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Friday, September 22, 2017

Future War


Future War
1997
Anthony Doublin

A nameless man (or as he calls himself, a Tool) (Daniel Bernhart) escapes from a spaceship and lands in Los Angeles. He’s pursued by black clad cyborgs (Robert Z'Dar and Kazja) who use dinosaurs as trackers. He’s nearly run over by Sister Ann (Travis Brooks Stewart), a prospective nun questioning her faith. Ann discovers this man is a slave born from humans captured by aliens a thousand years ago. What’s more, he can quote the bible. If can’t follow that plot, the movie will happily restate it four or five times.

Future War may have many faults, but lack of ambition is not one of them. With a minuscule budget, Future War throws in, spaceships, cyborgs, dinosaurs, a scrappy street gang, kickboxing, and Robert Z’Dar. That is healthy batch of ingredients for any movie. Future War is not just content to throw together some science-fiction action, it is also eager to engage in some dialogue on the nature of God and man or… something.

Aww, adowable.
Out of all the oddities that Future War engages in, the religious angle is perhaps the most curious. We begin with Sister Ann, a character torn between her shady past and accepting her vows as a nun. This works fine, as it gives the character a moral center to act from, some conflict, and a (mostly) believable reason to know gangs, pimps, and gunrunners. The Tool (IMDB lists him as The Runaway, but he constantly refers to himself as a Tool.), shows up and is a character of unquestioning faith. He thinks Earth is heaven, and is seemingly fine with the fact the heaven has no problem letting cyborgs and exploding dinosaurs kill innocent people. It feels like the movie wants to say something profound here about this innocent man coming to Earth to save us all, but failing that, a kickboxing fight in a church will have to suffice.

The real star of the movie are the Trackers, trained dinosaurs that hunt people down at the behest of their cyborg masters. They are created through a combination of some actual good-looking puppets and some terrible looking miniature and forced perspective camera work. The monsters change size from scene to scene, and often do not look like they interacting with human actors at alll. The does not prevent the movie from staging a dinosaur/cyborg/Tool battle that ends with a dead dinosaur falling on an unconscious cyborg only to explode. A C- in execution, but A+ for effort.

"Ugh, I swallowed my gum!"
Robert Z’Dar shows up as a cyborg slaver. For reasons best not explained, all cyborgs have mullets and mustaches. He doesn’t have any lines, but he does get to walk around and making whirring noises a lot. Every slight movement by a cyborg in the film results in a loud whirring sound effect (the same loud whirring sound effect). It turns quite madding by the time the finale comes around. Daniel Bernhardt honestly tries to make the best of his role as the Tool, the dialogue doesn’t help one bit, but he manages to make the character likable enough. As a stage fighter, he's very good, it’s just a shame he spends most of his time either fighting cyborgs who just stand there or dinosaur puppets that are six feet closer to the camera than he is.

Future War is a big goofy mess in the best tradition. It takes a script that would tax a mid-budget Hollywood production and tries to make do with empty cardboard boxes and pallets. It aspires to not only deliver some scares and action, but also make a statement about faith. It fails almost completely, but still manages to entertain. Ed Wood Jr. would be proud.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Miracle Mile


Miracle Mile
1988
Steve De Jarnatt

Harry (Anthony Edwards), is a love-struck trombone player who has finally managed to get a date with Julie (Mare Winningham), a server at Johnie’s in L.A. An electrical fire shuts down power to Harry’s building and he oversleeps for their date. Rushing to the restaurant three hours late, he answers a pay phone. The voice on the other side is terrified and nearly in tears. The voice tells Harry that nuclear missiles are going wipe out everything in just over an hour.

Miracle Mile begins in a calm fashion. It allows the characters and the viewer to idle in the romantic comedy of the first act. Harry has a nerdy self-assured nature that is disarming. Julie is no maiden-in-waiting; she is her own person with her own boundaries. The story skillfully shows us how these characters interact with their world in just a few scenes. Miracle Mile even throws in a cast of quirky characters at Johnie's, the 24-hour restaurant where the plot begins to kick-off. Like the faux romantic comedy opening, this is a ploy to get the viewer to drop their guard. We won’t be seeing much of these people after things get under way.

[Black Friday Joke #55432]
The movie warns us that severe shifts in tone are coming when Harry absentmindedly throws a lit cigarette away. A bird picks it up, and at first we see the comic image of it with a lit cigarette in its beak. We cut away and when we return to the bird, it has lit its own nest on fire. It’s a brilliant multi-functional scene that not only results in a key plot point of Harry oversleeping as the fire knocks out power to the building, but it also serves as a demonstration of the film’s fluid tone and a metaphor for the nuclear annihilation that is coming. Scenes repeatedly escalate with slyly comedic moments building towards unexpected tragedy, and it all tumbling into outright chaos by the end.

