Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2009)

As a horror fan with access to the Internet, I've been privy to some of the weirdest, most disturbing ideas that one could possibly come up with. Think up the grossest thing you can, and someone has probably used it in a horror movie. But perhaps the craziest of all the stuff I've seen is a movie titled The Human Centipede (First Sequence). I first heard the title and the movie's concept back in April when IFC Films picked up the movie and gave it a very small theatrical release, and that was enough to convince me that there's probably very little out there that could top it in the way of sheer oddness.

I didn't want to see it. I was afraid to even get near it. I'd see the DVD at Walmart (of all places!) and cringe every time I'd look at it. But after a while, the curiosity got the best of me. I was going to be brave and actually watch the movie that I'd initially believed was just too weird for me to stomach. I had to sit down and watch The Human Centipede on Netflix. It's a movie that doesn't feel like it should possibly exist, but it does. It does exist, and I've seen it. And I have to tell you about it.

As the movie gets rolling, we're introduced to Lindsay (Ashley C. Williams) and Jenny (Ashlynn Yennie), a pair of vacationing New Yorkers on a road trip across Europe. They get lost in the middle of nowhere while driving to a party in Germany, and their misfortune is only compounded when they end up with a flat tire. With no cell phone service and no passersby willing to offer help, Lindsay and Jenny are stuck hiking through the woods in search of assistance.

They eventually arrive at the home of Dr. Josef Heiter (Dieter Laser), who was once one of Germany's most respected surgeons. His specialty was separating conjoined twins, but the good doctor has elected to take a new career path. He drugs Lindsay and Jenny, taking them to his laboratory where they will be part of his latest experiment. Dr. Heiter's plan: to stitch the girls and a Japanese tourist named Katsuro (Akihiro Kitamura) together mouth-to-anus to create the titular human centipede.

What you've just read is the basic plot of The Human Centipede. I'm not making any of that up. I couldn't in a million years. I can't say I'm surprised that someone came up with the idea for the movie; we've all had crazy thoughts on occasion. But what blows my mind is that somebody actually went and created the movie. They wrote it, talked investors into giving them money, hired a cast and crew, bought equipment with which to film and edit it, got a theatrical distribution deal through IFC Films, and somehow even got Roger Ebert to write about it. It's a movie about a mad scientist that sews people together ass-to-mouth just to see if he could do it!

The Human Centipede was the brainchild of Tom Six, a Dutch filmmaker with only three prior credits to his name. He wrote, produced, co-edited, and directed this wacky little adventure into the realm of body horror, so if there's anybody to blame and/or applaud (depending on your opinion of the movie), it's Tom Six. As far as direction goes, Six's work actually isn't that bad at all. It's actually pretty good. The movie flows well, with tight editing and wonderful cinematography from Goof De Koning. Six isn't playing around, though, because he goes to great lengths to establish an uncomfortable atmosphere. He could have gone campy with it, but outside of the occasional bit of overacting the movie's as serious as you could get. Combining the cinematography with the concept and the creepy music (well, creepy ambient noise, to be more honest) composed by Patrick Savage and Holeg Spier, Six puts together a movie that's almost too creepy and bizarre for its own good.

It's at this point in the review that I critique the script, but I'm not sure I see the need to. Six's screenplay is actually rather inconsequential. There's no story to be found here, just the movie's basic concept. There's so little story, I wouldn't be surprised if Six just wrote a simple outline of what he wanted to happen and had the actors ad-lib it all. But considering what this movie was about, expecting a story makes about as much sense as a screen door on a submarine. You don't go into a movie called The Human Centipede expecting Hemmingway.

So let's just move on to the cast. And if you're expecting any sort of performance review for the actors playing the human centipede, you're not gonna get much. Akihiro Kitamura screams yells a lot and that's pretty much it, while Ashley C. Williams and Ashlynn Yennie are painfully annoying in the scenes where they have dialogue. They're so irritating that the idea of having their mouths sewn onto someone's ass actually sounded pretty good. At least you only have to put up with their shrill blabbering for half an hour before they finally shut up for good.

If you're going to watch The Human Centipede for the acting, you're going to want to pay attention to Dieter Laser. Not only does he have an awesome name, but his overacting is tremendous. He alternates between scary and off-putting to over-the-top insane, and is honestly a lot of fun. And while I was watching the movie, I had a thought: Laser looks and sounds like a weird hybrid of Udo Kier and Tommy Wiseau, so I want to see some ambitious filmmaker come up with a reason to have all three of them team up together, like a remake of ¡Three Amigos! or a Marx Brothers homage or something. That would be the most awesome thing ever.

But no matter what this review says, you've already made your mind up. You've developed your opinion of The Human Centipede just by reading the title and the plot synopsis. And really, there's no need to critique any part of it, as it's not so much a movie as it is an idea. Anything could have happened in the movie, and it still would have been a horror flick about three people stitched together in a humiliating fashion. That's all you really need to know about it. You'll either see it or you won't, and this review just won't matter. And judging by what I've seen online, the "(First Sequence)" subtitle means only one thing: more human centipedes. Indeed, Tom Six is actually working on a sequel as we speak, aiming for to release it next year. I'm actually afraid of how that will turn out.

Final Rating: ***½

Monday, November 22, 2010

Judge Dredd (1995)

Go through my archives and you might notice that the overwhelming majority of the comic book movies I've reviewed were inspired by American comics. While Marvel and DC have the most representation in my past reviews, even the smaller companies whose material was translated into movies I've reviewed are from the United States. But American comics aren't the only ones that can be adapted into movies. England's even gotten into the act a couple of times. One such occasion came in 1995 with the release of Judge Dredd.

The titular character made his first appearance in 1977, within the pages of the second issue of famed British anthology comic 2000 AD. Created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra (who borrowed the title from a horror comic conceived but abandoned by 2000 AD editor Pat Mills), Judge Dredd has spent the last three decades serving as 2000 AD's most popular recurring character. Hollywood took notice and turned Judge Dredd into a movie, but like nearly all comic book movies from the middle of the '90s, it was mediocre at best.

Sometime over the course of the next 990 years, the world goes straight down the crapper. The planet has become a desolate wasteland, with the majority of the human race being corralled into enormous "Mega-Cities." And in these Mega-Cities, the crime rate has skyrocketed to unconscionable levels. In response, the traditional justice system has been replaced by the Judges. They are the police, court system, and executioners all rolled into one, given the power to arrest, convict, and sentence criminals on the spot.

In Mega-City One, the most famous Judge of them all is Joseph Dredd (Sylvester Stallone). Dredd's unwavering devotion to the law and the lack of leniency he shows towards criminals have become the stuff of legend, earning him the respect of young cadets and the fear of the general public.

But when a news reporter critical of Dredd is murdered, all the evidence points directly at our hero being the culprit. The bullets retrieved from the reporter's body are traced back to Dredd's "lawgiver," a customized handgun that uses DNA identification to make it operable only in the hands of the Judge it is assigned to. In light of this, Dredd is found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment at a penal colony in Aspen.

