Monday, May 25, 2020

ROCKETMAN (2019) *** ½


Rocketman is an enjoyable, sometimes exhilarating celebration of the life and music of Elton John.  Even for someone like me, who isn’t a huge John fan, it was easy to get swept up in seeing his life portrayed in such a theatrical, over the top manner.  One could criticize the film for being all broad strokes and containing way too many scenes that are on-the-nose.  Then again, no one ever accused Elton John of being subtle. 

The film follows John’s rags to riches story.  He goes from living with an unloving family to being an overnight sensation with legions of adoring fans.  Troubled by unhappy relationships, and his repressed sexuality, he delves deeper and deeper into drug and alcohol abuse. 

The musical numbers aren’t the studio versions you’ve heard on the radio for the past five decades.  Instead, they are done like a musical, with the numbers woven into the narrative.  Taron Egerton is magnetic as John.  More impressive is the fact that he does his own singing.  He doesn’t try to imitate John.  He allows the emotion of the scene to inform his musical performance, which sometimes leads to wildly different interpretations of the songs, but that’s kind of what I liked about it.  Egerton embodies John so well that you often forget you’re watching an imitator. 

Director Dexter (Eddie the Eagle) Fletcher does a fine job on the musical numbers and offers us some truly surreal moments.  My favorite scene is John’s first performance at The Troubadour when the power of his music literally lifts the audience off the ground.  It’s touches like this that help set the film apart from so many other stale biopics.

There are times when Rocketman feels like the It’s a Small World ride set to Elton John music. Some may gripe about the frantic pacing as the narrative sometimes feels like it's rushing from one milestone to the other.  However, the hectic pace highlights the fact John is often a passenger in his own story as he is perpetually imprisoned by his self-loathing, stifling relationships, and drug use.  I’m sure there were more aspects of John’s later life they could’ve translated onscreen, but the film suitably ends when he is finally able to take control of his own story.  There’s something touching and empowering about that. 

Friday, May 22, 2020

FANTASTIC MOVIE TRAILERS HD! (2016) *** ½

2020 hit us all hard.  There’s no real way of escaping it.  We all have our ways of coping to get us through the dark times.  For me, watching compilations of exploitation and grindhouse movies trailers have always been a form of visual comfort food.  There’s no plot to follow.  There’s no attention span required.  Just bite-sized shots of exploitation goodness, great voiceovers, and sleazy tag lines. 

Fantastic Movie Trailers HD! gives us a good mix of exploitation subgenres.  There are a lot of action, horror, blaxploitation, and sexploitation titles, many of which were released by AIP.  Many of the movies featured are bad, but the trailers themselves are often a thing of beauty.  We also get some fun intermission shorts and, strangely, a pocket calculator ad.  (“$345 complete!”)  While I’ve seen a few of these trailers in other compilations, there are a few films here that I never heard of, which is something I always appreciate from a trailer compilation.

The films include:  Mitchell, Super Fuzz, Sister Streetfighter, The Dark, Savage Sisters, Spy in Your Eye, Delinquent Schoolgirls, Dr. Tarr’s Torture Dungeon (“The Edgar Allan Poe film that is so shocking, it will never appear on television!”), Voyage of the Rock Aliens, Sugar Hill, I, a Woman (“In the great tradition of Scandinavian realism!”), Born Losers, Shoot, Ms. .45, Rabid, Force Four (starring Warhawk Tanzania), Matango (“Fear the ogre of death!”), Werewolves on Wheels, Inframan (“6 million light years beyond believability!”), The Guy from Harlem, Mr. No Legs, Thunder Cops, The Bullet Machine, the classic ad for the I Dismember Mama & The Blood Spattered Bride double feature, Skatetown USA (“The greatest story ever rolled!”), Nightmare Honeymoon (“Please don’t see it with someone you love!”), The Crippled Masters, The Teacher, The Evictors, and When Women Had Tails. 

Fantastic Movie Trailers HD! was produced by a Canadian company called Montreal Film Studio.  They’ve released countless trailer compilations on DVD, but this one is available to watch for free on YouTube.  If the selection of trailers on those sets are as good as the ones featured here, I’ll definitely be adding those to my collection sometime soon.  There are two sequels on their YouTube channel as well, and I plan to watch them ASAP.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

HEIST SCHOOL (2006) *


I can honestly say I haven’t seen very many Turkish movies.  That’s not a slight against the country or their cinematic output.  It’s just that their films aren’t the sort of things that pop on my radar.  Unless they have Captain America and El Santo teaming up to fight an evil Spider-Man (as was the case with the Turkish classic, 3 Giant Men), I don’t usually intentionally seek out Turkish cinematic delights.

Heist School doesn’t sound like a movie I would watch, even if it was in English.  It’s basically the Turkish version of The Perfect Score.  Five teenagers panic when they learn the government are rolling back college scholarships.  They then set out to steal the answers to a big college entrance exam in order to get accepted to a fancy college.  

Granted, it’s not the worst idea for a movie.  It’s just that it’s extremely slow moving (the long scenes of the kids sitting in class seemingly play out in real time), there’s way too many characters, and the heist scenes lack anything approximating suspense.  The faux film breaks, and random use of filters quickly get annoying too.

Great directors would struggle to keep us engaged for ninety minutes of this.  Unfortunately, this one clocks in at a whopping two hours.  The editor could’ve cut whole chunks out of the picture and no one would’ve noticed.  It also doesn’t help that none of the young performers are particularly likeable or memorable either. 

