Friday, March 29, 2013

The 13th Warrior


Loosely based on “Beowulf” (and directly adapted from the Michael Crichton book Eaters of the Dead) this film is about an Arabian, who we’ll call Little Brother because that’s what he’s referred to most often (Antonio Banderas (Original Sin, Assassins)), who gets banished from his homeland and travels across the Middle East and Europe.  He comes across some Vikings and hangs with them for a bit.  But they get an emergency call from a small village that’s under attack by monsters.  A team of thirteen warriors needs to be assembled and Little Brother is chosen to go.  He doesn’t volunteer mind you.  He gets handpicked because the thirteenth warrior needs to be a foreigner.  So our heroes set off to figure out what the fuck is going on and kill the threat.

That set up may have sounded kinda funky but it’s only the first couple of minutes of the film.  The main story is extremely simplistic: something is attacking this village, find out what and destroy it.

The reason we need to have a character like Little Brother is because he’s supposed to be the audience.  He’s the guy that’s completely unfamiliar with this Viking world and so shit needs to be explained to him.  It’s a standard way to dole out info to the viewers and also one of the best because it comes across as natural.

Every one of the Vikings is a man’s man.  They have beards, long hair, aren’t afraid of anything, don’t think twice about killing, keep cool under fire, they’re muscular, stoic as shit and are just all around badass motherfuckers.  Little Brother is weaker, smaller, inexperienced in battle, unacquainted with Viking lore, unaccustomed to the thick forests and caves of Scandinavia and feels out of place most of the time.  But don’t get the wrong impression.  Little Brother doesn’t argue when he’s told he must embark on this journey with the Vikings.  He accepts his situation without as much as a peep.  Sure he may not be as manly as the others but he puts his best foot forward and does whatever he can to help out.  He knows he’s not on the same level as these macho sonsabitches but he tries to not let it discourage him.  Even with the occasional joke that gets made at his expense Little Brother remains committed to helping these guys out because they’re all in the same boat (literally and figuratively).  They’re united to stop this unknown force.  The camaraderie is beautiful to see.

And the actual mystery itself is really cool.  You hear tales at first of these things eating the dead and then you see some of the carnage that they leave behind when our crew checks out a house in the woods filled with mutilated bodies.  The creatures are kept in either long or very shadowy shots for about the first half so we can’t make them out too well.  They look like bear/human hybrids.  And the supernatural aspect seems to be true when the Vikings are sure they’ve killed a bunch in a fight but when they go to examine the bodies they’ve disappeared.  Spoiler, skip to the next paragraph where it’s safe.  But when we do finally see that these things are really just humans dressed up to intimidate it’s more shocking than if they really were an ancient breed of monsters.  I don’t know about you but to have the enemy be a tribe of barbaric humans grounds the movie and makes the whole experience feel more serious.  If the filmmakers had used mutated human/bear creatures I wouldn’t have been against it but having them just be crazy humans is maybe scarier.  I think it’s because it shows how cruel we can be towards each other and also that things haven’t really changed over the years.  We still threaten and attack each other every day around the world.

The production design and cinematography are goddamn incredible.  The world we’re shown feels rich and lived in.  The small village that needs protection with its great hall is especially amazing.  Everything looks larger than life and is kinda grimy.  The whole film has a sort of slightly exaggerated and dark look to it that’s absolutely beautiful.  It looks very similar to how most pictures are done today with muted colors and just the right amount of grit.  But I think this one looks even better than today because back in the 90’s they weren’t afraid to throw in some color and textures that weren’t so glossy and shiny.

The lighting is also very well done.  Like the rest of the movie they tried to keep it organic and didn’t clear up the overcast days or over light the scenes where fire is the source.

One of the best parts is the night battle.  The bad guys wield torches and hurl them at the village to try and burn it down.  Of course they also invade on horseback and everyone joins in on the fight.  It’s a little hard to make out what’s happening sometimes because the lighting is minimal and there are a lot of shadows.  But it all looks and feels phenomenal.  It’s supposed to be chaotic which definitely comes across but it’s not so messy that you can’t follow shit.  I particularly like the shot of the enemies riding with their torches through the narrow avenues of the village.  I love that you can’t see the faces so it looks like a bear riding a horse.

