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“Rules of Engagement” fails to become the definitive military courtroom drama

Released: Oct. 10, 2000

Director: William Friedkin

Starring: Samuel Jackson, Tommy Lee Jones, Guy Pearce, Bruce Greenwood, and Ben Kingsley

Writer(s): James Web and adapted by Stephen Gaghan


Synopsis:

Rules of Engagement (2000) is a military courtroom drama starring Samuel L. Jackson as Lieutenant Terry Childers, and Tommy Lee Jones as Lieutenant Hayes Hodges. It largely details the relationship between two men: Lieutenant Terry Childers (Jackson) and Lieutenant Hayes Hodges (Jones), during the court-martial of Childers for the murder of 83 foreign civilians outside of a US embassy in Yemen. It asks questions about soldier’s ethical responsibility during hostile engagements (sort of), and accountability in leadership when it comes to American soldiers on foreign soil.

Analysis:

The latter of the two themes—accountability—is more pervasive and especially evident in the film during a dinner scene in which Hodges is visiting his father, Gen. Hayes Lawrence Hodges (Philip Baker Hall), who says, “Even if you thought you weren’t responsible—it went wrong and you were there.” Purely for the contention of the movie, Childers and Hodges seem to be the only two who accept this idea as truth, whereas everybody else denies culpability in the war crime that took place.

The story behind Rules of Engagement is not a new one, and films of similar substance certainly had some impact on its arc and character development: A Few Good Men (1992) comes to mind. Rules of Engagement has an expectant ending, but I think what troubles me most about the film is that we don’t see definitive changes in the character, or any meaningful development in theme. “This movie is about accountability,” it says. “And at the end it is still about accountability (sort of).”

I suppose if a film offers something to the viewers in regards to this plot—a different take, an odd angle—I may be more interested in the story it has to tell. Samuel L. Jackson’s character commits a horrible atrocity in this film and yet he is vindicated at the end of the film, which should be unsettling, regardless of the clear picture of corruption in the legislature that the film is also trying to illustrate. I mean, we see him give the order to fire on civilians.

There was an annoying bit at the end, too, which involved a closing credit caption sequence as Samuel L. Jackson is strolling away from the court room, free of guilt. The words state that everyone who had lied and tried to cheat Jackson in the film was held up to high legal standards and convicted of some crime or were forced to leave their political position. I found this irritating because in a film that is asking questions about accountability, we suddenly understand that accountability is black and white, which simply isn’t true. The reason accountability is a problem in the United States is because it’s a difficult topic to parse, and assessing blame is a difficult action to pursue. Contrivance, I say.

I did enjoy watching Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones kick the shit out of each other in sloppy indoor fistfight; but, that kind of interesting storytelling and action is short-lived.

Both Jackson and Jones’ characters are carbon copy military characters as seen in myriad military dramas. Their superiors are the barking dogs walking in the shadows of George C. Scott’s Patton (1970), which makes the film a bit….blah. It has all been had and troubles an otherwise compelling (ish) narrative. Nevertheless, Guy Pearce really kills it in this film. During a scene in which he lays out the case to his legal team, he consistently displays his acting ability, strolling around the room, running the finer points through his head like a legal cheese grater. He has wit and is intellectually quick. The viewer understands that by watching him command the role he has been given. It’s good stuff in a film that is stacked full of cardboard simulacrums.

The film is shot in a very generic sense but it works to the advantage of the narrative. As I stated, the film isn’t doing anything new, so the filmmakers could only go in a few directions: either take a very general story and shoot it like a David Lynch film, or shoot it in a safe and practical way, which is what they did. The battle scenes look like battle scenes—the Vietnam flashbacks are so Vietnam-y it’s actually a little unsettling, as they look more like a satire of Vietnam than a historical recap. The courtroom scenes are straight out of JAG, so you can anticipate how the movie will play out before it unfolds. On the other hand, it’s a little comforting, but I think the viewer would want more. With such a violent introduction to the film, some more unnerving imagery might help the story of unlawful murder more gritty—more real.

