Film Review: Original Gangstas (1996)

Also known as: Warzone, Hot City (working titles)
Release Date: May 10th, 1996
Directed by: Larry Cohen
Written by: Aubrey K. Rattan
Music by: Vladimir Horunzhy
Cast: Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Pam Grier, Paul Winfield, Isabel Sanford, Ron O’Neal, Richard Roundtree, Oscar Brown Jr., Christopher B. Duncan, Dru Down, Shyheim Franklin, Robert Forster, Charles Napier, Wings Hauser, Godfrey Danchimah, Bushwick Bill (cameo)

Po’ Boy Productions, Orion Pictures, 99 Minutes

Review:

“Big talk coming from a faggot who don’t even know what sex his mother is.” – John Bookman

Strangely, I’ve never seen this until now. I actually owned the soundtrack, back in the day, but I never did get around to seeing the film.

This was directed by Larry Cohen, a guy who helmed a few blaxploitation classics back in the ’70s and then made a career out of directing some iconic B-movie horror flicks. This also re-teamed Larry Cohen and Fred Williamson, who worked together on Black Caesar and Hell Up In Harlem.

The film is a sort of modern homage to the blaxploitation films of the ’70s while also capitalizing off of the early ’90s urban movie craze. It doesn’t just callback to the blaxploitation era by re-teaming Cohen and Williamson, it also brought in other actors from blaxploitation and general exploitation movies: Jim Browm, Pam Grier, Ron O’Neal, Richard Roundtree, Robert Forster and Charles Napier.

Sadly, the plot is pretty weak and the film isn’t very good. I had higher hopes for it, as Larry Cohen can knock the ball out of the park when he wants to.

This is bogged down by a shitty script, shitty dialogue, predictable scenarios and absolutely nothing that doesn’t feel derivative. It’s a carbon copy of all the carbon copy hood movies of its era and adding in blaxploitation legends doesn’t raise the film up, it actually just holds those actors down. They’re better and more capable actors than what we get in this picture.

Frankly, Original Gangstas misses its mark but that’s not to say that it’s unwatchable. I enjoyed it simply because these actors were all together in one movie. However, if you take them out, this is abysmal and completely forgettable.

Rating: 4.5/10
Pairs well with: the blaxploitation films it is an homage to, as well as early ’90s urban cinema.

Film Review: Mars Attacks! (1996)

Release Date: December 12th, 1996 (Hollywood premiere)
Directed by: Tim Burton
Written by: Jonathan Gems
Based on: Mars Attacks by Topps
Music by: Danny Elfman
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan, Danny DeVito, Martin Short, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michael J. Fox, Rod Steiger, Tom Jones, Lukas Haas, Natalie Portman, Jim Brown, Lisa Marie, Sylvia Sidney, Jack Black, Christina Applegate, Pam Grier, Paul Winfield, Joe Don Baker, O-Lan Jones, Ray J, Joseph Maher, Frank Welker (voice)

Tim Burton Productions, Warner Bros., 107 Minutes

Review:

“They blew up Congress! Ha ha ha ha!” – Grandma Florence Norris

While this isn’t one of Tim Burton’s most popular films, it is one of my favorites and I feel like it missed its mark because it’s not the type of film that would resonate with most people.

Mars Attacks! came out in late 1996, not too long after Independence Day ruled American culture that same summer. Maybe people were confused that this was a ripoff of it or that one big alien invasion movie was enough to digest but either way, I don’t think people realized that this was vastly different and sort of a parody of the genre while also being an incredible live action adaptation of the Mars Attacks trading cards that Topps put out in the 1960s. It’s like those who were kids in the ’60s no longer cared and the teens of the ’90s didn’t know the reference.

Still, this is a hilarious romp starring dozens of top notch celebrities where not a single one of them is actually safe. I mean, these Martians murder Congress, the President and even try to crush a troop of Cub Scouts with the Washington Monument. They are sick, sadistic and really, just friggin’ awesome. They are also voiced by Frank Welker, the guy who gave life to Megatron from the original and still greatest Transformers cartoon.

