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Video Review: The Seventh Seal (1957)

  • Dir. Ingmar Bergman
  • Released by AB Svensk Filmindustri
  • Written by Ingmar Bergman
  • Rating ****
Original Laserdicks Review:
Max von Sydow ranks as one of the most famous thespians to emerge from Sweden, due largely to his early collaborations with Ingmar Bergman, arguably the most famous director to appear in Sweden. Sydow would later establish himself in American films such as The Greatest Story Ever Told and The Exorcist, but years before he took on the roles of Jesus and Father Merrin, he appeared in his first Bergman film as a knight whose spiritual struggles match those of any subsequent character he played.
Det sjunde inseglet (translation: The Seventh Seal) remains famous largely for its iconic chess matches between Sydow’s knight and Death (Bengt Ekerot, who could probably claim the title of the definitive cinematic portrayal of the Grim Reaper), especially since these scenes have been parodied more than any other moment in a Bergman film. Despite the spoofs, the original version remains anything but laughable, carrying the same bleak tone that echoes elsewhere throughout the movie.
The Black Plague background enhances the spirit of hopelessness that lingers over the film, but the most haunting element of the movie is its theme that faith is futile and mortality is inescapable. Anyone hoping for an uplifting presentation of religion or the victory of the human spirit will leave disappointed and depressed. Audiences willing to ponder its seemingly nihilistic perspective will find it quite engaging, and Sydow’s star-making performance certainly helps.
As to be expected with Bergman, the film’s greatest strength is its visual style. Many of the images, from the chess matches to the final dance, refuse to depart from the viewer’s mind even after years of distance from the movie. Very much an art film, The Seventh Seal dazzles with the compositions while simultaneously engaging its audience with troubling philosophical questions. One does not have to be a snob to appreciate it, but one should not walk into it expecting anything light in tone or weight, either.

Theatrical Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

  • Dir. Rupert Wyatt
  • Released by 20th Century Fox
  • Inspired by the Pierre Boulle novel La Planète des singes
  • Rating: ***

The 1963 French science fiction novel that inspired the Planet of the Apes franchise was very much a satire of human society, as was the series of five films that spawned from it during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The first film, from 1968, actually enhanced the social commentary and created a far darker look at religious authoritarianism and the Cold War nuclear threat than Pierre Boulle ever attempted in his book. The sequels embraced their own pet causes, with the fourth entry, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) using the primates as an allegory for the Civil Rights Era race riots.

The newest film, Rise, most directly remakes Conquest (while removing the time travel element introduced in the third Apes and incorporating ideas from the first movie), while simultaneously serving as a complete reworking of the mythology. Unfortunately, this reboot has very little to say, choosing instead to act as pure science fiction rather than allegory. Its hard science fiction approach makes it unrecognizable as an incarnation of the Boulle novel, since both the satire and the otherworldly setting are dropped for a straightforward tale set on present day Earth.

The themes introduced in the films also remain absent from the new Apes, which seems satisfied to act as a science gone awry story with a dash of vague humane/humanistic thought thrown in with little definition. However, it still seems far better conceived than the 2001 Tim Burton remake, which not only had nothing to say, but also lacked a compelling story. Rise retells the story of the super-intelligent chimpanzee Caesar (originally played by Roddy McDowall, now played by Andy Serkis) with sufficient heart and entertainment value to make for a perfectly agreeable summer blockbuster, if not a particularly smart piece of sci-fi.

The smart apes rise this time not from post-apocalyptic evolution or temporal paradoxes, but rather from attempts to develop a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. The head scientist on the project (James Franco) has a personal investment in the goal, since his father (John Lithgow, easily the most compelling of the human characters) suffers from the disease. Unfortunate circumstances lead the scientist to take in the newborn child of one of the laboratory’s chimpanzees, which he raises in his own home. A love interest (Freida Pinto) appears, but she serves about as great a purpose to the plot as Talia Shire did to Rocky IV.

