Wednesday, November 02, 2005

New website

Low Budget has moved to a newer, sexier, website with a broader approach. The new website is called LowBudgetTruth. It will cover more areas, including reviews of all the important genres. Low-Budget will no longer be updated, and content on this site will slowly be migrated over to the new site.
You may also enjoy the following websites from TheDigitalSandbox:


This site is no longer being updated

However, material on this topic is being posted at Material from this website will be migrated to the new website over the next several months.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Movie Review: Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever

Movie: Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever
Director: Wych Kaosayanda
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Lucy Liu

I’ve never seen this movie all at once, but did see the last hour all together. Arguably I should see the whole thing as one unit to properly appreciate it as a piece of art. If you think that, let me know. I’m sure we can get you some help.
Before damning this movie, let me say a word about Lucy Lui. She is a babe. She is hotter than the top of an old-fashioned metal hood over a V-8 engine after a long high-speed run through a cloudless desert mid-day in July. Hollywood is full of hot babes, but Lucy Lui is also a true bad-ass.
Her glance can blast through more bad-guys than the Governator with an armload of impossibly heavy rapid-fire weapons blowing hot exploding lead everywhere. You can’t coach that. Hollywood has been searching for a bad-ass leading lady for some time now, yet Lucy Lui is just sitting there. She’s proven her mettle in Charlie’s Angels, Payback, and Kill Bill. She can be more steely-eyed than Jack Nicholson. But a lot better looking, and she can move convincingly.
Angelina Jolie? Halle Berry? Hot babes, even convincingly athletic. But neither is a true bad-ass. Lucy Liu, talk to your agent. However, she’s got to get into a real movie. Ecks v. Sever is bad action porn. No erotic tension, no sensual build-up, just things blowing up, guns being fired, and cars flipping. As in bad porn, there are no consequences to any of this action. Lucy Lui is able to mow down hundreds of men with bullets and bombs, yet never really hurts anyone who isn’t truly bad.
Even in all this wreckage, she looks good. Of course she never changes clothes, looking stylish and conspicuous, when perhaps she should be blending in. Still, who cares?
I think Antonio Banderas is in this movie too. He matters little, however. He is supposed to be a counterpoint to her badness, but is more of a sidelight. The plot is so numbingly awful that it was hard to figure out where he might fit, but he’s running around shooting things too. And blowing stuff up. The amount of stuff that gets blown up doesn’t relate at all to any tactical considerations. It’s like if the bass-player in your band suddenly decided he wanted to hear a whole lot more of himself. The special effects guys here have obviously watched a lot of movies where not enough stuff blew up. Let’s hope they’re happy now.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Bob Denver finally gets rescued from this mortal coil

Before it became popular to celebrate old sitcoms because of their simplicity and nostalgia value, before beer commercials were replaying the Ginger/Mary Ann debate, I understood that Giligan's Island was THE perfect sitcom.
Structurally, there is no escape. Why do characters stay together in sit-coms in spite of all the horrible things they do to each other? Because the writers insist they are "friends." We buy this because we want to believe there is some holy level of friendship in which all is forgiven. In real life, people move on. Not on Gilligan's Island, though. Nobody can leave. Better still, there is no reason for anyone to evolve. Characters are frozen solidly into the architypes they arrived on the Island with. Often this is true in real life. We are plunged into a new group, typed quickly, and we stick with those characteristics the new group has assigned us.
Also, failure is programmed in. The narrative arc of every episode is an absolute, uncomprimising attempt to escape the island. Which, in every single case, fails. There are no intermediate goals which, if achieved, would cause the show to move forward. Nobody gets promoted, pregnant, married, moves to California, or runs into the ex. It's impossible. So, from show to show, everything stays the same.
I can't really say how good or bad an actor Bob Denver really is. I don't know if I've ever seen Dobie Gillis, and can't remember him in anything else. But he was, completely and totally, Gilligan. A perfect character on the perfect sitcom.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

A Sound of Thunder: Commentary and Review

Movie: A Sound of Thunder
Basis: Short story by the same name, written by Ray Bradbury
Director: Peter Hyams
Cast: Edward Burns, Ben Kingsley, Catherine McCormack

