Lethal Ninja (1992)

Lethal Ninja (1992)

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Welcome back to Misan[trope]y Movie Blog! Today’s feature is the first of two movies I will be spotlighting with the inherently redundant title of “Lethal Ninja.”

“Lethal Ninja” was directed by Yossi Wein (under the pseudonym Joseph Wein), and was his first directorial work. He has gone on to direct features such as “Death Train,” “Octopus 2: River of Fear,” and “Cyborg Cop III” over the years, staying firmly within the realm of b-movies. Wein has primarily acted as a cinematographer in his career, working on films like “American Ninja 4” and “Cyborg Cop.” Given his experience, he also provided the cinematography for “Lethal Ninja” instead of having a separate set of eyes for the job.

lethalninja923The screenplay for “Lethal Ninja” was penned by Chris Dresser, who curiously only has two theatrical writing credits: one for “Lethal Ninja” in 1992, and another for a movie called “Rogue Lion” from a solid 20 years earlier. What he did in the meantime is anyone’s guess.

“Lethal Ninja” was one of the first productions by Danny Lerner, who would go on to produce films as varied as “Shark Attack 3: Megalodon,” “Olympus Has Fallen,” “The Legend of Hercules,” and the sequels to “The Expendables” before his recent death in March of 2015. He manged to accumulate nearly 100 producing credits over his career, which consisted primarily of b-movies and low-budget features.

The cast of “Lethal Ninja” in packed full of anonymous b-movie players, led by one Ross Kettle as an American ninja named Joe Ford. The story follows Ninja Joe on a journey to a hostile African nation, where is archaeologist wife has been kidnapped by a crime organization. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, he decides to take a sidekick along with him, who shockingly manages to live through the entire movie.

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“Bullshit, there is no way I live through this”

“Lethal Ninja” currently holds a 3.2 score on IMDb, which is hardly a glowing endorsement. However, most of the reviews I have seen recognize that this is at least an entertaining movie for what it is, but I don’t think anyone denies the low quality of the work.

Personally, I feel like “Lethal Ninja” is far from unoriginal, and deserves some credit for that. Many people specifically remember the “roller blades” sequence, which I actually didn’t hate. It was just about the only action sequence in the whole movie that looked any good, outside of the final battle on top of an oil tower (and even that was pretty limited). That said, this movie is very aware of what it is: mindless ninja action. And, thankfully, it mostly delivers. However, the movie isn’t particularly memorable overall, despite the roller-blading and a pretty hammy villain.

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Ninja Joe

If you know that ninja movies are your thing, then “Lethal Ninja” isn’t going to disappoint you. However, I am kind of mixed on whether to recommend this to other audiences: there are definitely better / more entertaining ninja flicks out there, but this one isn’t awful. The one that I absolutely recommend is watching the roller-blading sequence, which I promise makes no more sense in the context of the film.

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Slipstream (2007)

Slipstream (2007)

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Next up is an official selection from 2007’s Sundance Film Festival: an Anthony Hopkins passion project which marks the third and final film I will cover by the name of “Slipstream.”

“Slipstream” was both written and directed by acclaimed veteran actor Anthony Hopkins (“The Silence of the Lambs”), marking his first screenwriting credit and his third directorial feature.

The cinematography on “Slipstream” was provided by Academy Award nominee Dante Spinotti, an Italian cinematographer who has regularly works on acclaimed Hollywood features since the 1990s. His credits have included “Manhunter,” “Red Dragon,” “L.A. Confidential,” “The Insider,” “The Quick and The Dead,” and even the much-applauded mega-hit “Hudson Hawk.”

The special effects on “Slipstream” were supervised by Ron Trost, who has accumulated nearly 100 special effects credits since the 1980s. Some of these films have include “The Omega Code,” “Mortal Kombat,” and “Seven Psychopaths,” truly running the gamut of quality.

Anthony Hopkins, in true dedication to his passion project, even composed the music for “Slipstream,” going so far as to perform on it as a piano soloist as well. Hopkins’s music was then arranged and orchestrated by Stephen Barton, who has worked on films such as “Man on Fire,” “The Number 23,” the the “Shrek” sequels.

The cast of “Slipstream” is impressively deep, and headlined by (of course) Anthony Hopkins himself. Christian Slater, Jeffrey Tambor, John Turturro, Michael Clarke Duncan, Michael Lerner, and Kevin McCarthy (as himself) all make appearances that drift in and out of the loosely-strung story.

slipstream073The surreal and convoluted plot to “Slipstream” more or less centers around an aging screenwriter (Hopkins) who believes that he may be losing his grip on reality. He is then unexpectedly called in to work on a film being adapted from one of his works. Unbeknownst to him, this is because the lead actor (Slater) has suddenly died on set, sending the production into disarray.

