Thursday, June 26, 2008

A Word About July's Features

Without giving away any spoilers for those who aren’t already familiar with our July features, I thought I’d say just a few words as to why Rob and I chose Out for Justice and Belly of the Beast for our celebration of Seagalogy. Given that Seagal has made almost 30 films, it was a daunting challenge to select two representative titles from his early and later eras. For the early years does one pick “important” outings such as his debut (Above the Law), his blockbuster (Under Siege), or his message film (On Deadly Ground)? And in the prolific DTV era does one place a premium on quality (Urban Justice), insanity (Out of Reach), or sheer ineptitude (Submerged)? Tough calls all around, so here’s a little insight into how we arrived at our decisions.

Out for Justice (1991)

While tastes certainly vary, this one is arguably Seagal’s best. It’s a well-mounted film that recalls 70’s era exploitation classics, blessed with the backing of a major studio. While not strictly speaking a revenge film (after all Seagal is a cop looking for justice), the tactics employed by the hero are way over the line as he tries to take out his childhood friend’s killer. The audience isn’t encouraged to worry too much about the fact that Seagal’s character (outrageously named Gino Felino) has mob ties and flaunts procedure however, as William Forsythe’s villainous Richie is equally over the top. In fact, Forsythe may have the distinction of being the very best Seagal villain - no small feat given a gallery of rogues that includes the likes of Henry Silva, William Sadler, Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Busey, Eric Bogosian, Everett McGill, Kris Kristofferson, etc. The single-mindedness of these two characters drives the film, pushing aside any temptation for the plot to “go deep.” This focus is the film’s greatest strength, and sets it apart from Seagal films that concern more complicated circumstances.

And therein lies the rub. While this is Seagal’s best film, it’s somewhat of an anomaly in that it doesn’t feature Seagalian themes as prominently as most of his early classics do. Police corruption doesn’t come up, although Seagal’s character does sort of negotiate with the mob. But that’s unusual too in that Seagal isn’t usually the corrupt party. Furthermore there’s no hint that Felino has a CIA background, and he doesn’t even touch on environmental issues. There are really only two areas in which the film displays trademark Seagal touches. Firstly, Seagal portrays Gino Felino with a heavy (and some might argue unconvincing) Brooklyn/Italian accent. This qualifies for what Vern would call the “adopted culture” theme that runs throughout Seagalogy. Namely that Seagal often portrays a character from a culture other than his own. Secondly, there is also a strong family element in Out for Justice. Seagal talks with many characters about life in the neighborhood, and is also working out issues with his estranged wife. One of my favorite scenes in all of Seagal’s films occurs when he tells his wife the sad tale of his father’s knife sharpening business. Classic in every sense. Despite these two Seagalian elements, I would still argue that this is not your typical Seagal outing.

So how could we possibly go with this one over say Above the Law or even Hard to Kill? Easy. Out for Justice is just plain relentless and awesome!

Belly of the Beast (2003)

The DTV era is perhaps even tougher in terms of pulling out a single title as representative of the period, or as being the best. Quality is extremely uneven to say the least, and there are different, yet equally important criteria to consider in making a decision. One could try to pick a film that is the most competent, or that most closely resembles the classic era (e.g. Urban Justice). Or if you tend to be of the crowd that enjoys those “so bad they're good” movies, then you’ll likely go for the more outrageous features. Since Rob has never seen a Seagal DTV film this one was riding on my shoulders. I aim to please so I figured it wise to go with a film that was a little bit of both. Belly of the Beast manages to incorporate much of the insanity of the DTV era (e.g. bad dubbing, plot threads that go nowhere, over the top action, etc.), but packages it in a film that never feels cheap or small. Part of that is due to the fact that the film is directed by legendary Hong Kong action choreographer Siu-Tung Ching (A Chinese Ghost Story, A Better Tomorrow II), and features amazing fight sequences. The other part is that Seagal looks like he’s really invested in the proceedings (which isn’t always the case in the DTV era), as evidenced by his enthusiasm and the minimal amount of dubbing.

I don’t want to delve into too much detail here since likely many of you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing this yet, but let me just say there are action sequences in this that truly are incredible. Perhaps the best one takes place midway into the film, in which there is a shootout in a train yard. Nothing I can say will prepare you for how cool this sequence is. It’s like John Woo on Steven Seagal’s Lightning Bolt energy drink! One thing I love that Vern mentions in Seagalogy about this scene is how Seagal takes a moment to explain to his partner what’s about to go down. Basically a sniper is about to shoot a thug Seagal needs to get information from. So Seagal lets his friend know that he can’t allow that to happen. However taking out the sniper will also draw fire down upon Seagal and his friend from the thug and his gang. As Vern points out it’s a rare thing to see an action hero give such a generous heads up to their long suffering sidekicks. What a guy!

