Monday, June 15, 2009

Steven Seagal IS Ruslan (aka Driven to Kill)

I reviewed Star Trek here a couple of weeks back, and now it is time at last for me to chime in on the other BIG SUMMER MOVIE. Not your Terminator. Not your Wolverine. Not your Transformers. No I am of course referring to Steven Seagal’s summer DTV entry Ruslan. Now for those of you keeping track at home, you may have noticed I am not calling the film Driven to Kill as it is titled on the DVD box cover. This is because it was originally titled Ruslan (after Seagal’s character), and even said so in the trailers. And frankly Ruslan is just a much cooler title than the generic, DTV-era friendly Driven to Kill. So as far as I’m concerned this movie was, is now, and always shall be Ruslan. End of story. Having gotten that business out of the way I am happy to inform you that this one is pretty solid. It continues the trend begun by the likes of Urban Justice in which Seagal plays a tough guy out for revenge. It is not only slickly put together (by Seagal DTV-era standards), but also is downright coherent. Not to worry though there are plenty of ridiculous touches to keep the proceedings interesting, and I will cover the highlights in turn. Buckle up friends because as the tagline states, "they took down his daughter, so he’s taking them down!”

As I mentioned Ruslan is a revenge film cut from the same cloth as the earlier Seagal film Urban Justice. In that sense I was somewhat predisposed to enjoy this one. The beauty of Urban Justice was that it didn’t get bogged down with a labyrinthine plot the way a lot of Seagal films do, but instead focused on the basics. Seagal’s son is killed by a gang and he comes to town to deliver payback to the culprits. That’s all there is to it. Because of the simplicity, time was allowed for stylistic flourishes that made Urban Justice a standout. I would even go so far as to say it was character driven (but not to kill). That is something lacking in many of the lesser DTV-era films, which seem to exist for no other reason than to usher Seagal through a chain of absurd events. The setup for Ruslan is practically identical to Urban Justice, only the circumstances have changed. Seagal plays a former Russian mobster whose daughter is attacked by Russian gang members on the eve of her wedding. Seagal in turn sets out to deliver payback to the culprits. So honestly if you have a soft spot for the revenge genre by way of Steven Seagal, it’s a safe bet that you will be pleased with this one.

First off, you probably caught on to the statement I made that Seagal plays a “Russian” mobster. No doubt you also made the connection that Seagal is not Russian. This is a classic example of the phenomenon Vern pointed out in Seagalogy, in which Seagal frequently (in fact near constantly) adopts a culture as part of his character. As of late this has mostly been a hybrid of Cajun/Asian cultures (e.g. Kill Switch), so it’s nice to see that he’s branching out with this one. The big question is whether or not his accent is successful. It’s tempting to be highly critical of Seagal’s attempt at a Russian accent, because it vaguely resembles his attempt at a Cajun dialect. It’s sort of this low, grumbling speech pattern which truthfully I don’t know that I’d identify immediately at Russian if I wasn’t aware of his character’s origin in the film. That said, having the benefit of such knowledge I feel comfortable in making the call that the accent is okay . . . when he remembers to do it! Yes as is so often the case in films where the leading actor has to speak in something other than their native accent, the real monkey in the wrench is consistency. Unfortunately Seagal not infrequently falls victim to reverting to a not-quite Russian enough accent. However since he seems to have adopted the Cajun style (at least Cajun as filtered through Seagal)/low rumble as his onscreen persona of choice, the fact that his Russian is hit and miss is often inadvertently disguised. Only a trained Seagalogist can truly tell the difference in most instances.

Another element I loved about Ruslan is that it adheres to the Seagalian trademark of the main character having a reputation for being incredibly skilled in the combat/killing arts. As discussed most enjoyably in Seagalogy, there is almost always a scene in Seagal’s films in which the villains a) are horrified to find out that Seagal’s character is after them, and b) proceed to lay out all the reasons they are afraid. What I found interesting and highly entertaining about Ruslan, is that this theme keeps repeating every time Ruslan comes on the scene. Mostly it’s derived from the fact that he has been retired, and everyone he encounters feels the need to highlight this detail and subsequently reference his checkered past. I’m sure there are examples of other Seagal films where this sort of repetition has been present, but for whatever reason it stood out significantly to me in this one.

