Tuesday, February 28, 2017

#2,312. Captain Fantastic (2016)

Directed By: Matt Ross

Starring: Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Samantha Isler

Tag line: "Family values. Power to the people. Stick it to the man"

Trivia: Director Matt Ross had the actors who portrayed the six kids sign a contract promising that they wouldn't eat sugar or junk food for the duration of the filming

For many film fans, Viggo Mortensen will always be Aragorn, the warrior king of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. But a quick glance at his filmography reveals just how extensive a career he had prior to appearing in this blockbuster series. His screen debut came courtesy of Peter Wier’s exceptional 1985 film Witness (he played Moses, part of the Amish community), but my first experience with the actor was 1990’s Leatherface, the third entry in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise, in which he portrayed a member of the murderous Sawyer family.

Since then, Viggo Mortensen has had supporting roles in big movies (Carlito’s Way, Crimson Tide) as well as a few smaller ones (The Indian Runner, Sean Penn’s directorial debut, which was based on the Bruce Springsteen song "Highway Patrolman"). More recently, he starred in a pair of excellent David Cronenberg thrillers (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises); made some underrated westerns (Hidalgo, Appaloosa); and depressed the hell out of us in John Hillcoat’s extraordinary post-apocalyptic drama The Road.

That’s quite a resume, and Mortensen is a big reason why the pictures listed above are worth checking out. But for my money, it’s his Oscar-nominated role in writer / director Matt Ross’s Captain Fantastic that shows him at his absolute best.

For years now, Ben Cash (Mortensen) and his family have been living deep in the wilderness, turning their backs on society and technology while, at the same time, learning (and teaching) everything there is to know about government, philosophy, literature, and even physical fitness. Thus far, Ben’s “experiment” has been a success; each and every one of his six kids: Bo (George MacKay), Kielyr (Samantha Isler), Vespyr (Annalise Basso), Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), Zaja (Shree Crooks), and Nai (Charlie Shotwell), can hold their own in a political debate, and know more about math and science than most college graduates. In addition to their schooling, the Cash children spend several hours a day working out (jogging, push-ups, etc), and have even been taught how to hunt with a knife.

Their lives are thrown into disarray, however, when Ben's beloved wife Leslie (Trin Miller) commits suicide. His partner in this grand experiment, Leslie spent the last several months in a hospital being treated for bipolar disorder. Leslie’s father Jack (Frank Langella), who never approved of either Ben or his daughter’s free-spirited ways, has taken control of the funeral arrangements, and plans to bury Leslie in the family plot. By doing so, he is ignoring her Last Will and Testament, which said she wanted to be cremated. 

To stop the funeral, Ben and his six offspring hit the open road, and it’s during this journey that the kids get their first taste of the outside world, which, to their surprise, isn’t nearly as bad as they thought!

With equal doses of comedy (the family’s various interactions with the “real world” are, at times, hilarious) and tragedy (the scene where Ben breaks the news of Leslie’s death to their children is positively heartbreaking), Captain Fantastic weaves the life-affirming tale of a unique family that, having spent so much time in isolation, is thrust into a society that none of them are prepared to face. Mortensen delivers a subdued, yet ultimately satisfying performance as Ben, the loving dad who in wanting the best for his children didn’t adequately prepare them for the outside world. An early sequence in which Ben shows Bo and the others how to stalk a deer through the woods is contrasted by a later visit to a roadside diner, which has hot dogs and milkshakes on the menu.

The movie does take the occasional jab at society’s weaknesses (including the modern education system), yet doesn’t canonize Ben Cash or his philosophy. Despite his advanced intelligence, Bo has no idea how to approach Claire (Erin Moriarty), the pretty girl he meets at a camping site. And it’s this honest approach to its lead character’s way of thinking that makes Captain Fantastic such a thought-provoking motion picture.

With Mortensen’s outstanding performance and the fine supporting cast surrounding him (the young actors playing the Cash children are especially good), not to mention Matt Ross’s clever, insightful script, Captain Fantastic proved to be one of 2016’s most pleasant surprises.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

#2,311. Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

Directed By: Travis Knight

Starring: Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Matthew McConaughey

Tag line: "Be bold. Be brave. Be epic"

Trivia: The boat sequence took 19 months to shoot

If you must blink, do it now

With all due respect to their previous films, the gang at Laika Studios, the stop-motion animation house behind Coraline, Paranorman, and The Boxtrolls, have with 2016’s Kubo and the Two Strings produced what is thus far their masterpiece. It is a stunning achievement from start to finish.

As the movie opens, Kubo’s mother (Charlize Theron) is on the run, fleeing from her father the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) and her two sisters (both voiced by Rooney Mara), all of whom are anxious to get their hands on her infant son Kubo (before their escape, the Moon King tore Kubo’s left eye out). Following a rough voyage at sea, mother and son eventually make their way to a remote island, where they will spend the next several years in seclusion, never venturing outside at night (to avoid the notice of the Moon King).

Now a young boy, Kubo (Art Parkinson) spends his days telling stories to the local villagers, using his mother’s magic shamisen (a guitar with only 2 strings) and the ancient art of origami to relate the tale of Hanzo, the mighty warrior. As it turns out, the real Hanzo was Kubo’s father, who gave his life so that he and his mother could escape. One day, while attending a festival, Kubo tries to contact the spirit of his deceased dad, but in the process fails to return home before nightfall. As a result, he is tracked down and pursued by his aunts (during the chase, the two sisters destroy the entire village). Kubo is saved only by the quick thinking of his mother, who, before being killed by her sisters, uses her last bit of magic to send Kubo to a distant land.

Along with a very strict monkey (which, earlier, was nothing more than a wooden trinket he kept in his pocket) and a forgetful man-sized bug that was once a Samurai (Matthew McConaughey), Kubo sets off to find three enchanted weapons (a sword, a breastplate, and a helmet) that will help him defeat his grandfather, The Moon King, thus avenging the deaths of his mother and father. But will he locate these magical arms in time to save himself, or is Kubo destined to spend eternity at his grandfather’s side in the heavens, far away from the earthly realm he has grown to love?

