31 January 2014

Saucy Science Fiction and Fantasy!

It’s Saucy Fantasy and Adventure Time!
By Leigh Wood

Be it science fiction, futuristic, fantasy, classic, camp, jungle, or pre-historic, these saucy romps are so bad its good glorious!

Barbarella –Producer Dino De Laurentiis (Conan the Barbarian) and director Roger Vadim’s (And God Created Woman) 1968 adaptation of Jean-Claude Forest’s comics immediately sets its camp sci-fi tone with a shiny, zero gravity, striptease and never looks back. The brassy sixties theme and score perfectly match the strangely tasteful nudity and fun fur ship interiors – although that has to be a bitch to clean! The bad SF designs, poor flying effects, ugly color, and psychedelic lighting are certainly dated, too. Awkward plastics, pleather get ups, and lots of tight tights further establish the kinky sex experimentation and whiff of bondage, lesbianism or fem-dom and liberation – toking up on “Essence of Man,” the Excessive Machine, and all that. I’m not really a Jane Fonda (Cat Ballou) fan, but surely she was very into personal grooming back in the day, for her costumes leave little else to the imagination. We don’t see all the sex glory, but it’s amazing the before and after saucy humor is delivered with such a straight face considering the preposterous technical dialogue and tongue in cheek tone. However, it is odd to have the feral kids, their ugly dolls, and the suggestive biting amid the juicy, and this kind of bad futuristic design is what gave the science fiction of the time a juvenile bad name. Poor editing and slow ass montages of bubblicious space travel and ridiculous skiing also hamper the bemusement. We get the generally pointless A to B adventures and excuses to have sex, but at 98 minutes, the lack of reason or rhythm from one scene to the next becomes overlong and tiresome. Fortunately, the goofy ship angles and wild filmmaking remain fun and mature audiences are fully aware of the viewing treats here. John Phillip Law (The Golden Voyage of Sinbad) has such nice…wings! Maybe one has to be stoned to appreciate what’s happening here – for while I can absolutely understand why its seventies re-releases raised its cult fame, I’ve never been quite sure what the heck is going on in this movie! I dare say kids can watch a television edit or the PG version purely for the hysterics and not perceive the innuendo or kinky overtone. Duran Duran anyone?

Barbarian Queen – Bad dialogue, anachronistic language, old speaketh names, Valley Girl style, and poor English sound set the campy mood for this boobalicious 1985 Roger Corman produced Amazon vengeance tale. An awkward opening rape and more sexual violence scenery make it somewhat tough to enjoy this film, and yet I dare say the torture scenes are bizarrely fun for bondage fans as are the woefully bad but brief gladiator fights. The rapacious, bodice-ripping titillation may be strange, but it is probably accurate for the Roman setting. Besides, it’s nice to see the nudity and gore instead of a kid friendly, magic filled fantasy and there are a few amusing brothel scenes and orgies, too. Granted, it would have been sexier to see the gals kick ass more, but the story isn’t that bad. It’s nothing new for sure, but there is some attempted character development and moments of sentiment with children and exiled villagers. Unfortunately, bad acting makes it tough to take the opening aggression or any dramatic turns seriously. The action and fighting move quickly and aren’t bad – in fact, they are well choreographed and edited – but small-scale designs and low budget toy swords keep the 70 minutes kitschy. The costumes are also eighties over the top colorful yet fittingly fantasy furs and sexy skimpy leather. What does it matter if you can’t always tell one annoying chick from the next? We don’t need the finite details on the big rebels versus bad guys finale, either. If we weren’t in the middle of a misguided, slo-mo, ridiculously CGI revival with poor fair such as the Conan reboot and Wrath of the Titans, I would say this deserves to be redone properly. Sadly, some audiences may also tune in now thanks to Lana Clarkson’s murder and the subsequent Phil Spector trials. This one may not do the genre any favors and shouldn’t be taken too seriously, but fans of the original Conan or The Beastmaster can enjoy this Showgirls sword and sorcery good time. 

Death Stalker – Clarkson bared more bod – I kid you not her costume is a cape and a g-string – in this previous 1983 Corman romp full of magical amulets, mystical swords, and drunken chalices. Bad dialogue, woeful names, and a confusing quests amid a tournament at the local evil wizard’s place compound the plot troubles here, and poor character motivation doesn’t help. The ripped Rick Hill (Today’s F.B.I.) only wants to fight, denies a request to rescue a princess, but then accepts this power trip instead. The back and forth riddles are tiresome and the titular hero doesn’t do much except bag some babes, however, that’s better than the nasty, lecherous pig cavemen having all the action. Everyone is so dirty and scantily clad that it’s tough to tell who or what is going on – although the early and often T n A, chicks in medieval hot tubs, chicks in cages, and mud wrestling dames make up the difference. Fun set pieces, an amazing amount of prehistoric g-strings, lots of horses, a warty witch, and an eyeball in a cauldron also accent the sacrificial orgies, near bestiality creatures, and voyeuristic cave troll turned horny old man. Though the music is often out of place – dramatic swells, comical tunes, or ethereal arias happen at the wrong times – and the magical aspects could have been better, voice actor Bernard Erhard makes for a would be intriguing villain. He turns one of his henchmen into playmate Barbi Benton! The fight scenes seem strangely slow and take too long when there’s no room to spare in this 76 minutes; by time we get to the warriors tournament, there’s little reason to care. Yet the thinly plotted, bemusingly so bad its good is like porn without the explicit sex. Is this about the quest, the tournament, or bagging as many babes as possible? Who cares? The magical something or other whatnot is corny for sure, but this remains quite the watchable adult fantasy. 

