Friday, December 31, 2010

Highlander II: Special Edition (1991/2004)


Remember those immortals in the first Highlander movie; you know, the good Highlander movie? Ever wonder why they were immortal? If you’re like me, the answer is: no. No, I’m willing to accept that there are immortals that have to kill chop off each other’s heads. I’m cool with that. In Highlander II: The Quickening, filmmaker Russell Mulcahy tried to answer the question that no one asked, and came up with this brilliant idea: all of the immortals are exiled aliens. Perfect.

Highlander II: The Quickening is just an awful, awful film. The filmmakers involved, though, were never satisfied with the final product. In 1994, Mulcahy released Highlander II: The Renegade Version, in an attempt to mulligan the first film. With a word like “renegade” in the subtitle, it was bound to attract interest; too bad it also sucked. The major change in the Renegade version is the editing around the origin of the Immortals: no longer are they aliens from another planet, but instead come from some time in Earth’s distant past. Instead of being exiled to Earth, they’re exiled to the future. Now, I see the attraction in this approach: now, the Immortals are no longer aliens. And that’s a good thing. But what the alien explanation had going for it was the simple fact that it was an explanation. Why are there immortals? Because they’re aliens, that’s why. Now, there’s still no explanation for why they’re immortals. Like with the original movie, there just are immortals--so deal with it--but now there’s the added confusion that for some reason they were sent to the future (our present) and if they win the contest they can go back to the past and … fix history? I don’t even know. But at least they’re not aliens, right?

Not satisfied with this cut, either, in 2004 Mulcahy and his crew revisited Highlander II for (please God) the last time, adding new visual effects, which augment the visual appeal of the film, and do nothing for the story. This latest edition is called Highlander II: Special Edition, and it makes one wonder where the fuck Mulcahy keeps getting money to put into this film.


The basic story goes like this: it’s 2024, Connor MacLeod, once immortal, is now an old man, and the world has gone to shit. Then immortals from “the past” arrive to fight him, and he’s young again, so he and Louise Marcus (Virginia Madsen) team up to take down the evil Shield Corporation. That’s the sensible part, at least.

The film seems to have a thing or two to say about wealth and capital. The first Highlander begins, rather memorably (for me, at least) with Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) watching the Fabulous Freebirds wrestle at Madison Square Garden. This film, on the other hand, opens up at the opera. I would say that this is a clever contrast, on the part of the writers--one way of showing MacLeod’s movement up the social ladder--but if I remember correctly, MacLeod was independently wealthy way back in the 80s anyway. Still, plunk Christopher Lambert into a tux and put him at the opera, and the audience gets the idea pretty quickly: MacLeod is now important, and rich(er). Ramirez’s return comes during a performance of Hamlet, and a scene excised from the original script was set at “an elaborate wine-tasting sequence” (according to wikipedia). One can only lament the change from Queen and the Freebirds to Wagner and Shakespeare.

The narrative itself takes place in 2024. We are told that industrial pollution has destroyed the ozone layer, which has been replaced by “the shield,” an electro-magnetic field designed by MacLeod to act as an artificial ozone layer. Remember the ozone layer? It was big news in the 90s. Or at least the holes in it were. We don’t hear much about the ozone layer anymore. I think it’s because doing something about it was too hard, and thinking about it was too depressing. But I digress. The shield is controlled by The Shield Corporation, which charges for maintaining the shield. We soon learn that ozone levels above the shield have returned to normal (though it’s not explained how--perhaps this ozone layer was banished to the future from Earth’s past?), but that the Shield Corporation keeps the shield in place to keep taxing the people. Corporations are bad. It shouldn’t surprise anyone, then, that when the evil General Katana (Michael Ironside, who seems less like a samurai than his name would imply) comes to the future, he soon becomes best buds with the head of Shield Corp (John C. McGinley).


