Axe Giant: The Wrath Of Paul Bunyan (2013)

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The more SyFy movies you watch, the more you’re aware of them having a certain house style. You can make rough predictions of casting (one or two SyFy TV people, perhaps a B-list movie star who’s down on their luck), location (Canada, doubling for the desert, the jungle, or outer space), and plot (weather disaster, creature from mythology, giant version of normal creature); plus there’s usually an estranged family. All these things being absent (apart from the monster, I guess?) combined with nudity and gore made me think that this was perhaps bought in by SyFy – although I hope they didn’t spend too much money on it – and the version I saw was a DVD cut.

 

It’s really cheaply made, too. While we love him, being an ISCFC Hall of Famer (“Demolition Highway”, “Roller Blade Seven”), when your biggest star is Joe Estevez and it’s 2013, you’ve got some serious questions you need to ask yourself. And the effects for the giant are abysmal – when he’s running down the street after a car, his feet are barely moving yet the scenery is racing by. Having just watched “Decker: Unclassified”, the Tim Heidecker / Gregg Turkington comedy show on Adult Swim (which also co-stars Estevez, coincidentally enough), where the effects are bad on purpose yet the difference between the two is minimal, I feel bad for everyone involved. When you start noticing people from the scene in 1895 show up as part of the posse in the present day, well…you’ve already sat through the movie at that point, so sucks to be you.

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We start in 1895 Minnesota, where a group of frontierspeople are…well, the scene is so cheap that it’s sort of confusing. A guy is doing an activity that looks like roasting a large ox, but the ox is obviously plastic and there’s no fire where a fire should be. The “meat” is so cold that snow is settling on top of it! Then, Grizzly Adams (the actual Grizzly Adams, Dan Haggerty, who must be wishing he’d saved that 70s money) wanders off for a minute and comes back to find the entire encampment brutally murdered. He’s not much longer for this world, as a mutant attacks him and quickly splits him in half in a lovely CGI woodmill. Quite exciting, as these things go, if only they’d bothered to spend a bit of time making it roughly era-appropriate.

 

The main bulk of the movie is set in the present, and is about a group of young offenders being given a second chance to stay out of jail; they’re accompanied by Sergeant Hoke (Thomas Downey) and social worker Ms K (Kristina Kopf). The teens, with the exception of the obvious Final Girl (who’s also the local Sheriff’s daughter) are the purest cannon fodder, and shockingly bad actors to boot. They tell the tales of why they were arrested, and Final Girl’s story is bizarre – while a little drunk, she got into her car to stop a very drunk driver from killing people. Despite her being in no trouble before that, having a fantastic excuse, and, y’know, being a Sheriff’s daughter, she’s still forced to go into this program, and indeed says her lawyer recommended a guilty plea. Really? But they’re all really dull to watch, and it’s not helped by the giant keeping mostly away from things for the first half of the movie.

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The villain of the piece is Paul Bunyan, who was of normal height (if hideously disfigured) during the 1895 opening. After escaping punishment for that crime, over years of isolation in the high country grew to a height of…well, the movie is too cheap to keep the perspective constant, so it’s really anything from about 10 feet to 30 feet tall. The meat the loggers were eating at the beginning was his only friend, Babe The Blue Ox, and it was his anger over the death of Babe that led to their deaths; one of the teen criminals steals one of Babe’s horns and that’s the thing that seals their fate, too. A few words about Bunyan for my British friends, who may only know about him very vaguely and second hand – not too many words, though, as you can just get the information from Wikipedia yourself. Bunyan had his origins in the oral storytelling of early American lumberjacks, who made up stories about him to pass the time of day. His first appearance in print was a newspaper editorial in 1904, and it wasn’t until a promotional pamphlet for a lumber company in 1916 that his stories became widely known – he was by and large a nice guy, too, becoming a popular figure in childrens’ literature in the 1950s. Sort of interesting that he’s already passed into folklore, despite being so recent an invention.

 

One can question why they turned Bunyan into a giant, deranged mutant; or where he found the trousers and shoes he’s wearing; or even how he got his enormous double-headed axe, with the steel being a comfortable eight feet from edge to edge, if he’s got the mind of a child (not having access to iron ore, or a forge, or any training); but you won’t get answers to any of them.

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They had access to a special effects studio (the famous Robert Kurtzman’s place, although I don’t imagine they put “Axe Giant” on their highlight reel), and had a guy willing to put on the rubber Paul Bunyan suit, and precious little else. The green-screen effects are laughably bad, but there’s no sense the filmmakers are in on the joke. The worst thing about all this is, writer / director Gary Jones is better known as a special effects guy, so lord knows how he thought it was acceptable.

