Monday, September 3, 2012

Listomania: Thomas' August 2012 Barn-Burners

I seem to have watched an amazing amount of movies this month (47), but managed to only get one up on the blog. This Listo is me trying to make up for all that. This month's obsession went from being blown away by how awesome Shusuke Kaneko's GAMERA trilogy still is to my rediscovery of ULTRAMAN and KAMEN RIDER.

RONAL THE BARBARIAN (2010): He rules!! Thanks to Dr. AC's BIFFFtastic Adventure, I've rustled up some movies that I would have otherwise over looked, and this is one of my favorites. This Dutch-produced computer animated send-up of decades of Dungeons & Dragons inspired media is pretty damn silly, but it sure is a lot of fun. An ancient barbarian legend tells of the mighty warrior Crane (pronounced "Khran") who took down a mighty demon who had enslaved the world. In the aftermath of the fray, he realized he was mortally wounded and bled for seven days before dying. Those who were in the area drank his blood and became mighty warriors with massive bulges in all the right places. These people became the mighty barbarian tribe, commited to questing, drinking, more questing, fighting, questing again and lavishing their muscles with oil. After the village is razed to the ground by an army of dark forces, the last remaining barbarian, the weak and spindly Ronal, must go on a quest ("rule number one: It's not a quest!") to find a sword to save his clan. To do this he forms a party with a Shield Maiden, who has kicked every guys ass she has ever met, an Elf, who is relentlessly pretentious and of unknown "orientation" and a stoner Bard dude.

A bizarre mix of genre in-jokes, fetish humor, and straight up-comedy, this flick is actually more entertaining than most of the stuff Pixar has been putting out lately. Imagine Pixar spoofing Warcraft with a PG-13 rating, and you kind of get the gist. It should be noted that there is a big difference between the (badly) dubbed English language version, that envisions barbarians with Southern hick accents and mistranslates jokes. The subtitled version has excellent voice acting, even if it is in Dutch. The producers had previously made a similar, but in my mind, much less successful flick back in 2008 titled JOURNEY TO SATURN, which was a 90-minute string of scat jokes (one of which involves a blob of urine in zero-g floating into someone's mouth). While this one has maybe a bit too much of an obsession with men wearing thongs, it's still a helluva lot of fun, particularly if you watch any of that kind of fantasy geek stuff. Which, of course, we do not. We are much too cool for that sort of thing.

VENDETTA (1995): Excellent adaptation of Jan Guillou's 6th Hamilton novel in which Hamilton (Stefan Sauk) is sent to Polermo to act as an unarmed liason between the son of a dead Mafia boss, Don Tommasso (Ennio Fantastichini), who has re-located to Sicily after getting too much heat on his drug smuggling operations in New York. He has arranged a shady deal with a Swedish weapons manufacturer who get cold feet on the deal, so he takes them hostage, and Hamilton is sent in, unarmed, to simply negotiate. Of course things take a nasty turn when his partner is gunned down, by Tommasso's hot headed brother in a bloody mess in retribution for a perceived insult. While Hamilton plots his revenge, the Carabinieri step in and convince him to settle the score by finding out the details of the mafioso's drug shipment. Pretty well trodden ground in the plot department, I grant you, but the "movie" version of this Swedish mini-series, runs just over two hours (half of the running time of the original series) and never feels dry or routine. Sauk (Wennerström in the DRAGON TATTOO series), plays Hamilton here and while he may not be the most handsome or dashing secret agent, I think that is one of the things that makes him really engaging in the part. He's balding, lanky and not terribly fashionable; he looks like a college math professor. Definitely not the badass that he actually is. Surprisingly bloody for a TV movie, one of the most amusing things about it, is that because it's a Swedish production, the sizable Italian cast acts Swedish! They are all reserved, unemotional, calm and collected. Nobody yells and waves their arms around, no heated “conversations” about seemingly minor things. It must have been killing the Italian actors to behave that way.

