Thursday, October 25, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Deep Rising (1998)

Although my parents tended to be rather conservative about what movies I was allowed to watch growing up, thanks to sites like Screenit Movie Reviews for Parents that delineated the amount of violence, sex, cursing, etc. there were some R-rated movies I got to see when they came out even as early as middle school. One was Deep Rising, which I saw when I was in eighth grade with my buddy David and his mom.

This was my suggestion for the podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood's monster-movie month. I haven't had much luck with my suggestions holding up--you can see my review of Dog Soldiers and my review of Spawn for that--but I was hoping this one would turn out better. Here's the podcast and now for the review...


The Plot

A group of mercenaries led by Hanover (Wes Studi) hire Captain John Finnegan (Treat Williams) and his grease monkeys Joey Pantucci (Kevin J. O'Connor) and Leila (Una Damon) to help them rob a cruise ship. Unfortunately by the time they get to said ship, something has attacked it and eaten all the passengers. What do survivors Trillian St. James (Famke Janssen), Captain Atherton (Derrick O'Connor), and owner Simon Canton (Anthony Heald) know about what happened and, more importantly, what can they do when it turns out whatever attacked the ship is still on board?

The Good

*Before I say anything else, this movie is pretty damn entertaining. In my rarely humble opinion, it still holds up even twenty years later.

*A lot of the movies I've reviewed tended to have long draggy opening credit sequences. Deep Rising's opening is a lot more concise and between the on-screen descriptions and the soundtrack is pretty ominous.

*Like Jaws they know to be sparing with the monster, especially early on. However, just because you shouldn't see the monster doesn't mean you can't hear the monster, and the noises the creature makes are spooky as hell.

*Speaking of sounds, I like the sound editing as well. Never has stepping through the squishy remains of people sounded so vivid.

*There's a lot of good foreshadowing that something very bad is about to happen before we see a single solitary sea-beastie.

*I found a lot of the humor amusing.

*I also generally liked the acting. Williams does a decent job as the lead, while Janssen is delightfully kleptomaniac as Trillian. I found O'Connor amusing as Pantucci, even though it seems like pretty much everybody else found him annoying.

*There are details stated in the beginning that become important later, like the pirates' guns being airtight.

*I was going to comment on the complete lack of trigger discipline a lot of the characters have being a bad thing, but the characters for the most part don't seem to be professional soldiers. Hanover (whose actor is a Vietnam veteran and probably remembers how to do it) and Finnegan seem to have at least some idea of what they're doing, but most of the pirates are probably just thugs.

The Bad

*Daniel likes to invoke the Tom Servo Rule of not referencing better movies in one's bad one. There was really no need for the script to pirate--way more than just reference--a line from Star Wars, especially since there was plenty of amusing snark to spare. It's like how the Peter Jackson King Kong's worst moments were when they tried to re-use lines from the original rather than be creative.

*Some of the "jump scares" don't work out, especially the ones that are fake-outs. David calls them "fake intense scenes" and he found them annoying. I do too.

*TVTropes says the mercenaries line up with the Seven Deadly Sins--for example, the one who wants to sleep with a woman from every country on the planet corresponds to Lust--but they still could have had better character development.

*I thought everybody knew not to get into elevators in fires or other emergency situations. Why don't these characters know that?

*It's a miracle with the bad trigger discipline I mentioned there weren't more incidents of people accidentally shooting each other.

*A character's death is prolonged just for a character moment. Anybody ever heard of kill your darlings? If something doesn't make sense it doesn't make sense, even if it's a good way to illustrate how much of an asshole someone is.

*It starts to drag a bit before the final 20-25 minutes.

The Verdict

Not the smartest film in the world, but it's pretty entertaining. Worth a rental at least. 8.0 out of 10.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Lake Placid (1999)

The movie podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood's monster-movie month rolls along with Lake Placid, a 1999 film about a saltwater crocodile living in Maine. You know, where it'd freeze to death pretty quickly. I didn't see this when it was in theaters, but I do remember wanting to--my parents didn't let me see a lot of R-rated movies, especially ones that were poorly-reviewed or otherwise lacking in some redeeming quality--and although I can't say I jumped at the chance to see it, I did want to see if it held up.

Here's the podcast. Now for the review...


