2.25.2017

80's Thriller Throwback: Messenger of Death

Messenger of Death VHS cover scan courtesy of VHSArchive.blogspot.com
Messenger of Death has been on my radar for a long time, mainly because it's a film that Bronson made with both Cannon Films and director J. Lee Thompson, a frequent collaborator. Back in the 80's, Bronson, and sometimes together with Thompson, made a number of films for Cannon Films on a yearly basis, which would include some of his best and most loved classics like 10 to Midnight, the Death Wish films, AssassinationKinjite, and this one. Recently I picked up a cheap 3-Film Pack that included this film, The Mechanic and Assassination for an insanely low price of $5. You just can't beat that! Naturally, this was the first film I dug into, so let's get started.

A massacre of a Mormon family leads to a rivalry between 2 opposing heads, who are also brothers, of a Mormon branch. Reporter Garrett Smith feels that there's more to the murders than a simple rivalry between brothers, and sets out to investigate what's really going on.

Messenger of Death was interesting in that it's not an action film like I was anticipating. It doesn't take away from the fact that it's a solid film, because it is. I was just surprised. In fact, when I look back on it, especially in the way it ended, this film easily could have been a Movie-of-the-Week or a Made-for-TV film. It's that kind of film; simple, not overly violent, no nudity, and more of a mystery/thriller than anything. I think it's all these elements that really kind of threw me for a loop, yet it's all done really well because J. Lee Thompson is an accomplished director.

As far as Bronson goes, well, he's pretty much playing the same exact character that he plays in nearly every single film. Really, other than a change in name, he's essentially just playing Paul Kersey from the Death Wish films. But you know, that's fine. It works. Charles Bronson plays it all the same, Bronson style and it's effective and even a bit comforting in a certain sense.

There's really nothing major that makes this film stand out from the pack. There's no real hardcore violence, other than in the beginning, and the film is pretty simple and straight-forward. The ending even made me chuckle a bit, because it's the sort of ending that you'd see on a television show drama. Yet it's a very well made film and engaging enough to keep you invested, even if the majority of the film is just Bronson doing a lot of investigating and asking questions. It's effective in a practical yet entertaining way because Thompson, Bronson and Cannon know how to sell it and make it look good.

While I wouldn't say this is one of the best collaborations between them, it's certainly a worthwhile effort. You might not be blown away, but you'll most certainly enjoy it nonetheless if you're into these kinds of films. And thankfully, I am.

2.23.2017

90's Action Attack!: Hired to Kill

Hired to Kill 1990 VHS Release






































1990
Directed by: Nico Mastorakis
Category: Action

"No man on earth could get him out of prison alive. Seven women did."

If you watch as many Direct-to-Video Low-Budget action movies as I do, then you know that a majority of them are just alright. Some end up being forgettable, some end up being just plain terrible, and then some will just blindside you out of nowhere and end up being amazing. This is one of those films.

Brian Thompson (Cobra) plays Frank Ryan, a mercenary who's hired to sneak into South America and rescue an imprisoned rebel leader. To do this, he must go undercover as a gay fashion photographer, and will have to hire and train 7 women to be both models and assassins to be able to pull this job off. 

You'll know in the first 5 minutes whether this film is your cup of tea or not, because right off the bat, it's blatantly absurd in a very cheesy late 80's/early 90's kind of way - the kind of action film I just so happen to be obsessed with. None of it is on purpose either, it's all done straight in a legitimate way, which makes it all the more amazing and hilarious. If you're into this kind of thing, then Hired to Kill delivers on every level. It's a film that, while a bit goofy, fires on all cylinders to deliver exactly the kind of action film experience that I just love to death; cheese, action, explosions, nudity, one-liners, awesome and unintentionally hilarious.

He's so cool he does this sitting down
Brian Thompson just rules so hard in this. It's like this role was tailor made just for him. We all know him as The Nightstalker from Cobra, and a slew of other minor roles in films like Three Amigos!, Alien Nation and Fright Night Part 2, but he was highly prolific during this time, taking bit parts in television shows as well as big budget and low budget features, and even starring/headlining in a few here and there. Of all the films I've seen him in, and it's a lot, I'd never actually seen one where he was the star, and where he wasn't the villain, so just with that alone, I was pretty excited going in.

What can I say? Thompson is a badass in this. He really is. From his very first second of screen time, which is literally the very first image of the film, he exudes a cool, tough guy, machismo that is a bit ridiculous, yet so unintentionally silly and hilarious. How cool is he? Well, when his alarm clock goes off, instead of just pressing a button to turn it off, he instead pulls out a gun from under his pillow and shoots it, without ever opening his eyes. That kind of cool. His "I don't give a shit" attitude is what really sells it though. First and foremost, it's the cheesy dialogue, but it's also in his delivery. He seems to just really hate women in general, and because of this, his character is fascinatingly entertaining in an overly macho way, like he's overcompensating for something. It's highly amusing, and Brian Thompson sells it like nobody else does. It's really a shame he never got the chance to do more films like this as an action star. If this film proves anything, it's that Thompson should have been given more opportunities like this other than typically playing a villain.

