THE LAST FEW MOVIES I SAW: EPISODE XXXIII – Robots and Ghouls

Once again, I collect and rank the last several films I saw. Some I really loved. A lot were interesting and inadvertently humorous. None I hated. Film is subjective. These lists are a celebration of that.

Enjoy. And, as always, if you have a recommendation for me… give it to me.

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24. Full Moon Features sure knows how to make one hell of a trailer. They produced a lot of schlocky horror flicks that, sadly, don’t always measure up to their ads or nifty concepts. Lurking Fear (1994) is the story of a man fresh out of prison who goes to dig up money buried with a corpse on a spooky, stormy night. Too bad for him that naughty gangsters are also after the money. And also a cadre of ghoul hunters are chilling at the same cemetery, hoping to finally end the evil reign of these ill-defined creatures once and for all. Also a pregnant woman. It’s a mess, but has some OK atmosphere and Jeffrey Combs is in it and he’s always fun to watch.

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23. The movie with the infamous “Garbage day!” scene. Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 (1987) is a bad movie held together by the even more laughably bad performance by Eric Freeman. He absolutely makes this movie. The first third of the film is a rehashing of the first film. They use lots of footage from the original. It’s like movie SparkNotes. So you can skip the first one. It looks bad, but not nearly as fun. Mean nuns. Murderous Santas. A bland horror tale of revenge with some laugh out loud moments.

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22. Evilspeak (1981) is the classic story about a bullied nerd (Clint Howard) at a military academy who discovers a Satanic library in the basement and uses computers to help him summon demons to get revenge. It’s got a few pretty memorable scenes (mostly involving violence and murder), but it feels long in the middle when the movie has teased us enough and we just want to see the Carrie styled bloodbath.

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21. I love cowboy westerns and have always disliked John Wayne. He’s good in a couple movies (True Grit, Stagecoach), but he’s just one of those iconic actors that never made a positive impression on me. But this movie has Maureen O’Hara and a pretty straightforward plot. I had seen Big Jake (1971) as a kid and caught it again recently. Some decent shootouts and suspense. He’s just trying to rescue his kidnapped grandson.

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20. Highway to Hell (1991) is a fantastically dark action-horror concept mired by the filmmakers insisting it be a lowbrow comedy. Our young protagonist’s girlfriend gets kidnapped by a literal cop from Hell. The rest of the movie is the adventure through Hell (looking a lot like the American Southwest) and onto Hell City to get her back. Because it plays so silly and cutesie, the stakes never feel that high and most of the comedy does not really work (unless Gilbert Gottfried playing Hitler in a cameo is hilarious to you). There are a few fun special effects here and there, but ultimately there’s not enough visually to make Hell feel like much more than a sunny stretch of highway in Arizona.

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19. Robot Holocaust (1986) is a straight awful movie. Terrible sets. Even worse costumes. And the acting! The main villainess delivers her lines like she is just coming off anesthesia. It’s no Starcrash, but we laughed a lot and sometimes that’s all I ask for in my sci-fi schlock.

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18. Pumpkinhead (1988) is not great, but I admire that it does try to be different. When a man’s young son is accidentally killed by vacationing teens, he goes to a witch to make a deal and perform the rites needed to conjure the demon known as Pumpkinhead. Lance Henikson plays the tortured father who becomes linked with the monster he has unleashed. The practical effects of the creature and the witch’s swamp are highlights visually.

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17. Zoo (2007) is that documentary about the guy who died from having sex with a horse. The film also takes a distant but humanizing look at zoophiles in general and how that underworld sometimes operates in strange corners of society. More pensive than shocking, the movie focuses on individuals rather than go into gruesome detail of the incident. Almost Lynchian.

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16. Visually sumptuous, gorgeously ornate costumes, breathtaking locations, and a script so convoluted and incomprehensible you may be scratching your head as to how many rewrites it didn’t get during its infamous 25+ year production history. Terry Gilliam’s cinematic oeuvre creaks from bold, hallucinatory, and inspired to unwieldy and frustrating with indulgent bombast eclipsing anything meaningful. I still rank much of his pre-2000s work among my favorite films, but The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2019) is a problematic and unsatisfying mess that continuously picks up plot threads that don’t really go anywhere. The film has moments of brilliance. When it leans into the fantasy and the adventure aspects, it approaches something, but it’s ultimately a far more cynical, grouchy, and out of touch film that unceremoniously dispatches characters, plot threads, stakes, and messages with awkward weightlessness. What is it all about? What is the story? What is being said? It is very dense and it looks great and has a fine cast (wish Adam Driver’s protagonist had at least one redeeming quality or that we actually felt the magnitude of Jonathan Pryce’s character arc or that the wonderful Olga Kurylenko and Joana Ribiero were more than just eye candy as both have fantastic screen presence). As the more straight Don Quixote elements were the best bits, it makes me wonder how great the film could have been had it been more of a straight adaptation of the famous novel instead of the deeply uninteresting non-redemption story of a cowardly, asshole film director who ruins the lives of those around him. Unless that is the point. How autobiographical is this movie?

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15. Behind the Curve (2018) is another documentary. This one takes a look at the flat Earth movement. If you’ve seen any of the thousands of YouTube videos exposing the truth about how our planet is actually flat and everyone is just lying to you…for some reason, then you’re already familiar with the typical arguments and talking points. All of which are easily debunked. Behind the Curve, rather than focus on the wacky claims put forth, instead chooses to make the viewer more intimate with the personalities behind the movement. Sure, they’re all a bit delusional and seem to hold more than a few bizarre beliefs for similarly baffling reasons, but behind that glazed look in their eye is an inquiring human mind that has maybe just gone astray. The movie doesn’t go out of its way to challenge their claims. It just gives them enough rope to hang themselves. The hubris and myopia are real things that effect us all. If you’re interested in cults, conspiracy theories, and how people can get sucked into those worlds and stay there, it’s an interesting peek into that space.

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14. For low-key horror films, Green Room (2015) almost succeeds in being brilliant. A broke punk band gets a gig playing in an old barn in the woods that just happens to be a hub for neo-Nazis. That should be enough to get the ball rolling, and had it been it I think this movie would have been a lot more satisfying. There’s an added plot of a murdered man (Anton Yelchin’s character sees too much) and then the Nazi leader (Patrick Stewart) shows up to contain it all. Had it just been the fact that punks were duped into performing there and that their onstage anti-fascist antics incite the white supremacist mob to violence, I think things would have been much more streamlined and interesting. But it seemed the movie was almost uncomfortable with just saying that Nazis are bad in and of themselves. As is, it’s decent. Better than a lot of horror in the same vein. But could have been great.

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13. Mystics of Bali(1981) wastes no precious time in getting into it. An attractive American girl wants to learn the most powerful magic there is. For some reason. Her Filipino friend (who she continues to tease with the promise of a relationship) agrees to introduce her to a witch in the jungle. She meets the witch, but the witch only wishes to use the foolish girl. She turns the girl into a penanggalan: a traditional Filipino floating vampire head with all of the internal organs hanging out the neck. This is more than just a bad a movie. It’s wonderfully weird. It’s slow to get going, but once the nonsense begins, it keeps going until we learn that white women, like jungle witches, are not to be trusted and that if you have one magic uncle and he dies, don’t worry. You probably have another, more powerful ghost uncle to save the day.

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12. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Michael Pollan takes on a journey into America’s diet. In Defense of Food (2015) covers a lot of basic stuff, but it does so in such an engaging and open way that it pulls you in. From the history of manipulative health language in advertising to the villages of small African tribes that live as organically as possible, Pollan is eager to discover what we should eat and how we can enjoy the food we eat.

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11. Just look at that still. That is amazing. Motel Hell (1980) is the best Texas Chainsaw Massacre knockoff you can find, I’d wager. Human heads popping out of the ground like vegetables. A cannibal bed and breakfast. A pig headed chainsaw duel. This movie is cheap, fast, and hits you just when it needs to. Like greasy fast food.

