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The Power Within (1995)
"The Power Within"
Art Camacho's 1995 martial arts fantasy flick "The Power Within" is good at what it wants to be - a martial arts fantasy flick with a good message about believing in yourself and your own abilities, and fulfilling your own potential.
Stan Dryer (Ted Jan Roberts) is an average teenager who's having trouble making the grade in school, gets beaten up by the bullies on the school's football team (despite the fact that Stan is taking lessons in Karate and is not very good at it), and is being urged by his best friend Eric Graves (Keith Coogan) to ask pretty popular girl Sandy Applegate (Tracy Melchoir) out to prom - but he's too scared to do so. In other words, he lacks any sense of self-confidence.
To top it off, one day, Stan manages to save the elderly martial arts master, Master Yung (Gerald Okamura), from thugs. Master Yung dies not long after the struggle, but not before having passed the mysterious and mystical Ring of Power onto Stan, who now finds himself in possession of incredible strength and martial arts skills. It turns out that the Ring of Power is actually the SECOND of two Rings of Power, the other belonging to Raymond Vonn (William Zabka, of "The Karate Kid"), an art thief and master criminal, who now wants both rings for himself.
"The Power Within" is very much a "B" movie for teenagers with some after-school special trappings, though it's not one without a good message about believing in yourself and your abilities. The acting is a mixed bag; Ted Jan Roberts, a kiddie actor known for his martial arts skills in Tae Kwon Do, is easily identifiable as the Everyman that the audience can latch onto, even if his performance is a little bit hammy at times. William Zabka is by far the film's strongest performer, even if he comes off as nothing more than just a standard movie bad guy (which is not too far removed from the violent teenage black belt he played in "The Karate Kid").
P.S.: International Kickboxing legend Don "The Dragon" Wilson makes an inspiring walk-on cameo as himself...
Long zai jiang hu (1986)
He had an important "Legacy" to live up to...
The 1986 martial arts action flick "Legacy of Rage" has the benefit of being the first starring role of the late Brandon Lee (the ill-fated son of deceased martial arts legend Bruce Lee). It was also the only film that Brandon Lee made in Hong Kong, and likewise the film is spoken in Cantonese (though the voices are dubbed - as the practice at that time was to film movies without sound, and then dub in the actors' voices later).
Brandon Lee is in fine form here (despite never hearing his natural speaking voice), though the film itself - written and directed by Hong Kong action veteran Ronny Yu (who would later gain fame in the West with the American horror films "Bride of Chucky" and "Freddy vs. Jason," and the martial arts epic "Fearless" with Jet Li) - is somewhat of a mixed bag; it's more or less a standard action film, with lots of stuff about gangsters, drugs, and John Woo-style gun-play. Also, disappointingly, there isn't much of Brandon Lee using his father's patented Jeet Kune Do skills against the bad guys being sent his way.
Lee plays Brandon Ma, a hard-working average Joe with a beautiful girlfriend named May (Regina King, in her film debut) and dreams of buying a motorcycle. Brandon's best friend is Michael (Michael Wong), who is also the son of a local Hong Kong gangster and is looking to take over his father's business and thus make a name for himself. He also has unrequited feelings for May, and he soon cooks up a scheme to get rid of Brandon so that he can have her for himself. This scheme would involve the murder of the undercover narcotics detective that has been hassling his father's organization, and then setting up Brandon as the scapegoat. The plan goes off without a hitch, and Brandon is sent to prison for eight years for the crime. But when he learns the truth about what's happened to him and why, that's when he sets out to get revenge and save May.
While we all know Brandon Lee's tragic story (he was killed while filming a scene of his last film, 1994's "The Crow"), "Legacy of Rage" definitely shows the talent the younger Lee inherited from his more-famous father. Brandon Lee may not have been as skilled a martial artist as his father (this is really debatable and a pointless argument, if you ask me), but he certainly may have been a stronger and more charismatic and charming actor. He certainly did not want to be remembered as a martial arts star like his father, but he did want to be remembered as an ACTOR. "Legacy of Rage" may not have much in the way of kung-fu action, but it does show that Lee was a strong and capable action hero, much like he would show in his later English-speaking features "Showdown in Little Tokyo" (1991), "Rapid Fire" (1992) and of course, "The Crow" - his last and most famous film.
So "Legacy of Rage" is worth viewing maybe once or twice, as a worthy introduction to the skills of the extraordinarily talented Brandon Lee.
P.S.: Bolo Yeung (who appeared as a villain in Bruce Lee's last completed film "Enter the Dragon") also has a brief appearance here, as well.
