Monthly Archives: May 2012
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
by Steve Habrat
After taking the freaky detour into cult territory in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg retreated back to the winning formula that they had with Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, once again pitting our fedora-wearing hero against the dreaded Nazis. Sadly, they seemed really half-hearted about that return, almost a bit reluctant and preoccupied. There is quite a bit to like about 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and the addition of Sean Connery as Indy’s father is a brilliant one, but the action and storyline do not seem as spry as they did in both Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Temple of Doom. It appears that the franchise is a bit winded and in need of a breather, much like our hero after doing battle aboard a tank full of Nazis. With a slightly dull storyline, the true hero here is without question Connery, who is wonderfully effortless as Indy’s father. The two argue, squabble, and work on their relationship all while bullets fly overhead. The plus to all of this is that we get to know just a little bit more about the whip-cracking Indiana Jones but the downside is the film is relying a bit too heavily on the father/son relationship and not enough on the task at hand: Finding the Holy Grail.
Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade picks up in 1938 with Henry “Indiana” Jones (Played by Harrison Ford) in search of an ornamental cross that he has been looking for every since he was young. After recovering the cross, Indy returns to the university he teaches at where he finds himself approached by Walter Donovan (Played by Julian Glover), who tells him that his father, Professor Henry Jones (Played by Sean Connery), has vanished while searching for the Holy Grail, which he had been obsessed with finding his entire life. After mysteriously receiving his father’s diary in the mail, Indy sets out to locate his father with the help of his colleague Dr. Marcus Brody (Played by Denholm Elliot) and the strikingly beautiful Dr. Elsa Schneider (Played by Alison Doody). As Indy’s search for his father continues, he discovers that the Nazis are also in search of the Holy Grail and if they obtain it, they are guaranteed world domination.
At the time of its release, The Temple of Doom was met with mixed reviews from critics. While The Temple of Doom was a step down from Raiders of the Lost Ark, the film was a bit too exotic for some tastes. Lucas and Spielberg were hell-bent to get the franchise back on the familiar path that won fans over in the first place. While the familiarity is welcome, I still enjoyed the exotic flavor of the second installment a bit more than the third chapter. The Last Crusade feels a bit too Hallmarky at times, like it is playing things too safe. The tone here isn’t nearly as dark as the previous two films and certainly not as violent. It is clear that this is for a much younger audience unlike the adult oriented Raiders and The Temple of Doom. It is obvious that Lucas and Spielberg don’t want to cause too much of a stir after producing a film that was responsible for creating the PG-13 rating. With playing things safe, Lucas and Spielberg seem to have little heart in the project, almost like they are just cranking it out so the fans will shut up. This doesn’t mean that they disrespect the character of Indiana Jones, giving him even more depth than before, doing away with the macho personality established in the second film, and giving him a proper send-off into a blazing sunset.
In The Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones was a flexing superhero that looked like he could have run alongside Rambo. In The Last Crusade, he is back to the Dr. Jones we knew in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Maybe this is due to his father’s supervision? In this installment, he isn’t knocking every single bad guy clean off his feet or ripping off his shirtsleeves to show off his biceps to Elsa. This is a much headier showdown than the battle of the brawn in The Temple of Doom. Here, Indy has to use his wit and intellect to stay one step ahead of the Nazis who stop at nothing to make sure he doesn’t get to the Grail before they do. I did not see Temple of Doom Indy getting swept up in the beauty of Venice and lusting after pretty blonde bombshells. Also enjoyable is the glimpse of a younger Indy (Played by River Phoenix) at the beginning of the film. In it, we get to see that the love of the chase began at an early age and that his relationship with his father was a on the rocks.
Professor Henry Jones end up being the salt that The Last Crusade is in desperate need of. He’s downright hilarious with precise comedic timing. You’ll love his reaction when Indy mows down a handful of machine gun toting Nazis or how proper Indy becomes when addressing his stern father (he calls him “Sir”). Their interactions turn out to be the highlight of The Last Crusade and watching them repair their relationship is a real treat. Connery also gets memorable interaction with bird-brained Marcus Brody. Alison Doody is a scorcher as the flip-flopping Elsa but she serves basically no purpose other than being another thorn in Indy’s side and a wobbly love interest. Glover’s Donovan, who early on reveals that he is working with the Nazis, is probably the nicest villain of the Indiana Jones trilogy, never really making us chew at our nails. He is very similar to the character of Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Michael Byrne steps up to the plate to play the real nasty General Vogel, the guy who gets to trade punches with Indy. John Rhys-Davies also returns as Sallah, who isn’t really given much to do outside of add a bit more comic relief to the action.
