Monday, 15 December 2008

The Punisher (2004)

In Soviet Russia, Wally finds you.

So by 2004, comic book movies were big business and Marvel was busy digging up old properties to give the big screen treatment. Sadly, my dreams of a Dazzler film went unfulfilled, and instead they called mulligan on the '89 Punisher and decided it was time for a do-over. In order to get the bad taste of the first movie out of the public's mouth, they moved the setting to sunny Tampa Bay, Florida. I salute their originality in not basing it in New York like every fucking other vigilante movie, but seriously, fuckin' Tampa?

This time Thomas Jane picks up the mantle of Frank Castle. He's buff and can look pretty menacing, but he definitely looks too much like a pretty boy to play the Punisher. His acting is pretty wooden, but it's a pretty wooden character so it's a good fit. In order to pacify the nerds he wears his famous skull t-shirt this time around... apparently his kid bought it for him as a gift to ward off evil spirits or something. If I had a choice between no skull and that goofy explanation, I'll take no-skull thanks. It would have been a very different (perhaps better) movie if his kid had bought him something like this instead.

In this version of the story, he's an ex-Special-Forces undercover FBI agent. His latest sting involves getting shot for pretend, which seems like a pretty stupid plan because the criminals predictably freak out and one of them ends up getting shot for reals. Unfortunately, this criminal is Bobby Saint, son of notorious crime boss Howard Saint (John Travolta).

Howard would have probably been happy with murdering Frank's wife and kid, but he has a wife named Livia (Laura Harring) who is a real ice-cold manipulative bitch, like Lady Kaede in Ran except that she has eyebrows. She insists he send his crew of black-clad assassins to his family reunion in Puerto Rico, where they wipe out his entire family. Cousins, uncles, parents, everybody. People try to escape on foot, on motorcycles and even dinghies (that guy must have been really desperate) but the bad guys chase them down and shoot them. Frank's wife and son try to escape in an SUV (with a boat on a trailer still attached!) but eventually they are chased onto a pier and the bad guys run them over in their truck. Then they shoot Frank and blow up the pier. As far as revenge goes, it's pretty harsh. I guess murdering the wife and kids isn't X-treme enough for the Mountain Dew drinking kids of today.

Frank washes up on shore and is nursed back to health by the local witch doctor, and it's from here that Frank enacts his elaborate plan for counter-revenge (he says it's "punishment", but we all know it's revenge Frank, who do you think you're kidding?) He enlists the help of Mickey (Eddie Jameson) one of Saint's low-level flunkies, to frame Saint's second-in-command, Quentin Glass (Will Patton), and make it look like he is having an affair with Saint's wife. Quentin's gay, but Saint doesn't know that. After Saint stabs Quentin to death and tosses his own wife in front of a train, he goes for a drink at his nightclub with all his henchmen, and that's when Frank kicks things into high gear. Needless to say, all the bad guys ends up punished, especially Saint. This is a pretty good act of re-revenge, but I can't help but feel it doesn't seem like a Punisher story. The REAL Punisher would just walk in and shoot Quentin, Saint and Livia in the face.

During Frank's criminal rampage, he takes up residence in a crumbling apartment building that comes with free comedy sidekicks and a damaged love interest. There's a fat guy who loves food and opera, a weaselly guy with lots of piercings and low self esteem plus a woman with terrible taste in music and a string of violent ex-boyfriends. She mentions how she always manages to fall in love with the guy who treats her the worst, and considering she immediately falls for a guy nick-named the Punisher, I'd say she's pretty much right. They teach him the meaning of friendship and family and cook a meal for him. I don't know, it's pretty cheesy.

