Saturday, July 26, 2014

I saw Hercules (once more, in new form)

When I reviewed the Renny Harlin/Kellan Lutz "Legend of Hercules" in Jan '14, I honestly didn't give a hoot if the critics (or even the general public) fancied it. I just wanted to see a new sword-and-sandal flick and basically got what I expected. This has also been my attitude toward Brett "X-Men: Last Stand" Ratner's take on the hero, and history has essentially repeated itself (surprise, surprise, the critic's ain't kind), though the Ratner film is considerably larger and more special-effects laden than the Harlin effort. 

This new entry, simply called "Hercules", is based on the late Steve Moore's acclaimed comic, "Hercules: the Thracian Wars" (adapted for the screen by Ryan J. Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos) and enlists the expressive Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson as the "Son of Zeus". In this particular retelling, classic mythology seamlessly blends with modern, cinematic sensibilities. In this regard, though the film is relegated to ancient Greece, its underlying vibe is often contemporary, particularly when enhanced by its streamlined, CGI'd trimmings and use of the vernacular.

The story initially focuses on samples of Herc's twelve labors: an enduring part of the legend, even if such generally gets bypassed on screen (the Luigi Cozzie/Lou Ferrigno version perhaps being the most meticulous in catering to it). At any rate, in the event one had any doubt of his formidable stature, these fleeting excursions (though seemingly implied exaggerations) quickly establish Herc's renowned, physical attributes.

The story then picks up years later, with a more cynical Herc, who though typically affable, is haunted by the mysterious deaths of his wife and sons (a disturbing plot element which stems from his actual origins). He also sustains himself as a mercenary, hired ultimately by the Thracian King Cotys (John Hurt), through his enchanting daughter, Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson), to ward off an enigmatic tyrant, Rhesus (Tobias Santlemann), who some claim is a centaur with the ability to recruit men via mental means.

Though one might still assume the task an effortless one for our muscular hero, Rhesus' foreboding image alone makes the task a threatening gamble. Thankfully, with a little help from his intrepid friends, including the intuitive Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), Herc tenaciously meets the challenge head on, while attempting to rekindle the unswerving honor he once exuded before his family's demise. 

Johnson is naturally impressive in the towering lead: a capable thespian, having accomplished great variance in his characterizations, from family adventures ("Journey 2: Mysterious Island") to action thrills ("The Scorpion King"). Perhaps the latter is where he best excels, and on that basis, this tale suits him well.

On the essential character-actor side, Hurt and McShane both shine (which should go without saying): their combined presence bringing an air of sophistication to the production, justly capping Herc's brawls with beasts (the three-headed Cerberus, a lightning-fast hydra, a mammoth lion and boar, but are they spectral or real?), plus a slew of relentlessly fierce, though inevitably outmatched human contenders. 

On the beauty side, Ferguson remains perpetually pleasant, as does Herc's amazon companion, Atalanta (Ingrid Bolso Berdal): neither of whom ever becomes an amorous hindrance. In contrast, the film is populated by many ugly and rough-edged types, who add just the right dash of menace to the proceedings. 

Like the graphic novel upon which it's based, this retelling is unique compared to most Herc incarnations: his lion headgear being the most visual distinction. Also, there is a question as to whether Herc is just an amazingly strong guy or in fact, the demi-god most perceive him to be. The film also twists matters in distinguishing who is good and bad, and it's up to Herc and his friends to come to terms with such, relying on their faith and convictions to do so.

On this basis, Ratner's movie shouldn't be compared to the recent Harlin/Lutz version, or for that matter, the Steve Reeves and Reg Park classics, let alone Sam Raimi/Kevin Sorbo's "Legendary Journeys". This one, at best and most, is a homage to them all and yet radically deviates from them, propping a humanistic view over the supernatural.

Do yourself a favor and just go with the flow with this one. The film certainly has all the required ingredients for sure-fire fun: a larger-than-life champion, magnificently choreographed battle scenes, offbeat characterizations and eye-popping creatures. If you have an opportunity to view it (and you're not inclined to side with high-brow pretentiousness), you're likely find both your time and money well spent. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

An Alternate Reality #2: I saw the Apes at Dawn...

By its very nature, "Planet of the Apes" has always offered parallel possibilities to our own known reality and even from out its own initial five-movie mythology. 

When Cornelius and Zira (along with the tragic Milo) traveled back in time, their offspring (ultimately to adopt the name Caesar) rose to power in the alternate '90s, the implication was that he'd not only plant the seeds of ape dominance, but was possibly altering events to create a future unlike what we see in the '68 classic. The original series' "final chapter", "Battle for..." certainly insinuates this notion, and the acclaimed, but short-lived '74 television series further solidifies the idea (along with an animated counterpart which premiered roughly a year later).