IRON SKY (2012): Remember when IRON SKY was a short promo reel that looked absolutely amazing? Welcome to the reality of the filmmaking industry. The finished Finish film starts out great and the production design is phenomenally cool, but while that promo film is still used in the first act, it looks like they switched writers for the movie proper. Unbeknownst to the world, the Third Reich, led by Wolfgang Kortzfleisch (Udo Kier) were the first to successfully land on the moon. Not only did they land, but they set up a massive installation on the dark side, breeding and brainwashing future Aryan soldiers for a forthcoming invasion of Earth. The first act is well written and totally sucks you in with incredibly cool visuals (I love all of the steam-powered Nazi machinery), even if the jokes fall a little flat. After that, it’s a slow slide down hill. The bulk of the film is actually set in a United States that has someone who is clearly meant to be Sarah Palin as president (Stephanie Paul). The Nazis decide that since they cannot fully power-up their invasion force (they need to steal cell phones from Earth), they will send out the ambitious Klaus Adler (Götz Otto, is there anything he's not in?) and the presumed brainwashed and white-washed captured US astronaut James Washington (Christopher Kirby). Yes, the Nazi's actually turn a black man white and yes, comedy ensues.
The bulk of the plot concerns Madam President and her obnoxious aide (Peta Sergeant) trying to spin everything for political gain. By the time it was over it seemed like they forgot they were making a comedy about Nazi’s invading from the moon, and just kept hammering on, bludgeoning the audience with really heavy handed, over-the-top “satire” of American politics and attitudes. Some of it is amusing, but it’s all stuff that we Americans have made a lot of pointed jokes about four years ago, which is a bit strange since IRON SKY started life in 2010. Even if the toothy political commentary hadn't gotten stale over those two years, the jokes are not well written, lacking timing and set-up and delivery. Peta Sergeant is probably what took me from being somewhat disappointed to never wanting to see the film again. Her character takes over the last third of the movie and she comes from the school of louder is funnier. She’s so over the top, screaming f-bombs and rolling her eyes, that she makes The Three Stooges seem like icons of subtle nuance. The IMDb lists two guys who wrote the original story, then there’s a third credit for a screenwriter. I’m guessing it’s the screenwriter who decided to change it from a comic homage to old sci-fi/horror flicks and turn it into his own personal anti-American soapbox. The whole set-up in the first act is fantastic and the production design is nothing short of incredible. Then there's that script. It’s a real shame too, if they had skipped the forced comedy (which is surprisingly absent from the trailers), this would have been the film of the decade.

THE LIQUIDATOR (2011): I pity the poor sucker who picked up this flick simply because the poster art is top-billed Vinny Jones brandishing, make that firing, a pump-action shotgun. Oh wait, that was me. I don't know why I got suckered, I'm not even a fan. I guess I figured it would be some fast-paced action silliness and hell I've never seen a movie made in Kazakhstan! Of course, after this I'm pretty sure I don't want to see another. Yes, I said Kazakhstan. You can stop quoting Borat now. Instead of quirky regional filmmaking, we are treated to an agonizingly cliched, paper-thin thriller about a professional bodyguard named Arsen (Aitzhanov Berik) whose brother is accidentally killed by the mob. Since Arsen is a master of hand-to-hand combat and firearms, he decides to start taking down the perps one by one, all under the watchfull gaze of a hand-held digital video camera. Vinnie Jones shows up 40 minutes into the film as a contract killer called "The Mute," which means he can't deliver his usual lines which consist of a string of f-bombs shouted at the top of his lungs. I was thinking it was because the production was too cheap (does Kazakhstan even have a SAG?), but maybe it was just because they've seen his other films. Either way, he's in the movie for less than five minutes and the other 89 are simply featherweight rehashes of a million other Hollywood thrillers with a teeny, little twist at the end that doesn't amount to anything whatsoever. The ending does set us up for a sequel though. I wonder who will grace the poster for that one?

