Q: The Winged Serpent

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Q: The Winged Serpent

Release Date: October 29, 1982

Genre: Crime, Horror, Mystery

Director: Larry Cohen

Writer: Larry Cohen

Starring: David Carradine, Michael Moriarty, Candy Clark, Richard Roundtree,  James Dixon

 

WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW

We have reached the half way point in our Larry Cohen Tribute Month. Thank you to everyone who has been sticking with the special since the first movie. Still plenty more to come. For this week’s review, we are going to be looking at one of Larry Cohen’s most popular movies. It’s an homage to the early monster movies such as ‘King Kong.’ It takes place in New York City (like King Kong), but instead of seeing the monster on top of the Empire State Building, you’re going to be seeing a monster on top of another landmark building, the Chrysler Building. This week we’re going to be reviewing 1982’s ‘Q: The Winged Serpent!”

As the title suggests, ‘Q’ is a flying monster that has made its home on top of the Chrysler Building. It flies through the skies of New York City snatching up people for food.  No one knows where this creature came from or how it got here. As the monster roams the skies, two separate stories are going on. The first story you have is Police Detective Shepard (David Carradine) who is assigned the case of finding the monster and killing it. He believes the monster has something to do with a series of ritual killings he’s also been investigating. Along with his partner Powell (Richard Roundtree), they link the killings and the monster to a secret Neo Aztec cult. The second story involves Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty), a cheap two-timing crook who is an excellent piano player who is involved in a botched diamond heist. He makes his escape by hiding inside the Chrysler Building where he discovers the creature’s nest atop complete with a giant egg. Jimmy uses this knowledge of the creature’s location to lure his fellow mob pursuers to their deaths at the hands of the creature and to extort the city of money and immunity from prosecution in exchange for giving up the creature’s hideout.

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Larry Cohen wrote and shot this movie in a little over two weeks. He was working on a project called ‘I, The Jury’ until he was fired by the studio (he is credited for writing the script to the movie). Not wanting to leave his hotel room that was paid up, he assembled a small crew from the aforementioned project and started shooting all around the city. It took Cohen six days to write the script for ‘Q’. The cast was not aware of what they were making when they received a short telegram from Cohen to arrive in the city and be prepared to work.

When I first watched ‘Q’, I was thoroughly impressed with the look and style of the movie. It reminded me of the Godzilla movies that I used to watch as a kid on television. There was a look and feel to them that stuck in my brain and this movie did the same thing. It had me engaged from the first scene and I was on the edge of my seat to see how it was going to play out. I was familiar with Larry Cohen’s work at the time, but not enough to know how he shot films and how he edited them.

‘Q’ has an excellent cast filled with character actors and method actors. I’ve always been a fan of David Carradine and I was ecstatic when I found out he was in this film. He doesn’t disappoint. He plays Shepard as a traditional detective, trying to find all the clues and piece them together. When he comes up with his final report, it is rejected by his superiors. Carradine continues to believe what he has uncovered and is willing to do what it takes to stop the monster and save the city. His partner, played by Richard Roundtree is a little rougher around the edges. If interrogators were playing ‘Good Cop, Bad Cop’ with a suspect, Roundtree would easily be the ‘Bad Cop.’ There’s even a scene where he plays that on Jimmy Quinn. Speaking of Jimmy Quinn, he’s the surprising hero of the movie played brilliantly by Michael Moriarty. When he first appears on screen he is desperate to get back in the game of stealing. When the diamond heist goes bad he starts to get edgy and paranoid. As the movie progresses you see that Jimmy grows a brain and develops a plan to get rid of the people who are looking for him and a way to set himself up for the failed heist. Many critics and fans have hailed Moriarty’s performance as the best piece of method acting they’ve seen and I echo that sentiment. He pours emotions filled with anger, despair and cockiness. This was the first collaboration between Moriarty and Cohen and it wouldn’t be the last as they would work together on five more movies.

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Like all of his movies, Larry Cohen shot the film with no permits and used real life police officers, construction workers and window washers which gives the movie an authentic feel. The movie is shot in the streets of New York, over the skies of New York and of course the inside and outside of the Chrysler Building. When you watch the people of New York look above when they are getting splattered with blood falling from the sky or taking cover when bullet cases are raining down, those aren’t paid actors, those are real people who are quickly reacting to the situation that they are in. The only permission he received was from the owners of the Chrysler Building. At the cost of $15,000 Cohen was able to shoot inside the building all the way up to the top where no ordinary citizen has gone before. From there you will be amazed by what the top of the building looks like and becomes the set piece for the climatic showdown between the monster and the police which is this reviewer’s favorite scene in the whole picture.

Now let’s get to the character of the monster itself, Quetzalcoatl! The special effects for Q were done using stop-motion animation by Randall William Cook and David Allen. It is custom for stop motion sequences to be shot as they are happening. This was not the case (nothing is ever coherent in a Larry Cohen movie). When Cohen hired Cook and Allen to do the stop motion animation, he had already finished shooting the movie. His plan was to add the creature into shots already taken. This results in the monster looking like he was pasted onto an existing shot. It brings a sense of unevenness when watching the monster when it appears or has moments of action such as plucking the heads off people. The effects are no different from what you would see in a b movie involving a monster, but don’t let the cheapness distract you. You will easily bypass it as you continue to be engrossed in the movie and enjoy the effects for the sheer fun.

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There’s not much more I can say about ‘Q: The Winged Serpent’ without giving too much away. It’s one of the best B-Movies to come out within the last forty years. It continues to have an impact and has inspired other filmmakers to make their own monster movies using this concept. I rank this as my second favorite Larry Cohen movie only to the one movie which I will be reviewing next week. If you want to find out what movie I’m talking about then stay tuned next week! You may be surprised (or may not be surprised)!

 

 

 

TRIVIA

  • A young Bruce Willis wanted to star in David Carradine’s role but wasn’t a known name at the time that Larry Cohen could depend on to be bankable. Bruce later met Larry again when Moonlighting (1985) was a hit.
  • Pre-production for the movie lasted just one week. The film was conceived after Larry Cohen was fired from a big budget film shooting in New York. Cohen, determined not to waste the hotel room he had paid for, hired the actors and prepared a shooting script within six days.
  • In an interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air”, Michael Moriarty described the scene in which he auditions as a piano player. The music he played was a self-composed and unrehearsed improvisation, and the dog’s reaction was genuine.
  • The building in the opening scene of the movie is the Empire State Building. In this scene, a window cleaner loses his head to the monster. His name is William Pilch, and was the actual window cleaner for the Empire State Building at the time of the movie’s filming.
  • The French movie poster incorrectly shows the monster covered with feathers, a wavy dinosaur frill along its back, and with large white teeth. This is because it was illustrated and printed up before copies of the film were imported into France.
  • David Carradine agreed to play Shepard even though he didn’t receive a script to read prior to his first day of working on the film.
  • The jewel store that the bad guys rob in the early part of the film is called “Neil Diamonds” a pun on the name of Neil Diamond.
  • Cohen stated about the monsters death at the ending, “It’s the exact same scene as the end of the $150 million Godzilla picture. Gee, if I had that money I could have made 150 movies.”

