Monday, December 27, 2010

Point Break

Just to prove I can appreciate mindless fun as much as the next guy, I shall review Point Break. If there is a major action movie cornier or more pretentious in its mindless action and philosophy, I have yet to encounter it. As a connection to the previous film Navy SEALS, the main character was to be played originally by Charlie Sheen. We got Keanu Reeves instead. How lucky are we?

Reeves FBI Special Agent Johnny Utah, a former college football star who blew out his knee, missing his chance to play in the NFL. So he decided to join the FBI instead as an undercover agent. Because college football players who are potentially high NFL draft picks are rarely recognizable. Tim Tebow should take note id his run with the Denver Broncos continues to falter. Utah is teamed with Angelo Pappas, played by Gary Busey. Pappas conveys such wisdom as he has been working bank robberies since Utah was taking crap out of his diaper and smearing it on his face. I do not get it, either.

The pair are assigned to investigate a string of bank robberies committed by a gang wearing the masks of ex-presidents. Pappas theorizes the gang are surfers, so Utah goes undercover as a surfing newbie to ingratiate himself into the subculture. He eventually makes contact with Bohdi, played by Patrick Swayze. Bodhi is a surfing philosopher, adrenaline freak, and head of the Ex Presidents.

Utah becomes enamored with Bodki’s lifestyle. He slowly shifts towards being an amoral, risk taking thrill seeker himself. His downhill slide does not truly stop until Bodhi threatens Rosie (lori Petty), his girlfriend who has taken liking to Utah. Somehow, Utah and Bodhi survive a skydiving fall in which their parachute just does open in time before Bodhi gets away with his last big score of stolen loot.

Utah catches up with Bohi in Australia just as he is about to surf on the killer wave of the century. He convinces Utah to let him ride out the hurricane generated waves rather than send him to jail, knowing full well he will drown out there. Utah still cannot quite get over his spiritual connection with bodhi. He throws away his FBI badge in disgust with himself over his corruption.

Point Break is dumb, has some glorious continuity errors, such as Utah’s injured knee switching legs from scene to scene, and expresses such a cornball philosophy, you wonder how the actors could keep straight faces. But somehow they do. Even stranger, it all makes for a fun romp. The action scenes are generally exciting, if farfetched, but excitingly tense. I highly doubt the film is an accurate anthropological look into surfing culture, but neither was anything Frankie and Annette did. Point Break is a dumb, but good action film. Hard to believe it is nearly twenty years old.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Navy SEALS

We have not had a whole lot of luck reviewing films about covert military operatives as of yet at Apocalypse Cinema. With Navy SEALS, the trend continues. I would call it mindless fun, but that would be an insult to other mindlessly fun films. Navy SEALS is a beer commmercial interrupted by a misleading military recruiting video.

Charlie Sheen--your first warning to stay away--stars as Dale Hawkins, a brash Navy SEAL who leads a team on several dangerous missions. The first two missions interrupt a wedding of one of the SEALS who will--surprise, surprise--eventually die because of Hawkins’ reckless behavior. The second mission interrupts a game of golf cart polo. It is macho man Miller Time, one assumes.

Hawkins has a brief drunken pity party over his buddy's death as well as a love interest in a woman of lebonese descent in front of whom whom he freely uses the word "raghead,' though out of love, he stops and snaps out of his alcohol pity party. That is as close to real human emotions as the fiilm gets.

The main plot of the film is the SEALS searching for a cache of stinger anti-aircraft missiles hidden somewhere in Beirut. I will give the film its due: the climactic battle in downtown Beirut is impressive. However, it is ruined by a couple issues. One, I cannot tell how they differentiate between their rebel allies and the bad guys. It is a question I asked out loud while watching. How they heck do they know who they are shooting at? They are all dressed like civilians! Two, when they do find a bad guy, said villain waits for a second or two without shooting so the SEAL can get off a one liner. Pure, bad Hollywood right there.

Unless you need to indulge an incredibly fanciful view of combat situations, I would skip Navy SEALS. I do not know if Sheen thought he was following up on the success of Platoon, with this clunker, but he sorely misjudged if so. It is laughably bad.

Rating: * (out of 5)

Saturday, December 25, 2010

It's a Wonderful Life

It is that time of year again when virtually every television channel that does not want to cough up the cash to produce new holiday programming airs It’s a Wonderful Life in every available timeslot. You know the drill. The beloved Jimmy Stewart is a beleaguered everyman, constantly put upon and feeling unappreciated until an angel shows him how terrible life would be without him. To top it all off, the town comes through for him in the end, thereby proving they do love and need him. It is all great, feel good holiday cheer, right?