With Dredd out of the way, it opens the door for Rico (Armand Assante) — a psychotic ex-Judge who had framed Dredd for the reporter's murder — to cause havoc in Mega-City One by massacring Judges right and left. Dredd must find a way to return to the city, clear his name, and judge Rico for his many crimes.

I can't say I know a lot about Judge Dredd. I've never even seen an issue of 2000 AD, let alone actually read one. I could memorize his Wikipedia article and still feel like I know nothing. But what I do know is enough to convince me that Judge Dredd has the potential to make a kick-ass movie. But this movie does not live up to that potential. It's dumb, silly, and never reaches a plateau higher than mediocrity.

The movie was directed by Danny Cannon, who has spent the bulk of his career working on episodes of CSI and CSI: Miami. His film career hasn't been that notable, though, with the only other movie on his résumé that I recognize is I Still Know What You Did Last Summer. Cannon's work with Judge Dredd is actually pretty good, but it's not without its flaws. For one, he doesn't do much to separate it from the dozens of other futuristic action movies from the mid-'90s. It doesn't help that some of the digital effects are less than convincing, and the green screen work is just plain bad.

Cannon still makes a good go of it, though. For all those flaws, he manages to keep the movie at a steady pace and does his best to keep it from getting boring. He also gets some nice cinematography from Adrian Biddle and great music from Alan Silvestri. So at least there's something good about the movie, right?

But things start getting really bad when you take a look at the script. The script for Judge Dredd is lousy, no two ways about it. It's credited to William Wisher and Stephen E. de Souza from a story by Wisher and former New Line Cinema executive Michael De Luca, which is your first sign of trouble. It's not Wisher or De Luca that troubles me, but de Souza. I know he's written good movies, but after Street Fighter, seeing him listed in a movie's credits always fills me with a certain sense of dread.

Like I said, Judge Dredd's script is bad with a capital B. The story is threadbare, the dialogue is forgettable, and the jokes aren't really that funny. (The "I knew you'd say that" running gag is really lame, too.) The worst part of it is Fergee, a supporting character that ends up tagging along with Dredd during most of the movie. He's supposed to be the comic relief, but I don't see what's so damn funny about him. Fergee's transition from comics was a really rough one, because the character is useless and only serves as a way to make me hate an otherwise passable movie. I kept waiting for Dredd to just shoot him or leave him somewhere to die, and it never happened!

And rounding out my review is the cast. In the title role is Sylvester Stallone, who didn't exactly have the best of luck when it came to picking movies in the '90s. For every Demolition Man, Cliffhanger, and Cop Land, there were more like Rocky V, Daylight, and Stop! Or My Mom Will ShootJudge Dredd was just another entry onto the list of less-than-stellar Stallone movies from the decade. His performance here isn't as bad as some people say, though. It's most definitely not his best role, but it's far from his worst too. Stallone is pretty much playing every stereotype you'd expect from him, and that's entertaining enough for me.

Meanwhile, Armand Assante is gloriously over-the-top as our villain du jour. He's absolutely unrestrained, chewing the scenery every second he's on the screen. Assante is a heck of a lot of fun, if anything. Among the supporting cast, Diane Lane appears as Judge Hershey, the closest thing Dredd has to a friend. Her performance is a little bland, which is unfortunate considering how talented she is. The problem is that the role is so underdeveloped and uninteresting that Lane would have been hard-pressed to come up with a positive contribution.

The worst part of the cast, though, comes from Rob Schneider as the aforementioned Fergee. I noted that the character is supposed to be the comic relief, but he's the exact opposite of funny. Schneider is more annoying than anything, to the point that you'll wish you could beat the crap out of him if you ever got the chance. The character is awful, as is Schneider. But then, it's the same old Rob Schneider you'd see in every other movie he's ever been in. And I'm actually convinced that the only reason he ever gets any work at all nowadays is because Adam Sandler keeps letting him tag along to movie sets.

I know I've said a few negative things about Judge Dredd. But it isn't that bad. It's a decent enough time killer, something to turn on during a rainy day and just zone out. Of all the cheesy action movies out there, you really could do a lot worse than this. So I'm going to give Judge Dredd two and a half stars, bordering on three. And here's hoping that the Judge Dredd movie that's currently in production (with a planned 2012 release) will improve upon this one.

Final Rating: **½

Friday, November 19, 2010

Tron (1982)

Not all cult films have need to have the same massive audiences that The Rocky Horror Picture Show enjoys. Others can develop their own devoted fanbases through means beyond repeated midnight showings. Some become what they are through nostalgia, with fans who loved it in their youth and still loving it when they rediscover it in adulthood. One of these movies is Tron, a movie that I often heard about, that I'd been told was awesome more than once, but never actually had the desire to see.But with a sequel being released next month, and the fact that it's been on my DVR since July and I still haven't watched it, I might as well go ahead and finally see what all the fuss over Tron is about.

Meet Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a once-successful software programmer for the ENCOM Corporation. He created several video games for ENCOM, but his work was stolen by another programmer named Ed Dillinger (David Warner). Dillinger passed off Flynn's games as his own and earned a series of promotions that eventually made him a high-ranking executive. Flynn, on the other hand, was fired from the company and stuck having to open a small arcade populated by the games that were stolen from him.

In the three years since then, Flynn has spent much of his time trying to hack into ENCOM's systems and find evidence that Dillinger ripped him off. He's eventually locked out of the system by the Master Control Program (voiced by Warner), a self-aware artificial intelligence developed by ENCOM that has been absorbing other programs from around the world to make itself more powerful. He finally gets into the system with a little help from friends and current ENCOM employees Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) and Lora Baines (Cindy Morgan).

But the MCP isn't going to take this lying down. It zaps Flynn with a prototype laser, one that breaks down objects in the real world and reconstructs them within ENCOM's mainframe. Flynn arrives in a digitized world and is immediately taken prisoner, forced into gladiatorial combat against other programs in the system. He forges an alliance with some of these programs to overthrow the dictatorial MCP and return to the real world.

I don't know if Tron is as awesome as it had been described to me. Don't get me wrong, it's not a bad movie at all. It's actually pretty entertaining. But I just didn't feel that it lived up to all the hype. The biggest flaw with Tron is how dated it feels. The visuals have not aged well at all. But you have to remember that CGI was very primitive back in 1982. After almost three decades of evolution in the field, the effects in Tron are gonna look a little hokey.

However, if you look at it from 1982 standards instead of 2010 standards, it's actually pretty impressive. As far as styles go, it's like an '80s version of what Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller did with Sin City; the actors were filmed in black and whote in front of a black backdrop, with pretty much everything else filled in digitally. Director Steven Lisberger does an admirable job of combining each of the elements at his disposal to craft a rather imaginative piece of work. You'd never know that Tron was Lisberger's first live-action feature film, judging by how good it's put together.

Though digital effects have obviously evolved by leaps and bounds over the last three decades, Lisberger's direction makes the movie engaging and fun nonetheless. It's a captivating movie, one that you can't turn away from. Lisberger shows a lot of talent through his crafting of it. And really, it's a shame that his career dwindled so rapidly after Tron, because I'd like to see what he could do with updated technology. (Then again, I guess that's what Tron's sequel could be for.)