Anyhow, Belly of the Beast is filled with numerous magical moments that elevate it to near classic status. With just a tad more polish this one could easily stand along with Seagal’s great films. Actually I like it quite a bit more than some of his big budget stuff like The Glimmer Man or Exit Wounds. So there : )

Well, that’s how our Seagal tribute features were picked. Not exactly scientific, but effective nonetheless. Do you agree or disagree with the wisdom of our selections? Feel free to respond to this with your Seagal favorites, or acknowledge our genius if you like (we won't argue).

The House Between 2.0: Nominated!


The Web series Rob and I worked on the past several years, The House Between, just got nominated for Best Web Production by Sy Fy Portal! We're up against a lot of Star Trek webisodes (including ones that star original cast members), so we have some stiff competition. If you've seen the show and would like to vote for it to win, you can do so at: http://www.syfyportal.com/genre-awards/2008/index.php. According to John Muir, writer and director of THB, you're allowed to vote once per day if you're so inclined. For more details you can visit his blog listed under the links to the left, where I found the nifty effects shot above from the upcoming third season of THB!


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Episode 38: SEAGALOGY!

Hey Superfans!
This is it! This is the Fantasmo that has been six long months in the making! This is THE Fantasmo event of the summer! As all of you who read the blog well know, following the receipt of the best Christmas gift ever (http://fantasmocinema.blogspot.com/2007/12/seagalogy.html) I began an odyssey into the world of Steven Seagal. I revisited the classic Seagal films I had enjoyed in his heyday, and plunged headlong into his prolific DTV era work. But I didn’t stop there. No sir. I began enjoying his Lightning Bolt energy drinks (http://fantasmocinema.blogspot.com/2008/04/steven-seagal-is-attack-force.html), and even started listening to his music. I became a full-blown Seagalogist! Now, in celebration of the re-release of the instant classic that is Seagalogy (http://fantasmocinema.blogspot.com/2008/02/vern-talks-seagalogy-fantasmo-interview.html ), comes a Fantasmo dedicated to all things Seagal! What’s in store you may ask? Here’s but a brief sampling of the wonders you will experience:

*A discussion of the principles of Seagal’s trademark aikido style and a live aikido demonstration by representatives from Aikido of Virginia Beach (http://www.aikido-of-virginia-beach.com/)!

*Samples of both flavors (Asian Experience & Cherry Charge) of Seagal’s Lightning Bolt energy drink to lucky door prize winners!

*Live discussion of Seagal’s oeuvre with reclusive Seagalogy author/Ain’t It Cool News contributor Vern!

*Trailers from Seagal’s classic films!

*Team Fantasmo commentary!

*A superior attitude and superior state of mind!

. . . and much, much more!

Here are your full Episode 38 details:

When: Saturday, July 12, 8:00 P.M.

Where: Chesapeake Central Library, 298 Cedar Road

Films & Activities:

8:00 P.M. – Aikido Lecture/Demonstration & Out for Justice (Rated R)

10:00 P.M. – Author Discussion & Belly of the Beast (Rated R)

If you attend just one Fantasmo all year, make this that Fantasmo!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Movie Reivew: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

For whatever reason there seems to have been a lot of negativity focused on the latest Indiana Jones film in advance of its release. In part that probably stems a bit from the mixed results of the Star Wars prequel films, another beloved trilogy that was revived in the early part of the decade. Perhaps fans thought they were in for another dose of disappointment. Yet another possibility is that the film went through many script drafts which have been circulated online . . . some of which were considered better than the final version by the fan community. No matter the reason, good will toward Kingdom of the Crystal Skull did not seem to be in abundance. As for me, I didn’t buy into that and was really looking forward to seeing the latest installment. I confess that I was hoping that Spielberg/Lucas didn’t produce a disastrous entry, as I thought Last Crusade was a terrific cap to the series. And I was a little hesitant about Shia Labeouf. Wasn’t crazy about Indy having a teen sidekick . . . and I’m not really a fan. So I finally got a chance to see this over the weekend, and my reaction is . . . complicated (spoilers ahead).

