Friday, September 28, 2012

The Last Man on Earth Movie Review

I don’t necessarily think that The Last Man on Earth (1964) should be required viewing, but if you appreciate films for their historical influence I think you’ll get some great insight with this Vincent Price classic. It has influenced modern movies in ways you will probably recognize when you see the movie.
In a post-epidemic world, Dr. Robert Morgan (Vincent Price) is the only survivor of a devastating world-wide plague which has transformed the entire population of Earth into vampire-like creatures. Now he’s alone; the last man on earth. At night, plague victims begin to leave graves, forming an undead army that thirsts for his blood. For his own protection, he becomes a vampire slayer that many vampires fear. After three years of solitude, he finds another human named Ruth (Franca Bettoja). Not only desperate for social interaction, he seeks her out to help him find a cure for the vampire virus. But Ruth doesn’t seem to be what she says she is. Can she be trusted?
The Last Man on Earth is based off of the1954 Richard Matheson novel, I Am Legend. That novel has had several movies based off of it, including The Omega Man (1971) starring Charlton Heston and I Am Legend (2007) starring Will Smith. Of these three movies, The Last Man on Earth is the most faithful to the original book. The book is fairly dark, but since this film was made in 1964, there’s only so far the film industry would allow the film to go.
Vincent Price is clean shaven apart from his signature mustache, and wears a suit for most of the movie. That doesn’t really sell the “last man on earth” post-apocalyptic setting very well, but it is what it is. Price does a really great job showing us how damaged Dr. Morgan is after years without contact of another living soul. In one scene he is watching some old homemade film reels of his family. He begins laughing as he watches, but it’s kind of a haunting, empty laugh that portrays a deep sense of longing and sadness. As he laughs, it gradually turns into crying. We really get a feel that his years of solitude have taken their toll, and that this man is not well.
Possibly the most interesting and influential component is the “vampires.” At the time this movie was made, the best known vampire characters were Count Dracula and Count Orlok of the classic 1922 Nosferatu silent film. Both Dracula and Orlok were powerful demonic characters. Dracula was aristocratic, charming, and seductive while Orlok was a predatory ugly (albeit well dressed) walking corpse. The vampires in The Last Man on Earth were a type of movie vampire that had not been seen before. They were people who died from the disease, and then came back from the dead with a thirst for blood. They shambled around aimlessly, lacked rational thinking skills, and were capable of only rudimentary speech.
Sure, they were repelled by mirrors, garlic, and could be killed by a steak to the heart. But these vampires more closely resemble our contemporary paradigm of zombies. There’s a reason for that. George A. Romero was heavily influenced by The Last Man on Earth in writing and directing his iconic Night of the Living Dead which was released only four years later. The zombies in Night of the Living Dead were so influential that it set the standard for all zombie movies and video games forever after. Night of the Living Dead had a prodigious impact on zombie films, and it was The Last Man on Earth that heavily influenced Night of the Living Dead. We therefore have both of these films to attribute modern day zombie films and video games.
There are some problems in The Last Man on Earth. It is has some fairly slow pacing, a pretty low budget, leaves some narrative details unrefined, and the sketchy post-production dubbing makes it feel a bit unprofessional. All of that tends to undermine the story a bit, weakening its impact. I could understand not enjoying the movie all that much based on its substandard production, but I still think it’s a decent movie despite its weaknesses.
The Last Man on Earth was an interesting movie that had some good acting by the legendary Vincent Price. It’s the best cinema rendition of the I Am Legend novel; I liked it more than the Will Smith film. If you appreciate films for their historic influence, I highly recommend seeing The Last Man on Earth. If that’s not your cup of tea, I don’t expect you’ll enjoy it very much. You may like it if you enjoy zombie films since this is where our modern day zombie movie sprouted from.

The Last Man on Earth has fallen into public domain, which means the intellectual property rights have expired. What this means for you is that it is readily available for public use. If you want to see The Last Man on Earth, you can for free! You can follow the link below to watch it on YouTube. But you’ll get a sharper image if you can find it on DVD.

