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BRUISER (2001)

Bruiser Starring: Jason Flemyng, Peter Stormare, Leslie Hope. Director and Writer: George Romero
George Romero is a very talented film-maker. He's best known for his “Dead” films, Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead, as well as a handful of Stephen King adaptations.

Bruiser was made in 2000 and, near as I can tell, was just dumped direct to video. On the one hand that's a shame, because Romero can make interesting films; on the other hand, this isn't really one of them. It's well-made, and well-acted, and the dialogue is pretty good and some of the situations are staged nicely. It's just the central idea which seems under-developed.

Jason Flemyng plays a nice guy who is dumped on by everyone. His wife is sleeping around, his boss belittles him, his best friend cheats him, his housekeeper steals the silverware. He seems to know all this is going on, but he's too much of a milquetoast to do anything about it.

Then, one night, he goes to a party where everyone is wearing masks. They're supposed to decorate them, but as a symbol of his nothingness (as I recall) Jason leaves his plain. The next morning, he wakes up and his face has become the mask. Now that he “has no face” his confidence and self-assurance come to the fore, and he starts killing the people who have made his life Hell.

It's an interesting concept, the fact that he has no identity frees him to do things that his normal “personality” wouldn't permit. A kind of Jekyll-Hyde thing (Jason Flemyng would play him in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), but without Hyde. The blank nature of his new personality allows him to fill it with whatever traits are useful for him to achieve his ends. Which in this case, is killing a bunch of people.

The flaw in the presentation is that even though he has this mask-face, everyone knows it's Jason. No one changes the way they behave toward him. They see the mask and they're a tad disturbed by this, but they just go on. So, they're pretty shocked when he kills them. Perhaps this is Romero's way of saying that people don't really change when presented with a new situation, they just try their hardest to bluff through and hope things go back to the way they were. Jason, with no face, doesn't have this problem.

A second flaw is that none of our main characters are very sympathetic. It's pretty obvious that the people who are screwing Jason over are meant to be seen as, well, not sure how to put worth murdering. But Jason himself comes across as so weak and so spineless that it's difficult for the audience (me) to really sympathize with him to any great degree. Sure he's a nice guy, but we never put ourselves in his shoes.

Recommendation? I'm kind of torn on this one. On the one hand, it's always good to watch a superior craftsman at work. On the other hand, it's kind of disappointing when that craftsmanship isn't really put toward something artistic, or even practical. So I would say this is a recommended film, but it's a cautious and half-hearted recommendation. Kind of like the film itself, I guess.

In case you're wondering, the title refers to a magazine, kind of a Maxim type men's fashion thing.

Keep trying, George. Some day I want to thank you for more than memories.

The Crawlers Starring: Jason Saucier, Mary Sellers. Director: Martin Newlin. Typists: Martin Newlin, Dan Price
You should know something. First and foremost, Troll II is widely regarded as one of the worst movies ever made. Even people who like bad movies say Troll II is terrible. They say it has no redeeming value at all, and I trust them.

This movie, The Crawlers, was made under the title Troll III.

Think about that. Someone thought that one of the worst movies of all deserved another sequel. I'll let you ponder that a moment, so you won't be too surprised if I tell you that The Crawlers is pretty bad.

I watched it one night with a friend of mine. As the credits began to roll, I said (jokingly) “Wow, look at all those Anglicized names!” It turns out I was right, this movie was made by Italians.

I have nothing against Italians. But a huge number of their films stink. This is another one.

I will give the movie this: the menace is pretty unique. I don't think I've seen a “monster” quite like this, and just to give the movie a bit of dignity, I won't give away what it is. The surprise is the only worthwhile enjoyment I got out of the film. Another nice bit is that when the “monster” kills people, it genuinely seems to hurt. There is a lot of agonized screaming.