First off, is it any good? Short answer is yes. The film is well put together and is certainly entertaining. Harrison Ford does a great job as an older Indy. It’s clearly a role he has a lot invested in, and he steps back into it without missing a beat. If for no other reason than this the film is worth seeing, because at the end of the day seeing the character back in action is a blast. Better still, the film actually feels like it’s cut mostly from the same cloth. It literally could have come out in the 80’s (save for some of the more obvious CGI). It even starts with the old Paramount logo! That’s an automatic two stars and bravo to Spielberg/Lucas. I think that was part of what was so problematic with the Star Wars prequels – they just didn’t seem to flow with the previous films due to how they looked (and arguably perhaps they needed to be that way). Not so here. Crystal Skull perfectly fits into the series.

As for the rest of the cast, mostly high marks across the board. My reservations about Shia disappeared pretty quickly, and his interactions with Ford became some of my favorite moments. Even more so than the reunion with Karen Allen, which I never would have thought. Don’t get me wrong, it was great to see Marion Ravenwood again, but I felt Allen’s role was mostly reduced to goofy reactions and campy comedy. To be sure there was some of that in Raiders, but her performance felt more natural in that one (which was also likely due to better writing for the character). That being said there are some nice moments between her and Ford, and it absolutely makes her return worthwhile. Ray Winstone and John Hurt do fine with their characters also, but I must confess Denholm Elliot and John Rhys-Davies are sorely missed. These two do what they need to as supporting characters, but they just aren’t as dynamic as Indy’s previous circle. Not a deal breaker by any means, but noticeable.

And here comes the one moment where I’ll indulge in irrational criticism (please forgive me). I’m not a fan of Cate Blanchett. She has just never registered with me. The character she plays here is basically a one-note villain, and not particularly interesting. Sometimes a performance can overcome such a drawback, but that isn’t the case here. Granted no Indy villain has ever lived up to Belloq, but at least the others were a little more exciting in the way the actors carried them off. Amrish Puri was great as the menacing Mola Ram in Temple of Doom, and Julian Glover was also fun to watch as the slimy Donovan in Last Crusade. Maybe it’s just me, but I find Blanchett’s performance a little on the boring side. But what really sticks in the back of my mind is something that falls into the domain of those who saw early drafts of the script. While I never had an inkling about that, I did read early on that they were considering Mark Hamill for the villain in this entry! And I’m sorry, but that’s a hard piece of information to ignore. How cool would it have been to have Han Solo battling Luke Skywalker?!? Talk about your 80’s reunions! And if you ever saw Mark Hamill’s performance as the villain in Slipstream, you’ll know he could have pulled this off with flying colors. Major missed opportunity.

But as others have pointed out, you can’t really criticize a movie that never was. You have to judge it for what it is. Blanchett is bland, but she doesn’t destroy the film by any means. She turns in a serviceable performance that communicates she is playing a diabolical villain, even if that villain isn’t particularly interesting . . . or threatening for that matter. Yeah, she gets the drop on Indy and company a few times, but there’s never anything on the order of a) locking Indy in a temple filled with snakes, b) putting Indy into a trance and making him turn on his companions, or b) shooting his dad. Really she just kind of inconveniences him, and is ultimately responsible for bringing him back together with his long, lost love and newly discovered son. In retrospect she sort of did him a favor, so I’m not even sure at this point if she qualifies as a villain . . . but I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.

Okay, so the cast is pretty good for the most part, with Ford doing a terrific job as Indy. How about everything else? Well, as far as I’m concerned the story is pretty solid. In fact, it’s really somewhat of a copy of Last Crusade. Indy is grudgingly recruited to help with a search for an artifact in order to rescue friends in distress (Hurt, Allen). A Nazi-like villain and duplicitous friend move him along the path to a mystical final act, where the villain chooses poorly. Indy and friends ruminate on their adventure, and ride off into sunset (in this case get married). End film. So if you like the setup for Last Crusade, you’ll probably like this movie. Truly, if anyone is complaining about the story as being out of line with the rest of the series I would question how long it’s been since they’ve seen the previous installment. However, while I’m fine with the story, I do have a few issues with the execution.

As I said earlier, this is an entertaining movie. Spielberg is an experienced hand when it comes to directing action/adventure films, and this is a competent piece of work. The problem is that nothing really stands out. I do love the beginning with the showdown in the warehouse from Raiders, but there’s nothing overly memorable here otherwise. Let me state upfront, that I recognize it would be difficult to recreate the thrill of Raiders. That is a one of a kind film, filled with wall to wall classic moments. It’s also, for lack of a better word, more “realistic.” That is the action and danger feels very real. For example during the truck chase sequence in Raiders, it really looks like Indy’s taking a beating. He even gets shot! And when he gets angry, you believe he’s angry. He brutally takes out a truckload of Nazis. The big jungle chase in Crystal Skull involves comic Tarzan/Errol Flynn antics that don’t carry the same punch. I’m not saying they’re completely devoid of entertainment value, they simply aren’t close to the same level as what we saw 27 years ago.

