Cyber Monday: Project Shadowchaser Trilogy

Frank Zagarino dies hard!

Cinemasochism: Black Mangue (2008)

Braindead zombies from Brazil!

The Gweilo Dojo: Furious (1984)

Simon Rhee's bizarre kung fu epic!

Adrenaline Shot: Fire, Ice and Dynamite (1990)

Willy Bogner and Roger Moore stuntfest!

Sci-Fried Theater: Dead Mountaineer's Hotel (1979)

Surreal Russian neo-noir detective epic!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

No Deniro Pistolero: LUCKY LUKE (2009)

I’ll be the first to admit, as an American, I have no deep-rooted emotional connection and pangs of nostalgia when it comes to the Belgian comic that has dated back a full 65 years. In spite of the fact that it has been one of the three most popular comics in Europe for over half a century and has been translated into 26 languages, it really never caught on here in North America. Well, except for Canada, but come on now, that doesn’t really count does it? All nationalistic snideness aside, Lucky Luke was a bit too nice and a bit too subtle for American comics readers who preferred straight-up heroics or broad comedy in their illustrated stories, not a reworking of Jesse James into a self-styled, Shakespeare-quoting Robin Hood! Shakespeare? In comics? Preposterous, I say! How do I know this, you ask? Well, truth be told, when I was a kid my french aunt gave me a fist full of European comic books that included Lucky Luke and Asterix the Gaul. I got them, but I sure didn't get them. Of course, I’m sure it didn't help that they were all in French. A nice thought, but follows French logic that anything French is a gift from god, even if you are an eight-year-old American kid in a Mexican neighborhood whose understanding of French is limited to those fried potato snacks at fast food joints.

Lucky Luke is a cowboy from the tiny, eternally troubled Daisy Town, who seeks out justice, but has never killed a man. His gun is faster than his shadow and he rides Jolly Jumper, the smartest horse west of the Pecos. He quit smoking in 1983 after much heated press on the subject and took up chewing on a weed. Interestingly this bit of political correctness was alleged to be an attempt to gain a foothold in the American market. Silly Europeans! We don’t care if he smokes or not, he just needs to start killing people! Americans have no interest in a hero that puts the bad guys in jail. They are bad guys! Bad guys are dispatched with extreme predjudice and a witty pun. Duh!

Amazingly it wasn’t until 1991 that Lucky Luke became a live-action film, only four animated films were his only legacy up until that point. From ’91 to ’93 Terence Hill stepped into Lucky Luke’s big boots with two feature films and an eight episode TV mini-series. As much as I enjoy this version of Lucky Luke and as hugely popular as they are, it is really just Hill doing his thing with a smattering of Daisy Town trappings.

In 2004 Til Schweiger of all people, saddled up for LES DALTON, a film that featured Lucky Luke’s Dalton Gang as central characters as essayed by French comedy team Eric Judor and Ramzy Bedia, better known as Eric and Ramzy. Yes, the words “French”, “comedy” and “team” all mashed together fill me with horror and dread too. Still, this set the stage for what is probably the most ultra-stylized western to hit the cinema screens in… well, a really long time! From the same producers, LUCKY LUKE (2009) has the good fortune to star French comic actor Jean Dujardin. Dujardin claimed international success with the low-key, impeccably detailed send-up of ‘60s spy films OSS 117: CAIRO NEST OF SPIES (2006) and it’s very ill-advised 2009 sequel. Here he slides flawlessly into the role, right down to the shock of hair jutting out from under his hat. As much as I love me some Terrence Hill, Dujardin nails Lucky Luke.