The Theory of Everything (2014)
Simply brilliant, just like its principal subject matter
Great Britain's Professor Stephen Hawking - What hasn't been said about the greatest living thinker on the planet right now?
I've known about Professor Hawking for a long time now and have long admired him, but just two years ago I finally read his 1988 best-seller "A Brief History of Time" and loved it - even if much of Hawking's theories (involving the search for the true beginnings of the universe and so-called "Hawking radiation") went way over my head, despite his attempts to actually simplify his work for the lay person.
James Marsh's new 2014 biopic "The Theory of Everything" is about 25 years in Hawking's early life, from 1963 to 1988, much of it based off his ex-wife Jane Hawking's book "Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen." The film itself is more about their relationship than it is Hawking's ground-breaking work in theoretical physics. He's played here to perfection by Eddie Redmayne (who I'm convinced spent a lot of time with the real-life Professor Hawking and copied his mannerisms almost exactly), while Jane is played by Felicity Jones, and it is just as much her story as it is his; her attempts to understand and love him are almost vicarious for the experience of the audience. "The Theory of Everything" of course also includes his crippling diagnosis of motor neuron disease (ALS), which left him with a life expectancy of just two years - but he's obviously still here more than half a century after receiving that life-changing diagnosis.
"The Theory of Everything" is a beautiful, marvelous film - so much better than the usual Hollywood stuff, even though this film is very much so-called "Oscar bait." But damn it, I loved it. I've always wondered what a screen adaptation of Professor Hawking's life would look like, and now we have it. I guess a more straight-forward look at his career would have to wait, or we can just continue reading his books (of which there are several). But if we want to get an idea of who he is as a person, look no further than "The Theory of Everything."
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Marvel's Man of Steel, I mean, Iron, returns for part-three
No one will doubt the fact that since 2008, the superhero movie genre has just simply exploded into a big-budget Hollywood money-making machine. I still remember the days when just this time 20 years ago, superhero movies were still a burgeoning - if not seriously overlooked (by the mainstream) - film genre, and Tim Burton's 1989 "Batman," or the first two "Superman" movies starring the late Christopher Reeve, were relegated as the best the genre had to offer.
Superhero movies are a dime a dozen now, it would seem. While this was unheard-of in 1994, 20 years later, they're everywhere. It seems that on average, Hollywood is releasing at least two big-budget superhero films a year. This is good for comic book superhero fans who are finally seeing their (modern-day) versions of the ancient Greek gods get the big-screen treatments they deserve. And therein, for this viewer, lies the biggest problem with the latest crop of superhero movies.
In past reviews, I've made no attempt to hide the deep love and respect I have for comic books and superheroes. 10 years ago, I got the opportunity to see what I still consider to be the greatest superhero film of all time - "Spider-Man 2" (2004) - in the theater. Of course, at that time, the superhero movie genre was still gaining wider prominence and acceptance in Hollywood (and by extension, the rest of the mainstream as a whole), and was not the commercial fad that it is now.
My problem with the latest crop of superhero movies - meaning most of the films made since 2008 - is that the genre has become formulaic and commercialized. The earlier films made in the second wave of superhero films 10 years ago, and even the films made earlier than that, whether good or bad, were clearly driven by passionate filmmakers who understood the medium and at least tried to give their films some deeper meaning or dramatic/thematic complexity; Donner, Burton, Proyas, Raimi, Singer, and others knew what they were doing back then. I don't really see this type of cinematic artistry, and craft, much anymore; most films are just big, empty, glossy-looking blockbuster spectacles with no greater depth to them than any other major Hollywood film.
What I'm saying is that Hollywood has effectively hijacked what was once the most novel and original of film genres and turned it into formula. There have been occasional flashes of brilliance or originality - "Chronicle" (2012) has so far been the biggest "original" (meaning not based on pre-existing material) movie made during this time, and I'm sure we were all over-joyed with James Gunn's smart-alecky "Guardians of the Galaxy" earlier this year.
But I got way off-track here, and I must go back to what we were talking about originally, which is 2013's "Iron Man 3." "Iron Man 3" is perhaps the darkest "Iron Man" to come out yet. One of the biggest regrets I've ever had of this particular Marvel Comics cinematic franchise, is that Marvel's Man of Iron, Tony Stark, has had some of the most harrowing and dramatic personal battles of any superhero since Peter Parker/Spider-Man. While Robert Downey, Jr. is inspired, pitch-perfect casting as Tony Stark/Iron Man, the films have regretfully avoided the deeper dramatic possibilities that made the original comic book character so fascinating: of course, Tony Stark is arguably the most famous superhero to have ever struggled with the perils of drug addiction (alcoholism).
