Monday, October 29, 2012

A Frank Review of "Children of the Living Dead" (2001)

The Short Version? Bad sequel! Bad! BAD!
What Is It? Awful.
Who Is In It? Tom Savini, ish.
Should I See It? Fuck no.

Let me see if I can explain this. The original theatrical distributor of Night of the Living Dead failed to assert copyright on prints of the film, causing it to fall immediately into the public domain. It's kind of interesting, because the flesh-eating undead went on to become part of horror mythology. The lack of copyright restriction probably helped the popular conception of "zombies" to join Dracula, Frankenstein, and werewolves in common use amidst the pantheon of terrors. Of course, what made Night great was the talent on display, with writer/director George A. Romero going on to make a slew of sequels, one of which arguably surpassed the original. Less pivotal was John Russo, who produced, co-wrote and directed Night. Russo wrote a sequel novel in 1977 which influenced the creation of the Return of the Living Dead franchise. The book only contributed the title though.

Night was remade in 1990 by Tom Savini, who had been a special effects artist and actor on one of the Romero sequels. In 1999, Russo recut the original Night and filmed new scenes that were inserted for the poorly received Night of the Living Dead: 30th Anniversary Edition. Russo then produced a sequel to the recut, Children of the Living Dead, which featured Tom Savini as an actor playing a character with a passing resemblance to his role in a Romero sequel, but different. Also, Children has some plot points that nod toward Russo's Return of the Living Dead novel.

Okay, whether or not you found the previous two paragraphs interesting, I assure you that reading them took way less time than seeing Children of the Living Dead, which you should not do under any circumstance. Zombie movies aren't known for quality, but even by their dismal standards, the film is dire. Every discipline in filmmaking is given a black eye by this thing. Acting, writing, direction, cinematography, continuity, lighting, stunts, make-up, special effects-- all subpar by fan film standards. I guess the score could have been worse.

In the town where the dead rose in 1968 because of space radiation, occasional outbreaks of living deadness occur and are put down by the local yokels. A serial killing rapist from the mid-80s named Abbot Hayes stole his motivation from Sleepaway Camp and/or Psycho before getting caught and killed. The dude somehow not only got zombified, but becomes the master zombie. He's got claws and can turn a corpse into a zombie henchman instantaneously with one bite. You'd think in Zombie Town, they'd institute mandatory cremation, but instead leave corpses by the half dozen lying around to join the horde.

Besides introducing Zombie Dracula, another wrinkle is added by making zombies disinterested in eating children. That sure flew in the face of Dawn of the Dead and Return of the Living Dead Part II, but it doesn't seem to have any logical importance beyond helping to establish the movie title, and gets dropped in the first half hour. Zombie Dracula then borrows from Freddy Krueger by going after the kids who survived the outbreak he started in the '80s. That also might seem important, especially when they turn out to be the cast of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but that actually wraps up in short order.

After two false starts, what passes for lead characters begin the main story properly better than a half hour in. What occurred prior was all set up, and proves fairly nonsensical, since the second half hour is little more than a series of set pieces where nobodies get gang-eaten by the zombies. The last half hour connects the dots from the first, which was unnecessary, since the through line was obvious and the characters are total cyphers regardless of their role in the events.

Tom Savini is the best thing in the flick, but despite getting top billing, he's gone after fifteen minutes. Martin Schiff plays a kind of cowardly sheriff who shows up throughout the movie, but I wouldn't characterize him as a lead, exactly. He's got either an enormous strawberry birthmark under his right eye or a nasty scab that lasted fourteen years, and it is seriously fucking distracting. I suppose Damien Luvara and Jamie McCoy are supposed to be the stars, but they are such personality voids that they seem to dampen the charisma of others in their immediate area. There are other people who could technically be billed as actors, but they barely register as people.

The movie seems to run for a prescribed lack of time, then stop. There's no real resolution, and another sequel that nobody will ever film is set up. I don't know why you would make it all the way to the credits, but there's a random, pointless post sequence. I often find myself angry when a movie squanders good will or potential, but this film is so bad so early that it's your own damned fault for sticking with it.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

A Frank Review of "Dredd 3D" (2012)

The Short Version? "The Raid: Redemption" (2011)
What Is It? Comic booky sci-fi action.
Who Is In It? Eomer, Leah from Juno, Sarah Connor v2.0
Should I See It? No.

