Search This Blog

Thursday, September 24, 2009

DEATH WISH 3 (1985)

Throughout the history of cinema there have been critically acclaimed films that made a shitload of money, thereby guaranteeing sequels, and while several such follow-ups are good, sometimes even eclipsing the flicks that spawned them — FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, A SHOT IN THE DARK, THE GODFATHER PART II, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and TOY STORY 2 spring immediately to mind — more often than not the sequels fall far short of the quality found in the original work. Among the lackluster movies that make up this reviled sub-category are such infamous works as EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC, THE TWO JAKES, BASIC INSTINCT II, the entire gaggle of JAWS offspring, the unfortunate sequels to THE MATRIX, and of course the STAR WARS prequel trilogy, but no sequel has ever fallen straight to the depths of cinematic Hell quite as spectacularly as DEATH WISH 3. And seldom has any other film, good or bad, been anywhere near as balls-out entertaining.

The original DEATH WISH from 1974 was a serious and rather depressing piece of early-1970’s social commentary that centered on a NYC architect, Paul Kersey (played by the venerable Charles Bronson, nee Buchinski), who is the most gentle of souls, once a conscientious objector during his military service, now a loving family man, basically the sort of guy who wouldn’t harm a fly. Then, one day while he’s away at work, a bunch of thugs (including a repellent Jeff Goldblum in his screen debut) break into his posh Upper West Side apartment and brutally beat and rape his wife and daughter. Kersey’s wife does not survive the assault and his daughter is so traumatized by the experience that she ends up a vegetable and is committed to a mental health care facility for life (or, more accurately, until she is again gang raped and eventually killed in the appalling DEATH WISH 2). To take his mind off his family’s tragedies, the emotionally distraught Kersey accepts a design job in Arizona and receives a revolver as a token of appreciation from his client. Upon returning to the almost cartoonishly crime-ridden streets of New York, Kersey takes it upon himself to go on a one man spree of payback against the human vermin who make NYC life unlivable, first beating the piss out of a mugger with a sock full of quarters, then upgrading to using his gift pistol to blow away more scum, the press soon bestowing upon him the catchy moniker of “the Vigilante Killer.” Lionized by the citizens who soon begin to follow his example of fighting back and demonized by a police force that is pissed off because he makes them look useless, Kersey is eventually shot, but he survives and is given a pass by the NYPD who secretly banish him and tell him in no uncertain terms that he is never to return.

When DEATH WISH proved to be a hit, the sequels took their own sweet time in showing up, the first of which being unleashed in 1982. The early 1980’s were the dawn of the era of truly mindless action flicks, and the DEATH WISH series quickly threw out all semblance of quality and social commentary, opting instead for as much over-the-top graphic carnage as possible. DEATH WISH 2 is an exploitation piece of the lowest order, a celluloid slaughterhouse that offers up far more rape, violence, shootings and general degradation of the human spirit than even this hardened grindhouse junkie could stomach, with a sickening air of abject cruelty permeating the whole megilah. And providing the icing on this mountainous shit cake is Jimmy Page — yes, that Jimmy Page — apparently having forgotten the skills that made him a rock ‘n’ roll legend, providing a cacophonous mess of a score. Fortunately for bad movie addicts everywhere, DEATH WISH 2 made enough scratch to warrant a sequel three years later, and thus was the sublime ridiculousness of DEATH WISH 3 foisted upon an unsuspecting public.

For his third outing, Kersey returns to “the City” to visit an old and utterly nondescript army buddy (read “cannon fodder”), but as is expected in this series the guy is soon rendered null and void by some of the many “creeps” who infest the neighborhood like two-legged cockroaches. When Kersey enters his dying friend’s apartment he is nabbed by the cops, who of course think he’s responsible, and he’s promptly brought before Shriker (played by Ed Lauter, veteran of about eleventy-jillion flicks), a hard-nosed detective who recognizes Kersey (apparently he saw the previous flicks) and roughs him up a bit just to show him who’s boss. Now, Kersey — hereafter referred to as Badass Grandpa — may be an old fart, but he ain’t taking that kind of bullshit, so he immediately socks Shriker in the nuts. That move lands Badass Grandpa in the holding tank, a foul enclosure just brimming with punks, junkies and creeps straight out of Central Casting.

“I’m old. I’m bold. GET USED TO IT, CREEPS!”

It’s all been cookie cutter stupid up to this point, but once Badass Grandpa hands out an ass-whuppin’ on an overweight creep by shoving his Rosie O’Donnell-sized skull through the bars, all bets are off. This amusing act of self-defense/gratuitous violence attracts the attention of Fraker (masterfully — and shamelessly — essayed by Gavan O’Herlihy, the guy who played Richie Cunningham’s older brother, Chuck, during the first season of “Happy Days”), a horse-faced white dude sporting an idiotic reverse Mohawk and what I guess is supposed to be some kind of scary neo-tribal war paint, but instead looks like he passed out drunk and a five-year-old drew on his face with some crayons and nobody bothered to mention it to him.

"Hey! Why the fuck are youse laughin' at me?"

Upon seeing Badass Grandpa in action, Fraker asserts his imagined status as the cell’s resident alpha wolf and gives the old coot a cheap shot to the ribs, after which he is released back onto the streets. But as he departs, Fraker looks Badass Grandpa square in the eye and advises him to watch the seven o’clock news because “I’m gonna kill an old lady. Just for you.” Then, apparently having forgotten about being pissed off at him, Detective Shriker releases Badass Grandpa, tells him how much he admires his work as a homicidal vigilante because he can’t stand creeps either, returns his gun and actually gives him carte blanche to wipe out as many punks/creeps as he feels like, all with the full clandestine cooperation of the local police department. Thus emboldened, Badass Grandpa takes up residence in his dead war buddy’s apartment and is befriended by Bennett (Martin Balsam, who was memorably offed on the staircase by “Mother” in the original PSYCHO), a tenant who is nice enough to introduce Badass Grandpa to the other residents, each and every one an ethnic/religious stereotype — the old ultra-Jewish couple, the earthy Hispanics, etc. —, gives a detailed who’s who of the local creeps, and shows Badass Grandpa where his dead pal kept a big, honkin’ military issue machine gun, complete with ammo feed (but strangely no tripod on which to mount the sumbitch). Ooh, foreshadowing!

Meanwhile, Fraker returns to lead his gang and resumes his kingship by savagely murdering the gang member who had filled in for him, an act I know would have certainly filled me with a sense of unwavering loyalty. Y’see, the creeps in this film would be right at home in some post-apocalyptic hellhole as seen in films such as THE ROAD WARRIOR or FIST OF THE NORTH STAR, what with their stilted lingo, outlandish hairdos and idiotic outfits that run the gamut from the generic biker/punk rocker gear to wildly inappropriate FLASHDANCE ballet togs, but they are completely out of place in any modern day metropolis, a point driven further home when we actually get to meet some of them. Other than Fraker, the most notable creeps are Hermosa, played with staggering non-menace by a pre-BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE Alex Winter (he’s the blonde one who isn’t Keanu Reeves, namely Bill) and “the Giggler,” an outrageous black dude/FAME refugee in a leotard who gets his handle from his habit of giggling when he robs or otherwise assaults someone. Seriously, you have to see these guys to believe them.

Equipped with his new info on the local creeps, Badass Grandpa befriends all of the residents of the building, listening to their tales of misery at the hands of the scumbags and formulating the required plans of action to deal with them; the ultra-Jews have been home-invaded through their kitchen window by the Giggler more than once — he even taunted them with “We’ll be back! WHENEVER WE LIKE!!!! Hee Hee Hee Hee Hee!,” the nasty so-and-so — and the imaginatively-named Maria (the Hispanic chick, played by Marina Sirtis two years before she irritated the shit out of us for seven seasons on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” as Counselor Deanna Troi; thankfully she doesn’t have a single line in this entire picture) has been harassed to the point of near-rape by Bill, er, Hermosa until Badass Grandpa smacks him in the mouth with a convenient tire iron. I’m telling you, the ludicrous image of Alex Winter grinning like a Jack O’Lantern while plastered across Marina Sirtis’ windshield screaming “I’m gonna eatchoo, bitch!” as she drives like a maniac in an underground parking garage looks just like something out of a Wally Wood MAD Magazine illustration. I mean, how badly does an attempted rape scene fail when it elicits howls of belly-laughter even from the women in the audience?

Once he’s satisfied with his reconnaissance efforts, Badass Grandpa begins his urban renewal crusade in earnest and takes advantage of his police department free pass to purchase high-powered firearms by mail, weaponry such as a Wildey Magnum pistol that’s literally as big as your forearm, fist included.

Now THAT’S a gun!

He also rigs the tenement’s apartments with a variety of booby traps, one of which includes a wooden platform festooned with nails for the perforation of felonious feet, while another features a spring loaded two-by-four that explosively bashes would-be home invaders square in the mouth; when this trap goes off during Badass Grandpa’s meal with the ultra-Jews (causing the douchebag on the receiving end to screech like a banshee as he flees into the night), the diners rush to the kitchen and find the board sticking straight up next to an open window. As Badass Grandpa resets the trap, the ultra-Jews gape in shock, point at the board and ask, “What’s that?” Badass Grandpa smiles and says, “teeth!” We are then treated to a closeup of the board with what appear to be two bloody Chiclets embedded in the wood.