With its seamless marriage of stop-motion and computer wizardry, Kubo and the Two Strings weaves an epic, magical tale of family and honor, bringing us along on what is one of the most imaginative adventures I’ve experienced in some time. There is action, to be sure: Kubo and his new friends the monkey and the beetle battle a giant-sized skeleton; and, while at sea on a ship made of paper they are attacked by one of Kubo’s aunts, who strikes as a storm rages around them. These scenes, and many others, are packed with thrills, and the entire second half of Kubo and the Two Strings is chock full of excitement.

But what’s truly amazing is that the quieter moments of Kubo and the Two Strings are every bit as enthralling and visually spectacular as its action sequences. The scene in which Kubo, using the shamisen and dozens of sheets of paper, relates the adventurous exploits of Hanzo to the villagers is absolutely marvelous; each strum of the shamisen brings the paper (folding itself into origami figures) to life, a sequence so superbly realized that it even earned a George-Takei-patented “Oh My” (the actor provides the voice of one of the villagers)! And, like all great animated films, the spectacle in Kubo and the Two Strings enhances the movie’s story as opposed to detracting from it, bringing the characters, and their plight, vibrantly to life.

To be fair, I have yet to see most of the movies nominated for this year’s Best Animated Feature Oscar, but I can’t imagine any of them providing an experience as satisfying as Kubo and the Two Strings. It’s more than the best animated movie of 2016; it’s one of the finest of the new millennium, reaching heights in storytelling and art that only the likes of Hayao Miyazaki has achieved.

Kubo and the Two Strings is destined to become a classic.

Friday, February 17, 2017

#2,310. Hell or High Water (2016)

Directed By: David Mackenzie

Starring: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges

Tag line: "Justice isn't a crime"

Trivia: The film is dedicated to David John Mackenzie (1929-2015) and Ursula Sybil Mackenzie (1940-2015), the parents of director David Mackenzie. Both died while he was making this film.

It’s a common practice for studios to hold back the release of their “awards” movies (films they’re convinced have a shot at winning big during awards season) until late in the year, primarily to ensure they stay fresh in the minds of voters. Of the nine movies up for Best Picture at the 2017 Academy Awards, eight debuted in U.S. theaters between the months of October and December. The lone exception is director David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water (released Aug 12), and for good reason; a somber, sporadically exciting look at lawmen and criminals operating in the desolate territories of West Texas, Hell or High Water isn’t a film that anyone, voters or otherwise, will forget anytime soon.

Divorced father Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and his ex-con brother Tanner (Ben Foster) are bank robbers, or at least they have been for a day or so. Hoping to reclaim their family’s ranch, which is a week away from being repossessed, the two concoct a very specific plan, robbing only the branches belonging to the Texas Midlands Bank (which is in the process of changing its surveillance systems, meaning the security cameras aren’t operative) and taking nothing but small bills from the cash drawers (to ensure they can’t be traced). After knocking off two branches their first morning out, they return to the ranch, bury the getaway car in a ditch they dug earlier, then head to a local Indian casino so they can claim they won the money playing cards.

Toby, whose ultimate goal is to pay off the lien against the ranch and put the property in a trust for his sons, is extremely careful, sticking closely to the plan he laid out. Tanner, on the other hand, is a loose cannon who loves breaking the law, and his volatile nature often puts him at odds with his brother (while the two are out to breakfast that first morning, Tanner takes it upon himself to rob the bank across the street from the diner, netting them more cash but also jeopardizing the entire operation).

Because each robbery involved less than $10,000, the FBI turns the case over to the Texas Rangers, leaving it up to Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) to crack it. Marcus is weeks away from a retirement he’s not looking forward to, and passes the time poking fun at Alberto’s Native American heritage. Figuring the bank robbers aren’t done yet, the two Rangers hit the road, checking into a motel very near a Texas Midlands bank (seeing as there are only eight branches total, Marcus believes this location will eventually be a target).

Marcus assures Alberto that, like all crooks, the thieves will make a mistake, at which point they’ll swoop in and arrest them. But then, Toby Howard isn’t your typical bank robber, and will more than likely give the longtime lawman and his partner a run for their money.

There’s a lot to admire about Hell or High Water, beginning with the performances delivered by its strong cast; Jeff Bridges is up for Best Supporting Actor for his work here, a nomination that’s well-deserved (though to be honest, Ben Foster’s Tanner Howard is as funny as he is frightening, and the actor is just as impressive as his elder co-star). Equally as noteworthy is the work of cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, whose camera captures both the majesty and tragedy of this area of Texas (blessed with spacious landscapes, but cursed with boarded-up homes and towns that are slowly dying), and David Mackenzie stages the bank robberies (as well as the getaways) in a manner that consistently ratchets the energy up several notches. Congratulations also to writer Taylor Sheridan, whose smart, witty script netted him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

Yet what truly moved me as I was watching Hell or High Water was its theme of a dying west, a place cowboys and settlers once called home that’s now controlled by banks and big businesses. It shows up occasionally in Taylor Sheridan’s dialogue (while sitting at an outdoor table with Marcus, Alberto laments the fact that the entire area was taken from his ancestors several generations earlier, adding, rather remorsefully, that now it’s the banks taking it from the current owners), but director Mackenzie tosses in a few visual reminders as well; some obvious (shots of abandoned houses and empty streets), others more subtle (the Howard brothers pull into a gas station, and in the background is a guy climbing onto a horse, an image that’s obliterated when a green sports car, hip-hop blaring from its radio, arrives in the foreground), yet all equally as effective at getting the point across.

