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RoboCop 2 (1990)
Underrated Sadistic Sequel
Obviously inferior to the first ROBOCOP in just about every way, this imaginatively titled sequel at least has the benefit of not having to waste a lot of time setting up the concept and gets right down to business right away. While Verhoeven's ironic and darkly comedic over- the-top touch is largely absent, the level of bleakness and icky unpleasantness manages to surpass the original.
There's a lot more action and unpredictability than in the original, which was tighter and moved faster but let's face it, felt more formulaic.
Dark seedy atmosphere brilliantly set up in the opening scene and it never lets up. This time there's drugs and corrupt cops in addition to the usual corporate extortion and anarchy as featured in the first movie.
This film features some of the best stop-motion animation I've ever seen and there's a lot of it, beating out even the works of Ray Harryhausen, David Allen, and Jim Danforth. I'm shocked that none were involved with this film. Much like in the original, it's difficult in many scenes to tell what's practical and what's matted in. It makes one wonder what stop-motion could look like now had the movie studios stuck with honing the craft rather than abandoning it in favor of much-cheaper CGI.
The fake commercials and newscasts are just as good as in the original, keeping things moving along briskly and with the right dose of dark comedy here and there. They even nicely tie in with the main plot more- so than in the original.
Most of the surviving original cast returns.
Oddly enough I liked Leonard Rosenmann's score almost as much as Basil Poledouris's music in the original. I'm not sure why they decided to go with a new direction with the music, and at times it sounds a little too much like STAR TREK IV, but overall I'd say it fits very well.
As intentionally grim as the film is, it's just not very "fun". There's a lot of nasty scenes such as when a policeman is tortured by a deranged surgeon and a brain transplantation scene which is needlessly protracted. I feel they misunderstood Verhoeven's intentions in the original to make things like a comic book and just figured lots of violence and unpleasantness was the same thing.
The writing and characterizations are much less compelling than in the original. Murphy and Louis are given very little interesting to do, leaving it to the villains to carry the show. This feels exacerbated by the overall much lower-quality performances. The goofball playing the mayor really just didn't fit with everything else in the movie.
The level of realism is quite lacking asking us to believe that a well- organized gang would defer to a 12-year-old kid. I'd almost call it fun social commentary, but in this regard the film takes itself oddly seriously. A lot feels missing here, with a lot of established villains just disappearing rather than being killed off.
Generally there's a just a lack of imagination all-round. We learn nothing new about Robocop (outside of that he's willing to turn away from his old family) and don't really get to see him enough. The film seems to react more to the original film rather than add to its canon.
All-in-all though I'd call this film fairly successful. It's hampered by a lack of creativity and intelligence but gives us more Robocop doing his thing. At least it's nowhere nearly as insulting as "3" or the remake.
Red Dawn (1984)
PG-13 Cold War Shoot-em-up
Commies invade Northern New Mexico subbing for Colorado, and a bunch of High School kids led by Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen must fend them off. Ridiculous right-wing paranoia makes for entertaining cinema in retrospect, making this a time capsule of the last serious years of The Cold War when America was starting to cathartically pump out action movies in which the anthropomorphized ideal of the stars and stripes decimates the Soviet army. Rambo II and III did the same.
-Lots of action, very high production values allowing for very authentic looking Soviet equipment, lovingly captured during a few tank battles. These were the days before surplus Soviet T-72s made their way to American screens, so they had to build these and they look terrific. Lots of squibs, explosions, and excellent sound design to bring them to life.
-The supporting cast is top notch featuring a great assortment of familiar faces and old pro's including Ben Johnson, Harry Dean Stanton, William Smith, etc.
-It's pretty well-written considering it's just an 80's action movie. They do some pretty creative things with the buildup to making hapless teens into a fighting resistance movement. The villains are mostly nicely fleshed-out too and humanized more than I would have expected.
-Great score by Basil Poledouris for the most part.
-The action is mostly pretty comic book and lacks realism. We're asked to believe that a ragtag band of teens could outwit and out-shoot trained Russian and Cuban soldiers consistently and take zero casualties, even when grossly outnumbered.
