Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Ninja III: The Domination (1984)

Ninja III: The Domination (1984)

Director: Schmulik “Sam” Fistenberg

Cast: Sho Kosugi, Lucinda Dickey, Jordan Bennett, David Chung, James Hong

First things first, let’s start by saying that Ninja III: The Domination (1984) was directed by Schmulik “Sam” Fistenberg, the same guy who directed Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo (1984). I guess that should be enough to let you know the kind of nutty film you can expect with Ninja III: The Domination (1984). Ninja III…okay, let’s start by that, Cannon Films never produced a film called Ninja, or Ninja II, so why the hell is there a Ninja III: The Domination (1984)? My best guess is that this is a spiritual follow up to Enter the Ninja (1981) and Revenge of the Ninja (1983). Ninja III: The Domination (1984) can’t even be called a sequel, because none of these films are connected to one another, they don’t have a story line that unites them save for the fact that they are all about Ninjas and that they all starred Sho Kosugi in one form or another, albeit in different roles in each film. I remember when all these movies were being released; Ninjas were so cool back then. They certainly captured my imagination as a kid, I was always drawing them. And it’s only now that I realize just how much these movies influenced me as a kid! Back then it was all about American Ninja (1985) and Gymkata (1985). I was obsessed with ninja weapons and the whole mystical side of the whole ninja thing. Basically, back when I was around ten, I was ninja crazy. Back then these movies didn’t feel funny, because I was just a kid, but now that I’m all grown, these movies are slap to the knee hilarious!

The premise for Ninja III: The Domination is that this ninja is out on the prowl killing golf players. Why, for what reason? Who the hell knows, the movie just starts out like that, with this ninja invading a golf field filled with rich old dudes playing golf. My guess is we’re supposed to presume that these are evil rich old dudes, because why else would a ninja have to come out of the blue to massacre them right? So anyways, the deal is someone ends up calling the cops and every cop and their mother shows up to kill this one ninja. In spite of having shot him with every conceivable gun, from every conceivable angle (without a drop of blood showing I might add) the ninja manages to escape them. Enter a woman named Christie; she works fixing telephone lines all by herself in the middle of nowhere. Suddenly, she stumbles upon the moribund ninja, who works some kind of ninja magic on Christie which allows him to posses her. Now, having possessed this new female body, the ninja can avenge his death from beyond the grave. It’s cop killing time!

This movie is crazy from the get go, frame one, scene one. The nuttiness starts when you see the Cannon Films logo light up the screen. If you don’t know anything about Cannon Films, allow me to fill you in. Cannon Films was a film production company responsible for some of the craziest films from the 80’s and by crazy I mean totally bat shit insane type of films. If you’re feeling frisky and want to explore the type of crazy movies these guys used to produce, then go and watch Breakin’ (1984) or Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo (1985) and if those movies aren’t crazy enough for you then watch Invasion U.S.A. (1985). If you find these films fascinating and alluring because of their insanity, then do yourself a favor and watch the excellent documentary on the crazy history behind this film studio called Electric Boogaloo: The Wild and Untold Story of Cannon Films (2014). In a nutshell, these two guys from Israel, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus came to the U.S. to make movies and money. The films the produced were made with meager budgets and tight shooting schedules. Most of these films were shot in a couple of weeks. Hell, sometimes the poster was made before the film itself! Sometimes the distribution rights were sold before the movies were even made! Ah, those were the glory days of video clubs! Back then, independent film studios like these made movies because they knew they’d make their money back on video. The results of this modus operandi were cheap and quick movies, where the filmmakers really didn’t have the time to iron out the details of a script; they didn’t really have any time to make sense of the story. Basically, they shot the film before realizing it didn’t make an iota of sense. This is the reason why these movies are so crazy. I have to say I love these movies exactly the way they are. They are just fun to watch, they put a smile on my face every time.

How crazy is this movie? Let me count the ways. First off, the story takes place somewhere in Arizona (that’s where they shot it) yet for some unexplained reason there’s an ancient Chinese temple in the middle of the dessert with Shaolin Monks and everything! What? Then for some unexplained reason, the evil ninja goes into a cave to find a stash of magical ninja weapons hidden inside of a glowing rock. What the hell was that all about? I don’t know, but there they were, swords, katanas and ninja stars inside of a rock that glowed with purple light! Then we have Christie, the girl who gets possessed by the ninja. She’s sort of a cheap knock off of Jennifer Beals in Flashdance (1983). Why do I say this? Well,  she not only fixes telephone lines, she’s also an aerobics instructor! This element of course amps up the 80’s vibe to eleven! Suddenly we’re thrown right in the middle of an aerobics class filled with people dressed in head bands and leg warmers, all to the tune of the cheesiest rock soundtrack this side of David Powell! How eighties is this movie? Well, Christie has her own arcade machine in her apartment that’s how eighties! By the way at one point the arcade machine becomes possessed by the spirit of the ninja and starts shooting laser beams that hypnotize Christie! Like I said, bat shit insane.

"I also work part time as a Ninja!"