THE EMPTY BEACH (1985): Every now and again someone tries their hand at making a Dashiell Hammet or Ramond Chandler adaptation without the adaptation part. In otherwords instead of remaking THE MALTESE FALCON or THE BIG SLEEP (again), the filmmakers simply borrow Hammet and Chandler's themes and the style of their characters and drop them down into modern day Los Angeles, San Francisco or... Bondi Beach? Yep, the world-famous Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia is the setting for this gritty noir outing based on the novel by Peter Corris, starring Bryan Brown as hard-bitten gumshoe Cliff Hardy. After being hired by a widow (Anna Maria Monticelli) to investigate some evidence that her wealthy husband may have faked his apparent suicide, Hardy discovers that the husband was something of a small crime lord whose competitors are also members of the wealthy elite. Things start to get ugly when Hardy discovers that there are some missing audio tapes that nobody wants to talk about, but some are willing to kill for. Brown turns in a fine performance as a terse, steely-eyed, PI who always seems to find himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. This movie has many great things going for it outside of the traditionally obtuse plot (not that there is anything wrong with that).
While the atmosphere is thick with gritty old-school noir, TV director Chris Thomson gives it a thin verneer of mild '80s trappings, such as neon titles, retro autos and a moody synth-sax score. While it may seem that these two styles might clash, they somehow mesh into something more than the sum of their parts. Plus the writers manage to emulate the dry sense of humor found in Hammet and Chandler's works; when Hardy meets up with his high-brow client he asks "who recommended me?" to which he gets the reply, "the phone book," to which he replies "oh". As if that weren't enough, the cast is a virtual directory of Aussie film and TV veterans including the ubiquitous Ray Barrett as a sleazy crime boss whose mistress is an illiterate teenage junkie. Still unreleased in the US and never released on DVD, even in Australia, this is something of an overlooked gem that really should be getting a nice widescreen treatment.

AS TIME GOES BY (1988): Utterly odd final film from non-conformist, low-budget Aussie filmmaker Barry Peaks with a lousy title, only made worse by some European releases which were titled THE AUSTRALIEN. A bean-pole surf bum, Mike (Nique Needles), is dumped in the middle of the outback by his two annoying female friends. According to a note he received as a child, Mike has an appointment to meet someone at a bar named Joe Bogart's some 50 miles outside of the tiny town of Dingo. Dingo, populated by some seriously odd people including a whiskey-swilling bone collector, a dry-goods proprietor who is obsessed with the eradication of dust, an insane land baron (Ray Barrett) who is determined to replace sheep with cattle after converting the outback to green land via the ozone layer, and is obsessed with aliens too. Actually a lot of people are after alien lifeforms when a meteor crashes near Dingo including a wing-nut alien chaser who manages to drive the shopkeeper off the deep end by pointing out that his magnified photograph of dust, is actually a louse. Also in the mix is the hard-bitten local cop (Bruno Lawrence) who is trying to find out who is killing all of the local sheep, while avoiding the bullets of two inbred brothers. There is so much going on in this movie it is almost impossible to synopsize (I love how the one phone booth in town is seen in the background with the same man screaming about how his "S.T.O.W.V. - stove!" is broken). It's got moments of fantastic spaghetti western-influenced atmosphere mixed with a dash of REPO MAN surreality, but it's really not like anything else you've ever seen. The only time the film falters is during some of the comedy elements which in one aspect go a little over the top, clashing with some really well-crafted outback atmosphere, otherwise it's a really enjoyable example of oddball Aussie filmmaking that would never get a green light in the US.

