Friday, August 3, 2012

Listomania: Thomas' July 2012 Summertime Beatdown

Man, this was a month of highs and lows. Out of the mere 18 films watched this month, there were a plethora of clunkers. Though, I gotta say, the clunkers sure make you appreciate the gems. While there were some instant classics, there were a lot of groaners. Here are the most notable ones:

REYKJAVIK-ROTTERDAM (2008): Damn, I really wanted to like this movie. Icelandic director Óskar Jónasson (who went on to adapt JAR CITY) collaborated with JAR CITY novelist Arnaldur Indridason on a thriller about a smuggler Steingrímur (Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson), who finds himself pressured into returning to the life after his druggie/loser son-in-law screws up a deal with the mob. To make matters worse, his best friend Kristófer (Baltasar Kormákur) is actually setting him up so that he can move in on Steingrímur's wife, who used to be Kristófer's woman. Seriously, this should be amazing. In spite of all the talent working on this film, it manages to be a rather evenly-paced set of predictable moments, crime clichés and an incredibly out of place very happy ending. Not the worst ever; Jónasson directs well (though nowhere near as well as he would with JAR CITY), Kormákur is excellent as a very real human villain, and there are a few great moments (mostly involving Kristófer's vicious right hand, played by up and comer Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson), but they are few and far between. The irony here is that it was remade with Mr. Funky Bunch as the financially successful CONTRABAND (2012), which in spite of annoying critics and moviegoers is helping pave the way for more remakes of recent Scandinavian films.

NEWSMAKERS (2009): Solid, if a bit too linear Russian remake of Johnny To's BREAKING NEWS, directed by Swedish Anders Benke (responsible for the groan-inducing FROSTBITEN). A stakeout of a gang of bank robbers goes pear-shaped when a couple of beat cops stumble into the scene and start hassling the thugs until they snap. A massive firefight ensues spreading out into the streets of the nation's capital. The police chief at a loss, decides to let the daughter of a respected official turn the hunt for the gang into a media opportunity, a reality show that will get the cops some good PR and bring in the perps. This sounds great until the gang holes up in a tenement and starts broadcasting PR spin using videos from a cell phone. Also in the mix is the detective (Andrey Merzlikin, of THE INHABITED ISLAND) whose stakeout was ruined, determined to bring in the bad guys dead or alive, orders from some woman be damned! Yeah! Or rather, meh... I've never been a big fan of Johnny To (let the hate mail commence) and never saw his original, BREAKING NEWS (2004), but it feels like they have captured his essence. Trying too hard to be clever, yet lacking any interesting character exposition or plot twists. The action scenes are fairly intense, a field day for firearms enthusiasts who could spend days, if not weeks, identifying all of the hardware on display. On the one hand, it is pretty straight-forward, on the other hand Merzlikin is good in his one-dimensional role and there are an assload of bullets being thrown about. Entertaining, but totally forgettable.

BEYOND TERROR (1980): Odd hybrid of your typical juvenile delinquent killing spree / sadistic home invasion / satanic horror movie co-written by J.P. Simon. The first half of the film is typical, hyperbolic youth gang stuff and the second half is sort of a Lamberto Bava-style horror movie. The gang wildly over-acts and tediously shoots and kicks every upstanding member of society that crosses their path. After beating up an elderly woman in her home, they find some catacombs with a satanic shrine underneath the house. They decide to hang out there and we get some very tame masturbation and fornication, after which the kids accidentally summon some zombies. Trust me, it sounds so much better than it really is... Unless you are one of those people who absolutely loves overwrought JD/home invasion flicks.

WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH (1969): I've been meaning to see this for years and years and after finally pulling the trigger… Meh. Even the brief bits of unclothedness included in the European version can't prop up the total lack of production values and story. Plus, after years of press concerning the babes in prehistoric bikini factor, it really is only three girls, the rest are a bunch of toothless crones who have absolutely no right to wear anything close to a bikini, prehistoric or futuristic. As if that wasn't bad enough, watching this is really made me feel like I walked into the wrong bar. There is so much well-oiled manflesh (complete with buffalo shots) on display that I imagine this was aimed for a more specific audience than I had expected. On the other hand, all is not lost since MGM released it on a double bill DVD with MOON ZERO TWO (1970), which I still maintain is absolutely brilliant.
THE PRIEST OF EVIL (2010): Slick, highly stylized Finnish serial killer film based on the novel, one of a series, "Harjunpää and the Priest of Evil" by Matti Yrjänä Joensuu. After Inspector Harjunpää's (Peter Franzén) daughter is senslessly and brutally attacked and killed, a hooded killer stalks the subway. Photographing his victims and attacking abusive males, Harjunpää, awash in a sea of prescription drugs, starts thinking that perhaps there is a connection between the hooded killer of his daughter and the stalker in the subway. Borrowing themes from SE7EN (what is with the Finns? Quit watching Hollywood movies already) and some well-worn detective cliches, director Olli Saarela keeps things just barely engaging enough to get you to the next scene, helped out by the always cool Jorma Tommila (of RARE EXPORTS fame) and the seriously attractive Jenni Banerjee who is really given little to do except be a rather unbelievably nice cop. The real coup de grace on this movie is the complete lack of consistancy with the story and characters. After all of this stuff about the uber-christian killer saving the innocent from evil, next thing you know he's raping and torturing a woman simply because it is an easy convenience for the plot. Oh, and there is a white dove shot in slow-mo in the subway. Did I just hear you wince?

