Friday, July 22, 2016

Star Trek Beyond

The good news about STAR TREK BEYOND is that it’s as good as this series of STAR TREK adventures produced by J.J. Abrams (STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS) is going to get. The bad news is that it’s as good as this series is going to get.

Light on human drama, literary allusions, and social and political commentary — aspects of the 1960s television series that made it popular enough for Paramount to continue making STAR TREK films fifty years later — STAR TREK BEYOND is not STAR TREK exactly. However, it is a moderately entertaining action/adventure film that, to its credit, retains the humanism and progressive ideals introduced to television audiences by Gene Roddenberry in 1966.

Aside from Chris Pine (JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT), whose screen intensity matches those of his blue eyes in the iconic role of Captain James T. Kirk (originally played by William Shatner, natch), the new U.S.S. Enterprise cast assembled by Abrams for 2009’s STAR TREK (the execrable STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS followed in 2013) deliver impressions, rather than full performances. They can hardly be blamed, as the screenplay by Simon Pegg (who plays chief engineer Scotty) and Doug Jung (TV’s DARK BLUE) doesn’t give them much to play outside of standard action beats.

Zachary Quinto (TV’s HEROES) as emotionless (sometimes) Mr. Spock and Karl Urban (DREDD) as crusty Dr. McCoy do a nice job of channeling Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley, though making two films together, rather than 79 episodes of television, prevents them from sharing the sharp chemistry the script wishes to convey. Same goes for Quinto and Pine, who try to convince us that Spock and Kirk are a “great team” and best friends, even though they barely tolerated each other in the first two movies.

Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, communications officer Uhura (Zoe Saldana), navigator Chekov (Anton Yelchin, who died in a tragic accident shortly before the film’s release), helmsman Sulu (John Cho), and the rest of the crew meet trouble in outer space in the form of Krell, an angry alien who wants to destroy a Starfleet base because...well, Pegg and Jung are a little vague. Hopes that Krell’s motivations would become clear by the third act or that we would learn more about him are dashed, as director Justin Lin, fresh from several THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS movies, moves the plot along too fast and too furious to be bothered with evolving any relationships, including the spotty romance between Spock and Uhura.

Krell is played by Idris Elba (BEASTS OF NO NATION), who is so bogged down by rubber makeup and false teeth that spoil his diction that he’s unable to give a performance. The makeup does all the emoting. A more successful addition to STAR TREK BEYOND is Sofia Boutella, the razor-legged assassin of KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE, giving an electric performance as Jaylah, a tough, smart alien stranded on the same planet as Kirk and crew after Krell destroys their beloved Enterprise. Few action cliches are left unturned, and Urban actually has to say “The fear of death is what keeps us alive” without puking.

If you had to guess which cast member wrote the film, no doubt you would guess Pegg, who gives himself the best lines and a solo subplot with Jaylah apart from the other regular cast. Editing is sloppy — shore leave at the starbase seems to last about ten minutes, and Sulu and Uhura begin a scene escaping from a cell we didn’t know they were in. The starbase itself seems imaginatively conceived, but Lin never gives a chance to get a good look at it, even though the climax is set there. Costumes are eye-pleasing and faithful to the original show, though the zippers would make Roddenberry freak out if he were alive to see them. Michael Giacchino (THE INCREDIBLES) provides a decent score (his third straight STAR TREK), and the late Leonard Nimoy’s death just prior to production is given a classy nod. The film is dedicated to him and Yelchin.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Ghostbusters (2016)

At last, a GHOSTBUSTERS movie that supplies all the queef jokes that were sadly missing from the 1984 original. Given their blessing by original stars Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd, as well as original director Ivan Reitman, all of whom profit from the success of this movie, the new GHOSTBUSTERS plows uncharted territory by making the busters of ghosts women.

Unlike the anarchic original film, which was scripted with surprises by Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, the new GHOSTBUSTERS is entirely predictable and creatively lazy. Everyone remembers the Stay-Puft marshmallow man from the original — one of film comedy’s most delightful and subversive reveals. Contrast that reveal with the big bad in the remake, which you’ll see coming an hour ahead.

