Tuesday, June 28, 2016

ALIENS VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM


We take you now to the executive offices of 20th Century Fox film studios. The date is early 2007. The following is a transcript of a conversation between two high level studio execs, Chuck Roast and Bill Fold.

Chuck: Bill, good to see you again baby. How was your flight out? Can I get you anything? Water? Some white? A nosh? You really should try this brie. It's fantastic.

Bill: No thanks, I'm good. The flight was fine thanks for asking. That new corporate jet is really sweet.

Chuck: Yeah, Cheyenne and I flew it down to Cancun last week. You remember Cheyenne? Dumber than a box of hammers but she can suck the chrome off of a trailer hitch.
Anyway, let's get started. The reason I called you out here for this meeting was this new project we've just green lighted. It's gonna open on Christmas day of this year so we've got a tight production schedule.

Bill: I hate those short turn around projects. They never turn out well.

Chuck: Yeah, I know, but what can you do? We've got the date locked in. It's a Christmas present for the nerds.

Bill: What's the picture?

Chuck: Well, you remember how well ALIENS VS. PREDATOR did for us in 2004? We're gonna do a sequel to it. Got a screenplay already finished.

Bill: What's the title? SON OF ALIENS VS. PREDATOR? BRIDE OF ALIENS VS. PREDATOR?

Chuck: Naw, nothing corny like that. It's ALIENS VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM.

Bill: Requiem? Requiem for what?

Chuck: Who gives a fuck for what? It sounds cool and the morons we're selling this to won't know what the hell it means but they won't admit it or they'll lose their nerd creds.

Bill: Who wrote it?

Chuck: Shane Salerno but we told him how to do it in order to work with our budget.

Bill: Money trouble?

Chuck: I wouldn't call it trouble exactly, it's just that we don't have a whole lot of it to spend. But it doesn't matter, cause we'll make a shitload out of this thing.

Bill: Just what is our budget exactly?

Chuck: A dollar ninety-eight.

Bill: Okay, what can we get for that?

Chuck: Well, we can't afford any name actors. We've signed Steven Pasquale, Reiko Aylesworth, John Ortiz, Johnny Lewis and Ariel Gade.

Bill: Who?

Chuck: I know, a bunch of stiffs, but they work cheap.

Bill: Christ, can't we get some name, some has-been old timer to do a walk on? Abe Vigoda? Bill Schallert? Hell, I saw Sid Melton at the Vegas airport the other day. He told me he's desperate for work.

Chuck: We can't afford it. By the way, you'll love the guys we've hired to direct it.

Bill: Guys?

Chuck: Yeah, the Brothers Strause.

Bill: Who?

Chuck: A couple of peach fuzz fanboys. They're effects guys. This is their first directing job.

Bill: Well, at least they're both still guys. Did you hear the crazy shit that happened to the Wachowskis? I swear, Christmas at their house must be like fuckin' CHINATOWN. "He's my brother! He's my sister! He's my brother!"

Chuck: Oh, and you'll love the guy we got to shoot it. Daniel Pearl.

Bill: Who?

Chuck: You know, the guy that shot TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.

Bill: Jesus Chuck, that was what, like forty years ago?

Chuck: Yeah but we've fixed that problem too. See, almost everything takes place at night. In the rain. During a power outage. But we've fixed it so that there's always at least one really bright exterior light source during the scenes that take place indoors. Don't ask about logic. We gotta have those damn spots otherwise you won't be able to see crap all anything. As is, some of the shots are gonna be pretty murky.

Bill: Define murky.

Chuck: It'll look like the dude forgot to take the lens cap off of the camera, that's how dark. But we really want it dark. Hell, we have to have it dark in order to make up for something else.

Chuck: Don't tell me...

Bill: Yeah, the effects suck hind tit. The creature costumes are off model and the CGI looks like it was done by some tard on an Etch-a-Sketch. But see, everything's at night. In the rain. During a power outage. Ring any bells?

Chuck: That damn Godzilla mess with Matt Broderick?

