Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Cannon Files: LIFEFORCE (1985)

(UK - 1985)

Directed by Tobe Hooper.  Written by Dan O'Bannon and Don Jakoby.  Cast: Steve Railsback, Peter Firth, Frank Finlay, Mathilda May, Patrick Stewart, Michael Gothard, Nicholas Ball, Aubrey Morris, Nancy Paul, John Hallam, Chris Jagger, Bill Malin, John Forbes-Robertson, Peter Porteous. (R, 101 mins/116 mins)

When Menahem Golan offered him a job directing an adaptation of Colin Wilson's 1976 novel The Space Vampires, Tobe Hooper was coming off of the 1982 blockbuster POLTERGEIST, produced and co-written by Steven Spielberg, a film that's still shrouded in controversy over which person did what 31 years after the fact.  Hooper had already established himself thanks to THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974), EATEN ALIVE (1977), the TV miniseries SALEM'S LOT (1979), and THE FUNHOUSE (1981).  But he was also fired from two other horror films (1979's THE DARK and 1982's VENOM) and had to be frustrated with the endless gossip that he was just Spielberg's puppet on POLTERGEIST, a film that was supposed to elevate Hooper to the A-list, but only left him in Spielberg's shadow.  Spielberg called their working relationship "collaborative," but many associated with the film say Hooper had to run his decisions by Spielberg and that Spielberg was present nearly every day of production and was essentially calling the shots even with Hooper on the set. When POLTERGEIST was being shot in the summer of 1981, Spielberg had RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK in theaters and was about to begin work on E.T.: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL in the fall, and part of his E.T. deal with Universal stipulated that he couldn't direct another film for another studio in the meantime (MGM was handling POLTERGEIST).  When POLTERGEIST was released in June 1982, critics and moviegoers considered it Spielberg's project.  The controversy was enough for the Director's Guild of America to launch an investigation that yielded no real conclusions, but by the time he met up with Golan,  Hooper was eager to show everyone that he didn't need Spielberg to make a Spielberg-sized blockbuster.  He wanted vindication, which Golan and Yoram Globus were ready to provide--with some help--in the form of a whopping $25 million budget, more than double what POLTERGEIST cost to make.  LIFEFORCE--which was shot as SPACE VAMPIRES, with the title change taking place during post-production as all parties involved thought it sounded too much like a B-horror flick--was going to be Cannon's and Hooper's biggest project yet, and was the first of a three-picture deal Hooper made with Cannon, who also agreed to finance his remake of INVADERS FROM MARS as well as his long-awaited THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 (both films were released in the summer of 1986). 

The much-ballyhooed Cannon/Hooper alliance failed to financially pay off.  Only TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 made back its cost as LIFEFORCE and INVADERS FROM MARS tanked at the box office.

To help with the then-immense cost of LIFEFORCE, Cannon set up a US distribution deal with Tri-Star, who covered a little over half of the budget and pulled rank by re-editing the US theatrical version, cutting 15 minutes out of it (mostly at the beginning, which unfolds in a very choppy fashion in the US cut but plays much more ominously effective in the longer version), revoicing the British astronauts with American accents, and adding some incidental music by Michael Kamen and James Guthrie along with the film's regular score by the legendary Henry Mancini (again, Cannon sparing no expense).  Cannon had enjoyed some success and was gaining momentum in production and distribution, and LIFEFORCE was to be their attempt to get into the Spielberg/George Lucas big leagues, but of course, much like selling Charles Bronson films to an aging audience that wasn't really interested in seeing the more exploitative elements, they failed to realize that the Spielberg/Lucas films didn't center on hot, naked vampire women from space.  Sure, if you, like me, were a 12-year-old kid when LIFEFORCE came out, you loved it and probably still do today at 40.  And if your mom dropped you and a couple of like-minded 12-year-old friends off at the theater, you probably bought tickets to THE GOONIES and snuck into LIFEFORCE.  LIFEFORCE only grossed $11 million, but I'm sure it lost at least a few million thanks to boob-obsessed junior-high-age Fangoria readers doing exactly what we did.

Very much a product of its time (Hooper directed Billy Idol's "Dancing with Myself" video and wanted Idol to play one of the male vampires, but the closest he got to a rocker was Mick Jagger's younger brother Chris), LIFEFORCE, just released on Blu-ray by Shout! Factory (both versions are included), opens with a joint US/British space mission to investigate Halley's Comet, which was due to return in 1986.  The crew of the Churchill, led by American Col. Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback), discovers a 150-mile-long space ship in the tail of the comet, housing large bat carcasses and three encased, nude bodies--two male and one female--that are human-like in appearance.  When Earth loses contact with the ship, a rescue team is sent and discovers the ship destroyed by fire, with only the three encased figures remaining.  They're brought to a government research facility in London, overseen by Dr. Fallada (Frank Finlay) and the bureaucratic Bukovsky (Michael Gothard).  Soon, the female alien (Mathilda May) awakens and draws the life out of a security guard, feeding on the energy--the "lifeforce"--and promptly escapes.  As SAS officer Caine (Peter Firth) investigates, Churchill's escape pod lands in Texas, with only Carlsen onboard.  Carlsen arrives in London and is haunted by nightmares that reveal he has some kind of psychic link with the Space Girl, who is able to enter the bodies of host victims to spread a vampiric contagion not by drinking blood, but by literally drawing--sucking--the life out of her victims.

It only gets crazier from there, as Hooper, working from a script by sci-fi/horror vet Dan O'Bannon (ALIEN, THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD) and Don Jakoby, with some uncredited contributions by MARK OF THE DEVIL director Michael Armstrong and CRUCIBLE OF HORROR and THE GODSEND screenwriter Olaf Pooley, throws London into chaos and martial law with a vampire plague creating a horde of rampaging zombies, a large bat demon, and a pre-Picard Patrick Stewart as a doctor possessed by the Space Girl.  LIFEFORCE combines elements of '80s blockbusters, old-school QUATERMASS sci-fi, vintage Hammer horror, modern special effects splatter, and the kind of zombie apocalypse mayhem that George Romero wanted to do with DAY OF THE DEAD before his budget got slashed.  It's beautifully-made, epic in scope, with impressive visual effects by the great John Dykstra, but with a debuting May completely nude for about 98% of her screen time (19 at the time of filming, she became an instant cult horror icon with this, and has a pretty good sense of humor about it on the Blu-ray bonus features, and yes, she still looks great), it also feels like an B-grade exploitation flick.  In a way, it perfectly sums up the dichotomy of Cannon's glory days:  it's essentially a simple horror story that could've come from Hooper's or O'Bannon's salad days, but like its legendary producers, it has aspirations toward greatness.  When I say LIFEFORCE bites off more than it can chew, it's one of those rare instances where it's meant as a compliment.  It has a bold, go-for-broke attitude and its balls-to-the-wall insanity--marvel at Railsback's scenery-chewing performance--is infectious.  It's the kind of film that works just as well if you approach it as a serious, unsung classic of modern sci-fi/horror or if you make it the main feature for your next Bad Movie Night.  LIFEFORCE is the kind of movie where anything can happen at any moment.

