Jul 17 2014

Alex Cross (2012)

alexcrossHaving never seen previous Alex Cross movies (Kiss the Girls, Along Came a Spider), I cannot comment on their merits. Being otherwise well-acquainted with Morgan Freeman, I’m inclined to believe he serves as a quiet yet commanding centre, lending his power to films that sorely need it (see also: Lucky Number Slevin, Unleashed, Hard Rain … the list goes sadly on).

Having never seen any Tyler Perry films (Diary of a Mad Black Woman, For Colored Girls, many others), I cannot comment on their merits either. I judge Perry solely as an actor, which, based on his Alex Cross performance as replacement Freeman, is akin to swapping Harrison Ford with Taylor Lautner, Sigourney Weaver with Tara Reid, Javier Bardem with a summer squash … you get the idea. In a film riddled with bad, Perry’s casting is the worst offender.

alexcross1Based on the James Patterson crime novels — a series I am familiar with, beyond atrocious in style, plot, and writing ability — Alex Cross re-images the titular character as a young(ish) police detective with the never-proven-but-always-remarked-upon analytical skills of Sherlock Holmes and the never-remarked-upon-but-always-on-display charisma of unflavored ice milk. A maniacal assassin played by a shredded, illegal-MMA-fighting Matthew Fox (the only actor who realizes how awful the movie is, thus the only actor having any fun) has taken to leaving clues in abstract art sketches.

Cue desperate game of overfed-housecat-and-mouse, directed by hack maestro Rob Cohen (The Fast and the Furious) with all the passion of an insomniac with substance-abuse issues. Cohen is unable to wring even the minutest amount of pleasure from all the ridiculousness. The finale [SPOILER], a fistfight betwixt Perry’s doughy teddy bear and Fox’s zero-percent-body-fat hitman, should be at the very least a laugh riot, like pitting John Candy against Jason Statham.

The only true enjoyment comes (inadvertently) from Perry; while most of his scenes battle to out-dull each other, there are times when his performance nears camp classic value. At one point, while Fox taunts him on the phone, Perry literally huffs and puffs with rage. It’s hilarious, and a pointed reminder of Freeman’s unsurpassed ability to project anger through stillness. Freeman is the calm at the eye of a hurricane; Perry, for all his livid wheezing, barely summons up a breeze. —Corey Redekop

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Jul 7 2014

The Legend of Hercules (2014)

legendherculesThe first of two Hercules projects to hit the big screen in 2014, The Legend of Hercules is so bad, the other one need not do much more than simply show up to the battle to win.

And mind you, “the other one” comes from Brett Ratner.

But back to the first-outta-the-gate Legend. Directed by the once-promising Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2), the film errs in many ways, but most notably through miscasting. Whereas the other Herc flick casts Dwayne Johnson (né The Rock) as the Greek myths’ ultimate hero and god of strength, Harlin has Kellan Lutz, a Twilight franchise second-stringer. Lutz looks like a frat boy who overdid the bronzing tanner, but his mortal enemy, King Amphitryon, is played by Scott Adkins (2010’s Ninja), a real-deal martial artist who commands the camera. Lutz likely commanded the on-set iPod playlist.

legendhercules1The two deserve to have to switched roles, but my preference would be to nix Lutz entirely. Free of charisma, he looks no more convincing chasing a babe (Gaia Weiss, TV’s Vikings) than he does choking a CGI lion. So dull and flat is the 3-D would-be epic, viewers may wish they were the lion, quickly put out of misery before the curtain falls on Act 1.

Lou Ferrigno, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kevin Sorbo: You are forgiven. —Rod Lott

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Jul 5 2014

Reading Material: 7 New Film Books for the Summer Movie Season

worldgonewildDespite summer movie season being in full swing, I’ve been uncharacteristically lax in visiting the multiplex for air-conditioned audiovisual action, and what little I have seen has underwhelmed. As the seven reviews below prove, I’ve been reading about the movies more than watching them. After all, the rewards can be greater and you don’t have to worry about teens texting.

The definitive book of the increasingly popular subgenre of collapsed-society cinema has yet to be penned. Until then, we’ll make do with David J. Moore’s World Gone Wild: A Survivor’s Guide to Post-Apocalyptic Movies. Admirably heavy, the Schiffer Publishing hardback casts such a wide net, Ishmael would be proud, as Videoscope zine contributor Moore digs well below the surface level of Mad Max and its imitators to mine the obscure, forgotten and never-known. Capsule reviews are arranged alphabetically and supplemented with Q-and-A interviews (Roddy Piper and Stuart Gordon are among the bigger names; others will ring no bells and have little of value to share) and gloriously illustrated with full-color posters from ’round the globe. Trouble is, while his love for post-apoc flicks is unparalleled, Moore just isn’t a compelling writer — certainly not enough to justify the pretension of never capitalizing his name, à la ee cummings. I cannot figure out which irks me more: That the work is rife with run-on and incomplete sentences or intentionally ruined endings. Let’s call it a draw; for sheer visuals alone, World Gone Wild is worth holding onto for bunker and/or toilet reading.

