Sunday, 24 July 2016

Star Fleet (1982)


I have always maintained that my biological and temporal status and as an adult does not exclude my previous status as a child; I have not grown out of childhood I have merely added to it. Of course there is only so much room in my brain and soul to retain everything that filled them during my childhood. As much as I have been able to cling onto those things that defined me throughout my life, rather than just its current position, some elements have been lost in time.

The 80's sci-fi series Star Fleet was almost a similar casualty. All I had floating in my head was the image of the heroic character Shiro, a couple of the space ship designs and a vague image of a comic strip based on the series. We live in the 21st century, however, and we don't need memories anymore. So thanks to Amazon and Fabulous Films I was able to pick up the entire series on DVD alongside some spiffing postcards, a double-sided poster and, you guessed it, a reproduction of that very comic.  After allowing my memories to pour into my head I then suddenly realised that watching this might actually destroy those same memories. I mean, it can't be good... right? Well, yes and no.


Star Fleet is a Japanese twenty-four episode space opera featuring the crew of Bomber-X; an experimental space ship designed to defend Earth against the Dreaded Imperial Alliance and its leader The Imperial Master. The ship, and its transforming robot counterpart Dai-X, is engaged in battle after battle with Commander Makara in her fearsome space cruiser until it becomes clear the fate of the universe rests on the mysterious F-01. Oh, and its all done with puppets.


If you can imagine the craft and aesthetic of Gerry Anderson mixed with the design and miniature work of Japanese science fiction you've got a pretty good idea of what Star Fleet looks like. The japanese version was inspired by Thunderbirds and Star Wars. It was sold to the UK and re-edited and dubbed but many of the Japanese science fiction tropes remained intact.

The melodrama often present in Japanese sci-fi also remained. Unfortunately when you're constantly looking at expressionless puppets the emotion doesn't quite come across. The po-faced nature of some of the episodes become almost intolerable when your cast can't sell them. It did, however, also retain the kinetics of Japanese miniature work as seen in other space operas such as Message from Space. The ships whizz and zoom around a fountain of pyrotechnic debris in genuinely exciting battles. This even carries across to sequences with puppets. Where Anderson's puppets would hobble around in static shots these characters interact more organically and are captured with dolly shots and crash zooms. There is even a generally successful John Woo style stand-off.


What surprised me about the series the most is that it is not twenty-four self-contained space adventures but one continuous serialised story. This kids space puppet show was doing the kind of long-form storytelling that most lauded US television shows are doing now. And yes, that means it comes with the kinds of twists you'd expect from modern television as well. There are betrayals, character reveals and even major deaths throughout the series. This is especially the case in the finale. Played out over two episodes major characters are offed in quite brutal ways with one death so sudden and efficient for a kids show it actually made me clap.

Spoilers follow -

The heroic Bomber-X pilots transform their ships into the giant attack robot Dai-X and just ploughs through Makara's cruiser, ripping it apart from the insides and swatting away the crew as it does. It eventually reaches the bridge where the giant robot faces off against the normal human-sized Makara and... well... just punches her. With its fist that is twice the size of her. Literally just busts her in the chops. Look! Awesome.

- Spoilers over.

The problem is that most of the twenty-four episodes is spent farting about. There is a lot of padding here, normally involving a damaged Bomber-X being stranded on a planet. So much so it actually took me around two years to watch the whole thing. Normally two or three episodes would give me all the space puppets I needed for a good few months and it wasn't until characters starting dying and the stakes started to rise that I felt like watching more than that.


It is easy to understand why I loved Star Fleet as a kid. It literally looks like someone filmed themselves playing with the coolest toys. As an adult there is still plenty here to like. The miniature work is excellent, the pyro-heavy practical space battles still thrilling and the plotting and willingness to kill characters admirably ambitious. It takes itself way too seriously at times and there isn't enough material to warrant this many episodes, but if you fancied dipping in you'll find more here than empty nostalgia.

Oh... and there is this:


Monday, 18 July 2016

The Super Inframan (Shan Hua, 1975)



The legendary Shaw Brothers take the formula of masked super-hero versus crazy monsters so popular in Japan (Kamen Rider, Super Sentai, Ultraman, Spectreman, etc) and serve up their own bat-shit crazy version.


