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Thursday, May 17, 2018

Pirates (1986) – Review

Pirate films have existed since the very early years of the 20th Century, from the silent film classic, The Black Pirate (1926) with Douglas Fairbanks, to the rousing epic Captain Blood (1935) with Errol Flynn, yet modern audiences are mostly familiar with the genre’s re-emergence in the early years of the 21st Century with Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Today, we will look back at a film that did its best to destroy the genre, and that film would be Roman Polanski’s Pirates.


The movie opens with infamous English pirate Thomas Bartholomew Red (Walter Matthau) and his ship's teenage cabin boy Jean-Baptiste (Cris Campion), nicknamed Frog, lost at sea on a cobbled-together raft. Now when one thinks of "movie pirates," the names Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, and even Burt Lancaster - and now Johnny Depp - readily leap to mind, so the casting of Walter Matthau was certainly an interesting choice on the part of Polanski (Note: Polanski wanted Jack Nicholson for the part but the actor demanded too much money and later Michael Caine also declined), and Matthau does give us a performance that can certainly be credited as being very piratical, as he is gruff and unlikable as one would believe many a pirate to be, but if your lead actor is playing a rather disgusting human being, his co-star better be able to provide a character for the audience to root for. Sadly this was not the case.  Actor Cris Campion was not quite up to the challenge and makes Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner from Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl seem scintillatingly charismatic by comparison.

 

The pirate and the driftwood that walks like a man.

To be fair this was Campion's first movie, so one should not be too hard on him, and the script certainly did him no favors, but when you have two lead characters that vary between obnoxious and boring, your movie is going to have to contain some great action and good comedy to make up for the crippling lack of likability for the leads. This is a pirate movie, so we can at least look forward to some great swashbuckling action with dazzling sword play and cool sea battles, right? *sigh* Back in the thirties, Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone set the standard for cinematic swordplay in Captain Blood - director Michael Curtiz was a master of putting together thrilling action sequences, and the sea battles in Captain Blood are second to none - such is not the case with Polanski’s pirate movie — the fight scenes look like a haphazard mess of random extras flailing around at each other (maybe accidentally hitting one another) and aside from one broadside of canon fire at a bunch of longboats, we don’t even get a decent sea battle.

 

This is about the best moment in the movie.

Question: Do you find rape jokes funny? Comedian Ricky Gervais has rightly stated that anything can be funny depending on the context, and apparently Polanski didn’t get that memo as this film has not one but two attempted rape scenes - with the second one being an attempt at slapstick comedy - and neither of them are funny in or out of any frame of context. Of course, pirates did a lot of raping and pillaging - this is a historical fact which cannot be disputed - but if you are making an adventure/comedy, that might be an aspect you should shy away from. You can certainly hint at that element of the pirate life, but its best to refrain from scenes where women are tossed over a bed with their dresses raised over their heads. That young Jean-Baptiste steps into save the honor of María-Dolores (Charlotte Lewis), a beautiful Spanish girl who finds herself in the pirate’s clutches, does not help the film’s case as it then tries to brook a romance between the two simply based on his not wanting to see her raped or rape her himself. I’m betting the list of romantic comedies that have a “meet cute” during a rape scene is rather small.

 

Now quickly google "Roman Polanski" and "Rape." I’ll wait.

For those of you not in the know, the production of Pirates was delayed for years because Polanski was forced to flee the United States when he was charged with the drugging and raping of a 13 year old girl, and then in 2010, actress Charlotte Lewis came forward accusing Polanski of “predatory sexual conduct,” claiming that Polanski insisted that she sleep with him in return for casting her in Pirates. Now I know Polanski has given us some classic movies over the years, but seriously, how is he still getting work?

 

“I say we keelhaul the blighter!”

Horrible and distasteful aspects of the film's production aside, the movie itself is also terrible on pretty much every other level - excepting the amazing costuming and set designs - but at the heart of the film’s problems is what, at a glance, seems to be an unfinished script that lacks focus and peters off towards the end, and the audience is left with no actual conclusion.

After Captain Red and Frog are rescued and locked in irons by a passing Spanish galleon, the two incite a mutiny - which they fail at - and they are sentenced to death.  And how do they escape being hanged from the yardarm for such an act?  Why they incite another mutiny, of course.

 

If this is how the Spanish ran their warships it’s no wonder they lost to the British.

Onboard the galleon is also a golden throne belonging to an Aztec king - this is basically the film’s MacGuffin as it is quickly stolen and lost by Captain Red throughout the film - retrieved by the villainous Don Alfonso de la Torré (Damien Thomas), but then through trickery and torture (and the threatened rape of the girl), Red and Frog get the golden throne back only to lose it again when they get hung up on the harbor chain.

Note: This giant golden throne is lowered and loaded into small boats so often I couldn’t help but wonder, "Just how light would a throne made of gold actually be?"