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10. Luigi Cozzi’s The Adventures of Hercules(1985) is a sword and sorcery sequel that has wacky Italian production written all over it. We really wanted to watch the original with Sybil Danning (Howling 2), but we had to make do. Lou Ferrigno stars as the mighty son of Zeus. It’s very episodic and most of the scenes are clunky exposition for how to solve a problem that will be solved within the next three minutes. It’s wonderfully, watchably schlocky. I’m pretty sure they rotoscoped the t-rex battle from the original King Kong for the constellation fight at the end. It’s great and I can’t wait to find the first Hercules.

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9. Mark Duplass plays a man with terminal cancer. Ray Romano is his somewhat socially awkward neighbor. Together they go on a short road trip to pick up some medically prescribed suicide pills. This is Paddleton (2019). It’s a quiet and low-key dramedy that keeps its distance and deals with a difficult subject in a straightforward and sensitive way. Romano is perfectly cast.

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8. Shallow Grave (1994) is a sly little film about three roommates (Ewan McGregor, Kerry Fox, and Christopher Eccleston) in Edinburgh and it was Danny Boyle’s directorial debut. When their new roommate dies in the flat, the trio aren’t sure what to do. Mainly because it turns out he had a suitcase full of money. How does one dispose of a body? How long before they can spend the money? What happens if someone comes looking for it? What happens if you can no longer trust your close friends? Streamlined and efficient black comedy.

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7. Harmony Korine (Gummo) assembles one wacky cast (Matthew McConaughey, Isla Fisher, Snoop Dogg, Zac Efron, Martin Lawrence, Stefania LaVie Owen, Jonah Hill, and Jimmy Buffet) in The Beach Bum (2019). It’s the story of a Key West hippie, poet, and stoner (perhaps a redundant collection of words) and his meandering life. You could say it’s about him trying to get money, but that wouldn’t be quite right. It’s more about a wandering spirit that moves in any direction it pleases. I may prefer Spring Breakers for its bolder presentation and harrowing, unpredictable story, but The Beach Bum, while far more subdued and accessible, still boasts plenty of visual style. Like most of Korine’s work, it’s a fascinating glimpse into another American subculture.

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6. Holy moly did I love Fright Night (1985). It’s like the perfect 80s movie. Great soundtrack. Great cast (Chris Sarandon, Amanda Bearse, and Roddy McDowell are so much fun). And some of the best vampire deaths ever filmed. What is a boy to do when a sexy vampire moves in next door? Call his local skeptical horror movie TV presenter and slay him! Genuinely loved this campy, sexy, spooky, fun flick.

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5. Rashida Jones composes a beautiful biographical documentary of her talented father in Quincy (2018). Quincy Jones is one of the most important names in modern American music and music production. This movie is a loving portrait of the man, his life, his troubles, his flaws, and his amazing contributions to the world of music.

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4. Art is a weird sort of thing. Struggle: the Life and Lost Art of Szukalski (2018) is a documentary about discovering an eccentric Polish genius lives right around the corner. From this beginning, we launch into a retrospective of the life of sculptor and esoteric artist Stanislav Szukalski (1893-1987). He’s an odd, little old man, when the film introduces him. Underground comic artists and LA hippies develop a keen fascination in him and then they discover he was actually one of the most important sculptors and possibly the greatest Polish artist of the 20th century. And he’s a bit of a character.

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3. Netflix has been running Love Death Robots. It’s a brilliant concept with some amazing artistry, but, in my opinion, some lackluster writing and, ultimately, I did not like the series. I do hope they push it and get better if they continue. Robot Carnival (1987) is the animated robot anthology that I wanted. Each segment is handled by a different director. Some stories are soft and poetic. Others are bombastic and raucous. I loved the visual richness and inventive styles and mesmerizing stories. Like all anthologies, you’ll have your favorites. This had been on my radar for a long time and I’m glad I finally watched it.

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2. Animator Nina Paley left a very good impression on me with Sita Sings the Blues. I had to applaud its humor, style, novel implementation of music, and narrative inventiveness. Seder-Masochism (2018) is a musical epic comedy brimming with clever satire and incendiary religious commentary while packaged in a bright, colorful package. The story takes Nina’s curious goat character interviewing her Jewish father about her upbringing and juxtaposes it against her retelling of the history of religion, from early man’s worship of feminine Earth mothers to the violent conquest of patriarchal monotheism and into the present day of continual bloodshed over holy real estate. It covers a lot of ground and has a lot of hot takes that may upset or tickle you, but with the lively animation and tunes, it’s a breath of fresh air.

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1. I know I’ve seen the Sidney Lumet masterpiece 12 Angry Men (1957) before, but I on a whim I gave it a re-watch, and seeing it again with adult eyes made me reassess its greatness. It’s a tough feat to set a whole movie in one room and keep the dramatic beats going and create visual distinctiveness within acts. A lot of these points come down to staging, lighting, and cinematography. But it also has a fantastic script and is wonderfully cast. Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Warden, E. G. Marshall, Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, Joseph Sweeney, Jack Klugman, Ed Begley, Jiří Voskovec, Robert Webber, and Edward Binns are twelve men locked in a jury room, tasked with determining the fate of a young man who has been charged with the murder of his father. The atmosphere is tense from the get go and only tightens as the men debate and talk out the whole meaning of “reasonable doubt” and what their duty is as jurors. The twists, summer heat of the setting, and character quirks keep the drama electric. 12 Angry Men is an American classic and a very patriotic film in the sense that it depicts the ideals of what this one aspect of the judicial system was meant to be. It is inspiring. Lumet, director of Network, Serpico, The Verdict, and Dog Day Afternoon brought this stage play to cinematic life with confidence and finesse. This is a classic for good reason and marvelous lesson in writing, acting, and filmmaking.

THE LAST FEW MOVIES I SAW: EPISODE XXXII – Why Oh Why?

More movies of any stripe ranked against each other in an exercise in arbitrariness!

Sorry, guys. There’s a LOT of pretty disappointing ones on this list.

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21. Bats(1999) is the worst kind of creature feature. Lazy, tedious, too expository, and not nearly enough funny special effects. The bat noises are funny and so are some of the puppets. But this makes Eight-Legged Freaks look like a masterpiece of horror.

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20. Conquest (1983) is unwatchable. Seriously. I didn’t even finish it. It’s unwatchable. And I mean that in a few different ways. For one, the protagonists have negative charisma and are impossible to like. Two, every scene features drab, gray characters in a drab, gray world annoyingly back-lit to the point of silhouette and consistently obfuscated by plumes of smoke/mist coming from…somewhere. Directed by Lucio Fulci (Don’t Torture a Duckling and A Woman in Lizard’s Skin), this is an unpleasant looking Italian-Mexican-Spanish co-production mercifully featuring at least some nudity and some creative violence. I actually dug the character design of the villainous (a topless, cavewoman g-string clad figure with a big, golden head and covered in snakes. Bold. Tacky. Completely insane). It’s artier than much of the artless sword-and-sorcery epics of this era, but it’s pretty bad. And smoky.

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19. Running Free (1994) is the story of a clinically obnoxious 12 year old boy and the wolverine who loved him. It’s the sort of family adventure ilk my mother would have let me borrow from the library. Sure, the acting is bad and the general plotlessness is laughable, but they did have a helicopter, at least one good explosion, a decent plane crash, and the beautiful Alaskan wilderness as their backdrop. It’s a coming-of-age tale that’s an insult to the intelligence of 12-year-olds everywhere. Most of those crappy direct-to-video movies I did rent back in the day had a lot more going for them.

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18. After Conquest, I thought maybe Barbarian Queen (1985) might be a bit better. And although it was largely a totally artless skin flick with lackluster action, the female cast was attractive (in an aggressively objectifying way) and you could actually see what was happening in each shot due to not having smoke everywhere. Barbarian Queen is problematic in several other ways, but the visibility inches this Argentinian production ahead of Conquest. It at least gave us some laughs while it made us feel completely filthy for watching it.

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17. Tae-bo legend Billy Blanks stars in a truly awful sci-fi action movie about a school for assassins that trains its members with embarrassingly realized virtual reality. Expect No Mercy (1995), if the title tells you anything, is a nondescript and dull flick that could be about anything. “Expect no mercy” isn’t even a decent tagline. There are a few scenes that are laughably fun, but not enough to warrant a re-watch anytime soon. Spoiler alert: I did shed a tear for the iguana guy.

