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!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Listomania: Thomas' The F Month 2012

Damn, it's almost April and I haven't posted pint-sized ramblings about some of the amazing stuff I took in. While I've been revisiting a lot of old favorites in HD (I was never really sold on old movies in squeaky clean digital formats until I revisited BLADE RUNNER on blu-ray), here's a minor sampling of random flicks:

PRISON (1988): Honestly, I'm shocked at how well this movie has aged. The new transfer from Shout Factory really throws that into sharp relief with the lush cinematography being beautifully represented in a new widescreen presentation. Will throws the switch here. This impressive production was made right before the collapse of Empire pictures, making their demise even more bitter. There's a huge amount of talent on a very small budget and it really comes together dead on target without a wasted minute. On the casting side, we have Lane Smith as the prison warden, who not only has a subtle character arc that would be completely flattened in a modern genre film, but he chews the grim, neo-gothic scenery to just the right degree. Even when wide-eyed, sweaty and drooling, he never crosses the line into camp. Of course there's this guy named Viggo who I don't think went anywhere after this, Hal Landon Jr, who once again is a guy with a badge who has his keys stolen ("Deputy Van Halen?"), "Tiny" Lister who actually shows a surprising range of emotions, and Irwin Yablans' son who had the opportunity of playing the "special friend" of "Rhino" (the very real convict Stephen E. Little who was shackled in full restraints when the camera wasn't running). A real sleeper classic that never really got its due until now.

MEAN GUNS (1997): Albert Pyun has always had an erratic career. Even in the early days he transitioned from one of my all-time favorite films, THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER (1982), right into the completely off-the wall post-apocalyptic, neo-noir accented, action-comedy with song and dance routines, RADIOACTIVE DREAMS (1983). Even so, there is a point where Pyun's output turned into some seriously rough riding. As fellow Junkie Will has mentioned in the past, MEAN GUNS is that tipping point. The last of the entertaining Pyun films. I'm not saying this holds up to NEMESIS (1993), CYBORG (1989) or even BRAINSMASHER... A LOVE STORY (1993), but it is fun. Which is a hell of a lot more than can be said about LEFT FOR DEAD (2007), a movie that I have tried and tried to sit all the way through several times over the years. The premise of MEAN GUNS is simple, but the, *ahem*, execution is what makes it. Mafia middle-management badass Vincent Moon (Ice-T) is given the seemingly laborious assignment of smokin' roughly 100 criminal scumbags who screwed up in the eyes of the mob. After sending them all invitations, they all show up in a soon to be opened penitentiary (ironic, no?) where instead of simply gassing the place and heading home for a cocktail, Moon offers them an ultimatum. Instead of simply being shot on the spot, they can kill each other with weapons provided and the last three standing will be allowed to walk free. Oh, and there is a cash prize of $10 million stashed in a suitcase somewhere in the prison.
That's really about it. Alliances are formed, dissolved (violently) and we get bits and pieces of some of the infractions that brought the criminals to this point, plus a little bit of character development with a woman (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) who took some incriminating photos, but is by no means a killer. Christopher Lambert has the most interesting part as a guy who is sort of a renegade nutball and, in spite of being a calculated charmer, is not well liked and is known for making a bloody hash of things. Set to mambo music that Moon has piped in as a soundtrack to the best PPV ever (he sits in a control room watching the action via video cameras), MEAN GUNS isn't exactly deep, but it's fast-moving and fun to watch. It should be pointed out that the fun factor is largely diminished if you watch the cropped, poor-quality transfer that Lionsgate has has blessed us with here in the States on DVD and VOD. Pyun shot the film with a wide FOV lens that distorts at the edges. It gives the film an interesting look in widescreen, but in the cropped version it feels like you are watching the film with a fishbowl on your head. European DVD releases, such as the Italian and German editions, feature not only a much more detail picture, but the full-scope ratio that the movie desperately needs preserved, as evidenced in this shot comparison.

