Friday, May 31, 2013

Johnny Handsome (1989)

Title: Johnny Handsome (1989)

Director: Walter Hill

Cast: Mickey Rourke, Ellen Barkin, Elizabeth McGovern, Morgan Freeman, Forest Whitaker, Lance Henriksen  


I did an article a while back called 16 of the Top ‘Revengiest’Revenge Movies; in it I included these films where something awful happens to the main character, but then things turn around and eventually the main character gets his or her revenge, usually in pretty gruesome ways. I didn’t include the film I’ll be reviewing today because I had not seen it in such a long time. When I first saw Johnny Handsome I must’ve been about 13; all I remembered about Johnny Handsome was its basic premise and the fact that I liked the story a lot. There’s something gratifying about revenge tales, they always start out with something awful happening to the good guy of the film, then in the end whamo! That sweet, sweet revenge. The bad guys get what they deserved and the good guy gets his revenge. Though in this sense, Walter Hill’s Johnny Handsome is a bit different than most revenge films, Johnny isn’t your typical good guy, he’s actually a crook.

In Johnny Handsome we meet John Sedley, moments before he pulls off a diamond heist. John is not just any crook though, he is a mastermind in pulling off robberies. Also, his face is severely disfigured due to an anomaly in his genes. His deformity doesn’t stop him from doing what he has to do. Johnny is pulling off this diamond heist with the help of two individuals. One is a tomboyish lady called Sunny Boyd (Ellen Barkin) and the other a low life called Rafe Garrett (Lance Henriksen).  The three stick up the diamond store, and as we might expect in this kind of movie, things get ugly. The cops are called upon and at the last minute Rafe and Sunny decide to double cross Johnny and shoot him and the owner of the store, their idea is to keep the loot to themselves. Rafe and Sunny leave John for dead, unfortunately for them, John doesn’t die. Instead, he is rescued by the police and taken to a hospital where he is given the opportunity to jumpstart his life. You see, the doctors want to perform a surgery on him that could give him a normal face again. Will he take this opportunity to begin again? Or will he go back to his old ways?

It occurred to me that Johnny Handsome plays out a lot like a ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ story where the main character has a duality about him. He has his good natured/kind side, and he’s got his evil side, which he is at battle with. Johnny used to be a crook, because his looks led him to become an outcast, ridiculed and made fun of all his life. But what happens when he gets his face back and he no longer looks like a monster?  What kind of battle will be waged with the demons inside of him? This is what is at the center of this story. Johnny is even given a chance to fall in love with a beautiful woman, and lead a normal life, unfortunately, his former life calls him. Revenge calls him. Should he heed its call?

This is a Walter Hill film, so it’s not just any director we’re talking about here. This is the guy behind such action packed 80’s classics as 48 Hours (1982), Extreme Prejudice (1987) and Red Heat (1988). Hill’s a director whose films are very male oriented, he makes films for guys to holler and cheer at, they are about tough dudes, shoot outs, guns and explosions; tough dudes and sexy ladies. This time around things are a bit different though; not that Johnny Handsome doesn’t have its fare share of action and shoot outs, but the story is told in a more film noir style. It’s darker, grittier, more character driven. The film starts with a shootout and ends with a shootout, the middle of the film is the whole process of Johnny going from looking like a monster, to looking like Mickey Rourke before he turned to boxing. Funny how in real life, Rourke know looks like Johnny before the operation, oh the irony of life!

Hill invests a good amount of time getting you to know Johnny, getting you to feel for him. Rourke does a good job here, he plays the tormented soul, you feel like he’s the Frankenstein monster or something; a misunderstood creature who’s just looking for some love. At first, when we first meet Johnny he looks like a deformed monster, similar to the character that Eric Stoltz played in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Mask (1985), someone deformed because of genetic defects.  The character of Johnny also reminded me of Marv, another beat up character that Rourke played in Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City (2005). During the first half of the film, Rourke plays his character through heavy amounts of makeup. But half way through the film, after the operation, he transforms, and then we get the real Mickey Rourke, the mind boggles at how much Rourke has changed through the years! The rest of the film is populated by an excellent cast of supporting characters. Ellen Barkin has always been great at playing these rough, tom boyish ladies, on this show she plays a woman with no moral values whatsoever, she hangs out in bars, being a whore, stealing, killing and double crossing. She hangs out with low lives like Henriksen’s Rafe Garrett. Henriksen has always been great at playing villains, here he plays the main baddy, not much of a stretch acting wise, but he gets the job done. Rounding things up are Morgan Freeman as a cop who knows Johnny’s true nature, and Forest Whitaker as the doctor who operates on Johnny. Whitaker plays the guy who wants to give Johnny that second chance to improve himself, the guy with hopes that we can all change.

Johnny Handsome is a very underrated Walter Hill film. The film didn’t hit it big in theaters, in fact, it was a downright flop. It cost 20 million to make but only raked in 7.2 at the box office. I guess the film really didn’t connect with audiences for some reason. A pity because the film is a good revenge tale, and it has an excellent cast, this is the kind of film that makes you wonder why exactly did it slip through the cracks? Maybe it was due to the fact that it had some hefty competition at the box office. Upon it’s release it went up against Ridley Scott’s Black Rain (1989), which by the way was the #1 film that week, and it also went up against Sea of Love (1989) which starred Al Pacino. Also a bunch of successful family comedies like Uncle Buck (1989) and Parenthood (1989), so I guess a dark, brooding film about a deformed dude wasn’t at the top of anybodies list that weekend. But whatever, those that know, know; and on my book, this is a solid revenge tale with good performances and a dark, grimy look. If you’re ever in the mood for something like that, then this is the film for you.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Graduate (1967)

