A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Blade II

July 2, 2011

Blade II

I have an amusing story that goes with this movie. Amanda and I had enjoyed the first one on DVD so much that we decided to see the second one in the theaters. When we went into the theater though the movie was already playing. We checked our tickets to be sure we were in the right cinema and checked our watches. We weren’t late – as usual we were a few minutes early. Then the movie ended. I’ve never been sure why exactly, but for some reason the movie was running late, so we ended up seeing the end of the movie and closing credits before watching the start. It was very strange.

We stuck around after that though and got to see the movie from the start, and I have to say I really enjoyed it. On subsequent viewings it isn’t quite as cool as it was that first time in the theater, but at the time I thought it was one of the coolest pure stupid action films I had seen in a long time. It wasn’t so much the plot or acting, which are not particularly exceptional, but the visual flate the movie has that impressed me. At the time I didn’t know it, but what I was really falling in love with was the directorial style of Guillermo del Torro. I didn’t really know who he was when I went to see this movie, and wouldn’t start really paying attention to his work until I went to see Hellboy in the theaters a couple years later, but he has a vision which brought this particular pedestrian action movie and raised it up to be something which at the time I found surprising and enjoyable.

The story being told here is not a particularly convoluted one, and has somewhat of a written by committee feel to it at times. It starts out with Blade searching for Whistler, who has been taken captive by vampires after the events of the last film which left him half-turned. When he shot himself he already was vampire enough that it didn’t kill him, and the vampires have been keeping him alive ever since. After a flashy motorcycle fight scene Blade is able to discover Whistler’s whereabouts and promptly bursts into the warehouse in question and slaughters all the guards, but doesn’t have the heart to simply kill his old partner. So he hauls Whistler back to his lair and shoots a heavy duty cure into him and then hey-presto Whistler is entirely human again the next morning and the movie can get started. It’s clumsy and full of plot holes. As much as I enjoy having the team of Blade and Whistler back together again it’s a dreadfully awkward way to get it done.

With all that out of the way the actual plot of the movie can start to unfold. A pair of black clad vampires break into Blade’s workshop and after a little acrobatics announce that they’re come to offer Blade a truce. It seems that there’s a new monster in town, and it has the vampires running scared. These creatures, called Reapers, hunt vampires the way that vampires hunt humans and turn them into new Reapers. They have an insatiable appetite and their numbers are increasing exponentially and if left unchecked will very quickly wipe out all vampires (and probably all humans as well.) So Blade, along with Whistler and Blade’s new boy-wonder sidekick Skud troop off to the local vampire headquarters to meet the elite team of hunters they will be working with. The hitch? These hunters have been training for six years to hunt Blade – they don’t take too well to being forced to work with him to take on the Reapers.

From there on out it’s pretty much pure stupid action. The Reapers are not vulnerable to silver or garlic and regenerate even faster than vampires do, which makes them tough to kill. Pretty much the only thing that works is sunlight. Meanwhile Blade and the vampire squad all have cool new weapons including pistols with blades attached and UV flash grenades. They duke it out in a vampire nightclub, then in the abandoned building above it, and in the sewers below it. They eventually even end up fighting in the heavily fortified vampire home base (after the vampires’ sudden but inevitable betrayal.)

As I watched the movie again I realized that just about everything I liked about it and found cool the first time I saw it came from del Torro and his cohort Mike Mignola (the creator of Hellboy who worked on the art department for this movie.) Obviously I have no idea which members of the vast design department were responsible for which details of the movie, but the movie is filled with little details that feel ripped from the minds of del Troo and Mignola. The bladed pistols for example. The vampires in the club being flayed for fun. The glove with the syringes at the start of the movie. Even the exceptionally cool look of the Reapers with their bifurcated lower jaw.

I like the look of this movie better than I like the movie itself I guess. It’s full of awesome special effects shots that I have to assume use digital doubles which allow the camera to swoop impossibly around blade as he leaps and flips about. It’s got an aesthetic to it which I would characterize as uniquely del Torro look. In many ways it feels to me now as though it’s a dry run for Hellboy. It even has Ron Pearlman as one of the vampire cadre. It’s not as awesomely cool as Hellboy is though. When I first saw this it had a look that was cool and new and intrigued me, now that I know how much more del Torro is capable of though It seems like more of a stepping stone and not so much like the awesome action film I thought it was that first time. It makes me want to watch Pan’s Labyrinth.

July 2, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 488 – Blade

Blade – July 1st, 2011

Working in a library, I get a lot of people who look to me for book recommendations (and movie recommendations) but on the flip side I also end up having a lot of people try to recommend things to me. Sometimes this works out well, like with the 13 year old girl who’s pretty much got exactly the same taste in fiction that I do and whom I’ve found to be a very astute and critical reader. Sometimes it’s not so great, largely because most people who make recommendations to me aren’t really concerned with personal taste and preferences. And they’re hard to get rid of. Say you read/watched it just to get them to stop and they’ll want to talk about it. Say you will read/watch it and they’ll ask if you have yet every time they see you. Say it’s not your thing/you don’t have time/etc. and prepare for battle. So when people try to recommend Twilight to me, I tell them I prefer my vampires to be more like this. That tends to bring an end to any attempt to get me to dish about how dreamy Edward Cullen is.