Good heavens, no. It’s a Wonderful Life, more than just about any other film, has the greatest disparity between its actual message and the way people perceive it. How can anyone think this movie has any sort of positive message? There is no cheer. The movie is all about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, watching everyone else get what you want, seeing your father drive himself to an early grave, suffering at the hands of other, inconsiderate relatives, and languishing through all this mess in a town full of small minded bigots who exist to take advantage of you.

Believe me, the characters in the movie do. George Bailey’s brother, his uncle, his wife, Potter, and even Clarence, who essentially uses him to earn his wings. Do we discover in the end they all love George? Of course we do. They love him because he is a sucker. If you do not believe they are going to hang it over his head forever they sacrificed their Christmas for him, you are too na├»ve for your own good. If George felt downtrodden before, now he will never be able to say or do a thing without someone reminding him of the Christmas of ’45.

There are two real kickers to this. First, as it was shown, life without George was not that. Bedford Falls became Pottersville, a swinging town full of night clubs, loud music, and attractive women. Is that not the kind of excitement George wanted in the first place? Pottersville is a thriving resort town rather than the old, rusty, and poor manufacturing town of Bedford falls. Think of the future as theamerican economy shifted from manufacturing to the service industry which city has fared better, car manufacturing Detroit or resort town Orlando? Pottersville had a better chance of growing than Bedford falls, but since George was born, no such luck.

Second, George is in serious trouble. Even though the $ 8,000 is replaced by the townspeople, he has committed a federal crime—a class D felony punishable by up to seven years in prison. But you know what? I do not sympathize. George humiliates his wife continually to the point you have to wonder what she sees in him. He yells at his kids and tells his senile old uncle off. No wonder people do not mind taking advantage of him. He is a jerk as well as a sucker!

I have to think about that final scene, when George’s brother returns and toasts him as the richest man in town. See, everyone thinks that is because he knows he is now loved. Nah. George is happy because he knows that because he is around, everyone is going to be just as miserable as he is. Misery loves company. That is the reall message of It’s a Wonderful Life.

Merry Christmas, everybody!

Rsating: * (out of 5)

Friday, December 24, 2010

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

It does not seem right to go through the holidays writing a movie review blog and not feature a Christmas movie or two. Why I chose Santa Claus Conquers the Martians to start with is beyond me. It is not like I have imbibed any eggnog to inhibit my judgment. Perhaps I am simply a masochist. I did not even use the MST3000 Dvd release, so I did not even have the gang’s mockery to amuse me.

If you have not seen Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, let me assure you it is every bit as bad as you have heard. The plot, the acting, the cheap budget--they are all stinkeroos. Nevertheless, there is a certain notion your pop culture education is not complete until you have seen it. As I loathe to have any education incomplete, I felt compelled to sit through it.

The story takes place mostly on Mars. Parents fear their children are watching too much Earth television. The wise elder says the children are becoming distracted because their society is too rigid and strict for the kids. It is not so strict the kids cannot watch t far too much television, but I shall bow to the superior wisdom of the elder. His name is Chochem, a Yiddish word for genius. Who would argue with such a person? Chochem says the kids need to have fun and apparently Dr. Phil and soap operas do not count.

The Martian leaders decide the best solution to their lack of fun problem is too kidnap Santa Claus, whom they saw on television, and bring him to Mars in order to make toys for Martian children. They successfully kidnap Santa and two children. They build a toy factory and get to work.

Not everyone on Mars is happy with the arrangement. Voldar thinks santa is corrupting the children of Mars, so he sets out to kill Santa. Failing that, he sabotages the toy factory. Just to prove there is a counterpoint to every point, a Martian named Dropo takes a liking to Santa and wants to play him himself. Voldar, proving what a sharp cookie he is, kidnaps Dropo thinking he is Santa. Voldar needs LASIK for Christmas.

Voldar plans to hold Dropo as a hostage for the ransom of ending this silly Christmas on Mars plan. But Dropo escapes. Santa realizes Dropo would make a good martian Santa, so he arranges for it on the condition he and the kids can return to Earth. Everything works out swell, except that Mars is a completely lifeless planet, so something terrible must have happened after Santa left.