Bill: You got it. Besides, all the dark and screaming and blood and shit will just make the fanboys think they're seeing something really scary.

Chuck: So what's the end? How do the bugs get aced?

Bill: You'll love this. A small nuke takes out the entire town but a helicopter with a handful of survivors on board survives the blast wave and a dose of lethal radiation. It's just a regular medical evac chopper but it's got armor like the fuckin' Batplane to withstand the shit it goes through.

Chuck: I don't know. The whole thing sounds hinky to me.

Bill: Chuck, baby, would I steer you wrong? I promise you, with what we're spending on this turkey profits are guaranteed. Plus we've got a shitload of merchandising and tie-ins ready to go. Video games. Comic books, Action figures. The whole nine yards. I'm tellin' ya, the geeks'll eat this shit up.

Chuck: Well, as long as it makes money I guess it's okay to  go ahead.

Bill: Yeah and after this one, we've already got a third one in the pipeline. How does ALIENS VS. PREDATOR WALKS AMONG US grab ya?


Friday, June 24, 2016

ADIOS, SABATA

What hath Sergio Leone wrought?

While he wasn't the first director to make what has come to be known as a "Spaghetti Western", Leone,over the course of four films (five if you count DUCK YOU SUCKER aka A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE (1972)), solidly cemented the elements of the genre into place. His four films, A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964), FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965), THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1966) and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968), rank as not only some of the greatest westerns (Spaghetti or otherwise) ever made, they're also great films, period.

Spaghetti Westerns were made before, during and after Leone produced his masterworks but after Leone, everyone was following his lead. Even director Frank Kramer, (the English pseudonym for Italian filmmaker Gianfranco Parolini) who uses every trope in the Spaghetti Western playbook to good advantage in the low budget but marvelously entertaining ADIOS, SABATA (1970). It's the second entry in the Sabata trilogy. The first film, SABATA (1969) introduced the character as played by genre icon Lee Van Cleef. Van Cleef returned to the role for the third and final film, THE RETURN OF SABATA (1971). But in ADIOS, Sabata is played by Yul Brynner. Why not Van Cleef? He turned down the movie because he was already committed to appear in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN RIDE as gunfighter Chris Adams, the character Brynner made famous in the original THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960). How's that for irony?

Brynner does a good job here. Dressed entirely in black (as he was in MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and WESTWORLD (1973), except this time with a nifty leather fringe on his shirt) and sporting a wicked sawed off lever action rifle with a side-loaded cartridge, Sabata is not someone to be crossed. Set in Mexico and Texas in 1867, ADIOS deals with the corrupt and brutal rule of Emperor Maximilian I and his Austrian henchman Colonel Skimmel (Gerard Herter). A small band of revolutionaries plot to bring down Skimmel but they need to capture a wagonload of his gold in order to finance the revolution. Enter Sabata and his teammates, Escudo (Ignazio Spalla) and Ballantine (Dean Reed), a blond-haired, blue-eyed, white-toothed con-artist who plays the middle against both ends. These mercenaries (and a few others) are hired by the revolutionaries to hijack the gold.

They set out on their mission and succeed rather quickly and easily. But that's only because they are the victims of the first of a series of crosses and double crosses that play out over the course of the film. It becomes a game of "gold, gold, who's got the gold?" as the men run a gauntlet of danger that includes Austrian soldiers, turncoat revolutionaries, vials of nitro, sticks of dynamite, throwing knives, bullwhips, Gatling guns and Sabata's widow maker of a rifle. The plot is a bit confusing at times and doesn't make a whole lot of sense if you think about it too hard. My advice is don't. Just go along for the ride and enjoy the action, gunfights and explosions, of which there are plenty.