Since Louise Marcus is an eco-terrorist, she begins as a promising prospect for a strong female lead. That doesn’t last long. As soon as she confronts MacLeod, he’s attacked by some weird hedgehog-men, sent from his home planet, er, the past by General Katana, his nemesis. I guess they had hedgehog-men in the past. Soon, MacLeod is demonstrating his value to Marcus by expertly beheading both men; impressed by his new looks (MacLeod is re-immortaled by their presence, and becomes younger) and his prowess with the broadsword, Marcus immediately begins to make out with, and dry-hump, MacLeod. Having thus engaged physically with Marcus, MacLeod begins to nurture dependence by explaining how there can be only one, and it’s him, babe. Thus, within five minutes of meeting Marcus, MacLeod is already half way through the D.E.N.N.I.S System.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Highlander movie without Ramirez, the only actor in the film played by an actual Scotsmen (Sean Connery), even if he’s portraying a Spaniard. Who is really an Egyptian. Who is really an … alien? Anyway, Connery returns, for, as Mulcahy explains in the extra features, no one would finance it otherwise. He returns to modern day Scotland, I guess because he was killed there, but since he’s a Scottish actor he fits right in. Then, he flies to America, hooks up with McLeod and Marcus, and sacrifices himself to save them from a giant fan. It’s kinda like how Obi-wan Kenobi sacrifices himself to save Luke and Han and the gang, except in this instance he’s saving the heroes from a giant fan, and not Darth Vader.


Highlander II has had about as many do-overs as Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner. The major difference is that Scott keeps improving on a great film. Mulcahy, on the other hand, has taken a massive pile of shit, and through re-editing, new special effects, and other bits of movie magic, has managed to turn it into a slightly smaller pile of shit.

If there is any upside to this film, it's the presence of Sean Connery. I'd love to praise Christopher Lambert, but let's face it, he's a pretty terrible actor. The weird thing is, though, that his presence almost guarantees that I'll enjoy the film. Highlander II: Special Edition, is one of those movies that actually fits the "so bad it's good" label. Really, I spent the entire film laughing my ass off, and whether that was intentional or not, it meant that I had a great time.

Word is that Hollywood is rebooting the Highlander franchise. I say, let 'em. Sure, some people will claim that a Hollywood re-imagining will devalue the Highlander series, but I say that the series was doing a pretty good job of that itself (see also: Star Trek).

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Capsule Review: Pinocchio (1940)

A surprisingly dark adaptation of The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, Disney's second feature length animated film is every bit as memorable as Snow White. Far from the sanitized fantasy stories that would typify Disney films over the following decades, Pinocchio has a number of nightmarish sequences - particularly the scenes on Pleasure Island featuring children being turned into donkeys (who never end up being rescued), and the famous encounter with Monstro the whale. Modern audiences may feel a bit uncomfortable with the odd (and certainly unintentional) undercurrent of child abuse, but there's no denying that even at this early stage Disney had found a magic formula for creating truly memorable images, combined with absolutely delightful music. Some of the rotoscoped animation looks a bit dodgy, and it takes some time to get going, but there's simply too much goodness here to ignore.

Bloody Nightmares #28: Suburban Sasquatch (2004)

I can't stay angry at a movie called Suburban Sasquatch, a title that happens to be significantly more inspired than anything that occurs in the actual film. Director/writer/actor/everything else Dave Wascavage obviously didn't mean for his mini-epic to be taken too seriously - the title is jokey, and there are some funny throwaway lines - but it's when the film attempts to get serious that it's at its most amusing. From the effects filled attack sequences (which all feature the same severed limbs and an array of computer-assisted effects that appear to have been created in of MS Paint) to the Native American love story subplot, this is a tremendously goofy movie. However, if you love cheap badness, or just enjoy sasquatch-related entertainment, you're definitely in the right place.

