Super Mario Bros. (1993)

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fourstar

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There are few films, campy or otherwise, that better exemplify the fine wine rule than Super Mario Bros. The first & only live action Nintendo adaptation continuously gets better with age & I fall further under its intoxicating spell every time I watch it. This is a box office bomb critics have long slammed as definitive proof that video game adaptations are an inherently bad idea, but those marks against its character matter less with every passing year. Super Mario Bros. is a cartoonish fantasy comedy that somehow, unfathomably marries elements of Blade Runner, Jurassic Park, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? into one unholy cacophony of cinematic cheese & bloat. I marvel at this film’s sheer audacity every time I watch it, just as I find myself continually reeling from its grocery store joke book humor in the exact same breath. Without the pressure for Super Mario Bros. to prove or disprove that a video game adaptation could possibly be worthwhile (there’s now a crowded field of examples to swing that conversation either way you want it to go), the film has found a nice, comfortable space of its own as a cult-worthy camp fest. It’s thoroughly ridiculous, but it’s ridiculous in a fun & above all memorable way that dares you to sour on its 90s relic antics, but never gives you a solid reason to. Super Mario Bros. is a great film. It’s a little sad that three decades later it still feels a little transgressive to say so.

The only video game imagery that graces the screen in Super Mario Bros. is an opening prologue featuring pixelated dinosaurs in a fictional version of reality where the force of the meteor that extinguished the dinos & started the Ice Age created an alternate dimension in which humans evolved from reptiles instead of apes. If that doesn’t sound like a video game to you, much less the plumber-and-princess adventure game that iconically defines the medium, that’s because this movie is floating in its own bizarre orbit lightyears outside the property it’s supposedly adapting. There are video game-type dinos in that opening prologue, though, which proves that the husband-wife directorial team that helmed this major studio disaster are aware that Super Mario Bros. previously existed as a game with its own characters, motivations, and basic aesthetic. They just chose to ignore all that in favor of their own bonkers sense of whimsy, a fantasy realm that calls into question whether or not they’re also aware that there’s no possible way that the dino-killing meteor crash site could’ve been in Brooklyn or that a reptilian-evolved humanity would be so different from our primate selves that they’d be almost entirely unrecognizable as humans at all. No matter. This is a big budget kids’ fantasy adventure at heart, so its faithfulness to video game lore or basic science is almost entirely beside the point in the question of its entertainment value.

There are, admittedly, a few details of the Super Mario Bros. film that vaguely resemble their video game source material. They at least included some of the same characters: Mario & Luigi are Italian plumbers from Brooklyn, NY, which feels about as faithful to their video game visages as you can get. Princess Peach is now Princess Daisy for some unexplained reason, but it’s a mild change at best and the boys still have to venture out to rescue her from the reptilian clutches of an evil monarch named Koopa, which is more or less where the video game’s narrative begins & ends. Other details begin to get a lot fuzzier, though. Instead of being a giant, scary turtle-dragon motherfucker that lives in a castle full of lava, Koopa looks an awful lot like Dennis Hopper doing a dead on impersonation of Donald Trump (complete with the gaudy tower & political grandstanding). Toad is the furthest from his original form, ditching his miniature guru looks from the game in favor of a delightfully out-of-place, full-sized Mojo Nixon singing dumb protest songs about King Koopa on street corners. Staying faithful to the video game can be a double edged sword, though, as is exemplified by the baby dino Yoshi, who is cute as a button in this film, but also much more along the lines of Jurassic Park-type dinosaur puppets than what his video game creators likely intended. One of the reasons Super Mario Bros. stands out as such enjoyable schlock is that it embraces this damned if you do, damned if you don’t mentality whole-heartedly and just runs wild with the freedom adapting a video game with a very thin backstory affords it. It includes just enough characters & visual cues to resemble the Super Mario Bros. game at a glance, but does anything but keep it safe in the way it fleshes out their universe.

