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!

Friday, May 30, 2014

Aus Deutschland mit Scheisse: FOG 2 - REVENGE OF THE EXECUTED (2007)

Let’s get the bad pun out of the way right off the bat.  I have the foggiest memory of this film back in 2000 or so.  Some horror news site had a tiny blurb about the Germans making THE FOG 2 and Andreas Schnaas was someone involved.  My brain somehow concocted this image of a gory-as-hell flick with cool looking rotting sailor zombies; something along the lines of the cheap-but-entertaining ANTHROPOPHAGUS 2000 (1999).  My brain is messed up.  This was before I knew the depths of how bad German shot-on-video cinema could be.  And it was before I knew the name Oliver Krekel.  Shot in 1999 but not released (unleashed?) upon the public for several years, THE FOG 2 (technically the title is FOG², which makes no sense) is nothing more than a glorified home movie that will make you question the stereotype of Germans being efficient with solid craftsmanship.

The film opens with six Nazi soldiers being executed on a beach and their bodies being left to the sea.  We assume this was in the past since it was in black and white.  Director Krekel then cuts to shots of the ocean with a quote about fog credited to one C. Newport.  Once again, the viewer is left to assume.  This could be English seaman Christopher Newport (and I only know about him because Christopher Newport University is just down the road from me) or it could be Chet “Slim” Newport, black sheep of the Newport cigarette empire.  That will give you a hint of how Krekel doesn’t give a damn.  We then jump right into a dream sequence as Jenny (Nadine Nigge, soon to be Krekel’s wife) is haunted by six guys shown in negative image who bellow stuff like, “Du hast uns getötet” (“You killed us”) while pointing swords at her.  She wakes up from her nightmare to find she is safe and sound inside a car.

Her companions are driver Philipp (Krekel), Lukas (Martin Brunnett), Lisa (Katja Clobes) and Tom (Wolfram Saathoff).  Damn, you just know the guy named Tom is going to be the troublemaker.  It appears this motley mannschaft is heading to the beach in Klitmoller, Denmark for a vacation.  The group stops for a bathroom break and we learn that Tom is a prankster as he scares Lisa while wearing a Jason-style hockey mask.  Knew that guy named Tom would be trouble.  Anyway, they arrive in town and find the village empty.  They bang on a couple of doors to see if anyone has a house for rent (apparently pre-planning a vacation is a no-no), but eventually get a place for a guy I’ll just call random dude (Haiko Herden).  The five friends decide to head down to the beach and check out the bunkers left over from World War II.  Bad news as the second they are down there another random dude runs out screaming about money before taking out a gun and shooting himself in the head.  Philipp and Tom run to find an authority to inform and we get first random dude’s brother who I will call randomer dude (Olaf Clobes).  He tells them to go back to the house and not worry about it.

Back at the rental house, Jenny argues that they should leave because Lisa is in shock and nothing spoils a vacation like a random suicide. They decide to stay the night, which allows for another dream sequence for Jenny.  The next morning Philipp and Tom head off to return the keys while we get a riveting scene of luggage loading.  Their plans to split are foiled though because random dude has left a note on his door that he has gone night fishing (never mind that it is still daylight).  The group decides the best course of action is to go back to the beach to find him so they can drop off the keys and pay this dude.  Yes, much more logical than leaving him a note and envelope at his home.  Once again, the beach proves to be a place of death as they find him with his throat torn out.  They get randomer dude on the scene and he declares it was selbstmord (suicide).  Two days, two dead bodies on the beach.  Worst…vacation…ever.

Naturally, these guys think something is up and decide to search random dude’s house with the set of keys Philipp boosted off his corpse.  This leads to a riveting house searching scene. Watch Lukas open a cabinet and then another cabinet and then another cabinet.  The lone item from this haul is a key that opens the indoor fireplace.  Inside they find a book.  This book must be important as random dude returns from the dead with his brother’s severed head. The group splits but not before Philipp gets stabbed to death and random dude gets a pick-axe in the gut and his hand lopped off.  The four remaining folks make it to another house and decide the best course of action isn’t to try to call for help.  Nope, they need to read this book. It is apparently a diary from 1942 and details the preparation of six German officers as they concocted a plan to assassinate Hitler.  Hmmm, I bet one of them is named Tom.  Anyway, the diary also contains a newspaper clipping that says “Attentat Erfolgreich Verhindert: Verrater Executiert” (Assassination Successfully Prevented: Traitors Executed).  Also included is a piece of paper about the killings and Jenny freaks out when she sees the signature of the person who signed off on them.  Turns out it was Erich Hansen, her grandfather.  For some reason Lukas and Lisa head to the town’s lighthouse and the keeper (a slumming Andreas Schnaas; yes, slumming) tells them more info about how the town’s mayor hid some money in the bunker and the dead guys want it back.  Life in the afterlife ain’t cheap.  Finally, around the 43 minute mark, the fog rolls in and it is a race to find the geld and appease these pissed off spirits.