I'd never heard of Greek writer/director Nico Mastorakis before this. It seems though that he was a pretty busy guy, throwing out a good 2-3 films per year during the 80's and 90's. I think what surprised me a bit was that he didn't just stick to action. Comedy seemed to be a genre he constantly came back to, as well as horror and thrillers. Yet, if this film is any indication, action seemed to be his calling. As I look into them all though, it seems the "quality" of his work varied greatly from film to film, as is usually the case with these type of filmmakers. Jim Wynorski, Richard Pepin and Joseph Merhi are other examples of genre directors I love for certain films, but tend to offer work that is sub-par, or falls flat for the most part. It would seem Mastorakis easily falls under the same category; a director who has a few solid standouts, but otherwise who's large output of films are pretty forgettable. It's a bit disappointing too, because just based on his work in this film, he does a pretty great job in terms of his camera setups, action sequences and editing. Or, a decent enough job that benefits the material.

There's so much to love about this film. Not only does it deliver on the action, but just the premise alone, about training 7 women to become assassins, and heading into South America under the false pretense that they're famous fashion models, is just ridiculously awesome. There are moments that the film is just so absurd, that they apparently didn't stop and think how plausible any of it would be. For example, there's a scene where Ryan (Brian Thompson) is training the women in a camp ground, and using cardboard cutouts as targets that pop up. Some of them are of him, and some of them are of the notorious leader they'll be going up against to get to the other leader they're attempting to rescue. The bad guy is none other than Oliver Reed. Yes, that's right. And so when these cardboard cutouts of him appear it's quite hilarious. You think "how did they get this perfect image of him? And when and how the hell did they get these made?". It's just so random and unapologetically silly, but that's what makes this film so great.

Hired to Kill has everything you could want in a film like this; nudity, tons of action, explosions, one-liners that rival the best of Schwarzenegger, an absurd but highly enjoyable premise, and a scene where Brian Thompson kisses Oliver Reed. It's a nonstop ride of nonsense, cheesy fun, action-packed and entertaining as hell. It's exactly the type of film you hope it will be.

How To See It:
Long available strictly on VHS, which you can get for around $10 or under, depending on the seller, Arrow Films recently released this on a DVD/Blu Ray combo last year that includes a gorgeous new widescreen transfer (it's never looked so good), new interviews with writer/director Nico Mastorakis and Brian Thompson, and a few other goodies. But to be honest, I had a blast watching this on VHS,  it just adds that extra bit of nostalgic spice to the experience. And as much as I love the film, I don't really feel it's the type that needs a new spiffy cleaned up transfer. But, that's just me. I know others love to upgrade their collection from format to format and believe me, I get it. I do the same thing with certain films. I just don't feel like this is one of them. But kudos to Arrow Films for doing it, because ultimately, it will allow this hidden gem find a larger audience.

2.22.2017

Deep Rising: Stephen Sommers Insanely Fun Creature Feature


1998
Directed by: Stephen Sommers
Category: Creature Feature

Have you ever seen this film? No? I'm not surprised. Neither had I until just the other day. Maybe it was the terribly amateur promotional material that never caught your eye? Or the fact that it didn't star a big name actor? I mean, I know who Treat Williams is, but my wife had never heard of him. Too bad, because guess what? This is quite frankly one of the most entertaining and fun Creature Feature's ever made.

Deep Rising is about as good a time as you'll ever have watching a film. Really, it just doesn't get any better than this in terms of fun. By combing elements of The Thing, The Deep, Poseidon, and a slew of others, Sommers incorporates action, comedy and horror elements to create a thrilling roller-coaster ride that literally never lets up right from the beginning. And it's because of this that I struggle with the fact that it's not a popular film by any means, and that it probably hasn't ever been discovered by the average moviegoer simply because it looks like a cheap 90's low-budget film, when in fact it's the opposite. A bit goofy for sure, but in a way that works well for the material and not overly done. 

A crew of mercenaries hire a boat captain to take them to a destination, no questions asked. When the boat reaches it's destination, a luxury yacht, they find it abandoned, without power and torn to shreds. Once aboard, they soon discover that they're not alone, and worse yet, they're being hunted. 

Writer/Director Stephen Sommers may not have a reputation as a quality filmmaker, but I'll be damned if his films aren't entertaining as hell. And sadly, he never really gets the credit he deserves as a competent filmmaker who makes films, while cheesy, that are quite fun. Take for example, Odd Thomas, his last feature film, released in 2013. Simply based on the cover alone, it doesn't look or seem all that interesting. In fact, it sat in my Netflix list forever before finally giving it a watch, only to discover it was a very engaging and endearing comedy/fantasy/horror film that also managed to tug at your heart strings. Deep Rising, a highly enjoyable and spirited homage to monster movies he made all the way back in 1998, a year before hitting it big with his remake of The Mummy in 1999, also suffers from the same issue as Odd Thomas, in that it's just a very mediocre cover that doesn't really sell the film all that well. In fact, the cover to Deep Rising is far worse than Odd Thomas and comes off as a film that would premiere on the Syfy Channel. Only it's not! It's in fact a very well made, and highly enjoyable Creature Feature that despite being made in the late 90's, pulls off some rather impressive effects work, but more importantly, is just a very fun film overall.



