Archive for Movie Journal

Special Movie Review: The Terminators

When I first started doing the comparison reviews I like to call “The Big House vs. The Nut House”, where I review big Hollywood movies side-by-side with the low budget knock-off from Asylum productions, I fully intended for every Asylum film to lose hands down. I figured their films would rank somewhere around the drive-in films from the 1960s of Herschell Gordon Lewis (Two Thousand Maniacs, Blood Feast, A Taste of Blood), with really cheap special effects, excessive gore, nonsensical plots, and some fake double-D’s thrown in for good measure. So far what I’ve found have been fairly boring films with special effects that are so mediocre they’re barely worth mentioning. Even the women aren’t too trashy; some are downright pretty. Needless to say, I’ve been a little disappointed with the crop of Asylum films I’ve watched so far, in that they’ve neither exceeded my expectations too much, nor delved into the realm of badness that I thought would make this whole exercise worth exploring.

That is until now…

After my last entry, when I pit Tranformers vs. Transmorphers: Fall of Man, I decided to check out Asylum’s The Terminators with the full intention of comparing it to the classic 80s blockbuster, The Terminator. I wondered if the stop-motion animation of the Cameron original would be able to stand up to the crappy CGI of Asylum’s knock-off. So I got The Terminators from Netflix and decided to pop it into my DVD player last night.

When my DVD player at first refused to accept the DVD, that should have been my first clue as to what lie ahead. It’s like the player was trying to tell me something – “Dude, no. I refuse to take this. No, seriously, man, you don’t want to do this.” It spat the DVD out about four times, before finally relenting and accepting the disc into its gaping maw. Hindsight being 20/20, I now consider my actions akin to rape.

The Terminators begins on a spaceship not unlike the famous space wheel from the Kubrick classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, except Kubrick’s wheel looked real even though it was created in 1967. The wheel is an orbiting station where cyborg slaves are created for use on Earth. These machines all look the same, apparently all wear the same clothes, and are all controlled by the same space station via a signal sent through the atmosphere. The cyborgs are either called “TR” models or “T5s” depending upon where you are in the movie, so that’s a little confusing right off the bat. For reasons that will become clear later on, I’m going to call them T5s.

Anyhoo, one day all the T5s on the space station go berserk because their signal has been hacked…by someone, we never find out who. So they load up into transports that look like they came right off the Battlestar Galactica set from the 1970s, and fly down to Earth, where they begin bombing major cities. They also, apparently, drop off T5s (I say “apparently”, because we don’t actually see this, we just see a bunch of the same guy running all over the place), whose only mission is to kill anyone they come across.


Click for a better view of these bad ass dudes

The invasion is a mess of modern filmmaking. The scenes of the T5s going on their kill crazy rampage are so disjointed, it’s almost like someone cut out the first 30 seconds of every scene. We just see the T5 guy do his best Arnold impression, walk up to someone, and snap their neck or shoot them with his RoboCop-looking pistol. There’s no build-up, there’s no tension, it’s just random, poorly-made scenes that have no relation to one another, nor contain characters we’ve ever met until we see their demise. And if we’re not seeing random violence, we’re watching scenes begin to develop, go nowhere, cut to a neck snap scene, go to another disconnected scene, come back to the original scene, then someone from the original scene is in a completely different location watching cyborgs pile up dead bodies. I swear, it’s the most confusing series of events I’ve watched in a while.

For example, below is an absolutely baffling screenshot. The strange placement of the two dead bodies amongst the computers and the smiley faces painted on the laptop screens are never explained. Hell, Sheriff walks right past them and doesn’t even glance down. I mean, what the hell is going on here?


Click for a better view of the WTF?

Once the low-rent carnage settles down, we find the Sheriff (there’s always a sheriff in Asylum films, just like there’s always a scientist in 1950s sci-fi films) come upon a group of people at a factory of some kind. Again, we aren’t really told where he is, what he’s doing there, or how he knows these people, but he calls them all by their first names, so there must be some familiarity. The guy just shows up outside a warehouse and then he’s inside leading heavily-armed employees (I guess that’s what they are) away from a T5. Why these people have guns at work, I couldn’t tell you, but one chick actually has a submachine gun. I’d love to know what kind of hoops she had to jump through in order to get a permit to carry a submachine gun in California.

So the random group of people escape with the help of Chloe, arguably the main character of the film, whom we saw walk up to the Sheriff earlier and call him by name. How they know each other is a mystery. But I guess that doesn’t matter, because Chloe is also, apparently, at the same factory that the Sheriff went to, so it works out really well for all involved when she picks them up in a stolen panel van. Oh, and all the employee militia also know Chloe by name. This must be a really small town.

They head to the country where they’re attacked by one of the T5 transport ships, forcing the van to crash. Mysteriously, once the transport has disabled the vehicle, it disappears, never to be heard from or mentioned again. But that doesn’t mean our band of survivors is in the clear yet.


“The hills are alllliiiiiiive…with the sound of muuuuuusiiiiiiiiic…”

Apparently (I’ll be using that word a lot during this review) there are three T5s patrolling the forest because, ya know, if you’re here to wipe out the human race, the first place you want to start is a forest with its dense population of lumberjacks, moonshiners, and unabombers. So the group is cornered by the T5s and is almost gunned down when…out of nowhere…comes the main character from Kevin Smith’s Mallrats, with a raygun, and saves them all. It looks like T.S. Quint has been shacked up in the woods for the last 15 years, though, only coming out of the mountains and into town to pick up boxes of Hostess products, because the boy’s put on about 30 or 40 pounds easy. And he still can’t grow any facial hair.


“Need…Twinkies…”

TS (I’ll be calling him “TS” because I don’t think his characters’ name is ever actually said. Besides, it’s kind of fun to think it’s the same character from Mallrats, isn’t it?) takes the group back to his own Unabomber shack to show them his collection of T5 transports that he keeps hidden…in…a clearing. Huh? He has about four of them, because he used to work for the company that built the T5s (which is where he got the swell raygun, too), but they’re all grounded because he doesn’t have an oxygenate for his the fuel…or something.

While inside the shack, TS and the Sheriff have a brief conversation wherein the Sheriff says he knows TS from somewhere, but TS does his best to deflect this line of questioning. Ooooh…he has a mysterious past. I wonder if that will come into play later?

So the group treks to a refinery (I think) where they find a single oxygen tank, the skank who was screwing Chloe’s now-dead husband, and then a guy gets punched through the head. It’s an eventful trip.



Click for a better view of these groundbreaking special effects!

(The head-punch, by the way, is classic fake-out of low-budget filmmaking. I’ve included a screenshot to see if you can figure out how it’s done. If you ever pretended you were Luke Skywalker and your best friend was Darth Vader and you were having an epic lightsaber battle with a couple of wrapping paper tubes, you should have a good idea of the trickery involved.)

With Skank and tank (sounds like a superhero team, doesn’t it?) in hand, they go to some other generic industrial-type complex where one of TS’ T5 transports is waiting for them. How it got there, I have no effing clue.


The explosion you see here has no reason to exist. No one is fighting the T5 during the scene, shit just starts blowing up because apparently they hadn’t reached their fireball quota yet.

As they head towards the space station controlling the T5s, Sheriff begins speaking in broken tones, imitating the robot voice you used to make when you were a kid (“I. Am. A. Robot.”) because, well, he’s a robot. Turns out Sheriff is the next gen cyborg the mega-corporation that builds T5s is developing and TS has been hired to keep an eye on him…or something. In a scene borrowing heavily from Blade Runner, TS tells the Sheriff how all of his memories are implanted from TS’ own life, so now we understand the foreshadowing of the earlier scene in TS’ shack.

Once they’re inside the space station, TS tries to access the main computer to shut down the T5s, but his password won’t work (probably because he left CAPSLOCK on, even though Windows reminds him not to). So the only way to stop the T5s is to shut them down with, what else? – dun, dun, dunnnnnn – the manual override.


Looks like someone needs to go to microsoft.com and download the latest service pack! (Click it, it really is a Windows error box)

However, as they’re making their way towards the failsafe device, the T5s scattered throughout the ship mysteriously begin to shut down, freezing in place like the Tin Man in Wizard of Oz. It turns out that all of their power is being rerouted to another cyborg – an 8-foot tall, metal monstrosity who in no way resembles a Cylon from Battlestar Galactica, no siree.

(By the way, the DVD cover [see below] is a total bait-and-switch. As you can see, it shows an army of Cylon-esque Terminators, but there’s only one in the movie. What a rip-off.)


Lies! Lies, I tell you!

Anyway, the Frankenstein comes alive, kills TS, and then, the Sheriff, in his still-loony state, convinces Chloe to help him lure the beast into the airlock and they dispose of it a la the finale of Alien. Wow, BraveStarr sacrificed himself for the good of mankind. Who’s inhuman now, I ask you? Who’s inhuman now…?

Of course once the big cyborg is floating in space (Is that our sequel setup? I think soooo…), the regular T5s come back to life and go after The Skank who is currently wandering the ship without any kind of adult supervision. As she’s running away, she happens upon the manual override for the T5s and is able to shut it down, thus ending the machines’ reign of terror.

