Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Superman Returns

It has been a while since I reviewed the other big budget Superman films. With a new one on the verge of release, it is time to bite the bullet and watch 2006’s Superman Returns. I am a huge fan of comic books. Even though I am a Marvel Zombie rather than a DC…whatever nickname they have, I am just now getting over the notion that I should support any and all comic book characters who reach the silver screen. That was a common opinion among fans who wanted to see better super hero films hitting the big screen, but in hindsight, it backfired. Only over the last ecade or so have comic book based films come into their own because the creative powers beind them are comic book fan themselves. Respect for the source material, folk. The rise of the comic book films has had its turbulence, however, and Superman Returns is a prime example.

It probably is not fair to bring up the Development Hell period the Superman film endured, but the film’s tumultuous journey may shed some light on the lackluster feel of Superman Returns. Abandoned scripts were written by self-professed comic book fanatic Kevin Smith and Lost creator J. J. Abrams. The former’s script was canne by the powers that be for being too deep for the popcoen munching summer blockbuster they needed to seel action figures and fast food premiums. The latter famously leaked to Harry Knowles, who promptly lead a fan charge to have it canne because there were no elements of the Superman mythos within. Superman Returns finally got rolling with Brian Singer. The end result makes one wonder if superman ought to have been kept off the big screen a lot while longer.

I will give singer some props for two points. One, he is ambitious in scope. There is a lot of Superman as christ imagery throughout the film. The comparison even begins back with the leaked trailer in which Marlon Brando’s booming voice explains why Jor El sent his only begotten son to Earth to be man’s salvation. The allegory is often over the top and gaudy, but it tickles my rebellion against the Bob Jones University influenced education I suffered as a tyke. Back then, anything in popular entertainment was satanic, but especially when secular offerings featured religious undertones. Blasphemy, as they say. The second point is Superman Returns pretends the latter two film in the series do not exist. What a coincidence. So do I.

The film begins with Superman, after promising to never abandon Earth after defeating Zod, having abandoned Earth to search for the remains of Krupton. He apparently said goodbye to no one, because they have spent the last five years miffed at him. Lois lane in particular. She wrote an Pulitzer Prize winning article entitled Why We Don’t Need Superman and had a son. She regrets the former when Superman shows back up for a dramatic rescue. He spends much of the rest of the film rekindling his relationship and battling another wild real estate scheme from Lex Luthor.

When I say much of the rest of the film, I am referring to nearly two and a half hours of tedium. You would think with an action oriented director like Singer at the helm and modern special effects, there would be wall to wall action spectacle. You would be wrong. Very little happens. What few action sequences there are ten to be an excuse to turn the volume up in case you have fallen asleep between them. Not even Kevin spacey hamming it up--the poor guy looks like he knows he is carrying the film solely on his shouldrrs--cannot brighten things up. Superman Returns is simply no fun.

The problem is the usual suspects. The script is lackluster. It is completely devoid of any memorable moments. The plot is lame. Why is Luthor going back to a variation of his real estate scheme from the first film? Homage, or lack of imaginatoon on behalf of the screenwriter? I am going with the latter, even though I believe e was aiming for the former. I am unimpressed with the cast, as well. Spacey is one of my favorite actors, so it is painful to watch him slog through a film he should have never been in. Kate Bosworth is not my idea of Lois lane. Most importantly, Brandon Routh is completely bland as Superman. I swear he is only playing the role because bears a striking resemblance to Christopher Reeve. Tobey Macguire put more personality into Spiderman when covered head to toe in costume than Routh can with superman. ‘Tis a very bad sign.

Superman Returns is for the die hard Superman fans only. There are still some of you out there, right? Even the comic book fanatics who used to support any and all comic book based films should avoid it. There are too many other good choices out there to waste time on such a poor effort like this film. The new Superman film about to be released has only been made to keep the rights in place. Otherwise, Superman Returns rightly would have killed off the feanchise.

Rating: ** (out of 5)

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Escape from New York

I was looking for an appropriate film to review on the eleventh anniversary of the September 11th attacks, and Escape from New York feels like the obvious choice. The film features a famous, though now dated with poor special effects, of Snake Plissken landing a glider on top the World Trade Center in the far flung future of 1997 when New York City has become an island prison for the worst American has to offer. The film broke director John Carpenter out of the horror film genre he had been working in for the previous four years with solid results.

Escape from New York is set in a dystopian future America in which the crime rote rose to 400% in the aftermath of a brutal war. New York City has been walled off from the rest of the United States to serve as a prison for all sorts of vicious psychos. Air force One happens to crash in the heart of the city on its way to an important summit meeting with the soviet Union and China. Snake Plisskwn, a former soldier sentenced to NYC, is given 24 hours to fin the president in exchange for a pardon.