Sheena: Queen of the Jungle – Bond Girl, later day Charlie’s Angels star, and That 70’s Show mom Tanya Roberts has a good time in this shockingly PG 1984 comic book stretch. The well done opening fifteen minutes of jungle exploration and orphaned origins is actually played straight with no indication of the campy fun to come. Slow motion Tanya riding a zebra, however, quickly changes that! The mystical, sensual synthesizer music over the would-be serious action scenes are as out of place as the overlong slo-mo, and Roberts’ famously husky and sexy voice doesn’t match the near spiritual telepathic talk of the land or culture clash dialogue. Granted, she has an obligatory insipid romance and lots more silly stuff to do, but Roberts looks swinging on ropes strong and bareback riding capable. Besides, the main attraction here is her bemusing total exposures, if you get my meaning. The wild storyline is quite innocent and timeless, too, but unfortunately, the dated eighties designs, contemporary lingo, standard assassination ploys, and ruinous mining on the healing land plots detract from the exotic fun and ruin cool villainess France Zobda and classy Shaman Elizabeth of Toro. The cast is racially appropriate rather than white washed, but the coup-laden western-esque and corrupt Tigora kingdom versus the peaceful Zambouli tribe faux political story feels very poorly written considering the already delicate East Africa history. It’s not well acted or clearly developed, and the PG audience to whom this too long two hours was targeted wouldn’t care about these kinds of complexities anyway. The largely mother/daughter feminism does work well, and this should have been a straightforward good and evil origin story introducing the comic foil reporters to the jungle or a defending the earth against ruthless mining mercenaries tale. Though grainy photography and mixed wide and full screen formatting make some scenes look unusual, cool elephants, big cats, snakes, hippos, monkeys, and dynamite Kenya locations, grasslands, and sunsets add a delightful sense of wonder. Tribal nudity and some rituals or animal action may be too intense for small children, but kids can enjoy the innocent charm just as much as late night adults will skip to the saucy parts. I dare say I’d like another new Sheena if it could be done with a realistically strong chick, a hunky supporting guy, and no CGI.  Till then, it’s best not to let the actual story ruin the beauty here.

Tarzan: The Ape Man – John Phillip Law joins hunky Miles O’Keeffe (Waxwork) in this 1981 John Derek directed vehicle naturally focusing on his absolutely sexy and pretty to look at wife Bo Derek (10). We open with Edgar Rice Burroughs references and a fun MGM lion roaring Johnny Weismuller calls, but the narration is pointless and establishing travels over the lengthy credits make the Parker back story sooo slooowww. The camp tone, however, is apparent in Bo’s entrance, and the 1910/quasi eighties safari style and wispy white under things accent her delightful physique – as do those nude sunset swims and bathing montages. Antagonist Richard Harris (The Field) gets his junk about, too, but his fatherly scenes with Derek are too weird. The childlike conversation amid her rough hose down and naked tribal paint job is just…ew. While the role is in keeping with the slightly more mature written Tarzan themes – I’ve never understood why these books are classified as children’s material – it also reeks of erroneous white savior knows best for the primitive jungle and doesn’t work with the off on the wrong foot attention to Jane here. Derek is still a damsel in distress and looks too modern or old for this ingénue perspective, and the meandering pace, ridiculous slow motion, and cut away montage battle action takes half the movie to get to Tarzan. John Derek lingers on his own cinematography yet inserts out of place, wide-eyed up close Bo shots. You can have both female discovery and epic scope, but not when your husband is the director (awesome Ten Commandments Joshua though he is). Fortunately, beautiful landscapes, silhouetted frames, glistening water reflections, Sri Lanka locales, lion action, and snake squeezings detract from the stilted dialogue and Bo fan’s girling over Tarzan. She feels him up while he’s asleep and peels a banana while speculating on his virginity! I’m surprised there aren’t more saucy jungle movies – the erotic opportunities and loincloths seem rampant. Though the Burroughs estate understandably wants to keep the brand Disney friendly, O’Keeffe’s tiny loincloth doesn’t exactly fit and his beefcake is eighties laughable beneath that pre-requisite headband. With all the dry skin, wet skin, painted skin, tender love, and rough touching – what’s that orangutan doing? – this is as soft core as they come. Enjoy the bevy of gratuitous eye candy here, watch on mute, or skip to the naughty parts – this picture makes no sense otherwise.

28 January 2014

A Lon Chaney Jr. Post!

A Lon Chaney Trio!
By Kristin Battestella

Do we need an excuse to discuss this Junior-variety triumvirate of Lon Chaney films? I thought not!