LIFEFORCE, in its truncated 101-minute cut, opened in US theaters on June 21, 1985.  It landed in fourth place at the box office (Ron Howard's COCOON opened the same day) and got generally negative reviews.   Not surprisingly, horror fans were more appreciative of it and it found a significant cult over the years (this reappraisal was also helped once Hooper's intended version became available on DVD).  LIFEFORCE gets a little too batshit at times for its own good and has more ideas than it can handle in two hours, but there's no denying that it's one of the essential sci-fi/horror films of the 1980s, and easily Hooper's most ambitious work as a filmmaker. 

Hooper immediately followed LIFEFORCE with INVADERS FROM MARS (in theaters June 1986), and the extremely rushed THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 (shot in June/July 1986 and somehow in theaters by late August 1986).  LIFEFORCE didn't catapult Hooper on to the A-list, and in fact, his association with Golan & Globus has, thus far, constituted his last noteworthy work as a director.  He did some hired-gun TV gigs in the '80s and '90s, but the last quarter century, with rare exception, has seen Hooper mired in one of the worst extended slumps ever endured by a major filmmaker.  Since 1986, he's had one troubled production and terrible movie after another:  1990's SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION, 1993's NIGHT TERRORS, and 1995's THE MANGLER range from awful at best to unwatchable at worst.  Hooper spent a good chunk of the 2000s teaming with fanboy horror hacks Jace Anderson and Adam Gierasch (co-writers of Dario Argento's MOTHER OF TEARS and the useless 2010 remake of NIGHT OF THE DEMONS) on DTV fodder like 2000's CROCODILE, 2005's TOOLBOX MURDERS (a remake of the 1978 grindhouse classic), and 2006's MORTUARY.  His most recent effort, the United Arab Emirates-financed horror film DJINN, was completed in 2011 but has yet to be released. It's great that Shout! Factory has assembled such a nice package for their LIFEFORCE Blu-ray and got the now-70-year-old Hooper to contribute a commentary.  He seems like a smart guy who knows his horror history.  He obviously knows how to make good movies, and milestones like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, SALEM'S LOT, and POLTERGEIST, and cult classics like THE FUNHOUSE and LIFEFORCE have cemented his place in horror history.  But it's troubling to consider that this influential and talented horror legend hasn't really been able to get it together for over 25 years.  Despite high points like LIFEFORCE and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2, Hooper has never been able to shake the POLTERGEIST controversy, making it sadly ironic that the biggest commercial success to feature the credit "Directed by Tobe Hooper" was, in retrospect, the first major step in the derailing of his career.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

In Theaters/On VOD: REDEMPTION (2013)

(US/UK - 2013)

Written and directed by Steven Knight.  Cast: Jason Statham, Agata Buzek, Benedict Wong, Vicky McClure, Christian Brassington, Victoria Bewick, Michelle Lee, Siobhan Hewlett, Ger Ryan.  (R, 100 mins)

Lionsgate isn't giving the latest Jason Statham vehicle much of a US rollout, primarily relegating it to VOD status while putting it on just 19 screens nationwide.  Though it has quite a few bits of traditional Statham ass-kicking, REDEMPTION (originally titled HUMMINGBIRD) is mostly a grim, downbeat character piece that marks the directorial debut of screenwriter Steven Knight, best known for scripting Stephen Frears' DIRTY PRETTY THINGS (2002) and David Cronenberg's EASTERN PROMISES (2007).  DIRTY PRETTY THINGS focused on the exploitation of immigrants in a black-market organ-harvesting scheme.  EASTERN PROMISES dealt with a midwife getting in over her head with the Russian mob after obtaining the diary of a drug-addicted, 14-year-old prostitute who died giving birth.  The dark side of London is explored by Knight once more in REDEMPTION, which complements the two earlier films to form a loose trilogy of stories about those forgotten by society struggling to survive in the ugly, seedy underbelly of the city.

Suffering from PTSD after his experiences in Afghanistan and on the run from a court-martial, former SAS officer Joey Smith (Statham) lives in a cardboard box in an alley with teenaged Isabel (Victoria Bewick), acting as a fatherly protector from the various pimps and miscreants that regularly terrorize the homeless people in the area.  After he's separated from Isabel, Joey lucks into a free place to stay when he ends up in the luxurious pad of a gay photographer who's spending the summer on a job in NYC.  Passing himself off as the tenant's boyfriend and helping himself to food, money, and clothing, Joey gives some cash to Sister Cristina (Agata Buzek), who runs the church soup kitchen where he and Isabel regularly eat, and tries to find Isabel, who's gone missing.  Sister Cristina finds Joey washing dishes at a restaurant owned by some Chinese gangsters and tells him that she was murdered and her body dumped in a river.  After demonstrating his tough-guy prowess tossing out some drunken hooligans, Joey is given a job as a driver and collector for mobster Mr. Choy (Benedict Wong) and uses those connections to track down the man believed to be the killer.  Meanwhile, Joey forms a tentative friendship, and possibly more, with Sister Cristina, who's running from a troubled past of her own.

If you've seen the films Knight's written, then REDEMPTION is clearly less a Jason Statham movie and more of a Steven Knight project that happens to star Jason Statham.  Statham is a better actor than he's often able to demonstrate, and he's terrific here in one of his occasional stabs at moving beyond the TRANSPORTER and CRANK silliness (2008's THE BANK JOB and 2011's underrated KILLER ELITE also give him plenty of chances to show off some acting chops).  Polish actress Buzek also makes a strong impression as a sheltered young woman who can't even let herself enjoy a night at the ballet after Joey gives her some money and asks that she treat herself to something special.  Knight runs into some problems when he tries to cram too many things into the film's 100-minute running time and important elements seem to get shortchanged.  Indeed, with its dark pasts, the plight of the homeless, the abused and underage prostitutes, the Chinese and Russian mob, human trafficking, and Joey's quest for vengeance, REDEMPTION plays a lot like a Knight greatest hits package.  There's too much in Knight's script for Knight the director to juggle (in addition to shoehorning in some action scenes to please Statham's base), and it feels like he didn't want to part with anything he wrote.  With its dark, rainy, neon-soaked London masterfully shot by the great cinematographer Chris Menges, REDEMPTION looks great.  But as a filmmaker, Knight isn't quite in the same class as Frears or Cronenberg and one can't help but wonder how this might've played out with a different director at the helm who would've been more willing to streamline the more extraneous elements that either don't really get the exploration they need or weren't entirely necessary in the first place.  Still, despite its flaws and coming up a bit short compared to DIRTY PRETTY THINGS and EASTERN PROMISES, REDEMPTION showcases some of the best acting of Statham's career, and his fans will find it worthwhile.

