About This Blog

A place to find my reviews not featured on epinions.com or horror-asylum.com, as well as opinions and lists on everything from movies to TV to music. It's all about me! Send hate mail to vegie18th@hotmail.com or just leave a comment beneath the posts. Review grading system assumes C+ is somewhere in the vicinity of a Passing grade or minor fail.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Review: Damn the Defiant/HMS Defiant


Sir Alec Guinness (in fine, reserved form) is the humane but strict commander of the title British warship during the Napoleonic wars (in the late 18th century), who in his mission to deliver his ship to meet the rest of the British fleet in their battle against the French, must contend with a disreputable and unreasonably brutal first mate (Dirk Bogarde), fond of harsh disciplinary measures and generally ignoring Guinness’ orders (Bogarde’s also got political connections which he is fond of bragging about). Meanwhile, the disgruntled crew bide their time before they (led by Sir Anthony Quayle) can make their move in exposing the harsh conditions aboard (Guinness understands their concerns but cannot be seen to tolerate any sort of mutinous action, especially when it interferes with his orders). Two things complicate matters even further; 1) Guinness’ 12 year-old son David Robinson is on board on his maiden voyage, which the petty Bogarde is only too happy to use as leverage over Guinness, having the boy unfairly punished. Guinness had promised not to treat his son any differently to the rest of the crew. 2) Guinness is badly injured during a skirmish with the French, and Bogarde sees fit to take command.

 

Although Guinness and Bogarde themselves weren’t too fussed on the film (Guinness filmed his scenes during a break from filming “Lawrence of Arabia”), this 1962 Lewis Gilbert (“Alfie”, “You Only Live Twice”) film is a solid, if unoriginal film, with some great acting. Well, from two of the cast anyway, two top-notch lead performances by a nicely understated Guinness and a brilliantly rotten Bogarde (perhaps cast against type). The fine supporting cast isn’t given much to do (aside from the always solid Quayle), and this isn’t anything you haven’t seen before or since, but with two of British cinema’s finest at the...erm...helm, and an entertaining (if familiar) story, how can you possibly complain?

 

Excellent action scenes, and seemingly realistic production values, are a major selling point. The screenplay is by Nigel Kneale (Best known for “The Quatermass” films and also working on the screen adaptation of “The Entertainer”) and Edmund North (Oscar-winner for “Patton”, and the writer of “The Day the Earth Stood Still”), from the novel “Mutiny” by Frank Tilsley. Terrific colour cinematography by Christopher Challis (“The Red Shoes”, “Arabesque”, “The Deep”) is also a standout.

 

Rating: B-

Friday, March 22, 2013

Review: Death Before Dishonour


Fred Dryer plays a Marine Gunnery Sergeant assigned the task of overseeing security at an embassy in a fictional Middle Eastern country. He and his men (who include a youngish Sasha Mitchell) are forced to take action when Colonel Brian Keith is kidnapped by an Arab terrorist helpfully named Jihad (Rockne Tarkington!), and the U.S. Ambassador (Paul Winfield) is too gutless to do a damn thing. Joanna Pacula plays a woman with somewhat ambiguous motives.

 

How in the hell is this not a Michael Dudikoff vehicle from The Cannon Group? No, instead this 1987 military actioner directed by Terry Leonard (a veteran stuntman and 2nd Unit director in his one and only directorial stint), written by John Gatliff (who according to IMDb has no other film credits at all), stars former TV star and former American footballer Fred Dryer (best known for a TV show called “Hunter”) and comes from New World Pictures. It’s a bit classier than a lot of what Cannon churned out, with a surprisingly classy music score from the usually cheapo Aussie composer Brian May (“Mad Max”, “Gallipoli”, “Turkey Shoot”), and generally competent performances.

 

Fred Dryer is perfectly fine in the lead (better than Dudikoff or Chuck Norris would’ve been), but the film does lack a suitable action star with real gravitas, if you ask me. Dryer is more Richard Widmark than Sly Stallone or Bruce Willis, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Brian Keith is his usual excellent, gruff self in a nothing role (what an underrated actor!), and deep-voiced Rockne Tarkington is better as the Arab terrorist than you’d expect an African-American named Rockne Tarkington to be playing an Arab terrorist. His deep voice serves him particularly well. Joanna Pacula isn’t much of an actress but she’s never been hotter than she is here. The worst offender in the cast is, rather surprisingly, the otherwise talented Paul Winfield. He’s actually pretty stiff and stilted, and his Ambassador character is really the Angry Black Police Chief stereotype in disguise, if you ask me.