 

It’s not terrible, I guess, but it’s still really bad. Estevez clearly relishes the chance to go completely OTT, playing his backwoods guy (who seems to be Bunyan’s friend, although it feels they edited something out that explained that, only leaving in him playing half a game of chess on his porch) and chewing every bit of scenery. Kopf is excellent, given the awful material, and Downey grew on me too, although he doesn’t last long enough to make much of an impression one way or the other. The rest of them are utterly forgettable, and in fact I already have, and the plot is tedious and inevitable, a slasher movie with the twist being a gigantic monster can sneak up on people rather than just a normal-sized murderer. At the very bottom of SyFy’s output.

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Rating: thumbs down

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Lost Treasure Of The Grand Canyon (2008)

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If you spend any time on the fringier parts of the internet, or have ever said “lamestream media” and meant it, you might be familiar with the treasure hauls of the Grand Canyon. From an Arizona newspaper in 1909, came stories of G. E. Kincaid, a collector for the renowned Smithsonian Institute, finding an entire ancient city, of Egyptian descent, deep underneath the Grand Canyon, full of ancient weapons and gold and other such gems of a lost civilisation. The Smithsonian, for some reason, hid all evidence of this, as none of the finds from both that expedition and the one that followed a few months later were ever put on public display or even acknowledged. We have researcher David Childress to thank for much of this information, as he did investigative work in the early 90s.

Of course, this is all garbage. The newspaper article was a hoax, as were so many of the time (it being the height of the “yellow journalism” trend – my favourite was a lost city in rural Missouri, which of course turned out to  be nothing at all). These hoaxes were able to exist because in the age before the widespread use of the car, it was pretty difficult to get into the middle of nowhere to check whether the ancient buried city was really there and because by tomorrow’s paper we were all on to the next crazy claim (how times have changed, eh?), but that’s not stopped a whole industry of charlatans making money from the overly credible. Kincaid never existed, there’s nothing of the sort in the Grand Canyon, the Smithsonian covered nothing up, and David Childress is one of the very worst of the modern snake-oil salesmen, who barely even manages to look like he believes it himself during one of his many TV appearances on the History Channel. I can’t emphasise strongly enough that none of this is true, at all.

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But, truth doesn’t stop you from telling a good story, and SyFy has told a good story here. Feeling like it was written by someone who swallowed Childress’ tale hook, line and sinker, but who could still craft a decent character and have some fun, we’ve got a movie set around the time of the hoax (date is never mentioned, but from the state of the clothes, tents and equipment, it’s about then). Dr Samuel Jordan is leading an expedition into the Grand Canyon to find this alleged hoard, when he and his party are captured by mysterious indeterminately-ethnic people. The other half of his party go looking for him, and pick up a few stragglers along the way.

For a SyFy movie, this is a great cast. Head of the expedition, and secret good guy, is Jacob Thain (Michael Shanks, “Stargate SG-1”). Jordan’s daughter Susan is Shannon Doherty, who’d by this point probably realised she was never going to be that big a name again. Potential love interest for Susan and obviously a secret douchebag is Marco Langford (JR Bourne, a great “That Guy” actor). Feminist scientist and sort-of-a-douchebag is Hildy Wainwright (Heather Doerksen, “Fringe”, “Cabin In The Woods”). Rounding things out are a guy who’s sort of dull and just…on the expedition for no reason, a journalist who’s also kinda the comic relief, and the sole survivor from the attack on Jordan’s party.

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They find the secret entrance to the Egyptian / Aztec mashup civilisation and we’re on for action and adventure, as they try and rescue the Dad, maybe steal some artifacts and develop some love connections, or not (spoilers!) There’s that thing where they have to translate some ancient symbols to open doors, and so on, where Thain comes in handy – he’s super smart as well as being a little aloof – and Langford isn’t, because he just keeps triggering traps with his impatience, including getting one of the team killed with an axe to the head.

 

The primary thing to say about all this is, it’s extremely standard stuff. You’ll see the twists coming from a mile off, and there are no surprises at all. But, that’s not always a bad thing, because we’ve covered dozens of SyFy movies where they couldn’t even be bothered to get the basic story building blocks right. A good solid adventure story set among a lost civilisation, where everything happens for a reason, is a pleasant rarity for that channel. There’s also a pleasantly light tone, bringing to mind the “Librarian” TV movies and a very distant Indiana Jones cousin.

 

Also, kudos to the set designer, or the guy who found the sets. They walk through an outpost town and it’s being built around them, which is a quietly clever move. So many Western towns look old and worn out because I think that’s what we expect, but here we see the beginning of that, which also conveniently hides that the movie was building the set too. Everything was new once! And it also looks like they filmed near an actual canyon (up in Canada, so again, kudos) which fooled me – admittedly, it wouldn’t take much.

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I’ve not even mentioned the primary effect yet, a demon who’s supposed to be the old god Quetzalcoatl. He looks great, and while if I’d seen a blu-ray the effect might have looked a bit cheesy, my less-than-perfect stream left him looking great. Not sure about his motivation or why he exists and is a normal flesh-and-blood creature, but it’s an adventure story and that’s the sort of villain these movies have.

