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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A little Late Movie Review - Kung Fu Girls Club (????)

Competent film making?  Proper equipment?  Cohesive storytelling?  Talented actors?  No longer do you need to deal with all of that superfluous crap!  Now, thanks to Robbie Ryan, you too can make a video, put it on YouTube, and call it an "Independently Distributed Film".  Boy, oh boy, do I wish I was being sarcastic there, but no, Kung Fu Girls Club (in all of its improper lack of titular punctuation) exists, and this makes me very happy.

I do not have anything against someone making a movie, putting themselves out there and trying to make a name for themselves in the industry.  Some of the greatest directors of the modern era got their careers started doing exactly that.  Hell, it is arguable that the entire movie industry would not exist if it were not for the race to innovation that occurred in the 1890's, where inventors copied each other's patents and short films in an effort to be the most acclaimed name in the new art of movie making.  That said, time has taught us that when some people get behind a camera, the result is not good, but still epic

I do not know much about the film maker Robbie Ryan.  He has a blog, a YouTube channel but little else really identifies him.  I can tell you he does have a strange sense of humor, and that this movie could be some sort of campy joke, but it is honestly difficult to tell.  Kung Fu Girls Club follows a teen named Tsunami (yep, I am pretty sure how they spell it too) who transfers to a high school where all ten of the other students are complete assholes (like real high school I guess).  When aliens disguised as humans (thus revealing this film's budget, as though the core production was not a dead giveaway) attack out of nowhere, paralyzing the rest of the student body, an Evanesence fan-girl named Sage informs Tsunami and her friend that they are bestowed with great power and they are destined to fight these shape-shifting creatures.  They give two more girls prop MacGuffins in the form of necklaces that give them powers also and the four of them proceed to fight the aliens.  There is almost zero build up to this, one second they are acting out a poor-man's Breakfast Club, the next they are fighting black-clad aliens, complete with lame after-effects!

The movie was filmed in what appears to be a single weekend at a school campus I can only assume the cast and crew broke into.  Even the hospital room set appears to be a low angle shot of a public restroom carefully framed to cut out all of the fixtures, leaving only the patient, the swinging door, the concerned student and a sketchy guy in a lab coat that I think also appears as a different character in the film (I cannot be certain of this though).  The otherwise empty halls of this building are reused over and over (I'm guessing in an attempt to avoid security cameras).  Okay, okay.  I kid.  I cannot accuse this production and those involved with any criminal activity legally, so I'll just say that this is a really, really bad movie that appears to have been filmed entirely in one location over a very short period of time.

Now, as for the action, it's bad.  Each fight scene is filmed clumsily and filled with goofy effects.  The one actor who seems to possess any actual martial arts ability seems out of place in this film too, playing a villain named Takahashi, he is also the only person on this project with an IMDB page with some pretty impressive stunt credits to his name.  Obviously attempting to mimic anime, the Girls Club members have transformation scenes for their "fighting modes" which come complete with fourth-wall-breaking, excessive poses, brightly-colored wigs and forced Japanese names.

Now, normally I would give a little detail and information about the film but, I can't find any.  As I said, the aforementioned Takahashi, played by Ilram Choi is the only credited actor in the film I could find any information on and even he does not credit this movie on his IMDB page, I just recognize him from the photos.  The filmmaker, Robbie Ryan, did not seem to do much to promote the movie either, as I can not find any online references to this film other than a few photos, mostly from the blog of Robbie Ryan himself (Where you can also watch the movie!).  Now, there are references to multiple "episodes", but these appear to be segmented parts of the film as a whole, probably its original format on YouTube.   I found this gem simply searching for fantasy Kung-Fu movies online and was very excited about this one by the five minute mark.

If it sounds like I'm bashing this film earlier in the article, know that I thoroughly enjoyed watching Kung Fu Girls Squad and strongly recommend everyone give it a shot.  This is the bad film bad film fans dream of.  It is filled with plot issues, bad editing, bad acting, bad effects, bad everything, and the end result is a glorious example of schlock fun.  The only thing that really grated on my nerves after a while was the buzzing, 8-bit techno soundtrack that sounds like a bee trapped in an old radiator.  The voices of some of the aliens are even layered with this buzzing, low-end sound and it is truly awful.  Still, there are so many laughs to be had with this film, and if you love flicks like the Room and Birdemic, you really, really need to watch this movie.  I found it posted in a number of locations online including YouTube and with the credits taken out, this one is less than an hour in length.  You will not regret this sit!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Film Review - Wreck-It Ralph (2012)

Wreck-It Ralph (2012; Walt Disney
Animation Studios)
Video games are now part of mainstream pop culture.  Well, they have been for more than two decades but if Hollywood's viewpoint really mattered at all you would think gamers were a frindge group.  Hollywood's treatment (fear) of video games and gamers has been visceral, with countless stabs in the form of nerdy gamer characters in lazy comedies and many, often-intentional film butcherings of beloved video game franchises.  Hollywood has a problem now, however, in the fact that the Nintendo Generation has grown up, many with children of their own, and with Wreck-It-Ralph it seems that a major studio has put aside its ire in lieu of an attempt to bridge a generational gap.  Is it perfect?  No.  Is it a step in the right diection?  Yes.

Wreck-It Ralph has been compared to Toy Story.  I see it, because that is pretty much what it is.  The premise is that in an arcade, all of those cabinets are actually self-contained worlds, connected by power cables to Game Central Station, which inhabits a power strip, the worlds' single common connection.   When the arcade closes, the characters in the cabinets live a life of their own, still holding to the rules and ideals set fourth in their games.  Wreck-It Ralph has spent decades in his world as a Donkey Kong-esque villain constatnly overshadowed by his game's hero, Fix-It Felix, Jr.  He struggles with lonliness as the denizens of his world fear and hate him for his constant destruction of their apartment building.  He looks up in jelousy as Felix is praised and parties are thrown in his honor.  Finally having enough, Ralph takes a step towards trying to make friends with the people in his world but is strongly rejected because he is not a hero.  Now, desperate to become a hero, Ralph begins to travel to other worlds to get that elusive title and earn the affections and friendships of his fellow game world inhabitants.