Also on hand is the greedy corporate type (David Oyelowo) who wants to exploit his employee’s findings, thus assuring that more smart chimps appear for the film’s climax. He is also a contributor to the more advanced form of the cure (since the initial formula used on Caesar and Lithgow proves to be only temporary), which inevitably turns into a virus that threatens to wipe out humanity (promising to stand in for the nuclear bomb in this post-Cold War era). The new strain also seems to give Caesar the ability to talk, a development that only passes audience scrutiny because of the source material.

A disastrous encounter with a neighbor (Rodney McKay…er, David Hewlett) requires Caesar to be placed in a holding facility under Brian Cox (who might as well be playing Stryker from X-Men 2), where the chimp goes through almost a scene-for-scene reenactment of Charlton Heston’s imprisonment scenes from the 1968 film. Eventually, he organizes his fellow apes into a resistance force that seeks refuge outside of the realm of homo sapiens. All of these scenes, especially the climactic rise of the apes, work best as exemplary displays of motion capture effects from Weta Digital, as they tend to push the silliness level to a level that was far easier to accept in the more metaphorical previous entries.

Entertainment value saves what would otherwise be a rather worthless film, although the intended audience for this movie seems to be a tad vague. Long-time fans will appreciate the endless collection of in-jokes (if they do not tire of them first), but they will be disappointed at the lack of thematic depth. New audiences will not have such expectations, but they also may not be as willing to embrace some of the franchise’s wackier conceits (although the move from humans in makeup to computer-generated apes might lessen the skepticism a tad). Ultimately, both groups should find the movie enough of a hoot for at least one viewing, but even new converts will probably find at least the 1968 original to be more substantive and satisfying.

Video Review: Terminator 2 (1991)

  • Dir. James Cameron
  • Released by Tristar
  • Written by James Cameron and William Wisher
  • Rating ****
Original Laserdicks Review:
In 1990, director Bruno Mattei (After Death) and writer Claudio Fragasso (Troll 2) opted to make a low-budget Italian sequel to the low-budget American film The Terminator. Not to be outdone, James Cameron released an American sequel a year later with a budget that far exceeded that of The Terminator and the unofficial Terminator II combined. This film, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, not only trounces the suspect sequel that preceded it in every way possible, but it also challenges the first film for the title of the best entry in the series and sets the bar so high that no subsequent Terminator project has even come close to matching it.
Set in 1995, the film follows ten-year-old John Connor (Edward Furlong), the future savior of humanity who was conceived on screen during the End of Act II Screw in the first film. His mother, Sarah (Linda Hamilton), now 29, resides in a mental institution under the careful watch of Earl Boen’s snide Dr. Silberman. She has transformed herself into somewhat of a Terminator over the decade,  reaching peak physical shape while simultaneously embracing the dehumanized warrior mentality displayed by her time-travelling late lover. This time, two Terminators arrive through time: a T-800 identical to the killer cyborg from the first film (Arnold Schwarzenegger, playing ironically off of his previous persona) and a prototype T-1000 (Robert Patrick) that employs mimetic abilities via a liquid metal chassis.
The story builds directly off of ideas from Cameron’s original tale, reinforcing and further exploring that film’s themes of humanism vs. determinism and the impact of technology on humanity. Whole sequences from the 1984 film receive parallel sequences in the sequel. The fresh plot points also derive from ideas conceived back in 1984, such as the shape-shifting villain and the possibility of preventing the prophesied apocalypse with preemptive action. The film even uses a line from the original treatment and deleted scenes of the first movie, “There is no fate but what we make for ourselves,” as the heroes’ main mantra.
However, the massively increased budget and the groundbreaking advancements in computer generated imagery result in a movie that feels quite different from its predecessor. This sequel is far more a summer blockbuster than an exploitation thriller, and the scale of the action is far grander (at the expense of horror). The entire project is far more mainstream and accessible, despite still being an R-rated film, and the inclusion of a youthful protagonist has allowed it to resonate with younger audiences as well. Even the future war is a little less nightmarish and a little more dazzling.
Even so, the movie is still quite tense, and Patrick is far scarier as the T-1000 than Schwarzenegger ever was, especially since he can disguise himself, form blades with his hands, take far greater damage, and often appear more distinctly inhuman (all thanks to a combination of excellent Stan Winston effects and still-impressive CGI from ILM). Arnold plays the reprogrammed hero Terminator (sent back by the human resistance) straight-faced, thus assuring that the jokes made at his expense are not too compromising to his credibility (see Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines as an example of the humor completely undermining Arnie’s deadly persona).
Terminator 2: Judgment Day is an ideal example of a thought-provoking blockbuster, and it is arguably smarter than its predecessor (undoubtedly smarter than the previously-mentioned Italian film). The film exists in two main forms, a theatrical cut and an extended special edition. Either version is great, but the longer cut makes the experience even richer. (A yet longer cut appears as an Easter Egg on the Ultimate Edition DVD, featuring the original sequel-proof ending.) T2 defined the subsequent franchise even more than the original film did, and it has served as the template for most of the later projects. James Cameron would have little to do with his creation after this film (other than participating in a 3D short film for Universal Studios theme parks), but he left the saga with a second chapter that manages to feel both necessary (although technically it’s not) and conclusive (even though later entries would follow).

