The Culture Cast with Zack and Nick

Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!

I Saw Hercules

I’m somewhat surprised. Despite quite a bit of bad press in the months leading up until its late July release, Hercules turned out to be a lot better than I expected. Anchored by a charismatic performance from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (who has become one of our best action stars) and featuring slick direction from Internet whipping boy Brett Ratner, Hercules feels a lot like an old school 1980s adventure film in the vein of Schwarzenegger’s Conan movies. It’s not great art, but it is incredibly entertaining, a lot of fun, and totally unworthy of most of its pre-release criticisms (I’ll save this for later). In a summer filled with disappointing would-be blockbusters (The Amazing Spider-Man 2, I’m looking at you) that failed to either live up to the hype or just be generally entertaining, Hercules is an absolute winner.

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is perfectly cast as Hercules.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is perfectly cast as Hercules.

There was some legitimate pre-release criticism surrounding Hercules’ production. Late British comic book author Steve Moore received zero royalties for his involvement in the production (he wrote the comic book the film is based on, titled Hercules: The Thracian Wars). Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens more often than not. A few years ago, one of Ghost Rider’s original creators lost a lawsuit against Marvel. In response, fans threatened to “boycott” Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, a film they probably wouldn’t have seen in theaters anyway. Alan Moore, a good friend but no relation to Steve, similarly called for audiences to boycott Hercules. Additionally, some of the staff behind the film took some unfair potshots at Summit Entertainment’s “rival” The Legend of Hercules, a film that was doing no one any harm and never had any shot at actually competing against a $110 million dollar Paramount/MGM co-production.

However, there were also a few unfair criticisms lodged at Hercules. Brett Ratner of course gets his fair share of Internet hate, despite having directed only three or four movies in the last ten years. Ratner is known for slick Hollywood entertainment with very little depth. He has, however, directed some genuinely entertaining films, including Red Dragon (the second-best Hannibal Lecter film) and Tower Heist, an underrated comedy/crime caper from 2011 that did little at the box office despite an all-star cast. Ratner is largely hated by fanboys (and the Internet at large) because he is supposedly the guy who screwed up the X-Men film franchise, but I honestly can’t blame him for that. Yes, X3: X-Men United is not a good movie. I would argue it also isn’t horrible (just disappointing) and that Ratner isn’t really to blame. Some combination of Mathew Vaughn and Bryan Singer (as well as various producers and screenwriters) probably share their fair amount of blame for that production as well. But it’s just easier to say Ratner is a terrible director and ruined the film, so there you go.

Additionally, a few days before the movie’s release, word began to spread, largely due to Gawker-affiliated blog io9.com that Hercules was not a mythical/fantastical take on the Hercules legend. It instead focused on the man behind the myth. The point of the article, I suppose, was to rally people further against the film because it had misleading trailers. If that’s the case, then most movies should also receive this kind of scorn and detriment because a fair amount of trailers are also misleading, whether intentionally or not. Hercules was also not screened for critics, which is largely a death sentence for most movies nowadays. I don’t understand why Paramount and MGM had such little faith in this production. Honestly, they are really to blame for some of this films legitimate pre-release criticisms as well.

But again, Hercules is not that bad of a movie. I found it incredibly entertaining. It feels very old school in a lot of ways. It is slickly directed and has action sequences you can actually follow. There’s a fair amount of humor, much of which comes from Ian McShane, who is great in his supporting role as Amphiaraus, a spear-wielding mystic who serves as one member of Hercules’ team. Oh, Hercules has a team of adventurers with him in this film – I forgot to mention that. On the surface that seems silly, but the team really adds a lot to the film. In addition to the McShane character, Rufus Sewell portrays Autolycus, a Spartan warrior and expert with knives. Sewell once seemed to be a rising star in Hollywood, but basically disappeared completely. His screen presence here is much appreciated. Screen legend John Hurt also shows up as the desperate King of Thrace, who hires Hercules and his team for one last job. Oh, this is also the kind of film where our heroes are in for one last job before retiring. It’s that kind of a movie.

The major weaknesses in this film don’t particularly bother me whatsoever. I don’t care that Hercules is not a mythical figure in this film, because it helps humanize him. Were he a true demigod, he would perhaps be functionally immortal. But The Rock plays Hercules as a broken yet determined man. He is a man who loves his friends and loved his family. He’s out for vengeance but he’s also got a soft heart. He’s conflicted, but he’s never dour. The Rock nails it. The script isn’t great, but this is a smaller scale film than one might realize. Hercules is essentially a one-shot adventure film, despite its comic book origins. I have no problem with this. Hollywood should give us more of this. Though the film cost approximately $110 million dollars to make, it still seems kind of low budget. But again, that only serves to remind me of all of those awesome 1980s fantasy films so it doesn’t bother me much (and not every movie needs to cost $250 million these days anyway).

Though I would argue that the script isn’t great and the film’s budget doesn’t allow for massive chaos and carnage on screen, I would also argue that I don’t mind that whatsoever. This is a briskly paced action/adventure with a self-contained story that runs a thankfully short 98 minutes. It isn’t overly ambitious like Gladiator or hyper-stylistic and kind of magical/ethereal like 300 (two films I still love despite internet backlashes), but it kind of falls in between and forms a sort of happy medium. I like old school sword-and-sandal films like this quite a bit. The Rock is incredibly entertaining and also perfectly cast as Hercules. The supporting cast in this film is excellent, particularly the great Ian McShane. Ratner’s direction is slick and the on-screen action is easy to follow. It is a low stakes sort of summer blockbuster film, but again that’s ok. Not everything needs to be a $250 million dollar three hour epic with plans for an interconnected sprawling franchise. Paramount and MGM apparently didn’t have much faith in Hercules, but I quite enjoyed what I got from it.