While a great inventor and superhero in his own right, underneath the armor, Stark was still a normal human being, and he was vulnerable to the same personal afflictions that could affect any one of us. That was what drew readers to his adventures, both personal and societal, and it was always this dynamic that made it interesting in seeing how he overcame it all. The "Iron Man" films have largely taken the "safer" (commercial) route.
In this third cinematic outing, set just before the Christmas holidays, Stark is still his big old arrogant self, though for some reason he's suffering the effects of PTSD as a result of the events of "The Avengers" (2012). This time out, he's battling a terrorist known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), who may or may not also be connected to yet another corporate rival named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). In the meantime, Stark must also try to rebuild his crumbling relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and maintain his friendship with Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), who also moonlights as War Machine (who has since been renamed as the more politically-correct "Iron Patriot" by his government sponsors); regretfully, Cheadle's War Machine is pretty much nothing more than a cameo here.
The first two "Iron Man" pictures were directed by Jon Favreau (who also returns as Happy Hogan, though he's also been pretty much reduced to nothing more than a cameo here), while this latest effort is co-written and directed by "Lethal Weapon" scribe Shane Black. Anyone who remembers Black knows that he was pretty much the screen-writing master behind several witty dialogue-driven action blockbusters - think "The Last Boy Scout" (1991) - back in the '80s and early '90s (before the arrival of Quentin Tarantino), so it's no surprise that virtually every bit of dialogue written here is a one-liner with an exclamation point at the end.
I already stated my ambivalence toward this film series, but I can take pleasure in the fact that this might be the last, and that at least Iron Man seems to fare better when paired up with other superheroes. Robert Downey, Jr. is his usual appealing self, but the movie itself is also a disappointment, if not a completely enjoyable disappointment.
The Fault in Our Stars (2014)
A near-perfect "Fault"
In our current 2014 Hollywood wasteland of an endless barrage of big-budget superhero movies (of which I'm a sucker for), Hollywood's other big obsession seems to be adaptations of popular teen novels. Earlier this year, I was gosh-wowed by "The Spectacular Now" (2013). Now I've just sat down and watched "The Fault in Our Stars."
I just needed a break from the big-budget superhero movie hoopla, you know? "The Fault in Our Stars" was a perfect distraction until "Guardians of the Galaxy" (2014) is released on DVD tomorrow. I've been eager to watch "The Fault in Our Stars" for some time now, and let me say that I wasn't disappointed. I knew what the story was about, and wasn't disappointed by the final result. I was thoroughly pleased by this teen love story that like a lot of teen movies of late, invents its own language, lingo, and philosophical outlook on life as it goes along.
Adapted from the book by John Green (which I intend to begin reading later on this afternoon) and admirably directed by Josh Boone, "The Fault in Our Stars" tells the story of Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) and Augustus "Gus" Waters (Ansel Elgort), two teenagers who meet in a support group for teen cancer patients. Gus is a survivor fully intent on living a life worth remembering, but Hazel is battling terminal stage IV lung cancer, and knows that her time is finite (after being granted a few extra years via an experimental cancer treatment) - while being cared for by her loving parents Frannie (Laura Dern) and Michael (Sam Trammell). Over time, however, Hazel and Gus develop a close friendship that gradually blossoms into a full-blown romance. And somewhere in there, too, these two also learn to fulfill their greatest dreams and aspirations.
One of the key reasons I was so eager to watch this film is because I have personal experience with the film's subject matter - which is life with cancer: I lost my mother earlier this year to lung cancer, and in the remaining two weeks of her life, which were spent in the hospital, I visited her everyday and in her final moments, I did my best to make it clear to her that she was the greatest mom her only 29-year-old son could ever ask for. This was something I hoped I would not have to deal with until much later on in my life, but you never know what curve-balls the universe is going to throw at you. And I've moved on quite quickly and easily from the grief of having lost her so soon and so suddenly.
Getting back to the film, of all the teen romance novels made into films over the last few years, this is the one that appears to have struck a chord with me the most. I couldn't help but feel that both Hazel and Gus are such strong, positive characters - making the most of whatever time they've got together and having no regrets about anything they do. Shailene Woodley appears to have an amazing future ahead of her in the movies, if only she can get past her persistent casting in adaptations of teen novels. She was quite amazing in this picture, as was her co-star Ansel Elgort, whom I've never heard of before, but he was quite phenomenal in his acting performance here. I admired his upbeat demeanor and humor and the way he was able to keep Hazel on her toes constantly during the course of their romance. But like life, "The Fault in Our Stars" throws us a curve-ball an hour-and-a-half into the picture.