I also liked the movie's score composed by Wendy Carlos. The music admittedly does sound cheesy nowadays, but it works great for Tron. It goes a long way in establishing the movie's tone and atmosphere. And really, isn't that what all good movie soundtracks are supposed to do?

I didn't think Lisberger's script was anything special, though. The dialogue is forgettable, and outside of the "journey into cyberspace" aspect, the characters are just there (with only Flynn, Sark, and the MCP standing out), the story isn't anything that hadn't been seen before. It's really the whole computer world thing that makes Tron's script any different from all the other sci-fi movies of the '80s. I know I'll probably catch hell from at least one Tron fan for saying that, but that's just how I see it.

Wrapping us up is the acting, which is very good all across the board. The bulk of the heavy lifting, though, is done courtesy of Jeff Bridges and David Warner. Both of them are fantastic, as close to perfect as they could get. Bridges is especially good, playing his role with a confidence and swagger that makes his character believable. He's very amiable, and the movie is better for his presence. Warner does some fine work himself as not one, not two, but three characters. He's Dillinger, the voice of the Master Control Program, and Sark, the MCP's primary henchman. Dillinger only has a handful of scenes, and the MCP voice isn't much, so you'll mainly see him as Sark. And his performance as Sark is impressive, giving the movie the effective villain it needs.

Tron is one of those movies that was way ahead of his time. It was so ahead of its time, in fact, that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences refused to nominate it for any special effects Oscars because it viewed the use of computer graphics as "cheating." And while I said I didn't think it was as awesome I'd been led to believe, it's still an immensely entertaining movie. I can't lie, I thought it was cool. So Tron earns three and a half stars on my usual scale, and I'd definitely recommend it to anybody who hasn't seen it yet. Here's hoping that Tron: Legacy is as good.

Final Rating: ***½

Monday, November 15, 2010

Maximum Overdrive (1986)

Stephen King has long been considered one of the premier names in horror literature. But the movie adaptations of his books have always been hit or miss. Mostly miss, to be honest. For every one like The Shawshank Redemption, there have been five like Pet Sematary Two. There's some, though, that weren't bad, just mediocre. One was Maximum Overdrive, an adaptation of King's 1973 short story "Trucks." But while the movie is average at best, it's memorable in that it marks the one and only directorial effort by King himself.

As the movie begins, we learn that Earth passed through the tail of a rogue comet on June 19, 1987, where it would remain for just over a week. However, the negative effects of this astrological anomaly are felt almost immediately. Machines of all types — vehicles, appliances, vending machines, even things as mundane as hair dryers, toys, and Walkmen — have become sentient, all of them flying into an anti-human homicidal frenzy.

In the town of Willamette, North Carolina, a group of murderous 18-wheelers have trapped a small handful of survivors inside a roadside truck stop. When the trucks, communicating via Morse code through their horns, demand to be refueled, the humans come to the horrific realization that the machines wish to enslave them.

Billy Robinson (Emilio Estevez), the truck stop's fry cook, tries rallying the survivors. Armed with a cache of weapons his boss kept hidden in the diner's basement, Billy begins formulating a plan to lead them to safety. But with the prevalence of machinery, where would they go that would be safe?

Maximum Overdrive is one of those movies that boasts an awesome concept yet leaves a lot to be desired. I don't want to call it a bad movie per se, but it's just kinda average at best. It's a movie that, if placed in the hands of a writer and director with more experience, would have been awesome.

I still can't believe that Stephen King actually made this movie. I guess he figured if people were going to do movie versions of his work, he might as well join the party and see what all the fuss was about. It's obvious that he'd never made a movie before, as his experience as both a director and a screenwriter shows. His direction isn't that bad, but it feels rough around the edges. He tends to use some of the same camera moves, angles, and techniques over and over, a repetition that gets tiring after a while. (His overuse of that really bad knockoff of the shower music from Psycho doesn't help things either.)

There are a few moments where King shows a little brilliance, though. Specifically, I mean the opening sequence on the bridge and the scene where the soda machine kills the Little League coach. Both of those scenes are awesome, King making the most of them. It's a shame the rest of the movie couldn't be like that, though.

King's script isn't much better. The short story the movie was based on was just that: short. It's roughly ten or fifteen pages long. There was no way King (or anyone else) could turn it into a feature-length movie without a ton of padding or extra material, and that's exactly what happened. The problem is that there's still not enough to carry a 97-minute running time. It just runs out of gas (no pun intended) after a certain point.

It's just really tedious. The lame characters, the stupid dialogue, the scenes that don't go anywhere; they'll just wear you out. Maximum Overdrive would have been a lot more effective as an episode of a horror anthology TV show. It's too late to change that now, but if somebody wants to resurrect Tales from the Crypt or Masters of Horror, a remake of Maximum Overdrive could make for a great episode. But for all of King's successes as a novelist, a screenwriter he is not.

And then there's the cast, which is a bit on the disappointing side. Playing the lead role is Emilio Estevez, whose performance isn't too bad. The role isn't a very strong one, and Estevez doesn't seem to be trying very hard, but at least he's watchable. That's more than I can say for some of the other people in the cast is forgettable. Only a few actors are even worth mentioning at all. One of them is the late Pat Hingle, who is wasted playing such a crummy character. What sucks about Hingle's performance is that he's clearly the wrong guy to be playing a sleazy redneck. If the writing had been a bit better, he wouldn't have been so bad.

And how about Yeardley Smith? She's most famous as the voice of Lisa Simpson, but before The Simpsons had ever been featured on The Tracey Ullman Show, she appeared in Maximum Overdrive. And I honestly wish she hadn't because Smith is terrible. She's nothing short of awful, with the most annoying voice to ever come out of anyone's mouth. Smith can't say more than one syllable without it sounding like a screeching cat, and the fact that her character spends pretty much every scene whining and complaining, it only gets worse as the movie progresses. She's right up there with Dropo from Santa Claus Conquers the Martians on my list of characters who make me want to climb into the movie and strangle them.

At least the movie has an awesome soundtrack courtesy of legendary rock band AC/DC. No less than seven of their songs appear in the movie, with their album Who Made Who serving as the movie's soundtrack. You can't go wrong with AC/DC, so if Maximum Overdrive got one thing right, it's the music.

I might sound like I'm really ripping the movie apart, but Maximum Overdrive isn't that bad. It's still an entertaining B-movie. I mean, it's a movie about a bunch of 18-wheelers that come to life and kill people, and it was directed by Stephen King, for crying out loud. The movie isn't going to be good by any means, but it's pure dumb fun. Though I'm only giving it two and a half stars, I will say that if you enjoy cheesy movies from the '80s, you could do worse than Maximum Overdrive.

Final Rating: **½

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Back to the Future Part III (1990)

I've already reviewed Back to the Future and Back to the Future Part II, so where else is there for me to go? The answer is simple: Back to the Future Part III. Filmed back-to-back with Part II and released six months after its predecessor, the third and final chapter in the Back to the Future saga takes much of the trilogy's formula and transplants it into the Old West. Because why only send Marty back or forward in time thirty years like in the first two movies, when you could have him go a hundred years instead? But regardless of my jokes, Part III is a great flick and a fun way to conclude this amazing trilogy.

