20 June 2013

Furious Flashbacks: The Fast and the Furious

The Fast and the Furious (2001)
Directed by Rob Cohen. Starring Paul Walker, Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Rick Yune, Chad Lindberg, Johnny Strong, Matt Schulze, Ted Levine.

When I performed my drive-by review of Furious 6 (which has already earned its place as one of the best films of this summer; it’s a better Superman film than Man of Steel), I got the idea to put the car in reverse and review all the films in this most unexpected of mega franchises. It promised a fresh experience, since until I sat down to watch the original film for this review, I had never seen any of the Fast and Furious movies more than once.

So far, I’ve gotten exactly what I got the first time. Almost. The Fast and the Furious is the same as I remembered it, only with the slight slant of hindsight from five more films and the inevitable sprinkle of nostalgia. Wow, Jordana Brewster sure was young! Wait, I was that young too! Ah, damn.

I brought up the time gap, so let’s do it that way:

19 June 2013

Flash Review: Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)
Written and Directed by Tommy Wirkola. Starring Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Famke Janssen, Peter Stormare.

The best idea that Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters has in its anachronistic arsenal is a clever bit grafted onto the original folk tale: as a child, Hansel was forced to eat so much candy at the witch’s house that he turned diabetic. The movie never does much with this, but it shows lateral thinking superior to the pitch: “Hansel and Gretel with guns go splat creatures wearing weird make-up.”

It was difficult while watching H&G:WH not to imagine what this year might have been like if Sam Raimi decided to direct this instead of his own witch-centered project Oz, The Great and Powerful. Writer-director Tommy Wirkola (Dead Snow) obviously has Evil Dead II on continuous rotation in his Blu-ray player, and if H&G:WH had only gone Raimi-bonkers enough it might have worked. It earns the “R” rating, no doubt, with numerous dismemberments and decapitations and profanity (hesitant on the nudity, but that’s American cinema for ya’), but it drops the full-throttle outrageousness for long stretches and decides its fantasyland of Steampunk, Hammer Horror, and Sam Peckinpah needs to be taken seriously.

The trailers sold something more ludicrous, almost to the point they seemed like gag previews. Six minutes in, when young Gretel shouts to the witch getting roasted in her own oven, “Hot enough for you, bitch?”, you get the signal this will indeed be blatantly nutty. When our adult heroes swagger into the city of Augsburg to help find eleven missing children, they spit out 21st-century butt-kicker lines and it’s a touch wonderful. I was prepared to have a decent time.

Maybe the word “decent” is too appropriate. It implies middle of the road, just okay—and that’s what we get. Even though H&G:WH isn’t a belly flop from its goofy high concept, it’s still forgettable. The one place where it makes an impression is, surprisingly, with practical VFX. The CGI enhancements look awful, but when a contemporary movie is willing to have Famke Janssen wear real witch make-up and feature a giant troll that is 95% man-in-a-suit, I have to applaud. The troll character, Edward, played under fantastic animatronics by Derek Mears, is a delight. He has more chemistry with Gemma Arterton’s Gretel than Jeremy Renner does.

But Renner’s Hansel is the better performer on screen of the fairy-tale duo. Renner is the sort of actor who can not give a damn about a role and still seem like he’s crafting a real character. The silly action lines sound right coming from him. Arterton is acting a bit too obviously. The script doesn’t treat Gretel well, either: this women of action at one point needs rescuing from a pack of rapists, and it is a plain ugly moment that poorly serves the type of heroine the movie wants to sell.

For all its flourishes of wild action and gore, H&G:WH is something I’d rather read about than watch. There’s a fun YA novel in here and I wish the movie were an adaptation of that non-existent source.

18 June 2013

The Kids Are More Than All Right: Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome on Blu-ray

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)
Directed by George Miller and George Ogilvie. Starring Mel Gibson, Tina Turner, Helen Buday, Frank Thring, Bruce Spence, Robert Grubb, Angelo Rossitto, Angry Anderson, Tom Jennings, Edwin Hodgeman.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

“This you knows. The posts on Black Gate travel fast, and time after time I’ve done the tell. But this ain’t one body’s tell. This is the tell of us all who love the Mad Max franchise. And you gotta listen to it and remember. ‘Cause what you hear today, you gotta tell the newborn tomorrow. I’s looking behind us now, into history-back. I sees those of us who got the luck and started the haul for hi-def. And I remember how it led us here and we were heartful ‘cause we saw the pan-and-scan VHS of what was. And we knewed we got it straight.”

If it weren’t for my aversion to camping and having to use porta-potties, I would attend Wasteland Weekend every year, a “360° post-apocalypse environment” held each September in the Southern California desert for other Mad Maxians. I’m that much of a fan. I prefer an air-conditioned theater and a marathon of the three films, to which a fourth will be added next year, over risking a Gila monster bite, however.

Now I can hold the movie marathon in my less-well air-conditioned apartment—with indoor plumbing and absolutely no Gila monsters!—because Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome made its debut on Blu-ray last week, completing the trilogy in hi-def.

15 June 2013

The Shadow in Road of Crime

Road of Crime (1933)
By Walter Gibson writing as Maxwell Grant

No, I’m not done with the Shadow yet! Seeing the 1994 movie on Blu-ray only made me want to rush back to the source.

Reading any Shadow adventure begins with suspense even before the first paragraph: what sort of tale will Walter Gibson spin using a hero character who can fit into almost any crime story? The Shadow has starred in gun-blazing action yarns, street-level noir dramas, weird Gothic mysteries, and super villain-driven SF adventure. The Shadow himself may never change, but the circumstances around him shift with each new exploit.