NOTE: At best the trap in question would just smack you right in the face, possibly breaking your nose, but unless the guy who got hit had been looking straight up at the ceiling and had his mandible surgically removed there is no fucking way that his teeth would end up in that plank. I’m sorry, but even for a film with this little grasp on basic reality, this is a bit of a stretch.

Once the gauntlet is thrown, in short order our ancient hero renders several of Fraker’s creeps tits-up on the pavement, most hilariously in the case of the Giggler; Badass Grandpa wanders down the street eating an ice cream cone and swinging a very expensive camera like a streetwalker’s purse during Fleet Week, attracting the baleful gaze of the Giggler. The felon eyes Badass Grandpa and begins to follow him, finally launching himself at the old man, snagging the pricey Nikon. As the Giggler speeds away, looking over his shoulder and living up to his fey nickname, Badass Grandpa drops his vanilla cone and from out of nowhere produces his insanely huge hand cannon and ventilates the fleeing FAME refugee. The actor/dancer playing the Giggler makes the most of his character’s demise by not merely hitting the asphalt, oh no! This master showman goes out with a wildly inappropriate and fruity jazz dance fall and lands like he’s interpreting an autumn leaf daintily tumbling to the earth, it’s season over and its time done. Such artistic expression may be laudable, but it has no business being in this film. In fact, when I first witnessed that moment, I snarfed the beer I was drinking out of both nostrils and then sat there laughing like the village idiot. Meanwhile, people on the street stop what they’re doing and even hang out of windows cheering and laughing at the corpse of the Giggler — which in real life would have a hole roughly the diameter of a manhole cover through it —, with one teenage onlooker raising the Black Power fist and screaming, “Right on, man!” to a smiling Badass Grandpa. And in a perfectly moronic coda to the sequence, the camera then jump cuts to the gang’s dank basement headquarters where we see Fraker’s thugs deep in the throes of mourning for their fallen comrade; much wailing and hand-wringing goes on, and then one of the creeps poignantly utters the deathless line, “They shot the Giggler, man!”

I’m telling ya, folks, not since Shakespeare have I been so moved by dialogue that truly expresses the depths of one man’s soul-wrenching misery.

Needless to say, Fraker ain’t having some old fart piss all over him and his creeps, so he decides to escalate the situation by having his boys abduct Counselor Troi and gang rape her; this scene could have been a hell of a lot worse, especially considering the misogynistic excesses of DEATH WISH 2, but it’s still pretty distasteful considering that it’s clearly meant to titillate a certain audience element, bares Marina Sirtis’ olive-toned tetas, and worst of all shows Bill, er, Hermosa leading the pack. After the boys have had their fun, Maria’s unconscious body is found and her husband and Badass Grandpa rush to the hospital to see her. They are immediately informed by the attending physician that during the assault Maria suffered a broken arm which caused a blood clot that dislodged and made its way to her heart, killing her just minutes before her visitors arrived.

At this point I would like to ask any of the medical professionals who read this blog if such a thing is possible; I’m no doctor, so I don’t know, but the offhanded speed with which that bit of info is delivered rendered all believability null and void for me.

Oh, and lest I forget, from out of nowhere comes Deborah Raffin in the thankless role of a police administrator or psychiatrist or some shit who is assigned to keep tabs on Badass Grandpa — NOTE: she’s not in on his arrangement with the local fuzz — and unbelievably falls in love with his Methuselah ass. This improbable plot element, one of the most improbable in a film where a talking, disco dancing tree would barely raise an eyebrow, allows Badass Grandpa to briefly have a love interest who you just know is going to get killed, thereby spurring the old coot on to greater heights of urban wholesale slaughter. The two instantly embark on a romance that we are supposed to deeply care about, despite the fact that the two of them have been together for all of maybe ten minutes, but wouldn’t ya know it? That ol’ meanie Fraker knocks out the police administrator (or psychiatrist or some shit) while she’s sitting behind the wheel of her car at a red light, kicks the car into gear, sending it careening out of control until it crashes and bursts into the kind of pyrotechnic display that no movie in this genre would be complete without, an event that is of course witnessed by Badass Grandpa.

Oh, it’s ON now, creeps.

Badass Grandpa returns to the apartment building with a mysterious package that he received in the mail, and then breaks out the gigantic machine gun that was in his dead war buddy’s flat, gaining Maria’s husband (and his homemade zip-gun) as backup. The two then literally wander the streets, blowing away overacting creeps willy-nilly, when, lo and behold, Detective Shriker joins in the fun and the three hobble about feebly, inspiring the once timid neighborhood denizens to pick up bricks, boards, baseball bats, the family cat, and damn near anything else that isn’t nailed down and fight back against the savage scumbags. The already ultra-violent streets are suddenly turned into an even more over-the-top living Hell as the locals give as good as they get in defense of their homes, and the skies literally rain bodies from the rooftops as Badass Grandpa and his boys blast the living shit out of everyone and everything in sight.

The sheer madness that ensues goes on for about fifteen solid minutes of our heroes staggering about like they’d stumbled into a living shooting gallery, each cutout target able to move, scream, cuss and bleed. There’s even an incredible bit where a creep hurls a Molotov cocktail through a tenement window, after which a shrill old lady’s scream is heard; shortly thereafter the old lady runs into the street, her torso ablaze, but the hilarious part of this is that she’s obviously portrayed by a dude and resembles Norman Bates doing his “mother” act while auditioning for the role of the Human Torch in FANTASTIC FOUR: THE RISE OF THE SLIVER SURFER.

Eventually, shit gets so thick that Fraker gets on the phone and calls some unnamed thug, presumably of the same tribe or a regional affiliate, and politely asks him if he can “send some more guys.” We are then treated to a shot of a horde of barbarian bikers instantly roaring into the neighborhood, whoopin’ and a-hollerin’, whirling chains over their heads, and generally being a blight on humanity. The only way this image could have been any funnier is if there were a few random Vikings and pirates screaming, “Aar, me hearties” for spice.

This laughable display is greeted by Fraker’s punks with a stirring show of solidarity, namely with more whoopin’ and a-hollerin’, and whirling of chains over their own Mohawked/shaved/Afroed heads. Faster than you can say, “Have you ever seen such cruelty?” the mayhem somehow manages to get even more outrageous, causing Badass Grandpa to run out of machine gun ammo, so he falls back on his old, reliable Wildey Magnum. Yet more punks soon litter the streets with their splattered corpses and the locals appear to be gaining the upper hand. However, despite a valiant show of homicidal acumen, Badass Grandpa soon begins to tire and is caught unawares by a creep who stabs him with a trusty “shiv.” Luckily, Badass Grandpa had on a bulletproof vest during the stabbing, so he survives and makes it back to his dead pal’s flat, hurriedly rummaging for the mysterious package he received earlier. Just as he grabs the box, Fraker storms in to hold Badass Grandpa at gunpoint and taunt him about the fact the he too has on a bulletproof vest. Unimpressed and with a burst of speed that would have made Barry Allen envious, Badass Grandpa whips out the contents of the mysterious package, a handheld rocket launcher that he aims at Fraker, literally blowing him to chunky bits from five feet away (an act that would have also killed Badass Grandpa thanks to the confined space involved, but why quibble?) while simultaneously sending the wall behind the head creep showering onto the street below. Upon catching sight of this and somehow realizing that the pretty bits of hamburger littering the sidewalk are the earthly remains of their leader, the rampaging creeps, bikers, pirates, ninjas, Viet Cong, zombies, giant montsers, vampires and Shiite Muslims dejectedly lower their chains, knives, cricket bats, Panzer tanks and disintegrator pistols and drive off into the unknown from whence they came in a parade resembling the exodus scene from THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, only populated with nothing but total douchebags and no camels to speak of.

As the neighborhood around them burns and scores of stiffs festoon the place for as far as the eye can see, Shriker tells Badass Grandpa that he’ll cover for any difficult questions that may arise from his having turned the area into a demilitarized zone, so the old dude should make like a bakery truck and haul buns outta there. And so, like the hardened warrior he is, Badass Grandpa packs his suitcase and wanders off into the horizon, just as the pretty much non-existent-up-to-this-point squadron of police cars enters the post-fray. THE END.

Unfortunately, this overview simply cannot in any way, shape, or form get across just how maniacally insane this film is, so if you feel like you need a million volts of outright stupidity shot straight up your ass, put it in your Netflix queue right now. No joke, truly idiotic though it may be, DEATH WISH 3 is one of my top twenty all-time favorite movies and I can’t urge you strongly enough to see it as soon as you can. Oh, and avoid the other sequels at all costs.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD (1965)

I love me some giant monster flicks, and nobody made them better or crazier than Toho Studios during their heyday. The critters that infested their world came in all manner of metropolis-demolishing forms: giant jellyfish (from outer space, no less, in DAGORA THE SPACE MONSTER), giant psychedelic mushrooms (ATTACK OF THE MUSHROOM PEOPLE), giant spiders and mantises (SON OF GODZILLA), giant walruses (GORATH), giant cuttlefish (YOG, MONSTER FROM SPACE), giant shrimp (GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER), giant moths (MOTHRA), giant birds (RODAN), giant gorillas (KING KONG ESCAPES), and even a giant cockroach (GODZILLA VS, MEGALON). So once they'd pretty much exhausted the animal and vegetable kingdoms, what else was left except a giant Frankenstein in a Tarzan outfit? In the completely out of its mind (even for Toho) FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD, you get just that.

