Cyber Monday: Project Shadowchaser Trilogy

Frank Zagarino dies hard!

Cinemasochism: Black Mangue (2008)

Braindead zombies from Brazil!

The Gweilo Dojo: Furious (1984)

Simon Rhee's bizarre kung fu epic!

Adrenaline Shot: Fire, Ice and Dynamite (1990)

Willy Bogner and Roger Moore stuntfest!

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

Surreal Russian neo-noir detective epic!

Sunday, July 27, 2014


There are folks that absolutely love anime stuff. Be it "Sailor Moon", "Ghost in the Shell" or "Appleseed", some folks are obsessed. Back in the late '80s I would watch one here or there after being blown away by AKIRA (1988) at a midnight screening. About that time I got an unsubtitled bootleg tape of an amazingly over the top, incredibly graphic anime titled "The Wandering Kid", better known now as "Urotsukidoji" (1989). Some years later it was released in the States with subtitles and I discovered that aside from the incredibly graphic, acid-trip visuals there was an fascinating and complicated story going on as well. Other than that "Fist of the North Star" was the only thing that really held my attention.

In a sharp contrast to my usual ranting about the dire state of modern cinema, I have to say that computer animation is a whole different breed and for some reason, I dig it. Since I am not an anime fan, I have never actually sat down and watched more than a few minutes of the much beloved "Space Pirate Captain Harlock" anime series', but I had to check out some of the different movies and episodes after watching this. Because of my lack of prior worship, I feel I am perfectly suited to review the new CG animated movie. Why? Because I come into it with few preconceived expectations and will not end up being that guy on an internet message board who is bitching about how the characters aren't exactly right, the back-story is a little different, a costume got slightly changed or the plot is too complicated.

You know who you are.

It's true that this new SPACE PIRATE CAPTAIN HARLOCK movie does have a slightly complicated plot that is revealed over the course of the movie. This is pretty typical for Japanese sci-fi and I will try to keep it as spoiler-free as possible, but since they don't adopt the lazy Hollywood tactic of having a couple of people standing around in the beginning of the film having a conversation that explains the entire plot to the audience, that will probably be difficult. Fair warning.

In the Earth's future mankind has spread across the galaxies inhabiting other planets and killing off the indigenous populations until a movement arises to return to Earth. Unfortunately, the Earth ruling body, the Gaia Council, makes it illegal for ex-pats to return to the planet starting a massive war between the Gaia Council forces and the off-world human warlord fleets. At the end of this brutal and lengthy conflict, the Gaia Council makes Earth a sacred zone that no one is allowed to return to under penalty of death.

Hollywood CG movies wished they looked this good.

A young man named Yama (Haruma Miura), manages to become accepted as a new recruit aboard the infamous pirate ship the Arcadia. Once among the ranks, we quickly discover that Yama is a covert operative working for the Gaia Council, whose mission is to uncover Captain Harlock's (Shun Oguri) plans and kill him. Presumably with plenty of prejudice as near the end of the war, Harlock stole a battleship from the Council. He also had one of the last remaining alien life-forms in the galaxy imbue it with dark matter, which not only allows the ship and Harlock to be practically indestructible, but makes it look really damn cool too. Harlock, is rumored to be immortal, and has been spending the last 100 years collecting warheads from abandoned space stations and mounting them on very specific planets in the galaxy. He has planted 98 out of 100 warheads that he believes, when detonated all at once, will reset time and allow the human race to start again. Naturally the Council doesn't want him to achieve his goal, as they enjoy wielding their power from on high.

Yama, as it turns out, is not acting on his own. His brother, Ezra (Toshiyuki Morikawa), who lost the use of his legs during an accident caused by Yama, has big plans to increase his station with the Council and set Yama up for revenge by sending him out on this mission. If Yama succeeds he will gain power within the council, if he fails, he will be killed by Harlock. Either way it's a win-win situation for Ezra, or so he thinks.

