Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Your basic X-Men rant

We all know the problems X-Men: The Last Stand faced even before anyone saw it: rushed production schedule, underfunded (for a summer special effects behemoth), questionable story (Dark Phoenix as Plot B?) and leagues of fans ready to pounce on it for any irregularities between comic pages and film. After seeing that, all of the above helped contribute to a sub-par movie, but I'm not ready to jump on the bandwagon saying it could have been a great movie.

Some potential existed, but I'm convinced more than ever that a 'Spiderman'-caliber X-Men movie cannot be made. The biggest challenge is that the X-Men universe has become so bloated over the decades -- with a ridiculous infusion of characters, villains, philosophies, etc. -- that it is near impossible to make a quality, focused film. What makes movies based on the likes of Superman, Spiderman and Batman so epic is that the formula is fairly cut and dry because their origins are a part of pop culture and the villains and dynamics are pretty well-known. In the case of X-Men, there is no great origin and the problems that face a superhero team are much different (and you could say less interesting) than those which confront an individual.

My great hope from the beginning for the X-Men franchise was that it would eventually adopt one of the epic storylines for a movie. I've always felt that the Days of Future Past saga was made for Hollywood (kind of a Terminator-meets-12 Monkeys story), sure it would have been a daunting production, but it would have been the kind of plot that would appeal to a large mass beyond the comic fans. Of course the other most well-known X-Men storyline is the sprawling Dark Phoenix saga, which was alluded to in X2 but then pushed away as a side story in X3, solidifying its stature as a rush job with little creative energy.

Making Dark Phoenix the primary plot would have no doubt increased the budget quite a bit, and it seems 20th Century Fox was unwilling to break the bank with X3. To deal with this, it seems the filmmakers decided to give viewers as many X-Men characters as possible, increasing the 'Hey!' ratio but lowering the overall product with flimsy special effects and a who-cares story. But even with the inclusion of a horde of X-Men past and present (who the hell was the antler guy?), there were many questionable no-shows. Chief among these was Gambit, who -- along with Wolverine -- seemed like the most obvious choice for an X-Men movie character from the beginning: he's a sarcastic charmer with a screen-friendly power, and has built-in connections to Rogue.

On the villain side, there was the strange choice to make Pyro (a perennial non-descript background character) as Magneto's No. 2. In order to set up a predictable battle with Iceman, they changed his character to an apparently young American (he's always been an adult Australian). To the surprise as no one, the Iceman-Pyro fight was a dud.

But there were some nice surprises in X3, I don't think anyone ever expected Juggernaut and Beast to be portrayed so accurately on screen as they were. I wasn't expecting Juggernaut's near-invincibility to be translate well, but it was one of the few successful effects in the movie (Super-Annoying Comic Geek Swipe: One scene that irked me was how Juggernaut was eventually overcome at the end, with his 'mutant' powers temporarily removed -- actually Juggernaut is one of the few X-Men characters who is not a mutant, his powers come from a magical gem inside his armor, which is why he is virtually unstoppable. And even if he was a mutant, wouldn't his mutant ability -- being unstoppable and invincible -- be something the government would want to harness or at least research?). Beast seemed like a character who would never look good on screen, but putting him in a suit and playing up his intelligence and diplomacy was perfect -- as was his graceful fighting at the end.

Unfortunately the excellent treatment of Beast and Juggernaut was overshadowed by several mis-steps, most notably -- and surprisingly -- with Wolverine. Whereas the first two films sometimes came close to showing Wolvie's true nature, X3 portrayed him as a mild-mannered uncle-figure, constantly trying to offer advice and generally just walking around the mansion playing it cool. What has made the real Wolverine one of Marvel's most popular characters is that he is a near-unlikable ferocious fiend who can rarely contain his anger. What happened to him? There have been rumblings of a Wolverine movie which will hopefully show us the true side of him.

Final swipe: The low budget of X3 was at times embarrassingly obvious, with the low mark coming at the beginning. Wolverine and Co. are battling a Sentinel (yes!) -- offscreen (no!!!) and all we see of this fantastic, towering character are a pair of glowing eyes and its head after Wolvie cuts it off. If there was ever a stage production of X-Men, this is how it would be done. Truly pitiful.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Overstaing the Underrated

The easiest list to make is the one with 'The Worst' in the title, a notch below that is 'Most Overrated,' since all that is required is to find a way to pick apart a consensus opinion. The only list harder to make than 'The Best' is 'Most Underrated,' because the idea of being underrated is having little or no discussion or buzz going on about said underrated item, hence a little more digging is required. There have been other underrated lists, and there will be more, but I'd like to think of mine as somewhat original, because I didn't take any ideas for mine from other lists, making mine even more underrated than your underrated . . . I think. Keep in mind that my idea of an underrated movie is one that is either still waiting for the acclaim it deserves or one which received unfair treatment either upon or after its release (multiple horrible sequels, slipping public opinion of its makers/stars). I didn't bother to rank these . . . that's overrated.