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16. Geena Davis stars as a pirate queen and already you see what’s wrong. Cutthroat Island (1995) is a swashbuckling adventure comedy infamous for being a flop and bankrupting a studio. There is production value and, genuinely some of the action sequences are executed very well. The big problem with this is tone. Davis and co-star Matthew Modine have no chemistry and Modine is given the task of speaking entirely in awkward smart-ass remarks that are meant to infuse his character with charm and charisma, but accomplish just the opposite. It’s miscast and too long, but you gotta give credit for the location cinematography and lavish sets and props to Davis to doing a lot of her own stunts. Almost every scene has a hundred extras in it, all intricately adorned in period buccaneer garb. Maybe it’s because I’ve been on a Xena: Warrior Princess kick, but had they cast Lucy Lawless and Bruce Campbell this could have been fire.

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15. TerrorVision(1986) is a horror comedy that’s running of cheese-factor fumes. An extra-terrestrial monster (the Hungry Beast) is mistakenly beamed down to Earth via a Floridian’s new satellite dish. The slimy, grotesque creature materializes out of television sets to gobble up members of the cartoony Putterman family. Where They Live and The Stuff used science-fiction/horror to create clever social satires on the state of American consumerism, TerrorVision is content to just be a dumb monster movie. Most of the laughs come from just how over-the-top every single detail of this campy film is. It has one or two pretty decent scenes and some quotable lines, but the tone is just so goofy and gleefully brainless that, although perhaps the filmmakers’ intentions, it disappoints because it always feels like it could have been better. A bit more gore could have elevated it. I did like the ending and the creature was pretty gross. So points for that.

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14. Kung-fu and British horror finally get the crossover we didn’t know we wanted until The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974). Hammer Studios teamed up with the Shaw Brothers and the results are a bit of a charming mess. It’s not a great movie, but it’s trashy and silly enough to sort of warm your little heart. Peter Cushing appears once again as vampire hunter Van Helsing, now in China to battle an endless army of vampire zombie slaves. He lets his Chinese counterparts do most of the battling.

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13. Taraji P. Henson stars in Proud Mary (2018), a sort of throwback to blaxploitation films like Coffy and Foxy Brown. Mary is an assassin trying to atone for her sins by taking in an orphaned boy. But as the body count rises, Mary’s problems only get more complicated. You can tell there’s love going into this, but the finished result is a somewhat bland film punctuated by moments of style and funk. When it cuts loose and has fun, it’s great and justifies some of the contrivances. It just plays it too safe most of the time.

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12. A yearning for nostalgia had me re-watch Disney’s Hercules (1997). You all know it. And I had much the same reaction as an adult as I did as a kid. It’s gorgeously and stylishly animated. James Woods as a snaky car salesman Hades and his demon henchmen, as well as the three fates, are hilarious. The singing muses were fun. And that’s about it. Danny DeVito’s voice is too distracting as Hercules’ trainer, Phil. The romance is meh. The story just isn’t particularly fulfilling. Which is a real shame. Because, again, the 2D animation is among Disney’s best. I get it if you love it. To me, it’s just missing too many elements to be good. And I’m not even touching the bastardization of Greek mythology.

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11. Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985) is a fantastically grim dark comedy about a man in over his head, just trying to get home. John Landis’ Into the Night (1985) is a bit of a mild success in a similar genre. Jeff Goldblum is an insomniac engineer who gets involved with a beautiful jewel thief (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) and spends the next 48 hours trying to shake the bad guys and stay alive. It has romance and comedy, but…how can we say it? Not enough to be called a romance or a comedy. There’s some suspense and then some cartoon slapstick. Not John Landis’ best film, but if the cast intrigues you (and there are a few fun cameos), you could do worse.

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10. Adam McKay writes and directs the story of Dick Cheney (played by Christian Bale) in Vice (2018). It’s a cheeky, nonlinear patchwork that presents the man’s opportunistic rise to power but somehow never manages to clearly establish his motivations or convictions (the movie tries to take care of that by brushing it aside early on). Bale is good, as is a lot of the cast, but the movie feels more like an exercise in montage editing than a serious political drama of any magnitude. It’s breezy enough, but far from the hard hitting political biopic it could have been.

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9. I begrudgingly enjoyed Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017). Why begrudgingly? Because that’s the reaction a decent re-imagining can sometimes garner. Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, and Karen Gillan star as the video-game avatars of our high school protagonists trapped in the cursed Jumanji. It has some clever gags, a great cast, creative suspense elements, and they get their mileage out of the gender swapping schtick. Ultimately, it’s a slick family adventure that’s smarter than it had to be and decidedly doing something different with the source material and it works. It just has that squeaky clean sheen. You know the one? Where everything is set-dressed to perfection? I just hate that. But if I can overcome my curmudgeonly temperament to enjoy this guy, it’s can’t be that bad.

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8. If you’ve read this blog before, you know I seem to unfavorably give the advantage to well-executed schlock. Red Sonja (1985) is the second sequel in the Conan trilogy. (I think. The world seems familiar and Arnold’s back, but he’s playing a different guy.) I call this type of film ESL cinema. Mostly Italian crew and then star Brigitte Nielsen in Danish and Arnold is Austrian so the script is odd to begin with and then the line readings the next wave of surreality. It’s a fun, brainless sword-and-sorcery adventure with lots of violence and a few monsters and some truly great sets. Ennio Morricone does the score too! I can’t rate it higher because there’s this annoying child king who’s in it and he sucks. Sorry, little buddy. You nailed those fight moves though!

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7. The Legend of Suram Fortress (1985) Sergei Parajanov (Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors) co-directs with Dodo Abashidze to deliver a surreal collection of tableaux vivants (fans of Parajanov’s The Color of the Pomegranates will undoubtedly find some comparisons to be made) that tell a Georgian folktale of a crumbling fortress that seemingly demands a sacrifice. It may not be for everyone, but for those with a taste for Eastern European symbolic visual poetry, it’s definitely worth a look. Even if The Color of the Pomegranates is probably the more ambitious and superior film.

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6. T2 Trainspotting (2017) is the sequel I don’t if anyone expected to see for Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996). Ewan McGregor, Ewan Bremner, Johnny Lee Miller, and Robert Carlyle are back to show us what has happened in the last 20 years. It’s been awhile, boys. Glad to see you again. Obviously, tensions are high since Renton double-crossed everyone and Bregbie’s been to jail. Some folks are just lifelong junkies, but maybe they were cheated out of a second chance? It’s a decent flick for fans of the original. Anjela Nedyalkova plays a new character, Veronika, who makes a nice complicated addition to the ensemble.

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5. The Lego Batman Movie(2017) could have been a lazy, soulless cash grab and still have been a huge commercial success. However, much like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, a little bit of love and effort make the proceedings far more clever and enjoyable than they had any right to be. Yes, there are jokes and knowing nods to previous Batman incarnations and a stellar voice cast, but the real treat (for me at least) was the wholesome—if a skosh maudlin—plot. All of the character arcs build and snap together in as satisfying a way as a handful of Lego pieces. It’s funny because, in its own transparently on-the-nose way, it is ultimately rather touching and shows it really “gets” Batman. That it takes the emotions of its Lego cast as seriously as it does, it gets a big laugh out of me.

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4. Going in, I knew nothing of Class of 1984 (1982). And I am so glad I went in cold. It starts as a ham-fisted melodrama about a new teacher in a cartoonishly evil inner city school ravaged by teen gangsters, but then it turns into a positively delicious revenge thriller. Disgruntled teachers everywhere can watch this for catharsis (but don’t get any ideas). Features a somewhat out-of-place Roddy McDowell and a very young Michael J. Fox in supporting roles. I admire a movie that finds cruelly creative ways to brutally murder its teen cast. In all seriousness, it’s not a great film at all. I loved it.