The only reason I watched Heist School was because Jean-Claude Van Damme was in it.  Unfortunately, you have to wait till the last twenty minutes before he shows up.  He makes a big superstar entrance deboarding a private plane, which makes me think the production company just filmed him arriving at the airport.  Basically, his character, a supposed master criminal who—get this—looks like Jean-Claude Van Damme (that’s the level of humor we’re dealing with here) is only there to help the kids plan their heist and give them a pep talk.  Van Damme does give the movie a brief shot in the arm, but he’s given too little to do in too little time to make much of a difference.  (The lame part where he intimidates a bully is as close as the film comes to having an action scene.)

Awhile back when I was on Ty and Brett’s Comeuppance Podcast, we talked about our Top 5 Best and Worst Van Damme movies.  This would definitely go on my list of Top 5 Worst list.  I guess I could cut it a little slack because it’s not exactly a Van Damme vehicle as his role is little more than an extended cameo.  That said, his participation (however brief) is the sole reason anyone would want to watch it to begin with.  Whenever he isn’t on screen, Heist School flunks out.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

NINJA TERMINATOR (1986) ***


Richard Harrison and his two Ninja buddies steal “The Golden Ninja Warrior” (it looks like a fucking paperweight) from their power-hungry master.  They split the golden knickknack into three parts and go their separate ways.  The master then sends out a bunch of Ninjas to get the trinkets back. 

Since this is a Godfrey Ho mix ‘n match movie, there’s another plot from an entirely different film going on.  In this part of the flick, a guy named Jaguar Wong (Jack Lam) goes around Kung Fuing the crap out of anyone who gets in his way.  Eventually, he is also tasked to retrieve the piece of Ninja bric-a-brac.  

Because this is a Ho film, the plot is really secondary, and rarely makes sense.  Ho does deliver on the Ninja action though.  There are scads of scenes of Ninjas hopping around via jump cuts, tossing out Ninja stars, and getting into swordfights.  There’s even a nutty bit where one Ninja shoots flames out of his hands while his rival combats the blast by shooting freezing spray from his fist (it looks like someone stuck a fire extinguisher up his sleeve).    

Lam has plenty of opportunities to kick ass throughout the picture.  He’s always running into guys in parking lots or on top of parking garages who want to kill him for some reason or another and he more than gladly takes them down a peg.  Among Lam’s highlights are the scene where he uses a baseball to beat some thugs up and a part where he fights a guy while keeping his hands in his pockets.

It’s Harrison though who makes the movie.  Whether he’s fighting guys in his camouflage Ninja outfit or saving his girlfriend from a random crab attack, he’s always a blast to watch.  His best scene is when he delivers a stern message while talking on his Garfield phone!  Nothing to me says “deadly Ninja” more than a guy who uses a Garfield phone.  (This scene was so iconic that Ho had Harrison use the phone again in Diamond Ninja Force.) 

God, and I haven’t even mentioned the hilarious sex scene that’s framed so poorly that you can’t tell whose body is whose.  Or that when the woman climaxes, the camera cuts to a blooming flower!  I didn’t even bring up the jaw-dropping scene where a kid’s windup toy robot enters a room under a cloud of ominous smoke to deliver a message from the evil Ninja empire.  Or the villain who wears a hilarious blonde He-Man wig.  

On top of all that, there are even more gratuitous sex scenes, unrelated action, and random fights.  Other subplots that involve drug dealing and torture are also tossed in there, although by that point, the movie has started to feel overcrowded.  I don’t presume to understand what was going on half the time.  Then again, it didn’t really matter when you’re getting three movies for price of one.  Sure, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but let’s face it, you’d be disappointed in a Ho flick if it did.  

Ninja Terminator just may be proof you can have too much of a good thing.  Just when you think it’s over, it keeps going.  Ho pitches the movie at such a frantic rate that it quickly becomes numbing.  Still, with so much awesomeness packed in one place, it’s virtually critic-proof.  You’re either the kind of person who wants to see Ninjas that use Garfield phones, or you aren’t. 

HAVE A GOOD TRIP: ADVENTURES IN PSYCHEDELICS (2020) **


Have a Good Trip:  Adventures in Psychedelics has an interesting premise.  Celebrities (mostly comedians) describe what it was like (for them) to trip on acid and mushrooms.  We then see animated re-enactments and/or live-action recreations of their hallucinations.  While this could’ve been an intriguing look at casual drug use among celebrities, it quickly reveals itself to be a half-baked idea.

The best stuff is the clips from old anti-drug films from the ’60 that occasionally pop up, usually as a counter to what is being said by the celebrities.  Some of the interviews are enlightening.  The scenes with Sting, Carrie Fisher, and Ben Stiller are particularly memorable.  In fact, the film would’ve been fine if it was just the interview segments.  

It’s when the movie goes for cheap laughs that it completely falls on its face.  The scenes of the various trips feel like something from a shitty sketch comedy show.  Nick Offerman’s host segments (which are a parody of the old government films) land with a thud, as do the After School Special parodies starring Adam Scott.  It’s also unfortunate that some of the most entertaining guys (to me at least), like Will Forte, Marc Maron, and Donovan don’t get their own segment and only appear briefly, which is frustrating.  

Ultimately, the big problem with Have a Good Trip:  Adventures in Psychedelics is that it all feels kind of square.  I mean why spend ninety minutes listening to people TALKING about doing drugs when you could go out and do them yourself?  (Please don’t, at least not on my account.)  It’s kind of like being stuck in a room with a hippie.  By about the fourth time you hear, “Hey man, did I ever tell you about this time I was high on acid…”, you start wishing the ‘60s never happened.  