Friday, June 28, 2013

In Theaters: WHITE HOUSE DOWN (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by Roland Emmerich.  Written by James Vanderbilt.  Cast: Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, James Woods, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, Richard Jenkins, Joey King, Michael Murphy, Jimmi Simpson, Nicolas Wright, Rachelle Lefevre, Lance Reddick, Matt Craven, Jake Weber, Barbara Williams, Garcelle Beauvais, Peter Jacobson, Kevin Rankin, Falk Hentschel, Andrew Simms. (PG-13, 132 mins)

It always helps when a dumb action movie knows it's a dumb action movie.  WHITE HOUSE DOWN, the latest from director/Washington, DC destruction fetishist Roland Emmerich, was beaten to theaters by the very similar "DIE HARD IN THE WHITE HOUSE"-themed OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN, but overall, it's the more enjoyable movie, benefitting significantly from not taking itself so seriously.  Aside from some unconvincing CGI explosions that seem to be an unfortunate necessity these days, Emmerich keeps things refreshingly, almost quaintly old-school in terms of style and direction.  When's the last time you saw a big-budget action movie that didn't have blurry shaky-cam and constant video-game zooms?  With a couple of exceptions, the action sequences in WHITE HOUSE DOWN are straightforwardly constructed and best of all, coherent.  It's a sad statement on modern moviemaking when stable camera operation and coherent editing are in such low supply that they have to be specifically singled out for praise on one of the rare occasions that they occur, but I'll take what I can get.

Emmerich and screenwriter James Vanderbilt (ZODIAC) leave no cliché unutilized as divorced Capitol cop John Cale (Channing Tatum) and his estranged, politically-astute 11-year-old daughter Emily (Joey King) go on a White House tour only to end up in the middle of an attack against President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx), pulled off by the chief of his security detail, retiring Agent Walker (James Woods).  Walker, enraged that his Marine son was killed in a botched, Sawyer-ordered covert ops mission in Afghanistan, has commissioned a team of mercenary domestic terrorists and right-wing militia goons led by Stenz (Jason Clarke) to hold the President hostage in exchange for $400 million and the President's nuclear launch codes.  Separated from the tour group and from his daughter, Cale manages to rescue the captive Sawyer from the PEOC bunker as Walker and Stenz pursue the pair through the White House.  Meanwhile, House Speaker Raphelson (Richard Jenkins), Joint Chiefs chair Gen. Caulfield (Lance Reddick), and Agent Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who of course, knew Cale in college, try to sort out the situation as Vice President Hammond (Michael Murphy) is taken up in Air Force Two and prepped to assume command. 

Make no mistake, WHITE HOUSE DOWN is a stupid movie.  Make a drinking game of the clichés and you'll be passed out before the White House is even attacked:  with Cale's daughter calling him "John," is there any way she won't be back to calling him "Dad" by the end of the movie?  And of course Gen. Caulfield has to be this film's mandatory "Deputy Chief of Police Dwayne T. Robinson," refusing to listen to Finnerty and wrongly suspecting that she may be involved with Walker's plan.  And then there's Jimmi Simpson as Tyler, the hyper, snarky ex-NSA hacker hired by Walker to commandeer the government's computer system, sitting in front of a row of monitors faux-conducting blaring Beethoven, sucking on lollipops ("Sweet sugary goodness!"), and referring to himself in the third person.  But it's so infectiously fun and cognizant of its own silliness that it works in spite of itself.  Tatum isn't asked to emote much, and he and Foxx make a great bickering pair straight out of a mismatched "if they don't kill each other first!" cop buddy movie.  The generous amounts of intentional humor work very well, whether it's the ludicrous sight of a car chase on the White House lawn with Foxx dangling out of the window hoisting a rocket launcher, Tatum doing a TJ HOOKER car hood slide across a White House dining room table, or the welcome presence of Woods (how great is it to see him with a meaty role in a big movie again?) giving the cocky Clarke one of those classic fast-talking, finger-pointing James Woods dressing-downs that always seem to start with "OK, listen up, Junior..."  And I haven't even mentioned a late plot twist that plays out in the most laugh-out-loud, SCOOBY-DOO-meets-SNL way possible, stopping just short of the plan's true mastermind raising his fist and grumbling "And I would've gotten away with it if it weren't for your meddling, Magic Mike!"

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: UPSIDE DOWN (2013); PUSHER (2012); and HANSEL & GRETEL GET BAKED (2013)

(Canada/France - 2013)

This $60 million sci-fi epic sat on the shelf for over two years before getting a 39-screen US release, grossing just over $100,000.  Sporting the kind of concept that completely collapses under any serious scrutiny, UPSIDE DOWN is easily the dumbest sci-fi film since BRANDED, and sets a land-speed record for a movie bailing on its own established rules, already contradicting itself approximately five minutes in.  The film is set on twin planets with "double gravity" orbiting around the same sun, where the rich and privileged live "Up Top" and the poor and disenfranchised "Down Below."  Contact between worlds is forbidden and Each world has its own gravity and its own concept of matter--for instance, "inverse matter" taken from one world to another combusts after a short period.  Adam (Jim Sturgess) from Down Below has loved Eden (Kirsten Dunst) from Up Top since they were children and their forbidden relationship was broken apart by the authorities.  Eden was shot in the dust-up and suffers from varying degrees of amnesia.  Years later, Adam finds out she works for Trans World, a Big Brother-type corporation whose skyscraper headquarters exists in both worlds, with floor zero being the point where Up Top and Down Below people can co-exist, even though the Up Top people are upside-down.  Adam gets a job at Trans World, trying to sell his aunt's flying pink pancake mix as an expensive beauty product, when in fact it's a secret formula to negate the gravity of both worlds.  By stealing various metals from Up Top, Adam is able to fashion a temporary protective under-armor to buy him some time appearing normal in Up Top (though he has to spray his mop-top down to keep it from floating up) before he inevitably starts to ignite.  Because of her amnesia, Eden doesn't remember Adam, who will stop at nothing, dueling gravities or plot logic be damned, to be with his one true love.

Is there any wonder why this barely got released?  It's fascinatingly stupid.  Writer/director Juan Solanas obviously concentrated so much on the visual element that he never really mapped out the logistics of the concept.  Even then, for a film this expensive, the CGI visuals are pretty second-rate, oversaturated, and unconvincing.  The interiors and the exteriors frequently look like a cheap fusion of Orson Welles' THE TRIAL (1962), Luc Besson's THE FIFTH ELEMENT (1997), and a prog-metal album cover.  Even if the visual effects were up to par and Dunst and Sturgess weren't the dullest cinematic romantic pairing in years, the rampant lack of logic would be too much for UPSIDE DOWN to overcome.  The story ignores its own basic rules when it's convenient for the plot or can provide a nice visual, and constantly backs itself into a corner only to simply make something up to explain it away.  The only jaw-dropping thing about UPSIDE DOWN is the astonishing number of emergency dei ex machina that Solanas has stored up his ass.  (PG-13, 108 mins)

(France/UK - 2012)