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3. Oddball Kyle Mooney stars as a kidnapped boy who’s been raised in an underground fantasy (created by Mark Hamill) in Dave McCary’s Brigsby Bear (2017). It’s not a comedy per se. When James (Mooney) is awkwardly reunited with his biological family, he struggles because he feels no connection to them and they know nothing of “Brigsby Bear”, an imagined bizarro VHS series conjured for whatever reason by his abductor (Mark Hamill). All James knows is if “Brigsby Bear” isn’t real, he wants to make it real. And the story that unfolds in exactly the way you might imagine ironic viral video culture to do so. It’s more of a quirky indie drama that ultimately leaves you just feeling good inside. I loved it.

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2. How have I never seen The Last Dragon (1985) before? Seriously. This is almost as good as Samurai Cop. It’s more competently shot and assembled, but no less outlandish and wonderfully cheesy. From our excruciatingly fay and naive kung fu teen protagonist (Taimak) to the wonderful scene-chewing bombast that is the film’s villain, Sho’nuff/The Shogun of Harlem, The Last Dragon never lets up. Fans of action schlock and kung-fu are sure to love this one.

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1. There’s a Chinese mummy (that isn’t exactly what it seems) on train crossing the frozen Russian wilderness. But once you look at it, it takes your soul. Or something. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee star as rival scientists (my favorite flavor of rivalry) in The Horror Express (1972). Throw a dapper Telly Savalas in there for good measure. It’s a bit cheesy, but all the better for it. Glowing ghoul eyes and zombie Cossacks and Hammer-styled gore and atmosphere. For fans of this era of horror or of Lee or Cushing will enjoy this breezy spook flick with all its murder and mayhem confined to one claustrophobic train.

The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode XIX – The Reckoning

As always, I rank the films on no concrete scale or rubric. Just what I thought of them. The further down the list, the more I liked it. It’s not science, guys. If you have different opinions please share.

Meh:

I remember watching the Disney Jungle Book (1967) as well as the Sabu Jungle Book (1942) and reading the original Rudyard Kipling stories many times as a kid. As far as Jon Favreau as a director goes I can say I enjoyed Elf. Everyone is talking about the amazing visuals in the Disney reboot of The Jungle Book (2016) and, if I’m totally honest, I’m not sure how special effects alone still manage to be a box office draw when every mainstream big budget movie looks exactly the same. It’s not a bad film (and yes, the special effects are impressive), but I found it just sort of tedious and uninspiring. Disappointingly, I think Bill Murray and Christopher Walken (voicing Baloo and King Louis respectively) were dreadfully miscast and distractingly out of place. Ben Kingsley (Bagheera) and Idris Elba (Shere Khan) were fine. If you saw a trailer you’ve already seen the entirety of Scarlett Johansson’s scene as Kaa. The songs feel forced and out of place and visually I was a bit bored with the hour and a half spectacle, but it’s passable and light for kids. If I want to watch a young Indian boy in a dazzling CGI environment battle a tiger I’ll re-watch Life of Pi.

As a big fan of Comedy Central’s Key and Peele I was eagerly looking forward to Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s big screen debut in Keanu (2016). It’s not a bad film, but it just falls so short of the madcap surreal energy and comedy of absurd escalation that their show was famous for. I realize that maybe that’s not what they were trying to achieve here. And that’s fine. The problem here is that there’s really only one joke and it doesn’t escalate enough. The plot: two suburban squares have to play gangster to get their cat back. There are a couple scenes that are funny, but overall it’s sort of a by-the-numbers liar-revealed Hollywood comedy plot with not much surprise or innovation. Watching Key and Peele in this movie is like looking at a parakeet with clipped wings sit in cage that is too small.

I Like It:

Possibly the most anodyne entry on this list is The Peanuts Movie (2015). I was in love with the animation that managed to be state of the art and finely textured while maintaining the vintage lo-fi style of the old cartoons and simple comic strip that preceded it. All the hallmarks of Charles Schultz are on display in this gentle little film. It has a pleasant sense of humor and a quiet feel-good optimism that plays off Charlie Brown’s insecurities and social shortcomings. If you know the characters, they are pretty much themselves (Linus is a bit less sage here and I would have liked a bit more Schroeder, but we can’t have it all). My only real complaint is that, like Star Wars and Jurassic World, it seems like it is trying too hard to hit all the familiar nostalgic marks without developing much new. Like the old TV specials, the stuff with Snoopy is gold.

Up in Smoke (1978) was the screen debut of the stoner comedy team of Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong. The film itself is a bit of an amateurish hit-and-miss episodic road comedy. It means well, but not all of the jokes land like they should. A handful of funny moments, a mean sheriff (Stacy Keach) in pursuit, and the relationship between the two stars make it a warm little adventure. As perhaps the first stoner comedy, it’s more iconic than it is a masterpiece. Still worth a look.

I appreciated the character design and the social commentary better than the actual mystery in the animated Disney police procedural, Zootopia (2016). Voice cast was fine. Story was fine. Jokes were good. As a movie goer, I was perhaps most impressed with the world it created (Tundra Town, Rainforest District, etc.) and the ways that the city accommodated animals of wildly different sizes and shapes. Everything was fine, but I just really enjoyed the world they occupied and some of the character designs were wonderful. Additionally, the commentary on racism and prejudice was a refreshingly specific and important lesson that was handled well.

Guilty Pleasures:

 

I don’t get most superhero movies. I also have not been a fan of Ryan Reynolds (The Voices). I’ll admit it straightaway. That said, Deadpool (2016) was pretty fun, and, although not nearly as clever and edgy as it pretends to be, I still liked it better than pretty much all of the other Marvel movies I’ve seen. It pokes fun at obnoxious Marvel cliches (as well as its own one-note schtick) and has a charismatic wacky cynicism. I don’t remember the action much (I liked the fight between Colossus and Angel Dust because it had some interesting character moments alongside the punching), but I remember the snark and the snark was fun (Deadpool spelling out his nemesis’s hated name in henchman corpses was funny). Basically, if you thought Darkman needed more pop culture references and fourth wall breaking winks, this crass revenge flick is for you. More Morena Baccarin, please. All this said, I really want this to be an anomaly. We don’t need fifty more cynical, winky, ultra violent superhero movies. It works because it’s a novelty.

After all these years I finally got around to see the cult Lovecraft adaptation Re-Animator (1985). Honestly, I loved From Beyond (also directed by Stuart Gordon) a lot more and The Frighteners still contains my favorite Jeffrey Combs performance, but I get why this became a subversive hit. It slowly builds to being a zombie movie and then goes all out schlocky berserk in the final act. It’s silly, slimy sci-fi 80s mayhem. A lot of fun.

This next schlock flick would be a great double feature with They Live. The Stuff (1985) is a delightfully cheesy horror comedy parable about consumerism and consumers not really knowing what’s in their food. When a mysterious viscous alien entity bubbles up from the ground it tastes simply too good to not be quickly packaged and sold in stores everywhere. The addictive substance is a living parasite that needs addicted host bodies to keep consuming it until it takes over. It’s a grim but refreshingly unusual sci-fi story with some gross special effects and Paul Sorvino (Goodfellas) as a weirdly racist army general. It’s more campy and gross than it is scary, but that’s sort of as advertised. You can’t get enough of The Stuff.

Rocking Harder:

After my disappointment with Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur and modest feelings toward Inside Out, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Finding Dory (2016). Taking notes from Finding Nemo and Toy Story 3 in that much of the film is a convoluted prison break plot with multiple characters in different locations trying to rescue each other, Finding Dory is also a bit more fast and loose about its water-bound characters moving with ease from impossible situation to the next than its predecessor (Nemo’s hangup was in one small fish tank while the sequel moves through several tanks, pipes, buckets, etc.). The movie’s focus is all on Dory’s search for her parents and her past and, in addition to being a fast, funny adventure full of fun characters (Hank the octopus is a nice addition) and harrowing situations with innovative solutions, the fact that the main protagonist suffers from a difficult mental disorder (short term memory loss) and is able to overcome her countless obstacles through her perseverance and abundant cheerfulness should bring hope to sufferers of all kinds of problems. The animation is gorgeous, the characters are enjoyable and deeply moving (Ellen Degeneres shines in her role), and I applaud the writers’ ingenuity in figuring out ways to move characters that essentially need to be in the water at all times. It’s funny. It’s sweet. And it deals with very human emotions and problems in ways that are respectful and hopeful.