Sam Peckinpah tackled this very subject head-on in 1969’s The Wild Bunch, in which aging western outlaws realized their way of life was fading quickly. Like Peckinpah’s classic, Hell or High Water approaches the topic with a hint of melancholy, a longing for a simpler time when the only thing separating the lawmen from the desperados was a badge. That’s the way it is in this movie; we understand what motivates Toby Howard, and hope that he somehow manages to get what he’s after, if for no other reason than to prove a man can, indeed, beat a corporation. 

In many ways, the Howard boys and the Rangers chasing them are kindred spirits, and it’s in exploring their similarities that Hell or High Water distinguishes itself as one of 2016’s best films.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

#2,309. Sahara (1983)

Directed By: Andrew V. McLaglen

Starring: Brooke Shields, Lambert Wilson, Horst Buchholz

Tag line: "She challenged the desert, its men, their passions and ignited a bold adventure"

Trivia: Early in filming, producer Menahem Golan said to a number of people that he believed that Brooke Shields would win a Oscar for her role

In a career that spanned six decades, director Andrew V. McLaglen worked with some of Hollywood’s best and brightest, including James Stewart (Shenandoah), John Wayne (McLintock!), and Gregory Peck (The Sea Wolves), and while he’ll never rank alongside Hitchcock, Hawks, or John Ford as one of the all-time greats, his accomplishments on both the large and small screens were, to say the least, impressive. So imagine my surprise when his name popped up in the credits for Sahara, a 1983 Cannon Films-produced adventure / romance starring Brooke Shields as a feisty American who braves the rough desert terrain to win a cross-country car race.

But the shocks didn’t end there. As it turns out, Mr. McLaglen was the first in a string of talented people involved in the production of this interesting, though ultimately flat motion picture.

The year is 1927. Automobile manufacturer Gordon (Steve Forrest) has built what he believes is the fastest, most durable car in the world. To prove it, he plans to take the vehicle to Africa for The Sahara World Rally, a race through the Sahara Desert that only a few brave souls dare to enter. But when Gordon is killed during a test run, his daughter Gale (Shields), who is herself an experienced driver, takes his place, and, along with chief mechanics String (Cliff Potts) and Andy (Perry Lang), she joins fellow drivers Von Glessing (Horst Buchholz), Bertocelli (Tuvia Tavi), and Brown (Terrence Hardiman) at the starting line, kicking off what she hopes will be a thrilling adventure in the heart of North Africa.

Ignoring the advice of the French military attaché, who urged the drivers to follow the long route around the desert, Gale decides to take the shorter route, which, though quicker, cuts through an area that is being ravaged by a brutal tribal war. Sure enough, their 2nd day out, the naïve young woman and her mechanics are captured by Rasoul (John Rhys-Davies), whose nephew is Sheikh Jaffar (Lambert Wilson), ruler of one of the tribes. The moment he sets eyes on Gale, the handsome Jaffar falls madly in love with her, and vows to one day make her his bride.

But Gale wasn’t the only one who took the shortcut; Von Glessing was right behind her. While the treacherous German does hope to eventually win the race, Von Glessing’s main goal is to sell a new weapon to Jaffar’s enemy, Sheikh Beg (Ronald Lacey), one that could help him defeat Jaffar’s forces on the battlefield.

Will Gale get a chance to finish the race, or is she destined to become a pawn in a bloody war?

Though not considered a strong actress at this point in her career, Brooke Shields does an admirable job as Dale, and her scenes with Lambert Wilson’s Sheikh are, at times, quite passionate. But it’s the supporting cast of Sahara that truly impressed me; along with Horst Buchholz (The Magnificent Seven) and John Rhys-Davies (Raiders of the Lost Ark), the movie features Sir John Mills (Great Expectations) as Cambridge, a British valet working for Jaffar. In addition, the musical score was composed by none other than Ennio Morricone, and the various production and costume designers did a great job recreating the time period of the 1920’s (especially during the early scenes set in Detroit).

Alas, Sahara, which was based on an original story by Cannon’s Menahem Golan, never lives up to its potential. In fact, there are stretches when the film is downright boring (the racing scenes are few and far between, as are the battle sequences). I give the folks at Cannon a lot of credit: they assembled a top-notch cast and turned out a very pretty movie (some of the desert shots are breathtaking). If they had thrown a bit more excitement into the mix as well, Sahara might have actually worked.

Monday, February 13, 2017

#2,308. Scherzo Diabolico (2015)

Directed By: Adrián García Bogliano

Starring: Francisco Barreiro, Daniela Soto Vell, Jorge Molina

Premiere: This movie premiered at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival

Trivia: In Hungary this film was released as A VICIOUS PRANK

Scherzo Diabolico is full of surprises, and while I was able to figure out one of its major twists in advance, there’s another that caught me completely off-guard.

Aram (Francisco Barreiro) is, by all appearances, a mild-mannered accountant, with a decent job, a wife (Milena Pezzi) and son, and enough free time to visit both his aging father and his favorite prostitute. But Aram has a dark side, which shows itself when he kidnaps teenager Anabela (Daniela Soto Vell), drags her to an abandoned warehouse and holds her there for several days, often leaving the poor girl alone for hours on end.

As Anabela does her best to deal with this nightmarish situation, Aram carries on with life as usual, staying late to assist his boss (Jorge Molina); and arguing with his wife, who wants Aram to be more assertive and demand a promotion at work. Aram does eventually release his captive, and shortly after his life takes a turn for the better. But fate has a way of sneaking up on you, and though Aram doesn’t realize it yet, his entire world is about to collapse around him.

Barreiro is effectively understated as the everyman with a terrible secret, and watching as he kidnaps, then traumatizes Anabela is no easy task. Initially, we have no idea what motivated the abduction; Aram never sexually assaults the girl, and has gone to great lengths to ensure she has plenty of food and water to sustain her throughout the ordeal. He does, at one point, tell Anabela to remove her clothes, but only so he can take pictures and video of her in the nude (we assume he will use the footage when issuing his ransom demands). Director Bogliano does a fine job guarding Aram’s motivations leading up to the first big reveal, though the clues he gives us from time to time were enough for me to figure them out on my own.