-Z-

I Saw The Purge: Anarchy

I really don’t know why Frank Grillo never got any big roles up until a few years ago. I didn’t even take notice of him until he played the antagonist oil worker who butts heads with Liam Neeson’s wolf hunter in 2012’s The Grey. Though I haven’t seen it, Nick has spoke highly of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Grillo’s role in particular. Despite the fact that he’s awesome and utterly badass, Frank Grillo never seemed to get his big break until only a few years ago. He really should have been anchoring movies like these for two decades at least. I’d like to imagine a world where he got a chance to play the Punisher or the lead character in a Death Wish reboot or something. Anyway, starring in a sequel to 2013’s surprise summer hit, The Purge: Anarchy is close enough I guess. The movie isn’t any great shakes, but Grillo is wonderful.

The_Purge_–_Anarchy_Poster

That’s why I start this review with Frank Grillo. He’s the best part of a movie that would absolutely sink were it not for him. His character, who goes unnamed until almost the last 10 minutes of the movie (and honestly, it doesn’t matter what his name is anyway), is an old-school vigilante in the vein of Frank Castle or Paul Kersey. His stoic willingness to participate in the annual Purge, an event where all crime is legal (for the most part) for twelve hours one night each year, paints him as both a sociopath and a grizzled survivor to those around him. Grillo is out for blood, but he’s not a bad guy. He’s a man with a code, and he also has an armored car full of high-powered weapons. In short, he’s the most badass guy in a film series that was in dire need of a badass (sorry Ethan Hawke).

The Purge: Anarchy isn’t a very good movie. Written and directed by James DeMonaco and produced by horror connoisseur Jason Blum, it has both a bigger budget and a bigger scale story than last year’s claustrophobic original, and it is also appreciably better than that movie as well. Mother/daughter pair Eva and Cali (Carmen Ejogo and Zoe Soul) are taken prisoner by a highly organized SWAT team after their slum-like apartment is invaded. Meanwhile, Shane and Liz (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) are stranded after trying to escape a marauding pack of masked inner-city teenagers intent on killing them or capturing them or worse. As all of this is going on, a revenge-seeking Frank Grillo (who I like to think is playing himself, as if this were a documentary and all the weapons are actually owned by Frank Grillo and this is just his normal life) is participating in the Purge, looking to exact righteous revenge on someone who wronged him in the past. These five people’s paths intersect while low budget chaos, murder, and mayhem go on all around them.

Last year’s The Purge was filmed on a miniscule budget of just three million dollars. It was not a great film, but had a killer hook – what if crime was legal for twelve hours. This still fascinates me as an idea, particularly from a sociological perspective. This year’s production essentially quadruples the budget of the original, allowing for bigger sets (this film takes place largely on city streets compared to last year’s film’s use of a house for much of its running time) and bigger ideas (and also greater mayhem). Though the film isn’t directed particularly well, DeMonaco does at least mostly shy away from shaky cam and/or jump cut editing that has become prevalent in film’s like these. There is also some pretty gory stuff here, and the blood and guts effects at least looked practical to me. The film also has moments of genuine fright and tension, particularly one sequence where Grillo must take out several armed rich people hunting him.

The script and dialogue are, however, pretty horrible. The film tries and tries to be subversive and intelligent about American society and our obsession with the second amendment, but it just comes off as ham-fisted and sophomoric for the most part. The political statements made otherwise (the rich hunting the poor and the weak, for instance) are done in some interesting ways. I liked the scenes of the hunted becoming the hunter, for example (this was probably the best sequence in the film in all honesty) and I liked the idea of the old and the infirm essentially selling themselves out to be murdered so their family can have some money. But for the most part, the political and thematic dialogue is almost painful to experience. Case in point being the character of Carmelo, a revolutionary portrayed by the great Michael K. Williams. The character isn’t much more than a cartoon as portrayed in this film, though Williams hams him up enough to at least make the performance campy and entertaining.

There existed a kernel of interest in the original The Purge film that was never quite exploited in quite the way I might have wanted it to be. The Purge: Anarchy, while not a good film, at least tries to be more exploitative and engrossing. I miss small films like these. Blum and company have plans to essentially release one of these each year with different characters and stories. I don’t have any problem with that whatsoever, especially if they continually improve on each other the way Anarchy did over the original. Though the political stuff is kind of dumb (but at least entertaining in a laughable way), the mayhem, murder, carnage, action, and whatnot can be very slickly done. The dialogue is absolutely atrocious at times and characters are cardboard cutouts (particularly Shane and Liz, who I cared nothing about), but the film is a pretty good showcase for the awesomeness that is Grade-A badass Frank Grillo. At least he’ll hopefully get some more work out of this. He is easily the best character in the whole film and arguably the main reason to see this movie in the first place.

-Z-

The Gorehound’s 50th Entry: Thoughts on Revenge Horror

The popular Korean direction: Chan-Wook Park

The popular Korean director: Chan-Wook Park

Why should you care about revenge horror? Aren’t all horror movies the same? Just a bunch of teens getting hunted by a serial killer or monster? Certainly not. Horror movies are deep. They excel in exposing a characters true or secret personality. No other genre can utilize makeup and special effects to the level of creating a crazy swamp thing. The Gorehound loves horror movies because they incorporate and excel at every aspect of cinema: diversity of characters, effects, story, lighting, etc. A revengeful horror film is the apex of a perfect horror movie.

