“You come right out of a comic book”: Black Samurai and Death Dimension

For Black History Month, I’ve decided to take a look at two of the strangest films starring one of the biggest stars of the blaxploitation era. The man in question is Jim Kelly, the actor and martial artist who is best known for his portrayal of Williams in the groundbreaking 1973 action classic Enter the Dragon. Most of Kelly’s roles were demonstrations of his proficiency in Okinawan Shorin-Ryu karate, which earned him the World Middleweight Karate Title at the 1971 Long Beach International Karate Championships. Since his appearance in Dragon, Kelly became a rising action star during the 70s, starring in such notable films as Black Belt Jones and Three the Hard Way, but the subjects of my joint review don’t share the same amount of fanfare. Let’s take a look at 1977’s Black Samurai and 1978’s Death Dimension and see how they stack up.

Both films feature Kelly as some sort of law enforcement agent dealing with the bizarre machinations of a crazed supervillain with nothing but his wits and his martial arts prowess. The main difference is that Samurai is an adaptation of a popular adventure novel series written by Marc Olden, an African-American mystery author with black belts in karate and aikido. Besides Kelly, the other thread that ties these films together is the presence of infamous B-movie horror director Al Adamson. Although both films are structurally similar to many low-budget thrillers of the era (right down to the excessive amount of fun but pointless action scenes and gratuitous sex appeal to make up for the boilerplate story), Adamson brings a sense of tension and an affection for outlandish imagery that can only come from a director who’s honed his craft in exploitation cinema, which give the films a distinct style. The performances are more of a mixed bag, with both films relying on Kelly’s charisma and athleticism to make them something watchable. Dimension is notable for featuring two alumni of the James Bond film series, with former 007 George Lazenby (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) giving a formulaic performance as a police chief and Harold Sakata (Oddjob from Goldfinger) hamming it up as the ice-bomb-wielding gangster known as the Pig. For the sake of comparison, one of the biggest stars in Samurai is Felix Silla of Addams Family and Buck Rogers fame, portraying a henchman working for a Voodoo-practicing crime lord nicknamed the Warlock.

Overall, I’d say both films have something of merit. Between the two, Black Samurai has a more fascinating premise and crazier fights but Death Dimension is more focused and consistent in its storytelling. Whether you’re looking for a fun bit of campy action or a decent showcase of Jim Kelly’s considerable martial arts skills, this funkadelic duo should hit the spot.

Credit: Blazing Trailers, MT6Films

“The oxen are slow, but the Earth is patient”: High Road to China

This month marks the arrival of the 4 Indiana Jones movies to Netflix. With that in mind, I wanted to take a look at one of the many adventure films that attempted to take advantage of the popularity of 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. Today’s subject is the 1983 film High Road to China, an adaptation of Jon Cleary’s 1977 adventure novel about an aerial journey from England to China. In the pre-production phase, many top directors and actors were bandied about, including John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Jacqueline Bisset (The Deep), Sidney J. Furie (The Entity), Bo Derek and her husband, director John Derek, and the then-current 007 Roger Moore. In the end, Where Eagles Dare director Brian G. Hutton was chosen to helm High Road, which would star Bess Armstrong (Nothing in Common) and Thomas Magnum himself, Tom Selleck, who was originally intended to play Dr. Jones. Let’s find out how high this particular Indy knockoff soars.

What would Higgins think of this?

What sets High Road apart from Raiders is its focus. Most of the action is driven by Armstrong as heiress and pilot Eve Tozer, who searches for her long-lost father, played by an unusually energetic Wilford Brimley. The result is akin to a re-imagining of Raiders from the perspective of its feisty heroine Marion Ravenwood. However, the events of High Road proceed at a more leisurely pace compared to the breakneck speed of Raiders, which can cause the movie to drag in some spots. As far as the performances go, it’s a mixed bag. Armstrong does pretty well as Eve but there are some scenes where she feels less like Marion and more like the infamously annoying Willie Scott from Temple of Doom. Selleck gives an admirable portrayal of a world-weary tough guy as the jaded ace pilot O’Malley while venerated character actors Robert Morley and Brian Blessed ham it up as two of the villains of the piece. Perhaps the most thrilling scenes in High Road are the tense aerial combat sequences, which were skillfully edited by John Jympson (A Hard Day’s Night) and utilized replicas of actual World War I-era biplanes, giving the battles a highly tactile quality.

Although it was released to cash in on the fame of Raiders, there are enough unique elements in High Road to China that make it a fairly engaging story on its own merits. For the most part, I’d say this bit of high adventure sticks the landing (sorry, couldn’t resist).

Credit: Trailer Chan

“Blanked as ordered”: Saturn 3

It’s only a day away until Goth Christmas (otherwise known as Halloween) and I’ve decided to take a look at a strange example of a film in the subgenre of science fiction horror. 1980’s Saturn 3, released with an eye toward the audience that lauded Ridley Scott’s 1979 breakthrough hit Alien, is the subject of a great deal of controversy in regard to its behind-the-scenes woes. Martin Amis, the British novelist who wrote the screenplay for Saturn 3, was able to cash in on the contention with his 1984 novel Money, which is based on his own experience during the calamitous production of the movie. Are the various production problems visible in the final film? Let’s find out as we take a look at this Razzie Award-nominated sci-fi thriller.

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Skynet’s development of the T-800 went through some growing pains.

If Saturn 3 has any strengths, the performances certainly wouldn’t be counted among them. Watching Kirk Douglas’s hammy, almost parodic turn as the scientist Adam could make one long to see a Douglas-impersonating Frank Gorshin take up the role. It doesn’t help that he has very little chemistry with Harvey Keitel, who portrays the villainous cargo pilot Benson, and Farrah Fawcett, who comes across as monotonous in her performance of Adam’s assistant Alex. It’s pretty unfortunate when the best actor in your movie is your key practical effect. The prop in question is Hector, an advanced robot built by Benson who, in true HAL 9000 fashion, rebels against Adam’s crew. As a space-based thriller with a small cast, it takes a lot of its cues from Alien, right down to a scene that echoes Jonesy the cat’s encounter with the Xenomorph. Veteran director Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain) does the best he can with the story, which was conceived by Star Wars production designer John Barry, but most of the scenes lack energy or imagination. Saturn 3’s saving grace is Elmer Bernstein’s vibrant score, which conveys menace and mystery when the visuals and acting aren’t up to the task.

Overall, I can’t really say you should skip Saturn 3 entirely. The effects and imagery are believably frightening and some of the design work is intriguing, especially the weirdly unique and appropriately unsettling Hector. If you’re in the mood for a bit of early 80s sci-fi cheese, Saturn 3 might satisfy that craving.

Credit: deadenddriveinSomething Is Wrong On Saturn 3

“Counting electric sheep”: Slipstream

Gary Kurtz, the legendary producer of many classic films including American Graffiti, The Dark Crystal and the first two Star Wars films, recently passed away at the age of 78. For a filmmaker with a handful of projects under his belt, Kurtz certainly left a positive impact in cinematic history through his collaborations with some of the most influential creators in entertainment, such as Walter Murch, Jim Henson, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas. In 1989Kurtz attempted to regain the success he earned in the sci-fi genre with the subject of this review but the film in question flopped at the box office and languished in B-movie limbo ever since. We’ll find out if it deserves that fate as we take a look at the post-apocalyptic adventure Slipstream.

Slipstream (1989)

Luke Skywalker takes his womp rat hunting very seriously.

Set after a man-made Armageddon known as the Convergence, the story of Slipstream feels like an amalgam of Blade Runner’s philosophical gravity, as demonstrated by its Scripture-quoting android hero Byron (Bob Peck), and Mad Max’s focus on the lives of the many denizens of its apocalyptic setting and the consequences of the actions of a prior generation, which is best illustrated by a Ben Kingsley-led cult that worships a powerful windstorm that appeared after the Convergence. At times, this combination gives the film a disjointed flow that doesn’t fully solidify its themes, which isn’t helped by the low-key direction of Tron producer Steven Lisberger. The film is largely carried by a few enjoyable performances, most notably the somewhat fascinating chemistry between Peck and Bill Paxton’s bounty hunter character Matt and an intriguing appearance by the ever-underrated Mark Hamill as the dangerous cop Will Tasker.

Does Slipstream deserve its reputation as an inert box office bust? I don’t think so. The film has a unique visual appeal, a wonderful score by Elmer Bernstein and it presents some genuinely compelling ideas about where humanity is headed. If you’re looking to get into post-apocalyptic sci-fi, Slipstream is a pretty decent introduction to the genre.

Credit: TheSciFiSpot

I Can’t Believe It’s Not Star Wars: A Green Pearl

Today’s review of 1977’s The War In Space (Wakusei Daisensō: Za uō in Supēsu) is the result of two upcoming events that I’ll be attending soon. The first is Star Wars: A New Hope in Concert, a screening of George Lucas’s 1977 classic accompanied by a live rendition of John Williams’s incredible score conducted by Richard Kaufman and performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The second event is G-FEST XXV, a fan convention with a focus on the Godzilla films produced by the prolific Japanese production company Toho, along with many other tokusatsu franchises (by the way, last year’s G-FEST was a blast). Toho’s War in Space may be one of the earliest space opera films released in a post-Star Wars world but it also draws some of its inspiration from the studio’s own body of work.

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Searching for a distant star/Heading off to Iscandar

The film’s centerpiece, the massive, drill-bearing starship Gohten, shares a design with the Gotengo, the warship that’s prominently featured in Toho’s 1963 sci-fi adventure Atragon, a movie that War in Space shares a few plot points with as well, including an evil invading empire that can only be stopped by a large and powerful vessel constructed in secret by a scientist who’s reluctant to use the vessel’s full strength out of fear of the damage it could cause. The movie even features several Toho veterans, most notably director Jun Fukuda (Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla), Ryo Ikebe (Battle in Outer Space), and Akihito Hirata, best known as the most notable human character in the original Godzilla, Dr. Serizawa. The film wisely moves at a steady clip and utilizes a more grounded approach to its story by taking the time to establish its archetypal characters, especially Professor Takigawa who’s portrayed with an almost tragic authority by Ikebe, which helps to give a recognizably human side to a conflict involving aliens led by an intergalactic warlord who’s escorted by a horned, axe-wielding Wookiee facsimile and goes by the outrageous moniker of Commander Hell.

The War in Space may not have the manic energy of Toho’s Godzilla films or the deeper introspection of the Akira Kurosawa films they produced but I think it’s one of their most underrated genre films. For fans of tokusatsu, this is an enjoyable ride that has a bit more to offer than simple thrills.

Credit: Media Graveyard

I Can’t Believe It’s Not Star Wars: Just in Case There Really Is a God

The Star Wars universe is a setting that’s ripe with comedic potential. From the strange visuals to the quirky dialogue, there’s a lot of material to work with. Luckily, most fans respond to the weirdness with a lot of good-natured ribbing. The cult status of Mel Brooks’ full-blown parody of Star Wars, 1987’s Spaceballs, is only one example of the numerous riffs on the franchise. The Ice Pirates, released in 1984, represents a somewhat unique way to cash in on the popularity of Star Wars: instead of a straightforward quest, this would be a more self-aware and comedic adventure, akin to a Guardians of the Galaxy prototype. The results of this bold experiment are mixed to say the least.

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You know the Emperor’s evil because he wrote the Star Wars Holiday Special!

Directed by Stewart Raffill (who also helmed the infamous E.T. imitation, Mac and Me) and written by Raffill and Krull scribe Stanford Sherman, the film’s self-evident premise of ice smuggling sounds like the setup to a variety show skit. It even looks like some kind of sketch with the cryogenic corsairs in question, looking like denizens of a post-apocalyptic Age of Sail, battling a band of space knights who look like they wandered in from a Renaissance fair. Ice Pirates may look cheap but when it comes to its sense of humor, it hits more than it misses. Despite a few awkward gags that feel like they’re filthy for the sake of being filthy, most of the jokes make very clever use of its setting, especially in its imaginative final battle in the middle of a time storm where machines fight the rapidly aging pirate crew.

Overall, Ice Pirates is a strange beast of a movie that might be better appreciated now in the days of constant Star Wars riffs and memes than when it was released for giving viewers a much weirder approach to the space opera genre. It plays things somewhat cynically but it has all the right ingredients that make a cult classic.

Credit: Deathdealeus1984

I Can’t Believe It’s Not Star Wars: Straight Man to a Tin Can

Imagine a world where, instead of purchasing Lucasfilm in 2012 and acquiring the highly valuable Star Wars brand, Disney decided to revamp 1979’s The Black Hole, their previous attempt to capture the burgeoning space opera film market. Perhaps it would be a modernized retelling of the USS Palomino‘s discovery of the USS Cygnus, inhabited by the deranged Dr. Reinhardt and drifting toward an ominous wormhole. Perhaps it would be a continuation of the adventures of Captain Holland, Dr. McCrae and the charming little robot V.I.N.CENT (with a new voice actor to replace the late, great Roddy McDowell, of course). Maybe this hypothetical revamp would improve the film’s rotten reputation among sci-fi fans. However, one has to wonder if The Black Hole even deserves its status as “movieland’s equivalent to the Hindenburg“. The answer to that is…only slightly.

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The Starship Eiffel Tower embarks on a fateful mission.

Sure, the script is a little clunky and Gary Nelson’s somewhat bland direction robs certain moments of their needed impact (getting a boring performance out of Ernest frickin’ Borgnine should be impossible), but Black Hole does have some admirable elements. For instance, Maximilian Schell brings a very chilling madness to his portrayal of Dr. Reinhardt, the Nemo-esque scientist who plans to travel through the titular vortex with a crew of drones who are more than what they seem. At times, the film looks beautiful yet fearsome, especially its main showpiecethe Cygnus, with its eerie glow and a design that’s more evocative of a flying haunted castle than a space shuttle or Star Destroyer. In fact, Black Hole is at its strongest when it feels like an old-school haunted house movie filtered through a space opera lens, complete with an appropriately creepy score by John Barry (who scored not one but two Star Wars imitators prior to this) and a menacing monster in the form of Maximilian, Reinhardt’s sadistic robot bodyguard.

While it may play things a little too bluntly, I feel that The Black Hole gets a bad rap. The film has a decent grasp of the terrifying beauty of the cosmos that gets an occasional chance to shine when it isn’t going for its obligatory, whiz-bang space heroics.

Credit: TURBoBISONseanfcxussia