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Thursday, Jul 3, 2008

It’s been nearly six solid months of agony and waiting, speculation leading to momentary bouts of joy and sullen disbelief. With reliable information a rarity, fans had to use every ounce of their cautious constitution not to overreact. Then, suddenly, patience paid off. The announcement came - the gang at Cinematic Titanic were back, and they’ve brought along a real hackwork howler to foist upon us unsuspecting bad movie buffs. For those who don’t remember the origins of this Mystery Science Theater 3000-styled clone, here’s the scoop. Touted last winter as a welcome return to in-theater commentary comedy, Joel Hodgson reteamed with pals J. Elvis Weinstein and Trace Beaulieu. With the additional help of talented ex-MSTerions Mary Jo Pehl and Frank Conniff, their goal was to update the original concept and bring the fine art of mediocre movie ridicule back to the masses.


Along with Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy who carry on the defunct series’ traditions via their Rifftrax and Film Crew DVDs, this was the first time many in this group had participated in the format in over a decade. And after half a year, they have finally fashioned a follow-up. Devotees of the collective’s first direct to disc effort, the Al Adamson atrocity The Oozing Skull, wondered how the group would top that celluloid stinker. The answer? The Doomsday Machine, a reconfigured 1967 sci-fi slop job that has the bold faced filmmaking audacity to offer 75 minutes of Bobby Van, Denny Miller, Grant Williams, Ruta Lee, Mala Powers, and Henry Wilcoxon, only to disintegrate into footage shot four years later with none of the original cast.


See, the producers were clearly planning a major speculative epic, an end of the world wonder featuring the destruction of Earth, a hazardous journey into deep space, and an eventual colonization of Venus. Very much of the era - drive-in or otherwise. In the end, a lack of money meant they could only realize a small percentage of their goals. Stock footage replaced the planned F/X and corners were cut toward inventing the film’s future shock vision. Or maybe directors Lee Sholem and Harry Hope were just cheap, unimaginative bastards after all. The film frequently reeks of the Ed Wood School of incomprehensible narratives, the plot quickly de-evolving from a political crisis Apocalypse to an outer space swingers’ party in the blink of a cinema-schlock eye.


It’s 1976, and the world is on the brink of destruction. It seems the Chinese have developed a ‘Doomsday Machine’ located 700 miles below the planet’s surface. At the slightest provocation - which eventually arrives, though we never learn how or why - the Asian Reds will jumpstart the Earth’s core, causing the entire sphere to spontaneously combust. Of course, once the US and Russia get a whiff of this info, they decide to hijack a planned NASA mission to Venus and replace three of the more expendable astronauts with a few fetching astro-babes. Naturally, this goes over like gangbusters with everyone on the crew, except for the highly strung Major Kurt Mason. One look at skirt and he goes from persnickety pain in the ass to psycho-pseudo rapist.


The rest of the motley crew, including foxy flight surgeon Marion Turner, Russian space queen Georgiana Bronski, slightly unhinged meteorologist (and Mason victim) Katie, wisecracking New “Yawker” Danny, and surfer stud boy Colonel Don Price take their part in the procreation quite well. They don’t mind being passengers on this knotty Noah’s Ark, even if the tempers are flaring as often as the hormones. Eventually, people die, analog computer calculations are made, sacrifices are discussed, and one of those Planet of the Apes trick endings is attempted. No, it wasn’t all a simulation or an intricate NASA experiment. It turns out that if Soviet scientists had paid a bit more attention to the previous failed missions to the second closest planet to the sun, they may have discovered a few ‘collective consciousness’ warning signs along the way.


A long time staple of the breast-ically endowed Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, The Doomsday Machine is a miserable bit of motion picture sickness. Its mood swings are so rampant - serious space saga to stale soap operatics to mean-spirited misogyny - that teen girls are jealous of its irritability. Any film that feels Bobby “Mr. Elaine Joyce” Van and Ruta “HSN Diet Spray” Lee can sell its tech spec sketchiness is definitely dunderheaded. To make matters worse, the four years in the making finale, clearly fashioned out of whatever Sholem and Hope had lying around, has the cajones to recast the important players. As a result, there is at least 15 minutes of pointless stasis as well hidden extras with non-compatible voices try fervently to connect the material and make everything seem meaningful and deep. It ends up rendering the already retarded movie even more insipid.


