Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Saturday Night Fever

Who doesn’t love themselves some disco?  I know I do.  Ok, please put that noose away and just hear me out.  Disco is nothing but good time music that captivated the public and pop artists for years.  Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall is straight up disco and a bunch of songs off of Thriller are also disco but with less strings and more synth.  Even Paul McCartney gave it a shot with “Goodnight Tonight”.  There are other records that people like to think of as pop but disco is a subgenre of pop.  All I’m sayin’ is there’s more to this music than “Disco Inferno”, “I Will Survive” and “Le Freak”.  Damn good pop and dance tunes have come out of this universally despised craze.  Now that I’ve said my piece let’s check out Saturday Night Fever.  It’s most likely the first thing that comes to mind when someone says the word “disco”.  But this film is about so much more.  There’s a bunch of surprisingly dark shit that happens.

Racial slurs, gang banging and attempted rape aren’t the things I expected to be put in front of my eyes when I popped this in.  I thought it was going to be nothing but John Travolta dancing in a club and trying to get with the love interest.  That does happen but everything else is a pretty unadulterated glimpse into the life of a young Brooklyn kid/thug.

Travolta is Tony Manero, by day he works at a hardware store but by night he’s the dancing king of…at least this one particular club (2001 Odyssey) and maybe all of Brooklyn but it’s not clear.  All the women at 2001 want to dance with him, wipe his brow and just be in his company.  One night Tony sees this chick out on the floor (Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney (umm this is pretty much her only claim to fame))) that impresses him and decides to partner up with her for a dance competition. 

The love story part is very strange and I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it before.  Usually when the two leads fall for each other either there’s instant chemistry or it takes the whole picture for them to realize they’re in love.  In the end they’re the perfect fit.  With this movie Tony falls for Stephanie but Stephanie isn’t this ideal creature that you expect.  She’s got a nasally (and in my opinion annoying) voice, rambles on about meeting famous people at her workplace (we never find out if she’s making it up for not), dumps on Brooklyn and praises Manhattan and the real kicker is she’s not that interested in Tony.  Over the course of the film Stephanie gains a new friend in Tony, not a lover.  They share a special bond because of their mutual passion for dancing but that relationship doesn’t blossom into a love affair.  Tony would like that to happen but Stephanie doesn’t relent.  This is such a refreshing and unformulaic take on film romance.  It’s cool to see a movie take a risk and for that risk to actually work and not blow up in the picture’s face.

This thing is full of surprises like that and this brings me to Tony’s band of friends.  They’re rowdy and crude.  They’re racist, treat women like shit and do some really fucking dumb things like walk along the edge of and hang from the cables of the Verrazano bridge.  I like that the filmmakers didn’t water down the culture of these Brooklyn kids.  If they go beat up the guys that jumped one of their own then it’s just who they are.  There’s even a part where one of Tony’ friends is having sex in the backseat of a car right outside 2001 Odyssey while the rest of the gang tells him to hurry up.  But he says the chick hasn’t cum yet so they gotta keep going.

There’s this one girl, Annette (Donna Pescow (lots of TV shit)) that I have to mention that’s in love with Tony but Tony’s not in love with her (get it?  Sort of like the reverse situation that Tony has with Stephanie).  She gets treated pretty horribly throughout the movie with Tony dumping her as a dancing partner for Stephanie, she’s constantly rejected by Tony to go out, she has a cruel practical joke played on her when Tony and his buds pretend to jump off the Verrazano (she gets called a “stupid bitch” for falling for that by the way) and she gets gang banged by the friends.  Annette is obsessed with Tony and sure that’s a little creepy but she doesn’t seem like a bad person.  I feel sorry for her because of how much she gets dumped on in this movie.  It’s really tragic.

And what about the dancing?  It’s pretty cool.  Travolta worked really hard to not only get in shape but to also learn all the moves.  It paid off ‘cause he looks smooth as a motherfucker out there.  The scene where he dances by himself is particularly impressive and I can see why it’s the one part of the movie that everyone knows (well that and the intro where Travolta walks down the street to “Stayin’ Alive”).