While it’s not the most exciting or original, it does the simple stuff very well. I’d have been happy if they’d bothered making themselves era-appropriate occasionally (Doherty seems of 2008 far more than 1908, and her Dad’s jacket is synthetic with tons of pockets) but we can’t have everything. One for an undemanding Sunday evening, perhaps.

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Rating: thumbs up

Metal Shifters (2011)

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I am happy to report that this SyFy Channel original movie messes with the format. The estranged couple, so beloved for their tension-generating abilities, are high school sweethearts who’ve not seen each other in 16 years; and there is a child (her teen daughter), but she’s so annoying and self-involved that no-one seems bothered about jeopardising themselves to save her.

 

This movie also seems to rename itself whenever the wind changes. We’ve got the original title, “Iron Invader”, then “Iron Golem” (no doubt there was a new “Iron Man” in cinemas when it was first released). In the UK, it’s known as “Metal Shifters”, in Spain, “Transmorfers” (sorry, Spain, we’ve already got one of those), and in Germany, ”Space Transformers” (okay, there’s a giant metal creature in it, but it doesn’t really transform).

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A meteor hurtling through space crashes into a Russian satellite, transferring some sort of green goo onto it; this satellite then crashes in Redeemer, Idaho, a small town which is going through some tough times as all we see are “foreclosed” signs on the houses. That this also cuts down on the number of extras you have to hire is, I’m sure, irrelevant. But all isn’t lost, as there’s a couple of brothers renovating an old building to turn it into a B&B, Jake and Ethan (Kavan “Eureka” Smith and Colby “this movie is his main IMDB credit” Johannson). Into town comes his old girlfriend, Amanda (Nicole De Boer, who we’ve covered previously in “Metal Tornado” and “Prom Night 4”, and who’s more famous for her TV runs on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and “The Dead Zone”), and there’s perhaps a little unfinished business between her and Jake? Like I said, it’s nice that they messed with their own format, even if only a little.

 

Jake and Ethan are short on cash, so when that goo-covered satellite crashes in town, they umm and ahh about informing the authorities before deciding to sell it at the scrap yard, run by the town’s resident old man, Earl (Donnelly Rhodes, “The 12 Disasters Of Christmas”). He’s building a 17-foot tall robot sculpture for the town’s annual festival, although it won’t be much of a festival if there’s only like 10 people left! Anyway, the goo is sentient, and the bits of satellite leap onto the robot, fusing themselves to it and animating the sculpture. Then, suddenly, a giant lump of metal turns into a ninja, as people are continually unable to find it – and there’s the thing where you hear servo-motors whenever it moves, despite them being expensive and there being no way an old man would have fit them to an immobile sculpture.

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So, the green goo is mega-bacteria, and it loves the iron in human blood, as well as whatever metal it can get itself on (although it prefers the blood). Deciding on a giant statue as the best way to get round town, and not, I don’t know, a car or bike, it sneaks round, killing folks before leaving the surviving townspeople in the one local bar, run by that bloke from “Eureka” who also ran their bar.  The Sheriff’s deputy (Chelah Horsdal, one of my favourite “That Gal” actors) feels like she was there because they were having a “Eureka” reunion, or because they had five minutes they needed to fill.

 

The effect for the golem is pretty good, even if they do resort to a King Kong-esque “hand through the window” thing a few too many times. The acting is pretty uniformly strong, even if I’d have given Horsdal a bit more to do than being sat behind a desk then dying (she’s really good, you guys, check her out in “The Man In The High Castle”; also, her Twitter feed is hilarious). The interplay between the people at the bar, especially when they’re trying to figure out a way to kill the space bacteria, is pretty fun – kudos to writer / director Paul Ziller, one of SyFy’s most dependable names.

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I could have lived without so many people going “as if a giant robot actually exists!” and then blaming the old man for building it, as if some guy in a scrap yard wanted to build an actually working 17-foot tall killing machine; and there’s a spectacular example of “haha all our friends are dead” at the end, as the main couple joke and kiss, ignoring the fact that his brother and her aunt died in gruesome circumstances YESTERDAY

 

Still, it’s not bad, and if it pops on the SyFy schedule, you could do a heck of a lot worse.

 

Rating: thumbs in the middle

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Christmas Icetastrophe (2014)

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What a great name! Despite the two words not really fitting together, SyFy went ahead anyway and the “icetastrophe” was born. The difference between this and yesterday’s “Flying Monkeys” is night and day – while they both had some of the same beats and were obviously SyFy movies, “Flying Monkeys” was dull and dragged on. “Christmas Icetastrophe” is way more fun to watch, the effects feel better and it’s overall one of the strongest SyFy efforts yet. It’s also got perhaps the highest level of “That Guy” recognition of anything we’ve seen in a long time.