Yama, being pulled both ways by his blind loyalty to his crippled brother and his sudden appreciation for Harlock's own mission, must struggle to figure out which side he is going to take. In between the drama we get plenty of action and some veiled allusions to the WMD cover-ups, as well as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, which for some reason, continues to be a theme in Japanese cinema.

While there has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the fanboy community, the tide of opinion changed after James Cameron gave it his sound-bite blessing. It's a little annoying as it makes those who enjoyed it look like lemmings, and kind of knocks the legs out from under it. However, I can understand why he praised it, because it's better than anything he has ever done in his career. Setting aside that annoyance, the art-direction is flat-out gobsmacking. I hate to use banalities like "breathtaking", but the visuals are nothing short of that and they go a long way to gloss over some of the more well-worn themes in the story. Because it is a modern mainstream film, there are certain things that come with the territory. At least three characters have to have a scene where they shed a solitary tear. Fortunately it are no excessive histrionics that seem to becoming commonplace in modern sci-fi. I'm not saying emotion has no part in science fiction, but really, does "Doctor Who" really need multiple scenes of sobbing in every episode? I think not.

The ship Arcadia itself has been re-envisioned as a Geiger-esque, skull and gear filled behemoth with a sinister steampunk motif that is so immaculately detailed that much of the nuances are lost in these screenshots. The level of detail is astonishing. The Council's ships, equally detailed, are white and sleek with gold accents as befits their status in the universe. But hey, you say, isn't that the same genesis for the design of the rebel and imperial ships from STAR WARS (1977)? Yes it is. Not only that, but there are many things in HARLOCK that are cribbed straight out of the STAR WARS playbook. There are the requisite orchestrated dog fights, white armored troops engaging in gun battles in spaceship corridors, hell they even lift the concept of the classic space slug-in-the-asteroid scene from THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980). Surely that taints the film's luster? Actually, I don't think so. So many films have borrowed from the original STAR WARS trilogy so many times over the decades, these things have become more like staples of the genre. As long as it is not totally overt, I enjoy STAR WARS rip-offs a lot more than I enjoy the original series anymore. Give me THE HUMANOID (1979) and STARCHASER (1985) any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

The art direction doesn't limit itself to stunning environments and space vessels however, they also go for some serious special effects eye-candy that puts the whole thing over-the-top. One of impressive set-pieces is one of the Council's super-weapons, which is a satellite that crushes neutron stars to create a deadly beam of energy that obliterates everything in its path. While the characters look a little videogameish, presumably to retain an anime feel, the costumes look fantastic, right down to the leather grain on Harlock's collar. Since this is a post-"Dark Knight" film, the filmmakers opt for a less cartoonish tone, drenching the movie in shadows. While I feel this is getting stale in Hollywood live-action films, it suits HARLOCK right down to the ground. It is expected that animated films should be light and breezy because it is assumed that the main demographic is children. While HARLOCK doesn't get bloody or titillating (aside from a few minor scenes), it does take it self seriously and tries to reflect that in its cinematography and narrative.

It's also worth mentioning that while this movie looks fantastic as a flat film, it is absolutely eye-popping in 3D. There are no pop-out effects to speak of, but the spatial sense of depth for every object on the screen is dramatic and adds an extra punch to the already stunning visuals. There are times where it is difficult to follow the subtitles simply because of the gorgeous artwork in this film.

It's a shame that American distributors are so rigid these days with foreign films, or god-forbid an adult oriented 3D animated film. They are so alien and incomprehensible to studio execs and distributors that we are lucky to get them on plain DVD, much less in theaters. It is amazing to think back on 2001 and realize it was a more enlightened time with the lackluster CG animated FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN actually getting a wide theatrical release, opening on no less than 2,649 screens. Sure it was a massive flop, but you'd think 13 years later they would get over it. Particularly since Hollywood keeps writing $150 million checks to the Wachowski brothers who haven't had a hit since 1999.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Cinemasochism: NEVER TOO YOUNG TO DIE (1986)

