The Direct to Video Connoisseur

I'm a huge fan of action, horror, sci-fi, and comedy, especially of the Direct to Video variety. In this blog I review some of my favorites and not so favorites, and encourage people to comment and add to the discussion. If you click on an image, it will take you to that post's image page, which includes many more pics from the film and other goodies I couldn't fit in the actual review. For announcements and updates, don't forget to Follow us on Twitter and Like our Facebook page. If you're the director, producer, distributor, etc. of a low-budget feature length film and you'd like to send me a copy to review, you can contact me at dtvconnoisseur[at]yahoo.com. I'd love to check out what you got.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Blackbelt (1992)

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I found this on Netflix when I was looking for more Don "The Dragon" Wilson to review. I'd heard good things about it, which is something of a rarity when talking about D "The D" Dubs' films. This is yet another Roger Corman produced Wilson effort as well.

Blackbelt has Wilson as a former cop who runs a Karate dojo and does PI work for the needy. An up and coming pop star comes to him when a crazy fan (an amazingly mulleted Matthias Hues) starts stalking her and cutting off people's fingers. Wilson is reluctant at first, but he's won over, and finds she not only has Hues as an issue, but an abusive boyfriend, and a mob boss who owns her record label, and neither are happy with her right now either.

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This was pretty good. A decent 1990s DTV actioner. Yes, there could've been more action, and the fight scenes could have been better in spots, but overall it worked. The dialog and acting were atrocious, which with the solid action quotient, actually enhanced the overall viewing experience. That means, though, that this is more of a great bad movie to make fun of, than it is a solid piece of work. Where this film is bad, though, is that it sells itself as this great showcase of martial arts talent, when really we only get them in one scene at the end, where Wilson has to fight a bunch of them, and it's not as good as it could be. I can think of Jeff Wincott in Martial Outlaw in a similar scene, only he really killed it. As a film on its own, it was good movie to make fun of; but based on what they were selling: a battle royal with tons of real life martial arts title holders, it was a bit of a bait and switch.

This is some of Wilson's best stuff. I loved his one-liners, which is rare for him, because usually the scripts he's working with in concert with his less-than-stellar acting ability precludes us from enjoying one of the best aspects of the bad action film. In his first scene, he beats up a pimp, busting his face, then kicking him in the nuts, letting him know "the vasectomy's free." His martial arts were on point as well, and that's what we look for when we sign on for one of his films. I could've done with less bad acting, especially in his scenes with the pop star, because I want more of him fighting; but he did a great job.

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Wow, Matthias Hues. Look at that ape drape. It might be extensions, but who cares? What's great too, is Hues plays such a bad baddie, that we root against him, despite his fantastic beaver pelt. Even better, he cuts his own finger off before the end fight with Wilson, and then the finger grows back-- at least that's the only explanation for him having ten fingers for the entire battle. It had to be the power of his magnificent mane.

The pop star's acting and dialog was all over the place, which actually worked because her character was supposed to have been abused by her father. It's one of the only times I can remember when a bad script actually made the role more realistic, but it took moments when she would've seemed unnatural in her reactions and mood swings, and instead created a manic element in her personality, which really worked based on her character's past. Of course, they betray all this by having her wielding a pistol with the expertise of someone who's spent countless hours at the shooting range. It just reminded me that her character worked by accident, not because the scriptwriters did a good job with it.

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The reason they gave for why the pop star was comfortable with the gun was that her father was a police officer, and she said it to Wilson when he asked if she could handle the weapon in a manner that was like "duh, of course I can use a gun." People do this with me all the time because my father is in construction. "Oh, you must be able to do this or that, right?" No, I write a bad movie blog, am trying to sell a novel, and have a degree in anthropology with a minor in German. If you need me to look at a kinship chart, have some German to translate, want to know what Dolph Lundgren movie to watch, or need someone to proofread something, I'm your man. Got a deck to build? Sorry, I can't help you.

This was a fun time. I wouldn't buy it, and I'm not even sure you should go out of your way to put it on your Netflix queue, but if you've seen most of the other films I've reviewed here at the DTVC, and you're looking for something new, why not go for it. I would put it as a second or third option for a bad movie night.

For more info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0103825/

Friday, May 28, 2010

Princess of Mars (2009)

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When I found this on Netflix Watch Instantly, I thought, wow, an Asylum picture not meant to capitalize on a blockbuster in the theater. Turns out I was wrong. Princess of Mars is based on an Edgar Rice Burroughs book of the same name, and that book was supposed to be in part the inspiration for Avatar, which The Asylum made sure was plastered on the DVD's cover. What I wonder is whether or not Dances With Wolves also has on its DVD cover "Movie Cameron ripped off to make Avatar"?

Princess of Mars is about a soldier in Afghanistan played by Antonio Sabato Jr. who is shot multiple times and almost killed. The Army decides to take the info they have of his body on a flashdrive, and use that info to teleport him to Mars 216, a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri that the government thinks might have life on it. When he gets there, he finds he has special powers due to the planet's gravity, then is captured by these lizard people. He earns their respect by fighting alongside of them, only to find they don't like the humans on the planet. When they capture the princess, Traci Lords, Sabato tries to build peace between both sides, though he has trouble when a mysterious man gets in his way. Who is this guy?

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Because this is based on a book, I'm not sure who I can blame for my number one issue with the film, so I'll just put it out there, and if anyone's read it, they can tell me. For the first hour, I thought this might be one of the best Asylum films I've seen. I know that's not saying much, but still. It felt like a classic Steve Reeves Hercules film, and it was a lot of fun. Then we get to the lizard people's castle, and their leader has a bunch of human women with their eyes gouged out and eyelids stitched over. What? Weird weird weird. I don't know if it was in the book to begin with, or if The Asylum added it, but it was just weird. I think The Asylum should've seen that and changed it if it was Burrough's originally, but can we be surprised The Asylum didn't? They seem to revel in weirdness when it's the most inappropriate.

It was just such a disappointment, because it was only maybe five total minutes in the film, but considering the only thing the film was selling was fun, doing something like that rips all the fun out of it. Antonio Sabato Jr. was great as the hero. He had elements of Reeves, but he also really made it his own too. Lords was also great as the princess. And I loved the bad effects and the lizard people too. What is the point of killing it all? They had to be checking the dailies and seeing the tone the film was taking. Ride it, don't kill it.

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I don't think we have any other Antonio Sabato Jr. on here, though he does have some other DTV roles. He worked perfectly fine here, so maybe I'll check some more of those out. He had a way of delivering lines in a clean, tongue-in-cheek way that enhanced the overall mood of the film, and almost transcended the film's major shortcoming. If The Asylum makes movies of the book's sequels, I hope they keep Sabato, and I hope Sabato says yes. (Sounds like his reality show, My Antonio, which I loved the title to, playing off the Willa Cather novel My Antonia.)

