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, September 10, 2014

The Gweilo Dojo: ALLEY CAT (1984)

Even with all the damn movies we watch, there is still a ton of ground left untouched.  Case in point: the ‘80s trash actioner ALLEY CAT.  I (William) had never heard of the damn thing until Scorpion Releasing announced it for a DVD release.  Not I (Thomas) was familiar with the poster and VHS back in the day, but he was too busy renting DEATHSTALKER (1983) over and over to give this a look.  So a special thanks to our buddy Erok at Theater of Guts for getting in my ear and recommending this wild flick.

The film focuses on Belinda “Billie” Clark (Karin Mani), a karate hottie who lives with her grandparents.  She earns that description quickly as the first three minutes shows her topless and then beating the crap out of some guys trying to steal the wheels off her car. Apparently this angers the guys she emasculated so much that they go to complain to their gang leader, William “Scarface” Krug (Michael Wayne).  When underling Tom complains she was a karate “tiger,” Krug says, “When I get done with that tiger, she’ll be nothing more than an alley cat.”  Hmmm, a film where a guy named Tom has a boss named William?  I could get into this.  Krug and his crew decide the best course of action for revenge is to beat up Billie’s grandparents.  They do this in rather quick fashion, resulting in granddad and grandma being beaten and stabbed while walking home with groceries at night.  Oh, by the way, this all takes place in the first ten minutes of the film.


While looking for her grandparents at the hospital, Billie opens a door into the face of police officer Johnny (Robert Torti).  In a film this cheap, that can only mean one thing – love interest! Soon they are dating and she informs him that grandpa spotted the guy who assaulted them in police mug shot photos.  Alas, the cops don’t care.  To work out her frustration, Billie goes jogging at night but only after grandpa insists she take his gun along. Amazingly, she stumbles upon two guys attempting to rape a woman in the park.  Even more amazingly, these are the same two guys who tried to steal her tires.  Now either this lady is cosmically entwined with these dudes or the crime element is really small (and highly recidivist) in Los Angeles.  Of course, she puts an end to the attack with some karate chops and bullet ballet.  The cops leisurely arrive (“What the hell took you cops so long to get here? Do you know we’ve been waiting almost two hours?”) and they are Johnny and his corrupt older partner, who decides Billie is in the wrong and arrests her for firing her weapon within city limits without a permit.

After being bailed out, Billie decides to combat the stress of this bureaucratic red tape by…going jogging at night in the park again!  Even Charles Bronson knew never to go back to the park.  So guess who she runs into?  Yep, another rapist.  She must be in Echo Park (haha, get it?). Anyway, she lets this guy meet her fists and feet of fury.  Perhaps she had some pent up anger due to her upcoming court date.  It is warranted as Judge Taylor (Jay Walker) gives her a $500 fine and one year probation for preventing that rape.  He also warns her that if he ever sees her in his court again, she’ll be in big trouble.  To blow off some steam, Billie and Johnny head to a local dojo to throw each other around.  They then head back to his pad where he woos her with champagne served in regular old drinking glasses.  What?  The fancy McDonalds glasses were dirty?  Meanwhile, Krug breaks into the apartment of the intended rape target and intimidates her into not testifying against his pals. With the star witness unavailable, the defense attorney asks for the rape charges to be dropped and his defendants will agree to lesser charges of public intoxication.  They end up getting a $250 fine and thirty days in jail… suspended!  This sends Billie, who has just decided to show up and watch the trail with Johnny, into a rage and Judge Taylor sentences her to thirty days in jail.  Hey, he said don’t show up in her court again, right?

While in the county poke, Billie learns the hard way that these are tough broads. How?  She gets shoved during a volleyball match.  My God, the horror, the horror. This gives us the film’s best line as Billie’s new “friend” Sam yells, “You did that on purpose. That’s a foul!”  It seems Sam has ulterior motives, which are clearly stated in the requisite women-in-prison shower scene where she tells Billie she has nice hair and lets her use her shampoo.  Billie puts an end to these unwanted advances that night by punching Sam out and telling her to not do that again.  Out in the free world, Johnny is campaigning for Judge Taylor to release Billie because her granddad has like thirty days to live, but he deems her “an incorrigible.”  What is this?  1929?  So Johnny resorts to blackmail and tells the judge he has a file on his “kinky” habits.  Yay!  Our incorrigible is back on the streets and celebrates as she only knows how.  Yes, by going jogging in the park at night!  Naturally she is accosted by two rapists.  Well, one rapist hopeful and his chunky friend who has a hard enough time keeping up on foot.  She nullifies the nuts of the would-be rapist and sends his seemingly innocent friend down a hill and then screams, “Don’t mess with girls in the park!  That’s not nice!”  His muffled reply is, “Shit.  Crazy bitch.” Anyway, it seems Billie is enjoying this kicking dudes business.  After Johnny interrogates a hooker with ties to Krug to find the gang’s address, Billie heads out to get her ultimate revenge.