Do you see that screenshot? Yep, THAT is the T5 Main Control switch, in case you’re illiterate (which I’d really like to know, then, how you’re reading this review). What? You were expecting the master control device for an advanced cybernetic race of machines on a friggin space station to be something more high-tech?…complex?…computer-controlled?…maybe voice-recognition, fingerprint scanner, retina scanner…or a padlock? Nope. It’s just an electrical box they bought at Home Depot for $9.99. That’s all the security they need. Who would ever want to shut down the T5s anyway? No one’ll mess with it!

When I saw the “Master Control” switch, I almost fell off the couch due to the convulsions I experienced while laughing my ass off (thankfully a doctor was able to reattach it). I mean, they didn’t even TRY here.

This is the epitome of the film for me. That screenshot tells you everything you need to know about The Terminators. It truly does speak 1,000 words (actually it’s closer to 2,000 words at this point, but who, other than Microsoft Office, is counting?). It’s amazing in its singularity. I just can’t describe to you how the entire 90 minutes preceding is so completely summarized by this single frame of film. If you want to know what The Terminators is all about, this is the frame you look at. This is the film in a nutshell. Some directors go their entire careers without a shot that is so perfect. My God…it’s full of stars.

In case you couldn’t tell, this is a terrible, terrible film. I was so worried that all of these Asylum movies would wind up having a few redeeming qualities and I’d never be able to tear them apart. But, thankfully, they’ve proven to me that they do make some really shitty knock-offs. The Terminators renewed my faith in my Big House vs. The Nut House project to a degree I wasn’t expecting. Unfortunately, because this film is nothing like any of the Terminator films on almost any level, I’m not even going to bother putting it head-to-head with anything else. This one stands on its own, for whatever that’s worth, and is probably one of the worst films I’ve seen in all of my 34 years.

It’s cheap, it’s poorly directed, the special effects are laughable, there’s barely an original thought in the entire thing, the editing is atrocious – I seriously cannot think of any good reason to watch it. There’s nothing even remotely interesting; not even a single shot or sequence like there was in Transmorphers: Fall of Man. It was a total waste of time and I’ll be happy to send it back to Netflix.

I just hope it hasn’t psychologically damaged my DVD player. Maybe I should go watch a few episodes of Arrested Development or The Wire just to help it work through the pain. I wonder if Sarah Palin would make my DVD player pay for the kit if we wanted to make sure it was ok. I’ll have to check into that…

The Big House vs. The Nut House: Round 2

SpaceMonkeyX.com presents
The Big House vs. The Nut House: Round 2

featuring:

Dreamworks Pictures’ 2007 film:
Transformers
starring Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox
vs.
The Aslyum’s 2009 film:
Transmorphers: Fall of Man
starring Bruce Boxleitner and Shane Van Dyke


Transformers
Recently I did something I never thought I’d do – I watched Transformers again. I wanted to give it another shot in the hopes that maybe I would be able to look at it with slightly less discerning eyes than I did when I first saw it in 2007. Maybe all I needed to do was watch it again without all the fanboy baggage I brought to my viewing the first time. My hopes were high as I hit play on the DVD player…and were shattered 2 ½ hours later.

Honestly, my initial review from July 2007 pretty much sums up my feelings on the film after watching it again. But rather than repost my very long review from then, I’ll simply post some of the highlights.

I hate the robot designs. They’re entirely too complicated and confusing, making even the most mundane moments in the film a riddle wrapped inside an enigma as to which robot is on the screen and what the hell they’re doing. I still maintain that the original, old school designs would have been more effective.

I hate Frenzy, the little robot boombox bastard (band name!) that is the comic relief throughout most of the film. He’s simply a robot Scrappy Doo, injected to make the 8-year olds in the audience laugh. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be comedy in this film – it doesn’t have to be The Dark Knight – but there are better ways to do it than such a cheap gag as this. Like Scrappy Doo, he’s bloody annoying, and makes it difficult to see the Decepticons as a real threat.

The plot is chock full of holes and pointlessness. I decided to write down all the plot holes I found as I was watching and I came up with a list of 14. I had originally meant to make this review nothing but discussing the plot holes, but decided I should try a little harder. Honestly, knocking this film’s story is like shooting fish in a barrel.

But what’s really lacking in Transformers is character development. They had 98 episodes of the original cartoon and 80 issues of the original comic book from Marvel to use as inspiration, let alone the BeastWars cartoons and new line of comics from various publishers. I’m not suggesting that the film needed to be a live-action version of the cartoon or comic, but these previous outlets laid a good foundation for these characters that could have easily been used to help their development for the film. Instead, it seems like the filmmakers watched a couple of random episodes of the cartoon, picked up a few comics scattered throughout the continuity, and then decided to just do whatever they wanted. It’s their right to do that, but it doesn’t make it good.

The main example here is Optimus Prime, who has become a touchstone for many people my age as an example of what a good person, leader, and friend is supposed to be. You might think I’m joking, but there are far too many stories of kids who went to see the animated film in 1986 and bawled their eyes out when they watched their hero die within the first 15 minutes. God forbid kids today have a similar role model to look up to, instead of a character who says already dated catch phrases like, “My bad” and acts like a child by sneaking around in the Witwickys’ backyard. In the live-action film, he is completely forgettable and doesn’t inspire any kind of adoration whatsoever. The one character that was perfectly setup for them, they screwed up beyond all recognition.

The only bright spots of the entire film are anytime Sam and Bumblebee are together. The “Boy and His Car” theme is really handled well, which is obviously where Executive Producer Steven Spielberg had his hand in the film. If they had made this the central storyline, instead of getting things cluttered with hackers trying to figure out some signal and the search for the antique glasses (which wasn’t even important by the time it was all said and done), the film would have been much more effective.

One final observation from my second viewing was something that bugged people with Transformers 2, but was rarely ever mentioned in regards to Transformers: the film is not kind to minorities. While, yes, the uber-hacker is black, which is a nice twist on the nerdy, white guy formula, he’s played like a buffoon. All he does throughout the film is eat all the doughnuts when he’s in government custody, yell at his grandma to drink her prune juice, and yell that his grandma “don’t like nobody on her carpet, especially po-lice!” (Never mind the stereotypical costume for his grandma – curlers in her hair, wearing a mumu and house slippers). He’s not presented as a real character, but as a stereotype, and is there purely for comic relief. And let’s not forget the Indian guy working tech support for the phone company. Picking his nose, he doesn’t care about actually helping anyone, and, oh boy, there’s that funny accent, make him the butt of a joke that we Americans (except those of you who are Indian-Americans) can all have a good collective laugh at. Because none of us ever slack off on the job. And our accents aren’t funny; they’re a symbol of our heritage and are something to be proud of! Not like those silly for’ners who wear the towels on their heads.

Transformers is a failure of a film. The last 20 minutes is still exciting and fun, (even if it’s the dumbest idea ever to take the All Spark to an urban environment where you’re putting the lives of thousands of innocent civilians in the path of rampaging 50-foot tall robots with missiles and laser cannons), but 20 minutes at the end isn’t enough to justify watching the 120 minutes that come before. Especially when the filmmaking, the story development, and characters are thrown together in such an apathetic, “You’re going to come see this movie anyway, so just take whatever we give you and like it” fashion.


Transmorphers: The Fall of Man
Originally I had planned to review Transformers vs. Transmorphers, the first film from The Asylum that tried to feed off the tentpole summer film from Michael Bay. However, after watching Transmorphers (Short Review: It was bad), I realized that the film wasn’t really a knock-off of Transformers, but more a knock-off of The Terminator (that is until I saw that The Asylum will be releasing The Terminators to DVD soon, so look for another mano a mano review to come).

Transmorphers centers around a future Los Angeles where the people have moved underground to escape the alien robot invaders that have taken over the world. The humans gather a ragtag group of military types to go destroy the main robot base. (Side Note: Oddly, Transmorphers has the same basic plot as Terminator Salvation, which was released just this summer, whereas Transmorphers came out last year.) While, yes, there are some robots that have some morphing qualities, they aren’t really “robots in disguise” as the tagline for Transformers so famously claims. The robots don’t really try to blend in with the real world because, well, the real world is blasted to oblivion – they don’t have to hide. So as you can see, Transmorphers really wasn’t a Transformers knock-off, despite the similar title, so I decided the comparison reviews would be pretty pointless.

Then came word that The Asylum was releasing Transmorphers: Fall of Man, a prequel to Transmorphers, just in time for Transformers II: Revenge of the Fallen to be released this summer. From the quick preview I saw online, this time there were going to be SUVs that changed into robots, so I decided the versus reviews would be justified.

Wow, I just realized I know way too much about this crappy franchise than any normal person should. I am so pathetic. Anyway…

Transmorphers II (I’m going to drop the “Fall of Man” subtitle) starts in our modern age, a time when we are surrounded by electronics. Microchips are in everything – our mobile phones, our TVs, our cars, even our bodies with advances like pacemakers – and this wouldn’t be a problem except for how all of this technology got started. According to the mysterious agents from the NSA who run around the first half of this film, all of our electronics have been adapted from technology found at the Roswell crash site in 1947. Unfortunately, we didn’t know that, by using this alien electronic infrastructure, we were leaving ourselves vulnerable to infiltration from the civilization that crashed here. So when our gadgets and cars begin receiving coded transmissions from outer space and start changing into robots, we’re caught with our pants down.