After having our first Asylum bait-and-switch in our The Day the Earth Stopped review, we now have two in a row, only this time it's a planet bait-and-switch. That's right, Mars on the cover, but watching the film, I found out it was the fictitious planet Mars 216. I kind of dig this, though, because unlike the War of the Worlds Asylum films, which just seem out of touch with our current knowledge about Mars, this movie took it upon itself to invent a new planet, which I think is cooler. (I like the idea of using the real Mars too, because of Olympus Mons, the largest mountain in the solar system, sounds really awesome but I digress.) The interplay of two humanoid species only works on a new Mars, and that was a really cool idea as well. As an anthropology major, I've always dug the interplay between Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon, because it's the only time we had two human species interacting. Of course, as far as we know, there aren't any planets orbiting Alpha Centauri, at least none that have been seen, so there's that too.

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She's back. After reviewing Epicenter and our first Traci Lords movie, we're back at it again with another film of hers. She was much better here, and though one could say she's had nine years to hone her craft, I think this material suited her much better. She's good at being tongue-in-cheek the way Sabato Jr. was, and the two worked great together. Also, she looked amazing in her princess outfit-- amazing at any age, but especially a woman in her early 40s who's had kids. But she brings other elements to the role, the ability to be assertive and regal while still being pretty in a skimpy outfit. Again, if The Asylum decides to make films out of the other books, I hope they keep Lords as well.

Other than the weirdness of the chicks who had their eyes gouged out, this was a fun ride. So the question is, is that a deal breaker for you? It kinda was for me, or at the very least, made this a two instead of a three star film on the Netflix scale. Hopefully if they make films out of the sequels, they'll alter them enough to ramp up the fun and drown out the macabre.

For more info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1531911/

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Day the Earth Stopped (2008)

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I'm sure we all know what movie this Asylum film was supposed to sound like. I had planned on boycotting the 2008 The Day the Earth Stood Still based on principle, but I was forced to endure it on a flight from Boston to Seattle. It's amazing that, as horrible as some of these Asylum films can be, these Hollywood blockbuster remakes of old classics can sometimes be even worse.

The Day the Earth Stopped is another C. Thomas Howell directed/acted Asylum movie. This time Howell plays an Army dude sent in with a team to investigate something that landed in the woods nearby. A naked dude is found running in the area, and he's tranquilized. Howell and his buddy are late to the scene, and find a naked woman walking in the road that they pick up. Turns out they're both aliens, and the woman is there to find out if there's anything redeemable in human kind, otherwise they'll wipe us out so we can't kill them in the future. To do this, they have a whole bunch of huge robots around the world. Anyway, this hottie has taken a shine to Howell, and they escape the Army complex she's being held in. She wants Howell to show her the value of human life, why it's important, and for some reason he has no idea what to say. So they run around, while the US government nukes Pacific Islands and tries to kill them. They have until sundown their time to make their case, otherwise we're done.

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Though this wasn't as bad as the Keanu Reeves film, it was still pretty bad. First off, who can't tell an alien what makes humans worth while? Howell's character's stupidity was astounding. And then he suddenly has a moment of perspicacity at the end that was well outside his pay grade. Second, the Pacific Island of Nairu is eradicated by a nuclear bomb in an attempt to take out one of the aliens' robots. That should've been it right there, no? The aliens should've wiped us out for that move alone. Then you have the alien hanging out with Howell. In one scene she makes a car start with her alien powers, then later, when they need a car to start so they can escape, she won't do it because "she can't interfere." Didn't someone forget to check the dailies? I expect bad special effects or bad acting, but nuking islands of 14,000 people (the film erroneously said 9,000, but that's still a lot!) and featuring a hero that doesn't understand why humans should be allowed to live, that's just stupid.

I've noticed a hallmark in Asylum films, and these C. Thomas Howell directed ones in particular, is the monologue at the end letting us know what happened after. It's like their bad movies aren't enough, now they have to tell us there's some profound message attached as well, which ends up sounding sillier than the movie. C. Thomas Howell's voice doesn't help either. I don't know if he does this gruff, overly serious thing on purpose, but he must know how ridiculous he sounds, right? It's that kind of thing that overshadows any of his good work, and keeps him out of the Hall of Fame.

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I think we have our first ever Asylum bait and switch. Judd Nelson, all over the cover, has like ten minutes of screen time, and that's near the end. I feel bad, because I know Mr. Kenner at Movies in the Attic has been wanting me to get more Nelson up here, and I figured I could kill two birds with one stone, getting another Howell directed Asylum flick up, and a Nelson one too. Though this will be tagged for Judd Nelson, it's only so people know this is a full on Judd Nelson bait and switch. Sorry Kenner.

The woman who played the alien was very hot, which I imagine was intended. She opens the film naked, for instance. When Nauru gets nuked, it really stresses her out, so she needs to close her eyes tight, groan, and massage herself to let us know how distressing it all is. Also, her character name is Sky, not Klaatu. What is Klaatu anyway, Finnish? It looks Finnish.

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The message in the 1951 movie was we humans need to reconsider our weapons and what they'll do to ourselves. We have the power to wipe out everyone's future. I don't know what the message in this film was. Pacific Islands with populations the size of American towns big enough to have their own McDonald's are collateral damage, and acceptable losses if we can convince some aliens not to kill us? Or how about no matter how many times we prove to the alien that we are too dangerous to be allowed to live, as long as she's with C. Thomas Howell, we'll get another chance to prove ourselves? That's what made the original so good, that we'd just had two very destructive wars, and now had extremely powerful weapons at our disposal to make the next war even worse. To blow up an island with a nuke defeats the point of remaking the film.

Unlike The Land That Time Forgot, The Day the Earth Stopped doesn't do it for me. It's funny and has it's moments, and again, I liked it more than the 2008 version, but that's not saying much. It's currently available on Watch Instantly, so if you decide to take a stab at it, just know I warned you. It could hurt.

For more info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1290471/

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Land That Time Forgot (2009)

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We often give The Asylum a hard time for their crass approach to film making. Just stick a 90-minute sack of asscrack on the shelves with a name similar to another bigger film already in the theater, and hope as many people as possible rent it based on name-unrecognition. Here I have to give them some credit for creativity in The Land That Time Forgot, because the 1975 original was released to grab people who watched Land of the Lost, which was on TV at the time. A really cool way to make money off the Will Ferrell movie that was in theaters at the time, and pay homage to a classic fantasy film that was released to make money off the TV show the Will Ferrell movie was based on too.