If you’re looking for a vampire romance with pale and angst-ridden heroes whom the heroine can sigh over? You are watching the wrong movie. The hero has angst, to be sure, but he doesn’t sparkle and he doesn’t brood (much) and the heroine spends more time Doing Science than she spends sighing. Oh, and there are action scenes with guns, swords, silver spikes and incendiary devices. And a UV lamp for extra burny fun. There’s blood too, in case you forgot at some point what the movie’s villains (and hero) are. There’s a lot of blood. Like, a ton of it. Okay, so most of it is in the opening scene, but there’s still a lot even after that.

Speaking of the opening scene, this movie has what is, in my opinion, one of the best openings ever. And after seeing almost 500 movies in the past almost 500 days? I think I can say that with some authority. It is perfectly crafted to let you know who the bad guys are, who the good guy is, what the bad guys are like, what the good guy is like and what you’re in for in the next two hours. We start with Traci Lords, who has a character name but it doesn’t matter since it’s never mentioned and she’s only in the movie for about 10 minutes. She has a fast car and a douchey guy and she brings him to a club in a meat packing plant. You might think you know where this is going and you might be half right. Because the aim is definitely to feed on the douchey guy but he ends up unscathed. Scared witless, but unscathed. Anyhow, in the club they dance and she blows him off and then the sprinklers turn on and start spraying blood everywhere. Then our hero enters and proceeds to kill the vast majority of vampires present with clean and ruthless efficiency before cornering one particular vampire and pinning him to the wall, then setting him on fire. The whole scene’s got some pounding music going on and fast visuals with well choreographed action. It’s the best thing in the movie and now it’s over.

That’s not to say there’s nothing else good in the movie. It’s just that after that opening? Nothing can compare in terms of sheer cool factor. The movie has a bunch of great action scenes and Blade gets to be a total bad-ass for the vast majority of it. But that one scene. Yeah. It’s perfect. But the movie must go on or it would merely be a music video. So on we go to the plot. Blade is our main character, played by Wesley Snipes. And part of me will now always associate him with Noxeema Jones from To Wong Foo, but this is a very different character. Blade is known as the Daywalker, because while he was born as a vampire after his mother was bitten while pregnant, he takes a serum that suppresses his vampiric traits. So he doesn’t drink blood or hunger for it and he can go out in the day (hence the nickname) and he still gets to be super strong and super fast and all. Blade also has a really neat super power that lets him stand in the direct path of spattering blood and not get a drop on him. I don’t think this is related to his vampire status. I think it’s just that he’s such a bad-ass that blood spatter is afraid of him. There are at least two instances where he’s standing in the direct path and his matte black gear is spotless.

Anyhow, Blade and his powers of cleanliness and badassery are working on exterminating all the regular vampires. And according to this movie there are a ton of them and they dabble in just about everything. There are a number of different clans and they have their own businesses and night clubs and whatnot and he goes around cleaning them out. Told you: cleanliness and badassery. He’s got a human named Whistler who helps him out by making him new gear and weapons and eventually he gains a woman named Karen as another assistant after she gets bitten by a vampire in a hospital and he takes her to his hideout to try and stop her from becoming a vampire. Turns out Karen is pretty awesome both because she quickly learns how to handle herself in dangerous situations (she gets captured a couple of times, but always when there are a bunch of vampires to overpower her) and because she’s given more to do than pine for Blade. Because see, a romantic plot for Blade just isn’t going to happen. He isn’t romance material. So Karen feels some emotional pull towards him, but ends up directing it towards scientific research. Because she’s a hematologist. Lucky Blade, huh?

Karen and Blade head out to learn about what the vampires are planning. Obviously, something is up. Blade questions some people, like vampire Quinn (played by Donal Logue, who has one of the strangest and most varied set of roles on his resume I can think of aside from Michael Sheen) and a wannabe vampire who’s pledged himself to vampire Deacon Frost in hopes of being turned one day. He doesn’t get turned, by the way. I’d imagine being a vampire’s indentured servant is really a lottery with slim chances. Deacon, played by Stephen Dorff, is a young vampire who was turned from human, not born a vampire like the rest of the big high council. He’s kind of bitter about it and wants to be one of the big-wigs, so he’s researched some old vampire lore and learned about a ceremony that will turn him into a blood god called La Magra. The ceremony involves getting twelve pureblooded vampires together with a daywalker and using a combination of their blood in the right place. And the rest of the movie goes as you might expect.

There are some twists here and there. Some turns that aren’t necessarily expected. But for the most part this movie isn’t trying to serve up anything shocking. It’s trying to be cool and explosive and feature lots of fight scenes where vampires get staked and disintegrate. Frost and his crew have cool parties and Blade and his crew have cool weapons and the special effects aren’t perfect but they work just fine and there’s Action Hematology and enough humor to be fun without being goofy. And there’s plenty of blood and little to no romance, so it’s pretty much got exactly what I want out of a modern vampire movie.

July 1, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Blade

July 1, 2011

Blade

We own quite a few comic book movies, and quite a few vampire movies, but this film and its sequels are the only ones that qualify as both. In truth, though, it’s not really much based on the comic book from what I’ve been able to gather. I haven’t read the books but it looks like Blade was a king of cheesy seventies series that tried to capitalize on the blacksploitation craze of the time. This movie is more of a cool modern take on vampires. Influenced more by Whitewolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade series of games than anything else, or so it seemed to me.