I know what you’re thinking, “Wow, this low-budget knock-off film’s justification for electronics coming to life actually makes more sense than the stupid All Spark thing from the multi-million dollar Transformers movie! And they’ve been able to integrate the whole ‘robots in disguise’ thing, which was almost completely abandoned in Transformers!” Believe me, I had a hard time accepting it, too.

It turns out that our electronics are scouts for the alien robot army. The little guys (i.e., cell phones, iPods, Ford Explorers) have been activated by their overlords to report back if Earth is primed for the picking. So these scouts transform and start sending signals alerting the army that the invasion can begin. Of course our heroes – Jake, an Iraq War veteran; Maddy, his estranged ex-girlfriend; Sheriff Ryan, Maddy’s uncle and apparently the only cop in Bakersfield, CA; and Jo, a freelance scientist/astronomer/or something – fight back against the scouts to prevent them from sending their “all-clear” signal to the awaiting robot armada.

Now, as you might expect, this group of unlikely action heroes is able to take out the main scout robot – a transmorphed SUV – before he can send his signal. Unfortunately, in a somewhat amusing twist, Uncle Ryan flies a Blackhawk helicopter into the robot just after Jake and Jo are able to block its signal, sacrificing himself for nothing. Now, they make it pretty clear earlier in the film that machines are coming alive all over the world. So after they destroy the one in L.A., they’re somehow surprised to learn that the signal still made it to the invading army. As if the robots in Paris, Baghdad, London, and Tokyo wouldn’t have been programmed with a similar mission. But, who am I to dissect a straight-to-DVD transforming robot movie?

So somehow the signal still got through to the robots in space (which is entirely different from Pigs in Space) and the invasion begins. There’s actually a moment when the Transmorphers are falling to Earth that is – believe it or not – somewhat stirring. People are coming out of their homes on the desert outskirts of town and watching as what appear to be meteors are raining down around them. The special effects are fairly impressive in this one spot and the direction shows some promise. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t Citizen Kane or anything, but I really wasn’t expecting to even be mildly intrigued by anything in this film, so it was a nice surprise.

Anyway, the robots come down, they blow some stuff up, our heroes get rescued by Jo, who shows up out of nowhere in her 2007 Ford Deus Ex Machina, and they go on the run. They get attacked by a robot and it appears they got away before their SUV explodes for no apparent reason. Seriously, I don’t know what happens. Jake uses his grenade launcher on the robot that was chasing them, he blasts it to pieces, and suddenly the truck flips over – no idea why. In another “Where did you come from?” event, the mayor of Bakersfield, whom we met earlier, suddenly appears in his minivan, picks up our battered and bruised trio, and takes them to rendezvous with a small band of survivors hiding out in the desert.

The group decides to fight back by destroying one of the terraforming plants the Transmorphers have built to change the environment into one that is more habitable by their kind…or something. I really don’t know, nor did I care by this point. One of the band of ragtag freedom fighters is a nameless Mexican who has shown he’s handy with a gun and kind of a badass, so naturally he’s killed in the first 10 seconds of their raid. And here I thought it was going to be the black mayor who got got first.

Of course they end up destroying the terraforming plant, but as it turns out, doing so actually caused more harm than good. A noxious gas was released from this plant, as well as the others that were destroyed in a similar manner all across the globe, creating a smokescreen that essentially blocks out all of the sun’s rays, killing almost everything on the planet, and driving mankind underground. And that’s where we join the first film, Transmorphers.

Transmorphers II is a strange little film. It’s really two films in one: the initial attack and then the invasion. The film is divided by the death of Sheriff Ryan, but that doesn’t exactly work from a storytelling standpoint, because it loses any momentum it built in the first part. But I kinda think this is less a storytelling fault and more a syndrome of throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the film to have something to sell to a distributor. Because you can tell they’re trying really hard to borrow from a lot of films so they can say in a pitch meeting, “It’s like Transformers meets War of the Worlds and The Terminator!”

Another weak point is, of course, the acting. The brightest of the bunch is Sheriff Ryan, played by TV veteran Bruce Boxleitner, famous for his role in the 80s detective show, Scarecrow and Mrs. King. Boxleitner plays his part well enough to be believable, but you can also tell he’s doing this because he wants the paycheck and because he lost a bet to the director (No, really, that’s the rumor going round). The worst acting has to be Jennifer Rubin as Jo, the civilian who discovers the invasion signal before anyone else in the government does. Sometimes she’s a straight scientist type who acts with a calm, collected tone. Other times she’s comedic relief, but is never funny. And other times it seems like she’s high and has no idea what she’s supposed to be doing. It’s a really uneven performance and it makes her character really annoying. The rest of the cast, including Shane Van Dyke, Dick Van Dyke’s grandson, range from good, to fine, to passable, to “Yesterday I was holding the boom mike and today I’m screaming about the robot invasion.”

Perhaps what’s most disappointing about the movie, though, is that there’s no big payoff. We don’t get to see a big battle between the Transmorphers and the human rebels. Yes, there is a big battle as the SUV robot attacks a military base, but it’s all shown using a traditional drive-in movie cheat – show the main character screaming up at something off-screen, then show the monster in a different shot, but never in the same shot together. But here it’s used so many times during this one battle that it becomes comical. And one more thing: a medium or close-up shot of flames coming from off-screen does not a firefight make.

In conclusion, I can’t recommend Transmorphers: Fall of Man. However, if you ever find yourself in movie rental hell and have to choose between this or Transmorphers, go for Fall of Man simply because there’s more to it than the first film. But there’s still not “more than meets the eye.”


The Scorecard:

Transformers

Watching this again was not fun. It’s such a frustrating film because the source material is so rich that it could have gone any number of directions and yet, it went in this direction. And before you say, “It’s based on a toy!”, that shouldn’t matter. If the folks behind the cartoon and the comics were able to sustain the story and keep things fresh for years, there’s no reason Bay and his pals couldn’t have come up with something better than robots peeing on people. It’s a crass film with a really mean-spirited bite that shows no respect for its source, nor the audience watching it.

2 / 5 bananas

Transmorphers: Fall of Man
While, no, this isn’t a very good film either, I have to say I at least have respect for what little they accomplished at the end of the day. The film is poorly made on virtually every level, but they didn’t resort to jokes about minorities, nor did they spend the Gross Domestic Product of a Central American country to make their big, dumb action movie. So in some ways, it’s actually a better film than Transformers. Would I want to watch it again? No, thanks. But then again, I won’t be watching Transformers again anytime soon, either.

2 /5 bananas


Yep, I’m calling this one a draw, folks! I know that might seem ridiculous considering the mainstream appeal of Transformers, but it lost a lot of points for its laziness in sticking to a lousy plot, bad characters, and insulting jokes, knowing they were going to get butts in the seats and sell a shitload of DVDs no matter what they vomited onto the screen. Transmorphers: Fall of Man is not a good film, either, but after they screwed me over, they at least made me breakfast and called me a cab.

I have no idea what my next The Big House vs. The Nut House review is going to be. I’m seriously considering Asylum’s The Terminators and then deciding which Terminator film it most resembles. I’m also thinking of going old school and watching Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Asylum’s 30,000 Leagues Under the Sea, just to see how a film from 40 years ago matches up to a low-budget clunker from today. So, keep checking back and one of these days I’ll have another head-to-head review for your reading pleasure.

Tons of Movies – Pt. 1

I haven’t updated my Movie Journal in forever, so here is part one of the list I’m currently working on.  I figured it would be a little better to split things up than post a massive page of about 25 movies and TV seasons.

Enjoy!


Timecrimes
It used to be that low-budget films veered towards the horror genre, preferably utilizing as many scantily-clad women and buckets of corn syrup they could muster. Nowadays, if you want to make a low-budget film and be taken seriously as an artist, your best chance seems to be a time travel movie. Films like Primer, Donnie Darko, and now, Timecrimes (or Los cronocrimenes, in its native Spanish), prove that you don’t need a lot of money to make a riveting film.

Hector and Clara have a beautiful home in the country, surrounded by acres of trees, but they are not so isolated as to be completely alone or without aspects of civilization. Nestled in the hills are other neighbors, paved roads, and a high-tech research laboratory that brings up images of Microsoft or Google’s idyllic headquarters.

One evening, Hector is sitting in his backyard, exploring his surroundings with a pair of binoculars. As he peers through the trees, he sees a beautiful young woman standing very still, though trembling under the surface. Slowly, she pulls her shirt up to bare her midriff, then removes the shirt entirely, exposing her breasts. Just then, Clara interrupts and, in the few moments he shares with his wife, the woman in the trees disappears. Intrigued – and, let’s face it, a little excited – Hector goes to look for her. He finds her lying naked against a small cliff face, unconscious, but alive. As he gets closer to her, he is stabbed from behind by a hand bearing a pair of scissors. He runs, but soon realizes he is being pursued by a man wearing bandages over his head. Frantic, he finds himself at the research lab, which is closed for the weekend and seemingly deserted. He breaks, finds a walkie-talkie and uses it to communicate with a man in the silo at the back of the compound. Hector runs for the silo and, once inside, the man tells him to hide inside a strange machine.

