Futureworld


The future is phallic.

The future is phallic.

(1976) Science Fiction (American Independent) Peter Fonda, Blythe Danner, Arthur Hill, John Ryan, Stuart Margolin, Yul Brynner, Alan Ludden, John Fujioka, Dana Lee, Burt Conroy, Darrell Larson, Nancy Bell, Judson Pratt, Jim Antonio, Mike Scott, Ed Geldard, Charles Krohn, Jim Everhart, Jan Cobbler, James Connor, Catherine McClenny. Directed by Richard T. Heffron

sci-fi-spectacle

This was a sequel to the popular hit film Westworld which on the day this is being published is making its debut as an HBO miniseries. Rather than a major studio behind the wheel however, AIP was funding this and of course as was typical for AIP films there was a kind of TV movie-of-the-week quality to the proceedings.

Following the disaster at Westworld the Delos resort is trying to regroup. They are so confident that they can resume their resort life of allowing guests to live their fantasies, no matter how illegal or immoral they are, with robots bearing the brunt of sexual congress and murder. Their publicity shill, Duffy (Hill) is so sure that the bugs have been worked out and that the guests are completely safe that he has invited a pair of reporters – print columnist Chuck Browning (Fonda) who helped expose the disaster at Westworld – and Tracy Ballard (Danner), a once-upon-a-time journalist who was fired by Browning but became a famous TV news personality. The two couldn’t be more opposite if they could try, which in movie-speak means they’re going to fall in love.

Westworld has closed (although we get to visit the ruins and get a hand job for doing it), but Delos has retained Romanworld and Medievalworld as well as adding two new resorts – Spaworld which gives the illusion of eternal life and youth, and Futureworld, which allows the wonders of the solar system to be experienced from the comfort of a cruise ship-like spaceship.

Browning is a cynical, suspicious sort – particularly after a tipster named Frenchy (Geldard) shows up dead with an envelope full of newspaper clippings. Browning means to do some investigatin’ and Woodward and Bernstein ain’t got nuthin on him. In the meantime he flirts with Ballard, calling her by the pet name “Socks” which isn’t as endearing as he thinks. And with the aid of disgruntled maintenance worker Harry (Margolin), Browning begins to uncover a horrific plot going on at Delos with the sinister Dr. Schneider (Ryan) at its very center.

All this was supposed to take place in 1985 and while some of the technology isn’t there yet (human-looking and acting robots) the computers and electronics looked positively archaic by the time 1985 actually arrived. AIP was hoping to cash in on a hit movie which the original studio, MGM, had tried to develop but couldn’t get a script and a budget they wanted. AIP didn’t really care about the script and as for budget, well, let’s just say that they didn’t scrimp but they didn’t break the bank either.

Fonda was at the time still trying to kick his counterculture image of Easy Rider and so his “stick it to the man” mentality that Browning possesses struck a chord with his fans. Part of the dated element of this film is that I don’t think that reporters are as considered heroic and anti-establishment now as they were in the wake of the Watergate investigation of the Washington Post which had just taken place a few years earlier. These days we mostly look as reporters as part of the corporate media machine. They essentially do little to report the news and more to sell advertising and for certain don’t look out for the little guy.

Danner was a hottie back in the day; we sometimes forget that Gwynneth’s beauty came from somewhere. However, AIP wanted this to be more or less compatible with network television standards, so there is virtually no sex, hardly any violence and no swearing. It was a different time.

Brynner, making his last screen appearance, reprises his role as the Gunslinger from the first film (the only actor who appears here from Westworld) and his menacing glare is one of the highlights of the film. Most of the rest of the performances were fairly pedestrian although Ryan did do some mustache-twirling scene chewery as the true big bad, in a generic 70s TV movie kind of way.

Most of the movie seems to have the actors running around the bowels of Delos with a lot of pipes, catwalks and wires which I suppose is better than having to construct futuristic-looking sets. None of it makes a lot of sense but overall, it’s surprisingly entertaining. I first saw it as a teen boy and I carry with me the fond memories of seeing it in a theater which may color my appreciation of it now. Still, while this isn’t the kind of movie that attracts a cult following, it’s still got enough going to make it kind of fun and quite frankly that’s far more than a lot of contemporary films can say.

WHY RENT THIS: There is some fun robot action. Yul Brynner makes a menacing but silent villain. Surprisingly entertaining throughout in a guilty pleasure kind of way.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Very dated. Doesn’t make a whole lot of logical sense. The performances seem mailed in.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexuality and mild profanity and a few disturbing images as well as some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first film to utilize 3D imagery, as well as being Brynner’s final film.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
SITES TO SEE: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, Fandango Now
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Westworld
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace


The Jedi are more badass than you can imagine.

The Jedi are more badass than you can imagine.

(1999) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid, Pernilla August, Oliver Ford Davies, Hugh Quarshie, Ahmed Best, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Frank Oz, Terence Stamp, Ray Park, Samuel L. Jackson, Brian Blessed (voice), Lewis Macleod (voice), Sofia Coppola, Keira Knightley. Directed by George Lucas

 

sci-fi-spectacle

The Star Wars franchise has been a cultural touchstone for many since the film series debuted in 1977 and remains a beloved cinematic collection for most. However, none of the films in the series has been reviled by its fanbase as much as this one.

It starts with a breakdown in negotiations between the Republic and the Trade Federation (think Ferengi) to end a blockade around the planet Naboo, resulting in an assassination attempt on Jedi Knight negotiators Qui-Gon Jinn (Neeson) and a young Obi-Wan Kenobi (McGregor). The Trade Federation ends up invading Naboo and the two Jedi, aided by a Gungan (one of two sentient species on the planet) named Jar-Jar Binks (Best) rescue Queen Amidala (Portman) and flee the planet in her starship, sustaining damage and forcing them to land on a faraway desert planet with their hyper drive out of commission.