What we have here is your basic martial arts, explosion filled vampire action movie. Right from the beginning it sets the tone very well, showing us that the vampires of this movie are not all old fogies in capes – they’re young (in appearance) social folks that like to party as much as they like to murder. We’re introduced to the vampires in an underground rave at a secret vampire club called bloodbath. It is called this because as the vampires dance about to the music they are sprayed with blood from overhead sprinklers. They’re all about hedonistic pleasure, thrashing about in the blood and toying with a snack that one of them brought along, right up until a single badass in a spotless black leather trench-coat comes along and starts to slaughter them. That would be Blade.

Blade, the daywalker, was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped while she was in the process of being turned into a vampire. As a result he has the recuperative powers of a vampire and the super strength, and the thirst for blood (which he barely contains) but he is not affected by sunlight and he ages like a normal human. We discover all this when he rescues a young lab tech from a hospital after she is attacked by a vampire he is hunting. He brings Karen back to his Blade-Lair where she meets his pal Whistler and sees all his cool toys.

It’s a good thing that we have Karen here because she’s a great all-purpose tool for the movie. She can ask all kinds of questions, which helps because there is a LOT of exposition to be laid out here regarding the vampires, their social structure, their weaknesses (crosses and holy water do nothing but silver can kill them – which I thought was werewolves) and Blade’s lifelong mission to hunt them down and kill them. She’s also conveniently a herpetologist specialising in blood-born diseases and therefore can provide not just some science lingo to handwave the existence of vampires in a fairly realistic modern world setting but also provide new weapons for Blade and a potential cure to his vampyrism. Furthermore, although she’s not really a romantic interest for Blade, she’s not too hard on the eyes and she eventually gets around to kicking a fair amount of ass in her own right during the final showdown.

Blade’s nemesis in this movie is an upstart vampire called Deacon Frost who is scheming to take over control of the vampire world from the elder council who currently rule. He’s also uncovered some long lost secret ritual which will help him in this goal – and of course the only thing standing in his way is Blade, whose blood also happens to be a key ingredient in Frost’s ritual.

I was kind of shocked to discover, when we started to catalogue our movies at the start of this project, that we didn’t own this DVD. It was odd. Odd because we owned the second and third Blade movies, so why not the first? Also odd because I really like this movie and used to own it at one time, so where did it go? This is a great DVD with a lot of fascinating extra material that’s well worth owning, so it surprised me to find that I didn’t have it any longer.

Really, the special features on the DVD are almost as interesting to me as the movie itself. For example: how many action movies have the cinematographer on the audio commentary track? Theo van de Sande is full of great tidbits about the techniques used to give this movie that slightly sharper than reality look which brings it so much to life. Things like using a strobe light synched to the camera aperture during the scene in the vampire night club to make the blood from the sprinklers look like sharp droplets instead of a stream. Things like using unique silver nitrate film for sharper contrasts and deeper shadows. It’s fascinating stuff.

Then there’s all the information on the movie’s action climax. The original ending (some parts of which are on the DVD) involved Frost becoming a “blood tornado” in an effects laden mess that left early test audiences disappointed because it didn’t deliver a good final clash between Frost and Blade. It just didn’t work. So the entire final confrontation was re-worked with a great swordfight between the two of them and Blade using a completely different method to defeat Frost. Which meant that the means he used to overcome Frost had to be layered into the rest of the film. It involved re-writes, re-shoots, new plot devices and new action scenes… all of which are so seamlessly incorporated into the final product that I’m not really sure in some cases what is new material and what was part of the earlier cut. Even more amazing, considering all the tweaking and re-working that had to be done on the movie, is that the film actually works very well as a whole.

The acting is perfect for this genre of action film. Wesley Snipes makes a great Blade with all his sneering and his martial arts action flare. Khris Khristofferson is so memorable as Blade’s mentor and partner Whistler that the writers of the sequel had to find a way to undo his off-screen death so he could be in that movie too. Stephen Dorf is just the right as Frost, combining ambition with and egotistical swagger. I know that one of Amanda’s favorite parts of the whole movie is Donal Logue as Quinn, Frost’s oft-dismembered right-hand man. And there’s N’Bushe Wright as Karen, who does an admirable job of moving the plot along.

Why and how did I let this movie escape from my collection? I have no idea, and I’m glad we have this movie project as an excuse to re-purchase it so that I own it once more. This is a DVD well worth having in my opinion.

July 1, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 476 – Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics

Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics – June 19th, 2011

The other night I found out something fascinating about my mother: She is a Green Lantern fan. This, from the woman who used to frown on comic books as beneath me. I’d known that her brother had a huge collection of Superman comics that were thrown away by my grandmother when he went off to college. And I’d known that my father collected comics when he was a kid (and also lost much of his collection when his stuff was cleaned out when he went to college). But I never really pictured my mother as a comic fan. Then when we were out to dinner with her and my father the other night we mentioned we were going to see the new Green Lantern movie and immediately she lit up, raising her fist like she had the ring on and excitedly talking about Hal Jordan. I always knew I was raised by geeks (and consider myself very lucky because of that) but I hadn’t realized I was raised by two comics geeks.