Tim Burton's 2001 reboot also offers an alternate origin, but it was 2011's "Rise of..." (a loose retelling of the fourth film, "Conquest of...") that carried the concept through a steadier course. Now a sequel to that venture, "Dawn of..." has emerged, further enhancing the alternate track of possibilities. 

Directed by Matt ("Let Me In") Reeves, "Dawn" is in many respects derivative of "Battle", with apes and humans facing off to determine who will reign supreme. "Battle", however, deals with burgeoning human mutants (forerunners to those seen in "Beneath") and ultimately, calculated, militaristic maneuvers. "Dawn" is far more subtle, playing upon a genetic fluke (as outlined in "Rise") which has perpetuated the species divide, and despite valiant efforts from both sides, the situation nonetheless results in "Fort Apache" type bloodshed. 

Andy Serkis again portrays Roddy McDowall's legendary Caesar, and just as McDowall's version led a major simian mount in "Battle", so does Serkis', though from a slightly different vantage. Also, in "Dawn'"s case, the apes are considerably less evolved than those in the original movies, and in computerized form, often realistically bestial. Nevertheless, like their earlier incarnations, they are capable of keen thought, riding horses, and of course, speech.

That apes and humans can readily communicate naturally leads to interaction, but not all humans are inclined to believe that apes can reason. Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) sees them as a threat if crossed: his character subtly reminiscent of "Conquest/Battle'"s Governor Kolp (Severn Darden) and "Escape'"s Dr. Hasslein (Eric Braeden). In other respects, he's essentially a good man, whose stance is really forced upon him, for he can't help but sense the inevitability of ape control.

On the other hand, humans like Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Ellie (Keri Russell) fully subscribe to species coexistence (and see no viable way around such if they want to access electricity for their camp), but how can they initiate a peaceful outcome when certain apes not only mirror, but accentuate Dreyfus' view? Caesar's "general", Koba (Toby Kebbell), for example, has no empathy for humans, due to the scientific torture they forced upon him and from this, becomes a chimpanzee counterpart to Claude Akins' Aldo ("Battle'"s most abrasive gorilla), and therefore, more friend than foe to Caesar.

Beyond this mounting friction, much of "Dawn" concentrates on Caesar's compassion for humans and his need to nurture his spouse, (Judy Greer), son (Nick Thurston) and cutely CGI'd newborn. He also furthers his position as leader by reinforcing bonds among trusted friends, such as the faithful orangutan, Maurice (Karin Konoval): an equivalent to Paul Williams' Virgil from "Battle". Such relationships let Serkis mold Caesar into a well rounded character, arguably on a par with McDowall's complex interpretation. 

Like its predecessors (or as evidenced in some of the finest "Alien Nation", "Star Trek" and "Twilight Zone" efforts), "Dawn'"s script (by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffe and Amanda Silver) ripples of sociology and loads of irony. It doesn't parallel our existing society in the way the '68 film so deftly did in its time frame (due mainly to Rod Serling's insightful take on Pierre Boulle's text), but still manages to make us ponder our own current state of affairs and the ultimate shape of things to come. It also simultaneously suggests how we might interact with others on a global scale (an easier-said-than-done prospect), but also how we might survive within our more immediate confines (an admirable start, at the very least). 

"Dawn", however, unlike "Battle", doesn't insinuate a harmonious horizon, but at least implies a continuation of concern. For those of us who've followed the original series and its various offshoots over the decades, nothing could be more provocatively finer. Like that which has come before, let the alternate variations morph, circle, overlap and perpetually stimulate. That's the wonder of "Planet of the Apes", and it's most reassuring to know there are filmmakers yet bold enough to perpetuate the tradition. 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Time Travel Time #6: Timecrimes

"Timecrimes" ("Los Cronocrimenes") is a 2007, Spanish science-fiction film, written/directed by Nacho Vigalondo, who's also one of the leads. In many respects, it's a subtle time-travel excursion, devoid of Eloi or Morlocks, super-charged cars or warping tunnels, but that doesn't make it any less intriguing. Despite its humble confines, "Timecrimes" remains a surprising, event-looping sojourn. 

The story starts innocently enough, with an average joe named Hector (Karra Elejalde) unable to nap. As a result, he fiddles with his binoculars and gazes into the nearby woods, only to catch (of all alluring sights), a slender brunette (Barbara Goenaga) undressing. When she moves from sight, he feels compelled to track her and upon locating her, finds her dead, mysteriously propped against a rock. 

