Friday, 29 April 2016

The Colossus of New York (Eugene Lourie, 1958)


On the eve of announcing a scientific discovery of great humanitarian benefit a noble scientist is killed in a car accident. During the funeral service the deceased's Father, also a scientist, flips at the notion his son's death was part of some grand plan instead arguing it was a ridiculous and random death that robbed the world of a genius-level mind. He enlists the help of his surviving son, a innovative mechanical engineer, to build a robot body to keep the brain alive and mobile.

The central conflict for this fun b-movie is essentially science versus spiritualism. The Father argues that everything required to make a person who they are is housed in the brain and that the soul is a myth. With this in mind, the Father feels that merely keeping the brain alive will return his son and, more importantly, his son's work.

The conflict isn't rendered with any dramatic urgency for the most part of the movie. The ideologies are spoken out in literal terms and the rest of the movie is shot in wides so that it is clear where everyone is and what they are talking about at all times. As a result the film doesn't have a lot of energy or subtlety. Thankfully there are a lot of other things that it has going for it.
Even though the dialogue is clunky the acting is, for the most part, quite natural. The wife of the deceased is particularly good in what is a fairly conventional and thankless widow/object of desire character. The cinematography and script sometimes force the actors to veer a little towards the theatrical but there are moments when the naturalistic performances actually help create real people on screen.

The main selling point of this movie is the monster, a towering expressionistic robot that looks like it has lumbered right of the set off Fritz Lang's Metropolis. The style of the design is at odds with the rest of the production and, indeed, most of the designs being used in US sci-fi and horror movies of the era. Its glowing eyes and brain give it a bit of extra menace and the fizzing electrical sound that accompanies its emotional changes really make you feel like the monster is in constant pain. It is a frankly gorgeous creation and watching it emerge from a river, slyly step out of the shadows or blast a victim with its awesome War of the Worlds style eye beams is always a joy.


Of course the brain does not survive the process in quite the way the Father intended. To begin with it exhibits weird abilities, like an omnipotent consciousness and the ability to predict the future. When the robot sees his brother trying it on with his widowed wife it snaps. Big robot + odd powers + emotional betrayal = psycho-bot. And so its broken thought process leads it to eventually deciding that humanitarianism is for chumps. Since the needy of the world, or "human trash" as the colossus calls them, require the support of science they are effectively stopping progress. So the monster decides to wipe out all do-gooding scientists. This culminates in an awesome and brutal scene where the Colossus just indiscriminately mass- disintegrates scientists at a function.


Alas it ends on a slightly less thrilling note. The Colossus'  is just turned off, while the morally questionable Father basically says "whoops, my bad" and walks away unpunished. The movie isn't a home run by any standard but the performances are engaging and the ideas strong, if unsubtle. It is the Colossus, however, that steals the movie.


Saturday, 16 April 2016

Total Cults Total Tabletop - Monsterpocalypse

Overview

Its Kaiju vs Kaiju in this epic tabletop battle for the fate of the world! Taking control of a giant monster and its army of supporting tanks players pit themselves against each other, taking strategic points across the city to pave the way for their colossal beasts to lay a cataclysmic smack down.


Table Play

Monsterpocaplypse is a more traditional tabletop war game that requires players to move pieces across a city map and roll dice to determine how much damage they do to each other's army. Each player has a monster and an assignment of units that consists of tanks, aircraft, soldiers etc. Each monster and their unit belong to particular factions including subterranean mole creatures, robots, alien races and Lovecraftian fiends. Each player takes turns in moving their units using a massive pile of custom dice as currency. Each time you move or attack dice are spent by moving them from your unit pool into your monster pool. Units can attack each other, team up to attack monsters, attack buildings (which can either create hazards to block your enemies or yield specific rewards) or take control of strategic points. Once each player has spent all their dice it's time to move monsters, spending or rolling dice to manoeuvre around the battlefield or attack each other. Power dice earned during the unit round can be added to rolls to launch fun attacks, like head-butts and shockwaves, to add an additional level of fun. The game works very hard to mirror the joys of traditional Kaiju movies and it does just that. So cinematic is it that Tim Burton was developing a movie based on the game at one point. Seriously, you'll be surprised how joyful it is to successfully body-slam a giant squid onto nuclear power plant.