And yes, we did see Green Lantern today. I was led to believe it would suck a lot and I admit I came out of the theater smiling. Not a great movie, but I was entertained. Of course, as Andy pointed out, we have seen a lot of bad movies. A lot of bad comic book movies. Our standards have, perhaps, been affected by this project. That being said, I should also admit that I’m not much of a DC gal. Oh, I’ve got a few things I love. DC puts out some really interesting stuff and Batman holds a special place in my heart. I love Neil Gaiman’s Sandman books and Watchmen is, in my opinion, a work of sheer genius. But if you asked me to pick between Marvel and DC I’d have to go Marvel. I just know more Marvel characters and I know more of the Marvel universes. I blame my fascination with X-Men. Still, coming out of this documentary I was seized with an urge to pull out every DC book we own, stay up all night and re-read them.

I bought this on a whim, mostly because I really do like comic books and I thought it would be cool to see something talking about the history of an incredibly influential comic book publisher. I hadn’t heard of it before and it’s fairly recent and likely made as a promotional piece (since it’s got Ryan Reynolds narrating) so I really had no idea what to expect. What I got was a shallow but broad picture of the history of DC Comics, along with lots of interview clips, art stills and movie and tv clips. It’s nothing fancy, and it’s not going in depth into any one period in the history of the company, but it does cover a whole lot of time and a whole lot of bits and pieces of the history.

The focus here is mainly on Superman and Batman, which makes sense since they’re very much the most iconic characters DC has. Not only have they both been in the comics for decades upon decades, but they’ve both had numerous spinoffs and shows and movies. Wonder Woman gets a decent amount of time, but let’s face it, aside from the very recent failed series? Wonder Woman hasn’t had as much of a presence as the boys have. Which I might just be a tiny bit irked by, but that’s not this documentary’s fault. And I’ve got to say, I do like seeing how the two characters have evolved through the various time periods they’ve existed through. The documentary shows a lot of other characters too, but in each segment there’s something about Superman and something about Batman and I like how enduring those characters are.

We start out with the founding of the company and a quick look at comic books as a medium in their early days. I will give this movie credit for putting DC’s comics and characters in a historical context. There’s a lot of talk about the economic and political climate of the United States at the times when the various eras happened. It covers things like the Comics Code, but it also covers a lot of more subtle things, or things that in retrospect, thinking logically, make sense, but aren’t necessarily things one might consider when thinking about comic books. Deciding to make the characters more family friendly, giving the characters more sci-fi type origin stories, things like that. And I appreciate the context. It’s certainly more interesting to know where it all exists in history than to hear about it in a vacuum. And some of the people interviewed do admit to making mistakes, which I like. PR piece, yes, but still admitting to moments when the company wasn’t keeping up with the times or adjusting in the way they needed to.

I have this great book, The Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics, which has a whole pile of early comic books reprinted along with information about the writers and artists. I find comic books to be a fascinating and wonderful medium and I love seeing how they’ve changed and yet not changed over the years. Watching this movie I saw bits I was familiar with from that book, but hearing the artists and writers and various people involved with DC from various time periods, it’s all a little more engaging. Then too, the movie eventually passes through the Bronze Age of comics and into the Modern Age. We see all the things I’m currently familiar with. Books I’ve read and loved. Neil Gaiman shows up and I think he says something I love about comic books: They’re not a genre, they’re a medium.

The whole point of this documentary is to show DC in all its glory over the years. The low points and failures are there to highlight how well DC recovered from them and what brilliant idea got them going again. But I don’t really mind. There’s a whole lot of talk from the interviewees about the nature of comic books as a medium and superheroes as a trope and I think it’s an important thing to realize about the surge in comic books as an industry. It doesn’t go too much in depth into either concept, but it touches on both the nature of the medium and human nature. I would love to see something deeper and more supported not necessarily by people involved with DC but with literary critics and pop culture historians and sociologists, but this isn’t that movie. It’s about Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman and everything that came after them and it’s pretty transparent but I don’t mind. It’s still a fun little look at the history of the company and people who gave us those characters.

June 19, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics

June 19, 2011

Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics

A while back Amanda and I bought a big pile of movies from the husband of one of her co-workers, who buys lots of movies on e-bay and craigslist and breaks them up. Amongst the flotsam we found this title, a documentary I have never heard of before but which intrigued me. We had to have it in our collection, of course, because comic book movies are so prevalent in the movies I’ve gathered over the years. Until tonight, however, we didn’t really have any reason to watch it. Today we went to go see the new Green Lantern movie (which I didn’t hate, and which we’ll review when we buy it later this year) and so we figured that a documentary about DC would be perfect. Even better? It’s narrated by Ryan Reynolds – the star of Green Lantern.

I’m curious about where this documentary comes from. It seems clear to me that it’s part of the PR machine for DC and Warner Brothers – intended to help promote their many animated and live action movies as well as the comic books. Who was it intended for though? I never saw any mention of the movie before we came across it and I don’t think it was ever in theaters or in video stores. Perhaps it was shown on television? I honestly don’t know. The director and writer of the documentary, Mac Carter, doesn’t seem to exist as far as the internet is concerned. And yet the documentary itself is very nicely produced with some great archival footage and a bunch of interviews with current DC writers and editors, including such big names as Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison. They don’t just show panels from classic comic books, they have the common documentary technique of making the panels appear to have depth by cutting out the foreground elements and moving them in parallax. So some money got spent on this doc, I just can’t figure out why.

