Saturday, July 25, 2009

Vampires on Bikini Beach

Though the title misleads you into certain assumptions (mainly: this is going to be awesome!), Vampires on Bikini Beach has climbed into one of the biggest honors Ben's Movie Reviews can bestow - The Worst Movie I've Ever Seen.

Vampires on Bikini Beach
Writer/Director: Mark Headley
Starring: Stephen Mathews, Jennifer Badham, Todd Kaufman

This prestigious honor was previously held by the infamous horror film Crossbones, a sentiment shared by IMDB users who claim Crossbones is "the worst movie ever made...ever!" That film revolves around a reality television crew (ironic, I know) that travels to a deserted island to make a TV show but comes across a resurrected pirate who, for some reason, is hellbent on killing them. If that sounds appealing to some of you, I assure you - it is not. We fell into the same trap. I actually own the movie (Wal-Mart prices of $5.00 have that effect sometimes), so if anyone is interested in seeing how bad it is in its full glory, hit me up and I'll let you borrow it.

Vampires on Bikini Beach, however, came to us through the wonder of Comcast On Demand free movies. It's hard to truly comprehend the cinematic abombination that I beheld viewing this 1988 "film" last night. I was continually shocked with how it got progressively worse over time, my mouth agape as the movie unceasingly lowered the bar for the criteria once thought necessary to create and distribute a legitimate film. (I hesitate to call it "legitimate," since it certainly doesn't fit most definitions of the word - but being added to the Comcast playlist and having the potential to be viewed by millions puts it over the edge.)

This and the poster are literally the only relevant pictures from the movie that come up in a Google search.

The premise revolves around a group of about seven friends, aged in their late teens or early twenties, who have no real jobs and do nothing but hang out at a California beach all day. A couple of the guys, Harold and Bob, are in a pure 80's pop band and perform occassionally at a local club, where all of their beach buddies go to groove to the beats. Too bad we, the audience, are also subjected to this music. There were at least three full songs performed in the movie, and all of them were predictably ridiculous. For two of the songs, the camera sickeningly stays in the club for the entire duration, cutting back and forth between a vapid dance floor with only white people dancing on it (come to think of it, I don't think there were any black people in the entire movie) and the intoxicatingly putrid lead singer - a Steve Perry/Stan Bush wannabe who had about as much stage presence as a can of creamed corn.

When Bob and his new girlfriend Kim get roughed up in a sketchy alleyway behind the club, they discover that their assailants have dropped a "Book of the Dead," which apparently holds spells that will bring back the dead. These scenes are intercut with scenes of a "classical" vampire (complete with medallion, cape, and slicked back hair, not to mention a mask worse than most found at any costume store around Halloween) who has inexplicably made his hideout in a warehouse near the club. His goal, aside from using the Book of the Dead to bring back Hitler and other minions to form an army and take over the world, is a completely useless and poorly conceived subplot in which he tries to kiss various women with the hopes one of them will survive and become his mistress of the dark. Too bad all of them die. Of course Kim gets pulled into the warehouse late in the game and is seconds away from kissing the vampire (whose name is Falcor or something), but she is saved at the last second. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Kim first meets Bob when his old car breaks down on the side of the road near the beach, but it's never explained how the car is repaired and they get in and drive away. The friends (one, a woman, is named Clark) are all brainless morons who serve no purpose, except for one dude who is evidently a computer guru who uses a standard computer to access information about the Book of the Dead. Needless to say, with a 1988 release date, this is pre-internet. Also, pizzas are cooked and delivered in record time in the Vampires on Bikini Beach universe, proven by an elapsed time of about a minute and thirty seconds between an ordered pizza and the doorbell ringing with the delivery guy on the other side. (That is literally the only good thing about this movie. The concept of pizza being delivered in blazing speed.)

One would assume the title would imply an abundance of beach footage, hard bodies, sexy females, bathing suits, etc. This is not the case. There are about three beach scenes in the entire thing, and little to nothing of the implied footage above. There is one montage of a bunch of girls trying on bikinis at "the bikini store" (I wish I was joking when I say that's what it was called) and a group of guys oogling them from the store window. This montage is set to the third song played by the club band, which is thankfully never given a name. It also does nothing to advance the plot, and I don't even think anyone buys a new bikini. They never return to the beach after this point, so we never find out if the trip was even necessary. Here's the part where I lean forward, close my eyes, and start to rub the bridge of my nose.

