February 14th, 2014

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974) ****

Blazing Saddles will always be my favorite Mel Brooks movie, but Young Frankenstein is a distinguished second. It amazes me that Brooks made Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein in the same year. I mean Mel Brooks made two of the greatest comedies of all time within months of each other. What other director had that kind of one-two punch in the same year? I guess you could say Spielberg with Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List in ’93. But in my humble opinion, Young Frankenstein has much more replay value than Schindler’s List.

Young Frankenstein is a loving tribute to the old Universal classics. The secret to the film’s success is that Brooks recreates the exact same atmosphere the old Frankenstein films had. (Brooks even got a hold of Kenneth Strickfaden’s original Frankenstein lab equipment.) And because the movie feels like it belongs in the same universe as the old films, it gives the jokes an added kick. Brooks never really overreaches for a gag either. They come naturally out of the characters and situations and even the corniest jokes get a laugh.

Gene Wilder gets one of the great introductions of all time as Frederick Frankenstein. He’s so ashamed of his family that he changes the pronunciation. “That’s Franc-en-STEEN!” His lecture scene is downright hilarious, especially the part where he inadvertently stabs himself with a scalpel. Eventually, he finds his grandfather’s notes (“How I Did It”) and pretty soon revives a hulking monster (Peter Boyle). Wilder gives one of his best performances and gives several terrific manic, blustering monologues.

And nearly every other performance is a classic of comic genius. Like Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein features another wonderful Madeline Kahn performance. Has there been a funnier female on Earth than Madeline Kahn? Didn’t think so. And Teri Garr shows why she is one of the most underrated comediennes of all time. (“What knockers!” “Oh, thank you doctor!”) Marty Feldman also gets several big laughs as Frankenstein’s assistant, Igor. (“It’s pronounced ‘Eye-Gore’!”) And who could forget Cloris Leachman as Frau Blucher? (Cue the horses.)

Just about every single scene is a classic comedic set piece. The hidden passageway scene (“Put the candle back!”), the inadvertent game of charades, the dart scenes… the list goes on and on. And the scenes that parody the original films are particularly hilarious. I mean the blind man scene is fucking hysterical.

Overall, Young Frankenstein is a classic. It’s very nearly as good as the films it’s parodying. If that isn’t a testament to its awesomeness, I don’t know what is.

BIG BAD WOLF (2006) ** ½

Richard (Three O’ Clock High) Tyson stars as an asshole that hides out in his cabin in the woods whenever he turns into a werewolf. He forbids his stepson from going to the cabin, but one night he stupidly brings a bunch of friends to the cabin for a party. Of course, it just so happens to be during a full moon and his stepfather eats his friends. The kid, along with his biker chick girlfriend tries to prove to everyone that he is a werewolf and they do everything in their power to get some evidence.

Big Bad Wolf is a hair (ahem) better than your usual low budget werewolf movie. It’s not up to the high standards of a Darkwolf or a Never Cry Werewolf, but it certainly has a few surprising moments. Sadly, it has a few really dumb moments too, but more on that in a minute. Let’s first talk about what works.

The first act of the film is really well done. It’s your standard issue “Cabin in the Woods” scenario, but writer/director Lance W. (Terror Tract) Dreeson is able to milk it for all its worth. The gore is also pretty good as the werewolf rips heads, legs, guts, and balls off of its victims. And I enjoyed all the nods to An American Werewolf in London as well. (The first kill in the woods is set up like Jack’s death, the nightmare sequences, and even a cameo by David Naughton as a sheriff.)

The werewolf is a bit different than the ones we’re used to seeing. There are two major differences that separate him from the rest of the… uh… pack. First is his libido. Yes, this movie features a scene where he gets it on with an unsuspecting coed. I’m not going to lie, it’s pretty crazy. The second thing that makes him different is that he talks.

Which brings me to the dumb parts of the movie. Yes, he talks. This could’ve worked I supposed, but the werewolf’s dialogue is almost exclusively comprised of awful Freddy Krueger-type puns. Trust me folks, there’s a reason why werewolves are only supposed to snarl and howl.

