Cult Classic: The Rocketeer

Summary: A good, classy adventure with an excellent cast and loads of heart, but with a deficiency of nail-biting suspense, hard-hitting action, and unique spectacle.

Review: If there’s any proof that I’m a full-blooded American fellow, it’s my love of two-fisted tales and cinematic adventures owing to the cliffhanger serials of yore.  They tend to show great heart and idealism, allowing a greater capacity for laughter, tears, and screams than run-of-the-mill action pictures.  Most folks know ‘Indiana Jones’, ‘Star Wars’, ‘Zorro’ and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’, but there have been many efforts to bring their more obscure relatives to the screen.  Most of these films, I’m sorry to say, were overlooked, only to be rediscovered and appreciated by cinephiles with the advent of home video.  ‘The Rocketeer’, adapted from Dave Stevens’ comic book, was Disney’s 1991 attempt to create a cash cow franchise comparable to Paramount’s ‘Indiana Jones’.  It failed, possibly due to mismarketing, but the film has gained a well-deserved cult following.

To be sure, ‘The Rocketeer’ is not a spectacular film.  It lacks exactly that: Really great spectacle.  That’s the sort of thing that its successful brethren have in spades.  But what ‘The Rocketeer’ has is the most important thing — an adventurous spirit that provokes wide-eyed wonder and that infection that makes you want to jump into the screen and join in, despite the danger.  This aspect of the screenplay, coupled with perfect casting and very good character direction, makes the film worth watching.

Then-unknown Billy Campbell plays the lead, Cliff Secord, and he is perfect.  He has tangible chemistry with the leading lady, a very young and extraordinarily gorgeous Jennifer Connelly, and stands in stark contrast to the typically brilliant Timothy Dalton, his adversary.  The story takes a lot of time to stack the deck against Cliff, and his tenacity makes us want him to win.  That tenacious nobility, balanced with crucial character flaws, is the soul of the two-fisted tale.  We see it in Indy when he climbs onto the submarine in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, in Luke when he lets himself fall out of the Cloud City in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, in Will when he breaks Jack out of prison in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl’, and in Cliff when he chooses to strap on the mysterious jetpack for the first time.  It’s a simple equation, yet one that’s easily ignored — the hero must get his/her ass kicked before she/he can kick ass.  The more devastating an emotional and physical beatdown the hero receives, the more devastating their vengeance.

The effects by ILM are as good as they had circa 1991, and that’s certainly not the reason that it fails in terms of spectacle.  The rocket effects and the flying sequences have charm, style, and a certain boyish glory.  The movie makes flight in general extremely appealing.  Parts of the ending fight on top of a zeppelin over Hollywood are adventurous gold, mostly due to the setting and Cliff’s simple but ingenious solution.  What undoes it is the lack of impact.  The action is competently directed, but for helmsman Joe Johnston this was only his second feature, and he had not yet evolved proper action chops.  The gunfights are pedestrian, there are no great fisticuffs, and there’s not enough suspense to drive us to the edge of our seats.  For a film based on cliffhanger serials, there’s not a lot of cliffhanging.  It’s not for a lack of running time.  It’s a short movie, clocking in at just about 100 minutes plus credits.  It needs at least a singular, iconic set piece that rivets audiences and demands repeat viewings.

Taken as a sum, ‘The Rocketeer’ works.  The story brings a smile to my face.  The characters are magnetic and make me wish for further adventures.  What this film needs is guts.  I speak of it in the present tense because I believe that the right creative team can improve on this film with an affectionate remake.  ‘The Rocketeer’ deserves to be a classic, but until it can be retold with as much visceral impact as it has heart, it’s stuck as an object of cultish affection.  If you enjoy these sorts of films, however, I’d urge you to see this film and love it for what it is, and what it can be.

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Not-So-Classic Review: The Room (2003)

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ☆☆☆☆ (That’s zero, folks)

Summary:  Ouch!  This movie is so bad it physically hurt me!

Review:  I recently attended a screening of ‘The Room’ at Indiana University, followed by a question and answer from its producer, director, writer, and star, Tommy Wiseau.  For those of you who don’t know, ‘The Room’ has been critically deplored as one of the worst films ever made, although this same notoriety has given it a massive cult following; a following that, unfortunately, I am contributing to by reviewing it.  Oh well, no choice now but to dive in and look over this pathetic excuse for a movie.

