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Robo Vampire (1988)
What Are You Waiting For? Yes, Watch ROBO VAMPIRE.
Convincing a friend to watch ROBO VAMPIRE is an exercise in trust. It's near impossible to explain in any great detail what's so fun about it. It's something that has to be experienced first-hand. I had zero knowledge of what to expect when I first sat down to watch this beauty. It was one of 50 public domain Z-grade movies in a cheap collection I grabbed for $10. Then an Internet search brought me to the cover art of Robocop clutching what I assumed to be the titular vampire in the foreground while the world exploded behind them. I was sold, if cautious. What I proceeded to watch was beyond words. I was often so wracked with laughter that I was forced to pause the movie so I wouldn't miss a minute of it. It's hard to put the plot of ROBO VAMPIRE into words with any sort of confidence but I'll try my best to give you an idea. It's about heroin smuggling in Asia. There's a drug kingpin who's grown tired of a particular "anti-drug agent" (I'll assume he means DEA) named Tom, and he's hired a Taoist to train vampires to handle it. Tom dies in a bust gone wrong and, before his corpse has time to cool, he's turned into a robot cop. A sort of Robo-Tom. Meanwhile, in another potentially unrelated storyline, another "anti-drug agent" named Sophie is taken hostage by what may or may not be the same drug operation and a special team is sent to bring her home.
When the movie was finally over and I had endured the hurricane of pure insanity that was ROBO VAMPIRE, I found some info that gave some context to what I had just watched. There's a very distinct feeling that you're watching two entirely separate movies play out through ROBO VAMPIRE and that's because you essentially are. It was a product of Filmark International Ltd and producer Tomas Tang, who would shot a bunch of random martial arts footage and insert it into half-finished movies to create a cinematic Frankenstein. Once you're aware of that, it's impossible not to notice. It didn't click with me the first time I watched it but now I can't help but notice the whole Robo-Tom plot thread never once crosses over with the Sophie rescue thread. Not a single character crosses the border between stories. ROBO VAMPIRE is about 65% rescue and 35% robot versus vampires. This is all wrong. It needs to be 75% robot/vampires. Maybe more. The rescue operation has its moments. There's a great stunt dive when Sophie does a running jump through a window and we see a stocky, hair man in a bad wig and nightgown nail the landing. There's plenty of bloodless gunfights and martial arts battles with stuntmen throwing themselves around. The dubbing is generic action movie dialogue and characters are interchangeable because no one is anything more than one-dimensional. It serves its purpose but the real gold is to be found in the rare occasions when we rejoin Robo-Tom and the vampires.
Where to start?! Well not that anyone will be surprised but Robo-Tom looks nothing like Robocop. He's a no-budget rip-off, covered in silver-painted safety padding with goggles and a helmet. The vampires wear some sort of traditional Chinese dress and are at least given a little makeup to give the impression of decay on their faces. And they hop! These vampires can only movie via hopping, jumping, leaping, or straight up teleporting. Their attacks include corrosive smoke and bottle rockets fired from their sleeves. In addition to the hordes of regular vampires, there's one super vampire of which the Taoist is super proud. You can tell he's more powerful than the rest because the character has a gorilla's face (i.e. a gorilla Halloween mask). The super vampire is also in love with a ghost woman who is mad because she was hoping to live eternally in the afterlife with her beloved only to watch him become a vampire slave. The Taoist agrees to marry the two together as long as they are under his command. Meanwhile, Robo-Tom proves to be effective against vampires but still can't handle a direct bazooka blast. That's totally fine though because, even when he's melted to a puddle of liquid aluminum foil, all he needs is a little soldering a maybe a new battery before he's back on the beat. ROBO VAMPIRE is totally bonkers and, even when there's no robot or vampires on screen, never let's you get bored. The best news of all? There's two "sequels" out there from Tomas Tang that I haven't seen yet.
Bucket list updated.
I predatori di Atlantide (1983)
Super Stupid (and Mostly Fun) Mad Max Rip-Off
RAIDERS OF ATLANTIS is ninety minutes of straight gunfire and five minutes of expository dialogue with a sprinkling of bad jokes for flavor. Yes I'm embellishing but not by much. This is not a movie that's concerned with little things like "plot" or "making sense". It's an 80's action extravaganza! The movie poster looks like the packaging for an old Nintendo game, and it's blatantly trying to ape the success of the Mad Max movie franchise minus the talent. There's some fun to be found in RAIDERS OF ATLANTIS but I think it's in spite of itself. In the film, a United States military operation is attempting to raise a sunken Russian nuclear submarine from the ocean floor. When an ancient tablet is discovered near the site, a specialist is brought in to decipher it; enter Dr. Cathy Rollins (Gioia Scola), with a Ph.D. in pre-Columbian dialects. Almost immediately, there's chaos as a landmass in an enormous transparent dome rises from the ocean, emitting a tsunami wave that obliterates the military's ocean platform. Despite the destructive power of the wave, a small team of survivors, including Dr. Rollins, are found adrift aboard a piece of wreckage by our film's true heroes: Mike Ross (Christopher Connelly) and Mohammed (Tony King). Mike and Mohammed sorry, "Washington" are Vietnam veterans turned mercenaries who, along with our survivors, are drawn into a battle against the remnants of the lost continent of Atlantis whose descendants have risen from the waves to reclaim the Earth as their own.
