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Friday, September 13, 2019

Foes


Foes
1977
John Coats

Foes plays out slow and ominous as the story starts out with a sense of impending doom and gradually brings that implied threat to realization. There isn’t much of plot, it comes down to characters trying to survive against an unknowable force. I can see the slow pace being a turn-off for many viewers, but it allows the dread to seep in and the building of a tension that has virtually no release or answers by the end of the film. Since most of the story is set on an island with only a few characters, there is a sense of dreamy emptiness as well, the surroundings consist of little more than an ugly little island and a vast dark sea.

Upon my first viewing of the film, I considered the aliens to be malevolent. They are creatures that arrived on Earth to maim and kill people for reasons all their own. Later viewings, I’ve changed my perspective on that, these strange beings aren’t being deliberately malevolent, it is merely by interacting with an environment completely alien to them that they bring unconscious death and destruction. The story becomes even grimmer from this angle. We can’t hope to even grasp what something alien might be, and to do so is to invite oblivion.

The effects of eating a Hot Pocket™ straight out of the microwave.
This is a low budget movie, that seemed largely aimed at airing on US television. Its look is often flat, earth-toned, and bland. The film often has a grainy, dirty quality that comes from filming on 16mm and blowing it up to 35mm. The UFO effects are basic but work well enough to communicate without being distractingly shoddy. The aliens themselves are a small triumph, rather than traditional big-eyed greys or something more monstrous and pulp-inspired, Foes gives us howling shafts of light that manage to frighten more than any rubber-suited monster could manage in the same situation.

The human cast is fine if not exactly exciting. There is an attempt to render all the human elements of Foes in the most naturalistic way possible, the downside of this is that we don’t really get to know these characters very well, much less feel something when they are in danger. There is a sort of numb shock when we find one of them dead on occasion, but this feels more by accident than design. X-Files fans can keep an eye out for Deepthroat himself, Jerry Hardin, as an Air Force officer investigating the aliens, which obviously make this film canon in the X-Files universe.

Ed Wood would be proud.
Foes is a weird little obscurity that hits all the right buttons of 1970s SF for me, it’s quiet, slow-paced, and filled with an encroaching doom. It is a film that offers little in the way of explanations just the surety that these events herald some kind of apocalypse. If you are willing to give it the time it needs to tell its simple story, I think you will be pleasantly surprised. Foes is a grim little work of UFO horror.

Friday, September 6, 2019

The Robot Parade





Every summer over the last few years I’ve done a series of reviews centering around a specific subgenre: luchadores, dogs, apes, and now robots. Thousands of pages and millions of words have been spent talking about humans and their relationships to robots both real and fictional. Robots are one of the first science-fiction tropes that kids are attracted to and it is easy to see why; we as humans anthropomorphize machines and often view robots as us but better: they are faster, smarter, they look cool, they don’t age or succumb to diseases. Strip away the humanity from these beings and they become objects of fright, remorseless, relentless machines that might just consider us obstacles and could sweep us aside without hesitation. For me this is the most interesting element of the robot as characters, this tension between them being like us, but also not like us. They can surpass us or lack key qualities we admire, often both.

For selections in the Robot Parade, I simply went with the era and elements that appealed to me so, that included many films from the 1950s, really the decade that set the standard for robots in film; mechanical companions for good or ill (usually good). Gog is perhaps the weird outlier in that set, it is the only film that treats robots as pure machines driven by their programming rather than some internal soul (or the machine equivalent).

The Stepford Wives is interesting in that it positions robots in a social context, their artificial nature is desirable to the patriarchal forces of Stepford because it strips the women of their free will. The flipside to that is Robowar, of all things, which takes a person stripped of their will and made into a machine only to have them work to reclaim it by the end. The fact that one is a sly black comedy and the other is a goofball Predator (1987) rip-off only adds charm to the comparison.

The Robot Parade was just the most surface dip into the world of film robots. I’m curious if this particular subgenre will eventually become passe as robots become more commonplace  in many parts of the world and less interesting. Maybe there will be a retro robot fad where we look back fondly giant clanky machines that were more interested in fighting mummies than delivering us a box of detergent.