Not convinced yet? Well, this movie is the equivalent of mixing The Exorcist (1973) with ninjas and Chinese mysticism. There’s this one majestic sequence in which Christie goes to a Chinese exorcist, who by the way is played by James Hong. Yup, that James Hong! He who played ‘Lo Pan’ in Big Trouble in Little China (1986)! So anyways, after they tie Christie up, suddenly the ninja inside of her awakens and makes her go all Linda Blair on us; you got to see it to believe it people! Essentially, this movie is the classic “so bad it’s good” film. Scratch that, it’s the quintessential so bad it’s good film. What I’m talking about here folks is a film that is so bad you won’t believe your eyes. Ever seen a movie like that? I’ve seen tons of them, but for your own benefit my dear readers, if you ever want to have a fantastic night watching bad movies like this one, then I also recommend you check out Blood Diner (1987), Troll 2 (1990) and Creatures from the Abyss (1994). My god, those films will melt your face right off! Ninja III: The Domination (1984) is on a whole other level, sure it’s bad, but honestly, you won’t be able to stop watching. It’s addictive. Cannon Films, I salute you guys, you never cease to amaze me.

Rating: 3 out of 5


Monday, December 21, 2015

Krampus (2015)

Krampus (2015)

Director: Michael Dougherty

Cast: Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, Emjay Anthony

To make a Christmas Horror film is a tricky thing, especially if you’re criticizing Christmas as a holiday, which is what most Christmas Horror films do. They either expose the lies behind the whole Santa Claus thing, or just talk about how the holidays can drive you nuts. History has shown that these types of films do not make it big at the box office because they attack the cash cow of consumerism: Santa Claus. Films like for example Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) died quick deaths at the box office because angry parents were furious at the idea of a killer Santa Claus, because you know, Jolly Saint Nick is supposed to represent goodness and happiness and we can’t have anything tinge that image that Santa Claus. But these movies keep getting made in spite of their sketchy track record at the box office. Take for example the super fun, ultra gory Santa’s Slay (2005). It also died a quick death at the box office and went immediately to dvd, but man, what a fun movie it is. It’s just that in it, Santa is a demon who kills a bunch of people with Christmas ornaments.  These movies aren’t “bad movies” perse, well some of the are, but most of them are actually good horror films; the reason they fail to make money is because they are shunned, put aside like an unwanted child. But whatever, usually I like these movies because they analyze the true nature of Christmas and its consumerist roots. I mean, come on, you all know Santa Claus as we know it was in large part created by the folks at Coca Cola right?  

Krampus is all about the Engel family; they are having a Christmas get together type of deal. You know, the kind where you have family members come over and visit you and everybody is jolly and merry together, drinking egg nog and reading Christmas stories. The only problem with the Engel family is that everybody hates each other. This family exudes so much hatred, that Max, the little kid in the family ends telling everyone that he hates Christmas and that he hates all of them. At this moment a demon known as Krampus shows up and starts killing family members because they didn’t celebrate Christmas properly, because the family hated each other instead of loving each other. The family must try and survive the night while creepy demonic creatures stalk them. Can the Krampus curse be broken? Is there a chance to survive this nightmarish night?

The director of this film, Michael Dougherty, is similar in many ways to Tim Burton in the sense that they are both obsessed with the holidays. Dougherty’s first student film was an animated short film entitled Season’s Greetings (1996), which was the basis for his first full length feature film Trick R’ Treat (2007), an anthology film where four different stories take place during Halloween night. Both Seasons Greetings (1996) and Trick R’ Treat (2007) are very atmospheric, creepy Halloween films that truly embrace the holiday, which is the same thing Dougherty does with Krampus (2015). On this film, Dougherty captures what Christmas is like for all of us. Dougherty paints a very contemporary take on the holiday by brilliantly starting out the film during Black Friday, with people punching each other over a television set. To the best of my understanding, no film has depicted Black Friday yet, so I thought it was genius that Dougherty captured the craziness of that day in which greed flourishes and I feel ashamed of humanity. On that day, people become monsters, consumerist zombies responding to the programming they’ve received through television. So yeah, I was glad that the film starts out this way, showing the ugliest side of Christmas, holding a mirror up to society.

Krampus also focuses on the spooky side of Christmas, which explains why during the first few frames of the film we see a television set showing Alastair Sim in Scrooge (1951), a Christmas ghost story. In this way, the filmmaker’s foreshadow the events ahead, they let us know from early on that Christmas mythology has its spooky side. What Dougherty did with Krampus is sort of the same thing he did in Trick R’ Treat (2007). If you remember correctly, in Trick R’ Treat there’s this story about an old Scrooge like character that hates Halloween and everything about it, so in comes this little monster that’s going to make him pay for not celebrating Halloween properly. Dougherty simply applied that formula to Christmas, which why Krampus is a demon that comes to kill you if you don’t celebrate Christmas properly. So in a way, Krampus is a film that while criticizing Christmas, it also promotes the celebration of Christmas. It’s  a film that says celebrate, be merry and love each other, or else!