Miracle Mile is pretty progressive for 1988, it has a diverse cast of various genders, and races. There are trans and gay characters, and even through their screen time is limited, they are presented as people instead of punchlines. Wilson (Mykelti Williamson), an African-American is first shown as a stereotypical thief, but he is later shown to have an inner emotional life and devotion to his sister that drives him to extremes. Brian Thompson makes an extended cameo as gay Vietnam Vet who is true to his word even to strangers while facing WWIII. It is not all perfect, but for the time-period, it is impressive.

Tangerine Dream create a soundtrack that is urgent, but still gives the action an unreality that suits just how an immense event might feel to those dealing with it on the ground.Between the soundtrack and look of the film, it all comes together as a floating dream of 1980s consumerism and the ever present nightmare of nuclear war.

In case of nuclear attack, apply cookie dough directly to eyes.
At the center, this is a traditional love story, and it is Harry and Julie’s continual search for one another that forms the emotional core of the film. There is a repeated mirroring of their relationship as we see other pairs of characters searching, finding, and more often than not, losing one another. Harry and Julie’s connection carries through even the utter madness at the end of the world. The movie pushes towards the question of whether their love could even transcend the apocalypse.

A question sadly still relevant today.


Friday, September 8, 2017

It's a Doggy Dog World


I thought reviewing a whole summer’s worth of genre movies featuring dogs was going to be relatively easy. My criteria was pretty basic. The movie had to center around a dog or dogs in some fashion. They could be the protagonist or the antagonist, but not just a side character. (Moonwolf (1959)), of course tricked me, almost right out of the gate.) I tried not to select only horror movies, but at the same time, I wanted to avoid Lassie movies and anything churned out by the Air Bud franchise. I also wanted to avoid werewolf movies, since they are their own sub-genre, (Monster Dog (1984) is basically a werewolf movie, but it had ‘Dog’ in the title, so what the heck…).

After sitting through 11 weeks of dog movies, I have come to think that the definitive genre dog movie has yet to be made.

That has not to say they are terrible as a rule, but for a creature that has had such a long and complex relationship with humans, you think there would be more to say in terms of our fears and hopes that are intertwined with them. Perhaps the technical difficulties in working with animals limits what can be done on screen. That said, I am always for actual animals working on the screen with actors, it provides for a reality that can’t be duplicated in green room with dots taped on a stick.

Cujo (1983) comes the closest to fulfilling my notion of an ideal dog genre movie. Cujo as a character is a cherished pet turned killer through no fault of his own. Cujo embodies both the companion and the threat that define dogs throughout our history. There is a certain risk we undertake allowing animals into our home and good horror plays on this. It is interesting to note that out of all of the movies I reviewed over the summer (except Moonwolf… because ugh, that movie), only Rottweiler, (and Monster Dog to a lesser extent) used stray dogs as their villain.

Lucky was by far the most unusual  use of a dog out of this set. The film uses Lucky less as an animal companion and more like the murky subconscious of its main character, this plays on the nature of pet ownership. We provide and shelter these animals in return for their companionship. Through this connection we project upon them aspects of a personality. The pet often serves as the voice for things from our interior lives. Unfortunately, for the people inhabiting the world of Lucky, it is the interior voice of a horrifying killer.

Was it fun watching dog movies all summer? Sure! (Not you, Moonwolf). Yet, at the end of it, I can see there is definitely room for more. This is an untapped sub-genre. Maybe it is held back because there is a stigma attached to animal movies as being strictly kiddie fare, but somewhere out there the next great dog movie is waiting to happen.

Maybe next summer.


Dog Days of Summer 2017:
Moonwolf (1959)
Dogs (1976)
C.H.O.M.P.S. (1979)
Play Dead (1981)
Cujo (1983)
Monster Dog (1984)

Friday, September 1, 2017

Cujo


Cujo
1983
Lewis Teague

Donna Trenton (Dee Wallace) is a bored stay-at-home mom, feeling trapped in her mundane existence with her child, Tad (Danny Pintauro), and her ad executive husband who is often gone for extended periods. She takes up an affair with an old high school flame, but soon regrets her decision and tries to make amends. With her home life starting to crumble around her, she finds herself alone with just her son, a broken down car, and a giant rabid St. Bernard outside her door that would like nothing more than to tear her apart.

Much like the author’s output, Stephen King adaptions vary wildly in quality. His work appears deceptively easy to adapt. The homey well documented lives of his characters, and the sadistic bloodletting of his horror are so smoothly and skillfully rendered that it is easy to picture the events in the mind's eye while reading. It has proven to be far more difficult to translate those images to the screen.

