Wednesday, March 31, 2010
We are about to cross a truly monumental landmark in April as we celebrate 5 years of Fantasmo! Hard to believe we’ve been doing this for half a decade now. It seems like only yesterday we were all sitting down together for that first show to watch Logan’s Run and Buckaroo Banzai. How time flies! Given that this year is sort of an extra special anniversary, we’ve decided to do something extra special to commemorate the occasion. As you know we typically hold our annual Schlock-O-Thon in April, letting you vote on the worst movies we can find. Over the past 4 years you’ve picked some really great, bad stuff, including legendary films such as Gymkata, Night of the Lepus, Solarbabies, The Apple, Shark Attack 3, and Can’t Stop the Music. Of course selection implies that there were a number of potential gems that you voted against. Who knows what treasures may have been overlooked. Well the truth is your Team Fantasmo knows exactly what was overlooked, and this year we’re bringing back all the films that you turned down. Literally we’ll be showing the worst of the worst : ) If you’ve been secretly pining to watch Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, Troll 2, Mac and Me, The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, Roller Boogie, etc., then your long wait is finally over!
All of this is not to say you won’t have a choice in the matter, we’ll still vote on the films as always . . . it’s just that it will be a lesser of two evils scenario. And honestly how much worse could the selections be than “successful” films from previous years such as The Ice Pirates? The only way to know is by coming out on Friday, April 16th at 8:00 p.m. to ring in year #6! See you there!
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
For those unfamiliar, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is fourth in the cycle of five entries in the Planet of the Apes series. The story picks up a few years after the events of Escape From the Planet of the Apes, with circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban) acting as foster father for the fully grown child of Cornelius and Zira (who were killed at the end of the third film). Roddy McDowall returns as the lead ape, who is given the prophetic name of Caesar during the course of the film. Due to a space virus that wiped out the Earth’s cat and dog population, humans have taken apes as the new domestic pet of choice. However given the apes’ more advanced abilities, they have also been put to work as servants in everywhere from restaurants to beauty salons. However there have been signs of a growing ape rebellion, leading to a heightened sense of paranoia on the part of the totalitarian-style government that exists in America (in the far flung year of 1991). When Armando is arrested for harboring the world’s only talking ape, Caesar goes underground and hides as a servant where he witnesses extreme cruelty. Not content to stand idly by while he watches the mistreatment of his fellows, he lays plans for a full-scale revolution. By the end of the film he and his followers have won a significant victory over the humans, marking the beginning of the "planet of the apes."
As a kid I saw Planet of the Apes a number of times on television, and it was one of those special films that was on another level for me (e.g. Star Wars, Superman, etc.). I was fascinated by the ape makeup and the whole environment of the film, and Charlton Heston’s Taylor quickly became an iconic hero alongside Captain Kirk and Han Solo. Interestingly I didn’t form a strong attachment with the other movies because they weren't shown often (or at all) in the television market I was in. I saw Battle for the Planet of the Apes a number of times, but the rest I only saw breif clips of. In the few scenes I caught of Conquest I remember it seeming rather bland due to its being staged on the University of California Irvine campus. The studio opted for the locale to save money, using the “futuristic” architecture of the school as a backdrop. Unfortunately it didn’t have the same impact as the wonderful sets of the earlier films. Of course now it doesn’t look so futuristic either, yet it still has a cold feeling about it which fits well with the mood they were shooting for. Either way it lacks the visual punch that the better films in the series possessed. As a result it was many years before random chance finally found me sitting down to watch Conquest (which I obtained in the laserdisc format in a record store bargain bin).