My personal experience with DC comics comes in near the end of this narrative. This movie covers everything from the very start of Superman with Action Comics #1 and goes through 2010. It covers the creation of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and many other DC characters as well as placing them in a historical context. It talks about how these characters took cues from what was going on in the world around them (particularly World War II) and it looks at how the comic books in turn influenced the world.

I consider myself a casual comic book fan, so most of the factoids presented here are familiar to me. Certainly things like the Comics Code Authority and the nadir of comic book quality is something every comic book fan should know about. So what I found most fun here were all the interviews, including archived interviews with Bob Kane, Alan Moore, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. It’s just cool to get some of the thought process behind the writing process.

When it gets to The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen and all of the books in the Vertigo imprint I felt most at home. Those are all books I’m familiar with (and I own many of them.) I also really enjoyed seeing screen tests for Christopher Reeve and a couple behind the scenes shots.

I’m not sure what else to say about this movie. It’s a documentary by DC about DC intended (i suspect) to promote DC. Possibly as a tie in to Green Lantern, I’m just not sure. I had fun watching it, and it was cool to put faces to some of the names I’m so familiar with, but I’m not quite sure why it exists and why we own it. I guess as a very quick history of Detective Comics as a company it’s pretty cool. And it did make me wonder, as I often do, why there’s no big-budget Wonder Woman movie.

June 19, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Unbreakable

June 5, 2011

Unbreakable

When this movie came out M. Knight Shyamalan was not yet a punchline. He had done a couple smaller indie movies (one with Rosie O’Donnell filmed on the campus of the school where Amanda went to college) and of course The Sixth Sense. Sixth Sense had been a colossal success and pretty much everybody on the planet had gone to see it twice because of its now-infamous twist ending. Under those circumstances he had pretty much two choices: he could make something completely different or he could try to re-capture the success of his third movie. He obviously went the second route. This was the first of a long string of attempts to make another movie that would do what Sixth Sense had done and make audiences need to see his film again and again to pick out the clues to the big twist.

I’m actually really fond of this movie. I like the concept of it. There are a couple scenes in the movie that really speak to me. On the other hand I can understand why the movie isn’t as much fun for some people (such as, for example my wife.) The movie has a cool premise, but it tries so hard to be clever that it could come of as tiresome.

The movie tells the story of a lonely and depressed man, David Dunn, whose marriage is falling apart, whose son is disappointed in what an unambitious failure he is and who is simply unhappy with his life and doesn’t know what he’s supposed to be doing. From there it slowly becomes clear that this is a super hero origin story. When David is the only survivor of a catastrophic train crash and doesn’t have a scratch on him he is contacted by a comic book obsessed art dealer who explains that he believes David in actually a hero impervious to damage and sickness who just doesn’t know that he’s a hero yet.

Elijah Price is a sad individual whose bones are brittle due to a congenital birth defect. He has been tortured all his life by his frailty (the kids called him Mr. Glass.) He believes, though, that there must be somebody out there who is his opposite – unbreakable where he is fragile. A real life super hero. He believes that David is that man.

This is not a super hero action movie. It is slow, deliberate, and cerebral. It is often more concerned with the gloomy color palette and carefully orchestrated camera angles than it is with advancing the plot.

June 5, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 457 – Punisher: War Zone

Punisher: War Zone – May 31st, 2011

After last night’s depressing and tiresome gore-fest I was a little leery of putting this in. I mean, we had to according to the project rules and all, but I wasn’t sure I could handle another movie like last night’s. Thankfully, this movie has very little in common with last night’s! Okay, it’s still got Frank Castle, vigilante who takes down mobs. And it’s all gritty and urban and Castle’s got a skull on his chest and a whole lot of guns. But it’s definitely embraced its over-the-top nature and gone storming in with said guns blazing.

The cheese factor here is high enough that it makes things a heck of a lot more fun. Also making things more fun? No brutal backstory lead-up to the action. We get it all in a couple of vague flashbacks from Castle and a bit of exposition from a secondary character. In this one he and his family apparently witnessed a mob hit while having a picnic in a park, so the mob gunned them down too and Castle’s made it his mission to take down as many mobsters as he can. Nice and quick and simple and not at all part of the movie’s plot so we don’t have to care about it aside from motivation! That does a lot to keep the tone of the movie from being so painfully dour as the other one was. This is just pure action cheese, no sympathy for the main character necessary. He’s just a badass with a bunch of weapons and some body armor.

In fact, the main character doesn’t talk for like, twenty minutes. I hadn’t twigged to it but Andy did and it is pretty impressive. He’s just not much of a character and the movie knows that and seems to be a-ok with it. His character development consists of the backstory, two or three moments where he seems conflicted about continuing his bloody mission and some interactions he has with the widow and child of an undercover agent he killed by accident. And as character development for a cheesy action movie goes, that’s pretty good. It’s not too complicated. It’s not too deep. It doesn’t take us anywhere unexpected or more unpleasant than the movie already was. And that’s a good thing. A very good thing.