The desert planet they are stranded on ends up being Tatooine where they meet Anakin Skywalker (Lloyd), a young boy who was born a slave and lives with his mother (August). Jinn notices that the boy is incredibly strong in the force; so much so that he has the potential to become the most powerful Jedi in history. As most fans know, what he actually ends up being is Darth Vader. They enter the precocious boy in a violent and dangerous pod race to not only get the parts they need to repair their ship but to win the boy’s freedom as well.

The Jedi bring back their findings to the Jedi counsel, led by Master Yoda (Oz) and Master Mace Windu (Jackson), along with the boy whom Qui-Gon puts forward for training. Yoda and Windu, both concerned about the boy’s susceptibility to the dark side, turn down the request so of course Qui-Gon decides to train Anakin himself. In the meantime, things on Naboo are coming to a crucial point and Amidala, frustrated that the Galactic Senate is too corrupt to act, returns to Naboo to lead her people in a struggle against their oppressors. That corruption is being fanned by Darth Sidious, a Sith Lord who is orchestrating these events with an eye to eventually cause the Republic to crumble and install an empire with a Sith Lord at its head.

The effects for the film were in 1999 absolutely breathtaking. Lucas and his technical crew created a number of wildly different environments, from the undersea world of the Gungan people to the Venice-like capital city of Naboo to the desert world of Tatooine to the massive skyscrapers of Coruscant, the capital of the Republic. Each of the environments is distinct and realistic and paved the way for the computer generated worlds that we take for granted today in modern blockbusters.

The Star Wars series has never been noted for its character development and for the most part there is almost none here. Yes, familiar faces are around in the film which takes place more than 30 years before the original, including Yoda and droids R2D2 (Baker) and C-3PO (Daniels) the latter of which is essentially a skeletal frame of a droid that Anakin is building. We kind of know who they are because we’ve grown up with them and it is pleasing to see some of their backstory.

Unfortunately, Lucas wanted to make the movie more family-friendly which was a wild misstep. Binks has become something of a symbol and for all the wrong reasons; he is so hated by the fanbase of the films that his role was greatly reduced in the following two films of the trilogy – who can forget the rap parody starring Binks “Me-ssa So Horny”? The character was meant to be comic relief but ended up being a tremendous irritant.

I don’t like criticizing child actors because they aren’t equipped to deal with the criticism as well as their adult counterparts so I’ll criticize Lucas instead – putting Jake Lloyd in the role of Anakin, a role that was so super critical to the film was absolutely irresponsible. Not only does Lloyd not have the acting ability to handle it, his flat line reading and irritating demeanor stop the film dead in its tracks. Lucas should never have put a kid – any kid – under so much pressure. Lloyd did the best he could under the circumstances but I’m not sure anyone could have handled the scrutiny that Lloyd was under. As much as I sympathize with the youngster, there is no getting away that his performance is detrimental to the film overall.

There are a lot of good things about the film – the duel between Qui-Gon and Sith warrior Darth Maul (Park) is absolutely spectacular, one of the best in cinematic history. Still, this has to rank among the most disappointing films ever. The anticipation for a new Star Wars film was so great that almost nothing could have lived up to the expectations of the fans, but this was so far below the bar that the series had nowhere to go but up, but it would take 16 years before fans got the satisfying sequel they were looking for.

WHY RENT THIS: Seeing Yoda fight is a completely badass experience. Neeson lends some much-needed gravitas. Park very nearly steals the movie.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Jake Lloyd is absolutely wooden. Jar Jar Binks is an abomination. The whole thing is entirely too dumbed down.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of action and violence of a sci-fi nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Keira Knightley’s first name was misspelled as “Kiera” in the credits.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are a series of a dozen documentaries produced for the film’s website; some of the footage from these docs appear in the main “making-of” featurette. There are also plenty of stills and animatics from the pre-production as well as a featurette on the making of the videogame based on the movie.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD only), Amazon (purchase only), iTunes, Google Play (purchase only), Fandango Now (purchase only)
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.027B on a $115M production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Matrix Revolutions
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle concludes!

Der Bunker


Bad haircuts never go out of style.

Bad haircuts never go out of style.

(2015) Something Else (Arsploitation) Pit Bukowski, Daniel Fripan, Oona von Maydell, David Scheller. Directed by Nikias Chryssos

 

We see the world through a lens of normality; we have expectations of what people’s lives should look like and then we figure they’ll conform to them. But that conformity is a lie; it’s not always the case. Sometimes what’s just below the surface is twisted enough to make us grow pale.

A young German student (Bukowski) – and that’s all the name he gets, folks – trudges through the snow in the woods to an underground bunker. There he is greeted by the owner who is known only as Father (Scheller), his comely wife Mother (Maydell) and their somewhat unusual son Klaus (Fripan) who is a 30 year old man with a bowl haircut who acts like an 8-year-old and is sure he’s going to be the President of the United States – even though he’s German.

The boy is being homeschooled but it turns out that he is not the brightest bulb in the chandelier. Father has been handling the teaching duties but he hasn’t made much of an impression despite his rather severe methods, so Student is enlisted to teach the boy. At first he doesn’t make much headway but when he discovers that Klaus seems to respond to pain things begin to get better.

Mother has been putting the moves on Student in the meantime, something he’s not altogether opposed to, but when he discovers that she is breastfeeding Klaus, alarm bells begin to go off. That and Father’s bizarre joke night where he tells jokes dressed as a mime, and then discusses them existentially. Father also seems to be a bit of a tyrant, counting every dumpling eaten and every napkin used and keeping a running tally.

But things really get odd when the Student discovers an open wound on Mother’s leg that has been infested by an alien named Heinrich who apparently is controlling Mother and the entire family. She is loathe to let Klaus grow up and leave; and now, it appears she has designs on keeping the Student around as well. Can he escape from this madhouse?