According to the story, in the waning days of WWII the Nazis remove the living heart of the Frankenstein Monster from a lab where it's kept in a tank and move it for safekeeping to Hiroshima. Well, not meaning to sound glib about it, we all know how that turned out, and the heart was lost and forgotten. Jump ahead to the present — 1965 — and we find out that there's a fucked-up-looking boy running around the countryside, eating small animals and leaving behind their remains. He's eventually captured and turned over to an American doctor (Nick Adams) who's in the Land of the Rising Sun to minister to victims of the radiation at Hiroshima with his foxy colleague (the toothsome Kumi Mizuno). They soon discover that the kid's not just fucked-up-looking, he's also Caucasian! The details on his exact origins are a little fuzzy: he's either a starving kid who found the case containing Frankenstein's heart and ate the beating organ, or he's a whole new being that grew from Frankenstein's immortal heart, only given a bit of help in the growth department from all that radiation. He's also found to possess fantastic healing abilities that allow him to survive devastating physical damage, even regrowing severed limbs. (I dig the idea of him having grown from the heart, so I'll go with that one.)

After befriending the hot doctor chick, Japenstein escapes into the woods and grows by a couple of hundred feet, also fashioning himself a happenin' Tarzan-style over-the-shoulder number out of miscellaneous animal skins to cover his nekkidness, and thank God for that. I don't think I could have handled the sight of Frankenstein's gigantic nuts flopping around all over the goddamned place.

Of course the army is called in to take Frankie out when cattle and people start vanishing down the gullet of a giant, unseen, burrowing critter that they naturally assume to be the big guy despite him never having dug a hole in his life. It instead turns out to be Baragon, one of the silliest-looking of the Toho monsters, and that's really saying something; he's basically a giant puppy-dog with big, floppy ears, sharp teeth, and a horn that lights up for no apparent reason.

The uber-goofy Baragon (not to be confused with Barugon from the painfully boring GAMERA VS. BARUGON).

Soon enough, Frankie and Baragon are duking it and destroying more raw acreage than a legion of clear-cutters, the whole thing wrapping up with Frankie kicking Baragon's rubbery ass only to be swallowed forever when the earth opens up, also for no apparent reason.

It's all great, stoopid fun and one of the extras on the DVD is perhaps my favorite deleted scene of all time: after Frankenstein kills Baragon, he roars in triumph and suddenly stops dead. A look of utter confusion appears on his face and he practically says, "What the fuck?!!?" as a monstrous octopus sidles out of the forest and engages him in single combat.

This is the kind of thing that you'll only see in a Toho movie.

Yes, a fucking giant land-based octopus shows up and the two wrestle their way into the ocean. THE END.

I first heard of this loony epic when I was about six years old and the kid from up the street showed me the feature article on it in the late, lamented THE MONSTER TIMES. His description of the film was quite exciting, albeit erroneous; he told me that the Frankenstein not only destroyed every army on the planet in gory ways that involved their pants getting ripped off and killed about thirty other monsters, but at the end of the film he began to hit the ground with his fist making a "konk" noise, thereby "konk"-ering the world. Ya gotta love it when kids recount movies. Their fabrications are often far better than the actual film, but when I finally saw FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD about two or three years later on New York City's THE 4:30 MOVIE (of course as a part of the beloved "Monster Week" cycles) I was far from disappointed.

The handsome new DVD transfer is a cheaply-priced two-disc set that features the uncut original Japanese version as well as the slightly shorter US release, and has that great bit with the octopus which is worth the price of purchase on its own for sheer non sequitor value. So if you love this goofy crap as much as I do, by all means pick up a copy and force your CGI-jaded brats to check out the earth-shaking glory that was "Suitmation."

TRUST YER BUNCHE!!!

The movie poster from the original Japanese release.

HOT FUZZ (2007)


Having greatly enjoyed the same creative team's 2004 British import SHAUN OF THE DEAD, I held out a bit of anticipation for this year's HOT FUZZ, a comedy billed as a send-up of American action flicks and hailed as "the funniest film of its kind since THE NAKED GUN series." When it was released over here there were many reviews that described it as laugh-out-loud funny and action packed, so when I got my hands on the DVD I was ready for exactly what the trailers and reviews had prepped me for.

What I got was something else entirely.

HOT FUZZ is the story of London supercop Sergeant Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg), the type of officer who's pretty much a law-obsessed, one-man police force adept at all aspects of law enforcement, in other words the archetype hero for a large number of films in the action genre. When his arrest record exceeds those of his colleagues by over 400%, his superiors decided to reassign him because he's making them look bad, and the rest of the cops on his squad are elated to see him go. Ending up in the remote country hamlet of Standford, Angel is utterly miserable with his new post since the crime rate is virtually non-existent and the town's cops are a bunch of lazy borderline morons. Partnered with dimwitted cop-movie enthusiast PC Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), Sergeant Angel spends his time collaring petty shoplifters, routing underage drinkers from the local pub, attempting to apprehend an escaped swan — owned by a guy whose name sounds exactly like "Piss Taker," a Britishism for one who teases or ridicules; more on that term can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taking_the_piss — and pulling over speeding motorists, a pathetic far cry from his previous life of kicking ass; it's not that the guy's an adreneline junkie, it's that he's unabe to turn off his drive to adminster by-the-book law enforcement and mellow out enough to adapt to his new environment.

Much of the film is devoted to Angel's fish out of water situation, and once we are very (VERY!!!) thoroughly immersed in Stanford's world and its people the plot finally veers into potential "action" territory as various characters meet grisly, suspicious demises that Angel refuses to brush off as mere unfortunate happenstance, much to the annoyance of his co-workers. As the bodies pile up and Angel's frustration grows, his partner manages to break through Angel's round the clock hardassedness by getting him drunk and sitting him through POINT BREAK and BAD BOYS II, just a couple of items from his voluminous action flick DVD collection (impressively housed in a cabinet reminiscent of something Batman would have). Eventually Angel's suspicions prove correct, and the film climaxes with an orgy of guns-a-blazin' carnage that involves damned near everyone in the village, including the school kids.

All of this is crafted quite skillfully and the film is loaded with fine performances that bolster the intelligent script, but the film is neither laugh-out-loud funny or action packed; more than three quarters of the film's just over two hour running time is an endless series of Angel's non-adventures, and the film's humor is laid back to the point of being near comatose in a way familiar to anyone who's ever seen a British comedy that takes place outside of a major city. Standford is populated with the predictable stock cast of quaint village types, and their country ways clash with Angel in ways that you could have written yourself. As for the film being a parody of the action genre, the honest to God action sequences don't happen until the movie's nearly over, by which time it's a case of far too little far too late.

That said, HOT FUZZ is in no way a bad film, but its marketing is quite dishonest, leading a potential viewer to expect something that moves briskly rather than the leisurely-paced tale that it tells. I'm not kidding, it takes over ninety minutes for anything to really happen, and by that time I kept the film on solely to how it ended, my interest having died about an hour earlier; Timothy Daulton's smoother-than-greased-otter-shit villian is fun, and the one scene that made me laugh out loud featured the worst local production of ROMEO AND JULIETTE ever committed to film, but when the orgy of violence finally arrives it just isn't worth the wait, a couple of humorous touches notwithstanding. So all I can say is "Caveat Emptor" if you're looking for a slam-bang action comedy.

TRUST YER BUNCHE!!!

SURF'S UP (2007)

Following fast on the heels of the sickeningly treacly HAPPY FEET (2006, and inexcusably directed by the guy guy who gave us MAD MAX and THE ROAD WARRIOR) comes SURF'S UP, the latest feature catering to the public's apparent obsession with penguin movies. But unlike the others, SURF'S UP succeeds on a variety of levels and is a lot of fun as a result.

The film's clever framing device is that we're watching a documentary chronicling the Cinderella-story odyssey of a young misfit surfer from an Antarctic fishing community who wrangles his way into the big surfing competition on Pen Gu Island (think of it as a cross between Hawaii and New Zealand)and after a savage pre-contest wipeout learns several important life lessons from a legendary surfer who has been assumed dead for the past decade (the competition is being held in his honor). During the course of the story we see interviews with the hero's family, neighbors and other assorted characters intercut with the more linear main narrative, and in about five minutes I completely forgot that I was watching a CGI cartoon about surfing penguins (and other poultry); each character is quite well realized and interesting in their own right, and the main lesson that winning is insignificant when measured against friendship and the sheer joy of doing whatever it is that turns you on rings true rather than sappy.