Really, this is a pretty mindless movie. You don’t have to think too hard to follow it. Castle goes after a mobster and accidentally kills an undercover agent in the process. Mobster gets all cut up in a bin full of broken glass and renames himself Jigsaw when he gets out. Mobster goes after the family of the downed agent, seeking revenge for losing money, being set up, whatever. Castle, having a soft spot for families and all, tries to protect them even though the widow is justifiably pissed off that he killed her husband. It’s a simple plot really. There’s some stuff with the mobster’s brother, who’s been in an asylum locked in a pretty ridiculous version of four point restraints. He’s a cannibal, it seems, so as one might expect there’s some chewing, and not just of scenery. And then Jigsaw gives a big speech to like, every gang in New York (I seriously expected the Baseball Furies to show up) in front of a projected image of the American flag, inspiring them all to join him to take Castle down.

Yes, I am totally serious. I mean, that’s the sort of movie this is. It’s sort of serious? Except it’s really not. It’s crossed that fine line into cheese and it’s a lot more enjoyable to watch because of it. Ray Stevenson isn’t a bundle of personality as Castle, but he doesn’t need to be. He needs to glower and shoot people. Dominic West isn’t playing a truly tragic villain as Jigsaw and Doug Hutchinson isn’t playing Hannibal Lecter as Jigsaw’s brother, Loony Bin Jim. I mean, look at those names right there. This? This is a comic book movie. No mistake about it. It’s even got a sidekick for the hero. A couple, actually, if you count both his intel and gun provider, Microchip (played by Wayne Knight, who does not get eaten by a dinosaur here but still doesn’t make it out alive) and the cop who’s sort of the Punisher version of Fox Mulder, keeping files on him in the basement of the police station.

It’s all just so silly. There’s a whole lot that seems to have been tossed in just to look cool and give Castle someone to kill, like the three meth junkies who go vaulting off rooftops after making deals with Jigsaw. There’s the ex-banger who works for Microchip, buying back guns from gangs and passing them on to Castle. There’s the army of various gangs who are way too easily dispatched by Castle once the Russians show up and start gunning people down. Oh, they have a reason but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it’s all done big. There’s not nearly the same amount of chunks slamming each other into walls as last night’s movie had. The action is quick and varied and it moves the movie at a good clip. Which is the way it ought to be.

I can’t say that this is a cinematic masterpiece or anything so fancy. It was never going to win any awards. It’s got some decent eye candy and it’s not horribly acted, if one accepts that it’s meant to be cheesy. But it’s nothing brilliant. The thing is, it’s not trying to be brilliant. It’s taking some comic book characters and a comic book plot and tossing them onto the screen with plenty of guns and ammo and just enough backstory and plot to keep things going. And that’s all it needs to be. Sure, I could have done without some of the so-called comic relief, but it’s not as grating as it could be and given the overall tone of the movie it doesn’t feel completely out of place. It’s a movie that knows its niche and works well inside of it. It’s unrealistic and it knows it and it doesn’t care and that’s fine with me.

May 31, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Punisher: War Zone

May 31, 2011

The Punisher: Warzone

I didn’t watch this movie before buying it (if you’ve been reading this blog for a while you probably know this is a weakness of mine.) As we put it in tonight I was hoping this would not be as painful as yesterday’s film, and do you know what? It’s not. It’s glorious.

I spent a lot of time in yesterday’s review talking about how unrelentingly violent it was. Well this movie is proof that unrelenting violence and gore can actually be pretty damned awesome. From the very beginning when a big lumbering Frank Castle beheads an elderly Mafia don with a bowie knife and proceeds to stab, slice, dismember and shoot every member of the dinner party you know exactly what kind of movie this is. He hangs from a chandelier and spins around shooting everything. He kills a guy with a chair leg to the face. This is a wonderful, ridiculous gorefest and I loved every stupid minute of it.

Ray Stevenson is our Punisher tonight and he’s a treat. That opening scene at the Mafia dinner party really well sets the stage. This Punisher is a great hulking mountain of doom who spreads cartoon carnage everywhere he goes. I was really impressed by the fact that for the first twenty five minutes of the film he doesn’t have a single line. He just kills bad guys. Lots of them. Gruesomely.

It’s while he’s on one of his deadly rampages that he inadvertently starts the primary plot of the movie going. While indiscriminately wiping out some mob guys he accidentally kills an undercover FBI agent. This causes him considerable anguish. He’s not supposed to kill the good guys. All of this is demonstrated nicely by a still mute Castle as he watches the agent’s funeral from afar and then visits his own grave. It’s a strange contradiction that this big dumb action romp is better put together and better written than yesterday’s movie with its big name actor villain and gritty realistic feel.

In the same fracas Castle drops the nasty traitor from the 300 into a bottle recycling hopper where his face gets mutilated. “Pretty Boy” Billy Russoti doesn’t die though – he survives and becomes The Jigsaw. Jigsaw has two objectives in his new life. Get the money that the undercover FBI agent was supposed to be laundering for him (he assumes that the agent’s widow has it hidden in her house for some reason) and kill the Punisher. He springs his psychopathic brother “Loony Bin” Jim from the asylum and together they set about achieving these goals.

Meanwhile there’s another FBI agent, the ex-partner of the one Castle killed, who is bent on bringing the Punisher to justice (something that the NYPD don’t seem too concerned about getting done.) It’s not hard to guess that Agent Budiansky’s character arc is going to involve him learning to stop worrying and love the Punisher. Still, it’s fun to watch it happen.