For the Cinematic Titanic collective, The Doomsday Machine marks a MST3K Season 4 level challenge. At one point, Frank Conniff states exasperatedly that this experience is like “watching someone else watching Manos: The Hands of Fate”.  There is an instance when the cast completely clams up, the inability to quip on the inanity they’re witnessing overwhelming even their own masterful mirth making. The rest of the time, their material is spot on, joke after joke hitting the painful plotholes and destitute acting dead on. Hodgson is rather quiet this time around, letting Weinstein, Beaulieu, and Pehl do a lot of the heavy humor lifting. There is one classic moment when Mary Jo stops the film (a developing CT gimmick) to discuss the crisis fallback plan should the group have to decide on who lives and who dies, but overall, there is little of the skit-oriented filler that accented the previous series.


We do get a little more insight into the whole Cinematic Titanic protocol, however. At the very opening of the presentation, two workers discuss the upcoming installment with the cast. We discover that the plan is for the individuals present to record these episodes for “posterity” depositing the final results in a ‘time tube’ for future generations to enjoy. Oddly similar to the Film Crew conceit (adding commentary to all the movies known to man, even the horrible ones), it opens up the entire experience to limitless possibilities. One assumes that, after they get a handle on how to successfully market and maximize their self-sales and distribution network, Cinematic Titanic will become a regular cult commodity.


And as long as they deliver stellar satire like the kind found in The Doomsday Machine, there’s no reason to worry. Fans familiar with the group’s retro-revisionism will find nothing but treasure here, while those new to the whole MST/CT situation should be instantly won over. Way back in the ‘80s, when Hodgson teamed up with Murphy and producer Jim Mallon to produce some local UHF programming for Minneapolis, Minnesota television, they could have never envisioned two decades of celluloid send-ups. While purists wait for the day when all camps make nice and come up with a combined effort to bring everyone back into a single spoofing whole, we’ll have to settle for segmented brilliance. And with Cinematic Titanic, this cast of creative geniuses is back in big style. 


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Tuesday, Jul 1, 2008

With the Fourth arriving on Friday, Hollywood is getting an early jump on the holiday box office bonanza. For 2 July, here are the films in focus:


Hancock [rating: 6]


Hancock is either a brilliant disaster or an often uneven masterwork. It either represents Will Smith’s decision to break free of his formerly fashionable (and profitable) summer movie mythos, or another chink in a box office armor that has shown some signs of wear as of late.

Will Smith is the new up to date version of the late in life career of Charleton Heston. No, he’s not some gun wielding NRA apologist who narrates Bible videos in between bouts with aging. As one of Hollywood’s leading ticket/turnstile draws, he’s embraced the science fiction format in a way no actor has since the one and only Chuckster. From Independence Day, Men in Black, I, Robot, I Am Legend, and now his latest, the surreal super hero movie Hancock, no other contemporary star has dabbled in the speculative as often as he. Sure, he moderates such stints with powerful dramas and urbane comedies, but it’s clear that the majority of his bankability comes from action and adventure. Whether this latest film will advance his reputation remains to be seen. read full review…



The Children of Huang Shi [rating: 5]


The Children of Huang Shi is so desperate to be the Asian Schindler’s List, an example of atrocity draped in abject artistry, that it forgets to lay out the context. 


