Under the Skin (2013)

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This year, Scarlett Johansson is giving moviegoers both worlds of science fiction. Johansson starred in the recent release, Lucy, from director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, The Professional). Before that, viewers could see her as a woman who fell to Earth in one of the year’s most intriguing sci-fi offerings. While dividing audiences at Cannes, I throughly enjoyed this film, and not for the obvious reason.

 
A mysterious visitor (Johansson) comes to Earth with the intention of finding a mate, this according to the synopsis on IMDB. Yet, that doesn’t seem to be the case. The impression I get was that her character was more interested in the human experience. But, that interest didn’t develop until being on Earth for a few days.

 
In the beginning, she’s cold and distant when alone. But, when she interacts with other people, she turns on the charm that ensnares men. Early on, there is one scene at a beach that is genuinely shocking and horrifying. This scene will likely divide viewers. For many, that moment will turn off a lot of people.

 
From there, she encounters people from various walks of life. One scene has her character talk with a man stricken with Neurofibromatosis, played by Adam Pearson. I have to credit the filmmakers for giving this character real depth during the time he is on-screen and not just using Pearson to shock the audience. Here is where Johansson’s character develops her interest in humanity.

While I haven’t read the book by Michel Faber, I hear the screenplay by director Jonathan Glazer and Walter Campbell is only loosely adapting the source material. Director Glazer and cinematographer Daniel Landin do a great job at presenting situations and sights familiar to many people, yet filmed in a manner that makes them appear alien. There are throw away shots and scenes of mundanity that are of things fixated on by an outsider.

 
The film alone is worth studying for the dialogue scenes between Johansson and the strangers she picks up. Most of the exchanges were improvised. They likely had a basic outline, but the dialogue itself by Johansson and the other actors were off the cuff. Much of it was clunky and awkward, but it was real. These conversations were as natural as I’ve seen in film.

 
The music score by Mica Levi is one of the best scores of the year thus far. It affected me on a subconscious level. It doesn’t have much bravado, but done in a minimalist fashion that makes it stand out all the more. Its well worth adding to your collection of soundtracks.

 
This is a performance by Johansson that stands as her very best. This movie makes her a legitimate talent with range. In scenes where she’s alone, she’s cold and distant. With others, she has a charm that is captivating. Her scenes with Pearman and Michael Moreland were memorable. She has come a long way since when I first saw her in Home Alone 3.

 
Before I end the review, I should address the proverbial elephant in the room. Yes, she does have scenes of full frontal nudity. During these scenes, the camera doesn’t dwell on her or the lighting is so low that you really can’t see anything. The nudity is done tastefully. If you are only going to see this for the nudity, you’re wasting your time and money.

Accion Mutante (1993)

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As stated in the review for Blazing Magnum, Blackest Heart Media was a resource for many to enjoy cult cinema. While Blackest Heart Media as an entity is no more, many of the films in their catalog are widely available. Thanks to many of the films falling under public domain, you can see a number of these hidden gems on YouTube. Recently, I was able to catch a Spanish low budget comedy that blends Peter Jackson, Troma, and John Waters.

 
A group of physically and mentally disabled renegades have waged a war against the wealthy and attractive. In this dystopian future, people with these shortcomings are ostracized for their conditions. Led by the scarred Ramon (Antonio Resines), this small group commits acts of violence in their war against the rich and the beautiful.

 
A scheme to kidnap a wealthy heiress (Frederique Feder) leads to the death of some of their ranks. After successfully abducting the heiress, there is distrust among the group when discrepancies arise over how much the heiress is being held for. If that change of pace wasn’t enough, the film switches gears after the surviving members land on a planet that is without women. Now, the captors must become the protectors of the heiress.

 
Accion Mutante is a mix of low budget charm, punk attitude, an anarchistic glee. The movie’s theme of the physically and mentally disabled being alienated would resonate with contemporary audiences, given pop culture’s fixation on the superficially attractive and obscenely wealthy.

Director Alex de la Iglesia and co-writer Jorge Guerricaechevarria have a manic energy in their story. It doesn’t adhere to a three-act structure as much as it presents three scenarios, each sharing the same characters. The first part is a kidnapping heist gone wrong. The second part deals with treachery among the group. The last part has Ramon protecting the heiress.