 

The film is pretty mediocre, but in low-budget 80s action movie terms, that makes it a bit better than average. Pretty violent, pretty racist (not just towards Arabs, but essentially anyone with an accent), though compared to a lot of other low-budget actioners of the time, it’s actually a bit more thoughtful. Perhaps that’s why Cannon (and Chuck Norris) aren’t involved. It’s interesting that an American film from the 1980s, set in the Middle East has a character saying ‘Go home, American. This isn’t your war!’. Real interesting, though there’s no doubt it’s still pro-American and anti-Arab/Islam at the end of the day.

 

If there’s an audience for the horrible and racist “Invasion USA” (and apparently there was and still is), there should be one for this. It’s not bad, especially if you’re into military actioners and hot chicks.

 

Rating: C+

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Review: The Dark Crystal


Set in a fantasy world divided into two main races; The evil and grotesque Skeksis, and the peaceful Mystics. When a shard of the Dark Crystal (which essentially keeps things in balance) is lost, it threatens the balance of the world into evil and darkness. Jen (voice of Stephen Garlick) is the last of the elfin Gelfling race who is assigned the task of finding the missing shard and putting it back in its rightful place before the Skeksis’ power becomes all-encompassing and darkness rules forever.

 

This is one of those movies that I was exposed to at such an early age that I’m fuzzy as to whether I even sat through the whole thing. I do remember not being terribly interested in it, but being that it came out in 1982 and I was born in 1980, it’s unsurprising. As a 32 year-old, I feel that although supposedly geared towards kids, the film actually works a lot better for an older audience, so long as they’re an audience exposed to The Muppets and interested in the fantasy genre.

 

Directed by Muppets creator Jim Henson (“Labyrinth”) and Miss Piggy himself (shut up, I’m hilarious), in Frank Oz, this fantasy film is much more Tolkien than “The Muppet Show” or even “Fraggle Rock”. Actually, as written by David Odell (“Supergirl”, “Masters of the Universe”), the plot is probably a combo of “Lord of the Rings” and “The Time Machine”. I might not have appreciated as a real young ‘un, but I actually enjoyed it as an adult and think those aged 12 and up probably got something out of it back in the day, so long as they’re into fantasy. Would the 12 year-olds of today feel the same? Perhaps not, but I’m 32, not 12, and can only tell you that I was pleasantly surprised, whilst still seeing why the film wasn’t quite the box-office juggernaut everyone was probably hoping for. If you enjoyed “Willow”, I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy this too.

 

It’s a really good-looking and imaginative-looking tale (the fantasy world is interestingly designed and detailed), with far more intricate puppet design than anything you’d see on “The Muppet Show” or “Fraggle Rock”. The nasty vulture-like Skeksis’ in particular, are a long way from the simple green felt of Kermit the Frog. One Skeksis in particular might go a long way to explaining the hatred many harboured for Jar-Jar Binks. He’s untrustworthy despite his protestations of wanting to be friends, and sounds like a less Jamaican Jar-Jar. I bet Henson and his team had a whale of a time here letting their imaginations run riot. Conceptual designer Brian Froud, in particular, deserves praise here, as apparently the majority of the film’s visual aesthetic came from his efforts. I guess you could call this puppetry somewhat technologically outdated, but like the stop-motion work of Ray Harryhausen (“Clash of the Titans”, “Jason and the Argonauts”), there’s a charm to it, and if you were raised on the Muppets, accepting this as real for 90 minutes or so won’t be a problem. For 1982, this stuff is pretty damn well-done (shitty animated flames notwithstanding), and it makes you wonder why the puppet design on “Sesame Street” has never really evolved. Something about colour-coded simplicity playing well with the young ‘uns, maybe.

