Contrary to what some trolls might lead you to believe, the Star Wars franchise is stronger than ever. This past weekend, the fan gathering known as Star Wars Celebration took place in Anaheim, CA, where fans of the Galaxy Far, Far Away attended various panels about upcoming Lucasfilm projects (including a look at a new series based on the cult fantasy Willow), behind-the-scenes retrospectives, a 20th anniversary celebration of the second installment in the prequel trilogy, Attack of the Clones, and a screening of the first 2 parts of the new Obi-Wan Kenobi series on Disney+. Of course, for most fans, the main draw of Celebration is getting a chance to meet fan-favorite Star Wars actors and creators and connect with fellow enthusiasts in a variety of ways. Speaking from experience, the 2019 Celebration in Chicago was one of the best conventions I’ve ever attended when it came to making new connections with passionate and innovative fans.
In Celebrations past, the Official Star Wars Fan Film Awards were the biggest showcase of the creativity of Star Wars fans. At Celebration 2015, which also took place in Anaheim, the contest winners were screened before the attendees. Today, I’d like to showcase the winner of 2015’s Filmmaker Select Award, Star Wars: The Lesser Evil, directed by Andrew Kin and Sy Cody White.
Before I go into the main topic of this post, I would like to do something unusual for this blog: a review of a recent movie.
I have just seen The Batman, Matt Reeves’ revamp of the Caped Crusader starring The Lighthouse’s Robert Pattinson as the title character. The most impressive attributes of the film are the visual effects and Greig Fraser’s cinematography. I especially love how the lighting changes over the course of the movie, going from nearly pitch black in the beginning to the more vibrant and naturalistic colors that we see in the end, which represents how Batman’s mission changes from a quest for vengeance to a crusade to help the downtrodden. Pattinson delivers a more humanistic portrayal of Bruce Wayne than we’re used to seeing in live-action. Zoe Kravitz’s energetic performance as Catwoman and chemistry with Pattinson provide a welcome amount of tension, Jeffrey Wright’s stern but warm portrayal of Commissioner Gordon is an effective counterpoint to Batman’s stoicism and Paul Dano’s demented Riddler provides a chilling contrast to the more flamboyant depictions provided by prior Riddler actors like Frank Gorshin and Jim Carrey. Wrap it all up in Michael Giacchino’s fantastic score and you have a film that I’d place in the upper echelon of Batman movies alongside Mask of the Phantasm and The Dark Knight.
If you’ve already seen the movie, which is now on HBO Max, check out World’s Finest, a 2004 short film directed by Sandy Collora featuring a then-hypothetical team-up film for the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel and using most of the same cast and crew from his prior short, Batman: Dead End. It’s an interesting time capsule to a simpler time when movies like this were things that fans could only dream of. At the very least, the characters were utilized in a better way than in Batman v Superman (sorry Snyder fans).
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!
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.
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.
In honor of today’s release of Godzilla vs. Kong on HBO Max, I wanted to remind you that Godzilla is so popular in Japan that he’s even had a few theme park attractions made in his honor. Directed by Koichi Kawakita, who helmed 1989’s Godzilla vs. Biollante, and featuring Megumi Odaka as the telepathic Miki Saegusa, 1994’s Monster Planet of Godzilla, or Kaijū Puranetto Gojira, was one of the earliest known attractions based on the long-running Toho kaiju franchise and, as typical for most early versions of things, it’s kinda weird in hindsight. How weird did it get? Well, does the picture below answer your question?
What’s the deal? Monster Planet was shown at Harmonyland and Puroland, a pair of theme parks owned by the Sanrio Company, producers of the insanely popular Hello Kitty franchise. Basically, this brief crossover would be the Japanese equivalent of Mickey Mouse showing up in front of the Millennium Falcon ride at Galaxy’s Edge on a whim. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a version of Monster Planet with the Hello Kitty footage intact but I was still very impressed by the effort that was put into this short but fun Godzilla adventure. I hope you enjoy it and I wish you the best of luck on the pre-film Godzilla quiz.
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.
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 lotof stufflately. 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.
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?
Back in the 70’s and 80’s, Italy seemed to be the low-budget knockoff capital of the world. Whenever a Hollywood genre movie becomes a huge hit, you can bet that there would be at least one Italian film made to exploit the popularity of the global blockbuster. Jaws was an easy target for exploitation compared to most big movies because its simple premise allowed for a stronger focus on suspense and character drama. If Steven Spielberg can extract cinematic gold from the modest idea of a great white shark threatening a resort town, then making a hit movie should be simple. All you need is a ferocious sea-dwelling animal and enough money to afford boats, scuba gear and a trip to a peaceful seaside town. Unfortunately, most Italian knockoffs of Jaws put a lot of effort into the aquatic creature to the detriment of every other element of the film. A textbook example of this is the subject of today’s review, 1977’s Tentacles.
Family Circus took a weird turn in the 70’s.
Known as Tentacoli in Italy, the concept of Tentacles is more intriguing than the film itself. The film’s direction, provided by former Cannon Pictures CEO and Pirahna II producer Ovidio Assonitis, is very rudimentary, especially when the film’s antagonist, a deadly giant octopus, is offscreen. The only real suspense in the film comes from any scene involving the savage cephalopod, who feels like a terrifying presence thanks to some decent model work, clever editing by Angelo Curi and the skilled cinematography of Roberto D’Ettorre Piazzoli, who would work on another infamous knockoff of a famous blockbuster, Starcrash, sometime after this picture. The standouts of the oddly star-studded cast are the legendary John Huston (director and screenwriter of The Maltese Falcon) and Oscar winner Henry Fonda, who do the very best they can with the stilted direction and a hackneyed and inconsistent script written by Jerome Max, Escape from the Bronx scribe Tito Carpi and former Star Trek script editor Steven Carabatsos. Another Academy Award-winning star, Shelley Winters (The Diary of Anne Frank), shows up to waste her time in a cloying subplot that desperately attempts to evoke the sense of dread that surrounded Alex Kintner’s death scene in Jaws. The overall tone of Tentacles lacks any semblance of harmony between its horror elements and its playful humor which isn’t helped by Stelvio Cipriani’s bizarre, synth-heavy score and some weird scenes like Bo Hopkins (American Graffiti) giving a pep talk to a pair of killer whales that are sent to fight the octopus.