What is your favorite “Classic” vampire movie, not that “romantic” sparkly bullcrap variety? Comment below and tell me why!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows Movie Review

Back in 2009 a new, revamped version of Sir Arthur Conon Doyle’s classic literary characters hit theaters in Sherlock Holmes. It was an updated take on the classic detective; humorous characterization, lots of action and explosions, and some state of the art visual effects, while not straying too far from its source material. I really liked it a lot, and was looking forward to the sequel. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011) was what I expected in a sequel; more of what made the first movie so fun.
Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) has always been the smartest man in the room, until now. There is a new criminal mastermind at large, Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris), and not only is he Holmes’ intellectual equal, but his capacity for evil coupled with a complete lack of conscience may actually give him an advantage over the renowned detective. Holmes needs to gather all the assistance he can, which includes his longtime trusted associate Doctor John Watson (Jude Law), a gypsy woman named Simza (Noomi Rapace), and Holmes’ brother Mycroft (Stephen Fry). Together they try to outwit Moriarty, who is always a few steps ahead of Holmes. If he is not stopped, Moriarty will bring about an international war that could destroy Europe.
Moriarty wasn’t a completely unexpected antagonist. In the first movie we see this shadowy figure that seemed to be orchestrating events deep behind the scenes. Once his name is mentioned, Holmes begins looking forward to a new adventure and a new adversary. Since that movie, Holmes has been tracking the activities of Professor Moriarty in seemingly unrelated and trivial events. I appreciate how this movie feeds off of all the loose ends of the previous movie; this one seems like a natural progression of a bigger story arch. A Game of Shadows starts with Holmes devising an insanely complicated tracking system illustrating how various innocuous and unrelated events tie back to Moriarty in some way. This sets the stage for the conflict to come. Moriarty is remarkably intelligent and gives Holmes a genuine challenge leaving scarcely a scrap of evidence or the slightest clue.
As mentioned, this is an updated take on the classic detective. Its set in 1895, Victorian London, but Holmes and Watson are more like action heroes than sleuths. They both seem proficient in martial arts rather than the common “fisticuffs” of the day. It’s not so much the genteel atmosphere of Conan Doyle’s stories. Furthermore, trying to prevent an international war seems like a job more suited for James Bond than the residents of 221B Baker Street. Yet they still remain close enough to the original Holmes and Watson characters that I imagine fans of the classic literature would enjoy it along with young audiences that demand explosions, gunfire, and special effects.
Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law possibly make the best renditions of Holmes and Watson I have seen in ages. The actors do a superb job and bounce off one another in a highly pleasing way. They are funny, witty, and their delivery is nothing shy of amazing. The Guinness World Records has consistently listed Sherlock Holmes as the "most portrayed movie character" with 75 actors playing the part in over 211 films. Downey Jr. makes a fantastic Holmes and is easily one of my favorite renditions of the character.
My only complaint about the first movie was there were not enough visual cues or plot development for the audience to solve the mystery along with the characters. When we get to the end, Holmes was pulling details out of nowhere to reveal how the villain did it. While the mystery (as opposed to the plot) in A Game of Shadows is still tricky to follow, we are able to keep up with Holmes’ thinking and understand how he comes to his conclusions. This returns these movies to the Conan Doyle tradition of showing Holmes doing his best work in his mind.
The dialogue in A Game of Shadows was really interesting; witty, clever, amusing, and engaging. It felt very natural, quirky as the characters are, and really helped develop the characters and move the story forward. I would have liked to see more “verbal fencing” between Holmes and Moriarty. Seeing them try to outwit each other during conversation was highly amusing to watch.
With updated classic literary characters for a new audience and being portrayed by some stellar acting, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is a genuinely fun movie to watch. It pushes credibility a bit further than I thought was necessary, but not so much that it annoys. The visual effects, acting, and dialogue will likely have you begging for more. In fact, Warner Bros. has announced that a Sherlock Holmes 3 is in the works and is scheduled for release in 2014, so stay tuned. I didn’t love A Game of Shadows as much as the first, but I’d still buy it (and Sherlock Holmes) on Blu-Ray.

What is your favorite Sherlock Holmes? There’s plenty to pick from. Comment below and tell me why you like that particular Sherlock so much!