Park Chan-Wook (or Chan-Wook Park) could possibly be the most notable name in revenge horror and should be idolized for his vision: the revenge trilogy (Oldboy ’03, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance ’02, and Lady Vengeance ’05) is the best example of revenge horror. There aren’t many films that truly follow the ideology of revenge horror, though those that do are incredible. At its core, this subgenre simply seeks some unorthodox justice for a painful event such as rape or death. The deeper contribution that this subgenre offers is the creativity and justice that the victim’s agent (the person performing the revenge) plays. The justice for the act can be literally the same as the event or figuratively deeper. The revenge consumes the victim’s agent to the apex of the movie where revenge is finally obtained. While it may bring relief to the victim’s agent, it often scars. Revenge muddies thoughts and distorts reality. It can be good, but it can also be terrible.

The unfortunate part about revenge horror is the intensity. Films like I Spit On Your Grave (‘78) and Last House on The Left (’72) turn off entire populations of moviegoers. These films have no role in horror entertainment and should be discouraged. Audiences often fail to distinguish revenge horror with torture and S&M. Torturous elements are often included in revenge horror due to its relevance in inflicting pain. Revenge horror should still be entertaining, just like any other movie. Yes, we must be willing to sit through painful scenes in the turnaround of seeing the beautiful revenge that is being sought. We should feel for the characters and look forward to relief, and not just cringe and lookaway the entire film.

But revenge horror is still vibrant. There is much potential for new directors to develop this intense genre.

The remake of Old Boy (’13) is wonderful. While still maintaining many crucial scenes (e.g., octopus, continuous fight scene with the knife in the back) it has a different focus. It’s difficult to say that a remake is better (because there are many which are) so I can’t ascertain which is better but in my opinion, the Korean version is better. Though I knew the twist, I felt that it was obvious the first time we saw Olsen. I also thought this guy was tougher. He was bulkier and angrier, especially with his personality. He appeared more culturally-shocked than the original character. Just a nitpick, but I felt there wasn’t enough gore, especially in the longest and best fight scene of the movie: A hammer will tear shit up and there was very little blood or gore in this movie.

So where does this leave us? More horror movies should utilize this beautiful subgenre. It is a delicate in that it is difficult to portray the true emotional pain of revenge. It should not be taken lightly, but it should be worked towards.  It shows us the capability of human emotion. How much pain are we will to inflict on someone else who has inflicted pain on us? How far are we willing to go to?

 

Getting Back to My Roots (Yet Again): Insanely Exhilarating Racing Edition

When I was a teenager in the 90s, the sheer number of totally outrageous, highly entertaining feature-length anime movies seemed almost intimidating. There existed, after all, some twenty odd years of material to comb through and obsess over. As the years passed by, however, the numbers began to dwindle and dwindle as I caught up with everything, and the cool stuff seemed to come less and less often. While there were filmmakers like Satoshi Kon releasing great movies every few years, the overall output seemed to almost completely disappear. This was, of course, not completely true – it was just my limited perception. But nevertheless, anime increasingly seemed like it wasn’t for me anymore, so much so that despite the occasional Kon or Mamoru Hosoda outliers, I grew incredibly disillusioned with the medium.

Redline_(2009_film)_poster

Though a more recent trend in the medium has given me some pretty great television entertainment over the better part of the last year, the feature length films targeted towards older anime fans are sadly still in short supply. In 2010, however, the hand-drawn Takeshi Koike-directed Redline, from Madhouse animation studio, was released to incredibly wide acclaim, from both fans and critics alike. I was, at this time, super hyped for Redline. Judging by the initial trailer, it looked absolutely amazing. Unfortunately, it would be another year and a half or so before the film was made widely commercially available to a mass audience in the states. By the time of its release onto DVD and Blu Ray disc from Manga Entertainment in early 2012, I had kind of moved on (in hindsight this was an enormous mistake).

Over the past few months, my interest in the anime medium has come back quite a bit. I had occasionally glanced over at the Redline Blu Ray on the tiny shelf labeled “Anime” at Best Buy (remember when this used to be an entire aisle?). I noticed recently it was priced at a very tempting $14.99, but still I always passed it by with little more than a second glance. Then one day I noticed it had been re-priced to $9.99, and I snatched it up immediately. After watching it, I realized that I should have paid double that. If anything, I probably should have paid triple – Redline is just that damn good. I feel like a total fool for skipping over it the past few years, especially when everyone was saying to watch it. But again, in fairness to me, Redline wasn’t easily available for purchase until nearly two years after its theatrical run. Still – I feel really dumb that I hadn’t seen it until just this summer.

downloadRedline is not a film that is terribly concerned with plot or script. The story is incredibly simple. The titular Redline is an ultimate drag race between a small number of bad-ass competitors who must out-maneuver and out-race each other in order to win the universe’s ultimate bragging rights. Redline is the culmination of an entire season’s worth of intergalactic racing and also perhaps the most dangerous activity in the galaxy to participate in. Our hero, Sweet JP, wins a popularity poll as a last minute addition to the Redline lineup. Along with his partner in crime Frisbee, Sweet JP is in too deep with the mob. The two have been fixing races for quite some time in order to pay back the mob and continually upgrade JP’s Trans Am for future races. JP begins to grow unfulfilled and conflicted, however, due to the influence of Old Man Mole, the wise mechanic he employs, and Sonoshee McClaren, a childhood acquaintance, fellow racer, and eventual love interest.