Hero penguin Cody Maverick (oy, that name!) is a plucky protagonist who is perhaps too focused on taking the competition's prize, and his monomania about it blinds him to all else around, including the incredible beauty of the island, the friendship of stoned-beyond-belief Chicken Joe, and requisite gorgeous lifeguard Lani (and her silent Humboldt squid floatation device). Embarrassed and licking his wounds after his earlier wipeout disgrace (against the hulking world-champion surfer asshole/bully, no less), Cody meets the Geek, a portly recluse hiding out in the deep jungle who proves to be Big Z (Jeff Bridges, pretty much reprising his role from THE BIG LEBOWSKI), the allegedly dead master surfer who faked his own death upon realizing that the time of blissed-out wave-riders like himself was passing, and that the era of the all-for-money-glory-and-endorsements surfer had dawned. Having found the Master Po to his Grasshopper, Cody sits at the feet of Big Z and basks in his knowledge and skills, impatient at first, but soon learning the zen of the surfer from a shredder whose effortless style is boddhisatva-like; there's a beautiful touch when, after explaining the perfect wonder of where one's consciousness can go when shooting the tube, Biz Z rockets out of a colossal pipeline, turns his body around one-hundred and eighty degrees around on his board and bows in reverence, hands steepled together, to the awesome majesty of the wave.

During their time together, Cody and Big Z bond and their relationship yields benefits that neither could have foreseen; moved by Cody's zeal and hero-worship, Big Z leaves his self-imposed exile and rediscovers his place upon the water, both as an inspiration to others and as a mentor, while Cody learns to have fun and discovers a father figure in Big Z, an ideal replacement for his biological sire who ended up as a snack for a Killer Whale. Cody also grows closer to Lani the lifeguard - who is also Big Z's niece - but as the competition looms, Cody's new enlightenment wars with his desire for glory and it's a toss-up to see which will triumph in the end.

SURF'S UP has much to recommend, but here are the things to note in case you need a more concise guide before seeing it:
  • The CGI animation is seamless to the point of completely placing the viewer firmly within its digital reality. Seriously, the shit looks real. Every image and location is a feast for the eyes, so I urge you to see it on the big screen before it loses much of its visual punch thanks to the inevitable loss of scope and scale when seen at home on DVD or cable, although huge plasma screen TV's may eliminate some of that problem.
  • Jeff Bridges steals the movie as Biz Z, and it's a joy to watch a corpulent penguin ride the waves with a totally believable, near-mystical grace.
  • John Heder (NAPOLEON DYNAMITE) as the voice of Chicken Joe turns in the most obviously stoned character ever to be seen in a "family" film, a turn that will go right over the heads of the little ones and cause parents to knowingly giggle to themselves.
  • And while we're on the subject, SURF'S UP is an ideal smoke-a-blunt movie thanks to its leisurely pace (which may bore the kids), mellow surfer vibe, and eye candy visuals, so if you feel inclined, smoke 'em if ya got 'em!
  • Though marketed as a family film, SURF'S UP is really geared to a grownup sensibility, and the proceedings may not have enough belly laughs or fast-paced silliness to keep the tykes interested, especially once the penguin angle becomes a moot point and the viewer accepts the protagonists as characters and not merely cute, anthropomorphized flightless marine fowl. It's perfectly suitable for all ages, but the under-tens may find it hard to stay quiet or sit still for what is mostly a character study, so keep that in mind.
Bottom line: the first film I've genuinely enjoyed this summer, I recommend SURF'S UP, and will definitely buy it when it comes out on DVD so I can enjoy repeat viewings with a hookah full of tasty buds at the ready. Definitely NOT a cocksucker, so TRUST YER BUNCHE!!!

LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION (2003)

Did you ever see a movie on DVD that you intentionally gave a miss during its theatrical run, only to kick yourself in the head for missing it on the big screen when you finally saw it at home on your dinky-by-comparison television screen? For me LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION is such a film, and having seen it last night I must urge any fellow Warner Brothers cartoon junkies out there who haven't seen it to get off your asses and pick it up (I got it at the Times Square Virgin Megastore for seven bucks).

When it came out, I opted to skip this film because I still hadn't gotten the taste of the regrettable SPACE JAM (1996) out of my mouth; SPACE JAM was a prime example of sheer Hollywood "product," taking beloved characters and shoehorning them into a storyline that does not play to their strengths — the Looney Tunes gang engaging in an intergalactic basketball game upon which hinges the fate of planet Earth — and partnering them with the world's number one sports Icon, in this case basketball demi-god Michael Jordan, for a live action/animation hybrid that tries way too hard and yields little in the way of entertainment (at least the animation was impressive). The film also irked me because it was basically a feature-length document of the kissing of Michael Jordan's ass, and while I have no problem with Jordan it was clear that the filmmakers were more interested in exploiting the perceived bankability of his sports legend status than they were in creating a genuinely fun movie that was as crazily manic as the Looney Tunes are deservedly famous for being. It was a hollow, soulless dud that made me sad as a lifelong fan of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and the rest of their obnoxious, irreverent brethren. LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION, however, had the exact polar opposite effect on me, thoroughly lifting my spirits during a period when I've been somewhat bummed out by life and the world in general. The original LOONEY TUNES shorts have always had that effect on me and just the mere thought of some of their gags makes me giggle, and in some cases laugh out loud. Some cases in point:

• Bugs Bunny’s truly idiotic duet with a cross-dressing wolf in the classic “Litte Red Riding Rabbit” (1944).

• Owl Jolson’s lively and kinda David Lynchian performance of “I Love To Singa” (1936).


• "Nasty Quacks" (1945), in which a doting father buys a cute little duckling as a pet for his daughter, only to suffer the tortures of the damned when said duckling grows up to be Daffy Duck.


• “Back Alley Oproar” (1948), in which an exhausted Elmer Fudd attempts in vain to sleep while Sylvester the cat mounts a fence and proceeds to sing. Easily Sylvester’s finest hour, his incredibly annoying songfest will have you simultaneously laughing your ass off and wanting to commit suicide because it’s just so horrendous, especially when he resorts to stylings aping those of Spike Jones (the musician, not the filmmaker).


• “The Swooner Crooner" (1944), an hilarious comment on the rivalry between Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, recast here as singing roosters whose vocalizations spur unprecedented displays of lust and Herculean egg-laying from the female chickens on Porky Pig’s farm.


• “Super-Rabbit” (1943), a deft parody of the Max Fleischer Superman shorts of the early-1940’s that gets my vote as the first time the Warner Brother’s crew really cemented the formula of Bugs gleefully decimating an opponent, in this case Western-style bad guy Cottontail “I hates rabbits” Smith and his hapless horse.


There are innumerable other examples, but you get the idea. The LOONEY TUNES cartoons had an incalculable influence on my sense of humor and love of the ridiculous and absurd, so I approached LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION with no small amount of trepidation, but fortunately I remembered my experience with SPACE JAM so I went into it with zero expectations. What I didn’t know was that it was directed by Joe Dante, a talented graduate of Roger Corman’s New World stable who gave the world GREMLINS, the superior GREMLINS 2, the vastly underrated EXPLORERS, and had an uncredited hand in one of my favorite movies of all time, ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL, each of which could quite fairly be described as live action cartoons, so it almost goes without saying that Bugs and his colleagues were in qualified directorial hands.

Just like the classic cartoons from which it sprang, LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION offers a goofball plot that serves as just enough story that won’t get in the way of the dialogue, insane gags and interplay between the characters. After years of being a second banana and the butt of more often than not violent punch lines, Daffy Duck pleads his case to his Warner Brothers bosses and presses them into choosing him or Bugs Bunny as their flagship character. This tactic completely backfires when Kate (Jenna Elfman, who’s actually good enough here to erase the lingering radiation of DHARMA & GREG), the new VP of the company’s comedy division — a “genius” who created LETHAL WEAPON BABIES,“ a LETHAL WEAPON you can take your grandchildren to — unceremoniously fires him and orders him physically ejected from the Warner Brothers lot, a task that falls to DJ (Brendan Frasier), a goofily hunky security guard/aspiring stuntman. DJ’s efforts at catching Daffy wreak considerable damage, and as a result the poor guy gets the boot and heads home. The studio soon realizes that Bugs without Daffy is not necessarily a wise creative move, an opinion bolstered by Bugs’ own hardball techniques, so Kate is given the weekend in which to get Daffy back or be out on her ass, and during her search for the little black duck she discovers that the security guard she fired is the son of the studio’s number one action star (Timothy Dalton, sending up his status as a former James Bond). Meanwhile, DJ and Daffy find themselves in the middle of a James Bondian plot for world domination presided over by the head of the ACME corporation (Steve Martin in a fun turn that out-bizarres the bizarreness of his 1970s/1980s work), and their path collides with that of Bugs and Kate on a globe-crossing adventure that goes in many unexpected comedic directions. Fun, lively, fast-paced, loaded with in-jokes for fans of Warner Brothers cartoons in particular and movies in general, and actually funny, LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION was everything SPACE JAM could have been but wasn’t, and the crying shame of it is that this film was totally ignored by almost everybody on the planet. It’s downright criminal.

The script handles the Warner Brothers characters with a knowing affection and successfully transplants them into the modern world with not one misstep, and Bugs’ been-there-done-that aplomb and Daffy’s rampaging neuroses in fine form, supplemented by numerous welcome appearances by most of the familiar LOONEY TUNES stable (including Granny and Baby Bear still being voiced by their original voice actors, namely the venerable June Foray and Stan Freberg). Even Nasty Canasta returns from the cartoon ether, so what’s not to love? And Brendan Frasier has always been something of a live action cartoon himself, so he not only fits right in with his animated co-stars and is his usual enjoyable self (so sue me, I like the guy), his character irritatedly makes mention of what a prima donna dick the real Brendan Frasier is (he doubled for him in THE MUMMY movies until Frasier decided to do his own stunts), he also provides the spot-on voice for the Tasmanian Devil.