You have to get passed a lot of shallow plotting to enjoy Escape from New York. It sounds ridiculous enough to wall of the capital of the world as a prison. If the world truly is dystopian, taking New York City out of the picture is probably the biggest factor. Why is Air Force One flying over the largest population of entrapped cut throats on the planet? Criminals holding the president hostage in exchange for their freedom is not all that creative, either. Nevertheless, the film works because of the tension it manages to build up and the cynical tone throughout.

Shot on a paltry $ 6 million, Escape from New York is effectively dark and minimalist. The special effects are often lacking, with many scenes being obvious miniatures. But I really like the atmosphere. Carpenter does a lot with very little. New york has become a place of destitution and depravity. How bright and lush can you expect the place to be?

It is the cast that truly makes the film. In particular, Kurt Russell’s portrayal of Plissken as a cynical man of few words, but much ’80’s action hero cliché is the best aspect of the film. Curvy Adrienne Barbeau at the height of her sex appeal runs a close second. One feels a certain disappointment at how the quality of the remainder of the cast is underutilized. Donald Pleasance is just sort of there as the president. Lee Van Cleef spends most of the film scurrying between computer screens as the Police Commissioner. The film spens so much time setting up the Duke of New York as the ultimate fearsome crime lord that it is a severe let down when even Isaac Hayes cannot generate any menace playing the role. Throw in Harry Dean Stanton and wonder how a cast like that cannot make Escape from New York shine. Even the best are only as good as the material with which they have to work.

I am not as down on Escape from New York as I may seem. It is still a good movie in spite of its flaws. Carpenter pulls of the combination of science fiction/action film with enough ‘80’s social commentary--high crime in New York City , late Cold War militarization--with being shlocky with the former or preachy with the latter. Neither of the points is to say Escape from New York is a deep film. It most certainly is not. The material is holding back a stellar cast as far as these kinds of films go. But overlook some bad plotting and weak script points, and you can enjoy one of the first film in the ’80’s action film mold that Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, and Arnnuld would go on to perfect.

As far as I am concerned, Carpenter has not hit his stride by 1981. He had mostly worked in the horror genre, of which I am not a huge fan, but his paring with Russell is magic. They will work together again with better results, but Escape from new York possess many of the latent chocolate and peanut butter combination of Carpenter and Russell.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Blob

I am on a ‘50’s science fiction kick as of late. The Blob may very well have temporarily ended my interest in the subject. For a film that is considered at least a minor classic in the science fiction canon, not to mention starring a young Steve McQueen, The Blob is surprisingly uninteresting.

There are only three points I found amusing. One, the Cold War allegory is great, although one is admittedly beaten over the head with it. A gelatinous, constantly growing red blob consuming small town America? All the blob needs is a yellow hammer and cycle on its side to make the point unmistakably obvious. Two, the soecial effects, while weak by today’s standards, are not as cheap as I feared they would be. Finally, I had never seen before, so I had no idea Stephen King’s ’The Lonesome Death of Jordy Virril” from Creepshow was a parody. Creepshow remains my favorite horror film, so your mileage may vary.

One suspects The Blob is the source of frequent parody because of how many trappings of teenager in peril horror movies are present. The film begins with Steve Andrews (Steve McQueen) parked at Lover’s lane for some smooch smooch with his girlfriend when they witness a meteor fall to Earth. An old man finds a meteor on his property and, after inadvertently breaking it open with a stick, becomes infected by a red goo from inside. Here is the Jordy Virril part. Yes, I did shout ‘Meteor sh*t!” when I saw it, I substitute a less offensive synonym for the latter word. I am a class act that way.

The Blob eventually consumes the old man after Steve and his girlfriend take him to the doctor. The Blob inevitably eats more people as it becomes exponentially larger. The excitement level never really builds up, however. There is an improvement during the panicked climax, but I cannot see why The Blob is considered a fine example of this sort of monster on the loose film. I do not think I feel that way because I am jaded. I have seen a ton of films in the genre, certainly, but The blob truly is B-movie shlock. I am disappointed to learn this.

Nevertheless, the three points I mentioned above as being great are still valid. I am a sucker for Cold War allegory. The special effects are impressive for the time. You can determine your own feelings about the Stephen King parody from Creepshow. Then there is the novelty of Steve McQueen starring. The Blob is not his best film by any stretch of the imagination, but he does play the All-American hero to the hilt. You do not have to look too hard to see the Steve McQueen of the future lurking in the teenager desperate to get the adults around him to listen to his warnings.

