper) take a trip down to the Amazon so Gloria can gather supporting evidence for her dissertation. It states that cannibalism is a racist myth cooked up by whitey, and armed with a recent paper that posits the existence of cannibalism in the Amazon, she intends to head to the village mentioned and... well... I don't know. Take a poke around and say "Well, no cannibalism here" and head home. QED. I'm not sure this would pass muster in a thesis defense.

After Pat gets a moustache ride from a hairy, sweaty local, the three of them make their way into the heart of darkness. As they chug down the river in their riverboat they are startled by a parrot, which the captain promptly grabs and eats, apparently for good luck. Another local gives them a pet mongoose as snake bait. Of course, within seconds of hitting dry land, these three knuckleheads drive their jeep straight into a river and have to hoof it the rest of the way. During their journey a bunch of animals are killed on-screen for our entertainment (mongoose, turtle, etc). They also stumble upon a native who is so engrossed in his meal of tasty grubs that he doesn't notice the three grossed-out whiteys standing right in front of him.

Eventually they run into Mike (Giovanni Lombardo Radice who played half-wits in both House on the Edge of the Park and City of the Living Dead, but not here) and Joe, two injured travellers (also New York residents, it's a small world after all) who are high-tailing it out of the village. Mike gives them a suspicious story about how the natives turned on them for no good reason, captured their Portuguese buddy, tortured him and "then... then they ate his genitals!" Woah! Despite Mike's cautionary tale, they all decide to risk genital consumption by heading back to the village for some reason. Mike's story starts looking more and more suspicious as they realise that there are no young people in the village and those that remain seem very wary of the white folks.

Eventually Mike's buddy Joe, nearing death, decides to come clean about the supposed cannibalism. Turns out that they came to the Amazon with the intention of stealing the natives' hidden treasure. In a flashback sequence, Mike ties up one of the natives and, coked out of his skull, starts doing what the US might call "aggressive interrogation". Pretty soon the floor is littered with severed eyeballs and genitals and God knows what else. There is no genital eating, as far as I can tell, I think Mike added that part to his version of the story for a little local flavour. After spilling his guts (metaphorically), Joe promptly croaks, just in time for a bunch of hungry natives to arrive, spill his guts (literally) and go to town on his intestines. I never understand in these cannibal flicks why the natives always go for the intestines. I mean, that can't taste good. What's wrong with a nice thigh fillet, or a shoulder joint? Roasted up with a side dish of giant grubs? That's good eatin'.

The four remaining survivors are quickly captured by the natives, who tie Mike to a stake, cut off his pork sword and eat it. After this act of tribal justice, they cauterise the wound so he doesn't die in transit and then ship the prisoners to some other village. As they near the riverside, Rudy tries to make a run for it but heads straight into the piranha-infested waters. He begs the natives for help and gets a poison dart in the neck. Probably not what he was after, but better than getting castrated by cannibals at any rate. When they get to the village they dump the prisoners into some makeshift jail cells and drop in a snack for the women to eat. They refuse... oh, a human heart not good enough for you prima donnas? Instead they decide to burst into song.

During the night, one of the natives (no doubt moved by their singing) lowers a rope to help the ladies escape, but Mike crawls out of his tiger cage, pushes him away and cuts the rope. What a fucker. Fortunately, he immediately gets captured again and his hand cut off for good measure. Then they place him under a table with a hole in it, so that the top of his head pokes through. A quick swipe with the machete and they've got an all-you-can-eat brain buffet. Pat gets it pretty bad too, they stick hooks right through her boobs and hang her up until she dies.

Before Gloria falls victim to a similar fate, that helpful native from earlier helps her escape, but in the process he falls victim to a booby trap. Gloria makes it to the river and is picked up by a passing boat (for the deepest Amazon there sure seem to be a lot of American tourists). Three months later she is receiving her doctorate for successfully debunking the myth of cannibalism. Good to see that her experience hasn't left her too shaken to commit some good old academic fraud!

One thing I haven't mentioned is a subplot about a policeman trying to track down Mike and Joe, both having fled to the Amazon after stealing some mobster's money. Horribly acted and utterly pointless, the only reason I can see it existing is to force in some stock footage of New York. It spoils a lot of the tension of the jungle scenes, but it does have it's moments of unintentional hilarity. Over the course of several minutes, the opening sequence follows a denim-clad young man's disco-scored journey from the hospital all the way to a rathole apartment. Upon arriving, some mobsters call him "shitface" about fifty times and shoot him. That's the end of that character.

It doesn't have any of the subtext or style of Cannibal Holocaust. The gore effects look a lot cheaper too. Apart from Radice, who (as usual) overacts like a motherfucker, the acting is pretty terrible. The most hollow of lip service is paid to it's themes of racism and ethnocentricity. There isn't a single likable or interesting character in the whole film. What it does offer, however, is something to disgust everyone. I can unreservedly recommend this film to anyone who enjoys being disgusted and/or offended by non-stop brutality, misogyny and animal abuse.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

The Ruins (2008)

"Shouldn't we check to make sure the rope is safe?"

I'd heard a bit of internet buzz about this movie, so I thought I'd check it out. It's based on the same-named book by Scott B. Smith (apparently quite good, though I haven't read it), who also wrote the screenplay, and directed by Carter Smith (no relation). He also wrote the novel A Simple Plan, which was turned into a rather good thriller by Sam Raimi in 1998. So, not a bad pedigree. Like many modern horror films, this one preys on the typical upper-middle class American tourists in a foreign land paranoia. Also like those films, it falls into the trap of trying to paint them as sympathetic while at the same time being obnoxious, over-privileged dumbshits. One of the students points out that "four American tourists don't disappear on holiday". Greeks and Germans, however, are toast.

The movie starts in a frustratingly conventional fashion. A groups of four college students are spending the last day of their vacation in a Cancun resort. Some of the party lament the fact that they've squandered their holiday on sun-drenched beaches and cocktails, so they are delighted when they meet a German guy named Mathias who has access to a remote archeological dig at a Mayan temple. Sweet! I'm sure the archeologists will love having a bunch of drunken idiots tromping all over their digsite. Oh, and one of the girls makes out with Mathias even though she's totes going out with someone else! OMG!

The next morning the four students, Mathias, and Greek-dude-who-will-no-doubt-be-killed-immediately head out to the site, but it's only when the taxi drops them off in the middle of nowhere that they realise they have no plan to get back, so we're talking Magna Cum Laude material here. When they get to the temple (a pretty impressive vine-covered ziggurat) they find the site abandoned. Seems like a pretty rinky-dink archeological dig too, since there's only a couple of tents and a jeep. Things only get worse when a bunch of armed Mayans show up, kill the Greek dude (told ya!) and force them up to the summit of the temple. The natives then set up camp and make sure they don't escape. Almost as if, as one of the students helpfully points out, they are quarantining them up there.

Things get off to a shaky start when they attempt to find a ringing cell phone in the bowels of the temple and Mathias falls down a shaft and breaks his back. Another of their number cuts herself pretty bad during the rescue attempt. I don't know if I should spoil the fact that the plants are alive and carnivorous, but they plastered that shit all over the poster and the DVD cover so what the hell. The plants are alive and carnivorous. What's more, they have a nasty habit of sneaking up under cover of darkness and worming their way into any exposed wounds. Ew! They also have the ability to mimic sounds, such as voices and the aforementioned ringing cell phone. The flowers vibrate or something, there's no giant mouth like Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors. That would have been pretty cool though, maybe in the sequel.