One of the many bits that I loved is that despite being brought in to “leverage his synergy” and craft shorts in which people learn lessons and morals and there’s no violence — to say nothing of Bugs’ infamous cross-dressing being described as “In the past, funny. Today? Disturbing.” — Kate is unwillingly forced to confront the fact that such cartoons basically suck out loud, a point driven home by a brief bit wherein Porky Pig (who’s been ordered to lose the stutter) and Speedy Gonzalez bemoan being forced to be politically correct, thereby rendering them comedically null-and-void. And let us not forget the following quote from Bugs Bunny in rebuttal to Kate’s comments on his drag proclivities: “Lady, if you don’t find a rabbit with lipstick amusin’, you and I have nuttin’ ta say ta each other.”

The drag gag in question.

A great modern example of how the Warner Brothers characters work on levels that both adults and kids enjoy for mostly completely different reasons, to say nothing of being a genuinely sick line that must have gone over very well with PETA.

The film-geek fun includes appearances by Roger Corman, Heather Locklear, Mary Woronov (of DEATH RACE 2000, ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL,  and EATING RAOUL fame), Peter Graves, Matthew Lillard (getting bitched out and threatened with physical violence by the animated Shaggy for his shoddy performance in the live action SCOOBY-DOO movie), Bill Goldberg, and Joan Cusack as a somewhat loopy scientist in a sequence guaranteed to win over old school sci-fi freaks thanks to the presence of FORBIDDEN PLANET’s Robby the Robot (with his real voice), a Metalunan mutant from THIS ISLAND EARTH, the Man from Planet X (from the film of the same name), Marvin the Martian (okay, so that one was a given), some Triffids, the ludicrous gorilla-in-a-space helmet Robot Monster, a Fiend Without a Face (a greasy-looking crawling brain with antennae on a spinal column), and even a pair of Daleks from DOCTOR WHO (of course shrieking “Exterminate! Exterminate!”), but the piece de resistance is an appearance by a black & white Kevin McCarthy, still crazed with fear and toting one of the pods from Santa Mira. (If you have not seen the original INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, do so immediately.)

Simply priceless.

As is quite obvious by now, I was in heaven. If you, like me, are a real lover of Bugs, Daffy and the rest, you owe it to yourself (and any like-minded folks you choose to share it with) to see LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION immediately. My gushing enjoyment of this film is due to more than being pleased at finally seeing some of my favorite characters being handled properly again; while not for all tastes, this is an undeniably entertaining and good film, a rare “family” movie that can be enjoyed by all and not give you diabetes. TRUST YER BUNCHE and give this unfairly overlooked gem a chance. You won’t be sorry.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER (2007)

Nothing galls me more than when Hollywood filmmakers take source material that was kickass to begin with and apply the mentality of, "I can make this better because I'm in Hollywood." That said, I am deeply galled by FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER. I'll get to my litany of complaints shortly, but first a little background for those of you who have never read a Fantastic Four comic book, especially one from the fertile period that spawned this film's source material.

First published in 1961, FANTASTIC FOUR was the series that ushered in what would become known as "the Marvel Age" of American comics history, a refreshing change of pace away from the somewhat-stolid archetypes that the genre was founded upon. The Fantastic Four were a quartet of neurotic New Yorkers whose superpowers enabled them to save the world on an almost daily basis, that is when they weren't fighting amongst themselves. Their recognizable flaws made them easy to identify with, superhero avatars for the everyday person, and they very quickly assumed the role of an anti-team team of good guys who weren't even superheroes by definition; what the FF were was a family first, and a team of metahumanly-gifted scientific explorers second. Saving the world was usually just something that fell into their laps because, let's face it, other than relying on their own unique skill sets, these four were each a mess in different ways, the family unit equivalent of watching two monkeys trying to fuck a football, a state of confusion compounded by adding two more monkeys to the equation.

While Mister Fantastic, the Invisible Girl (later the Invisible Woman), the Human Torch and the Thing handled the ever-escalating threats and intrigues posed by the likes of the Red Ghost, the Sub-Mariner, the Hulk, the Frightful Four (including the regrettably-monikered Paste-Pot Pete), the Impossible Man, the Inhumans, and of course, Doctor Doom, we got to know them as individuals, both for better and for worse, and we learned to care about them.

Then came the day they met God.

FANTASTIC FOUR #49 (1966)

After pitting the FF against just about every kind of threat they could come up with (and then some), creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby figured their dysfunctional super-family could take on just about anything and win, so what was left? That stumbling point was solved by the introduction of Galactus, a nigh-omnipotent, gigantic cosmic being who survived by absorbing the life-energies of entire worlds, and his visually-spectacular herald, the Silver Surfer, another vastly-powerful extra-terrestrial whose role was to find planets for his master to consume.

The coming of Galactus: Not only does he announce himself, he also rocks a cool "G" on his breastplate in case we got confused.

But where Galactus was a cosmic force of nature personified, the Surfer was a tragic slave whose long-forgotten humanity resurfaced after plummeting through the skylight of the Thing’s blind girlfriend’s apartment. With Galactus’ arrival imminent, all manner of unnatural hell breaking loose in the environment and the Fantastic Four facing a disaster that they haven’t a hope of overcoming, the blind sculptress gets through to the chromed-up alien and awakens in him the realization that all life is precious, a notion that enables him to turn on his master and buy the FF the time necessary to receive help from the Watcher, another cosmic entity, but one who the Fantastic Four befriended years earlier. When all is said and done, Galactus agrees to leave the Earth alone forever, but he also strips the Silver Surfer of his trans-galactic travel abilities, vindictively stranding him on our violent, intolerant world.

For a mere comic book, a trifle aimed at kids and enjoyed by adults as well, that’s some pretty epic shit, and it kick-started the “cosmic” genre, a story form that would become Marvel’s stock-in-trade with such yarns as the Kree-Skrull War, the Thanos Saga, Adam Warlock Vs.The Universal Church of Truth, the Dark Phoenix Saga, and many others. But it was the Galactus Trilogy that was the first, and, in many ways, the best, a true watermark in the grand superhero myth.

Which brings me to the movie version.

I did not enjoy the FANTASTIC FOUR (2005), a considerably less-than-half-baked attempt to expand the Marvel Comics movie stable in the wake of the success of the first two SPIDER-MAN films, and went into the sequel expecting absolutely nothing, although it had to be a step up from the first film by virtue of its mere existence. But while the FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER is an improvement over the first film, don’t forget that a gilded turd is still a turd and the few improvements are rendered utterly moot by a number of sour notes that sink the cosmic opera like it was the goddamned Bismark.

The new film finds Reed Richards and Sue Storm about to tie the knot, but that plan gets the kibosh when Reed is more or less press-ganged/guilted into working for the military in tracking an incredibly fast UFO that causes strange environmental phenomena wherever it goes. By this point you pretty much know the rest thanks to the earlier recap of the original comics, but the film removes nearly all of the elements that made the story a classic, leaving little more than the Silver Surfer standing when the smoke clears.

I could go on for days about why I hated this film, but I’ll spare you that rant and break it down to concise points, both pro and con.

