Monday, August 18, 2003

Review: Vampirella (1995)

Taking comic book and comic strip characters and transferring them to the big screen has long been a popular trend, but with varying results. Some have been huge hits, like Superman, Batman and Spider-Man. Others have crashed and burned, like The Rocketeer, The Phantom and Tank Girl. Still others have sucked so badly that they were thrown straight to the tender mercies of the direct-to-video market, like The Punisher and Captain America.

Which brings me to the strange case of Vampirella.

Vampirella is a character created by Forrest J. Ackerman (better known as the longtime editor/publisher of Famous Monsters magazine); she appeared in her own black & white magazine from 1969 to 1983. She's a sexy vampire from the planet Drakulon, where the inhabitants drink blood the way we humans drink water. She was unaware of her origins, but fought on the side of good, tackling evil in all its many forms (Satanists, werewolves, demons, etc.) while wearing as little clothing as possible. In the mid-1990s, the character was successfully revived in comic books and thus became a "hot property" for film development.

So how did she wind up in an adaptation so pervasively awful that it not only stayed off the big screen, but was also damn hard to find on video until an "official" release on DVD in 2001? I couldn't tell you. It's something of a mystery. But in the hands of executive producer Roger Corman, who's made his share of fly-by-night (pun intended) productions, and Jim Wynorski, who's probably best known for the Traci Lords version of Not of This Earth (also produced by Corman) and Return of Swamp Thing, but who has spent recent years churning out direct-to-cable cheapies, Vampirella is pretty freaking hard to watch.

Talisa Soto--best known for her appearance as a Bond Girl in License to Kill--plays Vampi, who comes to our lovely little planet from Drakulon in search of the band of bad vamps who killed her dad and split in a spaceship. And Soto's really an excellent choice: She's beautiful, exotic, lithe and, when called upon, capable of acting. My only complaint about her performance is that she can't run very well in high heels. (Then again, neither can I.) At least she can talk with fangs in her mouth: most of the other vampires in the movie apparently suffer from perpetual dry mouth, constantly making weird little smacking sounds as if trying desperately to form saliva just so that they could continue muttering their lousy dialogue. Maybe their fangs were picked up at a garage sale or something.

That wouldn't surprise me. Everything about this movie simply reeks of cheapness. The sets are, at best, minimal. The costumes look strictly off the rack; even Vampi's trademark outfit looks like something they found in the discount bin at The Pleasure Chest. And the interiors of the spaceships would have embarrassed even Ed Wood. (The spaceships themselves are about as impressive-I think I did just as well back in the days when I flew my Cylon Raider around my bedroom with my hand.)

As for the you might expect, it doesn't hold very closely to the comic book. Vampi knows exactly whom she is, exactly where she came from and exactly who she's looking for: Vlad and his intergalactic gang of bloodsuckers. Speaking of sucking, though, Vlad is played by Roger Daltry, longtime lead singer for the Who and occasional fine actor. Unfortunately, Vampirella wasn't one of those occasions. Here, he sings bad vampire rock (as opposed to, um, good vampire rock), leering wide-eyed and running around in a cape like a little kid at a Halloween party who's had WAY too much sugar.

Daltry's overacting almost covers the fact that most of the rest of the cast can't act at all. The other vampires have little-to-no personality, the vampire hunters (who dress exactly like SWAT guys, except they have embroidered crosses on their baseball caps--cute) are even less distinguishable from one another, and even Vampi's main love interest in the movie is so unimpressive that she might as well not bother sucking his blood--he seems pretty dead already.

This movie is a waste of perfectly good videotape. Vampi deserved better. Talisa Soto deserved better. Hell, WE deserved better. Maybe some day, somebody will get around to making a proper Vampirella. Till then, this Vampirella is all we have--and we'd been better off having nothing at all.

(NOTE: Keep an eye out for cameos by Angus Scrimm, the Tall Man from the Phantasm films, as Vampi's father, and director John Landis as an astronaut. Maybe they had nothing better to do.)

Monday, August 11, 2003

Review: War of the Gargantuas (1966)

I'm not ashamed to say it: my love for War of the Gargantuas knows no bounds.

Maybe it's because seeing War of the Gargantuas takes me back to those Friday and Saturday nights spent curled up on the gold-upholstered couch in the family room of the apartment on Ohio Street, watching Creature Features on the tiny black & white TV.