I’ve got to admit, despite my historic lack of interest, I was pretty excited when I popped that giant laserdisc into the player for that initial viewing. I thought just maybe there was potential for discovering a lost (to me at least) classic. Part of this goodwill came from my love of the original, and the other part came from the fact that I had just snagged a $70 laserdisc for $12. As laserdisc collectors out there will remember, the Apes films all went for a staggering $69.95 per film. An outrageous sum, but the only way to see them in widescreen back in the day. I had plopped that down for the first entry, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it for the rest. So watching Conquest on that initial viewing I was ready to be blown away. I’ll say this much, I felt I got every penny of my $12 back in entertainment value, but I was a little underwhelmed with Conquest as an Apes film. First off it was visually lacking due to scaled down production values. The costumes and makeup were clearly second rate in comparison to what had come before. More problematic than that however was a sense that Conquest lacked the courage of its convictions. After building up a rather pessimistic scenario, there was an out of left field happyish ending that seemed to belong to an entirely different film. Despite staging a pretty violent siege, Caesar is quickly talked into a peaceful/compassionate resolution.
Let me set the record straight before we go any further, I’m not one who likes downer endings just for their own sake. There are some folks who will herald a film for being brave or cool because it takes the road less traveled by denying the audience a happy conclusion. This proposition only rings true in my opinion if the downer ending is internally consistent with the rest of the film in question. Using another prominent sci-fi example, it would have been outrageous for Return of the Jedi to end with the death of Han Solo and defeat of the Ewoks given its upbeat tone. Empire Strikes Back on the other hand ended appropriately on a down note as it was a consistently darker film. Conquest posesses neither levity or optimism at any point, so its arrival in the last couple of minutes makes no sense. It's even out of place with the other resolutions in the series, which all ended on an unapologetically apocalyptic note. Consider the following breakdown of POTA series conclusions:
*Planet of the Apes - Taylor discovers Statue of Liberty/learns of nuclear war.
*Beneath the Planet of the Apes - Taylor launches a warhead that destroys Earth.
*Escape from the Planet of the Apes - Cornelius and Zira are killed.
*Battle for the Planet of the Apes – Final shot of a tear rolling down the face of a statue of Caesar, indicating the failure of man and ape to coexist.
So as it stands when considering the theatrical incarnations of the films, Conquest is the odd man out. It completely defies the established Apes tradition of sending movie goers out of the auditorium with a sense of hopelessness/despair, which one could argue is the hallmark of the series. Being different is okay, but Conquest's forced ending was not earned and failed to ring true. On a side note it’s kind of fascinating that as kids we all loved the movies and didn’t focus on that apocalyptic element. I remember thinking the makeup was cool, and that I needed every POTA toy I could get my hands on. Yet every one of these films forecasted that mankind was doomed to destruction. Usually movies that promoted that idea or dealt with nuclear war freaked us out (e.g. The Day After). Strange that when that message was communicated via talking apes it somehow made the proceedings palatable. Weirder still to consider that a movie heralding doomsday would be marketed to kids with action figures, bed sheets, lunch boxes, board games, etc. I mean you wouldn’t have seen View Master reels or trading cards for The China Syndrome!
Anyhow back to Conquest being the exception to the rule. Flash forward 15 years from my laserdisc days, and I’m now finally able to see Conquest in the manner it was originally intended. You know a lot of times so-called director’s cuts don’t amount to much more than a few scene extensions that have zero impact on the final film. They are used as marketing tools to sell copies of movies you already own. I can emphatically say that is not the case with regard to Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. Although there is not a large amount of restored footage, what there is makes an incredible difference. The first thing that is noticeable is that the violent scenes are more intense. It’s not that the scenes are necessarily gratuitous or graphic, they are simply for lack of a better description more somber. In the original cut there is a superficial quality to the action that provides no sense of gravity, whereas the minor extensions here provide just enough weight to communicate the seriousness of the proceedings.
More important still is that the original ending has been put back in place, and it is not of the happy variety. Instead of backing away from his revolutionary zeal, Caesar holds true to his principle that might makes right. It’s not a pleasant scene to witness, but it is the only outcome that makes sense given all that has taken place. Furthermore Caesar’s corruption is a far more effective demonstration of the anti-violence message the filmmakers are trying to communicate. Seeing a once peaceful, heroic character succumb to the worst aspects of human (or ape) nature is sobering. Where the theatrical cut delivers empty speeches and false ringing changes of heart, this cut forces the viewer to witness the devestating consequences of completely abandoning compassion in favor of violence. The Apes films argue that while violence is sometimes necessary, if allowed to spiral out of control it can only lead to an ever narrowing path toward annihilation. The restoration of the original ending continues this theme, and also improves continuity with the final film in the franchise. Although the apes have established their dominance, in doing so they have become that which they fought against. Unable to break away they will set in place a never ending time loop which sees the destruction of man, ape, and ultimately the Earth.
