Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Reader Recommendation: Hands of Steel (1986)

 As recommended by Jason at RobotGEEK Cult Cinema

"Italian Rip-off Cinema" is a fascinating and weird little sub-genre that I've only recently discovered. Essentially throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s a small group of Italian filmmakers made a handful of films that shamelessly borrowed from big budget Hollywood features. They borrowed their plots, their looks, their action beats and sometimes even big chunks of dialogue. Science fiction and horror films were the most popular though they also copied a lot of action films too. Escape from New York was reworked as 2019: After the Fall of New York. Dawn of the Dead (marketed in Italy as Zombi) was followed by the 'unofficial sequel' Zombi 2. Even Stallone's First Blood was reworked as Thunder Warrior about a disenfranchised native American instead of a Vietnam vet. Some were even so cheeky they got sued. Shocking Dark, a rip off of Aliens set in Venice, had the balls to originally called itself Terminator II. And Universal actually did sue the makers of Great White, a shark film that borrowed the entire plot from Jaws. These films were usually made on tiny budgets, hiring only one American actor and filling out the rest of the cast with overdubbed Italians. I guess a lot of people would say "why watch these when you can watch the originals" but half the fun is seeing your favourite movies rehashed on a fraction of the budget.

Hands of Steel has actually got quite an original plot though it is still clearly inspired somewhat by James Cameron's Terminator. The film is set in a dystopian future America. Daniel Greene plays Paco, a cyborg assassin who has been programmed by evil industrialist Francis Turner (John Saxon) to kill a prominent environmentalist. However, before Paco can complete the hit he is struck with a crisis of conscience and instead he goes rogue and flees the scene. He ends up hiding out at a diner in the middle of the desert where he meets, and later falls in love with, a waitress called Linda. In order to make some money he participates in arm-wrestling contests and ends up getting on the wrong side of most of the clientele. However that's the least of his worries, before long Turner manages to track him down to the diner and the scene is set for Paco to stop running and make his final stand.

It's quite amusing to see how they remixed Terminator here. Paco is essentially Kyle Reese and the T-800 combined into one character. And like Arnie's iconic character he's programmed to assassinate an important figure (only there's no time travel involved in this flick). Also, Paco falls in love with a simple waitress not unlike Reese did with Sarah Connor. They even have Paco slicing open his wrist to re-adjust his robotic skeleton just like Arnie did. There's also a little influence from Mad Max with the desert setting and Paco's sleeveless jacket. And it might be a stretch but I thought the production design (which is a pretty generous description) was trying to emulate Blade Runner. The reason I'm calling it generous is that the makers of this film mainly suggest that it's the future by putting up flexi-piping everywhere. And I mean everywhere.

Whereas James Cameron's Terminator was about our growing obsession with technology and where it could potentially lead, Hands of Steel is actually more concerned with the environment of all things. In one stand out scene the acid rain is so bad that it starts to eat through the car Paco's driving in! The film has a heavy background plot about how polluted the world has become in the future. The scientist who Paco is sent to kill at the beginning of the film is keeping track of the world's pollution levels and obviously Turner (representing all big businesses) wants him bumped off so that he won't tell people about how much pollution his company has produced. They also make the scientist both blind and wheelchair-bound to suggest how support for such concerns are poorly-represented. It's quite a bitter, obviously European, view of America.

The film was directed by Martin Dolman (aka Sergio Martino) who also did 2019: After the Fall of New York. He does a decent job directing the action and chase scenes but struggles to inject much life into the dialogue scenes. Daniel Greene, who plays the bizarrely named cyborg Paco Queruak has probably the easiest job of the whole cast. His stilted delivery is perfectly in keeping with his semi-robotic nature. And John Saxon makes a great weaselly-looking bad guy. He's not in the film for much but it's nice to have a recognisable face. The "best" actor of the whole film has to be George Eastman who plays a hirsute Mexican arm wrestler called Raoul who quickly develops a vendetta against Paco. I've put best in commas because his performance so crazy and over the top it can't be called good but it is a lot of fun to watch.

