Monday, October 3, 2016

Random Movie Reviews, Volume 1

Horror and Sci-Fi: 

Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (1988): Believe it or not, Elvira actually starred in a feature film during the height of her ‘80s popularity. The movie must not’ve made much of a dent on the public consciousness, as I only recently discovered it. This horror-comedy is all over the map tonally, and appears to try in some spots to retain the vibe of one of the movies Elvira mocked on her “Movie Macabre” show. Playing “herself,” Elvira here is just the host of a local TV creature feature show in Los Angeles, making the same punny, boob-centric jokes as on her real show. The plot kicks in gear when she receives notice that a wealthy aunt in Smalltown, USA has died, leaving Elvira something in her will. The movie appropriates a fish out of water theme as crazy Elvira descends upon puritan, ‘50s-style America, instantly running afoul of the crusty straight-backed types who run the town. 

Interestingly though, the filmmakers don’t make much of an effort to make Elvira likable. She’s snide from the get-go, putting down everyone and mocking everything. There’s hardy any attempt at making her an empathetic character. Rather, more focus is placed on her natural assets, which are spotlighted throughout, with more boobs-centric puns than any other movie you could think of. Some of the comedy is dumb, some of it is funny, like when Elvira gets a bunch of the horny local teens to help repair the old house her aunt willed her, and tells one of them – while swinging her shapely rear in his face – “Grab a tool and start banging.”

A bit of a horror element slowly creeps in, again catering to the campy vibe of Elivra’s real show; turns out her aunt was a witch or somesuch, and within Elvira’s new home is a “cookbook” that is in reality an ancient tome of magic. Meanwhile Elivra’s evil old granduncle has his sights on it, hiring a pair of local thugs to get it for him. Eventually this leads to a finale with a warlock chasing after Elvira, complete with brief monster special effects and whatnot. Elvira also finds love with a square-jawed he-man type who curiously enough seems scared to death of her, studiously ignoring Elvira’s many attempts at bedding him.

Fans of Elvira will be in for a treat; while there’s no nudity, we do see her strip down to lingerie at one point (while a group of those horny teens spy on her from a window), and her body, as mentioned, is usually the focus of each and every scene. We also get to see some of her movie riffing, as she hosts an all-night matinee of horror movies, mocking them for the audience – “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” in this sequence, and a bit of “It Conquered the World” at the beginning of the film. The movie isn’t great nor is it terrible; it just is, and is really only recommended for Elvira fans or fans of horror hosts in general, though admittedly this aspect of Elvira’s character isn’t much dwelt upon. It’s more concerned with Elvira the cool, crazy babe, mocking the fundamentalist attitudes of the old-fashioned town, before becoming a sort-of horror movie in the final 25 minutes.

The Guyver (1991): Based on the long-running Japanese comic series that began in 1985, “The Guyver” is about a dude who comes across a “bio-boosting armor” suit which enables him to fight against monsters. A complete Kamen Rider rip-off, Guyver benefited from a super-cool main character design, which was lovingly captured in this first of two US live-action movies. Co-directed by FX artists, one of whom, Screaming Mad George, was himself Japanese, “Guyver” appears to have been intended as a gory tribute to the Japanese TV shows of the ‘70s, with heroes fighting monsters who were really just dudes in rubber suits. However the studio apparently requested that the film be more goofy, more of a Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles thing.  This resulted in a helluva mixed-up film, where the “villains” pratfall all the time and then suddenly we’ll have super-weird shit like Mark Hamill turning into a human cockroach (a sequence Mad George had earlier created in “Nightmare on Elm Street Part 4”).

But “The Guyver” is most notable for having some of the most godawful acting you will ever see – EVER! The main actor is a vapid nonentity who looks eerily like future vapid nonentity Jared Leto. He sports some of the worst acting ever captured on film, but luckily about midway through the film the actor is replaced by a stuntman in the Guyver suit. The same can’t be said of the main actress though, Vivian Wu, “Guyver” being one of the very few Hollywood films of the era to feature an Asian leading actress. Her line deliveries are even worse than the main actor’s, and she isn’t helped by her big late ‘80s/early ‘90s hairdo and her then-fashionable baggy clothes. To give these actors the benefit of the doubt, perhaps they were just given poor direction. (As for Mark Hamill, in a supporting role as a CIA agent, he gives his best Michael Biehn impression.) The film somewhat follows the story of the Japanese manga, only our hero is a twenty-something aikido student or something, rather than the teenager of the comic. But really his background and character aren’t much explored. He comes upon the Guyver suit, created by the father of Vivian Wu’s character, and soon enough he’s fighting a team of henchmen who can turn into biogenetic monsters.

