Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Screamers: The Hunting (Sheldon Wilson, 2009)

Hey, remember Screamers; the '95 Peter Weller movie about burrowing assassin droids that have wiped out humanity on a distant planet? No? Well, it's pretty good. It also, surprisingly, spawned a sequel.

A rescue team are sent to intercept a distress signal on a planet riddled with Screamers. Once there they are marooned with a small group of survivors and forced to battle their way back home through a seemingly unbeatable army of mechanical bastards.

This movie tries so hard and gets so much right. The visual effects, for starters, are pretty good. Digital work is good enough to be un-intrusive while there is a surprising amount of practical effects. Good ones too. There were also a few shots, including a wonderful set extension, where I couldn't work out whether it was miniature or CGI - always a good sign.

The cast are game and features an early role for Stephen 'Arrow' Amell and an extended cameo from Lance Henriksen. Aside from Henriksen, however, no-one is particularly good. Amell comes close as he broods with the best of them but when he opens his mouth to speak he adopts a raspy whisper and a squinted eye that makes him look like Clint Eastwood with a mouthful of ulcers. In fact, the film pretty much stands still any time drama is required. It is shame because when we get to the good bits they are quite accomplished.

The Screamers themselves are a varied bunch. As established in the first movie they are able to evolve themselves and now take a variety of forms, even masquerading as humans. This presents the opportunity for some Thing level paranoia. An opportunity that of course the film pisses up a wall. They don't even generate Crash and Burn levels of paranoia for Christ's sake. Remember Crash and Burn? No, not that one either?

Thankfully when the humanoid Screamers reveal themselves they turn into pretty awesome mechanical nightmares - a cross between a Terminator and the Reapers from Blade 2 with a little Annihilator thrown in for good measure (Annihilator anyone? Is anyone even out there?). In a standout scene a couple of these bad-boys go nuts, punching through people in wonderfully practical splatter effects. Oh yes, the gore is GOOD.

Which is why I was utterly shocked to discover the film was made in 2009! Even with the presence of Amell (whose age I do not know) I would have guessed late nineties only because it looks and feels like a straight to video sci-fi sequel from that era (and I mean that as a compliment). Finding out it was made in the late noughties, an era of straight to DVD filmmaking synonymous with shitty digital wankery, only generates far more respect for the effort made with this movie.

Look, it isn't good, certainly a step down from the first movie (which you should seriously check-out) but it you are looking for something that scratched a particular aesthetic itch and don't mind drifting off during the bits where people say things at each other you will be rewarded with some good action, fun splatter and a menagerie of murderous mechanoids.

Chopping Mall (Jim Wynorski, 1986)

It sometimes feels weird recommending something you know most of your audience will have likely seen. Chopping Mall, for example, is a bonafide cult classic and one that I fully expect most who are into this kind of thing will have seen long ago. It has, however,  escaped me until the time of writing this. And so I may be late to the party but I still managed to have a lot of fun.

Automated security bots are introduced to patrol a mall but a lightening storm has made them go haywire to the detriment of the group of teenagers who have stayed beyond closing hours for a party.

Jim Wynorski operates in the same sphere as Corman and Olen Ray - gore, nudity and tongue lodged in cheek. The opening of Chopping Mall features speeded up footage, double-takes and slapstick while the fast-food joint the kids eat in is covered in posters of movies either made by the Director or Production team. Although the build up is nice there was a worry that leaning on the humour and self-awareness a little too much might rob the film of its stakes. Thankfully once the movie slips into slasher mechanics and the robots go on the hunt the film generates some genuine excitement.

The siege aspects are genuinely tense, the deaths count and our final girl, decked out to look like waitress Sarah Conner, is a badass. The robots, although goofy looking in an endearing way, also manage to generate some menace.

That is not to say that the fun is drained from the rest of the movie. Wynorski manages to balance both fun and edge in manner far more measured than one would expected from a killer robot in a shopping mall movie.

For starters the deaths are joyful. A couple of early electrocution deaths fall a little flat but once they start shooting War of the Worlds style death rays I was positively giddy. Considering the low budget feel of the film there is some real production value on display. The shoot-outs twixt robot and teenagers (who have procured firearms from a sporting store) are big and destructive, there are explosions and full-body burns and even a wicked exploding head.