Back over in the debit column, at the film's climax, no one bothers to hide the fact that the earthmoving equipment, in every explosion or effects shot, are all played by toy trucks. A bit tighter editing (and not using the same footage over and over) might have hidden this, but they chose not to, and even if you're not looking for it (I wasn't) it's really, really obvious.

The acting is basically terrible all around. The Evil Corporate Scientist guy says everything with the INTENSE switch stuck on full. The Corrupt Sheriff drones unemotionally. More cliché characters are the Hooker With A Heart Of Gold, The Scientist Who Knows What's Going On But is Too Incoherrent, The Designated Victim Girl (who has a nice figure but never gets naked), The Geeky Hero, Blah Blah Blach. There are some unexpected deaths here and there, but overall it's just not worth it. In fact, contained below is the nature of the “monster” in hidden text. Highlight it with your mouse if you want to learn the incredible secret! I've just now decided it's not worth it to punish you like this.

The “monster” is actually a whole forrest. Poisonous ooze (courtesy Evil Corporate Scientist) has leaked into the ground and made the trees, well, pretty pissed off I guess. They use their roots like tentacles and spear people and crush them and things.

Oh, and don't be fooled by the box art, which shows a hot babe entangled in shrubbery. She's nowhere near this movie. Was I fooled by this box? Well, I suppose so. Let me add the box cover art to the small list of good things about this movie. Okay, we're even.

Godzilla Starring: Matthew Broderick, Jean Reno, Harry Shearer, Hank Azaria. Director: Roland Emmerich. Camp counselors: Dean Devlin, Roland Emmerich
If movies were measured in anything other than reels and running times, this film might appear as a little cardboard shoe box, filled with little death's head symbols. If, as is fashionable nowadays, I can blame someone else for my problems, I'm going to blame Godzilla for the fact that I will, on occasion, take one more beer than I really need.

I buy a lot of DVDs sight unseen, because they're cheap and something about them promises more than the usual sort of thrill. Or, because they look like they might be fun.

Godzilla was one of those purchases, and the fact that everyone seemed to hate it the year it appeared didn't faze me. Critcal opinion is more often a crticism of other criticisms, and I thought maybe this was the case. Also, I had enjoyed the critically reviled Independence Day, from the same creative team. So, “how bad could it be?”

If nothing else, it would probably have some decent special effects, some nice destruction, and some fun. That's little enough to ask, I figured. And I bought it. In more ways than one.

Now, this is a bad film, and a stupid film, but its really amazing power over me was that, out of maybe six or seven viewings, I was only able to remain sober once. Think about that for a second. That's got to be an argument of some kind. And I think the argument is that the film is not only stupid, it has this weird, seriously-applied, intense, deliberate stupidity.

Now, as I've said, my method of watching a film is to apply absolutely no pre-judgement to the work at hand; I want it to be itself, and to either entertain me or not, based on what it has to offer, and not what I am expecting, or what other people have said, or what other films are like this, etc. But if you think back to before this film opened, there were a series of very good teaser trailers which ended with the words “SIZE...DOES...MATTER” and if you saw those, you might have had the idea (as I did) At last, a giant monster film, done right. (Those of you who hate Independence Day must admit that it takes itself very seriously.) The fact that the tagline was a sex joke should have set off alarm bells, but it did not, because I wanted to believe.

A brief confession: I have never been a fan of Japanses giant monster films. They always seemed stupid to me. Not deliberately stupid, but just plain dumb. (Bill Warren writes very well about the different perceptions and expectations between Japanese and American moviegoers in Volume Two of “Keep Watching The Skies.” What he says helps me to appreciate thiese kinds of films, but doesn't help me to enjoy them.) They are my definition of “camp” and I don't really enjoy “camp.”

Now, no, I never turned the channel when I came across one on a saturday afternoon, but come on, being superior to most television is hardly a good argument for general superiority. And I understand that there are people who genuinely love these things and I can respect that.

The problem with the 1998 Godzilla is that, of all the possible angles from the Godzilla story the film-makers could have used, they decided that their main focus, and where the might of their production power was going to be brough to bear, was on the “camp” part.

