Monday, July 28, 2008

Fantasmo: The Search Engine

If you were watching the blog over the weekend, you may have noticed an odd addition (see left side of the screen) when not enjoying my rant about the supremacy of Timothy Dalton. I discovered this neat little Web 2.0 site called Rollyo where you can design your own search engines. So I started putting one together that would search all things Fantasmo (e.g. genre criticism, movies, music, Seagal, etc.). I’m still working on adding to its search list, so feel free to send me any sites you feel appropriate or worthwhile. You know maybe I’ll have to create a search engine devoted exclusively to Seagal . . . how cool would that be? Don’t answer that : )

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Dalton . . . Timothy Dalton

A subject that seems to regularly come up in conversation at Fantasmo is who is/was the best James Bond. I confess that while I enjoy the films quite a bit, I’m more of a casual fan in the sense that I haven’t done much study into their history beyond what I’ve picked up from the occasional documentary or commentary. For some reason they’ve just never inspired me to the extent that I want to do a lot of independent research. Having said that, I have seen them all numerous times over the years and certainly have an opinion on which actor did the best job in bringing Bond to life. There are several criteria one may use in forming an opinion including such traits as sense of humor, ability to carry off action, charm and cool, and faithfulness to the source material among others. Where your opinion lies probably has a good deal to do with where you place the most value. Interestingly I think that each of the actors who have portrayed Bond tend to have their own unique area of focus. It’s not like there were two of them who had a hard emphasis on humor for example. In my own case, I place value on a gritty portrayal that tends to mirror the novels. With that in mind there’s just one man who has done it right . . . Timothy Dalton.

Now some of you may think I’m picking Dalton just to be different, but let me assure you that’s not the case. You see Dalton tends to get a pretty bad rap in my opinion, and part of that is due to the fact that his films were rather poorly received at the box office. In fact they almost killed the franchise, but that is no reason to down his performance. To understand why Dalton’s Bond efforts drew such a lukewarm reaction, one has to look at where the series was when Dalton came along. For over a decade (1973-1985) the face of Bond had been Roger Moore, and he had a pretty tremendous run. Up until the last few films Moore’s reign saw record attendance, and he certainly was able to carry the torch of popularity that Connery had passed along. The thing is Moore’s Bond was quite a bit different than Connery’s in that he played the humor to the fullest, and often at the expense of the more serious side of Bond. Connery without question injected some humor into the role, but he balanced that with an air of toughness that let you know he was very capable. Moore on the other hand tended to delve into slapstick, and (for my money) never completely sold the notion that he was a capable tough guy. But he was fun to watch and audiences ate it up for better or worse.

By the time 1985 rolled around Moore had unquestionably become a little long in the tooth to be playing Bond. The quality of the Bond films had been on a steady decline in the early 80’s and his final outing, A View to A Kill, was just plain tired (he looked it and the movie felt it). The only thing that stood out was the awesome theme song by Duran Duran. Unfortunately one still had to sit through the rest of the film after the song ended. Even the presence of Christopher Walken as the villainous Zorin couldn’t save it! So audiences’ most recent experience with Bond had been quite lackluster, which set the stage for a mood of indifference as the franchise soldiered on. But the potential for disaster was also heightened by the fact that a generation had come to know Bond as a tongue-in-cheek hero and king of one-liners. While the memory of Connery was still present, there’s no question that the audiences of the disco 70’s and outrageous 80’s were expecting a hero in line with what they had experienced for the majority of those eras (1971’s horrendous Diamonds Are Forever as the lone exception). One only needs to look at the incredible popularity of the films of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, etc. to conclude that this was the case (note Steven Seagal is not included in that list because he’s all business all the time).

So into a flailing franchise that had been saturated in humor for a good, long while walked a new sheriff. From the outset Timothy Dalton came in looking to steer Bond back into the character depicted in the novels – all business with just a dash of humor here and there. And on that front he succeeded with flying colors. The Bond of The Living Daylights was an entirely different animal than audiences had previously experienced. True Connery could be serious at times, but that was always somewhat overshadowed by his playboy image (the same could also be said of the underrated George Lazenby). Dalton barely has time for the ladies, and is pretty much a one woman guy in his Bond outings. As a result the focus of the films is more on Bond getting the job done, and usually in a rather no nonsense fashion. Furthermore, Dalton’s brooding physical appearance only serves to enhance his serious performance. Recently Fantasmo All-Star Chris J. brought up the fact that Dalton actually looks like a villain, and he has a point. Dalton has a look that makes you wonder whether or not you can trust him, which makes his actions unpredictable to an extent. One always had a certain sense about how far the previous Bonds would go, but Dalton has moments in the first outing (and very much so in the second) that leave the viewer uncertain (e.g. threatening to kill John Rhys-Davies for a suspected transgression).

