Friday, June 28, 2013

Summer blockbuster: Man of Steel (2013)

Warning: This review has a whole heap of SPOILERS.

Wow, I can't remember a film being this divisive amongst audiences and critics in a long, long time! Ordinarily, I never usually cover current movies on this blog. I reserve it more for films from the past that I think people should try and go back and rediscover. However I just saw Man of Steel last week and with everyone on the internet, seemingly, having an opinion about it I thought I might as well throw my two cents in too. First up, I've got to say, if you haven't seen the film already, stop reading and go and see it (assuming you dug the trailers). Don't judge it on what you hear or read about it. Go in with an open mind and decide for yourself. It's a bold and (in a lot of ways) reckless adaptation. Reckless in the sense that it isn't beholden to telling a straight-forward "traditional" version of the classic Superman story like Richard Donner's 1978 film was. You need to decide for yourself if that's a good or bad thing.

The plot begins on the alien planet of Krypton. Eminent scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) is trying to convince the population to get off the planet before it implodes. At the same time, military man General Zod (Michael Shannon) is leading a coup to take over control of the planet. Zod is arrested and placed on a prison ship. Jor-El meanwhile, seeing that his people are beyond hope, takes his naturally born son Kal and puts him in a spaceship. In order to preserve the potential to repopulate the race one day, he infuses his son with the "Codex" - an ancient skull which Kryptonians have been using to clone their offspring for the last few centuries. We pick up the story many years later, on planet Earth where Kal's spaceship landed. Kal has been raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) as an ordinary human being called Clark (Henry Cavill). Through flashbacks we learn that Earth's sun rays have given Clark extraordinary powers but Jonathan is convinced that Clark must never use them for fear that other people would reject him. However, when Zod turns up in Earth's orbit, having taken control of the prison ship, Clark must step up and defend the planet he now calls home.

Superman is a character that I've got to say I've never really been massively interested in. I'm a huge reader of Batman comics but Superman never really captured my imagination. He always seemed too powerful and too earnest with not nearly enough flaws and weaknesses for me to empathise with. Man of Steel, however, managed to make him a much more interesting character. He's now not a guy who just chooses to be a superhero but someone who is reluctant and forced into a corner to save the world. I know that's not the classic version of the character from the comics but I enjoyed this new spin. I've got to say that this might be down to the fact I really enjoyed my comic books to be bold and progressive rather than just stagnant, repeating the same old stories over and over. I actively enjoy it when comic book writers play around with continuity and established canon like DC's old Elseworld series.

I really liked the underlying themes of Man of Steel. It's basically about Clark trying to find his place in the world. There were definite echoes of Bruce Wayne's journey in producer Chris Nolan's Batman Begins (a film which, ironically, I wasn't a huge fan of, but let's not get into that now). And this journey is defined by Clark's two very different fathers. His Earth father Jonathan, believes Clark should hide his powers while his Krypton father Jor-El believes he should embrace them and help the world. A lot of comic books fans are upset that Man of Steel makes Jonathan Kent seem so cold, but personally I loved the reinvention of this character. On the contrary, rather than being cold I could totally believe and understand his stance in wanting to protect his adopted son from the rest of the world (hell, I would probably do the same). I also really enjoyed the new version of Jor-El too played by Russell Crowe. He is a much more active character in Man of Steel than previous interpretations and I was pleased when he unexpectedly turned up halfway through the film as an interactive hologram for a few more scenes. I can't think of one cast member in the whole film who disappointed me. Henry Cavill was really good as Clark/Superman. My only disappointment was that I didn't feel many sparks between him and Amy Adams but hopefully that will be rectified in the sequel.