The film feels like it could exist in the same world as Robocop (released a year later) as both the design of the robot and the light satire of commercialism feel consistent, only this ramps up the teen slasher aesthetic for more surface level, but equally satisfying, thrills. Cult gold.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Jaguar Lives (Ernest Pintoff, 1979)

Secret agent Johnathan Cross AKA Jaguar is double-crossed on a mission and severely injured. Once recovered he is sent on a globe trotting mission to hunt down an evil kingpin. This vehicle for Joe Lewis, a martial arts champion and student of Bruce Lee, tries to emulate Bond movies while livening them up with a little martial arts action and manages to miss the mark on both counts. That is not to say it doesn't try - by god it tries.

What surprised me most on first viewing is how much money had been spent on a kung-fu flick I'd never heard of. The opening sequence features a gorgeous location, a shoot-out on a cable car/elevator and a pretty impressive explosion achieved through some unusually great miniature work.

In fact the production value is consistently good. The cast is exceptional and includes Christopher Lee, Donald Pleasence, Barbara Bach, John Huston, Woody Strode to name but a few. It is no coincidence that many of the cast have been picked due to their association with Bond. The movie tries to out-do Bond at every stage featuring some nice stunt work and about a thousand different exotic locations. So how does it fail?

Having more locations than your average Bond movie is one thing, but cramming them into one narrative organically is pretty difficult. And so instead of a developing, escalating spy story we have a plodding travel diary as Jaguar visits a location, meets a guest star, maybe has a fight then moves to the next location. Each of the stellar cast mentioned only get a few minutes screen time before giving Jaguar the info he needs to zoom off to the next location. A pretty repetitive beat quickly forms making a fairly manageable running time seem like an eternity.

This might not be so bad if every location visited had a themed action sequence but this is a movie that commits perhaps the biggest action film sin: not enough action, and what there is doesn't really work. Joe Lewis has skills, clearly, but each fight is so short he never gets the chance to show off anything more than a few kicks. A stunt involving Jaguar hanging on to the top of a speeding car starts exciting but ends not in a spectacular crash or a fight, but simply with the driver getting away. A stand-off in a factory promises the sight of Lewis taking on an army of workers but after a few kicks he scurries over some boxes and gets away. The fights are indicative of the movie's key problem: rather than sticking with something and exploring it, it shows us a glimpses then races off to the next thing.

That is not to say there are no notable moments. Jaguar fighting two guys on motorbikes is inventive if not extensive, a graveyard gauntlet works if only because after each short fight is over Jaguar walks right into another one and the final fight atop the turrets of a desert fortress looks great and if it were matched by choereopgraghy could have been an all-time iconic martial arts sequence.

Lewis doesn't have Lee's charisma (who does?) but is no worse than Chuck Norris. It's clear though the Producer's felt he'd need some help making a splash so they surround him with locations and stars. The end result, though, is that rather than elevate him they drown him out.

The film also suffers from being entirely devoid of vibe. Just thinking how fucking COOL Enter the Dragon is. This movie is the equivalent of a pastel sweater tied-off around the shoulders.

Lewis got to make a few more movies. Force: Five, directed by Dragon's Robert Clouse is better in many ways. He's supported with other martial artists, such as Richard Norton and Benny Urquidez and although it is basically an inferior re-tread of Enter the Dragon it is a far more successful action vehicle for its star. If only that movie had this movie's budget.

Or, better still, if only this movie showed off its star more than its passport and casting agent.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Icons of the Overlooked #16 John Saxon

John Saxon is a constant; a perpetual cross-generational presence in Western cinema. He is an actor that manages to maintain a consistent onscreen persona while displaying great range through under-appreciated subtlety. Despite this he is still only known as a cult actor. And that's bullshit.

His list of TV credits, for starters, is incredible. Think of any iconic American TV series, from Gunsmoke to The A-Team, and he's probably had a part in it. When you include film into his resume, Saxon has had a career that started in 1954 and that still hasn't ended yet (a release in 2017, two more in various stages of development). That's incredible! He's worked with people like Corman, Argento, Craven, worked across genres and continents (he shows up in a lot of Italian movies) and has played pretty much every kind of role you could imagine.