JP isn’t the only sweet character in Redline – the film is packed to the gills with great character design. Each racer/racing team is wildly distinctive. Sonoshee and JP are the most “human” of the racers. Machinehead is a cyborg competitor who is literally a part of his automobile. Boiboi and Bosbos (who make up racing team Super Boins) are sexy magical girls from the planet Supergrass. Trava and Shinkai are ex-soldiers, and Trava looks like an elf/cat/man hybrid while Shinkai kind of resembles Dr. Zoidberg from Futurama. Lynchman and Johnny Boya are almost an alternate world Batman and Robin. The list goes on and on. The other cool thing about the racers is that their rides are just as distinctive as their drivers. Sweet JP’s Trans Am 20,000 is really the only vehicle that resembles a modern car. Sonoshee’s ride is hover-based, and can glide across the water. The Super Boins’ car looks like a female giant robot, and even transforms into one at a certain point in the film.

A seven-year labor of love, Redline also looks fantastic on Blu Ray. It is drawn by hand, making it unique in

The many eclectic characters of Redline.

The many eclectic characters of Redline.

this day in age in anime. Throughout the film, animation is incredibly smooth and beautiful, particularly in the engaging and distinctive racing and action sequences. Director Takeshi Koike, who also served as the storyboard artist, clearly put a lot of time and effort into this film. Madhouse is known for doing top-tier work (they were also responsible for Summer Wars, which I’ve long touted as one of the best animated films of the past ten years) and Redline is no exception. Sound design is similarly excellent. James Shimoji is responsible for the music, and it gels quite well with the film. It’s a soundtrack I’d love to own, as some of the music in the film is absolutely pulse pounding. As noted earlier, the script is fairly generic, but it doesn’t have to be outstanding – this is a film that lives and dies by its spectacle and Redline is spectacular.

I feel really stupid that I didn’t check out Redline years ago. There really is nothing out there quite like it. It’s so damn charming, good looking, and imaginative. The film really only features two actual races, but manages to be incredibly compelling throughout. The characterization and world building are second to none throughout Redline. There’s just so much interesting stuff packed into this movie (I didn’t even get into the corrupt planet of Roboworld, where the Redline race takes place), and it still manages to move at a brisk pace (the film runs 102 minutes, which is the scientifically proven best length for a film to run). I can’t believe you can actually walk into a store and buy something as awesome as this (on Blu Ray no less) for the incredibly low price of $9.99, but I highly admit that everyone go out and buy it as soon as possible. This is what everyone has told me to do for the past 3 years and I didn’t listen – but I should have. Redline is amazing.

-Z-

The “New” Black Captain America

There was some minor news the other week about how Marvel Comics was going to replace the current Captain America, Steve Rogers, with his long-time crime-fighting partner Sam “The Falcon” Wilson (who was recently played by Anthony Mackie in this past summer’s The Winter Soldier). Since it was revealed on the popular The Colbert Report, other news media outlets have reported that Captain America was now going to be black. Overall, there has not been much controversy over this change, which I speculate comes mostly from the fact that the “new” Cap is an already established character, and that it seems to be a natural evolution of where this current storyline was heading. In other words, it makes sense.

Falcon new look as Captain America.

Falcon new look as Captain America.

But despite what the news outlets are saying, this is not the first time Captain America is black. Comic fans will automatically point to the 2003 mini-series, Truth: Red, White, and Black, in which readers learn of Isaiah Bradley, a black man who also functioned as Captain America during WW2. However, Bradley still wasn’t the first. Truth is there was another black Captain America published before that. And he was Sam “The Falcon” Wilson.

Bradley was not the first published black Cap.

Bradley was not the first published black Cap.

Wait…is Marvel retreading ground? Yeah, comic book companies do that a lot. Chances are the Marvel editors (and seemingly all comic media outlets) had forgotten about this relatively obscure story. But don’t worry loyal readers. I’m here to tell you all about it!

In the late 1990s, Marvel Comics launched a second Captain America comic subtitled Sentinel of Liberty. SOL was largely an anthology series that told a variety of Cap stories from his past (and, in one instance, his future). In issues 8 and 9, Cap and the Falcon are trying to calm increasing race tensions in Harlem (Falcon’s home turf). Things are not going well and making problems worse is a white supremacist group claiming that Cap supports their beliefs which the Harlem residences believe sight unseen. This group also has an African American working for them in order to further their agenda (for reasons left mostly unexplained). Things continue to escalate, and Cap is seemingly killed in action.

Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty - Issues 8 & 9

Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty #8 & #9 (1999)

These issues have a big ‘70s vibe with the racial tension (which the Cap comics of that era dealt with in some capacity with the Falcon character). They never address when it takes place (as comics are always in the perennial now), but they give hints of 70s décor (with a novelty Nixon prop in the background of a costume shop).

Anyway, turns out Cap was really captured by the bad guys (never explained how since it was very apparent that his body was turned into ashes – COMICS, Everybody!) and, under mind-control, starts to train their henchmen. But, we don’t learn that until the end of issue 9.

In the meantime, since the Falcon earlier commented on how Cap doesn’t see color (a phrase rightfully ridiculed in 2014, but completely fine in 1999) and that symbol of “Captain America” is for everyone, he dons a Cap costume and continues the fight in Harlem. It doesn’t go as well as Falcon-Cap doesn’t have the fighting prowess as the original Cap and, even worse, is attacked by his fellow African Americans (they, apparently, don’t see color either).

"Deal with it."

“Deal with it.”

Eventually, Falcon-Cap finds his way into the lair of the white supremacist group and discovers their ultimate plan: to create an airborne virus that only attacks people of color. In other words, if someone is black, they’re toast. If you are white, you are fine.

Yep. You read that right. The story doesn’t go into what happens to Asians or Hispanics. Presumably they are targeted too (white supremacy after all). This is a plot development that is so incredibly goofy that it can only work in any “serious” nature in comics.