I knew that this movie was going to end the way that it did, but I was not expecting the curve-ball it does end up throwing at us - it's something that truly catches you off-guard and comes straight out of left field, and makes you think about the special kind of cruelty that's dealt by the stars to some people in this life. But what's most admirable here is the way the two teens deal with it, with hope and humor - rather than gloom and despair.
I'm glad that I had the chance to watch "The Fault in Our Stars." I'm sure I'm going to love John Green's book. Right now, I'm listening to the soundtrack, which is also worthy of special mention here. I'm not a fan of any of the artists on it - it's largely, mostly a mix of indie musicians I've never heard of (with the sole exception of Charli XCX and her song "Boom Clap," which I honestly can't stop playing) - but it fits the film perfectly. Many of the songs came from Josh Boone's personal music collection (while others made themselves known over the course of the film's editing process), and I can find no fault with his choices. It's equally as amazing as the film that inspired them.
Keep playing Charli XCX's "Boom Clap" like there's no tomorrow (which is what I'm doing)!!!
"Scanners" - Your mind is about to E-X-P-L-O-D-E!!!
The most talked-about sequence in "Scanners" occurs about 12 minutes in, where a so-called "Scanner" (Louise Del Grande), people born with almost unlimited psychic abilities, attempts to read the mind of a volunteer, as part of a demonstration of his talents. A volunteer in the crowd offers to have his mind read. The two sit down at a table at the front of the auditorium, where the demonstration is taking place. As the demonstration progresses, both men are in clear agony and distress, though one of them is in more pain than the other. Suddenly, the head of Scanner Louise Del Grande explodes.
This shocking, horrifying moment is the key special effects achievement of David Cronenberg's 1981 sci-fi/horror shocker "Scanners," which has the benefit of being the Canadian gore maestro's first international break-out hit. It would allow him to develop up his philosophically-inclined, gore-filled sci-fi/horror template even further with "The Dead Zone" and "Videodrome" (both of which were released in 1983), his only Oscar-winner "The Fly" (1986) (which remains Cronenberg's unrivaled masterpiece, in my opinion), and concluded his run in the '80s with "Dead Ringers" (1988).
"Scanners" was Cronenberg's fifth commercial film. In many ways, it also represents his first effort with Really Big Ideas. "Scanners" promises to be a thriller unlike any other at the time, although psychic-themed horror pictures had prefigured his work here with "Carrie" (1976) and "The Fury" (1978). Elements of corporate espionage, government conspiracies, paranormal research, and unethical medical and pharmaceutical testing - all figure into "Scanners," as well as the usual gun fights, car chases, and explosions.
I first came across "Scanners" about 12 years ago, and was not that impressed; I was on a binge for all things David Cronenberg and I had heard nothing but good responses about "Scanners" - so that was the next essential viewing in my eyes (especially after "The Fly," which I'd kind of/sort of grown up on). Maybe because I was more interested in the gore and special effects than the thematic and philosophical complexities of his work, that I came to overlook "Scanners" the first time around (despite the "head exploding" sequence and the film's grisly psychic showdown at the end). Now that "Scanners" has been given the Criterion Collection DVD treatment, I felt inclined to view the film again and was this time quite surprised and thrilled at what I was seeing.
The film details a war between the forces of Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside), an immensely powerful rogue Scanner with dreams of a Scanner supremacy, and those of ConSec, a shadowy corporation involved in Scanner research and development. ConSec recruits an extraordinarily powerful, unaffiliated Scanner named Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) to find Revok and stop him. In the course of his battles, Vale learns to gain a better handle on his abilities - with a little help from his handler Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) and a fellow extremely powerful Scanner named Kim Obrist (Jennifer O'Neill) - leading to a grisly psychic showdown between himself and Revok that no doubt solidified Cronenberg's "gore maestro" reputation and also extensively utilized the grotesque prosthetic make-up effects of Dick Smith (whose work includes, above all else, 1973's "The Exorcist").
Like all of Cronenberg's work at the time, "Scanners" is about the beauty of "bodily destruction" and the disease of the mind or body (though in relation to his earlier work, like "Shivers," "Rabid" and "The Brood," it lacks the perverse sexual content of those films). "Scanners" explores disease of both mind and body, by exploring the effects of pre-natal experimentation (remember, Scanners are born with their abilities), the fact that most Scanners can barely control their abilities (once they realize that that they have them and what they are), and what Scanners are capable of doing to others (the act of "scanning" is described as being able to connect two separate nervous systems through space).
Although the film is still low-budget and features largely unknown Canadian performers, it still does not mean that Cronenberg was working with an inexperienced crew. As I plainly stated earlier, he's a director with Big Ideas, and recruiting Dick Smith to design some of the film's most grotesque (yet ambitious) special effects and gore sequences was a smart decision. Seeing these effects 33 years later, they still hold up and are far better than anything that could possibly be achieved with a computer (I think of Vale's psychic attack on the ConSec computer room as a pristine example).