About the movie’s perplexing plot, Anthony Hopkins has been quoted as saying:

It’s about a man, who’s caught in a slipstream of time falling back on itself and he remembers his own future. My own interpretation is if there’s a God, that God is actually time. I’m fascinated by the fact the older I get every moment just slips past. What is real? You grasp this moment and then it’s gone. I was talking 10 minutes ago but that’s all gone, it’s all a dream.

Hopkins has also spoken a little about his personal motivation for writing the story:

I always wanted to poke fun at the movie business and the acting profession – they take themselves so seriously. I wanted to poke them in the nose. And what were people going to do? Arrest me if it wasn’t any good?

“Slipstream” was generally disliked by critics and audiences alike, and currently holds a 23% critics score and a 29% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. It also currents has a mildly higher IMDb rating of 5.1, which is still well into the negative range. Here are some choice excerpts from some of the higher-profile critical reviews of the movie:

“…a creative anarchy that could either be considered tantalisingly multi-layered or simply a big mess. I think it’s both”
-The Daily Utah Chronicle

“…a lifetime’s worth of mental doodles [condensed] into one flatulent anti-industry tirade”
-IndieWire

“[a] vanity/insanity project”
-New York Post

“Annoying, pretentious twaddle of the highest order”
-Las Vegas Weekly

“…there should be a rule that movies helmed by movie stars turned directors need to come with some sort of equivalent of the Surgeon General warning label”
-Long Island Press

The two most common things I saw in both critic and audience reviews of “Slipstream” were the terms “stream of consciousness” and “unwatchable,” which just about sums up everything you need to know about it. It is certainly experimental, but the result is a combination of editing and cinematography that borders on nauseating. There is also no traditional plot structure to provide beats that can allow the audience to sense how far they are in the story, making the experience seem even longer and more arduous than it actually is. Some movies can get away with loose structures when they are interesting or entertaining, but “Slipstream” doesn’t deliver in either department. I will give Hopkins some credit, in that there is an attempted explanation for the poor editing in the meta-plot, but it doesn’t make the movie any easier to watch when you know that there is intentional logic behind it. The constant cuts, fades, color changes, audio changes, flipping frames, etc. are just as nauseating as if they had no reason to exist in the film at all.

slipstream074When it comes right down to it, “Slipstream” is just another pretentious art movie among many. It absolutely reeks of being a passion project, which can often spell disaster out of the gate regardless of a film’s quality. It doesn’t help that it isn’t as clear cut or effectively innovative as “Birdman,” and not nearly as fun as “Rubber,” so it just winds up dragging the audience around for an hour and a half as a mediocre art piece.

If anything about “Slipstream” stands out as a positive, it is the great cast. There is generally good acting all around, but the nature of the story means that nobody gets to show off for long, though. Jeffrey Tambor and Christian Slater specifically stand out in my opinion, even though Slater gets particularly little time on screen. On the flip side, this might be the worst John Turturro performance I have ever seen him deliver. He really feels miscast as an angry scumbag producer: I can’t help but feel that a more intimidating actor could have been pulled in for the part.

slipstream071“Slipstream” is clearly much better in concept and on the page than it is in execution on film. According to what I have read, Hopkins couldn’t get anyone else to commit to making it, so he wound up taking on almost all of the creative roles himself. I think that this movie could have definitely used a second creative mind in the mix, even if only to act as a check / balance for some of the more outlandish fringe concepts coming out of Hopkins’s head, particularly on the initial screenplay.

Overall, “Slipstream” is a nearly unwatchable, pretentious mess. It doesn’t have a whole lot of “good-bad” entertainment value, but it might be worth a watch for the curiosity of it alone. The performances are at least pretty good, but the only reason I could recommend this film is if you want to get a glimpse into the strange creative mind of Anthony Hopkins.

Slipstream (2005)

Slipstream (2005)

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Today’s review is on a little known 2005 time travel bank heist movie, and the second feature I’m spotlighting with the title of “Slipstream.”

“Slipstream” was directed by David van Eyssen, who interestingly doesn’t have any other directorial film credits. The writers, Phillip Badger and Louis Morneau, worked together previously on the 1997 film “Retroactive,” and each have a handful of credits to their names. Morneau in particular might be best known for directing the 1999 bomb, “Bats.”

