January 15th, 2014

IT CAME FROM THE THRIFT STORE: STARSHIP (1987) ½ *

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In the future, some workers on a mining planet are up in arms because the bad guy wants to replace them with robots. Stormtrooper-like characters that look like robot football players are called in to quell the uprising. Lorca, a bland blonde dude, becomes leader of the resistance movement and he joins up with a cutesy robot to stop the villain.

Starship was of course, meant to cash-in on the popularity of Star Wars. The film was directed by Roger Christian, who won an Oscar for set decoration on Star Wars. The problem is, Christian isn’t a very good director. He later went on to direct the infamous bomb, Battlefield Earth. But here’s the kicker, folks: Starship is actually worse than Battlefield Earth!

The problem with Starship is that the whole thing is so muddled that it’s hard to tell what’s going on half the time. In Star Wars, you were dropped into the middle of the action, but you eventually got caught up to speed. With this, you’re never quite sure what’s going on and a lot of important plot information is told through poorly ADR’ed lines of exposition.

And the look of the film is ugly, dark, and muddy. I’m sure some of the robot designs and sets looked good, but it’s hard to tell one way or the other since everything is so darkly lit. Not to mention the fact that the flick is already boring as Hell to begin with.

The music was by Tony Banks from Genesis. Despite this, the music just sounds like the same lazy synthesizer noodling you’d hear in one of these movies. The droning synthesizers will probably put you to sleep. (It’s hard enough to stay awake as it is!)

AKA: Lorca and the Outlaws. AKA: 2084. AKA: The Outlaws and the Starship Redwing. AKA: Redwing.

New week’s Thrift Store flick: Spacejacked!

LEGENDS OF THE SILVER SCREEN: JEAN CLAUDE VAN DAMME

Jean Claude Van Damme is one of the all-time action greats. From Bloodsport to Timecop, the man made some of the most entertaining action films of the ‘80s and ‘90s. His DTV output started out a bit spotty, but if films like Assassination Games and 6 Bullets (not to mention Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, which is reviewed in this column) are any indication; Van Damme is finding his stride yet again.

Our first Van Damme flick is…

MONACO FOREVER (1984) **

I’m not even sure what Monaco Forever is supposed to be. It’s not really a movie because it only runs half an hour. But even though it’s that short, it can’t be a TV show since it features healthy doses of nudity. It was directed by exploitation vet William A. Levey (of Blackenstein fame) and features some very bizarre imagery as well as some awful comedic bits. Whatever reason it exists, I’m sorta glad it does.

It begins with a guy having a threeway with some hot pot-smoking French chicks. He leaves the chateau and gets picked up hitchhiking by Jean Claude Van Damme, who comes on to him. The guy objects to his advances and challenges him to a fight. They get out of the car and Van Damme takes off his shirt and performs some Kung Fu moves. This scares our hero so bad that he goes running off in fast-motion. Eventually, we learn the guy is a jewel thief and he falls in love with a fellow American.

A few corny jokes aside, nothing in Monaco Forever really works. Some scenes are just too odd for words. I mean the guy has a bunch of flashbacks of being in WWII. This is all well and good, but there is some concentration camp footage that is shown for some inexplicable reason and it just seems out of place in such a silly comedy. There is also a scene where Michelle Bauer, dressed as a sexy Nazi, does a striptease at gunpoint. Oh, and Sydney Lassick appears as himself for some reason. (“I was in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest!”)

Van Damme is only in this for about three minutes, and with the exception of Michelle Bauer’s striptease, it’s the best thing about Monaco Forever. As for the rest of the movie’s merits… well, like I said, I’m not even sure it’s a movie. It might’ve been intended to be a movie at some time, but it probably ran out of money and never was completed. Once Van Damme rose to stardom, the footage was probably assembled and thrown on video.

I will say this: At 30 minutes, it’s a perfect length. I don’t know whether or not I would’ve made it through a 90 minute version of this, but at 30, it’s harmless. And while it’s not very good, it’s definitely worth a look for curiosity’s sake; especially if you’re a fan of Van Damme or Bauer.

