Tuesday, March 30, 2010

THE WICKER MAN (2006) - 3/5 stars

Release: 2006
Director: Neil Labute
Writer: Neil Labute, Anthony Shaffer (1973 screenplay)
Cast: Neil LaBute, Nicolas Cage, Ellen Burstyn, Molly Parker, Leelee Sobieski, Frances Conroy, Michael Wiseman, Diane Delano, Tania Saulnier, George Murphy, Megan McKinnon
Soundtrack: Angelo Badalamenti
Claim to fame: box office bomb turned internet cult sensation (not unlike "The Room") thanks to Nicolas Cage's inspired performance - "NOT THE BEES! NO, NOT THE BEES!"
Rating: 3/5 stars

The original 1973 "Wicker Man" is a suspenseful, dark, sometimes-musical Protestant horror film that has endured as a cult favorite for decades. It's safe to say that it's a classic.

Neil Labute's 2006 remake is...not. In fact, the only way this movie has found favor with anyone is as a "so bad it's good" stinker of epic proportions.


Sorry folks, this one shot is about as creepy and Lynchian

as "The Wicker Man" remake gets

Neil Labute is a director who's become notorious for his perceived misogynistic tendencies with movies like 1997's "In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends & Neighbors" - films about the sometimes volatile relationships and conflicts that arise between men and women.

Once a controversial bad boy of the indie scene, for the past few years Neil has arguably been slumming it in recent years with mainstream thrillers like "Lakeview Terrace."


Speaking of slumming it, here's Academy Award-winner

Ellen Burstyn frolicking like a total twit

With his "Wicker Man" remake, I get the impression that Labute thought he was actually making an artful, sophisticated thriller that explores the underlying tension between the sexes. It's not. It's a ridiculous movie that moves at an inept pace and features laughably bad performances from actors that should have known better.

If there's any underlying message to be taken away from this movie, it's something like "don't trust little girls" or "bitches are crazy," the latter of which is also at the root of many hip-hop songs - songs that will take up much less of your time than this 102 minute disaster.


The horror genre has well established that

pale, fair-haired children are not to be trusted

Fortunately, into this maelstrom of suck walks Nicolas Cage, an actor who always knows how to give an unhinged, left-of-center performance to liven up even the dullest of proceedings. One senses that Cage is in on the joke, even if Labute is not.

In a recent interview with Ain't-It-Cool-News, Nic even came out and said: "You don’t karate chop Leelee Sobieski in the throat and not know how absurd that is, but it’s just not something I would like to talk about. I would rather let them [the audience] discover it on their own..."


The thing about Nicolas Cage is that you never know if

he's gonna save your movie or tank it - God bless him

As long as you haven't spoiled the most hilarious moments of this film from watching YouTube clips, then I'd say it is worth discovering on your own. Nic really has a hell of a time in this movie: stealing bicycles at gunpoint, having nightmares-within-nightmares, knocking out women left and right, and screaming "You bitches! You bitches!" at the top of his lungs.

And that's just the beginning.


This scene is just a tease of the bee insanity to come

Not say that "The Wicker Man" is good by any stretch of the imagination, but I can watch Nicolas Cage in any kind of movie as long as it's not the sleepwalking, phoning-it-in Cage. Fortunately here we get the insane, frazzled, yelling Cage.

I mean, from the moment strolled into the movie and actually made me laugh with his delivery of the line "Let me see your license and registration," I knew I was in for a good time. If you're a fan, I imagine you'll similarly enjoy this.


What's hilarious is that in this movie the entire concept of the Wicker Man

feels like an afterthought. They should have just quit while they were ahead.

You know, with the bees.

It's safe to say that most everyone involved here is working below themselves. Even Angelo Badalamenti, one of our greatest modern film composers ("Blue Velvet," "Twin Peaks"), delivers a generic 'suspense movie score' that is missing his usual ambient dread and stirring melodies. That said, Badalamenti's music is one of the few things "The Wicker Man" has going for it.

Some of the actors (like the fellow cop that Nic talks to at the police station near the beginning) give such bizarre line readings, and are edited so strangely, that I can sometimes imagine this version of "The Wicker Man" coming from the same alternate dimension as Tommy Wiseau's "The Room."

Considering how much more Hollywood money and gloss was lavished on this thing compared to "The Room," that's quite an accomplishment on Labute's part.



