Friday, April 21, 2017

Death Race 2050 (2017)

Directed by: G.J. Echternkamp
Run time: 90 minutes

Let's address the bloody and beaten elephant in the room. It's a remake. Or a reboot, or any other R word that Hollywood uses as justification for remaking movies instead of making something new and different. Much like 1975 Death Race it has the same cars that would not survive running over a twig let alone a person, the same weird and colourful drivers, and a similar plot. Unlike the original, the satire is dark and dialed up to twelve. It also funny as hell.

The year is 2050. Junk food is combined with anti-depression medication. Winter is a myth that no one wants to talk about. Also the abundance of automation has driven unemployment to 99.9% and the only thing to do is watch the Death Race. The gimmick to the race this year the race is virtual reality transmission that allows one to see, feel, and smell like you are in the race.

The first racer introduced is Tammy the Terrorist. Creator and leader of her own cult that is based on the worst aspects of religion and American popular culture. She also uses her cultist as quick and easy way to rack up kills. Next is Minerva Jefferson. She has a best selling sex tape, numerous gold records and is in the Death Race to promote her new single "Drive, Drive, Kill, Kill". Next driver is Jed Prefectus. A genetically engineered human who's narcissistic, insecure, and extremely confused about his sexual identity. The next car and driver is ABE. An artificial intelligence with all the bugs and problems of a triple A video game on release. And finally the man and 60% cyborg, it's Frankenstein. A complex man who feels his only talents are wining the death race and rescuing stray dogs and cats.

The goal of the race is to get from Nuevo York to New Los Angeles as quickly as possible while killing as many people as possible. While speeding and killing the racers pass through charmingly renamed states like Eastern Fallout Zone (New Jersey), The Appalachian Desert (Kentucky), Walmatique (Arkansas), and Kirkland Tenements (Tennessee). All while people either inveterately die due to bad luck or throwing themselves in the path of the race for a second of fame and the chance to be run over by their hero.

This is a movie that should not exist. There's good looking practical effects on a budget, random female nudity, and irreverent black humor make this feel like a refugee movie from the 1970's. Not something expected from a movie made in 2017. It's not a work of great cinema but it's funny and entertaining as hell. It is a solid rental or streaming movie for fans of 70's movies and fans of Roger Corman's produced movies.

MVT: The scene were Annie Sullivan (Frankenstein's navigator) and Minerva Jefferson having character building scene in the Bechdel bar. While in another room Frankenstein and Jed are having a vicious fight.

Make or Break: The dark and irreverent humour of the writing made the two viewings of this movie for me. My manic laughing at the movie made people around me to ensure that 911 was set to speed dial.

Score: 6.1 out of 10

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Brain (1988)

I have always been an instinctively good speller.  This comes, at least in part, from my love of reading which started with comic books (let’s just never mind that comics are not the best resource for spelling and grammatical reference).  At any rate, in seventh or eighth grade I won my school’s spelling bee and made it to the regionals (I believe this was sponsored by Scripps, so it had some clout/prestige to it).  I practiced my skills with the help of my aunts (and if you ever met my aunts, I guarantee you the term “drill sergeants” would spring to mind) and the provided study guides.  Nevertheless, I got taken out of the regionals on about my second time up with the word “caterwaul.”  The next year, I entered the local bee again, and I got housed by some girl a grade or two below me.  Being the melodramatic attention whore that I was, I gurned and writhed my way through this ordeal.  Needless to say, pics of my histrionics appeared the next day in a local newspaper.  The point is, learn your limitations and how to live within them.  Yes, these limits can be overcome, and the effort should be made to do so, just not all at once.  Come to think of it, maybe the point is, don’t try to walk before you crawl.  Either way, Ed Hunt’s The Brain is about a giant brain that wants to take over the world, and it starts with people easily taken in.  The Brain knows the score.

