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Great action animation
TMS produced this late 90's Canadian adaptation of an Argentinian comic and it shows. The silky smooth action animation rivals that of Batman TAS of the same period and this is the series' best aspect. Every episode features at least one elaborately staged and beautifully shot action set piece which would have been insanely complex and expensive to shoot live action. The look of the series is an odd mix of comic strip art - hairy arms are depicted as dark dashes! - with extraordinarily detailed backdrops. The city setting is a marvel in itself, a blend of the old world with its dilapidated opera house, narrow streets and open air market stalls and mad science cybernetic modern. A character appears to be strolling through MGM Paris of the 1930's only to run across a killer robot.
The stories never get quite as complex as the best of Batman TAS, but they are consistently well-plotted and watchable. Suspense abounds and there are some frightening moments, but no excessive violence amid the often wild action. The characters are a bit superficial and their interactions can be a bit simplistic but even this aspect of the show exceeds typical teen cartoon standards. The series' major theme is a positive one for young viewers, that even something created for bad purposes (such as the main character herself, a bio-cybernetic construct) is not inherently irredeemable. All shows should be this humane in this age of dark and gritty superheroics.
As of this writing, Cybersix is streaming on Tubi.
Neon City (1991)
Derivative movie is a mixed bag.
The setting is a Mad Max style post-apocalyptic disaster land where dogs are a food staple. The lawless Outland, basically everywhere that is not an indoor fortress, is overrun by outlaws called Skins who ride low-end motorbikes and kill everybody for no reason. The viewer is not informed as to where they get fuel, a key story point in Mad Max 2. The story begins at a Bartertown-clone outpost, where bounty hunter Harry Stark (Michael Ironside in the sort of role he was born to play) has to transport wanted fugitive Vanity to Neon City for trial. The trip will be made in an armored truck, and the passenger list includes a socialite (pre-Buffy Juliet Landau), a not very talented entertainer (WKRP's Richard Sanders), and Stark's ex-wife in a not at all contrived coincidence. Driving the truck is former NFL star Lyle Alzado as a character unimaginatively named Bulk. There are a a few other passengers who may not be exactly what they claim, adding intrigue to the journey out into a hostile and unforgiving land.
If this sounds like a setup for some kind of b-grade Stagecoach knock-off, well it is. On the plus side, the script is surprisingly good, with tight dialogue and sharply-drawn character business. This is unexpected in a low budget Max clone, most of which sound as if they were written by teenaged comic book nerds trying to sound tough, or (worse) by Italians who have never been to North America and have no idea how we talk. Yes, Antonio Margheriti, I am looking at you. The performances in Neon City are also surprisingly good, even from Vanity and Lyle. The drama plays out in logical and watchable fashion, uncommon in movies of this type where character interest is just filler between the action set pieces.
The good cast and script unfortunately cannot overcome the film's other shortfalls. The chase scenes are poorly staged and not very interesting to watch, a fact which demonstrates a lack of understanding of action movie priorities. Action fans will overlook bad acting and clunky dialogue in the service of an adrenaline fueled stunt extravaganza, but not the other way around. Additionally, the environmental threats along the way, particle storms and hot spots, could also have been better staged and are hurt by the film's low budget. Damnation Alley this is not, despite superficial similarities. There is a decent shootout at an outpost along the journey, but not much else of interest to action hounds.
Overall, Neon City is not a complete waste of time thanks to its cast and script, but has little to recommend itself as an actioner. It was directed by a TV actor and plays like a TV movie with some action movie business shoehorned in. There are much worse entries in this sub-genre to be fair. The JCVD vehicle Cyborg, for example, was certainly a waste of its admission price. But if you like Beyond Thunderdome, watch that, and if you like Stagecoach watch that. Do not settle for weak imitations.
Final Exam (1981)
How to make a slasher movie without really trying.
Nobody but Hitchcock fans watch thrillers for the art. Everyone else is looking for actual thrills. The slasher cycle began with Halloween, and John Carpenter provided the blueprint for the imitations that followed - suspense, jump scares, false frights that turn out to be nothing, doom-laden musical notes... The mechanics of the low-budget thriller are familiar and easily achieved.
Final Exam borrows a few tried and true items from Halloween's box of tools. The killer is shot from the waist down or partially screened by trees to appear remote and menacing. Bright light glints off a bloody blade on an otherwise dark night. But the little here fails to actually generate suspense. The viewer is merely reminded that suspense-building is a necessary element of the process. The problem is that the building blocks of a slasher film are too thinly spread and separated by long stretches of time spent among poorly drawn and uninteresting characters. This is a common fault in slasher movies but one which can be at least partially offset by lively pacing and occasional action. Unfortunately, the film's pace is leaden and what little action occurs is so poorly staged that it fails to excite a viewer perpetually starved for distraction.
This is Final Exam's fatal fault. Nobody renting a slasher movie is expecting character interest on the level of The Big Chill or the epic sweep of The Godfather. The viewer's expectations are already modest. But providing more stimulation than what is minimally required to keep the viewer awake should not represent undue hardship for a slasher movie's creator.