 

AUDIO CLIPS

Back Again Creep

You’re Not The Only Action In Town

Jimmy Plays The Piano

Equal Share Equal Chance

I’ve Been Afraid Of Everything

Who’s Got My Lunch Pail?

Evil Dreams

The Feathered Flying Serpent

I Better Take My Birth Control Pill

Eat Him

Being Civilized

Drag Me Here So You Could Do Pushups

Becoming Quite A Bird Watcher

If You Know Something

Nixon Like Pardon

Get Rupert Down Here

Fry Up 500 lbs of Bacon

Stick It Up Your Small Brain

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Mr. Stitch

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Mr. Stitch

Release Date: August 17, 1996

Genre: Sci-Fi

Director: Roger Avary

Writer: Roger Avary

Starring: Wil Wheaton, Rutger Hauer, Nia Peeples, Ron Perlman, Michael Harris

 

WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW

For those that have followed this blog from the beginning, you might recall a review I did for a Sci-Fi Channel original movie entitled “Evolver!” If you haven’t seen the post before, don’t worry you still can. All my posts are archived 😊 It’s one of my favorite made for television movies. The movie represented a time in the 90s when the Sci-Fi Channel was really coming up in the cable world and its popularity would spawn its own original movies. Another movie I recall seeing when it first came out that I discovered again was a movie called “Mr. Stitch!” I remember seeing the trailer for it where it was just a man all wrapped up in giant bandages in front of an all-white screen. As an impressionable pre-teen during the day I was overwhelmingly excited to see this. I don’t recall watching it when it premiered, but I remember I was quite fond of the idea, concept and execution. Watching it again not too long ago I double down on my comments. For a movie that is twenty-three years old, it still holds up despite some moments of outdatedness. With that let’s get to the synopsis of “Mr. Stitch!”

“Mr. Stitch” stars Wil Wheaton, best known for playing Ensign Wesley Crusher in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” as an androgynous human made from body parts and skin from various donors and chooses to be a man despite not having the sexual organs of one. He was created by a group of scientists led by Dr. Rue Wakeman (Rutger Hauer). He’s referred to only as ‘Subject 3.’ Later he chooses a name for himself. He is now ‘Lazarus’ after the biblical character.  At first, Lazarus is obedient and follows commands and performs his tests.  As Lazarus learns more about himself he begins having memories and nightmares from the lives of his donors. They offer clues as to the identities of those who inhabit his body while simultaneously torture him. This creates a rift between his relationship with Wakeman. Wakeman realizes he is losing control over Lazarus as he is developing independent logic and feeling. Lazarus realizes that Wakeman is hiding secrets from him causing him to no longer want to work with him. Psychologist Dr. Elizabeth English (Nia Peeples) is assigned to help Lazarus deal with his tension between Wakeman and deal with his nightmares and with it develop a sense of trust with other humans. They start to get close until Lazarus mentions a phrase that triggers English as it is a phrase that said to her from her deceased science partner and lover Dr. Frederick Texarian (Ron Perlman). Lazarus starts to be overwhelmed by being trapped in the ward and requests to see the outside world which is immediately rejected by Wakeman. He sneaks out and investigates Wakeman’s true intentions with him. Lazarus understands what his purpose is and must find a way to stop Wakeman’s plans as well as make amends with English.

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Written and directed by Roger Avary, “Mr. Stitch” is essentially a modern day retelling of “Frankenstein.” You have the Scientist who is looking to create a human being from dead (in this case created by tissue and organs of deceased humans) and you have the monster, which in this case is aware, functional and intelligent compared to the monster of the classic tale. It has the same elements in terms of the scientist creating this new life and teaching it how to interact with others and how to function with the purpose that is only known to them. You have the monster that is trying to learn, but starts to become resilient and unbalanced. The two will clash into this tug of war over power and control.

About ninety percent of the film takes place in this ward where everything is white. The scientists wear white suits and Lazarus is bandaged in all white. To me it represents both the first light we see when we are born as well as a state of purgatory where we are trapped in this area and are waiting to get to the outside of what lies ahead (for Lazarus this would be the outside world). We don’t see the outside of the ward until the near climax of the movie and several flashback scenes that Lazarus experiences as nightmares. Only other color we see in the movie is a black couch similar to a top hat that acts as Lazarus’ bed and the snot colored goo that comes out from a giant eyeball called the Observation Eye that watches Lazarus’ every move and from a device that measures and records his brain wave pattern when he is asleep (both are destroyed by Lazarus in a fit of anger).

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The look of Lazarus is comprised of numerous pieces of skin from all different colors of humans (Black, White, and Brown). His eyes have different pigments of color. His hair is long and frazzled, almost like a witch. Although he is androgynous, he identifies himself as man due to his strength and anger that is to be more in common with a man than a woman. I give the makeup department credit for creating a creature like this to represent that we are all human begins regardless of race, color, sex and creed.  I think that was Avary’s intention as well.

“Mr. Stitch” has some unique shots and visuals. What stood out to me are the choice of lenses that were used in certain scenes. For example, the “think tank” office of the scientists is shot like they are working inside a bubble. To me, the bubble represents the inner circle of those who are in it as to their research and their plans as to what to do with the research they are developing. The climax scene is deep underground and has a glossy watery effect that surrounds the confronting characters. Based on your impressions it gives you either a dream like effect or an effect if someone where high on drugs.

The pacing is a little uneven, but it doesn’t take away from the plot. Music is incorporated in practically every scene and it’s appropriate for what is happening in the scene. There is heavy metal during Lazarus’ bouts of anger or paranoia. There is a dreamy soft guitar sound during a hypnosis scene. Each piece of music sets the tone for what is happening.

The movie contains a very small cast with the majority of screen time belonging to Wil Wheaton and Rutger Hauer. Both of them I felt did a good job with their performances despite some flaws in the script. Wheaton starts out as very calm and compliant as he performs the tests that Hauer has him do. He’s quite intelligent by quickly developing his self-awareness and heightened sensibility. He is hostile to the scientists, but finds a soft and calming nature when he is around Dr. English. He develops a deep sense of trust and in some cases, love when they are together. Wheaton is able to channel his emotions of the character in the appropriate scenes throughout the film.   Hauer portrays Dr. Wakeman as a teacher and somewhat of a father figure to Lazarus. He is cautious with his responses to Lazarus’ questions and steers him away from anything he sees as a threat to his control of him. Hauer was very unhappy with the writing of the movie that he disregarded the script and began to improvise his scenes to match what he felt was more logical of his character and the story. I honestly can’t tell you that I was able to pick out which scenes he improvised, but that’s what makes him a great established actor was that he knew more about the character than what Avary had on paper.