Before Atlantis has even finished rising, before the glass dome over it has finished receding, the Atlantean hooligans have already arrived on our shores and announce their arrival by firing a blow dart into some poor woman's neck while her husband watches helplessly. These Atlanteans are nothing like what you'd expect. Unless you were expecting Mad Max rip-offs, then it's exactly what you expect. Classic cars and motorcycles dressed up in fake chrome and spikes. The Atlanteans are dressed in a lot of biker gear with straps and, of course, spikes, and they're all dolled up in face paint and zany hairdos. Their leader is a man in a Crystal Skull (Bruce Baron) and he wants Earth for the Atlanteans. He will lead his army of machete and knife-wielding maniacs in a violent coup against the human race. A short, violent coup. That will undoubtedly end in failure because all of his invaders are using bladed melee weapons and the people of Earth have fully functioning militaries with loads of guns. I guess the Atlanteans really underestimated us in their invasion plans. I mean, they do have guns we see them in use when our heroes invade Atlantis in the final act. But the raiders only brought melee weapons. We never get to see how easily our Earth militaries would make short work of the Atlanteans because they never get past a handful of survivors with automatic rifles and Molotov cocktails. It's a never-ending symphony of gunfire as Atlanteans are mowed down.
I'll give RAIDERS OF ATLANTIS credit: they give us a nice body count. In addition to the endless waves of Atlanteans gunned down, the filmmakers keep refreshing our team of survivors so we have a supply of fresh meat on the good side too. Most of the movie happens on an island the survivors stumble across where the Atlanteans have made landfall and murdered the coastal villagers. In this village, we find some extra tagalongs who can either fire guns while lamely wisecracking or die in spectacular ways. We get some cool violent ends in the form of decapitation, incineration, and one particularly cool arrow through the mouth/throat. But for every cool death scene we're treated to, there's an abundance of mindless gun battles that start to drag the pace down to a crawl. We hide in a building, shoot a bunch of Atlanteans, move to another building, shoot a bunch of Atlanteans, escape on a bus while shooting a bunch of Atlanteans. Snore. And that's the big weakness with RAIDERS OF ATLANTIS. Otherwise it's a fun, super cheesy Mad Max rip-off with some great unintentional laughs. The honest attempts at humor hit the ground with a thud (there's a total failure of a running gag for a few minutes where people keep calling Mohammed "Washington" and he corrects them until he doesn't and then he's just known as Washington for the rest of the movie) and serious moments are laughable (Mohammed/Washington's useful "Can't move! We're immobilized!" when they reach the Atlantean control room).
RAIDERS OF ATLANTIS is better than your average Z-grade fare with a lot of fun to be had in the juvenile writing and focus on near constant violence. The story itself is incredibly stupid and therein lies some of the charm. It would've been nice if they had traded a few minutes of guns firing for a little extra plot development, but I guess it just means you don't need to pay as much attention to follow along. It's another good one to watch with some friends over beers.
Life Returns (1935)
Why Isn't This About Robert Cornish...?
The tale of LIFE RETURNS is more interesting in what they're not showing you, rather than what they are. I was intrigued by the title card preceding the movie proclaiming, "This part of the picture was originally taken to retain a permanent scientific record of our experiment" and "Everything shown is absolutely real." It was presented as a sort of letter to the audience and it closed with the name Robert E. Cornish. Then it continues with yet more text, this time a scrawl that dedicated this "unusual screen play" to the "determination and genius of those men who have unselfishly devoted their lives to the service of humanity." So it's got a nice pro-science message, as opposed to the usual doom and gloom sci-fi morality tales. We then join three friends in college: Louise Stone (Lois Wilson), Robert Cornish, and John Kendrick (Onslow Stevens). For the record, Cornish actually plays himself for this movie. This matters little because, once our three friends graduate college with their doctorates following a brief montage, Kendrick breaks off from the trio to pursue the chance of performing his research at the Arnold Research laboratories. Rather than follow Cornish, who wrote us that nice letter for the opening and referenced his own experiments, we go along with Kendrick to his new life at Arnold Research. So Kendrick's our main character? All right, then. We're treated to some more quick glimpses of life moving along with news that Kendrick has married a socialite and had a son.
Life seems to be going smoothly for Kendrick for a while, practicing medicine while also continuing his research. What's his research involve? Oh, that's right: returning people from the dead. Not like zombies unfortunately; that'd be too fun. It's the ability to revive people from recent death due to accidents or illness. It's all going swell until the big boss pays a visit to the office and not only refuses a requisition order for new equipment but also shuts down Kendrick's research entirely. He wants him to focus on more important things in life, such as nail polish and assorted ointments. Then Kendrick's wife dies (incredibly suddenly) from an undefined illness. It's all going to crap now, and Kendrick is left to tend to his young son Danny (played by future director of THE MANSTER, George Breakston). Sadly, Kendrick can't keep it together. He's quit his work at Arnold Research (he wasn't interested in shifting his research to creating the ultimate hair-restoring brush), ditches his medical practice, and now the county has decided to take his son away. Honestly, it's probably for the best. Danny is to be placed in the county's juvenile hall since Kendrick isn't a fit father. Which is true; he's a total wreck at this point. Danny won't have any of it, and escapes with his dog Scooter to live among street hooligans in their makeshift clubhouse. The entire second half of the movie deals with Danny's new street life with his rascally friends and his attempts to pull his dad out of his rut.