ALLEY CAT is definitely one of the more straightforward entries in the vigilante subgenre. It is like DEATH WISH (1974) minus the brains. The film doesn’t bother with the elaborate nuances like plot dynamics or character arcs. You get the basic outline very early on and it is very simple – Billie is good and nearly everyone else is bad.  The film is pretty segmented so that it almost seems like a series of vignettes or an old cliffhanger serial slapped together.  “See what mess will Billie get herself into this week!”  This cobbled together cheapness also results in major plot points being given by voice over.  For example, we don’t learn that grandma passed away until we see Billie and grandpa in the back of a car and Billie on the soundtrack talking about the unseen funeral. Even better, some stuff just gets completely forgotten.  Are you still wondering if grandpa lived or died?  Me too as the filmmakers never let us know.

ALLEY CAT appears to be the brainchild of writer and producer Robert E. Waters. He put an ad in Variety for casting the film (under its original title DRAGONFLY) in November 1980, where it was described as “modern action adventure” to begin filming in January 1981.  The film must have run into some trouble somewhere along the line, given that it lists three directors in the end credits; when it was shot and advertised in Variety, only Edward Victor (aka Ed Palmos) was listed as director.  Regardless of behind-the-scenes chaos, the filmmakers ended up with an enjoyable as hell product.  Lead actress Karin Mani is kind of a like a sexier Kate Jackson.  Or, as Tom said, Kate Jackson as re-imagined by Hugh Hefner. She is quite capable for her role, showing some real prowess when it comes to her kicks. Matching her high kicks with hysterics is lead baddie Michael Wayne, which may or may not be a pseudonym since this is his lone credit.  Looking like a cross between John Philip Law and AMERICAN PICKERS’ Mike Wolfe, Wayne appears to have abandoned Stanislavsky and drawn from the time honored bug-eyed, over-the-top psycho category of acting.

Of course, in a film as deliciously cheesy and trashy as this one, it only serves to make things better.  You also have to love stuff like Billie getting all prettied up in this glittery one suit…only to show up at some dive bar to kick a guy in the face.  Did she need to get all dress up for that? Or how they establish the gang as bad guys by having them drive over a homemade soccer goal some kids are using. It was definitely the right formula at the time as the film made distributor Film Ventures International some money.  A box office notation in the March 27, 1984 issue of Variety notes, “ALLEY CAT snares decent $101,000 in opening round at 17 locations, including $11,000 at Hollywood Pacific 3.”  Just knowing that Billie was able to punch and kick money out of wallets like that back in the day pleases me.  Of course, it probably pleased FVI head Edward Montoro more as he disappeared with all the cash later that year.  If Billie ever found him, she’d give him a real ass kicking.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Newsploitation: Kickboxing the Box Office

Today’s box office birthday is for a film now considered a martial arts semi-classic – Jean-Claude Van Damme’s KICKBOXER, which was released in the U.S. on September 8, 1989.  Deep in martial arts clich├ęs and histrionics, KICKBOXER tells the story of Kurt Sloane (Van Damme), a young martial artist who seeks to avenge the in-ring paralysis of his brother, Eric (Dennis Alexio, a real life kickboxing champ).  The executioner of his kin is the evil Tong Po (Michel Qissi) and to learn how to defeat him Kurt must endure the punishing training of Xian Chow (Dennis Chow) in the jungles of Thailand.  It all culminates with a showdown where the contestants have broken glass glued to their hand wraps.  You know, just like in real life.

KICKBOXER was the third theatrical headlining vehicle for the Belgian Van Damme (born Jean-Claude Van Varenberg).  After co-starring in villainous roles in NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER (1986) and BLACK EAGLE (1988), Van Damme caught on with the release of BLOODSPORT (1988) in February 1988.  What was essentially a throw away release for Cannon (its widest theater count topped off at 124 theaters) ended up making them $11.8 million dollars at the box office.  They quickly threw him into another starring vehicle and we got Van Damme in Albert Pyun’s CYBORG (1989). That came out in April 1989 and made just over $10 million, so Van Damme was now a proven box office commodity.  KICKBOXER proved his growing popularity even more when it debuted at number 3 at the box office that following September in 973 theaters (by comparison, the number 1 film UNCLE BUCK, in theaters for a month already, was still in 1,800 theaters).  It grossed just over $4 million its first weekend and went onto pull in $14.6 million.

KICKBOXER is one of those films that has a special place in my heart as Van Damme was one of the first action heroes whose entire career I got to see unfold theatrically (“Yeah, until STREET FIGHTER came out,” says Tom).  Bronson was way before my time; Norris a bit too early for me too; I missed Stallone’s first two ROCKY films and FIRST BLOOD theatrically; and Schwarzenegger’s first CONAN only got to my eyes on VHS.  Starting with BLOODSPORT, I got to see Van Damme’s progression on the big screen and watch as he went from little guy to international superstar.  Each subsequent theatrical release after KICKBOXER saw his box office standing kick higher and higher – DEATH WARRANT ($16.8 million) to LIONHEART ($24 million) to DOUBLE IMPACT ($30 million) to UNIVERSAL SOLIDER ($36 million).  It would peak with TIMECOP ($44 million).  As Van Damme would later admit, he was full of himself (and cocaine) and flatly rejected a huge deal with Universal Pictures at the time.  Instead he went his own way and things were never the same.

