April 2003

Lethal Force

Lethal ForceIn its first four minutes, Lethal Force manages to parody 70s cop films, kung fu flicks, The Matrix and Quentin Tarantino. It also introduces to Savitch (Cash Flagg Jr), the hitman who is “mad, bad and dangerous to know” and the main character of the film.

The tone of the film is set with a scene in which all we see is Savitch’s feet approaching those of a government agent and then leaping into the air. We then get to hear eight seconds of kicking until Savitch’s feet land on the ground and the agent topples over.

Writer/Director Alvin Ecarma had his tongue firmly planted in his cheek when he made this film.

Once the opening credits are done with, we jump forward nine months and into the plot.

Savitch’s friend and fellow hitman, Jack (Frank Prather) comes home to find his wife and son have been kidnapped. Waiting for him in the house are a blaxploitation stereotype and Psycho Bowtie (Eric Thornett), the silent martial arts goon.

After much fighting (a phrase I could find myself repeating way too often in this review if I’m not careful), Frank is brought to the heavily guarded chateau of wheelchair bound gangster, Mal Locke (Andrew Hewitt) – the man behind the kidnapping of Frank’s wife and child.

Mal’s guards are worth a mention at this point. Faceless goons have never been quite so faceless with the addition of plain rubber masks.

Mal wants Frank to contact and betray Savitch, delivering him to Mal’s clutches. And just to demonstrate that he means business, he executes Frank’s wife. With his son’s life on the line, Frank, not altogether surprisingly, complies.

Lethal Force manages to both pay homage to and parody the whole genre of 70s action films that far too many of us grew up watching, liberally throwing in random stereotypes and clichés and gloriously sending them up in a manner that the makers of the Scream series could only dream of.

In the same way that Scream assumed some familiarity with the films it was trying to parody, Ecarma clearly expects us to be familiar with the action genre and much of the humour is dependent on our recognising the stereotypes and joining in the fun as he plays around with them.

I’ve already mentioned 70s cop and chop socky flicks, but we also get references to Wonder Woman, spaghetti westerns and heroic bloodshed. There is even a John Woo style homoerotic flashback.

Plotwise, Lethal Force is far from original, but its energy, pacing and sheer sense of fun more than overcome this, leaving you to sit back and enjoy an unpretentiously funny ride.

It’s also worth mentioning that, although the film is packed with forty years worth of pop culture references, none of this gets in the way of the storytelling. There is no stopping to make sure everyone got the joke, Ecarma simply charges forward trusting his audience to keep up.

And if you didn’t manage to keep up, rewind the tape and watch it again – the film was every bit as funny the second time I watched it as the first.

Lethal Force is a stylish, violent and deliriously funny film that sure-footedly manages to walk the very fine line between paying homage to the action films of the 70s and sending them up.

Den

DenA serial killer, Den (Greg Arce) kidnaps four people – three women and a man. They eventually come round to find out to find themselves chained to the walls of his basement.

A couple of things struck me about Den. The first is that it is very episodic in nature. Each morning, Den comes down to the basement and starts to needle the characters into revealing details about themselves – details that, in the most part, they’d rather not have to reveal.

As he forces this information from his victims it emerges that they were not kidnapped at random but that their lives are intertwined in ways that Den has discovered through obsessively observing them.

The second thing that stuck me, and this was near the end of the film, was that it is very much like a play. I don’t know whether Arce has a theatrical background – a quick check of his site reveals only that he started out as a professional magician - but it wouldn’t surprise me if he did. The film takes place largely in Den’s basement and its progression is very much driven by the dialogue of the characters – not surprising really since they spend much of the time chained to the wall and out of reach of each other.

As such, it’s a testament to the strength of the script that the film remains so gripping.

Each twist and turn of the victims’ relationships, both with each other and with Den, is meticulously dripped out with each revelation leaving you painfully aware that there is more to come.

The religious beliefs of the characters are central to the revelations they are forced to make and each character represents a different archetype – the hypocrite (Lee Schall), the follower (Stephanie Rettig), the believer (Sabrina ONeill), the atheist (Dana J. Ryan) and Den, the fanatic. It’s the conflicts between the characters’ beliefs, as well as their own internal conflicts, that provide much of the tension of the film.

These conflicts also allow Arce, the director, to explore the subjects of belief, religion and responsibility which form the film’s central theme.

Although the characters are very well drawn, with each revelation adding to their depth, their believability is strengthened by the consistently strong performance of the cast, especially Dana J. Ryan who, as the atheist, Cassandra challenges not just Den’s convictions but also those of the other victims.

Den has a powerful and rock solid script, is excellently acted and poses some thoughtful questions on the relationship between belief and religion. If only more films were made this way.

The Castle of Fu Manchu

How many plot contrivances is it possible to cram into a single film? Not being much of a keeper of statistics, I don’t know if The Castle of Fu Manchu holds any records, but it is certainly a contender.

Fu Manchu (Christopher Lee) is back, and this time he has found a way to control water, allowing him to form icebergs in the Caribbean. Although his technology is far from perfected, he decides that now is the time to issue an ultimatum, giving the world 14 days to accept his terms or face annihilation.

We never find out what Fu Manchu’s terms actually are.

Fortunately, the world has a saviour in the form of Denis Nayland-Smith (Richard Greene). Once called back from his fishing trip, Nayland-Smith – with the help of his faithful companion, Dr. Petrie (Howard Marion-Crawford) - a man seemingly modelled on Holmes’ Watson - immediately sets about tracking down Fu Manchu’s base of operations.