While we do come to know the reasons behind the kidnapping, and continue to follow Aram as he reaps the benefits of his troubling actions, there isn’t a moment in Scherzo Diabolico when we like him; he’s far too under-handed and self-absorbed to be a sympathetic character. As the story played out, I found myself hoping that, at some point, justice would catch up with Aram.

That said, I was not ready for the level of retribution that is unleashed upon him, and it’s in these later scenes that Scherzo Diabolico distinguishes itself as a truly horrific film. I dare not say more out of fear of spoiling it, but believe me; the last act of this movie will shock the hell out of you!

Saturday, February 11, 2017

#2,307. The Dogs of War (1980)

Directed By: John Irvin

Starring: Christopher Walken, Tom Berenger, Colin Blakely

Tag line: "Cry 'Havoc!' And Let Slip The Dogs Of War"

Trivia: Michael Cimino did an uncredited rewrite on the script

After barely escaping with his life while on a mission in Central America, mercenary Jamie Shannon (Christopher Walken) is next approached by UK businessman Roy Endean (Hugh Millais), who wants Shannon to travel incognito to Zangaro, a West African nation ruled by a tyrannical dictator, and photograph as much of that country’s military infrastructure as he possibly can. 

Posing as an Ornithologist named Keith Brown, Shannon arrives in Zangaro claiming he's there to take some pictures of the area’s exotic birds. But the authorities don’t buy his cover story, and after a few days Shannon is arrested, tortured, and tossed out of the country.

Back in the U.S., a battered and beaten Shannon is again approached by Endean, who asks for his help in staging a military coup that will eliminate Zangaro's dictator once and for all. Rounding up the usual team: Drew (Tom Berenger), Derek (Paul Freeman), and Michel (Jean-Francois Stevenin), Shannon and his men travel to London to arrange the particulars of the mission. If the coup is successful, Endean will replace Zangaro's current leader with Col. Bobi (George Harris), who is open to doing business with the west.

With the promise of a big payday, Shannon and his mercenaries head to Zangaro, knowing full well they may never return home again.

Directed by John Irvin, 1980’s The Dogs of War kicks things off in exciting fashion, with Shannon and his men embroiled in a Central American conflict (which, by the looks of it, is not going well). The film then slows down a bit; Shannon hangs around New York (where he lives) for a while, then heads to Zangaro on his recon mission (while it does have a few intense scenes, this portion of the movie is mostly action-free). But even in its quieter moments, The Dogs of War is a very engaging film, thanks in large part to its star.

Fresh off his Oscar win for The Deer Hunter (Best Supporting Actor, 1979), Christopher Walken brings an inner strength to the enigmatic Shannon. We do eventually learn a little about the character's personal life (at one point Shannon tries to reconcile with his ex-wife Jessie, played by JoBeth Williams), but for the most part he remains a mystery. Whether on the battlefield or negotiating with shady dealers in London (purchasing firearms, arranging transportation, etc), Shannon is an intriguing individual, and Walken’s performance is what makes him so.

In addition to it's star, the last thirty minutes or so of The Dogs of War, which feature the fight for Zangaro, are pretty damn exciting. Using bad-ass weapons and with the help of a well-trained squad of Zangarons loyal to Bobi, Shannon and the others bring holy hell down upon their enemy, and as a result these final scenes are positively electric.

Balancing the film’s two main battle sequences with plenty of drama, The Dogs of War is an action / thriller well worth checking out.

Friday, February 10, 2017

#2,306. The Emerald Forest (1985)

Directed By: John Boorman

Starring: Powers Boothe, Meg Foster, Charley Boorman

Tag line: "The Adventure Movie of the Year"

Trivia:Charley Boorman, who plays Tommy, is the son of director John Boorman

Director John Boorman’s The Emerald Forest is a touching family drama, a rousing adventure, and a gorgeously-photographed cautionary tale all rolled into one.

Engineer Bill Markham (Powers Boothe), who is overseeing the construction of a dam near the Brazilian rainforest, has spent the last 10 years searching for his son Tommy, who was kidnapped by an indigenous tribe known as “The Invisible People”. He does eventually find Tommy (now a teenager, played by Charley Boorman), only to discover the boy has been accepted into the fold, and is now a full-fledged member of the tribe; the adopted son of the chief (Rui Polanah), Tommy is also married to the lovely Kachiri (Dira Paes). Try as he might, Markham is unable to convince his son to return home with him, and, upon making his way back to civilization, tells his wife (and Tommy’s mother) Jean (Meg Foster) that her son is alive, but she will likely never see him again.

Fate intervenes, however, when a warrior tribe known as “The Fierce People” attacks Tommy’s village and carries off the women (including Kachiri), who are taken to a nearby brothel (in exchange for the ladies, the brothel’s owners give The Fierce People automatic weapons). Outmatched by their now heavily-armed foes, Tommy travels to the city to ask Markham for help, but will the son locate his estranged father in time to save Kachiri and the others?

The event that sets the story in motion, the abduction of young Tommy (played as a youngster by William Rodriguez), happens rather abruptly, which makes his disappearance all the more poignant (the fact that a child can vanish as quickly as this is enough to give any parent nightmares). Boothe is quite strong in this scene, conveying the frustration and fear any man would feel in this situation (the moment he realizes his son is gone, a frantic Markham tears through the thick brush with his bare hands, calling out to Tommy, who, alas, is nowhere to be found). It’s definitely a powerful sequence, as is a later one in which father and son are finally reunited, a stirring scene that also features a bit of excitement (Markham and Tommy initially square off, only to team up when, after recognizing each other, they are attacked by The Fierce People, who had been chasing Markham through the jungle).