Good grief!

So, what we get is a film far, far campier than anything from Toho Stuios. We also get a cast headed by comic actors Matthew Broderick, Harry Shearer and Hank Azaria (with the great Jean Reno acting just as goofy). We get a Godzilla who looks like a toothless old man (I have never liked Patrick Tatopoulos' production design work). We get, as the Mayor points out, a military that causes more destruction than the monster. And of course, the “it's not over!” ending. We even get a weird, in-joke type scene in which a Japanese survivor is clearly heard saying “Gojira!” (the Japanese name) immediately followed by Harry Shearer, who introduced the footage, studiously intoning, “God-zilla.” And then there's the Mayor and his assistant, who look like film critics Ebert and Siskel (and “Siskel” gives “Ebert” a thumbs-down at the end). And thousands of jokes about pronoucing Matthew Broderick's character's name. And much, too much, more.

It's as if the success of Independence Day simply turned writer-producers Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin into little kids, who now had control of the candy store and were going to make themselves sick, and no one was going to stop them. Or, if you want a metaphor closer to my own heart, like college film-geeks who suddenly discovered the keg room was unlocked.

Though that sounds like fun, right? I never had fun watching Godzilla. That can be okay if the film is wrought with thought or churning with ideas, but Godzilla can't make either of those claims (despite the requisite environmental message). Two beers converged in a six pack and I, I took the one to blot Godzilla's eye, and that has made all the difference. So I reached for the other beer.

Incipient alcoholism is quite a heavy responsibility to lay upon a work of entertainment, and of course, I joke: I basically have to blame myself, and myself alone, for my own weaknesses. I'm just kidding about it being Godzilla's fault. Though I'm not kidding about my track record while watching.

Someday, someone is going to make the greatest monster movie ever. It will be serious and scary and thrilling, and the effects will be terrifying. One will really be able to sense a world placed in peril, its fate in the hands of an unreasoning, titanic force of nature. And I don't want to have to wait to long to see this film. Godzilla, though, and its failure at the box office, has pushed this hypothetical film further into the future.

Thanks a lot, guys. Well, while we wait for that film, let's have one for the road!

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow Starring: Gwynyth Paltrow, Jude Law, Giovanni Ribisi, Angelina Jolie. Directed and Written by Kerry Conran
I'm breathless. This is one of the most fun movies I've ever seen. It's a grand adventure, and I urge every one of you to see it. As soon as possible.

I'm sure you know the bare bones of the story: in some parallel 1939, 100-foot robots descend on New York City, controlled by an evil genius for some unknown purpose. And it's up to Sky Captain to save the day. But that's only the beginning for this wondrous, globe-spanning adventure. There are thrills and dangers and terrific adventures from beginning to end, with barely a pause, and yes, I sound like a press release.

I'm sure you also know the the method used to bring this film to the screen: all the actors were filmed in front of a blue screen, with only a few basic props. Everything else was generated by computer. Only the various titanic machines really look CGI, and that's rather appropriate when you think about it. But I rarely thought about that while watching this...I was just swept up in the whole adventure. It's a wonderful story, filled with incidents and characters and triumphs and set-backs, and I never once felt that there was too much going on in this film, because the focus was always there (Hellboy, take note). And I was too busy having fun.

Like almost everything else made these days, the film references dozens of older films (and other media), but instead of being done with an obnoxious wink, it's simply there for you to recognize if you wish, or ignore if you'd rather just enjoy the ride. Consider: the giant robots' heads resemble Gort from "The Day The Earth Stood still," their death-beams make the same noise as the Martian war machines from "The War of The Worlds," I think the tree-bridge on the island was meant to remind us of "King Kong," and I could swear that our first view of the abandoned mining facility was taken from an old paperback cover of Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End.