The highlight (besides the dancing) is Travolta himself.  He plays a convincing tough and vain Brooklynite.  Confidence just oozes out of the guy and that makes him fun to watch.  I never once thought, “hey that’s John Travolta”.  He does a good job drawing you in to the aura that’s supposed to be there.  I guess I forget that he’s a good actor.  You couldn’t just have any old schmo that can dance as the lead.  You need a charismatic sonuvabitch to pull off a role like this and having Travolta in there with his weirdness on full display works great.   

The juxtaposition (did I really just use that word?) of the simplistic ecstasy of night time disco dancing against the complexity of the rest of Tony’s life makes for an interesting picture.  In the club he reigns supreme but outside of that his life isn’t really going anywhere.  Tony’s supposed to be one helluva stud but he can’t get the girl that he really wants.  He can only have her on the dance floor.  Tony even tries to rape Stephanie because his emotions for her boil over.  And it’s unclear if Tony has changed at the end of the film.  He says he has and that he wants to move forward with his life, a life outside of dancing.  But Stephanie quickly explains to him that it’s not easy.  At one point Tony wonders if he’ll ever be as passionate about something else as he is about dancing.  I think Tony learns that he needs to find whatever that something else is or learn to cope with a non dance centric life because if he doesn’t then he’ll throw himself off the Verrazano.

I really dug this movie.  It was way more interesting and deeper than I thought it would be.  I love the vulgar nature of the characters set against an activity and music that’s supposed to make you feel good bring happiness even if it’s for a couple of hours.  For example when Tony is dancing with Fran Drescher (in her film debut) he says “if you’re as good in bed as you are on the dance floor I bet you’re one lousy fuck”.  It’s that kinda shit that gives this film unexpected balls.  I say give it a shot.  Don’t let preconceived notions get in the way.     

Thursday, August 9, 2012


So I guess Neil Marshall had a positive experience with Doomsday because he decided to do another big-ish picture.  He also must’ve particularly enjoyed shooting the medieval portion and gave him the yearnin’ to do an all out period piece.

This one takes place in Roman times and is about the legendary Ninth Legion.  In our real world history the group disappeared in Scotland and no one knows exactly what happened to them.  In Marshall’s history these guys were sent in to destroy the Picts but were massacred by them instead (also a popular theory of their demise).  With only a few survivors remaining, including Michael Fassbender (Prometheus, A Dangerous Method, Blood Creek) as the de facto leader, they first try to rescue their general (Dominic West (The Wire, Punisher: War Zone)) who’s been taken hostage and then try to cross back into Roman territory.

Fassbender and West are really good in this.  I get why Fassbender receives a lot of praise for whatever he’s in.  He seems devoted to the character and wants you to be into it too.  He cares for the ragtag group of men that’s been left to him and even after a horrible slaughter of the legion Fassbender still has his sense of duty.  The other dudes with him go along without question because this guy is confident and can’t stand the thought of leaving anyone behind.  These are all good traits for a hero to have but difficult to pull off well because you need to sense the drive and believe that our protagonist is doing this because it’s the right thing and not because this is a movie so they need something to do.  Good work Fassbender, I’ll keep a better eye on you in the future.

West is fucking fantastic as the jolly but tough as nail general.  Man do I love this character.  The way we’re introduced to him perfectly sums up the guy.  In a tavern he’s just beat someone at arm wrestling but the loser wants a rematch.  The general refuses at first saying that they should give it a rest and just drink together but the opponent is pissed and wants to go again.  The persistence pays off and the general agrees to one more match.  West wins pretty easily but after he pins his challenger’s arm he stabs it with a knife and slams his head on the table.  He then calls him a sore loser which prompts a bar fight to ensue.  So the gist is this guy could be your best friend or your worst enemy.  Fight fair and square and he’ll give you respect but be a whiner and he’ll cut a hole in your arm and beat the shit outta you.  Also, having this scene take place in a bar with the general among his men drinking and carrying on tells us that he respects and loves his troops.  He sees himself as one of them, not above them.  Now even though West does great he also hams it up quite a bit.  He yells practically every line, has a pretty smug look on his face a lot of the time and is just overall very belligerent.  It’s a little over the top and I love it.