The most common argument against cinematic video game adaptations is that they necessitate a backstory where none is truly needed. No one playing the Super Mario Bros. game is likely to care exactly how or why the princess they’re rescuing was captured by an evil dino turtle dragon; they just hop in the green pipes & smash the mushroom-shaped baddies that get in the way of saving her. A movie requires a little more narrative coddling & a lot of the fun of Super Mario Bros. is in tracking how it either stays faithful to the game’s basic layout or disregards it completely on a minute to minute basis. The film is confident enough in its own right to exist as a standalone property that it ditches the fantasy genre brick & mortar castles of the video game for a distinct Blade Runner-style of urban dystopia. However, it also bends over backwards to include a way for Koopa’s guards to shoot the video game’s fireballs or make sense out of the role mushrooms & fungus have to play in all this (in the shape of a hideous fungal life form that would give Cronenberg nightmares). In some ways the film completely runs wild, like in its creation of an alternate dimension where the entire globe is one vast desert outside a single metropolis or in its de-evolution weapons that can turn people “back” into lizards. There’s also a few areas of compromise between the two extremes, like an inclusion of goombas that makes them out to be de-evolved lizard people instead of tiny mushroom monsters so that both properties can get equal representation. Super Mario Bros. plays along just enough to pass as a video game adaptation, but takes tremendous glee in constructing its own over-the-top fantasy realm where lizard people fight over a dino dictator’s crumbs & dance “Thriller” video-knockoff routines to bullshit like “Everybody Do the Dinosaur.” It’s an insane spectacle from front to end and because it feels little need to stay close to its source material’s limited backstory beyond its basic sketch and it’s a pleasantly unique spectacle at that.

Divorced from its source material, Super Mario Bros. is barrels of vapid fun. I honestly believe there are few children’s films from its era that match it in terms of ambitious set design, campy humor, and pure, directionless inanity. A lot of the film’s charms are a credit to the performances of Bob Hoskins & John Leguizamo as Mario Mario & Luigi Mario (speaking of video game background info that didn’t need to be developed), as well as Hopper’s Koopa-Trump & Harry Potter’s wicked aunt, Fiona Shaw, as his soul-sucking sidekick. Hoskins in particular is pretty great as the titular plumber & I honestly believe this film is his best work outside his iconic turn in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. It’s way too easy to buy Hoskins as a spaghetti-slurping Brooklynite, to the point where I’m never truly convinced that the now-deceased actor actually hailed from Britain. Besides the cartoonish performances from the cast, I also appreciate how intricately detailed its production design can be. There’s a consistency in the leather spikes fashion wear that seem so popular in Koopa’s alternate dimension Brooklyn & I’m always picking up on new, small details hiding elsewhere in the fake city’s dingy nooks & crannies: Mario’s NYC apartment features a plunger rack instead of a gun rack; there are tiny lizard rodents fighting over the city’s plentiful trash; the de-evolution chamber is operated by a Duck Hunt controller; Mario & his girlfriend have plans to attend WrestleMania; a run-down cinema is screening I Was a Teenage Mammal, etc. Then there’s the now-disturbing shot of the Twin Towers partly dissolving thanks to Koopa’s evil deeds, an image that looks strikingly similar to a real life tragedy from a decade after this film’s release. As much fun as these grimy details can be, however, this is still just a silly children’s media fantasy, a fact that becomes apparent when everything magically, inexplicably reverts back to normal once Koopa is defeated (in a moment punctuated by Mario delivering the glorious one-liner “Later, alligator” to the evil, reptilian brute).

It’s a shame that Super Mario Bros. was scorned for its absurd deviations from its paper thin source material in its time. In the decades since it’s become increasingly apparent that devotion to its video game roots would have left the film far more mild & forgettable that it ended up being by learning to cut the kite strings & float on its own over-the-top, over-budget inanity. This is one remarkably silly movie and it’s amazing that it ever managed to reach theaters in the first place. My only complaint at this point is that it teased a sequel that never arrived because audiences were more than eager to let it die on arrival. Continuing down this absurd path could’ve lead to something even more amusing & special had audiences given it the chance.