I would not make much effort to seek The Blob out. It is a film you atop and watch when flipping cannels on a sleepless night or bored Saturday afternoon. It is a novelty piece for the hard core science fiction fans and b-movie fanatics only.

Rating: ** (out of 5)

Sunday, September 9, 2012

This Island Earth

Universal Studios is far more famous--and deservedly so--for its classic monster films, but it is a shame science fiction fans often overlook it genre films of the 1950’s. Certainly, they are steeped in dated cold war paranoia and goofy flying saucers, ray guns, and rubber suit monsters, but there are some gems in there if you are in the right mindset for them. One of the best of the lot is This Island Earth.

This Island Earth introduces us to Dr. Cal Meacham, brilliant scientist and all around American hero. He receives some instructions on how to gather parts and put them together to create some unknown device. Being the curious sort, Meacham follows through. The device turns out to be a communicator in which Meacham can talk with an odd fellow name Exeter. Exeter has an enlarged forehead which gives him an obviously inhuman appearance, but Meacham appears to not notice as he agrees to join a secret laboratory In Georgia to work on a project for Exeter.

At the laboratory, he meets up again with an old flame named Dr. Ruth Adams. The two grow suspicious the laboratory is not being straight with them. When they have finally had enough, they try to escape, but are captured by Exeter. He destroys the facility and carts the pair off in his flying saucer for the planet Metaluna.

Everything I just described takes up the first half of the film. It is a lot of set up paced painfully slowly, but once Meacham and adams have been kidnapped, the fun begins. Exeter’s planet is at war with the Zagons. The Zagons have been throwing planetoids guided by spaceships at Metaluna. The attacks have been highly effective. Metaluna is on the verge of destruction. The need to build a shield to surround the planet as a defense, but they lsck the uranium to power. Meacham is tasked with creating uranium for them.

The plot of This Island Earth is not deep or impressive. There is not even a prominent anti-nuclear war message you might expect from a film from the heart of the Atomic Age even though the visual effects of the planetoids striking Mtaluna are clearly meant to resemble the mushroom clouds resulting from nuclear detonations. This Island Earth is far more escapism than a preachy message about man destroying itself.

Indeed, This Island Earth is unique for this era of science fiction in that humans are the superior beings. Exeter, though difficult to pin down early in the film, is a bad guy who is more than willing to kill Meacham’s colleagues and kidnap him to do his dirty work for him. There are no aliens lecturing humans about their evil ways, but the film also avoids the Gene Roddenberry staple that morally superior humans need to set the evil aliens unto the straight and narrow. Meacham and adams only have one priority--getting the heck out of Dodge.

If is famous for anything, it is the Metaluna mutant pictured above. You can sometimes see it thrown in there with the Universal Monsters in promotional items. The Metaluna mutant is probably the only science fiction critter you will see there. The Metaluna mutant still holds up today in every facet. While it is the typical man in suit monster, the manner in which it stalks our heroes is incredibly scary. The critter ought to be considered right up there with some of the reats of the genre, if you ask me.

Are there flaws? Most definitely. The most laughable is Meacham’s failure to think anything is od about Exeter. I woul not expect Meacham to automatically assume Exeter is an alien, but some comment on his deformed appearance for a normal human is in order. Exter has a forehead you could screen How the West Was Won upon. Another biggie is the character of Adams. She starts out as a strong, brilliant woman becomes the screaming amsel in distress in a snap once she and Meacham have been kidnapped. I understand the situation is jarring for her, but she makes too drastic a chance. These are small problems quickly overshadowed by the nifty elements of the latter half of the film’s exciting events on Metaluna.

This Island Earth ia not deep enough to be on anyone’s list of best science fiction films. It is no cautionary tale about nuclear war. It is standard humans v. aliens and monsters flick. But that is okay. Because it is a good umans v. aliens and monsters flick that has been forever relegated to the lower ecelons because it received the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment. If you can look passed the mocking and enjoy the film for what it is, you are going to have a good time.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Forbidden Planet

I am currently reviewing Stargate Atlantis over at Eye of Polyphemus. the current episode is the second season’s “Epiphany,” an episode which features a monster created from the negative emotions of a small settlement. What better time to pull out the Dvd of Forbidden Planet and review the film from which the plot element was likely lifted?

Forbidden Planet is a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest set in space. The film follows a military crew set out to discover the fate of the ship Bellerophon, which disappeared twenty years ago. In mythology, Bellerophon killed the monster Chimera. In Forbidden Planet, the monster kills all but two people, Dr. Morbius and his teenage daughter, Altaira. Captain Adams, the allegedly swashbuckling hero of the film, woos Altaira while unraveling the mystery, such that it is, of the id monster’s identity. We cannot forget Morbius’ robot assistant, Robby, who has become a staple of science fiction since his debut here.