Rick Harlan (Bill Ushler) is a gawky doofus who dreams of being a reporter, a dream helped by having a contact in the police department who tips him off regarding a recent unexplained string of gruesome attacks. Unable to get much traction with his editor, Rick bumbles around until he bumps into the Native-American warrior Talla (the too-attractive-for-this-movie Sue Lynn Sanchez) who is on the hunt for the elusive Bigfoot, a (magical?) creature that apparently feeds off of fear, or anger, or something. The two have a rather combative relationship based on Rick almost getting himself killed, but it eventually blossoms into thoughts of love (or, at least kissing). The Sasquatch proceeds to kill (and - it's implied - rape) the townspeople in various messy ways, until the whole thing comes to a ridiculous head in Rick's grandmother's house. Magical arrows are involved.

I'm no stranger to the limitations of low-budget film-making. I've even dabbled in doing weak CG effects for a no-budget feature, so I feel confident in saying that Suburban Sasquatch likely has some of the weakest gore effects you're likely to see, but in being so bad they somehow end up being much more entertaining than if they had been done well. Arms are ripped off and an overlay of blood spray shoots out totally unconvincingly, terrible CG arrows embed into our titular (with an emphasis on tit - this is a well endowed Sasquatch) creature, and there's a memorable scene where our Bigfoot friend raises a police car over his head that.. well.. I can't rightfully describe why it's so amazing. A cut out of a low resolution picture of the car has obviously been placed over the monster, and it's just as awful as you're probably hoping.

These effects are certainly not helped by choppy editing during these sequences which will probably leave less tolerant viewers baffled by what they are seeing. Wescavage does a much better job during the dialogue scenes, though once again we have a film that suffers from weak sound recording - leaving a significant amount of what is being said totally incomprehensible. This is where I would normally mention that what is being said is pretty badly written in the first place, but there are a few nicely written scenes here - like the ones with the newspaper editor - which are ruined by technical issues. 

Further hampering things are the extremely wooden performances from the leads. Bill Ushler as Rick seems to be trying really hard, and throws his limbs around as a substitute for emoting, but his supposed passion for reporting rings really hollow, and the supposed sexual tension between him and Talla is really underdeveloped. Sue Lynn Sanchez as Talla is pretty unconvincing, though she at least does a good job of standing around and looking pretty. It's about what you would expect for a cast of obvious non-actors, though the choice for the police officers to hold their guns in their hands during the opening scenes was.. odd, to say the least. 

But let's talk a little bit about that Sasquatch. With the painted on abs and giant rack, it looks like a cast-off from a GWAR concert, meaning that it's pretty shabby at the best of times. For reasons I didn't quite grasp, Bigfoot has the ability to teleport from place to place and is nigh indestructible - Talla says only her magic arrows can hurt him, but even they are ineffective at doing anything but eliciting temporary streams of blood until the final scene. Still, I'd be disappointed if the suit was anything but totally awful, so thankfully this film delivers.

Suburban Sasquatch is available on the Bloody Nightmares collection from Pendulum Pictures, and is presented in perfectly watchable full-screen. I didn't notice many glitches, though admittedly the jumpiness of the actual film would tend to cover these things up, and since the movie was made almost entirely in daylight, the action is all watchable. There are a couple of day-for-night scenes that look awful, but considering how unwatchable the night scenes are in most of these low-budget productions, I wouldn't feel right complaining. Wascavage did all of the original music for the film, and since I can't remember it being awful, I suppose he did a reasonable job. Of course a movie like this could use a rocking theme song, but I guess that's just my taste.

No special features. No chapter stops. Would actually have liked to see some behind-the-scenes footage, as this must have been a riot to make.

Aside from the usual technical issues, you're getting exactly what you would expect from Suburban Sasquatch - comically awful effects, amateur-hour acting, and a plot that sort of just sputters to the 90 minute mark. Wascavage smartly packs his film full of Sasquatch attacks - a messy rampage against a group of hunters is hilarious - but obviously spread himself too thin, which had a significant effect on the overall quality of the production. Still, aside from some endless talky scenes, it's rarely boring and will keep fans of crap very amused. 

