Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Post-Apocalyptic Barbarians

In the bleakest possible future, mankind survives. Everything else is reduced to rubble, but mankind survives to fight against each other. Civilizations will crumble and everyone will resort to primitive violence to survive. Gangs will roam the Earth, ruling with an iron fist. You wouldn't want to live in that kind of a world, but fortunately that makes a somewhat interesting movie scenario. Cheap, too, as filmmakers don't need sets, just a desert or a gravel mount to shoot the picture. Indeed, since this subgenre's hayday was in the 80's, more money was used on hair styles to create authentic-looking punk rock mohawks.

Violent gang members, or Billy Idol concert goers circa 1982?
The other main player in these sort of films are the run-down cars, which have tin foil weapons mounted on them. When these two areas are in condition, one only needs to steal a generic western plot and we're good to go.

"Step right up to see the real Moon Mobile"
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (Australia/USA 1981)
Director: George Miller

Several genre pictures from the late 70's and early 80's were so influential as to create a whole sub genre just to copy them. Miller's postapocalyptic western Mad Max, and especially its more well-known sequel are definitely among this very select group. But the fact of the matter is, this is not merely because Miller caught the zeitgeist, he was also ingenious enough to use several very worn-out parts to create something new (like the film's cars). Actually, this film's predecessor is a bit boring police/vigilantism flick, so I almost prefer to call this The Road Warrior as it was released in the United States. I would prefer that Mel Gibson's Max is a sort of Man With No Name -type of character, coming from nowhere and just manipulating the situation where he can find it for his own means, rather than a man who's lost everything who gets a chance to redeem his violent vagrant ways. So let's ignore the first film of the trilogy then.

So in Mad Max's post-Apocalyptic wasteland, fuel is more precious than gold (yet motorized vehicles are the only thing keeping the survivors moving in the scorching desert). Driving by, Max finds a "gyrocopter" in the desert, which is actually a trap devised by The Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence) to steal the gasoline from any curious passer-by. But Max's dog stops the scheme. To save his life, Gyro promises to show Max where there's plenty of more fuel. He leads him to a fortified oil refinery. As it happens, the refinery's occupants are under attack from a gang led by Lord Humungus (Kjell Nilson), The Ayatollah of Rock And Rollah. Among Humungus's gang there's also Max's old enemy Wez (Vernon Wells). The gang withdraws, but promises to strike back with all their force if the villagers don't surrender. The villagers then choose to turn to Max to device a plan to get them and their precious gas to safety.

Humungus DOES resemble Bane quite a bit. Also a more down-to-earth Darth Vader. And Jason.

Miller is an excellent action director and most of the film's cult reputation comes from its superb car chase scenes. They get bigger and bigger as the film goes along, with plenty of explosions and memorable stunts to go along with it. Miller also has a good dark sense of humor, and thus gives unexpected laughs from scenes such as man getting his fingers severed by trying to catch a metal boomerang. The characterizations are iconic as well, and some sort of variations of the movie's colorful cast of characters pop all the time in Italian rip offs.


Warriors of the Wasteland a.k.a. The New Barbarians (I nuovi barbari, Italy/USA, 1983)
Director: Enzo G. Castellari

Of course, the Italians weren't far behind to ride on the fad. Genre maestro Castellari had the bright idea to save money by shooting the whole film in a gravel pit, which looks about as postapocalyptic as you can guess. What there was of the budget was used to hire the blaxploitation star Fred Williamson to a minor part. The rest of the film was performed by amateurs or Italians or amateur Italians. 

This one goes one step further in western thematics by stealing the plot straight from A Fistful of Dollars, which, like any cinemahead worth his salt would tell you, stole it's plot from Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo. It's really kind of amazing of how many different variations one can make from the plot consisting of "A stranger plays two violent gangs against each other for personal profit". I know there's at least a gangster and a space version out there as well.

No, this still is still from the postapocalyptic one. This is the film's hero.
The Templars are evil, white-clad barbarians, driving out to the wasteland only for looting and polluting. A wandering desperado called Scorpion (Giancarlo Prete) runs into them, and barely survives with his life. He seeks refuge at the hands of the other striving gang, which tend to his wounds. Scorpion falls for the beautiful Alma (Anna Kanakis), and starts to plan on how to rid of the world of the Templars and their religious fanatics once and for all. But his plan happens to be the kind, that makes one question Scorpion's sexuality and think that he was just using Alma as a beard to get to dress in see-through plastic and ram burly, bearded guys from behind. With his car, of course.

The film is based on a number of bad ideas from ridiculous fashion sense, to ludicrous amounts of homoeroticism, to a super-annoying presence of a 8-year-old mechanic boy, who kills grown barbarians with his slingshot. While Williamson's character is one tough motherfucker, shooting explosive arrows and wooing the ladies, he's in the film far too shortly. The worst thing (or best, if you are hungry your camp humor) is that while the film is violent enough, the toy cars, the nonexistent sets and the badly directed car chases mean there's not really any excitement in this whatsoever.

Even the villains are bored.
It's not even clear just to whom was Castellari aiming this thing for. Perhaps he wanted to make a fashion statement about the overuse of synthetic material in clothing, and emphasized it by making everyone's wardrobe straight from plastic. That still doesn't explain the film's odd sexual stance and at the very least the very suspectful choice Scorpion makes for his life partner at the very end of the film.