-A key scene in which one of the members of the group is exposed as a traitor and executed is handled extremely lazily, shot entirely from one angle, alternating between the master shot and a longer-lens camera for singles. The film never really recovers from there.
-A lot of the performances by the teen actors are uneven and exacerbated by putting them in unbelievable situations. Swayze's delivery often comes across as awkward and forced when he's trying to be brooding and serious.
-The best character in the film, Tanner, is unfortunately not around for very long at all.
Conclusion? Best for viewing for history / war / military equipment buffs. It's not perfect by a long stretch but certainly one of the most memorable movies of the 80's.
Red Dawn (2012)
What an amazing failure on every level
While the original was no great shakes due to over-length and extreme lapses in realism, it had its share of amazing 80's action and some good production values and ideas here and there. It was the first movie I'd seen to tackle the prospect of a ground war on American soil and an ensuing insurgency against foreign occupiers. The fact that it came at the height of the Cold War gave it a sort of historical relevance as well. It had a great supporting cast and an okay central one of up-and- comers who went on to a lot of bigger things. It also had the benefit of no-nonsense direction from John Milius and a fitting score by Basil Poledouris.
This remake has none of that. No excitement, poor casting, zero characterization, bland music, shaky camera work, and of course CGI overload. It's everything bad in modern action movies focused and amplified into one mindless excuse to show a bunch of pretty people stand around whining and brandishing weapons. None of the action scenes have any life, originality, and a lot of the last portion of the film is so vague, tiresome, and too dark to even make out what is going on and to whom and why it is even important.
Most unforgivably, the film was altered in post-production by cowardly MGM executives, changing the Chinese invaders into North Korean ones in order to not insult the Chinese market, though if they were smart they'd still ban this disaster anyway. This alteration takes an already implausible film into the realm of the preposterous and laughable. It may have been fascinating if there was any analysis on the North Korean military, culture, occupation etc. but the circumstances of this last minute change make that impossible. It's so underwritten that it misses major chances to add any interest into the concept, focusing instead on a bunch of macho posturing, teen angst, and infighting.
I had the feeling that the writers were even younger and less experienced than the teenagers the film was aimed at, especially considering the film features a working Subway restaurant functioning in North Korean-occupied America! Even behind the battle lines in an apocalyptic war-zone, the franchise food and soft drink distribution remains completely undisturbed? Or are the employees growing the grain for the 7-grain wheat bread on the roof of the building?
Don't waste your time, even for a laugh. This film is so bad it will just make your head hurt. I'm consistently amazed by how much money can be spent on an object of so little value.
An old nostalgic favorite, aided greatly by imaginative setup
I'm still not sure how to review these Doctor Who serials. As a child I watched these on PBS and they were nicely edited into movie-form 90-120 minutes with no breaks. I'm really much more at home watching and reviewing the show in this form, but the new DVDs and IMDb listings insist on breaking everything up into pieces.
It's also a challenge for me to really view the show objectively through adult eyes, as my childhood was inextricably linked to this show. I overlook a lot of significant flaws and treasure every second of screen time, especially during the first few seasons of the Tom Baker years which to me were some of the best science fiction TV ever produced. Thank you Phil Hinchcliffe and Graham Williams so very much. Special credit goes to Tom Baker as well, whose performance as the Doctor could perfectly balance between dead seriousness and childish antics in a way no other actor could ever capture.
This episode is especially memorable from the era, and not at all because of the Daleks, strangely enough, but because we are thrown immediately into one of the best atmospheres any Doctor Who serial has set up. An apocalyptic planet over a thousand years into a war which has plunged both sides into World War One-style trench warfare. The very first image we see is a frightening vision of a gas-mask wearing soldier popping his head out from behind a boulder and ushering a squad of troopers to their doom in a misty, hellish landscape. Sure it's cheaply filmed in the same quarry Doctor Who would ritualistically reuse time and time again, but here to maximum effect.
Michael Wisher really lights up the screen as Davros, and the dialog (though largely written down for children to more easily understand) very rarely falters. We get an excellent sense for the villains' reasoning in creating the Daleks and the developing complex seemingly- symbiotic relationship between the seemingly helpless megalomaniac Davros and his aloof Himmler-like henchman Nyder makes things even more interesting. In order for a story to be great, it must have well-drawn villains.