I put on my goofy, non-discerning childhood hat for watching Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, but I am afraid watching this thing even with the eyes of a child is not enough to make it enjoyable. I suppose its heart is in the right place, but the very idea of the movie is dumb. It goes without saying that it is executed poorly, too. If you decide to see it in order to complete your pop culture education, do not say I did not warn you. In this case, ignorance is truly bliss.

Rating: * (out of 5)

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Pee Wee's Big Adventure

You either love the manchild known as Pee Wee Herman, or you hate him. I have fond memories of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Pee Wee’s Playhouse from my younger days. I must confess some of his real life issues have been troubling enough to give me pause about what might be going on in that obviously off kilter head of his, but nothing has yet hampered my enjoyment of much of his work.

Pee Wee’s Big Adventure is my favorite of all his work. Having just watched it for this review, I can safely say my fondness is not all about childhood nostalgia. The film is a cult classic which still stands up today. I appreciate the weird atmosphere of it all. The colors of the film are all basic, giving the adventure a playroom fantasy atmosphere. Add to that real adult characters as they would be envisioned by a small child and you have an absurd artistic vision that is great escapism.

I have been quite harsh towards Tim Burton in the few reviews I have given to his films thus far. The problem with him is that he cannot do a mainstream film that will not let his inner weirdo run on a long leash. The problem with me is I do not have an ounce of goth in me. When those two problems collide, Burton and I do not get along. Pee Wee’s Big Adventure is different. He was allowed to put enough of his strange vision without turning the film into a gothic mess that I can really enjoy it. Credit where credit is due, I think Paul Reubens is probably more responsible for the enjoyable elements. But hey, I tried complimenting Burton for once.

Pee Wee Herman is a grown man who acts completely like a child. He cares about nothing more in the world than his bicycle. A girl at the bike shop has a thing for him, but he pays her no romantic mind whatsoever. Pee wEe’s neighbor, Francis, is also a manchild, but he refuses to grow up because, with his rich daddy, he does not have to. Francis wants Pee Wee’s bike, he will not give or sell it to him.

The bike winds up stolen. A distraught Pee Wee eventually goes to a psychic for help. She is a fraud who sends Pee Wee on a cross country escapade to the Alamo, where she claims his bike is being kept in the basement.

Along the way, Pee Wee meets a menagerie of colorful characters. They include Simone, a waitress with dreams of visiting Paris, her violent tempered, jealous boyfriend, Large Marge, a truck driving ghost whose shocking revelation scared the bejebus out of me as a nine year old, a bunch of nasty bikers who could be won over by a dance to “Tequila,” and an escaped convict who tore the do not remove tag off a mattress. Pee Wee reacts to all these people with the mind of a child.

Pee Wee discovers his bike now belongs to a child star who is using it as a prop in a blockbuster movie. Pee Wee sneaks onto the studio lot to steal it back. What results is a climactic chase through various, stereotypical movie sets, with an unexpected cameo by Twisted sister. I am often bemused by Hollywood’s self-importance in adding moviemaking to a film, but this time it is a laugh riot. Pee Wee winds up saving a pet shop full of animals from a fire, thereby becoming a hero after his escape from the studio lot.

The studio instead wants to make a film of Pee Wee’s story. It becomes a James Bond style adventure with James Brolin and Morgan Fairchild starring as Pee Wee and Dottie. In the film, his bike is stolen by the Soviets, just as Pee Wee first speculated. Oddly enough, I had most nostalgia about this point. Movies had far better bad guys during the Cold War, no?

At the creaky old age of 34, I still love Pere Wee’s Big Adventure. It is so fantastically peculiar that I wish more films would be made with such a unique vision. I am afraid the film may have caught lightning in a bottle. Neither Burton, nor Reubens have come close to entertaining me quite like this with any other project.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Wild Wild West

I have reviewed the entire run of The Wild Wild West series at Eye of Polyphemus. It is one of my childhood favorites. It seems only fair to review this travesty of a film adaptation for the sake of thoroughness. Whether you like the original series, if you enjoy this movie, I probably do not like you as a person.

The plot revolves around army capt. Jim West (Will Smith), a black man in 1869 who has managed to become a top secret agent for Pres. Ulysses S. Grant even though he is so incredibly reckless, Grant does nothing but trash him. Rightfully so. West is the first in a string of unlikable characters we are going to meet. Grant must have been drunk when he hired the guy. West is assigned to investigate the disappearance of scientist. Who are obviously being forced to work on something diabolical that will certainly be used to assassinate Grant when he drives in the inaugural transcontinental railroad spike in one week.