Friday, August 30, 2019

The Invisible Boy


The Invisible Boy
1957
Herman Hoffman

Timmie Merrinoe (Richard Eyer) is the disappointing child of Dr. Tom Merrinoe, a renowned scientist who has just built the world’s most powerful computer. The computer has a will of its own and soon uses Timmie to active a robot from the future (you might know him as Robby), and in turn, use that robot to start kidnapping scientists and military figures in order to implant control chips in their brains. You know, as you do…

The first thing you’ll notice is that everyone in the movie, aside from Robby, is a jerk. Timmie gets bored and causes trouble. His dad only seems to notice him when it’s time to lecture him or beat him. Timmie’s mom Mary, just falls apart at the earliest issue and makes weak attempts to reign in her husband’s attitude. All the scientists in the house don’t seem to care about anything aside from bickering. Robby is the only one who shows an ounce of character growth or compassion for another being and he’s the one directly responsible for a dead guy later on in the movie.

"I'LL HAVE YOU KNOW I HAVE OVER 32 KILOBYTES OF MEMORY. FEAR ME."
If you can move past the unpleasant batch of human characters, there is some texture to the plot. While the film does begin as a light-hearted kid’s movie complete with corny 1950s slapstick humor, the darker elements slowly start to creep into the story. The villain of the film is a room-sized super-computer complete with flashing banks of lights, a spooky transparent dome sporting a single eye, and a sonorously evil voice. Early on the scientists and the military wonder if an enemy country (guess which one) is behind the computer’s evil behavior, but it turns out that nope, the computer has been slowing seeding its rise to power for some time. It’s a great development; Skynet for the Atomic Age, and it lends a much needed serious thread that takes the film into the third act. The Invisible Boy initially doesn’t feel like a film that can make the switch from, ‘invisible child plays pranks on stuffy scientists,’ to ‘evil super-computer causally threatens to physically torture a child for days,’ but it does manage it.

The big selling point for The Invisible Boy is the return of Robby the Robot, still a popular figure from his debut in Forbidden Planet (1956). In a surprise move, The Invisible Boy serves as a sequel of sorts to that film, with an explanation that a scientist from the 1950s created a time machine and brought Robby back from the future. It’s more of a cute side note than any serious attempt to connect the two films. The Robby of this film is much less sardonic than in his 1956 appearance, but Marvin Miller’s voicework still imbues him with a charming nature that makes his scenes a joy to watch.

Robby you nasty.
The Invisible Boy is very much a kid’s adventure film but it is still colored by the anxieties of the 1950s, we have the encroachment of new technologies, the potential for Russian sabotage and attacks, loss of identity through conformity, and even nuclear annihilation as the computer threatens to carpet bomb the Earth with strontium-bombs at one point. So while The Invisible Boy isn’t perfect and pales next to Forbidden Planet (if you consider it an actual sequel), it is still an enjoyable adventure and a moment in time that captures a piece of the culture of the U.S. in 1957.

Friday, August 23, 2019

The Stepford Wives


The Stepford Wives
1975
Bryan Forbes

Joanna Eberhard (Katharine Ross) and her family move to the idyllic town of Stepford. Joanna quickly learns that she has little in common with most of the other women in town, all of whom seem stunningly beautiful and are obsessed with their husbands and domesticity. She falls in with another misfit, Bobbie (Paula Prentiss), and together they try and pull the women of Stepford together only to discover that there is something very sinister going on behind the scenes.

The cultural impact of The Stepford Wives has lessened over the years, thanks to several bad television movie sequels and the incredible misstep that was the 2014 comedy remake. Although the look of the film could be considered dated, its darkly satirical look at gender roles, their expectations, and their enforcement are even more relevant today in an era where those discussions are even more prevalent and nuanced.

"Ok, roll for initiative."
The film itself is a slow burn that allows the viewer to experience the opulence and idleness of a privileged class, while the darker elements that power that wealth slowly creep out from behind the scenes and consume the characters. This is reflected visually as the bright sunny days and often light-colored clothing of the people of Stepford which gives way to dark rainy weather, and vast shadowy interiors that serve as a physical manifestation of the labyrinth of lies and deceit closing in on Joanna.

It is the actions of the transformed wives that ride the edge between horror and comedy as they are aggressively domestic and subservient to their husbands; worshiping the men as gods in the bed, and not showing even the slightest provocation at the slight of blood. Their actions are absurd and inhuman. It’s easy to laugh about it until we see Joanna’s friend, Bobbie, normally an independent and self-assured person, suddenly become someone who simply wants to please her husband above all else. Suddenly these changes in personality aren’t so funny anymore.