John McTiernan of Die Hard and Predator fame directed this.  But apparently the final product he delivered was so bad that Michael Crichton had to go back and do some reshoots as well as re-edit the thing.  It’s so weird because this film doesn’t feel that way at all.  The whole thing really comes together and works well.  There are only two things that don’t quite add up.  The first is that they set up this power struggle between the king of the village and some other dude but it doesn’t go anywhere.  It’s brought up maybe twice and then it’s forgotten about.  Although, this throwaway part of the plot does lead to a pretty cool moment that demonstrates how awesome one of the Vikings is.  The other is that the last fight sequence is rather short and it feels like either they didn’t shoot enough footage forcing them to make it a relatively brief scene or this was part of Crichton’s reshooting which he wouldn’t have had a large budget for causing this battle to be smaller and shorter.  The way they did it isn’t terrible but it’s a shame because you want this to end with a big fight.  You could also say that Little Brother learning the language of the Vikings in just a couple of weeks or months is bullshit but that didn’t bother me very much (for some reason this same language thing irritated me a lot in The Last Samurai though).  Other than those couple of items this is a lean mean badass sonuvabitch of a movie.

Well, ok, The 13th Warrior is a lame title.  They should’ve stuck with the original (and book) title: Eaters of the Dead.  Not only is it way cooler sounding but it also makes more sense.  The focus of the picture isn’t the thirteenth warrior, Little Brother.  He’s the main character but the story isn’t about him, it’s about a situation at this village.  It’s like if Star Wars was called Jedi or Luke Skywalker.  Sure Luke plays a major role but the story is bigger than him.  The movie encompasses more than this one character.         

But overall I really liked this one a lot.  It’s a very refreshing film that gets so much out of a stripped down story.  The idea of danger and creatures lurking in the woods is classic.  The investigation and build up is executed pretty perfectly with a ton of suspense, intrigue and menace.

This is a forgotten gem.  It’s such an adventure-y adventure picture.  Plus a lot of people get killed.  According to moviebodycounts.com the final tally rises to 61.  Shit man.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Trespass (1992)


Two Arkansas firefighters get handed a map from a dude in a burning building.  The guy goes up in flames before explaining anything but the firemen discover that it leads to gold hidden in some warehouse in St. Louis.  They decide to go after it but while they’re searching the building a local gang shows up.  Oh shit, looks like they’re in quite a pickle.

The whole thing turns into a Panic Room type situation where the firemen trap themselves in a section of the building (along with one of the gang members that they as a hostage) and have to figure a way out.  This is better than Panic Room though.  The characters are enjoyable to be with and things change just enough and often enough to keep you interested.   

The white firemen cast consists of Bill Paxton (Predator 2, Apollo 13) and William Sadler (Die Hard 2, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey).  The black cast is made up of Ice-T (Johnny Mnemonic, Ricochet), Ice Cube (Anaconda, Ghosts of Mars), Art Evans (Die Hard 2, Metro), De’voreaux White (Argyle from Die Hard), Bruce A. Young (Basic Instinct), Glenn Plummer (Speed, Showgirls) and some other lesser knowns.  This is a pretty ridiculous cast including three people that were in Die Hard movies and no women at all.  Plus you got Walter Hill (Last Man Standing, The Driver, The Warriors) directing. 

But what’s really weird about this picture is that it was written and produced by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale.  I guess Zemeckis passed on this to do Death Becomes Her.  The thing is you would never know this was written by the same guy that did the Back to the Futures and Who Framed Roger Rabbit.  There isn’t anything I can pinpoint in the film that has a Zemeckis fingerprint on it.

Overall I liked it.  This is much better than the 2011 Trespass (which has nothing to do with this movie by the way).  It’s not really great but certainly entertaining and fun enough for a one time watch.    

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Class of 1984


Perry King (The Day After Tomorrow, Slaughterhouse-Five) is the new music teacher, Andrew Norris.  He’s all optimistic about making the student’s lives richer and being a figure they can look up to.  But this is an inner city school where every surface has graffiti on it, the teachers carry guns and the students run amok.  You know, you’re typical badass shit that you find in one of these movies.