Friday, May 15, 2020

MANOS RETURNS (2018) **


If it wasn’t for Mystery Science Theater 3000, the 1966 low budget horror oddity, Manos:  The Hands of Fate would’ve faded into obscurity.  Thanks to a pair of wisecracking robots, Manos was resurrected and brought back into the pop culture consciousness.  Well, at the very least, the pop culture consciousness of people who like bad movies (like me).  

Manos Returns must set some kind of record for the longest gap between a movie and its sequel, especially for one that stars the same cast members from the original.  (Fifty-two years, to be exact.)  The good news is it looks exactly how you would expect a fifty-plus years later sequel to Manos to look.  It was shot on video, features minimal location work, and is packed to the gills with bad dialogue and amateurish acting.  It also cannily reuses the same music from the first film (including some covers), and recycles a lot of the same dialogue and situations.

I have to admit, it’s a lot of fun seeing the old cast again.  It’s also kind of neat to revisit this world and seeing how things have changed in the years since the original.  Like the old saying goes, the more things change the more they stay the same. 

This time out, it’s four friends who get lost on the highway during a vacation, instead of a family.  They make a wrong turn and wind up at a rundown old house where they meet the weirdo groundskeeper Torgo (Steven Shields), who “takes care of the place while ‘The Master’ is away”.  Eventually, after a lot of stumbling around the house, the friends find themselves in the grips of the dark power of Manos.

Manos Returns is at its best when its following in the original’s footsteps.  It’s kind of refreshing to see what a halfway capable director (in this case, Tonjia Atomic, who also has a supporting role as one of the Master’s wives) can do with the material as there are moments here when the whole thing threatens to actually work.  (It’s certainly more competent and watchable than the original, that’s for sure.)  It’s less successful however when it's making its own (unfunny) comedic commentary on the proceedings.  There are times when the characters make jokes at the movie’s expense; almost as if they’re trying to beat Mystery Science Theater to the punch.  (There’s even a thinly veiled reference to one of the riffs from the MST3K episode.)  The discussion the characters have about bad movies in the beginning is a bit too on-the-nose too. 

It was good seeing The Master (Tom Neyman) again.  Unfortunately, he died before it was released.  At least he had one more opportunity to wear the Manos robe.  Debbie (Jackey Neyman Jones) and her mother (Diane Mahree Rystad) also make a welcome return, although to say any more about them would get into Spoiler territory.  It must be said that the new Torgo isn’t a patch on John Reynolds’ definitive interpretation of the character in the original film.  I did find it refreshing that the Master added some plus-sized girls to his stable of wives though. 

There are some odd new touches to the Manos lore that feel a bit half-baked, like the lost souls (I think that’s what they are) who are still stuck inside the house.  The ending is okay, I guess, and we get one decent bloody scene.  On the plus side, it’s only an hour long.  I can’t quite call it “good”, but I admire the fact that it knew when to quit. 

Overall, Manos Returns is better than the original.  That wasn’t difficult to do I’m sure, but still.  It may have its share of flaws, but it’s about as good as a fifty-two years later sequel to one of the worst movies of all time could be.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

EXTRACTION (2020) * ½


If you’re wondering why this movie is called Extraction, it’s because the filmmakers have somehow managed to extract all the charisma, charm, and personality from Chris Hemsworth.  That’s no small feat, let me tell you.  He stars as a merc who gets sent to rescue a crime lord’s kid.  It’s based on a comic book I’ve never heard of, but it feels more like a video game I’ve never played.  There’s no real “plot” either.  Just a series of objectives.  The dialogue scenes are more like cut scenes from a video game that set up action too.  It also doesn’t help that Hemsworth is totally miscast as a burned out alkie commando. 

Produced and written by the Russo brothers (who also made the Avengers movies with Hemsworth), Extraction is a joyless, generic, and forgettable affair.  It’s especially dire whenever first-time director Sam Hargrave tries to get arty.  The one-take Children of Men-inspired scene is particularly forced, and the obvious seams in the action only call attention to the fact that it’s a series of smaller shots held together with some not-so clever editing tricks.  If anything, it’s only purpose is to reinforce the “Let’s make an action flick that feels like a video game” aesthetic.

I guess I have to bring up the fact that Hemsworth’s character is named Tyler Rake.  That really wouldn’t matter except that there’s a scene early in the movie in which he kills someone with a rake.  I guess this would’ve been cool if he had said, “That’s why they call me ‘Tyler Rake’” afterwards, but he doesn’t.  It just takes you out if the scene when you realize the filmmakers are too dumb to acknowledge this bit of symmetry with a quip or a one-liner.  Also, why would a rake be in a living room?  If this scene happened in a garden or shed, I could understand why a rake would be there, but a living room?

Another thing that took me out of the movie was the scene where the bad guys bribe the police into closing all the bridges in the city so Hemsworth can’t escape.  I mean, isn’t that the same exact plot of 21 Bridges, which the Russos also produced?  Are they already running out of ideas for their non-Marvel films?  

The villain is really bland too.  The only memorable part is when he sends a bunch of street kids out to kill Chris.  If you always wanted to see Thor kick the shit out of some snot-nosed kids, here is your chance.  

David Harbour shows up late in the game in an extended cameo as Hemsworth’s pill-popping compatriot, but he doesn’t stick around long enough to resuscitate the movie.  Oh, and the ending really sucks too.  I can’t go on record by saying Extraction is the worst flick of the year, but it’s definitely the most forgettable. 

AKA:  Tyler Rake.  AKA:  Out of the Fire.

