Friday, September 1, 2017

Worth Mentioning - Full Moon. New Blood.

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.


William Shatner, Bruce Lee, Wonder Woman, and the end of the Howling franchise.


KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS (1977)

A "nature run amok" film from stuntman-turned-director John "Bud" Cardos (who also had acting roles in films like Satan’s Sadists and Hell's Bloody Devils) the 1977 drive-in classic Kingdom of the Spiders features four songs from singer/songwriter Dorsey Burnette, including a tranquil country theme about the film's setting, "Peaceful Verde Valley". In this tune, Burnette ponders "what tomorrow may bring", but he doesn't mention the possibility of a deadly, town-encompassing infestation of tarantulas. Regardless, that's exactly what Cardos and writers Jeffrey M. Sneller, Stephen Lodge, Richard Robinson, and Alan Caillou do bring to the formerly peaceful valley.


Kingdom of the Spiders is a bit of an eight-legged Jaws knock-off, which is especially clear when the story brings in an unhelpful Mayor character who is concerned that taking the proper measures necessary to deal with the spider problem could deter tourists from attending the upcoming county fair. The Mayor can't have that any more than the Mayor of Amity Island could have that shark problem inconveniencing tourists over the Fourth of July.


William Shatner stars as local veterinarian Robert Hansen, a.k.a. "Rack", a nickname he earned from the brother who regularly beat him in pool. Rack's brother died in Vietnam and now Rack is in a pseudo relationship with his brother's widow. He just can't go all the way with the romance because he can't handle it when his sister-in-law accidentally calls him by his brother's name. That's okay; Shatner gets another lady to woo when he seeks help with the mystery of what caused the death of a farmer's prize calf. Diane Ashley (Tiffany Bolling) of the Department of Entomology at Arizona State University shows up to inform him that he's dealing with tarantulas that are on the run from pesticides, are aggressively hungry, and have venom five times more toxic than normal.


These tarantulas proceed to wreak havoc, cocooning victims, causing car smash-ups, bringing a pesticide plane down in a fiery crash, and causing a lot of trouble for a farming couple played by Woody Strode and Altovise Davis.

Rack and Diane don't have a positive first meeting, but yes, they do fall for each other in the midst of all this. It's good that they get along, because they end up trapped in a lodge with each other, and a few other characters, for a climax that tosses Jaws aside to take on a Night of the Living Dead influence – just replace zombies with spiders.


Kingdom of the Spiders is a really fun movie, one of my favorite "deadly nature" films of its era. Which happens to be the era when most of the best "deadly nature" movies were coming out. I'm not always comfortable with spiders, but I'm not afraid of them like a lot of people are, so I find it entertaining to see how Cardos tries to make the tarantulas come off like a menace that's impossible to overcome. After all, these are just crawling creatures that are easy to smash if you see one and feel threatened (and they already had to give these tarantulas super venom to make them a threat, because real tarantulas aren't deadly). He was quite successful at making them come off as being dangerous, although maybe not successful enough to make the moment in which a woman shoots herself in the hand because there's a tarantula on it work. Sure, these are super tarantulas, but shooting your own fingers off because there's a spider crawling on them? It still seems like she could have crushed the spider against the wall, or maybe just shake it off.

A moment like that just adds to the fun, though. It's crazy and it's memorable.


I highly recommend this movie, especially if you're someone who is scared of or uneasy about spiders. Someone like my sister-in-law, who got creeped out just by a description of the final shot of the movie, a shot which is actually kind of silly. If you don't like spiders, give yourself a thrill and watch Kingdom of the Spiders.



THE WAY OF THE DRAGON (1972)

The legendary Bruce Lee earned his one and only feature directorial credit on this film, which takes an incredibly long time to really get started. Lee was clearly in no rush to get to the action here, as nothing happens in the first thirty minutes. The film moves along at a leisurely pace, showing off its sense of humor and setting up the story: martial artist Tang Lung (Lee) has come to Rome to help out a woman who owns a restaurant and has been getting pressured by the mob to sell the land her business sits on.

Lee toys with the audience, as Tang's opportunities to show off his skills keep getting interrupted. And then, finally, more than 30 minutes into the movie, a group of goons show up at the restaurant to cause trouble. Tang shows them the error of their ways as Bruce Lee shows what he could do, taking down the whole group like it's nothing.

