Absolon (2003)

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When you start recognising the landmarks that low-budget movies are filmed around (either Canada or Eastern Europe), it’s a good sign that you’re perhaps wasting your life. And that’s sadly how I felt when giving yet another post-fame Christopher Lambert movie a try – a potentially interesting dystopia ruined by a lack of anyone seeming to give a damn.

 

Incompetence is handy, in a way. If you see it early on, you know you can mentally check out, start thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner, pay attention to the cat that’s climbing all over you, that sort of thing. So, right at the beginning of this movie, when we get both a text info-dump and then, immediately afterwards, a guy narrating the plot to his grandson, you’re all “ah, they’ve had to do all this to explain this garbage, it’s going to suck”. But in case you’re not sure, or you’re one of those innocent fools who insists on giving a movie a fair crack of the whip, here goes.

 

After environmental disaster, a virus hidden underneath the rain forests is set loose, and wipes out more than three-quarters of the world’s population. Some scientist guy invents Absolon, the drug that holds back the virus’s progress, but needs to be taken every day and the UPC corporation controls the drug. Plus, we don’t have money any more but time – Lambert’s character Detective Norman Scott says he only earns 500 hours a week – which seems somewhere on the pointless/confusing axis; although if you’re a primacy junkie, you could note that the Justin Timberlake movie “In Time” used the same concept several years later, only they bothered to make it work.

"Well...that was disappointing"

“Well…that was disappointing”

Some other scientist guy (I think, although it might have been the same one) has managed to invent a complete cure, and naturally UPC aren’t thrilled with this, so boss guy Ron Perlman sends agents from the World Justice Department to kill him. He hides the disk with the important information, under his desk in an envelope which luckily the bad guys don’t think to look for, and for reasons too tedious to go into Scott and his team only have three days to crack the code on the disk, find the antidote and start producing it. Scientist guy’s old assistant Dr Claire Whittaker (Kelly Brook) helps Scott out, and the two of them go on the run, with the cops helping them and the WJD trying to kill them.

 

Along with a few twists and turns, that’s pretty much it for the plot. The thing I like about conspiracy movies like this is how quaint they seem in the post-Wikileaks world. While our governments haven’t tried anything quite this evil on us yet, all they’d need to do would be to claim the scientists were socialists, or Islamic sympathisers, and gangs of thugs would do their work for them and no-one would take the antidote, even if it were free. That they go to such lengths to suppress it, and are so absolutely terrible at hiding their global conspiracy, is like a relic of a far simpler age. There’s secret handoffs of documents, sneaking “clean” phones to your partner, all that Cold War-looking stuff.

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“Absolon” is awful, of course. Lambert was clearly coasting at this point in his career, and looks washed out; him being the love interest of Kelly Brook, 22 years younger than him and (to be fair) way way out of his league, is worse even than the Hollywood standard. This is Brook’s first push into the US market, as this was from roughly the same time she was doing her recurring role on “Smallville”, leaving her days of TV presenting in the UK behind. It was the start of a decade or so of small roles on film and short recurring roles on TV, and from here she certainly got better at acting, although not too much admittedly. Talking of odd acting, Lou Diamond Phillips and Ron Perlman clearly realised what sort of movie they were in quite early on and just chewed scenery and shouted randomly – plus, I’d lay good odds on Perlman only being paid for a day or two, as he shares basically no screen time with the rest of the cast and does his entire part from one office. Lambert’s cop sidekick Ruth (Roberta Angelica) looks like a reject from some mid 90s rave movie, all wild hair and with the crop-top / ultra-baggy trousers combo.

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Even ignoring the problems that come from this being a cheap TV movie (budget, filming schedule) it’s no good. A script which feels like it sat in a cupboard for 20 years from a scriptwriter who made a weirdly large number of Christopher Lambert movies, a director who should stick to the storyboarding where he seems to have most of his credits, and a cast who seem unsure why they were all brought together.

 

Rating: thumbs down

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Death Race 2000 (1975)

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Without a trace of hyperbole, “Death Race 2000” is one of the best films of the 1970s. If you think in terms of b-movies, it’s perhaps the greatest b-movie of all time. It’s got a black heart and the sense of humour of a man being led to the gallows, and represents a very early example of the arthouse meeting the grindhouse.

 

The arthouse comes from director Paul Bartel and his long-time friend and co-star Mary Woronov. He was involved in the Theater of the Absurd in the 1960s, and she was a protégé of Andy Warhol, before he turned into a hack. The grindhouse comes from Roger Corman, the exploitation movie mastermind, one of my favourite movie people, who gave breaks to people like Jack Nicholson, Bartel, Joe Dante and Ron Howard, among many others.

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Thanks to the oil crisis of 1973, peoples’ dystopian ideas suddenly became a bit less dystopian, as the West looked to a future with basically no oil. So, in the alternate history of this movie, the two main US parties have merged to form the Bipartisan Party, and the President-For-Life rules from his Summer Palace in China. To keep the masses placated, they introduce the Death Race, and by 2000 it’s in its 20th year. The Death Race is a cross-country road race, but as well as points for finishing first, the most important element is killing people. You get points for offing various sorts of folks, with the highest scores going to the elderly and infirm (as who needs them, right?)

