Sunday, 27 June 2010

TRIPLE BILL: ARCADE (1993), APEX (1994), EVOLVER (1994)

Big-box VHS tapes were my staple movie watching diet as a teenager, and I had a very deep appreciation of cheesy sci-fi B-movies. The three flicks I'll talk about here are some of the very best (or worst, depending on your viewpoint) of the hundreds of 90 minute cheese fests that I sat through during that time of my life. They may have had budgets that would just about buy you a Happy Meal these days, but at the time, I thought they were just about the best films ever made.
Look, I was a teenager, okay? I was allowed to have bad taste. It's the law.

ARCADE (1993)

This delightfully silly teen SF film features Megan Ward being a heartbreaker and Seth Green demonstrating his knack for looking 15 in anything he was in for about ten years. It also features Star Trek: The Next Generation's Q, namely John de Lancie in a supporting role. The plot? It's a bargain basement version of TRON, basically. Video game develops sentience, characters get sucked into the game, the game screws with reality, and there's a cheap CG explosion in the VR world at the end. Arcade is a great example of the madness that Full Moon productions could put out in their heyday, and proof that not everything they did had to have killer puppets in it. This was out at the height of the Virtual Reality boom, but rather than being something groundbreaking like Lawnmower Man, it looks more like a science fiction version of Knightmare. Still, it's fun and I need a new copy.

APEX (1994)

Apex was a marvellously dodgy SF film that took elements of The Terminator, Quantum Leap, Aliens and any number of other big movies with mixed results. Time gets screwed up when a robot is sent back in time and an experiment goes terribly wrong. The result? History and the future are rewritten, and (fanfare) ONLY ONE MAN CAN END THE MADNESS. Our hero leaps through time to a war-torn alternate future, where he gets caught up with a group of soldiers trying to stay alive in a harsh landscape. Along comes the APEX unit (via a series of extremely dated CG animations) to make things explode. It's violent, it's loud, and it gets very confused about halfway through, but it was an ideal video rental back in the day. Decent cast, too. Where this differed from many of the other titles around at the time was in that it takes itself a bit more seriously. Characters suffer, things have consequences and despite its meagre budget, you do get a sense of futuristic desolation.

EVOLVER (1994)

This straight-to-video project was pretty much the cheapest looking film I saw during that golden era of b-movies in big-box VHS format. In fact, I had a promo poster for this film for months before it got released, and that poster alone was twenty times as good as the film it was advertising. The film follows the misadventures of a young boy and girl who must pit their wits against a robotic version of a popular video game. But... the robot was initially designed as a weapon, and when its circuits go haywire, it reverts to a much more violent set of functions. Cue much running around a house while a robot prop goes mental. Like Arcade, this also picked up on the themes of video games and VR taking a swipe at the real world. While it was cheap and shoddy, it was a good laugh, and another fine entry from Trimark Pictures, who were one of the best exponents of schlock like this until they made the Double Dragon movie and ruined themselves. Oops!

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Wonder Woman (2008)

While DC Comics characters haven't fared that great at the cinema quality-wise (Catwoman? Aaaargh! Superman returns? Yaaawn. The Dark Knight? Meh. Batman Begins was great though...), the ever growing range of animated feature films based on their most popular characters is something really special. here are a bunch of films without the constrictions of a major live action feature film, meaning that they can take a few more risks. I'd heard some great things about the 2008 animated Wonder Woman movie from this range, and thus I thought it was high time I checked it out. I can tell you in all honesty that it was a most worthwhile purchase. The voice cast is awesome, including Rosario Dawson, Alfred Molina and Nathan Fillion amongst its delights.

The film took me by surprise to be honest, as I wasn't really expecting quite this level of violence, including some very nicely edited shots that suggest so much more than is seen (a very cool element of this film). Basically, the flick is an origin story for Wonder Woman, telling of her journey from the mythical land of Themyscira (land of the Amazons) to the land of men and women, and the dangers she brings along with her. A fighter pilot befriends her (in a manner of speaking) and is her window to the modern world.
It doesn't hang around, clocking in at just under 80 minutes, but it doesn't need to be any longer. It gets everything that it needs to do done with a very tight pace and some superb animated visuals (just like the rest of the animated DC Comics features you can find on DVD for next to nothing right now). It's pretty loyal to the contemporary idea of the origins of the Wonder Woman character, but, again like the rest of the range, doesn't get bogged down with fanboy-pleasing continuity.