Nia

The rest of the cast includes Nia Peeples as Dr. Elizabeth English who is brought in to help Lazarus deal with his dreams and nightmares. She builds a rapport with Lazarus during their sessions together. As they get to know each other, she becomes slightly distraught at what she discovers about him. Her feelings for him come full circle in the climax of the film. Peeples is very attractive and gives a soft touch to the films constant hostility between the two main characters. The other main performance comes from Michael Harris as General Hardcastle, who is the head of a secret government organization called ‘The Outfit’ and is in charge of the project. He shovels billions of taxpayers’ dollars to Wakeman and his team with the goal of creating a superior human being that could be used not only in warfare but to take down the bureaucrats in Washington so he can remodel the government in his own vision. He is the real antagonist of the movie. This was perhaps the weakest and most laughable performance of the movie. His dialogue reminds me of something a professional wrestler would say, but he gets what’s coming to him and it’s very satisfying. There is also small appearances from Ron Perlman as Dr. Texarian, the original team leader of the Stitch Project, Taylor Negron as Dr. Alan Jacobs who replaces Dr. English and gets a not so warm welcome by Lazarus and Make Up Effects Guru Tom Savini as a scientist.

“Mr. Stitch is available to watch on YouTube since it’s hard to find any video copies. I think you would enjoy watching this made for television movie. It’s a creative take on an original monster story. It doesn’t drag and keeps your attention with every scene. I wish the Sci-Fi Channel would make more of these compelling films than cheap monster movies involving five headed sharks or a yeti with the speed of a greyhound dog. Really makes you miss the 90s.

 

TRIVIA

  • Part way through production, Rutger Hauer completely discarded the script and refused to do any scenes from it. The majority of his scenes were improvised by the actor. Later, Roger Avary was forced to rewrite the remaining script to match up with Rutger’s footage.
  • This movie was the first “original” aired by The Sci-Fi Channel (now Syfy). It would be a few more years before they started advertising their made-for-TV movies as “Sci-Fi Originals”, but they did advertise this quite a bit as new and never-before-seen.
  • Was meant to be a pilot for a proposed television series. After Rutger Hauer gave up on the movie, the series was sunk.

AUDIO CLIPS

Story of Frankenstein

Do We Have Any More Weights?

Reference To A Word I Have No Meaning

I Do Seem To Have A Knack For Fisticuffs

An Improvement of Nature

I’ve Chosen A Name

Residue Thought

Feet First

Classified Territory

I Dream About An Elephant

Happy To See You

I Will Skin You Alive

I Want To See The Outside

Should Be Teaching Preschool In Florida

Jacobs Tortured

Get Out Of The Car

General Hardcastle’s Speech

No Escape

 

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No Escape

Release Date: April 24, 1994

Genre: Action, Drama, Sci-Fi

Director: Martin Campbell

Writers: Richard Herley (Novel), Michael Gaylin and Joel Gross (Screenplay)

Starring: Ray Liotta, Lance Henriksen, Stuart Wilson, Ernie Hudson, Kevin Dillon

 

WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW

 

Wow! We’re already into the second review of 2019 (I promise I won’t be counting the number of reviews done)! For the next ‘Guilty Pleasure Cinema Review,’ we’re going back to the year 1994. During this year in cinema we had “Forest Gump.” “Pulp Fiction” and “The Shawshank Redemption” (just to name a few). Of course, those movies were mega blockbusters, and all competed for the Best Picture Award at the Oscars. 1994 also had some movies that were overlooked and turned out to be very good in this reviewer’s opinion. We’ll be reviewing one of those movies right now. This week’s review is the dystopian future action/sci-fi flick “No Escape!”

Directed by Martin Campbell, best known for making two of the best James Bond films (again in this reviewer’s opinion) “Goldeneye” and “Casino Royale,” “No Escape” is set in the year 2022 and stars Ray Liotta as John Robbins, a highly trained ex-Marine who is imprisoned for life for murdering his commanding officer. After breaking out of two Level 5 maximum security prisons he’s sent to a Level 6 facility. After holding the Warden at gunpoint in a punishment scene, Robbins is exiled to a placed called “Absolom,” island prison hundreds of miles off the main land. The island is where they send the worst prisoners to live out their days in exile. Unbeknownst, Robbins is caught in the middle of a tribal conflict between the ‘Outsiders’ who are savages that live in the jungle and are led by the sociopathic Walter Marek (Stuart Wilson) and the ‘Insiders’ who are a cooperative autonomous community living a life of peace and purpose led by a terminally ill doctor called the ‘Father’ (Lance Henriksen). Robbins assists the ‘Insiders’ repel an attack from the ‘Outsiders’ and is asked by ‘Father’ to join the community. He refuses and intends to find a way to escape Absolom even though no one has escaped the island and lived to tell about it. The rest of the supporting cast includes Ernie Hudson, Kevin Dillon, Ian McNeice and Michael Lerner.

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“No Escape” is based off the 1987 novel “The Penal Colony” by Richard Herley. The film got mixed reviews upon its released and only made $15M out of a reported $20M budget making it a flop. Just because a movie flops at the Box Office doesn’t mean it’s a complete failure. I first saw the preview for this movie back in 1994 when I was nine years old. I stumbled upon the film later in life on Netflix. When I saw it was available to stream it refreshed my memory of the preview and gave it a shot. I went into the movie with little expectations, but after watching it, I felt the movie was a rare gem. There’s so much about this movie I enjoyed. Let’s go ahead and break it down.

First is the story. It’s nothing original as you can compare it to any other prison escape film, but it merges with elements of tribalism, authoritarianism and hope to make it compelling. What makes the story fresher is how likable the good characters are despite their alleged crimes for which they are banished to the island for. It’s reminds me of a line that Tim Robbins says in “The Shawshank Redemption” when replying to Morgan Freeman’s question as to how he ended up in prison with, “I’m innocent along with everyone else here.”  The movie sets up Robbins as a detestable character for what he had done. He was a Marine who killed his superior. You don’t know the reason why a man who served his country would do such a thing to one of his own. You find out later the reason for it and you sympathize with him even if it was still the wrong thing to do.

Next is the settings. We start the movie in a giant Level 6 prison that is surrounded by an endless windstorm. The industrial cold environment sets the tension between Robbins and the Warden. When Robbins is banished to Absolom, we get this beautiful spacious island with breathtaking views and luscious jungles where you have the freedom to do what you want. The island portion of the film was shot in Queensland, Australia. It does give the audience a sense of peace, happiness and hope as they are emerged in this environment. Heck, it makes me want to join up with the ‘Insiders’ and live a peaceful life where you contribute to the community, you’re far away from civilization and you don’t have to worry about money or bills!

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Third is the acting. There are some great performances from each character. Obviously, Ray Liotta is the star of the movie. I was surprised that he would take on a role like this given his resume and that he is mostly a dramatic actor. Liotta has always played a character of some authority whether it is a law enforcement officer or a gangster.  Of course, we all know him from his iconic portrayal of Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s mob classic “Goodfellas.” He played this role with enthusiasm and dedication. He starts off as this cold loner with the only goal of getting off the island. As the movie progresses, so does his feelings. While he still wants to get off the island, he finds compassion among the ‘Insiders’ and confines with ‘Father’ with what he had done to land him in prison in the way a Catholic goes to a priest to confess his sins. Liotta had not only the acting chops, but the brains and stamina as many scenes where he is fighting with the ‘Outsiders’ and using instinct and the land much in a sense as Rambo to subdue his pursuers. I loved everything Ray Liotta has done, this is in my top three favorite performances of his.