I saw Dredd a couple of weeks ago, on the same disappointing day I caught Looper. I rushed one of those reviews out because it was still a relatively new release, while Dredd was already a confirmed failure with a global take of less than half its fifty million dollar production budget. With low energy and little time, this one could wait. Based on other reviews I read, you'd have thought otherwise. People kept toting it as redemptive of the comic book franchise run aground with its first attempt, the 1995 Sylvester Stallone bomb Judge Dredd (which still managed to earn more than its budget, 2½ times that of Dredd 3D when adjusted for inflation.) Both films made the fatal mistake of taking their subject matter seriously, where the British comics have survived for thirty-five years thanks to their violent satirizing of exactly these sorts of movies. All in all, Demolition Man and Robocop are still better Judge Dredd movies than any featuring the actual character.

In a nuke ravaged future, the surviving masses huddle in squalid tenements that reach up to the skies in the massive Mega-City One. With crime epidemic, the law is doled out by motorcycle riding fascistic executioners called Judges, of which Dredd is hardest. On this particular day, he's saddled with a new graduate from the Judge program named Anderson, who technically failed, but is given a pass by the brass because she's a mutant with psychic powers. However, Dredd will be the ultimate judge of her fitness for the position through a one day ride along. Called to a slum highrise to investigate drug-related murders, Dredd and Anderson are eventually trapped, as everyone in the building either hides or comes gunning for them. There have been a number of extended epic storylines in the Judge Dredd comics, which the 1995 movie tried and terrifically failed to emulate. This film is closer to the short stories Dredd is more commonly featured in. However, those tales typically have a novel hook and a few laughs to carry them over a half dozen pages. This flick tries to apply the exact same ammunition across ninety minutes.

Dredd is actually a stealth Psi-Judge Anderson movie, referring to the spin-off heroine who tended to be featured in more straightforward dramatic stories. When Dredd works, it's usually because it's focusing on Anderson-- her powers, her conflicts, the lovely actress Olivia Thirlby. Unfortunately, Karl Urban's Judge Dredd is comically arch in a movie without a sense of humor, and his taking up the lion's share of the screen time renders it a joyless affair. Aside from Anderson's telepathic adventures, the only other kick is the use of Slo-Mo, a drug that alters the perception of time. There's one excellent sequence of a massacre rendered in this deliberate, stylish fashion, but its every other usage was more in line with the tedious bullet time sequences in the Matrix sequels. This was without a doubt the worst 3D movie I've ever seen in a theater. Wally Pfister may have called out Marvel's The Avengers for arbitrarily shooting angles solely for the 3D, but I'll take that over the dull flatness of Dredd in every respect, but especially in its shoddy employment of its named gimmick. I remember exactly three instances of notable 3D: a credit sequence moment of Dredd getting dressed with his elbow sticking way out, a scene in a restaurant where a chicken carcass hung on a hook, and an air-conditioning mount that was clearly ahead of the Judges in a hallway. The film is dark, so most of these three images were near entirely silhouetted.

Lena Headey gives a much better performance as the kingpin Ma-Ma than is on the page, but the rest of the actors are as stock as written. Alex Garland, who previously got a screenwriting credit for cobbling together bits of zombie movies into 28 Days Later, offers a perfunctory action script which when translated through the lens director Pete Travis is indistinguishable from any other random Redbox selection of comparable budget. There's maybe ten minutes of film worth sitting through, so someone should make a totally boss YouTube sizzle cut and leave the rest of this boring number on the floor.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Frank Review of "Looper" (2012)

The Short Version? "Come with me if you want to live as a pale shadow of your former self."
What Is It? Sci-fi action/drama.
Should I See It? Maybe.

Looper is definitely the second best Rian Johnson movie starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt so far. It is probably also the second best Bruce Willis time travel film set in a dystopic future, although I have to confess winging it without double checking at IMDb. If that sounds like damning with faint praise, a-yup. I haven't reviewed Rian Johnson's first film, Brick, because it's so fucking brilliant that the prospect of trying to express my feelings about it is exhausting just to think about. I did review his second film, The Brothers Bloom, because it is way easier to analyze stuff on the pretty good-through-shit spectrum without trying to reach the painful, blinding radiance of a true gem like Brick. Bloom is one of my girlfriend's favorite films though, because she's really into Wes Anderson.

Looper, on the other hand, will be on no one's lifetime top ten lists. It'll make a bunch of year end lists, as evidenced by the overly enthusiastic reviews you'll read elsewhere. These are people high off Johnson's previous efforts; who saw it at festivals with buddies and booze; who hunger for anything not summer studio slop. Let it come to video, watch it a few times, maybe suffer through a continuance of Johnson's downward trajectory as a writer-director... they'll come around.

