April 17th, 2008

SCANNERS (1981) ** ½

Scanners is no means the worst movie David Cronenberg ever made, but you have to admit… the exploding head scene IS pretty awesome. 


Scanners tells the story of a race of evil telepaths led by the always great Michael Ironside who want to take over the world by making people’s heads explode.  Stephen Lack is a good Scanner who is trained by Patrick McGoohan to infiltrate Ironside’s camp and make his head explode like a taco that’s been left in the microwave for too long.   


The major themes of David Cronenberg’s early work are evident in Scanners, but unfortunately the film suffers from some pretty big stumbling blocks that always keep the audience at arm’s length from the movie.  The biggest problem is the performance by Stephen Lack as the hero.  He’s appropriately named because he simply lacks the qualities of a sturdy leading man, such as charisma, screen presence, and chemistry with the other actors.  In fact, in one scene I think he actually got out acted by a sofa.  Another setback the film suffers from is the laborious Scanner revolutionaries that really grate on the nerves.  Also, the pacing is particularly erratic.  After a strong start, the film quickly devolves into a third rate Man from UNCLE episode with Lack infiltrating the bad Scanner organization. 


But… those exploding head shots ARE pretty awesome. 


Besides the gory special effects, you can savor the intense performance of Michael Ironside.  He’s terrific in this flick and went on to star in such classics as Hello Mary Lou:  Prom Night 2, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers.  Ironside is particularly great in the final showdown between him and Lack where his eyes start bulging, his veins pop out of his forehead and he starts twitching like your alcoholic cousin with a bad case of the DT’s.  The mind bending ending is a doozy, it’s just a shame you have to sit through a lot of boring cloak and dagger stuff to get to it.  


As uneven and ultimately unsatisfying as Scanners is you have to admit… the exploding heads ARE awesome.  And in my book, a little exploding heads goes a long way. 


Cronenberg did the immortal Videodrome next. 

DEATH HUNT (1981) ***


Charles Bronson stars as a simple Canadian fur trapper who rescues a dog from the vicious leader of a dog fighting ring (Ed Lauter, not Michael Vick).  Lauter gets pissed that he stole his best dog and tries to gun Bronson down, but this is Charles Bronson we’re talking about here and Chuck will have no part of THAT.  So a big shootout ensues and then Lauter does the unthinkable, HE KILLS THE DOG! 


Okay, remember how Bronson reacted in Death Wish when his wife was murdered?  How do you think he’s gonna take someone killing his DOG?


You already KNOW how Old Chuck will react:  By giving those bastard’s guts a new sun roof.


Now in Death Wish when his wife was murdered, it took Chuck a good half hour before he started turning people into walking anatomy subjects, but in Death Hunt he starts blowing people away almost immediately.  After all, this is a dog; MAN’S BEST FRIEND we’re talking about here people, not some broad.  No wonder Chuck doesn’t waste any time giving these dudes a buckshot breakfast.


So a grizzled Mountie (Lee Marvin) and his crew (Andrew Stevens and Carl Weathers) are sent out to Bronson’s cabin to bring him to justice.  Marvin says, “Look Chuck, why don’t you just let me take you to jail.  We were both in The Dirty Dozen together, so what do you say, for old time’s sakes, can I please take you to the pokey, please?” 


You can probably guess what Chuck’s answer is:  “I think I’ll fill a couple Mounties with more lead than a Number 2 pencil instead.”


Well Marvin doesn’t like that so he gets Apollo Creed to blow up Chuck’s summer home, but Chuck has home owner’s insurance; which is to say he has a sawed off shotgun and an itchy trigger finger.  


He takes off into the wilderness and Marvin and Co. give chase.  Then the movie settles down and becomes First Blood in three feet of snow. 


Chuck is great in this flick.  That is to say he’s Charles Bronson.  He’s so bad ass in this flick that even though he’s Canadian, he doesn’t even bother to say “about” as “aboot”.  Marvin is equally good as the Mountie who is sympathetic to his plight, but nevertheless has to do his job and bring him in.


Oh yeah, and if you sneeze you’ll miss Angie Dickinson. 


Sure the film gets a bit sluggish in the middle section (things get mighty strange about halfway in when the film takes a Deliverance style turn when Lauter tries to put the moves on Stevens), but of course things are going to be a little slow going when your main characters are walking through three feet of snow.  Despite the occasional lapses in pacing, Death Hunt proves the rule that any Bronson movie with the word “Death” in the title is a good time. 


Stevens also co-starred with Big Chuck two years later in 10 to Midnight and Lauter later was in the classic Death Wish 3 with Bronson.  The director, Peter Hunt (who slyly got his name in the title) also did On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and later directed Bronson in Assassination.  The screenwriters went on to write Poltergeist the next year.  


Chuck hardly says 100 words in this flick so it’s up to Carl Weathers to get the best line of the movie.  There’s a great scene when he wakes up next a fat Eskimo prostitute and turns to Stevens and says, “You want a piece of this buffalo woman?”


Martin Short stars in this big screen comedy as his small screen alter ego, Jiminy Glick, a small time celebrity interviewer whose sheer incompetence usually results in some pretty big laughs.  In the film, Glick is sent to the Toronto Film Festival to interview movie stars and inadvertently gets embroiled in a murder mystery by none other than David Lynch (also Short).


The film is frequently funny thanks to tons of celebrity cameos (most of who have worked with Short in the past) who take Glick’s backhanded compliments with genuine aplomb.  Whether Glick is talking porno with Steve Martin (“Something Liquid This Way Comes”) or confusing Whoopi Goldberg for Oprah, the celebrity portions of the film will have you in stitches. 


The other half of the flick plays like a spoof of David Lynch movies and the director Jean Vadim, captures the mood of Lynch’s work (namely Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive) nicely.  While Short is funny in the fat suit as Glick, he’s simply awesome as Lynch and his impersonation is eerily dead on. 


Will most people enjoy this movie?  Hard to say.  The audience for this flick is a very narrow slice of the movie going pie.  You’d have to be a fan of Short’s show (which had been canceled by the time this had reached theaters), enjoy Hollywood in-jokes, and like David Lynch movies to fully appreciate the film.  Since I fall into all three of those categories, I’m happy to say I dug the flick.  Others will find the movie particularly baffling, but they may get a kick out of the sheer amount of celebrity cameos (Kiefer Sutherland, Sharon Stone, Forest Whitaker, Kevin Kline, etc.). 


Audience litmus test:  Glick has twin boys named Matthew and Modine.  Did you laugh at that sentence?  If so, you’ll enjoy the flick.  If not, by all means keep clear of this movie.