Now back to what I said at the beginning. LIFE RETURNS is more interesting in what it's not showing you versus what it is. We waste an entire hour-long movie following the sorry luck of Kendrick and his son's street adventures with plucky 1930's street kids, but why aren't we following Cornish? This movie is (vaguely) about his true-to-life experiments in reviving the dead. Google him. He's a real dude. So why isn't this movie about him? When the trio of new doctors split, we should go with Cornish and see where his life goes. Instead we reconnect with him in the last ten minutes of the movie for the big experiment we were promised in the opening text. I had the thought that the surgical footage looked a little too real and I noticed the reaction shots from Dr. Stone and Danny seemed tagged on. Sure enough, it was and they were. The final ten minutes of this movie is one of Dr. Cornish's actual surgical procedures to return a being to life after death. So that's cool, I guess. I can't help but feel kind of bad for Cornish though because a lot of the victory goes to Kendrick because he needs his big win to end the movie on a high note. Cornish is performing the procedure, but the movie sort of gives Kendrick credit. It's a bummer for Cornish, and it's a bummer for us having had to sit through an hour of family drama and one man's total breakdown when we could've been following Cornish's tale the entire time. From the little bit I read about him on Wikipedia, I can guarantee it would've been way, way more interesting.
The Bat (1959)
THE BAT Fails to Create Tension with Clueless Characters
Here is a movie I really expected I'd enjoy. It appears to have gotten a lot more appreciation as time has passed from others since it's original release, but I've seen it twice now and I'm just bored. THE BAT stars Agnes Moorehead (better known to me as Samantha's mom on "Bewitched") and Vincent Price in a whodunit murder mystery in a mansion. Moorehead is famed mystery writer Cornelia van Gorder and she's renting a large manor over the summer to work on her latest novel. The home belongs to the local bank manager, John Fleming, who is on vacation at a cabin in the woods with his physician Dr. Malcolm Wells (Price). In the quiet solitude of the woods, Fleming admits to Dr. Wells that he has embezzled over a million dollars from the bank and he's got a plan to get away with it but he'll need the good doctor's assistance. He offers a cool half million for the doctor to kill someone (his plan involves moving the cash in a casket or something and he needs a body) and Wells responds by murdering Fleming and proceeding with the plan alone. Meanwhile, everyone back in town is nervous at rumors that a serial killer known as the Bat has returned. The Bat was a local killer who targeted women and whose weapons of choice are steel claws for throat ripping, and he's been dormant since the winter. Soon, Cornelia is alone in the mansion with a few close friends with a killer on the loose and a million dollars on the line.
THE BAT is a cool concept that's executed without any sort of excitement or suspense. There's the big mystery of whether the Bat has truly returned and who it might be, but there's so little sense of danger that, even when people are killed, the tension never really rises. The movie makes an effort to create red herrings and false leads but, ugh, I don't care. How can I be expected to? People in this movie are just so incredibly stupid. For example, there's a part early in the movie where Cornelia and her friend Lizzie (Lenita Lane) are alone in the manor with good reason to believe the Bat is in the house. A very good reason, in fact: they see his shadow in the hall. Claws and all. They lock themselves in the bedroom and call the police who insist a patrol car is outside and they've seen no prowlers on the premises. Rather than scream to the inept 911 operator that they've literally just seen the masked figure outside their door, Cornelia hangs up and the two agree they've overreacted. And then they go to bed. This sort of thing happens so often in the movie that it's frustrating. These people are too dumb to survive a slasher film so they're lucky the Bat seems more intent on messing with them. In one instance, he releases a live bat into their bedroom through the transom and it bites Lizzie in her sleep, sending her into a rabies panic.
It amounts to nothing, but at least he's having fun. And I guess it's meant to build further suspicion against Dr. Wells when we see him experimenting on bats in his office. Is Wells the Bat? Or maybe it's Fleming's nephew Mark, who rented the property to Cornelia? Or is it the butler?! I don't care. Seriously, the Bat spends almost as much time in the house as Cornelia and everyone is dead calm and carefree. Right after the first murder victim is discovered (in the house!) Cornelia decides to have a sleepover party with her friends. Around the 50 minute mark, I was just wishing for the Bat to do us a favor and finish them all off. Despite my obvious frustrations, the movie's not that bad. Vincent Price is always great, even though he's really not in the movie all that much. Agnes Moorehead, despite never so much as considering the option of leaving the house, does a decent job. Cornelia is a very strong-willed woman, even if she's horrible at making smart decisions. Sadly, the rest of the characters don't leave much of an impression. People are dying and I couldn't keep identities straight. At a slim 80 minutes, this movie feels twice as long and the big reveal isn't all that special. I'm not even really sure of the Bat's motivations. Was it the million dollars, as I assume it was? I was under the impression the number of people who even know about it could be counted on one finger. I don't know. THE BAT, ladies and gentlemen. Watch it or don't.