"Scanners" can be seen as having been quite influential on the science fiction film genre - with two well-known examples that I can think of being Katsuhiro Otomo's epic Anime' "Akira" (1988) and Josh Trank's 2012 found footage superpower flick "Chronicle."
"Scanners" - Your mind is about to E-X-P-L-O-D-E!!!
Evil Dead (2013)
"Evil Dead" (2013)
For this horror film fan, the original 1982 Sam Raimi-directed "The Evil Dead" remains one of the most purely terrifying motion pictures experiences of my lifetime. Its superior 1987 sequel/remake "Evil Dead II" (also directed by Raimi) was the series high point - and my personal favorite of the original "Evil Dead" trilogy - and was also a perfect marriage of horror and slapstick comedy. 1992's "Army of Darkness" was more fantasy than horror, but it was nonetheless a worthy closer to the original series.
Now it's 2013, and a reboots/remakes of classic horror films are everywhere. It was inevitable that "The Evil Dead" would get the remake/reboot treatment at some point. I was firmly against the idea of a remake/reboot of "The Evil Dead" since the beginning. I could not imagine Sam Raimi - who ascended to the ranks of Hollywood blockbuster-dom with his work on the "Spider-Man" trilogy from 2002-2007 - wanting to hop on the Hollywood bandwagon to remake his first hit movie.
Alas, 2013's "Evil Dead," which marks the debut of Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez, was not the disaster it could have so easily been. Raimi, Rob Tapert, and the almighty Bruce Campbell himself all return as producers on this latest outing Into The Woods. And believe you me, it's not that bad. While the movie starts and stops early on and has an irritating tendency in the earliest proceedings to sometimes elicit unintended snickers out of the audience, "Evil Dead" almost always plays it straight - much like the 1982 original, even though there may be one or two moments of gallows humor to liven the otherwise relentlessly grim mood.
Things begin with an adventure to an isolated cabin in the woods: Mia (Jane Levy) is a recovering junkie who has been hauled out here by her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), and their mutual friends Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci), nurse Olivia (Jessica Lucas), and David's girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) as part of her treatment after all other attempts to get clean & sober have failed - so now Mia has to go the detox route cold turkey. While exploring the cabin, they somehow or another wind up in the cellar, where someone slaughtered a bunch of poor felines as part of some kind of abandoned ritualistic sacrifice, and discover the so-called "Book of the Dead." Eric unwisely reads aloud the incantations within it, thus awakening the malevolent supernatural forces that had been lying dormant in the woods outside the cabin. One by one, the friends are slowly possessed by these demonic forces, leaving only one lone survivor to fend them off until morning.
"Evil Dead" does not play around. Much of what made "The Evil Dead" so purely horrifying has remained intact here: gore, self-mutilation, power tools, demonic possession, bodily dismemberment, and more gore. In fact, there's so much going on here in terms of gory special effects that at one point it's literally raining down blood. (Where's Slayer when you need them to provide some background noise for the slaughter?) Believe me, once the terror starts, "Evil Dead" becomes an almost relentless shock- and gore-fest - though obviously because we've seen it all before it lacks the intensity of Raimi's original classic.
Alvarez and his co-scriptwriter Rodo Sayagues pay plenty of homage to "The Evil Dead" (it should be noted that this reboot combines elements of both "The Evil Dead" and "Evil Dead II" - which was done, I would guess, to please die-hard fans of the original film series). Alvarez is also good in keeping up the tension throughout the picture, again in remaining in touch with the spirit of the original film and its sequels (even though it ultimately lacks the ferocious intensity of those films).
It should again be noted that "Evil Dead" is drenched in blood. This is perhaps the most relentlessly blood-soaked "R"-rated horror picture to be released by a major American film studio (TriStar Pictures) so far this millennium - unless you maybe count Neil Marshall's "The Descent" (2005), despite the fact that film was originally a British production released by Lionsgate Films here in the United States. How this movie managed to secure an "R" rating with so much blood is beyond me.
"Evil Dead" - It'll swallow your soul, maybe, if you let it.
P.S.: Watch after the credits - "Groovy."
A simple, yet powerful masterpiece
Before going into Terrence Malick's powerful 1973 film debut, "Badlands," I feel that I have a need to backtrack a little bit.
In 2002, I had the great pleasure of discovering, and falling in love with, my all-time favorite movie - "True Romance" (1993), which has the fortune of having been Quentin Tarantino's first completed screenplay, yet being the second script of his to be made into a movie (behind his infamous 1992 directorial debut "Reservoir Dogs"), but was instead directed by the late "Top Gun" Tony Scott.