The Way of the Dragon gets more entertaining after that interminable first third. It never rises to truly great heights as far as I'm concerned, but at least Tang takes part in multiple fights with a lot of people over the remaining hour. These mobsters are persistent, but Tang can't be beaten. After all of their attacks and threats and assassination attempts have failed, the mobsters get really desperate and call in another action movie icon to take on our hero.


The most notable thing about this film is the fact that it features a climactic battle between Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris as Colt, a man described as being "America's best" fighter. Knowing they're in for the fight of their lives (and for their lives), Tang and Colt spend a minute and a half stretching and warming up when they come face-to-face, before they start throwing punches and kicks. Then they proceed to spend several minutes beating the hell out of each other in the ruins of the Coliseum. This scene makes the entire movie worthwhile.



WONDER WOMAN (2017)

The DC Comics cinematic universe that's being built at Warner Bros., a.k.a. the DCEU, has gotten off to a very bumpy start for me. Although I enjoyed Man of Steel, with some issues, their Superman has been too dour and conflicted for my taste, their Batman is a homicidal maniac, and the Suicide Squad assembled for some mediocrity. I didn't like Batman v. Superman, but one bright spot within it was Gal Gadot's appearance as Wonder Woman, a character I admittedly know little about outside of childhood viewings of episodes of the Lynda Carter TV series.

I have been so put off by the DCEU's foundation of films that I can't muster up any trace of enthusiasm for new entries in this universe, but of all the projects on their slate the one I saw some promise in was the Wonder Woman solo film, directed by Patty Jenkins. When the movie reached theatres, it received exactly the sort of word of mouth that I was hoping to hear - positive references that indicated it was the sort of superhero movie I wanted to see. A movie much different from the others in the DCEU. A movie starring a hero whose greatest desire in life is to be a hero, to protect those weaker than her. An honorable, noble character worth looking up to.


Gadot reprises the role of Wonder Woman Diana Prince in this origin tale, which begins by throwing a whole lot of mythology at us right up front. We're told that Zeus created man, and his son Ares, the god of war, sought to corrupt his father's creation. So Zeus created another race - the Amazons, who were meant to influence men's hearts with love. Eventually, Ares would turn against his fellow gods, slaying all of them, including Zeus. But before Zeus died, he set up the Amazons on a hidden island called Themyscira, and he breathed life into a special little girl who had been sculpted out of clay by the Amazon Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). That little girl was Diana Prince.

From a young age, Diana was fascinated by the Amazon warriors and would watch them train under her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright). She wanted to train to be a warrior as well, but her aunt and mother disagreed over whether or not she should. Antiope believed she should learn how to fight, Hippolyta didn't want her to. Diana and Antiope do end up winning that argument; Hippolyta agrees to let her daughter train to be a warrior, but only under the condition that she train much harder than any of the others.

I liked the fact that Diana felt driven to learn to fight for her people, but honestly this mythology and set-up stuff did not grab me, and within the film's first few minutes I was starting to drift from it. I was ready for the movie to wrap up this explanation stuff and just get on with it. It takes 15 minutes to slog through all of that. Way too long.


Apparently hundreds of years pass, and I can believe it with how long those first 15 minutes felt to me, with Diana continuing her training throughout the centuries, reaching Wonder Woman level skill. That brings us up to 1918, when Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American pilot who has been fighting in World War I, crashes his plane into the sea while being pursued by German soldiers. This is the point when the film really started to come alive for me.

The Germans are following close behind Steve. They raid the shore of Themyscira to be fought off by the Amazons, and this skirmish tips Diana off to the fact that there is a horrific war, the War to End All Wars, being waged beyond her shore. She is determined to leave her safe haven on the island and join the war effort, wanting to be dropped in wherever the fighting is most intense. And this is when Wonder Woman became my favorite of the heroes the DCEU has shown me to this point. Diana believes that no one other than Ares could be responsible for such death and violence, and she intends to put an end to the war by stopping the last remaining god.

Working with British Intelligence, Steve has discovered that German General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston) is working with chemist Isabel Maru, a.k.a. Doctor Poison, to develop chemical warfare bombs. Stopping these bombs from being put to use, saving millions of lives, becomes Steve and Diana's #1 goal, whether Steve's commanding officers okay the mission or not.