The film is really broken into three acts. The first is on Krypton, following Jor-El's decision to send his son out into space. I really loved the new set designs of Krypton. The old crystal version in Richard Donner's films was cool but I like this weird organic version better. It reminded me a lot of David Lynch's Dune, which was awesome as I'm a huge fan of that film (looks-wise anyway). I also loved the new twist that Krypton's population are genetically created and Clark (Kal-El) is the only one for centuries who has been born the natural way (you know... sex). And because of this he hasn't been genetically imprinted to be a worker or soldier like other Kryptonians. This again ties into the idea of him having to decide who he wants to be. The second act revolves around Clark, as a 30-something man, reminiscing about growing up as he drifts from town to town. Helping people out but keeping his profile as low as possible. This bit kind of reminded me of the old Incredible Hulk series from the 70s with Clark hitch-hiking down roads. It's also here that we get the back story with Jonathan Kent, who we find out died when Clark was a teenager. I don't mind admitting I totally got choked up by his death scene. There's nothing sadder than a greying Kevin Costner getting sucked up into a tornado while motioning for his adopted son NOT to save him.

The third act is basically an extended alien invasion story with Zod trying to terraform the Earth to become a New Krypton. A lot of critics said the fight scenes go on way too long but I thought they were okay. Maybe that could have been tighter but I'm pleased to see some epic and elaborate Superman fight scenes in a film finally. A lot of Metropolis does get destroyed which I think upset a lot of Superman fans who thought he should have been saving more people. Again, I thought this was an interesting new spin. Let's face it, if Superman was real and fought a super-villain in city chances are a lot of buildings would get destroyed. Also, he's not really "Superman" yet. This is the first time he's put on the suit and he only starts flying a few hours (or is it days?) before Zod shows up. He doesn't know what he's doing. (Don't believe me, scroll back to the top of the page and look at Henry Cavill's face on the poster. His whole expression is "what the hell am I doing?") And that's exciting. A massively powerful person is trying to save us but he doesn't know what to do. That's great heart pounding drama. So yeah, basically a huge chunk of Metropolis becomes collateral damage. Some reviewers have tried to defend the decision by saying that "oh, most of Metropolis was probably evacuated." Sorry, I don't think it was. I didn't catch any dialogue along those lines in the film. No, I think lots of people probably died. This isn't a bad thing though. In fact, I think it's a really good set-up for why Superman makes Metropolis his home in the sequels - to make up for how much he (although technically it was mostly Zod) destroyed it. And I can see why Lex Luthor is going to hate his guts. In fact, we might even agree with Lex's viewpoint. That's going to be cool, having a villain who you have empathy with.

Anyway, enough hypothesising what's going to happen in Man of Steel 2. So long as they remember to bring back Hans Zimmer I'll be happy. Zimmer did an absolutely sublime score for Man of Steel. He had his work cut out for him because not only does everyone have John Williams' iconic 1978 theme permanently ingrained in their brain but the film also jumps quite quickly from quiet low-key moments to grand epic set pieces and back again. I thought he did a hell of a job making a coherent composition. The fight scenes have these stirring, bombastic and propulsive percussion numbers while the smaller scenes have quiet piano solos. Like the score he did for Batman Begins (with James Newton Howard) the main theme doesn't appear until the very end of the film - and it's cheekily titled "What Are You Going to Do When You're Not Saving the World?". I hope like Nolan's Batman films he builds and expands on these musical themes for the sequel.

I sound a bit like I loved every minute and every aspect of this film but that's not quite the case. I did find David Goyer's script occasionally a little clunky and awkward. Though I liked her performance on the whole I really hated Diane Lane's "Imagine my voice is an island" speech that she gives to a scared 8 year old Clark who's just discovered his X-ray vision. It sounded so stage-y and forced. There were a few other moments like this but it didn't spoil the overall film. I also found the story a little disjointed with it jumping back and forth in time. Obviously it was needed to get all this story in their but it felt sometimes like I was watching a very long elaborate trailer rather than a movie. I think the next film will be much smoother because it will likely just tell a start to finish story rather than jump all over the place again. My last gripe, isn't really a gripe, it's just more an observation. This really isn't a film for kids. Young kids anyway. I don't know how well they'll absorb the story and visuals. Nolan and Snyder pitch this much more at an adult audience. I was cool with this but I think if you have a kid under 9 years old it's better to go back and watch the Reeve film and save this until they are a little older.

