Clue (1985)

Whenever I meet a fellow lover of film, I’m always interested in finding out which movies had a sizeable impact on them in their youth. You inevitably get some of the same responses, assorted Disney films, The Goonies, Star Wars, etc., and those are all well and good—certainly cinema deserving to be on a list of this nature—but I like hearing about those one or two films that squeak on the list, making theirs exclusive. Now, I don’t pretend to be a unique snowflake in the realm of film buffism, but the two that don’t necessarily fit the bill for childhood favorites for me are Big Trouble in Little China (soon to be reviewed), and the film that I’m sure you have guessed by now that I am posting today, Clue.

I don’t know how I came to view Clue for the first time. It certainly doesn’t seem like a movie I would have picked off the shelves during that time of my life. I suspect that my parents rented it one night due to the amazing cast of character actors and comedians that help bring the film to life in such a vivid manner; whose verbal dexterity and understanding of timing in relation to wordplay help make the dialogue so snappy and the speed in which its bon mots are spat almost dizzying in certain scenes. They have always been fans of Madeline Kahn (Blazing Saddles), Michael McKean (This is Spinal Tap), and Howard Hesseman (WKRP in Cincinnati), so this is a strong possibility. Or, I could have seen that it stared Christopher Lloyd, Doc Brown himself, and pushed for the rental. Either way, from that point on Clue was a mainstay in the Edwards’ household—for a rather long stretch, it was rented every weekend it was available—being watched multiple times a day, multiple times a week, a practice my sister would ultimately see my bet and raise me on when she got old enough, taking it to levels that would make it hard for even me to sit through another viewing.

Under the guidance of screenwriter John Landis (The Blues Brothers) and director Jonathan Lynn—a veteran British sitcom director whose high points in film include both this and My Cousin Vinny, but that’s about it—the story plays out as a deft blend of slapstick and wordplay, a direct descendent of the screwball films of Hawks and Sturges, all the while tinted as a comedy of manners. Every type of humor is employed in its scant 96 minute runtime, even getting in a couple of well-timed (remember, it takes place in 1954) political and topical jabs, making it one of the more well-rounded comedies of the ’80s. Set amid the turmoil that McCarthyism and the Red Scare provided our country, Landis and Lynn’s screenplay brings together 6 seemingly unconnected individuals at a secluded and threatening (it’s even frightening to inanimate objects like motor vehicles) New England mansion, all drawn in due to the mysterious letter all received. Each is met at the door first by two snarling German Shepards, then, more comfortingly by the butler of the residence, Wadsworth (played with vigor by Tim Curry), then finally ushered to drinks and h’orderves served by the housemaid, Yvette. Once all the guests have arrived, small talk ensues over dinner where they begin to learn of the important, connective tissue of their situation: how they all work in Washington, D.C., how they are all seemingly being bribed by their host, Mr. Boddy (Lee Ving), and how Mrs. Peacock’s (Eileen Brennan) love for monkey’s brains put her in league with the Cantonese. Before too long, the corpses start pilling up along with the laughs, each murdered by the twisted party gifts the emcee sees fit to bestow upon them—a noose, gun, wrench, pipe, and knife—and our flummoxed partygoers must work together to figure out who the killer is, hopefully before they become the next victim.

Now, admittedly, the plot of Clue is razor thin, with the hunt for the murderer allowing Landis and Lynn the opportunity to concoct cuckoo set pieces, string together funny bits of business from each of the characters, and set up the unique box office hook of the film, in which the audience could see different endings at different theaters*. In most cases, this would act as a detriment to the film, but here, it works nicely, allowing the performers to fashion an undeniably effortless repartee and keep the pace quick, not allowing the viewer to get bored with the proceedings. Set-ups and punch lines come at the viewer in rapid-fire succession, with everyone getting in on the action and having a chance for their own particular talents to shine, leaving the audience feeling a bit lightheaded from all their laughter. Clue is a true ensemble in every sense of the word, making it, for all practical purposes, impossible for any fan to pick out their favorite performers. If I had a gun pointed to my head (or a noose around my neck) I would have to pick out 3 in the cast of 9 principle actors to highlight:

  1. As Wadsworth, Tim Curry has never been better, no small feat in a career that has spanned 218 titles and 6 decades. The breakneck pace in which dialogue is spewed never sounds better than when coming from him, and it’s always a treat to see the actor prance around the set nimbly, becoming more and more flustered as death seems to be closing in on both him and his party guests. Curry also has the most important role in this adventure as he acts as a tour guide of sorts for both the guests and audience, allowing everyone to keep up with the twists and turns of the story. In the clip below (warning: its spoilery), Wadsworth tells Ms. Scarlet (Leslie Ann Warren) exactly why she won’t be able to see her nefarious plot to completion, all the while with a wink of the eye and wonderful sense of energy.
  2. As Mrs. White, the late, great Madeline Kahn simultaneously creates the most oddly sympathetic and hilariously original take on the Black Widow character in comedic history. It’s a performance that isn’t as flashy as some of the others; instead, Kahn makes the correct decision of lying in wait, rearing up and repeatedly striking at just the right time to generate maximum impact with her line readings. Whether it be her off-kilter way of singing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” or in delivering her now famous, improvised speech about her HATRED for Yvette (see clip below), it’s a powerful achievement in comedy, one that reminds us that she was taken from us much too soon.
  3. Fact: Before he became known to the masses as the Red Roof Inn spokesman, Martin Mull became a legend in his role as Colonel Mustard, a Pentagon worker with a predilection for women of ill repute. Mull plays Mustard as a man who thinks he’s much smarter than he is, nearly always at the loosing end of verbal warfare, sometimes even going as far to disprove himself or his position in the very sentence he hoped would sway others to his way of thinking. He’s also prone to giving instructions on not to do something, oftentimes while doing the thing the instructions categorically prohibit. He also hates chandeliers. None of the clips I had in mind to highlight his character are available online. In fact, there is a surprising dearth in Mustard clips, period. What the hell Internets?!