The leader of the main gang is Stegman (Timothy Van Patten (director/executive producer of Boardwalk Empire)).  He’s got the right attitude but doesn’t have a tough look.  His hair is coiffed nicely, his clothes aren’t dirty or battered, he’s not particularly tall nor does he have a cool nickname like Razor or some shit.  It’s a hard sell but after a while I was on board.  Stegman’s a pretty crazy sonuvabitch and I like that. 

His operation actually seems too big just for a high school kid but I feel like that helped to make up for his lame appearance (as well as make this film more entertaining).  The guy deals coke and angel dust, which is standard for this scenario, but he also has some sort of prostitution ring going.  Plus there’s a hideout where he and his gang do business.  Why these people bother with high school I have no idea.  With this full blown racket you have to assume that they control a certain amount of territory which means all of their time is going to be taken up by maintaining and defending their drug and prostitution ventures.  In fact there’s a part where Stegman’s all white gang fights a rival black gang.  But the black gang looks like they’re high school kids too.  So it’s a little weird that there aren’t any other older and tougher gangs trying to muscle Stegman and his crew.

For a long time I thought these kids didn’t have homes with shitty families which would’ve backed up my why-do-they-still-go-to-high-school argument.  But we do end up seeing Stegman’s nice apartment with his mother that thinks he’s an angel.  His is the only one we get though.  So at least Stegman has to keep up appearances.  I still say that with the level this kid is operating on it doesn’t make a lot of sense for him to pretend to go to school.

One of the best scenes is when Roddy McDowall (Planet of the Apes, Fright Night) pulls a gun on his class.  He forces them to sit there while he teaches and then sticks his piece right in a couple of kids’ faces while he asks them biology questions.  They better get the answer right.  It’s supposed to be sad and disturbing because McDowall has snapped and the kids are in danger but with all the hell that these students have put the teachers through it comes off more as a very badass and triumphant moment; like finally someone put these little fuckers in their place.

The same could be said for the ending.  I really don’t want to spoil it but I also really want to tell you how awesome it is.  I guess I should let you folks find out for yourselves.  I promise you’ll like the direction they chose.   

I feel like I should mention that Michael J. Fox has a part in this with a bad haircut and a chubby face.  He plays one of the good kids though.  It would’ve been interesting to see him as a gang member.  I seriously doubt he could’ve pulled it off but I would’ve liked to have seen it anyway. 

With the title you would think that this is some sort of futuristic movie about how shitty inner city schools will get.  And I think that was sort of the intent but this came out in 1982.  It’s more of a comment on how some inner city schools are currently.  This means it should be more in line with pictures like Dangerous Minds and Stand and Deliver (there’s a big but though) BUT the ending goes against everything you think should happen and against the message those other movies are trying to convey.

Mark L. Lester’s follow up, Class of 1999, reverses the situation where the teachers are the threat (because they’re cyborgs!) and the students have to fight for their lives.  I remember it being better than Class of 1984 but they’re both worth checking out, especially if you’re an educator.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Decline of Western Civilization Part III


“Hi mom. Thanks for making me an alcoholic. I love you.”

For part III Spheeris went back to punk.  But the punk scene in LA is pretty different in the mid 90’s than it was in the late 70’s/early 80’s.  If you thought it couldn’t get any more dystopian then you thought wrong.

The thing with this one is that the music isn’t so much the focus.  It’s more about how these punks live and what they do to survive.  There are all of these kids from ages 15 to 22 living on the streets, begging for money, sleeping in alleys and getting drunk 24/7.  Essentially they choose to live this lifestyle because they reject conventional society. 

That may sound like what was happening in part I but most of the people shown in this movie aren’t even in a punk band.  For those that are it seems like music is just something to pass the time or it’s something that they do have an interest in but it’s not the most important thing in their lives. 

There’s very little talk of getting a major label deal and none at all about being rock stars.  These people are past not giving a shit.  They’re just in a state of existing without thinking about what more they could be doing.

It’s pretty sad to see so many kids homeless and nearly possession-less with the exception of the clothes on their back.  None of them have any intention of bettering their situation either.  This is what they have chosen for themselves and they embrace it.  At the end of the doc a bunch of the punks are asked where they think they’ll be in five or ten years and most of them say they’ll be dead.  These folks pursue this way of life even though they know it’ll kill them pretty quickly.  There has to be another part to that answer and one person does say it, “I’m not happy here.  The sooner I go the better as far as I’m concerned really.  I don’t live a happy life.”    