Overall, Man of Steel isn't the perfect Superman movie but it is a great starting point for the inevitable sequels. Superman isn't a fully formed hero yet. He probably isn't going to be universally loved. A lot of people in Metropolis are going to actively distrust and hate him. That may not be how things are in the comics but I think it's a fascinating place to jump off from. I went into Man of Steel looking for a modern, relevant re-imagining of the character and I think I got what I wanted.


Friday, June 21, 2013

Completist Guide to the Scanner series (1981-1995) Part 1

Scanners (1981)

Although David Cronenberg is thought of as a highly respected director nowadays back in the early 80s he wasn’t so well regarded. His main claim to fame was a series of very low budget and truly grotesque “body horror” movies such as Rabid and The Brood. Scanners was his attempt to create something palatable for a mainstream audience. In fact the working title for the movie was the pretty cheesy and blunt Telepath 2000. Now Scanners is movie that a lot of people remember for two things, one is the exploding head at the start of the movie and the other is the ultra gory final battle between the two protagonists. But there’s a fair bit more to it than that.

The plot sees Stephen Lack play Cameron Vale, a homeless guy who is abducted by a mysterious corporation called ConSec. ConSec specialises in rounding up scanners, a small select group of telepaths who were accidentally created when doctors gave pregnant women an experimental drug in the 1950s. Vale is recruited by ConSec's leader Dr Ruth to track down Daryl Revok, a psychotic renegade telepath who is planning to create a brand new army of scanners to take over the world. Will he stop him in time?

Scanners is quite a dated film. There's a odd lack of suspense or pace to the whole thing which stops it from being fully enjoyable. That said, the performances are generally very good. Former 'Prisoner' Patrick McGoohan makes an ideal bearded mentor figure and Michael Ironside, in one of his earliest roles, makes a truly terrifying villain. The only real weak link in the film is Stephen Lack who plays the role of Cameron Vale way too understated.

Where the film does come alive is the special effects which are truly remarkable, even today. Heads explode, veins bulge and people get set on fire. The climatic duel and head explosion were courtesy of Dick Smith, who created look of Regan in The Exorcist and Gary Zeller who worked on Altered States.

Reportedly Cronenberg had to start filming without a finished script which perhaps explains it's stilted pace. Still he builds the film to satisfying conclusion that touches on some interesting and unexpected ideas of transhumanism. Scanners is a quite innovative film in that although it contains graphic gore, it isn't really a horror film. It's a more of a thriller that touches on all sorts of ideas from corporate espionage and science gone wrong. Overall Scanners is a good film that just about deserves its place as a science-fiction classic.


Scanners II: The Takeover (1991)

Next up we have Scanners II: The New Order which was released direct to video in 1991, directed by Christian Duguay, another Canadian director. Duguay is probably most famous for directing the similarly titled Screamers in 1995, a very well made, low budget Philip K Dick adaptation that starred Peter Weller. Although the original Scanners film wasn’t very successful at the cinema it did huge business on video so it made sense for the sequel to head to the burgeoning video market.

Scanners II is about an evil police commander called John Forrester who is using abducted scanners to further his own political career. Inevitably he crosses paths with our hero David Kellum, a young vet student who also happens to be a well adjusted scanner. At first Kellum agrees to help him out, solving a case of mass poisoning but later he discovers Forrester's ulterior motives for his powers and is forced to go on the run.

He ends up hiding at the parent’s house where it's reveal that he is actually adopted and his real father was Cameron Vale (a predictable cop out for a sequel). He also has a sister he never knew, Julie Vale and together the pair of siblings team up to take down Forrester and invade his secret facility for experimenting on scanners.

Scanners II is actually a lot of fun. It’s a lot more fast-paced compared to the original and it revels in its gory sequences. Hewlett makes a likeable lead and has a lot bit more personality than Lack. The stand out actor of the film though is Raoul Trujillo who plays Forrester’s psychotic side kick Drak. In a clever bit of misdirection it’s actually Drak who we meet in the opening scenes of the film, leading us to believe he’s going to be the hero. He's no replacement for Michael Ironside but he gives him a run for his money.

