Monday, 13 December 2010

Food of the Gods (1976)

...rats

From the 50s through to the mid 80s, Bert I. Gordon wrote, directed and/or produced over twenty horror and sci-fi flicks, including Empire of the Ants, Village of the Giants, War of the Colossal Beast etc. He did a lot of films about giant animals going on murderous rampages, a prediliction which earned him the nickname Mr B.I.G. I'd assume he had some sort of Napoleon complex and that these films were his way of getting back at a cruel, slightly-oversized world, but in the photos I've seen of him he looks like a normal-sized dude. I guess he just liked seeing giant animals wreck shop, which is understandable.

Unlike a lot of it's contemporaries, Food of the Goods wastes no time getting to the good stuff. A small group of friends, apparently professional football players despite looking far too old, decide to go hunting on an island in the Canadian wilderness, where one of them is stung to death by a giant, plastic wasp. One of the other hunters, Morgan (Marjoe Gortner), tries to seek help at a farmhouse and is attacked by a giant chicken, which is just as hilarious as it sounds. Afterwards he runs into the owner of the farm and phones for help for his friend, quickly forgetting that he just got attacked by a giant fucking chicken. After burying his friend back on the mainland, Morgan returns to the island to seek some answers.

It turns out that the owners of the farm found some white goop bubbling up from the ground, bafflingly concluded that was oil, and even more bafflingly decided to mix it with their animal feed. This caused their animals to grow to enormous size. They intend to bottle and sell the magical goop to the owner of a pet food company, Jack Bensington (Ralph Meeker), who has arrived at the island along with his assistant Lorna (Pamela Franklin), who seems somewhat overqualified for the position seeing as she's a "lady bacteriologist". Unfortunately some household pests get into the feed, and while it would have been cool if the rest of the movie exhibited the same variety of giant animals as the first five minutes, it's mainly giant rats from here on in.

This is one of those movies where people don't act or speak like human beings, even by the standards of the genre. For instance, upon seeing the giant dead chickens littering the barn (killed by the rats), Bensington is unimpressed by their size, complaining that he "can't really tell when they're dead". Then there are the couple of campers who are trapped on the island, Thomas and Rita. Thomas insists that his wife stay inside their camper van while he investigates a noise outside, but upon discovering a giant rat sitting on the roof of the van he tells his heavily pregnant wife to come outside with him so they can both watch in horror as the giant rats scurry in through the open door. What a dipshit.

Morgan, meanwhile, spends much of his screen time engaging in heroic activities that clearly cross the line between brave and stupid. In one scene he decides to head out and look for giant animals in an uncovered jeep for no reason, and when asked why there is no reply. He also jams his whole arm inside a nest full of angry, giant wasps. You never really buy him as the hero, since Gortner is relatively charisma-free. (I've never heard of the guy, but apparently he was a famous child evangelist and the subject of the 1972 documentary Marjoe, which sounds a lot more interesting than this movie.) The final act of the film sees him and the rest of the survivors sealing themselves up in the farmhouse as the rats try to get inside.

The rest of the characters are fairly boring stereotypes. Bensington is your standard evil capitalist. Lorna's knowledge of lady bacteriology proves utterly worthless, and the only time she does anything proactive is where she approaches Morgan in the midst of the rat attacks and plaintively declares that she wants him to do her. The funniest character is the farmwife, played by veteran screen actor and TV director Ida Lupino. She plays the super-religious, bible-quoting country bumpkin stereotype for maximum crazy. She gets a pretty amazing death scene where she has to go toe-to-toe with a giant rat puppet, which looks more like a guinea pig to be honest.

As for the special effects, they are just awful, often eclipsed by those in Gordon's much earlier films. Rat attacks typically use scale models of cars and scenery, with only the barest attempt to match them to their life-size counterparts. One particularly terrible effect shot involves a giant wasp attack, in which our heroes fire shotguns at semi-transparent insects until they burst in puffs of smoke. I could have assumed they were ghost wasps if it weren't for the close-ups of actors thrashing around with a giant plastic wasp taped to their back.

I wouldn't bother looking for a "No animals were harmed..." disclaimer with this one either, as a lot of rats get knocked around with high velocity paintball guns. The little guys get some serious airtime and I think I saw one rat do a double mid-air flip with a twist. Maybe these rats belonged to a stunt union, but I doubt it. There's also a scene where dozens of giant rats get drowned in a flood (spoiler alert), and although some of it may have been achieved with fake rats it sure looked realistic to me. I'm against the abuse of animals in films, especially films as shoddy as this one.

Apparently this film is very loosely based on H.G. Wells' classic The Food of the Gods and How it Came to Earth, although the only connections seem to be the title and the fact that the bottles of goop are inexplicably labelled "F.O.T.G." It shares more in common with Gordon's own Village of the Giants, except that it's not as good. Unfortunately it came out pretty late in the Notorious B.I.G.'s career, a time when campy nuclear-themed B-movies were losing popularity to "serious" eco-horror. This is something that Gordon never did particularly well. The film is it's all-time clumsiest when trying to do anything serious, and while the clumsiest moments are the most entertaining, there aren't enough of them to recommend it on those alone. It kind of peaks with the giant chicken attack.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

Don't you hate those assholes who leave their
halloween decorations out until Christmas?


After the box-office busting Halloween and the pretty decent follow-up Halloween II, John Carpenter decided that they'd taken the story of Michael Myers as far as it could go. Halloween III: Season of the Witch, directed by Carpenter's frequent collaborator Tommy Lee Wallace, was intended to reboot the franchise as an anthology series, with each entry being a completely unrelated story centered around the titular holiday. I can only imagine the watermelon-sized balls it would have taken to strip the series of Michael Myers, Dr. Loomis and everything else that people loved about it, but as you can imagine it did not go down well and the film was loathed by fans and critics alike.

Like any film that spawned such hatred it's built up a rabid cult following, although I'm not sure it's warranted. It's not the worst film in the series, in fact it's probably better than most of the films that came after it, but that doesn't mean it's good either. One of the big problems is that it's too complicated. The fear of being chased around our house by a crazy, unstoppable maniac with a big knife is a something we can all relate to. It's a simple idea, but there's something primal and instinctual about it. On the other hand, the fear of Irish immigrants using killer robot assassins and the power of Stonehenge to create killer Halloween masks, that's something a little less universal. That's a niche fear at best.

Tom Atkins plays a Dan, a doctor (not from the same hospital from Halloween 2 I think) who is on call when a crazy old man is brought in, ranting about how they are all going to die. He stays overnight for observation, and during the night a creepy guy in a suit sneaks into his hospital room and kills him with his bare hands, then calmly walks out, gets into his car, douses himself in petrol and sets himself alight. Atkins witnesses this, and subsequently teams up with the victim's daughter Ellie (Stacey Nelkin) to figure out what the fuck is going on.

At the heart of the mystery are Silver Shamrock masks, a brand of locally-made latex masks that are the hot ticket item for the coming Halloween. They come in three flavours; skull, witch and jack o'lantern, so I guess if you want to go as something other than those three things then you're shit out of luck. There's an unbelievable amount of advertising behind these things, literally every time someone turns on a TV there's an ad for Silver Shamrock masks with an annoying jingle reminding everybody how many days it is until Halloween.

Dan and Ellie head out to Santa Mira, California, the small town where the masks are produced. It seems to be deserted and full of suspicious locals, but as soon as they pull into a hotel about half a dozen other characters arrive as well so I don't know what the fuck. That night in the hotel, like Jaime Lee Curtis before her, Nelkin succumbs to Tom Atkins raw animal magnetism, a moment that stands out as unbelievable even in a film about killer Halloween masks.

The man behind it all is the owner of Silver Shamrock novelties, Conal Cochran (Dan O'Herlihy), and entrepeneur who is obsessed with clockwork toys and novelties. His great plan is to distribute his Silver Shamrock masks to as many children as possible. Then, when they watch a special TV transmission under the guise of a televised giveaway, a special chip in the masks is activated which melts their faces and cause insects and reptiles to pour from every orifice in their head. I don't know how it works, but it's got something to do with druidic magic and one of the standing stones from Stonehenge, which they stole somehow. It also has some wicked anti-tamper features; one woman tries to mess with the badge and it melts her face off with a laser beam.

If all of this sounds like it doesn't make any sense it's because it doesn't, but it's clear that making sense isn't on the list of priorities. When discussing how they moved the standing stone to the laboratory Cochran says "You wouldn't believe how we did it!" with no elaboration, and when asked the motive behind his ridiculous plan he responds "Do I need a reason?" I can appreciate the ballsiness of lines like that, it's basically the writer flipping the bird to the audience with both hands, but it doesn't help make the movie, you know, good.

If that weren't enough silliness it's also revealed that Cochran's creepy assassins are actually clockwork robots. One of them is sent out to kill a forensic pathologist who is investigating the self-immolation that begins of the film. When she examines the remains all she finds is gears and wires, but eventually she seems to have an epiphany and mouths "Oh my god!" while reaching for the phone. She's killed before she can get through to the Sheriff, but I thought it was pretty funny because the implication is that she was thinking "Of course! The killer was a robot! I've got to alert the police!"