As Frank and Saint's war escalates, Saint enlists a couple of colourful assassins to try and take him out. One of them is a Johnny Cash motherfucker who walks into a diner where Frank is eating and then pulls out a guitar and sings him a song. Then he says "I wrote that song for you... I'm going to sing it at your funeral" and walks out. Pretty awesome. Would have been cool if he just disappeared from the movie for a while, but tries to kill Frank in the very next scene. The other assassin is a big-ass dude in a goofy striped shirt with bleached hair. He's known only as "The Russian" and the first time we see him is when he suddenly busts into Frank's house and starts beating the shit out him. I don't think he ever speaks a word.

The film is directed by first-timer Jonathan Hensleigh. I like that everything is shot in a very down-to-earth, old-school action style. No shaky camera, no music video quick-cuts. It's very refreshing to watch a fight and be able to tell who is punching who. There's a good bit where Quentin Glass menaces the pierced guy with a pair of pliers. It's pretty scary, and they draw out the tension in a way that you don't see too often these days. There's a few bits that didn't work for me, though. There's a Leone homage that's pretty groan-worthy, and there's a fake-looking bit where Castle blows up dozens of cars to create a big flaming Punisher logo. I don't know what the owners of those cars did to deserve that, maybe their parking permits were expired.

This film seems to have a bit of an identity crisis. Comic relief jostles uncomfortably next to serious moments. In some places it's sadistic and violent, but not in a fun way like in Shoot 'Em Up. In Ennis' Punisher: MAX comics, he knows how to ratchet the violence and sadism up to such an absurd level that it becomes funny again. Here it just seems out of place. No doubt this film was supposed to spawn a franchise, but I guess it didn't happen because here we are just a few short years later and they've decided it's time for another do-over.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

The Punisher (1989)

Why yes, this film was made in the 80s.

Dolph Lundgren is a pretty interesting guy. If all you knew of him were his film roles, you'd assume he was just a big dumb action movie actor. You'd be wrong (and a bit prejudiced too... actors are people too, man. Have a bit of respect.) Here is a strapping 6'5" blonde who is a world class karate champ, speaks five languages and has a Master's Degree in Chemical Engineering. I'm not a supporter of Nazi eugenics (how's that for a qualifying statement) but I think Dolph Lundgren makes a pretty good case for the Master Race.

In this version the Punisher wears head-to-toe leather and combat boots, accessorising with knives and ammo pouches etc. He doesn't have the big skull emblem on his shirt, which isn't a big issue for me but it's pretty funny because that's the only thing separating him from any other garden variety vigilante. They've dyed Dolph's hair black and to be honest it looks pretty stupid. He's also got a five o'clock shadow that looks like it's been painted on. That, along with his pasty skin and unkempt appearance, makes him look like a guy playing dress-up at a comic book convention. Minus the beer gut. However, he's a pretty big dude and when he's fighting he looks pretty skilled and intimidating.

The film opens with a news report ("Channel 5 News - All Movie Exposition, All the Time") that fills us in on the Punisher's rampage. His killing spree has been going on for about 5 years, and in that time he has killed about 125 people. Over the course of the film he racks up about the same amount in a couple of days, which means he's really been dragging his ass over the last half-decade. A mafia Don's trial is acquitted and he brags to the press that he is untouchable. Of course, the Punisher busts into his fancy mansion and kills everybody before blowing it up. It's a good introduction.

They don't spend a lot of time on Frank's origin, which is good because it's pretty standard fare. It's been changed a little from the comic book, but the end result is pretty much the same. Family killed by criminals... goes on vigilante rampage. In this version, Frank Castle was a police officer instead of a Vietnam vet, and his family was killed by a car bomb instead of being executed after witnessing a mob hit. His former partner Jake Berkowitz (Louis Gossett Jr.) is now head of an anti-Punisher task force and is convinced that the Punisher is Frank Castle (who is believed dead in the explosion that killed his family).