There’s nothing particularly surprising or Earth shattering about the plot of this movie. That’s part of its charm, really. It’s a comfortable sort of familiar action film. The Jigsaw ultimately kidnaps the widow and her daughter and holds them, as well as the Punisher’s sidekick Micro, hostage in an abandoned hotel. He goes out and in a hilarious montage that spoofs the opening of Patton he gives a rousing speech to many of the local gangs that the Punisher has terrorised over the years and invites them all to the hotel to trap and kill the man himself. Of course the Punisher slaughters them to a man – it’s just that kind of movie.

There’s so much to enjoy about this film. The spewing blood and exploding skulls for example. (I actually cackled with delight at one point when the Punisher punched a bad guy in the face and crushed his skull like an egg – it’s not something you see coming and it’s hilarious.) Then there are the fantastic accents affected by Jigsaw, Loony Bin Jim and the parkour loving dreadlocked black Irish goon Maginty. (Hell, the very existence of Maginty in the first place makes me grin just thinking of it.) The accents are heavy, broad, liberally applied and hilarious.

This whole movie is a hilarious treat. It takes everything that made yesterday’s movie nasty and unbearable to watch and turns it on its head. Do I like this one better or the Dolph Lundgren one better? It’s so hard to say. One is a low budget eighties cheese fest, the other a gory over the top action movie romp. I will say that after watching this tonight I wanted more – I don’t know if anybody will care to get director Lexi Alexander (I want more of her movies now!) and Ray Stevenson back for a second go, but I’d be delighted if they did.

May 31, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 456 – The Punisher (2004)

The Punisher (2004) – May 30th, 2011

Somehow I have seen a particular series of scenes from this movie about ten times. This is a phenomenon I don’t quite know how to explain but it seems to happen to me with certain movies and shows. For example, no matter when I’ve happened upon My So-Called Life it has always been the last episode. Always. Every time. It doesn’t matter when I’ve happened upon it, I always end up seeing the same exact scene too. It happens with a few different shows and movies and I’m not sure if anyone else experiences it but that’s what happens with this movie. There are two scenes in this movie and I have seen them many times and I find that kind of hilarious.

We’ve already watched a movie about this character. We watched the 1980s version with Dolph Lundgren a few months back and it was a cheesy action-fest. And I knew this would be an action-fest too, but I figured not so much with the cheese since the two scenes I’ve seen a bunch of times were both pretty gritty and not very cheesy. Both torture scenes, oddly enough. There’s a bit where Frank Castle terrorizes a man by convincing him he’s using a blowtorch on his back when he’s actually cooking a steak and then poking him with a popsicle. Then there’s another where some thugs employed by our villain rip out the facial piercings of one of Castle’s neighbors to get him to talk. Neither of these scenes is particularly pleasant, though the first of the two does succeed in its dark humor goal and it has Eddie Jemison and that’s always a plus in my book. And I have seen them many times. They are what I knew of this movie going in, so I expected it to be somewhat brutal and full of gore and violence and nastiness. And yeah. Pretty much.

This is a brutal movie. There is scene after scene of violence, both with gun fights and explosions and one-on-one fist fights. The movie begins with a shootout during an illegal gun deal/sting, leading to the death of kingpin Howard Saint’s son, Robert. His wife demands revenge on Agent Frank Castle, who helped to set up the sting. So the movie then gives us some sweet scenes between Castle and his wife and his son and then more at a family reunion so we’ll all be emotionally invested and affected when the entire family is inevitably killed off by a band of goons. Really, it was good luck for the goons that there was a reunion going on so they could do some one stop shooting. It’s part of the essential backstory for the character of the Punisher, so it’s not unexpected that this happens here. But it also establishes that this movie is not pulling punches. And from there on the brutal violence is only interrupted by short periods of violent scenes being set up and a thoroughly awkward Thanksgiving dinner.

After his whole family is killed, Frank Castle goes back to Tampa and vows to punish Saint. So he moves into a crappy tenement and starts building an arsenal of weapons, an armored car and a plan to crush Saint’s entire life and everyone around him. He first gets one of Saint’s lackeys, Mickey (Eddie Jemison), tortures him (psychologically), then uses him to do things like learn Saint’s routine and those of his family and associates so he can set everyone up. He learns that Saint’s right hand man is gay and hiding it from Saint, giving him some prime blackmail fodder. He learns that Saint’s wife goes to the movies every Thursday night giving him time and opportunity to set her car up to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. By the end of the movie Saint thinks the two are going behind his back together, so he kills them himself. Castle also messes with Saint’s dealings with a couple of gangsters whose money he launders, or maybe they launder his money? I don’t know. I don’t care. Money is laundered and Castle goes in and destroys the whole operation.

Of course, Castle isn’t subtle about this campaign against Saint. He knows damn well who’s responsible for the slaughter of his family and starts off by carting his headstone out to Saint’s golfcourse and planting it by one of the flags. He walks up to city hall and asks the police chief and mayor (I assume) why no one has yet figured out anything about the slaughter. No one has any good answers for him, and he’s wearing a shirt with a big white skull on it so, you know, I’m thinking it’s pretty obvious what’s going to go down here. But no one stops him. Or tries. That’s pretty much the last we hear of the police or anyone in any position of authority. I guess it’s just less messy that way. So Castle goes about his business, pissing off Saint and getting beaten up whenever Saint sends someone to try and take him down. And here we come to my major issue with the movie.