Two young boys trying to run away from home stumble upon a police squad car and hit the road in Cop Car (2015). To make it more interesting, the cop car belongs to a murderer and bad sheriff played by Kevin Bacon. It’s a tight, small movie with just enough moving parts to keep the suspense building. I don’t want to spoil too much so I recommend just checking this one out.

Last list I watched The Lobster and I didn’t get it. So I gave director Yorgos Lanthimos  another try with his earlier film, Dogtooth (2009). It’s a dark and disturbing surreal tale of three teenage siblings (Angeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni, and Christos Passalis) being sequestered in their home by their controlling father (Christos Stergioglou) for reasons that are never explicit. A weird system of rewards and punishments is placed upon them. Weird sexual experimentation, gender favoritism, and sudden bouts of savage cruelty remind us just how innocent our protagonists are and how demented their parents must be. It is a quietly troubling film that has stuck with me. Watch it if you dare.

If you can get past Charlton Heston (Planet of the Apes) playing a Mexican and Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) wearing a putty nose then you will enjoy Welles’ noir thriller Touch of Evil (1958). Crime and corruption in a Mexican border town are the ingredients and playground for this classic. From the famous opening long take shot to the final bullets fired, Touch of Evil is a magnificent looking film and a pleasure to watch. Also features Janet Leigh, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, and Marlene Dietrich.

Love It:

Terrence Malick. Some people love him. Others find him slow and pretentious. From Days of Heaven to Tree of Life, his films all look breathtaking. The New World (2005) was Malick’s take on the story of Pocahontis. It is a slow movie, but one whose languid pace, for me, added to the richness of the environment and emotional weight to the almost wordless plot. The refreshing take on this historical narrative comes in the way the film depicts its characters as complex human beings bound by culture rather than a sanitized Hollywood romance. These are difficult situations that befall young Pocahontis (Q’orianka Kilcher), her father (August Schellenberg), the pirate John Smith (Colin Ferrell), and pious John Rolfe (Christian Bale) and the solutions are not easy and may never come. The New World, like Malick’s best, is a profound and beautiful work that resonates well beyond the screen. Pocahontis is an exciting and curious and tragic figure and this film gives the legendary icon perhaps more respect than any other pop culture incarnation has. Strongly recommend.

Two men from 1991 (played by Jerzy Stuhr and Olgierd Lukaszewicz) are supposed to be put into hibernation for three years as a test, but wars lead them not being awoken until 2044. The Polish sci-fi comedy Sexmission (1984),  directed by Juliusz Machulski, depicts a not-too-distant future where men are extinct and asexually producing women have taken over a technologically advanced subterranean colony. While the premise might seem like a childish slam against feminism (in part, it may be) it is in fact a more fascinating critique on Soviet rule. The fantastic set work and fun costumes look great and the story is legitimately interesting as straight science fiction. The social satire on the politics of Poland at that time keep it from feeling like just another high-concept comedy. This one was a fun find.

If you are not already a fan of Guy Maddin (My Winnipeg) then this may not be the best place to start, but I really liked The Forbidden Room (2015) (co-directed and co-written by Evan Johnson). Like all Maddin movies, it looks like it’s about 100 years old and operates on a surreal sense of wacky logic. Stories within stories unfold in an elliptical and episodic manner making it difficult to find your grounding. One minute we’re in a submarine quickly losing oxygen and the next we are in a night club singing about a strange doctor’s obsession with butts. If you have the right sense of humor and don’t mind feeling occasionally lost then I definitely recommend this one. It’s unique, to be sure.

Francis Veber adapted his own play for film in the French comedy The Dinner Game (1998). Mr. Brochant (Thierry Lhermitte) is a successful publisher who enjoys the pastimes of the wealthy: in this case, finding the most oblivious dolts to take to a weekly dinner to showcase their oafishness and have a good laugh at the expense of these lowly peons. Although he believes he has found an idiotic champion in François Pignon (Jacques Villeret), Brochant has injured his back golfing and cannot go to the dinner. But getting rid of Pignon is more difficult than originally anticipated, especially once Brochant learns his wife is leaving him. Over the course of the evening, the good-intentioned Pignon creates, dissipates, and escalates innumerable predicaments and causes some needed reflection to be done on the part of his heartless host. Once the film gets going it is on a roll. The Dinner Game is an immensely pleasing comedy that took me by surprise.

The Peak:

Color me freaked out by Robert Eggers’ feature debut The Witch (2015). A family in the 1630s builds a homestead on the edge of a forest. The forest happens to contain a witch. Hence the title. What makes this such a good horror film is the raging sense of dread and discomfort you feel as the horrible events unfold. It’s a deeply unsettling slow-burn that haunts your soul rather than your basic jump-scare torture-porn splatter-fest. With the presence of the witch, the family dynamic is strained and the overwhelming paranoia and creeping sense that evil is getting closer all pay off chillingly. It made me uncomfortable and I think that’s what good horror is meant to do. Stellar acting (Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Harvey Scrimshaw) and sumptuous cinematography (Jarin Blaschke) brings this minimalist period piece to terrifying life. Watch out for goats.

I’ve been coming around to zombie films. I still don’t like zombie storylines that play it all too straight. I still like a little bit of satire or whimsy in my undead carnage. Maybe I’m giving away too much by using the word “zombie” here. Pontypool (2008) (directed by Bruce McDonald, written by Tony Burgess) is a brilliant lo-fi horror thriller with enough cleverness and mounting unease to keep you glued to the screen despite the lack of onscreen action. Self-contained in a church basement broadcasting local radio, grouchy disc jockey Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) and the show’s producer (played by McHattie’s wife, Lisa Houle) gradually learn of a mysterious outbreak. The viewer watches the skepticism vanish and the horror set in on the faces of our insulated leads. How they learn about the virus, what the virus is, how it is spread, and how to counteract it are all part of what makes Pontypool unique and wonderful. Go watch it.

And finally, if only because any chance to mention animator Don Hertzfeldt should be seized, I submit a cheat. World of Tomorrow (2015) is a short film, but it was so good it must take the top slot. Hertzfeldt has impressed us all before with his uncanny ability to marry crude simplistic illustrations (Rejected) with immense richness of thought and personal creativity, combining bleak and absurd humor with existential postulation (It’s Such a Beautiful Day) in ways few filmmakers are capable of doing. World of Tomorrow is the story of Emily. Toddler Emily (Winona Mae) is visited by her adult self from the future (Julia Pott)—or rather, what is the latest in a series of genetically cloned copies of herself in the future’s attempts at attaining immortality. Adult Emily has summoned the girl to find a memory, but the implications of little Emily’s future, while death is technically staved off for the moment, is not a cheerful one. It is a cold, clinical, and lonely future full of more questions than answers and riddled with many of the same social inequalities of toddler Emily’s time—albeit manifested in uniquely horrifying ways. This short explores the nature of self, the nature of life, the nature of death, and the nature of progress. World of Tomorrow is overflowing with brilliant ideas treated as nonessential throwaway gags and, in addition to being exceedingly clever, is also wonderfully funny. I highly recommend this one.

“L.A. Streetfighters” DVD Quiz Game

Weirdly, this craptastic film has a mini quiz you can play after the movie. Sort of like a comprehension test. The movie is horrible, but the multiple choice quiz almost makes it worth it.

Hello, schlock consumer. Are you ready to play a game?

Gotta love the screenshot.

Hurray! You got the answer, but do you feel anything?

This one makes me mad, because it was the wrong answer. Only three brain-stumping questions and the DVD can’t even get them all correct. Lack of quality, plain and simple.

I mentioned this earlier.

For Your Consideration: Mr. Edward D. Wood, Jr.

Ed Wood. The name is infamous. It is synonymous with crap movies. It is also the title of Tim Burton’s best film.

