Nov 162018
 

Mark-SandrichSandrich didn’t have the time to create a great number of master works as he died at 44 from a heart attack generally attributed to overwork. And he was stuck with the likes of the unfunny vaudeville-like team of Wheeler and Woolsey for several films. But in his brief career, Sandrich made his mark. His best films came in collaboration with Fred Astaire. Sandrich knew how to film a dance, and when to stay out of a dancer’s way. That may have been his great skill: to not get in the way of the story. No other director made as many great musicals. Who knows what he might have done with another twenty years.

An honorable mention to Follow the Fleet (1936). The film as a whole doesn’t work, but the dance for Let’s Face the Music and Dance is one of the greatest in cinema history. And another for Carefree (1938), a screwball comedy that includes the classic dance number Change Partners.

#8 – So Proudly We Hail! (1943) — A propaganda piece on wartime nurses that’s low on glory and high on “we’re all in this together.” It’s two hours of death, suffering, explosions, and endurance. It’s too long and has some tonal problems (I’m not sure Paulette Goddard belonged in a serious picture), but Claudette Colbert is solid, Veronica Lake is spectacular, and the emotions are real.

#7 – Aggie Appleby, Maker of Men (1933) — A pre-code romantic comedy where a lower-class beauty who falls for brutes ends up with a wimpy rich guy and sets out to change him. Things do not go where you’d expect.

#6 – Love Thy Neighbor (1940) — An expansion of the Jack Benny radio show onto the screen, complete with the bit where he is having a feud with fellow radio comedian Fred Allen. While only for fans of the radio shows (there were a lot of those in 1940), if you are one, this is a good time, with decent music (sung by Mary Martin) and great bits by the two stars and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson.

#5 – Melody Cruise (1933) — While I applauded Sandrich’s ability to stay out of the way, half the fun of this film is his directing flourishes. The film is stuffed with innovated shots, unexpected angles, playful transitions, and unusual use of music. As a pre-code sex farce, almost nothing could have been filmed a year later (particularly the two lingerie-clad girls, known for taking their clothing off when drunk, stuck in a man’s stateroom).

#4 – Shall We Dance (1937) — An Astaire/Rogers musical, the 4th directed by Sandrich. I find this to be the funniest of the pair’s films, with Astaire playing a jazz dancer whose made it in ballet so must put on a persona of an arrogant Russian. The songs are solid, with “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” the standout. [Also on the Best Actors lists for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers]

#3 – Holiday Inn (1942) — Sandrich’s 6th collaboration with Astaire. This is a perfect holiday movie for pretty much every holiday as it has songs for New Years, Valentine’s Day, Easter, the 4th of July, and Washington’s Birthday. It also includes the song “White Christmas” and it was from this film’s re-recorded sound track that it became a hit. (Full Review) [Also on the Best Actors lists for Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby]

#2 – The Gay Divorcee (1934) — The 2nd Astaire/Rogers film, and the first with them as leads, this one has Rogers attempting to get a divorce from her absent husband and mistaking Astaire as the gigolo she planned to use for cause. Horton and Blore appear again. [Also on the Best Actors lists for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers]

#1 – Top Hat (1935) — The 4th Astaire/Rogers picture and they’d perfected the routine, with Sandrich showing his mastery of the look of the film while leaving the dance routine’s in the hands of Astaire and Hermes Pan. The jokes are solid and the fantasy world of shining marble is wondrous. Rogers falls for a very forward Astaire until she incorrectly deduces that he’s the husband of her good friend. Horton, Blore, and Helen Broderick add to the comedy. [Also on the Best Actors lists for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers]

Nov 092018
 

Nothing is creepier than Asian horror. Well, sometimes.

Asian Horror isn’t a genre nor sub-genre, so it has no defining qualities, besides being made in Asia. It is made up of multiple genres and movements. I’m not just including the J-Horror films with their long haired ghosts, contortionists, and cursed electronics, nor just adding K-Horror (and #-Horror), but also the stylized Japanese horror flicks of the ’50s and before, the Kaidan movies of the 1960s, and Hong Kong action-horror. Most anything that can be called horror and was made in Asia. The exception is that I’m not counting daikaiju (that’s giant monsters for those not into fan terminology; those get their own list). For my reviews of films that fit under the umbrella of Asian Horror, look here.

My ten films span 5 countries and at least 4 cinematic movements. Starting with #10:

 

#10: The Ghost {aka Ryeong} (2004)

From Korea, The Ghost, also known as Dead Friend, is the perfect 10th place film as it isn’t original, but encapsulates the J/K-Horror movement. There’s a long haired ghost connected to water, old school friends getting murdered, and an amnesic girl who needs to find out why. It has enough twists and tension to satisfy horror buffs and enough clues and complications for mystery enthusiasts, but really wins on character. J/K-Horror is often weak on character development, but here we really get to know the heroine. If someone asked me what J-Horror was, I’d say watch this. (My review)

 

 

#9: Bloody Parrot (1981)

We move to Hong Kong and a wildly different type of movie. A master swordsman under suspicion of robbing the Emperor tries to uncover the real thieves, and the path leads him to a weird town filled with secrets. This is a Shaw Brothers martial arts film, that also happens to have demons, gore, spells, a vampire, and nudity. It’s definitely horror, but it is aiming for fun. The colors are psychedelic and the fights are energetic and well choreographed. It has a few more flaws than the other entries on this list, but I give it an extra point or two for being unlike those film. When you’ve had enough long-haired ghosts, or are a wuxia fan, this is your film.

 

 

#8: Pulse {aka Kairo} (2001)

Pulse appears to be a Ringu clone, with a computer disk standing in for the tape, until it isn’t and everything we thought turns out to be either wrong or inconsequential. Pulse is an art-house discourse on existentialism, with J-horror trappings. If that’s what you are looking for, you are going to be in heaven. If you wanted a sensible horror film, you will be less pleased. It’s an easy film to rip apart, and yet still be in awe of. It sticks with me, and is arguably the most meaningful work on this list. There’s an American remake, that tried to make sense of it, correcting the “flaws” by supplying answers, except the original wasn’t going for answers. (My Review)

 

 

#7: Shutter (2004)

Thailand’s swing at joining the J/K-Horror movement, and they hit it out of the park. A photographer and his girlfriend hit a young woman on the road one night, and after appear to be haunted by a ghost. Our heroine assumes it is the ghost of the girl they hit, but the story is thicker than that, and the answer is in the photographs. This one rips at you in the final act. A huge hit in Thailand and a string of smaller countries, Shutter has been remade 3 times; the American remake oddly is set in Japan and has a prominent J-Horror director at the helm.