No thriller worth the name should be this boring. Cinematic entertainment needs to be entertaining. Writer-director Jimmy Huston clearly slept through the lesson in film school that emphasized keeping things moving along.
The Million Eyes of Sumuru (1967)
Entertaining if you don't try to make sense of it
Sax Rohmer's adventure novels often had a rambling quality to them, but this adaptation wanders so far afield at times that trying to keep track of who is manipulating whom and for what reason is likely to leave you with a headache. Canadian-born director Lindsay Shonteff was best known as the creator of The Second Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World (1965), which launched him into a career mostly spent helming spy spoofs. This a great-looking example of the form, exotically set and played dead straight by its cast as they toss off action movie quips that would make Ahnold blush. To call the resulting comedy throw away would be almost too kind, but the movie's mix of cringy lines and bat bleep craziness has undisputable power as entertainment and deserves to be seen at least once by collectors of so weird it's fun cinema. It holds up surprisingly well to repeated viewing, mostly since after one screening the viewer no longer feels a necessity to make rational sense of it all and gives up to just enjoy the whole crazy ride.
Honestly, you could give this thing the What's Up Tiger Lily treatment - overdubbing random dialogue for a nonsense plot - with no wackier result than this movie achieved on its own.
Lady Ice (1973)
Strictly for Jennifer O'Neill fans
Jennifer O'Neill became a star as the distant object of Gary Grimes' voyeuristic attention in the wonderfully nostalgic Summer of '42. That film showed that she could be captivating when viewed from afar, but her career went off the rails while she was still in her twenties owing to a shortage of technical chops. Simply put, she had the looks of a movie star but not the presence. Here we see Jennifer driving around Miami in a 1970 Maserati Ghibli, taking a late night swim, sunning herself in a bikini, flying off to the Bahamas... Mansions, speedboats, planes and jewels provide the rest of Lady Ice's eye candy. It's all very appealing to look at, but herein lies the problem. The movie is all surface gloss with nothing underneath to drive the wheels. Someone forgot to tell the producers that heist movies are crime thrillers, and crime thrillers are plot driven. They need tight pacing, high stakes, plot twists, none of which appear in this film. The only action is provided by a little routine fast driving. Otherwise, everything meanders along in predictable fashion. Some greedy people are interested in some jewels. No surprises here.
The producers could have recut Lady Ice as a four minute music video or an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and lost nothing.
Must viewing for James Ellroy fans
Daddy-O is another in a very long line of Juvie D / rock and rollers that tried to look like an Elvis picture from a distance. Shot for only $100 grand on cheap sets and with few professional actors, the film makes King Creole look like Cabaret. Daddy-O would be just another badly dated grade Z picture but for one thing: Dick Contino's Blues. James Ellroy watched this clumsy oldster and then wrote a richly detailed -and thoroughly speculative - account of Contino's participation in the film while tracking a serial killer! The story is an action comedy masterpiece and to actually watch Daddy-O after reading DC Blues is like finding lost gold. The movie is admittedly pretty bad. Contino plays a singing truck driver (get it? Elvis drove a truck before he became famous) who meets a platinum bad girl out on the highway and finds his life spiralling downward. The songs are terrible, a shame really since Contino had a legitimate reputation as a musician, and the characters range from bland to dislikeable, with the exception of the myopic gym manager who is flat out wacky. The crime plot involves drug running, supposedly, although by the hour mark no drugs have actually been moved anywhere. With little story or character interest to engage the audience, there is not much to do except laugh at the dated hipster expressions, groan over the awful song numbers and wonder why Contino's pants are up near his ribcage. But watching the movie as a story within Dick Contino's Blues makes for a rich experience. The viewer sympathizes with Contino for having to take work which was so obviously beneath his musical talents, owing to the damage his reputation suffered following an accusation that he was a draft dodger. (He wasn't but the papers failed to tell the whole story.) Contino himself was not a good enough actor to save a film this hokey, plus he was five years older than Elvis and getting too long in the tooth to be a convincing Juvie D. But wondering how he found the time to play amateur sleuth amidst all of this - assuming that any part of Ellroy's crazy caper was even a little bit true - makes this a truly special movie.
