Masters of the Universe (1987, Gary Goddard)

Masters of the Universe is almost charming in its lack of charm. Its plot is a kitchen sink–a little Conan sword fighting here, a little Superman opening credits, a lot of Star Wars stuff (like all black “troopers” with laser guns, the skiffs from Jedi), but also lots of other popular eighties things. There’s some Back to the Future–on an extreme budget–as well as the general “troubled tragic teens” thing. And whatever else was too slight to make much of an impression.

The biggest problem, besides it being too long, too cheap, and too stupid, is cinematographer Hanania Baer. Universe has a big scale, whether in its sets or even the constant matte paintings (on the other planet, not Earth). Baer can’t shoot anything to match, not the sets, not the matte composites, not even humdrum planet Earth locations. There’s one action sequence with Dolph Lundgren and Courteney Cox fending off intergalatic bounty hunters (Empire Strikes Back) in a junk yard or warehouse. The lighting doesn’t match between shooting locations, which really screws up the suspension of disbelief, because there’s Lundgren’s sword fighting and Lundgren sword fighting is supposed to be the whole draw of the movie. He’s He-Man. He fights people with a sword.

Except he gets a gun too. A laser gun. It’s got to be lasers because Lundgren’s sword can deflect them. Slow lasers.

However, if Masters of the Universe has a draw–which is questionable–it’s either going to be Frank Langella’s performance as the Emperor. Sorry, sorry, no, he’s Skeletor. Who wants to be master of the universe, which is like emperor. David Odell’s script stays as third grade as it can for the otherworldly stuff and seeing Langella take the childish dialogue and fill it with ludicrous energy and threat… it’s cool. It’s not really cool enough to be a draw, however, because the material’s still thin and Langella’s in a goofy skull mask, with zero character motivation (his rivalry with Lundgren lacks explaination and chemistry). The other possible draw is Bill Conti’s score. It too isn’t good, but it’s Bill Conti doing a Star Wars score. Though, again, more Return of the Jedi.

On Earth–wait, wait, there’s sort of an E.T. thing going on with Billy Barty. He plays this inventor who comes up with a musical key thing to take the action to Earth. Sort of E.T., mixed with Yoda, mixed with Wicket. Producers Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan apparently really thought they had the goods here to supplant Star Wars.

I mean, maybe the Holiday Special.

Richard Edlund handles the special effects. Some of them are okay. The interdimensional gateway is often okay. It’s not at the end, but earlier, sure. The composite shots with the flying vehicles are terrible. Bad enough you hope Edlund didn’t do them. The guy worked on the original Star Wars after all. You want to give him the benefit of the doubt.

So you don’t see it for the special effects. Or the fight choreography. Or any of the acting.

Though Jon Cypher is frighteningly good in his part. He’s got on this big costume too and he’s still good. It’s amazing he could keep a straight face. Ditto, though to a lesser extent, for Chelsea Field. She’s Cypher’s daughter. She makes wisecracks. Some of them sort of connect.

Cox and Robert Duncan McNeill are teenagers who come across Lundgren, Cypher, Field, and Barty as that crew searches for a way back home. Cox’s parents have tragically died and so she’s leaving boyfriend McNeill to start over in New Jersey. She’s not even going to get to go to her high school graduation. The Earth ground situation really doesn’t make any sense. The other world ground situation is actually sort of neat in an effecient way. Langella has won his war of conquest and Lundgren and friends are now outlaws. Means you don’t have to show the big battle scenes or even the immediate aftermath, just the political ramifications playing out.

Cox and McNeill don’t even have enough material to have caricatures. They have sketched caricatures. They’re both affable, though neither is particularly dynamic. They both seem way too old.

Maybe it’s just Baer photographing them poorly.

For the rest of the cast, it’s just getting through without embarrassing yourself too much. Lundgren’s running around in armored speedos. He manages not to embarrass himself too much. Meg Foster similiar keeps herself afloat without actually having to be any good. After them the supporting cast just gets worse and worse.

Like James Tolkan (the principal from Back to the Future). He’s playing tough bald, long leather jacket cop who can’t figure out he’s in an intergalatic battle zone. He doesn’t keep himself afloat, though he’s never exactly bad. None of the performances–at least for the people not in costumes–are ever bad enough to give Universe that campy charm. They’re also never bad enough to elicit sympathy.

