Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Firewalker (1986)

Letter openers are not what they used to be.  Today when you buy one or are “gifted” one by some benevolent corporate entity or what have you, you get a rounded off piece of plastic with a blade surrounded by more plastic.  For your protection.  Is it safe to use?  You bet, but it’s also damned boring to look at, and it has no sense of adventure to it.  Letter openers used to look like daggers.  The looked like something some magnificent bastard in a tailored suit would brandish at you from behind a three-foot-wide oak desk.  As I was growing up, we had several of these faux death implements around my house, one of which resembled the one discovered in J. Lee Thompson’s Firewalker.  It was curved, had an ornate (yet still chintzy) scabbard, everything but the jewel in the butt of the hilt.  Nobody that I know of was ever hurt by it, but it sure looked like it could do some damage, and it was fun to pretend you were a pirate or somesuch while running around with it.  Was this unsafe for a child to play with like it was a toy?  You bet, but it sure as shit wasn’t boring.

Max Donigan (Chuck Norris) and Leo Porter (Louis Gossett, Jr.) are two pro-am treasure hunters who have apparently never actually found any treasure but have found plenty of trouble.  Following their latest near-death experience, the guys are approached by the lovely Patricia Goodwin (Melody Anderson) to aid her in finding a hoard of Aztec/Mayan gold.  Meanwhile, El Coyote (Sonny Landham) is chasing after the team for the aforementioned sacrificial dagger, and he’s not above using magic to get it.

The Cannon Group produced Firewalker based on two criteria: the popularity of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’s Indiana Jones movies and the popularity of Norris, one of the studio’s golden goose stars (alongside Charles Bronson).  Like the big budget Paramount pictures, this is an adventure with a sense of humor (whether or not that humor works is entirely up to you; it was pretty flat for me), but it’s also tonally light (despite the sacrificial aspects and an attempted rape) to the point that it threatens to float away if even a mild wind should pass through wherever it is playing.  This is rather against type for Norris who had been a monosyllabic ass-kicker, taking down villains and winning the Vietnam War for America for a long time (and before stuff like Sidekicks and Top Dog).  Unlike the Harrison Ford character (who does stumble into situations bigger than himself quite often but essentially comes from a place of expertise that goes beyond his physical skills/struggles [he is a professor of archaeology after all]; Jones understands the history and meaning behind the artifacts he pursues), Max comes off as simply gormless.  He loves to spin yarns about the escapades he and Leo have gotten into and out of (even one involving Bigfoot; why couldn’t we get that movie?), but they feel capricious more than anything else.  Max (and by extension Leo) don’t have a plan, and they don’t really have any specialized knowledge that distinguishes them as remarkable.  They’re just like two college buddies who become constantly and unwittingly ensconced in wild goings on over an extended weekend of drinking.  Thus, they don’t really stand out as anything other than schlubs (Max’s martial arts skills notwithstanding).

The relationship between Leo and Max is an interesting one.  From the film’s outset, we’re lead to believe two things:  one, that they will be opposites in characterization (like The Odd Couple but in an adventure milieu), and two, that they will be equals.  Neither of these proves true.  Although the men bicker and argue over the situations they are in, I believe it’s fair to say that both got themselves screwed equally, so neither has any leg to stand on with regards to laying the blame at the other one’s feet.  Once they get to relaxing, they are incredibly similar as well.  Both find the same dumb things funny.  Both are more than happy to start and/or end a (obligatory) bar brawl.  Both have no clue what they’re doing and simply luck upon any positive things that happen in their lives.  Aside from having someone to talk to in public, they could easily be the same person.  