The Black Sleep – From Basil Rathbone’s slick top hat and suspicious, desperate doctoring and the spine-chilling entrance of the snapped Lon Chaney Jr. to a wild appearance by John Carradine and Bela Lugosi’s sad dénouement, the titans abound in this sophisticated 1956 terror tale. Cataleptic drug history and an ominous narration set the black and white mood along with a spooky score and fitting 1872 styles. Prison dreary, erroneous death sentences, grave robbing, dissection of convict cadavers, and the titular anesthetic keep the morbid plot moving, and questionable science, eerie estates, secret passages, and a crazy patient or two complete the scary movie checklist here. While some of the science talk is dated or hyperbole and deflection and the pace is perhaps slow today, the classy morose and well played ensemble cast – also including Akim Tamiroff (Touch of Evil), Herbert Rudley (The Mothers-In-Law), Patricia Blair (The Rifleman), and Tor Johnson (Plan 9 from Outer Space) – are worth watching. There isn’t much of our silent strongman Son of the Hour, and I’m not sure why neither he nor the bittersweet Lugosi has little or no lines, but freaky brain surgeries, great damsels, and macabre dream sequences are in keeping with the elegant yet subtly gruesome. Long time horror viewers won’t find a whole lot of scary amid the medical gone awry, but at times I didn’t know what was going to happen next thanks to surprising reveals, twisted progression, and an action creepy finish.

The Mummy’s Curse – Stay with me now – this 1944 hour long Universal sequel marks the final appearance by Lon Chaney Jr. as Kharis after The Mummy’s Tomb and The Mummy’s Ghost, which follow the 1932 original and The Mummy’s Hand. Got that? Of course, the timeline and locales are all over the place at this point anyway! We open with a French sing along to set the inexplicably changed Louisiana setting here before getting to the expected accursed mummy swamp recovery, investigating archaeology professors, and screaming dames. It’s amusing to see all the fearful and faux French accented locals, and reused stock footage from prior Mummy films creates further humor. But why is this exact same story being told to us again? Again but in a Louisiana swamp? A swamp that lies below a conveniently abandoned chapel where the Mummy hides? Fortunately, once the audience takes these leaps, Chaney’s resurrected and deadly, limbering monster can be enjoyed thanks to well done shadows, lighting, and crisp black and white photography. Virginia Christine (Tales of Wells Fargo) also has an excellent entrance as the revived Ananka, with eerie music, stilted movement, and great horror editing. Despite the spooky bayou atmosphere, this isn’t as scary movie as it should be – somehow Chaney’s crippled, dragging Mummy seems sad and used more than frightening. Poor thing misses a victim or two thanks to them, you know, walking away from him! Thankfully, the quick fun here is still watchable for fans, especially in a Mummy or Chaney viewing marathon. 

Witchcraft – Lon Chaney Jr. is old but earnest in his failed attempts to rescue a centuries old family graveyard from urban development in this black and white 1964 spooky. Creepy music and that stony cemetery scenery set the mood while family rivalries, ruthless business practices, and a buried alive witch returning from the grave just in time for May Day sacrifices up the angst ante. Although we don’t see Our Man Creighton too much, the wise horror viewer knows anyone desecrating a tomb will earn plenty of bad blood and titular mayhem. The young romance scenes are also too sappy and cliché, but thankfully, they are few and far between the otherwise well played generational gaps. Conflicting attitudes on respecting the witchcraft history and superstitious fears add to the suspenseful and well-edited murders, disturbing effigies, and voodoo dolls. Great lighting, dark shadows, sinister winds, creepy car rides, and eerie, silent up close scares increase as the revenge deaths and onscreen pace quicken. These 80 minutes might become too predicable by the end with so much magical vengeance, but each mini murder sequence is a well done piece unto itself. Creepy eyes, hoods and ritual robes, and just enough undead makeup accent the fun fiery finish, too. Perhaps this is a standard witchy tale, but there’s enough plotting and performance here to match the effective, atmospheric telling.

23 January 2014

Just Vamps 2!

Just Vampires II! 
By Kristin Battestella

Because who can’t get enough vampire movies, am I right?

Queen of Blood – Roger Corman (House of Usher) and Stephanie Rotham (The Velvet Vampire) produced this 1966 AIP science fiction meets horror tale from writer/director Curtis Harrington (What’s the Matter with Helen?). Though the borrowed footage and stolen special effects don’t really match the primitive explorations of the moon, Venus, and Mars, the old-fashioned sci-fi sounds and empty sets with blinking lights are mid-century charming. Granted, most of these “1990” space stylings look like toys and dated artwork, but silhouettes, shadows, and colored lighting help hide the hokey. The unscientific old jargon and constantly interrupting intercom pages, however, are simply laughable. These attempts at high tech and the supposedly cool alien footage are actually more confusing than establishing because today’s viewer can’t tell what’s happening. The slow, time wasting, goofy effects should have been done away with in favor of more drama from John Saxon (A Nightmare on Elm Street), Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes), a very young Dennis Hopper (Blue Velvet), and the blink and you miss him Forrest J Ackerman (Kentucky Fried Movie). Fortunately, the cast and story are quite intriguing – an alien message, contact with Earth, a crash on Mars, and our ill-prepared rescue attempt. The suspense rises thanks to a stranding on Phobos, three passengers for a two-person pod, and of course, the creepy, hypnotic, titular, green – yes green – Florence Marly (Tokyo Joe). Between the now standard SF action and the freaky, cynical ending, one wouldn’t expect the aliens to turn scary, much less be vampires, but the sensual, scary mix works. Is it preposterous? Heck yeah. Is this an entertaining space horror delight? For sure.