Not surprisingly, Van Damme didn’t sign on when KICKBOXER 2 (1991) was announced. Rather than be an in-name-only sequel, this follow up from Albert Pyun continued the Sloane/Tong Po feud with a heretofore never known third Sloane brother, David (Sasha Mitchell).  Writer David Goyer (I hear he went on to do some other things) cleverly opens his sequel with a Van Damme double being offed by Tong Po. Mitchell headlined two more sequels, while the fifth film featured up-and-coming Mark Dacascos.

While I haven’t seen the film since the theater, KICKBOXER still holds some name power as plans for a remake have been off and on for the last 5 years.  The latest incarnation was announced earlier this year with Hong Kong director Stephen Fung attached.  Names such as former UFC fighter Georges St. Pierre, Tony Jaa, Dave Baustita and VJ fave Scott Adkins have been attached to the project.  Here’s hoping they might get to work in Van Damme in a role somewhere.  If that happened, we’d totally do this dance.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Double Shot: QUICK (2011) and THE SPY (2013)

I have lamented in the past about the untimely death of the Korean new wave and for the most part, I still find most of their movies slickly executed but utterly derivative. This is funny because the last two Korean movies that I've seen are both slickly executed and derivative, but a whole hell of a lot of fun.

QUICK (2011): A fast living member of a motorcycle gang, Han Gi-Soo (Lee Min-ki), tears through downtown Seoul with his posse, while being chased by his ex-girlfried, Chun-Sim (Kang Ye-won), and a pizza delivery guy, (Kim In-kwon), who is obsessed with Chun-Sim. While racing through the streets with the cops in hot pursuit, Gi-Soo causes a massive orgy of vehicular destruction.

Flash forward and Gi-Soo is now using his suped-up bike and mad racing skillz as a courier. After delivering a package that, unbeknownst to him, blows up an office building, he is given the job of delivering a passenger. This passenger turns out to be his ex-girlfriend Chun-Sim who is now the member of an all girl supergroup (amusingly named "The OK Girls"). As if this wasn't bad enough, after insisting she wear his helmet they are contacted by a stranger who informs Gi-Soo that there is a bomb in the helmet that will detonate if it is removed and if he does not deliver several small packages to their destinations on time. These packages, of course, are bombs that are meant to kill the anonymous caller's enemies. Naturally the cops, lead by Detective Seo (Ko Chang-seok), are hot on his tail because they think he is the mad bomber.

Yes, it is definitely derivative of SPEED (1994) and THE BULLET TRAIN (1975), there is even a direct homage to BULLET TRAIN in the final act, but director Beom-gu Cho brings so much manic energy to the film that it's hard not to get caught up in. Asian films love making their cops complete bumbling fools for comic relief, here the cops are play for a few laughs, but they are not stupid. They organize their resources and set up blockades and actually start unraveling the identity of the bomber.

This is about as close to a Hal Needham film as you are going to get these days. Yeah, I said it. Sure there is some green screen compositing during some of the action sequences, but I think this is a fact of life that we have to live with in this modern age. Plus, the compositing is so well done, that it is unnoticeable in many cases and sometimes you will swear that one thing is fake and other thing is real, only to find out you were wrong on both counts. How will would you know? The film even features outtakes and a behind-the-scenes stunt reel during the credits. It may not sound like much, but for die-hard stunt movie fans, this is like the icing on the cake, the olive in the martini, the money shot in the... err, well you get the idea. You may argue that the movie has more in common with a videogame as all it really consists of is racing from one orchestra of explosions and crashes to another, occasionally with gross lapses in logic and physics, but then again I would totally play that game. This movie wrecks so many cars that if H.B. Halicki were still alive, he would be brushing away a tear.

With a poster that promises explosions, motorcycles and people screaming, I have to admit, the film delivers on all counts... which brings us to the screaming part. If you are expecting a Korean movie that doesn't have pratfalls, screaming and wild gestures, you are going to have a long wait. In spite of the over-the-top antics, there is enough mayhem to feed your inner ADD child to the bursting point.



THE SPY (2013): Nobody does it better than Bond. Or at least that used to be true. Now everyone does Bond better than Bond. The Swedes did it with the straight faced HAMILTON (2011), and now even the Koreans are doing it with this tongue-in-cheek actioner.

Opening with top secret service agent Cheol-soo (Sol Kyung-gu) walking into a meeting with Somali pirates to negotiate the release of Korean hostages, the tension ramps up when, during negotiations, his cell phone keeps vibrating. It's his wife who is furious at him for working late and missing his mother's birthday party. This results in a things breaking down into a massive firefight. The scene plays out better than I made it out, but it gives you an idea of the kind of skewering to expect.