To the second point, Max is (unsurprisingly) the focus of the film’s story, and he is the alpha of the duo, so to speak.  Leo is more than content to follow Max around like a dog and do whatever Max wants to do.  He even admits as much to Patricia at one point.  Max gets to save everyone in the film and play the hero.  In fact, not only does he have to rescue Patricia, but he also has to save Leo’s bacon more than once.  Max catches Patricia’s eye right off the bat, and their romance is the only one in the film.  Leo never has a chance with her or any woman in the movie, despite the possibilities for some great scenes inherent in a triangular relationship (which this film doesn’t have).  As it happens, Leo is basically Max’s valet.  Everything he does is to support his white pal/master.   Combined with the portrayals of every other non-white and/or non-American character in the film, it paints a rather clear, mildly racist picture.  For example, the sadistic General (Richard Lee-Sung) is so cliché, he speaks in clichés (“So, gentlemen, we meet again”).  The Native American, Tall Eagle (Will Sampson), who helps the trio out, is the classic old shaman/chieftain who abides by the traditions of his people but has quirky, modern sensibilities (“I don’t know how Tonto did it”).  Central American soldiers drink while on duty and are insane with lust at the sight of a woman.  Intriguingly, Max’s old pal Corky (John Rhys-Davies) is white and a man of some power, but he is also an amalgam of Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnahan from Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King and Kurtz from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (read: basically power hungry and more than slightly insane).  So, he is also an “other” from Max, but he is also what Max could easily become and soon.  That this isn’t explored more fully in the narrative is a failing, but I think it is also beside the point of the story.  However, coming as all of this does from the long tradition of pulp adventure stories, none of it comes off as particularly offensive, particularly when viewed in that light.  That doesn’t automatically make these facets palatable, but it does make them a bit more acceptable for the duration of the movie.

The Blu-ray from Olive Films presents the film in 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and the detail in the image is clear as a bell, accentuating Thompson’s mobile camerawork throughout (though it also needs mentioning that editor Richard Marx [I believe no relation to the singer/songwriter, but you never know] appears to either not know quite how to match many of these shots with one another or was given a jumble of disparate shots without the coverage to adequately tie them together; the world may never know).  The colors in the film are also very nicely displayed on the disc and the two combined make for a darn fine-looking visual package.  The HD 2.0 audio does an acceptable job mixing the dialogue, effects, and score (though the dialogue is less prominent than other elements on rare occasions, just not enough to ruin anything, and you’re likely not watching Firewalker for its dialogue, regardless.  The disc has no special features.     

MVT:  Despite the issues with their onscreen relationship, Norris and Gossett do have charm, and the pair have a certain chemistry together that works well enough for them.

Make or Break:  There’s a scene near the end that actually has some nice, tense action, and it involves one of my favorite action/adventure sights: people hanging over some perilous abyss/deathtrap/firestorm/anything.  So there’s that.

Score:  6.25/10

Friday, June 19, 2015

Kull the Conqueror (1997)

Directed by: John Nicolella
Runtime: 95 minutes

If you ever wanted a movie where Kevin Sorbo is shirtless most of the time this is the movie for you. This 1997 sword and sorcery film was originally to be a Conan reboot but Kevin Sorbo did not want reprise Arnold Schwarzenegger's role. So it was rewritten using another Robert E. Howard character Kull, an Atlantean pirate who becomes a introspective ruler. Thought in this film he is less introspective and more believes in prophecy, armed combat, cracking jokes, and liberty for all.

The movie opens with the history lesson about how demons used to run the world and world was covered with flames. Then the god of ice came, put an end to the demons, and left one burning flame to remind humans of godless times. Of course this flame will never be used to create conflict in this movie, really.
We then shift focus to our hero Kull and he is taking part in the worst job interview ever. Please do not get me wrong, I have been in a lot of job interviews where if they replace the questions with let's see how well you can beat the hell out of other people with a weapon would be fun. But in Kull's case he is unable to get the job because he is not of noble birth.

This awkwardness is interrupted by news that the king has lost his mind and is killing all his heirs. So Kull follows the general of the noble born guard and ends up killing the king. As thanks for mortally wounding him his last act is to make Kull king. This annoys the general and a foppish noble as thanks to the previous king's murder spree they were the last two in the line of the crown. So Kull moves quickly to annoy even more people before be crowned king and frees a priest of the ice god. He also allows the people to worship what gods they will and pisses off the head priest of the order of dicks.

In between an assassination attempt and scenes where Kull learns that he can't change the law carved in stone there is a love story. Kull and the court fortune teller slowly be come a couple and give away most of the plot with tarot cards. With is weird because, as I understand it, Robert E. Howard's characters tend to avoid the supernatural and rely more on their wits and massive muscles. But enough of that for now let get back to the people upset with Kull and are clueless as to how to kill him.

Enter burned wizard guy and his silent ape monster helper. He has a way to take out Kull in a way that his muscles and wit will not be able stop. He will reawaken a long dead demon sorceresses who will marry and kill Kull. The plan goes off more or less as expected. She seduces Kull, marries him, and then she changes her mind and drugs him instead of killing him. As a bonus, she sets up the court fortune teller as Kull's murderer.