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Expendables Movie Review

The Expendables hit theaters in 2010 and I wasn’t all that impressed by the trailers, so I didn’t bother with it. Then earlier this year I saw the trailer to the sequel, The Expendables 2, which really got my attention. I decided if I was going to see this second movie, I should at least watch the first one.
Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) leads “The Expendables,” a band of highly skilled motorcycle-riding mercenaries stationed in New Orleans:  knife enthusiast Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), martial arts expert Yin Yang (Jet Li), heavy weapons specialist Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), demolitionist Toll Road (Randy Couture), and loose-cannon sniper Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren).  The group is commissioned by the mysterious Mr. Church (Bruce Willis) to assassinate the merciless dictator of a small South American island, General Garza (David Zayas). Barney and Lee head to the remote locale to scout out their opposition. Once there, they meet with the local rebel, Sandra (Giselle Itié), and discover the true nature of the conflict engulfing the city. When they escape from the island, Sandra stays behind. Ross must choose to either walk away, saving his own life, or attempt a suicidal rescue mission to save Sandra and keep his conscience clear of leaving innocent people behind.
The Expendables is everything I expected it to be. It was a ridiculous, over-the-top action movie that is a tribute to action blockbusters of the 80’s and early 90’s. It’s full of guns, action, explosions, more guns, muscles, violence, still more guns, and goofy dialogue. However, it’s not just a stupid, brainless action movie. It’s an absurd action movie that knows it’s being absurd.
The opening credits don’t shy away from the fact that The Expendables is a Sylvester Stallone film. He directed it, co-wrote the screenplay, and starred in it. It’s a lot like his other movies. In fact, if you’ve seen the 2008 Rambo, which was the last movie that he wrote, directed, and starred in, you’ll see a lot of similarities as far as plot, characters, and structure goes.
But if you’re going to see The Expendables for plot, characters, and structure there’s got to be something wrong with you. This is an 80’s style movie, complete with 80’s action movie clichés in all their endearing glory.  It’s a fun movie that you are going to watch for the action; nothing else. In fact, there’s a rather odd scene where The Expendables’ mission coordinator, “Tool” (Mickey Rourke) delivers a rather convincing monologue about his time in Bosnia. It’s a pretty good scene, but is so well acted it just about seems out of place.
I think what makes The Expendables so much fun is the cast. It’s got a whole lot of 80’s action stars put together on screen as well as more recent stars such as Terry Crews, and Steve Austin. Terry Crews is well known for his crazy Old Spice commercials; it’s awesome seeing him in an action movie. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger also makes an uncredited cameo. There’s a bunch of little jabs at some characters in reference to the roles they are known for; we’re told Ross loves to play in the jungle, a reference to Rambo; and Schwarzenegger’s accused of wanting to be President.
Another thing that makes The Expendables good is its lack of computer animated effects. There are a lot of practical special effects that give it a much more grounded feel. Not only is this a more realistic method of doing explosions and similar effects, it heralds back to an era of action films before computer enhanced explosions became commonplace.
This movie knows it’s being ridiculous and over-the-top, that’s what it’s striving to do and it does this really well! This movie was custom tailored to a specific audience. Any man who grew up watching 80’s action movies and dreamed of seeing his favorite actors teaming up to blowing things up will fall head-over-heels in love with this movie. It’s rated R “for strong action and bloody violence throughout, and for some language.” That is exactly what the movie is in a nutshell. You’ll see heads explode, real pyrotechnics, henchmen blown in half, and an enormous arsenal of guns that will endear any fan of violent action movies.
Because this movie achieves so well what it sets out to do, I am forced to call it a good movie. I didn’t care a great deal for The Expendables, but that’s only because I’m not really in the target audience. I didn’t really grow up watching 80’s action movies; they aren’t nostalgic for me. I enjoyed it for what it was, and I still want to see the sequel, but The Expendables is not something I recommend seeing or buying unless you already are a fan of violent 80’s action movies.

