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Monthly Archives: February 2010

Showdown in Little Tokyo may immediately invite you to think of Big Trouble in Little China, and boy, is that a mistake on its part. Think of everything great about it, then remove that and think of what’s left.  It’s nothing, because everything about  Big Trouble in Little China is great. Almost nothing about Showdown in Little Tokyo can be called great. “Sucks” is more accurate. Or maybe “shitty,” if it’s an adjective.

Dolph Lundgren is a cop raised in Japan who hates the Yakuza, a Japanese organized crime family, because a random ninja murdered his parents. I’m not sure why. The late Brandon Lee co-stars as his younger partner in an early role in his brief career. It’s very early because he hasn’t much matured as an actor yet. His lines are delivered in a stilted, awkward manner, like he’s trying hard to remember them. Lundgren is just as stiff but not from a lack of experience. He’s just still projecting that silent, Ivan-Drago-like badass character, though sometimes he just looks sleepy.

Here, I don’t blame him. Showdown  is an incredibly lazily constructed film. No cliché is left unexplored in this film, from the very beginning. Cops Lundgren and Lee even fight over a case of mistaken identity when they first meet. We’re unfortunately denied the screaming captain who thinks they are a couple of loose cannons because, as you will see, Dolph and Lee are the only two cops operating anywhere near Little Tokyo. Actually, a couple of police cruisers show up after an enormous disaster, but the boys flee them… for some reason. I guess to avoid paperwork from the havoc they wantonly caused. They do blatantly break any and all police procedure (and barriers of logic) in their quest for… let’s call it justice.

I watched this again because I remembered liking it as a kid of around 17. It had two things going for it at the time of its appearance on cable: a nude scene from then unattainable Tia Carrere (I should be too aloof to mention this, but what the hell. It was shortly after Wayne‘s World. If you were around for that then you understand.) and some pretty good fight choreography. The first was before I knew about body doubles. The wig on Carrere’s is horrendous. It looks like a witch fright wig you’d get at Party City. It just envelopes her double’s face and looks nothing like Carrere’s hairstyle prior to its appearance. The second I was flat out wrong about back then. The fight choreography is even worse. Both Lee and Lundgren, each incredibly accomplished martial artists on his own, move like mud in the fight scenes. If you knew nothing of their backgrounds you would think they were one belt above Rudy Ray Moore in the Dolomite Self-Defense System. Except that they don’t have a belt above Rudy Ray Moore, because he the MASTER, you rat-soup-eating MOTHER- I’m getting off track again.

The choreography is bad up until the final sword fight, which is inexplicably pretty good. Why katana work was better for these guys to stage than kicking and punching I’ll likely never understand. But it is and Dolph faces down the head of the Yakuza, who has played along with Dolph for the bulk of the movie rather than be as smart as one of the heavies from Beverly Hills Cop or something and get him thrown off the case for harassment. Instead he fights him to the death and, oh, what a death he gets. It makes it worth sitting through the rest of this terrible movie to see it. It involves a dragon themed parade, a katana as a pushpin and a spinning, exploding fireworks wheel that must be seen to be appreciated. All of the laws of physics parted like the Red Sea unto Moses to make this finale possible.

I wish I could call this a bad movie lover’s paradise, but it’s largely too dull for that. And it’s not an unsung classic in Brandon Lee’s oeuvre. It was a learning exercise for the young actor at best. Nor is it a shining moment for, by this point, veteran action star Lundgren. Mostly it’s a movie that’s best left forgotten, a direct to video (?) 1990s buddy cop movie that aspired to little and achieved less. But seriously, look up that death scene at YouTube. It’s amazing. 2 stars.

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Although ostensibly a Brigitte Nielsen vehicle, Red Sonja is much more a thinly veiled attempt at a kid friendly Conan, complete with Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan knock off…uh, I forgot his actual character name because I only referred to him as Conan the Codpiece throughout the film. The film also features perennial B-movie favorite Sandhal Bergman (Valeria of Conan the Barbarian if you needed any further links to that movie) as the deformed and deranged Queen Gedren. Also co-starring is one of the 1980s most insufferable urchins, Ernie Reyes, Jr. as a prince whose kingdom has been lost to Gedren. Here is the most glaring attempt to market this to children, though his obnoxious character can appeal to likely no one. He really drags down every scene he’s in for the first three quarters of the movie. He and his bodyguard/nanny, who I’ll call Ram-Man, provide the comic relief in the film. If you know anything about comic relief in comically bad movies, then you already know how welcome this is.