verywitchingFor McFarland & Company’s The Very Witching Time of Night: Dark Alleys of Classic Horror Cinema, Gregory William Mank has rounded up a baker’s dozen of articles dedicated to fright films of the 1930s and 1940s. While the result is a mishmash of subjects, its appeal is to the serious student of horror’s infancy is undeniable, and he or she will find the contents infinitely readable. From the classic Cat People to the crass Murders in the Zoo, Mank chronicles behind-the-scenes stories with a bent toward studio-era minutia and Shock Theatre nostalgia. Anyone left wondering, “Who the hell is Helen Chandler and why should I care about her?” should move further down the shelves; this collection is not for them.

creaturefeaturesNow reissued in an affordable paperback edition of McFarland’s original publication of 2008, Creature Features: Nature Turned Nasty in the Movies finds William Schoell exploring the terrain of what I like to call “animal-attack films.” As the Empire of the Ants cover suggests, however, the book is like a picnic to which you’ve long looked forward, only to see it spoiled by uninvited pests. Schoell divides his examination of these flicks by species, but the narrative is too loose and scattershot to spark that all-important reader joy. Such a subject would be better-served if presented as reference with individual titles getting their own reviews vs. what we do have: an occasionally interesting but meandering trail through bug-and-beast cinema. Creature Features‘ forced narrative is overly weighted with plot synopses, and while well-illustrated, it simply lacks the fun exuded by the B films themselves.

foundfootageAs she did with her 2011 study of Rape-Revenge Films, Australia-based author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas provides a gratifying, thorough and wide-in-scope look in Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality, also from McFarland. Thanks to Paranormal Activity turning about $20 into nearly $200 million, Hollywood’s most profitable trend du jour shows little signs of slowing down (especially as more big-ticket blockbusters fail to register). Heller-Nicholas could have written a fine book on that financial level alone, but rather than settle, she probes the deeper meaning of why audiences respond to the no-frills approach, not to mention why now, as the movement dates several decades. Unsurprisingly, she has done her homework and then some — titles are discussed that even I haven’t heard of — and makes her case in a way that does not require prior consumption of the movies. Even better, watching them after reading the book will enhance your experience by coming armed with her insight.

subversivehorrorOne could argue that the entire horror genre is subversive, given its historical treatment as either one notch above pornography or sharing the same step. In the McFarland-pubbed Subversive Horror Cinema: Countercultural Messages of Films from Frankenstein to the Present, Jon Towlson narrows his focus to those filmmakers who exhibited “political engagement with the issues of the time and their use of the horror film as a form of protest,” and argues that such movies connect with viewers most in times of national crises. If that sounds like a lecture, loosen up! Towlson’s terror trip through history yields plenty of fascinating examples, from how director James Whale’s homosexuality made its way into Boris Karloff’s portrayal of the Frankenstein monster, to how Tod Browning’s Freaks can be seen as an allegory for the Great Depression’s legions of the disenfranchised. More recent examples include the usual suspects (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Night of the Living Dead), but also left-field choices (Jeff Lieberman’s Blue Sunshine and both of Brian Yuzna’s Dentist slashers). Learn and enjoy.

sexsceneWhile we eagerly await historian Eric Schaefer’s sexploitation follow-up to 1999’s essential Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!, the new Duke University Press collection he has edited makes for a spicy, satisfying appetizer: Sex Scene: Media and the Sexual Revolution. While Schaefer has penned only the introduction and an essay on Swedish “sinema,” that’s hardly a negative, as he’s assembled a stellar lineup of academic authors who know their stuff. That their stuff includes everything from MPAA ratings flaps and “party records” to the (ahem) rise of porn chic and how TV’s The Love Boat struggled to hint at cabin couplings, means the book is like a class you wish existed, just so you could audit the entire semester. Collectively, the text is the smartest person at the party without also being the snobbish dick at said soirée, and it makes for a perfect, if wholly inadvertent companion to Robert Hofler’s recent, recommended Sexplosion, which covers some of the same, semen-stained ground.