The FX here are pretty good, very much in that ‘80s rubber monster look that today has been replaced by pathetic CGI. One of the villains is none other than Jimmie Walker, “Dy-no-mite” himself, and his monster is infamously un-PC, with big lips and buck teeth – and honestly looks a LOT like future infamy Jar-Jar Binks. But while these villains are supposed to be cold killers, the movie features them bumbling and fumbling and bickering, to the point that their threatening nature is robbed. Eventually things devolve into martial arts fights, again calling back to “Kamen Rider” and the like – not to mention calling forward to “Power Rangers” – and the Guyver design shines here. It is without question one of the coolest suits I’ve seen in any comic book adaption, and there’s never a point where it’s replaced by CGI, as would be the case in a film from today.

Only available in a so-called “director’s cut” today, “Guyver” originally was graced with a VHS release that had a bit more gore. This has all been gutted (though admittedly there was only a few seconds of it) in the current DVD, and no one seems sure why this is. Two years later the main director returned, without Mad George, to helm a sequel, “Guyver: Dark Hero,” which thankfully replaced the main actor and forgot about Vivian Wu’s character.

Inframan (1975): This Shaw Brothers production from Hong Kong taps into the Ultraman/Kamen Rider craze, but lacks the unique, bizarre spin of the Japanese originals, replacing it with lengthy kung-fu fights that retain the somewhat-acrobatic nature expected of the Shaws studio. I was lucky enough to see this on the big screen sometime in ’97 or ’98 at a Dallas theater that would run Hong Kong movies on Saturday nights; this was the first I’d seen it since then, and once again I was viewing the English dub. Princess Dragon Mom(!!), a sexy Asian babe with blonde wig and clawed hands, erupts from beneath the Earth with a host of monsters (ie men in rubber suits). These monsters look especially bad, worse even than the ones you’d see on those weekly Japanese shows of the era, which is strange given that this had a movie’s budget.

Our heroes are composed of a science patrol which calls to mind the Monster Attack Team of “UltraSeven;” they wear jumpsuits and blue motorcycle helmets. Bruceploitation fans will be thrilled to spot the future “Bruce Le” among them; he gets in an overlong kung-fu fight with several monsters and henchmen midway through the film. Our hero is Danny Lee, who around this time also starred as Bruce Lee in the Shaw Brothers pic “Bruce Lee: His Last Days, His Last Nights;” he is turned via science into Inframan, red-suited, metal-faced vanquisher of evil monsters. The movie has more fighting than story-telling, but despite which it comes off as a lot more padded and uneventful than one of the Japanese shows of the era; “Kamen Rider Amazon” is ten times better than this, plus it has the added element of monster gore. Inframan looks cool, though, and he has a variety of special powers and tricks, including the ability to make himself gigantic, a la Jet Jaguar of “Godzilla vs Megalon.”

The English dubbing is intentionally campy and adds to the charm; surprisingly, it is not voiced by the usual crew who did the English dubs of most Shaw Brothers movies. Another difference from the Japanese shows is a penchant for (cheap-looking) optical effects, in particular laser blasts and disappearing characters, etc. But it is all poorly done and just looks bad, and not even in a fun way. Perhaps if I hadn’t spent the past few months watching “Kamen Rider Amazon,” “Zone Fighter,” and the original “Kamen Rider,” I might’ve been more excited by this Hong Kong take on the genre, but as it is I found “Inframan” only somewhat enjoyable and mostly forgettable.

Invasion of the Saucer Men (1959): So much potential is squandered in this drive-in sci-fi yarn. Filmed in black and white on cheap sets and outdoor locations, the movie features some of the craziest, cruellest-looking aliens ever witnessed. These small-bodied, big-headed creeps have big eyes with lizard-like irises and their hands not only have claws that drip a strange-looking liquid but also have eyes on them as well! Also these monsters display the same sort of mindless sadism as the Martians in Topps’ 1962 trading card series “Mars Attacks!,” joyously attacking everything and anything they come across. However their goals are limited by the film’s meager budget, not to mention hamstrung by the baffling insistence upon treating the whole thing as a comedy…sort of like Tim Burton’s 1996 film adaptation of that Topps trading card series.