The second act of the movie is also pretty weak as it plays like a Scooby-Doo cartoon. I did like the scene where our hero’s girlfriend had to get a sample of werewolf DNA the hard way, but other than that, it was kinda lame. And it’s also kind of hard to take the werewolf seriously; not only because he talks and cracks jokes, but also because of the awful CGI transformation scenes. The wolf costume is also pretty bad. (He looks like he’s two seconds away from snapping into a Slim Jim.) But other than those gripes, Big Bad Wolf offers up a modicum of fun.

REALITY KILLS (2002) *

Reality Kills is a terrible reality show horror movie. It’s especially disappointing considering it was directed by the great Rafal Zielinski. He’s the man who directed the iconic Screwballs. Zielinski has seen better days, that’s for sure.

A group of annoying people gather at a deserted house to star on a Real World-inspired reality show. Predictably, there’s a psycho killer on the loose bumping off the contestants one by one. No one knows who to trust and pretty soon, the contestants suspect each other of being the killer.

As far as reality show horror films go, Reality Kills is definitely one of the most annoying ever made. The contestants aren’t likeable in the least as they sit around arguing and hurling slurs at each other. And the scenes where the contestants look directly at the camera and talk to the audience are really grating on the nerves. These scenes just make you hate the characters even more.

The killer is one of those Somebody-Obviously-Saw-Scream deals as he wears a black robe and dumb mask. That wouldn’t really matter if the kills weren’t so damn weak. The killer just shoots his victims with a Taser gun before sticking them with a hypodermic needle. And the stalking scenes themselves are lame too as the killer carries around a camera when he kills people. So on top of everything else shitty with the movie, you have to put up with a lot of shaky-cam nonsense too.

Sticky Fingaz is the only “name” in the cast. (Unless you count Nate Dushku, Eliza Dushku’s brother, that is.) Sticky plays the producer of the reality show. If anything, Reality Kills will go down in history as the only film in which Sticky Fingaz gave the best performance.

AKA: Reality Check.

DEATH ON DEMAND (2008) **

A mountain climber freaks out at Thanksgiving and slaughters his family at the supper table before hanging himself. 20 years later, an internet entrepreneur sets up a Halloween: Resurrection-style fake haunted house in the home to be broadcast on the net. Six contestants (one of whom is Josh Folan from All God’s Creatures) go into the house and hold a séance which brings the killer back to life. Pretty soon, he starts hacking up the competition one by one.

The opening Thanksgiving dinner massacre scene is pretty cool. However, the set-up surrounding the haunted house and webcast is laborious. The scenes in the house aren’t much better as most of the characters are annoying.

On the plus side, there is a good amount of nudity on display, as well as some girl on girl action. Krista Grotte is pretty amusing as the silicone-enhanced porn star, Velvet Luv, who gets paid a bonus for getting it on with the contestants. The gore is also adequate as we get severed heads, gut ripping, face bashing, head stomping, and brain excavating.

It all doesn’t add up to much, but it is at the very least watchable. In fact, if it wasn’t for the gore and nudity, it would be totally worthless. Admittedly, the whole haunted webcast thing isn’t my favorite kind of horror movie, but Death on Demand is slightly better than the usual tripe.

PAUL WALKER DOUBLE FEATURE

INTO THE BLUE (2005) **

Paul Walker is a down-on-his-luck boat captain. One day, Paul, his girlfriend (Jessica Alba), and his buddy (Scott Caan) go out diving for treasure and they discover a wrecked plane on the ocean floor filled to the gills with cocaine. It’s not long before pirates and drug dealers come around wanting their coke back. They blackmail Walker and his friends into diving into the ocean and recovering their drugs and it’s up to Paul to stay one step ahead of them and to uncover a REAL treasure hiding at the bottom of the sea.

There are definitely some shades of The Deep here. And while The Deep definitely wasn’t all that good to begin with, there was some room for improvement. Into the Blue doesn’t improve on The Deep, but it’s an equally mediocre spiritual successor.