 

Most of the voice work is pretty good, with narrator Joseph O’Connor and old pro Billie Whitelaw especially memorable (the latter playing Aughra, an old crone with a detachable eye). Having said that, why does the latter always look and sound like she’s taking a dump? It’s very, very weird. The weakest aspect to the entire film are the central characters of Jen and Kira and the dull voice work of Stephen Garlick and Lisa Maxwell in those roles. Jen looks alarmingly like Barbra Streisand, and Garlick in particular is bland as hell in what is essentially a third-rate Frodo Baggins. For starters, his race are called Gelflings, which sound like halfway between an Elf and a Halfling. But the actors have to work overtime to get any emotion out given it isn’t possible to express such things on their puppet faces, and both Garlick and Maxwell fail miserably. It simply isn’t fair to lay the blame at the puppetry, because Grover, Elmo, and other Muppets have been able to affect us quite easily. Hell, Tiny Tim in “Muppet Christmas Carol” makes me cry every damn time!

 

This isn’t a great film, and the plot is standard fantasy fare, with the results being best suited to a niche market. I also think the two story strands take too long to tie together, with the Skeksis skulking around for too long, waiting for Jen to turn up. However, I think it’s pretty enjoyable for what it is, and certainly a lot more ambitious than anything previously attempted by the Henson stable. It actually stands up better than a lot of other early 80s fantasy films. View it as a kind of ‘Live Action Animation’ rather than live action or animation solely, and you might get on the film’s wavelength. Where has this film been all my life? Good, but sparingly used Trevor Jones (“Labyrinth”, “Excalibur”) music score too.

 

Rating: B-

Review: Labyrinth


Jennifer Connelly plays a teenager dreamer assigned the annoying task of babysitting her baby brother Toby while her parents are out. She wishes the Goblin King would come and take Toby away. And he (David Bowie) does. But she didn’t really mean it! Yeah, shame about that. In order to get Toby back, The Goblin King assigns Connelly (having whisked her away to a faraway land) the task of solving a series of puzzles in the title maze-like structure within a certain period of time. Meanwhile, Connelly encounters a series of colourful and eccentric characters and bizarre happenings and obstacles in her way.

 

This 1986 Jim Henson (co-creator of The Muppets, co-director of “The Dark Crystal”, both with Frank Oz) juvenile fantasy has a very special place in my heart as being one of, if not the first movie I ever saw in cinemas...that I didn’t get scared and start screaming like in. “Return to Oz” and “The Goonies” (the latter now one of my favourite films) were not happy cinema-going experiences for me, but this one I was able to sit all the way through. I was, however, dragged kicking and screaming into the theatre, because I would’ve rather stayed home and watched “The Sooty Show” on TV. I was really pissed about it. I was about 6 years old, though, so bear that in mind. Sooty was a very big deal to me back then, and I hadn’t heard of David Bowie at the time. Seeing it again in 2013, I certainly sat through it, though it hasn’t aged quite as well as I had hoped. It’s certainly a far less oppressively gloomy and frightening film than “Return to Oz”, however.

 

The classic fantasy story (basically a reworking of “Alice in Wonderland” by way of “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Dark Crystal”), labyrinth set, and gorgeous young Jennifer Connelly are all in the film’s favour. Most of the film, in fact, holds up fine. However, every time the film puts David Bowie and his music front and centre, the whole thing stops dead. In a role Tim Curry would hit out of the park, Bowie only seems interested in his songs, with Henson similarly disinterested in the character as Bowie isn’t on screen nearly enough to really register. He was definitely better in “The Hunger”, that’s for sure. I don’t like musicals and the songs certainly don’t represent Bowie at anywhere near his best. In fact, they simply wouldn’t rate a mention independent of the film. He looks great, though, in a wonderfully ridiculous sort of way, and the synth-pop is at least more fitting here than the prog rock crap was in “Ladyhawke”. It’s just that there’s no reason for David Bowie to be breaking out into song except...he’s David Bowie. Kids don’t give a shit about his music, so it’s jarring, unnecessary, and like I said, it stops the film dead. Thus the film, otherwise fun, isn’t all that it could have been. Despite Bowie’s songs, it seems to play better to the younger set than “The Dark Crystal” did, but “The Dark Crystal” is perhaps preferable to fantasy buffs.