* The realization of the Thals and Kaleds to vaguely mirror the Allies and Axis, with both sides depicted as containing their share of honor and cruelty.
* Sarah bravely leading a group of slaves up some scaffolding to escape the Thal dome under a hail of gunfire. A riveting sequence hampered only by low budget.
* The dialog between the Doctor and Davros pertaining to a hypothetical virus which would exterminate all life. Wisher's delivery is something to behold. I'm sad he never escaped TV and stage acting.
* The Doctor's moral dilemma in making a decision to destroy the Daleks. As a child it annoyed me greatly to see any hesitation, but as an adult I see it as quite mind-opening.
So as you can see I'm quite partial to this series. It suffers from some plot holes, cheap sets, and gaps in logic, plus like "Frontier in Space" seems to have The Doctor and his companions incarcerated by one side or the other for the majority of the running time. However, the level of imagination on display makes up for it. This, along with "The Ark in Space", "The Pyramids of Mars", "The Seeds of Doom", "The Robots of Death", and "The Talons of Weng Chiang" is in my opinion one of the major high points of the show's 40+ year run.
Sushi Girl (2012)
A "love-it or hate-it" low budget low key crime drama
While not particularly memorable, this cheap-feeling film benefits from a good cast full of recognizable names and faces. In fact the casting is a little too good to the point where it feels gimmicky, reaching its nexus the moment Danny Trejo draws a machete to greet a van-load of robbers.
What we have here is basically RESERVOIR DOGS, only set during a knockoff of the most memorable scene in the exploitation classic THE GESTAPO'S LAST ORGY. Things begin with a fairly fascinating character study and mystery but rapidly devolve into Noah Hathaway getting repetitively tortured. The action barely leaves one room aside from a few flashbacks, which are the highlights of the film including a well- staged robbery and car crash.
The acting and dialog are a bit of a mixed bag. The macho posturing and forced line delivery become tiresome after the dozenth empty threat gets uttered. Tony Todd is reliable as ever and looks the same as he did 20 years ago. Mark Hamill is virtually unrecognizable under his glasses, long hair, and portly frame and somewhat comical as a particularly sleazy criminal, and his performance is so memorably over-the-top that it pushes everyone else in the cast into the background. Noah Hathaway, long retired from his heydey as a child star, makes a welcome return and actually comes off quite well. Sonny Chiba, Michael Biehn, Danny Trejo, and Jeff Fahey, as nice as they are to see, are all wasted in tiny inconsequential parts.
Unfortunately things get increasingly lurid and cliché'd as the film goes on, the pace is extremely slow, and it doesn't really offer much new outside a lot of stunt casting and nudity. The car crash is great considering the low budget, but the plot twists can be seen coming from miles away. Aside from its flaws and familiarity, SUSHI GIRL remains an okay way to spend a rainy afternoon.
Money for Angels (2012)
Best Fredianelli movie in quite some time, hampered by micro budget
Fredianelli struck B-movie Silver with 2011's THE SCARLET WORM, a relatively polished period film set in the old west featuring a cast with numerous professional actors and a small but dedicated crew of collaborators. His subsequent "Lone Wolf" films since then have been a bit of a step down in terms of production value, often looking more humble like student films or "porn without the porn" due to the combination of no production design, basic cinematography, and bad acting. MONEY represent somewhat of a return to form, comfortably unambitious in its setting and subject matter being set in the contemporary "real world" for a change (something not seen since his wacky underground comedy THE BIG SLEAZE) and featuring much better acting and scripting from Fredianelli and co. than I've seen in a while.
Fredianelli himself has one of the best performances in the film, playing a burnt-out hit-man who gets a great monologue in toward the conclusion. Ray Medved as a desperate man covering up his crime and the plucky & attractive young woman who plays the prostitute both turn in comparatively good work as well. There's a couple good shootout scenes which feel fairly realistic, and best of all there's an unpredictable atmosphere to the movie as it impressively defies falling into clichés or conventions. I couldn't identify any one character as a clear protagonist, even though it feels fairly conventional early on. Instead the narrative focuses more on a string of events in which a lot of disparate characters' lives are connected. None of these characters are particularly likable per-say, but as flawed individuals they come across as more human, perhaps the most vivid characterizations I've seen in a Fredianelli-penned movie so far.