The story is quite small scale. I think I was expecting it to branch out a bit further and develop into more of chase movie (like Terminator) but it doesn't. I've got to say of all the subplots they could have filled the middle portion of the movie with I'm not sure why they went with arm wrestling. It's kind of a leftfield activity to stick in the middle of your movie. Why couldn't they have gone with straight forward fist fights? Anyway, that's beside the point as the arm wrestling scenes are pretty awesomely staged. As an extra bit of danger the participants arm wrestle next to poisonous snakes! There's also a pretty silly subplot about two cops trying to figure out who and what attacked the scientist. I'm not sure why they put this in. We know it was Paco and we find out he is a cyborg from pretty early on.

Overall Hands of Steel can't be called an important film but there's a fair bit of fun to be had with it. There's lots of hilarious dialogue, over and under-acting, a couple of good gore effects and an awesome pounding synth score by Claudio Simonetti (from Goblin). The film is mostly fun for just how nuts it all is. You should see it for the sheer fact that's there's no other environmentally conscious cyborg arm wrestling flicks out there. Well none that I can think of.


To read Jason's original review click here

Sunday, May 27, 2012

One Year Anniversary

Welcome! Here have a glass of virtual champagne and celebrate with me the one year anniversary of the Collected Cinema blog. It's been a busy 12 months and, though it took me a while to keep a consistent rhythm of reviews, we got here in the end. Thanks to everyone who's been reading the blog this last year. Blogger recently redesigned itself so it's easier for me to post and I can keep tabs on how many people are looking at the pages. Not sure who's been viewing my Completist review of the Undisputed movies 4000 times but thanks whoever you are!

Looking back over my reviews it looks like the Completist reviews, where I look back over entire franchises, seem to be the most popular so I'm going to endeavour to get more of those posted soon. I'm also going to do a few more posts about movie ephemera along the lines of movie toys and spin-offs. And finally I'm hoping to get a couple more film projects like The One Man A-Team done (okay, more likely just started) over the next 12 months so I'll keep you guys in the loop about those too.

As a thank you to all my regular blogger friends for the next month or so I'm going to be solely reviewing flicks you've recommended to me (either directly or indirectly), so keep an eye out for them.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The flops of Chevy Chase part 3: Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)

So here we are with the last look at where Chevy Chase’s career went off the rails and actually it’s probably the most interesting of the three films I’ve looked at. As well as being a rare semi-serious role for Chase it’s also directed John Carpenter, who had taken a long break from filmmaking after the commercial disappointments of Prince of Darkness and They Live. The film was very much a passion project for Chase, who had secured the rights to the book by H.F. Saint after it was published in 1987 and he clearly had a strong vision for the film.

Memoirs of an Invisible Man sees Chase play Nick Halloway, a stock analyst who gets caught in an explosion at a scientific research building that renders him completely invisible. CIA Agent David Jenkins (Sam Neill) is tasked with tracking him down with a view to turning him into the ultimate assassin. However Nick wants nothing to be left alone so he enlists the help of Alice Monroe (Daryl Hannah), a woman he was beginning a relationship with just prior to the accident, to help him escape to safety.

As I said this was very much Chase’s vanity project. The script was originally written much more as a comedy, with Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters) set to direct but Chase insisted on it being a more serious film so he brought in John Carpenter, who had little enthusiasm but was happy to do it as a “work-for-hire”. After the film was released he explained he hadn’t titled it “John Carpenter’s” as he did his other movies because he knew Warner Brothers was more “in the business of making audience-friendly, non-challenging movies.” 

It’s a shame that Carpenter dismisses the film so much because there’s actually a lot to enjoy about it. Firstly, the special effects, though not spectacular, show a lot of creative thinking. The approach of having Chase mostly be seen by the audience but invisible to everyone else on screen is a very clever idea and adds to the comedy of situations. Seeing assault teams break into his apartment while he just walks past them is very entertaining. 

The film has some very clever ideas about the realities of being invisible. For instance Chase can’t see him own hands so he finds it hard to eat food. He also can’t eat otherwise people will just see the floating contents of his stomach. And there’s a fantastic bit where he needs to travel so he punches a drunk guy and gets him to flag down a taxi. Also, Sam Neill is highly entertaining as the bad guy. He brings some of the same menace he showed in Dead Calm to the role of Jenkins. It’s a shame he and Chase don’t get more scenes together because they make great adversaries. There’s a particularly tense scene where he traps Chase in his own office that shows the potential of what a more serious take on the subject matter could have achieved.