 
Antonio Resines as Ramon is as unlikeable a main character as I’ve seen. In fact, almost character is one you can despise or not mind seeing them die. But, there is one exception: Juan Viadas as Juan, one half of a pair of Siamese twins. There’s naive innocence to his character. Juan, in particular, goes through so much that he becomes this film’s Tuco. He becomes the character you root for.

 
If you have to ask, the film version I saw was a Spanish dub with English subtitles. If that’s still an issue for people, then that’s their loss. I will put subtitles any day over poor English dub. There is a melody in foreign languages that’s lacking in American dialect.

 
The visual quality of the film I saw on YouTube was about as bad as Mister Deathman. It was dark, at times, and almost unwatchable in some parts. But, it was only an expense of time, and not money. It evens out. I could still watch most of the movie without issue of not seeing what was happening.

 
Thanks to public domain, this weird, wonderful film is available in full on YouTube for free. There’s no excuse not to give this film a watch. If you can get past the nasty cast of characters, unorthodox plot structure, low video quality, and get past the subtitles, there is much to enjoy about this film.

Borderlands series (PS3)

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The genre of first-person shooters have a reputation of being a stale experience very quickly compared to other genres. RPGs allow for a degree of customization and progression that is attractive to gamers. Eccentric video games like Heavy Rain and The Walking Dead provide an engaging narrative. Even the music rhythm games, a genre considered dead to many, still have a place at any get-together. Yet, there is one company, Gearbox Software, that is giving first-person shooters much-needed life, even if they’re output is quite spotty.

 
The first Borderlands told a minimal plot of a quartet of Vault Hunters seeking a mysterious cache of treasures on the planet of Pandora. Pandora is a known searching ground for loot and valuables. Over the course of the game, you complete missions and side quests to build up experience. As you level up, you can add quirks your character like health regeneration, and power-up their skill.

 
You could select one of four characters. There’s Roland the Commando, Lilith the Siren, Mordecai the Sniper, and Brick the Tank. Each character has a special power that unlocks at level five. Roland has an automated turret. Brick hulks out and destroys enemies with his bare hands. Mordecai has Bloodhawk, who can swoop down and kill enemies or collect loot. Lilith can phase and teleport.

 
Your guide for the game is a mysterious AI known as Guardian Angel who helps lead you to the vault. You also run into amusing characters like ClapTrap, Marcus, and Scooter (Catch-A-Ride!). They provide you with armaments, missions, vehicles, and comic relief. Dr. Zed provides you with shields and health during the game’s many rough patches.

 

 
Where the game thrives is in the multiplayer. With one friend for split-screen action, or three more for online, you can take the enemies of Pandora head-on. More friends means more loot and more enemies to garner experience. Given how much fun this game is with friends, its easy to overlook the weak plot.

 
One qualm with Borderlands is that the story-driven missions were in the downloadable content, which made the main game seem flat and meandering. The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned takes the Left 4 Dead formula and adds the ridiculous fun of Borderlands’ weaponry. Taking corrosive weapons and fire grenades into zombie battle adds fun that is lacking in the more reality-based games like L4D and Dead Island.

 
Of the DLC I played, the real treat was with The Secret Armory of General Knoxx. This is the DLC entry with the best writing and gives a taste of how good Borderlands could have been with more time taken to the plot. You’ll find audiologs of General Knoxx, who has to answer to his pre-adolescent superior. The disdain in the voice of Knoxx and his plight add much personality to the DLC that had been lacking til then.

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A sequel was released, Borderlands 2, and this was a major improvement. There was an actual plot, a funny yet dangerous villain in Handsome Jack, and four new characters with the previous game’s characters in supporting roles. Plus, your character data carried over from the previous game. While the world was still Pandora, there was still much of the planet left to explore from the previous game.

 
This time around, players choose from a mix of new and old archetypes. Maya is a Siren, while Axton is the Commando. New to the game is the dual gun-toting Gunzerker, named Salvador, and decoy-stealthy Assassin, known as Zero. A DLC archetype was available, known as the Mechromancer named Gaige. There is also the Psycho named Krieg. This wave of characters proved to be just as fun as the previous game’s selections.

 
The same fun gameplay returned. Marcus, the Guardian Angel, Scooter, and ClapTrap were brought back due to their status as fan favorites. The RPG elements were still there. It was truly an improvement upon the already strong foundation of the previous Borderlands entry.

 
There is already a wealth of DLC to extend the gaming experience. But, the ones I personally recommend are Captain Scarlett and her Pirate’s Booty, Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep, and TK Baha’s Blood Harvest. Each have their unique theme and offer hours of gameplay. There is new loot and new enemies to demolish in these entries.