Watching Forbidden Planet is like taking the World of Tomorrow tour at Disney World wit a vicious, invisible monster on the loose. One minute you are being introduced to a retro idea of a future appliance, and in the next someone is being torn apart by some critter no one can identity. Contemporary audiences would not have the patience for this sort of thing. They would demand a quick set up in order to get to the monster attacks. Even I think the pace could be picked up, but as a history buff, I enjoy the vision of the future filmmakers envisioned back in 1956 enough to not count the instructional video aspects as much of a detriment.

Oh, do not get me wrong…Morbius drones on and on about everything from his house to what happened to his ship to Robby to the Kell and all their technology. Forbidden Planet is very much high on exposition rather than visuals. It is an interesting point when you consider the movie was nominated for an oscar in special effects, but lost to The Ten Commandments. Deservedly so, in my opinion. While I will often gripe good science fiction films rarely earn critical recognition beyond their technical aspects, even special effects were superior. Forbidden Planet was released in the wrong year, folks.

The major flaw with Forbidden Planet is the lack of mystery. There is no possibility anyone could be responsible for the death of every on the Bellerophon but Morbius. Altaira would have been too young. The wife is a possibility for the Bellerophone deaths, Robby was created after Morbius arrived on the planet. It is very clear from the beginning Morbius is responsible. A red herring or two would enhance the mystery greatly. By enhance, I mean actually create some. The revelation the monster is a projection of Morbius’ id is not much of a reveal, but I will grant the climactic sequence with morbius and adams with the id monster banging on the walls is highly effective even today.

I must mention, too, what I suspected might not work, but did. Adams is played by a young Leslie Nielsen. I do not recall exactly when I first saw Forbidden Planet--too young to appreciate it, I am certain--but it was certainly after watching the absurd comedies of Nielsen’s later career. The guy carried around a gag device which simulated flatulence to use during interviews, for heaven’s sake! I am not even certain I made the connection between Adams and The Naked Gun cop back then, but Nielsen was at one time considered a dramatic actor. I assume Viva Knievel! ruined all that. Adams strikes me as too much of a rigid military officer who cannot make any decision without consulting his superiors rather than the pre-James T. Kirk he is supposed to be, but I am too impressed Nielsen can play the role at all to complain.

Forbidden Planet stands the test of time for any true science fiction fan and/or cinema buff who can appreciate the style of films made in various eras. Forbidden Planet is ’50’s science fiction to the core. Could anyone get away with an Earth space ship being a flying saucer these days? Doubtful. The Daleks can pull it off, but who is going to dare question them? Daleks have no concept of elegance.

Rating; *** (out of 5)

Friday, September 7, 2012


I am a sucker for doomsday films that possess plausibility in them that I can wrap my mind around the scenario becoming reality. One of the big reasons I am is because I watched WarGames at a young age. The other is being tainted by a Bob Jones influenced education wherein identifying the apocalypse is a favorite fundamentalist Christian hobby. The latter reason is ripe with stories for my personal blog. We shall mercifully deal with the former reason here. WarGames is my generation’s--that is, the one that grew up in the ’80’s--dire warning of nuclear annihilation. It is our film because it main theme of late col War paranoia and fear of advanced technology running away out of control is wrapped around the conflict of kids versus adults. It is a kid,, David Lightman, (Matthew Broerick) who inadvertently sets the world down the path of nuclear destruction because of adult frailty in decision making it is young Lightman who comes up with a solution to the problem, not the least of which is youthful optimism breaking down a despondent pessimism, and a kid’s game of tic tac toe which saves the day. It is not the adults in charge who save the future. WarGames is about hacker/slacker Lightman. He is a shiftless techno whiz who constantly cuts school, but uses his computer skills to award himself high grades anyway. Lightman believes he has hacked into a software developers batch of unreleased games when he begins playing Global Thermo Nuclear War, but he has actually hscked into a new AI at NORAD called WOPR. Because of his “gameplay,” NORAD believes the Soviet union is mobilizing against the United States and makes preparations for a first strike that will initiate World War III. WOPR was put in place, as is established in a long, tedious opening sequence about the humdrum daily routine at NORAd, when one of the men in charge of launching the missiles refuses to do so when given the order. The decision is then handed over to WOPR in order to take human emotion and doubt out of the equation. But as the film establishes, it is human emotion that eventually saves the day. Lightman is arrested by the FBI. Upon learning what he has inadvertently done, he escapes to fin the creater of WOPR. He is Dr. Stephen Falken, now living under an assuming name as a completely despondent reclusive. His wife and son have recently been killed, and believing the human race is inevitably on the path to killing itself, says the world can burn. Lightman and his girlfriend, played by Ally Sheedy back when she and Molly Ringwald took turns in such roles, convince Falken he can change things. World War III is averted whenWOPR is convinced to play tic tac toe against itself. After numerous draws, WOPR learns the concept of futility. The only way to win the game is to not play. I was afraid with all the advancements in technology over the last 29 years, WarGames would be laughably dated. Maybe a viewer more tech savvy than I am thinks it is. But from my perspective, the technology takesa back seat to the personal themes involved. WarGames is a human drama about how advancing technology created supposedly to better our lives--in this case, eliminate human error to ensure survival in a nuclear war--can get away from us by removing the human factor. In this day and age when everyone everywhere is texting and the average teenager spends four hours a day online, the question of who is really in charge when it comes to technology is still an apt one. I will grant you a lot of my positive feelings towards WarGames have to do with nostalgia. It has left a big impact on my entertainment choices when it comes to science fiction and war stories. WarGames is definitely a product of its time. If you did not grow up in the ’80’s, the Cold War threat of the bomb dropping any day now probably seems silly. Nevertheless, the central message of WarGames is still worth hearing. The film itself stands the test of time. Rating: **** (out of 5)