When we last saw Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), he watched in horror as a bolt of lightning struck the DeLorean, causing it and Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) to vanish and leaving Marty stranded in 1955. Marty's only clue to what happened arrives in the form of a 70-year-old letter that Doc himself had written and left for him. In the letter, Doc reveals that the lightning bolt sent him to 1885, where the antiquated technology has left him unable to repair the damaged time machine. He has included with his letter a map pointing Marty to where he'd hidden the DeLorean along with detailed instructions on how to fix it using equipment from 1955. But he urges Marty not to come back for him, as he is content to spend the rest of his days in the Old West as Hill Valley's resident blacksmith.

However, a sudden revelation leaves Marty unable to heed Doc's advice. After he and Doc's 1955 counterpart retrieve the DeLorean from the abandoned mine where it had been hidden, Marty stumbles upon Doc's tombstone. He was in 1885, so he was bound to die sometime over the course of seven decades, right? It wouldn't be a problem, but according to the tombstone, Doc died just six days after the letter was written, having been shot and killed by notorious outlaw Buford "Mad Dog" Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) over a petty squabble.

Unable to accept that his friend was senselessly murdered, Marty uses the repaired time machine to head back to 1885 and save him. But things get a little hairy when an accident upon his arrival in the past damages the DeLorean's fuel line and leaves the car crippled. With Doc's death looming, they must find a way to somehow get the car up to 88 miles per hour before he meets the business end of a bullet. That is, if Doc doesn't get too distracted by his new girlfriend, local schoolmarm Clara Clayton (Mary Steenburgen).

I've got to admit that Part III isn't my favorite chapter of the trilogy. It's not like it's a bad movie, it's actually pretty good. I just felt that it was too much like the first movie. Look at it like this: Marty goes back in time and meets up with Doc. The duo needs to fix the DeLorean and return to 1985 before something bad happens at the end of the week. Throw in a dance scene and a few other familiar moments and elements, and it's practically the first movie in the Old West.

But hey, it's still a fun flick and a wonderfully grand finale for the trilogy. It helps that, since both sequels were filmed back-to-back, much of the cast and crew were able to return. It just wouldn't be a Back to the Future movie without the usual suspects. This includes Robert Zemeckis, the director that helped steer the franchise towards its iconic status. Zemeckis's work with Part III is just as great as it was on the first two. He has a knack for making movies feel warm and whimsical even in dire scenes, and this movie is no exception. Though the Old West setting creates a far-different Hill Valley that one would be used to, it still feels like the same place thanks to the direction. It is lively, energetic, and all kinds of enjoyable. After growing up with the franchise, I can't imagine anyone else directing these movies. A Back to the Future movie without Robert Zemeckis would just feel wrong.

I should also take the time to applaud Alan Silvestri for once again contributing an absolutely amazing score for the movie. I know I didn't mention him in my review of Part II, but Silvestri's music for the sequels is fantastic. His score for Part III is particularly good. It has an appropriately Western sound to it, excellently contributing to the feel of the movie.

And not only do Zemeckis and Silvestri come back for Part III, but so does writer Bob Gale. I noted before that the movie feels like a retooled copy of the first one. That's not entirely a bad thing, though, as it lends the movie a sense of familiarity and serves as a way to bring the trilogy full circle. A lot of the franchise's running gags are either brought back or played with, and Gale makes a game effort of tying up the loose ends left over from Part II.

And in all honesty, the Old West setting really changes how the whole "fish out of water" thing is done. Visiting 1955 or 2015 is one thing, but for Marty to be stick a full century in the past? That'd have to be a real mind screw. Gale handles the new setting well, having a blast pointing out anachronisms like the Nike sneakers and ugly '50s-era cowboy getup that he's wearing when he arrives in 1885, and his use of '80s slang after discovering a pie plate he threw at Mad Dog Tannen bears the "Frisbee" name. His jokes continue to be funny, and he once again presents the characters in such a way that you can't help but care about them. Gale's writing is as strong as it was in the first two Back to the Future movies, and it shows.

Last but most certainly not least is the movie's cast. Playing the lead role for the third and final time is Michael J. Fox, who is once again perfect. After seeing Fox play Marty three times, I'm convinced that there's no way Eric Stoltz could have ever topped him. Fox is tremendous, not only as Marty but as Marty's great-great-grandfather Seamus. The Irish accent Fox adopts as Seamus is a bit over the top, but he makes the character endearing. And at least Fox didn't have to dress in drag like he did in Part II's 2015 scenes.

In the role of Doc Brown, Christopher Lloyd is again fantastic. He's made the character so much more than just an actor playing a part, turning Doc into one of the franchise's greatest elements. Lloyd is hilarious as Doc, and the introduction of a love interest into the character's arc gives him a chance to have a little pathos too. He tackles that like a champ, proving that Lloyd can do more than act wacky.

Thomas F. Wilson also returns, playing the great-grandfather of his famous character Biff. Seeing Wilson playing an uncouth, violent cowboy is a lot of fun, though I do miss seeing him as Biff. Though Mad Dog Tannen does get a few funny moments, he's not the humorous character that Biff is, allowing Wilson to try something different. He's great, though, even if I do prefer Biff.

Even Lea Thompson returns, this time not as Marty's mom, but as his great-great-grandmother Maggie. It's weird not seeing her play Lorraine, but Thompson is good in the part, even if it is rather minor. But for all the actors who returned, there's one making her first appearance in the trilogy. Mary Steenburgen plays Clara Clayton, approaching the role in such a way that makes her instantly likable. She and Lloyd have a believable chemistry together, making their scenes that much better.

Watching this movie always makes me a little sad because it's the end of the road for the Back to the Future trilogy. I know that Back to the Future Part IV will never happen, and that any new cinematic adventures bearing the name would come in the form of a remake. But the fact that the franchise concluded with Part III means that the franchise didn't run out of steam after a bunch of lame sequels like some other franchises that shall go unnamed. It lets the fans say goodbye to the characters while they're still at the top of their game. And even if it's not perfect, the movie's still a heck of a watch. So Back to the Future Part III gets three and a half stars, and the whole trilogy gets my seal of approval. If you're one of those poor souls who have yet to see any of the movies, I urge you to track them down and watch them. You won't regret it.

Final Rating: ***½

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Back to the Future Part II (1989)

After twenty-five years, two sequels, a Saturday morning cartoon, a couple of video games, and its own theme park ride, I think its safe to say that Back to the Future is firmly entrenched in American pop culture. It was a box office smash when it was released in the summer of 1985, turning its lead actor from a TV star into a movie star in the process. The movie was so popular that Ronald Reagan even quoted some of its dialogue in the 1986 State of the Union Address.

But believe it or not, Back to the Future was originally intended to be a one time deal. No sequels, no franchise, just that one movie. But thanks to a combination of its popularity and some pestering from Universal Studios, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale got the gang back together to do not one, but two sequels to flesh out what would become one of my favorite movie trilogies. But we're only doing one movie at a time, so let's jump into the DeLorean and check out Back to the Future Part II.