One of the things that I loved about this - among many, many others - was that the cast is so large, and so recognizable that I had a blast picking each and every one of them out. Treat Williams kind of came in at the last minute to replace Harrison Ford, and if this film does anything, it's that it proves Williams should have been given more opportunities like this to lead a big film. He's such a natural at it, and exudes a snarky confidence and charisma that really, you just don't see very often. He's also a badass when the time calls for it.

One of the more interesting things to note about this large eclectic cast is that there isn't a single character to root for in here. In fact, they're all terrible human beings; criminals, thieves and whatnot who are only put into this situation through bad intentions and greed. Watching bad things happen to bad people ends up being surprisingly fun in this film. Along for the ride are a host of regular bad guys and character actors like Wes Studi, Kevin J. O'Connor, Jason Flemyng, Cliff Curtis, Clifton Powell, Trevor Goddard, and Djimon Hounsou that give the film a very 90's "throwback" vibe.

It helps that Rob Bottin (The Thing, Total Recall) is along for the ride to design and create the monster/creature. I must say, for a film that relies solely on CGI to create it, it's done effectively well, even by today's standards. Wisely, they only show bits and pieces of it until the big reveal later, but even then, there's a classiness to it all that only talent like Bottin and Sommers can bring to the table. You'll definitely notice hints of other monster designs, but ultimately it comes off as something all it's own.



Deep Rising doesn't really offer anything new to the Creature Feature genre, but what it does do and does really well is make a roller-coaster ride of it, when most tend to stick primarily to the horror genre. This one effectively manages to blend several genre's seamlessly together, offering ample amounts of action, gore, excitement, suspense, and laughs, to satisfy any taste, no matter what you're in the mood for. It's all in here. It sounds cheesy, I know, but the movie is cheesy, yet in the absolute best possible way, and if you're a fan of Stephen Sommers films, or just are aware of his particular style of filmmaking in general, then you shouldn't be surprised. It carries all of his usual action/adventure/comedy trademarks, and proves that even confined to a single setting like a luxury yacht, he can  deliver the goods. Deep Rising was far better than I was expecting and a helluva great time. 

2.21.2017

Schwarzenegger VS Stallone: 1987

Back in 1987 Stallone and Arnie were both going toe to toe vying for the top spot at the box office. In fact, this was a regular theme between these two giants who would both rule the box office throughout the 80's, the height of their stardom, specifically in the action genre. There were no bigger action stars than these two, and they would continually battle it out for their entire run in the 80's and most of the 90's, until their star power began to wane, paving the way for new action stars like Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme.

1987 was a critical year for these two. Stallone had delivered the most successful Rocky film in the entire franchise with Rocky IV in '85, but followed it up with Cobra the following year, which sadly didn't do the type of box office business Cannon Films or Stallone were hoping for. Though it's considered a Stallone classic today (and a personal favorite of mine), back in 1985 it came and went with little fanfare. Stallone was needing a hit, and Cannon Films was really banking on this tale of an arm-wrestling truck driver who is trying to reconnect with his son after the death of his ex-wife, so much so in fact that they gave Stallone his biggest paycheck to date. Unfortunately that also drove up the films production cost to an unheard of 25 million for a film that's essentially a drama, and even with Stallone's star power, the film wasn't able to recover those costs. Ultimately the film bombed big time, thus spiraling Cannon Films further into bankruptcy. 

Schwarzenegger was in a better place. 1985 saw the release of one of his biggest and most well loved action films with Commando. But he followed that up the following year in 1986 with Raw Deal, a huge misfire, and a film he only did to finish up his contract with mega-producer Dino De Laurentiis so he could move onto other projects. Even today, Raw Deal never gained any type of cult status and remains one of Arnie's least liked films. Raw Deal suffers from numerous issues, most of which boils down to Schwarzenegger just being terribly miscast in the role. Still, it does have it's fair share of fans though - some do actually enjoy it. I recently gave it another shot and still feel the same way I did all these years - I just don't like it. But then he released Predator in 1987, a true sci-fi/action classic in every way imaginable, and one of the biggest hits of his career at the time. So he was in no need for a safety net at this point; Predator completely made up for Raw Deal in every sense of the word. Surprisingly, this year saw the release of another film of his, which oddly enough, rarely ever happened in Hollywood. In the 90's this would be commonplace, with action stars delivering multiple films in a single year. But back in the 80's, that was not the case. On the home video market today though, it's the norm.

 The Running Man, based on a short story by Stephen King under the alias Richard Bachman, was supposed to be another mega-blockbuster for Arnold, a futuristic sci-fi action film that would cement his status as king of the box office. But unfortunately the film was suffering from behind-the-scenes problems right from the beginning, which somehow translated equally into the final product, resulting in a film that bombed at the box office in the same way Sly's Over The Top did. In fact, I specifically remember an interview with Schwarzenegger who took full responsibility for it's failure, saying that he knows the public expects better of him and he would not let them down again. While The Running Man did turn a small profit, unlike Over The Top, it was not the return the studio, producers, and Arnold himself were expecting, with the negative critical reaction pretty much being the nail in the coffin.