Evil Brain from Outer Space (1965)
This "Movie" is a Treasure. It Deserves an Audience.
In my 30+ years on this planet, I had never had the pleasure of discovering Starman. Then I bought a 50-movie collection of public domain films long-since lost in the sands of time and there it was buried on a disc amidst a handful of relatively forgettable cine-trash: EVIL BRAIN FROM OUTER SPACE. This "movie" is a treasure. It is something special, and it deserves an audience. Originally airing on television in 1965, EVIL BRAIN FROM OUTER SPACE is an amalgamation of three separate Japanese movies featuring the superhero Starman. Whether he is actually known as Starman in his own films (or if that's an American contribution) or if the plot of any of those three movies reflects in any way the disjointed through-line of EVIL BRAIN FROM OUTER SPACE (I doubt it), I couldn't say for certain. All I know is that this confusing bundle of fun was an absolute blast. The plot, as best I can decipher it: an alien genius was assassinated but his brain survived. This brain now has revenge on its um, mind. It focuses its vengeance on the planet Earth where it hopes to use its powers of mind control and manipulation to cause nuclear war. This nuclear war will then pollute space? Wasn't the movie STAR PILOT worried about nuclear space pollution originating from Earth too? Anyway, a space council on the Emerald Planet decides to send their hero Starman to Earth to combat the brain and prevent it from accomplishing its demented, nonsensical goals.
A quick introduction to Starman (Ken Utsui): he's a superhero from space that walks the Earth in disguise as a normal human and transforms into Starman through use of a space watch when danger rears its ugly head. I'm not sure of the reason for the disguise since he has no problem introducing himself in all its strange detail when questioned:
"I was not born on your planet Earth. Instead, I was sent here to save you from the Zemarians. You will die if I fail to kill him. Starman is what I am called."
This is his response to a simple "Who are you?" from a police officer that witnessed Starman (in his alter ego form) save a couple of school children from evil Zemarian henchmen. Rather than lock him up for sounding utterly nutty and having proved himself dangerous, the cop just accepts it. Starman has arrived on our planet to find a means of destroying the evil brain of Balazar in a race against time, but it doesn't mean he won't have time to save the odd citizen from danger. Who are Starman's allies in his battle against evil? Depends on which segment of the movie you're watching. There are three distinct segments to this movie and characters, good and evil, will come and go without much fanfare. Characters who appear in the first segment will disappear from the movie altogether or reappear at the end for a final appearance without explanation. We get two separate pairs of plucky children for Starman to comfort with promises of saving the world. The kids in the second segment are even key players for a while, stumbling across a secret alien base under a hospital to give Starman a reason to bust in and beat up some alien scum. Then the kids disappear from the movie and are later replaced with the original two children from the first segment who show up at the end of the movie inexplicably for the final few shots.
There isn't enough room to shower praise on everything I love in EVIL BRAIN FROM OUTER SPACE but here are some of the best bits:
- Starman's costume: he looks like Quailman (that's a "Doug" reference for those not in the know) joined a circus trapeze troupe.
- The evil Zemarians look like 1960's Batman at an EYES WIDE SHUT party: jumpsuits, capes, and cheap Halloween store domino masks. Also their salute is very Nazi-esque.
- The Zemarian mutants. Evil creatures created by the Zemarians that look like an Aztec carving of a monkey come to life and attack with solid cobalt claws (deadly to Starman).
- The fight scenes are phenomenal. The choreography is erratic and blows never seem to land. When Starman and the mutants use their powers to jump great distances, it's just a jump cut between locations. So, so wonderfully cheesy. Every so often, during a fight with a large group of baddies, Starman will throw one off screen; he then reaches off screen to retrieve a matching dummy for a super toss across the room.
- Literally EVERYONE has a secret passage leading to a secret Zemarian base.
- Sudden third act space witch! With nuclear fire attack action!
The list goes on and on. Whoever edited these movies together couldn't care less about their job. They were really banking on the English language dubbing to keep the audience in the loop on the story but it often fails. Things happen for no reason. Entire sequences are completely irrelevant. But as long as you keep the premise lodged in your head
Starman is here to save us from the machinations of the evil brain of Balazar
you'll do fine. I'm not suggesting you watch EVIL BRAIN IN OUTER SPACE for the compelling screen writing. I'm suggesting it for literally everything else. This is a movie where you get together with a group of friends, say good-bye to sobriety, and just laugh. I wish I could run you through every delightful moment of this "movie" but, really, you should just do yourself a favor and watch it.