DRIVE director Nicolas Winding Refn commissioned this London-set remake of his 1996 Danish breakthrough about one week in the life of a low-level drug dealer who has to come up with some fast cash to get out of trouble with a powerful crime boss.  While PUSHER 2012 is fast-moving and highly watchable, the biggest question is "Why?"  Unless you're a complete subtitle-phobe or have an intense dislike of the sound of the Danish language, there's not really any need to see this almost carbon-copy redux, which goes so far as to cast the same actor (Zlatko Buric) as the pusher's main antagonist.  Ambitious but small-time London coke dealer Frank (Richard Coyle) sets up a potentially lucrative deal with heroin borrowed from Serbian drug lord Milo (Buric).  When cops bust the deal, Frank dumps the dope in a lake and is on the hook to Milo for its value plus money already borrowed, plus a tacked-on fee that Milo imposes simply because he's pissed off.  Frank spends the rest of the film pursuing debts from his clients and setting up additional deals that inevitably fall through, all to keep Milo and his goons off his back.  Director Luis Prieto goes for a hypnotic, flashy sort-of Danny Boyle meets Guy Ritchie look, all set to a throbbing, driving score by Orbital, and it's not a bad film at all, just an unnecessary and overly familiar one.  It doesn't add anything to Winding Refn's original (which was successful enough to spawn two sequels), and everything about it seems like you've seen it all before, because you have...if not in the earlier PUSHER, then in any number of other British crime thrillers over the last 15 years.  Coyle is solid in the lead and Buric is very entertaining as the outwardly gregarious ("Easy peasy lemon squeezy!") but thoroughly ruthless Milo, but PUSHER's biggest problem is its complete lack of a reason to exist. (R, 89 mins)

(US - 2013)

Coming soon after the lackluster HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS and neither the HAROLD & KUMAR comedy nor the shitty Asylum knockoff that the title would indicate, HANSEL & GRETEL GET BAKED is a blood-splattered and at times engagingly silly horror movie that gets a lot of mileage from a campy and self-deprecating performance by Lara Flynn Boyle as Agnes, a "little old lady from Pasadena" who's a weed-dealing witch getting younger with each stoner customer she kills and eats.  Hansel (Michael Welch, one of the TWILIGHT guys who's not Robert Pattinson or Taylor Lautner) and Gretel (CASTLE's Molly Quinn) are siblings with the house to themselves for the weekend (their folks "went to visit the Stiltskins") only to end up searching for Gretel's boyfriend (Andrew James Allen) who went to buy weed from Agnes and never returned.  Agnes also tangles with gang leader Carlos (Reynaldo Gallegos) who wants a cut of her sales since she's stealing all of his customers who are never heard from again.  Directed by Duane Journey and written by co-star David Tillman, HANSEL & GRETEL GET BAKED is a essentially a one-joke idea played surprisingly straight, with some welcome and plentiful old-school gore courtesy of makeup effects veteran Vincent Guastini.  It's no great shakes, but it's well-made, doesn't fall into the trap of repetitive and annoying stoner humor and Boyle, who hasn't been seen in much since the 2005-2006 season of the NBC series LAS VEGAS, really gets a chance to cut loose here and have some fun, even if her performance is more than a little inspired by Heath Ledger's work in THE DARK KNIGHT.  Also with Yancy Butler (looking much better than she has in recent SyFy movies) and Lochlyn Munro as cops, and an unrecognizable Cary Elwes in a cameo as a schlubby meter reader with Coke-bottle glasses. (Unrated, 87 mins)

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Cannon Files: NINJA III: THE DOMINATION (1984)

(US - 1984)

Directed by Sam Firstenberg.  Written by James R. Silke.  Cast: Sho Kosugi, Lucinda Dickey, Jordan Bennett, David Chung, James Hong, Dale Ishimoto, Roy Padilla, John LaMotta, Bob Craig, Ron Foster, Steve Lambert. (R, 93 mins)

The mainstreaming of the "ninja" subgenre ranks pretty high on the list of Cannon's 1980s accomplishments.  NINJA III: THE DOMINATION, recently released in a superb Blu-ray edition by Shout! Factory, was the final entry in a loosely-connected trilogy that introduced Japanese martial artist Sho Kosugi to American action movie audiences.  Kosugi had inconsequential bit parts in films ranging from THE BAD NEWS BEARS GO TO JAPAN to BRUCE LEE FIGHTS BACK FROM THE GRAVE (both 1978), but when Cannon chief Menahem Golan cast him as the lethal "black ninja" in his 1981 film ENTER THE NINJA, he finally achieved success with martial arts audiences.  Kosugi was promoted to hero for the 1983 sequel REVENGE OF THE NINJA, and both films proved successful enough to warrant Kosugi's return in NINJA III: THE DOMINATION.  REVENGE wasn't really a direct sequel to ENTER, but NINJA III goes completely off the rails, fusing the ninja and horror genres for a wild tale of a young woman possessed by the spirit of an evil "black ninja."

The aforementioned evil "black ninja" (David Chung) goes on a killing spree at a Phoenix golf course and is gunned down by what seems like the entire police force.  He still manages to somehow survive and encounters sexy powerline technician Christie (Lucinda Dickey) and promptly transfers his spirit into her body before dying.  With the Black Ninja's sword in tow, Christie, who also works as an aerobics instructor because it's a movie made in 1984, seeks his revenge on the cops who killed him, except Billy Secord (Jordan Bennett), the incredibly hirsute one that she's dating.  Meanwhile, one-eyed master ninja Yamada (Kosugi) arrives from Japan in pursuit of the Black Ninja (because only a ninja can stop a ninja!) and gets drawn into the EXORCIST-inspired evil as the possessed Christie offs the cops involved one by one.

NINJA III's Italian distributor was
clearly given some incorrect information.
NINJA III: THE DOMINATION is a ridiculous film where the melding of ninja and demonic possession ideas never really seem to gel.  But that's part of the appeal, especially late in the film when Yamada takes on the reanimated corpse of the Black Ninja.  The possession scenes are a riot, especially when Secord takes Christie to see a ninja exorcist (the great James Hong) who, according to Secord, "all the guys in the Asiatic division swear by."  Another great bit of ludicrous dialogue has Christie visiting a doctor and getting the worst diagnosis ever with "There's nothing out of the ordinary, aside from your exceptional extra-sensory perception and your preoccupation with Japanese culture."  On the commentary track, director Sam Firstenberg says that he and writer James R. Silke (both responsible for REVENGE OF THE NINJA, which is even more entertaining and worthy of a lovingly presented Blu-ray edition) were heavily influenced by the success of POLTERGEIST, and while there's a few shots where that may be the case, it seems like there's more of THE EXORCIST and even FLASHDANCE going on, especially with Christie living in a large warehouse converted into the kind of apartment that only exists in 1980s movies:  there's an arcade game, neon signs, a bed with steel rods as a makeshift headboard, and a pay phone.  There's also no shortage of aerobics sequences, big hair, boomboxes, and leg warmers.

