Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Joy Ride 2: Dead Ahead - DVD Review

My mother always told me “If you don’t have something nice to say, you probably shouldn’t say anything at all.” It’s a good thing I don’t always follow my mother’s advice because if I did, this would be the shortest reviews I’ve ever written.

Joy Ride 2: Dead Ahead tells the tale of four twenty-somethings on their way to Las Vegas to celebrate an imminent marriage. They’re taking the back roads to save time and wouldn’t you know it: their car breaks down. They come across an abandoned house and decide to “borrow” a car they find there. Naturally, the car belongs to Rusty Nails, a crazy trucker who decides to hunt them down and kill them; not because they stole his car, but simply because he’s a crazy trucker who likes to kill people. I guess when your mom names you Rusty Nails, you end up with a particularly mean disposition.

If you enjoy formulaic-to-the-point-of-boredom horror films, this might be right up your alley. Otherwise, steer clear of this disaster. Sometimes, adhering to a basic formula works really well. Sometimes it’s fun to watch a mindless horror or action movie knowing full well what the outcome will be. Being able to figure out the entire plot within the first 15 minutes of a movie isn’t always a bad thing. If you’re in the mood for that sort of thing, or if you’re playing a drinking game, it can actually be a pretty good time.

I defy anyone to enjoy Joy Ride 2. I defy anyone to sit through the entire movie without finding a bit of light housework to do while watching. I had no problem stepping out of the room for a minute or two, knowing full well that I wouldn’t be missing out on any major plot points or particularly juicy lines of dialogue. This movie was so terrible I didn’t even get any satisfaction out of watching the death scenes. Yeah, it’s that bad.

If you’re interested in finding out where turds come from, you could tune into a gastrointestinal documentary on the Science Channel, or you could watch the extras on this disc, which include a making-of and storyboard-to-scene comparisons. There’s also a featurette which showcases the how-to’s of gore makeup, which is actually pretty interesting.

In short, I advise you to stay as far away from this movie as possible. There is no joy to be found in Joy Ride 2.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Happening - DVD Review

In the summer of 2008, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan unleashed his first ever R-rated feature film, The Happening. The film was pretty much universally panned by critics and filmgoers alike, myself included. There’s certainly no mistaking The Happening for something that the average person would refer to as a “good movie”, but upon further contemplation, I do feel that this movie has something to offer to a certain selection of film buffs.

The basic plot of the film deals with a strange plague that causes people to off themselves in particularly gruesome ways. There’s a husband and wife who run around trying to get to the bottom of the whole thing while simultaneously dealing with the effects of the plague. Namely, everybody starts panicking and acting all crazy. The main point of the film, without spoiling anything, is that ultimately it is “people” who are the real terror.

This movie features, without a doubt, the worst acting I have ever seen captured on film. I’m not just referring to one or two of the actors, I’m talking across the board. It’s true that no one has ever mistaken Mark Walberg or Zooey Deschanel for Academy Award winners, but to call their performances in this film wooden would be an insult to the lumber industry. They’re just plain bad.

The movie was marketed as something of a horror film, or maybe a suspense thriller or something of that nature. The truth of the matter is that it’s not even remotely scary. I can’t recall sitting through a less suspenseful movie in my lifetime. This film fails to hit the mark on nearly every attempt: it’s funny when it’s supposed to be serious and during the (allegedly) humorous scenes, there was nary a smile in the theater.

Now, I saw The Happening in the theater, and I’ll be totally honest with you: I almost walked out about 30 minutes into it. But at some point, I’m not exactly sure where, a light bulb appeared over my head and the truth of this film was illuminated. “Oh!” I thought to myself while sitting in the theater contemplating other things I could’ve spent my $10 on, “This isn’t a good movie… it’s a bad movie!” And from that point on, I actually kind of liked it.

Here’s the deal: if The Happening had been released some time in the 1970’s, I’m convinced that it would be revered today as a lost gem of the drive-in era. Its poor acting, slow pacing and heavy-handed social and ecological messages would have meshed quite well with similar films of the era such as Billy Jack, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Soylent Green or Silent Running. If it had been released as the third movie on the Grindhouse bill along with Tarantino’s Death Proof and Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, fans of exploitation films would have absolutely swooned over it. It fits in perfectly with these films, and a part of me has to believe that it was M. Night Shyamalan’s intention to craft an homage to this bygone era of filmmaking. I have to believe it because it’s the only way I can make any sense of this travesty of modern cinema.

There is no possible way Shyamalan wrote this dialogue and handed it over to the actors thinking it was going to be the next Sixth Sense. I can not possibly believe that he directed these actors and at the end of a long shoot looked back over the finished product and thought “Yes, this is exactly what I was going for!” unless what he was going for was an intentionally bad movie. And if that was indeed his goal, then he succeeded with flying colors and I applaud him for his efforts.