The storyline is quite straightforward and not maybe as well thought out as the original film. Whereas the first Scanners film was about corporate espionage the sequel is a relatively simplistic tale of corrupt politics. Scanners II was written by B J Nelson, the man responsible for Chuck Norris action film Lone Wolf McQuade. One thing I always get hung up on with sequels like this is when they set a film 20 years after the original but only shoot it a few years later. It means you have to either retroactively put the original film further in the past or imagine that the film is set in the future. A bunch of horror movie sequels do this - The Omen, Friday the 13th, The Prophecy - it's really distracting.

Overall Scanners II is a relatively satisfying sequel that really comes alive during its action sequences and benefits from decent performances.


Scanner III The Takeover (1992)

Scanner III The Takeover (or Scanner Force as it was originally titled in the UK) was also directed by Christian DuGuay and released in 1992. The two films were shot back to back. Sadly we lose the character of David Kellum and instead get an entirely new pair of characters. Alex and Helena Monet, two Scanners siblings.

The films open with Alex accidentally killing his friend during a scanning "prank" gone wrong. Upset at causing a death he leaves America and heads to a monastery in Thailand to learn inner peace (presumably because it worked so well for John Rambo in Rambo III). Meanwhile his sister Helena, a high powered TV executive, begins taking a new experimental drug called Eph-3, in order to permanently remove her painful scanning abilities.

Inevitably the drug backfires and instead turns her into, for want of a better phrase, a Super Bitch - killing innocent people (and even a few pigeons) left, right and centre. Eventually Alex learns about her destructive powers and comes home to stop Helena before she uses televisions to scan and take over the entire population.

Scanners III is a far more goofy, cartoonish movie than Scanners II ever was. The script again was written by B J Nelson, along with Julie Richard and David Preston, and essentially about an hour of the 90 minute running time is Helena pulling one evil scanning trick to another. Ranging from embarrassing her rival by making him do cheesy dancing to making her former doctor’s head explode.

Polish actress Liliana Komorowska, who plays Helena, chews so much scenery I’m surprised there’s any sets left to act on. Every other line she says is an awful, groan-inducing one liner. It’s like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Batman and Robin all over again. There’s clearly an attempt to incorporate some ironic dark humour (like Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop did) but it mostly falls flat. The only major interest point in the film that the special effects are still top notch and far more frequent than any other entry in the series. It’s a shame that the film and acting are so mind-numbing.

In the end Scanners III is a pretty poor sequel that doesn’t offer much for fans of the series. Its attempt to satirise amoral 80s yuppies seems somewhat belated, its hero Alex, once again, is utterly boring. Most disappointing, the final fight, something all the other films have done so well, is a real damp squib.


Sunday, June 16, 2013

Crazy, Crazy Good Action: Drive: The Director's Cut (1997)

I can't quite believe it's taken me two years of writing this blog to get around to reviewing the film Drive. I'm not talking about the Ryan Gosling one (though that's awesome too for different reasons and I'll be reviewing it very soon) I'm talking about the amazing martial arts film from 1997 that was directed by Steve Wang (who also did the Guyver movies). It's probably one of my favourite films of all time and I can't begin to count how many times I've watched it. It's just such a fun action movie; the kind they don't really make anymore. Everything is dour and brooding now. I think at the time it didn't get the reception it deserved and partially that was the fault of the producers who edited it down to a lean 90 minutes and shoved it out direct to video. Luckily, it got much better reception in the UK and I think that was down to it being released in an extended two hour director's cut over here.

The film sees Mark Dacascos play Toby Wong, a seemingly ordinary man on the run from a group of bounty hunters led by Vic Madison (John Pyper-Ferguson). In order to get away from his pursuers Wong kidnaps an innocent bystander, Malik (Kadeem Hardison) and forces him at gunpoint to drive to LA. It turns out that the bounty hunters can't just kill Wong because they want what is inside his body. You see he's been fitted with an experiment "bio-engine unit" by an evil Chinese corporation which increases his strength, speed, stamina and fighting skills to near superhuman levels. Wong needs to get to LA in three days in order to sell the technology to an American businessman. Malik agrees to help him and the two hit the road but it's going to be far from an easy ride and there's going to be whole load of detours.