This forces the plot to speed up from crawling to crawling with an energy drink. In short, the demon reveals to Kull she wants him as her sexy consort as turn the world into a hell on Earth. He says no and escapes with the help of the priest of the ice god, who is also the fortune teller's brother. The two of them sneak back into the city, find that a minor character, who they couldn't be bothered to give a name to, is killed and is taking Kull's place at the funeral.

So the plot throws out an action scene where the fortune teller is saved, the high priest of the order of dicks is killed, and the trio escape to find the lost island of the ice god. Kull knows of an old pirate friend who somewhat willing to give him a ship for this quest. However, once they get out to sea the pirate drugs the trio and is about to turn around and sell Kull to the demon. So Kull escapes, steals the ship, and they find the lost island of the ice god.
Back in the kingdom, the demon torments the wizard for forgetting his place. She also kills the foppish noble for being annoying and charges the general with finding Kull and the lost island of the ice god. She knows where the island is and gives the general the ability to catch up. Oh and the general is now trying to find a way to kill both Kull and the demon so he can be king.

Thanks to plot convenience the lost island of the ice god is found. Kull and friends go looking around a cave blasting cold air and find a statue of the ice god. The fortune teller consults her tarot cards and is told to go topless before the god statue and becomes the bearer of the ice god's breath. The general shows up because it has been five minutes since the last action scene and kills priest of the ice god and the ship's crew. After beating Kull in a sword fight, he kidnaps the fortune teller and leaves Kull to die in an easily escapable situation. However the general does not know Kull and makes his escape by drowning himself in freezing water because it is more heroic to escape while suffering hypothermia.

This brings us to the end of this fantastic adventure romp. The general claims the fortune teller and Kull are dead. The demon becomes more demonic as the solar eclipse approaches and forgets to kill the general when Kull sails up for the end of the movie.

Despite my petty complaints this is not a bad movie. It is also not a great movie either. If you are a Robert E. Howard fan and you haven't seen this yet go hang your head in shame. For everyone else, it is a great movie if it comes up on cable or streaming movie services and you have some time to kill.

MVT: The sound track for this movie is amazing and is one the only reasons why I have re-watched this movie.

Make or Break: Break, a lot of things in the movie that need to be explained like who characters are and what the hell is the ape monster thing is.

Score: 4.1 out of 10

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Beyond the Door 3 (1989)

I’ve never ridden on a train for any extended length of time.  I have ridden on public transit trains to get around cities like Philadelphia and Chicago on occasion, but I have never ridden the rails outside a radius of a few miles.  I’ve been tempted to, especially since it satisfies my two travel criteria of being one, a means of transport for which my involvement in reaching a destination is minimal, and two, not an airplane.  However, the cost would have been much higher than gas consumption and upkeep on my car.  Worse, it would take more than a day to get where I was going, which is just a bit longer than I want to spend on a train (barring a “train cruise” or something, naturally).  Of course, Europe has America beat to shit in regards to locomotives.  If movies are any indication (solid reasoning, that), not only are train rides on that continent popular and affordable for all income levels, but they’re also filled to brimming with hot coeds looking to party (they could also be stuffy, British professor types looking to research) and maniacs/perverts/monsters looking to violate or kill said revelers.  If you get bored staring out the window at the lush scenery whipping by, you can always take in an eyeful of the bodily fluids in which each car is assumedly awash and/or encrusted at any given moment.  And if you’re one of the characters in Jeff Kwitney’s Beyond the Door 3 (aka Amok Train aka Evil Train aka Winds of Evil aka Il Treno), you can also get ensconced in a plot for which the phrase “hot mess” not only applies but also doesn’t even cover the half of it.

While blind fortune teller Vesna (Olga Poznatov) maps out a young woman’s life via very specific, non-standardized Tarot-esque (but more like newspaper clippings) cards on a Tic Tac Toe board, a gaggle of cultists gathers and holds candles.  Cut to modern day Los Angeles, where a teeny weeny Balkan Studies class (I didn’t even know such courses could be taken when I was in college, so just goes to show you) is shipping off to (I think) Serbia in order to witness a centuries old ritual (which could totally not have been recreated in Los Angeles, I’m sure).  Under the chaperoning of the unctuously straitlaced Professor Andromolek (Bo Svenson), the kids are quickly under siege by the aforementioned cultists and forced to hop a train which is filled (again, to brimming) with Evil and has its sights set on the perennially bug-eyed, ultra-tense Beverly Putnic (Mary Kohnert) as its object of desire.      