I love talking shop with fellow cult film fans from around the world.  It is always an adventure when you start talking about some prestigious film and end up talking about the merits of Godfrey Ho or Tomas Tang.  My path to NEVER TOO YOUNG TO DIE was like that…minus the prestigious part.  Online pal Sir Patryk McGahern, the Indiana Jones of finding unreleased movie relics, sent me a trailer for some disaster called THE LEGEND OF SIMON CONJURER (2006).  The preview for this thriller starring Jon Voight looked like some trailer parody off of Saturday Night Live, but it was apparently a real film that was made by brothers Stuart and Steve Paul.  By the end of our conversation, he was telling me I had to see NEVER TOO YOUNG TO DIE, the Pauls third feature film effort.  And he warned me not to read anything about the plot.  Consider me intrigued.

Thanks to Video Junkie head honcho Tom, I soon found myself with a copy.  About 20 minutes in, I had to stop and email Tom to make him aware of this film’s greatness.  Not only had he seen it before (several times!) but he said he was waiting to revisit it, knowing full well that I was soon going to be send him a WTF email. Damn, am I that predictable or is this film really that whack?  I’d say a bit of both.  Obviously I wouldn’t advise you to read this review if you haven’t seen the film and rush right out to find a copy. However, if you’re feeling adventurous, keep reading.

The film opens in the middle of a California desert with a bunch of “only in Hollywood” motorcycle thugs cheering on their leader Velvet Von Ragner, who greets his minions by calling them “my little turdballs.”  This is one freaky looking dude as he is a cross dresser and, to my mind at the moment of viewing, looks a lot like Gene Simmons in drag. Then it hits me…OH…MY…GOD!  Close ups reveal it is really Gene Simmons in drag.  Okay, you have my attention.  Ragner lays out his plans to get billions from California by re-routing toxic waste into the city’s water supply.  There is only one problem – someone has stolen the diskette he needs to put his plan into action (apparently a back up copy was beyond their thinking) and he figures out who the thief was after killing a female spy.  “Bring me Stargrove,” he screams.  This leads to an intro music montage that only the ‘80s could deliver as Lance Stargrove (John Stamos) shows some sick gymnastic moves over the opening credits set to the theme song sporting the following lyrics:

Stargrove! Flying like he’s never flown.
Stargrove! Running to a danger zone.
Stargrove! Are you gonna stand alone?
Stargrove! Stargrove!

Oddly, the filmmakers want to endear Lance Stargrove to us by showing him cheating on a test with help from his nerdy roommate Cliff (Peter Kwong).  I guess since he is young, handsome, and athletic it is okay.  After Cliff shows off some homemade weapons in his dorm room (uhhhhh), Stargrove laments about how his father, Drew Stargrove (one-and-done James Bond George Lazenby), probably won’t be making it to parents’ day on the campus and will miss his gymnastics meet.  And why won’t he be there to show his paternal support? Seems he is too busy saving the world from Ragner and, wouldn’t you know it, his three-man squad is scheduled to raid his headquarters inside of a dam right at the time of the gymnastic competition.  Duty calls.

Stargrove, the elder, is accompanied by Carruthers and a disposable third guy. Hey, that Carruthers looks just like Gene Simmons in a really bad red wig and beard…ooops, more on that later. Naturally, Carruthers turns on Stargrove and disposable guy and, even more naturally, disposable guy ends up being disposed of.  Stargrove is shot and captured and Ragner demands to know where the disk is.  Stargrove responds by blowing up some of his men, before getting blown away himself by Ragner.  If you listen real carefully on the soundtrack here, you can hear Lazenby cashing his check for his 5 minutes of screen time.  Cut to the standard funeral bit complete with a mysterious woman (Vanity) graveside.  On the way home, Stargrove, the junior, is informed that his father has left him a farm out in the mountains.