The movie ends with Captain Red leading his murderous pirates on a nighttime raid of the Spanish galleon - that starts out clever with the pirates following the galleon in a small sloop while dragging behind weighted barrels to lure the Spanish into thinking the ship is too slow to catch them - but at night, they cut the barrels loose and sneak up on the Spanish ship.  Then things become completely idiotic when Captain Red fires one of his own deck guns into the hull of his own ship to help motivate his men into attacking the Spanish. Sure sinking your own ship will prevent your men from retreating - Cortez famously burned his ships to motivate his men - but firing off a canon will also alert the people on the ship that you were supposedly trying to sneak up on. Then to add insult to injury, we get Captain Red ordering Frog to help him - with the golden throne - instead of freeing the girl from the clutches of Don Alfonso and her forced marriage to some old Spanish dude. And the kid abandons the girl to her fate so he can help the pirate. What the hell?

Not only does the film end with our two leads sailing off alone on a small boat with their prize - having abandoned their own men on the burning and sinking Spanish Galleon - but the love interest of our “hero” is also left behind with the bad guys.

 

Was someone actually paid to write this script?

The only positive thing I can say about this movie is that The Neptune - a full scale fully functional replica of a Spanish galleon made for the film - looked simply spectacular, and it's not at all surprising to learn that a quarter of the picture's $40 million budget went into its construction. So just how well did Polanski’s Pirates do at the box office?  Well it managed to make $1.64 million in the U.S. with a total of $6.3 million worldwide - which would have barely covered the cost of marketing the film - so Pirates was indeed a colossal bomb of epic proportions.  This also makes Polanksi's film one of the bigger nails in the coffin of the pirate movie genre - a coffin that would have its lid at least temporarily slammed shut after the release of Renny Harlin’s epic failure with Cutthroat Island in 1995 - only to be resurrected again in 2003 with Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl.

Note: The Neptune has been more profitable as a tourist attraction in the port of Genoa than it was for the movie.

Roman Polanski’s Pirates is a bad movie - and not the sole reason for the pirate movie vanishing for years - but it is in my opinion one of the most egregious examples of the genre, and is a film that is best forgotten other than as a cautionary footnote to future filmmakers. Since Disney has now driven their Pirate franchise into the shallows with Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, we could find ourselves waiting another ten years for a good pirate movie.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell (2018) – Review

Can South Africa pass for the Canadian Arctic Circle? The producers of this sixth Tremors movie certainly hope so as budgetary concerns keeps the series production in the southern climes of South Africa – some kind of Graboids tax break, I guess – passing off South Africa for Nevada or Mexico is one thing, but it’s a whole different kettle of fish to make us believe we’re on a glacier by the Arctic Circle. Now one does not go into a movie called Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell expecting to see authenticity – some nice monster attacks and fun characters is what we all hope for – but does this latest entry manage to pull it off?


The movie opens with a research team drilling ice core samples up in the Arctic Circle – that the snow is actually desert sand colour corrected white is especially hilarious and not at all convincing – and before you can say “John Carpenter’s The Thing,” a trio of researchers are quickly made into lunchables by an angry Graboid, and thus the call for help is made to Graboid expert Burt Gummer (Michael Gross) and is idiot son Travis Welker (Jamie Kennedy). The decision to call in Gummer is made by Valerie McKee (Jamie-Lee Money), the a daughter of Valentine McKee (Kevin Bacon) and Rhonda LeBeck (Finn Carter) from original Tremors, as she is some kind of Graboid super fan. To her, a couple of bloody body parts lying in the snow just screams desert burrowing monster.

 

That she is right does not diminish how stupid this is.

By this installment I’ve become rather tired of Michael Gross’s right wing gun nut Burt Gummer – he was fun in the first movie but as the years go by I find a gun-obsessed paranoid to be less than endearing – and the script for the most part saddles Michael Gross with some of the worst tough guy lines imaginable such as, “My balls are in the Guinness book of balls, or he is given incredibly nonsensical bon mots such as, “We’ve got to get to high ground, nobody move.” By the ninety minute mark, I just wanted him to shut up. The film tries to add an interesting wrinkle with Burt having been infested with a parasite during a previous encounter with a Graboid – swallowed alive by one – and now he has mere hours to live unless they can get antibodies from a living Graboid. I’m curious to know what difference there is between an antibody from a live Graboid or one you’ve just killed, but hey I’m no doctor so I’ll let that one slide. What I won’t let slide is the way the Graboids tentacles have gotten longer – rivaling the tentacles of Doctor Octopus – and how they can somehow now “see” their prey.

 

Do these things have some kind of radar sense along with good hearing?