That's a handful of what must be dozens. But as I said, these things are simply there, no one rubs our faces in their iconic and familiar nature. Even better are the surprises, such as a terrific location where Sky Captain goes to refuel. It simply appears as it is, and no one in the cast gasps. The audience sure does.

Well, they would, if there was an audience there. Sadly, like cousins The Rocketeer and The Shadow, the film is not doing too well at the box office, though I suspect DVD sales will be brisk. (Just to show you how far I have fallen from the theatrical experience: one scene shows Sky Captain looking at a bunch of scattered comic books. My immediate thought was, wait a minute, let me freeze-frame that, I want to see those covers. Felt kinda silly, really.)

One reason that the film isn't doing well is the season. Perhaps I'm thinking too much of how the studios look at this stuff, but a release in September doesn't seem to be the path to box-office gold. (The film was originally scheduled to open in June, but delays with the effects caused it to be held back.)

The second reason I think it's not doing well has to do with the very nature of the film. Now this film, I think, is a perfect film for me. But who am I? And are there enough of me to make this a hit? I kind of don't think so.

You see, the film may be marketed as adventure science-fiction, but it trades on a certain knowledge of past forms—the artwork of Frank R. Paul on those old Amazing Stories magazines, the serials starring stalwart heroes fighting enemy agents, those old Fleisher Superman cartoons (ooo, ooo, there's another image: a scene showing several different deactivated robots, all leaning against the walls of a chamber, is almost an exact duplicate of a scene in Superman's “Mechanical Monsters” cartoon. Both robot groups even have numbers on their chests!).

But knowledge of these past forms, and the necessary appreciation of them, is rather limited to geeks like myself. Sure, Sky Captain, I listen to “old time radio” and wonder why we, today, don't have anything as compelling; I look at the old SF magazine covers and, while acknowledging their crudeness, still think there is something in their sheer reach that is lacking in today's more accurate work; and, badly written as they are, there is something in “Doc” Smith's universe-spanning pyrotechnics that seems to have been ground out by the more polished, we're-all-gonna-die work of folks like Harlan Ellison.

Well, enough dating myself. I think the true reason that Sky Captain will be, at best, a cult fixture is (let me see if I can repeat myself using better writing) that the mass audience cannot put themselves in the right frame to enjoy this. It's too strange; there aren't any of the modern characters we've come to expect in film, SF or otherwise; there are none of the expected “twists” whose expectation causes us to try and “out-think” the film, and thus feel superior (a spoiler I will willingly give ya: though I expected a couple of the characters to betray our heroes, they never did).

In sum, I think it's simply too foreign an experience for most folks. For me, it was the best 1930's serial ever made; who else is looking for that?

Remember when Tim Burton made “Ed Wood”? When I saw that announced as his next film, I thought, he's doomed himself. I knew who Edward D. Wood was, but how many other people knew? Who was going to see a movie about a film-maker no normal person has ever heard of? The answer, alas, was darn few. (Though Martin Landau got a well-earned Oscar.) Still, the doom prediction proved true.

I've been trying to think of the last time a huge hit movie came about because someone breathed some new life into some old forms, and I can only think of one (that was not a sequel or an “hommage”): the original Star Wars. The sequels (and other such fare, such as the Indiana Jones films) drove along the same road that Star Wars paved through virgin territory (oh, brother!). Since that time, of course, looking backwards (but always with a damned knowing wink) has become quite profitable, but never in the spirit of the original. Always updated, with some sex, some gore, and that damned knowing wink.

Until now. Sky Captain, like Star Wars, may be best catagorized not as “science fiction” but perhaps as “science nostalgia,” a look back at a future promised decades ago, that we failed to grasp when we had the chance. It worked in 1977, perhaps that broke the mold.

In terms of complaints, I found the soft-focus, montage-heavy opening a bit hard to take (thankfully this settles into more traditional storytelling). And Gwynyth know, she's cute and all but she only really came alive when she was being smirky and sarcastic. At first. Okay, by the middle of the film she had won me over. So scratch that complaint. The other performances, well, they weren't really performances at all. Again, like Star Wars, these folks filled their iconic niche well.