Ed Wood gained posthumous notoriety for being the world’s worst movie director of all time. While I’m inclined to think that he was strikingly inept at his trade, I cannot quite give him that illustrious title. He was not the worst director of all time. He stunk, but there have been stinkier. Coleman Francis for instance. I feel unfair even saying that he stunk as I actually genuinely enjoy some of his movies.

Action!

His films were bizarre yet personal and plagued by financial setbacks. Films Glen or Glenda (1953), Bride of the Monster (1955), and Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) may be his most famous and I confess that at some level I do admire these schlock-fests. Tim Burton’s masterpiece, Ed Wood (1994) chronicled some of the life of the notorious filmmaker and the making of these three films in particular. Johnny Depp (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) plays Wood and Martin Landau (Crimes and Misdemeanors) got the Oscar for his magnificent portrayal of an aging, morphine addicted Bela Lugosi. Burton’s movie also features folks like Sarah Jessica Parker (Sex and the City), Patricia Arquette (Medium), Jeffrey Jones (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), and Bill Murray (Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). Burton’s Ed Wood is a quirky yet affectionate comic portrait of a misguided man struggling in Hollywood and all the baffling trials of putting a movie together, albeit bad ones. Shot in sumptuous black and white by Stefan Czapsky (Batman Returns) and cleverly scored by Howard Shore (The Return of the King) and sporting snazzy production design it is almost ironic that the film is so fantastic and talent-filled.

Bad movies fascinate me because most bad movies are forgettable. It takes talent to make a memorably bad movie. There has to be a perfect balance of delusion and ineptitude to get it to work right. I applaud the Mystery Science Theater 3000 guys for keeping bad movies that would have otherwise been forgotten around just a little longer. Ed Wood immortalizes Ed Wood in a way that might have never happened. Glenda, Bride, and Plan 9 are also fun to watch by themselves. But knowing your Ed history (as a floundering cross-dressing film hack) helps make them more interesting.

Are you quite comfortable?

Of his three most famous, Bride of the Monster might be the least interesting, perhaps because it is the most familiar. Mad scientist + monster guy + girl = standard sci fi horror derivative mayhem. A half-dead and quite feeble looking Bela Lugosi (Dracula, Island of Lost Souls) plays Dr. Vornoff (mad scientist) and wrestler Tor Johnson is the manbeast, Lobo. Will Vornoff succeed in creating a race of atomic supermen? Yawn. Not original enough. Still, it’s not bad for a movie that’s awful. It has its points, but Plan 9 from Outer Space is just so much loopier that it blows it out of the water.

Plan 9 from Outer Space is the story of aliens trying to resurrect the dead to scare humanity into not making the Solaranite bomb—a bomb that humanity has never even heard of. Take everything that was good and accessible about The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and make it ridiculous and you got yourself a movie. Awful special effects, obtrusive continuity errors, and hammy bad acting compliment the convoluted plot and unwieldy dialogue. It famously features the last footage the great Lugosi ever shot (about 2 minutes maybe) and was stitched into this film after he died. A double played him for the rest of the movie. Tor Johnson is also in it as well as TV’s Vampira. It’s silly and memorable. Basically great fun and you will laugh.

Joan Rivers on bath salts!

As wonderful as Plan 9 is, out of these famous three my favorite has got to be Glen or Glenda. It was only Wood’s first feature and it’s got it all. Science fiction, mystery, Satan with moth antennae, flashbacks, Bela Lugosi, buffalo, wildly inaccurate science, transvestism, sex changes, S&M…bondage…uh, suicide…okay so having it all might not necessarily be a good thing.

Wood wrote, directed, and starred in this nigh incomprehensible mess of mismatched ideas. I like it because not only is it horrendously done, it actually resembles something special: a movie with a personal—albeit somewhat deranged—touch from Mr. Wood himself. As a real life transvestite he brings us unnervingly close to the subject matter. He also conjectures that hats are the cause of baldness. Lugosi may be our Virgil-like guide on this weird trek but Mr. Wood provides us with a few other narrators trying to explain multiple storylines to different audiences just for good measure (but it’s nothing like The Saragossa Manuscript). The way it’s edited actually makes Lugosi’s narrator seem more like a pervy retired mad scientist suffering dementia in a detached environment than anything else. In addition to the several main plots there is a bizarre ten minute wordless fetish sequence of a woman whipping another woman tied to a couch. . . added in for punch, I guess. It’s a tremendously wretched collage of broken ideas and unrelated sequences that I actually really respect for being so blindingly strange. It’s a movie I can watch by myself and still laugh at.

Just like Orson Wells.

There are some bad movies I can’t recommend enough. Glen or Glenda is one of them.

If you have an attraction toward bad movies than I’m sure Ed Wood is already on your radar. Troll 2, The Room, Ben and Arthur, and Birdemic are great, but sometimes you just crave classic crap. I can’t get into “The Asylum” production company because they know better and purposely make bad movies. I’ve said it before: the best bad movies have incredible deluded passion propelling them. Now Ed Wood was not the worst filmmaker ever and he wasn’t even the first truly awful filmmaker, but his films were more than bad. They were weird and that weirdness makes them memorable.

I put it to you. What is worse? Memorable crap or forgotten mediocrity?

Pull the string! Pull the string!

Go watch some Ed Wood movies and then go watch the movie Ed Wood. You’ll get some of the best of the worst along with Burton’s best.

Star Whores and Other Space Oddities

1I love Star Wars (circa. 1977-1983). For all the grief we give George Lucas for the “Special Edition,” the prequels, TV spinoffs, etc, one cannot downplay how much influence the Star Wars films have had on culture and the art of filmmaking. Not only has Star Wars influenced subsequent science fiction flicks, it has also been copied quite a bit.

There are a few different approaches one can take when it comes to science fiction.

  1. You can be enigmatic, arty, and classy like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
  2. You can be extremely scientific, poetic, and subtle like Gattaca (1997).
  3. You can be lugubrious, philosophical, and metaphysical like Solaris (1972).
  4. You can be dark, suspenseful, and horrific like Alien (1979).
  5. You can be kooky, kinky comedy like Sleeper (1973).
  6. You can be fast-paced character-driven razzle-dazzle like Star Wars.
  7. Or (recognizing some of the childishness of space aliens, robots, and super-deluxe-hyper-warp-lightspeed) you can go all-out campy, flashy, trashy like Barbarella (1968).
  8. There is, however, another sub-genre of science fiction. I am referring, of course, to the blatant knock-offs.
You've probably not seen this version of Star Wars from Turkey.

You’ve probably not seen this version of Star Wars from Turkey.

After the release of the first Star Wars movie in 1977 there was a huge sci-fi craze. It seemed almost any movie could be made a better or more profitable movie with the institution of a well-placed spaceship. Movies like The Black Hole (1979), Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), The Last Starfighter (1984), Ice Pirates (1984), and Arena (1988) were cranked out by the bushel. Well, some of my personal favorite worst and also lesser known sci-fi movies made in the wake of the space craze are on my mind today so, naturally, I felt compelled to write about them.


First up is Saturn 3 (1980).

This film is actually a bit more of an Alien rip off. There are essentially only three characters and they are played by (check this out!) Kirk Douglas, Farrah Fawcett, and Harvey Keitel. Before I go any further I must tell you that this film is bad. Really bad. Almost not even so-bad-it’s-kinda-fun-bad. And another thing; I can’t help but feel like the title is even a little oddly derivative of Capricorn 1 (1977).

"I am Spartacus!"

“I am Spartacus!”

Kirk Douglas (Lust for Life) is Adam, an older guy who’s been stuck up on a surprisingly spacious and roomy space-base floating around Saturn. We also see him naked and, I gotta be honest, 20 years since Spartacus and the man is still in shape. Farrah Fawcett (Logan’s Run) is Alex, Adam’s blonde, leggy bed-buddy and his only companion. Together Adam and Eve Alex (I get it!) live quietly in space for no apparent reason (it’s something to do with the government or science or something), until the most evil and warped mind in the galaxy comes aboard. This evil and warped mind belongs to a man named Benson.