The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961)
Horror thriller without the thrills
An atomic blast turns Tor Johnson into, well... Tor Johnson in a ripped shirt. He then wanders the desert. A couple of lost kids also wander the desert, and so does their dad and a pair of deputies. Other than that, nothing much happens. Like other Coleman Francis movies, this one plays like it was actually a much longer movie and all of the interesting stuff was cut out. A Soviet scientist arrives in the US carrying defence secrets. We see him arrive by plane and depart in a car. In another movie, this would be filler. To Coleman Francis this is plot. We get endless scenes of people getting into cars and driving away, or parking cars and getting out. But then nothing happens. People look around, say nothing of value, and then leave, or the film cuts away. Often we don't even have dialogue, just an off screen narrator paraphrasing what characters say. We get sixty minutes of filler and no action. Two KGB agents have followed the scientist with orders to retrieve the stolen secrets. The viewer expects some sort of cold war thriller plot to develop, but the blast that turns Tor into a beast also kills the KGB men and burns up the secrets. We are ten minutes into the movie and have been stiffed on what looked like some actual plot development and this pattern continues. Characters are introduced who don't do much. Murders occur but there is little investigation of them. What we get is the filler. Francis clearly thought that having somebody get into a car and drive away satisfied the action requirements for a thriller, and having Tor spread his hands wide and growl like an animal covered the horror part. In this he was mistaken. Maybe he also thought that keeping the audience guessing as to whether anything that happened in the movie actually mattered constituted suspense. He's dead, and we can't ask him. Some bad movies make you laugh at their ineptitude, while others make you want to strangle their creators. This one just makes you sleepy. The title and box art for the movie suggest a drive-in creature feature, but even as a grade z movie it fails, since there is nothing campy here: no bad special effects or overwrought performances or shameless exploitation, none of the usual elements of a good bad movie. What we get is an hour of watching people wander randomly in the desert, and it's exactly as entertaining as it would be to do that yourself. I gave it two stars for being marginally more watchable than Red Zone Cuba, and for possible value as a non-narcotic sleep aid.
The Slime People (1963)
One of the least competently made movies ever
If ever a movie served as an object lesson that film is a visual medium and must be treated as such, this is the one. It begins with a series of spoken news reports about the arrival of subterranean monsters in L.A. Since four of the five main characters in the story have lived through these events, there should be no reason to gather them together to screen news items about the monsters, but it kills a few minutes of running time, so... The characters then spend several minutes talking, followed by several minutes of driving. The viewer begins to wonder whether this creature feature will ever feature any actual creatures. In fact, the early part of the movie feels like a radio play, with the actors being filmed as they give their lines. And the dialogue bits go on seemingly forever.
Once the (minimal) action gets going, the thick fog (created by the monsters to cool L.A.'s hot climate and make it livable) obscures much of what is going on. The fog is obviously intended to cover up the movie's cheap production values, but mostly it just makes everything even harder to watch. The visual style has evolved from casual minimalism to ocular strain inducing. Not that blowing aside the fog would have made it much better. Every aspect of the movie comes off as shoddy in the lowest sense. The plot was poorly thought out and the action poorly staged. Little that happens moves the story ahead, makes any logical sense or generates interest. The average student film shows more evidence of thought and planning. The characters are unappealingly dull, and most of their interactions seem pointless and go nowhere. The locations add nothing of interest. The lighting, editing and camera direction seem outright amateurish, about on the level of a locally made infomercial. What little budget existed went toward the creature costumes. These are mildly imaginative, but not very scary.
As entertainment, even bad entertainment, absolutely nothing gets achieved here. There are not even any unintentional laughs. All a viewer can expect to get out of this movie is a mild case of eye strain and an appreciation for the cinematic lavishness of The Blair Witch Project.
Not so bad it's good, just bad.
Some bad movies, such as Showgirls or Mommie Dearest, become camp classics over time as people come to forgive their shortcomings, and just groove on their excesses. That a movie as famously bad as Glitter has not entered this realm of camp, even after fifteen years, is telling. It tells us that Glitter commits a higher sin than being bad. It is boring. And derivative. And staggeringly incompetent. It was assembled by c-list writers and a TV director, none of whom had much idea how to gain a viewer's attention, and less idea how to hold it. Scene composition is flat and dull, evoking memories of bad holiday TV movies, while failing to establish intimacy with the characters or goings on, even in close up. Early scenes feature a hazy or gauzy look, no doubt to recall Hollywood's golden age, but that simply succeeds in making the movie look trite and derivative, rather than classic. It also makes it look as if the set decorator forgot to dust. The club scenes feature a color palette straight out of Blade Runner, just not as cheery. Every creative element in Glitter has the look of something borrowed from another (better) movie. And the less said about the bizarre, almost random editing choices the better. Every scene transition is another wtf moment.
Story and script construction are uniformly terrible. Scenes begin, stuff happens, scenes end... and NOTHING carries over. There is no continuing thread here of any kind - no overall character arc, no central theme, no ongoing visual motifs outside of the movie's hilariously inaccurate 80's fashion sense. Everything that happens seems utterly pointless, just a string of clichés recycled from old movies in which the chorus girl gets her big break. Glitter's brain-dead script gives none of its performers, not even once by accident, anything original or clever to say, nor any awareness of the storyline's utter inanity, making it increasingly difficult for the viewer to connect with the drama. And then we come to the Razzie-winning central 'performance'. La Carey could have been replaced by a Miss Piggy doll and the central role would have had more animation. Mariah's singular expression of vague incomprehension never changes, not even when gangster Terrence Howard grabs her face! To be fair she is not Glitter's only zombie marionette. Outside of Ann Magnusson's over-the-top pr woman, no actor in Glitter's 100 minute running time seems committed to being in any way memorable. A cynical person might suggest that they did this so that they could keep Glitter off their resumes without fear of contradiction. The result is a movie that defies any viewer to keep paying attention to it. You find yourself wanting to make a salad or do your taxes while the movie is playing, anything so that the time spent watching it is not a total waste.