The cinematography on “Slipstream” was provided by Sonke Hansen, a cinematographer and camera operator who has worked on films such as “Enemy At The Gates,” “Cloud Atlas,” and “Ninja Assassin.”

The special effects for “Slipstream,” which are somewhat extensive, were overseen by Mickey Kirsten. Kirsten has a solid handful of special effects credits since 2000, including work on “The Constant Gardener” and “Chronicle.”

slipstream052The “Slipstream” score was provided by one Rob Lord, who primarily provides music for video games (“Just Cause,” “Just Cause 2”) and a handful of television documentaries.

The cast of “Slipstream” is headlined by Sean Astin (“The Lord of the Rings”) and Vinnie Jones (“The Midnight Meat Train,” “Snatch”), who each play their usual character types of a timid hero and a heavy, respectively. Most of the acting weight of the movie falls on the two of them, as well as Ivana Milicevic (“Vanilla Sky”), who rounds out the minimal central cast.

slipstream051The story of “Slipstream” centers around Sean Astin’s character: a scientist who has helped develop a limited time travel device. In a baffling act that defies any kind of sense, he absconds with the device in order to flirt with a local bank teller, which apparently required time travel for him to pull off. The complication occurs when the bank is robbed by Vinnie Jones during Astin’s awful courting attempt, which rapidly snowballs into tragedy and subsequent time travel shenanigans.

“Slipstream” currently holds a score of 4.6 on IMDb, along with Rotten Tomatoes ratings of 34% (audience) and 0% (critics). Each score pulls from a relatively small sample size, but all of them are well into the negatives no matter how you cut it.

slipstream055While the special effects in “Slipstream” aren’t awful, especially given what I assume was a small budget, there are certainly a lot of overdone elements. In particular, there is an excess of slow motion sequences throughout the film, which are typically used to indicate the activation of the time travel device. However, it does become quite repetitive after it is used a couple of times.

The character writing in “Slipstream” is pretty far from fantastic. In particular, Astin’s character struck me as a total creep as opposed to just an awkward protagonist, which makes it harder to relate to him as the lead. There is also an attempt to get the audience to feel for Vinnie Jones’s villain character, which doesn’t make much sense given how ruthless and murderous he is throughout the story. It doesn’t help that the attempts to characterize him are pretty shallow, specifically through some awkwardly artificial banter between him and his partner about various crime movies.

slipstream053Personally, I feel like this movie would have been better if it never left the bank building, or at least not until the last act. The audience and characters don’t get much time to relate to the surroundings, which is usually one of the most fun aspects of time travel films. Instead of playing with the possibilities of the bank setting and the events of the robbery, the story winds up in a real rush to get away from the premise, which leads to it getting a bit off the rails. There is a reason this isn’t as highly regarded as films like “Run Lola Run” or “Groundhog Day.”

Perhaps the biggest issue with “Slipstream” is that the aspirations for the story exceeded the budget that was available to the team. While the effects aren’t bad for the money involved, the movie as a whole would have dramatically benefited from higher quality work. The whole movie just looks and feels cheaper than the interesting concept justifies. This isn’t just limited to the effects, either: but the casting, directing, and dialogue all seem to be stuck in the same boat.

Overall, “Slipstream” is a bit of a disappointment given the interesting premise. The trailer is frankly far more interesting than the movie itself. That said, despite all of the flaws with it, this is probably one of the better television science fiction movies from the era, and is a welcome change of pace from the various hybrid monster movies and “Lake Placid” sequels that were popping up at the time.

As far as a recommendation goes, this doesn’t quite fall into the realm of “good-bad.” It also isn’t anywhere near good, landing decidedly in the realm of mediocre. I don’t think it quite merits the low ratings it has, but it certainly doesn’t earn an overall positive score in my book. I’d generally advise skipping it, unless you are just a huge fan of time travel stories.

 

Slipstream (1989)

Slipstream (1989)

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Next up are a handful of reviews that I’ve been putting off for some time now. For those who have frequented the blog for a while (and also have sharp memories), you might recall that 3 different movies, all called “Slipstream,” have popped up frequently in my bargain bin movie hunting. Now I am finally going to watch all three of them, and see how they actually stack up. First up is 1989’s “Slipstream,” starring Mark Hamill and Bill Paxton.

“Slipstream” was directed by one Steven Lisberger, who is best known for writing and directing the original “TRON” in 1982.  He doesn’t have a whole lot of credits to his name, but apparently he worked anonymously on screenplays throughout the 1990s and 2000s, primarily because the failure of “Slipstream” tanked his potential career as a director.