Gott im Himmel!  If you are wondering why I keep saying in my review that someone named Tom might be trouble it is because it’s true.  I was living a quiet and peaceful existence until two weeks ago when VJ co-blogger Tom sent me an email that said “you should totally review this.”  Inside was a link to THE FOG 2.  Knowing my weaknesses too well, I soon found myself with a copy (courtesy of Tom, that sly bastard!). That combined with no life creates a scary situation.  It is as if Tom wanted me to suffer the same pain he endured during Krekel’s later ROBIN HOOD: GHOSTS OF SHERWOOD (2012). A multi-hyphenate of the lowest order Krekel did almost everything on this film from the driving to the editing to the computer FX to the directing.  I’m sure it is him hiding behind the Mr. Magoo credit for the music (really!).  So when it comes to laying the blame at anyone’s feet, we can only blame Tom…er, I mean, Krekel!

Krekel has maintained this was only a fun exercise in filmmaking with friends not to be seen by the public.  That would hold water…had he not released it publicly via his Astro label. Hiding behind a “for the fans by the fans” shield, Herr Director hasn’t so much created a film as he has a glorified home movie.  Now I’m not expecting mind blowing camera work or state-of-the-art effects.  My anticipation is nil when it comes to shot-on-video flicks, but this fails even my realistically low expectations. Hell, we can’t even get proper lighting in this thing (see pic to the right).  Truth be told, I’ve shot better home movies.  The only difference is I didn’t release them to the public to try and make money. And this is not to say that Krekel didn’t have ample opportunity to make something worthwhile.  For example, the town of Klitmoller is a very cool looking place and the idea of it deserted is appropriately atmospheric.  But he can’t capitalize.  Same goes for the abandoned bunkers on the beach.  That is free production value, but he can’t bother to exploit it properly.

Let us not forget the shameful exploitation of John Carpenter and his 1980 horror classic. As if having unimaginative Hollywood hellbent on remaking his entire filmography weren’t bad enough, now he has to contend with leeches with video cameras (honestly, the porn versions of HALLOWEEN had more substance and style).  It is doubly painful when you realize this all had potential if it had a budget and competent filmmakers.  The concept of Nazi zombies haunting the waves is some that has been proven popular both before (SHOCKWAVES) and after (the unmade WORST CASE SCENARIO) this film.  But here is it D.O.A. as our baddies are guys literally wearing the cheapest skull masks you can imagine (you can clearly see their non-rotting human necks where the masks end) while sporting perfectly fine human hands.  It was too much hassle to find gloves?  No, apparently not as some scenes have them wearing gloves. That is just lazy.  Even the gore department, where Germans usually thrive, is poorly done.  This simplicity is matched by the script, which was so basic that I could even follow it with my German being rustier than a undetonated WWII bomb stuck in the dirt. Is there anything positive I can say about the film?  The good news?  It only runs 60 minutes.  The bad news? It exists.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Spy Who Flubbed Me: THE KREMLIN LETTER (1970)

I don’t think I’ll get any argument if I say John Huston is a cinematic legend who has made some of the greatest American films of all time. It sort of goes without saying, even though I just said it. He has adapted works from some of the best writers in America such as Dashiell Hammett, Tennessee Williams and Herman Melville, to name a few. Hell, he made Stockton, CA look tragically romantic.

In the ‘60s due to government scandals, presidential assassinations and a rising interest in transparency, cold war thrillers flourished. Spurred by the international success of some guy named James Bond, the public was inundated with often intricately plotted examples of the genre. The gritty, twisty Michael Caine vehicle THE IPCRESS FILE (1965) became the high-water mark and the razor-sharp Patrick Magoohan series THE PRISONER (1967) turned it all upside-down.

So now we have John Huston, two years before the classics FAT CITY and THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JUDGE ROY BEAN, making a cold war thriller with the likes of Richard Boone, Nigel Green, Dean Jagger, George Sanders, Orson Welles and Max Von Sydow! This has to be a work of genius, right?

A naval officer with a photographic memory, Ward (Patrick O'Neal), is abruptly discharged from service by unnamed people in the highest echelons of government power. As it turns out, he is essentially fired from his job so that an unnamed government organization (presumably the CIA) can offer him a job to go recruit some aging spies to impersonate Russians and infiltrate Moscow to retrieve The Kremlin Letter, a letter that people will kill to obtain. To help him in this mission, a grizzled spy (Boone) is brought in to show him the ropes. Of course this takes damn near an hour to roll out. Ward needs a lot of cajoling and once we get through that, he has to laconically overcome the resistance of his potential recruits.