By the star power that this movie has, it’s clear that Hollywood got the joke and appreciated it even if audiences didn’t flock to see this. Still, it wasn’t a massive failure, by any means. It did fairly well but not as well as what Warner Bros. was probably hoping for with Tim Burton being a mega earner for the studio. While it took some time, the film did earn back the $100 million that was put into it. It was considered a box office bomb in the United States but it fared much better internationally.

This is one of the most hysterical films of the ’90s put out by a major studio. The humor is perfect, the tone is great and it pokes fun at so many different facets of Americana that it almost feels like it was written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

The special effects look dated but they looked sort of cheesy in the mid ’90s. The film was supposed to have a hokey, old school vibe to it though. Really, the effects are great and they work for what this picture is. It’s not Independence Day and didn’t need to take itself as seriously in the visual effects department.

From a stylistic standpoint, the film really has a timeless feel to it. It merges modern style with ’50s and ’60s style in a seamless way that gives this film a magical quality.

Additionally, this picture boasts one of my favorite Danny Elfman scores of all-time. The theme is powerful and perfect and really fits that old school Elfman sound. Frankly, watching this film makes me appreciate and miss the quality of Burton and Elfman’s old school collaborations.

What really resonates with me is how this film balances comedy with how dark it actually is. It’s an absurd picture in the best way possible and shows that Tim Burton really has a dark sense of humor. Well, Beetlejuice was really effective in showing that aspect of Burton as well.

Mars Attacks! was underappreciated when it came out in 1996. It is still underappreciated today, as people that like to list out their favorite Tim Burton films always have this near the bottom of the list. Like I said, it isn’t for everyone but Burton fans, who understand Burton’s influences, should really love this picture.

Rating: 8.25/10
Pairs well with: Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, Joe Dante’s Matinee and alien invasion B-movies of the ’50s.

Film Review: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Release Date: June 4th, 1982
Directed by: Nicholas Meyer
Written by: Jack B. Sowards, Harve Bennett, Nicholas Meyer (uncredited), Samuel A. Peeples (uncredited)
Based on: Star Trek by Gene Roddenberry
Music by: James Horner
Cast: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, Bibi Besch, Paul Winfield, Kirstie Alley, Ricardo Montalbán, Merritt Butrick

Paramount Pictures, 112 Minutes

Review:

“[quoting from Melville’s Moby Dick] To the last, I will grapple with thee… from Hell’s heart, I stab at thee! For hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee!” – Khan Noonien Singh

This is many people’s favorite Star Trek film of all-time and for very good reason. I like The Voyage Home (Part IV) a wee bit more and The Undiscovered Country (Part VI) is also pretty damn high up on my list. However, even though this isn’t my favorite, it is pretty damn perfect if you are a Trek fan and you can suspend some disbelief and get lost in this rich universe.

Are there flaws? A few. But the positives outweigh the negatives by such a wide margin that I’m not going to nitpick about small things that don’t matter much in the grand scheme of how great and how fun this movie is.

Ricardo Montalbán as Khan Noonien Singh is one of the greatest villains that ever graced the silver screen. Other than Darth Vader, who really made a bigger impact in the 1980s? Sure, we could argue a few villains, maybe a handful, but Khan is the main reason why people love this picture.

Montalbán gave the performance of a lifetime and even though he played this character once before, in the Star Trek TV episode Space Seed, he upped the ante so much that he really made this his film. This is one man, overshadowing a magnificent cast who had worked together for two decades and who had unbelievable chemistry with one another. There was a certain chemistry between Khan and Kirk though, even if you never actually saw them together in the same room. Their hatred reached through the physical barriers that separated them and made everyone else in the story, a pawn in the grandest chess game ever played in the galaxy. Everything between Khan and Kirk felt so organic and so real and it was only accented by Khan’s unrelenting quest for revenge and his Shakespearean dialogue.

The film is also littered with incredible special effects, which have actually held up really well, 35 years later. The ship models are fantastic, the look of space, especially the sequence within the Mutara Nebula is breathtaking. The effects used for the birth of the Genesis Planet were impressive as well.

One thing that really brings all of this to the next level is the score by James Horner. While I loved Jerry Goldsmith’s music in the first Star Trek film, Horner made the best score in the entire film series with what he did here. This is such a musical movie but that was pretty common with big blockbuster type films back then; unlike nowadays where the music in massive summer films isn’t as memorable as the cinematic tunes of yesteryear.