Movie-making technology is moving very rapidly. It seems like just yesterday that Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow proved that you could create a whole amazing world in the background while uncomfortable actors posed woodenly in front of it. Now we can not only place wooden actors in front of an animated background that is almost, but not quite as good as a mid-level video game, we have also mastered compression technology. In fact, this movie takes the scripts of at least ten bad sci-fi movies and smashes them all into one.
Sadly, they claim that the resulting piece of dreck is based on a classic science fiction story by one of the original masters of the genre, Ray Bradbury. I read that story, many years ago, and this is NOT that story. Actually, the story itself isn't any great shakes, more of a thought piece than a dramatic event. Still, it is protected by the "classic" label and we won't assail it here.
The idea is that, if time travel were possible, a very small change in the past could create massive changes in the present. That idea may have seemed intriguing when the story was first written, but we've all seen Back to the Future and we get the point. This movie takes that premise and makes a mish-mash of it. The changes supposedly produced by the smashing of a butterfly are ridiculous, altering the laws of physics, biology, evolution, and narrative structure. The only thing that is preserved is the order in which characters get killed off. (Cannon fodder, Weak bad guy, Good black guy, Real bad guy, attractive but flawed girl, with Perky Girl and Hero sticking to the end).
I love bad movies almost as much I like really great ones. But seriously, I'm amazed this one was released. The events follow along randomly, filling the space between the two basic plot points of the original story and the Hollywood-dictated redemption and ending.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Movie Review: bad martial arts movies: American Ninja

Title: American Ninja
Director: Sam Firstenberg
Actors:Michael Dudikoff, Steve James, Judie Aronson

Iran Contra seemed to have it all: Rogue military operations, money and guns to a government that had held Americans hostage, illegal supply of weapons to insurgents because they were “fighting communism,” and, most importantly, a big-haired blond with documents in her bra. Yet it falls into a dead zone, far below Watergate, far, far below the Monica Lewinski Affair. Nobody has a made a good movie out of Iran Contra, even though it has almost every possible element.
What it was missing, what it clearly needed, was more Ninjas. Like this movie. American Ninja is oddly prescient, dealing with covert arms transfers through a shadow South American businessman, probably a drug-lord, to some organization fighting for “freedom” against Communism. But American Ninja, though lacking Fawn Hall, has Ninjas and that has made all the difference. Sequel after sequel after sequel. Could Michael Dudikoff possibly have had a career otherwise? He’d make a good looking robot, maybe, but isn’t menacing enough to be a terminator.
This is the kind of movie that harbors old clichés that have been temporarily exiled from better fare. You have the Japanese Master who for some reason likes the American Kid. You have the Woman Who is Too Vain to Understand Danger, “Do you know how much those shoes cost?” and you get The Man with No Memory. These clichés are patched together into a basic plot. Viewed from a long ways away the plot makes a certain amount of low-budget sense. But up close, the plot points are too thick, too ridiculous, too close to the edge of farce.
Then there’s the matter of the bad martial arts. Some of it is so badly staged you want to yell at the screen. Much of it is shot too poorly to see what might be going on. Mostly it’s punctuated with plenty of gunfire to at least keep you awake. At one point, after pulling out one of almost every Ninja weapon out of this wristband, the Bad Ninja suddenly fires a laser. He has a laser? Why didn’t he use that first? But at that point it’s too late to complain. The only real hope is that maybe, just maybe, that prison guard, number 258, I think, is really a young Samuel L. Jackson. Maybe it’s not, and you don’t get much of a look, but if it is that would be cool.
Why did I watch this movie, not once but twice? Well, my FRIEND Tom put this on his top ten list. I watched it once and sent it back, thinking: this is crap, I have nothing to say about this movie. Then the EDITOR of Breaking it Down sent a note listing movies we needed to see, and this movie was on it. AGAIN, I ordered it from Netflix. Again, I waited for some secret magic, some special scene. But no, it was still crap.
Tom explained to me that he first saw this movie when he was 13. He believed then, (and still does) that any movie with Ninja in the title was likely to be cool. When I was 13 I really liked a couple cheesy Italian Western comedies, My Name is Trinity, and Trinity is Still My Name. I’ve seen pieces of these somewhere since, and am pretty sure they suck. But today I saw a collector set of Trinity pictures, three of them. Only 12 dollars. So I bought them and, well, maybe they’ll be better than American Ninja. If not, there’s always E-Bay.

-Daniel H. Jeffers

Monday, August 22, 2005

Horror Movies (review): Alien vs. Predator

This site is evolving. Since, of all my blogs, this has the lowest traffic levels, there is plenty of room to experiment. I had previously posted reviews of a number of movies on the website:, however that website has folded. So, since the reviews are often written with the same slant as I am developing here, I am reposting some of them to this website. First up: Alien vs. Predator

Title: AVP: Alien Vs. Predator
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Cast (Predator Food): Sanaa Lathan, Lance Hendrikson, Raoul Bova, Ewen Brenner and a bunch of other people.