The “Slipstream” screenplay was written by Tony Kayden, a television writer who did a few made-for-TV movies as well as a handful of episodes of shows like “The Waltons” and “Little House on the Prairie.” If that doesn’t sound like the ideal fit for a science fiction epic, you are probably right to think that.

The cinematography for “Slipstream” was provided by Frank Tidy, whose credits have included such masterpieces as Sylvester Stallone’s “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot!” and Steven Seagal’s “Under Seige.” However, he also worked as the director of photography on Ridley Scott’s first feature, 1977’s “The Duellists.”

The score for “Slipstream” (which is fantastic) was composed and conducted by Elmer Bernstein, and recorded by the London Symphonic Orchestra. Bernstein was a film composer and conductor who racked up hundreds of movie credits beginning in the 1950s, all the way up until his death in 2004. His credits include fantastic films (“Bringing Out The Dead,” “My Left Foot,” “Ghostbusters”), cult classics (“Heavy Metal”), and some of the worst regarded movies in cinema history (“Leonard Part 6,” “Robot Monster”).

slipstream891The special effects team for “Slipstream” involved a significant team of workers who were carried over by producer Gary Kurtz from an earlier collaboration on “The Empire Strikes Back,” including Andrew Kelly (“28 Days Later,” “Sunshine,” “Dune”), Phil Knowles (“Alien,” “Space Truckers”), Roger Nichols (“Batman Begins,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”), John Packenham (“Krull”), Alan Poole (“Empire of the Sun,” “The NeverEnding Story”), Peter Skehan (“Gladiator,” “Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade”), Ron Hone (“World War Z,” “Prometheus,” “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”), and Neil Swan (“Alien,” “The Princess Bride”). Joining them were a couple of other special effects guys who have likewise gone on to significant careers: Steve Cullane (“Captain America: The First Avenger,” “Skyfall,” “Gravity,” “Hudson Hawk”) and Andrew Eio (“Mission: Impossible,” “Behind Enemy Lines,” “Event Horizon,” “Hackers”).

One of the most impressive aspects of “Slipstream” is the surprisingly deep cast, headlined by Mark Hamill and Bill Paxton, who both turn in memorable performances. The list also includes Ben Kingsley, Robbie Coltrane, F. Murray Abraham, and Bob Peck (in what might be his best role), who mostly mostly serve to fill out small roles throughout the film.

slipstream892One of the co-leads, Kitty Aldridge, has not had any acting credits since 1998, but has published a handful of novels throughout the 2000s since her acting career has ceased.

With such an impressively assembled, successful effects team and cast, you might be curious as to how “Slipstream” flew so far under the radar. Of course, there’s a reason for that. “Slipstream” only released in the UK and Australia (briefly), and the poor reception meant that it never got theatrical distribution in North America. It did wind up with a VHS release, and has since popped up on a ton of DVD compilations since falling into the public domain (which is how I came across it, of course).

The massive failure of “Slipstream” blew back particularly hard on Gary Kurtz, one of the film’s producers and arguably the driving force behind the film. Despite his earlier successes on influential and well-regarded films like “The Dark Crystal,” “American Graffiti,” and the first two “Star Wars” features, this failure basically sunk his career. He has only recently picked up producing again on a regular basis in the 2000s, and is still active at the age of 74.

The story of “Slipstream” follows a mysterious android (Bob Peck) as he is and pursued by both law enforcement (Mark Hamill) and a bounty hunter (Bill Paxton) in a weather-ravaged, post-apocalyptic world. The only means of travel in this world is by air on small, low-altitude planes, due to the catastrophic weather effects that ravage the landscape.

“Slipstream” was filmed throughout Europe, particularly in Turkey and Ireland, giving it a thoroughly impressive backdrop. Particularly, the extensive aerial shots over Ireland are absolutely gorgeous.

Reportedly, the original script for “Slipstream” was far more violent, but was cut significantly before filming. These cuts have been blamed partially for the movie’s general incoherence, though I personally feel that additional length is the last thing that this movie needed.

slipstream897As mentioned previously, “Slipstream” was very poorly regarded in the brief release it received at the time, primarily due to the meandering plot. Rotten Tomatoes currently has it at a 20% rating from both audiences and critics, though it comes from a fairly small sample size. IMDb has the movie at a somewhat higher 4.9, though that is still a long way from positive.