Melissa McCarthy (IDENTITY THIEF) and SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE cast members past and present Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, and Kate McKinnon are the new ghostbusters in a screenplay by THE HEAT’s Katie Dippold and director Paul Feig that follows the basic structure of the original and finds time to shoehorn in mostly unsuccessful cameos by the original cast (the late Ramis, to whom the remake is dedicated, receives the classiest hat tip). Outside of occasionally witty visual effects and a scene-stealing turn by McKinnon as the gadget-happy ghostbuster named Holtzmann, very little of it is amusing. Chris Hemsworth, demonstrating why he rarely is cast in comedies, is the busters’ himbo secretary, a role that would spawn a hundred thinkpieces if the gender were switched. Andy Garcia (THE GODFATHER PART III) takes no billing as cinema’s 2588th foolish mayor, which spawns a timely JAWS joke.

But back to McKinnon. Of the main cast, only she is aware that the script is barely funny. Very little of what she says is funny on the face of it. But listen to her quirky line deliveries, watch the way she gestures or how she reacts to the craziness with a demented smile. She’s a little of the old Bill Murray and quite a bit of Harpo Marx (she even wears an unusual blond hairdo). Her performance is so out of step with McCarthy’s mugging, Wiig’s bumbling, and Jones’ yelling (her “feets, don’t fail me now” subway worker would spawn a thousand thinkpieces if the gender were switched) that one wonders whether the whole picture should have been structured like an absurdist Marx Brothers vehicle. McKinnon is as good in GHOSTBUSTERS as Kristen’s wig is bad.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Gridlocked

Here’s that ripoff of THE HARD WAY you didn’t know you wanted. Remember, the one with cigar store Indian Dominic Purcell (LEGENDS OF TOMORROW) replacing unpredictable, mercurial James Woods and who-the-hell-is-this-guy Cody Hackman, who worked with director Allan Ungar on an MMA action film, as the charming Michael J. Fox? Sure, that ripoff. And guess what? Stephen Lang (AVATAR) is the bad guy in both films! To quote a different Michael J. Fox movie, “Heavy.”

GRIDLOCKED isn’t exactly a comedy, but it has a sense of humor that occasionally clashes with nasty violence. I wouldn’t mind seeing this script performed by more charismatic stars than Purcell and Hackman, but they’re all we have. So the mismatched team of immature, irreverent bad-boy movie star Hackman (no relation to Gene) and gruff, humorless tough-guy cop Purcell — who, of course, aren’t getting along — pay a late-night visit to Purcell’s former colleagues at a SWAT facility forty miles from Manhattan (why a SWAT headquarters is way out in the cornfields, I have no idea). Bad timing, as the building is attacked by bad guys led by Lang (who is very good) and Vinnie Jones (EUROTRIP), ridiculously cast as a New York City cop.

With Hackman’s company putting up the production budget, GRIDLOCKED sticks pretty much indoors in a bland concrete warehouse somewhere in Toronto (some actors’ accents are distracting). What’s odd is there’s no reason for Hackman to be in it. After the first act, the film becomes a typical ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 knockoff with good cops fending off bad cops in a police station, and the relationship between Hackman and Purcell becomes superfluous. The action scenes are performed better than in most films of this ilk, and Lang is a strong antagonist. Hackman, who wears a continuously dopey look on his face, and Purcell — perpetually dyspeptic — aren’t exactly the Sunshine Boys, but thrown into the lively old-school action, GRIDLOCKED’ll do as a quickie Redbox rental. Believe it or not, one actor is named James A. Woods.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Mission Mars

Another cheap science fiction movie by the director who made SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS? What could go wrong (I ask sarcastically)?

Well, we could start with the cloying ballad sung by Sturg Pardalis (!) that opens 1968's MISSION MARS — a gurgling mess that definitely does not put the audience in the mood for thrilling space opera. Aside from the song, the film’s first ten minutes consist only of grainy NASA stock footage and three (!) different scenes of astronaut wives sobbing to the heroes how much they’ll miss them. Again, not exactly setting the stage for adventure.

