Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, January 31, 2016

Recent Watches: A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)

John McClane, as the title indicates, just won’t die. A fifth “Die Hard” movie had been bandied about after the fourth one proved surprisingly decent. Another six years would pass before the latest entry in the long-running franchise would premiere. “A Good Day to Die Hard” – because of course it was called that – was dropped in the unassuming month of February. Even the lesser “Die Hard” sequels managed to be entertaining. The fifth film, however, received an acidic reaction from both critics and fans. After twenty years, it seemed John McClane had finally run out of fuel.

John McClane has gotten some bad news. His son is in trouble over in Russia. He flies over to rescue his boy. Jack McClane is testifying against Yuri Komarov, a political prisoner. On the way to the trial, a hit squad appears to take Jack and Yuri out. Luckily, John arrives to help his son out. He soon learns that Jack is actually a CIA agent, a government spy. The McClanes and Yuri go in search of a file that will incriminate Komarov’s assassins, who work for a government official who profited off the Chernobyl incident. None of the Russians are who they appear to be. Betrayals and double-crosses ensue. Jack and John are along for the ride.

“A Good Day to Die Hard” was directed by John Moore, the same man who gifted the world with such lauded classics of cinema like “Behind Enemy Lines,” “Max Payne,” and the remakes of “The Omen” and “Flight of the Phoenix.” Moore is no John McTiernan. He’s not even Renny Harlin. “A Good Day to Die Hard” is shot through a sickly green filter, providing an overcast, dreary tone. During the action scenes, the film becomes shaky and incoherent. When the camera isn't jittering wildly, it falls into dull shots of muzzle flash and people falling down. “Live Free or Die Hard” pushed the action to difficult-to-believe heights. The fifth film goes even further. An extended car chase has multiple vehicles flipping through the air, cars driving over other cars, and much shattering stone. In the last act, John dangles from a truck dangling from a helicopter. CGI is abused in many of these sequences. The action in “A Good Day to Die Hard” is somehow both ridiculously overblown and utterly generic. All the R-rated bullet wounds in the world couldn’t make up for that.

Another problem I had with the fourth “Die Hard” flick was how it made John McClane into an inhuman superhero. The bloodied feet and broken bones of previous films were nowhere to be seen. But at least part four acknowledged that John had once been human. The fifth film treats John like a generic action hero. He leaps through a glass window, unaffected. He then falls through several awnings, wooden platforms, and plastic tubing. Near the end, he’s tossed through another window, drops through concrete floors, and lands in a pool. Wait, isn’t shattered glass the shit that crippled John in the first movie? Usually, Bruce Willis’ charm and sarcasm makes up for this problem. Unfortunately, “A Good Day to Die Hard” was made knee-deep in Willis’ “not giving a shit” period. The film drills its lame excuse for a one-liner, “I’m on vacation!,” into the ground. Bruce winces and smirks but there’s no life behind his eyes. He’s as bored as the audience is.

Also boring: Jai Courtney! The Australian hunk of meat keeps getting cast in high profile action movie, despite having all the charisma of a dead panda bear. Before he put viewers to sleep in “Terminator Genesys,” he lulled us into a peaceful slumber as John McClane’s son. Courtney’s face seems unable to emote. He reads all his dialogue in the same flat, slightly irritated tenor. As an action star, Jai utterly lacks screen presence. Script wise, the film tries to sell the angst between McClanes Senior and Junior. John regrets not being there for Jack, the boy listening from around a corner. Later, they chat while driving towards Chernobyl. By the end, Jack happily accepts John as his father. Moreover, he accepts his family heritage of ass-kicking. It’s cliché, dour stuff. In a better film, even with a better actor, this should’ve been the story’s emotional heart. In “A Good Day to Die Hard,” it’s another lame attempt to heat up lukewarm material. (The far more likable McClane off-spring, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Lucy, is reduced to a cameo in the theatrical release and cut out entirely in the extended version.)

The fifth film really puts things in prospective. As underwhelming as Timothy Olyphant’s bad guy was in “Live Free or Die Hard,” the villains in “A Good Day to Die Hard” are totally forgettable. Most of them are generic dudes in suits. One of the henchman dances a little, and complains about Americans, but that’s the extend of his personality. The audience cares so little that, when Yuri’s betrayal comes, it barely registers. Who is the corrupt government official behind all this? Who cares! About the only bad guy that registers at all is Yuliya Snigir, as the unhinged daughter. And that’s probably just because I have thing for Eastern European women. The enemy’s plot is convoluted and uninteresting. Something about stolen plutonium... There’s a last minute attempt to spin the motivation towards greed – the same thing that motivated all previous “Die Hard” baddies – but it’s half-assed. Like everything else in the movie.

The movie looks like crap. None of the actors are engaged. The script is tedious. The action is badly framed and lifeless. The adversaries are completely forgettable. “A Good Day to Die Hard” is such a stunning achievement in mediocrity that it made me actively angry. Though flopping domestically, the sequel cleaned up internationally. Despite initial reports that the sixth and potentially final movie would be (awesomely) entitled “Die Hardest,” it’ll actually be a prequel called “Die Hard: Year One.” There’s no way it could possibly be lamer than this, right? Right? [4/10]

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Recent Watches: Predators (2010)

When “Predators” came out in 2010, I was surprisingly hyped for it. If you ignore the cross-over flicks, it had been two whole decades since we had a real “Predator” sequel. Producer Robert Rodriguez promised to make a worthy sequel that took the series in a new direction and expanded on the mythology in interesting ways. An up-and-coming director, Nimrod Antal, was hooked into directing and a worthy cast was assembled. When the movie came out, I even got a bunch of my nerdy high school friends together to see it. I walked out disappointed, maybe because I was putting too many expectations on what was meant to be a modest creature thriller.

A group of killers awaken in free-fall, tumbling towards a jungle. As the mixture of soldiers, mercenaries, criminals, enforcers, and one seemingly normal man get to know each other, they realize what’s going on. They are on an alien world. They are being tracked by unseen forces, seemingly hunting them for sport. They are on a game preserve planet, pursued by the Predators. As they struggle to survive and work together, the disparate group realizes there is in-fighting among their captors, which could be their ticket home.

“Predator” was a clever combination of an eighties action flick and an extraterrestrial horror movie, with a great cast and even better direction. These perhaps humble beginnings spawned an extensive series of comics, novels, toys, and video games. This was the universe “Predators” was entertaining in to. The film attempts to expand on the established “Predator” mythology in new ways. The sequel takes the original’s sci-fi spin on “The Most Dangerous Game” concept to its natural conclusion. This time, the humans are being hunted… On an alien world. These Predators have hounds, spiky dog-like creatures that pursue their prey, which leads to one of the best scenes in the movie. One of the aliens even has a robotic falcon on its suit, which it surveys the area with. The bulky armors that hunters wore in the “Alien vs. Predator” films are thankfully ejected, returning to the stripped-down look of the original. All of these are clever additions.

In some other ways, “Predators” bites off more then it can chew. An aspect of the film that was heavily hyped is that the film deals with two warring clans of Predators. Disappointing, this is a brief aspect of the film. The promised Pred-on-Pred fight happens once, late in the film, and doesn’t last long. The villainous alien, called either the Super Predator or the Berserker, is an ugly design too, with wider jaws and a more detailed head. The inter-species war is such small part of the movie that it feels like a tacked-on idea. “Predators” also doesn’t give us much of a peek into the aliens’ home world either. A subplot about Lawrence Fishburne as a survivor hiding on the planet doesn’t amount to much. Fishburne’s bizarre, over-the-top performance doesn’t help any either. It mostly feels like a variation on the original movie in a new setting. From the fan service perspective, “Predators” is still a bit of a let-down. Even the callbacks to the original, like the reappearance of Ol’ Painless or another character coating themselves in mud, feels a bit desperate.

Something that is occasionally mocked is the movie casting Adrian Brody as its bad ass hero. Brody sure has had an odd career, hasn’t he? An Oscar-winner who has done time in lots of schlock, he gives it his all even in material as dire as “InAPPropreite Comedy.” As Royce, the morally ambiguous anti-hero of the film, Brody is surprisingly good. He’s believable as a stone-cold killer. His whispered dialogue actually helps up the tension. The dude put on a lot of muscle for the part too. I also really like Alice Bragga as Isabelle, the female lead. The more compassionate of the team, Bragga brings a humanity to the role while still being an effectively tough soldier.