I liked the premise of a family locked inside their house because of a raging blizzard because it amps up the creepy vibe. Suddenly the snowmen look evil, the trees are dead, the wind is howling…Dougherty expertly turns Christmas images into horrifying images. I loved the concept of Krampus, this giant demon with hooves, who looks like a zombified Santa Clause that has these evil ginger bread men, demonic teddy bears and clowns to help him carry out the curse. He also has an evil jack in the box to help him. At one point it was beginning to feel like Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys (2004), but with a budget? Actually, it reminded me most of Gremlins (1984) in the sense that it was mixing horror, comedy and Christmas all in the same film. Yet even Gremlins (1984) was more graphic in nature than this one. I only had two problems with Krampus, number one is that at some point it felt a little repetitive, with the demonic toys jumping on people and looking all scary but not really doing anything save for looking and sounding scary, and the other problem is that it felt very light for a horror film. I mean you got demonic Christmas toys attacking a family, why don’t you go all the way instead of shying away from the blood? The film tries to be scary, but not too scary so the kids won’t run out of the theater in terror. I can’t blame the filmmakers for catering to their target audience; these guys knew exactly the type of horror film they were making. For gorier Christmas horror go and watch Black Christmas (2006) or Christmas Evil (1980). Or if you want to watch a similar film to Krampus that is far scarier, I recommend you watch Rare Exports (2010), because at its core, Krampus is more about spooky atmospherics than blood splatter, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Rating: 3 out of 5    


Friday, December 18, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Director: J. J. Abrams

Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Max Von Sydow, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew

For the past few weeks anticipation was at an all time high, but the day finally came for the premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the seventh chapter in the Star Wars saga. The back story behind this movie is that it is the first film in the Star Wars Saga to be produced by Disney every since they bought Star Wars from George Lucas for a mere 4 Billion dollars. So while this film exists within the universe that Lucas created, George Lucas had nothing to do with this film. Now some fans might say that this is a good thing and I’d have to agree with them because, let’s be honest here, everybody hates the prequels. They were George Lucas’s chance to give fans the Star Wars movies they’d been waiting for since Return of the Jedi (1983). What we got instead were a trio of overtly serious films that were missing that element of fun that the old trilogy had. Lucas forgot about the cliffhangers, the pure movie magic, the entertainment. In comes J. J. Abrams, the director to whom Disney gave the chance to “save” the Star Wars franchise. I think he was the perfect choice actually, after all, it looks like J.J. Abrams is shaping up to become this generations Steven Spielberg. He’s the new big budget, pure entertainment and spectacle guy. Did he manage to make a pleasing Star Wars film? Did he save the Star Wars franchise? I will be reviewing The Force Awakens in the next few paragraphs, and I’m keeping it spoiler free so I won’t deny you of the amazing surprises and shocking moments that this movie holds in store for you, so read unafraid my dear friends!

The premise for this movie is that Luke Skywalker has gone missing and everyone and their mother is desperately looking for him. The Rebels want to bring Luke home, and the bad guys, a fascist military order known as ‘The First Order’ are also after him. They fear he might bring back the Jedi’s to the galaxy. Now the only one with the map to Luke’s location is a little android known as BB-8; who has Rey and Finn, the two protagonists of this story to protect him as he makes his way to the Rebel Base. Will they make it? Will they ever find the ever elusive Luke Skywalker? See how I kept that short and sweet as to not spoil anything? ;)

Man, watching this movie in theaters, with a crowd of fans was such an experience. As it happens with the premiere of any Star Wars film (good or bad) audiences are always excited to see a new one. After the opening scroll which explains the premise of the film, it’s all dead quiet as everyone devours every second of what transpires on screen, hoping with every bit of their beings that it doesn’t suck. What all Star Wars fan wants from a Star Wars film is that old magic, that feeling of adventure we got from the first film. It’s incredible how not even Lucas himself could recapture what he achieved with that first film. The thing about those first films is that they were not about ‘the senate’ or the ‘trade federation’ or ‘negotiations’, they were quite simply about good guys fighting the good fight against the bad guys. And somewhere along the line, Lucas forgot about that and decided to do the prequels, which were primarily about politics. They got too technical, everyone was too serious. And as we all know, politics are boring. There was no Han Solo saying funny jokes, there was no Princess Leia with her snappy come backs. Thankfully, this new film brought that fun element back! That’s right my friends, we’re back to good vs. evil, and sure, at the crux of it all is a political themed film, but we see that angle from a broader spectrum, we don’t go into political conversations that nobody cares about.  

One of the main reasons why Episodes IV through VI work so well is because they had likable characters. I mean, who didn’t love to see Han Solo and Princess Leia bickering, Luke and Han fighting over Leia’s affections. R2 and C3PO squabbling over everything. I mean, sure, the future of the galaxy was in the balance, but there was always time for that silliness like Leia calling Han a "scruffy looking Nerf Herder" and the such. On The Force Awakens we have a little bit of that back again. Characters are back to saying comedic lines in the most serious moments. I mean, you can tell Han is back, and yet again, everything he says will get a giggle out of you. I have to say, true fans of Episodes IV through V will get such a thrill out of seeing Han Solo and Chewbacca back in action, flying the Millenium Falcon. When Han says “Chewie, we’re home” I thought “and so are we” because that’s exactly how I felt, like this was the Star Wars I wanted and loved, it’s finally back. I, as a Star Wars fan, was home. Trust me, I didn’t feel that with Episodes I through III. A warning though, they gave C3PO and R2D2 a rest for this film, we only see them in brief yet essential roles.

