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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

In the Heart of the Sea (2015) - Review

This is not an adaptation of Herman Melville’s classic tale Moby Dick. This is an adaptation of the book that was based on the true events that inspired Herman Melville’s classic tale of Moby Dick. Got that?  The book this movie is based on is Nathaniel Philbrick’s non-fictional account of the sinking of the American whaling ship Essex in 1820. So with Ron Howard at the helm we kind of get Backdraft meets Melville by way of Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, with a dash of Spielberg’s Jaws.


Director Ron Howard decided to go with the unnecessary framing device for this movie of having Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) interviewing Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the only living survivor of the ill-fated whaling ship Essex, for the book that would one day become Moby Dick. After being cajoled to finally tell the “true story” of what went down on the last voyage of the Essex the movie jumps right into us seeing whaler supreme Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) meeting with the owners of the whaling company and the ship he thinks he is going to captain, but he’s told that he will actually only be First Mate on this voyage, despite their promises to the contrary, as they’d rather have someone with a good family name such as George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) to be captain. We then see Owen bidding a tearful farewell to his pregnant wife, promising to return as fast as human possible from this super dangerous job. Do you see the problem here? Narrator Tom Nickerson is in neither of these scenes, in fact the character of Nickerson barely makes an impact on the film, unless you count throwing up on Chris Hemsworth’s boots as an impact, so how could this guy even remotely be considered a reliable narrator?


The story I’m about to tell you I garnered by stealing the Captain’s and First Mate’s logs.”

Herman Melville did not rely on just one man’s account to create Moby Dick, but on his own experiences at sea as well as many other stories of sea faring disasters. So Ron Howard’s framing device to me comes across as lazy and unnecessary. The movie would have worked just as well if it had been a straightforward story from the point of view of Owen Chase…well as fine as a movie about a bunch of dudes sailing out to slaughter whales is ever going to be. And that is probably my biggest problem with the movie, in Spielberg’s man against nature movie Jaws we were not cheering for the shark, but in this movie I am totally on the side of the whale. Ron Howard does try to sneak in some moments of “Could killing these noble beasts be wrong?” but it just comes across a perfunctory. Playing sad music while cheering men harpoon a whale is Howard’s way of saying, “Yeah, I know they’re dicks but what am I gonna do?” Now this is a period piece, and I’m betting the men at the time were damn sure that God put oil inside whales just so they could hunt them down, gut them, and light their homes with it, so Ron Howard was in a tough spot because the protagonists of his film were part of an appalling industry that was pretty much hell-bent on hunting a species to extinction. There is no real good way to soft pedal that.


This is his “I know it’s wrong” sad face.

But if we let slide the despicable nature of our main character’s job how does the movie hold up as a whole? Well it starts out as a look at class warfare with poor Owen Chase not getting his promised promotion because the company would rather have an inexperienced man at the helm, who has a good strong family name in the industry, rather than a well-qualified one whose father just so happened to be a farmer who ended up in prison. Captain Pollard is given the job and the movie quickly shows us every movie clichĂ© in the book when it comes to depicting an upper-class twit, every decision he makes is the wrong one and will likely get men killed, and that Thor…I mean Owen Chase should have got the captaincy. Then the film shifts gears when the Essex is sunk by the Great White Whale, and it then becomes a story about men trying to survive in the hostile environment of the sea.  The very hostile yet incredibly tedious environment of the sea.


With the whale showing up randomly to say, “Hey there!

This movie is not Moby Dick; it is not about a man obsessed with killing the White Whale for sinking his ship and taking his leg. That’s what Pollard did after losing the Essex (but not his leg, that was all Melville), so In the Heart of the Sea is actually a prequel to Moby Dick and as is often the case with prequels it is not that interesting of a story. Men go out to sea after whales, they get sunk by a whale, and a few of them make it home after doing abdominal things to stay alive. Maybe that could have been made into an interesting movie, but Howard was unable to pull it off here. We don’t even get a good look at the hell it would have been to live aboard a ship like this for years at a time, which Weir managed so well in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, nor are we given anything but cardboard caricatures to follow. No one on this boat is a Captain Ahab or even a Captain Quint; most are fairly bland and uninteresting.



The film is beautifully shot, the actors give decent performances given the substandard material they had to work with, but as a whole it fails to engage the viewer in either a philosophic or historic aspect. Instead of a man against nature movie we get an audience against tedium. At the end of the movie Melville tells Nickerson that, “It will be work of fiction Mister Nickerson, inspired by the truth, but I don’t believe I feel the need to use all of it.” If only Ron Howard had felt the same

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Hateful Eight (2015) – Review

"It was Tarantino, in the cabin, with the revolver." In what is basically a western whodunit Quentin Tarantino collects a group of rather unpleasant characters, plops them in an Agatha Christie And Then There Were None plot line, add expletives and gore, then stirs occasionally.  Taking popular genres and giving them a visceral twist is something fans of Quentin Tarantino have come to expect for that is the Tarantino way. But does it always work?