Setting the stage for what is quite possibly the most visually arresting western ever made, a young Johnny Luke witnesses the brutal murder of his parents by the Cheater gang. Raised by his father’s best friend and mayor of Daisy Town, Cooper (Jean-François Balmer), John Luke was lucky to have survived. Flash forward and Lucky Luke is summoned by the President (of the United States, of course). It’s coming down to election time and the First Transcontinental Rail Road is at an impasse. The joining point is Daisy Town, Utah (in place of the actual point, Promontory, Utah), but Daisy Town has become so overrun with cutthroats and outlaws that nobody from the rail companies will get near it. So who better to clean up Daisy Town than its most famous former resident? The god-fearing folk of the town hide anywhere they can (like in barrels) from the rampaging vermin in the streets. Naturally Luke makes short work of the dastardly denizens with his lightning fast draw, which puts him square up against Pat Poker (Daniel Prévost); A slick card wielding mob-boss who is ruling the town with an iron fist. After a few altercations, it’s time for a showdown in the street. Poker is good, but he cannot match the lightning fast draw of Lucky Luke who shoots him straight through the heart. The end.

Wait! No, sorry, that’s not the end, in fact that is the first 30 minutes! And what a stunning first act it is. In that 30 minutes alone there are more camera set-ups, lighting effects, oblique angles, complex rack focus shots than in a whole mega-plex of summer blockbusters. Every shot is bursting with detail, complete with amazing sets that were built from the ground up to look exactly like they came out of the comics. Unfortunately, we still have another hour to go and the French, no matter how hard they try to ape American films with some of their recent big budget productions, will always be French and the story segues from an inspired translation of the comic to a brooding, completive drama. This total shift in attitude is like taking a Lamborghini doing 150 in sixth gear and dropping it straight down into first. Not only does it bring the fun to a complete halt but it’s a real pisser that almost ruins the whole damn thing.

Luke, completely disillusioned and wracked with remorse decides to hang up his clover-etched pistols forever and settle down with saloon girl Belle (Alexandra Lamy) and take up farming, just like his old man did. Hearing the news, Billy the Kid (Michaël Youn) and Jesse James (Melvil Poupaud) show up vying to be the first man to take down the now no lo quiero pistolero, Lucky Luke. Also arriving on the scene is Calamity Jane (Sylvie Testud) whose crush on Luke leads her to saving his bacon from the ruffians who are now taking advantage of his demoralized state. See? I told you it was French. In spite of this misfortunate miscue, there’s still plenty of fun to be had before the final act. Youn and Poupaud are having a blast running with their characters; Billy being almost literally a kid at heart, complete with lolly pops and childish behavior, and Jesse (dressed up like a reject from TOMBSTONE) quoting Shakespeare at the drop of a shell casing.

The big twist at the end will come as no surprise to anyone, but the finale is so incredibly stylish with one of the most amazing sets I have ever seen on film, that you won’t really mind. Which is what this film is really all about for me. Sure, if I had grown up with the comics and considered them a national treasure, I’d probably find plenty to bitch about. As it is, it's still a lot of fun aside from the rather ill-advised fumble in the middle of the film.

Luke’s meeting with Pat Poker is a perfect example of what this film does right. Oozing with atmospheric smoke, light and shadow Luke and Poker trade off tricks in the sherriff’s office to the amazement of the on-looking prisoners. Finally Poker fans a deck of cards, throws them in the air and shoots down all four kings. Luke whips out a dollar bill throws it up in the air, fires one shot and four plugged quarters fall down on the desk. The film has so many goofy sight gags in between the character bits and the stunning visuals, that it’s hard to walk away unimpressed. They actually pull off a rack focus shot that goes through four fields of focus in a non-linear sequence. Did that make any sense at all? Well, trust me, it’s pretty amazing. So yes, it’s technically gobsmacking, trips on its own spurs, but at the same time still comes up aces, or at least a full house anyway.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Sci-Fried Theater: TRANSFORMATIONS (1988)

Charles Band seemed to have the right idea in the 1980s with his Empire Pictures.  He was cranking out low budget genre films by the dozen and even started dabbling in higher budgets (like Stuart Gordon’s ambitious ROBOT JOX) toward the end of the decade. He even bought a huge studio in Rome to serve all of the 40 productions he boldly announced in 1986/87. Seems he had all the right moves.  Well, except for one thing.  He forgot to pay his bills.