This brings us to the music. Hollywood seems to have forgotten that the most important element in any musical is music, despite the fact that the word is right there in the name of the genre. Grease turns into a pretty bad movie whenever the singing stops and The Bodyguard is only marginally better. Both were huge hits however, and the fact that their soundtracks went multi-platinum was not a coincidence. Purple Rain features some downright cringe inducing 'acting' by Prince and Appolonia, but redeems itself time and time again with great musical performances. Viewers will put up with so-so filler in a musical as long as the songs entertain and remain in the mind after the credits roll. Glitter, unfortunately, features Mariah's worst ever (and worst selling) album at its core. Not only are the musical sequences not entertaining on their own, but they also make it hard for the viewer to swallow the idea that fictional Mariah would become a superstar on the strength of them, since actual established star Mariah could not manage to peddle them in real life. Thus, the fictional Mariah fails to engage as a performer, the actual Mariah fails to cross over into Hollywood despite having great singing talent and only having to play a person with singing talent, and even the spectacle of these failures fails to entertain on the basic level of a train wreck.
Glitter simply cannot provide an adequate reason to exist. Mariah's musical ability has already been showcased in a long succession of music videos, to better effect, and so we don't need Glitter for that. Rags to riches musical biographies have been done to death, so we hardly need another. The Girl in the Gold Boots told substantially the same story to drive-in goers fifty years ago! Heck, 42nd Street wore out this clichéd genre in 1933. If Glitter's only purpose was to act as a 100 minute commercial for its own soundtrack, as the Pokemon cartoons are simply ads for Pokemon toys, it fails there too, since it makes these crummy songs even less palatable in context than they would be standing on their own. So why does Glitter still exist? Was it financed by someone with a grudge against Mariah Carey, and she never caught on that she was being pranked until after its release? As a practical joke played on a gullible and vain pop diva, Glitter is pure malevolent genius. If, however, we were meant to have taken it seriously, then it's just a really, thoroughly worthless movie.
Poll question: Which pop diva embarrassed herself worst? JLo in Gigli, Jessica in The Dukes of Hazzard, Britney in Crossroads, Clarkson in From Justin to Kelly or Mariah in this piece of drek? I vote Mariah in a close race.
Get a grip people
Amazingly, this movie was given a theatrical release, rather than being disposed of as hazardous waste. Even more amazing is the fact that it actually has defenders. There are those who believe that this movie is harmless fun, when in fact you would have to be one of the hysterically laughing stoners from Reefer Madness to find it at all entertaining. A failed internet stunt is less painful than sitting through this mess, and no more likely to leave you with brain damage.
Bud and Doyle are our two everyman heroes, assuming every guy is a nitwit with no job and Joey Lauren Adams for a girlfriend. And like the rest of us nitwits, Bud and Doyle just want to party while the Earth goes to hell on a fast train. There is a potential cautionary tale about environmental awareness in there somewhere, but it gets lost amidst our duo's goofy but unfunny antics. Bud and Doyle make the cast of Jackass look like Laurel and Hardy by comparison.
After a few misunderstandings and much time-wasting non-hilarity, our duo find themselves locked in a sealed environment with five scientists who are studying environmental sustainability. Two of the scientists are played by popstar Kylie Minogue and former model Dara Tomanovich, and if I ever find out which graduate school they attended, I may go back to school. But our boys just want to have dumb fun and proceed to trash the place. Again, the idea that this whole movie might actually be a social allegory about man partying over Mother Nature's deathbed may occur to those viewers who are still aware of their surroundings, but it quickly gets lost thanks to several long scenes involving Pauly Shore not being funny.
This whole business goes on for ninety fairly painful minutes. You can usually tell whether a movie succeeded as entertainment by watching the audience as it leaves the theatre. If a movie is a think piece, everybody looks thoughtful. Patrons of comedies tend to leave in an upbeat mood. The audience for Bio Dome looked lobotomized. The best part of the movie was that it did not end with a title card that read Pauly Shore Returns In...
The Room (2003)
Wow. DIY cinema.
Apparently the aliens from Contact who watch our TV broadcasts and try to find ways to respond to us have been eyeing late night cable drams with "sin" or "temptation" in the title and this is what they sent back. Or else the kids from the remedial English class got their hands on a camcorder and decided to make an internet sex tape, and the aliens from Contact were watching that...
If anybody has a better explanation for how a movie like this, a movie with no conception of human behavior or interactions on any level could exist, I would love to hear it. Even the worst movie makers manage to hit a correct dramatic note every once in a while by sheer statistical accident. But here, the writing and acting manage to fail with such unerring consistency that it is almost an achievement. Words such as 'surreal' do not begin to describe the experience of watching this movie. Its sheer terribleness on every possible creative level exceeds description. If you took ninety minutes of clips from a South American soap opera, spliced them together in random order and got blind street junkies to come with dubbed dialogue, you would still have a more coherent drama. The Room is so totally bad for every moment of its running time that it becomes a master class on cinematic ineptitude. The dialogue is awful, yet the actors still manage to make it seem much worse than it is by mistiming lines and giving inappropriate responses throughout the movie. The pacing of every scene, every exchange, seems off. And despite a reported budget of $6 million (??!) everything looks cheap and hurried, like a film class project that was left to the last minute.