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about Yvette for a minute. Played by veteran character actress Colleen Camp (Apocalypse Now), this French tart becomes the bouncy, buxom maid that everyone wishes to “Shake, Rattle and Roll” with. As with most males who watched Clue at a young age, Yvette certainly captured my “thoughtfulness”, holding it without reason or regard whenever she was onscreen. This has nothing to do with the depth of her character, she’s only playing a cipher that’s called on to do two things, make woman hate her, and men pay attention to nothing else when in her orbit. Camp exceeds in this charge with great aplomb.

Sadly, Clue was a box-office failure upon its release, but it has been able to amass a rather copious cult following over the years, recently even sparking remake interest from the likes of director Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean). It’s beautiful, painstakingly detailed period set would be shuttered and later bought by the producers of Dynasty and used as the fictional hotel, The Carlton; its props and furnishings would go back into the private collections they were on loan from, including items on loan from the estate of Theodore Roosevelt. So that’s something of a compliment, I guess, having items of a president on set having been entrusted to a film crew. The film was ahead of its time in a more dubious fashion, being the first cinematic adventure to be based on a board game, predating the bomb that was Battleship and the future terribleness of Candy Land by 27 years. What Landis and Lynn understood was that Clue, while based on a Hasboro/Parker Brothers property, had ties to film due to its basic murder mystery plot that had been used for countless movies prior, the pair even going so far as to style their own effort after Murder By Death, Neil Simon’s genre benchmark effort. A movie like Clue couldn’t be made today, the studio would insist of casting a model as Yvette, and some musician making a horrible, eye-rolling acting debut as one of the party guests. The scatological humor would be ratcheted up along with the “football to the groin” style humor we have come to expect from lazy screenwriters. Nope, no need to remake this one Hollywood, why don’t you focus your attention on a comedy that had potential and didn’t cash in on it, and keep your mitts off of Clue. After all, we fans aren’t the stupidly optimistic type and we all know what happens to people who are. If you don’t, just ask Mrs. White.

-David

*In his review of the film, Roger Ebert mentions that the newspaper ads for the film contained the letters A, B, or C, denoting which ending would be shown in which theaters.

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Cinematic Putresence #2: Hellraiser: Revelations (2011)

Horror film franchises typically take a beating from critics, but you really step in it when the fans who embraced the characters and ideas at the beginning turn on you like the trusted family dog who realizes that your pants are made of bacon. The people responsible for the steaming pile of poo that is Hellraiser: Revelations have done just that. Hellraiser: Revelations (the ninth film in the series if you can believe it) already upset fans by dismissing Doug Bradley from the villainous role of Pinhead that he started nearly 25 years ago.

For those unfamiliar with the Hellraiser series, it is based on the novel “The Hellbound Heart” by one of my favorite horror writers, Clive Barker. The basic idea is this: a puzzle box exists in our dimension on Earth. When curious people open the box, they are confronted with demons called cenobites who trap their souls in pain and suffering for all eternity. Bradley is Pinhead, the leader of this S&M group from hell (they all wear tight leather or vinyl). He’s aptly named for the nails puncturing his flesh and bone all over his skull. Anyway long story short, you open the box, you get all kinds of fucked up with chains and hooks. Hope you aren’t too attached to your skin, because it won’t be attached to you for much longer.

Revelations is yet another low budget horror film trying to use “found footage”. Damn you, Blair Witch, look what you started…. A group of of guys head down to Tijuana for a weekend of fun with tequila, prostitutes and perhaps taking in the local donkey show. Naturally they record most of it, but most of that is these clowns screaming TEEEEWANNNAAAA into the camera. Then we catch a glimpse of one guy not wearing a shirt (a Hellraiser standard) opening the puzzle box. The guys disappear and their rich, snobby SoCal family are worried sick until one of the missing kids shows up in a daze and turns out to be a bit psycho. Once we get out of the hand held camera section of the film, its a bit more bearable, but not by much. The box gets opened and Pinhead kinda struts around with his leather and chains and hooks, not really intimidating at all. Previous Hellraiser sequels had possibly 5 minutes of total screen time for Pinhead, but Bradley made his presence felt in everyone of those. There’s just something disturbing about a proper English gentleman with nails in his head speaking in a very calm, low tone of voice. His replacement Steven Smith Collins has a substantial amount of screen time and squanders it. For the first time the other cenobites are more gruesome and fear inducing than Pinhead. I’m not really familiar with Collins, but he sucked any chance of this movie being watchable with his watered down version of Pinhead. The violence is toned down more here than ever before in a Hellraiser film. There’s a really good chance that Elmo from Sesame Street would have been more hardcore and definitely more fun to watch than this pansy.