While it may seem sacrilegious to say it, stories of heroic human efforts during the tenuous dangers of wartime appear to be an international dime a dozen. Just when you think all the narrative bases have been covered, and no other angle could possibly emerge, a film comes along that explains yet another case of will triumphing over evil, spirit surviving the horrors inherent in conflict. Granted, not every one of these tales needs to be illustrated, but that doesn’t stop Tinsel Town from cranking out such indirect apologies. Japan’s torment of China prior to World War II serves as the basis for The Children of Huang Shi, yet another explanatory attempt. Yet as typical with most of these stories, it takes a courageous Caucasian to steer the natives - and the narrative - in the right direction.  read full review…



In Brief


Kit Kittredge: An American Girl [rating: 4]


G Rated fare is so rare in Hollywood these days that even the most mediocre example of kid pandering receives a slap on the patently wholesome back. Who cares then if the premise is founded in a misleading marketing gambit? As a popular doll and book series, the American Girl movies have been boob tube staples of years. Now, Oscar nom Abigail Breslin is aiming her prepubescent crossover appeal by playing the juvenile reporter turned community defender…and she doesn’t even look Nancy Drew-ish. When her dad looses his job and heads off to Chicago in search of work, a Depression era Kit helps her mom convert their Cincinnati abode into a boarding house. While a series of shady and stereotyped characters wander in and out of the front door our high-strung heroine helps the poor misguided hobo population redeem themselves in the eyes of a prejudiced public. In between homeless slurs (usually centering on the term “evil”) and soft sell slapstick, there is an attempt to impart a meaningful message of not judging a book by its penniless cover. Unfortunately, said good intentions get lost in a sea of formulaic plotting and tear-jerking contrivances. Even the mystery at the center of the story delivers an obvious dumbed down denouement.


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Tuesday, Jul 1, 2008

While it may seem sacrilegious to say it, stories of heroic human efforts during the tenuous dangers of wartime appear to be an international dime a dozen. Just when you think all the narrative bases have been covered, and no other angle could possibly emerge, a film comes along that explains yet another case of will triumphing over evil, spirit surviving the horrors inherent in conflict. Granted, not every one of these tales needs to be illustrated, but that doesn’t stop Tinsel Town from cranking out such indirect apologies. Japan’s torment of China prior to World War II serves as the basis for The Children of Huang Shi, yet another explanatory attempt. Yet as typical with most of these stories, it takes a courageous Caucasian to steer the natives - and the narrative - in the right direction.


As a reporter trying to buy his way into the battle torn provinces deep inside the China countryside, George Hogg is willing to risk his life for a story. But when he witnesses a horrible massacre, and is taken prisoner by the Japanese, it looks like his tour of duty is over. Luckily, he is saved by the Chinese rebellion, led by Chen Hansheng, and sent off to a remote school to care for some orphans. There he meets up with Red Cross nurse Lee Pearson, and together they try to reconstruct the lives of these poor, unfortunate kids. Luckily, Hogg is a natural teacher, and he manages to make ends meet with the help of a local opium merchant named Mrs. Wang. But when the Japanese push ever closer to their compound, our hero decides to do something desperate. His plan? Take his kids across the dangerous Liu Pan Shan mountains and relocate on the edge of the Mongolian desert.


While it would definitely make a far better documentary than a drama (it is based on a true story and an actual person, after all), The Children of Huang Shi has some potential at first. Granted, the site of The Tudors’ Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Hogg and the enigmatic Chow Yun-Fat as Hansheng prepares us for a fully fictionalized take on this material. Add in Radha Mitchell as our medical missionary and Michelle Yeoh as the poppy peddler and you know reality is slowly drifting away. And thanks to the gloss of good intentions ladled on top by journeyman director Roger Spottiswoode, we sense there will be more heart tugging and hand wringing than history. Unfortunately, that’s just the start of this film’s problems. The Children of Huang Shi is so desperate to be the Asian Schindler’s List, an example of atrocity draped in abject artistry, that it forgets to lay out the context.


Since the crimes committed in the name of Japan are so utterly reprehensible, it’s hard to believe the movie needs more scope. But the truth is that few in the audience are students of the facts, and without such a perspective, the mass murder witness feels gratuitous. Similarly, we never buy into Hogg’s desire to play the part of reporter. His initial goals seem far more selfish than Fourth Estate-d. It makes his personal sacrifice later seem cockeyed, not commendable, and the entire middle section reeks of an Eastern Dead Poet’s Society. Mitchell and Chow appear superfluous, foisted on the viewer every once in a while so as to keep the narrative in forward motion. Far more interesting are the moments with Madame Wang, Yeoh bringing her standard grace to a part played mostly for what it infers, not what it deliberately does.