The movie features a group of “teens” who look to be in their thirties, necking in the woods in their boat-sized cars. Meanwhile the film is narrated by a travelling conman or somesuch whose pal happens to be future Riddler Frank Gorshin. It’s all treated as a big goof as the “teens” keep encountering these weird creatures, who hide in the bushes – the film is photographed in such inky blacks that you can barely see the aliens at all – occasionally venturing out to attack the cows on an old man’s farm. Also the Air Force is afoot, apparently well-aware of these UFOs and keeping knowledge of them hidden from the public. It all seems to be building to something big, but anyone expecting a “War of the Worlds” resolution will be let down. Rather the flick plays out more on a lame drive-in horror vibe, with stupid schlock shock tactics like off-camera characters putting their hands on the shoulders of on-camera characters. Genuine horror stuff occurs when the severed, eyed hand of one of the creatures ends up in a car with our “teen” protagonist and his girlfriend…this time the hand that comes across her shoulder really is one to freak out over. The movie isn’t long, barely over an hour, and does contain a bit of gore, like when one of the aliens gets in a fight with a steer – juicy black blood jets out of the alien’s big eyeball. 

But the hoped-for action finale never happens. Rather, the heroes discover that the aliens’ lone weakness is light, thus all the teens congregate in their boat-sized cars and shine their headlights at the aliens, causing them to wither away. Lame! The movie even ends on the goofy tone, with “comedy music” playing and drawings on the ends credits that look to have been taken from a story book for toddlers. Overall this one sucks but it must be said again that the aliens have a very wicked, very menacing design.

The Monster Squad (1987): It’s “The Goonies” meets “The Lost Boys” in this now-culty ‘80s horror-action-kids’ comedy that was cowritten by Shane “Lethal Weapon” Black (and it shows in the rampant one-liners throughout). I was the same age as the protagonists when this movie came out, but for whatever reason I never saw the film, though I heard of it – maybe because I was never really into horror or monsters, I don’t know. The movie has aged pretty well, with zero CGI and great monster SFX by Sam Winston; his “Creature From The Black Lagoon” Gill-Man ripoff in particular looks great. Basically, the monsters from the Universal horror movies of the ‘30s-‘50s (Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Mummy, the Wolfman, and the Gill-Man) come back to small town, USA (and interestingly the same set/town was used here as in “Back To The Future,” which lends the film even more of neat cross-franchise kind of feel). A group of monster movie-obsessed kids come into posession of an old German book from the 19th Century which foretells Dracula et al wreaking havoc or somesuch.

The movie was PG-13 but wouldn’t be today; there’s violence, cursing, and not only rampant swearing but even some old-fashioned gay-bashing. But the producers understood preteen kids, so it isn’t the sanitized/too cool posturing of today; that being said, one of the squad members is a “junior high” punk with spiked hair and leather jacket, but admittedly he appears to be a spoof of the typical rebel of ‘50s horror/sci-fi movies. The monsters take a bit too long to show up – and conveniently disappear for long stretches of time (plus the dude playing Dracula sucks) – but when they get there they are very cool, if dispensed with a litte too easily. (A shotgun blast takes out the Gill-Man? Come on!) I guess the film didn’t do very well, as despite being geared for a clear sequel or even franchise, this was the one and only adventure of the titular Monster Squad. I bet it would be fun to watch this one on the big screen.

Night of the Creeps (1986): Why am I only just now seeing this movie? A readymade cult film, “Night of the Creeps” is courtesy writer-director Fred Dekker, who gave us the similarly-culty “The Monster Squad” the following year. A tribute to ‘50s horror and sci-fi movies with an ‘80s update, the film opens with a brief Star Wars-esque scene of strange-looking aliens blasting away at each other on their starship. One of them sends a strange cannister off into space. Cut to Smalltown, USA, 1959; Dekker films this sequence in black and white, and he perfectly captures the era. Unlike modern attempts at period pieces, the actors here even LOOK like college kids from the ‘50s. It’s all like a live action E.C. comic as we have an axe-wielding psychopath, a crashing meteor (which is of course that cannister from space), and the introduction of the titular “creeps:” slug-like creatures that throw themselves into human mouths, worm their way up into the brain, and incubate.

From there we go to 1986 (the film now in color), where we meet our heroes: a luckless pair of college dweebs who just want to get laid. The movie isn’t just a love letter to vintage horror and sci-fi cinema; it also captures the teen comedy vibe of the day, and the characters here are not only very likable but also excently portrayed (it doesn’t appear that any of these actors went on to anything else, but they all give great performances). We also get a grizzled cop with a penchant for hardboiled detective fiction who steals every scene he’s in – a witness of the first creeps visitation in 1959, he will eventually aid our heroes in the final battle against them. The film is played straight throughout, with the comedy coming from off-hand comments from the characters, who capably mock the OTT nature of things. The violence is never too gory, though we do have some corpses with exploded heads and whatnot. (The sort of stuf that gets by on modern crime lab TV shows, to tell the truth.) And since this was made in the days when horror movies were actually rated R, there’s even brief flashes of nudity, including a wonderfully-egregious shot of several young women taking showers. The finale is the highlight; the creeps incubate in brains that are alive or dead, and for the latter this results in zombies staggering about. Our heroes pick up a handy flamethrower from the police armory(!!) and start charbroiling them.