Filmed in Spain with a largely Italian cast and crew and set in 1800s Texas and Mexico, ADIOS, SABATA is a fun, fast paced Spaghetti Western that delivers everything you expect from the genre. There's a good score (by Bruno Nicola) that sounds an awful lot like Ennio Morricone's work with whistling, chiming bells, guitar solos and "ah-ah-ah" choruses. And director Parolini knows the visual language of the genre. His camera is constantly pushing in, pulling out, and whip panning with many scenes abruptly smash cut into the next. And close-ups? There are several shots in which a single human face fills the entire screen. Hell, there are some shots in which a single human eye fills the screen.

ADIOS, SABATA isn't in the pantheon of Leone's classics but I've seen worse Spaghetti Westerns. It's definitely worth seeing if you're a fan of the genre. Thumbs up.


Wednesday, June 22, 2016

THE CORE


Unobtainium.

 Why did it have to be unobtainium? As if James Cameron's use of this lame science fiction cliche in AVATAR (2009) wasn't bad enough (and believe me, it was pretty damned egregious), the same wonder element was used six years earlier in THE CORE, another sf action adventure film with good special effects, cardboard characters and a formulaic plot.

Something has caused the earth's core, an immense, rotating sphere of electro-magnetic energy, to begin slowing down. As the cores rotation slows, it wreaks havoc with the earth's atmospheric electro-magnetic field allowing deadly solar radiation to penetrate the atmosphere. The intense microwave bombardments cook much of San Francisco and a hellacious lightning storm levels Rome. 

The only way to combat this menace is to detonate a series of atomic bombs within the core with the hope that the explosions will re-start the rotation and return things to normal. The problem is, how do you deliver the payloads into the center of the earth? The answer is an experimental vessel, dubbed The Virgil, a train-like ship with six segmented "cars", each one containing a bomb. The ship is equipped with a laser-driven boring system and is built out of unobtainium, which can withstand the incredible heat and crushing pressure of the earth's crust and convert those forces into energy.

A six person crew is assembled to pilot The Virgil. The leader of the expedition is Dr. Josh Keyes (Aaron Eckhart). He's accompanied by fellow scientists Dr. Edward Brasselton (Delroy Lindo), Dr. Conrad Zimsky (Stanley Tucci), and Serge Leveque (Tcheky Karyo). Two NASA space shuttle pilots, Commander Robert Iverson (Bruce Greenwood) and Major Rebecca Childs (Hilary Swank) will drive the vehicle. On the surface, the team has a world class computer hacker, Rat Finch (DJ Qualls), who looks like a human Golum and mission control chief Alfre Woodard.

The Virgil and its' crew encounter various dangers and some nefarious plot twists and turns. By the time the ship has reached the core, only two crew members are left to save the world. Of course, they do.

THE CORE combines elements of '70s disaster films with decent special effects. The screenplay by Cooper Layne and John Rogers is by-the-numbers but director Jon Amiel does a decent job keeping things moving. It's not a bad film, but it got mixed reviews and performed very poorly at the box office.

If you've got an itch to scratch regarding films which take place beneath the surface of the earth, I'd suggest JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959),  CRACK IN THE WORLD (1965), BATTLE BENEATH THE EARTH (1967), BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970) and AT THE EARTH'S CORE (1976). Or, if you really want some first rate adventures inside the earth, track down and read some of the old issues of DC's SHOWCASE comic book series featuring this guy:






Monday, June 20, 2016

DEEP BLUE SEA


What do you get when you cross JAWS (1975) with THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972)? The answer is DEEP BLUE SEA (1999) a B movie science fiction action adventure film directed by genre maestro Renny Harlin (DIE HARD 2 (1990), CLIFFHANGER (1993), CUTTHROAT ISLAND (1995), THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT (1996)). I watched this one for the second time the other day. It's not a great film by any means but it made for an enjoyable way to kill some time on a hot summer afternoon with a bag of popcorn and a big glass of peach tea.

Scientists at the remote research station, a re-purposed submarine refueling facility dubbed Aquatica, are experimenting with sharks. They hope to genetically increase the size of the shark brain and then extract a protein found within. Said protein is supposed to be a cure for Alzheimer's disease. Oddly enough, this plot device was also used in RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011), except in that film it was an experimental Alzheimer's drug used on apes which in turn boosted their mental capacities.

