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Return of the Living Dead Series – Review: Part II

2 Aug

The first three films in the Return of the Living Dead series work at varying degrees of success. The first film is a riot that boasted some excellent special effects, the second film overuses slapstick, but provides enough entertainment to have some fun. The third film was kind of a departure and worked with a more serious approach, which felt kind of funky at times, but I still loved the zombie action and special effects. Now we enter the world of direct-to-DVD where no one is safe and you really never know what you’re going to get. That being said, lower your expectations to the most basic settings and let’s see what these movie have to offer.

Both films were shot back to back and released in 2005, with the first being Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis.

Julian (John Keefe) knows his Uncle Charles (Peter Coyote) is into some shady business at his job in the multibillion corporation known as Hybra Tech, but he isn’t quite sure how deep down the rabbit hole he is. One day, Julian’s friend, Zeke (Elvin Dandel), injures himself in a motocross accident and is taken to the hospital but declared dead before he even arrives. Julian and his group of friends soon find out that isn’t the case and he has in fact been taken to Hybra Tech for testing and experimentation. The gang decides the best idea is to break into the company’s headquarters and rescue Zeke. While there, they find evidence that Charles and Hybra Tech has been experimenting with the deadly Trioxin gas to create zombies to use as ultra powerful bio-weapons. One thing leads to another and the experimental zombies are on the loose in Hybra Tech which forces everyone stuck inside to fight for their lives or join the undead horde.

I really don’t know where to begin here. This is one of the stupidest movies I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching, and I do say it was a pleasure because I laughed out loud at the unabashed idiocy this narrative had to offer multiple times. First of all, the fact that a group of teenagers think it’s a good idea to use their extreme sport skills to break into a highly secured building is something that I can’t suspend my disbelief towards. They come up with this idea so fast and unanimously without any hesitation. They’re also really skilled with all types of firearms, which is really convenient since they’ll need all the help they can get when the zombies finally break out. Oh, right. The zombies. Yeah, it takes forever for more than two zombies at a time to be shown on screen. This is a low budget movie that went straight to DVD then to the SyFy channel, but my god, this movie drags on and on with the stupidest characters I’ve seen in a while.

There’s just so little logic used in this movie that it numbs the mind to such an excessive degree. One of these teenagers WORKS SECURITY AT HYBRA TECH. What did they think was going to happen with employees like a teenager and three other inexperienced hacks being the only line of defense for the Trioxin gas and a horde of zombies? Were the writers thinking about anything at all? When the zombies do start showing up and the action gets going, there are a few moments of fun, but how many fist fights with zombies are there gonna be? Why can the be so easily killed while the zombies in the first three films proved to be so difficult? I just have so many questions for the writers that I seriously don’t know where to begin.

I could go on and on about Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis, but I just start running myself in circles with unanswered questions about direction, acting, editing, and how this could’ve been green lit in the first place. This is one of the most hilariously sloppy films I’ve ever seen and it completely besmirches the anarchic attitude of the first three films. This is so mind numbing and senseless that I can’t recommend it to anyone. It’s good for a laugh considering how terrible it is, but do you really want to waste an hour and a half of your life that bad?

Final Grade: D-

Here we are at the last film of the series. I just want to take a moment to look back to 1985 when the first movie was released, and the impact it had on audiences looking for something to have fun with. We’ve gone from cult classic to this, and this here is the bottom of the barrel. You can just tell by the title: Return of the Living Dead: Rave to the Grave.

A year after the events of Necropolis, Charles has the remaining Trioxin and plans to sell it to Russian Interpol agents whose job it is to destroy. Unfortunately, the Trioxin is released once again and the threat of a zombie apocalypse looms its undead head. Julian and Jenny (Jenny Mollen) find more Trioxin in Charles’ house and bring it to Cody (Cory Hardict) in the university science lab. It’s found that the Trioxin has similar elements as some hallucinogens, where Jenny’s raving DJ brother Jeremy (Cain Mihnea Manoliu) has the bright idea to try a bit of the Trioxin and sell it as a new street drug called “Z.” Much to Julian’s protests, the Trioxin is synthesized and sold to the students before the rave, and it doesn’t take long for the real effects of the gas to show. Now it’s up to Julian, his friends, a duo of bumbling Interpol agents to save the world from certain zombie doom.

