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Sunday, August 28, 2011

BAXTER (1989)

Once again I braved the realms of French cinema, and once again I got fisted up the ass.

I checked out BAXTER when it became available on DVD thanks to an intriguing trailer I saw for it some eighteen years ago in an "arthouse" movie theater, a setting that should have clued me in to exactly what kind of flick it would be. I've read about it having attained cult status for its offbeat concept, a narrative told from the point of view of a sociopathic Bull Terrier, so I was curious to see if it was as creepy as I'd been lead to believe, and now that I've finally seen the fucking thing I can honestly say that it wasn't worth the wait of nearly two decades.

Baxter (voiced by Maxime Leroux) is a dog whose head is filled with dark, anti-social, and just downright fucked-up thoughts, and we get to hear him go on and on about how much he hates everyone around him and how he wants to kill some of the people he lives with in various stages of the tale. His whispery French voice is admittedly kind of creepy, what with its cold delivery and all, but after about three minutes it becomes increasingly pretentious and I swear I wanted to put on a pair of pointy-toed cowboy boots and kick the annoying son of a bitch square in the batch.

We meet Baxter when he's given to an old lady as a present and he immediately takes a dislike to her, endlessly grousing about his unhappiness at being under her thumb at all times. But then things take an unexpected turn when the old lady goes insane for no apparent reason, suffers a hip injury, and refuses to venture past the first floor of her house or leave the place at all. When she tries to make the dog get into the bath with her he's spooked by how creepy it all is and bolts from the tub, causing the old nutjob to give chase and fall down the stairs to her death.

When the old lady's only remaining friend breaks into the house to see if she's alright, Baxter uses the opening of the front door to dart to the house across the street and move in with the horny young couple who live there. Finding welcome and companionship, Baxter is happy for a time, but then the young woman becomes pregnant and turns her attentions to her impending baby, neglecting Baxter in the process. Not comprehending her condition, Baxter assumes that she's sick — her scent has changed — and starts bemoaning his fate again. When the baby is born, Baxter works out a scheme in which the parents will leave the child in his care, and while they're off getting their hump on the baby will crawl into the backyard fountain and drown, after which Baxter will get their attention just a little too late for them to prevent a tragedy. But Baxter is, after all, just a fucking dog and not a homicidal mastermind, and he shoots his own plan in the foot (or paw) by barking too soon, thereby allowing the baby to be saved and sinking a potentially creepy subplot that we wasted our attention upon.

Haphazardly shoehorned into all of this is an ongoing look at the doings of an adolescent boy (Francois Draincourt) whose own family is crumbling from lack of communication and his father's adulterous adventures, leaving the kid with little in the way of parental attention or guidance. We witness the lad snipping pictures of Hitler and pals from vintage magazines, and we soon realize the boy is fixated on Nazis, fascism, and Hitler's last days in the bunker with Eva Braun. Obviously not right in the head, the kid spends most of his time in the makeshift replica bunker he's built in the local dump/junkyard, allowing his Third Reich fantasies to consume him. This aspect of the film could have gone somewhere incredibly dark and creepy, like the territory explored in Stephen King's excellent novella APT PUPIL (from the collection DIFFERENT SEASONS), but instead the film pussies out and the subplot ends up dull and pretentious.

Anyway, the kid ends up as the next of Baxter's owners, the young couple giving him away so they can concentrate all of their attention toward their baby, and at first it seems that Baxter has finally found a master more in line with his way of thinking.

A douchebag and his dog.

The kid puts the pooch through a regimen of exercise and attack dog training, greatly pleasing the beast and fulfilling its need for an "Alpha" in its life. The boy also puts the moves on a cute classmate, actually winning her over by comparing her beauty to that of Eva Braun (???), a move that actually gets him laid in the bowels of his bunker. Baxter also gets some poon out of the deal when the girl brings over her asshole dad's in-heat purebred bitch, whom Baxter slips a length and impregnates. When the pups are born the girl gives them to the creepy kid, and in no time he kills them just for the fuck of it, an act that Baxter greets with indifference. But after Baxter tears apart another dog who dares to enter his junkyard territory, the kid realizes Baxter's potential for savagery and destruction and begins to fear his pet. Baxter twigs to this and after his master commands him to attack a classmate for no reason, Baxter plots the murder of the Adolph-loving adolescent. You see, Baxter has no problem with killing if it has to do with defending one's territory or something like that which would make perfect sense to any dog, but being ordered to kill someone for no reason offends the beast, a character point that makes absolutely no sense when we recall all of the boring kvetching the fucking dog does about wanting to kill throughout the movie. Inevitably, Baxter goes after his boy in the junkyard, but when the terrified kid orders him to stop, Baxter obeys, his training taking over and natural subservience to his Alpha kicking in. The kid then picks up a nearby lead pipe and plays the drum solo to "Inna Gadda Da Vida" on the dog's head. As the camera pulled back to show us the dog's inert corpse and I readied myself to mock the screen with a cry of "I'm glad you're dead, you pretentious fuck!" the narration continued despite the dog's demise, proving conclusively that a character can continue to be a pompous, condescending bore even after death.

