Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Attack Force Z (1982) - By Mark Oswald

Attack Force Z may sound like the title of a DTV Steven Seagal movie, but in fact it’s an early 80’s War film set in the WWII era about an elite team of Australian commandos who are tasked with the job of sneaking into Japanese-occupied China to rescue the two survivors of a downed American plane, but things are, like always, not as they appear.

The movie is most notable for early acting performances from Mel Gibson (with accent) and Sam Neil, who most probably know from Jurassic Park. I know old Mel has been in the news lately for angry phone conversations and apparent threats of physical violence against his ex-wife, but regardless of how I feel about Mr. Gibson as a person, I have always respected and enjoyed his work as an actor and director. From my first viewing of Lethal Weapon 3, which I purchased the VHS of with ticket winnings from a local video arcade on a whim, to his recent old-school revenge throwback, Edge of Darkness, I’ve always appreciated his talent as an actor, as well as his intensity as an action star. So it’s nice to watch a movie like this which brings you back to the simpler days of the Gibson saga, just after The Road Warrior had made Mel a bigger star in the States, out comes this low-budget Australian flick about a true-life, but largely unknown group of soldiers. It’s a small story, but one that does bear re-telling.

Even though Mel and Sam Neil are given plum roles in the movie, however, it is John Phillip Law (Barbarella, Tarzan, the Ape Man) who gets first billing and a little more screen time as an American member of the group who gets separated from them for the second act of the movie, and falls in love with a native Chinese girl, whose father is helping the rest of his team find the plane they’re after. I can’t go any further without acknowledging the surprising awesomeness of the father character, whose name I don’t think was ever mentioned. Not long after the team arrives on the mainland, they come upon a small farm and are questioning the inhabitants, one being the father. When a troop of Japanese soldier enters the home, however, the father, who harbors a deep hatred for the Japanese, starts karate chopping their asses while the rest of the guys shoot it out. Then when he goes along with them afterward, he straps on a belt of throwing knives. This guy was a pleasant surprise of stoic badassness that I appreciated as a real left-field addition to the team.

One of the film’s true charms that I found was the soundtrack. It was sparse and never over-bearing, but a real-throwback to the kinds of scores being used in films of the era the story takes place in. The whole thing is shot in a more modern (for 1982) style, but the soundtrack is real old-fashioned, and I couldn’t help but enjoy it. Another plus is that even though the budget is low, the actors never waiver in their performances. The entire cast is strong, and even though one of the villainous Japanese officers hunting the commandos plays it a little over the top, it’s always in an entertaining, rather than annoying fashion. His character also has a pension for threatening people’s children to get information out of them, so he really makes you hate him, like a good villain should.

The film is well-paced with solid action scenes and interesting characters. Even though we don’t learn much about them in general, it seems like the actors have their backgrounds fleshed out in their heads. Also, the movie is not without a message about the casualties of war. What happens to the people left behind in the wake of battle? Are certain sacrifices necessary in the protection of beliefs? Attack Force Z seems to focus on the ugliness and futility of it all, but not so heavy-handed as not to allow room for interpretation. When I put this movie on my Netflix queue, at best I was hoping for a fun, maybe a little cheesy film about some badass military types on an action-packed and dangerous mission, but Navy Seals this is not.

In the weeks leading up to the release of the sure-to-be epic, second coming of the Action genre, The Expendables, I’m going to try and take a look at other group-based Action flicks. I already have Isaac Florentine’s U.S. Seals 2 and Special Forces ready and waiting, so expect reviews on those soon; But until then, good day to you all.

Body Count – 74

Children threatened - 2

"A well-paced finely-acted war film that's not much short of super"

Who's Mom did they get that quote from?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Give 'Em Hell, Malone (2009) - By Mark Oswald

Give ‘Em Hell, Malone is a new-school, but trying to be old-school Film Noir hardboiled detective movie. This is another one I picked up on after hearing frequent praise across the Interweb. Thomas Jane stars as the titular Malone, a hard-talking, hard-drinking, and even harder-shooting private dick on the trail of a brief case, a mysterious client, and the truth behind it all. My feelings towards Mr. Jane have shifted quite a bit in the past. I unfortunately first took notice of him in the one-two punch of Dreamcatcher and The Punisher (2004); two movies which I had to laugh my way through in an attempt to avoid actual physical pain. It wasn’t till I saw more from his catalogue and gained additional insight into who he is as a person, that I started to really like him. I enjoyed his performances much more in Stander, Boogie Nights, and The Mist. He was also, as I’m sure you’re aware, in Deep Blue Sea, but I don’t think people are watching that one for the meaningful performances. In this movie he performs admirably and with the amount of dedication you’d wish all performers put into their work. Some of his detective babble is a little corny at times, but he’s obviously having a ball with the character, as I’m sure the rest of the cast is as well.