I myself am a fan of exploitation films and B-movies. I am among the seven people in the world who actually own the remastered 5-disc Billy Jack 35th Anniversary Ultimate Collection. Nothing moves me to recycle or make a difference in my community like a good (or from most perspectives, bad) mid-to-late ‘70s ecological disaster movie. So when I look at The Happening through that perspective, there is a big part of me that really does enjoy it. That strange and indefinable part of my brain that absolutely thrills to bad cinema. If you feel the same way, you just might find something to enjoy in “The Happening”. However, if you are filmgoer with any sense of taste, you’ll stay as far away from this movie as you can possibly get.

The DVD features all sorts of deleted scenes with introductions from Shyamalan, as well as behind-the-scenes featurettes and a gag reel.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - 2-Disc Special Edition - DVD Review

After nearly two decades of speculation and worry, the summer of 2008 brought the highly unnecessary fourth installment in the Indiana Jones franchise, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. All parties involved promised us that their involvement was contingent on just the right script. That sounded promising, but I should remind you that after three Vacation movies, key players Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo stated that they wouldn’t return for a fourth film unless the script was “just right.” Have you seen Vegas Vacation? ‘Nuff said.

I expected to reenter the world of Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones with a mixture of anticipation and dread. What I actually walked into the theater with was an attitude a bit closer to “who cares?”

As the character in the Family Circus comic strip says, “Not me!” – I couldn’t care less. I’d already been burned by three Star Wars prequels and had long since come to terms with the so-called raping of my most beloved childhood memories. I had also come to realize that no matter what was behind this film, whether it be money or a mid-life crisis, it ultimately didn’t matter. It was, after all, just a movie and no matter how bad it was, my memories and my childhood were still intact and still pure.

Though countless die-hards will undoubtedly disagree with me, I’m happy to say that with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, no childhoods were raped. Not mine, at least. Now, this movie didn’t exactly take my childhood out for a fancy dinner and dancing and whisper sweet nothings into its ear under the moonlight. This movie did not have the decency to call my childhood after the obligatory three-day wait, nor did it even bother to make breakfast for my childhood in the morning. But nothing that happened between my childhood and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that wasn’t agreed to by both parties. However, my childhood will probably not be calling Indy back for another date. It was decent; I’ll even go so far as to say that it was pretty good. But it wasn’t that good.

I apologize if my humor is a bit off-color, but I get a little tired of the people who seem to think that movies like this one or the Star Wars prequels are somehow retroactively making their lives worse. It’s been 19 years since the last Indy movie. What do you people expect? What do you want? With this movie, you get what you pay for. What Lucas, Spielberg and Ford have given us with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is the Indiana Jones movie that came 19 years after the last one. No more, no less.

Now, some folks will tell you that this movie doesn’t capture the same feeling as the previous three installments. Having re-watched the first three films in the series in preparation for the fourth installment, I will say that all of these films have a very distinct flavor all their own, and there isn’t really a “definitive Indy feeling” other than bare knuckle brawling and a rollicking good time. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a departure in the sense that the first three films act as an homage to the old Republic serials of the '30s and '40s and this one is more of a 1950’s B-Movie, complete with all the trappings of the genre. But at the end of the day, it’s got the one unifying factor that remains true throughout the entire series: Indiana Jones.

I imagine that a lot of fans had a lot of problems with the depiction of Indiana Jones as an old man. Naturally, they wanted to see their childhood hero remain eternally young and virile and couldn’t imagine him as anything other than the strapping young smart-mouthed adventurer. If you fall into this category, you should not watch this movie. It will rape your childhood.

However, if you enjoy the prospect of a hero nearing the end of his days, having lost a step or two and not packing quite the punch he used to, you might enjoy this movie. No matter what you think of the film, I think it’s hard to argue that Harrison Ford doesn’t bring something great to the table. I’d even go so far as to say that his performance in this film is even stronger than in previous films because of the added dimension and depth that the character has been given. Indy’s not as cool in this movie as he was in the earlier ones. It’s a lot like watching your grandpa run around with a whip and a gun. But if your grandpa was Indiana Jones, you’d still think he was pretty damn cool, right? Hell yeah!

Now, I’ve given you the good and I’ve defended this movie against its detractors. But along with the good comes the bad and since I’ve already given you the sugar, I must give you the medicine. Hopefully that first spoonful will help it go down.

One of the big arguments against Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is that it feels less like a film and more like a nostalgic thrill ride. Like the roller coaster version of Indiana Jones or a remake of a classic song. It hits all the right notes and it does what it has to do, but it’s not the original and it never will be. Sort of like a remake of a Beatles song: No matter how good it is, it ain’t the Beatles. I have to admit that I agree.

On one hand, it is the Indiana Jones movie that came 19 years after the last Indiana Jones movie. One could argue that it sort of has to be a nostalgic trip down memory lane. On the other hand, as fun as this movie can be at times, ultimately it just lacks heart. As a longtime fan who grew up with Indiana Jones, I should have cried during this movie. That’s as direct and to the point as I can be. I should have cried when Indy and Marion were reunited, or at the very least teared up. I should’ve gotten goosebumps when Indy put the hat back on or cracked the whip for the first time. But I didn’t. And that is the worst thing I can say about this film. For a movie that was supposed to be a nostalgic and exciting trip back to my childhood, it was far too tame and lackluster. While it didn’t offend me or make me shake an angry fist at Spielberg & Lucas for retroactively molesting my childhood, it didn’t really fill me with the sense of wonder that it should have either. It didn’t rape my childhood, because it lacked the ability to return me to those days of wonder.