As we saw at the end of the first movie, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) managed to fix things in 1955 and returned to a 1985 that was better than the one he'd left. But he's barely gotten settled back in his proper time before Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) pulls up in his time-traveling DeLorean. Doc has just returned from the year 2015, and he's brought bad news back with him. Turns out that both of Marty's kids will get themselves into some really nasty legal trouble, and Marty and Doc have to head to the future to fix it.

Luckily, they are successful in keeping the McFly children out of the mess that sends them to prison. But when they return to 1985, they discover that Hill Valley has become a dystopian hellhole. Thanks to an error in judgment Marty had in 2015, an elderly Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) was able to briefly steal the time machine and give a teenage version of himself a book compiling fifty years of sports statistics.

Now armed with knowledge of the future, the younger Biff was able to acquire wealth, fame, and power. And to make things worse, this world's version of Doc has been locked in a mental institution, Marty's father was murdered, and Biff is now Marty's stepfather. The only way Marty and Doc can fix this horrifying situation is by going back to 1955 and destroying the book.

I don't think anyone will disagree that the Back to the Future sequels are inferior to the original movie. Nothing they could have done would have topped the first one. But they're still fun and entertaining in their own right. And of the two sequels, Part II has always been my favorite. There's something whimsical about it, something that's always been able to put me in a good mood every time I watch it. I'm not sure I can put my finger on exactly what it is, but who am I to argue with a good time?

Robert Zemeckis returns to the director's chair for both sequels, and his work on Part II is fantastic. The movie looks great, thanks to the combined efforts of the art department, the set designers, ILM's special effects, and Dean Cundey's cinematography. Zemeckis flawlessly puts all of these elements together, while maintaining a steady pace and engrossing atmosphere.

Zemeckis also has a great script to work off of. Written by Bob Gale, the screenplay is full of complexities and talk of paradoxes, along with fun nods to the first movie and a ton of exposition that doesn't factor in until Part III. It's really layered, with so much going on and so much stuff to keep track of. But it never gets convoluted, and anything that does get confusing is eventually explained by the end of Part II or in Part III. The stuff that wasn't paid off until Part III had to be annoying for people who saw the sequels theatrically, though. Nowadays, you can just watch the Part II DVD and immediately transition to the Part III DVD. But there was a six-month period between the theatrical releases of the sequels. It would have been understandable thinking all that leftover exposition was pointless at the time. But I guess that'll happen when you film movies back to back.

But regardless, Gale's writing is not only smart, but it's charming too. The jokes are really funny, and I really liked how over-the-top 2015 was. I know that the whole 2015 thing wasn't completely thought up by Gale, but the fact that it's so out there (and unless something drastic happens in the next five years, so absurdly wrong), that it's always been a source of amusement for me. And even in the hellish alternate 1985, Gale's writing is consistently engaging and entertaining. He makes absolutely certain to keep the story moving and to keep the same energy as the first movie. His script is awesome, and I could probably go on all day singing its praises. But let's move along.

Last on my list is the cast. Nearly everyone from the original movie returns, with a few minor exceptions, and all of them are fantastic. Michael J. Fox once again plays the role of Marty McFly, and he's as good as he was back in 1985. Marty is essentially the backbone of the entire franchise, and I don't know if the franchise would have been as iconic with a lesser actor in the part. But Fox is pitch perfect. He's funny, engaging, and sympathetic, exactly what the character needs.

The same can be said for Christopher Lloyd as Doc Brown. Lloyd is awesome in all three movies, and although Part III is really his time to shine, he's great in Part II. Doc is the madcap silliness to Marty's straight man, and Lloyd fills that role excellently.

While most of the supporting characters have less to do than in the first one, Biff Tannen has a beefier role than he had previously. Thomas F. Wilson comes back to the character, and he's awesome throughout the whole movie. Wilson has the most work to do out of the cast, playing Biff in three different time periods as well as Biff's grandson in 2015, and he's amazing from start to finish. He's especially good as Biff's grandson and the “alternate 1985” Biff, practically stealing the whole movie in those scenes.

I love Back to the Future Part II. It's a great movie that never gets boring or unfunny. The movie is a fine sequel that, while not equal to the original movie, advances the Back to the Future saga and builds upon the world created by the first movie. It actually makes the first movie better. So even if it's not the best movie out there, it's still a successful one. And on my usual scale, Back to the Future Part II gets three and a half stars, leaning towards four. And if I don't get my hoverboard by 2015, I'm gonna be pissed.

Final Rating: ***½

Friday, November 12, 2010

Back to the Future (1985)

Science fiction is a very broad genre. It can encompass a great many things, from global disasters to alien invasions to robots. But of all the different sub-genres, one of my favorites is time travel. I'm a sucker for a time travel story, as long as it's pulled off right. And in 1985, one of the best time travel stories ever told hit theaters. Produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Robert Zemeckis, Back to the Future combined comedy and sci-fi in what is one of my favorite movies of the '80s.

Welcome to Hill Valley, California. Among the town's citizens is Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), a high school student with dreams of becoming a rock star. But unfortunately, things haven't really been working out his way. His band is rejected at a big audition for being "just too darn loud," he can't get ahead at school, and worst of all, his family sucks. His siblings are living dead-end lives, his mother (Lea Thompson) is an alcoholic, and his dad (Crispin Glover) is a loser who even in adulthood is still tormented by his high school bully, Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson).

Little does Marty know that he's about to embark on the adventure of his life. He gets a call from his best friend, local scientist Emmett "Doc" Brown (Christopher Lloyd), who asks Marty to meet him at the local mall in the middle of the night. When he arrives, Doc unveils his latest invention: a DeLorean DMC-12 he's converted into a plutonium-powered time machine. Just where do you get plutonium? You steal it from some terrorists who think you're using it to make them a bomb, naturally. How else would you score a cache of plutonium?

His initial experiment — sending his dog one minute into the future — is a success. But immediately thereafter, the terrorists (having finally figured out they've been conned) arrive and shoot Doc dead. Marty jumps into the DeLorean and escapes, accidentally activating the time machine and sending himself back to 1955 in the process. And thanks to having used up all the plutonium during his trip, he's stranded there.

Marty naturally seeks out the only person who can help him, a thirty-years-younger Doc. He's naturally skeptical that Marty is from the future, and is only convinced when Marty tells him the story of how the time machine was conceived, something only Doc himself would have known at the time. Unfortunately, Doc's unable to help due to plutonium's scarcity. The only thing that could conceivably duplicate the necessary electrical charge would be a bolt of lightning. And thanks to his knowledge of the town's history, Marty reveals that they can exploit the lightning that will strike Hill Valley's courthouse the following Saturday. So all they have to do is find a way to funnel the lightning into the DeLorean by the end of the week.

It'll be an interesting week, however. Not long after his arrival in 1955, Marty accidentally prevented his parents from meeting for the first time. Subsequently, his teenage mother has fallen head over heels in love with him instead. This creates a ripple effect that is slowly erasing him and his siblings from existence. To rectify this, Marty must ensure that his parents meet and fall in love before he goes back to the future.