"I WAS TOLD THERE WOULD BE SNAUSAGES!!"
Cujo, is a straightforward narrative. In a way, it parallels the structure of Jaws (1975), with the first half of the film establishing characters and the threat, while the second half becomes an extended siege in an isolated location. In the former, it’s a boat and in Cujo, it is Donna and Tad Trenton boiling in a non-functional Pinto.  The way the plot builds though a series of accidents and coincidence to put the Trentons in that position is surprisingly clever. Watching mother and son drive into a trap completely unaware is not quite up to Hitchcock levels of suspense, but for a killer dog movie, it is positively transcendent.

Dee Wallace is excellent in her role, she gives Donna Trenton a real internal life that shows through her failings and her eventual bravery. She imbues the character a humanity that is often missing from horror movie roles. She is not a quaking mess, or a superhuman ass-kicker, she’s a person put into an extreme situation and if we didn’t care about her plight, the final third of the movie would be a slog.

"No, you can't drive. You don't even how to parallel bark yet."
The other standout role is Cujo (well, the five dogs who played the role), the whole movie hinges on convincing performances from the animal actors. Often dogs just look like they are playing and having fun in roles where they are meant to be threatening, but Cujo is helped immensely by make-up, careful staging and editing. He is a grotesque and sad creation, evoking sympathy just through watching his friendly visage turn bloody and frothy through the course of the film.

Cujo has a lot of talent and decent source material to draw from and it shows. This is both a solid killer dog movie and a solid Stephen King movie. Everyone involved rises to the occasion. If anything, I think this movie might be underrated in the pantheon of King adaptions. Cujo is a taught, well made film that shows a lot of character without sacrificing what makes it a horror movie.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Rottweiler: Dogs of Hell


Rottweiler: Dogs of Hell (aka Dogs of Hell aka Rottweiler)
1982
Worth Keeter III

A pack of military bred Rottweilers is being transported across the country in a truck when an accident sets them free. They head for the small mountain community of Lake Lure. When the locals start turning up dead and very mangled, the sheriff decides his best course of action is to assemble drunk yokels with guns to hunt down whatever is killing people. It doesn’t go very well, as you would expect.

Popular culture seems to favor an evil dog breed du jour. Pitbulls have held the spotlight for some time. Dobermans were the sinister killers for a while, and somewhere in the 1980s Rottweilers enjoyed a brief reign as the public's most frightening kind of dog. Horror is often an expression of popular fears and anxieties, so it’s no surprise that a film would center on a pack of government bred Rottweilers laying siege to a small town. It is the perfect package to deliver on worries of the military, science gone awry, and a breed of dog that was seen as a public menace.

Why no one thought to include mud wrestling
in a 3-D movie prior to this one is a mystery.
Rottweiler: Dogs of Hell is a great example of a film that doesn’t set out to forge a new path, and is more than happy to be a serviceable piece of familiar genre story telling. The movie uses the well-worn Jaws (1975) formula with a sleepy town, put-up authority figures, and slow to react officials. It does mix things up very slightly by having a seemingly sympathetic scientist turn out to be less than kind. It also sets out to replicate the languid pace of Jaws, but takes it too far and never really capitalizes on the building tension until the last twenty minutes or so.

Rottweiler: Dogs of Hell was original filmed for a 3-D presentation, and it has several gratuitous shots with things flying at the camera. The initial dog attacks are mostly off screen with brief glimpses of the aftermath. I worried that the movie was going to pull its punches too much, but as it draws closer to the climax, it indulges in some vicious and brutal attacks. The film even dips ever so slightly into splatter territory; a welcome surprise for something I feared was going to be tepid.

Welcome to Hell... wait... yeah, welcome to Hell.
 Most of the characters, including the lead, Earl Owensby, feel like interchangeable fodder for the dogs. The only one of note is Dr. Adam Fletcher (Bill Gribble), and that is mostly due to his last minute turn from concerned scientist to violent would-be murderer. Even the dogs lack any personality. I doubt anyone went into Rottweiler looking for deep characterization, but it would have been nice to have a character or two to invest the viewer.

Rottweiler: Dogs of Hell is an unassuming yet still fun slice of canine horror. There is nothing earth shaking or amazing about it, but it does offer some solid entertainment and plenty of monstrous dogs doing monstrous things. The real horror here is the slow uneventful trod it takes to get to the good stuff.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Man's Best Friend


Man’s Best Friend
1993
John Lafia

After an opening credit sequence that is strangely evocative of the one from Cheers, we meet Judy (Robin Frates) and Lori (Ally Sheedy), bored employees at a television news show. They are following a lead from a woman who works at a place called EMAX. The lead claims horrifying animal experiments are occurring there. After breaking in, Lori befriends Max, a large canine test subject. She ends up taking Max home after a narrow escape from the lab. Max’s creator Dr. Jarret (Lance Henriksen) hunts for his creation. Max is no ordinary dog, he’s genetically modified and super intelligent. What’s worse, the drug keeping him stable is wearing off and soon he could become an unstoppable killer.

