Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Everly (Joe Lynch, 2014)

Die Hard has spawned a great number of offspring featuring any combination of sealed-off locations and wrong time/place dudes with a secret talent for anti-terrorism. Although Everly contains some of the same DNA as Die Hard, right down to the Christmas setting, it is by no means your average child. If Under Siege and the like are the Sawyer family, Everly is Leatherface.

Everly (Salma Hayek) is trapped in the apartment of a Yakuza boss, forced to be his lover through fear of reprisal on her Daughter. When it is discovered she has made contact with Police the boss sends waves of assassins after her. As the threat escalates Everly must find a way to get herself and her family out of the apartment and to safety.

Everly begins in the immediate aftermath of a gruelling sexual assault. It is a tough place to start a movie and with a cinematic landscape full of abused women it is easy to feel a little distanced from the proceedings right from the opening. It is that landscape that is the issue more so than the treatment of the assault itself. Unlike many rape revenge movies this does not fetishise the act. The assault itself happens before the film starts meaning our titular character gets out of victim mode and right to the revenge part as quickly as possible.

It's clear Lynch isn't interested in cheap voyeurism not just by having the assault take place off screen but by his treatment of Everly's body and costume. Normally a character finds themselves losing both clothing and, depending on the severity of the action, flesh throughout an action movie. Although this stands to reason (explosions tend to damage clothes) it does mean that action movies often function as some perverse striptease with finely honed bodies getting more naked and sweatier as the violence escalates. In this case, however, Everly starts the movie completely naked and adds layers of clothing as the movie goes on. Sure, she gets her fair amount of damage, but the gradual adding of layers shows a systematic conditioning after the awful event that preceded the movie. We literally see Everly build her armour in front of us.

Filming around the sexual assault, so that we have effect more than cause, is by no means a cop-out or lack of conviction but a consistent aesthetic. Although the film never shys from the grotesque, the camera often parks on the outskirts of action. Characters vanish round corners or into doorways only to expel clouds of smoke and debris from within. Explosives are flung out of shot and broken bodies flung back in response. One especially satisfying set of kills happens behind closed doors while the collateral damage is viewed through security cameras.

All of this is risky for an action movie and, attempted without skill, could be disappointing. I imagine there are many explosion hungry action movie lovers who might feel a little malnourished. Director Lynch's expertise in knowing how to block, frame and cut this kind of action means that it is beautifully rendered. The timing of the sequences is razor sharp and manages to be both brutal and very funny in equal measure.

And it is nowhere near as risky as the utterly insane middle segment of the film. I don't want to say to much as you'll get some pleasure out of wondering what the hell is unfolding in front of you but I don't think I'll be leading you astray if I tell you it kind of feels a little like Big Trouble in Little China played as straight horror.

When you have a single character in limited locations you need a real talent to hold it all together. Hayek is incredible in this movie. She walks a precision line allowing her to play vulnerable and badass while reacting to brutal reality and almost cartoonish absurdity without ever feeling inconsistent. She has a real Pam Grier vibe throughout and I'd love to see her in more of these kind of roles.

Everly might leave your more traditional action fan cold as it is far from conventional. Yet for a movie that takes so many risks, not just in the more bizarre moments but in the very meddling with action vernacular, it features action that puts most competitors to shame.

Total Cults Podcast #113: Alien

The Robo-Warrior Trilogy: Counter Destroyer (Edger Jere, 1989)

So here we are; the third in the unofficial Robo-Warrior Trilogy. The climactic act at the end of an upward trajectory of quality and oh dear it's shit.

Counter Destroyer has some things going for it. Counter Destroyer is a cool title even though it sounds like it's about someone who doesn't like losing at boardgames. It is consistent with the other entires in the series in that with the exception of hopping Jiangshi there is nothing that connects any of the movies whatsoever.

And for most of the running time that's all the good you get.

Even with the series lack of canonical elements this movie stands all by itself. The first two both featured hopping vampires wrapped up in a heroin plot and going toe-to-toe with a robotic warrior. From what I can tell this film features no heroin dealers. It also doesn't feature a robotic warrior.

Yes, I am sorry to report that the finale of the Robo-Warrior movies does not actually feature a robotic warrior, for the most part. There is a man called Paul (different name as the Robo Warrior from the second movie) who at one point dons a white ninja outfit and fights some vampires but this doesn't happen until 38 minutes into the film and at no point is it suggested he is robotic in anyway.