Chryssos directs and writes this and he’s drawing comparisons to John Waters and David Lynch and from the standpoint that this is a quirky cult film-type, the comparison isn’t wrong. Fans of those two worthies (and others along the same lines) will likely dig the very oddball world that Chryssos delivers here.

He uses color in a very unusual way, shooting through red filters as the story draws to a climax. Everything from Klaus’ bizarre wardrobe and Father’s tacky sweaters seems deliberately chosen for texture and color. Only Mother and Student are dressed rather blandly most of the time (and Mother is undressed quite a bit). The bunker itself is unremarkable although it seems a bit less spartan than the other onscreen bunker homes I’ve seen. Perhaps that is a European thing.

The performances are actually pretty good, and considering there are only four people in the film, there really isn’t anywhere to hide. Von Maydell has a thankless task playing a controlling woman yet making her sympathetic, while Fripan as the man-boy Klaus has the weirdest role of all and pulls it off without making it a caricature.

This is really not a movie for everybody. While some have marked it as a horror film (and several horror websites have given the film some coverage), it is more of a cult film. Yes there are aliens but they are never seen; for all we know they could manifest inside Mother’s head alone. However, the constant barrage of weirdness and the skewed point of view may be off-putting to those who are uncomfortable with the bizarre. For my taste, this is something you might have seen back in the days of the Weimar Republic only with a kind of Russ Meyers edge, along with the filmmakers I’ve already mentioned. This is a strange one, but if you like strange, you’re gonna like this.

WHY RENT THIS: It’s weird but in a good way.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This might be a little more twisted and out there than mainstream audiences are comfortable with.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexual situations and plenty of nudity as well as some violence and a fair amount of corporal punishment.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Made it’s debut in 2015 at Austin’s venerated Fantastic Fest.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Vimeo
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Borgman
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Wiener-Dog

Observance


Oh black water, keep on rolling...

Oh black water, keep on rolling…

(2015) Psychological Horror (Artsploitation) Lindsay Farris, Stephanie King, Brendan Cowell, John Jarratt, Benedict Hardie, Tom O’Sullivan, Roger Ward, Gabriel Dunn, Joseph Sims-Dennett, Ash Ricardo, Louisa Mignone. Directed by Joseph Sims-Dennett

 

Grief does some disturbing things to our perceptions. It changes how time reacts to us, making it stretch out interminably. It sometimes causes us to see things that aren’t there. It makes us feel as if we are dying ourselves – even though we aren’t. We just wish we were.

Parker (Farris) is a private detective, but he hasn’t been doing much detecting lately. His son passed away recently, and he has been devastated by it. His marriage has disintegrated because of it and he is deeply in debt due to his boy’s medical bills. He takes a surveillance job which involves staying in a derelict apartment, filled with garbage and barely inhabitable, and keeping an eye on Tenneal (King), a beautiful blonde girl who lives across the street. He taps her phone, sets up a camera pointing into her apartment (which she conveniently lives in without drapes) and sits back to observe.

At first things seem fairly normal but as the days go on it gets more sinister. Things begin to happen that Parker can’t explain. He becomes unnerved and contacts his employer (Cowell) to find out what to do if someone attacks the girl, but he is told to sit back and relax – just report what he sees. Parker agrees, but is getting more reluctant by the minute. If he didn’t need the money so badly, he’d be so out of there.

The visions begin to get worse. He finds animal corpses in disturbing places. A strange black fluid is leaking from just about everywhere, including from Parker himself. His dreams – or rather nightmares – are terrifying. He has a real fear that something terrible is about to happen, but he can’t bring himself to warn the girl – or leave. One way or another, things are going to play themselves out and when it’s all over, the results will not be pleasant.

This is a movie that plays with your perceptions. Unrelated images are inserted from time to time and the film shifts from black and white to color to a mixture of both seemingly at random. We’re meant to be getting into Parker’s mind and it is rapidly disintegrating. We see images of his child with the black goo pouring out of every orifice, and images of the sea pounding the shore – and of dead things in every nook and cranny. We’re never sure what’s real because he isn’t.

A movie like that requires a really strong lead and independent films, particularly micro-budgeted films like this one, can be really hit and miss with the actors that are available to them, but fortunately the filmmakers lucked out in Farris, who is a good find. Matinee idol handsome, he has a definite presence and while occasionally he errs on the side of scenery chewing for the most part he gives a subtle nuanced performance that bodes well for his big screen future.

There are some fairly disturbing images here and a few genuinely horrific ones but most of the horror will be inside your imagination and while that’s always a good thing for the most part, you may end up being somewhat perplexed at the barrage of images that seem to be there for their own sake rather than to serve the story or the film. Cinematic masturbation is what I call it, and there’s definitely some of that going on here.

This is an Aussie-made film which has to it’s advantage the reputation of Down Under as a hotbed for amazing horror film directors; this isn’t one of the better films to come out of there in recent years unless you like your horror on the surreal side. From that point of view, most mainstream horror movie fans aren’t going to like this much, and for that reason it’s getting a mediocre rating – but those who love cult films and don’t mind a little thought to go with their viscera will find this a worthy addition to their film library.

WHY RENT THIS: A movie that bears repeated viewings.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be a little too art house for the grindhouse crowd.
FAMILY VALUES: Some disturbing and occasionally bloody images, brief foul language and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Released first in Australia, the movie is available there on iTunes. Exclusively available on Vimeo in the States (see below), it will expand to most VOD streaming platforms beginning in October.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The film is preceded by a three-minute preface.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: iTunes, Vimeo
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rear Window
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates

The Perfect Husband


A walk in the woods.

A walk in the woods.

