January 2001

Astro-Zombies

Astro-Zombies If asked to point to something - anything - in Astro-Zombies that proves conclusively that this film wasnt made by Ed Wood, the only thing Id be able to come up with is that this film is in colour. Not only does this film continue in the fine Woodite traditions of terrible plotting, cheesy globs of exposition masquerading as dialogue and special effects so cheap I find myself rendered speechless; it manages to go further and - in the title sequence - comes up with special effects that are both cheap and irrelevant. I mean, wind up robots and a toy tank? I can only assume that Gary R. Heacock, who put name to these special effects, had an eight year old son.

The plot is an unholy mess of genres involving mad scientist, Dr. DeMarco (John Carradine looking unnervingly similar to Bela Lugosi in Bride of the Monster) who - for the benefit of mankind, of course - has built a solar powered astro-man from the cadaver of a murderous psychopath. Of course, this astro-man (or astro-zombie, to use the unscientific term) goes on the rampage - killing people and stealing their organs. What can I say about the astro-zombie - some guy (Rod Wilmoth) running around in a cheap Halloween fright-mask generates giggles, not tension. And the dialogue DeMarco delivers to his mute assistant, Frenchot (William Bagdad) is amazing… how much pseudo-scientific waffle can one man fit into a single sentence? Watch this film to find out.

For some reason, Frenchot has a woman in a bikini strapped to a table in DeMarcos Lab. This isnt explained or justified apart from a single line from DeMarco about his experiments being more important than Frenchots. Given that Frenchot doesnt come across as being smart, to say the least, we can write this off as being a piece of badly-executed and blatant exploitation. Still, it filled valuable minutes, which seems to be the purpose of most of the scenes in this film. Astro-Zombies is a twenty minute story with about seventy minutes of padding.

Hot on the trail of the astro-zombie and DeMarco is the most inept bunch of government agents ever to crawl onto celluloid - led by Chuck Edwards (Joe Hoover) these agents seem to do nothing but provide yet more padding and explore the depths into which dialogue can descend. I saw this film in the cinema and, as soon as Chuck walked onto the set, the entire audience burst into laughter - to cast a leading man with so little charisma takes a special sort of skill. In fact Id go further - not only does he lack charisma, he seems to generate some sort of anti-charisma. Every time he looks directly at the camera and grins his (not very) winning smile - which is often - you want to scream For Gods Sake Man, Try Acting!.

And the third - I dont want to dignify this by calling it a story arc - part of the film involves a group of spies led by Satana (Tura Satana) who want to gain the astro-man technology for their own unscrupulous ends. Tura Satana is the one high point of this entire sorry mess - she oozes the sort of dangerous sexiness that was put to such good effect in Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! And which is totally wasted here. As soon as you see her, in one of those slit skits smoulderingly smoking an entire cigarette (more padding) you just know that we have a villain that enjoys her villainy - and she does, gleefully murdering her way towards the climactic scene at DeMarcos lab.

Reading back through this review, I have to apologise for comparing Astro-Zombies to anything that Ed Wood put his name to - Astro-Zombies is much, much worse. This is a truly awful film and one that should be avoided by anyone with a modicum of taste. I loved every minute of it!

Fortress

Fortress is an SF prison flick, set in an authoritarian and overcrowded USA of the future where the law allows for only one baby per woman.

After losing their first child, ex war hero John Brannick (Christopher Lambert) and his pregnant wife, Karen (Loryn Locklin) are caught trying to cross the border into Mexico where they hope to keep their unborn child. In the ensuing chase, Brannick sacrifices himself to give his wife time to escape and ends up in the Fortress - a privately run underground prison complex in which the prisoners are put to work expanding the complex so that the managing corporation, Men-Tel is able to cope with the rapidly expanding prison population. Much of the background to the film is given as the inmates arrive - annoyingly info-dumped in the form of a computer voiceover/marketing spiel that explains to the inmates everything the audience needs to know. It may just be a personal gripe, but I find this type of blatant spoon-feeding both irritating and patronising. Surely it isnt too much for the average audience to figure out what is going on without having to have everything spelled out in large letters.