Often described as a horror movie, the film is neither scary nor creepy, and if anything it can best be written off as a failed attempt at black humor. It's well-made, but the whole thing comes off as sort of an anti-Toonces the Driving Cat in that it's an amusing idea that gets old very quickly but, unfortunately, doesn't provide the laughs one gets from seeing the unbelievably crappy hand puppet that played Toonces on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

Toonces the Driving Cat: played-out, but still more entertaining than Baxter's pretentious ass.

Actively choosing to misrepresent the film as something with a real and visceral edge, Lionsgate plays up the "horror" angle with suggestive cover copy and an image of a snarling pit bull that looks like it's deep in the throes of 'roid rage (it's the image seen at the top of this post). That's no surprise considering how the dog in the film is actually a cute Bull Terrier of the Spuds McKenzie variety and not a Pit Bull Terrier of the Michael Vick variety, prompting the DVD to fudge the beast's bloodthirsting attributes rather than present the actual poster image from the film's theatrical release:

"One of the best films of the year," my beige ass!

This pussified image would have turned off anyone looking to see people getting their nuts ripped off by a slavering hell-hound, and those who had never seen the original poster will be none the wiser. But not you, dear reader. Now you know the score, and know not to waste either your time or money on this — please forgive me, but I can't resist — utter dog of a film. And knowing is half the battle! G.I. JOOOOOOOE!!!

TRUST YER BUNCHE!!!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

GOLIATH AND THE BARBARIANS (1959)

The peplum genre, so named for the short (but ever so manly) skirts worn by its heroes — a term originally applied to Italian muscleman flicks a la HERCULES (1958) but now seen as a blanket term for movies about beefy shirtless guys kicking ass in ancient settings — churned out seemingly hundreds of bargain basement epics featuring the manly adventures of oiled-up ancient heroes such as Samson, and of course Hercules, but one-time biblical bad guy Goliath also starred in a few entries after being reinvented as a white hat (or white toga, if you prefer). This 1959 outing stars the original Hercules himself, Steve Reeves, as Emiliano, a super-buff woodcutter whose people are preyed upon by an invading barbarian horde and subjected to the usual barbarian degradations such as rape, pillage, arson and murder.

Steve Reeves as Emiliano, soon to be better known as Goliath.

After the killing of his father (who was apparently some kind of high muckety-muck in the community, but the script’s a bit muddy on that) Emiliano adopts a ludicrous mask and fright wig and embarks on a campaign of murderous terror against his foes, bashing them in the head with a big rock on a tether, crushing their throats with a clawed gauntlet, or assaulting them with a massive club.

Goliath, the forgotten member of Gwar.

Any way you cut it and no matter what weapons are deployed, the guy kills a shitload of barbarians before the bad guys get sick of him having the nerve to defend the innocent, so he’s soon a wanted man. And for no good reason the barbarians think the masked raider is a monster and dub him Goliath. Don't ask me why.

During the requisite bouts of violence and homoerotic displays of greasy, straining thews and superhuman feats of strength, Londo, the incredibly hot daughter of one of the invaders, finds herself dripping like a broken refrigerator at the sight of our hero and in no time a forbidden love affair is in full swing.

Playing the haughty barbarian princess is Chelo Alonso, a Cuban/Mexican dancer and former star of the Folies-Bergères in Paris, and she is one thermonuclear warrior goddess whose look reminds me of Halle Berry.

Yeah, this one's got pretty much everything you'd want in a peplum flick with the exception of a couple of rubber-suit monsters, and it's packed with enough action, romance and eye candy to make any audience happy. Now available in a gorgeous print as half of a Goliath double bill on DVD, GOLIATH AND THE BARBARIANS is a lot better than you might expect and is a terrific bit of Saturday matinee fodder that I enjoyed quite a lot. And while it can't hope to compete in terms of budget, in terms of solid entertainment this film beats CGI bullshit like BEOWULF by leaps and bounds. TRUST YER BUNCHE!!!