Title: The Graduate (1967)

Director: Mike Nichols

Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Katharine Ross


The Graduate is one of those classics that every film buff should see at some point in their lives. It’s a classic film with a fantastic script that manages to capture an era while addressing social issues at the same time. It is also, simply put, one of Dustin Hoffman’s best performances ever. What The Graduate achieves so well is that it captures the aura and general malaise of the 60’s; a time brimming with revolution and social unease. This film was made during the days of Nixon and Vietnam, a time when most Americans weren’t happy with the way the country was being run. Staying true to the idea that “art imitates life” the general discomfort felt in the nation during those days was subtly caught in Mike Nichols’ The Graduate. The fantastic thing about The Graduate is that at first you can’t really tell what’s wrong with its main character, Ben Braddock, but you know something’s definitely bugging him. Little by little and in very subtle ways we discover that it’s modern society that’s got him on the edge, this world is too crazy and Ben can’t seem to take it.

In The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman plays Ben Haddock, a young man who’s just returned from college. His parents throw him a welcome home party populated by family, friends and neighbors, all of them curious to know what Ben is going to do with his life now that college is over with. Problem is that Ben himself doesn’t even know what he’s going to be doing now, he feels uneasy, not ready to take any significant steps in life just yet. For now Ben seems contempt with just chilling by the pool and getting a sun tan, in a way, blocking out the rest of the world. But life has other plans for Ben. He ends up meeting Mrs. Robinson, a foxy lady who’s about to shake things up for Ben, the naïve young man. The character of Ben is one of the best things about the film; Dustin Hoffman perfectly embodies the insecure 20 something with everything to learn about life, a young man afraid to face the harsh realities of the world. I loved those scenes that mark the sharp contrast between Mrs. Robinson, an adult who is extremely sure of herself and knows her way around life and Ben, a young dude who doesn’t even know how to ask a waiter for a drink. The awkwardness between the two make for some truly great scenes.  

What I loved the most about The Graduate is how it satirizes and comments the typical American family of the 60’s. Ben lives in a family that expects him to be a productive member of society, problem is, Ben doesn’t seem to like society very much. But his parents expect him to follow the program, go to college, get the job, fall in love, get married have kids and settle in your perfect suburban home with your pool and your perfect neighbors. Ben doesn’t care for any of these things at this point in his life, many things are wrong in the world for him, so everything else stops making sense to him. All this pressure “to do something with your life” is getting to him, especially when he sees the world around him falling apart. Coming back from college feels like he just came back from war, he simply can’t settle back into “normal” life. When we first meet Ben, he’s out of it; he can’t focus on being polite or having a light conversation. He has too much on his mind. It is hinted that his virginity also makes him uneasy, so he has a lot of that pent up sexual anxiety in him; fortunately, this is a problem that Mrs. Robinson is willing to help him with.

Aside from Ben’s sexual exploits, the main focus of the film is society and how Ben wants to turn his back on it. For example, the whole idea of marriage isn’t taken too seriously in the film; in fact, Ben is willing to get married to the object of his affections from one day to the next; at one point he nonchalantly asks her to marry him. “Are we getting married tomorrow? The day after tomorrow?” It is clearly shown that Ben doesn’t care about the institution of marriage; he just knows he loves Elaine and wants to be with her. Marriage is portrayed as something that we do out of tradition, or simply because it’s what you’re supposed to do, but not something that you really want to do. The whole ending of the film with Ben trying to stop Elaine’s marriage to some douche bag is a big “screw you!” to the institution of marriage. Elaine was just going through the motions; she was getting married to this doctor because it seemed like the safe thing to do, not because she loved the guy. She loved Ben, not the guy she was marrying. The final moments of the film are a revolutionary outcry to the status quo of things. Elaine and Ben seem to be saying “screw this world, we’re doing things our way!” So expect a film that displays young people trying to go against the grain, trying to change things. If you ask me, this is a natural reaction to the way the world was at the time. American was extra crazy during the last half of the 60’s, young people trying to shake things up was a gut reaction to the crazy world that surrounded them. By the way, the whole ending for Wayne’s World 2 (1993), in which Wayne tries to stop Cassandra from marrying Christopher Walken was completely copied, almost shot for shot, from The Graduate! They even filmed it in the same Presbyterian Church!

But then again, many filmmakers have been influenced by The Graduate. Director Wes Anderson, the guy behind The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Moonrise Kingdom (2013) and Rushmore (1998) is very obviously an admirer of The Graduate. For example, same as The Graduate, Rushmore focuses on the life of a student going through an existential crisis while looking for love. The only thing that Anderson did differently with Rushmore is that he turned things around, instead of the mature lady trying to seduce the naïve young man; it’s the other way around, it’s the naïve young man that wants to seduce the foxy lady. A couple of more elements from The Graduate show up in Anderson’s Rushmore, for example, there’s a scene in The Graduate that takes place as Ben and his family are hanging out by the pool. In this scene Ben’s parents are constantly asking things of him, so when Ben can’t take his parents constant yammering, he hides underwater, trying to shut out the rest of the world. In Rushmore there’s a scene that mirrors that one in which Bill Murray’s character does the exact same thing, he shuts out the crazy family by hiding underwater. There’s also the aspect of criticizing the modern American family and what is wrong with it, an element that can clearly be felt in The Graduate and has also been present in most of Anderson’s films. So as you can see, Wes Anderson has always had a hard on for this film.