Thus begins a complex, thought-provoking, and twisted film dealing with time travel, morality, destiny, and the limits one will go to ensure his own happiness. It’s a wild ride and one that must be experienced spoiler-free, to be honest. That being said, I can comment on one aspect of the film that I really enjoyed and would seem to be key to your appreciation – it’s a little seedy.

Normally when we think of time travel we think of shiny technology and going back in time to right a wrong or some such noble deed. Not this time. Hector winds up back in time to prevent someone else from living his life, from having sex with his wife, and from making his existence null and void. He’s selfish – and the acts he commits during his time travel “adventure” prove that. He’s not a very likable hero and, honestly, I’m not entirely sure you’re really even intended to like him. From his Peeping Tom tendency to the outright assault and violence he commits in order to set his timeline straight, Hector is anything but a good guy. It’s a slightly different take on the sub-genre and is probably more realistic a portrayal of any one of us were we to find ourselves in the same situation.

The film is available on Netflix Instant Watch (or DVD, of course) and I would have to say it’s definitely worth checking out.

4 / 5 bananas


The IT Crowd: Series 1
I’m a big fan of British television, finding that a lot of it speaks to my sensibilities and interests more so than many American shows. So when I’d heard about this computer culture sitcom a while ago (on the internet, fittingly enough), I had a feeling I’d like it. Thanks to the wonders of Netflix Instant Watch, I was able to catch the first series of this pretty funny, very imaginative Britcom.

The show centers on Roy, Maurice Moss (called simply “Moss” for the most part), and recent-hire, Jen, who all work in the IT department at a giant corporation headed up by eccentric CEO, Denholm Reynholm. Roy and Moss have the cynicism and ego that you find in so many IT support people as the years of answering silly computer questions will eventually bring, though Moss is a much sweeter, simpler, nicer guy than the overly bitter Roy. Jen, on the other hand, is clueless when it comes to computers and has actually been hired as more of a liason between the IT department and the rest of the company – a Relationship Manager, as her title explains. However, as we quickly learn, she is just as socially awkward and nerdy (though in a completely different way) than her co-workers.

The bulk of the comedy on IT Crowd revolves around this social awkwardness, but not to such an uncomfortable extreme as one might find on the UK version of The Office or Starz Channel’s recent cult favorite, Party Down (reviewed later in this post). The show isn’t mean to its protagonists and doesn’t paint them as assholes, but more like lovable losers who simply don’t know how to play with the other kids on the playground.

I have to say that this first series started out a little rough in patches. But by the fourth or fifth episode, the show really hit its stride. One of my favorite episodes was “The Haunting of Bill Crouse”, where Moss, who has difficulty lying to people, goes overboard and tells everyone that Jen died, when, in fact, she’s just in her office and doesn’t want to be disturbed. When flowers and cards begin to appear outside the office door, Moss tells Jen that she has been voted Employee of the Month, rather than reveal his lie. This leads to some very funny moments as she begins wandering the halls, even interrupting her own memorial service to accept her accolades as Employee of the Month. There are some great sight gags in this episode that are imaginatively setup and played to excellent comic effect.

If you’re a computer geek, you’ll probably enjoy much of the show. Even if you’re not all that familiar with the culture, there’s still plenty to like, especially if you work in an office environment. While the off-the-wall comedy might be a little too strange for some people, the general sense of fun and the show’s true love for its characters will surely win over most viewers.

4 / 5 bananas

The IT Crowd: Series 2
This series of IT Crowd was definitely a winner for me. The comedy was quite a bit darker in these episodes, specifically one where Moss responds to a classified ad for German cooking classes, only to find that the person is a German who wants to cook him for dinner (this is based on an infamous German cannibal murder trial from a few years back). But there are other examples of the comedy going to a dark place (Peter File) and to uncomfortable places similar to the UK version of The Office.

I really enjoyed this series and am looking forward to the rest as they become available on Netflix.

4 /5 bananas


Confessions of a Superhero
The joke in Hollywood is that every waitress or busboy has a script to sell. Aspiring actors do whatever they have to do to make ends meet until they get discovered, including dressing up as superheroes and wandering around in front of Mann’s Chinese Theatre, snapping photos with tourists for tips. This quirky documentary examines the lives, personalities, and psyches of a few of these characters, referenced in the film by their superhero names: The Incredible Hulk, Wonder Woman, Batman, and Superman. For most of them, the superhero gig is just a job – a way to make ends meet while they continue to take acting classes and go to auditions. But for one man in particular, Superman (AKA Christopher Dennis), embodying the Man of Steel has pretty much become a way of life, almost to a slightly disturbing degree.

The thing I found most interesting about the film was not so much the peoples’ stories – most are typical Hollywood wannabes who came out to California to make it big – but the way they can be viewed as similar to their super-powered alter-egos. For example, Wonder Woman is a small-town girl with a beautiful face and nice figure, but she’s somewhat quiet and soft spoken, almost becoming a bit of a wallflower compared to the other personalities in the film. She also mentions having to reinvent herself many times in order to find a role in life – cheerleader, prom queen, actress, wife, and Wonder Woman. Meanwhile the comic book Wonder Woman also takes a backseat when compared to the big guns in the DC Universe – Superman and Batman – so much so that comic book writers have struggled for years to maintain her relevancy, often changing her backstory and her personality to find a niche. In the comics, The Incredible Hulk is a large, monstrous creature with exaggerated features. In the film, The Incredible Hulk feels that his success in Hollywood has been hindered by his less-than-typical looks, especially his poor teeth. In the film, Batman is a slightly-scary, possibly homicidal, deeply disturbed individual who hides a troubled past. In the comics, Batman is, well, pretty much exactly the same description. Finally, Superman in the film holds himself to certain standards while wearing the cape and shield – he doesn’t smoke in costume (though he does in his Clark Kent/Chris Dennis persona), he is always polite to tourists, he’s professional when it comes to receiving (or not receiving) tips for a photo, he even takes special care to only have his signature front curl of hair while he’s in costume. He’s not perfect by any means, but he does a pretty darn good job of embodying the “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” that Superman has come to stand for.

The films is an intriguing look at fame, self-esteem, pride, and the lengths people are willing to go to eek out a living using whatever assets they have at their disposal. As I watched, I kept asking myself, “Could I do what they’re doing?” And, really, I think getting the audience to ask that question is the entire purpose of the film. So on that level – and many others – it’s pretty successful.

3.5 / 5 bananas


Up
If you don’t like Pixar films, then I don’t like you. Nuff said, honestly. This film is amazing and definitely ranks up there as one of Pixar’s best. With that, my review ends, but I do have an interesting observation that I haven’t seen floating around the net just yet, so read on if you care.

Despite there only being one child in the film, Russell, Up is really all about kids. Or, more specifically, encouraging people to have kids.

As we know from the heart-wrenching opening montage from the film, Carl and his wife Ellie were not able to have children. This meant they only had each other over the years, leaving Carl alone, lost, and bitter when his wife passed away. If you look at the changes in Carl once Russell comes into his life, it’s not hard to imagine how different things would have been if he’d had grown children or grandchildren around to fill the void left by Ellie’s passing.

Before Russell, Carl had a death wish. Let’s face it – tying balloons to your house and trying to fly to South America is suicidal. Even if you make it to the waterfall, what then? You have no access to modern medicine (which at his age will be a necessity) and you’ll scrounge for food and water (especially out there on that rocky cliff) – you’re not going to last long, but at least the view will be nice. After meeting Russell, Carl is revitalized and finds new meaning in life. He tries to help Kevin (the big bird) get away from Muntz, he adopts Dug, one of the Muntz’s cast-off pooches, he even stays in Russell’s life after they’ve returned home from their adventure, helping him with his scouting activities, taking him for ice cream, and going to see movies. His life is completely changed because he now has a child in his life. He has a purpose; something worth living for.

Carl and the villain, Charles, are a lot alike in the beginning of the film. Both are alone, bitter, and obsessed with living life by their rules. Throughout the film, Muntz thinks only of himself; the idea of sacrificing for the well-being of another is out of the question. He wants Kevin because the bird is a rare find that will make him famous; never mind that Kevin has chicks back in his/her nest. While Muntz has dogs that could be seen as child proxies, he uses them more as servants than as true companions. Carl is a lot like that, too, in the beginning. The only difference is Russell.

So while the film might be amazing and Oscar-worthy for sure, I think there’s an important part of the film that’s being completely overlooked – Pixar wants you to have kids. If you don’t, you’ll be alone one day – angry, bitter, suicidal, and you’ll have nothing left in your life that’s worth getting out of bed for. As a father, I think they might be on to something.

5 / 5 bananas


Party Down: Season 1
Party Down is one of those odd, under-the-radar shows that you only hear about thanks to the internet. Thats especially true for me since I don’t have Starz, the premium cable channel it’s shown on. Thankfully, the series has been running on Netflix streaming, so I’ve been able to catch a show that has garnered quite a cult following in its first season.