Monday, March 15, 2010
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
Impressed by his abilities I started going through his back catalog and quickly found that he had matured into a true action star, even if Hollywood proper was unwilling to acknowledge this fact. This will no doubt be an earth shattering statement given how my love of all things Seagal is firmly established, but in my appraisal Lundgren is the most well-rounded action star to come out of the 80’s. You see Seagal, Van Damme, Norris, Schwarzenegger, and all those guys (with the possible exception of Stallone who does reach from time to time) all are fairly predictable from film to film. They play themselves over and over. Seagal is interesting in that he promotes certain themes and can be classified as an auteur, but his films (which I love on their merits) aren’t as diversified. Lundgren is a capable actor and director, there is a surprising amount of variety within his filmography, and he’s truly a cool guy (how many other action stars can boast of being a world champion in martial arts while also holding a master’s degree in engineering). He often gets lost in the mix among the stars who generated better box office receipts, but I suggest that if you take the plunge and embrace Dolph you will be happy you did.
So let’s talk about Dark Angel. Honestly I was floored to see this on Itunes, not to mention completely ecstatic. Of all Dolph’s early films this is perhaps my favorite, running neck and neck with The Punisher (which is still the best incarnation of the Marvel comic, even if he doesn’t wear the costume). Although released in 1990, Dark Angel is without question a product of the 80’s. This is not only due to the fashion, music, and hairstyles, but most significantly because it is set in perhaps THE trademark 80’s action film scenario – the mismatched buddy cop movie. Thanks to Lethal Weapon the combination of streetwise/rogue cop paired with by-the-book/traditionalist cop became a hallmark of the decade. While it’s being parodied by Kevin Smith in theaters at the moment in Cop Out, there was a time when people couldn’t get enough of the scenario. Even Lethal Weapon had (regrettably) four entries! The cool thing about Dark Angel is that it combines the setup with a sci-fi storyline, which makes the formula feel fresh (even if The Hidden already did it pretty well in 1987). Essentially a sci-fi criminal comes to earth to collect human brain fluid, which is apparently an extraterrestrial drug that’s a hot item on the galactic market. Unfortunately for him Dolph is assigned to the case, so you know he doesn’t stand a chance of collecting his wares!
Aside from the coolness of combining a sci-fi premise with the buddy cop formula, Dark Angel is special for a couple of other reasons. First and foremost is the main baddie Talec. B-movie regular Matthias Hues turns in a top notch performance as the creepy universal drug dealer come to earth (in peace). He has translucent eyes, is ridiculously tall, and has a fancy gun that fires bullets which cause enormous explosions. The explosions are one of the most memorable aspects of the film, and I recall at the time thinking the budget must have been pretty healthy since nearly everything gets blown up. It reminds me of current video games where the selling point is that players can demolish anything in the environment (e.g. Red Faction, Infamous). Folks seem to like that now, and they must have liked it in the late 80’s too judging by how much gets blown up here. It does seem like “blowing stuff up real good” as a marketable commodity in genre films really came into its own in the 80’s, given the number of films that featured show-stopping explosions.
Dark Angel certainly takes a page or two from this chapter, and ramps it up to the extreme. In my mind it does it better than most of its 80’s brethren though (e.g. Die Hard), as it makes a point of how absurdly over the top the explosive gun is through its self awareness of the fact. With something like Die Hard one expects that a building wired with explosives will blow up big as a matter of course, thusly the setup dictates the result and prepares you for its arrival. In fact the promotion at the time of its release made a point of how realistic the goings on in Die Hard were, with Bruce Willis intentionally cast as an everyman hero. Let’s face it though, realism in Die Hard probably begins and ends with Bruce arriving at the building. In Dark Angel the explosive gunplay is gleefully ridiculous/continuous and the filmmakers acknowledge it as such from the word go. Consequently as a viewer you get caught up in the enthusiasm and playful spirit that these guys were shooting for (no pun intended). Don’t get me wrong I love Die Hard and films of its ilk, but it’s refreshing to see something like Dark Angel that engages in a touch of self parody.