This franchise has been slumming it hard for the past 10 years. Revelations was shot in 11 days, with a total production time of 3 weeks and it sure as hell shows. The Weinsteins slapped this together only to keep the rights to the franchise for the upcoming reboot. Well, they may have just screwed the pooch when it comes to that film. Without Doug Bradley or Clive Barker on board we might end up with something like this or worse it will be rated PG-13. The original Hellraiser (also directed by Barker) is one of the goriest British horror films of the 80s. Quite a nice piece of ultra-violence, if I do say so myself. Revelations is a faint shadow of the original and deserves its place in the dollar bin at Walmart next to Dorf Goes Fishing.

-Wes

R.I.P. Tony Scott (1944-2012)

I woke up this morning to the tragic news of the passing of one of cinema’s biggest filmmakers of the last 30 years and one of my top ten idols in movie making period, the great Tony Scott. Apparently at around 12:30 pm yesterday Mr. Scott jumped off the Vincent Thomas Bridge in the San Pedro port district of Los Angeles, California, rumors speculate he may have been recently diagnosed with an inoperable brain cancer but as of this post no official statement has been made.

The question of why such an iconic filmmaker would take his own life, especially at the age of 68 and still so many films set to come, is hardly an importance. What matters the most is that Tony Scott delivered decades worth of high profile, summer blockbuster, action packed entertainment. His style in the 1980s and his revised look in the early 2000s has inspired a new generation of filmmakers and will be copied for years to come, although never equaled. Reception to his movies has divided critics and moviegoers alike yet Tony Scott has always held an extremely loyal fan base and the success of his last film, 2010’s Unstoppable (including 167 milllion dollars worldwide and a Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) shows that Scott was still full of surprises.

Tony Scott first hit celluloid at the same time as his older brother, Ridley Scott. At the age of 23, Ridley Scott made his debut with a short film entitled Boy and Bicycle and cast his then 16 year old younger brother Tony in an acting role. When Tony graduated the Royal College of Art he went to work for his brother at the Ridley Scott Associates television commercial production outfit and began a successful career crafting many celebrated British commercials and television specials.

In the late 1970s an invasion of British filmmakers including Hugh Hudson, Alan Parker, Adrian Lyne and Ridley Scott himself swarmed American cinemas with a new look and voice in independent film making. It is at this time that Tony Scott too would begin receiving offers from Hollywood, it is also at this time the Scott family would suffer a major tragedy in the death of their elder brother Frank from cancer. Tony came to Hollywood attracted to the in development adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire and subsequently was assigned the studio’s other vampire themed project The Hunger (1983).  The debut film featured an early look at Scott’s signature style and featured performances by David Bowie, Catherine Deneuve and the launching of actor Willem Dafoe. The film was a critical and financial flop but has since gained a big cult following and held the attention of producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer who would approach Tony to direct the seminal 80s blockbuster Top Gun.

Top Gun was released in 1986 to record breaking box-office numbers and launched the summer action movie and its marketing campaign as we see it today. Essentially a 90 minute promo for the U.S. Navy the film made a box-office star out of Tom Cruise and propelled actors like Val Kilmer, Tim Robbins and Meg Ryan into the forefront. Though notoriously cheesy, Top Gun will always remain one of the best, most talked about films of the 80s and its choreography of aerial action has never been topped. Tony Scott’s camera style, editing and color palette would become the quintessential look and tone for 80s and 90s action movies and surely paved the way for such action directors as Kathryn Bigelow, Renny Harlin and Michael Bay. This is most obvious in Tony’s followup to Top Gun, the 1987 sequel Beverly Hills Cop II. Scott’s version of Axel Foley is a tougher, grittier and much harder take than Martin Brest’s predecessor and still holds strong as one of the greatest sequels ever made.

1990 holds the one-two punch of the ever busy Tony Scott, seeing the release of Revenge, a steamy and brutal neo-noir in which an aviator falls for a crime boss’s wife in Mexico and Days of Thunder, in which Scott reteams with Cruise for a Spaghetti western on wheels set in the world of auto racing. Revenge is one of my favorite Tony Scott films and the best Kevin Costner-starrer I’ve ever seen. Days of Thunder is a fantastic sports epic, features star making roles by Nicole Kidman and John C. Reilly and plays like a NASCAR version of Sam Peckinah’s classic Junior Bonner.

Scott and Warner Bros. purchased Shane Black’s follow up script to Lethal Weapon with a record sum of money and thus the phenomenal The Last Boy Scout was born. Featuring a never funnier Bruce Willis in the ultimate portrayal of a hardboiled, badass cop and the greatest ensemble of action movie henchman to ever grace the screen, The Last Boy Scout is an underrated 90s gem. The combination of writer Shane Black’s characters and tongue-in-cheek, knife-in-spleen dialogue with Scott’s slick portrayal of L.A. is the first of many great writer-director collaborations to come.

Quentin Tarantino sold his first feature script True Romance to help fund his own debut Reservoir Dogs and with a great admiration for Revenge and Days of Thunder Tarantino felt completley safe with his very personal script in director Tony Scott’s hands. The result is Tony Scott’s (and by many degree Tarantino’s) masterpiece. I’m dying to write a post on this one as it features my favorite scene, my favorite moment in cinema, of all time. This of course would be the “Sicilian and Moors” conversation between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken. More on this in an upcoming post. Eggplant!