And what about the new guys? John Boyega as Finn, Daisy Ridley as Rey and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren? Well, I’m happy to inform that they did a fantastic job. The thing with presenting us with new Star Wars characters is that they have to be good actors, they have to be likable, their performances have to be convincing. Casting the wrong person in these important roles could mean the death of a movie, sure they’ll make money (as the prequels did) but the films will be hated for all eternity because they have that bad actor in that key role, Episodes I through III, I’m looking at you guys! Daisy Ridley is instantly likable, I loved her character! She was written in an interesting way. She’s got a charisma, those eyes, she’s smart and self reliant. I’m just glad that Hollywood is finally giving women great leading roles. For the longest time, women had been relegated to being ‘damsels in distress’, females who couldn’t fend for themselves, who had to rely on the big macho man to save them. Not so here. There’s this moment in which the bad guys are chasing Rey and Finn and Finn grabs Rey by the hand and she says “I can run perfectly fine without you holding my hand!” That’s when I knew that this movie was making a special effort to portray a strong, independent woman who can take care of herself, which is awesome to me because for the longest time Hollywood did the contrary. So this movie gets two things right, it puts the women and the black guy in the forefront by giving them the starring roles. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is obviously making a statement with this, and a good one at that.

And what’s a movie without a good villain right? On this one we get Kylo Ren, a truly hateful villain. Trust me when I say that by the end of the movie, you will end up hating him with every bit of your soul. He comes off as an angry, volatile, less experienced Darth Vader; he is shaping up to become a memorable villain in the Star Wars universe. And what about Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron? Well, what can I say, they’re calling him the new Han Solo, I kind of agree! Now a word about the structure of the film, which is extremely similar to Star Wars: A New Hope (1977). It’s true what you’ve heard that A New Hope is the blueprint for The Force Awakens; of course it was done on purpose to give us a feeling of familiarity. There are some moments that mirror A New Hope, but there’s no denying that the film also gives us some amazing new elements that I was not expecting at all. So there’s a little bit of the old, but also, a little bit of the new. It’s emotional, and will make an impact on you, trust there’s some shocking moments in store! In terms of effects, well, the film is top notch. You do not feel as if characters are walking in front of a green screen, nope, these sets are there. They are tangible, they feel real. There’s a perfect balance between practical set design and computer work, which is the way it should be. This is also something that George Miller executed perfectly well in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). So I applaud these directors that are showing a true balance in the force, they aren’t forgetting that films are made in front of a camera! So thank you for that J.J. Abrams, my hats down to you sir! So yeah, I was pleased as hell with Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), and that ending? Whoa! Left me salivating for more! Let’s see where we go to next, looking forward to Episode VIII come May 26th 2017!  

Rating: 5 out of 5

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Star Wars, What Does It All Mean?

Star Wars fever is sweeping the nation, and of course the excitement is understandable; Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) is the first sequel since Return of the Jedi (1983), that’s 30 plus years! Sure, we got Episodes I through III, but they weren’t sequels, they were prequels, telling the story of how Anakin became Darth Vader. With The Force Awakens we’re getting a true follow up to the story, we’re moving forwards not backwards. We’re seeing what happened to the Rebel Alliance after they destroyed the Death Star along with the dictator known as Emperor Palpatine. I must admit I am extremely curious as to where it’s all going. Thinking about this new film and the excitement surrounding it (trust me, now EVERYTHING is Star Wars) I inevitably go back to the first time I saw Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983), because yes, I was one of those kids who grew up with these movies. I played with that first batch of Kenner Star Wars toys. I remember waiting years and years and years for a new Star Wars movie, which Lucas just didn’t want to give us. I remember seeing Jedi beneath the stars at a drive in, with Jaws 3-D (1983) playing on the screen next to it. So after all the nostalgia and years of Star Wars mythology that have passed, we have to ask ourselves, why do we love these movies so? What is so endearing about these characters? How do these movies speak to us, what do they say about society?

If we get down to the nucleus of things, Star Wars is all about the people vs. the evil government and evil governments are a worldwide phenomenon, which explains why people from all over the world embrace these films, yes my friends, Star Wars is subversive. In these films the good guys want to kill the emperor and blow up his floating castle! Stop the dictator who masquerades himself as a leader to the people. It’s no surprise that the emperor’s servants look like Nazi soldiers, they represent oppression. The choke hold that Vader performs is symbolic of the kind of choke that evil governments can have on society. So of course people are going to embrace these movies, they are about what we all want, a good guy leading things, which sadly rarely happens. I screened Star Wars (1977) the other day for an audience and they actually cheered when the death star blew up. I mean, the Death Star blowing up, Palpatine falling down to his death in Return of the Jedi (1983), these moments all symbolize one thing, the triumph of good over the forces of evil. On these movies, the good guys win and it feels so good.  But what happens after you debunk the evil government? What government comes in its place? Who will rule now? These questions are never answered which is why I’m so curious as to where The Force Awakens (2015) is going. I want to know what happens after they blow up the second Death Star, perhaps the build a third one? Obviously The Empire isn’t entirely gone, so more than likely The Force Awakens (2015) will be all about how evil simply changes its name and the farce that leads to oppression begins anew.