There are a few action sequences that do manage to capture some of the adrenaline pumping thrills of the first two films. A battle aboard a tank has some edge-of-your-seat moments but is thrown off by too many laughs and “how convenient” moments. The strongest two action scenes end up being a boat chase and Indy and Professor Jones trying to outrun Nazi fighter planes. Unlike The Temple of Doom, The Last Crusade dashes all over the world, jumping from Nazi occupied Berlin to Venice to Jordan. Of all the Indiana Jones films, The Last Crusade is without question the funniest installment, more concerned with making us chuckle rather than filling us with that sense of adventure that Raiders and The Temple of Doom were keen on. Overall, I think that is why I favor Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Temple of Doom to The Last Crusade. This film feels like a dry rehash without the iconic moments to spice things up. That is not to say that I think that The Last Crusade is a bad film. The Last Crusade is a nice wrap up but it was time for Indy to retire the fedora and hang up the whip for a while. All that globetrotting and saving the world really wears a guy out.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is available on DVD.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
by Steve Habrat
After the flawless Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, it was impossible for producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg to make another Indiana Jones film that would be able to compare to the first film. In 1984, Lucas and Spielberg released Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, an equally rollicking adventure that goes heavier on the supernatural horror but pales in the story department. It also boasts the coolest title in the Indiana Jones saga, sounding like a forgotten B-horror movie from the 50s. The Temple of Doom cuts back on the globetrotting and outdoor scope that Raiders of the Lost Ark had and opts for damp, atmospheric caves that are crawling with bugs, humid jungles where giant vampire bats swoop from above, and underground sanctuaries that are lit by torches, candles, and dotted with rotting skulls. Acting as the prequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Temple of Doom embraces a much sillier plotline that reeks of something that would have been right at home in an EC Comic with lots of icky gore to compliment the comic book feel. With The Temple of Doom, Lucas and Spielberg choose to push the action further, wasting absolutely no time at all to jump into all the shooting, running, jumping, and punching, eager to quicken your pulse and get your adrenaline pumping.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom picks up at a swanky Shanghai nightclub in 1935. Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones (Played by Harrison Ford) narrowly escapes a brutal encounter with dreaded gangster Lao Che (Played by Roy Chiao), who is searching for the remains of Nurhachi, an emperor from the Ming Dynasty. Indy narrowly escapes the confrontation with Lao Che, dragging local singer Willie Scott (Played by Kate Capshaw) and ten-year-old sidekick Short Round (Played by Jonathan Ke Quan) with him. The trio boards a plane for India but they have to make a quick exit when they realize that the flight has been sabotaged. Indy, Willie, and Short Round finally end up in India where they are brought to a desolate village. The village elders enlist the help of the trio to locate Pankot Palace where the sinister Thugee cult is currently hiding. It turns out this cult, lead by the evil Mola Ram (Played by Amrish Puri), have kidnapped the villager’s children and have stolen their Shiva lingam stone, a stone that supposedly brings the village good luck. Indy, Willie, and Short Round set out to find Pankot Palace but they soon realize that this cult is dabbling in dangerous black magic and may be deadlier than they had anticipated.
Unlike the cleaner cut and handsome Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Temple of Doom is a scroungy and homely blockbuster, one with multiple foul moments. It’s a movie made by overgrown kids for kids. The movie gleefully leaps into mud puddles searching for one nasty visual gag after another. There are monkey brains here, exotic insects there, slimy baby snakes, and a still beating heart ripped out of one poor saps chest. When it comes to the plot, there is no question that the storyline here is stretched thinly and Spielberg fills the film out with lengthy action sequences. At one point, he blatantly addresses the idea that this film is a roller coaster ride in the extended mine car chase that at times resembles an indoor roller coaster. Yet the spirit of adventure is alive and well in The Temple of Doom, the same spirit that kept Raiders of the Lost Ark aloft. There is no question that The Temple of Doom is also a much darker movie than Raiders of the Lost Ark, a film that dabbles in child slavery, human sacrifice, and includes prolonged sequences where horror hangs heavy in the air.
While Harrison Ford’s Indy is still as likable as he was in 1981, in The Temple of Doom, he becomes the familiar 80’s action hero that he avoided in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He rips his shirtsleeves off to show off his biceps, is dipped in fake sweat, and pummels every foe that stands in his path. There is never a moment where you fear he won’t make it out of a situation alive. I wish that Spielberg had sidestepped this 80’s staple that was okay other places but a bit out of place for the Indiana Jones films. He does get one moment that is evocative of Raiders of the Lost Ark, with Indy trading punches with a hulking Thugee guard that is once again played by Pat Roach (the same guy who played the Nazi mechanic in Raiders). It ends in a fittingly gruesome death that mirrors the propeller death in Raiders. Indy finds himself aided by the consistently shrieking Willie, who is appalled by everything she stumbles across. She freaks over bugs, bats, lizards, elephants, and Mola Ram. I have to say that I prefer the tougher Marion Ravenwood to fraidy cat Willie Scott, although Willie does get one hell of an introduction, belting out “Anything Goes” in Mandarin. Another character I remain iffy with is Short Round, who has good and bad moments. At times, he annoys me, there to serve as eye-rolling comic relief for the kids and at times, I rooted for him, especially when we learn about his background.
As far as the villains go, Mola Ram has to be the most bizarre of the Indiana Jones realm. A deranged cult leader with wild bug eyes and with a fetish for tearing the heart from his victim’s chest, he is usually drenched in bright red lighting, his mouth curling into a sick smile. When he puts his demonic headdress on, he is really an intimidating sight. He is also found of dragging his lines of dialogue out, adding extra menace to each and every word. The introduction belongs to Lao Che, a cocky gangster who likes toying with Dr. Jones. They have a delectable war of words in the middle of a crowded nightclub, both Dr. Jones and Lao topping each other’s threats as the seconds pass. Ford himself gets to do bad when he is hypnotized by Mola Ram, which he seems to have a blast doing. It’s only for a short stretch but it is a nice little change of pace for the all-American hero.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom does embrace some of the 80’s overkill, which does detract from the overall quality of the film. At times, it seems more concerned with production value and special effects over a lasting story. The effects in The Temple of Doom have not aged gracefully but there are a number of gags that still do hold together, mostly the heart being ripped from the chest. With the cranked up violence, the film is responsible for creating the PG-13 rating and it is easy to see why. Despite having a weaker story, The Temple of Doom has a number of iconic moments that elevate it to classic status. There was no way that Spielberg would ever live up to the first film and in a way, we don’t really expect him to. Featuring one hell of a final showdown on a rickety bridge that will have those who suffer from vertigo covering their eyes, a dazzling opening musical number, and plenty of eye candy for the entire family, Spielberg delivers an essential action film that more than holds its own.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is available on DVD.
Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
by Steve Habrat
As a kid, I absolutely loved producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. I loved getting swept up in the adventure, hanging on every action scene, and being hypnotized by the sprinkling of horror that boils over at the unforgettable climax. To this very day, I credit Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark as one of the films that made me fall in love with cinema and pursue a deeper understanding of the medium. Each and every time I watch the film, it feels like I am seeing it for the first time all over again. I’m sure my anti-Spielberg film professors would be chocking on their own vomit if they read that! To this very day, I still absolutely love this movie and love the fact that it is a tribute to the serials from the 1930s and 40’s. I can honestly say that I really can’t find a single thing wrong with Raiders of the Lost Ark, every actor perfectly cast, every line of dialogue spoken with extreme care, and every action sequence wildly iconic. Right from the beginning, Raiders of the Lost Ark establishes itself as a classic film as Spielberg gives us one of the most thrilling opening sequences to a motion picture and from there, he refuses to let up for two hours. How can you argue with that?