On the score side of things, Rules of Engagement has a startling lack of music, and I believe what music exists is very stereotypical TAPS-style melody and rhythm, which is meant to evoke patriotic fervor from the audience, I suppose. I honestly wasn’t really wasn’t sure what the movie was getting at sonically. A subtle form of jingoism, maybe? Mark Isham provided this scarcity of score and seemingly committed to it intentionally, but it doesn’t work for the emotional weight of the film. Stark silence works for a thriller (sometimes) but for a dramatic court room drama—there has to be a bit more (typically)—especially if it the story is about a more controversial case. The audience may need to be keyed into what emotions they should be feeling.

I would recommend Rules of Engagement to viewers who enjoy war movies and courtroom dramas. I think there are a few interesting beats here and there—the fight scene between the embattled Jackson and Jones is one such moment—but it lacks something more that might push it out of the boundary of stereotypical drama. Of course, there are better ones, but if you are looking for a lazy, hangover Sunday film—this does the job.

Overall: 1 ½ stars (Writing 1/2 + Acting ½ + Sight 0 + Sound + Recommend ½)

Underrated 90s Horror Gems

It’s nearing Halloween so it’s high time to plop yourself down with a bowl of popcorn or candy and watch some scary movies, but as us horror connoisseurs know, scary movies come in all shapes and sizes, both good and bad. Thus, let’s look at a few underrated horror movies from the 90s that either don’t get much love or just get a bad rap.


Cube (1997)

I didn’t know what to expect the first time I watched Cube (1997) and was completely mortified when the realization of the protagonists’ impending doom set in to my adolescent mind (the body horror didn’t help either). Cube pits a group of unsuspecting individuals against a giant military-constructed contraption that exists, because, well—it just does. I think the franchise reveals what the cube is all about later in the series, but the mystery of it in the opener is damn intriguing. Additionally, there are some seriously gory death scenes in Cube that, while horrifying, are also creative and expertly executed.

Jason Goes to Hell (1993)

There is a lot of hate for this film, it seems…but I love it! Full disclosure: I’m not a huge Friday the 13th series fan, but I have seen all of the films (self-imposed viewing), so I can rightfully argue that they are just not my thing—except for Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993). To that end, here are my reasons for liking the detestable beast of an installment:

First, it gets rid of Jason Voorhees, who is a tall, lumbering and dull character who should have stayed dead after Tommy Jarvis (Corey Feldman) hit him in the head with a machete in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984) (at least the franchise could have gone in a different direction, like with more copycat Jasons or something). Let’s face it, those movies get pretty boring because the viewer knows what to expect, and when the audience becomes all-knowing, omnipotent observers, the films stop being exciting. And, really, considering the myriad flaws throughout each installment, shouldn’t these movies just be fun and not overly plodding?

Second, Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday creates a slimy worm-like character who slithers around and takes control of people by entering their bodies (ewww). I love this angle on the film, because it’s new and inventive rather than predictable and lame. Really, ole slimy boi could be a slasher villain with his own franchise. It could be like The Exorcist or The Evil Dead, except the villain is everyone around the protagonist and not just a hulking jackass with a garden tool, who slips, trips (but has an absence of quips) because he has an insatiable lust for murder.

Slimy Boi
What could be the the poster for the first “Slimy Boi” in the series. 

Lastly, there is also a cool bounty hunter named Creighton Duke that actively tries to stop Jason and doesn’t run around screaming for 90 minutes. Moreover, there are some epic-level death scenes that I still marvel at to this day, and they use the Necronomicon in the film, which is alongside a million obvious horror movie references that the creators nod at throughout the film. I suppose so many movie references can be worthy of an eye-roll, but I actually appreciated them due to the slasher-niche genre of the film.