What else did I dislike? Nothing. This is a great movie. I'm buying it when it's released on DVD, and I'm going to show it to everyone until they kill me.

Do I hope they make a sequel? Hmm. Part of me would love to see it. Another part of me notes that you can only be an innocent, opened to a brand new world, once. After that, you need truly big surprises, not just a bigger budget. As an example, "Spy Kids" worked because it opened up the reality of the characters and placed them (and us with them) in a world they had never imagined, but had to adapt to. In "Spy Kids II," all that was already done, and the movie (while kind of fun) had no real surprises. I enjoyed the first one, shrugged (positively) at the second. But in fact, I thought the second diminished the impact of the first. I'd been on this ride already.

I would hate to have that happen to "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow." I took so much honest pleasure from this one, that, to really work, a sequel...a sequel would need a bigger window, a grander focus, in short, a lot of help, a huge amount of help. The person to help would have to be able to save the world. Why, of course, that's the answer! We need help for the sequel!

Let the call go out! Sky Captain, we need you!

Welcome to Planet Earth Starring: George Wendt, Shanna Reed, Christopher M. Brown, Anastasia Skalaris. Director: Lev L. Spiro. Writer: Michael James McDonald
Few things are more personal than one's sense of humor, and what one finds funny. There are movies and television shows that are enjoyed by lots and lots of folks, that I have never found funny, and I can't believe that the fault is everyone else's. No, with anything that evokes a non-rational response (laughter, terror, arousal), the response always depends on how non-rational you are.

So, if I tell you that Welcome to Planet Earth (known to the IMDB under the dumb, help-we-can't-sell-this-movie title of Alien Avengers) is a wonderfully funny comedy, you can salt that to taste. You may find it boring, you may find it icky (there are a couple of fairly gruesome make-up effects), you may find it in the dollar bin at WoolWorths. For me, it's a good time at the movies.

George Wendt and Shanna Reed are peculiar, seemingly clueless, enthusiastic, happy loud tourist types, who (with gorgeous daughter Daphne) show up at Christopher M. Brown's newly-inherited boarding house looking to stay for a while. The house is, shall we say, not in the nicest neighborhood and Brown, sensing these folks don't know where they are, tries to disuade them but they are insistent. Together they fix the house up into a pretty charming home.

And in the evenings, George and Shanna go out into the bad parts of town, and...but you know, I honestly don't want to spoil this for you. You can probably guess the plot, and good for you, but I found it fun from beginning to end and I'd like you to enjoy it just as much.

The cast are uniformly terrific. Well, Anastasia Skalaris, as Daphne, is very beautiful but as an actress is just adequate. Of course, as one of the two “straight man” of the cast, she may not have had as many moments to shine as the others. She already knows what's going on and thus, doesn't change through the course of the film. George Wendt is very, very funny from start to finish (I don't think I've seen him as inspired before), and Christopher M. Brown gets some good moments as well. Of course, he's the other “straight man,” but he gets to interact with the increasing strangeness of his guests and gets to show off some good comic timing.

The real treat of the show, however, is Shanna Reed. Her parody of the perfect suburban '50's mom is hyterically funny. A lot of George's humor comes from trying to excuse her to others. But as is pointed out at the beginning by some prison guards ('ll have to see the movie...), they are a genuinely loving, sweet and fun couple who enjoy each other's company. You couldn't ask for nicer neighbors (depending on how neighborly you are, of course).

Oh, and the music is terrific.

So: I highly recommend this film. Take note, as I said there are a couple of gruesome make-up effects (they didn't seem bad to me, but someone I showed the film to kind of got a sour expression), a bit of nudity (courtesy Daphne), some bad people, and there's some bad language (it's not a film for kids, though I'm sure kids would love it). Those caveats aside, I say: go and see this one. And enjoy!