Appropriately for a movie co-written by Aubrey Wisberg, who penned bad ‘50s monster movies like CAPTIVE WOMEN and THE NEANDERTHAL MAN, MISSION MARS feels woefully outdated for a 1968 release, rehashing story points and characterization from films more than a decade old and failing to freshen them for an audience that would watch Americans walk on the moon a year later. The astronauts grimacing during liftoff? Check. Meteor storm? Check. Walking on Mars with a glass shield over their space helmets that doesn’t connect to their suits? Yep. Amateurish special effects shots haplessly recycled? Of course.

At least MISSION MARS didn’t hurt the careers of its two big stars. Darren McGavin, best known as night stalker Kolchak, continued a busy career as a TV guest star and occasional leading man of note. And Nick Adams was already dead by the time MISSION MARS was released, though it can be argued the film was no step down from his previous star turns in MONSTER ZERO and FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD (it is though). The rest of the cast seems to be local Florida actors (director Nicholas Webster lensed the movie at Miami’s Studio City) or perhaps friends of the director.

Mike Blaiswick (McGavin) leads a three-man crew, including geologist Grant (Adams) and pilot Duncan (George DeVries), on an eighteen-month round trip to Mars on the rocket Mars One. By the time they actually touch down to begin Act Three, you may have already drifted off. If you’re still watching, however, you’ll get to see the film’s only touches of imagination. Mars is replicated through cardboard STAR TREK-style stages (though without Gerald Perry Finnerman’s evocative lighting) and phony tabletop miniatures (usually the same two shots shown over and over). The first thing Webster does when the movie gets there is shoot interminable scenes of the astronauts filling balloons.

However. Are you still hanging in there? Finally, something happens. Grant encounters a dead cosmonaut, still standing and frozen solid. (“Can you get him back to the ship?” McGavin asks. How Adams is able to carry a frozen corpse that distance, we’ll never know.) Blaiswick and Duncan encounter real live Martians, which are cheaply constructed, but at least unusual-looking creatures that shoot beams from stalks. In the film’s one genuinely unsettling moment, a creature burns the eyes out of one of the astronauts and magnetically drags his corpse into a mysterious sphere.

That part aside, MISSION MARS is a terrible movie, sunk by a script with too few ideas and a production with too little money to make those ideas pay off. McGavin and Adams, pros both, play the danger straight, probably not knowing how silly the menaces they were pretending to react to would look on the screen.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Mutilator

“By sword/by pick/by axe/bye bye!” If nothing else, THE MUTILATOR, an independent slasher movie produced in North Carolina by writer/director Buddy Cooper, must be lauded for its clever marketing tagline. Shot as FALL BREAK on a 29-day shooting schedule and $650,000 budget by a first-timer with no experience in filmmaking, THE MUTILATOR begins bizarrely and a bit sloppily with a little boy accidentally blowing away his mother (characters played by Cooper’s son and wife) with his dad’s shotgun.

Fast forward about a decade later and Ed (Matt Mitler) is a college student bored on fall break. When Dad (Jack Chatham) calls and demands Ed come down and close up the family beach condo for winter, Ed brings five school pals along for what they hope to be a fun vacation of sex and drinking and sex. It turns into a not-so-fun vacation of drownings and slashings and decapitations with grisly makeup effects by Mark Shostrom (EVIL DEAD II), Anthony Showe (CHOPPING MALL), and Ed Ferrell (THE SUPERNATURALS). The killer’s identity is no mystery and revealed early, unfortunately removing some suspense from the film. It’s Ed Senior, whose nights are plagued by disturbing nightmares of murdering his son as a little boy.

Cooper is an odd duck. Some of his shots are artfully composed, yet his opening titles play over an inappropriately upbeat theme song that sounds like it’s from a sitcom ABC cancelled after four weeks. On the whole, Cooper’s direction is quite poor with pacing and generating excitement not in his skill set. The actors are terrible at best and obnoxious at worst, though that’s hardly unusual for a horror film or any film by an amateur. Cooper at least knew what his core audience wanted to see, delivering a bit of female nudity and so much gore that the MPAA later demanded cuts to receive an R for its extended theatrical release.