Sadly, we don’t get to know the rest of the cast very well. It sometimes feel like the writers dropped a bunch of stereotypes onto the alien world. What do you think of when imagining the most dangerous people from around the world? We have a Mexican drug cartel enforcer, a shiv-wielding prison psychopath, the stoic Yakuza, a Russian super-soldier, and a death squad member from an African war zone. Sometimes, the movie wastes likable character actors in these thin parts. Danny Trejo – go ahead and guess which one he is – is underutilized and exits the film far too soon. Walter Goggins as the convict goes way over the top, which may be more of a scripting problem. Oleg Taktarov has some humanizing moments but still isn’t given much to do. I like the Japanese guy but he’s mostly a cipher. Only Topher Grace, as the wolf in sheep’s clothing, makes much of an impression. Unfortunately, the internet spoiled the reveal about his character, probably the film’s most clever element.

“Predators” is never truly effective as a horror flick. It occasionally builds a little intensity but never any scares. It fares slightly better as an action flick. There’s no distracting shaky-cam at the very least. The fight with the hounds works well. The duel between a Predator and the yakuza is slightly cheesy but memorable. The fight between the Predator should have lasted longer but works while it does. The movie certainly splatters plenty of green blood. The final duel between our hero and the Berserker underwhelms though. It essentially replays scenes from the original, without putting a unique twist on it. “Predators” was modestly budgeted. This is clear not just in the limited screen-time of the monsters but in the half-assed CGI, which is not convincing.

Weirdly, “Predators” might work the best before the titular aliens are introduced. The scenes of the cast exploring the planet, figuring out what’s happening and what their situation is, are the most effective in the entire movie. You know where it’s going but it is fun to see the wheels roll into place. “Predators” still doesn’t live up to its potential. Maybe that upcoming, Shane Black-written reboot will. The third film isn’t an embarrassment to the legacy either. It’s an occasionally entertaining but mostly unextraordinary entry into the franchise, with some clever ideas it doesn’t capitalize on and others that seem undercooked. [6/10]

Bangers n' Mash 81: The 2015 Phantom Awards

Every January for the last four(!) years, the Bangers n' Mash Show has intended on getting two episodes out during the month. That's a goal we usually meet during the rest of the year. But for some reason, January is always a month where I struggle to meet the goal.

It's the Phantom Awards' fault. Yep, that goofy made-up award show JD and I do at the start of every year, celebrating the best (and sometimes worst) in sci-fi, horror, and fantasy cinema for the previous year. I don't know why the shows are always such a struggle to edit. Maybe I'm just burnt out from the end of the year? Or maybe the award show episodes are just tricky to work on? Who knows. Anyway, here's the new episode.

Come back later today for a new Recent Watches a review, as I continue to work my way through the Predator franchise. While we're on the topic of award shows, Oscar coverage begins on Monday. Woooo.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Recent Watches: Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (2007)

The first “AVP” had a lousy reception, with critics and especially among fans. I know all the kids at my high school lunch table were as disappointed in it as I was. Despite this, it made money. It won the weekend and, when inflation is disregarded, is actually the highest grossing film in either franchise. You have no idea how much that factoid bums me out. Two years later, a sequel was greenlit out of the blue. The Brothers Strauss, experienced effects guy but first time filmmakers, took the director’s chair. The filmmakers promised to deliver a movie that would satisfy fans of both series, the ones who were disappointed in the previous installment. “Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem” was hated even by the fans it set out to please and grossed far less at the box office.  Controversy opinion incoming: I actually enjoy “Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem.”

In the final minutes of “AVP,” a Xenomorph/Yautja hybrid was seen bursting from the chest of a dying Predator warrior. “Requiem” picks up right where the first film left off. The PredAlien rampages through the ship, killing the hunters aboard. The ship crashes outside Gunnison, Colorado. The PredAlien, and the set of facehuggers on-board, survive the crash. The aliens begin to tear apart the small town. The ship’s distress signal is received by a lone warrior on the Yautju home world, who heads to Earth to clean up the mess before it gets too out of control. The human residents of Gunnison are caught in the war between the extraterrestrial monsters.

“Requiem” seems to be widely hated by hardened fans of either series. I get this, really. Like its predecessor, the film takes place on Earth, in the present, running counter to what we’ve come to expect from the “Alien vs. Predator” comics and games. The film’s characters are not tough space marines or experienced scientist but teenagers and twenty-somethings. The movie lacks suspense and doubles down on gory special effects. There's also has a mean-spirit thread running through, the script delighting in endangering children and pregnant women. I understand why people dislike these elements. I mean the following as a compliment: “Aliens vs. Predator” reminds me of a trashy, splatterpunk novel. The big cast, characters obsessed with sex, small town setting, plentiful gore, nasty tone, and slimy monsters reads like something out of a Richard Laymon novel. Swap the Xenomorphs and Yautja out with generic monsters, and maybe ramp up the sex and violence, and its very easy to imagine this as a sleazy paperback. Do these elements have any place in the “Alien” or “Predator” series? Probably not. But taken on its own, the film is enjoyable.

Though it didn’t succeed in doing so, “Aliens vs. Predator” obviously wants to please die hard fans of both series. Numerous in-jokes are scattered throughout. Brian Tyler’s score features call-backs to both James Horner’s “Aliens” score and Alan Silvestri’s “Predator” score. “Get to the chopper!” and “One ugly motherfucker” are both uttered. The movie ends by putting a face to the Yutani side of the Weyland-Yutani corporation. Moreover, the film shows us things we’ve always wanted to see. We get a brief glimpse at the Predator home world. The PredAlien, a creature featured in the comics and video games from time to time, is the primary adversary. All of this stuff is cool. It’s evidence that the filmmakers are indeed big fans of both series.

But the biggest indicator that the sequel was made by real fans is that Predator is a bad ass. Referred to as “Wolf” in the credits, this Predator is not merely on a hunt. He’s a cleaner, a specialized agent that swoops in and cleans up other people’s messes. You know this, because he dissolves evidence of both aliens with tubes of blue acid. This means he’s an especially bad-ass member of an entire species of bad-asses. He swoops into town, loaded with weapons. Beyond the wrist blades, shoulder cannons, and cloaking devices, he’s got other toys. The glaives from the previous movie return and are much better used this time. There’s a nifty blade whip and a plasma shotgun. One scene has him blasting the aliens into laser nets set up previously. Compared to the incompetent Predators from the first “AVP,” it’s refreshing to see one that means business and knows what he’s doing.

The Strauss Brothers obviously respect the lore of both series. They don’t introduce any lame ideas into the mythology like Paul W. S. Anderson did last time. They ditch the lame creature designs from the first feature, instead recreating the ridge domes from “Aliens.” The Xenomorphs are shadowy, frightening monsters. One scene, which has an alien leaping through a window to grab the little girl’s father, actually got a jump out of me. The aliens still die fairly easily, even being taken down by the humans and their machine guns. At least the film attempts to make them scary again. Anderson was completely ignorant of the creature’s symbolic meaning. The Strauss Brothers communicate with the subtext in a crude way. The PredAlien force-feeds a pregnant woman some Xenomorph eggs, which is filmed as if it’s a rape scene. It’s not smart but at least they understand that these creatures mean something.

I don’t think people hate “Requiem” because of its nasty gore. I don’t even think it’s the sort of lame monster design for the PredAlien. The dreadlocks certainly look awkward on the traditional Xenomorph frame. Instead, people are down on the movie because of its cast of characters. There’s no doubt that the humans are an utterly generic band. There’s the hero, a good-hearted guy that just got out of prison, looking to redeem himself. There’s his kid brother, a pizza boy who has unrequited romantic feelings for the local hot girl. Said girl has an asshole boyfriend. How about the mother, just returned from the military? Or the local police chief? Really, there’s no reason to care about any of them. The movie even seems to actively dislike them. The hot girl is killed off in a way that’s so sudden, it’s almost funny. Most of the cast ends up dead. Considering the “Return of the Living Dead”-style ending, I’m surprised anyone makes it out alive. Of course the human characters are lame. They’re supposed to be. Wolf is the hero of the movie.