GLEAMING THE CUBE (1989): I really hated this movie back in the day. Christian Slater as a skater? In his f'n dreams! This utterly ridiculous 1930s "yellow-terror" murder mystery thrown on to a skateboard and given a day-go 1980s whitewash, comes complete with  Tony Hawk and the Bones Brigade in bit parts, and damned if it isn't 110% better in retrospect. While working for an allegedly Vietnamese grocery store, Brian Kelly's (Christian Slater) half-brother Vinh (Art Chudabala) is murdered by (allegedly) Vietnamese mobsters after finding some irregularities in a shipping invoice. If you've ever worked in retail, I'm sure you can relate. Set-up to appear as a suicide, the cops don't even question the fact that some kid decided to hang himself in the shower of a random motel that he never checked into. Now it's up to Brian to... hit the half-pipe! Oh yeah, and get to the bottom of the mystery.
Screenwriter Michael Tolkin's messages are writ pretty large in this movie. One being the "Asian menace" theme, the other is that being a member of a fringe group that does not conform to mainstream acceptance is not only bad, but will make you unpopular, unlayable and your parents will hate you. Ok, so that last part might be true. At one point in the movie Brian realizes that he needs to essentially dress preppy with a sweater, khakis and loafers in order to gain acceptance, from what appears to be the entire planet, and get the drop on the bad guys.
Hijole de la chingada! Check out the price of gas in LA!
Aside from (or because of) the wonky messages and laughable stereotyping, the most amusing bits in the movie are the unintentionally hilarious skate scenes in which Slater is doubled by the considerably skinnier Hawk and the considerably more talented Rodney Mullen. Actually seeing Mullen in a bad Slater wig during a segment in which an angry Brian is supposedly skating off his pain at the loss of his brother by doing Mullen's patented, whimsical flatland tricks is nothing short of hilarious. The skate-aesthetic production design is actually really ambitious with each skater having a completely different, highly detailed bedroom set. Clearly the design team were having a ball. The movie has gotten quite popular over recent years due to the intense '80s kistch factor and fun action set pieces, but there's more than that to get a kick out of. There is a whole host of priceless dialogue, my favorite line being when the coroner is checking out Vinh's body and says "shit, kids didn't kill themselves when I went to highschool, what the hell is going on around here?" Plus you have Slater starting a car by sticking a skateboard truck-key in the ignition lock (!), a cameo by Buddy Joe Hooker in a red Corvette, and Tony Hawk in a Pizza Hut delivery driver uniform (why was this never an unlockable outfit in the Pro Skater games?). Sure, it's not going to change your religion, but it is much more fun than it deserves to be.

BUSTING (1974): Peter Hyams has had a wildly erratic career as a director, but you can't accuse him of following the herd, not even when he has formula stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude Van Damme in front of the camera. Here, in his first feature film, Hyams directs Elliot Gould, known for making weird films, and Robert Blake, known for being weird. Even though this follows a trend of early '70s disillusioned cop movies (1972s THE NEW CENTURIONS arguably being the poster child for this sub-genre), it definitely marches to the beat of its own drum. Gould and Blake play Keneely and Farrel, a pair of shabby, cynical vice detectives who have good intentions, but seem to make a hash out of a simple bust of a high-class hooker. The minor foul-up is less important than the fact that she has friends in high places who don't want to see her busted, nor her crime boss Rizzo (Allen Garfield) who seems to have bought off the entire Los Angeles police force. Every time they try to follow up on Rizzo, they get knocked down by the chief who is being told to put Keneely and Farrel on a short leash. In addition to the off beat performances (Blake seems like he was shot-up with thorazine before every scene), there are bizarre "comic" sequences of the duo being put on menial tasks such as hanging out in a men's public toilet waiting to be propositioned or better still, being ferociously attacked by a mob of cross-dressers in a gay bar that is envisioned with red lighting and hand-held camera work. The punchline to the latter scene is Keneely leaning up against a car while Farrel examines a bite on his leg, rhetorically composing a letter to his parents "Dear Mom and Dad, how are you doing? I am swell. Fag ate my leg. Your son, Michael." Trust me, I'm not taking that out of context. Hyams ropes in a few cool bit players as well, with Antonio Fargas playing a catty queer (again), Sid Haig as one of Rizzo's henchmen and even Michael Lerner shows up briefly. Imagine THE NEW CENTURIONS (1972) on pills and dope with don't-give-a-shit attitude and you kind of get the picture.

HOT STUFF (1979): In his massive career spanning over 50 years of television and film, Dom DeLouise only directed one feature film and this is it. Personally, I think if you are going to direct only one feature film in your half-century career it should be written by Donald Westlake with a title song by Jerry Reed. I think that's fair.
A group of frustrated undercover cops (DeLouise, Jerry Reed, Suzanne Pleshette and "The Electric Company's" own Luis Avalos) get tired of trying to bust the  perps the hard way. You know, with warrants, miranda rights and random ball shots. Also plaguing their careers is the wrath of their hot-tempered chief (Ossie Davis) who wants them to go by the book, goddammit! Seems that whole angle isn't working, so they get the idea to set up a pawn shop where they can pretend to be fences allowing them to videotape the scofflaws in the act of selling their stolen goods. Once the team has spent all of the department's money on buying up stolen goods, they'll just round everyone up and arrest them. What could go wrong?
Ok, I'm not going to try and sell you some line about this being a piece of subversive cinema in mainstream clothing, but it does have a nice grimy backdrop.
Westlake (with the help of ham-handed script-doctor Michael Kane) dial in a nice combination of freewheeling action and what basically amounts to stand-up comedy cameos. Additionally, in spite of Burt Reynolds' conspicuous absence (apparently too busy with the 1979 romantic comedy STARTING OVER), we still get Trans Am action sequences, though it does amazingly transform into a beat-up Camero right before it is blown up by the mob. When I was a kid I was fascinated by Stockton, California's seedy bars, pool halls and pawnshops (which puts me in good company as FAT CITY was famously shot there in '72). Maybe that's why this movie made such an impression. Watching this through a kid's eyes in a Stockton theater made it seem like this could be happening right down the street. Though I really couldn't fathom what was so damn funny about those skinny cigarettes.