Lasting Legacy:

The main issue critics and filmgoers had with both of these films is that they felt they were cheesy, and they would be right. Both of these films are incredibly cheesy in a very 80's kind of way, yet today, we celebrate them for that very thing. I've recently revisited both of these films and found myself enjoying them for the very reasons they were maligned in the first place. In fact, if I am to be completely honest, I did not like either of these films for the majority of the 30 years since their original releases. The Running Man I revisited about a year or two ago and just fell in love with. Not again, but for the very first time. I loved it's Made-for-TV look and feel, and it's insatiably cheesy atmosphere and endless one-liners easily make this a standout among Arnie's filmography. In fact, upon revisiting this, it's become an essential piece of classic Schwarzenegger for me, and a film I've revisited often since then. 

When Netflix offered Over The Top as part of their lineup some months back, I took the opportunity to give it another whirl because I just never connected with it before. So I really didn't know what to expect going in, but I was willing to give it another shot and have an open mind. My reaction to the film when it was over was not at all what I was expecting. In a nutshell, I fucking loved it. I loved it so much. The Running Man was cheesy, but this was insanely cheesy. So much more cheesy in every way imaginable and it was amazing. Yes it's a drama, but it's so utterly ridiculous at nearly every turn it becomes legendary. Yes, you read that right. Over The Top, a arm-wrestling road trip love story about a trucker reconnecting with his son is a legendary slice of 80's cheese and it's magnificent.

At their core, they each offer something totally and tonally different, yet entertain in the exact same way because while they will never be a highlight in either of their career's, they're ability to perfectly capture a very 80's cheesy quality is insurmountable. In 1987 they were considered flops, 30 years later they're considered cult classics, and time has been extremely kind to these two behemoths of 80's goodness.

These two films were only very slight blemishes on their careers, because they would both go on to recover nicely. Arnold would release Twins the following year, a comedy no less, and would be one of his biggest hits, much to the surprise of the industry. Sly would have to work a bit harder. His next film would be Rambo III, my favorite in the series, but would also flop, not due to it being a bad film, but rather the very definition of bad timing as, much like in the film, Russia was in fact invading Afghanistan at the time. Stallone would have to hit the ground running, often delivering 2 films a year, some great and some that flew under the radar, but none would be the mega-blockbuster he needed to dethrone Schwarzenegger as the reigning champ at the box office. Sly delivered more films, but Arnold's made more money. 

If I had to choose which I loved more between these two films, I don't think I could. I love them both equally for very different reasons. They both deliver on a very special unique quality that made the mid 1980's so special, and if anything, prove that even at their worst, these two films have withstood the test of time, for better or worse, to become certified cult classics. Which is your favorite?

2.18.2017

John Wick: Chapter 2 Film Review


2017
Directed by: Chad Stahelski
Category: Action

When the first John Wick came out back in 2014, I was a bit blindsided by how effective it was as a pretty standard, yet highly entertaining action flick. You see,  I just love action films. I'm talking any kind of action film- I don't discriminate. 80's action, 90's action, sci-fi action, low-budget action, big budget.....you name it. I live for this stuff and I can never get enough of it. So when a modern day action film comes out and it's "not" filled with obnoxious handheld/shaky-cam/quick-edit garbage (the standard for modern day action films), well that's something that you tend to notice. At least I do anyway. What's even more impressive is that the film looked incredible. Aside from the fact that they bypassed this whole visual gimmick altogether, they really took their time giving the film an overall slick sheen that you just never see in action films these days. I wouldn't necessarily call it a throwback to action films of the 80's and 90's (and I don't think they were even trying), but when a good 95 percent of modern action films are generally nausea-inducing, John Wick was a breath of fresh air.

John Wick kind of crept up on us and became a sleeper hit, thus thrusting Keanu Reeves back into the big leagues, and more importantly, a possible new franchise. The popularity of this film, and primarily the character of John Wick, begged for a sequel, and if there's anything Hollywood can guarantee, it's that they're predictable, so of course a sequel was inevitable. In fact, I'm sure the machine was already rolling before we even gave it a thought. So here we are, 3 years later, same star, same writer, but this time only one-half of the original directing duo.



After Thursday night's advanced screening of the film, reviews began pouring in all over the internet, unanimously praising it as a bigger, bloodier, more violent, and all-around better film than the first. So it was a bit hard to not go in with some rather high expectations. Plus, it was an action film, so my enthusiasm was nearly tangible going into my sold-out Saturday night screening. The theater was packed, the crowd was pumped, and the avidity was palpable. Let's dig in.

John Wick is brought out of retirement and forced to pay a debt, only to be double-crossed with a large bounty put on his head.