Speaking of the rest of the cast, you’ve got Ving Rhames (The Tournament) as a sympathetic enforcer for the main villain, Elsa Pataky (Snakes on a Plane) as the requisite femme fatale, and Doug Hutchison (The Green Mile, Horace from “LOST”) as a pyromaniac named Matchstick. Hutchison’s performance is similar to Heath Ledger’s Joker, but goofier so the similarities didn’t bother me. I couldn’t help but laugh every time he started talking about fire, because he literally did so every scene he was in, like “Fire again? Really? We get it!” Oh and um…French Stewart is also in this movie as a douchey nightclub crooner. He wasn’t quite as annoying as usual, so I didn’t mind too much.

I hate chapstick.

The film takes place in a very nondescript time-period where it’s almost as if all these characters time traveled from the 1950’s to present day, because they all dress and act like they’re living 60 years in the past, except for their knowledge of email and other modern conveniences. Things move at a pretty quick pace for the 90 minute runtime, so even the couple places where the whole thing got a little too goofy were over with before I knew it. One of the highlights for me was the opening shootout, where Malone takes on an army of henchmen in order to obtain the briefcase he had been hired to retrieve. The majority of the film’s body count was racked up in this scene alone. It was nice to see a good old-fashioned gunfight where one man takes on a seemingly endless amount of bad guys by himself, with little difficulty. Truly heartwarming.

After this awesome display of pistol work, Malone goes to visit his Mom at a retirement home, which is where he goes to get stitched up any time he is injured. This was a funny take on the usual detective story business. Usually if the main character in a movie like this is hurt, he’ll go to some seedy underground doctor for patching up, but here the guy just heads to his Mom’s place. She fixes his wounds but not before giving him a hard time about his personal life and all that stuff, like a good Mother should. I found it funny that even she calls him Malone, so I thought maybe that could be his first name, but it’s never really gone into deeper than that.

So would I recommend this to you? Well yes, I think I would. Unless you’re opposed to numerous displays of onscreen violence and sadistic behavior, you’ll probably have a good time with this. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and though I probably won’t watch it again any time soon, the memories of its tale will stay with me.

Body Count – 38

Number of Deaths from the Opening Shootout Alone - 25

Friday, July 2, 2010

Puppet Master (1989) - By Mark Oswald

So when I was a young warthog, I used to enjoy sifting through a lot of the old horror franchises; the more sequels the better. Although I never made it all the way through the Sleepaway Camp, Silent Night Deadly Night, and Hellraiser movies, I did enjoy my adventures through the collections of Friday the 13th, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, Child’s Play, Candyman, and even fucking Trancers, but there was always one that held an oddly distinct place in my heart, and that was the films of the Puppet Master anthology. To this day, there are apparently nine of them with a tenth on the way. In my mind though, the real franchise stopped at five. I used to re-watch these films constantly. Well actually I only re-watched numbers three through five constantly. I remember the first two leaving me totally confused for some reason. Maybe they’d make more sense now; but I’d have to catch up with them to know for sure.

Oh wait! I did just catch up with them! Well the first one anyway! I actually just moved into a new apartment with my girlfriend and my DVDs have yet to be unpacked (I do have a couple in my collection that have still gone unseen), so I decided to take a gander at the good ol’ Netflix Watch Instantly. I of course started with the action section, but didn’t find anything immediately appealing, so I switched it up and decided to take a look at what the horror picks had to offer me. If you can believe it, I ALMOST decided to watch Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys. The sure-to-be epic battle of two groups of Full Moon Pictures’ most terrifying little killers; but then I spotted the first Puppet Master and nostalgia won out over morbid curiosity. I wanted to see if this movie made any god damn sense now that I was older and (marginally) wiser.

