Monday, January 28, 2008

Masters of the Universe (1987)

Numerous times here at Sutton At The Movies, I've stated my belief that the best time to be a kid was during the 1980s. So many classic cartoons and toys were released during the decade, many of which modern shows can't hold a candle to. And unlike nowadays, there were no clear lines in the 1980s. Were the toys back then created to promote the cartoons, or were the cartoons created to promote the toys?

The lines between source material and its advertisement were awfully blurred, primarily due to the efforts of legendary toy company Hasbro. Two of Hasbro's most notable creations, G.I. Joe and Transformers, both started as super-successful lines of action figures that reached new heights of popularity in the 1980s when their respective cartoons began airing on television.

Similarly, rival company Mattel jumped into the same game when it created one of my favorite toy lines from the era, the Masters of the Universe. Initially launched in 1981, the action figures branched out into comic books before arriving on television in animated form in the fall of 1983. And as a youngster, I was completely caught up in it. I was hooked on the cartoon, and I had to have all the toys so I could enact my own epic battles for Castle Grayskull. (I actually still have all the toys in my attic, believe it or not.) But while the fad did eventually cool off after a few years, its popularity endured long enough for a live-action Masters of the Universe movie to hit theaters in 1987. Unfortunately, the end result was a low-budget affair that essentially served as the death knell for the franchise.

The mythical land of Eternia has been thrown into chaos. Using a powerful musical artifact known as "the cosmic key," merciless sorcerer Skeletor (Frank Langella) has seized Castle Grayskull, an immense fortress that hosts a wealth of great power. It is this power that he wishes to harness, and thus grant himself godlike abilities that would render him unstoppable.

Skeletor has also taken the castle's powerful Sorceress (Christina Pickles) hostage, channeling her essence into his own to augment his own magical strength. However, his occupation of Castle Grayskull will not go unopposed. A great hero known as He-Man (Dolph Lundgren) opposes him, and with fellow resistance fighters Man-At-War (John Cypher) and Teela (Chelsea Field) at his side, he seeks to end Skeletor's occupation of the castle and thwart his plans for Eternia.

With the cosmic key's designer, a dwarf named Gwildor (Billy Barty), assisting them, He-Man, Man-At-Arms, and Teela break into Castle Grayskull and attempt to free the Sorceress. But before they can be overwhelmed by Skeletor's forces, Gwildor uses a prototype of the cosmic key to randomly open a portal that allows them to escape.

And just where do they end up? Modern-day Earth, of all places. The key is lost upon arrival, soon found by teenagers Julie (Courteney Cox) and Kevin (Robert Duncan McNeill). As He-Man and his group frantically search for the key, Skeletor's forces have made their way to Earth intending to destroy anyone who gets in their way.

I wrote in the opening paragraph that Masters of the Universe: The Movie essentially killed the entire He-Man craze in one fell swoop. And I don't believe there was much hyperbole in that statement. To put it simply, this movie is a total mess from start to finish. Its paltry seventeen million dollar budget afforded the production few luxuries, but those involved seemed like they were uninterested in compensating. The movie suffers from poor storytelling, inconsistent acting, and really bad special effects. I really doubt that even the most devoted He-Man fan will be able to defend it. It's that shoddy.

The direction by Gary Goddard is about what you'd expect from a low-budget action movie from the '80s; it isn't anything remarkable, and it doesn't bring anything to the table that hasn't already been put there by a million other movies that did it a lot better. And really, outside of the small handful of elements the movie has taken from the source material, there's really nothing that stands out to separate Goddard's work from all the other movies like this.

And even then, his work seems substandard, primarily due to the crummy special effects, lousy and unconvincing matte paintings, and makeup effects that look like it could have been put together by any random person off the street.

It doesn't help anything that Bill Conti's music is pretty unoriginal, sounding more like a cheap ripoff of John Williams's music from Star Wars and Superman than anything else. How does an Oscar-winner who composed the music for movies like Rocky and The Karate Kid end up making music that sounds like this?