It's weird thinking that Back to the Future is now twenty-five years old. Seriously, 2010 marks Back to the Future's 25th anniversary. The franchise has been such an indelible part of pop culture for so long that I never really considered how long it's been around until the dates were staring me in the face. A lot of it is because of just how timeless the original movie is. It never feels dated or old, and remains as funny and as entertaining as it was two and a half decades ago. The movie hasn't aged one bit, and to tell you the truth, I have no problems calling Back to the Future a true classic.

Piloting this ship is director Robert Zemeckis, who had just made a name for himself with the success of Romancing the Stone a year prior. Zemeckis's direction here is stellar, maintaining a sense of wonder and whimsy throughout the movie's entirety. He keeps the movie's energy going strong, and never once lets it grow tiresome or wear out its welcome. It's evident that Zemeckis knew exactly what he was doing behind the camera, and though he never gets flashy in his efforts, he has crafted an awe-inspiring piece of cinema.

Zemeckis's direction is made even more epic by Alan Silvestri's absolutely amazing music. The score for Back to the Future is without a doubt some of the best movie music I've ever heard. Hell, it's some of the best music I've heard, period. It's fantastic in every sense of the word, and deserves to be as iconic as the movie itself. And while we're talking music, I have to admit that I love the two songs contributed by Huey Lewis & The News. Yeah, I'll agree that "Back In Time" is inferior to "The Power of Love," but both songs are really catchy and a lot of fun to listen to (and to sing along with). But then, I'm a sucker for Huey Lewis & The News, so any movie that has one of their songs on the soundtrack is okay with me.

And I've gotta admit, the script — written by Zemeckis and co-producer Bob Gale — is great too. While stories about modern people finding themselves stranded in the past date as far back as the publication of Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court in 1889, the way that Zemeckis and Gale handle it is what makes Back to the Future stand out. The best part of their script, at least in my eyes, is the characters. Back to the Future has some of the most fun, most entertaining characters I've seen in a movie. Zemeckis and Gale, with help from the actors playing them, make us care about the characters. They make you want to see what happens to them next and hope that everything turns out okay. And when the characters are combined with all those memorable scenes and great lines of dialogue, you end up with a screenplay that becomes one heck of a great movie.

The weird thing about Zemeckis and Gale's script is that it all could have been very different. Find some of the early drafts of the script online, and you'll see what I mean. The time machine wasn't even a DeLorean at first. It was initially a customized refrigerator fueled by Coca-Cola. One draft saw Marty return to 1985 and discovering that rock and roll hadn't been invented yet (and it was up to him to do so). The movie even had an ending where instead of lightning hitting the clock tower, Marty was sent home by the detonation of an atomic bomb at the government's nuclear weapons testing site in Nevada. It boggles my mind knowing that such a classic movie could have been so drastically different from what people have come to know and love over the last two and a half decades. I'm just happy that Zemeckis and Gale arrived upon the final script they ended up working with, because I can't imagine Back to the Future being any different.

But the whole thing would have been shot if it hadn't had a group of actors giving it everything they had. Luckily, Back to the Future features actors who were committed to putting forth the best performances possible. In the lead role is Michael J. Fox, who was still involved his prior claim to fame, the TV show Family Ties, at the time. The summer of 1985 saw the release of his first two big movies, this and Teen Wolf, and Back to the Future especially shows that he was bound to be more than just a TV star. Fox is fantastic here, showing a charm and charisma that really breathes life into Marty McFly. He's funny, likable, and ultimately believable in the role. And to think, the movie almost starred Eric Stoltz instead.

Fox's performance is made better by the awesome supporting cast that backs him up. To tell you the truth, he's nearly overshadowed by some of his costars. One in particular is Christopher Lloyd as Doc Brown. Doc himself has become as popular as the franchise, and it's all because of Lloyd's madcap performance. Watching Lloyd play Doc as if his brain operates on a completely different level than everybody else's is a lot of fun. He's probably the most entertaining mad scientist ever captured on film, and I honestly couldn't imagine Back to the Future without him.

That's not to say the rest of the cast isn't great too. Lea Thompson is engaging as Marty's mom, playing her with a simultaneous doe-eyed innocence and understated wild streak. I also really liked Crispin Glover as Marty's dad. I usually enjoy Glover's work anyway, but he's all aces in this one. His exasperated dorkiness makes him very amiable and sympathetic. And as one of the greatest cinematic bullies ever, Thomas F. Wilson is nothing short of awesome. Biff Tannen is one of my favorite movie characters ever, largely due to Wilson's performance. He plays Biff as such an irritating jerk that you can't help but cheer when he finally gets what's coming to him.

It's weird to think that Back to the Future is as old as it is. But age has only made it even more fun and entertaining. The movie is a tremendous experience from start to finish, no doubt about it. I'll even go as far as to say that anyone who calls Back to the Future a bad movie is either an idiot or a liar. It's one heck of a movie that only gets better every time I see it. So yeah, I'm giving Back to the Future the full monty with five stars. If you haven't seen it yet, do yourself a favor and do so now.

Final Rating: ****

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Pest (1997)

When I reviewed Tank Girl last week, I called it a bad movie that I just couldn't bring myself to hate. I didn't realize that I would be reviewing its total opposite so soon, but here I am talking about The Pest. It's a movie so tremendously awful that I have no problem whatsoever hating it. If I could kill it and bury it in a shallow grave out in the desert, I would. I don't know what the makers of The Pest wanted to achieve, but if they wanted to make an unfunny comedy that quite literally wears out its welcome within ninety seconds, then they were successful.

Meet Pestario "Pest" Vargas (John Leguizamo), a con artist from Miami who is probably the most annoying person anyone will ever meet. When the Scottish mob calls in a $50,000 debt, Pest is stuck trying to quickly come up with the cash.

He is soon thereafter approached by Gustav Shank (Jeffrey Jones), a big game hunter from Germany whose big game of choice is human beings. Looking to add a Latino to his trophy collection, Gustav offers Pest a deal: survive being hunted for 24 hours, and he will be paid 50,000 dollars. Realizing that this would give him the opportunity to get the Scottish mob off his back, Pest agrees, and in that 24-hour period, he has a series of wacky misadventures while trying to stay alive.

There is no denying that The Pest is a very bad movie, but the fact that it's a bad comedy makes it even worse. I don't know what it is about them, but awful movies seem even more awful when they're comedies. Bad comedies are practically intolerable, and The Pest is no exception. It is a complete failure on every possible level. It's such an abysmal waste of time and effort that its mere existence makes me want to weep and then die.

Helming this disaster is Paul Miller, a director I've never heard of and probably never will again. His direction has no life, no spark. It's as if Miller simply couldn't be bothered to even try. Even if he knew his movie was a piece of crap, couldn't he have at least made an attempt to care?