Dalton’s performance and demeanor certainly rankled the Moore crowd, but for folks (the seemingly few of us) who wanted a menacing Bond it was just what the doctor ordered. And as far as Dalton’s appearance being too villainous . . . well it worked for Charles Bronson! While the film made a decent $50 million at the box office, it was a far cry from the heyday receipts during the Moore era. Despite the disappointing debut, the Bond producers (to their credit) stuck with Dalton and the darker themes for the next Bond outing License to Kill. In fact, License to Kill was probably the grimmest Bond film since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (which is arguably the best Bond film of them all). The film opens with beloved Bond sidekick Felix Leiter getting fed to a shark after his new bride is killed in front of him. Then Bond resigns from the service to undertake a revenge quest against the villainous Robert Davi. Seriously, minus the big budget and Bond prestige this is the stuff of a 70’s revenge flick. When License to Kill is playing it straight it really works. The opening scenes are appropriately intense, Bond’s flight from his superiors is well done, and his staging of Davi’s downfall is satisfying – especially how he sets up the demise of Anthony Zerbe (The Omega Man). Possibly the most gratuitous use of a decompression chamber in cinema history!

Alas, likely due to the reception of The Living Daylights, the unfortunate decision to inject inappropriate humor into the film rears its ugly head now and then. And I don’t mean a here and there quip, I’m talking about dreadfully miscalculated blockbuster fun moments. Just to give you the most egregious example, the end has Felix Leiter (minus a leg and a wife) trading barbs over the phone with James (who has just burnt Robert Davi to a crisp) as though nothing ever happened. Come on! Given what they’ve gone through and their backgrounds these guys should be tracking down Davi’s most extended relatives for payback. Nope, just some lighthearted banter and business as usual. And don’t even get me started on the uncalled for decision to make Wayne Newton a central player in the climax of the film. You’ve got to be kidding me Broccoli family! Were Robert Goulet and Steve Lawrence busy or something?!? Nothing can bring a serious film down faster than kitsch casting, and this one is no exception. I’m sure this sounded like a fun idea when the producers were sitting around discussing the project, but it was no fun for those of us who had to sit through the film.

In the final analysis License to Kill was an unsuccessful attempt to marry the humor of the Moore era with the new Dalton sensibility. The result was a film that failed to satisfy either crowd, and the box office returns were dismal (among the worst ever for a Bond film). The longest lapse between installments followed as the producers regrouped and gave audiences a period to forgive and more importantly forget. The truly unfortunate thing is that the blame for the debacle often gets laid on Dalton’s shoulders, when in fact he turned in another amazing performance. The real problem was the misguided attempt by the producers to veer away from the serious tone that was in the process of being established. The Living Daylights was a change in direction and audiences just needed a chance to absorb that. Returns for the film were solid, and had they kept on track with License to Kill the audience would have likely continued to build. Sigh. Instead we had one near perfect Dalton film, and another one that was a missed opportunity for greatness. The even greater tragedy is that we then got a decade of blow-dry Bond Brosnan who, despite his popularity, was in my opinion the most vacuous Bond. Even when he tried to do serious (Die Another Day) it was a woefully half-hearted effort compared to Dalton.

If you haven’t seen the Dalton Bonds in a while, I highly recommend you revisit them. They play a little better now in a time when gritty heroes are more commonplace. Obviously the Bond folks realize this as well, as the Daniel Craig Bond is traveling in that direction. The jury is still out on him with me, as he plays it a little too rough around the edges. He’s all brute force without the clever . . . but hopefully that will come. It may be surprising (given my feelings about Dalton) that my favorite Bond film is On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. That’s because it strikes the perfect tonal balance between serious and fun, and gave us the greatest ending of a Bond film to date (which Craig’s Casino Royale echoes with less success). Interestingly the producers offered the film to Dalton before Lazenby, but Dalton turned it down feeling he was too young at the time to play the worldly Bond. Maybe he was right, but I suspect On Her Majesty’s Secret Service would have been a bona fide masterpiece had he taken the part! Oh well.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Movie Review: Dead Silence (2007)

On Friday I finally got around to seeing the 2007 movie Dead Silence, which had been recommended to me recently by a trusted source. If you don’t remember this one don’t feel too bad, as it was in and out of theaters pretty quickly. While it comes from the makers of the Saw films, it’s actually fairly restrained in terms of gore and carnage . . . which is one of the reasons I was excited about seeing it. Don’t get me wrong I enjoy some of the edgier stuff out there, it’s just that lately it seems like that type of material has been playing to the exclusion of everything else. So the promise of a return to old school horror was pretty enticing. Better yet the film also focused on one of my personal favorite horror motifs, the subject of ventriloquism as a vehicle for the supernatural/possession. There’s just something inherently creepy about ventriloquism, especially the image of the dummy. Consequently the material has been visited several times over the years, notably in several classic films such as Dead of Night, Devil Doll, and Magic. Given the distinguished heritage, the subject matter was a nice choice for bringing the classic feel back to mainstream horror cinema. Unfortunately, despite a noble effort, the makers of Dead Silence didn’t quite pull it off.