 

Although the technology has somewhat dated, the creature design here is interesting (even though Bowie’s underlings are obvious descendants of the Skeksis from “The Dark Crystal”), and as I said earlier, the labyrinth itself looks great. I always wanted one of those maze hedge garden thingies. One character looks like Basil Brush in a pirate costume if you ask me, and is quite loveable actually. An Old English Sheepdog, however, steals the film, which is kinda funny because for a film full of puppets, I’m pretty sure Ambrosius is played by a real dog. Connelly doesn’t give an A-grade performance here, but she interacts with the creatures convincingly enough, and is absolutely gorgeous. I had a crush on her at age 6 and still feel that way now that I’m 32.

 

The film has flaws, but the story is pretty classic stuff, and the film is a pretty solid juvenile fantasy. I just wish it weren’t also a musical, because it ends up playing like a series of set pieces rather than a real narrative, even though there is an obvious “Alice in Wonderland” story in there. The screenplay, by the way, comes from one Terry Jones (of Monty Python infamy), based on a story by Henson and Denise Lee. I’m willing to bet that the Basil Brush-esque character came from Welshman Jones (Though I’ve heard a great deal of Jones’ script was thrown out, so who knows).

 

Two interesting observations during the film: 1) The editor’s last name is Grover. OK, so I’m probably the only one to find that funny. 2) At one point, Connelly calls Hoggle ‘Hogwart’. Hmmm, where have I heard that word before?

 

Rating: B-

Monday, March 18, 2013

Review: Caught in the Crossfire


Two cops (Chris Klein and Adam Rodriguez) are told of a group of corrupt officers by a snitch (Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson), after a colleague of theirs has been gunned down. Unfortunately, when they go to check things out, the fit hits the shans and people die. As a result, Klein and Rodriguez are interrogated by cops Richard T. Jones and Matthew Matthias, to explain their actions. Needless to say, there’s more than meets the eye here, as it’s tough to tell the good guys from the bad guys.

 

If you’re a fan of cop shows like “The Wire”, then you might be able to tolerate this 2010 direct-to-DVD police number from writer-director Brian A. Miller, which features the ‘all-star’ line-up of ’50 Cent’, Chris Klein, Adam Rodriguez, and Richard T. Jones. It’s the kind of stuff you could see on a TV show, but not the kind of TV show I’d watch unless Agents Gibbs, DiNozzo or David are involved. It gave me nothing. A predictable and clichéd structure, and an ugly video look where night scenes either look purple and stormy-looking, or dark blue and give a back-projection vibe, which for me is the main problem with films shot on video. It’s ugly, muddy, and wobbly too. It’s not “Streets of Blood” levels of unwatchable, but I still hate the way it looks. The camera wobbling in dramatic, dialogue-driven scenes is nauseating and stupid. It’s a crime against good cinema and it needs to be stopped, people!

 

And then there’s the acting. When a cameo by rapper 50 Cent (mostly seen in flashbacks) represents the best acting in an entire film, you know you’re in deep trouble. He’s not got much of a range as an actor, but he’s smart enough not to accept roles that go beyond that range. Oh boy. If you thought Chris Klein was terrible in “Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li”, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. He’s aggressively awful. Still trying to convince everyone he can cut it as a brooding tough guy, he goes even further this time by adopting a worse rasp than even Christian Bale, and a ridiculous sneer...in every single scene. You’re not hard, Chris. You’re just not. You couldn’t even hang on to Katie Holmes, for cryin’ out loud, and even Keanu Reeves laughs at your attempts at acting. I shouldn’t pick on him perhaps, he looks like he truly hates life here. I’m not sure if it’s the character or if Klein just had a bug up his arse the whole time, or at least a major hangover (The camerawork certainly reflects the half-drunk, half-hungover state of Klein’s performance). Or maybe he was sniffing rotting corpses in his trailer between takes. But who the fuck does that? Also, for the second straight film after “Legend of Chun-Li”, Klein’s awful acting suggests he’s been inhabited by the spirit of Nic Cage, except Cage is still alive (Although some might argue he’s a vampire). He talks through his teeth, for a start. Actually, scratch that. He’s doing Keanu Reeves doing Nic Cage. Watch the film and tell me I’m wrong. His performance here eclipses his pathetic work in “Legend of Chun-Li”, if that’s at all possible. How did anyone allow him to do this on camera? Why are people so unkind?