Why is this letter so important as to get some grumpy old men out of retirement? As we find out later in the film, it is a letter from the CIA promising assistance to Russia if China obtains nuclear weaponry. Uhhh, yeah. I guess the CIA no longer wants to help out the Reds, so they need to get it back. Why they can’t just tell the Russkies that they’ve changed their mind, or why they really need to send a bunch of old codgers in there instead of an elite team of navy seals is not explained. Unfortunately little else is either.

Often I feel that the use of the phrase “muddled plot” is applied to pretty much anything above an 8th grade education by American critics and moviegoers. If the movie doesn’t spoon feed the audience every detail of the story, then it is branded a confusing mess and the screenwriter is clearly a hack. On the other hand, there are films like this in which the phrase is completely appropriate, though the screenwriters were Huston and his long-time assistant Gladys Hill, the pair of whom also wrote THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING (1975). They must have honed their chops in the five years between the two because here scenes drag on and on with seemingly little point other than to give all of the cast a predetermine amount of screen time, with little focus on actual plot.

Metaphor you say?
The movie feels like a series of vignettes leading up to something big, but when we get to the “big” thing, it seems rather small. Even worse, great actors are squandered in thankless roles. The worst example of this is the late, great George Sanders (as "Warlock") who is given nothing to do except an embarrassing drag routine as a female impersonator in a tacky gay bar. There must have been a pack of alimony lawyers nipping at his heels that year. Orson Welles plays a high-ranking Russian official, but really only has one interesting scene, in which he humiliates the top KGB agent (Max Von Sydow) at a formal dinner in front of his new wife, who he married after having her husband killed. Mandatory espionage mainstay Nigel Green's big scene is being shown shirtless in Mexico running a stable of prostitutes who he has fight each other in the dirt for a cash prize. Oh, and his secret agent name is, without a hint of irony, "The Whore".

The only meaty roles in the film are given to O'Neal and Boone who are fine, but not exactly riveting. O'Neal has a deadpan demeanor that exhibits all of the charisma of wall-paper paste, with women swooning at his feet in spite of sounding like he is in desperate need of a lozenge. Even Christian Bale is in less need of a Ricola. Boone is just plain miscast, playing the role as a good ol' southern uncle (even calling O'Neal "nephew") with a hint of menace, there's nothing about him that says "international operative". Granted this would might be a good cover in the real world, but it utterly fails to give this film the gritty, epic feel that it desperately wants to have. When I stumbled across this movie I thought to myself “how have I never seen this before?” Now I know.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Cyber Monday: THE COMPANION (1994)

The early to mid '90s was a testing ground for modern television. The networks knew sci-fi and action could pull in a younger audience, but there was a lot of stumbling around trying to figure out how to do this. TV movies were a good way to test the popularity of certain subjects without committing to a full series. "Star Trek: The Next Generation" (1987) was hugely successful by providing topical TV soap opera melodrama with some snappy sci-fi uniforms. The human-esque robot genre was hugely popular in the entire decade of the '80s, and in the early '90s the yuppie nightmare subgenre became a major trend with films like PACIFIC HEIGHTS (1990) and SINGLE WHITE FEMALE (1992). Now if only there was a way to wrap that all up into one package and deliver this big, bankable boffo concept to the slavering masses. Armed with these influences writer Ian Seeberg (previously only credited with the 1975 nudist "documentary" THE NAKED PEACOCK), second-time TV director Gary Fleder and the USA network did exactly that. I'm sure it sounded good on paper.

Set in the future, a successful romance novelist, Gillian (Kathryn Harrold), finishes up her virtual book tour in which she promotes her latest novel (which are now on CDs that are read via a tablet PC) on a holographic talk show (hosted by Earl Boen). After arriving home to find her man Alan (an unfamous Bryan Cranston) in the sack with a girl half her age, she decides that a retro-retreat is in order at a 20th Century mountain cabin. Presumably this choice of location is all about the isolated atmosphere condusive to the plot and not at all related to the fact that this will save the production quite a bit of money that would have had to have been spent on more blue fluorescent lighting. Remember, this is the future! Blue fluorescent lights are the future.

Her publisher Charlene (Talia Balsam), is concerned about her isolation and emotional break-up and convinces her to buy a "companion" to take along for the ride. In the future, a "companion" is a common android assistant, popular for menial labor. However, the new models can do everything from sports to intellectual discussions to... taking care of other needs. As the slippery salesman (James Karen) tells her with a leer "they are fully functional". Though making pasta al dente is troublesome, it can detect speedtraps a mile off. What more could you want? Naturally Gillian doesn't want all that extra programming stuff, just a man-like object to be there for her when she needs him. Sort of like a life-sized emotional vibrator.