John Wick: Chapter 2 was good, a solid effort and I enjoyed it for what it was, but I didn't love it. I didn't feel that it lived up to the early hype and while entertaining enough, it didn't blow me away the way I had hoped. As a film, it's a very good and solid modern day action film. The stunt-work (the heart of this franchise) was on point, and Keanu once again proves that despite being over 50, can go toe to toe with the younger guys in the industry on a physical level. Chad Stahelski's direction packs a punch both visually and technically, which really isn't something you can say about directors in the current state the genre sits. Right off the top of my head only 2 come to mind, Antoine Fuqua, who consistently impresses me with every new film, and Adam Wingard's work on The Guest back in 2014. In fact, now that we're on the subject, I feel compelled to mention that 2014 is an important year for this genre. Not only did John Wick come out of nowhere to take the reigns as the biggest surprise in that year, but it was also the year that 2 other similar films came and went without nearly the same fanfare as Wick, yet I personally found to be better films overall. That would be The Guest, and Fuqua's The Equilizer, with Equilizer being the better film of the 3 in my humble opinion. I think John Wick blindsided the industry and the general public with it's visceral neon colored punch, which also worked double-duty as a welcome return to form for Keanu, who hadn't had a bonafide hit since the last Matrix film in 2003.

Leaving the theater a bit underwhelmed also left me dismayed. I don't know, as much as I wanted to love it, I kind of felt like it was following the same recipe as the first film in terms of beats. It's not the same story, thankfully, but it tended to follow the same pattern and quite honestly, felt like it was going through the motions from time to time. Yet it's not a bad film, not in the least. It's another solid effort from the same team, and only reaffirms director Chad Stahelski's status as one of the more gifted action directors to emerge in a very long time. Is it better than the first film? No. Is it a good action film? Yes. I just kind of struggled with the fact that while the action was brutal and plentiful, it was slightly numbing and tedious after a while. And then I go back to the verity that here we have a hard R-Rated film in a time when that is practically unheard of because it almost guarantees less money for the studio, so they tend to water down these action films to make them PG-13, the way they do with the frustratingly dull Expendable franchise. I like that about these John Wick films. I like that the team making it do not cater to the studio chiefs by delivering a safe action film, one that would more than likely guarantee a return at the box office. Hell, they even included smoking, which as odd as it sounds, is something you also rarely see in any film or show anymore. And that's why these John Wick films are significant, because whether you enjoy them or not, they don't abide by the studio guidebook, instead choosing to bend the rules a little bit to create something that feels almost retro and encouraging at the same time.



This sequel smartly boasts a few of the key players from the first film like John Leguizamo as his mechanic, Lance Reddick as the Continental's front desk guy, and the oh so charismatic Ian McShane as Winston, the guy in charge. But some of the welcome new additions include Ruby Rose (Orange is the New Black) as a mute assassin, rapper turned actor Common as a loyal bodyguard, and most enjoyably, a reunion of sorts with Laurence Fishburne, his Matrix costar, as Bowery King, chewing up his scene's deliciously. The standout for me personally was Italian actress Claudia Gerini, the victim to Wick's debt/job, who comes off as startlingly familiar, yet I just can't seem to place her. Though her screen time is limited, she leaves a strong and lasting impression, even down to the manner of her death, which comes off a bit unexpected in a good way.

John Wick: Chapter 2 gives us everything we've come to expect from an action film and tries really, really hard to top the first one and give us something we haven't seen before, and only half succeeding. It's a formidable attempt, full of style, substance and machismo, but fails to really offer anything new other than an insane amount of head-shots and long-take choreography, something that's all too rare in these films today. It's not a better film than the first one, but sometimes that's okay. It just needs to be entertaining, and for most people, that's enough.

2.17.2017

Blu-Ray Essentials: Band of the Hand

This is a month late, but just in case you were not already aware, you can finally pick up this obscure 80's classic on Blu Ray courtesy of Mill Creek. Now, this is kind of a big deal because outside of it's one and only VHS release and an OOP DVD here in the U.S., this has never gotten any kind of love in terms of releases. So not only are you getting a significant upgrade, but you'll also get to finally see it in widescreen for the very first time in all of the world's combined history of existence! Other than when it was screened in theaters of course. Unless Amazon is streaming it in its original aspect ratio too? Nevermind. Don't listen to me.

Now, being as it's Mill Creek, don't expect a gorgeous transfer. It's good, and an improvement over the VHS tape, but it won't blow you away either. And sadly, there are zero special features included. It's literally just the film and that's it. BUT, and here's the best part, it's INSANELY cheap. I'm talking that even when you combine shipping, you'll "still" pay less than $10 for this bad boy. I got mine on eBay for $7.88, and that's with shipping included.

So I literally only saw this film for the very first time a few months ago after randomly coming across the VHS at my local thrift shop. It blew my mind. It's an insane ride of pure 80's cheesey goodness and I'm shocked that it doesn't have a much bigger following. It constantly shifted genre's, themes and story's so often that I don't even know how to begin to describe it, other than it's just fucking awesome. It's an action film, a survivalist film, a drama, a thriller, a revenge film, a cops and robbers film and an 80's neon colored tour de force of style. Produced by Michael Mann (Miami Vice, Manhunter, Thief, Heat), Directed by Paul Michael Glaser (The Running Man), and starring a slew of recognizable faces, who were barely up and coming at the time, this is a MUST OWN for your Blu Ray collection, if nothing else, then to be blown away by nostalgia.

If you care to read my review on this, you can check it out HERE.