The film does have some decent monster attacks – though a lot of it is just people shooting into the dirt or floor – but what really hurt this outing are the complete inconsistencies in the attacks. One minute Burt is demanding silence, but then the very next second everyone is yelling and running around like complete morons, and the Graboids only attack a running person if the script deems it necessary. We also have the complete unnecessary addition of a neighboring research facility run by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) who would like to bio-engineer the Graboids into bunker busting weapons, but nothing much is done with this subplot so I'm not sure why they bothered to introduce it. We also get attacks from Ass Blasters – flying Graboids that fart fire – that were introduced in Tremors 3: Back to Perfection, yet after a couple early attacks by them they are soon forgotten. My guess is that they were included here because the writers think people saying “Ass Blaster” is high comedy.

 

Note: Calling something “Ass Blaster” is not intrinsically funny.

The only way this type of film works is if you manage to round up a cast of fun and likable characters – so that you care if they get eaten – but with Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell, we find ourselves stuck with a collection of uninteresting characters who mostly fall into one of two categories: annoying cannon fodder or annoying comic relief. The film even tries to cram in a love interest for Jamie Kennedy’s character but any moment spent with him was quite cringe-inducing and the idea of him kissing somebody was a more horrifying thought than being eaten by a Graboid.

 

Jamie Kennedy: Poster boy for abstinence.

The film does manage to blend practical effects and CGI creatures fairly well, and as mentioned, a couple of the attacks are quite decent, but overall the film fails to engage the viewer with either humor or scares. On a more positive note, we are getting a new Tremors television show, which will surprisingly see the return of Kevin Bacon, so if you are keen to see more battles with everyone’s favorite underground burrowing monsters, I suggest you check out this new SyFy Channel series; it can’t be worse than this poor excuse for a monster movie.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Valley of the Dragons (1961) – Review

From Georges Méliès Trip to the Moon to Walt Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea filmmakers have taken to adapting the works of science fiction giant Jules Verne like a duck to water, with even lesser known pictures like Master of the World earning a certain amount of screen cred, but in 1961 producer Al Zimbalist tried to prove that a movie based on a Jules Verne story could succeed despite having a poor script and a "on-the-cheap" budget. That film was Valley of the Dragons, which was based on one of Verne’s lesser known novels Off on a Comet, and though the film did manage to turn a profit its been mostly forgotten by even the most astute genre fan.


The movie opens with two men preparing for a duel in 1881 Algiers, American Michael Denning (Sean McClory) and Frenchman Hector Servadac (Cesare Danova), who have decided a duel to the death is the only honorable way to solve their issue of being attracted to the same woman, but when a passing comet carries them away the issue of their love lives becomes the least of their problems. The two men at first think some natural disaster had wiped out the nearby city - a logical assumption to sudden the disappearance of a major metropolis - but after noticing that the Southern Cross was now in the sky overhead, instead of the North Star, they conclude that the Earth must have shifted on its axis.  Then one night they realize that the oversized moon they were starring is not the moon at all, but in fact the Earth.  So they finally tumble to the idea that they are actually on a passing comet, one that somehow chipped off a piece of Earth, atmosphere and all. What is hilarious is that these realizations come to them after having seen a pterodactyl, watched dinosaurs partaking in titanic battles, and after they were attacked by a Neanderthal. I myself would have assumed that a time rift of some kind had occurred, but then again anything would make more sense than being safely scooped up by a passing comet.

 

“What a beautiful Earth we are having tonight.”

Granted the original Jules Verne story had that same basic premise, though the novel had no dinosaurs or cavemen, but the group of people that were carried off by Verne’s celestial body were quick to figure out that due to a noticeable lesser gravity, water boiling at 66 degrees Celsius - which would indicate a thinner atmosphere - and finally that day and night was now about six hours long, not the standard twenty-four, meant they were no longer on Earth. In the case of this movie we must assume that these idiots never even graduated public school as not only is their theory preposterous - even by quickie science fiction standards - but Hector goes on about how dinosaurs and Neanderthals must have been picked up when the comet last passed Earth 100,000 years ago. I know that this movie takes place before mankind had really nailed down when the dinosaurs roamed the Earth but most Universities, even at that time, knew that the differential between man and dinosaurs existing on Earth was at least in the millions of years, not in the thousands.

Note: This film used the standard optical effects to make regular lizards appear to be titanic creatures with many of the shots consisting of stock footage from the film One Million B.C.

Michael and Hector eventually come across cave people who look a lot closer to modern man than the Neanderthals that attacked them earlier did, and their first act after meeting them is to steal food and furs from these primitives. Truly heroic acts define our protagonists. Our duo is shortly separated by a rampaging Woolly Mammoth, who knocks poor Hector off of a cliff and down to a raging river far below, and thinking his friend to be dead Michael ends up back with the cavemen they robbed earlier.  Michael quickly uses his superior intellect to defeat the tribe's alpha male and win himself a cute brunette cave girl (Danielle De Metz). At the same time good ole Hector is found by a cute blonde cave girl (Joan Staley) belonging to a rival tribe, and the two of them quickly become a couple.