Scars of Dracula – Roy Ward Baker (The Vampire Lovers) takes the helm for this 1970 entry in the Hammer series once again starring Christopher Lee as the eponymous count. The plot kind of sort of picks up from Taste the Blood of Dracula with the pre-requisite resurrection in the first few moments and sets the mood with booming orchestration, outdoor scenery, wild carriages, and cool castle interiors accented by red décor and bloody, pecked, and stabbed victims. Yes, the period design is cheap and the plot standard – a young village girl is attacked, angry townsfolk and the clergyman head off for Dracula’s known lair, one person doesn’t heed said village’s advice, a couple pursues him to the castle… The tale starts several times and takes too long with seemingly random players before the vamp action, and most of this set up could have been abandoned for an in medias res cold open. Expected series inconsistencies and a plodding lack of panache detract from the Stoker touches, but Lee looks good, mixing both violent and torturous intensity with suave and delicate mannerisms.  From casual dining and conversations to a seductive vampire bride and slightly hokey bat control, Lee has much more to do with these developments, and it’s wonderfully creepy. Likewise, Patrick Troughton (Doctor Who) is a seedy, hairy, hatchet wielding, and conflicted henchman. Though the nudity and bed hopping are a little more risqué, there could have been more and subtitles would clarify a lot! Yes, it’s somewhat typical with nothing new on the vampire theme, but Lee’s presence anchors the spooky iconography here.


Vampyres – Late Spanish director Jose Ramon Larraz (Symptoms) gets right to the unabashedly naked lesbian soft-core action and slobbery kisses for this 1974 blood and spicy.  Despite our contemporary love of sex sex sex, one might initially groan at this potentially unnecessary boobs before violence – yet the kitschy mood and sensuous gothic tone works with the blended British seventies style and Old World, cluttered Victorian creepy. Outside of some great cars and sparse electricity, the viewer may not know when this takes place, and the Oakley Court estate and churchyards are perfectly isolated eerie. Couple Sally Falkner (Doctor Who) and Brian Deacon (The Feathered Serpent) give the audience a likeable believer and a relatable skeptic to set up scares and shocks while Murray Brown (Dan Curtis’ Dracula) learns the dangers of picking up beautiful hitchhikers in dark capes Marianne Morris (Lovebox) and Anulka Dziubinska (Lisztomania). Though the foul afoot is certainly suspected, the simmering, alluring build doesn’t reveal the juicy all at once. Sure, some plot points don’t make much sense – sharper editing or script clarifications would have helped – and the seventies sex and kinky lingerie strip teases can be laughable, I grant you. However, the strong titillation provides comfort, rough, or bemusement ahead of the bloody kickers. The predatory approach is traditional but there are no fangs and quick, demented, near cannibalistic feminine twists keep the pace unconventional. Viewers who prefer their gore, language, and sex fast and furious may find the action slow or the plot lame, but the meant to be hazy and dreamy mood belies an intense finish. Although the volume and sound are soft, the new blu-ray release has commentaries, interviews, and by golly makes this movie look brand spanking new.

Confusing Decisions

Count Dracula’s Great Love – Co-writer and star Paul Naschy (Fury of the Wolf Man) adds sexy plottings to this largely standard 1974 Spanish vampire tale. Moody fog, menacing carriages, Bram Stoker and Vlad the Impaler references, and good old fashioned grave robbing do start off well. Add crazy sanitarium history and the mysterious, suave undead Doctor Naschy nearby, and you have the perfect Transylvania weather for our stranded ladies to shack up in the hospitable vamp’s run down castle and then go for a naked swim! The extremely colorful, garish frocks may not be period authentic and it’s tough to tell our buxom guests apart beyond said boobs, hair color, or virginity and promiscuity status. However, the nightgowns, wispy robes, and nighttime bedroom visits are all in gothic good fun. Thunderstorms, candles, cats jumping out, and howling wolves keep up the traditional vampire retelling – I wouldn’t spend the night in this place! Dreamy ultraviolet filming, blue lighting, and neat vampire eyes work when we see the scary action, but slow pacing, lengthy exposition, and sudden love hamper the girl on girl attacks, blood smeared breasts, meaty blood rituals, and dungeon chains. Poor video quality doesn’t help, and the Elvira’s Movie Macabre DVD edition from her 1982 first season contributes to the cheap production and camp atmosphere – lovely as Cassandra Peterson is with an apron that covers everything but her rack! Bad dubbing and no subtitles are part of the charm here, and the serious approach on Dracula seeking a virgin to resolve his curse could work wonderfully. This film is bemusingly bad to see and has some germs of possibility, but it’s too short, slightly limp on the bites, and feels tame compared to other vampy sexploitation of the era.