PD is all about unrealized dreams. The waiters at Party Down Catering are all actors, writers and comedians who just never quite made it to the stardom they hoped for in Hollywood. The one that has come closest – newest member of the crew, Henry – had his moment in the spotlight doing a beer commercial with a catchphrase that haunts him everywhere he goes. Whenever someone recognizes him, they always ask, “What are you doing here?” He and the rest of his co-workers are asking themselves the same thing, though some of them know the answer and just don’t want to admit it.

I have to say, I really enjoyed this show. I like it’s blend of laugh-out-loud comedy with more subtle moments that show how smart it really is. The characters are relateable, especially for someone who once thought he was going to be a big Hollywood screenwriter, but even for those who never had any interest in being center-stage, I think there’s a desperation present here that we’ve all felt at some point in our lives when we’re working that dead-end job we hate “until I can find something better.” I’m anxious to see how the second season turns out.

4 / 5 bananas


Red Dwarf: Series 1
Back in the mid-90s, I had two friends – Steve and Travis – who were obsessed with this British sci-fi spoof. Over the years they’ve both sat me down at various times to watch a small sampling of episodes on VHS and, while I always found it funny, I never really dug my teeth into it. Well, I decided I’d go ahead and start watching the series in its entirety, now available on Netflix streaming video, to see what all the fuss was about.

In case you’re not familiar, the show tells the story of Lister, the last surviving human from the mining ship, Red Dwarf. The rest of the crew died due to a radiation leak, but Lister was spared because he was put into stasis (like prison) for illegally bringing a cat on-board. 3,000,000 years later, Lister is revived to find his anal retentive roommate, Rimmer, had his soul saved in the computer’s database, which is then brought back as a hologram. There is also another creature on-board – a cat-like human who is the evolutionary descendent of Lister’s illegal cat.

This first series sets up the show and is, quite frankly, not all that great. The concept is there, some of the “world” is put into place, but as for laughs, they are few and far between. But with a premise that’s so clever, I’m anxious to look into the rest of the series.

2.5 / 5 bananas


Crumb
Robert Crumb was one of the primary forces behind the underground comics movement in the 1960s and 70s. Best known for his “Keep on Truckin” comic, Crumb is a brilliant, demented, talented outcast, never as cool as the culture he helped define.

This 1994 documentary by Terry Zwigoff (who would go on to helm the 2001 alt-comics masterpiece Ghost World) give us an intimate look into the life of this bizarre personality. Filled with interviews of former girlfriends, his wife, his daughter, and, most memorably, his brothers, one gets a real sense of the chaos that helped fuel his creative desires – as they say, “Dysfunction breeds genius.”

Riveting throughout, I cannot recommend this documentary enough.

5 / 5 bananas


American Movie
Recently I was going through a stressful period in my life, when I felt my creative endeavors had hit a real stand still. In an effort to kickstart things, I decided to re-watch this inspiring little documentary about Mark Borchardt, a Wisconsin-based filmmaker.

I hadn’t seen the film in years, and the thing I found most interesting this time around, was the way Mark is so focused. Maybe it’s just the film crew following him around that helps him maintain that singular vision, but I honestly don’t know if that’s entirely true. The guy is just a machine – constantly working on scripts, trying to piece together his film Coven, and doing whatever he can to get his vision on the screen. I have to admire him for that, because it’s something I’d love to be able to do.

However, I also have to wonder if the devotion to his craft has left him unfocused on the more important things in life – namely family, career, and personal health. I wonder, will his kids grow up to think fondly of the times they slept on the hard floor of a film editing room in a local junior college? Or will they resent their father for spending more time with his 8mm camera than he ever did with them?

4 / 5 bananas


He’s Just Not That Into You
As you can probably imagine, I watched this one with my wife. She wanted something funny, brainless and ‘not too heavy’, so this seemed like a better fit than The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Yeah, this is a chick flick with some really eye-rolling moments. But it’s also a clever film that has a fun structure – sort of a Pulp Fiction for the romcom set. The characters are generally annoying and do stupid things, but you kind of expect that. Still, there are some fun moments, some very true observations about relationships, and, hey, you get to look at Scarlett Johannsson for a couple of hours. I can think of worse ways to spend my time.

Will I ever watch it again? Not unless forced to in order to be polite. But, honestly, I don’t know if my wife would ever really care to watch it again, either, so that should tell you something.

2 / 5 bananas


Tokyo Gore Police
Dear Japanese:
WTF?
Seriously.
Love: Rob

It is the near-future and the Tokyo police force has been commercialized. Knowing they only have to answer to the stockholders, the force has grown arrogant, corrupt, and brutal in dealing with criminals. So a new form of criminal has been developed – The Engineers – a group who are genetically altered to become living weapons should they ever be injured.

For example, about midway through the film, a woman is shot in the chest. It looks like she’s dead until, a few minutes later, she wakes up, pulls her lower half away from her torso, and, in place of her legs, is a set of snapping, alligator-like jaws. She lifts her “legs” off the floor and chases after her assailant, clamping down on his thigh and tearing it off at the knee.

The ultra-violence is thick in this film, with bloody fountains spraying out of every sliced off limb and plenty of people getting decapitated or split in half by a well-placed katana blade. However, the film also features quite a bit of social commentary (there are commercials featuring spunky high school girls hocking designer label razors so they’ll look cool while cutting their wrists), so you have to believe the violence serves a deeper purpose as well. Still, it’s not for the faint of heart, the easily offended, or, well, most well-adjusted people, to be honest. But if cartoonish violence, a few demented scenes of depravity, and a little dark, dark humor are your thing, check it out.

3 / 5 bananas (Honestly, this is more for the sheer guts the film displays by not pulling any punches than any real sign of quality)


The Terminator
I decided to watch the original again before venturing out to see the latest sequel. In hindsight, that might not have been such a good idea. Not because the original doesn’t hold up – quite the contrary – but because it seriously tainted my opinion of the sequel.

The Terminator is truly a snapshot of its time. The soundtrack is pure synthesizer cheese, the clothes are disastrously bad, the film stock is grainy, and the stop motion special effects have started to age. But the story is still relevant and still pretty kick ass, so that’s really all that matters. While some might find the original a tad slow compared to T2, I think it makes sense in this case. The T800 is a determined, but not necessarily speedy adversary, reminiscent of a zombie from Night of the Living Dead, who is suddenly on top of you even though you’ve been running for 10 minutes and it’s just been plodding along. It’s that relentless, slow-paced drive that is a constant presence in the film, and that’s really where the tension lies.

If it’s been a while since you’ve watched this one, give it another shot. I think you’ll find there’s still a lot to enjoy here.

4 / 5 bananas

Terminator Salvation
When I went into T4, I was enticed by the trailers that featured impressive special effects, amazing action sequences, and the promise of finally seeing John Connor, the real hero of the Terminator films, finally become the man he had been prophesized to be.

What I got was 2 hours of disappointment.

First, I didn’t care about any of the characters. This made the action scenes completely meaningless. The special effects were generally very impressive, but that’s not enough to hang a film on (despite what Michael Bay might say). But I think the aspect of the film that saddened me most was the lack of focus on John Connor.

Even the first film, in which he is conceived, he is more the center of the film than in this one. I mean, the entire point of that film is to make sure that Sarah Connor survives so that her son can be born. Here, the entire point of the film is some character we’ve never met before figuring out that he’s a robot. Sure, it gives us some history for the terminators, but it felt more like fanfiction or a comic book plot used to fill in the gaps in the film’s canon. It wasn’t the epic storyline we need for a Terminator film, with long-lasting repercussions for future films. Sure, we saw how Connor got his facial scare, but that’s really the only piece of the puzzle that was solved for us. Otherwise the movie was completely inconsequential.

2 / 5 bananas


Star Trek
I’ve never been a huge Star Trek fan. I watched The Next Generation pretty religiously for a while in junior high, but I don’t remember much of anything about it; it wasn’t a cultural touchstone for me by any means. That being said, I am a geek, so I do know some of the Trek mythos – Tribbles, the Kobayashi Maru, the green, bikini-clad alien girls that Kirk always makes out with, the horrible fight sequence with the lizardman, etc. – but I was always more of a Star Wars fan, the Trekkie’s mortal enemy.

That being said, the latest Star Trek movie was made specifically for guys like me. I didn’t have any baggage going into it, but I knew enough about the Star Trek tropes to feel comfortable in the world being presented. And feel comfortable I did. In fact, I had a blast with this film. It’s what I would consider the perfect summer blockbuster – fun, flashy, exciting, yet there’s enough meat to enjoy on repeat viewings.

I don’t really have anything new or original to say since this film has been reviewed all over the place, so I’m not going to go on and on all day here. I will say that I’m really interested to see how the sequel(s) are handled. Because for me a large part of the reason the film worked was the influence of director JJ Abrams. When he eventually leaves the series, I just wonder if it will maintain that sense of wonder and excitement that was such a huge part of this film. I guess we’ll just have to see. But, for the first time, I’m really excited to see future Trek films.

5 / 5 bananas


Splinter
I remember being vaguely intrigued by this film from the one and only trailer I ever saw for it. So when I noticed it was available on Netflix Streaming, I decided to give it a shot.

The film has a strange premise – a young couple goes camping, but leaves the woods early because their tent broke. So as they are traveling back to civilization to get a hotel room, they stop to help a woman standing in the middle of the road. Her pistol-carrying boyfriend then comes up to the window and kidnaps the couple, forcing them to drive. The man has apparently committed some crime and his girlfriend, who seems a bit unstable, is along for the ride.