The Manster (1959)
Cheesy Sci-Fi/Horror Fun
In the realm of science fiction drive-in fodder, THE MANSTER would fall on the more positive end of the spectrum. It's still pretty mediocre but it tries so much harder than the last movie I watched from this genre (NIGHT OF THE BLOOD BEAST). For starters, it's actually got some tension. Not much, but it's there and I actually felt engaged in the movie. Once you get past the lame title, there's a cool morality tale on the dangers of going too far in scientific experimentation. The scientist lacking any sort of ethics this time around is Dr. Robert Suzuki (Tetsu Nakamura). Dr. Suzuki's goals aren't the most clear but it seems to involve turning people into horrible murderous monsters (mansters?). Well, I suppose they aren't meant to be murderous but I'm not sure what he was expecting when he mutated people into hideous creatures. He operates out of his little mountain cottage in Japan with his beautiful assistant Tara (Terri Zimmern) and his sprawling laboratory hidden underneath. We open on one of his failed experiments getting loose and killing some locals before returning home where Dr. Suzuki shoots it and dumps the corpse in the furnace. You see, Dr. Suzuki just hasn't had much luck with these experiments. His first subject, his wife Emiko (Toyoko Takechi), is a babbling mutation locked in a pen and his latest failure bound for the furnace was his brother Genji. His prospects look hopeless until a reporter from the World Press comes knocking.
Enter Larry Stanford (Peter Dyneley), the oldest-looking 35-year-old reporter you'll ever see. Larry has been sent to produce a story on Dr. Suzuki. Dr. Suzuki doesn't have much to present to Larry at the moment, but he does see some potential in the man. What potential he can possibly see from an initial glance is unclear but it doesn't stop Suzuki from drugging Larry's drink and injecting him with his experimental serum. Who needs ethics in science, right? Now Suzuki just needs to wait it out and see what happens, so he invites Larry to hang out in Japan and pal around for a while. Suzuki bribes the man with saké, bath houses, and beautiful women. Seeing as how this is the first time we're spending any real time with our hero Larry, we're not given the best impression of him. We know he's married and his wife is in New York but he's quick to get wasted and accept some "quality time" with some lovely ladies. We come to find out this is part of the serum's effects. Larry's not normally a bad guy but the serum is making him give in to his baser instincts. He ends up screwing around Japan for so long that his wife Linda (Jane Hylton) and best friend Ian (Norman Van Hawley) come halfway around the world to pay him a visit. Larry's not having any of it though and tells them to beat it, which bothers Linda but not, I suspect, Ian.
I really get the vibe that part of Ian is hoping Larry's calling it quits because he seems a little too interested in comforting Linda, if you know what I'm saying. Still, he's doing his part as a good friend and even tries to put Larry in touch with a psychiatrist to help him through his apparent mental breakdown. Our man Larry isn't having any of it though. He just wants to get drunk and have his steamy fling with Suzuki's assistant Tara. The only problem is Larry's starting to experience some bizarre symptoms. Crippling arm cramps and strange hair growth indicate that there may be more to the new Larry than his new garbage personality. Things begin to get a little more interesting once Larry starts going down the path of Emiko and Genji but then, oddly, sort of stumble to a halt once his transformation is complete. There's some cool moments when Larry is mid-transformation and stumbling around with a second, monstrous head on his shoulders but the film's climax isn't all that exciting. A lot of best parts of THE MANSTER are in the first hour or so with the build-up but the ending falls flat for me. Overall I enjoyed THE MANSTER and the filmmakers did a fine job in crafting this forgettable little sci-fi/horror treasure. The plot moves along nicely and character motivations are somewhat clear. The creature effects are done well enough and the filmmakers were smart enough to hide what didn't work in shadows to keep the illusion alive. It won't change your life but THE MANSTER is a fine time-waster for fans of the genre.
Night of the Blood Beast (1958)
A Forgettable Piece of '50s Sci-Fi from Executive Producer Roger Corman
Imagine the most stereotypical example of 1950's drive-in science fiction and there's a good chance you'll be picturing something close to Bernard Kowalski's NIGHT OF THE BLOOD BEAST. From executive producer Roger Corman, this is an epitome of the genre with all of the tropes you'd expect to find. If it weren't so dull, I'd call it a must-see classic. In the film, astronaut Major John Corcoran (Michael Emmet) appears to die when his spaceship loses control and crash-lands back on Earth. In what has to be the world's least enthusiastic response to a crashed space rocket and the death of a national treasure, a small team of scientists is sent to investigate the site. Major Corcoran is pulled from the wreckage and brought to a nearby lab where cue the dramatic warbling sci-fi music it's discovered that there are some bizarre irregularities in the man's blood. He appears dead but the condition of his corpse would seem to disagree. Then a strange magnetic field starts to interfere with the radios, and a large unseen creature assaults a member of the team outside the lab. It appears Major Corcoran did not return to Earth alone and the team gets a chance to ask the man himself when he awakens from his strange state of "not quite death". It seems the major made a new friend in space and believes it accompanied him home with the best of intentions for mankind. Is the major telling the truth? Or is he under its control?