These films are also a coming of age story. When we first meet Luke he is just a teenager looking to follow his dreams. He is anxious to go see the world, anxious to live his life. Luke has that anxiety one has at a very young age, when you know you’re whole life lays ahead of you and it’s just getting started. He doesn’t know what it is, but he knows something’s going to happen! And same as all of us, Luke has to choose between the light and the dark, which is why I love The Empire Strikes Back (1980) so much. That whole sequence that takes place in the swampy surface of Dagobah, with Yoda giving Luke the fast forward version of Jedi training is one of the most pivotal moments in the whole series. Like Luke, we all have mentors in our lives; we just have to learn to listen to them. Yoda is wise in his ways, he warns Luke about the dangers of being “seduced by the dark side of the force”,  which of course is something we can all identify with, that’s a danger that is out there, the dark path. It’s a choice we all have; we can choose to bring goodness into this world, help our fellow man, but we can also choose to be tools of evil. This isn’t just some silly movie logic, its real life advice that young people can apply in their lives during those formative years. As Luke learns in The Empire Strikes Back (1980), evil is sometimes so close to us that it could be our own freaking parents, sometimes it flows through our DNA. We have to be ready to shun it from our lives and move forward in search of our own particular destiny.

As for the films as pure entertainment and visual candy, there’s no denying their awesomeness. I watched the three of them back to back to back recently and had a chance to absorb the whole trilogy once again. The first one is the introduction, and it has a lot of gaping holes in logic that we can see only now, after years and years of being exposed to the Star Wars mythology. Like for example, if Luke is just a farm boy, how come he immediately knows how to fly an X-Wing? He’s never even set foot in one and they give him a whole ship! That’s like giving me a freaking F-14. I’d crash it in less than 12 parsecs. But not Luke, he drives it as if he’s driven one his whole life! Out of the blue he knows all about attack formations and whatnot. Obi One’s lightsaber “duel” with Darth Vader pales in comparison to the kind of lightsaber battles we see today, but what the hell, back in ’77, nobody had seen a freaking lightsaber duel, hell, the mere sight of a lightsaber was amazing! But watching these movies with a good dose of suspension of disbelief is necessary, more so on science fiction films like this one.

I have to agree that in terms of direction and tone, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) is the best one. Its dark, it’s dramatic and not childish at all, which of course is something that Return of the Jedi (1983) is a bit guilty of, catering to the kiddies. But wow, that showdown between Luke and Vader on Cloud City is the stuff of legends! The battle of the gods! Han Solo gets frozen, the Empire is alive and kicking and Luke gets his hand cut off! I mean, they really wanted to make us feel unease with The Empire Strikes Back. Then we have Return of the Jedi, which used to be my favorite, but upon this recent watching realized that the whole Ewok village segment just slows the movie down to a big fat crawl. Sure the Ewoks are cute and all and true, there are a lot of revelations involved in these scenes, but it just brings the pacing of the film to a standstill, something that doesn’t happen as often in the other movies. The good thing about Jedi is that it has its many amazing moments and when it’s on, it’s on! That speeder bike chase sequence! The final epic space battle! And again, when Luke and Vader duke it out, it’s a show stopper! My favorite moments are those in which Luke is being tempted by the greatest evil of all, Emperor Palpatine himself, well, those are really intense moments. Luke is really put through the ultimate test. Will he break?  Emperor Palpatine made an amazing villain. Sure he only sits on the throne, but man you can feel the evil power flowing through his every pore. You feel like Luke just might turn, you feel the conflict within him for sure. One thing is good about these Star Wars films, they paint a picture of ourselves, and it's not black and white. We have shades of evil that can surface if not kept in check. 

All in all, I love all three movies for different reasons. Now all J.J. Abrams has to do come next Dec 17th (that’s when I’m seeing it!) is deliver what is commonly known in film buff parlance as “a worthy sequel”. Man, J.J. Abrams must be shaking in his storm trooper boots right about now! A legion of fans is waiting to judge his work! But honestly, I don’t think he has to worry, I think J.J. is going to knock it out of the park. He took the Star Trek franchise and made it cool, I mean, that’s no easy feat! He’s produced television shows that really entertain, like Lost and Fringe. Point is, the guy knows how to please an audience. He knows we want to be wowed, he knows we want that Star Wars magic back again, we want to feel it. Something not even Lucas himself was able to do with Episodes I through III. Plus, this film has all of Disney’s millions behind it, so we know that at least from a production value standpoint, the film should be solid. How solid? Well, they actually built real sets! I mean, that’s almost unheard of in today’s sci-fi films where the only thing that is real are the actors. See Jupiter Ascending (2015) to see what I mean, or better yet, don’t! Thank god J.J. and crew decided to go old school for The Force Awakens. I mean, those old films were made with sweat and tears, not inside of a computer. To me that’s real filmmaking. Sweat and tears. Locations, sets, props! Of course, I have my theories as to the mysteries surrounding The Force Awakens, the big question that’s lurking on everyone’s mind is will Luke turn to the dark side? I seriously doubt it. Whose kids are whose? Oh boy, I can’t wait to see the mysteries unfold. Well, that’s it for my take on the whole Star Wars craze! See you in theaters! I know you got your ticket safely hidden away in a secret envelope, to be opened only on premiere day, so until then. may the force be with you…always! 