After some terrorists shoot a jet out of the sky with a surface-to-air missile, Cheol-soo is called into action by his section chief (Ko Chang-seok again) while in the middle of trying to give a sperm sample at a fertility clinic. Ok, stick with me here, this plays out a lot better than it sounds due to some great casting.

In one week there will be a six-party meeting in which Korea's leaders will organize a nuclear disarmament and set up the re-unification of the North and South. The man who was assassinated on the jet, was a high-ranking North Korean official who's daughter is a nuclear physicist who is looking to defect. Chul-Soo's mission, which he is forced to accept in spite of the wife's fury, is to go to Thailand and extract the way-too-hot-to-be-a-scientist daughter from the grip of the North Koreans before the terrorists or the CIA get their hands on her. Naturally things do not go according to plan. In addition to the fact that the CIA beats everyone to the punch, Kim's wife, an airline hostess (Moon So-ri), is staying at the same hotel that is overrun with agents and terrorists. Even worse, one of the terrorists, Ryan (Daniel Henney), who we know is evil because he graduated from Stanford (go bears), has the intel on Kim and his wife and puts the moves on her to eventually use as bait for Kim.

If the plot sounds familiar, it should, it is essentially a reworking of TRUE LIES (1994) into a fun, funny and genuinely entertaining film. How is it better, I hear you ask? Well, no James Cameron, no Tom Arnold, and no cringing it-could-be-your-mom stripping scenes. Better still it really fills the need for a lightning-fast paced, action filled James Bond outing, the likes of which we just do not see any more. This is everything JOHNNY ENGLISH (2003) and GET SMART (2008) should have been, without the added mugging and buffoonery in both films.

The casting is dead-on, the score is perfect and we have plenty of gadgets that are likely based on real life items. There is also a nice attention to detail with great production design that really brings home the Bond. Additionally, the script deftly parodies the formula, with bits such as the old lady who appears to be selling yogurt drinks, but who is in fact a spy who delivers secret messages. It is pretty damn funny, but as they say, it's all in the delivery.

There is some CG compositing going on in some of the scenes, but there is plenty of genuine action to keep your attention. First-time director Lee Seung-joon-I has not only a great sense of spectacle that Bond should have, but he knows how to construct the elaborate action sequences that we expect of the genre. One in particular is a lengthy scene taking place in a fine dining restaurant that is secretly the CIA headquarters. Beginning as a clandestine sting operation, the Seoul agents quickly discover that every secret agency in Asia is also represented and things quickly devolve into a beautifully composed frenzy of brawling and fire-fights.

While the some of the comedy comes from Kim trying to alternately keep his cover and protect his wife who chews his a new ass any chance she gets (she is Korean, after all), like Kim, it is kept on a leash and never overshadows the action which includes subtle in-jokes for fans of the genre. Highly entertaining from beginning to end.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Listomania: August's Non-Kamen Rider Viewings

Looking over my August viewing list, you’d think I was a Japan-o-phile.  Nearly half of my viewings were from my latest addiction, Kamen Rider, and the source who got me hooked is that nefarious (movie)drug dealer, Mr. Sueyres.  Thankfully, I was able to pull myself away from the Land of the Rising Sun on a few occasions and get in a couple of non-tokusatsu flicks here and there.

ARIZONA ROAD (1991):  Larry Ludman…Arizona…Antonio Sabato, Jr.?  Sold!  If two of those three things make you start salivating, I’m guessing you are a fan of the THUNDER WARRIOR series.  An Italian bent on FIRST BLOOD, that trilogy featured Mark Gregory as the Native American kid Thunder, who is constantly being put upon by the local law enforcement (essayed by Bo Svenson, Raimund Harmstof, John Philip Law, and Werner Pochath over three films).  Under the Ludman pseudonym, director Fabrizio De Angelis captured the U.S. Southwest in his own unique way and I was hoping for more of that with ARIZONA ROAD.  Sadly, that was not the case.

Truck driver Emiliano (Sabato, Jr.) is a good guy and we know this because in the first five minutes he saves Aurora (Teresa Leopardi, billed as Therry Turner), a nun being sold into white slavery to small town big shot McDonaldson (Lou Castel).  Okay, things are a bit different in Arizona.  A few years later, Emiliano returns to the area in his own plane to meet up with his old timer buddy Ben Morris (Donald Hodson).  Now why his only friend is a kooky drunk gold miner is beyond me.  To show that Emiliano is still a good guy, we see him get in an unsanctioned boxing match in a bar (which is showing a THUNDER WARRIOR flick on TV) and take a dive so some kids can think their dad is a badass.  Awwwww.  Also working at the bar is Aurora and this pisses Emiliano off as he doesn’t like women who are hussies!  Seriously, half the film is him thwarting her advances. Naturally, word gets around town that Emiliano is back and McDonaldson gets the sheriff he paid for make this kid’s life hell.  And it is bad timing because Morris just found a shitload of gold in his mine and made Emiliano the sole owner.