Now, I'm not the kind of guy who reads homosexual subtext into everything and then giggles at every little innuendo. Okay, maybe I am. Still, the way Berkowitz single-mindedly pursues Frank really makes me wonder. This reaches a high note when Berkowitz, on the verge of tears, shakes Frank by the shoulders and shouts "Let me in! Let me in!" After the Punisher spurns his tearful plea, Berkowitz's new partner (female, by the way) tells Frank that Berkowitz lives for him and asks him "how long can someone live after you've cut out their heart?". Enough with the homoerotic melodrama. What is this, a John Woo film?

Okay, five paragraphs in and I haven't even started on the main plot. Basically, Frank's crime spree has weakened the mafia and left them vulnerable. The Yakuza, led by Lady Tanaka (Kim Kiyori), swoop in and take over, demanding a 75% cut of all the mafia's crime operations. They refuse, so the Yakuza kidnap all of their kids and hold them for ransom. Regardless of whether the mafia pay up, the Yakuza are going to sell the kids into slavery, so the Punisher steals a school bus and heads in to rescue them. It's like Warbus except it's in New York instead of Vietnam and he's fleeing the Yakuza instead of the Viet Cong. Actually I guess it's pretty different, I just couldn't let go of an opportunity to mention Warbus.

Because the bad guys are Yakuza and it was the 1980s, they try to cram in as many Japanese stereotypes as possible. The Yakuza have a kendo school at their headquarters and Lady Tanaka does a Geisha dance and spends the whole climax of the movie in full makeup. And of course, there are lots and lots of ninjas. The Punisher even gets ambushed at Coney Island and a bunch of ninjas with machine guns come racing down a big slide. "Wheeeee! Last one to the bottom has to polish all the shuriken!" Lady Tanaka has a mute American adopted daughter, who has all these hidden knives and shuriken earings and things.

So with all these blades and guns, you'd be pretty annoyed if you ended up with some sissy PG-13 film, but luckily they pushed the R rating pretty far. At one point Lady Tanaka ambushes a bunch of the mafia gangsters at a restaurant. At her command everybody else at the restaurant (old ladies, young couples, bespectacled accountant-looking dudes) pulls out a piece and blows away all of the gangsters' bodyguards. This is after she'd poisoned the gangsters by the way. That's the kind of overkill I'm hope for when I go into a film named The Punisher.

One more thing that is really worth noting, when the Punisher isn't out Punishing, he hangs out in the sewer butt naked and surrounded by candles and mumbles to God. Didn't Jesus suffer enough on the cross, Frank? Don't make him look at your wing-wang too. So they kind of botch the tortured loner thing, especially since he has a comedy sidekick, a homeless Shakespearean actor who talks in rhyming couplets, which probably looked better on paper. At one point the Punisher lures him into an alley with a bottle of whiskey attached to a remote control car. Pretty elaborate plan, why couldn't he just whistle?

Okay, I'll come out an say it... I kind of liked this stupid film. It is extremely 80s with enough ridiculous touches (ninjas on slides, Berkowitz emotional plea, naked prayer) to kick it over the line of enjoyability. The Punisher... not particularly punishing.

The Punisher

The Punisher must be a deceptively simple character. I say "must be", because I can't really think of another character who has had three separate movies made about him, each with a completely different actor/plot/director etc, and have each movie be uniquely terrible. The third movie still hasn't come out here yet (Australian websites list it's release date as late February, what the hell?) so in order to prepare for it I watched 1989's The Punisher starring Dolph Lundgren, and 2004 The Punisher starring Thomas Jane. I've also been reading through some of the Punisher: MAX trades (which are great fun).

When the Punisher started out, he wasn't a hero, he was an antagonist to the spectacular Spider-Man. He actually killed the villains, something that was considered way out of bounds by the super-heroes of the day. He was a Vietnam Vet whose family were executed after witnessing a mob killing during a family picnic. Frank went underground and uses his knowledge of weaponry and military tactics to wage a one-man war against the mob. I guess a problem with making a movie about the Punisher is that this is not a particularly compelling story. It has been executed about a thousand times, with varying levels of success.