-Brandon Ledet

Hardcore Henry (2016)

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fourstar

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Hardcore Henry is, in essence, a video game come to life. This is either a compliment or a complaint depending on the perspective of the individual members of the audience. Roger Ebert, who had a thing or two to say about video games as a lower tier art form, would likely balk (or perhaps even puke) at this premise. As someone who hasn’t owned a video game console since the Nintendo 64, I’m almost equally an outsider to the medium, but I still found the film to be a blast. Hardcore Henry‘s central gimmick of mirroring the look of 1st person shooters by mounting GoPros to its camera/stuntmen is a lot to handle for 90 minutes of action cinema & the video game-thin plot & villains that accompany it don’t help much either. Audiences have largely rejected the Russian-American co-production outright based on its marketing & the movie has made back only less than half of its budget on its opening weekend. Still, there’s certainly an audience for this pure-adrenaline macho-hedonism out there and I have no doubt Hardcore Henry will endure as something of a cult classic in the long run whether or not the immediate returns are looking optimistic (they’re not).

Besides being a live action, narrative video game of a movie, Hardcore Henry could also be understood as a sci-fi action thriller, even if it’s as a stubbornly vacuous one. Brought to life as a Robocop-esque “cybersoldier”, the titular hero/audience surrogate Henry is half man/half machine (or “half machine/half pussy” as one of his combatants puts it) who must save his scientist wife & the world at large from an evil sorcerer who looks like a bitter cocktail of Kurt Cobain, Andy Warhol, and Viserys Targaryen. Obviously, the sci-fi plot is mostly present as a delivery system for the film’s true bread & butter of action & gore. Much like in video games, Henry is mostly provided short-term goals & destinations by an in-the-know guide (Sharlto Copley of District 9) that he must achieve by obliterating all human (and inhuman) obstacles in the way with guns, grenades, wine bottles, screwdrivers, windshield wipers, etc. Every now & then the sci-fi element will lead to a hilarious line like “Put down the proto-baby!”, but for the most part this genre marker is pure background filler. Even my favorite aspect of the film, the telekinetic sorcerer video game villain with the terrible hair, is more fantasy than he is sci-fi, so it’s probably best not to think too extensively on why the plot unfolds the way it does. Just try to enjoy it for its own tasteless, disgustingly violent self.

I guess I should be clear about this: there’s far more to hate about Hardcore Henry than just its video game gimmick. Its rampant misogyny, gay panic humor, and constant, gleeful violence & gore are sure to turn off a lot of folks & rightfully so. However, I don’t personally see much of a difference between the misanthropy on display here and the macho-hedonism of any other generic shoot-em-up. Hardcore Henry is loud, obnoxious, one-note, nearly plotless, and entirely over the top in its meat-headed self-indulgence, but so are a lot of my favorite hallmarks of action cinema: Commando, Rambo IV, Invasion U.S.A., etc. I’ll contend that the film’s glaring, perhaps even deplorable faults are all outweighed by its consistently goofy tone (particularly in the scenery-chewing sorcerer villain) & 1st person POV visual experimentation). There are hordes of 13 year olds who’ll latch onto Hardcore Henry‘s naked girls, guns, and cocaine version of masculinity in an unsavory way, I’m sure, but I never really look to my dumb action movies for moral high ground and, truth be told, those kids will grow out of it eventually. Hopefully.

As much as I enjoyed Hardcore Henry as a violently campy good time, a large part of me is somewhat relieved that it’s floundering financially. If the film were a runaway success we might’ve been flooded with an untold number of 1st person shoot-em-up knockoffs for decades, just as The Blair Witch Project spawned a legion of subpar found footage horrors in its wake. Truthfully, I like Hardcore Henry‘s reputation positioned exactly where it is. It’ll be heralded by select fans as an overlooked classic, but never imitated to an extent where the gimmick becomes overbearingly redundant (I hope). I personally enjoyed the film with the same sick fascination a lot of folks have with GoPro videos of Russian teens hanging off of skyscrapers with just one hand & no safety gear (if you haven’t seen it, don’t Google it). I was appalled & more than a little concerned,but also undeniably made giddy by the sheer novelty & audacity on display.