In the end, the virus is a dud as it too doesn’t see color and kills anyone who inhales it. So much for white privilege. Falcon-Cap ends up saving the day and the original Captain America. Falcon then goes back to being Falcon and Steve Rogers resumes his role as Captain America. All is well in the world.

From Captain America #333.

From Captain America #333 (1987)

Under the pen of Mark Waid, I am not sure how serious this tale was meant to really be. On one hand, you have some good stuff with race relations (with some light black-exploitation for good measure), but the story is trying to emulate the ‘70s without it being the ‘70s. I’m not sure it works in that regard. For a straight up adventure, it works just fine.

But, really, none of that matters. What does matter is that Captain America was black long before now. And Sam “The Falcon” Wilson was that black Cap. His new gig as Cap really isn’t all that new.

I wonder if they’ll even reference this adventure.

~N

What Went Wrong?: Vol. 50 – Spectacularly Ill Advised Buddy Cop Edition

The buddy cop comedy/action film is, at this point, old hat for Hollywood. Even after being perfected by Lethal Weapon (and its eventual sequels) way back in the late 80s, every once in a while someone tries to update the genre anyway, usually to mixed success. A few outliers include the Rush Hour franchise, which was huge for a few years, as well as last year’s The Heat, a Sandra Bullock/Melissa McCarthy “comedy” that was one of the worst films I saw in theaters last year. Something about pairing up two people who do not ostensibly go together just has some kind of special appeal to Hollywood, I guess. I’m not necessarily opposed to the buddy cop genre, but let’s be honest here – it is almost entirely played out.

CopoutposterDespite this, in 2009 Warner Bros. gave Kevin Smith, who is not particularly known for directing action films, 35 million dollars to make a Bruce Willis/Tracy Morgan buddy cop film titled A Couple of Dicks, a film title that was funny the first time I heard it, but grew tiresome after that (much like Homer Simpson’s barbershop quartet The Be Sharps). Smith was forced, however, to change the title after Warner Bros. decided it might not be a good idea to have the word Dicks on a theater marquee. The best thing he could come up with then was Cop Out, another incredibly dumb title. The difference between the two was that while A Couple of Dicks was momentarily clever, Cop Out was always dumb.

Post name change, negative buzz continued to surround the film, particularly after the initial trailer was released in late 2009. The trailer was met with almost universal disdain, with criticism leveled at the unfunny jokes, the lazy riffing, and yet another bored Bruce Willis performance. When Cop Out was finally released in theaters late February 2010, critics unleashed vitriol not seen in quite some time upon it. The film scored a terrible 19% on aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes and abysmal 31/100 on Metacritic. Reviewers criticized the film’s laziness and poor script (it should be noted that Smith only directed and did not write Cop Out) as well as Bruce Willis’ terrible performance, which marked perhaps his eighth or ninth lazy/disinterested/boring performance in a row.

So, umm, what else went wrong? Well, for starters the film didn’t exactly light up the box office. Though it opened somewhat strongly with 18 million dollars, the film closed with about 44 million domestically and didn’t even double its budget worldwide, meaning it likely never turned a profit for studio Warner Bros. Furthermore, controversy arose in the aftermath of the film when it was revealed that director Smith feuded constantly with Willis on set. In an interview with podcaster/comedian Marc Maron in early 2011, Smith claimed that Willis would not even so much as sit for a poster shoot, and if not for the interventions of Tracy Morgan, that it could have gotten much worse between the two. A representative for Bruce Willis later claimed Smith smoked way too much marijuana on set, a claim Smith essentially owned up to.

In the aftermath of the various Cop Out controversies, Smith essentially retired from mainstream filmmaking. In addition to the Willis feud, Smith also unnecessarily provoked the ire of film critics when he claimed he would no longer hold free reviewer’s screenings for his films. This particularly rankled legendary film critic Roger Ebert and caused the reviewer community to claim Smith was both dishonest and disingenuous. Since Cop Out’s release in 2010, Smith has not directed another widely released film. His 2011 film Red State, which was widely panned but at least met with some positive critical notice, was available on video-on-demand. His next film, Tusk (another horror title), will be probably be distributed on video-on-demand once again later this year.

Kevin Smith has a fairly large and vocal fan base, but he has seemingly alienated everyone else around him. He hasn’t had a hit film in years, his films no longer appear in theaters, and even the movies he has made with big name actors (Bruce Willis, Tracy Morgan, Seth Rogen, Elizabeth Banks) have done mediocre business at the box office (2008’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno was Seth Rogen’s first mainstream flop). 2010’s Cop Out drew Smith’s harshest reviews ever, failed to launch at the box office, ignited significant controversy, and has ultimately failed to endure, largely due to poor direction, a tired and cliché script, and an incredibly lazy Bruce Willis performance. Smith likely thought he had a Rush Hour-sized hit on his hands, but Cop Out ended up being one of the worst films of 2010, ultimately appealing to no one at all and essentially ending Kevin Smith’s mainstream directing career.

-Z-

I Saw Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

I don’t think 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes could possibly have been less anticipated. Ten years previous, Tim Burton’s adaptation of the 1968 Charlton Heston-starring classic sci-fi film left viewers befuddled and angry. Thus, a prequel film starring James Franco (who is not necessarily known for his prowess in action/sci-fi films) from an unknown director dumped into the dregs of August didn’t exactly inspire confidence from studio Fox. The film, however, was surprisingly well reviewed and went on to big box office success and fan acclaim. I doubt many thought it would be possible to resurrect this decades-old franchise, but Fox managed to pull it off.