TOTAL RECALL (2012): Well, since you asked, my opinion of Colin Farrell hasn’t changed in the slightest. I’d say he was miscast, but that implies that there is a role that he would be good in. As for this film, it’s amazing how much stuff they rip off from movies that they are not remaking. They did a great job of re-creating Mega City 1 and Los Angeles 2019. You see, the basic premise is that there are only two inhabitable areas left on earth. Both are highly compact city states, like I dunno… a “mega” city. On one side of the Earth we have the affluent, totalitarian UK (blatantly stolen from "Judge Dredd" comic books) and on the other side of the Earth is the poor downtrodden Down Under (blatantly stolen from BLADE RUNNER). There is a massive shuttle transport that runs through the center of the earth in between the two, mainly to ferry poor menial laborers from the oddly dystopian outback into the unsurprisingly Germanic Pommyland to assemble military robots. As a political ploy the prime minister of the UK (*spoilers!*) sets up a rebel movement in Oz, so that he will have an excuse to invade with the robots the their own population has assembled. It's not really a remake of the Schwarzenegger film (which bizarrely is now being vaunted as a "classic" of the genre), though it does throw in a few reworkings of "classic" bits from that film that are about as welcome as a homeless guy at a Republican convention. Just in case you were wondering, the tri-boobed prostitute was not in the original Philip K. Dick story. On the plus side, those bits are the only parts of the film that fall into camp.
He say you... eh, you know.
Who is the Law?
The really interesting thing about this movie, is not so much the movie, as the studio's interference with it. Columbia contractually bound director Len Wiseman to created a short, “dumb” edit for theatrical distribution. In spite of studios dumbing down movies for decades, this is a pretty amazing example. The director’s cut, which can be found on a limited blu-ray, has a staggering total of 92 changes. Ninety two! In my guestimation some 80 of those changes are story/character/dialogue related, not only adding depth and complexity to the film, but also significantly altering the story and characters. Many parts of the film the studio felt would be simply too confusing for the average movie goer. I mean, obviously you wouldn't want to challenge the viewer to actually think during a movie! Particularly not a Philip K. Dick adaptation. Too bad there weren’t a few more changes removing all the annoying CGI lensflair. I love the irony that a majority of the criticisms aimed at the film were from an audience and critics who hated it's simple-minded approach that neither offered an interesting plot and characters nor a straight-up remake of the original adaptation. No doubt Columbia has blamed the hatred on a hater market that is not interested in science fiction.
Personally, I didn’t hate it. It fumbles a lot of stuff (like casting Farrell and Jessica Beil), but it’s definitely not a remake. There are three or four scenes that deliberately echo the Arnold movie and I don’t know why they even bothered. Maybe that was something else that Columbia demanded. They changed some stuff back to the way it is in the original PKD story, but then changed other stuff to make it a high concept Hollywood film. Interestingly while in the theatrical film Farrell receives video-recorded messages from his own post Rekal self, in the director's cut we have Ethan Hawke leaving those messages. I think this is the one time in my life that I've been delighted to see Ethan Hawke in a movie.
This version of TOTAL RECALL really doesn’t hold much to the source material, borrowing liberally from other films, but it’s definitely closer than the Paul Verhoeven film. That's got to count for something.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Cyber Monday: T-FORCE (1994)

One of our mottos here should be “so many movies, so little time.”  Despite plugging away at this tiny blog for nearly 3 years, we still haven’t covered 1/10 of what we want.  A perfect example is the storied catalog of PM Entertainment. Sure, we hit a few here and there (ALIEN INTRUDER, the phenomenal RAGE) but we are far from doing an all-encompassing overview.  Born from the 80s direct-to-video outfit City Lights, PM was conceived by producers Richard Pepin and Joseph Merhi (hence the PM) as an independent production company that catered exclusively to the video market with a series of action films.  They kicked off with some real cheap stuff (just to give you an idea, Dan Haggerty was in an early one), but soon kicked into high gear by getting B-movie stars like Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Lorenzo Lamas, and Wings Hauser (who even directed a few outings) in their films.