I kind of like the ending though, which is it's own special brand of ridiculousness. Dan and Ellie manage to kill Cochran, destroy his laboratory and escape, but with Cochran's special transmission still scheduled to go on the air Dan calls up the local TV station, demanding that they pull the ad. For some reason they actually believe his crazed ranting, but he only manages to get it pulled from two out of the three channels, leaving things ambiguous as to whether a bunch of kids are going to have their heads melted Raiders of the Lost Ark style. I especially like the final shot of the film, with Atkins sweatily screaming into the phone as the Silver Shamrock theme plays in the background.

I could probably enjoy this ridiculous bullshit a lot more if it were under any other title, but I love Halloween and Halloween II as genuinely scary, well-crafted movies. After they brought back Michael Myers for Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, but it wasn't the same. The damage had been done. I think maybe this one is worth watching, as sometimes it manages to create an creepy atmosphere and it's definitely unique, but it's almost impossible to take seriously.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

The Social Network (2010)


Like a lot of people, I scoffed when I heard that David Fincher was going to direct Facebook: The Movie starring the poor man's Michael Cera. Clearly I was selling a lot of people short, because as it turns out it's actually a pretty good movie. It's based on a book that I haven't read and I have no idea how much of it is true, but when the results are this entertaining I don't really give a shit. My biggest worry was that the subject matter would date the movie so bad they might as well call it Released 1st October 2010: The Movie, but really it isn't about Facebook at all. Instead it's more of a tragic success story about the founder, Mark Zuckerberg, a self-entitled Harvard computer science student who became an overnight billionnaire. Somehow Fincher turned the story of this asshole into a riches-to-more-riches story worthy of any in the genre.

Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is a computer science student at Harvard University who gains notorierty when, in a drunken rage after being dumped by his girlfriend, he creates Facesmash, a website to rate the attractiveness of female students. After he is disciplined by the school board he is approached by twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie and Armie Hammer), who want to hire him and his best friend Eduardo (Andrew Garfield) to create an exclusive social networking site for Harvard University. Instead they steal the idea and create their own website, called thefacebook.com, which becomes wildly popular.

One of the things that struck me when watching this film is how easily they could have played it safe and turned it into a nerds vs jocks crowdpleaser, with a crusty old dean who tries to get Zuckerberg expelled and insists that "this facebook nonsense won't amount to anything." Instead it's almost the opposite, with the Winklevoss twins as victims who actually hold back from legal action until they've exhausted every other possibility. They insist that they are "gentlemen of Harvard" and worry that pursuing Zuckerberg will make them look like the bullies from Karate Kid (the original, not the remake).

Zuckerberg is also approached by Sean Parker the founder of Napster. The guy is obsessed with image and clearly nuts, but you can see how Zuckerberg would fall for his bullshit and dump his best friend to hang with the cool kids. He convinces Zuckerberg to move to quite college and move to L.A., eventually setting up a business deal to edge Eduardo out of the company. By the time Parker's paranoia and irresponsibility become a liability it's too late. All of this is structured in a series of flashbacks that take place during the deposition of a lawsuit against Zuckerberg by the people he fucked over. The cutways to this deposition maybe take place a little too frequently for my liking, but it works pretty well as a framework.

It's written by Aaron Sorkin, and you can tell because everybody speaks at a million miles an hour and even nerds with no social skills are capable of producing zingers that most of us couldn't dream up with four weeks written notice. It's very writerly and not all naturalistic, but it hits that sweet spot where it's fun to listen to without collapsing under the weight of it's own stylisation. Luckily it doesn't have too much of that The West Wing thing where the slightest provocation can set off a spontaneous ten minute political rant.

It's also another one of those films I like where the script is filled with ironies that could have been pushed harder but weren't. There's the fact that a nerd with no social skills is developing a social networking site, the fact that he is so acutely aware of how university social life works even though he's barely a participant himself etc. I'm sure some asshole in a suit probably wanted to bring in Paul Haggis in to "punch up" the script, adding a scene where a side character stands up to Zuckerberg and states "Don't you see? Even though you created Facebook, your cold, abrasive approach to human interaction means you'll never be a part of the social network". Somehow cooler heads prevailed.

The only place I thought the film tripped up was in how it was bookended by women lecturing Zuckerberg about his life. It begins with his now-ex, who basically calls him an asshole in a clever, Sorkin-esque way. It ends with Rashida Jones, a young lawyer, telling him "You're not a bad guy, but you're trying real hard to be." The fact that it's the final line of the movie implies that it has some truth to it, but I don't know, I think he actually is a pretty bad guy. He intentionally stole someone's idea and fucked over all of his friends and colleagues. The fact that he didn't twirl a handlebar moustache while he did it didn't doesn't really make much difference to me.

I also liked that they didn't feel the need to dumb down the computer stuff with phony stuff like bleeping keyboards or spinning 3D logos. Some programming lingo slips in here or there, but the computer stuff is mainly limited to a masterfully executed sequence where Zuckerberg explains how he pulled all the student images off the Harvard servers. It's really good, executed with all the tension and excitement of a master criminal explaining a bank heist. The only Hollywood bullshitty part was where Zuckerberg and Eduardo pick up a couple of groupies, hot girls that, for some reason, are hanging around at a Bill Gates keynote speech at the Harvard computer science faculty. True, one of them is Asian and insane, but come on.

Given that it's a David Fincher film I don't really need to comment on the technical aspects. I can recognise the excellence even in the ones I don't like (eg Benjamin Button aka Forest Gump 2: The Gumpening). It's pretty low-key for a Fincher film and there aren't too many quirky touches, except for a cool scene where a rowing competition is inexplicably scored to Hall of the Mountain King. Believable performances, intelligent storytelling etc etc. In short, this was a great movie, probably the best movie I've ever seen that is based on a website. Way better than fear.com

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Dying Breed (2008)

Cheeky!

Let me tell you a little bit about Alexander Pearce. He was an Irish convict who was shipped off to a penal colony in Van Diemen's Land, now Tasmania. He escaped, and when he was captured he claimed he had cannibalised his fellow escapees. They didn't believe him, but when he escaped for a second time he was recaptured with bits of his partner-in-crime in his pocket, even though he still had food with him. He was subsequently convicted of murder and cannibalism, and was hanged. It's good story with the makings of a good movie. Unfortunately that movie is the 2009 thriller Van Diemen's Land, and not the subject of this review, the 2008 backwood cannibal film Dying Breed.

As well as exploiting this historical nugget and every offensive stereotype about Tasmanians you can think of, the film also incorporates another famous Tasmanian icon, the Tasmanian tiger. Although thought to be extinct (the movie begins with some real-life footage of the last of it's kind in captivity) zoologist Nina (Mirrah Foulkes) believes she has found photographic proof that the thylocine still exists. These photographs come courtesy of her sister, who turned up dead shortly after her discovery. Unable to secure funding, Nina arranges an unofficial expedition with her boyfriend Matt (Leigh Whannel, one of the Saw guys), his best friend Jack (Nathan Phillips from Wolf Creek) and Jack's girlfriend Rebecca (Melanie Vallejo).

Their trip leads them to an isolated township populated by the "descendants" of Alexander Pearce (not sure how that would work exactly, the guy was in a penal colony) aka The Pieman. After some uncomfortable interactions wth the locals in the pub (I always like these kinds of scenes; walking into a pub full of creepy old weirdos is an awkward experience we can all relate to) and a sampling of their delicious meat pies, they set out on a wildly underprepared trip into the wilderness. Soon they find themselves stalked by a mysterious figure, cannibalism etc, etc.

There's a few interesting ideas here, but most of them don't really go anywhere. The Tasmanian Tiger, for instance, is just a MacGuffin to get them to into the wilderness, and the whole Alexander Pearce connection is little more than window dressing. I was hoping that the interesting location might have brought a few fresh new ideas to a subgenre that has been done in every possible permutation, but unfortunately most of the film seems to be going down a checklist of modern horror: they've got the creepy little girl who sings nursery rhymes, the over-edited, jump-scare nightmare sequences, even a little bit of torture porn. If you guessed that one of them pulls out their mobile phone at one point and pointedly declares that there is no cell phone coverage, give yourself a prize.

The film does have a few things working in it's favour though. Like many Australian genre films there is a lot of gorgeous cinematography, and the rainforest setting gives it a slightly different feel than your typical backwoods cannibal film. There was one part with a half-eaten body hanging from the tree that looked like something out of Cannibal Holocaust. Although it's not as gory as that film it does have it's moments, including an impressively nasty bit where somebody gets their nose bitten off. Not enough nose-bitings in films, I say. Plus I liked the bit where Rebecca follows a strange noise only to discover a woman euthanising a litter of unwanted puppies with a hammer. That's the kind of fucked-up-yet-believable behaviour I want from my Tasweigan nutbars.

Given the film's genre and casting, you can't help but draw comparison to Wolf Creek, which is unfortunate because in my opinion it doesn't really stack up. Wolf Creek was a film that I liked more than a lot of people, and one of the things I liked most about it was that the main characters were pretty believable and likeable. Unfortunately that's not so much the case here: Jack is such an unrepentant asshole and Matt is so spineless that you wind up hating them both. It does differentiate itself from Wolf Creek in that it's a little sillier and not quite as bleak and serious, but then it doesn't have much of a sense of fun about it either. It has a downer ending followed by a controversy-baiting title card similar to Wolf Creek's, which states: "Since Alexander Pearce escaped, over 250 people have disappeared in the Tasmanian wilderness. No remains have ever been found." Well, I guess that's technically true.