The shortfalls in the movie have to do almost entirely with the budget and that the filmmaker is quite visibly overstretched, wearing almost every hat in the production and post-production area of the film. While such versatility is very impressive in principle, it also opens the film up to a lot of sloppiness which wouldn't have been an issue had there been, say, a dedicated art director or production manager. For instance, a key sequence in which an unsavory character makes a high- risk sniper shot is completely ruined because his prop weapon is obviously a BB gun with no scope! This destroys any sense of realism that the film relied on, and some weak performances really don't help matters much at all.
Added to that, a lot of the film is really slow, with static dialog scenes where characters just stand around and say things to each other. I'm sure if Fredianelli could focus on directing these scenes, there'd be a lot more life to them, but as it is I'm sure he was trying to manage just too much and had too much on his plate to really polish them as they needed. This is a shame as this film feels about 90% of the way there to having the makings of a BOONDOCK SAINTS-style underground hit. Unfortunately in such a crowded market of underfunded indie cinema, it's that last 10% that can make a huge difference in getting a film like this noticed.
a cheap-feeling, much-maligned revisit of David Lean territory
ASHANTI is one of those films that has plenty of excellent little moments (Caine rescuing the children and having to abandon them in the desert, the small boy's and the gorgeous Ms. Johnson's escape attempt, and Kabir Bedi getting revenge on an old enemy) but overall is a fairly dreadful mess of a film. The main problem is in its execution. Nobody seems too excited about this potentially quite exciting material, including the director and most of the cast.
Although he does steal the film, Peter Ustinov feels tremendously out of place to me as he channels a lot of the same larger-than-life pathetic / comedic energy he displayed as the villain in Disney's animated ROBIN HOOD and as the Caliph in THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD made around the same time. It just doesn't fit in with the dark and serious undertones of the film, and how everyone else underplays as much as he overplays.
The direction by the usually reliable Richard Fleischer is adequate but filled with moments of bizarre incompetence, such as the final showdown on the boat with Bedi just standing there waiting to get shot. There's plenty of other flaws including some bad dubbing, poor special effects involving an airplane crash, a dreary and dated musical score, and a lot of uninspired cinematography.
While the cast is certainly top notch, featuring Omar Sharif returning to LAWRENCE OF ARABIA territory along with the Indian actor he famously shot at the beginning of that movie (marking the start of his international career), most of the performances are unbelievably weak. Rex Harrison and William Holden seem wholly unenthusiastic about every bit of dialog, while star Michael Caine goes through the entire film with an annoyed wince on his face, like he just can't wait to cash his paycheck and get back to England and out of the sun.
Nicely, this film takes place almost entirely outdoors and showcases some splendid African locations. The pacing is fairly leaden but picks up later in the film, and Kabir Bedi's performance as Caine's vengeful guide ranks among his best and gives the film an air of gravity and authenticity. Not to mention Beverly Johnson is one of the most outrageously attractive women ever filmed, so her scenes alone are worth the price of admission.
Writer Alberto Vasquez Figueroa covered similar ground involving modern slavery in the period pieces MANAOS and IGUANA which are both worth checking out for those lucky enough to find them. He also wrote TUAREG THE DESERT WARRIOR, one of the few more original Italian B-movies from the early 80's (as in not an obvious cash-in) featuring some similarly fascinating expose on North African culture, though distilled into cheap action movie conventions and the odd casting of NCIS's Mark Harmon as an African chieftain (??)! Of all Figueroa's works, this may be the one to reach the widest theatrical audience and fail the hardest, but I can appreciate it along with all his other works for their relative originality.
Italiani brava gente (1964)
The most definitive extant film on the subject of the Mussolini's Russian Adventure, 1942
This is up there with STORM OVER THE PACIFIC as one of the most criminally unappreciated films dealing with the subject of World War 2. To my mind, it may well be the only film that depicts or even mentions the Italian expeditionary force on the Eastern Front battling against the Russians from 1941-1943, largely routed and destroyed along with their Romanian allies during the surrounding of the 6th Army at Stalingrad.