 

Co-star Adam Rodriguez is bland and invisible, so at least he doesn’t beat the audience over the head with his awfulness like Klein. Richard T. Jones’ bland performance and lack of charisma and presence just made me think about how much better this film would’ve been with Bill Duke in the role, with Miguel Ferrer as the other interrogator, and James Franco and Ben Foster in the Klein and Rodriguez roles. Keep 50 Cent around, though, he’s at least lively here. But not even a good cast can save a clichéd, dull, and horrible-looking film.

 

There’s practically no action, either, which is just ridiculous for a straight-to-DVD cop flick. It’s mostly set in the interrogation room with flashbacks, but even the flashbacks aren’t exciting. What, Mr. Miller, you thought this crap was Sidney Lumet (“Serpico”) material? Credit where it’s due, the film’s big twist escaped me, but I still didn’t give even half a crap because the rest sucks. The twist shows that certain characters have been clever, but that doesn’t make the previous 90 minutes interesting enough to care. It just goes to show that whilst a bad ending can make an entire film pointless, but the opposite is not the case.

 

Rating: D

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Review: Gallipoli


A WWI tale from the Australian POV, specifically focusing on two young lads (Mark Lee and Mel Gibson) enlisting to do their part in the war. The duo are runners back home, and although cynical Gibson feels this isn’t ‘our bloody war’, he decides to join his more patriotic mates nonetheless. Lee is an idealist who wants to enlist and join the Light Horse cavalry, even if it means lying about his age to get in. They become separated when Gibson’s lack of riding skills see him used as an infantryman, whilst Lee becomes part of the Light Horse cavalry, alongside his other mates (Tim McKenzie, David Argue, and Robert Grubb). Bill Hunter plays Maj. Barton, an Aussie officer forced by his pompous Brit superiors (who generally cock things up strategically, at the potential expense of young lives) to send these young men into skirmishes they likely won’t survive.

 

Directed by Peter Weir (“Picnic at Hanging Rock”, “Witness”) in 1981, this is without question one of the best Australian movies ever made, if not the best (“Muriel’s Wedding” would be the only other one to come close to topping it for my money). I’m not big on patriotism or even mateship, but it’s pretty hard to argue against the two World Wars, and of any film to deal with mateship, this is the one you want to see. For starters, it ends up being essentially anti-war, like any realistic and honest depiction of war will ultimately end up as. If done correctly, it will look scary, chaotic, pointless, crazy, and awful. That’s certainly the case here (Mel Gibson acts out much of this in just one scene where acting as a runner and trying not to get shot). War is not nice, war is not logical, war is not necessary, war is...inevitable. It doesn’t beat you over the head with anti-war sentiment like some other films, it simply presents the situation, and it’s hard to get all rah-rah and patriotic about it. So if you’re not a pro-war kinda person, don’t worry, this ain’t right-wing propaganda anymore than it is left-wing propaganda. It’s just a depiction of what happened, as told by director Weir and writer David Williamson (“Don’s Party”, “The Year of Living Dangerously”). It’s such a persuasive and enjoyable film that even flaws like Mark Lee’s complete lack of charisma and the godawful synth score by Brian May (“Turkey Shoot”, “Roadgames”, “Mad Max”) don’t really ruin the entertainment value nor the artistic merit.

 

One of the main points being made here that resonates particularly well is the notion that wars send our young and innocent off and many of them will never return. That’s why the mateship angle isn’t as twee as it might’ve been, because you really need your mates in this situation or you might get killed. And indeed, many of these men saw their mates die right beside them. The early section of the film focuses on how young and enthusiastic these guys were at the outset, which obviously results in them getting a grim reality check later on. It also makes for a very convincing depiction of Australia’s attitude to the war and contribution to it. Mel Gibson utters the line ‘Because it’s not our bloody war!’ early on in the film, and it’s a line we seem to have been using for every single war ever since. It’s never our war, and I’ve never understood Australia entering any war, given how far away we are from everyone else. So I was glad that, although the film ultimately champions the (genuine) heroism of our diggers, it also includes more cynical attitudes towards war. And let’s face it, there’s too much larrikinism in the Aussie spirit for us to get too patriotic and rah-rah about these things anyway, which is one of the strongest things about this film (and “The Odd Angry Shot”, too). Like I said, it’s an anti-war film, but not in the usual way. It’s pro national service, but once we actually get to the war itself? Not so much, and Aussies being Aussies, the soldiers are often seen as insubordinate, boorish ratbags. Personally, I see those as positive attributes. We’ll help out the poms, sure. But don’t ask us to bloody salute, mate (BTW, the film doesn’t paint the British terribly fairly, but it wouldn’t be Australian to do that, in a way). The most perfectly Australian moment in the whole film is when a soldier walks past a buried hand, shakes it, and says ‘Nice to meet ‘ya!’.