 

A meteor is the equilibrium-spoiler of choice here. Hot scientist Alex Novak (Jennifer Spence, “Continuum”) is tracking a meteor, bound for Earth, and this journey takes her to a small town in Montana. That small town is home to Hunky McMancop himself, Victor Webster (also “Continuum”) as Charlie Ratchet, who knows about dynamite and works for town wealthy guy Ben Crooge (Mike Dopud, “Continuum” again). Charlie has a son, Tim (Richard Harmon, “Continuum”) who’s dating Ben’s daughter Marley (Tiera Skovbye, who amazingly hasn’t ever been in “Continuum”), and they’re all there in the town square to celebrate something Christmassy when the meteor strikes.

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So, everything starts turning to ice, and the meteor forms massive crystals around it which kill anyone who touches it and causes them to shatter like the T-1000 in “Terminator 2”, and the town is in deep trouble. Charlie’s got the classic SyFy trope – the estranged wife – and she’s in the next town over, so there’s all sorts of shenanigans with evacuating the people to the unspecified building she works in, and them burning every bit of wood and all the books there. Charlie rescues Alex from the side of the road, and it’s the first of a number of “we need to outrun the encroaching ice” that the movie is dotted with. Pretty exciting too – they do a good job of shooting the scene where they have to get into a boat to go across a lake, as it’s freezing behind them. Don’t look too close or you’ll see the pleasant spring afternoon off in the distance, but for SyFy this stuff is strong.

 

When a rescue helicopter finds a mysterious patch of mountain which is untouched by the ice-storm which is sweeping the area, it’s on for an attempt to save the day and use good old fashioned heroism combined with puzzling leaps of logic only used by scientists in movies. Alex and Charlie make a great team, with an easy camaraderie and deferment to each others’ area of expertise, and it’s also refreshing to see no unnecessary sexual tension subplot – a bit surprising as Victor Webster and Jennifer Spence are both gorgeous (we don’t call him Hunky McMancop for nothing). Then Tim has to go and rescue Marley…it’s standard stuff, but it works.

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It’s tough to say why this one works completely whereas so many others fail. It’s not the director, Jonathan Winfrey, who was an undistinguished TV guy for many years. It’s probably not writer David Sanderson, a SyFy employee who’s worked on many of their movies, both good and bad. I think it might be a cast full of people who’d worked with each other before, and it might just be that “The Day After Tomorrow” was ripe for a cheap ripoff with a bunch of TV actors in it. Who knows?

 

Perhaps it’s the well-timed gags. When a redneck stuck on a bridge tells a teen couple to “chill”, then half a second later gets vaporised by a huge block of ice landing on him, that’s a lot of fun (I hope this isn’t just me being some demented monster, getting enjoyment from scenes like that). Webster and Spence are more dryly amusing than laugh-out-loud, but it’s all good.

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It’s not perfect, though. The estranged wife subplot was dull as hell, as they didn’t bother giving her much of a personality or anything to do; and there was a whole rich kid hates the poor kid thing that went nowhere. Oh, and the science was absolutely terrible, being about two parts of a meteor, one of which creates heat, the other cold (heck of a coincidence, I’d have thought), and attributing simple fire an almost supernatural ability to repel ice.

 

I’d put it solidly in the top quarter of SyFy’s output, and if you get the chance, it comes highly recommended.

 

Rating: thumbs up

 

CHRISTMAS ICETASTROPHE -- Pictured: (l-r) Victor Webster as Charlie Ratchet, Jennifer Spence as Alex Novak, Mike Dopud as Ben Crooge -- (Photo by: Cinetel Films)

CHRISTMAS ICETASTROPHE — Pictured: (l-r) Victor Webster as Charlie Ratchet, Jennifer Spence as Alex Novak, Mike Dopud as Ben Crooge — (Photo by: Cinetel Films)

Adventureland (2009)

How do I start this review? Well… I enjoyed the film a whole lot but I am just trying to figure out how it got made because it is like some kind of prestige indie film.

I’ve discussed my thoughts on indie films before (“indie films” are independently made films that share enough conventions that they have become a genre yada yada yada) and Adventureland pretty much hits all the notes to qualify;

Slice of life story? Check.

Low budget? Check.

Hipster offbeat soundtrack? Check.

And yet it doesn’t look like one and the cast is light years beyond your typical indie: you’d think it was a major Hollywood motion picture.

And yet, at the time of production, Greg Mottola only had two features under his belt, one of which was the wildly successful Superbad. Plus he wrote and directed this film with a budget under $10 million.

Let’s look at the cast for a second: you’ve got the star, Jesse Eisenberg, who wouldn’t have his big break until Zombieland, a year later, Kirsten Stewart, who would have been a major name due to her role in Twilight, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, who were both SNL alumni’s and of course, Ryan Reynolds, who is a big enough star I don’t need to even mention any of his projects.