The film follows a small unit of the much larger ARMIR force beginning with their hopeful and largely uncontested advance through the Ukraine in 1941. Things get a little wonky with the Germans contesting who gets to claim victory over a hard-fought battle over the Bug River, and even more-so with a unit of Italian Black Shirts led by an unscrupulous Arthur Kennedy and their organized looting. A tacked-on episode involves Peter Falk as a disillusioned Italian medic traded with Russian Partisans to provide some altruistic care in the midst of a lot of embittering carnage and insanity. Toward the end, things turn into an existentially nihilistic death march across the frozen steppes of Russia where the separated soldiers attempt to escape back to the imagined safety of their retreating front lines.
Filmed in stark high-contrast black-and-white, the Soviet influence upon this film is very clear with its frequently artistic and experimental approach to the grim subject matter. This clashes a bit when we see it saddled with the expressive physical gesturing and bad dubbing we've become accustomed to from low budget Italian Euro-war movies. The film feels like an odd mish-mash of war epic, exploitation B-movie, and documentary-style art film all in one package so it fails just about as much as it succeeds, but contains more than its fair share of memorable moments.
Who can forget the image of the lone Russian girl screaming in the middle of a sea of sunflowers while soldiers charge through... the T-34 machine-gunning bewildered soldiers riding a merry-go-round... the horizon ablaze with Katyusha rocket fire... or the Russians charging their cavalry through the snow into a mechanized column of retreating Axis soldiers?
While the film is mostly a collection of loosely connected darkly ironic slices of life on the front, it is most successful when it sticks with history and presents the big battles. Depending on which cut you come across, this film contains a lot of historically accurate reenacting of some of the biggest battles of the early Eastern Front on the largely on locations they actually occurred at. The full cooperation of the Soviet Union was thrown behind this film with lots of tanks, trucks, extras, and armaments generously provided, and really shows in the scope. Unfortunately the filmmakers go too far in trying to play to many masters at once, painting the Soviets as noble heroes, the Germans and Italian Fascists as brutal thugs, and the regular Italian soldiery as patriotic family men who turn into hapless malingerers and deserters once they come to suffer from poor leadership, provisions, and lack of equipment. Much of this may be based on history, but the stereotyping at play becomes increasingly distracting and annoying as the film progresses to the point where it feels like the advancing waves of noble Soviets are invincible and infallible... like an unstoppable typhoon our bewildered protagonists have found themselves caught up in.
It's likely the pro-Red stance of this film which caused it to be swept under the carpet and never get much of a release in the United States, coming at the height of the Cold War. For the casual modern viewer or student of history though there's a lot of entertainment and educational value to take away here once one sifts through the propaganda as merely a product of the time of the film's historiography. It almost says more about what was going on in a very politically divided Italy in 1965 than what was going on in Russia in 1941-42. Either way, this is awkward and flawed, yet beautifully crafted film certainly has the artistic merit to deserve a wider and cleaned up, definitive release.
Above the War (1989)
little-seen Filipino trash-action Nam comedy curio
This film starts off with a lot of promise, especially considering it was directed by Ken Watanabe (no, not THAT Ken Watanabe), the one who made a brief career acting in numerous Italian B-movies in the late 80's including as the Mr. Miyagi equivalent in the Karate Kid knockoff KARATE WARRIOR. Here he proves his chops at directing and handles the trashy action scenes just as well as any of his contemporaries. It's unfortunate that this obscure film (as well as his career) never really got to go anywhere as it looks like a lot of work went into it.
Somewhere in North Vietnam, an American base is overrun by V.C. and a golden Buddha statue is stolen. The American high command won't have this and sends in an elite force of goof-offs to recover the item. The team (the B-TEAM!!) is to be led by Rom Kristoff and feature two white guys and two Asian guys in order to (hysterically!) trade-off who is keeping who prisoner among them in order to infiltrate enemy lines.
The Good: Action-wise, you really could do a lot worse. There's a lot of solid pyrotechnics on display with plenty of stunt-men flying around on fire and huts exploding and getting shot up really good. A few moments echo the best of what we saw in earlier films like WARBUS and DOG TAGS where we're reminded that these are actual filmmakers making these films. Some shots capture good battlefield scope, the heroics, the futility, and moments of humanity, etc.