To no one’s surprise, none of the cast members had spectacular careers, though Mitler had a starring role in the unbelievable New York science fiction movie BREEDERS. Ben Moore from Herschell Gordon Lewis’ 1960s films appears as a cop who meets a gruesome ending. Bill Hitchcock’s Ralph, the film’s ersatz comic relief, ranks among the most loathsome characters ever seen in a horror movie, and that includes the serial killers. Cooper, who returned to running the family motel business in Atlantic Beach, North Carolina, never directed another film.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

It says a lot about THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE’s reputation that Hollywood has remade it twice, even though it isn’t the most well-known ‘70s thriller among casual filmgoers. Its plot may be standard heist stuff, but the clever screenplay by CHARADE’s Peter Stone, based on a Morton Freedgood (as John Godey) novel, isn’t at all standard, peppering the sharp dialogue and crystal-clear characterizations with cynical humor (“Screw the passengers! What the hell do they expect for their lousy 35 cents — to live forever?”). Joseph Sargent’s direction is crisp and tight, making certain not to waste a frame on anything that doesn’t contribute to telling the story.

New York City Transit Authority Lieutenant Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau, who did this after CHARLEY VARRICK and THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN) is having a bad afternoon. After giving a guided tour of the subway system to four visiting Japanese dignitaries who (he believes) don’t speak English, Garber returns to his station to discover a subway car containing 18 hostages—the Pelham 123—has been hijacked by four machine-gun-toting terrorists, including case-of-the-sniffles-carrying Mr. Green (Martin Balsam), hotheaded ex-mobster Mr. Grey (Hector Elizondo), and ice-cold former mercenary Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw).

Mr. Blue, the group’s leader, allows Garber one hour to deliver $1 million in old fifties and hundies, or he’ll begin killing a John Rocker nightmare of diverse hostages, which includes a jive-talking black man, a couple of screaming kids, an Hispanic woman who definitely doesn’t understand English, an undercover policeman, some hippies, and an old Jew. John Rocker would definitely not enjoy this ride.

Harried civil servants routinely rant, curse, and scream at each other, and their tension turns to apoplexy when Mr. Blue and crew toss a monkey wrench into their daily routine. Many of the jabs at The System and New York’s political structure are broad, but the fine cast of character actors makes them work. Matthau is completely believable as a dedicated cop trying to match wits with an adversary much smarter and deadlier than the muggers and pushers he usually deals with in the subway. His work is equaled by Shaw, who leaves no doubt Mr. Blue will do exactly as he says he’ll do if his instructions are not followed to the letter.

Actual New York City locations are well used. Although a disclaimer at the end claims the NYC Transit Authority did not participate in the making of PELHAM, it’s clear that Sargent (JAWS: THE REVENGE) would not have been able to create the tense atmosphere that he does without using real subway cars and tunnels. Cinematographer Owen Roizman (THE FRENCH CONNECTION) handles the dark, dank underground photography quite well, while David Shire’s funky musical score contributes to the film’s gritty feel. And who can deny PELHAM boasts one of the greatest final shots in film history?

The supporting cast also includes future FAMILY star James Broderick, Earl Hindman (later to be Tim Allen’s half-hidden neighbor on HOME IMPROVEMENT), Dick O’Neill, Kenneth McMillan, Doris Roberts (EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND), the solid black presence Julius Harris (LIVE AND LET DIE) as a police inspector (Matthau, upon meeting Harris for the first time after speaking to him over the radio, stammers, “Er, I thought you were a, uh, taller person, oh, hell, I don’t know what I thought.”), Jerry Stiller (very funny as Matthau’s partner), Sal Viscuso, and a nice bit by Tony Roberts as the deputy mayor.

Monday, July 04, 2016

The Condemned 2

Another failed attempt by WWE Studios to find the next Dwayne Johnson, this braindead sequel stars pro wrestler Randy Orton, who previously worked with director Roel Reine in 12 ROUNDS 2. THE CONDEMNED 2 is the kind of movie where a guy lures another guy to the desert in the middle of nowhere to invite him to have a drink, so he can kill him in a crowded cantina.

