Monday, November 29, 2010

Movie Review: Highlander 2: The Quickening (1991)

There are certain movie going experiences that we never forget. Perhaps it’s that formative movie you saw during your childhood, the first time you snuck into a movie above your appropriate age level, the movie you saw on your first date, etc. In this sense movies weave their way into one’s personal history, becoming a part of life’s narrative. This is particularly true when a movie produces a strong reaction among a set of viewers, such that it becomes a shared group experience. Then the viewing itself may live on through oral storytelling tradition, providing a tale to tell those who weren’t able to “live the experience” of seeing the film when the story was new. For example imagine being among the first in line to see Star Wars before it became a phenomenon. The crowd walking out of that initial screening shared a historic moment, and all those viewers now 30+ years on can say “we were there.” That’s a cool cinematic tale to be able to tell. However there is another side to this coin, a dark side if you will. This is for viewers who “were there” to share a trauma, the brave souls who plunged headlong into the cinematic unknown and discovered the unspeakable . . . a place called Zeist, a film called Highlander 2: The Quickening.

I will never forget the evening I saw Highlander 2: The Quickening. If ever a movie going experience qualified as trauma, it was definitely that one. It’s not just that it wasn’t very good, it’s that it failed to fulfill any of the expectations fans carried with them. The original film had come and gone in theaters quickly, likely due to its unusual and hard to market concept. Thanks to home video and word-of-mouth however, it found a new life and became a cult film in the truest sense. A rabid segment of fandom embraced its unique blend of fantasy and sci-fi, and became particularly fascinated with the mythology of the immortals. Over the course of several years it was mentioned in the same breath as other genre classics such as Star Wars and the like, becoming a benchmark film in its own right. Unlike Star Wars though, Highlander ended on a fairly conclusive note. There can be only one. If only that were true.

For the record I was as eager a Highlander fan as anyone, more than ready to line up for a second outing. In some ways it was almost unbelievable. The first one had bombed so badly that a sequel seemed like a long shot at best. Sure my circle of friends and random fans I came across thought the original was great, but how could that message make it to the financiers? For it to get a second chance was like a dream come true, forget about whether it made any sense to continue on beyond the winning of the prize. In the pre-Internet days information was not easily forthcoming, and we literally knew only that a sequel was coming – nothing more. As such speculation about plot was all over the place, with prequel being the most oft uttered prediction. After all, the first one finished the tale, so the only way to travel would be backward.

The first clue anyone in my circle had as to the reality of the situation, not to mention the first sign of trouble, was a guest appearance by Christopher Lambert on the Arsenio Hall show. All I remember now was Lambert’s introduction of the clip they had. He said to Hall, “I’m flying. I can fly now.” The clip proceeded to show Lambert flying around on a weird looking hover board, fighting an even weirder looking character in big goggles. Honestly after that clip rolled the group of us that saw it sat in our dorm living room thoroughly puzzled. It wasn’t that it was particularly awful or anything, it just didn’t mesh with the Highlander we knew. Oh there were swords alright, but that was about it. And one thing was for sure, it definitely wasn’t set in the past. When the film opened a couple of weeks later, aside from that brief clip, we walked into it cold.

What is so memorable about the experience of seeing Highlander 2: The Quickening on that cold November evening, beyond profound disappointment, was the buildup to the screening. The whole week everyone I knew on campus was filled with anticipation, talking about the big premiere on Friday night. Not only was it rare for our small college town to get a big, first run movie, but it was getting a movie many of us a) never expected to be made in the first place and b) had basically been waiting for 5 years to see. In class, at the dinner table, in the dorm living room, and anywhere else you went conversation inevitably turned to Highlander 2. On Friday the mood had built up to a fever, with some skipping class to watch the original and have pre-parties. As for me I started the day by walking over to the campus library to check out the review by Ebert. Oh boy. To this day I don’t think I’ve ever read a more scathing review from the celebrated critic. Even so I chose to ignore it as the ranting of a non-fan who refused to embrace the genius of the original. It was clear from the column he didn’t like the first outing, and thus couldn’t be counted on to give an accurate assessment.