(2014) Thriller (Artsploitation) Gabriella Wright, Bret Roberts, Carl Wharton, Tania Bambaci, Daniel Vivian, Philippe Reinhardt, Maria Ester Grasso. Directed by Lucas Pavetto

 

Who knows what goes on behind bedroom doors? The relationship between a husband and a wife is largely unknown to the world other than to the two people in it; the things they choose to share with close friends and family may shed some light on at least the perspective of one member of the couple, but at the end of the day, the truth is known only to the husband and the wife.

Nicola (Roberts) and his wife Viola (Wright) have been going through a very rough patch. After a family tragedy had left her wallowing in grief and him trying to resurrect their marriage from the strained doldrums it’s fallen into, he decides that maybe the best thing for them would be a change of venue. Accordingly, he drives the two of them out into the Italian countryside where his Uncle has a cabin up in the mountains. It would seem to be a good place to reconnect and rekindle.

The problem is that Viola seems diffident to any kind of reconciliation; she’s high-strung, sneaking smokes when she thinks her husband can’t see her, and refusing any sort of sexual advance by him. His frustration is growing; he is trying to be as perfect a husband as it’s possible to be but she won’t give him even an inch of slack. Something has got to give…but when it does, what will be the cost?

The plot here is pretty simple and could be extremely effective in the right circumstances. Sadly, these aren’t them. The acting here for one thing is extremely inconsistent. The two leads are required to carry nearly the entire film and I’m not sure if the case here is that they’re not equal to the task, or if they didn’t get the direction they needed to turn in the kind of performances that the movie needed – and didn’t get. Roberts, in particular, seems particularly stiff; at times he looks like he would rather be anywhere but in this film. His character changes drastically about two thirds of the way through; the change comes off drastically with little warning and makes one feel as if they are lurching on a train that is in the process of derailing; there are no subtle hints as to why his character changes or any indication that he’s going to change. I suspect that is more the director’s choice than Roberts’ idea. Wright fares little better, but at least she conveys some modicum of feeling.

Pavetto is an Italian director who is working on an English-language film and that might have hampered him somewhat; the dialogue is a bit flat-sounding to my ears, and quite frankly, the tension that the movie needed to succeed isn’t always there. The last 30 minutes of the movie should be tense and pulse-pounding but at this point the viewer is checking their watch or loading up another movie to watch.

But the movie isn’t completely without merit. One thing that Pavetto does nicely is combine the genres of 80s slasher films and Italian giallo into a nice little mix of styles that actually works, or would have worked with a little more realism in the acting department. Cinematographer Davide Manca gets full marks for setting up some beautiful shots that seem to indicate that there is someone watching, occasionally giving some startle scares with half-glimpsed figures that make one wonder if there is more to the story than meets the eye. As it turns out, there is – but you have to sit through the entire film to discover what it is.

Therein lies the rub; the movie has an ending that does have quite the twist involved, but in order to suss it out you have to sit through a movie that doesn’t do the twist justice. It is incumbent upon the viewer to determine whether that payoff is worth sitting through the rest of the movie for and to be honest, I can’t really advise you one way or the other whether you should; it will depend on your tolerance for subpar acting. I found it enough to give the movie a very mild recommendation, but you might not agree. The gore ‘n’ guts crowd will probably appreciate some of the violence but will bemoan the lack of nudity. The rest of us will likely bemoan the lack of passion.

WHY RENT THIS: A nice mash-up of giallo and 80s slasher-films. There’s some nice cinematography here.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The acting is a bit stiff. The film could have used a little more tension.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s violence, some of it graphic and brutal; some sexual scenes, rape and disturbing content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Pavetto originally made a short by the same name, but later fleshed it out into a feature with a new cast and filming in English rather than Italian which the original was in.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The original short film is included.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Vimeo
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sleeping with the Enemy
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Captain Fantastic

The Happening (2008)


Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel and Ashlyn Sanchez find out that it's Taco Tuesday in the craft services truck.

Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel and Ashlyn Sanchez find out that it’s Taco Tuesday in the craft services truck.

(2008) Thriller (20th Century Fox) Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, Ashlyn Sanchez, Betty Buckley, Spencer Breslin, Robert Bailey Jr., Alan Ruck, Frank Collison, Jeremy Strong, Victoria Clark, M. Night Shyamalan, Alison Folland, Kristen Connolly, Cornell Womack, Curtis McClarin, Robert Lenzi, Derege Harding, Kerry O’Malley. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

 

It’s just an ordinary day in Central Park. People are jogging, people are walking their dogs. Two friends are sitting on a bench and reading a book, talking to each other.. A cold wind blows. The chatter and noise of the park dies down to a whisper. It’s as if the whole world is holding its breath, waiting for something terrible to happen. Then, something terrible does.

In Philadelphia, the horrified teachers at Philadelphia High, including popular science teacher Elliott Moore (Wahlberg) and his friend and peer Julian (Leguizamo) are informed that there has been a new terrorist attack on New York. This time, it was an airborne gas that was fatal within seconds. To be on the safe side, the principal (Ruck) orders the kids sent home. Julian is nervous; big cities are targets and he thinks it’ll be safer to join his mother on her farm in Harrisburg. He invites Elliott and his wife Alma (Deschanel) to come with them. Disquieted, Elliott accepts.

However, all is not perfectly well between Elliott and Alma. A distance has grown between them, built wider by all the things said and unsaid. Alma has been getting calls from Joey (Shyamalan), a co-worker who she went out for a meal with once but who almost certainly wants to take things farther. Alma is confused and adrift, not sure what she wants. However, she knows one thing; she doesn’t want to stay in Philadelphia with terrorists shooting lethal gasses in major metropolitan centers.