When Princess Dragon Mom; a valkyrie-like warlord who can transform herself into a dragon, brings a horde of monsters to invade earth it is up to a professor and team of scientists to stop her. Much like the various series Inframan takes inspiration from the team of scientists consists of a multitude of young men in crash helmets, colourful foil jump-suits and armed with pistols. In the event of an alien invasion it is down to the science team (rather than the army) to fight them off. The professor therefore introduces (and by that I mean volunteers) one of the scientists to the Inframan project.


He is augmented with super-human DNA and cybernetic engineering that allows him to transform into a super-powered robot covered in what we are told is an ultra-hard alloy but that looks like the kind of stuff used to cover hard edges and corners in children's play areas. Regardless, Inframan takes to the skies to do battle with the frequent attacks by the evil Princess.

First up she summons a plant creature and a drill-handed turd monster to cause havoc. Drill-hand hunts down one of the science team so that he can be kidnapped and brain-washed while the plant creature sinks into the ground and unleashes its tendrils into the science lab. Of course Inframan shows up and gives the vegetable bastard what-for. 


While Inframan is busy thrashing the vegetable (not a euphemism) the kidnapped scientist is being brainwashed. This leads to a motorbike chase and a showdown with another of the Princess' bizarre creatures and her army of frankly awesome looking skull-faced stormtroopers. Although dangerous, this gives the science team a real opportunity to gather some useful data. I was lucky enough to get a hold of one of the science team's write-ups of their experiment:


Aim - To defeat a big orange Spider creature and the skull-faced dudes it is hanging out with.

Apparatus - Motorbikes, foil suits, the broadest definition of the term "scientist" that we can get away with.

Science

Method - Drive the motorbikes into the soldiers and hope for the best.

Hypothesis - One of our group will suddenly transform into a red kung-fu robot and kick seven shades of shit out of the bad guys.

Results - To begin with all went as planned. Granted, most of us just fell off our bikes and got the crap kicked out of us but as I predicted one of us turned into a robot who slapped that Spider guy about a bit. What took us by surprise was an appearance from Thing 1 from The Cat in the Hat that turned up and started shooting laser beams at us. Our robot friend quickly blew him up with his own lasers and returned his attention to the Spider dude who had now grown into the size of building. Our robot therefore decided to grow himself to the size of a building, using science no doubt, and threw the Spider into a nearby power plant.

More science
Conclusion - I have, at some point in my life, sustained a serious brain injury the effects of which are only just starting to show.


After all this tomfoolery the Professor is kidnapped and transported by way of speedboat to the Princess's lair. Inframan must kung-fu his way through legions of skull-faced guards, destroy the last of the monsters and do battle with the evil Dragon Princess herself.


As you may have guessed Inframan is never boring. The effects and costumes are as ropey as you'd expect. Its as if the Shaw Brothers had produced a Pertwee-era Who. Yes, it's that awesome. The costumes may be poorly constructed and painted by an infant art-class but the colourful exuberance of the whole affair is hard to dislike. The finale is a prolonged martial arts battle in the Princess' lair and is controlled chaos at its most joyful. Fists fly and feet flurry as bodies are thrown into the air exploding whatever ever they make contact with (even water). The two tin robots with slinky heads are the icing on the cake and final battle with the Princess in Dragon form ups the absurdity even more (seriously Inframan, you're not going to be able to cut her head off. Give it up man.)


This movie was made for me: it's got super-heroes, martial arts, monsters, kaiju and shuns narrative logic and integrity for imagination way beyond its ability to make real. It has one of my all-time favourite shots in a movie and above all else the way the drill-monster walks makes me giggle like a right tit. Inframan is an all-time fave. Bonkers and brilliant.


Friday, 15 July 2016

Total Cults Total Tabletop: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Overview

Some time back when there were family board games, specialist miniature war games and little else in between Hasbro produced a Buffy board game that looked like your typical tie-in but introduced elements now familiar with regular tabletop enthusiasts. Take on the roles of your favourite scoobies and do battle against the forces of evil in one of four big-bad based scenarios. Will you defeat the Master, outfox the Judge, confound the Mayor or destroy Adam?