The plot is a standard sword and sorcery film, focusing heavily on revenge for family/villagers slaughtered by a more powerful force. The acting is sub par on every level. No one more than phones it in save Bergman, who chews scenery with a vigor unknown to her acting before this. According to her wiki page she turned down the lead for this role. I guess she wanted to expand her repertoire. The sets and props are comically cheap, with hilarious matte painting subbing frequently for backdrops. Once Gedren peels away her “gold” face plate it bends in a suspiciously rubber-like manner. The fight choreography is sub-Conan as well, even Schwarzenegger’s work lacks much pizzazz. Nielsen seems to be learning English as the movie goes along, and while this may have worked for the stoic, man of action Conan, Sonja has far too many lines to pull of the same. Nielsen also lacks Schwarzenegger’s natural charisma and comedic timing, which made a lot of what he did in a similar role work (see prayer, Crom‘s).

Enough grousing, though. I’m not denying the fun that can be had with a movie like this. Most of this is in deriding how bad it is, but we like that around here. The bad guys have a special ludicrousness that has to be seen to be appreciated, from henchmen throwing women into pits of crushing doom to the keeper of the gate who demands Sonja’s sexual submission as passage to the pacing, wild eyed madness of Gedren as her empire quite literally crumbles around her. There are few of these films that make such memorable impressions with the antagonists. So, for what it’s worth Red Sonja provides some silly diversion and goofy entertainment but, honestly, even Conan the Destroyer knew better than to put kids in the movie. 2 stars

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is an incredibly adventurous project from Carl Reiner and Steve Martin. I think some credit must be given simply for undertaking a project that, realistically, had no chance to succeed. A film noir send up, partially original shoots and partially clips from noir classics, the film is seamlessly done. The idea of using clips of such stars as Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Vincent Price, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck and, oh the list goes on forever, is an inspired one and came years before the same technique was used ghoulishly to sell vacuum cleaners and popcorn.

DMDWP is anything but ghoulish. A send up and a love letter to noir masterpieces, the film uses many of the tropes of the genre, from multiple mickies slipped, to the reveal of just who secretly runs the whole scheme. The film plumbs the gambit of these and to good effect in general, if perhaps they go to the bullet removal scene once too often.

I know the film isn’t considered much among viewers and it truthfully is its own worst enemy. If you remind viewers of such great films as The Big Sleep, The Killers and Double Indemnity you had better have some great material to follow that up. DMDWP has some very good material but I wouldn’t call any of it great. It suffers in comparison here, and possibly due the previous collaboration of Reiner and Martin, the timeless The Jerk. When you set a bar that high, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid just won’t do. Still, I think it is unfairly derided to a degree. Many of the jokes are perfect and the film keeps moving at the proper noir pace so as to never linger on any failed joke for too long. I would say it is worth viewing to fans of the genre, Martin or Reiner but might leave casual viewers a little cold. 3 stars harrybadface.com

Planet Hulk starts off with a premise that it almost immediately proves false: the Hulk is an unstoppable, remorseless engine of destruction. He is subsequently blasted into outer space to a realm deemed “uninhabited.” You can guess what that means. He lands on a planet run by a ruthless dictator and is taken control of by a disc which shoots nanites or something into his brain. Why was this tiny disc shot from a smallish weapon able to pierce the skin of a behemoth able to withstand nuclear lever explosions? No one bothered to explain that.  The Hulk is taken away to one of the greatest action movies clichés of all time: the gladiator’s arena. Here he is forced to fight beside several other castaways in this kingdom for the entertainment of the Emperor and friends because, frankly, the Romans got right to the heart of what the people want and no one ever did it better.

After the head scratcher of Hulk’s easily pierced skin and even easier subjugation comes another confounding problem: he cannot escape the arena because the king’s head guard, a woman far slighter than Hulk knocks him out with one of what I will call a Cosmic Yoga Punch, because it shimmers the air on screen and no one bothered to explain what that was either. All of this is basically Spartacus, though with some prophesied mumbo jumbo tossed in for effect. The only real surprise here is the unfathomable addition of Beta Ray Bill to the games. He is shown as being more powerful than an army of the same gladiators fighting, yet he is taken hostage by the same disc program somehow. What is it with these things? He proves able to free everyone easily enough, though no one explains why he didn’t just do that when he was able. He makes a heroic speech and then flies away without having any other effect on the final outcome. Seems like they might have asked him to stick around just in case the Emperor Redman didn’t want to fulfill his end of the bargain, given that he was an evil slave master and all.