Plot

In rural Maine, a fish and game officer is bitten in half in the fictional Black Lake while studying the beaver population. A reptilian tooth is recovered from his body, prompting Jack Wells (Bill Pullman), who is also a fish and game officer, and Sheriff Hank Keough (Brendan Gleeson) to contact what is obviously the American Museum of Natural History in New York for assistance from a paleontologist. Workplace romantic drama leads to Kelly Scott (Bridget Fonda) getting sent to investigate and soon eccentric billionaire Hector Cyr (Oliver Platt) arrives to make things even more fun.

It turns out that the lake is home to a saltwater crocodile that has developed a taste for human flesh. The dysfunctional (that's how the Wikipedia article describes them) quartet soon find themselves fighting for their lives. And what does the cranky old lady Delores Bickerman (Betty White) have to do with their situation?

The Good

*After an excessively long opening credits sequence (more on that later), the movie moves along at a decent pace. It's less than 90 minutes long.

*There are some funny bits. Wells and Keough lusting after a teenage girl in the town much to Scott's disgust, a sequence involving a moose, and some of Hector's more bizarre utterances were amusing. There's also a joke about eminent domain.

*Betty White is pretty amusing as the old lady who lives by the lake. I liked her introductory sequence and how much of a gigantic smart-ass she is. And although Hector is oftentimes obnoxious, I found how Platt handled his complete lack of tact funny, at least some of the time.

*We don't see the crocodile very much early on, avoiding the problem of way too much awful CGI that marred Eight-Legged Freaks, which I complained quite a lot about in (my review) and (on the podcast). Think Jaws, where the shark stayed mostly off-camera until the end. And most of the time they seem to be using practical effects or decent-quality CGI.

*The sequence involving panicking fish foreshadowing a monster attack I thought was creative and well-done. And there's no need to actually see anything.

The Bad

*The opening goes on for entirely too long. It's not nearly as bad as the opening of Spawn--you can see my commentary on that here--but let's cut to the chase people.

*Most of the characters aren't particularly sympathetic. Keogh has a chip on his shoulder about people more educated or from bigger cities looking down on him and pretty much every character from outside the town is snotty to varying degrees, so he's pretty much right. Scott is, as TVTropes would put it, an excruciatingly obnoxious Straw Feminist, a stereotypically snotty New Yorker, and incredibly high maintenance. All she does is complain, sneer at the locals (with the exception of a female sheriff's deputy), and act like everything she doesn't like is motivated by sexism. In her defense there is some of that going on too, especially from Keogh, which just serves to make other other characters less sympathetic too. And Hector is so utterly obnoxious to the locals that even Scott comes to their defense. The almighty TVTropes calls this "Developing Doomed Characters" or "Twenty Minutes With The Jerks."

*As far as the quality of the acting is concerned, they've got a lot of actors with decent resumes but nobody other than Betty White is particularly impressive. Bill Pullman was one of the more well-known actors of the 1990s, but he seemed particularly nonexistent.

*There's a poorly done romantic subplot that should have either been better developed or excised completely. The two characters could bond over their shared disdain for Hector or it could be something obviously brought on by the survival situation (I think this comes up in the movie Speed), but there's really very little substance to it.

*Heck, there's a second poorly-done romantic subplot, which seems to be mostly setup for a character to offer to sleep with another character if they don't do something stupid. This one has even less substance and seems to exist pretty much to set up a single joke. Blargh.

The Verdict

Improved special effects can't save the film from an obnoxious, unsympathetic bunch of characters even if it is fast moving. 5.5 out of 10.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Movie Review: VENOM (2018)

The other day I saw the movie Venom with a friend at Atlantic Station right here in Atlanta, GA. Although the reviews were for the most part not very good, it did look kind of cool and he wanted to see it. I've historically been a superhero fan, although X-Men was more my thing than Spider-Man (I think I only owned one Spider-Man comic--it was part of the Clone Saga I think), so I decided to give it a shot.

So how was it? Let's find out...


The Plot

Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is a crusading journalist in San Francisco living with his fiancee Anne Weying (Michelle Williams) and covering stuff the local powers-that-be would rather not get discussed. His going off half-cocked after Elon Musk-esque Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) with information he shouldn't have costs him his job and his relationship, leaving him living unemployed in a slum.

Then a whistle-blower at Drake's company Doctor Dora Skirth (Melora Walters) contacts him about some shenanigans going on at the laboratory. Eddie sneaks in and accidentally bonds with an alien Symbiote, becoming more than human and more than a little bit hungry for live prey. Now he has to evade Drake's men and figure out what's going on, but there's more than one Symbiote out there...