Seriously. Benson. Benson is the name of the bad guy. Well, actually he only kills a guy named Benson for some inexplicable reason and assumes his identity, but really now. Benson? Benson is a dim-witted manservant, not a malevolent space villain. Anyway, Benson is played by Harvey Keitel (Mean Streets), but it gets better. Evidently the director was not altogether pleased by Mr. Keitel’s thick Brooklyn accent and so he Keitel awkwardly dubbed by some other robot-sounding British guy (it reminded me of Andie McDowell’s awkward dubbing in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes).

3

It’s the wacky space adventures of Benson the Sociopath and Hector the Murder-Robot!

Benson is revealed to be mentally imbalanced in the beginning of the film (because suspenselessness) and then, once aboard Saturn 3, he puts a giant suppository filled with brains into an 8-ft tall robot named Hector. He gives the robot his own thoughts and then tries to get in Alex’s pants with the most awkward space-future come-on lines since Demolition Man. Adam gets jealous and they talk about killing Benson because he is weird. Then the robot chops their pet dog in half and tries to rape Alex. The movie is a wreck and actually pretty boring despite the presence of a horny, rampaging robot. Saturn 3 also feels simultaneously unnecessarily dark and unintentionally silly. For instance, there is a scene where Hector, the robot, wears Harvey Keitel’s severed head as a hat as a disguise. A very, very bad disguise.


Next up it’s Starcrash (1978), also known as The Adventures of Stella Star. I actually love this movie. It’s near-nonstop mayhem in the same campy vein as Barbarella. But much, much cheaper.

Good to see the distant future portrayed as being so egalitarian.

Good to see the distant future portrayed as being so egalitarian.

The incredibly hot Caroline Munro (The Golden Voyage of Sinbad) stars as the frequently scantily clad Stella Star—the only hope for the galaxy. This film is more blatant a rip off of Star Wars and it is oh-so-hokey.

Outer space looks like an awkward jumble of bad Christmas decorations hastily assembled by a one-eyed crazy person. Who knew the stars and galaxies were so vibrant and psychedelic? The special effects for the spaceships are actually pretty decent, but again, the colors are more akin to a pinball machine that has lost its mind. The malevolent Count Zarth Arn (Joe Spinell) is the bad guy and his hairdo does for evil exactly whatever the name Benson did for evil. He also has his own version of the Death Star, except his is in the shape of a big, evil robot hand that clutches into a fist when it goes into attack mode.

No one messes with the do!

No one messes with the do!

There is also an extremely sexually ambiguous sidekick for Stella. His name is Akton (Marjoe Gortner) and he apparently has a new and incredibly convenient super power in each instance of peril. He bravely dies sword-fighting a stop-motion robot when his arm gets grazed and briefly caught on fire. The film also has a bald green dude, and a good robot with a Texas accent (half the film I just wanted to give him a ten-gallon hat to go with his Dr. Phil-esque homespun aphorisms). Starcrash also boasts  lightsabers and David Hasselhoff (Knight Rider). The costumes are great and I couldn’t help but notice the recurring use of arrows on helmets seemingly pointing to the face of the wearer, and on belt buckles pointing to the crotch.

The movie is crazy and the plot is on crack. We go from an outer space battle to a strange planet to a space jail to the jungle and back into space and then on to another planet with cavemen or amazons and giant robots in like 4 minutes. It’s like the first 60 seconds of the Power Rangers pilot. The film does slow down occasionally. . . for overly long spaceship docking scenes. What you eventually learn is that the film is strategically conditioning you to not care about the characters so you won’t be mad when new characters are randomly introduced and old ones go away or return without rhyme or reason.

The last words Akton says as he lays dying: "Don't worry. I'll live forever."

The last words Akton says as he lays dying: “Don’t worry. I’ll live forever.”

The best part of this movie? It’s a tie between Caroline Munro’s outfits (she dresses like Vampirella) and the great Christopher Plummer’s (The Sound of Music) emotionally detached and disenfranchised line deliveries. You can actually see it in his regretful eyes how much he hates that he’s in this movie. All around the movie is awesomely bad and I highly recommend this frenetically-paced, sexist light show. It’s a great bit of 70′s Italian schlock.


Last and most certainly least is The Man Who Saves the World, or as it is known in its home country, Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam, or as it is most commonly referred to, Turkish Star Wars (1982).

*not Darth Vader

*not Darth Vader

Every time somebody mentions the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special (1978) I fire back with Turkish Star Wars. The Star Wars Holiday Special is so bad it makes you wonder how there was a successful franchise afterward.  Turkish Star Wars is so bad it makes you wonder why God has not destroyed humanity yet. Seriously, have the people who made this ever seen a movie before? It is film heresy. The whole spectacle is a noisy, raucous, incoherent Frankenstein mess of a film. It is a mind-boggling artistic travesty on all fronts. AND I LOVE IT!!!

*not racist

*not racist

A guy and his best pal (Murat and Ali) crash land on an alien desert planet and they meet an impoverished, rock-dwelling civilization that is tormented by a big, nasty, beardy space bad guy, who allegedly is a centuries old wizard who needs a human brain so he can understand stuff and conquer the universe. The two guys decide to help the people and proceed to fight the worst excuses for robots and aliens you will ever see. Toilet-paper mummies, dusty zombies, rubber robots, dudes in skeleton outfits, and great big orange stuffed animals, and even racist-looking (African, Asian, and possibly Jewish or maybe Armenian—it’s Turkey, after all) rubber mask baddies, are only the half of it.

The love story between Murat and woman-who’s-name-escapes-me is also great. You see, occasionally jarringly softer music will play and we get reverse closeups of their eyes as they longingly/indifferently gaze at each other while performing mundane space activities. This unprecedented and clashing change of pace denotes romantic interest. Understand?

*not forced romance

*not awkwardly forced romance based solely on the fact that she is maybe blonde

I’d be kidding if I said I could explain the rest of the plot of this weird movie. There are mentions of the virtues of humanity and the human brain as the key to all things (something the filmmakers ironically refused to use for the production of Turkish Star Wars), and vague references to Islam and other things, but the story is so convoluted and poorly executed that it hardly matters. One minute our protagonists are fighting monsters, the next minute they’re in space jail, then the bad guy has monsters slaughter a cave full of frightened orphan children and he proceeds to drink their blood through a crazy straw, then Murat is wielding a giant, golden Final Fantasy sword [made of cardboard] and melting it in a huge vat and then thrusting his bare fists into the molten gold only to have them emerge with clunky gold space mittens on. Seriously. Tone! You can’t murder children in a film like this. It’s like the naked suicide in Endhiran.

*not more realistic than Rocky

*not more realistic than Rocky

One particularly memorable sequence is the training montage where Murat ties boulders to his ankles and goes jogging and then works his fist muscles by slapping big rocks. Instead of the Force, Murat has the amazing power to jump kinda high and karate chop things in half (boulders, stuffed animal monsters, robot heads, *SPOILER ALERT* the bad guy…except that they just black out half the screen and show him on the ground with his eyes closed, and in doing the same for the other half—to truly indicate the pure in-halfedness of our antagonist—the filmmakers also accidentally reveal that both halves apparently have full noses, but I digress). The finale is a jarring, headache-inducing mélange of so much incoherent violence, jumping, and explosions that you will be fighting—and fighting hard—your body’s urge to roll your eyes back in your head and halt all blood-flow to the brain. It’s like Vogon poetry really. Your welcome, Douglas Adams fans.

*not nonsensically -used stolen footage in the background

*not nonsensically -used stolen footage in the background

The absolute best part of Turkish Star Wars is how it is edited. I know that sounds nerdy, but let me explain. Not only does nothing make sense, but the film is notorious for ripping actual stolen footage from the real Star Wars—and several other fantasy movies and even a few newsreels—and splicing them into the movie. And the transfers are just terrible, but I suppose that’s nitpicking. Best of all, they do it at inappropriate times. For example, to show space travel they film a character with a stupid hat moving a wheel while scenes from the assault on the Death Star play behind him (except the real Star Wars footage keeps cutting to other shots so the backgrounds don’t make any sense). The music is also stolen from Raiders of the Lost Ark and a bunch of other popular movies as well.