THE CONS

There are many, especially if you’re already a fan, so I’ll just hit the major ones:
  • IT’S A KIDDIE FILM. This film is aimed squarely at the little ones, and that artistic choice robs the story of all dramatic impact. The first two SPIDER-MAN films are a prime example of films that both kids and adults can enjoy, and the filmmakers would have been wise to take their lead, but such was not the case.
  • DOCTOR DOOM RETURNS AND SUCKS EVEN WORSE THIS TIME AROUND. Doctor Doom was handled incredibly poorly last time around, and his treatment somehow managed to degenerate even further. The guy playing him is a total non-entity, a complete void of presence that sucks all life from the movie whenever he's onscreen. There's none of Doom's personality evident at any point of the film, and if this guy's supposed to be the monarch of the European country Latveria, why does he sound like he just stepped off the Metro North commuter express from Fairfield? Even more annoying is when Doom manages to remove his trademark mask and wanders about looking just like the Emperor from the STAR WARS flicks (although, let's face it, Darth Vader owes a lot to Doctor Doom, so I guess turnabout is fair play). Seriously, Doom is a big fucking zero in this film and isn't even worth notice after he robs the Surfer of his powers and starts hanging ten in the sky over Siberia (don't ask).
  • ALL OF THE FF SUCK AND ARE MERELY CRIB NOTES VERSIONS OF THE CHARACTERS. Little of the rich characterization that made the FF classic characters is found here, the actors' performances coming off like the poor schlubs who are paid to don costumes and serve as whatever hero is needed for shopping mall appearances.
  • THE WEDDING OF SUE AND REED ADDS ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO THE STORY. There's much made of the tension between Sue and Reed as their wedding looms since he's totally absorbed in his research, and she wants a fairy tale wedding. I don't know about you, but considering that the entire planet is about to be rendered lifeless by an approaching whatchamawhoozits, their personal issues are totally insignificant, so not only do the viewers not give a flying fuck about that bullshit, Sue and Reed come off like a pair of utterly self-absorbed shitheads.
  • DISCO REED RICHARDS. Following hot on the heels of SPIDER-MAN 3's execrable dance sequence, this film gives us a painful bit taking place during Reed's bachelor party — an event that the character would never have allowed to happen, as it would cut into his research time and he has no friends other than his teammates — in which we see Reed get his freak on and dance with a bunch of hot club bunnies, using his elastic body to dazzle onlookers and perform "cool" moves. I was appalled.
  • STUPID BITS INVOLVING SPEED AND TIME. When the Surfer shows up in NYC, Johnny takes off in hot pursuit (sorry) and in no time the two of them are in Washington, D.C., a distance I can totally buy the Surfer traversing in seconds, but not Johnny. And when the FF need a ride out of Siberia, Reed summons the Fantasticar, which makes the journey from Manhattan in about five minutes. Five minutes? From New York to fucking Siberia?
  • THE THING STILL LOOKS LIKE A HUGE HIGH-FIBER TURD IN SWEAT PANTS. Considering the incredible things that CGI has wrought in the past decade alone, to say nothing of what the top-level effects makeup artisans are capable of, there is absolutely no excuse for the Thing makeup. He looks like a "rear admiral," one of those super-solid doodies that stands up and salutes as it swirls down the bowl, and it's impossible for a turd to look heroic. Imposing in its sheer fecal horror, yes, but heroic? No fucking way. Ben should look like the bottom of a dried riverbed and while humanoid, his proportions are distinctly non-human with one eye is considerably larger than the other, a disconcerting image if ever there was one. The guy's a fucking monster, people, and he's supposed to be both hideous and frightening. The tragedy is that a beautiful soul exists trapped within that horrible body, and the version in the film is downright cuddly. Just what the world needs, a cuddly doo-doo man...
  • ANNOYING AND OBVIOUS PRODUCT PLACEMENT. There are numerous sightings of the Dos Equiis beer logo, and we find out that the Fantasticar is a Dodge, complete with the "ram tough" logo embossed onto the seats.
  • JOHNNY STEALS HIS SCHTICK FROM BOOSTER GOLD. Johnny is portrayed as an avaricious douche who thinks it would be a good idea for the FF to wear corporate logos on their uniforms and do endorsement deals for some extra scratch, exactly the kind of moves pulled by DC Comics hero Booster Gold. And while Johnny was always an attention-seeking dick, this was out of character.
  • WHAT WAS DONE TO GALACTUS SHOULD BE PUNISHABLE BY FEDERAL LAW. Galactus is a cosmic giant and a sentient being, so although he's sort of a force of nature he's also totally aware of his actions. The problem is that he doesn't give a fuck about the "lesser" life forms he wipes out, much like a blue whale doesn't stop for a second to consider the tiny organisms that filter through its baleen. The filmmakers have transformed Galactus on an enormous cloud — yes, you read that right — with no sentience, so while a natural disaster like a tsunami or a volcanic eruption may be scary, robbing Galactus of a face and voice renders the threat void of cosmic awesomeness and personality. I've read that the effects people claimed that there was simply no way to make a giant man look believable but that's a load of motherfucking horseshit, so to those effects men I say the following two words: TIME BANDITS. Oh, and a very firm "FUCK YOU!!!" to whoever it was who made this "creative" decision.
And the few good points:
  • THEY NAILED THE SURFER. I never cared for the Silver Surfer past his initial appearance — a story in which he actually served a purpose instead of being a whiny pussy-boy — but at least he was done the justice that his master was denied. Visually interesting, sleek and voiced by Laurence Fishburn, he's pretty damned cool.
  • JOHNNY DOES A “SUPER-SKRULL.” An idiotic plot twist that allows Johnny to switch powers with any other member of the FF if he touches them is put to good use when he absorbs all of their powers to take on the now cosmically-empowered Doctor Doom (even though it was clearly established that he would switch powers with someone else, rather than absorb said powers and still keep his flame abilities, but since no one appears to have edited the script why nit-pick?). Armed with all the powers of the Fantastic Four, Johnny becomes a stand-in for the Super-Skrull, a shape-shifting alien warrior who has gone toe-to-toe with not only the FF but Thor as well; Super-Skrull is a badassed motherfucker if ever there was one and the ass-kicking that Johnny hands to Doom is worthy of the big, green mofo.
  • BEST STAN LEE CAMEO EVER. Stan Lee, co-creator of the FF, shows up in a tux for the wedding of Sue and Reed, and when asked by the usher who he is he replies, "Oh, I'm Stan Lee. I'm on the list." The usher looks at him with disdain, says, "Nice try, buddy" and kicks him out on his ass. Priceless.
  • JESSICA ALBA IN HER FF JUMPSUIT. I know that Sue Storm is supposed to be the textbook example of a white chick, but Jessica Alba is very easy on the eyes, even in that terrible blonde wig. At last you can put that fake popcorn butter to good use, if ya know what I mean...
So the bottom line on FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER is that if it were any more of a flat-out cocksucker, there would be a great big, hairy pair of balls bouncing off the film's theoretical chin. And if you don't believe me, check out James Belardinelli's scathing review for some vitriol that makes my opinion look like a puff piece.

Oh, and special mention should also be made of the trailer for UNDERDOG, the latest TV-to-film adaptation, the trailer for which makes it look like it could be the worst movie ever made. Track it down online and be prepared to know the true meaning of despair.

SHREK THE THIRD (2007)

One of the sure signs that a series has "jumped the shark" is when the writers have pretty much run out of ideas and they think they can inject new life into moribund characters and situations by bringing babies into the mix. That said, the SHREK series has officially jumped the shark.

The original SHREK (2001) was an entertaining change of pace for animated features, leaving out the dreaded musical numbers (for the most part; that "I'm A Believer" finale was embarrassing and still gives me agita), giving us a grouch as the reluctant anti-hero, painting the world of fairy tales and legends as an anachronistic haven for lunatics, having the decency to be just-subversive enough within family-friendly story, and raising a stiff middle finger to the entire catalog of similar-but-saccharine fare from Das Uber-Disney. As such it was a near-brilliant effort, and after raking in a gazillion bucks at the box office a sequel was inevitable.

SHREK 2 (2004) was beloved by many, however I found it unbearable but for the exception of Antonio Banderas' scene-stealing delivery as Puss In Boots; come to think of it, it was blatantly obvious that the creators had comedy gold in Puss, so why didn't they just do a retelling of his story, only from the skewed perspective found in the first SHREK? I guess that would have made too much sense...

Now we get to SHREK THE THIRD, in which Shrek and his wife, Princess Fiona, find themselves up for the throne of Far Far Away when Fiona's dad dies, a role Shrek wants nothing to do with, instead longing to return to his fetid swamp. Discovering that Fiona's teenage cousin Artie is next in line for succession, Shrek sets off to shanghai the kid into occupying the monarchy, accompanied by Puss In Boots and Donkey, hands-down the single most irritating "comedy relief" ever — well, next to Jar-Jar Binks anyway — to say nothing of the fact that he's exactly the same character essayed by Eddie Murphy in Disney's MULAN (1998), and who needs comedy relief in a film that's already a comedy anyway? Then there's the subplot of Fiona's pregnancy and Shrek's fears about impending fatherhood, sub-sitcom-level pap that doesn't add much to the story. And don't get me started on the wholly inappropriate use of Paul McCartney's "Live and Let Die" during the dead king's funeral, especially when given the karaoke treatment by a chorus of frogs (I shit you not).

The film is a strictly by the numbers sequel with little to recommend it, and even Puss In Boots couldn't save this listless trifle. An imaginative use of Led Zepplin's "Immigrant Song" and the best CGI animation in the trilogy notwithstanding, SHREK THE THIRD is feeble, definitely not worth paying full price and barely worth a look on cable, but not quite up — or is that down? — to the level of deserving the title "cocksucker." Take the kids to Blockbuster and rent them SHOGUN ASSASSIN instead.

I fucking hate the summer blockbuster season...

SHIN KYUSEISHU DENSETSU HOKUTO NO KEN - YURIA DEN (2007)

Anyone who's ever seen FIST OF THE NORTH STAR in any of its incarnations will tell you that the female characters were pretty much there solely to be rescued or serve as sacrificial lambs at the hands of rapists and garden variety murderers, so this made-for-DVD place holder (until the next theatrical feature) beefs up the role of Yuria — rechristened "Julia" in the English version, presumably to distance her name from sounding like a urinary reference — the unintentional catalyst to the odyssey of killing that passes as a story, and adds further details to her covert role as the last general of the Southern Cross Fist (if you aren't well-versed in this series, don't ask; it's a looooong story). However, while admirably fleshing out Yuria's role the writers have rendered much of the mystery and surprise of the tale's events moot by having her serve as a behind the scenes manipulator whose actions create a whole new level of pointless retroactive continuity.

This is FIST OF THE NORTH STAR as chick flick, two terms that should never be in the same sentence for any reason, and as a result much of the insane fighting, violence and showering gore is absent, attempting to make the viewer feel guilty for enjoying the carnage that they wanted to see in the first place, and while not boring this is not what a fan of the series would want. And for those who know this stuff, this DVD recounts hero Kenshiro's origin, bits of the Rei storyline, and sets the stage for the next film, Toki's heartbreaking battle with the ruthless Raoh. Now, that's a film I want to see!

SPIDER-MAN 3 (2007)

Well, I finally got around to seeing SPIDER-MAN 3, and having had no real expectations for it I got exactly what I expected.