Things start off well enough, and the film even opens with the old Universal logo from the classic monsters era of the 30’s and 40’s. That instantly earned some major points. The film also initially has a scratchy appearance indicating it comes from a bygone age. Nice. After the opening sequence, we then shift to modern times and all that disappears in favor of a clean look in which everything is bathed in shades of blue. Color choices aside this sort of thing has been done to death in modern films, and is really just a lazy way of attempting to make a film look stylish. It was kind of neat the first time you saw it in something like Se7en or any Nine Inch Nails video, but now it’s gotta be something pretty special to make the grade. Despite this questionable visual choice, the story kicks off nicely as we’re introduced to the hero Jamie Ashen and his wife. During a rainy evening at home a mysterious package arrives at their door, containing a ventriloquist’s dummy named Billy. No note of explanation is provided and the couple shrugs it off as harmless. When Jamie runs out to get some dinner however, the dummy proves to be anything but harmless, and his wife meets with a chilling end.

The introduction of Billy is suitably creepy, and the sequence is quite effective in generating suspense. And while there are some nice makeup effects they aren’t too gruesome, thereby sticking to the intended guns of creating horror through mood. Also promising was the fact that the effects were not (seemingly) produced in a computer. Don’t get me wrong, computer effects have their place, but I have yet to see a horror film in which computer effects were scary. They just don’t cut it on that front. To enhance a visual sure, but they are no substitute for practical effects (e.g. CGI in Romero films). Given that the film was going with an over saturated, music video style look I fully expected them to come out with PC’s blazing, so I was heartened by this initial development. This was short lived.

Following the opening attack Jamie travels to his hometown of Ravens Hill, because it coincidentally has an old saying about the arrival of ventriloquist dummies foreshadowing terrible events (no I’m not making that up I swear). As it turns out, Billy belonged to a ventriloquist named Mary Shaw who ran a grand theater in the town during its early days. From this point forward Dead Silence more or less abandons Billy as the primary menace in favor of Mary Shaw, who is rendered as CGI baddie preying on the townsfolk. Not scary in the least. It feels like the filmmakers were trying to create another iconic villain as they did with Jigsaw in the Saw films, but CGI villains just don’t bring the goods. If they had stuck with Billy they might have had a shot, but Mary Shaw is not a winner. The only winning element is that when she attacks everything goes quiet, which is actually a nice (and somewhat novel) effect. Sound is a key ingredient in horror, and the Dead Silence folks deserve some credit for how they employ sound (and the lack thereof) here.

Adding to the problems of a computerized baddie is that many of the key locations are also rendered in CGI, particularly the theater which acts as Mary Shaw’s lair. Let me tell you there’s nothing creepier than a CGI rendered theater! Well okay, there are a LOT of things creepier than a CGI rendered theater, but Team Dead Silence apparently was not deterred by that fact. Is there even such a thing in Hollywood as a location scout anymore? I mean how hard would it be to find an actual, dilapidated theater out there in the world?!? The CGI theater is pretty and all, but it felt like I was watching a video game. And while I do like video games, I’m not too keen on crossing them into the world of cinema unless they are called TRON. If they come out with Dead Silence for the Nintendo Wii I’ll be sure to check it out, but until then I will not be waiting on pins and needles for Dead Silence 2.

And speaking of lifeless renderings, the film is also hindered by the lackluster performance of leading man Ryan Kwanten. For a guy who has just lost his wife and come under siege by a CGI ventriloquist, he shows a surprising lack of concern. In fact, he is totally upstaged by Donnie Wahlberg in a supporting role as the wisecracking cop on his trail. Not to take anything away from Wahlberg, but I would submit to you that there’s trouble afoot when your lead actor is outdone by a former New Kid on the Block. Perhaps the effects work prevalent throughout the film took the front seat from the word go, and little attention was paid to identifying solid actors (Wahlberg incredibly excluded) to carry the dramatic load. The problem is that Dead Silence is being sold as a return to classic horror, rather than a digital fireworks show. With that in mind you absolutely have to have a dynamic presence at the center, and Kwanten just doesn’t rise to the occasion. Truly they should’ve let Wahlberg have a crack at it!