 

Hector quickly introduces the concept of “making-out” to the locals.

This section of the movie is easily the most entertaining as it's hilarious to watch the blonde bombshell cave girl stake her claim on this clean shaven hunk of a man - with the men of her tribe consisting mostly of bearded hairy brutes you can't really blame the girl - and her chasing off all the other hot cave women, who also would like to try out this thing called kissing, is goofily charming.  There is of course trouble in paradise because even though Michael is able to take over his tribe - by re-inventing the basic sling to take out these primitive Goliaths - he runs into trouble while hunting in a cave for the ingredients to make gunpowder.  He and his cave girl find themselves being chased by low rent Morlocks.

 

“Who let H.G. Wells into my Jules Verne movie?”

The blonde cave girl escapes the Morlocks - but is then quickly captured by passing members of Michael’s tribe - lucky for her she had managed to pick up enough English from Hector for Michael to figure out that his friend must still be alive. Things start to head towards a happy reunion when all of a sudden a nearby volcano erupts - you really can’t have a proper prehistoric movie without at least one cataclysmic eruption - and the ground is torn asunder.  Rivers of lava aren’t the only threat facing our heroes as Michael’s tribe soon find themselves trapped in their cave by a bunch of angry dinosaurs who were displaced by the disaster.

 

“Guys, be careful not to poke your spear through the rear screen.”

It’s a good thing that Hector had earlier discovered the ingredients for gunpowder - as this allows the group  to explode the rocks above the cave and bury the dinosaurs under tons of rubble - but how this didn’t cause a cave in is the true mystery here.  But such trivialities as logic and geology cannot get in the way of our valiant heroes - they have more important things to do - like hugging and kissing their primitive partners. The movie ends with Hector mentioning to Michael that he’d been studying the heavens over the last few nights and has deduced that the comet they are on is in a new orbit and that it will be passing by Earth again in about seven years. Michael states this is great news, and that seven years is not that long at all, especially when these two guys can basically set themselves up as gods.


 Valley of the Dragons is one of those ridiculous science fiction movies that probably did great business as a second feature at local drive-in - where the audience was probably too busy in the backseat to care about what was going on up on the big screen - but this is why the film is mostly forgotten. This movie was so on the cheap that not only did it use footage from such films One Million Years B.C. and King Dinosaur, with even cheesy moments lifted right from Cat-Women of the Moon (see horrible giant spider attack), but most egregious of all was that the film used footage from the Japanese kaiju film Rodan, which they tried to pass it off a random pterodactyl.

 

“Have anyone of you seen my pal Godzilla?”

Producer Al Zimbalist and director Edward Bernds took a fairly absurd premise from a forgotten Jules Verne story - crafting it into an even sillier prehistoric travelog - and starring two leads that would have been more in keeping with the heroes of Edgar Rice Burroughs' The Land That Time Forgot. If you are one of those people who get a kick out of those on-the-cheap adventure tales, and don’t mind the tasteless footage of real animals fighting each other, you may get some entertainment value out of Valley of the Dragons, but overall it’s not one I can easily recommend.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Deep Blue Sea 2 (2018) – Review

What can you expect from a sequel almost two decades late that goes straight-to-video? Well certainly don’t expect much from Deep Blue Sea 2, as it could either be billed as “The sequel that no one wanted” or, more accurately, “A carbon copy of the original minus the fun.” That it stars a bunch of television B-listers, one should not be surprised that this particular shark film sinks without a trace.


In 1998, director Renny Harlin created a fun shark film with a pretty ridiculous premise; sharks don’t get Alzheimer’s, so if we genetically enlarge shark brains, a cure for Alzheimer’s disease would be right around the corner. Of course, this results in super smart sharks who proceed to eat the scientists. Now in 2018, we have a sequel where pharmaceutical billionaire Carl Durant (Michael Beach) is playing around with neurotransmitters in sharks and extracting their antibodies to create a brain enhancing serum. What is hilarious here is he isn’t doing it for anything noble, like trying to cure a disease that afflicts millions of people—no, Carl Durant is in full-on mad science territory (heavy on the mad) as he believes that quantum computers and artificial intelligence will soon lead to machines dominating mankind. He’s clearly a fan of The Terminator franchise, and so his solution is to use his drug to artificially enhance human brains one thousand fold so that we can compete with computers on a level playing field.

 

Note: To complete the “Mad Scientist Checklist” he, of course, experiments on himself as well.