Another big problem with The Punisher, or indeed any revenge-based entertainment, is that most of them at least pretend that the protagonist is "going too far" in quest for revenge. They act like you're not supposed to be rooting for him. He is sick and disturbed. The problem is that everybody knows that you can't stop crime by killing criminals, except the mentally ill and Texans. That's why I go to the movies. It's an escape to a fairy-tale land where the world is neatly divided into good guys and bad guys and violence is a viable solution to most problems. I can't imagine anyone not cheering for Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood or Frank Castle. Fascistic approaches to crime prevention make for a fun time at the movies.

What I'd like to see in a Punisher film is something like Death Wish 3. Here is where the Death Wish series where it abandoned any notion of subtlety, and it was not particularly subtle in the first place. Any of the hand-wringing politics or conflicted morals of the first couple of films are tossed straight out the window (most of it was bullshit anyway), and goddamn if the result is not entertaining. The final fifteen minutes must be seen to be believed, with Bronson and his partner running through an open street, mowing down criminals like they're in a shooting gallery. Old women and children cheer as they beat injured punks to death, and it all played completely straight. It's really quite incredible. I'll have to do a review of that film sometime.

Anyways, commence the Punishment.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Cannibal Ferox (1981)

Insert eye pun here

Umberto Lenzi had pretty much created the cannibal genre with his 1972 film Man From Deep River. By the late 70s, every exploitation filmmaker with access to a jungle and a handful of bearded Italian actors were in a cut-throat competition to see how much pig guts they could fling at the screen. In this barf-inducing limbo competition, Ruggero Deodato lowered the bar of good taste as far as it could possibly go in his 1980 cannibal classic, Cannibal Holocaust. Umberto Lenzi promptly gathered up a handful of Italian exploitation flick veterans and booked the next flight to the Amazon, determined to out-gross (both in a financial and nausea-inducing sense) Deodato's epic. Was he successful? Kind of. It's certainly dumber.

Gloria (Lorraine De Selle, from House on the Edge of the Park), her brother Rudy (Bryan Redford) and her slutty best friend Pat (Zora Kerowa from New York Ripper) take a trip down to the Amazon so Gloria can gather supporting evidence for her dissertation. It states that cannibalism is a racist myth cooked up by whitey, and armed with a recent paper that posits the existence of cannibalism in the Amazon, she intends to head to the village mentioned and... well... I don't know. Take a poke around and say "Well, no cannibalism here" and head home. QED. I'm not sure this would pass muster in a thesis defense.

After Pat gets a moustache ride from a hairy, sweaty local, the three of them make their way into the heart of darkness. As they chug down the river in their riverboat they are startled by a parrot, which the captain promptly grabs and eats, apparently for good luck. Another local gives them a pet mongoose as snake bait. Of course, within seconds of hitting dry land, these three knuckleheads drive their jeep straight into a river and have to hoof it the rest of the way. During their journey a bunch of animals are killed on-screen for our entertainment (mongoose, turtle, etc). They also stumble upon a native who is so engrossed in his meal of tasty grubs that he doesn't notice the three grossed-out whiteys standing right in front of him.

Eventually they run into Mike (Giovanni Lombardo Radice who played half-wits in both House on the Edge of the Park and City of the Living Dead, but not here) and Joe, two injured travellers (also New York residents, it's a small world after all) who are high-tailing it out of the village. Mike gives them a suspicious story about how the natives turned on them for no good reason, captured their Portuguese buddy, tortured him and "then... then they ate his genitals!" Woah! Despite Mike's cautionary tale, they all decide to risk genital consumption by heading back to the village for some reason. Mike's story starts looking more and more suspicious as they realise that there are no young people in the village and those that remain seem very wary of the white folks.