He is teamed up with Artemus Gordon. Gordon is played by Kevin Kline. He is the only bright spot in the film That is like saying it is a good thing you will save money on shoes because your feet have been chopped off. The bright side is sometimes overwhelmed by the dark.

West and Gordon go up against Arliss Loveless, played by Brit Kenneth Branagh. Loveless is a bitter Confederate loyalist who was mutilated during the Civil War. Because he has lost his legs, he has developed a strange fascination with spiders which serves only to set up the dumbest climax in movie history. In the interim, Branagh’s fake southern accent will have to suffice as the dumbest aspect in association with the Loveless character.

Along the way, West and Gordon are joined by Rita Escobar, who was being held prisoner by Loveless. Rita says she was looking for her kidnapped father, but it is a lie solely to create a sexual competition between West and Gordon. We do not find out until later the missing scientist is her husband. But in the interim, we get an eyeful of her Botticelli buttocks, as they are called, so I suppose that is consolation for the unfunny rivalry between the two competing for her affection.

There is a ridiculously long sequence in which Loveless captures all three, separates Escobar from the with the promise of creating a device to rape her, and placing super powered magnetic callars around Jim and Gordon’s necks which attracts flying saw blades. The two defy all laws of physics and good humor in extricating themselves from their predicament. Additional scenes were filmed to be placed here, which is why the sequence runs way too long, because test audiences could not decide if the movie was a comedy. The additional scenes do not add any additional laughs.

It does not get any better from there. Loveless is going to use an eighty foot mechanical spider to kill Grant. West not only survives a fall off the top of the spider, but decides to pose as a harem girl in order to sneak back on later. None of the bad guys notice no harem girls are supposed to be on the thing in the first place.

I am not going to pile on. I know this is a bad movie. You know it is a bad movie. The premise of a black Secret Service agent in 1869 is dumb. The script is awful. The characters are unlikable. It is still difficult to tell if The Wild Wild West is supposed to be a comedy even with the allegedly additional yuks. The numerous racist jokes make you squirm in your seat. The bit with the harem disguise would ruin the climax if you had any expectations for it. By that point, you do not.

Those are all solely the marks of a bad feel, and therefore nothing to get too worked up about. The problem for me is how much I love the original television series. The film is a complete betrayal for anyone who loves the series. West and Gordon are supposed to be like brothers, not fighting all the time. West is a suave gentleman, not a trigger happy jackass with no scruples. Dr. Loveless is a dwarf with a genius IQ and epicurean tastes who wants to rule the world, not some petty racist who wants to revive the South. The changes made between the series and film would not make non-fans more likely to see it and served only to make true fans angry. What was the point?

Robert Conrad, the star of the original series, refused a cameo, trashed the film, and eventually accepted several Razzies on behalf of it in order to protest what had been done to the material. Last year, Will Smith publicly apologized to Conrad, saying he now understood that he had been a part of not only a terrible movie, but of insulting fans of the original series. Anyone who watches movies will still be offended by The Wild Wild West.

Rating: * (out of 5--and I am being generous.)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Kelly's Heroes


I said in my Three Kings review the plot of a renegade military force secretly going AWOL into enemy territory to steal captured gold has been done better before. Well, here is where it was done better. Kelly’s Heroes hits every mark: directing, writing, acting, action, and comedy. There is nary a flaw to be found.

Such is not an easy task. Kelly’s Heroes was released in 1970 when the nation was growing sick of the Vietnam War raging on the nightly news. War was not a heroic subject at the time, even when the war is against villains like the Nazis. The only way to pull of a war movie under those circumstances was to make it an irreverent romp full of anti-heroes out to serve themselves during a less ambiguously moral war. Perhaps surprisingly, the formula worked.

Kelly’s Heroes is a simple story. A group of American Gis on occupation duty in a liberated part of France discovers there are cases of Nazi gold in A Bank in a nearby, Nazi occupied town. They launch a full scale operation under the noses of the Nazis and their own commanders to steal it. What results is a good mix of comedy, drama, and action. The film is laugh out loud funny when mocking the absurdities of war and those who cluelessly command it from a safe distance. Not everyone survives the operation. While that adds a dose of reality, it does not ruin the comedy. In fact, the casualties the tension. Said tension is ratcheted up further by bombings, explosions, gunplay, and tank battles which all combine to make Kelly’s Heroes the best action movie of the era.