Above the Table

Aside from health management and some strategic play there is very little cognitive thought required beyond using your imagination to embellish on the movement of plastic figurines. There is, however, a degree of knowledge about the game that is required and this is the game's biggest problem. To add more strategy and variety to the game each figure (unit or monster) has an array of uniques powers and abilities, some activated by action, some by reaction to an attack and some by their combination with other figures. All these abilities are represented by little symbols that litter the bases of the figures. This amounts to a lot of cross referencing twixt base and reference book and the basic game only comes with one book filled with a largely unorganised index. This means the first few games played can normally end up with people frantically searching though endless lists trying to cross reference the book with their figures, while their opponent waits impatiently to have the book so they can begin planning their turn. Photocopying can give each player a copy of the list but the constant looking up of symbols slows the game significantly. Ultimately, reference cards for each unit/monster would have been far more beneficial and kept play much quicker but unless you're willing to put the time and effort into producing these yourself playing this game can be a slow and frustrating experience if you want to get the most out of it.


Craft

The figures are excellent and ring every ounce of goodness out of the Kaiju genre. Units are detailed and the buildings help create a 3D board to play on, even if the mat is only a fairly flimsy 2D print. The health counters are made of plastic and are easy to keep track of so it is only the lack of reference cards that is the weak link here.


Experience Level

I found the game relatively easy to play and have been able to play a more stripped down version with my 9 year-old daughter quite easily. Its colourful and fun and you can adapt the rules to simplify it as much as you like. You can't really ignore the quagmire of cross-reference if you want to escalate the depth of strategising though.

Overall

Monsterpocalypse is available in a starter set that comes with two armies (monster and units for each player) and enough buildings to mount a battle. You can then buy extra monsters, units, buildings and maps to add to the game and customise your army. This ups the cost but allows you to create an army to your own tastes. The drawback with this is that figures are randomly packaged, meaning that you can fork out £15 for a new monster and end up with one you didn't particularly want or, worse, one you already own. It is a real shame and actually hurts collectors. There are are third-party retailers that sell monsters unpackaged but, like the lack of efficient reference material in the base game, this seems like an own-goal and a barrier to enjoying would should be a fast moving and fun tabletop war game. There is a lot to like here but it does require a bit of extra work to get it up and running properly.




Sunday, 10 April 2016

Ninjas, Ninjas, Ninjas! Diamond Ninja Force (Godfrey Ho, 1988)


Writing a regular piece on ninja movies meant it was only going to be a matter of time before I had to discuss a movie produced by Godfrey Ho. Ho's name is more associated with ninja movies than even Sho Kosgui yet for less then laudable reasons. Ho has become known as the king of copy and paste movie making in that he essentially takes existing movies and splices in new footage of ninjas (or reuses his own footage, often featuring poor old Richard Harrison) while re-dubbing the whole affair to try and make some kind of logical sense of the mess. Some of these movies actually survive this process and although not good are at least reasonably cohesive. Diamond Ninja Force, however, is a different beast altogether.

Diamond Force Ninja seems to have been constructed using a haunted house movie, a couple of poorly orchestrated ninja fights and some footage of Richard Harrison from previous Godfrey Ho movies (yes, the Garfield phone makes a comeback). Neither Harrison or the ninjas interact at all with the cast of the haunted house movie save through the occasional telephone conversation and both strands of the story resolve themselves independently of each other. It's like someone has cut the fight scenes from Enter the Dragon into the Exorcist at random points, only if both of those movies were utter shit.

The plot used to paste these disparate narratives together is that the Black Ninja Clan have discovered that a property owner has dug up an ancient ninja burial ground that holds the secret to ultimate ninja power. They therefore decide to unleash some ninja devil magic on the owners of the land; the Wong family (George, Fanny and their son Bobo). This power essentially curses their home and creates the illusion that it is haunted. I say illusion, the ghosts do become sentient at one point. One ghost in particular likes to feel herself up while watching George and Fanny go at it even going as far to lure George off to a misty field to have a crack at him herself. All things considered that's a pretty specialised ninja ability.