Into the Blue was directed by actor-turned-director John Stockwell. Like his other films, Blue Crush and Turistas, it’s filled with picture perfect postcard images of hot girls in the ocean. And I’ll admit; the cinematography is gorgeous. The underwater photography is particularly beautiful and helps to elevate the run of the mill material. The action is pretty hit-and-miss, but there is a cool death by spear gun, as well as some decent shark attacks in the final reel.

The plot and performances are nothing to brag about. Walker is his usual bland self and Caan is stuck in second gear. Josh Brolin is pretty good though as the skeevy bad guy. And at nearly two hours, it’s way too long, but there are worse way to spend your time than watching Jessica Alba in a bathing suit.

For added amusement, try to hold your breath as long as Walker does while he’s underwater.

THE LAZARUS PROJECT (2008) **

Paul Walker stars as an ex-con family man who loses his job due to his criminal past. Pressed for cash, he pulls a robbery and three people wind up dead. Walker is executed for the crime, but later comes back as a caretaker for a mysterious mental hospital. He starts seeing the ghost of his dead father and other assorted creepy individuals on the hospital grounds. He wants to escape the place and see his wife and kid, but discovers there are some sinister forces holding him back.

The Lazarus Project has a decided Twilight Zone sort of vibe to it. It starts off reasonably well, but it drops the ball once Walker goes to the nuthouse. It’s here where the supernatural elements are clumsily handled. And while the final reveal isn’t exactly unexpected, it is a bit unsatisfying, especially considering the strong first half hour or so.

Walker delivers one of his better performances here. He is quite good in the scenes with his family and has a quiet intensity during the scenes where he is trying to figure out what’s going on. Linda Cardellini from Freaks and Geeks (looking cute as a button) lends solid support as a doctor at the clinic and Bob Gunton is pretty good as the hospital’s priest, but their efforts are enough to salvage the picture.

DON JON (2013) ***

Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a guy that’s about one broken chromosome away from being a Jersey Shore cast member. He works out, goes to clubs, hooks up with girls, and beats his meat to porn on a daily basis. Jon meets this hot babe (Scarlett Johansson) and its love at first sight. Their bliss is interrupted when she leaves him after she finds out his been watching porn behind her back. Jon’s free-spirited classmate (Julianne Moore), who is dealing with her own issues, doesn’t think watching porn is such a big deal and together they learn a thing or two from each other.

You can easily see where Don Jon is headed from frame one. There are really no surprises here in terms of plot as the film is essentially the same old romantic comedy formula with the addition of porn addiction to the mix. What is surprising is the candidness and frankness of which Gordon-Levitt gives the subject matter. There are moments of brutal honesty on display here that few films really talk about (especially concerning watching porn) and JGL pulls no punches, which is extremely refreshing.

Don Jon is Gordon-Levitt’s first film as a director and it instantly makes you want to see another film from him. He’s a born filmmaker and shows a lot more confidence than most first time directors. The sequences dealing with Jon’s gym-cleaning-clubs-porn rituals have a Scorsese kind of vibe to them and he is able to make simple dialogue scenes seem fresh.

He also delivers a pretty good performance too. Johansson is solid as well (especially considering her one-dimensional character) and Moore is excellent as always. But it’s Tony Danza who completely steals the movie as Jon’s overbearing father. He gets some of the biggest laughs of the entire flick. Hopefully, this will lead to a big screen comeback for him because the man is awesome in this. Plus, there are some pretty funny cameos in the rom-coms that Johansson forces Gordon-Levitt to watch.

EMBRACE OF THE VAMPIRE (2013) **

The original Embrace of the Vampire is a film I have a strong connection to. When I was a teenager, I happened upon it on late night cable and lo and behold, there was adolescent crush, Alyssa Milano naked and vamping it up. It was love at first sight. I don’t really remember a lot about the specifics of the movie, but the nude scenes alone make it a minor classic in my book.

The appeal to the original was seeing a former child star like Milano all grown up and baring all. The star of Embrace of the Vampire ’13 is Shannon Hinnendael, a relative newcomer. She’s cute, sure, but I doubt anyone will react the same way to her as they do to Milano.