If someone were to complain to me that a Tarantino film was too talky I’d first have to ask them, “Have you seen a Tarantino film before?” Characters having long monologues dates right back to Reservoir Dogs and The Hateful Eight owes much to that film for all you have to do is swap out warehouse with western cabin and the dynamic is much the same. If you’ve seen Django Unchained it’s not hard to tell what westerns influenced Tarantino and like it The Hateful Eight screams Sergio Leon and the spaghetti westerns he created. As the title of this latest Tarantino films suggests there are in fact eight characters all with degrees of hate and motivation, possibly more than eight, but unlike in say The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly there is no real Clint Eastwood analogue, all of the main characters are pretty nasty pieces of work, just of varying degrees.


“I may punch women in the face, but I’ve got nothing against black people.”

Much has been talked about the misogynistic nature of some Tarantino’s films, and poor Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) does taking a beating in this one, but the thing is she isn’t some poor western damsel being treated poorly because she is a woman. She is mean, she is racist, and she is as nasty as anyone else in this film, and at no point in this film do we doubt she deserves to be taken in to have her day with the hangman. If this movie had been about the transporting of a male criminal there certainly wouldn’t have been this controversy about Kurt Russel’s character elbowing said person in the face. We may not find out what exact crimes she committed to get her the death sentence, but as the film unfolds it’s clearly not for double parking her horse.


“When you get to Hell, tell them Daisy sent you.”

So what exactly is this movie about? Well the first half hour is a stagecoach ride with John "The Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell) who is taking Daisy to Red Rock for her hanging. Ruth is an old school bounty hunter that trusts no one, but believes in taking prisoners in alive even when killing them would be safer, as he states, “No one said this job was supposed to be easy.” This makes him about the most honorable of the “Hateful Eight” (with the exception of maybe the stagecoach driver O.B. Jackson (James Parks), even if his treatment of a prisoner is not the best. On route they come across fellow bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) whose horse died while transporting three dead bounties of his own, and now he needs a ride before the blizzard arrives and kills him. A short while later they meet up with another hapless soul lost in the snow, only this one is not a fellow bounty hunter but Captain Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) a rebel renegade whose family and friends kept up the killing of blacks long after the war was over, but who now claims to have taken the position of sheriff in Red Rock.


This leads to an awkward coach ride.

When they arrive at the stagecoach passover called Minnie's Haberdashery they encounter four more strangers; Bob "The Mexican" (Demian Bichir), Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth doing his best Christoph Waltz impression), cowpuncher Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), and ex-General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern). John Ruth is quick to assume that one, if not more of this group, is in league with Daisy, but he means to get her to Red Rock for execution despite weather or evil intentions. As this movie is at its heart a “murder mystery” I’ll stay away from spoilers, but I will say that Samuel L. Jackson does make for an excellent Hercule Poirot, and though Minnie’s Haberdashery is not as lavish a surrounding as say The Orient Express, it is still gorgeous to look at with Tarantino’s regular cinematographer, Robert Richardson, shooting in Ultra Panavision 70mm, and of course it has a hauntingly beautiful score by Ennio Morricone which makes this even more like a Sergio Leon film.


We also need more westerns with Kurt Russell.

If the film has a failing it’s in the overall structure, which is bloody revenge flick disguised as a western/murder mystery. We are introduced to many a fascinating character, but when the bullets fly, the blood sprays, and the smoke finally settles we are left with not much more than, “Bad shit happens to bad people.” If that is all Tarantino intended he certainly delivered, but some people may be expecting a little more than that in a film running roughly three hours. On the plus side the cast is uniformly fantastic, with Kurt Russell giving a standout performance, as he did earlier in the year with the horror/western Bone Tomahawk, and seeing Russell and Samuel L. Jackson together on screen is more than worth the price of admission.


Trivia Note: There is much in the way of racial slurs in this movie, no surprise there, but as I mentioned earlier this film has a definite Agatha Christie vibe at times, and the original title of And Then There Were None was Ten Little Niggers. Could that have been a working title for this film?

Friday, December 25, 2015

Tarzan and the Lost City (1998) – Review

I’ll admit to being quite excited when I first heard of this film back in the late 90s. The trailer showed a loquacious Tarzan, newly returned to the jungle, where he and Jane try and stop a group of white adventures from pillaging the lost city of Opar.  What’s not to love about that premise? Even the casting of 5’ 9” Casper Van Dien as the legendary ape man didn’t bother me. This film wasn’t going to waste our time with another origin story on how Tarzan grew up raised by apes or even how he met Jane, it was going to get right down to business with a new adventure. Unfortunately the adventure we got wasn’t all that great.


Anyone else get an Oliver Queen from Arrow vibe from this poster?

The movie begins with an opening text crawl explaining Tarzan’s backstory, once again not really needed considering it’s very doubtful that there would be anyone watching this who didn’t know at least the basics, but what is terrible is they even get some of their facts wrong, “In 1904, the son of an British Lord was lost at sea was found living in the African jungle. Raised by apes, the natives called him Tarzan.” First off Tarzan wasn’t ever lost at sea, his parents were marooned on the shores of Africa where they later gave birth to him, and he wasn’t named Tarzan by the natives but by the Great Apes that raised him. As pretty much no film adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes has got his origin story right I was prepared to let this slide, but then while attending a bachelor party back in England John Clayton/Tarzan gets a vision of trouble back home. Wait, he gets a what?


“It was if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced.”

