Monday, March 30, 2015

The Humanoid (1979)

The Humanoid (1979)

Director: Aldo Lado

Cast: Richard Kiel, Barbara Bach

I've spoken a lot on this blog about Italian rip-offs because they are just so damn entertaining. More so if you've seen the films they are shamelessly copying from. Usually Italian rip offs don’t just copy from one film, sometimes, like in the case of 1990: The Bronx Warriors (1982) they copy from various films at the same time. In the case of The Humanoid, they were ripping off only one film in particular and that was George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977). Now, ripping off a film like Star Wars isn’t easy because it immediately involves a higher budget due to the fact that it’s a science fiction film. Problem is that Italian Cinema isn't exactly known for big Hollywood sized budgets, in fact they are known for the complete opposite. But the prospect of making some money off of Star Wars was too great to pass up and so the Italians did not one, but many Star Wars rip offs! The first one is one of my favorite Italian rip offs ever, the inimitable Starcrash (1978). A film that was meant to be a Star Wars rip-off, but ended up being a homage to Barbarella (1968) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963). Now if you haven’t seen Starcrash and love b-movies, do yourselves a favor and check it out. I promise you’ll laugh your ass off while being completely entertained at the same time. Following Starcrash was The Humanoid (1979) which by the way had a slightly higher budget than Starcrash. Did more money translate into a decent film? For the longest time I’d been dying to see this Star Wars rip off, so, how was it?

The story goes something like this. A villain known as ‘Lord Graal’ enlists in the help of an evil scientist to create a chemical that can turn everyone it comes in contact with into a brainless zombie willing to obey his every whim. Lord Graal intends to release this chemical on the population of Planet  Metropolis, hoping in this way to create an unbeatable automaton army, you know, kind of like the clone army from the Star Wars films. But first they try the toxic on a random individual which ends up being a pilot named Golob. Golob ends up becoming the titular Humanoid. At the same time, the people of Metropolis have become aware of Lord Graals plans, so they send a soldier to stop Lord Graal. Will they succeed? Or will Lord Graal turn everyone into a mindless automaton?

Starcrash is a cool movie in my book because while most of its posters and publicity materials screamed Star Wars (just take a look at some of its posters) the film itself wasn’t such a Star Wars rip off. To me it turned into its own twisted, hilarious thing. I’m thinking producers wanted Star Wars, but Luigi Cozzi -the director- gave them a loving homage to old sci-fi/fantasy films. But The Humanoid? Here’s a real, true blue, Star Wars rip off! Oh my god! This one is Star Wars through and through! The sets, the spaceships, the situations are all Star Wars inspired, only cheaper and consequently funnier. The Humanoid cost about 7 million (3 million more that Starcrash) and you can tell because it looks slightly better produced in someways. The sets and spaceships look slightly more expensive, but never as polished as anything you'd see on Star Wars. Producers obviously spent their cash on making this one look exactly like Star Wars, but at the end of the day couldn't really match it. So what we get is a goofy version of Star Wars.

But just how Star Wars is The Humanoid? Well, let’s see…the film starts off with a scrolling text introduction, we get giant triangular spaceships flying through space. The main villain in the film is this guy who is dressed all in black. He is obviously this films Darth Vader, only he reminded me more of Dark Helmet from Spaceballs (1986), but with a Samurai Helmet? They filmed a lot of the film in a dessert that resembles Tattoine, they even have this craft that hovers a few inches off the ground just like in Star Wars. Okay, check this out, how low is this? The film’s director is a guy called Aldo Lado, but in order to make his name sound like George Lucas, they billed him as George Lewis! I mean, that’s just sleazy marketing techniques. This films version of R2-D2 is a little robotic dog called ‘Robo-Dog’ who by the ways pees yellow liquid on which the storm trooper types slip on, then he laughs at them when they fall. He also wags his antenna tail from time to time when excited! The film has some sleazy sexy stuff you’d never see in a Star Wars film, for example, this villainess has these huge breasts…and the camera stays on them for a few seconds too long, I was just cracking up. Lord Graal has a girlfriend on this one whom he wants to share the universe with, and sex as well, there’s something Darth Vader never did. They even have a Princess Leia type character entering data into a robot while saying the words “It’s our only hope”.   