Not even Christina Pickles, who’s a hostage the entire picture.

It’s mildly ambitious? Not incompetent. It’s just trying for too much with what it can do, budget-wise. Along with no one having any confidence in Lundgren. He gets so little to do, including his sword fights and shoot-outs, it’s not clear whether or not he’d be able to do more or fail at it.

Masters of the Universe is a cinematic shrug.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Gary Goddard; screenplay by David Odell, based on the toys by Mattel; director of photography, Hanania Baer; edited by Anne V. Coates; music by Bill Conti; production designer, William Stout; produced by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus; released by The Cannon Group.

Starring Dolph Lundgren (He-Man), Frank Langella (Skeletor), Courteney Cox (Julie Winston), Robert Duncan McNeill (Kevin Corrigan), Jon Cypher (Duncan), Chelsea Field (Teela), Meg Foster (Evil-Lyn), Billy Barty (Gwildor), James Tolkan (Detective Lubic), Robert Towers (Karg), Anthony De Longis (Blade), and Christina Pickles (Sorceress of Castle Grayskull)


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Let Her Out (2016, Cody Calahan)

If cheap, misogynist Canadian horror gore twaddle is a genre, Let Her Out must be one its finest examples. At least in the modern era. In some ways, the worst thing about the film is director Calahan. With a single exception, his direction’s not bad. His composition is strong, his sense of space is solid (important as multiple filming locations create single ones in the film); sure, he can’t direct his cast but screenwriter Adam Seybold’s script ranges from appalling to abhorrent.

When Seybold’s just writing dialogue, it’s appalling. When he’s trying to get inside the female mind or dealing with lead Alanna LeVierge’s multiple sexual predators stalking her, it’s abhorrent. He does have a good partner in Calahan (they concocted the Dark Half-ripoff, but with misogyny, together) as Calahan loves his male gaze. The third act has triples down on it as costar Nina Kiri inexplicably races to LaVierge’s aid–riding a bicycle, breathless, her pointlessly exposed cleavage covered in sweat. Soon both Kiri and LaVierge will be covered in oily blood, so the sweat isn’t as bad as it can get.

The film opens with Brooke Henderson as a sex worker in a motel room. Calahan nearly objectively summarizes her night working–oddly, her nudity is (at least at first) less revolting than what he does with LaVierge later (mostly because she apparently said no to nudity, so he has to make it up other ways). Then some demonic guy shows up and rapes her. Fast forward a bit until she’s pregnant and then she stabs herself in the belly in an attempt to kill the baby.

At that point, it’s clear Calahan and Seybold aren’t going to make a good movie at all and probably a rather bad one. But, since I got Let Her Out as a screener, I felt it was my duty to suffer through.

Honestly, I just wanted to crap on it. Because it’s a terrible film and ought to be crapped on. And I wanted to know more about it so I could crap on more of it. Like when Seybold’s script starts throwing the word “whore” around a lot. See, LaVierge hasn’t given in to her first sexual predator stalker guy (Michael Lipka) because she just can’t “do” sex. It’s unclear at first; well, it’s not unclear. She sees herself in the mirror and feels shame and personal revulsion. It’s just not clear those feelings are because of her mother until later. Because it turns out the unborn twin inside her brain who eventually starts growing out of her has a full memory of before she was absorbed into LaVierge’s head in the womb and knows Henderson was a prostitute.

The end credits call the three guys who visit upon Henderson in the prologue her “suitors,” which seems gross, but entirely appropriate for the film.

Things get worse for LaVierge when Kiri’s boyfriend, Adam Christie, starts putting the moves on her. Christie’s a long-haired, bearded alpha male theatre director who sexually exploits Kiri while demeaning her (and making her the star in his play, which is about twin sisters–another thing undeveloped because the budget is low). He might give the film’s worst performance. Though–spoilers–when he tries raping LaVierge, the evil twin comes out and decapitates him. So, good for the “evil” twin.