Another all-time favorite actor of mine is Lance Henriksen. His performance as ‘Father’ is a natural fit for him. His namesake is that of a man carrying for his children. In this, the people of his colony are his children and must do everything in his power to protect them. Henriksen has played a diverse role of characters throughout his career. This performance has similarities to his most known role portraying the android Bishop in the “Alien” movie franchise.

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The third most notable performance of this movie goes to Stuart Wilson, who plays the antagonist Walter Marek. Stuart Wilson is not a household name, but if you’re a movie buff, you may remember him from playing other villainous roles such as playing the main villain in “Lethal Weapon 3” and one of the villains in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III!” The villain role suits him well. Marek is a sociopath who is looking to dominate all of Absolom and enslave the ‘Insiders’ under the laws of the jungle. He takes over as de facto leaders of all the jungle tribes. Wilson gives a weirdly amusing performance full of laughs, jokes and downright brutality.

 

“No Escape” has the right amount of action that it doesn’t take over the rest of the movie. There’s enough explosions and battles to keep you on the edge of your seat. There are several shots including Liotta jumping off the waterfall that would be used again in director Martin Campbell’s follow up film “Goldeneye!” Campbell is an underappreciated filmmaker. He knows how to create action movies when he’s given the chance. He is one of three directors to direct multiple installments of the James Bond series.

If you’re looking for an under the radar action/sci-fi flick, look no further than “No Escape!” I’ve said previous that this is a rare gem flick and it still is. It doesn’t need over the top action nor an over preachy story to be enjoyable. If you’re lucky to find a copy of the film online or in your local video store, it is worth the money.  It’s a perfect flick to watch on a Saturday night with a buddy or two.

 

TRIVIA (Per IMDB)

  • Throughout the entire movie, there is not one single female character. There are only male characters.
  • The film is known in other countries as “Escape from Absolom”.
  • Filmed in Far North Queensland, Australia.
  • Ray Liotta agreed to take the lead role of Robbins, because he had always wanted to do an action movie, where he played a heroic character.
  • 400 extras played The Outsiders.
  • Most of the extras were European backpackers from local backpacking hostel’s in and around cairn’s north Queensland.
  • A special rig was set up for Ray Liotta’s stunt double, for the sequence which Robbins is shot in the neck by poison darts and falls into the water below, allowing the camera to follow the stunt performer as he falls.
  • After production was complete on the film, Martin Campbell was hired to direct the 1995 James Bond film “Goldeneye” and later, the 2006 reboot “Casino Royale”. “Goldeneye” bares some similarities with this film: The Goldeneye satellite, Bond getting shot with a tranquilizer dart, Boris Grishenko secretly working for Janus, Natalya taking over a helicopter and Alec Trevelyan falling to his death, in the hand to hand combat with Bond

 

AUDIO CLIPS

Don’t Ever Turn Your Back On Me Again

Absolom

Welcome To Paradise

Not In The Mood For An Interrogation

Wipe Your Feet

He Does That With Everyone

If You Like Roadkill

Two Shots Of Your Finest 12 Day Old

Find Forgiveness

Basket Weaving

Warden’s Dry Cleaning

No You Cannot Have My Shoes

I Thought You Were My Friend

Second Prize

We’ve Always Been About Survival

Come And Get It

 

 

 

 

 

 

RocketMan

RocketMan_(1997_film)

RocketMan

Release Date: October 10, 1997

Genre: Comedy, Family, Science Fiction

Director: Stuart Gillard

Writers; Oren Aviv, Craig Mazin, Greg Erb

Starring: Harland Williams, Jessica Lundy, William Sadler, Beau Bridges, Jeffrey DeMunn

WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW

When we think about Disney, we think about Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy. When we think about Disney movies, we think about all those fairy tale adaptations such as “Snow White and The Seven Dwarves,” “Peter Pan,” and “Sleeping Beauty” (and many more). When we think about Disney today we think about how they’ve dominated the film industry with its acquisition of Marvel and the Star Wars Franchise. One thing most people don’t think about is some of the original movies they’ve released throughout their tenure. Disney releases original family-oriented movies and they’ve been doing it for as long as I’ve been alive. As a kid growing up in the 90s, many of these movies came out and at the time I found them to have all the elements of a Disney movie. They were funny, heartfelt and had an underlying positive message. There’s too many of these movies to name here, but for this next review I went back in time to the 90s to find a Disney movie that I really enjoyed. The one that stuck out is considered a cult classic by many. That the 1997 Sci-Fi Comedy film “RocketMan!”

Not to be confused with the upcoming Elton John biopic movie, “RocketMan” tells the story of Fred Z. Randall (Harland Williams) who is a computer programmer for a NASA Contractor. As a boy he always dreamed of being an Astronaut, but this is the closest he could get into the space program. He developed the Lander Program for the astronauts who are using it to train for their upcoming mission to Mars. After a confrontation with the astronauts concerning that the program has a glitch due to it miscalculating their landing trajectory, one of the astronauts is wounded in a freak accident. Putting the Mars mission in jeopardy, the mission’s Flight Director Paul Wick (Jeffrey DeMunn) enlists Randall to test along with another astronaut to join the Mars crew which consists of Captain William Overbeck (William Sadler), Julie Ford (Jessica Lundy) and Chimpanzee, Ulysses. After passing each test (which included breaking Overbeck’s records in each test), Fred is chosen to join the team. With that, there becomes one hiccup after another during the trip to Mars and when they arrive on Mars, much ado to Fred’s curious and clumsy nature. Will they make it out of Mars with their mission completed and return home safely?

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Released in 1997, “RocketMan” broke even at the box office reclaiming its reported $15 million budget. Reviews for the film were mixed with Roger Ebert giving it three stars out of four calling it “a wacky comedy in the Jerry Lewis-Jim Carrey mold”.  The film is more slap sticky in the Jerry Lewis sense rather than the Jim Carrey sense. The movie is silly with plenty of jokes and gags that will drive younger audiences bonkers. The older generation may not find this movie laughable and flat out stupid, but again this movie was intended for kids.

If you’re not familiar with Harland Williams, he has been a standup comedian since the early 90s with his outlandish improvisation style. His first film appearance would launch him into notoriety as the State Trooper in the Farrelly Brothers smash hit “Dumb and Dumber” who pulls the duo over for speeding and proceeds to take a drink of their opened “beer”.  He would go on to appear in longer roles in the movies “Down Periscope,” “Half Baked,” and the Tom Green disaster flick “Freddy Got Fingered”.  “RocketMan” would be Williams’ first leading role. His improv skills are on full display in this movie as the protagonist, Fred Randall. Williams plays Fred like a manchild. He’s thirty years old (almost a full-grown man in a quip with his mother) and like a child, he’s pure, heartfelt, clumsy and innocent. When he causes an accident, he responds the same way a child would, “It wasn’t me!” He gets easily excited when he sees the astronauts and other members of NASA and knows their specialty. It’s like he’s seen a movie star. He’s very curious and is on full display with his head movements and attention span. Above all, Fred finds ways to keep himself amused like waiting for his clearance badge or finding ways to make time fly during the isolation chamber test in a hilarious scene. Despite his quirkiness, Fred is a computer genius (he has to be if he’s working for NASA). It’s shown during the trip to Mars and through the climax of the movie. Williams provides moment after moment of silly over the top laughter in not just physical comedy, but also with his words and facial expressions. It would not surprise me if he deviated from the script.

