Monday, December 30, 2019

"Universal Soldier: Regeneration" - The UniSol Movie We Deserve

*This article contains SPOILERS.

I’m still working on my year-end list, but I had to take a break to get a Van Damme movie in this month. Since I revisited Universal Soldier last month, and I covered the now-ignored sequel Universal Soldier: The Return for my first Why Do I Own This? article, I decided to go ahead and finish off the series in December and January. So this month, I’m writing about Universal Soldier: Regeneration, a movie I wrote about upon its initial release and was disappointed in. After rewatching it this week, I have no idea how this movie disappointed me back then. Sure, Van Damme is a bit docile for most of the film, but it makes sense for the story. I just don’t get why the action didn’t impress me back then, because this DTV movie looks a hell of a lot better than most theatrical action movies. Also, Regeneration takes some of the darkness hinted at in the much lighter previous two movies and runs with it. 

Universal Soldier: Blade Runner

In my article about the original film, I joked a bit about how the whole UniSol program is fucking horrific, despite the fun tone of the film. The filmmakers of Regeneration, director John Hyams (who I think is the dominant voice here as he went on to write and direct the even darker sequel, Day of Reckoning) and Victor Ostrovsky (this is his sole IMDb credit, and the only extra info about him is some bizarre quote about someone being labeled an anti-Semite), obviously thought there was much more to this series than fun action. 

Van Damme’s story arc is definitely much darker this time around. Originally, I was a bit disappointed by Van Damme’s lack of involvement in the first half of this film; it’s almost like his first scenes are some separate short film about recovering from grief or memory loss or something. This time around, I realized that the filmmakers were showing the hellish existence he’s going through because of the program. It’s never explained what has been going on with him, aside from a line about being brought back a couple years ago. So we have to assume that something happened since the previous films that led to him being put back in storage. And now he’s out again, but he has severe memory issues, which a therapist is trying to help him with. 

This is right in Van Damme’s wheelhouse as an actor. As he’s aged, his face has become perfect for conveying silent suffering. While this is a largely silent role, Van Damme is still able to turn in one of his most impressive, sad performances. He’s essentially a zombie, and he eventually just accepts it because what kind of life can he expect to have anyway? And the doctor’s statement that they will no longer have control over him after the last treatment is not hopeful, but terrifying. What will happen to him now that he’s more powerful than ever and has true freedom? (Stay tuned for next month’s article to find the disturbing answer!)

While Van Damme’s story was a slow burn, Dolph Lundgren is shot of a cannon in this film going full Roy Batty almost immediately. Universal Soldier compares easily to Blade Runner, but that comparison was not all that apt tonally until Regeneration, mainly because of Dolph Lundgren’s arc. Brought back as a clone, he is clearly independent and angry as soon as he wakes up. And after completing his first mission, he turns on his maker (who looks a little like Tyrell), killing him exactly the same way Batty kills Tyrell in a blatant homage to Blade Runner

Lundgren spends his short time in this film questioning his existence and being violently confused. He fights Van Damme because he doesn’t know what else to do but kill and fight anything he comes across. But when it’s clear that he’s about to die, he is not angry or scared, he just wants to tell Van Damme what he remembered. Van Damme kills him before he can say anything else. It’s a tragic situation for both men, only slightly lessened by the admittedly awesome and gruesome death.

Lundgren’s inclusion almost comes across as a gimmick (mainly because his screen time is so short), but his presence brings the most interesting aspect of the story to bear. I did not care at all about the outcome of the actual plot because it was almost stereotypically bland for a DTV action movie: a rebel army threatens to blow up Chernobyl, holding the Ukranian Prime Minister’s teenage children hostage unless they are granted independence. This is not a knock on the film because it is quite clear that none of this is all that important compared to the ramifications of a genetically altered UniSol and a cloned UniSol. This focus is confirmed as more important in the next film. In many ways the title Regeneration refers to the rebirth of the franchise as dark, interesting sci-fi instead of simple, yet fun, action. But if you’re going to have action anyway, it might as well be great, right?

Straightforward Action in a Straight-to-DVD Movie.

