Thursday, November 27, 2014

Turkey Day Crap-tacular

Ah, Thanksgiving – that venerated holiday when our nation celebrates manifest destiny, the overindulgence in turkey* (or Tofurky, if you swing that way), and terrible movies. Submitted for your disapproval are the following cinematic leftovers for your indigestion. I’ve conveniently parsed them into three categories: “So Bad They’re Good” (the cream of the crap), “Could’ve Been Good” (movies that had potential, but failed), and “Just Plain Bad” (so bad, they’re bad). You’ve been warned…

* Random useless fact: Did you know that a group of turkeys is called a rafter? 

So Bad They’re Good:

Gymkata (1985) U.S. Olympic gymnast Kurt Thomas stars as Jonathan Cabot, a gymnast (surprise!) hired by the government to infiltrate the mysterious country of Parmistan, and help pave the way for the installation of an early warning system vital to security. The plot, which rips off The Most Dangerous Game, concerns a barbaric competition where Cabot must run for his life. After working with Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon, director Robert Clouse probably hoped to capture lightning in a bottle once more, but only proves that Thomas is no Lee. The goofy mix of gymnastics and karate seems impossibly cumbersome and contrived, and Thomas, with his wooden acting, is devoid of charisma. Gymkata is full of unintentionally hilarious moments that make viewing worthwhile, as in one scene when Cabot conveniently finds a bar to swing on (watch for his chalk-covered hands) after being chased down an alley, or when he discovers a thinly disguised pommel horse in the middle of a village square. Unbelievable.

Rating: **½. Available on DVD

Showgirls (1995) After the career highs of Robocop and Total Recall, Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven went on to direct this glittery turd. Joe Eszterhas’ tone deaf script aims to make some sort of statement about the pursuit of fame, but fails miserably. The ham-handed dialogue only demonstrates that he has no idea how real people speak, and his superficial treatment of the seamy underbelly of Las Vegas seems to suggest that the full extent of his research was to watch some pole dancing.

Showgirls follows the exploits of Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley), a girl with a shady past who will stop at nothing to fulfill her dreams of becoming a Las Vegas dancer in a schmaltzy production. Although the filmmakers likely intended her to have an edge, as a protagonist she’s unlikeable and irritating. Besides being disproportionately defensive and combative with every character she encounters, she’s completely obtuse, especially when she’s manipulated by sleazy talent director Zack Carey (Kyle MacLachlan).  Leaving Las Vegas was a better advertisement for the city that never sleeps than this flick.

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Street Fighter (1994) There’s not much in the way of street fighting going on in writer/director Steven E. de Souza’s movie, based on the video game with the same title.  Jean-Claude Van Damme stars as Colonel Guile, leader of an international anti-terrorist force, tasked with bringing super criminal Bison (Raul Julia) to justice. The real attraction in this ridiculous film is Julia (in his final movie appearance), who seemed to enjoy himself in spite of the material, and takes every opportunity to ham things up. His cartoonish lair includes a “hostage pit,” where his victims are conveniently stored for later rescue. The filmmakers seem to actively apologize to the audience at one point when a character comments “I can’t watch this,” while his comrade is being tortured. Indeed.

Rating: *½ (**** for Julia’s performance).  Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Could’ve Been Good:

Robocop 3 (1993) Director Fred Dekker (Night of the Creeps and The Monster Squad) took a step in the wrong direction with this misguided third installment in the Robocop series. Evil corporation OCP is taken over by stereotypical Japanese businessmen, and takes steps to rid old Detroit of its working class residents. Some of the displaced urban dwellers won’t leave without a fight, however. Robocop (this time played by Robert Burke) teams up with a plucky little computer whiz kid (Remy Ryan) to help militant city residents combat the OCP menace. Robocop 3 unceremoniously kills off a beloved character from the series, and features goofy battles with sword-wielding androids. The coup de grâce for this misfire occurs when Robocop straps on a jet pack (depicted with unconvincing flying effects) to fight the bad guys. If nothing else, the film moves along at a decent clip. While it’s not as awful as I expected, it’s not particularly good either. Someone should have pulled the plug on this half-baked sequel before it ever got the green light.