The foursome stop at a gas station where they are attacked by a man that has been infected by a strange condition that causes spikes to grow out of his body and contort his skeleton in most unnatural ways. The girlfriend is killed almost immediately, while the criminal boyfriend and the innocent couple become trapped inside the gas station. The rest of the film plays much like a typical zombie film with the folks inside trying to escape while the monster is trying to get in.

The film might not be breaking new ground in the horror genre, but it’s still an enjoyable romp with some pretty good special effects. I was a little annoyed with some of the directorial decisions – namely the otherwise steady camera shots suddenly becoming very staccato whenever the creature is the center of the frame. I understand what they were going for – the creature itself is very herky jerky, so the editing reflected that – but I think it would have been much more effective for us to see it as the characters would see it, instead of a stylized view. Maybe that would have revealed problems with the special effects, though. Who knows? For the most part I had a good time seeing the standard monster movie standbys with a few twists thrown in. It’s not going to change your life, but if you don’t think too much, you should have fun with it at the very least.

2.5 / 5 bananas


Fido
Ahh, the classic “A Boy and His Dog” scenario. It’s brought us films like Old Yeller and the Don Johnson post-apocalyptic weirdo sex romp, uh, A Boy and His Dog. Here, with a great twist on the genre, is “A Boy and His Zombie”.

After radiation from space reanimates the dead, the geniuses at the Zomcom Corporation develop a collar that is able to negate the zombies’ hunger for human flesh. The collar has restrained them to the point they are able to complete menial tasks, placing them in the roles of butlers, landscapers and factory workers. Of course having a zombie of your very own is just one more way the 1950s suburban family strives to keep up with the Joneses. When the Robinsons get their own zombie, nicknamed Fido by son Timmy, they soon find that the newest (undead) member of the family changes them all in unexpected ways.

While, yes, the film is funny, for me the best part of this movie was the way it subverts the Leave it to Beaver stereotype that was presented as fact on 1950s sitcoms and films. On the surface, the Robinsons appear to be perfect in every way. However, they are anything but, so it’s especially genius when, ironically, it is the introduction of a zombie that makes them live again.

Final conclusion: It’s a fresh take on the zombie film and one definitely worth watching.

4 / 5 bananas


National Treasure: Book of Secrets
Honestly, I don’t really have an opinion on this one because, well, it’s critic proof. It’s cheesy, it’s cliché, it’s poorly acted, the script is horrible, the story is ludicrous – but it does what it’s supposed to do: entertain. Sure, the puzzles are fun and creative, but no one really cares why Nicolas Cage is running all over the world doing the things he does. The audience forgets the MacGuffin long before the journey begins, we don’t care about the romantic subplots, we really don’t care about Cage’s parents’ relationship – we just want to see some Indiana Jones-style adventure.

And that’s what you get with Book of Secrets. No more, no less. If you liked the first one, you’ll like the second one. Although I have to say, the final reel gets a little slow and then starts stretching the suspension of disbelief a little too far, so that it loses some of its willy-nilly feel.

Still, it is what it is and it’s a fun distraction for 90 minutes.

2.5 / 5 bananas


The Big House vs. The Nut House: Round 1

Let’s say you’re on Netflix and you search for a big, blockbuster movie to add to your queue. Ya know that movie in your search results that’s just below the big, blockbuster movie? The one with the title that’s similar, but not quite the same? With the DVD cover art that’s similar, but not quite the same? Chances are that film is made by The Asylum, a film production company in Hollywood that specializes in what one could call “parasite filmmaking”.

Essentially, The Asylum looks at the movies in production by the big film companies and makes a cheap film with a similar plot (or sometimes not very similar at all), gives it a similar name (a must for their plan to work), and releases it straight-to-DVD just before the big blockbuster comes out in theatres and/or hits DVD. They pick up the scraps from the folks who wanted to rent Transformers, only to find every copy at Blockbuster is checked-out, so they settle for Transmorphers instead.

This is the first in a new series of reviews I’m calling “The Big House vs. The Nut House”, where I’m going to be turning a critical eye at both the big studio Hollywood film and The Asylum’s knock-off to see which is the better movie. Will the multi-million dollar blockbuster and A-list actors beat out the milk money budget and out-of-work porn stars? I have a feeling we might be surprised from time to time…

As this is the first such review, I’m kicking things off with a battle royale.


SpaceMonkeyX.com presents
The Big House vs. The Nut House: Round 1

featuring:

20th Century Fox’s 2008 film,
The Day the Earth Stood Still
starring Keanu Reeves and Jennifer Connelly
vs.
The Asylum’s 2008 film,
The Day the Earth Stopped
starring/written/directed by C. Thomas Howell and Sinead McCafferty
vs.
20th Century Fox’s 1951 film,
The Day the Earth Stood Still
starring Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal


The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Let’s start at the beginning with director Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still. We need to start here simply because the plot, characters, and themes that will be reflected in the remakes are established here. And to really understand if the other films are successful, we have to know what the original film intended to do and how it told its story.
The film begins off with a rather amazing event – a giant flying saucer touches down on The Mall in Washington D.C. Talk about a grand entrance! The Army is scrambled and soldiers guard the disc while two figures emerge – a giant metal robot named Gort and a human-like being named Klaatu.

As Klaatu walks down the ramp to the ground below, he extends a strange-looking object that is misinterpreted by some nervous young grunt as a weapon. Klaatu is shot in the shoulder, knocking him down and pissing off Gort. A visor on Gort’s face opens up and a laser beam fires out towards the shocked soldiers, dissolving their guns and tanks right before their eyes. Klaatu turns to his robotic bodyguard and, in a strange, alien language, says some magic words that calm the metal goliath.

Klaatu is taken into custody and questioned about who he is, where he comes from, and why he’s here. He tells his captors that he is from an alien world, come here as an ambassador of sorts. His mission is to convince the people of earth to stop fighting amongst themselves. Now that we have nuclear weapons, we are a threat to our own world, as well as the other worlds in the galaxy. Klaatu asks to speak to a gathering of all the leaders of the world, refusing to speak to any one leader, including the President of the United States. Because tensions are high worldwide, the government officials seriously doubt this will be possible. Klaatu says if that is our stance, then he will simply have to destroy us all.

Shortly after his incarceration, Klaatu escapes and blends in with the rest of the human population. He winds up at a boarding house where he is able to rent a room and adopts the name Mr. Carpenter. It’s here that he meets Helen and Bobby Benson, a widow and her precocious son.

Bobby and Klaatu quickly become friends and wander around Washington, sight-seeing and philosophizing about the historic monuments and great leaders of our past. As they wander D.C., Klaatu asks Bobby who the smartest man in America is. Bobby names Dr. Barnhardt, a famous physicist. Klaatu and Barnhardt soon meet and Klaatu tells the doctor about his mission here on Earth. Barnhardt suggests a small-scale show of force to prove Klaatu is capable of destroying the Earth, might convince others to listen.

A few days later, precisely at noon, all electrical power across the globe is shut down. Panic threatens, but 30 minutes later, power is restored. During that half-hour, Klaatu and Helen are stuck in an elevator together. Klaatu tells Helen what’s going on, who he is, and what he’s doing here. Through his interactions with Helen, Bobby, and Barnhardt, Klaatu learns that not all earthlings are heartless, warmongering bastards. So he has decided to prevent our destruction if she’s willing to help him get to a meeting of scientists Barnhardt is putting together.

As Klaatu and Helen run from the authorities, he tells her that if anything happens to him, she must go to Gort, the giant robot standing silently by the UFO, and say the words, “Klaatu Barrada Nikto”, some of the most famous words in all of sci-fidom. This secret message will command Gort not to destroy the planet.

Klaatu is soon hunted by the military and gunned down. Upon his death, Helen goes to Gort, says the words, and Gort comes alive. He retrieves Klaatu’s body from prison and brings it back to the spaceship. There, he places the body in a rejuvenation chamber that brings Klaatu back to life.

When Klaatu is discovered missing from his cell, the military, the police, and scientists brought together by Barnhardt, all converge on the flying saucer. Klaatu comes outside and gives a speech about being responsible to one another, as well as the inhabitants of other planets we will eventually meet. He informs us that Gort was prepared to destroy the earth, but Klaatu is showing us mercy thanks to good people like Barnhardt, Helen, and Bobby. With that, he flies off and those left behind on Earth are left to ponder their fate if they don’t heed the alien’s words.

Released during the heart of the Cold War, the message of finding ways other than war to resolve our differences was quite clear. More importantly, the film gives us some sense of our place in the universe; there is someone else out there and they will not tolerate our immature ways.

There is also a Christ analogy that is commonly mentioned when discussing this film. Klaatu’s message of love, peace, and harmony is similar to that of Jesus. The alien’s resurrection before ascending into the heavens is pretty hard to miss, too. It could even be argued that Helen is a Mary Magdelene proxy, Barnhardt is one of the disciples, and Bobby represents the children who flocked to Jesus to hear his parables, who would become the next generation of Christians. (Believe it or not, but the director never made this connection until years later.)