Despite it’s good points the film does have couple of faults. One of them is that the majority of it all is told in flashback with Chase narrating his adventures. I’ve got to say rarely like films that do this, it kind of kills the excitement and suspense. Also, as much as I enjoy the film I do recognise that it’s quite low-key. What the film really needed was someone like Steven Spielberg to bring out the sense of wonder and boost the film’s set pieces. But then again maybe what I like about the film is that it doesn't go down the traditional route. Chase doesn't go on an exciting globe trotting adventure. He just hides out in a friend's holiday home and eats junk food.

Carpenter’s direction is solid but it’s a shame his heart isn’t in it. There’s some nice homages to James Whales’ original The Invisible Man film from 1933. And he’s clearly enjoying aping Hitchcock’s thrillers such as North By Northwest and The 39 Steps. If I’m honest though I love both him and Chase they shouldn’t have been involved in the same project. Their sensibilities are too different. Doing this film was a mistake for Carpenter, he was already disillusioned by working for major studios after Big Trouble in Little China and he should have come back to Hollywood with a more personal project.

And so to Chase, the star. He perhaps wasn’t the right choice for the role but I still enjoy what he did with it. As you watch the film you can’t help but wonder if the film would have been better if it committed to either be a straight thriller or straight comedy. The mix of the two is uneven at times. I think audience’s expectations of Chase put them off the film when it was originally released. He’d spent the entire previous decade playing nothing but comedies and he’d pigeon-holed himself. No one wanted to see him in something that wasn’t a straight forward comedy.

He was trying to broaden his acting range but he’d left it too late. Chase should have stretched his wings and tried something like this earlier in his career rather than relying on comedies for the whole previous decade. Several other 80s comedy actors had a similar dilemma in the early 90s. Martin Short, John Candy, Dan Aykroyd, Steve Martin. Of all of them only Bill Murray managed to break free and start a successful second career as a serio-comic actor (for which he mostly owes Wes Anderson).

Memoirs of an Invisible Man is a pretty fun flick that didn’t deserve to be such a flop. It earned only half it’s budget back and was really the last major film to be released by Chase. The following year he tried to start a chat show that was a huge ratings flop. And in 1994 he acted in Cops and Robbersons, a particularly poor comedy film by Michael Ritchie.

For the next decade and a half he had a very dry run. It was only when he was cast in the TV show Community in 2009 that he started to make something of a comeback. It remains to be seen where his career will go from here. Rumours are that he’ll likely come back for a reboot of the Vacation series which would be a nice way to cap his career I think.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The flops of Chevy Chase part 2: Nothing But Trouble (1991)

Okay, strap yourself in and prepare for the worst because this is going to get messy. Ordinarily on this site I only review films that I love or at the very least like but this one was a true patience tester and without doubt one of the least funny comedies I've ever seen. I can only guess that Chevy Chase took the lead role as a favour to Dan Aykroyd, he can't possibly have read the script and agreed to it (unless he was desperate for cash). Nothing But Trouble was the brain child of Dan Aykroyd (who directs and plays two roles) and his brother Peter. Now we all know Aykroyd is a little bit of an oddball character. He's a devout spiritualist and seems to genuinely believe in a lot of supernatural phenomena. This served him very well when writing the Ghostbusters movies but here he unleashes a torrent of such bizarre, ugly characters and storylines that at times I felt physical ill.

The film sees Chase
play Chris Thorne, a financial advisor who takes a road trip with two of his wealthy clients and his neighbor Diane (Demi Moore). Aiming to get to Atlantic City as fast as possible they take a short cut through an eerie ghost town called Valkenvania. However, they accidentally go over the speed limit and the local sheriff tries to flag them down but stupidly they attempt to out run him. This only makes matters worse and eventually they are all arrested and taken to the town's Judge (Dan Aykroyd under a ton of old man make-up) where they discover that they won't be able to just "pay a fine and leave". The judge and his in-bred family of weirdos have a far stricter sense of justice, sending most lawbreakers straight to a meat grinder called Mr Bonestripper! So the group split up and try to escape the town by any means but it's far harder than it looks.