Starting around 1994, the company really started finding its groove.  The budgets got bigger and that meant the explosions did too.  Under the guidance of stunt coordinators like Spiro Razatos and Red Horton, PM was (in my opinion) producing better action scenes than most major studios at the time.  Cars flipped through explosions as big as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ego, always landing on a perfectly placed crash cam.  It was damn high art, I tell ya!  Even though they weren’t shown theatrically, the PM stuff was a godsend for us lame folks still going through withdrawal after the Cannon boys closed up shop.  Even better is around this time the Pepin and Merhi boys started expanding their universe and brought their style of slam-bang action over to the science fiction world (no doubt due to the success of some unknown film named TERMINATOR 2).  One of their earliest full blown sci-fi outings was T-FORCE.  Can you guess what the “T” stands for?

Now this logo I can get behind!
The film opens in an unidentified future where a group of terrorists led by Samuel Washington (Vernon Wells) take over a high rise housing a U.N. ambassador.  Five minutes in and I’m getting Wez from THE ROAD WARRIOR shooting people and throwing a woman out a window?  SOLD!   Anyway, this sounds like a job for the T-Force, a group of five cyborgs, er, cybernauts trained to kill and put the termination in their “T” name.  The team consists of leader Adam Omega (Evan Lurie), Cain (Bobby Johnston), Zeus (Deron McBee), Mandragora (Jennifer MacDonald) and Athens (R. David Smith).  Wait, you sure this isn’t a bootleg version of AMERICAN GLADIATORS?  Also along for the ride is Lt. Jack Floyd (Jack Scalia), a renegade cop who plays by his own rules and hates robots.  Can you see guess where this is going? The hostage crisis goes smoothly with only Athens taking some irreparable damage. Unfortunately, the team’s credo of “infiltrate, locate, destroy on contact” (damn, I wish they had made that rhyme as “infiltrate, locate, eliminate” has such a ring to it) ends up resulting in a helicopter with six innocent hostages onboard being blown up.

Anyway, losing six innocent civilians is always bad PR (unless you’re in the Bush administration) and Mayor Pendleton (Erin Gray, still rocking it in her 40s) orders cybernaut creator Dr. Jonathan Gant (Martin E. Brooks, who also built THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN) to dismantle the four remaining bots. Naturally, the robots object and find a loophole when they realize the order of termination conflicts with their primary directive of self preservation.  Well, actually, Cain doesn’t buy their logic and he stays behind after the other three kill their creator and decide to take out the “corrupt” law enforcement that ordered their termination.  The lawbreaking bots hole up in a “decriminalized zone” (meaning: empty factory and rock quarry) and it is now up to Floyd to track them down before they assassinate the mayor. And who better to help him out than someone who can think just like them? Yep, the hard drive hatin’ cop just got himself a new partner in cyborg cutie Cain!  They quickly jump on the trail of our renegade robots and maybe – just maybe! – Floyd will come around to the idea of having a “tin man” as his partner.

T-FORCE isn’t quite a PM classic, but it is a great time waster.  Yes, the script is clichéd as they come (if you saw ALIEN NATION [1988], you already saw this) but the film makes up for it with a good cast and action scenes every 10 minutes or so.  Jack Scalia is very good as the lead and you can buy him as the grizzled cop who holds a grudge against machines because they put his old man out of work at the auto factory back in the day.  He would do two more sci-fi action pictures with PM (THE SILENCERS and DARK BREED) and both are definitely recommended.  One other impressive thing is he does a lot of his own stunt work.  Bobby Johnston is a former Playgirl model so he was probably cast for that alone, but he is also fine as the robotic partner and the rapport with Scalia is nicely done.  Evan Lurie, who is a dead ringer for WCW’s Kanyon, is also entertaining as the lead villain (although his style did lead me to wonder why a doctor would give a cyborg a pony tail).  I do wish director Richard Pepin had done a bit more to establish the time period of the film though. Seriously, you can’t have anyone say a date?  The closest we get is someone referring to a weapon as “vintage 20th century.”  It is odd because they do a lot of things right like the cyborg designs and even little stuff like a convenience that proudly sells guns, booze and groceries.  Of course, I can’t complain too much about a film that has two cyborgs break into a sex scene after they discover a nudie mag lying on the floor of their steel mill headquarters.  Genius!

PM's executive conference?
Of course, as with most PM films, the biggest asset is the crazy ass stuntwork.  You’d think PM stood for Plenty o’ Mayhem because they blow stuff up real good here.  In fact, the first 25 minutes is nothing but action with the high rise hostage situation.  Stunt coordinators Joe Murphy and Red Horton love them some big explosions and the abandoned steel mill (also seen in the likes of Albert Pyun’s NEMESIS and DOLLMAN) provides the perfect backdrop for goodness, gracious great balls of fire!  They have some insane stuff going down here, including some explosions so close to the actors that the singed hairs on the back of James Hetfield's neck stand up any time they go off.  Whether it is commitment to their filmmaking craft or a bit of craziness (I suspect a bit of both), it is practical stuff like real cars flippin’ and big bombs a bustin’ that makes this 100 minutes worth my time.  You can take your fancy CGI flames and shove ‘em!

