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Friday, May 17, 2019

Karate Rock


Karate Rock (aka Il ragazzo delle mani d'acciaio)
1990
Fabrizio De Angelis

Just a year after Karate Kid III (1989) underwhelmed everyone, Italian director Fabrizio De Angelis released a movie that takes the same basic premise of the original Karate Kid (1984) stripped of  anything heartfelt or interesting and gave it into the world as Karate Rock. While the drama and the action completely fall flat, there some tremendously odd touches that occur during the course of the film that warrant at least a cursory viewing while you are folding laundry or waiting for the bus to finally show up.

Kevin Foster (Antonio Sabato Jr.) is a troublemaker and his dad, John (David Warbeck), is a cop who’s had enough of it. John dumps Kevin off on his friend (and martial arts master) Billy (Robert Chan). Kevin runs afoul of the local bully (and karate champion), Jeff (Andrew J. Parker) after winning a dance contest with Jeff’s recent ex-girlfriend, Kim (Natalie Hendrix). Kevin ignores the advances of his nerdy next door neighbor, Conny (Doran D. Field) while being challenged to car races and getting beat downs from Jeff. Kevin turns to Billy in hopes that he can teach him how to fight and defeat Jeff once and for all.

The only defense against atomic sit-ups.
You’ve seen the story of an outsider facing off against intolerant townies and their own lack of discipline a hundred times before, Karate Rock offers very little that is fresh or even engaging. The biggest flaw is that the martial arts, arguably the reason you’d ever pick this movie up, is weakly performed and filmed. To make matters worse, the entire journey of Kevin from dope to karate machine is crammed into the third act making it feel rushed. Perhaps this was a small favor on the part of the director seeing as the action is so bland.

Karate Rock does give us some goofy gems along the way: A side character who’s entire existence seems to be to eat ice cream cones and carry a dog around, two punks brought in by the cops for playing their trumpets late at night, and most notably, Kevin training while wearing a foam Jason Vorhees mask and smashing his face against a heavy bag repeatedly. None of this is enough to save the movie or even push it over into becoming enjoyably terrible.

"Who's king of the strip mall now, punk?"
If Karate Rock has one legitimately interesting it moment it comes at the very end; Kevin whups Jeff in a final karate battle (surprise), and not only defeats him but beats him badly and breaks his arm. Other movies might have their main character show some compassion for their foe or regret about the violence, Kevin mocks Jeff, practically spits on his prone body. Kevin becomes the bully. A smarter script could have build up to this moment and made it into a dark dramatic beat, but Karate Rock isn’t interested in anything more than getting from the finale to credits as quickly and cheaply as possible.

Out of 90 minutes, Karate Rock has about 20 seconds worth your direct attention, use your time wisely, I sure didn't.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Rock and Rule



1983
Clive A. Smith

Prior to anime becoming mainstream in Western culture, there was a serious dearth of so-called ‘adult-animation.’ With the advent of underground comix in the 1960s and Heavy Metal magazine appearing on North American shelves in 1977, a flavor of more adult (not necessarily more mature) graphic fiction became popular. Ralph Bakshi brought the sensibilities of comix into the animated form and Heavy Metal spawned an animated film in 1980. Darker tales in western animation never caught on in the way Japanese animation would eventually succeed at, but that didn’t stop the occasional attempt. Enter Rock and Rule, a film that attempts a darker story without the excesses of Heavy Metal.

An opening text explains that the story begins post World War III with mutated street animals now the dominant life-form. Rock and roll superstar Mok (Don Francks) is searching for a voice that will form part of a key. That key will unlock the door to another dimension and allow a being to come through that will grant him unlimited power. The voice in question belongs to Angel (Susan Roman), singer and keyboardist of a garage band. Mok kidnaps Angel and takes her Nuke York, leaving her bandmates Omar (Paul Le Mat, ),  Dizzy (Dan Hennessey), and Stretch (Greg Duffell) to try and rescue her.

Typical Canadians.
The story itself is very simple, but I don’t see that as a flaw. In terms of world-building, there is a lot to take in here, so keeping the story sparse keeps things from feeling too rushed. The story flirts with death, sex, and drugs but it never crosses over into anything beyond a PG rating. It is interesting to note that in the American cut actually makes the end slightly darker than the original Canadian edit, usually it seems the opposite would be true.

Rock and Rule features some beautiful hand-drawn animation. There is an expressive rubberiness that computer-based animation can rarely ever replicate. The animation is usually very fluid and there are some good looking rotoscoped character moments. The camera is constantly moving through and around its environment. The large scale painted background plates show some impressive design work. The character designs are more of a mixed bag, for every really wonderful looking character (Mok), there is a truly awkward one (Omar).