I won't cover all of the unmotivated actions of the group and the vampires because that would fill a solid thirty paragraphs. So I'll stick to some basics in bullet point form.
  • The vampires have no selection process of the girls they bring to Falcor.
  • I have no clue how our "heroes" discovered the vampire hideout.
  • The heroes didn't call the cops when they found a dead body. Instead, they touched everything they could near the murder site and dug around for clues to something of which they had no knowledge anyway.
  • The group summons a spirit of their own by reciting random spells from the Book of the Dead (always a good idea), and this ghost guy ends up battling the vampire at the end. His weapon of choice? A neon cross that looks like it was two pieces of PVC pipe duct taped together.
  • There is a scene where the group runs into a location to see if someone is there. They open the door, look in, and run out. That's the entire scene.
  • SPOILER ALERT. At the end, two of Bob and Kim's friends are turned into vampires and they lie in a hospital bed frothing at the mouth and spasming in their restraints. Bob asks Kim in a snarky voice if she wants to "grab a BITE" and they leave. They don't tell any hospital employees what happened, or call the cops, or get a real doctor, or try to help their friends in any way. They leave them and go eat.
The production design was nonexistent. It honestly felt like two guys were working on the entire production of the movie, and more than half of their set design came in the form of shining random lights at skewed angles across walls in the background. They didn't ask themselves whether or not there was a reasonable light source for the audience to recognize - even in an alleyway, they clearly illuminated everything in a strange blue hue (why? I have no idea) from a lamp post, and then shone a yellow light at a bizarre angle across the back wall. Where does that second yellow light come from? The moon? Only in that weird strip of an angle? I don't think so. This happens often - and by often, I mean in every single exterior night scene in the movie. It also should be mentioned that 90% of the audio was clearly overdubbed in post production, and in the most shoddy way possible from the sound of it. There were times when the vampire would be speaking a sentence, and then mid-sentence his mouth would stop moving but the words would still be playing: I'm guessing the filmmakers thought we'd figure these speeches were inner monologues (this phenomenon occurred multiple times), but it obviously turned into one of the most piss-poor technical achievements I've ever laid eyes on.

I've seen better acting in high school drama classes. The only accolade you could throw at the actors was they did an admirable job of memorizing their lines. That's right - they completed the most basic task an actor has to accomplish. As far as delivering those lines in a coherent, interesting, compelling fashion? Take a wild guess if they succeeded. So aside from the offensively atrocious acting, the worst crime the filmmakers committed was the choice of where to place the camera. The writer/director (what a talent) Mark Headley and his director of photography (if you can call it that) made the baffling choice to place the camera as far from the action as possible within the confines of the same room. Dialogue would be taking place on the far right corner of a room, and the camera, I kid you not, would be in the back left corner completely away from everything that's happening. And it would stay there. There were no tracking shots zooming in closer to the characters, no panning to closer characters in the room. Most of the time, the scenes that I'm describing were supposed to be scenes of intense significance: a computer geek hacking into a database to unlock secrets of the Book of the Dead, the group figuring out their gameplan, even in the vampire's cave during a "fight scene" when most of the lights go out in the scene. [We decided that someone behind the scenes accidentally unplugged the light cord from the outlet, but they only had enough film for one take so they kept acting anyway.]

I think I've devoted more time and effort reviewing this than it took for the esteemed Mr. Headley and crew to write and direct this entire movie, so I'll stop for fear of making them look worse than they already do (as if that were possible). I'm thankful for seeing Vampires on Bikini Beach because it gave me a new low to measure against all new lows, so if nothing else it made its mark in my personal cinematic archive. I would recommend it only if you wish to mirror the effect, because I truly don't believe anyone on the planet can look at this and say "that was a great movie." I would go as far as to say someone who has only seen this ONE movie out of all the movies in the world would swear off every other film because of how bad this was. But I digress. Until next time...

Two more things.

1.) In 2007, Mark Headley was signed to produce a remake of the classic Gary Cooper western High Noon. High Noon is widely considered one of the best westerns of all time (and I agree - it's phenomenal), so seeing it in this guy's hands will undoubtedly be one of the most disappointing cinematic events of my lifetime.
2.) I came across a review of a movie called Monster of Bikini Beach, which you can read here. Spin-off? I think so. (Not really.)

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

What I've Been Watching, Text Edition

We're going to burn through some brief thoughts on some movies I've been watching in the past week or so. It's too late at night for me to bust out the video camera, so you'll have to put up with a text update this time.