And yet another aspect of the film that makes it memorable is its soundtrack which is almost entirely composed of songs by Simon and Garfunkel. It might take a little getting used to (especially for those who didn’t grow up listening to Simon and Garfunkel) because Simon and Garfunkel are all over this movie, but after a while you realize that this movie and Simon and Garfunkel are and will forever be linked together, one goes with the other. I think the soundtrack gives the film uniqueness; the duo are an integral part of this film, right down to having a song called “Mrs. Robinson”, just like one of the main characters in the film. So if you ask me, The Graduate is a bonafide classic. It's class A, grade A, filmmaking. It explores family life in a somewhat similar fashion to films like American Beauty (1999) and the more recent Silver Linings Playbook (2012). It holds a mirror to our collective behavior and then asks the question, why are we the way we are?  

Rating:  5 out of 5

Behind the Scenes on the making of The Graduate

Friday, May 24, 2013

Fast and Furious 6 (2013)

Title: Fast & Furious 6 (2013)

Director: Justin Lin

Cast: Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, Sung Kang, Tyrese Gibson, Gal Gadot, Ludacris, Luke Evans, Elsa Pataki


The important thing about a summer blockbuster is that it has to entertain; it has to blow you out of that seat and it has to make you leave that theater with a big fat grin on your face, and quite possibly the desire to see the film again. Fast Six achieves all these things with spectacular aplomb. With each film, the Fast and the Furious franchise has improved in quality; each film bigger than the last. Keeping in line with this tendency, Fast Six is more explosive and more action packed then the previous film and in my book that’s saying a lot because I truly enjoyed Fast Five (2011)! Aside from the fact that the film was shot in my home town and I had an amazing opportunity to see it getting made, Fast Five ended up being one of my favorites of the summer 2011 season, it was simply put a good action film. Now can somebody tell me how in the hell did this franchise which I initially disliked turn into one my favorite guilty pleasures?

Fast Six starts out exactly where the previous one left off, with Toretto and crew enjoying the fruits of their last heist. Torreto is living in Brazil with Elena, his new girlfriend cop. Brian and Mia are learning how to become parents, and basically each of the characters has gone off into their own world, doing what they want with their millions, enjoying the fruits of their labor. Enter Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) the cop who almost caught Toretto and crew in the last film. Hobbs is having a hard time catching an international gang of thieves who are searching for the parts to build an emp device that could shut down a whole country for 24 hours. Hobbs needs the aid of Toretto and his team to stop these guys. Will the gang accept the mission?

When talking about films of this nature, there’s a term used to describe the artifact that triggers the action in the film, I’m talking about ‘The McGuffin’ whatever it is that the good guys and bad guys are after in the film. The McGuffin is a name given to the excuse to get the show on the road. Sometimes, it doesn’t even matter what the McGuffin is, all that matters is how they go about getting it, which in a Fast and the Furious film means vehicular warfare and massive destruction of public property, and trust me, there’s lots of that in this film! The stunts are the best part of these films and this one delivers the goods when it comes to fast cars and destruction in massive amounts. The film has two major action sequences, but they are both extended, which means that they last for more than 20 minutes each. This is something I enjoy about the action sequences in these films, they are intricate and extensive! The same can be said for the chase sequences which take place in both the streets of London and Brazil. If you are a fan of cool cars and watching them fly in the air, you will be pleased.

The whole thing about these films getting bigger and badder with each passing film stays true to the characters as well. These characters started out being a gang of street racing thugs from L.A. on the first film, by the sixth film they’ve turned into indestructible super heroes! They can jump from one moving car to the next! They can shoot their guns while jumping through the air! I mean, these guys can fall down a flight of stairs or crash into the windshield of a car and never even break a bone! Vin Diesel can even take a freaking bullet and go on driving in the next scene just fine. So my advice is to throw all your expectations of reality out the door. This film isn’t interested in being real, it just wants to wow you, entertain you with its exaggerated action sequences, which I have to say are truly fun. We get a bunch of cool cars, a tank and military plane! They really do go all out here in using all manner of cool vehicles.

It was a genius idea adding Dwayne Johnson into these series of films. I’ve always thought that Johnson is the natural successor to Arnold Schwarzenegger, and it seems there’s no stopping him now! The Rock starred in three films this summer season (G.I. Joe Retaliation, Pain and Gain and now this one)and they’ve all been huge money makers. I’m thinking we’ll be seeing a whole lot more of Dwayne Johnson in action films! Now all he needs is a cool sci-fi film or a super hero film, I can’t believe they’ve taken this long to do that. On Fast Six he has a couple of cool moments, but one of them involves him going ‘mano a mano’ with another massive dude, the battle is epic, the people in my theater where chearing! Audiences are really into these films! When the title for the film came up on screen some dude screamed “Whoo-hoo!” And speaking of fist fights, the girls in the film also get a chance to show what they are made in a fight that takes place in a subway station in London. Pretty cool scene, Michelle Rodriguez and Gina Carano give a whole new meaning to cat fight. They really go at each other’s throats!

True, the acting is not good at all in these films, especially when Vin Diesel tries his stab at sentimentalism and gets all mushy on us. It’s just too funny. But whatever, we don’t go to a movie like this one searching for the performance of the year, we go into a movie like this for the fun factor and on this one, the fun factor is quite high. When the action gets going, it gets going. On the downside of things, there’s some faults in the logic of some scenes, for example, there’s a scene that takes place on a landing field, with a plane attempting to take off that was cool as hell, but also unbelievable as hell because the landing field seemed to last forever and ever. The filmmakers obviously had lots of cool stunts to pull off for that big finale, unfortunately they forgot all about the logistics of a landing strip. There’s no way in hell that a landing strip would go on for as long as the one in this film does! That minor quip aside, I had tons of fun here. These films are similar to reading a comic book, with a “to be continued” attached to the ending…and this entry is no different. The ending will leave you wanting more, I aint gonna spoil it for you, but if what I saw in the ending is any indication, part seven should be pretty kick ass as well. I hear they are going back to L.A. for that one! The series will apparently come full circle, looking forward to that.