Dead Silence isn’t the worst horror film of late by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s one of the more disappointing ones. It’s a little more painful when you see the seeds of a good idea get crushed through poor choices. The story has potential, and the intentions are good, but it seems that somewhere along the way things got off track. Unless you’re absolutely riveted by the subject matter (as I am), or the President of the Donnie Wahlberg Fan Club, I’d say you can safely skip it. You’d be far better served by checking out one of the classic ventriloquist horror films. My personal favorite is the late 70’s film Magic with Anthony Hopkins. It’s still the creepiest, and manages to be surprisingly touching. Plus it has the most unsettling dummy of them all. The theatrical trailer for Magic (included on the excellent Dark Sky special edition DVD) is even more successful than Dead Silence at generating chills!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Episode 39: The Price Is Right Vol. 3

It sure has been a wild summer at Fantasmo has it not? We started things off with some classic horror, kept things going with a little cult sci-fi, and then threw out the kitchen sink with a tribute to the genius of Steven Seagal. Talk about a roller coaster ride! As the season draws to a close and we usher in our fall schedule, your Team Fantasmo thought it was only appropriate that we bookend things with another healthy dose of classic horror . . . this time from the wild 1970’s! And better still, this edition marks another installment in our continuing series of tributes to horror legend Vincent Price!

Of all the Fantasmos we’ve done over the years, none have been more popular than those celebrating the genius of horror icon Vincent Price. Our features this time, Madhouse & Theatre of Blood, are terrific representations of the outrageous cinematic trends of their era. The films followed hot on the heels of Price’s Dr. Phibes films (Fantasmo: Episode 22), precursors to the likes of Freddy Krueger, continuing an emphasis on the creative methods which Price’s characters used to dispatch his victims. As an added bonus the films also feature numerous genre legends including the likes of Peter Cushing, Robert “Count Yorga” Quarry, and Diana Rigg! It just doesn’t get any better than that! Here are your full Episode 39 details:

When: Friday, August 1, 8:00 p.m.

Where: Chesapeake Central Library, 298 Cedar Road


8:00 p.m.: Madhouse (Rated PG)

9:45 p.m.: Theatre of Blood (Rated R)

Two fantastic 70's era Vincent Price films on our Pricerific big screen . . . the way they were meant to be seen! All this and we’re finally(!) back to our regular first Friday schedule! See you there!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Chuck Barris & The Gong Show Movie

Chuck Barris has always been a fascinating character to me. As a kid growing up I LOVED The Gong Show! It was (and still is) some of the wildest television yet to be experienced. Of course Barris was also responsible for The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game, but The Gong Show will always be his masterpiece. But there’s a lot more to this guy that The Gong Show would suggest. In particular he’s written some very cool novels (which masquerade as autobiographies) in the form of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Bad Grass Never Dies, and The Big Question . . . and a real biography called The Game Show King which is also pretty cool. But perhaps my favorite bit of Barris genius is the 1980 film The Gong Show Movie. It was almost universally dismissed by critics, and audiences didn’t flock to it either. Part of that was due to the fact that it arrived after the peak of the television show’s popularity, but more likely it was a result of the unusual nature of the film. Instead of a feature-length/R-rated version of the show, the film was more of an exploration of Barris’s life and near nervous breakdown. Yeah Gene Gene the Dancing Machine and The Unknown Comic makes appearances, but this is somewhat of a dark ride.

The plot of The Gong Show Movie is almost non-existent. Essentially it is a week in the life of Chuck Barris. The film starts out with Barris watching some truly insane auditions (in part where the film gets its R-rating), and then proceeds to follow him doing everything from waking up in the morning to having dinner with his girlfriend. But what we get to see is how Barris is constantly bombarded by people trying to get on the show, to the point that it truly does become maddening. It’s hard to appreciate now just how popular the show was, but Barris was somewhat of a rock star in his day. But unlike being a member of The Beatles who just had people hurling praise and adoration, Barris would have some very loony folks coming at him from all directions performing impromptu auditions. According to his book The Game Show King it wreaked havoc on his personal life, until he eventually left the business and retreated to France.

While the film doesn’t follow Barris to his final destination, it does portray a mental breakdown he has in the desert near the end of the film. Eventually he does flee Los Angeles, but in a middle-of-nowhere diner he is still accosted. So he drives out into the desert to be alone where he is confronted by all the zany characters that have become a part of his life – on and off screen. The point is that the line between the two has become indistinguishable, and that he has to find some sort of acceptance of that fact . . . or he truly will go nuts. It’s not played as heavy as it sounds, but there is a dark energy to the film that suggests the material is not as “wacky” or lighthearted as the comedic surface elements make it appear. In fact, the juxtaposition of the familiar trappings of the show with the darker thematic elements makes for a pretty uncomfortable viewing experience at times. This leaves the viewer wondering whether or not art is really imitating the life of Barris.

