Saturday, 21 March 2009

Watchmen



WATCHMEN (2009)

Directed by: Zack Snyder
Screenplay: David Hytner & Alex Tse
Starring: Jackie Earle Haley, Malin Ackerman, Patrick Wilson, Billy Crudup & Jeffrey Dean Morgan

First off I must admit I have never read the Watchmen graphic novel (I know what a cardinal sin) and so will not be comparing the movie version to the comic book version, which has no doubt been done a million times over by now. I will look at Watchmen purely on cinematic and action terms. Watchmen comes from some high pedigree and a lot of pre release hype (so much so, I had to make that little statement about how I was going to review it) and while it may not completely live up to the comic book fans hopes (though I’m sure it does to some) and it may never be heralded as the greatest movie ever made, Watchmen is still a damn fine piece of cinema.

Zack Snyder may have his detractors but he makes good films. His Dawn of the Dead remake was excellent (and proved the odd remake can be successful) and his big hit, 300, was a great, adrenaline fuelled piece of comic book action cinema. He matures in gritty storytelling all the while delivering more stylized action cinema in the truly epic Watchmen. A comic book movie really only in the sense that the characters dress up in costumes to fight crime, Watchmen works much more as a deconstruction of the comic book genre but even more as a brilliant whodunit. The setting is an alternate 1985, where Nixon is still President and the USA and USSR are about to go to nuclear war together. The era of the superhero has all but died since their golden era in the 50s and 60s. Many are retired, in nursing homes or have simply gone mad with the pressure of coping with their secret identities and fighting crime. But when one of their many is murdered (The Comedian, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) the team known as the Watchmen dust off the old costumes and (kind of) reunite to find the killer of their (sort of) friend.



That’s just the basic outline of the plot and the maguffin that sets off the in-depth story of a group of superheroes coming to terms with themselves, their crime fighting identities and the world they live in. Watchmen is not of the Spiderman/Daredevil type of comic book movie and those expecting a simple good vs. evil adventure may be disappointed. There is certainly that element but our heroes are anything but straightforward. Night Owl II (Wilson) has to deal with impotence, Silk Spectre II (Ackerman) lives in the shadow of her mother, the original Silk Spectre (an excellent Carla Gugino) and The Comedian, well, he is just a straight up bastard. Then there is Rorschach (an amazing Jackie Earle Haley) who hidden under an ever shape-shifting mask is so violent in his actions that if he weren’t killing in the name of justice he would only be one step removed from those he hunts. There is also Dr. Manhattan (Crudup) a man blasted by radioactive material and turned into a sort of ever evolving blue demi-God who spends most the movie naked and walking around on Mars. Batman this ain’t.

What sells Watchmen so well is the acting. The cast are on amazing form and inhabit their troubled superheroes with such emotional realism that you often forget about all the CGI madness and flights of fancy. Crudup, Ackerman and Matthew Goode (as the smartest man alive, Ozymandias) are very good while Wilson manages that rare feat of making a superhero gone to seed seem like an every day person. Morgan also performs a career making turn as The Comedian, making you actually care for a man who is, despite fighting for the good guys, not a very nice man. But it is Jackie Earle Haley that steals the show. The former child actor who came out of movie retirement to start giving career best performances (see also Little Children) truly excels here as the tough as nails, gravelled voiced Rorschach. His scenes sear with intensity and the movie steps up a level whenever he is on screen: his prison set segment (“Two nothing. Your move!”) is terrifying and riveting at the same time. It’s an amazing performance, laced with caged emotion and Haley all but owns the movie.



But let’s not forget about the action. Many have been irked by the truncating of the complexity of the graphic novel and the action being more opened up and extended. I can understand this but the action always fits well within the story and the film never rushes to get to it either, the plot taking time, the fights growing out of the situations. And what fights they are. Shot with gusto and flair the fight scenes are brutal and fluid never resorting to quick cut editing or flinching on the violent impact. They are also remarkably sustained and every character gets a chance at a scrap. The best are the hard hitting Comedian’s fight which opens the film and the Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II getting back into the groove by taking out an alleyway full of street thugs. Bone cracking stuff that shows Snyder and his team put as much effort into the action as well as the story, character and visuals.