Despite being the last movie John Belushi made, Neighbors is never mentioned as one of the comic's best moments. Paired with Dan Aykroyd, and playing the 'straight man' character for the only time in his career, 'Neighbors' starts out as a typical comedy but quickly ascends into absurd levels of absurdity. 'Neighbors' sometimes has the feel of a Neil Simon comedy, since Belushi's character is eventually being assaulted from every possible angle of his life. It also features a 21-year-old Cathy Moriarty, fresh off her debut in 'Raging Bull.'

The stature of Paul Verhoeven's action/satire of technology and the media has slipped considerably over the years. This could be traced in part to its two subpar sequels, but also to the fact that when someone today sees Robocop, they just see a robot suit which screams 1987. I've always seen 'Robocop' as the high-water mark for Verhoeven, whose rare ability to fill any scene (be it comedy or action) with a feeling of menace and impending pain is put to great effect here. Like he would with Starship Troopers and Total Recall, 'Robocop' is consistently mean-spirited, but never without its tongue slightly in cheek. 'Robocop' is unfarily seen today as just another late-80s action scifi sendup, which doesn't take into account its clever skewering of the media and corporate ethics.

Like Verhoeven, Brian De Palma seems to have as many detractors as fans. The most common insult hurled his way is how he's a hack, since his most famous works were either remakes or reworkings (or in the case of Carrie, based on a famous book). While the above is true, it shouldn't be held against him, because by and large De Palma has actually taken the basic idea of a previous movie and turned it into something ultimately his. The best example of this is 1976's Obsession, which creatively twists Vertigo's themes of love, obsession and identity into a beautiful and unique film. Set in New Orleans with liberal doses of exaggerated natural light, 'Obsession' (like 'Vertigo') constantly has the feel of a dream, and you are constantly questioning what parts of it take place in reality. This little gem came on the cusp of De Palma's breakout with 'Carrie,' and is usually left out when discussing the director.

Kickboxer/Hard Target
Since Jean Claude Van Damme has crossed into that territory inhabited by Sylvester Stallone and since vacated by John Travolta, whereby all of their movies are cleared from our collective memory until they either die or make some sort of career changing film (i.e. Pulp Fiction). Van Damme's inclusion in this territory is certainly warranted (see: repeated straight-to-video roles, endless cocaine habit, all around joke), but that shouldn't stop his two best movies from being enjoyed. As I covered in my comparison of Van Damme and Steven Seagal, Kickboxer was a perfect vehicle for Van Damme, because it didn't try to hide the fact that he was a bad actor. This leads to several intended moments of hilarity and also some damn good fighting. In Hard Target, Van Damme was finally paired with a competent director who actually intended on using a story behind his many jump kicks in tight jeans. John Woo not only gave Van Damme some fun devices (being cajun, biting the rattler off a rattlesnake) but also took the leash off Lance Henriksen and let him wield a supremo bad ass single shot pistol. Both movies have aged terribly, but they remain just as entertaining and shouldn't be dismissed as they are.

The Burbs
Now that Tom Hanks has a free pass for any movie, no matter how stale (Davinci Code) or contrived (Terminal) his performance may be, his comedy career seems to have been forgotten. Even at the time of its release, The Burbs didn't get nearly enough attention as it deserved. Just a glance at who was behind this movie is cause for a raised eyebrow: Directed by Joe Dante and also starring Corey Feldman (!), Bruce Dern (!!), Henry Gibson (!!?!!) and since this is Dante, you know that the immortal Dick Miller is in it. This was also the brief star turn for Rick Ducommun, who was a popular comedian at the time and had two HBO specials under his belt (he would never be heard from again). 'The Burbs' has the usual Dante levels of absurdity and everything that comes out of Dern's mouth is gold ('Go paint your goddamned house!'). This movie has a burgeoning cult following and maybe some day it will get a decent DVD release.

The Getaway (1972)
When discussing the best of Steve McQueen and Sam Peckinpah, The Getaway rarely comes up. Peckinpah made many other great movies, but 'The Getaway' was his biggest hit. McQueen is often associated with his other blockbusters, such as The Great Escape or Bullitt. Compounding matters, when most people hear 'The Getaway' they think about the completely unnecessary and subpar 1994 remake. It's a shame, because 'The Getaway' is an enthralling, gritty and completely masterful on-the-run action epic. McQueen is perfect for Doc McCoy, who is dead set about not going back to prison, but will go to the grave in the pursuit of getting away with a bank robbery. There's an unbelievable scene in the beginning when Peckinpah shows the endless boredom and routine of prison: McCoy is shown delicately putting together a crude model of a bridge, but as he puts the last piece of it on, repeated shots of his daily routine are spliced together with him slowly crushing his just-completed craft. Although it is a big budget Hollywood blockbuster, there are Peckinpah touches everywhere, such as when McCoy realizes he's been spotted at an electronics store, he casually goes next door, steals a shotgun and prepares for the impending bloodshed. Watch for a young Sally Struthers in a nice role.