Tales from the Darkside (1990)

I love a good horror anthology, and I think Tales from the Darkside (1990) really does the trick for me in regards to presenting good stories, good gore, and good atmosphere. Director John Harrison does an excellent job with the material as he seems to know what Tales from the Darkside is all about, and that makes all the difference. I like to imagine a modern take on Creepshow (1982), which would no doubt have a million “jump scares” and good-looking actors and actresses to appeal to casual horror fans who don’t give a damn about the source material (and probably rightfully so because not everybody loves horror movies like us junkies).

The cast is really great. Steve Buscemi as a vengeful graduate student who reanimates a mummy is perfect, David Hickey as a wheelchair bound millionaire who fears retribution from a murderous cat is…well…he plays David Hickey and that works wonders, and James Remar as a gloomy artist who has sworn an oath to a gargoyle to never speak of having seen it in action is also a joy to watch.

This is a more than excellent anthology of horror very much in the vein of The Vault of Horror (1973) or Tales from the Crypt (1972), so it’s worth checking out if you are a fan of violent little vignettes,

Night of the Living Dead (remake) (1990)

I just watched Night of the Living Dead (1990) within the last few years and didn’t like it as much as I remember, but that just means it is high-time to watch it again.

It has a lot going for it as a movie: Tom Savini directs, it stars Tony Todd (Candyman [1992]), and features hordes of cannibal zombies at every turn. It at least has all the qualities of a good horror movie. Except that it takes shlock and camp and jacks it up to 11, and then features a repetitive castle defense-style game plot that sees the cast attempting to nail all of the windows and doors closed again and again.

But, I wanted to highlight this movie for a reason: when I was a kid, my brothers and I would play a game that we created called “Zombies,” which saw some of us playing as the hordes of the undead and some us as the survivors (or we would all be survivors and just pretend there were zombies), and the point of the game was to keep the zombies out of our home (one of our bedrooms). We would spend much of the game fake nailing the doors and windows shut against an ocean of imagined monsters and also pretend to be nearly bit as we boarded ourselves from the outside. As I was watching Night of the Living Dead, I suddenly realized that we had harvested much of that game from the movie itself, which is awesome for a kid’s game, but not awesome for a movie, because it’s repetitive and boring.

Still, I kind of like it for nostalgia alone, so…oh well!


Whelp, that’s my list of 90s gems, and while this list accentuates my taste in horror films, the 90s is filled with all sorts of strange and curious flicks for viewers of all stripes. Consider the campier Wishmaster (1997), Leprechaun (1993), and Hocus Pocus (1993), versus the revolutionary found-footage film The Blair Witch Project (1999). In the span of ten years, horror movies went bat-shit insane with bipolar depictions of the terrifying and the macabre.

So, what are your favorite horror movies from the 90s? Leave a comment and let me know what you think!

 

“Dark Was the Night” uses atmosphere but reveals too much budget in the light

Released: Oct. 16, 2014

Title: Dark Was the Night

Director: Jack Heller

Starring: Kevin Durand, Lukas Haas, Bianca Kajlich


Synopsis

A small-town sheriff (Kevin Durand), who is struggling with grief due to the loss of one of his sons, comes face-to-face with a monster that has been exacting its revenge on the local populace for desecrating its habitat.

Analysis

Dark Was the Night begins promisingly enough. It has the slow-burn quality of a tense horror thriller without using “jump scares” to try and excite the audience. However, the filmmaker forgot to add moments of excitement and resolve to create an engaging narrative.

By the time the climax hit, I was standing in front of the television waiting for it to be over, which is not the quality of a good film.

Kevin Durand turns in a good performance as a depressed father who has lost all emotional attachment after the abduction of his son. The long-windedness of the writing makes his character arch tiresome, though, and the viewer is exhausted from Durand’s depressed state by the end of the film.

Bianca Kajlich plays Durand’s estranged wife, who lives with her mother—unable to deal with the loss of her son. There is a lack of chemistry between both her and Durand, and their relationship feels like it is “going through the motions.” This is made abundantly clear through the writing, but their lack of attachment to one another seals the deal.

Lukas Haas provides some enjoyment as Durand’s rather detached partner. While he also shares many of Durand’s qualities in the film, he brings a sort of escalated expression to his role, which makes him enjoyable to watch—mores so than the lead of the film.