NIGHT OF THE BLOOD BEAST has everything you could want from a cheesy 50's sci- fi: creeping shadows, melodramatic performances, a failure to understand science, and that warbling music. My problem isn't necessarily with this movie in particular; I just don't think I'll ever find appreciation for them. It seems a lot of science fiction from that era relied on tales of the strange to keep the audience engaged. The problem is I was born in a time when there are literally millions of bizarre stories competing for my attention so something as trivial as man dies in space mission, returns to life, and serves as an alien communication device isn't enough for me. Not if it's going to be this plodding anyway. It feels unfair to call this pacing slow, though, because our astronaut returns to life and the alien makes its presence felt within the first 15 minutes. Things are happening in this movie, semi-interesting things too, but they're done without any sort of excitement. If the characters are this bored .and mind you, one of them is murdered then how can I be expected to get excited for it all? Things don't really get interesting until the end of the movie when we learn about the alien's intentions. It all culminates in a showdown at a nearby cave where the alien is cornered and is given a chance to explain its goal in a voice that sounds like Stan Lee through a megaphone. But is it a friend or foe?
If this movie were remade for modern audiences, it would be a horror/thriller with a higher body count and bloody remains but then we'd miss out on some fantastic alien costuming. The outer space blood beast in this movie is a wonderful blend of Swamp Thing, one of those stupid Minions, and a cartoon parrot mascot costume. It looks incredibly stupid but, if I'm going to watch cheesy '50s science fiction, it's what I want in my space monster. You've got to feel bad for poor Russ Sturlin, the man in the costume. It looks large and unwieldy. But it made for the best part of the movie. So would I recommend NIGHT OF THE BLOOD BEAST? Maybe. It's a little painful for modern cinema sensibilities but I bet fans of this particular era love it. It's got anything you could ask for in one of these movies with a memorably stupid alien costume to boot. I wouldn't be surprised to find out this has a cult following behind it and, regardless of how dull I found the movie, I think it'd be awesome to see someone in a blood beast costume at conventions or something. In my limited experience in this sort of film, I did enjoy it more than the Corman-directed WASP WOMAN but not by a whole lot. There are better ones out there. So, no, I guess I would recommend skipping this one. Or don't. I really don't feel too strongly one way or another here.
Paul Rudd's Ant-Man is a Welcome Addition to the MCU
Marvel Studios loves to flaunt their skills. They made comic book/superhero movies a cultural juggernaut, nailed the idea of a shared cinematic universe, and proved that even their strangest properties can have a home on the big screen where audiences will embrace them. If GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY didn't prove that Marvel can pretty much do whatever they want, ANT-MAN does. ANT-MAN was probably their highest risk venture since the original IRON MAN; a wealth of behind-the-scenes struggles gave the impression that the movie might never see the light of day and left some of us wondering if whatever was left would taint Marvel's amazing track record. Well, ANT-MAN has come and gone and, no surprise, Marvel nailed it. Our hero in ANT-MAN is Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a cat burglar freshly released from prison who hopes to turn his life around so he can spend more time with his young daughter. Society proves hesitant to forgive a felon even when his crime was punishing a corporation for ripping off its customers and Scott starts to wonder if a life of crime might be his only option after all. Rumors of an easy score lead Scott to break into the home of Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a genius inventor with former ties to S.H.I.E.L.D., and the discovery of the fabled Ant-Man suit. Of course, Pym was the one who started the rumor to test Scott's thieving skills because he needs the ex- con's help. One of Pym's former apprentice's, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), has nearly cracked Pym's technique for shrinking matter by lessening the space between atoms and he intends on selling this incredibly dangerous tech to the highest bidder. Pym needs Scott to become Ant-Man and use the incredible shrinking ability to pull off his most incredible heist yet, saving the world.
ANT-MAN, from director Peyton Reed and a handful of screenwriters, is so much better than it had any right to be. I was admittedly bummed when Edgar Wright left the project, citing creative differences, because I was excited to see what such a uniquely creative force would bring to the project. I understand some of Wright's contributions survived to the final product and I couldn't tell you who contributed what, but I really like the end result. ANT-MAN continues a trend that'd been developing within Marvel's second "phase" of movies where they experiment with the idea of creating superhero movies outside of the usual "good-guy-punching-bad-guy" genre. ANT-MAN is a heist film that just so happens to utilize a superhero that can shrink and communicate with ants. And it's just as much a comedy as an action film. Ant-Man's first big screen outing could've easily just aped IRON MAN and followed a familiar route but instead they took some risks that paid off in one of the more fun recent Marvel movies. Perhaps taking a cue from Chris Pratt's casting as Star Lord, comedian Paul Rudd was cast as the shrinking hero and he knocks it out of the park. His charisma and sense of humor make him a perfect hero, and he's got great chemistry with little Abby Ryder Fortson who plays his daughter Cassie. Moment of honesty: I get a little choked in the big (small?) final battle when Cassie is in danger, Scott Lang arrives on the scene and pops his faceplate up with a "Hi, peanut!", and Cassie just smiles broadly, forgetting for a moment she's being held captive by a super-villain. I can't not (yes, double negative) feel for the guy and, because he's Paul Rudd, he's just inhumanly likable. The character of Scott Lang, as played by Rudd, is a welcome addition to the Marvel franchise.