 
With an addicting gameplay style, strong characters, and clever writing, the Borderlands series is a series worth owning. You can fetch the first game at around 20 bucks. There is a Game of the Year edition which runs for a few bucks more, but has all the DLC already on the disc. That’s a steal. Get these games and enjoy your murderous rampaging vacation on the distant world of Pandora.

 
The upcoming Borderlands Pre-Sequel comes out in Fall of 2014.

Zodiac (2007)

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David Fincher has made a career of films that tackle bizarre subject matter. His breakthrough film, Se7en, still stands as one of the best crime thrillers of the late 90’s. His subsequent films included The Game, Fight Club, and Panic Room. Currently, he’s involved with bringing the famed comic book character, Eric Powell’s The Goon, to the big screen. Who better to make a movie about one of America’s most infamous serial killers?

 
A young man and woman are alone when they’re shot at by a killer. Soon after, a couple are bound and stabbed in broad daylight. A taxi driver is shot at a city corner. All linked to the serial killer known as The Zodiac. From the late 1960’s to the early 1970’s, this killer kept San Francisco and its suburbs in fear due to his threats and seemingly random murders.

The film covers the investigation from two angles. One focuses on reporting of the San Francisco Chronicle by Paul Avery & Robert Graysmith. There is also the detective work of Dave Toschi and Bill Armstrong. We see the strain and false leads that took a toll on these men and their families.

 
Fincher does a fantastic job with setting the mood of the film early on. The opening scene with the shooting of Darlene Ferrin and Mike Mageau builds the tension to an unsettling degree and establishes that the violence could happen at any time to anyone. Along with cinematographer Harris Savides and editor Angus Wall, Fincher provides one of the best police procedurals put on film. Screenwriter James Vanderbilt, based on the real life novel by Robert Graysmith, gives a lot for the cast to work with.

 
The group of actors assembled is one of the best ensembles in any film. Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr. have great chemistry as Graysmith and Avery. Mark Ruffalo with a heavy make-up Anthony Edwards had their share of solid screen time. Even minor performances add to the drama from Brian Cox, Chloe Sevigny, Elias Koteas, Donal Logue, and Charles Fleischer. John Carroll Lynch stands out as Arthur Leigh Allen, the prime suspect of the Zodiac case.

 
The music score by David Shire recalls the work of Bernard Herrmann. The minimalist style of the music is surprisingly effective for such a complicated tale. Some of the era-appropriate music helps set the time, featuring Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” as well as Steely Dan and Boz Scaggs.

 
Zodiac doesn’t get the recognition as some of David Fincher’s other films like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Social Network. Yet, it shows he’s capable of telling a true, riveting story. Great cast, top people behind the camera, and an intriguing scenario make this one to see. You can find it at most movie retailers and on Netflix.

Watch Dogs (PS3)

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Hype is rarely a good thing for any media. Hype can build anticipation to point where the finished product will never reach those hypothetical heights. For example, The Avengers was given such a build up that, for many moviegoers, it couldn’t match their expectations. It might also be a case where there was so much hype that it had an adverse effect and people had set their minds to dislike the final product , no matter how good it may turn out. I would go ahead and count Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs as a victim of hype on the part of its developer.

 
You play as Aiden Pierce, who is out for revenge for the death of his niece at the hands of a mysterious group. Pierce performs tasks on behalf of a team of hacker revolutionaries. One of the game’s noted missions is taking down a sex trafficking ring, which has garnered much criticism as did a mission that made light of the Trayvon Martin incident.

 
Outside the main plot, there are plenty of distractions and various activities. You can play chess, gamble, perform fixer side missions to ditch stolen cars, and all sorts of activities. With so many things to do, one gets the feeling all this was added to hide the fact the main plot makes up very little of the game. This is just as bad as Grand Theft Auto V.

 
The stealth elements and recon you can perform is pretty impressive. You can use your phone to hack into security cameras and spy enemy movements. You can also set off distractions and traps to take out enemies. Not even the grenades on your enemies are hack-proof. You will need to be a master hacker because Aiden can’t take a lot of damage from enemies.

 
After all the excitement built by Ubisoft and the infamous E3 trailer, the final product is abysmal at best. Before I go into those details, let me point out what this game did right. First, unlike other open world games, you get the feeling you’re in a living city. From multiple accounts, the city of Chicago is painstakingly recreated. The information pulled up on your smartphone about each individual person around you really gives depth to the NPC multitudes.