What really kills the movie, however, is the dreadfully bad writing by Supergirl scribe David Odell. Odell's script is just plain awful from start to finish. The dialogue is mediocre beyond words and the characters have an average IQ that you could count on one hand, but that isn't even the worst of it. It's been nearly two decades since I've seen the original cartoons, but from what I can recall, every story concerning He-Man and his crew took place in Eternia. But lo and behold, the movie spends nearly fifty-five minutes of its 105-minute running time here on Earth. Yeah, a little less than half the movie is in the franchise's usual backdrop. I understand why the change in setting was made, as the budget may not have allowed them to build any sets outside of Gwildor's house and Castle Grayskull. But putting the movie on Earth just seems lazy.

Speaking of lazy, here's something I don't get. Skeletor's forces cause all kinds of havoc in whatever town the movie is supposed to be taking place in. But outside of one nosy cop played by James Tolken, you don't really see anybody else getting involved. You'd think the sight of a giant half-naked bodybuilder waging war with a small army of circus freaks would get the attention of a few townspeople. But nope, they happened to land in the middle of a ghost town. Either the residents of this particular town couldn't be bothered with it, or the production just couldn't afford to hire extras.

Lastly is the actors, whose performances vary (although none of them are helped by the weak material). The saddest part is that Dolph Lundgren is supposed to be the savior of Eternia, but he's almost a non-factor until the end of the movie. Why would they reduce the star of the show to what is essentially a supporting role? For the majority of the flick, He-Man never really seems like the superhero that he's supposed to be, and it's reflected in the amazing lack of dialogue that Lundgren has. He has maybe ten lines in the whole thing, and his delivery on half of them feels really wooden.

Then there's Frank Langella as our villain. Langella's performance is inconsistent; he's intimidating at times, over-the-top at others, and with a few moments thrown in that makes it seem as if Langella would rather be anywhere else than making this movie. If that's the case, then maybe, with twenty years of hindsight, he's happy that all that ugly makeup made him completely unrecognizable.

I can't really critique the cast without referencing the movie's answer to the Wonder Twins, Courteney Cox and Robert Duncan McNeill. The characters are pretty much useless and painfully idiotic, but Cox (in her first film role) and McNeill are actually not all that bad. These aren't performances that anyone will ever remember them for, but they're definitely likeable, so I can't complain. The rest of the cast simply seems to be spinning their wheels, not really doing anything of note.

And just to show they're not really trying, it got the feeling that James Tolken is playing nearly the same character that he played in Back to the Future two years prior. I guess if you've got a formula for success, why deviate from it? John Cypher and Chelsea Field do make a decent go of it as well, but I doubt that either of their performances will be showing up on their career highlight reels. And I just have to point out the absolutely worst offender in the cast: Billy Barty. Barty's performance is downright annoying, and his character - a bad replacement for regular franchise supporting character Orko - seems to be what gave George Lucas the inspiration for Jar Jar Binks.

Masters of the Universe was a critical failure and a box office flop, and for good reason. The movie feels like a cheap attempt to squeeze what few remaining dollars were left in a franchise whose torch was about to be passed to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It never even really comes across as a proper Masters of the Universe movie. It feels more like they just took Castle Grayskull and a couple of important characters and stuck them into a plot cobbled together from other, more successful motion pictures. And since when did He-Man or any other characters in the franchise ever use laser guns? I remember there only being swords and sorcery.

But I guess a goofy movie like this is to be expected when it's made by Cannon Films and features Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus as the producers. What other kind of movie would we be getting from the people that brought us such classics as Alien From L.A., Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, and Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo? But while some look back on this flick as a nostalgic reminder of their childhood, all I can see is what amounts to a wasted opportunity to make a great movie.

Final Rating: **

Monday, January 14, 2008

Saw IV (2007)

One of the horror genre's most famous elements is the unstoppable villain that cannot seem to be defeated. And similarly, once a horror movie franchise gets rolling, there's very little anyone can do to slow it down. It was all the rage with horror flicks in the '80s, as famous franchises such as Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Hellraiser all have somewhere between seven and ten sequels. Though while that trend seems to have cooled somewhat since the turn of the twenty-first century, one modern horror franchise seems to have its black heart set on matching the long running sagas that came before it.