★ or ★★★★★

2019 – After The Fall of New York (2019 – Dopo la caduta di New York, Italy/France 1983)
Director: Sergio Martino

The Road Warrior wasn't the only film Italian schlock-makers were drawing from when creating their masterpieces to fill out rising VHS markets. Other important models for success were the more urban flicks like Escape From New York (1981) and The Warriors (1979). These films drew a lot of the rising insecurity and turmoil at New York's streets at the time, and brought them to the conclusion that violent gangs would take over the town altogether. Martino's film isn't even close of being as subtle about this. It's a sort of a child's idea that that's how New York actually is, and essentially the film's story is partly a yarn about knights (the main character is named Parsifal) or cowboys (numerous references to the western Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid). But what Italians knew better than genre film makers from various other countries was to also be influenced by the long comic book / pulp novel tradition of the country, which makes Martino's film a much more colorful postapocalyptic story than, say, Castellari's gravel pit neo-western.

This could easily be a Nintendo game cartridge. Or a comic book cover.
After a nuclear holocaust, the survivors in America have all lost their fertility. There is, however, one last fertile woman hidden deep within New York City, which the hero is chosen to escort out from the violent battle zone (sound familiar to any Children of Men fans?). Things are complicated by the fact that most New Yorkers have mutated into hostile, bloodthirsty monsters. Parsifal (Michael Sopkiw) is a notably good Death Race driver, resourceful, skillful and ruthless, which is why he's chosen for the mission by the Pan-American Federation. The Federation must also fight against the evil Euracs, European-Asian-African invaders who want to reach fertility by cruel scientific tests and wiping out all mutant kind they can reach. Thus, most of NYC's inhabitants live underground in the sewer systems and such.

The film's look defies expectations in that it actually has several quite striking sets and even miniature shots. The film's multiple gangs are well-wardrobed and look striking. The only gravel-pit scene is in the very beginning, after which most of the film seems to be shot at studio sets. Maybe they auctioned some old sci-fi sets off, and redecorated them to look brand new for the film? Perhaps all the money they saved for not featuring any Hollywood actors was used to enhance the visual sense? In any case, Martino manages to make the production look far bigger than it is. Pity he doesn't have the skills to be a director of epic proportions. The whole film is shot, and staged to be shown on video, rather than on a big screen, which is a shame.

The ruling class, pictured.
As you probably noticed, the film is packed to the rafters with content. It's goofy story extends back and fort with plenty of minute details, which doesn't make much sense anyway. But sometimes the kind of approach where crazy amounts of stuff is cannoned to the wall to see what sticks, works. There's not a single boring moment throughout this oddball cheesefest, and the plot manages to take few very surprising turns. At the core there's still a very similar rescue mission to John Carpenter's Escape, and Parsifal is a dead ringer to Snake Plissken. Like Plissken, he manages to collect a colorful team of riff-raff to help him through the city. In a way, he thusly also manages to unite the feuding races, mutants and gang members alike. So, we have a robot, a claw-hand, a midget, an ape-man and a rat-eating blonde. One of whom is a traitor. If this film wasn't as confusing at times, and as shameless theft of more well-done films, then, folks, we could've found what would have been the next Star Wars. Come to think of it, this kind of films should be just as popular.

★★★ 1/2

Thursday, 19 July 2012

The Many Masks of Batman

Batman is one of the most popular superheroes because he's so versatile. There are many different ways of playing the scenario of a masked, rich playboy using high-tech gadgets to take down crime. This is probably also why Batman has been adapted on screen more often than really any of his peers. There are now seven major blockbuster films, one famous live-action TV show and it's cinematic spin-off, several cartoon series and straight-to-video/DVD animated movies, a 1940's movie serial, and even quite a lot of bootleg movies such, as the 70's Philippine films; Fight, Batman, Fight! or Batman Fights Dracula. Since one of the biggest films of the year carries on Batman's legacy, we can start from one Batman's end and take a look at several ways the character has been interpreted in movies. The End Is The Beginning Is The End, as the theme song of one particularly well-remembered Batman movie states. I'm guessing we haven't seen the last of the Caped Crusader on cinema screens yet.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Director: Christopher Nolan

As there are several surprises in stall for cinema-goers, and they are more or less important in fully enjoying Christopher Nolan's trademarked bait-and-switch antics, I will try my best to keep the spoilers of the film at minimum. However, if you truly want to keep yourself from being spoiled, you shouldn't read reviews of the movie before going to see it. The reason why this time this is such a fine line to walk on, is because Nolan has done something no one had attempted before: he's done the last chapter of a superhero franchise. This doesn't actually work all in the film's advantage, as it has to dismiss some ideas it had presented in the previous films. The lack of presence by The Joker would be the most notable, since there's not even a mention of Batman's arch-nemesis and the process he began in the last film, due to the respect at actor Heath Ledger's memory.

Instead, Nolan introduces a new main villain, Bane (Tom Hardy), who has The Joker's contempt for authority and organizational structures, and knack of planning huge master plans, yet with the ideological reasons for completing them from Ra's Al-Ghul, the now-long-deceased villain of Batman Begins. Eight years since Batman took the fall from D.A. Harvey Dent's murders as the villain Two-Face for the greater good, the billionaire Bruce Wayne has become a recluse in his home Wayne Manor. But Bane machinates a plan to weed out both Wayne and his sought-by-police alter ego Batman from their hiding. The next step in Bane's plan is to push the alter egos to their breaking points, both mentally and physically. He has truly nefarious plans for Gotham City as well, and he revels in the want of seeing people's hopes crushed before killing them. The mysterious burglar Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) has her allegiance shift back and forth.

The film is, in a word, huge. The action is massive and even the near-three-hour running time doesn't feel too long since there's so much to behold. The acting is, as usual in Nolan's films, great, and Hathaway and Hardy in particular being surprisingly good in their roles. But they're not nearly as good as Ledger was, mind you, and they are hard-pressed in pushing the film forward in the same way. Most of the film's biggest problems stem from the script, not as tightly thought-out as in its predecessor.