Dr. Blake (not Donald, played by the late, great David Gale) runs the named-so-as-to-not-draw-any-unwanted-attention Psychological Research Institute and hosts a popular local show called Independent Thinking (his creative team are either doing a hell of a job at naming things or are just ripping him off).  Thing is, some of his patients have offed themselves recently, and young jerk and all around malcontent Jim Majelewski (Tom Breznahan) finds himself at the Institute after causing more trouble than he’s worth.  But Blake and the Brain have their sights set much higher than on some punk who thinks that destruction of public property is good fun, though they’ll include him in their plans because he’s another warm body.

Like Videodrome, and The Twonky, and Network, and so many other films, The Brain concerns itself primarily with the power of television (and not dissimilarly, religion) and how it can consume our lives and our thoughts (I’m sure there have been plenty of radio pulp plots involving the same basic idea, as well; the technology powers the story, but let’s also remember that people didn’t really plant themselves in front of the radio for the entirety of their day allowing it to narcotize them into complacency).  Blake is a slick, pedagogic guru for the McLuhan Age, a late Eighties Dr. Phil, offering up easy solutions (just ship your troubles away!) to questions that don’t necessarily have straight answers.  The nefariousness lies in what’s underneath these reassuring edicts of white noise bullshit.  Words do have power, but here they are a mask, like a political façade, seeking power and corruption in the guise of magnanimity with good deeds.  Mass communication is the key, for with it the Brain creates an army of pod people.  The kicker is that people want to watch Independent Thinking, otherwise the seed would never have been planted and allowed to grow.  The commentary is that we desire the lives of sheep.  It’s easier that way, and when the masters come to slaughter you, you likely won’t even understand what’s going on until it’s too late, anyway.  Interestingly, the Brain itself doesn’t speak, instead projecting its thoughts and commands onto a computer screen.  I can understand why it may need to project its thoughts to a mass audience via television, but it strikes me as odd that it can’t just communicate orders directly into the minds of its lackeys (I get that the computer is more visual, but it’s also dumb).  Plus, it makes the Brain come off like a spoiled child (“I WANT ACTION!”  Who doesn’t?), an angle that has some intriguing possibilities but with which nothing is ever done (the fatal flaw of the entire film, really).    

In the same way that this movie takes ideas from more sophisticated films, it also follows in the tradition of B-movie creature features (largely from the Fifties).  Everything from The Brain from Planet Arous to Fiend Without a Face to The Space Children to The Brain that Wouldn’t Die have dealt with disembodied heads and/or brains which have machinations on the lives of men (and only one of the ones I mentioned, The Space Children, has a brain that wants to actually do good, though it does so through destruction).  Of course, other body parts, especially hands, have been granted nefarious motives in cinema (Body Parts, Hands of the Ripper, The Hands of Orlac, etcetera), but typically there is a more psychological implication in those scenarios, a conflict between the man and the foreign graft.  With the mind of the other, the influence is exterior.  You can cut off a hand that tells you to kill, but you have to track down and physically destroy a giant brain (this is made more difficult when said brain has a giant mouth loaded with pointy teeth).  In line with the power of mass media on the gullible mind, the power of the invading brain on the individual means a loss of identity for the victim.  The difference lies in the desire of the prey.  We want to tune in and drop out with our television, though we say we don’t want others telling us what to do.  The collision of these opposing desires, to me, is what makes them fascinating.  I’m easy.

The Brain is, or at least could be, some good fun with the right set of lowered expectations.  The monster is slimy and goofy.  The premise has promise.  The problem is that the film never goes for more than it absolutely has to in fulfilling its obligations as a monster movie.  It also never explains certain things, like how an eight-foot brain gets from place to place without being seen, how it manages to surprise people as often as it does, or why it needs to eat them other than to give the audience some oddly Cookie-Monster-esque vibes.  More than these things, which are forgivable in this context, is the fact that our lead is an unconscionable prick with a smartass streak a mile wide.  He blows the plumbing at his high school for no reason whatsoever (aside from blatant foreshadowing).  After making with a load of self-righteous indignation that he could possibly be in trouble for anything because of his good grades (arguably his girlfriend Janet’s (Cynthia Preston) grades, since Jim copies off her), he superglues his principal’s slacks to a chair.  Jim shouldn’t be worried about being expelled from school.  He should be worried about having his ass kicked up and down the school’s hallways.  This being our main character, it’s difficult to really care if he gets eaten, mind-controlled, what-have-you.  Consequently, it’s difficult to sit through the film from Jim’s perspective except in the hope that your own dormant mental powers will kick in and rewrite the film so little Jimmy gets a well-deserved comeuppance.