Guess what? He doesn’t. Hulk soundly defeats him with the help of his newfound revolutionaries, though (you already knew that, don’t cry spoiler to me) and is made seemingly the new king of Planet Hulk, patent pending. Then, just as he is about to Captain Kirk himself some alien strange, a priest of the aforementioned mythic order comes forward to prove the one universal truth: no matter what planet, galaxy, alternate universe or even religious affiliation you may encounter, priests exist solely to stop people from getting it on. Then the movie ends.

The animation of Planet Hulk is serviceable, on par with other Marvel Studios productions of late. The action is well executed and fun in watching Hulk battle in the arena. The emotional connections of the characters vary from goofy to nonexistent but no one is watching for that. The defiance of previously placed logic, that Hulk always SMASH, is bizarre and unsatisfying, though. Hulk never SMASH like Hulk should. Also, nothing Beta Ray Bill does makes any sense whatsoever. You had two of the most powerful humanoids in creation become enslaved to some dopey king in a golden exoskeleton and his personal bodyguard, who was a combination Pythona and Nemesis Enforcer (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093066/). No explanation beyond a weak “coming to our world saps your power” was offered. Up to the very end I was waiting for a Hulk onslaught that never came. As an animated action film it does OK. As a Hulk movie, though, it fails. 2 ½ stars

I went into 9 with some fairly high expectations based on the trailers I had seen. The animation is crisp and well executed, if occasionally too drably colored. The basic color scheme of the film is brown with some gray thrown in for an extra deadness. The film is far from pretty thanks to this.

The basic story/premise of the film is left muddy to the point of being unable to really grasp it. In a nutshell a brilliant scientist developed a machine to benefit humanity and a Stalinesque dictator usurped it to bring about the end of humanity. Sorry if that’s a spoiler but it is presented through dull black-and-white “found footage” that was so wholly uninspiring that I almost stopped paying attention during it.

The other big reveal I will spare you but it comes across as equally vague and utterly absurd, and revolves around the creation of the films heroes, a group of ineffectual sock monkeys who have so little personality that they go by numbers. Each is at best an archetype and little else, some less than that. There’s the plucky newcomer hero pushing everyone into action, intrepid girl bucking the system, the big dumb oaf following orders, the cowardly old leader averse to change, etc. Some of them I cannot really recall enough to tell you their number. Each of them comes off as quite a rote character.

Their nemeses come across as toys that were deemed to scary to be in the role of the mismatched creature from Toy Story. When one of them is destroyed by a ceiling fan it takes a lot of punch out of the feel of danger associated with them. The designed are quite creepy with their animal basis and they do seem threatening, or would if I cared at all about the protagonists. And that is really the worst thing about 9. It feels as though it were directed from an outline of a story that no one got around to actually writing. All of the big moments are loosely tied together, the idea of what happened to the world left vague other than clichés that were long ago beaten to death and a general sense of murkiness purveying both the story and the look of the film make it difficult to ever connect to the film. In the end it just becomes a forgettable diversion and unmemorable at that. 2 stars

There are occasionally films that one wants to see not because you think they are going to be good or even that you will enjoy them in spite of themselves. Some films one needs to see simply to confirm their bewildering existence. Heartbeeps, starring the late Andy Kauffman and Bernadette Peters as Val and Aqua, a robot couple, is one such film. That, firstly, a group of filmmakers dreamed up this idea and had the wherewithal to stick with it and see it come true and, secondly, that no one involved in its financing put a stop to it would be unimaginable had I not witnessed it myself.

The story, robots escape their factory life and go on the lam, is actually rather trite and dull. They are joined by my favorite character in the film, Catskill (voiced by Jack Carter), a Don Rickles look alike programmed with the oldest jokes known to standup. If you aren’t partial to these jokes like I am, though, you’re really going to hate this character by the end of the film. I would imagine most do but I like the Borscht Belt stuff. Kaufmann and Peters are an odd combination of robotic stiffness and childlike wonderment as they discover themselves as individuals and as a couple in the wild. It doesn’t help that the things they discover are territory covered in thousands of better told stories before them, and they fact that they are robots adds very little to making it anything new.

