Wednesday, September 28, 2016


*The main purpose of Why Do I Own This? is to take a movie from my (too) large collection and answer that question. I then decide whether or not to keep the movie.


For this week, I went to my sci-fi shelf and came away with M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs. Re-watching this movie, a favorite of mine upon its release in 2002, is a perfect reason for doing these reviews. I watched this movie plenty of times soon after I purchased it fourteen years ago, but I had not watched it for years since then. I wondered if it held up, especially since Shyamalan fell from grace soon after this film (he’s made a comeback of sorts lately) and people were retroactively judging his early films more critically. It turns out, at least for me, that Signs holds up.

The main reason for my love of Signs is the basic premise: an alien invasion movie set in a secluded area. Alien invasion movies usually show a scene or two at a farm or other small town setting, but rarely do they completely take place there. “Signs” went for intimacy in a genre that typically goes big and broad, and the emotional payoff is much more satisfying than any explosion.

Nostalgia also plays a factor in my love for this film (and most films in my collection). My friends and I loved this movie when it came out. We thought it was creepy and funny, and we even admitted that it got to us on an emotional level (late 90s/early 2000s Mel Gibson has that effect on me). So watching this movie takes me back. The moments that gave me chills (the cut to a shadowy alien standing on top of the barn) still work. And the scenes that made me laugh (“Excluding the possibility that a female Scandinavian Olympian was running around outside our house last night…”) still work. And, I’ll admit, I still teared up at the end. Any movie that can do that the first time and the tenth time I see it is special.

When dealing with a movie from a few years ago, it’s impossible not to think about what has happened to the actors and filmmakers since the film came out. While watching this, I mainly thought about what changed for Joaquin Phoenix, Mel Gibson, and M. Night Shyamalan.

Joaquin Phoenix has been a favorite of mine since I noticed him in 8MM. His work a few years after Signs took an interesting turn. He devoted a year or so of his life pretending to leave acting to pursue a rap career as part of a hoax for a fake documentary. The documentary was definitely unique, but it turned out to be more of a waste than anything. Thankfully, he’s back now, and has recently turned in great performances in Paul Thomas Anderson’s last two films, The Master and Inherent Vice.

As for Mel Gibson, everyone knows what happened with him. His multiple, offensive outbursts, both public and private, nearly ended his career. For many, he’s still an unwelcome presence. Despite the public opinion about him, he has returned as well, though to a lesser degree of success than Phoenix. He has acted in a handful of features, but he does have a new directorial effort, Hacksaw Ridge, that appears to be an Oscar hopeful. Still, watching this movie made me pine for the pre-controversy days of Gibson.

Writer/director M. Night Shyamalan went through a rough phase, too, but his was based entirely on his work. After Signs, which does not have a twist (unless you count an alien movie actually having aliens a twist), he went back to the well with The Village. It turns out people were done with the twist endings of Shyamalan. Looking back, The Village was judged a bit too harshly, but it is definitely beneath Unbreakable, Signs, and The Sixth Sense. But he went way too self-indulgent with his next movie, Lady in the Water, which failed to find an audience. Then the wheels fell off with The Happening, which is laughably bad (I still regularly make fun of Mark Wahlberg playing a science teacher in that film [“Don’t you guys want to know what’s goin’ on with the bees?”]). The Happening was followed by The Last Airbender and After Earth. That unholy trinity made many write Shyamalan off. But The Visit received generally positive reviews, and his newest film, Split, is earning high praise at film festivals. Still, much like Gibson, I view this movie with sadness, knowing that it was an end of an era for an interesting filmmaker. But hopefully he keeps his current streak going.

Why do I own this? I loved it in 2002, and I love it in 2016. I even like the opening credits, and I remember kind of hating them the first time I saw this. So this is that rare movie that has improved with age. I’ll definitely be keeping this one.

New(ish) Movie Thoughts

Captain America: Civil War – I finally got a chance to see the biggest movie of the year. I liked it, of course, but it didn’t blow me away. I think I’m getting Marvel fatigue. Still, it’s enjoyable, and everything about it works. I really enjoyed the new Spider-Man. I can’t believe I’m looking forward to a third incarnation of Spider-Man already, but somehow I am.

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping – This is The Lonely Island movie that bombed a few months ago. I love The Lonely Island, therefore I love this movie. I’m not much on reviewing comedies, even briefly. Basically, if you like The Lonely Island, you should love this. Simple as that.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Why Do I Own This? "Universal Soldier: The Return"

Universal Soldier: The Return

So far, not so good. My intentions with this new series of reviews was to lower the amount of DVDs I own, but my first review required me to actually add one to my collection. For these reviews, the plan is to go to a shelf of DVDs I own (there are twelve shelves to choose from) and blindly choose one movie. So I decided I should go with the shelf with all of my Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, since he is my favorite 80s/90s action star. I closed my eyes and came back with a “classic” bad Van Damme movie: Universal Soldier: The Return. It had been a few years since I had watched the DVD (part of the reason for this project is to possibly get rid of movies I haven’t watched in years), so I was looking forward to revisiting it. But it wasn’t meant to be as I opened the case to find it empty.