 
Second, I had a blast cruising around on the motorcycles. Weaving in and out of traffic gave me a rush. I spent a great deal of time just cruising around. As for the other vehicles, more on that later.

 
The character of Jordi Chan (Aaron Douglas) is great. He adds much humor to the otherwise dark, brooding mood of this revenge tech-thriller. With the success of this game, a sequel is inevitable. I hope for more characters like this in the future.

With that out of the way, now I can get into my grievances with the game. The plot fails to really get me emotionally involved because its been done so much by other games. Aiden is not an interesting character, lacking charisma or interesting backstory. I will give credit to voice actor Noam Jenkins for doing his best with the material.

 
The driving with any vehicle other than a motorcycle kills the fun. The cars handle poorly and the physics make little sense. While driving, the slightest bump will launch your car out of control. This is just as bad as the physics in the PS2 game, Stuntman. Driving in games like Dead Island, Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon, and Grand Theft Auto V are better executions. With a game like Watch Dogs where driving is half the gameplay and the driving is terrible, this speaks volumes of what AAA developers throw at their fans.

 
On foot, the controls are better. Maneuvering around the city streets and environments is easy enough. Aiming and taking cover is simple to pull off. But, with a game of this scope, going on-foot can only go for so long before one has to resort to the cumbersome vehicles.

 
The graphics, even with the downgrade from the 2012 E3 trailer taken into account, are nothing special. This looks no different from either GTA V or Red Dead Redemption. This attempt at gritty realism that has been done before makes me appreciate the cartoonish tone of Saints Row all the more. The flashback cuts scenes are unwatchable because of the eye-gouging transitions.

 
In the audio department, the voice acting is impressive, but the dialogue fails to add drama. Jenkins and Douglas are joined by the likes of John Trench, Isabelle Blais, and Daniel Kash. They fail to elevate the material. The original music by Brian Reitzell doesn’t have a hook. The licensed music is just as forgettable.

 
Last, there is multiplayer that has earned high marks from the likes of Total Biscuit and Angry Joe. Personally, I can do without. Having others try to hack you and you hacking others is there for those who want it. I have yet to engage in multiplayer that even comes close to the likes of Red Dead Redemption or Borderlands/Dead Island.

 
With the hype put into this game by Ubisoft, they only ended up giving half of a good game. With the abhorrent driving and abundance of sidequests/mini-games, you can argue for a 25% main plot for the game. Add in graphics and audio, Watch Dogs is a major dud in 2014. Stick to GTA V or Red Dead Redemption for your open world fix.

Aliens: Colonial Marines (PS3)

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Yes, folks. Its time for another review of a video game based on a movie franchise. Sure, we know they’re generally bad. Very rare it is when there is a good movie-based title. Aliens: Colonial Marines was in development by Gearbox Softworks, the company behind Borderlands. What could go wrong? Where do I begin?

 
The game proposes the notion that the movies after James Cameron’s Aliens didn’t happen. On the plus side, that means Alien: Resurrection didn’t happen. As much as I’m a fan of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Alien: Resurrection is his worst film. On the down side, that means Alien3 from David Fincher didn’t happen, which I think is very underrated. Col. Hicks (Michael Biehn reprising his role) sends out a distress signal for the Marine reinforcements to come. The reinforcements eventually arrive after 17 weeks, as stated by Hicks in the film.

 
Shortly after the Marines arrive, all hell breaks loose. Xenomorphs attack the marines and its up to you to make it through waves of the aliens. Later in the game, you have encountered mercenaries sent by the Weyland Corporation. An Aliens video game where you mostly fight humans begs the question of why bother calling it an Aliens game?

I may as well get the positives out of the way first. For a crappy game, there is a lot of fan service. Actors Michael Biehn and Lance Henriksen return to their respective roles as Hicks and Bishop (well, not exactly Bishop but an android the same model). The weapons have the same exact sound effects from the film. The xenomorphs are identical to their cinema counterparts.

 
For a game that was in development for as long as this one, it suffers from many glitches. Aliens get stuck in the walls, crawling in place. I even saw one stand on its hind legs and kicking its feet, literally imitating the spoof segment from Mel Brooks’ Space Balls. The spawning spots for Aliens are just as bad as the zombie spawning in Walking Dead: Survival Instincts.