Sam Firstenberg on the set of
Born in Poland in 1950 and raised in Jerusalem, Firstenberg began his career as an assistant to Golan in the pre-Cannon days, handling second unit duties on Golan-directed films like DIAMONDS (1975) and OPERATION THUNDERBOLT (1977).  He followed Golan and Yoram Globus to Hollywood, where they financed his indie drama ONE MORE CHANCE (1983) starring a young Kirstie Alley.  Firstenberg quickly became the company's go-to ninja director after the success of REVENGE OF THE NINJA.  Following NINJA III, Firstenberg was handed the odd assignment of helming 1984's immortal BREAKIN' 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO, then directed one of Cannon's biggest hits with 1985's AMERICAN NINJA, followed by the great AVENGING FORCE (1986) and AMERICAN NINJA 2: THE CONFRONTATION (1987).  Firstenberg stuck around until Cannon's early '90s demise with less successful efforts like 1991's DELTA FORCE 3: THE KILLING GAME and 1992's AMERICAN SAMURAI, but also freelanced on low-budget action films for other producers (the 1990 Steve James vehicle RIVERBEND) before cranking out straight-to-video quickies like 1993's CYBORG COP, 1994's CYBORG COP II, and 1997's OPERATION DELTA FORCE for Avi Lerner in the early days of Cannon cover band NuImage.  Now 63, Firstenberg hasn't directed a film in ten years but seems genuinely flattered by the cult status of his 1980s Cannon films, and is an engaging, likable presence on the commentary track.  He also contributed a generous amount of publicity and behind-the scenes photos that are included with the Blu-ray's bonus features.

Dickey was a dancer who appeared on the 1982-83 season of SOLID GOLD and in 1982's GREASE 2 before getting the lead role in NINJA III.  Golan & Globus liked her so much that they cast as her as Special K in BREAKIN', which was rushed into production after NINJA III was shot but released first.  Dickey returned for BREAKIN' 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO, co-starred in the 1988 slasher film CHEERLEADER CAMP, and appeared in a 1990 PERRY MASON TV-movie, retiring from acting that same year after marrying reality-TV producer Craig Piligian, whose many credits include SURVIVOR, GHOST HUNTERS, AMERICAN CHOPPER, SWAMP LOGGERS, and ONLY IN AMERICA WITH LARRY THE CABLE GUY.

NINJA III was Kosugi's last film for Cannon. Opening in US theaters on September 14, 1984 (the same day as the studio's EXTERMINATOR 2), it wasn't as successful as ENTER or REVENGE, and though it's amassed a sizable cult following over the decades, perhaps audiences found it a bit too outlandish.  Cannon moved on to Michael Dudikoff and the Reagan-era, post-RAMBO flag-waving of AMERICAN NINJA and Kosugi went on to co-star as the antagonist Okasa in Lee Van Cleef's short-lived 1984 NBC ninja series THE MASTER before starring in several ninja movies with his young sons Kane and Shane.  Dad and sons appeared in such video store and cable favorites as 9 DEATHS OF THE NINJA and PRAY FOR DEATH (both 1985), and 1988's BLACK EAGLE (where Kosugi took on a villainous Jean Claude Van Damme, fresh off of his BLOODSPORT breakthrough).  Kosugi also starred in 1987's RAGE OF HONOR, had a rare dramatic supporting role in 1988's ALOHA SUMMER and also appeared in the awesome 1989 Rutger Hauer-as-a-blind-swordsman cult film BLIND FURY.  Working with PRAY FOR DEATH and RAGE OF HONOR director Gordon Hessler, Kosugi wrote and produced the $10 million 1992 shogun period piece JOURNEY OF HONOR, co-starring Christopher Lee, John Rhys-Davies, and Toshiro Mifune.  Kosugi's ambitious pet project flopped worldwide and went straight-to-video in the US.  He concentrated on anime voice work after that and left the business by the late 1990s.  He was coaxed out of retirement by the Wachowskis (THE MATRIX), co-starring as the villain in the big-budget 2009 ninja throwback actioner NINJA ASSASSIN.  The film was a critical and commercial disappointment (despite a great opening sequence) and failed to reignite a new ninja craze, but Kosugi's welcome presence gave the cartoonishly CGI-heavy film some much-needed credibility and he's easily the best thing about it.  Now 65, Kosugi appears to have quietly drifted back into a low-profile retirement.  Is there some reason he hasn't been talked into doing THE EXPENDABLES 3?

Cannon's love affair with all things ninja reached its commercial apex with AMERICAN NINJA, but the genre, like Cannon itself, began its decline in the years shortly after.  Ninjas and ninja movies are still regular pop culture fixtures worldwide, but--at least in the US--never as popular as they were in the glorious ninja days of 1980s B-movies.  NINJA III: THE DOMINATION may not be the best of Cannon's ninja movies, but it's certainly the weirdest.  But the fine folks at Shout! Factory sure seem to love it: the Blu-ray looks fantastic, and even the mere fact that this movie is on Blu-ray is cause for celebration.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

In Theaters: WORLD WAR Z (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by Marc Forster.  Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof.  Cast: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, Matthew Fox, James Badge Dale, David Morse, Fana Mokoena, Peter Capaldi, Pierfrancesco Favino, Moritz Bleibtreu, Ruth Negga, Elyes Gabel, Ludi Boeken, John Gordon Sinclair, Michiel Huisman, Sterling Jerins, Abigail Hargrove, Fabrizio Zacharee Guido. (PG-13, 116 mins)

The film version of Max Brooks' acclaimed 2006 novel World War Z was in various stages of development before filming finally started in 2011.  It was an infamously troubled shoot that had multiple script rewrites and clashes between producer/star Brad Pitt and director Marc Forster (MONSTER'S BALL, QUANTUM OF SOLACE) that got to the point where the two eventually stopped speaking directly to one another.  The ending was completely scrapped and most of the film's second hour was completely rewritten and reshot, which bumped the film's December 2012 release date to summer 2013 and ballooned the budget to $200 million.  There's no denying that the completed version of WORLD WAR Z is the biggest zombie movie ever made, with an epic and occasionally legitimately stunning hugeness that looks terrific on a big screen.  But it's very episodic and lacking in cohesion, which is bound to happen with so many cooks in the kitchen, and it has little do with Brooks' book other than the title and zombies.  J. Michael Straczynski's original script was tossed and rewritten by Matthew Michael Carnahan (THE KINGDOM, STATE OF PLAY), and then Carnahan's ending was ditched as LOST co-creator and mercenary screenwriter Damon "Will Rewrite for Food" Lindelof (PROMETHEUS, STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS) was brought in to devise a new closing act.  Lindelof eventually left and his contributions were reshaped by THE CABIN IN THE WOODS director Drew Goddard.  And somewhere in there, Oscar-winning USUAL SUSPECTS scribe Christopher McQuarrie reportedly had an uncredited go at it as well.  It's amazing that WORLD WAR Z isn't a complete fiasco, but while it has its strong points, it certainly begs the question:  did anyone ever consider just adapting the book?