The final monster duel between Wolf and the PredAlien tops anything in the first movie. Gore hounds are sure to be pleased by “Requiem,” as it's almost beginning-to-end mayhem. The movie’s in-jokes, vulgar tone, and focus on bad-ass action makes it feel like fan fiction at times. But, if so, it’s fun fan fiction. Really, the only thing I genuinely dislike about the movie is how dark the photography is and how inconsistent the Predator’s behavior can be. (He’s on a salvage job but sometimes he acts like he’s hunting.) Give the movie a second chance. In the right mind-set, “Aliens vs. Predator” can be a lot of fun. It’s not all an “Alien vs. Predator” movie can be. Taken as a side story to bigger, more important series, it’s an amusing bit of drivel. [7/10]

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Recent Watches: Live Free or Die Hard (2007)

The “Die Hard” franchise took twelve years off. During that time, Bruce Willis lost all his hair. Furthermore, the action movie environment totally changed. The genre of hyper-violent shoot ‘em ups that the original trilogy belonged to had fallen out of fashion. Action movies were more popular than ever but bloodless, CGI-assisted films were the audience preference. Willis and company had been trying to get a fourth John McClane adventure made for a while. One previous attempt evolved into the forgettable “Tears of the Sun,” for one example. When a fourth film emerged, it was named after New Hampshire's state motto for some reason. Fans had reasons to be concerned about “Live Free or Die Hard” though. Director Len Wiseman had previously made the super lame “Underworld” films. As many feared and predicted, the film was slapped with a PG-13 rating. Even after the unrated DVD cut restored the squibs and John McClane’s catchphrase, the fourth film remains divisive among fans.

A clan of expert computer hackers, led by a disgruntled former government security agent, enacts a cyber-terrorism attack on the United States government. They crippled the infrastructure by fucking with traffic lights. They clean out the financial centers. They shut down emergency services. Senior Detective John McClane doesn’t know any of this is coming. He’s more preoccupied with his daughter’s dating life. As a favor, he picks up a suspect for the feds, an unaffiliated computer hacker. This makes John and his pal targets for the villains. Once again, McClane is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Once again, he has to kick some ass.

Len Wiseman’s “Underworld” films were sickeningly slick. The action was ridiculous, without a hint of self awareness, in service of the films’ self-inflated sense of phony “cool.” Before “Live Free or Die Hard” hit theaters, the director promised CGI would be used gingerly. That might be true but the sequel’s theatrics still strain believability. A heavily advertised moment has John McClane and his sidekick nearly be crushed by a car flipping through the air in an impossible fashion. Directly afterwards, the cop launches a car into the air on his own, crushing a helicopter with the tossed vehicle. In a desperate bid for relevance, one of the bad guy’s main henchman performs parkour. The explosions are bigger and more frequent. The vehicle chases are more often. The action is so slick that “Live Free or Die Hard” frequently doesn’t even feel like a “Die Hard” movie.

What made “Die Hard” so special back in 1988 was how human John McClane was. He bled, was bruised, and generally got the shit kicked out of him. Each sequel made McClane more impervious. The fourth film moves McClane into strictly super-human territory. McClane gets pelted with glass and shrapnel and doesn’t flinch. He leaps from a moving vehicle and barely groans. He tumbles off a high scaffolding, emerging unscathed. He’s tossed through a vehicle by an explosion and remains unjellied. By the time he’s diving off a fighter jet and sliding between a collapsed concrete bridge, the classic McClane is unrecognizable. He even overcomes his fear of flying. Despite turning John into the Terminator, Bruce Willis remains charming and funny in the part. His constant shit-talking with the bad guys is a great source of amusement. A brief monologue about what being a hero has gotten John is a good moment. His head is smoother and his skin is thicker but Willis still has the swagger.

Like every previous sequel, “Live Free or Die Hard” began life as an unrelated project, a screenplay called “” As that groan-worthy title indicates, the fourth film updates the terrorists threat to computer hackers. Like many of Hollywood’s attempts at the subject, the world of internet sabotage is not believably handled. I’m pretty sure a computer virus can’t blow a building up. Computer hackers are lame movie bad guys. This holds true with “Die Hard 4’s” main adversary. Timothy Olyphant plays Thomas Gabriel. He’s a wienie. Olyphant whines like a petulant child. He threatens innocents with guns to the head. He mostly swears and gripes at computer monitors. Olyphant is not intimidating or amusing. He’s not up to snuff with the Gruber siblings. He’s not even as interesting as William Sadler. He also dies like a wimp, taken down by a single bullet to the chest. “Live Free or Die Hard” commits a few sins but its seriously underwhelming bad guy might be the biggest problem.

I know I’m mostly being negative but I do like “Live Free or Die Hard.” When the action is brought down to Earth, and isn’t preoccupied with topping itself, the film can be satisfying. John has a brutal fight with Maggie Q. Q is Olyphant’s main hit-girl and easily a more effective villain than him. The two tear through a room, both getting smashed through shelves and walls. The fight ends in a close-quarters scuffle in an elevator shaft, John taking a direct route to stopping her. How the parkour dude goes down is awfully satisfying too. Throughout the film, John gets into a few close-up battles, shooting bad guys and tossing them over his shoulders. These action scenes count for a lot and prove the most satisfying in the film.

Justin Long is no Samuel L. Jackson, that’s for sure. However, Long has his own charms. As the techno-nerd accompanying McClane throughout the film, Long gets a few funny moments to himself. A scene where he calls up an emergency service in a car is amusing, even if it creates a plot hole or two. The jittery hacker makes a decent companion to hyper-tough Bruce Willis. An even better addition to the cast is Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Lucy McClane. Winstead spends most of the movie captured by the bad guys, acting as a damsel. Despite that, Winstead still brings plenty of toughness to the part. She gets to punch out the villain, swearing and snarking just like a McClane. Long isn’t bad but I kind of wish Winstead had been John’s sidekick during this one.

“Live Free or Die Hard” departs from formula in other ways. There’s a last minute attempt to make the terrorists petty thieves but, for most of the movie, they are sincere in their cause. The script does not confine itself to a single location, playing out all over the country. The action is probably too big, the bad guys are lame, and John McClane is no longer human. Despite all these problems, “Live Free or Die Hard” is still an entertaining pop corn muncher. It has nothing on one or three. It’s not even as genuine as part two. Yet Bruce Willis being a bad ass is still worth something. [7/10]

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Recent Watches: AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004)

As a young nerd, I dreamed about an “Alien vs. Predator” movie. The concept of crossing over Fox’s two most famous monsters had proved popular in comic books and video games. Those video games, including a first-person shooter on the Atari Jaguar and an awesome arcade beat-em-up by Capcom, were where I was introduced to the concept. There’s not much reason for the Aliens and Predators to fight, beyond it being cool. Which should really be enough. A movie version of the idea had been kicking around for years, long enough to disgust Sigourney Weaver, James Cameron, and Ridley Scott. The prospect of an “Alien vs. Predator” movie should have excited me. When the film actually got made, it didn’t. Rightfully hated hack Paul W. S. Anderson being the director's chair sunk all anticipation. When the movie got a neutered PG-13 rating, my disinterest graduated to hate. Then they called it “AVP: Alien vs. Predator” because abbreviations are kuul and x-treme. Naturally, I hated it when I finally saw it on cable. A decade later, it’s still an affront to both franchises.

In the present day, the Weyland Corporation discovers something unusual in Antarctica. A hate signature under the ice seems to resemble a pyramid. Mr. Weyland gathers together a bunch of explorers, scientists, and archaeologists. Among them is Alexa Woods, an experienced ice climber and Arctic explorer. Once on the icy island, the team discovers an underground pyramid. Little do they know that this a structure built by Predators, as a training ground for inexperienced hunters. Deep within the pyramid’s bowels, providing prey for these novice Predators, is a Queen Xenomorph. The humans’ presence awakens the aliens, who begin to breed. It’s not long before the explorers cross paths with both dangerous lifeforms.

There are many reasons to hate “AVP: Alien vs. Predator,” the obnoxious abbreviation at the title’s start being one. Mostly, I hate “AVP” for doing lame, stupid shit with the mythology. Paul W. S. Anderson reportedly worked on the script for eight years, which speaks poorly of both his writing abilities and his understanding of either series. Let me unpack this bullshit. The Predators have been involved with human civilization for thousands of years. They helped us build the pyramids, all of them, for… Some reason? Booooooo. The “aliens built the pyramids” story concept is lame and overdone. It also doesn’t make any sense for the Predators who have, previously, seen we Earthlings as nothing but prey. (The logistics of how the Arctic pyramid got built are fuzzy as well.) The movie has no business being set on Earth, anyway. You’re telling me that xenomorphs have been on Earth for thousands of years? Way to demystify that, Paul. The dude can’t even keep basic details straight. In one scene, it takes minutes for a chest-burster to gestate inside someone. It takes an entire movie for the chest-burster to escape the Predator. The movie contributes nothing but bad ideas to the broader mythology of either series.