RAVEN (1997) **


Burt Reynolds stars as Raven, the leader of “Raven Team”, a special unit of soldiers who do dirty jobs for the government.  Their latest assignment:  Steal a top-secret decoder.  Raven knows the government is just going to hand it over to the Iranians, so he goes rogue and steals it himself.  His shellshocked second in-command, “Duce” (Matt Battaglia, who also starred with Burt in those Universal Soldier sequels around the same time this was made) calls it quits after their last mission and walks away in possession of a vital piece of the decoder.  Raven will stop at nothing to get it back, even if it means stabbing his former friend in the back.

Raven feels like it might’ve been a pilot for a TV show that didn’t get picked up.  (The action is very reminiscent of those old “Action Pack” TV shows from the ‘90s.)  It kicks off with a lot of action, gunplay, and explosions, but the staging is rather uninspired.  (It also looks as if some of the explosions may have been taken from other movies.)  Unfortunately, it almost immediately settles down and gets pretty dull, pretty quick.  We then have to sit through a lot of talk, plotting, and double crossing.  This wouldn’t have been so bad if the rest of the action was up to the caliber of the beginning of the film.  However, the bulk of picture is light on action, and the finale is a big fat bust.  

On the plus side, Raven does deliver three completely gratuitous sex scenes, which does help alleviate the boredom.  The fact that two of the scenes feature Emmanuelle in Space’s Krista Allen as Battaglia’s hot girlfriend certainly was enough for me to put this in the “watchable” category.  If director Russell Solberg (who got his start as a stuntman, which is probably what put him on Reynolds’ radar) had tossed in a couple more of these scenes, he might’ve had a halfway decent Skinamax flick on his hands.  As is, there’s just not enough action or skin here to make it worthwhile. 

Reynolds is OK as the baddie, but he really needed more to work with if he was going to emerge from this one unscathed.  Battaglia, on the other hand is thoroughly awful in the lead.  He pretty much singlehandedly sinks it with his braindead line readings and laughable emoting.  During his big emotional scene on the battlefield, it’s hard to tell if he is experiencing PTSD or if he’s wondering if he left the iron on.  

AKA:  Raven Team.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

DANGEROUSLY CLOSE (1986) ** ½


A group of fascist hall monitors called “The Sentinels” rule their school with an iron fist.  They claim they’re reducing crime and vandalism on campus, but in reality, they’re targeting lower class, minority, and punk students in the name of vigilante justice.  Randy (John Stockwell, who also co-wrote the script), the leader of The Sentinels, reaches out to Danny (J. Eddie Peck), the editor of the school newspaper, in hopes he will write a favorable article about the group.  Danny, a lower-class kid (who also cleans Randy’s pool), is lured by the promise of popularity, and is drawn into the world of The Sentinels.  When students begin turning up dead and/or missing, Danny discovers The Sentinels may be the ones responsible, and he sets out to bring the group down.  

I’m not sure why this was called Dangerously Close.  Maybe because it was one of the few Albert Pyun movies that came dangerously close to being good.  It’s far from perfect, but as far as Pyun’s work goes, this is one of his best.  (Although let’s face it.  He’ll never come close to matching The Sword and the Sorcerer.) 

I’ll admit, it’s a little clunky in the early going.  Once the film finally unfurls its premise, it slowly begins working.  Think Class of 1984 Meets The Lords of Discipline by way of John Hughes.  However, the wheels start coming off as it enters the home stretch.  While the twist ending is decent enough, the editing in the third act is often choppy, with the final shot being especially perplexing.

Despite its flaws, the film certainly has a strong cast for this sort of thing.  Stockwell (who also was in Pyun’s Radioactive Dreams) is solid as the slick, persuasive preppie villain.  Peck (three years away from starring in Curse 2:  The Bite) makes for a likeable lead.  It helps that he has qualities of both a cool guy and a dork, which kind of makes it uncertain what side he’ll remain loyal to.  Carey Lowell (three years from starring as a Bond girl in Licence to Kill) makes a memorable impression as Stockwell’s bored girlfriend, who naturally begins to have eyes for Peck.  It was also fun to see Pyun regular Thom Mathews and Miguel A. Nunez being reteamed once again a year after they starred in Return of the Living Dead.

AKA:  Campus.  AKA:  Campus ’86.

GRETA (2019) **


There’s been a lot of talk about “elevated horror” lately.  Greta is an example of an “elevated thriller”.  It features a good cast (Chloe Grace Moretz and Isabelle Huppert) being guided by a prestige director (The Crying Game’s Neil Jordan) through a thoroughly predictable plot, but since it’s got a good cast and a prestige director, we’re supposed to think it’s hot shit.  In this case, Jordan is barely able to disguise the fact it’s nothing more than a weak rehashing of the ‘90s “From Hell” genre.   Despite the fact that Jordan has directed some well-regarded films in the past, there’s little here to distinguish this one from the likes of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Single White Female, and The Temp.  (Or the dozens of similarly themed thrillers that Lifetime has been cranking out for the past decade, for that matter.) 

A Good Samaritan named Frances (Moretz) finds a purse on the subway.  Instead of keeping the money inside, she returns it to its owner, Greta (Huppert), an older lonely woman.  Frances feels sorry for her since she herself recently lost her mother and needs an older woman’s guidance.  She finds out much too late that Greta’s an obsessive psycho.

There are one or two moments here that prevent Greta from being completely dismissible.  The turn that sets up the second act is well executed by Jordan.  He also delivers a fine sequence that unfortunately, and infuriatingly, turns out to be one of those “It was all a dream” scenes.  In fact, it turns out to be an “It was all a dream within a dream” scenes, which makes it twice as infuriating.

