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GR Spirit of Vengeance

An impudently silly film, this fast-paced 2011 installment in the spooky Marvel Comics franchise is less fun than its predecessor, but never boring as it bowls from one preposterous action set piece into another and more or less captures the feel of a comic book, if not necessarily the grim Ghost Rider comics this reviewer remembers reading in childhood. (Did the hero really ever urinate like a flamethrower in the original stories, for instance?) Johnny Blaze, who shares his body with the titular demon, is a reluctant, tragic monster in the tradition of The Wolf Man; but Spirit of Vengeance makes clear from the outset that nobody involved in this project took it the least bit seriously.

Primarily, this film is a slick, snarling vehicle for a lot of unexceptional CGI, with an absurdly intense Nicolas Cage going bonkers in a sidecar. Cage, particularly during the comical transformation sequences, is at his manic, twitching, grimacing, growling best here, and his anguished delivery of “Scrapin’ at the door! Scrapin’ at the door!” simply has to be seen to be disbelieved. Violently beautiful Violante Placido contributes more than her share of production value as Nadya, “the devil’s baby mama”, mother to Danny (Fergus Riordan), who is being sought by devilish avatar Roarke (Ciaran Hinds) and also by a fanatical religious order led by the sinisterly tattooed Methodius (Christopher Lambert). The gimmicky, ADHD-afflicted visuals and Blade-style speed-up/slow-down action sequences get old quick, but the script contains a few laughs and the pace allows for little slack. Furthermore, Cage’s madcap performance makes this mandatory for his fans.

3 out of 5 stars. Ideological Content Analysis indicates that Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is:

11. Anti-green. A hippie van hypocritically expels billowing black exhaust, as does Ghost Rider’s motorcycle.

10. Gun-ambivalent. Firearms are deployed for evil, but also utilized by the heroes.  Gunrunning is mentioned as a seedy line of business (see also no. 1).

9. State-skeptical. Politicians are acolytes of the unholy.

8. Pro-drug. Johnny Blaze guzzles painkillers like jelly beans and requests morphine in a hospital. Secondary hero Moreau (Idris Elba) drinks heavily, but suffers no impairment of his combat-readiness.

7. Racist and anti-Semitic! Moreau embodies not only the magical Negro stereotype, what with his inside information on the supernatural goings-on, but also the venerable old sacrificial Negro. “The church of my masters is an ancient one,” says Moreau – but what would a modern emancipated black man be doing with “masters”? Also, Jew Jerry Springer is pictured as an incarnation of the devil. When are race-reactionary films like this one and Little Nicky going to see the light and stop stomping for the next Holocaust?

6. Antiwar. A montage evocative of the idea of corruption intercuts hundred-dollar bills with shots of soldiers, explosions, and street violence (cf. no. 3).

5. Family-ambivalent. The film’s celebration of Nadya’s choices constitutes an attack on the traditional family, with the father in this case being depicted literally as the devil. Blaze is dedicated to his father, however, and only contracted his curse to try to save the old man’s life.

4. Xenophobic. As in Cat Run (2011) and A Good Day to Die Hard (2013), Eastern Europe is home to mystery, intrigue, mercenaries, and violence. A chaotic, layered satanic “firewall” incantation more than once includes sounds that resemble “Allah”.

3. Anti-capitalistic. The devil, who dresses like a conservative businessman, wields his greatest power through “the deal”. A sleazy businessman abortively propositions Nadya, assuming that because she is a gypsy she must also be a prostitute. She and her son work as pickpockets, feeling no shame or remorse because their need, they feel, is greater and more important than that of the more affluent people they victimize. “Everyone’s robbing me. It makes my balls hurt,” says one representative of the business community in a line which suggests that, for the affluent, money substitutes for manhood. Villains include mercenaries and gunrunners.

2. Pro-slut/pro-bastard. Spirit of Vengeance presents a heroic image of the valiant single mother in Nadya, who refers to her bastard child as “the one good thing I ever did.” Murderous Methodius judgmentally slut-shames her, however.