THE APOCALYPSE CODE (2011): Damn, those Russkies! I keep thinking they are going to pull it out and give up some crowd-pleasing blockbuster with the quality of content that they are historically known for. Don't get me wrong, I'm not expecting Leo Tolstoy reworked with Ian Flemming's sensibilities, but I can't say I'd be against that either. Instead we have Ian Flemming re-imagined by Michael Bay. It should be noted that this has nothing to do with the wing-nut book by Hal Lindsey. But anyway, here we have a super-slick contemporary thriller in which an Arab terrorist (he's wearing a thawb, therefore bad), named Jaffad, has stolen four nuclear warheads off of a sunken US submarine and planted them in four major cities. These warheads can be detonated by entering in a series of codes on a remote detonator hidden away in his Pakistani compound. Jaffad's safeguard is by giving one section of the code to four of his friends around the world. Since Soviet Intelligence knows that one of the warheads is somewhere in Russia, they put their top agent on it; the ridiculously hot agent Mari (Anastasiya Zavorotnyuk). After Jaffad is killed during an assault on his fortress, Mari heads to Paris with the one lead she has, Jaffad's banker Lui (Vincent Perez). Attempting to romance him out of his part of the code, it turns out the Lui has his own meglomaniacal designs on the codes (this is not a spoiler). Instead of killing each other, Mari and Lui must grudgingly team up to get the codes, then kill each other. Lots of cutesy, flirty moments ensue.
As usual for a Russian blockbuster, it is a stunning film to look at. The scope is huge as we hop around the globe to eye-dazzling locations such as Italy, France, Japan and Russia, the sets are detailed and the costumes are so haute couture that they make Vogue look like Abercrombie. And this, aside from one of the thinnest plots ever, is actually a major stumbling block. Mari is so ultra-glamorous, even when she's dressed down in jeans, she looks like she's ready for a Maxim cover shoot. She is actually so stunningly attractive that I cannot for the life of me suspend my disbelief enough to accept her as a cold, lethal agent of the SVR. In addition to that, the biggest problem the movie has is that while it does have a fair amount of action scenes, they are quickly over. The biggest and best set-piece happens in the first ten minutes of the film. The assault on Jaffad's compound with swarming missile-firing attack helicopters and machine-gun toting black-clad footsoldiers is stunningly composed, loud as hell and appears to be quite possibly completely free of CGI. After getting all pumped up, it's a bit of a cold shower when we settle in to Mari and Lui's flirting and catfighting. Oh, did I say "shower"? Oh yeah, Zavorotnyuk does give us one of those, which, also comes in the beginning of the film. Think of this as sort of the cinematic equivalent of a Summer beach novel.

RING OF FIRE II (1993): Total DTV anarchy! Don “The Dragon” Wilson plays Dr. Johnny Woo (that’s right, doctor) who manages to upset the local beefcake badasses (headed up by legit kickboxing champ Ian Jacklin) who grab his girlfriend (Maria Ford) out of the hospital and take her down to The Underworld. Apparently, below the streets of Los Angeles, there is a network of tunnels that is an underground city (complete with crossdressing radio DJ) where there is no law and gangs run rampant. Woo grabs his posse of fighters (including Eric Lee who seems to be reprising his role from the unreleased 1984 Paul Kyriazi film NINJA BUSTERS) and meets up with a crazy vet (Sy Richardson in fine form) to fight his way to his woman! Mere words cannot describe the insanity of this film. It’s the kind of thing that you could only get made in the early ‘90s when the demand for DTV action movies was so high that you could get away with anything, the more outlandish the better. RING OF FIRE II is like Alex Cox directed BLOODSPORT (1988) after watching THE WARRIORS (1979) on acid. Also, Will made a very good point that the scene where the guys have to fight off a bunch of day-glo attackers was borrowed two years later by Joel Schumacher for his day-glo crapfest BATMAN FOREVER (1995). Admittedly, I haven’t seen all of Mr. The Dragon’s output (that would be Will), but this has to be the pinnacle of his career. He’s made plenty of hilariously crazy movies, but this is the number to put all your chips on. Oh, and to the reviewer on IMDb who said this was a "typical Dragon affair" and that it has "they (sic) guy whose been in all those awful Cyborg Cop movies" is on crack. Neither is it typical, nor does share any cast members with the CYBORG COP series. And for the record, the first installment of CYBORG COP is freakin' amazing. Thanks for listening, had to get that off my chest.

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