Christie’s also there for the worst directed sequence, when everyone is at the party having a crazy fun theatre crowd time and staring directly into the camera. Thank goodness editor Duncan Christie (not sure if they’re related) cuts through the shots fast. Christie, the editor, is bad, which is actually rather nice. Because since Calahan’s composition is good and Jeff Maher’s cinematography is solid, Let Her Out would be technically competent overall if it weren’t for Christie, the editor, doing a lousy job editing.

He does cut together one effective sequence where LaVierge keeps flashing forward because she loses control to the evil (internal) twin. It’s not a well-written sequence–she’s talking to, arguing with, attempting to murder Kiri during it–but it’s effective. The one time Christie, the editor, manages to cut things well.

Really bad score from Steph Copeland.

Kate Fenton plays LaVierge’s doctor; the one who treats her for an emergency room visit, then when she has a brain tumor, but also for like a mental health checkup? Must be that single payer Canadian healthcare. There’s only one doctor in the whole, otherwise empty hospital.

Fenton is kind of not bad. Her lines are bad, but she doesn’t embarrass herself. The rest of the cast embarrasses themselves. Kiri least, then LaVierge. Christie, the actor, is actually somewhat better than Lipka, who’s inept as a hipster painter with his Neo-Nazi haircut forcing LaVierge to deliver his packages (she’s a bike messenger–Calahan loves her tight biking outfit, no surprise) so he can get her in his loft and, maybe, into bed.

Let Her Out is a gross movie.

Oh, crap. I forgot. The special effects are outstanding. The gore is expert.

It’s just expert gore, competent direction, competent photography wasted on a turd. No matter how oily sexy you think you can make the blood, it’s still just a bloody turd.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ0

CREDITS

Directed by Cody Calahan; screenplay by Adam Seybold, based on a story by Calahan and Seybold; director of photography, Jeff Maher; edited by Duncan Christie; music by Steph Copeland; production designer, Steve Dubois; produced by Chad Archibald, Christopher Giroux, and Calahan; released by Breakthrough Entertainment.

Starring Alanna LeVierge (Helen), Nina Kiri (Molly), Adam Christie (Ed), Michael Lipka (Roman), Brooke Henderson (Helen’s Mother), and Kate Fenton (Dr. Headly).


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King of the Rocket Men (1949, Fred C. Brannon)

King of the Rocket Men isn’t a long serial. It’s only twelve chapters and almost one of them is a recap of the first three chapters. The final chapter spends most of its time setting up a big showdown, with the grand action finale–at least the grand action finale not recycling disaster footage from another, older film (Deluge)–less than four minutes. The grand action finale, the one shot for Rocket Men, is just some more fisticuffs. The serial has a lot of fisticuffs.

Incidentally, there are no Rocket Men. There’s a single Rocket Man. The title is a play on the name of his alter ego–Jeff King (Tristram Coffin). Until one of the bad guys makes a wisecrack in the latter half of the serials, “King of the Rocket Men” is the serial’s best joke. Screenwriters Royal Cole, William Lively, and Sol Shor aren’t much for humor. They’re also not much for character development. Or logic. Or realism. Rocket Men isn’t about the script, it’s about the Rocket Man. And–for a while–the serial does deliver itself some Rocket Man.

So long as there’s enough Rocket Man action, everything’s fine. The formula’s simple–Coffin observes some trouble, goes to his car, gets the Rocket Man outfit out of the truck, flies off the save the day. Director Brannon and editors Cliff Bell Sr. and Sam Starr build to the “Rocket Man to the rescue” sequences pretty darn well. It’s exciting. At least until it becomes clear Coffin’s a lousy superhero as Rocket Man and a terrible investigator at his day job.

Coffin works at a place called Science Associates, somewhere in Southern California. The location is never mentioned but the filming locations are obvious. The scientists of Science Associates are the finest ever assembled, working diligently to make the world a better place. Sure, they only produce weapons of mass destruction but… well, no. Rocket Men never explains how weapons of mass destruction are going to make the world a better place.

The serial starts with evil scientist Dr. Vulcan killing Science Associates staff; he wants their work for his own evil purposes. The serial doesn’t reveal Dr. Vulcan until the very end, which is way too long a wait. There’s no dramatic impact at the reveal. Until then he’s always shown in silhouette, just a man in a fedora in an office building with two radio towers, controlling his attacks on Coffin, Science Associates, and Rocket Man.