Rental Review: Eye for an Eye (1981)

I sat through this motion picture with the assistance of Bustin Darns, who was utterly astonished and moved by the picture. As you will see, I was not quite as enthused.

  • Dir. Steve Carver
  • Released by Embassy Pictures
  • Produced by Frank Capra Jr.
  • Rating: *

Embassy Pictures once released Godzilla, King of the Monsters! Embassy Pictures once released The Graduate. Embassy Pictures once released The Producers. Embassy Pictures also once released the Steve Reeves Hercules films, and perhaps they are the motion pictures that I should be comparing this film against instead. After all, this film is from the director of Big Bad Mama, and it stars the lead actor from The Octagon and the Total Gym commercials, so any pretensions should be dropped immediately.

Nearly a decade after losing a fight to Bruce Lee in Way of the Dragon, and over a decade before gaining television superstardom in Walker, Texas Ranger, Chuck Norris was just another low-budget action flick star in yet another renegade cop flick, one that makes even the weakest Dirty Harry entry look as high-brow as Milton’s Paradise Lost by comparison. (Am I implying that Satan was the first renegade cop? You decide.) Subsequent to this lame thriller, he would become one of Cannon’s main action stars (when Charles Bronson wasn’t in the mood to crank out yet another Death Wish), appearing in one forgettable film after another.

The plot almost does not require explanation. A police officer loses his partner in a failed drug bust, quits the force, loses some other friends in the aftermath, practices some martial arts, snags a love interest, learns of police corruption, fights countless henchmen, and brings down a corrupt businessman while simultaneously regaining the respect of the police chief. The story is so predictable that it might as well be a silent film, although that might take away from its laughability factor.

The only redeeming factor might be the supporting cast: the partner is Terry Kiser (the titular character from Weekend at Bernie’s), the police chief is Richard Roundtree (the titular character from Shaft), the corrupt businessman is Christopher Lee (the titular character from The Man with the Golden Gun), and the martial arts trainer is Mako Iwamatsu (the subtitular character from Highlander III: The Sorcerer). This is not the greatest performance from any of them, to be sure.

Bustin Darns (imitating Mako): There are five ninjas in this room, and four of them are turtles! Where are they, Walker?

Sorry for the interruption. He does that a lot. The film is immensely stupid, quite predictable, and extremely unmemorable. Aside from the appeal of the cast lineup, there is nothing to be enjoyed here except for those who cannot get enough roundhouse kicks in other Norris productions (although even they may be disappointed that the actor’s signature beard is absent here). Nothing better can sum up my immense disinterest in my film than this: whenever my Norwegian friend would speak over the exposition with his Mako impersonation, I didn’t even bother stopping him. Anyone who knows me would know just how out-of-character that is.