The She Beast – I really wanted to see this quick 1966 Barbara Steele vehicle from director Mike Reeves (Witchfinder General). Though I’m not really sure what the “vampire witch” description on the sleeve actually means, I’ll go with it, the Transylvania connections, and Van Helsing hobnobbing! Despite too many starts and a tough to see opening execution, the mayhem and titular nasty are dang creepy against the swanky clothes and sexy Steele voice – so often not heard thanks to international dubbing. She’s almost topless, too, but there really isn’t enough of Steele for her fans to enjoy here. The action kicks up with a car accident and disappearing bodies, but the people and plot are too nonsensical to root for anyone. The rapacious, voyeuristic, nasty hotel clerk is too sleaze ball foul to enjoy; he’s sloppy and serves no purpose in the film as far as I can tell.  Not only do the English subtitles not work on the cheap Netflix DVD, but the print is absolutely poor – the color is so faded that it looks black and white! Though a campy, fun viewing, I can’t tell if this is a bad movie that flops itself or if the crappy video butchers all coherence. I suspect it’s a little of both!

10 January 2014

Gamer (2009)

Gamer Too Busy and On the Nose for Its Own Good
By Kristin Battestella

I’ve watched the 2009 futuristic, technological, computers, nanites, gaming, SIMS meets The Running Man film Gamer numerous times. However, I can never make up my mind whether it is good, bad, or too muddled and trite for its own good.

Convicted murderer John Tillman (Gerard Butler) competes in Slayers, a televised fight to the death shooter game created by Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall) and made possible by his nanites technology. These nanites replace brain cells, allowing the prisoners in the Slayers competition to be controlled by real world gamers, and teen gaming wiz Simon (Logan Lerman) controls Kable – as Tillman is known in the game. Tillman competes to achieve his freedom, which is granted to the inmate who survives thirty Slayers battles. His wife Angie (Amber Valetta) has lost custody of their daughter Delia (Brighid Fleming) and works in Society, another game created by Castle where gamers control participants in an excessively social and sexual community. Reporter Gina Parker Smith (Kyra Sedgwick) interviews billionaire Castle, but Brother (Ludacris) and Trace (Alison Lohman), leaders of the Humanz organization hoping to expose Castle’s corruption and intention to control people against their will, hack Smith’s show and give Simon a cheat to communicate with Kable during Slayers. With their help, Tillman hopes to escape the game, save his wife and daughter, and bring down Castle’s technological regime.  

Gamer’s writers, directors, producers, and rollerblading cameramen Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (Crank, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance) create an obvious piece of “I see what you did there” action and social commentary. Sometimes it works, but more often than not, it doesn’t. This cluttered message advocates against media manipulation and technological control of individuality, but Gamer plays into just such a mentality with its constant need for action, cool, awesome, badass, sex, and violence. Almost all camera shots are ridiculously short – often no more than five seconds in length – and these hectic visuals ruin any prophetic potential the plot may have regarding our increasing obsessions with instant mass technology. Despite being just over five years old, Gamer’s supposed near future, harsh graphics, and rock n roll, in your face design are already very dated. Perhaps it wasn’t intended to predict future technology as some productions have, but contemporary simulation games look better then Gamer’s insane editing and so hectic, on acid first person shooter attempts. Honestly, I don’t play heady video games like this because I find them obnoxiously loud and dizzying – so a film trying to out do what is occasionally seizure inducing for some feels as if its entire structure misses the mark.

Even the tense, dramatic scenes in Gamer have unnecessary zooms, pans, pacing or distracting movement. Toss in those graphics everywhere and technology within computers within game shows and the viewer wants to shield one’s eyes when watching. Flashing lights, bright photography, and fast special effects never give the audience a breather. Again, the directors may have intended this hectic design to be a parable on our constant, multi tasking, instant, busy busy, media and interconnected ways, but it’s can’t see the forest for the trees too much. Gamer never slows down to fulfill its tale. Up close camera shots on foods, mouths, and gluttonous eating are intriguing statements in the making, but these subtle suggestions on consumerism, oral fixations, over sharing, and indulgences are lost among the visual hysteria. Extensive video extras, interactive blu-ray designs, and detailed commentaries help clarify the dark satirical vision and behind the scenes intentions, but one shouldn’t leave the crutch of your film to today’s auxiliary materials. The story here has promise, but it remains both too convoluted and thin thanks to the extreme and abrupt filmmaking.  