Elliott and Alma meet Julian and his daughter Jess (Sanchez) in the train station. Julian’s wife will be late arriving and will take the next train. Julian can’t help but notice the tension between Alma and Elliott and stumbles into it somewhat. Still, the train leaves the station and for the moment, there are larger concerns. Then, as the train travels through the Pennsylvania countryside, those passengers with cell phones begin to get horrifying news. There have been more attacks, in Boston and in Philadelphia. Alarmed, Julian calls his wife, and is relieved to hear she’s caught a bus to Princeton, NJ and will try to meet them in Harrisburg as soon as she can arrange transportation.

Not too long afterwards, the train chugs to a halt and all the passengers are told to disembark. Why is the train stopping, Elliott asks a conductor. We’ve lost contact he replies. With who, says Elliott. Everyone says the conductor in a low voice. As the passengers gather in a small town diner, the true horror of the situation begins to unfold. Not only are big cities being targeted but small towns are starting to see outbreaks of the contagion as well. So many, in fact, that it looks increasingly that this is less the work of terrorists but some other force at work, something even more unsettling. Now, with the countryside becoming increasingly lethal, Elliott must find a way to get his group to safety before the toxins do their deadly work on them.

Wahlberg by this point in his career had settled into a niche, playing much the same character in movie after movie. However, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing since I happened to like the character he played. Heck, a lot of movie stars – Cary Grant, John Wayne, Gregory Peck – all could get busted for the same crime when it comes right down to it. Wahlberg is more than adequate as the lead. Deschanel, who was at the time becoming one of my favorite actresses which she remains to this day, is given a somewhat fragile character to work with. At times, she does a real good job with it, but at others I think some of the nuances are just missed a bit. It is Buckley, as a somewhat curmudgeonly hermit of teetering mental stability, who steals the show in the few scenes that she has. This is not the Betty Buckley of Cats or even less so, Eight is Enough in any way shape or form.

Some of the best scares in the movie come as a result of the sound crew. As bodies fall from a high rise and hit the ground, the sickening thuds make the scene all the more eerie. Composer James Newton Howard uses his music to ratchet up the tension nicely. Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto beautifully photographs the Pennsylvania countryside, even as something sinister is at work.

The middle third drags a bit and the last third completely loses cohesion, including an ending which is simply facepalm-worthy that has such a flat tone that the viewer leaves feeling curiously unfulfilled, like he needs to watch another movie to get their movie fix. The nature of the Happening is revealed far too early on. Some of the characters do incomprehensible things, which jar the viewer out of the world the filmmakers have created.

The first third of this movie is as excellent as anything Shyamalan has done, which may not be saying much for some, given how at this point in the game his reputation was rapidly eroding. At the time, I found that given the state of world events, the concept of The Happening was extremely timely. There are some genuine scares here, and some scenes that are genuinely disturbing. Think of this as An Inconvenient Truth done in Shyamalan style. Better still best not think of Shyamalan at all. This is very much a formulaic movie for Shyamalan, with lead characters struggling with personal issues while confronting a menace very much bigger than they are able to imagine. I had to this point been a fan of his work, but like many others left the theater disappointed.

WHY RENT THIS: The tech crew helps create some impressive scares. The first third of the movie is some of Shyamalan’s best work ever.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The middle third loses momentum and drags along. The final third is an absolute train wreck.
FAMILY MATTERS: There are some very graphic scenes of violence, and most youngsters are going to be on a one-way trip to Nightmare City after seeing this.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was the first R-rated film by Shyamalan and was shot completely in sequence.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: An interview with Betty Buckley, a featurette on the porch sequence and a gag reel highlight the DVD edition. The Blu-Ray edition allows you to view the film in BonusView mode which flashes trivia factoids onscreen and incorporates the deleted footage into the finished film.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $163.4M on a $48M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray only), iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, Fandango Now
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Outbreak
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Shallows

The Forbidden Kingdom


Clash of Titans.

Clash of Titans.

(2008) Martial Arts Fantasy (Lionsgate) Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Michael Angarano, Collin Chou, Liu Yifei, Li Bingbing, Morgan Benoit, Deshun Wang, Yu Yuan Zeng, Xiao Dong Mei, XiaoLi Liu, Juana Collignon, Jack Posobiec, Thomas McDonnell, Zhi Ma Gui, Shen Shou He, Bin Jiang, Michelle Du, Crystal Kung, Jia Xu Wei, Ju Shi Xiao, Meng Guo, Alexis Bridges. Directed by Rob Minkoff

It takes great courage to become more than what you are and while that is rare, it does happen. Sometimes it comes from the most unlikely of people.

Jason Tripitikas (Angarano), a resident of a tough neighborhood in South Boston, loves martial arts films. He longs to be like the ancient heroes of China, with Kung Fu skills bordering on the supernatural. The sad reality is, however, that he is afraid, not confident in himself and while very knowledgeable about the various styles and moves of his martial arts heroes, is unable to put them into practice.

He often visits a pawn shop in Chinatown where the elderly proprietor (Chan) often stocks rare and out of print martial arts movies of the Shaw Brothers era. When Lupo (Benoit), a neighborhood bully with a hair trigger, discovers that Jason is friends with the pawn shop owner, he forces Jason to use his influence to get his gang into the store for the purpose of robbing the old man. Jason, too afraid to stand up, reluctantly gives in to his tormentor. Once in the store, however, things go horribly wrong. When the thugs are unable to find the store’s money, in a fit of pique Lupo shoots the old man. Jason, realizing that he is next in line, grabs an old staff to help him get away, but he is trapped on the roof with a gun pointed at his head. That’s when things get really crazy.

It turns out that the staff is a powerful magic weapon that once belonged to the immortal Monkey King (Li), and when the mischievous monarch insulted the powerful Jade Warlord (Chou), the Warlord challenged the Monkey King to a martial arts duel, but tricked the Monkey King into putting down his staff. The Warlord then turned the Monkey King into stone, but the Monkey King, just before the Jade Warrior had worked his magic, sent his staff out of his world and into ours. However, once the staff is returned to its rightful owner, the spell would be broken and the Monkey King would end the tyrannical reign of the Jade Warlord.