 

 

#6: The Maid (2005)

An innocent Filipino takes a job as a maid in Singapore, and not knowing the rules, apparently offends the ghosts that all the locals believe walk the streets in the 7th month.  Soon, she is seeing ghosts everywhere and needs to figure out what they want. The Maid was Singapore’s first horror film and they got it right the first time. The acting is flawless, the characters are involving, the culture is fascinating, and the story is one of the strongest among “recent” ghost movies, It’s also the most accessible Asian horror film for Americas as the main character is no more familiar with Singapore than the average Westerner, so we can learn as she does. (My review)

 

 

#5: Ju-On 1&2 (2000)

Ju-On is one of the two foundational films of the J-Horror movement. Which Ju-On? Things get complicated. In 1998, director Takashi Shimizu created two very short segments for the anthology film School Ghost Stories Great. In 2000 he expanded these into Ju-On, and its sequel Ju-On 2, which were made for TV/home video, and are sometimes known as Ju-On: The Curse 1 & 2, but generally not.  Ju-On 2 repeats close to 30 minutes of the first film (taken from the beginning and the end) and is not a sequel but a seamless continuation making one film. The films were such a success that theatrical versions were made—not exactly remakes, but not exactly sequels either.  These films were called Ju-On and Ju-On 2 as well.  In the West they sometimes are called Ju-On: The Grudge and other times a suffix is added that’s a Japanese word meaning “theatrical.”  Then a semi-American version was made, just titled The Grudge, and still set in Japan and still with Shimizu directing, but with White Actors taking the lead roles. This is a semi-remake, semi-sequel, incorporating pieces in the previous versions. It is the original home video version I’m ranking here. It is as creepy as horror gets, with a sense of utter hopelessness. (My review)

 

 

#4: Onibaba (1964)

Coming out of the kaidan horror movement, but dropping the Kabuki theater remnants in favor of a hyped-up realism, Onibaba feels like a poem put on film. Based on a fable, but then twisted out of its religious basis to make a very different statement, Onibaba spends most of its time with a woman and her daughter-in-law who murder weakened samurai on their way home from war in order to sell their weapons and armor for food. If that sounds dark, you’re on the right track. Japan is depicted as a hellhole where survival is difficult in the moment and unlikely longer term. The duo’s murders are depicted less as evil and more as basic reality. The greater evil seems to be the older woman’s desire to deprive the younger of a bit of pleasure (as life only has bits). The supernatural aspect comes toward the end, but it is up to the viewer to decide if that is where the horror lies, or in the basic savage existence of the characters.

 

 

#3: Ringu (1998)

And this is the other foundational film of J-Horror, giving us a cursed piece of technology (a video tape) and a long-haired ghost performed by a contortionist, and the result is unsettling. Ringu is exciting, frightening, and very clever. It works so well because it is, for most of its runtime, the standard ghost story: Several heroes who have nothing to do with the cause of the haunting find themselves in a haunted situation and investigate the tragic event behind the haunting; when they find the answer, they confront the ghost, at which point it vanishes or it becomes clear the ghost will always be there and attempt to leave themselves. Almost every ghost story follows this pattern, with the best ones simply doing a better job of it. Ringu does an excellent job, until near the end, when it turns the tables and reveals it is something different. The American remake, starring Naomi Watts, is even smarter, replacing psychic readings with detective work. (My review)

 

 

#2: A Chinese Ghost Story (1987)

A naïve tax collected ends up in a haunted temple in a haunted woods, where he is seduced by a ravishing and adorable ghost (played by the ravishing and adorable Joey Wang) who is under the command of a evil demon. This Hong Kong thriller is like The Evil Dead merged with a martial arts film and then merged with a romance, and it’s a joy from beginning to end. It generated two sequels, a remake, an animated version, and a whole series of fantasy films, but nothing could touch the original.

 

 

#1: Kwaidan (1962)

A three hour, four part anthology film, it is unsurprisingly part of the Kaidan tradition (the translated film title usually gets the “w” while the movement does not). Each story is a period ghost drama, mostly fables where the evil or foolish are punished for their lies or jealousy or cruelty. It could easy be performed on stage instead of on film, providing that the stage was ridiculously gorgeous. Reality is not the goal, but beauty is at least one of several. It’s mesmerizing, which at three hours, it needs to be.

Oct 262018
 

90s horror has a bad reputation, remembered as made up of fading franchises and the bloom of self-award/meta horror, that seemed so clever at first, but most people find irritating now. And yes, there is truth in that reputation. Notice how many on my list have numbers after their title. Originality was hard to find. It’s been suggested that the 90s has no identity of its own, but then, when you are stuck between the two worst sub-genres, slashers and the yet to come torture porn, maybe no identity is a good thing. And the problem with those meta films is less the “meta” nature and more that they are meta-slashers. My top 50 is a drop from my 80s list, but not a huge one, and it actually has stronger bottom third.

This is a horror list, and I split horror from thrillers. Where that line is is up to the individual, so I’m only concerned with my line. That means no Silence of the Lambs or Se7en. Horror comedy gave me some trouble as it is unclear where to draw the line. I include all the horror comedies when chatting with friends, but for here I’ll pull that back a bit, so I’m only going to give honorable mentions to The Addams Family and Death Becomes Her, both of which would be quite high on the list. Also an honorable mention to the Gamera trilogy, which was an unexpectedly good daikaiju series; while I have a few giant monster films on my list, I decided these fall outside of horror.

 

#50. Sleepwalkers (1992)

We’re in 50th place—you didn’t expect a great film? This is gonzo silliness written by Stephen King when he was in a goofy mood, and elevated by Alice Krige.

 

#49. Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992)

Perhaps the definition of an unnecessary sequel, Tsukamoto takes the cyber-body-horror surrealism of the first film and tries to make it coherent. It’s much less than the first, but the first was fantastic, so lesser is still good.

 

#48. Frankenstein Unbound (1990)

Some films are worthwhile purely based on weirdness. Roger Corman directs a Brain W. Aldiss story that sends John Hurt’s scientist back in time to meet Frankenstein. And that’s not even the weird part. (My review)

 

#47. Hellraiser IV: Bloodline (1996)

Sure, the word that comes to mind is “disappointing” but it is less disappointing than Hellraiser 3, and it, at times, feels like a Hellraiser film (the only one after the first two to do so). Doug Bradley still works as Pin Head, and Valentina Vargas in a fine new demon. The rest… well, the prelude stuff is good and the space stuff is zany.

 

#46. Mimic (1997)

A bland, nothing-special horror story handed to a master. Guillermo del Toro couldn’t make a masterpiece out of this, but he gave this giant bug movie a lot of style.

 

#45. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)

The best of the 90s meta horror films as the actors and director of A Nightmare on Elm street play themselves being haunted by an actual Freddy after making the film about Freddy. (My review)

 

#44. The Haunting (1999)

Call it Art Design: The Movie. It gets unfairly criticized for not being the same as the 1963 film, but this has a different goal and a different audience. That one was for people who dislike ghosts but love unnecessary narration (My review). This one is people who love set decoration and CGI ghosts.

 

#43. Night of the Living Dead (1990)

If this had come out in the ‘70s, I’d rank it higher. It isn’t that it is specifically an unnecessary remake, but that it is generally unnecessary. But if you are looking for the same old thing, this is a reasonable version. Besides, I’ve met Tom Savini and he’s a hoot.

 

#42. A Chinese Ghost Story III (1991)

The second sequel to the classic A Chinese Ghost Story is essentially a remake. As the original was so good, this one is good as well, but it is a copy. Once you’ve watched the first multiple times and feel like watching it one more time, then try this.

 

#41. Alien: Resurrection (1997)

Space horror from the director of Amelie… Well, that’s…odd. Alien 3 was a miserable A-movie, so they went for B-movie this time and did OK. It’s not deep or emotional or sensible. It’s guys with big guns fighting monsters and Sigourney Weaver playing way over the top. It’s stupid fun.

