Salt (2010)

This is probably the last entry I will be able to write for a while since I really don’t have any more time to review films before the summer ends. I had fun writing some reviews up and I hope whoever was reading enjoyed them as well. I’m thinking about starting a review blog this fall/winter that will review not just films and entertainment, but also food, music, and other stuff as well. If you’re interested in writing about these things (for free) email me at andrew dot roback at gmail dot com and we can talk details. Hope you had a great summer! Oh and, officially, this will be my 35th review or something like that. Even though I failed miserably to generate the amount of content I wanted to, well, there’s no excuse, I just failed. Happy rest of the summer :).

Columbia Pictures, 100 min., Dir. Phillip Noyce

(Sort of) heralded as a (pretty decent) action/spy film that will (kind of) take you on a (semi-)non-stop thrill ride, I had expectations for Salt that were (a little) inflated by hype.

However, despite such glowing reviews as “it’s not as bad as I thought it would be,” I was hopeful that I would at least not dislike the film. From the man who directed Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994), I was expecting a smart spy film where there were lots of crazy plot developments and a really interesting cold war plot resurrection. Wrong. In other words, this film played more like Mission Impossible III than Mission Impossible.

A lot of reviews I read/heard praised the action element, but there was nothing outstanding. Action movies of this sort eventually devolve into how many different ways can the protagonist dispose of the baddies. Apart from one interesting scene involving a fire-extinguisher propelled homemade explosive, the action was mostly just Angelina Jolie hitting and shooting random guards.

The plot twists are not that interesting, and often don’t reconcile with the supposed plot in some cases. There’s not a whole lot of emotional investment in the characters, and the whole cold-war nuclear tension could not be more underplayed. I was expecting it to improve drastically as the film went on, but it just never did. The ending, which I won’t spoil for those who wish to see it, belongs in a James Bond film where it may be taken with a level of seriousness appropriate to its mustache twisting obviousness.

The fight scenes are completely vanilla (Angelina Jolie is aging and probably shouldn’t have played this role for obvious reasons), and the plot drops out to the most asinine developments possible with ancillary deux ex machina characters tossed in to finish the third act. Much like I was pissed at Iron Man II for overplaying cold war fears, I will reiterate for the rest of us who were born near the tail end: the Cold War is a piece of curious history and not a vivid memory.

The most interesting part of the movie was the idea of a Soviet spymaster creating a group of sleeper agents. Nerd that I am, I would have loved to see more of the training techniques, basically an unpacking of that whole montage. It would have replaced, perhaps, four to six scenes of Ms. Jolie breaking arms and kicking necks, but could have provided some much needed bolstering of the back story that would have made two-dimensional spy cliches into characters.

I don’t see much of a future for this series, even though there is a clear setup for a sequel. The film was trying very hard to be The Bourne Identity, but an aging actress in the lead coupled with poor acting and a bad storyline sabotaged this film right from the start.

5/10: Watch Breach (2007) for a much more entertaining spy film

Zombie Film Roundup

Here’s part one in what I hope could be a multi-part zombie film review. Let me know if you have any zombie films that you dig because I would love to check them out.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Image Ten, 96 min., Dir. George A. Romero, black and white

The defining zombie film that sparked a myriad of imitators never once uses “the zed word” during the film. I’m not a film scholar, so it’s hard to say whether NotLD is supposed to be set in the 50’s, or is just a low budget flick with old school sentimentalities.

Every female is a hysterical wreck who can’t help anyone with anything and needs a good slap, and every male is stereotype (strong man, posturer, greedy self-lover). The screenplay is, frankly, quite awful. The characters aren’t fleshed out very much and important details are tossed in as time permits.

The cinematography is quite a different story, however. The film begins during the early evening, and stretches through the night until the following morning. Since the film is shot in black and white, lighting is a huge consideration. Details such as the lighting of the face, dark makeup, and patterns of light and darkness all add to the viewing experience. The soundtrack, which Tobey Hooper obviously took stock of for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), uses otherworldly distortion and long-lasting crescendos to raise the stakes on otherwise stiff zombies and slow, low-budget action.

If you enjoy zombie films or are just starting to get into the genre, this is the gateway for you. Most every detail, and often times, characters, can be found in every zombie film you have seen. Romero’s films alone are their own cannon, but this film was the progenitor of zombie films to follow.


The Omega Man (1971)

Warner Bros., 98 min., Dir. Boris Sagal

Boris Sagal was a television director for an unbelievable amount of series, so it’s not too surprising that this movie plays like an extended television show. It could have been a pilot for a longer series.