Scott and Tarantino became such a great pairing that even after winning an Oscar for Pulp Fiction, Tarantino came on to do a final script polish on Scott’s next film Crimson Tide. Tarantino left much of the naval drama and military lingo intact while punching up sequences with his signature dialogue and references from everything from the Silver Surfer to the classic WWII submarine film Run Silent, Run Deep. The 90s blockbuster featured stellar performances from two actors who would become synonymous with Tony Scott films, Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman.

The 1996 film The Fan was a critical and box-office flop starring Robert De Niro as a crazed fan obsessed with a famous baseball player (played by Wesley Snipes) and came at a time when all three parties (Scott, De Niro and Snipes) seemed confused on where their careers should go. While still not good, the movie does hold its share of fine moments and Tony Scott trademarks. Scott was able to bounce back in 1998 with the box-office hit Enemy of the State, an all-star paranoia thriller featuring Will Smith on the run from CIA surveillance and Gene Hackman reprising his signature role in Francis Ford Coppola’s classic The Conversation. Between Enemy of the State and his 2001 film Spy Game starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt, Scott’s camera movements and editing style would change considerably and create a new way of shooting action set pieces.

Starting with 2004’s Man on Fire, Tony Scott films would feature the signature orange and yellow sunsets and color schemes as before but now with a more frenetic imagery. His films are now filled with quick edits, lens flares, shaky cam, and jump cuts that would detract many cinema lovers, but keeps this viewer visually blown away. The hallucinatory style applied to Man on Fire, 2005’s Domino and 2009’s The Taking of Pelham 123 makes Tony Scott’s films their own unique beast.

He plays with soundtracks more and more and this creates a roller coaster ride of entertainment in each film. When Denzel Washington extracts bloody revenge on the men who kidnapped Dakota Fanning in Man on Fire and Nine Inch Nails blares on the soundtrack as Washington strolls across the street wielding a shotgun is fucking movie bliss. Same goes for the bloody shootout in a trailer park that leads into an ass-kicking, Xzibit soundtracked opening credit sequence in Domino. Or even the opening of Taking of Pelham 123 that intercuts the sounds of Travolta and his gang hijacking a train with the famous Rick Ross beats of Jay-Z’s 99 Problems.

What’s more is that Tony Scott continued to make smart action films in a time when the genre only seemed to be getting dumber. 2010’s Unstoppable is a masterclass in momentum and suspense. Pelham 123 is a smartly scripted remake of a beloved film and Brian Hegleland makes it his own and very original. Man on Fire is one of the coolest revenge movies of the last 20 years and saved Washington’s post-Oscar career from disasters like Out of Time. Domino is sheer, adrenaline fueled mayhem. The only misfire is 2006’s Deja Vu which collapses on its self from flawed, overly complicated time travel logic. Its still a very invigorating visual experience despite its confusing plot.

Now to my dismay there will always be a gaping void in cinema today. A missing piece to the movie going experience. The style and technique that Edgar Wright parodied so lovingly in Hot Fuzz will never be matched. Action movies will rarely be this smart or this much fun ever again. Mr. Scott is up there with Sam Peckinpah, Akira Kurosawa, John Milius, Shane Black and Quentin Tarantino as my action movie idols. I’ve always dreamed of one day writing a screenplay for Tony Scott. Even though he’s no longer with us, I will continue to write screenplays for Tony Scott. Through myself and the rising filmmakers of today, perhaps the legacy of Tony Scott will continue to live on in Hollywood. My condolences to the Scott family, his wife and twin sons, and thank you for the many memories and epic pictures  you’ve given me. Cheers, sir.

-John

The Expendables 2 (2012)

As an action movie connoisseur, I was undeniably pumped when it was announced that Stallone had used his reacquired clout (due to the surprising success of Rocky Balboa and Rambo) to bring together a rather large chunk of the actors that made the ’80s such a memorably testosterone-fueled decade for his next directorial opus, 2010’s The Expendables. I was there front and center on opening night, ready to be blown away by the overwhelming amount of machismo that would certainly be on display; firepower that would no doubt leave my head spinning, my ears ringing, and the 12-year-old version of me* wanting to run out of the theater making machine gun noises at the top of my lungs, shooting at an enemy that only I could see and only I could conquer.

This didn’t happen. At least, it didn’t happen to the extent that I had hoped and dreamed it would. Now, don’t get me wrong, I do like The Expendables, but even I recognize that taking the pro-stance on this particular action-fest isn’t the easiest of tasks, even in the film buff world. The movie itself was teeming with issues: muddy cinematography, tight camerawork in hand-to-hand combat sequences that made it nigh impossible for the viewer to gain any sense of action geography, sometimes making it hard for the audience to keep up with who in the hell was fighting and also limiting the effectiveness of the performances, CGI blood (I regret to report they are still present in the sequel. Why the traditonal, time-honored use of squibs and blood packs were retired by most, I’ll never understand), and most important of all, a story that featured an uninteresting bad guy, one of the cardinal sins of a film in this genre. These issues become even more glaring upon repeat viewings, the seams begin to show more wear and tear, making it harder for the fabric of the film to hold up. Stallone has never been a great director or writer; when he tried to juggle a plethora of script and character ideas—not to mention the rewrites that goes along with that particular puzzle—in addition to trying to shoehorn in numerous geriatric, Regan-era action stars as their schedules will allow, well, it’s a minor miracle that the whole thing didn’t entirely collapse on itself.