 
The controls mirror the set-up of Borderlands. However, everything about the controls feels sluggish, as if I was playing in zero gravity. Aiming is easy enough, but hit detection is atrocious. You could be aiming squarely at a xenomorph and bullets don’t connect.

 
The AI of the aliens seems not genuine. These creatures just storm right at you. The stealth sneak attacks commonly associated with the species are only on display with the very first one you encounter. It didn’t feel like I was fighting aliens as much as it felt like I was fighting the Infected of Dead Island. The AI of the human enemies was no different than from any Call of Duty game I’ve played.

 
One would think that since the same developers behind Borderlands were heading this project, this would be given the same TLC as that series. Yet, as we saw with Duke Nukem Forever, non-Borderlands video games tend to suffer. The demo for Colonial Marines was amazing. The AI was just right. The environments were properly creepy. The tension was maintained right to the very end. If you’re a fan of Aliens, you do best to download the free demo of the game as opposed to paying any kind of money for this coaster.

 
Gearbox continued the already sour trend of bad movie-based video games. This particular trend had been doing well in recent years. Then, its gotten bad again. One word of advice for Gearbox: never work on another video game that isn’t Borderlands. You’re not helping yourselves with games like this. In the words of the Iron Sheik, “I lock this game in da Cah-mel Clutch! Break its back and make it ham-ble!”

Nazis at the Center of the Earth (2012)

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This review brings back the villains that are easy to hate. Of course, I’m taking about Nazis. Thanks to films like Dead Snow and The Debt, Nazis are enjoying another revival as the go-to bad guys of cinema. After enjoying Asylum’s Abraham Lincoln Vs. Zombies, I had my eye on this article’s film.

 
In the last days of World War II, Josef Mengele (Christopher Karl Johnson) is seeking to escape the custody of the Allied Forces. With a tank containing mysterious contents, he is able to escape Germany and seek refuge in South America. After that, he went into hiding and disappeared without a trace.

 
We cut to the present at an international outpost in the Antarctic. This camp is headed by scientist Adrian Reistad (Jake Busey, son of Gary). While out in the cold, members of the outpost were attacked and captured by unknown assailants. When the team goes out to investigate, they discover a deep crevice.

 
Upon entering the crevice, they stumble upon an interior atmosphere, dramatically warmer compared to the surface. They go inside a hangar and are captured by the Nazis, with Mengele still alive. It turns out that members of the camp were captured over the years and had their organs harvested to keep the small army of Nazis alive.

 
From there, the film diverges into a series of set pieces, ranging from the bizarre to the shockingly violent to flat out hilarious in its absurdity. To hint at the events would ruin the surprise of seeing them. The first hour of the film gives way to the most entertaining 30 minutes that could be found on an Asylum released last year.

 

 
While there are moments where the film has fun with the material and goes full goose gonzo, there are moments that will turn off a lot of viewers. A character has their skin ripped off their face. One character has her brain ripped right out of her head, eyes still open all the while. A woman goes through an abortion, albeit the worst part happens off-screen. If you have the constitution to withstand the gross moments, you’ll enjoy what the rest of the film has to offer.

 
The cast they have makes the most out of the material. Jake Busey has his tongue in his cheek with his over-the-top performance as the outpost leader. Dominique Swain (Adrian Lyne’s Lolita) brings a lot of the drama of the film with her character, although her character’s arc seems to jump from point A to point C.

 
I hope to see Christopher Karl Johnson in other films. He manages to be creepy, whether he’s reciting dialogue or when he’s totally silent. Given the fact that he takes the film’s proceedings without any tongue-in-cheek irony, he gives the film much credibility. He’s the poor man’s Ian McKellen, and he does that very well as Mengele.

 
While the CGI sets and animations are obvious, they add to the 21st camp spirit of the film. From a UFO to the film’s equivalent of a video game boss character, the effects add to the low budget charm. Paul Bales, writer of Asylum’s 2010 Sherlock Holmes and 2012: Moby Dick, should be commended for writing one of the best genre-mashers in recent years. Directot Joseph Lawson has worked for such big productions as Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and Red Tails. He brings his experience to this small film and makes it all the better for it.

 
With the gruesome elements and the cheesy special effects, Nazis at the Center of the Earth is a lot of fun if you have an idea of what you’re getting into. Asylum has managed to carry on the work of famous low budget producers like Roger Corman and Charles Band. If you’re not squeamish or a film snot, then you’ll really enjoy what this film has to offer to a willing audience.

