Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Bangers n' Mash 18: Dracula (1931) Commentary

I consider not even posting this one. The idea behind this was two-fold. First off, our commentary on Frankenstein, a filler episode we recorded back in March, has proven to be one of our most popular episodes. Secondly, I knew I couldn't get another "real" episode out in May and commentaries are easy to record and edit, since they, by their very nature, can't be edited very much.

That second part proved problematic. JD had a little bit of a cold and was coughing and sniffling throughout. Secondly, there was some sort of construction going on next door, so occasionally you hear some ambient banging and squeaking from next door. And then there's just the general fact that this is barely edited, so expect lots of "ums," 'you knows," "likes," stammering, off-topic rambling, and incomplete thoughts.

So sorry for the shitty episode. We'll do better next time, promise.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Series Report Card: Star Trek (2013)

(I tried to keep this review relatively spoiler-free. I don't know if I succeeded. If you still haven't seen the movie, you might want to proceed with caution.)

12. Star Trek Into Darkness

In the three years since J. J. Abram’s reboot of “Star Trek” came out, my opinion has softened some since my initial rave review. I still like the movie. However, I realized how little it has to do with Gene Roddenberry’s original ideas. His conception of a utopian world has been more-or-less abandoned in favor of summer movie big budget explosions-a-plenty razz-ma-tazz. Which is fine. There’s room for explosions and action theatrics in the world of “Star Trek.”

“Star Trek Into Darkness” hits the ground running, almost literally. Kirk, McCoy, Spock and the crew find themselves in the sci-fi equivalent of the James Bond Cold Opening. Set on, of all planets, Nibiru, Kirk and McCoy are chased by savage locals while Spock faces death to stop a dangerous volcanic explosion. The dramatic separation this seems to impose on the primary cast is suddenly stopped when a mysterious villain blows up a building full of innocents. The same villain targets someone close to Kirk, the crew is sent off on a secret mission of retaliation, forcing the captain and his friend to choose between justice and revenge. Things get a little more complicated from there. That is the least spoiler-free plot description I can give you.

Having established that Nu-Flavor Trek is an explosion-filled action franchise, does “Star Trek Into Darkness” succeed in that regard? Indeed it does. The film is action packed, filled to the brim with exciting set-pieces. A meeting of Star Fleet Captains is interrupted by a bad guy with a gunner ship, which is disposed of in a creative, amusing fashion. An exciting spaceship chase with a fleet of Klingon ships rolls into an even better sequence where the villain decimates said Kingon fleet with ease. The starship battles are shot in exciting fashions. A gun down in warp space uses scale and confines nicely. A covert journey through an enemy ship is briskly edited.

However, one action scene stands above the rest. The movie quotes “Nemesis” but does it better. Two characters space-jump from ship to ship, zipping in and around dangerous debris. Tension is built fantastically in this scene, with a crack in a helmet slowly growing worse and more problems being heaped on the characters. Even better, the sequence is cut with Scotty dealing with his own problem on the other ship, doubly ramping up the tension. It’s the most exciting action sequence in a movie full of great ones.

The movie doesn’t exhaust either. “Into Darkness” in one of the better paced summer blockbuster in recent memories. The movie balances action and character moments very well. Suspense builds even without explosions, as a scene of two characters examining a torpedo is as exciting as anything else in the film. The run time is 135 minutes but never feels it, as the story rolls around at a brisk pace. (This also excuses some of the plot holes.) If the movie’s main attribute isn’t its fantastic action, it’s the equally good editing and pacing.

Something else I appreciate about the film is that, in some ways, it continues the Trek legacy of sneaking current social commentary in under a flashy, science-fiction shell. The story seems to parallel the War on Terror to a degree. An authority figure uses a terrorist attack as an excuse to launch a war with a foreign superpower. The war-mongering is strictly personally motivated and, as the film goes on, it’s revealed that the authority figure didn’t even plan it out very well. The movie condemns conflict for conflict’s sake. It’s not particularly subtle but then again neither was “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.” Moreover, the story justifies Kirk’s role, someone who questions authority, as vital to Star Fleet.

As with Abrams’ first trek into the stars, “Into Darkness” makes great use of the film’s ensemble cast. Chris Pine has evolved as Kirk, keeping the goofier elements he displayed the first time around in check. He even gets a solid dramatic moment or two. Simon Pegg, so underused in the first film, gets a lot of screen time here. Pegg slips into the role of Scotty so naturally, inhabiting all the humor and break-neck nerves that characterizes the engineer. Karl Urban continues to be pitch-perfect as McCoy, making dialogue that could have been corny coming out of anyone else’s mouth sound natural and hilarious. Zoe Saldana does better this time, getting a stand-out moment to herself, and her relationship with Spock forms one of the emotional backbones of the film. Quinto himself continues to be a natural choice even if the script seems to cripple Spock a bit, from a development angle. I even found myself enjoying Anton Yelchin’s Chekov, the only cast member from the last film that I didn’t like. The story puts the character in an uncomfortable place, which is mined mostly for humor and occasionally drama. John Cho is, sadly, underused even if Sulu does reveal his desire to be a captain someday. Aside from that, the film does a good job of showcasing each crew member, something that couldn’t always be said for the original film series.

I’ve made it known in the past that I’m not exactly a Cumberbatch fan. However, he does well in the part. His deep baritone voice is well-used as a villain and he proves a threatening presence. The character has an interesting arc, switching sides several times. When he is fully revealed as a ruthless villain, that’s when Cumberbatch really shines as an actor. Was he the right choice to play the iconic villain? That's more of a scripting problem. Cumberbatch's character resembles the classic version in name only. You could cut out the scene where he reveals his true identity and it wouldn't affect the movie much at all. The performance is fine, quite good even, but the movie might have been better had it just used an original creation. I personally think Abrams and his writing team went there just to say they could.