It's quite fortunate that one of their number is a medical student (there's always one in these kind of films, they're never all fine arts majors or something) so he pretty much takes charge for the rest of the film. There are many gross-out scenes of sans-anesthetic amateur surgery, including limb amputations and plant-ectomies. They don't perform heart surgery with a plunger and a tin-can like Dr. Benway in Naked Lunch, but it gets pretty close. These scenes are all pretty gratuitous, but they are probably some of the highlights of the film, well overshadowing any sense of dread or atmosphere. The rest of the horror direction is pretty average, they even resort to a "jumping dog" scare at one point, the last resort of the horror-director scoundrel.

A small group of people are trapped in a confined space until tensions fray and they are picked off one by one. This is a classic horror scenario and can be done well. The problem with this film is that the characters are a bunch of homogeneous morons, only differentiated by their gender and hair colour. Eventually they settle into standard archetypes that do just enough to propel the plot along, but it's too little, too late. Still, it's slickly directed and the gore effects are top notch, so if that's all you're after you'll get your pound of flesh and forget the movie immediately after.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Diary of the Dead (2007)

It was about this time that Bob wished he
had private health insurance

A lot of people complained about the ham-fisted political subtext of Land of the Dead, but anyone who thought the social commentary of Romero's films was ever subtle is kidding themselves. The theme of race relations in Night of the Living Dead is pretty tenuous since it was cast colourblind. It doesn't take much to pick up on the symbolism of zombies wandering around in a shopping mall in Dawn of the Dead (best horror film of all time), but even then Romero had the characters spell it out for us. The Reagan-era anti-intellectualism addressed in Day of the Dead is blunted by making the soldiers a bunch of insane, bloodthirsty assholes. Monkey Shines shows that all monkeys are all murderous savages who should be exterminated rather than taught how to smoke cigars and roller skate. However, all these films are masterworks of subtlety compared to Diary of the Dead.

Diary uses that first-person technique popularised by The Blair Witch Project, so you've got to have a reason for people to be wandering around with a camera. Consequently, the film starts with a bunch of students heading out into the woods to make a film about the flesh eating undead. In Romero's films nobody has ever heard of a zombie before so they've gotta use a mummy instead. This opportunity is used to make a few meta-textual observations about women in horror films that I'm sure nobody has ever done in the history of cinema. Eventually the zombies show up, so the kids pile into their van and the rest of the film documents their exploits as they travel cross-country to find their respective families and eventually just a safe place to hide.

This brings up the first problem with the film, in that the cast are a bunch of interchangeable college students. They all conform to a bunch of student archetypes of course and there's also an alcoholic film professor, but the less said about him the better. Occasionally a more interesting character would flit around in the periphery, but they would disappear quickly. The best character is a mute Amish named Samuel, and he's only in the film for a few minutes (spoiler). His was the only only death I cared about because I knew that with him departed any interest I had in the film's characters would evaporate. This was one of the most disappointing things about the film, as I could always rely on Romero's films to have real, adult characters and somewhat believable dialog. This is what separates Romero's movies from all the pretenders where the characters are all teenagers who make glib wisecracks after dispatching the reanimated corpse of their best friend.

It's easy to compare this film to [REC] or Cloverfield, but where those films used the first-person technique as a gimmick, Diary of the Dead uses it to say something about our media-obsessed culture, the way the camera lens isolates us from the subject etc. You probably won't be barfing up your popcorn watching this film either, because the camera is a lot more controlled and artfully framed than in Cloverfield (even if it makes the whole first-person thing a little harder to swallow). Using this technique places a burden on the filmmaker to explain why there's some jerk going everywhere pointing a camera at a disaster instead of helping. You can just make the characters unlikable, self-absorbed assholes (like in Cloverfield), or you can make one character the self-appointed "voice of truth", who must document these events because big media can't be trusted etc.

So far it not startlingly original but it's workable, not too bad. But unfortunately Romero takes the extra step of having the film edited like a particularly ham-handed documentary, with an added musical score, additional footage acquired from youtube, security cameras etc. He goes to great lengths to explain how the footage is acquired and edited together. Every so often we will take a break from the action and one of the characters will just sit there and narrate all of the themes to the audience like we are as dumb as the characters in the film. At one point someone actually says "It was us versus us, but now it's us versus them, but they are us". Sometimes I get the impression that Romero is using this film to pander to the audience (the "youtube generation") and at the same time is pretty contemptuous of them.

Also, the film is chock full of digital effects. I understand that it lets you shoot the film a lot quicker when you can tweak all of the effects in post-production, but it doesn't help when they are pretty cheap looking. There's a lot of digital headshots, which I hate. Personally I think the visual impact of a good old-fashioned spray of stage blood is worth the extra laundry at the end of the day. I miss Tom Savini.

I couldn't be happier that Romero is back doing independent films again, but I'd have to say this is the worst of the [Blank] of the Dead movies. Apparently he is currently filming a sequel that follows some of the minor characters as this film. I really hope that includes Samuel. I've got my fingers crossed that he does a bit better the next time around.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Anaconda 3: The Hoffspring (2008)

"I only said that the General Lee could probably outrun KITT"

I have very faint memories of the first Anaconda film, which was mildly successful thanks to the involvement of the then-popular (pre-Gigli) Jennifer Lopez. The second film, Anacondas: Hunt for the Blood Orchid, passed me by completely. It seems that there must be a little money left in the franchise because Sci-Fi Originals have seen fit to crank out a couple more giant-snake-flavoured frankfurts out of it's cinematic sausage machine. Direct-to-video stalwart Don E. FauntLeRoy (who you may remember from his work with Steven Seagal) has punched out Anaconda 3: The Offspring and Anaconda 4: Blood Trail. These films should fit comfortably on the bottom row of your local video store (or Netflix queue), right next to Python, Python 2, Boa vs Python and the ten thousand other shot-in-Eastern-Europe giant snake films.

Evil billionaire Murdoch (John Rhys-Davies, the poor guy must have some serious gambling debts) is funding researching into the life-extending MacGuffin of the previous films. This research involves giant snakes (one female and one male, of course) and also some genetic modification etc. It's all justified with some vague reference to Alzheimer's and cancer, the usual stuff. Leading the experiment is expert herpetologist Amanda (Crystal Allen, and despite the pornstar name her imdb credits only turn up a handful of TV roles), who has serious misgivings about the quality of their containment facilities. In fact, they are so understaffed that they can only afford a handful of extras in lab coats. Sure enough, the snakes bust out of their cage, kill a few scientists and escape. Probably a bad idea to make air conditioning ducts large enough to accommodate a 40 foot snake. Just a thought.

Now, I wouldn't imagine it would be especially difficult to track a giant snake (following the meter-wide furrow in the undergrowth might be a good start) but apparently it is necessary to call in a team of specialist snake hunters. As well Amanda, we have a cast of rich and diverse characters, including Black Guy, Butch Girl and Greasy-Hair Guy. Leading the team is Hammett, a cigar-chewing mercenary (for justice!) played by the Hoff. The Sci-Fi Originals people definitely knew what they were doing casting the Knight Rider. He is featured prominently on the cover and should prove a successful eye-catcher to hipsters with ironic facial hair. Unfortunately he isn't the main character in the film and long stretches of the film are disappointingly Hoff-free. Although he is about as convincing playing a badass here as he was in Nick Fury: Agent of Shield (ie not very), at one point he tosses a beefy Romanian extra through a plate-glass window, leading to severe lacerations. This is one of the few instances I've seen in a movie where someone is seriously injured by a defenestration. Seagal should take notes.

What follows is a predictable series of events, where a 40 foot snake somehow sneaks up on a succession of supposedly elite hunters and kills them. Making this snake extra-super-deadly is that it is capable of skewering people with it's tail, a side-effect of it's genetic modification. It does this a lot. I would imagine that being speared through the chest by a tail thicker than most people's arms would be instantly fatal, but most of the victims in this film survive at least long enough for the rest of the team to bicker about whether to save them and/or have a tearful death scene. The team is picked off one by one, the snakes are killed in a giant explosion and an unsurprising epilogue sets up the sequel.