Ultimately, I did like this movie. It wasn’t great, but it was fun. Sure, it wasn’t as good as the first three, but it was a hell of a lot better than Rocky IV, Land of the Dead, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and whatever the fourth Alien movie was called. Most film franchises can’t successfully make it past two movies. Judged against its peers, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a resounding success.

The first three Indiana Jones movies were supposed to take us back to the halcyon days of the Republic Serials. With this one, Lucas and Spielberg set out to make a '50s era B-movie, and I think they succeeded. The movies of that time might not have been art, but they were a good time and are now revered as classics in their own right. I won’t go so far as to call this movie a classic, but I do think that ultimately, it will stand the test of time and will take it’s proper place among the rest of the Indy series.

The 2-disc special edition features a ton of goodies. A pre-production documentary, a 12-part production diary and a whole bunch of galleries and pre-visualizaton stuff. It’s got everything the hardcore fan or film buff could want, including a bunch of interviews with the cast and crew. Basically, the same stuff that every other 2-disc special edition set has. If you’ve seen one 2-disc set, you’ve seen ‘em all. You know what’s on here, go ahead and buy it: It’s probably only $5 more than the regular version.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Silverhawks Volume One - DVD Review

In the hierarchy of 80’s cartoons, none can dispute the “holy trinity” of He-Man, G.I. Joe and Transformers. However, there were a few others that aspired to reach the lofty heights of these three masterpieces. Among them was a team of space faring cybernetic law enforcers known as The Silverhawks.

Silverhawks was created by Rankin/Bass as a follow up to their previous series, Thundercats, and there are quite a few similarities between the shows, including the majority of the voice actors. There’s a little more sci-fi and a little less fantasy in this series, but overall, it’s pretty obvious the same hands were at work in both shows. Which is great, as Thundercats were pretty freakin’ awesome.

Silverhawks are pretty awesome too. The show is essentially a 29th century cops n’ robbers program that pits a team of flying heroes with cybernetic enhancements against the threat of Mon*Star and his ruthless gang of thugs. Mon*Star is your classic gangster, except for the fact that he flies through space on a giant squid equipped with laser guns and he’s got metal spikes sticking out of his head. His gang consists of a little troll named Hardware (the weapons expert), a giant robot minotaur named Mumbo Jumbo (the muscle), an environmental terrorist named Windhammer, who can manipulate the weather with a giant tuning fork, a shapeshifter named Mo-Lec-U-Lar (who looks a bit like an evil version of the grapes from the Fruit of the Loom commercials) and a punk rock chick named Melodia who uses a keytar that shoots lasers. Yup, they’re just your average, everyday mobsters.

Did I mention everyone can breathe in outer space? Apparently, the Limbo Galaxy, where the show takes place, has some sort of atmosphere, because people in space tend to fall downward relative to whatever vehicle or platform from which they lost their footing. If you’re looking for realism, look elsewhere. On the other hand, if you’re looking for robot birds and spaceships that look like cars from the 1940’s, Silverhawks is your show!

Anyway, back to the forces of good and the stars of the show: The Silverhawks. Basically, they’re a bunch of sweet-looking flying cyborgs with names that are somehow related to metal. Quicksilver, the Copper Kid and the twins: Steelheart and Steelwill. Oh, and the pilot is a cowboy named Bluegrass who, similar to the evil Melodia, uses a laser-firing guitar. This is the kind of awesomeness our descendants have to look forward to and as I watched this show, I found myself cursing the fact that I was born nine centuries too early.

I suppose I should talk about quality at some point. Is it any good? Yeah, it actually is. Being a children’s program, it’s not the type of series that’s likely to inspire any deep conversations about the nature of good and evil or the possibilities of technological advances we might see in the future, but it is a lot of fun. If you grew up with the series and you’re wondering how it holds up, I will attest to the fact that it’s a whole lot more enjoyable than those G.I. Joe DVDs you bought a few years back.

The #1 thing about Silverhawks that I found really cool was the character designs. Sure, the plots are simple, but they’re not made for adults. But I defy any adult to find a cartoon with cooler looking characters! Practically every character on this show looks totally awesome, and with the exception of the lady with the keytar, it really doesn’t look dated at all. I think you could show this to a kid today and they probably wouldn’t even realize it was over 20 years old, as long as they didn’t hear the theme song.

The 4 disc set features 32 episodes. That’s over 11 hours of action! In addition, there’s a little featurette called Partly Metal, Partly Real: Remembering Silverhawks. It’s a nice program that recalls the origins of the series and features interviews with the producers and voice actors, who still look back on the show fondly. As well they should.

Silverhawks may not be remembered by quite as many people as the aforementioned “holy trinity”, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less good. As a matter of fact, it’s probably better and at the very least, it looks cool as hell. If you’re a parent looking for a slice of nostalgia that you can enjoy with your kids, you could do a lot worse than picking up a copy of Silverhawks Volume One.