The story construction is so inept that almost nothing that happens pushes the story forward, and virtually none of the plot threads get resolved. In fact, most of them are mentioned once and never come up again. Early on, for example, the mother casually discloses that she has cancer, and that is all we ever hear about it. This however is the film's secret virtue. When no plot point is important or connected to anything else in the movie, the viewer is free to play connect the dots.
For instance, Johnny's announcement that he failed to get a promotion at his bank shows his underachievement in the financial world. As financiers are sometimes called 'big swinging d*cks', this could be hinting that Johnny is underachieving anatomically as well. This would explain Lisa' perpetual dissatisfaction with him. Or perhaps Lisa' attitude is actually outwardly redirected self-loathing over all of the Weight Watchers meetings she has been missing. Mark's perpetual surprise over how Lisa's undressing indicates that she wants sex and not something else could be masking his own disappointment that she wasn't handing him her clothes to put on for some cross dressing role play. Such disappointment would go far in explaining the sternness of Mark's resistance to her chubby charms. Danny's drug purchase explains his apparent disconnection from reality throughout the film. The kid is clearly on goofballs. Has the mother's cancer spread to her brain? Memory impairment might explain why she keeps having the same conversations over and over. These are all ripe food for thought, and The Room's arthritic pacing gives the viewer plenty of opportunities to toss them around like footballs thrown by guys in tuxedos.
Just about the most generic movie I have ever seen
If you have ever wondered how many clichés one movie can contain, this movie may have set the record. The leading character, played by ex-Ryan Seacrest gf Jasmine Waltz, is an FBI agent who gets no respect in her male dominated workplace. Her latest assignment is to investigate the deaths of two border patrol cops down in a remote stretch of Florida swampland. The local sheriff's department has clearly never worked a major crime, since when our intrepid Fed shows up she finds that none of them thought to bring a camera to a crime scene! Two shady scientists claiming to be working on a secret project then arrive, and a monster hunt begins.
There are no surprises here and no originality, just a recycling of every creature feature story device we all grew up with. The movie's way of saving money on monster effects: show the victims screaming and then shake the camera so vigorously that nothing can be clearly seen until after the creature attack has ended. Saw that before too.
Jasmine herself is watchable as eye candy, and the movie succeeds as drive in level genre entertainment, assuming the viewers are drunk enough to be past the point of effective aesthetic judgement of its shortcomings. Other reviewers have remarked on the awful sound recording, and it is true that the dialogue is often drowned out by the wind or passing mosquitoes. This, however, given the uneven quality of the scripting, is not necessarily a bad thing.
Kill Me If You Can (1977)
Slightly dishonest but excellent retelling of a famous story
Caryl Chessman, in 1960, was one of the last Americans executed for crimes other than murder. While on death row, he wrote a celebrated book and became the face of the anti-death penalty movement.
Alan Alda strikes a convincing note as the cocky Caryl Chessman, convicted and sentenced to death in a string of crimes known as the Red Light Bandit attacks. The movie's creators, however, cheat a bit by making Chessman a little too sympathetic. Alda throws a chair across a room to show his frustration in one scene, but the film stops short of showing just how confrontational and difficult to like Chessman was in real life. Chessman was a brilliant writer, but anyone carefully reading his books sees a fundamentally dishonest and manipulative sociopath behind the clever prose. He proclaims his innocence of the crimes, yet never bothers to account for why their pattern so closely matches his own descriptions of his earlier exploits that landed him in Folsom Penitentiary. Had the film gone in for more of a warts and all approach to the character, it would have succeeded at being at least less dishonest than its subject.
That said, the film accurately captures its period and brings out the many details in Chessman's trial that seemed to indicate that it was something less than fair. The film tiptoes around the central issue of Chessman's guilt, portraying the Red Light Bandit crimes in flashback without showing the identity of the perpetrator. But his fight for fair treatment by the justice system, guilty or not, makes for strong cinema. This movie is definitely worth a watch, however one might view its protagonist's guilt.
Derivative but entertaining
This is not a good film. It is however, a GREAT bad film, which explains why many reviewers who remember it fondly have given it higher ratings than it merits on its face value.
The cast try hard, but other than Klaus Kinski, a great actor who can do creepy Germans in his sleep, nobody manages a performance that comes off as wholly authentic. The shrieky script plays at a daytime drama level. The model effects are anything but special. And most significant, nearly every plot device in the movie is ripped off from some other (much better) movie. The landing sequence is almost a shot by shot steal from Alien, the finding of the monster scene reminds the viewer immediately of the original version of The Thing, and other moments feel lifted from It! The Creature from Beyond Space. Story-wise there is little here we have not seen before.