Raiders of the Lost Ark introduces us to out hero Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones (Played by Harrison Ford), an archeologist who gets himself into one tense, death-defying situation after another. The year is 1936 and the Nazis are currently exploring ways to make their army invincible using occult powers. Two U.S. Army intelligence officers approach Dr. Jones about the Nazi’s quest to find the Staff of Ra, which would reveal the location of the Ark of the Covenant. The intelligence officers ask that Dr. Jones locate the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis get a hold of it and unleash its devastating powers on the world. This quest forces Dr. Jones to enlist the help of his old flame, Marion Ravenwood (Played by Karen Allen), and old pal Sallah (Played by John Rhys-Davies) to help defeat his nemesis, René Belloq (Played by Paul Freeman), ruthless Colonel Dietrich (Played by Wolf Kahler) and the sinister Gestapo interrogator, Arnold Toht (Played by Ronald Lacey).
Never attempting to be anything it is not, Raiders of the Lost Ark exists solely to entertain all who choose to watch it and entertain it does. This movie is so damn fun, it is hard to believe there are those who resist it. It’s pure popcorn-munching fun that is one of the definitive summer movies. In addition to a light but gripping story, Spielberg packs his film with so many memorable moments, its absolutely unbelievable. Released in 1981, Raiders of the Lost Ark refuses to conform to what was all the rage in the 1980s, which were flexing heroes with absolutely no emotion whatsoever (the Stallones and the Schwarzeneggers). Spielberg chooses to give us a much more vulnerable hero, one who has a few love demons scratching at his heart and one who can get hurt (both physically and emotionally). Dr. Jones isn’t always perfect but he is proud to be flesh and blood. It always seems like the odds are stacked against him as he is relentlessly backstabbed and duking it out with forces that we are sure will overwhelm him. A giant rolling boulder chases him, he is dropped into a pit of poisonous snakes (he hates snakes), and trades blows with a hulking Nazi mechanic all while dodging the propellers of a fly wing. This guy goes through Hell to protect the world.
A heaping amount of credit should go to Ford, who is a revelation as Indiana Jones, wonderfully capturing this vulnerability and imperfection. His cranky humor and irritation with his current situation (whatever he may be encountering: hulking Nazi, snakes, Belloq, etc.) is always on point. You practically hear him go “GULP!” when staring down some obstacles he comes across. He is even more fun when he is dealing with the griping Marion, who is constantly giving him a hard time for wronging her in the past. There is a spark between Ford and Allen and we do root for their love for each other to be rediscovered. We know that Dr. Jones wouldn’t be getting as far as he is without the help of Marion and we know that Marion would fall into the clutches of the dreaded Nazis if it wasn’t for Indy swinging in at the last second to save the day. They are like an old married couple that has yet to get married.
Raiders of the Lost Ark packs a trio of despicable villains to torment Dr. Jones and Marion. The best one here is Lacey’s Toht, who is a vaguely perverse, mouth-breathing freak with a nasty burn on his hand. He speaks slowly, allowing each one of his words to hit the victim he toying with. He wishes that he had the charm of Belloq, another slippery snake who snarls and smirks at Dr. Jones from a far. He loves getting the upper hand on Indy—usually leaving him in hopeless situations that will have you drying off your palms. Completing this trio of terror is Kahler’s Colonel Dietrich, the man leading the operation to secure the Ark. They all get their moment to kick Dr. Jones while he is down, only striking when he is down because none have the muscle to throw down with good old Indy. The other baddies that will stick in your mind is Alfred Molina in his debut role as the backstabbing Sapito who leaves Indy to be crushed by a giant boulder and various other booby traps and Pat Roach as a burly Nazi mechanic who gets a prolonged fight sequence with Indy.
Despite being PG, Raiders of the Lost Ark does have a few moments that wander into the horror realm. The climax of the film is nice and ghoulishly nasty, complete with melting antagonists and terrifying demons laying waste to tons of Nazi soldiers. The film is surprisingly violent and does contain some moments that may scar young children. Overall, Raiders of the Lost Ark is a globetrotting blockbuster that made globetrotting action cool. With Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielberg set the bar so high for action/adventure films that he couldn’t top himself. The three sequels, while good in their own right, pale in comparison to this installment. Also notable is the easily recognizable score by John Williams, one that compliments the rollicking action like peanut butter does strawberry jelly. While certain aspects of it are showing its age, Raiders of the Lost Ark still stands as the definitive action/adventure film, one that is always imitated but will never be duplicated and one that can outrun the spry CGI blockbusters of today. This is an undisputed classic and absolutely flawless film.
Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark is available on DVD.
Chernobyl Diaries (2012)
by Steve Habrat
A few years ago, I happened to catch an episode of Sy-Fy’s Destination Truth, the reality show where obnoxious douche bag Josh Gates hunts down paranormal entities and other beasties around the world. In the episode, the extremely unfunny Gates and his crew traveled to Ukraine to investigate the ghosts of the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. The episode claimed that many of the guards who man the multiple checkpoints into the abandoned city have seen ghostly apparitions and various other creepy things that you’d most likely not want to see in the dark. The episode did catch a handful of “evidence” and whether it is authentic or not is anyone’s guess, but I will say that what the group supposedly caught was pretty unsettling. It’s hard for me to believe that a paranormal reality show with an irritating host could actually creep me out more than director Bradley Parker’s new horror throwaway Chernobyl Diaries but that’s the truth. Chernobyl Diaries has plenty of atmosphere, enough to pass out to a slew of other lame Hollywood spookfests, but the lack of any character development, sharply written dialogue, and a payoff that seems like it was ripped off from The Hills Have Eyes contaminate what could have been a decent little horror movie. At least we get a free tour of a fake Pripyat complete with lots of blood!