The Land That Time Forgot is another C. Thomas Howell directed/acted Asylum effort. Here, instead of U-Boats and WWI, we have two modern newlyweds on a cruise (Howell and his wife, and the girl from the Miller Lite commercial and her hubby), captained by Timothy Bottoms, that's blown off course in the Bermuda Triangle, and ends up on an island with dinosaurs and whatnot. Howell's wife is separated from them, feared dead, while the other four meet up with a couple other cast-aways. These cast-aways take them to another part of the island, run by Nazi soldiers, also shipwrecked, and holding Howell's wife hostage. Anyway, they plan to get her out, while the two cast-aways they met steal Bottoms' boat, stranding them there. Now our heroes and the Germans team up and refine some petrol they've found, so they can power their submarine and sail home.

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This was pretty good. If you like low-budget movies from the 1950s with silly looking dinosaurs and notsogood acting, this is the movie for you. It did have some lulls, and there were some scenes that could've been less drawn out, but overall, it wasn't as bad as we've seen from The Asylum. I guess my question is, why do these films have to be 90 minutes long? All of their 1950s counterparts were about 75 minutes. Chop 'em down a bit and just throw as many CGI dinosaurs and people running and screaming away from them as you can.

This is Howell's sixth directorial effort, and his third with The Asylum. I don't really know what there is to say about that, other than that seems to be how The Asylum has kept him around. He just gets to remake old Sci-Fi classics. There have been calls to get Howell into the DTVC Hall of Fame, but there have been just as many calls against it. I had originally slated him for the inaugural class when I started the DTVC in 2007, but I couldn't get him past the board, and as time's gone on, I think I can agree with that, as his resume isn't quite there. One thing I can say in his defense: this will be his 11th film on here, and of those 11, four are Asylum pics, and another is Red Dawn, not a DTV movie. Still, that Asylum argument is flawed, because The Da Vinci Treasure made my top ten DTV films of the 2000s.

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A really interesting Timothy Bottoms. No George W. Bush for him. Hello Captain Ron! I almost didn't recognize him. According to the Wikipedia article on The Land That Time Forgot, Bottoms was in the 1991 remake of Land of the Lost, so his inclusion in this film is fitting. He has a vast bio that spans everything, and I'd like to get more of his DTV gems up here, but there's just so many other actors out there with priority right now, that we'll have to settle with reviews here and there for right now.

One of the elements I've never liked about The Land of the Lost was how someone always had to be stranded, in this case Howell and his wife. I can't fault this film for keeping that, because if they didn't, they would've been killed for it, as it was a part of the book and 1975 movie. It feels weird though, and maybe weirdest in this version, because everyone was working so well together, and for anyone to be left behind made a bad ending out of a really fun movie. Again, they really couldn't change it, so I'm not faulting them, just pointing out my opinion on it.

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Do you recognize this girl? Her name's Lindsey McKeon, which probably doesn't ring a bell. Currently she has a part in one of the dumbest light beer ad campaigns ever, which is saying a lot, because light beer commercials are often as dumb as they get. It's those Miller Lite commercials where they say "man up and drink lite beer." Say it out loud so the sheer stupidity of the statement will sink in for you. "Man up and drink lite beer." Try some others while you're at it. "Man up and get a manicure." "Man up and watch a Matthew McConaughey Romantic Comedy." "Man up and ask your wife to get rid of the mouse you just saw run across the floor." And the best part, the women in these commercials are implying their gender is the inferior and weaker one. Notsomuch in Lindsey's, where all she does is bring back the old Seinfeld joke about the man purse; but in the second one, a woman tells a man to "take off [his] skirt", again indicating being a woman is a sign of weakness. Odd message from a woman, huh? Anyway, seeing McKeon in the commercial I was like "where have I seen her from?", and then seeing her in this I was able to look her up, and found that I could've recognized in any number of roles, though not her most recent one, the CW drama One Tree Hill (not a show I watch). If she's in that, what is she doing in light beer commercials? Better yet, what is she doing in Asylum pictures? Oh, and by the way, I drink PBR because they have no commercials.

This is one of the few Asylum films that gets it right. It is that modern 1950s style sci-fi flick with the bad special effects and bad acting. It might have been a little long and a little weird, but for what it is, it isn't so bad. We've seen The Asylum get much worse, so I guess we should be happy we made it out this time unscathed.

For more info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1410205/

Monday, May 24, 2010

Transmorphers: Fall of Man (2009)

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I must confess, I haven't seen the recent big theater Transformers movie. 2 and 1/2 hours just didn't seem that appealing, and everything I'd heard about how bad it was made me keep pushing it off. This Asylum sequel to their earlier film, which was meant to make money of the earlier Transformers film, seemed more like my speed. At least if it sucked, I'd only have to sit through 90 minutes, right?

Transmorphers: Fall of Man, is the prequel to their Cleopatra 2525 rip-off meant to deceive video store shoppers looking for Transformers. It's the current time, and in Bakersfield, CA, some of our electronics are acting funny, ie they're killing people. Turns out in the 50s these aliens gave us the technology to make computers, and unbeknownst to us, this was a trap so they could invade. We fend off our computers, only to have the aliens still invade, and drive us underground.

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This wasn't even 90 minutes long, it was 85 minutes long, but it felt like 2 and 1/2 hours, believe me. I see what they were going for: a throwback to the old invasion films of the 50s; but the thing is, those were often boring too-- and they were often even shorter! The film may have borrowed from (or paid homage to, as I'm sure they'd put it) many things, but for the most part the plot was ripped from Terminator 3, though actually improved upon by adding in the alien conspiracy element. What killed it and made it so dull was the lack of action for the first thirty minutes, broken up by a good thirty minutes of fun, followed by twenty-five minutes that probably shouldn't have even been there. I mean, at the hour mark, when things seemed to wind down, I was like "wait, there's twenty-five minutes left, what are they going to do?" It was just a mess.

But a mess that really could've been tons of fun. First off, the alien conspiracy theory, that aliens gave us all of our technology, is a great thing to base a modern 50s style invasion film on. Bruce Boxleitner was great as the local sheriff, playing it all very seriously and professionally, which added to the great fun feeling. And the CGI robots and effects were hilarious, and made me think of something like The Giant Gila Monster, which is again what I think they were going for. Not only that, they made a reference to the great Atari game, Missile Command. Had they just shrunk the initial dull opening down to 15 minutes from 30, then stretched out the middle 30 to 55 or 60, and wrapped it up with five minutes of whatever, it would've been perfect. Even making a cheesy throwback film needs to be paced properly-- fun done improperly can still be boring.

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As I mentioned above, Bruce Boxleitner was great. Just his voice alone worked, but he really looked the part too. A good chunk of his career has been on TV, meaning his DTV work is very scant, so I was excited to get a chance to review one of his films on the DTVC, because I've always loved his stuff. One of the best recent things he did was as The Chairman on She Spies. He just celebrated his 60th birthday on May 12, so happy belated birthday Mr. Boxleitner, you're still the man.