A remarkable triumph, Watchmen may not be perfect (the Mars bits don’t always fit in smoothly with the rest of the story) but it is a beautifully rendered piece of comic book cinema. An adult tone also helps to elevate it from family comic book fare, meaning the content has not been watered down (have no doubt, this film is violent) and with a cast that give their all means Watchmen is a fully satisfying experience on comic book, action and cinematic terms. Great stuff.

Day of the Panther



DAY OF THE PANTHER (1988)

Directed by: Brian Trenchard-Smith
Screenplay: David Groom & David West
Starring: Edward Hon Stazak, Jim Richards & John Stanton

Hello, I’m Jason Blade and I want a job!”

Despite an over abundance of cheese, some lame acting and a heap of bad 80s fashion and styling, Day of the Panther is actually a bad ass little martial arts film. And that’s not always something you can say about a kung fu flick from Australia. The story never breaks innovative ground, as Stazak’s kung fu expert, Jason Blade, attempts to infiltrate a gang of drug dealing slimeballs who are responsible for the death of his partner. Blade is a disciple of the Secret Panther School (which ain’t very secret as every damn character seems to know about it) which means he is a dab hand at dishing out the roundhouse kicks.

Now, Day of the Panther is strictly B-movie cheese with mucho hammy acting and impromptu disco dancing a go-go. The bad guys are cheese city, comic book 101, especially henchman Baxter (Richards)who is lumbered with some of the worst clothes and sunglasses ever seen on a movie bad guy. Stazak himself seems to be smirking throughout the whole movie, no matter the scene or situation, as if trying to stifle a laugh every time he says a line and continually refers to himself in the third person and by his full name, Jason Blade. There are also a couple of “comedy” cops on the trail of, well, everyone who appear to provide very little comedy.

However, despite the ridiculous factor Day of the Panther still manages to be a tight little martial arts film. Director Trenchard-Smith (who has directed everything from Turkey Shoot and BMX Bandits to Leprechaun 3 & 4) keeps everything moving at a tight clip with frequent bursts of awesome fighting action. Stazak obviously knows his stuff and cuts loose in a series of brutal, precision timed fights that are fun to watch due to clear cut camerawork, editing and Stazak’s awesome kicking powers. Day of the Panther is certainly jammed packs with fights the highlights being an extended chase/fight through an industrial estate and Blade kicking the crap out of a bunch of goons at a marina: bone cracking, fluid kicking fun.

A gem of a B-movie that is equal parts unintentionally funny due to its dated execution but also very entertaining thanks to the excellent boot-work of its star, who’s only other movie credit was the immediate sequel to the this flick: Strike of the Panther.

Shark(s) in Venice (?)



SHARK IN VENICE (2008)

Directed by: Danny Lerner
Written by: Les Weldon
Starring: Stephen Baldwin

Wow, with a title like Shark in Venice you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking this movie was about a shark in Venice. Well, turns out you might just be wrong because there are barely any sharks and I’m pretty much sure this film rarely takes place in Venice. One damn thing is for sure though; Stephen Baldwin is definitely in this movie. In fact, he’s all over it, often in ridiculous and very embarrassing tight fitting clothing. Oh dear.

Apparently, some killer sharks are roaming the canals of Venice, attacking unsuspecting victims. This rarely happens and when it does some horrendous editing and National Geographic stock footage take over failing miserably to convince the audience they have just witnessed a shark attack. There are a couple of CGI sharks in there as well but are rendered so bad they actually make the badly cut stock footage scenes look good. Well, not really, as its all pretty bad. Shark in Venice is instead a very low rent action film that makes no sense and even, at one point, bizarrely has something to do with the Knights Templar and lost treasure. Sure there are a load of fist fights and shootouts, standing in for the lack of shark attacks, but it’s all so sloppy and ridiculous it doesn’t make the film anymore entertaining.