Chernobyl Diaries introduces us to Chris (Played by Jesse McCartney), his girlfriend Natalie (Played by Olivia Taylor Dudley), and their friend Amanda (Played by Devin Kelley). While on a tour of Europe, the group stops by Kiev, Ukraine, to visit Chris’s brother Paul (Played by Jonathan Sadowski), who is delighted by their visit. The group goes out clubbing and doing things that the kids in Hostel did way back in 2006. After a night of boozing, Paul asks the group if they have ever heard of “extreme tourism” and then asks if they are familiar with the Chernobyl disaster. The group mumbles that they are somewhat familiar with it but they don’t seem too sure (Kids today! Tsk, tsk.). After meeting up with their sketchy tour guide Uri (Played by Dimitri Diatchenko) and Australian backpacking couple Zoe (Played by Ingrid Bolso Berdal) and Michael (Played by Nathan Phillips), the group piles into a rusty Mystery Machine-esque van and heads for the abandoned city of Pripyat. Uri finds an unguarded back way in to the quarantined city and begins exploring the radiated ruins. When the group goes to leave, the van refuses to start, stranding the tourists in the thick darkness that falls at night. The group soon discovers that they are not alone in Pripyat and they start disappearing one by one.
Paranormal Activity director Oren Peli produces Chernobyl Diaries and it shows in the way the film is shot. A good majority of the shots are the shaky, hand-held approach but the film never falls into mockumentary territory. Using a great location, the early parts of Chernobyl Diaries, the ones where the group snoops around the abandoned buildings and gets fed little fun facts by Uri is really interesting, especially if you aren’t familiar with the disaster. The shots are unforgettable, a little girl’s doll lies near the twisted skeleton of a playground, a Ferris wheel stands eerily still surrounded by barely recognizable bumper cars with weeds sitting in the driver’s seat. At times, it does feel like a “found footage” type film, especially in these early, documentary/tour style sequences. When the lights go out and things start going bump loudly in the dark, the film really takes on a Paranormal Activity feel but it becomes repetitive and the spine-tingling effect quickly wears off.
Chernobyl Diaries suffers from unconvincing acting that never once comes off as natural. The dialogue is fake and forced, coming from characters that are not particularly likable and who make one dumb decision after another. The early scenes between Chris and Paul are a little too sugary sweet (“I’m so happy you’re here, little bro!” *the two wrap each other up in a big bro bear hug) and offer little to no background about their characters. About the only things we do learn is that Chris plans to propose to Natalie and that Paul is constantly getting Chris into trouble. I really didn’t care for either of their characters, Chris constantly whining and in hysterics over their situation and Paul acting like an illogical hardass. The three gals all resort to screaming, crying, and running away from shadowy tormentors we never really see. They are all there to just look hot for the male audience members. Uri is a fairly entertaining character but his role is tour guide and it stays that way. Phillips and Berdal do a passable job as the Australian backpacking couple but we barely hear a word from Berdal. Phillips’s Michael is the only one who uses any form of common sense and the only one of the characters I actually was rooting for.
Chernobyl Diaries refuses to offer up any clear explanation about the shadowy figures that have been attacking this pretty group of morons for an hour and half. Normally, I would say that is a good thing, especially in a horror film. In a horror film, the less we know about the monsters, the creepier they are (Original Halloween anyone? We know next to nothing about Michael Myers!), but here, it would have been nice to know what these things are. We don’t even get the luxury of that and all we know is that they seem to bark! The final forty-five minutes of Chernobyl Diaries is basically the group running around different parts of the city, giving us an extended and up-close tour of the underbelly of Pripyat. Director Parker does do a fantastic job recreating the restricted city (the film was not actually filmed in Pripyat), one of the only aspects of Chernobyl Diaries worth praising. Parker and Peli end up leaning too heavily on the chilling atmosphere, paying more attention to that than the people we are supposed to be rooting for (Or are we?). Overall, if you really want to be chilled to your core, Google pictures of Pripyat or even check out that episode of Destination Truth (that is, if you can stand Josh Gates for more than five minutes). The real incident is far more unsettling than any pricey CGI mutant or sudden loud noise that Hollywood can throw at us.
Men in Black 3 (2012)
by Steve Habrat
I think we can all agree that the world wasn’t starving for another Men in Black film. It has been ten long years since Agent J and Agent K saved the world in the lousy Men in Black 2 and now they are back in a film that is a slight improvement over the 2002 disaster. Men in Black 3 is not a great film but it has great performances and truly incredible CGI to marvel at, but the absence of any fun action sequences cripples this lukewarm installment. Considering the film has a price tag of $215 million dollars, you’d think that it would have at least one “WOW” moment in there somewhere. I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t. Sony must have forgotten they were making a summer blockbuster for audiences who want to see things blow up. Throughout the runtime, I also couldn’t shake the feeling that everything that was playing out on the screen had been done before and much better at that. It felt like Sony just repackaged the original film, tied it up with recycled jokes, and put a big ribbon of 3D on it.
Men in Black 3 begins with the revolting alien menace Boris the Animal (Played by Flight of the Concord’s Jermaine Clement) breaking out of a massive prison that happens to be on the moon rather than good old Earth. Boris is also missing one of his arms and he is pretty pissed off about it. It turns out that his arm was shot off by Agent K (Played by Tommy Lee Jones) way back in July of 1969, who then took him into custody and shipped him to his lunar prison cell. Boris quickly figures out a way to time travel back to 1969 so he can kill the young Agent K (Played by Josh Brolin) before K can shoot off his arm and arrest him. He also wants to stop K from planting a device that protects earth from a massive alien invasion. After older K disappears, it is up to suave Agent J (Played by Will Smith) to travel back to 1969 and join forces with the younger (and nicer) Agent K to prevent the alien invasion and stop Boris before he completely alters history.