Throughout their previous two movies, the Predators were the commandos of outer space, big game killers armed to hunt metaphorical bear. Only the toughest actors on Earth, like Arnold Schwarzeneger and, uh, Danny Glover, could take them down. One of many major oversights Anderson made while writing “AVP” is to make this batch of Predators big, stupid lame-os. These are entry-level Predators and are mostly incompetent at their job. A single xenomorph kills one after a brief scuffle. One goes down without much of a fight, even. Another gets face-hugged like an asshole and doesn’t realize he’s pregnant throughout the rest of the movie. Furthermore, the Predators look like shit. Their armors are bulky and overdone. Their wrist blades extend to absurd length, in addition to rotating around. Despite being there to hunt xenomorphs, their extensive armor is useless against the creature’s acidic blood. (The effectiveness of said blood varies from scene to scene.) Even the masks look stupid, with a bunch of extra detailing. The unmasked Predators look like shit too, with overly emphasized mandibles that are always flaring. The Predators are drained of all their threatening factor and their designs are needlessly junked up.

Well, the Predators suck. How does the other half of the titular prize match fair? “AVP” maintains many of the bad design revisions from “Alien: Resurrection,” such as the stubbier heads, wider tails, and more animal-like postures. This is bad. However, the movie at least keeps the aliens threatening. One successfully takes out most of the Predators. They hide in shadows, dripping slime and barring their fangs. About the only time the movie is successful as an action film is the initial fight between an alien and a Predator. It’s a decently choreographed fight and has the fun factor of seeing these monsters tussle on-screen for the first time. However, later action scenes are weaker. The Queen Xenomorph’s climatic rampage is badly handled, the action being unclear and clumsy. There’s little interesting about the Preds tearing through the human cast, as the movie overplays the invisibility gimmick.

Paul W. S. Anderson’s direction can best be described as tacky. The director was still beating the “bullet time” horse four years after “The Matrix.” At least twice, something flies through the air in slow-motion while the camera spins around it. The worst is when a Predator cleaves a mid-air facehugger in two with his fucking glaive. The film’s visual presentation is flat. A scene of a cloaked Predator leaping between two walls is bafflingly bad in design. For the record, the director seems completely ignorant of either creatures’ subtextual possibilities. The rape anxieties the “Alien” series is build on are not present. There’s one embarrassing scene where victims are cocoon, prepared for impregnating, but it lacks meaning. The Predators’ quasi-feminine status as challengers to macho theatrics is undermined by these hunters being so ineffectual. The film is also over-reliant on CGI. Shots of swarming xenomorphs look like video game cut scenes. At the very least, the underground pyramid is well designed, even if it feels like a holdover from Anderson’s shitty “Resident Evil” movie. (Okay, having someone watch “Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman” on TV early in the film was a cute in-joke.)

The movie’s most inexcusable crime is getting the series mythology so horrendously wrong. Its second biggest sin are the irritating human characters. Sanaa Lathan’s Alexa is mostly an ill-defined tough girl character. The scene where she earns the respect of the Predators strikes me as dubious, even if there’s a precedent in the comics for such a thing. Raoul Bava as archaeologist Sebastian is by far the most annoying character in the film. Somehow, he can read the Predator’s language. He doesn’t talk to other characters, he monologues towards them. This climaxes during an intensely irritating scene, where he reads a shit-ton of exposition off the pyramid walls about the aliens’ involvement with Earth history. Gee, Paul, you couldn’t think of a more elegant way to get that out there? The character dies but not soon enough. Lance Henriksen, as the series’ sole familiar face, plays Charles Bishop Weyland, presumably the model for the future Bishop android. Lance isn’t given a bunch to do, sadly. The rest of the characters are indistinct and completely forgettable.

In conclusion, “AVP: Alien vs. Predator” still fucking sucks. It was a can’t-loose premise. How do you fuck up a monster rumble between Aliens and Predators? With a boring story, annoying characters, crappy creature designs, forgettable action, and an obvious lack of respect for either series’ established mythologies, that’s how. All of which are symptoms of handing the keys of these beloved films to Paul W. S. Anderson. Hopefully, the same mistake won’t be made when the film adaptation of “Aliens vs. Predator vs. the Terminator” rolls into production. [3/10]

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Director Report Card: John McTiernan (2003)

11. Basic

After the public rejection of “Last Action Hero,” John McTiernan bounced back with “Die Had with a Vengeance.” After “The 13th Warrior” bombed enormously, McTiernan had a hit with “The Thomas Crown Affair.” Even the best gamblers eventually run out of luck. Following the grotesque failure of “Rollerball,” another Hail Mary pass wasn’t coming McTiernan’s way. “Basic,” his final film as of now, grossed 42 million dollars against a 50 million dollar budget. The reviews were negative, the film’s poorly chosen title opening itself up to numerous lame puns. The film attempted to build hype by repairing John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson for the first time since “Pulp Fiction” but it was no use. “Basic” would be the latest entry in a line of failures for its director.

In Panama, a man emerges from the jungles, carrying another man on his back, and pursued by a third man. A training mission for a team of Army Rangers has gone horribly wrong. Half the team is dead, including the master sergeant. The survivor refuses to speak to Captain Julia Osborne, the assignee to the case. Instead, former Ranger and DEA agent Tom Hardy is brought in. The two are told conflicting stories about what happened in the jungle, uncovering a drug smuggling plot and a web of deception.

“Basic” is a mystery. If it wasn’t for the flashbacks and a few location changes, it would be a closed room mystery. The murders happen before the movie begins and there’s basically only one suspect. Yet determining what happened is not that simple. On a basic level, the story boils down to a series of interrogations, the two detectives trying to hash out the details, determine the lies, and figure out what actually happened. The use of conflicting flashbacks also means “Basic” owes a lot to Kurosawa’s “Rashomon,” still one of the most ripped-off movies in cinema history. Despite relying on some old and worn out story concepts, “Basic” presents its narrative in a mildly clever fashion.

That John Travolta and John McTiernan would work together is appropriate. Travolta has had even more wild ups-and-downs in his career as McTiernan has. By 2003, Travolta has burned through all the good will “Pulp Fiction” had earned him. This was post-“Battlefield Earth,” after all. It was also post-“Swordfish,” a minor hit that had reestablished Travolta’s box office clout to a degree. In “Basic,” Travolta treads out the old swagger he’s been coasting on for decades. He coos, snaps his fingers, speaks lots of exaggerated dialogue, and shimmies. If you have a tolerance for Travolta when he mugs, it’s not a bad performance. Just know before hand his work here is closer to “Broken Arrow” or “Michael” than “Pulp Fiction” or “Saturday Night Fever.”

Most of “Basic” is built upon the chemistry between Travolta and Connie Nielsen as Captain Osborne. Nielsen does fine on her own. As the only true outsider to the situation, Nielsen does a fine job of being confused. There are a number of moments, when she plays “bad cop” or cracks a phone book across a guy’s face, where she gets to display an impressive toughness. The weird, quasi-romance she has with Travolta is less organic. A handful of scenes are devoted to their flirting. Whenever these moments come up, it feels out of place. Travolta is always slightly withdrawn while Nielsen seems uncertain of his loyalties.

Despite being sold on John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson’s pairing, the performers only have two scenes together. Jackson plays the abusive drill sergeant, the apparent victim of the central murder. Jackson is treading ground previously touched upon by R. Lee Ermey in “Full Metal Jacket” and many other military flicks. Unlike Travolta’s slightly tired shtick, watching Jackson scream petty abuse at people is always entertaining. The scenes of him berating the soldiers under him are especially amusing, making Jackson’s character into a perfectly hatable villain.

The meat of “Basic” is devoted to the flashbacks. The heavy use of voice over narration provides continuity between the memories and the scenes set in the present. The events follow a general outline, with small variances. The flashbacks are set primarily out in the rain while all the current scenes are inside. That’s some decent visual short hand, so the audience can keep up. The details vary between renditions. In one version, the victim is murdered with a grenade. In another, he’s shot in the back. In yet another, his shooter acts in self defense. The mental homework of figuring out which flashback presents the true events, or at least which one is more true than the others, is what’s most interesting about “Basic.”

The most compelling parts of the flashbacks revolve around the soldiers turning on one another. In “Basic,” the training missions meant to build camaraderie between the soldiers accomplishes the opposite. The men turn against each other, distrust causing their mutual macho aggression to boil over. In the first flashback, Jackson relentlessly torments a poor trainee. In another, the men all turn on one another, all but three dying in a storm of gunshots. The next time events play, the order of deaths is the same but the motive behind the shoot-out is different. The violence is sudden and effective. Perhaps the most shocking plot turns concerns a character suddenly vomiting up blood, dying unexpectedly. When focused on hard men turning on each other, and the rough ways they die, “Basic” becomes compelling entertainment.