MVT:  The effects are gooey, goofy, and well enough designed.

Make or Break:  I defy you to not want to smack the smug look off Jim’s face from the minute he enters his high school and hooks up with his “friends” (also jerks but on a smaller scale than young James).

Score:  6.5/10  

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Demon City Shinjuku (1988)

The evil-looking Rebi Ra (Kiyoshi Kobayashi) proves that you can judge a book by its cover when he fights the heavily bearded Genichiro (Banjo Ginga) atop a building in the Shinjuku ward of Tokyo.  Genichiro’s Nenpo (which I assume is not to be confused with Ninpo, the martial art of the Ninja, as Nenpo deals with controlling and channeling one’s chi) and his wooden sword are no match for Rebi Ra’s demon sword and magical powers (one of which includes regeneration, which Genichiro also fails at as two of his limbs are hacked off), and the bad guy causes an earthquake which rends Shinjuku in half and unleashes demons into the sector.  Ten years on, Genichiro’s son Kiyoya (Hideyuki Hori) is conscripted into the struggle between good and evil when Sayaka (Hiromi Tsuru), the daughter of the Federation President who has been attacked by Rebi Ra’s forces, approaches Kiyoya, and he falls in love, or lust, or something.

Yoshiaki Kowajiri’s Demon City Shinjuku (aka Makaitoshi Shinjuku aka Hell City Shinjuku aka Monster City) is an anime loaded with monsters, shit-talking characters, virginally innocent victim women, mystical powers, and lots of action.  So, basically, an anime from the late Eighties.  There is all manner of gruesome creatures, but the key difference between this and something like Kawajiri’s Wicked City is that the monsters here are external.  No human characters explode from some vile beastie escaping its human meat cage.  Also, it moves along at a nice clip, and it is focused on its main narrative (in other words, you can pretty much make sense of it from beginning to end as a single piece).  

One of the points of the film is the old saw about absolute power corrupting absolutely.  Rebi Ra is given power, and it not only corrupts him to the core but it also corrupts Shinjuku.  Rebi Ra’s consolidation of power leaves the area in ruins (why monsters wouldn’t want to live in a nice house is beyond me), like a nuclear bomb producing a postapocalyptic wasteland, just without the bomb.  This corruption attracts, of course, the worst elements of humanity.  The people who walk the streets are vile, manic punks (and again, why they would want to live here instead of leaving via the extremely convenient and unguarded bridge is half-mysterious; in this Shinjuku, there is no law to stop them doing whatever they wish).  When Sayaka approaches a man to lead her to Rebi Ra (in what is one of the clearest indications of both her naivete and the writer’s [Kaori Okamura, based on the book[s] by Hideyuki Kikuchi] desire to get the viewer’s blood pumping with some threats/dress tearing), he and his hysterically cackling cohorts corner her in an alley.  No locals are around to help her, and we know none would, anyway.  The park at the initial quake’s epicenter has been transformed into a purgatory for orphaned kids who have been turned into fire demons.  Below the streets, Chibi (Kyoko Tongu), the rollerskating, opportunistic youngster hides, doing what he needs to survive.  He’s a friend to Kiyoya and Sayaka in as much as they’re human and won’t kill him, and he gets monetary recompense for his troubles.  Chibi knows the new Shinjuku, but he doesn’t participate directly with it, so he’s not totally corrupted by it. 