Along similar lines, I also admired the shorthand used in the film for establishing particular aspects of Ruslan’s personality and existence. Great examples of this occur in the beginning and closing segments of the film (spoilers to follow). The film opens on a scene in which Seagal is wooing a young lady, and she is pestering him to teach her how he does a particular magic trick. The trick involves putting a huge spike under a styrofoam cup, and playfully swapping it quickly with 3 other cups (just like three card monte). Instead of just guessing which cup the spike is under however, Ruslan ratchets up the suspense by smashing his hand down over the cups where the spike isn’t. She asks him how he knew which cup the spike is under, and he explains that he didn’t. The trick according to Ruslan, is not caring where the spike is. This simple sequence quickly illustrates just what type of dude Ruslan is, and also manages squeezes in another obligatory Seagalian trademark in which Seagal manages to successfully court a lady far younger than he is.

A second shorthand device which I feel is worth noting is how the film establishes that all is right in Ruslan’s world. Following the aforementioned styrofoam cup chicanery, the film follows Ruslan through some of his more mundane adventures of daily life (e.g. going to the grocery store, typing up a novel, and talking on the phone). Oh that reminds me, before I go any further I realize I neglected to mention that not only is he a former Russian mobster, but he’s also a reformed Russian mobster turned novelist. How’s that for crazy?!? Anyhow as I watched these initial scenes in Ruslan, for whatever reason I was struck by how rigidly constructed the “everything is right in Ruslan’s world” montage was. For example there is a picture postcard mini-scene of the guy carrying a brown paper grocery bag under his arm that is perfectly filled for carrying, complete with a perfectly placed pineapple peering out of the top. As a regular grocery shopper I have never walked out of a grocery store with all my weekly needs satisfied with a single brown bag complete with a perfectly placed pineapple peering out of the top. It’s like the director is hitting us over the head with how idyllic this guy’s existence is . . . minus of course interludes of dangerous styrofoam cup demonstrations. It’s difficult to explain, but following his “the trick is not to care” philosophy by means of dangerous sleight of hand, this casual everyday life moment comes off as pretty absurd. It's almost a reverse order tribute to the opening of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet! Better still is that the film closes with the exact same montage, right down to an identical grocery bag. Ruslan likes his pineapples!

A final touch that has met with some mixed reviews, is that Ruslan is sort of partnered with his son-in-law to be throughout the film. You see it just so happens that the groom is the son of a former adversary, who still has a grudge against Ruslan. The groom however doesn’t want to go into the family business, therefore the wedding is not a problem (at least that’s the idea). In any case there’s tension because his father thinks he isn’t tough enough, so when the bride is shot the son-in-law insists on helping out with the revenge to prove he is a tough guy. In practice he ends up being somewhat of an annoying/inept sidekick to Ruslan, ultimately proving that he’s definitely not cut out for the tough guy business. There are some humorous moments of awkwardness between he and Ruslan, such as when they infiltrate an unsavory gentleman’s club. It’s just an oddball sequence that doesn’t make much sense, in that Ruslan should not be shepherding his daughter’s husband into such a locale during a revenge mission. On the one hand he’s supposed to be the protective father, yet he’s encouraging the son-in-law to skirt the boundaries of infidelity. Perhaps it’s all just a test, as with Ruslan you just never can be too sure.