Not only does this feel like a massive cheat it also messes with my OCD. Since this now features a ninja this should have gone into my Ninjas, ninjas, ninjas! articles. It would, however, be weird for the final review of a three part film to be written in a different format and placed in a different section of the site. For all this movie's crimes messing with my system might be the worst. Fuck you Counter Destroyer, why didn't you consider the eventual organisational nightmare you would cause me when you made this film in 1989? You're a dick.

So without robotic warriors and heroin deals what is left?

The exhilarating plot seems to revolve around rival film companies trying to produce the same movie about the first Emperor of China. As always it seems at least two movies had footage culled to make this Frankenstein of a film. The first seems to be a cops and robbers drama while the other is a haunted house movie. Those holed up in the house are the screenwriters while the heroic production company go up against the evil rival company in the crime drama section.

I don't know if the evil company are using the movie as a front for something as (full disclosure) I quickly stopped concentrating. They do, however, employ vampires and ghosts to terrorise their rivals and the whole mess is sorted out in a yacht-set shootout. I'll admit to not having any first hand experience of the Chinese film industry but I have to assume this is anything but conventional. Could it be a razor sharp satire, extending the cutthroat nature of the movie business to its logical, if absurd, conclusion? No, no it couldn't.

With that section of the movie a complete abyss of entertainment in falls on the supernatural element to hold our attention. This also fails us.

Joyce, our screenwriter, and her assistant Fanny (I think) cut themselves off in a lush apartment to write their film. Here they are beset by supernatural occurrences such as the appearance of goofy, comedy Jinagshi and a Freddy-like clawed creature.

It appears neither actress are at the top of their game and coupling this with some of the worst voice acting I have ever heard results in almost unbearable exchanges. Even calling out a name three times seems weird and otherworldly, like a robot programmed to mimic human behaviour having a systems crash. The dinner and pool sequence are nicely lit and shot with some degree of technical competency but it's like the cast and crew have never seen human beings interact. It also doesn't help that the voice actors don't understand silence. When not talking they still make grunts, sighs and heavy breathes so that every moment their character is onscreen they are making noises. This has the unfortunate effect of making them sound like they are always on the business end of some kind of sexual stimulation. These scenes are so awful they are actually worth a look.

The whole movie is a void of enjoyment, a gaping whole where entertainment should be. A total waste.

And then it suddenly gets good. You see I've been misleading you slightly, not out of cruelty but to help you experience the movie's final reveal in the same way that I did.

Ten minutes before the end of the movie and with the plot seemingly wrapped up in a lacklustre exchange of gunfire we rejoin Joyce. Paul comes to see her to find She has killed Fanny and that her arm is possessed; Evil Dead 2 style. Paul battles with her and strikes her down only for the claw-hand creature that was possessing her to leap in corporeal form. Paul spins in a circle, as if on a turntable, and transforms into...

The mutha-fuckin' Robo Warrior. The dude shows up, out of nowhere, ten minutes before the movie ends dressed in his previous outfit - weird foil moobs and odd pointy shoulders and all. I genuinely wanted to cheer. The movie had successfully manipulated me, had played the long game and built anticipation for the return of this character. It had revealed to me that I had a secret fondness for this goofy robot dude and seeing him back on screen warmed me in a way I wasn't expecting.

Then I though that even a glass of piss would taste great to a man lost in the desert for weeks.

While Robo Warrior and creature fight it out, the goofy comedy vampires return to nibble on Joyce. As they do her stomach swells and bulges until it explodes, launching a full-grown child Jiangshi into the air. This child then berates the two comedy vampires for killing his Mum and starts to beat them up before hovering on the ceiling and pissing all over them. I promise I am making none of this up.

Robo Warrior defeats the creature and since the comedy vampires and child are good, or something, he lets them go. They bury Joyce and then the claw hand bursts out of the grave like Carrie. The End.