Released on the weekend before Halloween in 2004, Saw became a sleeper hit and inspired distributor Lions Gate Films and production studio Twisted Pictures to keep the blood flowing by releasing a new sequel every Halloween. But while the story of Jigsaw seemed to have ended with the gory conclusion of Saw III in 2006, the high box office grosses ensured that we'd somehow see a fourth movie. And that's exactly what we got the following Halloween with Saw IV. Perhaps the most ambitious of the four films released at the time of this writing, Saw IV might not be as good as the trilogy proceeding it, but it's not too bad at all.

John "Jigsaw" Kramer (Tobin Bell) is dead. But in spite of this setback, he has gone to great lengths to ensure that his legacy will stay alive. To do so, he has focused his attention on Daniel Rigg (Lyriq Bent), a SWAT team commander whose impetuous, somewhat obsessive nature with his job often puts himself and others in harm's way. Jigsaw has somehow managed to manipulate Rigg into a series of tests organized into a series of tests resembling a violent scavenger hunt, giving him ninety minutes to see it to its completion. Following the bloody trail left behind by these tests are FBI agents Peter Strahm (Scott Patterson) and Lindsey Perez (Athena Karkanis), whose search for a solution pulls them deeper into the pile of skeletons hidden in Jigsaw's closet.

I said in the beginning of this review that Saw IV is the most ambitious of the franchise thus far. It is, but it's also the most convoluted. There's at least three stories and subplots going on at once, which makes it really hard to keep track of things if you're not paying absolutely full attention. I'm surprised I got that plot synopsis up there as streamlined and as spoiler-free as I did, because I felt like I needed Cliff's Notes or a flow chart or something to properly put it together. But though it may be somewhat hard to follow, I still felt that Saw IV brought a lot to the table when it comes to creating a bigger, deeper universe and adding layers to the movies that came before it.

First up is the direction by Darren Lynn Bousman. Bousman is no stranger to the franchise, having directed all but the first movie, so he knows exactly what he's doing with this one. You might think that directing three sequels three years in a row would cause him to become complacent, but Bousman keeps things exciting with tight editing and well-done cinematography from fellow franchise mainstay David Armstrong.

The movie has all the visual hallmarks you'd expect, and though Bousman doesn't really try anything different or new, that's not completely bad. It also helps that his work was bolstered by the fantastic score once again composed by Charlie Clouser. His industrial-infused music has added a lot to the Saw franchise, and this movie is no different. His use of certain recurring elements — as well as the piece of music that has become the Saw theme song — gives the movie a sense of familiarity, and keeps the tension high throughout the proceedings depicted onscreen.

Next is the screenplay, written by Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan. Notable for being the first Saw movie not written by series co-creator Leigh Whannell, the script may not be as strong as it could be. But when you make sense of the three concurrent storylines, I felt that it held up. Melton and Dunstan have also obviously seen all of the Saw movies, because if anything can be said about their script, it's that it has a keen eye for continuity within the franchise. Little references to characters and events from the first three movies are peppered throughout Saw IV, to the point that you'd probably be best off watching all three of the other movies before you watch this one.

Aside from the continuity, another thing Melton and Dunstan have done is go deeper into how Jigsaw came to be. I've often complained that giving away too much of a villain's history demystifies them and makes them less scary. Though Jigsaw's origin story had been hinted at in what came before, Melton and Dunstan fill in the gaps and complete Jigsaw's turn from a monster into a tragic figure. In the series of flashbacks that accomplish this, we see him not as Jigsaw, but as John Kramer, a man with a wife, a job, and a baby on the way. It isn't until he is stricken with a rash of extremely bad luck that we the roots of his Jigsaw persona being laid. Melton and Dunstan handle this extremely well, making us truly care about Jigsaw and those in his life.

Lastly is the cast, all of whom I felt did their best. Lyriq Bent's role may not have benefited from the strongest writing, but he still does a decent job. He isn't perfect, but he's good enough. The same can be said for Scott Patterson and Athena Karkanis, whose undeveloped characters don't stop them from handing in fine performances.