But Miller's work is nowhere near as bad as the writing. The script is credited to David Bar Katz from a story by he and John Leguizamo, and if it were me, I'd have probably used a fake name. Not only is it a cheap ripoff of Richard Connell's 1924 short story "The Most Dangerous Game," but it's just dreadful, period. There is not a single worthwhile moment that I can think of. It's juvenile in the worst way, with jokes that are either not funny or just plain offensive, and a protagonist that is so unlikable that you'll wish you could jump into the movie and punch him. Seriously, by the end of the movie, you'll be cheering for Gustav to finally kill Pest. What idiot thought it was a good idea to have a main character that was so irritating? How are we supposed to sympathize with Pest when you're actually rooting for the Nazi villain to shoot him?

It doesn't help anything that the cast isn't that great either. John Leguizamo plays the title role, and all he did was leave me confused. Leguizamo can be really funny if given the right material, but considering that he helped write this piece of crap, it leaves me wondering just what the hell he was thinking. In all honesty, Leguizamo's performance wouldn't have been so bad if it weren't for how poor the script is. With better jokes, he could have made The Pest at least mediocre. But sadly, if the jokes don't work, neither will the person telling them.

The supporting cast doesn't do much to help, but I must confess to liking Jeffrey Jones and Tom McLeister as Gustav and his faithful assistant Leo. They're actually funny in spite of the material they have to work with. But everyone else is forgettable. Edoardo Ballerini is irritating as Gustav's incredibly gay son, while Freddy Rodriguez and Aries Spears, who play Pest's best friends, end up being more annoying than funny. The rest of the cast... meh.

I can sum this review up in six words: "please do not watch The Pest." Really, don't. Do not rent the DVD. If you land on it while channel-surfing, change the channel to something else. If someone says to you, "Hey, let's watch The Pest," slap that person. It's a terrible movie that would be better off forgotten. Of course, this review is only helping perpetuate the movie's presence, but I had to warn people about it. The Pest is a bad movie of the worst kind, its only redeeming factor being that it's not longer. It's an unbearingly frustrating movie that I can only give one star. I'd actually give it something in the negative numbers if my ratings scale went that low. It's that bad.

Final Rating: *

Friday, November 5, 2010

Tank Girl (1995)

I've seen more than a few bad movies since I decided to create "Sutton at the Movies" in 2003. Some of them were so bad that I'll get upset just hearing their names. But there have been a few bad movies that were just so silly that I couldn't bring myself to actually hate them.

One of these too-wacky-to-hate movies was Tank Girl, a movie based on a comic created by Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin in 1988. Making her debut in the first issue of the now-defunct British comic magazine Deadline, Tank Girl was a wild anarchist whose punk rock sensibilities made her an underground success, especially with the "Riot Grrrl" movement. Though Deadline closed up shop in 1995, Tank Girl is still kicking around the world of comics. But we're here to talk about her movie, aren't we? I mean, we've already come this far, we might as well.

Things aren't doing so hot in the year 2033. An asteroid strike left much of Earth a post-apocalyptic wasteland, damaging the planet's ecosystem to the point that it has not rained for eleven years. Water is in extremely short supply, much of it being controlled by a greedy organization called Water & Power. Their monopolistic grip on the planet's water supply is opposed by a number of renegade factions, one of whom calls Rebecca Buck (Lori Petty) — the eponymous "Tank Girl" — a member. Rebecca returns home to her faction's base one evening, only to find that Water & Power's troops have killed everyone but a young girl named Sam (Stacy Linn Rawsower).

While Sam is pretty much sold into slavery, Rebecca is taken to see Kesslee (Malcolm McDowell), Water & Power's chairman. He's aware of Rebecca's reputation as a tough fighter and offers her a job working with his troops. She refuses, and since Kesslee isn't the kind of a guy who takes "no" for an answer, he sticks Rebecca in a labor camp. Rebecca escapes with the help of a meek, ill-treated fellow prisoner named Jet (Naomi Watts), and the duo end up falling in with a group of vicious human/kangaroo hybrids known as "the Rippers." The Rippers hate Water & Power as much as Rebecca and Jet do, and together, they'll team up to rescue Sam and bring down Kesslee and his organization.

Tank Girl is a unique movie, to say the least. "Unique" is really the only word I can think of to describe it. It's certainly not a good movie at all; it's pretty darn far from good. And audiences in 1995 knew it wouldn't be good, either. The movie performed poorly at the box office, failing so badly that it's what caused Deadline to go under in the first place. But it's got a frenetic, madcap energy that would have been awesome if the movie wasn't so stupid. And that's really Tank Girl's problem: it's as dumb as a box of rocks.

The movie was directed by Rachel Talalay, helming the third of her four directorial efforts and the last that would see a theatrical release. Her two prior movies — Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare and Ghost in the Machine — were tremendously cheesy movies that nobody in their right mind would ever call good. Having seen both of them, I can tell you that Talalay isn't exactly the most capable filmmaker. While the movie is very boisterous, its energy and punk rock swagger will eventually start getting on your nerves after a while.

What bugged me the most about the whole thing, though, was Talalay's use of comic book artwork during the movie. It'd be okay if it were used as an occasional transition between scenes, but the fact that it shows up over and over really gets annoying. It's especially bothersome once you realize that Talalay occasionally substitutes the artwork for scenes she either couldn't afford to do or simply forgot to shoot altogether. The movie doesn't even have an ending; once Tank Girl saves the day and reunites with the Rippers, it launches into some stupid animation that takes us to the closing credits. While I thought this could have worked, it just feels cheap and lazy.

Next up is the script, written by Tedi Serafin. This is why I called the movie dumb earlier. Serafin's script is lousy, with a nonsensical plot, goofy dialogue, and scenes that go nowhere and ad nothing to the movie. I mean, was that song-and-dance number absolutely necessary? Did we really need the scene before that where Tank Girl tries on different costumes at a brothel? (And did we really need the movie, period?)

The script's primary problem is that it gets so wrapped up in being silly that it takes forever to get anywhere. The movie's an hour and 45 minutes long, and I'd bet that at least half of it is either padding or generally useless fluff. But even in spite of its stupidity and lack of focus, it's still amusing in a weird way. There's something charming about it that I can't explain, even in spite of how awful it is.

And bringing up the rear is the cast, who had to have known just how bad Tank Girl was going to be when they signed on for it. Playing the title role of Tank Girl is Lori Petty, who you'll most likely remember as Geena Davis's sister in A League of Their Own. Petty is funny and energetic, playing Tank Girl with the irreverent nature the character needs. She practically bounces off the walls with a cocky, self-assured smirk on her face the whole time. And while I've seen reviewers and critics who were annoyed by Petty's performance, my personal opinion is that for all Tank Girl gets wrong, the hiring of its lead actress was something I felt they got right.

The rest of the cast is forgettable, though I can't say they were actively terrible. Malcolm McDowell appears as the villainous Kesslee, and any flaws are with how the character is written. Kesslee's a really crappy villain, and it hurts McDowell's performance. I got the impression that he agreed to do the movie without reading the script, and when he did read it, he decided he wouldn't bother to put forth any serious effort. At least Naomi Watts appears to be making the most of it. Tank Girl is one of her earliest American movies, and you can tell by watching it that she was destined for bigger and better movies. Watts is cute in the role, far better than what it actually calls for.