The film is the second in three film adaptations of Richard Matheson’s novel I am Legend. The novel itself depicts the force that represents ‘otherness’ as vampires, but this film is clearly a zombie picture. The forces against the protagonist can’t venture into daylight, but that doesn’t differentiate them from zombies since they also avoid daylight. You never see anyone eating flesh, but they aren’t sucking blood either. In fact, the question of how these particular undead corpses survive is largely left unanswered. Their stiff appearance and style of attack seem very zombie-like in my opinion.

Charlton Heston plays Robert Neville, a scientist that survives a plague, a plague that seemingly wipes out all of mankind, by injecting himself with the last dose of vaccine after a helicopter crash prevents him from delivering it to the rest of the U.S., er, world, that is…he was definitely going to share it with the whole world…after the U.S. was safe, of course.

His arch nemesis after the plague apocalypse, Matthias (Anthony Zerbe), is the leader of the undead horde who wants to kill Neville. Neville is (in his mansion with a car, electricity, and decently aged scotch) an affront to Matthias’ stone age mentality cult of plague infected weirdos who won’t even pick up a gun to attack him, and want to return to a simpler life where there’s no chance of wiping out humanity with biological warfare. What a bunch of losers. Although, maybe I could read their pamphlet, just to see what a bunch of losers they are. I mean, I won’t want to join or anything, but you can’t dispute what they say, you know what I mean?? It’s not so crazy, I mean, their ideas. And what with those damn terrorists, you never know, I mean, they could totally do that, and shit. Aww man, I should really start looking into bomb shelters. But, I guess I’ll finish this review first.

Neville finds some other folks who aren’t yet zombie like followers of Matthias, so his life is given purpose other than hunting down the jerks who try to kill him every night. In fact, the first 30 minutes or so play like a Charlton Heston NRA commercial: “How would I kill these damn zombies without my beloved Uzi? You’ll have to pry it from my cold, dead hands!”

This film is about as seventies as it gets. Wah-wah bass lines pervade, Heston watches Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock (1970) at the beginning of the film, and the clothes have magnificently large lapels. Oh, and everyone is drinking some kind of brown liquor out of a tumbler at some point, poured from a cut crystal decanter, but of course. Rosalind Cash’s (Lisa’s) fro is something else, and Paul Koslo (Dutch) looks like he just walked off Woodstock and into the wrong film set, maaahn. Still, watch for the awsomeness that is the finale, and for 70’s style nostalgia. I’ll totally have to do a 70’s horror film roundup at some point.


Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Universal Pictures, 99 min., Dir. Edgar Wright

Probably the quintessential zombie movie of this decade, Shaun of the Dead draws heavily on Night of the Living Dead in a loving way, erasing the foolishness and flaws of the original and replacing them with tongue-in-cheek references which are hilarious. Barbara (Penelope Wilton) is as dazed as her namesake in NotLD (Judith O’Day), and many of the character types mirror the originals. Despite the allusion to Dawn of the Dead (1985), Shaun of the Dead only lightly references that film.

I won’t go too much into detail, since the film is so enjoyable that it really should be watched and not picked apart. There is a theme of repetition, with strong undertones that we all live like zombies and it takes a massive change of pace to help us excel to our full potential, even if that event is the end of the world. In some ways, it is a coming of age piece (buildungsroman), where the protagonist must shed his juvenile exterior and mature into a robust man who is capable of determining his own destiny. The humor is best appreciated by a gen X audience (perhaps British as well), so there are numerous cultural references that exceed my understanding; however, the humor is so endearing that you will have no problem joining in on the fun.

While a parody of zombie/horror films could easily become tiresome (see every Scary Movie for instance), this film is a tutorial in how to parody a genre by including fans and not obtusely excluding the people who would most enjoy a poke at a genre of film that is overdone or short on levity. You need only go as far as the trailer for Vampires Suck to see how parody can epically fail.


As I said above, I’d like to keep watching some zombie films and writing about them, so if you have any suggestions, send them my way.

Inception (2010)

Warner Bros., 148 min., Dir. Christopher Nolan

There’s not too much you can say that hasn’t been said and said and said and said, so I’m not sure there’s a ton to say that hasn’t been said. That’s my verbal attempt at translating a Penrose staircase. Incidentally, the first time I saw a Mobius strip at the absolutely fascinating Museum of Science Mathmateca exhibit designed by Charles and Ray Eames, I ended up designing one with Nicole and Sarah and Christine and just marveling at the fact that it was possible. This film has a similar, if more subdued effect.

Inception is a psychological thriller that recalls Christopher Nolan’s earlier film Memento (2000), but this is a far better film. It channels some of the energy of Nolan’s last two Batman films and plays like Ocean’s Eleven, but with fewer characters and more emotional payoff. There’s not much need to discuss the plot as you can read Adam’s article and recap the plot in detail for yourself.