Back to Talec though. The other neat thing is that every time Talec captures another poor victim, he says to them “I come in peace.” This is the gag that the whole movie more or less rests on, as immediately after he says this line his poor victim is dispatched in a dramatic fashion. This is probably a good time to discuss the title(s) of the film, and my impressions on that front. First off, you’ll notice this is a review of a movie called Dark Angel. That’s the European version of the film, and the version available on Itunes. The title here in the states was I Come in Peace. During the film’s initial run I must confess I didn’t care for the title. It just seemed clunky, and made it sound like a second rate release rather than blockbuster material. I’ve warmed to it over the years however, and with most people I know who follow such things the title generates fond memories. Truly it could be argued that the title has been responsible for keeping the film alive in people’s memory. This is likely due to the wonderful (if obvious) use of the line at the end of the film (spoiler coming) in which the alien utters the line to Dolph, and Dolph responds by saying “and you go in pieces.” Brilliant.
It’s a bold approach to go with a catchphrase as the title of your film when you think about it. Let me illustrate. When you consider a movie called The Terminator for example, that has a cool/action-packed sounding ring to it. If the same film were called I’ll Be Back I don’t know how well it would have fared. I Come in Peace boldly adopts a title that highlights a running joke throughout the film. If they had called it something like Alien Vice or the like it might have had better luck at the box office. For my money though (at least in hindsight) I feel they made the right decision. Apparently in Europe they thought the translation of I Come in Peace wouldn’t work and went with Dark Angel. It’s been out on DVD over there for years under that title in glorious widescreen (which caused some major jealousy on this side of the pond). I admit it is a pretty cool sounding title and I’m not upset that Itunes went with the European edition . . . but the movie will always be I Come in Peace to this viewer and other fans. Without that title, which foreshadowed its iconic usage in the final reel, the film might have slipped into total obscurity.
Along with the aforementioned factors, the other quality that makes the film a classic is the chemistry between the two buddy cops. It should come as no surprise that this is where buddy cop movies ultimately succeed or fail. If the leads don’t have a solid foundation then the formula will not work (see Red Heat with Schwarzenegger and Belushi for a prime example of this). Here the leads are Dolph and Brian Benben (Dream On, Radioland Murders) and they are terrific. Dolph is the perfect slacker cop who runs on instinct, which had to be a surprise to audiences watching it back then. Most people knew him as either Ivan Drago or He-Man at that point in time, so the Dolph image was that of a rigid character. This movie is where you can notice him starting to become at ease as an actor and a star. It’s clear that he’s having a good time free from the pressure of turning in an iconic performance laced with expectations. His speech is also more natural than his earlier performances, as I believe he was still honing his accent up until this point.
With regard to Benben he’s in full-on Benben mode. If you like his trademark combo of sarcasm and hyperactivity then you’ll love his by-the-book FBI agent. For example the stock scene where the two partners are introduced could have come off as old and tired (even at that point in time), but the way Benben plays it is terrific. He keeps belittling Dolph’s intelligence, bragging that as an FBI agent he has more education than a regular cop. He’s totally in Dolph’s face with the smugness, which is crazy because Dolph could clearly wipe the floor with him. This begins a terrific ongoing joke throughout of how Dolph dwarfs Benben in size, so it works on a visual level as well. Most importantly as the characters grow to grudgingly like and respect one another, you can tell there is a genuine camaraderie between the actors. Pairings like this either work or they don’t, and in this case the casting department did a fantastic job. Caine (Lundgren) and Smith (Benben) may not be Riggs and Murtaugh in stature, but for what it’s worth I would have rather seen I Still Come in Peace than Lethal Weapons 3-4!