The film opens in Philadelphia as retired UN investigator Gerry Lane (Pitt) is taking off on vacation with wife Karin (THE KILLING's Mireille Enos) and their daughters Rachel (Abigail Hargrove) and Constance (Sterling Jerins).  In a traffic jam with chaos erupting around them, the Lanes take off to New Jersey as zombies sprint 28 DAYS LATER-style through the streets, biting their victims and spreading a contagion that reanimates their victims in approximately ten seconds.  Gerry makes contact with his old UN boss Thierry (Fana Mokoena) who has them airlifted from the top of a Newark apartment building and onto a Navy ship 200 miles off the coast of NYC.  Thierry tells Gerry that they need his help, and the commander in charge (John Gordon Sinclair) is prepared to boot the Lanes off the ship if Gerry doesn't play along.  A UN doctor (Elyes Gabel) has traced the outbreak to South Korea and from there, the trail leads to Jerusalem, where the Israeli government pre-emptively built walls around the city to keep out the dead, which are officially called "zombies" in government memos.  The zombies eventually force their way over the perimeter by climbing atop one another--an impressively-executed idea that looks a lot better in its final CGI polish than it did in those early trailers.  Gerry gets out of Jerusalem with Segen (Daniella Kertesz), a dedicated Israeli military officer, and the two board a departing flight and direct it to Cardiff, Wales, the location of the nearest functioning World Health Organization facility. They barely make it after a zombie stowaway infects most of the passengers on the plane, which conveniently crashes just before reaching Wales, with Gerry and Segen the only survivors.  Once at the WHO outpost, Gerry tells the doctor in charge (Pierfrancesco Favino) that he's witnessed some living people being ignored by the dead.  Gerry believes these people are terminally ill and that the zombies can sense it and therefore don't attack them.  He thinks that if they can develop a vaccine using deadly bacteria to camouflage signs of "life," that they may be able to move among the dead, who shambles about like old-school zombies if there's no one around to pursue.

By now, it's no secret that Lindelof's restructuring of the plot begins once Gerry and Segen get on the plane to Wales.  That plane was originally going to Moscow in Carnahan's version of the script, and that's what was shot until no one was happy with how it played out.  The entire Moscow section of the film was cut out and everything that happens from the plane to the end was concocted by Lindelof and/or Goddard.  The epic feel of the film gets whittled down to a more traditional claustrophobic, George A. Romero-style zombie movie as Gerry and Segen team up with the WHO doctors (Favino, Peter Capaldi, Moritz Bleibtreu, and Ruth Negga) to outwit the zombies being kept in a quarantined part of the Wales facility where the deadly bacteria and viral samples are conveniently being stored.  WORLD WAR Z gets off to a solid start and it's fast-paced and mostly engrossing, but one of its biggest problems is the recurrent utilization of ludicrous character stupidity to get the zombie set pieces in motion.  Whether people are forgetting to turn off their phones, letting doors slam, carelessly banging into things, or not closing doors behind them (or, on the plane, Gerry lobbing a grenade from first class into coach and watching the non-infected passengers get sucked out of huge hole he just created in the aircraft), a good chunk of the mayhem that takes place in WORLD WAR Z is because its characters act like idiots for the sake of plot convenience.  The finale in the Wales facility feels like it belongs in a different movie and seems designed more for Pitt to play an action hero than as a natural extension of the story, and it's amazing how well he can navigate his way around the maze-like building that he's never before visited.

WORLD WAR Z's messy production is apparent by what's on the screen, but it gets a lot right.  The first 40 or so minutes do a very effective job of conveying the chaos and the terror of a zombie outbreak and provides a rare example of the jumpy shaky-cam technique being used in a positive way.  A lot of these expansive shots of city-wide devastation in Philly, Newark, and NYC are very impressively done.  But after that huge opening, the story focuses on Pitt's Gerry, and this is a bland character that could've been played by anyone.  There's a reason Pitt hasn't had a potentally huge action franchise dropped in his lap before:  he's not that kind of an actor.  For all his fame and Brangelina tabloid ubiquity, he's an actor who, as he's gotten older (it's hard to believe he's going to be 50 this year) and more serious about his craft, feels more at home in character-driven pieces like THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD or KILLING THEM SOFTLY, or in auteur exercises like Terrence Malick's THE TREE OF LIFE.  Pitt doesn't seem at ease in a $200 million action/horror zombie movie, and it's not helped by the patchwork nature of the film where, particularly in the second half, everything seems like it's in imminent danger of coming apart at the seams.

Just for comparison's sake, it would be nice if the eventual Blu-ray edition included Forster's original cut with the Moscow ending as a bonus feature.  WORLD WAR Z is entertaining as a mega-budget spectacle, but it leaves hardcore zombie fans wanting more.  There's hardly a drop of blood spilled onscreen--these aren't flesh-eating zombies--and you can see more splatter in a TV commercial for the AMC series THE WALKING DEAD than you'll see here.  When Pitt, Kertesz, and Favino are making their way down the dimly-lit corridors of the Wales facility searching for the undead, it brings to mind similar sequences in European zombie classics like Jorge Grau's THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE (1974) and Lucio Fulci's THE BEYOND (1981), both of which will undoubtedly enjoy a longer shelf life with genre fans than the diverting-while-you're-watching-it-but-forgettable-afterwards WORLD WAR Z.  Will zombie fans still be talking about WORLD WAR Z 30 or 40 years from now?  Will they even be talking about 30 or 40 days from now?

Friday, June 21, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: STOKER (2013); AMERICAN MARY (2013); and THE LAST EXORCISM PART II (2013)

(US/UK - 2013)

Despite plenty of pre-release hype, STOKER, the English-language debut of famed South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-Wook (OLDBOY) only got a limited US release, topping out at 275 screens at its widest.  It's not surprising, really:  it was never really clear what kind of film it was, Fox had no clue how to sell it, and the title probably led test audiences to expect a vampire movie.  It's best to approach STOKER knowing as little as possible.  On her 18th birthday, withdrawn outcast India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) discovers her wealthy father Richard (Dermot Mulroney) has been killed in a car accident.  India and her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) are joined at their estate by Richard's long-absent younger brother Charles (Matthew Goode), who has been "travelling abroad" and who India never knew about before the funeral.  Charles decides to stay, much to the disapproval of motherly housekeeper Mrs. McGarrick (Phyllis Somerville) and his aunt Gwendolyn (Jacki Weaver), both of whom quickly disappear without a trace.  Nevertheless, the charming Charles develops flirtatious relationships with both Evelyn and India, forming a bizarre--and murderous--triangle of unrequited lust with the sexually-frustrated mother and the sexually-blossoming daughter.  Working from a script by PRISON BREAK star Wentworth Miller, Park's film manages to overcome its often clumsy metaphors and facile symbolism (chief among them India's switch from saddle shoes to sexy high heels--and there's enough lingering close-ups of Wasikowska's feet to guarantee this a spot near the top of Quentin Tarantino's Best of 2013 list) with some truly inspired filmmaking.  Park, cinematographer Chung-Hoon Chung, and editor Nicolas De Toth are the real stars of the show here, with endless visual flourishes, brilliant use of sound, color, odd framing, sweeping camera movements, tracking shots, etc.  It's like an art-house mix of Hitchcock, De Palma, Argento, and Antonioni wrapped in some soapy Tennessee Williams-inspired gothic potboiler, but never going over the top and never played too broadly by the actors.  STOKER is flawed, but it hits much more than it misses, it's genuinely unpredictable, and Park's enthusiastic, inspired filmmaking is positively infectious.  (R, 99 mins)

