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.

Mar 8 2017

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

When Peter Jackson, flush with post-Lord of the Rings clout, finally got to birth his pet project in 2005 with his King Kong remake, the result was a trifecta of well-deserved technical Oscars … and 187 punishing, interminable minutes of a mess, suggesting a director’s self-indulgence left unchecked. Now, the big ape returns — Kong, that is — in Kong: Skull Island, in which the unlikely guiding hand of The Kings of Summer director Jordan Vogt-Roberts shows Jackson how to monkey around properly. Vogt-Roberts’ film nails the effects and virtually everything else, at roughly two-thirds of the running time and $17 million less (unadjusted for inflation). Less is more, and infinitely more satisfying.

In 1973, satellite photos reveal an uncharted land mass encircled within a perpetual storm in the Pacific Ocean. Crackpot scientist Bill Randa (John Goodman, 10 Cloverfield Lane) pulls the necessary political strings to finagle a full military escort onto this so-called “Skull Island” for a fact-finding mission. Randa suspects what no one else does: There be monsters. Upon their unannounced arrival, the escorting U.S. Army troops, headed by Lt. Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson, Avengers: Age of Ultron), find this out the hard way: having their helicopters swatted from the sky — and, for most, to death below — by Kong’s prodigious paws. And Kong is hardly the only king-sized creature that calls this hellish locale home; Randa, Packard and the few survivors will encounter a spider, an octopus, lizards and more — all equally elephantine. It’s as if the entire isle has been stricken with Jurassic fever.

This action-fantasy seems to have taken more cues from that dino-mite franchise rather than any Kong entry before it. Bright and breakneck-paced, the film alternates between pulse-pounding and rib-tickling, barely letting up on one or the other in a winning bid to constantly entertain. If one ignores the final monster-vs.-monster battle, the movie also consistently surprises, admirably eschewing golden opportunities to milk the nostalgia teats of the 1933 original.

The movie’s weakest links are two of its top-billed visitors: ostensible leads Tom Hiddleston (Crimson Peak) and Brie Larson (Trainwreck) as, respectively, a hired-hand mercenary and an acclaimed war photographer. Barely registering, their characters have no character, which is strange considering Skull Island’s own Robinson Crusoe/Col. Kurtz (The Lobster’s John C. Reilly, stealing every damn scene) has personality oozing from every pore. —Rod Lott

Mar 6 2017

Beware! The Blob (1972)

My theory on the jaw-droppingly incompetent and almost literally unwatchable Beware! The Blob? Glad you asked, and it’s a simple one: Director Larry Hagman had to be off-his-ass drunk during the entirety of its making. In support, I offer this quartet of irrefutable points:
• Then between starring on the TV series I Dream of Jeannie and Dallas, Hagman never had directed a feature film before. (And never did again, and our world is all the better for it.)
• Several characters are portrayed as not only drinking adult beverages, but drinking too many of them. Overconsumption: It’s a theme.
• One of those characters is Hagman himself, who rather believably cameos (alongside an uncredited Burgess Meredith of Burnt Offerings) as an inebriated hobo.
• And in real life, Hagman was a notorious alcoholic who owned more than one liver. So, yeah, there’s that.

Whereas 1958’s The Blob creeps and leaps and glides and slides, Beware! The Blob just bores and snores and flails and pales, what with scenes of action dropped between interminable stretches of improvised dialogue. It is difficult to discern how seriously we are supposed to take its deafness of tone. This is not a sequel so much as an alternate personality, assuming the original Blob were schizophrenic.

Viewers of that sci-fi classic (and Steve McQueen launchpad) may recall it concluding with “THE END?” as the mighty U.S. military air-drops the killer mass of gelatin in the Arctic, where frozen-tundra temperatures keep it paralyzed and, in turn, from doing harm. Well, Beware! answers that question mark with an exclamation of disbelief as technician Chester (Godfrey Cambridge, Cotton Comes to Harlem) returns from work at the North Pole with a container of “specimen.” Too busy enjoying the tent inexplicably pitched in his living room and pouring many beers into a super-sized vase, Chester does not notice the blob immediately defrosting. It consumes a cute kitty before turning to much meatier humans, starting with poor, ignorant Chester and his poor, innocent wife (Marlene Clark, Ganja & Hess).

Other appetizers and entrees include a cop trying to bust two pot-smoking hippies (one of whom is Cindy Williams, a year before her breakout role in American Graffiti), a barber (Catskills comedian Shelley Berman, being not funny), a bowling alley worker (Fred Smoot, The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat) and many a bowler (whose entertainment venue is linked all-too-conveniently to an ice rink). Despite all this mucilaginous mayhem, the film’s milquetoasted good guy (Robert Walker Jr., Easy Rider) and good girl (Fade to Black’s Gwynne Gilford, aka Chris Pine’s mom) have a tough time convincing the authorities to do something about it.

Can’t say I blame the sheriff (Richard Webb, Hillbillys in a Haunted House) for being that way; hell, after two pained viewings, I can’t even remember whether prominent cast members Carol Lynley (The Beasts Are on the Streets) and Dick Van Patten (Spaceballs) survive! However, I do remember that the latter portrays a scoutmaster with an unhealthy love for the mustard plant. I also remember that, wearing a fez in the bathtub, a Turkish man played by pro wrassler Tiger Joe Marsh manages to escape the blob’s oozing fury, but does have to run naked down the street to do so. As with Beware! The Blob as a whole, you can’t unsee it, so it’s best not to look at all. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.