I should also mention is the film steals brazenly from Predator. The snakes make the same clicky rasp, the squad of hunters are all decked out in Arnold's surplus wardrobe and there are many scenes of them aimlessly firing machine guns in the forest (supposedly in the Amazon but suspiciously European in appearance). Of course, here they're aiming at a 40 foot snake, not an alien hunter with advanced stealth technology, so there's no excuse for their terrible aim. If only they had been a little more shameless and featured Hoff brandishing a mini-gun or calling himself a "Sexual Tyrannosaurus", I think it might have just been enough to save the film.

The first Anaconda film was campy enough to be enjoyable, but this film just goes through the motions with the barest amount of energy or style. There a few silly, gory scenes, such as when a hunter is decapitated by a giant snake and continues to fire his automatic weapon, riddling the landscape with bullets and blowing up their jeep. Unfortunately these scenes are too short and infrequent, and although it's surprisingly bloody for a giant snake film, it's a Sci-Fi Original, and that means it is riddled with bad CG. Is it too much to ask for a scene of the Hoff wrestling with a giant rubber snake? It's what we are all here for, you know it and I know it. So why must every shot be a digital composite? Why must even a simple blood spray be rendered digitally? I know the budget was thin, but are you telling me you couldn't afford some corn syrup and red dye? Did you not have correct change for the laundromat? Why?! If you see this dvd on a video shelf and find yourself drawn in by the rugged charms of the Hoff, do yourself a favour and stay your hand. Just imagine a Hoff-vs-Anaconda film in your head. I guarantee it will be better.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Out for Justice (1991)

Jerry Orbach as the Police Captain?
It's like I'm watching the best episode of Law and Order ever.

Watching all these Direct-to-Video Steven Seagal films have got me nostalgic for early Seagal. Really though, were those early Seagal films any good? Nostalgia is a funny thing, it's like a beautiful woman who beckons you near and then kicks you in the balls eleven times and throws you down a flight of stairs. Well, to answer that question I dug out Seagal's fourth (and arguably best) film, Out for Justice. Surprisingly it's good, real good. It's fast paced (none of that plot or characterisation bullshit), well choreographed and incredibly violent. Everything that I want out of an action film.

Let's get this out of the way: Seagal's character is named Gino Felino. That's not the name of an action hero, it's the name of a pizza chain mascot. I mean, if you're going to have such a ridiculous stereotype of a name, then you'd better earn it. To his credit, Seagal does try to speak a little Italian, but his accent drifts in and out so much you don't even notice he's supposed to have one until he says "Ey!". Anyway, he's the son of a poor Italian immigrant who grew up on the streets and became a cop, so he knows pretty much everybody in the area. As the film opens he fucks up a bust by intervening when a pimp (who also knows him by name) starts beating up one of his girls. He tosses the guy through a windshield. Nice opening.

Soon after, Seagal's partner, Bobby Lupo (heh), is gunned down in front of his wife and child in broad daylight by a small-time thug called Richie Madano (William Forsythe). The movie follows Seagal's attempt to find Richie before he can do much more damage. And uh, yeah, that's pretty much it. Richie is a pretty interesting bad guy, because he isn't some big-time mafia crime boss, he's just a psychopathic hoodlum. In fact, the mafia are also trying to track down Richie because he is making them look bad. After gunning Bobby down in broad daylight, Richie knows he's dead anyway, so he has decided to have one last night on the town. This involves a lot of "partying" (ie sleeping with hookers) and gunning down angry female motorists, wheelchair-bound henchmen and anyone else who looks at him funny. This was long before the videogame Grand Theft Auto, so he doesn't have a safe outlet for those kind of impulses. His henchmen are pretty worried about his behaviour, but they stick around because they've been promised a room full of cash and drugs if they last the night.

Unfortunately for Richie, despite his murderous tendencies he's not much of a fighter. When he finally has his showdown with Seagal, it's so one-sided that you almost feel sorry for him. Richie keeps grabbing whatever weapons are at hand and every time Seagal just plucks it from his hands and turns it against him. He does everything short of that Three Stooges routine where you hold his head at arm's length and he just pinwheels his arms. Seagal finally dispatches Richie with a corkscrew, embedding it in his head right down to the hilt. That's a pretty difficult feat, he didn't twist it or anything. It would have been better if he'd then used it to pluck out a cork-shaped chunk of his head, or even his eyeball, but you can't have everything.

Seagal's films have a tendency towards unnecessary dubbing, where a (usually offscreen) extra will spell out something for the dumbshits in the audience (most of them). Often this will be a bystander making awestruck comments about Seagal's skills during a fight, but in this film it's used for bad guys to explain their injuries. One guy shouts out "You knocked my teeth out!" after spitting a mouthful of teeth onto a pool table. Another guy shouts "My balls!" after receiving a mighty crotch-kick. Another guy gets his leg severed by a shotgun blast (!) and proceeds to shout "My leg! You took my leg!" for a good minute straight (he didn't take it anywhere, man, it's right there on the ground). This makes Out for Justice the perfect action film to share with your vision-impaired friends.

In fact, the vision-impaired will have the added bonus of not having to view Seagal's ridiculous ensembles. At the beginning of the film he opts for a sleeveless vest/beret combo (all black, naturally). Later on he goes for a billowy black shirt with a plunging neck and accessorises with gold chains. His ponytail is looking particularly long and lustrous, while the ladies sport a variety of enormous early 90s hair-don'ts. It's cheap to insult the fashion of 80s/90s movies, but I can't imagine Seagal's outfits looking good in any era.

Seagal's movies usually feature a bar fight of some kind, and this one is a doozy. He walks straight in to Richie's brother's bar and starts intimidating everyone in the room, goading people into attacking him and then taking them out in a single punch. When he has had enough he straight-up wrecks the joint. He uses a few different weapons, including a pool ball wrapped up in a piece of cloth. He takes on a guy named Sticks who is pretty good with a couple of pool cues (you see what they did there?). He's the only Asian dude in the whole bar, so when you see him at the beginning of the scene you know he's going to do something awesome. Seagal takes him out no problem, though.

Seagal does come off as a little unhinged in this scene, though. I mean, just imagine you're one of these guys in the bar. You don't know Richie Madano, you're just here you're in here enjoying a beer after putting in ten hours at the smelting plant. Suddenly this cop just walks in and starts flashing his badge around and smashing up the joint. He even knocks your beer across the room and throws your friend in a phone booth (twice). What an asshole! I don't know if this was supposed to illustrate how our thirst for revenge robs us of our humanity, but if they followed up on that bit I must have dozed off. There's another great fight in a butcher shop where a guy gets his hand pinned to the wall by a meat cleaver and another guy gets knocked out by a sausage. Smallgoods as a deadly weapon, don't see that too often.

One thing about this movie is that it maintains a pretty grim tone throughout. There's no cheesy one-liners. The only comic relief is a sub-plot where Seagal rescues a puppy in a sack that some asshole throws out of his car window. The animal abuse isn't the comedy part, that comes later. Seagal makes a comment about hoping to run into this guy again, and sure enough he runs into him at the end of the film and gives him a kick in the balls. The puppy takes a leak on his face, everyone laughs (except me), roll credits. This scene seems pretty out of place, and is probably the result of studio meddling. Apart from this, though, this is a top notch Seagal film and a pretty solid action film overall. I think all the action directors today, with their choppy-editing and close-ups, could learn a thing or two from films like this.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Locusts (2005)

This is pretty scary even without the locusts.