Dawn_of_the_Planet_of_the_Apes

A follow-up film was immediately put into production, with Andy Serkis reprising his role as Caesar, the charismatic super-intelligent chimpanzee and leader of the apes. Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) was hired to direct and Austalian actor Jason Clarke was tapped to play the lead human, with Keri Russell and Gary Oldman in supporting roles. Unlike the first go-round, the hype surrounding Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was a tad more palpable. Many thought Serkis deserved an Oscar nomination for his work in the first film, and the prospect of another amazing Serkis performance as well as a bigger budget and bigger scale were obviously enough to draw audiences in (the film opened with a massive 73 million dollars last weekend domestically).

I caught Dawn of the Planet of the Apes last Saturday night, and while I definitely liked it, I also have quite a few reservations about this film. It’s taken me almost a week to write this review. Dawn is a complicated film with an incredibly ambitious yet limited scope. It’s also an incredibly violent film, filled with murder and warfare. It is quite possibly the hardest PG-13 rated film I’ve ever seen and certainly the hardest since The Dark Knight in 2008. It is a dystopian future in this film with very little hope. This is a film where even the protagonists (particularly Caesar) make difficult decisions that are not easy to admire. No one comes off smelling like roses in this film, which makes it a very different kind of summer blockbuster, where the good guys win and everything is black and white.

Dawn is also a very long film. It is nearly a half hour longer than the film that preceded it. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing except that Dawn is a nearly joyless and hopeless affair. Every short measure of success met by our protagonists is almost always shortly erased by a setback. Take, for example, Caesar’s decision to let the humans, led by Malcolm and Ellie (Jason Clarke and Keri Russell), into ape territory to repair a hydroelectric power plant. This decision is not taken lightly by Koba, the second-in-command bonobo monkey, who protests that Caesar is a human sympathizer. On the human end, Carver, a member of Malcolm’s repair group, smuggles a shotgun into ape territory, which immediately creates distrust between the groups. A powerful and trusting decision by Caesar leads to two betrayals.

Another criticism I have of this film is in Gary Oldman’s villainous character Dreyfus. Dreyfus is the leader of the band of humans and it is largely his idea to get power plant up and running. However, he also refuses to believe that the apes present a serious threat to the humans. The problem with this character is that he, like Carver, is almost too stupid to live in this environment. He should certainly be able to see the threat the apes exhibit to the humans, and this threat should lead to a certain amount of fear and respect of the apes’ culture. But he continually refers to them as nothing more than animals, despite the climactic battle at the end of the first film demonstrating otherwise. Dreyfus also disappears for long stretches of the film and is never very particularly threatening or upsetting on-screen. I’m not sure if the problem is particularly with the script or with Oldman himself, but I’d be willing to guess it’s more of a scripting issue.

With so much going on in this film, it is easy to forget how small the scale is. I don’t really have a problem with this, although to be honest I was expecting the scale to be a bit more epic, especially considering the fact that Fox doubled the budget of Rise for the second installment. Even though Maurice and Caesar claim to not have seen the humans in a few years, it is shortly after revealed that the humans are still bunkering down in San Francisco, where a pocket of a few hundred humans has tried to re-establish society. I have a hard time believing that Caesar would not have known about this. The apes are highly intelligent with keen senses – they would have known about the humans immediately.

The best parts of this film for me are the relationships between Malcolm and Caesar and Koba and Caesar. Malcolm and Caesar become unlikely allies and even friends, eventually gaining a mutual respect and admiration for one another. On the other hand, Koba and Caesar go from being respected friends and comrades to enemies, as Koba attempts to upend ape society in order to destroy the humans and become leader and near dictator of the apes. Koba is an amazingly accomplished character, perhaps even exceeding Caesar in some respects of characterization. Koba’s motivations are almost always understandable, which is a testament to the better aspects of the script as well as Toby Kebbell’s fantastic motion-capture performance coupled with the amazing special effects (which are even better here than in Rise). Speaking of motion-capture, Andy Serkis remains amazing as Caesar.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an incredibly complicated film with deep, thoughtful themes and conflict. It is simultaneously ugly and beautiful. It is difficult to watch but also immensely entertaining. Nearly one week after viewing Dawn, I am still having difficulty parsing out whether or not I liked the film, really liked the film, or loved the film. In some ways, I’m still not sure what I watched. It is an incredibly heavy film that I would almost compare to something like Apocalypse Now. Fox has taken an incredible gamble with this franchise, and it appears to have paid off not only for them but also for critics and audiences. I am incredibly interested in where things go for here. I’m not sure how the creative side behind Dawn of the Planet of the Apes can top themselves with the next installment. What an ambitious accomplishment.

-Z-

I Revisited Day of the Dead

When I was a sophomore in high school, I remember reading about the 1978 zombie movie classic Dawn of the Dead, George Romero’s masterpiece sequel to his 1968 cult classic and critical favorite Night of the Living Dead. I had seen Night many times over, perhaps due to its status in the public domain. I had never seen Dawn, however, but reading about it really piqued my interest. The concept behind a small band of survivors holding out in a shopping mall during the zombie apocalypse is still something that still fascinates me, even after eventually taping the movie off of Cinemax or something during the summer of 1998 and subsequently wearing out the tape (I eventually bought a VHS copy from Suncoast and then a DVD from Amazon). Even if, in subsequent years, zombie movies became overly ubiquitous and cheap looking, I still loved Dawn of the Dead.