J.J. Abraham's directs The Force Awakens (2015)

Monday, December 14, 2015

Victor Frankenstein (2015)

Victor Frankenstein (2015)

Director: Paul McGigan

Cast: James McAvoy, Daniel Radcliffe

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of those characters that gets adapted on to film a lot. Like Dracula or James Bond, Frankenstein’s monster keeps getting brought back to life again and again; Victor Frankenstein is the latest attempt. The problem with popular characters such as Frankenstein is that if the new take on the character doesn’t offer anything new, it’s going to get ignored as another “unnecessary film”. That’s the first thing that popped into my mind when you hear that their making a new Frankenstein film. Is it necessary? What new angle does it attempt to impress us with? For example, Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) showed us an eloquent version of the Frankenstein monster, an intelligent version of the monster was something we’d only read about in Mary Shelley’s book. On Roger Corman’s Frankenstein Unbound (1990) we were presented with a time traveling storyline. Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein (1974) was a parody of all the old Universal movies, and so on. Each take on the character has to have an angle. Even the filmmakers know they are walking on tired ground, the first words spoken on this new film are “You’ve heard this story before” Yet onwards they went and made this film, and so now we have a new take on good old Frankenstein. Was it worth it?  

On this one we start to dive into Frankenstein’s world by seeing everything from Igor’s point of view, which I found totally innovating because Igor is always relegated to slave status on these films, we’ve never really seen his story. He’s always been the ugly, monstrous hunchback who follows Dr. Frankenstein’s every order by saying “Yes Master”, not so on this movie. On this movie Igor is a circus performer, a clown act who gets treated with no respect despite the fact that he’s actually a pretty knowledgeable person who educates himself by reading a lot. While visiting the circus Victor Frankenstein realizes Igor is actually brilliant and decides to take him in as his partner. The thing with the Igor character on this movie is that they did a complete overhaul of the character. On this one Frankenstein straightens Igor’s back, eliminates his hump and gives him a name all within the span of five seconds. Bim, Boom, Bam! Suddenly we have a handsome, clean cut, well dressed Igor. This constitutes the biggest change in the whole story, the desire to treat Igor with some respect, to give him some depth. He’s no longer an assistant, he’s a partner. He’s not an order receiving idiot, he’s actually part of the reason why the experiments flourish, because of Igor’s genius. Igor even falls in love and actually gets some, that’s right, Igor gets laid, this is not your grandfathers Igor that’s for sure. What’s most interesting is that Igor is a character who doesn’t even appear in Mary Shelley’s book, I think this makes it even more obvious where the inspiration for this movie came from; we’re talking about movies feeding on movies and then becoming something else entirely.

I enjoyed everything about this movie, they way it looks, how well it was written, how characters grow and have a depth to them. These are intelligent characters we can root for. I love the dialog on this thing, it didn’t waste any time, it goes quick and to the point while not forgetting to be eloquent and well versed. I’m not saying it’s Shakespeare, because this is still very much a commercial film every step of the way, even going as far as setting up future movies, but it is well written. It’s dialog sounds appropriate to the era it takes place in. I read somewhere that the director behind this film, one Paul McGigan, said that he considered Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to be a boring book, which I have to admit, is true. It’s not a story told in an exciting manner, the book is introspective and philosophical, and it’s not exactly concerned with action or adventure. So I can see why the director would express himself that way about a beloved classic. In fact, I don’t think the filmmaker’s where even concerned with the book at all, they seemed more inspired by the different cinematic adaptations of the character. Their influences are more cinematic than literary. They even reference Young Frankenstein (1974) at one point, keen listeners will hear it. One thing is obvious, director Paul McGigan didn’t want to make a boring movie and if you ask me, he succeeded.