There’s even an unexpected emotional depth to “Night of the Creeps;” one of our heroes must be sacrified, per genre madate, and unlike the majority of such character deaths this one actually hits the viewer hard, particularly when you listen to the audio recording he leaves behind. But like “The Monster Squad,” this movie was a commercial flop; Dekker struck out a third time with the abysmal “Robocop 3,” which, per his own admission, ruined his career.

Modern superhero garbage:

Captain America: Civil War (2016): Politics and superheroes make strange bedfellows in this overlong (2 ½ hours) slog from Marvel Studios. Not to mention that the filmmakers muddle their politics. Remember how the Avengers stopped those various invasions in the previous two Avengers films? Well, turns out they inadvertently killed a whole bunch of innocent people during all the fighting, even though it’s never been mentioned until now. But nope, the Avengers and superheroes in general are very bad and hundreds of United Nations countries have signed some treaty to make our heroes agree to act only when ordered to by an official ruling party. But this is only the beginning of the politically-correct mindset of the film; our superheroes are shamed by not one but three black characters during the course of the film, the first the mother of a man who was accidentally killed while Iron Man was fighting aliens in the first film. Later our heroes will venture to fictional African country of Wakanda, where Black Widow will offer an official apology to the king, who of course also takes the opportunity to shame the heroes, as does his son, the prince of Wakanda (aka superhero Black Panther).

The movie is a dire, mostly-humorless trawl of politics and in-fighting; former bad boy Iron Man is retconned into being a government lackey, and my reading of the film had him as a spoof of current Trump proclamations to ban immigrants from certain countries – the Scarlet Witch, you see, has been deemed the most unsafe of the Avengers, and Iron Man insists on her being kept as an unwilling “guest” in Avengers HQ, being that’s she’s a “weapon of mass destruction” and whatnot. According to the current political climate as defined by the mainstream media, the Trump Republicans want to lock up/ban immigrants from certain countries while the Clinton Democrats want to open the borders to practically everyone. However to my surprise I learned that the producers apparently considered Iron Man to be more of a comment on Hillary Clinton, his clinging to ruling bodies and focus groups intended as a commentary on the career politician mindset of the current Democratic party. Captain America, meanwhile, rails against these restrictions and forced imprisonment and will not sign the treaty; while I assumed he was intended to be the radical Liberal (and thus the hero, this being a Hollywood movie and all), apparently he’s intended to be the Republican analog – he especially revolts against the idea of locking up of non-citizen Scarlet Witch.

But ironically enough, Captain America is a man of the 1940s, in particular a man of World War Two (even though the actor portraying him appears incapable of capturing any ‘40s-like sensibilities or mannerisms); anyone who knows their American history knows that the government locked up all Japanese Americans during the war years, whether born in America or not. This incident is never mentioned in “Civil War,” but it leads to a glaring question – if Cap is against superhero internment, was he also against Japanese internment in WWII? It would’ve been nice if this was even explained, and doubtless the majority of viewers never even wondered about it. But at least for me, I had a hard time understanding how a man who, just a few years ago (by his reckoning), was in the 1940s could feel so strongly against locking people up so as to protect the country – again, all of it could’ve easily been explained away with a bit of exposition. But anyway, none of this stuff should have any place in a superhero movie. Sadly though, this proves to be the sole plot, which eventually leads to a full-scale battle between our heroes.

Yes, the characters kids are supposed to look up to spend about a half hour fighting each other nearly to the death; despite which, this is the highlight of the film, as for once we have an action scene where the camera stops shaking (the first hour features a few action scenes that are terrible with the shaky-cam ethic) and you can actually follow the action, which is as expected loaded with CGI. Every character from previous films shows up, save for Thor and the Hulk; even Spider-Man appears, portrayed by a new actor and once again just a teen from Queens. (Not to mention soon to star in his own film, which will likely be yet another friggin’ origin story for the character, and the producers continue the baffling trend of making Aunt May younger and younger, this time casting Marisa Tomei in the role!?) The highlight here for me is Ant-Man, whose film was probably one of my favorites yet from Marvel; this time he briefly becomes his other alter-ego, Giant Man.