Once in the mountains, Gillian meets up with an artist couple, Ron and Stacey (Brion James and Joely Fisher), who have their own relationship issues expressed by Stacey's insecurity and Ron's alcoholism. Because it's the future, Ron is a sculptor who creates his statues out of huge blocks of stone with a VR headset linked to a futuristic shotgun. I don't know much about art, but I know what I like to blow up!

Soon the bloom is off the vine and Gillian becomes dissatisfied with the way her new companion, whom she has named Geoffrey (the prolific Bruce Greenwood). She has decided that he acts too robotic and subservient. After fumbling through the manual (in the future instruction books are still made of paper and women still can't understand them), Gillian manages to re-program the "personality" setting from zero to 100% and even splurges for the "slang" option. Instead of this, as you might suspect, turning him into a nasty stereotype, such as a womanizing lounge lizard or a white rapper, it turns him into a good stereotype. A yuppie. You know a "normal" man who all women would love. Soon Gillian is not content with just using him to blot her tears and save her from falling off cliffs and ups his "sexual" programming from zero to 30%. It appears that 30% is good for back rubs and kissing, which apparently is good enough to get Gillian to crank it up to 100%. Instead of turning him into a slim, hairless Ron Jeremy, it turns him into an emotional yuppie who delivers some very slow, gentle missionary position lovemaking accompanied by soft violins. I guess when you are stuck in a desert even tap-water tastes pretty good.

Soon she has him saying "I love you" and reading her romance novels to understand how "real" men behave when in love. Suddenly a crass, aggressive Alan (who somehow managed to find her in the mountains) jealous of Geoffrey, tries to take him down a notch, and that's when the cracks start to appear. Alan gets a broken nose but is stopped before he can really put the boots to the douchebag. As if that wasn't enough, Ron who gets all sleazy after a few drinks, wants to offer her "the real thing". Geoffrey, who presumably doesn't realize that he probably means a bottle of Coke, proceeds to kick his ass too. Of course, this is nothing to be concerned about and Gillian decides that not only is she going to mess with his programming even more, but that she needs to make him be "a fascinating and unpredictable man of mystery". Yeah, that sounds like a great idea. Take someone with a violent temper and make him unpredictable. What could go wrong? Instead of turning into Austin Powers, Geoffrey starts behaving erratically, by way of making breakfast by throwing eggs in a bowl and jabbering about going down to the lake for a picnic at ten o'clock at night.

Worst "morning after" ever.
Finally, a full hour into the film, Geoffrey loses his shit and smashes the vid-phone (the future!) and the programming glove (the future!) and becomes a cyborg Single White Male. There's a bit of conflict with a couple of cast members who are taken out by Geoffrey in very PG rated ways, but a Sam Firstenberg film this ain't. This is aimed squarely at the "Next Generation" crowd who wants more soap than science. To the filmmaker's credit, they don't get lazy and figure since they are in a (cheap) 20th century setting that they don't have to provide any futuristic details. There are plenty of amusing touches to convey the future in addition to the ones above. I enjoyed that fact that in the future, microwaves are even more noisy than they are now and because everyone loves the doors in "Star Trek", they should be automated here and talk to you as well. Didn't Douglas Adams satirize this in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" back in 1978? Also there are the cars of the future. Gillian drives what appears to be a Datsun that hums when it is moving and although you don't see all of Alan's car in one shot, it is a red sports car with the model name "The Patriot" in white. I'm honestly surprised that Ford hasn't stolen that idea for it's F-150 line yet.

Aside from the completely uninteresting Bruce Greenwood who appears to be trying to emulate Brent Spiner, the solid cast keeps the film from becoming too tedious, but is content to waste great actors such as Tracey Walter who shows up briefly as the owner of the local "retro" convenience store and doesn't have a single line. I couldn't help but imagine how inspired the movie would have been with someone like, say Wings Hauser in the role of Geoffrey. He could have carried the film to cult status, playing both sides of Geoffrey's personality with conviction and flair. Granted THE COMPANION is much more successful in creating a science-feeling movie than say, RUNNING DELILAH (1992), but that isn't really saying much and in the end it still feels like a schizophrenic hodge-podge that is trying to appeal to a bizarrely small demographic that loves Oprah, "Star Trek", BLADE RUNNER and THE TERMINATOR and is looking for a romantic drama with bits of thriller and cyborg thrown in. I guess you know who you are.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Cinemasochism: DEATH KICK (1998)

There is nothing we love more than a good ol’ vanity project.  Film itself is a self-centered medium, so there is something doubly alluring/repulsive in a person taking the time and money to publically pat themselves on the back while riding on their own shoulders.  From Steve Seagal’s ON DEADLY GROUND (1994) to John De Hart’s GETEVEN (1993), the vanity project runs the gamut big bucks to “here’s a quarter” budgets.  No doubt falling in the range of the latter is DEATH KICK, a low budget action flick from the Show Me State of Missouri. Damn, I wish you hadn’t shown me.