Table Play

One player takes on the role of evil and selects one of the four scenario cards that detail the basic set ups and the objectives for both bad and good. The evil player then takes control of evil vampires like Drusilla, Darla and Spike. The rest of the players share out Buffy, Willow, Xander and Oz between them. The good objective tends to be destroying the bid bad while the evil objective tends to be getting the minions to collect the items required to resurrect/transform the big bad and wipe out the good guys. Along the way good players can pick up research cards, weapons (some of which allow you to stake vampires) and help (in the form of some of your series favourites) while evil players pick from the evil deck for cards with similar effects. Artefact cards with special items, some integral to completing the objectives, are hidden under the corners of the bard and spell dice used to retrieve them while fights are played out with dice rolls.



Above the Table

Pitting players against one another is always good for above the table play and your evil player can really stick it to the goodies. While some weapon cards allow heroes to wipe out vampires with one jab of a wooden stake evil cards can allow vampires to sire heroes and use them against their friends. Strategy is key, especially in the Judge scenario which requires a single character to have both an artefact and a specific research card with which to destroy it. In one of the games we played these cards were split across two characters on either side of the the board and it took some thinking and lucky rolls to get one of them to run the gauntlet of vampires to make the exchange. Additionally the evil player cards are hidden behind a screen meaning they can resurrect villains or sire vampires seemingly out of the blue. And then there is the phases of the moon chart. Certain die roles can advance the moon into different stages, some benefitting evil while other benefiting heroes. In the full moon phase Oz turns into a werewolf which makes him a more formidable opponent but also makes him lose all his cards (disaster if he's carrying a vital artefact). Sunlight, on the other hand, causes all vampires to scarper to the nearest indoor building. Triggering these phases at the right/wrong time can have a massive impact on play and provides a number of ingenious ways to screw over your friends.



Craft

With the exception of the nice metallic phase counter everything else is cardboard standees. It's fine, though doesn't give you a lot in the way of collectables. The board has two levels which is cool and although the map of Sunnydale is a little Cluedo in its design all of the key buildings from the series are there. This is also the case for characters. Although you only get to play a select few the help deck provides you with not only fan favourites but some real obscure characters too. The dice are a little weak being that they are hollow plastic with stickers on. Everything else is well built and works and the design is clear though nothing particularly evocative.



Experience Level

The game is actually pretty simple to play and works as an entry level game for those looking to escape your basic board games. The four scenarios are pretty similar and don't offer a whole lot of range, meaning more experienced players may find it doesn't have a lot of staying power.




Overall

It's fun and it's been made by and for people who love the show. It's a nice way to ease people into more complex play it's just a shame the crafting of some of the counters and die isn't quite as a exciting as it could be.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Tango and Cash (Andrei Konchalovskiy, 1989)



Although the concept of homoeroticism doesn't inherently imply subtext it has, in a cinematic landscape that has only been progressive in fits and starts, often only been visible to those willing to read between the lines. This has been especially so in the hyper masculine action movies of the 1980s. Apart from, that is,  Tango and Cash.

Tango and Cash is, without doubt, an erotically charged story about two cops who learn to love each other despite their differences. Since it was produced in the 80's the codes now associated with a myriad of different sexual and cultural identities have all been lumped into woefully broad 'not straight' bracket (so I hope it doesn't appear as if they are my insensitivities or ignorance coming through) but both characters are clearly identified as having sexual identities that separate them from the then considered "norm" while being compatible with each other. This isn't a buddy-cop movie but a lover-cop movie. There is no subtext, only text.

Ray Tango (Stallone) is a well-dressed, articulate and debonair cop (think Paul Feig with a gun) who is happy to bend the rules but ultimately likes to play things by the books. He has a nice, well-decorated office and takes a great deal of care for his Sister (Teri Hatcher). He also shoehorns in a number of jokes about marrying men that kind of come out of left field. He is in no-way repressed, but is a little conservative with his sexuality. Tango's gun, incidentally, is a compact nickel-plated revolver: it's small, classy and modest but gets the job done.