Oh, and Kegan Valyon wandered in to make a few Chuck Norris quips as part of his never-ending antagonism of me, to which I replied that when it comes to this film’s tough guys, I favor the bad mother–SHUT YOUR MOUTH!–I’m just talking about Richard Roundtree! I can dig him. That guy from Sidekicks, not so much.

Bustin Darns (imitating Doug Walker): Chuck a-Norriiiiiis!

Video Review: The Terminator (1984)

  • Dir. James Cameron
  • Released by Hemdale
  • Written by James Cameron, William Wisher, and Gale Anne Hurd
  • Rating ****
Original Laserdicks Review:

After being fired off of Piranha II, the schlocky sequel to a Joe Dante horror-comedy (why does that sound so familiar?), a relatively young, relatively not king-of-the-world James Cameron had a rather unpleasant nightmare involving a metallic skeleton with red glowing eyes emerging from a fire. Not being one to waste such a frightening image, this graduate of the Roger Corman school of no-budget pictures decided to develop the idea into a script that took a few hints from Harlan Ellison’s Outer Limits episode “Soldier” (a decision that would lead to a lawsuit). Upon finding financing and securing his stars, Cameron directed the cheap exploitation flick, which just happened to turn out as one of the best science fiction-horror-action films ever made.
Yes, before the animatronic Alien Queen, before the CG water tentacle, before the half-nude dancing of Jamie Lee Curtis, before the PG-13 Kate Winslet nude scene, before the blue Thundercats, there was the first movie for which James Cameron would place on his resume as director, one that would cost far less than any of those films just mentioned, and one that would inevitably produce a franchise that has been exploited far beyond hope for recovery. With one excellent sequel, one fairly good TV series, one okay 3D theme park attraction, two additional and rather unremarkable sequels, an unofficial Italian sequel, a widespread anthology of comic books, several tie-in novels, and a handful of lousy video games, Cameron’s first child has come just as far as he has…but to less acclaim as the years passed.
The original film should be taken on its own account, though, as a rather remarkable achievement in the 80s market of ultra-cheap action thrillers, a market dominated by an aging Charles Bronson at the time. Hemdale Film Corporation, which would later go on to produce such classics as The Return of the Living Dead, Hoosiers, and Howling II (that’s why it sounded familiar!), worked with Orion Pictures, which would later go on to release RoboCop (and would employ the Terminator theme in its trailer), and Pacific Western Productions, which would lead to Gale Anne Hurd’s involvement–both professional and otherwise–with James Cameron on subsequent projects and ensure her influence on the greater Terminator franchise (in part because she acquired a writing credit for the original film).
The story is anything but simple, with time travel, cyborgs, post-apocalyptic war, and evil AI being blended with car chases, shootouts, serial murders, police procedure, and, of course, a touching love story. The movie attempts–and amazingly enough, achieves–so many different styles and tones that one is astonished that the movie is even comprehensible, let alone compelling. And universally so, appealing to audiences across demographics despite the fact that it is largely a gory slasher flick with some special effects thrown in on occasion. The budding romance between time traveler Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) and his modern-day protectee, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is just as fascinating as the deadly force of the inhuman killing machine (Arnold Schwarzenegger, in possibly the most important role of his career).
Although the movie is not perfect (the early Stan Winston effects are sometimes quite unconvincing, the editing has a few major blunders, and the time travel story inevitably raises plot holes), it is an ambitious effort that is well-scripted, superbly acted, tautly directed, memorably scored (by Brad Fidel, who produced some rather unnerving synthesizer music for the film), and effectively paced. It is scary, thrilling, moving, amusing, and thought-provoking, which is astonishing for a movie that at times resorts to illegally-filmed scenes and cigarette-enhanced effects shots to get around the lack of money available. Much like a film that obviously influenced it, 1978’s Halloween (which featured a relationship between John Carpenter and Debra Hill that was in many ways similar to that of Cameron and Hurd), The Terminator is a grand example of how spectacular a piece of low-budget independent filmmaking can be when creative and talented young people put their hearts into the product, and it secures a spot on the list of my all-time favorite films.