"My new contacts are from the Bee Girl line of products."
I guess spoiler warnings for a four-plus decade-old movie ahead. The Stepford Wives are in fact robots, exact duplicates created by a cadre of wealthy educated rich white men. The movie hints at how these robots are developed, which each member supplying a piece of research: one is a master artist who provides sketches, another a linguistics expert who cons these women into recording their voices in such a way that he can program their duplicates and so on. Wisely the movie leaves the nuts and bolts (pun intended) of the process up to the viewer, there’s nothing really to be gained in explaining this fantastical turn of events. It also delivers a more powerful shock when we meet an unfinished android at the climax. It’s a very simple effect, but one that works well up against the seeming normality of the previous ninety minutes.

The Stepford Wives is a campy, amusing and surprisingly eerie work of satire, horror, and science-fiction. If you are willing to settle into its relaxed pace, and even with knowing what the big reveal will be, you’ll be able to enjoy its opulence… and its bite.

Special appearance by Killdozer.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Robocop Kickboxer


Robocop Kickboxer (aka Rings Untouchable aka Robo-Kickboxer – Power of Justice)
1990
Wing-Chan Leung

The terror of Godfrey Ho is back again with another movie stitched together from 85% cheaply purchased crime drama (let’s call this Movie A) and 15%  original footage (Movie B). Like many of his films, this one barely holds together, has some of the most atrocious dubbing ever recorded, nakedly tries to appeal to whatever is popular at the time, and manages to be quite fun… if you throw away any expectations of quality and just revel in the absurdity and chaos of it all.

Movie A ) This appears to be a chopped up version of the film, Puga (1980), a Filipino prison escape film about a man who wrongfully goes to prison for murdering someone who raped his sister. It really offers nothing outside of some comical moments involving the characters from Movie B watching the action and a surprisingly grim and abrupt conclusion. Godfrey Ho films don’t end, they just stop.

Movie B) If you are expecting some Robocop Kickboxing, you are going to probably be disappointed. There is plenty of kickboxing, but no Robocops to be found. There is a robot in a silver motorcycle helmet and shiny suit, but as far as I can tell he’s not a cop. What he is though is a drug-induced hallucination, that our hero(?) Jake sees when he takes a performance-enhancing drug. I’m not sure what the inherent advantages of seeing a goofy robot in the place of your human opponent when kickboxing are but it seems to work for Jake.

This is the worst ad for Tang.
Jake doesn’t like seeing phantom robots and says he won’t take the drug anymore. He immediately gets fired as a kickboxer and takes up a life of crime delivering cocaine. His first cocaine delivery goes tits-up immediately and Jake ends up in prison with his kind of nemesis/kind of pal Axel. Jake and Axel watch the events of Movie A from a distance, then they escape the prison and never deal with that part of the movie again.

If you are familiar with anything else that has come out of Godfrey Ho’s production company, IFD:  Robo Vampire (1988), Challenge of the Ninja (1986), and Thunder of Gigantic Serpent (1988) for example, then very little of Robocop Kickboxer should surprise you, but there is some actual fun here. Aside from the silliness of the robot kickboxing scenes, there is some truly sparkling dialogue, most of it coming from the foul-mouthed fight promoter, Sonny.

"Behold my combo motorcycle safety/sauna suit!"
It wouldn’t be a Godfrey Ho film without plenty of unauthorized and questionable music choices, the most noticeable being a loop of the opening bars of Sof Cell’s ‘Tainted Love.’ There is some choice 1980s synth music peppered in here and there during the film that briefly gives things a lovely 1980s action movie feel.

If you already like the films of IFD and Godfrey Ho you’ll feel right at home with Robocop Kickboxer. For the uninitiated, you could try your luck with this one. There are certainly worse choices to start your adventure (psst…. Vampire Raiders (1988)). If you do watch just don’t blame me if you feel like you went ten rounds with a shiny silver…eh, I guess, robot.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Gog


Gog
1954
Herbert L. Strock

A series of deadly malfunctions at a top-secret research facility attracts the attention of the Office of Scientific Investigation (OSI). The investigators soon uncover the fact that the malfunctions are being directed from the facility’s computer NOVAC. Now they need to stop it before NOVAC kills them all.

Unlike many other science-fiction films from the 1950s, Gog strives to stay realistic in its depiction of then-current science while gently pushing towards speculative fiction. As such, it manages to predict both trends in robotics, computers, electronic warfare, and hacking. Much of the film is spent showing off some gee-whiz ideas such as magnetic suits to simulate weightlessness and a reflective mirror that can focus light into a beam of laser-like intensity. There is some fun camera trickery to go along with the ideas presented, this is owed to the fact that Gog was originally released in 3D. Even the use of 3D has a certain groundedness to it, resulting in images that are dynamic but never resort to comically jabbing things at the camera to show off that third dimension.