Men in Black 3 was plagued by script rewrites and multiple delays that almost drove director Barry Sonnenfeld to the breaking point. The good news is that despite all the rewrites, Men in Black 3 tells a fairly engaging little story with some mildly clever moments. The bad news is that screenwriter Ethan Coen doesn’t ever really do much with J’s appearance in 1969. He resorts to dated jokes like telling Andy Warhol that he’d “have no problem pimp-slapping the shiznit” out of him and complains about dated technology. The film only takes a few opportunities to really play with the race relations of the late 60’s, mostly in a scene where two white police officers stop J and accuse him of stealing the car he is driving. It is jokes like this that would have really went over big in 1997, when all of this seemed fresh and slightly innovative. If those jokes aren’t enough to make you roll your eyes, once again, the film cracks jokes about certain celebrities being aliens as well as extraterrestrials hiding in plane sight. Doesn’t it feel like 1997 in here?
What ultimately saves Men in Black 3 from crumbling right in front of our eyes is the acting, especially from Brolin, Clement, and Michael Stuhlbarg, who shows up as a neurotic alien who can see multiple futures that all have different outcomes. Brolin steals the show with his impersonation of Tommy Lee Jones, an impersonation that is eerily spot-on. From the drawl in his voice to the sleepy eyes, Brolin is an absolute knock out, getting every twitch, step, and head turn just right. It is also the funniest aspect of Men in Black 3. Clement does a damn fine job making you remember him once the credits crawl across the screen. Boris could be one of the nastiest aliens from the Men in Black universe, snagging what has to be one of the most disgusting kisses in motion picture history. Coen and Sonnenfeld really hold back with his character and he is someone that I wished we had seen more of. The underdog of Men in Black 3 is Michael Stuhlbarg as the sweet Griffin, who turned out to be one of my favorite characters in Men in Black 3. He was just such a likable soul—one whose faith in humanity was so infectious, you couldn’t help but root for him.
As far as our two veteran protagonists are concerned, they fair about the same as they did in the previous two films. Smith is still the wild child, the one who is more concerned with making the job look good. The scenes in which he uses the Neuralyzer on crowds of people are some of his best. A touching last act twist gives his character a heaping amount of emotional weight that, in a way, comes a little too late. Jones, on the other hand, is absent through a good portion of the film, allowing Brolin to take the driver’s seat for a while. Jones is his usually crabby self, one who smiles by letting his face droop. I won’t deny that Smith and Jones do have an odd-couple chemistry that somehow has kept through three films and it is no different with Men in Black 3. They really find their groove early on and in a way, it is sad to see it cut off even if Brolin does a fantastic job.
The biggest problem I have with Men in Black 3 is the uneven action sequences that feature fine CGI, but just have no adrenaline to keep them moving. I was never on the edge of my seat once during the film. An action scene at the beginning that features multiple aliens seems like it was included just to give the partnering toy company some ideas for action figures. I couldn’t help but feel the same about the handful of new gadgets that we see. Sadly, Men in Black 3 plays things a bit too safe for my tastes. It seems to cater to the kiddies, who will surely eat it up and have a few good laughs at some of the slapstick moments. I feel like Men in Black 3 would have faired a little bit better last summer, when Hollywood had a fixation with period piece blockbusters, ones that were heavily interested in rewriting history (mostly with superheroes). Men in Black 3 ends with a showdown on Apollo 11 that is mixed with a handful of scenes showing in-awe spectators glued to their televisions screens, sitting on the edge of their seats waiting to be blown away by this sublime moment. For all the eye-candy Men in Black 3 throws our way, I truly never felt like one of those grinning, in-awe spectators even though I so desperately wanted to. I was fighting back yawns.
Shock Waves (1977)
by Steve Habrat
If you’ve gotten sick of playing Call of Duty: Nazi Zombies and you’ve worn out your copy of the Norwegian freak out Dead Snow, you are probably looking for a Nazi zombie fix and FAST. Fear not, my dear readers, for I have the movie for you and that movie is 1977’s Shock Waves, a deeply unnerving and hallucinatory vision that has traces of Lucio Fulci’s island terror in its veins and the cynical outlook of a George Romero zombie flick in its rotting brain. What Shock Wave lacks in blood and guts (there is barely any to be found here), it more than makes up for in unsettling mood and some thoroughly ghastly ghouls. Largely forgotten by many and relatively unknown by most, Shock Waves is a true gem of the horror genre— one that I seriously cannot believe did not leave a bigger mark on the zombie genre. With its premise, you’d expect a serious camp fest that glides by on tons of gooey entrails and spurting arteries but director Ken Wiederhorn would rather slowly wrap you up in a damp and slimy grip that will curl your toes.
Shock Waves picks up aboard a commercial pleasure yacht, where a small handful of tourists soak up the sun and bicker with each other. Aboard the boat is The Captain (Played by John Carradine), first mate Chuck (Played by Don Stout), boat chef Dobbs (Played by Luke Halpin), tourist Keith (Played by Fred Buch), pretty Rose (Played by Brooke Adams), and testy married couple Norman (Played by Jack Davidson) and Beverly (Played by D.J. Sidney). After an eerie orange haze consumes the afternoon sky, the boat’s navigation system is sent on the fritz and then quits working. That very evening, the boat nearly collides with a ghostly ship that suddenly disappears into the darkness. The next morning, The Captain is missing from the ship and it is discovered that the boat is taking on water. The rest of the passengers on the boat head for a scenic tropical island where they find a deserted hotel that is inhabited by a skinny old SS Commander (Played by Peter Cushing) who demands that they leave the island. The terrified group soon finds themselves stalked by mute and decaying Nazi “Death Corps” zombies who sport wicked pairs of goggles and have risen from the ruins of a mysterious wrecked ship that strangely appears just off the beach.
Quietly intense with dreamy hallucinatory images that at times feel strangely like mirages, Shock Waves quickly takes hold of you then slowly tightens its grip. Director Wiederhorn allows his camera to act almost voyeuristic as it creeps through the trees to spy on the zombies that pop up from the murky water. They are presented as paranormal specters that are silhouetted by the blinding sun reflecting off the water. At times, we see them from an extreme distance, marching in formation and turning to barely acknowledge their gaunt commander as he pleads with them to stop their meaningless slaughter. It was these scenes that made me fall in love with Shock Waves, the film just subtle enough while every once in a while, getting right in our faces so we can see its soggy decay. We never see any scenes of mass carnage, the zombies preferring to drown their victims instead of gnawing at their flesh and sucking on their entrails. That fact that the film remains eerily tranquil throughout, never getting frantic or hurrying is what really makes this film such an effective little adventure.