The one element of originality the film has is The Humanoid itself, played by Richard Keil. When he is under the control of Lord Graal, he screams like The Hulk, breaks down doors and throws bad guys up in the air! He looks like the James Bond villain in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), because he is! This film gets really weird when it deviates from the Star Wars and goes into its own crazy territory, like this little Asian kid named Tom Tom, who has these amazing powers? He is basically like Jesus. He is also protected by these ghost like warriors, who by the way shoot glowing blue arrows! This magical kid kept reminding me of The Golden Child (1986). At one point, when he completes his mission a ghost ship comes flying and picks him up to go to who the hell knows where, because who or what this magical kid is, is never truly explained. He does say that he is “going back to Tibet”, laugh out freaking loud. But then again, many things are never explained, like the villain who sucks the life out of beautiful girls to get younger. This sub-plot goes nowhere! Why does she have to suck the life out of girls, if it has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the film? Whatever, who cares! Ultimately, it’s crazy elements like these that make these movies so entertaining. 

Other Italian Star Wars rip offs include: Space Odyssey (1979), War in Space (1978), Cosmos: War of the Planets (1977) and War of the Robots (1978), but I have a feeling none of them are as entertaining as either Starcrash (1978) or The Humanoid (1979), so watch those at your own risk. The Humanoid is the most blatant of all these rip offs. It has to be. I mean, you can’t get more Star Wars than this! No way! You remember that scene in Star Wars where Han Solo and Luke are on board the Millennium Falcon and they start shooting all those Tie Fighters? There’s a copy paste of those scenes on this one! It even looks like they used the same explosions! That whole scene where Leia is captured and tortured? Same thing here.   But then just when you think it’s a copy paste of Star Wars, Lord Graals hands light up and he begins to shoot blue laser beams out of them! So it’ll feel like a Star Wars rip off, but then totally not! It’s entertaining that way. Ultimately, I enjoyed Starcrash more (because its even crazier than this one) but The Humanoid is actually not that bad as far as bad movies go. It’s actually quite fun and recommend it if you ever want to turn your frown upside down.

Rating: 3 out of 5   

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Chappie (2015)

Chappie (2015)

Director: Neil Blomkamp

Cast: Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sharlto Copley, Ninja, Yo-landi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Sigourney Weaver

When you see Chappie, you immediately know it’s a Neil Blomkamp movie. It has his signature all over it. Let’s see, it was shot in Africa (like his previous two films) it stars Sharlto Copley and it has robots engraved into the story, all elements we've seen in his previous films. What I like about Blomkamp’s films is that they always have something to say. His films are very socially conscious; they are never just empty spectacles. For example District 9 (2009) spoke of racism, Elysium (2013) spoke of classism and now here we have Chappie, Blomkamp’s third film. What does this talented director have to talk about this time?

Chappie is all about these armor plated attack robots that are used by the South African police force to pacify and protect the country. These robot cops have proven effective in reducing crime in the country. Deon Wilson, the robots designer, has invented a chip that can make the robots sentient. In other words, he can make these robots think and feel on their own. Problem is that his ideas sound too radical for his superiors, so they deny him the permission to move forward with his sentient chip. In a desperate move to “shape life and not let life shape you” he decides to steal a robot that was meant to be scrapped and installs the chip on it in this way jump starting the first sentient form of artificial intelligence. Unfortunately when the robot becomes conscious, it has the intelligence of a child. It learns fast, but it is very naïve. What happens when Chappie ends up with the wrong crowd?

Blomkamp infused Chappie with elements from many films that he grew up watching. For example, the first idea that popped into my head while watching Chappie was that Neil Blomkamp should have been the director for the Robocop (2014) reboot. Here’s a guy who really, truly understands the themes that a film like Robocop plays with. In fact, one look at Chappie and it’s obvious that Blomkamp’s a huge fan of Paul Verhoeven’s original Robocop (1987), especially those scenes where we see the robot police force at work. When Chappie’s taking the world in, like a little baby, it reminded me of Johnny 5 from Short Circuit (1986), especially in those scenes in which Chappie is learning all about life and death. All I could think about was Johnny 5 saying “Johnny 5 is ALIVE!” Those scenes in which Chappie is taken advantage of by a bunch of hoodlums to do questionable things reminded me of those scenes in Edward Scissorhands (1990) when Edward is dooped into committing a felony without even knowing it because he is so naive. Those scenes where Chappie goes up against a huge clunky robot brought to mind the climactic confrontation in Robocop 2 (1990), where Robocop destroys the city as he fights against a bigger Robocop. In fact, if we’re to go even deeper into Chappie’s influences, we discover that it plays with the ideas of transferring consciousness into an artificial body, a theme we saw played out in Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell (1995), hell, Chappie even has a little bit of Appleseed in its design, I’m speaking of Chappie's rabbit ears of course.  As you can see, Chappie has elements from many films that deal with similar subject matter. 