Counter Destroyer is by far the worst of the series even considering the low bar set by Devil's Dynamite. Ninja magpie Godfrey Ho worked under many aliases and has been rumoured to be the actual Director of the series, yet even he denies having anything to do with this shit. The first movie has an okay fight towards the end, the second is the usual brand of B-movie with some pleasant moments of bat-shittery and while the last ten minutes of Counter Destroyer is delightfully mental the only other moments worth a look are the aforementioned god awful dialogue scenes. Considering at least six movies were plundered to make this series, one movie and handful of scenes doesn't seem like a great return on the investment.

I'm now going to stare into a mirror and question why I do this to myself.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

The Robo-Warrior Trilogy: Robo Vampire (Joe Livingstone, 1988)

I continue my descent into the self inflicted chore that is the Robo-Warrior Trilogy. The second in this unofficial series is Robo Vampire, a movie that is significantly better than its predecessor in every possible way. That doesn't make it a good movie though.

The opening sequence is promising. A couple of soldiers march what I assume is a POW into a derelict jungle town only to be set upon by those hopping mad (*takes a bow*) Jiangshi. The location is detailed and evocative, the violence nicely handled and the leaping vampires aren't just painted cyan but actually caked in rotting flesh make-up. Liberal use of a smoke machine instantly adds production value and the beautifully weird detail of the vampires breathing puffs of smoke when then hiss evidences some thought has gone into this sequence. It feels very much in line with Italian zombie movies, even more so when the vampire doesn't just suck his victim's blood but rips a mouthful of meat out of his throat.

We then join a criminal gang who, as seems to be convention in this series of movies, wants to train vampires to help their heroin pipeline. This leads us to the mystical lair where the vampires are trained. This location again features atmosphere and strong make-up effects. It also at this point that the film got away from me a little.

I must confess the film wasn't holding my attention 100% but I expected some smoother transition to a sequence where a Chinese wizard fights a female ghost in a see-through dress in an alley way. The two supernatural combatants fly around the alley attempting to magic the crap out of each other leading to one move where the wizard slides backwards across the floor leaving a trail of sparks and fire from his feet like Back to the Future's Delorian. I think the female ghost is the deceased wife of the lead vampire and I'm pretty sure they reach a truce at the end of the scene. To what end I'm not sure.

Doesn't matter because we suddenly find ourselves in a forest in a battle between drug runners and soldiers who loose the battle due to the appearance of the Jiangshi. One of the soldiers is mortally wounded and back at their base a difficult decision is made regarding the fate of their downed colleague:

So how's Tom?

It was a fatal wound. He's dead.

The soldier bows his head in sadness and sighs.

Since Tom's dead I'd like to make use of his body to make an android-like robot.

Following this tender and moving moment we get a montage of them building a robot solider. Since this appears to the the origin of the Robo-Warrior I'd imagine this movie is a remake of its first film a la Evil Dead 2. Please note this is merely my attempt to make some narrative sense of what we are seeing as this is by no means an actual coherent series of movies. The people making them can't establish a canon from scene to scene so to expect them to carry a through line from movie to movie is maybe asking a little too much.

The new Robo-Warrior seems to have had more effort put into his outfit though I would not say it is a better costume. It looks like he's had a bunch of pillows spray-painted silver and taped to him. It's awkward and wobbly and far more restrictive than the previous outfit. It is, however, far more derivative of Robocop both in the way he moves (a jerky robot movement) and the treatment of his voice. He doesn't do any martial arts either just shoots things with a very large machine gun.

From this point on the movie is a bit of a blur. Characters are introduced and dispatched without any real sense of who they are. There is a kidnapping and rescue plot, lots of fairly competent shoot-outs, a gorilla-faced vampire that shoots fireworks out his arms and in the finale the female ghost returns, whips her top off and fights the wizard to the death.

If this movie, like its predecessor, was spliced from a number of disparate movies it is far more difficult to pick apart the separate pieces. I guess that is a good thing? Either way it still makes very little sense. It's better looking, gorier and the horror and fantasy elements work quite well though.

