Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Fantastic Four (1994)

Let's first add some context. My 1994 involved the crackle of dial-up internet, Pulp Fiction, and Bill Clinton.

The other thing that happened that year was the release of a Fantastic Four movie. Well, "release" in more of a metaphorical, masturbatory meaning of the word instead of a "film distribution" sense. See, there was some copyright rigamarole (you can find a run-down here) that kept a film that had been made to completeness from being placed in front of the eyes of people.

And so, through the power-coupling of the internet and unsanctioned distribution, we have Roger Corman's Fantastic Four. (Thank you, YouTube)

The story of this superhero team should be about as familiar as how Frankenstein's Monster becomes Frankenstein's Monster at this point. Four people, three dudes and a lady, get scienced into some superpowers. These superpowers are equal parts ridiculous and useless alone (except for the dude who TURNS INTO FIRE), but together they can overcome great evil. That evil comes in the form of Victor Von Doom who is also transformed by the same science-stuff as the other four...the FANTASTIC FOUR.

Yes, the bad guy's name is Doom...these characters are based on comic books, after all.

This Roger Corman version hits on all of these notes with the slight variation that Doom is tranformed far before the others in a college science experiment he's working on with Reed Richards ("Mr. Fantastic"...yes, again, these are the most comic-booky of comic books!)

Ten years later, Richards wants to go to space to chase after the Macguffin and he takes along his buddy pilot Ben Grimm and two twenty-somethings named Sue and Johnny Storm. Blah-blah-blah, science goes wrong and we're left with superpowered peoples.

Reed Richards is...STRETCHY!!

Johnny Storm is...FIREY!!

Sue Storm is...INVISIBLEY!!

Ben Grimm is...ROCKY (no, not the Stallone kind of, he's made of rocks.)

Of course, this is a Roger Corman movie so it's made on about as much money as a TV-Movie-Of-The-Week. Because of those budget constraints, we can easily make fun of the special effects. So let's do that!!

Let's get two issues out of the way right now. First, virtually no one is a "Hard-Core Fantastic Four Fan" because they're meant to be silly fun, not slaves to comic book canon, frozen in a single moment of their storied history (Ahem: Spider-Man). Secondly, arguments about how this comic book family would have been treated better if only the license had been given to some big corporation for a film-version is...



So we can disregard any sorts of arguments about how this movie would have been better off more "grounded" and "realistic."

We have to simply accept that The Fantastic Four as a movie concept, and as comic book characters, are ridiculous. This film from 1994 is equal parts cringe-worthy (example: when they get those spandex outfits seen in the top picture) and ridiculous (example: the scene where Mr. Fantastic explains the connection of their superpowers to their personality traits), so, more than any other adaptations, IT FITS the source material.

I wouldn't exactly recommend this internet-only comic book movie because, well...the Fantastic Four are pretty stupid. But if you're dead-set on watching a Fantastic Four movie, this is the one you should go with. At least you'll laugh because you're supposed to laugh, instead of weeping at what might have been.

You can usually find Roger Corman's Fanastic Four movie on YouTube.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Legendary Weapons of China (1982)

Thanks to El Rey Network on Sling TV, I've been watching a ton of Kung-Fu movies lately. And in doing so, realized I haven't really reviewed one here.

This classic Shaw Brothers film includes some of the most important elements of any great kung-fu movie. Sure, you expect great fight choreography. Maybe you also expect a bit of comedy (like the many great Jackie Chan films, you know...before they weren't so great anymore). Well, this one has all the right elements of entertainment, without going full-on comedy throughout. Though, you WILL laugh...

To hit all the appropriate notes of a great kung-fu film, this one features:

Super-shiny metal weapons!

The elaborately choreographed intro is a given.

...the use of Chi!

...and students sacrificing themselves needlessly!

Yes, that guy suicided by ripping out his own crotch.

Sadly, though, the movie does not include a White-Haired Evil Dude.

What I'm getting at is this kung-fu flick is all kinds of the awesome type of weird. It's got Gordon Liu making his students invincible to everything (except bullets).

He puts paper on their wounds to...heal them, I guess?

Anyway. The premise finds members of a secret society competing to kill a traitor to keep him from exposing their big bad secret: the society's magic and supernatural kung-fu arts can't, in fact, stop bullets. The inclusion of this magic stuff adds some of the best, weirdest elements of the film.

Voodoo Kung Fu, anyone?

But there's also little nuggets of strange translation, like how they say "pugilism" instead of "kung-fu" quite a lot throughout the film.

My Shoulder-Blade Pugilism Style is STRONG!

Or where two people spit on Gordon Liu's hat to simulate rain.