Now, I say "other worlds" but I really mean two.  The first is a shooter game world he initially enters, meeting up with Jane Lynch's Calhoun, a gung-ho military babe with a tortured past. Next he travels to the game that will become the central setting for a majority of the story, Sugar Rush, a cutsey racing title with freakish sprites disguised as little girls (and one gender-confused boy) as the racers.  If you need an idea of what this world is like, imagine Dr. Doom used some sort of power to mutate a copy of the Candy Land board game to a sentient giant and said board game monster went to the hills of Ireland and puked out the Chocolate Room from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory all over the landscape, that's pretty much what it looks like.  This world annoyed me from the start, but I forced myself to get used to it.  It is not as though I had a choice in the matter.

This leads to my major complaint about Wreck-It Ralph, the ads lied to me.  I went in expecting a movie filled with lots of old-school gaming in-jokes and got a by-the-numbers romp instead.  Now, the video game references are there, they are there in spades, but they are sparse in comparison to the main premise, which could have taken place in any type of world outside of video games and would have more or less worked. This is a shame because there were so many directions they could have taken here, and they decided to make it an underdog sports story, a rag Disney wrung dry about twenty years ago.

On the technical side of things, Wreck-It Ralph is top-notch.  I did not see it in 3D because that crap gives me a headache but the film looks really good.  The characters are expressive and well-designed and the worlds are expansive and full.  The movie uses scale well too, as in the shots of the giant arcade machine screen looking out into the world from Fix-It Felix's apartment building inside the game. As far as characters and acting goes everyone is good except for one person.  Can you guess who that is?  In all honesty, I expected to absolutely hate Sarah Silverman's character Vanellope.  I didn't.  At least not nearly as much as I expected to.  I will say that her voice wears very thin on the nerves after a while but the writers did a good job of making her character sympethic enough that you kind of start to care about her, I do not think I will ever forgive the writers for this offense.  I have heard her compared to Jar-Jar Binks.  No.  She is nowhere near that annoying.  Still, she is what she is, a character designed to hook the kids in the audience who do not know who the hell Q*bert is.  Her story is pretty tragic too, and the my reactions to her childish antics often mirrored Ralph's, which I suppose was the idea.  As far as the rest of the cast goes, John C. Reily, an actor I normally dislike, is occasionally one-note as Ralph, but the character is written and animated well-enough that I can give him a pass.  Jack MacBrayer, Jane Lynch and Alan Tudyk are all fantastic, no complaints there.  Most everybody is more or less very good here, Silverman is just a little too much for me through most of the movie.

Now for the ultimate question:  Was Wreck-It Ralph any good?  Yes.  My complaints about a large chunk of the film aside, this is a solid movie.  Parents will like it as will their kids.  There are lots of nice references here and there that will make NES owners feel at home and the tragic ebb and flow of arcade gaming in America has left a grave need for loving nostaliga, which this film brings.  Putting aside the paint-by-numbers Disney-default story, the twist ending I saw coming from a mile away and the numerous eye-rollingly bad puns and there is still a lot here to take home.  I do not see myself rushing out to grab the Blu-Ray when it releases, but this is still the best animated film I have seen in 2012, and certainly the best family movie of the year.  Do as I did, forgoing aprehension and ignoring one's better judgement, and enter and just enjoy what you are given and you may find that Wreck-It-Ralph is a lot of fun.

Monday, October 29, 2012

My 20 Favorite Movies for Halloween

20 - The Sixth Sense -
M. Night Shyamalan’s third film is easily his magnum opus, a film so simple yet so powerful that it has regularly been held up among the greatest films of all time.  Everyone tried to argue that they figured the ending out, and they all were liars.  I had a few guesses but the surprise ending here was so out of nowhere that the hints to the ending made throughout the film did not even seem like hints until the end.  The film also launched the short but lucrative A-list run for its star Haley Joel Osmont, who remained consistently good though many of his later vehicles sort of felt weak as a whole.  

19 - Seven
This is the film that really got me into the modern thriller.  I never cared for horror movies or thrillers when I was younger, I was more of an action and comedy person, but Seven taught me that the horror film can be a cerebral good time and helped me to break down the wall of pretension that I had put up for myself.  I still love Seven to this day, as I do pretty much all of David Fincher’s films.  This is one of the strongest crime thrillers of all time and I feel it is at least almost as good as Vertigo and the Third Man based on the mystery and inventiveness of the story.  The ending is a real kicker too, it feels like it all built to this one big climax.  I also like how the entire film is dark and grungy until the end where the field is bright and open.  It is a nice little piece of symbolism, as though we’re forced to see the world through John Doe’s eyes.

18 - Misery
This is one freaking disturbing movie.  To me, Misery, like Seven, is much scarier than A Nightmare on Elm street because it seems real, like it can happen.  I still love Nightmare more, just because it is such a great story told in such a clever way, but Misery just hits me in an interesting way.  It’s almost hard to explain.  However, when Annie breaks Paul’s ankles with that hammer, you know he’s trapped.  You feel his pain.  It is so chill-inducing and so perfectly done that it feels too real at times.  

17 - Zombieland
This is a fun movie that uses gore well, but is more of a comedy than a horror film.  Zombieland is a great pick for people trying to get into zombie flicks because, while it is not the best, it is one of the most accessible.  The gore effects here are superb and the performances by all involved are damn good.  If you want a little laugh to go with your gore, this is a great choice.

16 - The Silence of the Lambs
This Oscar-winning thriller gave us one of the greatest movie villains of all time, Hannibal Lecter.  The character is not the principal villain of the story, that would be the killer Buffalo Bill, but he is so terrifying, so evil and so intelligent that he just instills you with a unique style of fear.  His creepy persona is just so perfectly performed by Anthony Hopkins that it stays with you long after the movie is over.  Heightening this fear is Jodie Foster’s character Clarice Starling, whose own terror is visible and only amplifies the effect of Hopkins’ performance.

