May 17th, 2009

RELIGULOUS (2008) *** ½

When I was in Sunday School, I asked the teacher why God would make it rain for 40 days and 40 nights to kill everybody on Earth.  She said that God “grew tired” of everybody except for Noah, his family, and the animals so he made a flood to wipe them out.  I persisted that God shouldn’t kill everybody on Earth just because he could.  She didn’t like that.  She told me that’s how the story goes and I responded that God seemed like “the bad guy” in the story because he killed everybody.  That made her REAL mad.  She said that I was being difficult on purpose but really, I was just asking questions, something an inquisitive seven year old kid SHOULD do.


I only bring this up because Bill Maher’s Religulous is kinda in the same spirit.  Like the seven year old Mitchy, Maher asks Christians, ministers, and scholars lots of questions about the validity and historical accuracy of the Bible and often comes across the same blindly abrasive answers that my Sunday School teacher gave me.  It’s almost as if Christians get offended if when you simply ASK a question about the logistics of Good Book.  For example, Maher asks people throughout the movie if they believe there really was a talking snake in the Garden of Eden.  Much to his surprise; they do.  When he laughs, they give him the evil eye.


Maher interviews several Christians (including some in a “Trucker’s Chapel”) and sparks a lot of interesting debates.  He also calls “Bullshit” on several people who manipulate “God’s word” to line their own pockets.  (He blatantly refers to one evangelist as a pimp.)  Maher even confronts Muslims on their beliefs; cheerfully pointing out their hypocrisies and misogynic attitudes and talks to Jews who go through a lot of trouble just to get around the strict Sabbath laws too.  The most interesting interview comes when Maher talks to the Jesus of a Biblical theme park in Orlando.  Jesus actually relays his beliefs in a more insightful manner than anyone else in the film and even makes Maher doubt his own atheist beliefs for a split second.


Throughout all the interviews, Maher infuses his trademark scathing wit.  In some interviews you can tell he’s merely poking fun (like the pot preacher in Amsterdam), but most of the time, he’s deadly serious in his quest for answers.  I like Maher a lot and he’s wonderfully funny here; making me hopeful that he’ll eventually do a follow-up sometime soon.


I also liked how director Larry (Borat) Charles sprinkled in clips from old religious movies (my aunt used to watch that shit incessantly on Sundays) and Biblical cartoons (the Mormon ones are the funniest) to hammer some points home.  There was even a great part where we see a clip of Maher in Cannibal Women and the Avocado Jungle of Death when someone muses that he “isn’t funny”.  


Like organized religion itself, Religulous isn’t perfect.  The laughs slowly dry up in the film’s second half and Maher’s pro-atheist rant in the end is a little too self-serving.  I also thought that Maher let the Scientologists off way too easy, but overall, these are minor quibbles in an otherwise eye-opening, thought-provoking, and funny 100 minutes.


Biggest laugh:  When showing outmoded beliefs from the Bronze Age, we see footage of the Kraken from Clash of the Titans and the heading, “Sea Serpents were a legitimate hazard.”


Anthony Hickox directed Waxwork 2:  Lost in Time, Hellraiser 3:  Hell on Earth, and this flick right in a row.  Each one is of descending quality.  Luckily, Hickox has been smart enough to not direct any more sequels since.


After being defeated in a lame Middle Ages pre-opening credits sequence (complete with costumes that look like they were borrowed from a Medieval Times restaurant), Warlock (Julian Sands) gets reincarnated in the early 90’s where he sets about getting his hands on six Druid stones and killing anyone who has the misfortune of possessing them.  You see, when these six stones are brought together, it will signal the return of the Devil, who is naturally the Warlock’s father.  (Although in the first movie, Warlock was just a male witch, but never mind.)  Meanwhile a modern Druid (Steve Kahan, the captain from the Lethal Weapon movies) trains his teenage son to use his untapped magical powers to defeat the Warlock once and for all.


Most of this silly sequel consists of stupid scenes of Warlock killing people when they don’t hand him over the magical stones in a prompt manner.  He throws a fashion designer through the catwalk, locks a carnival worker inside a hall of mirrors, and turns an art collector into a sculpture.  A lot of these scenes are just too dumb for words and would seem more at home in a Leprechaun movie rather than a sequel to the not-bad Warlock 1.  At one point, Warlock looks to the heavens and shouts, “Is that the best you can do?”  He might as well have been talking to the filmmakers.