I must say, Gerard Butler (300) has such pretty eyes and they really stand out in the hyper saturated color of Gamer. Sadly, we don’t really see much else of Tillman, for the camera never stops to take pause on his pain for more than a few seconds. Pull back from the askew up close shots, please; zoom out so we can see the technological natural overwhelming the man. Gamer doesn’t let the audience make up its mind or relate to the characters because it’s intense photography and busy camerawork instead tells us what to think and to think fast on it. Slow motion flashbacks and quiet moments are too few and far between and also fall prey to off kilter, artsy, dreamlike filmmaking. Normally, such differentiation would be effective, but the never let up visuals take away from anything the cast creates. Are the flashback and the final scene actually the same footage – possibly implying there are far more nanite twists and butchery in Tillman’s head ala Blade Runner? Does Tillman himself no longer know what’s real or implanted? Such a potentially glorious plot spin is erroneously left to herky-jerky blink and you miss it film. Butler is built and action on form in Gamer for sure, and the viewer can root for him effortlessly enough even if we also question his physicality and some of the preposterous or thoughtless things the script has him doing. Again, Gamer may be trying to make statements regarding how we applaud Kable’s in game killing of real people but then balk at Tillman’s dismissed taking of innocent lives in his familial quest. He’s a public hero but his personal actions aren’t his fault? We’re not supposed to blame him for his murders? Are we to ask ourselves how we would react in the same situations? Gamer neither intelligently asks nor answers these questions. Wise viewers might deduce such things, but the lack of character focus cuts the film’s nose to spite its face. He can bring it, and what should have been a heavy performance by Butler ends up chopped off at the knees. Heaven forbid we see emotion from Tillman for too long because we must get back to the nonsensical Slayers battlefield and seeing Kable do what Kable does best. The dizzying action may be fun for a little while, but unlike its ensemble potential, the mayhem isn’t enough to carry Gamer.

Likewise, Michael C. Hall’s (Dexter) performance is a confusing, somewhat disgusting parody, and I’m not quite sure whom Gamer is trying to satire with the role. Bill Gates is mentioned onscreen in technological and financial comparison to Castle, but despite what you make think of Microsoft, Gates is a charitable guy, nothing like this skivvy megalomaniac. Why does he want to control millions of people and make them maim, rape, and kill? Some of Hall’s scenes are just too laughable for such terrors. We’re fully aware he’s having fun with the performance instead of investing more complexity – the script and his somewhat limited appearance leave Hall little room to maneuver. His fans will enjoy the sing along sardonics, but was that kind of hammy really necessary? We get the “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” lyrical wink and the ironically up tempo number for such a violent scene. Is it supposed to be comical or profound and pointing the finger at desensitization? Castle’s over the top fun feels contrary to any statements the movie is attempting, and again the audience is left wondering what to make of the polarizing design of Gamer. Is Castle’s wacky summation a political cartoon? I don’t think action audiences expect to see this kind of commentary – Gamer looks like such an in your face shoot ‘em up after all. I mean, Ludacris is here! The rapper turned Fast & Furious 6 star has potential and represents perhaps the most intriguing possibilities in Gamer, but the Humanz hacking hip overtakes the organization’s underlying motivations and critical but barely there presence. Brother feels more like a type and a means to an end for Tillman rather than a leader with real goals and plans. An entire movie could have been made about the Humanz – even if that would be a bit Johnny Mnemonic-ish, it might have been better than the wasted themes here.

Amber Valetta (Revenge) also feels mistreated in Gamer as Tillman’s Society working wife Angie. Her forced upon her nineties style is all icky colors and ugly, mismatched garishness. Extreme but quick up close shots show Angie’s pain and discomfort, and these gaudy visuals should represent the antisocial, gluttonous control of her gaming handler. However, once again, the fast montages and absurd filming make it nearly impossible to enjoy the performances. One wonders why Valetta took such a demeaning part, as Angie bears the brunt of Society’s depravity. What’s wrong with all these people? Society has so much in your face sex, nudity, neon, and apathy that it’s almost too much like real life. Props for the prediction, sure, but it doesn’t make Gamer entertaining, much less let the personal of the tale become profound. Kyra Sedgwick (The Closer) also suffers with too little to do as an initially hard-hitting anything for the scope reporter who seemingly changes her tune. I don’t really care for found footage movies, but more documentary or media styled filmmaking from her perspective might have helped the audience find a voyeuristic focus – unlike Gamer’s in game point of view that just has us ducking for cover. Drag Me to Hell’’s talented Alison Lohman (who married director Mark Neveldine and hasn’t worked since) fairs no better as Humanz activist Trace. While I don’t think anyone expected Gamer to be a vehicle for strong women, the sexy in Society and the uneven wife, mother, working woman, and renegade queen roles end up forgettable despite the intelligent and serious possibilities.

Ironically, I don’t have much to say about Logan Lerman (Percy Jackson) as Simon, the gamer controlling Kable. Some posters, press, and trailers for Gamer kind of give the impression that the film is, you know, all about them. I’m glad the film remains a solid R and doesn’t go for some juvenile bonding experience, indeed. However, the uneven distribution of his character time and plot leaves Simon coming off as an entitled, fame seeking little shit obsessed with special peanut butters. Are we supposed to relate to this smug kid because we are in an age where such internet punks are a dime a dozen? Simon has a tricked out pad, high tech toys, and girls flashing him, but he becomes a scared little wussy once Kable stops killing people at his command. I didn’t miss him when he disappears from Gamer – unlike John Leguizamo (Super Mario Bros.). His poorly named Freek is the obligatory crazy inmate, but the character is an unusual friend for Tillman and provides some measure of dialogue and reflection on the Slayers insanity. Terry Crews (Everybody Hates Chris) and Keith David (Pitch Black) also remain stereotypical despite more unresolved opportunities about sociopathic prisoners uninfluenced by nanite control and federal agents investigating Humanz. My goodness I look at Gamer and see enough potential for a Slayers television series, yet it seems like the directors were more satisfied with throwing the paint at the canvas and calling it art regardless of the talent or tales possible.

Gamer could have been many things. It could have been a straightforward action story about the Slayers game – that is the only thing that would make the fanatical film design workable. Then again, Gamer offers an intelligent science fiction allegory that deserved to be bleak and subdued with noir lighting, black and white photography, and depressing reflections on the devoid nature of technological mind control. Was this supposed to be about what the game does to the people or how desensitizing the game is itself? Heck, why film the Society sex and Slayers violence at all – because no one would go see such a serious action picture without today’s all the rage? There are merits and provocative themes here. Unfortunately, Gamer’s need to compete with our instant blast a minute media lifestyles looks like a bad video game and overtakes any plot potential – playing into the very thing it appears to be preaching against. In a few years, maybe the outlook on this film will change, but as of now, Gamer looks like the premium example as to why writers, directors, producers, and cameramen being one in the same is far, far too many hats for two people to wear. Fans of the cast or big action pictures can certainly watch Gamer for the in your face violence and candy visuals, but other highbrow audiences or mainstream viewers may not get past the first few herky-jerky moments. Did I miss the point of what the creators were trying to achieve here? Perhaps, but they weren’t exactly clear about what Gamer’s motivations are either. Take this tale with a grain of salt indeed – and a Dramamine. You’re going to need it.

04 January 2014

From Russia with Love

From Russia with Love – What’s Not to Love?
By Kristin Battestella

From the wonderfully simple pre-title sequence fake out and onscreen chess matches to cat and mouse games, suspenseful train bound conversations, and dangerous water escapes, the second 1963 Eon produced James Bond picture From Russia with Love just about has it all.

The mysterious SPECTRE organization’s Number 3 Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) uses her previous SMERSH position to enlist innocent Soviet clerk Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi) in luring MI6 agent 007 James Bond (Sean Connery) to Istanbul, where he will face revenge for his killing of SPECTRE operative Dr. No and unwittingly help destabilize covert global operations in SPECTRE’s favor. Their assassin Red Grant (Robert Shaw) shadows Bond in Turkey while 007 and British ally Kerim Bey (Pedro Armendariz) pursue the stolen and much sought after Lektor decoding machine. Once Tania’s defection and the Lektor are secured, Bond sets off toward England on the Orient Express – but Grant and more SPECTRE accomplices, traps, and intrigue lie in wait…

Dr. No director Terence Young helms this adaptation of Ian Fleming’s fifth Bond novel replete with SMERSH meets SPECTRE debut action and us versus them Cold War intensity from returning screenwriter Johanna Harwood and future franchise writer Richard Maibaum. The opening villainous perspectives and what you don’t see Blofeld implications add a wonderful mirror to the expected MI6 chat with M, quips from Moneypenny, and training or gear from Q. Granted, the Lektor is a typewriter-esque MacGuffin plot point, but its theft and the vengeance over Dr. No keep the action moving amid the Russian, Turkish, and Bulgarian twists and turns. While the pace does drag a touch before the confrontations in Turkey and its tough to tell who is who or who is using whom and what game is being played, that’s also kind of the point of From Russia with Love. Some globe hopping can be confusing as well, but this storyline is relatively linear, allowing for a streamlined pursuit and paired down, mano y mano finish. Blessedly, From Russia with Love is also not of the time Cold War political or dated with heavy debates and analysis and thus remains charming and watchable. Perhaps we take the ease or difficulty of the international travel seen here for granted, but great map overlays and train montages capture Bond’s dangerous European escape. Of course, there’s an underlying innocence and tenderness as Tania is swept up in the SPECTRE intrigue, too, and some gadgets and spy hijinks are simply good fun. Station T is in Turkey, Y in Yugoslavia, archaic cameras are also recording devices, incriminating film is actually film, and a mere smile lets you walk into an enemy embassy right before it’s bombed.

Thanks to From Russia with Love’s slightly Empire Strikes Back villainous leanings, it takes almost 20 minutes for Sean Connery to appear as Bond– fashionably late to his MI6 briefing with his tiny sixties shorts, naturally. This should be a simple assignment for 007, for this time he’s supposed to schmooze the girl and retrieve the Lektor for Queen and Country. Of course, Our Man James leaves dames all over Europe instead – sometimes two at a time – followed by excellent quips, wry delivery, and perfectly timed Bond tunes. Despite a darker more action oriented approach, From Russia with Love has time for barely there towels, saucy bedroom scenes, and girls whose mouths are too big – or just the right size. Connery is swift and smart in the one-on-one wordplay as well as the juicy moments. He’s badass in a fedora and still gets rough and tumble for helicopter dangers and the big speedboat finale. Daniela Bianchi (Dr. Kildare) may provide a more innocent Bond Girl as duped clerk Tatiana Romanova, but her increasing heart for Bond and her eventual questions about the spy system are believable and endearing. Her softness works in the plot and contrasts perfectly with her harsh superior Klebb. Then again, where else would a women meant to seduce Bond meet him but in bed? It’s perfectly understandable that this scene is now used to test prospective Bonds and Bond Girls. Who’s teasing whom and is this really about the romance or the spying? Tania is both deeply entwined in both and yet technically uninvolved or unaware of where SMERSH stops and SPECTRE begins. The audience relates whilst going along for the ride thanks to charming if dubbed dialogue, just enough skin, and post-innuendo cigarette smoking.

By contrast, Robert Shaw (Jaws) matches Bond toe for toe as the largely silent and bleached cold SPECTRE henchman Red Grant. Where Bond is often a little too upfront about his spy game, Grant slowly and steadily works behind the scenes to achieve his employer’s means. I don’t want to spoil From Russia with Love for the few viewers who haven’t seen it, but Grant’s antithesis appearance adds wonderful tension – especially because this slick, enemy workman is so deadly, gritty, and realistically based instead of like the franchise’s later, more fantastically hung up evil associates. Unlike the usual Bondian formula where half the picture is spent with near miss henchmen or sexy villainesses before over the top socials and meet and greets with the quirky Big Bad, Grant sprinkles From Russia with Love with his own assassination motivations and even a little out 007ing 007. Likewise, SPECTRE and their numbered agents add to the MI6 gone bad rivalry with Lotte Lenya’s (The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone) Number 3 Rosa Klebb. The ex-SMERSH gal is crusty, unforgiving, but bizarrely motherly and latently lecherous toward Tania. It’s everything a Bond Girl isn’t, and it’s simply glorious! 

Fortunately, the rest of the supporting players add more fun and trivia to From Russia with Love. SPECTRE’s Number 1 a.k.a. Blofeld is simply credited with a “?”, and Eunice Gayson makes her second and final appearance as Sylvia Trench – the would-be perpetually interrupted girlfriend of James Bond. Although this debut appearance is brief, Desmond Llewelyn is called by his proper Boothroyd name rather than as the “Q” we would come to know and love. Lois Maxwell has some cute moments as Moneypenny – and I do so love a good hat toss! – but Bernard Lee is perfectly stuffy as her M boss, too. Pedro Armendariz (Fort Apache), however, is suave, cool, loyal, and bittersweet in his final performance as Istanbul chief Kerim Bey. He has some of the Bondian lady love, too, and From Russia with Love provides a nice helping of bikini clad women, gals in sassy frocks, and ladies in uniform. Be they friend, foe, or mere eye candy, these Bond Girls speak in numerous languages or accents and gasp, even advance the plot along with the titular foreign flair. The fight for her man gypsy camp girls do seem slightly stereotypical or dare I say it, pointless, but I’m sure some men would argue belly dancing is practically required in a 007 picture. Thankfully, the lady dubbing in From Russia with Love is also reasonable and not nearly as obvious or ridiculous as some subsequent Bond productions.

Well, 007 certainly has a loaded briefcase in From Russia with Love – literally! Nicely confined sets, hotel rooms, and train cars keep the plot personal, intimate, and dangerous along with hand-to-hand, close quartered combat and hidden knives. Some of the fights don’t have any spectacular finishes per say, only a quip or two from Bond, but these largely rough and silent battles seem more deadly – you know, the way real spies probably do it! Of course, there’s still plenty of room for fast paced truck chases, helicopter pursuits, and fiery aquatic stand offs. I waited to re-watch From Russia with Love so I could see again for the first time on blu-ray, but Netflix was always playing the waiting game with it. Fortunately, I received the limited edition blu-ray set Bond 50: The Complete 23 Film Collection for Christmas, and From Russia with Love looks magical indeed! No obvious lines mar the backdrops and matte shots, the nighttime gypsy raid photography is just right, and the color is somehow revitalized in de-saturated, made to look old perfection. Miniatures and set interiors blend seamlessly with stunning real locations such as Istanbul and Venice while the Orient Express train scenery is perfectly lit. Brief SPECTRE super villain yachts and island fortresses establish enemy might and power, and that shaking belly dancing and whole lot of fringe in the fun main title design anchors the colorful, sexy innuendo. Those opening credits and their neon flair don’t need much else, and the titular song with vocals by Matt Monro is smartly used as radio romance music within the film along with the swanky, perfectly placed John Barry orchestration, the new 007 mix, and the expected James Bond Theme. Commentaries and trailers are usually a given when it comes to video special features, but Ian Fleming treats, storyboards, character breakdowns, and more behind the scenes fun put the spit and polish on From Russia with Love’s delightful blu-ray release.

Defections, double agents, double crossings, global intrigue, dalliances for good and ill –almost all the clichés and patterns we expect in a Bond picture originate with From Russia with Love. Sure, the poison shoe dagger is reaching and has become the likes of Austin Powers parody gold. However, if that’s as fantastical as From Russia with Love gets, then I’m not complaining. Audiences who have dismissed the franchise over the years or think they dislike the gadgets and excess of what is the seemingly typical Bond design of the later Moore or Brosnan eras should also give From Russia with Love a fresh chance. This is a complete, all around action picture from start to finish for mainstream thriller fans and there’s nothing not to love for Bond Lovers.