Nayland-Smith’s first deduction is that Fu Manchu must have his base near a large body of water, which immediately narrows things down to Suez, Panama, Gibraltar… or Turkey. It’s lucky for us that there just weren’t that many large bodies of water in the late 60s.

The action then switches to Turkey where local drug lord Omar Pascha (José Manuel Martín) enters a deal with an inscrutable Chinese woman to take control of the castle of the governor of Anatolia. Apparently, this governor has the greatest opium supply in the world and Omar and the inscrutable Chinese woman agree to split the horde 50:50.

Of course, the sneaky Chinese double cross the honourable Turkish drugs baron and are revealed to be in the employ of none other than… Fu Manchu.

Given how trivial the role of Omar’s gang in the raid actually is, I was left briefly wondering why Fu Manchu had bothered to contact him at all. After all, leaving a presumably major criminal at large with the knowledge of where your secret base is doesn’t strike me a hugely intelligent idea. But it all becomes clear later in the plot.

Meanwhile, back in London, Dr. Petrie has found The Book That Explains Everything. Being a detective, he happened to have a book in his Scotland Yard office, written by a Professor Heracles, which discusses in pseudo-scientific detail how ‘crystals’ can be used to cause large bodies of water to rapidly freeze.

These crystals, if you hadn’t already guessed, are derived from opium.

And Professor Heracles is out of the country… in Turkey.

Things are really starting to fit together now.

Of course, being an Englishman, Professor Heracles (Gustavo Re) would never willingly help Fu Manchu destroy the world. However, we quickly learn that he has no choice as he has a heart problem which even Fu Manchu’s cunning eastern medicines can no longer alleviate.

Since he knows he is dying, Heracles is no longer giving Fu Manchu the information he requires so the cunning Chinaman decides to send his men to kidnap Heracles’ doctor, the multi accented Doctor Kessler (Günther Stoll). They also kidnap his companion, Lisa (Rosalba Neri).

Fortunately Nayland-Smith is at the Kessler surgery when the kidnapping takes place and, on realising what has happened (one of the many things I learned while watching this film was that a doctor would never leave a burning cigarette on a polished wood table), calls Scotland Yard and heads for Turkey.

Meanwhile, Omar has learned from the teleporting informer that Fu Manchu now has two captives and things start to get really silly.

Fu Manchu wants Kessler to perform a heart transplant on Dr. Heracles, the donor being both alive and healthy. In order to press Kessler to comply, Fu Manchu makes threatens Lisa. But the threat of violence is evidently not enough reason for Kessler to comply with Fu Manchu’s wishes and we are treated to a bizarrely inconsistent ethical debate between Kessler and Lisa during which Kessler actually says “I’m a doctor, I save lives” while ignoring the fact that he is going to cut the heart out of a healthy donor in order to do so.

Meanwhile, Nayland-Smith and Omar team up, devising another plan that puts Omar in the hands of Fu Manchu for no good reason.

The big problem with The Castle of Fu Manchu is that it screams Lazy Scriptwriting from start to finish. It’s an amazing collection of plot contrivances - one convenient coincidence after another until we finally reach the explosive climax in which nothing surprising happens.

It’s a truly terrible film, but one that – with the addition of a few beers and a couple of friends willing to appreciate its awfulness – can be thoroughly enjoyed.

House of 1000 Corpses

House of 1000 Corpses has been described as The Film That Some People Didnt Want You to See.

There is a very good reason for not seeing this film. Its boring. In fact it goes beyond boring into a place that is so mind numbingly dull that watching paint dry is a thrill ride of epic proportions in comparison.

Rob Zombies tribute to 70s horror films and roadside attractions has no humour, no suspense and not a single character with which the audience can identify.

What it does have is four unbelievably unlikeable teenagers in a car who, even before the obvious clichés are established, are kidnapped by a bunch of rednecks who, because theyre rednecks, proceed to torture and kill said teenagers.

It also has an unbelievable number of gimmicky negative shots and cuts to a black and white Halloween show, ostensibly being shown at the same time as the kids go missing. Its a move that screams look at me, Im a director and jerks you right out of the film ensuring that nothing that happens on the screen will scare you, disturb you or keep you awake.

If there had been an intermission, I probably wouldnt have seen the second half of this film

My Little Eye

One thing that really annoys me is when a plot device is so transparently silly that it jars you right out of any suspension of disbelief. In the case of My Little Eye we have the concept of a beta name which is doubly annoying since the plot point could have just have easily - and much more realistically - been achieved through finding a site with an IP address but no associated URL.

Apart from that, its a good - but not great - film.

Five people - three men and two women - sign up for a Big Brother style psychological experiment. If they spend six months together in a house in the middle of nowhere, they win $1 million.

The catch is that if one of them leaves the house they all lose. And, of course, the house is fully wired with webcams - every aspect of their lives in the house is filmed from multiple angles.

The film itself starts in the final month of the experiment, and tensions are clearly frayed when things start to get really weird.

Director, Marc Evans certainly combines form and content effectively, certainly in the first part of the film, with grainy images and green-tinted night scenes effectively giving the film a very Big Brother feel.

And, as things start to go awry, the film also makes a few points about the audience, not only of reality TV but also of this film that are worth taking away with you.

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