Although the DVD box and IMDb listing have this as DEATH KICK, the actual onscreen title is the super redundant KICK TO DEATH – DEATH KICK.  That is the cinematic equivalent of a “Danger! Rough Road Ahead” sign that you see while driving.  The film wastes no time getting down to business as five folks of dissimilar backgrounds meet in a tile warehouse.  They are there at the behest of leader Robert Tolcou (Jesse Bean) and despite their diversity they all have one thing in common. They all got screwed by divorce lawyer Adrian Lane (Michael Hartig).  Tolcou’s plan is simple – he and his partner, Andrew Teal (Earnest Hart, Jr.), will kidnap Mr. Lane and bring him back to the warehouse.  Each aggrieved person will then get to spend quality time with the Legal Eagle of their nightmares.  And by quality time I mean they get to have a fighter of their own choosing beat the crap out of him.  Each wronged party must give $50,000 to buy into the game and whoever kills Lane will get $250,000 (to be split 50/50 with their fighting avatar). Teal, a former cop, assures them that it will all be kosher because this warehouse was once a Fed safe house and the cops won’t bother them.

Our ambulance chaser is snatched at his home with barely any resistance and soon brought back to the warehouse and tied up.  What happens next is basically a series of the same scene over and over as Lane is confronted by his disgruntled ex-clients one-by-one and they air their grievances in the court of death kicks. All rise! Up first is Alexandria Dunavich (K.C. Carr), who is pissed that Lane cost her custody of her son during her trial.  She shows this by getting topless, mounting him, and then introducing her fighters, two black girls.  Hey, why does she get two? What she (and the audience) didn’t know is Lane, who looks like a wimpier John Astin, can kick some ass and he disposes of her two fighters. Next up is Tolcou, who is pissed that Lane exposed him as a wife beater and pedophile.  Lane tells him off by saying, “You need a ladder to get to the level of shit.” Ooooooooooooh, burn!  Tolcou’s fighter is a big black dude (Terry Cramer) who wields a mighty stick.  Lane gets him to abandon his weapon and, of course, whoops his ass. Client no. 3 is Tracy White (Corinne Malcolm), a sexy socialite whose entrance is followed by an “ohhhh yeah” on the soundtrack (really!). She is pissed that Lane’s divorce has caused her to become a social pariah in her affluent circle of friends.  Not only that, but she is still upset he “spurned my interest” and gets back at him by having a private fashion show where she drapes her naked body over him while saying how much she checked out his ass during the trial. Quick question: can you figure out whose vanity project this is yet?  Below is a video of the fight between her fighter and Lane.

Take that slow motion punch to the balls as a metaphor for me watching this film. Revenge-minded client no. 4 is Melinda “Matty” Kempt (Deborah Loveless), who says “you killed my mother and father.” Seems when she was sixteen Lane worked on a messy divorce that ended up with Matty’s abusive dad killing her mother and then committing suicide. But wait, there’s more!  Somehow after that she entered into a relationship with Lane (!?!) and she still loves him.  You see, she wants to help him out of this situation…and this somehow involves mounting him topless.  Tolcou speeds up the process and brings in her fighter (Michael Stocker) against her wishes. This results in my favorite bit as Stocker makes sure to turn his back to the camera to show off the martial arts school logo on his jacket, but it is unreadable.  Amazingly, this fight is the first time Lane opts to try to buy off a fighter, but his adversary is having none of that.  Until, that is, he tastes some of Lane’s Average White Guy Fists of Fury.  Beaten down, the fighter pleads for the deal again, but Lane says, “You opened this door, now come on in” before knocking him out with a knee to the head.  Does this guy’s lawyer card say “Adrian Lane, Attorney-at-Law and F’n Bad Ass” on it? Finally, we get Teal. He is upset that Lane uncovered some hidden assets of his during divorce proceedings and wiped him out.  Teal chose to go last because he knew Lane would persevere (“You’re like a cat, always landing on your feet.”) and Teal’s reward is not only the money, but the chance to beat up all the other fighters.  Uh, what?  Yeah, for some reason he takes on all the previous combatants and whoops them all (naturally, they all attack one at a time).  Pshaw, the real test of his martial arts mettle is Lane.  Care to guess who wins?