15 - Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski’s thriller about a woman who is pregnant with the spawn of Satan is probably one of the most captivating horror classics of all time.  The film is filled with these birth pains (so-to-speak) that just build and relax, coming closer and closer until the very end. The climax is one of the creepiest scenes ever put to film in my opinion.  With all of the tennants standing around a room at the end of which is a carriage holding a terrifyingly-deformed baby.  This movie is one hell of a creep fest from start to finish.

14 - Ringu
The Japanese original Ringu towers above the over-produced mess that was the American remake in just about every way.  It is scarier, it is smarter, it is better-acted and better-directed.  Ringu is moody, the special effects are great and the story is a lot better than it really has to be for this type of movie.  Good on you Japan for teaching us how to make a good horror movie, yet will still manage to screw it up here in the U.S. almost ever time.

13 - 28 Days Later
From one end of the world to another, we go from Japan to the UK for 28 Days Later, one of the best “zombie” movies pretty much ever made.  28 Days later is a stunning thriller from Danny Boyle, the Oscar-winning director of Slumdog Millionaire.  The story follows a man named Jim, played by the very-adept Cillian Murphy, who wakes up after a coma to find his home city completely abandoned. That is, until he falls under attack by hordes of “zombies” piled on top of eachother in a church.  But these aren’t the lumbering, slow “zombies” we’re used to.  No!  This things are sprinters and they are ready to eat your face!   In 28 Days later, mankind becomes infected with what is known as the Rage Virus, which throws its victims into a state of uncontrollable violence.  Along the way our hero meets up with a group of survivors fighting a resistance against the lost souls.  This is a really good one people.

12 - Wait Until Dark
Wait Until Dark is one of those movies that requires you to really put yourself in the character’s shoes.  A group of thugs, led by a terrifying Alan Arkin, follow a missing stash of drugs to the apartment of an innocent blind woman named Susy, played by the almost-always unmatched Audrey Hepburn.  There are scenes where she is moving about her house, completely unaware of her silent intruders, but as the movie continues, and she realizes she is not alone and the terror in her performance is unforgettable.  

11 - Shaun of the Dead -
This is the ultimate zombie/comedy.  I love this movie because it follows the zombie tropes that work, casts aside many that don’t, and features characters we can see ourselves hanging out with.  I also like how it implements some real human situations, like when Shaun’s mother is bitten.  It feels like Edgar Wright wanted to really tell a story with a humorous angle, rather than going for a straight spoof.  This, to me, makes for better comedy.  

10 - Army of Darkness
Army of Darkness is great fun.  One of my favorite films of the 90’s, Army of Darkness concludes the Evil Dead trilogy with Ash transported back to medieval times to unwittingly get dragged into a prophecy and a fight against an evil army of the damned.  This movie is a blast, mixing gore, slick practical effects and some very well-done slapstick to make for one hell of a good time.  I also adore the stop motion animation used for many of the scenes because this movie was released on the cusp of the rise of CGI, just before that crappy medium came in and made just about every movie ugly.  Yeah!  I said it!

09 - Night of the Living Dead -
The zombie classic that started it all, George A. Romero’s independently-filmed horror masterpiece is one of the most influential films ever made.  It sparked the indie-horror movement and it gave life to the zombie genre.  It is still, to this day, the standard by which all zombie films are judged and it remains one of the all-time greats.  It also stands out for its use of a black protagonist, something that was quite rare at the time.  

08 - An American Werewolf in London
Between this and The Howling (released a few months before) it can be difficult for some to really settle on which film from 1981 gave new life to the werewolf movie, but for me, with all of The Howling’s credibility, I just cannot bring myself to enjoy it as much as John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London.  The movie is funny, the effects by Star Wars legend Rick Baker are some of the best I have ever seen in a werewolf flick, the story is much more relatable, and the lead just comes off as more sympathetic.  Also, there is that completely epic transformation scene.  Yeah.. You know the one I’m talking about!  They tried to make it “awesome” in 1997 with An American Werewolf in Paris but they laced it with crappy CGI and just made the whole thing look dumb.

07 - The Shining
Prepare to hate me film snobs, but this is the only Stanley Kubrick movie I like.  Yep, it’s true.  I am so sorry.  He just does not appeal to my tastes.  That said, this amazingly creepy and well-made chiller about a caretaker and his family trapped in a haunted hotel alone during a winter storm remains one of my favorite films of all time.  As the father falls deeper and deeper into madness we are forced to wonder if he is possessed by the spirit of a man who slayed his family years earlier, or if he was already predisposed to violence induced by alcohol.  Is he evil, or stir crazy?  The haunting moments in the film are dreamlike and terrifying as we are never really sure what is real as we near the end of the movie.  The strangeness that abounds in the Overlook Hotel stays with you thanks to the great use of atmosphere and a legendary performance by the great Jack Nicholson.

06 - Audition -
This story of a lonely man who holds a fake audition for a new better half that becomes enamoured with the WRONG woman is so freaking disturbing that I’ve only seen it once, more than a decade ago, and it stuck with me and impacted me as though I’ve seen it a hundred times.  I love the look of this film.  It’s so sterile, so fluorescent, until we begin spending time with Asami, whose apartment is warm and welcoming.  It is a masterful use of visual symbolism by the epically-talented Takashi Miike.  What has made Audition an enduring and notable thriller through the years is the notorious torture scene.  The last few minutes of the film is focused on this beautiful girls complete phsyical undoing of our protagonist.  It is terrifying, graphic and disturbing as hell.  This movie is not for everybody, but if you can stomache it, it is one of the best of the best.

05 - Evil Dead 2
Sam Raimi’s crowning achievement is this creepy, claustrophobic sequel to/reimagining of the first film, where everybody really just goes all out with the craziness.  Lots of blood, lots of memorable moments and some great humor.  Bruce Campbell is as badass as ever and every little setpiece flows together seamlessly.  For what essentially ammounts to a bunch of action and scare scenes strewn together, Evil Dead 2 is pretty freaking awesome and one of the best horror films of all time.  

04 - A Nightmare on Elm Street
I love the original Nightmare, and they can tack on all the CGI they want with the remake, but it is not going to make a better movie.  The original remains the best by far, with Robert Englund’s famous Freddy and some stunningly-good special effects.  The atmosphere is slick and the story works. Nightmare is a great film that gave us one of the most legendary screen characters of all time.