Heading out to check out his new digs, Stargrove sees the mysterious woman tending to a horse on his farm.  Before he can collect his rent, she is attacked by a couple of Ragner’s goons.  To show how tough she is, she tells one guy to “eat shit” and then forces his head into a pile of horseshit.  Ah, I love a woman who takes things too literally.  Good thing she didn’t yell “fuck you” to him.  After she disposes of these guys, she introduces herself as Deeja Deering, an associate of Stargrove’s father.  She doesn’t want this frail kid getting wrapped up in this espionage business that involves the organization Stargrove’s father worked for and her new contact…Carruthers.  *insert dramatic music cue here*  James Bond, Jr. follows Deeja to a club in downtown L.A. called Incinerator, where they let the patrons ride their motorcycles up to bar to get a beer and can of oil.  Yes, really.  You know it is a rough place as the song “Fire up the Night” blasting on the soundtrack features the lyric: “We…don’t…give…a HUFF ABOUT YOU!”  Oh man, they don’t give huffs?  Buncha stone cold killers up in here.  Anyway, within minutes of his arrival, Lance gets treated to a performance by the venue’s resident artist – the one and only, Velvet Von Ragner!  In what truly had to have been Gene Simmons’ lowest point (before doing a reality show) he croons, “It takes a man like me to be a woman like me” while decked out in a glitzy headdress and outfit that even Cher would say is too gawdy.

“You will never find a more wreteched hive of scum and villainy...hey, damn it, who let the Valley Girl in?”  

After some baddies try to kill Lance by blowing up his motorcycle at the club, he realizes he is up to his neck in this sequined-cloak and dagger business with Ranger and opts to use his certain set of skills (pommel horse, still rings, horizontal bar!) to save the day.

If you’ve made it this far, first let me congratulate you.  Second, let me say one more time, Gene Simmons in drag! Yes, if NEVER TOO YOUNG TO DIE has any place in film history, it is for the mind bending visual of the Kiss demon dolled up to the max and giving a performance dialed up to 11.  Let’s be honest: Simmons is not a good looking dude, so he makes an even uglier dudette.  Sporting a huge wig, Simmons as Ragner comes off looking like Vanessa del Rio after a hard day at work.  When Simmons cackles and bugs out his eyes, he comes off looking like Karen Black after a regular day at work.

Simmons made quite an impression in his first non-Kiss acting performance as the villain in RUNAWAY (1984) as he and his tiny robots chased down Tom Selleck. Unfortunately, he blew all of that credit (and more) with his second villainous outing.  It is the kind of performance so bad that today it would kill a career or at least send one into hiding for a few years.  Back then it hardly effected Simmons because either no one saw it or they just summed it up to “oh, that wacky Gene!”  Regardless, he bounced back nicely with his third main villain role in the Rutger Hauer action flick WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE (1987).

The use of a hermaphrodite bad guy/girl gives one a peek into the insanity of this production.  With such an over-the-top heavy, you’d think that this film would be self aware and have its tongue firmly planted in its cheek.  Yet it appears director Gil Bettman is going 100% serious in the handling of the material and makes wrong choice after wrong choice. I guess it starts with getting George Lazenby, the James Bond that a) either no one remembers or b) no one likes.  I’m sure when this was written they were hoping for Sean Connery. But, to paraphrase Ted Knight in CADDYSHACK (1980), “You’ll get Lazenby and like it!” Then we have the casting of singer, Prince pet and Playboy centerfold Vanity. She is easy on the eyes, hard on the ears as her acting is really, really rough. The same could be said for lead Stamos as he seems to have all the charisma of a cup of Greek yogurt.  Then again, he was a hunk for the ladies to ogle.  Their chemistry is nil, which makes a building seduction scene between Lance and Deeja doubly hilarious.  While standing around antsy like he has to pee, Lance strokes a Perrier bottle and voraciously chomps into an apple as she splashes water all over herself with a hose dangling inches from her mouth.  The gang is so ridiculous that even Hong Kong or Italian film crews would look at them and go, “No, not very realistic, too silly.” Nowhere is the OMG intent-versus-realization divide bigger than in the finale where Lance gets the better of Ragner by telling him how beautiful he thinks he/she is.  Cinema has always been entranced by the James Bond, Jr. kind of storyline, where the kid helps out his spy pop (a great example would be the previous year’s TARGET with Gene Hackman and Matt Dillon).  Unfortunately, this ain’t it. Regardless, highly recommended for its schlock value.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Cyber Monday: LADY BATTLE COP (1990)