I think the problem with this film is that any comedy elements seemed to have been added in at a very late stage in the film development. Bar a few ad libs from Chase and some of the grotesque make-up work there's very little humour in the story. According to Aykroyd the idea for the film came from a personal experience from 1978 where he was pulled over for speeding in a hick town and forced to plead in front of an elderly judge. Here he's adapted the story writ large. The town is literally like the stuff of nightmares decorated with broken machinery and human bones. In actual fact Valkenvania is based on a real life ghost town called Centralia, Pennsylvania, where an underground coal fire has warped the landscape and ousted its townfolk since the fire first sparked in the 1960s. I guess you could argue that this adds up to a rich back story but unfortunately Aykroyd seems content to just show us this stuff, not actual use any of it to tell an interesting story. The whole plot basically boils down to Chase and Moore get pulled over, see the judge, they escape and come back later with the state police. That's it. There's no revelations or twists or character arcs or anything.

None of the actors apart from Aykroyd
seem to really be very invested in their characters. John Candy plays the role of police sheriff as a nice ordinary guy which jars with the rest of the townsfolk. He also gets to play another role in drag as Eldona, the judge's mute daughter which doesn't work either. Chase just looks kind of confused throughout the entire running time. He tries a couple of his usual wiseass comebacks now and then (some which seem to have been messily added in post) but the scenario is so odd he can't make any laughs happen. There's also meant to be a burgeoning romance between him and Moore but the two have very little chemistry and their kiss at the end seems very weird given their age gap. Another couple of actors who I haven't gone into much detail yet is Taylor Negron and Bertila Damas who play Chase's wealthy Brazilian clients. I honestly can't see any point of these characters, they escape early on and manage to convince Candy to come with them and that's the extent of their subplot. It's baffling to include two characters so prominently and then give them absolutely nothing to do. Also Negron overplays his role was a screeching effeminate voice that will make you reach straight for the mute button.

And so to Aykroyd. What can I say? He clearly loves acting under lathers of make-up. It's obviously freeing for an actor but as Eddie Murphy will tell you, it doesn't make your film any funnier. The Judge is a truly oddball creation and clearly Aykroyd thought the more grotesque he made him the funnier it would be. So he ends up giving him not only a prosthetic leg but also a prosthetic nose - which is shaped like a penis if you look close (on second thought, don't bother). Aykroyd other role is Bobo, an enormously fat man child in a diaper who along with his twin brother L'il Debbull tries to help Moore escape. Once again I cannot begin to fathom what Aykroyd was thinking by included these mentally retarded caricatures. Were we supposed to laugh at them?

The film basically veers all over the place and
one of the most bizarre subplots (which basically acts as a time filler) is when a group of black rappers are also pulled over and brought before the judge. I guess you're meant to think that this old white judge will no doubt convict them straight away but they decide to launch into a four minute rap which culminates with the Judge joining in on his organ. Now I know Aykroyd likes his music by why the hell was there a musical interlude in this of all films? Also, one of rappers faces will be very familiar because... it's the late Tupac Shakur! 

Okay, I think I've talked enough about this film. It's one long, painful trainwreck and Chase got 'nothing but trouble' for taking it on. His comedic persona is based around being a cocky wiseass outsider who infuriates any person in authority (see Caddyshack). But here all the control is put in the Judge's hands. Aykroyd essentially got all his actors friends, Chase and Candy but failed to give them the roles they excel at. Candy is great at playing a lovable slobs so why put him in drag? This isn't the first time Aykroyd has done this. He also made Neighbors in the early 80s, a similarly dark and humorless movie that wasted John Belushi. Anyway, I guess in some ways, you've got to applaud Chase for trying something new. It's just shame that he picked this movie. 

Next time: We conclude our brief look at Chase's career with Memoirs of an Invisible Man.

Bonus fun fact: There's actually a band from Glasgow (now sadly defunct) called Dananananaykroyd.