Rental Review: Across the Universe (2007)

The following film was requested by one Ms. Hill, as related to me by the Arkansas Anime Guy. If she does not care for this review, perhaps she should opt for Roger Ebert’s four-star review instead:

  • Dir. Julie Taymor
  • Released by Columbia
  • Based on songs by The Beatles
  • Rating: **

The Beatles appeared in a handful of motion pictures during the 1960s, including two Richard Lester films, A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, and the animated classic Yellow Submarine. These movies are fun, light, and delightfully silly. Decades after the band’s breakup, Broadway musical director Julie Taymor (The Lion King) and noted film composer Elliot Goldenthal (Alien 3, Batman Forever) would collaborate to create a movie musical based on the songs of the Fab Four with the help of cameo performers Bono, Joe Cocker, Salma Hayek, and Eddie Izzard. The results, like the experiment itself, are quite interesting, but not particularly satisfying.

Jim Sturgess is our requisite Liverpool youth in the story, named Jude (guess which Beatles song will undoubtedly appear in this movie?). He engages in his own British Invasion by arriving at Princeton to find his father. He also happens to find a friend named Max (Joe Anderson), from whom he will have a little help (astonishingly, this is not the song that Cocker sings in the movie). Max’s sister, Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), who conveniently just lost her boyfriend in Vietnam, moves in with the duo once they move to New York City, where they all live with some stand-ins for Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. They all get swept up in the counterculture movement for the rest of the film’s 133-minute running time, allowing plenty of time for Jude and Lucy to hook up, break up, and hook up again in the final moments.

The songs sometimes flow naturally in the narrative, but they too often feel forced, and most of the covers of the classic songs just are not that impressive (the most notable exception being Cocker’s spectacular cover of “Come Together,” which itself justifies the existence of this movie). Even worse, the film becomes a “guess which song is coming next” game for Beatles fans, and thanks to the protagonist’s name, the main suspense is not how he will make up with Lucy, but rather how “Hey Jude” will be shoehorned into the storyline. Having said that, none of the covers are terrible, and the real problem lies in the film’s attempts to build a narrative to support their inclusion.

Said narrative would have been stronger if the original Beatles songs had been used to score the film–i.e. if the movie were not a musical. Maybe more time could have been spent on the scattered mess of character arcs throughout the movie, since the songs often harm the cohesion of the story. Alternatively, the film might have worked if executed like Alan Parker’s film Pink Floyd The Wall, since Across the Universe often stops the show to provide similarly trippy treatments of the more psychedelic Beatles offerings. Speaking of the song choices, fans of early Beatles tunes will likely be disappointed that the soundtrack shoves those songs mostly in the first half hour and favors the later work.

Much like the two warring generations of the late 1960s, the story and the songs fight against each other for domination, but unlike Jude and Lucy, they do not find a satisfying reconciliation by the end of the film. As such, the movie always feels off, whether it’s engaging in a typical “express your feelings through song and dance” style or a more avant-garde approach. By dragging on for too long and focusing on too many underdeveloped supporting characters, the movie does not do its leads justice. By dedicating so much time to Vietnam and the hippies, the movie does not do The Beatles’ entire discography justice. By following a rather standard depiction of the era and clumsily setting up its songs, the movie does not do its premise justice.

Beatles fanatics will still likely find the movie at least worth of one endurance round, just out of curiosity, but non-fans (which apparently do exist, as hard as that is for me to believe) will find nothing of interest here, and the movie is unlikely to win over new devotees. Personally, I found myself begging the movie to stop being so scatterbrained and to “Come together/Right now/Over me!” Apparently, though, all the filmmakers thought they needed was love, not cohesion, and my recommendation is that anyone who is not intrigued by the idea of a Beatles-inspired musical should “Let it be.”