Not the movie, so much. Somehow, in the middle of the workweek, I got talked into seeing the midnight show. It was a small crowd that seemed to be in search of the next Star Trek convention. Small, but lively. Before the movie, people actually yelled out which side they were on. (Mostly Alien, I think).
Sadly, you will never replicate that experience. That crowd existed just that once, in the moment. Most of those people won’t be back to see AVP. Those that do will be mixed in with more normal people who will not enjoy the movie near as much. No reason they should.
This movie raises a lot of interesting questions. Like, what do these people do in the daytime? Sleep, probably. Most live with their mother, so they don’t need jobs. Still, you have to wonder if some might be donning normal clothes and riding the bus with you in the morning. But let’s move past the scary parts and back to the movie itself. Here are the questions the movie raised for me:

What genre makes the most sense of this material?
Should we bow down before dark and ancient masters even if they kill us at will?
Shouldn’t we be watching Arnold battle Sigourney?
Do we secretly crave our ancient predators?
Hasn’t everyone seen David Letterman’s Will it Float?
How many scenes were stolen from other movies?
Do chicks dig Man-eating Klingons with dread-locks?

What genre makes the most sense of this material?
One obvious question is what level or genre should we use to make sense of this movie. Horror movies work in a universe that’s just a little scarier than ours. Adventure movies work in a world where the hero is just a bit stronger and faster than anyone else. Comic books work in a world of exaggerated character traits and ridiculous plots. Wherever we start, we hope to end up on the same note.
The problem here is that the original material comes from different genres and quality levels. Alien was a full on Five star movie. Scary as hell, it was horror in a sci-fi setting. The sequel is an adventure movie with space marines and super-Ripley, but the first one was pure horror. The first Predator movie was adventure, also with a sci-fi backdrop. Not a five star movie, but a very solid three-star fun-fest.
The third major source for this movie, though un-credited, is obviously H.P. Lovecraft’s classic novel, “Mountains of Madness”. In his novel, the protagonist is driven mad by the knowledge he discovers at an Antarctic archeological find. It is revealed that ancient and powerful races struggled here, and the humanity is so small, so irrelevant that we could be destroyed as an afterthought.
This revelation is not so much one of danger as it is a destruction of our conceit. No longer at the top of the food-chain, mankind is not even worthy of notice from those who are on top. This kind of horror has become something of a sub-genre in itself, Lovecraftian horror.
Before making it into the movie level, the material was filtered down into a comic-book, then given a video-game feel. The resulting movie is, like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, populated with characters shorn of context and level. Every element has lost the moorings that gave it resonance in the first place. The Aliens are well-trodden forms of fear, with no gradual revelation to increase our horror. The Predators are not so implacable anymore, and there is no hero like Arnold to match up to them. The Lovecraftian backdrop is drained of impact by the lack of true scale. Too much is familiar.
The film-makers never found the right level for this movie. Oddly, they chose to pitch it as a disaster movie. First, they used the conventional introduction of cannon-fodder sequences, followed by a superficial generation of tension between people. When the disaster finally came, we saw bunches get taken out pretty much in the order we would have guessed. Once the disaster theme was exhausted, they switched over to a video-game aesthetic. This probably serves the movie best, though video-game movies should have more complex puzzles than you find here.

Should we bow down before dark and ancient masters even if they kill us at will?
Maybe this should have been raised in the movie Troy, as it was certainly on the minds of the ancient Greeks quite a bit. Here, it serves just as a quick plot turning point, and the decision, once made, takes a turn to the ridiculous.
The tag line of this movie is: “No matter who wins, we lose!” False advertising, and it makes you think the point of view character should have been somebody with a shot at winning. Still, the structure quickly shows us that one side will only kill is in small bunches, while the other will kill us in much larger groups. Also, one side will kill us honorably, by ripping our skull and spinal chords out of our bodies. The other will also discomfit us, by invading our bodies with their young and causing us to burst embarrassingly during dinner.
As humans, we’re pretty sure we’d rather have our skulls ripped out over having anything burst out of our bellies. So the choice becomes clear. And there is even a credible bowing scene as the lead character makes that very choice. Then, however, the filmmakers cheat. Instead of accepting the implications of this act, they let the heroine become acknowledged as a fellow warrior by the Predators.