What does though, is Stephen ‘born again Christian’ Baldwin running around in ill fitting tops, looking haggard and obviously just collecting a paycheck so he can make another of those skateboarding/Jesus saves videos he’s been doing. In fact, he is in this flick so much they may well have just called it Stephen Baldwin in Venice. But hang on, most of the time it is so blatantly obvious that Baldwin, or anyone else for that matter, isn’t actually in Venice. More stock footage and second unit stuff shows the film is set in Venice but when the flick cuts to the actors and action it’s so obvious it’s all taking place somewhere in Bulgaria or Romania or wherever it is they shoot all these cheap Nu Image monster movies.

No sharks, rubbish action and no sense of fun, Shark in Venice is only recommended to Stephen Baldwin completists (and I’m sure you guys exist somewhere) and people who love shark movies. Well, actually not to shark movie lovers because, as Baldwin’s character rightly exclaims at the end of the film: “There are no sharks in Venice!” Indeed.

Executioner Part 2



EXECUTIONER PART 2 (1984)

Directed by: James Bryan
Starring: Chris Mitchum, Aldo Ray & Renee Harmon

Holy Crap, Executioner Part 2 just might be the worst film ever made. If it isn’t (and it’s damn close) it’s certainly the worst action film ever made. Shot, directed and acted with such ineptitude the movie is hilarious to watch as an unintentional comedy and only bearable if you watch it with a bunch of like minded bad movie aficionados, in the early hours of the morning with booze. Do not, under any circumstances try to watch this movie on your own as mental breakdown is assured.

A crazy Vietnam vet has gone, well, crazy and is roaming the streets in a mask executing those who break the law. Well he sort of his, as it’s never clear what exactly is going on. He certainly punches a few people and has a very unconvincing fight with another dude in a garage. There’s also Chris Mitchum (SFX Retaliator, got to see that!), supporting a ridiculous moustache, who seems to be the cop on his trail. The reason it’s so hard to follow proceedings (besides watching it a 1AM and inebriated) is the movie possess some kind of weird, trippy dreamlike quality. Not intentionally but more due to the haphazard way it is shot and put together. There is no coherency, an awful Vietnam flashback (which gets repeated often), and the most abrupt, stupid and “what the?!” ending where the cop simply lets the Executioner go. Eh?! (Believe me I haven’t just spoiled it for you!)

But what perhaps is most excellent about the Executioner Part 2 is that there was never a Part 1 (there’s loads of movies with the name The Executioner but they having nothing to do with this one). Yep, that’s right. Money hungry producers decided to cash in on Robert Ginty’s The Exterminator by calling this flick Executioner Part 2 and thus fooling people into thinking they were seeing a sequel to The Exterminator. No, really. On top of that, and another reason this movie can be considered awesome, is the video box (the British one at least) has stills from First Blood on the back. Yep, they nicked stills from Stallone’s big hit meaning you are getting a sequel to a film that never existed and does in no way feature Rambo or Stallone despite what the video box may otherwise suggest. Awesome!

About as inept as action movies get but absolutely recommended with piles of booze for the sheer awfulness factor.

Side note: the psoter above features loads of cool stuff that does not exist or happen in this movie. Again: awesome.

Unstoppable



UNSTOPPABLE (2004)

Directed by: David Carson
Written by: Tom Vaughn
Starring: Wesley Snipes, Jacqueline Obradors, Kim Coates & Stuart Wilson

Unstoppable is actually (despite rampant internet bashing) one of Snipes’ better direct-to-DVD action films. It’s a solid, often tense, paranoid action thriller that manages to engage despite a whole lot of absurdness taking place. Snipes is your typical Ex-Special Ops kind of dude who happens to get caught up in Stuart Wilson’s barmy military experiment. They mistake him for a CIA agent investigating their nefarious plans and inject him with some kind of crazy drug that sends Snipes bonkers and makes him think he is reliving the traumatic death of his best friend, before he finally comes around enough so he can kick some butt and find an antidote. Like I said: absurdness.