Eventually Mike's buddy Joe, nearing death, decides to come clean about the supposed cannibalism. Turns out that they came to the Amazon with the intention of stealing the natives' hidden treasure. In a flashback sequence, Mike ties up one of the natives and, coked out of his skull, starts doing what the US might call "aggressive interrogation". Pretty soon the floor is littered with severed eyeballs and genitals and God knows what else. There is no genital eating, as far as I can tell, I think Mike added that part to his version of the story for a little local flavour. After spilling his guts (metaphorically), Joe promptly croaks, just in time for a bunch of hungry natives to arrive, spill his guts (literally) and go to town on his intestines. I never understand in these cannibal flicks why the natives always go for the intestines. I mean, that can't taste good. What's wrong with a nice thigh fillet, or a shoulder joint? Roasted up with a side dish of giant grubs? That's good eatin'.

The four remaining survivors are quickly captured by the natives, who tie Mike to a stake, cut off his pork sword and eat it. After this act of tribal justice, they cauterise the wound so he doesn't die in transit and then ship the prisoners to some other village. As they near the riverside, Rudy tries to make a run for it but heads straight into the piranha-infested waters. He begs the natives for help and gets a poison dart in the neck. Probably not what he was after, but better than getting castrated by cannibals at any rate. When they get to the village they dump the prisoners into some makeshift jail cells and drop in a snack for the women to eat. They refuse... oh, a human heart not good enough for you prima donnas? Instead they decide to burst into song.

During the night, one of the natives (no doubt moved by their singing) lowers a rope to help the ladies escape, but Mike crawls out of his tiger cage, pushes him away and cuts the rope. What a fucker. Fortunately, he immediately gets captured again and his hand cut off for good measure. Then they place him under a table with a hole in it, so that the top of his head pokes through. A quick swipe with the machete and they've got an all-you-can-eat brain buffet. Pat gets it pretty bad too, they stick hooks right through her boobs and hang her up until she dies.

Before Gloria falls victim to a similar fate, that helpful native from earlier helps her escape, but in the process he falls victim to a booby trap. Gloria makes it to the river and is picked up by a passing boat (for the deepest Amazon there sure seem to be a lot of American tourists). Three months later she is receiving her doctorate for successfully debunking the myth of cannibalism. Good to see that her experience hasn't left her too shaken to commit some good old academic fraud!

One thing I haven't mentioned is a subplot about a policeman trying to track down Mike and Joe, both having fled to the Amazon after stealing some mobster's money. Horribly acted and utterly pointless, the only reason I can see it existing is to force in some stock footage of New York. It spoils a lot of the tension of the jungle scenes, but it does have it's moments of unintentional hilarity. Over the course of several minutes, the opening sequence follows a denim-clad young man's disco-scored journey from the hospital all the way to a rathole apartment. Upon arriving, some mobsters call him "shitface" about fifty times and shoot him. That's the end of that character.

It doesn't have any of the subtext or style of Cannibal Holocaust. The gore effects look a lot cheaper too. Apart from Radice, who (as usual) overacts like a motherfucker, the acting is pretty terrible. The most hollow of lip service is paid to it's themes of racism and ethnocentricity. There isn't a single likable or interesting character in the whole film. What it does offer, however, is something to disgust everyone. I can unreservedly recommend this film to anyone who enjoys being disgusted and/or offended by non-stop brutality, misogyny and animal abuse.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

The Ruins (2008)

"Shouldn't we check to make sure the rope is safe?"

I'd heard a bit of internet buzz about this movie, so I thought I'd check it out. It's based on the same-named book by Scott B. Smith (apparently quite good, though I haven't read it), who also wrote the screenplay, and directed by Carter Smith (no relation). He also wrote the novel A Simple Plan, which was turned into a rather good thriller by Sam Raimi in 1998. So, not a bad pedigree. Like many modern horror films, this one preys on the typical upper-middle class American tourists in a foreign land paranoia. Also like those films, it falls into the trap of trying to paint them as sympathetic while at the same time being obnoxious, over-privileged dumbshits. One of the students points out that "four American tourists don't disappear on holiday". Greeks and Germans, however, are toast.