To understand ‘The Room’ you must first understand its creator.  That is, IF you can understand him, as Mr. Wiseau, who claims he’s American, speaks in a strange accent I’ve never heard before.  Watered down French perhaps?  It’s hard to tell, as coupled with his accent he also mumbles, slurs his words, and shows little more than a basic grasp of English in general.  In short, he is woefully inarticulate.  What business he had writing a movie in English, to say nothing of overseeing its complete production, is beyond me.

Even without viewing the screenplay, I could tell it was a joke.  Awful dialogue and plot holes big enough to drive a truck through.  Less than half of anybody’s lines in this movie are relevant; the rest is either ridiculous, filler, or contradictory. But it goes beyond just bad dialogue and inconsistency.  The film’s very premise, a dark romantic comedy, is filled with so many clichés that, even if everybody’s lines and the plot holes were fixed, this would still be a horribly generic movie.  It seems as though Mr. Wiseau pulled out every trope he could think of and just stuck them in here.  The tragic lead actor, the cheating girlfriend, the best friend of the lead who steals his woman, the kid caught up with a drug dealer, and so much more.  Oh, and have I mentioned the love scenes yet?  Yes, there’s gratuitous sex in this film too.  In fact there are seven (count ‘em seven!) different scenes; each of them way too long, going way too far, and being, frankly, mundane as they come.  I made fun of Mr. Wiseau’s speaking earlier, but this goes beyond a simple misunderstanding of English.  This man did not have an original thought in his head when he wrote this.  Granted, no one is ever truly original, but this is just flat-out pathetic and lazy.

Now you might think that this film is all Tommy Wiseau’s fault, but bad movies of this magnitude can only be the result of a collaborative effort.  ‘The Room’ stars the sorriest bunch of would-be actors I’ve ever seen.  Their paper-thin performances have to be seen to be believed.  Granted, I know the script was hardly deserving of good acting, but I have to believe that, with so many struggling performers in the world, those who get parts have to at least try.  But no, not here.  Blank expressions, monotonous delivery, and lack of any perceivable emotion run amok like a plague.  Amazingly though, even compared to the other actors, Tommy Wiseau is still under-qualified to act in this film.  His speech, which doesn’t improve when he acts, is just ridiculous and dismal, and there is no time when he seems convincing.  Supposedly he took drama classes before making this film.  He should’ve gotten his money back.

And then there’s the cinematography.  The cameraman was certainly apathetic and possibly inebriated when he shot this film.  Apart from nothing striking or interesting about the shots, there are way too many random pans of San Francisco, including several across the San Francisco Bridge.  Why?  Who knows?  For example, a scene will take place at the central house, the film will cut to a pan across the city, and then it will cut right back to the house.  Again, why?  What was the point?

Interestingly enough, the music in this film is the one thing that is passable.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s mediocre as mediocre can be, but its corny piano tracks and obscure hip-hop songs are tolerable, if only barely.  It’s sad that lukewarm music seems okay in this movie, but it certainly feels like a breath of fresh air.

So what is the final verdict on ‘The Room’?  It fails.  It fails so hard it almost seems impossible.  It is the one film that does nothing right, and I mean nothing.  There is not one aspect of this film that’s done well.  Even similarly derided films, like ‘Battlefield Earth’ or ‘Batman and Robin’ at least had premises and visuals that would hold you over for a bit, but ‘The Room’ doesn’t even have that going for it.  This film is boring at best and unbearable at worst.  Granted, many have found humor within the awfulness of ‘The Room’.  Tommy Wiseau, even, has rebranded it as a black comedy.  Certainly, some scenes and lines are funny, but that doesn’t save this film.  Some movies are legitimately so bad that they’re great, but this film is just so bad that it’s, well, bad.

The true importance of ‘The Room’ is this: to show the world everything NOT to do when making a movie.  Never half-ass a script, never think that “generic” is okay, never hire bad actors, and never hire a bad crew.  Filmmakers, take those lessons to your grave.  Most importantly, never just assume anything when making a film.  ‘The Room’s greatest flaw is its creator’s arrogance, a man who managed to raise a whopping six-million for this film, had only minimal experience making movies, and just thought he could create a decent picture.  I hate to kick a feller when he’s down, but if you filmmakers out there take anything away from ‘The Room’, don’t repeat Wiseau’s mistake; please show some humility, and always, always, always give a damn.