But when a giant shark escapes and attacks four teenagers on a boat, trouble starts brewing. The company that owns the project wants to shut it down but CEO Russell Franklin (Samuel L Jackson), agrees to a 48 hour extension provided he can fly to the base and see what all of his company's money has bought.

As Franklin arrives, the majority of the crew leaves the station leaving only a skeleton crew on hand. Franklin is given a tour of the base by Janice Higgins (Jacqueline McKenzie). She provides a walking, talking info dump for both Franklin and the audience. Then things start to go bad when a hurricane zeroes in on Aquatica. A scientist, Jim Whitlock (Stellan Skarsgard), loses an arm to a supposedly tranquilized shark and when an airlift is attempted to remove him from the base, the helicopter crashes into the above water part of the facility and things blow up real good.

There are now only six people left on the station, the majority of them on the lowest underwater level where the laboratory is. They must ascend through the rapidly sinking structure battling flooding, freezing water, more explosions and really big, really fast, really smart sharks.

Only two characters remain alive at the climax of the film which features an exploding shark a la JAWS. DEEP BLUE SEA was produced at a time when CGI was still relatively new. The sharks in the film are a combination of real animals, animatronic mock ups and computer generated images, some of which work, while others look like outtakes from an episode of JABBERJAWS. The screenplay by committee (Duncan Kennedy, Donna Powers, and Wayne Powers), is formulaic, generic and cliched. The biggest names in the cast are Jackson and LL Cool J. Thomas Jane would later play Frank Castle, The Punisher in the 2004 film of the same name while Stellan Skarsgard would go on to appear in THOR (2011), THE AVENGERS (2012), THOR: THE DARK WORLD (2013) and AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015). Harlin keeps things moving well enough but there's nothing remotely fresh, surprising or original about any of this nonsense.

For all of that, it's still fun to watch. It's no JAWS but it's better than any of the SHARKNADO films.


Saturday, June 18, 2016

ATOMIC SUBMARINE


With a shooting schedule of six days (!), THE ATOMIC SUBMARINE (1959) is a low budget '50s science fiction whose title and poster art promise much more than the actual film delivers. I watched this one yesterday with my buddy Kelly Greene. We'd watched a bad transfer of the film on VHS years ago so it was a treat to see a really sharp looking print of the film presented on, of all things, the Criterion Collection label (it's part of a four film box set, MONSTERS AND MADMEN which includes FIRST MAN INTO SPACE, THE HAUNTED STRANGLER and CORRIDORS OF BLOOD).

The story is routine. An underwater alien saucer is wreaking havoc within the Arctic Circle, attacking and sinking ships at random. The submarine Tigershark is sent to investigate. They encounter the saucer and the cyclopean alien within and (spoiler warning) destroy the saucer.

The characters are as generic as the story. Some tension is evoked between Lt. Commander Richard "Reef" Holloway (Arthur Franz) and Dr. Carl Neilson (Brett Halsey), as Reef is a by-the-book military officer while Carl is a pacifist who doesn't believe in war. Franz acts pissed off throughout the entire film, regardless of whether the script calls for him to be or not. And Tom Conway, who plays a scientist aboard the sub, actually looks like he's forgotten his lines in a couple of shots as he just stands and watches the action.

What action there is to watch consists of stock footage of real subs and the same special effects shots used over and over. The submarine fx footage was shot "dry for wet" with a miniature sub model and as such, it's not bad looking but overuse exposes the budgetary constraints the filmmakers were working with. The other "action" is men sitting or standing around amazingly spacious submarine sets drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and talking. The sets don't resemble any other movie submarines I've ever seen. There's no periscope (!) and director Spencer Gordon Bennet frames every shot with way too much head room.