One major character's viewpoint has been turned completely upside-down from the previous films, and this character also completely vanishes in the middle of the film, only to show up at the very end. The villain motivations are flimsy at best, particularly considering the set up of the film. My major summer movie crush Juno Temple exists in the film as merely arising suspicions that Catwoman is a lesbian that Batman manages to convert back to heterosexuality along with her allegiance. She disappears completely during the first 45 minutes.

The gruff-voiced, mouth-breathing Batman starts to get more and more unintentionally comical with every subsequent film, particularly as the character has so well been parodied by CollegeHumor's videos. The film is grim and even more serious an affair as its predecessors. Precious few intended dry humor lines almost exclusively belong to Bane.

Nolan has once again based his story on real-world political events. This one comments on the modern uprisings such as Arabian spring and the London Riots. Like in those cases, the case isn't much a giving power to the people as to take over the power structure and replacing it with mindless violence and uncertainty. Bane claims to liberate the people of Gotham when in reality he murders dozens of them without thinking twice, and has an even more nefarious plan in store for the rest of them. He arranges public executions and scares people to staying in their homes with a massive weapon. The film's main point is to warn us to trust riot-leaders and revolutionists by face value alone. One should look whether the uprising is done for selfish reasons, as Catwoman is willing to do, or to really help people reach up their best.

The cynical film surely doesn't really give fate for the little people out for their slice of social justice. The democratically elected officials are either corrupt, or ineffective, or dumb, or all three. The film argues that true strong icons that we should follow are not only altruistic, they simply care about the people too. But at the same time, the film argues that privatizing major inventions and keeping them locked up in corporate basements are the only way of keeping the world safe for their ill usage.So yes, it has a little right-wing agenda but hardly enough to warrant the claims of being fascist. The film is on side of order, but only if it comes from honesty, altruism and mutual trust.

Batman's purpose in Nolan's films isn't just to take on evildoers single-handedly, but also helping other good men reach their potential in helping others as well. Several characters in the film attempting this are Gary Oldman's Commissioner Gordon, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Detective John Blake and Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox. Batman functions as a beacon of hope to allow people stand up to terror and calculating tyranny. The point, however is, that Batman isn't a balanced person destined to govern or to rule. He begins the film as being borderline suicidally depressive. At the same time as he's a symbol, he's also a insecure vigilante with a death wish and inner turmoils on how to do what's right. Surpassing the stuffed, bureaucratic and institutionalized rules, he's at the same time the only one who can save Gotham and also the one that lures such grand-scheme opponents so bent on destroying it. Suffice to say, this conflict is resolved by the end of the film.

★★★ 1/2

Batman: The Mask of Phantasm (1993)
Directors: Eric Randomski, Bruce W. Timm 

The 90's animated series was widely considered to be the most faithful adaptation of the comic book. The dark stylings used a lot of 1930's aesthetics, which brought Batman in a way to his roots as a character straight from that era's pulp literature. Art deco buildings, and simple yet expressive character models are a wonder to behold even today. Rumor has it that the backgrounds were actually done scraping black papers rather than drawing on white. The first movie developed from the show was actually also released theatrically, although the later efforts went straight-to-video. This one has enough bang for your buck that I wouldn't mind seeing it on the big screen. However, the composition is clearly thought out with a TV screen in mind.

Batman investigates on how to bring down several major mob bosses. Yet he has a rival on the case, as a deadly new vigilante dressed like the Grim Reaper appears. This vigilante, known as Phantasm, however isn't afraid to kill the evil-doers and disposes of the mob one by one. Since they share a similar costume, this brings Batman in conflict with the Gotham City Police, who suspect batman is behind all the gangland murders. While laying low, Bruce Wayne's old flame Andrea Beaumont walks back into his life. The couple were close while they were young, but her father's ties to the mob separated them all those years ago. Batman considers quitting, but must first find a way to capture Phantasm and clear his name before he takes target on Andrea. And during all this, a certain arch-nemesis of his also has murderous plans that interfere.

A big reason of why the show worked was it's incredibly apt and talented voice cast. Kevin Conroy sounds like a serious man of action and a brilliant detective at the same time. The voices of Batman and Bruce Wayne differ like night and day, yet never in as over-the-top fashion as Christian Bale would later do. The Special Guest Villain's voice actor's talents have also been praised from here to eternity so I don't have to do so further. The film also has cult character actors such as Dick Miller and Abe Vigoda using their vocal ranges as fear-filled gangsters.

The end result does feel like a long, stretched episode from the show, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. The show certainly had a high enough quality to warrant for a bigger usage. However, as the series saw a number of quite epic episodes, even in multiple parts, there's little on offer here that would take full usage of the wider array of tools on offer. A crotch-kick there, and a couple of bad words there, and a big showdown. Yet the pacing doesn't fit a feature-length film as well as it could, as the interest points of the film seem to shift from a lengthy flashback sequence to Batman's run from the law to the scene-stealing main villain. Still, this is essential viewing for any bat-fan out there that hasn't seen this yet.

★★★ 1/2

Batman (1989)
Director: Tim Burton

Not a review this, just a few observations on how the character was presented in Burton's films. Burton's representation was a signpost on how the comic book characters were to be represented, until Marvel's more close to the comics approach and/or Nolan's more reality-based approach made it obsolete. Burton's Batman (as played by Michael Keaton) doesn't really resemble the world's greatest detective, an ace crime-fighter or a determined man bent on erasing all crime on Earth. Instead of stopping anything in advance, Keaton's Batman usually waits until the crooks are killing folks and only then comes for the punish. He isn't above killing henchmen with Batmobile's turrets. So, actually, Burton's view of the character is more based on old French (expressionist) pulp serials such as Fantômas and Judex, and the 60's revival of those characters and aesthetics. In those series, the (anti-?) heroic avenger is one to awake fear in criminals, yet can also be easily defeated with a club to the head just as he's making a dramatic entrance. Indeed, the very first thing we see Keaton's Batman do is make a dramatic entrance and then take a bullet to the chest (he rises again).