shadowwriterFinally, Paul Kane’s book on the Hellraiser franchise was such a smart and detailed analysis that I looked forward to his first collection of film criticism, yet the Kane of that 2006 work stands in stark contrast to the Kane of Shadow Writer: The Non-Fiction — Vol. 1: Reviews. Clumsily titled, the Bear Manor Media paperback champions a fair share of indie gems; that said, there isn’t much its author doesn’t like. In fact, he likes some things too much. If everything is ranked on a 10-point scale, yet The Cabin in the Woods somehow earns an 11 (and worse, Marvel’s The Avengers, a 12), what’s the point? That kind of fanboy gushing leaves a bitter aftertaste, as do the flood of incomplete sentences, factual doozies and a problematic crutch on formula that is apparent immediately — spot the trend among these phrases culled from separate reviews:
• “I wasn’t expecting much from this film …” (page 11)
• “I have to be honest, I wasn’t expecting a great deal …” (page 13)
• “I have to admit I wasn’t expecting much …” (page 32)
• “I have to admit, I was expecting to hate …” (page 53)
• “I have to admit, by the end of this …” (page 54)
• “I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting much …” (page 93)
And, I have to admit, that’s far from a complete list. —Rod Lott

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May 31 2014

Predator (1987)

predatorHere’s my personal theory as to why Predator has stuck around after so many similar movies have disappeared from the public consciousness, and it’s not the alien (although that is a vital component).

It’s that Arnold Schwarzenegger [SPOILER ALERT FOR THOSE THREE PEOPLE WHO HAVEN’T SEEN IT!] loses the climactic fight.

Think about it: We’ve got a more-or-less traditional action scenario: the Austrian Oak (named “Dutch,” because duh) leads a Black Ops troop into Central America on a rescue mission. There, an alien hunter quickly decimates this ragtag troop of former wrestlers, football players and porn stars until we get to the customary final bout of mano-a-extraterrestrialmano.

predator1Customarily, pretty much every Arnie film comes down to a show of brute force — i.e. Commando, Conan, Raw Deal, Eraser, Jingle All the Way, et al. — because how could anyone hope to defeat a man whose biceps are bigger than the average American’s thigh? Yet here, we find Mount Brawny outmatched. He’s forced to outthink his crab-faced opponent through an adoption of new tactics rather than come at him muscles a-blazin’, and even then he loses. It’s only through a mixture of luck and intelligence that Schwarzenegger ultimately manages to triumph.

Beyond that, Predator would still only be a rare acceptance of action-hero mortality if it weren’t for the now-famous alien, a charismatic creation that is practically the xenomorphic embodiment of Schwarzenegger himself. Director John McTiernan (Die Hard) wisely keeps it hidden behind an invisible shield to heighten the tension, and keeps the action and wisecracks flowing smoothly. Frankly, he’s a far better director than the material deserves and keeps the B-movie festivities from falling to, say, Dwight H. Little (Marked for Death) levels of averageness.

Even more than that, McTiernan deserves some mention for achieving the nigh-impossible: making Jesse Ventura watchable. Although Ventura tries his damnedest to stop him. —Corey Redekop

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May 29 2014

Blade (1998)

bladeEight reasons why Blade is all 10 kinds of hot awesomesauce.

1. It was a mash-up before mash-ups were popular: Shaft plus Dracula plus any number of martial arts films. Without Blade, we’d never have had Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. You think about that.

2. It made a franchise out of a C-list comic-book character, giving us all hope that watchable Ghost Rider films might yet be possible.

3. It played absolutely to Wesley Snipes’ strengths. A shame he later became trapped behind the badass façade, but Blade reminds us of the talent hidden in all the crappy DVD movies since.

4. All due love to The Matrix, but Blade beat it to the leather-clad, sunglasses-wearing, martial arts ass-kicking genre by a good year.

5. It was a financial success, leading Marvel Comics to consider putting money and talent behind later films rather than going the Albert Pyun route (that’s a Captain America reference, the 1990 version, which firmly sits atop the pantheon of so-bad-it’s-really-bad films).

blade16. N’Bushe Wright, the female lead, should have been bigger after this. So good, perfect for the role.

7. It’s blessedly R-rated, giving us plenty of blood and severed limbs, and it was made early enough in the computer era to forgive it its FX faults, rather than condemn it for some unimpressive CGI blood (as contrast, see Blood: The Last Vampire for how bad CGI bloodletting can get, because there’s no other reason to watch it).

8. Stephen Dorff plays snarky suckhead quite well; Kris Kristofferson redefines the concept of “grizzled”; Udo Keir’s customary overacting plays perfectly in the setting; and Donal Logue finally came into his own as a fun-loving vampire.

9. Can I be the only one praying for a crossover with the current Marvel movie universe? Blade/Spider-Man? Blade/Wolverine? Blade/Thor? Please?

10. Blade led to Blade II, which finally gave director Guillermo del Toro a commercially successful display of his talents. Without Blade, no Blade II; without Blade II, no Hellboy or Pan’s Labyrinth. Therefore, without Blade, no reason to live. —Corey Redekop

Buy it at Amazon.