I’m not saying that The Gong Show Movie is some sort of existential masterpiece, nor does it play like a David Fincher film. But there is far more here than what should have been. How easy would it have been for Barris to simply make a 90-minute, R-rated version of the show? It would have been money in the bank. Instead he deliberately chose to make an experimental film that defies categorization. This is further supported by the fact that original director Robert Downey Sr. gracefully bowed out so Barris could steer the project. Would that have really been necessary for such a lowbrow commercial product? While Barris claimed at the time he made the film to play to the lowest common denominator, the structure of the movie simply doesn’t support such an assertion. Particularly when taken in context with Barris’s literary works, The Gong Show Movie is almost like a trial run before the crown jewel which is Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. And while the book is arguably more successful, I’m still partial to the film. Writing a great book is certainly a noteworthy accomplishment, but the financial/career risks associated with a film are far more significant. Certainly that proved true with The Gong Show Movie, which was more or less the small/big screen swan song for Barris . . . and it couldn’t have been more perfect.

Actually, while Confessions of a Dangerous Mind may be considered the best of Barris by some, The Gong Show Movie will always be my personal favorite. It’s just such a bizarre, wonderful film that manages to capture a bit of the essence from that period, while also doing something unique in exploring the personality of an entertainment figure in a most unusual way. It’s a testament to the genius and artistic courage of Barris that he chose to take the road less traveled, elevating an outrageous game show to a cinematic treatise on the nature of celebrity. Now if only Pat Sajak and Alex Trebek would follow suit!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Countdown to Seagalogy: Day 5

Unfortunately due to technical difficulties I had to miss Day 4 of the Countdown to Seagalogy, but we’re back in business today. For this segment I thought I’d bring up an interesting factoid about Seagalian poster art. As Fantasmo All-Star Chris J. brought to my attention, many of the foreign release posters for Seagal films tend to be cooler than those we get here in the U.S. A couple of examples above are those for Executive Decision and Under Siege 2. In the case of Executive Decision the foreign poster features Seagal’s face, whereas the domestic one did not. Undeniably cooler. In the case of Under Siege 2, the studio released a poster of Seagal hanging off the train to imply more action I suppose. In my opinion the foreign release poster, which mimics the design of the original Under Siege poster, is preferable. Plenty of other examples out there as well if you’re interested in seeking them out. The foreign poster for Above the Law is also a standout (even changes the film’s name), and I highly recommend checking it out!

Just one day to go . . .

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Countdown to Seagalogy: Day 3

The Countdown to Seagalogy continues today with another aspect of DTV era madness. It was recently mentioned by Fangoria that Steven Seagal’s upcoming film Last Night would involve a battle against vampires who have taken over a hospital. Naturally Seagal is tapped to lead a strike team to take care of the problem. While I was ecstatic to see such a novel turn in the Seagalian formula, my enthusiasm was checked by the nagging suspicion the plot will get reworked in the editing room. You may recall in my reviews of Attack Force and Submerged that the modification of story is a common trend in the DTV era. Attack Force for example originally called for Seagal to take on alien invaders. Somewhere along the line, but well after principal photography, the aliens became European gangsters. Unfortunately all the crazy weaponry and physiology remained without explanation. So I wondered if the same fate would befall Last Night (let’s all keep our fingers crossed that it doesn’t).

The reason I bring this up is because I noticed yesterday that Amazon has posted the details on the most recent DTV Seagal film Kill Switch . . . and it smells suspiciously of one those infamous editing jobs. I could be completely wrong (and hopefully I am), but there’s one aspect of the description that has a funny ring to me. Here’s the official synopsis:

“Detective Jacob Stillwell (Steven Seagal) is one of the most celebrated homicide detectives in the country. His brutal delivery of street justice is legendary among the men and women of law enforcement. But on this latest case, he may have finally met his match Lazerus, a cunning and perversely violent killer who is on the loose and terrorizing the inner city. Stillwell’s desperate pursuit of Lazerus takes him into the dark, depraved Memphis underworld of street sex and senseless violence.”

There’s no overt references to the supernatural I’ll grant you, but the naming of the character Lazerus (gotta love that oh so clever misspelling of the Biblical figure’s name) suggests the possibility of bodily resurrection. And the notion of Seagal meeting his match sort of ratchets up this guy’s standing beyond that of a traditional villain. I could be way off target here, but it just sounds fishy! I do love the fact that Stillwell is a “celebrated homicide detective” whose trademark is the “brutal delivery of street justice.” I’m not sure that’s something to necessarily celebrate, but okay.