There’s just something uncompromising about the first installment that became distilled with each successive chapter. So by the time you reach Last Crusade it’s almost completely about the fun, with much fewer of those breathless moments. But even with Last Crusade, to which Crystal Skull is most similar, the high points stick in one’s memory - most notably with regard to the finale, where there’s real peril. Indy’s dad has been shot, and the challenges he must navigate to heal him are interesting and memorable. Particularly the choice among the grails. In Crystal Skull, the finale with the interdimensional beings feels empty – more an excuse for an effects sequence than anything else. I actually tend to agree with Lucas’s obsession about including UFO’s in the film due to the 50’s setting, but the way they do it is a little on the blah side. It’s not that it’s disastrous by any stretch, but there’s a piece missing that keeps it from being on the same tier as it’s predecessors.

The problem with sequels to “classic” films is that the bar is set incredibly high, and it’s a rare thing for subsequent installments to live up to expectations. In some respects it would be unfair to demand that Crystal Skull live up entirely to Raiders or even its sequel brethren. It adequately fits into the Jones continuum, and that in itself is a pretty fair achievement. I guess if I have any problem in terms of comparisons, it actually comes from a different corner. As my friend Joe Maddrey also talks about in his review of Crystal Skull, I found myself comparing Crystal Skull’s degree of success with the recent returns of other 80’s icons John McClane, Rocky Balboa, and John Rambo. In the case of McClane, the Crystal Skull blows away Live Free or Die Hard. The film had a great title, but it was watered down and turned the character from everyman cop into a superhero able to surf on jet fighters. In so doing, it bore little resemblance to what had come before. On the other hand Stallone scored big with Rocky and Rambo, managing to update those series almost perfectly. Rambo was a downright masterpiece in fact.

So as I’m sitting there watching Indiana Jones in the year 2008, I’m thinking about those films . . . and I’m thinking how much I wish Crystal Skull was the home run that Rambo was. It’s not that it’s bad or unworthy, but it just isn’t quite what it should be. Fun and entertaining? Yes. Great to see the character again? Yes. Respectable entry in the series? Yes. Return to greatness? Not quite. I never would have bet on Stallone over Spielberg and Lucas, but he really pulled it off. If I had to measure the difference in real terms, here’s what it boils down to. I will certainly make a point of watching Rambo again at some future date. With Crystal Skull I wouldn’t turn it off if it was on, but I probably won’t seek it out. Nevertheless, I’m very glad I saw it and have no hesitation in recommending it . . . especially for Indy fans (which includes me)!

Monday, June 9, 2008

Dolph Lundgren is John Woo's Blackjack

Having finished with the Steven Seagal oeuvre, I’ve been adding the occasional DTV 80’s throwback heroes to my viewing regiment in order to broaden my horizons. A month or so back I had the pleasure of taking in Dolph Lundgren’s directorial effort Missionary Man, which paid homage to Spaghetti Westerns with a dash of mysticism. It was actually pretty terrific, so I figured I’d check out some more Lundgren films to see if I’d been missing out all these years. I must confess my awareness of Lundgren’s career pretty much ended with his turn as the villain in the 1995 Keanu Reeves pre-Matrix, cyberpunk film Johnny Mnemonic. As far as I knew, the man hadn’t made a film since (and bear in mind I am one to keep track of B-movie goings on). Furthermore, if you’d asked me about his entire body of work I would have guessed he’d made no more than 10 films. As it turns out, he’s appeared in 35 films since 1985 and is currently busier than ever! I’m telling you, there’s a secret world out there brimming with heroes most of us had long thought were lost to the ages. It’s like a Never Never Land for forgotten action stars, where they are creating some of their best work and defying those who would try to keep them down (i.e. the major studios)!