-Brandon Ledet

Grandma’s Boy (2006)

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threehalfstar

(Unrated edition, viewed 9/8/2015)

Starts slow, but delivers consistent lowbrow humor. Predictable, but a solid entry for its genre.

Allen Covert puts in a dopey but lovable performance as Alex, a middle aged video game tester who moves in with his titular Grandma after losing his apartment. He finds himself learning to navigate life with his new elderly roommates (wonderfully fun performances by Doris Roberts, Shirley Jones, and Shirley Knight), the challenges of working with a company of gamers, and his affection for the new project manager, played by Linda Cardellini. Throw in a few gross-out gags, a hefty dose of stoner humor and a cameo by Rob Schneider, and you’ve got the regular Adam Sandler formula.

Grandma’s Boy works pretty well. Interestingly enough, it manages to pull off a convincing bait-and-switch with the main character, Alex. Alex begins the film as a schlubby loser, difficult to like and not easy to root for. By the end of the movie, he’s a goofy, kind protagonist who works hard to keep his Grandma happy, develop his own video game, and win the girl. There isn’t a single other twist in the entire movie, and that’s ok.

I recommend this movie to viewers looking for a stoner flick that’s engaging, if lowbrow, without being thought-provoking. Not a bad pizza night or sick day movie.

-Erin Kinchen

Hitman: Agent 47 (2015)

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three star

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Just as I found myself oddly won over by the generic action movie cheapness of 2007’s video game adaptation Hitman, I was equally tickled with its seven years late sequel. Almost more of a reboot than a proper sequential follow-up, Htman: Agent 47 makes no perceptible reference to the first Hitman film either in its narrative or in its much more stylish visual palette of crisp white walls & television static blues. The first Hitman film was amusing in its lack of its ambition or specificity. It kept its superhuman assassin protagonist’s origins vague, attributing his existence to some blanket collective called The Organization, a super-secret conglomerate with “ties to every government”. As a follow-up, Hitman: Agent 47 seemingly tries to correct the perceived wrongs of the past, bending over backwards to nail down the details of its titular assassin’s origins & to please the action movie marks in the audience with its ludicrous CGI spectacle. Struggle as it might for legitimacy, it’s just as much of a cheap action movie romp as the first film, just with a bigger budget as well as more of a willingness to go big & go silly. As with the first go-round, it kinda works.

Choosing to go the dreaded Origin Story route, Hitman: Agent 47 explains that The Organization’s assassin farm where they raised, balded, and barcoded trained killers has been shut down for moral grounds, even though the assassins are still assigned missions, presumably also by the very same Organization. Or maybe it was The Organization’s evil twin company Syndicate International that ran the assassin farm. The details are a little fuzzy, but I do know that Syndicate International is supposed to be bad & they’re looking to start creating “Agents” again, which is also supposed to be very, very bad. But, don’t worry, our titular killing machine assassin, simply named 47, is very, very good. Along with the daughter of the scientist who spearheaded the Agents program, 47 looks to put a stop to Syndicate International’s evil plan to reinstate a program that “engineered human beings by selecting & enhancing certain genes” & “eliminating” weaknesses like pain & love. Along the way, 47 helps release the methodical murderer inside of his newfound Scientist’s Daughter partner & also battles a seemingly invincible Zachary Quinto (who you can tell is bad news from the get go, thanks to his diabolical eyebrows), playing a kind of Wolverine knock-off who has been, I swear to God, reinforced with “subdermal titanium body armor” that makes him impervious to stab wounds & bullets. When that bit of silliness is first revealed, even Quinto has to call for a time out and ask, “Pretty crazy, huh?”