After a full day of Highlander screenings and parties, I got together with my group and headed out to the theater for the evening show. The waiting area was packed! Regardless of what ultimately took place when we got in the theater, it was a heady moment of wish fulfillment. Somehow fandom had managed to inspire the production of a sequel to an unpopular film, and now we had all gathered to share in the realization of that dream. This was to be the grand start of a new franchise to rival our childhood favorites such as Star Wars, Star Trek, Superman, etc. We were at the beginning and would be able to tell the tale to others – “we were there.” The anticipation was palpable, almost unbearable, and finally we were let into the auditorium.

I have no recollection of the previews. I remember the THX logo coming up (still a novelty at that time) and people cheering. Then things started to happen too fast. There was old MacLeod at the opera, and then he started talking about remembering Zeist. Then we were quickly sent back in time to another world where Michael Ironside lived, never a good sign. Then he squeezed some eels and sent MacLeod and Ramirez into the future. Next we learn MacLeod has built an ozone shield and that rebels are trying to shut it down. Flashback to Zeist and Michael Ironside is sending two spiky-haired henchmen who laugh like hyenas to kill MacLeod in the future where he is now old and mortal. MacLeod kills them and then yells really loud, which results in the resurrection of Ramirez. And all this in about 20 minutes!

Not that it took that long before I was officially off the case. Honestly as soon as he uttered the word “Zeist” I had a sinking feeling, and shortly thereafter I knew Ebert was right. In fact I remember my friend and I turning to each other at the same time when he said the Zeist line with puzzled looks. It was amazing how fast we all went from cheering and clapping to outright dismay. I’ve never seen an audience turn so quickly and dramatically during a screening, with the possible exception of Episode I. Even in that instance though there were enough things done well (e.g. the pod race, the final lightsaber duel) that the experience didn’t turn ugly. Highlander 2 was an exercise in shellshock, with each new scene bringing additional upset. Yeah “we were there” alright.

After that the legacy was tarnished and the damage was done. Then a few years later we found out, via the new invention called the Internet, that the makers of Highlander 2 were putting together a revised version to fix all the problems. Short of scrapping the whole thing I wasn’t sure how such a feat could be achieved, but they were calling it the “most radical rethinking” of a film ever (or something to that effect). If it meant repairing the good name of Highlander then I was all for it. Eventually it was released on video as the “Renegade Version,” and indeed it was a “radical rethinking.” Gone were all references to Zeist, and the film had been re-edited with new footage added. Apparently when it was cut for theatrical distribution it was taken out of director Russell Mulcahy’s hands. As a result sequences were placed out of order, and whole pieces of exposition removed. The reconstruction put the narrative back together properly, and sure enough things did make a little more sense.

But more sense does not necessarily a great movie make. I’m sure in its own way Ishtar makes sense, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to laud it as a work of genius. Yes the removal of the Zeist references help the film fit in better with the established mythology, and yes the proper sequencing keeps the narrative on track, but the end result is still an unsatisfying piece of work as a follow up to Highlander. The first film was a swashbuckling adventure that was both fun and absorbing, whereas the second outing was a dystopian nightmare that provided nothing but gloom and inappropriate humor (e.g. John C. McGinley’s evil exec, the spiky haired henchmen, etc.). Worse still it ripped off qualities of the first film and did so poorly. Michael Ironside’s General Katana is nothing more than a bad Kurgan clone (which I don’t believe is his fault, but rather a bad script), we get a quick repeat of MacLeod falling in love with a mortal (Virginia Madsen) that is absolutely ridiculous, and Ramirez is awkwardly brought back to dispense sage advice, to name but a few glaring problems. So “renegade” or not Highlander 2 just didn’t cut it.

Amazingly despite the financial failure of the sequel, the series managed to chug on and become a full blown franchise. A television show was launched that developed a following, two feature films came along later, and more recently a DTV outing arrived that makes everything that came before look like genius. This of course doesn’t even consider video games, novels and other tie-ins. Yet none of these have ever held a candle to the first film. Here’s the part that’s going to come as a shocker though – for my money the only other entry that merits any consideration is Highlander 2: The Quickening! You see to me the television series, and I know it has its followers, was always a lackluster affair. Adrian Paul on his best day couldn’t compete with Lambert’s portrayal of MacLeod, and the production always seemed cheap. The films forget about it. The third film was a total ripoff of the original, with Mario Van Peebles substituted for Clancy Brown, and did nothing to advance the mythology. And Highlander: Endgame rewrites things so that Lambert can get killed and never win the prize?!? Sorry I’ll have none of that.