In my May 3, 2010 post for Interceptor Force, I mentioned a show called Ancient Aliens on the History Channel, which is hilarious. Their biggest message is that aliens came and visited ancient people and taught them all the things they needed to start civilization. I'm sure you're also familiar with those that suggested all of our computer technology came from aliens too. It might be ridiculous, and seeing professors giving what's supposed to be real information on a channel like History is pretty disquieting; but for a movie, it's a great idea. See, that's the thing, movies can make stuff up and it's awesome. When so-called experts posit silliness on TV and try to pass it off as real, it's ten kinds of bad.

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The female lead in this was very hot, especially in her dress and Go-Go boots early in the film. I think it was supposed to add an element of the 60s-- only the movies they were emulating were made mostly in the 60s. Her name is Alana DiMaria, and according to imdb, she hasn't really been in anything else, and doesn't plan to be either. Hopefully that will change, and maybe The Asylum will help us out.

This is currently available on Watch Instantly, so it may be tempting. Don't do it. It's funny, but not that funny, and the poor pacing and useless last 25 minutes will kill any bad movie party you want to include this in. A bad way to jump back into The Asylum after a long lay-off.

For more info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1376460/

Friday, May 21, 2010

Deadly Prey (1987)

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I'd been meaning to get my hands on this for some time, when our favorite reader from down under, one Mr. Sutekh, sent me a copy of his. I couldn't wait to put it up here. I think this is one of those "this is why we do this" kind of films.

Deadly Prey is about a man named Logan who runs a romance novel publishing house. No one at his company can find the perfect model for the cover of their new series, so Logan sends some of them out to the streets to just grab someone. As luck would have it, they find themselves a gem in our hero, the hunky Mike Danton. Only catch is, Logan and Danton were once lovers. They had both moved on, Danton finding a beard and assimilating himself to straight society, while Logan found another beefcake to try and replace his lost love. Now that fate has brought them back together, can they heal these wounds and rekindle the old flame?

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Before I get into how homoerotic this film is, let me first say that it is one of the most awesome action films of all time. The biggest problem with the current DTV action genre is they try so God damned hard to not be Deadly Prey, because they think it's too cheap and silly. But Deadly Prey works, and it's exactly what we as the DTV action buying audience are looking for. In trying so hard to distance themselves from it, they alienate us, their core audience, which is just assinine. Listen guys, I know you've studied all the greats, you consider yourself real professionals, and you want to make "real movies". Guess what: you're making DTV action films. Acting professional is making something more like Deadly Prey and less like The Bourne Identity.

Now to the movie. Are we sure Tennessee Williams didn't write this? It's more than just sweaty, beefy guys wrestling in the dirt. It's in the subtext in the way guys talk to one another. Look at the scene where Danton is tied to a chair in Logan's tent. The tone of the conversation is like two former lovers figuring out why the other changed for the worse. And it doesn't help when the man tied to the chair is shirtless, sweaty, and full of pecs. Then the end of the movie, wow. "Take off your shirt! Take off your shoes! Now run!" I wish I could quit you. (I want to make clear that any gay metaphors I point out do not mean that I think they're a bad thing or that I'm saying homosexuality is a bad thing.)

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Recognize this guy? It's Santa from Space Mutiny. Who'd'a thunk he gets actual work beyond that? He plays Danton's beard's father, and he goes to try and rescue Danton. I don't know that his character was any kind of gay metaphor. Maybe he was Karl Malden's character in A Street Car Named Desire. It fits with what I'm about to get into in the next paragraph.

A rape, and then later cold blooded murder, of the hero's wife in a film would usually anger me, and I'm sure anyone could go into my archives and find myriad instances of me killing a movie for doing just such a thing. But this is a totally different circumstance, and I'll tell you why. First, the rape scene was very much like Blanche DuBois' (Vivian Leigh) rape at the hands of Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando) in A Streetcar Named Desire, and in that context it represents Tennessee Williams' metaphor of wanting to be ravaged by brute in a similar manner. You can even take that metaphor further to earlier in the film, when Logan, who is the one that rapes Danton's wife, calls out "Danton!" in exactly the same manner Kowalski yells out "Stella!" in that famous scene. Then the death of the wife at the hands of Logan's lieutenant (or his new lover, metaphorically), and Danton's subsequent killing of the lieutenant, represents both Logan and Danton freeing themselves of the new lovers that have entered each life since the pair split up. Notice Danton never kills Logan, rather sends him off running after making him take off his shirt, and then yells into the sky for the film's final shot. The whole hunt itself represents the search for the right partner, and Danton finally admitted to himself that he couldn't quit Logan.

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All right, let's get into something that's real, not a metaphor. Do you remember New York Seltzer? I had forgotten the stuff existed. Can you still get it, and if so, where? I almost died when I saw it in the movie. And Root Beer flavor to boot-- though maybe that was the only flavor, I don't remember. And in the credits, they get a shout out. How awesome is that?

This is one of the best action films ever. If you see it anywhere, get it. I was lucky enough to have Sutekh send me one transferred to DVD. I guess it's one of the perks of the job, right? Anyway, get this however you can, you won't be disappointed.

For more info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0092848/

Thursday, May 20, 2010

RoboCop 3 (1993)

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We're ending our celebration of the DTVC's 500th post with Robocop 3, perhaps the most infamous of the three films. Here we had a flying RoboCop, a softer gentler RoboCop petting precocious children sleeping on his lap, and a RoboCop coping with android ninjas. A great time.

RoboCop 3 has Robert Burke taking over for Peter Weller in the title role. OCP is trying to relocate Detroit's poorer citizens so they can create the Utopian Delta City. In their way is a small resistance group, and when OCP has trouble taking them out, they try to use their number one asset to ease the process along: RoboCop. Thing is, his prime directives won't let him do something so sinister, so he's now with the resistance. A Japanese firm buying out OCP doesn't like this, so they send their own secret weapon, android ninjas, to take care of him. It'll take everything RoboCop's got, plus some new toys, if he's going to take down OCP for good.

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This was both the most expensive and least successful of the franchise, for a variety of reasons, but perhaps most importantly because it wasn't as good. 1993 was still a time when the Internet wasn't as ubiquitous as it is now, so word of mouth was the best way to sell a film like this, and once the first viewers came back with poor reviews, it was doomed. Not only that, Orion had massive financial troubles, which hampered the film's release and promotion. Can we be surprised this was disastrous? Probably not the way the series should've been wrapped up (before the mini-series, of course), but it's what happened.