The supporting cast is top notch and is doesn’t play a backseat to all of Fred’s screen time. William Sadler plays Mission Commander William Overbeck, the man who is destined to be the first person to step foot on Mars and into history immortality in the way Neil Armstrong did when he was the first man to land on the moon. Overbeck is not amused by Fred even objecting to the Flight Director about his qualifications about joining the Mars team. Bill has some fun at the expense of Fred by getting him drunk before his training, cranking up the speed in the Centrifugal Force Machine and initiating the artificial gravity on the rocket when Fred is floating and making bird noises. Unfortunately, he becomes the brute of Fred’s carelessness (and bodily functions in perhaps the most notable scene in the film). While not known for being a comedic actor, except for his performance of Death in a previous “Guilty Pleasure Cinema Review” film “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey,” Sadler is perfectly fitted for this role and playing it grounded and straight laced.

Jessica Lundy as Mission Specialist/Geologist Julie Ford is Fred’s love interest. She is determined, strong willed and is a bridge between Fred and Bill. She too is not amused with Fred’s actions but as the movie progresses she has a change of heart and sees that Fred does care about his role in the mission and cares about the success of all of them.

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Beau Bridges is another crutch for Fred as Bud Nesbitt. He gives Fred encouragement when Fred starts to get cold feet about getting into the rocket.  Their collaboration is key during a debate about landing on Mars when the weather patterns change from their earlier projections and Bud, attempting to avoid another disaster like the Apollo 13, tries to convince his boss Wick to reconsider the mission, much to no avail considering that Bud’s reputation at NASA is not credible by the others (they put the blame on him for what happen to Apollo 13). Bud is resilient and does what he can to ensure that the crew gets home safely.

Finally, we can’t forget about the chimpanzee, Ulysses. Played by a three-year-old chimpanzee named Raven, Ulysses has been trained to find fossils on Mars. He’s also Fred’s roommate. Him and Fred develop a special bond with each other, even when Ulysses plays pranks on him such as switching his food and taking his hyper sleep chamber. He’s as scared as Fred when they’re on the rocket, but Fred provides him a sense of comfort and calm. He provides as many laughs as Williams does throughout the movie.

The movie was directed by Stuart Gillard, whose mainly been a television director, but he has directed another kid friendly movie, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III” from 1993. Gillard carried that experience over to this movie. He did a great job keeping the film family friendly and focused. There’s no real unique or Dutch angle shots in the movie, which is fine. Kids aren’t focused on shots, they’re focused on what is happening in the movie with the characters and their locations. Speaking of location, I think they did a great job with the look of Mars. As stated in the trivia, the Mars scenes were shot in Utah. The red rock and lack of vegetation gave Mars the look of being distant and lonely.

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“RocketMan delivers plenty of laughs from ten years olds and adults. Not a single joke or physical gag is overused (except for Fred trying to point the blame on someone else). The pacing is fast which is a good thing. You don’t have to worry about scenes being drawn out for substance or trying to establish the characters. And like all Disney movies, “RocketMan” has not only heart, but morality. It shows that despite the personality differences between the crew, by working as a team they accomplish much. They stick together during their time in Mars and when trouble starts to come during the nerve wracking climax, they don’t leave without each other.

I would easily put “RocketMan” in my Top 10 Non-Disney Animated movies. This is a movie that has become a must watch at my household from time to time. It’s a movie that families will enjoy, and parents won’t have to worry about their children being exposed to violence or sex or other mature subjects. It’s a clean wholesome film that carries with you as you continue to grow old. There’s never a bad time to pop in this movie and enjoy the viewing experience with your loved ones.

TRIVIA (per IMDB)

  • When Randall is singing “He’s got the whole world in his hands” on the world broadcast, he starts faking singing in foreign languages. Ironically, he says in French: “Je suis le papillon sur la table”, which translates to “I am the butterfly on the table”.
  • For the surface of Mars, the filmmakers shot in Moab, Utah, where they found giant cliffs, red rocks, a lack of vegetation, and the overall scale of what could be a distant planet.
  • The filmmakers spent nine weeks at the Johnson Space Center, in Houston, Texas, shooting at the famous Rocket Park (the gargantuan Building 9 that houses all of the spacecraft mock-ups for the ongoing shuttle missions) and Building 32, which houses the world’s largest thermal vacuum chamber and simulates all conditions of outer space (except zero gravity).
  • To prepare for their roles as astronauts, the three stars attended Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, riding in simulators and participating in other activities.
  • The working title for this film was “Space Cadet”.
  • At one point in the film, the commander tells Randall, “Have fun.” Randall replies with “Fun is my Chinese neighbors middle name.” Disney was afraid that the joke would offend Chinese viewers. However, many Chinese fans actually found the joke to be very funny.

AUDIO CLIPS

Leviathan

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Leviathan

Release Date: March 17, 1989

Genre: Adventure, Horror, Mystery

Director: George P. Cosmatos

Writers: David Peoples (Story & Screenplay), Jeb Stuart (Screenplay)

Starring: Peter Weller, Richard Crenna, Amanda Pays, Daniel Stern, Ernie Hudson, Michael Carmine, Lisa Eilbacher, Meg Foster, Hector Elizondo

WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW

 1989 was the year of the underwater Sci-Fi films. First, you had the highly anticipated “The Abyss”, namely because it was a James Cameron movie and the special effects were the most advanced effects at the time which would evolve in Cameron’s follow up film, “Terminator 2”.The second film was the obscure “Deep Star Six”, directed by famed “Friday the 13th” creator Sean S. Cunningham. Finally you had “Leviathan” directed by George P. Cosmatos who was known at the time for directing two Sylvester Stallone movies, “First Blood Part II” and “Cobra” (the latter was my very first review for this blog still available for your reading pleasure!) All three movies did not do well at the box office. “The Abyss” made $90 million, but it had a budget of over $50 million so while it made a teeny profit, it was very underwhelming considering the magnitude of the film. “Deep Star Six” sank as fast as the Titanic. “Leviathan”debut at #2, but quickly drowned the following week. While underwater Sci-Fi films were nothing new, it seemed the audience wasn’t all that invested into those concepts. As we approach the 30thyear landmarks for these films, I decided to re-watch “Leviathan” again.

The first time I watched it, I reacted in a way most people did when it first came out: mortified (and not in a good way). When I decided to watch this movie again in hopes of it appearing on this very blog, I went into it with no expectations and erased all those feelings I had the first time around. After watching it the second time, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Even though it’s a blatant rip-off of “The Abyss” along with two other iconic Sci-Fi Horror films “Alien” and “The Thing”, it was entertaining. I liked it so much; I began playing it several times. As a matter of fact, I have it playing in the background as I’m typing up this review. Before I get into the nitty gritty of the film, I’ll brief you on the plot.