Rating: 4 out of 5 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Last Dragon (1985)

Title: The Last Dragon (1985)

Director: Michael Schultz

Cast: Taimak, Vanity, Julius J. Carry III, Faith Prince, Leo O’Brien


Back in 1984, John G. Avildsen’s The Karate Kid (1984) was a huge success in theaters; it told the story of Daniel LaRusso, an American kid who has trouble adjusting to his new neighborhood. His school mates make fun of him, bullies have a field day kicking his ass around. Fortunately, Daniel befriends the magical Mr. Miyagi, a Japanese old man who teaches Daniel the ways of Karate and how to confront his own demons. The Karate Kid was such a hit that it spawned three other sequels after it. It also inspired producer Berry Gordy to make an all black version of The Karate Kid, which turned out to be the very eclectic, funny and entertaining flick called The Last Dragon. Both films share similarities, both are about young dudes trying to harness the powers of Karate, both have old oriental guys teaching these youngsters martial arts, but while The Karate Kid is more of a drama, The Last Dragon differs in that it’s not trying to be a serious film at all, The Last Dragon actually embraces it’s ‘cheesetastic’ roots and swims in them effortlessly.  

Here’s a film that mixes Kung Fu Masters, Television Dance Shows, Vanity, Music Videos, Disco Dancing, Pizza Parlor’s, Gangsters, Music Producers, Piranha’s and Break Dancing! Oh and let’s not forget the wonderful world of fortune cookie making! So as you can see, The Last Dragon is very different in tone to The Karate Kid. Yet at the same time, it delivers that “believe in yourself” message that’s so popular in cinema; the idea that once you start believing in yourself you can achieve anything. In contrast with The Karate Kid, The Last Dragon sends its message in a more lighthearted manner, with characters that don’t take themselves too seriously, hell, the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously, everything unfolds in a goofy, fun vibe. Michael Schultz, the films director (a.k.a. the guy who directed Krush Groove (1985)) mentions in the dvd commentary that he wanted the film to be cartoony, which is pretty obvious when we take one look at the films main characters for example, one of the villains is this guy who walks around with football gear, and calls himself “The Shogun of Harlem”! So don’t expect a serious drama, in fact, expect the complete opposite, a cartoonish homage to Shaw Bros. Kung Fu movies. For example, the film opens up with Taimak in a dojo, throwing some Kung Fu moves, which is the traditional way in which many Shaw Bros. film started out, with a Kung Fu master displaying some moves as the credits roll on screen. Also, the whole thing with the glowing hands comes straight out of The Five Fingers of Death (1972). There's also direct homages to Bruce Lee films, so while it's a parody, the film knows exactly where its coming from. 

Taimak, the twenty something actor who starred as Bruce Leroy, had never done a film before this one; he basically learned how to act while making this film. He was obviously chosen because of his martial arts abilities more than his acting abilities, yet, that raw, rookie naiveté that Taimak exudes through his performance is exactly what was needed for the character of Bruce Leroy, a nerdy kung fu freak who is obsessed with all things Bruce Lee, so much so that he dresses in Chinese clothing and eats his pop corn with chop sticks while watching Enter the Dragon (1973) at the local theater. Yet, even though the guy is extremely skilled in martial arts, he’s not very skilled with the ladies. Leroy doesn’t even know how to make a move on ‘Laura’, the television host of a dance show called ‘7th Heaven’.  Laura was played by 80’s pop star ‘Vanity’, whom some of you might remember from her role in the over the top action film ActionJackson (1988), where she starred alongside Carl Weather’s as a junky looking to get rehabilitated. On The Last Dragon she plays the role of a VJ who gets muscled around by a music producer who wants to make her play one of the music videos he produced. If she doesn’t play his video, she dies!

This whole element about a music producer trying to muscle his star into fame is the part of the film that some people felt got in the way of the film. Some feel the movie might have been just fine had it just been about Bruce Leroy looking for his inner glow. The whole musical thing is probably there because this film is produced by Berry Gordy, a Motown producer who sometimes produced films as well. Actually, the official title of the film is Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, so it’s his film. By the way, I think this might be the only time where the producers name is placed on the screen as part of the films title. Gordy also produced The Wiz (1978), the all black cast version of The Wizard of Oz. But most of the time, Berry Gordy would produce these awesome Motown songs that got used in film soundtracks all the time. Speaking of film soundtracks, the one for The Last Dragon is extremely 80’s! I mean, it doesn’t get more 80’s than DeBarge singing “Rhythm of the Night” now does it? Well, if that doesn’t get your nostalgic juices flowing, how about kung fu masters who busts into movie theaters carrying boom boxes and spontaneously break dancing? Ha! The movie also has its own theme song called ‘The Last Dragon’, by the way, this song was nominated for worst song of the year at the Razzies, but damn, I haven’t been able to take it out of my head for the past few days! Vanity sings a tune called '7th Heaven' but by god it's terrible! It was also nominated for worst song of the year at the Razzies.Still, I gotta be honest, for the few minutes that Vanity is on screen performing this song, I couldn't take my eyes off the screen, I watched the whole thing with morbid glee. So expect a movie with a super 80’s vibe and a soundtrack filled with hits from that era, and one or two songs made specifically for the movie.