I've really liked some recent Australian horror films, like Rogue and Wolf Creek. They have great production values, intelligent exeuction and make the most of their interesting settings. I was hoping that this one would be similar, but although competently made it doesn't have enough to separate from it's Hollywood-produced brethren. I think it flopped pretty badly in the Australian cinemas, which is unfortunate but not entirely unexpected. Australians are pretty weird about home-grown b-movies, turning out in droves to see the latest terrible Saw sequel but being endlessly critical towards any local genre film, but then I can't really judge because I didn't see it in the cinema either.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Frozen (2010)

Well, at least you didn't lick it

I have a truly massive backlog of reviews to get through, but first I'd like to drop a few word-bombs about Frozen. I will also warn you that this post features bigger spoilers than an Asian kid's Honda Civic, so if you have any interest in seeing this film at all, close your browser and go and watch it. It's okay, I'll wait. Or maybe I'll just skip to the next paragraph and pretend I sat in front of my keyboard for an hour and a half. Who knows?

The film is about three college students on a ski trip; Dan (Kevin Zegers), his girlfriend Parker (Emma Bell) and his best buddy Joe (Shawn Ashmore). They convince the ski lift operator to let them on without a ticket just before closing, and a comedy of errors leaves them stranded on the ski lift halfway up the slope. Nobody knows they are there and so they're stuck until the resort opens the next weekend. Things get shitty quickly and only get worse from there. I guess the closest comparison would be Open Water (in fact there's a few shark references that suggest they're aware of the similarity) but that doesn't feel right to me. It's a similar concept, but the execution is a lot different.

The film has just the right amount of character build-up, and does a good job setting up all the tensions that are liable to explode when the shit hits the fan. The best friend is jealous of the girlfriend, the girlfriend feels like a third wheel etc. There's a lot of shouting, blaming, crying etc, but later there's a lot of honest, quiet conversation as they realise they aren't likely to survive. Probably the most heartbreaking part is where Parker realises that her new puppy is home alone will probably starve to death before anyone realises that she's missing. If they actually showed the puppy I'd think it was too manipulative and reject it like a donor organ, but they tricked me by making me use my imagination.

In so many films of this genre, the main characters make mind-bogglingly retarded decisions out of narrative convenience. It really takes you out of the movie because you can see the writers pulling the strings, plus it's hard to care for the characters when the situation just feels like Darwinian selection in action. Frozen is better than most in this regard. Their first idea is to jump down, which seems reasonable but results in one of the worst limb-snappings I've ever seen, and I've seen the entire ouvre of Steven Seagal. It's way easier to care for the characters when shitty things happen due to circumstance instead of blatant stupidity. It must have been effective because at one point I was yelling at the screen for the hot girl to not take off her clothes.

That's not to say that the film is totally realistic. For instance, I'm not sure that packs of ravenous wolves are such a big problem at popular ski resorts. I've never been to one, since I hate the cold and have the coordination of a drunken two year old, so I guess I wouldn't know. Maybe they are, but I doubt it. If they had mentioned the wolves in passing earlier in the film I might have let it slide, but as it is they come out of nowhere and it's a little hard to swallow. More realistic than a yeti attack, I suppose.

There are a few other things that mildly annoyed me, like the way they left their faces fully exposed even after they get frostbite on their cheeks or the idiot who falls asleep with her bare hand wrapped around a steel pole, but I bought into it, and I guess that's what enjoyment of a simple thriller like this comes down to. If you're going to second guess the characters' actions every step of the way, then I doubt you'd enjoy it very much, but I guess I'm a little more forgiving than most when it comes to that kind of thing. I'm willing to accept a certain level of irrationality from someone with severe hypothermia who just saw their best friend eaten by wolves.

I also appreciated that the issue of mobile phones is dealt with in a quick throwaway line. I think we all understand that in the modern age this kind of thing would be impossible, what with someone Twittering "trapped on a ski lift lol" about two minutes after they get stuck. We don't need an annoying scene where someone explains that they aren't getting any reception. We get it.

At 94 minutes it's pretty much the perfect length. It started to lose me a little towards the end where the bolt holding the cable car together comes apart for no reason and the cable begins to twist and fray with that Hollywood-approved pinging sound. I guess they had to go there eventually, but it's a cliche too far for me. Still, I'm glad they didn't go with the nihilistic downer ending that seems to be so popular these days. I think after what they went through in this film it needed a scrappy survivor.

The director is Adam Green, the writer/director of Hatchet. I thought that film was okay as an 80s homage, but it didn't lead me to believe that he'd be capable of anything like this. This is more like a real big-boy film, with some nice cinematography and well-executed suspense sequences. I don't want to oversell it, but it's rare to find a film with a simple premise that is executed so well. I believe Green has recently released Hatchet 2, so maybe next he can do Frozen 2. If he wants he can use my yeti attack idea.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Best of the Best 4: Without Warning (1998)

You should see him handle a wet towel

In the fourth and final film in the Best of the Best saga, Tommy Lee (writer/director/producer Phillip Rhee) once again takes center stage. It appears he's given up on the life of a wandering hero since the events of Best of the Best 3: No Turning Back, and in the intervening three years he has gotten married (not to Gina Gershnon), had a daughter, become a widower, and started a new career with the police force as a martial arts instructor. Curiously, his daughter is on the cusp of her sixth birthday, so I guess she's either from a previous marriage or he was totally lying about being single in the previous film.

After promising his daughter a homemade birthday cake, he seeks baking advice from his friendly local convenience store owner Jack. It just so happens that Jack's daughter Mickey (Jill Ritchie, who looked really familiar until I looked her up on imdb and found out she had a minor role on Arrested Development as the Bluth publicist) has been contracted by evil Russian counterfeiters to decrypt a disc containing stolen US Treasury security codes. She has a change of heart and escapes, heading straight to her father's convenience store. She is shot by a couple of thugs, but not before she slips the stolen disc into Tommy's pocket.

So the fourth film in the Best of the Best series shifts into yet another sub-genre, the wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time type Die Hard action thriller. The two main bad guys are a couple of Russian criminals/terrorists. One of them is played by Tobin Bell, back before he was sentenced to appear in Saw films for the rest of his life. They aren't hugely memorable bad guys, but while their master plan isn't particularly complicated (1. Steal codes 2. Print money 3. Profit!) it is needlessly destructive. Just stealing the banknote paper involves shooting everybody in a traffic control center, killing a half-dozen cops and blowing up a railway station. They then carry an armoured truck away with the help of a helicopter and a terrible composite shot. I wouldn't think it'd be that hard for the police to spot a helicopter carrying a 5-ton armoured truck, but somehow they get away clean.

Naturally Tommy can't go to the police because there's a crooked cop involved. Is it the asshole cop Detective Gresko (Ernie Hudson) who insults and belittles his martial arts, or the nice, friendly cop who helps him out at every turn? The answer may surprise you, but if so then you probably shouldn't be watching such violent films since you were clearly born yesterday. Hudson is wasted as Gresko, whose only purpose is to be enough of an unreasonable asshole that the logical solution to Tommy's problems (going to the police) is out of the question. Similarly for Paul Gleeson, who appears as a friendly priest whose only purpose is to babysit Tommy's daughter so she can be kidnapped and held to ransom in the final act of the film.

With every film Tommy appears to be drifting further and further from his no-killing policy. Early in the film he appears to feel mildly guilty after accidentally killing a henchman, but later he takes part in an explosive chase sequence that destroys a fuel tanker, a car, several motorcycles, a helicopter and possibly a segway or two. In the other films he always showed mercy to the main villains - the one time he killed a villain it was in self-defense, and even then it sent him on a cross-country journey of self-discovery - but here he happily kills the two bad guys by tossing a bag full of explosives through the cargo hatch of their plane while it is in mid flight. He's not really setting a good example for his daughter.

Although this is mainly a guns-and-explosions type action film, they still find a few good excuses for kung fu fight scenes. I especially liked the part where he is escaping the bad guy's hideout and randomly wanders into a martial arts class. I've seen this scenario in a few different films (The Man From Hong Kong, Kiss of the Dragon), but I'm surprised it isn't used more often; it's genius in it's simplicity. In this scene we also learn that Tommy Lee is an expert fencer, by which I mean he can handle an épée, not that he's an experienced trader of stolen goods. The action scenes are shot pretty well, although maybe a step down from the previous films in the series.

I don't really have much more to say about this one. There are a few nice touches, like when Tommy is drugged by an evil woman and butterflies start flying around like in a quirky indie comedy, but mostly it's a pretty dry and by-the-numbers action film. It's a shame to end the series this way, especially since it marks the end of Phillip Rhee's film career, but I do respect that each sequel tried to do something completely different. That's becoming increasingly rare these days, when most DTV sequels are simply a case of doing the same thing as the theatrical release, only less.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Best of the Best 3: No Turning Back (1995)

What does that clown think he's doing?