However, even these effective moments have a problem. None of the soldiers in “Basic” are very distinct from one another. Out of the entire group, only two really stand out. Taye Diggs garners audience sympathy as Pike, the trainee who receives the worst of Jackson’s abuse. During the first flashback, you feel especially bad for him. After struggling to climb a hill, he’s mock by the sergeant and forced to do it again. Giovanni Ribisi, as the bed-ridden and homosexual Lieutenant Kendall, gives an eccentric performance. While he’s unable to define the character beyond his quirks, at least Ribisi is memorable. The other cast members quickly fade from memory. Is that Tim Daly as the Colonel heading the investigation or was it Harry Connick Jr.? No, Connick  was the shifty doctor. Brian Van Holt as the accused soldier, Dash Mihok as the redneck sergeant, Cristian de la Fuente as the token female… They all tend to blur into one another.

At the beginning of his career, John McTiernan’s visual sense was super sharp, providing memorable, dynamic, and exciting action. The further into this retrospective I go, the more disappointed I become with McTiernan’s work. “Basic” is characterized by a lot of rain. The movie is set during a hurricane. This could have been an oppretunity to generate some moodiness. Instead, the story just feels dreary. Worst yet, McTiernan’s action direction has totally devolve. The action sequence in “Basic” are rushed and shaky. A certain chaotic quality was intended, I’m sure. Any impact this might have had on the audience is lost, as we’re more concerned with the hazy visual sense. To go from the awesome action of “Predator” to the indistinct shoot-outs here is very disheartening.

As is typical of mysteries like this, “Basic” has a few subplots that seem unimportant at first before becoming pertinent details. This time, it’s a drug smuggling operation among the soldiers. Who was obtaining the drugs, who was manufacturing them, and who was shipping them are all questions raised and answered. The script doesn’t make you care about this stuff. At least, I didn’t care. By it’s last act, “Basic” collapses in on itself, a number of story lines coming to a head, all sloppily colliding with each other. When the murder is finally pinned on somebody, when a clear answer is provided, that made me happy.

Yet “Basic” isn’t done with you. In its final minutes, the movie piles on more and more plot twist. Oh wait, the script considers, maybe this is how it went! The loyalties and character development the film spent the last eighty minutes on are thrown to the wind. Before the credits roll, yet another twist is tossed out. This final revelation changes the context of everything that came before. The audience feels cheated, like their time was wasted. There’s a sense that events don’t connected. The screenwriter has been jerking us around, simply laying the track for a lame plot twist, a weak attempt to fool us.

“Basic” isn’t without its moment. Travolta and Jackson do their usual tricks but they still manage to amuse. Connie Nielsen gives a good performance, making the most of what she’s given. One or two sequence sticks out, impressing with some sudden violence or a flash of empathy. Before it’s over, “Basic” disappears up its own ass, becoming a collection of convoluted story turns and dramatic reveals. The result is a film that doesn’t hang together totally, that frustrates too often. But let’s look on the sunny side. At least it's better than “Rollerball.” [Grade: C]

You don't need me to tell you what happened to John McTiernan next. In 2006, McTiernan was arrested, implemented in the wire taping case involving private detective Anthony Pellicano. The director ultimately went to jail for the crime of lying to an FBI agent. The scandal destroyed McTiernan's career. Released from prison in 2014, McTiernan has tried to get a few projects rolling. An aerial combat film called "Warbirds," meant to star John Travolta, seemed ready to go at one point but has yet to materialize. He's most recently been linked to a World War II thriller called "Killing the Butcher." The director also really wants to make a sequel to "The Thomas Crown Affair." I'm rooting for him but it's currently unknown if McTiernan will ever have the comeback he arguably deserves.

This Report Card may be wrapped up but I'm not quite done at the moment. Expect a couple more reviews in the next few days, linked to some of the franchise I've talked about recently. There's also a new Bangers n' Mash episode in the editing bay. As always, see you soon.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Director Report Card: John McTiernan (2002)

10. Rollerball

I was dreading this one. The original “Rollerball” is a true cult classic, the definitive death sport movie, a film that is equally self-serious and campy. I love that movie. The remake of “Rollerball” from 2002 is an entirely different beast. Like seemingly everything John McTiernan made since the early nineties, production was troubled. Following test screenings, the film was re-cut and many scenes were re-shot. Filmed as an R-rated movie, it was hastily re-edited for a PG-13 rating, awkwardly cutting out the blood and nudity. Originally slotted for a summer release date in 2001, “Rollerball” was shipped off to the frozen month of next February. Among heinous reviews, it naturally bombed. Unlike some of McTiernan’s other failures, no reevaluation of “Rollerball” is forthcoming. This is a startlingly bad movie, an epic fiasco.

Like the original “Rollerball,” the remake follows an athlete named Jonathan. In the near future of 2005, a new extreme sport is sweeping the world. Rollerball, a goal keeping game played on rollerblades and motorcycles, has become hugely popular overseas. Jonathan, an extreme sports junkie, is talked into joining a Rollerball league by his friend, Ridley. Both are in over their heads. Not only is the game violent, the managers are blood-thirsty and psychotic. Soon, Jonathan and his Russian love interest Aurora are targeted for extermination by the people who control the money.

The worst kind of remakes miss the points of the originals. “Rollerball” doesn’t just miss the point of the original, it seems to be entirely beyond grasping the point. Say what you will about 1975’s “Rollerball,” a very flawed film, but it was ambitious. Multiple heady themes were examined within the movie. Satire of sports mania, satire of corporate ownership, how societies control the masses, the worth of a single man, the cost of violence, even some environment issues were bouncing around inside Norman Jewison’s original. The remake dismisses all of these issues. There are no deeper thoughts in the movie’s head. “Shallow” doesn’t due it justice. “Stupefyingly brainless” is more accurate.

Before 1975’s “Rollerball” set out to address any bigger ideas, it made sure the titular sport was easy to follow and exciting to watch. The remake needlessly junks up the game. The simple ring-shaped rink is transformed into a figure eight. This shape creates narrow corridors, which quickly causes the players to bottle-neck. Multiple ramps that serve no practical purposes are added. The motorcycles now have huge flags trailing behind them, which you’d think would be a serious issue in a game like this. The goals are elevated into the air. They’re only reachable by leaping into the “rabbit holes,” glass tubes built above the rink. In an extremely stupid touch, the goals explode into sparks when a ball is successfully thrown into them. That this version of Rollerball could ever become popular seems impossible. The game is difficult to follow and complicated for no clear reason.

One of the original’s strength was the sci-fi dystopia it presented. As ridiculous as it was on the surface, the movie sold the world with conviction. The viewer believed such a society could exist. Since the remake is completely disinterested in exploring any sociological ideas, the story is moved into nearly the present day. There are some very minor, inconsistent sci-fi concepts at play. The rest of the world seems to be falling into disarray. Advanced satellite technology allows for “instant global ratings,” an improbable concept. The fashion is cartoonish, suggesting some future climate. Yet the United States seems entirely the same, unaffected by the crumbling world around it. The cars and vehicles are modern. The contrast of sci-fi elements against an otherwise normal society confuses the viewer. Nobody sat down and figured out how any of this would be possible.

Let’s talk some more about those costumes. In Norman Jewison’s “Rollerball,” the players wore football helmets, shoulder pads, spiked gauntlets, and protective gear on their arms and legs. The gloves and skates aside, they were basically dressed like football players. The players in the remake are dressed like characters from a Saturday morning cartoon show. A bad one. Here’s some of the shit the players wear: A tutu. A cone around the neck. Complex body armor that covers most of the body. Elaborate masks that look like a statue’s face, an animal head, or a knight’s helmet. One player wears a large mask shaped like a jester’s head. Part of his get-up includes a puppet jester on his shoulder, to mock opposing players with. None of the above is practical sports wear. The costumes in “Rollerball” make the get-ups of professional wrestlers seem subtle and restrained.

In the past, even John McTiernan’s weakest films usually had some cool action or a decently directed visual moment. I’m not sure if McTiernan or the re-editing is to blame but the action in “Rollerball” is hysterically bad. The sequences set inside the rollerball rink are chaotically edited, to the point of incoherence. That’s not even the worst part. Any time somebody is struck in this movie, they go flying through the air. At least six times, a player is tossed head-over-heels from even the weakest of blows. At one point, one of the spinning victims is then hit a second time as they’re spinning. It looks absurd and got a huge laugh out of me every time.