Monday, March 11, 2013


If you were some sort of sadistic enabler or, more to the point, an deranged corrupter of youth, you might have held two hands out in front of my wide pre-pubescent eyes. In one hand a Penthouse magazine, in the other, a copy of Heavy Metal. Can you see the sweat breaking on my brow? How in god's name was I supposed to choose between the two? I should write a book around that scenario. It would be the cruelest story since Steve Martin's first novel.

When I was in my pre-teens and even in my teenage years, Heavy Metal Magazine was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. My mind was blown by the fact that it was a comic book, but the art was not the clean, nice art found in Marvel and DC, it was gritty, violent and frequently had impossibly gorgeous women in various states of nekkid. The stories weren't simply about a guy in tights doing nice things, they were complex and aesoteric to the point where my young mind would frequently be completely lost. It also, more than occasionally, had male nudity and while in my naiveté I didn't get why you'd want that in the first place, I perceived it as very edgy and daring. Which it turned out to be, and still is to a degree, at least here in the US.

As I learned later, Heavy Metal, was in legend and in fact, Metal Hurlant. A french magazine created in 1974 by the Les Humanoides Associés, a publishing group that included the now iconic artist Mœbius (Jean Giraud) as well as Jean-Pierre Dionnet and Philippe Druillet. In addition to featuring Mœbius (who would later work on the production design of highly influential films such as 1982's TRON), Metal Hurlant provided a home for writers who pushed the envelope as well. Famed cinematic lunatic Alejandro Jodorowski wrote more for Metal Hurlant than he ever did for movies, and his joint vision with the artists that he worked with were not limited by flaky backers, tiny budgets or prima donnas. After experimenting with a comics-only format, the magazine featured a format of short comic stories, interspersed with pop-culture articles by journalists about music, movies and novels, all of a sci-fi or underground bent.

In 1977 National Lampoon published an American version of Metal Hurlant known as Heavy Metal. Starting out with translated versions of Metal Hurlant's stories, after a few years Heavy Metal sought out its own identity by utilizing more American talent to make original content, much to the chagrin of the French publishers, who, being French, could not understand why you wouldn't want French stories. Interestingly, while Metal Hurlant began succumbing to an over-saturation of the target demographic with several other magazines created by former Metal Hurlant staffers, in America, Heavy Metal continued to flourish. By 1987 Metal Hurlant had burned very brightly, but with artists and writers turning to other outlets, Metal Hurlant was rendered silent.

That is not to say that Heavy Metal never missed a step. They had various change-ups in publication schedules, leadership (finally being bought out by Mr. Ninja Turtle himself Kevin Eastman, for better or for worse in 1992) and a little competition from Marvel's Epic Illustrated (1980-1984) which featured the likes of Frank Frazetta gracing their covers. In spite of that, Heavy Metal never went out of publication and is still in print today. In 2002 with the help of US-based publisher / film producer and owner of the the Humanoids publishing group, Fabrice Giger, Metal Hurlant was revived in France (with English, Spanish and Portuguese editions) sporting a new format that featured only the comic aspect (arguably the most popular part) and served as a platform for aspiring artists or as a showcase for excepts of graphic novels. This lasted only four years before fizzling out again.

Due to it's cutting-edge popularity in the US and Canada, a US-Canadian co-production brought to life an R-rated animated anthology film in 1981 that stayed true to the source material. Although minor tweaks were made to help accommodate a new wrap-around segment and perhaps a few less penises were rendered, the movie stayed incredibly faithful to the original stories and artwork, something of a rarity for a production with Hollywood backing.

Since then, there has been an ill-conceived "sequel" titled HEAVY METAL: F.A.K.K.² (which stands for "Federation-Assigned Ketogenic Killzone to the second level", in case you were wondering), written by Kevin Eastman as a vehicle for his then-wife Julie Strain. Based on a single story from a more recent American issue, "The Melting Pot", it went through a decade of development and production issues before finally being released direct to video in the year 2000 as HEAVY METAL 2000. With Saturday morning cartoon-style art and an embarrassingly insipid story, it proved that Eastman should stick to what he knows best: publishing other people's work. 2007 saw rumors that David Fincher and James Cameron were interested in doing a proper all-star HEAVY METAL sequel (since Guillermo del Toro was involved, this was clearly doomed from the outset) and in 2011, brace yourself, Robert Rodriguez picked up the rights. Rodriguez has stated that he and Eastman are working on "a large scale media project" and an animated film. And you thought that Eastamn and Strain project was bad. I shudder to think of what Eastman and Rodriguez might do.

In 2011 a French production company, with the backing of Fabrice Geiger, announced that it would be releasing an anthology TV series on French TV with European distribution to follow shortly thereafter. After yet another delayed production the series was broadcast in late 2012 in it's entirety on two days, in a late night slot.