A swarm of locusts sweep through the USA, and only Xena: Warrior Princess can stop them! That's sounds pretty awesome, but unfortunately Lucy Lawless plays Dr. Maddy Rierdon, an expert working for the US Department of Agriculture. When we are introduced to her and her boyfriend, they are busy discussing their failing marriage in a state of near-nudity. He is upset because her demanding job means they have no time to themselves, let alone enough to start a family. "It's always food shortage this and locust swarm that! What about meeee?" When she is called away on her latest assignment he tells her not to come back until they've both decided what they want from the relationship. Complicating things is the fact that (spoiler) she discovers that she is pregnant (the pee-stick says "Pregnant" but she still goes to check the box just to make sure).

Dr. Peter Axelrod (John Heard) has secretly cross-bred the Australian Plague locust and the Desert locust to create a super-locust that is stronger, has a shorter gestational period, a longer lifespan and moves a lot faster. Oh, and it's resistant to all known pesticides. He tries to justify his research with some vague reference to cancer cures, but I think he just HATES vegetation. Rierdon fires him and orders the locusts destroyed, but unfortunately it seems they hired Butterfingers Inc., America's clumsiest pest control company. Consequently, some guy in a hazmat suit drops a couple of specimens down the drain (whoops) and then, halfway across the country, some other guy fumbles a container and lets a couple of them loose on the tarmac of an Air Force Base. Soon the tenacious little critters are free and breeding like crazy (how they swam through the sink's S-bend we never know), creating two separate swarms that ravage through the country's food supply.

So by now you've got a good idea of what to expect and you'd probably be right. A series of locust attacks ensue, where bad actors scream and flail as they are menaced by a CG locust swarm. They munch their way through California wine country (it looks like 2005 will be a very bad vintage) and a small-town orange festival, before descending on Pittsburgh and taking out a cargo aircraft by gumming up the engine with their tiny shredded corpses. They also menace a bunch of office workers in a high-rise building, demonstrating the surprising ability to bust through a plate glass window. Even Dr. Axelrod feels the bite of his own creation when his daughter's school bus is attacked by a locust swarm and she is knocked unconscious.

Meanwhile, military and government officials lock horns in a war-room as a big-screen computer simulation predicts doom and gloom. General Miller (Gregory Alan Williams) intends to capture the locusts' tiny hearts and minds through the use of VX nerve gas. As they repeatedly point out, his is the same deadly nerve gas which Saddam Hussein used on his own people. Rierdon manages to sabotage the mission by threatening to kill everyone on the aircraft, citing the fact that she is pregnant and hormonal and not be fucked with and thereby undoing fifty years of women's rights progress. Unfortunately it's only a matter of time before the President authorises the use of the nerve gas again, so Rierdon and company are in a race to discover an alternative solution before the General liberates the fuck out of the locusts and ten percent of the human population.

While tracking the swarm through the American heartland (the REAL America) Rierdon takes the opportunity to visit her corn-farming father and they manage to defeat an attacking locust swarm using nothing but a small generator, a steel silo, and a contempt for the laws of physics and the viewer's intelligence. They manage to apply this technique in a large-scale solution to the locust problem which defies belief. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of electricity or a functioning brain will feel profoundly insulted. If you enjoy having your intelligence repeatedly insulted then you will probably enjoy this film.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Renegade Justice (2007)

It's hard to make out, but this is Seagal kicking a guy in the nuts eleven times

I was looking for this film at the video rental store for a while, but I couldn't find it on the shelves. I figured that even Seagal wasn't above the law of diminishing returns, and it was no longer profitable to ship his films all the way to Australia. However, it turns out I was only looking under the wrong title. Seems that somewhere between the US and Australia the name was changed from Urban Justice to Renegade Justice, presumably because the word "urban" doesn't have the same ethnic connotation here.

Seagal plays Simon Ballister, a man with a mysterious past (duh) who seeks revenge after his son Max is murdered in an apparent gang shooting. You could say he's Out for Justice, but that would be a terrible film-title pun so please don't. Plus it's not even accurate. Seagal admits himself that his quest is all about vengeance. He just wants to kill the guy who pulled the trigger, he doesn't care who ordered the hit. So he rents a fleabag apartment in the scummiest area of LA and proceeds to bust all manner of heads as he tracks down his son's killer. That's pretty much it. No double-crosses, no CIA shenanigans, just a straight-forward revenge plot. Refreshingly simple compared to some of Seagal's recent convoluted offerings.

Seagal's mysterious past is never made clear, although at one point he claims to be not quite a cop and at another point not quite a soldier. Maybe he's a mechanic, since the damage sustained to his vehicle in a car chase is completely repaired by the next day. Continuity nitpicks aside, this film might come off a little racist if it was just about Seagal rolling into town and beating up every black guy and Mexican that comes within arms reach. Fortunately he does some other things to balance the equation such as saving a kid from a gang of skinheads. Also, the bad guy turns out to be a (white) crooked cop. I guess I should put a spoiler warning, but if you can't solve that brainbuster within a few seconds of seeing the guy then you haven't seen too many Seagal films. Good for you.

Eddie Griffin plays Armand Tucker, the head gangster. He's a pretty funny stereotype, sitting around with a bunch of women in his expensive apartment, quoting Scarface. What is it with these gangster types and Scarface? Did the point of the movie go over their heads? Is there a special Gangster Cut where Tony Montana survives the massacre and lives a long and happy life on a pile of money, cocaine and bitches? Anyway, for all his money he seems pretty cheap, because it a lot of his gangsters seem to share the same Lincoln town car. Maybe he got a bunch of them on a fleet discount, who knows. Although they put his face on the box, Danny Trejo is in the film for all of five minutes as a rival gang leader. Good job on that cover art, by the way, they'll never tell you MS-Painted Seagal's bloated mug (complete with creepy widow's peak) onto someone else's body, unless they have functioning eyes.

One thing you could fault most of Seagal's recent films for is a lack of action, but this film delivers. There a large number of fist-fights in this film and they are fast and brutal, with stunt doubles kept to a minimum. There is a lot of camera and editing trickery, you'll never mistake it for Out for Justice Seagal, but it's good to see a film where Seagal does something other than walking and talking. The film also features several bloody gunfights, and I do mean that literally. Every time someone is shot, a double-stuffed squib shoots a geyser of blood ten feet in the air. Almost every bullet goes right through the body so they can have double the amount of blood spray. I approve of this level of tasteless and gratuitous violence, even though it rarely makes sense.

I am (technically) a man, so like all men I derive a sick thrill from watching someone getting kicked in the balls. You can imagine my delight when Seagal kicks a guy in the balls eleven times. Eleven times! Then he kicks him in the face and throws him down a staircase. I can imagine the sweet release of unconsciousness (possibly death) would have come as a relief after that punishment. Nothing will top the Marked for Death trifecta of being eye-gouged, back-broken and tossed down an elevator shaft, but eleven successive ball-kicks is pretty good. Seagal also breaks a bunch of random bones and even breaks the neck of some goon after he loses consciousness. That's pretty cold, I think I'd like to see Seagal breaking bones of unconscious opponents more often. He also says "motherfucker" a lot in this movie. I mean, a lot. On the plus side, it's him actually saying it, not some random guy dubbing him.

Renegade Justice is the third Don E. FauntLeRoy/Seagal film, the previous being 2006's Mercenary for Justice. I'm not sure if Seagal's character in that film was for Renegade Justice or just the regular type, or how this relates to the (as descriped by Lance Henriksen) "Extra-Curricular Justice" Seagal's character distributed in Pistol Whipped. Anyway this film is definitely the best Don E. FaultLeRoy/Seagal film out of the two I've seen and probably the best Direct-to-Video Seagal film in recent memory. Renegade Justice: Surprisingly competent. Good job!