The first half of Dark Was the Night has interesting visual qualities. The screen is literally cast in blue to give a cold, distant winter-vibe, which I thought achieved its purpose. This cinema trickery wears off by the end of the second act as the film steers into generic territory.

Furthermore, the evil monster, which may or may not be a “Windiga” (sic) is revealed to be a giant malformed CGI creation. The entire film is a build up to the reveal of this creature—and it looks horrible. I wanted to give the movie a half-star in this category but really felt as though the monster ruined it. They should not have revealed it at all, because they could not pull it off as the build up set too much expectation.

As far as the music goes, I will keep this brief. There was nothing memorable in the score. The monster’s cries were monster screams that could have been royalty-free sounds from a horror website. And, there are moments where the audio is difficult to hear because Durand’s voice is both deep and low, which is fine, but they do nothing to elevate it in the mix, so it gets lost in a void of silence.

I would not recommend Dark Was the Night for the reasons previously mentioned. It is a long build to ultimately reveal something that could not be filmed. The setting was interesting (I love cold, snowy environments), but the characters were forgettable, and the CGI was not executed well at all. It’s kind of disappointing since I enjoyed the first half of the film.

Overall Rating: 1 star (writing ½ + acting ½ + sight 0 + sound 0 + recommend 0)

Film Festival a slice of delight for local horror fans and creators

I attended the Slice of Fright Film Festival with my mum in Bay City, MI on Saturday, Oct. 12. The festival showcased 32 international and national short films and micro-films from the horror genre.

Typically, I go to movie-outings with low expectations (this is done intentionally—not out of malice or snobbish contempt), because I’m a popcorn junkie and it gives me a reason to drink non-diet soda, which I otherwise avoid. If the outing features these offerings, then I can safely say it was a great experience without having to use the festival films as a critic’s egregious crutch.

The Slice of Fright Film Festival offered both popcorn and soda, and some really great mini-flicks to boot.

IMG_1285
I went with my dear mum, and at one point I asked her to buy me a sticker (because they only took cash, and I only had a card). My mom turned to me and said, “You’re eating into your popcorn money!” As a 30-year-old man who looks twelve, I probably should have felt more ashamed, because we were in a room full of people, but deep down I knew she was right.

As highlighted by the official selections, the short films were both national and international (and Michigan-made films as well), including Canada, France, Ireland, and Germany. The wide range of diverse voices provided interesting takes on atypical stories, so there were lots of little surprises throughout the evening.

Some of the film highlights:

  • Hypnosis: This French short by Director Grégoire Vaillant kicked off the film festival and had a great deal of depth. By analyzing viewer expectations as moviegoers, the short was able to play with horror movie clichés in an original way. The sound design in Hypnosis helped convey the fear, dread, and revelatory moments throughout its evenly-paced story. This was one of my two votes for the “Viewer’s Choice” category.
  • The Animator: I’ve loved clay animation since the first time I watched Rank/Bass’s Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer (1964) and Santa Clause is Coming to Town (1970). South Carolina Director Trent Shy’s The Animator does not disappoint either, as it explores the notion of the creator and the creation…and the masochism that sometimes occurs when one is literally shaping the world of their creations with their own hands.
  • Grave Sight: One common factor throughout the festival was the level of humor that the creators employed in their films. Of all the films, I think Grave Site by Canadian Director Angus Swantee executed this skill with the most expertise. Grave Site tells the tale of a husband and wife who are digging up a witch’s grave to steal her rings, and hilarity ensues (there’s eye-popping, monsters, and some really fun sight gags). Grave Site was my second and final choice for the “Viewer’s Choice” category.
  • Verso: Verso was just damn cool. Michigan Director Joseph Victor proves that reverse linearity in narrative can be just as effective as telling one’s story front-to-back. The short works in reverse to tell the story of a man’s transformation into a zombie-like monster. The slow reveals through the literal reversal of film is both a neat execution strategy and it’s an engaging way to inform the viewer of plot detail.
  • Death Cleaners: This short by Director Cynthia Bergen uses the macabre profession of crime scene technician as a lens to tell a ghost story. I am highlighting it here because I think it tells a fairly conventional tale replete with “jump scares” but manages to use both a competent and unique voice to tell its story.