"Don't laugh this is only way I can achieve an erection."
For a film about music,  the sound editing and design are not as successful. Most of the musical numbers are best, acceptable. The notable standouts being Lou Reed’s, “Mok,” and Earth, Wind, and Fire’s, “Dance Dance Dance.” The dialogue feels disjointed, it often seems like characters aren’t really interacting with each other, much of this is due to Omar’s voice actor being replaced and his dialog changed which creates odd pauses here and there.

It might sound like I am being unkind to this film, but most of these issues are quirks rather than flaws. They don’t detract from the film so much as give it a texture and a personality that reminds the viewer that there were human hands behind its creation. Rock and Rule is a weird little piece of cult animation that offers such a unique experience and an interesting snapshot of where animation, music, and pop-culture were in 1983 that is very much worth your time checking out.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Dark Universe


Dark Universe
1993
Steve Latshaw

The plot of Dark Universe feels straight out of the 1950s as astronaut Steve Thomas (Steve Barkett), flies through a cloud of spores on re-entry which transforms him into a giant monster. His shuttle crashes somewhere in the swamps of Florida. This company behind his mission and some scientists head into the area to try and discover what happened to him. Not only have the spores made Steve into a discount xenomorph, but they are also turning the local wildlife into orange-blooded monsters as well. All the stands between us and world domination is a simple flare gun and some swamp gas.

Dark Universe approaches the platonic ideal of what a low-budget 1990s direct-to-video movie should be; It pulls its story and visuals from more well-known larger budgeted movies (in this case The Thing (1982), Aliens (1986), and Predator (1987), it throws in a few action beats as well as some gratuitous nudity, and then liberally coats the whole thing with some humor. The end result is a fun time-waster that you’ll probably forget all about before the credits finish rolling. I can personally attest to this as I seem to continually revisit it and barely remember anything except some mild enjoyment.

Yes, that's how a normal person shoots a gun...
Nearly every actor in the movie seems to be aware that they are making a silly monsterfest and hams it up accordingly. Joe Estevez is the notable exception as he attempts to give a heartfelt speech that is supposed to resonate with the mutated astronaut. The speech itself feels like it was cribbed from the end of It Conquered the World (1956). My personal favorite of the protagonists is Frank Norris (John Maynard), who manages to portray the perfect cliché clueless scientist and meets a fitting end.

The special effects are not top notch but I think they are more than acceptable for a tiny-budgeted film whose a sole purpose to was to get a couple of bucks out of people at a rental store. The big slimy alien is an obvious Geiger rip-off, but it’s general shape and size makes me wonder if it is, in fact, a redressed dinosaur that showed up in Carnosaur ( 1993) and Dinosaur Island (1994). You don’t just get a giant alien in this film, there are also some dried corpses, and exploding neck, and even a mutant armadillo that just loves to interrupt sexy times. These little moments add some variety to what could have been yet another movie consisting of people stumbling around outside and getting picked-off one-by-one by some unseen menace.

"This is what I think of your so-called Earth copyright laws!"

Among the glut of Alien/Predator/The Thing rip-offs, Dark Universe doesn’t offer many surprises, but if you’re looking for something predictably silly and completely of its era then this movie really does deliver. Dark Universe is the kind of movie you can half pay attention to while you are eating pizza with your friends, occasionally stopping to note the boobs and gore, and in that regard, it is a masterpiece.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Droid Gunner


Droid Gunner (aka Phoenix 2 aka Cyber Zone)
1995
Fred Olen Ray

After a devastating earthquake and a global war, androids are now illegal on Earth. It just so happens that four pleasure models have been smuggled into New Angles. Jack Ford (Marc Singer), The Droid Gunner, has been hired to find them and bring them back. His boss assigns him an assistant, Beth (Rochelle Swanson) to keep an eye on him and make sure he does his job. He’s not happy about that, but he’s even less happy when he uncovers a conspiracy led a New Angles business leader.

Droid Gunner is tasked with a delicate balancing act of trying to be a) a low-budget action/SF movie and b) a tongue-in-cheek goof on Blade Runner (1982). To its credit, the movie performs this genre high-wire act pretty well. It helps that the movie is a lightweight affair and knows when to toss in copious amounts of nudity if things threaten to become dull. Droid Gunner even manages to create a few character moments that are surprising.