In Best of the Best 3: No Turning Back, the series made the leap to direct-to-video and Robert Radler handed over directorial control to series producer Phillip Rhee. None of the cast members return save for Rhee himself, whose character Tommy Lee graduates to a starring role. It's actually quite a refreshing change, as the need for a Caucasian star in the first two movies meant they spent way too much time with Eric Roberts even though Tommy Lee was clearly the most interesting and well-developed character. I guess it's fitting that the first film where he emerges from under the shadow of Eric Roberts is the same film in which he fights racist assholes.

The bad guys are a white supremacist group who have taken over the small town of Liberty (get it?), intimidating black folks in the streets and painting racist, misspelled grafitti on the schoolhouse when the Gospel Choir come to visit. After the Reverend publishes a editorial in the newspaper condemning their actions, they kidnap him, burn down his church, and beat him to death with a baseball bat, leaving his young son orphaned. So these are some capital 'R' Racists. I'm sick of films casting white supremacists as bad guys. What about all the good things that racist skinheads have done for society? Nah, I'm just kidding; fuck those guys. Racist rednecks are probably the most perfect movie villains ever.

It's about 20 minutes in by the time Rhee arrives, but when he does he's wearing the classic hero-drifter look: blue jeans, tight white t-shirt, sunglasses and designer stubble. He's driving around in his convertible, chewing on a toothpick while a cheesy rock song about drifting plays in the background. All the bases are covered. Suddenly his car gets trashed by a passing truck, stranding him just outside of town, but luckily it's the place he was visiting anyway. When he looks for help he gets harrassed by racists in the local diner, so when he's stopped by the sheriff in the next scene you think he is going to be a racist asshole too. It turns out it's his brother-in-law Jack, played by Christopher McDonald.

You'll remember that although Tommy had a Korean family in Best of the Best, Best of the Best 2 claimed he was raised by Native Americans. Best of the Best 3 further muddies the waters by introducing his previously unmentioned sister Karen (Anzu Lawson), who is Asian. I don't think she's a fight-brother, like Dae Han from the first two movies, since she clearly can't fight. The Lee family tree is very mysterious. She and Jack have a son Justin and they've also taken in the Reverend's orphaned son Luther Jr. The Reverend is listed as missing, and although Jack suspects foul play on behalf of the white supremacists, he doesn't have any proof.

The leader of the hate group is an uncredited R. Lee Ermey, who ironically dresses like Malcom X and spreads a message of racial separatism as he tries to set up his own whites-only compound. There's also his second-in-command Donnie (Mark Rolston), who is more into the militant, shaved-headed, cross-burning type of racism. Ermey is never really painted as a good guy, but he is horrified when he discovers (via the classic clumsy-henchmen-dropping-a-crate-full-of-guns method of exposition) that Donnie is stockpiling weapons for a "race war". I thought it was refreshing that they didn't feel the need to pull the Neo-Nazi card, but by the end of the film Donnie and the men start Seig-Heil-ing for no real reason. Oh well.

There's also a subplot about a young guy joining their white power movement. His mother, played by Dee Wallace Stone, is one of those proud single mother stereotypes, down to the waitressing job at the local diner, and she makes a tearful, outraged speech about how his hate will eventually consume him. He replies "Hate has given me something to live for!" Subtle. He has several run-ins with Tommy and eventually he redeems himself in the most predictable way possible, but it would have been funnier if he'd died a nondescript henchman's death, like that guy in Desperado.

Tommy also gets a love interest (sort of), a schoolteacher played by Gina Gershnon. She's one of those feisty Southern women, and it plays out almost exactly how you'd expect. At first he makes a bad impression by saying something sexist, but later she comes over for dinner and they make playful banter in the kitchen while they flick eachother with dishtowels. Finally Tommy saves her from being raped and/or killed, completing the her final transition into action movie love-interest. I don't think they fuck though. This movie isn't that open minded about race.

By the end of the film the bad guys kidnap Luther Jr. and Tommy's nephew Justin, so Tommy and Jack storm the compound, blowing up buildings with explosives and running around armed with machine guns. This would seem to contradict Tommy's earlier statements about how killing goes against everything he believes in, although to be fair I don't think he actually shoots anyone. One of the chief henchmen "Tiny" is taken out by flying debris in one of the explosions, but I guess he can justify that as collateral damage. The final battle with Donnie is actually a pretty drawn-out affair, involving a mini-gun and a shirtless knife fight. At the end of the fight they pull the oh-shit-he-stabbed-the-defenseless-bad-guy-but-it's-okay-because-he-only-stabbed-the-ground-next-to-his-head-in-anger trick, and all the skinheads put down their weapons down in solidarity behind Tommy. Racism cured!

According to imdb, Tommy's role was originally written for a black dude, which makes a lot of sense, but Phillip Rhee liked the script so much he decided to write it into the Best of the Best canon. It's a servicable script, but there are some moments where it gets pretty patronising. Right before the Reverend gets attacked and killed, Luther Jr. sneaks a grasshopper onto the school bus. A little girl freaks out and kills it, and when he asks her why she did it she squeals "Because I was scared!" Oh, I get it. Thanks movie. There's also a town hall scene where outraged townfolk stand up and make heartfelt speeches that clearly lay out the themes and subtext of the movie. The usual stuff, I guess.

The fights are pretty good, although they use a lot of close-ups and editing tricks. For instance, there's once scene where he leaps into the air and kicks three guys off their motorcycles before he hits the ground. Obviously that's impossible to do for real, but I would have been happy with one motorcycle-kicking if they'd done it with stuntwork instead of editing. The most notable scene is where Tommy fights some racists while dressed in a clown outfit, complete with red nose and big, floppy shoes. Most directors would have been tempted to play up the comedy and add cartoon sound effects, but Rhee plays things completely straight, with dramatic music and a deadly knife fight, with just a single gag at the end as he walks away.

Mostly though, this film just goes through the motions, and is thoroughly predictable from beginning to end. It reasonably well-made for direct-to-video and has plenty of fistfights and explosions, but it's just not that memorable. The racial themes are pretty blunt and boring; you're not likely to get much out of them unless you're still on the fence about whether racism is bad. Although Best of the Best 3 is clearly a step down from the first two films, it was fun to see Tommy Lee get a whole film to himself. Onward to Best of the Best 4: Without Warning!

Monday, 11 October 2010

Death Wish 3 (1985)

This is the last thing a "creep" ever sees.

Even though I'm a huge liberal softie, I really enjoy vigilante films. It's so cathartic to see some poor guy get the better of a broken judicial system by delivering justice to criminal scumbags one .45 slug at a time. They appeal to the worst in all of us by insinuating that a reduction in the crime rate is simply a matter of blowing away as many criminals as possible. It's a tempting fantasy but it's still a fantasy, so I like my vigilante films as shamelessly exploitative and reactionary as possible. If you're going to indulge in this kind of thing then you might as well go for broke. It's not surprising then, that Death Wish 3 is my favourite in the Death Wish saga and possibly my favourite vigilante film of all time.

The looong opening credits scene see Kersey on a bus back to New York. He is visiting an old war buddy after his stay in Los Angeles in Death Wish 2 (Kersey alternates between these two cities for the entire series). Although the end of Death Wish insinuated that Kersey's rampage has inspired the citizens to take up arms against the criminals, it doesn't seem to have some much good for his friend's neighbourhood. It looks more like the set of The Warriors, with face-painted gangs freely roaming the streets, stabbing and looting as they please. In fact by the time Kersey arrives at his friend's apartment he has already been robbed and beaten to death, using his final breath to ask Kersey to "take care of my stuff while I'm gone." Kersey is promptly arrested for the murder by the local police chief (Ed Lauter), who is adverserial at first but eventually gives Kersey free reign to take out as many "creeps" as he can. Kersey is happy to oblige.

In the first couple of films, "creep" was just a catch-all term Paul Kersey used to describe the various street punks he gunned down, but in this film everyone talks about "creeps" like they're a different species. You'd think someone would throw in a "scumbags" or "assholes" or even a "motherfuckers" now and then, but no, apparently the correct nomenclature for these giggling street punks is "creeps". They come in a variety of types and ethniticies, but the alpha male is a skinny white guy named Manny Fraker. This guy does not look intimidating at all, in fact he looks like a huge dork with his reverse mohawk and a stripe painted on his head. They have to make his second-in-command Bill S. Preston Esquire just so he looks tougher by comparison.

What I love about this film is that everything is blunt, nothing is subtle. Every political message is italicised and double-underlined. It's not enough that the kindly old couple that make friends with Kersey are Jewish, they have to be Super-Jewish, with menoras and yamulkas framed conspicuously in every single shot. It's not enough that a Police Captain violates Kersey's constitutional rights, they have to include a public defender who shouts "you're violating his constitutional rights!" My favourite piece of right-wing hysteria is when some uniformed police officers, in their one and only attempt at fighting crime, barge into the apartment of an elderly couple and confiscate their handgun. "It's for our protection!" they protest in futility. Sure enough in the very next scene some laughing gang members climb into their apartment and, just in case that were too subtle for you, proclaim that they're going to come and go whenever they want.