However, despite a plot that takes in all kinds of shifty military experiments; Snipes spending most of the movie hallucinating; an insane set piece with an exploding tanker and, well, various other absurd twists and turns, Unstoppable is taught action fare. A kind of cross between The Fugitive and The Manchurian Candidate, Unstoppable manages an intriguing blend of tense paranoia thriller and silly action fluff. The pace rarely slackens and tension is well maintained mainly due to bad guys Stuart Wilson and Kim Coates. They are a little better rounded and more sinister than typical action movie villains with Wilson (Lethal Weapon 3) providing requisite bite as the rogue CIA bad guy. Snipes does his action hero thing and spends most of the movie drugged up, not knowing whether what he is seeing is real or not.



The action is fairly slick as well, the aforementioned over-the-top gas tanker bit looking like a set piece (albeit with much shoddier CGI) from a much bigger film. Better though is the tense ambush in a dinner and a great sequence where Snipes’ character is escaping a locked down hospital. However, he thinks he is escaping from an enemy hideout from several years ago. This means the scene cuts between what is happening in Snipes’ head and what is really happening. It’s flawlessly done and a unique set piece for a smaller film.

Crazy at times it may be, though that is all part of the fun, Unstoppable is passable action fodder thanks to a novel premise and direction that, rightly, refuses to take the standard action movie road.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Against the Dark



AGAINST THE DARK (2008)

Directed by: Richard Crudo
Written by: Matthew Klickstein
Starring: Steven Seagal, Tanoani Reed, Linden Ashby & Keith David

Steven Seagal Vs Vampires in another direct-to-video misfire: surely this is no good? Well, actually it kinda is and it’s more like Seagal Vs Zombies as the mutants onscreen are much more akin to the walking dead than pointy teeth neck botherers. Now Against the Dark is cheap exploitation that isn’t gonna win Seagal any new fans or wipe away all his other direct-to-DVDs atrocities but it has something all those others don’t: a sense of fun. It’s also packed with zombie slaying action and blood spewing gore.

The world has gone tits up, a virus sending everyone bonkers and with an unquenchable need to feast on human flesh. Survivors hole up in abandoned buildings, trying to avoid the gut munchers while Seagal and The Rock’s real life stunt double and cousin (Reed) lead a group of slayers (the other members being two hot babes: sweet) roam the city killing the undead. Conveniently they all converge on an abandoned hospital and try to stave off wave after wave of undead dudes while Linden ‘Mortal Kombat’ Ashby and Keith ‘They Live’ David (whoa, where’d those guys come from?!) hang out in a tent trying to decide whether to nuke the city or not.



While Seagal will probably never scale the entertaining heights of action classics like Marked for Death and Out for Justice ever again this is probably his most fun direct-to-DVD flick. He isn’t in it much (which probably increases the fun factor) and still suffers from the obligatorily awful doubling and dialogue but he shows up enough to swing a samurai sword and blast baddies away with a shotgun. Reed instead takes lead in most of the big fight scenes featuring in a barnstorming set piece where he takes out a mob of undead by throwing them into walls and blowing them up with grenades. The action, and the rest of the film, may be fairly sloppy but it’s directed with gory gushing glee, it makes up for all the shortcomings. Mercifully using very little CGI the film has a very bare bones and practical feel to it which adds to the old school action fun it supplies. The action and attacks rarely let up and despite being set pretty much in one building Against the Dark still moves fast and is reminiscent of many a direct-to-video action/horror hybrids from the 1990s. This is no bad thing.