As he inspects the scene, a bandaged headed man scissors him in the arm, causing Hector to flee and inadvertently come upon a neighboring house, where a walkie-talkie conveniently awaits. The device allows him to communicate with a man who hesitatingly agrees to help, leading Hector to apparent safety inside a station behind the house and the baffled voice's bearer: a young scientist (Vigalondo), who just happens to have access to a most peculiar, cylindrical machine, distinguished by two halves: the bottom filled with liquid.

The scientist assures Hector that the pursuing madman won't find him if he hides inside the structure, and so the frantic Hector consents. The top portion closes in, submerging him in the liquid, but when it opens, Hector discovers he's miraculously arrived hours prior to the frantic events he just experienced.

The scientist, now relegated to the past, expresses ignorance of what has played out, but when he accompanies Hector back to his home and sees the earlier version of Hector conversing with his wife (Candela Fernandez), he insists on helping to set things right. This leads to a series of further experiments, consequently generating several Hectors (logically identified as Hector 1, 2 and 3) and a startling revelation regarding both the swathed man and the murdered lady.

The "crimes" of which the title refers are the constant, looping foibles that spring from Hector's jaunts, with one version eventually trying to beguile the other in an attempt to reinstate normalcy. There's also the question of the scientist's intent: is he honestly helping Hector or is he instead a catalyst of trickery?

Though the events of "Timecrimes" don't necessarily appear world-altering (as those in "Planet of the Apes" or "Terminator"), Hector's collective dilemma still spawns reverberating results: his attempts to make sense of the overlapping mess always mounting the tension. How will he, in his various guises, remedy the matter, when each attempt only seems to spring more problems?

On the down side, "Timecrimes" is blatantly sparse of succinct explanations (why the time machine is stationed unguarded so close to Hector's home and the precise purpose of its strange, liquid content are never explained), but Vigalondo's character-fueled formula (whether viewed subtitled or dubbed) rises above such ambiguity. Inevitably, you'll empathize with Hector and the scientist, and because this journey is essentially human-based, it's quite easy to believe and engage in the confounding shenanigans. Indeed, on the visual level, "Timecrimes" may be small-scale, but when it comes to stimulating the senses, it's pure CinemaScope. . 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

A Nod to Dreadful Pennies

"Penny Dreadful" is a Showtime produced saga still in progress, with its first season just concluded and a second on the cusp. As many are aware, it blends the legends of Dorian Gray, Dracula, Frankenstein, Jack the Ripper, seasoned by ancient Egyptian mysticism: all neatly packaged within a Gothic soap-opera format (yes, rather like "Dark Shadows", though in this instance, thoroughly confined to the nineteenth century and much like "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen", but grimmer). It also has a Hammer atmospheric flair to it: perhaps the closest fans will ever come to the studio's allegedly proposed crossover, "Edge of Midnight".

Distinguishing the formula is a stellar cast, several of whom are imagi-movie veterans: Timothy Dalton (Malcolm Murray), David Warner (Abraham Van Helsing), Olivia Llewllyn (Mina Harker), Reeve Carney (Dorian Gray), Harry Treadaway (Victor Frankenstein), Rory Kinnear (the Frankenstein Monster), Eva Green (Venessa Ives), Josh Hartnett (Ethan Chandler), et al. 

The interactions and scenarios are still young, yet developing (and as such, it strikes me wrong to dare delve into their burgeoning possibilities and outcomes. All the same, this one certainly seems worth watching. Most likely its cast will grow, as will its characters. Who knows? Maybe somewhere down the line, we'll see the likes of Jekyll/Hyde, the Invisible Man and/or a variation of the Mummy? Well, we can only patiently hope, wait and watch.

On the more segmented (but no less engaging side) side, "The Penny Dreadful Picture Show"is a 2013 anthology film hosted by a living-dead girl named (you guessed it) Penny Dreadful. She's portrayed by horror staple, Eliza Swenson, who also shares directorial and writing credit (along with Leigh Scott and Nick Everhart). 

As with other such anthologies, this one sports a warped (though in this instance, somewhat quasi) wraparound, featuring a fiendish jack-in-the-box, with its primary stories connected by decade separations: the first being a '60s based Jess Franco-styled, seduction saga (incidentally, Swenson's directorial effort) and the second, a '70s "House of a Thousand Corpses" tribute (with Sig Haig and Jeffery Combs in supporting roles, no less). The '80s homage is isolated as a menu extra: an odd choice since this one (about kids and a monster on a camping trip) may be the best of the lot, insinuating a superior "Amazing Stories" installment.