Charlotte (Hinnendael) is a mousy virginal college student going to school on a fencing scholarship. She has trouble fitting in with her classmates and has strange nightmares and visions to boot. Eventually, she learns that she is a half-vampire descendant of a family of vampire killers. Naturally, it’s up to Charlotte to rid the school of her vampire professor.

Unlike the first film, this iteration of Embrace of the Vampire has too much plot. The good news is that it has just enough T & A. There are sex scenes, locker room scenes, lesbian sex scenes, and nude initiation scenes. And thankfully they help to break up the monotony whenever things get slow.

And boy do things ever get slow. Embrace of the Vampire gets bogged down severely at times, particularly when it’s dealing with Charlotte’s strange visions. (I’m guessing they were only there to pad the running time.) To make matters worse, they spend all this time setting up Charlotte’s prowess at fencing, which you would think would pay off at the end. But when she finally does take up the sword against her professor, it takes exactly eleven seconds before he knocks the blade out of her hand. Weak.

Still, Embrace of the Vampire has some kooky moments here and there. For instance, I laughed at the scene where the crazy fortune teller lady sees foreboding signs in her latte. It doesn’t add up to much, but the sheer amount of skin ensures that it’s not a total washout.

WANDERING GINZA BUTTERFLY (1971) ** ½

Meiko (Lady Snowblood) Kaji stars as Nami, an ex-con who gets out of prison hoping to make a new life for herself. She gets a job at a hostess in a club and before long; some thugs try to muscle in on the owner. Nami then uses her past prowess as a pool hustler and card shark to help her friends and defeat the bad guys.

Wandering Ginza Butterfly has a pretty interesting, if unfortunately subdued premise. It’s not nearly as outrageous and violent (or fun if I’m to be perfectly honest) as Kaji’s Lady Snowblood or Female Scorpion movies. It’s more in line with Kinji Fukasaku’s yakuza movies, but again lacking the violence and fun factor those films had. The big billiards game sequence is pretty cool though and has a couple of tense moments. And the finale where Kaji finally takes up her samurai sword is fairly bloody. Despite this, I’m sure some Meiko Kaji fans will be disappointed by the fact that she uses a pool cue more than the samurai sword.

Kaji delivers another solid performance. Like the film itself, she’s a bit more subdued than normal and takes more of a passive stance throughout the flick. She still looks lovely and has a very strong screen presence. Overall, Wandering Ginza Butterfly isn’t a necessarily bad flick. It just suffers from comparison to Kaji’s other films.

Kaji later returned for the sequel, Wandering Ginza: She-Cat Gambler.

AKA: Wandering Silver Butterfly.

BEHIND ENEMY LINES (1997) ** ½

Thomas Ian Griffith stars as a soldier who goes to Vietnam to recover a briefcase full of nuclear triggers. The mission goes south and he is forced to leave his friend Chris Mulkey behind. One year later, Griffith gets orders to go back behind enemy lines and rescue his friend.

Ever since I saw him in the immortal Karate Kid 3, I’ve been a big Thomas Ian Griffith fan. Sadly, his films after Karate Kid 3 rarely recaptured the magic that flick had (the notable exception being John Carpenter’s Vampires). And while Behind Enemy Lines is a lesser Griffith vehicle, it does have its moments.

Thomas Ian Griffith gives a pretty good performance. And he gets a few opportunities to show off his Kung Fu skills too. (I liked the scene where he fought his way out of a kangaroo court.) Chris Mulkey also gives a solid performance as Griffith’s buddy who has gone crazy from torture.

Behind Enemy Lines has a good amount of action sequences. But although the action scenes are competently handled, the flick suffers from some severe pacing issues (especially whenever the action cuts back to Griffith’s team who are hanging out in Tahiti and debating on whether or not to rescue him). The inflated running time (105 minutes) is another disservice to what could’ve been a pretty great shoot ‘em up. Luckily, lots of stuff goes boom in the final 20 minutes of the flick, so that’s a plus. And because of that, Behind Enemy Lines is worthy of a marginal recommendation.