It’s probably just the “Buckaroo Bonzai / RoboCop” fan in me but I thought Peter Weller was awesome in this. He plays a man committed to his cause, corrupt as it might be. Weller’s naturally condescending tone makes him a great choice for a villain with a superiority complex. Alice Eve certainly looks very nice, especially in the gratuitous, much-contested underwear scene. Eve is a solid actress and delivers some exposition without getting bogged down in it. However, I do have to question just what her purpose in the film was. If she was meant to be Kirk’s love interest, the film doesn’t really develop that beyond some brief flirting.

The movie’s fast-paced, action-packed, well-cast, exciting, and funny. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t have problems. There are cute references to “Trek” history throughout the film. Brief call-outs to Harry Mudd, Nurse Chapel, the Gorn, Section 31, and an unexpected cameo are the right kind of call-backs. I appreciate the Klingons and the Tribbles being reintroducted. However, the last act of the movie blatantly models itself after maybe the most famous conclusion in “Trek” history. The movie does mine some decent emotional pathos from the scene. At that point, however, the audience can clearly see the solution to the problem. There’s a rather clumsy deus ex machina at work here that robs the scene of any legitimate emotional resonance it might have had. Quinto recreating Shatner’s signature moment was a very bad decision. It’s such a blatant call-back, clumsily inserted into the film, and more comedic then dramatic. Spock is forced into the action hero roll at the end, which seems a bit out of character. The sequence goes on too long anyway. The villain’s last-ditch shot at revenge doesn’t seem very well thought out. This is in addition to a few plot holes that are, sadly, par the course for Damon Lindelof. A character getting teleported off another ship despite the shields being up is the one that really stuck in my teeth, personally.

The problematic last act still isn’t enough to ruin “Star Trek Into Darkness.” This is a fast, funny, thoroughly entertaining summer movie. The cast is still great and Abrams keeps his more irritating qualities in check. (You can count the number of lens-flares on one hand.) If this is the fate of modern “Trek,” I can live with that. [Grade: B+]

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Director Report Card: Dario Argento (2013)

20. Dracula 3D

The sad state of affairs these days is that a new Dario Argento film isn’t cause for celebration. Usually, it’s cause for concern. When it was announced that his next film was going to be a 3-D adaptation of “Dracula,” fans got worried. After all, the director’s last foray into gothic horror resulted in “Phantom of the Opera,” a misfire of epic proportions. When the teaser trailer for “Dracula 3D” hit the interwebs, it was everything we feared and worse: Awful CGI effects, 3D eye-gouging, laughable acting, creepy Asia nudity and, most infamously, Dracula turning into a giant praying mantis. “Dracula 3D” was shaping up to be another sad marker in Argento’s increasingly discredited career.

I went in with incredibly low expectations. No doubt this affected my final opinion. “Dracula 3D” isn’t good. It’s frequently embarrassingly bad. It’s also not terrible. All the stuff we groaned at in the trailer, and more, is present. However, the movie frequently rises to the level of campy enjoyment.

Only the bare outline of Stoker’s novel is retained. Jonathan Harker travels to Castle Dracula, relocated to a village in rural Italy, not to sell him property but to work in the Count’s library. This ends up being a bad idea. Mina follows to the village soon after and shacks up with friend Lucy. Dracula’s reign of terror over the town, and his particular interest in the girl, becomes apparent soon. Van Helsing shows up eventually too.

What happens to Harker while staying in the castle has some similar to the events of the novel. There is an attempted seduction by Dracula’s bride, singular, which the count interrupts, as expected. He spies Dracula crawling up the side of a tower. Harker ends up not being a particularly important character. Renfield is in the movie but he doesn’t resemble the source character at all. Lucy’s nightly visit with the Count and her eventual fate are at least inspired by the original story. Otherwise, Argento’s “Dracula” follows its own muse.

And what an odd muse it is. The director definitely makes some odd additions to the story. The village below has a particular relationship with the Count. He provides the townspeople with financial support and increased social standing, with the agreement that he can take the town’s daughters whenever he wants. His single, blonde bride is given an extended back story. She appears to be a virginal daughter at first but, because Dario is such a dirty old man these days, she has a soft-core graphic sex scene with her married boyfriend. Her perceived jealousy of Mina seems like it’s going to be an important plot point but fizzles out before the end.

No doubt the thing about the film that will get the most attention is the alterations to Dracula himself. Yes, he turns into a giant praying mantis. As absurd as it sounds and looks, that’s actually one of the better sequences in the movie. It catches the audience off-guard, due to its sudden appearance and pure oddness. Drac also turns into a wolf, a giant owl, and a swarm of flies. It’s even suggested that the count has sway over rats and cockroaches. He’s got general psychic abilities too.

Beyond the wacky super powers, Dracula’s motivation comes from Mina being the apparent reincarnation of his lost love, straight out of Coppola’s “Dracula.” Also like Coppola, Argento explicitly connects the fictional Dracula with the historical Vlad the Impaler. This information is dumped on the audience in the late going and it’s revealed the entire story has been manipulated by Dracula to get Mina to him. However, not all the changes are bad. The scene were the movie most comes alive is when Dracula turns on the townsfolk. He tears six guys apart in quick succession, slashing throats, biting necks, and lobbing off a head. The gore isn’t realistic and it’s really no less goofy then the rest of the movie but it’s still pretty entertaining.