03 - Halloween
Let us go from a movie that shoots gallons of blood out of a bed, to a movie that has almost no blood to speak of.  Halloween is the chilling thriller about an escaped mental patient named Michael Meyers on the loose, who terrorizes a young babysitter named Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis).  A doctor, knowing what the killer Meyers is capable of, works with the police to stop him before his body count rises.  John Carpenter gave us a horror classic with this movie.  A film that would spark the “slasher” genre and would bring horror to the forefront as a legitimately and almost-universally-recognized artform.

02 - Jaws
Considered by some to be the greatest thriller ever made, Steven Spielberg's Jaws is a classic.  The theme of man versus nature is universal and easy to understand.  We know that beasts can kill us, and we know that we are not at the top of the food chain.  Jaws follows the sheriff of a small New England town named Brody, who is faced with the threat of a killer shark lurking in the water.  The town council refuses to close the beach due to the impending travel season and the result is the death of a small child.  This prompts Brody to summon the help of a shark expert named Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and a fisherman named Quint (played by film veteran Robert Shaw in the twilight of his career) to find and kill the deadly crature once and for all.  Jaws is a classic.  It is one of the most beloved films of all time and ranks as one of the best monster movies ever made.

01 - Psycho
Now for my favorite.  Alfred Hitchcock is a legend and Psycho is one of my favorite films of his, and certainly my favorite of his that could qualify for this list.  Psycho is a film about a woman who escapes with a large amount of money in tow and hides out in the secluded Bates motel.  It is there where she meets the mild-mannered Norman Bates, a man who claims to live there with his mother, but after the young woman is murdered, her sister, on her trail arrives and begins to unravel the madness of the mind of Norman Bates.  Anthony Perkins’ performance as Bates here is astonishingly good.  He is creepy and twisted in a way that no other character before him has ever been.  The film shocked audiences and for years was called the scariest movie ever made, and it would hold that title until the release of Dario Argento’s Suspiria in the late 70’s.

So that is my list.  It’s not exactly conventional, I know, but I go for entertainment over just about anything else, and these movies entertained the hell out of me.  I still watch most of them every  year around Halloween.  What are your favorite films for Halloween?  Feel free to share them in the comments below.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Film Review - Argo (2012)

Argo (2012; Warner Bros. Pictures)
Historical thrillers are a very difficult genre to be truly successful with.  Some, like All the President’s Men and the Conversation stand out as taught historical work that were timely for their day.  However, what about movies that are giving us an account of events that occurred more than 30 years ago?  How do you make a movie tense and captivating when, it is assumed at least, we already know the outcome?  It is not an easy task, and that is why many political thrillers are long exercises in mediocrity; overproduced, all-star powerhouses with screenplays compiled from some facts but written entirely with creative license.  Argo is not one of these movies.

In fact, I would go so far as to call Ben Affleck’s latest film the best film I’ve seen so far this year.  Now, with other promising titles coming up, like Lincoln and Django Unchained, I would be hard-pressed to make this assertion with any promise that my opinion will not change before December 31st.  However, with a year featuring knockout-good action movies like Looper and the Avengers, it seemed like the more paced, cerebral drama (which is a little more my taste but I love a good fun movie as much as the next guy) may have taken a backseat in 2012.  That is, until Argo.  

Argo follows the unbelievable true story that was kept a secret for roughly two decades until Bill Clinton finally declassified the mission so that Americans can take it all in.  The insanity, the brilliance and the narrow success.  The center is an agent named Tony Mendez (Affleck) who specializes in the extraction of citizens from dangerous and volatile scenarios.  His mission: The extraction of the six remaining workers from U.S. Embassy that was overrun by the Iran Contra as anti-American sentiment among the government of Iran it its people was growing by the day.  Tony plans to throw together a fake Canadian film production in hopes of getting into the tumultuous Iran attracting as little suspicion as possible. He arrives in the country alone and must convincingly leave with six additional passengers in tow, hoping to outsmart various government goons along the way.

This is a movie with a nice large cast filled with skilled character actors and rising stars.  Minor roles are filled by the likes of Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, and character actor Zeljko Ivanek (a personal favorite of mine).  Everyone plays their parts distinctly and the strong performances by the talented cast, along with the very funny naturalistic screenplay make this one a winner through and through.  Add to that the amazing use of real tension as the breathtaking scenes of the intrepid heroes attempting to outsmart the bureaucrats and evade violent and angry protesters by pain of death steal the show.

Argo is the kind of movie that deserves to be seen.  I know that next month millions of shallow teens will flock to theaters to see the “finale” to the Twilight “saga” and I just know that Argo’s returns will dwarf in comparison to the fiscal results of the Tween-centric insipid blight on cinema that is Twilight.  This thought makes me lose sleep at night.  Still, I take solace in the knowledge that in roughly twenty years, this movie will likely be remembered, and Twilight will hopefully be long forgotten.

Anyway, see Argo.  See it.  It is a strong film to kick off the holiday film season and a great historical drama that successfully transports us to another time and immerses us in its intrigue with great performances and a brilliant screenplay.  Look for Oscar nods to this movie, people.  It deserves it.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

An Update on My Absence and an Announcement!

I haven't posted in a while.  There is a reason for this: I have been sick.  Actually, I've been sick for roughly two-and-a-half or so years now, but for the past few months, even typing on a keyboard has been a painful endeavor, I'm working on this.  Those who did read our countdown of Anime Openings we posted during the summer months may have noticed another name on the publication: Craig.  Say "Hi" Craig!

I essentially added Craig as a contributor, he's a friend of mine and leans to a slightly different area of pop culture than I tend to, this is good because it gives Important Pop Culture a chance to expand its scope.  I'm hoping to work with him with some regularity and you will also likely see some upcoming posts that are entirely his.  Also, I have another major announcement.

Resonant Bytes will focus on music with a slight lean towards music from video games.  Craig and I have, for a while, discussed doing a giant series on game music but I just consider the subject, like much of pop culture, too large for a little series of articles devoted to it.  I'm hoping, with Craig working with me, we will be able to keep a constant stream of posts coming.  Also, if you like something you read on here, share it.  We're looking to get our names out there and (despite some spelling errors I noticed a couple of times :P) I think we are capable of sharing a great deal of insight.