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It would be a few more years before I got a chance to see Day of the Dead, the 1985 follow up to Dawn and the second sequel in the series. I knew that Day existed, but I had never seen it commercially available to view and none of the rental stores in my hometown carried it. It’s hard to imagine now, but back then it could be exceedingly difficult to get information about certain movies. Then, in about 2000 or so, a Video Update rental chain opened in my town (only to close about three years later unfortunately). The new store carried Day of the Dead, and there was of course much rejoicing. I remember the night I first watched it. I gathered a few people in my buddy’s basement, we ordered pizzas, and we geared up to watch what could only be the most amazing follow up to the best zombie film ever made.

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I Saw Transformers: Age of Extinction

There is no more divisive a director than Michael Bay. Whether he makes films that are legitimately good (Bad Boys, Pain and Gain, The Rock) or films that are horrifyingly bad (Pearl Harbor, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Armageddon), Bay is, generally speaking, an Internet whipping boy. He gets flack for having brainless, explosion-laden films. His movies make hundreds of millions of dollars despite rarely finding critical acclaim. He works with some of the most hated and controversial, fairly or unfairly, actors out there (Martin Lawrence, Nicolas Cage, Shia Labeouf, and Megan Fox have all drawn the ire of audiences at some point in their careers). But I actually really like Michael Bay. He’s not pretentious. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s a middle-aged man who constantly feels the need satiate his inner twelve-year-old. And I can appreciate that.

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Bay’s Transformers series of films have always been incredibly silly. Featuring farting robots, humping robots, and jive-talking robots, it would actually be quite fair to ask Mr. Bay if he even knows what a robot is. The films are also incredibly loud, filled with nonsensical plots, and largely a collective excuse for violence and crude sex jokes. But again, I actually kind of like them. I kind of like the awful second one as well, which for all of its faults features a genuinely rousing third act (Devastator was worth the price of admission alone). For these reasons, I kind of liked Age of Extinction, the latest film in the series, as well. It is just as loud and just as dumb, but it is also really glorious in its horrifying PG-13 violence and headache-inducing special effects. At least in Bay’s films you can actually see where the enormous budget went. Age of Extinction is not a subtle film at all.

Picking up five years after the events of the third film (for those who don’t remember: Chicago is essentially destroyed in an all-out assault by Megatron and Sentinel Prime), Age of Extinction follows Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg, who gives a genuinely good performance), an inventor who accidentally buys Optimus Prime, who he mistakes for a wrecked semi-truck. Upon reactivating Prime, Yeager learns of a sinister plot where the CIA, headed by the corrupt Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer, perfectly cast a smarmy government goon) will, with the cooperation of corporate head honcho Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci, who is also legitimately good), eliminate the Transformers (both Decepticon and Autobot) and create their own versions, which they can perfect, patent, and sell to various countries as military hardware. It is now up to Optimus, Cade and his daughter and her boyfriend (Nicola Peltz, Jack Reynor), and a small band of Autobot heroes (with voices by John Goodman and Ken Watanabe!) to stop Attinger and Joyce and save the day.

The plots in these films are overly complicated and, as noted earlier, largely just an excuse for special effects and violence. Age of Extinction is no different, and it is probably the most violent in the series yet. Characters are horribly and brutally murdered, both human and robot. Perhaps the most disturbing scene involves the evil Transformer Lockdown (who is neither Autobot nor Decepticon) essentially napalming a character to death, until that character is nothing but an ash statue. I was pretty shocked at this brutality. Other instances of horrifying acts of violence include several spacecrafts crashing into Chicago and wanton mass destruction of the city of Hong Kong, where Lockdown makes brutal use of his alien technology. Last year, much ballyhoo was made about the mass devastation in films like Man of Steel and Star Trek Into Darkness. Age of Extinction isn’t quite as bad as those, but it’s notable nonetheless.

Though the film has been critically panned, there are actually quite a few positive aspects of Age of Extinction. These films have featured a surprising number of strong actors (Jon Voight, Jon Turturro, John Malkovich, and Frances McDormand), and that trend continues here. Much was made about the replacing of Shia Labeouf, and while I am not a Labeouf hater the way most of the Internet is, casting Mark Wahlberg in the lead was a good choice. He gives a good performance here. As noted earlier, both Kelsey Grammer and Stanley Tucci are good in their roles as well. Tucci ended up being one of the best parts of the entire movie I thought. He really gave what could have been a nothing role some real depth. The absolute best part of the film, however, has to be the addition of the Dinobots, particularly Grimlock. Seeing Optimus riding Grimlock into battle was actually all kinds of awesome. I kept waiting for the Dinobots to show up in the film, and when they do it is definitely worth it.

The film, however, has an enormous amount of flaws. Age of Extinction runs a butt-numbing 165 minutes, which is the longest film in the series thus far. Though I enjoy a good action scene as much as the next person (and the film has no shortage of action scenes I assure you), I also found them to be somewhat repetitive. A few of them lacked the stakes of the earlier films (I never thought any of the main Autobots were in much danger) as well. Additionally, I was about this close to getting a massive headache because of all the on-screen carnage. The film also tries to dupe its audience into caring at all about the budding onscreen love between Cade’s daughter Tessa and her love interest, daredevil racecar driver Shane, whose name I had to look up because he’s so bland. The film also had the opportunity to go really dark in tone (the plot basically involves corrupt, violent federal agents strong-arming and terrorizing innocent Americans), but it instead chooses to forgo a dark tone in favor of mostly lighter fare, much like the previous Transformers films.