VHS cover scan courtesy of VHSAchive.blogspot.com

2.16.2017

Director Spotlight: Craig R. Baxley

Photo credit: Mubi.com

Most of you may not know his name, but you'll most certainly know is work. By profession, Craig R. Baxley began his career as a stunt coordinator and second unit director primarily in television, which transitioned into directing gigs on episodes and TV movies, beginning with The A-Team from 1983-1987. It was around this time that his career peaked, starting with being both stunt coordinator and second-unit director on the Arnie classic Predator in '87. From 1987 on he became a full-time director and retiring from stunt coordinator and second unit work altogether. Craig R. Baxley only directed 3 big budget theatrical films in succession between 1988 and 1991, but it's these 3 films that left a huge and lasting impact in the world of Badass Cinema. 

So why is Craig R. Baxley so important? Let's just start with the obvious. In 1988 he directed the ludicrously awesome Action Jackson, followed by the Dolph Lundgren sci-fi/action classic I Come in Peace aka Dark Angel in 1990, and then The Boz biker classic Stone Cold in 1991. Talk about a Triple Threat! Not only is he a competent director, but his background in stunt work clearly gave him a lead over other directors in the same field. With his background, he was able to utilize his experience in incorporating some killer stuntwork in every single one of these 3 films. Sure some of them are silly, like Action Jackson running along side a speeding car and being able to catch up, but that didn't make them any less awesome.

I've always found him to have a deft touch when it came to directing. He doesn't necessarily carry an identifiable style, but does a competent job, especially when it comes to the action and stunt work, and it's in these sequences where Baxley really delivers. It's also where he does in fact leave a specific stamp on the genre. When it comes to the action, he makes sure you can see everything. He was never one of those directors who got too close to the action to where you couldn't make out anything, instead choosing to pull back mostly and let the action speak for itself. Every stunt, every explosion, and every hard-hitting punch lands with such ferocity, mainly due to how he specifically shoots them. One of his trademarks is laying the camera on the ground when someone is falling from a punch, kick or gunshot wound. The camera is placed behind where the head of the victim will eventually fall, giving the fall a much more brutal feel as the camera follows panning down. It's more than likely not something you'd ever notice, but I did, and he uses this technique in all 3 of these films, a technique I have never seen anyone else use.

Action Jackson (1988)

There is so much to love about this film. Essentially it's a sort of throwback to films of the 70's blaxpoitation movement like Superfly, Truck Turner and Shaft. What's surprising is that it works both as a homage to those kinds of films and also as it's own 80's action film, complete with specific music cue's and a down and gritty atmosphere that gives the whole homage vibe some serious credit. But then it's also a badass and very 80's action film that works better than a homage to the 70's films because of it's ability to be gloriously over the top and very much a product of it's time. I had always hoped that this would have ended up a franchise for Carl Weathers. It should have!! If there was ever a film deserving of a franchise, it's this one. It's a crime that never happened.

This is the kind of film that should have been a runaway hit at the box office, yet for reasons beyond my comprehension, was not. I can't explain it, and I've given myself ulcers trying to. It has everything you could ever want in a badass action film and delivers the goods tenfold. And so much of that is attributed to director Baxley, who does an even handed job of shooting both loose freestyle and stylish. It's never too much in either direction, which works just perfectly for the type of film this is.

One of the best things about this film is that it boasts a huge roster of familiar faces from both Predator and Die Hard. If you've seen it, and you love action films, then you know what I'm talking about. You could easily spend half your time picking out these character actors and naming the other films you just saw them in.

Dark Angel aka 
I Come in Peace (1990)

2 years after Action Jackson Baxley teamed up with Dolph Lundgren for this early 90's sci-fi action classic. While not the film as originally intended, what we ultimately did end up getting is quite possibly one of the best examples of this specific genre regardless. Had this been given to any other director, I seriously doubt it would have been nearly as good or as badass.

If there's a film out of these 3 theatrical releases that best shows Baxley's gifts behind the camera as a visualist and his ability to push the envelope in the action and stunts, it's this one. I really cannot recall any other film that had as many explosions as this film did. Much like his previous film only 2 years earlier, this has a very much "of it's time" feel, but to great effect. It looks and feels very 90's, even though it was barely 1990, but that's one of the many things that makes this one so great.

Dolph Lundgren was really hitting his stride by this point, having just appeared in The Punisher and Red Scorpion. But it's really in this film that his acting became stronger, and more importantly, his accent was virtually nonexistent. He had become one of the more popular action stars of his time, and would follow this film up with Showdown in Little Tokyo and Universal Soldier, further cementing his status as an action legend.

Much like Action Jackson, Baxley and his team infuse so much action and stunt work that whether you find the story to be silly, or the characters to be unlikable (that's not the case here, just an example) that there's enough action, explosions, chases, fights and gun battles to keep you entertained if all you're wanting to see is action. All of Baxley's 3 films are great, but this one really stands out for a number of reasons; the insane amount of explosions, Dolph Lundgren!, a killer synth score by Miami Vice theme-song-maker Jan Hammer, a unique concept and even more unique alien in Matthias Hues, and just it's very basic, yet fully engrossing sci-fi elements.