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane, frequently touted as the greatest movie of all time by people who make movies for a living, is celebrating its 71st birthday in 2012. It is one of my all time favorite films, both because it is a beautifully crafted film and because it is a thinly veiled biography of yellow journalist William Randolph Hearts, with whom I have had a fascination since first learning the origins of the Spanish-American War.

Citizen Kane is the story of Charles foster Kane, a megalomaniacal journalism magnate who rapidly loses his idealism as his power grows. To be more accurate, as he grows larger than life, he loses everything in his life. Although he dies fabulously wealthy surrounded by objets d’ art, he dies alone after having alienated everyone in his life he ever loved. Or at least thought he loved. Kane seems incapable of basic human relationships.

There are many technical eye catching aspects of Citizen Kane. One is that the story is told largely in flashbacks. While that is not unusual today--I might go so far as to say the technique is frequently abused-- it was innovative in 1941. The film begins at the announcement of Kane’s death. We see a newsreel recap of his life before meeting a reporter who is attempting to uncover the meaning of Kane’s final word--”Rosebud.” The second striking aspect is the directing. While Welles was a brilliant actor who was able to bring kane to life in all his arrogant splendor, he carefully used camera angles to emphasize Kane in relation to everyone with whom he interacted. Whenever we are looking at Kane onscreen, we are looking up at him. If he is talking to another person, we are always looking down at him or her from the same perspective as Kane. It is a brilliant method for establishing Kane’s staus.

The film itself has aged well because virtually every element is perfect. The acting and directing, with Welles both playing Kane and directing the film, are incomparable. Equally amazing is Citizen Kane was Welles’ debut. There are few film these days that can handle a narrative in flashbacks quite like , and one must appreciate the film virtually originated the idea for film use.

Kane would probably not be such a controversial figure these days when someone like Rupert Murdoch has allegedly been involved in phone tapping and Donald Trump has done everything from wear a chicken suit on Saturday Night Live to use President Barack Obama of being born in Kenya with loads of embarrassing personal revelations along the way. It is hard to believe there was a time when Hearst was so incensed by Citizen Kane, he forbade his newspapers to write about it. Nevertheless, the emotional impact of the film is not lost in these jaded times. It is still the timeless story of a man who destroys everything worthwhile in life during his pursuit of money and power, only to discover too late the really important things in life are like times spent as a child playing on his sled, Rosebud.

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

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Braddock: Missing in Action III

I have seen this film exactly twice. Once was back on some random night when TBS aired it in the 10:35 PM slot as, if I recall correctly, the bouble half of a bill with the original Missing in Action. Considering the continuity issues, they do not complement one another. I decided it was an awful movie back then. Flash fordward about twenty years to early this afternoon for the second and final time I will sit through this film. It has not improved with time.

Right from the get go, there is trouble. The film opens during the fall of Saigon. Col. James Braddock, who is supposed to be in a POE camp, is trying to find his Vietnamese wife, who ought to be American and living back in the United States. He mistakenly believes her to be killed in a rocket attack, so he leaves Vietnam mourning her loss. Also unbeknownst to him, she is pregnant.