The movie starts in a frustratingly conventional fashion. A groups of four college students are spending the last day of their vacation in a Cancun resort. Some of the party lament the fact that they've squandered their holiday on sun-drenched beaches and cocktails, so they are delighted when they meet a German guy named Mathias who has access to a remote archeological dig at a Mayan temple. Sweet! I'm sure the archeologists will love having a bunch of drunken idiots tromping all over their digsite. Oh, and one of the girls makes out with Mathias even though she's totes going out with someone else! OMG!

The next morning the four students, Mathias, and Greek-dude-who-will-no-doubt-be-killed-immediately head out to the site, but it's only when the taxi drops them off in the middle of nowhere that they realise they have no plan to get back, so we're talking Magna Cum Laude material here. When they get to the temple (a pretty impressive vine-covered ziggurat) they find the site abandoned. Seems like a pretty rinky-dink archeological dig too, since there's only a couple of tents and a jeep. Things only get worse when a bunch of armed Mayans show up, kill the Greek dude (told ya!) and force them up to the summit of the temple. The natives then set up camp and make sure they don't escape. Almost as if, as one of the students helpfully points out, they are quarantining them up there.

Things get off to a shaky start when they attempt to find a ringing cell phone in the bowels of the temple and Mathias falls down a shaft and breaks his back. Another of their number cuts herself pretty bad during the rescue attempt. I don't know if I should spoil the fact that the plants are alive and carnivorous, but they plastered that shit all over the poster and the DVD cover so what the hell. The plants are alive and carnivorous. What's more, they have a nasty habit of sneaking up under cover of darkness and worming their way into any exposed wounds. Ew! They also have the ability to mimic sounds, such as voices and the aforementioned ringing cell phone. The flowers vibrate or something, there's no giant mouth like Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors. That would have been pretty cool though, maybe in the sequel.

It's quite fortunate that one of their number is a medical student (there's always one in these kind of films, they're never all fine arts majors or something) so he pretty much takes charge for the rest of the film. There are many gross-out scenes of sans-anesthetic amateur surgery, including limb amputations and plant-ectomies. They don't perform heart surgery with a plunger and a tin-can like Dr. Benway in Naked Lunch, but it gets pretty close. These scenes are all pretty gratuitous, but they are probably some of the highlights of the film, well overshadowing any sense of dread or atmosphere. The rest of the horror direction is pretty average, they even resort to a "jumping dog" scare at one point, the last resort of the horror-director scoundrel.

A small group of people are trapped in a confined space until tensions fray and they are picked off one by one. This is a classic horror scenario and can be done well. The problem with this film is that the characters are a bunch of homogeneous morons, only differentiated by their gender and hair colour. Eventually they settle into standard archetypes that do just enough to propel the plot along, but it's too little, too late. Still, it's slickly directed and the gore effects are top notch, so if that's all you're after you'll get your pound of flesh and forget the movie immediately after.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Diary of the Dead (2007)

It was about this time that Bob wished he
had private health insurance

A lot of people complained about the ham-fisted political subtext of Land of the Dead, but anyone who thought the social commentary of Romero's films was ever subtle is kidding themselves. The theme of race relations in Night of the Living Dead is pretty tenuous since it was cast colourblind. It doesn't take much to pick up on the symbolism of zombies wandering around in a shopping mall in Dawn of the Dead (best horror film of all time), but even then Romero had the characters spell it out for us. The Reagan-era anti-intellectualism addressed in Day of the Dead is blunted by making the soldiers a bunch of insane, bloodthirsty assholes. Monkey Shines shows that all monkeys are all murderous savages who should be exterminated rather than taught how to smoke cigars and roller skate. However, all these films are masterworks of subtlety compared to Diary of the Dead.