Kingdom of Heaven
Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Orlando Bloom, Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons

This movie was very impressive, but underwhelming at the same time. There are very few people that can direct huge action set period pieces like Ridley Scott, and he handles the material with the typical grit and flair. Orlando Bloom plays the same character as he does in the Pirates franchise - a blacksmith torn out of his element and thrust into the action. Liam Neeson plays the same character he does in Batman Begins - an older man tasked with training the young hero in swordplay and dropping sage one-liners. The production design was incredible, reminding me (even though this movie came first) of the excellent video game Assassin's Creed. This is about the closest video-game-to-movie comparison that I've seen since the fantastic Speed Racer/Mario Kart Double Dash similarities from 2008. If you're a huge fan of Assassin's Creed and want to inhabit that world again before the sequel to the game comes out, then I think this is your best option. [I heard the director's cut was a masterpiece, so I decided to watch it. That was a bad call on my part since it was over three hours long. The Blu-ray looked incredible, though.]

The Mechanic
Director: Michael Winner
Starring: Charles Bronson

Like I said on my Facebook review, these types of 1970's action movies are a dime a dozen. You can honestly interchange the protagonist actors between Chuck Norris, Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen, and, in this case, Charles Bronson. There are excessive uses of snap zooms, and very little else as far as utilizing the technology of cinema. But as far as the storyline goes, it's pretty standard "assassin teaches student, and the two subsequently battle" material. Is this worth watching? Nope. Sure, there are some decent explosions and a not-meant-to-be-funny-but-kinda-hilarious shootout toward the end, but that absolutely does not mean it's worth two hours of your life. Also, comparing this film's pace to a snail's would be an insult to the speed of the snail. (Does that work? I think that works. I'm trying to say the pacing was slow.) Bonus Note: They're remaking this one with Jason Statham in the lead role.

Garden State
Writer/Director: Zach Braff
Starring: Zach Braff, Natalie Portman

I wish I could articulate my feelings on Garden State in a full review, but I'm not going to take on that challenge right now. For now, I'll say that Zach Braff captures a raw feeling, an essence of human spirit, and an overall appreciation for film that I only feel once or twice a year (if I'm lucky). These reactions are surely not the same for everyone, but Garden State speaks to me on a personal level and the movies that can do that are the ones I find truly special. Films like Wristcutters: A Love Story and Slumdog Millionaire capture similar feelings using different stylistic methods, but Garden State combines a traditional love story with a great examination of growing up, questioning the notion of "home," all while dealing with some other very heavy issues (death of family members, etc). Needless to say, this film is a spectacular achievement for first-time director Braff, who seems to know exactly where to put his camera at all times. There is not a single shot that seems out of place in the entire movie. Consider me a huge fan.

That's it for now. I'll be back with some legit reviews in the near future. The Hurt Locker and (500) Days of Summer will be out soon, and they have both been getting solid hype around them so far. Until next time...

Thursday, July 16, 2009


In my quest to watch all things involving Kristen Bell (who played Veronica Mars, my new late night girlfriend as I catch up with that show), I stumbled across Spartan. I remember hearing about its release back in 2004, but even with Val Kilmer's name attached to it, that wasn't enough to draw me in at the time. And thank goodness for that, because I don't think I had the same appreciation (strike that - toleration) for certain styles of movies then as I do now.

Writer/Director: David Mamet
Starring: Val Kilmer, Kristen Bell, Derek Luke, William H. Macy

The type of movie I'm referring to can't be completely nailed down with one simple description, but it is a style of filmmaking with which David Mamet is certainly acquainted. Granted, I do not have an exceedingly large amount of experience when it comes to his films, but I have seen enough to know that he crafts his dialogue like no other. Glengarry Glen Ross, for example, is possibly the most dialogue-reliant film I've ever seen (this being said with full knowledge of the inherent irony in such a statement*). A movie like Redbelt, which hardly anyone remembers, is another solid example of what I mean - Mamet's films are marketed one way (in this case, a martial arts flick) but executed in a completly different manner (in this case, a psychlogical study of a man who lives a life of honor). He deals in shady vocabulary, hiding hints and snatches of information here and there, daring his audience to discover them and put the pieces together. These are not Hollywood blockbusters we're dealing with, and Mamet does not hold our hands through his films - if we're not smart enough to catch on, he's fine with leaving us confused and questioning. Do I like this style of filmmaking? Not particularly - I'd like all my loose ends tied up all the time, thank you - but do I respect the fact that a guy like this makes movies that vary from the typical structure? Absolutely. Diversity is the spice of life...or an old wooden ship. I think that's how the phrase goes.