But boy, this one just goes on and on, becoming more dire and humorless, with the end result that the Avengers, just formed two movies ago, have for all intents and purposes disbanded. Wasn’t the point of the entire first movie getting them together?? Anyway, even though I grew up reading comics and basically lived for Marvel, I’m not the best judge for these modern superhero movies; I pretty much hate all of them (except for “Iron Man 3,” which I loved), and “Civil War” is more of the same, so opinions as ever will differ. Some people even call it “the greatest superhero movie ever,” which is as baffling as the casting of Marisa Tomei.

Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016): This turgid, near three-hour exercise in tedium is not suggested for those contemplating suicide. Director Zach “The Hack” Snyder returns from “The Man of Steel” (a dire, humorless movie that made being Superman seem akin to having terminal cancer) to once again piss on the memory of your favorite DC Comics heroes in a followup that’s just as ineptly-staged, glacially-paced, and poorly lit as its predecessor. And if you didn’t get enough PC messaging from “Captain America: Civil War,” then you’ll be happy to note that this is yet another movie that bashes superheroes for their wanton acts of collateral damage! And before you can cry “clich√© in the making!,” within the first several minutes we even have yet another black character shaming Superman for all the mass death and suffering he inadvertently caused in the previous film. But we need to have some feminism, too; in her very first scene, (horribly miscast) Lois Lane corrects a radical Islamic terrorist who calls her a lady: “I’m not a lady. I’m a journalist.” Ooh, take THAT, Patriarchy!

The movie, like most modern films, is shot in such colorless “color” that you could almost think it was black and white; matching the somber tone, our “heroes” mope about. Ben Affleck shows up as a dour Bruce Wayne/Batman who almost makes the viewer misty-eyed for Michael Keaton. The first hour or so is a turgid, horrendously-padded nonevent of Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne each trying to deal with all that damn mass carnage Superman accidentally caused; meanwhile Lex Luthor (who looks more like a Millennial Carrot Top) comes upon some kryptonite, which of course he will gradually (everything here being drawn out reaaaaal slow) use on Superman. Our two “heroes,” who apparently only act in their own interests, slowly begin to converge upon one another. Eventually a butch Wonder Woman shows up who displays none of the heroism-mixed-with-femininity of Lynda Cater’s interpretation; this version of the character seems to have stalked out of Snyder’s “300” adaptation. Costume-wise Frank Miller’s “Dark Knight Returns” (and, uh, “Dark Knight Strikes Again”) was clearly used as inspiration, complete with a suit of armor for Batman that is taken directly out of Miller’s art. As is this interpretation of Wonder Woman, now that I think of it. 

Anyway, “Batman vs Superman” represents all that is bad about modern superhero films: it’s humorless, it’s pretentious (even the title is pretentious!), it’s too damn long, it’s confusingly directed in the action scenes, it takes itself way too seriously, it thinks grimness equals maturity, it confuses arrogance with self-confidence, and it’s about as fun as a kick in the crotch.


John said...

"Invasion of the Saucer Men" -- Outer Space critters designed by Paul Blaisdell with the help of Bob Burns -- 'nuff Said!

Anonymous said...

re: "modern super hero garbage."

And in the new Doctor Strange movie the Ancient One is a bald Irish chick. What kinda bullshit is that?

halojones-fan said...

The issue with Civil War is that the original comics storyline was dependent on there being a huge population of mutants--and in the Marvel movies, there aren't any mutants, really. The filmmakers weren't up to the task of making the film work without mutants.

Also, the movie (and BvS) were responses to a very common criticism of Man of Steel, I.e. "okay this fight would have killed THOUSANDS of people and NOBODY SEEMS TO CARE".

englishteacherx said...

You know, I strangely kind of enjoyed Batman vs. Superman, maybe just because I'm so sick of superhero movies that I liked seeing them suffer. i would have loved it if it had just ended with Batman killing Superman. Then maybe Lex Luthor could just blow up the entire Earth, just like Krypton, as he's fooling around with Superman's ship.

The end.

Tony Nichols said...

A: No mention of Elvira's dazzling "tassle-work" at the end of the movie? One of the most uncomfortable moments I have ever experienced watching a movie with my parents.

B: Civil War - I could not disagree more with your assessment. I found the movie to be thrilling, and everything I could want from a superhero smash up.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks a lot for the comments, everyone. Englishteacherx, I wish I had your POV in mind when I watched Batman vs Superman...would've enjoyed it a WHOLE lot more! And Tony, sorry we disagree on Civil War, and I can't believe I forgot to mention that Elvira finale. I BET that went over great with your parents!

Griffin Calhoun said...

I think you're a little harsh on Civil War, but dead on with Batman vs. Superman.