Yet, somehow the whole rises above its elements and manages to entertain anyway. The pacing is consistently brisk and the story doesn't lag, at least not after the first twenty minutes we spend with the crew. The gore effects are genuinely shocking. And the cheesy model effects are forgivable by anyone alive during the 80s. Pre-CGI has its nostalgic qualities. The movie's total lack of pretentiousness is actually a virtue. It's a b-movie with a hand me down plot which never tries to claim otherwise.
Empire of Ash (1988)
Bottom of the barrel post apocalypse trash
Folks looking for Empire of Ash I should be aware that E of A II is not a higher gloss remake of the first, like The Evil Dead II. This movie actually IS E of A One, with a different title on the VHS box. As methods for cutting down the cost of a sequel, that one has to take first prize.
Anyway, Empire of Ash II played frequently on Canadian pay TV channels back in the 80s, as it qualified as local content thanks to being shot on location here. On a story concept level, it actually has some intriguing conceits. Two opposing groups have arisen from the flames of our dead civilization: a group led by scientists who are using captives to create a treatment for those stricken by radiation sickness, and a group of religious fundamentalists led by a loony preacher. Into this world stumble two sisters, and one is taken captive. The older sister, who just happens to have kick butt combat skills, enlists the aid of a couple of free living survivalists to retrieve her sibling. The result is a series of gun battles with both groups of crazies. For an 80s era shoot 'em up, this is not a bad foundation upon which to build. Moreover, the technical level of the movie is no worse than is typical for an exercise of this budget range. Lighting, video and sound recording were at least adequate to follow the action.
Unfortunately, the movie's execution falls far short of its ambitions. The story plays out in a hatchet-chopped fashion, with the action sequences lacking sharp form and dovetailing poorly one with the next. The dialogue is terrible and often makes little sense and the performances are all over the place. This tells me that either the script was being rewritten on the fly, or the creators had no idea how to shape a film, or more likely both. When working with a nothing budget and semi-pro actors, a sure directorial hand, good pre-production planning and effective rehearsals are essential and none of this is in evidence.
The action scenes themselves, the point of the movie in other words, are also of very inconsistent quality, and range downward from not bad to will-somebody-tell-me- wth-is-going-on? In certain scenes, the viewer is required to expend more energy trying to keep straight who is doing what and where than is justified by the underwhelming thrills. The lead actress, Melanie Kilgour, tries hard to keep the viewer watching, but frankly deserved better.
The only reason to watch this backyard movie making mess is to set up the more watchable sequel, E of Ash III.
Big Meat Eater (1982)
Other reviewers need a sense of perspective
I like to use this picture to demonstrate the fallacy of imitative form: mere awareness of a picture's kitschy origins or its own camp qualities are not themselves a virtue. If you set out to ape bad alien sci fy, and don't add anything into the mix that is on its own clever or funny or in some way entertaining, you just wind up with bad alien sci fy. Repo Man managed to be a true original, while casting a wink at its drive in antecedents. Big Meat Eater is just on par with its earlier influences, and in no way transcends them.
On its merits, BME is a terribly cheap and shoddy looking picture. The plotting is so random and haphazard that nothing that happens in the film seems in any way organically related to anything else that happens. One scene just stops and another starts up somewhere else. To call the effect incomprehensible is to suggest that BME merits comprehending. It doesn't. It's not a clever send-up, just cheap silly nonsense that somebody put together on a zero budget. It generates little conventional b-movie sizzle, in that there is little suspense, surprise or originality. It isn't even all that amusing as Bad Movie Note entertainment, in that its crazy grab bag of a plot fails to actually pull the viewer along. Random silly stuff just happens, and then more random silly stuff happens.
Get a grip guys. This is not a 10 of a movie despite some of the ratings above. It's just a cheap, backyard production put together in some sleepy Canadian burg by amateurs who watched a lot of bad creature features and wanted to make their own.
The Cutter (2005)
A 1985 action flick made twenty years too late.
60ish Chuck Norris plays a retired cop and finder of abducted persons in this paint by numbers 1985 action flick which had the bad luck to have been made in 2005. Seriously, it was as if the creators were either blissfully or wilfully unaware that twenty years of cinema had passed under the bridge. Did somebody win an old Chuck Norris script in a storage locker auction and decide to shoot the thing? The generic looking vehicle chases and punch-ups would have been nothing special back in the days of Good Guys Wear Black, but coming in the wake of modern action opuses like The Matrix they seem downright anachronistic, like somebody starting a Nascar race in a Stutz Bearcat. Even the bad guys - an incognito Nazi war criminal and a black clad soldier of fortune seem badly dated.
At least the producers had the good taste to give Chuck age-appropriate female friends (Joanna Pakula and Tracy Scoggins); watching younger actresses cozy up to sexagenarian Chuck would have been just too icky.