If this arc of improvement carries through to the final film of the series then I might be in for a fairly accomplished B-movie mash-up. I have high hopes*

*Spoiler alert, I have already seen the third movie at the time of writing and it's fucking bullshit.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

The Robo- Warrior Trilogy: Devil's Dynamite (Joe Livingstone, 1987)

When you have watched and written about so many B-movies you can become numb to the lack of basic craftsmanship that constitutes the minimum expected competencies of a feature film. To prevent bars being permanently lowered it is sometimes needed for a film to come along that is so poor it jars you out of your malaise, reminding you that there are indeed acceptable standards a movie should achieve. Devil's Dynamite is such a film. I shall now valiantly try to recount the plot of this movie:

A criminal gang has conjured a bunch of vampires to help enforce their drug operations while an ex-gangland boss tries to marry out of the criminal life only to be dragged back in by the reappearance of a newly released criminal mastermind. Also, throughout this movie a man dressed in a silver jump suit and foil neckerchief appears and fights the undead creatures. I think he is supposed to be the hero.

This is movie is so inept I have watched the entire thing and cannot tell you the name of the hero, what he is, why he does what he does, whether he succeeds or what happens to him after he has disappeared.

I can tell you the name of the mysterious mastermind though. Like Keyser Soze he is a myth among criminals. His return to the criminal underworld much anticipated and his name is on the lips of every low-life and gang member. A genuine sense of anticipation is created proceeding his appearance on screen. This build up is the first successful piece of storytelling in the film and merely requires the reveal of an imposing figure to stick the landing. The name of this criminal boogey man? Steven Cox.

So, in short, Steve Cox is back, he is upset about his old flame marrying some guy and a tinfoil Biggles fights vampires. Beyond that I not only failed to comprehend the story but at times genuinely wondered why someone pointed a camera at the thing I was seeing on screen. In fact the movie's main assets were some of its baffling choices.

The movie features Jiangshi, or Chinese hopping vampires. These goofy dudes are always welcome on my screen and the ones in this movie look fairly good. Early on they are pitted against a bunch of shadow warrior ninjas, who they beat with ease. It would have been nice for the ninjas to stick around a little longer but at least they are replaced by our crazy silver friend.

This movie is part of the semi-official Robo-Warrior Trilogy which clues me into the fact this guy might be some kind of kung-fu robot super hero. This is never even mentioned in the film though; the guy literally just appears and disappears in puffs of smoke.

This is a Chinese action movie and as such the fighting on display is above average. It's no Shaw Brothers movie but the final fight scene does, in all fairness, contain some decent choreography and stunt work. It does also feature a moment where a wizard (I think) puts a small, child-like drawing of man on the back of a weakened Robo-Warrior, causing him to moonwalk and do the robot while fighting the vampires. At one point the drawing of the little man appears on his fist and when he punches a vampire with it the vampire explodes. I cannot explain this series of events.

There is a fabulous edit from a gaping eye-wound to a mid-ceremony wedding that is a piece of editing second only to 2001: A Space Odyssey and any wedding that features the bride yelling "don't threaten me you little piece of shit" down a phone in the middle of the wedding march before continuing the ceremony as if nothing has happened gets my vote.

It is also worth noting there is no dynamite in this movie.

If I were a betting man I'd lay money on this being two different movies (one a crime melodrama, the other a superhero/vampire fight movie) being spliced together with some clumsy dubbing to tenuously link the two clearly unconnected narratives. This wasn't an uncommon practice as those familiar with Godfrey Ho will know. It is also therefore very likely the title was plonked on just because it sounded good. Whatever the case this nonsense tested even my patience and only gets a pass for legitimately baffling me at times.

Despite a shocking lack of storytelling and basic common sense another movie was made featuring a similar subject matter and characters and thus the Robo-Warrior Trilogy began.

Obviously I'm going to watch the other two.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Icons of the Overlooked #15: Michael Ironside

How did it take this long to write about Michael Ironside? This seething ball of gruffness has been a staple of genre movie making at all ends of the budgetary scale. He would often pop up in movies and frown at the good guys but don't be fooled: that famous sneer is merely a shark's fin; an extension of a much more versatile beast that lurked under the surface.

Of all his genre work the awesome Total Recall must stand his most well known. Ironside's Richter was not your average henchman. Rather than cast an equally muscular punching bag for the Austrian lead to duke it out with Director Verhoeven went with someone that would bring more depth to what could have been a one dimensional role. Vicious, merciless and yet with a tendency to be left humiliated by both Schwarzenegger's Quaid and Ronny Cox's Cohaagen in equal measure. For all his callous corpse-stamping and angry shouting one can't help feel a little sorry for the dude when we finds out that Quaid and Cohaagen have been best buddies all along and that Richter would never be a part of that villainous circle. Not to mention that Cohaagen assigned Richter's girlfriend to be Quaid's wife - can you imagine the meeting where he broke the news to him? Although that dynamic fuelled Richter's anger Ironside used it to imbue him with an element of pitiful goofiness and, at times, made the guy a little pathetic. Bold choices for a character whose main function is to antagonise Arnie.