While all of this is going on, a romance begins to develop between Diana and Steve, just as you would expect to see happen. When Diana saves his life it's the first time she has ever encountered a man, so she has a lot of things to learn about man/woman interactions at the same time that he's serving as her guide in a world she knows little about. She has gained a lot of knowledge during her time on Themyscira, but it's very scholarly and outdated. Once she's actually in the world, she's a naive fish out of water. It's a lot of fun watching her make her way through our strange land, and to watch her banter with Steve about various subjects.


Yes, Wonder Woman is actually really fun to watch for a good amount of its overall running time, which isn't something I've come to expect from DCEU entries. I didn't care much about the mythology stuff, but once Diana learned about World War I and decided to leave Themyscira I was on board. The main issue is that the movie did feel overly long to me, and not just because of those first 15 minutes. There were lulls along the way as well. 2 hours and 21 minutes was more movie than I needed in this case.

There are pacing and length issues, but what will stick with me about Wonder Woman the most is the sense of fun. It had an enjoyable tone, good action, and selfless heroes who want to fight the forces of evil because it's the right thing to do, never questioning the decision to use their capabilities to better the world and protect its people.



THE HOWLING: REBORN (2011)

So many years went by with seven being the total of Howling movies out there in the world, I sometimes forget that this one was actually made. But it's true, there are eight movies in the Howling franchise. Sixteen years after the release of Howling: New Moon Rising, this "reboot" came along with the intention of appealing to two sets of audiences: the horror fans who would recognize the Howling name, and the fans of the immensely popular teenage vampire/werewolf romance series Twilight. There are no vampires in The Howling: Reborn, but it does have teenagers, werewolves, and romance.


The feature directorial debut of Joe Nimziki, who also wrote the screenplay with James Robert Johnston, Reborn has no connection to any of the previous Howling films or to author Gary Brandner's Howling novels, despite the credits saying it was specifically based on Brandner's The Howling II. This one was built from the ground up.

The story begins with pregnant artist Kathryn Kidman (Casino Royale's Ivana Milicevic), who is attacked and apparently killed by an unseen assailant, her stomach clawed open as if by a werewolf's claws before the building she's in goes up in CGI flames. From her clawed stomach pokes the hand of her baby boy.


Eighteen years later, Kathryn's son Will Kidman (Landon Liboiron) is celebrating his birthday and preparing to graduate from high school. This is his last chance to approach Eliana Wynter (Lindsey Shaw), the girl he spends most of his time at school drawing sketches of. Understandably, since she hangs out with a group of leather-clad bullies who look a little old for high school, Will chooses to keep his distance. It's Eliana who approaches him, after her boyfriend has given a bloody warning to keep his eyes to himself. And when she sees that his sketchbook is full of her image, she seems flattered rather than creeped out.

Will and Eliana embark on a rather odd romance, exchanging cheesy lines like "It's like the rest of the world is in black and white, you're in color."

Now that he's eighteen, Will's body starts to undergo some changes. It's not delayed puberty, it's the scratch he received when his mother was attacked finally turning him into a werewolf. The emergence of Will's werewolf side is presented in a way somewhat reminiscent of Spider-Man: he doesn't need glasses anymore, his body takes on a better shape, he has enhanced physical abilities. He goes through an attitude change, becomes more proactive.


The love story turns star-crossed when Will's mother shows up to take him away so he can live the werewolf lifestyle with her pack, which includes those leather-clad bullies. Kathryn doesn't want this school girl Eliana messing around with her wolf cub, so now Will has to fight to keep his sort-of-girlfriend safe. In the middle of this fight for survival, then still keep talking about their burgeoning relationship. Trapped in a building full of werewolves, they even come close to having sex while a slow cover of "Don't Fear the Reaper" plays on the soundtrack.

It's great to see a Howling movie that has such high production value, but in exchange for the quality boost in that area we get a really dopey script that was aiming to be much better, deeper, and more emotionally effective than it actually is. The romance is laughable, the dialogue is ridiculous, and the werewolves are lame.


Even with all of those problems, I still find Reborn to be decent as far as Howling movies go, which speaks to how poor most of the sequels were. I get some degree of entertainment from each one of them, but the Howling series ranks very low on the list of franchises. It's a shame, since the original movie was so great.

A lot of viewers hated The Howling: Reborn, but I don't think it warrants hate. It's just mediocre, it's there and then it's over. Going forward, I'm going to try to remember that it exists.

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