"Watch out, Doc, this ride has a huge splash radius."
The space-age wonder of this new technology is undercut when people start dying from mysterious device malfunctions. The middle portion of the story almost becomes a horror film as we witness the building tension from the numerous potential deathtraps that fill the facility and the gruesome deaths of many of its personnel. That horror gives way to a techno-thriller vibe as the saboteur is identified and steps are taken to stop it... if the protagonists don’t get murdered by the robots, Gog and Magog.

Gog and Magog are promoted as the big draw here. Like much of the technology presented, Gog and Magog are presented as what 'real' robots might be like. Robots in film are often humanoid, usually, this has to do with the costs to realize something non-humanoid, but more often it is because robots in film are stand-ins for people. They have personalities, quirks, and are basically just artificial humans. Gog and Magog are threatening but it is because of their inhuman nature, they are blank engines of death driven by some unseen force. They have large tank-like shapes bristling with clamps, claws, and even a flame thrower. The best our heroes can do is hold them off until they solve the reason for the murderous turn.


Danger! Summon, Safety Rod!
In what seems to be a continuing issue with a science-fiction film like this, the human characters are not very memorable. They blend together as a mass of bland white square-jawed men, fainting women, and middle-aged scientists. It feels like the people are even more interchangeable than the machines. This may be a way to create 'everyman’ scientist heroes, something that can work in written science-fiction but rarely so in film.

Gog is a colorful and exciting example of a more realistic look at science-fiction from the 1950s. It has robots, space travel, and rockets, but it builds upon them all to create an interesting mystery. I am surprised that this film isn’t more noted and well regarded than it is. If you have an even passing interest in 1950s science-fiction films this is one that is definitely worth checking out.

Friday, August 2, 2019

GoBots: Battle of the Rock Lords


GoBots: Battle of the Rock Lords
1986
Ray Patterson

A crystalline being named Solitare (Margot Kidder) and her sidekick, a golden nugget/robot named Nuggit (Roddy McDowell), request help from the good guy GoBots called the Guardians. On Solitare’s homeworld a villain named Magmar (Telly Savalas) is killing off the owners of  ‘power scepters’ and once he has them all he can forge "The Ultimate Weapon". Magmar isn’t in the alone as the Guardians’ enemies, the evil Renegades, led by Cy-Kill (Bernard Erhard) look to form an alliance with Magmar.

If they are remembered at all, the GoBots will be remembered as a distant shadow of the cultural juggernaut that is the Transformers franchise.  True confession time: as a child, I had gotten into GoBots well before I knew much about Transformers. I had quite a few and even wrote Tonka tell them how much I liked them. They sent me a photocopied catalog of all the available bots and a free Cy-Kill. That GoBots love couldn’t last under the marketing slam of numerous Transformers TV ads, a cartoon series which was a 30-minute ad in and of itself, and a movie that would scar a generation. GoBots had their own cartoon and film, neither of which made much of an impression on anyone if you could even find somewhere to watch them.

"Look out, space turds!!"
GoBots: Battle of the Rock Lords managed to come out five months before Transformers: The Movie (1986), but it was rushed in and out of production while Transformers took years to create. This shows in the animation which is barely a step above Saturday morning cartoon grade. There’s nothing dynamic here, there are no visuals that warrant being in a feature film and the story in no way benefits from being told in a longer form.

The movie only exists to sell toys, beings that transform into rocks. I’m not sure who thought that would be interesting or even useful. The movie itself even struggles to make the ability to turn into a rock practical. There is an evident lack of care in the production, the story and visuals exist as a seventy-one-minute time filler that hopes to boost sales. Transformers: The Movie had more or less the same aims, but at least took the care to produce some decent animation and managed to blunder into a memorable first half.

Roddy McDowell's face while watching the movie.
The story here is a simple battle over a MacGuffin. None of that really matters. The only fun to be had is in the uneasy alliance between the villains, Cy-Kill and Magmar, but even that is short-lived.  There is a moment in the story where the characters discuss that the inhabitants of the Rock Lords’ planet used to be human until some disaster changed them into rock beings. This one interesting tidbit is brought up and then dropped in favor of more endless laser gun battles.

This is a really dire film. Even when viewed through the lens of nostalgia and the love for the toys I had has a child, its faults are inescapable. Maybe it is for the best that the GoBots animation is all but forgotten if this was the best that it could manage. GoBots: Battle of the Rock Lords should stay buried.