Regeneration hits all the right notes for me: it’s brutal, the action is easy to follow (no quick cuts that plague the genre), the blood and gunshot wounds are practical instead of CG, and multiple sequences are shot as one long take. There’s a bit of a renaissance for action at the moment (the John Wick series comes to mind), but back in 2009 (when Regeneration came out) it was rare to find good R-rated action. 

Once again, I have no idea why this film didn’t impress me more originally. I guess it was the presence of the MMA fighter. He makes for a decent silent villain, but I found his signature movie in this film, straddling someone and punching them in the head a dozen times in less than thirty seconds, to redundant to the point that it becomes laughable near the end of the film. But it’s narrow-minded to let that small qualm keep me from enjoying a truly impressive action experience. 

I don’t want to just rehash all the best sequences like I’m hosting “The Chris Farley Show” (“Remember when JCVD jammed that pipe into Lundgren’s forehead then shot through the pipe with a shotgun and obliterated Lundgren’s head? That was awesome.”). So I’ll just focus on Van Damme’s involvement, which also might explain my initial lukewarm response as well.

I prefer to see Van Damme roundhouse kick people constantly in his films. I don’t like to admit that he’s aged and a lot of martial arts moves are beyond him. This is why a lot of his DTV stuff is more soldier/gun-based. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that type of action, but most DTV directors are incapable of doing anything interesting with it. Director John Hyams (and his dad [and fellow director of JCVD movies] Peter Hyams serving as director of photography) is more than capable, providing multiple impressive sequences that don’t involve roundhouse kicks. The standout moment is Van Damme’s infiltration of the complex, which involves a truly impressive hallway sequence done in one take. Van Damme doesn’t roundhouse kick a soul, and yet it’s one of the greatest action scenes he’s ever filmed.

The main event of the movie, Van Damme vs. Lundgren, doesn’t disappoint, either (and yes, I know Van Damme still has to fight the MMA dude after this, but come on, this is the fight people watched the movie for). Once again, no round houses to be found, but it’s still an intensely physical fight that movies seamlessly from room to room as these two zombie/clone/cyborgs that-should-not-be do battle. 

Universal Soldier: Regeneration is a perfect example of how excellent action can be achieved while dealing with a limited budget and aging stars. It helps that the aging stars are aging quite well, but you get the point: Lundgren and Van Damme are not young at this point. It really proves that crappy action is the result of weak filmmakers, which is why they are making DTV movies, after all. But every now and then, a talented director either gets his start or is willing to slum it and make something special. And Regeneration is special, even if it took me a second viewing ten years later to realize it.

Why Do I Own This?

It’s a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie.

Random Thoughts 

The beginning car chase is a bit of a Bourne ripoff, what the shaky cam and Eastern European-ness of it all.

But overall, it's a totally decent opening action sequence.

But what the fuck were those cops at the road block near the end thinking? They were standing in a row together in the open. Why not take cover behind the cop cars?

Holy shit! Shouldn't they do a little measuring before they cut off the arm for replacement, or do they not care if one arm is longer than the other?

When will people learn? Do NOT approach Luc Deveraux while he's in a restaurant. 

You can definitely tell the bad guy unisol is an MMA fighter; they incorporate it into nearly every action sequence.

Jesus. I take it this dude's signature move in the UFC was to get on top of an opponent and punch him in the head twenty times in one minute.

Van Damme gives a great death look that makes a soldier jump out a window. 

I guess there are worse last words than "fucking prick."

My god, what a great death scene for Lundgren.


Monday, December 23, 2019

Eyes Wide Shut or: It's Okay, I'm a Doctor - A Stanley Kubrick Dark Comedy

This article contains SPOILERS.

Every year around Christmas I watch Eyes Wide Shut because it is sincerely my favorite Christmas movie. It’s actually one of my favorite movies of all time, but I have to watch it around this time of year because the film just seems meant to be seen next to the glow of a Christmas tree. Since it’s become a tradition to watch it every year, I decided to write a new article about it each year, as well, until I run out of stuff to write about the film, though I don’t know if that will ever happen. This will be the third article I’ve written about Eyes Wide Shut. I’ve already written about the color theory, and last year I wrote an article focused on sane and insane theories about the film. This year, I decided to focus on the comedic aspect of the film.

“That is the kind of hero I can be sometimes.” 