I’m guessing Greg Mottola earned his stripes with Superbad and decided to work on his own, lower budget project rather than another Judd Apatow movie or some such. And I’m guessing Superbad’s success is what brought in everyone else. I don’t know. It just seems weird to have what is ostensibly an indie film with such a high profile cast and Hollywood sheen.

Anyway, Jesse Eisenberg plays James Brennan, who is fresh out of high school and has Big Plans. These go awry when his parents reveal they are broke and James has to get a summer job. He goes to work at the titular, Adventureland, a truly dismal looking amusement park.

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Here in the UK, we have our share of dismal amusement parks and I imagine America, being so very much larger, has more than its fair share (ha ha) and this kind of thing is probably more culturally relevant there. Still, Adventureland is exactly the sort of soulless, unamusement park you have probably visited yourself.

James goes to work there and, as in The Way Way Back, we are introduced to a whole host of offbeat characters. The most notable being the sardonic Emily, played by Kirsten Stewart, and the womanising Mike, played by Ryan Reynolds.

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There’s a lot going on in this film and it’s all good! It is principally about the romantic entanglement between James and Emily.

Emily is a student at NYU and doesn’t need to work at Adventureland due to her father being very rich. But yet she chooses to work at the dismal amusement park, largely as a big “FU” to her socialite stepmother. Her birth mother died of cancer only a short time before her father remarried and “Em” has deep resentment toward said stepmother.

Through a mixture of grief and this resentment, she began dating the married Mike.

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Mike Connell is the park technician and uses his good looks, effortless charisma and the fact he plays guitar, to impress the young women who frequent the park. Mike is a scumbag and everyone should hate him but of course, being so charming, it is hard to dislike him. And I’ve know real life people like this: people so charming, that even knowing what a shithouse they are, you still end up liking them all the same. I like to think that Mottola had Reynolds in mind when he wrote the character because he is so perfect here.

Let’s be straight: Emily is clearly in a dark place and many of her choices in this film are driven by her grief. Mike is clearly a bad decision and James is a rock to grab hold onto. And yet she struggles to handle a potentially good relationship with James.

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There are further complications, such as James’ friend Joel, who has a crush on Emily and becomes upset when James and his crush become close and the Adventureland “It Girl”, Lisa P., played by Margarita Levieva, takes an interest in him. Everything comes to a head and resolves itself by the end of the movie in an enjoyable and satisfying way.

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There’s not much else I can say about the story without spoiling it.

This being a slice of life indie film, it is very heavily character driven. Fortunately, everyone turns in great performances (even Kirsten Stewart, who I find to be a thoroughly uncharismatic actress, but that strangely works for her in this role). So chalk one up for great casting choices for their roles!

James occupies a weird space of being the guy the girls pursue. Kirsten Stewart’s character pretty much seduces James and I get the impression that his character probably wouldn’t have pursued her, despite his attraction. Kudos to Jesse Eisenberg’s acting skills. And then Lisa P., the hot girl all the guys have a crush on, pursues him because he is nice to her without any ulterior motive… which did seem a stretch too far. Or perhaps it doesn’t say much about Lisa P’s character.

In fact, Lisa P. does manage to criticise Emily for being a “home-wrecker” for having an affair with a married man, despite the fact that he is the one who is married. James points out how backward that is but Lisa P. is having none of it. This is also interesting considering Kristen Stewart would go on to have an affair with a married man and receive exactly the same criticism.

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One thing I wanted to comment on is the setting: you’d be forgiven for not realising that this film is set during the 1980s. Yes, there is a lot of ‘80s background music but given how dismal Adventureland is, it feels more like that everyone else is modern day and it’s the park which is stuck in a time warp. I legit didn’t realise it was the ‘80s until a club scene later in the film.

This didn’t detract from the film, it is just a weird curiosity.

Anyway, it’s currently on Netflix, so if you have a couple of hours, definitely worth a watch.

TLDR; “A well polished non-indie indie film.

Flying Monkeys (2013)

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The title tells you most of what you can expect from this. If you were flicking through the channels and saw a SyFy Channel original called “Flying Monkeys”, I reckon a good 75% of you would have described this exact movie without having seen a single second of it. But let’s see, shall we?

 

Right from the off, they want you to know that it’s going to have lightness to go with the dark – or they at least try. A pair of old men are having a talk outside a garage when a car full of high school-graduating girls drives past. Old man 1: “That’s the thing I love about high school girls – I get older, they stay the same age”. Now, this is a line ripped off from 90s classic “Dazed And Confused” (and likely not original to there, either), and the humour comes from a sleazy guy in his late 20s talking about 17 year olds. When it comes to guys in their mid 70s doing the same thing, it goes beyond a little sleazy to something a great deal less savoury, which if they’d been aiming for that would have worked fine, but it’s just two old guys shooting the breeze!