One of the more entertaining aspects of  The Last Dragon is its main villain, Sho Nuff, The Shogun of Harlem, played by Julius J. Carry III. The guy looks like a clone made out of Busta Rhymes and Samuel L. Jackson’s dna. In fact, Busta Rhymes actually dressed like The Shogun of Harlem in the music video for his  song ‘Dangerous’. At one point in the video Busta actually quotes this film! And even more of a concidence is the fact that Samuel L. Jackson was actually going to play this character in a remake of The Last Dragon that was in the works, but nothing ever came of that remake, I guess it stayed in development hell. Sho Nuff almost steals the film from Taimak, if Taimak’s character didn’t eventually find his glow and become “The Master”, which is a pretty cool scene in my book. The climactic battle was what I loved the most about the film when I watched it as a kid because both the villain and the hero start glowing as they fight, and their punches create these sparks! It made for a cool visual; by today’s standards these visual effects are tame, but for me, the idea, and the visual still retains its charm. Bottom line with The Last Dragon is that, yeah it’s silly, yeah it’s cheesy, but it’s fun cheese, recommend it for that.

Rating: 3 out of 5  

Friday, May 17, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Title: Star Trek Into Darkness

Director: J.J. Abrams

Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Peter Weller, Benedict Cumberbach


I’m not a Trekkie in the pure sense of the word, because I don’t know every single episode from every single series that ever came out and there have been a few series. I did see every episode of Star Trek the Next Generation which for non Trek connoisseurs is the series in which Patrick Stewart played Captain Jean Luc Picard. Now that one I enjoyed all the way through! I’ve also seen every Trek film ever made and have enjoyed them for different reasons. For example, I love the old ones starring William Shatner because of the chemistry between the characters, the interactions between them and the banter they play off each other, this by the way is an element that the new films are delivering as well. The new actors channel their older counter parts rather effectively in my book; which of course makes the whole film that much more enjoyable, cause a huge part of what audiences like in these Star Trek films is seeing Kirk and Spock quibbling about “gut reactions” and whether something is logical or not. I think audiences agree with me on this respect, the audience I watched Star Trek Into Darkness with giggled at the comedic elements in the dialog, especially when they brought in those old phrases like “Dammit Jim! I’m a doctor not a miracle worker!”. There’s lots of nudges here and there that Trekkies will eat up, it’s a film that’s mindful of its core audience while at the same time attempting to appeal to a broader audiences in order to break with old stigmas.

J.J. Abrams bringing Star Trek Into Coolness

This time around, there’s a mysterious terrorist inflicting fear upon the population of earth, by blowing up landmark buildings. The terrorists real purpose is to kill the leaders  of the federation! When the terrorist successfully kills some of them, Kirk and his crew have to head to the Klingon home planet in order to find the one responsible and make him pay. Along the way, relationships will be tested, friendships will clash, and the enterprise will test its limits! Can Kirk and crew bring this megalomaniacal madman to justice?

In this film connoisseur’s eyes the Star Trek films have always been cool, I have always loved them; but I know this is not the way everybody sees them. To the rest of the world Star Trek is synonymous with the freak and geek crowd, you know, those guys that dress like Klingon’s in comic book conventions and have discussions on Star Trek lore speaking in the Klingon language. What J. J. Abrams wants to do with this new series of films is change all that, he wants to make Trek sexy, make it cool. Not an easy task when we consider that Star Trek has never cared to be sexy. They’ve never been about beautiful looking people. In fact, in the first series of films we followed a crew that was populated by fat, old, bald people. Not so with these new films where the crew of The Enterprise is young, beautiful and sexy. Hell, on these new films Kirk’s always getting some action, he is portrayed as a womanizer! There's a scene in which a character needlessly strips to her under wear which many people seem to think went "too far", a comment which I find absolutely stupid, hollywood has never been shy about showing skin, especially when it will get more butts in theater sits. The scene is surely gratituous, I agree, but no big deal. Certainly not something to make a big deal about. Pretty ladies in underwear aside, I think all these changes serve to make the film more entertaining. J.J. Abrams wants you to be amazed by a Star Trek film, he wants people to go see Star Trek Into Darkness more than once! Well, if you ask me he has successfully achieved his goals, I know I’ll be seeing it again. This is the biggest Star Trek film ever, what’s not to celebrate? I mean, this here Star Trek film is a summer blockbuster of gargantuan proportions!  I was wowed. First up, the visual effects are sheer perfection, you should be impressed. I mean you will see gigantic spaceships traveling through the universe, alien planets and civilizations, a futuristic version of earth, these vistas offer us bucket loads of escapism. If you want to escape to another world, here’s the movie for you to do it with. 

I wasn’t aware that in some ways this film was going to be a pseudo-remake of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn (1982) a film that is heralded by legions of Star Trek fans across the world as the best Star Trek film of the first series. That film is a flat out revenge film, and Kahn, as played by Ricardo Montalban is without a doubt the best of all Star Trek villains. Not a single actor has been able to reach Kahn’s memorable villain status. Considering that Wrath of Kahn is one of the best Trek stories ever told, what did J. J. Abrams and his crew do? They basically remade Wrath of Kahn. I wasn’t aware of that going into the theater, but damn, with a few alterations here and there, the second half of this movie is basically a remake. But, to be honest, it’s a damn good one and it doesn’t play out the same exact way that it did in Wrath of Kahn. The film also borrows heavily from episodes of the television show. Still, even when we take these things into consideration, the film manages to offer us many innovative ideas, one after the other. There’s this awesome chase sequence that takes place as two ships are traveling at warp speed that was so awesome! So be ready for a film that has similarities with other stories of Trek lore while at the same time blowing your brain to smithereens with cool new ideas. Even the aliens who have minor scenes look freaking cool!