About the special effects. The make-up effects are from frequent Argento collaborator Serio Stivaletti and it’s some of his best work in years. Two pin pricks obviously wouldn’t do for Dario, so whole necks are torn out, strands of flesh stretching and dangling. My favorite gag involves a shovel to the head and several of the stakings involve plenty of red. The practical effects are fine. It’s the movie’s CGI effects where it really falters. They’re bad. Like Syfy Channel Original bad. Dracula’s transformation from wolf to man is maybe the worse moment. When dead, the vampires crumbled into piles of dust. That’s a simple effect and the movie can’t even do that right. I mean, how hard is that? “Buffy” did a half-way convincing job every week on half the budget. It’s obviously fake looking. As bad as that is, Lucy’s fiery death is even worse. There aren’t words for how rubbery and fake the CGI in this film is.

The script is sloppy. It’s never clear who the main character is. Is it Harker? He has several important scenes early on. Yet he disappears for most of the film before being quickly killed at the very end. Mina is the next likely target yet none of her actions drive the plot. Van Helsing shows up half-way through and starts hacking through the supporting cast. This is his main purpose and I don’t know if it’s enough to earn him protagonist status. Even Dracula himself isn’t given a lot to do. He’s mostly a snarling murderer or mysterious cipher throughout most of the movie. The last minute attempt to turn him into a romantic figure falls horribly flat.

The story is generally unfocused. Tania, Dracula’s bride, gets a lot of screen time but contributes little to the film besides blatant eye-candy. Renfield wanders in and out of the plot without contributing much at all. If Dracula is after Mina, why does he bother seducing and bleeding Lucy? Dracula has a henchmen in the village named Zoran. This guy’s purpose isn’t well established. He murders Tania’s mother, in a rather giallo-esque sequence, is forgotten about, before Van Helsing kills him at the end. And what about Mina and Dracula’s relationship? One minute, she seems into him, even egging the Count. Another, she is resistant and confused. The movie tries to explain this with Dracula’s hypnotic powers but it just comes off as sloppy writing.

At least the movie delivers on the 3D. That’s not really a good thing though. Everything from owls, to swords, to eyeballs are tossed in the audience’s eyes. The opening credits are projected at the viewer as the camera careens down gothic hallways. Sadly, this is as close as we get to the classic Argento style. There are no scares in the movie, despite the loud music blaring when a man touches a woman’s shoulder or a character comes upon a decapitated Madonna. Claudio Simonetti’s score is as loopy as the rest of the movie. When not hitting us over the head with pounding noise, it tries to build atmosphere with humming theremin of all things. I like it though it’s totally out of place.

The cast is a mixed bad. None truly stand out though some are better then others. Thomas Kretschmann isn’t a bad Dracula. His line delivery is a bit awkward and he can’t sell some of his dialogue. He does much better when tearing people apart. At the very least, the guy carries himself well enough and is believable in the part. He’s not a great Dracula but is a convincing one.

Rutger Hauer is fine as Van Helsing. Hauer is a veteran and always a professional. He is given a howler of a monologue to rattle off at the end but an earlier moment, where he recalls his first encounter with vampires, is much better. Asia isn’t always well used in her father’s film. She doesn’t seem lost or confused for once and has decent chemistry with Marta Gastini’s Mina. Yes, there’s an unnecessary nude scene but it’s actually a decent character moment. Gastini has a handful of natural moments but comes off as awkward and stiff for most of the film. The same is said of Unax Ugalde and Miriam Giovanelli. Meanwhile, Giovanni Franzoni plays it way over the top as the film’s odd version of Renfield. The English dub is incredibly bad which makes it hard to read some of the performances.

The best thing “Dracula 3D” has going for it? It’s short. At just a little over a half-an-hour, it never drags, quickly bouncing from scene to scene. The movie’s a mess but far too goofy and quick-paced to be boring. It somehow prevents being a total fiasco. When it comes to modern Argento, I’ll take it. [Grade: C]

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Bangers n' Mash 17: Nerd Vomit, Part Deux

For those that follow my YouTube fake podcast thing, the Bangers n' Mash Show, you might notice that it tends to take me a while to get episodes out. Unlike most podcasters, who just record something and then toss it out on the internet, sometimes with some light editing, I edit the fuck out of the base audio. I'm talking, going down to a microscopic level, taking out the breaths between individual words. (In addition to cutting out all the stammering, 'you knows,' 'I means,' 'likes,' etc. Not to mention most of the unrelated tangents.) My OCD really does run that deeply.

My goal is always to get an episode out no later then a week after it was recorded, to make sure it's still sort of current. But because I'm a manic-depressive who sometimes goes days without working on anything, and because so much work needs to be done on each episode, it's usually later then that. Luckily, for once, I actually met my goal.

"Nerd Vomit, Part Deux," the newest episode of the podcast nobody likes or listens to, is a return to the loose, notes-free, lets-just-talk-about-whatever format we employed once before. (And will probably return to again in the near future.) Even then, a primary topic eventually emerges. After discussing video games ("Injustice: Gods Among Us") and awful television ("Monsters and Mysteries in America"), our attention turns to Summer Movie Season 2013. We literally went down the list of upcoming releases and talked about each one that interest us.

This was recorded on May 2nd and, that night, Mr. Mash and I attended a midnight screening of "Iron Man 3." Thus, the last ten minutes of the episode are devoted to discussing the latest mega-budget superhero blockbusters. The short, spoilers-free version?: We didn't like it. For a little more detail, feel free to listen.