The financial cracks started forming in 1988 and, by October 1988, the Empire hadn’t stuck back but been struck down and Band had already moved on to Bandcompany (soon to become Full Moon).  Caught in bankruptcy limbo were 5 Empire productions that were in various states of post-production.  Titles included the aforementioned JOX (eventually released by Triumph theatrically and Columbia on video), David Schmoeller’s CATACOMBS (released as CURSE IV: THE ULTIMATE SACRIFICE by Columbia/Epic in 1993), SPELLCASTER with Adam Ant (released in 1992 by Columbia), the Band directed anthology PULSE POUNDERS (still unreleased) and the sci-fi slimer TRANSFORMATIONS.

I can still remember finding this one on a Starmaker VHS in a K-Mart sometime in 1991. Naturally, the cover (see pic above) was designed solely to get a 15-year-old like me into a Pavlov state.  I mean, a fly-bat-mantis-demon-man with a snake coming out of his exposed ribcage?  *drools*  Well, we’ll get this right out of the way and state that TRANSFORMATIONS features nothing as cool as the cover art. Lesson learned, I think.

The film centers on intergalactic smuggler Wolfgang “Call me Wolf” Shadduk (Rex Smith), who manages to have a dream of being raped by a succubus in the film’s first six minutes. It must have been one helluva lay as it knocks his ass out and his ship crash lands on a prison mining colony.  He is nursed back to health by friendly doctor Miranda (Lisa Langlois) and told not to socialize with the free-to-roam prisoners.  Do you think he listens?  No, and soon he is picking up chicks at the prison planet’s dive bar.  This is bad news because the succubus infected him with some kind of virus.  You know that a STD strain is deadly when you can get it in your dreams. Soon everyone is getting blisters and Father Christopher (Patrick Macnee) feels it is the second coming of the plague.

Man, what does it say about a film when the only thing I can remember from my first viewing of it 20 years ago were the sharp angles in Father Christopher’s space church and that the final “monster vs. girl” fight takes place in a place with some cargo nets?  Yes, TRANSFORMATIONS is completely forgettable, low budget stuff.  It shows the Band had his head on straight in that they reuse some of the sets from ROBOT JOX, a practice every studio should do. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is completely budget starved.  You’ll laugh when you see the same hallway used over and over during a chase scene.  And there is a score that is completely out of place.  It was probably added later and sounds like stock music from a 1950s b-gangster flick.  Also, I love that they decided to use Italians as the prisoner extras.  Of course, they would have to shooting in Italy, but they seemed to have grabbed the most stereotypical looking Italian guys on the block. Italian horror fans will probably notice the director of photography was Sergio Salvati (THE BEYOND), but his resources appear to have been extremely limited.

Finally, I love that a film called TRANSFORMATIONS only has one semi-full onscreen transformation.  Even worse, the final monster, which you barely get to see, looks exactly like that fried chicken head that made the news a few years ago (see pic).  First you cheat me on fly-bat-mantis-demon-man with the snake chest and now this? Shame on you, Mr. Band.  One thing I do find interesting about the film is the prison planet setting as that echoes the later ALIEN 3 (1992). This shot in 1987 and David Twohy – who introduced the prison planet idea initially into the ALIEN franchise – delivered his first draft for that sequel in 1989.  So somebody was checking this bad boy out. Because no one would ever, ever say, “What about a movie where a planet is used as a prison?”  Sadly, ALIEN 3 lacked the naked dream monster angle.  And a snake coming out a ribcage (chest-bursters don’t count).  Damn it, I’m still pissed.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Buns and Ammo: HARD TICKET TO HAWAII (1987)

Andy Sidaris’ MALIBU EXPRESS (1985) did enough business that he was able to mount this semi-sequel a few years later.  While EXPRESS laid the foundation, HARD TICKET TO HAWAII is generally considered the blueprint in Sidaris cinematic history with its location switch to the Aloha state for more obscene amounts of skin, sun and insanity.