After spending a few days with Tommy and his new “family”, Markham accepts that his son is now part of a different world, one that’s completely foreign to him, and it’s a bitter pill for the long-suffering father to swallow. Director Boorman balances dramatic moments such as this with scenes of adventure, juggling both aspects of his story perfectly to ensure each one is as effective as the other.

In addition, The Emerald Forest is beautifully shot, with images that look as if they were lifted straight out of a travelogue (complementing the excellent work of cinematographer Philippe Rousselot is the superb musical score composed by Brian Gascoigne and Junior Homrich). Aside from giving his film a picturesque backdrop, Boorman also uses these images to call attention to the very real problem of deforestation (both The Invisible People and The Fierce People have, in recent years, been driven from the land of their ancestors, and as Markham tells Tommy, the dam his company is building will bring even more outsiders to the area, meaning the forest will continue to disappear). And if these scenes don’t drive the point home, a final message that flashes on-screen at the film’s conclusion (“The rain forests of the Amazon are disappearing at the rate of 5000 Acres per day. Four million Indians once lived there. 120 000 remain”) leaves little doubt as to what Boorman and screenwriter Rospo Pallenberg were trying to say.

A moving, often thrilling film that also gives us something to think about, The Emerald Forest is an unforgettable motion picture experience.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

#2,305. Enter the Ninja (1981)

Directed By: Menahem Golan

Starring: Franco Nero, Susan George, Shô Kosugi

Tag line: "Ninjitsu, the darkest and deadliest of all the Martial Arts"

Trivia: There is no spoken dialog in the first ten minutes of the film

Franco Nero, star of Django and other great Italian westerns, playing a Ninja?!? Sounds like a strange bit of casting, doesn’t it?

Well… it is strange, but aside from this (and a handful of other glitches), Enter the Ninja is a fairly effective ‘80s action film.

After completing his ninjutsu training in Japan, Cole (Nero) heads to the Philippines to visit to his old war buddy Frank Landers (Alex Courtney). As it turns out, Cole arrived just in the nick of time; Frank and his pretty wife Mary-Ann (Susan George) are being harassed by wealthy American businessman Charles Venarius (Christopher George), who, for months now, has been trying to buy the couple’s farm. Time and again, Frank and Mary Ann have refused to sell, causing Venarius to resort to extreme methods (including hired goons) to “persuade” them to change their minds.

As Frank and Mary-Ann soon discover, having a trained Ninja around has its benefits, and before long Cole has Venarius’s thugs running for cover. So, the tycoon decides to fight fire with fire, and, with the help of his assistant Mr. Parker (Constantine Gregory), hires his own Ninja, a man named Hasagawa (Sho Kosugi), who was Cole’s main adversary in Japan. 

Venarius's orders to Hasagawa are simple: kill Cole using any means necessary, and as the experienced ninja already knows, the best way to get the upper hand on a guy like Cole is to threaten those closest to him.

The first 10 minutes or so of Enter the Ninja, where Cole undergoes his final Ninjutsu test, feature a few exciting moments, but are far from the film’s strongest; along with the odd continuity issue (at one point, Cole fires a white arrow at an opponent, only to have it miraculously turn into a brown arrow in mid-flight), Nero looks uncomfortable in his ninja get-up (he certainly doesn’t move like a ninja). Then, as if to add insult to injury, we never even get to hear Nero’s real voice (his entire performance was dubbed by the very American-sounding Marc Smith)!

Fortunately, aside from the opening and climactic sequences (when Cole battles Hasagawa), Nero doesn’t wear the ninja outfit all that much, and many of the movie’s other action scenes are pretty solid (late in the movie, Cole accompanies Frank to a secluded location to chat with Mr. Parker, who has 20 gunmen backing him up. As Frank and Mr. Parker are discussing Venarius’s latest offer, Cole snakes around and disarms the majority of the gunmen, leaving a perplexed Mr. Parker without the advantage he was hoping for). Yet another plus is the supporting cast, all of whom do a fine job. As Mary-Ann, Susan George is both tough and sexy, while Sho Kosugi (in his admittedly limited role) proves he can kick ass as well as anyone. Standing above them all, though, is Christopher George, whose flamboyant portrayal of the evil Venarius gives the film a villain you absolutely love to hate.

Directed by Menahem Golan (one-half of Golan-Globus, the creative minds behind Cannon Films), Enter the Ninja may not be art, but as mindless fun goes, it just about corners the market.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

#2,304. Superman II (1980)

Directed By: Richard Lester

Starring: Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder

Tag line: "The adventure continues"

Trivia: Henry Fonda was, at one point, the front runner to play the U.S. President

I adore Superman II

When I saw it in the theater back in 1980, the audience laughed and applauded in all the right places, and years later, when I recorded it off of cable, I played that tape over and over (sometimes twice a day). 

It was, for a time, one of my favorite movies, and even though my tastes have changed, I feel like a kid again the moment this film's opening credits begin.

After saving Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) from Parisian terrorists (who threatened to incinerate the Eiffel Tower - and all of Paris - with a hydrogen bomb), Superman (Christopher Reeve), posing as his alter-ego Clark Kent, accompanies the feisty Lois to Niagara Falls, where the two reporters must pose as newlyweds to expose a price-gouging ring. 

But when Superman turns up out of the blue (to save a young boy from falling to his death), Lois puts two and two together and figures out that her co-worker Clark is, in fact, Superman. 

Though he tries to deny it, Superman eventually confesses, and flies Lois to his Fortress of Solitude for an evening of romance. But before the night is out, the Man of Steel will make a life-altering decision that will allow him to be with Lois for the rest of his days.

What Superman doesn’t know, however, is that three arch-criminals from his home planet of Krypton - General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and Non (Jack O’Halloran) - have been freed from the Phantom Zone (a mobile prison that Superman’s father, Jor-el, banished them to in the first movie). 