I would be remiss if I also didn’t mention a few important technical details about the film. Foremost among these is that Seagal is not (as far as I can tell) dubbed in the film at all. Considering that he’s required to use an accent I’m fairly puzzled by the absence of this. My hope is that it's part of a march toward better quality in his DTV work. Almost as important, the fighting in this one appears to be done largely by Seagal, and double work is competently staged (no shaggy wigs and obvious stuntmen here). Interestingly this film marks the beginning of a new production deal for Seagal, and speculation on the Internets is that he has more control over the finished product. If that is in fact the case, Ruslan marks a potential turning point in the DTV-era, and certainly is a positive step in the right direction. Fantasmo All-Star Chris J. offered up an interesting point about this, and recent high quality DTV efforts, suggesting that Ruslan, Against the Dark, Pistol Whipped, and Urban Justice comprise a growing segment of “coherency” in the DTV-era. Each of these has a plot that flows logically, which is no small feat when one considers the likes of an Attack Force or Submerged. If this keeps up, Seagal could become as successful as Dolph Lundgren in producing high quality DTV films. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

I hate to end this positive review on a down note, but I must express some disappointment at a recent development. Last week I was shocked to see a headline featuring Seagal on the Internet Movie Database. Usually the headline area is reserved for folks like Brad Pitt or George Clooney. I immediately got excited thinking maybe Under Siege 3 had been greenlighted, only to discover that it was about Seagal turning down a role in Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables because of an ongoing feud with DTV producer Avi Lerner. This followed other equally disappointing news that Van Damme turned down The Expendables to do an “official” sequel to Bloodsport. I greatly admire the fact that Stallone is trying to produce the greatest action movie ever made by assembling every action star of the last 20 years under one tent. Lundgren, Willis, Schwarzenegger, Statham, Li, etc. are all on board for what promises to be a truly amazing event. So to lose two titans of the late 80’s/early 90’s is a bit of a blow. It’s still going to be a cool film, but just imagine had in included Seagal and Van Damme. Sigh.

Okay, for the sake of not ending on a negative note there are still a couple of lights ahead. Firstly Seagal’s Lawman series coming to A&E will be pure gold. Secondly we also have another DTV movie coming up called The Keeper in which Seagal appears to play a cowboy of sorts, who tracks down a kidnapped girl with his Iphone. His absence in The Expendables is a blow, but these will surely go a long way toward making up for it!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Madblood At FantaSci

Fantasmo Episode 47: The Price Is Right Vol. 4

Hey Superfans!
Thanks to everyone who came out for our BIG reboot of FantaSci, and our special sci-fi edition of Fantasmo! It was a LOT of fun to host the event again after a bit of a hiatus, and we look forward to having it here at the library for many more years to come. Of course for July we’re back to business as usual, and to continue our awesome summer schedule we’ll be doing a bit of classic horror. Better still it’s our annual tribute to horror icon Vincent Price! As anyone who regularly attends Fantasmo knows, our Price nights are always special occasions . . . and this one is more special than most! This time around we’re screening perhaps the most well-known Price horror classic, the legendary House of Wax. Without question the ultimate of all wax museum horror movies! As if that weren’t enough, we’ll also be screening the rarely seen The Last Man On Earth. This is actually the first (and most faithful) screen adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. It would later be made into awesome The Omega Man with Charlton Heston and the well-intentioned, but so-so I Am Legend with Will Smith. Either way, this one’s amazing! Without any further ado here are your full Episode 47 details:

When: Friday, July 17th

Where: Chesapeake Central Library, 298 Cedar Road, Chesapeake, VA 23322

Films:

8:00 p.m.: House of Wax (1953) – Not Rated

9:45 p.m.: The Last Man On Earth (1964) – Not Rated

So there you have it, our next amazing Price night! You dare not miss these classics on our Pricetastically huge screen . . . the way they were meant to be seen! See you there!!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Movie Review: Memoirs of An Invisible Man (1992)