Providing little comic relief is cast member Sid Melton. Years ago, on my first trip to Las Vegas, my buddies and I were waiting for our plane to depart from the airport when Sid walked by carrying his luggage. No one in the airport recognized him except for my friend Terry Porter who pointed and loudly proclaimed "Sid Melton!" It was a moment of pure joy.

Produced by Alex Gordon, THE ATOMIC SUBMARINE isn't a terrible movie and it's certainly worth seeing at least once if you're a fan of '50s sf films. Just don't expect a minor classic, some overlooked diamond in the rough. It's more rough than diamond.


Thursday, June 16, 2016

"LAUGH WHILE YOU CAN, MONKEY BOY"


I saw THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI ACROSS THE 8TH DIMENSION when it was first released back in August, 1984. I watched it again the other day and my take on the film hasn't changed in the subsequent thirty-plus years. That is that this film was designed from the get go to be a freshly-minted, straight out-of-the-box manufactured cult film. Oh sure, director W.D. Richter has maintained otherwise but I know a cult film when I see one and BUCKAROO was a cult film then and it still is.

Cult films aren't necessarily a bad thing. They can keep what was initially a commercial failure alive well past it's original sell-by date. The people involved with cult films, the writers, directors, and actors, can enjoy a small but ferociously devoted audience of fans who embrace everything about the film. Cult films also profit not just from revenue generated by theatrical screenings and DVD sales. Many cult films have generated tie-in merchandise of all kinds including action figures, comic books, video games and more.

The primary evidence for BUCKAROO'S cult status is in the very way the film is structured. The film opens with a brief flashback scene using "home movies"of a young Buckaroo, his family and friends attempting a dangerous experiment to set the stage. Then it immediately cuts to present day where an adult Buckaroo is attempting to perform the same experiment by driving a vehicle that looks like a pickup truck mated with a space shuttle (it's a rig that prefigures Marty McFly's time traveling DeLorean in BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985)) through a mountain. The test succeeds but Buckaroo discovers a race of evil aliens that live within the spaces between solid matter.

But, as the screenplay by Earl Mac Rauch makes clear, this is not Buckaroo's first adventure. He's well known by everyone thanks to his fronting a rock and roll band, The Hong Kong Cavaliers as well as his work as a brilliant scientist and crime fighter. Buckaroo Banzai is an already established media hero in this world as evidenced by the presence of a Buckaroo video game and comic book. How many adventures he's already had we don't know but it's clear that "Across the 8th Dimension" is only his latest. And the end credits promise another forthcoming adventure, BUCKAROO BANZAI AGAINST THE WORLD CRIME LEAGUE, a sequel that, of course, was never produced.

It's clear that Richter and Rauch conceived an ongoing series of films about this "Doc Savage" style hero for the '80s. We're left to wonder what all of the other films may have been like because this is the only one we have. BUCKAROO BANZAI is humorous in a gently amusing way. There are no real belly laughs to be had. It has some action scenes but they're not excitingly staged and shot. The special effects are good and the cast tries it's best to sell the material. The show is stolen by the villains, an unholy quartet of evil aliens played by Dan Hedaya, Vincent Schiavelli, Christopher Lloyd and John Lithgow (the latter two playing crazy as only they can). It's goofy, don't-take-this-shit-seriously fun but it's neither laugh-out-loud funny or edge-of-your-seat thrilling.

Your mileage may vary. I know the film has lots of die hard fans. It's not a bad little film and I commend Richter and Rauch for taking a chance with such offbeat material and an unconventional narrative conceit. It's definitely a cult film, a slice of '80s pop culture that holds up fairly well. Worth seeing once.


Tuesday, June 14, 2016

12 O'CLOCK HIGH


Thanks to the cable channel Heroes and Icons, my current favorite television show is 12 O'CLOCK HIGH, a series that ran from September 18th, 1964 to January 13th, 1967 on ABC TV. The show was based on the 1949 film of the same name.