As if it weren't already enough of a cartoon, Kersey starts setting up Road Runner style traps in the windows of the apartment building in order to foil burglars. He and the old couple all have a good giggle when they hear a scream coming from the next room, only to find two front teeth embedded in a spring-loaded board. The means that the creep was looking up with mouth agape when the trap went off (maybe he saw a UFO?) or that he had some serious buck teeth. Probably my favourite trap comes later in the film, where a burglar triggers a spring-loaded knife that punctures his skull and sends the lobotomised creep tumbling backwards down a flight of stairs. It's like Home Alone times ten.

Everybody knows that being a pretty young woman in a Death Wish film is an invitation to be raped and murdered. One woman (Deanna Troi from Star Trek: TNG!) appears to get off lightly, with just a rape and a broken arm, but when Kersey takes her husband to the hospital they discover that she died from "complications". Your fate is doubly sealed if you're unlucky enough to be Kersey's love interest, and in this case it's a pretty, blonde public defender, who looks young enough to be his granddaughter. Sure enough their awkward relationship is brought to an abrupt end when Frakes and his men corner her in her car, punch her in the face and then push her car down the hill. It rolls into an intersection, gets into a minor fender bender, and then, in true Cannon style, explodes into a huge fireball. Kersey gives the burning car a blank stare and then turns and walks away, not even checking to see if she's dead. I guess he's used to it by now.

Things are starting to get out of hand, but luckily Kersey's friend "Wildey" is coming to fix everything. This friend turns out to be a .475 Wildey Magnum, and as Kersey's friends gather around he explains it's technical specifications in hushed, reverent tones. He makes sure to mention that it's more powerful than the .44 Magnum (fuck you Eastwood), delivering 0.035 more inches of justice with every shot. Later that evening he tests it out on a "creep" called the Giggler, who he baits with a camera bag, swinging it conspicuously over his shoulder by the slenderest of straps. After the Giggler takes the bait and Kersey shoots him in cold blood, the residents of the adjacent apartment building lean out of their windows and cheer him on. Fraker is less impressed. "They killed the Giggler, man! They had no right to do that! None!"

The creepy fetishisation of firepower doesn't stop there. The grand finale erupts into an all-out war between Team Kersey (median age: 65) and the creeps (median age: 20), which sees Bronson scouring the streets with his trusty magnum, a belt-fed Browning machine gun, and even a bazooka. The creeps respond by calling in their biker pals, who come armed with hand grenades and fire bombs. All of this proves inconsequential to Kersey, who crouches out in the open, impervious to gunfire, as Wildey sends platoons of stuntmen tumbling down fire escapes and off the sides of buildings. Bronson even teams up with the crooked police chief, the two of them triumphantly charging down the street and taking out "creeps" like cardboard targets at a shooting range. Even regular citizens get in on the act, turning the aftermath of a bloody battle with bikers into an impromptu street party, children cheering and dancing around the dead bodies. Damn, I love this film.

To be honest I had no idea that this one was directed by Michael Winner, the same guy as the first two films. Death Wishes 1 and 2 were by no means subtle, but they had a a certain sense of realism and an earnestness to their right-wing proselytising. The third film stretches that propaganda to such cartoonish extremes that I have to believe that Winner knew exactly what he was doing. It's pretty much a perfect parody of vigilante movies. It's much more poorly made than the first two films, and Bronson looks so tired and disinterested that I'm amazed he stuck around for two more, but it's still one of the most entertaining films Cannon ever produced. .475 inches out of .5.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Splinter (2008)

After numerous injuries, Porcupine Wrestling
was removed from the sports program.


Stop me if you've heard this one. A young couple, Seth (Paolo Costanzo) and Polly (Jill Wagner), are headed into the woods for a romantic camping holiday when they are car-jacked by an escaped felon Dennis (Shea Wigham) and his meth-head girlfriend Lacey (Rachel Kerbs). After they stop to change a flat tire, the four of them are attacked by a terrifying monster and forced to seek shelter at an abandoned gas station. As they fend off the creature they go through various attempts to contact the authorities, which range from the sensible (trying to get hold of a policewoman's radio) to the inscrutably ridiculous (pouring lighter fluid through the crack under the door and then lighting it up as a way of attracting attention).

So okay, you've got a small cast confined to a single location that is under seige by a gooey monster. Not an particularly unique set up for a horror film, but writer/director Toby Wilkins applies the formula will enough skill to keep your interest. A simmering conflict between the coolly analytical Seth and the more impulsive Polly keeps the tension rising, although for most of the film Seth is so cowardly and incompetent that you wonder why they are together at all. Dude can't even change a flat tire. Like I mentioned in my Human Centipede review, a lot of horror movie characters could be saved if they just learned how to change a damn tire. Anyway, the characters work pretty well for the most part.

The monster concept is pretty creative too. It's a parasite that causes an infected creature to grow spikes all over their skin like a fungus or mold. It can then control the muscles of the infected area and spread the parasite to other creatures by slashing them with it's spikes. There's a pretty cool bit where someone's infected arm gets a life of it's own, painfully twisting and contorting at unnatural angles, breaking the bones and resulting in a nasty amputation using only a box cutter and a cinder block. Severed limbs can be controlled independantly too, so there are several scenes of reanimated body parts chasing people around. I'm always up for an Evil Dead style severed hand chase.

Unfortunately there's a far less entertaining parasite infesting this film. The dreaded shaky-cam. Look, I know I harp on about this topic a lot. I know that directors these days favour documentary realism over visual clarity. Sometimes it's also a lazy way to paper over technical shortcomings, but I don't think that's the case here. Wilkins has a long history in visual effects, and the practical effects you do see are great, which makes it all the more frustrating when the camera starts whipping around and no single shot lasts more than a couple of seconds. Maybe Wilkins has a bit of a self-confidence problem. Maybe he should start a daily affirmation where he looks in the mirror every morning and says: "I have confidence in my abilities as a cinematic craftsman. I will reject shaky cam and it's empty promises of 'realism'. I will show my rubber monsters on camera for more than three seconds at a time." Come on buddy. We believe in you.

Apart from that it's actually very well made. When the camera stays still you've got great visuals with excellent night photography, and when it isn't at least you've got cool, creepy sound design, with lots of squishy sound effects and cracking bones. One thing I especially liked was the tone. It's fun without being campy or making a lot of stupid jokes. It takes itself seriously enough for the tension to work, but it's never self-serious or pretentious. It reminded me a lot of some older 80s horror films. I also appreciated that it had a cast of relative adults and not a bunch of dipshit teenagers.

The shakycam bullshit rubbed me the wrong way, but almost everything else rubbed me the right way, especially Jill Wagner. My anti-shaky-cam fundamentalist beliefs mean I didn't enjoy this as much as some other people, but if you can put up with all the handheld nonsense then I would give it a go.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Best of the Best 2 (1993)

Brakus cunningly uses his shiny codpiece
to distract the enemy

After Best of the Best passed the test, I figured I might as well watch the rest of the Best of the Bests, and this was the last theatrical release before the series was banished into direct-to-video pergatory. They managed to get back the same director (Robert Radler) and much of the original cast, including Eric Roberts, Chris Penn and Phillip Rhee, but they take the series in a very different direction. The first film was more of an inspirational sports movie, but Best of the Best 2 puts those same characters into a crazy action movie, with highly entertaining results.

After successfully beating the Koreans in an exhibition match, Alex (Roberts, now with a more sensible haircut) and Tommy (Rhee) have opened up a Karate school of their own. Alex's son Walter has matured into a budding martial artist and an entirely different actor, and although he fails to pass the final exam for his black belt, Alex gives a big tearful speech about how proud he is anyway. Walter has also found companionship in a new, much-older looking girlfriend, a TV sports reporter named Sue (Meg Foster).

The only other returning character is the All-American egomaniac and reformed racist Travis (Penn). He has been moonlighting at the Coliseum, supposedly a dance club but really a front for an underground fighting tournament for the super-rich. According to these types of movies there's a big demand for black-tie, no-rules deathmatches. Of course, these movies were made before things like UFC hit the mainstream, so we hadn't yet realised that, despite how exciting a kung fu vs capoiera fight might seem, these kind of tournaments always end up with a grappling expert pinning the other guy to on the floor and punching him repeatedly in the face and/or balls.

Anyway, the Coliseum is owned by a giant German bodybuilder named Brakus. Some of his henchmen call him "Mr. Brakus", but mostly it's just Brakus, like he's the bad guy from a barbarian film. He lives up to the name too, dressing his combatants up like gladiators and presiding over the fights from a big throne surrounded by beautiful women. The audience loves him too; whenever he waves at them they go nuts. He's played by Ralf Moeller, who you might remember from the terrible Conan TV series (but probably don't) or his many appearances in Uwe Boll films. He gets a more substantial role than usual here.

Since Travis beats the first round of the tournament easily, he acts like a conceited asshole and demands to fight Brakus in the next round. Brakus agrees, and Travis sneaks Walter into the Coliseum so he can watch the big fight, slipping some cash to one of the stagehands so he sit up in the scaffolding. Of course Brakus whips Travis's ass and, at the crowd's command, snaps Travis' neck. When Walter sees this he runs out into the street, the stagehand somehow not anticipating that Walter might freak out upon witnessing his friend's execution, and, after narrowly avoiding by a creepy pervert, manages to run home and recount the story to his father.