Consisting of six 25 minute episodes, this modern METAL takes its inspiration from the pages of the 2002-2004 revival and sports a razor-thin wrap-around segment that echoes the 1981 film. The opening of the series starts with a grave narration: "The last fragment of a once living planet, it's body blasted into dust by the madness of it's own inhabitants, while its head was cursed to roam aimlessly through time and space screaming in pain and sorrow. In legend and in fact, it is known as... Metal Hurlant", while a meteor that looks slightly head-like blazes through the cosmos with some synth and crunchy guitars in the background. Damn, I'm sold already! The opening credits are a montage of live-action (though heavily digitally rendered) concepts of Metal Hurlant style: a girl in black leather using a laser blaster to shoot ninjas under the moons of a futuristic city, ablaze with blue fire; a female cowboy cutting down some grizzled outlaws with a samurai sword on an alien desert planet and the like. Rocket fuel for your inner 16 year-old.

Shot on what is obviously very low budgets, in English, the stories are essentially like modern Twilight Zone episodes. I know that is sort of a hackneyed analogy, but this series really embodies that phrase like none before it. The stories are tight, concise and feature a twist at the end that throws the viewer's conceptions on their respective ears.

The first episode, "The King's Crown" (based on the same story from Metal Hurlant #142 by Jim Alexander and Richard Corben), has the Metal Hurlant screaming past a planet where the corrupt and bloated king lives in a floating castle above the unwashed masses. A once technologically advanced race has now returned to a feudal era with the remnants of its high-tech past on the periphery. The king is dying and as is the custom, a tournament is held to find a new successor. The warriors fight to the death until there is only one man standing. That man will be crowned king. In this event is Guillame (Scott Adkins) a ferociously just fighter who wants nothing more than to win the crown so that he can take his people out of their slums and bring back the technology that they have lost during the reign of the tyrant king who gluts himself on drugs and kidnapped concubines. Also in the fight are warriors with much less noble intents, including Michael Jai White, Matt Mullins and Darren Shahlavi (who played Kano in the woefully under-promoted and distributed MORTAL KOMBAT: LEGACY). While series director Guillaume Lubrano doesn't get the same firepower out of this fantastic group as say, John Hyams might have, just remind yourself that it's a TV show, and a French one at that, and it suddenly becomes quite an impressive thing indeed.

Other stories are a bit more cerebral: "Shelter Me" has a teenage girl waking up in a sealed bomb-shelter with her strange neighbor; some a bit more political: "Red Light" tells of a man being held by an alien peacekeeping force that has supplied arms to his people and their enemies, ensuring mutual destruction; some more epic and flashy: "Master of Destiny" originally written and drawn by by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Adi Granov for the final issue of Hurlant in 2004, boasts what appears to be half of the budget of the entire series. Embracing the feel of old school Metal Hurlant/Heavy Metal, but presenting them in a modern way, only one story out of the seven (one episode has two stories) falls flat. "The Pledge of Anya" with Rutger Hauer, has a theme that has been done to death with a twist that is more than a little obvious at the halfway point. Other than that one misstep, the series is a lot of fun, simultaneously feeling fresh and yet familiar. I wish that we could have television shows like this in America. Sure, the SyFy Channel could do their own Heavy Metal series, or even someone else, but it would never be based on actual stories from the magazines. It would have to be "inspired by" so that some hack TV writers could dumb it down, fill it with wisecracks and turn it into the one thing that it shouldn't be: mostly harmless, like the awful MORTAL KOMBAT: CONQUEST series. Granted, this French series has no nudity and only the barest trickle of blood at best, and the digital effects are in no danger of overshadowing THE HOBBIT (2012), but then again, it's not homogenized baby pap either.
It may have some shortcomings due to the budget and the intended medium, but I feel that METAL HURLANT CHRONICLES is some of the best genre TV I've seen in ages. Apparently someone with France 4 (the station that aired the series) didn't have high-hopes for it and decided to make sure that it would not do well. In spite of the mediocre ratings, much like the magazine that it is based on, the series seems to be more popular outside of France. In spite of this a second season has been announced. The good news is that Sony Pictures has purchased the rights for European distribution. The bad news is, nobody seems to be interested in it here in the US, which I find somewhat baffling. It could easily be re-edited into a (rather long) feature film and given a DTV blu-ray release or shown on the SyFy Channel (this would seem like a no-brainer). Maybe they're just concerned that it would make their other programming look worse than it already does. In the mean time while we wait for the suits in American board rooms to figure it out, the complete series has been released on DVD and Blu-Ray in France (the deluxe edition comes with a hard-back volume containing reprints of all of the original stories that are in the series). While I do wish that this have been given proper backing and made into an epic feature film that would get proper distribution, I am really looking forward to seeing what they have in store for season 2.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The "Never Got Made" Files #96 - #98: The Many Journeys of C. Courtney Joyner

Joyner directing TRANCERS III (1992)
Having covered C. Courtney Joyner’s unmade works from the 1980s and 1990s in parts one and two, we now jump forward to the present to focus on some of his more recent projects.  The new millennium found the always active Joyner not slowing down.  In addition to scripts for television, Joyner got to write for some comics and contributed chapters to film books on Lon Chaney, Jr., John Ford and John Wayne.  In 2009 he also saw the culmination of years of work with the release of THE WESTERNERS, a collection of interviews with some of the western genre's best filmmakers.  Of course, he still had plenty of film ventures in the development stage at this time and in our final piece we’re going to examine three of them.