Gabe Cash (Russell) is a sweaty, blue collar bit of rough who after a run-in with a carjacker is seen stripping to the waist in an elevator crowded with men in uniform while fingering the bullet holes in his shirt. He is confident with his sexuality and not prepared to change the way he is to conform to the norms set by his job role or society.  By comparison Cash has a massive automatic pistol with a whacking great laser sight strapped to it: Its big, bold and powerful and has no intention of being concealed.

When the two of them meet they are framed by Jack Palance's super-mobster and they find themselves in prison. Their courtship begins for real when they share a shower together and compare penis sizes. Again, this is not subtext - they actually check each other's dicks out.


Palance does not intend for them to survive prison and formulates a plan that culminates in a brutal torture sequence at the hands (and jaw) of Robert Zdar. Cash nearly buys the farm, which clearly upsets Tango, but they are saved at the last minute and set about breaking out.

Once on the outside they split, with Tango leaving instructions for Cash to meet him at his Sister's strip club-come-night club. Cash obliges but is followed by the Police and so has to leave the club in full drag, flirting with a Police officer as he does. 


Cash is clearly comfortable and confident in women's clothing, so much so that he doesn't fully change out of it when he and Tango's Sister get back home. The two have some chemistry with each other and this leads to a massage. When Tango gets home and sees the two of them together he is somewhat perturbed (as the camera angle is designed to make it look like they were having sex) but calms a little when he realises the object of his affection isn't making moves on his little Sister and is still potentially available. The sister is a bit of red herring; it is assumed that Cash fancies her but he never actually explicitly makes moves on her. Nowhere near as explicit as his moves on Tango. He makes a crack about dating her towards the end but this is merely to rile Tango rather than to state intent.

In the final scenes Palance's empire has been destroyed and the trio perch on a ridge, overlooking the fireball and talking about the future. Tango and Cash talk to each other, almost entirely ignoring the Sister between them. Her only offering is that the two of them "work" well together. The final shot; a newspaper still of the two as re-instated Police Officers, is oddly framed. They have high fived but are holding hands in mid air while brandishing their ID badges as others look on and smile. It is composed as a wedding photo, their shields displayed like rings. Check out the guy on the left, he couldn't be happier for them.


Along the journey are a number of other little clues and so many references to asses it's hard to shake the man-on-man frisson generated. Only the sister is the spanner in the works, the last vestige of heterosexuality thrown in to make this all less obvious but even she is largely superfluous and used merely as barrier for the two super-cops' burgeoning relationship. Even the marketing seems to have been designed to push this: The adjectives available to describe an action film are abundant, yet the international DVD cover runs with "Stallone and Russell deliver sweaty excitement (and) sex appeal" while of the three screen shots on the back the one is Russell in drag.

Elsewhere the film just goes nuts. Palance keeps mice in a box and has a maze for them built into the decor of his office just to make a point. Brion James' infamous accent will make you forgive Dick Van Dyke and the gloriously over-the-top finale, a cross between Mad Max and Knight Rider, comes out of nowhere. Even amongst all this craziness the feeling that you'll leave this movie with is how lovely a couple Tango and Cash would make.



Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Ninjas, Ninjas, Ninjas! The Killer Elite (Sam Peckinpah, 1975)




Sam Peckinpah directed a movie where James Caan fights ninjas. Let that settle in for a second. We good? Okay. Here comes the bad news: not only is it not great but the ninjas don't show up until right near the end.

Caan and his partner, played by Robert Duvall, are two private contractors working for a shady government agency who are tasked with playing bodyguard to an individual of great importance. Duvall, however, betrays Caan and cripples him before going onto murder their MVP. Caan gradually works himself back to health before taking on a job that brings him back into to Duvall's orbit so that he can exact some much desired revenge. The job: protect a Chinese crime family from being executed by a ninja order.