What kind of film is this? A heist film, plain and simple. This film has been compared to The Matrix (1999), and that is essentially a heist film as well (thought the stakes are a bit different). A team is assembled in which each member has a particular skill to contribute. One member, (Cobb in this film) has a hangup, or some kind of personal problem that he/she must overcome before the job can be done satisfactorily. The heist involves multiple layers of concurrent threads of action and at least one twist which causes the audience to question the outcome or reassess the rules of the game.

A comparison to The Matrix is valid in my opinion, in that both films offer a fantasy world parallel to the ‘real’ in which different rules cause spectacular confrontations and contortions of the laws that govern our physical and mental existence. In terms of the outcome of the film, you have to see it to question, then, as Adam’s suggest, determine for yourself whether you care what the final scene represents.

In a word, I will echo most critics by saying that it was refreshing to see a movie that was not a sequel, middle-story film, or reboot of an 80’s television show. Nolan taps into yet another set of fundamental imagery to project a singular vision that captivates the viewer and truly establishes a world to inhabit for the duration of the film.

9/10: As with most Nolan films, a repeat viewing is in order.

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010)

Summit Entertainment, 124 min., Dir. David Slade

First of all, let me address all of the “I’m too cool to see this film” people out there. One, you probably were bawling watching Toy Story 3 or Up, so don’t try to pretend that you only watch high art, “grown up films.” Two, get out there and live a little; go see a movie that you wouldn’t normally see, if nothing else just to bag on it or, maybe enjoy it. Three, if you have a girlfriend/wife who wants to see this film and your going to be a recalcitrant crybaby about seeing it, just man up already. It’s not going to be the best two hours of film you’ve ever seen, but it can’t be worse than watching the Cubs get jacked up again or some piece of s*&t sitcom.

That being said, this is my third Twilight movie, and I still don’t like them any more than I used to (sorry). I think (and have had confirmed by fans) that these films have more of a payoff for readers of the books than for the average person who walks in off the street expecting to know what’s going on. There is little to no effort made to catch up anyone on what happened in the last two films (the later of which I barely remember), and I suppose that’s a product of internet/home viewing culture. Makers of the movie just expect that if you’re going to see part three of a six part series that you will have the requisite knowledge to understand it. If you ask me, it wouldn’t hurt serious watchers to sit through thirty seconds of recap ala Star Wars style scrolling text (or maybe a voice over here and there).

In any case, just like Twilight part two, whatever that was called, I was completely lost. There are, by my count, six or seven vampires and six or seven “shape shifters” (I learned they are not werewolves from listening to AV Talk). They all have back stories, only a few of which were explained via flashbacks during the film. Characters exchange poignant glances, and I suppose we’re expected to know why, but I sure as hell didn’t. There are more examples of the bewilderment that a non-book reader will experience, but I’ll omit them and say that you should not expect to fully understand how or why ancillary characters behave the way they do.

The love interest sequence in this film is essentially two stalkers competing over the target of their obsession, and (without spoiling anything) having to coexist so that said target is not obliterated by an army of obsessive stalkers who want her dead, or something like that. The plot is really secondary in this film. I got the repeated notion that if you’re watching the film, it’s not to be impressed by storyline or dialogue, both of which are lacking and dimwitted. The fact that there are vampires and “shape shifters” is also secondary, as they could really be any characters as far as I’m concerned (extraterrestrials and extraterrestrial fighters, cult members and papal soldiers, Cubs fans and Sox fans, etc.). If this ambiguity is intentional, I’ve yet to discover the allegorical relationship to politics or religion that is concealed within the narrative. The stakes essentially come down to which side will the protagonist end up on, something book readers already know and something I frankly don’t care about.

The on-screen characters do little to make us care about their fate. The acting from all parties involved is wooden, especially from Kristen Stewart (Bella). She mumbles her way through yet another movie, and her flashes of anger are about as intense as the anger expressed after dropping one’s keys down a storm drain. The chastity sequences are something else. I’m not sure where this wave of abstinence heavy tween entertainment came from, but it is definitely entertaining. The reason they don’t have sex in this film is because Edward is “from a different time.” Really?? Are you that secluded that for 150 years you haven’t noticed a change in cultural values, especially after attending one high school after another for that entire time?? He definitely watched some James Dean movies, since his pompadour and clothing seem to mimic that style in the first film.