Damn, I went into this hoping for some THUNDER WARRIOR-esque stuff and instead I got…what I got was...I don't know.  ARIZONA ROAD is kind of like FIRST BLOOD mixed with ROADHOUSE if you have zero action.  No joke, after the first car chase where Emiliano rescues Aurora, nothing happens for an hour. When Sabato, Jr. finally gets his revenge plan against the town big shot in action by breaking out of jail he heads straight for...a lawyer to talk it out.  What the hell?  You keep expecting action to start and, when it finally does, the film is over.  It was shot in the same town as the THUNDER WARRIOR films, but it shows how far the Italian industry had fallen from early '80s to early '90s.  I guess the film is notable for being one of Sabato, Jr.’s first films (he made his debut in De Angelis’ KARATE ROCK the year before), but it is a far cry from the De Angelis-produced ESCAPE FROM THE BRONX (1983) that co-starred Antonio Sabato, Sr. alongside future THUNDER WARRIOR Mark Gregory.  Fans of David Warbeck hoping that reliable thespian will bring something to the proceedings will be disappointed as he is only in this for five minutes.  To the film’s credit, they do capture some beautiful scenery in the Arizona desert, but no one comes to a Ludman/De Angelis flick hoping for pretty postcard images.  We want action and funny dubbing, dammit!  I will admit that this scene did make me laugh though:


C.H.U.D. (1984): I actually had a friend once ask me what C.H.U.D. meant.  I puffed out my chest and said, "Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers."  He countered with, "But what is the real meaning in the film?"  I didn't know and promptly hung my horror geek head in shame. Turns out the official meaning is "Contamination Hazard Urban Disposal," the name stenciled on the side of the toxic waste containers. Remember that kids, as you don't want to find yourself cornered by C.H.U.D. trivia and look like a fool.

C.H.U.D. actually celebrated its thirtieth birthday on August 31, 2014.  The film wasn't a huge success by any means when it opened in August 1984 (it debuted in ominous 13th place) but still got New World just over $4 million with its quick few weeks run at the box office.  I honored this anniversary by dusting off my Anchor Bay DVD and giving it a revisit.  Afterward, I couldn’t help feeling that old person adage of, “They don't make 'em like this any more.”  And, honestly, it’s true.  It tells the story of a NYC photographer (John Heard), a NYC cop (Christopher Curry), and a NYC bum (Daniel Stern) teaming up to uncover a NYC conspiracy of radioactive mutants under NYC.  That’s a lot of NYC.  With its slimy latex monsters, serious "real" actors, and fantastic underground locations, C.H.U.D. is something to behold and still is as awesome today as when I first saw it on VHS.  One of the great things on the DVD is an audio commentary featuring the three aforementioned actors alongside director Douglas Cheek and screenwriter Shepard Abbott.  All five guys have a grand time on this commentary, which was recorded about 20 years after they made the film.  The nice thing here is they don’t talk down the film (well, Stern does goof on some of the make ups) and point out that even though it was a B-movie, they still gave their all.  With anything and everything horror from the ‘80s being remade, I’m shocked this hasn’t hit the reboot block yet.

THE EXPENDABLES 3 (2014): More slam bang action for the middle age set!  THE EXPENDABLES 3 opens with Barney Ross (Stallone) and buddies Christmas (Jason Statham), Gunnar (Dolph Lundgren) and Toll Road (Randy Couture) breaking out a prisoner from some death train on its way to some fictional Eastern European country gulag.  Their prize is Doctor Death (Wesley Snipes), one of the original members of The Expendables.  When asked what he did to get locked up and tied down like Hannibal Lecter, Snipes responds, “Tax evasion.”  Wah, wah, waaaaaaaaaah!  Hooking up with Caesar (Terry Crews), the team has little downtime as they jump (literally) right into their next mission, something involving a shipment of weapons to some bad guy.  Turns out the supplier is one Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson) and this is bad news because he is also a former original member of The Expendables…who was presumed dead because Barney killed him.  Dun, dun, duuuuuuuuuun!  To show he holds a grudge, the escaping Stonebanks shoots Cesar a few times.  Somehow this makes Barney feel this work is too dangerous for old guys (or he is tired of paying their insurance premiums) so he lets his old team go when Max Drummer (Harrison Ford), his new CIA contact, gives him the okay to snag Stonebanks.  With the help of Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammer), Barney picks a new team of young ‘uns – including an energetic Antonio Banderas, boxer Victor Ortiz and MMA fighter Ronda Rousey – to be his new recruits.  I bet you can come up with what happens next faster than Stallone can write a cheesy character name.  Yes, the new team gets captured and it is up to the old guys to save the day.  Will they?