Stone Cold (1991)

One of the things I like about Baxley is that none of his films are the same. Usually directors tend to stick to a genre, formula, or type that they're comfortable with and more often than not, they end up making the same film over and over again. Thankfully, that's not the case with Craig R. Baxley, who offers something totally different with each one of these films, separating them individually in tone, style, theme and sub-genre, and that couldn't be more true than going from a sci-fi/action film to a biker action film.

Baxley has a penchant for bringing out the best in his leads. He did it with Carl Weathers, then with Dolph Lundgren, and continues with Brian Bosworth, in his big screen debut. Sure, he may not be the strongest actor, but he's not bad either. In fact, there are moments in the film, especially in regards to the character, that The Boz displays an almost natural talent. He never did go on to bigger and better things, but he did make an impression in his one and only theatrical film.

I found Baxley's direction to be a bit more loose and freestyle this time around compared to his previous 2 films. And you know, it works well for the material. It's a fast, loud, gritty, sweaty and violent film that rarely ever slows down, inviting you into the biker gang world and culture in a very down and dirty kind of way. While there is plenty of action, it never gets as big as Baxley's previous 2 films, but that's okay, because this is a totally and tonally different picture altogether. That is until the film hits it's final act, and all hell breaks loose in such a glorious way. If you felt that there was any "big" action or stunts missing from the film, it was saved for the ending, which kicks ass.

Rounding out the cast is resident baddies Lance Henriksen, William Forsythe and Gregory Scott Cummins, who all add that very special 90's touch to this already killer biker action film. Much like his other films, this one also stands out for a number of reasons, one being the better than average cast, but most importantly, because the biker film is an all too rare sub-category in the action genre. There just aren't enough of them, and really, the only ones that come to mind in the last 30 years would be this, Harley Davidson & The Marlboro Man (1991) and Beyond the Law (1993).
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I was always bummed that Baxley never directed anymore big budget features. I don't know if that was a personal choice or if he just wasn't getting any offers. If the reason is the latter, then we as an audience and the world of action in general really missed out on some great films in the action genre.

After Stone Cold, he stuck strictly to TV Movie's and TV Series, with the occasional DTV film here and there, with the most odd choice being the Christian themed Left Behind III: World at War. Sadly, I can't say that I've actually seen any of his TV or DTV films, but I do plan to at some point if I can ever find them. The last thing he directed was an episode of Human Target in 2011, though IMDB states he has an upcoming project in the works called The Gingerbread Girl.

2.14.2017

The Mangler Film Review; Tobe Hooper's Nail in the Coffin


1995
Directed by: Tobe Hooper
Category: Horror

I'd always been mildly curious about this one. On the surface, it has a lot going for it. For starters, it's directed by Tobe Hooper, a director I continue to admire simply for his 80's output, yet knowing also that he really hasn't made a good film since that decade. It's also from a story by Stephen King, which was first published in 1978. And finally, it stars Robert Englund. I mean, that's a pretty large trifecta if you ask me. Though I have never heard anyone actually say that they liked this film, I figured with all this talent involved there's got to be something decent about it, right? In the very least, if it ended up being a mess, I was hopeful for a hot mess. About a good 30 minutes in, I knew I was in trouble.

There is so much wrong with The Mangler that I don't even know where to begin. Mind you, I went in very hopeful and optimistic. You see, I tend to end up loving films that others hate, so I was hoping that there would be some kind of redeeming quality for me to ultimately enjoy it, because more often than not, I usually tend to find some aspect that made me love a film that would otherwise prove a waste of time. It's so sad and frustrating to walk away from The Mangler and being completely blown away by how awful it is. While the idea about a horror movie involving a possessed refrigerator and a possessed laundry machine may sound silly, it could still be fun. Don't forget, Christine is a bout a possessed car, and it's amazing. Soooo....you never know. Let's dig in.

The Good:
Tobe Hooper's direction didn't disappoint. Really, this is one of the few things about the film that I actually liked. Hooper has a very specific way of shooting, and it's one of the reasons why I love Invaders From Mars and Lifeforce so much. I was happy to see that with The Mangler, his style hadn't changed a bit. What I did notice though was that he tended to do a lot more camera movements than what I'm used to from him. I'm serious, I can't recall a moment in the film when the camera was not sweeping up and down or side to side - sometimes both in the same motion. The camera is constantly moving, but in a very classy and deliberate way. And you know, I found it refreshing. No handheld camerawork either. Each scene and sequence is a sophisticated blend of old-school technical tricks, lighting and inventive camerawork that gives the film a very Tobe Hooper-esque vibe.

Better than you expect effects work. While the film overall didn't really contain a lot of gore the way I had hoped, the gore that is in here is pretty well done and effective. Maybe had the film been a lot more gory, it would have been passable.

The design of the possessed laundry press machine, The Mangler, is rather impressive. Huge, with a very retro industrial look and very menacing. In fact, the machine is sort of it's own character in the film in more ways than one, especially in the way Hooper shoots it. he really does his best to make it look like an actual monster and marginally succeeds.