Your honor, request for a mistrial?  Full disclosure – I have no idea how I got DEATH KICK in my collection.  I mean, I have the DVD and inside is a receipt showing I ordered it online in mid-April for a hefty sum of four dollars, but I have zero recollection of how or why I ordered this.  I don’t even know how I heard about it! Maybe I had a THE LOST WEEKEND (1945) type moment and I was stocking up on ‘90s cheapo action flicks while drunk?  Here’s the problem with that theory – I don’t drink.  So this is a film so brutal that my mind actually tried to make me forgot just what led me to this decision to get this film.  Even worse, it took me two weeks to trudge through this.  With 95% of the action taking place in a dreary cinderblock warehouse, the film was a mental endurance test of the highest order with scene after scene of bad fights set to numbing guitar on the soundtrack.  Honestly, I’ve had cavity fillings that were more fun.  Did I finally meet my match?  A film so bad that it would make me tap out? Nah, I’m tough.  Tough and dumb.

If you haven’t already figured it out, DEATH KICK is a vanity project for Michael Hartig.  A former St. Louis police officer, Hartig is not only the lead here but also wrote and produced the film.  Even without the Hartig-centric opening credits, any astute viewer would know something was up during the first attorney/client showdown.  Not only is Adrian Lane presented as a super successful attorney, but he is shown to have a quick wit, is a badass fighter, and irresistible hunk.  This might work if say the litigious lead was Harrison Ford or Gregory Peck, but Hartig’s Lane is no Atticus Finch.  Hell, in terms of legal Lotharios, he’s not even Vinny Gambini! Sporting a terrible toupee, Hartig looks kind of like Bruno Kirby or ‘80s Sonny Bono and is about as attractive as the former and as dangerous as the latter.  So the idea that this man can not only kick ass, but literally get women to drop their panties (yes, that happens!) is ridiculous.  No joke, there are three central female characters in this film and at some point in the film all three press their naked bodies up against Hartig while cooing about how sexy he is.  The film is basically a live-action capturing of Hartig’s fantasies.

Speaking of which, I started to wonder if we weren’t seeing something on a more subconscious level.  Initially I thought Hartig must have gone through a messy divorce, but he has the bloodsucking lawyer the hero here.  Not only that, the film features scene-after-scene of Hartig being tied up.  Now I get that it works in the mechanics of the story, but I couldn’t help but wonder if Hartig is working out some serious mental kinks (emphasis on the “kink”) while making this.  To his credit, Hartig does do his own stunt work and I swear is slammed into the same warehouse door at least a thousand times.  But you just have to wonder how the hell did this get made?  Did no one have the heart to tell Hartig how silly this all looked? Regardless, I have some strange admiration for guys like this who throw it all out there, world be damned. The only thing GETEVEN’s lawyer-cum-leading-man De Hart has up on him is that he sang two songs on the soundtrack.  True story: I got very excited when a song was warbled over the DEATH KICK end credits, but, alas, it was not sung by Hartig.    I was initially sad to see on the IMDb that Hartig had passed away in 2004, but it appears to be an error as his Linkedin page shows he is still around and running his production company.  His main occupation, however, is still law enforcement. Somewhere a collection of ropes and B-movie actresses willing to do nudity breathed a sigh of relief.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Spy Who Flubbed Me: LE MAGNIFIQUE (1973)

Jean-Paul Belmondo has made a lot of movies, of which many, or most, have been huge box office hits in Europe. They have also been very popular in Asia and have influenced many Hong Kong films, including the early works of Jackie Chan. While Chan never completely plagiarized Belmondo's work that I know of, many of his early action set-pieces and lack of stunt double are more than a little similar.

Admittedly I’ve seen only a handful of Belmondo's films. The ones that I have seen, such as COP OR HOOD (1979) and THE PROFESSIONAL (1981), have been entertaining but, as far as I could see, nothing to set the world on fire. Certainly nothing to warrant the world-wide fame and celebrity status that Belmondo would no doubt himself be proud to bask in… Until now.

(Mild spoilers forthcoming) The movie opens with an incredibly bizarre, stylized scene of a US secret agent in Acapulco being whisked away in a phone booth by a helicopter, only to be dumped into the ocean where divers attach a shark cage to the phone booth allowing the agent to be attacked by said shark with blood billowing through the water. If that sequence doesn't blow your mind and hook you in, this is just not your kind of movie. Of course there is only one thing for the agency to do now! Get top agent Bob Saint-Clair (Belmondo) on the job! Super-suave, sharp-dressed and with teeth so white they almost sparkle, Saint-Clair is so flamboyant that Simon Templar would feel like a wall-flower next to him. They said he was an "agent". They didn't say anything about "secret".

