Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Look Who's Toxic (1990)

In deathly serious tones, over shots of factories pumping fumes into the air, we’re informed that one hundred and thirty five billion pounds of toxic waste are dumped into our water every year.  Billions more infest our air.  Of all the pollutants, only a handful have been studied for their harmful effects on human beings.  Just imagine what those others could do!  Meanwhile, billionaire industrialist Armond Davis (Chris Robinson) suffers from heart issues (insert joke about not having one here) while merely tolerating the constant protests outside his chemical plant.  Tasking cardiologist Wayne (Allen Dorris) and meat slab Drake (Torin Coyle Caffrey) with finding him an unwilling donor pronto, they prey upon feckless workout nut Bobby (Luis Lemus), and things only get worse once they dump his body in the contaminated water behind Davis’ plant.

Like The Toxic Avenger, which Louis Mathew’s Look Who’s Toxic (aka Bobby aka Toxic Adventure Part 4) attempts to emulate (and wishes to hell it was even remotely as accomplished as, if you can believe that), this film concerns itself with environmental matters and pollution as a springboard for a revenge story.  Outside of that, it could care less about the social issues involved.  When Dr. Reskin (Alex Morris) talks about his findings in the water at Davis’ facility, it’s only to either dress Davis down or to tell a disinterested reporter that the waste in the water could be “life altering” (I wonder what that could foreshadow?).  And fair enough.  This is an exploitation/monster movie, and they’ve been using this tactic for decades.  All you need to do is look at films like Them! or The Horror of Party Beach or Spawn of the Slithis for proof.  So, when it’s all said and done, we can’t fault Mathew for not treating the issue of industrial pollution with the sort of depth and gravity as we might expect from a Sixty Minutes exposé (or even Godzilla Versus the Smog Monster).  There are plenty of other things to fault him for, however.

One of the film’s failings (probably its biggest) is its pacing.  It is positively glacial.  It takes well over half the run time for Bobby to return from his watery grave.  In the meantime, we are treated to endless scenes of Davis musing about how evil he is and how disposable everyone else is.  Never mind that the other main protagonist, Bobby’s girlfriend Susan (Shelly Stolaroff), gets to the bottom of absolutely nothing during her investigation into Bobby’s disappearance.  Further, her being in the film at all is tangential to pretty much everything that happens in the plot aside from acting as a reason to try injecting a modicum of pathos into the finale (it doesn’t work).  In fact, Susan spends most of the film being tied up and/or chased around by Drake (and not in a fun way).  It may not have been so egregious if the scenes between what miniscule action and gore there are were more than simply retreading variations on the same dialogue and story beats we saw in the film’s first fifteen minutes (and felt like it sucked up twice that much time).  

There is a saying touted by screenwriting gurus (whether it was Syd Field, Robert McKee, or some other, and regardless of how you feel about their processes and teaching methods is inconsequential) that scenes should start late and end early.  I have always understood this expression to mean that a screenwriter should stay focused in each scene, relaying necessary information and then moving on.  Every second of a film costs a lot money (or at least they used to), so blowing it watching a person brew a pot of coffee from start to finish is ludicrous.  Otherwise, there had better be a solid reason why this process needs to be exhaustively detailed for the audience (at the risk of costing a film the other thing it cannot afford to squander: and audience’s patience).  So, if the action of a scene starts at a point of dramatic conflict and continues through another point (or even multiple points, so long as it doesn’t lag drastically or descend into repetitiveness) and then exits, tension and interest are likely to be maintained, and anticipation of what comes next is likely to be generated.  In other words, the script is well-paced.  Unfortunately for Look Who’s Toxic, double threat writer and editor Alan Stewart has a hard time doing this both on the page and on the screen.  The example that sticks in my head most prominently (in a movie loaded with prominent examples) is when Drake drives Davis’ limousine to the chemical plant.  We watch as the car slowly pulls in from frame right, until we can almost make out the emblem on the trunk.  Then, after Davis decides that these pesky protestors are going to be difficult to simply plow through, he instructs Drake to take him to the rear entrance.  We then watch as the limo now slowly exits frame right in reverse, until it is completely gone from sight.  Now, if you thought that the last couple of sentences were painful to read (y’know, as opposed to the rest of my review), picture in your mind how painful it is to watch.