Overall, the 2nd Annual Slice of Fright Film Festival was a fun event that had a lot to offer in showcasing unique voices in horror and short films. I’m already looking forward to next year.

Halloween H20: 20 Years Later is the second-best film in the franchise

Details

  • Director: Steve Miner
  • Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Adam Arkin, Janet Leigh, Josh Hartnett, LL Cool J, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (as hockey-skate face).
  • Writer(s): Robert Zappia and Kevin Williamson (uncredited)

An Argument for Halloween H20: 20 Years Later

The Halloween franchise is a complete mess. Ever since Michael Myers first (Laurie) strode onto the screen, audiences have had an interest in seeing more of the Shatner-faced antagonist in their film diet (and I do say interest because I feel as though most of the hype surrounding these franchises are literally manufactured by studios to continue the acquisition of wealth via franchise pillaging).

The first film in the franchise, Halloween (1978) is a masterpiece of genre filmmaking, but certainly not the first, as its predecessor, Black Christmas (1974), is an insanely underrated slasher film. Nevertheless, it still sets the tone for horror movies today and pushed the genre into the general public’s canon of interests. Hopefully, it will have a lasting impression on indie-horror for generations to come (hopefully).

Yet, the films that follow the original get a little weird and mundane. Halloween II (1981) is a rehash of the first movie…and it is just not a good film. Donald Pleasence running around to the passenger side of a police car in the beginning of the film while screaming, “I shot him six times! I shot him in the heart! I shot him six times! This guy…he’s not human!” is both disappointing for expository purposes, and it’s disappointing to watch someone try to act those lines…even if it’s Donald Pleasence.

You can watch it on YouTube here.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) is clunky and a little random (I do love it though, but it really should be its own thing), even though it oozes atmosphere and a batshit-insane plot.  Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988), Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989), and Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995) all demonstrate how a horror movie franchise can degrade into the banality of a slasher orgy that rivals the likes of the later Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th films. The film series also gets into Druid curses as a plot point, which is weird, but it may be the only thing I appreciate about that trio of films because at least it’s innovative.

Halloween: H20 (1998), however, does everything the original Halloween did in regards to atmosphere and horror, and builds upon fear and tension without using an abundance of jump scares and gore. Case in point, the scene in which Michael steals a car while a mother and daughter try to use a bathroom at a rest stop perfectly represents what made the original Halloween scary, and I am prepared to use a comparative analysis to make my point:

At the beginning of Halloween, a nurse is literally scared out of her car because Michael Myers is on the top of the vehicle trying his damnedest to get inside. He batters the roof and the windows, and finally—in a frightful mess—the nurse lunges from the car and Michael climbs through a broken window, peeling off into the night behind the wheel. He doesn’t follow her, he doesn’t stalk her for an hour through the woods until he kills her. In fact, you barely even see him and later in the movie, when his motivations become clear, you understand that he just wanted to get the hell out of there to go kill the rest of his family.

In a similar fashion, in Halloween H20, Michael waits at a rest stop until suitable victims arrive (in this case a mother and daughter), and, in a scene that is as about as tense as they get, Michael enters the bathroom and takes the mother’s keys from her purse while she is tearfully hiding behind a restroom stall door. He doesn’t kill her, nor does he kill the daughter. He just steals the keys and hits the road on his quest for revenge against Laurie Strode. It speaks volumes of his character, his motivations, and moves the plot along in a rational way while still employing tension and a very real and menacing threat.

In contrast, in the latest iteration of Halloween, Michael murders a pair of podcasting partners in a bathroom…because, according to the film, Michael is a single-minded murderer who has no ability to rationalize when and who he should be killing. Likewise, in Rob Zombie’s less-than-enthusiastic (or overzealous? I don’t know) remake, Michael kills a rather large truck driver because he needs his jumpsuit…because viewers want to see him back in his old duds? I’m actually not sure.