For a film with such a B-movie premise, the actors all do a fantastic job being believable. Peter Cushing is at his menacing best as a scarred monster that regrets his work within the Third Reich. Carradine is perfect for the cranky old fart of a Captain who refuses to believe that passengers saw a ghost ship sail by in the night. I wish we would have gotten more of him and I would have loved to see his reactions to all the supernatural spooks that manifest. Stout plays the typical strong silent type hero Chuck who is always saving Rose from certain death. He is the thin layer of glue that attempts to hold the crumbling group together. Adams, who is mostly asked to prance around in a yellow bikini, is nice eye candy and the climax allows her to play crazy (I won’t say anymore on that). Jack Davidson playing an over-opinionated car salesman who likes to tell the Captain how to do his job is another standout. You’ll be rooting for him to come face-to-face with the undead terrors.
Shock Waves, which was made in 1977, before Fulci’s Zombie and Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, is efficient with its hell-in-a-tropical-setting approach which it fuses with Romero’s beloved idea that our unwillingness to work together will be our downfall. A scene in which our small group is forced to put their backs against the wall is nice and claustrophobic, a scene that ends in a frenzied outburst and threats made from one group member to the other. The scene plays out much like the climax of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, survivor pitted against survivor. Also notable is the way that Wiederhorn plays with the alien tropical island to give us the creeps. Much like Fulci’s Zombie, there is this heavy feel of supernatural forces at play, a trait that is expressed in the sudden moans of spacey electronics on the soundtrack. In fact, the film would play nicely in a zombie double feature with Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, or Zombie. Sounds like something I may have to try myself.
I really can’t praise Shock Waves enough even though there are a few minor imperfections to be found throughout its hour and twenty-five minute runtime. Most of these blunders can be overlooked and really are not worth mentioning here. With strong direction (Those underwater shots are stupendous!), surprisingly strong acting from everyone involved, unforgettable cinematography (those grainy zombie silhouettes will stay with me for the rest of my days) and some tingling moments of sheer terror (a Nazi zombie standing a little too still behind a closing door while a blinded victim is oblivious to its presence), Shock Waves builds itself into a sopping wet funhouse of aquatic devils leaping up from shallow waters to drag our protagonists into a watery hell. For fans of the zombie genre, Shock Waves is a true must, one that, if you have never seen it, is a macabre surprise and one that will scare the living hell right out of you.
Shock Waves is available on DVD.
The Blob (1958)
by Steve Habrat
For a science fiction film about a giant gelatinous blob from outer space, Irvin Yeaworth’s 1958 chiller The Blob is an awfully tedious film. Sure, it is a goofy concept and the idea of it makes it a film that would be great for a campy sleepover double feature but it is a surprisingly disappointing experience. The main attraction of The Blob is the drive to see something that is the true definition of cheap. Shockingly, the special effects sequences in The Blob are not nearly as primitive as you would hope they are. Believe it or not but The Blob is played pretty straight, another science-fiction film from the Cold War that uses a big red consuming mass to mirror the fears of communism spreading throughout the United States. All that is missing is a giant yellow hammer and cycle stamped on the side of the blob! In my opinion, there are more 50’s and 60’s science fiction/horror films that mirror the times better than The Blob, but you’d think The Blob would put a slight creative and fun spin on the subject matter. Oh well, at least it stars a young Steve McQueen and has a pretty awesome theme song!
The Blob picks up in July 1957, with teenager Steve Andrews (Played by Steve McQueen) and his girlfriend Jane Martin (Played by Aneta Corsaut) enjoying a romantic evening parked at Lover’s Lane. Suddenly, they see a meteor streak across the sky and land somewhere close to where they are parked. Meanwhile, an elderly man (Played by Olin Howland) hears the meteor land near his home and he ventures out into the woods to investigate. When he finds the meteor, he pokes the space rock with a stick, which causes it to break open and reveal a strange gelatinous substance that attaches itself to his stick. The goo quickly slithers its way up the stick and attaches itself to the terrified man’s hand. Steve and Jane stumble upon the old man and quickly take him to the local doctor’s office. They show the man’s hand to Dr. Hallen (Played by Stephen Chase), who quickly determines that he will have to amputate the man’s arm. The blob hastily gobbles up the old man and everyone else working at the clinic, leaving Steve and Jane running to the local police station to inform the authorities about what they have seen. The authorities dismiss their story but soon, more people begin mysteriously disappearing and the blob begins growing to a devastating size.
The Blob is the furthest thing from spooky, scary, or thrilling, which I guess shouldn’t surprise anyone considering the monster is essentially rolling Jell-O. Director Yeahworth makes fairly decent use of small town America under attack and he does construct one memorable sequence in a movie theater. The movie theater sequence is probably the most iconic scene from The Blob, the one that is the most effective in making us feel helplessly claustrophobic and making our skin crawl. It also helps that we get to see the blob in color, allowing us to really get a good look at all the nastiness of the alien antagonist. The Blob does get by with what it is saying underneath the reddish surface, making it smarter than you ever thought it would be. The blob itself becomes a metaphor for consuming communism and increasing fear of the atomic age, as the blob literally consumes any poor sap that happens to be in its path. At the same time, The Blob gets lost in the other science fiction films of the time, most of which were intellectually superior.