Second bonus fun fact: Dan Aykroyd owns and runs a company that sells vodka in bottles that are shaped like Crystal Skulls! Check it out.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The flops of Chevy Chase part 1: Fletch Lives (1989)

I guess a lot of people would question the wisdom of reviewing any of Chevy Chase's movies not least some of his flops but I've always liked him as an actor ever since I was a kid. Throughout most of the 80s he was almost bullet proof, scoring several commercial hit films from Caddyshack to Vacation to Spies Like Us. Though it probably wasn't his highest grossing film, 1985's Fletch was definitely the one role that perfectly chimed with his default laconic comedy persona. Even Chase admits it was his favourite role of his entire career in his biography 'I'm Chevy Chase and You're Not'. I was always quite baffled as a kid as to why he stopped acting in big movies so I'm going to examining three films that marked the end of his professional career.

The sequel sees I.M. Fletcher still writing his newspaper column, getting harassed by his boss but before he can take on another undercover assignment he learns that his aunt has died and he's inherited her mansion in Louisiana. Thinking the house must be worth loads he quits his job and flies over to check it out. However rather than being some stately mansion it's a rundown, woodworm infested wreck. After some quick flirting with his aunt's lawyer, Fletch winds up bedding her but waking up the next morning he discovers she's dead. Someone is clearly trying to frame him but who? Is it his aunt's black caretaker, the local television evangelist or any one of the oddball inhabitants of the nearby town? And just what is it that makes his mansion so valuable to them all?

Fletch is a fantastic character opportunity. He's an investigator but he doesn't carry a gun so he's forced to talk his way in and out of situations and Chase makes a natural fit for this character. He excels at witty one liners and comebacks. Sadly, this film doesn't have as great a script as the first entry. The first film (based on Gregory McDonald's 1974 book) also had a fantastic mystery hook - an undercover journalist gets hired by a businessman to murder himself! The idea of someone inheriting a house from a forgotten relative just sounds like some bad mystery cliche. I'm still a little baffled that they didn't try adapting any of McDonald's ten superior Fletch novels. I can only guess they wanted to structure it for more around comedy moments for Chase - figuring that he, not McDonald, made the first film a hit.

That's not to say that the comedy bits aren't good. There's a fantastic bit where he uses a disguise to get onto the evangelist's tv show and begins faith healing people by slapping them with a bible. And there's also an inspired dream sequence where Fletch imagines living in his Southern mansion and everyone bursts into 'Zipper-dee-doo-dah' from Disney's Song of the South - complete with animated birds. What's missing is a decent mystery story running underneath. The writer Leon Capetanos (who also wrote Down and Out in Beverly Hills) doesn't seem to understand that a mystery is more than just setting up red herring after red herring and then revealing everything at the end. Too much emphasis seems to have been played on sticking in needless disguises which are clearly designed to be hilarious but mostly fall flat.

Another thing that probably didn't help the film is that the plot is somewhat similar to Funny Farm - a film where Chase played a writer who moves out to a country and makes enemies with the local townsfolk that came out one year earlier in 1988. I think one of Chase's weaknesses is that he didn't want to branch out with his roles. Clearly by the late 80s Chase had a choice to make, he'd had a good run for nearly a decade. He could either stick with the same wiseass antics or evolve into new roles. It's telling that in 1989 he made the decision to make not one but two sequels, this and Christmas Vacation. And the previous year he'd also did the laughter-free Caddyshack 2. Obviously Chase didn't want to evolve or if you want to be generous, maybe his management didn't want him to evolve. It's shame because I think he could have had a decent second career along the lines of his arch rival Bill Murray.

Fletch Lives isn't a great film but it's a decent watch and the jokes are pretty good. It's just nowhere near as classic as the original. Chase still gives the role a good shot but he's hampered by the weak script. Michael Ritchie's direction is decent. He also directed the original film and was the one who let Chase ad-lib a lot of his lines. I think if anyone can take anything away from this movie it's that you can't make a film just on ad-libs, comebacks and funny disguises. You need some meat on the bones. There's probably some metaphor about the movie trying to disguise it's lack of substance but I can't quite piece it together.

Next time: Dan Aykroyd drags Chase even further down in Nothing But Trouble

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

More Forgotten Denzel Washington: Virtuosity (1995)

Okay, back to the reviews and this week we've got another semi-forgotten Denzel Washington flick, Virtuosity. Now the early 90s were something of a boom time for virtual reality. Even though the actual technology was just theory and still light years away it didn't stop multiple screenwriters putting the concept in their scripts. You had Ralph Fiennes in Strange Days selling bootleg first person experiences, Billy Blanks trying to take down the Virtual Arts Academy in Expect No Mercy, Eddie Furlong playing the addictive killer video game in Brainscan and Keanu Reeves making his first attempt at cyberpunk with Johnny Mnemonic. Despite many of these early entries being quite ropey they laid a lot of the ground work for vastly superior VR films that came later in the decade such as Existenz and The Matrix. Virtuosity came slap back in the middle of this boom (in 1995) and although it's not a visionary film, it is a good 90 minutes of fun.

The film sees a young Russell Crowe play Sid 6.7, a virtual reality construct created by a scientist in order to train police officers. Sid has been made up of the most twisted criminal minds from history in order to give rookie officers a chance to test their metal in a safe virtual reality environment. However, the same scientist has also been working on a silicon liquid that makes virtual reality character become real and... yeah, you've got it, Sid manages to trick the scientist and make himself a real person so that he can commit crimes in the real world. Denzel Washington plays Parker Barnes, a disgraced cop who has been imprisoned for accidentally killed a news reporter and her cameraman. Much like Demolition Man, Barnes is released from prison so that he can capture Sid. And to make things just that extra bit personal part of Sid's personality make-up is the mad bomber who killed his wife!

The first thing to note is that this is directed by Brett Leonard who is no stranger to virtual reality films. He also directed the 1992 film The Lawnmower Man, where Pierce Brosnan played a scientist who used virtual reality to make a mentally retarded gardener become super smart (still not entirely sure how that worked!). I kind of liked The Lawnmower Man despite its somewhat cheesy story and acting (and completely idiotic decision to slap Stephen King's name on the cover even though it didn't even remotely resemble his short story). Leonard is quite a hyperactive director who doesn't do subtle. I tend to put him in the same bracket as Russell Mulcahy and Paul WS Anderson as makers of dependably energetic but dumb action movies. His direction of Virtuosity is both an advantage and a disadvantage. On the plus side, it's got a good pace and decent set pieces but on the down side, it's overly colourful and his concepts of futuristic design are tepid rather than revolutionary.

Once again, much like Ricochet, Washington really excels in his role as Parker Barnes, giving a waaaay above average performance. One particularly bit sticks out as completely badass, where he's trying to save his wife from a mad bomber and he gets his entire right arm blown off... and then continues to carry on firing his gun with his left hand. It's also interesting to see Crowe (another Oscar winner) act in such a lurid action movie. He really camps it up as Sid 6.7 but given that he's meant to be playing a child-like computer construct I guess it makes sense. The problem is that even though Crowe comes off as sadistic and evil he never comes off as scary or intimidating which is odd because he displayed those characteristics very well when he played neo nazi skinhead Hando in Romper Stomper not three years earlier. Still he and Washington make a good antagonist/protagonist double act and play off each other well. Hey, even Ridley Scott agrees. He got them back together for American Gangster ten years later.

The film's script by Eric Bernt starts off very shaky. The whole concept of this clear silicon liquid which turns virtual reality characters into real physical people is a tough pill to swallow. I'm usually open to most science fiction concept but this seems like a very silly idea that probably got thought up in five minutes. However, once you've accepted that the film does go to some interesting places. Sid can get shot and wounded but much like the T-1000 he can also repair himself. In this case, he needs glass to replenish his health (get it, because glass is partially silicon). He also makes a great action movie villain because he spends most of the time causing mayhem purely for the fun of it rather than any logical plan. And Barnes has some interesting complexity to him too (I'd like to think Washington insisted on this) rather than being your straight forward action hero. One of the most memorable points is the ending is quite clever concept. Okay it's not 'genius' clever but it was good idea that gave the film a neat arc.

In spite of a couple of negative points I've got against the film it still is a lot of fun. Sure it's not as great as The Lawnmower Man for me, but it's not far off (yes, I am saying Lawnmower Man was great, sue me). At the very least you can say it's a good guilty pleasure that doesn't take itself too seriously. One of my favourite sequences has to be where Crowe, fresh out in the real world struts down the street to 'Staying Alive'. Yeah, it's that kind of film. Go find a copy now!