 

The film stands out amongst other war films firstly because of the Australian perspective, but the characters of the young soldiers are also unlike any other war film. You don’t get the token Swede named Ole, or any of the other war movie stereotypes. These are largely just average, knockabout blokes, except idealistic Lee, and prudish David Argue. Argue is particularly hilarious, and seems like he was probably stoned throughout filming. His final moment on screen is touching, but not in a cheesy, overly sentimental way. By far the most impressive character is Bill Hunter’s stoic Major, a guy who wouldn’t ask his men to do anything he himself wasn’t prepared to do. His reply to a soldier asking if he’s scared just about sums it all up; ‘Who isn’t, son?’. I can’t even begin to imagine what it takes to put your life on the line, and anti-war or not, I do respect the troops, just not in any jingoistic way. Meanwhile, Harold Hopkins doesn’t have many moments on screen, but he makes them count, as a guy clearly not fit for war. Grizzled Bill Kerr is brilliant. That is all.

 

By the way, just one thing I noticed watching the film this time around (***** SPOILER WARNING *****); Given Lee is the faster runner of the two, and he turns down the chance to run, giving Gibson the gig, doesn’t that kinda make it his fault that Gibson doesn’t get the message across in time and it all goes to hell? Lee stubbornly chooses to fight instead of run, and it gets people killed. Idiot. Just something I noticed. ***** END SPOILER ******

 

The film looks absolutely gorgeous, thanks to the superlative scenery, but also the cinematography by Russell Boyd (“Picnic at Hanging Rock”, “The Last Wave”). As I said earlier, May’s score (reminiscent of The Alan Parsons Project or Emerson, Lake and Palmer) is terribly inappropriate and just flat-out awful. Perhaps it was following a trend set by Vangelis in “Chariots of Fire”, I’m not sure which came out first, but boy does it not work here, even if they both have ‘running’ themes. It’s so distracting that you find yourself taken out of the action every time it starts up, and transports you to something resembling a shite, low-budget Ozploitation film (Excellent sound design, though). I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that diggers spotting May in a pub cold-cocked him on sight. I’m not suggesting you do such a thing, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it has happened. It’s that bad. But this is just one aspect of an otherwise landmark (benchmark?) Australian film.

 

The film only presents warfare on screen in the final third or so, but you actually don’t notice that on first viewing because you’re too wrapped up in the classic storytelling. Hell, for the first half it actually plays (and thanks to Boyd, looks) like an Aussie western, and might even remind you a bit of “The Sundowners”, but with a legit Aussie cast. Bill Kerr in particular is so persuasive and interesting, you almost wish they forgot about the war and just stayed with his character instead. But all of the characters resonate, even if they’re played as blandly as Mark Lee. You care about these characters, these slightly naive but brave young men. I doubt that the emphasis on drama was for budgetary reasons, as dramas were the order of the day for Aussie films (and TV) at the time, but for once, here’s a film that could’ve stood to be even longer, with more war scenes. Nonetheless, the film stacks up admirably well against the best war films of British and American cinema.

 

Although I’m more of a Remembrance Day guy (that is, mourning the casualties of every war) than an ANZAC Day guy (mostly celebrating the contribution of the troops), there’s no doubt that this story deserved to be told and yes, retold every year I suppose. As you can tell, I’m a bit conflicted on the issue of war. And it’s told extremely well here, a story of heroism, tactical error, sacrifice, and mateship. I can’t think of a finer Australian film ever made. I just wish the DVD came with a function that removed the music score and replaced it with Redgum’s ‘19’ played on a loop.