DARK HOUSE (2009): To say I know next to nothing about daily life in Poland is an understatement. I haven't seen very many Polish films either, so I figure, I should probably fix that, right? This highly praised movie was probably not a good starting point. Shot on video, the movie intercuts between two timelines each with a completely different tone. The first is a serious drama set in 1978 in which petty criminal Edward Srodon (Arkadiusz Jakubik), who loses his job after his wife suddenly drops dead, and decides to move to a state work farm. While travelling, he stumbles across a farmhouse and ingratiates himself with a father and daughter. There is a lot of alcohol consumed, a lot of loose talk, a lot of petty nastiness (the father beats the daughter in a drunken rage) and finally things take a bloody turn. The other plot line is an angry clown-act in modern day where an entire squad of police officers, a prosecutor and a couple of civilians are trying to piece together that same 1978 crime, but spend more time being overtly moronic, drunken, abusive, petty, violent and childish. There's some effort of biting criticism of Eastern Bloc politics, and it appears that director Wojciech Smarzowski was trying for a dark satire of the polish police force, but ends up with an amaturish, mean-spirited version of POLICE ACADEMY instead of the Polish FARGO that it is trying to be.
Occasionally the film drifts into self-indulgence, particularly with a scene of a character sitting on a bed, staring at the camera, motionless for several minutes, then cutting to a black and white close-up of his face, staring and motionless, for several more minutes. This comes from it's schizophrenic script in which it's desperately trying to be this intense drama and a hateful, but allegedly comic re-working of the Keystone Kops with the police being drunk, getting into fistfights, delivering babies, vomiting, talking trash, losing evidence, falling in the snow, beating the witness and so on. In one of the many fragments of character development, the pregnant officer (who slugs down vodka with the rest) is beaten by her husband who suspects that his commanding officer is responsible for the pregnancy, ultimately causing a premature delivery right in the crime scene. All in good fun! Apparently I am one of the few that felt like I was robbed of 90 minutes of my life as the IMDb can prove with its solitary negative review: "9 out of 50 people found the following review useful: I'd stay away from this movie unless you like watching drunken people on screen acting like tards". Why didn't I just say that in the first place? Interestingly the trailer tries to play the film off as a gritty police/crime thriller and doesn't even hint at the attempted comedy.

SEXMISSION (1988): Now we're talking! Highly entertaining Polish sci-fi / comedy / T&A flick about a scientist and an average schlub who sign-up to be cryogenically frozen for a period of three years as part of an experiment by a nobel-prize winning uber-scientist. Unfortunately for them, they are defrosted over 50 years later after the earth has been devestated by war and men have become extinct. The women who revive them have formed a society without men and regard them to be the embodiment of evil, re-writing history to suit their own view of the world, and creating new (female) citizens via test-tubes. The women now have to decide what to do with these two freaks, meanwhile the guys find that escape is the only option, though it is a little more than frustrating to be surrounded by thousands of virgin women who all hate them. Man, did I make it sound bleak! It's actually great fun with humor ranging from dry wit to slapstick, plus we get cool sci-fi miniatures and sets... oh and did I mention boobs? Yep, since they are all girls in the complex they have communal bathing pools, sporting events that culminate with the exchanging of the jersey's and ventillation breakdowns that require... yes, more shirts to come off! If it didn't have themes of communist oppression and Teutonic invasions, it would be an '80s teen T&A flick ala Cinemax. If it didn't have all the T&A and comedy, it would be a '60s science fiction epic. As it sits, it's fun, funny and presents a razor-sharp criticism of life under communist rule. Like all great science fiction, the social commentary is there if you want it, and invisible if you don't. Either way you want to take it, it's a great movie.

LAKE OF THE DEAD (1958): Another film I had to track down after reading about it thanks to Fred at Ninja Dixon. The Nord's have never been much for horror films, but this little gem is quite the exception. Stop me if you've heard this one... A group of friends heads up to a remote cabin in the woods to look for a friend of theirs who hasn't been heard of in several days. Once there, they realize that it is a cabin with a gruesome legend about a one-legged ghost who possesses those who enter his home and then sends them down to the water where they drown themselves. This is in 1958! Could this be the original "cabin in the woods" film? I'm not sure about that, but it's the earliest one I am aware of. Filmed in stark black and white, with wide, scope lenses, director Kåre Bergstrøm makes the most of his meager budget (there are literally only four shooting locations) deviling some genuinely creepy atmosphere in spite of the almost stage-play approach. In addition to the plot elements of supernatural possession in a cabin in the woods, we also get some POV camera work travelling through the foliage. It's all awfully reminiscent of... well, you know. The interesting thing about it is that since the Scandinavians love their detective mysteries, the script tries to satisfy that quotient too by one of the characters being a police detective and another a wannabe "Sherlock Holmes". A fine entry in a tiny genre. Well worth tracking down.