I do like the film's overall message, especially with how relevant it is in today's political climate. In the early days of the Clinton Administration, the US was still getting over the 80s, the subsequent recession, and lack of success of trickle down economics versus the vast growth of the corporate world. Not to mention, American consumer products were getting lapped by their Japanese counterparts. There was a sense that the old way didn't work, and we needed to take American back from the old white haired geezers that put us in this mess. The world that RoboCop was born into in 1987 ceased to exist, which made the message of its third film even less tangible. Fast forward to 2010, and we see that the people who made RoboCop didn't plan on the corporation pulling a new weapon out of their arsenal: the AstroTurf Movement. Somehow corporations, disguised as outraged average Joes, have convinced people to protest and rally against their own best interests, supporting the corporate goals instead. What RoboCop 3 shows us, then, is that this whole idea that politicians are always bad, and businessmen are always good, is not exactly the case. Seeing people as numbers and potential profit margins leads to fascism as quickly as an extremely powerful central government. Funny that RoboCop 3 couldn't have predicted the Tea Bagger movement, but it did predict the response.

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No Weller this time. He was making The Naked Lunch, and couldn't do both. I would say he made the right choice, considering how amazing The Naked Lunch was, but no Weller just gave the film less credibility, even if the film boasted 4 or 5 Seinfeld guest stars, the heel from Billy Madison Part One: Billy Madison, Rip Torn, and Mako. The most ridiculous scene for me came when the little girl rests her head on RoboCop's knee to fall asleep, and RoboCop affectionately pets her head. I wonder what Weller would've done with that scene. Could he have made it less silly? We'll never know.

This was the only RoboCop film to carry a PG-13 rating. Part of that might be a toned down level of violence, but it also might be a softening of the MPAA's standards too. Either way RoboCop's raison d'etre is extreme, comic book, satirical violence, and at the very least, this film's violence was not at all like that. It was very straight ahead action film in its manner, almost becoming the films RoboCop was parodying. I guess that's when we know the RoboCop films jumped the shark, right? Or maybe it was when RoboCop flew around with a jetpack strapped to his back.

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I read on imdb that a new RoboCop is slated for 2011. I'm nervous about the prospect of that. Hollywood does not have a great track record of remaking 80s properties, and RoboCop was much better than its contemporaries to begin with. If Hollywood can't remake Friday the 13th properly, when all they had to do was put a big guy in a hockey mask and have him chase down teens with a machete, what will they do with the genius of nuance, humor, and satire the original RoboCop had? I shudder to think.

If you're watching the first two, why not make part three happen, right? For my money, one is in a completely different class, perhaps top 20 for its decade; two is a marked step down; and three is, as I said, a jumping of the shark. What RoboCop's lasting legacy is is hard to say because I don't know that another film like is has been made since. Maybe that's what makes it so great, that in the grand scheme of things, the film is sui generis. Not everything needs to be inspirational of influential in order to be fantastic. Sometimes being good on it's own is enough.

For more info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0107978/

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

RoboCop 2 (1990)

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In continuing our celebration of the DTVC's 500th post, we're looking at RoboCop 2, the bigger budget sequel to the Paul Verhoeven classic. Verhoeven didn't direct this one, and Ed Neumeier also stepped aside as co-writer, with that duty being taken by Frank Miller.

RoboCop 2 picks up where part one leaves off. Peter Weller is our hero again, and he's starting to have more flashbacks to his former life, and is longing for his humanity. At the same time OCP is looking for the next better RoboCop so they won't have to use the Weller version, and they have their chance when RoboCop is blown apart by a gang manufacturing the narcotic NUKE. At the same time, OCP is looking to take over the city after they've defaulted on their debt because OCP runs their police force. To keep the mayor from getting funds elsewhere, OCP has sent their new creation, RoboCop version 2.0 into stop him. Problem with the new RoboCop: the crazy psychologist OCP has on their payroll decided the psychotic leader of the NUKE gang RoboCop took down would make the perfect brain for the machine. Man, RoboCop has really got his work cut out for himself how, huh?

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This one was good, but nowhere near as groundbreaking as it's predecessor. That was probably to be expected, especially since to my mind RoboCop was a very complete movie, leaving very little behind for a sequel to be made with. I do like questions about what drugs are good and what drugs are bad, and the validity of Reagan's War on Drugs; and the idea that governments and corporations need to be as separate as the branches of government do, otherwise we could be in for problems. Overall, it wasn't bad. Sure, tons of violence, but done in a very satirical way, similar to the first one, just not quite as good.

One of the best concepts was the overly PC RoboCop who had too many directives to be able to function properly. This was a very Team America approach about 15 years ahead of schedule, the way they made fun of both the right and the left. It's funny that a film as over the top as RoboCop 2 would have as its ultimate message that we need to practice a little moderation. What's more amazing is how relevant the message is today, especially with the no government no taxes Tea Baggers. I remember seeing a sign someone made as a joke to hold up at one of the rallies that read: "I hate government, I hate taxes, I'm moving to Somalia." The truth is, no government and no taxes would probably lead us more down the road of OCP than it would Somalia-- or rather the lawlessness of RoboCop's Detroit-- but neither is a welcome sight. But too much government can be a bad thing too, and though this film replaces government fascists with corporate ones, the historical alternative can be a bad one too. (I also think the overly PC RoboCop was poking fun at the first film's critics who said it was too violent.)

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This would be the last RoboCop film Peter Weller would star in, having a conflict that prevented him from acting in part 3. It's an interesting question, whether or not he made a good or bad choice to stay on and do this one. I'm not sure about that, but what I do know is if he hadn't been in it, it would've been a lot worse. He's just a great professional actor, which I'm sure everyone's familiar with being that he's a DTVC Hall of Famer. Other than Buckeroo Bonzai, and probably more than Buckeroo Bonzai, this is his best known role. I think it was good, no matter how much of a step down this one might have been, for him to play the part again. As a side note, Patricia Charbonneau was in this as a scientist who works on Weller. You may remember her from Shakedown, another Weller picture that came out in 1988.

According to the trivia section for RoboCop 2's imdb entry, Paul Verhoeven was approached about a sequel, and he was for it, but wanted to wait for the right script, and give it some time so a sequel wouldn't look like a cash grab. Orion disagreed, and they called in Miller, whose script was unfilmable, forcing them to rewrite it. Verhoeven said had he been given time, what he had in mind would've been much better than what we got.

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I included a picture from the scene where the Little League team robs an electronics store and brutally beats the owner. I did this from my own personal memories. I don't remember what talk show it was at the time, Donahue or Geraldo, but one of them did a show on violence in movies, and a woman they had as one of the guests was freaking out about that scene. For her that was the lowest of the low. Maybe at 11 (which was how old I was when RoboCop 2 came out), I would think the same way she did, but as an adult, I can't see how she didn't see the humor in it. Obviously it was meant as a satire of all the complaints people were making about how violence was ruining our youth, essentially making fun of her as well; but the key to the scene is the coach loading the stuff onto the truck. He's the ring leader, and also the adult figure that's really influencing kids. What they were saying is, it's the adults closest to kids that determine what their behavior will be like as adults more than anything else.

If you liked the first one (and I loved it), this is a pretty fun time. Again, it's nowhere near what the first one was, but few films are, and viewed within the context of the first one, it's actually a little better than most people were giving it credit. A little.