Friday, August 19, 2011

CONAN THE BARBARIAN (2011)

It's been nearly three decades since Robert E Howard's seminal barbarian protagonist — he can hardly be considered a hero — first graced the big screen, and since that time there have been many sword-slinging warriors to follow in his footsteps, most recently and to much popular and box office appreciation being J.R.R. Tolkien's LORD OF THE RINGS gang. Unless you've been living under a rock somewhere in the tiny republic of Togo for the last ten years or so, you know the LOTR fantasy epics made a shitload of cash, so it was inevitable that Hollywood would try to mine the audience's hunger for fantasy in some way, and it would seem that now would be a good time to dust off Conan and his Hyborian Age wanderings. After all, Howard's Conan stories more or less defined the genre, if not outright inventing it, so why not bring back that genre's single most well-known and popular character? The audience was already built-in after three decades of fans who enjoyed the first Conan flick, released in 1982 and starring as it did Arnold Schwarzenegger in what is arguably the film that first put him on the map as perhaps the epitome of the 1980's action hero. (THE TERMINATOR didn't happen until two years later, by which time most of America knew who Ah-nuld was thanks to Conan.) And, yeah, there was a sequel, the inexplicably PG-13-rated CONAN THE DESTROYER (1984), but that film sucked and brought what looked to be a promising franchise to a screeching halt.

As the first film's cult reputation grew, in its wake followed a terrible Saturday morning cartoon wherein Conan was the bodyguard/escort for some royal kids and each week taught them important life lessons like "don't judge people because they're different from you" — I swear to god I'm not making this up — and there was also a live-action show, CONAN THE ADVENTURER, that sought to cash in on the popularity of HERCULES: THE LEGENDARY JOURNEYS and XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS, but that watered-down mess died a swift death at the end of its sole season. Now, in the current climate of reboots/re-imaginings, I suppose it was only a matter of time until someone had the bright idea of making a Conan movie for the 2000's, with what I'm sure was the intention of kickstarting another cash cow along the lines of LOTR or the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN flicks. Well, I'm here to tell all of you fellow lovers of the 1982 CONAN THE BARBARIAN that that film's status as a cult classic and textbook example of how to make a mythic "warrior's journey" film has absolutely nothing to worry about.

The current iteration opens with a new version of our sullen protagonist's origin, cribbing much of its initial thrust from the 1982 film. We first meet Conan when he is literally still within his mother's womb, and the oft-stated "he was born on a battlefield" takes on new meaning as his ready-to-pop mom is seen in leathers and armor in the middle of some random battle in which her tribe of Cimmerian warriors are dealing out death like it was Halloween candy. As the extremely pregnant woman fights with sword in hand, she is critically wounded, so Conan's dad (Ron Perlman) performs an impromptu C-section and brings his son into the world. Oh, and before that happens, the voice of Morgan Freeman tells the tale of an ancient mask of great power that was crafted from the bones of dead kings, an item so rife with evil magic that it had to be broken down into several components and hidden for a thousand years lest its possessor take over the world.

We then skip ahead by about twelve years or so and find Conan (Leo Howard) yearning to become a full-fledged warrior of his tribe, and during the trial of young men that will determine who earns that coveted position, Conan and the other lads on the trial encounter several animalistic raiders. While his fellows pussy out and hightail it back home, Conan takes on and spectacularly slays the raiders. returning to his village with their severed heads as trophies. At that point I said to myself, "This has promise," but those hopes were dashed as the remainder of the film degenerated into a rote and eventually boring trope-fest that offered little to keep me interested.

Young Conan and his dad (who looks like some kind of heavy metal orangutan by way of Snorri Sturluson) bond over some father-son arts and crafts.

Anyway, Conan's people are wiped out by Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang), a conqueror who seeks the last piece of the mask — that just so happens to be in the care of the tribe's leader, Conan's pop — which he obtains with the help of his witchy and bone china-white-complected daughter (Rose McGowan, who was by far my favorite thing in the film). As the bad guys ride off with their prize and the sword that Conan's dad had forged for him, presuming Conan dead after they torched the building he and his now-dead father were in, Conan swears vengeance and the story jumps ahead by about ten or twelve years.

The ferocious Jason Momoa as Conan.