Perhaps even crazier than the fact that Lundgren has forged a prolific career despite my being completely oblivious to the fact, he has also worked with some amazing genre directors over the years. In addition to of course Stallone, who gave him his big break with Rocky IV, Lundgren has worked with the likes of John Glen (A View to a Kill), Russell Mulcahy (Highlander), Anthony Hickox (Waxwork), Mark L. Lester (Commando), and John Woo (Blackjack) to name but a few. I guess it’s mostly stunning to me because to my knowledge he’s never really had a box office hit (not counting Rocky IV which really wasn’t riding on his shoulders). The closest he came on that front was Universal Soldier in which he co-starred with Van Damme. In spite of having no track record, he kept being cast as the lead in relatively high profile genre films such as Masters of the Universe, The Punisher, Showdown in Little Tokyo, I Come in Peace, and Johnny Mnemonic. Madness! Or was it?

Much like Seagal, when I started thinking back I recalled that I really liked several of Lundgren’s films. The Punisher is one of my favorite Marvel adaptations (much better than the Thomas Jane version), and Lundgren was perfectly cast. I Come in Peace is a terrific sci-fi, buddy cop movie with one of the best coup de graces in film history. Showdown in Little Tokyo is a highly enjoyable B-action classic featuring over-the-top moments that stick with me to this day (haven’t seen it in probably 15 years). To be honest I also thought Lundgren really shined in the otherwise so-so Universal Soldier. His supermarket siege and subsequent lecture to its frightened customers is classic. And of course there’s his iconic 80’s role as Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. Say what you will, but the man is arguably the best Rocky villain of them all (apologies to Mr. T). So why had I ignored his subsequent work all these years? Was I swayed by a general disregard for his cinematic contributions? Was I subconsciously ignoring his steady stream of DTV titles? Was I allowing my feelings for Masters of the Universe cloud my judgment toward an otherwise remarkable action career? Probably a combination of all these things. The good news is that I’m back on board the Lundgren express now and things are looking mighty fine. I’m pleased to report that my second Lundgren selection was every bit as good as Missionary Man if not better!

Before I launch full on into my review of Blackjack, I must also state something (perhaps a bit shocking) up front - I am no big fan of John Woo. At his peak (The Killer, Hard Boiled) he really did produce some of the most amazing action moments the cinema has ever witnessed. Hard Boiled in particular has perhaps the greatest extended action sequence in film history - the final 30 minutes are breathtaking. The problem is he’s just not a great storyteller. Even his masterpiece Hard Boiled is cheesy to the extreme. And his overuse of white doves and slow motion in so many of his films is flat out tiresome (not to mention comical). When the pace is frenetic he usually does pretty well, but with character moments things tend to fall apart. This is not to say I haven’t enjoyed some of his movies. In addition to the aforementioned titles I also have a soft spot for admittedly ridiculous stuff like Hard Target and Broken Arrow. Once you get past those however, I’m pretty much off the case. Face/Off? No thanks. Mission Impossible 2? Forget about it. Windtalkers? Please. On the positive side did give the world Chow Yun Fat, so there is that.

I selected Blackjack blindly, and was completely unaware it was a John Woo film. So when I popped it in the DVD player and his name came up, I was a little worried (and a lot surprised). Surely there are folks who would have rejoiced, but the mixture of John Woo and DTV raised red flags in my world. Thankfully there were no white doves, and slow motion was used judiciously! The film follows the adventures of one Jack Devlin (Dolph Lundgren), a former law enforcement agent now (apparently) in the security business. Actually, it’s never clearly explained to my satisfaction what he does exactly, but by the looks of his way cool apartment he is doing pretty well for a former government employee. And he has a butler with an eye patch who acts as the Alfred to his Bruce Wayne. No mention of deceased rich parents, so he’s got to be doing some sort of freelancing.

Anyhow, Blackjack opens with Devlin helping out an old friend who owns a casino in Vegas. The friend is being muscled by the mob for protection money (I think), and they have threatened to kill his young daughter. Enter Devlin who arrives just in time to save the daughter from a siege on the family home. A major gun battle a la Woo ensues with plenty of twin pistol action, including an insane moment where Devlin jumps out a window onto a huge trampoline (all while firing blindly with his guns) escaping a massive explosion and landing in a swimming pool. Also during the fight, Devlin is temporarily blinded by a flash grenade which triggers a phobia of the color white. Repeat, Devlin is temporarily blinded by a flash grenade which triggers a phobia of the color white! I kid you not, this becomes a major plot point for the rest of the film as Devlin struggles to overcome this problem (largely by wearing sunglasses day and night . . . much like Corey Hart). I’ve heard of snakes, spiders, heights, etc., but the color white is truly inspired as an action hero fear.