Or maybe it's because this movie is the most action-packed of the '60s giant Japanese monster flicks, with lots of buildings being smashed, stepped on or otherwise abused and little in the way of Stupid Human Story (you know, ehere the human characters have to deal with jewel thieves or greedy entrepreneurs or political assassins or whatever.)

Or maybe it's because this movie features what may be the single worst musical number in the history of cinema.

Whatever the specific reason, War of the Gargantuas makes me happy. It's like comfort food, if comfort food could roar and punch holes through downtown Tokyo.

The movie opens at sea during a violent storm, where a boat is being attacked by a giant octopus. (This must be a problem particular to the coastal waters of Japan, as I can think of at least three other Japanese monster movies where the same thing happens.) The octopus doesn't get much of a meal, though, since it gets attacked by a creature from the deep that looks a lot like the Frankenstein Monster covered in seaweed. This green guy called Gargantua (think Bigfoot with a much, much bigger foot) starts popping up all over the place, hassling fishermen and generally scaring the crap out of the general public.

Concerned military authorities call in scientists, including Dr. Stewart (Russ Tamblyn) and his lovely assistant, Akemi (Kumi Mizuno, who also appeared in Godzilla vs. Monster Zero and Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster), who cared for a baby Gargantua years before. Could that Gargantua, who subsequently escaped, be the same one munching on civilians, like the dudes on the boat (who turn out to be smugglers, so I guess they deserved it) or a poor cleaning woman caught at the airport (Gargantua spits her shredded clothing out--ew!)? Are there two of them?

Gargantua runs back to ocean when the sun comes out--turns out he's sensitive to light, having lived in the depths all his life)--but comes out again at night, especially when the lights go down on the outdoor deck of a downtown Tokyo nightclub for an awful musical number sung by Kipp Hamilton called "The Words Get Stuck in My Throat" (if only they really did, Kipp, if only they really did). Fortunately, Green Gargantua toddles up and tries to eat Kipp, thus ending her song (and sparing our ears from any more hemorraging).

The bright lights of the big city drive off the mean green eating machine again, though, and he runs into the forest, where the military attacks with damn near everything--tanks, rockets, lasers, electrodes, you name it. And you know what? The barrage actually works! Green Gargantua is down and nearly out when an even bigger Brown Gargantua shows up and saves the green one's mossy ass. The scientists analyze the cells of both and find that the brown one was the one Stewart and Akemi had found so kind and gentle years before and that the green one grew from cells torn off the brown one. So they're not really brothers, but more like clones.)

This would probably make slightly more sense if the American distributor hadn't removed footage and dialogue that connected War of the Gargantuas to its predecessor, the even more ridiculous Frankenstein Conquers the World, which had nearly the same plot (two monsters, one of them innocent) and roughly the same conclusion.

Brown Gargantua, who breaks his leg saving his old friend Akemi from falling off a cliff, tries to help hide and heal Green Gargantua until he figures out that his "brother" has been chomping on the tourists, at which point he smacks GG with a tree and the title fight is on. This leads to an all-out kaiju smackdown in Tokyo, with the two monsters body-slamming one another while the military tries to kill both of them. They needn't have wasted the ammo, though, as a conveniently erupting volcano (in Tokyo Bay?!?) destroys both Gargantuas. (Or we assume they were destroyed, since there wasn't a sequel to War of the Gargantuas.)

Unlike a lot of other kaiju classics, War of the Gargantuas never even pretends to take itself seriously. It's blissfully silly, fast-paced and colorful--just what you need to go with your bowl of popcorn on a Saturday night.

Review: Gigli (2003)

In the theater where I saw Gigli, there was a couple sitting in the front row. For much of the two hours and six minutes it takes for this movie to lumber, stumble and brey its way from its first reel to its last, they barely paid attention to the images flickering on the screen above them, choosing instead to spend much of the time macking on each other and even straddling one another during some of the more darkly lit scenes. I mention this only because the show they put on for the widely scattered audience (a dozen in all for the Sunday matinee) was decidely more interesting than anything on the screen.