In the far future, you can't kill anybody and get away with it, like in Minority Report. Instead, gangsters send their prospective victims back in time to the less far future, to be killed and disposed of. Time travel is also highly illegal, but is somehow harder to police than making one person out of billions disappear. Wouldn't the same evidence trail in a murder lead investigators to your temporal bathysphere? Of all the ways a criminal enterprise could employ time travel, isn't that pretty low on the list? In case you missed it, what we establish from the premise is that this isn't one of those intellectual science fiction movies with a firm command of cause and effect, but more of a Back to the Future fairy tale, without making as much sense. However, it's not the logic of Marty McFly being capable of existing after unmaking the circumstances of his own conception, surviving due to delayed temporal consequence allowing him to ultimately create a parallel timeline in which he exists under revised circumstances. It's more the logic of deciding to strand the near entirety of the last Back to the Future in the old west. This would be the "what the fuck ever" theory of time travel filmmaking.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Bruce Willis at around age thirty. He has to do this because they're playing the same character aged thirty years apart who find themselves at cross purposes when Willis goes back in time to fix the future. Joe obviously studied Bruno's mannerisms, and offers a solid impersonation that spans the length of the film. Unfortunately, Bruce Willis has had an acting career since he was the same age as Joseph Gordon-Levitt, so those of us who watched Moonlighting will not recall Bruce looking like a segment of Conan O'Brien's old Late Night skit "If They Mated" co-featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. This could have been easily overcome by having their character undergo plastic surgery at some point to conceal his identity, or perhaps to recover from the sort of accident that could turn that cute kid from Third Rock into John McClane v4.0. Alternately, as it was handled with another character, you could just tell the audience that one actor is the older/younger version of a different actor. Instead, they buried Joseph Gordon-Levitt in latex and poor quality make-up that renders him a heavily botoxed closeted transvestite with a passing resemblance to Bruce Willis, mostly in profile. As a person who has spent a significant portion of his life believing in actors wearing ridiculous prosthetics on television shows with often dire production values, you're a stronger/more gullible man than me if this doesn't distract you in every fucking scene.

Setting aside the wholly unnecessary press-baiting gimmick, the character played by Gordon-Levitt and Willis isn't much on the page. Perhaps if the same actor had been employed in a dual role, the presentation would have been more nuanced. Instead, Willis seems to be playing Gordon-Levitt's crazy absentee father, or just a random asshole with some sort of contrived psycho-physical connection to some other jerk. Neither version of the character is developed sufficiently to be engaging emotionally, and the altruism displayed by one toward the end of the movie seems wholly inorganic. Setting aside arguments of the rules of chronology, there is a lack of personal truth in the identities at the heart of the film. If the intention is to make a more human sci-fi film, and most of the movie is about moving pieces across a cold marble chessboard instead of properly motivating the characters, you've failed on both fronts.*

Emily Blunt as the female lead that doesn't show up until halfway through the running time is vague and unengaging. While better than average, I still say that it isn't worth the bother of hiring a British actor to produce an unconvincing rural American accent when an Australian can perform it better than anyone born on the coasts. Her Sara is no Connor, and she never performs a single action that doesn't feel dictated by a script. She's sorta kinda somebody's mommy; functionally but not really a love interest; an entirely ineffectual "tough" gal. Qing Xu gets more done as an idealized figure in a cameo than Blunt does with a full role. Blunt is basically just there to provide exposition, have exposition provided to her, and act as a semi-surrogate for Xu. It's sad and a bit embarrassing to play such a naked functionary.

There are a slew of fantastic but modest supporting roles. Foremost is Jeff Daniels as the laid back, fatherly mafia expediter, a role he firmly inhabits and breathes such life into that it makes you look past Gordon-Levitt's rubber nose to the twinkle it produces in his eyes. Noah Segan and Paul Dano deserved more screen time, while Tracie Thoms was wasted in a nothing, blink-and-you'll-miss-her part. Pierce Gagnon is going to be a big deal for the next few years, at least until puberty strikes.

Johnson conveys his story through a more quiet independent vibe, but Looper doesn't put anything fresh to the table. The dual role bit was used to better effect in Face/Off, and much of the core dynamic of the movie belongs to the Terminator and Trancers franchises. It reminded me a lot of Primer, except Primer is one of those remote controlled helicopters to Looper's misfolded paper airplane. Bruce Willis already made the similar and vastly superior 12 Monkeys, and I'm not sure we really needed a lo-fi Akira tribute. The only point I can see is for Johnson to play it safe so that he can finally cash a check off one of his own flicks. Looper is dumb, dull, and obvious. No wonder it's making fair yield on a negligible investment. There's about ten minutes of cute innovations, noteworthy performances, and interesting cinematography. The rest is workmanlike, trying to make an honest living in a troubled economy. There are far worse films to see this year, but it's almost as bad to face something as disheartening as this follow-up for what was once a promising filmmaker.