The plot of Spartan sounds very familiar - the president's daughter is kidnapped and she must be found before the media gets wind of her disappearance. But this film is anything but pedestrian, and soon things get a lot more complicated than initially presented. The surprise death of a main character (aren't you curious now?) and a subplot including an international sex trafficking ring elevate this above your average political thriller. Comparisons can also be drawn to Pierre Morel's Taken, the Liam Neeson action showcase that ripped through theaters earlier in 2009.

At first, I thought Kilmer was only passable in his role as Bobby Scott, the former Marine tasked with tracking down the girl in question. Now that I've had a day to think about it, Kilmer actually excels in the one aspect the Mametverse demands: subtlety. A brash, shoot-first-ask-questions-later character does not belong here, and Kilmer provides the antithesis; he's not a fresh-faced rookie, he's a hardened vet willing to do "anything" to accomplish his mission. He delivers a speech to Curtis (the underappreciated Derek Luke) about how he's a "shooter, not a planner," made more poignant by the fact that he is later forced to step outside of his comfort zone to become a "planner" in order to attempt to rescue the girl on his own. In retrospect, Kilmer actually gives a very remarkable performance, dedicated to his character and easily separating him from any other famous roles he has taken on in the past. As Roger Ebert says, "who else has played Batman and John Holmes?" Other actors fall into the trap of playing themselves in every film - Sam Jackson comes to mind, with the exception of Resurrecting The Champ - but Kilmer's fantastic career choices (including a funny supporting role in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and a great turn in The Salton Sea) keep him fresh and allow him to disappear into his characters without subconsciously reminding the audience we're watching a Val Kilmer performance.

The supporting cast suffered, but not because of their acting ability. Mamet gives the big character arc to his protagonist and leaves the rest of the cast to fend for themselves with little more than exposition to chew on. William H. Macy criss-crosses through the first half of the movie so briefly I wondered if he would speak at all, but he makes up for his vanishing act when he meets up with Kilmer in a shootout towards the end. Kristen Bell brought a level of realism to the kidnapped daughter that and often-annoying Maggie Grace couldn't begin to approach in Taken; Bell was the version of that character who was actually captured, tortured, and went through a sex trafficking ring scarred for life instead of being rescued just in time, unblemished and naive.

(Mild spoilers for the next paragraph only.)

We find out the movie is called Spartan through an interesting scene between the Laura Palmer and Kilmer's Bobby Scott. I'll link to it here instead of embedding it, since it's filled with massive spoilers, but if you're interested in what I'm talking about, fast forward to about the 3:00 minute mark and listen until Kilmer quips "I think we went to different schools." There's a cool parallel between Palmer's story about Leonidas and Scott's position as the man sent to rescue her. Nothing major - I just thought it was a sweet way to weave the title into the film.

You've read this far. Either Spartan is something that sounds interesting to you, or you already know you're skipping it. Either way, I hope we can all appreciate the fact that there are filmmakers out there like David Mamet who refuse to treat us like idiots. Even if these kinds of movies aren't your thing, you should give one a chance every once in a while - your support means they'll still be making movies like this instead of the latest board game adaptation. Perhaps you'll surprise yourself and be capable of enjoying them, instead of just asking "why weren't there any explosions?" Until next time...

*Obviously dialogue is a key component to almost every film, and its importance in a film-to-film comparison is impossible to prove. But if you've seen Glengarry Glen Ross (which I would recommend only for the unique experience), hopefully you'll know what I'm talking about.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Public Enemies

I don't think there is a better way to write a review of Public Enemies than while listening to "Ten Million Slaves" by Otis Taylor. This song was featured (twice, if my count is correct) in Michael Mann's latest film, and is just one of the many reasons why the soundtrack contributes wildly to the film's success.

Public Enemies
Director: Michael Mann
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard

[Let it be known (if it isn't already) that Michael Mann is one of my favorite directors. While the members of that category find themselves on a very short list, Mann's inclusion is even more exclusive because he earned his way on the list even though I haven't seen all of his films - in fact, I haven't even seen a majority of them. As of this posting, I've seen The Last of the Mohicans (which I honestly can barely remember because my viewing was so long ago), The Insider, Heat, Miami Vice, Collateral (one of my absolute favorite movies, period), and now obviously his most recent film.]

Public Enemies is a powerhouse of a movie in the complete opposite way Transformers 2 could share the same description. Characterization, atmosphere, cinematography, and realism are all emphasised in Mann's portrayal of the fall of John Dillinger, and the audience is rewarded with a much more coherent, intelligent, and praise-worthy film than the aforementioned $400 million dollar blockbuster. The only other thing the two movies could share is a rather lengthy running time that would have arguably served both better had they each lost thirty minutes off their final cut.