If it’s been a while since you’ve seen a Dolph movie, or even if it hasn’t, this is a great one to revisit. I can’t heap enough praise on Itunes for coming through and making films like this, Yor, and so many others available. I had never seen this in its original aspect ratio, and for films that rely on visual effects that’s a significant drawback. I Come in Peace on a panned-and-scanned VHS tape, that had a poor image to begin with, is an entirely different experience when viewed in the digital realm. I still have a few more reviews for Itunes finds coming, and I’m going to get myself psyched up for our April Schlock-O-Thon by taking the plunge and watching Vanilla Ice’s Cool As Ice. I can’t tell you how close I’ve come already to downloading it off Itunes . . . my curiosity at seeing a pristine, widescreen copy of this is nearing a crescendo. No doubt I’ll end up confirming the old saying “what good is wisdom if it brings no profit to the wise,” but truly how much worse can it be than The Apple and I sat through that twice! Stay tuned.
Friday, March 5, 2010
Those of you who have been around a little while know that your Team Fantasmo is good friends with the folks behind the annual Williamsburg Film Festival. The festival is a celebration of the Golden Age of Hollywood, with a particular focus on Westerns. Over the years we've been fortunate to have guests from the program participate at Fantasmo in the form of Q&A sessions on films we've screened (e.g. The Eiger Sanction, Friday the 13th, etc.). This year's festival is happening this weekend, and in a Fantasmo first we will actually be hosting a special episode at the event as part of the official program lineup!
Now you may be thinking to yourself that we don't really show much in the way of Westerns at Fantasmo. True enough, but there is a connection! While the guests all have significant backgrounds in Westerns, most have extensively appeared in genre film and television as well. One of the featured guests this year is Paul Picerni who, among many other cool roles, notably did battle with Vincent Price as the hero in the original House of Wax.
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
To take a current genre example one need look no further than The Wolfman. The poster shows all the principals (Hopkins, Blunt, Del Toro, and Weaving ) prominently, and way in the background it shows a tiny image of the wolf man. Does that seem just a little crazy to anyone? I mean could you imagine the poster for Star Wars just being the faces of Hamill, Ford, Fisher and Cushing lined up against a black background, rather than X-wings flying toward the Death Star, Vader’s helmet looming large in the background, and Hamill wielding a lightsaber?!? Absolutely not, just compare the two below and you'll see a stark contrast. The first time I remember seeing this was the poster for the original Scream, which just showed the cast and nothing else. The film became a monster hit, so I guess everyone figured if a plain poster like that could produce a franchise then why bother doing anything more elaborate. In their defense those posters do seem to generate blockbusters, so I guess you can't really blame them for being practical - it just regrettable from an aesthetic standpoint.
Before leaving Yor I would also like to provide a little bit of context for its place in movie history, as it arrived in theaters at an interesting moment in time. Yor was released in the summer of 1983, August to be specific. The summer of 1983 followed what is considered by many to be the greatest summer ever in the way of genre releases. It included movies like Blade Runner, Star Trek 2, Conan, Poltergeist, TRON, etc. It also saw the release of one of the most audacious B-movies ever in the form of Hal Needham’s Megaforce. So 1983 had a lot to live up to . . . and it tried mightily. Here is just a sampling of what folks were watching that summer: Return of the Jedi, Blue Thunder, Jaws 3-D, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Octopussy, Psycho II, Superman III, Twilight Zone: The Movie, and WarGames to name but a few. We’re talking some pretty great stuff.
And then there was Yor. Now remember this was an edited from television, low-budget Italian film starring Reb Brown. Can you imagine after sitting through a summer of films of the caliber listed, finishing things up with Yor?!? Such a thing would never happen today in the cookie cutter movie world we have now. Yor would be strictly direct-to-video. In my mind this represents a great loss, as most wouldn’t have enjoyed the opportunity to accidentally discover it in a mainstream theater as moviegoers did that summer. For that matter the same would hold true for Megaforce. You know when you consider it, Yor could be counted as the Megaforce of 1983 (which is quite an honor depending on your point of view).