I saw someone online ask, “Who is the target audience for these films?” and, sadly, I knew the answer.  The third entry in Sylvester Stallone’s Jurassic action-hero series isn’t as good as the second one (they should have brought Jean Claude Van Damme back as an evil twin, dammit!), but it is still better than the first flick. Well, unless you are a Jet Li fan as he is only in the film for five minutes.  Yes, seriously.  Stallone made a lot of noise about selecting Aussie Patrick Hughes to helm this entry and I’m not really sure why.  Hughes presents some of the action well, but a lot of it is the same shaky cam nonsense that plagues modern action cinema.  I thought that is what these EXPENDABLE films were battling back against.  Young know, giving us “old school” action versus CGI madness.  If Stallone really wanted to make a badass action flick, Isaac Florentine would have been warming that director’s chair.  Then again, Florentine might make the actors actually do some of the heavy lifting and we can’t have that.  A lot was made about he new additions to this entry and it is a case of good (Banderas brings some welcome energy to his role; Robert Davi pops up), bad (Snipes is just picking up a check; Li and Crews are underused), and ugly (Ronda Rousey’s “acting”).  The biggest shock for me is this is the first time I’ve recognized Harrison Ford being a man of his age.  Just a few years younger than my dad, the 72-year-old Ford looks frail, leading my buddy Sherm to say, “No wonder he broke his leg on the new STAR WARS.”  It is a stunning realization (especially after how well they covered up his age in the last Indiana Jones flick) and provokes a sentiment that could probably be applied to this series.  It was a fun ride, but it is time to retire into the explosion filled sunset.

Friday, August 29, 2014

World of Witchcraft: VIY 3D (2014)

Believe it or not, this new adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s story VIY has been on our radar for almost 9 years.  The project germinated in 2004 and was originally announced by Russian Film Group (RFG) in the fall of 2005 with the goal of getting the film out in 2009 in order to cash in on the 200th anniversary of author Gogol's birth. Ha! Optimists.

Producer Alexey Petrukhin and director Oleg Stepchenko wowed investors with a four minute short they shot detailing the priest Khoma's terrifying night alone in the church with Aleksey Petrukhin essaying the role of the priest (this footage is included in the final film). There was only one small problem.  They hadn’t even written the script yet.

According to a behind-the-scenes documentary, screenwriting took place for several months in 2006 with filming scheduled to take place in the sections between autumn 2006 and spring 2007. It was to be a Russia/Ukraine/Czech Republic/U.K. co-production on a budget of $21 million dollars. “How on Earth could they make an effects heavy film with such a pittance?” screams all of Hollywood. It's amazing what you can accomplish when you aren't holding meetings at Spago's every day.

The filmmakers began shooting with the film’s main role – that of cartographer Jonathan Green – uncast; a smart, but incredibly risky move. Promising a “major international star” the hopefuls listed included Vincent Cassel, Ralph Fiennes, Sean Bean, Jason Flemyng, Andy Garcia (!), and Jason Statham. Seriously, try to imagine Jason Statham in a powdered wig and tights. It's an image that will haunt your nightmares. The role eventually went to Flemyng in 2008. Trailers, featuring only the footage shot of the Russian actors, went out in 2008 with the very specific release date of March 12, 2009 listed, three weeks before Gogol’s birthday party. They never showed.

Later, in November 2009, the filmmakers released more clips of the film and promised VIY in February 2010. They also teased a sequel, VIY 2: CURSED PLACE, to appear shortly thereafter. Ha! Still optimists. Naturally, the new release date disappeared quicker than vodka at a Russian wedding. Insanely, in 2011, the filmmakers decided the film needed massive reshoots and they added a framing story featuring Charles Dance. In April 2012, the new filming was reported in the Russian media as finished and a January 2013 release date was predicted. Can you guess what happened? Yup, they missed it. Long story short, post-production ran over and the film penciled in a new release date in January 2014. Yes, a year later and five years after their initial planned date. I'm sure the filmmakers looked at Aleksei German's 13-years-in-the-making HARD TO BE A GOD (2013) and went, "Hey, we worked nearly double time!"

It was all apparently worth the wait as Universal picked up the film for Russian distribution at Cannes in May 2013 and the new VIY broke all of the Russian box office records when it finally debuted. For a film with such a chaotic production history, it is amazing that this actually got to projectors. Furthermore, it is an absolute miracle that it is a coherent and entertaining film.

An English cartographer, Jonathan Green (Jason Flemyng), leaves his pregnant betrothed and her irate father (Charles Dance) to create a map of the Carpathians. Riding in his mechanical, driver-less carriage, he runs across some monks who have a horrible tale to tell. During a bout of heavy drinking of the local unfiltered moonshine, they tell him of a witch who resides in a nearby village. The two were accompanying a third. The third was a young priest (Petrukhin) who was tasked to stand vigil over the corpse of a beautiful girl in a church, high on a hill over looking the village. They say that his simple vigil turned into a hellish nightmare when the corpse of the beautiful girl turned out to be a witch. Barely able to escape with his life, the priest had never been seen again.

Naturally Green is intrigued and decides he should go to the village to make a map of it. On the way his carriage is beset by phantom wolves which he tries to fend off with a firearm, but the horses are so spooked that he couldn't turn back if he wanted to. He ends up crashing through the village gates, his carriage in flames, landing face down in the mud. The village has been beset by visions of an evil, seven-horned creature and the church has been declared cursed. The local Rasputin-esque priest Paisiy (Andrey Smolyakov), looking for a scapegoat, fingers Green as the Ambassador of Hell. Fortunately the village chief is up on his old "Kamen Rider" episodes and understands that this is a ridiculous accusation.