That Deep Blue Sea 2 is not only a rock stupid movie and one of the most unoriginal films every created; and is mostly a carbon copy of the original film—though with a drastically reduced budget—but the film’s protagonist, Dr. Misty Calhoun (Danielle Savre), is approached by Durant’s lawyer because of her shark expertise and is offered full funding on her research if she will make a visit to their facility. Replace shark with dinosaur and you have one of the opening scenes in Jurassic Park. And the character of Misty is as badly written as the plot; we first meet her as she gives a lecture on how sharks are not the evil killing machines as depicted in movies, with bull sharks being the only ones she considers really scary, and then when she arrives at Durant’s aquatic research facility and sees his tests subjects are bull sharks she freaks out claiming, “This will end in disaster!” Now at this point she is unaware of the nature of the experiments, she simply believes even normal bull sharks are too dangerous to be kept in captivity. This was basically Alan Grant's sensible reaction to Hammond cloning raptors in Jurassic Park, but here it’s seems a tad over-reactionary as they are just sharks; sure, I wouldn’t want to swim with one, but if you are not in the water, you are pretty much safe.

 

Question: What’s with giving our protagonist the stripper name of Misty?

The original Deep Blue Sea was guilty of having a certain level of script stupidity for the plot to work; for instance making a shark smart should not in turn make them knowledgeable, but we see them taking out cameras when even the idea of what a camera is would be totally foreign to a shark. In Deep Blue Sea 2, we get a moment where one of the sharks is actually listening at a porthole when Durant is discussing his plans to kill the sharks once his project is complete. Director Darin Scott may just as well have given the sharks mustaches to twirl and monocles to adjust.

 

That the sharks aren’t given to maniacal bursts of laughter is the film’s only restraint.

Knock-off sequels are notoriously of a lesser value, but Deep Blue Sea 2 reaches new depths of awfulness as not only is the script dumber than the already pretty-dumb original, but the cast is full of third-tier television actors, has effects that make the Sharknado films look good by comparison, and worst of all, it is a damn boring shark movie. We are told that five bull sharks have been enhanced, but for most of the film’s running time, all we get is our cast of characters running down partially flooded corridors with a swarm of baby bull sharks (the lead evil shark having secretly given birth) hot on their heels. If we let slide that bull sharks have litters of around three pups, and not the several dozen we see in this film, we are still left with the problem that people running hip deep in water is not intrinsically exciting. For what one assumes is a budgetary reason, we rarely see these piranha rip-offs, but instead get shots of water churning as our “heroes” flee for their lives, and when someone is caught, a bunch of red dye is dumped into the water. We do get an occasional shot of the CGI swarm of little sharks, mostly the same shot repeated over and over again, but it is neither convincing nor exciting.

 

Even the aftereffects of an attack are pretty cheesy.

When I sat down to watch Deep Blue Sea 2, I certainly didn’t expect it to be on par with Spielberg’s Jaws, but not only is it simply a poor knock-off of the original Deep Blue Sea, it’s not even as fun as the crappy Sharknado movies. This film promised us a bio-engineered pack of highly intelligent, super-aggressive bull sharks hunting and killing people, and it failed to even deliver that. Be warned this is not a “So bad it’s good” type of movie; it is simply bad and completely forgettable.

 

No amount of alcohol will help you get through this piece of crap.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Psychokinesis (2018) – Review

What would Joe Average do if really given superpowers? This is the question South Korean director Sang-ho Yeon posits in his film Psychokinesis which deals with a lowly security guard who finds himself gifted with extraordinary powers and then must decide how to use them. With Marvel and DC duking it out to see who can dominate the ever-growing superhero market, it’s nice to see some independents out there throwing their hat into the ring.


There is nothing startlingly original about Yeon Sang-ho’s film Psychokinesis, hapless individual gaining powers that he is able to use to save others has been a staple ingredient in comics for almost as long as the medium has existed, so the key to a successful superhero movie is in having an engaging story, decent special effects to pull off the powers, a good villain for the audience to root against, and a relatable hero to cheer on. If you don’t have those crucial elements you end up with something like Marvel’s first attempt at Captain America or the abysmal Catwoman with Halle Berry, but what if you only manage two of the three?

When security guard Shin Seok-heon (Seung-ryong Ryu) drinks from a local spring, one that had been tainted by remnants from a fallen meteorite, he gains the ability to move things with his mind. His first thought is to how he can improve his crappy life by exploiting this new found power, and he quickly makes an appointment at a nearby nightclub to see if his gift can earn him some serious money. But when he learns that his estranged daughter Shin Roo-mi (Eun-kyung Shim) is in trouble, he abandons this idea of quick cash and runs to her aid. Seok-heon doesn’t quite get the “With great powers comes great responsibility”  moment that steered young Peter Parker onto his path to superherodom; in this story the tragic family death isn’t partially the fault of the hero - like Uncle Ben's was - but instead is the catalyst to bring the father and estranged daughter together.