On to the production, Marshall did a good job shooting this one.  Apparently it was all done on location and there were no green screens used.  The wide shots of people marching across mountainous and heavily forested landscapes look very pretty and the battle scenes are goddamn gritty.  Marshall balances these things nicely.  He also made his most violent and bloody movie to date.  So many people get their throat slit or their head cut off.  It’s fucking brutal.  It seemed like there was a bunch of CGI blood being thrown around because it just looked too beautiful and perfect a lot of the time and there was also a ton of it being strewn about but it’s difficult to tell.  The fight scenes are all done well too except the end of the last one which gets kinda messy and confusing.  In fact the whole last ten minutes get that way.  Marshall has a problem of late with endings ‘cause Doomsday and now this don’t seem to add up.

What’s sort of interesting about this movie is that the Romans are the good guys.  Or you find yourself rooting for them anyway.  And that’s sort of a weird notion if you can pull yourself back from the entrenched story that the film presents.  The game plan was that the Romans were supposed to march into Scotland and decimate the Picts but the Picts ended up completely destroying the Romans.  So we feel for the Romans because they were massacred and also because we’re set up to hate the Picts through various scenes.  But it’s the Romans that want to conquer everybody and not the other way around.  The Picts are only protecting their turf.  I mean fuck, they’re just looking out for their well being and their families.  And this handful of Roman survivors goes on to invade a Pict village and kill some of them anyway including a little kid.  This whole idea of making the bad guys the good guys is even more apparent in Valkyrie.  In that picture we side with this faction of Nazis that want to overthrow Hitler but I mean they’re still Nazis, right?  They still went along with shit and did these horrible things but we’re supposed to be on board with them because they’re more reasonable than the alternative that we’re presented with.  It’s sort of the same thing in Centurion.  We like Fassbender and West so anyone that does something bad to them must be the antagonist.  We’re set up with the Romans by showing that they’re more civil and have an ordered society that resembles our own while the Picts are barbarians that live by superstition and archaic rules.  I’m not talking about historical accuracy here but more how a film can play with your feelings.  It’s interesting that a bloodthirsty Roman general or even a rebellious Nazi can be a hero all in the proper context.

This is the third film Marshall has set in Scotland out of his four (Dog Soldiers and Doomsday are the other two).  All of his movies have the same broad concept of a small group of people behind enemy lines that go up against a formidable force.  Two have been horror and two have been action.  I like what he’s doing with trying to use real shit and not CGI.  And I also like how his characters have a real good outline to them but the problem is they aren’t given a lot of depth or back story.  His filmmaking skills have definitely improved over the years but his storytelling skills seem to be deteriorating a bit (like his inability to craft a coherent ending anymore).  It’s nice that he takes his time with his movies as there is generally a three year gap between productions.  I think he cares.  He actually wants to make a good film that also has well executed action and blood.  I’m not going to get into a whole thing about this but did anyone else notice that The Dark Knight Rises had no blood in it?  For such a big action adventure type picture the violence was kept strictly in check.  That gives it a cold and ball-less feel.  It’s good to know there’s a guy like Neil Marshall out there that still wants to make movies that are at least somewhat reminiscent of 80’s and 90’s action and when he’s not doing that he’s making some of the best horror films in cinema in my opinion.      

So anyway, as far as this one goes I liked it.  It’s probably my least favorite Marshall film of the first four but not by much.  Another not bad, not great picture to add to the pile.  If you’re into Roman era movies you’ll dig it.  If you’re into action you’ll probably dig it too. 

You know, since the disappearance of the Ninth Legion is a mystery this could be exactly what happened to them.  I mean it looks like this part of history is up for grabs and so far this is the version I like best (albeit the only version I’ve seen on the subject).        

Tuesday, August 7, 2012


Up until now Neil Marshall had done relatively small movies.  The cast was small, the story was small, but the production felt bigger than it was in reality.  With the success of The Descent Marshall decided to go all out and make a giant film.

I knew absolutely nothing about this when I saw it in theaters and was pleasantly surprised.  Marshall took Escape from New York, The Road Warrior, Aliens, Gladiator, The Warriors and who knows what other pictures and put them in a blender.  That sounds like a disaster but it works better than you would think.  The story is about a virus that kills people almost instantly.  It broke out in Scotland so they quarantined the whole country.  No one gets in or out.  Thirty years later the virus shows up again but this time in London.  Now all of a sudden there’s interest to find a cure which some suits believe is in Scotland.  Living people have been spotted there which means some are immune to the disease.  Scientists could make a vaccine from their blood but they need someone to go over the wall and bring back a specimen.