Along the way Aqua and Val have built a new unit to carry their spare parts in an extremely dopey and obvious metaphor for childrearing. This notion awakens and even larger sense of purpose and belonging in them and brings, of course, which is also dull rehash. Nothing of real significance ever comes of this, no new ideas or insights into older ones. The new unit is utterly devoid of personality and the fact that he can be rebuilt gives little reason to hope that he survives the various encounters thrown at the new family.

They are pursued by two separate antagonists. Bumbling robot factory workers Randy Quaid and Kenneth McMillan need to get the escapees back to their repair center. Overly aggressive automated police cruiser Crime Buster spends most of his time blasting random forest creatures and standing in as a symbol of automation gone awry, though neither as effectively nor as comically as ED-209 from Robocop. The robots eventually cross paths and Crime Buster gives chase. All of this leads to a climax of self sacrifice and a pair of unlikely allies in striving for their freedom.

The lack of any real depth, more than the stiff acting or corny jokes or weak characterization, is what ultimately grinds Heartbeeps to a standstill. I suppose the idea, which sounds like it was dreamed up by an 8th grade Asimov fan, sounded good for a while but the story brings nothing new to the table. There is also little incentive given for the audience to care for the protagonists. I couldn’t remember more than a few details of each of their personalities. The fact that they were given such leaden personas weakens the drama, particularly given the cop out ending to the film. I suppose a happy one was in order but it badly undercut the ideas of sacrifice for a future generation that the film laid throughout its run. So, while mildly amusing (almost all thanks to Catskill) the film was neither funny enough to accept the cheap drama nor well written enough to get over its cheap gags. In the end it was the sort of movie that’s best to have left movie buffs wondering what might have been, because what is ain’t much. 2 stars

I tried going in to Avatar with as few expectations as possible, knowing that it would be an inevitable letdown to have great hopes for the film, or to expect it to live up to its massive hype. And I was correct to do so as I was able to enjoy the film to a certain degree. I decided if I was going to do it I would go all in and plunked down the cash for the IMAX 3D version of the film, and I’m glad that I did so. Much of the 3D, though, is more annoying than inviting. At times I felt the film kept hitting me in the face with the leaves. I need to feel like the characters are in a real world, not me.

The majority of what is good about the film is in the visuals. The animation is lush and vibrant in very real way. The color scheme is brilliant, particularly during scenes at night when things glow. All of the planet Pandora is rendered beautifully, from its landscapes to its flora and fauna and, of course, its inhabitants, the Navi. In contrast all of the military bases are stark and rugged, built for utility and maximum efficiency. They are ugly slabs of metal, battle scarred and worn and caked with dirt. Whether digitally rendered or partially constructed and digitally finished, all of the humans’ equipment looks great and moves impressively.

However, of all of these perfectly rendered people and things, not a single one of them behaves in at all a logical manner. Some big issues are never addressed, such as why the Navi are even remotely accepting of the Avatar program. They have to know what people look like and the idea of cloning something so similar to themselves has to be at the very least unsettling to them if not insulting. Yet this raises barely even a suspicion. Jake Sully, the main character, is completely ignorant of the program but thrown in because his twin was killed. So eager are they to get started that the corporate interests running the program cannot be bothered to even see that he learns the language before tossing him into the nearest tribe. Conveniently, through some mystical intervention (not the last you’ll see of that in the film) he is chosen to be one of the Navi. What’s really lucky for Jake, though, is that even the dogs of Pandora don’t act logically. They surround him on his first night alone like a pack of dogs all right, but then they attack him one at a time like henchmen in kung fu movies. And everyone knows that dogs are smarter than kung fu cannon fodder.

So, Jake learns the ways of the tribe and reports back, eventually becoming more attached to his new family, particularly the female assigned to teach him, Neytiri. Of course, being as cartoonish as the heavies of this movie are, they attack the Navi anyway without even seriously attempting negotiations. When I say they are cartoonish let me tell you two things to emphasize this. Giovanni Ribisi’s character, Selfridge the corporate suit running the show, is introduced playing coffee cup golf and talking about loving his new putter. Col. Quaricth, played by Stephen Lang, is the character that R. Lee Ermey ruined for every other actor in Full Metal Jacket. The most depth he ever gets is revealing that he loves his scars for reminding him that Pandora is dangerous. He gets a lot of scenery to chew and Lang makes the most of every corny line. Ribisi is able to bring something to his character, thinly sketched though he may be. A lesser actor would have been likely far more over the top in bringing out his bottom line driven douchebaggery. Ribisi plays it casually aloof to the pending disaster.