This is explained to Jason by a wandering drunken scholar (Chan again), who helps Jason escape from soldiers of the Jade Army. They are helped by a beautiful young musician (Yifei) who is on a mission of her own: vengeance against the Jade Warlord, who killed her family. However, en route to the Mountain of the Five Elements, where the Jade Warlord’s palace is, the staff is stolen by the Silent Monk (Li). After a furious fight with the drunken scholar, they at last realize that they have the same mission and agree to join forces and train young Jason in the ways of kung fu. However, they are being tracked by a wicked witch (Bingbing) who has been sent by the Jade Warlord to retrieve the staff and kill those who carry it. With an entire army and wielders of immense supernatural power arrayed against them, how can they restore the staff to the Monkey King and find Jason a way back home?

In many ways, this is Chan’s movie and he carries it strongly, easily falling into the character of the drunken master whom he has played many times in many movies earlier in his career. Li, whose character the Silent Monk is onscreen most of the time, doesn’t get a lot of dialogue and little to do but be stoic in between bouts of kicking derriere. However, when he is in his persona of the Monkey King early in the movie and then again near the very end, he is delightful, showing an impish sense of humor he rarely gets to display.

Yifei is almost supernaturally beautiful, playing the eventual love interest, and when she does get to fight, she holds her own. Bingbing and Chou are both marvelous in their villainous roles, particularly Bingbing who has a vicious kind of charisma. It is Angarano who winds up being the weak link; it isn’t that he’s bad, he’s just very bland. You get no sense of the inner fortitude he must display as the movie progresses, and his transition from timid nebbish to brave warrior just doesn’t work.

The fight sequences are staged by the great Woo-Ping Yuen, who did the same for the Matrix trilogy as well as many legendary Chinese martial arts films. Although there are several wire sequences (for which Yuen is justifiably best known), the movie isn’t dominated by them. Most of the martial arts sequences are staged on the ground. Another Asian legend, cinematographer Peter Pau, is behind the lens, and his vistas of placid Chinese villages and barren deserts are breathtaking. The sequences that take place on the Mountain of the Five Elements utilize some nicely done CGI. The American-Chinese co-production makes use of some of the best aspects of both schools, an advantage the filmmakers use to the fullest.

Chan is absolutely delightful and clearly dominates the movie. While the storyline is a bit complicated, it is told in a fashion that is not and winds up being a lot easier to follow than you might imagine. The smattering of Chinese mythology and fantasy are nicely adapted for the Western palate, although filmgoers better versed in those subjects might get a kick out of some of the in-jokes and homages the filmmakers insert from time to time. Then, of course, there’s the fight sequence between Chan and Li. Even though in many ways both men are past their primes, they deliver a fight that is absolutely breathtaking and while some might find it overly long, true aficionados won’t want the sequence to end.

Director Minkoff, best known for family movies like The Lion King, The Haunted Mansion and Stuart Little, delivers a movie that while fairly violent, is nonetheless suitable for all but the most sensitive. While there are some pretty impressive throw-downs, the violence is almost of a cartoonish nature and there is little blood and almost nobody dies, at least as far as can be seen.

Even Da Queen liked this one, and she’s not a big martial arts fan. The tone is lighthearted enough to keep things from getting too self-important, while not so lighthearted as to become farce. Duly noted are the Wizard of Oz similarities – the hero falling from the sky, meeting a trio of characters and following the road to the Emerald – or Jade, in this case – City. Sure, there are some people who just will not EVER desire to see any sort of martial arts movie, which of course is a matter of taste, although there’s just a hint of film snobbery in that decision. Those that are willing to brave the waters will find some wonderful entertainment here and while not visually in the league of Hero or Curse of the Golden Flower nor as well-made as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, nonetheless this is worthy of your entertainment dollar. Spend it wisely, grasshopper.

WHY RENT THIS: Chan is absolutely delightful. Lighthearted tone but not farcical. Nifty CGI.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Angarano doesn’t cut it here. A little bit on the derivative side.
FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of martial arts action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This marks the first time that Asian martial arts legends Jackie Chan and Jet Li have appeared together in the same movie.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: A ton of extras including a blooper real, a retrospective on the careers of Li and Chan and how they almost worked together on several occasions, a look at the Chinese mythology that inspired the story, and a featurette on scouting the gorgeous locations within China. All of these are available both on the DVD and Blu-Ray editions of the film.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $127.9M on a $55M production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Journey to the West
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday

Chasing Mavericks


Beefcake on the beach.

Beefcake on the beach.

(2012) Sports Biography (20th Century Fox) Gerard Butler, Jonny Weston, Elisabeth Shue, Abigail Spencer, Leven Rambin, Greg Long, Peter Mel, Zach Wormhoudt, Devin Crittenden, Taylor Handley, Cooper Timberline, Maya Raines, Harley Graham, Jenica Bergere, James Anthony Cotton, Channon Roe, Thomas Freil, L. Peter Callendar. Directed by Michael Apted and Curtis Hanson

Some of the things that drive us are merely preferences. Others are compulsions. Some of those are absolutely irresistible; we are driven to those things with the same necessity as breathing, even if those things are dangerous to the point of being life-threatening.

Jay Moriarty (Weston) was a 15-year-old Santa Cruz boy who was into surfing in a big way but he longed to prove himself. Maybe to the father that abandoned him and his mother (Shue) when he was little. Maybe to that same mother who seemed more in love with getting drunk or stoned than with her son. Maybe to the bully (Handley) who tormented him. Or maybe to the girlfriend (Rambin) who wanted to keep him at arm’s length.