Now I want to say right off the bat that I like this movie.  It’s a helluva ride with a lot of good action.  There are gun fights, a sword fight, a car chase, a dude gets burned alive and there’s even a gladiatorial match.  And it’s all done much better than its contemporaries.  The lead character, Sinclair (Rhona Mitra (Highwaymen, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans)), is basically a female Snake Plissken.  She has only one eye but wears a fake eyeball (that can act as a video camera) instead of an eye patch, she dresses pretty much all in black, she has a doesn’t-give-a-shit, take-no-shit attitude and you get the idea.  Definitely not as good as Snake but who the fuck is?  The other two characters that were cool were Sol, the leader of the cannibalistic Road Warrior type gang, and Canaris, some evil high up guy that wants to rule the UK.  Everyone else was just ok.

For this write up I went back to watch this sucker again and still enjoyed it but realized a couple of things.  First, the plot doesn’t really make any sense if you think about it.  For three years the British government knew that living folks existed in Scotland and just ignored it until the virus hit their home turf.  (Spoiler) Also at the end Canaris gets a hold of a survivor (remember they can find a cure for the disease with this person) but says that he’s going to wait yet another bunch of years before administering a vaccine.  I get that he’s the bad guy and he was to do shit that will make him look like an asshole but this is just baffling.  He says he’ll look like a hero later when he shows up with a cure but why wouldn’t he look like a hero if he came out with a vaccine immediately?  The only thing I can think of is that he’s going to make money off of the cure and wants demand to be at its peak.  But that’s not the smartest business move.  People are dying so there won’t be as many folks to give the vaccine to.  The sick aren’t the only ones that are gonna need this shit.  The healthy will need it too to prevent the disease from setting in to start with.  This felt pretty lazy and like the filmmakers didn’t think that Canaris was evil enough so they had to have him do this other shit that is definitely villainous but doesn’t add up.

Another thing is that the team that gets sent into diseased Scotland looses their bio suits after a little while.  None of them seem to get the deadly virus while they’re over there which lessens the threat of the quarantined area.  I mean the disease was the reason why Scotland was cut off from the rest of the world.  The few living people over there are supposed to be immune but our group of heroes isn’t.

And the whole idea of a covert operation with sneaking people across the border isn’t really necessary.  They say in the movie that they don’t want to fly a helicopter in there to arouse suspicion.  But we’re talking about the entire UK at threat of being decimated.  They should’ve just flown a chopper in, grabbed the first couple of people they saw and flown back over the wall.  This aspect of the film actually isn’t that bad but it’s definitely a forced spin on Escape from New York.  Marshall couldn’t come up with something as good as the president being held hostage in the quarantined section.  It makes more sense that a covert operation would be implemented in that situation.  But a virus that’s a threat to the world?  Just find a cure ASAP, who cares if people notice.  And even if someone did notice, they don’t know what’s going on so it doesn’t seem like there’s a big risk there.

This film isn’t as good as the ones it’s imitating (except maybe Gladiator).  It’s too influenced by its influences.  I would’ve liked Marshall to be more subtle about it.  He kind of took one step forward and two steps back with this one.  Instead of continuing to expand the boundaries of horror or making another best-in-subgenre movie he went for an action extravaganza with a cast of hundreds, filming in South Africa, incorporating so many different types of action, extreme makeup and blood effects and even going back to the old art of using a miniature for the exploding bus at the end.  All that shit’s cool but I just want it to be more original and/or less reliant on its inspiration.  It borders on big dumb action like Invasion U.S.A. and Death Wish 3 where you’re treated to a pretty incredible spectacle but there’s almost no depth to it leaving you somewhat unsatisfied.

Even though I shat on this a bit I can’t deny that I smiled a bunch during this thing.  It may be too obvious a mix of your favorite action pictures and segmented as such but man is it fun.      

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Descent

I haven’t seen this one since it was in theaters and it’s way more interesting than I remembered.  I mean I liked it but the ratio of horror movie to non-horror movie was less than memory served and also after watching Neil Marshall’s previous picture (Dog Soldiers) I have a newfound appreciation for the guy.