Phenomenal & the Treasure of Tutankamen (1969)

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Ruggero Deodato is a director who will likely forever be known for one infamous film: Cannibal Holocaust. The films Deodato made both before and after the found footage prototype have been overshadowed by that divisive piece of work. Thanks to First Look Home Entertainment, one of Deodato’s early efforts is available through the Grindhouse Experience, Vol. II. Yes folks, its time once again to check out another title from this Pandora’s boxset. This review will look at the superhero/spy film, Phenomenal & The Treasure of Tutankamen.

 
Fenomenal is a mysterious superhero that has been stopping crimes all throughout France. He has been occasionally sighted, but is viewed by many as a figure of urban legend. However, he has been making more frequent appearances due to a recent exhibition of Tutankhamen’s bust. When the bust goes missing, the police and museum curators seek to find the criminals responsible. Little do they know they have an unlikely ally in Fenomenal.

 
Under the pseudonym of Roger Rockefeller, Ruggero Deodato offers audiences a chance to enjoy antics in Swingin’ 60’s Paris. Deodato co-wrote the script with Aldo Iginio Capone. This is a superhero mystery that tries to get the audience into the film. The film tries to entice the audience into guessing who stole the bust as well as who is Fenomenal. One can’t help but feel this was trying to ride the coat tails of Danger: Diabolik, which came out a year earlier.

 
Sadly, the film has very little to offer. There are stretches in the film that are uneventful, or where the viewer is completely lost as to what is going on in the film. However, when Fenomenal is on-screen, the movie picks up and becomes an enjoyable experience. One quick word of warning: the last shot of the movie comes off as so completely random and unexpected that its almost worth sitting through the movie for.

 
If you’re a regular viewer of Italian genre cinema, there are a few familiar faces in the cast. Mauro Parenti as Count Guy Norton has hints of charm, yet his character is flat. Lucretia Love is an eye-catching love interest with her ever-changing hair color. Gordon Mitchell, the actor with the richest filmography of the entire cast, has little to do and work with as the film’s obvious bad guy.

 

 

Bruno Nicolai provides one of the most whimsical music scores for Fenomenal. It has a very Swedish sound to it, not unlike the original version of the “mahna mahna” song. Its more upbeat compared to the scores of Morricone. Its worth giving a listen if you can find tracks on YouTube.

 
The audio/visual quality of the film is not that bad. There are a few times where the film is so dark, you can’t see anything. Those are few and far between. Its not at all as bad as Mister Deathman. It closer in quality to Blazing Magnum. If you’ve seen enough episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, you’ll have gotten used to what Fenomenal presents as far as the quality of the sound and video.

 
First Look Home Video pulls through with another decent transfer from VHS to DVD. They have given people a chance to see an early film of one of Italian cinema’s most controversial filmmakers. If you only know Ruggero Deodato from Cannibal Holocaust, Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankamen might be worth a look. Maybe the ending will blow your mind as much as it did mine.

The Punisher (2004)

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When it comes to film adaptations of Marvel’s famed vigilante, there are two camps. One is the group loyal to the 2004 film starring Thomas Jane. The other camp, which I would proud say I’m a member of, favors the 2008 film with Ray Stevenson. I will admit that the Thomas Jane film is pretty good, yet it has flaws that make me prefer War Zone instead.

Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) is undercover for the FBI when a deal goes bad and one of the young dealers is dead. Turns out the dealer is the son of crime lord, Howard Saint (John Travolta). Saint finds Castle’s family and has them brutally murdered. Castle barely survives and is brought back to health. Now, Castle wants vengeance for the death of his family.

Castle systematically takes out members of Saint’s syndicate. Not only is he knocking off members, but also collecting blackmail evidence to use against one of Saint’s associates. During this time, Castle moves into an apartment with neighbors that take in Castle. Now, Castle has a surrogate family to protect, especially when Saint goes in to have Castle taken out.

Before I go into why this film doesn’t completely work for me, let me express what I did like. In the beginning the violence is vicious and unforgiving. The murder of Castle’s family is more than enough for me to want to see these mobsters pay. The violence doesn’t get so bad or rotten like it does in a movie like Death Wish III that no amount of retribution could satisfy.