The answer; yes, the movie makes perfect sense… well at least within its own world of movie logic. The film begins at the Bodega Bay Inn in 1939, where elderly puppet maker, Andre Toulan (William Hickey from Christmas Vacation and The Jerky Boys movie), is working lovingly on his latest creation. Painting the new marionette’s face with care and telling it how beautiful it is. There is another puppet sitting on his window sill, who appears to move around all by himself, acting as a lookout; but a lookout for what? It turns out that Toulan is being hunted by Nazi spies or something in big black trench coats and hats. They are clearly there to kill him, but he stumps their efforts by offing himself before they bust down his door. Don’t worry about the puppets though; he hid them behind a wall of his room. The film really doesn’t give you too much more info on the reasoning behind these Nazi fellows coming after him, but if you’ve seen Puppet Master III, a prequel; it actually makes a lot more sense.

The story really gets going when it skips forward to “present day” (1989) where the oddest-looking bunch of psychic friends this side of the circus tent (think the older friends from IT) are summoned to the Bodega Bay Inn by the psychic energy of Neil Gallagher, a former colleague of theirs who, unbeknownst to them, has just died. This dude had been searching for the apparently famous secrets of Andre Toulan that deal with using Egyptian magic to bring life to inanimate objects. It is important to know, also, that when you bring something to life, its energy or life force reflects that of the life-bringer. So when Toulan gave them life, they were kind, loyal, and mostly non-threatening, but when they are brought back to life 50 years later by this asshole Gallagher, they aren’t so non-threatening anymore.

So the psychics all go to the Inn, which is huge by the way and should really be reclassified as a hotel, they begin getting picked off one by one by these murderous little bastards in ways that reflect each puppet’s special ability. The puppets, as characters, are made up of a tough guy puppet name Pin Head, who has a large body but tiny head; Leach Woman, a female puppet who can manifest leaches within herself and cause them to come out of her mouth; Tunneler, who is dressed in a army uniform but has a drill on the top of his head; Jester, a puppet that spins his face around to change his expression; and finally there is the leader, Blade, with a knife for one hand, a hook for the other, and spikes that protrude through his otherwise vacant eye sockets. It’s interesting to note that Blade’s appearance seems to mimic those of the Nazi spies who were after Toulan at the beginning of the film. This is another nice little detail that is explained in the aforementioned third chapter of the series. It also may be of interest to note that none of these puppet’s names are given in the film and I only know them because I am a nerd who remembers way too much about these films, even without revisiting them.

Soooo hot

As a film, there is a lot of time spent on the build up and other attempts at creating tension. This is normally an admirable aspect of a horror film, but in this one, we’ve already seen most of these puppets earlier in the movie, and so there is really no interest in waiting for a Jaws-like reveal to happen later on. Probably the biggest problem with the movie, though, is the human characters. They are just so unrelatable that you want them to be killed off so that more screen time can be devoted to the puppets, who manage to somehow have more personality. Also, the fact that they do little to defend themselves against the puppet attacks became very annoying. I mean seriously, don’t just sit there and scream! It’s a fucking puppet, not Leatherface! You can just grab the thing and throw it out a window! The “hero”, I guess, of the humans is Alex; a chubby dude whose hairstyle resembles a falcon’s nest. He doesn’t really do too much except be nice and then get beaten up by the surprise bad guy later on; a true savior.

I wasn’t all that excited while watching this movie, aside from some of the weirder elements that gave me a good laugh now and again, but my favorite part definitely came towards the end. There is a point where the main villain, and controller of the puppets, is getting a little too big for his britches or whatever, and starts abusing the jester puppet. He picks it up, manhandles it a bit, and then throws it down onto a chair to demonstrate his power; big mistake. You see, these puppets may be loyal to their master, but they are even more loyal to each other. You fuck with one and the rest will come after your ass with a vengeance. So I think it goes without saying that Alex, our wimpy knight in shining armor, doesn’t have to do a lot anyways, in terms of vanquishing evil. Another thing I liked with this movie was that the puppets were brought to life (cinematically) with a mix of actual puppetry skills and stop motion, which is a dated, but honorable form of seemingly giving life to the inanimate. I think the Egyptians would be proud of our American stop motion trickery. I mean I’m sure they’d still feel superior because they use real magic, but what the hell, we’d probably get some props all the same.

I’ll have to find some time to re-watch the rest of these Puppet Master films in the near future and see how they hold up; especially the ones I was fonder of. Then maybe I’ll try and catch the later ones I haven’t seen yet, like Retro Puppet Master, and the other one about their epic battle with the Demonic Toys. Boy, the things I do so that you guys don’t have to.

Body Count - 6