A romance for the ages.
Marc Singer of Beastmaster (1982) fame has a lot of fun as the deadpan Jack Ford. He gets to strut around, get in fist fights with a budget-minded Terminator, shoot a helicopter out of the sky with a revolver, and generally be gruff and sarcastic to everyone. In true film noir tradition, Jack is on the receiving end of a quite a few beatings. Jack's companion Beth, takes the fish-out-of-water role of a sheltered corporate drone thrown into a violent cartoon hellscape, she's made to suffer some indignities but the movie never really indulges in anything too grotesque. Beth does seems pretty game to throw herself in ridiculous situations such as impersonating a sex droid. The most interesting turn comes from Hawks (Matthias Hues), who initially comes across as a potential adversary, but ends up joining Jack and Beth on their mission to return the smuggled androids. This turns the third act into more of a buddy action film and Droid Gunner is better for it, Singer and Hues have fun chemistry.

For a movie about androids and future cities, there is very little in terms of special effects. There is some spaceship battle footage that has been endlessly recycled from various Corman productions, and a robot suit from Fred Olen Ray’s Starhunter (1996). Brinke Stevens makes a delightful appearance in some mutant cat-human make-up (and not much else). I understand budget limitations and using what you can to make a low-budget film work, but I would have appreciated just a little more android action.

Siouxsie and the Pussycats
Droid Gunner sets out to be a weightless time-filler with some humor, action, and sex. It achieves all three of these goals admirably and manages to do so with a zippy pace that never slows down long enough to drag. There are better Blade Runner rip-offs out there, but there are none more fun than Droid Gunner.  No other movie could get away with a line like, “I get sexual pleasures by having women follow me single file down the hallway.”

Friday, April 19, 2019

Mole Men Against the Son of Hercules


Mole Men Against the Son of Hercules
1961
Antonio Leonviola

The Son of Hercules... I mean Maciste (Mark Forest) is fishing (and catches a whale), he is asked to save a Princess (Raffaella Carrà). After freeing another strongman named Bangor (Paul Wynter) they discover that the princess has been caught by the Mole Men, a group of white-skinned cave dwellers who will die if exposed to the sun. Maciste comes up with the brilliant plan to let themselves get captured and taken underground.The Mole Men queen, Halis Mosab (Moira Orfiel) quickly takes a liking to Maciste and offers to make him her king…

Although there is some fun to be had at the beginning, once Maciste and crew are captured and taken underground there just isn’t a lot for the movie to do. We get a lot of escaping and capturing, some torture and executions, but it all takes place in cramped caves among waves of identical looking villains. One of the big strengths of peplum films is their spectacle, and there isn't much of that here. This movie attempts to go over-the-top during the climax but it feels too late to save such a sluggish story. There is also the inevitable love story (or two) but nothing that manages to generate much interest.

He wanted his forehead to look really surprised.
Although the movie does liven-up considerably during the climax everything feels very rushed. There is a mass jailbreak that leads to a lot of running around the caves. Maciste is pushing a giant wheel that does… something? Eventually, he and Bangor use the wheel and some chains to bring the whole Mole Man kingdom crashing down, but the fate of the Mole Men is never addressed. Just when the story seems to be wrapping up, someone walks off a cliff in a scene that is supposed to be tragic but heads straight into bathos.

One place where Mole Men Against the Son of Hercules does succeed is in the goofy costume department. The Mole Men are outfitted with white skin, gold eye-masks complete with horns, and 1980s-worthy feathered hair. The cult leader Kahab (Enrico Glori) sports a huge hat complete with giant eyes on the front. Maciste and his pal Bangor are probably wearing more body oil than actual clothing, but I suppose that is to be expected in a muscle man movie.

Chests greased and ready for action.
A number of actors have stepped into the role of Maciste since 1914, so how does Mark Forest stack up against the rest? He’s affable without being arrogant. He does manage to give a virtually indestructible hero just a little bit of a vulnerable edge, or least as much as you can within the limited confines of this subgenre. His companion Bangor is more problematic, he’s black and portrayed as plenty dumb and eager to serve Maciste. He does, however, have a much more compelling romance subplot that is given almost equal weight to Queen Mosab's love triangle.

There are certainly better peplum films out there. I suppose if you have exhausted all the more obvious choices (Hercules (1957), Hercules in the Haunted World (1961), Hercules (1983) to name a few), Mole Men Against the Son of Hercules isn’t an awful choice, it’s just an aggressively mediocre one.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Girl Gang


Girl Gang
1954
Robert C. Dertano

Juvenile Delinquency/Drug Scare films are interesting in that on the surface they have an agenda to frighten viewers straight. Nominally they exist as morality tales about indulging in vices and the inescapable doom that awaits anyone who even takes a single puff of weed or considers having sex outside of marriage. Often these films use that veneer of social responsibility to engage in some delightful sleaze that they almost certainly would not have gotten away with had they not used that cover of respectability.