Seagal Bloatwatch Threat Level: Elevated. He's not at his fattest here (I think Out of Reach was probably the high point) but he's big, which they try to conceal with his usual brown leather trench coats. Seagal's Windsor glasses (featured prominently in The Patriot) make a special guest appearance as well. They also surround him with morbidly obese gangsters so he looks thinner by comparison.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Sukiyaki Western Django (2007)

Historical accuracy is not this film's strong suit

Between Fistful of Dollars and (ahem) Last Man Standing, haven't we seen enough remakes of Yojimbo? Apparently not, because the unstoppable filmmaking juggernaut Takashi Miike has added his own entry into the mix. This is one of his more accessible films, and considering it's about Samurai cowboys that dress like members of a boy band, that really says something about him. Takashi is wearing his influences on his sleeve with this one, though: when the mysterious stranger rolls into town, one of the hoodlums is quick to warn him "Don't go playing yojimbo." Wouldn't it be awesome if the film Yojimbo kept being passed back and forth between the East and West, each adding their own cultural twist?

The film's tone is established at the opening scene, which takes place on a ludicrously fake looking sound stage. Piringo (Quentin Tarantino) retrieves an egg from the belly of a snake, waxes poetical about the battle of Dannoura and then out a bunch of bad guys with a six-gun and some cartoonish sound effects. It's silly, it's fun and (if the presence of Tarantino wasn't enough to tip you off) it shows that historical accuracy has taken a permanent vacation.

Look, I love Tarantino's films as much as the next guy (probably more than the next guy, judging from the commercial success of Grindhouse) but dude can't act. Luckily he's not on screen for very long plus he doesn't mangle a lot of Japanese because the film is entirely in English. Tarantino adopts a weird range of accents and vocal inflections, though. He almost sounds, like much of the cast, as if he learned his lines phonetically. Subtitles are recommended, although on the DVD I watched there were a few hilarious errors, such as where Tarantino learns of the death of his son and he softly replies "Ah-so." The subtitles render his somber proclamation as "Asshole."

Oh, you want to know about the plot? Well, the film takes place after the Genpei war, with the rival Genji and Heike clans moving into a small town in order to find some hidden gold.
The Genji clan dress in white and are led by coolly sinister Yoshitsune, while the red-garbed Heike clan are led by the aggressive Shakespeare-enthusiast Kiyomori. Props to the costume designer, Michiko Kitamura, who kits out each clan in a weird and wild fusion of East and West that fits the film perfectly. With both factions at a stalemate, a mysterious skilled gunman moves into town and helps to turn the tide in favour of the few remaining townspeople.

Okay, so it's a lot like Yojimbo, but to be fair though, the film borrows from a variety of sources other than Kurosawa and Leone. In addition to the title, Takashi borrows the title song and machine-gun-in-coffin subplot from Sergio Corbucci's awesome 1966 Western Django. He also throws in references to Shakespeare and the War of the Roses. Hey, why not? There's a few other memorable characters including a schizophrenic Sherriff, a retired gunfighter named Bloody Benten, even a mute child who is a half breed between the Heike and the Genji.

Sukiyaki Western Django is very much a Takashi Miike film, for better or worse. There's some stylish, occasionally cartoony violence, especially during the bloody final showdown. It kind of reminded me of his film Dead or Alive. Also, like many of Takashi's films, the film seems a little rushed and paced improperly, with a few slow parts here and there. Although it's enjoyable, it doesn't gel as much as I would like, coming across as an extended homage rather than standing on it's own.

Sukiyaki is a fitting dish to describe this film: A bunch of random ingredients, some Eastern, some Western, boiled up together, dipped into raw egg and consumed. The raw egg represents fun times at the movies or something, I don't know, I don't think I thought this analogy through. Bits of it work, bits of it don't, but in the end it goes down well.

On the Saw Series...

So, another Halloween another Saw movie. I've got a love/hate relationship with the series. On one hand they are excruciatingly dumb and unbelievable. On the other hand I appreciate the grand guignol simplicity of it. Victim wakes up in horrific torture device, victim is forced to commit some act of self-mutilation to escape (but usually dies). Unfortunately they also seem intent to tack on a winding story that starts out stupid and only gets more ridiculous as the series goes on.

When I saw the first one I thought it was okay. The gritty, David-Fincher-for-Dummies aesthetic was cool at first but got cornier and more annoying as the film goes on. It just tries to hard to be grimy and unsettling. It's like a Tool music video that runs for 90 minutes. It's also got that annoying music video editing where every time there is a change in scene there's a whip-cut and a metal-on-metal screech. Cameras zipping to and fro, smoke machines, squealing electric guitars. I don't know why filmmakers do this stuff because it's going to timestamp the film as effectively as synthesizers, drum machines and that noodly saxophone music that was in every cop film after Lethal Weapon came out.

But the thing that really hurt the film for me was the hammy acting. Usually I don't mind cornball acting in horror films, it's part of the charm, but when Wesley was sawing off his foot I started laughing out loud. I couldn't help it, the film just took itself so damn seriously. I thought the whole theater was going to erupt into laughter, but I was the only one. This annoyed me because I'm sure people thought I was one of those douchebags who laughs during every tense moment just to show how jaded and cynical they are.

Anyway, the film (and every subsequent sequel) ends with a patented Shyamalan twist that includes a gratuitous recap of every goddamn line of dialogue in the film, spelling it all out for you like you're a moron. What's more, the films flash forward and backward in time, several plot threads run concurrently, and all the while you've got to keep track of about fifteen different cops and FBI agents, who they are after and why. It's ridiculous. In some ways all this stuff it's kind of novel. It's not often that you find a horror film that has too much story. Somebody give me a flowchart or a time-line or something. I never thought a horror film could make me feel so stupid.

By the time I got around the fourth film I had no fuckin' clue what was going on. I didn't even know who was being tortured or why, let alone care about their situation. That kind of works against you in a horror film. What's more, they don't expend one drop of effort to make the victims believable or interesting characters. They are needlessly cryptic and act like obnoxious jerks even when their lives are on the line. I can't believe for a second that these people would continue to keep secrets about themselves, especially since they all know about the "Jigsaw killer" and that they are pretty much fucked if they don't find a way out.

One thing that I like about the films is just how ridiculously complicated Jigsaw's plans and contraptions are. I mean, in Saw 3 he had a machine that transported and dropped rotting pig carcasses into an industrial grinder (I counted five but who knows how many he had tucked away) and poured the resulting slurry over the unfortunate victim until he drowns. Seems like too much work. What's wrong with just dropping the guy into a big tank of liquefied pig guts? Plus if you think about the plot for more than five seconds (not recommended) you'll realise just how complicated Jigsaw's plan is and how much of it hinges on ridiculous coincidence.

Yeah, I'll probably still see Saw V, but I'll feel guilty about it.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Guy N. Smith Book Review - Abomination

The Earnshaw family (Les, Diana and daughter Emma) are a group of organic farmers who live on a farm known as the Dingle in the village of Pen-Y-Cwm. Unfortunately, Pen-Y-Cwm is also home to Roeder Agrochemicals, a laboratory that develops and tests exotic pesticides. Although they claim that the fallout from testing is at safe levels, everything goes pear-shaped with their latest pesticide, which goes too far, crosses the line man was not meant to cross, etc. It operates on the same principle as systemic weed killers, causing the pests to outgrow their food supply and die off. Unfortunately it doesn't quite work according to plan, and the fallout from testing causes local insect-life (and some amphibians) to turn into monstrous freaks. It also gives them a craving for human flesh, for some reason. What will this mean to the residents of Pen-Y-Cwm and the Dingle?