I'd like to say "Real Episode Next Time," but it probably won't be.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Director Report Card: John Carpenter (2010)

21. The Ward

Ten years is a big gap between films. There has been a handful of unrealized announcements over the years: A Nicolas Cage action film. A cop thriller that was going to be both a movie and a video game. None of these came to fruition. For a long time, it seemed like John Carpenter was never going to direct another movie. And then, out of nowhere, “The Ward” was announced. By all accounts, those two “Masters of Horror” episodes got Carpenter interested in movie making again.

Sadly, the general reception for “The Ward” was lukewarm. The J-horror sounding premise and pretty girl cast didn’t exactly excite me from the beginning. So I went into the film with muted expectations. By the time I got around to seeing it, everyone knew this wasn't Carpenter's proud return to cinema. Ultimately, I kind of liked it, with a lot of reservations. Maybe it was just the low expectations. It’s far from the director’s best movie but not without its own charms.

The story is fairly unremarkable, the kind of thing we were seeing a lot of in horror through the last decade. A 1960s mental hospital full of skinny white girls has a dark secret. A vengeful ghost is haunting the titular ward and slowly widdling away at the cast of said skinny white girls. Kristen, the feisty new arrival, is determined to get to the bottom of things and has no problem challenging the sinister hospital staff, who are clearly in on things. It’s a sexy horror version of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” practically.

More disconcerting then the unremarkable story is the movie’s over reliance on jump scares. There are a lot of them and they are all very loud. Constantly throughout the movie, things jump out of the corner of the screen, always accompanied by a very loud shriek on the soundtrack. It happens over and over again. Carpenter has proven to very skilled at creating a lingering atmosphere of dread. One of his movie’s relying so much on cheap, frankly annoying, jump scares is a bit shameful.

The movie has a general lack of the classic Carpenter style. Few of his trademarks are present. There’s a single tracking shot midway through. Unsurprisingly, it's one of the best scenes in the film, a joyous little dance number that shows the cast coming together in a realistic, unobtrusive way. Carpenter didn't even contribute to the score. Instead, Mark Kilian provides music that is forgettable when it isn't bashing you over the head.

Despite these problems, I found myself liking the characters. Each one of the girls, while potentially a cliché, still proves to be interesting. I’ve never been a fan of Amber Heard before. I usually find her tough girl act to be tiresome, but it works here. The authorities actually do seem to be up to something which gives her reason to struggle. She is quickly position as the strongest of the girls and becomes their protector, giving her a good reason to struggle. Moreover, Heard plays nicely off the other girls. Eventually, a real sense of sisterhood forms among the cast.

Lyndsy Fonseca as the bookish Iris was probably my favorite. She’s definitely the friendliest of the girls, the first one to open up to Heard. However, she can't mask her nerves and anxiety, adding depth to both the character and the performance. I also liked Mamie Gummer as Emily. She’s also a deeply neurotic character but instead covers her insecurities with a stand-off-ish personality. Gummer successfully portrays someone whose defensive traits are just barely concealing a mental breakdown. She’s deeply protective of the other girls and doesn’t want to stick her nose in anything that will stir up problems. Danielle Panabaker as the slutty Sara and Laura-Leigh as the deeply traumatized, infantilized Zoey both have a lot less material to work with. However, both actresses do a good job with what they’re given.

The most notable thing the movie is that each girl manages to be memorable, likeable characters. “The Ward” is an ensemble movie the same way “The Thing” is. Deceit, suspicion, and paranoia threaten to tear the group apart but a strong leader and an outside threat makes them pull together, at least for a little while.

Once the countless jump scares finally stop, the movie manages to create a number of successful horror sequences. When the undead Alice, the vengeful ghost, stops just jumping out at people, and actually gets down to getting things done, the movie comes close to being creepy. When Alice appears, she drags the girls off and uses mental hospital equipment to do them in. The lobotomy probe and an electric shock therapy machine are frequently trotted out in order to disturb or shock the audience. While “The Ward” hardly uses them in new ways, the scenes themselves are at least effectively creepy. The shooting is tight and the editing is concise. Carpenter can still stitch together a decent horror moment, when he actually tries.

Honestly, the mixture of likable characters and some effective atmosphere got me to like the movie. As the film builds to its climax, as Kristen eventually finds herself the last girl standing, the movie builds up a decent pitch. The ghost is closing in and our heroine has to fight alone. This is classic stuff, right out of "Halloween." Nothing new or exciting, sure, but I was enjoying myself.

And then… The movie hits a brick wall in the form of an obvious, obnoxious twist ending. I’m beginning to wish that a movie could tell a tale about psychosis and multiple personality without delving to any cheap narrative trickery. Honestly, even then, I was giving this flick a lot of rope. I kept thinking, “Okay, movie, I’ll let you have your more-then-a-little-dumb twist ending, as long as you just go quietly and settle on a calm, emotional conclusion.” Nope. Here’s one more really, really stupid jump scare and: Credits. Sigh.

I’m not a Carpenter apologist. I don’t consider myself one anyway. “The Ward” legitimately charmed me in many ways. I don’t consider it a failure, even with obnoxious jump scares, a bombastic musical score, and a bad twist ending. Can a film have all of those things and still be enjoyable for the majority of its run time? I don’t know if this is the triumphant return to the screen we had hoped for from John Carpenter, but it’s not a bad return. Let’s hope his next film meshes better. [Grade: B-]

We had hoped "The Ward" would break the trend of John Carpenter getting attached to a project and then nothing coming of it. Nope. "Fangland," another vampire novel adaptation, was suppose to roll right after "The Ward." It didn't. "Darkchylde," an adaptation of some crappy nineties comic book nobody remembers or cares about, looked ready to go at one point and then... Nothing. Most recently, he's talked about wanting to turn the video game "Dead Space" into a movie. I'm not holding my breath.