Out of the myriad of bad decisions made during the production of “Rollerball,” one mistake stands above all the hours. The parvum opus of poor choices appears about an hour into the film. Certain their boss is going to kill them, Jonathan and Ridley make a night time escape across the desert. The entire sequence is shot in night vision. The scene is not short, running for about ten minutes. For all that time, we see the characters in sickly green and glowing yellow. This does not make any sense. Nobody is wearing night vision goggles nor are the events being observed through specialized cameras. This aspect alone is laughable but “Rollerball” is not done topping itself in ridiculousness. An airplane – I don’t remember where the airplane came from – flies through a wire fence. As the plane crashes through, a cartoony “boing!” noise is heard. A minute later, the movie repeats the same goofy sound effect. Is “Rollerball” pulling my chain? Is it suppose to be funny? Or is the film simply that badly made?

The acting in “Rollerball” is laughably bad. To be fair to the cast, it’s not like they had much of a script to work with. On the other hand, at least two of the main characters are played by actors with questionable resumes. 2002’s “Rollerball” was released during the brief period when Hollywood was trying to make Chris Klein happen. Klein looks like an overgrown boy. He never delivers any of his lines with conviction or self-assurances. A cocksure smile is the best he has to offer. LL Cool J, a dubious thespian even on a good day, plays Ridley. The rapper’s attempts at serious emoting are laughable. Mr. Cool J seems totally out of his element. Rebecca Romijn, still sporting a “Stamos” at the time, is hassled with a ridiculous semi-Russian accent. Of the major players, she probably gives the best performance. In other words, her acting is broad and laughable.

Crappy movies like this have, in the past, have provided talented actors a chance to overact in bad guy roles. I had hoped we get a hammy, enjoyably over-the-top performance out of Jean Reno in this. No such luck. Reno twists his natural French accent into something unrecognizable. His facial make-up extends his eyebrows, making him look like Ming the Merciless. Reno overacts, for sure, but there’s no joy in it. If “Rollerball” has any element of satire, it deals with the villain’s plot. The film seems to be taking target at sports managers that do not care for their players’ welfare. If this was intentional at all, the attempt at commentary is as facile as everything else about the film.

John McTiernan’s movies usually have pretty good soundtracks. Alan Silvestri’s legendary “Predator” score, Michael Kamen’s incorporation of “Ode to Joy” in “Die Hard,” Bill Conti’s smooth jazz orchestrations in “The Thomas Crown Affair:” All of its good stuff. Since “Rollerball” seeks to sully McTiernan’s good name in every way, it’s soundtrack is also terrible. “Intrusive’ doesn’t properly describe the use of music. Obnoxious Nu Metal blares during practically every minute of the thankfully short run time. Even when the likes of P.O.D. or Hardknox aren’t yelling on the soundtrack, a band accompanies every Rollerball game. At one point, a female performer lip-syncs to Rob Zombie. At another point, Slipknot – You remember that shitty Korn knock-off with the Halloween masks? – actually appear in the film. All I can assume is that “Rollerball” was desperate to appeal to mall-dwelling teens with indiscriminate taste. Many of these bands were popular with the assholes I went to middle school with.

Truthfully, there’s so much wrong with “Rollerball” that many staggering elements are included seemingly for the hell of it. During the first game, a Faulknerian man-child plays on Klein’s Rollerball team. His death is what signals the heroes that something is afoot. I seriously doubt someone with developmental disabilities would be allowed to play in a contact sport, much less one as brutal as Rollerball. An obnoxious ring announcer yells into a microphone during every game. He’s played by Paul Heyman, a former pro-wrestler. His bravado just adds another loud, obnoxious aspect to this misbegotten movie. At various points, the film cuts to footage from Bollywood musicals or Japanese variety shows. It’s senseless.

“Rollerball” is astonishingly bad. It’s preposterously bad. The remake of “Rollerball” is a film so incredibly miscalculated, you can hardly believe it’s real. “Rollerball” is so bad, its director went to jail as a result of the film. Movies are hard to make. Many people, lots of money and lots of time are necessary to make a movie. Hundreds of people worked on 2002’s “Rollerball.” The final product suggest that they all made horrible mistakes. That a major studio could release something this poorly assembled is baffling. I could go on but it’ll be just more ranting. John McTiernan’s “Rollerball” may be the worst big budget movie I’ve ever seen. [Grade: F]

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Recent Watches: Rollerball (1975)

I’ve never been into sports. As a teenager, I resented the football games my Dad watched because they’d preempt “Futurama.” Any time I’ve been forced to watch baseball, it always bores me to years. Nobody has ever been able to successfully explain the rules of basketball to me. Despite my utter indifference, if not out-right disdain, for athletics, I have a soft spot for “death sports” movies. Maybe the only way a sport can actually hold my interest is if gore effects are involved. I personally like to think my affection for this rare subgenre is owed to its mixture of cultural satire, sci-fi oddness, and the good ol’ ultra-violence. Though a number of fine films fit this story type, one is the undisputed champion. Norman Jewison’s “Rollerball” is a movie I adore, flaws and all.

In the future, there are no wars, no poverty, no disease. There is only Rollerball. Corporations have replaced the nations of the world. The masses are fed an easy supply of drugs and television. An underclass seemingly doesn’t exist. Replacing the need for all other conflict is Rollerball, a hyper violent and frequently fatal combination of roller derby, hockey, and motorcross. The biggest Rollerball star is Jonathan E. Jonathan is so popular that he’s bigger than his team, bigger than the sport. And no man can be bigger than the sport. The corporate masters of the world conspire to make Jonathan retire. When he refuses, they change the rules of Rollerball to crush his spirit. When Jonathan keeps fighting, they plan to end his life.

“Rollerball” imagines a sport so popular, that it eclipses all other forms of entertainment. Considering how indecipherable real and very popular sports like football can seem to me, it says a lot that the game of Rollerball is easy to understand. There’s a circular rink, a goal at each side, and two teams fighting to score. Moreover, the game is very exciting to watch. Despite director Norman Jewison never making an action film before, “Rollerball” contains fast-paced, frenzied, but clearly shot action sequences. The games are shot with a very natural, almost documentary-esque style. Yet when the violence happens, the film clearly shows it, the audience feeling the force. One of “Rollerball’s” many points is about how easily people can be caught up in empty spectacle. How involved the viewer is in the film’s action proves the point without working against it.

“Rollerball” also belongs to that pre-“Star Wars” wave of seventies science fiction films. You know the ones: Usually slow paced, with ponderous themes, a nihilistic tone, and a dystopian setting. “Rollerball” fits all of the above criteria. The movie’s self-serious quality is signaled by the opening scene, where the players roll into the rink to the ominous sounds of "Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor." (It also includes some painfully dated fashion and production design. Bell bottoms, chest hair, gold chains, shag carpeting, and tube televisions apparently experience a big comeback at some point in the future.) “Rollerball’s” main theme, above all others, is the struggle of the individual against conformity. The corporate government controls the masses by discouraging individual expression. Rollerball is all about the team, all players being but a part of a system. Jonathan’s popularity challenges this system, making him a target. His refusal to fold against the leaders makes him symbolic of the self’s struggle against mass conventionality. The movie isn’t subtle but it remains a powerful point.

Most sci-fi movies would be content with handling one serious topic. “Rollerball” is only getting started. The mania fans display for the game only slightly exaggerates real world sports fandom. In the future, corporations control politics, resources, and everything else about the normal life. This, too, is only a minor embellishment of how things really are. Both of these points are amplified into satire. Fans adore their teams with religious awe. Before each game, the audience and players stand during for their Corporate Anthems. It’s funny and pointed. Yet the movie isn’t even done there. The free distribution of drugs and sex takes aim at seventies hedonism. Books are heavily censored by the state. An insane super computer controls all the world’s knowledge. In one scene, party goers explode trees with a handheld laser gun. One assumes that this is an extremely heavy-handed statement about corporate disregard for the environment. It’s very pretentious and overdone. I’d understand if some are turned off by this. For me, its part of the movie’s bizarre, exceedingly seventies charm.

Such a thematically heavy screenplay must have been difficult for the actors to interpret. James Cann’s performance as Jonathan is odd. He’s very muted and thoughtful. When not playing Rollerball, he pines for his lost wife, taken away from him by one of the executives. Caan is so low-key, he’s almost sleepy. This oddly works in the film’s favor, cementing its off-beat tone. John Houseman plays Bartholomew, the executive that owns Jonathan’s team. Houseman’s resounding voice lends the part respect, making for a creditable villain. John Beck plays the ridiculously named Moonpie, Jonathan’s best friend and favorite team member. The part is very exaggerated but Beck plays every key correctly. Maud Adams, as Jonathan’s stolen wife, is the only main cast member that doesn’t work for me. Her part is so small that there’s little room for development.