Thematically speaking the movie goes everywhere a Frankenstein movie should, it doesn’t lose the essence of the books themes. Frankenstein has always been about the difficulty of accepting death as a part of life. About accepting that at one point we’re all going to bite it and that there’s nothing we can do about it. The film goes into the whole religion vs. science issue. In the film, Victor Frankenstein is a realist, he doesn’t believe in any sort of superstitions or the supernatural; he is very grounded on logic and reality. This mentality is pitted against the mentality of the police officer conducting the investigation on Igor’s disappearance, who’s all about Christianity, wearing crucifixes and calling everything ‘sin’. Who will win this battle of wits? Religion or science? I liked that edge; I loved the audacity with which Victor Frankenstein screams “There is no Satan! There is no God! There’s only me!” So yeah, I liked the fact that the film tackles philosophical issues, as it should, being an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s equally philosophical book, so yeah, this film has some strong writing. This film was written by Max Landis, son of film director John Landis, the guy behind such films as An American Werewolf in London (1981) and The Blues Brothers (1980). So Max Landis grew up in the world of filmmaking, which always helps make a good screenwriter, or director or both. Children whose parents are famous filmmakers usually follow in their parents footsteps and sometimes end up being good filmmakers. Sofia Coppolla, Angelina Jolie, Roman Coppola come to mind. Max Landis is also a part of one of these show biz families, he’s known movie making his whole life, which probably explains why he’s such a good writer. Chronicle (2012) was fantastic, and so is Victor Frankenstein (2015).

The interesting thing about this movie is that it’s not really about the monster, in fact, you won’t see the monster until the films third act which speaks a lot about how well the film is made, it keeps you interested all the way through even when the monster isn’t around.  Bottom line is, this isn’t a worn out cliché filled take on Frankenstein. It takes everything known about the character and pushes it a bit further, faster, quicker, to the point. The film is a visual feast, loaded with atmosphere, beautiful colors and a great set design! I loved that whole sequence with the castle on top of the hill, next to the ocean, as thunder and lightning crashed, cool stuff. Honestly, I’m saddened that this one is bombing at the box office in my book; it doesn’t deserve to be a turkey. Sadly, this sometimes happens to good films. And it’s happening to this one; it still hasn’t even made its 40 million dollar budget back, and that’s a “small budget” Hollywood wise. It could that audiences are still suffering nightmarish flashbacks of the god awful I, Frankenstein (2014). Or it could be that all anybody cares about is Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), and fanboys are saving up their dough to see that one a few times. Maybe it has something to do with the absolutely bland poster. Whatever the case, Victor Frankenstein is a good film that doesn’t deserve to die a quick death at the box office. Go see this refreshing take on the character in theaters now! Save a good movie!

Rating: 4 out of 5  

Friday, December 11, 2015

Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

Director: Steve Binder, David Acomba

Cast: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker, James Earl Jones, Bea Aurthur, Art Cagney, Diahann Carroll, Harvey Korman

The Star Wars Holiday Special, which aired on American television during Christmas Season way back in 1978 is a page of Star Wars history that a lot of fans, including George Lucas himself, prefer you’d pass on and not even look at, which of course will make you want to watch this “forbidden fruit” even more. It’s hatred is evident by the fact that it’s never been released on VHS, DVD or Blueray. Hell, this thing didn’t even make to Betamax! There’s no love from George Lucas for this thing. I decided to give it a proper chance once again, because I was going to conduct a screening of it for a Star Wars Parody Night thing I did. The screening consisted on the mother of all Star Wars parodies: Spaceballs (1986), followed by some funny Star War themed short films and finally the Star Wars Holiday Special (1978). Half way through the screening of the Star Wars Holiday Special, I was strangely hypnotized by it and so was the rest of the audience! I guess, when watched under the right mood, this thing isn’t as bad as everyone paints it to be. Plus there's the nostalgia factor and the fact that its like a time capsule from the 1970's. But it’s still bad, there’s no way around it. It’s an odd bird.

The story takes place as Han and Chewie are on their way to Kashyyyk (that’s Chewies home planet for you non Star Wars fans) but on the way there, they get attacked by a couple of imperial spaceships, which sets their journey to Kashyyyk back a bit. So Chewie’s family is worried because he hasn’t returned. Chewie’s wife Malla is all sad and impatient so she decides to give good old Luke Skywalker a call. Luke tries to calm her down by telling her not to worry, that everything will be alright. To top things off Chewie is trying to make it back home before a Wookie holiday called ‘Life Day’, which is the Wookie equivalent of Christmas. Will Chewie make it back to Kashyyyk for Life Day? Sure it’s weird seeing Chewbacca being a family man, with a kid, a wife and a grandpa waiting for him back home. At the same time, within the context of a holiday movie, it complies with the requirement of being endearing and family oriented, which means it has a lot of crying, singing and hugging.  Strange part is that all these tender moments clash with the weird ass what the hell moments, all of which I will go into right now for your reading pleasure.

Chewie's kid, Lumpy

First up, we get introduced to Chewbacca’s family composed of Malla, Chewie's wife, Chewie's kid is a little Wookie kid who goes by the name of Lumpy. Lumpy likes to play with his wookie toys and eats his wookie moms cookies. Then we have Itchy, the grumpy Wookie grandpa. The whole idea is just hilarious to me. We get about a whole half hour of the three Wookies just talking in grunts the way Chewbacca does. Ever wanted to see Chewbacca’s wife watching a weird ass cooking show, so she can cook her holiday meal? Look no further, it’s here! The thing about this holiday special is that it has a lot of comedians and acts that are no longer relevant today, so new watchers will be totally lost as to who Harvey Korman was and the fact that it’s supposed to be a ‘funny’ moment in the show, but it’s cool because the funny catches you by surprise. I must admit the whole bit with the cooking ‘lady’ who has four arms got a couple of giggles from me, ultimately, it feels kind of pointless! What the hell does this have to do with Star Wars or anything? Absolutely nothing! It’s just filler, something funny to put on the screen, like most of the things you’ll see on this special.