For more info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0100502/

Monday, May 17, 2010

RoboCop (1987)

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We've hit a major milestone here at the Direct to Video Connoisseur. This is our 500th post. That's right, just over three years ago I started a blog so I could share my love of movies, in particular Direct to Video movies, with like and notso-like minded individuals, and now here I am, after various starts and stops, from almost no one reading it to a little more than no one reading it, posting four times a week, and meeting and conversing with people from all over the world. To celebrate this milestone, I wanted to review one of my all time favorites. I also wanted to review something that all of you would like as well. Something that encapsulates what the DTVC is about. Sure, I love Casablanca or Citizen Kane, but how appropriate would those be? That's when it hit me, one of the greatest action, sci-fi, comedy, and existentialist films of all time, RoboCop. What movie fits what we do better than the Paul Verhoeven classic? It's perfect.

RoboCop takes place in Detroit in the near future. Crime is at an all time high, and the corporate world thinks it has the solution, as proposed by one Miguel Ferrer. They just need an unfortunate volunteer, and that comes when Officer Murphy, played by Peter Weller, is brutally murdered by a vicious gang of thugs, led by the dad from That 70's Show. Ferrer's scientists turn him into an indestructible crime fighting robot, and send him out onto the streets to much success. But there are some that aren't happy about this. Ferrer's superior is unhappy that RoboCop has upstaged his invention, ED-209, and he sends the dad from That 70's Show to kill him. RoboCop also remembers from his former life that the dad from That 70's Show killed his former self, and he goes after him, which leads him to Ferrer's boss. Will he be able to stop both, or will they shut him off before he gets his chance?

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Where to start. I guess I'll start with why I like it so much, and move from there. I was 9 when I saw it on HBO at a friend's house a year after it came out. It was a frightening, yet extremely awesome movie. The way Murphy is killed was just so extreme, and the violence everywhere else was just so hardcore, that it really freaked me out. What I didn't realize was I was watching an edited version so the film could avoid an X rating. Still, the action was great, and RoboCop was such a cool hero in a very comic book like way. But RoboCop was a movie I would come back to frequently, and as I matured I saw the humor in it, saw the social commentary, and understood how great Ferrer and Weller's performances were. Then I saw the un-cut version and it all made sense. Cutting the over-the-top violence made it too realistic, which wasn't what RoboCop was going for. This needed to be ridiculous throughout, in everything from the dialog to the violence. Editing out the gore actually makes it scarier.

Of course when I say ridiculous I mean in a satirical sense. This wasn't mocking violence in society, it was mocking society for being violent, yet abhorring and blaming violence in films. It was mocking a society where so much money is made on violence, where violence is so ingrained in our culture, yet we blame movies and other media when society becomes violent as a result. Think of Ronny Cox's character confronting Miguel Ferrer in the bathroom, telling him how RoboCop kept him from selling his ED-209 units to the military. Remember what he says? "Who cares if it worked or not?", meaning the government will pay anything for new military equipment, and probably won't ever use it. It's more than just the Military Industrial Complex, though. The news reports killings (especially at that time and for a few years after) all the time, perpetuating a culture of fear and violence. And look at all those Second Amendment honks and Tea Baggers rocking guns in anti-Obama rallies. What RoboCop was trying to do was show the Beast what it looked like in the mirror, and for that the MPAA freaked out.

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For the first time, in watching the film again for this review, I turned on the audio commentary track. Also I should mention that I have the out of print Criterion Collection version. I don't know if some of the newer versions are better, but they could be worth checking out. Anyway, the commentary was from Verhoeven, co-writer Edward Neumeier, executive producer Jon Davison, and RobocCop expert Paul M. Sammon. It's really cool and provides much more insight into why things were a certain way. Verhoeven, for instance, describes what it was like growing up in Nazi occupied Den Haag, between the Allied bombings and German soldiers killing locals. He said that violence influenced a lot of what he did later in life, espcially in this film. Then Neumeier described how he wanted a lot of US in Vietnam in the film, which was why ED-209 (named after him) looked like a gun boat, and why the doctor bringing ED-209 in was named McNamara. As I go on, I'll mention other things they added.

Then there's DTVC Hall of Famer Peter Weller. You may notice that I often extol the virtues of actors who play it straight in tongue and cheek films like this, and how much I don't like when other actors give us too much of the old wink-wink nudge-nudge to the camera, ruining the tone of the film. In the commentary, the people involved with making the film said the same thing: Weller made the picture great by playing it straight. And he didn't just play it straight, he made it his. He embellished it with his own movements and gestures. Without him going for it, RoboCop would've just been a man in a suit, and if we don't buy that, we miss everything else. Amazing role by an amazing actor.

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One thing I always had trouble with was how geeky the That 70's Show dad looked as the baddie in this film. Bad guys were always more like Hans Gruber as far as I could tell. In the commentary, I found out why this was. Verhoeven wanted him to look like Heinrich Himmler, the man who he thought was the ultimate baddie. Another thing he mentioned was that the dad from That 70's Show is a really nice guy in real life, and it's really nice guys who tend to make the best bad guys in movies. What does that say about Bruce Payne or Julian Sands then? (Oh, and before anyone comments and tells me what the guy's real name is: Kurtwood Smith.)

One of my all time favorite actors has always been Miguel Ferrer, and this of course is one of his best roles. I couldn't remember who said it in the commentary, but the goal was to make Ferrer such a dork that the scene where the dad from That 70's Show blows him up is supposed to be something we're rooting for, and he was surprised that that wasn't the case. I think in the writer's mind he was the classic Yuppy jackass, but to us he also created RoboCop, our hero, and he opposed Ronny Cox, the real baddie. Plus Ferrer was so cool, why would we want him to die?

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I've always seen the Frankenstein metaphors in RoboCop, but for some reason the Beauty and the Beast ones escaped me until the commentary, which is crazy, because it's so obvious in the scene where Weller takes off his RoboCop helmet and looks into the distorted mirror. Another one that I didn't pick up on came right after, when Nancy Allen is guiding Weller's hand as he aims at the baby food jars. That's the movie's one love scene, and they're shooting the baby food jars to show us the kids they can't have.

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I found out that there was a scene where RoboCop visits Murphy's grave that was cut, and it was cut because Verhoeven wanted to keep with the theme of the pervasiveness of technology, and have a computer tell him Murphy's dead. That scene has always worked so well, I never even questioned it. Had they gone with a graveyard scene, it would've seemed out of place, and I think the Paradise Lost scene where RoboCop goes back to his home was out of place enough.

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Finally, I just needed to show the NUKEM board game. How fantastic is that? But it makes perfect sense, if you're going to up the violence, why not up the ante in one of the more violent board games ever too. We never think of it like that though, do we? "You sunk my battleship!" "You sunk a boat full of sailors!" "You killed hundreds of people!" But it didn't do it in a way that was preachy, it did it in a way that was hilarious, and just made us think about what the games we played meant.

