“A struggle as old as time itself”: Star Wars: The Lesser Evil

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.

Credit: Iron Horse Cinema

“As you wish”: Mandalorian Dance

A few weeks ago, the latest Disney+ live-action Star Wars series, The Book of Boba Fett, aired its season finale. Although its release lacked the immense hype of the first 2 seasons of The Mandalorian, the involvement of El Mariachi director Robert Rodriguez, Ming-Na Wen and Temuera “Jango Fett” Morrison created some buzz. For what it’s worth, I enjoyed the show, even if it felt more like The Mandalorian Season 2.5 at times, complete with a episode where Fett didn’t even appear until the last few minutes. Then again, Boba Fett being a small part of his own show lines up with his portrayal in the 9 mainline Star Wars films. Contrary to his substantial presence in the Star Wars Expanded Universe, Boba only has about 8 minutes worth of screen time in the 9 episodes of the Skywalker Saga. Despite his brief appearances, Fett has retained such a very devoted fan following that his iconic armor was the basis for an entire culture within the Star Wars universe, which might have been the main reason he earned his own spinoff.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we can’t have a little fun at Fett’s expense. For instance, take a look at Canadian animator Patrick Boivin’s short film featuring our favorite intergalactic bounty hunter as the lead in a Flashdance-inspired dance routine.

Hope you enjoy it! I have spoken.

Credit: Patrick Boivin

“Maybe he’s some kind of fashion victim”: The Fanimatrix: Run Program

So…how ’bout that new Matrix movie? Capsule review: I enjoyed it. The Matrix Resurrections isn’t as good as the first film but its unique approach to following up on the original Matrix trilogy and the new ideas that it presents put up above its predecessors The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions. It also kicks multiple forms of ass so check it out if you haven’t already.

Today, I’d like to showcase an example of the influence that the Wachowskis’ groundbreaking science fiction franchise had on its initial wave of fans. This is The Fanimatrix: Run Program, a 2003 fan film produced in New Zealand by director Rajneel Singh and stunt performer Steven A. Davis, who stars in the short as Dante, a warrior who joins his partner Medusa (Farrah Lipsham) in a fateful mission into the Matrix where he battles an Agent to the death. The stunt work and fight scenes in the short are an impressive facsimile of Yuen Woo-ping’s choreography in the original film and the filmmakers nailed the gritty, cyberpunk-inspired aesthetic of the films even on a budget of $800 NZD. Not bad for a video that’s still the world’s oldest active torrent.

Hope you enjoy it and let’s all have a happy and safe new year!

Credit: SPV Films

“Gotta make a beer run”: Bustin’ Makes Me Feel Good

Thanks to a new franchise installment, the eyes of pop culture have once again turned toward Ghostbusters. What started in 1984 as an expression of actor/comedian Dan Aykroyd’s fascination with the supernatural has grown into a incredibly lucrative property with animated shows, video games, comics and, of course, a fervent cult following which can be a major boon or a debilitating curse. An embarrassing example of the latter was part of the reaction from the fanbase towards the 2016 female-led reboot of the original film, where certain sects of the GB fandom lobbied hate speech at cast members like Leslie Jones and Melissa McCarthy just because of their gender. On the other hand, the Ghostbusters fandom can be a creative and welcoming bunch, with countless fan creations that embrace the most appealing idea this franchise ever had: anyone can be a Ghostbuster. You don’t need special powers or an important destiny to wield a proton pack. To paraphrase the great Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson), all you need is “the tools” and “the talent” to take up the profession. I believe that central conceit is the reason why this franchise still endures and has the potential to draw in new fans. I haven’t seen the latest film, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, but from what I can tell, the story seems to take its cue from the somewhat populist idea that any ordinary schmoe, even some random kid, can trap a ghost.

Tonight’s subject, often said to be one the earliest Ghostbusters fan films, plays with this idea. In 1998, David Sadler, Brandon Crisp and Rob Cleaton released this nearly two-minute short featuring a pair of GBs taking a nearly peaceful smoke break. Like a lot of early fan films, it’s crude but has a relaxed vibe that doesn’t take the property too seriously.

Hope you enjoy it and remember to never get involved with possessed people.

Credit: DrTart

Reverend Mothers of Paradise Island

Last week marked the occurrence of significant events in the lifespan of two very important pop culture icons. October 21st was the 80th anniversary of the debut of Wonder Woman, the most famous superheroine in history, who made her dazzling debut in All Star Comics #8 back in 1941 before becoming the star of the anthology title Sensation Comics in 1942. Ever since the first appearance of William Moulton Marston and H.G. Peter’s creation, the adventures of the Amazing Amazon have thrilled and inspired countless fans around the world, such as Leo Kei Angelos, the director and stunt performer behind the 2014 Wonder Woman fan film First Impressions, an exciting short which features Hailey Bright as Princess Diana and a villain portrayed by the incomparable Doug Jones (The Shape of Water).