As it turns out there is indeed the body of a beautiful woman in their cursed church. The girl is the daughter of the village leader Sotnik (Yuriy Tsurilo) who secretly pays Green to make a map of the village by going to the church so he can see over the land. This must be done in secret as access is forbidden by the church. It is actually a ploy to get Green to investigate the church, as Sotnik is suspicious of the "curse" and simply wants to bury his daughter on the one year anniversary of her death.

Born in what is now known as the Ukraine, but at the time was simply part of the Russian Empire, Nikolai Gogol’s 1835 story has been adapted into feature films at least four times prior to this one. Recently we've had the Yugoslavian adaptation, A HOLY PLACE (1990); the Russian adaptation, VEDMA THE POWER OF FEAR (1996); the Korean production EVIL SPIRIT (2008); and previously the Russian classic VIY (1967), upon which this version is based. While A HOLY PLACE and VIY are more or less direct adaptations of the original story, this 2014 version, like VEDMA, has been heavily elaborated on. The only connection with the original story or the 1967 film upon which the script is supposed to be based, is a re-imagining of that film’s climactic sequence. Oddly Stepchenko almost completely recreates the sequence from the sets, costumes, right down to the look of the actors, though he spruces it up with modern CGI. Here the sequence is used as part of the set-up for the coming events that have been hewed from whole cloth by Stepchenko and his co-writer Aleksandr Karpov.

Though it is far and away more lavish looking than something with such a disaster prone history would imply, it is easy to see where the reshoots came into play. Literally and metaphorically. In the first half of the film there are some stunning sequences that were shot in native 3D that contrast sharply with the latter half of the 127 minute film which has been post-converted. The subplot with Charles Dance is clearly tacked on (presumably to add marquee value), and by the end it is clear that many other scenes were awkwardly added. The original press releases stated that this was to be not so much a remake as a re-adaptation of Gogol's original manuscript, though clearly inspiration was taken from the 1967 classic. After the production had wrapped we suddenly saw a whole lot Jason Flemyng falling in mud, water, flour and primordial ooze. While I have to say that Flemyng is not the most versatile actor he acquits himself well here, as he really is simply playing straight man to the village politics and witchcraft.

In spite of lavish production design, excellent cinematography and some high-quality 3D sequences, this version if VIY stumbles over its own shoe-laces with a drawn-out and poorly conceived M. Night Shyamalan inspired story in the second half of the film. This is a crying shame as there are two absolutely stunning horror sequences in the first half, one of which is unlike anything that audiences have seen in movies before. Echoing creatures from Lovecraftian nightmares, Green watches in horror as the villagers in the local tavern transform into indescribably hellish creatures. This sequence blends the use of practical make-up effects with CG in a way that most fans of fantastic cinema only dream of. It is a taste of what THE THING (2011) could have and should have been. If the filmmakers only had the wisdom to scale back their ambitions and simply do the remake that they originally intended with minor elaborations, it may have been something of a modern classic. As it stands, it is longer than it really needs to be and the resolution is unsatisfying.

Flush with the success of the first film at the Russian box office, the filmmakers have recommitted to making their sequel, now titled VIY 2: PUTESHESTVIE V KITAY. My Russian is a little rusty, but I'm pretty sure that translates to VIY 2: IT'LL ONLY TAKE US 5 YEARS THIS TIME. Actually, the title translates to VIY 2: JOURNEY TO CHINA.  I look forward to its eventual release in 2031.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Auntie Dearest: BUTCHER, BAKER, NIGHTMARE MAKER (1982)

WARNING: This review contains spoilers.  If you have not seen the film, I’d suggest not reading it.  If you like well written reviews, I also suggest not reading it.

Originally announced by Code Red for release in 2008 (!), the cult classic BUTCHER, BAKER, NIGHTMARE MAKER (1982) has finally hit DVD this year and this special edition is sure to be a treat for any fans of the film.  With a storyline more befitting nowadays of a Lifetime movie, BUTCHER is a film ahead of its time in many ways.  It is also the precursor to the popular late ‘80s/early ‘90s "________ from hell" subgenre (this being the "Aunt from Hell" entry). While the film itself could be considered a by-the-numbers thriller with some horror elements, it is still worth viewing for the absolutely amazing performance by Susan Tyrrell.

The movie opens with three-year-old Billy Lynch being left in the care of his Aunt Cheryl (Tyrrell) while his parents go away for a vacation.  En route to their destination, the brakes fail on their car on a winding roadway in the mountains, resulting in a spectacular car crash (the makers of FINAL DESTINATION 2 [2003] definitely saw this wreck choreographed by veteran stunt coordinator Paul Baxley, father of future stuntman/director Craig Baxley).  Fourteen years later, the seventeen-year-old Billy (Jimmy McNichol) is leading a normal life, having been raised by his Aunt in his parents’ old house.  Weeks from his birthday and graduation, he seems to have it all as he is dating Julia (Julia Duffy) and might be able to get a full athletic scholarship to college for basketball.