However, the other notes are struck with rote indifference.  The scenes of Moretz going to the police about Huppert’s behavior, while necessary, stops the film dead in its tracks, mostly because we know the cops won’t do anything about her.  (If they did, the movie would be over.)  Jordan also drops the ball in the third act as the tension pretty much dissipates by the hour mark.  If Jordan leaned into the more horrific elements of the screenplay, it might’ve worked.  As it is, he’s too busy trying to make the flick respectable that he forgets to have any fun with it.

The performances can’t be faulted.  Moretz is good as kind, but gullible heroine, and Maika (It Follows) Monroe breathes a little life into the film as her spunky roommate.  Huppert’s performance is pretty much the whole show though as she chews the scenery with aplomb.  While it’s not a patch on her mesmerizing turn in Elle, her efforts alone make Greta watchable. 

A FIELD IN ENGLAND (2013) **

Soldiers fighting in the English Civil War split from the battlefield and take off in search of ale.  Along the way, they get waylaid by a deranged alchemist who coerces them into finding his lost buried treasure.  Eventually, the cowardly lot find their courage and decide to fight back. 

I was a fan of director Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise and Free Fire, so I figured I would give A Field in England a chance.  Even though Wheatley made it two years before High-Rise, it feels like it was made a decade earlier.  Because of the low budget, hammy acting, and bland black and white cinematography, it often feels like the work of a first-time director.  I will say that Wheatley does a good job during the battlefield sequences with very little at his disposal.  He’s able to suggest a much larger battle than the one that’s shown by strategically placing the camera, cleverly utilizing well-timed flying dirt, and adding in the sound of gunfire and thundering hooves. 

Unfortunately, the bulk of the movie is devoted to long scenes of men walking around aimlessly.  This section of the picture is rather lifeless and dull, and the addition of the annoying alchemist character does little to liven things up.  The long, draggy middle section almost makes it feel like a short film that was expanded to feature length.  

Still, there are flashes of brilliance here that suggests what Wheatley can do even with the limited resources he was given.  There’s a funny impromptu medical examination scene, and some solid gore as well.  The highlight is the great, trippy scene near the end that feels like a mix of David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, and Alejandro Jodorowsky.  These moments taken on their own merits are quite impressive, but overall, there’s just not enough of them to make A Field in England worth recommending.

AKA:  English Revolution.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

PARASITE (2019) ***


Ki-Woo (Choi Woo-Shik) lives in a crummy basement apartment with his family, who are barely able to eke out a living folding pizza boxes for a local pizza parlor.  When a job tutoring a rich girl falls in his lap, Ki-Woo charms his way into her family’s heart.  Ki-Woo and his scheming family then ingratiate themselves into the rich people’s good graces.  One by one, using false names and credentials, they take on household servant roles, and before long, they are comfortably nestled inside the luxurious home (not to mention rolling in the dough).  Eventually, they learn they can’t keep up the charade forever. 

Parasite made a big splash when the film and its director, Bong Joon Ho won four Oscars, including Best Picture.  (It was also the first foreign language film to win Best Picture.)  It’s thematically similar to Ho’s Snowpiercer, although it’s not quite as daring and provocative as that movie.  This is only the third Ho picture I’ve seen (the other two being Snowpiercer and The Host), and for me, it’s my least favorite of the trio.  That said, it’s still a strong feature, even if it kind of loses its way in the second half.

The first act is a dizzying high wire act as Ho deftly balances the darkly comic tone with the increasingly desperate actions of the poor family.  It’s enormously successful until the twist that sets up the second half causes the film to take a sharp turn.  This section of the movie (which I won’t spoil) is interesting as it forces us to reexamine the characters (and forces the characters to reexamine themselves).  However, the pacing dawdles too often during this stretch, and the sequence where the family become imprisoned inside the home runs on too long.

Despite that, the finale makes it worth the wait.  Unfortunately, after that stellar sequence, the film doesn’t know when to quit as it suffers from a few too many false endings.  Still, this is probably the most atypical movie to ever win Best Picture, and for that, we all should be grateful.  I mean, did Green Book end with a birthday party massacre?  Didn’t think so.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

TERMINAL JUSTICE: CYBERTECH P.D. (1996) **


Lorenzo Lamas stars as a cop (who is also a veteran of the “Russian Cartel Wars”) in the far-off year of 2008 where Virtual Reality sex is all the rage.  His next assignment is acting as bodyguard to the world’s hottest Virtual Reality starlet, played by Kari Wuhrer.  Chris Sarandon is the tech kingpin who is bored with making Virtual Reality video games that are so real that they actually kill people.  His new racket is cloning women to be used as sex and murder slaves.  With the help of nutzo doctor (Peter Coyote), they have just begun rolling out the initial test models.  When Lamas’ partner is killed in the line of duty, he teams with a tech nerd (Tod Thawley) to bring down Sarandon.

Directed by Rick (Kickboxer 3:  The Art of War) King, Terminal Justice:  Cybertech P.D. is intermittently amusing, if only to see how the screenwriters thought the future would look.  They rightly predicted the uptick in VR sex, as well as the use of a robot voice to control the lights in your home (although her name is Ludmilla, not Alexa.)  They kind of missed the mark with having cops that have night vision and infrared scopes embedded in their eyeballs though. 

There are admittedly some cool ideas here.  I liked how Lamas could study a crime scene through Virtual Reality.  We also get an odd sequence where Lamas does battle with a killer remote-control helicopter in a fancy restaurant.  I even found myself enjoying the scenes where Lamas is fighting for his life inside a Virtual Reality video game.  The oversaturated backgrounds give a nice sense of something that is both real and unreal at the same time.  Too bad these scenes end before they can gather any real momentum.