Monday, March 29, 2010

FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (1982) - 5/5 stars

AKA "Chinese Super Ninjas"
Release: 1982
Director: Cheh Chang
Writer: Cheh Chang, Kuang Ni
Cast: Tien-chi Cheng, Tien Hsiang Lung, Meng Lo, Wai-Man Chan, Chen Hei Psi, Wang Lieh, Ke Chu
Soundtrack: Chin Yung Shing, Chun Hau So
Claim to fame: largely considered one of the greatest - or at least the most fun - Shaw Brothers films
Rating: 5/5 stars

When a movie actually lets the title cards interrupt what is presumably a painstakingly-choreographed, life-or-death battle, then I kind of assume that it's going to be filled to the brim with action and that the filmmakers don't need to show their hand right away. "Five Element Ninjas" does not disappoint in this regard.

The story is pretty damn unique. It spends a good deal of the first act laying out the Chinese Martial Arts Alliance (basically a kung fu school) as being the toughest, most skilled fighters in all of China. You know they're the good guys because their costumes are white as the driven snow.


The Martial Arts Alliance wears these tiny little half-capes,

which is cool except they're ALWAYS pausing to untie them before a fight

Just when you think that these guys are the ultimate bad-asses, the school is promptly decimated by a clan of Japanese ninjas.

The ninjas, who are not afraid to fight cheap and dirty, employ various elemental tactics to win: blinding their opponent's eyes with metal hats, hiding inside hollowed out trees, striking from underwater, etc.


If we've learned anything from "The Octagon," it's that ninjas have no honor

The rest of the film then becomes about how the few surviving Chinese martial artists are going to learn to strike back at an opponent who is seemingly invincible and without honor.

The American title of the movie, "Chinese Super Ninjas," is arguably more appropriate since although there are five elemental ninja *techniques* in this film, only four Chinese heroes are left standing for the finale - and they do truly become super ninjas once their training is complete.

What commences is a beautiful and gory display of patented Shaw Brothers martial arts choreography. The fight scenes are abundant, and the fact that the sets look so unnatural and studio-built only lends to the fantasy, comic book-y feel of the film.


I sincerely love these kind of serene landscapes

that are completely manufactured in a film studio

I could have done without the romantic subplot, which seemed out of place, in favor of more sequences detailing the heroes' ninja training - there's the briefest training montage imaginable and then all of a sudden they know how to beat the ultra-stealthy ninjas - but I suppose that would have taken away from the surprise of the ending battles.

Despite being made in 1982, "Five Elemental Ninjas" looks culled from the late 70's and features the kind of limb-pulling gore that wouldn't be out of a place in Peter Jackson's "Dead Alive."

It's certainly one of the most epic, delightfully silly, and just plain fun kung fu flicks I've ever witnessed. Highly recommended for all you Shaw Brothers junkies and ninja lovers.


Expect a lot of fatal bleeding in "Five Element Ninjas," thankfully

the DVD print is rather pristine and makes the color red pop

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982) - 4/5 stars

conan 10
Release: 1982
Director: John Milius
Writer: Oliver Stone and John Milius (screenplay), Robert E. Howard (stories)
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenneger, James Earl Jones, Max von Sydow, Sandahl Bergman, Ben Davidson, Cassandra Gava, Gerry Lopez, Mako
Soundtrack: Basil Poledouris
Claim to fame: the live-action adaptation of Robert E. Howard's popular pulp stories; one of Arnold Schwarzenneger's first big movies
Rating: 4/5 stars

"Conan the Barbarian" has 3 things really going for it. One is that, in 1982, Arnold Schwarzenneger looked exactly like every adolescent kid dreamed Conan would.

conan 1

Is that a...barbarian camel toe?!?!

Second is the scene in which James Earl Jones lectures Conan about true power, and demonstrates by having a young woman leap to her death at his mere asking.

"That is strength, boy! That is power! What is steel compared to the hand that wields it? Look at the strength in your body, the desire in your heart, I gave you this! Such a waste. Contemplate this on the tree of woe. Crucify him!"

Whoa, okay, I'm not going to argue with him there.

conan 7

Jesus Christ Pose

And lastly is the soundtrack by composer Basil Poledouris, an old college friend of director John Milius. The film is almost undeserving of the beautiful music he wrote; his score lends power and the weight of Fate itself to scenes that should have really just been half-naked dudes waving swords around in the desert.

You can tell it'll be a memorable soundtrack from the opening credits and it's since been used in everything from trailers to "Gladiator" to promotional videos for the "Legend of Zelda" games. Basil himself went on to score a lot of memorable 80's movies like "Robocop" and "Red Dawn."

conan 5

"Valor pleases you, Crom...so grant me one request.