While we are on the subject of dingles, I think the story reaches a peak for me when our furious hero bursts from his front door dressed only in tighty-whiteys and brandishing an axe, in order to confront a congregation of slightly-larger-than-average frogs. That's the level of ridiculousness I hope to get from my Smith books. Now, I don't know if Guy N. Smith has a severe case of ranidaphobia, but let's face it, frogs aren't exactly the most menacing creatures. I don't care how big they are. When Emma is terrified by a giant frog I can buy it, since she's a little girl, but one woman is suffocated to death by a group of giant toads when they stuff themselves into her mouth (which is, as far as I can tell, the only way they could possibly kill her). Even though she is handicapped by a couple of broken legs, it's a pretty pitiful (not to mention unbelievable) way to die.

Aside from the frogs, all other manner of creepy crawlies are inflated to larger-than-life proportions with appetites to match. Snake sized worms gross everyone out at a funeral, a couple of horny teens are dispatched by enormous leeches, a church congregation is menaced by kamikaze stag beetles and an old woman gets extra-large earwigs in her vagina. You know, the usual shenanigans. A couple of nasty school-board administrators are also introduced and dispatched over the course of a chapter and it's a pretty elaborate death too, with vivid descriptions of insects crawling in every available orifice and eating them alive from the inside out. In a classy touch that is pure Smith, one of the victims has an orgasm as the ants eat her alive (love life getting stale? Try flesh-eating insects!)

Yeah, I don't know if it's a side-effect of the chemicals or what, but the insects seem to have a bit of a genital fixation. If you're ever attacked by giant earwigs, cover your scrotum (or labia) because that'll be stop number one on the all-of-you-they-can-eat buffet. Every victim is penetrated (guess where?) and/or says some variation on "Holy crap, they've eaten my genitals". Actually that'd be a great name for this book or indeed many of Guy N. Smith's books. Feel free to use it if you're reading this, Mr. Smith.

Interspersed with the random insect munching is a few brief chapters about the evil Roeder and his two subordinates. They've been lying on their reports, and now the government has caught wind of their situation and is going to shut them down. One has a change of heart but he is eaten alive by insects as he is fantasizing about being a woman (long story), while the other gets in a scuffle with Roeder that ends pretty badly for all involved. The story is wrapped up with little to no human intervention and certainly no action from our (by default) heroes. Let's just say it involves exploding frogs.

This is a pretty terrible book, but it leapt so far over the line of ridiculous that it became enjoyable again. All the Smith trademarks are present and accounted for: paper-thin characters, utterly ridiculous deaths, heroes who are as such simply by virtue of surviving until the final page, and vivid descriptions of gore and sex, usually occurring simultaneously. This is probably one of Smith's most entertaining nature-run-amok books, but he's written about fifty million of them so I can't say for sure. The message is clear though: Screw with nature and it will fuck you up. Seriously. If you want to dip your toe into the ocean of Smith books, this is a pretty good place to start.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Teeth (2007)

"Alright, let's take a look at that bergina..."

You've probably heard the theory that slasher films are all about punishing women for their sexuality. When the killer is stabbing some cowering, promiscuous cheerleader with a big, fat knife he's actually stabbing her with a big, fat penis (in her metaphorical vagina). I guess Leatherface wins for most over-compensatory weapon, although I seem to remember Jason Voorhees using a weed trimmer at some point. He must have been feeling a bit insecure that day. I can buy that theory, but I still don't believe that slasher films are inherently misogynistic. Half of the victims are usually men, portrayed just as unsympathetically as the women I might add, and the hero is usually a woman. True she is usually a "good girl" character, but strong, capable and sympathetic as well. What's more, if a slasher film is doing its job, you should be siding with the victim anyway. You shouldn't be cheering when the victim is killed, you should be wincing. Aaaanyway, Teeth is a film that attempts to turn this whole slasher stereotype on it's head.

Dawn O'Keefe is playing in a kiddie pool with her new step-brother Brad, the twin stacks of a nuclear power plant looming behind them. A game of "doctor" turns sour and Brad gets a nasty cut on his finger. Cut to several years later and Dawn (Jess Weixler) has become one of those creepy abstinence kids, handing out "promise rings" to bible-quoting youngsters. She is wholly afraid of her own body, and can't even masturbate without visions of toothy maws spoiling the mood. Her brother, meanwhile, has turned into an unbelievable prick. I don't know if it's intentional, but the guy playing Brad (John Hensley) doesn't look like a tough guy at all. He's covered in tattoos and piercings, but he looks like a soft guy trying to look tough, rather than the genuine article. He spends his time fucking his long-suffering girlfriend and menacing his caged rottweiler.

It's only later, when Dawn is raped by one of her supposedly abstinent chums, that she discovers the true ramifications of her mutation. Vagina Dentata, the mythological embodiment of man's fear of female sexuality. The mythology is all explained in voice-over when Dawn does a web search on some phony generic search engine (come on people, just use Google), how the Vagina Dentata is something to be "conquered" by a worthy hero. I wish they hadn't spelled all this out so plainly, but there are also some really neat touches about gender politics, like the fact that their anatomy textbooks have diagrams of female genitalia censored with big stickers that Dawn has to soak off in the sink.

So with all this setup, I assumed that her mutation was going to be used as an allegory for a teenage girl coming to terms with her sexuality. Unfortunately, the film doesn't really take that path. Instead it meanders through a series of sexual assaults (each perpetrator receiving his gory comeuppance) with Dawn ultimately becoming some sort of agent of vengeance, seducing and punishing evil men. I suppose it's to the movie's credit that I really wished things had turned out better for her. I was a little sad that her reactions to the mutilations become increasingly glib and callous. I kept hoping that eventually she was going to meet a guy who wasn't a horrible rapist, and maybe come to terms with her "gift", but almost every guy she meets attempts to rape her. It's a pretty paranoid representation of men (especially the gynocologist, I bet the Ob-gyn Society is happy about that one), but I don't really see how else her mutation is going to come into play. Thankfully, the rape scenes are never graphic or played for titillation. We only see Weixler naked at one point and it's separate from any sex scene.

This film is well made and looks great, aside from a goofy looking computer composite here and there. Acting can get pretty broad and cheesy (this is a B-horror film, after all) but Weixler is great as Dawn. It doesn't hold anything back during the scenes of genital mutilation, so some of the guys in the audience might be wincing during a few scenes. I've never seen a film where a dog eats a severed dick before. Not since Hostel 2, anyway. So yeah, I really enjoyed this film. I wish it were a little more substantial (Dawn's relationship with her parents, for example, is never really explored), but as a horror film it's a lot of fun. I'd also like to point out that I got through this whole review without using a horrible tooth-related pun (a film with bite, something to sink your teeth into etc). Hope you appreciate it.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

A Boy and His Dog (1975)

Ever wonder what happened to Tiger after he
disappeared from the Brady Bunch?

The year is 2024, and Phoenix, Arizona has become even more uninhabitable, thanks to a nuclear apocalypse. Roaming this sand-blasted hellscape is a "solo" named Vic (pre-Miami Vice Don Johnson, trading his white suit and loafers for some tattered rags) and his trusty dog Blood. What makes this interesting is that Blood has a telepathic link with Vic, mainly used to provide withering sarcasm. I approve. At first I thought Blood was some sort of robot dog because this mutt is hella smart. I'm sure if my dog could talk it would be something along the lines of "Got any foooood? Got any more foooood?" but this dog knows all about world history and has all the US Presidents memorised ("Johnson, Nixon, Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy"). He's definitely the brains of the outfit, while Vic provides the opposable thumbs.

Aside from his intelligence, Blood has another useful ability. He can use his special dog radar to detect nearby human beings. Vic generally uses this ability to ferret out women to rape. After a daring act of thievery, Vic and Blood manage to gather up enough canned goods to buy themselves a night at the movies, a shabby desert camp where a lonely people sit around and watch scratched up copies of sex films. During their night on the town, Blood detects a female in their midst.