 

So you’ve got the race, which is the majority of the movie; the hideous commentators; and the resistance, led by Thomasina Paine, which is trying to bring down the Bipartisan Party and bring back democracy. Simple, effective, no padding or nonsense of any kind.

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The racers are truly amazing. Star is Frankenstein (David Carradine), who wears a leather mask and cap in public to hide his hideously scarred face and prosthetic limbs; then there’s “Machine Gun” Joe Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone), Nero The Hero (Martin Kove), Calamity Jane (Woronov) and Matilda the Hun, fully decked out in Nazi regalia along with her co-pilot Herman The German. The competitors are magnificently over the top and treat their job with relish, in different ways – Frankenstein appears the calmer type, but he’ll run over a bunch of doctors and wants to win as badly as anyone else. Frankenstein’s co-pilot is the stunning Simone Griffeth, and their relationship is cleverly written and central to the side-plots.

 

A lot of critics seem to think that the frightening aspects of this film are an accident, that Corman’s sole desire was to churn out a quickie to hoover up some of the money that future-sport classic “Rollerball” was going to get in 1975. I disagree. Corman wrote the original treatment for the movie, and realised that his serious take on the subject wasn’t cutting it, so handed it off to be reworked into a comedy – but his support for the little guy against the right-wing forces running the USA, demonstrated in this and many other of his movies, was present from the beginning. The ending is darker than it first appears, if you think about it for more than a few minutes, and that’s no accident either – Bartel and Corman may have both taken delight in shlock, gore, wildly OTT comedy and violence, but they had a social conscience, and it’s that melding that makes “Death Race 2000” the classic that it is.

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Compare it to the recent “remake”, which is a great film, but a great mainstream one – the competitors are forced to take part (in this, they’re very willing participants); it’s more race and less death; and they feel the need to waste time with backstory (this movie starts on the starting line of the race, and is much better for it). It’s not so much that “Death Race 2000” wouldn’t get made today – although it wouldn’t – it’s that no-one in the mainstream movie business would even think of making it.

 

Why is this movie so damned good? Entirely leaving aside the fun technical aspects of it – the driving, the gore effects – we have a very nihilist core, perhaps the blackest of all black comedies. The Nazis are seen as charming good guys, for one, and that’s just an entrée to the way that killing people is now the most popular spectator sport of them all. I mentioned above how it’s a product of its time, the oil-paranoid mid 70s, but as society keeps getting worse, while our mainstream entertainment becomes ever more safe and bland, “Death Race 2000” appears more prescient and frightening than it did then.

 

Rating: thumbs up

Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into The Future (1985)

The sign of a good satire can, occasionally, be seen as a sign of failure. Watching it 30 years later, and it seems a little tame; the reason being, not that it lacked bite then, but that reality has become so horrible that if you’d tried to make satire about what it’s actually like today, 30 years ago, you’d have been laughed out of every TV station in the land.

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Everyone of a certain age will have some memory of Max Headroom. He was incredibly culturally ubiquitous for a while there, with several TV shows, famous advertising campaigns and a distinct enough visual look to “inspire” a million lame parodies. The character’s career path is an interesting one – the character was created to front a music video / interview show, which got odder and odder through the run of its two series on British TV; then there was two series of a show created by the Brits for American TV (with an almost entirely American cast, set in the USA), which was a dystopian drama and ran for two more series. This film was created to be a backstory for the music video show, and is similar to the later show, being a dystopian fiction. Confused yet?

Edison Carter is a reporter for Channel 23, according to his producer the most popular reporter in the world, and a decent man, devoted to the truth and exposing corruption among the rich and powerful. Unfortunately, he’s a hair’s breadth from stumbling on a huge conspiracy involving his own station and “blipverts”. Blipverts are 30 second adverts compressed to three seconds, and the technology behind them has made Channel 23 no.1. The one small problem is if you’re a couch potato, then something about the blipvert will set off a chain reaction in your brain which causes you to blow up. Their creator is a precocious teenager who, it turns out, is a great deal more evil than even the evil network executives, which is a nice touch.

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As Carter gets closer to the truth, we see more and more of their world – TV stations being run out of beat-up old transit vans, crushing poverty, kidnapping people to sell their bodies to spare-part shops, and an aesthetic which was no doubt forced on them by a very small budget, but ends up looking great (to modern eyes, anyway) – and they also do a great job of recreating the beats of the mystery movie, but with less money and less time (it’s only an hour long).

How does Edison Carter become Max Headroom, I hear you ask? Well, that would be spoiling, but it involves a full-brain download, a very bulky computer and a TV station run by a sad old punk. I’d forgotten the constrant stream of puns which was a Max Headroom show, and he doesn’t disappoint here, despite only being on screen as Max for a few minutes.

For a show designed to just introduce a character, it’s a great deal better than it has any need to be. There are jokes all over the place, a good sense of design, and because it’s short there’s no time to get bored. If you’re at all interested in 1980s TV, then…you’ve probably already seen this, but if not definitely give it a go.

Rating: thumbs up