Grant me revenge! And if you do not listen, then to HELL with you!"

I think the issue with "Conan the Barbarian" is that it's more noteworthy for the impact and influence it had on popular culture than as a film itself. It's certainly not the best movie that Oliver Stone or John Milius ever had their name attached to, and here Arnold is clearly still in the growing pains of learning how to act.

James Earl Jones ends up carrying all of their scenes together on his back and his performance goes a long way towards making the film feel like a genuine clash between good and evil.

conan 8

James Earl Jones practices his thousand yard stare - into your SOUL

In the end, this is a movie worth watching - you've got plenty 'o decapitated heads, giant snakes, palace orgies, and much talk of the god Crom.

But once you read up on how much the film mixed and mashed Robert E. Howard's mythos, you realize you might be better off turning up Basil's soundtrack and imagining your own adventures for Conan.

conan 9

Look at those rippling thigh muscles, hrnnnugh aghhh

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

PLANET HULK (2010) - 3/5 stars

Release: 2010
Director: Sam Liu
Writer: Greg Johnson (screenplay), Greg Pak (comic book)
Cast: Rick D. Wasserman, Lisa Ann Beley, Mark Hildreth, Liam O'Brien, Kevin Michael Richardson, Samuel Vincent, Advah Soudack, Michael Kopsa, Marc Worden
Soundtrack: Guy Michelmore
Claim to fame: the latest animated release from Marvel Comics; an adaptation of "Incredible Hulk" #92-105
Rating: 3/5 stars

Condensing a year long comic book story into one 80 minute animated film is no small feat, but the movie adaptation of "Planet Hulk" turned out about as well as I could have hoped.

Sure, it focuses mostly on the action rather than plot; they replaced Silver Surfer with Beta Ray Bill (I presume because Silver Surfer is to have his own animated movie in the near future?); and the exposition is awkwardly crammed into frequent and intrusive flashbacks. But I honestly think I enjoyed watching this film more than I did reading the comic each month.


In "Planet Hulk," the Jade Giant gives Russell Crowe a run for his money

The story is taken straight from the comic books: Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic, and a few other of Earth's mightiest heroes like Dr. Strange are fed up with the Hulk's destructive ways. Every time they think Banner's got his alter ego under control, he randomly Hulks out and destroys an entire city (in comic continuity, the Hulk had just recently rampaged Las Vegas).

So, they capture the Hulk and place him on a rocket headed straight for an uninhabited planet where the Hulk will be safe but unable to hurt anyone. Of course, things go horribly wrong: the Hulk's spacecraft is knocked off course and he's sent crash-landing on a fierce gladiator world.


Planet Hulk ain't exactly a top tourist destination,

what with the tentacle monsters and all

It's a bit jarring at first to see the Hulk on a planet where he's no longer "the strongest there is" - several supporting cast members are bigger than him and the Hulkster frequently gets his butt handed to him - but this flick did an excellent job at conveying the sheer, unadulterated rage of the Hulk.

The madder he gets, the stronger he gets and, boy, is it a sight to behold. And many of Hulk's fan favorite moves are feature, like his infamous thunder clap.


Hulk gets his ass kicked a surprising number of times

I have to say that out of all the recent animated movies I've seen from Marvel and DC "Planet Hulk" features the best voice cast. There wasn't a single role that took me out of the film (once you get over how Miek kinda sounds like Gollum) and it even includes Liam O'Brien, a great voice actor whose voice I instantly recognized due to his work in dozens of video games like "Persona 3."

The animation is stellar, although some scenes tended to vary between being heavily shadowed or kind of blurry (I believe to simulate sunlight). Hi-Def Digest's blu-ray review (http://bluray.highdefdigest.com/2601/planethulk.html) complained of frequent color banding and such but my eyes didn't pick up on anything like that.


Hulk's allies are a motley crew of well-animated alien warriors

Really, I've been watching almost all of these superhero animated flicks - like "Green Lantern: First Flight" and "Batman/Superman: Public Enemies" - and "Planet Hulk" is far and away the best of the bunch, and the original story wasn't even my favorite source material.

If you're a fan of the Green Goliath at all then you can't go wrong renting "Planet Hulk." It captures the brutality and fury of the Hulk better than either of the two Hollywood movies, which should prove a special delight for comic book readers.


Whether on Earth or trapped in a distant galaxy, "Hulk is strongest there is!"