HARD TICKET introduces series regulars Dona (Dona Speir) and Taryn (Hope Marie Carlton). Somehow we are supposed to believe these former Playboy Playmates (March 1984 for Speir and July 1985 for Carlton) are D.E.A. agents working undercover as pilots in Molokai.  Well, Taryn is a witness against the mob turned agent (because that is how the government work, right?). They soon find themselves up to their breasts in trouble thanks to some evil pot dealers.  See, they used to be peaceful local types, but evil Seth (Rodrigo Obregón) has taken over the organization and he takes no prisoners.  Oh wait, he actually does take a prisoner in Edy (Cynthia Brimhall, Playboy Playmate October 1985).  So the girls team up with buff warriors Jade (Harold Diamond) and Rowdy Abilene (Ronn Moss), cousin of MALIBU’s Cody Abilene.  Oh, and did I forget to mention there is a huge, cancer-ridden snake loose on the island?

HARD TICKET TO HAWAII is often considered Sidaris’ masterpiece and I can see why.  In addition to the T&A element, the film features some incredibly entertaining over-the-top moments.  The film has reached legendary status online with the “frisbee of death” scene but, believe it or not, that is not the film’s wildest moment.  I think that distinction should be handed to the “skater death” where Jade and Rowdy take out a middle-aged skater dude with a rocket launcher.  Did I forget to mention the skater is inexplicably carrying a blow up doll and the Rowdy blows that up with the bazooka as well? You know things are crazy when random scenes like that make you think a 12-foot cancer snake on steroids is completely normal.  I also love that the crazy climax with Seth coming back over and over like a horror movie slasher made me completely forgot about the toxic snake until it burst from the toilet in all its glory.

While Sybil Danning is definitely missed (she never made another Sidaris movie *sobs*), the new cast makes up for it as, once again, it looks like a nude Playmate convention.  In addition to the ladies mentioned above, we also get Patty Duffek (Playmate May 1984).  It is like Sidaris set up an orphanage for wayward Playboy Playmates. For the ADD crowd (or if you don't have 95 minutes to spare), a kind soul edited the best parts (sans nudity) of the movie into this 10 minute video. Warning: toxic snakes and incredibly catchy theme song!  For the ultra ADD crowd without 10 minutes to spare, I’ve done another handy visual guide to the film below.

HARD TICKET TO HAWAII in 10 minutes:

How every film should open:

Smokin' some of that weed before you went clothes shopping?

Dona (Dona Speir) & Taryn (Hope Marie Carlton), D.E.A. agents of your dreams:

"Let's unload and hit the jacuzzi. I do my best thinking there." (actual line)

Tae Kwon D'oh!

"So I saw this movie called .357 Magnum..."

 "Man, he must be smoking some heavy doobies." (actual line)

A plastic woman in a Sidaris flick, no way!

"Baby look pretty now, mommy?"


I've totally been to

You can tell he is evil by his phone:

OMG! Look at that beautiful wood paneling!

Your frisbee playin' days are over, son:

Is this guy Seth Voorhees?

Seth meets snake:

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The "Never Got Made" Files #64 & #65: Reaping the non-Harvest

Chances are if you saw a Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan film at some point in your life, you’ll recognize the film company logo to the left.  Opening many a film with the famous “bong, bong, bong, bong, do-dah-dah-dah,” the Golden Harvest logo is known the world over.  The company was formed in 1970 by Raymond Chow and Leonard Ho, two former employees of the famous Shaw Brothers studios who decided to try to succeed on their own.  And succeed they did as the duo managed to woo top box office draw Jimmy Wang Yu – among many other popular actors and directors – away from Shaw Bros.