Then again, my daughter seemed to enjoy the bright colors and admittedly splendid cinematography and high production value, as evidenced by her insistence that we spend the rest of the night listening to my old Beatles albums. As beautiful and well-executed as the film’s imagery and dance choreography often are, though, I would suggest that you just skip straight to the albums (or just put in one of the real Beatles movies for a cinematic fix). That is, after you watch the Joe Cocker scene.

Video Review: Howling II (1985)

The video below is more of a recommendation special than a review, but I decided to expand upon my comments for Howling II.

  • Dir. Philippe Mora
  • Released by Hemdale
  • Based on the Gary Brandner novels
  • Rating *
Original Laserdicks Review:
Joe Dante showed little reverence for Gary Brandner’s 1977 novel The Howling when he adapted it into the 1981 horror-comedy film of the same name (one of several werewolf flicks from that year, including the superior John Landis film An American Werewolf in London). The book would get a more faithful adaptation via the fourth entry, whereas the second and third books would only serve as a general reference point for the seven film sequels. Brandner would contribute to the screenplay of the first of those sequels, but one must wonder how he felt about the final result.
Australian director Philippe Mora takes over for Dante in the sequel (and subsequently directs Howling III: The Marsupials), and rather than replicating his predecessor’s smarmy tone (complete with character names lifted from werewolf movie directors), he opts for something far more outlandish. Howling II touts itself as the cinematic equivalent to New Wave, a musical sibling of punk rock from the 1970s and 1980s. (Unfortunately, this movement is completely unrelated to the Nouvelle Vague of the 1950s and 1960s, so don’t be expecting Godard here.) The punkish feel carries throughout the film, assisted by the ever-present theme song by Babel (the song appears more times here than those smiley face stickers appeared in the first movie!).
This song features prominently in the end credits sequence, which recaps all of the more ridiculous scenes from the film intercut with the same shot of a woman disrobing ad infinitum. That woman is Sybil Danning, who plays Stirba, queen of the werewolves (who seems far more like a vampire in her persona, but oh well). Stirba’s revival in Transylvania conveniently arrives mere days after the conclusion of the first film, and the sequel opens with the funeral of Dee Wallace’s character (and no, neither Wallace nor anyone else returns for the follow-up). Her never-mentioned-before brother, played by actionsploitation star Reb Brown, seems unaware that she transformed into a werewolf on live television, as does the entire world. (Retroactive continuity wins again!)
Thankfully, Christopher Lee is on hand as a Van Helsing type (ironic casting there) who just happens to know about the previous movie’s denouement, and he convinces Brown to journey with him to Transylvania to stop Stirba before she gains too much power. Annie McEnroe (the realtor from Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice) tags along as a love interest. Supernatural happenings and werewolf orgies follow, both featuring rather poor special effects compared to those in Dante’s film (and I didn’t even care for Rob Bottin’s transformation effects in that movie!). Lee, Brown, and a team of werewolf slayers team up to storm Stirba’s castle and stop her centuries-long evil once and for all. (Once again, this all seems more like a take on Dracula than a werewolf tale.)
The sequel’s laughability factor actually trumps the genuine laughs provided by the first Howling, and lovers of terrible cinema should have fun riffing this awful movie. However, it is never even remotely competent, and the film subjects the audience to the Babel concert whenever padding or scene bridges are needed, giving the indication that either the script had major holes that were never filled or the director failed to film all of the necessary scenes to offer a coherent story. Either way, the movie is a piecemeal piece of garbage that threatens to strip away any lingering dignity that Lee had at this point in his career (one scene features him in some ridiculous sunglasses that were obviously considered trendy by the New Wave crowd). The other actors are quite bad, although Danning’s hokey performance (whether she’s wearing skintight leather costumes, fake werewolf fur, or nothing at all) is certainly worth a chuckle.