And maybe that's for the best. I like the guy and, perhaps, I've given some of his later films a wider berth then most. But it's clear at this point that Carpenter is unlikely to produce another masterpiece, hope though we might. Maybe graceful retirement is a viable option after all.

That took a lot longer then expected. Why did it take me three months to finish up one report card? If you hadn't figured it out, it's because I started this before having all the reviews written. Turns out, that's not a great way to drive up my creativity. No more of that stupidity in the future. I won't start posting a Director's Report Card until I'm ready. Despite this, I do have some stuff in the bag. You'll see me again soon. I promise.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Director Report Card: John Carpenter (2001)

20. Ghosts of Mars

“Ghosts of Mars” is the only John Carpenter movie I had never seen before starting work on this report card. This is because, by all accounts, it’s wretched and widely considered the filmmaker’s worst work. However, as a fair and balanced critic, I never let any preconceived notions affect my aesthetic judgement. It was time to give “Ghosts of Mars” a fair chance.

The movie has a lot to get out of the way to set up its plot. Set in the 22nd century, on Mars, in a society ruled by women… Wait a minute, isn’t that alone more then enough to build a movie on? Yes. Yes, it is. A science fiction film about a future were women are in control of society would be fascinating. So would a movie about colonizing Mars. But that’s not what “Ghosts of Mars” is about. Instead, it's a sci-fi semi-remake of “Assault on Precinct 13.” A squad of Mars police officers head to a remote mining post to pick up a notorious criminal. Upon reaching the location, they find lots of dead bodies, a handful of locked-up crooks, and, most dangerously, a supernatural Martian ghost virus that possesses people and turn them into raging, murderous, self-mutilating zombies.

Aside from skimming over probably the most interesting parts of the story with some brief on-screen titles, the main issue with “Ghosts of Mars” is that it’s cast is far too large. We start out with five or six officers, bringing in Ice Cube’s awkwardly nick-named “Desolation” Williams. There are a few other surviving prisoners present, an exposition-dropping doctor shows up, before the rest of Desolation’s criminal crew wanders into the story. This is an action movie, so I would never expect a cast that large to get any extended developments. However, many of the characters getting absolutely no development is unacceptable. Who are the additional three prisoners in the mine? Who is the secondary male police officer? What’s the story behind Ice Cube’s buddies? The film provides no answers.

Even the main characters aren’t necessarily developed well. Natasha Henstridge’s Lt. Ballard, the protagonist, is introduced early with a drug problem, some sort of future pill that causes disorientation. This is strictly a Chekov’s Drug Addiction. The topic comes up once more and only to provide a bizarre out for a later plot development. Jason Statham, the Second-Coming of Cheesy Action Flick Stars, plays the second-in-command. Statham’s innate likability is undermined by him constantly hitting on Henstridge in skeevy ways. Whither or not this kind of attitude would develop at all in a matriarchal society is a question probably outside of a sci-fi/horror/action hybrid’s scope. The movie’s inability to make this plot development seem natural or plausible is another thing. When the movie actually tries to force these two into a romance, right in the middle of the crisis, it is truly eye-rolling.

Some of the smaller supporting characters are cartoonish. Joanna Cassidy is hopelessly miscast as Dr. Whitlock. Cassidy drops awful dialogue, never making it believable. The character wields some exposition, eventually providing an explanation for the demonic-alien-zombie plague. She disappears for large portions of the film. The trio of criminals that show up nearly an hour in are terrible. Duane Davis’ Uno has the most laughably silly lines in the movie and Davis almost seems to be intentionally playing his goofy dialogue for comedy. Rodney A. Grant’s Tres is another drug addict, which isn’t expanded on, accidently cuts his own thumb of, and gets killed not long after. Lobo Sebastian’s Dos isn’t even given that much personality.

And speaking of killing people off… There are some talented characters actresses in the supporting cast, such as personal favorite Clea DuVall and the original bad-ass babe Pam Grier. Grier dies quickly and, while DuVall sticks around for a while, she’s only given a smidge of a personality. In the last act, the movie starts slashing through the supporting cast. Characters that were important throughout most of the run-time are murdered with abandon. The survivors don’t comment on this at all and the film’s treats their deaths with as little weight. It gives you the impression that the filmmaker’s really didn’t care about these characters at all.

Henstridge actually does a decent job in the part. She’s likable and convincing. The movie mostly avoids oogling the lovely actress, which makes the extraneous underwear scene especially gratuitous. (Though not entirely unappreciated.) A scene were she beats down a zombie bare-handed gives the impression that she probably could have been a decent female action star, if the movie hadn’t have bombed so bad. That’s more then you can say for Ice Cube. He bluntly spits out most of his lines and sleepwalks through the role. He’s not believable as an action star either, blandly running around, shooting people.

How does “Ghosts of Mars” function as an action movie? Some of the fight scenes are decent, like a close-quarters shoot-out with the hordes of crazies. Others, like the gang running through the village, guns blazing and grenades blasting, come off as weirdly off-balanced. Carpenter seems unusually preoccupied with characters getting tossed into the air by explosions. The action is never incoherent but occasionally falls into the “guns go off, people fall down” style I frequently criticize.