On a final note, I would like to point out that these are the stupidest immortal people I have ever seen portrayed on screen. Most vampires become cultural paragons, masters of music, art, literature, or science. These people act the way they look. Dr. Cullen, who learned to be a doctor hundreds of years ago, doesn’t seem too concerned with advancing medial arts and only really has that talent to justify having someone bandage up Bella after one injury or another. All of the rest just seem content to look cool and drink animal blood, occasionally playing a really stupid game of baseball (that ridiculousness alone warrants a viewing of the first film). The filmmakers at lest felt that it would be wise to give some of these characters a reason for existing this time around, however slim those reasons might be. I don’t feel like this film enterprise needs to be as trivial and closely targeted, as vampire films have often found a way into a wider audience base. The exclusivity of having a single audience might appeal to the target market better, I suppose. I myself found little to like in this film.

2/10: I’d love to be one of those supporting characters who just sits there and says nothing then takes home a big, fat check

In case you’re wondering, here’s how I rate the other two films:

Twilight: 4/10

As I said above, the hilarity of some of the sequences is just great. The acting is terrible, but if you like vampire films you could find something enjoyable about this film. At least the notion of a war between vampires and Native Americans is kind of cool, though never really developed.

Twilight Part Two (New moon??): 1/10

Not worth watching at all. You can probably read the synopsis and fill in the rest. The film introduces the idea of the “Voltari” (I don’t even care to look up the correct spelling) which is a Rome-based vampire council, that has yet to do anything cool but has Dakota Fanning as a member (awesome). The film is utterly forgettable, as it takes over the middle story mentality of just killing time until the conclusion even though it is only the second entry.

The Swarm (1978)

Warner Bros., 155 min. (extended version)/116 min. (theatrical), Dir. Irwin Allen

The first thing you’ll notice in the byline above is that there is an extended version and theatrical release. I did not know this when I queued it up on Netflix, so I watched the bloated 155 min. extended version which included a subplot involving a romantic contest between two middle aged men for a retirement age elementary school principle. Yikes, nothing makes like good watchin’ more than two middle aged dudes wooing a southern belle, if you’re into Evening Shade that is. I, however, wanted angry mutant bees, some great one-liners, and super-ridiculous pseudoscience.

The film opens with a special forces team landing on a nuclear missile base in Texas. Quizzically, the special forces team is operating on the assumption that a commie biological weapon strike killed the staff, yet you can see exposed skin between the sleeves of their “bio-hazard suits” (painter’s jumpsuits) and black leather driving gloves. Also interesting, before they even know that the threat is bees, they have flame throwers. It will all come together by the end of the review, my friends.

It turns out that a swarm of killer bees stung most everyone in the base to death, and Michael Caine, an entomologist and the foremost bee expert in the world, happens to be out by that desert wasteland when this goes down. The President places him in charge of the military forces with one mission: kill the bees. Oh, and the base is right next to a town who’s main industry is growing flowers. And it’s blooming season.

Now I’m not saying I could write or direct a motion picture, but it must be hard to make both Michael Caine and Peter Fonda look like the two worst actors in the world. Caine essentially has three gears in the film:

  • Crazy bee guy: “The war we’ve been fearing is finally here,” referring to a war between Africanized bees and humans, something still that keeps me up at night
  • Angry at the U.S. Army guy: “LET ME TELL YOU SOMETHING GENERAL!!!” If you watch for nothing else, watch for the countless screaming arguments between Caine and Illinois’ own, Richard Wildmark
  • The guy who doles out conciliatory lines like “there was nothing we could do,” something he’ll get ample opportunity to say

Much like a lot of these bloated seventies action films, the plan is to get the smart, middle-aged white men into a control room to hash this thing out over black coffee and cigarettes. This film is even worse, as the women are pretty much window dressing. The one female lead who does something is billed as Helena (Katherine Ross) in the credits, despite the fact that she is an Air Force lieutenant and a doctor. She also saves a bunch of men from bees by dragging them into a bunker and escapes by crawling through an air conditioning vent, which is not shown as the film begins in medias rez. She doesn’t even get a “way to go” for that one. I’m pretty sure a man would have gotten a medal, or maybe just a pat on the back, or something. But she’s just a woman, a woman who gets replaced as chief doctor when a crisis hits and basically becomes Peter Fonda’s lab assistant / ward nurse. She does provide someone to protect from danger and flirt with later on in the film, though.

This movie is based off a novel by the late Sci-Fi writer Arthur Herzog. I couldn’t help but think about The Andromeda Strain when I watched this film as they share the same basic premise: both films present a foreign threat that has no foreseeable solution; both films involve gathering the best scientists in the world and sequestering them in a secret military installation to develop a solution. Whereas Andromeda takes the nerdy intellectual route, The Swarm eventually turns into another film about communists invading America, but with bees instead of a Soviet-Cuban alliance. The bees are constantly treated like an invading army and personified, allegedly possessing strategies and tactics designed to beat the military. As they make their way toward Huston (and there is no reason at all given as to why they’re are going there) the Army officers keep referring to them as “The Africans.” Don’t even ask me why that is. I guess you can’t refer to them as the bees, seeing as you might confuse them with the Eurasian or Australian bee armies.