This approach works well in Burton's dreamlike films, where reality is distorted and psychological aspects are in line with the dark fears of gruesome deaths the film presents. Batman is more an observer of high-blown fantasy than a real protagonist. He doesn't talk much, just ponders. But still, as Mark Kermode noted, since all Batman's actor needs is a strong chin with which to act, it's weird that the chinless Keaton was given the role. That would be like me playing the role! Heaven forbid.
Seriously, Warner Bros, call me.

Batman (1966)
Director: Leslie H. Martinson

After the animated series, the most faithful adaptation from the comic books to screens was with the cult TV series, starring Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin. The high-in-camp, goofy, and silly-for-silliness's sake production resembles a lot of the Silver Age comic books published at that time. The big screen adaptation is another instance of more-of-the-same. But since the TV show hasn't been published on Blu-ray, DVD or even Home video due to licensing conflicts, the film version is the best known piece of this pop culture relic.

Batman and Robin are called out to investigate a missing luxury yacht, carrying Commodore Schmidlapp, the inventor of the superhydrator. They soon find out that they've been led by a trap featuring an explosive shark. They escape due to the handy use of Bat-Shark Repellent, but start to investigate further to find out who's behind the nefarious plot. Turns out it is The Penguin (Burgess Meredith), The Joker (Cesar Romero), The Riddler (Frank Gorshin) and The Catwoman (Lee Meriweather) – all together as The United Underworld. They aim to conquer Gotham City today, and tomorrow the whole world due to Schmidlapp's invention. But first they must dispose of the Dynamic Duo due to several elaborate schemes using each of their knack for death traps.

As one can guess from the plot synopsis, the film is more a collection of various silly scenes rather than a coherent whole. There's nothing wrong with campiness, particularly since it provides us with such classic scenes as Adam West dangling from a helicopter, punching a rubber shark in the head, or his desperation trying to get rid of a bomb on a bad day. In fact, the opening credits already dedicate the film to "the lovers of adventure, the lovers of pure escapism, lovers of unadulterated entertainment, lovers of the ridiculous and the bizarre", and lovers in general. If only Tim Burton would've had as much class as to say as much in his film's opening credits.

Yet the film runs at least 20 minutes overtime (80 minutes would be the perfect length for this). There are parts where the film doesn't really go anywhere. And although Lee Meriweather in a cat suit, or a Russian fur coat is the definition of sexiness and elegance respectively, Catwoman suffers most in that her schemes don't really have much of a purpose to the Underworld's overall schemes. It's a colorful, funny, and overblown piece of 60's chic and pop art style, but sometimes, it's just easier to take those in smaller dosages.


Bathman dal pianeta Eros (1982)
Director: Antonio D'Agostino

I don't really want to start reviewing porn on this blog, but will suffice to present that a film such as this exists. It's a high-camp Italian porn version of the 60's Batman with psychedelia and absolutely no sense whatsoever. Mark Shannon's Bathman is an overweight mustached 80's porn actor, who uses a bicycle rather than Batmobile to get around. And instead of fighting crime, he participates in orgies and whatnot.

Bathman (Mark Shannon) and his partner, Klito-Bell, are apparently aliens from the Planet Eros, sent to Earth so they can reproduce. But as much as Klito-Bell wants to get in Bathman's pants, the more the man finds excuses. So Klito-Bell has more fun with other girls, and with larger groups. But the superiors at Eros aren't too happy with it and threaten the duo with destruction if they fail to copulate. And in attendance there are several obnoxiously weird subplots, including the very camp Not Commissioner Gordon (Guia Lauri Filzi) losing his virginity to a g-g-g-girl.

I watched this without subtitles with a big crew of drunken film fanatics, with the film being simultaneously interpreted by a scholar of the Italian language. So it might be that the conditions of viewing this were more than ideal and I laughed my bat-butt off. But still, I do unironically love that opening scene of Bathman driving across muddy fields in his bicycle as unbelievably cheesy background music plays. So it can't be said that porn parodies such as this never gave anything for the history of cinema.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Neon Noir

Since the release of Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive last year, larger audiences have become aware that several 80's crime thrillers are a part of a subgenre (or rather, a sub-subgenre). While Hollywood's directors still had the last few remnants of their creative power, several directors directed a string of films that were visually marvelous to behold. They told stories of the seedy underworld of major American cities and pictured them with neon lights and nightly rain-soaked streets. It was a sort of continuation of the Film Noir tradition, only transferred to the 80's, when drug pushers, pimps, panhandlers and other scum were still working more open, and money was the only thing anyone was striving for. But basically, the stories weren't so much about the crime as they were about love, comradeship, diligence, determination turning into obsession, betrayal, hate and anger, revenge, and taking a step in the wrong direction and seeing all the chips fall down as a result. In other words, the way America was back then.

Thief (1981)
Director: Michael Mann

Michael Mann's first theatrical feature-length film determined much of his career from there on. One could argue that he's attempted to remake the same film every decade. If one takes this stance, then  he has surely bettered Thief since then. But it's by no means a bad flick and worth watching for every fan of Mann's unique crime movie style. Thief's plot is about as basic for Mann as it gets: A professional criminal plans to do the biggest heist of his career and retire undefeated. In this case, the central figure is safe-cracker Frank (James Caan), who dreams of a normal middle-class life with wife and kids after years of being in-and-out of prison. He sets out a plan to accomplish his grand plan, which means wooing a local waitress Jessie (Tuesday Weld) and working for a notorious mob boss (Robert Prosky). But when convincing himself he's ultimately out for a good cause, he underestimates the greed of his fellow workers.