What I'm getting at is: this movie has it all. Great fight choreography. Absurdity galore. Gordon Liu. And all the "legendary weapons."

Seriously, the last thirty minutes are insane kung-fu awesomeness. So many weapons, with such a mixture of choreography. Everything prior is just a build-up to the last two fights, and because of that, this is a Shaw Brothers gem.

Legendary Weapons of China can be seen regularly on El Rey Network's rotation of Thursday's "Flying Five Finger One Armed Exploding Death Touch" line-up. Or purchased cheaply on Amazon.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Blood of Heroes AKA Salute of the Jugger (1989)

Have you ever wondered whether there'll be sports after the apocalypse? Do you worry atomic wars that mostly eradicate mankind might disrupt the football season?

Well, take heart, post-apocalyptic sports fans, because Rutger Hauer has come to answer your question with a resounding..."SPORTS WILL STILL SPORT AFTER SOCIETY CRUMBLES!"

Yes, Rutger Hauer (most notably of Blade Runner and Hobo with a Shotgun) plays in a competitive sport where five people work together to place a dog's skull on a spike to score. The timekeeper chucks stones at a metal plate until someone wins, or until 100 stones are tossed. There are two blockers. One guy swinging a chain. And the "quick" whose job is to grab the skull and place it on the spike.


It's not unlike football. For example, violence is encouraged, but the players generally have enough respect for one another to avoid gratuitous injury where possible. But, honestly, it's not exactly like football either, since most of them are wielding weapons of some sort.

Swinging a chain...swinging a chain.

So, first let's talk about the pieces, then we'll talk about the whole pie.

Rutger Hauer is the grizzled veteran of the sport. He's seen some shit, man. And he's got a vendetta to boot. Regardless of his motivation in this particular film, the man can do no wrong in my book. He is on the level of a Peter Cushing. No matter how bad the film, the script, or the directing, these are actors that elevate every single frame of the film they are in. They have a presence that is unparalleled.

Just like Peter Cushing can hold a screen presence doing this...

So too can Rutger Hauer wear a tire wrapped around his face and still look like a badass...

Number of people who can look cool wearing tires as a helmet? One.

And he can go one-eyed in the same movie and look twice as awesome.
The other big name here is Vincent D'Onofrio. This guy has been awesome as far back as Full Metal Jacket (1987). But more recently, he made Wilson Fisk (The Kingpin) something more than a one-note villain in the Netflix series, Daredevil (2015).

Two of the greats, just hanging out post-apocalypse

Those are the pieces. The big pie is a Mad Max version of Major League (which, coincidentally, came out the same year as the latter), with Rutger Hauer as the Tom Berenger veteran and Joan Chen playing the Charlie Sheen rookie part. It's any underdog sports story (Rocky, Bad News Bears, Karate Kid, Hoosiers), but it takes place after the apocalypse.

You can't just throw these things together and hope they work...

With that concept at its heart, this movie does a few magical things. First, it completely sells this sports and its structure so well that, by the end, you understand how the game works (there's even a training montage!) and what the stakes are. That's no small task for a throwaway late-80s movie. Secondly, it actually makes you care for these characters enough to root for them by the end.

It's a bit tough to find on DVD, but easy enough in the usual digital places. So, if you get the chance and the inkling, find this little-known gem. It's a strange mixture of a lot of cool things that work well together in this case.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

When your post-apocalyptic movie opens with credits set to a pop song, it's not really post-apocalyptic anymore. It's a James Bond film. And when you put a pop star into that post-apocalyptic movie, you're stunt-casting (and getting a hit soundtrack to boot).

The film opens with a few key call-backs to Mad Max 2, but almost no reference to the original.

This dude is quite SAXY, but not as saxy as Max's former wife.

Because, let's face it, the sequel had overshadowed the original by this point, and still does. Max is robbed by his gyro-copter buddy from The Road Warrior. Only, it's not his gyro-copter buddy. It's the same actor, but not the same character. Keeping up?

He's surprised you noticed him at all...let alone in two movies...
Max also does a call-back to the more successful, previous film by finding a little musical-thingy that comes in handy, similar to the one he found at the beginning of The Road Warrior that helped him win over the feral kid.

When a movie tries this hard to remind you of other movies, you should be worried.

Apparently, as the 80s really set in, everything became a parody of itself. Like a comic-book version of reality where the audience needed less subtlety and more...well, just zero subtlety at all.

Nope, not comically over-the-top...
With each of the films in this series, one gets a sense that George Miller is re-writing and re-shooting his previous effort. Recursively moving forward while still re-hashing a bit of the previous effort. This is most clear in the third effort. Max is, again, established as a badass who can handle himself. A man who can fight, but who also adheres to an interior code. A guy who is good with a gun, but who's smart enough to be formidable without one.