Rating: **. Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Masters of the Universe (1987) I was a bit too old to appreciate the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon, or the Hasbro toys that spawned the beloved franchise, so I probably wasn’t the target audience for the eventual live action film. Instead of starting from scratch, the filmmakers seemed to assume we already knew who the characters were and what the hell was going on. As a result, we never learn much about the origins of He-Man (Dolph Lundgren), Skeletor (Frank Langella), or anyone else. As the main character, Lundgren demonstrates about as much range and expressiveness as his plastic counterpart. Billy Barty appears as the diminutive, loathsome Gwildor, who provides dubious comic relief to the proceedings. Instead of taking place on another planet, most of the action for this wannabe epic is confined to a small (mostly deserted) town in the middle of nowhere, where a battle ensues for a glowy cosmic key. In a move that prefigured the current crop of Marvel Comics flicks, the filmmakers inserted a scene in the end credits, optimistically hinting at future installments. A defeated Skeletor proclaims, “I’ll be back.” Fortunately for everyone, he proved to be wrong.

Rating: **. Available on DVD

Just Plain Bad:

ThanksKilling (2009) I can appreciate what director/co-writer Jordan Downey managed to do with a microscopic budget, but this comedy/horror flick hurt. Even with a running time of 70 minutes, this story about the legend of a murderous turkey seems overlong. Some college buddies (who have the relationship dynamics of high school kids) go on a camping trip, and are terrorized by a rubber turkey puppet. The humor consistently falls flat (the same lame joke is used three times), and the leads are aggressively unlikeable. ThanksKilling reminds us that the best bad movies are unintentional. Watching this film only makes me pine for the painstakingly crafted ineptitude of an Ed Wood film. When it comes to this movie, you won’t be asking for seconds. 

Rating: *½. Available on DVD and Hulu Plus

Mortal Kombat (1995) Hack director extraordinaire Paul W.S. Anderson’s (Resident Evil) interpretation of the eponymous popular video game franchise won’t please fans with its PG-13 violence, nor will it please aficionados of martial arts flicks. With quick cuts and poorly staged fights, it’s tough to tell what’s going on most of the time. This shoddily executed action movie also features unconvincing computer-generated effects (the lizard-like character Reptile resembles the GEICO gecko), and a repetitive techno/dance ditty, punctuated by the battle cry “Mortal Kombat!” to remind you of the title, in case you forgot. The forgettable cast is led by the very Caucasian actor Christopher Lambert, playing the mystic Asian fighter Rayden. Shameful.

Rating: *½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

November Quick Picks and Pans

Phase IV (1974) Our days as Earth’s dominant life form may be numbered, according to this cerebral science fiction film from director Saul Bass and writer Mayo Simon. In a secluded patch of Arizona desert, university scientists (Nigel Davenport and Michael Murphy) investigate a sudden incursion of ants that are leaving entire communities uninhabitable. The scientists endeavor to decipher the coordinated behavior of a huge ant colony surrounding their research facility, which suggests a vast underlying intelligence. It’s ants versus humans as the researchers attempt to counteract the ants’ ability to rapidly adapt to changes. Phase IV features spectacular macro-photography by Ken Middleham, affording us an insect’s eye view, and creating an immersive experience for the viewer. Unlike many similar films from the nature-gone-amok genre, the filmmakers take their time thoughtfully setting up the premise and letting the story unfold, as the scientists observe and hypothesize about the ants’ ultimate intent.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Eating Raoul (1982) Paul Bartel, who also directed and co-wrote the screenplay, and Mary Woronov star as Paul and Mary Bland, an ordinary married couple who dream of one day opening a restaurant, but are desperately short of funds. Their dull existence (they even have twin beds) suddenly takes a turn for the exotic when they hatch a scheme to make some quick cash by catering to the whims of sexual fetishists. Instead of following through with their clients’ kinky demands, however, Paul and Mary dispatch their customers. Everything seems to be going well, until scam artist Raoul (played by a pre-Night of the Comet/Star Trek Voyager Robert Beltran) discovers their plans, and wants in on the action. This black comedy seems as timely as ever, with its commentary about what it takes to get ahead in the modern world.