The remaining important characters are the Rippers, only four of whom get any major screen time. Playing these four Rippers are Ice-T, Jeff Kober, Reg E. Cathey, and Scott Coffey, and they aren't bad in the roles. They're not really good or anything, but considering just how bad the writing is, they're doing the best they can and I can at least respect their attempts to make it work.

I've always wondered what they were thinking when they made Tank Girl. They had to have known how it would turn out, right? I can understand why the movie's developed something of a cult following over the years, but a bad movie is still bad no matter who likes it. But it's a fun kind of bad, though. And really, I can forgive a movie for being bad as long as it's fun. And that's the simplest description of Tank Girl: so bad it's good. Say what you will about the movie, but its utter silliness is actually endearing in a weird way. But I'm going to have to give it two stars, simply because I can't justify giving it any higher or lower. And while I can't recommend it to everybody, I will say that if you're a lover of bad movies that are too amusingly kooky for their own good, give Tank Girl a shot.

Final Rating: **

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

Cult classics are not born overnight. It takes time for them to earn that status, along with a devoted audience willing to pluck something out of obscurity and turn it into something special. Many movies can claim to be cult movies, but there is one cult classic that others want to be when they grow up. It became an underground sensation after its original premiere, and 35 years later, it continues to be shown theatrically to audiences who have made it the pinnacle of the "midnight movie" scene. That movie is The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Though it was poorly received when it was first released in 1975, The Rocky Horror Picture Show has endured since then as the movie that puts the "cult" in "cult classic." Tales of the movie's audience participation at midnight screenings have become the stuff of legend, with diehard crowds shouting responses at the screen, tossing rice and toast and toilet paper into the air, dressing in costumes and pantomiming scenes as the movie plays. This following has been referenced and parodied in movies and on television, and was even strong enough to get the movie selected for permanent preservation in the Library of Congress's National Film Registry. But how could a cheesy B-movie spawn all this? I'm jumping in to investigate.

Meet Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) and Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon), a young couple who've recently gotten engaged. While on their way to tell the good news to Dr. Everett Scott (Jonathan Adams), the high school science teacher who introduced them to one another, they end up taking a wrong turn and get lost in the middle of nowhere. To further compound things, they end up stranded with a flat tire while stuck in a thunderstorm.

Seeking shelter at a nearby castle, they find they've arrived on a very special night. The master of the castle, the cross-dressing mad scientist Dr. Frank N. Furter (Tim Curry), is hosting a party to celebrate the unveiling of his latest experiment. Claiming to have discovered the secret to life itself, Frank has created a man of his own, a muscular boy toy he's named Rocky (Peter Hinwood). One thing leads to another, and Brad and Janet soon find themselves becoming more and more wrapped up in Frank's bizarre world of unrestrained hedonism.

To tell you the honest truth, I'm not sure how to properly approach a review of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It's so much more than a simple cheesy B-movie at this point. It's a full-blown experience. The movie is only a small part of the whole Rocky Horror equation. I've attended three midnight showings, and trying to judge it as just a movie now would be almost impossible. If I'd written this review before this past August, I could have viewed it from a perspective unaltered by the full Rocky Horror experience. I could have reviewed it as just a movie and nothing more. But having seen the big picture more than once and having had the time of my life in doing so, I'm afraid I may end up critiquing the experience and not the actual movie itself. But I'm going to see what happens.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show got its start in 1973 as a stage play in London. Among those who worked on it was Jim Sharman, who had directed productions of the play in both London and Sydney, Australia. With the majority of the original London production's cast and crew reuniting to turn the play into a movie, Sharman was called in to direct it. His direction is actually quite good, as he establishes exactly what kind of movie to expect as soon as it begins. He uses the gloriously over-the-top sets and production design and Peter Suschitsky's impressive cinematography to create a movie that is hard to dislike. The movie has an energy that is paralleled by very few cult movies, and it's due in part to how Sharman is able to pull everything together.

Let's move on to the script, written by Sharman and Rocky Horror's creator, Richard O'Brien. It's nonsensical, irreverent, ludicrous, cheesy, and just plain weird... and I wouldn't have it any other way. Nothing in the movie makes any sense at all, but it doesn't have to. It shouldn't, either, since Rocky Horror's strength lies in its insanity. If it were a normal movie with traditional characters and stylings, it wouldn't have worked at all.

And it just hit me: critiquing the movie's writing is probably a bad idea. For one thing, it's a musical where all the exposition and plot movement comes in the form of song lyrics. Secondly, it's just too darn strange to judge whether its good or bad. It's... I don't know what it is. The movie is so unique that there's no real frame of reference for me to review it with. But the utter silliness of the story, the dialogue, and the characters has a charm to it that cannot be denied.

But there's two elements that really make the movie what it is. One is the cast, many of whom are reprising roles they had in the London stage performances. Among the newbies are Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon, playing the innocent and naïve Brad and Janet. Bostwick and Sarandon are likable and humorous in the roles, and though they've gone on to bigger and better work in the 35 years since this movie, they'll always be Brad and Janet to me.

Also among the new actors is Peter Hinwood as Rocky. He has no dialogue and even his singing voice is dubbed by someone else, but Hinwood's Rocky is funny, cute at times, and convincing. You actually can believe that Rocky really is a boy toy built by a mad scientist with half a brain.

We can't forget the stage actors who've come along for the ride, though. Reprising their roles as the sibling duo of Riff Raff and Magenta are O'Brien and Patricia Quinn. Their performances are loud, ostentatious, and very funny; you can't help but be entertained every time they're on the screen. The same can be said for "Little Nell" Campbell, whose turn as the outrageously-dressed groupie Columbia is great. She's so amusing that she'd probably be my favorite character if it weren't for a certain someone else.

And who would that "someone else" be? None other than the one and only Tim Curry as Dr. Frank N. Furter, of course. His flamboyant performance completely steals the movie and runs laps around the rest of the cast. This is Curry's breakthrough role, perhaps his most famous, and for very good reason. He's the biggest reason to see the movie at all. Curry is so incredibly compelling that you'll be cheering Frank on in spite of his depraved and manipulative behavior.

The other element of the movie's success is its music. The songs — all of them written by O'Brien — are so catchy that you'll almost certainly come away with one of them stuck in your head. How one could hear "Sweet Transvestite" or "Time Warp" and not have at least the tiniest of smiles on their face is beyond me. And I should also commend the actors, who all did their own singing (with the previously-mentioned exception of Hinwood). Musicals obviously live and die around their songs and the ability of the singers, and the actors do a fine job handling themselves.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a gleeful celebration of decadence, debauchery, and deviancy. It's too silly to take seriously, too goofy to hate, and too much damn fun to watch. That's really all the movie and its cult following is about: having fun and not caring who sees you. Okay, I will confess that the movie's not great art or anything like that. But who says it has to be? I started this review trying to determine just what it was about Rocky Horror that sparked the following that it enjoys today, but I've come to the realization that there's simply no answer beyond than the fact that it's pure and simple fun. And what's wrong with having a little fun once in a while?

Final Rating: ****½