  • Looper Theatrical Commentary Track Audiences are encouraged by the director to download it and listen on an MP3 player during a repeat viewing of the film before getting an entirely different track on the forthcoming DVD/Blu-Ray. I usually listen to such things as background noise, and this was as serviceable as most. It did provide clarification of my (ultimately confirmed) assumptions about the goals and thus failings of the picture.

*Just a quick bit of spoilery nitpicking, but how is it that Bruce Willis after a quarter century of substance and other physical abuse followed by a half-decade of serene retirement becomes the ultimate killing machine, while his younger self in the prime of his life mostly just runs away from people shooting at him? How is this supposed to be the same guy? Who decides a bullshit '80s montage is the best way to get that across and doesn't at least offer a dubstep remix of "Eye of the Tiger" to sell it proper?

Friday, October 5, 2012

James Bond 007 50th Anniversary Movie Theme Song Countdown

Keeping the preamble simple, this is my best objective list ranking the Bond songs of the past half century in ascending order, marking to the day the 50th anniversary of the release of the first James Bond film, Dr. No. I've only included songs with vocal tracks, since going into instrumentals would be much more subjective and somewhat overwhelming, if only because I'd be dealing with full film scores. The standard and heavily commercialized single major track per film is much easier to qualify. There's also the heavy bias surrounding the durably iconic Monty Norman theme, which is hurt by its excessive use across almost two dozen films, but is surely the most recognizable and evocative of the lot.

22) 2006's "You Know My Name" for Casino Royale as performed by Chris Cornell
I remember sitting in the theater with a fellow Bond fan buddy during the credit sequence. We turned to each other and wondered how such a bland tune could have been selected. I cannot recall this song from memory, because it's such a nothing trifle without any hooks that it refuses to stick in my brain. The video is about as bad, interspersing film clips with Cornell playing in front of some lights. How much lazier could it have been?

21) 1989's "Licence to Kill" as performed by Gladys Knight
As if he didn't have enough strikes against him, Timothy Dalton was saddled with two of the least memorable songs in the franchise. This is common period overproduced R&B pap with a film title plugged into the chorus. The video is also a rubbish collection of clips and poor superimposition. A major waste of Gladys Knight's talent.

20) 1987's "The Living Daylights" as performed by a-ha
Fucking enunciate. The vocals on this song sound like a Muppet without a tongue, or a barred out Bob Dylan taking hits of helium for the chorus. "Nuh-na-- noo-nuh-nuh-nannoo." Is this thing even in English? The music is little better, as it sounds like period pop from the back end of the top 100 (it never actually charted at all in the U.S.) Let's not even bother discussing what passes for lyrics. The video is a catalog of every cheesy editing effect available at the time.

19) 2002's "Die Another Day" as performed by Madonna
On the one hand, this has a strong video that tells its own story, and Mirwais Ahmadzaï insures that it sounds unlike any other Bond tune. On the other hand, the lyrics are nonsense and gratingly repetitive, the music itself trivial dance tripe, and the perseverant idiot vocals are buried under e-IBS distortion. It's the Bond tune voted most likely to induce a headache in listeners.

18) 1981's "For Your Eyes Only" as performed by Sheena Easton
Casio powered cornball, not helped by Easton's appearance in the actual credit sequence, but it also featured some of the least brief nudity of the lot. Do note the glut of similar mellow gold forthcoming.

17) 1997's "Tomorrow Never Dies" as performed by Sheryl Crow
Crow's thin voice can't carry the weight of a Bond theme, and the lyrics are announced as rock dumb and clich├ę from the first line. However, Mitchell Froom's production is appropriately retro, the video is solid, the chorus is okay, and there's a nice breakdown. To quote Jack Black, very safe, very pussy. It's also impossible to forget that this same year, Shirley Bassey joined the Propellerheads for the vastly superior "History Repeating".

16) 1983's "All Time High" for Octopussy as performed by Rita Coolidge
This is one of those instances where you have a good enough song for its day, but it doesn't actually have much of anything to do with James Bond. Based on craft, it's certainly better than some higher ranking tunes, but as part of a 007 countdown, it can't help but be hurt by its lack of fidelity to the franchise. The shoddy video illustrates the divergence well.

15) 2008's "Another Way to Die" for Quantum of Solace as performed by Jack White & Alicia Keys
Jack White is the problem here. The crunchy guitar and drums are good, but the lyrics are shit, and the composition is irritatingly discordant. Alicia Keys' vocals and piano are perfect for Bond, and then White shows up to whine all over both. The video is decent, but the kitchen sink approach overall is a hot mess. There's a lot of good bits, so it's frustrating when they're overwhelmed by crap.