Mann's way of showing criminals as ordinary entrepreneurs chasing the big American Dream, is not actually a new idea for a crime film. But it is still a parallel he does undeniably well. Frank is the sort of person that thinks that aiming for a completion of dreams means a fairy tale ending for the diligent. He won't change his plans even when his world around him start crumbling. His best friend and father figure Okla (Willie Nelson) is a good measurement of this. Frank figures he can get the terminally ill Okla free from jail before he dies, but fails miserably, if only because he has too much else occupying his mind to accomplish it. Prison is presented to be the ultimate evil, the death of all hopes and dreams, and the freedom to be able to work one's way to the top.

Thief still misses out a bit in being a true classic. The romances in Mann's films have always felt forced and hollow. The director might be making a point in that in showing that Frank figures romance should be a part of his glorious future and thus passionlessly chases after the first girl that comes around. Jessie herself does not seem to be the sharpest pencil in the box since she can't really see past Frank's dreamer coating and figure that he's heading towards disaster. But the film still wastes way too much time lingering in these two cold fish and their relationship's development, when the big job and the seedy criminals swarming around it would be much more interesting. Mann owes a huge debt to Jules Dassin's Rififi, particularly at his major heist scene. Sadly, the unbelievably strong thrills of safe-cracking aren't duplicated. But the brutal and action-packed ending is a wonder, and makes the whole ordeal into a major American tragedy.

★★★ 1/2

To Live And Die in L.A. (1985)
Director: William Friedkin

Friedkin's magnum opus (at least from his crime catalogue) divides audiences to this day. Many dismiss it as just another TV late-night cop thrillers that's all style but no substance. The fact is, this is the sort of film that only reveals its grandeur on cinema screens. I myself was dismissive of the film until I saw it in a movie theater. That's not to say there aren't some goofy parts (like the inexplicably strong homoerotic vibe it gives, or the Naked Gun-worthy, oddly racist opening scene where William Petersen protects the US President from Arab terrorists) and perhaps it runs a bit too long. But fact of the matter is, it's a damn near masterpiece as it is.

A ruthless counterfeiter Eric Masters (Willem Dafoe) earns big money and avoids capture. He considers himself an artist and runs an art gallery during the daytime. The LAPD have been on his tail for a long time, yet he always manages to stay one step ahead of them. But Jim Hart (Michael Greene), an old, wise cop nearing retirement, happens upon one of Masters' hideouts at the wrong time, and gets brutally murdered by the criminal mastermind. Hart's protegee and partner Richard Chance (William Petersen) vows to avenge his death and to arrest Masters whatever the cause. And that may mean crossing the line into criminal territory, and committing acts of violence to get the information to get to Masters' tail. He is partnered with the more timid John Vukovich (John Pankow), who tries to keep him in line, with poor results.

The film moves in a very morally grey area. Masters is presented to the audience as a sort of anti-hero, who's mild-mannered, polite, smart and charismatic. He's a real ladies' man as well, rather than a real sleazebag surrounded by thugs all the time. So when he does kill another likable character, it comes off as a shock. Chance by contrast is an angry young man, viable to act before thinking. He acts aggressive towards women, particularly his stripper/call-girl/girlfriend Bianca (Debra Feuer). But he is hard-nosed and adamant in catching the criminals, which leads to several good chases, one by foot in an international airport. The other is the amazing car chase along the passer's lane, which has already come a legend among action scenes. As for the third lead, the weak, wary and weasely Vukovich isn't cut out to be hero material – yet the moment when he finally takes the action into his own hands is both surprising and well-built. Friedkin surely isn't afraid to go against the stream and go for the unconventional and shocking storytelling.

So the actors are great, the script is great, the action is great. What else is there to praise? Oh, Wang Chung's legendary synthesizer score! Friedkin's insistent that things are played as realistic as possible, to the point that the crew actually counterfeited money, filmed in an actual, operational prison, and the car chase... was shot last so as if the cast members would die or injure themselves, since most of their scenes would be wrapped already. This just goes to show what a large pair of balls for uncompromising film making can achieve.

★★★★ 1/2

Fear City
Director: Abel Ferrara

Abel Ferrara is the sort of director that specializes in bringing out the worst sleaze and dirt from New York City. Fear City is among his first steps towards mainstream, after cheap grindhouse films such as Driller Killer.

Which is also probably why this was advertized as a giallo in France.

A mysterious psychopath follows young strippers and hookers home or to a back alley and brutally murders them. Strip joint owner Matt Rossi (Tom Berenger) starts to worry his will affect his business, since girls are scared to go out at night and thus refuse to come perform. The tough police detective Al Wheeler (Billy Dee Williams) warns him to not interfere with his investigations, and taking law into his own hands. But since Rossi's business has ties to the mafia, he has to find the culprit before he's completely ruined. So, he hires a bunch of mob enforcers to set up a trap for the serial killer.

If Friedkin's or Mann's protagonists act in a morally grey area, Ferrara has it all pitch black. Every single character in his movie is bad, or worse, crooked, dishonest, sleazy, greedy and violent. Or rather, that's just the males that are actual characters. All the women are strippers and hookers, only existing as a source of income for the men. So the film's bleak worldview can't be said to be particularly feministic.

This is a man's world.

But as the title suggests, this should all be taken in context of what Ferrara is saying about New York. Fear brings the worst up in people, and justifies brutal methods in the minds of his characters. Even if innocents get hurt, Ferrara's protagonists merely shrug and don't give another thought to anything else but to nailing the murderer. The whole thing is laced with deliciously black humor. Particularly Michael Gazzo's Italian mob underling insulting a pudgy stripper on the phone while complaining to Rossi, is absolutely hilarious. The film does have a few flaws. It repeats itself quite a lot, particularly in the scenes where the slasher kills another victim. The ending is also a bit anti-climatic and counters the film's point about vigilantist justice. But it's just as well, as mostly this is a very enjoyable sleazefest.