Coffin’s a scientist–who never does science onscreen–and the jack-of-all-trades at Science Associates. It’s his job to get to the bottom of the Dr. Vulcan threat. Coffin’s got a sidekick, House Peters Jr. Peters seems to have less scientific knowledge than Coffin, but he’s in charge of handling public relations. Except the only reporter who cares is Mae Clarke. She’s the only woman in the serial. She occasionally gets to be damsel in distress. It’s infrequent as she’s Peter’s sidekick, not Coffin’s love interest. Coffin’s too busy trying to save the world through weapons of mass destruction.

With Dr. Vulcan a mystery until the end, the serial uses chief henchman Don Haggerty as the main villain. He carries out Dr. Vulcan’s plans, getting in constant fist fights and shoot-outs with Coffin. He usually overpowers or outsmarts Coffin. It’s rare Coffin succeeds in a rescue or attempt to foil the evil scientist madman’s schemes. He’s really, really bad at his jobs. Except making power sources (offscreen) for weapons of mass destruction. He excels at that task.

Even though his character ought to be a complete rube, Coffin’s pretty good in the lead. He’s got no real acting to do–he doesn’t even get to express surprise or distress when Dr. Vulcan pulls one over on him–but Coffin’s sturdy. He makes it all seem a little less absurd.

Most of the serial is Science Associates staff getting picked off and Coffin becoming more and more suspicious one of his colleagues might be Dr. Vulcan. It takes him a while. Like I said, he’s not bright. Then it’s just about him failing to save colleagues from getting picked off. It doesn’t really matter, the most personable one is Ted Adams, who’s only personable because he gets to be a jerk. The rest of the scientists are extremely bland. When Stanley Price gets more material–he’s about the only one–it’s only temporary. He gets a few scenes then it’s back to being a piece of furniture.

At least he’s not second-billed furniture like Clarke. Clarke’s reporter works at a science magazine. And her apartment quickly becomes a hangout for Coffin and Peters in their quest to foil Dr. Vulcan. Oddly, it does not become a hangout for Coffin and James Craven, who are also out to foil Dr. Vulcan, because Coffin keeps his two partnerships separate. Clarke, for example, has no idea Coffin is Rocket Man, while Craven is the one who made the suit. Peters is sort of a bridge, sort of not.

Besides the general competence of the production, Rocket Men is all about the Rocket Man. There are some great flying effects, some exciting cliffhangers (no exciting cliffhanger resolutions, however), and a lot of thrilling action. The Rocket Man flight effects–sure, there’s composite shots, but the Rocket Men effects team also swooshed a life-size Rocket Man dummy around the Southern California foothills on wires. The result is superb. It’s so good it doesn’t even matter when they start recycling the same shots over and over again.

For the first third of the serial, Rocket Men keeps building up good momentum. Then it starts having bad chapters (there are at least two pointless ones in addition to the recap chapter), Coffin’s blaise stupidity gets worse, Clarke stops even getting to be a damsel in distress–she’s just along for the ride–and the picking off of Dr. Vulcan suspects turns tedious instead of suspenseful. The competent production, sturdy (if underwhelming) performances, Rocket Man effects, and Don Haggerty keep it going.

The last chapter is pretty dumb. Maybe if it weren’t so dumb, King of the Rocket Men would have a more royal stature. Instead, it manages to adequately thrill. Some of the time.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Fred C. Brannon; written by Royal K. Cole, William Lively, and Sol Shor; director of photography, Ellis W. Carter; edited by Cliff Bell Sr. and Sam Starr; music by Stanley Wilson; released by Republic Pictures.

Starring Tristram Coffin (Jeffrey King), Mae Clarke (Glenda Thomas), Don Haggerty (Tony Dirken), House Peters Jr. (Burt Winslow), James Craven (Prof. Millard), I. Stanford Jolley (Prof. Bryant), Ted Adams (Prof. Conway), and Stanley Price (Prof. Von Strum).


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Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002, Guy Maddin)

To put it mildly, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary is narratively erratic. The film–a filmed ballet “converted” to a silent movie–opens with panic over Eastern Europeans entering Britain. At least, the onscreen text implies this panic. It’s quickly forgotten; after doing cast introductions (also with onscreen text–these aren’t intertitles, these are just text onscreen alongside live action), the film immediately becomes about Tara Birtwhistle. She’s not Dracula, but she is–presumably–the title Virgin. She has one of the two diaries in the film, after all.