Cult Classic: Bubba Ho-Tep

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: The premise may seem wild, but the message is sound.

Review: The whole of ‘Bubba Ho-Tep’ is more than the sum of its parts.  Its story is an orthodox but daring mix of Elvis legend and Mummy-lore with just a dash of Kennedy conspiracy theory.  Sounds a little ridiculous, no?  But beneath all that is a powerful tale of redemption; of a man, long having fallen from grace, who finds something to fight for before he fades.

According to ‘Bubba Ho-Tep’, the real Elvis Presley switched places with an impersonator long ago so that he could “get away from it all”.  It was the impersonator that died, not him.  Elvis lived on, quite content, until an accident sent him to a rest home in east Texas.  Now old, sick, and crippled, he spends his days lying in bed, contemplating the mistakes in life, and occasionally talking to fellow resident Jack, who claims to be John F. Kennedy, also never having died.

Things become (even more) strange when other residents start dying off mysteriously at the hands of a cursed Egyptian mummy who feeds on the souls of the elderly.  It would take too long to explain how the mummy got there, but to make a long story short, it’s up to JFK and Elvis to stop him and save their home.

The story deserves major props for originality.  It takes the stuff of the best campy B-movies and mixes it together into one nice package; and that’s probably also why it’s a little surprising to discover that the film actually has a lot of heart to it.  That’s because it really isn’t focusing on Elvis Presley or JFK or mummies.  What it’s really about is a man (who happens to be Elvis) who has fallen from grace.  And his is the most tragic of falls-from a youth worshiped as a god and adored by millions, to a sick, elderly shell of a man; accused of delusion for trying to tell others who he once was.

What the mummy really represents, then, is a chance for redemption.  For all the mistakes in his life, for everything that has gone wrong, Elvis has one last chance to make a difference, to save the other residents, to set things right.  And because of this, though dying, he will not fade; he will not go quietly into the night.  He will take a stand for something and go out in glory.  Redemption is the most powerful message for the human condition, that no matter what one has done or where he is in life, if he is willing to give himself, he can still find salvation.  That is what ‘Bubba Ho-tep’ is really about it.  Beneath it’s comedic, horror, and camp elements, this film is truly emotional.

Made for just one million dollars, this movie is a testament to the potential of low-budget filmmaking.  The performances of Bruce Campbell as Elvis and Ossie Davis as JFK are just plain awesome, as is Brian Tyler’s score.  The guitar driven themes are touching and add much drama and weight to the film.  Though at times unnecessary vulgarity and seeming plot holes hamper it, ‘Bubba Ho-Tep’ nevertheless succeeds thanks to a fresh, engrossing, and deep story with a wonderfully cathartic conclusion.  This is one for the books, boys.

Cult Classic: Evil Dead II

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: An awesome, fun dark comedy.

Review:  Around the time in ‘Evil Dead II’ that Ash strapped a chainsaw to his arm and, in the most awesome close-up of all time, uttered “groovy”, I realized that I wasn’t really watching a horror film.  But, being honest, I didn’t really mind; I was having too much fun.

All kinds of dark ridiculousness go on in this remake/sequel to 1981’s ‘Evil Dead’.  Ash (Bruce Campbell) must again face the evil forces of the Book of the Dead in an over-the-top display of special effects, shotguns, the aforementioned chainsaws, carnage, one-liners, and all the campy goodness you could ask for.  That’s what I like about this movie: It’s so delightfully silly, and that’s what makes it work.  If director Sam Raimi had tried to make a film more like the first ‘Evil Dead’, I think it would have seemed trite and much less entertaining by comparison.

I’d also like to mention that Bruce Campbell puts on one of the best performances of his career in this film.  Campbell is essentially the Marlon Brando of modern cult film-making, and, unfortunately, he may also be the most under-appreciated actor of his generation.  Anyways though, he does an absolutely terrific job in this picture.  He subtly makes his character go from dead serious to terrified to borderline-insane in a matter of moments as he encounters truly crazy supernatural phenomena, and he manages to do it all without making it frightening; on the contrary, it’s simply entertaining.  It’s the highlight of the film.

‘Evil Dead II’ is a well-done, funny, and very enjoyable film, as far as dark comedies go that is. For anyone into cult films, this is a must-see. As Bruce Campbell would say, this picture is simply “groovy”.