#96 - BLACK GLOVES (2005) 

Promotional art for BLACK GLOVES
This serial killer script, also know as PAPA, shows Joyner returning to his horror roots.  He describes it as a “woman in jeopardy” thriller and it focuses on Kathryn, a young law student who discovers a shocking secret while trying to find her real father.  She locates him but discovers he is a serial killer, who is soon captured by the F.B.I. after trying to kill her.  The bad news?  His long standing desire to kill was fostered by his desire to kill his own relatives and in locating him she has reenergized his drive while giving him the ultimate target.  And you thought your girl had daddy issues?

Sounds like a pretty easy sell, right?  Well not in Hollywood where execs want a script’s synopsis in five words or less, preferably with a similar movie mentioned (legend has it a top exec once described a project they were fond of as “like DIE HARD but set in a skyscraper”). Fighting such odds is tough, but Joyner prevailed.  “BLACK GLOVES was sold to [producers] Pen Densham and John Watson a few years ago,” Joyner reveals. “They tried to get that going at MGM and didn’t.”

The end result of dealing with studios
So what is the hold up?  Would you believe something as simple as a title?  When I hear a title like BLACK GLOVES, I immediately think of the 1960s/70s Italian giallo subgenre that featured black gloved killers prowling around with a razor while spying on unsuspecting heroines. “Thank you very much!  That is exactly what I wanted people to think of,” Joyner exclaims with joy.  “And then, of course, O.J. Simpson happened.  So now everybody thinks it’s a reference to that and I go, ‘No, no, no!  It’s not O.J. Simpson, it is DEEP RED.’  Say DEEP RED to a development executive and see the reaction you get.”

Indeed, chances are you say “giallo” to a studio exec and they start thinking of Bill Cosby and pudding pops.  Mmmmm, pudding pops. Solving the title problem was a snap compared to the office politics: “MGM was in the process of a changing of the guard, and was sold, which is always death to a script in development, and that’s what happened with us. John and Pen are great producers, and they devoted a lot of time to the project, but everyone gets run over when studios reorganize.” Thankfully, the rights have fully reverted back to Joyner and he feels it is something that might be worth dusting off at some point.

#97 - COP WAR (2005-present)

Around the same time period, Joyner developed a script with old friend Sheldon Lettich, a screenwriter-director best known for his RAMBO III (1988) screenplay and various collaborations with Jean-Claude Van Damme.  The inspiration for this contemporary action flick came from an unusual source: the 1928 Herbert Asbury non-fiction book dealing with early 20th century gangs in America’s biggest city.  “I had gotten a hold of a copy – years before the Martin Scorsese movie – of the [Asbury] book THE GANGS OF NEW YORK,” Joyner discloses.  “My father had a first edition of it sitting in our house forever and I read it.  I was so interested in the fact that these police departments at the turn of the century in New York City basically had this shooting war going on.  Most of it was ethnic – the Irish versus the Italians. Reading a lot about what was going on in L.A. – whether it was the Rodney King or even going back to the Manson investigation – there was never a lot of cooperation between the LAPD and the Sheriff’s department.  I thought, ‘What if things got so bad that an actual shooting war broke out between those two facets?’”

Together the two screenwriters came up with a story of warring cop factions that, when not arresting folks, wage war over the city streets in Pittsburgh. “Sheldon had the idea that, since I’m from Pittsburgh, to set it in an urban setting and we went for Pittsburgh,” Joyner says of the plot.  “A rookie policeman discovers his senior partner is involved with corruption that involves his entire precinct. When he tries to report it, he finds himself at war with his fellow officers.”

With Lettich’s Van Damme connection, it was only a matter of time before the “Muscles from Brussels” took interest in the project.  “Jean-Claude Van Damme was interested in it for a while because, of course, he and Sheldon have a very good history,” he reveals. “Sheldon was always going to direct it. It’s come awfully close a few times.”  One of those times was a close call as the script almost undeservedly ending up as the basis for the direct-to-video S.W.A.T. II for Sony (the world was eventually blessed with the unrelated S.W.A.T. sequel S.W.A.T.: FIREFIGHT in 2011).  In 2005 a prominent director of THE WIRE also got involved, but the film was still not made.