Early RoboCop prototype (left)
Space Sheriff Gavan (right)
As we all know, 1987's ROBOCOP was a major success in the US as well as around the world. In spite of being a scathing satire of American corporations, no matter where you lived or where you worked, there was something in the movie for you. If not the skewering of modern (anti)social behavior in the corporate business world, there was the over-the-top action, gruesome effects and the slick design of RoboCop himself.

Rob Bottin was tasked with creating the design of RoboCop, which originally was intended to be a pretty obvious reworking of Judge Dredd. Interestingly, as tokusatsu fans could have told you, the second RoboCop design was inspired by the title character of Toei's 1978 Japanese TV series "Space Sheriff Gavan". Because of this connection, it's rather amusing to see things come full circle with this Toei DTV ROBOCOP knock-off LADY BATTLE COP.

Set in the not too distant future, or as the film tells us "sometime... somewhere...", Neo Tokyo has fallen into a rubble and burn-barrel littered chaos of drunks, prostitutes and syndicate killers. According to the Neo Tokyo news, the latest virus to spread from the United States is a new arm of the Cartel, an organized crime outfit that has arms across the globe, but you know is American because they have one black guy working for them.

Opening in a bar full of punks dancing to bad metal, two groups of tailored suit clad Yakuza are about to draw down on each other when a group of camo-clad militants with automatic weapons burst in and blow the living crap out of everyone. Even the liquor bottles aren't safe! The head of the Cartel's cap-busting subdivision is known as Phantom (Masashi Ishibashi recognizable from a dozen Sonny Chiba films and a couple of "Kamen Rider" series) lets one member of each gang live however, so that they can send a message back to their bosses: "From now on, this town will be under the control of the Cartel! Senseless fights won't be allowed anymore!" Damn straight! Senseless fighting is bad, senseless killing is just fine. It's an important distinction, I guess.

Neo Tokyo cop, Saijo (Kisuke Yamashita), has a plan to crack the Cartel case and before executing his plan decides to do a television interview where he announces his dedication to squashing the syndicate. Brother you better be DirtyfuckingHarry if you are going to be identifying yourself on national TV as a threat to the mob. Saijo is friends with another cop, Naoya, who is trying to crack the case from a different angle, but with the same subtlety. Paving the way for a new wave of crime control, Naoya is the leading cop/scientist on a project that will bring robotics to the police force (take that Captain Coldyron!). The project is so hush-hush that even the audience can't be allowed to know any of the details, except that the project is in the last stages of completion and all they need is someone to donate their body in order to finish the project.

The Cartel knows damn well what is going down (though how they know is apparently also top secret), and sends Phantom and his thugs down to the lab to kill everyone and blow up the building. Unfortunately, or fortunately as we see later, Naoya and his champion tennis player fiancee, Karu (Azusa Nakamura), descide to stop by the office on their way home from a boating trip (complete with an Alan Hale captain's hat). Of course they are caught up in the shootings and are both gravely wounded. They manage to escape from Phantom and a telekinetic roid-rage dude, named Amadeus (I don't make this stuff up) who pops up out of nowhere. Scrambling back to Naoya's lab, Karu begs him to use her as his donor for the project before she dies. Surprisingly this only takes a matter of minutes and is completed before the bombs go off and completely obliterate the facility and Naoya as well.

Six months later Saijo still hasn't learned how to conduct an investigation, opting this time to try to browbeat some information about the Cartel out of a random bartender at the same club from the beginning of the film. Such a blundering tool is he that even when an ex-cop offers to help him with some information that he uncovered before being fired from the police force, Saijo refuses to even listen to the guy accusing him of being a drunk. If he read any pulp detective novels he'd know that the best information is obtained by interrogating raving alcoholics. Leave every stone unturned, that's his motto!