This week John Kenneth Muir and Joe Maddrey have been discussing late-era John Carpenter films on their blogs, examining Ghosts of Mars and Vampires respectively. As part of the discussion, the fact that Carpenter’s theatrical films since They Live (which basically means everything from 1992 forward) have met with reactions ranging from apathy to disdain has come up frequently. These have included Memoirs of An Invisible Man, In the Mouth of Madness, Village of the Damned, Escape From L. A., Vampires, and Ghosts of Mars. Honestly looking at just the titles you would think that he had an amazing decade. A tribute to Lovecraft, a remake of a classic with a Carpenter spin, a sequel to one of his greatest films, a reworking of his Assault on Precinct 13, and adaptations of two GREAT genre novels. The problem is that they all fail to reach the heights of his earlier efforts, and the frustrating part is it’s hard to nail down exactly why (with the exception of Village of the Damned which is just uniformly awful). The best way I know of summing up the problem is that while they are all solid three-star entertainment (with the exception of Village of the Damned which is just uniformly awful), they are missing some indefinable piece that leaves them feeling like an empty meal rather than a Big Trouble in Little China type feast. In order to continue the exploration of this phenomenon begun by my comrades in cinematic arms, I’ve decided to look at my personal favorite of the era (prepare to call me crazy) . . . Memoirs of An Invisible Man.

Okay let’s just get this out of the way first – I’m probably the only one on the planet who would rate Memoirs of An Invisible Man as the highlight of Carpenter’s post-They Live career. Many call it a non-Carpenter film due to the perceived departure from his regular themes and trademarks. This is not “John Carpenter’s Memoirs of An Invisible Man,” he doesn’t do the music, there are no regular Carpenter players (e.g. Peter Jason), etc. But does this really qualify it as a non-Carpenter film? I don’t think so. In my mind the superficial (albeit important) elements mentioned above are not nearly so important as the motivation behind the enterprise. As Joe Maddrey points out in his review of Vampires, Carpenter is often inspired by films and film experiences he grew up on (e.g. the Westerns of Howard Hawks). His style recalls those films of his youth (with modern sensibilities), and one can sense his joy in telling these tales that echo those that led him into filmmaking in the first place. He is a person who lives and breathes the moviegoing experience from another era, and masterfully translated that passion into a body of work that peaked somewhere in the mid-80’s.

This is not to say that nothing he has done since They Live is without value or merit, simply that no film since has caught fan imagination quite as successfully. Joe chalks it up to changes in audience tastes, and I’d venture to say he’s spot on in that analysis. Carpenter was most successful in focusing on suspense and portraying interesting characters. In our current era the focus is more on straight gore, quick cutting, and noise. Not that there isn’t a place for that (I like a noisy spectacle now and then myself), but it’s not Carpenter. His post-They Live output has felt like an attempt to keep his style intact, while uncomfortably pulling in current trends (the Masters of Horror episodes from Showtime are good/sometimes painful examples of this). The results are interesting, but never truly satisfying.

But I digress. Returning to why I think Memoirs qualifies as a Carpenter film, it’s because it recalls his love of films from his era. If Vampires is a play on Red River, and Ghost of Mars a play on Rio Bravo, then Memoirs is certainly Carpenter’s tribute to Hitchcock. It is nothing less than North By Northwest meets The Invisible Man, with Chevy Case as Cary Grant, Daryl Hannah as Eva Marie Saint, and Sam Neill as James Mason. In a nutshell it’s a wrong man, cross-country chase, featuring visually dazzling set pieces, an expansive orchestral score, and an undercurrent of humor. They even get on a train at one point. Having read the book (I’ll touch on that more in a moment) I can tell you that this Hitchcockian approach was developed for the movie, and I have to believe that’s what attracted Carpenter to this project. So with Memoirs I’d argue that Carpenter is doing nothing less than what he has done with so many of his movies, by adapting a version of a film favorite into another genre (sci-fi) perceived more agreeable to modern (circa-1992) audiences. So his name being absent before the title notwithstanding, this is most definitely a Carpenter film in the most important sense.

Having established the proposition that this is indeed a Carpenter film at the basic level (even if some of the familiar trappings are absent), I feel it wise to look at the strengths before exploring why it fails to attain classic status. So here are a few to ponder:

#1 – Chevy Chase: Chase took some pretty hard knocks for his performance in this, and for the life of me I can’t quite understand the harshness. I think the majority of the time his delivery works, and he seems truly weary of being the invisible man, having found out it’s not as fun as one would expect. This film really did him in though (with a little help from his talk show), but it’s a solid performance and I would have enjoyed seeing more of this side of him. Aykroyd and Murray got shots at drama, so why not Chase I ask you?