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A couple of Chinese guys are bringing over a number of exotic animals to what turns out to be a completely ordinary-looking pet shop in random small town Kansas. One of them is an innocent-looking Capuchin monkey, but at some point during the flight all the creatures except that monkey (including the co-pilot) are brutally slaughtered by creatures unknown. Well, it’s the monkey, sorry, otherwise the name of the movie would be really stupid. The guy in charge of the pet shop, who looks more like a security guard for a Vegas gangster than he does a guy with a very strange pet-based business model, also encounters the evil of the monkey and decides to sell it to the first sucker who comes along.

 

Fun Bobby! Vincent Ventresca, who is better known to a generation of TV fans as Fun Bobby from “Friends”, plays the Dad of the main family, and he’s upset at missing his daughter’s graduation from high school, so he buys her a monkey. That daughter is Joan (Maika Monroe), and she’s about to go to vet school…so you think she’d have plenty of pets already, especially given she works at a vet place part time. But if this movie were logical it’d never get going, so let’s give it some slack and move on.

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At nightfall, the cute little fella transforms into a large flying monkey and goes out killin’. If you shoot it, it splits into two flying monkeys. We discover this thanks to the other side of the story, the Chinese side. Two mystical warriors who have enchanted weapons (a sword and a crossbow) and find the American preoccupation with guns bizarre. It turns out the monkey is actually an ancient demon called a Zigo, and the one that Joan has is one of only two left in the world. So, the two Chinese, giving it all the “prophecy says we must do X and Y” garbage, set off for America.

 

Joan goes back to the pet shop when she thinks the monkey isn’t eating (of course, it’s popping out at night and munching on the local population), and notices an endangered animal for sale. Owner guy threatens her, but rather than reporting this and helping out the animals, she…does nothing. Why bring it up?

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Aside from the Chinese heroes indicating this has got some funding from that part of the world, everything else progresses exactly as you’d expect. People shoot, rescue their beloved family members, figure out a way to save the day, etc. The special effects are sort of okay by SyFy standards, abysmal by any others, with the Zigo themselves looking like the bad guys from a late 90s computer game. The acting is fine, it’s occasionally amusing, it’s just so painfully average. It’s like wallpaper.

 

If you don’t have that screen saver on your computer that’s bouncing text, or the pipe one (the pipe one is occasionally exciting) then this movie will provide an adequate place to point your eyes at for a couple of hours. But adequate is no good for a place like the ISCFC! You and I require the wild highs and the crazy crazy lows!

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Rating: thumbs down

Blood And Honor (2000)

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I discovered the films of Donald Farmer a few years ago and life’s never been the same. He’s been directing since the mid 80s (and SRS Cinema are now putting out his super-8 stuff from even earlier), and has made some of my favourite bonkers horror – “Vampire Cop”, “Scream Dream” and “Red Lips”, to name but three, but pick any of them (okay, maybe not “Red Lips: Eat The Living” or “Dorm Of The Dead”, they’re pretty tough to sit through) and you’ll have a good, if occasionally baffled, time.

He’s also one of the nicest guys on social media, and it was thanks to him pointing me in the right direction that I was able to watch this film at all (perhaps it never got a UK release due to the movie sharing its name with a group of Nazi music enthusiasts – ps. go fuck yourselves, Nazis). Anyway, I need to pick a spot to start because this story could get long. Dentistry!

Dr Maurice J Fagan Jr was a dental pioneer, holding a number of patents, writing dozens of articles, helping out the Pope’s dentist, and so on. But as if this wasn’t quite enough for him, he also wrote a novel as a favour to a friend (who left him an outline) called “The Isle Of Hope”. This was printed by one of those self-publishing places in 1992, and here’s where I could just ask Donald Farmer what happened but I much prefer baseless speculation. I think Fagan, or someone close to him, wanted to be in the movies, wanted to create their own “Gone With The Wind”, and had a bunch of cash, so a friend of a friend said “hey, I know this director”.

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So the money is rounded up, Civil War enthusiasts are contacted to be extras, an old plantation house is borrowed, the movie is shot…and IMDB lists it as 4 hours 33 minutes! This is what gave me the “Gone With The Wind” thoughts, as that’s only a whisker under 4 hours itself. Anyway, this beast of a movie, completely unlike anything its director has done before, is sold to a distributor, and they go “nope” and cut it into two separate movies, of which this is the first (“Battle For Glory”, the second part, is at my friend’s house in the USA, so a review for that will have to wait a while).

That distributor is one David Heavener. His name looms large over the sort of bargain-basement cinema we like to cover here, and he’s been writing, directing and starring in films that have flown completely under my radar for over 30 years. He also produces and distributes movies, and this is one of his – he left a ton of material on the cutting room floor, as that one 4+ hour movie is now two of around 80 minutes each. For evidence of this, the end credits (which play over “highlights” from the movie) feature people we never see, characters having conversations despite them never having met, and so on.