This movie is the purest of garbage. It’s such an insult to what this series once was and the craft of film making in general. Let’s talk about the most glaring problem Rave to the Grave has, and there are plenty of them. I’ve never seen a movie with such a huge problem maintaining continuity. Ok, that’s not quite true. The Pink Panther movies are all over the place, but at least those films are enjoyable. This one has the audacity to name the characters the same names but completely wipe their memories of what they saw in Necropolis. Why are they surprised and completely unprepared when it comes to zombies? Why is Cody being such a jerk and fooling with Trioxin gas like he has no idea what it is? Why is Julian still living with his Uncle Charles? Is there any attempt to maintain continuity at all? I was so confused at first, not knowing if this was a sequel or what. I still don’t know, but why should I even care?

The creators of this film also try really hard to bring comedy more to the foreground with this movie and it’s an absolute failure. The comedic relief comes with the Interpol agents, but the extent of their humor comes from misunderstanding each other and shooting someone by accident while yelling “SORRY!” It’s the basest kind of comedy there is and a far cry away from the biting humor of the original film. We also just have characters that make the worst decisions of all time. Like, “We found this chemical in my uncle’s attic, so let’s synthesize it and sell it as a drug, or, “Let’s just fire our weapons in a crowd full of innocent people.” These have to be the dumbest people I’ve ever seen in a movie. I wish I could say their acting at least saved their characters a little bit, but I can’t. The acting is awful. That’s enough about that.

Return of the Living Dead: Rave to the Grave is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen some real stinkers in my time. There’s nothing funny about it, there’s nothing even remotely scary, and much like the last film it’s just plain boring. What started out as such a fun series has devolved into this, and there’s really no redeeming it at this point. This film deserves the lowest grade I can possibly give, and that’s exactly what it’s gonna get.

Final Grade: F

These last two films are a huge disappointment in an otherwise solid series. The first three films are certainly worth the time of any fan of the horror genre. These last two, however, shouldn’t even deserve to exist. There’s barely anything worthwhile in Necropolis and nothing in Rave to the Grave. Skip these two entirely.

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Starship Troopers Series – Review: Part 1

15 Sep

Science fiction is one of my favorite genres of film, and when you add the themes of war and militarization along with the enemies being giant bugs from another planet, I’m completely on board. This makes the Starship Troopers movies right up my alley, but not all of them have gotten much praise. Based off of a 1959 novel by Robert Heinlein, the story of humanity in a utopian, yet oddly fascist, world in the 23rd century who go to war against a race known as the Bugs provided a lot of heavy handed messages that the author believed in. It seems pretty ripe for feature film story telling, and in some ways it worked. This series, like many others, certainly has its fair share of ups and downs.

Let’s start with Paul Verhoeven’s original cult classic from 1997, Starship Troopers.

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By the 23rd century, the Earth is now classified as a federation that is ruled in a fascistic and militaristic way. It’s a strange utopia that condones violence to survive and the only way to become a citizen is to serve in some branch of the military. That’s exactly what Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) intends to do once he graduates high school. Along with his friends Carl (Neil Patrick Harris), Carmen (Denise Richards) and Dizzy (Dina Meyer), Rico joins the military and is assigned with Dizzy to Mobile Infantry. After a race of giant insects called the Bugs shoot an asteroid across the galaxy and completely wipe out Buenos Aires, the Mobile Infantry and the Federation’s air fleet mobilize to the Bug planet of Klendathu, where a bloody war begins for the survival of the human race.