We then meet the adult Conan (Jason Momoa), who has spent the past decade or so wandering as a a thief and brigand, now living among a band of pirates and robbers who take the time to rescue a large group of peasants and very attractive topless women from slavers, thus establishing Conan and his pirate pals as decent folk who just say "No!" to slavery. (Which is a load of P.C. bullshit, because anyone who's ever read any Conan story will tell you that slavery is very much an accepted part of Conan's world, with even Conan himself not being against it as a practice. If you ended up as a slave, that meant that was just your tough luck, so to avoid ending up in chains you had to be a badass.) It's during the post-rescue revelry when Conan comes face-to-face with one of the warriors who killed his people years earlier (a warrior whom Conan incidentally happened to deprive of his nose, thus making him easy to identify) and after brutally gathering info, he makes a beeline to Zym (minus the offered aid of his pirate cronies, because it's a personal vendetta). It turns out that Zym has spent years searching for "the pure-blood," a holy woman named Tamara (Rachel Nichols) whose blood is instrumental to a ritual that, using the evil mask, will resurrect Zym's burned-at-the-stake sorceress wife and, via her magic superpowers, render him a god who will rule the world. Needless to say, Conan ain't havin' it.

Rose McGowan as freaky witch Marique, stealing every scene she's in.

What ensues after that is a pretty-to-look-at hodgepodge of elements shamelessly cribbed from THE LORD OF THE RINGS, the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies, and even bits from THE MUMMY series, all of which add up to form a generic "adult" fantasy fim that's somehow replete with gore, some very nice nekkid titties and one semi-graphic sex scene, but nonetheless feels like a kids' adventure movie. Several of the set-pieces — a few of which were flat-out idiotic and laugh-out-loud stupid — evoke other films or fantasy/quest video games, and at no point did this Conan story feel like its own thing. This film bears even less of the flavor of creator Howard's visceral and testosterone-laden works than the 1982 film did, but the '82 flick at least defied its own genre by crafting a Campbell-esque warrior's journey tale with a surprisingly sweeping and epic feel. (The sword and sandal genre had become something of a moribund joke after the onslaught of Hercules and gladiator films released by the truckload during the heyday of the "peplum" craze, so the '82 film was a welcome surprise.) That sweep and sense of grandeur, plus a narrative that involved its viewers in Conan's vendetta and made us genuinely care about him succeeding is nowhere to be found here. When not aping other popular properties, this CONAN THE BARBARIAN stands as the most generic fantasy film to come down the pike in ages, and while not flat-out terrible, it is a sad squandering of a great opportunity. Jason Momoa was a decent and very ferocious Conan, and Rose McGowan as the uber-creepy sorceress Marique steals whatever scene she's in, but their considerable efforts couldn't elevate a film that in the end smacks of nothing more than "Conan by committee."

BOTTOM LINE: If you absolutely have to see this film — an urge that I understand, what with having been an avid Conan fan since 1974 and all — don't get ripped off by shelling out the extra cash for 3D. I saw it in 2D and there are only a couple of segments that were obviously composed with 3D in mind. Otherwise, wait for cable and have your intoxicant of choice on hand to liven up the proceedings. I was totally straight as I sat through it and I found myself rather bored about halfway through. I've certainly seen far worse films, especially in this particular genre, but this was a big disappointment. To sum up, this entire film was essentially a Manowar album cover brought to life at the cost of a reported $80 million.

The basic feel of this movie, summed up in one album cover illustration.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011)

And lo, the gods of cinema did hear the hue and cry of the people, and finally they did right the grievous wrong that was the 2001 version of PLANET OF THE APES. A new APES film was bestowed upon the earth and it was good. Very, very, good. Yea, verily the curse of Tim Burton was broken, and there was much rejoicing.

-excerpt from The Chronicles of Cinematic Recompense

Like many children of the Seventies, I was a staunch supporter of the era's "Ape-mania," loving the PLANET OF THE APES movies and a good deal of their attendant fallout. The sci-fi pickings in the pre-STAR WARS days were pretty feeble, so when a series of films that were (mostly) pretty damned good came along, you cherished it. The APES movies all featured a good deal of social commentary/satire on subjects such as racism, religion vs. science/anthropology, nuclear self-destruction and the ethical vagaries of vivisection, and the pondering of those things while wrapped in allegorical sci-fi trappings was something that stirred the young minds of my generation. So when it was announced that there would be a new APES movie made in the wake of Tim Burton's decade-old abortion, I questioned whether the new film would follow Burton's brain-dead lead or be some kind of return to something a tad more intellectually stimulating. (In today's utterly mindless cinematic climate of movies by committee, I did not hold out much hope.) What I got was totally not what I expected and I could not be happier with the results.

