Aug 2 2017

Meteor (1979)

Remember the late-’90s resurgence of that quintessentially ’70s genre known as the disaster film? Although short-lived, audience enthusiasm for it was so strong that in the summer of 1998, two space-rock epics — Deep Impact and Armageddon — competed for cash and both became major hits. But in 1979, Meteor had the space-rock scenario all to itself, yet flopped massively. Not only did its failure signal the death knell of the disaster craze, but also of indie distributor AIP, in way over its otherwise budget-mindful head by deviating from the low-risk/high-rewards model it had perfected for decades. It’s not like AIP hadn’t promoted it; for months, you’d couldn’t glimpse the back cover of a Marvel comic book without being exposed to an ad.

Helmed by The Poseidon Adventure’s Ronald Neame, Meteor opens with a look at Orpheus, an asteroid some 20 miles in diameter. But that’s not the object that gets scientists in a collective tizzy. Now, when a passing comet smashes Orpheus into several pieces, sending a 5-mile chunk hurtling toward Earth, that they worry about — and not without merit, because its touchdown would trigger another ice age. With only a six-day head start on its ETA, what’s a National Aeronautics and Space Administration to do?

They call in Paul Bradley (Sean Connery, Never Say Never Again), engineer of the U.S. Hercules missile defense system floating in space. Because each of its nuclear rockets packs a one-megaton punch, NASA enlists Paul’s help in realigning Herc to point toward rocks, not Russia. NASA needs Russia to do the same with their missiles, so those Commies come onsite, too — well, two of them: Dr. Dubov (Brian Keith, Death Before Dishonor) and his interpreter, Tatania (Natalie Wood, The Great Race), the latter pulling double duty as Paul’s instant romantic interest. In the face of global cataclysm, America’s real enemy is one of our own: a disbelieving Air Force general (Martin Landau, Ed Wood) who functions as a monkey wrench to the multinational plans; he is to this movie what real-life Sen. Jim Inhofe is to climate change: a buffoon.

Some 40 minutes in, penetration occurs! Not of Tatania by Paul, but our planet’s atmosphere by Orpheus fragments. Disregarding the aged effects, these sequences mark Meteor’s high points, and Neame ensures they avoid repetition by having them play out differently from one another. It’s as if he helmed several types of destructo-flicks within one end-all-be-all package. For example:
• Europe gets an avalanche, complete with sexy skier Sybil Danning (The Concorde … Airport ’79) and footage recycled from the previous year’s Avalanche;
• Asia takes a tidal wave;
• and America has to settle for an earthquake (and the takedown of the World Trade Center, but let’s not go there), leading to a set piece inside a flooding subway car.

Connery is so surly throughout, it’s difficult to know for certain where his performance begins and ends. Did he bark lines “Why don’t ya stick a broom up my ass?” with gusto because the script called for it or because he was disinterested in masking his contempt for the material? At least he exudes more passion than the oddly wooden Wood, who is miscast as a Russian despite being born from Russian parents! While Meteor is not the outright bore its reputation suggests, it’s also not the spectacle we’d expect. Let’s just say Irwin Allen could have Irwin Allen’d the shit out of this material, and call it a draw. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Jun 7 2017

The Mummy (2017)

Seeing green (with envy) at the massive success Marvel Studios has had with its shared cinematic universe, Universal Pictures announced that audiences can look forward to seeing its classic movie monsters intersect across a “Dark Universe” of reboots, starting not with 2014’s Dracula Untold, which would have been logical (and, at $70 million, relatively cheap), but this summer’s creaky, extra-pricey, been-there-done-that The Mummy. It smacks of a high concept on a low boil.

Well, you gotta start somewhere.

And for screenwriter-turned-director Alex Kurtzman, “somewhere” is more or less 1999’s The Mummy, whose flashback prologue this film apes, but gender-flips, making the bandaged bandit a woman (Sofia Boutella, Kingsman: The Secret Service) with double the necessary retinas, hieroglyphs for facial tattoos and a wicked kiss of death. She and her curse are awakened — or rather, unleashed — when asshole adventurer Nick Morton (Tom Cruise, Jack Reacher) dares muck with Ahmanet’s tomb, accidentally discovered buried beneath the Persian desert. Lucky for Nick, doing so saves his life when he perishes in a plane crash, only to reanimate himself while nude in a body bag on the morgue slab.

Don’t ask questions; the movie makes only a minimal effort at grasping coherence. It does what little it can get away with just enough to set up the bulk of the pic, which is Nick and his fetching one-night-stand of a foil (Annabelle Wallis, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword) literally running from Ahmanet, her zombie posse and an array of spiders, rats and exploding glass. Midway through, they meet Dr. Jekyll (Russell Crowe, The Nice Guys), for no other reason than to introduce a character for future Dark Universe installments; Jekyll is this franchise’s Nick Fury, but with zero employee-engagement skills.

While not quite the total train wreck so many have expected for months, this Mummy is no better than the worst among the Brendan Fraser-led trilogy or its Dwayne Johnson spin-off, The Scorpion King. Those pics’ feel-good, Indiana Jones-inspired flair has been jettisoned for an approach that leans in toward horror without fully committing. Whatever usual care Cruise takes to pick his projects was asleep at the E-meter the day he signed on the dotted line for this flat phantasmagoria; among supernatural elements, he clearly is out of his comfort zone, and it shows in a performance sapped of charm. Not being able to rely on him as an anchor, the film falters (even when the effects impress), most glaringly with an ending that is so laughably wretched, it does the cringing for you. Haste indeed made waste. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

May 4 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

It does not take much for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 to generate instant goodwill among viewers — just the earworm that is Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky,” the 1977 pop confection to which tiny tree creature Baby Groot so adorably grooves, oblivious to what unfolds behind him: his teammates’ all-hands-on-deck battle with a giant space monster. (Geez, Louise, how I wish I held stock in Baby Groot merch.) This opening bit is but one way in which returning writer/director James Gunn wrings maximum mileage from Vol. 2’s existence as a sequel to the 2014 surprise smash-hit original: It leaps right into the fray. No re-introducing the characters, no sequences of having to get the band back together — waste not, want not. It’s bigger, better and much, much funnier.

This time around, the wisecracking, Walkman-worshipping Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt, 2016’s The Magnificent Seven) learns a little more — okay, a lot more — about his past on Earth. In fact, he finally comes face-to-face with the father he never knew, Ego, played by the always-welcome Kurt Russell (The Hateful Eight). Family — whether real, surrogate, dysfunctional or otherwise — is the thread sewn through all the storylines, especially with green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana, Star Trek Beyond) experiencing sibling rivalry taken to the extreme, as her sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan, The Circle), tries to kill her. Or with Yondu (Michael Rooker, The Belko Experiment), the finned-headed baddie of the first adventure, flipping sides due to fatherly affection for Quill. Or with Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel, xXx: Return of Xander Cage) serving as the needy infant to every other Guardian, upper- and lowercase. More examples exist.

In shortcutting the setup, Gunn frees more time to let Gamora and her fellow Guardians have more to do than in the first film, and benefiting most is Drax (Dave Bautista, Spectre), the superhuman muscleman with no social filter. His scenes with Ego’s antennae-bearing assistant, the telepathic Mantis (Pom Klementieff, 2013’s Oldboy remake), make for some laugh-out-loud moments. The downside to the wider canvas? An expanded running time of 136 minutes that can’t help but fall victim to third-act bloat — a problem not limited to this film or even all Marvel Studios product, but effects-driven Hollywood blockbusters in general.

At least the enormous success of Guardians of the Galaxy (which I found fine, but hardly the Greatest Thing Ever so many others did) allowed Gunn to rubber-stamp Vol. 2 with his distinctive brand of subversive humor — in permanent red ink, no less. Those who have followed the Troma undergrad‘s filmmaking efforts from the start will recognize more of his touch, and less of Marvel corporate’s. (Watch in particular for the scene where Rocket Raccoon, voiced by The Hangover trilogy’s Bradley Cooper, asks for a piece of tape.) In fact, if you watch Gunn’s two superhero parodies prior to him getting in bed with Marvel, 2000’s The Specials and 2010’s Super, you’ll notice he unknowingly had been auditioning for this gig all along. The major differences are that that he can cast Sylvester Stallone instead of Josh Duhamel, and that millions now appreciate him instead of hundreds. Gunn and his Guardians deserve it, for this and future volumes. —Rod Lott

Apr 10 2017

Eliminators (1986)

Eliminators presents itself like the pilot episode for a series the network suits decided against ordering, so they burned it off as a TV movie of the week. It even concludes with the we-don’t-have-an-ending freeze frame of our heroes smiling and laughing — in that beyond-clichéd way Ron Burgundy and his Channel 4 news team parodied in Anchorman: “We are laughing and we are very good friends. Good buddies sharing a special moment … laughing and enjoying our friendship.”

Of course, Eliminators was not a television show; it’s a feature from Charles Band’s Empire Pictures, directed by Peter Manoogian (Seedpeople), but the real creative force at work is the screenwriting duo of Paul De Meo and Danny Bilson. One can see the fun-loving seeds of their later superhero projects take sprout, including The Rocketeer and the 1990 TV series of The Flash.

Based not on any pre-existing property, Eliminators assembles a ragtag group of five disparate do-gooders:
• Mandroid (Patrick Reynolds, Battle Force), who’s half-man, half-android;
• the bra-less and brilliant scientist Nora Hunter (Denise Crosby, Pet Sematary);
• her pet robot, R2-D2 Spot;
• pirate captain Harry Fontana (Andrew Prine, Terror Circus), whose powers amount to being surly and steering a boat;
• and Kuji (Conan Lee, Gymkata), a martial-arts master on hand to lend diversity just before the movie ends.

Together, they seek to end the evil bidding of Mandroid creator Dr. Reeves (Roy Dotrice, 1972’s Tales from the Crypt) and his time machine. There is little more to it than that, and Manoogian ably gets the crew from point A to point B. Crosby has never been more forthright or adorable, and Prine, ever the pro, gives a performance as spirited as if he had landed a million-dollar payday. His angry monologue midway through this trifle serves as its ideal description and review: “What is this, anyway, some kind of goddamn comic book? We got robots; we got cavemen; we got kung fu! … This is some kind of weird-ass science-fiction thing, right?”

Correct! As rousing as this adventure is, it’s a shame Eliminators never got a second chapter. But the Mandroid sure as hell did, as concept-recycler Band resurrected the machine man for a pair of inferior Full Moon films: 1993’s Mandroid and its immediate sequel, Invisible: The Chronicles of Benjamin Knight. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Mar 14 2017

Seedpeople (1992)

Before the video store went to seed, Charles Band made a mint in the early 1990s when he shifted focus from putting his low-budget horror and sci-fi movies in theaters and instead created them directly for the VHS rental market. Under the Full Moon label, these films capitalized heavily on their own brand, cultivating a rabid fanbase and presaging the DVD experience by tacking a behind-the-scenes “VideoZone” onto the tapes. Among those early titles: Puppetmaster, Subspecies, Dollman and Seedpeople.

Containing jussssst enough of a touch of Invasion of the Body Snatchers to not get sued, Seedpeople is told almost entirely in flashbacks by geologist Tom Baines (Sam Hennings, Indecent Behavior III) from the confines of his hospital bed to an inquisitive FBI agent (an uncredited Michael Gregory, Eraser). His story begins with a return visit to his tiny hometown of Comet Valley, where his old girlfriend (Andrea Roth, Dark Places) runs a bed-and-breakfast and dates the asshole sheriff (Dane Witherspoon, Asteroid). Tom’s arrival happens to coincide with alien plant life from outer space taking root there, the seeds of which turn people into mindless drones — Seedpeople, I propose — and sprout monsters.

Designed by John Carl Buechler (Ghoulies Go to College), three distinct creatures exist in the narrative, probably because Band loves his action figures: Sailor, a flying tick-like thing; Tumbler, a rolling ball of hair; and Shooter, a Weeble Wobble that walks on its arms. (It’s best not to ask questions.) While as chintzy-looking as any of the cut-rate critters Paul Blaisdell created for Roger Corman in the drive-in days, at least they are practical and share the frame with actors. They’re not so much scary as they are, well, leaky.

However, the most memorable scenes — both of them — involve not these beasties, but the flowering plant from which they came: When poked, it splooges all over one guy, and later covers an old farmer in Corn Pops shortly after he says, “What in the ding-dong-heck-a-muh-doodle-hell is that?” It’s Seedpeople, old timer! Witless yet harmless, it’s a patch of hydroponic hysterics tended by the fun-to-say Peter Manoogian (The Dungeonmaster), a staple of the Band payroll, such as it is. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.