Another major failing of the film is its tone(s).  The title alone clues you in that the filmmakers wanted to look like they were being irreverent, but really it just looks like they didn’t give a shit at all (come on, a play on Look Who’s Talking?!).  Remember how I said the opening monologue/info dump was deadly serious?  Well, cut to the very next scene in a hospital, where a woman is in labor but refusing to open her legs for the doctors, whinging about the pain.  Her husband (who I am almost absolutely certain holds a paperback copy of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby in his hand) pleads with her and grouses about all the birthing classes they took.  Shunted to the waiting room, he lights up a smoke, right next to a no smoking sign!  Hilarity!  The fake television station that keeps us up to date on the protestors outside the chemical plant (read: a reporter appears every now and then and reminds us that people are protesting outside the chemical plant) goes by the call letters KRAP.  Get it?!  That so much more of the movie is played straight (and if it isn’t, it’s either subtle to the point of subliminality, or I’m as dense as cement) is a massive misstep.  It’s literally just people talking, and worse than that, saying the same things over and over again (imagine the worst soap opera in the world and multiply it by one thousand).  What The Toxic Avenger gets right is that it is positively gleeful about its ridiculousness and violence (I maintain that it is the franchise for people who love “dead baby” jokes), and it both starts and finishes from that perspective.  I’m not saying that tonal shifts are bad; I’m saying they are badly handled here.  Sure, once the abysmal Bobby Monster makes his appearance, Look gets a tiny bit more interesting.  Yet even then, it treats every scene like a chore to be finished rather than anticipated and enjoyed.  If you’re looking for chores to do, come over and clean my house.  I won’t force you to watch Look Who’s Toxic.  I promise.

MVT:  The monster attack scenes are definitely gory.  They’re also too little and too late to save this dreck.

Make or Break:  The Break (if we’re not counting the drudgery that came before it) is the scene where the Bobby Monster meets up with a couple of paramedics.  If it’s supposed to be serious, it isn’t, and if it’s supposed to be humorous, it isn’t.  Double fail.

Score:  3.5/10        

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Eliminators (1986)

The Mandroid (Patrick Reynolds) returns to the present from Ancient Rome and dutifully transfers his loot to mutilated mad genius Abbott Reeves (Roy Dotrice).  Defying Reeves’ command to wipe the cyborg’s memory and have him dismantled (because, you know, a Mandroid would totally not be helpful at all in a fight or anything), kindly Dr. Takada (Tad Horino) sacrifices his life aiding the Mandroid’s flight to freedom.  Making his way to robotics expert Colonel Nora Hunter (Denise Crosby), the Mandroid enlists her help in going back to stop Reeves.  Along the way, they hire degenerate guide and boat captain Harry Fontana (Andrew Prine, playing the Michael Douglas/Peter Fonda role and wishing to Hell there were a giant Grizzly around to kill him) and pick up super ninja Kuji (martial artist and once-promising Action film newcomer, Conan Lee).

Peter Manoogian’s Eliminators is a prime example of selling the sizzle, not the steak, as Elmer Wheeler would say.  All you need to do is look at the film’s poster for confirmation.  You have all four of the movie’s heroes practically bursting forth from the one sheet in dynamic action poses.  If all you saw of this movie was the advertising materials, you would believe that it was a superhero-esque team film.  What you get, however, is decidedly different (one of the reasons a lot of people enjoy trailers and posters more than the pictures they promote).  This is simply the way of many a low budget effort.  A trailer lasts a few seconds to a couple of minutes, and a poster usually sells a film’s most exploitable elements in one static image (or they used to; today, they’re little more than nigh-indistinguishable, Photoshopped images of floating heads over a limited choice of background images, that is unless some artist is commissioned to create [or just feels like creating] an actually individualized image which you would likely never see in a theater near you, regardless [unless you happen to have a cool rep/arthouse theater in your neighborhood, and even then…]; end rant).  Naturally, the expectation-to-delivery ratio of the films themselves tends to be a bit lopsided.  

But films need to have connective tissue between action set pieces, and this holds even truer for small budget movies.  Low budget films simply cannot afford to have wall-to-wall action.  There needs to be some time spent getting to know the characters in some capacity in order for us to care at all about what happens to them (they don’t need to be likable; they do need to be compelling).  Further, if a film is nothing but action, chases, explosions, and the like, it becomes tiresome (even if the viewer is a self-professed Action Junkie).  A classical narrative film’s structure needs to be arranged in peaks and valleys.  If it hits the ground doing a hundred miles an hour and doesn’t let up for any sort of interaction outside of action, a viewer becomes bored and starts thinking about other things to do (or wishing they were doing other things).  Pacing is key to a low budget Action film, and it’s something that more often than not is mishandled.  The filmmakers almost get it right here.  The actors are talented and interesting enough that they make the long stretches between action sequences bearable.  However, they also seem to forget that there needs to be interesting things for them to do in these spaces, so bearable is as far as they go.  