How does “Ghosts of Mars” function as a horror movie? There are a handful of jump scares, none of which are memorable. The mutilated zombies are the main horrific elements. It’s actually a semi-interesting concept and one that was previous explored in “Return of the Living Dead 3” and would be better exploited in “Firefly” and “Serenity” later on. The make-up for most of the homicidal nutcases is fine. The script provides the baddies with a clear leader, a big guy in shoulder-pads with long hair and Alice Cooper face-paint. He’s goofier looking and given the most screen-time. The zombie make-up is better then the gore make-up, some of which is embarrassingly shoddy. I’m talking Kool-Aid clear blood and heads popping off like corks. The film’s CGI is similarly weak. A balloon crash is awkwardly matted. Red smoke clouds and exploding trains haven’t aged well, if they ever looked good to begin with.

The script stumbles. Henstridge is narrating the story to a judge. Despite this, there are several scenes were her character isn’t present, raising the question of how she knows what happened. (Not to mention the flashbacks within flashbacks.) The rules regarding the rage-creating ghost-demons aren’t well explained and sometimes vary from scene to scene. A scene giving us a glimpse at the Martians in their natural form is bizarre. The ending, with Henstridge and Cube walking off, loading guns, quipping one-liners back and forth, seems to set-up a sequel that was never going to happen.

The most disappointing thing about the film for me is how clumsy Carpenter’s direction is. There are POV shots a plenty. However, they are shaky and washed in red coloration. Instead of creating atmosphere or suspense, they come off as distracting and hokey. Dissolve transitions between scenes is repeatedly use, in a baffling decision. Even more baffling are the swipe-pan transitions used a few times at well. I don’t know what John or his editor was thinking with that one. I’m not a fan of the score, a collaboration between Carpenter and a number of heavy metal guitarist. The main theme is solidly electronic but the thrash-metal elements are generic and rob the action scenes of any tension. In the latter half, the movie’s pace really slows to a crawl, even if characters are gunning and dying on-screen.

So is “Ghosts of Mars” as bad as its reputation? Not quite. Oh, it’s bad, an embarrassment to the director’s career. It is, pretty much without question, John’s worse film. However, it’s less of a massive boondoggle and more of a mediocre bore. The critical, fan, and box office dismissal of the movie would put Carpenter off feature filmmaking for nearly a decade, not to mention all-but ending Natasha Henstridge and Ice Cube’s careers. [Grade: D+]

Monday, May 6, 2013

Director Report Card: John Carpenter (1998)

19. Vampires

We are currently flushed with vampire-related media but, truthfully, the creatures have always been an evergreen part of the horror genre. Though the recent wave favors the sparkly variety, think back to the late nineties. The twin success of “From Dust til Dawn” and “Blade” sparked an interest in hard-R, bloody action movies as much about the vampire hunters as about the creatures themselves. Though that wave more or less ended with “Vampires,” and eventually curdled into the rancid “Underground” franchise, the film is an entertaining potboiler in the sometimes disappointing latter half of the filmmaker’s career.

Loosely based on a novel by John Steakley, the film presents a blue-collar approach to vampire hunting. Jack Crow and his team of Vatican-sponsored vampire hunters seem to function like highly specialized exterminators. They travel the country cleaning out infested houses, treating the vampires much like common, though highly dangerous, pests. The first sequence sets up the rules of vamp hunting but also the casualness of it. Of course, a movie about the 24/7 work-a-day lives of vampire slayers probably wouldn’t be very interesting, so Jack’s team is slaughtered by a Big Bad, the first of all vampires, and our hero sets out on a quest to prevent the impending vampire apocalypse.

Carpenter has long expressed his desire to make a Western and, in a lot of ways, “Vampires” fits the bill. The camera frequently lingers over the wide desert vistas of the South-West setting. The red clay buildings and monks in brown robes seem to be from another, older era. Carpenter focuses on his leading men’s faces, most notably during a slow pan into James Wood’s face in the opening scene. This recalls Sergio Leone, as does the occasional Morricone-esque horns on the soundtrack. Before most of the cast is killed, it’s easy to imagine the movie going in the direction of a men-on-a-mission flick, a horror-fied version of “The Magnificent Seven” or “The Wild Bunch.” Scenes like one of the heroic rogues hijacking a car wouldn’t be entirely out of place in a spaghetti western either, if you substitute “horse” for “car.”

But the movie is far more indebted to a more recent trend: Eighties action movies. “Vampires” is invested in tough guy heroes gunning through hordes of mooks. Machine guns blast vampires full of bloody holes. James Woods wields an awesome crossbow in several scenes. Bite wounds are cauterized on blazing gun barrels. In one of the film’s most suspenseful sequences, vampires burst through walls and elevators at the protagonists. The heroes stand strong, blasting the monsters point-blank in the face, even while being dragged across the floor. The film even practices some of the genre’s goofier clichés. Crow doesn’t look at an explosion as he walks away from it. Cheesy one-liners are tossed around, some of them really groan-inducing like “How do you like your stake?” or “Suck this!”