There is some gold amidst the silver, though. Billy Otis is sleazy yet entertaining as the man who would become Jigsaw's first victim, and Betsy Russell is very good as Jigsaw's ex-wife. Her character may only be a supporting one, but Russell's performance helps to make the character even more important. And as always, the best performance comes from Tobin Bell as Jigsaw. Jigsaw evolves from being likeable to sympathetic to frightening, and Bell perfectly hits all the right notes. If there's at least one constant in the Saw franchise, it's that Tobin Bell is going to be great.

The really bad thing about Saw IV is that it feels less like a true sequel and more like a jumping-off point for a new trilogy. The fifth and sixth Saw movies have yet to be released, so I'm sure I'll appreciate Saw IV more once I see them. But right now, it feels like watching only half a story. Something is missing from this movie, which really hurts it. And because of that, I'm going to have to give it a "thumbs in the middle" with three stars. But don't let that fool you. It might be the weakest of the series thus far, but it's still an intriguing watch. Just make sure that you've taken that Saw refresher course first.

Final Rating: ***

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Madman (1982)

After the unexpected box office success of Sean Cunningham's legendary horror movie Friday the 13th in the summer of 1980, every Tom, Dick, and Harry with access to a camera and a little money to spend decided that they were going to make their own slasher movie too. Consequently, we ended up with hundreds of Friday the 13th clones and rip-offs being released over the course of the '80s. And the fact of the matter is that the majority of them are pretty darn bad.

In fact, there are only a handful that are still remembered fondly. Movies like Terror Train, the Sleepaway Camp franchise, and The Burning are among them, as well as the movie we're here to discuss right now, Madman. Despite its rarity on the home video market at the time (so rare, that it took me a month to track down so much as a bootleg of the movie to download), Madman has developed a cult following among fans of '80s horror. And after watching it, I can see why.

Let's go ahead and get to the plot, which is astoundingly simple. (Then again, most '80s slasher movies have practically no plot at all.) Our film opens with a group of young campers gathering around a campfire, where Max (Carl Fredericks), the camp's proprietor, tells a little story. It's the heartwarming tale of "Madman Marz" (Paul Ehlers), a psychotic farmer that butchered his family for no reason. A few townspeople strung him from a tree in a fit of vigilante justice, but the angry mob returned the next morning to find the noose empty. Ever since, the legend goes that the name of Madman Marz should never be spoken above a whisper, lest he appear and claim his next victim.

And wouldn't you know it, some punkass idiot decides he's going to tempt fate by incurring the wrath of Madman Marz. One of the campers stands up and shouts, "Marz! Madman Marz! Come on, come and get me!" I guess you can tell where this heading. It turns out that the old legend is true, and thanks to one moron's impetuousness, Madman Marz is about to violently punch a few one-way tickets to the morgue.

I'll come right out and say it: Madman isn't all that great. I don't know if I'd even call it good. But is it entertaining? It depends on your personal definition of entertainment, but I personally had a ball watching it. It's one of those "so bad, it's good" kind of movies. It's nothing you haven't seen before, but it does have a few things that set it apart from the sea of mindless clones released during that era. You know a movie has a gigantic pair of brass balls when it actually shows a sleeping child getting an axe to the head.

And how many horror movies have you seen begin with some dork singing a song around a campfire? No fooling, they opened the movie with a damn musical number. Seriously. I think this is the only one of these Friday the 13th clones to take inspiration from the little-remembered moment where Camp Crystal Lake's counselors sing folk songs. And while I'm thinking about it, do you know what movie they should make? Friday the 13th: The Musical. That'd be spectacular.

To tell you the truth, it's almost hard for me to critique Madman like I would any other movie, because it's so much more than the sum of its parts. But I guess I've got to be at least a little bit professional. We'll go with Joe Giannone's direction first. A quick search of the ever-helpful IMDB reveals that Madman is the only movie Giannone has ever directed, which is a bummer because he does a pretty decent job. He handles the ultra-clich├ęd "killer's point-of-view" shots well, and there are quite a few scenes that are pretty tense, such as the scene near the beginning where one character sees Madman Marz's silhouette amongst the trees out in the forest.