Fifteen years later, Braddock discovers through a stereotypically cold CIA dolt named Littlejohn his wife survived and he has a son. His kid suffers along with many other Amerasian kids left behind after the war, so Braddock not only his a personal mission to reunite with his family, but save those outcast kids, too. He has his work cut out for him. The villain of the film, Col. Kwoc, is the most cartoonish, mustache twirling villain I have seen in a while. This guy orders an orphanage full of Amerasian kids killed just to prove he is the villain. He also has some history with Braddock, which is odd considering Braddock has been established to have an ax to grind with two different Vietnamese colonels solely responsible for his torment as a POW. Of course, it does not appear he was ever a POW as far as this movie is concerned.

Getting back rto Kwoc..just how evil is he? Even enough to murder Braddock’s wife in front of him in painfully dramatic slow motion, then torture Braddock with the life of his son in the balance. The latter is the most memorable bit of the film, and probably helped establish the Chuck Norris Facts of his unbelievable prowess. Chained with his wrists over his head and the other end hooked to the trigger of a gun pointed at his son, Braddock can stand on his toiptoes forever. Even through electric shock torture, which causes him to merely grunt through gritted teeth. Tough guy, that braddock. If the rat bag over the head torture of Missing in Action II: The Beginning was so inconceivably brutal, one wonders from what depths of a depraved mind the screenwriter must have trolled, this torture seen rockets to the opposite direction, although you are still left wondering what the screenwriter was thinking.

After escaping his captors with his son, Braddock frees the children and heads for Vietnam’s non-existent border with Thailand and safety. Yes, this film cannot get geography right, either. Standard action movie fare ensues--gunfire, explosions, an the occasional high kick. The bad guys cannot hit the slow moving truck carrying all the kids, because they all have to reach the end of the film in one piece. Which is also why every last one of them survives a plane crash, too. Or maybe it is because Braddock was flying it. Say, where did he learn to fly a plane? Fret not. The action does not barrel along without heart. Braddock and his son finally bond over the question ‘Are you okay?” and mutual answers of “I’m fine.”

I am only reviewing Braddock: Missing in Action III for the sake of completion. It is an awful movie, and everyone knows it. Given the inconsistent back story compared with that presented in the first two films, I remain convinced this was supposed to be another movie altogether, but someone decided it was too terrible to stand on its own merit, so the names were changed to make it part of the franchise. Maybe they would be able to squeeze ot an extra dollar or two that way. I hope someone got something out of this mess.

Rating: * (out of 5)

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Missing in Action II: The Beginning

The exhausted, emotionally drained faces on these POW aptly sum up how I feel after watch Missing in Action II: The Beginning. It is a sharply contrasting film. The first hour brutally depicts the physical and psychological torture the POW have to face long after the Vietnam war has ended. The final thirty-five minutes are the standar one man army action antics as Chuck Norris does his thing against the camp and in particular, the sadistic Col. Yin, the man who has devoted his life to breaking our hero in body and spirit.

Missing in Action II: The Beginning was filmed back to back with Missing in Action. It was intended to be released first, but the producers felt like Missing in Action was the better film, so it was shelved for a while to serve as a prequel. But is it a better movie? The characters are certainly more fleshed out. We get to know and empathize with the POW far more than the nameless extras whom chuck Norris as Col. James Braddock rescued in Missing in Action. braddock, too, is a much broader character. He actually has dialogue for one thing. On a more serious note, Braddock is portrayed as an honorable man who resists his captors’ efforts to break him and ultimately escape them altogether.

Any serious critique I have of Missing in Action II: the Beginning has to do with how unpleasant the vast majority of it is to watch. I do not generally have a big beef with films depicting torture if it furthers the plot or even slasher horror films if there is enough absurdity in it to be amusing. An entire hour of POW being forced into slave labor, force playing Russian Roulette, being taunted about family back home moving on, watching the relative comfort of a traitor compared to their living conditions, and particularly the famous rat in a bag scene which Braddock coul save himself by biting the rat just go on and on and on. One goes well passed the point of sympathizing with the POW plight to wondering why they have not offed themselves just to get away from the perpetual torment.

After I have spent an hour immersed in the misery, I am less than enthusiastic for when the gunfire and explosions begin. I have a lot of confidence many other action fans do not have this problem. That is fine with me. The action sequences are great. Seriously, it is thirty minutes of everything from a flamethrower to karate kicking and C4 explosions. The film even improves on Missing in Action by featuring a man to man battle between Braddock and the main villain. The problem is initial excess. Too much angst is laid on for the first hour for my taste.

But okay. This is still a Chuck Norris movie. I cannot hold it to too high a standard. As far as your typical Norris action film goes, Missing in Action II: The Beginning delivers. Perhaps it should have begin delivering a half hour earlier than it does, but that is just my take. Missing in Action, for all its flaws, is a more mature film in spite of less developed characters because it is more interested in telling a story rather than showing us forgotten men tortured to the breaking point going wild on their tormenters. But hey, you are watching a Norris film to watch him do just that, so mileage may vary. For my money, the film is too unbalanced between drama and action to be as enjoyable as many action fans consider it.