I remember this show being on when I was a kid but I don't recall seeing more than one or two episodes. At the time of its' original broadcast I was eight-years-old (born in 1956) and for kids of my generation, WWII was still being packaged, marketed and sold as the last great war, a magnificent adventure that changed the course of world history. My father fought in WWII as did almost every one of my friends' dads. Sentiment against the escalating war in Viet Nam was just beginning to ramp up but the appetite for WWII material in our popular culture and mass media was voracious.

I grew up surrounded by WWII. It was in the comic books I read, Marvel's SGT. FURY AND HIS HOWLING COMMANDOS and DC's "Big Five": OUR ARMY AT WAR (Sgt. Rock), G.I. COMBAT (The Haunted Tank), ALL AMERICAN MEN OF WAR (Capt. Johnny Cloud, Navajo ace), OUR FIGHTING FORCES (Gunner and Sarge and Pooch) and my favorite, STAR SPANGLED WAR STORIES (featuring The War That Time Forgot which pitted soldiers against dinosaurs). There was also the short lived CAPT. STORM, a series about a wooden legged PT boat skipper.

WWII was on the big screen at the local movie theaters: THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (1961), THE LONGEST DAY (1962), THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963), OPERATION CROSSBOW (1965), THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967), WHERE EAGLES DARE (1968), KELLY'S HEROES (1970) and PATTON (1970) all rank among some of my all time favorite films.  There were books, both fiction and non-fiction about WWII. The men's adventure magazines which I so dearly love now, were full to bursting with stories of guts and glory (and gals) during "the big one". And there were toys galore including replicas of weapons, plastic soldiers (I had the Sears Iwo Jima play set) and the big guy himself, G.I. Joe (I had the sailor edition from the first release of Joes).

On the small, home screen, WWII was played for laughs on HOGAN'S HEROES but 12 O'CLOCK HIGH and COMBAT (the granddaddy of the TV war shows), played things straight and deadly.

12 O'CLOCK HIGH started out with Robert Lansing in the starring role as General Frank Savage, leader of the 918 bomber group stationed in England. Lansing's interpretation of Savage was by the book and no nonsense. Savage was a man who wore the mantle of leadership and command heavily. He was stern, gruff and tough. And as played by Lansing, almost constipated in his tight assedness. The man had little if any sense of humor. Not that I want to see comedy in this show, just a little touch of humanity every now and then.

The producers and ABC network brass thought a change was needed and in the first episode of the second season, they killed off General Savage and replaced him with Colonel Gallagher (Paul Burke). I much prefer Burke's episodes to Lansings. Gallagher is also tough but he's shown with female companionship (the oh-so-lovely Lee Meriwether in two episodes). Burke would continue to star until the end of the series. For the third season, production shifted to color but the show only lasted 17 episodes before being canceled in mid-season.

I also prefer the black and white episodes over the color ones. WWII just looks more real in black and white. 12 O'CLOCK HIGH made extensive use of stock footage (it was filmed at the 20th Century Fox studios in Southern California) and growing up in the 1960s, almost all of the real footage of WWII I saw was in black and white.

12 O'CLOCK HIGH was a Quinn Martin production and followed the format used in all other QM productions: opener, four acts and an epilogue. There were guest stars every week including William Shatner, Jack Lord, John Voight, Bruce Dern, Peter Fonda, Fritz Weaver, Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, James McArthur, and James Whitmore, among others. Frank Overton, Chris Robinson and Andrew Duggan had recurring supporting player roles as well.

Quinn Martin, along with Jack Webb and Irwin Allen, was one of the great first true auteurs of television. His other shows include THE UNTOUCHABLES, THE FUGITIVE, THE INVADERS, DAN AUGUST, CANNON, BARNABY JONES, THE F.B.I,M THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO and THE MANHUNTER.

12 O'CLOCK HIGH was pitched at an older, adult male audience, many of whom were veterans of the war. It wasn't a show for little kids although the flying scenes and footage of B-17s in action are thrilling to watch whether you're ten or sixty. I get a big kick out of watching this show. It takes me back to my childhood in a big way while providing well written, well directed and well acted episodic television entertainment.