I'll make no secret of my requited love for that picture, but in learning about that film's production history, I kept coming across assorted references to Terrence Malick's "Badlands"; most of the references I stumbled across rose from Malick's appropriation of Carl Orff's xylophone-based theme for "Badlands" (the "Badlands" score itself was done by George Tipton, from a composition titled "Gassenhauer" from Orff's work "Schulwerk"), which composer Hans Zimmer based his main theme for "True Romance" off of. Having completed watching "Badlands" for the first time in its entirety and listened to the score, I've now seen the connection between the two films fully.
"Badlands" is a simple, quiet, and powerful masterpiece. Malick wrote, co-produced (with co-producer Edward Pressman) and directed the picture, which is loosely based on the real-life crimes of teen outlaw couple Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate, who went on a nine-day crime spree in 1958 that ultimately claimed the lives of 11 people. "Badlands" came hot on the heels of another outlaw-couple-on-the-run movie, "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967), which was also based on a true story - albeit heavily fictionalized and romanticized. "Badlands" is not a romanticized portrait of the Starkweather/Fugate crime spree, but is more of a simple portrait of a pair of aimless youths who engage in violence if for no other reason than to apparently give their lives some kind of meaning.
In 1959 (one year after the real-life Starkweather/Fugate murders) in South Dakota, 25-year-old Kit (a then-33-year-old Martin Sheen, perfectly cast and modeling Kit, and himself, after James Dean) meets 15-year-old schoolgirl Holly (Sissy Spacek) while she practices twirling her baton in her front yard. The two strike up a casual conversation that over the next few weeks gradually develops into a delicate teenage romance, a teenage romance that Holly's stern, disapproving Father (Warren Oates) frowns upon. Before you know it, a brutal murder puts Kit and Holly on the run from the law.
I'm often amazed at the power of low-budget independent cinema. While so-called low-budget "indie cinema" was all the rage in the early '90s (thanks to the breakthrough of Quentin Tarantino), many of today's most prominent mainstream Hollywood filmmakers - Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorcese, Steven Spielberg and yes, even Malick himself - were themselves a part of this growing wave of struggling young filmmakers back in the '70s, all of whom were on the verge of huge break-out success into the mainstream in their respective careers.
I just had to get that off my chest right there.
"Badlands" is a stunning little film. It doesn't glorify its subject matter, nor does it attempt to make out its two lead characters as anything more than they are - even though we do sympathize with their plight to a degree (and even though that sympathy is debatable or even warranted). Malick uses the wide-open settings to great effect here in creating strong feelings of loneliness and isolation. The cinematography - by the trifecta of Tak Fujimoto, Stevan Lerner, and Brian Probyn - really makes the barren plains of the South Dakota landscape stand out. The wide expanses of farmlands and prairies conveys a sense of freedom to the audience, yet ironically it all seems like a prison that's gradually closing in on the young lovers as they soon grow to realize that their time on the run together is surely, rapidly running short. (As an aside, I was equally impressed with how Arthur Penn used the American countryside to similar effect in "Bonnie and Clyde" just six years earlier.)
The legendary Martin Sheen has long been one of the most impressive acting personalities I've ever come across in the movies ("Apocalypse Now," anyone?); why he has yet to receive any Academy Award recognition for his long body of work over five-plus decades is beyond me (I've also been impressed by the work of his son Charlie Sheen - yes, that same one & only, wild & crazy Charlie Sheen!!! - who also appears in this film, at the age of eight, in an un-credited cameo). Three years before the international recognition she'd receive for her title role in "Carrie" (1976), Sissy Spacek is also a wonder in an under-stated performance that betrays her fading youthful innocence and her witnessing (and occasionally participating in) of the seemingly random, sudden bursts of violence that her much-older partner in crime is all too capable of perpetrating all on his own and without hesitation.
Yes, the film is violent, and no attempt is made to shy away from that fact, nor does the film ever attempt to glorify it. We simply witness violent actions as they happen, as raw and unflinching as it can be, and nothing more. Yet, the film is also rated "PG" (which quite frankly, baffles me, given the frank depiction of its subject matter, but whatever). It's just that I've seen movies far less violent than this one get much harsher ratings, but again, whatever.
"Badlands" is yet another entry into the young-outlaw-lovers-on-the-run genre. It's a poignant, powerful little masterpiece of almost-unrivaled filmmaking skill and beauty. Leads Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek are another daring young couple on the run and are perfectly matched and cast. Terrence Malick has never been better.