Once again, the title fits.  Is this where our society is heading?  Increasing poverty?  Is a whole generation of America’s youth lost?  Totally fucked beyond saving?

This third installment is definitely the most serious and strays away from the concept of the first two.  Shpeeris tries to mold it into something resembling what she had done previously but doesn’t have a lot of success.  Part III isn’t any less valid or well made though.  It’s just heavier making it a little tougher to watch.
  

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years


“Where do you see yourself in ten years?”
“Retired.  Living some place nice, my stocks working for me, investments, bonds, securities. You know, shit like that. I’m responsible. I got long hair but, fuck, I’m a business man, you know?”

This one is the best in the series.  The focus has shifted to metal and covers a wide spectrum from up-and-comers to superstars.

We’re shown the excess of the 80’s in all its glory.  We’ve got bands wearing wacky outfits, putting on makeup and trying to be the most appealing thing the public has ever seen.  Artistic integrity is checked at the door.

In part I the bands cherished their meager lifestyle and wore their disdain for western society as a badge of honor.  In part II everyone wants to be a rock star.  There’s a lot of talk about money and business in general and how all these glam metal bands want to be rich and famous.  Having a look and making that image as sleazy and outrageous as possible is paramount.  Hair needs to be bigger, clothes need to be mashed up and layered more, the makeup needs to be more effeminate and etc.  The music is an afterthought (the only exception here is Megadeth, maybe Dave Mustaine was right when he wrote in his autobiography that his band comes off the best in this).

Some of the imagery used for the interviews is fantastic.  For instance Paul Stanley (from Kiss) is seen in an overhead shot lying in bed with three women scantily clad in lingerie.  Alice Cooper stands by a hangman’s gallows and mentions he would like to put some people in the noose that’s in front on him.  And we have a chat with Ozzy Osbourne while he’s making breakfast (this breakfast thing is a running gag that Spheeris uses in all three movies).

There’s also this one part with Chris Holmes, of W.A.S.P. fame, that talks about how being rich and famous made him an alcoholic while guzzling several bottles of vodka.  Again, the imagery is pretty amazing because he’s sitting in a floating chair in his pool with his mother off to the side.  You can tell she’s not totally proud and that Chris is completely drowning metaphorically and one step away from drowning for real.

It’s really weird that the same title applies to this picture as well.  There are two ways to look at it.  Firstly, with all of the extravagances laid before us you know that it can’t last.  Everyone seems to be enjoying the era they’re living in immensely but there has to be an imminent decline.  The second is that this is part of the decline itself.  If you’re not into the whole glam thing, metal or the 80’s overall then this will seem like a showcase of everything that was wrong with that decade.

The differences between part I and part II couldn’t be more striking.  Not even ten years later the LA music scene is unrecognizable.  In part I there was little concern with fame and stardom but in part II every person that appears on camera is so sure they’re gonna make it.  They have no doubts whatsoever that they’ll become a rock star and won’t hear anything to the contrary.

I would recommend seeing both parts to get the full effect but if you’re only gonna go for one then check out part II.  Also Steven Tyler observes, “you can really fuck to a good Aerosmith song”. 
            

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Decline of Western Civilization


“He said I hit him with a chain.  I guess I did.  I was a little bit drunk. I don’t remember.”

Lately I’ve been reading Dave Mustaine’s autobiography, “Mustaine”, and in it he mentions that Megadeth appeared in The Decline of Western Civilization Part II.  That reminded me to watch the first one but of course I had to see the second one now too.  As far as “Mustaine” goes it’s a good read.  I don’t really listen to metal but I knew this book would be cool to check out because of Dave’s inability to let go of his aggression towards Metallica for kicking him out right before they got huge.  He’s got a lot of crazy stories, most of them involving rampant drug use.  How true they are who knows but they sure are fun to read.