This is part of Spottiwoode’s style, to incorporate as much of Hogg’s mythos into his movie as possible without going into too much heady explanation. Montages take the place of the standard growing pains, and when the group finally starts that celebrated trek across the Chinese mountains, it’s like Lord of the Rings retrofitted to a 1930’s travelogue. What we require here is a center, a clear focus on what we should care about and why. Since the kids, with a rare exception here and there, are mostly interchangeable, their dilemma is not daunting enough. And since Rhys Meyers seems too perky to be perturbed by his stranger in a strange land fate (he picks up the language and customs quite easily), his eventual arc leaves little impact.


And then there is that gnawing cinematic de-vice of having a white man save the day. In films like Cry Freedom, where South African reporter Donald Woods winds up accepting the cinematic martyrdom for befriending Stephen Biko, there is an unhealthy implication that people of color can’t champion their own causes. Instead, they need someone like Hogg to bring their colonialist bravado to the fore and face off against the enemy. The Children of Huang Shi is not quite as obvious as the aforementioned narrative affront, but it does rely an awful lot on our twee English gentleman to get us over the potential dangers. Even worse, the role of the Chinese resistance is reduced to off-hand champions. They love to blow stuff up, but never seem to arrive in time to completely save the day.


No, it’s a tribute to what Hogg managed to do with just his wits and a few lucky breaks that the post-credits testimonials from the last remaining real life ‘children’ he helped (Now very old men) manage to resonate. Amidst all the grandstanding and skylarking, moments of misplaced manipulation, and outright disingenuousness, this movie manages to make its point. Since Spottiswoode’s bio would never suggest a Spielberg or Scorsese style epiphany, he can’t help but fumble the film’s many contradictory threads. At any given moment, in any given scene, we could have a far reaching family film, a war-torn thriller, a too languid love story, an able international intrigue, and an illustration of misguided political policy pitting one foreign locale against another. And even then, the movie manages to leave the smallest of impressions. The Children of Huang Shi is not a bad movie. It’s just not the great historic document it pretends to be.


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Tuesday, Jul 1, 2008

Will Smith is the new up to date version of the late in life career of Charleton Heston. No, he’s not some gun wielding NRA apologist who narrates Bible videos in between bouts with aging. As one of Hollywood’s leading ticket/turnstile draws, he’s embraced the science fiction format in a way no actor has since the one and only Chuckster. From Independence Day, Men in Black, I, Robot, I Am Legend, and now his latest, the surreal super hero movie Hancock, no other contemporary star has dabbled in the speculative as often as he. Sure, he moderates such stints with powerful dramas and urbane comedies, but it’s clear that the majority of his bankability comes from action and adventure. Whether this latest film will advance his reputation remains to be seen.


LA is riddled with crime, but there’s a bigger problem within their midst. You’d figure that the city would love its resident comic book style crime fighter. But John Hancock is a troubled man. Driven to drink by demons he cannot control (or in most cases, remember) and horribly unappreciated - thanks in part to his antisocial attitude and tendency to destroy more than he saves - he still tries to bring down the bad guys. One day, he rescues PR man Ray Embrey from an oncoming train, and in an attempt to return the favor, the image maker proposes to overhaul Hancock’s reputation. This makes his young son ecstatic, and his pretty wife Mary uncomfortable. From the moment she sees the angry superhero, she senses a connection. After a stint in jail and a political change of heart, the public may have forgiven Hancock, but his past seems destined to destroy him.