After a brief stop at the moon, where they disrupt a joint U.S.-Russian lunar mission, the three baddies head to earth, each one possessing powers as great as Superman’s. 

Upon their arrival, Zod, Ursa, and Non destroy a small Idaho town, then make their way to Washington D.C., where Zod orders the President of the United States (E.G. Marshall) to step down. But it isn’t until Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), who recently broke out of prison, shows up on the scene that Zod and the others learn this “Superman” they’ve been hearing so much about is actually the son of their enemy, Jor-El!

As the trio of criminals continues to wreak havoc, Superman vows to do everything in his power to stop them. But is he strong enough to defeat all three at once?

It breaks my heart to say it, but some portions of Superman II simply don’t hold up, starting with the Paris / Eiffel Tower sequence, where characters do things that make absolutely no sense (Lois’s spur-of-the-moment decision to hide under one of the elevators was perplexing, to say the least, but pales in comparison to the actions taken by the Paris authorities, who, for unknown reasons, thought it would be a good idea to sever the elevator’s cables, causing both the elevator car and the hydrogen bomb to plummet to the ground below). 

Also, the Niagara Falls scenes are a bit clunky (especially when Lois decides to “test” Clark, in the hopes he’ll reveal himself as Superman), and a late sequence, where Superman faces off against his three adversaries inside the Fortress of Solitude, has the Man of Steel utilizing powers he never displayed before (such as teleportation), making the entire scene feel like a cheat.

That said, I still love Superman II, from its opening credits (where, after once again witnessing Zod and his cohorts being banished to the Phantom Zone, we get a recap of the events from 1978’s Superman) to the criminal’s initial encounters with mankind, first on the moon and later in that small Idaho town (Clifton James, who played a sheriff in both Live and Let Die and The Man With the Golden Gun, appears briefly as a lawman who has an unfortunate run-in with Zod and the others). 

Topping it all, though, is the battle between good and evil that takes place in the heart of Metropolis, with Superman trying to protect the populace while also fighting Zod and his two minions. All these years later, this showdown still gives me goosebumps.

As for the cast, Christopher Reeve once again proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is Superman, bringing a humanity to the character that shines through in every scene; and Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane is as tenacious (and lovestruck) as ever. 

As for the villains, Stamp, Douglas, and O’Halloran make for worthy adversaries, and you gotta love Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor, who, this time around, is little more than a lackey for General Zod (as with the first film, Hackman is funny as hell throughout Superman II).

In 2006, an alternate cut of Superman II was released. Richard Donner, who directed the original Superman, was dropped after shooting more than half of Superman II. His replacement, Richard Lester, removed or altered many of Donner’s scenes. This 2006 cut features Donner’s original version, using a variety of sources to piece it together as completely as possible. 

I’ve seen “The Richard Donner Cut” only once, and it is very different from the 1980 theatrical release. Is it better than the movie I loved as a kid, or is 1980’s Superman II still the definitive take on the story?

More on that later. For now, I’m happy to report that I enjoyed the time I spent re-watching Superman II. It was like visiting an old friend, and seeing it again conjured up plenty of great memories.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

#2,303. Ninja Cheerleaders (2008)

Directed By: David Presley

Starring: Trishelle Cannatella, Ginny Weirick, Maitland McConnell

Tag line: "This Summer's Destination For Fun"

Trivia: This marked actor Richard Davalos' final screen appearance

One thing about us film fans: we love a good debate!

Is Citizen Kane the greatest movie ever made?

Who was funnier, Chaplin or Keaton?

Do you prefer The Godfather, or is Goodfellas the best mob flick of all-time?

2001: A Space Odyssey or Blade Runner?

Alfred Hitchcock or Howard Hawks?

Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers?

The list of potential topics is almost as endless as the discussions they inspire.

Today, I will offer my two cents on a subject every bit as vital as those listed above: Which is the quintessential ninja cheerleader movie, 2002’s Cheerleader Ninjas, or 2008’s Ninja Cheerleaders?

At first glance, Courtney (Trishelle Cannatella), April (Ginny Weirick) and Monica (Maitland McConnell) appear to be average, everyday junior college cheerleaders. But there’s more to these beauties than meets the eye. For one, they’re skilled ninjas: trained by Master Hiroshi (George Takei), these girls can kick some major ass, and recently swiped a valuable sword that was being held at a U.S. army base (sending about a dozen or so soldiers to the hospital). In addition to their mastery of the martial arts, the trio have night jobs dancing at a local strip club (also owned by Hiroshi), and have made enough in tips to pay for their Ivy League education (all three are straight “A” students, and been accepted to Brown University).

Their plans for the future are seemingly put on-hold, however, when Hiroshi is kidnapped by Victor Lazzaro (Michael Pare), the Mafioso recently released from prison who once owned the strip club (Hiroshi bought the place when it was auctioned off by the IRS). Along with keeping their master (and boss) prisoner, Lazzaro also stole the safe holding the girl’s college savings, and refuses to turn either Hiroshi or the money over until he’s given the deed to the club.

Can the trio ace their finals, cheer the basketball team to victory, win a $50,000 strip-off competition, and rescue Hiroshi all in a single day, or are their dreams for a better life over before they ever had a chance to begin?

Five minutes into Ninja Cheerleaders, I knew it was going to be a very different movie than Cheerleader Ninjas; while the 2002 film was a straight-up comedy, Ninja Cheerleaders opens with the girls stealing the sword from the military base (and knocking out an entire squad in the process). It’s a fairly thrilling sequence, and while the fight choreography isn’t up to the level of, say, Kill Bill Vol. 1 or The Matrix, it’s exciting enough to grab your attention.

And thanks to its various strip routines, Ninja Cheerleaders is a lot sexier than Cheerleader Ninjas (none of the three leads strip down to their birthday suits in Ninja Cheerleaders, but the scenes are plenty enticing all the same). As for the supporting cast, both George Takei and Michael Pare look as if they’re having a good time, and Larry Poindexter is solid as a police detective following the trail of bodies the girls leave behind.