Golden Harvest also scored a major coup by winning the bidding war with the Shaws to sign a relative unknown named Bruce Lee to a film contract.  Within just a few years, the company was the top film production house in Hong Kong and usurped their competition.  This was helped, no doubt, by the popular ENTER THE DRAGON (1973), which was made with help from US company Warner Bros.   Co-production was the name of the game and Golden Harvest had no qualms letting their big names get international exposure.  Wang Yu films like THE MAN FROM HONG KONG (1975) and A QUEEN’S RANSOM (1976) saw them working with Aussies and Brits, respectively.  They got even more clout by signing Robert Mitchum to THE AMSTERDAM KILL (1977), which reunited the company with ENTER director Robert Clouse.

In 1978, Golden Harvest had another successful international production with the Vietnam war flick THE BOYS IN COMPANY C (1978), which was directed by Sidney J. Furie and released by Columbia Pictures.  Looking to go to the co-production well one more time, Golden Harvest arranged for a series of films again with Warner Bros. Pictures and announced several pictures.  While many of them got made (THE CANNONBALL RUN, Jackie Chan’s THE BIG BRAWL, DEADLY EYES aka THE RATS), one big bandied about title did not – THE SHIPKILLER.  Based on a book by Justin Scott, THE SHIPKILLER revolved around a guy who begins an Ahab-esque quest to see vengeance on a huge oil tanker and its crew after it unwittingly crushes his smaller boat and kills his wife.

The first notices of the project came in these tiny blurbs in Box Office in August 1978 mentioning producer Chow had picked up the rights to the novel:

A few months later, in December 1978, it was announced that Sidney J. Furie had signed on to direct the project:

This impressive ad ran in Variety in May 1979 with the bold comparison to JAWS (1975).  Hey, no one would get it if they said, “It is like a seafaring DUEL (1971).”

Five months later, this ad appeared in Variety in October 1979.  We can only assume most of 1979 was spent on developing the script as the screenwriter went from Clarke Reynolds to Jonathan Hales.  A small GH profile mentioned a $20 million dollar budget.

Fast forward to May 1980 and the film has still not gone into production.  It is mentioned again in a write up for Harvest’s 1981 line up and is now looking about $4 million lighter in the budget department.

Alas, the film never got off the ground, er, set sail.  Furie would leave the project and go on to make THE ENTITY (1982), much to the delight of ghost sex fans everywhere.  It is a shame as it sounds like it could have been a cool project as 70s nautical films tended to rule and it would have been an awesome vehicle for someone like George C. Scott.

At the same time Golden Harvest announced THE SHIPKILLER, they also announced the production of HIGH ROAD TO CHINA.  “Wait a sec,” I can hear you saying, “that did get made fool!”  Yes, it did but after a prolonged pre-production process that saw some major players attached to the film.  Here are two items from Box Office in October 1978 announcing the project with ENTER THE DRAGON producer Paul Heller behind the project with a May 1979 start date.

Come May 1979, the producers are promising a July 1979 start date with a huge name attached to direct.  Yes, that is the one and only John Huston listed as director.  No doubt it was his fine acting work in TENTACLES (1977) and THE BERMUDA TRIANGLE (1978) that really convinced Golden Harvest he was the man for the job and not his storied directing career.

Despite the targeted summer 1979 filming date, they never got started.  In October 1979, the following ad ran for the film.  Huston was no longer attached with Brian Hutton (KELLY’S HEROES) taking his place.  But an even bigger name (in front of the camera) now took up the ad space: Mr. James Bond himself Roger Moore!  Pretty big casting as Moore was at the height of his popularity as Britain’s top secret service agent.

Sadly, we never got to see either incarnation of the project.  Golden Harvest developed it for a few more years before it finally went before cameras in 1982 with Tom Selleck in the lead role.  And, despite having a convoluted production history, the film turned out to be a pretty entertaining adventure.