Monday, March 22, 2010

CHINA HEAT (1992) - 3/5 stars

Release: 1992
Director: William Chang, Yang Yang
Writer: William Cheung Kei, Goo Siu-Yin, Naam Fung
Cast: Sibelle Hu, Alan Lan, Sherry Han, Cindy Mong, Michael Despasquale Jr., Sophia Crawford, Mark Houghton, Meredith MacRae, Roosevelt Jackson
Soundtrack: ?
Claim to fame: it's safe to say that this film is so obscure it has no claim to fame, at least not in America; though it could be said it fits into the "girls-with-guns" subgenre of Hong Kong action movies
Rating: 3/5 stars

"China Heat" is an early 90's Hong Kong action flick, featuring copious girls-with-guns, martial arts fighting, and pratfall stunts. But it's staged with such low-budget incompetence that it ends up less like the works John Woo and Jackie Chan, and more like something you'd see on Mystery Science Theater 3000. And you know what? That's okay with me.

I was in the mood for a bad movie the other night and "China Heat" more than fit the bill. The plot is ridiculous: remember how in the Van Damme "Street Fight" movie, the good guys were a generic UN-style peacekeeping force that actually went around the world, kicking butt and firing guns? "China Heat" is just like that, except the task force is comprised entirely of women (okay, there's ONE guy in the group).



They travel around the globe, fighting terrorists and drug dealers. And their idea of "negotiating" with terrorists is a bullet to the head, while dope smugglers are best handled with a swift karate kick.

This is within the opening 5 minutes of the movie


Yup, she's really riding a motorcycle on top of a plane

And as sillily-staged as much of it is - the bad guys stand there in sweat pants, legs braced, firing their guns like they actually want to be killed - it's a lot of fun, especially on an insomniac night while you're waiting for sleeping pills to kick in.


Talk about cannon fodder

Every actress in this movie is convincingly fast and knows how to to throw a punch or take a fall. Meanwhile, Michael Despasquale Jr. kinda looks like a low-rent, caveman version of David Duchovny from Brookyln.

Despasquale Jr. - a poor man's Duchovny, or Duchovny with a black belt?
I'll let you decide. I just like that his last name sounds like an Italian dish.


This screencap speaks for itself

For all of its ineptitude, "China Heat" will occasionally surprise you with a bravado moment: like when an undercover cop's head literally explodes from a gunshot wound


I bet you'd think a tiny gun like that wouldn't do much damage...


Whoa! Okay, holy shit, that seems a little overboard...

or the amazing camera POV from the passenger seat of Despasquale's car as he reverses down a line of bad guys and fires on them like he's at a shooting gallery.


First-person shooter

It also helps the film that lead actress Sibelle Hu has genuine cred in the Hong Kong industry: she starred in the popular "Inspectors Wear Skirts" series, as well as in several Jackie Chan flicks like "My Lucky Stars."

Sibelle Hu has developed a cult following
of people who love to watch tiny Chinese women kick ass

The entire movie is in Mandarin with easy-to-read English subtitles, and seeing New York cops speak in Mandarin certainly lends to the fever dream quality of the entire production.

"China Heat" moves at a fast clip and rarely do ten minutes go by without another action scene. If you're anything like me and you enjoy a "good" bad movie, especially ones with ridiculous 90's fashion, then you'll devour "China Heat."


"Of all the dojos in the world, she had to walk into mine..."

Friday, March 19, 2010

DRUNKEN MASTER (1978) - 4/5 stars

Release: 1978
Director: Yuen Woo-ping
Writer: Lung Hsiao, Ng See-Yuen, Yuen Woo-ping
Cast: Jackie Chan, Yuen Siu Tien, Hwang Jang Lee, Fung Ging Man, Hsu Hsia, Linda Lin, Dean Shek, Shun-Yee Yuen
Soundtrack: Chow Fu-Liang
Claim to fame: this is one of Jackie Chan's first successful films and one of his most enduring among fans, introduced 'drunken boxing' to a legion of kung fu movie fans
Rating: 4/5 stars

Good Lord, there is so much kung-fu fighting in this movie that I very nearly felt fatigued by the end of it! You gotta love these 70's kung fu flicks where a well-choreographed fight sequence breaks out just because some guy won't pay his dinner tab.


Jackie was really in the best shape of his life for "Drunken Master"

For fans of Jackie Chan's more recent works, in which he's known for his implementation of props and dangerous stunts, this film might be a bit of an adjustment. Most of "Drunken Master" is comprised of dudes sparring in the middle of sunny fields with the camera set up perfectly to capture every move.