It’s not necessarily the relentless violence that bothers me. I mean, look at last night’s movie. I enjoy a decent action movie and when a movie is wall to wall violence I don’t get fussed by it just because of that. It’s just what some movies are. And last night’s is a good example of a very silly movie with some absolutely gorgeous action sequences. Are they violent? Yes. Are they amazingly choreographed and enjoyable to watch? Yes. Tonight? Not so much. It’s all just beefy guys smacking each other around. There’s nothing inventive or interesting about them. Castle gets his ass kicked on a regular basis and then he bashes up the guy who’s kicking his ass. It’s just not fun. It’s messy and clunky and starts to feel repetitive, which is bad, considering this isn’t even the extended director’s cut edition. I can only imagine that the longer version has more slabs of muscle punching each other for longer periods of time.

By the time the final scene rolls around and we watch Frank wade into Saint’s club and shoot up the place, along with every hit man Saint has just hired to take Castle down, I was just weary of the action. The breaks in it are all so depressing that they don’t really give much of a reprieve from it all. Frank gets to know his neighbors, who are a trio of outcasts who’ve banded together, and they’ve all got hard luck stories. He drinks a lot of Wild Turkey and he gets his weapons ready. When we see Saint he’s getting increasingly pissed off about losing money and whatnot and he gets all ragey at his goons. And then there’s more violence. It’s exhausting to watch instead of exhilarating. And I get that the character of the Punisher is a dark and gritty character, but a comic book action movie shouldn’t make me this tired.

May 30, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

The Punisher (2004)

May 30, 2011

The Punisher (2004)

We’ve already watched one Punisher movie for our movie a day project, and frankly I think I preferred that version of the story. This movie is just so needlessly bloody and violent. I know that the whole point of the story is that it’s a tale of gory vengeance, but it’s also supposed to be a thrilling comic book adventure movie. My recollection from the first time I watched this movie is that by the end it’s too full of blood and death to really be enjoyable. Paradoxically it’s mixed in with some dreadfully unfunny comic relief, which is also not terribly enjoyable.

In the eighties Dolph Lundgren version of this same story part of what made it so much fun was that it got right to the punishment without having to go through the pain of watching his origin story. Ludgren’s Frank Castle was the Punisher right from the very beginning. Thomas Jane’s Frank Castle has to go through the entire ordeal of having his whole family wiped out by machine gun toting goons.

In this adaptation of the Punisher comic books Frank Castle is an elite undercover FBI agent. He’s just completed a gun-running case and is set to retire, but unfortunately the son of a powerful gangster gets killed in the crossfire during the final sting. Howard Saint is not a forgiving man, so he sends his hit squad to kill Frank. Not just Frank, though, they kill his wife, his son, his parents, and his entire extended family – thirty people in all. The problem is that although they shoot Frank in both legs, in the solder and in the chest and blow up the pier he’s bleeding to death on he doesn’t die.

Instead Castle comes back to Florida and goes about killing every member of Saint’s gang and family. The problem is that although clearly Frank has been wronged and has some right to vengeance the brutal cat and mouse game of killing as Frank hunts Saint’s people and Saint in turn unleashes more and more deadly killers in attempts to eliminate him – well it just never feels justified. I know what this movie is trying to be. It’s trying to make us, the audience, cheer at Frank Castle’s victories as he takes down the evil mastermind behind his family’s death. Instead however I feel like I’m watching Castle sinking into evil himself. The punishment he doles out never feels appropriate, and at times it seems absolutely cruel. By the time we see a weeping and broken Howard Saint being dragged through fire behind a car with explosives stuck on its trunk I almost feel sorry for him.

This is a movie that revels in violence. It’s an R-Rated bloodbath filled with brutality from beginning to end. Now in some cases that would not be a detriment. The same could be said for example of Robocop, which is still one of my favorite movies of all time. Extreme brutal violence is not particularly my cup of tea, but in some cases it can make a move a more visceral experience. In this case, however, it just doesn’t work for me.

Then there’s the comic relief. In the tenement house where Frank sets up his base of operations there are a trio of disenfranchised loners who appear to have formed a kind of loose family amongst each other. There’s a be-piersed and angry young man, a chubby dim fellow who loves food, and a hard working waitress with an abusive ex-boyfriend. These bits of incongruous humor do not fit at all with the dark feel of the rest of the movie. They feel like they must be part of some other movie stuck in here to make it clear that this is a comic book movie.

It wasn’t until I went to read the trivia on IMDB while writing this review that I saw that many of the plot lines and characters involved in this movie come from a series of Punisher books written by Garth Ennis. I have never read the “Welcome Back Frank” arc in question, but it explains so much about this movie that some of its inspiration comes from Ennis. He has a particular style of writing which blends humor with gruesome gore, which in general I have really enjoyed. I loved Preacher for example. Perhaps this is simply a case of something that works in comic form not translating very well to the screen. Whatever the case, I have to simply say that I don’t enjoy this movie. It isn’t fun to watch. Which is kind of sad, really.

May 30, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment