February 11th, 2014

DARIO ARGENTO’S DRACULA (2013) **

They really should’ve called this Dario Argento’s Fred Olen Ray’s Dracula. Like most of Ray’s late night cable films, it’s filled with silicone-enhanced women in various states of undress, terrible effects, and the cinematography and production values of your average episode of Hercules. I don’t want you to misread that as a recommendation. While there are certainly some gonzo moments here, none of them add up to anything worthwhile.

I’m not going to go over the plot. Argento takes several liberties with the Bram Stoker novel, but then again, so does everyone else. So that’s not exactly noteworthy.

Here’s what’s noteworthy: Dracula’s stupid transformation scenes. We all know he can transform into fog and wolves (courtesy of some extremely shitty looking CGI), but in Dario Argento’s Dracula, the Count also becomes an owl, and in the film’s dumbest scene (or highpoint depending on your point of view), a giant praying mantis! Seriously. It’s like Argento just didn’t give one-eighth of a fuck.

Dario Argento’s Dracula is a disappointment on all fronts, really. It’s especially disappointing for me because I really dug his Phantom of the Opera redux. There, he was able to mess around with the conventions of the tale and infuse it with his distinct style and give an old story a new flavor. This one looks like crap. It’s probably the worst looking film he’s ever made. The lighting is way too bright and harsh. I guess he had to make it look that way so the 3-D would work (which is redundant since the DVD is 2-D), but it zaps the film from any semblance of atmosphere.

Even when Argento isn’t visually at his best, he still can deliver the goods. (Case in point: Sleepless.) But this doesn’t even feel like an Argento film at all.

The cast is pretty much a washout. Thomas Kretschmann is more or less useless and unmemorable as Dracula. And the potentially awesome casting of Rutger Hauer as Van Helsing squanders its potential pretty quickly. At least the ever-sexy Asia Argento breathes a little life into the picture as Lucy.

There is a good amount of nudity and an acceptable heaping of gore (my favorite moment was the shovel to the head). And there are stretches where things threaten to come together. However, this Dracula pretty much bites.

AKA: Dracula. AKA: Dracula 3-D.

HIDE AND SEEK (2000) **

Jennifer Tilly and Vincent Gallo drug Daryl Hannah, kidnap her, and fake her death. Tilly can’t have children, so their plan is tie the pregnant Hannah up in the basement and wait the nine months or so before she pops the tot out. Daryl’s husband (Bruce Greenwood) thinks she’s dead, but he does some digging and eventually tries to track her down.

Hide and Seek is one of those “From Hell” movies that were so popular in the ‘90s. This time, it’s the Infertile Couple From Hell who are making our heroes’ lives miserable. Director Sidney J. (The Entity) Furie trots out all the usual clichés you’d expect from this scenario. And while the film contains little to no surprises, Furie still gives it the old college try.

The film at least has the benefit of some good performances. As the mousy kidnapper, Vincent Gallo resists the temptation to go over the top and underplays his character nicely. Jennifer Tilly is still playing her trademark childlike psycho number, but she’s nevertheless entertaining. (I liked her monologue about having a baby with lobster claws for hands.) There’s not much for Daryl Hannah to do but sit in bed and sulk while wearing a fake belly. At least she looks good doing it.

Hide and Seek has a solid enough premise. It’s just that the script plays all its cards too soon and things fizzle out long before the finale. Fans of Tilly will want to check it out just to see her do her thing, but all in all, it’s not worth seeking out.

AKA: Cord.

THE LEGO MOVIE (2014) *** ½

When I was a kid, I loved playing with Legos, even though I really wasn’t very good at building stuff. Whenever I followed the directions, the results were often disastrous. But whenever I did my own thing, I was able to come up with some cool/weird looking thing. That’s probably why The Lego Movie resonated with me so much. In fact, my little story pretty much sums up the entire theme of the film right there.

I’m going to resist the temptation to do the usual plot synopsis. Part of the joy of The Lego Movie is seeing how the flick rises above the usual plot devices and plunges forward with a conventional narrative that never once seems conventional. Most of that has to do with the fact that the characters are all toys and the scenery is nothing but Legos. But then again, the filmmakers find little non sequiturs and hilarious asides that enrich and enhance the experience.

The Lego Movie is a movie for kids about toys designed to sells toys to kids. But it never once feels that way. The film was written and directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller (who also directed 21 Jump Street) and they find some brilliant ways to make the movie more than a sum of its blocks… or parts. They find a lot of ways to have fun with the limitations of the concept (like the scene where our hero tries to do jumping jacks), and I dug how some of the animation was hilariously low-fi (like the part with the ghost). I particularly loved the way they peppered the film with cameos by various Lego characters from the past as well as some DC superheroes. (And there are also a few cameos I wouldn’t dream of spoiling.)

Most family films are squarely aimed at kids, but this is one film in which the whole family with enjoy. Sure, there are some clunky moments along the way, and not all of the jokes hit. But this is definitely one of the best family movies I’ve seen in a long time.

When you’re a kid playing with Legos, the only limits are your imagination. The Lego Movie is a tribute to that. As films based on toys go, it’s filled with ten times more imagination than any given Transformer movie.

TOP FIGHTER 2: DEADLY FIGHTING DOLLS (1996) **

I never saw Top Fighter 1, but apparently it was a documentary about the leading martial arts action stars of the early ‘90s. This sequel focuses exclusively on the female action stars. This is a terrific idea for a documentary, but I just wish it had been put together with more competence.

The film is very cut-and-dry. Poorly filmed interviews of the actresses are followed up by long excerpts from one of their films. The formula gets stale early on and the monotony of the whole set-up more or less ruins what could’ve been an informative and entertaining documentary.

The best parts center around Michelle Yeoh, Cynthia Rothrock, and Angela Mao. Their interviews are by far the most entertaining. Sadly, the clips they show aren’t always the best (most of Mao’s scenes are just clips from trailers). It’s interesting to see some of the lesser known actresses interviewed, although their broken English and/or interpreters kinda prevents their interviews from being very informative.

I also wish there was a caption telling you what movies the clips came from. While a lot of the clips are lackluster, there were a couple of eye-popping action sequences here and there (I’m specifically thinking of the fully nude Kung Fu scene). If I knew what movies they were from, I’d definitely track them down and check them out.

AKA: Top Fighter 2: Deadly China Dolls.

IT CAME FROM THE THRIFT STORE: ACT OF PIRACY (1990) **

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Gary Busey stars as a yacht captain who goes out on his boat with his kids, his hot girlfriend, and his crew. While they are out in the middle of the ocean, a group of pirates led by Ray Sharkey attack the vessel. As it turns out, the babe is in cahoots with Sharkey and they kill the crew, kidnap the kids, and leave Busey for dead. Busey washes ashore and joins up with his estranged ex-wife (Belinda Bauer) to find them.

Act of Piracy was directed by John “Bud” (Kingdom of the Spiders) Cardos, and it is a very bland and unremarkable action/drama. The look and feel of the film is akin to a made for cable flick. But while the look of the film is drab, it moves at an acceptable pace (at least for the first hour or so).

The final confrontation between Busey and Sharkey is a bit of a mixed bag. The scenes of the various boat chases and shootouts between the two are pretty blah. However, their final knife fight is fairly solid. If only the rest of the action was as good.

The cast isn’t bad. We all know that Gary Busey isn’t as fun to watch when he’s playing a good guy. And the character he’s playing here lacks the spark of the crazy Busey we all know and love. That being said, he gives a reasonably good performance. Belinda Bauer (the hottie doctor from Robocop 2) is pretty good as his ex-wife and Nancy Mulford is quite the looker as the gal who betrays Busey. I also enjoyed seeing a young Arnold Vosloo as Sharkey’s right hand man.

AKA: Barracuda.

Well folks, that’s going to do it for the It Came from the Thrift Store column for the time being. Act of Piracy was the last of the tapes on my shelf from the Thrift Store. My past few trips to the Goodwill have been unsuccessful, so I’m going to put this column on hiatus for now. That is, until I find another big score of weird, hard-to-find, or just plain awful-looking VHS tapes at the Thrift Store.