Eyes Wide Shut is generally a dark film about marriage, sex, secret cult orgies, prostitution, etc. But it’s also pretty damn funny. This is the norm for Stanley Kubrick. I would argue that the bulk of his movies are fairly comedic, although I consider Eyes Wide Shut to feature more subtle comedy.

For the most part, the aspects of Eyes Wide Shut that I find the funniest are the actions, or rather the timing of the actions, of a few characters. Let's start with Ziegler. During his Christmas party, Bill is summoned to a bathroom to see about a woman who has overdosed. She's naked, and Ziegler is getting dressed as Bill comes to the door. Why the hell did Ziegler decide to do this during his own Christmas party? It's later revealed that he was at the orgy, so the dude clearly has a large sexual appetite, but for fuck's sake, couldn't he wait an hour or two?

Perhaps Ziegler lives this way because of his wealth. It’s not so much about the sex as it is about the circumstances of the sex. “I can get coked up and fuck someone in the bathroom during my own Christmas party! I can put on a costume and go to an orgy with crazy powerful people!” It’s like status through bold sex. He’s still oddly formal about things, though, which is what I find the most amusing. When Bill gets to the bathroom, Ziegler shakes his hand. Is “please come to the bathroom to make sure this woman I was banging during my own Christmas party isn’t dying from an overdose” a handshake situation? For Ziegler, it sure is.

Marion has some questionable timing, as well. She decides she should declare her love for Bill right after her father has died and right before her future husband shows up. The funniest moment of the scene is when Bill tries to reason with her telling her, “We barely know each other. I don’t think we’ve had a single conversation about anything other than your father.” Keep in mind all of this is happening with her father’s corpse in the bed! The point of the scene is not about comedy; it serves as another example of the mystery of women to Bill, in that Marion harbors the same irrational feelings for Bill that Alice confessed she had for the young naval officer. But the dark comedy of the scene cannot be denied. 

The character of Milich is probably the most overtly comedic character, though he ends up being one of the darker elements of the film. It’s goofy from the get-go, with Milich showing up in his robe to talk to Bill. His haggling is funny (“$100, over the regular price?” “Yes.” “I don’t think so.” “Uh...okay.”), he has Bill check his bald spot, and he continues doing business as if he didn’t just lock two men in a room because they were engaging in sexual activity with his young daughter, whom he refers to as a “child.” The moment becomes exponentially darker when Bill returns the next day and discovers that Milich has “come to an agreement” with the men seeing his daughter, and goes on to offer the same agreement to Bill. This sums up my relationship with the comedy of this film. It’s funny, but it’s all horrible, as well. It’s very Kubrick; what can we do but laugh at the absurdity of humanity and all the awful shit we do?

Alice actually comments on this directly during the stoned fight she has with Bill, which is also pretty funny in itself. Alice’s breakdown of “millions of years of evolution” (“Right?! Right?!”) is funny in its delivery, but it’s depressingly truthful. Men are basically animals and are excused as such when it comes to most things, especially sex, while women are supposed to be the dignified gender.

Alice’s attacks on Bill are great, too, especially her high-pitched impression of the “fucking hypothetical woman patient.” This is where the main comedy comes into play, as Bill’s responses during the fight showcase how laughable a character he is. He spends most of the argument trying to say what he thinks he should say rather than the truth. Bill seems to think that simply because they are married it’s implied that they are faithful because that’s what marriage is supposed to be, but in reality that’s often not the case. Alice even calls him on his bullshit, saying he never gives her a “straight answer.” And Alice even laughs at him when gives the cheesiest response of the film, saying “No. I’m sure of you.” The seriousness in which he says this should be mocked. Bill is saying crap you’d see in a movie while Alice is trying to explain how fundamentally wrong Bill’s and society’s view of female sexuality is wrong. 

Bill is like this throughout most of the film. He attempts to be what he thinks he should, which changes from moment to moment (more on that in a bit). During the fight, he’s the confident husband who never gets jealous because he trusts his wife, as a good husband should. When he’s at the office, he’s a perfectly formal doctor, as a doctor should be. When he sees an old college buddy, he becomes a “bro” again, as the two playfully pat and smack each other multiple times during a very short conversation, because that’s what old college bros do. And after Alice’s confession gets to him, he becomes what he thinks he should be: a jilted husband who needs to cheat on her for payback. He’s never fully committed to any of these personas, especially that last one (in a movie full of sex, he never has sex with anyone except his wife, despite being surrounded by opportunities as nearly every character he interacts with, from the models to the hotel clerk, seems to want to have sex with him). 