The Good

*The dynamic between the Venom Symbiote, an alien predator who initially views his human host as nothing more than a "ride," and act-before-thinking do-gooder Eddie is absolutely hilarious. Seriously, I spent the last half or so of the movie laughing my head off. I can tell because I suffered a compression fracture in my spine over the summer that hasn't fully healed and consequently that hurt. Seriously, that is absolutely the best part of the movie and I'm glad the film has made so much money that there has to be a sequel. I want to see more of that.

*I like Tom Hardy's portrayal of Eddie Brock. He clearly wants to do the right thing, but doesn't really have good judgement and it costs him. And then he has his hands full trying to manage an intelligent alien predator with a really sadistic sense of humor that's sharing his body.

*I like how they took elements from the different Venom storylines to put together this one, especially since for whatever reason (rights, contracts, etc) they couldn't have Spider-Man in it. I'm not going to go into a lot of details about which plots got used to avoid spoilers, but one is definitely "Lethal Protector", in which Venom decides to become a superhero.

*Ahmed is very good as Drake. He's charismatic and seems to generally have good intentions, but he's incredibly manipulative, amoral, and downright hissable in parts. Seriously, I was mad at him at times, and not a lot of movie villains straight-up anger me.

*Eddie's job situation rings true to me as a former newspaper reporter--if someone in the community has sufficient pull with the media owner, is a big enough advertiser, etc. they have an unhealthy amount of power over what gets covered and what doesn't. What happens with Eddie is what would happen if Elon Musk were to vindictively pursue a grudge against a local reporter who challenged him, especially if said reporter went off on him without evidence to back up his claims. And given how Eddie was "run out of New York" (an allusion to the comic plot in which Brock loses his job as a newspaper reporter, something he blamed Spider-Man for) and might not have a great reputation already, he's particularly vulnerable.

*I liked how the film handles the relationship between Eddie, Anne, and Anne's new boyfriend Dr. Dan Lewis (Reid Scott), who happens to be a gigantic fan of Eddie's news show. Their interactions are pretty funny and it show the essential decency of all three characters. Anne still cares about Eddie despite what happened earlier (seriously, even an alien monster takes her side on the issue), Eddie respects Anne enough not to resent her new boyfriend and never once thinks about letting his alien "friend" cause him harm, and Dan sincerely tries to help Eddie (whom he thinks has some kind of conventional illness) rather than get territorial. And Anne has some surprisingly bad-ass moments for someone not really established as an Action Girl.

*An alien monster has a character arc. Seriously, he (it?) does.

The Bad

*The movie takes awhile to get going. Things don't really start getting fun until around 1/4 to 1/3 into the film. They could have tightened things up a little bit, although I have no specific suggestions about what to cut.

*As David pointed out after the movie, some of Dr. Skirth's actions in regards to helping Eddie get the dirt on Drake don't make a lot of sense. For starters, Drake's lab is probably full of security cameras, so sneaking him in isn't going end well.

The Verdict

I'll give this an 8.0, barely. The sheer hilarity of the Venom-Eddie interactions outweighs a lot of the issues the movie has.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Eight-Legged Freaks (2002)

Back when I was in high school, I watched a lot of monster movies. I don't recall ever seeing Eight-Legged Freaks, at least in its entirety, but when the film podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood hosted a whole month dedicated to monster movies, I eagerly volunteered to participate in all of them.

So here's the podcast featuring Yours Truly. And now for the review...

The Plot

A toxic waste barrel falls off the back of a truck into a river and soon the spiders in the dying town of Prosperity, Arizona start growing "as big as SUVs." Yes, that's the specific ad copy. It's up to mining engineer Chris McCormick (David Arquette) and Sheriff Samantha Parker (Kari Wuhrer) to lead the townspeople in the fight to save their community. Along for the ride are Parker's daughter Ashley (a very young Scarlett Johanson) and nerdy son Michael (Scott Terra) as well as a bunch of quirky small-town characters.

The Good

*Some of the Parker family banter was amusing--Ashley vs. Michael, Ashley vs. her mother, etc. It seemed like how actual families would argue, either good-naturedly or, in some of the dialogue between Ashley and Samantha, not-so-good-naturedly.

*I liked some of the small-town goofy characters like Harlan (Doug E. Doug), who's basically a black Art Bell, the corrupt get-rich-quick-scheming mayor Wade (Leon Rippy), the overly-eager barber, and the female sheriff who uses her position to keep her teen daughter out of trouble. The acting is generally decent too--you can tell that Scarlett Johansson is destined for bigger and better things, Arquette is endearingly awkward and Adorkable rather than cringe-worthy when the lady sheriff is concerned, and although Wuhrer is generally known for TV and much more lowbrow fare, I didn't think she did a bad job either.