These types of analogies and themes were unusual for sci-fi in the early part of the 1950s. It was a time when most science fiction referenced Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, not the King James Bible. This was one of the first sci-fi films that had a relevant message to the audience and couldn’t be written off as simple, escapist fare for kids with over-active imaginations.

As for the production, it’s not a perfect film. Some of the acting is wooden, while some is so over-the-top (particularly Bobby), to almost be parody. However, Michael Rennie is great as the calm, quiet, observant Klaatu. He plays the alien with a wonderful sense of introversion; you can practically see the wheels of his mind spinning to process all the information coming in. And when he speaks, there is a sort of gentle, yet stern detachment that makes sense for a being who has been sent to destroy us, but doesn’t necessarily relish his mission.

The film’s themes are what help it transcend above your standard sci-fi film, but the incredible characters – especially the silent, mysterious, metal monstrosity, Gort – helps bridge the gap between melodramatic morality play to something more. It is truly a classic of science fiction film.


The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)
The film starts in much the same way as the original – a mysterious object lands on Earth, this time in New York City’s Central Park, and it’s not a flying saucer, but a giant, glowing orb.

Helen, the once-beautiful, now anorexic, Jennifer Connelly, is not a widowed secretary with a precocious son. No, she’s a scientist who studies spaceborne biology and is called to be part of the science team investigating the sphere. She is actually the one who reaches out to Klaatu as he leaves the sphere and helps him once he is shot by a nervous person with a machinegun. Oh, but this Helen does still have a precocious son, played by Will Smith’s kid. Actually, he’s more of a little brat that needs to be grounded, but that’s what passes for precocious anymore.

This time around, Klaatu’s message is not to warn us to get along. Now he has come to destroy us so that the Earth might live. Our species threatens to make the planet uninhabitable, and Klaatu and his alien brethren can’t have that. He succinctly states his case as: “If the Earth dies, you die. If you die, the Earth survives.” Part of this effort includes hundreds of smaller, glowing orbs that have landed all across the planet. These orbs are like mini Noah’s Arks, collecting animal species so they can repopulate the Earth after Klaatu has killed us off.

After Klaatu escapes Federal custody, he contacts Helen to help him get in touch with Dr. Barnhardt. Along the way, she, her son, and Klaatu encounter government agents, and even an alien mole that has been on our planet for decades.

The end of the film features one major difference from the original: Gort Gone Wild! Rather than simply pose an ominous threat of unspeakable power, Gort – or rather, G.O.R.T. (Genetically-Organized Robotic Technology), as he is now known – breaks apart and becomes millions of nanobots that eat their way across most of the East Coast. The bots consume anything man-made – including men – in an effort to cleanse the planet of our scourge. Klaatu is able to stop G.O.R.T. before he destroys everything, but it costs Klaatu his life (He died for our sins, ya know?).

One of my major complaints with the film is the over-explanation. For example, in the first film, Klaatu looks human. We don’t know why, he just does. Of course it works on a story level, giving him the freedom to wander among us unnoticed, and observe our world to help determine its fate. But it also has a thematic function: “He is Us.” There was no need to explain how he looked human because it wasn’t really about the “how’s”, but the “why’s”.

In the remake, the first scene shows Reeves as a mountain climber in the early 20th Century. During a white out on some remote mountain top, he goes to investigate a small, glowing orb that has appeared from out of nowhere. When he breaks the sphere’s delicate shell with his ice pick, the light emanating from inside absorbs the screen. When he wakes, there is a wound on the back of his hand (I’m sure the filmmakers wanted us to think of stigmata to further the Christ analogy).

So rather than allow Klaatu’s human form to be a mystery, they went and developed a reason why he looks like one of us – the aliens took a genetic sample 100 years ago. What purpose does this serve to know this? And why couldn’t it have been handled with a simple line later in the film? Something along the lines of, “They must have visited before and taken a human DNA sample.” There. Done.

Unfortunately, there’s also a lack of focus that is apparent throughout the film. Even the central theme – we have to be destroyed before we do any more damage to the Earth – becomes muddy and confusing.

If the new message is to take better care of the planet, what, then, would make Klaatu save us from destruction? Does he see a wind farm? Does he see children picking up trash in the park? Does he see a once-extinct condor being re-introduced into the wild thanks to genetic engineering? Is a piece of legislature passed that will reduce greenhouse gases by 50%? No. None of this happens. Honestly, I have no idea what makes him believe that we’re going to suddenly go green.

There is a conversation between Helen, Klaatu, and Barnhardt, wherein the two humans promise Klaatu that we’ll do better. But there’s no indication that these two people speak for the rest of mankind, nor have the power to make this change occur. Klaatu doesn’t really gain any insight on his own like he does in the original that would really make him change his mind about us. He’s basically told that we “super-pinky swear” we’ll start using CFL lightbulbs. And yet that’s enough for him to stop the apocalypse.

I won’t say the film is all bad, though. There are a few exciting action sequences as Klaatu runs from the military, and the scene with G.O.R.T.’s nanobots eating the East Coast are fun to watch if you take them completely out of context. Reeves is fine as Klaatu, though I have to say this version of the character is a little more spiteful and mean-spirited than the original’s pacifist. That seemed to me to be counter-productive if you want to convince the world to listen to you. The special effects are good for today’s CGI standards, though G.O.R.T. never completely works due to his liquid-like design -big and chunky will always be more menacing than big and smooth. Just ask 1998’s Godzilla.

Really what it boils down to is that Reeves’ The Day the Earth Stood Still is the classic example of a needless remake. The new film brings nothing important, visionary, or all that exciting to the table. And the aspects of the original film that have been kept are minimalized to make way for the shiny new special effects and new scenes that only take away the power of the original story.


The Day the Earth Stopped (2008)
I went into The Day the Earth Stopped with every intention of making fun of it. That was actually my original idea behind this new column, actually. And while the film isn’t good, I was really surprised to see that it actually succeeds in some ways the big Hollywood film fails. Believe me when I say I’m as amazed as you are.

Unlike the other versions, this Day does not feature a flying saucer landing in a major landmark. Surely the budget wouldn’t have allowed for such permits to be acquired. Instead, the first major scene of the film shows numerous objects hurtling through space, heading straight for the Earth. We are soon able to make out that these objects are actually giant robots, whose design is heavily influenced by Japanese manga like “Macross” and “BattleTech”. I have to say, considering the budget for this film, these “mechs” look really cool looming over Los Angeles. According to government agents, 666 of these bad boys have landed across the globe, positioning themselves in major cities. (666? Really? That was the best you could come up with?) So far the giants have been impenetrable by modern weapons (other than nukes, which no one has been willing to try in a city setting), but they seem to just be standing there, waiting.

Meanwhile, a mysterious object lands in the woods outside of L.A. The military converge and capture two humanoid beings, a man and a woman. The man says he is there to help the woman complete her mission – the destruction of mankind. The woman refuses to speak to anyone but Josh, played by the film’s writer/director and 1980s kid actor, C. Thomas Howell, best known for his roles in The Outsiders, The Hitcher, and Red Dawn.

She tells Josh that her name is Sky and, yes, she is here to destroy the Earth unless she can be convinced otherwise before the sun goes down. When Josh tells her the military is going to keep her prisoner, she decides to break out by emitting an electromagnetic pulse (EMP), shutting off all the electrical power and machines in L.A. (Or maybe the world. It’s not really clear just how far-reaching her powers go).

Meanwhile, the sun is getting lower in the sky and the Monoliths (the giant robots), begin to activate, firing rays into the Earth that are slowing the rotation of the core. That can’t be good.

During their escape, Sky and Josh talk a lot about the beauty of mankind, they visit a church, they talk about love, yadda, yadda, yadda. Towards the end of the film, though, the pair sees Judd Nelson (huh?) and his wife who gives birth in the back of a van (they were on their way to the hospital when Sky’s EMP killed the van’s battery). The mother dies in childbirth and Judd, understandably, is heartbroken and happy at the same time. This scene is the final piece of the puzzle for Sky as she now understands that we humans have love in our hearts and are worth saving. Knowing this, Sky not only brings the woman back to life, but stops the monoliths from destroying the Earth.

As you might expect, this film is cheap. That’s kind of the point, though – make it cheap to maximize profits. The film is so cheap that the big government command center keeping an eye on the Monoliths still has old, giant CRT computer monitors. They have drawn up blueprints – actual blueprints that are rolled out onto a table – of the Monoliths, rather than using AutoCAD or some other gee whiz piece of 3D modeling software. The military grunts all run around in SWAT costumes that look like they came from the local party supply store. The main special effect seems to be a white flood light shining from off-camera. Honestly, I’m amazed at how good the Monoliths looked; that’s obviously where most of the money went. So, as far as production value, it’s a flop.

The acting is also less than stellar. I understand that the woman playing Sky is supposed to be an alien, but her acting was particularly bland and lifeless. I’m sure she was hired less for her acting skills and more for her sharp cheekbones, steely blue eyes, and willingness to take her top off. However, I have to give props to Howell, who does a fairly decent job with his part. He was never an Oscar-worthy actor to begin with, but it’s good to see he hasn’t lost the talent he had while out of the limelight. There was one character I couldn’t stand – an assistant to the main Federal agent – but he was the only one that stood out for being really bad. The rest just don’t stand out, which might be worse, actually.