This brings us back to Highlander 2. Viewed in the “renegade” format, the film is just a disappointing/sometimes confusing entry that fails to satisfy. The tone and setting do not mesh well with the original, making it seem like a sequel belonging to another franchise. It has a Blade Runner type of environment that is completely disorienting as a successor to the mean streets of 80’s New York City, much less the Scottish highlands. Furthermore we are introduced to an old MacLeod who has squandered the prize by creating a shield to protect the Earth from gaps in the ozone layer?!? On one level it’s a fascinating and dark premise that MacLeod would botch the prize, but the shield comes off as so ridiculous that any cool factor of taking the franchise in an unexpected direction is diminished significantly. In a way this downturn of events makes Highlander 2 a kindred spirit with the likes of Alien 3, save for the fact that the latter kept a tone that anchored it as belonging to the rest of the series. Depressing and glum can work if you keep things consistent and follow through.

Of course it should come as no surprise that the “renegade” cut feels out of step, as it was crafted by extracting a key plot point – Zeist! The removal of all Zeist references was a calculated maneuver by the filmmakers to pacify upset fans, but Zeist was not a mistake (as a side note you may recall this sort of thing happens all the time in Seagal DTV movies, where space aliens are removed and referred to as mobsters, etc.). Zeist was a consciously crafted story element that attempted to explain the origin of the immortals and the nature of the prize. On one level I can understand the desire to do this, as there is curiosity generated by this point of mystery. It would be interesting to know who they are and where they come from. When asked about the whole thing in the original Ramirez responds “why does the sun come up” or “are the stars just pinpricks in the curtain of night.” Who knows. The fact is if you’re going to purport to know you’d better come up with something more brilliant than Zeist and General Katana, lest you risk upsetting a legion of fans.

That being said I still prefer “The Quickening” to the “Renegade Version.” While I appreciate the fact that the latter corrects certain sequencing issues, the removal of Zeist is nevertheless evident throughout the film. Something always seems off with the story. Beyond that issue though, the film is actually weaker for not having the courage of its original convictions. Minus Zeist Highlander 2 is just a blah sequel with pretty looking sets and big explosions, and therefore totally forgettable. The addition of Zeist makes Highlander 2 something special, it makes it an utter disaster of epic proportions. As such it becomes watchable as a curiosity, a spectacle of sorts. And make no mistake it is a beautiful failure. This was a lavish $35 million production. The sets and effects are nothing short of spectacular on every level. They are unfortunately not served by a good plot or performances, but there is no fault to be found from a technical standpoint. The train yard battle between MacLeod and Katana’s henchmen in particular is a visual feast that can hold its own among the best blockbusters. It’s also one of very few reasons I occasionally return to the film after all these years.

In the final analysis I would submit that if you have sworn off Highlander 2: The Quickening (non-Renegade), you should have another look. I’m not saying you’ll find a good movie or come away having discovered a lost classic. It’s still a bad movie and a worse sequel. What you will find is a spectacular failure, a wonder for the eyes, and the second best Highlander film among an array of flotsam. Unfortunately you’ll have to track it down on VHS or laserdisc as it has never been released on DVD or Blu-ray. Only the Renegade Version has received treatment on the latest formats. Chances are The Quickening, much like the original Star Wars trilogy or THX-1138, will never be released again in favor of the altered version. It’s a shame because the Renegade Version doesn’t tell the full story, and will leave future generations puzzled. On the other hand it will add to the mystical oral storytelling quality, allowing those “who were there” to regale the uninitiated with tales of Zeist, broken cinematic promises, and bitter disappointments.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Fantasmo By the Numbers

Remember back in the 70's and 80's how a lot of popular sitcoms would screen an episode filled with clips? The characters would gather together and recall highlights of their previous escapades, allowing the writers and cast to slack off for a week. Happy Days, Family Ties, Growing Pains, The Facts of Life, Three's Company, etc., all employed this oh so clever tactic. Well today's blog post is essentially my version of the "clip show," a recall of blog highlights over the past several years, allowing me to produce a post with a minimum of effort : )

Actually that's only partially true, the reason I'm doing this highlight reel is because I'm guessing some of you may find this info as fascinating as I do! Being out on the Internet the Fantasmo blog gets visits not just from all of our devoted local Superfans, but from all over the world. My librarian training has instilled in me an interest in statistics and random factoids, and as such I keep track of information related to the blog (e.g. number of visits, visit length, entry and exit pages, etc.) just to see how it's being used. Things start to get really interesting when looking at keyword activity (i.e. the search terms people use to get to the blog), as certain movie reviews have been visited by literally thousands of people. More surprising still are the titles that are getting all these hits, because they mostly aren't what one might expect. Frankly they tend to be the most obscure and offbeat stuff.

