The Toxic Avenger

The Toxic Avenger.
Troma Entertainment 1984.

Before watching the movie:

I hadn’t heard of this movie until I stumbled across it on a streaming platform, but apparently it has a cult following. It’s from about 20 years later than I initially thought, but I also thought it was played straighter. This is going for satire, not camp.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the grotesque deformity the accident that gave him his super powers came from is a specific take-that to all of the superheroes and villains that got their start from chemical or nuclear accidents and end up looking amazing, or at most with a cool scar on the face, completely unlike most things that suddenly and dramatically change a human body in reality.

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Godzilla (1998)

Godzilla (1998).
Centropolis Entertainment/Fried Films 1998.

Before watching the movie:

I don’t quite understand why Godzilla captured people’s imaginations. I would’ve said that a large part of the charm of the original Japanese kaiju movies was camp and cheap effects, but everything that sells eventually gets three high-budget reboots here, and I think this did pretty well in theaters.

I certainly remember it being heavily promoted and cross-promoted. It probably made its money back just on toy sales, or at least the studio thought they had a shot at doing so.

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The Sign of Zorro

The Sign of Zorro.
Walt Disney Pictures 1958.

Before watching the movie:

I previously reviewed The Mask of Zorro, but where that is a reboot, this appears to be the actual origin story. I can kind of see now that maybe the other movie didn’t want to reintroduce audiences to a hero who can do the things he does mainly because he’s wealthy. We accept it in Batman because Batman has never been that far away from popular culture, but Zorro’s time in our collective imagination has mostly passed. So instead of a Bruce Wayne story, the reboot gave audiences Terry McGinnis. But I’m not here to talk about “Mask”.

I’m expecting a pretty straightforward classic adventure story, where the good guys are good and the bad guys are bad, and right is restored in the end.

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Movies of my Yesterdays: The Rescuers Down Under

While not as embedded in the landscape of my media childhood as Lady and the Tramp or The Little Mermaid, The Rescuers Down Under was always there as far as I can recall. I associate a very youthful spirit of adventure with it that I think predates the time in my adolescence when I was defining my own tastes for what seemed like the first time, the “hit me at the right time” years.

While the original The Rescuers probably more deserves the appreciation of a mature reviewer, I don’t have the same fondness for it. The two movies came from different eras of Disney animation and have a very different look and feel. The first came from the time of The Fox And The Hound and 101 Dalmatians, but it’s almost as obscure as The Black Cauldron and hits a lot more of the same notes. Sensibilities had changed at Disney in the time between the two Rescuers movies and the latter is part of the upward trend moving toward the Disney Renaissance.

The Rescuers Down Under. Walt Disney Pictures 1990.

Cody, a very American sounding Australian boy, is a friend to the animals of the Outback, and rescues a giant Golden Eagle from a poacher’s trap. She gives him one of her golden feathers as a keepsake, and then on his way home, Cody finds a mouse tied up as what turns out to be bait in a trap sat by ruthless poacher MacLeach. MacLeach finds the golden feather and realizes that Cody knows where the last Golden Eagle is, so he kidnaps him in order to try to get him to divulge the location of the bounty. The rescued mouse reports Cody’s peril to the Rescue Aid Society, and soon Bernard and Bianca are on their way through the Outback to him with Australian Jake as their guide.

Where the first was likely modeled after a pulp adventure novel, this feels more like an action adventure movie. It has modern pacing sensibilities, but I think the first is stronger in that as I recall, Bernard and Bianca spend most of the story trying to find a way to get Penny out of her situation, this one doesn’t have them get to Cody until the climax. There’s not much for them to do but ride more Australian animals across the landscape while Jake tries to flirt with Miss Bianca and Bernard tries to find a moment to propose to her. It’s a comic relief subplot, but moreso Wilbur and the hospital mice fixing his back with extreme force.

Two things make this movie feel epically sized: the music and the sweeping three dimensional camera moves. Disney shopped out many backgrounds to Pixar, and while sometimes they’re obviously very primitive CG by today’s standards (I’ve seen previsualization renders more convincing than the city skyscrapers and cars), they do bring to life the camera perspectives and the Outback. People talk a lot about the clock gears in The Great Mouse Detective and the Ballroom in Beauty and the Beast, but I think this is the best demonstration of what cel animation can do with CGI backgrounds as a tool in the kit.

If this had Ashman/Menken songs, it would be 20 minutes longer, but it would also be at least at the level of the actual Renaissance Disney movies. The plot structure makes a lot of the returning or pseudo-returning (Wilbur is allegedly Orville’s brother despite how very different they are aside from being airline albatrosses) characters redundant, but it’s a fantastic adventure for the whole family, and it should be remembered as fondly as Disney’s biggest hits of the 90s.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Limelight Entertainment 1990.

Before watching the movie:

I am broadly aware of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise, but I was never all that into it. I briefly thought I was going to watch the cartoon series, but I was given a parental directive to choose one violent show between TMNT and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and I chose the latter. Then a few weeks later I abruptly decided the whole premise of MMPR was silly and dropped it.