The infamous (yet delectable) stripping scene

Thematically speaking this film is all about terrorists attacks and what makes them happen. Why does a terrorist decide to attack a country and kill innoncents? What fuels that hatred? Is their anger somehow jusitified? The film addresses the terrorist attacks that took place during 9/11 and it also plays with the notion that these terrorist attacks might have been self inflicted in order to provoke a war. It also speaks about how the government trains individuals to become stone cold killers, and then, when these trained killers have to return home, they are unable to continue functioning properly in society because they are used to carnage and death. Soldiers just can’t go back to buying cereal at the supermarket and mowing the lawn, kind of like what we saw in First Blood (1982). They also talk about weapons of mass destruction, a fear that has recently shown its ugly head again in society and as a result, these fears are now reflected and discussed in films as well; so we get contemporary themes on this film. Above all, what I enjoyed the most about Into Darkness was how fun it was, it’s never boring, not for a second. So far, this is the most exciting movie of the Summer 2013 season, it’s even more exciting than Iron Man 3 (2013), which kind of lacked in action a bit. If it’s not the entertaining banter between the crew (how charismatic and funny are these guys?) then it’s the amazing action pieces. Bottom line is this is one big, fun ride! Now, we all know that J.J. Abrams is the director behind the next Star Wars film (Episode VII) and all I could think of was what J.J. Abrams will do with the Star Wars universe; I say strap your selves tight, if Star Trek Into Darkness is any indication of what J. J. Abrahams can do with a science fiction property, then were in for an exciting ride through hyper space!

Rating: 5 out of 5   


Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Pain & Gain (2013)

Title: Pain and Gain (2013)

Director: Michael Bay

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shalhoub, Ed Harris, Rob Corddry, Ken Jeong, Peter Stormare


After Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2013) came out, action director extraordinaire Michael Bay said he’d leave the Transformers franchise alone because he wanted to try and make a “smaller budget film” (which in Bay’s world means 25 million dollars) called Pain and Gain; the story of three crazy bodybuilders from Florida who decide to kidnap a millionaire, torture him, make him sign over his fortune to them, then they’d kill him and take over his life. Unfortunately that’s all easier said than done because this millionaire is one tough cookie who just won’t die! Interesting part about this story is that it happened for real! How true to life did the film turn out to be? And is it any good? 

Pain and Gain is a film that garnered some controversy because people (including victims involved in the crime) didn’t like the idea that these criminals were going to be glorified somehow, they didn’t like the idea that audiences were possibly going to sympathize with the criminals; unfortunately, those comments are completely without merit because we don’t side with the criminals in the film. These guys are despicable and we’re not meant to like them. True, they are funny dudes, because Wahlberg, Johnson and Mackie play them that way, and this is after all a black comedy, but even though they make us laugh with the craziness of the situations, we’re not meant to empathize with them, so you can throw those concerns out the window. These characters are not the heroes of the film, they are the villains. Pain and Gain is for all intents and purposes a morality tale. Like a Tales from the Crypt episode, the bad guys always pay in the end; in the end the film shows the age old idea that crime does not pay and that there is no short cut to the American Dream.

Even though this is a departure of sorts for Michael Bay who normally works with movies that cost over 200 million dollars, Pain and Gain is still very much a Michael Bay film. Keeping true to his style, there’s lots of color, there’s lots of cool cars, sunsets, scantily clad hotties, I mean, everything you’ve come to expect from Michael Bay. One thing is missing though: explosions, this is the one Michael Bay where there isn’t an explosion every five minutes, so Mr. Bay, I salute you for stretching your directorial muscles even for a bit. But same as every other Michael Bay movie, characters talk at lightning fast pace, I was going to say “as if they were coked up most of the time” but they are coked up…all the time! The chemistry between Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Mackie is awesome; they truly are what keeps us watching the film. Here’s a Michael Bay film that doesn’t keep us interested via visual effects or action, what keeps us watching is the insane situations and the funny dialog, these three muscle bound criminals are so stupid! At one moment while they are planning a murder Wahlberg’s character says “I’ve watched a lot of movies, I know what I’m doing!”

Credit has to be given to Tony Shalhoub, a guy who normally plays quiet, introspective characters, yet on this show he plays against type, the rich, loud butt hole whom everybody hates. I thought it was interesting how he plays “the victim” but at the same time he is a completely despicable guy. Funny thing about Shalhoub’s character is that he was a low life in real life as well! After he helped catch the “the Sun Gym Gang” he himself was also prosecuted for committing fraud and embezzling money, though this part of the story isn’t touched upon in the film. Speaking of changes from life to screen, Of course, there were some changes, primarily with the character played by Dwayne Johnson. In real life, Johnson’s character was a wimpy looking dude, not a body builder at all. But these types of changes are to be expected, directors love to jump at the chance to make their film more dramatic, or more action oriented, bigger, louder, especially in a Michael Bay film. This is why Bay, seeing the opportunity with the always ultra charismatic Dwayne Johnson, turned his character into a 300 pound crank freak. But so what, in the end, this film is a hyperbole, an exaggeration and a very entertaining one. So mission accomplished in my book; I was laughing all the way. And just when you think the story can’t get crazy enough, Dwayne Johnson starts a bbq with human parts, the film freeze frames and a text comes up on screen saying “this story is still based on real life events”. And then it slaps you in the face, crazy people like the ones depicted in Pain and Gain could be your personal trainers at the gym, or your barbers, so think it over before telling anybody your personal affairs, they could be plotting to overtake your empire. 
Rating: 4 out of 5

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold (1986)

Title: Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold (1986)

Director: Gary Nelson

Cast: Richard Chamberlain, Sharon Stone, James Earl Jones


 Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold is a sequel to King Solomon’s Mines (1985) which in turn was a cheesy, low budget Indiana Jones wannabe, mind you an enjoyable one. Yeah, these movies were cashing in on the popularity of the Indiana Jones movies in the same way that all those cheesy Italian Indiana Jones rip offs did during the 80’s, films like The Mines of Kilimanjaro (1986) or The Ark of the Sun God (1984). Cool thing about these Quatermain movies is that no matter how silly or stupid they maybe, I find them incredibly entertaining. Why? Well, probably because nobody takes themselves too seriously here, it’s all in good fun. The point of these movies is to be stupid and silly. Both of these Allan Quatermain movies were shot back to back and released various years apart. The first film, King Solomon’s Mines, received better reviews then its sequel, which many consider to be a lesser film. But if you ask this Film Connoisseur, I really can’t tell the two apart in terms of mood or quality, to me they are both goofy adventure movies, both of them are super fun in my book.  