The books were pulp adventure stories full of fantastic adventures, but even among all the lost cities and strange tribes Burroughs didn’t really get into the mystical crap. The closest we get to that is when Tarzan found pills in the vaults of Opar that kept one eternally young, but that can be chocked up to ancient Atlantean science and not magic. Tarzan (Casper Van Dien) informs Jane (Jane March) that their wedding will have to be postponed as he must return to Africa to deal with some crisis. Jane is less than thrilled with this news and informs him that, “This wedding will not be postponed. It will proceed as planned or not at all.” Jane’s reasoning here is that they cannot have a proper life if he’s going to harry off to Africa every time he gets a psychic message that a lion cub is stuck in a tree.


I for one side with the pretty lady in the nightgown.

And just what emergency is so damn important that it could drag Tarzan away from his nuptials? Well once again white men are tramping through the jungle causing all kinds of trouble, and the head of this particular group is Nigel Ravens (Steven Waddington), a particularly nasty fortune hunter/explorer. Ravens and his band of mercenaries have been pillaging up and down the coast of Africa; caging the local wildlife, poaching ivory, stealing relics and burning villages, but when Ravens discovers a particular relic he puts all other thoughts of thievery on hold. This gold pendant, which he ripped from the death shroud of a native chieftain, could lead to the lost city of Opar.


Think Belloq from Raiders of the Lost Ark, but without the charisma.

Tarzan arrives and tells Ravens that he must give up this search because according to legend if Opar is ever despoiled by white man then Africa will fall. Now if you have read the book Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar you’d be asking the question, “Wasn’t Opar founded by white dudes?” But like previous movies that name-checked Opar the fact that it was a lost Atlantean outpost is completely ditched, and in this case it’s just a sacred temple in the heart of Africa.


Impressive pyramid and all, but not really much of a city.

Ravens ignores Tarzan’s advice, bristles at the ape man’s threats, and pulls a gun on him. Tarzan disarms him with some jungle Kung-Fu and then disappears into the dark. We then see Jane arriving because despite her rational argument earlier, one that will never be addressed again, she has followed after Tarzan. One must stand by one’s man, and much like any film incarnation of Jane she proves to be next to useless. Why can’t we get a movie based on the later books where Jane is almost as much a jungle badass as Tarzan is? Instead we get Tarzan having to save her from Ravens’ men, from a snake, and Raven’s men again. About the only real helpful thing she does in this movie is to lure Raven and his goons away from a wounded Tarzan who was bit by a cobra that was about to strike Jane. Now how does luring men away from a dying Tarzan help him you may ask, well actually it doesn't, a swarm of bees appears and hides Tarzan from his enemies.


Yes, this really happens.

Of course it turns out that the bees are actually shaman Mugambe (Winston Ntshona) who once he transforms himself back to human uses a bit more magic to remove the venom from Tarzan’s system. Let us set aside for the moment the fact that we have a dude who can turn into friggin bees and look at Tarzan’s reaction to being bitten by a cobra. Once bitten he quickly ties a tourniquet on his arm to slow the spreading of the venom, and that’s it, he then staggers over a tree to die while Jane runs off to distract the mercs from finding her dying fiancĂ©e. Now let’s break that down to all its levels of wrong.

1. Tarzan would be long dead by now if he didn’t know how to survive a snake bite.
2. Fatalist Tarzan urges Jane to leave him to die.
3. Jane’s valiant attempt to keep the villains from finding Tarzan only succeeds because of the witch doctor.
4. There is a guy who can turn into BEES!

Earlier there was this meeting between Tarzan, Mugambe and Kaya (Rapulana Seiphemo), a headstrong warrior who wants to wage war on the intruders. At this meeting Tarzan tried to convince Kaya to let him handle it because Kaya’s warriors wouldn’t stand a chance against modern weaponry, but now that we know they have a guy that can turn into a swarm of bees on their side I’m all for letting the natives handle this situation themselves. Sure later Kaya and his men attack Ravens group, and many of them are mowed down by a Browning machine gun, but this is because they forgot they have a guy who can turn into a bloody swarm of BEES!


Sure he has a silly hat, but damn it he can turn into bees!

After healing Tarzan, and outfitting the jungle man in his proper loin cloth, he disappears leaving Tarzan to continue his pursuit of Ravens and his mercs alone, and to once again attempt to rescue Jane. Eventually Ravens and his men find the passageway to the mysterious lost city of Opar, and proceed to dynamite the entrance to open it. But first they must battle Kaya’s warrior, which isn’t hard when you have a Browning machine gun, but once in the passageway they must survive all the surprisingly nonlethal booby-traps. Indiana Jones would have left this place out of sheer boredom. Finally Ravens, Jane and the surviving henchman reach the city of Opar where they encounter stone masked drummers and a sorcerer who can deflect and dynamite with a wave of his hand. For some reason Ravens thinks this is the perfect time to charge said sorcerer and exclaim, “Welcome to the 20th Century” as if that is a great badass line to say to a guy who can repel dynamite. Turns out, unsurprisingly so, that dynamite proof also means bullet proof.


Note: Silly hats equals awesome magic.


And which allows one to turn into a giant snake.