There was some stuff in this movie that made it tolerable though.  First and foremost is Julian Sands, who puts in another sinister turn as Warlock.  Even while covered in chocolate syrup, the guy still looks kinda imposing and menacing.  I also liked the cameo by Zach Galligan too (which makes sense since he starred in Hickox’s Waxwork movies).


The best part of the flick comes when Warlock returns to the present day by being birthed (fully grown) out of some trollop.  One minute, the slut is getting all dolled up to go out for a night on the town and the next minute, her stomach is bulging out of her cocktail dress.  Pretty soon, Warlock is slithering out between her legs, strangling her dog, and screaming, “Mother!” a lot.  The rest of Warlock:  The Armageddon is rather shitty, but I got to tell ya folks:  This is one of the best Two-Minute-Pregnancy-Resulting-In-The-Birth-Of-A-Fully-Grown-Man scenes in human history; so the movie’s got that going for it.


The last Steven Seagal flick I saw was Half Past Dead, which as you will all remember, was his last theatrically distributed film.  Ever since, the man has been toiling in the direct-to-DVD market, churning out films that (to me at least) looked more or less interchangeable.  Until now.  Against the Dark marks the first time that Seagal has gone up against the supernatural, which was more than enough reason for me to officially lift my seven year embargo on the man’s films. 


The plot is basically a mishmash of I Am Legend and Blade.  After a virus turns everybody into vampires… well, wait… they’re actually more like zombies since they eat guts, but… uh, never mind.  Where was I, oh yeah the vamp… err… zombies… wait, one character calls them “mutants” so maybe that’s a better description for them.  So anyway, these mutants have pretty much taken over the world, leaving only a few remaining survivors who are trapped in an abandoned hospital.  While they desperately try to escape the city before an impending military air strike that will “sanitize’ the area, a group of “Hunters” led by Tao (Seagal) go around the city wielding samurai swords chopping up zombies… err… mutants and saving lives.


Look, since the monsters in this movie aren’t exactly vampires and they aren’t exactly mutants and they aren’t exactly zombies, I’m just going to refer to them as VMZ’s for now on.


The bizarre thing about this movie is that Seagal is barely even in it.  I’d say that out of the 93 minute running time, he’s in less than 20 minutes of actual footage.  (And that’s not counting his obvious stunt double.)  Most of the action concerns the group of survivors endlessly wandering around the hospital with Seagal only popping up occasionally to save somebody’s bacon and to slash the shit out of a VMZ.  What’s even funnier is that Seagal usually only says about two or three lines in any given scene before exiting and even then, his dialogue is mostly dubbed in after the fact.


Man I knew Steve got fat in recent years but he is downright huge in this one.  We’re talking Brando big here.  In all of his scenes Seagal wears a black leather trench coat.  At first I thought that he was just mimicking Wesley Snipes’ wardrobe from Blade, but actually he’s only wearing it so you can’t tell how much weight he’s put on.  To further hide his enormity, Seagal also keeps his hands around his midsection throughout most of his brief screen time.  In a lot of scenes, his face is hidden in shadows to disguise his bloated (and bored) appearance.  Director Richard Crudo (who was the director of photography for Seagal’s Out of Reach and Pistol Whipped) also has to edit all of Seagal’s action scenes to mere snippets to hide the fact that at 58, the man just can’t cut it as an action hero anymore.  


Against the Dark may not work as a classic example of how to make a Steven Seagal picture, but it’s a decent enough straight-to-DVD horror flick I guess.  The gore is plentiful as there is an abundance of gut ripping and arterial spray on display, and we even get a decapitated head or two as well.  When he’s not butchering the action scenes, Crudo does get to throw in a few memorable horrific bits.  There’s a nasty scene in which a girl files her teeth into fangs that would give any dentist nightmares as well as a semi-interesting subplot about a non-infected guy who feeds humans to his VMZ daughter.


If Seagal had been in his prime fighting vampires Blade 2 style, Against the Dark may have been a worthy entry in the star’s oeuvre.  As it is, it’s just an uneven, lukewarm mess with intermittent moments of inspiration.  Of Seagal’s limited dialogue, the line, “I’m the motherfucker who’s going to do to you what you did to them!” was my favorite.