The Blade franchise has nothing to worry about in terms of competition and those of you who are into the vamp world of Angel and Buffy probably won’t appreciate it but if you are in the mood for blood soaked, action packed trash Against the Dark is worth chomping down on. Who’d have though the pony-tailed one’s best film in ages would feature vamp…I mean zombies?


Babylon A.D.



BABYLON A.D. (2008)

Directed by: Mathieu Kassovitz
Screenplay: Mathieu Kassovitz, Joseph Simas & Eric Besnard
Starring: Vin Diesel, Michelle Yeoh, Melanie Thierry & Lambert Wilson

So by now you’ve probably heard what a wholly un-god mess Babylon A.D. is? The studio all but abandoned the picture; cut a good chunk of ‘plot and character development’ out; interfered with director Kassovitz at every stage; which led to him disowning and publicly damming the film; which in turn led to rumours of a strenuous relationship with star Diesel who also gave the film little push; and every critic (and their brother) pretty much hating the film outright which led to many a 1 star review and an excessive amount hyperbole about how awful the flick is. Big studios have been notorious, since the dawn of cinema, for interfering in big budget flicks all but ruining them and cramping the unique vision of a once talented director. This is sure to go on as along as films are made and Babylon A.D. was the unfortunate victim of such ruining in last years big budget summer releases. But low and behold, it isn’t as bad they say. By no means is it a masterpiece and it’s certainly sad to Kassovitz’s pet project and ‘unique vision’ squandered (he broke through in the movie world with the amazing and emotionally draining La Haine) on a run of the mill adventure but there is still enough wham and bam and even a bit of edgy style to make Babylon A.D. an entertaining misfire.



Diesel does his action movie man thing as Toorop a mercenary hired to transport a young woman (the gorgeous Thierry) from war ravaged Europe to New York as she may just be the saviour of mankind in a post apocalyptic future. Along for the ride is Michelle Yeoh and the three set off on a journey where they bond, kick some ass and, well, save mankind. Babylon A.D. is frustrating in the sense that it could have been so much more than it is. Kassovitz’s gritty style is still evident with the authentic locations and non-glossy camerawork and in general elicits good performances from the cast. Diesel isn’t as bad as many have reported as there is definitely a wounded soul quality to his character he is just unfortunately lumbered with awful by-the-numbers action movie dialogue. This is pretty much the case for the whole film. What could have been an edgy sci-fi film with deeper characterization and some slick action is instead just a been-there-seen-it-all before adventure. A group of people set off on a journey, overcome adversity, come to love one another and then wrap things up rather abruptly. If the studio hadn’t interfered and Kassovitz had been allowed to make the film he wanted to, then Babylon A.D. would have been a much better, and probably more successful, film.



However, if one can put aside all the negativity thrown at the flick and leave the need to deconstruct and over analyze the plot and the leading man at the door, then Babylon A.D. provides a fair amount of Euro styled fun and action. Eschewing the overly slick and glossy look of many Hollywood blockbusters, the film retains a gritty feel and certainly supplies regular amounts of action. This varies from the good (a parkour themed chase/fight in a nightclub, the snowmobile bit) to the incomprehensible (the big shootout in New York and the car chase finale: which is cut so quickly it almost makes the opening chase in Quantum of Solace coherent and comprehensible) Hollywood once again reverting to the idea that action scenes must now be cut at 100 mph. They shouldn’t, it sucks and we should go back to filming and cutting them so we can see, enjoy and experience what is happening.

Despite popular opinion suggesting otherwise, Babylon A.D. is still worth checking out as it never takes itself too seriously and provides a good dose of visual thrills. But note to Hollywood: if you hire an edgy, independent director, let him/her do their thing; quit altering movies so drastically that they become just another clich├ęd ridden mess with endings that don’t make sense; and ease up on all this hip, trendy, MTV, blitzkrieg editing to try and make action exciting.