 

Other than the music, this seems a very authentic presentation of the Aussie experience during WWI. It’s almost worth watching the film for the scene where the diggers play football amidst the Great Pyramids. I hate that it’s Rugby Union and not Rugby League, but whatever.

 

Rating: A

Review: Arena


Kellan Lutz is in a sorry state. His girlfriend was killed in a car crash, and after a drunken hook-up with a sexy minx (Katia Winter), he is kidnapped and forced to compete in gladiatorial combat in an illegal tournament broadcast online and overseen by a megalomaniacal Samuel L. Jackson. I hate it when that happens. Daniel Dae Kim plays a fellow fighter, Nina Dobrev is Lutz’s ill-fated girlfriend, Johnny Messner plays Jackson’s lead henchman, and James Remar appears as a man claiming to be Lutz’s brother.

 

Y’know, Samuel L. Jackson is one helluva actor (just look at “Jackie Brown”, “Black Snake Moan”, “Jungle Fever”, “Changing Lanes”, etc.) and one of the coolest guys in movies (“Shaft”, anyone?), but...every now and then he seems to lose his freakin’ mind and embarrasses himself on film. “The Spirit”, for instance, is a stupid arse film, but Jackson is embarrassingly hammy in it. And in this 2011 fight movie from director Jonah Loop, Jackson is once again having an off day. This time, though, not only is he embarrassingly hammy, but he’s so clearly slumming it here that I’m worried that he’s verging on a Lou Gossett Jr. or Cuba Gooding Jr. career plummet. Good thing he’s not Samuel L. Jackson Jr. then, I suppose.

 

The film itself isn’t awful, but it’s not enjoyable either (outside of Katia Winter’s wonderful and refreshing full-frontal nudity), bringing nothing new to an already stale subgenre. Maybe Jackson thought having a “Twilight” actor in the lead would see this get a theatrical release, but the material is direct-to-DVD all the way. Jackson should be thankful, though, because at least the vast majority of people won’t hear him fatuously quote Strother Martin in “Cool Hand Luke”. It’s pretty dull stuff, and too much handheld/slow-mo makes the fight scenes uninteresting. Most of these films live or die by the fight scenes, and this film just doesn’t impress in that area.

 

The one thing the film does have going for it is its look. It’s washed-out yet not monochromatic, unpleasant, or uninteresting. In some ways it’s even kinda colourful, just not especially bright or vibrant. That’s a very tricky thing to achieve, but Nelson Cragg manages to pull it off admirably.

 

Kellan Lutz (a cross between “Twilight” alum Taylor Lautner and Cam Gigandet) is a better actor than “Twilight” stars Robert Pattinson and the aforementioned Lautner (and certainly the pathetic Gigandet), but he’s still a pretty stone-faced sort and not very appealing to this heterosexual male. I’d say that’s why he hasn’t really broken out, but then Pattinson looks like a wet fart and Lautner is more wooden than many rainforests. Winter is attractive, but not much of an actress. She also seems to wear more clothes the longer the film goes on, and is thus is less appealing the longer the film goes on. Better are Daniel Dae Kim and Johnny Messner, but the former gets wiped out early (after his one big speech) and the latter isn’t on screen enough to really matter a damn. Meanwhile, Loop and screenwriters Tony Giglio, Michael Hultquist, and Robert Martinez must assume we’re all intimately familiar with this plot, because the film’s world and set-up is quite lacking. Would someone really go to all this trouble just for online hits? I can’t believe that. I certainly think Mr. Giglio is familiar with this plot because he’s borrowed most of it from his own screenplay for “Death Race 2”, minus the cars. I also felt like the Winter character was lacking in any depth or motivation whatsoever, which isn’t ambiguous, it’s irritating.

 

The film is also so ridiculously bloody and sensationalistic at times that the big twist seems absolutely stupid and implausible. A condescendingly hammy and ineffectual Samuel L. Jackson, a tired plot, and uninteresting fight scenes prove a deathly dull combination. Now does anyone know what these incriminating photos are that someone is clearly holding over my main man Sammy J? They must be pretty damn scandalous.

 

Rating: C