While walking home from the club through a dirt street filled with homeless, drunks and a staggering number of hookers who are clearly pleased to see a man in a suit and tie, Phantom and his men corner him among some conveniently placed boxes and barrels and just before they kill him RoboChick comes to his aid! Presumably she was in the neighborhood to show the prostitutes how to attract Japanese men - cybernetics are hawt! Unfortunately for them, Phantom brought along Amadeus to compose a symphony of death (note this line is not actually used in the movie, but should have been)! Amadeus' main power, aside from appearing to have an aneurysm every time he sees our fetching fembot, is hurling I-beams via telekinesis. Apparently all of the drunks have dropped them while reaching for the bottle, so there are always plenty to be found.

We know the Lady Battle Cop is a woman, not because she wears red lipstick, has an earring and high heels, but because her armor is shaped to give the suggestion of breasts and a curvaceous oishi. This begs the question, were they actually looking for a female donor? I mean, I realize that these are Japanese scientists and this is probably the only way they would be able to get their hands on a woman's body, but it seems odd all the same. Particularly given the Japanese view of women at the time which is spelled out in the endlessly repeating theme song that features the lyric "women are made for tennis." The only other option is that Naoya was able to reshape the armor into a semblance of femininity and perform the procedure before the bomb goes off. No wonder the Japanese damn near took over America in the '80s. Frankly, I'd rather them than China. I mean, it's a pretty easy choice between Ultraman and Super Inframan, who would you rather see save the world from giant rubber monsters? Sorry Danny Lee, go back to playing cops.

After Phantom fails his assignment yet again, the Cartel decides he can have a shoulder mounted laser cannon, but if he takes it, he will no longer get any assistance from Amadeus. Why? Presumably since they are a large bureaucracy, they have some sort of check-out policy where you cannot have two superweapons out at the same time. You don't even want to know what their late return penalty is.

Now it's time for all out war between Phantom and Battle Cop in several abandoned factories and warehouses. Of course in spite of the refusal to allow both the laser and Amadeus to be used by Phantom at the same time, you know he has to show up again for a final battle.

Briefly legitimately released to Western audiences in the latter days of VHS, the film was given fanmade subtitles and made the rounds in the trading circles of the '90s. The movie is definitely a mixed bag. On the one hand, the action is satisfyingly bloody, the futuristic setting is entertaining, and there are some interesting twists on the formula. On the other hand, the movie has some serious pacing issues. Director Akihisa Okamoto seems to have made his career as a second unit and assistant director in the '70s and it shows here. The movie lacks the scope that it could have had by using matte paintings, miniatures or even simply skylines to show the expanse of the futuristic city. It feels like Okamoto is trying to make up for this larger world-view by giving us lots of scenes of people walking, hanging out, or just having Lady Battle Cop riding around the countryside on her motorcycle. Granted, no metal hero outing is complete without a motorcycle, but don't expect any cycle stunts or even a wheelie here.

While we do get some cool character actors (the late Toshiaki Nishizawa of "Gavan" fame shows up as Soijo's chief), the character of Amadeus should have been fleshed out a bit more. I hate to say it in this day and age when in Hollywood films even the neighbor's dog has to have a back story, but while we get some great shots of Amadeus and we are told that he was a government experiment that the Cartel corrupted, we never get any scenes of him doing anything other than randomly popping up and attacking Battle Cop. Some scenes of Amadeus wreaking havoc and Lady Robo taking out some random criminals to set the stage for the big battle on the Cartel would have gone a long way. Even worse the film ends with a bit of a cliffhanger setting the stage for a sequel that never happened, and honestly I would have loved to see some sequels from different directors. The concept of a RoboCop taking on psychic cyborgs has inconceivable potential.

Even with its flaws, the film has enough low-budget entertainment value to warrant a visit, and if you dig tokusatsu stuff, you'll definitely want to give it a spin when in a forgiving state of mind.

Friday, July 18, 2014