So instead of "What prop can Jackie use next?", it becomes about the athleticism, the choreography, the almost dance-like performance of the two combatants.


Centered shot composition means we get to see every move

Needless to say, I spent the entire runtime of "Drunken Master" utterly impressed by what Jackie and his co-stars were accomplishing. Jackie is so damn fit here and he seems to never stop moving, finding some new way to contort his body or dodge his opponent's blows.


Holy $#%&!

Did I mention that "Drunken Master" is also friggin' hilarious? It was fun to see Jackie play a well-meaning but ultimately selfish SOB who causes trouble for others at every turn. Bonus points for the scene where Jackie calls a middle-aged lady a bitch, only to have her kick his ass with her elite fighting skills...only to have him find out later that she's the aunt he hasn't seen in 10 years!


You gotta love 70's kung fu movie hijinks

"Drunken Master" plays out like a classic Shaw Brothers movie, only injected with a healthy dose of comedy and even more impressive physicality on the part of the actors involved. This is a must-see movie for Jackie Chan fans and anybody who can appreciate 111 minutes of nearly nonstop martial arts action.

If you can get over the British-sounding dub (which isn't as bad as some I've heard), this is also one of director/choreographer Yuen Woo-ping's greatest works.


What kung fu movie would be complete

without some kind of painful and arcane training exercises?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

DOUBLE IMPACT (1991) - 2/5 stars

Double 7
Release: 1991
Director: Sheldon Lettich
Writer: Sheldon Lettich and Jean Claude Van Damme (screenplay), Sheldon Lettich and Jean Claude Van Damme and Steve Meerson and Peter Krikes (story)
Cast: Jean Claude Van Damme, Geoffrey Lewis, Alonna Shaw, Corinna Everson, Phillip Chan, Alan Scarfe, Bolo Yeung, Andy Armstrong,
Soundtrack: Arthur Kempel
Claim to fame: Twice the Van Dammage
Rating: 2/5 stars

"You want some advice? Take your fancy clothes and your black silk underwear and go back to Disneyland."

If someone who is actually a fan of Jean Claude Van Damme tells you that one of his movies sucks, then it definitely sucks. I've seen nearly every film in Van Damme's filmography so believe me when I say that "Double Impact" is certifiably crap.

Double 4

Nothing says low-budget, early 90's martial arts flick like pleated pants

It starts out promising enough: twin Van Damme babies are separated at birth. One grows up to be a hard-ass gangster in Hong Kong. The other (named "Chad," I kid you not) grows up to be a...LA aerobics instructor.

Much hilarity ensues during the opening 20 minutes, thanks to Van Damme doing the splits in spandex for a group of adoring females and "Chad"'s wardrobe in general. He arrives in Hong Kong wearing hot pink short shorts (with his socks pulled up high) and a turquoise polo shirt.

Double 2

I'll let this screen grab speak for itself

Which begs the question: how in the hell was this movie made in 1991? I refuse to believe it. With fashion like that, and the cheesy pop tunes that play on the soundtrack, I have to believe that this movie was made in 1987 and kept on the shelf for several years.

Double 5

"Hey Uncle Frank, there's a club if you'd like to go.

You could meet somebody who really loves you."

"Double Impact" also claims that the twins are only 25 years-old - Van Damme was 31 in 1991. I know you had a babyface back in the day, Jean Claude, but you're not fooling anybody.

Now so far what I've described sounds like a guilty pleasure kind of flick, but unfortunately as the movie goes on "Chad" becomes less of a, well, Chad and the two brothers' identities blur into each other. By the climax of the flick they're both the same action star tough guy. Yawn.

Double 6

Two Van Dammes means we have to watch Jean Claude beat the bad guys twice,

which is one time too many

Also, much of the film is under-lit; I lost track of how many scenes were completely bathed in darkness. It makes for one visually drab movie, and it's a shame that they didn't truly take advantage of the Hong Kong setting.

Then there's the ridiculously overblown sex scene - which only occurs in a character's mind! - that puts Cinemax to shame with its balletic grinding. Ugh, pass on "Double Impact" unless you absolutely worship Van Damme.

The presence of Bolo Yeung only serves to remind me that I'd rather be watching the far superior "Bloodsport."

Double 3
"Double Impact" presents a rematch between Jean Claude and Bolo
but you're better off preserving your memories of their first encounter