For those of you dying to catch a glimpse of a younger Steve McQueen (or Steven McQueen, according to the opening credits), The Blob is the film for you. The Blob is the first staring role for the action hero and he plays his part like he may never get another shot to be in front of the camera again. McQueen takes on the role of All-American hero, a cliché that was incredibly popular in films like this. He isn’t emotionally complex or deep, just a teen begging to be heard by the skeptical adults around him. He gets his typical partner in crime, the damsel in distress Jane. Jane doesn’t ever really leap out at you, as she is just there to be the love interest of Steve. McQueen and Corsaut do get a number of fairly romantic scenes throughout The Blob, all which are more effective than any of the scare scenes. John Benson shows up as Sergeant Jim Bert and Earl Rowe shows up as Lt. Dave, both who are reluctant to believe Steve and Jane but finally do come around, especially as events get more and more bizarre. All of the acting in The Blob is what you would expect out of a 50’s B-movie, all a bit over dramatic, cliché, and gung-ho heroic.
The Blob is without question for die-hard science fiction fans, those who have a soft spot for atomic age alien invaders. Originally released as a double feature with I Married a Monster From Outer Space, The Blob would make for a fun retro double feature night that is complimented with lots of beer. The climax of the film does gain some momentum and it does get a bit tense, but overall, the film is completely devoid of anything resembling tautness. Another reason to see The Blob would be to check out the above average special effects, all of which have held up with age and are surprisingly convincing. There are only brief moments where things look a little dated but they pass just as quickly as they showed up. While it is a cult film, The Blob does devour the intellectual crowd and could be called essential viewing for film students or those who have a strong interest in the history of cinema. As someone who has a sweet spot for B-movie schlock, I really wish that The Blob had some shoddier moments but I have to applaud the sturdy ingenuity on display. I may put up a fight but there are a handful of consuming moments to be found in this lumpy blob of a film.
The Blob is available on DVD.
The Blob does have one hell of an opening jingle by The Five Blobs. Give it a listen below. Warning: Anti-Film School is not responsible for any sudden dancing that may occur while listening to this song.
This Island Earth (1955)
by Steve Habrat
I really wish that more people out there were familiar with Universal Studio’s atomic age science-fiction film This Island Earth. It may not be the best science-fiction film from the 50’s but it sure is a cool and minor drive-in classic. Served with a heaping glob of cheese, This Island Earth overcomes its unintentionally hilarious moments with some seriously crisp color, icky monsters, and an egghead script that science-fiction fanatics will happily gobble up. A cult classic in its own right, you may be familiar with the grotesque aliens that inhabit this picture, as you will often see them included in collages of the other more famous Universal Studios monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and The Wolf-Man). This Island Earth also found itself released on June 1st, 1955, proving that even before the rise of the summer blockbuster in the late 70’s, there were still spectacles released to entertain kids who were on summer vacation. This Island Earth, however, does prove to be a smart spectacle.
This Island Earth introduces us to Dr. Cal Meacham (Played by Rex Reason), a well-known scientist who receives instructions and parts to build a mysterious device called an interocitor. Along with his colleague, Joe Wilson (Played by Robert Nichols), the duo puts the interocitor together and suddenly receives a video transmission from a man who calls himself Exeter (Played by Jeff Morrow). Exeter tells Cal that building the interocitor was all a test and that he wants Cal to join him in special research project. Cal reluctantly accepts and is soon ushered off to a secluded research facility in a remote area of Georgia. Cal is reunited with an old love interest, Ruth Adams (Played by Faith Domergue), and together they begin to snoop around the facility, suspicious that they are not being told truth. After trying to escape, Cal and Ruth are abducted by a UFO and taken off to the war-torn planet of Metaluna. It is on Metaluna that Cal and Ruth learn why Exeter recruited them to work for him and after meeting the sinister head of the planet, they have to quickly devise a way to get back to earth.
This Island Earth is one of the rare science fiction films that doesn’t have the human race portrayed as the inferior beings. The alien race within the film wants to work directly with us and is in need of uranium deposits to aid Metaluna in their fight against the relentless Zagons, who attack with planetoids that are guided by spaceships. Heavy with nuclear willies and brimming with mentions of UFO sightings up in the clouds, This Island Earth is certainly and shamelessly a product of the Cold War. The film applies paranoia at its core, our protagonists convinced that they are not being told everything they need to know, suspiciously peaking around every corner they come to. When Cal boards an unmanned airplane, Joe begins pleading with Cal to not make the journey to Georgia, exclaiming that something stinks about the entire operation. With its use of color, the film is able to slip into pulp territory, resembling something that would have been printed on the pages of an EC Comic. The color also alleviates some of the heavier subtexts, allowing moments of This Island Earth to feel more like hot-weather escapism rather than chilling mushroom cloud reflection.
This Island Earth ends up being a slower moving film, one that takes its good old time getting to the staggering world of Metaluna. Director Joseph M. Newman uses the slower moments to allow us to get to know our protagonists and also send us into confusion over the character of Exeter. Cal quickly is established as the All-American guy, a brainy and thoughtful hero right up to the last frame. At first, Ruth sidesteps being the usual damsel in distress and she dashes right alongside Cal as they flee from destructive lasers being shot at them. Sadly, once Cal and Ruth are abducted and whisked off to Metaluna, she crumbles into a hysterical heap, one that cries out at incoming planetoids and shrieks in horror as one of the monstrous Mutants stalks her around a spaceship. Exeter is a guy who we can’t fully classify up until the very end of the film. At times, he seems villainous but he will the quickly say that his alien race is a peaceful group. My one complaint is that Cal and Ruth at first overlook Exeter’s bizarre physical appearance. His forehead is quite unlike a regular forehead—something that you would assume would jump out at the two scientists.
There are moments of This Island Earth where the atmosphere is so tense, it could be cut with a laser beam. Just check out the scene where Cal, Ruth, and Exeter arrive on Metaluna, an eerie place with explosions that look suspiciously like nuclear blasts in the background. It becomes mushroom cloud after mushroom cloud as our heroes dodge attacks by the lumbering Mutants, who swipe their claws after the terrified humans. It’s a shame that This Island Earth has been waved off by many science-fiction/horror gurus (The film was featured in Mystery Science Theater 3000, forever ruing its reputation.), as there is plenty to appreciate in this science fiction extravaganza, both visually and intellectually. The films trippy final half-hour more than makes up for the droning and uneventful first half. Yet director Newman keeps the humanity that is shrewdly established in tact and it never becomes a cynical vision of nuclear destruction. It never looses faith in the human race and it proudly stands by the fact that we are capable of making the right decisions when it comes down to it. Overall, if you have the patience and you enjoy this sort of thing, open your windows, allow the summer evening air to creep in, fix yourself a big buttery bowl of popcorn, grab an extra large soda, find a date, and loose yourself in the world of This Island Earth. There are plenty of thrills, chills, and sights to behold in this slightly flawed Cold War drive-in classic. Make it a double feature with another Cold War science fiction classic!