Diary uses that first-person technique popularised by The Blair Witch Project, so you've got to have a reason for people to be wandering around with a camera. Consequently, the film starts with a bunch of students heading out into the woods to make a film about the flesh eating undead. In Romero's films nobody has ever heard of a zombie before so they've gotta use a mummy instead. This opportunity is used to make a few meta-textual observations about women in horror films that I'm sure nobody has ever done in the history of cinema. Eventually the zombies show up, so the kids pile into their van and the rest of the film documents their exploits as they travel cross-country to find their respective families and eventually just a safe place to hide.

This brings up the first problem with the film, in that the cast are a bunch of interchangeable college students. They all conform to a bunch of student archetypes of course and there's also an alcoholic film professor, but the less said about him the better. Occasionally a more interesting character would flit around in the periphery, but they would disappear quickly. The best character is a mute Amish named Samuel, and he's only in the film for a few minutes (spoiler). His was the only only death I cared about because I knew that with him departed any interest I had in the film's characters would evaporate. This was one of the most disappointing things about the film, as I could always rely on Romero's films to have real, adult characters and somewhat believable dialog. This is what separates Romero's movies from all the pretenders where the characters are all teenagers who make glib wisecracks after dispatching the reanimated corpse of their best friend.

It's easy to compare this film to [REC] or Cloverfield, but where those films used the first-person technique as a gimmick, Diary of the Dead uses it to say something about our media-obsessed culture, the way the camera lens isolates us from the subject etc. You probably won't be barfing up your popcorn watching this film either, because the camera is a lot more controlled and artfully framed than in Cloverfield (even if it makes the whole first-person thing a little harder to swallow). Using this technique places a burden on the filmmaker to explain why there's some jerk going everywhere pointing a camera at a disaster instead of helping. You can just make the characters unlikable, self-absorbed assholes (like in Cloverfield), or you can make one character the self-appointed "voice of truth", who must document these events because big media can't be trusted etc.

So far it not startlingly original but it's workable, not too bad. But unfortunately Romero takes the extra step of having the film edited like a particularly ham-handed documentary, with an added musical score, additional footage acquired from youtube, security cameras etc. He goes to great lengths to explain how the footage is acquired and edited together. Every so often we will take a break from the action and one of the characters will just sit there and narrate all of the themes to the audience like we are as dumb as the characters in the film. At one point someone actually says "It was us versus us, but now it's us versus them, but they are us". Sometimes I get the impression that Romero is using this film to pander to the audience (the "youtube generation") and at the same time is pretty contemptuous of them.

Also, the film is chock full of digital effects. I understand that it lets you shoot the film a lot quicker when you can tweak all of the effects in post-production, but it doesn't help when they are pretty cheap looking. There's a lot of digital headshots, which I hate. Personally I think the visual impact of a good old-fashioned spray of stage blood is worth the extra laundry at the end of the day. I miss Tom Savini.

I couldn't be happier that Romero is back doing independent films again, but I'd have to say this is the worst of the [Blank] of the Dead movies. Apparently he is currently filming a sequel that follows some of the minor characters as this film. I really hope that includes Samuel. I've got my fingers crossed that he does a bit better the next time around.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Anaconda 3: The Hoffspring (2008)

"I only said that the General Lee could probably outrun KITT"

I have very faint memories of the first Anaconda film, which was mildly successful thanks to the involvement of the then-popular (pre-Gigli) Jennifer Lopez. The second film, Anacondas: Hunt for the Blood Orchid, passed me by completely. It seems that there must be a little money left in the franchise because Sci-Fi Originals have seen fit to crank out a couple more giant-snake-flavoured frankfurts out of it's cinematic sausage machine. Direct-to-video stalwart Don E. FauntLeRoy (who you may remember from his work with Steven Seagal) has punched out Anaconda 3: The Offspring and Anaconda 4: Blood Trail. These films should fit comfortably on the bottom row of your local video store (or Netflix queue), right next to Python, Python 2, Boa vs Python and the ten thousand other shot-in-Eastern-Europe giant snake films.