*There are also some amusing comedic bits here and there.

*Although one rarely watches B-grade monster movies for the science, I liked how they worked in how pollution travels up the food chain. It's not direct exposure to the toxic waste that causes the spiders to become giant monsters, but their eating bugs exposed to the toxic waste. Think how DDT got into animals birds ate and poisoned their eggs. That's a lot more likely to cause mutations and issues that exposing the animals in question to the toxic substance directly.

(Note to self: Pitch a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot where the turtles aren't directly mutated by the ooze, but hatch from eggs laid by a mother turtle that had been eating ooze-affected bugs and what-not.)

*There's a fight involving a cat and a mutant spider that's mildly amusing.

*At one point the soundtrack includes "The Itsy-Bitsy Spider" done in the style of "The Imperial March." That was pretty amusing.

 The Bad

*The movie gets off to a slow start. Things don't start getting interesting until the first mutant spiders show up. It's generally not that exciting of a film, despite a few good bits.

*The CGI has not aged well, and there was better CGI in much older movies. Seriously, the original Men in Black was in 1997, as was Independence Day. Yes, I know this is supposed to be goofy rather than a serious scary movie (and they probably weren't exactly swimming in cash), but the script and acting fulfill that function nicely--there was no need to go cheap on the effects. Gremlins, which this film resembles in some ways, had better effects back in the 1980s with all puppets. Seriously, given how quality puppets (think the original Pumpkinhead) are probably expensive, just have one or two types of spiders instead of so many different kinds and make only a few puppets rather than polluting what could have been a campy send-off of Them! with lots and lots of annoyingly crappy CGI.

*There's a joke I'm not going to go into detail for reasons of spoilers involving Sheriff Parker's efforts to keep Ashley out of trouble that, the more you think about it, makes her back-story a hell of a lot darker and less funny. Even if the joke itself and its successor jokes are pretty funny at first.

*Too many fade outs.

The Verdict

Better than a Sci-Fi Channel (or SyFy as they like to call it these days) original movie, but that's not saying much. A higher budget and better acting doesn't make it that much of a better movie. The thing that came to mind was Gremlins with worse special effects and a more mediocre cast, despite being made a full generation later. 6.0 out of 10.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

More Thoughts on the 1998 Godzilla Remake (Some Spoilers)

Re-watched the 1998 American Godzilla for Myopia: Defend Your Childhood. I watched it (and reviewed it) as an adult rather than a middle-schooler many years ago, but I'm giving it a second look rather than being lazy and just using my old movie review. Here's the podcast.

Instead of a second review, however, I'm going to post some thoughts as we go along, in rough chronological order. Some spoilers, since these are more live podcast notes than a movie review/spoiler-free analysis. You might see some of these comments on the podcast, although others are things I never got the chance to say:

*The filmmakers clearly put some thought into logistics--namely how does a creature this darn big sustain itself? Cold-blooded animals can get significantly larger than warm-blooded ones. Godzilla, being a giant mutated marine iguana or Komodo monitor, is likely cold-blooded and consequently wouldn't need to eat as much as a warm-blooded creature of equivalent size, but he's still going to need to eat a lot. There are multiple scenes of Godzilla attacking fishing boats and major battle sequences are centered around using food as bait. This critter is clearly something that requires a lot of calories and the filmmakers actually acknowledged that.

*Per the above, I liked the 1998 Godzilla's design better. It looks and moves like an actual real animal that just got a hell of a lot bigger.

*Matthew Broderick's acting is fine, although his character Nick spouts way too much techno-babble that doesn't really make a lot of sense. He also makes a lot of assumptions based on very little if any evidence. One would hope a trained scientist would be better than that. However, although Maria Pitillo (who plays aspiring television reporter and Nick's ex-girlfriend Audrey Timmonds) got nominated for a Worst Actress Golden Raspberry Award, I really had no problem there. It's not like she had poor delivery or came off as fake the way Hayden Christiansen did in the Star Wars prequels, especially Revenge of the Sith. Seriously, he was so incredibly annoying, especially in Revenge when he's supposed to be this battle-hardened general and leader of men. And Hank Azaria and Arabella Field, who play an Italian couple Audrey works with at the news station, were hilarious.

(It turns out neither of them are actually Italian, which was a surprise. Both of them are New Yorkers though.)