Good with a gun...

...and, um, better with a gun.

And then things get weird. And not in a good way. Because Max is rescued by a tribe of children. Yep, children living the Ewok-lifestyle save the most badass of badass men to exist after the apocalypse. And the children have a prophecy that predicted Mad Max would come to them. But really, it's not a's movies! The movie is getting all meta. Even with the movie-screen-staff, called "the tell"...ugh...

That aspect ratio sure does look familiar...

So, does that make us, the film-watchers, the children in this meta-metaphor? Hey filmmakers, probably not the best idea to relate your audience to children. Just saying.

It's like someone else took over directing and scripting duties after the first part of the film in order to infuse "heart." Things start off with a bunch of badass Mad Maxing going on for the first hour, and then George Miller said, "Yah, so-and-so's got it from here. I'm off for a nap. I'll pick up at the end for the chase scene."

And we end up with "Mad Max and the Lost Boys" for the sagging middle of the movie as a result.

Just what I want in my post-apocalypse...a sea of children.
After the plot gets its wheels rolling again, Mad Max and the kids end up back at Tina Turner-Town where they proceed to liberate a key component of Tina Turner's methane production from her Ike-like grip. After a road-pursuit that is remarkably reminiscent of The Road Warrior, the kids escape in an airplane and Mad Max is left to roam the post-apocalyptic country-side he now calls home.

Max sleeps best on the radioactive sand of a deserted wasteland.

Clearly, this movie is a mixed-bag. A sprinkle of good, with the after-taste of bad. It doesn't come close to living up to The Road Warrior, but it's more post-apocalyptic than the original Mad Max. Ultimately, there's about twenty-five minutes of the film that really sink it. On top of that, the effort to make it an "up" ending while keeping Max out in the apocalypse strides an awkward line. It's worth watching. But not more than once.

We'll see what Fury Road brings on May 15th...

Monday, April 13, 2015

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)

Now that the world has actually ended, we get into the world that these films are most known for...the actual post-apocalypse. While the first film presented a psuedo-end-of-the-world with news broadcasts, green grass, night club singers, and general civilization, the sequel jumps straight into life after the nukes have blown.

Some have theorized that this is because the first film shows life during an energy crisis, where law and order organizations such as the police and lawyers are still grappling to maintain a hold on the last bastions of civil order even as society circles the drain. And then this film shows us how things have progressed after a nuclear war that resulted from that energy crisis.

My theory is much simpler. Now that "Max's World" has ended (when his family was killed), so has the actual world. The outer-world is a reflection of his inner-world. All those ideals of establishments and order mean nothing to the man whose family they couldn't save. Max has nothing left to live for, so he must find his own way. In existential terms, he is left to construct his own establishment from the rubble around him, according to his own set of rules. These rules will guide the anti-hero from this point forward...he, like so many noir heroes, is a bad man doing some good.

But this film is the beginning of Max feeling out those rules and figuring out what good deeds are worth doing, and how bad he can allow himself to be...

...or how "Mad"

The films begins by setting the stage on which everything will play out with stock footage mixed with some scenes from the first film. Basically, gasoline is rare after two superpowers have gone to war with one another. The film takes place in this aftermath...

Immediately after this establishing exposition, we get a face-full of awesome as Max wordlessly takes down some punk biker's dune-buggy friend.

This new Max has a dog, one half-sleeve, and a lot more grizzle than we last saw him with.

And now that the apocalypse has taken full-hold on the film, there's a need for a bit of levity. Thankfully, the dog has it.

Max stumbles on a gasoline refinery plant thanks to some dumb luck, and then must figure out how to get some of their gasoline, even as a group of thugs, led by Lord Humungus, attempts to do the same by force.

Pictured: Apocalyptic Karaoke

Simple. Straight-forward. Good guys and bad guys. With Mad Max somewhere in the middle of all of it.

There's inexplicable outfits.

With headbands!

And a feral child with a boomerang.

Because Australia, I guess?

Basically, Max is the master-less Yojimbo protecting a group of people like the Seven Samurai. But not out of the good of his heart. That's in there somewhere, deep down. But more importantly, he has a vested interest in helping them. In exchange, he gets fuel. Sure, literal gasoline for his car. But more importantly a goal, some connection to humanity that gives him a purpose other than making it another mile down the road.

If you haven't seen this film, you should. It's genre-defining, expertly directed, visual story-telling, post-apocalyptic goodness. There's a reason why, like Conan the Barbarian the following year, it had many imitators. This is peak Mad Max. And it goes downhill from here...