As expected, The Asylum film was not very good. It was definitely B-movie fodder, made for a quick buck to capitalize on the big budget remake. But ya know what, as far as telling a clear, concise story, it actually did a better job than the Keanu movie. And how did they accomplish this feat? They kept it simple and kept certain aspects of the film a mystery.

For example, the Monoliths just appear out of nowhere. They land, probably crushing hundreds of people and destroying buildings in the process, but we don’t ever see that side of things. We don’t know if the military has the robots surrounded. We don’t know if the populace is running like rats from a sinking ship. All we know is what’s happening with Josh, Sky, and a handful of others. We don’t really get a sense of just how big of a deal this event would be without these side aspects, but at the same time, the scenes of mobs running from downtown L.A. are not really necessary to tell this particular story. By focusing on the main story and not concerning themselves with the myriad of surrounding events, or worrying about explaining every detail of the story, the film becomes focused, efficient, and streamlined. All things the bloated, over-explained Reeves version was lacking.

If you think about it, the original film did much the same thing. There’s a flying saucer in Washington D.C. and yet Klaatu and Bobby are checking out the museums and the monuments like it’s just a typical Tuesday. We see Helen and her boyfriend continuing to go out for dinner and a movie. We keep things close and intimate with a core group of characters and it helps us understand what Klaatu sees in mankind that makes us worth saving. We don’t need to know how Klaatu looks human. We don’t need to know how Gort was planning on destroying the Earth. We don’t need to know anything other than what we need to know.

While I won’t be recommending The Day the Earth Stopped, I have to say I’m a little surprised by how well it was executed. For what could have been a complete waste of time, there are enough glimmers of mediocre (not even “good”) to prevent me from completely tearing it a new one. I’ll never bother watching again, but I also don’t feel like I got cheated out of those 90 minutes, either.


The Scorecard:

The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)
It’s a little disappointing that the Reeves remake wasn’t handled better, really. Because this is a time in our lives that we could use a Day the Earth Stood Still with a very strong message of change. Whether the focus would have been the environment or the various armed conflicts going on around the world, a story telling us we have to do what’s best for us all if we want to survive, would have been a welcome lesson at the moment. Sadly, this wasn’t the film we wound up with.
Score: 3 / 5 bananas

The Day the Earth Stopped (2008)
As for The Day the Earth Stopped, it was barely worth the rental. But then again, maybe some of the big boys could learn a thing or two about storytelling from small, independent production companies that can’t waste time or money with over-bloated plotlines.
Score: 1.5 / 5 bananas

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Therefore, with its complex themes presented in a simple, yet thought-provoking way, it would appear that the original 1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still is our clear winner in this battle royale of reviews. It’s simply a perfect example of sci-fi done right. Skip the other two and go with the one that started it all. You won’t be disappointed.
Score: 4.5 / 5 bananas

Look for my next “The Big House vs. The Nut House” review coming soon:

Transformers v. Transmorphers

Yes, More Movies

I swear, one of these days I’m going to write a new non-movie post. Until then…

Point Break

I couldn’t tell you the last time I saw this early-’90s action staple, so it was nice to catch up with it again. Of course the whole time I was watching it, all I could think of was the scene from Hot Fuzz that references Keanu firing into the air in frustration when he simply can’t shoot his friend Swayze even though he has a clear shot. I have to say, watching it again while not in high school has made me realize how silly this movie really is. And of course I never saw the homosexual undertones when I was 16, either. It’s a great snapshot of a time period, where “EXXXXTREME!!!” was just starting to become a widespread phenomenon, but I don’t think it’s going to age well as anything other than a fun nostalgia trip for those of us who were impressionable at the time of it’s release.

2 / 5 bananas


Pumpkinhead

I didn’t really discover EC Comics until sometime in about 2002. EC was the publisher of such gruesome, but well-written titles like Vault of Horror, Tales from the Crypt, and Haunt of Fear. They specialized in stories that could be told in single issues, but featured some really great twists, turns, and scares in just a few pages.

Pumpkinhead is essentially an EC Comic issue brought to life. The story is simple enough – impolite cityfolks come to a small rural community and, through their recklessness, accidentally run a little boy down with their dirtbikes. Because the driver was drunk, he runs to his family’s cabin and tries to get away with the crime. However, Southern justice prevails when the dead boy’s father calls upon a backwoods witch to summon the vengeful soul of Pumpkinhead. His thirst for revenge comes at a price, though, as he personally feels every death of the cityfolk. The anguish is too much for him, so he tries to stop Pumpkinhead before the rampage is over.

First of all, you can’t talk about Pumpkinhead without talking about Stan Winston, the special effects legend who directed the film and designed the creature itself. The effects are spectacular, even more so because this is the age of practical effects – there’s no CGI here. Considering the low budget ($3.5 million) that they had to work with, this really is an unappreciated gem of a horror film.

4 / 5 bananas


Brick

The first time I saw this movie, I had mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I could tell the filmmakers were doing something really interesting and different with this film noir high school film. But at the same time, the hard-boiled dialog coming from teenagers felt a little forced and artificial. Well this time, I don’t have those reservations. This film is just so damn cool.

What makes it work is that it doesn’t flinch. It never winks at the audience. This is how these kids talk, this is the world they live in, and you’re either along for the ride or you’re not. I think it’s just one of those films that might take a viewing or two to sink in for some people. The vocabulary, the violence, and the plot are so foreign to what we’re used to seeing coming from teenagers, that it can take a little getting used to. So I’m glad I gave this one another chance, because I would have hate to have written it off as a novelty.

4.5 / 5 bananas



Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father

I really don’t know what to say about this one. Because by saying too much, you can easily spoil an absolutely amazing film/documentary.

Dear Zachary tells the story of the honest-to-god nicest guy you’ll ever meet. All of his friends took part in the making of this film, telling their stories about how Andy was the kind of guy who lit up a room when he walked into it. He was going to be the Best Man in something like six or seven guys’ weddings. He was universally loved by everyone. Watching his friends go on and on about him really made you start to feel inadequate as a person. However, Andy got caught up in a relationship with the wrong woman. And when he was killed shortly after they broke up, she became the prime suspect.

That’s all I’m saying. That should be enough of a teaser for you to check out this film. Just keep in mind that you will be affected by this film. You will probably cry, so be sure you have tissues handy. It is an absolutely gut-wrenching film that will resonate with viewers for days after watching it. I cannot recommend it enough and would have to call it an early contender for the “Best Film I Saw in 2009 That Did Not Come Out in 2009” come December. Just go rent it now or Watch Instantly on Netflix. You will not be sorry.

5 / 5 bananas


Battlestar Galactica Season 2:

As you might recall, I sort of tore into BSG S1 with my last big movie update. I still maintain that the show is not perfect, nor is it the groundbreaking series that everyone claims it to be. However, I will agree that it is a pretty damn good show. The same problems I had before still stand (especially “frak” and the octagonal paper), but it has become much easier for me to overlook these qualms when the writing is this great.

SPOILER ALERT!!!!

Easily my favorite storyline of the season is when the Battlestar Pegasus is found. The struggle for power, the struggle of ethics, the conspiracies – the whole thing was just too exciting and relevant to the political atmosphere at the time (and still today, really), that I was on the edge of my seat.

Another storyline that really impressed me this season is the voting conspiracy. I did not see that one coming and it definitely made me look at our “heroes” in a different light. Very impressive to turn the tables on the viewer like that.

I have to say I was a little disappointed with the season finale, though. I would have almost preferred to watch the colony try to re-establish itself on a new planet, instead of the “1 Year Later” cop out. But then I guess to some people that would have been boring without constant threat of Cylon attack. It would have been really ballsy, though, to make the threat to the new colony be internal instead of an external force. I think the Bush Administration analogy could have been served very well with this storyline, too. But, that’s not the way it panned out, and even so, I’m still anxiously awaiting S3 to arrive in the mail from Netflix.

4 / 5 bananas


Twilight (w/Rifftrax)

Andrea and I rented Twilight just so we could download the RiffTrax for it. It was worth the grand total of $5 for that kind of entertainment.

As for the film itself, I definitely cannot recommend it. Even without the RiffTrax boys making fun of it, I could tell it was just a terrible, terrible film. There was nothing redeeming about it whatsoever. I mean, literally, nothing. The acting was wooden at best. I couldn’t tell if the lead actress, Kristin Stewart, was supposed to be playing the role as if she wanted to be anywhere else but where she was or if that was simply her not giving a shit shining through. Obviously I’ve never read the tween novels, so I have no clue how Bella’s character is supposed to feel, but there was absolutely zero spark between Stewart and vampy boy Robert Pattinson as Ed Cullen. It was like Stewart was sleep walking through the film.

And, c’mon, baseball? Sparkly vampires? Vampires that only feed on animals? It was just a ridiculous film that had no real redeeming qualities. Sadly, the sequel setup with the sexy, Native American Abercrombie & Fitch models as werewolves is going to just bury this franchise in bad.

As for the RiffTrax, it made the film watchable, so it was obviously a success.

Movie: 1.5 / 5 bananas
RiffTrax: 3 / 5 bananas