The second event was the release of Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction tale Dune. My capsule review: it’s a visually arresting film and a great retelling of a well-known story but it might be too dry for viewers who are more accustomed to the mind-bending insanity of the 1984 David Lynch version. All the buzz around the new film made me think about the first time I learned about Herbert’s saga of the violent battle for control of the desert planet Arrakis. In 2001, Westwood Studios, best known for the Command & Conquer series of real-time strategy games, released Emperor: Battle for Dune, their third and final game based on the Dune franchise. I’ll admit that I haven’t played the game in a very long time but I do remember that my decision to play it was based solely on the fact that Michael Dorn of Star Trek fame was prominently featured in the game’s live-action cutscenes.

Hope you enjoy them and remember that the slow blade penetrates the shield…unless that shield is Wonder Woman’s indestructible bracelets.

Credit: [ActionLeo], hellhouse Oldies LP

Carcharodon Copycats: A Tornado to Move the Boat

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.

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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.

Credit: BisXploitationcinema

Carcharodon Copycats: A Sin Against an Animal

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.

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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.

Credit: Youtube Movies

Carcharodon Copycats: Fish Don’t Eat People

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?

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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.

Credit: sideshowcarny

“A Great Adventure Took Place”: The Imperials Strike Back

It’s been over a month since The Rise of Skywalker, so I guess it’s safe to talk about something related to Star Wars without facing a deluge of opinions both for and against Episode 9 in particular and the franchise in general, right?

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Opinions subject to change.

Of course not. We’ll never be that fortunate, especially when you consider other events associated with the franchise like the final season of The Clone Wars, the series finale of Star Wars Resistance, the production of a series focused on Obi-Wan and the upcoming second season of the Disney Plus flagship series, Baby Yoda and Friends — I mean, The Mandalorian. However, expecting people to stop talking about Star Wars on the Internet is like believing that if you place every single issue of Action Comics into a bonfire, Superman will simply fade from our collective memories.

Once again, I want to take a look at the creative side of Star Wars fandom by showcasing what is said to be the very first Star Wars fan film. Directed by Scott Gill and produced by Mike Bajema, The Imperials Strike Back was created by a group of young fans using a 8mm camera and a slew of homemade props and costumes and was completed before the release of The Empire Strikes Back. I love this short both because of the crew’s creative use of their limited resources, which is something true to the spirit of the original film’s production, and its function as a window into a time period when Star Wars was just a fun space fantasy movie and not some hallowed multimedia franchise where the random Rebel soldier who accompanies the heroes in this short would have been based on an expanded universe character who made his first appearance in a Star Wars Roleplaying Game adventure scenario.

Hope you enjoy it!

Credit: 8mm Kid Epics

“Way to go, Kenobi”: Star Wars Episode III: A Lost Hope

For 42 years, one unconventional and genre-busting film has defined the global moviemaking landscape and continues to entertain audiences around the world to this day. Of course, I’m referring to Robert Clouse’s horror classic The Pack. That is the movie you’re thinking of, right? Oh, you think I’m referring to some dumb little space movie? Well, that’s too bad because I want to talk about the killer dog movie starring the incomparable Joe Don Baker, dammit!

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You don’t want to talk about this, do you?

Fine. We’ll discuss Star Wars for the umpteenth time but I want to discuss an area of Star Wars fandom that I’ve always enjoyed: fan films. One of my first posts was a showcase of my favorite Star Wars fan videos so, in honor of the upcoming “end” of the Skywalker Saga, let’s take a look at a fan video that was released in the same year as the previous “end” of the saga. 2005’s Star Wars Episode III: A Lost Hope is a parody of Revenge of the Sith that was directed and co-written by N.T. Bullock, the founder of the independent production company Sequential Pictures, and features Bullock’s Seth Green-esque portrayal of Anakin, Galactic Senators on loan from Sesame Street, a take on Mace Windu by Anthony Washington that feels more in line with Samuel L. Jackson’s usual intensity and an ingenious forgery placed in Obi-Wan’s Jedi sketchbook. The highlight of the short is Eric Kohn’s sardonic approach to Master Yoda.

Hope you enjoy it and…well, you know.

Credit: sequentialpictures, bboy41290, Minnesota Muskie, Star Wars