That’s not to say Ninja Cheerleaders is flawless. The musical score is way too loud (at times, it drowns out the dialogue), and the three leads, though sexy, aren’t always convincing (as either students or ninjas). Also, I could have done without the (thankfully brief) scenes of the girls’ home lives (squeezing some family drama into a movie that didn’t need any); and a rather bad-ass character named Kinji (played by Natasha Chang), a ninja brought in by Lazzaro to neutralize Courtney and the others, had potential, but never amounts to much (I found myself wanting to see more of Kinji, and can’t understand why writer / director David Presley gave her so little to do).

That said, I definitely prefer Ninja Cheerleaders to Cheerleader Ninjas; aside from being the more interesting of the two, Ninja Cheerleaders was also a lot more fun.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

#2,302. Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Directed By: John Milius

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Earl Jones, Max von Sydow

Tag line: "He conquered an empire with his sword. She conquered HIM with her bare hands"

Trivia: Was intended to be the first of a franchise of movies, with at least four sequels

The '80s was a hell of a time for Sword and Sorcery flicks, with movies like Excalibur, DragonslayerThe Beastmaster, and the aptly-titled The Sword and the Sorcerer leading the way. 

Of course, like any genre, it had its share of stinkers as well (Conquest, Ator the Fighting Eagle), but I never agreed with those critics who, back in the day, considered director John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian an inferior effort. The movie that gave Arnold Schwarzenegger his first big-budget starring role, Conan the Barbarian is a violent, often exciting adventure flick filled with action and excitement, and in my opinion ranks as one of the decade's best fantasy films.

Having spent the majority of his life as a slave after the murder of his father (William Smith) and mother (Nadiuska), Conan (Schwarzenegger) eventually proves himself an able warrior, winning fight after fight in the arena and making some influential people a lot of money in the process. 

As thanks for his many victories, Conan is set free, and during his travels meets Subotai (Gerry Lopez), a beggar; and Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), a thief. Together, the three set out to steal the Eye of the Serpent, a valuable jewel belonging to Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones), the enigmatic leader of a very popular snake cult.

Though they are nearly captured, Conan and company do manage to escape with the jewel, and as a result are summoned to the court of King Osric (Max von Sydow), who wants to strike a deal with them. It seems that the King’s daughter (Valerie Quennessen) has fallen under Thulsa Doom’s spell, and has traveled to the great Temple of Set to join his cult. Promising them riches beyond their wildest dreams, King Osric asks Conan and the others to retrieve his daughter and return her safely to his castle. 

While they happily accept the King’s generous down payment, both Subotai and Valeria are reluctant to carry out such a dangerous mission. As for Conan, he has a personal score to settle with Thulsa Doom, who he recently discovered is the man responsible for the death of his parents. Prepared to take on Thulsa Doom and his throng of followers by himself, Conan sets off, knowing full well that he may never set eyes on his friends again.

A fair portion of Conan the Barbarian was shot on-location in Spain, with Milius and his crew utilizing the country’s vast landscapes and ancient ruins to give the film a mystical quality. As for the performances, Arnold may not have been the strongest actor at this point in his career, but physically he was the perfect guy for the part, and handles the movie’s action scenes like a pro. 

Equally as bad-ass is Sandahl Bergman as Valeria, Conan’s partner in crime and eventual love interest, while James Earl Jones makes for a charismatic villain (based on his performance, you can see why Thulsa Doom has so many followers). Also good in supporting roles are Max Von Sydow as King Osric, Gerry Lopez as Subotai, and Mako, who, along with playing a Wizard, doubles as the movie's narrator.

In addition, Conan the Barbarian features some truly awesome scenes, moments that have stayed with me since the first time I saw the film on cable TV. The opening, in which Conan’s father tells his young son (played as a boy by Jorge Sanz) the story of how mankind learned the secret of steel from the Gods, starts things off on the right foot, and the showdown between Thulsa Doom and Conan’s mother is as intense as it is heartbreaking. 

And that's just the first 10 minutes! Still to come is the theft of the Eye of the Serpent (during which Conan battles a giant snake), and a sequence late in the movie when Conan, tied to a tree and left for dead, gets his revenge on a pesky vulture. Yet, for my money, the film’s best scene has Valeria and Subotai fending off a collection of demons attempting to collect the soul of a badly injured Conan. Thanks to some pretty cool animation, this particular sequence is far and away the movie's most impressive.

As mentioned above, not everyone was a fan of Conan the Barbarian. Time Magazine called itStupid and stupefying”, while Newsweek criticized it for being “cheerless and styleless”. I even remember reading a negative review in TV Guide (“A series of meaningless adventures punctuated with a lot of clanky, very bloody swordplay”), and a number of critics took issue with the movie’s graphic violence (which, admittedly, is strong even by today’s standards). 

Maybe nostalgia has clouded my judgment, or perhaps I’m just a sucker for ‘80s fantasy films, but whatever the reason, I love Conan the Barbarian.

And, naysayers be damned, I always will.

Friday, February 3, 2017

#2,301. Zombie Strippers (2008)

Directed By: Jay Lee

Starring: Jenna Jameson, Robert Englund, Roxy Saint

Tag line: "They'll dance for a fee, but devour you for free"

Trivia: The actresses choreographed their own striptease routines

Calling your movie Zombie Strippers is itself enough to set your audience’s minds to spinning, and to writer / director Jay Lee’s credit, he delivers what his title promises!

Zombie Strippers is set in a world where George W. Bush has just been elected to his 4th term as U.S. President, and one of the first laws he and vice-president Arnold Schwarzenegger enact (congress has been disbanded) is a ban on all public nudity, in essence putting every peep show and strip club out of business. 