This all sounds like juicy stuff and that's before you contemplate what Peckinpah might bring to the table. It is, by all standards, a fairly fun-of-the-mill seventies crime film that comes with all the expected conventions. There is an improvisational flow to the dialogue and in the first ten minutes the rapport twixt Caan and Duvall is effortlessly established. Yes, Duvall is teasing Caan for sleeping with a girl with an STD which mainly consists of him laughing maniacally in his face. It plays fairly misogynistic and taking into account this sexual encounter happened at one of those 70's parties where women lounge around with their boobs out means it's safe to say the politics of the era are as present as the conventions. The film seems to be covered in a thick film of dirt and grit and the violence is fast and brutal. If you like the textures and sounds of 70's movies there is plenty to enjoy here.

What disappoints is that this is neither classic Pekinpah (his trademark slow motion cross cutting doesn't come into play until the final action scene) and the ninjas are absent for most of the movie. Both of these missing elements come together delightfully in the final sequence as Caan and ninjas battle it out on the decks of abandoned ships. It's not Wild Bunch, its not even Getaway, but its fast and fun and set in a stunning location.

The witty opening text and the raw new wave feel of the dialogue scenes could lead you think this might be an intelligent study of black-ops in the US but the movie ends up being a fairly average action film. It's fast-paced and exciting but does not live up to the promise of either its subject matter or the talent involved.


Ninja Abilities – Zilch. They can't even take out James Caan with a walking stick.

Ninja Kit – Katana, sticks, machete, chain.

Ninja Colours – Black, grey.

Notable Ninja Kills – I don't think a ninja successfully kills anyone.

Ninja Activity? – Low.

Ninja Mythology - Ninjas have a flair for theatrics and like to build up an entrance. Sometimes, though, they can build it up so much when they do appear it is something of a disappointment. Know your audience ninjas!

Overall rating: 1


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

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Dark Angel aka I Come in Peace (Craig R. Baxley, 1990)


Dolph Lundgren plays a tall and occasionally sleeveless cop who is trying to crack a corrupt businessman when a very inconsiderate alien drug dealer lands on Earth and gets all up in his square face. Teamed with pint-sized partner Brian Benben and a wounded space narcotics cop they must bring down the alien dealer, who harvests his drugs direct from the human brain, before the human race becomes fair game for an army of extraterrestrial pushers.

Liberally borrowing from The Terminator and Predator, Dark Angel leans into its derivative nature and its all the better for it. The alien dealer, played by B-movie action mainstay Mathius Hues, is a black clad, pupil-less beast armed with some awesome sci-fi weaponry.


Aside from his wrist mounted drug extraction kit (a coil that injects heroin into its victim which stimulates endorphins so that he can then harvest them by sticking a spike into their forehead) the alien can launch a flying razor disc/CD that bounces around the room slicing the throats of its targets. He also has a wicked space pistol.


It's actually a very real Calico 950 that thanks to its funky design is the default model that productions use when they want a futuristic gun but can't afford to make one themselves. In this case the gun has four settings that give the weapon varying degree of explosive power. Ultimately when the trigger is pulled things blow up - spectacularly.


Despite looking and feeling like most straight-to-video action movies of the early 90s the movie doesn't skimp on bang for its buck. This movie has so many explosions it could give Michael Bay an inferiority complex. The rest of the action is pretty good. Nothing approaching John Woo levels of gunplay but is all satisfyingly rendered.

What really makes the film work is that it is genuinely funny and this is primarily due to a cast that has been filled out with performers of real texture. Whether it is a caffeine addled scientist, Lundgren's weary ex-girlfrined or the sleeze-ball corporate enforcers everyone brings a little pep to what could otherwise be forgettable roles. Its Benben, though, that steals the show. He essentially plays the stiff by-the-book agent assigned to keep Lundgren's scruffy rogue on a leash but surprisingly he also gets to play the comic relief. Benben  gets some good lines and plays them in such a way that even Lundgren ends up looking good.


Dark Angel knows its audience and its place and works every angle. Its derivative but uses that to springboard into some interesting areas, its funny yet also gives your traditional action audience everything they want. Its not flashy or expensive enough to complete with the a-listers of action but it stands head and shoulders above anything else of its ilk. Well worth a look.