My first thought was to just switch movies, but I dismissed that because now I was interested in Universal Soldier: The Return. Then I considered streaming it, but it wasn’t available on Netflix. But when I checked the streaming options on Amazon, I came across something even better. For the bargain of $3.99, I was able to not only replace my copy of Universal Soldier: The Return, but also add Knock Off, The Hard Corps, and Second in Command to my Van Damme collection. The set is laughingly subtitled “Hollywood Hits,” which is funny since The Return and Knock Off combined to make $20 million, and the other two movies weren’t even released in theaters. So after a bit of a hassle, I was able to re-watch Universal Soldier: The Return.

Sadly, that’s where anything remotely interesting ends. This movie is bad, and it’s barely bad enough to get a few laughs out of. The story is basically 2001 for dummies. SETH, a supercomputer in charge of the Universal Soldier program, goes rogue and plans on taking over the world. Van Damme, a former Universal Soldier, or UniSol, must save the day. The specifics of how to stop SETH make very little sense. There’s something about overheating the computer or not overheating it; it’s hard to tell, and it doesn’t matter. The story is just there to justify an army of UniSols trying to kill Van Damme. Oh, and, of course, Van Damme must save his daughter, even though for most of the movie it seems like he’s forgotten she exists.

The action should be the saving grace of a movie like this, but it’s incredibly bland. A bunch of guns are shot and stuff blows up, all set to late 90s heavy metal music. It almost feels like stock footage used for any number of straight to DVD action movies from this period. Van Damme’s scenes should make things more interesting, but he’s on autopilot in this one. There are the required roundhouse kicks, but he mainly just runs around looking confused.

The boring action wouldn’t be that bad if some obvious character work had been explored. For instance, the UniSol program takes dead soldiers and reanimates them into controlled killing machines. I can’t remember what happened in the last film that allowed Van Damme to return to normal, but that is easily the most interesting part of this movie. Is he immortal? How can he have a child? Shouldn’t he be more of a fish out of water since he technically died during the Vietnam War? But all of this is washed over when Van Damme’s love interest asks about the program and just shrugs it off as normal. If someone tells me they are a zombie of the Vietnam War who is able to procreate, I am going to continue that conversation. Anyway, the film would have worked much better had the focus been on Van Damme’s character and his past. Instead, it doesn’t really matter that Van Damme used to be a UniSol.

There are a handful of funny moments that make the film bearable, though. The most blatant one involves the wrestler Goldberg, who from what I can tell plays himself in the movie since he does a few of his signature wrestling moves. Goldberg is used as comic relief throughout the movie to little effect, but one scene has him attempting to jump from a rooftop into the back of a truck. After he jumps, Van Damme moves the truck forward so Goldberg falls to the ground. It’s the “Oh, s***!” that Goldberg blurts out at the last second that makes it funny. By the way, when that is the most memorable and enjoyable scene in the movie, you know things are bad. There are more moments, but they are not worth explaining. Well, maybe that part when a computer gives someone the finger...that was sort of funny and definitely stupid.

This is still a Van Damme film, however, which means I actually kind of like it. Even though his English is somehow worse in this than earlier films, the dude can still carry a movie, at least in my eyes. I’ve never been able to explain why I love his movies so much. I just do. Some people like Seagal; some like Norris; I like Van Damme.

So why do I own this? I’m a Van Damme fan. If the price is low enough, I’ll buy any movie the guy has made, which is why I’ve now bought this garbage movie twice. So as I continue this series of reviews, I will return to the Van Damme shelf from time to time to reaffirm my love of his films, good and bad. But next I promise to pull from a shelf that might have a movie I end up getting rid of.

New(ish) Movie Thoughts: Since it takes me so long to finally watch new movies, instead of writing full reviews I’ll start writing short thoughts about recent movies I’ve seen at the end of these articles.

Suicide Squad – This movie had its moments, but overall I thought it was too messy tonally and otherwise. My main issue was with how tame it was. There’s a scene in which Harley Quinn breaks a window to steal something, and the straight-laced commander says, “Seriously? What the hell’s wrong with you people?” To which Harley responds, “We’re bad guys. It’s what we do?” But is it? When I think of a villain, I don’t think of petty theft. It’s like when someone tells you their friend is “crazy” or “hilarious,” and then you meet them, and they only act crazy or funny because people say they are, but you can tell they’re just plain people. That’s what Suicide Squad is: the plain people of the movie world pretending to be different. Did that make sense? Oh well, it did to me.

The Lobster – My favorite film of the year so far. It’s definitely the movie that I will praise but not necessarily recommend. The easy way to recommend this (or not recommend it) is to say if you don’t like “weird” movies then skip it. If you like things that are different, check it out. It’s about a world in which you’re turned into an animal if you can’t stay in a relationship. It is insane, interesting, disturbing, hilarious, etc.

Nerve – This is that movie that came and went a month or so ago about a social media dare game gone awry. Surprisingly entertaining and filmed with an internet style that didn’t feel annoying or gimmicky, Nerve is definitely worth checking out. It gets a little too preachy about internet bullying near the end, but there is still a message there that people need to hear as our internet society gets more and more acidic.