You know what? Forget everything I just told you, because absolutely none of it matters. Hitman: Agent 47 survives solely on the strength of its ludicrous action sequences, which are admittedly a half step above the adequate proceedings of the 2007 original. Sure, 47 falls back on the mechanical choreography of the first film where he calmly spins in circles and shoots a slew of targets (mostly faceless baddies not even worthy of his glance) one at a time, never missing. That aspect hasn’t changed much (despite 47 been switched out for a second bald-headed actor for unexplained reasons between films), but it has been enhanced by an even sillier set of action movie stunts. Characters bounce off the top of a speeding train without wincing, then duck under the next one as it passes, safely nestled between the tracks. The Agent-in-training Scientist’s Daughter is tested for her survival skills by being tied up in front of a running jet engine to see how quickly she can Houdini herself to safety. Later, a few faceless goons are thrown into the engine just for a sense of completion. 47 also beats down some goons with a hotel Bible & crashes a helicopter into an office building without starting a fire, the blades still spinning long after they’ve collided with desks, walls, and ceilings. Each action set piece is more laughably preposterous than the last, like something you’d expect in, say, a video game. By the time Agent 47 & Scientist’s Daughter are killing in unison to a surf rock soundtrack in a moment of borrowed Tarantino cool, the film has pretty much exhausted every possible way it could acheive a cheap action movie dreck aesthetic (complete with the CGI-aided POV of a flying bullet straight out of that one KoRn video). Enjoying the film for the trashy fluff that it is will depend on your personal mileage for those kinds of shenanigans. I found myself a little dumbstruck, but thoroughly amused.

Bonus points: As I mentioned with the first film, I think one of the more unique aspects of this franchise is that it sticks to the lead’s asexuality as a central character trait. Lesser action movie fare certainly would’ve abandoned that peculiarity in favor of a romance plot. It was a detail tested a lot more strongly in the first film considering that 47’s female sidekick was a runaway sex worker instead of the sequel’s choice to negate the issue by giving its central pair a familial tie (Her Scientist Dad is basically his dad too? In a weird way?), but it’s still a striking choice for a franchise so generic & so silly in almost every other way.

-Brandon Ledet

Hitman (2007)

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three star

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I’m not going to claim that Hitman is any better than your typical mindless video game adaptation, but I will admit to liking shoddy video game adaptations in general. The combination of an outlandish concept with well established, highly stylized visuals & general lack of a fully fleshed out backstory have made for some pretty fun ventures into schlock in the past: Mortal Kombat, Super Mario Bros, Street Fighter, etc. Well, I enjoyed those titles at least. Visually eccentric, but narratively empty properties are well-suited to the action movie format & the video game Hitman (which I’ve admittedly never played or even seen played) works pretty well as a laughably mindless shoot ’em up, all things considered.

You can’t get much more Generic Action Movie than the details of Hitman. The titular assassin, alternately known as “Agent 47”, was raised on some kind of hitman farm where young children are shaved bald, branded with barcordes, and trained to become efficient killing machines. The evil force behind this diabolical plot is (I’m not kidding) The Organization, a super-secret conglomerate with “ties to every government.” Agent 47 kills cops & criminals alike, depending on his orders, and the plot of this particular movie requires him to publicly assassinate the president of Russia, which leads to some bargain basement political intrigue & an unlikely friendship with a sex worker. Or whatever.

The plot of Hitman obviously doesn’t matter too, too much. It’s mostly a necessary inconvenience that provides a framework for the movie’s ludicrous action film charms: grotesque violence (including severed limbs & CGI blood splatter), synchronized martial arts (including an over-the-top swordfight between four of The Organization’s bald, barcoded graduates), and macho fantasy fulfillment (the sex worker sidekick is often naked for the leering camera, of course). There are a couple odd twists on the format here or there, especially in the Hitman’s asexuality, which would melt in most action movies in the face of his prostitute best friend, but holds strong here. However, the hyper-masculine vibe of the film overpowers any genre-subverting oddities, which leads to some unfortunate moments like an out-of-nowhere transphobic gag & some glaring questions about the main character’s life choices (if he’s trying to get by unnoticed, why doesn’t he wear more hats & wigs to cover up that bald head & exposed barcode?). For the most part, though, it’s as enjoyable as a Generic Action Movie can be & when Agent 47 all but promises a Hitman sequel with a winking “I hope I never see you again,” I found myself surprisingly game.

-Brandon Ledet