So, why game music?  Honestly, for me anyway, it more or less boils down to the way music impacted me.  Most people develop a music taste around what is popular when they are, say, ten or into their teens.  This would put me smack in the middle of the Grunge Era of Rock and the dawn of Gangsta Rap.  I do like much of the music of the early 90's today but as a kid, I wasn't listening to that.  No, my musical taste developed much, much earlier than my friends and I quickly became a child of the 80's.  Even through high school, when all of my friends listened to Korn and Busta Rhymes, I was still listening to the Talking Heads.  Incidentally, I got into video games very early too, and before I was ever able to beat one of those games, I was enraptured by the music.  Some games, like the Mega Man titles and the literally-stellar soundtrack to Life Force, had music so good that I was actually a fan of the games' soundtracks before I was a fan of the titles those soundtracks belonged to, often hanging out with my friends and listening to the music as they played.

So, there you have it, I'm weird.  I've come to terms with this, and I hope that, through a series of posts on game music and music as a whole, I will be able to help ever so slightly to push game music to full mainstream legitimacy.  It's already headed in that direction, with black tie symphonies devoted to the sounds of Nobuo Uematsu and a number of websites devoted to the archiving and elevation of game music, but I do believe that some of the compositions from some of the games actually rank amongst the greatest music of all time.  Not all of it, but I can think of a few powerful tunes that actually invoke a powerful emotional response in me.  So, if you read this, and you are interested or even merely intrigued, follow us here and keep your eye out because Resonant Bytes is coming soon!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Godfrey Ho Appreciation Month - Death Code: Ninja (1987)

Death Code: Ninja (1987; IDF)
Written and directed under one of Ho's many pseudonyms we get one of his several collaborations with American actor Mike Abbott.  Today, Abbott is working a number of local jobs as listed on his personal website.  One sit through Death Code: Ninja, and it is easy to understand why.  Now, I'm not dogging the guy, he's awesome.  He's just not awesome the way, say... Humphrey Bogart was awesome.  If you catch my drift.

Death Code: Ninja is a revenge flick mixed in with a spy flick mixed in with a ninja flick.  It's a lot like peanut butter and jelly and pepperoni; one thing just doesn't belong.  Since this is a Godfrey Ho film, you have to have ninjas, weather they are actually relevant to what's going on or not.  The meat of the story involves an agent returning home to his family after a long absence.  Everything seems to be going well for the Ko's until their son is abducted by the hero's former colleagues.  When Ko moves in to face them, he is murdered and this leaves his wife to avenge her family.  From here this portion of the movie is a lot like Kill Bill, with a lone female doing everything she can to take out the men who are responsible for her grief.

The spliced-in sections of the movie star one of Godfrey Ho's recurring actors, Mike Abbott, this time as a villainous gang leader who is dealing with the Triads to sell a map that contains the locations of key military installations in Asia.  The film makes several references to "Star Wars", which was what Ronald Reagan dubbed a strategic missile defense system in a speech.  This system was not only technologically unfeasible at the time, but fiscally and diplomatically as well.  It did fool some folks though, just not the people it was intended to.  This obvious bluff made a special guest appearance in this movie referring to the map as the "Star Wars Map", which would disclose a way around U.S. aerial defenses.

This movie is actually pretty good for Ho.  No, I'm serious.  I like the premise, especially the B-plot revolving around the distraught and bitter widow seeking revenge.  I like how we see her character evolve through the movie.  She has a dark side, and it comes out strong near the end of the film. The A-plot, which was the spliced-in portions with Abbott are really just typical Godfrey Ho shtick.    Brightly-colored ninjas (kind of defeats the purpose) flipping around and fighting.  The dialogue scenes are just off mainly because Mike Abbott is just so damn goofy looking.

I know that isn't fair, and there have been many actors who weren't exactly Elvis Presley who were good because they were strong performers (Edward G. Robinson, Peter Lorre and Spencer Tracy just to name a few).  Abbott just doesn't cut it, I'm sorry.  He just may be the single least-tolerable recurring actor that worked under Godfrey Ho.  He's just... distracting.  Looking at him, I can only recall images of the Beastie Boys Sabotage music video, in which Mike D, Ad-Rock and MCA are sporting 70's hair, thick porn-staches and shades, acting out a cliche'd cop show (that video is epic, btw!).  Still, the way he carries himself in all of these films is pretty hilarious, and that helps with the tolerance level a little.  I love it when he shows up because he's just so damn out of place.

All-in-all, however, Death Code: Ninja is a good watch.  No.  Seriously.  Occasional goofiness and typical Ho ineptitude aside, this is one of his better movies.  The action is well done, the revenge story is engaging and there are actually scenes of real tension here.  I would even go as far to say that I... like... this... movie...  That's always hard for me to say.  (I'm a film buff, I'm supposed to hate everything).  But nay, I say!  I enjoyed Death Code: Ninja.  It may seem a little off if you aren't used to Godfrey Ho's quirks, but this just may be one of his best pictures, judging from a quality standpoint.  This one does lack a lot of the laughs you may get from his more dopey endeavors like Ninja Terminator, but it is definitely a decent 80's Kung-Fu flick.

Godfrey Ho Appreciation Month - Let's Talk About Catman!

Cartoon by Christopher McElfresh

Catman in Lethal Track (1990)

Godfrey Ho is well known for his ninja films, but he also took a stab at other action sub-genres as well.  Case in point: Catman.  Catman is a recurring character who had reportedly only appeared in two Godfrey Ho films.  The first, which told of Catman’s origins is called Catman in Lethal Track (1990).  The second one, which had Catman pursuing a dangerous cult leader with Soviet connections, was titled Catman in Boxer’s Blow (1993).  In true Godfrey Ho fashion, these films were both released under one of Ho’s many, many pseudonyms and were also spliced in with two completely different and unrelated Hong Kong martial arts movies then redubbed to make them both “work... together..?”