Ironside often rendered seemingly simple characters in complex colour and shade. Verhoven gave Ironside a smaller role in Starship Troopers, this time playing military instructor Rasczak. For the training portion Ironside uses his trademark growl and sneer as expected but once the war is in full swing and he's placed back in action, cyborg hand and all, there is an element of charm he exudes that makes his eventual demise quite upsetting to watch. It's subtle, borderline unnoticeable, but for an actor often cast in 'angry dude' roles he was capable of incredible subtlety. He also gets to turn right into camera and say the line "they sucked his brains out". Less subtle, but that's Shakespeare to me.

Ironside got to dig into the scenery a little more as the bad guy in the maligned Highlander 2: The Quickening. The movie is batshit enough to be a fun sci-fi/fantasy that comes undone more by the fact it's supposed to be a Highlander sequel than its own narrative and pacing missteps. Here Ironside goes full on nuts and although it is a less comfortable fit he gives it everything he's got.

More successful a pantomime villain is the marvellous Overdog from absolute joy Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone. Ironside doesn't fight the layers of make-up and mechanical crane he's attached to but uses them to fashion a truly weird cyborg bastard overlord.

Ironside had his fair share of protagonist roles too. Despite an almost perpetual grimace Ironside has a charming, Tom Baker-esque grin that was immensely endearing. This allowed him to play rogues and scoundrels as naturally as angry bad guys. Ham Tyler was by far the edgier, cooler hero in V while he more than adequately carried the straight to video but incredibly convincing post-apocalyptic Neon City.

One of the reasons I consider Ironside to be somewhat overlooked is that his famous roles often obscure the breadth of his filmography. The guy just hasn't stopped working. I'd clocked him in Terminator: Salvation and X-Men: First Class but his IMDB page is stocked with movie roles, TV roles and voice work. And I haven't even had chance to talk about Extreme Prejudice, Turbo Kid or the fact he is Darryl fucking Revok in Scanners!

Ironside is the kind of actor that makes me grin every time he walks on screen and even though his most famous work will no doubt be the ones where he got to angrily antagonise a hero his body of work shows tremendous versatility and charisma.

Want proof? Look at every one of those stills - every single one wears Ironside's face but behind those eyes and hidden in that posture are clearly distinguishable characters. Everyone one a visibly different person, irrespective of costume or setting. The guy can communicate character in still images. Ironside isn't just an action star with an awesome name - he's a bloody amazing actor.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Gogol's Triple-Bills: Swords, Sorcery and Space Ships

I have long maintained that I have not grown out of my childhood but added to it. As such many of the things that thrilled me as a child still do. Like many I grew up with Star Wars. The interstellar adventures of that series, plus its many illegitimate offspring, filled me with images of crazy aliens, fearsome troopers and exciting cosmic dogfights. In science fiction there seemed to be no cap on imagination. Fantasy, on the other hand, wasn't quite as boundry-less. Of course the imagination was stimulated with sorcerers and monsters yet the locales seemed a lot closer to home. It wasn't much of a stretch to imagine the local wood was a mystical forest filled with warriors and mythical creatures while a metallic blade was far easier, and more visceral, to simulate than a laser one. Mixing the two therefore seemed like a no-brainer to me.
The distinction between the two genres is pretty thin but few movies have actually gone out of their way to take the conventions of both genres and mash them together in such a way that draws attention to itself. Unsurprisingly those that do I carry very close to my heart, irrespective of their objective successes. 