What I’m getting at is that there is an essential lack of subtlety in literally every iteration of Halloween outside of the original movie and Halloween H20. To further this point, in H20 we also get to see Laurie (played by Jamie Lee Curtis) dealing with PTSD from having her life completely unhinged by her psychotic brother (something I liked in the newest film); and, while it might seem like a bummer that LL Cool J is in Halloween H20, he at no point kicks Michael Myers in the chest and screams, “Trick or Treat, Motherfucker!” He’s just in the film playing a character; and, he actually does a pretty good job at it, because, you know what? Not only do I really love Halloween H20, but I’m also a believer in LL Cool J’s acting capabilities.

So take that, internet nerds!

Halloween H20 is also more than competently written. The writers do a fantastic job conveying Josh Hartnett’s rebelliousness and Laurie’s concern over the safety of her son, while also handling the delicacy of her character with tenderness and strength. She is a strong person, but anybody confronted with the deaths of their friends and family in such a gruesome way have to put up walls to get through the trauma. Nevertheless, she stands up to Michael and beats him down with a fire extinguisher (and eventually lops off his head, thus proving fratricide is sometimes okay).

I also really enjoy the visuals. The director Steve Miner and cinematographer Daryn Okada make use of the giant, empty Hillcrest Academy as a sort of killing ground for Michael. And, the lack of emphasis on gore makes the film more worthwhile because, like the original, you are not focused on explosions of violence to sustain a slowly-paced script. Instead, the atmosphere, storytelling, and character development help the viewer interpret the action and the dynamics of the film itself.

As far as what doesn’t work: the title Halloween H20: 20 Years Later is redundant.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on Halloween H20, but I am also curious about your own favorite underrated horror films. What are some of your favorites from the 90s? And, if you don’t think the 90s was a good time for horror, then tell me why!

11. Village of the Damned (1960+1995) Movie Review (Podcast Episode!)

The two versions of The Village of the Damned (1960+1995) have their moments—both good and bad (alien babies? communism? Luke Skywalker?)—so this week, hosts Josh and Will sit down to talk about which moments elevated each film to space (because aliens), and which moments…well, crash landed on Earth?

Join us for this week’s episode and don’t forget to Like and Subscribe to catch future episodes!

“Quigley Down Under” excites but doesn’t live up to its epic aspirations

Details

  • Director: Simon Wincer
  • Writer(s): John Hill
  • Starring: Tom Selleck, Laura San Giacomo, Alan Rickman
  • Released: Oct. 17, 1990

Synopsis

The film centers on Quigley, who travels to Australia after being hired by Marston to shoot Aborigines—a fact that Quigley did not know upon accepting Marston’s invitation. This leads to a conflict between the two characters and a series of battles ensue between Quigley, Marston, and his cohorts.

Review

Quigley Down Under (1990) has the draw (rifle?) of what might be a good western for its time, but it falls short of being an exceptional film by erroneously wasting the viewer’s time with a lack of depth in the setting and frivolous villainy.

Quigley (Selleck) himself is a one-dimensional character, but Tom Selleck (the would-be Indiana Jones) brings the character to life due to his natural charisma, wit, and charm. Also, a welcome change to the stereotypical western genre—one that was more spaghetti than gritty for a such a long time—is that of Quigley’s gun: a rifle that allows him to hit targets at great distances (a fantastical weapon, perhaps even silly, but a welcome change nonetheless). It provides explosive action any time Quigley pulls the trigger, which often offsets some of the boredom brought on by the film’s poor attempt at character development and plotting.

Laura San Giacomo plays Crazy Cora, who follows Quigley around during his adventure in the Australian Outback—seemingly against her will for the most part. She wonderfully acts the part, and sells the Gremlins-esque backstory scene with command, as she bounces between talking about her road-worn dress and how she smothered her own child to save herself from pillaging Indians. This inciting incident literally drives her (by her husband) to exile in Australia. Of course, late in the film, she has to relive this torturous experience while hiding from carnivorous wolves in a cave.