Apparently there’s a well-known easter egg that in one telling of the Turtles’ origin story, the radioactive ooze that made them was also involved in making Daredevil. That’s pretty neat. That will not be relevant to this movie.

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Face/Off

Before watching the movie:

Face/Off. Paramount Pictures 1997.

My strongest memory of this movie being in the world was the giant poster on the side of a building at King’s Island for years. I don’t think it had anything to do with anything at the park, it was just a 50-foot poster nobody bothered to take down across the three to five years my visits were spread across. (Update: apparently they named their head to head roller coaster Face/Off, until Paramount sold the park and the new owner debranded it. I didn’t ride many of the coasters there.)

I later learned the movie is about a good guy and a bad guy trading faces for… reasons, don’t think too much about it. I’m not sure which actor starts as which character, because of course both play both. I’ve heard that Cage as the terrorist gets eccentrically creepy in the way he’s famous for now.

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Stargate

Stargate. Metro Goldwyn-Mayer 1994.

Before watching the movie:

I can probably count on one hand the number of episodes of Stargate: SG-1 I’ve seen, and still have room for the number of episodes of Stargate: Andromeda and Stargate Universe. I think there are two other series now? It was the Star franchise I cared least about.

So Stargate and the Stargates have always been a thing that the show has expected viewers to know about in everything I’ve seen. I’m interested in seeing how the concept is introduced for the very first time, from the very beginning.

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The Avengers

The Avengers. Warner Bros. 1998.

Before watching the movie:

What can be said about this big-budget adaptation of a beloved, long-lasting sci-fi/fantasy/action/adventure franchise? This movie that brought people’s childhood fantasies to the big screen in an ambitious project that had never been done before? The first time moviegoers assembled for The Avengers?

Of course, I mean the 1998 adaptation of the British ITV series from the 60s. What else could I be referring to?

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Blade

Blade. New Line Cinema 1998.

Before watching the movie:

I have no familiarity with the Marvel comics this is based on. For all I know, this movie was made because New Line had bought a package of cheap comics properties to turn a fast profit on. I don’t like to be so dismissive, but Blade is one of the most prominent notably black superheroes I can think of who aren’t carrying a legacy mantle, and I wouldn’t know that the book exists without this movie that exemplifies an era of moviemaking where “based on a comic book” was something to hide.

Lacking any of the brand recognition and shared continuity that makes comic book stories enticing now, this is essentially sold on the strength of Wesley Snipes slaying vampires with martial arts for two hours. Which is exciting enough if you’re into that sort of thing.

After watching the movie:

Thirty years ago, a baby was born to a woman dying of a vampire bite. Now, Blade is a Daywalker, a being without the vulnerabilities of vampires, but with many of the advantages, including super strength and speed and decreased aging. Blade and his partner Whistler save Dr. Karen Jenson from a vampire that eluded Blade’s assault on a vampire-owned rave, and they introduce Karen to the secret war to free human society from the elite order of vampires that secretly rule. As Blade fights vampire activity, a vampire named Frost manages to translate one of the ancient texts of the vampires, unlocking plans for a ceremony to bring about the age of the Blood Gods.

In the time this was made, comic book movies were often trying to be mature and serious while at the same time providing spectacular violence shows. This created a lot of movies that seem afraid to have fun, even as the stunt sequences the plots excuse are really fun and cartoonish. This has some really fun fight scenes, and the plot is pretty cartoonish, but the story and the fights often seem to belong to different movies because of how different they are in tone.

Most of the effects are highly effective. There’s a lot of work with prosthetics and practical creature effects that create convincing looks, and probably a lot of background CG that’s not noticeable. The disintegration of silver-stabbed vampires is really good for the time. The only time I was really taken out of the scene by bad effects was in the finale, with the demonic vampire souls flying around. That might have been partially caused by a frame rate mismatch, like how jarring the ED-209 was in RoboCop.

Even though there have been over 20 more years of superhero movies and Hero’s Journey plots further wearing out their cliches since Blade, the tropes this plot leans on seem particularly lazy. Developments in act one set up developments in act three with a megaphone. At least this movie introduces the character already established and just recaps the origin story, which is a rare approach. 

I have to respect that this was one of the vanguards of the modern rebirth of superhero movies, but it’s not a part of it. The success of movies like Blade and Spawn demonstrated that the market was safe for comic book movies again, but they didn’t do it by revolutionizing or commenting upon the genre, just by playing it straight. Often too straight, but I have to keep in mind how early this was. This is still a fun movie that doesn’t need too much of an excuse to explode some vampires, and that’s really all it had to be.

Forbidden World

Forbidden World. New World Pictures 1982.

Before watching the movie:

I didn’t even know this was a Roger Corman movie when I selected it, but as a B-movie that looks a fair bit exploitative, it’s not terribly surprising. I’ve been drawn lately toward b-movies as it becomes harder to find suitable major releases through the channels I’m accustomed to.

It’s even confusing just what the threat is. The poster depicts an insectlike creature, the tagline refers to a human-alien hybrid, and the summary in front of me talks about “Subject 20” having been created with an eye toward preventing a food crisis. I’m not sure any of the promotional materials are all that concerned with the movie they’re promoting.

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