In this same way, there is a less developed (but still visible) theme about technology and its effects on people in opposition to “the old ways.”  All I know about the actual Shinjuku is that it’s a big commercial area where a lot of businesses are headquartered, so I can’t say if the decision to set the demon city there has to do with the idea of big business being bad, the technology prevalent there being bad, or Kikuchi just wanted to set it there for some random reason and/or wanted to see it destroyed (or a combination of all three).  At any rate, there is a delineation between the forces of good and evil drawn along technological lines.  Kiyoya and the good guys practice Nenpo using thin wooden swords.  Their focus is on empowering and developing the inner spirit (think: The Force in the Star Wars movies before they fucked up its ancient mystical aspects with that Midichlorian bullshit).  They are simple, peaceful people, though still human.  Contrast this to the characters in the demon city.  Rebi Ra’s sword (the clearest distinguishing aspect between he and Kiyoya/Genichiro) is large and wide and steel (a double metaphor for the phallus and the uncaring hardness of the villains), though it also channels power (just externally from the demons through Rebi Ra, not internally from Rebi Ra’s chi).  The guy who accosts Sayaka in the alley has an arm that’s either robotic or heavily armored (we’re never told explicitly which).  Chibi’s two-headed dog was created by humans using science and technology (he’s menacing but a good guy, most likely because, as we all know, animals intuitively sense goodness in people, and it doesn’t hurt that Chibi raised him from a pup).  The hag who owns the music store is represented as images in a bank of television monitors.  She, naturally, is as avaricious as anyone else, though without the barrier of technology to protect her, she’s much more forthcoming.  Sayaka even gives up her laser ring gizmo.  A simple, low technology life frees one from the spiritual clutter that blocks the channeling of chi in this world.  It’s how you beat the bad guys.

As an anime, and as a story, Demon City Shinjuku is satisfying.  It doesn’t bog itself down with subplots taken from the books that it can never develop in its runtime.  The obstacles/battles are interesting in their variety and character designs, and they all move the plot a little bit closer to its finale.  Sure, the dialogue is dumb, but it would be more egregious in a poorly-paced or a more schizophrenic narrative.  While it doesn’t top (for me, at any rate) Kowajiri’s Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust or Ninja Scroll, it would certainly make a nice B feature to either one of them for an evening of anime fun.

MVT:  The designs and the animation are smooth and visually striking.

Make or Break:  The opening sets the stage well in terms of world building, violence level, and basic storyline.

Score:  6.75/10

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Eyes of Fire (1983)

In 1750, along “The American Frontier,” Mike Genovese plays a French soldier who steps into a room to interrogate three people (two children, one young adult).  The trio appeared mysteriously in French Territory, and there were no adults accompanying them.  Smelling something rotten in French Territory, the Interrogator (that’s how Genovese is credited) pushes the youths to tell their story.  A yarn is spun concerning Eloise Dalton (Rebecca Stanley), who, in the absence of her trapper husband Marion (Guy Boyd), took up with local preacher Will Smythe (Dennis Lipscomb) and his resident Nell-esque girlfriend Leah (Karlene Crockett).  Kicked out of their village, more or less, this collection of outcasts heads off into the wild where the danger of being picked off by Shawnee Indians is dwarfed by the threat of the malevolent Devil Witch (Russell James Young, Jr.).

Avery Crounse’s Eyes of Fire (aka Cry Blue Sky) is a film about witchcraft that has more ambition than a great many horror films of the time.  This was when Slashers were big and getting bigger, and gore and tits (male and female) were more popular than story and atmosphere (I’m against none of these things; I’m just setting the stage here).  To release a period film with some ideas behind it, no titillation to speak of, and no real bloodletting for gorehounds is daring, even if it doesn’t completely succeed.  I saw this film on VHS way back when, and back then I greatly enjoyed it, because it mixes monster elements (the Devil Witch is a crusty, baleful creation) with some quasi-literate ones.  I have to admit, however, that viewing it again thirty-odd years later, its impact has diminished, and its flaws stand out much more to me now.  The curse of the well-traveled cinephile.  Nonetheless, there are still things going on in the film that provoke some thought. 