Hancock is either a brilliant disaster or an often uneven masterwork. It either represents Will Smith’s decision to break free of his formerly fashionable (and profitable) summer movie mythos, or another chink in a box office armor that has shown some signs of wear as of late. While it cements actor/turned director Peter Berg’s status as a filmmaker to watch (next up for him - another try at bringing Dune to the big screen), it doesn’t do more than his fascinating USA/A-OK actioner of last year, The Kingdom. And with a supporting cast consisting of Jason Bateman and Charlize Theron, it’s hard to question the talent on display. But a quick glance at the film’s history (multiple stints in development Hell over the last few decades) and the numerous names previously attached to it indicates that, considering the chaos it was forged in, we’re lucky that the results are so likeable.


There are actually two movies battling like graphic novel champions to dominate Hancock‘s narrative. One literally wants to wonder about Gods on Earth, how their immortal powers play amongst the more humble elements of humanity. The other feeds off this, turning our surprisingly sour hero into an anger fueled alcoholic who has nothing but contempt for those he’s supposed to serve. Like the shabby My Super Ex-Girlfriend before, Hancock tries to show a jaded populace taking their savior for granted, unable to appreciate the altruistic acts he accomplishes. Instead, there are noisy news reports condemning the destruction that comes with his crime-fighting (isn’t that a given, considering he has to do what people can’t?) and the surliness he projects to cover the pain of being taken for granted.


From an audience perspective, the biggest hurdle to overcome here is the inherent anticipation Smith brings to his projects. From the trailers, the film appears to be a rollicking comedy with some more action-oriented undertones. Our statured celeb will be dishing the dingers and driving home the humor with his natural personality and panache. In truth, the second half spirals into a deep meditation on the notion of fate, and how even beings unbound to this reality can’t avoid its fickle hand. Things turn dark, dour, and very depressive. The moment this happens, at least half the audience will abandon Hancock in a manner similar to how the citizens of LA treat the onscreen character. They won’t buy into the last act dramaturgy, preferring the sequences where Smith curses out old ladies and tosses French-accented bullies up in the air.


Yet it’s this very notion of how to deal with immortal mortality that lifts Hancock above the typical popcorn fare. It suggests something rather intriguing, and director Berg appears comfortable dealing with these more substantive themes. The opening car chase is cute clever, what with the oversized slapstick of our drunken hero using buildings as a backdrop for his unstable gestures. But when he gets down one-on-one, our filmmaker finds engaging ways to deconstruct the genre. Had the film featured more of this, had it stuck to its Tonight He Comes origins (there are too many post-greenlight script doctors to bother mentioning), there’d be something really unique here. By it’s very definition, any attempt to break convention is awkward and disorienting. Unfortunately, Hancock can’t find a way to make said struggles work for itself. Instead, it falls back on old fashioned motion picture majesty - and can’t quite make it all the way.


Smith’s performance is pitched perfectly between art and artifice. He never stretches beyond the boundaries his paycheck demands, but at the same time you can sense he understands where a Hancock success would take him. As part of Berg’s growing company, Jason Bateman does the mild mannered idealist act quite well. He never overplays the obvious one-liners he’s sometimes reduced to relying on. Then there’s Charlize Theron. Given a not so subtle supermodel glow, her role is so ridiculously underwritten that you wonder how the minds behind this movie thought they could get away with it. She’s a last act catalyst, a red herring as real clue creation that definitely fails to live up to the inferences.


In fact, Hancock often feels like the outline for a much larger epic. At 90 minutes, it breezes by on waves of scheduled superficiality, and when it needs to stop and make an impact, editing takes us quickly to the next F/X setpiece. Indeed, the biggest battle within this film is not the one between our hero and the bad guys. Instead, it’s the clash between grand intentions and focus group execution…and it looks like those comment cards almost won out. There will be those who dismiss this movie as nothing more than subpar Smith, a blip on a retail radar that usually brings home the bacon in grand style. But there is something more inventive going on here, a chance at changing the genre dynamic that Tinsel Town just couldn’t handle. The results become an uneven, if ultimately entertaining, experience. Leave it to Smith to succeed despite himself. 