If this movie weren’t so wonderfully, miserably bad  and hysterically inept it would have been facing an arsenal of lawsuits. People say I’m crazy, but I have actually watched this wretched film at least 5 times. It takes a certain constitution to enjoy bad movies like this. Turkish Star Wars is really more of an endurance test than a film. Are you ready for the challenge?

*not evil stuffed animals

*not evil stuffed animals


There you have it. Saturn 3 you might as well skip as it is the most boring and unimaginative of them all, but it does have a stupid enough plot to keep you with it and the Keitel dub is wondawful. Starcrash is awesome trash and you definitely should see it for Munro’s body and Plummer’s face. Turkish Star Wars you can watch, but this one comes with a warning: it is disorientingly bad and you may not be able to readily relate to people immediately after a viewing, but for Troll 2 and Birdemic fans I must insist you try. At least it’s not After Last Season.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Jan. 25, 2011.

Size Matters Not…in the Philippines

Full disclosure: I have a mild obsession with this subject. See my article, “The Best Dwarf Movies That Aren’t Willow.”

13Several great films have employed little people to play crucial roles. Unfortunately, little people have been largely reduced to playing mythical dwarves, gnomes, leprechauns, Oompa Loompas, ewoks, jawas, and various other creatures. It’s not everyday they get to be Time Bandits (1981), take over a mental institution like in Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), or act out a whole western a la The Terror of Tiny Town (1938). It is rare that a little actor gets to achieve singular notoriety like Verne Troyer (Austin Powers in The Spy Who Shagged Me, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus), Hervé Villechaize (Fantasy Island, The Forbidden Zone), or Warwick Davis (Willow, Leprechaun, Harry Potter, Life’s Too Short), and even more elusive are the serious, juicy roles like Peter Dinklage gets (The Station Agent, Death at a Funeral, Game of Thrones).

And how often do little actors get to use kung-fu, slide across the floor, umbrella-parachute out windows, or jet-pack to the rescue? The answer: not often enough.

Hi. Have we met?

Hi. Have we met?

Filipino actor, Weng Weng, got that rare opportunity to star in his own James Bond-style action movie. At 2′ 9″ Weng Weng enjoyed not only playing the shortest super-fly secret agent to ever don a leisure-suit, but he also got to be chased by several women and do a lot of pretty great stunts in the oddball cult classic For Y’ur Height Only (1980). Although most of his films are still unavailable in the United States, this particular little golden nugget can be found on DVD.

OK, so it’s still a bit of a circus role with most of the more interesting plot elements revolving around the fact that the main action star is less than 3 feet tall, but you still gotta respect the little guy.

6

Everyone looks so uncomfortable. The transition from the 70s to the 80s was awkward for everyone.

The story for this B-grade critter is incredibly thin. Bad guys—who (at least in the English dubbed version) readily acknowledge their negative roles and openly declare that they are opposed to all that is good—are hiding bags of drugs in loaves of bread. The good guys (really just a guy in an office, but I guess it’s implied he works for some benevolent government agency) send not-so-secret* Agent 00 (Weng Weng) to stop the bad guys. It’s as simple and awkwardly handled as that and really it’s already more than it ever needed to be. Most of the plot is fairly incomprehensible and ludicrous, but if you are a true connoisseur of schlock cinema and/or bizarro entertainment then none of its quirks or foibles can deter you and you know it!

Sometimes I like my movies to look and feel like they were made by babies.

If you enjoy kung-fu movies and James Bond movies, you already know it’s not about the story. It’s about the action and mayhem and, I gotta say, For Y’ur Height Only delivers. Perhaps its the unfamiliar novelty of seeing a man knee-high to R2-D2 scaling walls and fighting guys and wooing chicks, but this film takes the throwaway rip-off concept that might have otherwise been forgettable and makes it something unique. Because Agent 00 is so small the action has to be choreographed with a bit of imagination…and some upper body strength on the part of the people attacking him (as Agent 00 frequently flips over them).

3

Jet pack! Don’t look at the string.

Weng Weng uses his small stature to his advantage by sneaking between people’s legs, sliding on the floor whilst firing his gun, hiding in crevices, and, as I have aforementioned, umbrella-parachuting out windows.

One of my favorite things this movie does is incorporate the 007 Q gadget exchange, but instead of specific instructions, this Q gives the vaguest guidance and seems astoundingly oblivious. 00 gets an amulet thing for correspondence with the agency’s plant and a solid gold ring that can detect any poison. There’s also a pen that shoots poison darts or something, an Oddjob murder-hat (only remotely controlled), and, yes, a jet-pack. By far the greatest gift bestowed upon Agent 00 by ripoff Q are the giant sunglasses that allows the wearer to see people with their clothes off.

The action isn’t exactly at Bruce Lee status, but it is pretty great. Perhaps a bit gratuitous on the kicks to the groin, but it’s all in good fun. And the outfits are spectacular. You will never see more obnoxious combinations of plaid blazers, pastel neck scarves, pinky rings, and super big collars. No style of combat is out of place in this movie. Guns, swords, darts, martial arts, murder-hat, and even a scary one-on-one fistfight with a slightly larger dwarf are all featured.

Mr. Big

Mr. Big

The women, both established characters and random walk-ons enjoy copious amounts of smooching from the pint-sized hero. Weng Weng, although painted extra silly by way of the hilariously abysmal dubbing, demonstrates a playfully mischievous aura throughout the film. The absurd size juxtapositions and the twinkle in Weng Weng’s eye make this a lot more fun than your average Bond knockoff. One thing this movie really taught me was that putting drugs in bread is worse than killing scores upon scores of people. 00 absolutely destroys these guys. The bad guys kill maybe 2 or 3 people, while hero 00 straight up murders at least 100 dudes. The whole spectacle is about as odd and awful as lunch at Jollibee’s,** only way more aimless and much more fun.

Kamusta, baby?

Kamusta, baby?

The acting is not good, the dialogue is about as clever and articulate as a 3 year old telling a story, the dubbing is terrible (seriously, worse than any Godzilla movie), the logic and physics of bullet trajectories is psychotically ill-informed, and it’s all absolutely wonderful. And what if watching a dusky dwarf wearing a plastic sparkler-spewing jet-pack suspended over rocks by a clearly visible wire is my idea of entertainment? What then? I liked the silly action and how the nonsensical plotline sort of meandered about waiting for the feature-length mark. You really have to like your cinema to be out there to appreciate this thing. Revisiting this movie for the first time after several years was a truly special treat for me.

See the advantage? No crouching.

See the advantage? No crouching.

So maybe you might blast movies of this ilk for their cheap production quality and dismissive character development, but you know what else was filmed in the Philippines because it was cheaper there? Apocalypse Now. Boom. Chew on that. God help me, I love this movie. For Y’ur Height Only is a masterpiece of strange. Check it out and see the amazing Weng Weng in his natural habitat: in hand to hand combat and necking ladies.

Cheap foreign midgetsploitation James Bond knockoffs don’t come much better than this.

The DVD distributed by Mondo Macabro also features knockoff Bruce Lee star, Bruce Le, in the ludicrous kung-fu flick Challenge of the Tiger. Longest scene in the movie: Bruce Le fighting a bull with his hands.

Thumbs up!

Thumbs up!

*He tells everyone he’s a secret agent.

**Maybe it’s because I’m not Filipino, but I never found Jollibee’s eclectic menu particularly appetizing. It gleefully includes spaghetti and yam boba.

Top 10 Reason to See For Y’ur Height Only

1. What’s up with that title? For “y’ur”? “Your”?

2. Two words: jet-pack.

3. How many movies are Filipino James Bond knockoffs with little people?

4. Two more words: murder-hat.

5. In one scene Weng Weng is affectionately compared to (and I kid you not) a potato.

6. He pulls his body over a gun to flip-kick a guy in the face and then proceeds to pummel him with the butt of the gun.

7. Two more words: umbrella-parachute.

8. “There’s a lot of dough in this dough: the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker…” actual line muttered by a bad guy in reference to the drugs hidden in the bread.

9. You’ll wanna dress your baby up in a leisure suit.

10. Two final words: Weng Weng

Look at those little brown pepperonis.

Look at those little brown pepperonis.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” April 4, 2011