Catman in Lethal Track, being the first and most essential film in his repertoire, glosses over the character’s origins and gives us a hint at who this character really is.  Of course, it’s Godfrey Ho so comprehensibility is often cast aside in lieu of more... entertaining pursuits.  Bear with me, here, this is going to get preeeety retarded.

The origins of Catman begin with bravery.  Two agents are walking along when they witness two junkies in the process of robbing a delivery truck with only one piece of cargo.  Are you ready for this...?  It’s a radioactive cat.  Yep.  Apparently we just carry those around in regular old pet cages.  Ho, attempting to get as close to ripping off Spiderman as he can without getting his ass sued off by Marvel Comics, then proceeds to give us some of the most awesome 90 minutes of film you will ever see in your entire life.  I am not kidding here.  I’m only going to focus on Catman’s story points as the irrelevant other film really just detracts from how awesome the titular hero is.  

Anyway, the two agents decide to intervene and, using the baseball bats they were carrying, (Presumably either for batting practice or for their audition of the stage performance of The Warriors) take on the two thugs.  During their engagement with the two punks, one of the agents gets scratched by the radioactive cat and is imbued with superpowers.  Over the course of the next few scenes we get Catman exploring his newfound abilities like the power to turn a TV on and off...

Catman and his buddy go on a crime-fighting escapade and ultimately face off against the gang the thugs they owned in the beginning of the film belong to.  Of course, the heroes (or the screenplay, however you decide to like at it) are really dumb and get led right into a trap, end up chained to trees and are preparing to be turned into ground chuck by explosive rounds.  Catman, however, is invincible and the explosion doesn’t kill him, it merely gives him the cover to slip his chains and vanish.  He breaks his buddy’s chains and runs into the brush leaving his friend to get turned into swiss cheese by about forty rounds of automatic fire.  Of course, the friend is totally okay and gets back up and runs away.

From here we see Catman and his buddy fight off the baddies, picking them out one by one in the clearing of the woods.  Note, judging by the timing of the scenes that led up to the heroes being brought to the woods, they’re probably just about a mile from a major metropolitan area and anyone can hear the reenactment of Platoon that is going on in the city’s backyard.  HA!  But, details!  Who gives a crap about details?!

The second film, Catman in Boxer’s Blow, is a lot weaker, with less fun badness and more sloppiness.  The plot involves Catman and his partner looking into a deranged cult leader who is part of a deadly Soviet ring.  Really, in my opinion, the funniest part of this film is how they start off this movie with their own M, in the form of a chubby politician who gives them their mission.  Boxer’s Blow is just weaksauce, lacking the laughs of the first one, still, it is Catman!

If you haven’t guessed yet, I think Catman is awesome.  He is one of the goofiest superheroes I’ve ever seen played straight and I just love how Catman-actor Jonathan Isgar hams up each performance with the typical hero cliches like posing with his fists on his hips and wearing a getup that is both goofy and epic.  The one liners are pretty great too, spouting off lines that would have been dated in 1965 like, “It looks like we’ve seen the last of our old friend!”  Watch these movies.  Both are in the public domain (as are many of Ho’s films) and are very much worth your time, Lethal Track in particular.  If you like fun, bad action movies, they really don’t get much better than this.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Godfrey Ho Appreciation Month - Robo Vampire (1988)

Cartoon by Christopher McElfresh

Robo Vampire (1988;
Filmark International Ltd.)

Following up the cool-but-silly Full Metal NInja we have Robo Vampire, a movie that is just a silly (if not more so) than FMN but lacks the awesome action we say in the first film we covered.  Robo Vampire was an obvious attempt to cash in on the success of the awesome 1987 classic RoboCop, even going so far as to feature RoboCop himself on the freaking VHS cover!  I mean, look at that freaking epic cover art!  However, we do not get Alex Murphy in this film, oh no!  We get a character we barely care about who dies close to the halfway point of the film and is transformed into an “ robot”, to quote one of the film’s strangest dialogue scenes.

The film’s ridiculous premise involves a vile drug cartel who uses specially trained vampires controlled with talismans to guard their stash of drugs and to act as the cartels private undead army.  When an agent is killed in the line of duty a scientist transforms him into an android to battle the bouncing vampires and to rescue a missing couple in the Golden Triangle, a real-world location in Thailand and an area famous for drug manufacturing and trafficking.  

This is one of those action movies from the 80’s that displays the excess that has become central to the over-the-top, fun action flicks of the era remembered fondly by film fans.  Explosions, blood, bad effects and sloppily-filmed martial arts are all key to the fun in this film.  The fight scenes are, for lack of a better word, crazy.  The goofy vampires hold their arms outward like Boris Karloff’s Monster and bounce sillily towards their target.  It’s hard to watch these guys move without a chuckle, or at least a smile.  All this is before they start shooting freaking fireworks out of their hands, which is obviously coming from sparklers hidden in the baggy sleeves of their robes.  In fact, all of the effects in this film seemed to have been made with leftover fireworks from that year’s Lantern Festival.

Now let’s talk a little about the titular robot.  Do not be confused by the title, as there are no robo vampires in this movie.  a more accurate title would be Robot Vs. Vampires but I guess that was just a little too on-the-nose for Ho.  No, the robot we get in Robo Vampire is a wannabe clone that looks like a cosplayer had his over-zealous but untalented mother make him a RoboCop costume out of duct tape.  As he moves a moderately-talented foley guy hits the middle-C key on his Casio synthesizer and we get poorly-queued mechanical sounds that are meant to convince us that the hero really is mechanical and isn’t just wearing a poorly-fitting, floppy costume.  

The fights, namely the few between the robot and the vampires, are a lot of fun and are where Robo Vampire is at its most entertaining.  Occasionally, the screen will get so dark you cannot actually see what’s happening on screen, but I could attribute some of that to the copy of the film I watched.  Still, what I could make out is pretty damn awesome.  Given the nature of the characters, the vampires and the robot are so stiff.  It is pretty awesome to watch them struggle to maintain that rigor-mortis-like stiffness while they hurl each other about.  Also, oddly, the vampires have a tendency to knock dudes up to roofs of buildings when they hit them, and this is sort of the way this movie goes.  One character motions a hit towards another character and we cut to a reaction shot of what is almost always a stunt guy as he or she flies into poorly-lit set dressing.  It is often difficult to tell where other characters are in relation to one another, as the blocking and lighting obscure almost every fight.  I’m quite positive that much of this obsctruction is intentional, to hide the sloppy makeup and costumes and the shoddy choreography.  This is why my favorite fight in the film takes place on the beach during daylight.  When you can actually see what is going on it is pretty damn funny.  These hilarious fights alone are motivation enough to justify repeat viewings.