Joan of Arc (1999)
A lot of reviewers loathed this film
...but it still made interesting viewing. More biographies of Jeanne d'Arc exist than of any other person, and any attempt to portray her rather incredible life as France's greatest heroine and martyr on film can expect to encounter a similarly large number of second-guessers. This is precisely what happened when this picture came out. Reviewers went on at length about what the picture should have been about, and how Joan should have been portrayed (and by whom), leaving readers to wonder what they thought of the picture that HAD been made. This tendency to review the picture they wish had been made is a classic failing in many critics and this picture seemed to bring it out especially often.
The picture that Luc Besson made here deserves to be appreciated on its own merits. It is visually stunning, rousingly action-packed, and full of interesting period details. Yes, casting his supermodel wife Milla Jovovich in the lead was a risky choice, as her looks were hardly those of a typical medieval peasant. Yes, her performance did not resonate with the period the way one by a more classically trained actress might, although she was clearly never trying to be Ingrid Bergman. Still, Milla's hyperactive personality made her interesting and watchable as a historical person about whom so much has been written, who nonetheless existed so far back in the past that she lacks a strongly identifiable humanity. When somebody makes a better statue than a person, as Joan does from a contemporary viewpoint, odd casting choices can be forgiven if they work. Milla's twisty mannerisms, rolling eyes and whispery speech give the viewer constant occasions to ponder just how much of Joan's fanaticism came from genuine devotion to God and the church and how much was just an under-medicated personality disorder. This is actually one of the key scholarly issues surrounding Joan's life, and the picture brings it to the fore in its latter part as Joan herself tries to come to terms with her own claims of divine communication by means of a debate with Dustin Hoffman as her confessor-priest/conscience. That Besson takes no particular viewpoint here is an interesting choice, and one which actually helps the viewer to understand why Joan's story has compelled so many generations of historians.
The political aspects of Joan's life and legend were also dealt with in a nicely balanced fashion. Like many figures in times when political and national alliances changed with the seasons, Joan herself blew back and forth between being tremendously useful to the French throne at times and dangerously inconvenient at others. Fame is a powerful commodity at any time, and the picture carefully tracked the rise and fall of Joan's fortunes as she watched hers be manipulated, leveraged and ultimately put on trial.
I thought a lot of The Messenger and recommend it. Religious and historical scholars are advised to approach with caution.
Nice moody atmosphere, little plot.
The grim, dim urban decay around Manhattan's grungier edges holds a secret: animal attacks by apparent packs of wild dogs may actually be werewolf attacks. This aspect of the film is obvious to the viewer - heck, it's written on the box - yet it takes a good part of the film before the principles even begin to suspect the truth. It then takes forever before they act and even then little happens. Really, the plot gets doled out by the teaspoon here. Any viewer looking for action/horror is advised that this particular picture doesn't have much of either.
That said, there is still a lot to like here. At a time (the early 80s) when new low budget horror movies were getting released every week despite almost a total lack of cinematic art, the dark, almost film noir, look and mood of the film are consistently rich and interesting. Eerie pools of streetlight, sudden shocking howls and fast moving cameras chasing nothing very distinct effectively generate suspense and an atmosphere of dread early on, and maintained throughout by scattered moments of general creepiness, again nothing obvious or distinct, but enough to keep the audience uneasy. Basically it works as a mood piece.
Ashton Kutcher is no Pierce Brosnan.
A pretty young woman marries a mysterious man on the rebound and then finds out he's a former government assassin, and more assassins are after him. Sound familiar? Yep, this movie's pedigree could not be more obvious if they called it Mr. and Mrs. Smythe...
Anyway, action comedies rely on a few things to succeed: good action sequences, charismatic stars and funny dialogue. Here we get one of three. The fight scenes are pretty well-staged, while the chases range from very good to merely ho-hum, and there are none of the really elaborate knock-your-eyes-out stunts that a viewer sometimes encounters in these pictures. Moreover, the action scenes are played brutally straight and get far too gruesome to really fit the tone of a rom-com. And speaking of things that don't work together, as a screen couple, Kutcher and Heigl just don't sizzle. Kate is again playing the same gorgeous but slightly neurotic character as in The Ugly Truth and every other movie she'd made in the previous several years. She needs a new shtick. The script - which features no more than maybe two light chuckles and no big laughs - provides next to no help. The supporting characters are uniformly unfunny and unappealing. And least of all there is Ashton Kutcher. Ashton wants to be Pierce Brosnan , but comes off as more of a goofy frat boy version of George Lazenby. In The Ugly Truth, KH at least had Gerry Butler to play off. How Kutcher got to be a movie star is downright baffling. He works fine in sit-coms, but simply lacks the personality and chops to carry a movie of this kind. Watching him trying to be charming or romantic here is a fairly excruciating experience. On the plus side, some of the scenery is nice (It's set in Nice, get it? Okay, moving along...) and the lead pair are attractive to look at, but that's about all. A movie this is lightweight and generic normally goes direct- to-video. $75 million should buy a lot more in the way of originality or cleverness.
More Pulp Fiction fallout
The late 90's brought several post Pulp Fiction wannabes (Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead, 2 Days in the Valley) in which unsavory characters cross paths and get tangled up in one another's schemes and some even occasionally find redemption. Aww... And this is another.