'You wanna get out of here? You talk to me'

2006 marks the 25th anniversary of one of the greatest sequels and certainly one of the best action movies of its era: The Road Warrior. Perfect in almost every respect, 'The Road Warrior' manages to maintain a torrid pace while never straying from a simple plot and mostly minimalist script.

Director George Miller and writer/producer Byron Kennedy had an interesting dilemma when conceiving a sequel to Mad Max. Their 1979 movie was a smash hit all over the globe -- except the United States -- where a version dubbed with American voices didn't make much of an impact. Warner Bros. of course wanted a big hit in America with the sequel, but how should they go about making the next chapter to a movie few in the States saw? The answer was a solution today's Hollywood should take a look at more often. Instead of a traditional sequel, Miller and Kennedy made a movie which could stand on its own, hence the unique U.S. title instead of the worldwide 'Mad Max 2.'

Apart from the excellent expository introduction and Max himself, the only aspect of 'The Road Warrior' that links to 'Mad Max' is Max's reaction to being asked if he's ever lost any family. Whereas 'Mad Max' was a classic tale of revenge, 'The Road Warrior' would be a cross between a Saturday morning cartoon and Leone's Spaghetti Westerns, with Max playing the role as The Man With No Name. Though 'Mad Max' was made with an extremely small budget (until 'Blair Witch' it held the film record for cost:profit ratio), it made its mark with its shockingly raw action scenes (you could argue that it contains two of the most brutal car collisions ever seen on the screen), and 'The Road Warrior' would aim to up the ante at every hairpin turn.

At the opening of 'The Road Warrior,' we find Max exactly where we left him before: in his car driving away from the pain that transformed him into the 'shell of a man' he now inhabits. What has helped make this such a legendary movie is the way Max is handled: given almost no lines of dialogue and with the absolute minimum of emotions. When Max cracks a half-smile at the end, it's not a reach to say it's his first genuinely enjoyable moment since his family was killed.

A spartan script by design, 'The Road Warrior' is still filled with odd characters and overflowing with lavishly creative production design. In the hands of American filmmakers, the gangs would be driving Mustangs with machine guns mounted to them. In 'The Road Warrior' world of the Australian Outback, the only real recognizable car is an old Ford F150, with Max at the helm of a heavily modified Australian-version Ford Falcon and Humongous' gang manning function-first monstrosities. Then there are the costumes. The friendlies at the refinery seem to have found their wardrobe by raiding a high school football locker room, while Humongous and Co. have taken the opportunity in the post-apocalpytic world to break out their cod pieces and assless chaps. It's the attention to detail such as the above which makes the movie work so well.

And the violence. Miller/Kennedy seem bent on one-upping themselves with each opportunity. When the boomerang blade smashes through the tranny's skull, you feel it. When the unlucky pair who are fastened to the front of a Humongous machine get an up-close view of the back of a tanker, it hurts. 'The Road Warrior' keeps going further and further up the meter of brutally fun action until Humongous and his machine meet their profoundly beautiful end.

There was a point in my life where I watched 'The Road Warrior' almost daily, and one aspect I grew to appreciate was the score by Brian May (no, not the one from Queen), who continued his work with Miller/Kennedy from 'Mad Max.' Since there's little dialogue, May's score is often at centerstage to carry some of the scenes, and it delivers every time.

It's a shame that on the 25th anniversary of 'The Road Warrior,' there is still no suitable DVD release, save for the bare-ass bones release around seven years ago. 'Mad Max' has a very nice two-disc Special Edition and there's even been talk of it getting the Superbit treatment (though I can't imagine why). Warner even saw fit to release a Special Edition VHS of 'The Road Warrior' shortly before the advent of DVD, but still no proper treatment for it on DVD (though there have been rumors of a Christmas release).

Also, it's strange to see how limited Miller's work as a director has been since his coming out party with 'Mad Max' and 'The Road Warrior.' Outside of those two movies he has directed just five, including 'Beyond Thunderdome' and the wonderful 'Babe: Pig in the City.' Perhaps he is content to sit on the royalties he gets from 'The Road Warrior' and 'Beyond Thunderdome,' which he was awarded the rights to from Warner in exchange for stepping out of the director's chair for 'Contact.'

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Keep Watching the Shelves!