So today I'd like to share with you the top 10 Fantasmo movies based on how many folks are seeking them out on the blog. Bear in mind that these are ranked in numeric order according to how many hits they've received. I've also included links so you can revisit the reviews in case you missed them the first time around. Prepare to be shocked, disturbed, and possibly lose your faith in humanity at what is the #1 film on the blog (hint: it has something to do with the poster pictured above)!

10. Hardware: This one is pretty good. Essentially a riff on Mad Max and Terminator, but with a unique sense of style that is decidedly un-Hollywood.

9. The Octagon: My first two-fer review, which also includes a writeup on the much better (in my opinion) Ninja III: The Domination. The problem is that it's dead boring for most of its running time, and features an endless, droning internal monologue by Chuck Norris describing the goings-on in excrutiating detail. Nevertheless The Octagon is an important film in that it marked the U.S. cinematic debut of the ninja.

8. Kill Switch: No top 10 here would be complete without a Seagal movie, and I'm happy to say Internet searchers did not disappoint! Although I must confess Kill Switch would not top my list of the most important Seagal movies, it does feature the worst editing I've ever seen and the most bizarre movie ending in DTV history (or otherwise).

A thing I found interesting was one of the keyword searches used to find the page: "cannibal clown Steven Seagal." While I understand why that landed the seeker on the review, taken out of context for someone who may not have seen Kill Switch that has to sound intriguing! On a related note a keyword search used to find the Seagal film The Keeper was: "Steven Seagal wearing hat." If you've even seen the trailer for that one you'll understand. Unfortunately The Keeper didn't have enough searches to crack the top 10, hats notwithstanding. I'll share a few more unusual keyword searches as we move along.

7. Looker: A strange piece of 80's sci-fi from Michael Chrichton, with Albert Finney playing a plastic surgeon wielding a gun that shoots light. Not great but sports some interesting ideas.

6. Megaforce: One of the worst films of all time . . . but I must confess I love it. In the review I call it "gleefully awful" and that pretty much sums up everything you need to know. The fact that it's clocking in at #6 tells me that a lot of you out there share the same tastes, which is both heartwarming and terrifying at the same time : ) Somewhere Barry Bostwick is shedding a single tear.

Here was a fun keyword search used to find the page: "the good guys always win even in the 80s." Easily THE classic line from the film!

5. Slipstream: An overlooked late 80's movie that was intended to be Mark Hamill's comeback movie. Alas it didn't secure domestic distribution and died quietly overseas. Actually the film is very cool, and Hamill is in fact brilliant in it.

Great keyword search: "super radical maneuver movie." I do describe one stunt as a "wildly radical maneuver," yet this makes me wonder what the seeker was expecting to find? Could've been Megaforce!

4. John Woo's Blackjack: No two ways about it this is among Dolph Lundgren's best films, and is arguably Woo's best film (with the possible exception of Hard Target) since he left Hong Kong. One of the coolest and most bizarre aspects of Blackjack is that Lundgren's character has a fear of the color white. This leads to an ingenious shootout in a milk factory (I kid you not), and perhaps the greatest one-liner in action film history.

Lest you think I'm kidding about the reputation of this milk sequence just check out these keyword searches: "dolph lundgren milk scene" and "dolph lundgren getting afraid of milk." Really it would be more accurate to say that Blackjack was afraid of milk, as I'm sure Dolph wouldn't blink an eye if confronted with a dairy product.