Tommy and Alex confront Brakus's manager/ring announcer (Wayne Newton), who denies the whole thing, so they fight their way inside and speak to Brakus directly. When Alex gets up in Brakus's face and asks if he killed Travis you expect him to deny it too, but instead he sneers "Easily" and starts beating the shit out of them. Tommy and Alex manage to escape the club, mildly injuring Brakus in the process, and the next day Travis's body shows up in a car wreck in the lake. The police write off Travis's death as an accident and Brakus sends his men out to murder Alex and Walter. Since Tommy gave Brakus a minor cut on his cheek, he orders that they bring Tommy back alive, so he can be put to death in the ring of combat.

After a run-in with Brakus's men, Alex and Tommy decide to hide out with some of Tommy's family way out in the country, and it's here that we get the bizarre revelation that Tommy Lee was raised by Native Americans. I don't get this part, since the first film had multiple flashbacks to his brother's fatal match with the villain Dae Han, and there it was clearly shown that he had Korean parents. I don't know, maybe they died from grief.

Tommy is also reunited with his brother James, played by Sonny Landham. It seems when they were young James fell in with a bad crowd and disappeared, returning many years later a thieving, violent drunk. Way to reinforce cultural stereotypes there, movie. James drunkenly challenges Tommy to a fight, repeatedly getting his ass kicked until he's spitting up blood and teeth and vomiting on himself. It's all rather pathetic and disgusting, but Tommy, Alex and even grandpa have a good old chuckle about it. It turns out that the car accident that ruined James' life was actually a death match with Brakus. This makes him one of only three people qualified to help them defeat Brakus, and since James never explains who the other two people are it looks like he is the one who is going to have to train them.

It's pretty weird that the only way they can think to resolve the situation is to engage in a brutal training regimen (plus the obligatory native American vision quest) so they can defeat Brakus in hand-to-hand combat. It never even occurs to them to go to the police or find a gun. I understand warrior's honour and all that, but since Brakus is sending waves of armed assassins after your 10 year old son, I think you get a pass. Besides, if they had gone to the police instead of spending weeks performing in grueling training montages, Brakus's men wouldn't have found them, Tommy wouldn't have been kidnapped and Tommy's grandma's place wouldn't have been incinerated in a huge, fiery explosion.

You'll probably remember the somewhat unconventional ending of Best of the Best, where the villain Dae Han (played by Rhee's actual brother) apologises for killing Tommy's brother and offers himself as a replacement sibling. Well here he makes good on that promise of brotherhood, helping Alex fight his way into the Coliseum so he can rescue Tommy. Like in the first film, Eric Roberts is totally unconvincing in a fight when stacked up next to his Korean counterparts, and it's only when Phillip Rhee steps up that the fight choreography gets interesting. The highlight is during the last part of the film where Brakus forces Tommy to face a string of opponents in the ring, each with a different theme and fighting style, before finally facing off against Brakus himself.

Unfortunately this film does not end with Brakus breaking down and apologising for killing Travis, offering himself as a replacement BFF. It's a shame; it would have been cool to see Brakus wearing a cowboy hat and listening to country music on a boom box. Instead Tommy kills Brakus in one of those bits where the bad guy feigns death so he can attack the good guy when his back is turned. Thus Tommy takes him out with a Bruce Lee style neck stomp and still maintains his honour. As part of the house rules Tommy is offered The Coliseum as a prize, but he turns it down. Who wants to run one of those underground death arenas anyway? So much stress. Plus I don't think Tommy would look as good in a shiny cape.

Apart from the unusual ending, the first film stuck to a predictable sports movie formula. This one sticks to a predictable action movie formula, so it's a lot more ridiculous but also more entertaining. A lot of this comes down to Brakus, who is a surprisingly memorable bad guy. I liked the idea of this fierce warrior with an anachronistic code of honour being the one in charge, and Wayne Newton's character being the level-headed henchman keeping his shit under control. A lesser film would have made Brakus second fiddle to some asshole in a suit, but this film knows that when it comes down to a guy in a cape versus a guy in a suit, the cape is always going to win.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Piranha (2010)


I thought this film was actually called Pirahna 3D, sticking to the formula of the third entry in a horror series being in 3D, but apparently it's just called Piranha and it's a sort-of-remake of Joe Dante's 1978 original. Like that film it's about (spoiler) killer piranha being let loose on a popular tourist destination, but thankfully they've ditched the played-out military experiment angle for the simpler if less plausible explanation that an earthquake has split open a subterranean cavern, releasing thousands of prehistoric piranha that have survived there for millions of years by cannibalising each other, even though ecosystems do not work that way. You know, that old chestnut.

The main character is this nerd Jake, played by Steven R. McQueen. I was going to make a joke about him being no Steve McQueen, but it turns out it's actually his grandson. He is a resident of of a town in Arizona called Lake Victoria, a tourist destination popular with college kids. Every year he wants to take part in the Spring Break debauchery but his mother (a surprisingly hot Elizabeth Shue) is the sheriff, so he always has to stay home and babysit his little brother and sister. This year, however, the sleazy producer of a Girls-Gone-Wild-esque video series (Jerry O'Connell) offers him a job as a location scout, so he sneaks away for some fun on O'Connell's party boat, along with two porn stars (one a real-life porn star, the other Kelly Brook) and his would-be girlfriend Kelly (Jessica Szohr, who, like all teen actors these days, is from Gossip Girls).

There's nothing really new or interesting here and no real twists in the plot. Jake is your standard audience-identification character, as he wears a t-shirt from a hip band (Pixies) that everybody in the film hates for some reason, and he is in love with a girl who is dating some jock-asshole. You know he is going to save the day and win her love and he does. Surprisingly there isn't an evil capitalist who wants to keep the lake open, it's more a case of the drunken Spring Breakers not listening to the sheriff. There are also a couple of little-kids-in-peril, which are usually tension-killers but since I know Aja has the stones to kill them off they weren't too bad. These are not rich or compelling characters by any means, but I'm not going to make any jokes about the movie being in 3D but the characters being 1D. It's played out. Sorry.

There's also a whole bunch of minor characters. Adam Scott is a badass ocean seismologist, who gets to ride around on a jetski blowing piranhas away with a shotgun. Ving Rhames phones it in as the Deputy Sheriff, but dies a heroes death, chopping up dozens of piranhas with an outboard motor. Christopher Lloyd has a minor role as the eccentric scientist who tells them all about the creatures when they bring one in for analysis. Actually I think he's supposed to be a pet store owner, but he just so happens to have prehistoric piranha fossils in his back room, so fuck it, he's a scientist.

The film also opens with a cameo from Richard Dreyfuss, and just in case you didn't know it was a reference to Jaws he sings Show Me the Way to Go Home. If I recall the original film had quite a few Jaws references as well, so I thought that was pretty cool. In another nod to Jaws, there's a scene where the sheriff gets a call from her son, and when she realises in horror that he's out on the lake rather than at home with the kids they imitate that dolly-zoom effect from the shark attack scene (or more accurately Vertigo). Although the son doesn't say where he is, she immediately hops into a boat and sails out to their location. Plot holes like this abound, such as the mystery surrounding O'Connells assistant, played by Paul Sheer, who just disappears from the film with no explanation.

With the plot holes and forgettable characters, this film is a lot like a SciFi Originals monster movie, the main difference being that this one actually delivers the goods. Once the piranhas crash the Spring Break festivities, the movie turns into an all-out gorefest, where pretty much every money shot you can imagine from a film like this is realised in graphic detail. You know that gag where someone is pulled out of the water only to reveal that the bottom half of their torso has been chewed off? That happens about five times, and once with a topless parasailer with massive jugs. Some of the deaths, such as where a girl gets her hair caught in a boat propeller, cross that fine line between squirm-inducing-fun-time-at-the-movies and Jesus-this-is-pretty-fucked-up. Plus most of it is realised through top-quality practical effects.

Speaking of latex and silicone enhancements, this movie also delivers a lot of naked flesh. It's weird, because the modern age of high-speed internet porn have given titty movies have a quaint charm, like homemade butter or casual racism, but this movie has a pathological obsession with boobs and asses that makes Russ Meyer look like a puritan. Even Jake's 10-year-old sister is obsessed with titties. The movie doesn't go five minutes without cutting back to Spring Break (WOOOO!!) where some girl is shoving a big pair of 3D boobs in your face. There's even a wet t-shirt contest hosted by Eli Roth (playing himself presumably), which seems a little redundant when there are so many topless girls on display.

I especially liked this leery, over-the-top approach to nudity as it often dipped into hilarious self-parody. One amazing scene has two naked girls frolicking underwater in slow motion, while classical music plays in the background. It's straight out of a trashy 70s Euro-horror film like Tombs of the Blind Dead, so of course I loved it. Jerry O'Connell's character plays into this atmosphere perfectly. It's weird to think that the fat kid from Stand By Me would end up playing such a date-rapey asshole, snorting rails of coke with porn stars and pressuring underage girls into performing belly-button tequila shots. By the end of the film, you feel he almost, almost deserves his grisly fate.