Let’s see, so far we’ve had mutant bees and some great one-liners delivered in full screaming fury by Michael Caine, now all we need is some really bad science. How’s this: the bees sting some people in a nuclear power plant and, as a result, the plant explodes. Check – and – mate.

**Spoiler Alert**All the 40+ minutes of character development for the townspeople is pretty much wasted as they die in a train accident halfway through the film while trying to evacuate. There are survivors, but I guess at 155 lean minutes, the director felt it would be better not to include a 15 second scene telling us if any of them were the supporting characters from earlier.

The bees eventually begin “the occupation of Huston” and the Army does the only logical thing: start burning the city down with, you guessed it, flame throwers!! I take you now to their base of operations downtown, 11 p.m., a high rise building with floor to ceiling windows:

“Hey Private Smith, you really shouldn’t be playing catch with that brick inside our glass fortress becaus–oh shit!! Anyone have insecticide…oh yeah, we tried that 72 minutes earlier in the film and it didn’t work. Welp, I had a good run, lots of fun tim–and now I’m getting stung to death…”

Stupidly enough, the bees get in through the elevator, sting some dude, and as he’s dying he breaks the window. Thanks, man. Way to die in the most selfish way possible.

In a brilliant piece of writing, Caine and Ross go from fleeing the bees that are loose in the building, bees so deadly that they can drop a full grown man with one sting mind you, and in the very next shot they are in a jeep, driving in an airfield, in the daytime. I’ve only seen one other movie that so blatantly disregards a viewers intelligence1 and just spreads some frosting over the gaping hole in the cake.

The brilliant plan to kill the bees: spill a bunch of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, lure the bees there with their mating sound, then light it on fire.

4/10: If bees invade, at least we’ve got one part of the solution taken care of already

1That film was The Core (2003). For some BS reason a team of scientists needs to make it to the core of our planet, and most of the crew dies along the way from numerous, extremely boring geological dangers. After the mission is accomplished (no spoiler alert because you won’t want to see this film at all), the two remaining terranauts (I love that word) go from the core of our planet to the ocean floor with a caption that reads “three days later.” Great ending. I just wish the whole film would have been the title screen, then a screen that says “a month and a half later,” and then the credits.

Note: I was reading some Shakespeare related stuff, but I plan on watching some movies this weekend and even reviewing some new releases next week

Breaker! Breaker! (1977)

Paragon Films Inc., 86 min., Dir. Don Hulette

So I was flipping through upcoming films on IFC since I no longer have that channel, and this one came up. I figured, at 86 thrill packed minutes, at least i wouldn’t be wasting my whole night.

A very young Chuck Norris plays J.D. Dawes, a “zen trucker” who stops off to take a break at a truck stop and let his little bro (Michael Augenstein) haul some frozen dinners. The only thing that really identifies him as a “zen trucker” is that he’s doing some kind of meditation exercise with two dudes and he karate kicks a lot of hillbillies around. I guess you can’t expect too much back story from a film that has “Hit in the Face” as a keyword on IMDB.

Breaker! Breaker! has the ominous “N/A” rating on, meaning there were either no reviews or this was a direct to DVD type thing. I can see why. There is virtually no story whatsoever. Norris’ little brother gets kidnapped by a small town Sheriff’s department and there are a bunch of fistfights along the way. Norris befriends and sleeps with the judge’s daughter, which as you might imagine don’t sit too well with him. There’s some question in Norris’ zen trucker mind about whether his brother is even in the town, until, get this, the judge’s daughter serves a frozen dinner of the same brand that his little brother was hauling!!!!!

Things get ugly, and since the judge is too old and fat to fight Norris, he has a confrontation with one of the deputies that you can watch on some dude’s bootlegged VCR recording on YouTube. When I was watching I kept yelling “break that bottle!” and sure enough, he does. The fight takes place in a horse corral and for some reason the director felt it necessary to keep cutting to shots of the horse during the fight. Is the horse a metaphor for Norris’ spin kicks? It’s like the director woke up, watched half of a Sergio Leone western, said “hey, I think I’ll try that,” and four hours later Breaker! Breaker! was printed and ready for distribution.

Ahh, but there’s more. The film score is porno grade, at best. It sounds like a cassette tape from the $0.99 bin at a truck stop piped through a boombox, which might have been the point, but I doubt it. The martial arts: let’s just say that Norris might have had a black belt at the time, but the choreography and his fellow “actors” make him look like Star Wars Kid. There a lot of “I can see space between your foot and the other guy” kicks and “that dude just hit the deck three seconds too soon” punches.