I also can't get over how strange it is to see legendary Michael Douglas acting in a Marvel film. And he's not some throwaway side character like Glenn Close in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY; he's Hank Pym! And he's not phoning it in either so, you know, extra bonus. He's having some fun here. I'm not sure the same can be said for Evangeline Lilly as Pym's daughter Hope van Dyne. She's cold and humorless for most of the film and doesn't start to warm up until we're nearing the big heist, so it makes it a little difficult to cheer for the inevitable hookup with Scott that the movie telegraphs from miles away. Coming out the worst is poor Yellowjacket/Darren Cross. Marvel's notorious for having trouble putting out three-dimensional villains in the films and Cross is one of the worst examples. He's motivated by anger toward Pym for not letting him in on the world of Ant-Man and I guess he's also going sort of crazy from shrink-related malpractice. He'll never stand up along the likes of Loki (has anyone?) but we do get a super-fun battle between the tiny hero and villain in a child's train set. Speaking of the shrinking, the visual effects in this movie are fantastic. I love the shrinking/enlarging effects and the ant design, and every time we get to explore the world from a micro-level is a blast. So congratulations to Marvel for this one. ANT- MAN went from my biggest concern to one of my more anticipated franchises. This movie teases fun directions for future films and I'm excited for any chance we'll get to revisit Ant-Man's unique perspective. Just keep the light-hearted sense of fun and humor and I'm sure this series will continue to stand out in an ever-growing sea of superheroes.
Peter Jackson's Epic Six-Movie Tolkien Series Ends with a Disinterested Shrug
Finally, Bilbo Baggins returns to the Shire. After three bloated movies originating from around 300 pages of content, we've reached the end and I'm so glad to be done with it all. After a total of six movies set in Peter Jackson's Middle Earth, I'm totally fine with never hearing the word Hobbit again. His HOBBIT series concludes with the grand finale, THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES. When we last saw Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), and their company of dwarven companions, they had been left to gape helplessly as the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) got tired of chasing them through the mountain kingdom of Erebor and took to the skies to burn neighboring Laketown to cinders. This movie rejoins the action at that very moment, abandoning the dwarfs to focus on Smaug and local hero Bard (Luke Evans), who chooses to engage the dragon. Ten or so minutes later, the whole dragon plot that kept us trudging to the theater for these movies is resolved and we spend the next three hours on the titular battle. You see, Thorin immediately begins to succumb to what the dwarfs call "dragon-sickness" and what us normal folk would call "greed". He's got his rightful kingdom back with more gold than he could ever need, and now he refuses to share it with anyone. The men of Laketown, led by Bard, come knocking in hopes of at least getting some gold for their dwarven-caused dragon troubles (i.e. the incineration of their entire town) and Thorin refuses. Even the woodland elves of Mirkwood Forest come stomping in with an army to demand a share. And, of course, the orc commander Azog has unfinished business with Thorin, having devoted two full previous movies to hunting the would-be dwarven king in hope of ending his bloodline. So all of these armies converge on the front lawn of Erebor for wait for it the battle of the five armies.
Six movies deep into this franchise and I can safely say THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES is my least favorite of the bunch. I was so burned out on Middle Earth by the time this movie came around that I refused to see it in the theater. It's the only Peter Jackson/Tolkien movie that I never saw in the theater. I didn't bother watching it until the extended editions were released. In a movie that already feels like 90% filler, I can only imagine what had been added after the theatrical release. Sadly, most of this movie is utterly forgettable. The visual effects are impressive and the 45 minute final battle sequence certainly looks good, but did we need any of this? I don't think so. And, come on, 45 minutes is just too much. That's 45 minutes of CGI swarms of dwarfs, elves, orcs, and men hacking and slashing at each other and the occasional diversion to see what our heroes are doing so the story can keep pushing on. This means that every so often we'll break way so we can see I don't know Legolas (Orlando Bloom) hanging upside down from a giant bat monster while swinging his arms wildly to slice and dice a bunch of cartoon monsters that aren't really there. If I sound biased against this movie, it's because I believe its existence to be completely unnecessary and the whole exercise of creating it a gratuitous waste of time for Jackson and his crew. Tolkien's tale could've been handled in two better-paced films. I've been against the heavy use of CGI in these movies since AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY was released and this film just shoves it in my face with unmercifully long sequences of those same hated CG effects bouncing off each other. Would it have killed them to use some of those amazing practical costume/makeup effects for orcs in the foreground to give it an added sense of realism?
THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES is only really interesting for the first act and the final act. Everything in the middle could've been trimmed generously. Unfortunately, when the big tragic moments begin to happen in the final act of the battle, I'm so worn out from the battle itself that they hold no weight. By that point, I'm just wishing we could skip to the end. THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES isn't a horrible film but I can't imagine it rising to the top and becoming anyone's favorite Jackson/Tolkien movie. It's got some nice stuff in there. Martin Freeman is still perfect for the role of Bilbo, even if he has nothing to do here. I loved the addition of Billy Connolly to the cast as Thorin's cousin Dain and I loved his behind-the-scenes interviews even more, where he admits that he never cared for Tolkien's work and freely mocked anyone who did. Smaug is still awesome for what little time we're given with him, and Jackson even found a way to shoehorn Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, and Christopher Lee into the series one last time. If I remember the novel correctly, Tolkien spares us the full details of the battle, choosing to knock Bilbo out when the action starts and filling him in later. In my ideal cut of Jackson's HOBBIT series, we'd get the same treatment. Bilbo is knocked unconscious and the movie would fade out; we fade in, the battle is over, the surviving characters fill us in on what happened in the form of a flashback montage. Keeps the movie a pleasant length and spares us from battle fatigue. In retrospect, I still enjoy Jackson's HOBBIT movies. The first one is enjoyable enough and was actually pretty solid. This third one though
ouch. An epic six movie series and it ends with a shrug. That's the real disappointment.