The film also brings up an interesting point late in the game about the legality of clones.  Is it legal to murder a clone if they are technically classified as “genetic material”?  Can you even prove a clone was murdered if the original donor is still alive and walking around?  Unfortunately, it is handled in a rather clunky manner and the climax is wrapped up way too abruptly to make for any sort of satisfying conclusion.  

Mostly, Terminal Justice:  Cybertech P.D. feels like three scripts stitched together.  We have the “Avenging the Partner” plot, the “Virtual Reality Remake of The Bodyguard” plot, and the “Law and Order:  Clone Victims Unit” plot.  A movie about any one of these things would’ve worked.  Having all three plots fighting for supremacy just falls flat.  (The fact that the title is comprised of two titles is the tip-off the filmmakers couldn’t decide which movie to make.)  If I had my pick, I would’ve stuck with The Bodyguard rip-off, but that’s just me.  

Lamas is usually enjoyably goofy in something like this.  Here, he doubles down on the dramatic aspects of his character’s plight, and tries to really emote, especially during the scenes where he is coming to grips with his PTSD.  He doesn’t do a bad job.  I just wish he didn’t spend the movie whispering like Clint Eastwood.  Wuhrer handles her role decently enough, despite the fact that she and Lamas have no chemistry together.  Sarandon is kind of wasted, but Coyote is fun to watch as the clone doctor who takes maybe too much pride in his work.

For every interesting and/or potentially cool thing Terminal Justice:  Cybertech P.D. had going for it, there was something wrongheaded or lame that held it back.  Still, it’s not a total loss or anything.  I just can’t bring myself to recommend it though.  Ultimately, I guess I’ll file it under “Watch It If You Ever Wanted to See Lorenzo Lamas Kick Peter Coyote in the Face”.  I mean few films can deliver on that promise.  This is certainly one of them.  When you’ve seen as many bad VR-themed action movies as I have, you have to embrace the ones that try to offer something unique, like Peter Coyote getting kicked in the face by Lorenzo Lamas.  

Lamas gets best line of the movie when he reminisces about the war and the effects of being on a drug that amplifies a soldier’s killer instinct:  “It was better killing through chemistry!” 

AKA:  Terminal Justice.  AKA:  Cybertech.  AKA:  Cybertech P.D.  AKA:  Police Future.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

BIG BOOB SQUAD: SEXY RANGERS (2011) ** ½


Mighty Morphin Power Rangers were after my time.  Even though I didn’t watch the show growing up, that didn’t stop me from watching this Japanese spoof.  Despite the title, there’s unfortunately no nudity to be found, but we do get plenty of cheesecake scenes of girls running around in bikinis before changing into low-rent cosplay outfits to fight a bunch of guys in rubber monster suits.  (Only a few have boobs big enough to justify the title though, which is a bit of a bummer.)

With the help of a little robot professor, five Japanese girls learn to channel their “Pai Energy” (big boob energy) to become rainbow-colored Sexy Rangers.  Together, they fight the forces of evil.  When things get too hairy, they jump inside a giant robot to do battle with kaiju monsters.  A big-ass eyeball orders the evil Queen Amorous (Yoko Yamada) to destroy the Sexy Rangers.  She keeps sending out lame monsters to defeat them and they always return to her with their asses beat.  The Queen eventually stoops to kidnapping one of their fans (who herself has untapped Pai Energy), and it’s up to the Rangers to save her. 

With the cheap costumes and lame fight scenes, Big Boob Squad:  Sexy Rangers often feels like it was filmed in someone’s backyard.  There are even times when you’ll swear you’re watching a cheap porno version of Power Rangers with all the good stuff cut out.  On the plus side, it’s only an hour long, and trust me, there are worse ways to spend an hour.  Also, the hand drawn bumpers that intermittently appear are pretty cool. 

The giant mech suit vs. monster battles are about as good as could be expected given the production’s limited resources.  It’s not surprising given the fact that director Shinji Nishikawa had an extensive resume working on Godzilla movies.  He also gives us at least one clever villain, a monster who has a Polaroid camera for a head that spits out pictures of the Sexy Rangers in compromising positions.

The film would’ve easily received Three Stars if Nishikawa somehow found a way out to coax the Rangers out of their wardrobe.  As it is, the scenes of the scantily clad girls romping around are acceptable, even if they do lack pizzazz.  Overall, Sexy Rangers is slight and harmless way to kill sixty minutes.

AKA:  Sexy Rangers. 

Monday, May 4, 2020

JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF TIME (1967) ½ *


David L. Hewitt had an all or nothing career.  Sometimes, he made classics like Monsters Crash the Pajama Party or the immortal The Mighty Gorga.  Mostly though, he made crap like The Wizard of Mars and this boring turd.  

Journey to the Center of Time plays like a bargain bin version of The Time Travelers (which Hewitt provided special effects for).  A group of scientists are in danger of losing their funding, so they make a last-ditch effort to get their time machine working.  The experiment winds up sending them hurtling into the future where a race of blue skinned aliens who now rule the Earth are losing a war for control of the planet. 

It would be one thing if Journey to the Center of Time was merely bad.  To make matters worse, it’s dull as all get out.  If you’ve been having trouble sleeping during quarantine, put this flick on.  It’s a surefire cure for insomnia.  It’s full of boring scenes of actors glumly spouting an avalanche of impenetrable scientific gobbledygook, static camerawork, boring exposition dumps, and inexplicable barrages of unrelated stock footage.  This, coupled with the droning soundtrack and nonexistent pacing, will have you seeing the back of your eyelids before the halfway mark. 