Next up is…

THE ORDER (2001) **

Jean Claude Van Damme stars as a thief whose archeologist father is kidnapped. He goes to Israel to rescue him and has to contend with a corrupt police captain (Ben Cross). Van Damme eventually finds a treasure map that leads him to the hideout of an ancient religious order led by Brian Thompson, who is holding his father prisoner.

Charlton Heston is in this for about five minutes as a prominent professor who briefly tags along with Van Damme for a car chase. However, he gets killed off pretty fast, so it seems like a big waste to bring in such a big star like Heston if you ask me.

The Order starts off decently enough, but once Heston drops out of the picture, things sorta bog down. Every so often there is an OK action sequence that picks things up (like the car chase on an airport runway), but nothing that’s exactly “good”. And despite a handful of fun moments, none of it really gels. And the final fight between Thompson and Van Damme is a big letdown.

Like Monaco Forever, Van Damme gets to flex his comedic chops a bit. There’s a comic heist scene where Van Damme has to juggle a Faberge egg back and forth between security guards. And his performance is a bit lighter than usual, which certainly fits the goofy tone of the film. There’s a flashback where Van Damme plays his old bearded ancestor during The Crusades, as well as a scene in which he disguises himself as a Hasidic Jew to elude the police. Sure, these scenes are good for a chuckle or two, but that’s about all you have to hang your hat on.

And our final JCVD flick is…

UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING (2012) ***

I can honestly say that I have never really enjoyed a Universal Soldier movie. The first Universal Soldier came the closest to being a good film, but the sequels (with and without Van Damme) have been pretty ho-hum. Although the last sequel, directed by John Hyams, was a mixed bag at best, it offered at least some moments of fun. Hyams returns to the director’s chair for Day of Reckoning, the sixth film in the franchise. And I’m happy to report it’s easily the best film in the series so far. (In that regard, it joins the illustrious ranks of Furious 6 for being the sixth and best film in the franchise.)

The opening is strong. Scott Adkins wakes up in the middle of the night to his daughter complaining about “monsters”. He goes to investigate and runs face to face with some masked home invaders who beat him senseless. The main assailant then reveals himself to be none other than Jean Claude Van Damme! He then does something unthinkable. He brings out Adkins’ wife and daughter and executes them right in front of him. All of this is shown in a long POV shot, and it’s some pretty disturbing stuff; especially considering it’s Van Damme doing the killing.

Adkins then wakes up from a coma suffering from memory loss. He goes out to find Van Damme who is building an army of Universal Soldiers. He and his men are tired of following orders and they are prepared to rise up against their creators. As it turns out, Adkins is under the manipulation of The Man who is trying to get him to track down Van Damme.

Universal Soldier is full of reality-bending scenes and often plays more like a Jacob’s Ladder mindfuck movie than a Universal Soldier sequel. And that is indeed a compliment. But don’t let that for a second make you think that Hyams skimped on the goods. Day of Reckoning features some rather kickass action moments. There’s a violent shootout in a whorehouse, a knockdown drag-out brawl between Adkins and Pit Bull (not the rapper) in a sporting goods store, and a great scene where Adkins goes nuts and starts offing UniSols left and right in one long, unbroken take. Not to mention the great fight scene between Scott Adkins and Dolph Lundgren, as well as a mighty fine final confrontation between Adkins and Van Damme. (I especially liked the part where Adkins blocked a machete with his forearm.)

I was disappointed with Universal Soldier: Regeneration because Van Damme wasn’t front and center. He gets even less screen time in this film, but he makes his brief appearances count. Bald and pale, he resembles Frankenstein (or maybe Jason) and delivers an interesting, somber performance. He’s tired of his very existence and looks forward to death (which makes the weird Apocalypse Now ending appropriate).

Adkins does the heavy lifting and is quite good as the strong, silent hero. This is probably his best performance and Hyams finds new ways to highlight his skills as a martial artist. Somebody please give this guy his own big screen vehicle. (And no, being the bad guy in that 3-D Hercules movie doesn’t count.)