He also manages to get some decent cinematography from James Momel, as well as a fine score composed by Stephen Horelick. Horelick's synth-tinged music during the stalking scenes is excellently done, evoking the music composed by John Carpenter around the same time. However, not all of the music is good. Case in point: the song during that awful hot tub scene. The whole thing is just hilariously bad. Watching that scene and listening to that song (I hesitate to even call it a song, really), I had to ask myself whether I was watching an '80s horror movie or crappy '70s pornography. I half-expected Dirk Diggler to show up and make himself comfortable. It's definitely one of the most awkward scenes in any movie I've ever seen.

Next is the script, written by our fearless director. I swear, I think Giannone was smoking some major doobage during the writing process, because quite a bit of the dialogue and some of the scenes are so outrageous that they just had to have been written by someone whose clock was perpetually set at 4:20. And I've already said it once, but the plot is thinner than Karen Carpenter. Here's a summary of the movie: Character A goes out into the woods alone, Character B goes out to find Character A, Character C goes out to find Character B, and then Character D goes out to find them all. Most of them end up dead. Meanwhile, one character ventures off into the forest and finds Madman Marz's house, then leaves... then returns... then leaves again after making a gruesome discovery. Just what is the deal? Just how many times does this character have to aimlessly loiter in the psychopath's residence?

But there are some scenes that Giannone does well. One is a blatant, unabashed rip-off of a notorious scene from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But Giannone adds a little twist to it that rally shakes things up. And I'd be remiss if I failed to mention two moments that are beyond awesome. I don't want to spoil them, but I will say one of them involves the hood of a truck, while the other involves a refrigerator. The fact that somebody actually dreamed up these scenes and had them committed to film makes me the happiest Who in all of Whoville. I want to do the happy dance just thinking about them.

But the really funny thing is that the movie supposedly takes place at a summer camp for so-called "gifted children," but there's only five or six campers compared to the seven counselors. Doesn't that ratio strike you as being a bit odd? What kind of camp are they running here? Had all the campers gone home prior to the events of the movie? It's one of those weird things that makes Madman even more absurd. And really, isn't it the absurdity that makes these movies so much fun?

Lastly is the cast, who were and have remained a bunch of nobodies. That's not to say there aren't a few likable performances, however. Carl Fredericks is hammy yet amiable in his role, while Jimmy Steele and the humorously named Tony Fish aren't bad. I should also note that the cast features Dawn of the Dead star Gaylen Ross. Credited as "Alexis Dubin," she isn't bad, but I wouldn't exactly call this an important benchmark in her career. And how about Alex Murphy? Who the hell thought it was a good idea to cast the winner of the local John Oates lookalike contest in the movie? Murphy looks like he should be off singing cheesy '80s pop songs with Daryl Hall instead. And the less said about Jan Claire's grating, whiny performance, the better.

Rounding out the cast is Paul Ehlers as the one and only Madman Marz. He's quite intimidating, but with all the goofy grunting, I was anticipating Ehlers going the Hot Fuzz route and letting out a "yarp" or two. Then Simon Pegg comes in and distracts him with the cuddly monkey. (Okay, so maybe it wouldn't happen like that. But it'd be awesome if it did.) And the thing is, Ehlers — and by proxy, Madman Marz — is a pretty big dude. He couldn't sneak up on Helen Keller, but he manages to get the jump on everybody. It's crazy!

If Madman had been made twenty-five years later, it more than likely would have been half of the Tarantino/Rodriguez Grindhouse experiment. It's a movie that I believe only connoisseurs of '80s horror and cheesy B-movies can appreciate, one that none other than Joe Bob Briggs called one of the all-time classic drive-in movies. That's some pretty high praise. I don't know if I'd call that 100% accurate, but the movie is entertaining enough for me to recommend it to those who would enjoy it. If you can track it down, give it a shot.

Final Rating: ***½