Other than the white phobia, this initial plot thread serves only to introduce the friend’s young daughter. After the opening shootout the film flashes forward and we find out the friend has been killed in an accident, leaving Devlin the responsibility of taking care of the young daughter’s upbringing. As I write this, I’m realizing just how close this whole scenario really is to Batman. Eccentric playboy who (by all appearances) is quite wealthy fights crime, has quirky butler, and young ward. He’s even troubled by a psychological issue which later turns out to be the result of witnessing the murder of his father as a young lad. I wonder if the Blackjack team is paying some sort of royalties to DC Comics for this stuff. In any case, it’s sort of disconcerting that we never see the accident that leads to this major turn of events given the buildup of the friend in the beginning. Not to worry, we’ll be shortly introduced to a new (and much cooler) friend in the form of Fred “The Hammer” Williamson.

It turns out “The Hammer” is a former colleague of Devlin who is running his own bodyguard company. At the moment he’s guarding an up and coming supermodel being stalked by her ex-husband, who is portrayed paradoxically as both a rube and a Shakespearean dramatist . . . and also a deadly sniper. He tries unsuccessfully to woo (pun very much intended) Devlin into helping out, but he’s just a bit too busy with taking care of his surprise daughter. If you guessed that “The Hammer” is going to get shot, thereby forcing Devlin to pick up the mantle pat yourself on the back. Well done! In keeping with the superhero tie-ins I suppose this is not unlike Peter Parker shirking his duties and getting Uncle Ben killed. With great power comes great responsibility Dolph. Okay maybe this is a stretch, but you’ve got to admit the Batman thing is pretty transparent. And hey, Dolph did portray a hero from the Marvel Universe who ironically is an adversary of Spider-Man. Six degrees of Lundgren my friends.

Naturally this all leads to a series of chases and close calls which causes Devlin to grow close to/slowly fall in love (sort of) with the troubled model. Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston have nothing on these two. The Devlin is in the details though (couldn’t resist), and it’s the details that make Blackjack such a rewarding experience. First of all, around the middle of the film John Woo orchestrates one of the finest extended action sequences of his career. The ex-husband ambushes a caravan leaving a compromised safe house, inexplicably employing a gang of motorcycle assassins (really it is never explained where he got these incredibly devoted henchmen who make only a single appearance in the film . . . it’s a moment worthy of DTV era Seagal). There are acrobatics, flaming/flying cycles, exploding limousines, and lots of gunplay. But best of all, the sequence culminates in an abandoned milk factory . . . do you see where this is going?

That’s right. The gunfight results in gushing/flooding milk (which you may recall is white), paralyzing Devlin with fear. Somehow the ex-husband puts two and two together and calls Devlin on the phobia. He says something to the effect of “You’re afraid of the color white aren’t you?” To which Lundgren delivers one of the best (and worst) one-liners in action film history. Are you ready for this? Lundgren says, “No, I’m just lactose intolerant.” Genius. I’ve got to say, a shootout in a milk factory with a hero who’s afraid of the color white is one of the most inspired things I’ve ever seen in an action movie. It’s the sort of thing I’d expect David Lynch to do if he were to ever delve into the genre. This scene alone makes the film essential viewing. But there’s so much more.

In addition to the whole phobia of white business, the film establishes early on that Devlin is able to use playing cards as deadly weapons. In a nutshell, he employs them as makeshift ninja throwing stars, an ability that comes in handy on several occasions. It’s a bit reminiscent of the film Heat with Burt Reynolds, although his innocuous edged weapon of choice was credit cards. In theory, I suppose that Devlin could employ credit cards too. But in a film named Blackjack, it makes more sense to go with the playing cards . . . despite the fact he has no real connection otherwise with gambling or the like. While the film opens in Vegas, you never get the sense that Devlin is a gambler or casino devotee. So really, it must have been tied to the fact that his name is Jack, and that Blackjack is a cool sounding nickname (although he is never referred to as such throughout the film). When you think about it, given the importance of the whole phobia business, a title highlighting that might have been a better choice. Something like Whiteout, or maybe . . . Blinded by the White. Please feel free to add any suggestions you may have.

Another element I really love is the butler with the eye patch. He’s played by character actor extraordinaire Saul Rubinek, and is also just a bizarre touch. He speaks with a German accent (I believe), is obsessed with the culinary arts, and is unafraid to charge into danger without a gun. This last one is truly puzzling, as Devlin could easily have supplied him with a firearm in one particular case. Sometimes this sort of bravado is shown to illustrate what an entirely competent character the individual is. Not so here. The guy gets captured, leading to another amazing moment of the film. The ex-husband sets up a row of scarecrows (stuffed with straw and everything), one of which disguises the butler. He then begins shooting them one at a time to get Devlin’s goat. It’s a surprisingly tense scene, and again (like the milk shootout) just a little weird.