Plus, you have the heart wrenching scene between Kirk and Spock at the end that still makes me weep like a little bitch every time I see it, even with the knowledge that the tragedy will be erased in the next movie.

The Wrath of Khan is spectacular in every way. Seriously, how can you not be pulled into this adventure and just sit there for two hours, grinning ear to ear like the Cheshire Cat after raiding the cupboard for Colorado edibles?

I mean sure, I could point out that Khan and his people were marooned on Ceti Alpha V for fifteen years and before that, they tried to overtake the USS Enterprise but failed miserably. And then before that, the Enterprise crew found Khan cryogenically frozen in a pod in a ship that disappeared in the 1990s. Yet they were able to steal the USS Reliant in the 2200s, a star ship that was 300 years more advanced than any technology they had ever seen. And then somehow they were able to take this ill equipped science research vessel and inflict crippling damage to the Enterprise, an explorer ship with superior defensive weaponry and a crew with two decades worth of experience. I mean, I could point all that out…

But I’m not going to nitpick because this film is literally friggin’ perfect.

Rating: 10/10

Film Review: The Terminator (1984)

Release Date: October 26th, 1984
Directed by: James Cameron
Written by: James Cameron, Gale Anne Hurd
Music by: Brad Fiedel
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton, Paul Winfield, Lance Henriksen, Earl Boen, Bill Paxton, Brian Thompson, Chino ‘Fats’ Williams

Hemdale Film Corporation, Pacific Western Productions, Cinema ’84, Orion Pictures, 107 Minutes

Review:

I got to watch this on the big screen. Okay, not in an actual theater but at a friend’s homemade theater with a twenty foot screen outside under the stars. He was testing his new projector, put up a giant sheet between the trees and decided that we’d watch The Terminator. I couldn’t argue with that.

I’m glad I got to see this thing huge, like it was originally intended by James Cameron, a man who used to make fantastic cinematic masterpieces until that pile of shit Titanic made more money than the GDP of all the EU countries combined.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day is also pretty much a masterpiece but nothing compares to this, the first film. While it isn’t technically considered a horror movie, it is. This is a bonafide slasher flick where the killer carries big ass guns instead of bladed objects.

Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the Terminator. If you don’t know, he is a killer cyborg from the future. He is essentially a clean cut Jason Voorhees that dresses like Rob Halford from Judas Priest. He’s got more guns than John Rambo in the sequels. He is a relentless killer, that will keep coming and coming until he murders his target or he is somehow destroyed. Good luck with that!

Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn also star in this. Biehn, a favorite of Cameron, is great as the future hero sent back to protect Sarah Connor from the Terminator. Hamilton is her most famous character, the aforementioned Sarah Connor. She isn’t the bad ass heroine that she would be in Terminator 2 but she did a good job in this picture, evolving from the damsel in distress type to the powerful strong woman that was on the verge of raising future super bad ass John Connor, the man who would defeat the Terminators in 2029.

Seriously though, Linda Hamilton is so damn good as Sarah Connor that the best way to spot a crappy Terminator sequel is to see if Linda Hamilton isn’t in it. Her voice over cameo in the fourth film doesn’t count. She has to be in the film, as flesh and blood. She is only in the first two movies and for me, that is the story. I ignore everything after part two.

This movie is dark and it is balls to the wall bad ass. It gets going and it never slows down. Even when you think the heroes are safe for a minute… nope! Next thing you know, the Terminator is driving a car through a damn police station and shooting up dozens of cops. You blow up the Terminator in a gas truck… too bad, his skeleton will chase you! You blow up his skeleton… too bad, his head and arms will crawl after you!

This was some of James Cameron’s best work. For a low budget film in 1984, the special effects are pretty friggin’ stellar. This certainly redeems him from that Piranha II movie and it set the stage for his greatest picture Aliens in 1986. The Sarah Connor character was a good prototype for what Ellen Ripley would become in the Alien franchise. Then on the flip side, Ripley became the template for the more evolved Sarah Connor in Terminator 2.

The Terminator is incredible. I can’t imagine what it was like seeing this in the theater in 1984. It probably would have blew my mind but I was five years-old and my mum probably took me to something like Footloose, she liked dancing movies and I always got dragged along.

Rating: 10/10