The film is a bloated, near-two-and-a-half hour desperate attempt at prolonging a franchise, and for what is purportedly the most expensive movie ever made I’d really like to know where all the money went. The script has more holes than an 8th Avenue porno shop, drags along without doing a good job of holding the average viewer’s interest, has some really, REALLY stupid shit happen, and while all that holds true I have to say I have seen many films that are far worse. The real problem here is that SPIDER-MAN 3 is nothing more than product, trying to force the emotional heart found in the first two installments and falling flat.

Here’s the part where I start citing some of the problems, so if you hate spoilers I’d advise you to stop reading and instead watch the recent ultra-loaded Criterion edition of Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI, one of the greatest films ever made in any country and a textbook example of a film that perfectly blends action, involving characters, tense situations, and raw human emotion. Anyway, HERE COME THE SPOILERS!!!

THE PLOT: it’s two years since Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) became Spider-Man, and New York City is finally embracing him as its own hometown hero, rather than vilifying him as J. Jonah Jameson and the Daily Bugle would have it. Life’s so good for Peter that he’s ready to propose to Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), but when her Broadway career nosedives down the bowl Peter makes a dorky ass out of himself and the lovers have a potentially relationship-ending row. Harry Osborn (James Franco) still wants revenge against Peter for allegedly killing his supervillain father, so he undergoes the same genetic resequencing that turned his pop into the Green Goblin, gets some badass threads and weapons, hops on a flying snowboard and goes in search of Spidey’s head. Harry then suffers a concussion that erases his knowledge of Peter’s secret, but that doesn’t last long and he comes back more pissed off and homicidal than ever. And as if all that wasn’t enough, the Sandman (Thomas Hayden Church), rival photographer Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), and Venom (a black load of parasitic, extraterrestrial CGI cum) are thrown in to cause more mayhem; the Sandman can turn into — SURPRISE! — sand and kick much ass, but he’s actually just robbing, causing billions of dollars in property damage and injuring countless innocent bystanders in an effort to garner enough cash to pay for his seriously ill daughter’s medical treatments (her illness is never explained). And, in a bit of from-out-of-nowhere plot chicanery we learn that the Sandman is the guy who really murdered Peter’s Uncle Ben. Peter and Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) are alerted to this, and once Peter bonds with the black space-spooge, he becomes more aggressive, sports an ebony version of his fightin’ P.J.’s and goes hunting for the Sandman. That space-jizz also brings out Peter’s inner assholism to a sickening degree, so as the story spirals to its conclusion Peter must deal with his romantic mishegas, Brock’s hatred of him — made lethal when Brock and space-spunk merge — a final showdown with the Sandman and Harry, and his own inner demons.

THE PROBLEMS: there are many, but I’ll concentrate on the stuff that seriously irked my beige ass.

IT’S NEEDLESSLY OVERLONG. Self-explanatory.

THERE’S TOO MUCH SHIT GOING ON. You have three villains, two of whom are sort of uninteresting, vying for screen time alongside the continuing soap opera that is Peter’s life, plus retroactive continuity adjustments (more on that shortly) and it’s like trying to fit ten pounds of shit into a three pound sack. The film would have been okay with one solid bad guy and the counterpoint of the mushy stuff. Speaking of which…

IT’S A FUCKING CHICK FLICK. Seriously, with its overwhelming focus on the romance stuff and everybody’s conflicted feelings and betrayals and crying and shit, the movie really is a chick flick that happens to have Spider-Man in it. They even haul out Gwen Stacy — a major character in the first decade of Spidey’s comics run; look her up because it’s too much to go into here — so Evil Peter can fuck with Mary Jane’s head, and Gwen’s inclusion goes absolutely nowhere. If you bring a date, have tissues at the ready and be prepared to feel the testosterone leech out of your body. Although, I gotta give the casting agent props for finding an actress who looks exactly like Gwen as drawn by John Romita, Sr.

THE FX ARE WILDLY UNEVEN. Considering the film’s price tag, the CGI on Spidey and Goblin Junior look like half-finished or rushed video game characters, and there’s really no adequate excuse for that, a point brought home when weighed against some of the spectacular work done on the Sandman, especially when he’s giant-monster-sized during the final throwdown.

THE INCLUSION OF SPACE-CUM, er, VENOM. This one’s strictly a personal thing. I fucking hate venom, and have hated him from the second he showed up in the comics, so his inclusion was like having a rusty crochet needle slowly stuffed up my urethra. Oh, and Topher “That ‘70’s Show” Grace sucked out loud.

THE SANDMAN DID IT. By retroactively telling us that the Sandman killed Uncle Ben, accidentally or otherwise, the tragedy of that death is rendered moot by placing a face and background on the culprit rather than having Peter’s uncle fall victim to a random, pointless killing at the hands of a Joe Nobody. The fact that he’s sorry about it and receives Peter’s forgiveness comes off as trite, a real “who the fuck cares?” moment made worse when the Sandman, now absolved, allows himself to poignantly blow away into the sky over Midtown Manhattan, presumably to start a new career as yet another airborne pollutant.

TERPSICHOREAN OVERKILL. Translation: too much dancing. Yes, DANCING. When Peter starts becoming aggressive thanks to the space-spackle, he starts feeling like a funky dude and begins strutting down the street in a failed attempt to be cool and sexy, looking like SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER’s Tony Manero as a retard (in other words, looking like Tony Manero). That shit was funny, but when Peter drags Gwen Stacy to the jazz club where MJ works as a singing waitress, the film morphs into FUCK YOU! THE MUSICAL as Peter transforms into a piano virtuoso and channels his inner Fred Astaire, publicly executing gravity-defying moves that would cause anyone with half a brain to observe, “Yeah, that guy’s Spider-Man.” This annoying display reaches the nadir of unpleasantness when bouncers attempt to physically eject Peter, and in the decidedly one-sided ass-kicking that ensues Peter accidentally punches Mary Jane square in the kisser, and, unintentional or not, that’s something I do not want to see.

MY SPIDER-SENSE ISN’T TINGLING. Since several developments in the plot could not have happened if Peter’s “spider-sense,” an extra-sensory perception that unfailingly warns him of imminent danger, had been working, the writers conveniently (read “lazily”) ignore it, despite it having been used to indelible effect before (most notably in SPIDER-MAN 2 when he anticipates a car hurled through a coffee shop window by Doctor Octopus). This gaffe is equivalent to a Superman flick where Supes has no cool ocular powers; that would suck, and the analog in this film totally sucks.

ALFRED, BUT NOT. A from-out-of-nowhere plot device that verges on a non-sequitor is the Osborn family’s butler, Houseman (John Paxton), previously seen for a nano-second in SPIDER-MAN 2. He’s apparently the only person in the Osborn mansion other than Harry, and when he sees Harry fuming after he’s had his ass soundly and disfiguringly kicked by Evil Peter, Houseman volunteers the fact when he dressed the dying Norman (the Green Goblin) Osborn’s wounds it was clear that he was killed by his own glider and Peter was not responsible. If I had written that scene, Harry would have looked at Houseman and said, in Richard Pryor’s voice, “Muthafukka, you couldn’t have told me that shit TWO YEARS AGO?!!?”

So yeah, SPIDER-MAN 3 is a washout, and according to the Internet Movie Database its ticket sales are already slowing, so it looks like word of mouth is more dangerous to Ol’ Webhead than the three villains in this movie combined.

But the one bright spot in the whole thing was more screen time for Mageina Tovah, the charming actress who plays Ursula, the dorky-beautiful beanpole daughter of Peter’s landlord.

If they make another one of these, even with a different main cast, Ursula must return.
THE BOTTOM LINE: simply put, SPIDER-MAN 3 could have done with a lot more thought being put into it, and I pray Columbia learns from this slapdash mistake. It’s too bad that Maguire and Dunst may not return for future chapters, because SPIDER-MAN 3 is not a worthy coda to what could have been an exemplary comic book-based trilogy. Not quite worthy of the epithet "cocksucker," but not all that hot either.

AN INSPIRATIONAL FILM MOMENT

From TENACIOUS D in THE PICK OF DESTINY:

You guys, having some Satanic guitar pick isn't going to make your rock any better. Because Satan's not in a guitar pick... he's inside all of us. He's in here, in your hearts. He's what makes you not want to go to work, exercise, or tell the truth. He's what makes us want to party and have sex with each other all night long. He's that little voice in your mind that says, "Fuck you" to the people you hate.

Readers, I dunno about you, but I can totally relate.

THE SISTER STREET FIGHTER SERIES (1974-1976)

If you ever need to cite a film series that absolutely adheres to the theory of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” look no further than the first three of Toei Studios’ four ONNA HISSATSU-KEN (“Killing Fist Woman”) flicks, the first of which saw release in the West as SISTER STREET FIGHTER.

Having nothing whatsoever to do with my man Sonny Chiba’s superlative THE STREET FIGHTER (1974), the importers sought to fool the chopsocky-hungry into thinking ONNA HISSATSU-KEN (also 1974) was part of an ancillary series by slapping the STREET FIGHTER name on it and playing up Chiba’s presence in the film despite the fact that he’s in it for maybe ten minutes. Such chicanery notwithstanding, SISTER STREET FIGHTER is a total blast from start to finish and sports one of the classic examples of hilariously ludicrous dubbed dialogue.

