October 27th, 2009

YEAR ONE (2009) **

Two cavemen (Jack Black and Michael Cera) get ostracized from their tribe and go out wandering around.  On their journey they meet various Biblical characters like Cain and Abel (David Cross and Paul Rudd) and Abraham and Isaac (Hank Azaria and Christopher Mintz-Plasse).  Eventually, they get picked up by some slavers who take them back to the palace of the evil king (Xander Berkeley) who makes daily virgin sacrifices.  When their potential girlfriends are the next to be sacrificed, the two get their shit together and rescue the fair cavewomen.


The idea of a Biblical comedy starring Jack Black is a promising one but sadly director Harold Ramis dropped the ball.  He must have forgotten everything he learned from Groundhog Day.  The whole film is essentially the same joke repeated over and over again (Biblical characters talking like 21st century jackasses) and the joke wasn’t exactly funny the first time he told it.


There is some good stuff sprinkled here and there like the scene where Black eats some shit.  The highlight though is the Hal Needham style outtakes and goof-ups at the end.  They contain more laughs than the actual movie does.  For the most part, Year One is a big disappointment considering the talent involved.  (It was produced by Judd Apatow.)  Despite being low on laughs, it’s still watchable and moves along at a steady clip.  Plus, you get to see Olivia Wilde looking H-O-T as the bitchy princess.

ONG BAK 2 (2009) *** ½

We all know that Tony Jaa is the new Bruce Lee.  We all know that the man can do enough crazy gymnastical feats of ass-kickery to make your head spin.  With Ong Bak 2, we also know he’s a pretty decent director as well.  Not quite in the same league as Prachya Pinkaew, the guy who did The Protector and the first Ong Bak, but he’s better than most action hacks.


As a kid, Tien (Jaa) sees his parents slaughtered by some ruthless bastard.  He gets sold into slavery by some Richard Kiel looking asshole who makes him wrestle a crocodile.  Tien wins and is taken in by a spiritual geezer who teaches him Kung Fu.  Tien quickly shows everyone what a badass he his and is chosen to lead the tribe.  Before he accepts the position, he opts to run out and avenge his parents’ death.  From then on, the movie is a bunch of swordfights and ass kickings.


Ong Bak 2 is sloppily paced and features ill-fitting flashbacks that run on way too long.  I’m giving Jaa a Mulligan on that though because it was his first time in the director’s chair.  He also kinda forgot to give us an ending too.  My main criticism of the film though is more of a case of personal preference than anything.  It has to do with the fight scenes.  Most of them center around swords and spears rather than fists and feet.  They are still well choreographed, but Jaa barely gets any use out of his lethal knees.  When Jaa does drop the weapons and fights Muay Thai, shit does get cranked up to 11 though.  The last twenty minutes of the film is more or less non-stop fighting and there is one drunken boxing scene in this movie that is the best of it’s kind since Drunken Master 2. 


Overall, I think I said “DAMN!” out loud about six times while Jaa was showing off his Kung Fu wizardry.  That’s about half as many “DAMN’s!” as I said throughout The Protector.  That film was the pinnacle of the Tony Jaa Fighting Alongside Elephants Movies.  Ong Bak 2, nitpicks aside is still a worthy entry into the subgenre.

DAY OF THE DEAD (1985) ****

When George Romero’s Day of the Dead was first released, it became sort of a national pastime to piss all over the movie.  Critics hated it and fans were turned off, but in time, the film garnered quite a following.  I personally think it ranks right up there with both it’s predecessors, Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead.


Day takes place years after the great zombie apocalypse.  Tensions are running high in an underground military installation where some scientists led by Sarah (Lori Cardille) try in vain to find out what makes zombies tick while the Army boys led by Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato) just want to shoot the undead bastards.  Meanwhile, the crazed scientist “Doctor Frankenstein” (Richard Liberty) has an astonishing breakthrough with a zombie named Bub (Howard Sherman) and manages to make him docile.  (“He doesn’t see us as lunch!”)  The shit hits the fan when the zombies break into the compound and belly up to the All You Can Eat Human Buffet. 


Critics savaged this film mostly because it lacks the social commentary that Dawn was seeped in.  With Day, Romero is trying to scare us more than anything else.  And scare us he does.  There are two great jump scares at the beginning and end of the film that perfectly bookend the movie.  Dawn of the Dead didn’t have flat out scares.  That film was fun and colorful.  Day of the Dead is one long dark nightmare.


I love how Romero perfectly captures the way the world would look once the undead took over.  In an early scene we see the empty streets of Florida.  Gators are running loose, newspapers (“THE DEAD WALK!”) are blowing in the wind, and zombies are everywhere.  The military base isn’t much better.  It’s claustrophobic, dirty, and gloomy; just how it would feel if this was all really happening.


Likewise the characters all act how normal humans would in the same situation:  like complete assholes.  A lot of people bitch about this movie because most everyone just yells and screams at each other.  Let me tell you something folks, if you were trapped underground with shitty supplies and unreasonable rations with millions of zombies knocking at your door, you’d act pretty pissed off too.


Speaking of pissed off, let’s talk about Captain Rhodes.  Joe Pilato gives what is hands the best fucking performance ever given by a human being in the history of acting.  Whenever someone asks who gave the best performance ever, people usually say shit like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca or Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull.  I say horsefeathers to that.  I say Joe Pilato.  Captain Rhodes.  Day of the Dead.  End of story. 


Who won the Academy Award in ’85?  William Hurt?  Fuck that noise.  Let me ask you this, did Hurt ever say the line, “You’ve given us a mouthful of Greek salad!”?  Or “This ain’t a goddamn field trip, this is a fucking war!”?  Or “I’m running this monkey farm now Frankenstein!”?  Or “Is this the shit that’s supposed to knock our socks off?”  Or “That’s right, go ahead and run you fucking lunatics!”  Didn’t think so.  Pilato was robbed; plain and simple. 


I think what endears me about Captain Rhodes the most is that for all of his arrogance, I could sympathize with him.  While the other characters make him out to be an asshole he’s actually the most practical one in the bunch.  Granted, he had a screw loose but he was just looking out for his men and trying to protect them from the cockamamie hair-brained schemes of the scientists whose reckless zombie experiments threatened their well-being.


What makes the film memorable though is it’s introspectiveness.  It is by far the most thought-provoking of all the Dead films.  While Romero capped the existentialism of Dawn with “When there is no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth!”, he instead gives the Jamaican guy (Terry Alexander) a thoughtful soliloquy on why God is punishing the living.  Frankenstein also gives us his spiritual insights while trying to domesticate the zombies:  “They must be tricked into being good little girls and boys… the same way we were tricked.”  Little touches like that makes Day resonate a bit more than the other films in the series.


That and the special effects are fucking amazing.  Once again Tom Savani has given us some of the best effects ever devised.  Like the scenes in Frankenstein’s lab where we see a zombie whose guts spill out onto the floor as well as a zombie who is nothing more than a body and a brainstem.  We also get some juicy zombie bites, head shots, arm hacking, and a great HALF of a decapitation too.  The finale is the end-all-be-all of gore cinema.  One guy gets it when a zombie puts it’s fingers in his eyeholes like a bowling ball and rip his head off.  Another guy gets his face ripped into starting at the eyelids.  Then of course there is the scene of total disembowelment that is the standard to which all other gut-munching scenes should be measured.


The character of Bub is what gives the movie it’s soul.  The humans in the film are mostly despicable.  They yell at each other, argue, bitch and moan and fail to cooperate against a greater evil.  Even though Bub is a zombie, he is by far the most human character in the movie (although the Jamaican guy seems pretty level-headed most of the time).  Shit like that is what makes this misunderstood masterpiece stand the test of time.


Day of the Dead ranks Number 4 on The Video Vacuum Top Ten Films of 1985 List, sandwiched in between Re-Animator and Commando.


<Tomorrow’s Horror Franchise Movie:  The Evil Dead>

THE REAL BRUCE LEE (1979) ** ½

After a pretty cool opening credits sequence, we get to see Bruce Lee in a couple of candid scenes signing autographs while a narrator tells us how great he was and stuff.  Next we see him in four sepia tone vignettes from movies he appeared in as a child.  Then footage of his funeral is shown.  It’s here where we stop seeing anything remotely resembling the “Real” Bruce Lee.


When the brief summary of Bruce’s life is over, the narrator tells us that Bruce Lee imitators started popping up because “Imitation is the highest form of flattery”.  We see Bruce Li in a couple poorly pasted together scenes from various films (one of which is the pathetic Bruce Lee Against Supermen) and then Dragon Lee does some Kung Fu.  From then on, the whole movie is just a random Dragon Lee film.


I have to admit that I did enjoy seeing Bruce Lee’s legend crassly exploited during the opening segments, even if the scenes of Young Bruce ran on a bit long.  I would’ve loved it if the film had explored the Bruce Lee imitator phenomenon a bit further, but alas the flick switches over to another Kung Fu movie before that can happen.  It’s as if the producers had short Bruce Lee documentary and no idea how to market it so they just slapped it on the front of an unreleased Kung Fu flick.  The audience would note that the running time was 100 minutes and figure that they were in for a really thorough documentary.  Actually, the documentary portion of the film is only thirty minutes and Dragon Lee movie runs about seventy. 


The Kung Fu flick that’s tacked onto the end is extremely slow to start but once it gets going, it’s not bad.  It’s all about a Good Karate School (ran by Dragon) that gets picked on by a Bad Karate School (ran by a dude with a Hitler moustache).  Meanwhile a guy runs around in white pajamas and gives the dude with the Hitler moustache a bunch of shit.  When the bad guys kill Dragon’s master, he goes out for revenge.


The Dragon Lee portion of the flick offers little variation on the whole warring karate schools clichés.  Despite a tedious beginning (which is actually the middle of the “movie”), the action is more or less non-stop in the third act.  The villains have some pretty cool gadgets too.  One guy has a sword that extends out five feet from the hilt and another dude uses a pair of deadly hubcaps.  Other than that, the flick is little more than your standard issue chopsocky bullhonkey.  There is a good (albeit slightly censored) gut-ripping scene at the end though.


If the Dragon Lee movie was all there was to watch, I don’t think I would’ve minded.  If the Bruce Lee documentary was all there was to watch, I don’t think I would’ve minded.  The fact that they’re both Frankensteined together so haphazardly definitely costs the film major points.  Otherwise, it’s a marginal recommendation; just Buyer Beware there's very little of the "Real" Bruce Lee to be found.


AKA:  Bruce Lee:  The Little Dragon.  AKA:  The Young Bruce Lee.