Bill’s inability to be himself is funny and sad. I find it amusing watching him bumble his way through his dream-like journey, being awkward (his formal handling of money with Domino and bringing a cake to see her the next night) and stupid (showing up to a mansion of super-rich orgy people in a cab, which he has wait for him). Is this all meant to be a straight up comedy? Of course not, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to claim that this film, while pitch black at times, is also very funny.

And while it’s debatable whether Eyes Wide Shut is a slight comedy or not, one thing is definitely true: Bill Harford is a fucking doctor.

I'm a Doctor

I’ll keep this short, but the sheer amount of situations and times in which Bill feels it necessary to throw his doctor dick around is hilarious.

Your wife accuses you of being sexual with your patients? I’m a doctor, and I took an oath!

You need a costume for an orgy in the middle of the night? Open up, strange costume shop owner! I’m a doctor, and here’s proof!

You need to find about your missing, possibly murdered college buddy from a waitress? Ma’am, I’m a doctor so you can tell me anything.

You need info from hotel clerk about the same possibly murdered college buddy? Bam! I’m a doctor, you overly flirty desk clerk! Now tell me all about the weird shit that went down!

You need to see the dead body of a woman who possibly sacrificed herself for you at the orgy? I’m a doctor! Well, that one makes a lot of sense, actually. They probably would not have let him see the body if he wasn’t a doctor...

The next time I watch Eyes Wide Shut, I’m going to make a game of it. Everything someone refers to Bill as a doctor, take a drink. Every time Bill tells someone he’s a doctor, take a shot. I probably won’t make it to the orgy scene.

Why Do I Own This?

Are you kidding? I own two copies of this, and I plan on buying an older DVD of it next year so I can watch it again in a different aspect ratio.

Random Thoughts 

The cut back to Alice watching TV in the kitchen while Bill is with Domino is my main evidence that the night is not all a dream. I suppose there are no rules with dreams, but for me, when a movie cuts away from the supposedly dreaming character, then that means it is not a dream. I always think that the dreamer has to be a part of every moment of the dream. Maybe it's just me, but I don't recall any of my dreams cutting away to other people.

Speaking of Alice in the kitchen, her choice of Snackwell cookies after telling her husband about her willingness to blow up their lives for some sailor dick is hilarious. For one thing, it's a very '90s thing (even though Snackwell cookies still exist, apparently), and '90s stuff makes me laugh. For another thing, the thought process is funny. "I just revealed my most secret lustful desire to my husband, letting him know I would give up everything to be with a complete stranger one time…I think I’ll have some Snackwell's!"

The best evidence for the night being a dream is the fact that Rainbow Fashions is across the street from the Sonata Cafe, but Bill takes a cab to get there...after leaving the Sonata Cafe. The only reason I can think of for him to end up needing a cab is if he needed to go to an ATM to get the cash he needs for the night. But Dr. Bill strikes me as the type to always have a lot of cash on him.


Sunday, December 22, 2019

The Rise of Skywalker - Big, Fun, and (Hear Me Out) Simple

Note: For reference as to why I’ve mellowed out so much on this trilogy since The Last Jedi, check out this article I wrote about my changing feelings regarding Star Wars. In short, I’ve stopped putting Star Wars on a pedestal, to quote The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

The Rise of Skywalker is a big, ambitious end to the Skywalker saga. It answers a lot of questions and presents even more, all while planet hopping and sprinting to an action-packed, (hopefully) crowd-pleasing conclusion. The pace of the film, along with the decision to keep the core group together for most of the story, make this the simplest and most enjoyable film in the new trilogy. 

Some might scoff at the idea that this film is “simple,” but it is, from a certain point of view. To be fair, there are a ton of questions raised by this film (this article does a great job at listing them), so in that regard the movie is quite convoluted. But if you can just let those unanswered questions go, you’ll find yourself enjoying a refreshingly straight-forward adventure. 