I like many of the actors involved, but even they can’t salvage this mess.  Hewitt used Scott Brady and Anthony Eisley much more effectively in The Mighty Gorga a few years later.  I did have fun spotting a young Lyle Waggoner from Wonder Woman as one of the aliens.  The person who makes the biggest impression though is the hilariously named Poupee Gamin, who plays the busty bombshell alien leader.  Too bad she doesn’t stick around for very long. 

Poupee is about the only bright spot in this otherwise turgid affair.  I guess it's not Hewitt's fault that this is such a sluggish, boring movie.  Afterall, the plot revolves around changing the space time continuum, so it only makes sense that the 77-minute running time feels like an eternity. 

AKA:  Time Warp.

THE MUMMY LIVES (1993) *


The Mummy Lives begins with a five-minute lecture on astrological constellations over a vast starfield.  Every time a Zodiac sign is introduced, the stars are connected like a game of Connect the Dots to personify each sign.  This vaguely fits into the plot (eventually), but it just felt like gratuitous padding to me.

The next twenty-five minutes alternates between scenes of Leslie Hardy tossing and turning in bed, an archeological dig, and a flashback to ancient Egypt where a high priest is mummified.  The editing is so confusing that it’s hard to tell which event Hardy is dreaming about, the dig or the mummification.  Unfortunately, the editing only gets worse as the movie goes on.  Hardy narrates the beginning scenes, but by the time the third act rolls around, she’s nowhere to be found, so her boyfriend has to take up the narrating duties.  Whenever the film hits a dead end (which is often), it just cuts back to the astrological starfield from the beginning.  Then we hear some random dialogue that sets up the next scene. 

Oh, I guess I should say a few words about the mummified priest.  He’s played by none other than Tony Curtis.  Yes, Tony Curtis.  He has to be the most miscast mummy in movie history.  Speaking in a thick New York accent (that won’t be invented for three thousand years), he looks silly in his assortment of Egyptian robes and headpieces.  I doubt it’s really him in the mummy suit though (which is more of a dried husk than the traditionally wrapped costume).  One thing is for sure, Some Like It Hot was a LONG time ago.

The Mummy Lives has pretty much the same plot as the 1932 version of The Mummy.  The mummy’s tomb is opened, he comes to life, and kills the archeologists who desecrated his resting place.  He returns to human form and tries to woo the woman he believes is the reincarnation of his lost love (Hardy).  Curtis then spends rest of the movie dressed like a sheik and trying to gaslight Hardy into thinking she’s mummy marriage material. 

Allegedly based on an Edgar Allan Poe poem, this yawnfest does have an occasional laugh or two.  The cat attack scene is kind of funny, and a chuckle can be had whenever Curtis is forced to say shit like, “Get out of my TOOOMB!”  Overall, this has got to be one of the worst mummy movies ever made, ranking down there with The Mummy Returns and Jerry Warren’s Attack of the Mayan Mummy.  If it’s not the worst, then it’s definitely the dullest.

THE WILD WORLD OF TED V. MIKELS (2008) ***


The Wild World of Ted V. Mikels is a fast-moving and fun documentary on the legendary B movie director.  Narrated by none other than John Waters, it gives us all the basic biography stuff you’d expect.  Mikels starts out in show business as a magician before trying his hand at directing.  When no Hollywood jobs are available, Ted brings Hollywood to him and independently makes his first movie, Strike Me Deadly.  Thus, a long and lucrative career is born.

The movie does a good job tackling Mikels’ work film by film (although his early skin flicks are noticeably absent) in a short span of time (it’s just over an hour long).  This isn’t a revolutionary approach or anything, but it makes for a nice overview of his career.  It helps that Mikels himself is a good interview subject.  With his finely waxed mustache, he has an engaging presence, and it’s easy to see how his offscreen personality transfers into his work.  I especially loved the stories revolving around his castle, which housed a revolving door of babes who kept him company for decades.  How many directors do you know of had a floating harem like that?  

The biggest attraction is seeing a lot of footage from Mikels’ movies.  There are trailer snippets from Strike Me Deadly, The Astro-Zombies, The Corpse Grinders, The Doll Squad, and Angel of Vengeance, and whole scenes from The Black Klansman, The Girl in Gold Boots (“I had a pretty mind!”), Blood Orgy of the She-Devils, Alex Joseph and His Wives, Ten Violent Women, and Mission:  Killfast.  His shoddy, latter-day, shot-on-video films like Mark of the Astro-Zombies, Dimension in Fear, The Corpse Grinders 2, and Demon Haunt are also well-represented, which is good to see, if only from a completist’s standpoint.

Mikels offers up some great anecdotes along the way.  Among them, having to cut Peter Falk out of The Astro-Zombies because he thought his performance was too hammy.  Mikels also states that Aaron Spelling attended the premiere of The Doll Squad and claims that Spelling’s Charlie’s Angels (which premiered four years later) is a complete rip off of his film.  (He’s right, too.)  He also talks about coming up with gimmicks (like inviting theater patrons to create their own corpse grinding machine) for The Corpse Grinders. The interviews with Mikels’ leading ladies, such as Tura Satana, Francine York, and Shanti are insightful too.

I can’t say this is the definitive documentary on Mikels.  It’s probably as good as we’re likely to get though.  If you’re unfamiliar with Mikels’ work, this should make a great primer.  

Saturday, May 2, 2020

DERBY (1970) **


I grew up watching roller derby on television and really loved it as a kid.  I even try to catch it whenever it periodically gets revived through the years.  There’s just something about seeing people beating the crap out of each other while roller skating that appeals to me.