*SPOILER ALERT*During the final fight, which Norris wins with his forty-ninth spin kick, his GF gets on the CB Radio and calls for backup in the form of a fleet of trucks that is so large it makes the earth shake. The only problem, the producers could only afford three or so trucks. They basically destroy the whole town, which consists of unused set pieces from Bonanza. In terms of great trucker flicks, this definitely is not one of them. In fact, trucking had hardly anything to do with the movie really, apart from the sparse use of CB radios and trucking metaphors. However, if you haven’t seen this film and you have Netflix, I have to recommend watching it because it is too funny to miss out on.

6/10: Time to take this rig home buddyboy…and by that I mean shutdown my computer

Iron Man 2 (2010)

Paramount, 124 minutes, Dir. John Favreau

You know you’re a dork when you’re trying to explain to your wife on the car ride home why a new element couldn’t possibly be represented by the holographic projection that Tony Stark is viewing in his laboratory in Iron Man 2. But this revelation is no surprise to anyone reading this.

Despite it’s numerous scientific flaws, which admittedly one must overlook in order to enjoy a movie about a dude that flies around in an impenetrable suit and has a futuristic battery in his chest, IM2 falls short on so many aesthetic levels, which I will list here.

One: The film is a star delivery system. The screenplay fails to provide adequate lines and backstory for most of the characters played by major Hollywood actors. I still don’t understand why the hell Samuel L. Jackson was in this film.

Two: Apart from special effects wizardry, the cool technology developments are largely unexplained. Tony Stark erecting what looks to be a particle collider that shoots an energy stream out of a hole in the side that hits what looks to be a miniature middle school band triangle does not explain how he develops a new element. I love cheezy comic book science, but I like it to have some kind of connection with the plot, which was too much to ask in this film.

Three: Why is the role of “Rhodey” played by Don Cheadle instead of Terrence Howard? Think we wouldn’t notice?? Just like Matrix two, eh?? Wrong, my friend.

Four: Hey writers (this includes you, Stan Lee), the Cold War ended a while ago. Hence, the forced Russo-American arms race tensions seem a bit outdated. Is this a Tom Clancy novel?

This is the point where I would expand on the plot, but there isn’t really much to say. Stark (Downey Jr.) predicts that he alone will maintain “the peace” (even though we see nothing in the way of global peace initiatives or Iron Man’s hand in monitoring global peace–was there a war to begin with?), and then foolishly betrays the world’s trust by getting hammered at his birthday party in the Iron Man suit, which is probably one of the funniest scenes in the film. It all sounds very colonial, seeing as it’s once again the mighty U.S. alone (and a playboy millionaire at that) who will force the world’s haters into submission. This movie really only works if you suppress the urge to think about why anything is happening.

An 80’s style Soviet Cold War scientist emerges to avenge himself against the west for ruining his father’s dreams of becoming a bourgeois fat cat. One of the best lines: “after he was deported, he spent the next 20 years in Siberia in a vodka fueled rage.” Sweet. Way to flatten out the characters into razor thin caricatures.

I guess what sold me on the original Iron Man is that Stark undergoes an exercise in humility where he is forced to use raw talent and guile to outwit his opponents, and then reflect on the monster he created through his involvement in the military-industrial complex. It’s spelled out in huge letters, but the film has a point. This movie is Stark’s character delivering one idiotic one liner after another, and Downey Jr. brings a halfhearted performance. In part, the timing of this film may be off; I doubt there are too many people who care to watch the personal life problems of a billionaire playboy lamenting over his having to assume responsibility for the mess he created through his self-righteous arrogance.

4/10: He should really be called “Synthetic-Alloy-Wisecracking Man” in my opinion

The Lawnmower Man (1992)

Remember when virtual reality was going to be part of every aspect of computing, nay, life itself? Neither do I. The closest I remember to thinking virtual reality was going to be useful for something was that scene in Jurassic Park (1993) when the scientist was using a gloves and goggles setup to manipulate a DNA double helix in 3D. The makers of The Lawnmower Man, however, really bought into VR as the technology of the future, and simultaneously roped in Pierce Brosnan to play the protagonist in this shabby special effects showpiece. For some reason, I had a notion that this was a widely regarded horror film, but I think I confused this movie and Hellraiser (1987), a mistake that would cost me 107 minutes.

I read a novel in grade school called Flowers for Algernon where a cognitively disabled man is given the same surgery as a mouse in order to vastly improve his intelligence. Apparently the characters in this movie had no contact with this book, as their message is mostly the same. I’ve seen other movies where people are vaulted to genius from relative obscurity (Phenomenon (1996) with Travolta comes to mind) and they all seem to reach the same conclusion: with super genius comes utter contempt for your former idiot friends and a soul crushing loneliness that is only alleviated by your death or eventual redumbification.