There seems to be an unhealthy amount of over-the-top DVD releases coming out this summer. With releases like these, it's easy to say to yourself "hey, I can wait two years to upgrade to HD-DVD!" A couple of these discs were once thought to be in permanent residence in the film graveyard, but with their coming out party now give hope to those still residing six feet under (more on that later). In addition to the forthcoming Ultimate Western Fanboy Box Set (which recently had its perfect coverart revealed), these are the releases I've been salivating over for weeks.

Grand Prix (July 11)
I have written before on the injustice of not having John Frankenheimer's ground-breaking Grand Prix available on DVD. Thanks in part to a vigilant online petition, the stunning film will now get a two-disc 40th anniversary release. This news was nothing short of shocking to fans of the movie, who were told for years by Warner Bros. that there was little interest in a DVD release, and would have been happy with just as happy with a bare bones anamorphic disc. On DVD, 'Grand Prix' will be fully enjoyed for the first time since its theatrical run, where its Super Panavision 70mm 2.20:1 aspect ratio was fully exploited. For those who have never experienced it, prepare to be blown away in Dolby Digital 5.1 by the opening credits, which creates a one-of-a-kind symphony using engine notes and the sounds of a raceway. The only shame about this release is that it will not contain the views of the commentary-friendly Frankenheimer, who died suddenly in 2002.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (June 13)
Russ Meyer's big budget, girl band vixen murder ride easily made my Top WTF!?! Movies list, but that doesn't mean I won't be picking up this long-overdue release. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls has been available in Region 2 for a few years, but will now hit shelves on the same day as the movie that inspired it, Valley of the Dolls. Truthfully, I probably wouldn't pick this one up if not for its signature extra: a commentary track by the movie's co-writer, a one Roger Ebert (yes -- that Roger). Ebert's commentaries are always excellent, and it will be interesting to hear his thoughts on his own work. Okay, I would have bought it, but just to shock my friends with the 'I am Supergirl!' decapitation scene.

Amazing Stories, Season 1 (July 18)
This series deserved to be rediscovered on DVD, as many have forgotten about it. Created by Steven Spielberg, who got his start on a similar series, Night Gallery. Amazing Stories is quite different than 'Night Gallery' or even 'Twilight Zone,' since it is generally geared toward a younger audience -- like many of Spielberg's movies. Being Spielberg, he was able to recruit some of the best actors and directors around to be involved with the series. Like any series of this genre, it is hit and miss, but there are some real gems in the first season, such as Mummy, Daddy about an actor who has an eventful night with a real-life version of the character he's playing. Perhaps the best-known episode from season 1 is Hell Toupee, directed by Irvin 'I fucking directed The Empire Strikes Back!' Kershner, it's about a man who gets a hair transplant from a convicted murderer.

Dazed and Confused: The Criterion Collection (June 6)
For the big fans of Dazed and Confused, this release could represent a triple dip, as it replaces the respectable Flashback Edition which was released last year, which replaced a very early bare bones disc. It's an easy sell for me just because of the cover art (if you can't tell, that's an outer jacket, with 'peepholes' inside to the inner disc cover, ala Led Zeppelin III), but being Criterion, it has a load of extras as well. Richard Linklater is of course on board for a commentary (and also has his name prominently on the cover now), a new 50-minute documentary, an expectedly exhaustive and entertaining booklet that only Criterion can do, and even a poster.

The Simpsons, season 8 (August 15)
As someone who has fiendishly purchased every Simpsons season shortly after it was released, I have long told myself that this will be the final season in my collection. Season 8 marks the last truly great Simpsons season, before it started its slow decline the following year. Generally, all the episdodes in this set are great (with some true classics such as Homer vs. the 18th Amendment and Bart After Dark), but it also has a couple duds, which forecast the decline on the horizon (notably, Mountain of Madness and Brother From Another Series). Fox will continue its ridiculous head-design, but will hopefully offer a traditional box design like they did for Season 7.

Graveyard tenants: Monster Squad/Night of the Creeps
Both of these Frank Dekker cult classics are still unavailable on DVD, and there is no release in sight. Aint-It-Cool recently held a reunion screening in Austin, and their recap details how the rights to both movies have bounced around lately, and who to write your letter to about how shitty this is. This is one of the rare cases where a pair of contemporary movies are almost unwatchable just because there is nowhere to find them. The only way you can see either is to buy an old VHS or a bootlegged DVD off eBay. I have actually never seen Night of the Creeps, but it sounds fun enough, if it's anything like Monster Squad, which was one of my favorite movies growing up. Hope seems slim for a DVD release for these 80s horror/comedies, but if Grand Prix can be released, anything is possible.

NOTE: DVD Panache was recently on hiatus due to a relocation to better quarters and a corporate outing to Cabo San Lucas. Rest assured, we are still going strong and look for some regular posting starting this week.