Saint-Clair, bent for revenge (in an extremely Colgate ad kind of way) is hot on the heels of Karpov (Vittorio Caprioli), a megalomaniacal arch-villain with an army of black leather clad troopers who is looking to take over the world with his organization of evil. Actually, Saint-Clair spends less time chasing after Karpov than he does chasing after the ravishing Tatiana (Jacqueline Bisset), and who can blame him? Karpov is actually the one doing the chasing, desperately trying to liquidate Saint-Clair by any means necessary. Those means usually are sending hordes of his foot-soldiers after Saint-Clair only to be casually shot down by the super-agent in mid-tryst. And this is only the beginning of the film!

This completely over-the-top, occasionally surreal spoof of James Bond films works amazingly well. It is hugely imaginative, incredibly bloody (in a cartoon way) and often hilarious. Better still, (big spoiler) it has another layer. We discover that Bob Saint-Clair is actually a work of fiction, a character written in a series of novels by the scruffy, chain-smoking writer François Merlin (Belmondo, again). Merlin uses the people he sees in everyday life as characters in his novels including his sleazy, egotistical boss (Caprioli) and the lovely, book-worm college student (Bisset) down the hall.

In all of the Belmondo films that I have seen, he typically plays a hard-boiled cop with a flair for the dramatic. In COP OR HOOD (1979), he shows a bit of comic flair, but it is completely misplaced in an otherwise serious action outing. Here he is allowed to unleash his rather baroque comic talents with everything from clever wit to the campy pratfalls that the French love so much. Belmondo has professed his enthusiasm for the work of Steve McQueen, even occasionally referencing it in his films, such as the '67 Mustang chase sequence in THE OUTSIDER (1983), which was reportedly done as a tribute to McQueen who had succumbed to cancer three years earlier. Perhaps this is why Bisset, who starred opposite McQueen in BULLIT (1968), was cast. Regardless of the reason, she is perfect fit, playing the introverted nebbish and the ravishing Bond girl archetype with aplomb and is an equal partner in making this film work.

Directed by Philippe de Broca, this is considered to be a Belmondo classic and it’s easy to see why. The movie moves at a brisk pace and doesn’t come to a screeching halt, as you would expect, when the filmmakers delve into Merlin’s life of bleak drudgery. The use of atmosphere to contrast the two “lives” is perfectly executed with bright-colors and sunlight for Saint-Clair’s world and drab grays and rain for Merlin’s. Surprisingly, celebrated screenwriter Francis Veber (who has written more films that have been remade in the US than probably anyone else in history) had his name removed from the credits after Broca and Caprioli did some rewrites. Perhaps he wasn't pleased with the level of excessive violence, such as a scene in which Saint-Clair literally shoots out a man's brains, which neatly fall in a plate on a bistro table. It may not have been exactly what Veber wanted it to be, but it is a great movie that completely changed my American perception of Belmondo movies. I hope Veber can find solace in that.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Gweilo Dojo: The Films of Jun Chong

Our (not entirely) complete guide to the films of professional martial arts master Jun Chong!


Saturday, May 17, 2014

Sci-Fried Theater: BLOOD GLACIER (2013)

Some films are so iconic that other filmmakers can’t help but ermm… pay “homage” to them. Some have made entire careers out of regurgitating other people’s work and spoon-feeding it to the masses whose eyes roll wildly in their heads while they foam at the mouth and scream about “Oscars” (Sally Strothers should have a late night commercial about these pitiable fools). Other filmmakers make references to the work of those that have come before with the subtle use of thematic elements, characters or shot composition. Use all three and you are back in the first category.

Then there are those who fall in the middle. They draw heavy inspiration from a film and add their own twist to it. Such is the case with the Austrian film BLOOD CRACKER. I mean, GLACIER. BLOOD GLACIER.

At a research station in the Austrian Alps, a small group of scientists studying the effects of global warming discover a glacier that is rapidly melting. The glacier is a rusty red color and trapped in the ice is a cell-structure of unknown origin. While investigating this glacier, the dog of the station’s lifer and obligatory rummy Janek (Gerhard Liebmann), discovers a dead fox in the glacier’s cave (I guess they melt faster on the inside). Something is moving under the fox’s skin and suddenly the dog has a wound. Assuming that his dog was attacked by a rabid fox, Janek returns to the station where the current biologist Birte (Hille Beseler) takes one look at the samples from the glacier and flips out claiming to have never seen cells like this before. Unfortunately the cells are rapidly deteriorating, so she needs another fresh sample – right now! This is, of course, impossible due to inclement weather and the alleged rabid fox. Cue strangely familiar argument about going back to the site under dangerous conditions.