There are a lot of moments on this Holiday Special in which characters sit down to look at something on a screen and then we get to watch what they are watching, this happens all the time and its where the entertaining side of this Holiday Special comes in. We have a moment in which Lumpy, Chewie’s kid, looks at holographic images of circus performers who look like something out of Cirque du Soleil. It looks cool and all, and the music is trippy, but again, it goes on and on and then goes nowhere. Actually, this Holiday Special is made of a lot of trippy, sort of surreal moments strung up together. You might feel like you’re under the influence of mind altering drugs. I’m not the first to suggest that this whole special might have been made by a sentient bag of cocaine.

There’s no trippier what the hell moment than the one in which Itchy, Chewie’s dad opens up his holiday gift and it’s this virtual reality disk that contains a performance by 70’s singer/actress Diahann Carroll. The holographic entity called ‘Mermeia Holographic Wow’ is sort of a holographic projection of all of grandpa Wookie’s sexual desires; I’m not making this shit up! The hologram tells grandpa Itchy: “I am your fantasy. I am your experience. So experience me. I am your pleasure. Enjoy me. This is our moment together in time that we may turn this moment into an eternity. ” She then proceeds to sing and dance a sexy song, which I must admit was alluring in a 70’ sort of way. Her performance is filled with all these old school television level visual effects, hypnotizing in a way; certainly one of the best things about this Holiday Special. The problem is that immediately after watching this scene, you realize this show is supposed to be for kids?!  It also makes you think of why would an aging Wookie have sexual fantasies with a human female and not a Wookie female! But whatever. No logic on this thing whatsoever.

Then Lumpy, the Wookie kid, starts watching cartoons and we are treated to an animated segment that I didn’t understand very well because it’s not very well written, but it amazed me from an animation stand point. It included all the major Star Wars characters battling monsters in an alien planet called Panna. They were after some sort of magical talisman. This animated segment is valuable within the Star Wars cannon because it’s the first appearance of Bobba Fett in the Star Wars universe. That’s right my friends, the first time Bobba Fett popped up in Star Wars, was in animated form! Anyways, the drawings were sort of like something out of a Moebius comic book, at least in style. Which I dug a lot. I wonder how psyched little Lumpy must be to see his own father in a cartoon show?! After that we jump into a scene in which imperial guards enter Chewie’s house and start harassing the family, looking for rebels. One of the guards asks about an apparatus that on the table. When they show him what it is, it’s basically a television, when they turn it on, the Imperial Guard literally becomes hypnotized by a Jefferson Starship performance! Picture the lead singers microphone looking like a lightsaber with a bunch of purple, throbbing circular lights emanating throughout the performance and you’ll get a gist of what to expect!

Then we have another comedic relief moment that takes place in the Mos Eisley Cantina, with one of the Golden Girls (Bea Arthur) singing a sad song about the Empire closing down her bar. Who would’ve thought that one of the Golden Girls is the owner of the Mos Eisley Cantina?! Anyhow, the whole scene involves her trying to get rid of the last customers as they drink their last drink. More padding, but I guess it shows the oppressive arm of the Empire, pressing down on the people. Also, we see a lot of the aliens we saw in Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) making a cameo, we gotta remember that this came out only a year after Star Wars was released, what they did for this scene was simply re-use the monsters leftover from the first movie. Then we get more funny stuff with Harvey Korman performing as a robot instructor giving Lumpy instructions on how to build one of his toys? Totally pointless, but again, kind of trippy because the malfunctioning robot starts to talk really slow and then they make it look like his malfunctioning by rewinding and fast forwarding the footage. It certainly makes you think “what the hell were they thinking?!” 

Then we go back to the whole story about Chewie returning and we get the whole gang back together celebrating Earth Day with Chewie and his family and a bunch of Wookies all dressed in Red Gowns.  If that isn’t weird enough, then Princess Leia starts singing a song to the Wookies. Just imagine the Star Wars theme song, but with lyrics about Life Day! Sang by Carrie Fisher. At the end of the day, this movie is all about Chewie, who ends up looking like the hero of the show, protecting his family from Imperial Trooper by throwing them down the balcony of his home. Chewie is a hero of the rebels and a good husband and father! Wow, what an over achiever!  After that, it’s all party and surrealism as we are shown a series of montage of Chewies best moments from Star Wars: A New Hope (1977). Then Chewie and his family eat dinner together and then disappear into some sort of magical trippy star…or something. It looks like they are walking to heaven or something, walking into the light.  So yeah, that’s the whole thing. Lucas didn’t have much to do with this, obviously. He hates it. The special has never been rebroadcast or released on any sort of media. But thank god for the internet, now you can watch it on YouTube and marvel at its awfulness. Or trippiness? You be the judge. Someone sitting next to me during the screening said that they made this Holiday Special for potheads. I’m thinking I agree entirely.

Rating: 2 out of 5 


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