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Hulu Plus

The Honeymoon Killers (1969) The low budget aesthetics almost make this film appear like an early John Waters film, but the themes inhabit much darker corners. Shirley Stoler and Tony Lo Bianco star as real life serial killers Martha Beck and Ray Fernandez, who murdered several women in the late 1940s. A lonely nurse and her scam artist boyfriend trick naïve single women into sham marriages so they can take their money. Things get increasingly violent as Shirley and Tony become bolder with their schemes, perpetrating crimes they probably wouldn’t have committed alone. The Honeymoon Killers is difficult to watch at times, but always absorbing. It reminds us that we don’t need to look further than ourselves to find the real monsters. Highly recommended.

Rating: *** ½. Available on DVD and Hulu Plus

Altered States (1980) Director Ken Russell’s hallucinatory odyssey (from a screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky) takes a journey off the deep end with its story about a researcher looking for evolutionary secrets trapped within the inner recesses of his mind. William Hurt stars as neuroscientist Eddie Jessup, who uses himself as an experimental subject to test the effects of prolonged immersion in an isolation chamber. As the experiments continue, and he introduces powerful hallucinogens, he experiences mind and body-altering effects, culminating in a literal transformation. Depending on your point of view, Altered States could be a validation or refutation of the self-help, self-absorbed navel gazing that typified the ‘70s “Me Generation” mindset. Hurt is excellent in his first feature film role as the selfish, self-absorbed Dr. Jessup. Blair Brown is also good as his estranged wife Emily, who attempts to curb his destructive tendencies. The visuals are suitably captivating, although the film and its protagonist remain somewhat distancing.  

Rating: *** ½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Monday, November 10, 2014

Double Take: Fantastic Voyage/Innerspace

Fantastic Voyage (1966) Directed by: Richard Fleischer; Written by Harry Kleiner; Story by Otto Klement and Jerome Bixby; Adapted by David Duncan; Starring: Stephen Boyd, Raquel Welch, Edmond O'Brien and Donald Pleasence

Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming
Rating: ****

Innerspace (1987) Directed by: Joe Dante; Written by Jeffrey Boam and Chip Proser; Story by Chip Proser; Starring: Dennis Quaid, Martin Short, Meg Ryan, Kevin McCarthy, Vernon Wells and Fiona Lewis

Available on DVD and Amazon Instant Video
Rating: ****

“Yet all the suns that light the corridors of the universe shine dim before the blazing of a single thought…” – Dr. Duval (Arthur Kennedy)

“…we actually watched the picture (Fantastic Voyage) and tried to not do some of the things that they had done simply because there were things that worked and things that didn’t work, and we didn’t want to put people on wires…”  – Joe Dante (from DVD commentary for Innerspace)

Despite the fact that the entirety of my post-secondary education was in the liberal arts, I’ve always been a great admirer of the sciences and, by extension, science fiction. During my formative years, I grew up on a steady diet of sci-fi movies and television, and devoured many stories from speculative fiction writers such as Asimov, Clarke and Niven. I always found movies and stories grounded in the real world to be a bit mundane, and was more interested in what could (or couldn’t) be, rather than what was. One such movie that had an indelible effect was Fantastic Voyage, which aired with some regularity on ‘70s TV. I’d catch it whenever it was on, despite my father’s protestations that “that’s a rerun.” It never failed to send my mind reeling, transporting me to another place, a familiar yet alien landscape. Twenty odd years later, Joe Dante revisited that landscape and re-captured my imagination with his comedic take on the source material, Innerspace.

Both films cover a similar conceit, that people could be miniaturized to explore the oceans of the human body, but they represent completely different approaches. In the original film, the sense of urgency is more palpable, because the miniaturization process only lasts 60 minutes. We feel tension as the crew members of the submersible Proteus* race against the clock to perform a surgical procedure from within the human brain. Although no such time limit is expressly stated in Innerspace, we know the protagonist’s time is finite, due to the oxygen reserves in his mini-sub.

* It’s no surprise that Fantastic Voyage’s director Richard Fleischer helmed another childhood favorite, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Both classic flicks featured iconic submarine designs by Harper Goff. 

* Bonus Factoid: The effects for Fantastic Voyage required several models of the Proteus, from 1- ½ inches to full size. The smallest model met an unfortunate end when it was carried off by a bird during an outdoor test shoot.