Complicating things is the imminent arrival of the Prime Minister (Brigitte Kren) who is accompanied by Janek’s former lover Tanja (Edita Malovcic). Complicating things even further is the fact that Janek, who has been living in a bottle since Tanja left, is now drunk and on morphine for a head injury when he is suddenly almost attacked by a creature that looks like a cross between a fox and a spider. Of course nobody believes him until Berte finds a mutant bug while obtaining more samples. Once in possession of said samples (and after a gooey autopsy), Berte has it all figured out in a matter of minutes and uses a whiteboard to draw stick figures to explain it to the audience – err, I mean to the other scientists, who would have no clue what she was talking about if she used big words. You see the creature is a hybrid of a fox and an isopod that was created when the fox ate the isopod (as foxes are known to do) and the cells from the glacier took DNA from both species and created a hybrid that gestated in the fox. Well of course it is. Happens all the time. You know, just like (this is actually what she says) the mermaids of old and the Egyptian god Anubis.

Meanwhile the PM and her posse are hiking over the Alps to the station because apparently the station was conveniently built in an area that has no vehicle access of any kind (at least until the end of the movie). While hiking the photographer is bitten by a weird bug and a completely random girl in shorts and a t-shirt runs screaming from out of nowhere while being chased by a black hawk-like thing. Where did this girl come from and why is she dressed for a day at the beach in the middle of the friggin' Alps? That's not important, what is important is that the thing that was chasing her has just killed the only guy with a firearm. Ain't that a bitch?

If it sounds like I’m being incredibly vague, it’s because the film is incredibly vague on this subject. Unlike the usual SyFy or Hollywood CGI monster fodder, here the producers use a real effects team to make some really amazing practical creatures. Well, at least I think they are amazing. I don’t really know because the young director Marvin Kren seems to think he is some sort of cinéma vérité maestro who not only has to shoot every single scene with a hand-held camera, but clearly believes that he is making a “classy” horror film, which in his mind means that the audience should never be allowed to see any of the horror elements. If the camera isn’t whip-panning and jiggling during the monster attacks, Kren rapidly edits extreme close-ups, many of which are out of focus, so that at best you get a glimpse of what appears to be some really elaborate creature effects. During the first real attack scene (a full hour into the movie), the station is assaulted by something that appears to be a mutant ram. Of course you never get a good look at it, and when it is killed by the member of the cast you would least expect to use a large electric drill (ie the obvious choice), the creature is cropped completely out of frame. The drill could be penetrating anything. A mutant ram-head, a block of wood, Michelangelo’s David, you don’t know. Seriously, I bet the effects guys were fucking pissed. Like Alec Gillis kind of pissed.

On the one hand you have a fairly competent cast for this sort of affair. The performances are lacking in subtlety and nuance as has become de rigueur for modern genre movies (I can see the stage direction being “pretend like you are on a TV show!”), but at least it’s not an ethnically diverse, trendy cast of 20-somethings with fashionable haircuts. On the other hand, for the first hour of the movie all they really do is yell at each other in a small room. Even after getting into the rehashing of the old NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD scenario where the group of people are trapped by the menace that is outside, we still don’t get a whole lot to get excited about. Even worse, the 90 minutes of build up with Janek’s dog finally pays off in the last minute of the film with one of the stupidest endings I have ever seen. Lameness on a scale heretofore unknown to man. Even having Janek wake up and having it all be a drunken fever dream would have been better than the absurdly sentimental claptrap offered here. If you want to keep the film spoiler –free, skip the next paragraph.

You see, Janek and Tanja were lovers at the station some years back, and in the final moments of the film Tanja tells Janek that she was pregnant when she left, but the baby never came to term. Cue Niagara Falls. Moments later Janek hears some strange squealing sounds coming from where his dog is lying and fears that his dog has finally succumbed to the mutation. When he grabs his rifle, Tanja pleads with him to stop and then shows him why… the dog has given birth to a hybrid mutation of Janek and the dog and Tanja is cradling it in her arms like the infant she was denied. The end. Seriously, I couldn’t make that shit up.

J.J. Abrams was here.
In spite of the myriad of ideas pilfered from THE THING (1982), such as the fact that the station’s anti-social drunk lives in a shack connected to the station via a hanging power-line, director Kren and screenwriter Benjamin Hessler seemed to have missed the finer points of the original film. The clever dialogue, dynamic characters, nuanced acting and spectacular effects all seemed to have gone over their heads. Granted for a small, indy production, I don’t expect all of those things and for the most part it is reasonably well done for what it is. If Kren had removed his cranium from his gluteus and had some confidence in his cast and crew, we would have ended up with a piece of entertaining, if derivative, monster horror. Instead, his lack of confidence and experience compels him to try to force the film to be more scary and exciting by over editing a mess of jiggling hand-held shots… and then there is that ending. It’s too bad because there is a good film in here somewhere.