Derby is a documentary on the sport.  It follows a guy named Mike Snell who’s trying break into the business.  Mike seems like a regular guy, but there’s something a bit sneaky about him.  We never seen without his shades, which make him look kind of like a beatnik.  (He claims they’re prescription.)  Maybe it’s the fact that we can’t see his eyes that makes him seem like he’s not on the up-and-up.

We also spend time with Charlie O’Connell, the star of the circuit.  He’s an older, wiser, and more experienced skater.  He’s also not a whole lot of fun.  Although O’Connell has a degree of charisma when he’s on the track and while he’s holding court in the locker room among the other players, he comes off as stiff and uncomfortable in his interview segments.  It’s easy to see why the director wanted to focus more on Mike.  I mean he’s not exactly likeable, but it makes for a better interview subject.

Derby is at its most involving when the women jammers are on track.  Like Skinamax movies, roller derby is more interesting when the women are front and center.  Too bad they’re barely featured.  Later filmmakers realized the women skaters were infinitely more interesting when they made the fictionalized women’s roller derby classics The Unholy Rollers, Kansas City Bomber, and Whip It.  I guess the genre was still finding its footing here.

The roller derby action is captured well enough.  However, the scenes where the camera is in thick of the action is obviously staged.  I mean the players wouldn’t be allowed to have camera on the track during regulation play. 

The biggest problem is that the movie has no real drive.  It just kind of ambles along; sometimes taking weird detours leading to dead end scenes that only act as padding.  (The love triangle between some go-go dancers and Mike’s long talk with a soldier just home from Vietnam particularly stick out like sore thumbs.)  Overall, Derby only occasionally comes to life when the jammers are doing their thing on the track.  Mostly though, it just goes around in circles 

AKA:  Roller Derby.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

WELCOME TO THE PUNCH (2013) **


James McAvoy stars as an obsessed cop who will stop at nothing to bring down bank robber Mark Strong.  McAvoy is wounded in an unsuccessful attempt to apprehend him and Strong completely disappears off the face of the earth.  Three years later, Strong’s son winds up getting in a serious jam, forcing him out of hiding.  It’s then up to McAvoy to catch him before his very narrow window of opportunity closes.

Welcome to the Punch is a slick looking police procedural that benefits from some crisp cinematography, but it’s also curiously empty and surprisingly uninvolving.  It often feels like a BBC cop show with a couple of F-Bombs tossed in there to secure an R rating.  The various shootouts occur at a random clip and are staged efficiently enough.  It’s just that they don’t add up to a whole lot when you care very little about what’s going on around them.  

I’m a fan of both leads, and they do what they can with the material.  Ultimately, the weak script never gives them much of an opportunity to flesh out their thin characters.  The predictable plot, while well-paced, never stops long enough to make them into people you really care about either.  They wind up feeling more like cogs in the wheels of the plot machinery than actual human beings.  Andrea (Mandy) Riseborough fares the best as McAvoy’s spunky partner.  She comes the closest to creating someone approaching a three-dimensional character, but unfortunately, she doesn’t stick around long enough for that to happen.

Welcome to the Punch isn’t necessarily a bad movie.  It’s just a predictable and forgettable one.  It’s competently crafted and well-acted, I’ll give it that.  Overall, it doesn’t pack much of a punch.

AKA:  Punch 119.  AKA:  Betrayer.  

SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL (2020) ***


As a fan of detective novels, I’m almost ashamed to say I’ve never read any of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser books.  I did, however, watch the awesome show Spenser for Hire starring the one and only Robert Urich with my old man back in the day.  This new adaptation of the character (which went straight to Netflix) doesn’t quite have the same feel to it, but it is nevertheless a solid Marky Mark movie.

Marky Mark stars as Spenser, a cop who goes to prison for beating up a corrupt superior.  On the day he gets out of jail, the dude he turned into a human punching bag gets murdered.  When a good cop confesses to the crime and commits suicide, Spenser smells a rat.  He then teams up with his new roommate Hawk (Winston Duke) to weave through the web of corruption that involves dirty cops, the Irish Mob, and machete-wielding gang members to clear the good cop’s name.  

The first half hour or so of Spenser Confidential is a little rough as it takes an inordinate amount of time to set up the plot and characters. Although the first act is kind of belabored, once we get to know the characters and the writing hits its stride, it becomes quite fun.  (It kind of reminded me of a television pilot in that respect.)  It also suffers from way too many irritating needle-drops on classic rock tunes during transition scenes.

I wasn’t sure how to feel about Marky Mark as Spenser.  He doesn’t really click until the murder plot kicks in.  From then on, he becomes as good of a Spenser as you could hope for.  He has a good rapport with Duke, who is probably the best thing about the movie.  There’s enough chemistry between the two for me to hope for a sequel, now that the cumbersome origin story is out of the way.  

The supporting players are expertly cast too and help give the picture a little more life and spark than you’d expect.  Alan Arkin is quite funny as Spenser’s crochety mentor, who practically steals the show, and Marc Maron makes a welcome turn as a nosy reporter (although you kind of wish his part was bigger).  I also enjoyed seeing Colleen Camp popping up as a trucker.

Director Peter Berg probably will never regain the heights of his directorial debut, Very Bad Things, but he does a decent job with this.  He lets the small character moments play out unrushed and keeps the camera still during the various fight scenes and shootouts.  While I wish the film overall was a bit tighter, I have to admit that by the time Spenser was bearing down on the bad guys in a jet-black semi-truck, I was having fun.