If you’re looking for a cheesy horror film that’s good fodder for a bad movie night with friends, I highly recommend Tentacles. It’s always fun to see a group of top-tier actors slumming it in a schlocky B-movie and this Jaws knockoff is no exception.
One of the most brazen things that a ripoff of a famous blockbuster can do is film a scene that functions as an obvious dig at the blockbuster in question. In most cases, it’s a kind of move that can easily backfire because it reminds the viewer of the more popular film. Perhaps the most notable example is a brief moment in the infamous Star Wars knockoff and subject of a fan-favorite Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode Laserblast where Kim Milford’s character blows up a Star Wars billboard for no readily discernible reason beyond the behind-the-scenes desire to mock any potential competition to Laserblast. One of the earliest scenes of the subject of today’s review, 1977’s Orca, shows the titular killer whale slaughtering a great white shark, which is a moment where the in-story justification of making the orca both threatening and appealing is outweighed by the out-of-universe purpose of taunting Jaws, its biggest influence. When you see it, you can almost hear co-producer Dino De Laurentiis, prolific producer of countless cult classics, screaming at the top of his lungs, “I’m coming for you, Spielberg!” With a scene like that, you’d think that Orca would simply be a cheap, simplistic duplication of a better movie. Instead, Orca has a surprisingly thoughtful approach to its storytelling and themes that sets it apart from other, less subtle Jaws ripoffs.
Behold, a relic of the good old days, when movie posters told you the entire story of the movie.
The biggest aspect that sets Orca apart from its competition is making the titular creature, played by Yaka and Nepo, an important and sympathetic character in his own right. The movie truly comes to life whenever the whales appear. The impressive cinematography, effective model work and Ennio Morricone’s fantastic score effectively sell the audience on the emotional plight of the chief orca and the merciless terror he creates throughout the film. The standout actor in the human cast is Richard Harris of Camelot fame, who gives a stirring performance as a ship’s captain who becomes the target of the orca’s ire but begins to understand the whale’s hunger for revenge. The rest of the cast, which includes Zardoz’s Charlotte Rampling as a whale biologist and Will Sampson (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) as a somewhat stereotypical Native American teacher, is adequate with the weakest link being a young Bo Derek, best known for her role in 10, who looks lost in any scene that doesn’t involve a killer whale. Orca is directed by The Dam Busters helmer Michael Anderson, who tries his best to make a threadbare script, written by Sergio Donati and co-producer Luciano Vincenzoni, feel tense, believable and meaningful by focusing on both the captain’s personal conflict and the orca’s quest for retribution, as well as placing a strong emphasis on visual storytelling.
Orca is a much more intriguing film than its reputation implies. By putting a spotlight on the thoughts and feelings of the eponymous creature, the film finds a different angle that enables it to stand out in the Jawsploitation craze.
This month marks the 45th anniversary of Steven Spielberg’s seminal seafaring thriller, 1975’s Jaws. Widely considered to be the first modern, high-concept blockbuster, Jaws would reshape the landscape of Hollywood with its broad but intriguing characters, minimalist approach to storytelling and emphasis on exciting set pieces. As is the case with many popular blockbusters, the success of Jaws spawned many imitators of varying quality. Today, let’s take a look at 1978’s Piranha, one of the better-known copycats and a somewhat more ambitious knockoff than the others that were released at the time. One of the earliest films directed by visionary Gremlins helmer Joe Dante and produced by Dante’s collaborator Jon Davison and independent filmmaking mogul Roger Corman, Piranha was once the target of a lawsuit from Universal Studios because it was so similar to Jaws. When Spielberg praised the film after an advance screening, the lawsuit was dropped. With that kind of ringing endorsement from one of the greatest directors around, Piranha must be good, right?
Lost River Lake: the birthplace of bikini pool float rodeo.
Surprisingly, Piranha kind of works! The script, written by Battle Beyond the Stars scribe John Sayles, is clever, the quick pace keeps the action flowing, Pino Donaggio’s score carries the right balance of suspense and strangeness and Dante’s signature comedic approach to science fiction and horror gives the film a consistently fun tone that matches the crazy premise of a bloodthirsty school of mutated piranha invading a river near a peaceful town. As far as the acting goes, the late, great Dick Miller, a frequent associate of both Dante and Corman, steals the film in his role as Buck Gardner, a crooked resort owner whose place of business is overwhelmed by the deadly fish. Miller’s character may lack the depth of his Jaws equivalent, Mayor Vaughn, but he’s still a lot of fun to watch. Meanwhile, Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) gives a strong, grounded performance as a government scientist who is haunted by the fact that he led the project that created the mutant piranha and the two leads, Heather Menzies of The Sound of Music fame and King’s Crossing’s Bradford Dillman, have an interesting chemistry. The special effects are more of a mixed bag. This is the kind of movie where impressive stop motion creature animation and convincing prosthetic work share the screen with rudimentary puppetry and drab set design.
Spielberg may have been onto something. Although it’s a cheap Jawsploitation cash grab, Piranha is a unexpectedly charming movie with a clear sense of purpose and enough self-awareness to keep your interest.