The acting was sensational by everyone involved. I could not find a weak link among the actors, which is so rare that I can't actually remember another movie where this is the case. Depp was fantastic as bank robber John Dillinger- I was expecting a solid performance from him, but he was incredibly good in this one, a definite high note to an already-stellar career that is sure to see more brilliant performances in the years to come. I'm guessing he'll receive a Best Actor nomination for his work here. Christian Bale ejected himself from the lingering bile that was Terminator Salvation with his first movie since The Prestige where he doesn't growl (not even once!). As Agent Melvin Purvis, the man responsible for bringing Dillinger's reign of robbing terror to an end, Bale adopted a slight accent which further shows off his believability and range as an actor. I expect a lot of critics might take issue with his performance over anyone else's (as they did with DiCaprio's accent from 2006's Blood Diamond), but I thought he was great. Marion Cotillard proved that she is more than capable of handling larger roles in American film as Billie Frechette, Dillinger's lover. Cotillard is a French actress who has only starred in a handful of films on this side of the ocean (one of them being another personal favorite, 2003's Big Fish), but she was really solid here and I have complete confidence she'll be able to carry her weight in Chris Nolan's next film, Inception.

The supporting actors in Public Enemies are so varied, so numerous, and, sadly, so unimportant that a few of them didn't get enough screen time for me to even recognize them. Billy Crudup (Watchmen, the underrated Dedication) was the standout for me, since I dig that guy a lot and he had the largest of the supporting roles. Leelee Sobieski (Deep Impact, The Wicker Man remake), Emilie De Ravin (Brick, Claire from LOST), and Giovanni Ribisi (Gone in 60 Seconds remake) were featured in "blink and you'll miss them" roles, and Channing Tatum (Fighting, G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra) and Stephen Dorff (Blade) didn't even register with me because their appearances were so brief. However, all parties turned in worthwhile performances and took their egos out of the way to allow Depp to shine; as the marketing points out, this is his film and no one else's.

The set design was impeccable and the attention to detail was inspiring. Production took place on many of the actual sites where famous shootouts and robberies occurred in real life, sometimes even filming events on the same date they took place 76 years ago. The film was shot mainly in Wisconsin due to the high amount of preserved architecture from the time period, and that kind of legitimacy was definitely appreciated by this viewer. Fun fact: production designer Nathan Crowley also worked on Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Prestige.

Michael Mann is known for shooting his past few films digitally, opting for the use of high definition video instead of film. This has worked well for his previous efforts (especially Collateral), but many wondered how this decision would affect the outcome of Public Enemies, a period piece. Personally, I saw the film on a digital projector and it looked out-of-this-world good. There were a few shots (a shot of a car from behind driving through the road with trees lining both sides, some of the horse race wide shots) where I nearly thought I was in an IMAX theater because the quality was so good. In other words, I think the choice to go with video over film did nothing to hinder my appreciation for the movie as a whole. Dante Spinotti, Mann's frequent cinematographer collaborator, did award-worthy work behind the camera, switching masterfully between hand-held shots and constantly moving tracking shots to mirror the urgency with which Dillinger lived his life. If you're looking into becoming a cinematographer or a director of photography, this film seems like required viewing.

The solid writing can't be overlooked. Crisp dialogue from Dillinger makes him a likeable bad guy and allows the audience to get into the mind of the man who held America's banks hostage and was loved by the public for it. (I really dug how he mentioned the importance of the public's perception of him - he definitely had the basics of public relations mastered.) Purvis' story parallels Dillinger's (though not to the excessive extent of American Gangster), and their screen time shared together is exciting to watch. The crime drama elements that Mann captures so well are all there, and the writing is believable enough that it doesn't ever make you question how the characters get from one point to the next. Writing like that is hard to accomplish and shouldn't be taken for granted. There's a great mix of drama and action on display - a certain forest shootout could go down as one of my favorite gun battles of the past few years. Another fun fact: Mann co-wrote the script with the writer of Primal Fear.

The movie is based on book, which is based on a true story - so I'm not going to run through the whole plot with you. With the Academy's recent announcement that there will be 10 Best Picture nominations for the next ceremony instead of the traditional five, I believe Public Enemies has a very good shot at scoring a nomination. Does having 10 nominees cheapen the effect of winning Best Picture? Sure. But Public Enemies is a great movie and, though a little long, is one that can be enjoyed by anyone with the brain capacity willing to tackle a story that doesn't involve giant robots smashing each other. Until next time...