All right, it's time to wrap this up. I figured I'd go a little longer than usual because this is number 500, so thank for indulging me. Also thank you to everyone who's supported us here, because without you, I'm not sure there'd be a 100 or 200, let alone a 500 and counting over three years and counting. It's been a fun ride so far, and I can't wait to see what we do in the future. As far as RoboCop goes, I'm sure any of the recent DVD versions of it are fine, just make sure you get the unrated director's cut, not the R rated version, because you're missing a lot. Though the Criterion Version is out of print, if you keep your eye out, you should still be able to get it used for like $20, which I think is a great deal.

For more info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093870/

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Pray for Death (1985)

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When this thing turned up on Hulu as I was looking up Shô Kosugi during my Ninja Assassin review, I figured it was a good idea to make it happen. Of course, it had been maybe 20 years since I'd seen it last, and I had this odd sense that it wasn't good, or that I didn't quite like it, but I couldn't remember why.

Pray for Death has Shô Kosugi as a Japanese businessman trying to leave behind his ninja past. He has an American wife and two kids, and when the wife suggests moving back to the States, he's all over the idea. When he gets here, though, he finds out the property they bought is in a bad part of town, and even worse, some local baddies hid an expensive necklace in a boarded up section of their new place, and when it goes missing, they take it out on Kosugi and his family. Kosugi wants to do things by the book, but the cops are little help, so he has to take matters into his own hands to protect his family.

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Now I remember why I didn't like this. It was ten kinds of awesome in terms of great ninja action, and Kosugi brings it. What killed it for me was the film makers killing off Kosugi's wife. It's like, first the baddies kidnap his son, so he rescues him. Then they run over his wife and son, so he goes and threatens them to leave his family alone. Finally, after all that, they then kill off his wife. Jesus, why not burn down his house and send the IRS after him too while you're at it. And that made for an awesome last scene too, with Kosugi and his two sons at their mother's grave. That's what I want out of an action flick, a somber ending. Maybe they could mix in Sarah McLachlan's "Angel" while they're at it. Good work, guys.

We always talk about not wanting the plot to get in the way of the action in the sense of lowering the overall action quotient, but here what happened was the bad plot killed any fun the movie should've had. They wrote themselves into a corner to start with, when Kosugi invades the baddie's party boat, but then he leaves the head baddie alive, warning him not to mess with his family, because they really had nowhere to go from there. They also needed to kill off the wife to give us the baddie's ultimate death of getting sawed in half, which I guess we wouldn't buy if the head baddie just kidnapped the wife I guess. The thing is, we didn't buy it anyway because they didn't show it. What we needed was for the wife to be kidnapped from the hospital, Kosugi saves her, and the end scene is the family at their restaurant. Keep everything else, and this would be one of the best films of all time.

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And a big reason for that was how awesome Shô Kosugi was, yet again. The martial arts were spot on, and his ninja costume was sweet as all get out. I think the biggest impediment to his overall success here in the States is his poor command of the English language. It's not an indictment on him, just a point of fact. Now he's 62, which puts him in that wise sensei category, which worked fine in Ninja Assassin, so maybe we'll get more of that from him. In this film, it was some of his best stuff, which makes it all the more annoying that his character couldn't get a break. I'm surprised after killing off his wife they also didn't have his fledgling restaurant destroyed by an earthquake or something.

I should probably get together a list of my rules for action films, because I got another one right here: kids look silly doing martial arts. Pray for Death features Kosugi's kids yet again, and when they're fighting bad guys, it looks too ridiculous for words-- not to mention, it takes away from time we could have of Kosugi's great martial arts skills. I mean, when we sign on for a Shô Kosugi film, we're signing on to watch him fight, not his kids. If I wanted that kind of thing, I'd rent 3 Ninjas.

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One of the best parts of the film comes when Kosugi jumps over a truck. Real or not, it was great in an 80s 90s DTV action sort of way. The truth is, the film was more parts like that, and collected together make for an awesome film. Unfortunately, by killing off Kosugi's wife and his kids' mother, all that fun goes out the window. Sometimes these film makers just take themselves too seriously. Had this been made by Golan-Globus, you know it would've been much more fun.

And there you have it. This is great in terms of Shô Kosugi and his action; but the whole thing took a weird turn for me because the film makers just had to keep sending Kosugi's character through the ringer, ultimately killing his wife. I'm surprised they didn't also have him buy a winning lottery ticket, only to have it fly out of his hands when he finds out it's the jackpot.

For more info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0089835/

Friday, May 14, 2010

Vamos a matar, companeros aka Companeros (1970)

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The DTVC's first experience with Franco Nero came in Enter the Ninja, when he was known only as The 'Stash. We felt like we needed to redeem him, so we reviewed the Spaghetti Western classic Django, which was so great, we knew we had to revisit him, and we're doing that now with Companeros.

Companeros takes place in a Mexican border town, where Nero plays a Swede visiting so he can sell guns to the local general in power. He runs into some students trying to form a movement against the general in favor of their professor, who is hiding out in Yuma. Turns out the general needs that same professor to give him the code to a safe in town that supposedly has a lot of dough in it. Nero offers to go after him, so the general sends his lieutenant, Tomas Milian, to accompany him. Neither trust each other, but they have to join forces, especially when Jack Palance, a man with an ax to grind against Nero, is hired to bring in the professor too. Everyone's on a collision course to wackiness.

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Another great one. Not as good as Django, but up there. It has that The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly feel too it, with a lot of moving parts coming together in a lot of scenarios. Though it's violent, it's also much more off-beat than Django was. Overall, it still had that ultimate element that separates Spaghetti Westerns from American ones-- that feeling of untamed wildness and a world where the one who's best able to take what he or she can from everyone else will prevail; as opposed to lawlessness and chaos being controlled by the hero. The world of Companeros starts feral, and ends feral, and in between the characters through their wits, their might, and their wills, try to stake their claims to their piece, however small or large.

Growing up, the Western was one of the first genres I was introduced to, with my dad watching them frequently. Back then, there was no digital cable, and the cable we had was maybe 30 channels. That meant on weekends, especially Sundays, a lot of the local channels would feature movies all day, usually Westerns. I think, growing up in that environment, I actually turned away from the Western, because I was so used to it, I wanted something new. In my mind it was a claustrophobic genre, with very little possibility for creativity because one was confined in the box of the Old West. Now that I'm older, I see how wrong I was. Take this film for instance. The setting enhances the story, makes it broader in scope, not the other way around. As I said above, Companeros features many moving parts, and one of those is the Old West, adding stress to our heroes' plight, making their jobs even more difficult. But it also allows them a greater freedom of avenues to solve their problems-- the only limit is their creativity and force of will. The Western, when done well, can show the best and worst traits of the human condition, and it was a mistake on my part to not see that sooner.