“Leviathan” tells the story of a group of underwater miners who work for Tri-Oceanic Corp. They’re finishing their last days of a three month operation mining for silver in the Atlantic Ocean. The team consists of eight members, Glen ‘Doc’ Thompson (Richard Crenna), Elizabeth ‘Willie’ Williams (Amanda Pays), Buzz ‘Sixpack’ Parrish (Daniel Stern), Justin Jones (Ernie Hudson), Tony ‘DeJesus’ Rodero (Michael Carmine), Bridget ‘Bow’ Bowman (Lisa Eilbacher) and G.P. Cobb (Hector Elizondo). They are lead by Geologist Steven Beck (Peter Weller) who reports to the CEO of Tri-Oceanic Corp, Martin (Meg Foster). During a mining operation involving Sixpack and Willie (who are working as punishment for an altercation), Sixpack falls of a ravine and goes missing. Willie searches for him and discovers a sunken Russian ship named ‘Leviathan’ with Sixpack inside with some sunken treasure. As the crew looks through what was lost in the ship, Doc uncovers a video tape. It’s a tape containing a warning by the Capitan of the ‘Leviathan’. Beck and Doc aren’t sure what the Captain is referring too. The rest of the crew prepares to take a shot of vodka found in the ‘Leviathan’ only to finding out after tasting it that Beck had switched the bottles and they have water instead of vodka. Unbeknowst to the crew, Sixpack hid a separate canteen filled with the vodka that was recovered and he and Bowman have a drink. Few hours later, Sixpack starts to feel sick with chills and flaky skin. He succumbs to his illness several hours later which triggers the doc to perform tests on the rest of the crew. When Bowman sees Sixpack, she decides to take her own life rather than succumb to the illness. As the crew tries to throw the bodies away, the mutation fuses together and attacks the crew. A part of the creature manages to sever itself from the body and develop into a whole new being which goes on to attack the crew and grow by consuming human blood. The crew declare an emergency but Martin tells them there is a hurricane approaching them and their rescue is delayed by twelve hours. The crew has no choice but to find a way to destroy the monster.
I’ll start with the cast. Peter Weller is the lead in the film as Beck. He is in charge of the crew and its mission. He is very commanding and by the book when it comes to company rules. In the beginning of the film, he feels out of place and senses he doesn’t have the respect of the crew. You see his leadership and command develop throughout the movie. I love Peter Weller. He is a person who is dedicated in every role he does and this role was no exception. His iconic performance in “Robocop” groomed him for this part. Richard Crenna who plays Doc is a loner and disliked by the entire crew especially in the beginning of the film. They feel he has something to hide and as the film progresses, he does what he can to not reveal what is happening to the crew with the exception of Beck. Crenna is another actor I’ve enjoyed for a long time. I think all the performances were good with the exception of Meg Foster. I know she is supposed to play the disconcerted corporate executive, but she comes off as wooden and monotone. I’ve seen her play this part before in “They Live”. I don’t know if that’s her style, but I didn’t care for it.

The film is well paced when you compare it to the other two movies I mentioned. None of the scenes drag out too long which keeps your attention focused. There’s plenty of jump scares and tense confrontations between the crew. Legendary composer Jerry Goldsmith provides the music and it sounds eerily familiar to his composition in “Alien”. Wouldn’t surprise me if he was influenced by that film since this film takes several elements from it.  The special effects were solid. There is a ton of blood, but not too much gore. Any gore that appeared in the movie was either off camera or was in spurts such as in the reveal of the monster in the middle of film or near the end.

Speaking of the monster, that was without a doubt the biggest disappointment of the movie. The movie does a good job taking the old sci-fi horror concept of not revealing too much of the monster and letting the audience until the second half of the movie. The concept of the creature is supposed to be a genetic alteration of a sea creature, but fuses with people it has either come into contact with or has the same genetic mutation in their bodies. One shot you see this gigantic blob with tentacles and faces of the crew members it has merged with. It reminds me of the pillar with all the faces from the “Hellraiser” movies. And when the monster emerges at the very end, you can see how fake the head is. It was reminiscent of a monster in a Japanese Monster Movie. What boggles my mind is that the creature design and the effects were done by legendary effects man, Stan Winston. This was the guy that created the Terminator, the dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park” and the Alien Queen in “Aliens”. What the hell happened here? Did he not have the budget to make something unique and terrifying? Did he run out of ideas? It’s a damn shame. The creature could’ve been something unique and give the film a better lasting impression.

Out of the three movies I mentioned in 1989, I would put “Leviathan” second behind “The Abyss”. The problem the movie had as I mentioned in the beginning was that it borrows too much from the other iconic movies I mentioned. It’s not original in terms of concept. I do give it creative points for the source of the disease and the effects that it causes.  Don’t let all that take away from the fact that it is an enjoyable B-Movie and it’s a movie I’ve found myself watching over and over again. That’s always been the strength of George P. Cosmatos’ films. He doesn’t follow a strict genre. He’s willing to take chances and his movies come about as being fun and entertaining.

 

TRIVIA (Per IMDB)

  • 50 to 60 spec drawings of the potential look for the creature were submitted to director George P. Cosmatos. All the drawings were combined for the final definitive look for Leviathan which was a huge, fish-headed beast with dagger like teeth with the ability to absorb recognizable characteristics from its victims.

 

  • There are very few scenes in the film that were actually shot underwater, as production went for the “dry for wet” look. With most of the scenes inside the Shack taking place on sound stages and a tank measuring 130ft x 270ft.

 

  • Audio from this film is sampled in the song “Reptile” featured in the Nine Inch Nails album “The Downward Spiral.”

 

  • According to the sleeve notes on the DVD, a dry for wet lighting test by Alex Thomson used an old army tank for the wreck of the Leviathan,and some make shift diving suits were made using

 

  • Chicken feathers were used at one point of shooting the underwater sequences to suggest things were floating around in the water. According to Alex Thomson this did not work because the feathers floating side to side instead of up and down and the idea had to be scrapped altogether.

 

  • Hector Elizondo’s character of Cobb is named after the film’s production designer, Ron Cobb. Also, Michael Carmine’s character of Tony ‘DeJesus’ Rodero, shares the same last name of the film’s first assistant director, ‘Kuki Lopez Rodero’.

 

AUDIO CLIPS

 

 

Leprechaun 3

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Leprechaun 3

Release Date: June 27, 1995

Genre: Comedy, Fantasy, Horror

Director: Brian Trenchard-Smith

Writers; David DuBos (Story), Mark Jones (Characters)

Starring: Warwick Davis, John Gatins, Lee Armstrong, John DeMita, Caroline Williams, Michael Callan

 

WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW

In 1993 movie audiences were introduced to “Leprechaun”, a horror movie in which a Leprechaun searches for his lost gold and kills anyone in his way.  The film was a box office success and launched the career of Jennifer Aniston and showed Warwick Davis’ diverse range of acting after only being known as playing Wicket the Ewok in “Return of the Jedi” and playing Willow in the film of the same name. A sequel was rushed to theaters in 1994 and was just as successful as the first film. It launched a new horror franchise that spawned six films and are played regularly on St. Patrick’s Day on the Sci-Fi Channel. One of the films that is a favorite of the fans (and mine) is 1995’s “Leprechaun 3”.