Evil billionaire Murdoch (John Rhys-Davies, the poor guy must have some serious gambling debts) is funding researching into the life-extending MacGuffin of the previous films. This research involves giant snakes (one female and one male, of course) and also some genetic modification etc. It's all justified with some vague reference to Alzheimer's and cancer, the usual stuff. Leading the experiment is expert herpetologist Amanda (Crystal Allen, and despite the pornstar name her imdb credits only turn up a handful of TV roles), who has serious misgivings about the quality of their containment facilities. In fact, they are so understaffed that they can only afford a handful of extras in lab coats. Sure enough, the snakes bust out of their cage, kill a few scientists and escape. Probably a bad idea to make air conditioning ducts large enough to accommodate a 40 foot snake. Just a thought.

Now, I wouldn't imagine it would be especially difficult to track a giant snake (following the meter-wide furrow in the undergrowth might be a good start) but apparently it is necessary to call in a team of specialist snake hunters. As well Amanda, we have a cast of rich and diverse characters, including Black Guy, Butch Girl and Greasy-Hair Guy. Leading the team is Hammett, a cigar-chewing mercenary (for justice!) played by the Hoff. The Sci-Fi Originals people definitely knew what they were doing casting the Knight Rider. He is featured prominently on the cover and should prove a successful eye-catcher to hipsters with ironic facial hair. Unfortunately he isn't the main character in the film and long stretches of the film are disappointingly Hoff-free. Although he is about as convincing playing a badass here as he was in Nick Fury: Agent of Shield (ie not very), at one point he tosses a beefy Romanian extra through a plate-glass window, leading to severe lacerations. This is one of the few instances I've seen in a movie where someone is seriously injured by a defenestration. Seagal should take notes.

What follows is a predictable series of events, where a 40 foot snake somehow sneaks up on a succession of supposedly elite hunters and kills them. Making this snake extra-super-deadly is that it is capable of skewering people with it's tail, a side-effect of it's genetic modification. It does this a lot. I would imagine that being speared through the chest by a tail thicker than most people's arms would be instantly fatal, but most of the victims in this film survive at least long enough for the rest of the team to bicker about whether to save them and/or have a tearful death scene. The team is picked off one by one, the snakes are killed in a giant explosion and an unsurprising epilogue sets up the sequel.

I should also mention is the film steals brazenly from Predator. The snakes make the same clicky rasp, the squad of hunters are all decked out in Arnold's surplus wardrobe and there are many scenes of them aimlessly firing machine guns in the forest (supposedly in the Amazon but suspiciously European in appearance). Of course, here they're aiming at a 40 foot snake, not an alien hunter with advanced stealth technology, so there's no excuse for their terrible aim. If only they had been a little more shameless and featured Hoff brandishing a mini-gun or calling himself a "Sexual Tyrannosaurus", I think it might have just been enough to save the film.

The first Anaconda film was campy enough to be enjoyable, but this film just goes through the motions with the barest amount of energy or style. There a few silly, gory scenes, such as when a hunter is decapitated by a giant snake and continues to fire his automatic weapon, riddling the landscape with bullets and blowing up their jeep. Unfortunately these scenes are too short and infrequent, and although it's surprisingly bloody for a giant snake film, it's a Sci-Fi Original, and that means it is riddled with bad CG. Is it too much to ask for a scene of the Hoff wrestling with a giant rubber snake? It's what we are all here for, you know it and I know it. So why must every shot be a digital composite? Why must even a simple blood spray be rendered digitally? I know the budget was thin, but are you telling me you couldn't afford some corn syrup and red dye? Did you not have correct change for the laundromat? Why?! If you see this dvd on a video shelf and find yourself drawn in by the rugged charms of the Hoff, do yourself a favour and stay your hand. Just imagine a Hoff-vs-Anaconda film in your head. I guarantee it will be better.