As almost any film set at the dawn of America which deals explicitly with witchcraft does (and a whole lot set in contemporary times, too), Eyes of Fire concerns itself with ideas of religion, faith, and the conflict between spirituality and human nature.  Will Smythe, from his introduction (he rises out of his slumber, his hair and shirt disheveled, a look of mischievous amusement on his face), is portrayed as a bit of a dick and a hypocrite.  First of all, he took up with a married woman (disregarding what they say about no one knowing Marion’s whereabouts or status as either living or dead, this is still pretty shitty), concerned more with his libido than his flock.  His keeping of Leah also points to a perversity, as the woman is both free-spirited (in more ways than just sexually, but at first is displayed that way) and perhaps not all there mentally.  This pays off down the road in a way that really digs the ditch far deeper for our preacher.  After being saved from a lynching for his adultery, Smythe tells all the townsfolk that he’s leaving for The Promised Land, and none of them can come with him, but he makes it sound not only like retaliation but also like pitying condescension.  Smythe, of all the characters, is the most resistant to the idea that there are spirits out in the woods, believing the mud-encrusted beings to be merely Native American “savages.”  His books are stolen and torn apart, and during a fit of rage, Smythe stomps around shouting “Goddamn it!”  From all of this evidence, we understand that Smythe is no man of faith but a man of opportunity.  He’s a manipulator of the spiritually/emotionally wounded.  In this sense, his God is as false as his façade, particularly in the presence of the Devil Witch.

By contrast, Leah and the Devil Witch represent the might of Nature, and they are the true spiritual power of the film.  As explained to us, the valley that the settlers move to is theorized as being a mystical hot spot where the blood of people slain converges and produces vengeful spirits.  The woods themselves are alive, with many a tree sporting at least one human face.  The Devil Witch imprisons and controls the spirits here, as she is an exploiter akin to Smythe, the difference being that she has actual superhuman powers.  Likewise, nature contains the duality of man, having both good and evil in it (though I would suggest it’s more good and indifference, but that’s neither here nor there), and Leah is the positive side of it.  She communes with nature, talking to the trees (possibly the odd language she speaks when we first meet her, making her reputed mental illness more a case of spiritual visions and speaking in tongues?).  Through this communion, Leah comes into her own, finding her voice (by film’s end, she speaks perfect English) and her purpose.  The true religion of the film, then, is Nature.  Leah lives in peace and harmony with Nature, a force for good.  The Devil Witch corrupts and bends Nature to her will, a force for evil.  God and the Devil in eternal conflict.

The primary problem that I have with Crounse’s film now is that it mishandles its tones.  For every creepy, evocative moment or image, there is one that is blunt and overblown.  For example, the idea of having the spirits of the valley appear within the fog is good.  The idea of doing so with solarization effects on the image and sound effects that you would expect from an appearance by Mr. Mxyzptlk or The Impossible Man deprives the moment of any deeper impact.  It changes from understated to cartoonish in these moments.  I love the Devil Witch makeup, and some of its appearances are effective.  Others, unfortunately, are pedestrian, just another rubber monster appearance.  This film wants to have it both ways.  It wants to be ominous at the same time it wants to be a straight up creature feature, and the two don’t mesh very well.  This isn’t helped any by its lack of focus and its rather poor, often confused, pacing.  Robert EggersThe Witch took very similar ideas and got it mostly right (aside from that final twenty minutes or so).  I’m sure Crounse and company were so proud of their effects work that they wanted to show it off as much as possible.  I can’t really blame them for that, but I can blame them for giving up on the subtleties that would have made Eyes of Fire a better film.

MVT:  The visual effects work is nice when they’re not being overly futzed with.

Make or Break:  The first appearance of the Devil Witch.  You can decide for yourself if it’s going overboard or keeping in line with the rest of the film.

Score:  6/10