Shouldn’t we be watching Arnold battle Sigourney?
Disregarding bad sequels, Arnold beat the Predator, and Sigourney kicked the crap of out one Alien in the first movie, and took out the prime Mother of all Aliens in the second. So Alien v. Predator is clearly a battle for second place.

Do we secretly crave our ancient predators?
Evolution led us to a place where we could suddenly hide from, kill, trap, or denature our predators. Some still live on in zoos, others exist in nature, but only as long as they don’t eat too many children. Yet our literature is constantly looking for something to put in that top slot, something worthy of our respect even as it kills us. This top predator has to be bigger, more powerful, impervious to our suffering.
Jurassic Park showed a touch of this predator worship, introducing the T-Rex as a magnificent enemy. To complete the cycle, the T-rex steps in to destroy lesser predators such as the velociraptors. They are not worthy to hunt us.
This movie is kind of a struggle between potential predators. Who is worthy of preying on humanity? The Alien presents a maternal kind of destruction, forcing us all into birth-giving vessels for her progeny. The Predator is asexually male, a father figure who won’t stoop to sympathy or understanding, but in the end can be brought to respect.
In this case, we seek the with-held approval of the killing parent and run from the intrusive demands of the voracious mother. I don’t know what all that means, but I’m pretty sure this movie is a thin vehicle for all this thinking anyway.

Hasn’t everyone seen David Letterman’s Will it Float?
The actual question here is: “how much bad science, history, and logic will we absorb without complaint?” The question heading is more like the answer.
Since this movie falls somewhere between video game and disaster movie, the standards are fairly low. However, a few things stand out:
  • An archeologist is digging, looking for something important, but finds a Pepsi bottle top instead. He stops digging. Gee, shouldn’t you keep digging?
  • The heroine talks about how the location they are going to is one of the coldest, most dangerous places on earth. But when they get there, everyone runs around with their faces exposed. Naturally we want to know who is being killed off. But shouldn’t the cannon fodder at least act chilly?
  • The shaft, which is suddenly drilled overnight, is at a “perfect 30 degree angle.” Why is that important? Would 27.5 degrees have been a “perfect 27.5 degree angle?”
  • At one point, when the walls start shifting, one of the archeologists decides it must happen every ten minutes, because the ancients used a metric system. Did they use metric minutes? Are minutes metric? Even if they used a metric system, why wouldn’t they pick, say, eleven minutes? After all, the thing is supposed to be a trap.
  • All the rest could be forgiven, small flaws that might show up much later. But the big finale comes when a large, probably empty, water-tank drops into the ocean, then sinks like a stone. Haven’t the filmmakers at least watched an episode of Will it Float? The problem is not one just for physics loving nerds. Anyone with common sense saw the water tower go into the water and thought “that’s going to float.” Maybe they could have shown it filled with lead or something, but then it couldn’t have stayed up on the wooden platform all those years, let alone be levered over by our heroine.

How many scenes were stolen from other movies?
Everybody copies. Sometimes we call it inspiration, sometimes a tribute. Sometimes we want to reexamine a theme. Often we think we could have done something better. But a lot of imitation is just a lack of imagination. Instead of creating a character, we steal one, change it a little, and let audience recognition fill in the background for us. Obviously, since that’s the theme of this movie, a few more stolen scenes shouldn’t bother us. Let’s list a few:
  • Initial climbing sequence, answering a cell-phone while on the side of a mountain, goes back to one of the original Star Trek movies, and was copied in MI-2.
  • Digging sequence, along with the way things are cut together, echo both The Exorcist and Close Encounters.
  • The ending is too much like Close Encounters for comfort.
  • The setting of the Antarctic whaling station is quite like John Carpenter’s The Thing.

Do chicks dig Man-eating Klingons with dread-locks?
Apparently. Warrior tattoos are a good ideas as well.