Reine, a specialist in direct-to-video sequels (such as the DEATH RACE sequels), is as good as anybody working regularly in the genre who isn’t Isaac Florentine, and he and screenwriter Alan McElroy (WRONG TURN) deserve credit for not simply repeating the beats from THE CONDEMNED. Reine likes explosions and putting his actors near them, which amps up the suspense. Unfortunately, the script is dumb and forces the characters to do dumb things just to get the film to the next plot point or setpiece.

Orton stars as a former bounty hunter named Will Tanner serving a suspended sentence for killing bail jumper Wes Studi (PENNY DREADFUL) in self defense. Having given up the family business left to him by dad Eric Roberts (STAR 80), Tanner is happy with his new non-violent life as a tow truck driver until his old buddies show up one day and try to kill him. All were threatened by Raul (Steven Michael Quezada, the actor you hire when you can’t afford Wes Studi for more than one day), who has invited rich jerks in tuxedos and cocktail dresses to an abandoned factory to gamble on Tanner’s life expectancy. One of many lazy plotholes is why these hardass bounty hunters are so afraid of Raul, who isn’t big and scary and threatening.

Also, given that Raul has Tanner to thank for his new fortune and stature, due to his moving up in the ranks when Studi died, the revenge motive seems thin. But this is a movie where a guy hands Tanner a convenient map to Raul’s location just before trying to kill him (what would a dead Tanner need with a map?), so writing it wasn’t a priority for the filmmakers. Neither was acting, as Orton is just about a complete failure as a leading man. Unable to express even the tiniest of emotions, he also seems clumsy in the action scenes. The New Mexico desert is a nice contrast to the lush forests of Australia seen in THE CONDEMNED, and this sequel is thankfully less meanspirited than the original.

Big Trouble In Little China

If you were to ask fans of BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, particularly those who didn’t see it theatrically in 1986, to hazard a guess at its box office gross, I suspect almost all of them would guess high. Director John Carpenter’s follow-up to the very good but conventional (and Oscar-nominated) science fiction romance STARMAN falls into several genres: action/adventure, fantasy, comedy, martial arts, romance. Inspired by wuxia films popular in Hong Kong at the time (though not well distributed in the United States), the subversive BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA debuted at #12 (!) at the July 4 weekend boxoffice and quickly faded from movie screens. Like THE THING and THEY LIVE — other Carpenter films that were unfairly ignored at the time of their original release — BIG TROUBLE has, over the years, evolved into one of the director’s most popular films.

And rightly so. An imaginative adventure film packed with funny lines, amusing performances, and colorful visual effects supervised by Richard Edlund (STAR WARS), BIG TROUBLE is seen through the eyes of Everyman Jack Burton, a somewhat dullwitted truck driver who somehow falls into battle with a 2000-year-old Chinese godfather with magical powers played by James Hong (NINJA III: THE DOMINATION). The screenplay by Gary Goldman (TOTAL RECALL), David Z. Weinstein, and W.D. Richter (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS) is clever and involved, but never too complicated.

Basically, Burton and his friend Wang Chi (MIDNIGHT CALLER regular Dennis Dun) enter the mysterious underground of San Francisco’s Chinatown to rescue Wang’s fiancee Miao Yen (Suzee Pai) from bandits with super-human powers and martial arts skills. Accompanied by attorney Gracie Law (SEX AND THE CITY’s Kim Cattrall), wizard Egg Shen (Victor Wong), and other friends, Wang and Burton discover that evil Lo Pan (Hong) needs to marry the green-eyed Miao in order to release himself from a curse and become mortal again.

Not that anything is basic about BIG TROUBLE, which plays like a true American original, despite its cribbing from Asian culture. Carpenter packs the film with sensational action and martial arts sequences with 1970s Hong Kong movie star Carter Wong nearly stealing the picture as Lo Pan’s impressively intense right hand. However, nobody can truly steal BIG TROUBLE from Kurt Russell, performing without ego as a swaggering wannabe tough guy who’s seen too many John Wayne movies and can’t quite keep up with his boasting mouth. A fish out of water in a strange society where sorcery and ancient myths are real, Burton is the only one who doesn’t know what’s going on. The joy in Russell’s performance, however, is that Burton also pretends that he does. Russell isn’t quite parodying action heroes, but it’s close and it’s a delight.