With this in mind, the characters themselves are about as cliché as cliché gets.  They’re cyphers with no truly distinguishing characteristics at their cores.  So, Harry is a scruffy loner with a heart of gold.  Nora is a hardassed woman doing a “man’s job,” while also being feminine (she has to prove her worth by fixing the motor on Harry’s boat, but everyone stops to gawp at the side boob she flashes when changing out of her wet tank top).  Kuji is the centered living weapon who is out for vengeance.  The Mandroid (aka John Doe) is the man without a past and out of time (literally and figuratively).  By assembling these archetypes, the filmmakers attempt to create an ersatz Fantastic Four (with Dr. Reeves acting as their Doctor Doom), even though two of the members have no super powers to speak of (which is odd to me, all things considered), and they don’t have the rapport that superhero teams typically share.  The characters are forced together and then forced to stay together, because the script says so.  Harry is a scheming sort of guy, out for a buck and himself, but he gets miffed awfully easily when he’s told his services are no longer required (especially dumbfounding since he hardly knows these people).  Nora comes along because she just so happens to have been the person who designed the Mandroid’s robotics.  Kuji literally shows up in the third act and becomes a loyal (and trusted) team member in seconds.  I’m sure there are weaker kinships in films, but this stuff is still paper thin.

As set up in the introductory scenes, the Mandroid’s memory plays a key role in the story, and I think it’s to the filmmakers’ credit that he is the main protagonist, since he’s the sort of character normally relegated to a supporting role (The Partner, The Henchman, The Villain, et cetera).  The idea of the past plays out in several aspects.  Reeves is obsessed with the past, and this preoccupation motivates the time travel element of the story (something I’m surprised wasn’t played up more).  The Mandroid’s memory is manipulated by Reeves, and everything from before he became the Mandroid is lost to him (read: his identity and by extension his humanity).  The flip side of this dehumanization is Reeves, who has kept himself alive via grafts, transplants, and transfusions (assumedly in response to some type of genetic or aggressive disease, since his face is disfigured when we first see him).  He wants to make of himself a sort of Mandroid 2.0.  Yet Reeves has the advantage of maintaining his personality and memories (which help form personality), and since his identity is evil from the start, his Mandroid-ization is the completion of a circle.  The (good) Mandroid knows that he had a life and a family, and this loss (even if only in a cognitive sense) is enough for him to despair of his condition.  This contrast emphasizes the struggle of the main character and should give the character a healthy dose of pathos with which the audience can engage.  

The big problem here is that, outside of mentioning John’s past, it’s not investigated in any detail.  Apart from a photograph, he has no tether to his pre-Mandroid past, so we can feel for his loss, but we can never know its true depths, because we never learn about his past relationships.  Perhaps that was partially intentional on the filmmakers’ part: by not giving us a glimpse into his past, we understand his loss and emptiness that much more (that is, we may empathize through this feeling of incompleteness).  Unfortunately, ignorance is not always bliss any more than knowledge is always ecstasy.  Consequently, like the rest of Eliminators, this attempt only works by about half.  It’s a fun, mildly entertaining half, but I couldn’t help thinking that the other half was so close to getting it right I could almost touch it and turn the total experience into one whole ball of joy.  So near, and yet, so far, I suppose.

MVT:  The main idea is intriguing, and it’s something there wasn’t a ton of in the mid-Eighties.  Plus, it’s ambitious on its face, so points for that.

Make or Break:  The big showdown works well enough, under the circumstances.  Of course, it also resolves itself in a headscratchingly unresolved way.  You’ll know what I’m talking about when you see it.

Score:  6.25/10         

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Final Executioner (1984)


Over a mix of black-and-white and color archival scenes featuring atomic bomb test footage, volcanos erupting, and cities in ruins, we are told that the world has now been divided into two groups: the rich and the contaminated masses (so, not too far off what it was before the nuclear holocaust), and that the contaminated people are regularly hunted and killed to stop the spread of their sickness.  However, we’re also told that one day someone realized that the contamination was finished; all the people were now clean.  Cut to Alan (William Mang) and his wife (Cinzia Bonfantini, and the only reason we know she’s Alan’s wife is because she is credited as such) as they are ousted from the city and reclassified as “hunting material.”  Soon enough (though it doesn’t feel like it), lone hunter Erasmus (Harrison Muller, Jr.) is in competition with Edra (Marina Costa) and her band of scummy hunters to see who can take down the most contaminated people in one day.  Including Alan and his spouse.

Romolo Guerrieri’s The Final Executioner (aka L’ultimo Guerriero, aka The Last Warrior) is yet another in the lengthy heritage of Pasta-pocalypse films that sprang up from Italy in the wake of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York.  For as much as it clings to certain motifs of the subgenre, though, it also strays pretty far afield in other, significant ways.  As is customary, there is the critique of society along class lines.  The rich control everything, and the poor are victims forced to behave brutally in order to survive.  By that same token, the elite rich (here embodied by the hunters [since we never see an actual bourgeois rich person outside the hunting reserve], even though they live in the wastelands in rundown manses that look like they could have been used as sets in one of Meatloaf’s music videos) are savages by nature.  They are callous in their disregard for human life, and they think nothing of killing in order to maintain the status quo that they have manufactured (although any context as to why this serves their needs is left shrouded in mystery for the viewer, and it makes no logical sense, so we’re left only with the generality that all rich people are evil people).  Of course, this means that we have to assume that Alan was at one time one of the rich elite (he is a cybernetics specialist), so he should be hardhearted and vicious before he is sent to the hunting reserve, but he’s not (or we’re heavily encouraged to assume he’s not).  It’s only after his encounters with Erasmus and Edra that his bloodlust grows.