Joe (Timothy Farrell) is a pusher who commands a gang of young girls to steal cars and corrupt the youth of America. Joe’s girlfriend June (Joanne Arnold) gives heroin a try and apparently likes it. She also manages to bring in two fresh-faced kids, Bill (Ray Morton) and Wanda (Mary Lou O’Connor) to try some reefer. Soon everyone is doing drugs, having sex, and starting to attract the attention of the police.

"Gosh, I sure do like drugs."
Girl Gang promises a band of young women in angora sweaters and bobby socks pistol-whipping middle-aged men and stealing their woodies. For the first few minutes, the movie provides exactly that, but before too long, the gang leaves and we are stuck with Joe. Joe has to be the most upfront pusher and pimp of all time, he more or less tells every teenager that wanders into his den that they are going to like reefer so much they are going to try heroin and get hooked. The film also serves as step-by-step instructions on how to shoot up heroin, which probably wasn’t the goal of the filmmakers, but I can’t say that for sure.

Girl Gang chugs along with a virtually plotless series of people getting high, making out, and more people getting high and making out. There are some charmingly silly moments; initiation into the gang requires a prospective member to have sex with five men in a room (not all at the same time, it's not quite that sleazy) which comes equipped with a flashing light bulb above to door to let everyone know what is happening in there. There are also some tortuous moments such as an endless jazz piano scene that signals the film is beginning to run out steam completely. The climax of the film involves an overly complicated gas station robbery that feels legitimate because it is exactly the kind of unworkable plan that a bunch of really high people might think was brilliant. I suppose putting on masks and pointing a gun at the attendant was too simple.

"I'll trade you those stockings for this heroin."
Girl Gang’s biggest issue is the fact that most of the characters are flat and uninteresting. June is a dud, Wanda is introduced late and virtually does nothing the entire film. Girl Gang just feels like an unfocused parade of drugs and a little bit of sex. Perhaps that is the point, what we have here is a primitive attempt to show the aimless life of people caught in a web of crime and bad habits that only serves to drive them to their own deaths or into the hands of a cruel legal system.

I suppose it depends on what you’ve been smoking.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Starfish


Starfish
2018
A.T. White

Aubrey (Virginia Gardner) has just lost her best friend, Grace (Christina Masterson) to cancer. She breaks into her friend’s apartment, sleeps in their bed and feeds her jellyfish. When Aubrey awakens, the power has gone out and the town is covered in snow. Monsters and monoliths lurk outside. Aubrey finds a mixtape from her friend explaining that something has gone wrong and now it is up to Aubrey to find seven tapes with a hidden signal to put things right. Aubrey must confront her own despair and guilt in a way she never expected as she hunts around town for the hidden tapes.

Starfish isn’t a linear story, because grief isn’t linear. It moves and flows with a will of its own. When you think you’ve moved past your grief it can come rushing back unbidden. Starfish works this way as well, it is awash in moments of isolation and melancholy that can suddenly give way to terror and on a few occasions some humor. The story is not aimless though, Aubrey has a goal and moves towards it, even if she and the audience don’t always understand what that goal is or how to achieve it. As is the experience of grief, the only way out is to keep moving in a direction, any direction.

The only effective cure for hay fever.
The film was reportedly made for less than a million dollars, but you would never be able to tell that from the look of it. The pristine look of the snow covered exteriors, the often formally structured shots, and even the CGI monsters, floating objects, and mysterious translucent domes all look spectacular. There is a coldness (beyond just the snow) and a distance to much of the imagery. Aubrey is often isolated in a shot, even when the few other characters are in a scene with her. Her isolation and dissociation become apparent long before another character points it out to her.

The mixtapes and music form the core of the experience of Starfish, songs create their own vignettes from shopping to wandering different environments such as an animated chase scene. The film even falls back on itself in a self-reflective fourth wall break that embodies visually a moment of total dissociation from the self. The final bleak moments of Starfish are astonishingly beautiful.

Wanna hear my Wolf Eyes, Wolves in the Throne Room, Wolfmother, mixtape?
A film as personal as Starfish can certainly lead to several interpretations, and even those can change over time. It is a film that haunts the mind in the same ways that grief will do. The science-fiction and horror elements aren’t merely set dressing over a standard drama, they are integral to unhooking the drama from reality and letting it drift towards the strange spaces that the film wants to explore. It made me reflect upon my own experience with grief and loss, and it also touched upon my love of cosmic horror. A brilliant film and I look forward to seeing more from A.T. White.