Gojira tai Hedorâ (1971)
Godzilla stamps out pollution - literally - in "Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster"
By 1971, it was clear that Godzilla, that mutant fire-breathing dinosaur borne of nuclear holocaust (and human hubris), had become a superhero of sorts - defending his home turf of Japan (and the rest of humanity as a whole) from all sorts of monster threats, both from Earth and outer space.
By the time I was 11-years-old in 1997, I had already seen most of the "Godzilla" films made during first-generation Showa Era (1954-1975). One of the last films I had yet to see was 1971's "Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster," and am I glad this was one of the last pictures I ever saw from that era.
To put it simply, "Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster" scared the living daylights out of me when I first saw it! No "Godzilla" movie before or since had ever done that to me before. Like the one that started it all, 1954's Ishiro Honda-directed "Gojira," "Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster" has a message, and an urgency to it, that has been rarely seen in the genre since before and after its release in 1971.
"Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster" was an anomaly of sorts from other "Godzilla" movies released during the '70s. It deviated in many ways from established formulas and principles that had since become common to the genre. It reverts back to the growing sense of urgency and impending apocalyptic doom that hadn't been seen in the kaiju-eiga ("Japanese monster movie") genre since "Gojira" back in 1954. In short, "Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster" has the approach and appearance of a full-fledged horror film, rather than your typical sci-fi monster smash-up - and make no mistake: there's some pretty scary stuff going on here (in spite of the ultimately mixed results of the film's presentation).
Japan was undergoing a huge pollution crisis in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a result of its booming economic and industrial prosperity in the wake of post-World War II reconstruction. "Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster" has Godzilla returning to battle the Smog Monster of the title, Hedorah, an alien life-form that feeds on pollution and proves nearly impossible to kill, even for the mighty King of the Monsters himself. The creature arrived here on Earth from another galaxy and fed on, and thrived in, the polluted waters of Japan's Tokyo Bay. In the end, it takes the combined might of Godzilla and the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) to finally combat and defeat the horrifying monster.
I'm not really spoiling anything by saying that Hedorah is ultimately defeated by the combined efforts of Godzilla and the JSDF - I'm simply proving a point of how dangerous Hedorah is to Godzilla, and humanity as a whole. I'm also demonstrating the urgency of the film's message about pollution and how human beings must do their part to prevent another Hedorah from arising again. Japan did eventually recover from its pollution crisis, but it was clear that Godzilla also leaves a hefty warning at the end of this film, as if to say, "Don't make me come after you next."
Directed by Yoshimitsu Banno and co-written by himself and Takeshi Kimura, "Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster" is a unique entry in the first-generation Showa-Era "Godzilla" films; Godzilla himself would not face a monster like this again until "Godzilla vs. Biollante" in 1989 - the crowning achievement of the second-generation Heisei-Era film series (and my personal favorite film from that era). Teruyoshi Nakano's special effects highlight the fact that Hedorah was unlike any monster Godzilla had ever faced prior to 1971, and represented Godzilla's first truly significant threat (yes, even more so than the mighty three-headed space demon King Ghidorah). Hedorah, is after all, a walking pile of sludge capable of changing into multiple forms and emitting a corrosive sulfuric acid mist that kills anything it comes into contact with. And by film's end, Godzilla has the gruesome battle scars to prove that Hedorah is a significant challenger to his reign as the "King of the Monsters."
This is a dark, cynical, and angry film - the likes of which haven't been seen since "Gojira." Much of this film's action is set at night - heightening the horror movie motifs of the picture and the growing sense of impending apocalyptic doom; great credit must be given to director Banno for deviating from set formula (and reportedly as a result of doing so, he was banned from ever working in the kaiju-eiga again by producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, who was in the hospital recovering from an illness during this film's production and was thus not involved in the film much at all). This movie frightened me when I was younger (the only "Godzilla" movie to do so), and there are still parts of it that I have a hard time watching (any of the scenes featuring the wake of Hedorah's destruction have a way of leaving a lasting impact on the viewer, since graphic scenes of human carnage, death, and destruction were a rare occurrence in the "Godzilla" films following "Gojira"). Yeah, the film has many scenes of destruction and nightmarish imagery that will certainly frighten anyone not prepared for it, and expecting "Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster" to be like any typical Japanese monster-on-the-rampage movie.
This is the most nightmarish "Godzilla" film made since "Gojira" in 1954.
Django Unchained (2012)
This "Django" is most definitely "Unchained"!
If that name means nothing to you, just move on.