I like Thomas Jane as Frank Castle. He does a pretty decent job with the character. Any problems I have with the film don’t pertain to Jane or his performance. He was doing as he was directed by Jonathan Hensleigh and how screenwriter Michael France presented his character.

The supporting cast featured a number of talented actors and actresses. Rebecca Romijn teases as a love interest to Castle. Comedian John Pinette (RIP) and Ben Foster are great as Castle’s goofy neighbors. Roy Schieider and Samantha Mathis have small, but memorable parts. Will Patton, Eddie Jemison, and Mark Collie stand out as Saint’s associates.

Last, but far from least, this film has one of my favorite fight scenes in all cinema. Thomas Jane as Castle and Kevin Nash as the Russian is such a crazy, hilarious sequence that it seems out of place for this film. Had the film been able to maintain this degree of absurd humor towards the violence, it would have been Punisher: War Zone four years early.

With those positives established, let me get into what about this film doesn’t work for me. First, its the inconsistency of tone for the film. There are moments where it jumps from gritty to funny to western to dramatic then to cartoonishly violent. With Punisher: War Zone as well as Dolph Lundgren’s 1989 film, they had a steady tone. This film is all over the place and it took me out of the movie.

John Travolta, as the head of the Saint crime family, is a one-note bad guy. There’s nothing interesting or dramatic about him. This comes off as a paycheck performance that pales in comparison to Dominic West as Jigsaw or Doug Hutchison as Looney Bin Jim.

If this is your favorite of the Punisher films, I can respect that. It does have its moments, yet those moments don’t match my sense of awe for War Zone. This film is worth checking out on a rainy day. If you’re a Marvel movie completist or want to delve into Marvel-based films before the Disney buy-out, this is one of the better ones to see.

Mortal Kombat (1995)

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Video game-based movie adaptations were in their early years during the mid 1990’s. Super Mario Bros. only led to other box office fodder like Street Fighter and Double Dragon. One common element between them was the fact that they were absolutely terrible. Yet, at the time, one film stood out from the rest as being the best video game film adaptation, and still stands as one of the best ever made.

Mortal Kombat is a fighting tournament that pits the greatest warriors of Earth against the champion of the realm known as Outworld. Under the guidance of Raiden, the hope of Earth lies in the trio of Liu Kang, Sonya Blade, and Johnny Cage. The overseer of the tournament, Shang Tsung, has his collection of warriors with the likes of Sub-Zero, Scorpion, Reptile, Kano, and Prince Goro. Fortunately, the Earth combatants have an unlikely ally in Princess Kitana.

After nearly two decades and many attempts to bring video game source material to movie screens, Mortal Kombat is a fantastic piece of work. The characters are loyally adapted to the film. The fight sequences are well-choreographed and stylishly edited. The techno soundtrack helps the film maintain its high energy pace. The movie still holds up as entertaining and accessible to multiple audiences.

One of the film’s strongest aspects is the simple plot, something the video games were often lacking. Fans will recognize a number of cues the plot of Mortal Kombat takes from the plot of the Bruce Lee classic, Enter the Dragon. Liu Kang and Johnny Cage were played as surrogates for Bruce Lee and John Saxon. The Johnny Cage/Goro fight is similar to the Roper/Bolo fight. Both films center on a fighting tournament that’s a cover for a much bigger operation, be it a drug operation or another dimension.

While maligned for the Resident Evil films, director Paul W.S. Anderson garnered much respect for his lovingly crafted work on Mortal Kombat. After the likes of Street Fighter and Double Dragon, a video game-based film of this quality was a sign of hope. It felt like a legitimate movie and not a cynical cash grab.

The performances by the cast were appropriate for their characters. While Christopher Lambert’s comedic take on Raiden felt out of place, the other actors more than make up for it. Robin Shou, with his roots in Hong Kong cinema, is a perfect fit for Liu Kang. Linden Ashby gives Johnny Cage much ego, but not too much that we hate him. Bridget Wilson has the right look for Sonya and a gung-ho attitude to boot. Talisa Soto has her moments as Kitana.

The villains prove to be entertaining in their own right. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa plays Shang Tsung with over-the-top aggression laced with camp. He comes off as a martial arts Palpatine. The late Trevor Goddard played a light-hearted take on Kano. He’s still vicious, but he’s very amusing.

With video game-based films having a growing number of misses than hits, the ones that work are all the more noteworthy. If I had to rank Mortal Kombat, it would be second only to Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie. Yeah, after all these years, its still that good of a movie.