Top Line (1988)
Fun on the Run with Franco Nero in a Sci-Fi Adventure
Oh man, oh man, oh man. I love it when I stumble across a beautiful gem buried amidst a pile of garbage, and the latest gem is a little Italian science fiction adventure from 1988 called TOP LINE. TOP LINE promises one thing then delivers another, in the best possible way. Take a gander at its poster and it seems to promise a riveting adventure in the vein of an Indiana Jones film, with stars Franco Nero and Deborah Barrymore swinging from a rope (in improbable stances) across a chasm in a deep cave with the busted wreckage of what appears to be a steamship in the background. This imagery is slightly misleading in that a) it's not a steamship they find in the cavern but a 15th century wooden galleon of some sort (if I'm remembering correctly), b) Barrymore's character isn't present when it's discovered, and c) this movie is way, way more than the average adventure film that this poster promises. For starters, the film's alternate title was ALIEN TERMINATOR and, oh my yes, it delivers on this promise. Let's start with some context. Nero plays Ted Angelo, an alcoholic writer who's been living in Colombia on his publisher's dime while trying to put together his next piece of work. Tired of waiting for Angelo to sober up and do his job, his editor/ex-wife Maureen (Mary Stavin) fires him, offering to buy him a plane ticket back home to Italy. By a stroke of luck, Angelo stumbles across an old Aztec dagger in the possession of his Colombian sexy-time friend? Anyway, he makes plans to sell the dagger and make a nice profit but problems arise when those he contacts about selling it are murdered. Fearing for his life, he traces the dagger back to where it was found and discovers something that puts him at the top of everyone's hit list.
You should be warned: the first twenty minutes or so of this movie are pretty dull. At this point, it's just getting all the exposition out of the way. Angelo is an alcoholic. He's a writer, lives in Colombia. Spends most of his time passed out amid a swarm of empty bottles or cans instead of working. He's divorced and still works for his ex-wife (that takes some guts) and he seems like a bit of a running joke amongst his peers. Then, one day, his I really don't know hotel masseuse (?) busts out with an ornate Aztec dagger she borrowed off her boyfriend and Angelo has dollar signs in his eyes. At this point, the movie still has a very low-budget Indiana Jones vibe. Angelo is trying to find a fence for this hot product (it's mentioned that it's a crime to sell artifacts) but people are dropping dead around him. Worried it might've been stolen from the private collection of a powerful antique dealer (George Kennedy), Angelo traces it the dagger back to where it was discovered, an enormous cavern containing the wreckage of an old wooden sailing ship and more. Now TOP LINE ditches any Indiana Jones adventure pretense and goes full science fiction and Angelo discovers an alien spacecraft hidden within. Now Angelo, the writer, has the story of the century as long as he can find someone that will believe him. This was one of the movie's funniest elements, in my opinion: Angelo desperately pleading like a mad man for someone to believe his tale of an ancient buried alien ship. I'm sure the filmmakers wanted us to feel the tension but it instantly melts away the moment I hear Nero raving about "flying saucers". Now, for the remaining hour or so of the movie's runtime, TOP LINE becomes one long awesome chase and this is where it gets interesting.
The last hour of this 90 minute movie makes it all worthwhile. Angelo is chased by increasingly dangerous opponents. One of my favorite parts of the film has Angelo evading capture by ditching his shoes (to confuse the men tracing his footsteps in the sand) and running barefoot into the desert. This turns out to be the worst possible thing he could've done because the deranged antique dealer then begins a low-speed car chase wherein he trails poor Angelo, forcing him to run barefoot through a long stretch of cacti. He just idles along behind Angelo, laughing insanely and nudging him along with his bumper when he stumbles to his knees in exhaustion. When Angelo tries to bring this UFO to the world's attention through a major New York news outlet, it sends a team immediately to South America to accompany Angelo back to the alien craft. But, surprise! Even the news crew is a secret team of assassins out to silence him. The only person he can trust is a woman named June (Barrymore) whom
and I'm being completely honest
I don't even remember being introduced. I'm sure it happened at some point in the first boring 20 minutes but I had no recollection of who she was or why she was suddenly along for the ride. I don't know who she is, but I'm sure she regrets her unfortunate involvement when they're suddenly faced with the (alternately) titular alien terminator, which doesn't even make an appearance until the last thirty minutes. Poor Angelo has the local police, the secret service, the military, the freakin' KGB, and now an alien death machine intent on silencing him. And it all culminates in a final showdown where Angelo learns the truth behind it all and learns an unlikely secret about his past. TOP LINE is a blast. It's stupid fun, Franco Nero does a great job, and it moves at a brisk pace once the action kicks in around 25 minutes into the film. I very much recommend fans of low-grade cinema seek this gem out.