The animated Wonder Woman movie is a great purchase for fans of the comics and the various animated shows featuring the Justice League, but do approach with caution if you're going to watch it with a child, as there is some serious carnage on display. The animation is crisp and fluid, as well as nicely stylized, and the direction and editing are a delight. The sound design is a highlight for me, as that alone adds a huge amount of scope and epic scale to the latter half of the story. I'd love a copy of the score as it's quite powerful and memorable. This animated Wonder Woman movie is not a perfect film (the 'men are all pigs' angle gets old really quickly), but as a piece of cool entertainment featuring an iconic character, it's little short of a wonder.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

The Losers (2010)

A comic book movie with no superpowers, costumes or giant robots? I'm still there. The Losers is a delightfully silly action movie based on the DC vertigo comics title (written by a 2000AD scribe- HELL YES), and thanks to its stellar cast, it hangs together very well indeed. The story is basically that of a group of special ops soldiers who are framed for a terrible incident and thought to be dead. Trapped in Bolivia, the group of badass soldiers (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Chris Evans, Idris Elba, Columbus Short and Óscar Jaenada) crave revenge and a return to home soil. Clay (Morgan) comes into contact with the mysterious Aisha (Zoe Saldana from Star Trek/Avatar/loads of other stuff right now), who promises a way to get revenge on the maniacal villain responsible for their apparent 'death' and the sullying of their names.

Action galore ensues as the group of 'dead' soldiers wage war against the bad guys in fine style. It's far from high literature, but the film stays just tongue-in-cheek enough to stay fun and not slip into parody. There are explosions galore, elaborate fight scenes, oneliners and all of the other trappings of the modern action film, but there's also some very cool characters played by some great actors, which hold things together very well indeed. It's loud, brash, violent and well worth the price of admission.

The stars aren't perfect visions of humanity, which is a delight to see. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is my favourite of the bunch. His performance as Clay is spot on, and he looks like a real person rather than a perfect Hollywood hero. Yeah, some of the action scenes are insane and pretty much physically impossible (the ending comes to mind), but it doesn't slip into Die Hard 4 territories of improbable set pieces (thankfully). The story barrels along fast enough to stop you trying to think too much about how gloriously daft it all is, and as a whole it's a very satisfying watch. Zoe Saldana didn't strike me as the right choice for Aisha when she first shows up in the film, but her performance draws you in as the flick progresses.

Man, you can tell that The Losers is from the mind of someone who wrote for 2000AD, as it's a comic book tale with some serious badassery on display, the sort of which you can only really get from a British comics writer (hey, no offence to the overseas comics folks, but 2000AD has always done stuff that a lot of publishers would be scared of outside of the HEAVY METAL titles). The movie of The Losers is a brilliant addition to the number of comic book related films currently available for fans old and new to discover. It has the snappy editing, the action and the script and cast to make it work, and work it most certainly does.

The only thing I took issue with when watching the film is the certificate it got here in the UK. It's a 12A film here, meaning anyone under 12 can get in with an adult, and anyone 12 and over can get in to watch it. The film is REALLY not a 12A release. It should really, really have been a 15 due to the violence, the bad language, the sex scene and stuff like the opening event that kicks everything off. That left a bitter taste in the mouth, but the film itself is great.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Shaun Of The Dead (2004)

Shaun of the Dead, in this household, is one of the most reliable films made in the modern age. I'd personally stick it up there with things like Withnail & I as something that you can never really tire of. From the cast, the script and the direction to the in-jokes and soundtrack, everything is spot on. One of the main joys of the film though is the cast. Without such a strong cast, it wouldn't have been anywhere near as good. Written by its star, Simon Pegg, and director Edgar Wright, the film builds on the humour and visual style of the much-loved series SPACED that Pegg and Wright worked on (along with fellow cast members Nick Frost and Jessica Hynes/Stevenson).

Their style, packed with genius edits and visual gags in many shots, translated perfectly to the big screen and is almost a star in its own right. Edgar Wright uses the editing process as a storytelling tool to a much greater extent than pretty much anyone around right now. Sure, there are snappy edits in most films these days, but not with this level of creativity.

The cast is pretty much a who's-who of modern British comedy (check out the scene where the characters are mirrored completely when Shaun and the gang run into Yvonne and her own group for the proof). I think just about the only person missing from it is Mark Heap. Peter Serafinowicz is a marvellous addition to the cast too, coming across as a complete arsehole, which was the point, I guess. I'm sure he's delightful in real life (his Twitter activity would certainly suggest so).

What really sets Shaun of the Dead apart from the rest of the Zombie genre is its humanity. The characters are completely believable, even taking into consideration the comedy and the weird situation. Yes, there's laughs, crude language and pop culture references, but there's also some genuine pathos ("Stop pointing that gun at my mum!" That scene is stunning for the way it turns everything on its head and changes the tone of the film from a romp to a real fight for survival) and moments of real concern for the characters. The tropes of the zombie genre are turned delightfully on their heads, one fine example being the explanation for what caused the zombie outbreak in the first place. The various news channels and whatnot are each cut off during a sentence, which forms whole new sentences while Shaun and Ed are channel-hopping. It's a great idea that gets around the tricky prospect of having to just go for the tried and tested old-school reasons for the Zombie apocalypse. It's difficult to say just how much I love this film.

One thing that I do regret is not following up the call to arms that was posted on Ain't It Cool News back when Edgar and the gang were setting the film up. A casting call for zombies was put out, and I didn't go! Bah. Anyway, that aside, Shaun of the Dead takes pride of place in my collection, and I'm sure the collections of many other genre addicts out there. It's a delight from start to finish, and in every way it succeeds. Comedy, horror, real characters, a great soundtrack, brilliant direction, great editing and completely deserving of every bit of adoration that it gets.