That's really where all the praise ends because this film has so many problems and a plethora of questionable decisions that it's hard for my brain to comprehend the fact that a film can look so good, yet be so bad, and not in an enjoyable way either.

The Bad:
The acting is just terrible. Let's begin with the obvious choice, Robert Englund. I love the guy. Who doesn't? In fact, I'm having a blast watching him on the original 80's sci-fi show V: Enemy Visitor as I revisit the entire series. You'd think for a project like this, he'd be a natural fit, but sadly he is not. In the film he plays an older gentlemen by the name of William Gartley. For starters, I'm not really sure why they had to put him in old age makeup. It's very unconvincing and pretty bad when you stare at it for more than a few seconds. If it had to be an older person, why not just hire an older actor? Oh I get it, stunt casting. Englund really hams it up in this too. Sure he does that with the Freddy films, but it was so over the top in this. While that wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, it's the way he does it that makes it come off as annoying. He seems to go in and out of some sort of accent (I can't even begin to tell you what kind or where he's supposed to come from) throughout, and then his tone shifts so regularly that you'd swear 3 different people were providing the voice work. Sometimes he whispers in that very Robert Englund whisper. Sometimes he's growling with a gravely raspy voice, and sometimes he's speaking like a normal human being, albeit with a weird unspecified accent that comes and goes. It was odd, and very hard to understand why that approach was taken.



Ted Levine did not fair any better. I actually wasn't aware he was in this, here playing the lead cop, until he stepped outside his house in the beginning of the film. It was a pleasant surprise, only to be made sour almost immediately. I don't know, I've seen Levine in plenty of shows and films, and I have never heard him sound so odd before. I know his unique voice is his "thing", but it's the way he speaks and forms words in this that kind of makes no sense. It's hard to understand what he even says half time time, and then the way he says them makes it even worse.

And then there's Daniel Matmor, who plays the brother-in-law to Levine's cop, and ultimately the film's occult expert who ends up figuring out what's really going on with the laundry press machine. He's another good example of what's wrong with this film. He speaks with an accent that comes and goes, but you can't place it. It's obvious he's not  American, but tries to do an American accent, which is not believable. He's also a bit annoying. You can't figure out why he's so involved in the first place, and why he thrusts himself head-on into danger at any moment.

For some reason they decided to cast Jeremy Crutchley in two different roles in this, the mortician and the photographer. Right from the very beginning you'll notice that the photographer is just a young guy under old age makeup. It's such a bizarre decision and one that has no payoff at the end. I kept thinking that the "unmistakable younger guy under heavy old age makeup" thing would end up being some kind of a gag or maybe play into something later, but it doesn't. I have no clue why they used the same actor for another role, or why they just couldn't hire an older actor to play the photographer in the first place. It makes no sense!

Who was the costume designer? One of the most notable aspects to this film, even though it shouldn't be, is that nothing fits right on anyone. It seems wearing large over-sized trench coats was a thing because everyone has them. But it's Ted Levine who takes the cake, who is literally swimming in a jacket that's at least 4 sizes too big. It's a dumb thing to comment on, I know, but it's so distracting also. He hobbles around like he's drunk most of the time (for all I know maybe he was?), and wearing a huge oversized trench coat only makes his appearance look weirder in general.

The music is forgettable. Generally music is used to enhance any scene or sequence, however in this case, it's the complete opposite. I found the music to be poorly matching with the actual film, becoming a bit distracting at how bland, unsavory and uninspiring it ultimately was. You shouldn't even notice the music. It should just be a part of the scene naturally. But in this case, it says a lot when you notice just how awful the music is in a horror film, when really that's the last thing you should notice.

Final Thoughts:
Unfortunately The Mangler is a mess from the get-go. I wish I could say that Hooper's direction saves it to a degree, but it doesn't. While admirable, there's just too much else wrong with this film in general that are way too distracting to allow you to admire Hooper's always reliable visual pizzazz. I can finally understand now why nobody ever mentions this film. It's terrible.

2.12.2017

Documentary Dynamite: Elstree 1976

One of the things I love about Netflix is randomly coming across films or documentaries I never would have heard of otherwise. They've become a platform for filmmakers and documentary filmmakers who pour their hearts and sweat into their passion projects, only to rarely get the chance to see the light of day or find an audience. But in the day of streaming, and most importantly sites like Netflix and Hulu, these little films do thankfully find an audience, which brings us to this gem of a discovery in the documentary genre.

Elstree 1976 tells the story of all those little bit players, some who have gone onto cult status fame, while others still remain as obscure today as they were back in 1976, in the original Star Wars. Here you get to get up close and personal with these character actors and background players who thought they were going in for a random low-budget sci-fi film that most assumed would never even get released, only to go on in the history books as one of the most profitable and most popular films of all time. They share their experiences working on the first Star Wars film as well as their characters enduring legacy, even though at the time they thought anything but.

While the documentary is an absolute Must-Watch, especially for the Star Wars fan, I found it to take a good half hour to get to the good stuff, and that it ran a bit longer than it needed to. Regardless, it's a fun Sunday afternoon watch for the casual film buff, but an even more absorbing and fascinating experience if you're a Star Wars fan.

You can currently find Elstree 1976 on Netflix...