Strangely, after showing itself to be also impervious to bullets, the giant snake just fades away revealing an altar heaped with gold and jewels. The sorcerer than appears next to Tarzan, Mugambe and the recently rescued Jane and congratulates them on reaching Opar. Mugambe points out that there is only three of them while Ravens’ men have guns. Did he miss the fact that the guy talking to them is bullet proof and can turn into a giant snake? Also, “Dude, you yourself can turn into BEES!” The sorcerer then proceeds to grant them the warriors they will need to win the day, and by grant I mean reach into his bag, pull out some bones, sow them into the earth, and watch them grow from skeletons into warriors.


Apparently this sorcerer was a big fan of Jason and the Argonauts.

So the mystically created warriors engage the mercs while Tarzan chases Ravens into the pyramid for some one on one hand to hand combat, but Tarzan doesn’t even get to kill the asshat, instead after Ravens tricks Tarzan with the whole, “Help me, I don’t want to die here” gambit, he sucker punches Tarzan and then sits on the throne where he is disintegrated by magical lightning.


Today’s ending brought to you by Deus Ex Machina.

Tarzan returns the stolen relic to Mugambe and the shaman tells Tarzan that, “We have saved Opar. Peace has returned to the land.” Just exactly who is that “we” you are talking about? Opar seemed quite capable of taking care of itself. Tarzan didn’t do jack shit and you didn’t even do that bee thing again. Now Tarzan does get to do some actiony things in this movie; frees a bunch of animals and uses the rope noose to snag one of the henchmen, but other than that he is a pretty passive character throughout, and the whole idea that if white men discover Opar it will bring more rapacious whites to the Dark Continent to ravage its countryside, seems kind of ridiculous.

Upon seeing this happen the raping of the Dark Continent would be the last thing on my mind.

As for our two leads Casper Van Dien makes for a passable Tarzan, sure his stature isn’t quite what one would expect from the Lord of the Apes, but he was in really good shape and pulled off what jungle action that was required of him quite well. Jane March on the other hand was sadly given the standard Jane role which doesn't allow you to be anything but damsel in distress, she was perfectly fine in that role, but I keep wanting more from my Janes.


They do make a nice couple.

This is another inoffensive entry in the family fun tradition that we have seen countless times before, director Carl Schenkel brings nothing fresh to the table, but I’m betting that is exactly what the studio wanted. Not a terrible movie just not all that inspiring either

Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Christmas Horror Story (2015) – Review

For many people the holidays are a nightmare; crappy relatives, fighting to find the perfect gift, and hiding from that one bloke at work who carries around a sprig of mistletoe, but Hollywood loves to once in a while make a Christmas movie that takes the holiday season to a gory horrifying state.  One of my all time favorite Christmas movies is Joe Dante’s Gremlins, and of course who cannot love Bob Clark’s seminal holiday master piece Black Christmas, but for every good holiday horror movie we do get a lot of dreck; with two prime examples of this being Silent Night Deadly Night and Jack Frost (and no I don’t mean the Michael Keaton film, though that one was pretty horrifying). This brings us to this latest entry A Christmas Horror Story by directors Grant Harvey, Steve Hoban, and Brett Sullivan.


 Now one may think, “What kind of film needs three directors?” Well A Christmas Horror Story is an anthology piece with four stories interwoven over the course of one Christmas Eve in the fictional town of Bailey Downs. So three directors kind of makes sense until you realize there one director short for the four segments. Maybe the fourth story they all pitched in, or more likely there was an accident in the editing room and the fourth story created itself. This may explain why the film seems to open up with a shot of a frozen Middle-earth.


Seriously, looks like Santa Claus set up shop in Minas Morgul.

The first of the stories is a kind of wrap around story which centers on Santa (George Buza) having a touch of a problem with rage fueled zombie elves. Just as dear ole Santa is getting the last minute duties covered before his annual ride he is shocked to find out that Shiny (Ken Hall), one of his hard working elves, is not in the festive spirit, and when offered a cookie-break he refuses the offering and instead takes a hatchet to his own hand. He dies, and this is a shock to the rest of the elves who up to this point assumed elves couldn’t die. Things get a bit darker when this “virus” spreads and soon Santa is up to his big white beard in the bloodthirsty little shits.


“There will be no damn unions in my workshop!”

The next story deals with a three students sneaking into their school to make an investigative video about a double murder that took place there a year ago to this very night. Barbara Walters wannabee Molly (Zoe De Grand Maison) convinces fellow classmates Dylan (Shannon Kook) and Ben (Alex Ozerov) to spend their Christmas Eve in the dark and dank basement corridors where nuns once kept unwed mothers. Unfortunately for our idiot trio the ghost of one of these poor women wants another go at having a child, which is odd as she died trying to abort that one she had.


She would make a terrible poster child for Planned Parenthood.

Then we have Officer Scott (Adrian Holmes) who goes out with his wife Kim (Olunike Adeliyi) and young son (Orion John) to cut down a Christmas tree, but for some reason this officer of the law choses a forest clearly marked "No Trespassing" as a perfect place to look for a tree. Before you can sing a chorus of “O Tannenbaum” stupid little Will, who also suffers from asthma, has wandered off to investigate a noise he heard. A frantic Scott and Kim finally track the kid down to a creepy tree with an opening that looks like it was designed by H.R. Giger. They bring their son home and immediately the kid starts acting creepy; such as stabbing his dad in the hand and watching his mom take a shower. Turns out they didn’t pull Will out of that tree but instead brought out an evil changeling. Will the creature kill the hapless couple? Can Will be rescued in time for Christmas Mass? Could we care less?