When it was first released, Starship Troopers was not met with too much success critically and the box office return was less than what was expected. Over the years, however it’s gained a status as a cult classic. When the film first begins and a lot of time is spent at the high school and basic training, I was worried that this would be an uneven mess with a disappointingly low amount of action. The first 45 minutes seemed to drag, but when the action does begin, I became thankful for all the time setting up the characters’ personalities and relationships. This makes the war scenes all the more impactful, and when someone gets hurt or is killed, I really felt like something was lost. Believe it or not, this is not a mindless movie and does evoke some real emotion, even though the acting is less than stellar.

Let’s face it, though, this is a sci-fi war film, so let’s get into the real nitty gritty. Paul Verhoeven may have had some missteps as a film maker, but it’s much easier to remember his films like Starship TroopersTotal Recall, and RoboCop. This movie stands as one of his achievements. The special effects are out of this world for the time and were even nominated for an Academy Award. When the Bugs swarm the soldiers, the movie gets so intense and action packed, which is where it really shines. There’s also lots of what I like to call “Verhoeven gore,” which, if your like me, adds some fun to the movie. He just seems to love blowing people up. Finally, this film works great as a satire of fascism and blind love and devotion to the military. The 1959 novel this film is based on got a lot of flack for seemingly glorifying a Nazi-like utopia. Verhoeven used this, flipped it on its head, and created bitingly funny satire that’s the backbone of this entire movie.

While I was planning on not really liking this movie when it first started up, I ended up loving it as the credits began rolling. It’s such a fun movie loaded with action, great special effects, and hilarious satire that starts in the very first scene. I was even surprised with how much I cared for the characters, despite some rather tone deaf performances. This is a movie I wish did better when it was first released so Verhoeven would have returned for a sequel. Nevertheless, it is what it is and this particular movie is a total sci-fi blast.

Final Grade: A-

I feel like I was just talking about direct to video movies with my review of the Darkman films, and here I go again. The original Starship Troopers was the only film to make it to theaters, and all the sequels went right for the home viewers. Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation premiered on Encore (now known as Starz Encore) in 2004, and then went on DVD a few months later. The reasons can not be more clear.

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The war against the Bugs has been raging for nearly 5 years, and while the humans are victorious in many places, there are fronts where the Bugs have the clear upper hand. On one such planets, a group of troopers are overrun by a swarm of Bugs and are forced to retreat to an abandoned outpost called Hotel 1-8-5. With their commanding officer, General Shepard (Ed Lauter), missing, the squad is under the new leadership of psychic Lt. Dill (Lawrence Monoson) and Sgt. Rake (Brenda Strong). As the Bugs find the outpost and prepare to attack, Pvt. Sahara (Colleen Porch) releases an imprisoned officer, Captain Dax (Richard Burgi), in the outpost to help fight against the swarm. What these troopers don’t know is that the Bugs can now infect people and infiltrate squads from within, which spells danger for these soldiers confined to this small area.

With Hero of the Federation, we go from the knock out action, special effects, and satire from the first one and just downgrade it to what comes close to the lowest it can possibly get. I understand that a t.v. movie isn’t going to have the budget of a Hollywood feature film, but my goodness this movie looks hideous. Aside from the fact that it was shot on HD video, it’s just a dark and colorless film. All of the exterior shots are filmed at night with only a small area lit or sand completely covering up any scenery that could’ve given me an idea of where everything was taking place. Once the soldiers get into Hotel 1-8-5, things remain dark and colorless, but everything now just looks old and gross. I give the film makers credit for the claustrophobic feeling, which is nailed really well, but this is just not an easy movie to look at.

Phil Tippett, who is known for his special effects work on Jurassic Park and the first Starship Troopers, returns to direct this film which helps in a lot of ways. For one thing, for a t.v. movie that’s then released right to DVD, the special effects are really good. They aren’t stunning, but there are some scenes that had really impressive practical work. I can’t really say the same about his work with the actors. The acting in the first film really wasn’t anything special, but this is a different story completely. There are some line deliveries that made me either cringe or burst out laughing. The fact that this isn’t a big budget film really isn’t much of an excuse since I’ve seen t.v. movies with impressive performances. I feel like the ambition of this project just didn’t meet the standards of what was actually possible in making a good movie.

Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation is more than a disappointing sequel. It hardly even registers as a sequel. Not only was it released almost 8 years after the original, but it was also a t.v. movie that loses a lot in translation to the small screen. The acting is subpar, the cinematography is bland, and the only saving grace is some cool special effects and an action filled ending. If you want to watch a movie with close to the exact same storyline, watch The Thing, or forget this storyline and just put on the original Starship Troopers.

Final Grade: D

So far we have a one great movie and one that really bugged the hell out of me, pun definitely intended. We still have a few more movies to go with this series, but that review will be coming soon. For now, stick with the original.

Roadracers – Review

5 Mar

I don’t think that I’ve talked about Robert Rodriguez on this blog yet, which is strange because he is one of the biggest inspirations to my style of writing and, hopefully, directing. He enjoys all things over the top, as you can see in his films such as DesperadoPlanet Terror, and Machete. Before all of this insanity was El Mariachi, the little indie film that put him on the map. What I’m sure many people don’t know about was a little TV movie he made for Showtime, Roadracers, which was made right before Desperado.

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Dude (David Arquette) is a 1950s greaser who spends his days cruising through town with his girlfriend Donna (Salma Hayek), getting into fights with his rival Teddy (Jason Wiles), and making trouble for the local sheriff (William Sadler). His entire life has been spent this way: moving fast but going nowhere. Now that Dude is beginning to grow up, he’s beginning to realize that he needs to get his act together and possibly follow up on a very possible music career, or get left in the dust and remain in the town. The pulling between the two factors pull Dude harder than he can handle, leading to a violent climax that will decide where Dude’s life will take him.

The first thing I noticed about this movie was the use of the character name “Dude.” Does that ring a bell for anyone? The Big Lebowski anyone? Funny thing is that Roadracers came first. I think that’s pretty interesting since The Dude from Lebowski is thought of as such a goofy and original character name. I mean no disrespect to the Coen Brothers, I enjoy their work and consider them two heroes of mine, but Rodriguez was first! This isn’t what I want to talk about though. After El Mariachi, Rodriguez made this film for Showtime which was doing a series of made for TV movies called Rebel Highway, that were homages to 1950s B-movies. The series featured big name directors like William Friedkin, but Rodriguez was, at the time, unknown.

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Like Quentin Tarantino, Rodriguez has made his career off of making films that hearken back to the days of video stores and all of the strange genres that lurk in their darkest corners. In that respect, Rodriguez is the perfect choice to be a part of this series. Strangely enough, this was before he made his stylistic mark. It seems like he was born for this style of film making. Still, this was before he really found his niche, and it shows. The plot begins to jumble and ramble in the second act leaving me thinking that it could’ve have realistically been an hour long or maybe a little over. And hour and a half felt like a stretch.

I will say that the movie was better than I expected, but I wasn’t really expecting much. I laughed a lot in the beginning and I really liked how cheesy all of the ’50s style is played. It’s all over the top and romanticized while being satirized at the same time. Let’s compare it to one of my favorite films, Rebel Without a Cause. James Dean plays a character who is also beginning to grow up and learn that he needs to start making adult decisions without relying on adults. This is played very seriously, and almost tragically. Dude in Roadracers also needs to make these decisions, but they are played so over the top and comedically. Rebel Without a Cause  and Roadracers both critique the society of the time and the fact that cliques and classes are so separated, it made life for these young people difficult.

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Roadracers is an alright attempt by Rodriguez, although it is nowhere near as great as his next film, Desperado. By that point, he’s found his style and locked onto his ability and made a great film. This one, however, is pretty sloppy and got pretty boring by the midway point. It’s pretty silly, made me laugh, and the ending is abrupt, yet awesome. It still could’ve been a lot shorter and the narrative much cleaner. Unless you’re really a die hard fan of Rodriguez, skip this one. If you’re a huge fan and interested in all of his work, lower your standards and give it a quick watch. It’s very mediocre.