What COP WAR almost became:

As it stands now, the script is still open for development and hopefully Lettich can get it on the front burner again. Crazy cop stories like the recent Christopher Dorner case in Los Angeles show the subject matter will always be relevant. “It’s always been an active project,” Joyner explains of the script, “and every once and a while Sheldon will call me and say, ‘Oh guess what?  Somebody wants to do something with COP WAR again!’”    


Early 20th Century railroad camp
It is only fitting that we end our coverage with this script as it is one of Joyner’s personal favorites, alongside DOUBLE ACTION MAN (aka WHEN A MAN LOVES A WOMAN) that John (ROLLING THUNDER) Flynn tried to get made.

Like the aforementioned COP WAR, BOXCAR BOYS also found its origin through a bit of historical research after Joyner had moved away from Hollywood for a period and was living in North Carolina.  “Here is the thing I discovered – in certain states, particularly in the South, the railroad companies themselves actually owned the land and the property around where the land where tracks existed,” he details.  “That is why they could have the rail hops as a private police force and nobody could do anything because, essentially, they were enforcing law on private property.  You would see the pictures of the tent cities around the railroad yard during the Depression.”

Early 20th Century unsanctioned boxing match
With this setting in place, Joyner began fashioning a scenario in the best tradition of hard hitting Depression era classics like EMPEROR OF THE NORTH (1973) and HARD TIMES (1975).  “I set this in one of the tent cities and the rail hops are having boxing matches there with these guys they are essentially holding prisoner,” Joyner reveals of his script. “They capture this one kid who is sneaking on a boxcar and he’s deaf, but he’s a good fighter.  And he becomes kind of famous. So the hoi polloi of the surrounding cities come in and it becomes a bigger and bigger thing. The height reaches where they have one match that brings in everybody turns into a race riot.”

With his script completed, Joyner got the labor of love to his agent and the “Jack Dempsey meets Jack London” style scenario drew immediate interest from several parties.  “It got me a lot of notice,” Joyner says.  “A producer got a hold of it and at different times we had Christopher Walken attached, we had Burt Reynolds attached, we had Harvey Keitel attached.  All kinds of people.”  One of the more fascinating interested talents was a man legendary for using his fists in real life and having been a participant in one of moviedom’s greatest fist fights in THEY LIVE (1988).  “Roddy Piper really, really wanted to do it,” he reveals.  “He would be playing the bad guy, which I thought would have been great.  He gave me some great feedback.”

Fargo directs Chuck Norris on FORCED VENGEANCE (1982)
Originally Joyner wrote the film with the intention of also making it his third directorial feature.  However, like DOUBLE ACTION MAN, he realized a more experienced director might be in order.  “Again, this really required someone a hell of a lot better than me as I’d only directed two movies now,” he says of the decision to let other directors look at it.  “This was a period piece and kind of a big thing. About two or three years ago, I gave the script to James (THE ENFORCER) Fargo as we had the same agent.  Jim really liked and his background with Clint Eastwood was a perfect fit.  We tried to get something going at Hallmark and we couldn’t.  I know Jim would still very much like to do it. I love that piece and it really attracted some good people.  But, as often happens, we get the folks but couldn’t get the money.  I have high hopes for that as I feel it is a real quality piece of work.”

As it stands, Joyner’s BOXCAR BOYS is still something he cherishes to this day and hopes to see made into a feature film.  “You almost have a whole different feeling about that kind of work and your commitment to that work than I do with the [writing] assignments” he acknowledges regarding personal projects versus writing assigned works.  “That doesn’t mean I blew anything off, but your emotional investment is a little different.  There’s a little bit of difference between that and sitting in the bathtub and going, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got a great idea for a movie’ and nursing it along yourself.”  


Preproduction art for THE RETURN OF CAPTAIN NEMO
While we’ve reached the end of our series on Mr. Joyner’s unmade screenplays, don’t think the man has any notions of slowing down.  With a new year comes a myriad of new projects.  On the publishing front, Joyner just saw HELL COMES TO HOLLYWOOD, a 2012 horror anthology featuring his “One Night in the Valley” short story, nominated for a Bram Stoker Award, and 2013 promises the publication of SHOTGUN, an original novel series from Kensington / Pinnacle Books, and the highly anticipated WARNER BROS. FANTASTIC, a look at the studios’ genre output from McFarland press.  On the movie side, Joyner has scripted the enticing sounding THE RETURN OF CAPTAIN NEMO, which is scheduled to go into production this year.  And, of course, he’ll probably get a call from Sheldon Lettich about more interest in COP WAR.   As for his other unproduced works, Joyner is level headed and knows it is the nature of the game.  “Every writer who's done any work in Hollywood goes through these exact same experiences,” he concludes. “My adventures aren't unusual or special at all. Unfortunately, more projects are not made than made, and it really is a case of beating the odds when something goes before the cameras. So I just keep pounding away, and hope someone takes notice.”