The first thing I've got to say is that fight work and stunts in the film are way, way above average, particularly for an American production. Hats off to the choreographer Koichi Sakamoto and his Alpha Stunts Team. There's a little bit of wire work used here and there but it's only really used to enhance fights rather than create massively unrealistic moves. Instead of using it for lifting fighters in the air (like Crouching Dragon) it's more used to fling enemies across the room. A lot of American movies tried incorporating wire work in action films in the late 90s and most of it was pretty poorly integrated. Here it works perfectly because the story demands it. Toby Wong is meant to have been biologically enhanced to be the perfect fighting machine, so it makes sense he should be able to take down 20-30 bad guys and not break a sweat. The fights are also really inventive in the same way that Jackie Chan's early work was. There's a particularly brilliant fight where Wong takes on a group of bad guys armed with electric stun batons and realises he can't fight back without getting shocked so he takes off his boots, puts them on his fists and carries on fighting. Genius. The final fight of the film is also stunningly choreographed with Wong going up against countless bad buys AND an even stronger, faster prototype fighter.

Of course, good fights are one thing but you need something more to sustain your interest for the two hour running time. While the story is pretty straight forward - it's more or less one long chase movie - the screenplay is nicely nuanced and there's some very quirky performances. The comedic interplay between Hardison and Dacascos is particularly a highlight and there's a real sense of friendship between the two. I particularly enjoyed the little in-joke where Wong is stopped by police and gives them his name as "Sammo Hung". At times, they maybe push the comedy element maybe a bit too far, like Wong doing a cringe-worthy karaoke performance(!) at one point, but I far prefer my action films to have fun than take themselves too seriously. The support cast is pretty great too. John Pyper-Ferguson is perfect as the increasingly crazed bounty hunter Vic Madison who is constantly getting his ass handed to him by Wong and there's a great, quirky performance by character actor Tracey Walter as his dim-witted sidekick 'Hedgehog'.

The late Brittany Murphy also has a very funny small part as the crazy owner of motel who briefly helps out Wong and Malik. She plays the role like her character is permanently on drugs, giggling constantly and trying to hit on Hardison at every opportunity. There's no explanation for why her character is so unhinged. It's just another of the film's weird offbeat elements. It's full of them. For instance, there's a whole running gag that 'Hedgehog' is always obsessively watching a TV show called 'Walter the Einstein Frog' about a frog who works in an ER! Who knows what the writer Scott Phillips was thinking when he wrote that bit. It's a shame that both he and Steve Wang have never really made anything like this film again - though they are still working together on the kids show Kamen Rider. I think Drive is probably the high water mark for Dacascos' career too. He and Hardison did reteam a year later on The Crow: Stairway to Heaven TV series (along with Ferguson) and in a film called Instinct to Kill, but both was nowhere near as good as this.

I usually end my reviews by trying to find one or two faults with a film but with Drive I found it really hard. The film is that good. The only quibble I have is that I always found it a bit mercenary that Wong is trying to sell the equipment inside him to an American businessman. That's tantmount to corporate espionage and quite an odd goal for a traditional action hero. I'd almost prefer it that he was just looking to get the bio-engine surgically removed and destroyed but... oh well. Nothing's perfect. But this film is as close as it gets. If you can get a copy of this director's cut I highly recommend it. The 90 minute cut keeps most of the fights but loses a lot of character moments. Drive is a magnificent martial arts film that no fan of the genre should be without. And if you've already seen it and are thirsty for more check out my review of another Koichi Sakamoto movie - Broken Fist.


Friday, June 7, 2013

Crazy, Crazy Bad Action: Never Too Young To Die (1986)

Spy movies are always cool. There's no denying it. You can get outlandish and exaggerated movies like the Bond series or Our Man Flint. Or you can get more down-to-earth realistic fare like The Ipcress File or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. And both can be equally as enjoyable. There's been a few attempts over the years to give spy movies more appeal to kids by lowering the age of the protagonist and having a kid or teenager take on the role of the spy such as Stormbreaker, If Looks Could Kill and The Double O Kid. Even the Bond producers tried to make a cartoon called James Bond Jr in the early 90s. As far as I'm aware Never Too Young to Die was one of the first films to try this out this particular formula. Let's have a look at how they got on.