Now its time for Stallone and company to unleash round 2 on the world, and this time he hands over the directing reigns to Simon West (Con Air, The Mechanic), opting instead to only star and co-write the script with Richard Wenk (16 Blocks). The end result is a piece of action cinema that carries with it a better understanding of how to build excitement, to generate those OOOOOs and AHHHHs from the audience that the first film—for the most part—lacked. For example, take the frantic, overwhelmingly violent opening action sequence, one that gives our heroes a worthy introduction to their legend, as they all ride in on a convoy of intimidating battle vehicles decked out in combat gear that would, first, make any enemy’s heart stop just due to unquantifiable admiration, and then run cold due to the precision in which they begin to off their compatriots. I’m not sure how long this battle sequence lasted—my guess is 15 minutes—but it was one of the most well-rounded action set-pieces I’ve seen in an American film in some time. It not only manages to highlight most of the skills each Expendable brings to the table but also features helicopter explosions, driving, shooting, hand-to-hand combat, frying pan to head combat, sniper fire that leads to decapitations, a healthy dose of frantic bipedalism, zip-lining, airboats, jet skis, planes, and a body count that I gave up trying to keep tabs on within the first 5 seconds. In case you didn’t infer this from the last sentence, let me clarify things for you:

IT. IS. FUCKING. KILLER.

The main storyline kicks in right after the audience has time to catch its breath; it involves a McGuffin** that Barney Ross (Stallone) and his team are forced into tracking down by the seemingly nefarious Mr. Church (Bruce Willis, in an expanded role). Not only that, but they are forced to bring along one of Church’s own agents, Maggie (Nan Yu), to ensure they don’t screw things up. The mission seems easy enough (don’t they all?) but shortly after acquiring what they traveled halfway around the world for, Jean-Claude Van Damme shows up as Jean Vilian, stealing not only the McGuffin but the movie as well with a hilariously self-aware performance. Before he flies off, he decides to off one of Barney’s team, finally forcing them to live up to the namesake of their squad. The members that remain above ground swear revenge and commence tracking down Vilian posthaste, which leads to another epic brawl, culminating in a Stallone versus Van Damme showdown that lives up to the billing. That’s it. That’s the entire plot.

Since the story is, for all intents and purposes, nonexistent, let’s end this review with a pros and cons rundown:

Pros:

  1. The action sets in this go round are vastly improved over what audiences were treated to in the first installment. That aforementioned issue about action geography is for the most part eliminated, although West still uses too much shaky cam and a few too many tight shots during fisticuffs for my liking. Still, it’s a major step up.
  2. The chemistry between Stallone and Jason Statham is a treat to watch; they foster an easy bromantic sensibility that provides the film with its backbone and nearly all of its heart. It’s so good, in fact, that the series could easily coast on it provided the scripts are as streamlined and simplistic as this one.
  3. Dolph Lundgren continues to craft Gunnar Jensen into a memorable character, despite having little screen time. Stallone has given him a unique opportunity, one that Dolph hasn’t been afforded all that often over his career, the ability to play an actual character. Interestingly enough, he plays the only Expendable whose back story has been flushed out, not wholly functioning on one distinct characteristic. What’s even more interesting is that Stallone and Wenk have worked in the character’s educational background, identically to the actor’s own in chemical engineering (more on this and on Dolph in an upcoming Profiles in Badassery entry). Lundgren easily gives the most entertaining performance in the movie, taking a deranged, socially inept genius who is always rejected by women and turning him into an action movie hero for the ages.
  4. Jean-Claude Van Damme continues a late career resurgence with a menacing, humorous performance in what amounts to very little screen time. His role as Jean Vilian serves as the highlight of the film, providing the movie with a much needed weirdness and proving that passing up on the first installment of the series to make a superior DTV effort (Universal Solider: Regeneration) was a good judgment call. Anyone who has seen JCVD knows the karate legend has action chops, and his work here reinforces that notion.

Cons:

  1. Replacing the scenerity, heart on its sleave tone of the original is a jokey, self-referential vibe that is overdone and becomes hard to take. At points, the humor is shockingly bad, encroaching on Epic Movie levels, where the “joke” is just a reference to another movie that came out several years or decades ago. This wink-wink, nudge-nudge style of self-awareness that lets the audience know that the actors and filmmaking crew is in on the joke is awful and at times threatens to derail the film entirely and seems condescending to lovers of the genre. True fans know that absurdity is not a crime in films like these, and it always works better when not announced right before hand. Watch Commando again if you don’t believe me.
  2. Chuck Norris shows up for around 5 minutes—which is entirely too long in my opinion. I’ve never been a fan of the bearded one; he was always much too stiff and lacked any type of personality for me to remain invested in his celluloid misadventures—Code of Honor, Silent Rage, and Lone Wolf McQuade not withstanding. Chuck got a ton of mileage out of his fight with Bruce Lee in The Way of the Dragon—and I will give credit where credit is due—he held his own before Bruce’s blistering speed and stunning narcissism led to victory, but that was 40 years ago. It’s hard to hide 72 years of age in an action movie, and even though he’s game, he doesn’t pull it off. And why in God’s name does the theme from The Good, the Bad & the Ugly play every time his character shows up? That’s not doing him any favors, reminding me of a hall of fame badass like Clint.
  3. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Trench has an expanded role as well, even though referring to what he does here as a “role” is far too kind. Cipher would be more accurate, although I’m not quite sure we have a word in the English language that would best describe what he is called on to do here. His performance exists entirely in the “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” universe that I mentioned above, and it hurt the very fabric of my being. In fact, a majority of what he says makes no sense whatsoever when taken in context with the action unfolding on the screen, and it gets so bad that it threatens to stop the film cold on every occasion he opens his mouth. That being said, I look forward to The Last Stand and still believe that “The Austrian Oak” has something to contribute to the genre I hold so dear. Unfortunately for us, this performance isn’t it.
  4. What is the point of casting Scott Adkins and then botching the dude’s fight with Statham? He’s the one unquantifiable element in the film for most audiences, so why not blow their doors off by allowing him to demonstrate why it was decided to cast him in the first place? Some quick research shows that their fight was shot in one day and without rehearsal time. It shows. Its not as good as it needs to be, shot too dark and too close, minimizing the impact of the vicious kicks he can seemingly dole out at the drop of a hat. At least he has a bit of character to play with and has a killer death (see what I did there?), even if it is cribbed from another classic film.