With the current wave of 3D movies, everyone (well, maybe just James Cameron) seems intent on turning 3D (and the associated increase in ticket prices) into a subtle, seamless part of the moviegoing experience. After seeing Piranha 3D though, I wonder if maybe it works better as a gimmicky sideshow attraction. I thought Friday the 13th Part 3 hit the high watermark when Jason Voorhees squeezed a guy's head so hard his eyeball flew into the camera, but Piranha finds even better ways to crassly exploit the third dimension. I was ready to give Aja the crown when an actress vomits into the camera (wow, it's like a drunk girl is really throwing up on my face!) only for him to outdo himself when a cartoon piranhas fight over and then barf up a half-eaten penis. Well played, Aja, you are the king of 3D vomiting.

Admittedly I don't see movies in 3D that often, so I try and stay out of the 3D Holy Wars about whether a movie is "true" 3D or not. Apparently this is one of the fake ones. The CG was rendered for 3D, but the live-action stuff is fake since Aja wanted to shoot on film and those special 3D digital cameras don't work underwater. It's clear that the film was made with 3D in mind though, so even though it went through the dreaded post-conversion process like Clash of the Titans or The Last Airbender, it doesn't look blurry or muddy. If you don't want to pay the extra few bucks I think this movie would still be very enjoyable in 2 dimensions, although I wouldn't recommend going any fewer dimensions than that.

(On a side note, when I saw this film they showed a bunch of pre-trailer advertisements, then they put up a title card telling you to put on the glasses and showed the exact same advertisements, only in 3D. What the hell is that shit?)

This one was directed by Alexandre Aja, and although he hasn't turned into the Master of Horror we were all expecting after Haute Tension, I've found a lot to enjoy about all his films, even the goofiest ones. This one is probably his dumbest to date, but it's also his most enjoyable as it delivers exactly what you want when you go to see a dumb, fun horror movie about killer piranhas in a compact 88 minutes. They are fairly blatant about setting up a sequel, so hopefully it will borrow the flying piranhas from James Cameron's Piranha 2, finding all new ways to debase and abuse the 3D technology that Cameron himself pioneered.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Best of the Best (1989)

Sally Kirkland assures Eric Roberts that "There is no pain."
Easy for you to say, lady.


I got this film (and it's sequel) in one of those cheap boxed sets of martial arts flicks, but it stands out amongst the others in that it's more like a real movie, with a cast of recognisable actors and a script that's more about human drama rather than kicking people in the face. It's actually more of an inspirational sports movie about that just so happens to be about martial arts, rather than a straight action film. It's like Karate Kid for grown-ups, or at least Karate Kid starring grown-ups.

The main character is Alex Grady (Eric Roberts), a auto-factory worker and single dad. He is thrilled when he is offered the chance to tryout for the U.S. National Karate team and fight in an exhibition match in Korea (they are clearly practicioners of Tae Kwon Do, but the movies uses the two terms interchangeably), even though he has a busted shoulder from a previous competition. Making the team will also mean being separated from his son for three months, so in return he makes the somewhat brash promise that he will win the competition.

During the tryouts we are introduced to the rest of the team. There's a Korean dude named Tommy Lee (Phillip Rhee). There's a Buddhist new-age hippy type named Virgil (John Dye). There's Travis (Chris Penn), a racist asshole who wears a cowboy hat and carries around a boom box blasting country music. Lastly there's Sonny (David Agresta) who... is Italian. When Sonny meets Virgil he makes a comment about a competitor that "His momma probably didn't breastfeed him right" and Virgil responds "Uh, breastfeeding is actually very high in iron, I was very fond of it as a child." Kind of weird. I don't know, maybe he was one of those kids who was breastfed until he was six. Would explain a lot, actually.

There's also one of those tough-as-nails coach types, Couzo, played by James Earl Jones. He's a pretty great choice for the role since he spends most of the movie yelling at people in his booming baritone. After the team makes selection he gives them one of those "for the next three months your ass is mine" type speeches where he insists that they will "eat, sleep and shit competition", although if you're eating and shitting competition it would suggest that you're not properly digesting the competition. Try some enzyme supplements or probiotic yoghurt.

The rest of the movie follows the standard sports movie template. There is some tension between team members at first but eventually they learn to work together etc. Couzo believes in establishing comraderie through adversity, for instance his first team-building exercise is to take them to a bar and watch them wreck shop in a bar fight. Travis's unrepentant racism never seems to be as much of a problem to Couzo as it probably should be. At one point he makes racist comments to Tommy (small penis jokes, owning a laundry etc) and everybody laughs, even Couzo. You're training for a Tae Kwon Do competition, asshole, you don't get to be racist. By the end of the movie it seems like Travis has worked through his issues, but I guess that must have happened off screen.

Although Alex Grady is ostensibly the hero of the movie, Tommy Lee is probably the most interesting character. It's revealed that when he was a boy his brother was killed during a match with the Korean champion Dae Han. Consequently Tommy is scared of hurting his opponents and pulls his punches (and kicks). When the coach finally convinces him to let loose he breaks the pressure-sensing pad and knocks Virgil unconscious. Tommy is so guilt-stricken that he gets on his motorcycle and rides off, but is driven back to the team through the power of the 80s rock montage. In fact, lovers of the 80s rock montage will find a lot to like about this film, as it doesn't go five minutes without a training montage of some description.

Couzo has an assistant named Don (Tom Everett) who compiles statistics and handles the technical stuff, but he is also forced to take on an expert in Eastern philosophy to help with the spiritual side of their training. Her name is Catherine Wade and she's played by... uh... Sally Kirkland. Couzo isn't happy and I'm with him on this one. She's acts like a new-age flake and doesn't do anything except teach yoga, meditation and recite cheesy fortune-cookie sayings. They don't even have one of those flashbacks where one of the guys remembers her words of wisdom and it inspires them to victory. They could have easily cut her from the movie without losing anything.

She also wimps up the place by whining that Couzo's being too harsh on his team. On some level she's got a point; just before the big match Alex's son gets hit by a car and put into a coma, and when Alex insists that he go to visit his son Couzo kicks him off the team. He lets him back in obviously, and even flies his son out to Seoul to watch the big match, but I don't know what kind of strings he had to pull to the fly the kid out just a day or two after he woke up from a coma. Turns out that Couzo was the coach of the U.S. team when Tommy's brother was killed by Dae Han, and he blames himself for not pushing them hard enough and teaching them to ignore irrelevant distractions like their loved ones being in comas etc.

The Korean team are presented as single-minded martial-arts robots. They train 24/365 and never speak except to bark orders in unsubtitled Korean. Dae Han even wears an eyepatch. However, the more I think about it the more I feel that the American team are actually the bad guys of the movie. The U.S. team are these cocky outsiders with no respect for Eastern tradition or culture, and at least one of them is an unrepentant racist. During the interleaved training montages we see that the Americans use state-of-the-art gym equipment and high-tech pressure pads, like Ivan Drago, while the Korean team train by meditating under freezing waterfalls and jogging through the snow. In fact, during the final match the American team wear black while the Korean team wear white. I'm with Team Korea.

The final battle is shot well, but the American actors look pretty unconvincing next to the real-life Korean Tae Kwon Do experts. I had to laugh when John Dye is throwing these molasses-slow kicks and the referee is shouting that he is "capitalising on his speed". Nice try, mate. During Alex's match his opponent gives him a brutal axe kick that dislocates his gimpy shoulder, so Tommy begs his teammates to "Pop it!" and he manages to defeat him with only one arm. Very Karate-Kid-esque, he even goes into a wobbly-ass crane stance at the beginning of each round. He'll probably lose his job at the auto-factory but at least he kicked a Korean dude in the face.

By the end of the film I really thought I had a handle on where this film was going (it isn't called Second Best of the Best after all) but damned if it didn't throw me for a loop. The match comes down to a final battle between Tommy and Dae Han, with the Koreans slightly in front. Dae Han is barely standing after Tommy has kicked the crap out of him, and the rest of the team recognise that a final blow from Tommy will kill him. The team convince Tommy to hold back, running down the clock and losing the match to the Koreans. During the medal ceremony Dae Han not only thanks Tommy for holding back and apologises for killing his brother, but offers himself as a replacement brother. I don't think I've ever seen that happen in a movie before. I think they push the sentimentality a little bit too far when the Korean team hand over their well-earned medals to the Americans, but I appreciate that they went more Rocky than Rocky II-IV.

Best of the Best was produced and co-written by the guy who played Tommy, Phillip Rhee, and Dae Han was played by his real-life brother Simon. Apparently he started producing his own films after he recognised the lack of opportunities for Asian-Americans in the film industry, so it's kind of sad that such a thoroughly whitewashed film is his biggest success. Still, as far as this kind of stuff goes it's pretty good.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Island Claws (1980)

Who brought the lemon butter?

I have a weird amount of affection for the Night of the Crabs series of books by Guy N. Smith. They are trashy and not particularly well written, but they are full of sex and violence and giant crabs and sometimes that's enough. It's prime source material for an entertaining monster movie, but the only film adaptation of the series that I have heard of is this one, the 1980 made-for-TV movie Island Claws. Apparently it's based on Night of the Crabs, but really it has nothing to do with the book aside from the idea of giant mutant crab(s). Selling the movie rights did help pay for Smith's house, so it least something good came out of it.