Cult Classic: The Thing (1982)

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: Underappreciated yet highly effective sci-fi horror.

Review: There is something of an understood rule in GOOD horror movies, and that is not to overdo it on the violence. Too much killing and blood risks desensitizing the audience and can wind up becoming ridiculous and unintentionally comical. Case in point: well, a lot of films really. ‘Halloween’, ‘Friday the 13th’, ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’, and, more recently, ‘Saw’: these franchises have long since lost their credibility because of the carnage they use.  Typically, the seemingly best horror films are the ones that rely on suspense. After all, what the audience imagines is more frightening than anything a filmmaker could show them, and so often times a film is scarier the less it shows. Case in point: ‘Psycho’ or ‘Jaws.’

And then there’s John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’… a film that somehow manages to combine suspense and extreme, extreme gore in an inconceivably effective way.

The film tells the story of a shape-shifting alien attacking a small team of scientists in Antarctica. The creature is capable of absorbing and imitating any life form it comes into contact with, a sort of extraterrestrial wolf in sheep’s clothing. The only catch is that during the absorption process, it tends to turn itself inside out in a display of gore and high-tech puppetry that has not yet been matched. Seriously though, the special effects in this film are mind-blowing and a true testament to pre-CGI effects.

And boy is it frightening. It is one of the few times that an image meant to scare me actually HAS scared me. I suppose it’s the equivalent of a boxer winning by blunt-force trauma. The transformation scenes are so grotesque and disturbing that they actually are horrifying, and that is a true accomplishment.

Granted, if this film were mostly composed of these scenes, it wouldn’t be as effective as it is. The reason that it can get away with such moments is because they are built around a strong narrative that tackles the breakdown of trust. Though often taken for granted, trust is a human necessity. Our survival in this world is dependent upon it. Without it we are left alone and unprotected against danger, and the scientists in the film find this out the hard way. Fear and paranoia set in. No one knows who is real and who isn’t. The isolation of the Antarctic doesn’t help matters. Insanity and chaos loom ever closer…

It’s the suspense-ridden plot mixed with truly terrorizing monster scenes that makes this film a horror masterpiece. Thanks to the Internet, this film, not initially a success upon its release in 1982, has reached a wider audience, and younger people like myself have taken notice. For a truly great scare, check this film out.

Buy It From Amazon: The Thing [Blu-ray]

Not-So-Classic Review: Godzilla (1998)

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★☆☆

Summary: This film is much more entertaining than its ‘rep would make you think.

Review: One of the things I have discovered through my journey across Geekdom is that there can, at times, be a considerable amount of snobbery when it comes to certain subjects. One of them happens to be Godzilla. His 1954 cinematic debut was a surprisingly effective parable on nuclear warfare. And that original film is still the high point of the entire series.

For the next twenty years, the studio Toho turned out a number of cheesy low-budget Godzilla films. The formula was simiple: Godzilla vs. (insert giant monster name), and have two guys in rubber suits duke it out. Eventually the series ended under the weight of its own corniness. Then, beginning in the mid-1980s, the series was revived, and a new string of Godzilla pictures was released. These films were much darker than before and had a slightly more serious tone. Still, they used stunt-men in rubber suits and usually featured Godzilla fighting some other giant monsters. Not that I don’t enjoy that stuff, but content of that nature never rises above B-movie level for me.

My point is that the over-whelming majority of Godzilla films aren’t meant to be taken in any serious light. They’re fun, ridiculous pictures, and what they lack in any originality they make up for in enjoyable silliness. Perhaps my review has seemed somewhat condisending of the franchise, but I actually have been a pretty dedicated Godzilla fan. So much so that in 1998, as an excited six year old kid, I went to see the American-made entry in the series, Godzilla.

I actually enjoyed this film then. In fact, I still enjoy it today. Seeing a redesigned Godzilla run around New York City causing destruction was popcorn entertainment at its finest. Sure the other characters were thin and the plot, now that I think of it, didn’t really make much sense, but I found it to be a good B-movie in the spirit of the other Godzilla films.

Here’s where the snobbery comes in. For whatever reason, this film was panned not only by critics, but by Godzilla fans themselves as unfaithful to its namesake. They claimed it wasn’t their Godzilla, it wasn’t their type of movie. Some have even gone so far as to refer to creature in the movie not as Godzilla but as Gino (Godzilla In Name Only). The film has been deplored as a poorly told display of bad special effects.