“Rollerball” was controversial upon release for its violence. The amount of gore, I suspect, was not what upset cultural critics. Bloodier films existed before and after. Instead, it’s the impact the violence hits with that makes it so startling. When someone is cracked across the jaw, the audience feels it. The blows to the heads and faces are audible. After being struck, players fall limp, concussed. As more of the rules are discarded, the game becomes increasingly more intense. In the second half, players are held down and beaten. Someone has their helmet tore away, smashed in the back of the head with a spiked glove. A man is thrown from his bike, shattering the back glass. The launched ball, a heavy steel sphere, slams into an unconscious body. A man is dragged behind a motorcycle. Later, an engine explodes, a player fleeing in flames, screaming for his life. Men are bloodied, bruised, and broken. It makes the film’s point about brutality very clear.

The final image, of a man standing triumphant against his oppressor, is inspiring in the same weird way as the rest of the movie. “Rollerball” is a film I love, an off-beat mixture of intense violence, exciting action, ponderous themes, insightful satire, cheesy sci-fi, and operatic direction. The definitive death sport film, it remains powerful despite its many short-comings. [9/10]

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Director Report Card: John McTiernan (1998) Part 2

9. The Thomas Crown Affair

“The 13th Warrior” was obviously an ordeal for McTiernan. After such a difficult production, and such disastrous box office gross, perhaps the action director was looking to change gears. His next project, released the same month but filmed afterwards, would feature few explosions and even fewer bullet wounds. 1968’s “The Thomas Crown Affair” is remember more for its theme song and the antics of its leading man than anything in the actual movie, making it a good candidate for a remake. Starring a still-hot Pierce Brosnan and riding a wave of positive reviews, the thriller gave John McTiernan’s career yet another shot in the arm. Though the success would admittedly be short lived, “The Thomas Crown Affair” is probably the best film from the last act of McTiernan’s career.

Business exec Thomas Crown seemingly lives a charmed life. He’s rich, handsome, and smart enough to out-think his professional rivals at every turn. Yet Crown craves something more, excitement and a worthy enemy. Strictly for his own amusement, he steals a priceless painting from the museum. While the heist baffles the cops, insurance investigator Catherine Banning quickly realizes that Crown is behind the theft. While trailing him, Catherine and Crown begin a hot and heavy affair. Even while they’re this close, the couple play each other, trying to decipher who is deceiving who.

“The Thomas Crown Affair,” coming at the end of the decade, is technically a member of that most nineties of all genres: The erotic thriller. Despite featuring some high-gloss sex scenes (and some dated technology), the film actually feels kind of timeless. Showing its sixties roots, the film actually belongs to a much older tradition. It hearkens back to a time when the charm of good-looking movie stars were enough to make a hit. Where half the fun is figuring out where the loyalties of the characters lie. In that sense, the movie has something in common with “The Hunt for Red October” and a few other movies that McTiernan made in the past.

As James Bond, Pierce Brosnan never really clicked for me. Though he was a solid action performer, Brosnan never seemed to grasp the comedic or romantic sides of the characters. Maybe it was the scripts. In “The Thomas Crown Affair,” Brosnan is way cooler than he ever was as Bond. From the first scene, he’s shown as a man of secrets, with complex motivations only known to him. The script depends on him immediately charming Catherine and, by extension, the audience. With his seductive smile and high-fashion life style, Brosnan oozes a sense of smooth cool. The film unlocks the suave charm that was always hiding inside Brosnan, under utilized by the demands of his big franchise.

Crown may get top billing but the movie may actually be more about Rene Russo’s Banning. In her first scene, she’s introduced in a dress slit up to the thigh, revealing her garter. Russo is obviously presented as a sex symbol from the beginning. And Russo is incredibly glamorous and sensual. The film parades her in a number of revealing outfits, like a clinging black dress or knee high leather boots. Yet Russo isn’t just eye candy. Her character is very intelligent, always pursuing leads and loose threads on her own. She is, after all, the one who fingers Crown for the crime as soon as she sees him.

Brosnan and Russo are fine on their own. The chemistry they share is what truly elevates the film. From the moment they meet, it’s immediately apparent how attracted the two are to each other. Their banter is well executed, Banning knowing what Crown is up to. The sexual tension, during their meal together, is almost overbearing. Soon afterwards, the two succumb to their mutual passion. The sex scene is long, at least by mainstream standards. The two consummate their relationship on just about every surface in Thomas’ home. Though featuring nudity from both actors, the sequence or the others like it never come off as exploitative. The movie’s sensual tone is such that, if the two leads weren't humping soon enough, the audience would’ve been frustrated. The steamy yet tasteful love scenes match the film’s fashionable tone.

Of course, “The Thomas Crown Affair” just isn’t about its characters’ sex lives. A game of deception is central to the story. We know Crown stole the painting. What he did next isn’t entirely clear. The business of paintings hidden under other paintings, switcharoos and double crosses, forgers and copies, aren’t horribly important. What’s more compelling is whether or not Thomas is being honest with Catherine. Soon, another woman enters his life, and Russo wonders if she’s being played. The true identity of this mystery woman is revealed eventually. What she represents, the dishonesty Crown propagates, is more pertinent. Up until the very end, we don’t see the entirety of Crown’s con. Banning doesn’t know if she’s ahead of him or being pulled along. The misdirection represents a whole lot of plot, the details varying. The emotions the cast feel is what truly keeps the viewer invested.

“The Thomas Crown Affair” isn’t exactly an action movie. Yet both of the heists play out like action sequences. The first has a slow build-up. A group of men climb out of a statue of a horse. There’s wires to be cut and security systems to be tinkered with. Avoiding the infrared cameras by raising the heat in the room is a clever idea. After that slow burn of a start, the heist explodes in an unexpected direction at the end. A helicopter circles overhead. One of the museum employees whips an electric cattle prod out. Most excitingly, Brosnan leaps into action. He rolls under a grate, grabs the painting, and rolls back out. It’s pretty cool.

After that dynamite opening, “The Thomas Crown Affair” turns its focus to the main pair’s romance. However, for the climax, an even bigger heist is performed. Though the police identify Crown by his bowler hat, the museum is soon filled with other people wearing the same style of hat. (This is a cute tie-in with the painting being stolen.) A suitcase, full of prints of the same painting, is spilled on the floor. A trio of smoke bombs are tossed into a room, exploding and setting off the sprinklers. As the water comes down, paint melts away, another clever reveal. Crown makes a daring get-away, leaving the cops flustered and confused.

Contributing to the excitement factor of both heists is McTiernan’s typical masterful direction. The opening scene, which cuts between Crown in the board room and in the museum, moves at a rocket’s pace. The camera never slows down during this scene. But McTiernan knows when to leap around and knows when to hold still. During Thomas and Catherine’s dinner, he pauses to focus on their faces, starring into each others' eyes. Though famous for his hyper-active camera work and explosive plots, the director is smart enough to trust his actors, knowing their chemistry can keep these scenes afloat.

Brosnan and Russo are clearly the stars of the show. Yet there are some plum supporting parts. As the government agent leading the investigation, Denis Leary gets a showy part. He unsuccessfully pursues Russo. His attempts to woo her are likably awkward. During a long car drive, we get a peak into Leary’s personal life and the failed marriage that deeply affected him. Faye Dunaway, who starred in the original film, has a small role as Crown’s psychiatrist. These scenes are mostly a framing device, given us a peak into Crown’s motivations. While not exactly necessary, Dunaway has an amusing rapport with Brosnan.

Supporting the film is an eccentric soundtrack. Bill Conti provides the music, McTiernan reuniting with the composer for the first time since “Nomads.” The jazz score gives a unique energy to many of the scenes. During the first heist, an up-beat song plays, keeping the audience excited. Modern and classic jazz songs reappear throughout the movie, reinforcing the sense of cool that is so vital to the film's success. Naturally, the remake reprises “The Windmills of Your Mind.” An instrumental, jazz version plays during a dance scene. A pretty drippy cover, courtesy of Sting, plays over the end credits. Over all, “The Thomas Crown Affair” is nearly as interesting to listen to as it is to watch.