In modern day San Francisco, scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) seeks a cure for Alzheimer's, something sorely needed by his aging father (John Lithgow) whose mind is deteriorating on a daily basis. Working within the corporate labs of the Gen-Sys pharmaceutical corporation, Rodman develops a serum that when tested on chimpanzees causes the brain to repair itself and generate new neural pathways, fixing Alzheimer's and boosting intelligence to amazing levels. Following an incident in which a particularly gifted female test subject, "Bright Eyes," goes berserk and escapes from the lab, resulting in her being gunned down by corporate security during the meeting that would have led to the greenlighting of the drug's testing on human subjects, it is revealed that that she was protecting the baby she had given birth to and hidden below her bed. Ruling the drug a failure, Rodman's money-hungry boss orders all of the test chimps destroyed, but since the baby was discovered after its mother's rampage and is thus known only to Rodman and the lab's chimp-handler, Rodman adopts the adorable little orphan and raises him at home in secret. For the next eight years, the chimpanzee, dubbed "Caesar," enjoys life in a loving home where he forms deep familial bonds with Doctor Rodman and his dad. Unbeknownst to his Gen-Sys superiors, Rodman continues the testing of the drug on his father and the results are both swift and spectacular. Meanwhile, Caesar displays intelligence far beyond the garden variety chimp, even exhibiting functioning and skills beyond humans of a relative age and development. (Though Caesar himself was not directly administered the experimental drug, his mother sure as hell was and the effects of the serum are proven to be genetically transmissible.) But things take a turn for the worse when the drug's effects upon the elder Rodman are reversed as the old man's body builds an immunity to it. Wandering into the street, the confused old man gets into a confrontation with the next door neighbor that is observed by Caesar, who launches into violent defense of his family member. Though the neighbor is not killed, poor Caesar is court ordered into the custody of a specialized home for great apes, a place where our simian protagonist experiences firsthand just how cruel man can be. It is during this incarceration that Caesar's resentment of mankind is forged, and from there he launches a revolt that — along with a couple of other factors that I won't spoil — leads to the beginning of the end for the human race's planetwide dominance.

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES comes from out of nowhere (and from beneath the shadow of Tim Burton's atrocity) to not only be my favorite film of the summer blockbuster season, but also takes its well-deserved place as one of the best major studio films of the year. The script is surprisingly intelligent and does not at all cater to the moronic demographic Hollywood has spent well over a decade dishing out mindless celluloid candyfloss to by the truckload. I honestly believe the filmmakers involved looked at the Burton fiasco (and also some of the gaffes made in most of the films in the original series) and decided not to make the same mistakes as what came before. This is the origin story of Caesar I had never dared to hope for, and I have every intention of seeing it at least once more during its theatrical run.

Items of note in the film:
  • The excellent motion-captured performance by the brilliant Andy Sirkis, the guy who so deftly brought Gollum to life in LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. His Caesar is simply impossible not to care about and root for, and I can honestly say that by halfway through the film, the entire audience wanted to see him and his all-ape army win. While Rodman's story is certainly interesting, the film belongs to Caesar and his point of view during its events.
  • The sometimes ham-fisted social commentary of the original series has been wisely kicked to the curb in favor of a hero's journey story fused with what can be seen as an animal rights piece from the point of view of animals.
  • The other featured apes are also pretty cool, especially Maurice the orangutan (think about that one for a minute, o my fellow geeks) and Duke, a very large and understandably pissed-off gorilla.
  • Pay attention whenever any TV news reports are seen, especially those relating to a space mission to Mars.
  • The effects on all of the apes are outstanding and believable. The somewhat spotty footage seen in the trailers and TV ads do not do the work seen onscreen justice, so don't judge the film on what you saw in the previews of the past few months.
And there has been much discussion in the media and in online geek forums of how obviously impossible it would be for a relatively small force of apes, even organized and super-intelligent ones, to take on armed police and the national guard and have even the slightest chance of winning, but let me assure you that that question is very directly addressed and the answer quite satisfyingly requires very little suspension of disbelief. Hell, I bought it and I am one exceedingly critical son of a bitch. Believe that!

BOTTOM LINE: I simply loved RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES and very highly recommend that you see it in the theater. A franchise movie of this caliber that does not talk down to its audience is rare indeed, and it should be shown appreciation with your box office cash. But one word of warning: The story gets very emotionally intense in some areas and it greatly affected the grownups in the audience, so bear in mind how children react to animal characters that they come to care about. Kids will love Caesar, so expect them to become quite upset during a lot of what he goes through. (Plus to say nothing of the awful demise of his mother.)