Rating: ** (out of 5)

Monday, September 3, 2012

Missing in Action

The next film in our mini-tour of the Mercenaries Rescuing American POW Left Behind After the Vietnam War, we are going to look at what most probably consider the first big film in the genre. The reality is it is not even the first film in the Missing in Action. The prequel, which I will review tomorrow, was meant to be the first film, which is why it depicts Col. James Braddock’s experiences as a POW oddly after we have seen him rescue other POW in this film. The producers realized Missing in Action was a better film and wisely released it first.

The review must be prefaced with the statement that my expectations are adjusted going in. this is a Chuck Norris movie, so the bar is set at an appropriate level when judging its merit. Missing in Action is a mindless--emphasis on that word--action film that in no way displays any emotional depth in dealing with the MIA issue. In fact, Norris spends much of the film starring off blankly into space while spouting off slightly more dialogue than the Little Tramp.

Norris stars as Braddock, a man who spent ten years post-Vietnam War in a POW camp. He escaped a relatively ambiguous time ago, and has since become outspoken on the idea americans are still imprisoned in Southeast Asia. How Braddock can be outspoken when he utters five words an hour in beyond me, but there you go. Braddock joins a senator on a fact finding mission to Ho Chi Minh City, but winds up a poor diplomat when the first government official he runs into routinely tortured him as a POW.

We see much of Braddock’s POW experience through flashbacks, none of which jibe with what the prequel depicts. Nevertheless, the point is made. Braddock knows what his fellow prisoners are suffering, and he has no patience for political wrangling on the matter. Braddock forces his former captor to reveal the location of the remaining POW camp, stabs him to death, and sets out to find his old buddy with his bullet proof boat to mount a rescue from Thailand.

You can fill in the blanks with the rest. There is plnty of gunfire, explosions, and lots of Chuck Norris kicking and punching will next to no pesky dialogue getting in the way. Seriously, if you did not know better, you might suspect English was Norris’ second language with as little as he has to say and as tersely as his spits out what little dialogue there is for him to say. He is intense, guys, rescuing servicemen the government has abandoned. But actions speak louder than words in this film. Instead of ending on some speech about the pain of Vietnam era American soldier, Braddock unleashes the released POW on a joint meeting between American and Vietnamese government official who have just declared there are no prisoners still held in Vietnam.

Missing in Action needs an unusual ending, because Braddock kills the main villain about a third of the way into the film. Is there any other movie in which that happens? Seriously, save for one henchmen who is dispatched during the climax, the villains are all nameless, dialogue less cannon fodder on the way to rescue POW. I would not call the lack of mastermin villain a detriment, but it is an oddity.

The oddity matters naught, however. Missing in Action is the best of the trilogy, as well as one of the best action films ever, much less in the subgenre. It is mindless, no doubt. Norris has all the personality of a two by four. Even the emotionally disturbed Rambo comes across as a warmer guy. But what do you expect from Norris? Pardon the pun, but Missing in Action is a cannot miss for action fans.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Uncommon Valor

We are going to go through a mini-spell of 80’s movies from the Mercenaries Rescuing American POW Left Behind After the Vietnam War genre that salved the wound of losing the war by making sure it was won the second time around through no assistance from the United states government. I have already hit on the subject with the mindless, but still enjoyable Rambo: First Blood, Part II, so we are not plunging into completely unfamiliar territory.

Uncommon Valor certainly is familiar territory. With a cast that includes Gene Hackman, Robert Stack, and a young Patrick Swayze, I was expecting a more serious treatment of the issue. One tends to forget among the many one man army films involving the rescuing of alleged POW from Vietnam that the issue was and still is in many respects, a burning issue for the families of missing servicemen. There is no compelling reason to think the Vietnamese would continue holding prisoners after the war, emotions have run high enough for the government to investigate the possibility and, naturally, scammers to give false hope for families. The cruelty inherent in depicting the plight of POW in this genre of film is tough enough when one does not know anyone Mia from the Vietnam War, as I do not, but it is even more difficult when a genre film I was expecting to have a more serious tone does not rise much above the average Chuck Norris film.

Hackman is not the only misleading element. Director Ted Kotcheff’s previous outing was First Blood, the most serious of the Rambo films in dealing with the lingering wounds left by the Vietnam War on those who fought it. I suspect Kotcheff was able to make Uncommon Valor based on the merits of First Blood. The final product does not fly as high as it could.