In addition, the country is embroiled in a number of costly wars (in areas like Syria, France, and even Alaska), and as such is in dire need of additional troops. Fortunately, the government-funded W Industries has developed a new virus that turns dead soldiers into ravenous zombies, capable of keeping up the fight under the heaviest of fire.

Of course, like most viruses, this “zombie serum” has been difficult to control, and as a result many of the company’s test subjects, and even a few scientists, have joined the ranks of the undead. To neutralize the threat, “Z” squad, a highly-trained marine unit, is brought in. Unfortunately, during the ensuing fight, one of “Z” Squad’s own, a soldier named Byrdflough (Zak Kilberg), is bitten on the arm. Realizing he’d be immediately executed if his superiors found out, Byrdflough flees the building and ducks into an unmarked staircase, which, to his surprise, leads to an illegal strip club owned and operated by Ian Essko (Robert Englund).

With his bevvy of beauties, such as Jeannie (Shamron Moore), Lilith (Roxy Saint), and newcomer Jessy (Jennifer Holland), Ian pulls in a small fortune each and every day. His livelihood is threatened, however, when his star dancer Kat (Jenna Jameson) is killed by a now-zombified Byrdflough. As Ian and his associates, including Madame Blavatski (Carmit Levité), Cole (Calvin Green), and Paco the Janitor (Joey Medina), are trying to figure a way out of this mess, Kat shocks them all by getting up and demanding to take the stage!

Strangely enough, the virus that turns guys into mindless zombies works much differently on women, transforming Kat into a sexy ghoul who, after working up an appetite on-stage, takes a random patron into the back room and devours him. Soon, the other girls, jealous of Kat’s newfound popularity (it seems the clients love zombie strippers), line up to be bitten themselves, and before Ian knows what’s hit him, he’s bringing in more money than he ever imagined possible. But how long will it be before his undead employees turn the tables on him?

Robert Englund delivers a bravura performance as Ian, the greedy sociopath whose undead strippers are more profitable than the live ones ever were, and it’s clear the former Nightmare on Elm Street star was having a great time. But as good as Englund and the rest of the cast are, it’s the more exploitative elements that make Zombie Strippers as much fun as it is.

Though primarily a comedy, the film doesn’t chince on either the make-up or effects, and there’s lots of gore as well (one poor guy gets his head ripped apart at the jaw). While it does have its share of piss-poor CGI (especially later on, when the blood and guts become more plentiful), horror fans are sure to like what they see in Zombie Strippers.

And even if the look of the zombies doesn’t impress you, the strippers definitely will. Led by the gorgeous Jenna Jameson, the women of Zombie Strippers do more than take their clothes off (which they do plenty of times throughout the movie). In many ways, these ladies are the most well-rounded characters in the film (Kat and Jeannie have a running feud that has apparently been going on for years; while Jessy, who never stripped before, is trying to raise money to pay for her grandmother’s operation), and when one by one they decide to “take the plunge” and become a zombie, we understand what it is that’s motivating their decision, and actually root for them to succeed.

Whether it’s the zombies or the strippers that you’ve come to see, Zombie Strippers will give you exactly what you’re looking for!

Thursday, February 2, 2017

#2,300. Cheerleader Ninjas (2002)

Directed By: Kevin Campbell

Starring: Kira Reed Lorsch, Angela Brubaker, Jeff Nicholson

Tag line: "They're out for revenge...Just don't ask them to spell it"

Trivia: This movie was filmed at Englewood High School in Colorado

The opening credits for writer / director Kevin Campbell’s Cheerleader Ninjas set the tone for the entire movie. Along with informing us (by way of captions) which character is gay, and which cheerleader will eventually show her boobs, we get a list of the film’s alternate (and ultimately rejected) titles, including Kick-Boxing Kennel Bitches in Heat.

So, right up front, we know Cheerleader Ninjas is a movie that won’t take itself seriouslyBut even on these terms it never amounts to much.

A Catholic mothers group (led by actress Crystal Mikel) has come to the conclusion that internet “smut” is responsible for the downfall of morality in their small town. Believing the very popular cheerleaders at Happy Valley High are at least partially to blame (their gorgeous figures and provocative cheers arouse the passions of local boys, forcing the poor lads to seek out internet porn for release), the mothers recruit gay teacher Stephen (Jeff Nicholson) and ask him to put together a gang of Catholic school bad girls, who will then battle the cheerleaders and end their reign of sexual suggestiveness. In addition, Stephen teams up with the militant “Mr. X” (Donr Sneed), who has figured out a way to bring the entire World Wide Web to its knees.

Fighting for their survival, Happy Valley’s head cheerleader Angela (Angela Brubaker) and her crew join forces with the computer geeks, who, led by Maverick (Jared Brubaker), attempt to save the internet from total annihilation. Then, to defeat Stephen and his evil Catholic school girls, the cheerleaders trade in their pom-poms for swords and study the ways of the ninja! But will they develop their skills in time, or have they cheered their final football game?

Along with its steady stream of fart and masturbation jokes, Cheerleader Ninjas is chock full of stereotypical characters: the cheerleaders (with the exception of Angela) are all dimwits; the computer geeks wear Star Trek uniforms and jerk off uncontrollably; Stephen is flamboyantly gay, and wants to get back at the cheerleaders for refusing to let him join their squad; and the Catholic mothers are sexually frustrated housewives. Toss in a little nudity and the odd blow-up sex doll and you have a movie designed to offend everyone from homosexuals to Christians. But because the characters and dialogue are so over-the-top, the film isn’t so much offensive as it is silly, and that definitely takes the edge off of its comedy. In the end, I doubt any viewer, regardless of their gender, religion, or sexual preference, will walk away from Cheerleader Ninjas feeling insulted.

I did enjoy the brief American Beauty spoof (which featured Kira Reed as a “Fantasy Girl”), but for the most part, Cheerleader Ninjas failed to deliver the goods.