What makes this movie work is its ineptitude, and like the other fun “bad” movies like Birdemic and Plan 9, there are hints that the director and actors, despite all of their ineptitude, are really working hard to make this movie happen.  These are the bad movies that are fun because while you pick these films apart and are actually laughing AT them, they have a charm about them.  Robo Vampire is, by its very nature, a cash-in, and like other films that fall into a subgenre known as Action Exploitation (or “Actionsploitation”, for short) it exists to bask in the glory of another movie that is far, far more well-known and respectable than itself.  Still, Robo Vampire is a freaking blast and bad movie fans can easily make a game out of all the bad takes that made it into this movie.  The dubbing is read so poorly, that it can make the simplest line excruciatingly funny simply but its poor tone, or odd timing.  

Robo Vampire is all over the Internet, making it extremely easy to watch.  I was able to find multiple uploads on YouTube alone.  See this movie.  If you love the genre, if you love bad movies, or if you just love to laugh, this is a must-see.  It should be a regularly-discussed film in the topic of films that are so-bad-they’re-good.  Robo Vampire is a great film to springboard uninitiated viewers into the bizarre underbelly of 80’s action.

NOTE: A little editorial correction, in full-disclosure. I am aware that technically this film is directed by Thomas Tang. This is a fair and important fact to point out that I failed to note in the post. Godfrey Ho's footprint is all over this one. Also, there was some splicing in this film as well. Sorry about the bad info. I do my best to research these movies but a lot of the time the more obscure films are hard to find information on.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Godfrey Ho Appreciation Month - Full Metal Ninja (1989)

Cartoon by Christopher McElfresh
Full Metal Ninja
(1989; IDF Films and Arts)

In one of Godfrey Ho’s later spliced works, we see a lot of great imagery.  There’s an evil military leader who wears a Santa cap in one scene, a completely irrelevant white guy in a hot pink ninja costume and Chinese Eegah!  Along the way we get a strange yet surprisingly entertaining piece of cinema.  This is Full Metal Ninja!

Full Metal Ninja is just another one of the strangely-titled ninja films in Ho’s repertoire, this time featuring a Zatoichi-esque swordsman named Eagle who travels a lonely road to save his family that was taken from him by an evil warlord named Lo.  This is not, however, very well explained but this is par for the course with Ho’s narratives.  They are rarely comprehensible and are, more-often-then-not, damn near unintelligible.  

Along the road, Eagle faces many foes, most are fights he engages to help another person, other times they are in retaliation of a previous encounter.  At one point, Eagle comes to the aid of a young woman who would become an important point of contention for the hero, after she invites him into her home for rest.  However, when her father seemingly inexplicably attacks him, she vows vengeance.  After a short time, she becomes entirely irrelevant to the story.

About seven minutes of additional footage was added after the fact starring Ho and Lai’s perennial caucasian action hero, Pierre Kirby.  Kirby’s scenes do nothing but add a little more violence to the movie and ultimately serve no purpose, as the added scenes in Ho’s movies rarely do.  Still, we do see some funny action and we also get a nice taste of the goofy ninja costumes Ho uses in many of his films.  Thus, there are a few laughs to be had at these scenes’ expense.  
Pierre Kirby from Full Metal Ninja,
in all of his hot pink glory!

The fight choreography in Full Metal Ninja, as is the case with most of Ho’s films, ranges from good to bleh.  To Ho’s credit, he is actually able to construct a good scene from time to time, and his movies, as silly as they often are, do occasionally have some good action.  Some of the fights in Full Metal Ninja aren’t bad, and really do deserve some recognition as entertaining pieces of martial arts action.  Some of the cut-in fights are pretty fun too, like when we see Pierre Kirby rip off Raiders with the gun to the swordsman’s gut and when we see him kick down a freaking tree in an attempt to crush his attackers.

All-in-all, Full Metal Ninja is a blast, and while it isn’t good, not by a long shot, bad movie fans and fans of kung fu movies in general will find quite a bit to like about it.  The principle plot, while cliched and paper-thin, isn’t bad and the hero, Eagle is pretty badass, though, you have seen this very same character played better, in far-superior films.  Give this one a watch if you want to have a few laughs and to quench your thirst for fun kung fu action.

Godfrey Ho Appreciation Month - An Introduction

Cartoon by Christopher McElfresh
I hereby dub August Godfrey Ho Appreciation Month and that means lots and lots of awesome ninja action!  The 1970’s were an important time for movies in America.  There were several elements from that decade that contributed to the changes, one being the rise of Independent Cinema, and another was Bruce Lee.  In fact, I don’t think it is often stressed enough just how huge of an impact Bruce Lee had on cinema, not just here in the States, but everywhere.  

Asian cinema began to grow in popularity during the late 50’s thanks to the films of directors like Akira Kurosawa, who created sweeping historical narratives highlighting feudal Japan and showing us a side of a culture we had only really heard about through WWII news headlines and biased word of mouth.  It would be a few years before we got our first taste of Bruce Lee here in the popular TV show the Green Hornet, which aired from 1966-67.  Lee had, by this time, already appeared in a number of films from the growing Hong Kong circuit and was trying to break into Hollywood to better share his love of the Martial Arts and his amazing acting and fighting ability with the world.  
Bruce Lee.  Image from page.

Lee’s films more or less opened the door to the Kung Fu genre to become the powerhouse fans recognize it to be today, and like all other growing fads, there were plenty of others with slightly less talent who would move in to latch on to that success.  One such director out of the 1970’s was Godfrey Ho.  But Ho, along with producer and colleague Joseph Lai, become notorious for re-editing their own movies while splicing in some new footage featuring American actors.  This was principally a business decision as Ho operated under the assumption that by having actors from the US in his films, and giving them top-billing upon release, he would generate a stronger following.  He was wrong.  