All in all, The Expendables 2 is a sizeable step in the right direction and an enjoyable night out for any action movie buff. The follow-up effort seems more streamlined, and while it’s not a particularly smart film, it delivers on the promise of action cinema that is built around aging stars coming together to relive their glory years. While it’s not the best action flick of the year—that designation would belong to The Raid—its got some balls on it, and maybe if they had added a bit of subtext, where the action is allowed to serve both theme and character, it would have reached the level of greatness that it undoubtedly wished to achieve.

-David

*Those who know me well also know that this version still comes out a fair amount. Maybe too much, one could argue. But I just think they’re jealous.

** A plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist (and sometimes the antagonist) is willing to do and sacrifice almost anything to pursue, often with little or no narrative explanation as to why it is considered so desirable.

The Blue Angel (1930)

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I’ve spent a fair amount of time talking up the merits of silent films on this slip of digital parchment. The early era of the talkie film was littered with quick productions that used sound in very rudimentary ways, as a gimmick, nothing more. Directors were mostly unsure of how to utilize sound to its fullest, and in all fairness many of today’s directors still haven’t figured it out. So it is incredibly rare to find a talkie from 1930 that is so highly polished and expertly conceived as The Blue Angel. Please do yourself a favor and watch the German language version of the film. It is complete and the actors, who have been used to not talking AT ALL in films, struggle greatly with English especially Jannings.

Director Joseph Von Sternberg, a name I will look for in the future, has put together a flawed masterpiece here. A professor at a local university (Emil Jannings) begins noticing his students obsession with a dancer Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich) at a local club called The Blue Angel. His frustration reaches a point where he goes down to the club to request that the singer not see the young men anymore. Whatever ideas he had when he went into the bar evaporated when he laid eyes on Lola. She flirts with the older bachelor and charms him easily. Soon the professor is a regular at the club, much to the delight of his students who enjoy taunting him for being so hypocritical. Professor Rath becomes infatuated with Lola and ends up losing his position at the school and joining the dancer in marriage. Unfortunately, his life begins a tragic downward spiral at this point.

Emil Jannings won the very first Oscar for Best Actor, but it absolutely blows my mind that he didn’t get one for his unbelievable performance in this film. After Professor Rath loses his position at the university he is forced to stay with Lola and travel with her as she goes from night club to night club all over Europe. He is reduced to selling pin ups and postcards that feature pictures of his wife to make what money he can. When that turns up very little, and he is completely devastated at the wreck that his professional career has become, he begins performing in a sideshow as a clown. Eventually the company makes his way back to his home town, where it is being advertised that the distiguished Professor Rath will perform. With the prospect of all his former colleagues and students seeing him in such a state, Rath sinks into a deep depression.

Lola Lola on the other hand is carrying on with her singing and dancing like she always did. I believe she really did enjoy Rath’s company but over the course of travel she began to get bored with him. She sought other companionship, sometimes fellow performers other times customers. Dietrich is perfect as the star siren, luring men in with her sweet voice. Rath certainly was not the first to fall victim to this. Throughout the first segment of the film when Rath is just becoming acquainted with Lola, this sad clown is seen roaming around the back dressing rooms. He occasionally stares at Lola or Rath or the camera, never uttering a word. I think Von Sternberg used the clown to foreshadow Rath’s slow descent into depression and eventual madness. Later in the film Rath reacts in the same silently comatose way to other characters that the nameless clown does. Lost in his own sorrow, knowing that nothing he can say will change anything. Resigning yourself to fate is rarely a joyous event.

The scene in which Rath actually is pushed out on stage in his hometown is one of the most gut-wrenching scenes I have ever watched. He is petrified and dumbstruck at his predicament. Through the entire film he has maintained his pride despite losing his position in life and watching the woman he loves enjoy the company of other men. Now that is being completely stripped from by the laughter and cackles of his former students and the sympathetic disbelief of his former co-workers. He simply cracks. Completely losing it on stage as another performer is deeply kissing his wife just behind the curtain. The screams that come out of him will haunt me forever. This is not a horror film by any means, but its terrifying to witness Rath’s mental breakdown as he tears from the stage like a wild animal.