Another element of eighties action flicks is deeply ingrained in the story: Dudesweat and machismo. “Vampires” has more homoerotic subtext then it does blood and bullets. The movie is, covertly, about the romance between James Wood’s Jack Crow and Daniel Baldwin’s Montoya. Baldwin is introduced urinating next to Woods, demonstrating their bro-dom. This happy couple is split up by Sheryl Lee’s Katrina. Though Montoya is resentful of the girl at first, swearing at her and smacking her around, the two develop an unconvincing romance. From a plot angle, sure, Jack is just suspicious of the girl because she’s becoming a vampire. But why does Woods play his reaction less as righteous anger and more like petty jealousy? His contempt is violent and obvious. Jack is right about the bitch too, since she bites into Montoya’s throat like a Doritos Locos Taco. This isn’t even enough to pull the two apart. When Jack is strung up on a cross, looking like a sweaty leather daddy, Montoya is there to save him. Despite his hatred for vampires, Jack lets his former partner go, saying goodbye with a manly embrace.

When Baldwin breaks Jack’s heart but falling for that slutty, vampire whore, Tim Guinee’s Father Guiteau, a young Catholic priest and a total fan boy for Jack, is there to pick up the pieces, filling the hole in Woods’ heart. Jack displays this blossoming affection by kicking him in the ass, knocking him to the floor, ordering him around, and cutting him with a knife. But Jack’s romantic interest is made obvious, especially when he flat-out asks the young priest if he gives him an erection. It takes the rest of the movie for him to come around but, when asked the question again at the film’s end, Guinee responds positively.

Further proof of the movie’s macho streak comes in its treatment of female characters. All the women in the movie are either hookers or vampires. Woods is barely interested in the cascade of female flesh on display at the motel. His teammates, all of them enjoying the prostitutes, are punished for conforming to heterosexual norms by being slashed to bits by the deeply straight-to-the-point-asexuality vampire villain. One of the most graphic death scenes in the movie is reversed for a random female vampire, who is graphically staked, dragged into the sunlight, and explodes in a lingered-on, massive fireball. All of this is so obvious that I can only conclude that Carpenter, the writers, and the cast were intentionally in on the joke.

So there isn’t much of a focus on scares here. An early investigation of a dusty, old house features some shadows and a jump scare or two, but that’s about it. Instead, the horror elements come through in the heaps of gore. Bite marks are bloody and explicit. A stake is slammed straight into a vamp’s head, for no reason other then that it looks cool. The movie’s crowning moment of gore comes when master vampire Valek splits a guy in half right down the middle. As somebody who appreciates practical effects and good ol’ fashion American violence, I say that’s awesome. Hands are stabbed through chest, brains are splattered with shotguns, throats are torn out, we have decapitations with claws and axes, and the movie even squeezes in a fountain of blood. When exposed to sunlight, the vampires burst into flames, jets of fire shooting out of their arms, reduced to smoldering skeletons. It’s not subtle but it is fun.

James Woods has a ball in the lead. Jack Crow is practically Mel Gibson-ian in his attitude. He’s tough, actively misanthropic, snarling, swearing, sweating, and clad in a leather jacket. He has a tragic back-story but it’s barely focused on. Instead, he’s an angry, mean guy who just wants to kill as many vampires as possible. Woods drops blatant exposition as smoothly as possible. Sometimes it’s awkward, such as when he’s berating Baldwin on the side of the road. Sometimes, it’s a little cooler, like when dismissing traditional vampire beliefs. Either way, Woods hams it up, given the rare chance to play a macho bad-ass action hero.

Thomas Ian Griffin’s Valek is a classical evil vampire. Tall, pale, with long black hair, he conveys a threatening air with little more then a glance or nod. The traditional cape and collar are traded out for a long black trench coat. Though Griffin perhaps doesn’t do more then snarl, adsorb bullets with arms outstretch, and kill lots of people, he has something the best actors aren’t always gifted with: Screen presence. He’s a perfectly memorable villain.

The supporting cast isn’t quite so solid. What about Baldwin? His cockiness works well enough, especially when badgering a hotel clerk for little to no reason. His reaction with Sheryl Lee is hardly romantic, more gruff and sexist, and their eventual romance comes out of nowhere. Dialogue that is supposes to be romantic comes off as boorish and stiff. Lee is mostly there for eye-candy. She’s a plot device, connecting our hero to the villain. Guinee is a nice foil to Woods’ swagger. Maximilian Schell’s extended cameo works better in the third act, after a villainous turn. Despite the presence of great character actors like Mark Boone Junior and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, they get killed before making any sort of impression.

Carpenter’s direction makes a strong comeback. The opening pan across the desert recalls shots in some of his best films. There are plenty of POV shots, most of them from the vampires as they are dragged out of a house or cut through innocent people. Montages are deployed during the motel slaughter, which is a little awkward. Woods cleaning up the same location the next morning is far more effective.

His country-fried score is another strong factor. The main theme is rollicking, setting up the ass-kicking tone. Bluesy riffs frequently kick in on the soundtrack, as the weary characters march down an empty road. Guitars jangle and rattle during various montages. It’s a strong rock n’ roll score, connecting deeply with the film’s themes and aesthetic.

“Vampires” is simplistic, rolling along at a decent pace, story elements connecting easily. It’s not great art at all and, perhaps, represents Carpenter’s further degradation as a filmmaker. The film is swift, effortlessly entertaining, and goes by quickly enough that you don’t have time to question any of its flaws. It’s become something of a cult favorite among gore aficionados and cheesy action movie fans, spawning a series of lousy direct-to-video sequels. [Grade: B+]  

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Director Report Card: John Carpenter (1996)

18. Escape from L.A

20 years later sequels are a mixed proposition. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Even though “Escape from New York” was a sizable international hit, it wasn’t swept up in the eighties’ wave of action movie sequels. In 1996, John Carpenter and Kurt Russell saw fit to rectify that, bringing Snake back for another adventure. It’s hard to say how much of this was audience demand, how much was Carpenter’s desire to revisit a previous hit, or how much Russell wanted to play a legit bad ass again. Considering Kurt co-wrote and co-produce, you can’t help but wonder if “Escape from L.A.” was greenlit partially to serve the star’s ego.