The DVD has a theatrical trailer on it which pitches Fortress as an action movie and there is plenty of mayhem - especially in the final act - along with a few bits of gore that are genuinely unpleasant to watch. However this film is much more than a guns n gore no-brainer. This is a relatively thoughtful movie that attempts to comment on a number of social issues including repression, increasing population surveillance and control and the expanding role and influence of corporations in society. As with other SF prison films - and prison films in general for that matter - Fortress also deals with Brennicks struggle to retain his dignity in the deliberately dehumanising environment of the prison complex.

On arrival at the Fortress, the new inmates are made to hand over all personal effects and are fitted with an intestinator - a nasty little gadget which inflicts pain or death - either automatically whenever the inmate breaks one of the prison rules or manually whenever Prison Director Poe (Kurtwood Smith) decides to use it. The artificially enhanced Poe who, with the aid of his all-seeing and nagging computer, monitors and controls every aspect of the prisoners lives - right down to their dreams - makes a very well realised villain and is probably the most rounded character in the film. All-powerful within the complex, but never actually leaving it - he comes across as being as much the property of Men-Tel as the inmates from whose dreams he derives his voyeuristic pleasures.

Apart from Kurtwood Smith, the acting in Fortress is variable, to say the least, and the film manages to include every character stereotype ever to have made it into a prison film - most of them in the same overcrowded cell. Putting all these stereotypes together, of course, brings a lot of predictability to the film and its this, more than anything else, that lets it down. As soon as you see the claustrophobic guy you know hes going to be on the receiving end of the faceless brutality of the Fortress. You just know that the kid is going to get rescued by Brannick before we get very far into the film. And the combination of characters in Brannicks cell screams The A Team right from the word go.

All in all, Fortress is an above average science fiction film which competently deals with several related ideas. Although the film suffers from far too many stereotypes and some very confused plotting, the premise was interesting enough to hold my attention to the end of the film. As an action film that manages to make you think, Fortress is well worth seeing.

The Good,The Bad and The Ugly

The Good,The Bad and The Ugly Set in the closing stages of the American Civil War, The Good The Bad and The Ugly is one of the strongest anti-war films made. Through its sparse style and superbly realised atmosphere, the film manages to effectively portray this war as being nothing more than a series of brutal and futile skirmishes which cripple the idealists and make the unscrupulous rich. There are no real heroes in this film; for the most part, the characters are unprincipled and motivated entirely by greed - Blondie (Clint Eastwood in his career defining role as the man with no name) is only good in comparison to the calculated viciousness of Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) and the mindless thuggery of Tuco (Eli Wallach).

This mercenary attitude goes much further than the three main characters. It pervades the whole film in which, for the most part, people see the war as either a hindrance to their own activities or an opportunity to cash in - the bar owner, for example whos support for the new occupying force is motivated solely by the advancing forces have cash to spend and the retreating forces are now penniless. The few people who do think beyond their own immediate advantage are ineffectual and frustrated - these are not people who make a difference, they are people who write reports that wont be read until its too late or who resort to alcoholism.

Visually, the film is stunning. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is a film that really does need to be seen in its full cinematic glory and if you get the opportunity to see it on the big screen, go for it. And on video or DVD, hunt down the widescreen format because you really will be missing out if you watch this film on pan-and-scan. And this visual style is deftly underpinned by Morricones beautifully haunting score - one of the few instantly recognisable film soundtracks.

The dialogue, too, is spartan - especially at the start of the film. There are no huge globs of exposition here, Leone preferring to rely (successfully) on a single stare combined with stop-on cinematography to speak volumes. And again, this approach maintains the tense and brooding atmosphere. Even the humour - and there is a lot of humour seamlessly meshed into The Good, The Bad and The Ugly - is carefully crafted to both provide some relief while still working to enhance the atmosphere.

In short, not only is The Good, The Bad and The Ugly probably the best film of its genre, it is also one few truly classic films. With this film, Sergio Leone has provided a textbook exampleof how to make a movie that is both intelligent and entertaining and one that makes the audience think without descending into preachiness. No-one can fail to appreciate this truly legendary film.