NEW KIDS TURBO (2010): Man, what is it with Dutch comedy? The Dutch are seem to be in a war with the Japanese over who can make the loudest, shrillest and most abrasive comedy films. If a line is funny, it's twice as funny if it's shouted as loud as possible with a mouthfull of food. Based on the Dutch Comedy Central show about a group of white euro-trash kids (mullets, little mustaches, and tracksuits) who lose their jobs, blame it on the economic crisis and ultimately go to war with the state. If it's funny to hit someone with a truck, it'll be even funnier the 10th time around. Pissing, fighting, drinking, killing, stealing and blatantly ripping off WAYNE'S WORLD can be funny, but this is so extremely forced that it's hard to find anything to laugh at. This seems to be popular with the teen crowd, so maybe I'm not exactly the target demographic, but at the same time, I do remember going to highschool with one of these guys. There's always one.

SHIN KAMEN RIDER (1992): This is the one that pisses off the purists and for that reason, seems to be totally under appreciated. It's a damn shame too, because this is one wild ride, mashing together genres with great results. Apparently the author of the comic, Shôtarô Ishinomori's, original concept was that Shocker's creations were actually mutants. Hybridized humans who have been genetically merged with an animal or insect DNA. Apparently someone along the way managed to change this concept into the more user-friendly (or kid-friendly) concept of cyborgs. This movie is a return to that original concept and brings it home with all the flair of a 1980s drive-in monster movie. Imagine if David Cronenberg and Rob Bottin were Japanese and made a Kamen Rider film in the '80s and you'll kind of get the idea. A rash of bloody murders are plaguing the city while at the same time a scientist is conducting experiments introducing insect cells into human DNA. As it turns out that human DNA happens to be his son Shin (Kohisa Ishikawa), his last and only living human experiment. Even worse, the experiments, seemingly being done by an independent bio company turns out to be for an evil organization (presumably Shocker, but only referred to as The Organization). While one of the scientists performs dangerous experiments on himself in his bizarre EVILSPEAK-inspired lab a group of super-commando types are attempting to take down the organization and put a stop to their experiments. Maybe a little slow to get rolling, this outing sports some seriously eye-popping latex effects including full-blown latex sculpted animatronic mutants, graphic gore and a Kamen Rider transformation scene that tips it's hat directly at AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. If you've only seen the recent stuff that's been shot on video with cheap POWER RANGERS-looking outfits and highschool kids with tricked-out cell phones, this one will be a real... ummmm... Shocker!

Sub-Zero Wins... Fatality!

ULTRAMAN COSMOS - THE FIRST ENCOUNTER (2001): Sweet jeezus on a friggin' stick, what did I get myself into? I was a big Ultraman fan when I was a kid. I watched that show probably more than any other and recently I rediscovered the old series. It was like a crack-filled dreamsicle. Sweet, addictive nostalgia. So I figure, hey, I should check out what has happened with the guy since I was a kid. Well, aparently I wasn't the only one who loved that show. No less than 36 spin-off shows and 21 movies comprise the Ultraman library, give or take. I figured I got some catching up to do! Unfortunately, where the original series boasted some really quirky and interesting episodes that went well above the call of duty, this is a total modern kiddie flick. Adults are bumbling (and therefore "funny"), the music is sappy as hell and there’s no Ultraman until the end, so instead we get the science team using robotic arms with boxing gloves extending from their ships to beat up the monster (not even kidding), represented on their HUD as an old school Nintendo game and – and... in the next battle they have all of the children sing the monster to sleep. I. CAN’T. MAKE. THIS. UP.
The main monster is Baltan, my favorite monster from my childhood, that’s a plus, but he doesn’t do half of his cool powers and after browsing the internet I find out he’s everybody's childhood favorite. Ok, I can live with that but in the end after a mostly cheap CGI fight with Ultraman…. Ready for this? This is where I run naked into the street screaming obscenities and brandishing a firearm. Well, in my case, a squirtgun, which is probably even more frightening. Ok, ready? He starts crying and kills himself. No, really – all he wanted was to live in peace with the children of Earth. I am totally fucking serious. Thank you to whoever decided to hire Toshihiro Iijima, who hadn't directed a film since the infantile, poop-obsessed DAIGARO VS. GOLIATH (1971), for killing my Ultrabuzz.

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