Following her back to her underground hiding place, Vic watches her strip down to her bra and granny panties (two luxuries I wouldn't think would be available post-apocalypse) before springing on her. Of course he ends up being charmed by her, but is interrupted when the gang who normally inhabit this underground lair return home. They fight it out, Blood is wounded and they are forced to hole up underground and wait it out. Between bouts of passionate lovemaking (ie fucking), Quilla tries to convince Vic to come with her to Down Under, the underground village where she lives (not Australia). Vic refuses, since he would have to leave Blood behind, so Quilla knocks him unconscious and run away.

When Vic awakes he is driven to follow her and while Blood is unhappy with his decision he agrees to wait at the entrance to the underground complex. The subterranean village is called Topeka, a bizarre parody of small town America, where white-faced people have picnics and preserve contests while loudspeakers blare conformist propaganda all day long. Topeka is run by the Committee, a group of individuals who are more than happy to "farm" anyone who fails to conform to their utopia. Aiding them is their Enforcer, a monstrous cyborg whose face is contorted into a permanent rictus.

Vic is quickly captured, and it is revealed that he was lured down here intentionally in order to act as a "stud" to refresh their gene pool. This doesn't sound too bad to Vic, but unfortunately it entails being strapped to a milking machine, his baby batter collected into vials and distributed to newlyweds right after their wedding ceremony. Eventually Vic is rescued by Quilla, who wants to use him to overthrow the Committee so she can take their place. Vic refuses and escapes, with Quilla in hot pursuit, but as he reaches the desert surface, he finds that his loyal dog has been waiting at the entrance the whole time and is now on the brink of starvation. Vic finds a rather creative solution.

As you might have guessed, despite the title this film isn't for kids. In order to lessen the confusion they added the subtitle "A rather kinky tale of survival", which makes the film seem like a cheesy sex comedy, which it is certainly not. Based on a Harlan Ellison short story, it's a very bleak and nihilistic black comedy. At one point Vic comes across the body of a woman who'd been slashed to ribbons, he's upset because she "could have been used a few more times." And he's the good guy. The only woman they trust ends up betraying them more than once, and in the end Vic chooses his loyal dog over female companionship. This is a moral wasteland as well as a physical one, quite misogynistic, but notions of gender equality go out the window once the bombs hit.

Another thing that makes this film work is the chemistry between Vic and Blood. Blood is voiced by Tim McIntire with the right amount of wry intelligence, and the animal is directed with enough care to make him as believable as any of the human cast. Contrasted with Vic's impulsive and sex-driven actions, it becomes apparent that he needs Blood just as much (if not more) than Blood needs him. I liked the team so much I wish I could see the continued adventures of Vic and Blood. Apparently there are some graphic novels that do just that, so I might try to track them down.

This is a post-apocalyptic film but this is no action-adventure flick filmed with bearded Italians in a disused quarry. There are no muscle-cars, mutants or mohawked punks. George Eastman doesn't appear anywhere in the cast. Instead it's a great piece of pre-Star-Wars sci-fi (back when genre fiction could actually be intelligent and thought-provoking) and essential piece of viewing for anyone who is into 70s cult films.

Monday, 8 September 2008

Legion (1998)

The Dirty... Ten

Dirty Dozen meets Alien was no doubt that was the pitch given to the gullible folks at the Sci-Fi channel. I've got to admit that movie sounds pretty sweet (Lee Marvin punching out an Alien etc) but put those dreams to rest, my friend. They will not be needed here.

It's several hundred years in the future and the world is a very different place. The United States is mired in a never-ending, unwinnable war with an ill-defined enemy and troop morale is at an all-time low.  Okay, maybe not that different.  However, unlike the present day (for now at least) the United States has taken to executing it's more unruly soldiers in order to build morale.  One of the fellows scheduled for incineration is Captain Aldrich (Parker Stevenson), a highly-trained soldier who disobeyed a direct order in order to save his troops and was charged with desertion and sentenced to death.

A last ditch escsape attempt brings him face-to-face with Colonel Flemming (Troy Donahue), who has chosen him for a special mission to infiltrate and capture an enemy base on a hostile planet. Joining him is a rag-tag bunch of death row inmates who hit every peg on the cliche board. You've got a religious nut, a nymphomaniac, a computer hacker (Corey Feldman!), an acrobatic mute, a homicidal maniac, a hotshot pilot etc. One guy is played by Australian icon Rick Springfield. Leading said group is Major Doyle (Terry Farrel) who should be called Major Hottie, am I right? Apparently she got a lot of nerds hot and bothered when he played some bald, spotty alien on Star Trek: Deep Space 9 (she's not bald and spotty in this movie, thankfully).

So pretty soon they're dumped on the surface of the planet and things don't look quite right. There's no sign of life, just a big ol' stack of bodies sealed up in a room. Plus all of the bodies are US Army prisoners, just like them. Tensions begin to fray, and pretty soon a mysterious, off-screen creature starts to pick them off one by one. Is it an alien life form that fails to show up on their life-scanners, or is it one of them?  So, despite the Aliens pretentions, this isn't really an action film. It's more of a thriller built on mistrust and suspicion. Unfortunately, you really don't care enough about any of the characters to lend it much thought, and when the killer is revealed I'd be surprised if it illicited more than a half-hearted shrug.

Why is it in these films that you can never do stuff like turn on generators or activate homing beacons remotely? You've always got to walk through a series of dark, conduit-lined, monster-infested corridors and get to some control panel and pull a huge switch that says "Make turn on now". Most of the plot is that kind of, get from point A to point B and pull switch C kind of thing.  Just an excuse to split people up so they can be picked off.  Meanwhile, Feldman's computer nerd creates a program to decrypt a found encoded audio file that takes about 40 minutes to process. The camera constantly cuts to the countdown timer but once the message is decoded it doesn't reveal who the killer is or really anything all that interesting. Thanks a lot, Feldman.

It should be noted that for a bunch of elite military commandos, they're about as dumb as a box of rocks. They are constantly squabbling and splitting up, leaving eachother unattended for long stretches. It's pretty pathetic. You almost feel sorry for Major Doyle, babysitting this bunch of morons and psychotics. Our main character, Aldrich, is the only half-intelligent one.  Throughout the fim the two of them engage in some half-hearted bonding, Doyle having been involved in the incident that led to Aldrich's execution.

So as I was watching this film I was getting increasingly frustrated. The monster and the deaths are usually off-screen. All you get is a yellow-tinted steadicam thrust in the faces of our victims and a scream, so there's not even a entertaining gory payoff. Towards the end, the only thing keeping me going was the idea that I would finally get a good look at the alien creature. Now, this is a terrible situation to be in. You know it's never going to live up to your expectations, especially since it's a made-for-TV Sci-Fi channel movie. Even if it was as awesome as the Alien Queen, the Predator and the Terminator combined, it would still fall short. And it does. He looks kind of like the Master from Buffy the Vampire Slayer actually, only with a much cheaper facial appliance and smeared with a bucket of slime. Considering how much talking he does you'd think they would make it so the mouth moves.

One thing that bugged me is that there was only one creature.  From a movie called Legion I'd expect them to be, you know, legion.  At one point the biblical reference is quoted ("Call me legion, for we are many") but it's pretty out-of-the-blue.  Really, that's about all I have to say about this film.  Unfortunately, it's not good or bad enough to be truly entertaining.  Just wrap yourself in tin foil (to give things a bit of sci-fi flavour) and re-watch Dirty Dozen.