1. Christ-ambivalent. Spirit of Vengeance, true to its title, takes place on a battlefield of spiritual warfare. Satan (as the Louvin Brothers proclaimed) is real! – and so, therefore, are angels. Moreau “would be dead if not for the intervention of God” and wears a cross as a sign of his faith, but the film’s attitude toward organized religion is critical. “Guns and wine. Naughty priests.” The religious order’s abortive execution of Danny is vaguely pedophilic and circle-jerky. Other irreverent items of interest are the line, “Merry Christmas, you asshole!” and the fact that Blaze, taking part in an informal communion, reports that the body of Christ tastes stale.

Apropos of no. 4, note how even a superficially cute Super Bowl candy commercial can be mobilized to assist in conditioning Americans to view Slavs and Russians specifically as their enemy.

 

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Cannibal Mercenary

Mercenary aka Cannibal Mercenary (1983) ****

This Thai film, titled to capitalize on the success of then-recent Italian gut-munching horrors Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and Cannibal Ferox (1981), finds a ragtag team of sleazy and mentally damaged mercenaries venturing into VC-infested territory to assassinate a drug kingpin who commands an army of “Draculas”, cannibal tribesmen sort of like Indochinese hillbillies.

Clearly inspired by Apocalypse Now (1979), Mercenary opens with post-traumatic battle flashbacks intermingled with a shot of a ceiling fan like the one that transfixes Martin Sheen. After a little hokey, English-dubbed melodrama to set the plot in motion, Mercenary gets down to business – and brutal, nasty business it is, with the outnumbered protagonists encountering the Viet Cong, quicksand, booby traps, and (speaking of booby traps) a treacherous, manipulative jungle bitch who threatens the cohesiveness of the group.

Idiosyncratically edited, Mercenary has scenes of high-stress, noisy, tension-ratcheting quick cuts that appear to be designed to strain the viewer’s nerves to the breaking point, such as when a henchman threatens to waste a whining kid and initiates a death countdown. Standout imagery includes a beheading, eye-gouging, maggot-eating, face-urinating, a skull being split open by a spike, and subsequent hungry brain-gobbling. Horror watchers will also enjoy the tacky, uncredited appropriation of Goblin’s music from Dawn of the Dead (1978). Recommended to cannibal movie videovores and other perverts, who, however, should not get their hopes up about seeing the pictured Aryan super soldier spring into battle, as no such figure appears in Mercenary, an all-Asian affair, alas.

4 out of 5 stars.

Devastator

The Devastator (1986) ****

Directed by low-budget action specialist Cirio H. Santiago, a master of what Joe Bob Briggs has termed the “exploding bamboo” subgenre, The Devastator is yet another generic 80s ‘Nam vet vigilante movie – or, in other words, a classic! Richard Hill, better known for playing the title part in Deathstalker (1983), stars as Deacon Porter, a vet who just wants to get on with his life, but finds himself thrust back into the fray when his old commanding officer is murdered. In the rural California community of King’s Ransom, drug lord Carey (Crofton Hardester) rules his roost with a hell-raising paramilitary force and even has the sheriff (Kaz Garas) on his payroll. When Deacon and a few of his ex-soldier buddies assemble in town, however, Carey’s days of 80s drug tyranny are numbered.

Not much in the way of plot, The Devastator is primarily wall-to-wall action – largely set to chintzy synthesizer music – with some truly impressive stunt work along the way. The most fun, however, is probably to be had from Deacon’s burly compatriot Ox (Jack Daniels!), a growling party animal who greets his old teammate by punching a hole through his door (!) and who clearly delights in over-the-top mayhem for the kicks. The villain has a healthy, thriving marijuana field, which, when Ox assaults it and sets it on fire, results in an even more humongous marijuana holocaust than the one in Up in Smoke (1978) – that, and a funny variation on Duvall’s famous line from Apocalypse Now (1979), with Ox taking big, deep breaths of the stuff and exulting like some victorious barbarian.

Rock-jawed Hill is only so-so in the charisma department, but with his muscular build the actor definitely has the look of the all-American action hero. Jack Daniels, as noted, is quite the hoot as Ox, while foxy item Katt Shea, who co-stars as Hill’s love interest, spunky gas pump attendant Audrey, would go on shortly after The Devastator to become a director of some note, creating stylish thrillers like Stripped to Kill (1987) and Streets (1990). The Devastator would make a perfect double feature with funky Gary Busey actioner Eye of the Tiger (1986), an entry to which this programmer bears a thematic resemblance. 

4 stars. Check it out!

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