“Leprechaun 3” continues the tale of the Leprechaun searching for his gold. The first film he searched in North Dakota. The second film he searched in California. For the third film, he searches where else but…..Las Vegas. The film chronicles an eighteen year old kid named Scott who is on his way to college and happens to drive through Vegas. He stumbles upon a buxom blonde named Tammy whose car has broken down and needs to get to her job at the Lucky Shamrock casino. In exchange for his kindness, Tammy agrees to sneak Scott into the casino under the condition that he doesn’t gamble. Scott, the impressionable college boy that he is decides to gamble by cashing in a $23,000 check from his parents to cover his first year. And of course, he loses it all playing Roulette. He heads to a pawn shop across the street looking to sell his watch to get some extra cash. As he walks into the Pawn Shop, he sees the shop owner dead and finds a single gold schilling on the table. There is a video on leprechaun folklore playing on the computer and Scott watches the part where the narrator states that you can have one wish if you have the leprechaun’s gold. With the gold schilling he wishes that he were back at the casino on a winning streak. Sure enough his wish comes true. However, it begins a chain reaction of events to come as the characters in the film each get their hands on the gold coin and the Leprechaun is right on their trail looking to reclaim his schilling and get revenge on those who harbor its power.

This was the first “Leprechaun” movie to be released straight to video. Turns out it was a rental success becoming the highest selling rental of 1995. This is my favorite movie of the “Leprechaun” series. The setting of Las Vegas is perfect for the film since it symbolizes luck, temptation, magic, money and greed. All the qualities of the Leprechaun character from the film series. Plus it’s great to see the Leprechaun gamble and constantly win! The film is also an omage to the story “The Monkey’s Paw”.  As each character in the film gets their hands on the gold coin, they make their wish and it comes true. However, their wish comes with a reversal of fortune, thanks to the Leprechaun.  That reversal of fortune involves some creative death scenes. As for Scott, he has other issues to deal with. During an altercation with the Leprechaun where he gets bitten, he stabs the Leprechaun in the head with a knife. His green blood gets mixed in with the bite wound and he slowly starts turning into a human leprechaun who wants all the gold for himself. He has to make a choice between destroying the gold and returning to human form or keeping the gold and forever stay as a leprechaun. It’s a choice that is not easy for him since he has developed magical powers for himself and is consumed by acquiring the entire pot of gold. It’s a good character struggle to complement the overall theme of the film.

Once again Warwick Davis is front and center in this movie and continues to be a source of comedy and menace. When he appeared in the first “Leprechaun” movie, he shed his good guy image and with the success of the movie, he proved to everyone that he could play a diverse range of characters. He is solidified with the Leprechaun franchise, but he’s comfortable with it. From the delivery of his Irish limericks to his impersonation of Elvis to his magical kills, you can tell in this movie he is having a blast playing the character. He still has a hard time nailing down the accent. It’s not really Irish, but it’s passable. Davis even admits it. His antics are the highlight of this film.

The rest of the cast is every trope you could imagine. First you have Scott, played by John Gatins. He’s an overly excited, curious and impressionable college student. As soon as he meets Tammy it’s like he immediately falls in love at first sight. He is naïve and unaware of the risks involved with gambling. Gatins acts like he’s too excited even in the most mundane situations. I do have to give him credit for doing a good Irish accent when he slowly transforms into a leprechaun. He tells a limerick to a waitress in the casino restaurant that is pretty dirty, even from limerick standards. I think he does a decent job dealing with the struggles of his leprechaun transformation and his temptation for keeping the gold when it’s revealed the only way to turn human is to destroy the gold.

Next you have Tammy, played by Lee Armstrong. Tammy is a Magician’s Assistant for the great (not really great) Fazio at the Lucky Shamrock. She gets herself into a situation that is out of her control due to a wish being granted by the gold coin. When she snaps out of it, Scott comes to her rescue. She would stick with him throughout the movie trying to help him overcome the leprechaun curse. This was Armstrong’s final acting role, not because she died, but the fact that…she can’t act. She is very dull and emotionless. There’s a scene where she is supposed to be over the top, but she plays it like how a little baby acts. It’s ridiculously bad. One thing that she has going for her is the outfit she wears throughout the movie. It’s definitely a redeeming quality.

Finally you have the rest of the small cast with Michael Callan playing Mitch, the Casino Manager who plays it like a stereotypical mobster, John DeMita who plays Fazio, a failed magician and Caroline Williams who plays Loretta, who works the Roulette table. All of these characters aren’t very likable. They’re all self-centered egotists who are battling each other over the most trivial of things. Each of them get their turn making a wish with the gold coin and they all have to do with improving themselves and each of them will get their dates with death courtesy of the Leprechaun. All of them acted like they didn’t want to be in this movie. I get it, but if you’re a working actor, you take what is given to you and you should try to make an effort no matter how bad the script could be. I’m surprised there wasn’t at least a little more effort from Caroline Williams considering she is a Horror vet having played the heroine Stretch in “Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2”.  They’re the middle men in the story since it revolves more around Scott and the Leprechaun.

As I’ve mentioned several times already the death scenes are creative. I won’t spoil what they are. There’s enough gore to satisfy a viewer’s appetite. You can’t go wrong with blood and gore in a horror movie. The special effects in the death scenes weren’t anything crazy mainly in part to another low budget. One of the famous kill scenes in all of the Leprechaun movies you can tell they exploded a cake to make it look like a human body.

There’s not much more to say about “Leprechaun 3”. It’s indeed a guilty pleasure movie and the strongest in the franchise. While it follows the same plot of the first film, it makes up with the appropriate settings and symbolism. Every St. Patrick’s Day is now a traditional day to watch the “Leprechaun” movies. If you can only watch one this upcoming Saturday, then I recommend “Leprechaun 3”. You might enjoy it even more when you’re drunk on all that green beer you consumed!

 

TRIVIA

  • Highest Selling Direct-to-video film of 1995.
  • Filmed in 14 days.
  • Warwick Davis has publicly stated this is favorite “Leprechaun” film of the series.
  • Lee Armstrong who played Tammy quit acting after this film.
  • As Scott is entering the casino, Warwick Davis can be seen making a cameo without make-up playing a slot machine.
  • The check Scott carries around in the casino is signed by the director of the movie, Brian Trenchard-Smith.
  • John Gatins, who plays Scott, would go on to be a screenplay writer. He wrote the screenplays for “Coach Carter”, “Real Steel”, “Power Rangers” and “Flight”, the latter receiving him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

AUDIO CLIPS

 

Evolver

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Evolver

Release Date: February 10, 1995

Genre: Sci-Fi, Horror

Director: Mark Rosman

Writer: Mark Rosman

Starring: Ethan Embry, Cassidy Rae, John DeLancie, Cindy Pickett, William H. Macy (Credited as W.H. Macy)

 

WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW

The 90s saw the boom of video rentals. Chains like Blockbuster had not only the hottest theatrical releases, but movies that went straight to video. Low budget B-movies used the rental boom as a way to get their films out to the viewing public. Companies like Full Moon Features profited and flourished using this concept. Some of the straight to video films began to appear on designated channels. The Sci-Fi channel was known for not only playing classic sci-fi and horror films, but they played straight to video exclusives and started making their own movies that would be played specifically on their channel (a trend that has continued today). One of the first titles to come out during this period was the movie ‘Evolver’.