This Island Earth is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
After seeing the slow burner that was Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien, you would never in a million years expect the follow up would be a breakneck action-thriller that refuses to let up. James Cameron’s Aliens is just that breakneck action-thriller, one that flaunts grand industrial style, chest-bursting thrills, and enough explosions that would make Michael Bay envious. Taking the world that was briefly seen in Alien, Cameron cleverly elaborates on Scott’s vision and delivers a world full of corrupt corporations, billowing doom, sleeveless masculinity, and hair-raising maternal protection (Both Ripley and the Queen!), all while strapping us in and sending us on a stomach dropping roller-coaster ride. Watch out, because you may get splashed with acidic alien blood! The true beauty of Aliens lies in the fact that, while most sequels resort to over-explaining everything, Cameron doesn’t explain, he just expertly expands the scope to give us a bit more breathing room.
Aliens begins with the rescue of Ellen Ripley (Played by Sigourney Weaver), who is the only survivor of a horrific alien attack that left the rest of the crew of the space freighter Nostromo dead. Ripley goes before the board of her employer, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, and explains what attacked the Nostromo crew. Her story is dismissed and as a result, she looses her space-flight license. To her horror, she learns that the planetoid that housed the strange ship and alien eggs is now home to a terraforming colony. After contact is lost with the colony, Weyland-Yutani representative Carter Burke (Played by Paul Reiser) and Lieutenant Gorman (Played by William Hope) approach Ripley about accompanying a unit of marines to investigate what has happened to the colonists. They tell her that if she agrees to accompany the marines and act as a consultant, they will allow her to have her flight license back. After finding the colony abandoned, the marines begin to search a nuclear-powered atmosphere processing station, where they believe the colonists are taking refuge. As their investigation continues, the marines begin making horrific discoveries within the station and soon find themselves getting attacked by seemingly endless hordes of bloodthirsty aliens.
Unlike Scott’s 1979 film, Cameron’s film isn’t as sly with its intellectual undertones and it quickly calls attention to aspects that should have been left to us to figure out. Aliens makes it very clear that the film is interested in ideas about motherhood and protection of a mother’s young. Ripley has to assume the role of mother and protector to a young girl who calls herself Newt (Played by Carrie Henn). I wish Cameron wouldn’t have thrown this aspect of Aliens in our face but sadly, he does. Early on, Newt begins calling Ripley mother and the two share an emotional scene where Ripley talks about a daughter she lost and then instantly claims Newt as her new daughter. Cameron also calls quite a bit of attention to the gender roles within the film, mostly playing with the idea of the tough guy marine who is all talk when nothing is happening but is revealed to be a coward when things get nice and violent. It is especially apparent in Hudson (Played by Bill Paxton), a mouthy marine who likes to talk big but is revealed to be a coward when attacked by the aliens. His character does begin to come around near the end, but he remains far from the hard ass he portrayed when we first meet him.
Cameron’s Aliens benefits from strong acting, mostly from Weaver, who ended up with an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her work in this film. While Ripley doesn’t really reveal too much new about herself, her descent into protector is undeniably compelling. She is the toughest of all the flexing bad-asses around her. Her end confrontation with the Queen alien has to rank as one of the best movie showdowns of all time. She also gets one of the best one liners that science fiction has to offer: “Get away from her, you BITCH!” She is still the teeth-gritting feminist hero that she became in Scott’s Alien and here, she comes equipped with a bigger gun and flamethrower. While Ripley is all business 90% of the time, her quieter moments really resonated with me, especially when her eyes show a brief flash of a broken heart, one that I have to assume has made her the tough gal that she is.
As far as everyone else is concerned, Reiser is perfectly slimy as the corrupt Weyland-Yutani representative who has little regard for the human life around him. Michael Biehn punches in a perfectly measured macho role as Corporal Dwayne Hicks, who growls all of his dialogue but does reveal moments of vulnerability. I have to say that next to Ripley, Hicks has to be my other favorite character in Aliens. The young Henn wins us over as the adorable Newt, who salutes Hicks when he gives orders and quickly clings to Ripley. Lance Henrikson shows up as the android executive officer Bishop who has a hard time earning Ripley’s trust. Jenette Goldstein is another tough cookie as “smart gun” operator Private Jenette Vasquez, who shows just as much strength as Ripley. Paxton’s Hudson is the only character that I find slightly irritating and the one who gets the some of the worst dialogue in the film.
Aliens turns out to posses a large amount of the tension that made Alien such an prickly experience but it happens to be woven into white-knuckle action scenes. However, I wouldn’t be quick to call Aliens a horror movie, as there is more of an emphasis on action rather than scares. For all its palpable moments, Cameron still serves up a lean storyline that locks us in its icy grip for all two and a half hours. Cameron also offers up some heart-stopping sequences that are classic cinema moments as far as I’m concerned. I absolutely love the final fifteen minutes of the beastly thrill ride. I also have to say I am a fan of the marine’s first encounter with the aliens (shown through grainy camera footage shot by one of the marines) and a scene in which Ripley, Hudson, Hicks, Burke, Vasquez, and Newt await a slew of chomping aliens to attack will have your stomach doing somersaults. The downside to all of this is the fact that Aliens just isn’t as bright as Scott’s Alien, but you will be willing to forgive because Cameron does try his best to make this an intellectually rewarding experience in its own way. Practicing some remarkable discipline in the action department while also giving us exactly what we want, Cameron’s Aliens smartly builds upon Scott’s classic while leaving its own fingerprint on the Alien franchise.
Aliens is available on Blu-ray and DVD.