Also the cast is fairly good with the always-reliable B-action favorite Romano Kristoff getting to sport his actual voice for once (and you'll see why as he has a distractingly impenetrable Spanish accent). Along for the ride are a lot of performers you'll have no doubt come to recognize over the years of watching these films (ie. the security guard from ALIEN FROM THE DEEP and the chopper pilot from ROBOWAR both given fairly meaty roles for once). Richard Harrison even pops by for one of his final roles as a bigwig General near the beginning, though it's really more of a glorified cameo. There's a lot of expensive military ordinance on display, few lulls in the action, and big unrealistic and historically inaccurate battle scenes. Just the kind we like.
The Bad: This film is very, oh so very irritatingly 80's straight to its core. There's a lot of cheese to be had here and unsuccessful intentional comedy, and not really any of it works to do anything other than to derail a lot of the drama the film sets up in certain areas. Some jokes are so badly handled one would be hard-pressed not to laugh, reacting more to the sheer patheticness of the humor than to any clever execution. No attention was paid to credibility of course or even to making us believe for a second that the setting is early-70's Vietnam as opposed to late-80's Philippines. Kristoff is made up to look older with white dye in his hair, but it's inconsistent and shows up more in some places than others. Was anyone paying attention to continuity?
Frustratingly, this movie just jumps all over with its narrative and I wouldn't be surprised if the reels got out of order. There's one scene where they're wrestling in the mud with pursuing American soldiers, and then the next they're hiding out from V.C., and then back to duping the Americans again. Why? Did I miss something?
The Verdict: Trash action completists shall foam at the mouth to come across this incredibly hard-to-find treasure. The rest of you, depending on our mindsets while viewing it, shall either be baffled beyond comprehension or likely write off immediately as more innocuous 80's jungle antics with no plot and lots of explosions.
New Order (2012)
some interesting ideas, but otherwise a bit of a cheaply-made mess
I have to admit I'm a bit biased as I'm still a bit upset about being bamboozled into watching this film's Los Angeles premiere expecting (along with the rest of the audience) to be watching an entirely other movie. Nothing was announced - just the wrong movie starting playing but with the right actor (who was in attendance along with the embarrassed makers) so nobody said anything and just politely watched the movie so as not to be rude. At first I didn't even realize it was the full movie but more likely a trailer or short to pass the time, only to have it gradually dawn on me that nope, you're in it for the long haul.
A small group of English speakers are stuck in a secluded Italian villa while some sort of plague ravages the rest of the world. They bicker and fight with each other and eventually lose their minds while a disembodied doctor (Franco Nero) oversees everything like it's some kind of laboratory experiment.
As a film, its a bit overambitious considering its quite apparently meager budget. The plot has aspirations of covering how family units can form and then psychologically break apart under the stress of surviving an apocalyptic scenario. Unfortunately it's all quite talky and the cinematography is dire. There is too much shaky camera work, too much reliance on gimmicky stuff like Found Footage (one character just HAD to be an amateur videographer) and too much said without anything meaningful being communicated. The production values are cheap and there's never really a sense that the world is really as over as the movie wants us to think (the cars are clean modern models which still work great, everyone looks clean, well-nourished, has modern conveniences, etc.) and the sets are often obscured by the obtuse cinematography.
Franco Nero's presence is welcome but never really gels. Without him this would feel like a student film all the way but he lends the film an extreme amount of gravity and enthusiasm considering all others on the crew must have felt extremely lucky to have had him involved even if for just a day or two. His role feels like the very afterthought that it likely was though, as he never interacts with any other characters and all his dialog is in the form of tape recordings to himself. None of it really makes any sense as we don't even know who he's talking to or why other than to add tacky exposition, and the twist ending is an utter eye-roller rather than the shock I'm sure they were going for.
On the plus side, the sound design and musical score is nicely atmospheric and certainly would feel right at home in a bigger and better movie. Also relative newcomers David Wurawa and Margherita Remotti put a lot of heart into their performances and are the standouts of the film.