Alan Rickman plays Elliot Marston, who is truly evil because he needs to be evil, and Quigley punches him in the face for that—twice. Rickman is so exaggerated in the role of Marston that one can almost imagine him threatening to cut out Quigley’s heart, “with a spoon,” circa Robin Hood (1991). Yet, Rickman fails to be even half as charming as his diabolical doppelganger from Sherwood Forest, which is a bummer because The Sheriff of Nottingham is a silly/fun character and Rickman is an extraordinary actor. Regardless, Quigley shoots Marston with a pistol in a final, engaging standoff where it is revealed that Quigley is not only good with a rifle but he is also a quick draw with his pistol. Ultimately, this hammers home Quigley’s point (or pistols home his point?):  don’t mess with the best … or with Quigley … or whatever. Wait, did he have a point? At the very end of the film, Quigley is standing in a corral that is littered with bodies, he is a million miles from his house in Montana, and he just spent a week romancing an insane woman who smothered her kid some years ago, and all I could think was: “Why are you still there? Go home already! Just go home.”

Quigley (2)

Visually, the movie looks good in ordinary shots and camera angles, but some of the more glaring issues can be attributed to its use (or lack thereof) of setting: the location is the sprawling outback of Australia—and it was filmed on locations there—but this fact is not exploited very well. One would think that if it was filmed at a specific location, then perhaps utilizing it would be paramount. In other words, if you are filming a movie about a cabin in the woods, one should maybe use the trees around the cabin, or the streams, or the rocks, or the nature (not unless it’s one of those damn arthouse films—then to hell with you!).

The sweeping shots of Australia could have been easily replaced with sweeping shots of Utah or Arizona (circa Outlaw Josey Wales) or any other ambiguous western scenario from any film (take yer pick). With such a concoction, there is bound to be a bunch of cool stuff you can do with the characters, villains, and extras. Alas, the depth of setting is overlooked by the film creators, who pursue a story about a man with a modified rifle—and the result is a mundane traipse through the backyard of someone’s ranch out west.

Moreover, I could not understand the use of music in this film. It navigates its way through sci-fi, John Carpenter-level symphonic explorations, to the typical cowboy guitar strumming that a viewer might expect from the genre. The musical styles don’t mesh well and I was left confused as to how I should feel emotionally during many scenes. Take for instance: space music harvested from an obscure, futuristic alien movie from the 80s is a little strange when showing enormous panoramic shots of what is supposed to be a lawless continent set in the 1860s.

Nevertheless, Quigley benefits from a strong cast (even Alan Rickman is a little entertaining in a less-than-riveting role) and from some fine visuals as well. Oh, and even though I’ve never fired a gun in my life, Quigley’s rifle is a neat addition.

Overall: 2/5 stars (writing 1/2+acting 1/2+ sight 1/2+ sound 0+recommend 1/2)

10. Black Belt (1992) Movie Review (Podcast Episode!)

It’s been a hot minute but The Vintage Talk Bag is back! This week, Josh and his brother William review an early 90’s film that has all of the charm of its lead (which is not much)!

Black Belt (1992) aspires to be a kung fu action flick but lacks both kung fu and action. It also has some disturbing familial implications (ewww). So join us for this week’s episode as we discuss a protagonist who lacks charisma, a villain who loves lady fingers (not the cookie), and another villain who replaces acting with eating (and he’s not just chewing the scenery)!

 

Futility and Nuclear Annihilation in “Beneath the Planet of the Apes”

The follow-up to the legendary classic Planet of the Apes (1968) is a strange one, which I think is fair to say, but it’s also far more speculative than the first in the series and deserves a little more credit for its theme and ambition.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) picks up where the original left off, and features a second astronaut (James Franciscus) landing on the monkey planet in search of Taylor (Charlton Heston).