Craig Sheffer stands out as a merciless thug due for a comeuppance, who kidnaps a drug chemist (Lucy Liu) in the first of many messy criminal schemes which unravel due to bad luck, bad planning and mostly just bad timing. The bad timing bug hits a philandering spouse, whose punishment rapidly outstrips his crime, and then others who similarly come to grief in random and often comic ways.
The film is a very mixed bag of mostly unlikable characters and squirm- inducing scenes, but its sheer random unpredictability makes it at least somewhat watchable. Don't even try to guess where any of the plot lines are heading or what will happen next. Chances are you will be wrong.
Non-baseball people will still enjoy this movie...
...since its dramatic elements are universal: an underdog takes on the established rich and the comfortably smug and beats them by changing the rules of the game.
Baseball was fertile terrain for this, since sport even at the highest professional level is notoriously anti-intellectual and conservative. Baseball men would rather underachieve than face ridicule from their peers by rejecting common practice. This is made clear early in the film. Baseball scouts and front office personnel are shown to be making decisions on team makeup in an ad hoc, seat of the pants fashion that disappeared in most other enterprises with the coming of the information age. But any battle against established wisdom and entrenched power has heroic qualities and makes for compelling drama. Baseball just happened to be the venue this time out.
The story: after losing key players to richer organizations after the 2002 season, Oakland GM Billy Beane faced the same to succeed as them but with less resources. He needed a cheaper product. His response quietly revolutionized baseball by challenging conventional wisdom about player evaluation and showing it up. The fact that the 'moneyball' approach is now almost universal in pro baseball gives the film's subject the weight of historic interest, but even if the experiment had failed the mission itself was heroic and historic.
Brad Pitt, creates a full bodied performance as Beane, a man risks his career and reputation to implement his quiet revolution, while dealing with the fact of a failed playing career and a failed marriage with as much dignity and practicality as he can, and without turning his experiment into a quest. Beane's passion for the game drives him forward without blinding him to the fact that he is running an experiment that might fail. He weathers a storm of opposition and ridicule from others around baseball, from a skeptical and misinformed media, and even within the ranks of even his own team, while he (and the audience) watch the season play out.
Jonah Hill successfully underplays a bright outsider on the fringes, whose insights into the game career baseball men won't admit exceed their own, and who serves as the catalyst and caretaker of the Moneyball experiment. Robin Wright strikes the perfect note as the ex-wife who bears Beane no ill will but who has nonetheless moved on with her life. Beane's personal drama is past, but the big public one playing out everyday in the sports pages should be enough conflict for anybody, including the audience.
Hell Comes to Frogtown (1988)
Strictly for collectors of outrageous movie premises.
The story: Roddy Piper is the last sexually potent man on earth and the now female-dominated military has to drive him into a post-holocaust wasteland to impregnate fertile women. Really. Not making this up.
There is actually a halfway decent B-movie script here. Unfortunately the 'actors' in this movie don't do it justice with their mostly amateurish performances. Cec Verrell is spot on as a bad girl soldier, but Sandahl Bergman is a better dancer than an actress and rassler Roddy Piper is from the bargain basement of action stars. Also, the budget for vehicles and stunt drivers must have been very low, resulting in some not very exciting two vehicle or one-vehicle-chasing-a-pedestrian (!) chase scenes. Road Warrior this isn't. Some pretty good makeup effects were employed, and so the denizens of Frogtown look pretty good, and there are some genuine laughs in the dialogue. But low expectations are a must for anyone looking for a good time here.
Key: The Metal Idol (1994)
Must viewing anime.
The Pinocchio-esque Key, an android whose creator has been murdered, leaves her idyllic small town to travel to the big city in order to discover her purpose, despite having been raised in isolation and thus having never acquired a normal set of social or emotional responses, let alone anything like urban survival skills. Her responses to what happens to her in the saga of misadventures and heartbreaks that follow are uniquely innocent verging on messianic, in this beautifully drawn, sadly compelling, very unusual anime series.
After so many soulless fighting giant robot adventures, it is refreshing to watch a series which makes a technological creation so intimate and heartfelt and which focuses on personal existential growth rather than just using cutting edge robot technology to bash stuff.
Highly recommended, especially in its original Japanese.
A Fine Madness (1966)
Fun social satire made redundant by One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
The idea that free-spirited creativity is a social disorder that must be cured by a well-meaning but thoroughly incompetent psychiatric establishment is the theme here, and one quite familiar to anybody who has seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Sean Connery was a great choice to play a blocked, womanizing writer at the core of the drama and he centers the film with his amiable exuberance. Comparisons to Cuckoo's Nest are inevitable, and this film lacks the other's stifling power and resonance, but it shares a common vision of the psychiatric profession acting as a microcosm of authoritarian abuses in society at large. Still, this is a funny and charming, much lighter satire on the same subject, energetically directed by Irvin Kirschner, and enjoyable for Connery fans in any case.