Okay, so Chappie is influenced by a gazillion movies (what movie isn’t these days?), but what is it about? As it turns out Chappie talks about some very important themes, it speaks about the importance of who brings up a child. One of the theories of human learning says that Humans learn by imitation, we copy others behavior. This is true with children who repeat everything we say and do everything they see us do. Some of us get decent role models, but some of us get terrible parents who are terrible role models. The question Chappie asks is what happens when our role models are violent people with no morals? What if our role models believe stealing and killing is okay? Will we grow up to become robbers and killers? Chances are we will. The film stresses the importance of good parenting, good education and good role models in our lives. The movie goes into deeper territory when Chappie’s knowledge grows and he starts to ask ‘the big questions’. Why must we die? Why make us with an expiration date? It’s no coincidence that Chappie’s creator is called Deon, which sounds like Deus, which is Latin for God. So we have the creation asking its creator for more life. Like the androids in Blade Runner (1982), Chappie also wants more life. So yeah, Chappie has its themes. It’s not an empty shell.

The cast is an eclectic bunch. We have the participation of Die Antwoord the African rap/rave band, who by the way also supply the music for the film, not the best performances in the film, but also not terrible. Dev Patel does good as Chappie’s creator. We have Hugh Jackman as a ‘villain’ which is a first for Jackman who never plays villains. Sigourney Weaver is on board as the head of the corporation that builds the robots. She has a small role, which lately is all she’s been getting, but that’s okay with me because due to her small part in Chappie, she’s just started working with Blomkamp on the next installment of the alien franchise, which I’m all kinds of excited about. Every alien movie is different, because there’s always a different director behind the cameras. I’m looking forward to Blomkamp’s take on the alien universe, I’m sure robots will be involved somehow.  As far as Chappie goes, it was an enjoyable entertaining ride with something relevant to say. The effects work was fantastic, I loved the way Chappie looks, it’s a cool design. Chappie looks very similar to the robots on Blomkamp’s early short film Tetra Vaal (2004); which by the way served as the basis for Chappie. So far, Blomkamp hasn’t let me down as a director, looking forward to his future films. It’s fantastic to count with a director who so far has totally devoted himself to the science fiction genre, haven’t had one of those in quite some time.  

Rating: 4 out of 5 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

Director: Matthew Vaughn

Cast: Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Caine, Sofia Boutella, Mark Hamill

I love it when I go into a film expecting little and come out completely excited because the movie I just saw exceeded my expectations. This is what happened to me with Kingsman: The Secret Service a movie I only had a vague idea about suddenly falls right into my best of the year list. This magnificent James Bond spoof comes to us from Matthew Vaughn, the guy who brought us Kick Ass (2010), X-Men: First Class (2011) and Stardust (2007) all entertaining films in my book. Vaughn wanted to make this movie so badly he said no to directing X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), so that’s how much of a passion project this movie is to Vaughn. Not every director will have the guts to say no to a sure hit that will make millions in order to make a risky film that’s totally original. Sure Kingsman is based on Matthew Vaughn’s own comic book ‘The Secret Service’, but it’s not a household name. It’s not a sure thing. You have to respect a director who believes so much in his film that his willing to do that. The thing is that I see why he did it. Turns out Kingsman was way more entertaining than the last X-Men movie every step of the way, so I’m actually happy Vaughn eschewed X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) for Kingsman.