Both films inspire a sense of wonder, relying on extensive special effects and inspired art direction to drive the story. While Fantastic Voyage shows its age, it featured groundbreaking (for the time) visuals. The Dale Hennesy-designed sets painted a surreal landscape, which afforded ‘60s audiences an unprecedented, albeit fanciful view of the inner workings of the human body.  The special effects in Innerspace still hold up remarkably well, thanks to the gooey, three-dimensional creations of Dennis Muren and his team. Compared to the original film, everything looks more organic, less stylized. On the other hand, he attempted to achieve a balance, to avoid things from getting “too grotesque.”

Aside from Hennesy’s contributions, the distinctive look of Fantastic Voyage’s space-age facilities can also be attributed to Jack Martin Smith, who lent his high tech (at least by ‘60s standards) look to such 20th Century Fox productions as Lost in Space, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Batman. For Innerspace, Dante and his team made a deliberate choice to create a more functional, low-tech appearance, or in Muren’s words (from the DVD commentary), “something that was not quite as Hollywood looking.” To lend a bit more veracity to the slap-dash research facility set, Dante used real-life Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientists as extras. The villains’ laboratory, with its white, sterile look, however, seems more consistent with the facility in the original picture.

Apart from the aesthetic choices, both films were thematically divergent, with each reflecting a different era. Fantastic Voyage is a product of the Cold War era, played straight, with its idealistic view of science, views of right and wrong, and “free world” versus communism. Innerspace takes a more cynical stance, and the story is played for laughs. The enemy isn’t communism, but corporate America and capitalism, where closely guarded secrets are sold out to the highest bidder.

Fantastic Voyage and Innerspace feature impressive casts. In the former film, the characters are designed mainly to drive the plot along. Veteran actors Arthur Kennedy, Arthur O’Connell and Edmond O’Brien lend the film gravitas, while Donald Pleasence is engaging as the shifty Dr. Michaels. Raquel Welch* also appears in an early role as Dr. Duval’s plucky assistant Cora. By contrast, Innerspace is much more character-driven, populated by the usual assortment of oddballs that typify Dante’s movies. Dennis Quaid is amusing as the brash, irreverent Navy pilot Tuck Pendleton and Martin Short** (in one of his best film roles) is afforded a rare opportunity to shine as neurotic hero Jack Putter. Kevin McCarthy plays unscrupulous businessman Victor Scrimshaw, who attempts to possess the key to miniaturization. Innerspace also showcases small but fun roles by Dante regulars Dick Miller as a chatty cabdriver, William Schallert* as Jack’s doctor, and  Robert Picardo as the enigmatic arms dealer, The Cowboy.

* Hennesy’s imaginative sets notwithstanding, I’d wager an entire generation of adolescent males learned about human anatomy from a scene in which the other actors pulled off crystalized antibodies that were affixed to Ms. Welch’s wetsuit.

** Watch for a brief scene where Short is joined by fellow SCTV alumni Joe Flaherty and Andrea Martin.

*** As an inside joke, Dante cast Mr. Schallert, who appeared many years before as the physician in The Incredible Shrinking Man.

Over the past several years various filmmakers, including James Cameron and Roland Emmerich, have been attached to a proposed remake of Fantastic Voyage, but not much has moved forward.  A remake would most likely employ gobs of computer-generated effects in 3D, but the most intriguing aspect would be the opportunity to take the material in an entirely different direction. Perhaps one solution could be to go with a retro,* rather than futuristic setting. Another approach might be to reflect current advances in nanotechnology, which would obviate the necessity to shrink anyone, but where’s the fun in that? It’s certainly not as romantic a notion as shrinking people. Personally, I’d rather stick with Innerspace, which remains a perfect counterpoint to the original film. Both films possess the charm of good, old-fashioned pre-CGI practical effects, and whether you’re looking for post-war optimism or post-modern cynicism, you can’t go wrong.  

* According to Jeff Bond, who provided the Fantastic Voyage DVD commentary, the original film concept involved a Jules Verne-inspired adventure, set in the early 1900s. I must confess, the idea of a steampunk re-imagining has some merit.