The Rise of Skywalker is about Rey and company trying to find the resurrected Emperor Palapatine, so they can stop his new planet-destroying fleet of starships and save the world twice and for all (yeah, right). This causes them to pick up the search where Luke left off, going from planet to planet following clues and battling Kylo Ren and the First Order along the way. It’s action packed, funny, and you always know exactly why the characters are doing what they’re doing. Like I said, simple.

Many fans (like the guy I overheard right after my screening who said, “That is probably the worst out of all of them”) will not be able to get past the questions raised by this film and/or its dismissal or lack of followthrough with some themes presented in The Last Jedi. And that’s a shame, because the one thing that should be undeniable about this trilogy is that the new characters are likable and have great chemistry, and this film allows them to spend the most time together.

In most Star Wars films, the main characters have to split up early on, only reuniting briefly at the end (and sometimes not even then; I’m looking at you, Empire). But The Rise of Skywalker presents the importance of friendship as a theme many times. So instead of a character taking off because they have something they have to do on their own, we get characters flat out telling them, “Okay, but we’re still coming with you.” It’s a little cheesy, but it’s also the strongest aspect of the film. For all the action of this new trilogy, it pales in comparison to the joy of watching Rey, Finn, Poe, Chewbacca, C-3PO, and BB-8 work together for most of the film.

But this is still an action movie at heart. In that regard, it’s very satisfying. All the blasters and stuff blowing up is fine, but the lightsaber work here is the best it’s been in the trilogy. This is by design, since Rey and Kylo became more powerful as the series progressed. Rey, in particular, has been training since the last film, so she’s much more formidable this time around. I was so used to seeing adept Force users in the prequel trilogy that I assumed anyone in this trilogy with a lightsaber would be badass with it. Looking at the trilogy as a whole now, I can appreciate the development of Rey and Kylo Ren rather than be disappointed by their initial clumsiness (Rey) or lack of control (Kylo Ren). (I admit that the throne room sequence in The Last Jedi is pretty awesome, but aside from that, the lightsaber stuff is pretty sparse in that film.)

Speaking of The Last Jedi, it does seem like this movie is more of a direct sequel to The Force Awakens than to Jedi, and that might bother fans of The Last Jedi. But this was bound to happen with Disney’s plan of going from one filmmaker to another for each film only to go back to J.J. Abrams for the third film. Of course, Abrams was going to focus on more of the stuff he set up with his film than with Rian Johnson’s. Still, it’s understandable if some fans are disappointed with this film in that regard.

For me, I went in to The Rise of Skywalker with new expectations after my disappointment with The Last Jedi.  I just wanted to see the story wrapped up with a lot of fun character moments and plenty of action. And that’s exactly what I got. 

It might sound like I'm actually a bit lukewarm with this movie, but I sincerely loved it. It's just that these movies are never going to be on the same level as the George Lucas films for me, and I've made my peace with that. I'm just happy to see a big, fun Star Wars movie. I left the theater wanting to immediately watch The Rise of Skywalker again, and that's all I can hope for from my favorite franchise.


I'm Just a Star Wars Fan

*Note: Since this article is about Star Wars, some fans will completely disagree with everything I write. That’s fine. I’m not saying any of this is fact. I’m just writing about my experience as a fan through the years. 

Being a Star Wars fan has never been so complicated. It used to be simple: the original trilogy was seemingly loved by all. Then the special editions came out, and a lot of fans were pissed off about changes George Lucas made. Then fans started reevaluating things and realized they didn’t actually like Return of the Jedi that much. Then the prequels came out, and most fans hated them. Then, as some young fans got older, more and more people claimed to love the prequels (I have loved all of them unapologetically since they were released). Then Disney came into the picture and really fucked things up by not only adding a new trilogy, but also introducing spinoff films for us all to argue about. I became a Star Wars fan a couple years before the prequels came out, so I can remember a glorious, pre-ubiquitous-internet time when we were all just fans (who maybe disagreed about Ewoks). There were still debates and whatnot (just watch early Kevin Smith movies for examples of the stupid shit fans would talk about), but it seemed like the fan base was fairly united. 