His seemingly ideal life is shattered when he comes home one day and finds his Aunt standing over the dead body of a TV repairman.  She insists he tried to rape her (audiences know otherwise since we see her trying to force herself upon him, screaming “I need a man!”) and poor Jimmy gets caught holding the knife after he pulls it out and some of Cheryl’s friends show up for his birthday party.  Enter Detective Joe Carlson (Bo Svenson), a world class bigot who doesn’t believe Cheryl’s story.  He comes up with an even more outlandish theory – since the victim was gay and a partner of Billy’s basketball coach (Steve Eastin), Billy must be gay too and killed the repairman in some convoluted love triangle that only an inept detective could envision.  Unfortunately, Billy must deal with the cop’s incessant hounding while slowly coming to the realization that his Aunt might have a few screws loose.

Far from being a sleazy horror cash-in by some young filmmaker, BUTCHER, BAKER, NIGHTMARE MAKER was made by Hollywood pros with some really shocking backgrounds of their own.  Director William Asher actually helmed hundreds of episodes of innocuous TV shows such as I LOVE LUCY, BEWITCHED, and GIDGET; he was also the man responsible for the Frankie Avalon BEACH movies (!) in the 1960s.  To say BUTCHER is unlike anything on his filmography (he made it between stints directing episodes of THE BAD NEWS BEARS and PRIVATE BENJAMIN TV series incarnations) is an understatement.  I can’t remember the episode of LUCY that showcased an over-the-top violent finale featuring multiple stabbings, a garroting, a shooting, gutting by fire poker and a pickled severed head!  Yet his steady hand brings a great seriousness and even some jet black comedy to the proceedings.  The screenplay by Steve Briemer, Boon Collins and Alan Jay Glueckman is painfully similar to the earlier THE ATTIC (1979), going so far as to have the lead lunatic keeping a dead beau's corpse.  Where it stands out are several allusions to incest and the subplot involving the homophobic cop played by Svenson, which allowed for quite possibly one of horrordom’s first positive depiction of an openly gay character in the basketball coach. The cast is fine with lead McNichol, brother of Kristy, providing the right amount of innocence as Billy and Julia Duffy, as Billy's put upon girlfriend Julia, taking her fair share of hard licks, including a violent scuffle with Tyrrell in a swamp (no stunt doubles here). Sharp-eyed viewers will spot a young Bill Paxton as a high school basketball thug.

If the film belongs to anyone, it is acting dynamo Susan Tyrrell.  She begins the film stable enough with a 1950s look, doting over her teenage nephew and trying to convince him to stay with her. When it appears that Billy may end up getting a scholarship to the University of Colorado, the character of Cheryl becomes increasingly unbalanced. By the end of the film, she is completely nuts and it is hard to even believe that Tyrrell, grunting and cursing with uncombed, shorn hair, is the same actress seen 90 minutes earlier. It is truly one of the most terrifying performances, delivered with such passion that I actually feared for the actors on set.  If you need any indication of her power as a thespian, watch the milk scene where she switches from doting caregiver to vicious torturer (“Drink it!”) in a nanosecond.  She is so damn crazy that I swear I used to date her.  In the annals of cinematic psycho ladies, Tyrrell leaps into the top three craziest female performances of all-time, right next to luminaries such as Bette Davis (WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?) and Shelley Winters (WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN?).

In fact, the filmmakers should have called this film WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH AUNT CHERYL or something. Having dealt with a glut of titles (including MOMMA’S BOY, THRILLED TO DEATH and eventual US title NIGHT WARNING), the film never got a chance to connect fully with theatrical audiences back in the day.  Thankfully a cult following emerged via TV and video and the film is fondly remembered today. This makes Code Red’s special edition a welcome gift for any fan.  The film is given a HD transfer from the original camera negatives and it is easily the best the film has ever looked.  Extras include two audio commentaries (one with Jimmy McNichol, the other with producer Steven Briemer and co-writer Glueckman) and over 45 minutes of interviews with cast and crew including McNichol, Eastin, Tyrrell, Briemer (who laments over the distributor renaming the film NIGHT WARNING), and FX guy Alan Alpone.  It seems everyone disliked Svenson, with some being diplomatic while other laying it out (Alpone says ol’ Bo got punched in the face after sexually harassing a crew member).  As with the film, Tyrrell once again dominates the proceedings.  She is shown in a ten minute clip reacting to portions of the film, which she says she has never seen.  She is initially very dismissive of the film (“Who do I have to fuck to get off this picture,” she jokes) but seems rather caught up in it (and her performance) during the crazed finale.  I have to agree with Casey Scott when he lamented on Facebook that he’d pay to see this entire on camera capturing of Su-Su.  As it stands, it is a nice reminder of one of the great crazy ladies, who sadly passed away in 2012.