On this one, Allan Quatermain must travel to Africa in search of a lost civilization, a “lost white tribe” that lives in a hidden city of gold. Apparently, his brother, who’s also an adventurer (adventure runs in the family it seems) went searching for the mythical “lost city of gold”, problem is he never came back. So of course, Quatermain must go in search of his sibling. On his journey he’s accompanied by his trusty sidekick/lover Jesse (Sharon Stone), an African adventurer, professional axe wielder and warrior called ‘Umslopogaas’ (James Earl Jones) and an Indian “wise man” who is more like a wise ass/comedic relief type of character; together they go in search of fortune and glory and Quatermain’s long lost brother. Of course perils await them along the way, including a tribe of blood thirsty cannibals! Will they ever make it to the City of Gold alive and find Quatermain’s brother?

The thing about this movie is that while most of the time it manages to be fast paced, adventurous and entertaining (with some silly dialog to boot!) what makes watching this movie a funny affair is that sometimes its low ‘budgetness’ is so blaringly obvious! For example, there are a couple of moments in which Allan Quatermain has to jump great distances, or hang on for dear life at the border of a cliff or something and right there above him you can see these huge fat cables holding the actor! I wouldn’t mind so much if it happened maybe once, but god, you can see those freaking cables so many times on this movie! They didn’t even bother hiding those suckers with lighting or trick photography or nothing, they just left them there! No time or money to hide them in post-production! It’s just hilarious when you can spot them, so knock yourselves out trying to spot them! Funny thing is that this movie comes to us from director Gary Nelson, the director who also made Disney's The Black Hole (1979), a film that also suffered from visible cables! 

Hey mister, Gene Simmons wants his hair back!

Another thing is that some truly nonsensical things will happen from time to time. For example, there’s this moment in which the characters are making their way through a cave, and these snake like monsters pop out from the ground and the walls! I say this is nonsensical because this is not a fantasy film or anything, this is an adventure film, not a monster film, so suddenly seeing these crazy snake monsters (that resemble NOTHING from the real world) popping out of these walls, you tend to question what the hell they are and why the main characters don’t even question their existence? They just chop them up and kill them and move on to the next action sequence. He he…those little creatures felt so out of place on this movie! It’s as if the filmmakers just looked for the silliest excuse to make the film more interesting, so yeah, let’s throw some snake creatures in there! Too funny! Another set piece hasthe ground open up for no reason whatsoever, as if some sort of earthquake suddenly occurs or something, but you can tell it’s just this big ass set, and the floor opens up like some giant ass elevator door! It doesn’t look like an earthquake; it looks like revolving doors opening up to some secret underground lair or something! Not realistic in the least!

Things get more hilarious when Quatermain and crew arrive at the titular “Lost City of Gold”. This is where things get just a little nuttier. The leader of the tribe is this crazy religious nut who looks like Gene Simmons from KISS, you gotta see this guy, he likes to dip people in gold for some reason. The religion he’s created for the people of the lost city require human sacrifices, but the people don’t want them anymore, so suddenly the film turns into a film about boycotting this crazy religious leader. Even crazier, the queen of this city is played by Cassandra Peterson! That’s right my friends, Elvira is their queen! By the way, she looks great in her queen regalia. To top things off, the City of Gold looks like a really cheap ass set, with stair cases meant to look imposing, but ultimately end up looking unimpressive. Want more nonsensical events? How about Quatermain charging up a sword with lightning like He-Man and then using the lightning infused sword to melt a golden statue? So he can bathe the bad guy in Gold? Crazy I tell ya! Bottom line with this movie for me is that it’s so bad it’s good. It’s so bad, it’s hilarious! This is the movie that Sharon Stone doesn’t want you to see, well, this and Catwoman (2004), but who cares what Sharon Stone thinks of this awesome slice of 80’s b-movie madness? I say give it a spin if you want to laugh yourself silly and have a fun night of cheese.

Rating:  2 1/2 out of 5  

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Brainstorm (1983)

Title: Brainstorm (1983)

Director: Douglas Trumbull

Cast: Christopher Walken, Natalie Wood, Louise Fletcher, Cliff Robertson, Jason Lively


Troubled productions, they always have an interesting story behind them. Reading about these fiascos lets us see the nature of Hollywood filmmaking, and how frustrating and money oriented it can all be. I’ve read various books on filmmaking, and trust me; all of them have a very acid outlook on Hollywood. Take for example David Mamet’s book on his experiences in Hollywood filmmaking called Bambi vs. Godzilla. The title alone let’s you see the kind of battle you can expect while making a Hollywood production. You are Bambi and the Hollywood system is Godzilla. I’ve never read a book with a more acid hatred for Hollywood then that one. And it was written by a writer experienced in both writing and directing various big budget Hollywood films! These books will always tell you how frustrating making a full length multi-million dollar feature film can be, if you want to get into that game, you gotta really want to be in that game because it can swallow you whole and then spit you’re puny little Bambi carcass out. Yes my friends, Hollywood can be one cruel mother for those working behind the scenes. Case in point: Douglas Trumbull and Brainstorm, a film with an original concept that half way through completion was shut down by the studio. Why did the studio want to shut down Trumbull’s film?  