“Sure I’m not as cute as your son, but you’ll save a fortune in asthma medication.”

Lastly we have the dysfunctional Bauer family taking a trip to see their rich Aunt Edda (Corrine Conley). The dad has hauled his family out on Christmas Eve in the hopes of securing some much needed cash for his company that he has been fraudulently keeping alive, but dad isn’t the only bad apple in this group, there is his daughter Caprice (Amy Forsyth) a kleptomaniac and her brother Duncan (Percy Hynes White) who we learn has murdered the family pets. And do you know what happens to bad little boys and girls on Christmas Eve, they must face Krampus, the legendary anti-Santa who punishes the guilty in as gory a fashion as possible.


I’m sorry, but that is the lamest looking Krampus I’ve ever seen.

Unlike such horror anthologies such as Creepshow and Tales From the Darkside this movie does not tell one story after another, but instead weaves in and out of each of them throughout the films 99 minute running time. This is the film’s major failing as it completely undercuts any tension built up during any particular story, not that any of them are that great to begin with, but this editing choice kills whatever suspense it’s created and destroys the pacing. A couple of characters overlap ie Office Scott was a cop on the scene of the original school murders and Caprice supplied the keys that got the kids inside the school, but none of these people ever meet again so it all comes across a pointless.  The use of William Shatner as radio D.J. Dangerous Dan is I’m assuming supposed to further tie the four stories together, but his drunken ramblings about Christmas cheer really don’t add anything to movie as a whole. It’s certainly not the most embarrassing moment in Shatner’s career.


"And I think it's gonna be a long long time...Rocket Man!"

The only clever thing about this movie is how the Santa segment pans out, and as its reveal is the best part of this movie I will certainly not spoil it here, but as it’s a ninety minute wait to get there I can’t really say it’s worth the wait. Anthologies are tricky beasts, and with three directors and five writers it certainly would make creating a cohesive whole even trickier. A Christmas Horror Story is far from the being one of the worst of its kind, but it is guilty of being boring at times and for a horror movie that crime is unforgivable.


“I knew it, Krampus! Vile enemy of Christmas.”

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Bone Tomahawk (2015) – Review

With the theatres packed with superheroes and found footage movies I found the western/horror film Bone Tomahawk to be a really nice break. Now genre mash-ups are tricky beasts at the best of times, and westerns not always an easy sell to modern audiences, but writer director S. Craig Zahler manages to work the western-horror blend rather well in his directorial debut,


To be completely forthright this movie is more western than horror so if westerns are not your thing you may want to give this one a pass, but be forewarned that when the horrific moments do come they will make even the hardiest of horror buffs pause and put down their popcorn. The story for Bone Tomahawk takes place in the very Wild West where we are first introduced to Purvis (David Arquette) and Buddy (Sid Haig) a pair of nasty pieces of work who after murdering some travelers they make the mistake of escaping through forbidden territory.


“What harm could there be from taking a shortcut through a Native Burial Site?”

Buddy is brutally killed by a dark figure while Purvis runs for his life. Unfortunately for the cast of characters in this movie the place he runs to is the town of Bright Hope. And Hell surely follows him, and by Hell we mean a group of cave dwelling cannibal Indians. The eclectic town of Bright Hope consists of Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell) who tends to shoot suspects in the leg, his back-up deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins) who may be just a tad passed his prime, the well dressed and educated Indian killer John Brooder (Matthew Fox), Arthur O'Dwyer (Patrick Wilson) who is at home recuperating from a broken leg, and is tended to by his wife, Samantha (Lili Simmons).


Believe it or not her medical expertise is what gets her into trouble.

That night Samantha is called upon to pull a bullet out of the leg of Purvis, shot by Hunt while trying to escape questioning, but come morning she, Purvis and Deputy Nick (Evan Jonigkeit), who was left to keep an eye on things during the operation, are missing, and a strange arrow impeded in the wall is the only clue as to what went down. After getting some background on the tribe that has apparently made off with Arthur’s wife a rescue party is quickly assembled. The group consists of Sherriff Hunt, Chicory, Brooder and of course Arthur, with the main problem being Arthur’s injury which could really impede the group’s ability to track down the cannibals in a timely fashion, but no one even thinks of asking the husband to stay home.  He would totally get his "Man Card" revoked if he stayed home.


The big advantage is that they are being led by Kurt “Snake Plisken” Russell.

Bone Tomahawk is a western in the vein of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven; this is not the mythical west of Pecos Bill or even Rooster Cogburn, but a grim and dangerous world where an infection is just as deadly as a six gun revolver. Director S. Craig Zahler creates a living breathing world of danger and dread that feels deathly real at times but then horrifyingly surreal at others. Be warned this film may contain one of the most brutal deaths ever depicted on screen, a death so viscerally gruesome I’d bet it would give Jason Vorhees pause. The performances throughout the film are nothing short of pitch perfect with Russell’s’ grizzled and weather beaten sheriff a particular delight to watch. Patrick Wilson and Mathew Fox both shine as two sides of a different coin, each with slightly differently motivations for tracking down these cannibals. As for the cannibals themselves, well they are truly a frightening lot if not the brightest bulbs in the box.