★★★ 1/2

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

A Tale of Three Americas (Captain Americas, that is)

America, Fuck Yeah! Today is the Independence Day of United States of America. And what better way to spend it than delving into the cinematic history of its most patriotic superhero. Captain America was actually first put on film in 1944, during WWII in a movie serial. After that he's been adapted in every wave of Marvel movies (yes, there are three waves), and in addition appeared on copyright infringementing exploitation flicks such as 1973's Turkish classic 3 Dev Adam.

Or this awesome and violent Lego video by ForestFire Films. 

I'll take a look at each of his official appearances.

Captain America (1979)
Director: Rod Holcomb

In his first movie, Captain America came in the form of Reb Brown and in a cheap made-for-TV movie. Marvel attempted to make live action TV series out of its three biggest characters in the 70's, but only The Incredible Hulk was any kind of a success. There's a good reason things like the two Captain America movies and the Nicholas Hammond-starring Spider-Man show have remained so obscure. There wasn't much for an effects budget, so the makers mostly just copied other TV shows that were popular at the time, rather than stay true to the characters. That's why in the 70's, Captain America was a daredevil motorcycle driver, whose father had invented a super soldier serum, called Full Latent Ability Gain – F.L.A.G. The fact that this version of Cap had no background in nazi-fighting was a bad sign to begin with.

Steve Rogers is a former marine turned commercial artist. When he finds out about his father's invention, he doesn't want to use the formula at first. But when a group of bad guys (kind of undetermined bad guys who are enemies of America and/or want the serum, I guess) attempt to kill him, almost succeeding, Rogers has no other alternative than to become Captain America to survive. He's given a special shield and a motorcycle and makes a costume based on his own drawings.
"Be Captain America, Steve! Shove Captain America down their throats!

"Yes, this looks bad-ass. Lunch break, boys!"

Just about everything that is usually wrong with 70's American TV series (and by extend, TV movies), is wrong in here as well. The movie is aimed at Middle America which is why every character is basically played broadly as both a hillbilly and rock-stupid. The Dukes of Hazzard isn't the most smart thing to imitate, you know. The movie is also long-winded, extremely boring and exposition-laden. The producers were more concerned on how to fill the two hour slot in between the commercials than to make the film exciting or even interesting. It doesn't help that the action sucks, too. Some bad movie values are spread here and there but way too thinly. For example, after a lengthy chase at a swamp (where Cap drives a motorcycle and the bad guys' helicopter follows him) a ramp comes up from out of nowhere, which allows Cap to jump to the chopper. Also funny is Cap infiltrating a chemical plant, and being chased by lab-coated scientists. He hits an oil pipe with his shield and then watches behind a pipe with glee as the scientists slip. Yes, even the best bits are too lame to be in a Benny Hill sketch.

Captain America (1990)
Director: Albert Pyun

For fans of bad movies, the next wave's Cap movie offers a lot more treats. At this point, Marvel was eagerly selling rights to their flagship characters for movie options, presumably because Tim Burton's Batman had been such a big hit and Marvel wanted a slice out of the same cake. Unfortunately, they didn't get the blockbusters they wanted (at that time anyway). Many rights-holders churned out cheap exploitation movies to keep their rights until they could've gained enough money for an extensive special effects budget. That's how even the legendarily prolific bad movie director Albert Pyun got his chance to do a superhero film. The cheapo production meant that they had to do the film in the Italian exploitation way, which explains why so much of the movie's plot takes place in Italy and so many actors have atrocious Italian accents.

In 1936, Nazis kidnap a young Italian boy to experiment on, and kill his family. Seven years later, the Americans become worried about this super soldier the Nazis have, called The Red Skull (Scott Paulin). They rush to create their own super soldier, with the help of the defected Dr. Vaselli (Carla Cassola). Captain Steve Rogers (Matt Salinger) is given the honor of having superpowers, but just after the procedure, a Nazi spy kills Vallin and attempts to kill Rogers as well. Since Vallin was the only one to know how to make the super soldier formula, the new Captain America has to work on his own, and is sent to stop Red Skull from destroying the White House with a missile. However, Cap is uncovered and Red Skull ties him to the missile and fires it anyway. Just before the missile is about to hit, Cap manages to steer its course to Alaska where the missile crashes into snow but doesn't explode. Cap's heroism on the missile  is witnessed by a little boy from a window. This boy will grow up to be... the President of the United States.

So, even though Cap fumbles up pretty badly his very first mission, the Americans manage to win WWII without his help. The Red Skull falls underground and becomes the head of an extensive crime family that does impossible assassinations. He's responsible for the deaths of at least two Kennedys and Martin Luther King. Now, he's attempting to kidnap President Kimball (Ronny Cox). Why he doesn't just kill him like the others, but instead opts to brainwash him to speak against environmentalism isn't properly explained. But luckily, Captain America is thawed from ice and it's up to him to stop the Italian-living Skull from his dirty deeds. He must ask himself: Are You A Bad Enough Dude to Rescue the President!?