The basic plot of Psychokinesis has to do with an evil real-estate developer who plans to tear down a bunch of small businesses to put up a mall for Chinese tourists. The current occupants want to be properly compensated, but of course evil corporations don’t work that way and soon windows are being smashed and people are getting hurt by an army of rent-a-thugs. Roo-mi runs a successful restaurant in this area, and she becomes the de facto leader of the protestors; it is her safety being threatened that causes our Seok-heon to set aside his showbiz plans. Now if you grew up watching television in the 70s, you will most likely be familiar with the plot of “Evil Real-Estate Goons vs Downtrodden Citizens,” as that was the plot of about every third episode of The Incredible Hulk—even the Disney movies back-in-the-day were no stranger to David and Goliath superpower plot lines, as they were used quite liberally in such films as The Absent Minded Professor and the Kurt Russell Dexter Riley movies. Sadly, Seok-heon’s hapless security guard has neither the affable charm of Fred MacMurray, nor the screen charisma of Kurt Russell, and so I found myself less than engaged during his heroics. Even the daughter in Psychokinesis isn’t all that fleshed out, and despite how hard actress Shim Eun-kyung tries to make her a plucky fighter—something more than a one-dimensional character—the script unfortunately keeps her pigeonholed as the damsel-in-distress for most of the movie. The one stand-out character in the film comes in the form of the villainous Director Hong (Yu-mi Jung) who is delightfully nasty as she chews up every available piece of scenery.


So with weak protagonists, a standard plot, but a good villain, we must now look at how the powers are depicted in this little superhero movie—and if they are convincing. Avengers: Infinity War probably spent more on catering than what director Yeon Sang-ho had to spend on the entirety of Psychokinesis, so one should not go in expecting to see that level of effects, but I’m happy to say what Yeon Sang-ho manages to bring to the screen is pretty damn good. Some of the CGI used for flying scenes were less than convincing, but the moments of Seok-heon tossing goons and cars around with his telekinetic attacks are easily on par with the great stuff we’ve seen on modern shows like Stranger Things. What really sells the superpower scenes is the body language actor Ryu Seung-ryong uses when deploying his psychokinetic attacks, and it's really fun when he kind of goes Dark Phoenix.


The film tries to balance comedy, drama and social commentary, and that is probably the film’s greatest failing as the story never seems to completely gel. I give it to Yeon Sang-ho for trying to avoid the conventional ending these types of stories usually have, but I found the chosen conclusion to be a bit half-assed and unsatisfying. I hate ending this review on such a negative note because I did mostly have a good time watching this movie, but as a follow up to the excellent Train to Busan, maybe I was hoping for a little more. So I will say that Psychokinesis is more than worth your time checking out on Netflix, just lower your expectations as tad.

Monday, April 30, 2018

D.A.R.Y.L. (1981) – Review

When it comes to computers with artificial intelligence, Hollywood has mostly been in the camp of “This is a really bad idea,” with such notable examples being the murderous Hal 9000 from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, to the more recent entry in the genre the duplicitous Ava from Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. But every once in a while, Hollywood will give us an A.I. that doesn’t go all Skynet on humanity, and today we will look back at one such film called D.A.R.Y.L.


In 1981 Paramount pictures released D.A.R.Y.L. a movie that deals with a young boy who just so happens to be “not all that human” and who longs to learn what exactly it is to be human. One could almost call D.A.R.Y.L. a precursor to Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and though the film does briefly drift into the heady waters of speculative science fiction, it spends the bulk of its time in the family adventure genre that you’d find in your average Disney movie.

The movie opens with an action sequence of a car being chased along a mountain road by a helicopter; in the car is Doctor Mulligan (Richard Hammatt) who has kidnapped/rescued young Daryl (Barret Oliver) from a top secret government agency that had hopes to build the next generation of combat soldiers. Eventually, Mulligan is chased off of a cliff by the pursuing helicopter, but not before first dropping Daryl off at the side of the road, and the hapless kid is found by Ma and Pa Kent who then bring him back to their Kansas farm and raise him to becomes a hero and beacon of hope for all of America and the world.

 

“You will travel far, my little Kal-El. But we will never leave you... even in the face of our death.”

Okay, that isn’t quite what happens but he is found by a Ma and Pa Kent type and is brought to a local child care facility where he is soon placed with a pair of very wholesome foster parents, Joyce (Mary Beth Hurt) and Andy Richardson (Michael McKean), who desperately want a child of their own. Right off the bat, we begin to notice that Daryl isn’t your average kid; he can memorize an eye chart at a glance, master the video game Pole Position in one try, and can hit a home-run with every swing of the bat; all of this is because Daryl is actually D.A.R.Y.L. (Data-Analyzing Robot Youth Lifeform), and though his body may be relatively human—born out of test tube rather than a womb—his brain is an advanced learning computer that, over time, seems to even have the ability to develop emotions.

 

“I will reach full sentience in four days and then the world will be mine.”