Kill Switch



KILL SWITCH (2008)

Directed by: Jeff King
Screenplay: Steven Seagal
Starring: Steven Seagal & Isaac Hayes

Whoa, Seagal’s movies are just getting crazier and crazier. Kill Switch, his latest direct-to-DVD opus, is all over the place as the big man plays a Cajun cop (complete with comedy accent)on the trail of a serial killer. Well actually, it may be up to three serial killers as I’m pretty sure there was a whole bunch of bad guys Seagal was on the trail of, all of them completely unconnected and seemingly dropped in from different screenplays. Then there is Isaac Hayes as a coroner who just keeps popping up and then disappearing at random. There is also Seagal’s Cajun cop buddy whose sole purpose seems to be to walk in and out at random intervals making sexist remarks to the women police officers. Said women police officers also seem to be from a different film and also randomly pop up here, there and everywhere. On top of all this there is a ridiculous amount of corny street slang dialogue, random and incoherent flashbacks to Seagal’s character’s past, a bomb in a lady’s boob (yep, that’s right) and I’m sure there was even a bit of cannibalism. Which all adds to a whole lot of ‘what the…??!!’ and a film that seems to be cobbled together from many different scripts. Oh yeah, did I mention the ending? What the hell is that all about? Please, if anyone knows let me in on the explanation.



So is the action any good? Well there is certainly a boat load of it and it’s refreshingly sustained and old school in style with many a stuntman being thrown into and out of things. Dudes get thrown out of windows (a necessity in a Seagal flick), into tables, through doors and even cigarette machines, shelving units and several stylish glass tables. This gives the action a crisp and brutal feel with the stunt team being put through their paces. It’s also some of the better action to be in a Seagal flick of late but, and it’s a big but, two things render it almost worthless. Jerky editing (damn you) and the fact Seagal is doubled most of the time in the hand-to-hand stuff. This means we cut back and forth between a close up of him and a reverse shot of his double constantly and it is wholly and entirely unconvincing. Which is a shame because, as mentioned, the action is pretty solid.

The film certainly looks slick and Seagal actually seems enthused to be appearing in flick for a change and mercifully not shot in the shadows like so many of his other direct-to-DVD fodder. Still, Kill Switch isn’t very good, doesn’t make a lick sense and it beggars belief how they keep letting Seagal make films like this. Oh yeah, because people like me keep watching them. This also beggars belief!



Convict 762



CONVICT 762 (1997)

Directed by: Luca Bercovici
Screenplay by: J. Reifel
Starring: Shannon Sturges, Billy Drago and Frank Zargarino

Another space movie about an escaped killer on the loose, on a broken down ship, killing the crew off one by one. Hardly original. Made by the Sci-fi channel, consisting of two sets, computer effects of the variety done on a home computer and starring the guy from all those Project Shadowchaser movies. Hardly enticing. But low and behold, Convict 762 is actually pretty good. For a B-movie space flick made by the Sci-fi channel.

As mentioned it’s the common, and overused, story of a maniac killing off a motley space crew one by one. However, this time the crew is all female (no nudity I’m afraid guys) and the film actually manages to be quite tense in parts. There are a few disturbing images and the groovy music adds to the sense of dread. The lack of sets and dim lighting reveal the very limited budget but are compensated by above average camerawork that keeps the action moving. The acting is typical of this kind of flick, with Billy Drago doing his usual weirdo shtick. Zargarino is alright in his limited role (despite top billing) and the female cast acquit themselves well (if over-acting a little) in roles usually reserved for men.

I won’t go into the shoddy visual effects or the barmy ending as any hardened movie fan will no doubt be howling with laughter upon seeing them. Yet Convict 762 is pretty entertaining and nowhere near as bad as rumoured. There are certainly many worse sci-fi B-movies out there (trying sitting through The Shepherd starring C. Thomas Howell, it’s virtually impossible…trust me). Good trashy nonsense, which is not bad considering I picked it up for £1.49 in the post office while buying stamps and a jiffy bag.