He looks more like a lover than a fighter.
Surprisingly enough, the beginning of the movie is quite accurate to the original comics, even so much as to be quite similar to its bigger-budgeted 2011 counterpart. The olden scenes aren't shot in sepia tone, but rather, in pitch-black darkness, for instance to hide the cheapness of the sets. The laboratory set for instance doesn't have any more props than one electronic cupboard, which promptly electrifies a Nazi to death. The modern day, then, is shot in broad daylight and is noticeably worse. For instance, The Red Skull is explained to have had facial surgery, which has made him look more like Skeletor from the Masters of the Universe movie, i.e. a burnt out candle. In the beginning his red skull mask still looks somewhat believable and comic booky enough.He claims in 1944 to be studying English but his accent actually has gotten worse in the scenes set in modern day. I bet he was based on Silvio Berlusconi.

He's kind of like Tommy Wiseau playing a super villain.

Sadly, Cap's old flame Bernice (Kim Gillingham) has grown old during his long hibernation. But luckily her daughter Sharon (also Kim Gillingham) is young, beautiful, and interested in joining him on an adventure. So Cap picks her instead. Most of the film features the lovebirds hanging out in Italy sitting in cafés arguing, as if on a vacation, trying to figure where the president is being held. Now and then they are attacked by The Skull's men. Cap has to dodge al ot of machine gun fire. Several action scenes are still shot with as little light as possible in an attempt to hide the bad fight choreography and useless props. Cap versus a nunchaku-wielding ninja is particularly shameful. The chase scenes are also ludicrously bad and unexciting. The godawfulness of the film is crowned by it's cheap MIDI score, which breaks into horrid faux-Bruce Springsteen doing godawful country songs on one montage. Not very funny, but it could be a lot worse. A lot better, too.


Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Director: Joe Johnston

Joe Johnston's modern Marvel Universe update of Cap's exploits is the most streamlined, and, by any measurement, by far the best of Cap's starring movies. Johnston utilizes the old-timey boy's own storytelling style he developed for his film The Rocketeer in the early 90's. And for my money, for a much better effect here. A good, healthy budget does wonders for creating such high-flying dreams. It also helps that, this being a Marvel presentation, the film has a certain boyish charm and a twinkle in its eye by default. It doesn't seem to take itself as seriously as its two Cap-movie predecessors, yet it also doesn't rub the audience's faces in the fact that many of the things it presents are quite ridiculous. It also pays a funny homage to the original comic book and its let's-punch-Hitler attitude.

In modern day, S.H.I.E.L.D. agents in the Arctic discover a plane on ice and what appears to be Cap's famed shield. A flashback tells us how they got there. In 1941, the Nazi Occult and Science section Hydra, led by Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), discovers a mystical glowing cube in Norway. The treasure, belonging to Odin himself (as seen in the same year's other Marvel film Thor, as played by Anthony Hopkins) gives away huge amounts of energy. Hydra can use it to power Dr. Arnim Zola's (Toby Jones) special weaponry, turning the course of the war for the Germans. Meanwhile, in New York, weakling Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, starting the film in a CGI frame) hopes to go fight for his country against the Nazis. The problem is, he's way too skinny, asthmatic and all around puny to be accepted. But Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), the man who was already involved in the creation of German super soldier Red Skull and now wants to help the Americans perfect the formula, notices his strong will, noble attitude and considerable bravery and suggest him to be the test subject for the American super soldier program.

The procedure gives Rogers a muscular and tall frame, and the attention of agent Peggy Carter (Haley Atwell). But the rise of Hydra costs Erskine his life. The military, particularly Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) don't trust Rogers enough to send him on the battlefield, so instead, he has to do humiliating shows at 12-year-olds to get them to buy war bonds. But while on a mission in Italy, the new Captain America hears that his old friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) has been captured behind enemy lines, and he decides to go rogue, rescue his friend and take on Hydra by himself.

The film's biggest flaw is that it's narrative is a little jumpy and episode-like. There are several action scenes that feel almost like climaxes in themselves. And then the actual climax doesn't awe in the way that one would expect. The flashback structure makes the whole romance subplot of the film essentially a tragedy from the get-go. The thing feels just like a prologue, which it actually is, for this summer's The Avengers. It works as a stand-alone story as well, but a bit worse than other Marvel movies. For us Marvel fanboys, luckily the film has several logically placed winks and nods. Tony Stark's father Howard (Dominic Cooper) plays a major part, also giving Cap his iconic vibranium shield. Nick Fury's comic book-version's war buddies, The Howling Commandos, also appear.


Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

Seeing as Spider-Man is my favorite super hero and altogether one of my favorite comic book characters, the blockbuster movies based on him are always a special occasion to me. On the one hand, I may be extremely difficult to entirely satisfy. I will find gripes, small and major, from comparing the film to the long legacy of comics I have read and cartoons that I've seen. On the other, I'm willing to forgive a stupidity or two if I'm entertained enough. After all, it's Spider-Man! So I've enjoyed Sam Raimi's Spider-Trilogy (yes, even Part Three, warts and all), but in no way did I find them to be the ultimately perfect cinematic representations of the character. There was a lot of room for improvement. But still, I perhaps wouldn't have pressed the Reboot button so fast.

There were several reasons why Sony had to reboot the Spider-Man franchise. The film had to be made fast, as Studio executives want to churn out the sort of films that are popular at the moment. As The Avengers have already shown this year, super heroes are as high-flying as ever. Waiting could mean the fad fades away or turns to something else. Sitting on a franchise-cow could also mean Marvel (and Disney) could start a bid to acquire the rights to the character back, which is every studio's worst nightmare.

Several of the choices made by Sam Raimi made sure that the franchise would be hard to follow after him. Essentially, Raimi the same mistake as the comics – they made Peter Parker too old. If the same storyline would've gone on for the fourth film would have had to feature the wedding between Peter parker and Mary Jane Watson, which isn't something romance hungry teenagers really want to see. Raimi was also notoriously adamant to have the villains he wanted, which were not the most easily marketable ones. Kids probably wouldn't have bought John Malkovich -looking Vulture Pez-dispensers and toy cars.