Who knows what reason or reasons it was – maybe a little bit of all of them. In any case, he longed to surf the ginormous waves in Half Moon Bay known as Mavericks. These weren’t just ordinary waves; when the right conditions were present, they were as tall as five story buildings and even veteran surfers shied away from them.

After a spectacular wipe-out attempting to surf them on his own, Jay knew he needed help. One of his neighbors was pro surfer Frosty Hesson (Butler), someone who had surfed Mavericks and lived to tell about it. At first the old pro wants nothing to do with the insistent teen, but as it becomes evident that Jay is determined to surf those waves with or without Frosty’s help, the older man capitulates, figuring that he can at least give Jay a fighting chance to stay alive.

The training is rigorous and not at all what Jay expected. However, he sticks to it and soon comes the time that he is ready as he’ll ever be, but is that ready enough?

The film has the benefit of not one but two decorated directors; I’m not sure if that helps the movie or not however. An awful lot of time is focused on Jay’s training and while some of it is interesting, after awhile it gets to be a bit tedious, particularly for non-surfing sorts. I will admit to being surprised that there is a very technical end that comes with riding the big waves that requires a lot more brainpower than one would expect from dudes that say “dude” and “bro” interchangeably.

Butler is one of those actors who seems to get overlooked a lot of times but is a tremendous talent with tons of screen presence. He has a couple of blockbusters on his resume, but seems to be relegated to the Clive Owen strata – good actors who do good work but at the end of the day seem just outside the top strata of stars. Here he plays a gruff surfer who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and has some issues of his own, issues that his wife (Spencer) thinks that Jay would cure.

Young Weston, best known to audiences at this point for John Dies at the End, is actually the lead here and carries the movie solidly. He’s since gone on to do some solid although unspectacular work, but seems to be building into a nice career. He and Butler play well off of one another, creating a believable onscreen relationship with Butler playing the surrogate father. Weston could have used a little more character development – I’m not sure that the real Jay Moriarty was well-served here.

We do see a little bit of the real Moriarty towards the end – the real one passed away tragically at the age of 23, but doing what he loved most. I agree with the critics who are of the opinion that this story would have made a better documentary than a feature film. Certainly those who are into the surf lifestyle or at least appreciate it will like this film more than those who aren’t or don’t. It’s not a bad movie, it’s just not a great movie. The capturing of the giant waves at Half Moon Bay, which are utterly terrifying as presented here, show the grand madness that is big wave surfing. But while this gets through the technical end, I don’t know if it gets to the heart and soul of the surfer as much as I personally would have liked.

WHY RENT THIS: Butler and Weston have excellent chemistry. The cinematography is amazing.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Way too long and way too technical. It might not appeal to non-surfers.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult themes and surfing action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hanson had to pull out of the director’s chair when poor health forced him out. Apted directed the final three weeks of shooting and all of the post-production without any further involvement from Hanson.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are featurettes on Half Moon Bay and the surf culture there, interviews with people close to Jay Moriarty in real life including his widow and the real Frosty Hesson, and interviews with surfers on the philosophy of surfing. Dude!
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.0M on a $20M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dogtown and Z-Boys
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: 10 Cloverfield Lane

The Galapagos Affair: Satan Comes to Eden


A family portrait of the Wittmers.

A family portrait of the Wittmers.

(2010) Documentary (Zeitgeist) Cate Blanchett (voice), Sebastian Koch (voice), Thomas Kretschmann (voice), Diane Kruger (voice), Connie Nielsen (voice), Josh Radnor (voice), Gustaf Skarsgärd,  Octavio Latorre, Fritz Hieber, Steve Divine, Teppy Angermeyer, Jacqueline De Roy, Gil De Roy, Jacob Lundh, Carmen Angermeyer, Daniel Fitter, Rolf Wittmer. Directed by Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller

Late in the film, one of the interview subjects proclaims “Paradise is not a place; it’s a condition.” However, in the 1930s, the Galapagos Islands off the coast of South America must have seemed a paradise to Europeans who were already feeling the winds of war blowing. Full of tropical beauty and lush vegetation, it must have seemed an ideal place to get away from civilization and lead productive lives.

=Friedrich Ritter (Kretschmann) was a devoted follower of Nietzsche who had a devoted follower of his own in Dore Strauch (Blanchett). Scandalous even in Wiemar Germany, she left her husband and took up with Ritter; the two left Germany to make a life for themselves in the Galapagos, where Friedrich would be freed of the troubles and cares of civilization so he could write the philosophical treatise that he had been longing to (but had been unable to make time to) write. Of the islands, they settle on one called Floreana.

However, things don’t go the way he envisioned them. Strauch, who had multiple sclerosis, is unable to meet the physical demands of living on their own on a tropical island and Ritter, rather than being the understanding lover, seems to embrace the misogyny of his mentor and berates her constantly about her shortcomings.

Things don’t get any better when another German couple, Heinz Wittmer (Koch) and his pregnant wife Margret (Kruger) arrive having heard of Dr. Ritter’s experiment and decide to make their own homestead. The two families are somewhat antagonistic towards each other, Ritter and Strauch viewing them as interlopers while the Wittmers see the other couple as standoffish and arrogant.

However things go from bad to worse to terrible with the arrival of Baroness Eloise von Wagner (Nielsen) from Austria who is loud, brash and sexually forward for her time. She is accompanied by Robert Philippson and Rudolf Lorentz whom she identifies as her architect and partner but are in fact her lovers. She has plans to build a luxury hotel on the island but seems somewhat cash-poor. She immediately locks horns with both families who are united in their distaste of her.

The tension on the island reaches a boiling point and real fear begins to grip some of the people on the island. Then, when someone disappears off of the face of the earth, suspicion points in every direction. Who done it? And who was it done to? You’ll have to watch the movie to find out.