I watch a lot of films (shocking I know) and after seeing so many, when a film finally does get to me emotionally and stays with me for more than a day, I know I’ve seen something really special. This film deserves 100x more attention than it has received. The Blue Angel is one of the all time greats as far as I’m concerned.

-Wes

The History of Violence #1: The Devil’s Castle (1896)

It is with great pleasure that I kick off a new series from all contributing editors here at Film’s Okay: The History of Violence: A Compendium of Horror.

Influential. Groundbreaking. Magical. Shocking. Inventive. All of these words can describe the films of George Melies. If you are unfamiliar with this man’s genius and imagination, I highly recommend you take a look for yourself. It won’t take you long, nearly all of his films are less than 10 minutes in length, including this one. The embedded link above is the entire film, though someone saw it fit to add that soundtrack. Melies made films during the birth of cinema from the late 1800s to the 1910s before the Great War, and was more than partially responsible for the medium of moving pictures going from sheer novelty to true art form. His most famous work, A Trip to the Moon, has been paid homage to countless times and even remade into a music video by Smashing Pumpkins.

Melies’s work spanned multiple genres and 100s of films, but today I’m focusing on his contribution to horror. Touted as the very first horror film by many, though who really knows what was made that didn’t survive from that era, The Devil’s Castle (or House of The Devil depending on the translation) is definitely the earliest horror film I’ve seen. Melies stars in the film himself as The Devil who thinks it fun to torment a couple of people who have wandered into his abode. Mephistopheles moves chairs around and makes things appear and disappear, bewildering and frightening his guests.

I’ve read from numerous sources that indicate the intent of this film was merely to amuse, not to frighten. I can see that in some places where chairs are made to disappear when someone is looking to sit down or someone being poked in the butt with a pitchfork. The reason this film deserves its place in horror history is its vampire element. This is the first example I can find in a film of a bat transforming into a man. Melies uses his slight-of-hand technique of stop-motion to create the illusion of this transformation. This film is over 100 years old and the vampire transformation still looks better than most that were made in the 40s and 50s using smoke and cut aways.

George Meiles turned individual frames of film into miniature canvases. There was no possible way he could fathom the inspiration he would give the world as he created these moving images. Pieces of his influence can be seen in almost every movie that comes out today. Vampires remain a tried and true part of horror films, its unfortunate that romance novelists have ditched Fabio for vampires and tainted the genre. Instead of viciously killing people by drinking their blood, vampires now sparkle in the sun and it thunders when they count things. How far we have come.

-Wes Kelly

Batman Begins (2005)

When Batman & Robin was released in 1997 I was 11 years old. By the time Batman would return to screen in Batman Begins in 2005 I was 19. The wait was unbearable, especially with little teases in the 8 year gap including those On-Star commercials that advertised a walk on role in the next Batman film (upon which I would immediately search the internet and cruelly discover no Batman films were currently in development) and the ridiculously obnoxious Scooby-Doo teaser trailer in 2002 that was edited to look like a Batman film.

By the the time 2005 rolled around I was what I refer to as a “film elitist”. By this point I would ridicule anything “too mainstream”, would only watch a movie if it was either “art house” or “in black and white” and would much sooner watch Broken Flowers or Me and You and Everyone We Know before giving Fantastic Four or Serenity a moments look. Things have changed, obviously, since then and I rediscovered my roots of loving all things big and small scale from Star Wars or Switchblade Sisters to Breathless or The Artist. However, circa 2005 I was not an easy critic to impress.

Around this time I would become friends with a co-worker at the movie theater, a young lad by the name of Josh Helms, who will forever remain one of the smartest people I’ve met and an extremely talented violinist. Josh and I had many common loves like Daniel Day-Lewis performances or Danny Elfman scores, but the three passions we had most in common were Batman, Christopher Nolan and Samurai cinema. How lucky we would be to have all three come together in a time when I had given up on “mainstream cinema”.

Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is unlike any other movie series in the history of film. Its not solely a tongue-in-cheek action series like Star Wars or Indiana Jones, nor is it the serious melodrama that is The Godfather trilogy. Its a blend of both worlds. With the Batman films and Inception, Nolan has combined the seriousness of an art house film, the performances of an Oscar-caliber Hollywood picture, and the exploitation of a summer popcorn blockbuster into one, tight, cohesive package. A movement that has changed the Hollywood blockbuster as we see it today. Hollywood is rapidly turning to the Independent filmmakers to bring something fresh and new to the old Hollywood formula, (i.e. Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man, Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, Duncan Jones’ Source Code).

Now of course, Nolan isn’t the first filmmaker to do this. Spielberg and James Cameron and Robert Zemeckis and Peter Jackson have been bringing their own artistic brilliance to big Hollywood pictures for years, yet nobody has taken their source material quite as far as Christopher Nolan has. No one has taken a genre so far past the congratulatory “pat-yourself-on-the-back” special effects stage and so deep into harsh cinematic voyeurism.

Kicking off with a striking image of a swarm of bats that begin to make up the new Batman logo, Nolan’s film is a quick-fire piece of storytelling. We see the childhood Bruce Wayne fall down a well and has his first horrific encounter with bats. An edit later and were in the middle of an Asian prison where a young and bearded Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) fends off attacking inmates. The young Wayne is taken under the wing of Henri Ducard (the best mentor ever, Liam Neeson!) and practices under the tutelage of Ra’s Al Ghul (Academy Award nominee Ken Watanabe) and his League of Shadows, an organization of ninjas bent on eliminating criminality and serving “true justice”.