The story features the adventures of Koryu Lee (Etsuko “Sue” Shihomi), a half-Chinese practitioner of Shorinji-kenpo, and her quest to find her missing undercover cop brother who has been captured by a bunch of Yakuza assholes. Koryu heads to Japan and not five minutes after the opening credits, we are treated to the first of many hardcore ass-kickings handed out by our heroine, in this case against a restaurant full of creeps.


In two seconds. these guys will have the living shit soundly kicked out of them.

From then on it’s non-stop — and I do mean NON-STOP — violence and carnage as Koryu screams, kicks and bashes her way across the Land of the Rising Sun, with the action slowing down only for the brief moments necessary to provide a character’s name or display topless junkie strippers writhing about and screeching, “Heroin! Heroin! I must have my heroin!” No joke, there are even fights during the expository scenes, for fuck’s sake!

During the course of all this madness it quickly becomes apparent that the film takes place in one of those movie worlds where the police exist in name only and everybody and their grandma knows karate. The main bad guy actually collects martial artists, who spend most of their time hanging around his swimming pool and showing off their signature moves (each helpfully identified by subtitles) when not squabbling amongst themselves. A gang of guys run around with wicker baskets over their heads for no apparent reason,

Thai kickboxer chicks in Fred Flintstone outfits (???) with paper bags over their heads turn up with no explanation,

there's a shirtless assassin decked out with a Mohawk, cape and wrasslin’ hose to accent his blowgun and shield, and there’s even a jaw-dropping bit when the basket-heads invade a ballet studio and have their asses handed to them by the head ballerina — in tights, no less — who just happens to be a master of Ryukyu Kojoryu Karate (a bit of info provided by subtitles during a freeze-framed shot of the petite dancer throwing some guy like he was an empty bag of potato chips).

By the time the “story” reaches its climax, Koryu’s brother is killed, thereby upping the ante into tried-and-true revenge cliché territory, and she must take on the main baddie, giving both of them the opportunity to display their hitherto unseen ability to fly through the air and float there during combat. Throw in aid from another cute karate chick, bolstered by the utterly gratuitous appearances by Sonny Chiba and Masashi “Milton” Ishibashi, forever infamous as Junjo from (you guessed it) THE STREET FIGHTER, topped off with a guy getting a sai shoved through his skull (horrible crunch noise included),

and you have a fast paced, logic-and-sanity-bending spectacle that will delight young and old alike with it’s “I don’t give a fuck” attitude. And while the violence is nowhere near as over-the-top as that on display in the rated-X-for-violence THE STREET FIGHTER, SISTER STREET FIGHTER acquits itself quite admirably, including five shorn minutes of gore and violence restored to the recently released uncut DVD, such as a great bit where Koryu twists a guy’s head one-hundred and eighty degrees and his broken-necked corpse staggers backwards down a flight of stairs, oozing blood from the mouth and staring at the other Yakuza scumbags in the room before falling over.

Giving new meaning to the phrase “quickie sequel,” SISTER STREET FIGHTER: HANGING BY A THREAD hit the screen a mere four months after the original and it’s pretty much a remake of the first one, right down to having virtually the same cast as more or less the same characters, only with a lot more kinky sex and sadistic violence added to the mix. This time out, Koryu leaves Hong Kong for Japan in search of some guy’s daughter who’s been kidnapped and discovers the girl has been sold into prostitution, addicted to heroin and used as a mule for diamond smuggling by having the jewels surgically implanted in her ass cheeks.

Our heroine’s investigation brings her into contact with her long-unseen sister, an expert jeweler who doubles as a cutter for the Yakuza and horribly degraded mistress to the sleazy-as-all-fuck villain, another Mr. Big type who collects martial artists as a hobby. The sumbitch even has a training facility that would have been right at home on S.P.E.C.T.R.E. Island in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (my vote for the best James Bond movie ever made), complete with a small army of karate assholes, the worst among whom are the heinous Honiden brothers, a trio of martially-skilled sociopaths lead by Masashi Ishibashi in a role that is impossible to distinguish from his deceased character in the previous movie. There’s even a cocky thug-for-hire played by the awesome Yasuaki “Shoji” Kurata, veteran of more samurai and HK Shaw Brothers kung fu epics than I can count, and though he whores himself out to the bad guys he’s actually the brother of a cop who gets murdered at the beginning of the film, and he eventually teams up with our heroine.

The villains repeatedly attempt — and fail — to kill Koryu, and things just escalate to an insane degree, so much so that I, a man who’s endured at least three hundred martial arts films, got a headache. Don’t get me wrong; I had a great time watching the flick’s exquisitely-choreographed, ultra-violent carnage, but once Koryu’s sister betrays the boss and gets her eyes graphically gouged out for her efforts and both she and the kidnapped girl get sadistically murdered, the film ceased to be good, sleazy fun and I found myself waiting for it all to end. That malaise wasn’t helped by the fact that the film apes its predecessor so mercilessly that I felt like I was stuck in an endless loop of SISTER STREET FIGHTER with some extra violence shoehorned into it and most of the crazed exuberance taken out. If not for its cloned nature, SISTER STREET FIGHTER: HANGING BY A THREAD could have stood on its own as a competent thriller, but as is it’s just okay.

The third entry, RETURN OF THE SISTER STREET FIGHTER, was unleashed barely eight months after the last outing and once again the filmmakers more or less remade the first one, this time with the added twist of ripping off many tropes from ENTER THE DRAGON, most notably the villain with an artificial hand/weapon. Koryu sets out from Hong Kong to once more kick ass in Japan, her righteous fury directed against another Yakuza and his collection of badasses who have kidnapped her cousin and forced the woman to use her scientific knowledge in aid of their scheme to control the world’s gold economy (don’t ask, it makes no fucking sense). Yasuaki Kurata is also on hand again as pretty much the same guy he played previously, but Masashi Ishibashi shakes things up by ditching his persona from the previous two installments — to say nothing of THE STREET FIGHTER — and going for some skin dye and a pimp suit with a collapsible steel whip.

I don’t know if he’s supposed to be Black or Hispanic or what, but he sure as shit looks like a complete idiot.

And bad though that may be, there’s even a Japanese actor in head-to-toe blackface as an African warrior, complete with oogah-boogah over-the-shoulder leopard skin, animal hide shield, and a big, honkin’ spear. I’ll spare you any further details because it’s just another trip down a well-traveled road, but I’ll let it suffice to say that the third installment suffers from the same “been there, done that” cloneness of number two and just like the previous film it would have been just fine if the first movie didn’t exist.

I guess the filmmakers figured they’d milked the cookie cutter adventures of Koryu Lee for about all they were worth, so when 1976’s SISTER STREET FIGHTER: FIFTH LEVEL FIST came out, it was a sequel in name only, having squat to do with the previous three. Etsuko Shihomi is back but this time she’s Kiku, an unmarried girly girl whose kimono salesman dad is desperate to see her married off, but since she’s a badassed karate instructor she’s not interested in matrimony. (Hey, unlike Koryu, at least this chick has a job, rather than just inexplicably wandering from ass-kicking to ass-kicking!) The plot, such as it is, once more involves drug smuggling and by this point I could not have cared less, and the virtually action-free plot not only moves slowly but also “treats” us to several unwanted musical numbers and attempts at comedy. Kiku has a cute friend named Michi (the half-Yank, half-Japanese Michi Love) who lives with her Black half-brother Jim (Hen Wallace), both orphans from Okinawa who share a Japanese mother and weathered the intolerance of cruel locals, so their sibling bond is built on mutual suffering. Unbeknownst to Michi, Jim works as muscle for drug smugglers and when he is killed she has an excuse to seek revenge but of course gets captured, prompting Kiku to finally get off her kimonoed ass and fight, by which point the flick has been running for a full hour and the wait just isn’t worth it. The rest of the running time drags on interminably, even when the fists and feet are bashing the shit out of everyone and everything in sight, so the final film in the series is a hugely disappointing washout. I guess someone tried to broaden the series’ appeal by softening Shihomi’s persona and introducing tear-jerking melodrama, but you can’t have it both ways in martial arts movies, so they should either have gone for a straight up festival of violence or given Michi and Jim their own separate weepy (which would definitely have been more interesting than this film).

The glue holding all of these films together was star Etsuko Shihomi, a protégé of Sonny Chiba’s and inarguably the most hardcore of the female asskickers to grace the Japanese cinema, and maybe even the most hardcore. Her every move was both visually captivating and shattering, plus she was very easy on the eyes, reminding me of a Japanese Mariska Hargitay. I mean, look at those eyes:

Jesus H. Christ! The only Asian ass-kicking gal from the Good Old Days who comes close is the gorgeous Hui Ying-Hung, but that’s fodder for another article…

Sadly, like some other martial arts movie goddesses — most notably, her contemporary Angela Mao Ying — Shihomi got married in 1987 and has become more or less a recluse, retiring from show biz altogether and shunning the spotlight, including even granting interviews. Too fucking bad for us fans, because her like will never be seen again.

So, the bottom line: if you see any of these flicks, stick with the vastly entertaining first installment. If you mess with the rest of them, especially the last one, it’s on your own head. Hey, man, I suffer so you don’t have to.

TRUST YER BUNCHE!!!