Never Too Young to Die sees John Stamos play Lance Stargrove, a young gymnast in his final year at high school. He believes his father, Drew (George Lazenby), works for an global oil company but in actual fact he is a secret agent currently working on stopping a terrorist plot to poison the city's water supply. Drew gets killed by the terrorist leader Ragnar (Gene Simmons) but manages to delay his nefarious plans by sending an important disc to his son. Lance is shocked to hear of his father's death but takes it upon himself carry on his mission and do his own investigations. He teams up with Drew's former spy partner Danja (Vanity) to take down Ragnar and later gets some additional help from his zany roommate Cliff.

Now if you've seen this film before you're probably wondering why I've left out so many "details". I guess I'm just trying to make a point that the bare bones of this film are okay in a cheesy kids movie kind of way. It's only when you add in the "details" that the film goes completely off the rails. For instance, I didn't mention that Ragnar is a hermaphrodite (not a transvestite, they say hermaphrodite several times) and he's/she's dressed in a leather cat suit and fishnet stockings for the majority of the film! I also didn't mention that Ragnar, as well as being a terrorist, runs a nightclub in a disused factory where everyone dresses like they are in some kind of post apocalyptic future like Mad Max (note: there hasn't been an apocalypse, it's normal 1986 everywhere else). And Ragnar doesn't just run the club from a backroom, he/she sings on stage there every night. Yeah, the little "details" and the overall execution make this one of the most misguided (but hilarious) films I've ever seen.

I mean, what the hell were the makers smoking when they wrote the script? It's so weird tonally because the basic story feels like a kids wish-fulfillment movie but then it's also got this super kinky villain, a pretty high body count and ample nudity courtesy of Vanity. I can't help but feel that partial responsibility may lie with Lorenzo Semple jr who did some uncredited rewrites on the film. He also wrote a lot of the scripts for the campy Batman TV series from the 1960s and there's sense here that the script is trying to be a similar tongue-in-cheek send up of the spy genre. The problem is it just doesn't fully commit to the concept. I can't help but feel this film had lots of little rewrites because it's disjointed on so many levels. I mean, what was the point of Lance being a high school kid? Apart from some lame trampolining sequences at the beginning of the film his age isn't touched upon for the rest of script. In fact, halfway through he sleeps with Vanity which makes me think in an earlier draft he wasn't such a young character.

The acting is really stiff but I've got to forgive everyone because even I'd have a hard time selling this script. Being from the UK I've no knowledge who John Stamos is but apparently he was a big teen idol in the 80s. It's kind of hard to gauge how well he and everyone else is acting because Gene Simmons goes so far over the top playing Ragnar. He manages to somehow make Tim Curry's Dr Frank-n-furter from The Rocky Horror Show seem low-key and subtle by comparison. KISS fans will not want to miss this film. Simmons is the main attraction, sticking out his trademark tongue at every opportunity. Ragnar also has a unique way of killing his/her enemies by stabbing them with a razor blade on his/her middle finger. It took me a while to realise that when all his henchmen were shouting at him to give his captured enemy "The Finger" it was a pun on swearing. My mind was thinking... um... something else.

The action is shot okay in a 80s TV show kind of way. I looked up the director Gill Bettmann on imdb and apparently he worked on a few episodes of Knight Rider and Automan so I guess that's why it feels that way. The only difference is that proper blood squibs go off when people get shot (which was always a no-no on TV, even Miami Vice rarely showed any blood). Throughout the film there's a couple of halfway decent action scenes but they are rarely memorable and over far too quickly. For instance, there's a cool bit when Vanity drives her car under a lorry to escape some bad guys but it's like a couple of seconds long. I was hoping she'd jump onto the underside of the lorry or something but no such luck.

The bottom line is that Never Too Young to Die is nothing less than a car crash of a movie. If you enjoy watching cheesy, incompetent and downright bizarre 80s movie then this one is for you.


Click here for RobotGEEK's review of the film

Click here for the hilarious opening credits song "Stargrove"