Look, these aren’t great films. They are incredibly entertaining, however. They are event films designed to play well over the fourth of July holiday time frame and entertain people, mostly twelve-year-olds, on summer vacation. I don’t have a problem with that. A whole lot of people online like to make fun of Michael Bay because he chooses to mostly make big, stupid motion pictures and his movies make a lot of money (the guy has only one flop on his resume, 2005’s The Island). I don’t have any problem with the career path Bay has chosen. I thought his 2013 effort, Pain and Gain, was one of the best films of the year in all honesty. Though Age of Extinction won’t win any awards and probably won’t convert any new fans to this long-running movie franchise, I mostly enjoyed what was on screen, even if the 165-minute running time exhausted me. There are some genuinely cool moments in Age of Extinction, like Optimus charging into battle on the back of Grimlock, that were worth the price of admission for me. I have no regrets.

-Z-

Franchise Fracas! – X-Men (Part Two)

Continuing from Part One where I looked at the original X-Men trilogy and the first attempt to continue the franchise.

More walking.

More walking.

Seeing they made a misstep with X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Fox knew they had to do something to right this train, so they turned back to franchise starter Bryan Singer. He (in a producer’s role) teamed with The Last Stand’s original director Matthew Vaughn and delivered 2011’s X-Men: First Class. Connecting it closely with the original X-Men film, Vaughn and Singer crafted an origin tale for Professor X (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), and ultimately the X-Men. The film, though grossing lower than previous entries, was embraced by critics and audiences. While I enjoy the film, I do feel that it suffers from the same problems as X-Men: The Last Stand (likely due to Vaughn’s involvement), but that’s for another discussion.

I really appreciated that the film was able to reinvigorate the X-Men series without resorting to a reboot (which, by 2011, would have been the expected move). A sequel was soon in production with Bryan Singer retaking the directing reins. There was a lot of fan backlash with Singer back as director. Coinciding with the “revised” online opinions of the first two films, Singer was now oddly considered a hack where as he was previously adorned with Christopher Nolan-like love. It is reasons like this that I just don’t understand fandom. However, the angry neckbeards were pacified upon learning that the next film was going to be an adaptation of a popular X-Men storyline titled Days of Future Past, and would incorporate the casts of both the original trilogy and First Class.

This poster is awesome!

This poster is awesome!

But before they could get to that, there was more Wolverine to be seen! 2013 saw the release of The Wolverine, a sequel of sorts to X-Men: The Last Stand. This is arguably my favorite of the X-Men series given the more character driven nature of the film. It is pretty surprising how strong the film ultimately turned out considering that it had several pre-production issues including director changes, late script rewrites, and continuous revising of the shooting schedule.

Directed by James Mangold, The Wolverine was met with an enthusiastic response from the fans. Surprisingly, critics were not as impressed with the movie only achieving a 69% Rotten Tomatoes score. This is something that really perplexes me as I thought the film would have ranked higher even with the slightly silly ending. But, Fox was happy with it to recruit Mangold to direct a third Wolverine movie starring Jackman.

Too busy?

Too busy?

Earlier this summer, X-Men: Days of Future Past was released and was a monster hit both critically and financially. Combining the casts allowed fans to get a trip down memory lane and push the X-Men story forward. The movie also did a pretty interesting trick in rebooting the X-Men franchise without actually rebooting it. Because they used Wolverine to change the events prior to the first X-Men movie, it effectively “erased” the events from those movies. Instead of disappointing audiences for feeling like they wasted their time becoming invested in the earlier X-Men films, Wolverine still remembers those events, thus they still have impact. I suppose it is somewhat appropriate that Wolverine is the only one who remembers considering one of the major fan criticisms of the X-Men movies is that they were too Wolverine-centric.

That being said, I am not sure that really needed to happen. Online fans complain that the X-Men films had terrible continuity, but beyond a few small things that no one other than the most anal of neckbeards would care about, the series holds up pretty well. I get why they did what they did as it does free the current run of prequel films up narratively.

As mentioned, the film was a box office success as it is the highest grossing X-Men movie thus far (though 2006’s The Last Stand is still the most successful domestically as of this writing). And, because the filmed wiped away a lot of the continuity from the prior movies, future films have the flexibility to do whatever they want and become serious contenders for the popular Marvel Cinematic Universe movies.

What made these films popular to last nearly 15 years? Well, I think Hugh Jackman is a big reason. People love the guy and he is probably one of the most enthusiastic actors out there currently. It seems like he has such a passion for the Wolverine character and the films that it bleeds into his performance and the audience just eats it up.

Plus, these movies do have the edge of having something to say. Some of the films do better than others, obviously. But each have that message of discrimination and look at the issue with the appropriate shades of grey. They don’t really dumb down the situation (even the action-heavy The Last Stand).

Is this what is coming next?

Is this what is coming next?

And, with that, the X-Men series actually take risks with their movies. They dared enough to try new things (not all that worked, mind you), and was willing to break away from the source material in order to service the movie at hand. Characters have been killed off or given permanent changes. Plot points have played with audience expectations. Heck, even The Wolverine featured a mostly Asian cast – how often does that happen in a mainstream Hollywood summer blockbuster? Unlike other comic book movies (like the Marvel Cinematic Universe), the X-Men films were not afraid to make some bold choices for their movies.

So, what comes next? Already, there are two more X-Men films in development. Currently Bryan Singer is scheduled to return as director for a 2016 follow-up to Days of Future Past titled X-Men: Apocalypse.   In addition to a third (possibly final) Wolverine movie scheduled for 2017, there are rumors of spin-offs for the related properties of X-Force and Deadpool (yes, they are still trying to make this happen). Will these films continue the renewed success that Days of Future Past reignited? Anything is possible. I do have a slight fear that, given how Days of Future Past repositioned the pieces on the board, the X-films will lose some of what made them great in the first place and become just a series of soulless movies that play things too safe. I’d hate for that to happen, but I suppose we’ll see. And if that does happen, it will never take away the movies already made. And, for that, I am thankful.

~N

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