While these supernatural occurrences plague Fanny and her family Gordon (Harrison) holder of the Golden Ninja Warrior Statue and agent of the Ninja Diamond Force decides he is going to remotely protect them by hunting down the Black Ninja Clan: The least fearsome ninjas ever committed to film. The credentials required to be a ninja are somewhat relaxed in the Black Ninja Clan. I mean, these guys are typical members:


That's right, Fat Adidas, Indian Thriller and Bisto Dad are ninjas. Most of the bad guys hang out in tracksuits and other casual wear, look thoroughly out of shape, are largely white and exhibit little to no martial arts prowess at all. Harrison, on the other hand, rocks up in a red ninja suit, cartwheels about for a bit then kills them before signing off with his signature moustache reveal (his version of a mic drop).


The musical score, no doubt also lifted from other movies, is awesome and at times sounds like it belongs in a Sega Megadrive game. There is one good shot, where Harrison's stunt double cartwheels out of the way of a thrown axe in slow motion, and the end fight is just about competent enough to be enjoyable. The finale to the horror section also exhibits some competency and atmosphere. Beyond that Force: Ninja Diamonds is so disjointed that neither narrative strand makes any sense at all. Don't get me wrong, it was the most fun 90 minutes I'd spent in a long time, but it curiously manages to achieve none of the basic criteria a movie should either as an exercise in traditional storytelling or as an abstract work. Diamond Ninjas are Forever Force has no commercial or artistic value at all. It does feel like an unsolved puzzle that provokes the occasional childish giggle, like someone has thrown a load of scrabble tiles on the floor resulting in some of them spelling rude words.



Ninja Abilities – Sentient ghost creation (specifically creating a ghost that fucks your husband), sword manifestation, smoke teleportation, explosive pointing, log fingering, fish ejection, putting out candles with sword tip, ninja devil magic. 

Ninja Kit – Katana,  shuriken, metal pole, mini throwing daggers, palm claw, axe, axe on chain, nunchaku, weighted chain, eye shadow, garfield phone.

Ninja Colours – Black, red.

Notable Ninja Kills – Belly slice.

Ninja Activity? – Low to medium.

Ninja Mythology - The Golden Ninja Warrior statue bestows great powers on the owner, none of which shall be put to any practical use in any fight ever.

Bonus Godfrey Ho Section:

Favourite Non-sequiturs Possibly Generated by Poor Editing of Repurposed Footage - Fanny tries to fix her tap but manages to tear her skirt off completely. She ties it back on immediately and it is never mentioned again. Also, Richard Harrison have a pleasant chat with a poster of a bound and gagged woman behind him.

Fine Writing - "I've sent a magician to help you", "The reason you are here is for a very big plan" and "The treasure and the missing magic could be ours".


Overall rating: It defies all expectations of what a ninja movie would be, which is exactly what a ninja would do. So either 1 or 10.



Wondering what the hell you just read? Check out the introduction that explains everything you need to know about this column here!

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Project: Metalbeast (Alessandro De Gaetano, 1995)


I imagine If I were to tell you the plot of Project: Metalbeast (AKA Metalbeast AKA Project: Metalbeast - DNA Overload) centred around a captured werewolf being cryogenically frozen only for its human form to be defrosted twenty years later and unknowingly used in military experiments to perfect a synthetic metal skin thereby resulting in an armoured werewolf stalking an army base the movie you might conjure in your mind would be pretty awesome. As is often the case with these kind of things the movie doesn't come close to living up to its potential.

The good news is the werewolf (and other make-up effects) are excellent. We get a fair bit of werewolfery in the opening scenes and the creature is a fully practical werewolf suit. Unfortunately after the wolf is put on ice we have to contend with forty-five minutes of nothing really happening. The military base is really just an experimental facility and is made up of generic looking office spaces and plain corridors. These locations aren't lit or shot in any evocative or atmospheric ways. The scenes that play out in these bland locations generally consist of a military advisor (played by Barry Megaforce Bostwick) bullying the scientists into taking huge risks and those scientists debating, in a very basic way, the morality of what they do. It plays out more like a procedural medical drama than a robot-werewolf on the loose movie.