Ben Affleck plays the title character, Larry Gigli ("It's pronounced 'GEE-lee,' sounds like "really"), a low-level thug working for a slightly higher-level thug, Louis (Lenny Venito), who considers Larry a total fuck-up. Does that stop Louis from giving Larry the important assignment of kidnapping the mentally challenged, institutionalized younger brother of a federal prosecutor who's hassling their boss (Al Pacino)? Nope. Wouldn't have had much a movie otherwise. (Not that we have much of a movie anyway.) Larry manages to spirit away Brian (Justin Bartha, in his first and, we can hope, only big-screen appearance) away from the mental hospital and back to his apartment. Along the way, Larry finds that Brian appears to have Tourette's Syndrome (blurting expletives at random) or maybe Down Syndrome (innocent, yet wise) or some magical blend thereof that you never find outside the movies.

So doubtful of Larry's ability to carry out the assignment that he contracts Ricki (Jennifer Lopez), supposedly a killer-for-hire, even though we never see her--or Larry, for that matter--kill or even hurt anyone. Ricki is also supposedly "Gay...a lesbian," which doesn't stop Larry from crushing on her, arguing with her about the superiority of the male appendage, decaring that each relationship has "a cow" and "a bull" (he's right about the "bull," just not the way he meant it)...just generally making an ass out of himself. Not that it's hard to do that: Larry doesn't own any books and has to read the label of a bottle of Tobasco as a bedtime story for Brian. (Wonder if Tobasco had to pay for that product placement--if so, they got ripped off.)

And that's pretty much the movie, aside from some brief detours provided by stars who ought to have known better. Christopher Walken pops in as a cop who hassles Larry and Ricki in a scene so poorly constructed and framed that it looks like Walken and Lopez aren't even in the same room. (Note to Walken or whomever approves scripts for him: after appearing in The Country Bears, Kangaroo Jack and now Gigli, all of which qualify as the celluloid equivalent of used toilet paper, you might want to think about being a bit more selective.) Lanie Kazan shows up long enough to get an injection in her ass and to lavish praise on Lopez's overwhelming beauty. And Pacino's single scene is almost forgivable, since he glides into town to tell all the major characters that they're fucking idiots. (Yea, Al!)

There's plenty of blame to go around here. Neither Affleck nor Lopez should have come within a thousand miles of this film--both have been in recent hit movies and, regardless of what you thought of Daredevil or The Wedding Planner, both qualify as major movie stars. That's probably how this movie got made--through their combined star power. They met for the first time on the set of Gigli and began their overpublicized romance there, yet little of that spark makes it onto the screen--the attempted romance is nearly as lifeless as the look in Affleck's eyes as talks out of the left side of his mouth in some sort of indeterminate tough-guy accent (like he's from New York, even though his character apparently grew up in California). And Lopez seems like she's perpetually on the verge of cracking up at the mind-numbing lines of dialogue she has to deliver (or has to hear coming out of Affleck's mouth).

And there is where much of the blame must rest--with Martin Brest, who not only directed and co-produced this mess, but wrote the screenplay, which will no doubt be the subject of many film school term papers for decades to come. Brest has done good work before, in Midnight Run and Scent of a Woman (for which Pacino won his second Oscar), but here he goes wrong in every way possible. Not one word of dialogue in Gigli sounds like it's being spoken by a real human being; instead, it sounds like low-rent Kevin Smith (whose Chasing Amy also featured Affleck trying to convert a lesbian over to the hetero side) filtered through Tarentino and Runyon. The monologues are the worst, though: Affleck's praise of the design and usage of the cock is only exceeded for sheer pretentiousness and ridiculousness by Lopez's subsequent assertion of the superiority of the pussy (this while pretzeling her lithe, backlit figure through various yoga positions--like that's supposed to distract us from how stupid all of this sounds). Brian, endlessly called "the retard" by other characters, rambles on about wanting to go to "the Baywatch" (like that's a specialty shop downtown instead of a TV show) and winds up at the beach in a dance number (yes, really), just before an ending for Larry and Ricki that feels stapled on.

Brest may have wanted to make a challenging film about sexual identity and politics. A noble goal. If that was his intention, though, he missed the mark by a wide margin, instead producing something stunning--just not in any sort of good way.

As the credits finally rolled and the couple in the front row ceased snogging long enough to make good their escape, a drain in the middle of the aisle began to flood the theater due to a torrential downpour in progress outside.

Sewage bubbling up in a theater showing Gigli--somehow, that seems appropriate.