And I have to hand it to this series. It keeps finding new and inventive ways to kill Dolph Lundgren. His death isn’t as over the top as it was in the last installment, but it’s still plenty sweet. Dolph gives a strong performance here and leaves a good impression, given his limited screen time.

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is full of odd twists and strange touches. For those expecting a straightforward action flick, you’re bound to be disappointed. It’s far removed from the Roland Emmerich interpretation of the characters, but at the same time a fitting continuation. Sure, there are some stumbling blocks in the beginning. Adkins’ initial quest for answers is a bit clunky, but once the film hits its stride, it never looks back. Ultimately, it’s probably about 20 minutes longer than it really needed to be. (It’s 113 minutes.) But there is some good stuff here, enough for me to proclaim it JCVD's best DTV effort to date.

Next week’s Legend: Keanu Reeves.

DEUCE BIGALOW: EUROPEAN GIGOLO (2005) * ½

Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo was one of the funniest comedies of the 2000’s starring an SNL alum. Somehow, I never got around to this sequel. The film begins with blind senior citizens being attacked by dolphins, which isn’t exactly an inspiring start.

This time out, Deuce (Rob Schneider) goes to Amsterdam at the behest of his former pimp, T.J. (Eddie Griffin). It seems that someone is killing the man-whores of Amsterdam. When T.J. is suspected of the murders, he puts Deuce back on the street to find the killer.

Despite the enormous goodwill I have towards Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, this sequel just isn’t very funny. Most of the running gags in Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo are tired and forced. Half the jokes revolve around Griffin being put into compromising positions with other men, causing him to actively deny being gay. And like the first film, Deuce goes on increasingly bizarre dates with his female customers. Unfortunately, the dates in this one aren’t very funny. (The date with a tracheotomy patient is particularly appalling.)

It’s not all bad news though. There’s a great cameo by Norm MacDonald, channeling Robert Shaw in Jaws that is almost worth the price of admission. I mean Dirty Work is one of the most underrated comedies in the history of film. Why Norm doesn’t get more work is beyond me because he's one of the funniest guys to ever come out of SNL.

ALL ABOUT EVE (1950) ** ½

Margo Channing (Bette Davis) is one of the biggest divas on Broadway. One night, her friend (Celeste Holm) invites her number one fan, Eve (Anne Baxter) backstage to meet her idol. Margo is taken by Eve and decides to hire her as her assistant. Over time, the seemingly innocent ingénue reveals herself to be a selfish, scheming, conniving, backstabbing bitch. She manipulates her way into becoming Margo’s understudy and eventually worms her way to stardom, with a little help from a prominent theater critic (George Sanders).

All About Eve suffers from a stagey feel. There are too many characters and the many scenes of them sitting around and talking are too drawn out. If director Joseph L. Mankiewicz pared down the running time to under two hours (the film runs a bloated 138 minutes), I think the drama would’ve worked better.

It also doesn’t help that Baxter plays the role of Eve like a blank slate. She’s sweet and innocent when the plot calls for it and an out-and-out bitch when the story necessitates. At all times, Eve feels less a character than a plot device.

The film however is a great vehicle for Davis. It’s probably her most iconic role and she is quite good. Whenever the film starts to flag, you can still enjoy her bitchy (but sympathetic) performance. Not matter what the movie’s faults are, when she lets loose her famous line, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!”, you just have to smile.

For me though, the best part of the flick was Marilyn Monroe’s bit part. She’s only in the film for about ten minutes (as Sanders’ date), but she completely steals the movie. No matter how good Davis and Sanders are in the scene, it’s Monroe that gets your attention.

I saw All About Eve on the big screen as the first film in The Clayton Theatre’s 2014 line-up of classic movies. Next week is another classic film about an aging actress from 1950: Sunset Boulevard!