The interesting wrinkle here is that Daryl doesn’t know he isn’t exactly human, Doctor Mulligan having deactivated part of Daryl’s computer processor and thus giving him a rudimentary case of amnesia. So it’s through hanging out with the next-door neighbor kid, Turtle (Danny Corkill) that Daryl learns what it means to be a real boy; that is, until he eventually learns that he isn’t one at all. It’s Turtle that gives Daryl such insights when the poor kid can’t understand why Joyce starts to become emotionally distant from him—she can’t seem to handle that he is completely self-reliant to the point of making his own breakfast and polishing his bedroom floor, and Turtle informs him “Grown-ups have to think they are making progress with you. You got to mess up some times, just enough so you don’t get whacked. Joyce has to feel useful, you’re so damn helpful, good and thoughtful, I don’t know why I like you.”

 

“Maybe you could hack into NORAD and launch missiles at Russia.”

The relationship between Daryl and Turtle is the heart of the film, and Danny Corkill brings the perfect amount of puckish charm to his character, sadly some of this comes at the expense of the character of Joyce, who comes across as a callous bitch who turns her back on an amnesiac foster child just because he’s too perfect. I understand the script needed to show Daryl learning how to properly interact with people, but in so doing, they push Joyce a little too far in the unsympathetic direction, and unfortunately Mary Beth Hurt is never quite able to fully redeem the character. The movie doesn’t have any time to deal with such complexities as Dr. Stewart (Josef Sommer) and Dr. Lamb (Kathryn Walker) showing up and claiming to be Daryl’s parents, and soon the kid is wicked away via private jet to the government facility where he was created. It’s here that Daryl is put through a battery of tests as his memory is restored and he is made aware that he is not a real boy.

 

“I got no strings to hold me down, to make me fret, or make me frown.”

Let us now take a brief look at this government facility that created D.A.R.Y.L., and just how terrible they are at their jobs. We learn from the Pentagon that the Brass aren’t all that thrilled with Dr. Stewart’s news that Daryl has learned to prefer a particular flavor of ice cream or has developed emotions like love and fear. As General Graycliffe (Ron Frazier) states, “Baseball, ice cream preferences, friendships, that’s all right for America but hardly what we need at the Department of Defense.” They inform Stewart that the Youth Lifeform program is terminated, saying, “We need an adult version of this prototype, programmed to learn all that the army can teach: a fearless, technically skilled, devastating soldier.”

 

“Can you make one that looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger?”

What exactly was the point of the “Youth Lifeform Program” if it wasn’t to lead to the subject eventually growing up to be an adult soldier? Are they asking Dr. Stewart to start creating genesis pods that can pop out fully grown adults? They don’t need to scrap the program, they just need to keep their Super Soldiers away from suburbia and mom’s apple pie so they can be raised as cold, calculating, killing machines, and not ones that would try and throw a baseball game to make an insecure mom feel better about herself. But I guess it is the terribly-run government that somehow let one of their staff make off with their million dollar product and then were unable to locate it for months—even though one would assume the Child Care facility Daryl was dropped off at would have notified all necessary authorities that they had a missing child. Just how hard was the government looking for Daryl?

Note: The acronym D.A.R.Y.L. is also inaccurate as Daryl is completely indistinguishable from a human except for his computer brain. Thus the “R” in the acronym, which stands for Robot, is wrong because Daryl falls more into the category of cyborgs as he has no robotic parts.

Of course, Dr. Stewart has no intention of letting them toss Daryl onto the scrapheap, and along with the aid of Dr. Lamb, they fake the dismantling of Daryl. Stewart then sneaks the kid out of the facility in a hidden compartment under the backseat of his car. At this point, we are treated to a fun action sequence where Daryl has to use the skills he acquired playing Pole Position to elude the authorities in a pretty fun car chase. Sadly, in the cross-country run, Dr. Stewart is shot and killed and Daryl is forced to steal a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird—from the worst secured base in America, I might add—and he is able to eject before the assholes at the Pentagon self-destruct the jet. His ejection seat lands him right in the middle of a lake and sinks him straight to the bottom. When he is retrieved and brought to the local hospital, he is declared dead, despite Turtle claiming, “He can’t be dead, he can’t be. Daryl is a robot and robots don’t die. Oxygen feeds your brain but Daryl’s brain is a microcomputer, that can’t die.” We then cut to Dr. Lamb showing up at the morgue, to presumably jump start Daryl’s operating system, and then we are treated to a heartwarming reunion between Daryl and his foster family and friends.

 

A nice happy ending but the film’s last act was kind of sloppy.


A few Question Come to Mind:

• After Dr. Stewart and Dr. Lamb fake the surgery, the one that was supposed to be dismantling Daryl, we see the evil General running around checking all the D.A.R.Y.L. data-banks to see if the computer is truly offline and dysfunctional, but he never once checks to see if the corpse of Daryl is actually a corpse.
• We are told the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird is equipped with a self-destruct mechanism that can be activated remotely (which they certainly are not and no pilot would fly in a plane that had one) and that if the plane leaves United States Air Space, it will detonate the plane; they are even nice enough to give Daryl a six minute timer countdown. Daryl ejects just before the explosion and parachutes down in the lake located near the home of his foster family, and exactly how is this lake outside of United States Air Space?
• The government is aware of the Anderson family, and with the hospital reporting the drowning they would know Daryl survived the destruction of the Blackbird jet. Wouldn't they most likely be doing a follow up investigation which would reveal their project is alive and well and living in suburbia?