#2 – Sam Neill: In my mind Neill is the film’s unexpected gem. He is both suave and sinister and knocked the ball out of the park. Just watch the part where he has to pretend Chase has him at gunpoint with his arm behind his back, and you’ll see how invested he was in making it work. He was on the radar before this, but in my mind this was the beginning of his road to Jurassic Park and stardom.

#3 – The effects: While they still hold up well even now, in their day the invisibility effects in this were nothing short of astounding. The opening with the chewing gum, the reveal of the partially invisible building, Chase’s run through the rain, etc., are all pretty dazzling stuff.

#4 – The music: Great score by Shirley Walker right around the time she started doing Batman. Dramatic, thrilling, mysterious, sad . . . everything it needed to be.

#5 – The premise: Who can resist an invisible man chased by government agents intent on putting him to diabolical use?

#6 – The subtext: Underlying the North By Northwest mystery/adventure type premise on the surface, the film delves into what it truly means to be alone or invisible. Neill at one point states that Chase’s Nick Holloway had the perfect profile to begin with because he had no real connections in life with others. “He was invisible before he was invisible.” It’s this theme of being disconnected from others or alienated in some way that has resonance for all of us. At some point in our lives we’ve all felt invisible, and can identify with the experiences of Holloway in regard to the frustration of feeling “unseen.”

So those are a few things the film has going for it. Not too shabby, but there are some problems as well . . .

#1 – Chevy Chase: While I generally enjoy his performance in this, I think Joe hit the nail on the head in his analysis that we of a certain generation bring some baggage to a Chevy Chase film. Critics took issue with the fact that Chase couldn’t find a comfortable balance between the humor and the drama. In looking at the film I don’t think that’s the case. The fact is, as Joe points out, that anytime we see Chase embody the slightest comic relief our minds go immediately to Clark Griswold and any number of his other famous roles. So those moments in Memoirs that attempt to lighten the mood are perhaps more jarring because we are watching Chase. Joe suggests that it would be interesting to see what a newbie to Chase would make of the film, and count me curious on that point as well. Whatever the reaction, clearly Chase’s persona had an impact on how the film was received for better or worse.

#2 – Daryl Hannah: Visually Daryl Hannah fits the Hitchcock blonde role perfectly, but she never completely sells her character. She spent one dinner with Holloway, and suddenly upon discovering he’s invisible decides she’s in love with him. Her performance works well enough not to derail the movie completely, but it’s definitely a weak point.

#3 – The subtext: The underlying theme of isolation holds the film’s greatest strength and weakness. The adventure element which drives Memoirs keeps one’s attention, but the exploration of Holloway’s break from the world of the visible is what’s truly interesting and memorable. It gives the film a bit more depth and potential at reaching classic status. When I read the book (which is great, you should seek it out) after seeing the film I was surprised at how much it de-emphasized the adventure thread and focused on Holloway’s realization that no one missed him. Truly it was about an empty suit who regained his humanity by becoming invisible. The chase story was there, but it was not at the forefront. The film, by economic necessity, of course amps up the chase and pushes the introspective drama to the background. The problem is it pushes it too far back. If Carpenter could have found a better balance in this regard, I believe Memoirs would probably end up being one of those films like The Thing that received a positive reappraisal. (Note: On a similar thread, Vampires also departed too far from the source material and suffered the consequences. Steakley’s book was fantastic and it’s unfortunate that more of its detailing of the hunters and their background wasn’t retained.)

When all is said and done the 3 chief items keeping this film down are viewer baggage regarding Chase, a lack of clear Carpenter trademarks, and an uncomfortable balance between the adventure/comedy and dramatic elements. In spite of these difficulties the film has a lot going for it, including an interesting premise, solid production values, and some fine performances. I would submit that if one can get past a few understandable biases, Memoirs of An Invisible Man can easily take a comfortable position with the better films of the post-They Live era. Unfortunately I’m betting it’s likely to remain invisible for the foreseeable future.