Road of Crime (first published in the 1 October 1933 issue of The Shadow Magazine) contains a unique story style for the Shadow: a character study of redemption. I’ve never read a Shadow novel anything like it. In exchange for constant thrills, Walter Gibson serves readers a constrained personal crime drama—and it works. A crook finds his way back from the pits of the mob underworld, and the excitement rises from the interweaving of the Shadow’s actions with the main character on his unexpected trip from the lower depths.

11 June 2013

Flash Review: After Earth

After Earth (2013)
Directed by M. Night Shyamlan. Starring Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Isabelle Fuhrman.

I’m glad Will Smith loves his son Jaden. But instead of trying to give Jaden a movie career to show his love, perhaps he should help the young man cultivate his true talents into a successful vocation. I’m not sure what those talents are—except they aren’t as a charismatic leading man. After Earth fails on many levels, but the hapless young Jaden at the center is its most glaring error.

The film’s story, which Will Smith also developed, is not one of the major problems. Given other circumstances, it could have worked as a fast-paced, streamlined adventure yarn, something you might see in a good YA book. A father and son crash-land on Earth, which was long ago abandoned after a war with aliens. The crash incapacitates the father, and it’s up to the son to cross a stretch of wilderness filled with dangerously evolved animals to reach a rescue beacon. The father remotely guides his son as they work through personal issues (the son failed to get into the Ranger Corps of which his father is the most legendary member), and peril and action ensue among the crazy beasts of hyper-Earth. The science-fiction background is interesting as well, although it won’t stand up to scrutiny: the Rangers have learned to control their fear, which renders them effectively invisible to the “Ursas,” alien bio-weapons that can detect fear emissions. The aliens should have given the Ursas a few more senses—like eyes—to help them track their prey, but if the movie entertains me enough I can go with this set-up.

But director and punch line M. Night Shyamalan has no intention of entertaining. He paces After Earth as if it were Solaris or 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s maddeningly inactive and slow at all times, as if the movie were drugged on the pain medication that has Will Smith’s character, Cypher Rage (seriously), swooning in a chair while and giving tortured speeches. By the point where Mr. Rage gives his key monologue about how he discovered “fear is a choice,” the movie should have already thrown his son Kitai through unrelenting hell. Yet so far all that Kitai has done is run into some baboons and get a poisonous leech bite. The last thing After Earth needs at this point is to slow down.

The film never get its feet under it and starts sprinting. By the climax, when Kitai faces a loose Ursa (which is visually of no interest), the movie hasn’t a drop of energy left. It’s wasted all its time with flashbacks of Kitai’s childhood trauma and Cypher mumbling while staring at readouts.

I can pummel Shyamalan for much of this, but even with a director able to pace the story, there is still the Smith2 failure: Will mistakeningly believing viewers want to watch him as an emotionless shell who spends most of the movie literally on pain medication, and Jaden allowing his dad to pit him against the worst foe possible… a bored audience.

10 June 2013

Pulp Heroes of 1990s Past: The Shadow on Blu-ray

The Shadow (1994)
Directed by Russell Mulcahy. Starring Alec Baldwin, John Lone, Penelope Ann Miller, Peter Boyle, Ian McKellen, Jonathan Winters, Tim Curry.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

The global whirlwind success of Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 triggered a flurry of retro-hero movies. Eight years later, the gaudy nipple-suited failure of Batman and Robin brought an end to the cycle, and it wasn’t until the double-hit of X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002) that our current comic book flood started. But we got a few interesting films during the retro-hero phase, such as Dick Tracy, the well-loved The Rocketeer.… and the semi-forgotten The Shadow, which came out on Blu-ray this week to offer its mixture of elegance and error for a new audience.

A film about the pulp hero the Shadow was in development since 1982 under the auspices of producer Martin Bregman. Originally, Robert Zemeckis was slated for the director’s chair, but the film dwelled in limbo until Batman blew up the box-office. When Bregman was at last able to get the project going, Russell Mulcahy (Highlander) had replaced Zemeckis, and writer David Koepp (Jurassic Park) was on screenplay duty.

Flash Review: [Fast &] Furious 6

I often write long reviews (and stories, but that’s another issue). To test my brevity skills—and to produce more articles for films and books I might not otherwise cover—I’m inaugurating a series of “Flash Reviews” which will be exactly five hundred words long (MS Word count), not including the title and credits. Enjoy responsibly. I’ll still be long-winded elsewhere.

Furious 6 (2013)
Directed by Justin Lin. Starring Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Chris Bridges, Sung Kang, Luke Evans, Gina Carano.

First thought: This is the second case within a month where a film’s on-screen title mismatches the one used on promotional material. First was Iron Man Three, sold as Iron Man 3. Now Furious 6, sold as Fast & Furious 6. This series has taken pride in irregular naming conventions in order to destroy any chance a collector has of getting them to line up on a shelf. So why did marketing shy away from Furious 6? It’s got good synergy with the previous film, Fast Five, while maintaining the inconsistent titles, including switching to an Arabic numeral. To keep this going, the next film should be titled And VII.

Second (2nd, IInd) thought: Where did they find a human being larger than Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson? Johnson looks like a CGI creation for Wreck-It-Ralph, but this Danish fellow Kim Kold who plays the evil version of Johnson’s character on the Supervillain Team is the biggest chunk of human flesh and bone I’ve seen.

05 June 2013

“The Hanging Gardener” Now Available

My historical horror story “The Hanging Gardener” is now available in the new issue of Plasma Frequency magazine. It’s a blend of my interest in H. P. Lovecraft and ancient history, and was originally written during a spree of short stories during National Novel Writing Month. (Read more about the piece here.)

You can download Plasma Frequency #6 (June/July 2013) for all e-readers—free! The issue is also available in a print edition.