 

#40. In the Mouth of Madness (1994)

John Carpenter ruled the ‘80s, but this is his only passable entry in the ‘90s. It’s one of the better Lovecraft-inspired films. I like it, but find it disappointing. It should have been more. Carpenter would revisit the themes in 2005 with Cigarette Burns.

 

#39. Bride of Chucky (1998)

It took them multiple attempts to work out that the franchise should be comedic, and then they got it right. Jennifer Tilly was the perfect addition (she always sounds a bit like a killer doll).

 

#38. The Craft (1996)

The precursor to Charmed, there’s more high school social structure here than spells, but it works either way. This is where the pop culture version of a witch took the final step from Satanic hag to hot Wiccan. (My review)

 

#37. The Faculty (1998)

A nice little teen alien monster flick, with a fine cast and solid direction from Robert Rodriguez. It doesn’t break any ground, but it doesn’t need to.

 

#36. Haunted (1995)

The first of two miscastings of Aidan Quinn on this list. He does his best to drag down the film, but can’t quite manage with everything else so good, particularly Kate Beckinsale. It’s a nice version of the standard movie ghost story. (My review)

 

#35. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)

It has been superseded in the public consciousness by the TV show, as it should, but that doesn’t mean this version doesn’t have some things to like, particularly Kristy Swanson’s take on Buffy.

 

#34. Meridian (1990)

It’s a dark erotic fairytale that starts with roofies, rape, and evil carnies, and slides into were-beasts and ghosts. It is the best looking film made by Charles Band and while it isn’t to all tastes, if it is to yours, it’s hard to forget.

 

#33. Idle Hands (1999)

The best of the slacker horror comedies. A demon possessed hand kills a stoner’s parents and friends and his buddies are too lazy to bother going into the light. The jokes are good and Jessica Alba is adorable,

 

#32. The Prophecy II (1998)

Extremely unnecessary and what’s good is a rehash, but it’s still wonderful to watch Christopher Walken do his thing as Gabriel, the perching angel. (My review)

 

#31. Predator 2 (1990)

Another sequel! Much like the first. Danny Glover is a no-nonsense tough guy, but instead of a soldier he’s a cop. The Predator comes to town and things play out as expected. (My review)

 

#30. Practical Magic (1998)

Aidan Quinn appears a second time in a movie he shouldn’t have gotten close to. The romance and Quinn don’t work, but Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman are so cute together that nothing else matters. Their late night party, with Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest makes it worthwhile.

 

#29. Species (1995)

A ‘50s-style alien film merged with ‘70s Euro-cult and it comes out as stupid and as enjoyable as that sounds. The turnaround is nice—the alien wants our men instead of our women. (My review)

 

#28. Bride of Re-Animator (1990)

Re-Animator was one of the great surprises of the 1980s. This sequel is… good. Jeffrey Comb’s Herbert West is one of the finest mad doctors, so it worth spending a bit more time with him, even if it was done better before. (My review)

 

#27. Nightbreed (1990)

What might have been. Chopped up and left with an unfinished story, it is still Clive Barker at his most Clive Barkerist. It’s a celebration of monsters and blood and sex and the night.

 

#26. Blade (1998)

The beginning of the horror-action craze and the rebirth of superhero films, Blade was a revelation. It can’t compete with what was to follow, or even its own immediate sequel, but it’s still cool. (My review)

 

#25. Trancers II (1991)

Trancers was B-movie mogul Charles Band’s greatest work. Trancers II is much like the first, but a little less. Tim Thomserson is again a riot as Jack Deth, zombie slayer, and where else are you going to see Helen Hunt in a low budget horror film? The series would continue, but best to ignore that fact.

 

#24. From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

Two separate films stuck uncomfortably together. I’m not fond of Tarantino’s crime section, but Rodriguez’s vampire strip club is exciting and sexy and funny. Salma Hayek’s erotic snake dance is the high point.

 

#23. Tremors II: Aftershocks (1996)

Hey, it’s another sequel. I can just simply cut and paste my comment: It’s much like the first, so it’s good because that one was, but not quite as good.

 

#22. Innocent Blood (1992)

John Landis’s companion piece to An American Werewolf in London. I prefer this one. Anthony LaPaglia is wrong for the part of the romantic cop, but Anne Parillaud is a sexy bloody vampire and this is my favorite Robert Loggia mob performance. (My Review)

 

#21. Return of the Living Dead III (1993)

It’s not often that the third is the best, but Brian Yuzna dialed down the wacky comedy of the franchise and added his brand of twisted humor and created one of the best zombie movies. Mindy Clarke’s pierced zombie doesn’t hurt either. (My Review)

 

#20. Dreams {Yume} (1990)

I got Akira Kurosawa onto a horror list! This strange anthology includes fairytales, ghost stories, science fiction, and post apocalyptic demons. It doesn’t all work, but some of the imagery is fabulous.

 

#19. Braindead (1992)

Before Peter Jackson went nuts on big money, never-ending, fantasy epics, his skill lay in splatter comedies, and this was his best. It’s claimed to be the bloodiest movie ever made (at least at the time), and the lawnmower massacre scene supports that.

 

#18. Army of Darkness (1992)

The one where Sam Raimi got a budget. There are 13 different cuts of this demon-zombie-comedy, and some are better than others, so good luck on the search.

 

#17. The Devil’s Advocate (1997)

A Faustian lawyer flick with Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino. It’s better than it has any right to be. Unfortunately, a lawsuit has made the theatrical version impossible to find (they didn’t get rights to include a relief sculpture that I mentioned in my original review).

 

#16. Event Horizon (1997)

Think Hellraiser in space, done far better than when they actually made Hellraiser in space. This is another of those “what might have been” films, with 30 minutes cut and now missing. What we have is good, but it could have been a masterwork.

 

#15. Cast a Deadly Spell (1991)

In an alternate reality where magic is common, detective Phillip Lovecraft searches for the Necronomincon. Made for HBO, It didn’t get a theatrical release, which is a shame.

 

#14. Deep Rising (1998)

Before Stephen Sommers made The Mummy, he tried it out here. It’s the same feeling, but in the water. Treat Williams makes an amiable hero after Harrison Ford bowed out. It’s all fun and explosions and monsters eating bad guys.

 

#13. Candyman (1992)

It’s poetry meets slasher and both are caught off guard. Candyman is an atmospheric art film with hooks rending flesh and pools of blood. Tony Todd creates one of the great modern horror icons. (My review)

 

#12. The Forgotten One (1990)

Maybe it’s the purity of it that works so well. This is the standard ghost story told straight. No wild effects or twists to complicate or screw things up. It’s just a haunting and a mystery and a hot ghost who likes to take baths. (My review)

 

#11. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

The story is overwhelmed by appearance, but that’s because the appearance is spectacular: magnificent gothic structures, writhing vampire babes, a half-human bat, extravagant gowns, independently moving shadows, and translucent lingerie. Sometimes overindulgence is what you need. (My review)

 

#10. Wolf (1994)

It’s a satire mixed with a monster mash which works out nicely. Jack Nicholson works well as the broken man who goes a little nuts (that’s his bread-n-butter), though James Spader steals the show. It’s easily a top 5 werewolf film of all time. (My Review)

 

#9. Interview with the Vampire (1994)

More of a gothic soap opera than a monster movie, Interview gives us beautiful people in beautiful surroundings doing beautiful things. It’s not surprising that the film is as seductive as its characters are supposed to be. (My review)

 

#8. Tremors (1990)

I must have seen this film twenty times during the ‘90s, and it never got old. Lots of gore and lots of jokes and some characters to care about. It doesn’t aim high, but it also never misses.

 

#7. The Ninth Gate (1999)

Johnny Depp, before he went crazy, stars in this calm and focused mystery involving a book that may have a supernatural connection. This is Roman Polanski’s second shot at Christian-mythological horror and he does it better this time.

 

#6. Ringu (1998)

Ringu kicked J-horror into high gear and set the path for a decade of cinema. It’s also excellent, appearing to tell the standard movie ghost story right up until it doesn’t. Few films are half as creepy. (My review)

 

#5. The Prophecy (1995)

It asks the question, “Would you want to meet an angel?” and answers it: no. The conception of angels is marvelous, but the specific execution is even better. In any normal movie, Viggo Mortensen would steal it all with his powerful and frightening Lucifer, but not here. Christopher Walken rules as the warped Gabriel. (My review)

 

#4. Sleepy Hollow (1999)

This is the perfect Halloween celebration movie: emotional, creepy, and beautiful. Tim Burton creates a lush, dreamlike, bewitching world where even a beheading looks elegant and the grotesque is alluring. (My review)

 

#3. Jurassic Park (1993)

Yes, it’s a horror film. People get hunted by monsters in the dark—that’s horror. It also has a strong theme, which everything in the film contradicts. Is making dinosaurs a bad idea? Sure. Would I do it? In a second. It would be wondrous.

 

#2 The Mummy (1999)

One of the finest adventure films of the last 50 years, and one that’s surprisingly gory. The dialog is clever, the characters pull you in (both the likable ones and the villains), the effects look great, and the monster is menacing. This is Deep Rising perfected. (My review)

 

#1. The Sixth Sense (1999)

What else could it be? It’s the best ghost movie since the 1940s. It does what other twist movies fail to do—that is, have a great story without the twist. The twist just makes it so much better. It’s been a long time since M. Night Shyamalan and Bruce Willis were thought of as great talents, but in 1999, they were. (My review)

Oct 222018
 

Mad Scientists. You have to love them. I do. Where would our monsters come from without them?

For my reviews of Mad Doctor/Scientist films, check out my full list here.

This is a horror list, so I’m trying to stick to that arbitrary line. That means I won’t be counting any of the myriad evil super scientists in spy and superhero films. Honorable Mention goes to The Rocky Horror Picture Show for so many reasons.

Starting with #10:

 

#10: Return of the Living Dead III (1993)

The third Living Dead film is the best (and the only one that would qualify for this list). Director Brian Yuzna takes the franchise in a less camp direction, instilling this movie with his darker sense of humor, while keeping the violence and gore of its predecessors. He also slips in a great deal more character development as this is a love story. Think Romeo and Juliet with zombies and the military. Our mad doctor is trying to weaponize zombies. Bad plan. Yuzna will return to this list two times, in the role of producer. (My review)

 

 

#9: Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

I debated if this film qualified, as the mad doctor is the 6th banana, but the plot is built around mad science, and it is filled with all the trappings, so yes, it counts. Here we have a full on comedy, and one of the best horror comedies of all time that also happens to be the best Abbot and Costello film, the best of the Universal classic monster mash-up films (there were only 5), and only the second time Dracula was played by Bela Lugosi. While Abbot and Costello do their normal wacky bits, the monster side of things is treated respectfully. It was the perfect way to end an era.

 

 

#8: Island of Lost Souls (1932)

The first, and best adaptation of H. G. Wells’s novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau shifts the tone of the tale away from science fiction and toward horror. In doing so, the story is given power and one of the great cinematic “mad” doctors is created. There’s so much to bite into. You can spend the entire film dwelling on the twisted Garden of Eden myth or you can examine what it means to be human or or the nature of laws and society or of religion and a lesser god. Too thoughtful? Then skip all of it and wallow in the horror of the House of Pain. There are plenty of thrills and chills. This is Charles Laughton’s film. His Moreau isn’t mad. He’s suave, clever, domineering, and evil. He enjoys his work, and enjoys the worship of his creations. Island of Lost Souls won my Foscar Award for 1932. (My review)

 

 

#6: Re-Animator (1985)

Based so loosely on a H.P. Lovecraft story that it’s hardly worth mentioning, Re-Animator is as much fun as you can have with a re-animated corpse. It has all the violence, gore, and nudity of your standard survivors-fight-zombie-horde movie, but with wit and one hell of a mad scientist. And it’s that mad scientist that makes the film.  Jeffrey Combs plays him as an intense sprite and it is one of the great performances in horror.  It’s not surprising that Herbert West has so many devoted fans. (My review)

 

 

#7: The Fly (1986)

An honorable mention to the 1958 The Fly which almost made this list, but was beaten out by this re-make. Perhaps re-imagining is a better word as the first film was a family drama focusing on the wife, and this is body horror as metaphor for the dating scene. David Cronenberg was the Western cinematic master of twisted flesh and he finally had the backing to fulfill his vision. It is something to see. The Fly radically changed the view of actor Jeff Goldblum, who previously was limited to “nerdy” friend parts.

 

 

#5: From Beyond (1986)

The Re-Animator team return in a more Lovecraftian film. This may be the only Mad Scientist flick that manages to make a persuasive argument for giving up science and hiding out on a farm somewhere. Gordon has pulled out all the stops to make From Beyond a joyride of gore, nudity, sadomasochism, violence, retribution, and dark humor.  There’s a giant, man-eating worm that sucks off hair and a few layers of skin, and there are flying barracudas that do pretty much what the swimming ones do. There are ax-attacks, brains sucked through eye sockets, and a shape-changing rubber demon with a breast obsession. And there’s Barbara Crampton, first in a ripped nightgown, and then in S&M gear. If you can’t find something to enjoy in that list, you’re not trying. (My review)

 

 

#4: Jurassic Park (1993)

I refuse to say there is anything mad about the science in Jurassic Park. If you can make a dinosaur, then make a dinosaur. I can’t even call it a mad businessman film as I find the business reasonable..ish. They just needed to work on their security. Well, it is close enough to count for this list (and yes, this is a horror film—kids about to be eaten in a kitchen counts for horror). Jurassic Park is a great film in so many ways (frights, action, character), but its true achievement is in pulling the audience into the wonder of it all. And yeah, as we find out in the sequels, the main scientist is a touch on the amoral-obsessed side.

 

 

#3: Altered States (1980)

Filled with all the weirdness director Ken Russell is famous for, Altered States follows a scientist played by William Hurt as he fanatically searches for the meaning to the universe, and finds it. Sometimes it is best not find what you are looking for. It is brilliant and thought-provoking, though could use a few less minutes of drug trips. I question if this film counts as horror, but it has elements that tend that way and others count it, and there’s no question we have a truly obsessed doctor.

 

 

#2: The Invisible Man (1933)

No one has done more for horror and mad doctor cinema than James Whale. The man who formed Universal horror had a brilliant eye and a quirky pitch black sense of humor. This was his second Universal Monster, and skating on a major success, he relaxed and let himself go, slipping a great deal of comedy between the frights. There are no times when Una O’Conner screaming isn’t wonderful. It was also the big break for the greatest character actor of all time, Claude Rains.

 

 

#1: Frankenstein (1931)
       Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
       Son of Frankenstein (1939)

Yes, this is a cheat, putting the three films together, but otherwise half this list would be from the 1930s. Besides, separating the three wouldn’t change much; two of the three would keep the top positions and Son of Frankenstein would only slip a few places. So, the original Frankenstein films take the top spot. James Whale, Boris Karloff, and Jack P. Pierce created the greatest horror icon of all time and a magnificent film. Then they returned, with the help of composer Franz Waxman, and made an even better film. Son of Frankenstein suffers without Whale’s touch, but excels with beautiful German expressionist sets. Frankenstein won my Foscar Award for 1931, though Bride only made runner up in a more competitive year, and Son was a nominee for 1939.

Oct 032018
  October 3, 2018

RenaissanceI discovered Renaissance in the early ‘80s and was sucked into the beauty of their music. I hadn’t heard anything like them, and while I’ve run into copies and bands treading similar ground since, there’s nothing like the original.

Back before “progressive rock” was a term, there was Renaissance, which along with Genesis  and Yes, formed the foundation of British art rock. Renaissance surprisingly rose from the ashes of The Yardbirds, when Keith Reif and Jim McCarty wanted to add classical elements to their performance. Personnel shifts removed both (and everyone else) by the third album, which many consider the true beginnings of the band. Renaissance combined rock with classical (their early albums all incorporated classical works), jazz, and folk. They are best know for their dominate and complex piano, and for lead vocalist Annie Haslam, who is in the running for finest rock vocalist.

Their prime period was ’72-’78, and my favorite songs stay within that era. My ranking of their studio albums (and pretty much everyone else’s) sticks to this as well, with one of their ’72, ’73, or ’74 albums taking the top slot.  I’d order them, from best to worst: Turn of the Cards (1974), Ashes Are Burning (1973), Scheherazade And Other Stories (1975), A Song For All Seasons (1978), Novella (1977), Prolog (1972), Renaissance (1969), Illusion (1971), Tuscany (2001), Symphony of Light / Grandine Il Vento (2013), Azure D’Or (1979), Camera Camera (1981), Time-Line (1983). If you can only buy one, I’d suggest their Live at Carnegie Hall, which does a good job covering their best period, and includes 7 of my 10 favorite songs.

Renaissance faded quickly after ’77, and their dalliance with new wave in the ‘80s was a disaster. They’ve reformed several times with varying forms since, trying to recapture their glory days with only mild success.

My favorites, without further comment:

 

#10 The Vultures Fly High

(from Scheherazade And Other Stories)

 

#9 Ashes Are Burning

(from Ashes Are Burning)

 

#8 Black Flame

(from Turn of the Cards)

 

#7 Song of Scheherazade

(from Scheherazade And Other Stories)

 

#6 Northern Lights

(from A Song For All Seasons)

 

#5 Can You Understand

(from Ashes Are Burning)

 

#4 Prologue

(from Prologue)

 

#3 Running Hard

 (from Turn of the Cards)

 

#2 Carpet of the Sun

(from Ashes Are Burning)

 

#1 Mother Russia

(from Turn of the Cards)

Oct 022018
  October 2, 2018

MotoI’d seen most of the ‘30s detective series when I was a kid, including Charlie Chan, but somehow I missed Mr. Moto. Most of these sorts of films are amusing, but cut pretty much the same and they can get old quickly without something special (like the chemistry between Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man). I assumed Mr. Moto would be a weaker entry, but finally watching them, I was taken aback at how good they are. These were inexpensive B-pictures, made to fill in the gap of the lessening Charlie Chan (the stories were written on request because the author of the Chan books had died, leaving a hole in the Asian detective sub-genre, and there was demand). And for the lead, they cast not a Japanese actor, or any Asian actor, but Peter Lorre, a Hungarian Jew with a drug problem and an uncertain interest in the part. This was a recipe for disaster.

But it wasn’t one. Lorre was a fine actor, who not only was up for the challenge of the character, but also of the many fight scenes. And that’s the film series’s second big plus: These weren’t normal detective stories. Rather, Mr. Moto is more of an international spy, and that set these pictures apart. There is as much James Bond at play as there is Philo Vance. There’s a real joy in watching the diminutive Moto taking out one bad guy after another.

As for the casting of a white actor, 1930s Hollywood was ripe with racial issues, but as Keye Luke (Charlie Chan’s #1 Son) noted, the yellow-face and stereotypes were a problem, but the trade-off was that there were roles, the stereotypes were more often positive ones, and there was actually representation. Later, there were no roles at all, and no representation for Asians. And the Moto films had many parts for Asian actors and Asian characters were treated with respect.

And things are better with Moto, as he doesn’t fit a stereotype, nor have a two-dimensional character (he is more complex than either Charlie Chan or Rathbone’s Holmes). He is smart, well educated, athletic, and heroic. He lives well but is able to rough it without complaints. He can, and does, kill (a rarely in “detective” series of the time). He is funny and kind, and is often amused at those around him. He drinks milk in bars, but has no aversion to liquor. He’s a Buddhist, but it comes up no more often than being a Christian comes up for other detectives.

As for stereotypes, they are used in abundance, but not in Asian characters. Instead, silly Westerns (never the villains, who know better) assume the Asian characters will fit their preconceptions, and Moto uses their ignorance to his own advantage. It’s good writing.

And in another bit of joyful twist, Moto is a master of disguise, taking on not only Asian identities, but also German and Austrian. In the Moto universe, no one can tell one race from another (well, until Willie Best shows up in a later entry…).

The series is at its best at the beginning, then stumbles through a rough patch before getting better again, but with the downside that those later entries add comic relief that isout of place and not comic. Another problem is that two of the films (Mr. Moto’s Gamble and Mr. Moto in DangerIsland) were originally meant for Charlie Chan, the first even included Chan’s son as a side kick. I find the Chan films weaker, but also he is a different kind of character—a methodical detective rather than an action hero—so this turns out to be a major problem, at least for Gamble. DangerIsland was actually based on a unrelated novel, that was made into a film and then was being adapted for a second film to feature Chan before it was switched to Moto.

But when the series is good, it is quite good (again, think ‘30s B-movie). There’s a lot of excitement, a touch of archeology (I have to think Indiana Jones owes as much to Moto as Bond does), mystery, and some excellent characters.

I highly suggest the first two films, and then more modestly the fifth, and then a bit more modestly the final three. Use your discretion with the third and forth.

Ranking them (with the # being their release order, not their production order—they changed their dates around when they saw they had a dud with the second one filmed, Takes a Chance):

1 –  Thank You, Mr. Moto (Mr. Moto #2 – 1937)
2 –  Think Fast, Mr. Moto (Mr. Moto #1 – 1937)
3 –  Mysterious Mr. Moto (Mr. Moto #5 – 1938)
4 –  Mr. Moto’s Last Warning (Mr. Moto #6 – 1939)
5 –  Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation (Mr. Moto #8 – 1939)
6 –  Mr. Moto in DangerIsland (Mr. Moto #7 – 1939)
7 –  Mr. Moto’s Gamble (Mr. Moto #3 – 1938)
8 –  Mr. Moto Takes a Chance (Mr. Moto #4 – 1938)

 

Sep 192018
 
2.5 reels

It’s ten years after the close of the breach in Pacific Rim and Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), the previously unmentioned son to the first film’s stern, dead father figure, is threatened with jail or a return to the jaeger program. He chooses the latter and joins ever-squinting Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood) in training a bunch of new teen robot pilots. Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) is back, doing the weird science stuff he did in the first film, but his partner Newton Geiszler (Charles Day) has joined a Chinese corporation run by the ever-grumpy while simultaneously hot Liwen Shao (Tian Jing). Her plan is to replace manned jaegers with drones. When a rogue jaeger appears and kills the cameo-only Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), it is clear that there’s something fishy with the drone program that will result in a lot of giant robot combat before the giant monster vs giant robot combat.

Pacific Rim would have flopped if it was up to US movie-goers, but the Chinese had other things in mind. It made 75% of its box-office overseas, so a sequel was planned with a focus on China. Parts of the film would take place in China, characters would speak Mandarin (and apparently Cantonese) and the cast would be filled out with Chinese nationals, including Tian Jing in a major role. The film would look much like Chinese action flicks (think bright) and follow the general philosophy of those films (you must recover from your individuality and join the team to become strong).

The first Pacific Rim wasn’t great, but it got by on the coolness of giant robots fighting giant monster and by the even greater coolness of director Guillermo del Toro. It looked great and had style to spare, which it needed to camouflage its drab and inconsistent characters, weak plot, and trite dialog. This sequel lacks del Toro, which is a severe blow. Gone are the fantasy colors and Lovecraftian feel. In its place is a more standard, Chinese-favored color palette and the feel of a generic robot anime. It’s not that interesting, but it isn’t that bad either. And the characters…well, they aren’t any worse than they were the first time around. Eastwood is a block of wood, which puts him even with the previous generic white guy, Charlie Hunnam, and the rest of the new cast is a slight improvement over the old (except for Ron Perlman—Uprising could have used Ron Perlman). Boyega isn’t anything special here, but he has personality, and I could tell the teens apart, so that’s a plus. Their character development is either ridiculous or non-existent depending on the person, which is on par with the first film. And it is hard not to like Tian Jing.

So, Uprising has most of the same pluses and minuses as its prequel, but with less style. What came to my mind was the old mech films from Full Moon Entertainment: Robot Wars and Robot Jox. Those were cheap, but the cheapness added to the fun. If I’m not going to get an artist like del Toro, I’d rather see some stop motion robots and it all done on a budget rather than fancy CGI. It’s rather silly anyway (they “tie” a rocket to robot and we’re in Wile E. Coyote territory). Pacific Rim: Uprising is low concept filmmaking with a high price tag. It’s as if someone said, “Let’s make a Friday the 13th-type slasher for $150 million.” But hey, if I was given big piles of cash to create a live-action cartoon of robots punching, I’d do it too. And the result it fine. Just fine.

Sep 172018
 
two reels

Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) is traumatized by the death of his girlfriend, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). [No, that is not a spoiler. It happens in the first few minutes; Baccarin only makes a cameo. More than not being a spoiler, this little bit of info should have been on every poster and in every trailer surrounded by flashing lights and the word “WARNING.”] So he joins the X-Men, and ends up acting as protector to an abused fire-starting teen mutant (Julian Dnnison) who is being stalked by Cable (Josh Brolin), a time-traveling cyborg whose family was killed by the teen after he grows up and becomes a super-villain. To save the kid, Deadpool brings in his pal Weasel (T.J. Miller), Colossus (voice: Stefan Kapicic), Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) and her girlfriend Yukio (Shioli Kutsuna), lucky mutant Domino (Zaxie Beetz), taxi driver Dopinder (Karan Soni), and a few others who get less screen time.

OK, so they kill Vanessa and then make a lot of really good jokes about how stupid that is in the opening credits. And those jokes are good because it really is stupid. Massively stupid. Movie-destroying stupid. Fire everyone involved and start from scratch stupid.

Sigh.

Deadpool was a fun movie that ripped into the genre and told a lot of great jokes. But it didn’t rip that hard. It wasn’t that edgy. Sure, it was edgy for a big studio tent-pole in a genre aimed at teenagers, but in general, it wasn’t extreme. It wasn’t good because it was so “out there.” It did take some good shots at the genre, which worked, because it wasn’t an action film at its heart, but a romance. Its story wasn’t that of the typical superhero film, where romance, if it exists at all, is a secondary consideration after defeating the bad guys. In Deadpool, the super-villain stuff is only what goes on while Deadpool is working out what he really should be doing with Venessa and none of it matters until she pops in again. That set it apart. More, Deadpool the character is an obnoxious, creepy jerk who I don’t want to spend two hours with, except Vanessa thinks otherwise, and what she thinks matters. Since she’s perfect, and she likes Wade, I like Wade. It’s all about her.

And now she dead. Which leaves Deadpool being annoying and there’s nothing to counter that. And without Venessa, there’s no romance, so the story becomes a typical super-hero film about saving the innocent. Worse still, it becomes a typical X-Men film. The theme here is about picking yourself up after tragedy (like every freakin’ superhero film ever) and making a surrogate family. Deadpool even restrains himself, and while it was fair game before to make fun of everything, it seems child abuse is off-limits. So, a wacky comedy with serious child abuse statements. Oh boy. One film earlier Deadpool was showing us how ridiculous X-Men films are, and now he’s in one.

As for Cable, as some point in the writing process I think they meant to use him to satirize the grizzled, anti-hero trope, but they didn’t get anywhere with it. For most of the film, Cable is taken seriously, and as he’s pretty dull as a character, he brings nothing to the table. Again, we’re not getting a joke about the X-Men, but getting the X-Men (minus any real emotion).

That makes the basic structure of the film a cliché, the lead character annoying, the anti-hero boring, the theme irritating, and there’s nothing to care about. Which leaves the jokes, which no doubt many people consider the main course. And there are a lot of great ones. Most everything involving X-Force, particularly Domino and Peter, is laugh-out-loud funny, though the trailer spoils all the best gags. The Domino “combat” scene alone almost makes the whole film worthwhile. And Deadpool himself has some great moments—fighting to Enya and the mid-credits bits are some of the best. Some other characters are funny, but we’ve seen it before and they are less funny the second time around. The interactions with Negasonic Teenage Warhead still hold up, but Colossus and Dopinder elicited only a mild smile from me, and T.J. Miller, doing exactly the same things he did in the first film, has worn out his welcome. And there is simply fewer jokes than before. We spend a lot of time with child abuse and grieving and that leaves less time for humor. And without the framework to support the jokes, Deadpool 2 feels drab.

Is it worth seeing? For the some of the jokes, yeah, I suppose. Though for the harm it does to the first film it wasn’t worth making. It isn’t a bad film, but it is a disappointing one.

[For those curious about the different cuts, the theatrical is a touch better. The Super Duper cut has the same feel and none of the changes are significant. Mostly, a joke is swapped for another joke or an additional line is added to a string of jokes, and rarely are the new ones any more R-rated than the original. Sometimes the new jokes are funnier; sometimes the old ones are. More often, they are just different. Except in the case of Domino, less is more, so adding lines is not a plus. Adding more of Colossus and Dopinder doing the same stuff is not a good addition, and more of T.J. Miller drags the film down. Additionally, the extended cut gives us two additional scenes with the mutant teen, and somber child abuse is not what I look for in my wacky comedies. The theatrical version is better paced, better edited, and includes the best musical moment (an acoustic version of A-Ha’s Take on Me, so add a half reel to the rating.]

 Reviews, Superhero Tagged with:
Sep 092018
 
one reel

In a dystopian future, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is a simple-minded, selfish, undeveloped, pop-culture fanatic who we are supposed to like. He, like most people, spends all his time inside the OASIS, a virtual universe where people can be anything, sorta, but tend to go for things that were popular in the 1980s. The OASIS is the most important economic entity in the world, and how it is run can determine the fate of the planet. So when the trillionaire inventor of the OASIS, James Halliday (Mark Rylace), died, he didn’t will it into the hands of a carefully chosen committee, but instead set up a contest that seems to be about pop trivia, but is really about obsessively digging in to Halliday’s personal life. He is giving control of the world to any jackass who worshiped him. Wade, known as Parzival within the OASIS, isn’t worthy to run a hotdog stand, but he’s decided to go for the big prize. Working with him is Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), who is a resistance leader in the real world. She is more competent than Wade in every way, but she’s a girl, so she slips into a sidekick role. His friends are Aech (Lena Waithe), Sho (Philip Zhao), and Daito (Win Morisaki), who are all members of minority groups, so they stick to their sidekick roles as well, even though they too seem infinitely better than Wade. Opposing Wade is Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) the head of an evil corporation. Sure, his corporation runs debtor’s prisons (allowed by Halliday), but he’s really evil because he doesn’t know ‘80s pop culture, likes Nancy Drew (and you know what that means…), and wants to put ads in the OASIS, and ads are bad. (Good thing Ready Player One has no product placement). Wade must use all of his stalking skills and pure luck to win the contest and the girl.

Ready Player One is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with computer games instead of candy. That’s not my statement, but that of the author. But it is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory if Mike Teavee was the hero and Willy Wonka was a selfish sociopath who cared nothing about innocence or morality. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was also a kid’s book, made into a kid’s movie (at least the first version), where a certain amount of simplification of the universe and ethics and human behavior is reasonable for the intended audience. Ready Player One is filled with references to a time before any current kids were alive. It is a book, and film, specifically for adults who still think like children. The theme of this mess would be toxic if it wasn’t so poorly delivered that most people have no idea what it is.

So what is the theme? It is that pop culture has become a religion. While spelled out in the book, director Steven Spielberg prefers to simply grab every religious symbol he can and toss it in helter skelter. There’s cathedrals and heavenly clouds and shafts of light and kneeling before the representation of god. It’s not subtle. The main character is Parzival and he’s on a Grail quest.

And making pop culture your religion is bad. That’s the stated point. We shouldn’t elevate all this stuff above real life. Yeah… Except that is diluted down to “Hey, take a day off from obsessing over pop culture every once in a while.” That’s not much of a message, but it is a message—except it isn’t. Stating a message in a film doesn’t make it the message. Spielberg made this slip before in a much, much, much better film. In Jurassic Park, the theme is stated by Jeff Goldblum and boils down to, “Don’t do things just because you can, but carefully consider the consequences,” And while the plot does back that, the visuals say, “Dinosaurs are AWESOME!” Who left that film not wanting to make a dinosaur? In the end, the theme of Jurassic Park is that dinosaurs are so cool that nothing else should be considered in our mad dash to make them.

Ready Player One takes it further by not backing the theme with the story. How do you win the day? By obsessing about pop trivia and the makers of pop trivia. How to you get the girl? By obsessing about pop trivia and the makers of pop trivia. Obsessing about pop trivia is the only thing that matters (that and buying some of those sweet, sweet, Warner Bros licensed materials—really, this movie is a nonstop ad), and you need to worship that trivia and destroy anyone who isn’t part of your church. Sorrento doesn’t know the right trivia, so he must be stopped—sort of like how sending death threats to people who disliked Batman vs Superman is a perfectly reasonable thing as they aren’t part of the right sect. Now Sorrento does like some pop culture things, but he likes girls’ things, so… Go ahead, work out why liking Nancy Drew makes you open to ridicule, but praying to Mechagodzilla makes you cool. I’ll wait.

This pop culture religion that we’re told not to embrace, and then shown that embracing is the only thing worth doing, is the worst kind of religion. It is all words with no meaning. None of the references have any depth. You don’t need to know the meaning of The Shining, or the metaphor of the Iron Giant (hint: he doesn’t want to kill). Actually understanding pop culture, thinking about it, is of no use—you just have to be able to rattle off facts and feel it is cool. It’s how Warner Bros would like you to watch this movie: Don’t think about it, just feel it is cool.

It needed to be a lot cooler to pull that off. The visuals are…fine. There’s no great moments. Nothing like the first sight of the sauropods in Jurassic Park. It doesn’t even approach the level of the giant robots fighting giant monsters in Pacific Rim. Apparently in the future everyone will love graphics that look like cut scenes from the 2010s. They can have photo-realistic graphics as is pointed out in the “hacking” scene, but no one goes for that. Ah, but that’s thinking about this world, and no one involved in making this movie wants anyone to do that. The OASIS has been around for years but people haven’t dealt with the fact that what you look like inside the OASIS may be different than what you look like outside it—they deal with it the way someone in 2018 would. Ah, but there I go thinking about world-building, and Ready Player One doesn’t world-build; it just pours some pop culture icons in and stirs.

Ready Player One is a mildly sexist and racist film (women are trophies! Wohoo!) but its true foulness lies in its support of the nostalgia-fanboy mania that has fueled much of the problems in current “fandom”: gamergate, comicsgate, sad puppies, driving people off social media, etc, etc. Thank god it is so bad at it. None of these hate groups are using it as a rallying cry because all they see is a bunch of cool references. Instead of being a garbage fire, it’s empty. Did you see that Terminator 2 thumbs up? Yeah, that was cool. And a time reversal device is named after Robert Zemekis. That’s cool. And that’s all Warner Bros wants you to see. Don’t forget to buy your Buckaroo Banzai T-shirt and Iron Giant figurine when you pick up your blu-ray.

Sep 072018
 
one reel
The+Titan

In the near future, the Earth is dying due to multiple vaguely stated reasons. To “save humanity” a group of scientists, lead by Professor Martin Collingwood (Tom Wilkinson), who are unaware that Saturn’s moon Titan isn’t the only other object in our solar system with an atmosphere (really, couldn’t their non-science have given some gobbledygook reason why Titan is the best choice rahter than simply lying about its atmosphere?) plan to genetically modify adult humans to live there. To do this, they select a group of soldiers who both have proven to be survivors, and are all spectacularly stupid and unstable. Our hero is super soldier Rick Janssen (Sam Worthington), who is too boring to be unstable. He moves with his hot wife (Taylor Schilling)—who is supposedly very brave for giving up her medical career on a dying planet—and his cinematic kid to an insanely expensive house (I think that half the budget was used for renting the house) on the international military base. Shock of shocks, things don’t go smoothly, people die, and soldiers hunt soldiers, but that house is really nice.

Ah, nothing like that Sam Worthington name to say, “Hey, why don’t I watch something else.” He’s every bit as good here as he was in Clash/Wrath of the Titans and Terminator Salvation. Is he a bad actor or does he just choose bad projects; based on this film, I’d say both. The Titan is a sci-fi story about surviving on Titan, except there’s only about 20 seconds on Titan. 50% of the film is spent in a pleasant glass house, and the rest at what I assume was a local Spanish YMCA. There’s a lot more dramatic staring in the first half than science fiction. If you like people gazing off while filmed with a deep blue-green filter, then you’ll be happy. No one else will be.

This is a film where no one seems to have thought that “genetically” altering people in virtually every way to survive on a moon that is in no way habitable to humans might actually change them. One of the solider actually states that he thought there was no danger. Really? I… Really? Everyone is shocked that making someone able to live at negative 290 Fahrenheit, at a 6th of Earth gravity, and in an atmosphere that’s 96% nitrogen and 4% methane would make them look even slightly different than they did before. And they’re very upset about these changes, because they’re stupid. But hey, we learn that future space men will run around naked without penises, so, there’s that.

The plot is ridiculous, the characters are brain-dead, and the “science” has no resemblance to science. The senior scientists/military conflict is just silly. The arguments are goofy and even more so for being allowed to exist (why is doctor-wife yelling that they can’t operate on her husband when it is already way to late to do anything else?) Why are they keeping family members around at all? And the last act, with its multiple endings, raises the stupid factor to unimagined heights.

So everything is stupid, but stupid can be fun. The Titan chooses slow and drab. It looks ugly (except for that house), and trudges along. If you want to make a character drama, then create some interesting characters who show some emotional connection. If you want to make a mad scientist/monster movie, as this drifts into, then make it fast and exciting. Whatever you want to do, don’t make this.

Sep 042018
 
one reel

Recently divorced Edgar Easton (Thomas Lennon) returns to his home town to his pleasant mother and needlessly nasty father. He has the uncommon good luck to meet the once pleasant and attractive girl in town Ashley Summers (Jenny Pelicer), who likes him for no reason we’re ever given. In a mostly ignored subplot, Edgar’s brother had died as a child, and he happened to have a creepy puppet made by long-dead Nazi psychopath Andre Toulon (Udo Kier). Edgar, Ashley, and his Jewish boss Markowitz (Nelson Franklin) head to a convention/auction of puppets made by Toulon to sell the puppet. The convention is filled with Jews, lesbians, and other minorities oppressed by Nazis. To no ones surprise, the toys become mobile and go on a killing spree, mainly of people we have never seen before. Detective Brown (Michael Paré) is called in, but he’s an idiot, and his only help comes from ex-cop Carol Doreski (Barbara Crampton), who killed Toulon years ago.

Puppet Master didn’t need a reboot, nor did they need to change Toulon and his puppets from Nazi fighters to Nazis, nor take away the puppets’ personalities, but it could still have been fun. Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich isn’t fun. It isn’t anything because it wants to be so many things, and that’s the problem. It seems like a cult flick, with lots of gratuitous blood and tits. But then it tries to be a light comedy. Then it attempts to be a serious statement on Nazism. Then it switches to try its luck at real horror. And these don’t fit together. The murders are mean spirited, which kills the comedy. The silly moments kill the horror. And everything kills the message.

A film directed, shot, and lit this poorly needs something strong to overcome those flaws, or it needs to dive into them as ‘70s euro-cult often did. But here, during the big dramatic death (should this film have a big dramatic scene?), I can’t see the characters’ faces well enough to know what they are supposed to be feeling. And I need to see their faces. Or maybe drama wasn’t the way to go. Maybe if your film is about killer Nazi puppets, you should go for zany fun because… killer Nazi puppets!

I assume there was rewrites going on during filming as the film’s structure is odd. Why do we spend time with Edger’s terrible father or in his home town when it doesn’t connect to the rest of the story? Why not just start with everyone arriving at the convention? Why do some characters get long intros while others get nothing? They could have saved some money by cutting those unnecessary scenes and sets and characters, and used it to buy a light or two.

As for the ending, it doesn’t have one. It ends with a “To be continued…” notice.

Charles Band made far too many Puppet Master films, and most of them weren’t very good. But Band made films that could be enjoyed on some level. Now with others taking over the franchise, they’ve made something that is just ugly.

 Artists, Horror, Reviews Tagged with:
Sep 042018
 
three reels

Sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) finds himself at a predator crash site. Knowing the government will try and hush it up, he mails pieces of alien tech to his P.O. Box as evidence, but it ends up in the hands of his magical autistic son (Rory McKenna), who switches it on and calls a predator. Quinn ends up imprisoned with a group of mentally unstable soldiers (Trevante Rhodes, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen, Augusto Agulera). When things go wrong for the government agents led by Traeger (Sterling K. Brown), the soldiers escape, and join with hunted scientist Casey Brackett (Olivia Munn). This sets up a four way battle, between the soldiers, Traeger and his henchmen, a predator, and a super-predator.

Some movies are too dumb to be bad, and this is one of them. Of course that also makes it too dumb to be great, but it’s a lot of fun. This is what you get when a bunch of talented people, spearheaded by writer/director Shane Black, get together and just toss things at the wall. A lot of it sticks. There are an excessive number of well delineated and skillfully brought to life characters. There’s a non-stop stream of one liners which surprisingly give depth to the characters and are witty around half the time. There’s around three hours of action squeezed into the hour and fifty minute run time, including explosions, thirty different types of small arms fire, crashes, chases, and so many deaths. This is a film packed to the gills.

OK, no one is bringing their A-game, but everyone is bringing a solid B-game. Every actor pulls it off, every scene looks good (not great, but good), and every emotional beat lands, though with more of a tap then a hammer blow. It feels like the best SyFy channel movie ever.

So am I being far too kindly in overlooking the major flaws? No, as this is the type of movie where the regular rules of what’s a flaw don’t apply. It doesn’t matter that everything is too convenient, that much of the plot doesn’t make sense, or that people just make wild leaps in assuming what the predators are up to. None of those take away from the fun. What does hurt it is it is too proper. It needed to go a bit more into Deadpool territory. It needed more extreme kills, more ridiculous battles, and a lot more offensive dialog. It’s too pretty. This is best shown by our nude scenes with Olivia Munn, or rather, our lack of them. The film focuses on her undressing for decontamination, and then again, when having her clothing on is keeping the doors from unlocking to let her escape. We should have seen her standing naked (as well as Jake Busey’s bare ass and probably some shadow swinging between his legs), but for this softest of R ratings, they play it off as if the audience should be titillated just by the thought of Ms Munn’s theoretical nudity. That’s too timid. Play ball or go home, and The Predator is the type of film where everyone should be playing, and cheating.

So, The Predator was never going to be a great film. With a bit more balls, it could have been a “classic” B-Sci-Fi cult film. With less talent it would have been trash. It ends up thoroughly enjoyable, if brain-dead.

It follows the cheesy good time Predator (1987), its nearly as good sequel, Predator 2 (1990), and the disappointing Predators (2010). There were also two Alien crossover films that everyone likes to ignore, the surprisingly good AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004), and the not at all surprisingly horrible Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (2007).