I’m not going to pretend that I comprehend the full spectrum of belief paths encompassed by the concept of paganism, but my perception is that it’s usually both polytheistic and nature-oriented (once more citing cinema as either educator or deceiver).  In films like this one, however, it strictly refers to Satanism.  In fact, I cannot recall a single film that has ever depicted pagans as anything other than either maleficent or humorously airheaded.  The students are supposed to attend what Andromolek refers to as a “passion play” centering on a virgin female.  We know that there is evil afoot, but rather than giving us some twisted play on a bloody-minded love goddess or something along the lines of Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, we just get a Christian God versus Christian Devil conflict.  Like their portrayals of paganism, Horror films also love the notion that nature itself is filled with nightmares and malice for human beings to endure.  Just witness any of the Friday the 13th films, Long Weekend, Grizzly, Frogs, ad infinitum for further evidence.  You go out into the woods, be prepared to wind up dead, and this film does fulfill expectations in this regard.  With that in mind, the portrayal of the Satanists is not necessarily what we would fully anticipate.  The village the kids are taken to is literally in the middle of nowhere and immediately offputting.  It is filled with stick and straw huts and has mud paths for roads.  The villagers are all old, pallid, and sneering.  They treat the students like the cattle they are.  This earthy connection is incongruous with what we normally envision about Satanists, though it does satisfy the requirement of thinly (very thinly) veiled enmity.  Movie Satanists are typically suave, affluent, higher class or at the very least, they are wielders of some type of power in a community.  They’re usually not poor, filthy peasants.  I suppose this is a nitpick, and it can be said that it doesn’t matter which deity these folks worship, but it’s one of those aspects of Beyond the Door 3 that stuck out to me, this inconsistency with the classic approach, but also bear in mind that I’m going forward with the idea that paganism and Satanism are not necessarily mutually exclusive.   

Ideas of destiny and fate are predominant throughout the film.  The credit sequence maps out the path of Beverly’s life.  Beverly is marked with a rather peculiar birthmark (a red, stylized Devil’s head shape spanning from below her navel to beneath her breasts) indicating she is the chosen one for Andromolek and company’s plans.  Everything pushes her toward a perceived end, and it’s in this respect that we can allow for the fact that Beverly is a truly unlikable character (and at least it’s also one of the very few things in the film that actually pays off somewhat satisfactorily).  She grimaces in a peculiarly slack-jawed fashion at everyone in the film (this is excused with throwaway lines about how all of her friends and classmates torment and tease her for being a virgin, though this really isn’t represented on screen).  She reacts in disgust to her mother, even while professing her tepid love for the woman.  She is a person in need of a father figure (her dad being deceased), and at first it’s implied that Andromolek will fill this position.  He pays special attention to her, and after she is mildly taunted during a meal, he comforts her.  And that’s about as far as this facet is carried (although, I suppose there could also be some creepy, psychosexual/incest underpinnings happening as well).  Outside of these couple things, Beverly is essentially a nigh-blank slate and not in a good way.  As a result, I honestly couldn’t be bothered to care about a single thing that happened to her (I said we could allow for her unlikability, not discount it completely in this film).  This engenderment of apathy, compounded by the film’s incoherent insanity (the ending is simultaneously “what the fuck?” and “who gives a fuck?”) and somnambulistic pacing, makes Beyond the Door 3 a chore with very little reward waiting when it finally pulls into the station.   

MVT:  The kills in the film are all relatively inventive, very gory, and mostly enjoyable, if that’s your thing (and it is mine, to some degree).  And that’s the long and the short of the good things in this movie.

Make or Break:  The break is, of all things, Beverly’s shower scene.  Yes, it gives us the only naked flesh in the film as well as a glimpse at Bev’s birthmark.  But it also gives us the first indication of Beverly’s full-blown, harpy-esque characterization.  It’s said that the lowest you can go is rock bottom.  I would disagree.  You can always dig down further, if you use the right tools.  Mary Kohnert is the right tools.

Score:  4.5/10