Most of the criticisms I have seen of “Slipstream” cite that it has very slow pacing, and that the plot meanders a bit too much. Some have complained about the effects being low quality, but that’s to be expected from a generally low-budget movie, regardless of the team behind it. Interestingly, it seems that the movie has been better received in retrospect, with people being somewhat fascinated by the casting and surprisingly good performances all around. I certainly agree that the movie is both longer and slower than it should be, but it does have a fair number of redeeming values.

First off, the performances in “Slipstream” are generally pretty good. Hamill manages to portray a chilling, strictly lawful antagonist, which provides a great foil for Bill Paxton’s laid-back, comic outlaw lead. Bob Peck mostly steals the show, however, with a great performance that captures the complexities of an advanced artificial being. His character slowly becomes more relate-able and human as the story goes on, which is pretty intriguing to watch Peck convey.

Unfortunately, the movie suffers from the extended absence of Mark Hamill’s character, who vanishes for an excruciating stretch of the middle of the film. I’m curious as to why this was done, because it doesn’t seem like a script improvisation, but rather an intentional design of the story. It does allow for some development, but his absence also makes the film far less interesting to watch for a decent stretch of time.

Of all of the problems with the film, none are quite as glaring as the pacing. This is at least partially to blame on the previously mentioned script cuts before filming, but a certain degree of blame has to rest with the director and editor for not recognizing the issue and finding a way to mend it. This seems like the perfect sort of film to have a director’s cut, but, because the major cuts were made before filming, there isn’t any spare footage to make such a re-cut possible.

Though it is hard to regard this as a true flaw, there are a whole lot of borrowed elements throughout “Slipstream,” that stand out significantly. There are some obvious similarities to “Star Wars” given the number of common contributors, but some of the more obvious parallels are to “3:10 to Yuma” (the plot) and “North by Northwest,” specifically in the opening sequence which depicts a plane/foot chase. Personally, I think the mixture of them all creates something kind of unique and interesting to watch, though I don’t think some of the homages should have been so blatantly done.

slipstream895The finale of the movie features a bizarre fight inside the cockpit of a plane, which is honestly the most exciting part of the film. Unfortunately, it passes a bit too quickly, particularly in comparison to the bloated, slow sequences that clog up most of the film.

M8DSLIP EC004I’m a big fan of the world that is constructed in “Slipstream,” particularly the background details. At one point, there is a cult portrayed that worships the weather, and another portion that presents a secluded, opulent colony trying to maintain their lifestyle and culture despite the apocalyptic surroundings. It mostly happens in the background, but it is fascinating to see how people have come to deal with the world after society has crumbled.

Overall, I liked this film far better than I expected to. It isn’t a high-quality film, and there are plenty of issues with it, but it was still generally enjoyable to watch, especially if you go in not expecting anything. The acting and music is particularly impressive, and if you can bear through the slower parts, it is worth a watch in my opinion.

HorrorHound Weekend Preview

Next week, I’m going to be heading over to Cincinnati to attend the annual HorrorHound Weekend.  I haven’t been to this event before, so I’m not quite sure what to expect. That said, I’m pretty intrigued by the lineups for the panels and screenings.

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As far as the panels go, I am most thrilled about an impressive “Re-Animator” panel that looks to feature Jeffrey Combs, Stuart Gordon, Barbara Crampton, Bruce Abbot, Dennis Paoli, and Carolyn Purdy-Gordon. At this point, I have covered a whole bunch of Stuart Gordon movies that have featured the whole lot, so I will definitely be interested to hear what insights come out of that.

There are a couple of other panels I am looking forward to as well: MST3K founder Joel Hodgson has one all to his lonesome, and another features the core behind “American Mary,” a pretty solid 2012 horror movie that I only recently got around to. There are definitely more than a few high-profile ones that I will skip in favor of the film festival, though (I tried “Sons of Anarchy” and “The Walking Dead,” and I’m not big fans of either).

The movie screenings at HorrorHound are what I am really looking forward to: Fritz the Nite Owl is going to be doing his take on “Re-Animator,” there is a US premiere of a well-received H. R. Giger documentary, and I’ll finally get to check out “Bloodsucking Bastards,” an anti-corporate horror comedy that I’ve had my eye on since the trailer popped up.  I’ll also finally get that second viewing of “The Babadook” that I’ve been meaning to do, but I can just about guarantee that I’ll be passing on the opportunity to catch the “world premiere” of Bill Zebub’s latest. In case you are curious, it is called “Holocaust Cannibal,” and looks to hybridize all of the lesser elements of “Cannibal Holocaust” and the lowest of Nazi exploitation movies. If you think that sounds like it has entertainment potential, I can almost certainly guarantee  that it won’t live up to it. This is Bill Zebub we are talking about, and I sat through “Antfarm Dickhole.”