So while this is a wholly corporate investment (as, well, all summer blockbusters tend to be), Sony had the good sense to choose (500) Days of Summer's Marc Webb as the director. This would ensure that the film wouldn't be a soulless money-grabber but a romance action/adventure with a comedic twinkle in its eye, that appeals to the kids. And boy, does the film want to appeal. This is a film about secrets and the sins of the fathers in the way of Harry Potter, that intends to unfold the whole story in the ensuing films (and possibly spinoffs). And at it's center is a forbidden romance in the vein of Twilight, between a accident-prone vigilante and the bookwormish daughter of a Police captain.

But let's start at the beginning. Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) in this incarnation is more a Marty McFly -type individual rather than a nerd. He digs science and photography, and is awkward with girls, but also likes skateboarding, and only gets in trouble with the bullies when he stands up to the bigger dweebs getting humiliated. Peter lives with his elderly Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Fields). As his important scientist parents have disappeared and found dead when he was just a small boy, they try as hard as they can to bring Peter up to be a good man. They don't actually say "With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility" in this one, but they are hard-pressed to find a suitable substitute for it. They do try, and speak almost entirely in fortune cookie wisdoms.

Attempting to find out more about his late father, Peter meets his old work partner, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans). Connors is a head scientist at the major corporation of Oscorp, studying genetic transformation to enhance the human genomes. The visit also deepens Peter's relationship with the beautiful and smart young Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), who is Connors' lab's head intern. After curiously stepping behind a closed door, Peter gets bitten by a genetically altered spider, and you can probably remember what that means. He starts to develop strange, spider-like powers, but doesn't find good use for them. Only when Uncle Ben is killed by a shoplifter (you can't say this is a spoiler of any kind), he starts a personal vendetta to find the culprit and to capture every small-time crook in New York. Gwen's father Captain Stacy (Denis Leary) vows to bring the vigilante known as Spider-Man to justice.

This plot recap takes about an hour of screen time and it is quite boring to sit through. For an action movie, we have to wait excruciatingly long for something new or exciting to happen. And the first people Spider-Man (or rather, Parker) fights are just some random bums at the subway that don't even seem that threatening. I honestly can't figure out why they have to pan out the origin for so long, as the basics could've easily been shown during the opening credits (like in The Incredible Hulk) and start with a fresh plate. The film comes dangerously close to failing altogether in the start, the only upside being the supercute and talented Emma Stone, who also has good chemistry with Andrew Garfield. They really don't sell themselves as nerdy teenagers (although the awkward date-invitations and such ring true), but they are a lot better main couple than Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst. Stone's exceptional acting abilities, whether comedic parent-eviction or a teary-eyed lover confrontation, also shine brightly.

As a Spider-Fan there were several things I would've wished Raimi would have delivered better. The producers have heard fans and changed some sources of their gripes. These range from small (Spidey now builds his own web-shooters) to a little bigger (a little more quips while fighting, although most of them have already been shown in trailers). My favorite change, however, is that Spidey is now a vigilante that beats crooks in narrow alleys and is hunted by the police. I've always liked that even though he did as much good as he could, Spider-Man as a hero was never trusted by all of the citizens (the parents and the elderly especially) nor the major institutions such as the news media or the police. This misunderstanding was a major draw to the character back when I was a pre-teen.

The film starts to pick up steam once the familiarities have been dealt with. Spidey doesn't just fight the police, of course. Curt Connors is another one of those friendly, fatherly scientists who has an experiment go wrong and is turned into a monster. The vengeful monster then is bent on destroying all of New York. If it is repetitive in the films, it's just because they are so faithful to the comics. However, I'm glad that The Lizard isn't just a slobbering giant beast, but capable of speech, thought and a nefarious plot to create more lizard-men. The Ditko-like appearance where he has a face yet also a creepy wide lizard-mouth also works better than all the pointy noses and sharp teeth of the world. Connors' boss, Norman Osborn, is kept in the shadows for now, but will no doubt return for one of the sequels.

The action is quite good, as Spidey's web-slinging looks way more realistic now than 10 years ago. The scrap between The Lizard at Peter's high school, which goes through walls and to the ceiling and back, and makes good use of Spidey's webbing, is the second-best big screen Spidey fight after the train-fight with Doc Ock in Spider-Man 2. It's also nice that Gwen has a lot of important things to do as well. She is Spidey's confidant, rather than just the MacGuffin that needs to be reached. Hey, a sidekick is a noticeable upgrade for the main female part from "screaming supervillain target"!

The ending brings the plot threads of this film together, although it once again reminds of some of Raimi's initial film's choices. It also doesn't take long before the film is setting up the plot for the next in line for the franchise machine. The mid-credits extra scene is already a trope of super hero movies. This time it is a way too vague one. I want to see the next film's villain like in The Avengers, dammit! Not just some vague promises about how we shall dwell more to the back story in the next film, while there wasn't much about it in this one anyway. The Untold Story? Yeah maybe, but it isn't this one.


USA, 2012
Language: English
Director: Marc Webb

Screenplay: James Vanderbildt, Alvin Sargent, Steve Kloves
Cinamatography: John Schwartzman
Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Denis Leary, Rhys Ifans, Martin Sheen, Sally Fields


+ Good cast, who works well with each other
+ Visually closer to John Romita than Steve Ditko, which is a step forward
+ Gets better as it goes along
+ Several exciting action scenes
+ Vigilantism
+ Emma Stone!
- Tedious first hour of boredom and clock-watching while the film treads paths already walked
- A little too eager to please young cinema-goers
- No wrestling (except a little allusion where Spidey invents his mask from a luchador)
- No J. Jonah Jameson (or J.K. Simmons for that matter)
- No Bruce Campbell


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