Thursday, December 23, 2010

(2000–2010) Movie Feast Top 10s

2000 – 2010
Top 10s
Doug Tilley
10. City of God (2002) 

9. Shaun Of The Dead (2004) 

8. In The Loop (2009) 

7. Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004) 

6. Wall-E (2008) 

5. There Will Be Blood (2007) 

4. Paradise Now (2005) 

3. No Country For Old Men (2007) 

2. Children of Men (2006) 

1. Oldboy (2003)

Honorable Mentions: Frailty, The Lives of Others, Dear Zachery: A Letter to a Son About His Father, The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, The Royal Tenenbaums, Let The Right One In

Matt Hollinger
10. Children Of Men (2006)

9. Zodiac (2007)

8. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

7. Moon (2009)

6. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)

5. Almost Famous (2000)

4. City Of God (2002)

3. Good Night, And Good Luck (2005)

2. There Will Be Blood (2007)

1. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

Honorable Mentions: No Country For Old Men, In Bruges, The Departed, The Royal Tenenbaums, Memento, This Is England, Blow, Millions, Brick, Traffic, Adventureland, Get Low, Crazy Heart, Wonder Boys, The Man Who Wasn't There, Sunshine, A Single Man

Christopher Bussmann

Der Baader Meinhof Complex (Edel, 2008)

One of the best political thrillers I have ever seen. Following the actions of the Red Army Faction from their formation in 1967 through to the brutal "German Autumn" of 1977, this film does a great job of capturing the idealism and intensity of a student movement turned bitter and fanatical in just a few years. While the RAF seemed glamorous to many at the time, the film doesn't fetishize them or romanticize them. Nor the opposition. Everyone is given a fair shake. The action sequences are intense and well-directed and there's lots of casual nudity (two things you don't see so often in American films anymore). Moritz Bleibtreu gives a really strong performance as Baader, demonstrating his powerful allure but not shying from his psychopathic tendencies. Martine Gedeck is brilliant as Meinhof, showing how a regular journalist and academic with no prior investment in revolutionary politics can become so absorbed in the movement she's studying as to quickly become one of its leaders.

Children of Men (Cuaron, 2006)

The most riveting film I saw all decade. An absolutely astounding vision of dystopian plausibility anchored in a monumental, hope-filled performance from Clive Owen. Also, some of the best single-shot action sequences ever filmed. Many people disliked the ending but the most profound films for me often deal in ambiguities (in fact, many of the films on this list are open-ended at the finish).

The Fountain (Aronofsky, 2006)

Though it hasn't held up to repeated viewing and scrutiny, The Fountain is still one of my favorite films of the decade, mainly because it risks so much, drawing up wells of heartfelt emotion and splashing them across the screen in some of the most innovative and imaginative sequences ever recorded on film. Where it risks and wins, The Fountain leaves you in awe. Where it risks and fails, it crashes spectacularly and yet still pulses with a life unfettered. We should be grateful that there are filmmakers out there willing to fight so recklessly for their visions.

Goodbye Lenin! (Becker, 2003)

As someone whose family's lives were sundered by the Berlin Wall, Goodbye Lenin! carries a particularly resonance with me, as does all German cinema from the 00's dealing with this topic (Der Tunnel; The Lives Of Others). At times both tragic and hilarious, this film actually helped me to understand the mindset of those who still missed the old East, who diligently clung to the principles of Communism and repudiated the materialism of the West. The film handles this issue deftly and fairly. Daniel Brühl's performance is remarkable given how much emotion he must both suppress and portray at once, stuck in a sticky web of liberation and suppression. As I've noted in previous posts, German Cinema in the 00s was uniformly amazing and Goodbye Lenin! is the lynchpin film for me.