I guess in the final analysis it really is the quirkiness of the film that makes it stand out (which is certainly true of the better Woo films). Watching the over-the-top action sequences would be somewhat entertaining, but without the unusual elements sprinkled throughout, the film could have turned into a rather bland affair. Thank goodness this one is more Hard Target than Mission Impossible 2! I should state for the record these strange qualities do not venture into the insanity of Seagal’s DTV efforts. This film actually has a coherent story, and plot points that tie together and pay off. The only one that stands out as questionable is the motorcycle gang . . . but it’s so cool that I’m willing to give it a pass. Otherwise, this film is totally comprehensible and I feel entirely confident that I have a firm grasp on the scenario that was presented.

Finally, I should say a word or two about Dolph. I’m not sure that he has the presence or charisma of Seagal, but what I do like is that he’s a question mark as a hero. You never have the same good faith or level of trust in him as you do a Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, etc. Those guys sort of radiate good-natured hero, whereas Dolph is a little more sinister . . . even when he’s on your side. It’s especially disconcerting to see The Punisher raising a young child. But in my mind that’s what makes him stand out from his contemporaries. Yeah he’s the tough guy action hero, but you don’t really know how you feel about him. You want to warm up to him and see him as the good guy, but there’s something not quite right. Bronson was sort of the same way. He was clearly supposed to be on the right side in his films (whether playing outside the rules or not), but he wasn’t one to joke around. He seemed serious, and so does Dolph . . . lactose intolerance notwithstanding.

Lundgren is terrific in Blackjack, and I look forward to seeing more of his films in the future. Not going with the full immersion program as I did with Seagal, but expect to see mention of him here again. In the meantime, pour yourself a cool glass of milk (or soy milk for those with lactose issues) and check out Blackjack if you dare.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Movie Review: R-Point (2004)

Rob and I are finally back and rested (mostly) from The House Between 3.0, and ready to plow headlong into this summer’s exciting batch of Fantasmos. Our big Blade Runner extravaganza is just a few short weeks away, and we hope to have confirmation of a special guest soon! And then comes what could be the ultimate Fantasmo in July . . .

But in the meantime, plenty to talk about. During my recuperation from shooting THB I’ve had a chance to catch up on movie watching, and have been fortunate to unearth a few gems. The first one was a Korean horror film from 2004 called R-Point. The creepy cover art for the film had drawn my eye on several occasions, but I had passed largely due to an overload of Asian horror in recent years. While I enjoyed The Ring and a few others, most films from this category have struck me as undistinguished retreads of what came before. I guess it’s a similar phenomenon to the sort of thing we experience in the U.S. Find a successful formula and milk it for all it’s worth (e.g. the slasher genre). And don’t even get me started on the American remakes of the J-horror retreads! Good grief! So it was with some trepidation that I approached R-Point, but I’m happy to report it’s a mostly original winner.

Right out of the gate R-Point does something I love by deftly splicing together two popular genres: war and horror. For me this is always an intriguing premise, as you essentially have a film of one type (war/military) that progresses along its familiar path, only to be sidelined into unfamiliar territory . . . the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of genre films if you will. Theoretically if you enjoy both scenarios, you’ll have the best of all possible worlds. It doesn’t always work (e.g. The Supernaturals), but when it does (e.g. Aliens) it can be pretty amazing. R-Point succeeds on both fronts, and its setup immediately recalls films such as the original Alien and Event Horizon. Set during the Vietnam War, a South Korean army base begins receiving radio communications from a patrol team that has been missing for six months. The transmission is requesting a rescue team be sent to get them out, but the message is garbled and the voice is distant and a tad unsettling. A burned out squad leader (think Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now) is tapped to lead a group of volunteers into the region (known as R-Point) where the team went missing, to bring back any survivors. Needless to say, things don’t go at all as planned.

After the initial business with the transmission, the film goes through the entertaining paces of establishing the personalities of the team as they progress toward R-Point. For whatever reason this is something I always enjoy in war films from the The Dirty Dozen to Full Metal Jacket, as you tend to get a potpourri of colorful characters. R-Point is no exception to this rule, as every soldier is given an identity and in many cases a particular detail that provides motivation (e.g. one soldier wants to get home in order to take his family to the National Zoo). Most importantly, the film does a fantastic job with pacing. The initial “getting to know the characters” period moves along at a good clip, and they reach R-Point before the intro overstays its welcome. There’s of course a little bit of an ominous overtone indicating that things are a little off, but generally it is takes a backseat to the war film dynamic.