The entries are presented as movies which Penny shows to blind dates in her big, old home theater. To boost the fun, she's accompanied by a zombie and werewolf, who for all intents and purposes, may have hopped straight out of "Mad Monster Party"!

"Penny Dreadful PS" has earned varied reviews, but it seems popular among folks who appreciate this format, which is what counts. Penny is also a memorable host (strange and sexy): Sally, the Frankenstein girl, from Tim Burton's "Nightmare Before Christmas" meshed with the HBO's Cryptkeeper. (Swenson's composed Penny anthem even invokes Danny Elfman's "Tales From the Crypt" theme.) You'll be glad to be in her company and if in the right mindset, the film's collective parts will surely act as breezy, if not memorable, eclectic diversion. 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Monster Team-up Reflection #16: Monster Mash/Sounds of Terror

"Sounds of Terror" (Pickwick Records '74) isn't a monster team-up LP in the way of "Story of Dracula, Wolfman and Frankenstein" (reviewed Feb '14). This one doesn't even offer a full story, and the monsters (except for the King Kong track) don't mingle, but the compilation is certainly a team-up, if only for its unabashed chain of fiendish personalities and fierce, linking styles and ghastly themes.

I was introduced to "Sounds", when my mother bought it for me at Two Guys in Dec '75, from out the discounted Halloween records. I was thrilled that it featured Bobby "Boris" Pickett's "Monster Mash" (the greatest of monster team-up tunes, though in this instance, only a surprisingly competent cover version), and the rest I assumed would be simply a slew of gutsy sound-effects and brief references to beloved monsters.

Well, "Sounds" proved much more than that. Though the tracks are but snippets from the characters' varied backgrounds, they are as vivid as any old-time radio show, graced by deftly performed narrative (most of which is accented and enunciated to correspond with any given scenario's selected locale and/or time frame).

"Famous Monsters and Ghouls" comprises the album's first half, with various entries racked by long, intense, tormented groans: "Frankenstein Returns", "The Mummy's Revenge" and "Curse of the Zombies" (actually oddly relegated to the second side). Others are punctuated by swooshing stabs, screams and/or crazed laughter: "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", "Jack the Ripper" and "The Headless Horseman". As basic as these are, they really do get under one's skin, especially if listened to in the dark. 

Others are slightly more complex, such as "Phantom of the Opera", which offers Erik's maddening chant of "I'll always have your beauty for my own", as organ music and collapsing noises mount. "Count Dracula", on the other hand, is more creepily subdued, permeating of sadistic bat squeaks and sensual moaning. "The Werewolf Attacks" and "Exorcism" are, above all, the most spine-tingling. Sadistically relentless and satisfyingly repugnant, these aren't for the weak of heart, let alone impressionable children. 

There are even a few giant-monster homages, such as the Kong installment, where the narrator explains how the mighty ape rose to fight an Asian sea creature (a Godzilla knock-off, perhaps, or maybe just an aquatic counterpart to Kong's ol' T-Rex adversary? You decide). "The Incredible Giant Crab" invokes both Ebirah (from "Godzilla vs the Sea Monster") and Roger Corman's "Attack of the Crab Monsters". "The Blob" retells the ever-expanding mass' origin from a NASA perspective, and whoa, is it ever unsettling. You can actually sense the gelatinous specimen pulsating toward you as the militia frantically tries to destroy it.

The LP's second side, "Man's Inhumanity To Man", is even more disquieting than the first, including such gut-wrenching tracks as "Buried Alive", "Burned at the Stake", "Keel Hauled" (my personal favorite), "Nightmare of Lost Souls", "Torture Chamber" and "Victims of the Guillotine" (ouch!). Truly, if this stuff doesn't mess with you head, nothing will.

Writer Frank Daniel and producer Wade Denning brewed this twisted concoction, though it seems only a select few know it: a shame, considering they deserve tremendous praise for the tracks' masterful orchestrations. Too bad, too, that the other contributors are dosed in obscurity, but then maybe such simply adds to the album's air of mystery and permeating realism: for as strange as it may be, many of the segments sound as if culled from actual events. 

Alas, finding a quality, vinyl copy of "Sounds" may prove tough, but transferred CD copies are available for reasonable prices, for those bold enough to seek.

Indeed, if you've a hankering for a tension-wrought spree of classic monsters, accompanied by an affluent sum of torturous insanity, "Sounds" will become your perfect cup of gruel: an audio equivalent to the darkest amusement-park ride you'd ever endure. It's loads of fun, but sure to scare!!! Seek it out, if you dare!!!