(Canada - 2013)

Twin sisters and Eli Roth protégées Jen & Sylvia Soska wrote and directed this colorful, stylish, but frustratingly empty body-modification horror film that got some inexplicably glowing reviews even from critics outside the usual sycophantic indie horror circles.  The scenesters immediately took to it, due in large part to the presence of GINGER SNAPS cult horror star Katharine Isabelle, who brings a sort-of deadpan, Canadian Aubrey Plaza persona to her role as financially-strapped med student Mary Mason.  Mary, one of these broke college kids who lives alone in an improbably spacious apartment, finds herself making some quick cash when she applies for a job at a nudie bar and ends up suturing the wounds of some poor schmuck who got the shit beat out of him by the owner (Antonio Cupo).  After meeting heavily surgically-altered stripper Beatress (Tristan Risk), who's had 14 surgeries to make her a living embodiment of Betty Boop, Mary becomes a sought-after, off-the-books surgeon and body-modification artist.  She puts her skills to more sinister use after she's drugged and raped by one of her instructors (David Lovgren), and holds him captive, performing a variety of operations, ranging from sewing his mouth shut to amputating his arms to hanging him from hooks through his skin.  Even with the rape/revenge angle, the Soskas never make Mary's transition from down-on-her-luck student to psycho killer very plausible.  The film is intended in part as a gothy homage to David Cronenberg, particularly his 1988 film DEAD RINGERS (an interesting idea, considering the filmmakers), but it just feels like whole chunks of the story are missing.  Isabelle is fine in the role, and there's some nice bits of dark, sick humor (Risk's Beatress makeup is both amusing and creepy), but when a snooping detective (John Emmet Tracy) tells Mary that he thinks she's hiding something and she replies "There's really not all that much to me," I can't help but wholeheartedly agree. (R, 103 mins)

(US/France/UK - 2013)

The much-mocked title is the least of this pointless sequel's problems.  Abandoning the found-footage motif of the surprisingly OK 2010 original (which got a huge boost from Patrick Fabian's performance as a phony preacher faced with very real evil), PART II finds once-possessed Nell Sweetzer (the returning Ashley Bell) taking up residence in a New Orleans halfway house for troubled girls run by the gruff Muse Watson, the guy you call when Kris Kristofferson is out of your price range.  The sheltered Nell befriends some of the other girls, gets a job cleaning hotel rooms, and finds a possible romance with a shy co-worker (Spencer Treat Clark), but it's not long before the evil spirit Abalam comes back for more.  Of course, it takes director/co-writer Ed Gass-Donnelly 70 of the film's 89 minutes to get there, as the bulk of the film is spent on endless fake scares and scenes of Nell walking around, haunted by visions of her supposedly dead father (Louis Herthum) and being followed by a mysterious figure wearing Tom Cruise's EYES WIDE SHUT orgy mask.  Sporting possibly the most asinine ending of any movie this year (which expectedly leaves the door open for PART III), THE LAST EXORCISM PART II is a shameless con job that approaches DEVIL INSIDE levels of audience contempt, which is starting to sum up possession movies in general.  We've seen enough.  THE EXORCIST is now 40 years old and it's never going to be equaled, let alone topped.  So just stop.  Please.  By the time you get to using a title like THE LAST EXORCISM PART II, it's pitifully obvious that there's no new angles for filmmakers and nothing more of anything resembling entertainment value to offer audiences.  (Unrated, 89 mins) 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

In Theaters: THIS IS THE END (2013)

(US - 2013)

Written and directed by Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg.  Cast: James Franco, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Michael Cera, Emma Watson, Mindy Kaling, David Krumholtz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Rihanna, Martin Starr, Kevin Hart, Aziz Ansari. (R, 107 mins)

The Apocalypse arrives, opening up a sinkhole to Hell in James Franco's front yard and swallowing a bunch of narcissistic, self-important Hollywood assholes in the often very funny THIS IS THE END, the latest end-of-the-world movie, following IT'S A DISASTER and with Edgar Wright's THE WORLD'S END due out later this summer.  Co-star Seth Rogen wrote and directed with his writing partner Evan Goldberg (the two also wrote SUPERBAD), and having this group of Hollywood friends playing versions of themselves facing the End of Days is a promising premise that gets off to a screamingly funny start before devolving into a huge special effects extravaganza by the end, complete with a tired EXORCIST parody that no one needed.

Rogen picks up old friend and fellow Canadian Jay Baruchel at the airport.  Baruchel's in town to chill with Rogen and is hesitant to accompany him to a housewarming bash at James Franco's luxurious new pad in the Hollywood hills.  The insecure Baruchel isn't comfortable around Rogen's newer Hollywood friends but goes anyway, and it's the opening party sequence that's undeniably the film's highlight.  Whether the cast members are busting each others' balls or talking smack about others ("Craig Robinson's a great guy.  Sweats a lot, but he's a great guy") or playing completely ridiculous alternate universe versions of themselves (the insane pinnacle being Michael Cera as a coked-up, bare-assed Michael Cera, getting fellated and rimmed by two hot models while drinking a Capri-Sun), there's quite a bit of savage inside joking going on, and it's smartly-written, hilariously vulgar, and admirably self-deprecating.  But when "the end" comes, most of the cast is killed off (Kevin Hart saves himself by kicking Aziz Ansari into the pit), with Rogen, Baruchel, Robinson, a touchy-feely Jonah Hill (who has a weird fixation on Baruchel), and uninvited party-crasher and compulsive masturbator Danny McBride barricading themselves with Franco in their host's house.

As assorted demons and other hellspawn swirl around outside and all of Hollywood is engulfed in flames, the biting satire gives way to a frequently self-indulgent bro-fest.  It's consistently amusing, but only occasionally finds the level of inspiration in the opening act.  There's a great ROSEMARY'S BABY riff, and, with all their down time, the group finds time to make a crude quickie sequel to PINEAPPLE EXPRESS (Franco: "That was fun!  We should make sequels to all of our movies!"  Robinson: "How about we not do YOUR HIGHNESS II?"), but some of the jokes fizzle, especially once Hill becomes possessed by a demon with a huge erection, and, apparently taking a cue from their mentor Judd Apatow, the film goes on far longer than it needs to (and undoubtedly even longer in the inevitable "extreme unrated extended apocalyptic!!" Blu-ray edition).  Still, if you like the actors, it's funny, especially when they start cracking on each other (McBride to Rogen: "That's some better acting than I've seen in your last six movies.  Where was that shit in THE GREEN HORNET?") and mocking themselves (Hill: "We'll be fine.  This is Hollywood!  They'll rescue the big stars first.  George Clooney, Sandra Bullock, me").  Sure, you're pretty much watching a bunch of buddies hang out and goof on each other (I wish Cera would've stuck around--he seemed to be the most willing to mercilessly skewer himself) and it fizzles a bit in the back end, but it's a pretty good time.