Birtwhistle’s great, both as a dancer and as an actor. Director Maddin shoots a lot of closeups and it’s during her scenes the film comes closest to fulfilling the concept. There’s a lot of symbolism, like two of her suitors and pervy Van Helsing (David Moroni) giving her a blood transfusion with the three men in frame thrusting at her. When Dracula is toying with the idea of being about Victorian sexual repression and sexual violence, it’s at its best. Or its most ambitious. Well, at least during Birtwhistle’s part of the film.

But Birtwhistle doesn’t get the whole picture. Zhang Wei-Qiang’s Dracula barely shows up, usually just there in insert shots, which don’t match the film stock–though Maddin, cinematographer Paul Suderman, and editor Deco Dawson do such lackluster filters and speedups on the film, it’s hard to say what the film stock should look like. Most of Dracula looks like bad video (it’s apparently not, it’s apparently terribly filtered film).

Anyway, once the action moves to (unnamed) Transylvania, Zhang, and betrothed CindyMarie Small and Johnny A. Wright, the charm is gone. Small can dance, but she can’t act. Zhang might be able to act–he can definitely act–but Maddin doesn’t focus on his performance so much as his presence. Wright has a terrible part–once Small discovers he’s had sexual experiences (maybe he’s the Virgin), she tries to seduce him in a terribly edited sequence. Small being sexual repulses Wright and he abandons her to be attacked by dancing nuns and then Zhang. Luckily, he teams up with Moroni and his vampire hunters.

Except, of course, Dracula spells it vampyr. Because most of the onscreen text choices are obnoxious enough to produce eyerolls. They’re not even pretentious–something pretentious would use better fonts for the onscreen text and far better filters on the film. Dracula is artificially grainy, artificially zoomed (to atrocious effect); it’s like the filmmakers didn’t want to pay for an iMovie filter pack.

Maddin and Dawson try to make the film intense through fast cuts and exaggerated angles, but neither have any grace. The film’s got constant music–natch, it’s a ballet–but the music never really syncs with the onscreen action. The “silent movie” gimmick is the point, not the ballet. It’d probably have been better if someone else had shot the ballet and Dawson had cut it into a silent? As long as there had been some competent iMovie filters.

Instead, Maddin fakes a silent movie style. There’s lens distortion–because the movie’s supposed to be old maybe–and Maddin has no rhyme or reason to which shots get which style. Maddin uses iris shots poorly, then goes to wide shots (Dracula’s widescreen, not Academy), then cuts to a fake zoom shot, then another fake zoom shot. All with weak photography. Whatever filter they used removes the natural grain and detail and instead distorts.

The less said about the sped-up sequences the better.

But Dracula moves pretty well. Definitely during the first half or so, when it’s Birtwhistle’s show. The momentum keeps it going to the finish, even though nothing’s successful in the second half. Zhang ends up playing third fiddle to Small and–even worse–Moroni, who hams it up.

The idea of the film isn’t bad, but Maddin’s not interested enough in creating something singular. It’s a gimmick, a filmed ballet performance, not a filmic ballet. It’s certainly not some great homage to silent filmmaking. Especially not with Maddin’s weak establishing shots. The ballet had great sets–including some set design visuals Georgia O’Keefe would appreciate (or have her lawyer call on)–but Maddin and Suderman don’t shoot them well.

Dawson wouldn’t be able to cut them well anyway.

The film’s cynical at best, craven at worst.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Guy Maddin; ballet by Mark Godden, based on a novel by Bram Stoker; director of photography, Paul Suderman; edited by Deco Dawson; production designer, Deanne Rohde; produced by Vonnie von Helmolt; aired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Starring Zhang Wei-Qiang (Dracula), Tara Birtwhistle (Lucy Westernra), David Moroni (Dr. Van Helsing), CindyMarie Small (Mina), Johnny A. Wright (Jonathon Harker), Stephane Leonard (Arthur Holmwood), Matthew Johnson (Jack Seward), Keir Knight (Quincy Morris), Brent Neale (Renfield), and Stephanie Ballard (Mrs. Westernra).


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