SYFY-PALOOZA PART 1: FOREIGN HORRORS

TASMANIAN DEVILS (2013) ** ½

Some ill-fated base jumpers in Tasmania awaken a bloodthirsty hoard of Tasmanian devils. A group of rangers (including The Wonder Years’ Danica McKellar) try to arrest the base jumpers and run afoul of the hungry animals. The rangers and the base jumpers then have to band together to fight off the devils.

The first thing you need to know about Tasmanian Devils is that annoying Olympic medalist Apolo Ohno dies a spectacular death in the first five minutes of the film. He falls while base jumping and lands back first on a stalagmite. While he tries to work his way off the sharp rock, a Tasmanian devil rips him off the stalagmite. We also get a great shot of Ohno’s crotch being ripped apart through the rock. It’s pretty sweet.

The second thing you need to know is that Winnie Cooper is still a fox. No matter how many math books she writes, Danica McKellar will always be Winnie Cooper to me. And man, does she ever look hot in a tight-fitting ranger outfit.

Other than these two points of interest, Tasmanian Devils is your basic SYFY Channel nonsense. The CGI effects are terrible and the POV monster attacks are irritating. The gore is better than average though. In addition to the terrific opening death, there is a gnarly scene where a guy gets a stick driven through his cheek and a funny scene where the devils attack a helicopter in mid-flight. Everything in between the highlights is a bit of a slog though.

Overall, Tasmanian Devils is not great, but if you ever wanted to see Winnie Cooper brandishing a flamethrower, here’s your chance.

CHUPACABRA VS. THE ALAMO (2013) **

Chupacabra vs. the Alamo is no dumber than the usual SYFY Channel movie. It just seems that way because the title makes no sense. How can a monster fight a building? That’s like calling a movie King Kong vs. The Empire State Building. Or Godzilla vs. Tokyo Tower.

Anyway… Erik Estrada stars as a DEA agent. Of course, he rides a motorcycle, just like he did on Chips. Some drug dealers die a horrible death and Estrada investigates. It seems that a pack of hungry Chupacabras are to blame. The little monsters have been using Mexican drug tunnels to cross the border into Texas and Estrada, his kids, and some gangbangers hole up at the Alamo and fight off the monsters.

Of course, all this happens on Cinco de Mayo.

Chupacabra vs. the Alamo is for the most part, pretty dull. The film particularly gets bogged down during the scenes of Estrada’s family strife. (He’s a widow, his daughter ignores her curfew, his son is a hoodlum, etc.) The gore is also weak as the shots of the Chupacabras chewing on people get repetitive after a while.

The CGI on the monsters isn’t bad as far as these things go. However, they aren’t very menacing as they just look like little dogs. (Estrada thinks a coyote is the murderer for most of the film.) Chihuahuas vs. the Alamo would’ve been a better title.

MURDER WITH PICTURES (1936) **

Kent Murdock (Lew Ayres) is a newspaper man covering the trial of a racketeer named Girard (Onslow Stevens). After Girard gets off scot free, a mystery woman (Gail Patrick) connected to Girard drops by Murdock’s hotel room. The cops suspect her of murder and Kent agrees to help clear her name. He does some digging and learns that Girard swindled her out of her father’s inheritance. But is Girard the murderer, or is someone else?

Murder with Pictures has a pretty good pedigree behind the scenes. It was directed by Charles (Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein) Barton and co-written by Sidney (The Last Man on Earth) Salkow. For the most part, it’s not a bad wisecracking-reporter-solving-a-mystery movie. However, the pacing is a bit slack, so the 70 minute running time feels much longer.

The cast is the reason Murder with Pictures works as well as it does. Lew (Dr. Kildare) Ayres is quite good as the fast-talking reporter. He and Patrick have an easy chemistry together and have a couple of funny exchanges. And Onslow (House of Dracula) Stevens makes for a decent enough villain.

Murder with Pictures is a watchable whodunit, but there are some weak stretches here and there that prevent it from really cutting loose. And despite a handful of winning moments, the film commits the crime of having its climax happen off screen, which is a bit irritating. All in all, it’s a nice effort; just not a wholly successful one.