Monday, June 17, 2013

In Theaters: MAN OF STEEL (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by Zack Snyder.  Written by David S. Goyer.  Cast: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Russell Crowe, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Antje Traue, Ayelet Zurer, Christopher Meloni, Harry Lennix, Richard Schiff, Michael Kelly, Dylan Sprayberry, Cooper Timberline, Julian Richings. (PG-13, 143 mins)

It's only through sheer luck that Zack Snyder, the director that fanboys love to hate, hasn't become a Hollywood pariah of M. Night Shyamalan proportions.  Love him or hate him--and if internet message boards are to be taken seriously, most movie fans fall under the latter--there's no denying that Snyder's got balls.  This is a guy who not only had the chutzpah to remake a classic like George A. Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD, but shocked even the most doubtful naysayers (myself included) when that 2004 remake turned out to be surprisingly good.  After his 2006 blockbuster 300, Snyder helmed 2009's WATCHMEN, an ambitious fool's mission that had no possibility of pleasing fans of the legendary graphic novel, but works very well taken on its own terms, especially in the 186-minute director's cut.  Following the 2010 animated film LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS: THE OWLS OF GA'HOOLE, Snyder unveiled his most divisive film yet with 2011's SUCKER PUNCH, which opened to devastating reviews in what looked a lot more like a critical pile-on rather than an objective analysis of the film.  It's amazing that Snyder got a major studio to bankroll his bizarre pet project, especially considering that WATCHMEN didn't live up to box-office expectations.  SUCKER PUNCH is one of the most misunderstood and unjustly maligned major-studio films in recent years, and if you got caught up in the rabid bloodlust that took it down, it might be worth another look.  In just two years, it's already acquired a fervent cult following, and if there's such a thing as "Zack Snyder's masterpiece," I'm almost certain it will be SUCKER PUNCH.

A lot of directors with more clout than Snyder would've been bounced off the A-list after a commercial failure like SUCKER PUNCH, but he's obviously got believers in his corner at Warner Bros., who tapped him to helm the SUPERMAN reboot MAN OF STEEL.  Teaming with producer Christopher Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer, Snyder's revisionist take on the Superman saga tries to go for a dark and ultra-serious DARK KNIGHT approach and for about half of the film, it looks like they might pull it off.  We don't really need another Superman origin story, but we get one anyway, and it doesn't really look or feel like any previous SUPERMAN outing.  On the dying planet Krypton, scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) refuses to go along with a coup by irate military leader General Zod (Michael Shannon).  Jor-El and his wife Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) have just accomplished the unthinkable and had a child via natural birth, which hasn't happened on Krypton in 3000 years.  That child, Kal-El, is sent to Earth with a device known as the "codex," which will be able to preserve the Kryptonian people.

30 years later, the infant Kal-El has grown into drifter Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), who works a series of odd jobs, never staying anywhere too long since hints of his true nature always start to manifest, as they have since childhood when his spacecraft was found in Smallville, KS by the childless Kents.  Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane) raised Clark, living in constant fear that the government would come and take him away, but as Jonathan explains, "nobody ever came."  Teenaged Clark's superhuman powers--demonstrated when he pulls a bus filled with students out of the river--make him a misunderstood outcast, and following Jonathan's death, he leaves Smallville on a quest to find himself.  The secret to his nature lies in a frozen spacecraft where he learns about his true self from the holographic image of Jor-El.  Meanwhile, Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is chasing a story that brings her together with Clark, right around the same time that the banished Zod figures out that the codex is on Earth, and that Jor-El's son might be in possession of it.

So far, so good.  Maybe not for the purists, but as a radically different take on a familiar subject, MAN OF STEEL gets off to a promising start.  But once Zod arrives on Earth, Snyder seems to check out and the film becomes just another loud, blurry, ugly alien invasion epic with wall-to-wall video-game CGI and endless 9/11-inspired destruction porn straight out of a TRANSFORMERS movie.  Throughout the film, but especially in the second half, Snyder uses--and overuses--an incredibly annoying shaky-zoom move in nearly every scene.  I don't even mind the changes they made to the origin story.  I don't read comic books and I'm not slavishly devoted to any of these characters or stories and filmmakers are free to show me any interpretation of them that they so desire.  But the constant sense of destructive spectacle--and it's really not spectacular--just goes on forever and gets dizzyingly dull around the time the 43rd Metropolis skyscraper slowly collapses.  The actors take a good chunk of the climax off, replaced by CGI doppelgangers who pinball all over the screen. I thought the CGI backlash and eventual moviegoer rejection of it would've happened by this point, but I guess I just need to put up or shut up.  This is obviously just how movies look now.

Cavill is physically an impressive, imposing Superman, but we don't see much in the way of emotion beyond moody and sullen.  Christopher Reeve is a tough act to follow in this role, and it's not Cavill's fault--he's just not working with much of a script.  From a story and screenplay standpoint, Nolan and Goyer seem to be having a rare off-day here, or maybe the dark and grim post-9/11 motif just works better for Batman.  Then again, Nolan's BATMAN films had some thematic depth to them and didn't turn into Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich joints in their second halves, so it's hard to say whether it was Nolan's or Snyder's call to dumb it down to lowest common denominator destruction.  MAN OF STEEL starts strong but ultimately, there's just no story here.  It makes the hero dull and uninteresting, and the villain one-dimensionally cartoonish, with Shannon's overacting a weak substitute for Terence Stamp's Zod from SUPERMAN (1978) and SUPERMAN II (1981), and he's not helped by a ludicrously distracting hipster goatee.  Reliable pros like Laurence Fishburne (as Perry White), Christopher Meloni and Harry Lennix (as military officials), and Richard Schiff (as a scientist or something) are onscreen a lot but have little to do.  Crowe makes an interesting, man-of-action Jor-El and has much more to do than in Marlon Brando's check-cashing interpretation of the character, which seemed scripted around how little work Brando really wanted to do while still getting top billing. 

The film's most human, sympathetic moments come from Lane and Costner.  Costner only has a few scenes, all flashbacks, but he projects the same loving, fatherly warmth that Glenn Ford did so masterfully in only two brief scenes in the 1978 film, which handled Pa Kent's death in a way that seemed more authentic.  [SPOILER] In MAN OF STEEL, it's an excuse for another big special effects scene, and no matter how heartbreaking that shot is of Costner holding his hand up and silently telling Clark to not save him, the circumstances are just too hard to buy [END SPOILER].  But therein lies the central problem with MAN OF STEEL:  it has no heart and ultimately, no purpose after the midway point.  After setting up what would seem to be a unique take on the Superman story in Snyder's typical expectations-be-damned way, it all gets chucked to make another faceless, soulless, instantly disposable Hollywood summer product, completely interchangeable with countless others that have come before it.  Snyder has proven himself a fearless filmmaker, but in giving MAN OF STEEL the DARK KNIGHT treatment, he's made an intermittently interesting misfire that, when it's finally over, feels less like an auteur's vision and more like something that's been focus-grouped into immediate irrelevance.