The Navi tribe and their mythology are comprised of Native American movie cliché, New Age mysticism given a biological connection to make it real to the movie, and a healthy dose of the Noble Savage theory throw in to sweeten the concoction. They are comically innocent to humanity’s destructive capabilities and desires, even though they are introduced as mistrusting to the intentions of people toward their home world. Any ritual shown in the film has come before. Mating ritual, tribal induction, hunting and killing rituals, you name it and the movie shows it with a slight Navi twist, mostly centering around their braids. I won’t give away the secret but Avatar asks the audience to accept a lot about these things. A lot of these rituals pad out the movie in ways that are unnecessary. When drawing from such a deep well of old standbys it may be advisable to skip past the parts that are so obvious. The tribe themselves all fit perfectly into their one line summaries; Wise Old Chieftain, Wise Old Shaman Lady, Brash Young Tribal Heir, etc. Neytiri is just the Native American Princess character.

Jake Sully, for being the lead character, never rounds out much either. It did help me that his name was Jake, since every time he or another male Navi smiles they look exactly like Jake Busey. He’s largely tossed around in the plot, doing whatever the story calls for him to be doing to go forward. He’s usually the same gruff, quiet tough guy perfected by Clint Eastwood, though ignorant of his surroundings and kind of dopey for a while. He achieves manhood in the eyes of his tribe, seemingly finding a new home and family, all while perfectly cognizant that the interests backing his Avatar plan to destroy this way of life. He does absolutely nothing to warn or even prepare them of the coming danger either. Jake just waits around hoping everything will get better. Guess how that turns out for everyone?

The climactic battle scene is visually incredible even if it makes little to no sense. Jake rallies the others, sends them to gather neighboring tribes and then they pray for help from the Mother Planet. Prayer, which ends up being the key to victory, is their major fallback plan. The Ewoks had a better battle strategy than that, and a much more imposing foe. They had to face down Darth Vader’s best. Leading the human forces on Pandora is just a ‘roided up Sgt. Hulka. It was still the highlight of the film, though, watching the rallied men and beasts of the alien world unleash their fury on the unsuspecting invaders. The contrast between Quaricth and Jake in the final showdown is nicely handled, too. Jake, controlling his organic Avatar, goes hand-to-hand with Quaricth, controlling something of his own Avatar, being his Aliens style armor suit.

Overall I did find the film entertaining and well crafted outside the glaring story problems. The plot is half baked at best, the characters are barely fleshed archetypes and the political commentary laughably obvious, but it looked great showing those things. It’s overlong by a good thirty minutes, though this is only some of the bloat the film suffers. It isn’t remotely worth the hype behind it and once the spectacle dies down and the filmmaking technique becomes commonplace I doubt it will be especially memorable. But taken as what it is, Avatar is a decent action movie. 2 ½ stars

While I don’t truly see the point of retconning Iron Man Adventures to show Tony Stark as a teen genius at his father’s company rather than a grown genius at his own company, the series did make it less of a groaner than I expected. Tony still invents the Iron Man armor, still needs it to keep his heart alive and still has the usual suspects both assisting and opposing him. Taking some of the comic and some influence from the films, as lesser powered media are likely to do, the story results are fairly seamless. Tony opposes Stane’s takeover of Stark Enterprises as a weapons manufacturer (movie influence). This leads to the ongoing background conflict, punctuating the main stories featuring old standbys like Mr. Fix and a well done update of the Crimson Dynamo.

The voice work is fair but never great. It rarely detracts from the show at least, save the gravelly goofball growling of Whiplash. Anna Cummer is very good at Pepper Pott’s mile-a-minute prattling, though.

Where Iron Man Adventures fails utterly is in the animation department. The show looks horrendous. Everything looks like cheap Flash animation and the coloring is just hard to look at most of the time. The show looks slapdash and cheap, like it wasn’t worth the effort of animating it properly and it drags the whole production down to being nearly unwatchable. 2 stars