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Monday, Jun 30, 2008

Universal’s Despereaux Gets a Trailer/Teaser Site
For anyone lucky enough to see WALL*E on the big screen over the weekend, this trailer is already old news. Yet with crowds keeping many from Pixar’s latest, here’s a look a the CGI tale starring Matthew Broderick as the voice of a little mouse with big ears and an even bigger spirit. Check out the clip HERE, and if you get a chance, head over to the official site. It’s still in the early stages, as Despereaux doesn’t bow until December 2008.






Disaster Movie Trailer Debuts
Just when you thought humanity was safe from the stupefyingly lame spoofing of this series comes this horribly unfunny trailer. Watch at your own risk:





Paramount’s Eagle Eye Also Gets a Sneak Peek
Everyone’s least favorite Indiana Jones wannabe returns to contemporary fare with this tale of a mother and son coerced into carrying out a terrorist’s horrific plans. A reteaming of Shia LeBeouf with the man who made his career (Disturbia director D. J. Caruso), this thriller looks like it has potential. Check out the trailer here.(EPK TV)





Hostel III? Without Eli Roth?
First, there were rumors that Lionsgate was looking to continue the torn porn classic, and wanted some involvement from franchise creator Roth. Now a decidedly uninterested Eli is out, and Scott Spiegel is in. Plans are for the Evil Dead 2 scribe to helm the sequel, with the results going direct to DVD. Look to Bloody Digusting for more details. (Bloody Disgusting)






Mrs. Lovett May Join John Connor’s Fight for the Future
Hot off her Oscar nomination for the role of Sweeny Todd’s meat pie slinging accomplice in crime, Helena Bonham Carter has expressed interest in a role in the upcoming Terminator sequel. While her role is unknown - for now - it is said to be “substantial” to the future shock storyline. She would be joining Batman’s Christian Bale as robot battling lead. Read more here. (The Hollywood Reporter)






James Bond is Back with Solace Teaser
Fans have been foaming over the title of this latest 007 installment since it was announced a few months back. Now Moviefone has a peek at the tantalizing teaser. All name issues aside, this looks like another winner for new Bond Daniel Craig. Catch the clip here. (Moviefone)





Smith’s Porno Stuck with NC-17…For Now
Proving once again that they have it in for anything revolving around sex and sexuality (violence is another issue all together), Kevin Smith’s latest comedy, the supposedly non-graphic Zack and Miri Make a Porno, has landed the dreaded adult-only rating from the demagogic MPAA. Star Seth Rogen discussed the situation with Rotten Tomatoes, suggesting that language, not skin, may be the problem. You can read more here. (Rotten Tomatoes)


 


DVD releases of Note for 1 July

City of Men
Drillbit Taylor
Get Smart: Bruce and Lloyd - Out of Control
Heaven
My Blueberry Nights: Read the SE&L Review HERE
Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns
Vantage Point


Box Office Figures for Weekend of 13 June

#1 - WALL*E: $63.1 million
#2 - Wanted: $50.9 million
#3 - Get Smart: $20.2 million
#4 - Kung Fu Panda: $11.7 million
#5 - The Incredible Hulk: $9.6 million
#6 - The Love Guru: $5.3 million
#7 - Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: $5.2 million
#8 - The Happening: $3.9 million
#9 - Sex and the City: $3.8 million
#10 - You Don’t Mess with the Zohan: $3.2 million


Films Opening This Week:

General Release:
Hancock - Will Smith plays a reluctant superhero that gets a media makeover thanks to PR guru Jason Bateman. Charlize Theron is the easy on the eye candy. Rated PG-13
Kitt Kittredge: An American Girl - It’s the Depression, and budding reporter Kit Kittredge helps her family run a boarding house as she investigates claims against the local hobo community. Rated G


Limited
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson - An insightful look into the amazing writing - and bizarre personal antics - of one of nu-journalism’s greatest treasures. Rated R
The Wackness - It’s 1994, and Luke Shapiro is coming of age. Of course, his means dealing a little dope, dealing with his crumbling family life, and falling for the daughter of his pot-smoking psychiatrist. Rated R


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