I’ll be sure to do a write-up after the convention to cover everything I wind up seeing. Honestly, I’m expecting to be pleasantly surprised by the film line-up, as I am not familiar with most of them. There is also a deep lineup of shorts, and I’m sure there will be some gold in there as well.

If you happen to be in the area, I recommend checking out the lineup to see if anything peaks your interest. If any of you readers are going to be there, feel free to get a hold of me on twitter (@Misantropey): I’m planning to be around throughout the weekend, and live-tweeting when I can.

 

Abraxas, Guardian of the Universe

Abraxas, Guardian of the Universe

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Today on the Misan[trope]y Movie Blog, we’re going to take a look at the 1990 Jesse Ventura sci-fi movie, “Abraxas, Guardian of the Universe.”

The writer and director of “Abraxas” is one Damian Lee, a B-movie writer, director, and producer who is still working today. His most recent flicks include a handful of smaller films: “A Fighting Man” (2014), “Hit it” (2013), and “A Dark Truth” (2012).

The cinematography on “Abraxas” is credited to three different people, which brings up some questions about the production. The first listed is Curtis Petersen, a veteran camera operator and b-movie cinematographer, who has well over 100 credits to his name (including “Rocky III,” “Rocky IV,” and “Look Who’s Talking”). Also credited are Mark Willis, a now-prolific camera operator working on television series such as “Hannibal,” “Copper,” and “Reign,” and Keith Thomson, another camera operator for whom “Abraxas” was one of his first ever credits. Given that there isn’t much information available about the film’s behind the scenes operations, it is anyone’s guess as to why all three men are credited, but I suspect that there was probably a dismissal at some point.

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“Abraxas” features a handful of cheesy and cheap special effects, but they tend to work pretty well for the purposes of the movie. The special effects team doesn’t have a whole lot of credits between them, but I did notice that they all worked on the 1995 Roddy Piper movie “Jungleground,” which apparently features a lot of the same accessory crew as “Abraxas.” I’ve had that movie sitting in my collection for a good while now, so stay tuned for some coverage of that flick in the near future.

The music on “Abraxas” is really odd, featuring a significant number of strangely placed saxophone solos. The composer of the score was Carlos Lopes, who worked on the 1980s revival of “The Twilight Zone,” as well as a handful of smaller features over the years.

Apart from Jesse “The Body” Ventura, the wrestler turned actor turned politician, the cast of “Abraxas” notably features Sven Ole-Thorsen as his rival. Thorsen is fantastic ‘heavy’ character actor who has appeared in films like “The Running Man” (also with Ventura), “Twins,” “Gladiator,” and “Red Heat,” among many, many others. Both men are famously good friends with Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose film “Terminator” was a clear inspiration for “Abraxas.”

The rest of the cast on “Abraxas” is primarily filled out with unknowns, with the exception of the then-married couple of James Belushi and Marjorie Bransfield. “Abraxas” proved to be Bransfield’s only significant film acting role, as she hasn’t any credits since the mid-1990s. Belushi, bizarrely, is credited as “Principal Latimer,” the same name of his character in the 1987 movie “The Principal.” Whether his bit role was meant to be the same character is up for debate, but it certainly makes for an interesting little fun fact.

The story of “Abraxas” follows the title character (Ventura), a space cop, as he tracks down his former partner, the ruthless Secundus (Thorsen), who is fostering plans for domination of the universe. The pursuit lands both men on Earth, where Secundus impregnates a woman with a “comater,” which will apparently hold the key to the “anti-life equation” once it reaches maturity. Abraxas is faced with the decision of whether to kill a child, or run the risk of having Secundus’s plans come to fruition.

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Apparently, this is space sex

As far as criticisms of “Abraxas” go, the attempts at comedy in the film merit a bit of shaming. All of the attempted jokes fall flat, and don’t fit in with the rest of the movie at all. I’m not sure what exactly inspired the attempted inclusion of comic relief in the movie, but I think it would have been better off either leaving it out entirely or committing more fully, and perhaps getting a comedy writer to do a pass on the script. When you just go half-way, you run the risk of having awkward, stilted moments in the middle of a serious movie.

