“Listen up, blockheads!”: Harley (2016)

Next week, James Gunn’s sequel (or reboot) to David Ayer’s 2016 Suicide Squad adaptation makes its theatrical/streaming debut. I’m looking forward to it not only because of Gunn’s involvement as writer and director but because the first film was such a mess that there’s nowhere to go but up. The early buzz is positive, which is already a step above the mixed-to-negative reception of its predecessor, with a lot of praise going to Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s creation Harley Quinn. Ever since her debut in the 1992 Batman: The Animated Series episode “Joker’s Favor” (one of my favorites), the former psychiatrist-turned-criminal-turned-antihero has proven to be an indispensable part of the Batman franchise and one of the most popular characters in modern DC Comics history.

Of course, as this blog as documented several times before, that kind of popularity leads to fan creations of various stripes, ranging from artwork to, the subject of today’s post, short films. Directed by stuntman Fernando Jay Huerto (Battle Hero Absolute) and starring actress and writer Jacqui Verdura as the titular character, 2016’s Harley is a breezy but fun entry in the common fan film subgenre of “one long fight scene/stunt showcase” that capitalizes on Harley’s revamped look and characterization from Ayer’s adaptation. At the very least, Huerto’s short is easier to follow than the actual Suicide Squad film.

Hope you enjoy it!

Credit: Jabronie Pictures

“OK Spidey, do your stuff”: Spider-Man (1969)

You can tell that nature is healing from the pandemic because a new installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is about to be released in theaters. In a few days, Marvel resident super spy Black Widow gets a long-overdue solo film directed by Cate Shortland (Somersault), which got me to think about how far various Marvel-related filmic efforts have come from the humble days of 1944’s Captain America serial. Back in the day, Marvel Comics didn’t have the best of luck when it came to theatrical adaptations of their most popular characters. Sure, there was a smattering of direct-to-TV offerings but big-budget productions featuring heroes like Spider-Man, the X-Men or the Hulk seemed like a wild dream. To fill that void, a handful of brave fans took matters into their own hands and made their own short films based on Marvel’s menagerie.

Back in 1969, screenwriter Don F. Glut, who would go on to write for various Marvel cartoons including Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, was an amateur filmmaker who produced over 40 short films in the science-fiction and horror genres. The last short he produced was based on The Amazing Spider-Man and featured Glut himself as the web-slinger battling the histrionic yet powerful Dr. Lightning. I was most impressed by the use of stop-motion animation and miniatures to showcase some of Spidey’s moves in a way that would have been very difficult to execute convincingly with a live actor in a harness in front of a bluescreen.

Hope you enjoy it…and happy birthday to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, one of the greatest superhero films ever!

Credit: Buzz Patrol

“I think I’m gonna be sick”: Captain America (1990)

2021 marks the 80th anniversary of Captain America Comics #1, the debut of Steve Rogers, better known as the shield-slinging Sentinel of Liberty, Captain America. Since 1941, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s patriotic paladin has been a vital element of various Marvel Comics tales, supported by a diverse cast of iconic heroes and villains, including Bucky Barnes, the Falcon, Sharon Carter and the Red Skull, Cap’s most notorious foe. Last week’s episode of the popular Cap-adjacent Disney+ miniseries, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, would be the last bit of major Marvel Cinematic Universe content until the release of Loki in June. If you’re experiencing a little bit of Cap withdrawal, take a look at one of the most infamous Marvel films made before the dawn of the all-encompassing MCU: 1990’s Captain America.

A Real American Yo-Yo.

The film is a distinctly low-budget affair but that’s something that could be expected from a movie distributed by 21st Century Film Corporation, a company formed by Menahem Golan, former co-owner of the infamous Cannon Group. The story of the film, directed by Albert Pyun (Cyborg) and written by NAACP Image Award nominee Stephen Tolkin, is a combination and distillation of two of the most well-known Captain America stories: his Golden Age origin and his Silver Age reintroduction in the pages of The Avengers. If the first two MCU Cap movies are any indication, both stories have plenty of material and thematic weight in them to make a pair of effective films that play to Cap’s strengths as a character. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t give enough time to either of those tangents which makes the film feel a little unfocused and undercooked. Matt Salinger’s understated and inconsistent performance as the title character doesn’t help. Although the script has a good understanding of the bravery, determination and pathos that define Cap, Salinger doesn’t always keep up the pace. He does well in the action scenes and he certainly looks the part but he doesn’t really sell the idea of Cap as a commanding presence who wants to find his place in a world that has moved beyond him. His co-stars do a better job of making Cap feel like the icon he should be, especially superhero movie veteran Ned Beatty (Superman) and Robocop’s Ronny Cox, who sometimes feels more heroic than the title character. Kim Gillingham showed promise in her dual role based on Sharon Carter and Bernie Rosenthal, two of Cap’s most important supporting characters. Finally, Scott Paulin (The Right Stuff) gives an competent performance as a reimagined version of the Red Skull but Darren McGavin, Carl Kolchak himself, does a little better as a corrupt general who secretly works for the Skull’s organization.

Despite its flaws, I thought Captain America worked more often then it didn’t. It has a decent understanding of the idealistic spirit of Cap’s character and the political intrigue that informs some of his best stories. It even has some fun and creative action scenes. If you only know this movie for its less-than-stellar reputation, I think you’re in for a bit of a surprise.

Credit: Chas Blankenship

“Man, I’d rather be dead than not have any bread”: Black Belt Jones

Since the 1970’s, African-American culture has developed a very strong interest in the world of martial arts. The reasons behind the connection are numerous and complex but for the purpose of this review, let’s focus on the impact of martial arts cinema on the black American community. After his breakout role in the classic Enter the Dragon, martial artist Jim Kelly was offered a three-film contract with Warner Brothers, the studio that was responsible for Dragon‘s international distribution. The first of these projects is 1974’s Black Belt Jones, a blaxploitation action film helmed by Dragon director Robert Clouse. Jones is the first starring role for Kelly, who plays the title character. This film may have helped to make Kelly a notable action star during the 70’s but let’s see if it holds up on its own merits.

The threadbare plot of Black Belt Jones, written by the team of Oscar Williams, Alexander Rose and Dragon producer Fred Weintraub, deals with the title character’s efforts to protect a martial arts dojo from an alliance of criminals who seek to control it. The story revolving around a black-owned karate school is a admirable nod to the connection between black culture and Asian martial arts, which adds some thematic texture to this standard heroic tale. Of course, the fight scenes are as intense as they need to be and are creatively shot, with the highlight being a brawl in a room where the lights flicker on and off. As I mentioned, this is Kelly’s first lead role and, in some spots, it shows. He’s still charming in the comedic scenes and thrilling in the action sequences but he seems limited in more dramatic scenes. It doesn’t help that the chemistry that he has with his castmates here is not as vibrant as it would be with his co-leads in Three the Hard Way, which was released a few months after Jones. The Shining’s Scatman Crothers, a debuting Malik Carter (Cobra) and Gloria Hendry (Live and Let Die) are the bright spots of the cast, fully embodying their characters. Crothers’s fight scene in the dojo is easily the coolest non-Kelly fight in the movie with Hendry’s pool hall scuffle coming in second. If the film has a flaw, it’s the strange performance of Andre Philippe (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice) as the main villain. Philippe seems to fluctuate between a generic portrayal of a mobster and a parody of that same portrayal. On the other hand, Carter’s humorous yet threatening performance as an egotistical drug dealer is a lot of fun to watch.

Overall, I had a lot of fun with Black Belt Jones. It provides a highly entertaining look into an overlooked segment of African-American culture, as well as a demonstration of Jim Kelly’s amazing talents. I highly recommend it if you’re a fan of old-school action cinema.

Credit: Trailer Chan

“Not when you’re hungry”: Conquest

To say the least, Halloween 2020 is going to be very strange…and maybe not in the good way. In case you’ve been living under a rock clad in a blindfold and earplugs, you’ll notice that the world’s been going through a lot of stuff lately. This Halloween season, browsing streaming sites and watching horror movies of varying levels of quality is a great way to unwind during these stressful times. I found the subject of today’s review while I was perusing the free streaming service Tubi. Within this collection of cinematic odds and ends, I discovered 1983’s Conquest, a weird fantasy adventure helmed by the renowned Italian giallo director Lucio Fulci. Although Fulci made films in a multitude of genres, he is best known for his stylish and ultraviolent horror movies like The Beyond and Zombi 2. With Conquest, he puts a bloody and brutal spin on the typical sword and sorcery tale.

Oliver Queen experiments with a Green Lantern ring.

Produced and written by two-time David di Donatello Award winner Giovanni Di Clemente, Conquest is the story of a young, magic bow-wielding hero named Ilias, played by Andrea Occhipinti (who worked with Fulci in 1982’s The New York Ripper). The evil spirit Zora, portrayed by Conrado San Martin of The Colossus of Rhodes fame, and a gratuitously nude sorceress known as Ocron (Sabrina Siani) plot against him after Ocron receives a vision of her own demise at the hands of an archer armed with the magic bow. Along the way, Ilias befriends Mace, a charismatic nomad played by Jorge Rivero, and the duo embark on a mission to stop Ocron’s evil forces from conquering the land. Barring the exception of an interesting twist near the end, the plot is pretty standard for the genre and the performances are typical as well. Conquest‘s main hooks are its trippy visual storytelling and the copious amounts of barbaric violence. The various creatures and costumes may look like rejected designs from the set of Quest for Fire but at least Alejandro Ulloa’s cinematography tries to make them look majestic, otherworldly and frightening. The synthesizer-intensive score by Dawn of the Dead composer Claudio Simonetti also sets the appropriate level of mystery and intensity, especially during the gory battle scenes.

You might not think of Conquest as a typical Lucio Fulci film but his distinctive style and directorial chops elevate this otherwise bland sword and sorcery adventure. If you’re looking for an unconventional Halloween movie marathon entry this year, give Conquest a try. Did I mention it’s free on Tubi?

Credit: CampMovieCamp