In Brainstorm we meet a group of scientists that are experimenting with a new kind of machine, a helmet that can record whatever your experience. The innovative part of the whole thing is that someone else can later watch the recording and relive the experience, all sensory input included. This means that you can smell, see, hear and feel anything the original person recorded! Commercial and military applications immediately abound for an invention like this one. But like any new invention, there’s always a dark side, for example, what happens when someone decides to record their death? And what happens when someone wants to play that recording? Would you want to experience what it feels like to have a heart attack, or to die? Well, these are some of the questions that arise when one of the scientists decides to record her death. The inevitable question pops up: can this new invention record what happens after death?

When Brainstorm was made it was an extremely original concept, there had been nothing like it before. Correct me if I’m wrong my dear readers, but I can’t remember anything like Brainstorm before it was made. After Brainstorm is another story, after it various films have copied it’s premise, which reveals Brainstorms influential nature. For example we have Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995) the first one that pops to mind. I’ve always seen Strange Days as a remake of Brainstorm because it plays with some of the same ideas and situations, but takes things a bit further and is a more complete film in my opinion, I highly recommend that one. There have been other films about machines that explore the human mind, for example, Dreamscape (1984), The Cell (2000), Videodrome (1983) and The Lawnmower Man (1992), but Brainstorm is unique because it presents us with the idea of a head piece that can record your experience. But what if someone decides to record a murder, or a torture? What if someone forces you to watch these recordings? Brainstorm explores these possibilities, especially the possibility of having to experience someone’s death. Strange Days explores that idea, but is a bit more intense, it goes more into the dark side of the techonology. In fact, Strange Days can be seen as a sequel because it shows us a world in which this technology has become common; there’s even a black market for recordings with highly sexual and violent content!

In Brainstorm the technology hasn’t gone to the mass market yet, it’s still on its experimental phase. Scientists are still trying to figure the invention out, work out the bugs; they still don’t know what they got in their hands. But Brainstorm does go into this tangent that I liked. In the film, Christopher Walken’s character is going through a divorce, but in order to save his marriage, he makes a recording of these beautiful memories he conjures up in his mind of him and his wife falling in love for the first time, which helps them fall in love all over again. Reminded of what they once had, they reunite, really tender moments there, loved that about it. Walken and Natlie Wood (the actress who played Walken’s wife in the film) really achieved an onscreen chemistry that worked; their moments are some of the sweetest in the whole film. So the film is not only about technology and its possible applications, but also about saving a marriage and rekindling a love that was once alive.  

There is this moment in Brainstorm where the scientists perform a show for the investors to try and “knock their socks off”, so they can really get a taste of what the technology can do. Those scenes felt like I was visiting the website for Google Glass. Yes my friends, it looks like technology is once again catching up with our imaginations! You don’t know what Google Glass is? Well, look it up, it’s this new thing that they are cooking up, basically, it’s these glasses you wear that can record anything you are seeing in an extremely similar fashion to the technology presented in Brainstorm. The only difference between Google Glass and the technology presented in Brainstorm is that while in Brainstorm you can relive all of the sensory input including smell, touch and feel, with Google Glass we can only relive the visual and auditory aspects of someone else’s experience. But I’m wondering if it’s only a manner of time before that happens! So anyhow, Brainstorm was kind of prophetic in that way. Anyways, the Google Glass thing (same as the technology in the film) is still on its prototype phase, only a few people in the world where chosen to use it to test them out and see how they perform in the real world. If it all works out, Im sure we’ll be seeing a lot more of these glasses soon. Something similar to Google Glass also showed up in Iron Man 3 (2013), there's a couple of scenes in which Iron Man actually controls his suits with the help of these ultra technological glasses.

But going back to why Brainstorm was such a fiasco, well what happened was that Natalie Wood (one of the main actresses in the film) died during filming, MGM seeing an opportunity to make some money shut down the film and filed an insurance claim, hoping to get some of that insurance money. At the time, the guys running MGM though it would be more of a benefit to them to claim their insurance money then finish a film that was already midway through completion! MGM claimed that because of the death of one of its main stars, it was impossible to finish the film; which was a flat out lie, because most of the film had already been shot, MGM just wanted to get their insurance money. So whatever, their claim was denied and Douglas Trumbull managed to finish his movie by using a body double and rewriting parts of the script. But the film was destined to be a failure, MGM didn’t promote it enough and only released it in a minimum amount of screens, so we can chalk up this films failure to a vengeful movie studio. But the film still lives on, it’s been released on various formats and has currently been released on Blue Ray and DVD, as it deserves to. This film was directed by Douglas Trumbull, the effects genius who was responsible for some of the brilliant photographic effects work in films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Blade Runner (1982). Sadly, his sour experience with making Brainstorm made Trumbull give his back to Hollywood, he vowed never to make a huge Hollywood film ever again. And he’s kept his promise. In the end, Brainstorm is a movie that explores some interesting themes and philosophical ideas, my only gripe with it is that the ending felt a little inconclusive, probably due to Natalie Woods death, but as it is, you want to know what was going to happen to these characters after the shit storm they created, the films abrupt end leaves us wanting more. I guess the best thing you can do is watch Brainstorm and Strange Days back to back, you’ll feel like you’re watching more or less two films that take place in similar worlds

Rating:  4 out of 5 


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