The movie takes place on a small, idyllic fishing community somewhere on the Florida coast. It must be a pretty slow news week, because a news reporter named Jan Raines (Jo McDonnell) is sent out to interview a team of marine biologists investigating the effect of increasing water temperature on crab growth. Conclusion: Delicious! For the next phase of the experiment they are going to examine the effect of topical application of melted butter. They also discover that higher ambient water temperature can cause vast increases in size and growth rate, and wouldn't you know it, the local nuclear power plant has just dumped a whole lot of super-heated, radioactive water into the bay. Don't worry though, the owner of the plant says that everything is fine and there's nothing to worry about. Phew!

One of the marine biologists is the blonde, square-jawed Pete Adams. He takes a shine to the sexy young reporter, as he reveals on a visit to his surrogate father Moody, the very Irish owner of the local watering hole The Half Shell. Moody is played by Robert Lansing, who had already established his monster movie bonafides in Empire of the Ants a couple of years earlier. Moody raised Pete Adams from childhood after his parents were killed in a drunk-driving accident. The drunk driver in question was the nuclear plant owner Frank Raines and Moody still holds a grudge, so he's not too happy when Pete reveals that he's sweet on Jan Raines, his daughter.

With all this gripping human drama, you might have forgotten that this movie is supposed to be about killer crabs. Clearly this film lacks the kind of budget to show giant crabs rampaging through the town, so for most of the film they have to make do with implied violence and lots of regular sized crabs. The problem with this is that regular-sized crabs aren't particularly dangerous or scary, so to ensure a fatality the victims generally have to act like complete morons. Take, for instance, the first victim, a creepy Deliverance-esque banjo player who presides over the nightly hoe-downs at The Half Shell. He lives in an abandoned school bus, and during the night he is faced with dozens of tiny crabs pouring in the windows and doors. Rather than simply step over the crabs and exit the bus he freaks the fuck out, spilling some kerosene lamps and causing the whole bus to go up in flames.

Similarly for one of the scientists, Lynn, who flips out for no good reason when walking through the forest. While she's running from nothing in particular (although the lighting is so poor it's almost incomprehensible), she trips and lands face first in a pile of innocent crabs. You'd think she'd be used to crabs, being a marine biologist and all, but instead she screams her head off and runs into the claws of a giant crab that is lurking just off screen. Pete and Jan find her and take her to the hospital, where the doctor explains that she might just lose her arm.

Because this movie doesn't have enough subplots already, there's also a part about the tension between local fisherman and some Haitian immigrants that have set up camp in the forrest. The local fishermen blame them for Lynn's injury and put together an angry mob, although it doesn't really make sense that the Haitians would hack up a local's arm for no reason (the fishermen mention voodoo, as if that explains everything). Still, I've got to admit that it's a little suspicious that the Haitians have never been attacked by the crabs even though they've been sleeping outside every night. Maybe the crabs are racists too.

The best death scene in the film by far is that of Moody's dog Trouble, truly worthy of Shakespeare. He totters pathetically onto the beach, smeared with fake blood after an off-screen run-in with the crabs, before collapsing into a heap at Moody's feet. Moody tries to get Trouble to the vet, but he dramatically expires on the passenger seat of his car. Bravo! Clearly everyone else in the film agrees, because the rest of the cast show more energy and emotion over Trouble's death than they do towards any of the other victims in the film. I don't think anyone even mentions the death of the poor banjo geek.

Sadly they could only afford one giant crab, and it only appears in a couple of scenes. Firstly there's a part where it smashes a house trying to get to Pete and Jan, but we only see it's claw. In the last ten minutes of the film you see the crab in it's entirety, and it's a pretty impressive creation. If this film were made these days it would be terrible CG, but here it's a giant animatronic puppet about 20 feet across. It looks pretty menacing but unfortunately it has limited articulation and is clearly stationary. Only a couple of people die during this scene, and only because they were dumb enough to stand motionless within reach of it's claws.

A giant model like this is clearly made to be blown up in a fiery explosion. You can ram it with a truck full of gasoline, cram an LPG tank in it's mouth, or you can go the Jaws: The Revenge route and have it explode for no reason at all. Not here though, as Pete just hacks off it's eye stalk with a metal spike and it keels over dead. Maybe they wanted to keep the model for a sequel, or maybe it had to be returned to roof of Joe's Seafood Shack. Either way it's a pretty disappointing ending.

Of all the criticisms you can lay at Night of the Crabs, and there are a lot, you can't say that it's boring. This movie, however, is. It's boooooring. With five O's. It takes forever for the crabs to show up, and the plot wanders around almost as much as Lansing's Irish brogue. The script reads like they decided to put in all the traditional monster movie subplots (the love interest, the evil capitalist) but then lost interest and failed to follow up on any of them. Unlike Smith's books, the movie doesn't even have an environmental message. Frank Raines never receives his comeuppance, and in fact he only appears in a single scene at the beginning of the film. Sadly it looks like the world is still waiting for an acceptable Night of the Crabs adaptation, although in this film's defense I will say that the clickety-clicking noise of the crabs was just about perfect.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Guy N Smith Book Review - Satan's Snowdrop

Satan's Snowdrop is another entry in the rich tradition of flower-themed horror, which includes The Devil's Daisy, Beelzebub's Buttercup and other titles I just made up. I'm not sure what Smith had in mind when he named this book after the humble galanthus nivalis, but to be fair the main source of the horror is not really a killer flower but instead La Massion des Fleurs, a mysterious mansion in the Swiss Alps that was home to a Nazi torturer who died under mysterious and violent circumstances.

Obviously the locals give the mansion a wide berth, but an American family, Al and Veronica Pennant and their weiner son Tod, express some interest in buying the mansion and shipping it back to America, piece by piece. This part is pretty funny, because during their inspection the real estate agent realises that he just plain forgot to clean up the bloodstains and remove the blood-encrusted torture implements from the wall of the living room. You know how it is; you've got the freshly roasted coffee brewing on the stove, the pamphlets laid out on the table, but you forget to clean up the torture dungeon. It's always the little things.

Al decides to buy the property anyway, but soon strange things begin to happen. There's a horrible smell of putrefaction and horrific visions appear to them in the night, and although such incidents could easily be ascribed to some bad Chinese food, things eventually get worse. One of their party guests dies from a heart attack after a ghostly visitation and one of the renovation workers gets spooked by a ghost and falls off a ladder, breaking his back. Al comes to the Scooby-Doo-esque conclusion that a local is trying to scare them off the property by dressing up like a ghost, and the mansion is shipped back to America with only a prematurely ejaculating cabin boy (don't ask) among the casualties.

Naturally the hauntings continue after the mansion is reconstructed in Long Island. This culminates in their son Tod, and I'm not making this up, being chased through the house by a killer space hopper. Eventually he gets trapped between some undead zombies and the demonic rubber balloon, opting to leap down a third-floor stairwell to his death. I don't know, I would have taken my chances with the space hopper. After this incident Al and Veronica decide to sell the mansion to a family in the UK, the Parlanes, so La Massion des Fleurs gets shipped back to Europe.

Once the house is nestled in the heart of Warwickshire the hauntings continue. The Parlanes' pet Alsation and the local exorcist both die mysteriously, while their son Rusty has frequent visitations from the ghost of Tod Pennant, who warns them of the horrors of the mansion (presumably he leaves out the part where he was killed by a space hopper). The Parlanes put the house up for sale and move out, but no dice; Rusty is still beset by ghostly visions and finds himself blacking out and sleepwalking over to the mansion. Maybe they should have moved a little further away than a few houses down the street.

So far I haven't mentioned the titular flower which, as it turns out, is source of all the ghostly horror. The snowdrop was once at the focal point of a druidic ceremony, absorbing the soul of a human sacrifice. You may wonder why the ghosts are still in the house at all, but in fact they make a point to mention that the flowers from the garden bed have been shipped around the world with the house. This is stupid. Apparently the only way to appease the souls of the damned is to send the snowdrop back to it's original resting place at the peak of Reichenbach falls. Burning down the house? That won't do it. Stepping on the flower? Nope. Why? I don't know, but Tod's ghost says so and that's good enough for the Parlanes. They hop on a plane to Switzerland and do as he asks, but it's only after Mr Parlane is killed by the undead spirits that Ghost Tod reveals that they have to toss the bulb over the falls rather than plant it in the soil. Nice of you to bring this up now that he's dead, asshole. Anyway, they do it. Hauntings over.

The fact that the protagonists in a haunted house story never just pack up and leave is such an entrenched cliche that it's become a cliche to point it out, so it's clever for Smith to split the hauntings between two separate families. True the two families are fairly interchangeable, but the Pennants are slightly more interesting thanks to the tasteful, nuanced portrayal of Americans that we've come to expect from Smith i.e. Al Pennant is an arrogant asshole and Tod eats a hamburger at one point. If you can get past some cardboard characters (and if you've read much Guy N. Smith then you probably can) there's some nice tension and atmosphere and great torture scenes. Quality Smith.