Don’t get me wrong though, there’s no question that Kill Switch is still a must see, and I have no doubt I’ll enjoy it thoroughly. I’m particularly interested to see how it plays out given how terrific the last two Seagal releases were. I just hope it isn’t the product of some crazy editing job that will end in a confusing mess . . . especially given that he’s been on a roll lately. Maybe we can find out more on this latest development during our Vern Q&A on Saturday night – I’m betting he’ll have some thoughts on this!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Countdown to Seagalogy: Day 2

Four excruciatingly short days left until our massive Seagal tribute! For this second day of the countdown, I thought I’d take a moment to comment on one of the more interesting trademarks of the DTV Seagal era. If you’ve never seen a Seagal DTV era film, perhaps the most jarring thing you’ll notice is how the movies introduce seemingly important plot elements that are dropped almost immediately without explanation. This occurs so frequently that after a while you don’t pay attention to it anymore . . . it becomes part of the charm. However there are a few films that stand out in this regard no matter how many times you’ve seen them, and without question at the top of the list is the 2005 film Today You Die. The film stars Seagal and Treach as fugitives racing to find a stash of stolen loot. Well, that’s sort of a simple interpretation. You see there are no less than 4 separate plots to this film (that I can detect), and it may be that I’m missing some. Here is what you have:

Plot#1: Seagal is a modern day Robin Hood (sort of like the Dukes of Hazzard but not really), who robs criminals and gives the money to the poor.

Plot#2: Seagal’s wife suffers from prophetic dreams, and keeps noticing mystical symbols from the dreams in her daily life.

Plot#3: Seagal is an ex-modern day Robin Hood who attempts to go legit by taking a job with an armored car service run by Kevin Tighe (Road House), who we later surprisingly find out is some sort of voodoo priest who was “born with the devil inside him.”

Plot#4: Seagal is an ex-modern day Robin Hood framed for a heist gone wrong, who has to team up with rapper Treach to find the stolen money in a wacky mismatched buddy comedy.

Seriously, I do think there are other plotlines I’m missing, but you get the idea. I was rewatching Today You Die the other night to get primed for Saturday’s Fantasmo, and I had forgotten just how crazy this one is. The film opens and makes a big deal about the wife’s premonitions, but they are never explained or related to the events that take place. In fact, their presence just serves to muddle the works and suggests that the screenplay must have been significantly reworked. Further adding to that assertion is Kevin Tighe’s character. He’s introduced as sort of a sleazy businessman in an opening scene and then we don’t see him again until the last ten minutes of the film where we find out he’s some sort of voodoo priest! He gives this big villain speech about how he won’t use his powers to kill Seagal as that would be “jejune,” and then just throws some henchmen at Seagal who promptly get shot.

While I would say that the Kevin Tighe/voodoo business is the craziest thing going in the film, the ending is equally puzzling albeit (apparently) voodoo free. The final reel has Seagal drive up to a home for sick children and give a little blond girl a mysterious medallion. This comes out of nowhere. And to make things even nuttier, the policewoman who has been tailing him through the film arrives after Seagal and hugs the girl and tells her a) what a nice medal it is and b) that she’s very lucky. Then Seagal’s wife turns to him and says the little girl is going to be alright. End film.

To be sure there are other movies in the DTV era in which the plot has been reworked, but something about the 11th hour voodoo angle is just beyond the pale. And to follow that with an ending that makes no sense in the context of what we’ve seen for the past 89 minutes evidences a thought process that bears not even a passing resemblance to good judgment. Having said that, I think Today You Die is brilliant entertainment and a lot of fun. The disjointedness of the proceedings contributes to that, but at the heart of the film is the relationship between Seagal and Treach. At the end of the day (you die) that is what makes this one work like gangbusters.

As a side note, one other moment of insanity occurs early in the film. On his first day on the job working at the armored truck company, Seagal finds himself in a high speed chase. When I initially watched Today You Die I was surprised at how impressively mounted the chase sequence was. After watching so many DTV efforts I had become accustomed to a lower standard in terms of big action sequences. Mostly they tended to be of a smaller scale, and often relatively short in length. So to see a full blown spectacle of the type on display in Today You Die was a bit of a shock. But the shock did not stop there. After reading Seagalogy I found out that there was a reason the sequence was so well done – it was actually lifted completely from a Peter Weller/Dennis Hopper film. I would say this was unbelievable, but the entire opening action sequence of Seagal’s Ticker was lifted from another film. By comparison a truck chase doesn’t seem nearly so egregious.

So there’s some observations on Today You Die for your daily dose of Countdown to Seagalogy. As promised, I also mentioned there would be a very special announcement today regarding an Under Siege 2 recipe contest! One of the fun things that Vern points out in Seagalogy is that you can pick out some interesting details by using the pause and zoom buttons on your DVD player. One very fun bit he found was in Under Siege 2. By pausing when Seagal is looking on his PDA, one can clearly see the recipe for Casey Ryback’s Fruit Salad with Crystallized Ginger. So for those of you who are handy in the kitchen like Chief Ryback, Team Fantasmo is challenging you to a cook off! The budding chef with the best tasting fruit salad will receive an exciting prize . . . not to mention the respect of their peers!