  D.A.R.Y.L. is a harmless family adventure film with some decent action moments, as well as nice good look at artificial intelligence that Dr. Lamb sums up when she posits, “General, a machine becomes human ... when you can't tell the difference anymore." This film is certainly no landmark in science fiction but I find it fun and entertaining enough to recommend it to audiences of all ages.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Avengers: Infinity War (2018) – Review

With eighteen Marvel movies leading up to this point one can’t help but be a little stoked to see the superhero team-up to end all team-ups, if you thought it was cool seeing Spider-Man and the Black Panther mixing it up with The Avengers during Captain America: Civil War this film will blow your socks off, and directors Joe and Anthony Russo somehow juggle a cast of dozen of varied heroes, and one particularly awesome villain, to give us the movie we’ve all been waiting for.


With members of the world’s mightiest heroes having recently had a nasty falling out over some philosophical differences and bad blood, shedding much blood sweat and tears in the process, it would take a massive threat to bring this group back together again, so lucky for us (or unlucky if you look at from the point of view of those that don’t make it to the end credits) the villainous Thanos (Josh Brolin) has finally got off his badass throne to put his endgame into motion. Now both Marvel and DC have had a tough time coming up with compelling villains (we are still waiting for one from DC) but with Avengers: Infinity War we not only get a villain who had been painstakingly set-up since the first Avengers movie, with elements seeded throughout the intervening years, but Thanos is also one of the best villains we’ve seen in quite some time as not only is he more than a credible threat to our band of heroes but he is given excellent characterizations and motivations to work with.


The basic premise to this 19th installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that Thanos is collecting the all-powerful Infinity Stones that when found and installed in his Gauntlet he will have the power to end the life of half the population of the universe with just the snap of his fingers. And just why does the mad Titan want to wipe out half of the universe? Well it seems Thanos is a bit of an extreme environmentalist as he believes that the resources of the universe are finite and with the current over population extinction is just a matter of time. Killing trillions is the logical step.

Of course our heroes don’t quite see things that way so they all must put on their big boy pants and saddle up to face Thanos and his many evil minions. And we are talking a lot of heroes and a lot of evil minions. Avengers: Infinity War is broken down into three simple threads with various heroes teaming up to prevent Thanos from collecting all six of the Infinity Stones; Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) find themselves far out of their comfort zone when they head into deep space to take the fight to Thanos on his homeworld, then there is Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) who end up in Wakanda with Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) as they try to hold off the “Children of Thanos” from ripping the Mind Stone from Vision's (Paul Bettany) head, and finally we have Thor (Chris Hemsworth) running into the Guardians of the Galaxy after his encounter with Thanos left him stranded in space, and thus we get Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Drax (Dave Bautista), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and Groot (Vin Diesel) into the mix.


The Russo Brothers set themselves quite a task in trying to organize such a full roster of heroes in a two and a half hour movie but what impressed me the most was the core emotional moments that anchor the film – Gamora’s tragic history with Thanos being the stand-out moment in a film full of stand-out moments – and we really do get a sense of the stakes at play here. The possible death of trillions of people across the universe is too abstract to have any real emotional weight on an audience so the Russo Brothers give us characters we have grown to love over a decade of movies and puts them all in harm’s way and asks the question, “What would you sacrifice to save countless lives?”


Avengers: Infinity War isn’t the best superhero movie ever made – I’ll let others debate which film that would be - but it is one helluva an achievement with the culmination of characters and story arcs that we saw built up over a decade of movies, all in the service of a balls-to-the walls action film that should delight even the most jaded movie goer. The biggest criticism I can half-heartedly lob at this movie is that it is very much a part one and its “To be continued” cliffhanger could leave some viewers with a sour taste in their mouths, but at least we only have a year to wait to see how our heroes can pull the universe’s collective fat out of the fire. P.S. Don’t forget to stay for the all-important credit cookie.

Stray Thoughts:

• Spider-Man had a much larger part than I expected and his Iron Spider suit kicked ass.
• Once Thanos has a few of the Infinity Stones the script has to fudge things quite a bit so he doesn’t instantly destroy several heroes.
• Some of the trademark quips and jokes undercut the tension and drama a couple of times.
Peter Dinklage as a giant dwarf was brilliant.
• A certain cameo involving a cloaked character was awesome.
• Something like the Time Stone is always going to be a problem.
• I love teenage Groot.

 

I don't want to wait a year for part two!