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I suppose I ought to discuss the movie! After some footage of Civil War re-enactors (cheaper than staging a battle yourself, I guess), during which cars are clearly visible in the background, we get a voiceover, which certainly helps the rather chopped up narrative. This is supplied by Farmer collaborator Philip Newman (the writer / producer / star of “Body Shop”, who also shows up in this as the head of one of the families), who has a great voice for it. It centres around two couples deep in Confederate country during the Civil War – the first is Craig and Olivia. She fakes a pregnancy to get him to marry her, then turns into the least competent gold-digger of all time, and all this time anyway he’s been sleeping with the maid Caroline. On top of this, he’s also in love with Olivia’s sister Angela, but she’s married to Henry. Henry has a sister, Maude, who’s not thrilled by his wife.

Andy Hamrick, in his only role, plays Henry, and it’s a really tricky part to pull off – he never really convinced that he was too conflicted or worth caring about, flitting from sex with one woman to another to almost forcing himself on Angela at one point. Ortiz is fantastic as the Cajun (although her accent was rotten) Caroline, with a performance full of seduction and lies, and it’s her that drives most of the plot – murdering Olivia’s father when he threatens to reveal the affair to his daughter, then…well, no sense giving any further spoilers. I mean, with the amount of sass she gives her employers, I’d have kicked her out on the street months ago, but perhaps good help was hard to come by at the time. The rest of the plot is driven by the coming to town of a group of Union soldiers, led by Colonel Evans (Miles O’Keefe, the early 80s “Tarzan”). He’s a decent guy but his soldiers are absolute rapist monsters; they hole up in the house of Olivia and Angela’s family and then sort of do nothing – they don’t appear to be fighting, or on a mission, they’re just hanging out at the house.

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First up – this is in the running for the most coherent of Farmer’s movies. I understood who everyone was and roughly why they were doing what they were doing. It looks completely decent, being shot on actual film (I think), and the sets were excellent, being real old houses and proper beautiful Southern forests where the moss hangs from the trees. The haircuts were a little 1990s, perhaps, and I’d be surprised if the women of the time were quite as feisty as they were here, but Farmer is a steady hand, he’s easily able to control all the threads and directs it well.

It’s honestly a surprise that none of my criticisms of a Donald Farmer movie are to do with the direction – he’ll normally do something so completely out of left field that you’re left scratching your head at the end, despite them almost always being enjoyable. Not here, mind you – it just makes me wish he’d been given this level of money for all his other movies. Okay, he does stuff like show the same battle scene twice, and the blood effects are rough, but that’s so minor for the same filmography that gave us “An Erotic Vampire In Paris” that it barely needs mentioning.

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Every problem with this movie is the story, although…it’s not terrible, I guess? It’s just completely unremarkable, and feels like exactly what it is – a vanity project from a Civil War enthusiast who knew how to get the beats of story down and in the right order, but not how to make it interesting. In case you were about to say “didn’t Farmer write it?” – well, yes, but given Fagan actually appears in a small part in the movie, I’m guessing he was firmly in control of the script too. The issue of slavery is completely ignored, as it’s fairly clear the author’s sympathies were not on the Union side (or if they were, he had a terrible way of showing it). There are only two black actors in the entire movie, and they’re only in it to have the first murder that Caroline commits pinned on them; I’ll admit to not knowing if families kept their slaves during the war itself, but it does seem odd that the only domestic servant isn’t black.

I should also mention how it just sort of ends in the middle of a scene, but that’s nothing to do with the making of it, it’s the weird edits that were forced on it by the distributors. Perhaps 4 and a half hours of an amateurish Civil War movie would’ve been too much, but how many other low-budget horror directors do you know of who’d have taken on something so massive?

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This is another review which isn’t exactly going to drive traffic to our site – it’s out of print, and I’m willing to bet there’s some legal stuff which’ll keep it from ever being re-released. But if you see it in one of those “4 movies for £1” box sets, which is apparently where it has been known to dwell, chances are it’ll be the best movie in that set. Please look out for our review of part 2 when I have a copy, and in the meantime go to SRS Cinema and drop a few £££ on Farmer’s stuff. Without all our support, all we’ll be left with is the worst blandest mainstream product, and I don’t want to live in that world.

Rating: thumbs in the middle

PS – if you get the “David Heavener Presents” version of this DVD, then you’ll also have a memorable special feature, a 6-minute (!) trailer for his movie “Massacre” (aka his first movie, “The Border Of Tong”). Marvel at how you understand less at the end than you do at the beginning! The un-subtitled dialogue! The way the people sort of look like funhouse mirror versions of actors! That might have to be our next review.

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Mechanic: Resurrection (2016)

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I normally wouldn’t cover a reasonably big cinema release like this, but it does feature one of my favourite actors, and it’s totally a cheap-n-sleazy B-movie at heart, so here you go. Jason Statham, Jessica Alba, and Tommy Lee Jones – there’s too much acting ability and charisma for this site!