Something that “Abraxas” engages in that is a minor pet peeve of mine is confusion over idioms. Almost any time a robot, alien, or person out of time is featured in a movie, it seems to be mandated for the script to attempt at least one joke about how the outsider doesn’t understand linguistic peculiarities. This isn’t inherently awful, but it has certainly been done to death. Also, particularly with aliens and humans displaced in time, there is no reason for them to not be familiar with the concept of idioms. For example, if I am speaking in another language with someone, and they mention a phrase that doesn’t seem to make much sense, one of the first things I will assume is that it is an idiom that I am not familiar with. People don’t naturally react to unfamiliar idioms by getting exasperated, it just doesn’t happen. And why not have the aliens use their own idioms, poorly translated into English? That’s at least a mildly better way to deal with the issue.

“Abraxas,” in true b-movie fashion, features a number of great, cheesy effects. In particular, there are a couple of solid head explosions scattered throughout the film, as Secundus’s favorite method of execution seems to be overloading people’s brains to the point of exploding. There are also some classic animated lightning / electricity effects that are sure to incite some nostalgia for b-movie fans.

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Surprisingly, the central child actor  (the “comater”) is actually pretty solid in this film, which may have a direct correlation to the fact that he has almost no lines. Personally, I would be in favor of this being standard procedure for child actors. In all seriousness, the child is really effectively expressive without using his voice, and actually builds up a little bit of an air of menace by the conclusion of the film, as his powers become more honed.

Something that becomes evident very early on in “Arbraxas” is that the film features far too much internal voice-over, kind of like the awful cut of “Blade Runner” taken to a distant extreme. The monologues aren’t even limited to Jesse Ventura’s lead character: at times, both the villain (Secundus) and the love interest (Sonia) offer brief internal thoughts and narration, which is both lazy storytelling and a really confusing way to shift the audience’s POV.

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Something that I have seen take a bit of criticism about “Abraxas” is the set and production design. While it is visibly cheap without any doubt, I actually thought that the work was pretty impressive, and made a little go a long way. It even sort of made sense in the story for the aliens to be comparatively only somewhat more technologically advanced, so they still use keyboards and simple computers. The intelligent armbands are a little bit of a leap, but how different could they possibly be from Siri?

If there is anything that I really dislike about “Abraxas,” it is the romantic subplot. Jesse Ventura just doesn’t seem up for the challenge of an emotional role, and he seems awkward and uncomfortable whenever that is what is required of his character. I thought that the story would actually have been more interesting if his mercy had come from a developing compassion for life in general rather than because of a specific attraction for one woman. It seems that would have made him a better foil for Secundus, and kept things from getting too bogged down emotionally.

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Overall, “Abraxas” is definitely a fun good-bad movie worth giving a shot. It quite in an elite class of good-bad, but the film is entertaining enough to hold your attention, while also being plenty awful on a number of levels.

Hercules in New York

Hercules in New York

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Today’s feature is a low-budget 1969 comedy by the name of “Hercules in New York”: a film most famous for featuring the first on-screen role for Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“Hercules in New York” was the last film written by Aubrey Wisberg, whose career featured included 1950s and 1960s science fiction films, as well as a handful or propaganda productions during World War II. Unsurprisingly, this film definitely seems misplaced in time. Even for 1969, the story and comedic style feels significantly dated. For contrast, “Hercules in New York” also saw the first directing job for Arthur Allan Seidelman, who has now had a significant career directing television movies and series. The mix of a wet-behind-the-ears director and an outdated, behind-the-times writer proved to be a bit of a perfect storm of awfulness for “Hercules in New York.”

hercules3Adding to the mix of inexperience and incompetence on the “Hercules in New York” crew was a cinematographer with no previous credits, and a musical composer with no listed credits before or since the movie. It honestly feels like the entire crew was pulled out of a hat, which I’m sure was done in an effort to keep the costs far below the radar.

The story of “Hercules in New York” follows the angsty demigod as he decides to explore the modern world, to the intense displeasure of his father, Zeus. He quickly becomes unwittingly involved in mafioso-run sports gambling in New York City, and manages to make headlines for his feats of strength. Enraged with his meddling, Zeus decides to punish Hercules, which leads to further shenanigans in the mortal world.

Worried about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s unwieldy last name, the producers on “Hercules in New York” decided to credit him as “Arnold Strong, ‘Mr. Universe.'” The name “Arnold Strong” was chosen as a sort of gag, playing off of his co-star’s name “Arnold Stang.” Mr. Universe was used, of course, because that was the title that Arnold was most known for at the time, as he won the famous bodybuilding competition at the age of 20 (just 2 years prior to “Hercules in New York”). His next film role wouldn’t be for another 4 years, when he essentially played an extra in the fantastic Robert Altman movie, “The Long Goodbye.”

hercules4One of the most infamous and memorable aspects of “Hercules in New York is the dubbing that was done early versions of the feature. Because of Arnold’s thick accent, it was decided that his lines should be dubbed over, which makes for entertaining watching in retrospect. Even in the versions with Arnold’s audio track re-inserted, you can hear the dubbed voice during a closing sequence where Hercules speaks through a radio to Arnold Stang’s character. It is honestly a toss-up as to which audio track is more entertaining: Arnold’s natural voice with the worst acting performance of his career, or the bizarre voice-over that doesn’t fit Arnold’s body in the slightest.