And how was this any different than the other Godzilla films? Near as I can tell the filmmakers captured the essence of most of Godzilla’s films in their version. In truth, I don’t think it is any different. However, I’m willing to except the argument that maybe the fans were hoping for something closer to the original ‘Godzilla’. I can understand them wanting a film that, for perhaps the first time since the original, had a plot and message that was compelling, especially with all the budget, support, and hype that this film had (although I think movie audiences had by and large grown out of the stage of being taught parables through giant monster movies in the 90’s).

OK. So it’s not the true return to excellence that the fans were maybe hoping for. And I’ll admit that a person who’d spent 10, 20, or 30 years being accustomed to the original Godzilla suit maybe found his new, sleeker figure to be unfamiliar and unappealing (that and he no longer breathes fire). But still, I feel that the entertainment value of this picture has been grossly underrated due in part to the negative backlash from the fan community. It truly is a fun picture to watch, with a lot of chases, explosions, fights, planes, tanks, helicopters, guns, and of course Godzilla. And that, if done right, can warrant seeing a film. I’m of the opinion that in this film that it is. I give it a modest recommendation. If you can’t find it for free online, it is still worth spending $2.50 in the discount shelf in Walmart.

Or, You Can Buy It From Amazon: Godzilla [Blu-ray]

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A unique, creative, eye-popping movie that gets what it means to grow up at the turn of the millennium.

Review: I feel blessed. I’ve been given a gift I didn’t know I wanted. I’m a child of the American 90s, and I have some difficulty, unlike a person from, say, the 60s, 70s, or 80s, really articulating what that means. For every generation there’s a handful of striking films that capture their identity. It may be “just” an action comedy based on a comic book, but ‘Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World’ is one of those films, and that’s probably why it’s going to take some time for the culture to catch up and realize they have something special on their hands.

From the 90s through the 00s, we’ve seen the emergence of the internet and, with it, the rising of geekdom. It’s not just a youth subculture, anymore, it’s pretty much taken over. Hence the massive success of superhero films, the increasing demand for higher quality geek-oriented products, and the pull of websites like aintitcoolnews. Video games are fast becoming recognized as not just juvenile, brainless entertainment, but a legitimate artform, a shift in perspective we can blame on aging geeks like myself.

Based on a comic book series written by Bryan Lee O’Malley, ‘Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World’ completely caught my attention as something special, because it really captures what it felt like to grow up in these past two decades.  It does for 90s and 00s youth culture what ‘Kill Bill’ did for Quentin Tarantino’s childhood and 70s grindhouse cinema.  I was nothing short of thrilled. So, subjectively, it’s a movie I’ll always cherish for really “getting-it”, and just at the right time, too, with my childhood now gone and adult responsibility taking over. When I want a film to show my kids what it was like to be me, growing up at the turn of the millennium, I’ll choose this.

‘Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World’ didn’t go over well in its opening weekend. It’s quickly leaving theaters. The critics generally approved of it, but persons over 25 seemed mostly befuddled, with the possible exception being the 40-year-old dude sitting in front of me when I first saw it who couldn’t stop laughing. It seems that it’s cursed by the generation gap and the fact that summer is over and young folks might not afford to see two movies, so we chose ‘The Expendables’ instead, which is a shame because by all accounts that film kind of sucks. ‘Scott’ may be so perfectly tailored for the “ADD Generation” that general audiences just don’t get it. I’m pretty sure they will, though, once the film hits video, and the geek community catches on.

From a more objective standpoint, without sentimentality, what makes ‘Scott’ so deserving of four stars? The excellence of the craft, the wit, and the invention. ‘Scott’ moves fast and is deeply layered. I sincerely hope it gets an Oscar nod for best editing. The cinematography is unique, striking, and often quite beautiful. In a world of teal and orange, ‘Scott’ dares to use a varied, eye-popping color palate.  It dares to try visual storytelling techniques not seen outside of video games and comic books, and succeeds in making perhaps the most inventive film in the past 10 years.  It doesn’t matter if you get it or like it or not, ‘Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World’ is a significant film.  I happen to think it’s fantastic.

Buy It From Amazon: Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World [Blu-ray]