The poor, dimwitted “Lawnmower Man” Jobe (Jeff Fahey)–BTW, since when is “Lawnmower Man” a pseudonym for folks who cut grass for a living?–anyway, his only skill seems to be designing ridiculous looking lawnmowers, cutting grass, and working on his abs, though we don’t see the last one in any scenes of the movie. Dr. Angelo, who’s recent chimpanzee subject killed a bunch of guards, decides it’s time to move on to a human subject. If only the damn military weren’t corrupting his research, and injecting rage-ohol into his subjects along with the super brain drugs. Jobe starts his training, which consists of Dr. Angelo throwing Aztec calendars and Alchemy charts at his face in a virtual world. Unexpectedly (for those in the movie only) Jobe starts developing superhuman powers and hatches a plan to dominate the world.

If nothing else, this film has value in that it was just plain wrong about virtual reality. Take a look at this highly scientific caption that begins the movie:

I shall now write the rest of my review as if this prediction had become true…

LOCATION: The cyber-underground bunker, the last place VIRTUAL REALITY is not in widespread use

Hello my virtual friends. Brace yourself for this communication, and make sure you have enough time to download it on your 56k modem, print on your dot matrix printer, and delete it before Jobe’s VirtuaCops detect you with their VR helmet scanners.

I am composing this message in the underground, using what they referred to in the 20th century as a “key-board.” Sure, it’d be easy to compose this message by strapping on my virtual reality helmet, gloves with wires attached to the fingers, and a tight fitting body suit with neon piping that glows for no explainable reason, but then I’d be opening myself up to Jobe’s mind control algorithm, and I won’t do that.

I know it might be tempting to use the technology of VIRTUAL REALITY to enter computer generated worlds as unlimited as the imagination itself, where you can access the millions of positive uses that the creators of this technology envisioned, but stay strong my brothers and sisters of the resistance. Until next non-VIRTUAL REALITY cyber-textual-communication activity, formerly known as “electronic-mailing”

4/10: We were promised virtual reality

Classic: Batman Returns (1992)

I caught part of Edward Scissorhands (1990) the other day, and it reminded me that Tim Burton made some really great films in the 90’s. On a whim, I decided to roll out an old favorite from Netflix instawatch.

The summer that Batman Returns came out I definitely had Batman fever. I was a little too young for Batman (1989) (seven years old) to fully grasp how awesome Batman was, but at age ten I was fully able, and willing, to consume any and all Batman related products, including: Batman action figures, collectible Batman cups from McDonald’s, a Batman t-shirt and Batman pajamas, and some kind of Batman bath foam which probably was at least partially toxic to humans.

As a twelve year old, I was barely aware of the dialogue, plot, acting, or anything that I now overanalyze. Watching the film again, the acting is pretty over the top, with Christopher Walken and Danny DeVito practically twisting their mustaches at points. Michelle Phiffer’s Catwoman is needlessly killed and brought back (the character never appears and, to my knowledge, is never mentioned again in any films).

One aspect that I never really noticed: Michael Keaton’s Batman is not only kind of wimpy, but he’s not ever really the main focus for action within the plot of the film. He’s almost like a side note, only brought in to advance or complicate the dual narratives of Catwoman and the Penguin. At the time, the film might have served as more of a set piece for the big name actors inhabiting their roles, but it generally served to take away from the foreboding personal struggle that is Batman. Ebert speculates in his review that the movie is too much about the curse of being Batman and that the action is too herky jerky to provide much continuity to the plot. I agree partially. The subplots are mostly unnecessary, and this movie started us down the path of three plus villains where two might easily do. As far as the curse of Batman is concerned, he has practically passed into martyrdom in recent films.

As anyone would say, this was the finale for 90’s Batman in all respects as the final two films in this run, directed by Joel Shumacher (see the credits for St. Elmo’s Fire, ha ha ha ha) were essentially shameless cash grabs designed to capitalize on earlier franchise success (look no further than Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze). In any case, if you have nieces or nephews who are of the movie watching age, this movie and the original Burton classic is something that should be shown proudly as the precursor to what hopefully will continue to be a great series of films. Also, the villainy is a little less disturbing than recent films, so you won’t have to read six bedtime stories to a frightened child after a viewing.

9/10: Watch for the part where Bruce Wayne scratches and spins a CD/R like a vinyl record–solid gold

Bad action movie roundup

Hi all. As you probably know by now, in between wasting time on the internet and watching Blackhawks/Cubs/World Cup related programming, I watch any number of bad movies that are not really worthy of a full review. If you know Nicole, you know that she is in love with bad movies, and we kind of push each other to watch ultra terrible films. Here are some of the stink bombs that I watched recently that I felt you might enjoy mini-reviews for:

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)

My students begged me to watch First Blood (1982) when we discussed the Vietnam War last semester, but I made them watch Platoon (1986) which I should not even mention in the same sentence together.