After the prequels, it became much worse, but it was still fairly straightforward: do you hate or love the prequels? With Lucas claiming to be done, it finally got to a point that the prequel divide was no longer that big of a deal. Then The Force Awakens came out, and it seemed to unite fans anew by bringing back the old gang and introducing some compelling new characters. Sure, it was a borderline remake of A New Hope, but we, or at least I, didn’t care at the time. We had a new Star Wars movie, and it seemed to be more like the original trilogy than the prequels. Now that they established the new characters, they can go anywhere with them. Things seemed okay.

Meanwhile, Rogue One came out. It was a Star Wars movie, kind of? (I loved it, by the way.) It felt weird to see a movie that was adjacent to the main story of the saga. But it was interesting and entertaining. But was Disney really going to be cranking out these side stories until the end of time? Can there be too much Star Wars

Then The Last Jedi came out, and all hell broke loose. Fans of the film can claim it’s a vocal minority that doesn’t like the film all they want, but check any comment section about the film, and it seems a lot more like a 50/50 divide than fans of the film want to admit. There’s no way to prove this (I just told you to check comment sections as my source, for fuck’s sake), but in my experience it seems like more than just a vocal minority had severe problems with The Last Jedi. Maybe I just want to believe that a lot of people have issues with it because I have a lot of issues with it (I wrote three articles about it).

I’m not trying to start another debate about The Last Jedi. I’m just going to explain what it changed for me as a Star Wars fan. I left the theater after watching it, and instead of immediately wanting to see it again (which is my usual response to a Star Wars movie), I started to complain about it. I told my brother (who I watched it with) that when they freed the horse things on Canto Bight I thought to myself, “I fucking hate this.” I’ve never had that feeling during a Star Wars movie. I’ve softened on the film since then, but it’s still my least favorite of the series. 

The Last Jedi made me realize I can dislike (even if it’s only momentarily) a Star Wars movie. This made me question whether I was even a true fan anymore. Before this, in my mind, a true fan loved all the movies. So I guess I finally understood how the prequel haters felt, and I didn’t like it at all. I didn’t want to say I was a Star Wars fan, but I don’t like this one or this one. Star Wars is about hope, so I found something good to focus on. My expectations for what a Star Wars movie could be had to change. I didn’t have to love every single film. I could just like a movie. I could even hate large portions of a movie. I stopped seeing Star Wars as this sacred part of my life and started seeing them as just movies. This is a good thing, and I think more Star Wars fans would be happier with their experience if they tried this. (By the way, for those of you who do still hold all the films sacred and love the new movies with all your heart, I envy you.)

With that mindset I watched Solo, and I really liked it. I didn’t understand the hatred a lot of people had for it. I agreed with most of the faults I read that people had with the film, but they just didn’t bother me that much. I just thought it was a fun movie. 

It’s one thing to bring that mentality to a spinoff film, but what about a saga movie? For me, bringing that mentality to The Rise of Skywalker allowed me to completely enjoy my experience. I have so many questions about so many things with the movie, but none of them nagged at me the way they would have before. (Slight SPOILERS for Rise of Skywalker until the end of the paragraph.) Palpatine’s back? Okay. Snoke was just a puppet/clone? Okay. Palpatine has a kid and a grandkid? Okay. No one wanted to help the Resistance a year ago but now the entire galaxy is ready to fuck shit up for them? Okay. Obviously I either have a few issues with some of these things or at least want to know a lot more than the film provided, but none of it took me out of the movie. I just went with it, and I was able to enjoy this movie the most out of the new trilogy.

For me, being a Star Wars fan means enjoying Star Wars movies. If that means I need to alter what I think a Star Wars movie is supposed to be, so be it. I’ll always have the first six movies that are magical to me. And now I’m going to have a lot of different movies that I can enjoy to a lesser degree. I know this sounds a little delusional. It’s okay to not like, or even hate, something, even if you’re a fan of the overall series. I just don’t want to. Star Wars will always be special to me, but there’s a lot more in my life to focus on rather than getting bent out of shape when a movie doesn’t live up to what I want from it. (This only applies to Star Wars for me. As a film journalist, I still plan on hating all kinds of shit.)

I'm done saying I'm a Star Wars fan, and I like the prequels, but I don't like the Disney trilogy, but I do like the spinoffs, and The Force Awakens is okay, I guess, and Rise was pretty great, and I like parts of The Last Jedi, etc. No more qualifiers. I'm just a Star Wars fan.