Anyway, The Decline of Western Civilization is about punk music in 1979 and 1980 in LA.  The bands showcased like The Germs, The Circle Jerks and X don’t give a fuck about anything.  The music is fast, angry and almost indecipherable.  There’s so much distortion and the singing is yelled so it’s difficult to really process what you’re listening to.  But I guess that’s part of the genre.  Not that all punk is like this but ferocious sloppiness is certainly a mainstay for some enthusiasts.

Signing to a major label seems to be the ultimate dilemma for these groups.  On one hand it would mean potentially more money and fame but on the other it would go against their morals.  But such labels don’t appear to be looking to bring these types of punk bands onto their rosters anyway.  Even the small indie labels have a real hard time putting up with bullshit like band members injuring themselves and putting on shows so rowdy that it becomes increasingly difficult to find venues that will allow the bands to play.  But the hypothetical question of “would you sign to a major label?” makes these folks stop and think for a minute.

The title is pretty genius.  It didn’t take me long to realize what director Penelope Spheeris (Wayne’s World, The Beverly Hillbillies) was getting at.  These bands stand against conventional society.  Like for instance the guys in Black Flag live in a tiny graffiti filled space where one member sleeps in a closet and another in what looks like a cupboard.  They don’t make any money or have any possessions besides their music equipment and that’s the way they want it to be.

This anti-societal sentiment that carries through the film is a bit depressing.  You know, like you really are witnessing the decline of western civilization.  Is this where music and the youth of America were heading?  Into a trash filled pit while railing against anything that most people would consider a normal existence?  It’s anti-art, anti-establishment, anti-everything.  There is no right answer.  Whatever is popular or deemed to be “good” or what’s considered “progress” is bad.  You kind of can’t reason with a mentality like that.

This was a pretty interesting doc.  There’s a lot of punk music in it, like full length performances of songs, which didn’t tickle my fancy that much.  It’s all about the stuff in between.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Backdraft


We all know the kick ass poster with a silhouette of a fireman set against a raging inferno.  The guy looks like he's just out for a casual stroll in a burning building.  Man does it set your mind ablaze (pun intended) about how awesome of a movie you’re sure it is.  I’ve wanted to see this sucker forever and finally stopped pussyfooting around.  And goddamnit was it disappointing.

The plot is about a rookie Chicago fireman named Brian (William Baldwin (Flatliners, Sliver)) that gets assigned to the station run by his brother, Stephen (Kurt Russell).  Their father was a fireman too and I bet you can’t guess what happened to him.  That’s right, he retired peacefully to a Florida condo where he enjoys sippin’ piƱa coladas in the rain and occasionally making the ride out to Key West.  Nah, I’m just kiddin’.  He died fighting a fire.  Brian is haunted by it because he saw it happen but Stephen wasn’t there so he doesn’t seem to be bothered by the incident that much.  There’s also this other part to the story that involves Robert De Niro investigating fires set by an arsonist around the city.

And this is the biggest problem with this picture.  There’s too much story.  They either should’ve went with the brothers reuniting and learning to respect each other thing or the arsonist angle.  Putting both in there made it feel like I was watching two different films.  The thing is these stories aren’t really connected.  The link is really weak and doesn’t have anything to do with Brian finally growing up or Stephen learning to accept his brother as an adult.  A brothers relinking story that takes place in the middle of a bunch of fires (just regular fires and not stupid conspiracy ones) could’ve been something really great.  There’s so much trust, cooperation, quick decision making and courage involved in putting out a fire that it makes for the perfect tense scenario to place feuding characters in.

But most of the acting and dialogue is pretty bad.  This was William Baldwin’s big break and you can tell he’s trying hard.  But he’s got these dead eyes that stare off and he also suffers from Keanu Reeves syndrome where everything that comes out of his mouth just sounds so stupid that it’s difficult to take him seriously.  Kurt Russell goes his usual half way with this one.  He does just enough to get you off his back about phoning it in but not enough to actually praise him very much (or at all) or call his performance “standout” (or even “good”).  Jennifer Jason Leigh (eXistenZ, The Machinist) plays the love interest and she was fine.  I feel like she plays the same character in most of the movies I’ve seen her in.  Is it just me?  Lastly, De Niro looks like he’s kinda into it and J.T. Walsh (Blue Chips, Breakdown) is so good, as always, at playing a fucking scumbag.