Of course the hope is that this is all a slow tease for when the wolf finally gets loose. When it does, at about the hour mark, it again squanders potential. The metal wolf suit is fun and worn well by icon Kane Hodder. The problem is that the movie never really takes time to effectively generate scares and all the kills are soft. Victims are often thrown around rooms or lifted out of frame so that we can hear, rather than see, them die. It lacks the inventiveness and gore of a slasher movie and actually plays only a little more brutal than your average Buffy episode.


That is not to say the film is entirely without merit. The make-up, as I have already noted, is excellent throughout and Bostwick is clearly enjoying himself. In fact his demise is the most satisfying on-screen death of the movie. The Metalbeast tosses him around a little and claws at his face before lifting him into the air and pulling back its arm ready to deliver the final blow. While dangling above the ground and anticipating death, Bostwick actually takes time to fix his hair before having claws plunged through his chest. Again, it is not inventive or that gory, but it works and the hair-fixing injects some wry levity the rest of the movie really would have benefitted from.

The rest of the movie consists of the wolf chasing the leads around some generic boiler room sets until it is properly exploded by a silver-laden bazooka shell. It is a fun ending but not enough to make up for the lack of thrills in the rest of the movie.

One of the absolute highlights of the movie, however, is Conrad Pope's unapologetically bombastic orchestral score. It is an unusually big score for a movie of this scale. It is derivative at times, feeling very John Williams and in the case of some cues sounding like direct lifts from Michael Kamen's first two Die Hard scores (they aren't direct lifts, but very close) but in most cases the score elevates the material making it appear more exciting than it actually is.

Metalbeast is not without its pleasures and the final half hour is fun whatever way you look at it. The problem is you have sit through nearly sixty minutes of boring characters saying boring things in nondescript locales before you get to any of the good stuff.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Robot Overlords (Jon Wright, 2014)



Jon Wright, Director of the excellent Grabbers, again delivers a low budget genre surprise. Years after robots invaded earth humans are imprisoned in their own homes. The robot invaders want to learn as much as they can about the human race and promise to leave the planet unharmed once they have found out everything they need to. It is this promise that convinces some of the human race to volunteer (or collaborate) and enforce the imposed rules to make the whole scenario move that much smoother. Smoothness, however, does not make for exciting drama and so a group of kids, lead by a young boy who feels his Father's disappearance has something to do with the invasion, short out their electronic trackers and head off into the abandoned cities dodging robot drones and collaborators along the way.

The movie's poster might lead you to think that this is a cheap Asylum Transformers knock-off but as with Grabbers Wright proves assumptions are dangerous things. From the start the movie is well shot and focussed on creating characters and situations that are engaging. The story moves along briskly and has some nice attention to detail.



Appearances from Gillian Anderson and Ben Kingsley help spice things up and it is clear neither of them are phoning it in. In particular Kingsley's character is quite meaty. The young leads are fine but aren't particularly charismatic and since we stay with them for most of the running time the whole film feels like a budget YA adventure (for better or worse).

Wright again manages to produce some excellent effects work from his tiny purse. The robots come in a few shapes (including flying drones, gun mounted crab-droids and a super creepy robo-child) and are all convincing enough. The main walking robots are the weaker link, looking a little like the kinds of robots I used to make out of lego as a child. They still work though and it means that the screen is rarely absent cool things.



The effects really come to a head in the giddy finale which has a balancing act on the tip of a mid-air space craft, a Spitfire dogfight and a money shot that competes with most mega-budgeted blockbusters. The fact that all this happens in broad daylight is even more impressive. So ambitious and exciting was this climax it is almost the sole reason I'm recommending this movie.



Above all else the film feels very British. There are shades of Tripods and new-Who and it never feels like it is trying to Americanise any of its elements.  It may not be the home-run Grabbers was but it is a home grown and fun sci-fi adventure, suitable for the family. It also clearly states the case that Jon Wright should be getting a lot more gigs than he is.