Once the team reaches R-Point, the transition from war film to ghost story is accomplished with admirable grace. Upon entering the jungle the team finds itself in a firefight that would be right at home in Platoon. This thrusts the viewer into a horror of war type scenario, while also setting a trap for the team. The sequence also establishes a female innocent who comes to play an important role throughout the film. The scene works very well, but the introduction of the girl is the closest R-Point comes to a misstep. The ghostly young lady cliché is rather tired (was even by 2004), but thankfully it isn’t overused. Following the battle the team comes to a marker which essentially states that anyone with blood on their hands will never return from R-Point. Naturally this warning goes unheeded and the group proceeds to make camp, much to the detriment of their future prospects for survival. After a tense but mostly uneventful night, the group discovers what is perhaps the creepiest abandoned hospital in the history of cinema in a wide open field. Thinking indoor accommodations to be preferable, they unwisely make this the base of operations from which to conduct their search. And then the ghostly goings on begin in earnest.

As with its depiction of the war film plotting, R-Point establishes a pace for its horror section that is remarkably well conceived. It never devolves into relying on cheap jumps or gory set pieces, but instead focuses on mood. The film spends a good deal of time exploring lonely hospital corridors, overgrown fields, and dense jungles. We move through these areas with the soldiers, experiencing what they see and feel during their search. Wrongly handled this sort of approach could become boring, but R-Point punctuates the periods of exploration with revelations at just the right moments to avoid this potential pitfall. While I absolutely love shocker films, atmospheric creepfests tend to be my favorites . . . and R-Point ranks with the best of them. Take a couple of examples (spoilers ahead):

*One of the soldiers finds himself separated from his companions while out searching for the lost team. He frantically begins calling out and wandering around an open field of high grass. He then comes up behind what appears to be his team moving forward through the grass. He calls out to them but receives no answer. They then duck down into the grass and seemingly disappear leaving him alone again. Goosebump city.

*The squad leader makes a call back to base to report that one of the team has gone missing, only to receive word that the soldier was never part of their group. In fact, the soldier was a member of the original team they have been sent to look for. When the group begins to survey their collective memory, they realize that indeed the solider was not with them at the outset of their mission, and that no one can remember him being present before their arrival at the beach entry of R-Point.

These sorts of moments are plentiful, and never cease to be effective. What’s even more impressive is that the majority of the film takes place in broad daylight in open areas. Most horror films rely on claustrophobic and/or nighttime settings because it’s easier to hide the threat in the shadows. Consequently, well-lit areas that offer terrific visibility are seldom to be found in the genre. To be fair this is completely understandable, but you have to give extra credit to films that manage to pull this off (e.g. Texas Chain Saw Massacre). Granted the hospital plays an important role, and there are several night sequences, but they do not comprise the bulk of the film. It’s worth mentioning that when they do make an appearance, they are just as fantastic as the other sequences. The hospital segments in particular remind one of some of the better haunted house films out there.

The place where R-Point falls somewhat short is in its final 10 minutes. After all the build-up, its resolution tends to meander into the realm of standard J-horror. It uses the creepy girl imagery we’re all so familiar with, and doesn’t satisfactorily provide answers to all the questions raised. I wouldn’t necessarily mind this (a little mystery is fine), but if you’re going to start hitting me with tired genre conventions you’d better make up for it with either a) outstanding visuals or b) answers to the questions raised for the first 90 minutes. Unfortunately R-Point doesn’t manage either. Thankfully, it doesn’t embarrass itself to the extent that it brings down all the greatness that has come before. And there is a nice bit with a blind soldier left alone after a climactic confrontation. But its weakness in the end keeps it hovering at the periphery of classic status.

So, if you’re looking for a great genre blender that is genuinely creepy, you’re likely to really enjoy R-Point. Yeah, it does fall back a little on J-horror staples, but not nearly enough to detract from its successes. Sure beats the drudgery of The Ring 4, One Missed Call 3, The Eye 6, The Grudge 4.5, etc., etc.In the next few days I’ll have up a review of an incredible low-rent, non-Seagal action film, Dolph Lundgren in John Woo’s Blackjack (sneak preview: this movie was awesome . . . and I’m no big fan of John Woo)!