The plot may very well be rubbish. The charisma of the leading actors, engaging direction, exciting editing, and an intoxicating atmosphere of slickness and sexiness prevents the viewer from noticing. Brosnan and Russo are a delight to watch. The film moves along quickly, making for a fun viewing experience. Perhaps John McTiernan should have stepped outside of the action genre more often. Pretty people having sexy sex in exotic locations: It counts for something. [Grade: B+]

Friday, January 22, 2016

Director Report Card: John McTiernan (1999) Part 1

8. The 13th Warrior

By 1999, John McTiernan was not the hit-maker he was once. Though he had bounced back with the third “Die Hard” movie, the stink of “Last Action Hero” still hung over his career. His reputation was about to take another blow. “The 13th Warrior” began production as “Eaters of the Dead.” Based on a novel by best-selling author Michael Crichton and headlined by proven star Antonio Banderas, the film was initially budgeted at 85 million. During filming, the budget ballooned over 100 million. Feedback from test screenings were negative, necessitating further re-shoots. McTiernan was let go from his own movie, with Crichton shooting a new ending. When the film opened, it only grossed 60 million, making it one of the biggest flops in cinema history. Did “The 13th Warrior” deserve to bomb so hard?

Arab poet (and real historical figure) Ahmad ibn Fadlan is gingerly exiled from his country following an affair with a nobleman’s wife. Assigned as an ambassador to the far north, Fadlan soon falls in with a band of Norse warriors. The vikings are summoned to protect a kingdom under siege by strange attackers. A fortune teller insists that a 13 men go on the journey and one of them must not be a Norseman. Fadlan joins the strangers on a quest into foreign territory were they face down an army of seemingly inhuman monsters, a primitive race that eats the flesh of men.

Back in high school, my English class read “Beowulf.” Most of my classmates hated the assignment but I loved it. A bad-ass Viking warrior fighting monsters and a dragon was right in my wheelhouse. Like most cinematic adaptation of the ancient story, “The 13th Warrior” approaches the text from a revisionist angle. The film tells the “true” events behind “Beowulf.” The titular hero is re-named Buliwyf. The monster Grendel becomes an entire tribe of monstrous men, called “Wendol.” The dragon’s role in the story is replaced with a last wave of attackers. By telling the Norse legend through the eyes of an outsider, a man that brings the written word to a verbal culture, the famous story is framed in a new context.

The same story element also makes “The 13th Warrior” a culture clash story, of sorts. At first, Ahmad doesn’t even speak the same language as his brothers in arms. The Norseman mispronounce his name as “Ebn.” They mock him as an outsiders. Their ways are, similarly, strange to him. They compare his smaller horse to a dog and laugh as his inability to wield a giant Viking sword. Yet Ibn shows how fast and agile his horse can be. He sharpens the bulky broadsword into a more-to-his-liking scimitar. By the end, the warriors have accepted the Arab as one of their own. It’s not a novel story but it is an effective one.

Even when I was in school, “Beowulf’ was examined less for its story and more for its linguistic importance. “The 13th Warrior” incorporates this element into the material as well. As a poet, Ibn is frequently writing. Buliwyf has never seen anything like this before. He asks the Arab how he can turn sounds into symbols. If you can overlook the factual error there – the Norse alphabet dates back to at least 200 AD – it’s an interesting display of how ideas transfer from culture to culture. Ibn brings Muslim belief and ideas to a culture previously unaware of them. We tend to think of the past as stationary. Yet cultures were interacting all the time, trading new ideas and concepts. “The 13th Warrior” does a solid job of illustrating this.

As a star vehicle for Antonio Banderas, the film plays up many of the actor’s appealing attributes. Despite the obvious disconnect of a Spaniard playing an Arab, Banderas is well suited to the part. As the story begins, Fadlan is an intellectual. This puts him at odds with his traveling companions. As an experienced Latin lover, Banderas has no problem with this material. By this point in his career, Antonio had already starred in swashbucklers like “Mask of Zorro” and bad-ass action flicks like “Desperado.” As Ibn develops into a warrior, Banderas gets to show off those skills as well. Even while hacking through monsters, he gets to maintain that erudite edge, making him more than just a typical action hero.

As solid as Banderas is in the lead, the supporting cast is less defined. The film makes little attempts to distinguish the other twelve warriors. Vladimir Kulich has a striking physicality as Buliwyf. Kulich’s glaring eyes come in handy when playing up the character’s mythic importance. Dennis Storhoi as Herger, the Viking who can speak Latin, is Ibn’s earliest friend. As the story progresses, the two become even closer. As for the other members of the clan? There’s an especially burly one and an archer. Beyond that? I’ve got nothing. I know thirteen is a lot of characters but the film could’ve gone a little further to develop the rest of the cast.

As a monster fan, “The 13th Warrior’s” treatment of Grendel is especially interesting to me. The singular monster is re-imagined as a small army. The Wendol are presented as a still lingering clan of Neanderthals, with wider noses and thicker brows. They dress in bear skins, their faces hidden by heavy hoods. They were giant claws on their hands, easily slashing their enemies apart. Though the Wendol are not literal monsters, their behavior is still certainly monstrous. They slink in and out of the shadows. In one scene, an attacker easily tears a man’s head from his shoulders. Their lair is decorated with the skulls of their dead prisoners. Most macabre is their habit of eating the flesh of those they defeat. Though you can’t overstate the appeal of a giant monster, the Wendol is an interesting variation on the classic archetype.

Perhaps another reason “The 13th Warrior” flopped is because it was a big and bloody, R-rated action movie in the age of CGI spectacle. By 1999, that kind of entertainment was already on the way out. Early on, Buliwyf cleaves a man’s chest open, spraying blood across the room. For the first hour, the action in “The 13th Warrior” successfully escalates. When the Wendol attacks the mead hall, there’s a chaotic flash of blades through the darkened room. Heads are removed, limbs are severed, and bodies are run through. The tone of that sequence successfully recalls the horror movies McTiernan got his start with. A duel between two men features lots of shattering shields and dynamic tumbling, concluding with another swift decapitation. The middle of the movie receives a bold exclamation point when the Wendol attack the Viking fort. There’s impalement, arrows and spears flying everywhere. The fire silhouetted against the black night gives the sequence a dramatic presentation.

As an epic action story, John McTiernan’s directorial trademarks are present and accounted for. The camera rarely stands still, smoothly surveying the action sequences. Blades and arrows are followed as they fly through the air. Once or twice, the blurry quality that showed up in “Die Hard with a Vengeance” appears again. McTiernan’s moving camera makes the action scenes tense and the quieter moments serene. Another attribute of the director, the use of foreign languages, also appears. Much of the Vikings’ dialogue goes without subtitles, at first. The transfer of languages is literally visualized when Ibn, after watching the Vikings talk for an evening, picks up on their speech. McTiernan utilizes a similar trick to what he did in “The Hunt for Red October.” At first, they speak Norse. Slowly, recognizable words slip into their conversation. Finally, as the camera focuses on their mouths, they start speaking English. Clever beats like that is something McTiernan rarely gets credit for.

After more than an hour of solid action and amusing culture clash antics, “The 13th Warrior” builds to its apparent climax. Buliwyf, Ibn, and the other men sneak into the Wendol’s lair. There’s an exciting sequence where they swing under a waterfall. A battle among a field of bones is another high-light. However, how “The 13th Warrior” handles Grendel’s Mother in an underwhelming fashion. A female elder dips her claw in some snake venom. She dances around Buliwyf for a minute, scratching him once, before he cuts her head off. The story seemingly ends there and, in McTiernan’s original cut, maybe it did. Instead, an extraneous extra act is tagged on. A sick Buliwyf and the remaining men take on the Wendol army. This battle only lasts a few minutes as well. Both of these elements wraps up an otherwise satisfying film on a slightly sour note.

The reason “The 13th Warrior” seemingly went so hideously over-budget, besides the re-shoots, is its extravagant production design. But you can’t say the money isn’t on the screen. “The 13th Warrior” looks great. The film’s world is extremely detailed. The villages, mead halls, and forts are full of minutiae. The mud, grit, and natural wood of the environment sets the film in a clear time and place. Aside from the awesome production design, the film also features a pretty good score. Graeme Revell composed the original score, which was rejected by second director Michael Crichton. Jerry Goldsmith wrote the music featured in the final film. Though I’m sure Revell did a good job, Goldsmith’s score is fantastic. The themes are rousing, recalling a classic sense of cinematic adventure.

McTiernan’s original vision of “The 13th Warrior” hasn’t emerged and it’s unlikely it ever will. The version released to theaters isn’t a masterpiece. However, it’s still a solidly entertaining film, a satisfying mixture of historical epic and low fantasy adventure. A movie like this probably never would’ve become the huge hit the studio needed it to be. But if it had been brought in for a lot less money, I suspect it probably would’ve done alright at the box office. Not quite an overlooked gem or a cult classic, “The 13th Warrior” is still a fun way to spend an evening. [Grade: B]