Some years ago, the rights for “Hercules in New York” were auctioned off on e-bay, accruing bids for just over half a million dollars by the auction’s end. Given poor reception and general infamy of the flick, it is possible that the winner significantly overpaid for the product. The movie currently holds a well-deserved 17% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes, along with a 29% audience score.

The character of Hercules has a long cinematic tradition: he has featured in big budget flicks, animated movies, cheap Italian films, and epic television series. Apart from Arnold Schwarzenegger, the character has been portrayed over the years by notables such as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Lou Ferrigno, Kevin Sorbo, Ryan Gosling, Sergio Ciani, and Kirk Morris, among many, many others.

I haven’t been able to find budget information for “Hercules in New York,” but you have to assume that this was an incredibly cheap production just judging from the film quality. It is hard to say if it made any money, just because there isn’t exactly a wealth of information out there about it. The rights to the film have changed hands a few times over the years, and it is currently distributed by Trimark. However, I doubt that it makes any significant money on home video sales.

hercules2Strangely, I actually think that there is some promise in the concept for “Hercules in New York.” The Greek gods are constantly meddling in the mortal world in mythology, so why not have a fish out of water tale where a god comes down to do it again in the modern world? Of course, this film does just about everything wrong, but I think that this could have been a serviceable enough film in more capable hands at every level. Essentially, this is not a film that was damned from conception.

The biggest issue for “Hercules in New York” is its use of outdated (even for 1969) humor. The jokes are all incredibly weak and infantile, and a lot of the humor seems like it is supposed to come from Arnold Stang’s character, whose comic relief style was suited better for the comedy world prior to the JFK assassination. All of the comic portrayals in the film are overly-expressive, frenetic, and basically cartoonish: a style that can go wrong all too easily, and certainly does so here.

One other serious problem with “Hercules in New York” is that the hero, Hercules, is an absolute asshat throughout the movie. A few characters acknowledge this fact, but inexplicably forgive him and begin to like him for reasons that are never made clear on screen (which is a whole different issue with the writing in the film). The audience is clearly supposed to sympathize with the demigod, but I couldn’t help but identify with the put-out and exasperated Zeus, who has clearly had it with Hercules’s constant shit.

I would be remiss to not mention the amazingly awful Central Park bear fight in this film. The sequence almost rivals the bear fight from the Lou Ferrigno’s “Hercules” film, though I shockingly think that that one (a scene where a bear is thrown into space, mind you) is more believable that Arnold’s bear wrestling in this flick. Take a look for yourself:

At one point in the film, Mercury decides to intervene in the plot to help Hercules out of a bind. He does this by bafflingly summoning Samson and Atlas out of absolutely nowhere, exactly where they need to be to help Hercules. This might have been an interesting side plot (Mercury defying Zeus to help Hercules) if it had been developed earlier, but as it exists in the film, it feels like an improvised element used to patch a plot hole. It comes completely unprecedented and out of left field, and winds up being just another example of the mass ineptitude behind this movie.

All of the acting is this movie is honestly beyond awful. From the leads to the accessory players to the extras: not one person turns in a decent performance. At that point, you have to assume that the problem is not with the actors, but with the direction and the script: because honestly, what are the odds that you cast an entire production’s worth of duds? This isn’t “The Producers” as far as I know.

“Hercules in New York” is clearly trying to be a fish out of water comedy, but a good deal of it doesn’t make sense. Hercules should be treated as a man out of his own time, not like a creature from another planet. Is the audience supposed to believe that the Greek gods do not understand tact or basic social graces? Sure they live remotely, but they do have a sort of society on Olympus. There is the potential for this movie to be entertaining, but the writing never quite takes it in the right direction (at least not for long).

hercules1Overall, I think “Hercules in New York” sits right on the boundary between being an entertainingly awful movie and a dull, nearly-unwatchable one. If you ask me, it does land on the right side of that line, but only barely.  I can recommend this for bad movie lovers for the sake of a few select highlights, and because of just how awful Arnold is in this early role. However, it is a pretty weak recommendation: there are definitely more worthwhile bad movies to spend your time on.