Cave dwelling has never been conducive to good education…or fashion.

S. Craig Zahler brings us a standard western tale in the vein of The Searchers, but with a nice horror bent that keeps the story fresh and interesting. That and a fantastic cast of actors makes this a must see for any fan of westerns, as long as said fans have a strong stomach.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) – Review

When the opening crawl to Star Wars: The Force Awakens failed to contain anything about trade disputes or embargoes many a Star Wars fan breathed a sigh of relief. With George Lucas stepping down and uber Star Wars fan J.J. Abrams moving in we could only pray the direction in quality would go up from the much maligned prequels.  Even though I am not fan of what Abrams did with the Star Trek franchise, I really hated his Star Trek: Into Darkness, I went into the theatre pessimistically optimistic because Abrams had stated he was more a Star Wars fan than a Star Trek one, plus when you add to the fact that one of The Force Awakens screenwriters is Lawrence Kasdan who wrote the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back, which is arguably the best in the series, I had every reason for some hope.  But could this mixture of new and old blood bring back the fun and excitement that made up a good portion of my childhood? In short, the answer is yes.


The biggest criticism that could be leveled at Star Wars: The Force Awakens is that it may be too much of a love letter to the original Star Wars: A New Hope. Structurally speaking the film follows the narrative of the 1977 original rather closely with a few roles shifted around and of course an addition or two. In that opening crawl we learn that Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is missing, which has allowed a new military power called The First Order to fill the void the Empire left when Palpatine and Vader died, and now everyone is looking for Luke to either get his help or ensure he never returns.


The First Order is for Imperial soldiers who thought the Empire wasn’t Nazi enough.

The first new character we meet is Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a badass resistance pilot given the important mission of retrieving a map to the possible location of Luke Skywalker. I wonder if any Bothan spies paid with their lives for that bit of info? Poe’s mission is sidelined by the arrival of First Order soldiers and the evil Klyo Ren (Adam Driver), who is clearly a student of the Dark Side of The Force. The First Order use the slash and burn technique for their searching and so Poe is forced to entrust the information to his BB-8 droid while he tries to take on Kylo Ren. The droid crosses endless tracks of desert before he encounters Rey (Daisy Ridley), a young woman stuck on this desert wasteland who is dreaming of the stars. Sound familiar?  Make Poe a princess and Rey a moisture farmer and you’ve basically got the beginning of Star Wars: A New Hope.


“Have you seen a gold protocol droid around here?

What is really interesting in this "totally not a remake of A New Hope" is that the character of Luke Skywalker hasn’t just been replaced by a girl, but by a girl and a boy. During the First Order attack we meet a Stormtrooper who doesn’t seem all that keen on the slaughtering of the innocent, and he decides to make with a permanent leave of absence from the First Order. It is this character of Finn (John Boyega) that steps in to be the audience identification character that Luke Skywalker was back in A New Hope, while Rey is a bit like Luke from A New Hope she has a lot more going on under the hood than that long ago farm boy had.  So she closer to what he became in The Empire Strikes Back than the naive boy he started out as.


And she gets into way more dangerous situations than Luke ever did in the first film.

This is what makes me love this film. Rey is not a damsel in distress, sure Princes Leia (Carrie Fisher) was a spunky spitfire of a heroine back in the day, but compared to Rey she may as well have tired herself to some train tracks and waited for Dudley Doright. As good as this film’s ensemble cast is, and it is quite excellent, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are the heart of this film. It may be nice to see Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) again but it’s Ridley and Boyega, plus Adam Driver as the Klyo Ren, that do the real heavy lifting here. Star Wars: The Force Awakens really feels like the old guard passing the torch to the new.


"Who are you calling old?"

Another plus this movie has going for it is in the relationship that develops between Rey and Finn, which is just about pitch perfect; him the awkward ex-Stormtrooper and her the girl without a past. They are so much fun to watch as they flee together from constant danger.  "Psst look, they are holding hands again."


Note: With Fin being a black dude and Rey being white we can feel pretty confident that a later chapter will not reveal them to be brother and sister.

I don’t want to get into any dangerous spoiler territory so I will leave off with saying that if you are a fan of the original trilogy, as clearly J.J. Abrams was, then you will get a kick out of this. I’m not saying it is a perfect movie; there is a moment with two CGI monsters that should have been left on the cutting room floor and the plot certainly won't be accused of abundant originality, but with John Williams’ fantastic score, a villain with some serious anger issues, good comedy (ie no Jar Jar Binks), some of the most spectacular action sequences you will ever see, and a cast of great heroes new and old for us to cheer for, you will most likely find yourself with a Cheshire Cat sized grin plastered on your face for the duration of this movie.


So when is chapter eight coming out, again?

Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) – Review

Making a realistic version of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel Tarzan of the Apes would certainly be a daunting task, but before such a task was undertaken one should take into consideration one important question, “Should we be making a realistic version of Tarzan of the Apes?”  Since Burroughs first wrote about Tarzan back in 1912 there have been many versions of this iconic character appearing in film but numerous different actors, but in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes we get Academy Award winner director Hugh Hudson giving us a serious dramatic take on the timeless tale. The end results hinges greatly on how much you love the original Burroughs story and on how much you love period dramas.


This is the first poster to ever need a spoiler warning.

With a cast consisting of many of Britain’s top actors Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (henceforth I’ll just call Greystoke as the name Tarzan is not uttered once in this movie) is basically very much an Edwardian melodrama that just so happens to have a 73 minute jungle prologue. The film opens with a female ape being chased by a rather angry male ape through the dark jungle of equatorial Africa; there is a struggle and during their altercation the female ape drops her baby.


Ape has killed ape.

In the books this would be Kala, the ape that would raise Tarzan, and the male ape would have been Kerchak, the ape that Tarzan would eventually wrestle lordship over the apes from, but as these apes are unable to tell us their names only book readers will know that bit of inside information. As it stands this movie tries its best to give each of the ape’s personality, but they can only get so far without dialogue. Rick Baker’s ape designs and costumes for Greystoke are simply marvelous, but if they started talking I’m betting that audiences of the time would have laughed off them off the screen. This is why most Tarzan movies ditch the entire origin story and start their movies with the arrival of Jane. Disney’s 1999 Tarzan film cracked that nut by going the animated route as people are quite accustomed to talking animals if they are cartoons. Now with the advent of better and more realistic CGI I’m betting audiences who marveled at Andy Serkis as Caesar in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes would be more than willing to see a proper tribe of Great Apes that Burroughs envisioned.


Koba from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a perfect example of how Kerchak could be done.

The movie then jumps to the Greystoke family's country estate in the Lowlands of Scotland, where John, Lord Clayton (Paul Geoffrey), the heir to the 6th Earl of Greystoke has decided to head to Africa for some reason or another, and is taking his young wife Alice (Cheryl Campbell) along for the adventure. The 6th Earl of Greystoke (Sir Ralph Richardson) is not keen on his son going on such a dangerous journey, but his son assures him that they will be all right.


So of course they get shipwrecked.

The only survivors of the wreck are John, Alice and Captain Billings (Richard Griffiths), and the despondent Captain abandons them to go “look for help” and they never see him again. Alice gives birth to a healthy baby boy, but she sickens and dies of malaria. John lives but a few minutes longer as the apes invade their jungle home and he is killed. Kala, still carrying around her dead baby, decides to trade up from an infant corpse to the healthy little Greystoke. For the next little while the movie focuses on young Tarzan (though like I said he is never called Tarzan because the ape’s language is not given to us). He eventually comes across the remains of his parents, and their treehouse, and he picks up his mother’s locket and father’s knife.  This last gift now gives him an edge in this cruel world. His days are spent trying to keep out of the way of vicious ape leader who hates him, and off the local wildlife’s menu. His only two allies are his ape mother and ape father, but when his ape father is banished for challenging and failing to take the leadership, and then Kala is killed by some pygmies, his life takes a dramatic turn.


Goddamn pygmies.

This movie's biggest departure from the book is that it completely drops Jane’s arrival in Africa. The movie jumps ahead a few more years and we are introduced to Philippe D'Arnot (Ian Holm), a member of a British zoological expedition who we see travelling up river to get exhibits for the British Natural History Museum, and though D’Arnot is from the book this is not how he arrived. In the book the first group of white humans Tarzan encounters consists of Jane Porter, her friends and family and a mutinous crew, and D’Arnot is a French Naval Officer sent into the jungle to look for them. In this movie Jane does not meet Tarzan in the wilds of darkest Africa, they meet later back in Scotland, but D’Arnot is still rescued by Tarzan (Christopher Lambert) as he did in the book, and it’s still D’Arnot who teaches Tarzan to speak and brings him back to civilization. He also teaches Tarzan to shave, wait…what?


How has Tarzan kept himself clean shaven if this is his first shaving lesson?

In the book Tarzan spent many hours in the home of his dead human parents; learning to read from the picture books they had brought with them, and he used his father’s knife to shave so that he could look more like the men in the pictures. It was all about him trying to find his identity. Once again the movie is hampered by not being able to have the apes or Tarzan speak, instead Lambert has to do his best to infer all these things, and for a relative acting newcomer he does a decent enough job. So after bonding with D’Arnot, who has deduced that this ape man is the John Clayton son of the missing heir, the two eventually head off to civilization, but not before Tarzan kills the ape leader and becomes Lord of the Apes…for all of five minutes.


“I’d stay and be a benevolent ruler, but I’ve things to do.”