The brilliantly choreographed and Kurosawa evoking training sequences are intercut with the story of Bruce Wayne and the death of his parents. We see young Bruce become frightened during a theater production (the dancing figures that appear like bats are killer imagery) and his parents are soon gunned down while leaving the auditorium by average thug Joe Chill. Flash forward years later and Chill is up for parole after providing the D.A. with leverage against mob boss Carmine Falcone. Bruce is back for the hearing accompanied by childhood sweetheart and new assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) and her pleas for justice are disputed by his vision of vengeance. Bruce comes face to face with Carmine Falcone (a wickedly good Tom Wilkinson) and splits town in search of something more.

Using his newly acquired skills in martial arts, deception, practicality, knowledge of the simple nature between right and wrong and a clear will to uphold justice, Bruce Wayne returns home with a mission to rid Gotham City of organized crime. With the help of his confidant Alfred Pennyworth (the great Michael Caine) and the head of the Applied Sciences department at Wayne Enterprises, Lucius Fox (the infallible Morgan Freeman) Wayne develops a high-tech costume and weapons arsenal and becomes the heroic symbol…Batman. Using the forces of Sergeant James Gordon (the legendary Gary Oldman) and Rachel Dawes, Batman is able to take on Falcone and the psychotic psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Crane aka The Scarecrow (the brilliant Cillian Murphy) who plans to disperse chemicals into Gotham’s water supply that will evaporate into a fear toxin. A nemesis of Batman’s past reemerges to share in on the fear.

As you can see the story is quite a bit more complex than any other superhero film up till that point. In fact Bruce Wayne doesn’t show up in full Batman costume until halfway through the film. The first fight sequence where Batman takes down a group of Falcone’s drug-running thugs is brilliantly shot and edited to where Batman is but a mere blur. As the attacks come from all sides, what is actually seen is the terror in the criminals faces, something more akin to a horror movie. This display puts the viewer in the dizzying point of view of a criminal being taken down by an giant unseen bat.

The performances are superb around the board. Christian Bale is the first actor to give Batman three different faces. First there’s the real Bruce Wayne, the tortured soul who wishes to fight injustice and reestablish order in Gotham City. Then there’s the persona Bruce Wayne has adopted in order to maintain anonymity as the Batman, the persona in which he is the typical millionaire playboy, douche bag with a hot foreign model on each arm. And finally there’s the performance of Batman which holds its own unique stances, movements, and a gruffer voice than any Batman since Kevin Conroy. The ability in which Bale can switch from any of these three faces to another is a credit to the power of Christian Bale’s acting. More on that in The Dark Knight review.

As much as the first film is very much Christian Bale’s movie, the supporting players are all top of the line in every endeavor. Michael Caine brings a loyal, lovable and warm father-like presence to Alfred Pennyworth. His character throughout the trilogy will become more and more the man of moral conscience in Bruce’s life and Caine delivers an Oscar worthy performance in each. Gary Oldman is powerhouse as the incorruptible James Gordon. Its a refreshing change to see Oldman portray a character so right as opposed to so wrong and any film that lets Gary Oldman drive the Batmobile is a perfect 10 in my book.

Cillian Murphy and Tom Wilkinson bring a more traditional interpretation to the proceedings. Wilkinson’s Falcone is a larger-than-life interpretation of the Italian gangster and his delivery of a monologue about the power of fear is one of the film’s many highlights. Murphy meanwhile has the delivery of a classic madcap Batman villain, his delivery of “Who? The Bat..man” has the kind of tone and subtle beats that recall Frank Gorshin’s classic portrayal of The Riddler in the 1960s series.

The always classy Morgan Freeman is the show stealing comic relief and each exchange he has with Bruce Wayne is well-written, comedy gold. Katie Holmes is surprisingly good as Rachel Dawes and pulls off the hardboiled D.A. role well. And who can forget Rutger Hauer shows up as Wayne Enterprises new CEO Willaim Earle and Memento’s very own Mark Boone Junior shows up as a sleazy, crooked cop.

Oh my god and the Tumbler. I can’t forget about the Tumbler. That thing is the bomb. A massive tank-like vehicle, The Tumbler is the new form of Batmobile. The big car chase (one of the film’s few action sequences) is the greatest action scene of that year: the images of the all-terrain roadster pancaking cop cars is one thing but the sound of the Tumbler’s engine as it roars is utterly breathtaking. The sound quality in this sequence should forever be shown in film school’s as an example on the importance of sound effect creation and editing.

Batman Begins is a phenomenal start to the new franchise. I wasn’t hundred percent blown away in 2005, I had problems with the quick editing of the sequences, the brazing over the death of Wayne’s parents, the lack of action. But in time I learned that all these were a part of Nolan’s intention. Now I can no longer fault the film for skimping on the early images of Batman (when clearly Nolan wanted audiences to salivate for the full revelation of Batman in costume) or the brazing over of the Wayne’s parents deaths (because we’ve seen it in four films already) or the lack of action (the action filled climax in Begins flows wonderfully into the intro to The Dark Knight).  What I learned was that Nolan was more interested in Bruce Wayne’s struggles than a CGI heavy showdown of Batman and The Scarecrow. That the story was more about the citizens of Gotham City, the line between good and evil and the imagery of Batman. That Bob Kane and Batman were finally getting the movie they deserved.

-John