Even with the spotty script and ok cast this picture is almost worth seeing (almost) for the firefighting scenes.  The whole idea was to give the fire a personality and make it a character.  I always think it sounds silly whenever a filmmaker says something like that (“the [insert inanimate object here] is really the main character”) but I guess it’s kinda true.  I mean the fire in this is fucking tenacious and really does attack our heroes.  It also growls and screeches which is pretty dumb but there’s a small part of me that likes it.

There are two big fire sequences and what’s great about them is that they used real fire and ash ‘n shit.  There are lots of explosions in these fires too which I’m not sure makes a lot of sense but they definitely add an enormous amount of excitement.  You really feel like our guys are totally immersed with no way out.  The special effects crew deserves a ton of credit for creating these massive infernos that engulf everything in its path.  At one point the blaze shoots towards the camera but they keep rolling.  The camera gets totally submerged in the shit. 

The best part of the movie is the last fire which takes place in a chemical warehouse.  They sure ended with a bang.  Brian has to run across a collapsing roof with an incredible wide shot that blends a model with a stunt guy running, people hanging off of shit that’s falling apart, the cinematography is first rate, the whole building is consumed with fire and things are constantly exploding.  It looks like total chaos and the entire time I was wondering how the hell they filmed it all and still stayed safe.

How cool is the title too?  I don’t think they explain it well in the movie but a backdraft happens when a fire uses up all the oxygen in a space and goes dormant.  The flames die down but it’s not dead.  When oxygen is introduced again the fire bursts back to life rapidly destroying everything in the immediate area.  The fires that the arsonist sets are backdrafts because they’re designed to eliminate a specific target and then die out.  I have to think that the title was chosen because a backdraft is also a good way to sum up Brian’s story arc.  He had high hopes of becoming a fireman like his dad but that passion went asleep for a long time after the dad died.  When Brian finally becomes a fireman his desire is rekindled and his skills blow up.

So overall this is a clumsy mess.  Like Kurt Russell plays both Stephen and the dad which was confusing at first, the dual plot creates excessive characters, some of the editing and transitions are confusing (like Brian and Stephen are having a dialogue scene but then it cuts to Brian walking from his car towards Stephen making it look like Brian just arrived), the first big warehouse fire is uncontainable one minute and then suddenly out the next, there are a couple of times when they reversed the film to show the fire retreating (I don’t care if that really happens in real life because it looks amateurish and downright goofy here) and etc. 

But I have to admit that this thing has two spectacular scenes (and holy shit that poster).

As a side note did anyone do Backdraft at Universal Studios Hollywood when it was still around?  I thought they recreated that chemical warehouse fire pretty well.  You could really feel the heat coming off the set.  This and Twister…Ride it Out are pretty even in my book.  Fire is cooler than wind and water but the floor drop at the end of Twister is a very nice touch.

As per the ride here are a couple of my own definitions of a backdraft: 

1. Backdraft: a mediocre film with a couple of effectively hectic and remarkable action scenes that may or may not make up for the rest of the movie.

2. Backdraft: an ok attraction that may not have had a lot going for it but was better than the schlock that replaced it (Transformers: The Ride).  Incidentally you can still experience Backdraft at Universal Studios Japan.       

Friday, March 1, 2013

Happy Anniversary Folks!



Happy anniversary!  We turned 2 today over here, yippee-ki-yay my friends!

Welcome to any new readers that found this place (most likely by accident).  Make yourselves feel at home.  Take your shoes off, put your feet up, let your hair down, pour a drink, grab some food and stay a while.

For those that have stopped by before, it’s good to see you again.  Thanks for coming back.

I appreciate the views and comments folks have left.  The traffic does seem to be growing, very slowly, but growing. 

Sorry that there’s no new sexy thriller project this time.  Maybe later in the year, I’ll have to see.  This whole thing is supposed to be fun and I don’t get paid or anything so the reviews only happen when I feel I have something to say about a particular picture (or if I want to make a quick recommendation) and also whenever I can get around to actually writing them.  What I’m trying to say is thanks for your patience and I’ll try to work up something special soon (suggestions are welcome).

And that’s really it.  Not much more to say about the past, present or future of this here blob.  I plan on sticking with this for a long time so here’s to world peace, uhh, I mean…yea world peace.  See you at the movies!