Fruit Salad with Crystallized Ginger

2 cups Granny Smith apples
2 cups papaya cubes
1 cup kiwi slices
1-1 ½ cups poppy seed dressing
¼ cup crystallized ginger
1 cup raspberries
¼ cup seedless grapes
2 tablespoons lime juice
Fresh mint leaves

Mix fruit in large bowl, add dressing. Serve in dessert cups, sprinkling generously with ginger.

Normally I would say don’t tinker in the slightest with Chief Ryback’s directions, but given there will be a hungry crowd you might want to forego the dessert cups in favor of a larger serving dish. However presentation is always important so use your best judgment. May the best chef win! Tune in tomorrow for the next installment of Countdown to Seagalogy where anything can happen and probably will!

Monday, July 7, 2008

Countdown to Seagalogy!

Hey Superfans!

Only five short days separate us from what is sure to be the most talked about Fantasmo of the year (and possibly ever)! In preparation for this earth shattering event, each day I will be posting some sort of Seagal related review, trivia, or random insanity. Today I thought I would kick things off with a totally uncalled for bit of coolness I came across in recent weeks. It turns out in the early part of the decade a Segal action figure was released! I vaguely remember this being on shelves, and recall that I was rather uninterested at the time. In large part that was due to the fact that it came out at what was perhaps the lowest point of Seagal’s popularity (at least during the theatrical period). Perhaps that’s why the creators of the toy chose Above the Law's Nico Toscani as the character to immortalize. In selecting Toscani they were reminding us all of the glory days when Seagal’s box office reign began. Sure the obvious choice would have been the iconic Casey Ryback of the Under Siege films, but for my money Nico Toscani is far more interesting. You can still find these on Ebay from time to time. Lately they’ve been going for $25-$50, likely due to Seagal’s resurgence/return to greatness, not to mention the release of Seagalogy. Here’s hoping this might translate into a Gino Felino figure sometime in the near future!

Coming tomorrow: Competing plotlines in Today You Die + Under Siege 2 recipe contest!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Movie Review: Knightriders (1981)

I’ve been reading a lot of negative reviews of George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead, and I can’t say that they’ve come as a shock to me. Reaction to Land of the Dead was mixed at best, and I found myself pretty underwhelmed by the experience. Part of it was due to Romero’s incorporation of CGI effects into the proceedings (just something not right about that), but really it was more due to the story and characters. As my friend John Muir talks about in his review of Diary, Romero has taken to beating folks over the head with obvious messages (at least obvious in the sense that he employs no subtlety in their delivery). To me that was my biggest problem with Land. Romero clearly has a political agenda and uses not the slightest bit of nuance in communicating what that agenda is . . . and that’s disappointing given his masterful early works. I’ve often found that such a heavy handed style at best finds an audience with those who already associate with a given point of view, and at worst alienates anyone who might be open to thoughtfully expressed arguments. Worse still, the execution of the zombie elements also seems to have suffered over the course of the two films. Personally (warning! controversial statement!) I even liked the Dawn of the Dead remake better than Land!

Bottom line, while part of me wants to see that new Romero zombie film I haven’t been able to bring myself to do it. Instead I decided to visit a Romero film called Knightriders from the early 80’s that I’ve put off seeing for the last 27 years for no good reason. And having now seen it I regret that I waited so long. It’s not Romero’s typical horror film, but rather an amazing tale of Arthurian drama set within the context of a traveling motorcycle show. But more than that, Knightriders is a personal statement about staying true to your ideals even when it won’t reap you superficial rewards (e.g. money, fame, power, etc.) . . . and that is the component that elevates the film to something truly special.

Knightriders stars a young Ed Harris as “Billy,” the leader of a traveling troupe of motorcycle performers modeled after the kingdom of Camelot. Billy is the king of the show, and presides over jousting tournaments in which his knights battle against an opposing team led by legendary make-up man Tom Savini (who turns in an excellent performance). It’s sort of a hybrid of the Society for Creative Anachronism and the Hell’s Angels. In addition to the entertainment value, the jousting also decides who is the king of the troupe. If Savini’s crew wins, then he would assume the throne. Luckily Billy has a cadre of valiant knights defending him, so he’s been able to remain king. However, when a big time promoter wants to become an agent for the group and usher them into the big time, the close knit world Billy has created begins to unravel. There are those that believe in the purity of what they’re doing as a noble lifestyle (led by Billy), and the other side who crave money and fame (led by Savini). A power struggle ensues in which everyone’s beliefs will be put to the test.