 

I really enjoyed the first “Mechanic” movie, from 1972. Before Michael Winner turned into a joke, Bronson at his impassive best as “Arthur” the assassin, and a pre-alcoholism Jan Michael Vincent as his protege, it was a cold and very well judged thriller, let down a little by its ending I thought, but still an extremely solid effort (it was originally going to be an explicitly gay movie, directed by Monte Hellman, but no-one would fund it and actors pulled out – there’s still a pretty strong subtext, though). Then there was the 2011 remake, with Jason Statham as the Mechanic, and Ben Foster as his young associate – subtext replaced with a scene where Foster allows himself to be seduced by a male gangster in order to kill him. Simon West, whose stuff I almost always like, directed.

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The thing with the first “Mechanic” is that Arthur makes his kills look like accidents because he’s got pride in his work, and because just straight up murdering people is almost too easy. By the time of “Resurrection”, it’s been elevated to the level of fetish. The basic gist of things is, Arthur has been living in Rio under an assumed name since the events of part 1, until Crain – an old associate – finds him and gets him to commit three murders, making them all look like accidents. Why? Absolutely no reason whatsoever, other than this is a “Mechanic” movie. They’re all definitely bad guys, though, so you don’t have as much of that pesky moral quandary stuff.

 

The Stath wants no part of any more killing, beating the crap out of the first group who try and persuade him; until he goes to hide with his friend Mei (Michelle Yeoh) on her tropical island, and then gets tracked down again. I like how, in a post-Snowden world, they spend no time at all on the explanation, just assuming the viewer will know how impossible it is to truly disappear any more. This time it’s Gina (Jessica Alba) trying to persuade him, but she’s doing it under duress too, as she runs a refuge for child victims of human trafficking and Crain has threatened to kill / traffic them all unless she does this for him. Arthur and Gina fall in love, sort of believably (I mean, they’re both gorgeous), and then she gets kidnapped by Crain again, which finally forces Arthur out of retirement.

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It’s here that “Resurrection” effectively becomes the computer game “Hitman” for about 45 minutes. Shave Jason Statham’s head and put him in the iconic outfit, and he’d be a far better choice for the role than either of the guys who played him before; the whole thing of trying to make murder look like an accident dovetails with the game perfectly, too. Perhaps this started off as a rejected script for the most recent “Hitman” movie? Anyway, we see Arthur do his thing in a variety of locations – Thai jail, weird pool with a glass bottom that sticks out over the side of a skyscraper, and finally an old Soviet-era monument in Bulgaria. There’s setup where you see his cool gadgets, a little establishing shot of the area, and then he goes to work. It’s not to say any of this is bad – the scene where he eliminates the guy in the pool is absolutely fantastic – but it’s very strongly reminiscent of how the game operates, more so than any of the movies based on the game.

 

Tommy Lee Jones is the coolest of all the assassination targets, and one gets the feeling he enjoyed the chance to play a rather camped-up OTT character; and Alba brings more to the token female role than most would have done. Sam Hazeldine as Crain is villain-by-the-numbers; but what about our dear friend The Stath? Even his biggest fan (me) would struggle to see a ton of difference between Arthur and Frank from the “Transporter” trilogy – both aesthetes in a world of death, both gruff and no-nonsense, both amazing martial artists. Perhaps Arthur smiles more and kills more freely? If you like Jason Statham in any other action movie, then you’ll certainly like him in this. Talking of which, I’d have loved to see more “Parker” movies, the other potential franchise that he tried to launch, but that’s a complaint for another time. In the “Mechanic” series, you get a perfect example of bad-ass-dom, and that’s just fine.

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I said up top that this is a cheap-n-sleazy B-movie at heart. You’ve got the love interest who, for once, isn’t about to secretly betray the hero; a wacky, OTT villain type; a variety of colourful locations; and plenty of extremely good fight and stunt scenes. But you’ve also got some weird cost-cutting, like the extremely obvious green-screen in some scenes; I mean, you’ve already spent millions of dollars, why not pony up a little bit more to make them look realistic? Or just film in those locations for a bit? Or go the other way and make them obviously unrealistic? I don’t know, I’m not a producer.

 

It’s a lot of fun, but the one segment that pissed me off was the Thai prison one. Now, he’s been told to make it look like an accident, but when he does the job, he leaves the victim posed in front of a shrine twisted in a weird way that no-one would ever do to themselves, then runs past a bunch of people who could identify him, then blows up the wall of the prison to escape. They even have his photo! And the whole thing about “you have 36 hours to do this” – why? There’s no reason for the constraint, it’s not like the crime empire won’t still be there to take over if Arthur has a week to do each job. Anyway.

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It’s another very solid, fun, fast-paced action movie for our man Statham. A rental is highly recommended.

 

Rating: thumbs up