After stumbling upon a series of clues and realizing that he is in fact not on a different planet but on Earth and in its own post-apocalyptic future, Brent discovers a group of humans who have survived the war with the apes living deep beneath the planet’s surface. As a society of telepathic remnants who revere a massive “Doomsday Bomb,” the mutant humans decide that the inevitable ape invasion of the “Forbidden Zone” must result in the triggering of the bomb itself. It is up to Taylor and Brent to stop them from setting off the weapon to prevent the destruction of the planet.

Clearly, Beneath the Planet of the Apes was inspired by the nuclear tensions relevant the decade preceding the production of the film and the concerns for what the future held in such a hostile environment. Was it possible that every living thing on the planet could be wiped out by mutually assured destruction? It was undoubtedly on everyone’s mind during the era the film was made.

What the film does well, and what its predecessor accomplished, too, is play off the xenophobic fears of the warring factions involved in the film’s plot—especially the apes—but it also employs the real-world tensions of foreign policy that had Americans on edge from the Nuclear Age onward, partially because the idea of “diplomacy” to the common citizen is either alien or seems an easy task to execute without realizing that money and power needlessly convolute even the most minute aspects of policy in the political realm.

I should say that the human characters—other than Taylor and Brent—have a similar cynical sheen over their characterization, which is to say that human rationale, over ape rationale, doesn’t leave the film unscathed. The telepathic, underground-dwelling humanoids are clearly encumbered by their own fears of annihilation; so much so, that they would rather destroy the planet than let it fall into the hands of a few damn, dirty apes. The irony is all too real.

And, spoiler alert, that’s exactly what happens in a bafflingly genius move on the film’s part: the two main protagonists are killed and the world is destroyed by the “Doomsday Bomb” in the climactic throes of a monkey frenzy. It’s bleak but it speaks to the futility of the time, or at least the feelings of futility in the hearts of every American strolling the streets of what could be a suburban nuclear holocaust if the prevailing attitudes reached a fever pitch.

Of course, there is also a recurring theme in the “Planet of the Apes” series of racism (or in this case ‘speciesism’) that resonates in the Trump-era, but one that was surely apparent when Obama was president, and when this film was made in the 1970s.

Unquestionably, Dr. Zaius’s outburst toward Taylor at the end of the film is a reflection of this: “You ask me to help you?! Man is evil! Capable of nothing but destruction!” That sentiment can be taken as an all-encompassing look at Man itself and its countless fractured relationships within its own race; after all, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated only a few short years earlier and the tumult of race relations is still an ongoing issue even through basic public services such as housing and policing. In response to Dr. Zaius, Taylor’s final expression of hatred toward the apes is just as fitting: he exclaims, “You….bloody….bastard,” and falls forward, triggering the “Doomsday Bomb,” killing everyone and himself.

It’s very Charlton Heston-y.

What I think the film is trying to tell us in so many words is: “If we don’t buck up and knock off the schoolyard antics—we are all going to die,” and I think this gives the film a “timelessness” in a way. Not in the “Forest Gump” or “Shawshank Redemption” timeless sort of way, but in the “2001” or “Blade Runner” sort of timelessness.

With that being said, the film certainly has its problems—lack of concision, cheap effects, some rambling plot ideas—but it’s a pretty solid exploration of a very dark real-world theme and one that definitely rests somewhere near the heart of political science—futile political motivation. We definitely see this theme in US foreign policy (“us” over “them”), in other country’s treatment of their civilians (the use of violence and coercion), and in the capitalist paradigm rampant in emerging global markets (profit over human life).

That is to say, there is a lot going on in this film that is both prescient and appropriate, from the themes to the story, which makes it all the more engaging, and, frankly—that ending is pretty dang cool because it’s legitimately “shit or get off the pot,” and, boy, the filmmakers went for it.

I will end this post with the closing narration of the film, just after the planet explodes in nuclear annihilation, which I think is more than appropriate:

“In one of the countless billions of galaxies in the universe lies a medium-sized star. And one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet, is now dead.”