Hack man plays Marine Col. Cal Rhodes, who believe his son was left behind as a POW in Laos long after the war. He reassembles his son’s unit to undergo a mercenary mission to rescue him. The mission is financed by a wealthy businessman named Macgregor whose son is also suspected of being held prisoner in Laos. MacGregor builds a replica of the prison camp for the team to practice, but things still go wrong on the mission. Several main characters die. MacGregor’s son is found alive, but Rhodes’ died of illness shortly after he was captured. Nevertheless, Rhodes now has a melancholy sense of closure. A sense of closure I hasten to remind everyone the film encourages families with Mia loved ones not to have, since they could be suffering in putrid jungle prisons.

Uncommon Valor winds up far more on par with the future ninja flicks of co-star Michael Dudikoff than Hackman and Swayze’s other film efforts. It is a mindless action film, and if you go in expecting it to be only that, you will probably like it. I would not call it a classic even within action films or the aforementioned Nercenaries Rescuing American POW Left Behind after the Vietnam War genre for that matter, but Uncommon Valor has slipped through the cracks over the years as far as either is concerned.

So if you have not seen it because it has been relatively forgotten, by all means do. It has all the gunfire, explosions, and carnage for which you are looking. Once I settled in on the fact was as emotionally shallow as your average Saturday morning cartoon, I was further amused by the weird combination of serious actors and b-movie stars fighting side by side. Maybe that will serve as an amusement actor for you, too. Uncommon Valor is a popcorn action flick best left for a night when one wishes to be mindlessly entertained.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Howard the Duck

Let us get this out of the way right off the bat--Howard the Duck is one of the worst movies ever made. You hate it. I hate. Toddlers living in the heart of darkest Africa who have never even heard of movies hate it. Steve Gerber, the creator of Howard the Duck, hated it. He probably complained about the film on his death bed. Only Joe Quesada seems to think Howard the Duck is worth anything, and then only because he wanted a 25th anniversary Blu-Ray release. Rest assured how this review is going to turn out before you even startt reading. Skip it in good conscience if desired. You will not be missing anything.

What is probably the most disappointing aspect of Howard the Duck is how much the film has going for it. It was produced by George Lucas when Star Wars mania was cooling off, but before the prequels ruin his reputation among fans. All the usual suspects of Lucas film went into making the movie, including the company that would become Pixar. Some say Lucas unloaded Pixar because he knew Howard the duck was awful and wanted to disavow their work. I do not know if that is true, so look it up and decide the issue for yourself. The cast ought to be great. Lea Thompson cavorts about in her underwear fresh of Back to the Future. Tim Robbins plays a goofy graduate student. Jeffrey Jones plays a creepy villain long before we realized he actually was a creepy villain in real life. You cannot forget the John Barry score, either. But Howard the Duck is horrible in spite of all the virtues it should have going for it.

The main problem is the tone. Howard the Duck is an incredibly unpleasant film to watch. It is too silly to be aimed at adults, but has too many racy bits to be aimed at kids. The comic book had a satirical bent that was enjoyably absurd because the main character was an anthropomorphic duck. You had to be savvy in order to absorb it all. The film is pure ‘80’s cheese without the slightest hint of any deeper meaning underneath. But it is not mindless fun for kids, either. There are nipples on a naked female duck and the shadowy image of Howard and Beverly (Thompson) having sex. I am not certain I would go so far as to label those sequences obscene, but I would hate to have the images indelibly imprinted on a kid’s mind.

Howard is al so the object of some incredibly brutal violence. He is thrown to Earth from his home planet, beset by muggers, bar patrons, police, and an angry chef before engaging in a final confrontation with the alien villain, who first appears when the film is nearly over, which leaves his goose almost literally cooked. The film might have been going for a Tom & Jerry tone of violence, but they overshot the mark terribly.

I mentioned the villain--the main plot, as it were--does not show up until the film is nearly over. This is true, and indicative of how the story rambles on with no attention paid to proper structure. We do not know why Howard was brought to Earth until nearly the end. The plot zig zags from Howard attempting to find a job to drama with Beverly’s rock band not taking off due to incompetent management to to the battle with the alien overlord. It never quite ends satisfactorily, but you are relieved when it does mercifully end in a concert in which Howard, the new manager of Beverly’s band, rocks out on guitar. Yeesh.

There is nothing redeeming about Howard the Duck. The script is terrible in both narrative and structural terms. None of the characters are likable. Everyone of them is stupid, including the supposed scientific genius played by Robbins. The various plots meander to the point you do not realize the main story has begun and ended with earth being saved from alien invasion. Or something. Anyone and everyone should stay as far away from Howard the Duck as possible.

Rating: * (out of 5)