Psychologically damaged vet John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) reprises his prior role, except this time he’s going back to ‘Nam. Why they couldn’t find a soldier who didn’t freak out and murder an entire small town Sheriff’s department, who can say? The U.S. army needs Rambo to rescue some POW’s. The only problem: some pencil pushing bureaucrat doesn’t want to start another war by murdering a whole bunch of Vietnameese national troops in their own country. Can’t those liberals in government ever get anything right?

After kicking ass for a while and firing what seems like three hundred rockets from an attack chopper, Rambo saves the day, telling that Washington bureaucrat to “find them [POW’s], or I’ll find you.” And do what, John Rambo, exactly? I know, let’s kill the whole government, that’s the answer! John Rambo for president.

If you can make it through the 80’s style patriotism and horrible Asian stereotypes, there are a few cheesy action shot payoffs. Better pick up a case of beer with this movie though.


Alien Hunter (2003)

At first, I thought this was some kind of SciFi Channel original, but it seems like a theatrical release, though I couldn’t find evidence of that either. It scored an ominous “N/A” on, something I have never seen in my life. That would seem to suggest that it was never reviewed, which leads me to the conclusion that this was a case of direct to DVD.

Julian Rome (James Spader, whoa, bad move my friend) is an ex-SETI member who gets called to the South Pole to investigate an alien ship that got hauled into a hydroponic corn experimentation facility (why grow corn at the South Pole? Why the hell not I guess). To make a long plot short, the aliens have a virus that will kill all life on earth, even the super corn, if it ever escapes. How do we know this? Somehow the Roswell conspiracy and a crazy bananas theory about how these aliens wiped out a civilization on Mars eons ago (how this is known by the humans is never mentioned, surprise surprise) are forwarded as reasons to nuke the whole facility. The rest of the movie is not worth mentioning, as it just gets stupider.

Oh, and I might point out that I was expecting some battle scenes between warrior aliens and soldiers (as the title would suggest) but the alien turns out to be peaceful and some dick shoots him dead while he’s trying to give James Spader the ultimate knowledge of the universe. Whoopsie daisy!


The Condemned (2007)

Stone Cold Steve Austin is on death row for a black ops mission gone wrong, abandoned by those jerks in government (he and Rambo should start a support group). Just let the military run things already. If history has taught us anything it’s that handing control of all foreign and domestic affairs over to a military despot is the only logical solution.

Anyway, this is basically the Richard Connell story “The Most Dangerous Game” done up again as a live webcast where people can watch violent criminals kill each other for sport. Last one alive wins freedom and some cash, only the whole thing is basically rigged and the U.S. law enforcement system is too locked up in bureaucratics to do anything to stop it. The manhunting plot has been done to death, and once something is spoofed by It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, it should be dead, but it wasn’t, and the movie exists. By the way, Austin cannot act at all. He did a much better job in the squared circle than this movie, by far.


The Scorpion King (2002)

Dwane Johnson plays the title role of an assassin for hire that gets involved in a simplistic plot that is almost a direct copy of Conan the Barbarian (1982). I’m not sure if the writers or directors did that on purpose as a kind of tongue and cheek allusion. One would hope so, as it cuts a little to close to the bone to be a coincidence.

The movie is solid action wise, with a lot of Sam Raimi style fight sequences that fans of cheese will enjoy. The plot and acting, both terrible as you might expect. There are the typical pre-civilization action characters: a thief/trickster, a crackpot inventor (who invents gunpowder, WTF!?! come on, really?? in B.C.E. Egypt, ugh…), some women warriors in various bikini outfits, and a delightful young scamp who gets into the darnedest of situations. The antagonist is basically the Sheriff of Nottingham in Egyptian clothes. Oh, and I forgot Michael Clarke Duncan, who cracks some skulls. I’m sorry, but he is just awesome, no matter what anyone says.

The special effects get worse as the story progresses, so don’t look for a knockout final battle. The movie as whole just fizzles slowly out of existence, but I think it’s on cable fifty or so times a week so you can catch it then if you’re desperate to know which side wins the ultimate battle for the non-existent, anachronistic Egyptian civilization.


Well, that’s it for the bad action movie roundup. For future movies, I will try to avoid any titles that star former wrestlers. I had some out of town obligations, but I will hopefully be up for writing a review of Crime and Punishment this week so as to try to get some classy material up on this blog.

Next up in the film department: Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant