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“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: Live Fast, Fight Well

The modern blockbuster, as typified by Jaws and Star Wars, is the B-movie writ large. The current mainstream cinema landscape is driven by concepts and stories that, in the past, would have been considered the domain of schlocky exploitation films and low-budget film serials. One of the earliest filmmakers to bridge the somewhat tenuous gap between two eras of popular cinema is independent filmmaking trendsetter Roger Corman, producer of over 300 films and mentor of many influential filmmakers, including Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante and Ron Howard. The key to Corman’s longevity is his eye for talent and his keen understanding of the kinds of movies people want to see. Case in point: consider 1980’s Battle Beyond the Stars.

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The untold adventures of Han Solo’s father, Napoleon.

Released a few months after the premiere of The Empire Strikes Back, this shoestring science fantasy, helmed by animator Jimmy T. Murakami and written by Oscar nominee John Sayles, comes closer than most Star Wars imitators to realizing that one of the things that made A New Hope work was its atmosphere. The attention to detail in Battle’s art direction, overseen by a pre-Terminator James Cameron, gives the movie a substance that outshines its roots as a shameless, word-for-word Seven Samurai retelling. The other aspect that elevates Battle above other Star Wars clones is the relatively naturalistic direction. Some of the acting is refreshingly subtle compared to campier space opera fare. In particular, Robert Vaughn providing a somewhat moving performance as the wealthy, solitary assassin Gelt. Granted, he’s portraying the same character he played in The Magnificent Seven, but it’s worth it just to see his moody introductory scene.

For an opportunistic cash grab made to capitalize on Star Wars mania, Battle Beyond the Stars has a surprising amount of sincerity and craft, which gives it a good amount of rewatch value. Overall, Battle feels like the cinematic equivalent of a good cover band: it may not deliver the full experience but it’ll most certainly try.

Credit: Roger Corman [Official YouTube Page]

“Let’s get ourselves together”: Abar, the First Black Superman

With the premiere of Marvel’s promising Afrofuturist adventure Black Panther closing in, interest in black superheroism has reached a fever pitch. However, instead of a retrospective on the impact of Blade, a reflection on what went so very wrong with Steel, or a discussion of the hidden charms of M.A.N.T.I.S.I’m going to take a look at 1977’s Abar, the First Black Superman, an offbeat offering in the rare subgenre of blaxploitation science fiction.

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Billed as the “first black science fiction film”, Abar is the sole directorial effort by Frank Packard, based on a story written by James Smalley and co-star J. Walter Smith, who portrays Dr. Kinkade, a black scientist who hires ass-kicking activist John Abar (Tobar Mayo) to protect his family from neighborhood bigots. After drinking a superpowered serum concocted by Kinkade, Abar uses his newly developed mental and physical abilities to clean up the hood.

Abar is a tonally strange film, which is both its biggest boon and flaw. The movie’s a lot of fun to watch, even when it struggles to balance the multiple identities that it establishes for itself, which include a fantastical morality tale, a politically charged sermon on the African-American experience, and an action-packed slugfest in the vein of the Jim Kelly vehicle Black Belt Jones. The acting is similarly erratic, with Mayo and Smith carrying the film while the other performances range from unremarkable to cartoonishly exaggerated.

While it probably won’t be lauded for any skillful storytelling or filmmaking, I appreciate Abar for representing an early attempt to tell a bigger, weirder and more inspiring story in the realm of black cinema.

Credit: Paul Kazee

I Can’t Believe It’s Not Star Wars: Are They Missing Any Limbs?

As one of the biggest breakout characters in the original Star Wars trilogy, the mischievous smuggler Han Solo has been widely imitated in many works inspired by (or plagiarizing) the films. With 1983’s Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, Columbia Pictures and director Lamont Johnson (The Twilight Zone) reached what they felt was the logical conclusion: make an incredible simulation of the Millennium Falcon’s captain into the hero of the movie.

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Forbidden Zone? Say hello to George Taylor for me.

The results are mixed, to say the least. As the interstellar bounty hunter Wolff, Peter Strauss (The Jericho Mile) does his best Harrison Ford impression but he’s not given the chance to show the vulnerability that made Ford’s portrayal of Captain Solo work. It doesn’t help that the performances from the rest of the cast are all over the place. On one hand, Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters) gives a surprisingly natural turn as Wolff’s old rival and Michael Ironside (Total Recall) is fairly menacing as the cybernetic heavy, Overdog. On the other hand, Niki, the young scavenger played by Molly Ringwald (The Breakfast Club), comes across like every stereotypical annoying teenager ever known. These eclectic performances seem to obscure what Strauss is going for and, as a result, Wolff is lost in the shuffle. On a more positive note, the film is visually appealing, if derivative. Of particular interest are some of Overdog’s mutant henchmen, with unearthly designs that wouldn’t look out of place in your average 80’s horror flick.

Overall, Spacehunter’s willingness to throw as many bizarre concepts at the audience as possible is both its greatest strength and flaw. Though the film’s short run-time hampers its potential to fully realize its numerous settings and characters, it never drags out or complicates the exciting story it wants to tell.

Credit: Mondo Digital

I Can’t Believe It’s Not Star Wars: A Nut Inside a Tomato

There’s a lot to examine when it comes to understanding how Japanese cinema has influenced the Star Wars films. From the overall concept of the Jedi to direct homages to the works of Akira Kurosawa and Toho Studios, George Lucas and his team have made their appreciation of Japanese films very open. Toei’s 1978 space opera Message from Space (Uchū kara no Messēji) is an obvious cash-in on the Star Wars craze that takes a cue from Lucas’s creation by drawing inspiration from an acclaimed Kurosawa film.

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JFK once said space is the new ocean but this is ridiculous.

Compared to the more subtle allusions to 1958’s The Hidden Fortress in Star Wars, Message from Space, directed by the innovative Kinji Fukasaku (Tora! Tora! Tora), is a space-age retelling of the 1958 classic Seven Samurai, in which a band of misfits are chosen by fate to defend the denizens of an oppressed planet from deadly invaders. The performances range from overly energetic, like the Jerry Lewis-esque schemer Jack (Masazumi Okabe), to the surprisingly grounded. Vic Morrow (Combat!) and Sonny Chiba (The Street Fighter) easily carry the movie with their understated depictions of warriors seeking to regain their personal honor by protecting the captive planet. In the same vein, the film’s art design is fittingly erratic, combining the standard “used future” look with the more whimsical fairy-tale imagery.

In its best moments, Message from Space matches the expeditious storytelling and bizarre spirit of the sci-fi serials that motivated Star Wars. It may not be as timeless but it’s certainly one of the most earnest films released in the wake of Lucas’s groundbreaking production.

Credit: The Museum of Classic Chicago Television

I Can’t Believe It’s Not Star Wars: Up Is Hell

We’re a month away from a new Star Wars film that’s apparently so incredible, Lucasfilm is giving director Rian Johnson his own personal Star Wars trilogy to play around with. With hype for the eighth installment of the Skywalker saga at a fever pitch, whet your space opera appetite with a series featuring some of the strangest films inspired by George Lucas’s opus. First on deck is the 1985 animated feature Starchaser: The Legend of Orin.

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Look familiar?

Directed by Steven Hahn and written by Jeffrey Scott (Superfriends, Muppet Babies), Starchaser is essentially the store-brand equivalent of the original Star Wars trilogy, the Sam’s Choice to the OT’s Pepsi. To wit, here’s a tale of a brave but reckless young worker who discovers a magical sword that once belonged to a band of warriors. With the aid of an arrogant outlaw, the courageous daughter of a ruler, and a pair of bickering machines, the young man comes of age and fights a cybernetic warlord. It’s not just the basic story either. Certain shots, set-pieces and even sound effects have been pilfered, almost verbatim, from the classic trilogy (pay close attention to the sounds of the titular starship’s engines as it flies by the camera).

On the plus side, the movie looks good. The animation is fluid and highly expressive in a Rock & Rule/Heavy Metal sort of way and the overall art design, though conventional, shows a good deal of skill and pulp sci-fi influence. By far, the most intriguing designs belong to the flesh-harvesting Man-Droids, who look appropriately nightmarish in their only appearance in the film. For that matter, there are times where Starchaser feels more like a family friendly Heavy Metal, especially in scenes involving Dagg Dibrimi (Carmen Argenziano), the amoral space pirate who could give Captain Sternn a run for his money in the sleaze department. The film seems to find its real voice when it drifts away from its routine nature-versus-technology plot and into these crasser moments.

On balance, Starchaser holds up fairly well. It’s incredibly simple but its infectious zeal and breathless momentum keep it from getting boring. Don’t let the somewhat derivative story keep you away from checking out this visually appealing animated space opera.

Credit: The Popcorn Drop