-daniel h. jeffers

Friday, July 15, 2005

Using History and Legend for Stories

Troy is an appallingly bad movie. At least to me. As I watched it grind through a sequence of plot points from a different time, a different day, using all of Hollywood’s tricks to add grandeur to a bunch of grown men running around in the sand with swords, I wondered if it would have been any good on its own. I mean, Scorpion King was certainly no better in any measurable way. In fact, in terms of acting, plot, story, sets, and scope, Scorpion King sucks way more than Troy. But Scorpion King is fun to watch, because it is what it is. Troy is Brad Pitt and a host of good-looking people trying to recreate medieval chivalry in an ancient Greek setting. To make sense of it, they invoke one of the oldest, most enduring epics in our literature.
Anyone who has ever marched through the book in an English course remembers the highlight, the section that made the professor grow excited. “And now we get to the Rage of Achilles.” Achilles is the ultimate Greek warrior, full of pride, skill, anger, and loyalty to himself. Good and Evil is defined purely in terms of his own ability to reach out, grab, and hold. Achilles had divine blood, and his version of honor is a form of worship of all things he holds. When Patroclus falls, it brings forth a righteous rage, a wrath which must be slaked with the blood of hundreds. Men not only die on the battlefield, captives are killed and thrown on Patroclus’ funeral pyre. Then Achilles goes off to kill Hector and drag the body seven times around the walls of the city.
Achilles’ rage is central to the nature of Achilles. Without it, he could be any of a million warriors over time who’ve killed their fellow man in the name of tribe, state, religion, pride, or even just homicidal instinct. The skill of Achilles is legendary, but in any warrior society there will always be one “greatest” warrior.
Brad Pitt stomps his foot and huffs a bit. He does put on his armor and calmly ride down to the city walls, where he challenges Hector to come out and fight him. All the press prior to the movie indicated that the film-makers where very, very proud of this section. The fighting was supposed to be well choreographed and dramatic, the background gave the simple fight the resonance of a duel that was not only historic, but legendary. The only thing missing was the rage.
Another movie that uses legend as source material is King Arthur. Like Dracula, this is a story that has gone through many versions, in print, on stage, and on screen. The latest version, directed by Antoine Fuqua, claims to be based on the “historical’ Arthur. What this apparently means is that they’ve stripped magic and the weight of destiny from the story we’re familiar with. Instead, we get a story supposedly placed near the end of the Roman occupation of Britain. This placement of the movie creates two powerful engines of expectation, dragging against the actual power of the movie itself.
The movie itself is a classic Hollywood epic, fully compliant with the conventions of heroism and sacrifice, beauty, principles, and love. The story is told adequately, the action is pretty good, and Keira Knightly manages to be very hot, especially for a woman who comes from a simple hunter-gathering society and then spends time locked in a dungeon. Then she gets covered in blue paint. The only thing that could make it better would be some nudity, at least in the “unrated” version. But no.
Still, the movie is unwatchable. The reference to the Legend of Arthur raises a standard of chivalry and nobility that nobody in the movie seems to even approach. The Legend of Arthur is about the creation of England, this story is about the rescuing of some villagers. The scope suffers by comparison. Also, maybe all that magic wasn’t real, but it’s a very real part of the story of Arthur. Without it, he’s just a guy with a sword.
The reference to an “historical” Arthur is equally destructive. The characters in this movie are melodramatically good and bad. The situations are artificial, from the timing of the discharges to the relationship between Arthur and the Picts. The story is decent, but doesn’t have the randomness, grittiness, or telling details of an authentic historical movie.
So why tie a movie to legend? Or to historical events that have become legend? One possibility is that the filmmaker wants the story itself. The fall of Troy is a legend because people love the story, both on a grand scale, and in the many little stories that surround it. Obviously you could write a fictional account of the struggle and fall of a walled city, but it takes time and there’s this one, just lying there, ready. Also, the back-story is familiar. Perhaps not to every viewer, but to enough that someone can fill in the gaps or at least say “yes, the book explains all that.” That doesn’t explain why you would take a story like Arthur, refer to it, then drop it entirely in favor of a more “historic” telling.
Another explanation is that the filmmaker wants to appeal to the cultural tropes and resonance of the legend itself. Arthur is the archetype for unifying kings. Achilles is the archetypal proud warrior. Taking on these legends is an almost irresistible challenge to the storyteller.
But the problem is that much of the source material is not sifted for a 21st century movie-going audience. Achilles not only “loves” his shield-bearer, he takes captive brides, sulks for years on end, and drags a corpse by its heels. The excuse that he is part divine doesn’t work with modern audiences.
The cynical answer is that filmmakers take on existing legends for the same reason that they take literary franchises to the big screen, built in audience. Every movie stands a better chance of bombing than succeeding. A built-in audience is a cushion, limiting the damage. This is why there are so many sequels and re-makes. Movies cost so much to make that cannibalizing the past is a way to cushion the investors from complete loss.
This decision probably isn’t made consciously. Filmmakers probably push a range of projects. But over time, the ones that attract investment and get greenlighted are more likely those that can show at least come guarantee of return. The return may not be in proportion to the cost of the project, either. Attaching a known literary or legendary source to a project might be enough to gain that early funding that gives films like Troy an advantage in getting made.