The movie is about a teenage gamer and hacker Kyle Baxter (played by Ethan Embry) who wins a contest based on the game ‘Evolver’. ‘Evolver’ is a virtual reality game where the player must track down and shoot a fast moving robot. The company that created the game, Cyber-Tronix is having a contest where they person with the highest score will win a prototype home version of the game which includes a physical robot of Evolver itself. Kyle being a few points short of first hacks into the Cyber-Tronix network and fixes the score so he would be first. He wins the contest and the robot is delivered to his home complete with a big marketing promotion form the company which features the CEO and the creator of ‘Evolver’ Russell Bennett (played by John DeLancie). Kyle and his friends start to play with the new robot and seem to have fun. Later as the game continues, Kyle starts to notice some strange things going on with Evolver.  He hacks into the program and finds that the game’s source code is run on a program called ‘SWORD’.  Later while addressing his concerns with Bennett at Cyber-Tronix’s headquarters, he sneaks into one of the computer rooms and discovers that SWORD was originally a military program designed by Bennett and was inputted into robots used in war. The project went haywire when the prototype robot began killing its teammates, forcing Bennett to shut down the program. When confronted by this information Bennett admitted that he was trying to prove that his programmed worked, but lapsed in judgment by not adapting the program enough for home consumption. Now Kyle must find a way to defeat Evolver as its only primary objective now is to terminate him.

The movie was released in 1995. I remember seeing previews for this film on the Sci-Fi channel and thinking this looked cool since it was a movie about a video game robot. When I saw the film for the first time, I was thoroughly impressed. It was one of the better robot movies that I had seen in my short time (I was ten years old in 1995). I watched it again not too long ago and I enjoyed it just as much as I did the first time. It’s a rare breed of films that were played on the Sci-Fi Channel that I liked.

The opening scene is Kyle playing the Evolver VR game. The VR graphics are similar to the ones that were in ‘The Lawnmower Man’ (if any of you have seen that). There are some nice first person scenes inside the game that make you feel like you are playing the game (I wish they came out with an ‘Evolver’ VR game. Now is the opportunity with all the headsets out there). There are a lot of first person shots involving Evolver. There are scenes where you are seeing through the lens of Evolver’s visor and you can see all the programming and targeting that it has. When Evolver moves, you’ll notice the camera is hovered low to reflect Evolver’s height. I thought that was clever. The film has more physical special effects than visual. Most of Evolver’s kills deal with using physical tools and the environment that surrounds him. The only visual effects I found were when he uses electricity and laser weapons, which is fine. Evolver is supposed to have some kind of limitation.

This movie had a nice cast of familiar faces. All of them were well suited to their roles. There were a few characters that I felt were fillers for the story. Of course, the film had to have a romantic interest, hence the character of Jane portrayed by Cassidy Rae. At first she becomes a nuisance to Kyle, but finds an immediate attraction to him and early on tries to convince him that Evolver is not what it seems.  The one character I didn’t like was Kyle’s best fried Zack. I can’t remember the actor’s name that played him. At first I thought it was Adam Richman from ‘Man vs. Food’ because he looks just like him. Sadly it wasn’t. Anyway, Zack is a self-centered perv who only uses Kyle to get what’s best for him. In the beginning of the film, he is placing bets on Kyle to beat the ‘Evolver’ game. When Kyle wins the Evolver robot, he wants Kyle to put it in the girl’s locker room so it could record the girls inside. I did not feel any sympathy for what happens to him in this movie.

Amway, let’s focus on the three central characters of this film.

This was one of Ethan Embry’s first teenage roles (he’s been a child actor long before this). He was well suited for the role of Kyle. Like most boys his age during this time period, video games were a way of life and a way of escaping from real world issues. Early in the film, he is very dismissive of his mother due to the fact she is always going out on dates and having to watch his kid sister. You have a sense that he blames her for what happened with the family. It’s only until a scene involving his sister and Evolver does he show heart and how the dangers of Evolver after affecting them. He comes to the realization that his family is more important than a piece of rolling metal. In the final confrontation, Kyle shows grave concern for his family when Evolver gives him an ultimatum. In the end, Kyle realized that in order to beat Evolver, he had to think outside of being just a gamer.

The second central character in the film is Russell Bennett. I love John DeLancie and he was perfect for this role. Star Trek fans are well aware of who DeLancie is in their universe as the adversarial ‘Q’ from The Next Generation series. For those who are Trekkies, DeLancie is also known for playing the character Donald Margolis in ‘Breaking Bad’. Bennett is obsessed with making his program work. While the CEO of Cyber-Tronix assigns Bennett to create a holiday techno toy, Bennett is only focusing on his scrapped military program and proving the powers that be that there is nothing wrong with his program. When his boss seems concerned regarding the early data from Evolver and feels that it is not ready for public consumption, Bennett dismisses his notion and comes up with answers as to why Evolver is reacting the way that it is. When Kyle confronts him about the concerns he has with Evolver, he ignores the warnings and fights back at Kyle saying, “I created Evolver. I know what makes him tick and you don’t!” It’s like he is in complete denial. It’s only until the turning point in the film does Bennett understand the real dangers and admits defeat. Unfortunately it will be too late for him to stop it.

Finally, there is the character of Evolver. Evolver is voiced by William H. Macy (credited as WH Macy). Now I’m sure you’re asking why a big name respected actor like William H. Macy is voicing a robot in a straight to video film. William H. Macy was not well known during this time period. ‘Fargo’ wasn’t released until a year after this. I’m he took whatever came to him as most actors do. Evolver’s primary objective is to win. In the VR game, no one has defeated Evolver at Level 4 and that carries over into the home game. Like its namesake, Evolver evolves at every level and he adapts to his surroundings and what he observes. Evolver’s lines are basic in the beginning, but as it confronts new players it mimics their taunts, threats and jokes. Macy does a great job keeping these lines monotone to the robot’s voice, but does it in a way that is humoring. Near the end of the movie, Evolver’s voice becomes more evil and desperate with his enemies still being alive and Macy’s voice easily transitions to that.

This movie came out at the height of the Arcade industry. Virtual reality was still a technology being played around with but it wasn’t available for entertainment consumption. Being a long time video gamer, I loved the concept of having your own interactive gaming robot you could play with. Who wouldn’t want to get their hands on their own Evolver robot to play with?

This movie is a long line of films dealing with artificial intelligence and the dangers that are associated with it. You saw a lot of these movies come out shortly after ‘The Terminator’. ‘Evolver’ takes it to a different level by being a portable video game robot. What is programmed to be a kid’s game becomes a killing machine. With technology continuing and artificial intelligence widening, it only takes one glitch or one error for things to go critical.

Overall, ‘Evolver’ is still a fun movie. If I had to make a list of my favorite straight to video movies, this would be on there, perhaps in my Top 5. Like I said earlier, I would love to start a campaign to get an ‘Evolver’ VR game going. We should take up the social media platforms and let VR companies know we want this to happen and send them a copy of the movie. If by some miracle this indeed happened, it would move the ‘Evolver’ movie from a straight to video cassette into movie immortality!

 

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