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The 'Stash brings it again, though this time Nero is sporting a massive pair of mutton chops. I'm not sure where I read it, but apparently Nero wasn't happy with his treatment in this movie, saying the director, Sergio Corbucci, focused too much of the film on his co-star, Tomas Milian. Other than the fact Milian gets the girl, I'm not sure I see that, but the important thing was Nero did, and he didn't work with Corbucci again. What was great here was he showed us his comedic side, which was a change of pace from his stoic side, which he displayed in Django. Gotta love Nero... and those mutton chops.

This is the second film we've featured here with Oscar winner Jack Palance, the first being Cyborg 2. In the 60s and 70s he did a lot of foreign films, my personal favorite being his role as the American producer in Contempt. He was also in Corbucci's The Mercenary, which was very similar in plot t0 Companeros. You'd think with the career he had, he'd pop up more often on the DTVC, but if you look at his bio, it's right around the 80s that he gets more theatrical roles, leading up to City Slickers and his Oscar, meaning he spent his time during the age of video in the theater.

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I know at the DTVC I'm supposed to focus more on explosions and chase scenes, and less on Corbucci's use of Italian Neo-Realist elements, so I apologize for this digression here. It is interesting that I write a blog on the kinds of movies that I do, when I also enjoy so many on the other end of the spectrum. Here I was last Sunday watching Epicenter and Jean-Luc Goddard's Vivre Sa Vie, which the Criterion Collection just released on DVD. I think what it shows is that for me, people who only watch the former or the latter, are missing out on the full picture. I like that I can watch Companeros and see Corbucci calling on Rosellini's Flowers of St. Francis, but at the same time, I like that I can watch Companeros and see where some of the action and plot elements are the same ones I find in a Peckinpah film like The Wild Bunch, which in turn I find in the great DTV action films of the 80s and 90s. Many of these DTV directors are still artists, and they had people in their craft they looked up to just like the greats like Scorsese, and oddly enough, they often looked up to the same people. See George Lucas and Albert Pyun both looking up to Kurosawa, for instance.

Though I liked Django more, Companeros is still a great time. You can get it on DVD through Netflix, though Anchor Bay Entertainment is the company that released it, and they're renown for letting their properties go out of print, so you may want to get your hands on it sooner rather than later. One thing I can't say is whether or not the film is meant to be seen in Italian with English subtitles, or in English, but I went with the English because Nero spoke in English.

For more info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0066612/

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Malice in Wonderland (2009)

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I caught wind of this a little while ago, before it came out on DVD yesterday. Luckily Netflix sent it out to me the day it was released, and I got it in the mail today. I must confess I one: haven't seen the new Johnny Depp Alice in Wonderland, and two: haven't really seen anything to do with Alice in Wonderland since I saw the Disney movie in school in the 80s. It might mean I missed some of the references, but I think I knew enough to get what was going on.

Malice in Wonderland stars Maggie Grace in the role of Alice, a US law student in London being chased by two men through a tube station. She makes her way to the street, when she's hit by a taxi, driven by Whitey (the White Rabbit). He scoops her into his car and takes her with him as he goes to pick up a present for Harry Hunt (The Queen of Hearts). Alice has amnesia, and is trying to remember who she is, and as she does, she runs across other characters based on Alice in Wonderland, trying to find Whitey again, who has dropped her off at a bus station. I don't want to give away too much of it beyond that.

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For an 85 minute movie, I liked the first 75 quite a bit, but I'm not sure what happened at the end when all these loose ends started flying together. The movie should've come with a warning to wear goggles. Beyond that, the film was great. It had the perfect mix of reality and trippiness for this kind of a take on the story. Also, all of the actors took their parts and ran with them, recreating characters they all grew up with in England. Throw in Maggie Grace, who was precocious, confused, yet capable and heroic-- all traits we want out of a good Alice. I get the sense this would've been a boring 100 minute film if they didn't wrap up the oversized plot in the quick ten minutes they did, but it put an unnatural cap on what was an otherwise great film.

According to imdb, Mischa Barton was originally picked for the part of Alice. They don't say why Grace replaced her, and I don't know if Barton would've been better or worse in the part, I just know Grace worked. Sometimes just the way she stood in a certain scene was enough-- it was just very Alice, if that makes sense; and though the script seemed to be a little uneven at times in the way it handled her character, she had a way of making it work (except for the end too, of course). I haven't seen much of Lost, and didn't see her in Taken, but based on this role I'd like to see her again.

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As I said above, I didn't see the new Tim Burton/Johnny Depp Alice in Wonderland, so I can't really comment, but setting it in a liminal space outside of London seems more inspired than loading a more faithful to the book version with famous actors and actresses and tons of CGIs. Again, I need to see it to really be able to comment, but the ensemble CGI thing has been done too many times with too many things. A surreal Film Noir-esque take is more my speed anyway, so maybe I'm biased, but it just goes back to my feeling that Hollywood is afraid to give us anything that's really new, and maybe American audiences as a whole are afraid to go see anything really new either, because I can't imagine Malice in Wonderland doing anywhere near as well as the Burton/Depp film if the two were pitted against each other in the States.

Saying the English have a very rich literary tradition is an understatement: between Dickens and Shakespeare alone, they have tons of ready-made plots that would make for great adaptations the way this one was here. It's interesting to see, then, how many of those stories end up as period pieces instead. Perhaps it's Laurence Olivier's legacy, or a need to keep Colin Firth working, who knows. When I think of some of the best film versions of England's best writing, as much as I think of Olivier's Hamlet or Lean's Oliver Twist, I also think of Francis Ford Coppola's version of The Heart of Darkness in Apocalypse Now (I know Conrad was Polish, but he spent much of his life in England, and wrote in English), or Kurosawa's Ran and Throne of Blood (King Lear and Macbeth respectively). Unlike Burton's Alice in Wonderland, which is just remaking the book again, I like how this film takes that latter approach, and uses the basic story in a new setting.

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It's funny to think that I too could adapt Alice in Wonderland to my own local setting, because the closest Boston subway stop to me is named Wonderland, after the dog track in Revere that's nearby. I'm sure the dog track took it's name from the book, as has everything named Wonderland, but I never made the connection until this movie, when Alice is waiting for a bus, and she sees on a map one end that says "Wonderland", and the other that says "London". Now that I mention it, I'm not even sure if that dog tack is still open...

Anyway, before I digress too far, I better wrap this up. I think this is worth looking at. If you're unfamiliar with the story or don't remember it that well, you can click on my imdb link below and watch the trailer. That will tell you who all the characters are supposed to correspond to in the original story. If you're up for a trippy, Noir-esque take on Alice in Wonderland, I think you'll like this.

For more info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0374853/