3. Quintet: This one feels a little out of place on the list, in that it is somewhat of a highbrow/artsy film. Directed by the legendary Robert Altman, starring Paul Newman . . . should be a far cry from Megaforce (sorry Megaforce). Quintet is, beyond being somewhat on the intellectual end of the spectrum, profoundly weird. Set in the near future, presumably after a nuclear war, mankind is on the verge of extinction. The only thing that provides meaning is a game of death called Quintet. This movie is not for everyone, particularly for those who enjoy well-paced movies, but I liked it. The way in which it was shot (with grease on the camera lens to imply coldness) irritated many, and the story is hard to follow. If you give it a chance though you'll see a Paul Newman film unlike any other, and a unique example of 70's sci-fi greatness.

Two interesting keyword searches: "quintet meaning of movie" and "how to play quintet." I take a stab at explaining the first query in my review, and am a little creeped out by the second keyword search. Hope no one is running Quintet games out there . . . might I recommend UNO or Old Maid as substitutes!

2. The Island: In many ways I think this is my favorite movie I've reviewed here on the site. This is a truly bizarre movie that had blockbuster pretensions, while managing to twist every aspect that qualified it for that ambition. Its existence is a minor miracle, and although flawed it never ceases to be thoroughly entertaining. From the author of Jaws, the director of The Bad News Bears, and the star of Alfie comes a new longitude and latitude for horror . . . welcome to The Island! Okay that's not the real tagline but it would have prepared audiences a little better for what to expect.

1. Smokey and the Bandit Part 3: That's right folks the most often read and visited review on the blog is none other the the concluding chapter of the Smokey and the Bandit trilogy. Unbelievable. This is actually the only movie Rob and I ever tried to get the audience to agree not to watch. After suffering through Part 2 we offered the alternative of checking out another movie, but our loyal Superfans soldiered on and insisted upon seeing this one . . . so maybe it does inspire a kind of inexplicable madness. Kind of a Pandora's Box type of thing. Either way this is a completely awful movie in almost every regard. My review gives the pertinent details, suffice it to say you have been warned.

And yes, the most oft used keyword search for the Fantasmo blog is: "smokey is the bandit." The horror, the horror . . .

Monday, November 15, 2010

Fantasmo Episode 59: Can't Stop the Music Vol. 4

Hey Superfans!

It's that time of year again and once again time for our annual holiday show which can only mean one thing . . . you can't stop the music! This year we're taking a little break from the title film (sorry true believers there will be no Bruce Jenner) and screening two musicals new to Fantasmo. Fear not Village People and company will return, it's just that we're really excited to finally be able to show these two movies.

First on the bill we have one of Rob's all-time favorites, a classic to be sure, in the form of Phantom of the Paradise. Directed by Brian De Palma (Carrie, The Untouchables), this 70's riff on Phantom of the Opera starring Paul Williams (Smokey and the Bandit, Battle for the Planet of the Apes) must be seen to be believed. Great music and wild imagery abound. It also features cult favorites Jessica Harper (Suspiria), William Finley (Silent Rage), and Gerrit Graham (Terrorvision). How can you go wrong with that cast?!?

Our second feature also stars Harper as well as Cliff De Young (F/X) and some faces very familiar to film buffs. You see Shock Treatment just happens to be the sequel to the most famous cult movie of all time, The Rocky Horror Picture Show! Some of you may be saying to yourself "I didn't know there was a sequel." The fact is it was mostly ignored upon initial release because it is a MUCH different experience than RHPS. Over time it has developed its own following, perhaps out-culting in the truest sense its predecessor. The songs are catchy, the ideas interesting, and the style pure Richard O' Brien. If you enjoyed Rocky you owe it to yourself to check this one out on the big screen!

Without any further ado here are your full Episode 59 details:

When: Friday, December 3rd

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


8:00 P.M.: Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

9:45 P.M.: Shock Treatment (1981)

So there you have it Superfans, two fantastic holiday musicals on our big screen . . . THE WAY THEY WERE MEANT TO BE SEEN! You dare not miss it . . . and remember you can't stop the music so don't even try!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Ghost Fire Haunts @ Fantasmo Friday!

Hey Superfans!

I'm excited to announce that this Friday's haunted house themed Fantasmo will feature a special opening presentation by the paranormal investigation group Ghost Fire Haunts! Pictured above is an upcoming conference they are hosting on paranormal research at the Cavalier Hotel called EPIC CON. Expect to hear more on that as well as some hair raising first hand experiences they have had. Should be a chilling experience, and a great prep for watching The Haunting and Hell House! See you tomorrow night!