Still, Ho and Lai did quite well for themselves.  Just during the 1980’s they released well over 80 films, most were re-hashes and re-edits.  He did do some entirely original films as well, and we’ll talk about those too.  So, without further ado, let us kick off Godfrey Ho Appreciation Month with a film starring one of his favorite Spliced-In Superstars, Pierre Kirby: Full Metal Ninja.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises Review.

Cartoon by Christopher McElfresh
The Dark Knight Rises is the highly-anticipated finale to the massively successful and critically-acclaimed Christopher Nolan Dark Knight Trilogy.  So, how does this one stack up in the trilogy?  Well the best thing I can say is it is my second favorite film in the trilogy, after the Dark Knight, if only because it is a pretty intense, dark story with great set pieces, not because it is a great film.  The events that occur in this film line up nicely to a (somewhat) probable, violent, tragic and truly frightening series of events, culminating in an army of maniacal zealots and violent criminals keeping the good citizens of the city of Gotham in their homes, in fear for their very lives.

Initially, while I watched the film, I was utterly pissed off by just how broken this film really is.  There are so many problems with this movie, it may take a two-parter to really, honestly provide the necessary information as to why I did not thoroughly enjoy this movie.  Still, I’m going to keep this brief and start with this very important note:  If you take this as a dumb Summer action blockbuster, it is good by comparison.  However, if expectations are set for an intense, powerful, psychological drama with action, like the Dark Knight, then you will be entirely disappointed.


I’ll start with the acting.  First off, the best performances in the movie.  For me it goes to Michael Caine (no duh?!) and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  The latter is essential to the plot, while Cain’s Alfred is there when the plot needs some drama and then he disappears, ultimately getting thrown out entirely until the very, VERY end of the movie.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the principal connection of the idea of Batman to the average citizen and the downtrodden.  He is the embodiment of the idea of a hero and how heroes inspire the best in us.  His character really drives this movie, as he is the actually conscience of the City of Gotham and he takes up the mantle during a large chunk of the movie where the Bat is out of the picture.  

Now, the worst acting comes from the two main sources of conflict in the most of the movie, Tom Hardy as Bane, and Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle (she is never actually referred to as “Catwoman”).  Starting with Bane, Tom Hardy’s accent is simultaneously unintentionally-hilarious and incomprehensible.  Probably about a third of his lines are actually coherent, the rest sound like a jumbled mess of digital filters and some really bad ADR that sounds like it was recorded clear on the other side of the world and sent to the editing booth via the worst possible mail service in the world on a dirty old audio cassette tape.  Now, my understanding is that test screenings had people saying they couldn’t understand ANYTHING that was said by Bane so they redid the whole of his lines and added them back in.  Note, this is third-hand information that I have not fully verified.  

The Dark Knight Rises Batman Logo Flat-Brim Baseball Cap

Now, I’m devoting a whole paragraph to Anne Hathaway because her character represents a principal issue with this whole film.  Catwoman had no reason to be in this movie.  Those who know me know that I have no love for Anne Hathaway.  Oscar aside, I find her exceptionally annoying and her expressions and vocal gymnastics she goes through in the Dark Knight Rises only further affirm my dislike of her as an actress.  I don’t know how she is personally, but as a talent, she is greatly lacking.  In DKR she is lost in how to carry Ms. Kyle.  She bounces between voices and demeanors and even goes so far as to mimic Eartha Kitt, Michelle Pfeiffer and Halle Berry (WHY!?) all in a single brief scene.  This is not a good performance and it hurts the movie, not only because it was bad, but because it was completely unnecessary.  As I mentioned, she bears none of the weight of the plot and it is entirely obvious that she was written into a final draft of the script to throw in another female lead that wasn’t kidnapping fodder.  This is ultimately my big issue with this movie.  The Dark Knight Rises has studio stink all over it.  

You can make a freaking drinking game out of the elements that are obviously marketing decisions, not artistic ones.  A few other examples of this include the return of Cillian Murphy as Dr. Jonathan Crane as an evil judge and the last-minute reference to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character name change from “Robin”.  Both of these were eye-rolling and unnecessary and were obviously meant to quell speculation and ensure they can make the same little Scarecrow action figures, this time with a Dark Knight Rises graphic on the cardboard packaging instead of Batman Begins.

The Dark Knight Rises Bane Tee

DKR is really just a poor Batman Movie.  Batman is barely in it and when he is he is thoroughly getting his ass kicked.  I do like it when the movies makes their heroes breakable and human, but this is excessive.  The first time he doesn’t make the climb out of the pit I said “Man, you’ll get there.  I know you can do it Bruce!”, the second time I said “Oh, come on!” and when he finally makes it out I thought “About freaking time!”  The scenes with him in prison are some of the most boooooring parts of any movie I’ve seen all Summer, bringing the intense events we see in Gotham to a grinding halt so we can watch Christian Bale work out.

Now, I’ll offer few more positives before I seem like too much of a hater.  The action is good.  Like, really, really good.  This makes the Dark Knight Rises a fun sit, if you fast forward through the dragged-out prison scenes.  I did not completely hate DKR, and I was thoroughly entertained throughout most of this film.  The exciting action is sort of what pushes this one just a little higher than Batman Begins for me.  The climax is tense and well-done despite them going for the lowest-common-denominator in the obligatory “bomb diffused in the last second” cliche.  I do, however, like how the various citizens of Gotham work together to stop Bane’s boss, Bane himself and their army instead of just having Batman do all of the heavy lifting.

All in all, as a Summer blockbuster, DKR is not a bad movie.  It is a solid film with lots of good action and some great tension.  Still, it is not a great film.  It is not going to be a game changer and it certainly feels like a massive step backwards from the Dark Knight.  It will continue to make a ton of money through its run and through merchandise, but at this point, the Avengers remains my favorite blockbuster of this Summer so far.  I haven’t seen a single film yet in 2012 that can come close to the fun I had while watching that movie.