The main highlight is Donald Sutherland’s character, Oddball. He is an anachronism==a hippe twenty some odd years too early. Often, something like that would bug me, but I enjoy the character. He is a concession to the audience of the time which is entertaining enough to forgive his being a generation out of place. Something tells me if he had a kid after the war ended, he would grow up to be Tommy Chong. But maybe I am generating negative waves and should say something righteous and positive for a change.

Sutherland is the man, but one can certainly not overlook the rest of the cast--Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, and Carroll O’Connor among others all play well-defined, memorable characters who each get their moment to be amusing. Even the German actors are not just playing generic bad guys.. Granted, the full extent of Nazi evil is not on display, but it is difficult to criticize the film for the omission.

Kelly’s Heroes certainly does not inspire any sense of patriotism, but it is a fun romp that patriots can still enjoy. It is anti-war, but not preachy. A comedic satire that has loads of action. Something for just about everyone, really. I give it my highest recommendation without trepidation.

Rating: ***** (out of 5)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Three Kings

I do not believe there has been a quintessential Gulf War movie. I suspect after Operation Iraqi Freedom and its lingering aftermath taking precedence over the original conflict that we ever will. Three Kings is as close as we have come the cinematic representation of the war. I am willing to retract that statement if someone can convince me otherwise.

Here is why I think so--the Gulf War was a CNN/Nintendo war. I certainly do not want to detract from anyone who served in the conflict, nor do I question the merit of it. Oil runs the western world. Its free flow is vital to the gears of the planet. What I actually mean is how the war was packaged to the American public as almost a sporting event. The human factor was far removed from our eyes as we followed the Scud Stud Arthur Kent while munching pop corn on the living room couch.

At the same time, the anti-war movement, such that it was, was farcical. This was not Vietnam in which kids are running the risk of being drafted and dying while doing a job the French and South Vietnamese out to have been doing. The protests were anemic, had no soul, and were generally too late. Victory was quickly achieved.

So it is difficult to create any kind of serious satire of the Gulf War. Civilians never took it seriously, so the antiwar sentiments look ridiculous. Hence, David o. Russell, who is very clearly dead set against the war, cannot create a very compelling film about it. Without looking overly pretentious. Of course, we are talking about Russell here. He is overly pretentious.

He is also a jerk with no scruples. There are two conflicts regarding the film that are more famous than the film itself. For one, Russell took the script from writer John Ridley, rewrote it to his liking without any input from Ridley, then took his name off the finished product. The studio forced a written by credit for Ridley, but he ought to have been treated far better. Two, Russell had a big falling out with star George Clooney. The crux of their animosity involved an extra who has an epileptic seizure onset for which Russell showed indifference and another in which he allegedly assaulted another extra who was having trouble with a fight scene. Needless to say, the production was troubled.

It does not show on screen, however. I chalk that up exclusively to the cast. Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, ice Cube, and Spike Jonz are superb as regular guys thrust into a combat situation they do not fully understand. The film is worth watching just for them, particularly how they progress from joining in with Archie Gates’ (Clooney’s0 plan to steal a shipment of Kuwait gold from Iraq to learning empathy for the Iraqi refugees Saddam Hussein is now slaughtering in the post-war environment.

The film places the blame for the slaughter squarely on the shoulders of George Bush. His call for the Iraqi people to rise up was interpreted as the creation of an alliance between dissidents and the united States in a military sense. Said alliance never materialized. Yet Russell would not want the US to support such an effort, either, so what is the message he is trying to send?

I do not know and that is the problem. Three Kings is farcical, occasionally inappropriate humor interrupted by nihilistic horror. The violence is brutal, the wounds suffered by characters are savagely stomach churning, yet the comedy often borders on slapstick because of how stupid virtually every American other than Gates is. The Americans are thieves who are never true to their words, yet help save refugees from the Iraqi military. It is not a feel good story by any means.

I would probably watch it again at some point down the road, but it is largely an unpleasant experience. I get the impression it is supposed to be that way. If so, kudos to a mission accomplished. My emotions regarding the gluf war have long since faded to the point I do not care one way or the other who activist artists feel about it. The best I can muster is mild ambivalence .

Rating: ** (out of 5)