*Nick and Audrey clearly still have feelings for each other--he still has pictures of them from when they dated in college eight years before (some of my fellow podcasters thought that was a bit creepy) and she immediately runs to the TV when she sees him on it, so there's still feelings for him on her end too. They're showing, not telling, which is good. Why did they break up in the first place, especially since they dated for four-odd years? The only notion I got is Nick's comment about being too busy when a female scientist (who clearly has the hots for him) asks about his love life, which suggests that perhaps he spent too much time on science and ignored Audrey, but she admits that he proposed to her and she basically ghosted him. Yeesh.

*I liked the French characters and yes, I found their constant complaining about American food funny. The DGSE in real life are pretty hard-core. No cheese-eating surrender monkeys here.

*Roland Emmerich had a beef with movie critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, so he plugged in a fat "Mayor Ebert" and his put-upon skinny assistant. Yes that's extremely petty, but the characters are also pretty funny.

*Charles Caiman (Harry Shearer) is even more slimy this time around, and he was pretty damn slimy last time. Treating Audrey as his personal minion for years without any possibility of promotion unless she sleeps with him (and he's married too, making him an oathbreaker on top of "just" abusing his position), excluding her from important news business in a blatantly sexist way, and finally stealing her story. What a piece of trash.

It's a pity he didn't enjoy some appropriately unpleasant ending--him suffering the legal consequences for Audrey's stealing military information (since he stole her story it'd be easy for Nick and Audrey to just let people assume he was the one who stole the tape), his boss firing him as a condition of keeping Audrey after her revealing the nest and getting an exclusivity promise from Nick makes her the most sought-after TV reporter on Earth, or him just getting stepped on or have a building fall on him would have been perfect. Again, what a piece of trash. Godzilla isn't evil because he (she? it?) is an animal acting according to its nature, but Caiman's bad behavior is a choice.

(Especially stealing Audrey's story, which based on how he was looking at her when she claimed the story was hers was at least partly because he was mad at her for disobeying him and/or showing him up, not just because he wanted the scoop himself. And Caiman deliberately named Nick as the source of the story rather than doing the sensible thing as a journalist and keeping him anonymous--did he view Nick as a sexual rival and want to destroy him? Someone kill this man please.)

*The CGI isn't nearly as good as I remember it being. In fact, there's one scene where Godzilla ducks some missiles where it looks really fake. Seriously, we're talking the model going gray here. How did they not notice that when they were finishing up the film?

*Who leaves around top-secret VHS tapes labeled "top secret"? Seriously these guys' OpSec sucks.

*So many infantry with grenade launchers and assault rifles vs. something the size of a blue whale on legs. Cloverfield did it better--when the kaiju come to New York City, the tanks come out. LOTS of tanks, not just one or two. The 1990s New York National Guard might not have the same firepower as the U.S. Army, but given there's a dinosaur (okay, a mutated marine iguana, but close enough) trashing the economic center of the state, I imagine everything with a gun caliber the appropriate size is heading that way. And can nobody hit anything? Yeah it's quick, but it's still pretty huge.

*The Bible (Acts 26:20) says to prove your repentance by your deeds and I imagine following your ex-boyfriend whose career you just wrecked because your loudmouth friends encouraged you to be  aggressive and mean against your own inclinations into dinosaur hell to help save New York City counts. Not exactly the cheap grace that Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned against here--she didn't just cry a bit and get Easily Forgiven.

And although Nic (podcast host) really doesn't like Audrey, I'm inclined to disagree. Yes, she abused Nick's (the scientist) trust and lingering romantic feelings to advance her career at his expense and that's a bad thing, but she put her life at risk to try to fix it. And if she hadn't, the military would have never learned where the nest was (since Nick and the French guys wouldn't know how to operate the broadcast equipment, assuming they didn't get eventually eaten) and there'd be Radioactive Dinosaur Apocalypse. So yes, she was selfish and exercised extremely poor judgement, but she also helped save the planet.

There's a whole bunch of stuff here about how heroes need flaws, and other than being a dork married to his job, Nick doesn't seem to have any. Meanwhile, Audrey and Animal (Hank Azaria the cameraman) have problems standing up for themselves and Animal's wife Lucy is domineering and doesn't take responsibility for others following her bad advice. Audrey's sneakiness and selfishness is much more of a character flaw than being overbearing or spineless.

Verdict: Flawed, but still better than the 2014 Godzilla film. And I'm not the only one who thinks that.