As seen in multitudinous films of this ilk (Endgame, Turkey Shoot, The Running Man, et cetera), there is also the recycling of a variation on The Most Dangerous Game afoot herein.  Most succinctly summed up in the scene where Edra’s gang and Erasmus lurk near a pond waiting for the contaminated people to crest the hill like a herd of gazelle approaching a watering hole, they pick the people off one at a time.  They later tally who killed whom like they’re comparing points on stags’ racks.  What’s interesting here is that the prey isn’t really the focus (outside of our man Alan and his wife).  They are literally nothing more than faceless game at a reserve.  It’s odd that our attention should be on the hunters as anything other than antagonists, but it’s their relationship that drives a large portion of the narrative, not Alan’s struggle against them as might be assumed.  The competition angle of the film, normally set up between hunter and prey is instead here predominantly between hunter and hunter.  The tension between these people is strong.  

Even among Edra’s group, which we can surmise are together because they have some kind of bond, there is a wealth of animosity.  Melvin (Stefano Davanzati) is absolutely reprehensible (and that’s saying something).  The first scene he’s in, he points a gun at fellow hunter Louis (himself a decrepit junkie and played by Renato Miracco) and pulls the trigger (it’s empty, of course; and unfortunately).  He soon after remarks about Erasmus’ special rifle, “whoever painted it didn’t know the color of bullshit.”  He spends his downtime admiring his own body in a mirror.  Sex fiend Diane (Margit Evelyn Newton), when not shooting people or doing it with boy toy Phil (Luca Giordana) is spying on her associates and just being generally creepy.  The one hunter character we would expect to sympathize with, Edra’s little brother Evan (Karl Zinny), is arguably the worst of the bunch.  Youth usually comes with a modicum of innocence in cinema (Bad Seed-esque stories excepted), but there is none to be found in this young man.  He carries out one of the worst acts in the film, and later he gleefully relives it via some kind of memory projection (and possibly sexual stimulation) machine.  Was he born bad?  Is this Edra’s influence on him?  We’re never told.  We only know that he’s irredeemable (yet still not moreso than any of the others).

The film diverges from its subgenre in its last third, and I think that this is also where it finally collapses as an entertainment.  It essentially becomes a Revenge film as Alan picks off the hunters one by one at Edra’s compound (come on, you didn’t see this coming?).  The satisfaction in watching these pieces of garbage get their comeuppance is delicious; I won’t deny that.  However, it is completely dissociated from Post-Apocalyptic (not to mention Pasta-pocalyptic) films past, present, and future.  The film’s climactic moment is a total deus ex machina that rings hollow, because it suddenly reminds us that there was supposed to be a theme going on underneath all this action and the filmmakers just didn’t feel like exploring it, but it still needed to have some lip service paid to it in a desperate attempt to try and trick the audience into thinking there was more going on in the film than there actually was.  This irked me quite a bit, because the story is set up with a Science Fiction premise.  Nevertheless, it then unspools itself as a straight ahead Action/Revenge film, and only in its final moments are we reminded that this is all supposed to be set in a post-nuke future (costumes and “fancy” guns, notwithstanding).  Harlan Ellison once said (and I’m paraphrasing; also, it may not have been he who said it, but this is the way I remember it, I think it holds true, regardless) that a good Science Fiction story must have its fantastic ideas be integral to the story itself.  And this is not the case with The Final Executioner.  This film’s Science Fiction elements are little more than window dressing (which I suppose is fine and dandy if you’d rather stare at the curtains that the view through the window).  Now, is that a fair criticism for a film that is purposely trying to cash in on a prevailing trend from a country known for putting out genre material that is imitative at best?  I think in this case, it is.  I felt cheated by this movie.  The film takes the long way around to get to the same point a more direct film could have reached in a more satisfying fashion.  It doesn’t help any that there is almost no life to any of the action scenes, and the whole affair reeks of rote regurgitation from start to end.  If someone who actually gave a shit about the end product had a hand in this film, it could have been a nice little gem.  Unfortunately, such is not the case.

MVT:  I give Erasmus points for having one of the more interesting costumes in Pasta-pocalyptic cinema history.

Make or Break:  The film’s prologue is weak, lazy, and dull.  It bluntly lets us know that there is nothing coming in the next ninety minutes we haven’t seen done before and done better.

Score:  5/10