Now I’m gonna assume that you’ve seen this already because even if you haven’t someone told you all about this fuckin’ thing.  Am I right or am I right?

So the traditional horror part is only the last half hour while the cave and intro parts make up roughly an hour.  I remember it being more like 50/50.  And because of that this movie caught me off guard again.  Well first of all I think the spelunking part can work as horror for some people and I’ll admit that I’m one of them.  It’s not the claustrophobia aspect but the fear of going into a fucking hole in the ground with your only exit being tiny tubes that just lead to other rooms made of fucking rock and there’s no way you can call for help or for people to come and get you and it’s pitch black down there and fuck man.  Not to mention on top of all of this is the possibility of a cave in at any moment.  Between the tight spaces, the darkness, remoteness, danger factor and idea of venturing into the unknown there’s a lot of creepy shit that this cave exploring premise has built into it.

Then the creature part is your payoff.  The spelunking-gone-wrong section goes on for so long and you get caught up in it that either you forget that there are supposed to be monsters in this or you begin to wonder what the fuck your friends were talking about when they told you about these cave crawlers.  It’s a risky way to do a horror film but it works here.  I’m glad there wasn’t a rash of pictures after this came out with the first two thirds about one thing that’s maybe a little creepy and the last third filled with typical scary movie shit.  That trend would’ve been a fucking bore. 

You see I knew how the monsters were revealed and it got me pretty good the first time.  But even this time around this fuckin’ film got me again.  I mean I literally said out loud to no one “fuck, they got me again” and I had to rewind the movie so I could pay more attention to the reveal.  I can’t believe Marshall fuckin’ set the trap, lulled me in and caught me sleeping twice.  And having the *bam* horror stab happen a second after the creature appears on the camera is more effective than if they had the appearance and the stab occur at the same time.  Because when the video camera pans over the first thing you see is one of our characters and when you finally notice the monster it’s synced to the horror stab.  It’s almost like the stab plays just for you.

That ending is pretty fucking good too.  I love that Marshall put that (sort of) happy ending in there for everyone and then said “This is how you expect this to end right?  Well fuck you.  I’m gonna end this motherfucker the way I want to.”  It would’ve been ballsy enough to have a bleak ending but to dangle a fake hopeful conclusion in front of your face only to take it away immediately is goddamn crazy.  Good for him for sticking to his guns and putting in the ending that he thought was best.

I don’t even really need to go on about the creature battle do I?  On a scale, the trapped-in-a-cave part is probably about a 4 but Jesus the last half hour they crank it up to 11.  So much blood, so many brutal deaths, such ferocity, such brutality and even though it’s short, so satisfying.  After all the shit that these women have been through it feels so good to see them get out their frustrations unmercifully on these fucking beasts.

Marshall sure has a strange and interesting idea of what a horror movie can be.  Dog Soldiers is straight forward: a group of soldiers fight werewolves.  That’s a little different than The Descent’s premise: a group of friends go spelunking, get trapped in a cave, endure hardship while trying to find a way out, encounter and combat humanoid cave creatures that try to eat them, no one gets out of the cave.  Man, that must’ve been a hard sell to studios.  Well I’m glad Marshall made it and that the film was successful. 

You can officially count me as a Neil Marshall fan (for those of you that tally that sort of thing).  I dig his little-CGI-as-possible approach and his incredible sense for action.  His shooting style has improved a bunch in his second go around which is nice to see.  Apparently there were no real caves used in this film and that’s really impressive because the sets look phenomenally real.  Marshall knows what the fuck he’s doing guys.  The way The Descent is constructed could’ve been disastrous (and on paper it should’ve been) but Marshall knew it would work.  He admits that he ripped off the idea of reevaluating what a happy ending is from Brazil (meaning if the character is content in their own mind is that considered a happy ending (our lead is still stuck in the cave but has finally found some inner peace) or is something more traditional only considered a happy ending (escaping the cave)).  It’s a fascinating idea and not something that you would expect out of a horror picture.  This is way deeper than Dog Soldiers folks.      

If you haven’t seen this sonuvabitch and you read this piece anyway I don’t know what the fuck your problem is.  Get a hold of a copy and check it out.  I wouldn’t go as far to say that this is a classic but parts of it are excellent.  This one’s difficult to categorize and an anomaly in horror.  It’s certainly different and definitely good.