Raptor (2001)


Roger Corman has carved out a nice little niche for himself, releasing low-budget versions of popular films that are often more entertaining than the film he is imitating. He has never seen a popular film he couldn't attach himself to like a cinematic lamprey, and of course the marketing blitz surrounding 1993's Jurassic Park didn't escape his inscrutible gaze. Carnosaur was produced and released just in time to coast in on the wave of hype. Any remaining potential stored in those rubber puppets and animatronic dinosaurs was wrung out in Carnosaur 2 and Carnosaur 3: Primal Species in 1995 and 1996 respectively. This may reveal a shocking gap in my cinematic knowledge, but I haven't seen any of the Carnosaur films. Luckily, I've seen 2001's Raptor, so I don't need to. Raptor recycles every last dinosaur-centric action piece from the Carnosaur series. These disjointed sequences are held together by the flimsiest plot possible. Only the barest of attention is paid to logic or continuity.

In what is the first of many to come, the film opens with a scene taken from Carnosaur. A bunch of teens ride through the desert in a jeep before stopping at the side of a cliff. One guy is attacked by a raptor-cam when he gets out to take a leak and the two remaining occupants are disemboweled by a hilarious rubber hand puppet. Well, at least they reused the good stuff. The next day, Sheriff Jim Tanner (Eric Roberts) and Animal Control officer Barbara Phillips (Melissa Braselle) arrive to investigate the grisly aftermath of the dinosaur attack. There is some sort of ex-lover tension between the two. Braselle is allegedly attractive but looks more like a makeup-caked, silicone-enhanced, tooth-whitened, tanorexic mockery of Western beauty. It's around now that the continuity errors start to surface like a plague of boils. The jeep is not only in a completely different location but bears only a passing resemblance to the jeep from the opening of the film. The inside of the jeep is relatively clean as opposed to splashed with blood as we saw minutes earlier. The corpses inside can't even sit still for their few seconds of screen time, which isn't a continuity error but is still annoying. Barbara also demonstrates her animal expertise by estimating the culprits size at about 150-200 pounds, at least 100 pounds heavier the tiny hand puppet we saw earlier. Their investigation is interrupted by an piercing roar from over the hill.

Meanwhile, at the Eunice Corporation, some scientists are busy crossing the line man was not meant to cross. In charge of the research is Dr. Hyde (Corbin Benson), a dude who looks kind of like the Alton Brown of advanced genetic research. The escaped dino has come to the attention of Dr. Hyde, and he is understandably upset and ranting to his two underlings and the chief of security. Tensions are no doubt exacerbated by the fact that they appear to be the only employees in the entire building. Even the security chief has been reduced to manning the front gate. Dr. Hyde's order to lock down the front gate isn't fast enough, and one truck full of chickens makes it out the front gate.

This is a surprising development. I'm not sure what the Eunice Corporation does exactly (something involving genetic research and poultry apparently) but I think they need to streamline their business activities, especially since we've only seen about four employees (five including the truck driver). With such a diverse portfolio of interests and a lack of staff and infrastructure to support it, quality control is bound to suffer, such as a hungry dinosaur stowing away in your shipment of live chickens. I don't know how he got in there but now that he's there he makes a hell of a mess and pretty soon the driver stops to investigate and he's munched too. Since we've got to link this chicken truck scene (which has been lifted from Carnosaur) to Sheriff Tanner somehow, a deputy immediately pulls up to investigate and he before he even realises that it's a completely different truck parked in a different location, he is munched too.

Meanwhile, in the back of a pickup truck, Tanner's daughter Lola is busy making out with her no-good older boyfriend. After giving us our requisite flash of silicone boob, her boyfriend goes off to investigate a Strange Noise(tm) and is subsequently munched by our surprisingly hungry dino. Lola manages to jump into the driver seat and escape, but plunges the car (or rather a different car from a scene taken from Humanoids From the Deep) over the side of a cliff. This is presumably because she's in a high-stress situation and not just because she's a woman. It explodes in a ball of flames, but Lola proves rather resilient and is taken to hospital in a state of traumatic shock.

One of Dr. Hyde's underlings decides to quit so Hyde, as a final request, asks him to go down and take a look at the T-rex. Nothing suspicious about that. It also appears that the laser-lined corridor where the dinosaurs are kept projects some sort of anti-aging field, as the scientist appears a good deal younger and slimmer than he did a few seconds ago. Unfortunately his new-found youth is cut short when the laser-grid is deactivated and the T-rex gulps him down. Soon after, Tanner and Barbara arrive to investigate the Eunice lab. They are turned away, but hear a strange roar emanating from underground.

Back at the hospital, Barbara plays her recording of the piercing roar from that morning, hoping that the sound will bring Lola out of her catalepsy. It does the trick, and soon Lola is unconvincingly screaming and crying about a strange "lizard". Afterwards, Tanner drops Barbara at home, where she prepares to take a shower. Disappointment awaits those of you hoping to catch a glimpse of her mammoth mammories (you know who you are), as she heads out to investigate a strange growling just as she's about to doff her brassiere. Her Golden Retriever, which should have been clearly visible to Barbara I might add, leaps up from just out of frame to give us a cheap scare. Damn you, Fido, you just cost us some boobs!

A convenient subplot about an escaped prisoner is trotted out to give one of the Sheriff's deputies an excuse to wander about in the dark and get impaled by a raptor claw. The next morning the Barbara and Tanner head out to identify his body (apparently the murder of a deputy didn't warrant contacting the Sheriff before now) and Barbara discovers a huge black tooth embedded in his body. Tanner then calls his buddies at the FBI to get some information about the Eunice corporation and find out about the barely-copyright-infringement-avoiding "Project: Jurassic Storm". After somehow getting the power company to agree to turn off the power at the Eunice building in exactly one hour, he grabs a search warrant (he conveniently keeps a stack of pre-signed warrants in his filing cabinet) and heads out with Barbara to confront Dr. Hyde. It's here that I was shocked by the appearance of not one, but four new Eunice employees. Two scientists are spotted leaving an elevator as they arrive and two security guards appear once Hyde decides he's had just about enough of their nosey questions and decides to lock them up.

Meanwhile, some Colonel Tanner talked to during his investigations has done some investigations of his own. On some fairly flimsy evidence he concludes that Eunice has resurrected "Project: Jurassic Storm" and sends in not one but two Special Ops teams to investigate, each with their own uniforms, transport helicopter and weapons. Why two teams? Well, that way they can use footage from both Carnosaur 2 and Carnosaur 3. What's more, Tanner's gambit has kicked in so there are no lights and the building is swarming with hungry dinosaurs. Good job, Sheriff! The next gruelling half-hour is spent watching soldiers walking through darkened industrial corridors, occasionally firing at some off-screen dinos. They also come up with the sensible idea of setting some explosive charges to level the building. Hyde gets munched by the T-rex as he attempts to escape, and the film shamelessly steals the climax from Carnosaur 2, a bulldozer vs. T-rex battle, that calls to mind the power-lifter scene from Aliens. Only much, much lamer. Eventually the T-rex is dumped down a massive shaft while Tanner and Barbara manage to escape just before the building explodes.

This movie is directed by B-movie regular Jim Wynorski. As well as directing monster features such as Komodo vs. Cobra he has also directed a string of hilariously named, breast-themed softcore porn films, such as The Breastford Wives, House on Hooter Hill and the Witches of Breastwick. Actually, I'm not even sure he deserves a "director" credit. Maybe "editor", but he didn't even do that particularly well. I've got no problem with some stock footage being used here and there. Sometimes when you're working under a tight budget you've got to make a few compromises. However, Raptor exists for the express purpose of reusing existing footage, milking a few cheap thrills from a trilogy of already-shoddy dinosaur flicks. Luckily I haven't seen any of the Carnosaur films, so the experience was not unlike a watching a greatest-hits compilation, plus it was fun to spot all the continuity errors. So basically, if you haven't seen any of the Carnosaur films you'll get your 85 minutes of dinosaur mayhem, but if you have seen them you'll probably experience deja vu followed by profound sense of being ripped off.