It was a cat in dogsuit all along!
Horror-comedy is a difficult balance to strike, and Man’s Best Friend spends most of its time flailing around looking for a tone. For two-thirds of its length, the movie tries its best to work as a dark comedy by taking commonplace and clich├ęd dog tropes and pushing them just slightly into horror territory. Max doesn’t just bite the mailman, he shakes off a blast of mace, promptly chases the poor guy down and tears his throat out. A chance encounter with a cat results not in only Max climbing a tree after it, but also swallowing it whole. The problem is that none of this is ever particularly funny or frightening. Strangely, if you removed the more overt horror and sex from this film it would not be out of place in the slurry of direct to video animal based kid’s movies that infest Redbox and Netflix.

"I'M NOT SURE WHAT WE'RE LOOKING AT AHHHHH!"
Although gifted with a great cast, Man’s Best Friend does not offer anyone to root for. Max is played as a sympathetic beast to a point, but he’s also a ruthless predator who is happy to kill innocent people and animals.  Ally Sheedy’s Lori is meant to be the central protagonist, but she is sidelined for large portions of the story. By the end, she has little to do but react to the mayhem around her. Lance Henriksen is always a magnetic presence on screen, and his morally compromised scientist is the most interesting of the lot, but ultimately, he is just a cold-hearted villain chasing a dog around with a gun. Even William Sanders makes a brief appearance as a seemingly sympathetic junkyard proprietor who turns out to be an awful animal abuser.

The appearance of the film is unremarkable; it looks like most mid-budget horror films from the early 1990s. The special effects work well enough, save for one embarrassing green screen stunt involving Max leaping between two cars. This isn’t an excessively violent movie. Despite what the cover would have you believe, Max doesn’t sport a Terminator (1984) style endoskeleton beneath his fur, but he does manage to steal a gimmick from Predator (1987).

Man’s Best Friend is watchable, but only just so. It is never funny, gross, or weird enough to catch your attention or demand much reconsideration after the credits have ended.

Friday, August 11, 2017

C.H.O.M.P.S.


C.H.O.M.P.S.
1979
Don Chaffey

Brian Foster (Wesley Eure) works for a security company. He is also dating Casey (Valerie Bertinelli), who happens to be the daughter of his boss, Ralph Norton (Conrad Bain). Brian’s job is on the line after a recent screw-up, so he decides to unveil his latest invention: Canine HOme Protection System or C.H.O.M.P.S. This creation is a small robot that looks just like a dog, but just happens to have super strength, x-ray vision, and a tape player for reproducing goofy cartoon sound effects.

A movie about robot dog seems rife with possibility. Even if you don't feel like wading into musings on the nature of life and free will, there’s plenty of comedy to mine out of a small dog that happens to be a physical powerhouse and a brilliant computer. C.H.O.M.P.S. ignores all of this, and instead endlessly repeats a loop of bungling robbers, silly robot malfunctions, and endless chase scenes set to upbeat 1970’s action news music. C.H.O.M.P.S. was the first and only collaboration between Hanna-Barbera and American International Pictures, and after viewing it, I can see why.

What it feels like to watch this movie.
Comedy films are tough. A horror or science fiction film can fail and succeed on a number of levels and still be watchable. A comedy film has one overarching goal, it needs to be funny, or it becomes a barely watchable slog. The comedy in C.H.O.M.P.S. consists of terrible slapstick and mugging for the camera. It is very mild, even for what is ostensibly a kid's movie. For no explainable reason, the creators of the film decided to spice things up with the interior monologue of a dog named Monster, who is prone to dropping a few curse words once and a while. No other animals talk in the entire film. Monster has zero impact on the plot, and I only assume was inserted at some point to give the movie a PG rating.

If you like notable TV actors then this might be the movie for you, Conrad Bain of Different Strokes fame, Jim Backus from Gilligan’s Island, and Valerie Bertinelli, star of One Day at a Time, all have roles. The acting in the film is relatively good, especially when watching these actors try and bring something to the nonsense plot and unending dearth of comedy throughout its run-time. C.H.O.M.P.S. himself isn’t called on to do much more than run and occasionally jump on someone. The dog doesn’t have much charisma on screen, but he hits his marks and does what he is supposed to with a minimum of fuss.

Must be running on Windows 10
The film briefly mentions C.H.O.M.P.S. as not having any real affection or emotions. This element is entirely forgotten for the rest of the story until the end, when it is brought up again for one "heartfelt"scene. This is promptly dropped by the time the final wacky wrap-up gives way to the credits.

I have no way to show C.H.O.M.P.S. any affection because it doesn’t deserve any. It’s a middling, unfunny, ramshackle mess of a movie. C.H.O.M.P.S. needs to be euthanized and thrown in the recycling bin.