14) 1979's "Moonraker" as performed by Shirley Bassey
Third time appeared to be the curse for Shirley Bassey, as this was the least and last of her themes (though it's better than the rejected "Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" for Thunderball.) The vocals, strings, and piano are sound, but the guitar is Velveeta, and the overall tune is a boring easy listening number. I actually had to be reminded that this one existed.

13) 1967's "You Only Live Twice" as performed by Nancy Sinatra
While not explicit, a few key lyrics and some of the tone in the music still spells out 007. The very subtle Asianic qualities are cute, and the vocals are nice. It was a weak title sequence though, and overall a thin, tinny tune.

12) 2012's "Skyfall" as performed by Adele
The latest Bond tune is pretty easy to tune out for the first couple of minutes. The callbacks and added punch in the last couple minutes make the song, but it's still boilerplate on both the Bond and pop song ends of the spectrum. It sounds like some homely chick longing for melodrama, instead of a fatalistic sex bomb. Man, I wish Amy Winehouse had lived long enough to do one of these.

11) 1963's "From Russia with Love" as performed by Monty Norman
This is a simple, solid song that recalls espionage through its guitars and reference to the Motherland, but is mostly just a ballad. The vocal track wasn't part of the opening theme.

10) 1974's "The Man with the Golden Gun" as performed by Lulu
This one has the sort of awesomely ridiculous lyrics designed for campy spy action or musical theater, but it's hard not to feel self-conscious about how ludicrous it sounds. Lulu lacks the pipes of a Shirley Bassey, but then again, who else has them really?

9) 1965's "Thunderball" as performed by Tom Jones
Similar to "Golden Gun," but played straighter with more swagger. It sells the silliness better, and the horns are more swanky. Still, it's a bit sluggish.

8) 1969's "We Have All the Time in the World" for On Her Majesty's Secret Service as performed by Louis Armstrong
A ballad made bittersweet by its usage at the end of the film. This one has a killer bridge with excellent strings, guitar and horns. The lyrics have nothing and everything to do with the story, but it's so affective, I'll allow it.

7) 1977's "Nobody Does It Better" for The Spy Who Loved Me as performed by Carly Simon
This is another pop song that barely qualifies as a Bond tune, but it's a pretty damned good one. Despite lyrics that aren't especially Bond-specific, the exuberant praise of masterful cocksmanship sure smacks of 007. Somehow, despite having no edge whatsoever, name-dropping the movie title and exalting the finest of men makes this the perfect proxy song for women swept up in Bond's charm.

6) 1971's "Diamonds Are Forever" as performed by Shirley Bassey
Shirley Bassey, John Barry and Don Black bring the classic Bond edge with added funk. This strikes the right balance between recalling 007 and being comically blatant. There's a reason Kanye sampled this instead of "Thunderball," y'know?

5) 1973's "Live and Let Die" as performed by Paul McCartney & Wings
I realize that this was a hit single twice over two decades apart, and deservedly so. The bridges are exhilarating and the piano gets some refined pounding. Still, the lyrics are overly simplistic, and the funk breakdown is goofy as hell.

4) 1985's "A View to a Kill" as performed by Duran Duran
The lyrics are developmentally challenged, the music video is laughable, and let's not even start in on the hair styles. Regardless, the tune is snazzy and conveys the proper mood.

3) 1999's "The World Is Not Enough" as performed by Garbage
This one layers strength over strength. Clear and detailed spy thriller tune and lyrics, but not so blatant as to be goofy. Sung by a total vamp, the musics combines cool jazz licks and techno beeps that represent the 007 alphabet from M to Q. Shirley Manson as a fembot makes this easily one of the best Bond music videos.

2) 1964's "Goldfinger" as performed by Shirley Bassey
Horns that could kill a man, vocals with ballistic impact, lyrics that paint the portrait of a monster, and the most rousing finale of any song on this list. It's weaknesses are repetitive lyrics and a hollow quality to the sound, but it still takes some fantastic music to overcome this titan.

1) 1995's "GoldenEye" as performed by Tina Turner
Classy without being moldy, slinky and muscular by turns, this is an epic theme about the entire Bond phenomenon. Turner's exotic, raw voice ranges from sensual to conniving to yearning with the skill of a true diva. There's the stealthy cool, the fatal yearning, the impossible notes... Bono and the Edge craft crystalline lyrics and hooks that dig to the bone, comparable with their finest songcraft.


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