Heaven (Tykwer, 2002)

Heaven, the last project of Krzysztof Kieślowski (finished by Tom Tykwer after his death), is a sublime meditation on the intertwining relationship between love and crime. Highly allegorical and languid in its disposition, the film struggled to find an audience despite insanely powerful and nuanced performances by Cate Blanchett and Giovanni Ribisi as outlaws on the lam in rural Italy. This is also a film for lovers of lush cinematography and elaborate staging, rarely does architecture play a more vital role in intimating a character's inner disposition. Connections to Dante's Divine Comedy are also inescapable.

Solaris (Soderbergh, 2002)

This film was so severely mismarketed that I avoided it for a long time. A Tarkovsky film remade as a sci-fi romance film? With George Clooney? Who wants to see that? Well, nobody it seemed. The film was a huge bomb. And I summarily forgot all about it. But somewhere in the intervening years, Clooney caught my attention, slowly revealing himself as one of the finest actor of the decade. So I went back and watched Solaris and was blown away by how good it was. Touching on themes similar to The Fountain, Solaris left me haunted and chilled, touching an emotional chord that both the novel and the original film failed to hit. Both the cinematography and Cliff Martinez's score add emotional weight and resonance. This is a film worthy of reevaluation.

28 Days Later (Boyle, 2002)

This film legitimately scared the holy hell out of me when I saw it in the theater. The woman in front of me actually fainted. Intense, visceral, horrible, believable. 28 Days Later delivers that pure adrenaline shot that most movies promise but fail to deliver.

The Town (Affleck, 2010)

I don't know when Ben Affleck decided to become a smart Hollywood cross between Michael Mann and Sidney Lumet but it was the best career decision he could take and we now have two great crime films to thank him for because of it. Both The Town and Gone Baby Gone resonate, pushing the crime film in new and interesting directions without discarding the emotional core that has kept this genre at the heart of my love for cinema. The Town has everything I want in an epic heist film: honesty, intelligence, toughness, grit mixed into a heady cocktail of violence, love, hurt, and redemption (both denied and achieved). While their are still some kinks to be worked out (his direction can be both overtly flashy and drearily dull at times), we are looking at the beginnings of what could be a very promising directing career.

Wall-E (Stanton, 2008)

Perhaps the most romantic, poetic, and thought-provoking film of the decade. The amount of emotion Pixar generates out of two robots who do not speak and have only minimal expressive features is staggering. The long near-silent stretches towards the beginning rival Chaplin in their broad comedy and ability to hold an audience rapt. An instant classic the moment it was released, Wall-E has only risen in my esteem.

We Don’t Live Here Anymore (Curran, 2004)

Adapted from two Andre Dubus short stories, We Don't Live Here Anymore quietly and poignantly captures the heart ache and knotty emotional conflicts of adultery without glossing over the issues or settling into cheap sentimentality. Mark Ruffalo, Peter Krause, and Laura Dern all give excellent, layered performances while Naomi Watts delivers one of her absolute best performances as Edith, a character so earnestly flawed as to be exacting. Little seen upon its release, this film deserves wider acclaim as it is every bit the equal of In The Bedroom, another Dubus adaptation that actually found a strong audience.

Honorable Mentions: Royal Tenenbaums, Closer, Amelie, Spirited Away, Lost In Translation, Before Sunset, Memento, Michael Clayton, Broken Embraces, Billy Elliot, Crouching Tiger, and Shaun of the Dead.

10. Super Troopers (2001) 

For pure laughs, nothing by Apatow or his crew has come close to matching SUPER TROOPERS.  Sadly, neither has anything else Broken Lizard has produced.  This broad farce featuring the antics of bored Vermont state troopers has become a comedy staple is probably one of the few comedies that still has me laughing almost ten years later.  The tight script, and the fact that the whole cast plays to his or her strengths, really helps.  Also, what the fuck is Brian Cox doing here?

09. Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

Worth a mention for del Toro's dream aesthetics alone, PAN'S LABYRINTH manages to be both creepy and magical, frightening and wonderful.  Life, from the point of view of a child, is made up of random, unexplainable rules; that's why fairy tales are full of them.  Life, from the point of view of one living in a fascist state, is also made up of random, unexplainable rules; that's why it's so fucking awful.  The need for fantasy is deep.
08. A Bittersweet Life (2005)

Watch this if you want to see your standard action/crime yarn, shot beautifully, with perfect acting, impeccable clothing, and nasty, nasty violence.

07. 25th Hour (2002)

Probably the best post-9/11 movie that isn't explicitly about the post-9/11 world.  The strength of this film is that it's about individuals, their complexities, and their complex relationships, and the ways in which individuals resist the desire to be stereotyped or generalized.  Everyone is great in this.

06. Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Hard to choose just one Tarantino film for a Top 10 (the only thing more annoying than blind Tarantino fanboy-ism is blind Tarantino bashing, but I digress).  While KILL BILL VOL 1 seems like someone made a film with me, specifically, in mind as the target audience, I can't help but feel that both volumes of the film are somewhat bloated.  Perhaps odd, then, that I'm going with INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, which usually gets slammed for length.  Really, it's just a pitch-perfect film in my book, with a monster performance by Christoph Waltz, and a really underrated one by Brad Pitt.  I can't help but feel that this is Tarantino's THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (with Shoshanna/Landa/Raine filling those roles, to a certain extent).  I'm going to remember the basement scene of BASTERDS far after I've forgotten the House of Blue Leaves portion of BILL.
05. Gone Baby Gone (2007)

Not only one hell of a movie, but one hell of a moral quandary, one which Affleck is wise enough not to offer any way out of.  Everyone loses.  There is no win.

04. Hot Fuzz (2007)

HOT FUZZ is way better than SHAUN OF THE DEAD.  It isn't even close.
More to the point, I've probably watched HOT FUZZ more than any other film in my adult life.  This homage to action cinema doesn't feature a single misstep, while featuring some perfect performances from Jim Broadbent and Timothy Dalton.

03. Spirited Away (2001)

While CGI continues to improve, and show us worlds we never thought could be put on screen (think AVATAR), a film like SPIRITED AWAY continues to prove that there are some stories which only animation can properly bring to life.  Miyazaki continues to be humane without being maudlin, and presents his fans with one of the most enchanting (that's right, I said "enchanting") world ever captured on screen.

02. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

The best movie based on a Philip K. Dick story, even if it isn't based on a Philip K. Dick story.  Here, Charlie Kaufman and Gondry use the estranging effects of science fiction to make an intimate movie of love and loss, instead of an expansive movie of explosions and lazers.  And it's the best sci-fi film of the decade.  Carrey should be phoning up Gondry daily and asking for a new role to help is career.
01. Grizzly Man (2005)

It's hard to pick a #1 film of the decade.  Perhaps it's because the decade is just ending, but so far, it seems more difficult to encapsulate.  For the 90s, there are films that seem to capture the zeitgeist of the time (or at least the time's cinema), or to stand out as significant aesthetic landmarks.  PULP FICTION and FIGHT CLUB are two such examples.  But what film, from the last ten years, is really emblematic of its time?  So anyway, I chose GRIZZLY MAN.  It's a documentary without a political objective; in a decade of shouting voices, this, sir, is no polemic.  What it is, is a stupendously beautiful portrait of the tragicomic life and death of Timothy Treadwell, self-proclaimed protector of the bears.

Herzog: "And what haunts me, is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food. But for Timothy Treadwell, this bear was a friend, a savior."

Honourable Mentions: Wall-E, The Hidden Blade, In The Bedroom

10. Shaun of the Dead (2004)

9. The Blind Swordsman:  Zatoichi (2003)

8. Ong Bak (2003)

7. Let The Right One In (2008)

6. The Incredibles (2004)

5. Spider-Man 2 (2004)

4. Oldboy (2003)

3. No Country For Old Men (2007)

2. Children of Men (2006)

1. The Dark Knight (2008)