This isn’t an episode of Murder, She Wrote; these events actually happened and it was something of an international scandal back in 1933. What sets this documentary apart from a recreation of events is that the filmmakers use home movies taken by the actual participants, and the words you hear spoken in the voiceovers are from the letters and journals of those who were there and witnessed it – including the victims.

That lends a distinct air of poignancy and a little bit of creepiness; we’re literally hearing voices from beyond the grave and seeing apparitions of those long dead. Particularly chilling is a short silent film made on the island starring the Baroness as a kind of pirate queen. John Garth (Radnor), a scientist on board a vessel that made regular mail stops at Floreana, helped film the one-reel film and his observations of the effect the Baroness had on the tranquility of the island is quite telling.

What doesn’t work is the plethora of modern day interviews – some of the descendents of those on Floreana including the son born to Margret Wittmer on the island who was in his 70s when interviewed as well as other residents of neighboring islands. Few of them give much more than analysis of the environment and observations of island life and quite frankly, their contributions are neither illuminating nor entertaining. The movie could have done without them.

But there are some interesting points. The ruins of the Hacienda and of the Baroness’ compound are chilling. The presence of the famous tortoises of the Galapagos not only ground the movie in location but make a nice allegory for the passing of time – some of the tortoises on the island were there when these events happened. That certainly gives one pause.

This really had a dynamite premise and all the ingredients to make a great documentary but that’s not what we got. Instead we got a movie that is a bit frustrating for we have this amazing footage, a great voice cast reading the words of the actual participants and then we break off to hear some inane commentary from someone who once had coffee with the son of someone who knew someone who was related to someone else. I would much rather this have been a much shorter film than padded out with unnecessary analysis.

WHY RENT THIS: What a fascinating subject!  Archival footage is priceless.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Modern-day talking head interviews offer more analysis than exposition and are of little value. .
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes and some gruesome images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nearly all of the survivors of the events on the island wrote books on the subject which were contradictory but all were consulted by the filmmakers.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Footage of the filmmakers during their Q&A at the Telluride Film Festival.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $247,159 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ten Little Indians
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: They Will Have to Kill Us First

Legendary (2010)


John Cena puts a sleeper hold on the movie.

John Cena puts a sleeper hold on the movie.

(2010) Sports Drama (Goldwyn/WWE) Patricia Clarkson, John Cena, Devon Graye, Danny Glover, Madeleine Martin, John Posey, Tyler Posey, Teo Olivares, Kareem Grimes, Christopher Alan Weaver, Robert Bryan, Angelena Swords, Yvonne Misiak, Lara Grace, Patrick Cox, Dennen D. Tyler, Vince Antoine, Andrew Sensenig, Ritchie Montgomery, J.D. Evermore, Courtney J. Clark. Directed by Mel Damski

Sometimes you can’t escape the shadow of your older siblings and parents. Sometimes, you don’t want to. Sometimes, you even need to embrace it.

Cal Chetley (Graye) has an imposing legacy; both his dad and his older brother Mike (Cena) were high school wrestling state champions which is a big deal in Oklahoma. However, his dad passed away ten years ago which his mom Sharon (Clarkson) partially blames on wrestling. Mike has just been released from prison, having made a series of really bad choices.

But Cal, who is somewhat scrawny and bookish, has been bullied mercilessly and thinks joining the wrestling team will give him the skills and self-confidence to deal with those who are tormenting him. His mom is horrified at the idea; even his brother, who is meeting with Cal in secret, isn’t real keen on the idea but reluctantly agrees to give him some private training.

To an extent, the idea works. Cal is able to fend off the bullies and even manages to attract a somewhat goofy girlfriend (Martin) and even impress the coach (J. Posey) to a certain extent. But when Mike’s past catches up to him, will Cal be able to win the state championship and in so doing become legendary?

This came out at a time when World Wrestling Entertainment, the pre-eminent professional wrestling brand, was attempting to market their superstars in movies, following the success of Dwayne Johnson. Cena, a square-jawed all-American sort, was thought to have the charisma and acting chops to pull it off but while he does have a certain amount of magnetism, he didn’t quite have the acting chops to make it past B-movie star status. Films like this one didn’t help his cause.

This is a movie whose heart was in the right place, but that was about all. Clarkson, a previous Oscar nominee, is one of those actresses who never seems to give a bad performance but never really gets credit for being one of the finest actresses working today, which she is. While this is ostensibly about Cal, this is Clarkson’s film; she dominates it. Cena, who was also ostensibly being pushed as a serious actor, is oddly relegated to a supporting role. Maybe the strategy was to bring him along slowly, but it feels like he’s kind of the odd man out here. Glover appears in a kind of “Old Man and the Sea” cameo whose connection to the Chetley family is explained later but feels like a part that was written in hastily at the last minute because a producer said “Hey, we can get Danny Glover; write in a part for him.”

The issue here is that the movie follows the cliches of an underdog sports drama to a “T” and really offers nothing new to the genre. While it’s supposed to be loosely based on a true story, the film feels remarkably manufactures. Other than Clarkson, there’s not a genuine emotion generated here. Even the soundtrack is an autopilot, utilizing a hard rock score during wrestling scenes, and maudlin piano and strings during the more emotional scenes. While Clarkson is an under-appreciated treasure who saves the movie from being unwatchable, this is a movie that justifiably can be said is only legendary in the bargain DVD bin.

WHY RENT THIS: Patricia Clarkson carries the film.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Predictable and cliché plot.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of wrestling violence, brief nudity and some sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was released on home video a mere 18 days after it began its limited theatrical release run; at the time that was the shortest span between the two for any film.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: A blooper reel, a behind the scenes look at Cena recording one of the songs that appear in the film, a fashion photo gallery, a look at the wrestling training that went on for the young actors and a profile of the father and son actors John and Tyler Posey.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $200,393 on a $5M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix , iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eddie the Eagle
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2: Sword of Destiny