After the initial jousting tournament (which is incredibly well staged) and introduction of characters, the film delves deeply into the character of Billy. The first sense we get of where this guy is coming from is when he refuses to sign an autograph for a young fan. He tells the heartbroken young boy that’s not what he’s about (later complaining to his queen that he’s upset the crowd thinks he’s Evel Knieval). The next hint of Billy’s personal code comes when he refuses to pay off the local cops who are trying to shut down the show. His second in command advises that he should just pay the bribe, as it will be easier than putting up a fight. Billy rejects the suggestion saying that it isn’t right, and there’s no way he’ll give in to their threats. Later when the cops plant contraband on a member of the troupe and are going to take him to jail, Billy still refuses to pay up and goes to jail to prove the point. He finally relents when one of the deputies mercilessly beats his troupe member, but he promises he’ll be back to settle accounts with him someday (and boy will he).

While Billy is in jail the troupe travels to their next destination under the leadership of Savini. During that time the mood swings toward the attitude that there should be more of a focus on making the big bucks and signing with the promoter. Savini in particular is eager to have his shot at fame, and quickly makes a decision to accept a contract. When Billy finally makes it back from jail, the group has been effectively split down the middle. Despite overwhelming odds, Billy remains confident that his code will prevail and that the troupe will come back together. This sets up the main conflict of the film as Savini’s group experiences the high life and Billy’s struggles to hold on to their lifestyle. I don’t want to say much more as the second half of the film is pretty amazing, and deserves to be seen without any hints about the outcome.

Given its premise, Knightriders could have turned into a rather silly action movie. Instead Romero has crafted a poetic work that manages to say something personal amidst the thrilling jousts. For the most part, I always thought his films through Day of the Dead were terrific . . . some are bona fide masterpieces. But because they all tend to take place under apocalyptically grim circumstances, in some regards the films feel quite similar to each other. Not so with Knightriders. While the details indicate this is clearly a Romero work (e.g. trademark humor, familiar cast), the feel here is different than anything I’ve seen him do thus far. You do have some spectacular motorcycle sequences, but the pacing is more deliberate than usual. Furthermore, the conflict here is more philosophical in nature. There’s a bit more immediacy inherent in battling zombies than there is in pondering the merits of lifestyle choices.

I don’t mean to suggest that Knightriders is ever boring or slow. Despite the fact that it runs 2 hours and 25 minutes it’s always engaging. Part of that is due to the fact that it’s a well told story and the themes are interesting, but a lot of credit has to go to the performances. First off Ed Harris is amazing as Billy. I’ve always liked him, but he was really doing some interesting stuff in the early to late 80’s. He brings a wonderful intensity to this role that makes Billy entirely believable, and most importantly sympathetic. Although Billy’s attitude could seem unreasonable and rigid, particularly in his unyielding dealings with troupe members, we nevertheless come to admire his dedication to principles. Equally good on the opposing side is Savini. Instead of making him sort of a bad guy caricature, he also is sympathetic in that we can relate to his point of view. Who doesn’t want a little fame and fortune? Even when he’s making mistakes and threatening the cohesion of the group, he’s still a likeable character. And the supporting cast features a variety of Romero favorites including the likes of Ken Foree, John Amplas, Scott Reiniger, etc. who are always great to see in action.

I’m going to tread lightly here, but spoilerish info may surface. Perhaps the strongest element of the film is its ending. Romero has a knack for nailing the ending of his films, and this may be his finest hour. Basically it involves Billy settling various accounts and ultimately confronting his destiny with the Black Knight (who he has seen in dreams throughout the film). The last 10 minutes or so provide an exclamation point to all the themes and plot threads that have been explored, and have an incredible emotional impact. In all of us there is a spark, no matter how strong, to follow our dreams and live according to our deeply held principles. In Billy we get to see that actually happen, and although the results don’t provide a sugary Hollywood ending, you still feel like cheering at the end. While there may be severe consequences for choosing the path Billy takes, Knightriders suggests doing anything less would be far worse.

I’ve seen other analyses where Billy is discussed as a Romero surrogate, and that seems pretty accurate. Romero has, for the most part, dodged Hollywood in favor of making his own personal low-budget films. He’s managed to carve out a pretty successful career doing so, but at times has been somewhat thwarted in accomplishing the full extent of his vision (e.g. Day of the Dead). Even so I would argue that his successes far outnumber his failures. In my opinion, it’s when he’s turned to studio work that things have been uneven. It may be that in 2008 he’s spent a little too much time on the zombies, and doesn’t have anything original left to say. Or maybe he’s just done so many it has become difficult to keep them fresh. Eventually I’ll get around to seeing Diary, and I suspect my reaction won’t be too different than those I’ve been hearing. However Knightriders was a strong reminder to me of what a great director Romero is, and hopefully his next outing will be the return to greatness we’re all waiting for.