Krull (Peter Yates, 1983)

Krull is almost as straight a fantasy fairytale as one could ask for. The handsome prince and his bride to be are typical of children's fantasy stories as are the picturesque green hills and cute castles nestled within them. It is, at times, close to live action Disney. Thankfully a whacking great space castle lands in the midst of it all spewing forth laser-wielding stormtroopers. It's not quite an alien invasion meets fairytale movie (although someone needs to hurry up and make one) but the bizarre structure of the Black Fortress and the slightly-hi-tech armour and weaponry of the awesome Slayers (my personal favourite evil foot-solider) tip the balance to science fiction more than expected. The nightmarish leader, named The Beast, is a full on horror movie creature that also adds an edge that pulls the movie from light fantasy, even with all the flying horses and men in tights.
The movie isn't quite as propulsive or swashbuckling as it could be, the cast is excellent and all are game but never quite generate chemistry while Ergo, the comic relief, threatens to become the Jar-Jar of his day more than once. 
It is the exciting design and utterly wonderful score by James Horner that elevates this stuff above most 80's fantasy movies while the inclusion of laser wielding stormtroopers and a gnarly space beast give the movie a particular electricity for me. It is one of my absolute faves and I'll glaive the shit out of anyone who judges me for it.

Masters of the Universe (Gary Goddard, 1987)

Stop looking at me like that. I know, this movie manages to be derivative of everything except the source material it was based on. It features an actor in the lead role that can barely articulate a sentence. The fish out of water shit not only gets old in a narrative sense but dates the film instantly. It ain't good, I know it.
There are lots of reasons why this film ended up the way it did. Massive budget cuts, restrictive notes from Hasbro and a whole spectrum of production issues meant that what was already probably a bad idea had no chance of coming out on top.
That being said I fucking love this movie. Lundgren's lines aren't delivered well but the dude looks the part. As in, he actually looks like a Boris Vallejo painting that graces the cover of a fantasy movie's VHS cover rather than the stringy feeble found within (I'm looking at you Deathstalker movies). Secondly I can't help but giggle with joy watching a proper movie barbarian hack away at armoured robot soldiers with a sword one minute, then zoom around on a flying disc blasting away with a laser gun the next. 
Skeletor is the nuts as a part-sorcerer part-Vader big bad. His mercenaries are a mix of cyborg lizard-men and chain mail-wearing sword experts. Oh, and a werewolf with a laser gun.
Considering the movie was up against it money wise it is never afraid to go big and often manages this thanks to a familiar but rousing score by Bill Conti. The moment Skeletor arrives on Earth, flanked by legions of robo-troopers in his flying throne-ship while scored with Conti's own take on Holst's Mars the Bringer of War is absolutely exhilarating. 
It's a shame they spend so much time on Earth as the conflict on the barren world of Eternia would have been a lot more thrilling, yet the mix of space opera and swordplay creates an anachronistic frisson that accompanied by its unashamed bombast manages to steam-roll right through any critical faculties I might have going into it. I love it.

Thor: The Dark World (Alan Taylor, 2013)

It may seem odd throwing a massively budgeted, populist summer blockbuster into the mix but the fact this movie is about a space viking with a magic hammer that is based on a comic book shows how little we appreciate the extent to which cult material now forms our mainstream diet. The Thor movies have always been presented as the runt of the Marvel litter appearing on favourites lists often only above The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2. I think this is unfair, especially with regards to the sequel.
It does have a weak villain and doesn't quite have the vibe the others Marvel movies have, but I remember during my first viewing thinking to myself "this is like Krull but with money behind it". After a CGI heavy prologue we are launched into a typical fantasy battle. Armoured warriors clash sword and axe with marauders. What differentiates this from your usual fantasy battle is the inclusion of laser bazookas. Add to this a giant rock monster and a god with an indestructible lightening hammer and you've got the stuff of heavy metal album covers. 
The money and the visual effects supporting this film allow for the cohesion between genres to set a little more smoothly to the point where most audiences take the sights for granted. The assault on Asgard, for instance, plays like a big budget action scene as expected but features imagery not unlike that of the Lord of the Rings trilogy with lasers, space craft and flying boats thrown in.
For all the criticism thrown at Marvel's "bland" house-style it should have been given points for being so damn beautiful. Yes, The Guardians movies and Doctor Strange have given the third movie the confidence to go bold with colour and design but this movie has that as well. Some of Kirby's designs are right there in the marauder's armour and although colour doesn't soak the screen primary highlights pop in the back of almost every frame. This movie feels like what the other movies on my list wanted to be and although that might be lost on a lot of movie goers for those, like me, with particular tastes it is a thrill.