10 years ago, in 2004, I had the great pleasure to watch Tarantino's epic revenge fantasy "Kill Bill" (2003-2004) (yes, it is one film, split into two parts). I proclaimed "Kill Bill" to be Tarantino's best work as a director (yes, even better than "Pulp Fiction" - his most famous film to date). (I've always considered Quentin Tarantino to be a far better screenwriter than a director, hence why the 1993 Tony Scott-directed action film "True Romance" - which Tarantino wrote the screenplay for but DID NOT direct - is my all-time favorite movie, and the single best piece of cinema that Tarantino has ever been involved with. There, I said it - "True Romance" is Tarantino's greatest work to date.)
I saw "Kill Bill" as his best work because it represented a celebration of film - the very thing Tarantino loves to death and is, after all, the industry that employs him - a cinematic culmination of thousands of hours of late-night grind-house cinema outings when Tarantino was a highly impressionable teenager growing up during the 1970s. If you have a thing for martial arts movies, "spaghetti" Westerns, Japanese and Italian horror films, Japanese animation (Anime') and virtually every single revenge movie ever made, you were in heaven. I know I was, which is why I loved it as much as I did.
It's been a while since Tarantino has made another film that I was really interested in watching, that was until I finally saw "Django Unchained," which he wrote and directed and was released in 2012. I missed my chance to see it in the theaters, but fate allowed me to buy the movie on DVD and I just completed watching it this morning.
In short, "Django Unchained" is yet another celebration of film from Tarantino. Combining the "spaghetti" Western (made most famous by the late Italian director Sergio Leone and his "Dollars" trilogy which featured a young-ish Clint Eastwood in the leads) and the blaxploitation and soul flicks of the '70s, "Django Unchained" is the type of film I've been yearning for a LONG time: a Western film with a blaxploitation attitude. Anyone who knows Tarantino, knows that he has a deep affection, and appreciation for, black culture and black cinema, so why else would he make a movie featuring a black-American protagonist leading an insurrection in the years leading up to the American Civil War?
Now here is where we get personal for this viewer. As a person of color (black-American), I got a perverse pleasure from watching "Django Unchained." This movie caused quite a bit of controversy at the time of its release, namely because of its repetitive use of the word "ni**er," much to the consternation of fellow filmmaker Spike Lee (even though he admitted he had not yet seen the film). I fully understand Lee's point and can understand his frustration, but from watching the movie I KNOW that Tarantino detests slavery as much as anyone else (as much as anyone with even the slightest bit of common sense), which is why he doesn't shy away from the brutal reality of the times (the film's opening sequence featuring black slaves force-marched through Texas proves this point). But like typical Tarantino, he also finds a sense of perverse humor in mocking the pathetic conventional racial wisdom of the times and even in displaying the full-on horrors of slavery, is still able to solicit many, many well-placed laughs (take for instance, a hilarious sequence featuring the Ku Klux Klan - the KKK).
Tarantino's perverse humor and sudden, explosive sequences of lurid, highly stylized bloodshed are right at home here. In 1858, two years before the official start of the American Civil War, German bounty hunter - and former dentist - Dr. King Schultz (Academy Award-Winner for Best Supporting Actor Christoph Waltz) stumbles upon and frees hardened slave Django (Jamie Foxx). Now here is where we get personal again: in Foxx's Django, I found myself the unlikely - yet fully willing, and committed - target member of Tarantino's audience, and Foxx's Django acting out a wild wish-fulfillment fantasy in a former slave-turned-gun-slinging-insurrectionist. In short, I wished I could be Django, the former slave who's a cross between Nat Turner and Clint Eastwood's "Man With No Name" (from Sergio Leone's "Dollars" trilogy, remember).
Schultz needs assistance in collecting a hefty bounty and lucky for him, Django - who is much wiser than he appears - can help him to positively locate and identify the men he's looking for. In exchange, Schultz will also help Django in locating his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who works as a servant for Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), an uber-wealthy Mississippi plantation owner who is as vile for his treatment of his slaves as he is lovable for his Southern charm, hospitality, and business ethics. The big joke here, of course, and in true Tarantino fashion, is Candie's house servant Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson, under some pretty heavy prosthetics to appear considerably aged), who quickly catches on to Django and Schultz's scheme.
Now here is a movie that truly, totally, won over this viewer - "Django Unchained." In true Tarantino fashion, he's having a ball here, with his rich and over-sized characters and dialogue, and when pushed into a corner he retreats to his favorite - a bloodbath (one that's straight out of "The Wild Bunch"!) - toward the end. But unlike his previous shoot-outs, you get a great sense of satisfaction from the blood and carnage, one that makes you realize that fully deserving foes have been truly vanquished and that good has triumphed over a great evil and injustice. In short, "Django" has become "Unchained," a symbol of a time of insurrection BEFORE a time of an even Greater Insurrection (the Civil Rights Movement, which would take place a full century after this film's historically revised events).