Enter the Dragon is arguably his most iconic role. Saxon's Roper is a charming rogue, saddled with debt but never morose about it. He's a shark, always moving and utterly lethal. He exudes machismo and yet subtly undercuts it resisting the temptation to take the easy route and go full Eastwood. The scene in which he deliberately gets knocked on his ass to work the odds in his first fight is played perfectly. Roper is, perhaps, Saxon's ultimate role - the sum of his parts, the distillation of his on-screen presence. He could have easily repeated this role in a string of cop/action movies but so many times Saxon avoids the easy or expected route.

Saxon has suppressed his charisma to play full-on villains several times, most notably in Battle Beyond the Stars and Prisoners of the Lost Universe. Saxon seems at ease menacing subordinates, grimacing as plans are foiled and generally chewing scenery. Saxon appears happy to play antagonist or protagonist in equal measure, yet his villains aren't always unconventional.

Italian sci-fi action movie Hands of Steel, for example, is a pretty disposable Terminator inspired cheapey about a killer cyborg who goes rogue and holds up in a dustbowl diner. Saxon plays the villain and entirely lacks compassion and empathy. He really is a tough, evil bastard in this. At least he is right up until the final scenes when he eventually comes face to face with the cyborg hero and realises he has no chance. He immediately becomes a cowardly figure bargaining for his life. Saxon turns on a dime and yet as big a shift as it is it never feels jarring or abrupt. It is not only a skill-full transition but a bold movie for an actor associated with tough-guy roles.

This character transition is also evident in A Nightmare on Elm Street. He plays Lt. Thompson, an overly strict and controlling Father figure perfectly setting himself up not so much as the villain but as an antagonist to the heroine of the piece. When the truth about Kruger, his demise and Thompson's role in it becomes clear Saxon sells his motivations for his character's controlling nature so that you may not agree with his methods but understand them unquestionably.

Saxon's ability to generate empathy for his characters is masterful and key to getting more unorthodox and/or morally questionable characters to work as protagonists. The Glove, for example, is a movie with a killer exploitation premise: Upon release an ex-convict plans to take revenge on the wardens that abused him by beating them to near death with a stolen armour-plated riot glove!

The movie doesn't quite live up to the promise of its concept and for the most part feels like a pilot for a TV show (both in production value and aesthetic). The opening moments, where Saxon's bounty hunter gets into a fist fight with a same-sex couple doesn't present the most measured portrayal of homosexuality. As the movie progresses, however, it's clear there's something much more interesting going on.

Saxon's bounty hunter, Sam Kellog, is by no-means a ruthless or indestructible force but a real human struggling to make ends meet. The above fight aside we rarely see Kellog throwing dudes through windows or beating up punks in alley ways. Instead we see him tracking down an old lady who embezzled some money and letting her go with enough to cover her trip out of the city. We see him building leads from sources both inside the force and out and, most importantly, we see him spending time with his daughter. You see a recent divorce has left him in serious debt and with a daughter he is at risk of loosing altogether. As a result he is forced to take on sightly riskier jobs like, I dunno, hunting down a hulking ex-con with a riot glove.

What adds even more depth to the movie is the treatment of race. Our ex-con is a huge and intimidating black guy but is never portrayed as an outright villain. When not dressed in riot gear we see him going about every day business in his run-down tower block, buying groceries, chatting with neighbours and playing music for the local kids. Every time we cut to him we see a community, when ever we cut back to the white people we see greed, gambling, corruption and betrayal.

Kellog is desperate for money to give his daughter the life she needs and is defeated at every chance. He is down trodden and barely surviving. He is not even given power through violence as when he does open fire and kills a bounty it leads to an investigation, shakes him up and ultimately adds more obstacles to him getting that big score. Very unusual for a 70's crime thriller.

The finale, where Kellog dukes it out with the glove wearing badass, doesn't play out how you'd expect. There is clearly a social conscience and sensitivity at play here and although there are still some problematic elements the movies feels like its heart is in the right play. This is primarily due to Saxon imbuing Kellog with sadness and determination. Despite being a man in a violent world who gambles his money away you cannot help but sympathise for him.

So why Saxon is still seen as a cult actor is beyond me. There was real mainstream charisma backed up with genuine acting ability and a willingness to play against type.

On a side-note I think he would have been great in any number of super-hero characters. Doc Savage, The Punisher, Wolverine, Nick Fury - he could have played any of them perfectly.

John Saxon is a frigging treasure, a joy the moment he pops up on screen and a vastly underrated actor.