The film is frequently criticized for being a partial remake of the first film. The base outline is the same. Snake is summoned by the U.S. government to go into a crime-infested metropolis, in order to rescue a MacGuffin. The setting, object of rescue, and surrounding details are different but the story is largely recycled.

However, this honestly doesn’t bother me much. “Escape from L.A.” is a lot goofier then it’s predecessor, which winds up making it more fun. Los Angeles has a lot more color then New York, the sequel has a much bigger budget, and the film seems to delight in decimating famous L.A. landmarks. The Hollywood sign is set ablaze, the Capitol Records building is collapsed, and even Disneyland has been reduced to a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The city is populated with colorful characters played by a great cast of actors. The film is packed with action, much of it straining the line between campy and genuinely bad ass. While I understand why some fans of the first film were disappointed, as somebody who is lukewarm on the original, I found a lot to like here.

The film’s best attribute is its world-building. America has changed a lot in-between part one’s 1998 and part two’s 2013. A massive earthquake has turned Los Angeles into an island. A religious fanatic president has turned America into a true dystopia, enforcing draconian laws and executing/exiling “undesirables” to the island. The world is on the brink of war, with several countries very close to invading the U.S. Carpenter is employing a similar brand of satire he used in “They Live.” Once again, politicians are in his sights, particularly taking target at the religious right. I maintain that J.C. predicted George W. Bush with this film, as Cliff Robertson’s unnamed President seems to resemble our 43rd, in beliefs, personality, and appearance.

That stuff is awesome. What I take issue with is the sloppy screenplay. The first movie was focused, with Snake after a clear goal, acquiring allies and enemies along the way. The sequel seems to be satisfied with having him wander around L.A., encountering a bunch of different people. Most of them end up having nothing but the most superficial effect on the story. Sometimes it seems to be a deliberate subversion. Snake rescues a girl, has a romantic dialogue with her, seeming to set up her up as his primary love interest. She dies in the next scene. However, a lot of it is just sloppy writing. In order to squeeze as many wacky characters in as possible, we have a hero just marching from set-piece and encounter. After a strong start, the pacing drags in the middle before a decent ending supplies some much-needed momentum.

Even if they aren't well used, the supporting cast is awesome. Steve Buscemi is the most memorable, as a Hollywood conman, just looking to make a buck. He switches alliances with ease and somehow avoids getting killed. He’s like an evil version of Ernest Borgnine’s Cabbie from the first film. Buscemi is having a ball and is massively entertaining. Cliff Robertson is both hilarious and disgusting as the vile president. Pam Grier has the odd distinction of playing a trans-gender man here. Pam is tough, convincing, and kicks some butt. Peter Fonda, naturally, plays a burnt-out hippy surfer dude. While the character is one of the most absurd things in the movie, Fonda is fun to watch, having a ball parodying his own public persona.

The biggest sin the film commits is wasting Bruce Campbell in a bit part. While the Surgeon General of Beverly Hills certainly appears to be an interesting character and Bruce seems to be having a good time hamming it up as a psychotic mad doctor, he has so little screen time that you can't tell for sure. I’m not real crazy about Georges Corraface as the villainous Cuevro Jones. Corraface isn’t bad, even has a moment or two, but is mostly just bland. The film seems to intentionally compare him to the Duke of New York, but with a disco ball on his car instead of chandeliers. Corraface is no Isaac Hayes, is what I’m saying.

But what about Snake? Kurt inhabits the part as naturally as before. Only this time, the movie works towards making him a more likable character. Snake isn’t just in it for himself, this time. The world has gotten crazier and now an amoral crook like Snake seems far more heroic. He seems a little more inclined to rescue the innocents around him this time and a little more interested in fighting evil. Maybe the oft-referenced, off-screen Cleveland incident has changed him for the better.

The movie goes a long way to building up Snake as a bad-ass. Some of these decisions work better then others. Snake in a trench-coat? Sure. Snake on a motorcycle? Absolutely. These are natural. Snake hang gliding? Movie, you’re pushing it and it doesn’t help that the green screen effects are a little awkward. Snake on a surfboard? Okay, now that’s silly. The character picking up a skill like that while fighting a cold really pushes believability. Worse yet, the movie’s incredibly choppy CGI effects are most evident here. (This is also noticeable during the submarine and helicopter sequences. Computer effects have come a long way.) By the time Snake is shooting hoops in a life-or-death basketball game, it becomes clear that Kurt was just sticking stuff in the screenplay that he wanted to do. For the record, the basketball scene, though largely a repeat of the wrestling match from the first movie, actually creates some decent suspense, silly as it is.

The ending is pitch-perfect and makes up for a lot of the film’s problems. Snake presses a button, plunges the world into darkness, which is the right thing to do. Kurt is is at his most convincingly awesome in that moment. Carpenter seems focused on the frequently choppy special effects, though his direction is far from bad. I’d say his score, co-composed with Shirley Walker, is better then “New York’s,” though it looses points for forcing so many pop songs on to the soundtrack. I get why “Escape from L.A.” received a mixed reaction from fans and the general public. It’s a goofy-ass movie and not the most smoothly constructed. Still, I find myself enjoying it more every time I watch it. Snake is pretty cool, after all. [Grade: B]