What is your favorite 80's action movie? Comment below and tell me why!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Panic in Year Zero Movie Review

Several years back I was traveling with my family and we stopped at a hotel for the night. There, we caught part of an old black and white movie called Panic in Year Zero (1962). It was kind of funny to watch with its low production cost and very dated effects. I recently watched it again, and seeing it in its entirety was both amusing and sobering.
Harry Baldwin (Ray Milland) and his wife Ann (Jean Hagen) leave their Los Angeles home early in the morning with their teenage kids, Rick (Frankie Avalon) and Karen (Mary Mitchel) to make good time for their camping trip. After some time on the road, they hear an explosion and realize that Los Angeles has been leveled by a nuclear attack. Other major cities in the US and around the world have also been hit. With the authorities tied up in more pressing matters, looters and killers are everywhere. After stocking up on some necessities in a town they pass through, Harry takes his family out into the hills where they were originally planning to camp. There he sets about the business of surviving in a world where he knows the old ideals of humanity will be the first casualties. Taking every precaution to keep themselves hidden and protected, Harry hides his family in a cave, to wait for a time when civilization might again become civil.
Panic in Year Zero is like a time capsule of nuclear paranoia. Around the time this movie was made, The Cold War was escalating and the Cuban Missile Crisis had barely passed. Many people were expecting the world to come to an end at a moment’s notice. This movie really captivates this fear and reflected the attitude of its day; especially in the shot of the Baldwin family standing next to their car, staring at the mushroom cloud above their home on the horizon. From a historical perspective, this movie is fascinating to see.
Even though it could still happen, we don’t really fear a nuclear holocaust today. But if you look at Panic in Year Zero from a perspective of people caught up in a massive disaster, it still hits home. The massive panic, looting of supplies, people killing each other over necessities, and wide spread lawlessness on the grounds that there are no police to stop them brings to mind 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. People are taking extreme measures to protect themselves at all costs, while others degenerate into monsters without morals or conscience. We have seen people do this on the news in the face of massive disasters, natural or otherwise. The conflicts between people in Panic in Year Zero aren’t far-fetched from real human behavior that we have seen in recent years.
I’m probably making this movie sound a lot grittier than it actually is. While it certainly makes you think about surviving a massive disaster, it’s still a low-budget movie from the early 1960’s. It’s almost like a nuclear holocaust if it were depicted on an episode of Leave It to Beaver. There are strong gender roles that seem archaic these days; the men do all the fighting, hunting, and negotiating, while the women’s role is to have emotional break downs and scream at anything that doesn’t involve cooking dinner. Harry gets his family into the cave, and his wife immediately sets out to make a kitchen and dining area that is decorated and furnished. Ann and Karen spend days at the cave doing laundry in their high heels while Harry and Rick hunt. And of course the wise, unquestionable patriarch has to keep the women in line so they don’t do something stupid and jeopardize their survival. They also make a point of praying as a family like any good Christian Americans would.
Panic in Year Zero still had The Hays Code in effect; they were very limited in what they could show or say on screen. There are some teenage thugs (as most movies in the 50’s and 60’s had) who try to abduct Karen. It’s vaguely implied that they intended to rape her, but this is depicted by having them push her off balance a few times and kiss her on the lips against her will. Those monsters! It’s like The Andy Griffith Show trying to be Mad Max or something.
One of my favorite scenes is early on when the Baldwin’s stop for gas and the greedy gas station attendant tries to take advantage of the panicked demand for gas. He hikes up the price for his own benefit to an outrageous three dollars per gallon! That is unimaginably high for 1962, where the average price of a gallon of gas was $0.31. Harry ends up knocking out the station attendant in one old-west-style punch, and leaves a $10 bill with him before driving off. That scene really dates the movie, but man, I wish I could get gas that cheap.
Panic in Year Zero is a cheap B-movie, but it still hits home and touches on human behavior and panic in face of a crisis. It’s very successful in what it attempts to do, even on an obviously shoe string budget. I mean, they try to depict a traffic jam, but you never see more than 5 cars on the road at a time. There’s still a prevalent vibe of anxiety and panic throughout the movie, and it shows us things that could very likely happen. I recommend seeing this movie. It’s a pretty obscure title that I doubt you’d find at a local video rental store or RedBox. But NetFlix has it on DVD. If you can tolerate the low production value and dated social norms, this is a pretty good movie for what it is; a time capsule of nuclear paranoia.