Tarzan/John Clayton leaves with D’Arnot to return to civilization, but the ape man’s initial brush with civilization isn’t very promising as their first encounter is with a group of cruel British colonialists that run a small trading outpost. When these Brits don’t believe D’Arnot’s claim that he is a lost member of a British expedition (believing that he is mostly likely an escaped convict and possible gay) they decide to beat him. D’Arnot calls for John and the Lord of the Jungle leaps to the rescue, shoves the men aside and sets fire to a British flag. Now I know you're all asking the same question, "He shoves them, what the hell is up with that?" Because in what crazy universe would Tarzan shove aside any enemy when he could be tossing them around like tenpins. This movie spends way too much of its time trying to assure us that we are watching a serious drama and not a pulp action film, heavy on the melodrama, very light on the adventure. The only kill Tarzan racks up in this movie is the pygmy that speared Kala, he picks that guy up and breaks his back, which I call bullshit on as at that point in the film Tarzan was about twelve years old and not really in "breaking a dude’s back" shape.


Unless pygmies are notoriously brittle people.

Eventually D’Arnot and John make it back home and he finally gets to meet his flesh and blood family. The travails of jungle raised John Clayton trying to adapt to the civilized world makes up the second half of Greystoke and if it wasn’t for the splendid actors, led by the amazing Sir Ralph Richardson, this would be hard if not impossible to watch. Richardson received a posthumous Oscar nomination for his part and rightly deserved it as he is the heart of this piece. He plays the Earl as a man tortured by the loss of his son, with maybe a little loss of sanity as well, but he is overjoyed at the chance of seeing his grandson and heir to the Greystoke name. In just the simplest of looks Richardson conveys more emotion than a dozen other actors on screen, and without him we’d basically have Tarzan at Downton Abbey. On the flipside of Sir Ralph Richardson we have Andie MacDowell as Jane Porter. Now I’m not saying she is a terrible actress, but we never get a chance to see her whole performance because all her dialogue was later dubbed over by Glen Close.


Tarzan may be able to mimic any animal but Jane can do impressions of the star of Fatal Attraction.

Apparently her southern US accent was deemed unsuitable for the character, but on the commentary track for the DVD director Hugh Hudson and associate producer Garth Thomas talk about how amazing Andie MacDowell was and that they fell in love with her look when they saw on the cover of Vogue, but they never once mention the fact that all her dialogue was dubbed. I’m guessing they were just too embarrassed to bring it up, whether they regretted the post-dubbing or not, but regardless anytime Jane talks it’s kind of distracting. The remainder of the film deals with Jane and John falling in love, much to the dismay of Lord Charles Esker (James Fox), who had his set his sights on marrying Jane.  The lovely Jane Porter turns down Esker's proposal and jumps into bed with John.


Is this a Tarzan film or a Merchant Ivory production?

When John’s newly found grandfather passes away, due to a crash after sliding down a stairway while riding a dinner tray, he decides to marry Jane, but then a disastrous visit to the British Museum of Natural History wrecks their chance of happiness. While touring the exhibits John wanders off, not being too keen on seeing stuffed and mounted creatures that he once called friends, and while wandering the halls he discovers a room for the study of animal anatomy. Inside that room he finds an ape body that had been through vivisection, but he also finds a caged living ape who just so happens to be his ape father.


“Dad, it really is a small world.”

John frees the ape and the two cavort through Hyde Park, swinging through the trees and having a grand old time. That is until the guard is called out and the ape is shot and killed. As this is the last in a long line of dying “family” members John is a tad upset and he decides to return to Africa. Jane and D’Arnot accompany him on the trip, but they only go so far as to watch him disappear into the jungle. This Jane has no interest in living in a treehouse.


Even if the view is spectacular.

Hugh Hudson shot two endings; one where she goes with John into the jungle, and the one that eventually got released where she just watches him go. Why neither one of these would work is that it kind of makes Jane’s character weak and Tarzan uncaring. In the book Tarzan follows Jane to America to only find out she is engaged to marry William Clayton, the current Earl of Greystoke (unlike the movie D’Arnot does not figure who Tarzan is until much later), and instead of claiming his inheritance Tarzan chooses to conceal his identity and renounce his heritage for the sake of Jane's happiness. This is a noble self-sacrificing thing to do opposed to the movie version which is basically “dude fed up with society dumps girlfriend to go back and live with old friends” and certainly isn’t a very romantic.


I wonder if he will write. Oh I forgot, he’s illiterate, never mind.

I’ll say this, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes is a beautifully shot film, but at 135 minutes (143 minutes if you are watching the extended cut) it is currently the longest Tarzan movie, and easily the dullest. Even Bo Derek's dreadful Tarzan, the Ape Man had the decency to be well under two hours.  This film may be chock full of some of the best acting talent the British Empire had to offer but damn does it take itself way too seriously, this is a Tarzan movie not Sophie’s Choice. Where are the lost cities? Where are Tarzan's numerous battles with geographically challenged lions?  And how can you make a Tarzan movie without an elephant stampede? The only time we see elephants in this film their dead.


This not how I want to see the noble Tantor depicted.

I believe that any “Serious and Realistic” version of the Tarzan story was doomed from the start, the source material is from a group of amazing pulp adventures, and if you try to elevate it beyond the scope of that genre it loses the sense of fun that made the books so entertaining. And I’m sorry but a baby being raised by apes could last maybe two weeks tops before succumbing to one the endless things that would be trying to kill it, so even the most realistic attempt at the Tarzan story has to swallow that bit of unbelievable bullshit.  Which is something you don't have to worry about if you are doing a fantasy adventure movie. So if any future directors are out there is reading this please, please keep you realism away from my ape man.