In Kingsman: The Secret Service we are introduced to Eggsy, a young man who is going down the dark path. He’s all about being a trouble maker. He likes to go to bars to pick fights and cause a ruckus. But there’s something about him, he’s got potential to be something great. Secret Service Agent Harry Hart recognizes this, so he gives him a chance to apply to become a Kingsman. Just what the hell is a Kingsman and does Eggsy have what it takes to become one? Or is he just another loser?

What is so awesome about Kingsman is that it has all these old James Bond movies to build upon. What Matthew Vaughn did was he watched every single James Bond and spy movie ever made, and then he made this one. He cleverly avoids the famous clichés and makes fun of them while at the same time being a good spy movie. It’s a rule of thumb I have for all spoofs. If you’re going to spoof a genre, you still have to be a good film within the genre you are spoofing. Good examples of this are Young Frankenstein (1974) and Spaceballs (1986), two of Mel Brooks most famous spoofs. Young Frankenstein is a damn good Frankenstein movie (actually it was nominated for Best Screenplay in 1974) while still making fun of all those Frankenstein films that came before it. Young Frankenstein is such a good Frankenstein movie that it even surpasses many of the films it is spoofing. Same with Spaceballs, there’s no better Star Wars spoof out there. Funny, yet mindful to the type of film it is. And this is what Kingsman does so well. It takes all those elements you know and love from James Bond films and then twists them around and takes them to another level. If you are a fan of Bond movies, you will have a blast with Kingsman: The Secret Service. It’s always referencing some cliché from the Bond films. In this sense it reminds me William Dear’s If Looks Could Kill (1991), which was also about a teenager who turns into a super spy. It was also a lighthearted, fun film that poked fun at Bond movies, but trust me, Kingsman does it a million times better. Still, if you enjoy Kingsman, check out If Looks Could Kill (1991).

But aside from the spoof aspect of this film, as it turns out, it is also an extremely well written film saying a whole lot about the society we live in and what is wrong with it and boy, I wasn’t expecting this at all, but Kingsman: The Secret Service is one of the most subversive films I’ve seen in a while. It’s a film that sends a big ‘screw you’ to politics and religion. There’s an outstanding sequence that takes place inside of a Christian church that showcases everything that is wrong with religion today. What this story is saying is that politicians and religious leaders are total whackos, they just happen to be running the world, making all the wrong choices for all of us. How do you save the world from these madmen? By becoming a true gentleman, ridding the world of evil. I loved the message that the films puts across. It’s basically saying we can become something better, we can improve ourselves, we can do some good in the world. We have the potential, we just need to focus. It also speaks about the manipulation of the masses, and the control of how they perceive things. I can see why the film is rated ‘R’, it has profanity, nudity and subversive ideas. Its violence quotient is pretty high. It feels as if the filmmakers decided that if they we’re going to go with an ‘R’ rating, they were going to go all in. And that they did; which was awesome. It was so refreshing to see a film that wasn’t worrying about being politically correct.

Final words:  this movie turned out to be one of my favorite of the year; it was entertaining every step of the way. One of the biggest compliments it gets from me is that it was never boring. Not for a second. It brought back that fun element that modern James Bond movies lack. If you take a look at Bond films of today, they are currently on a ‘deadly serious’ phase, all the silly fun from the old movies has been sucked right out of that franchise.  And while I absolutely loved Sky Fall (2012), I miss the whacky element from the old ones, but don’t worry if you’ve been missing that sense of fun adventure from your spy movies, Kingsman: The Secret Service brings it all back.  So remember, what you guys have here is a film that’s very self conscious, it knows the cliché’s and staples of a good spy adventure and plays with them in innovative ways. And one more final note, the Matthew Vaughn’s direction on this one is top notch, his camera moves and angles, the over all direction of the film is truly fantastic. It’s dynamic, the camera angles are interesting, innovative. Case in point? The fights scenes on this movie are a blast! Really fun to watch! Now go see Kingsman: The Secret Service and have a blast, it just might blow your head into a million colorful pieces.

Rating:  5 out of 5  

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Metropolis (1927)

Metropolis (1927)

Director: Fritz Lang

Cast: Alfred Abel, Gustav Froehlich, Rudolf Klein Rogge, Brigitte Helm

Watching Metropolis is like seeing a ghost that brings us a message from the past, a message which surprisingly enough is still relevant in our modern age. This is the mother of all films dealing with classism issues, meaning films that deal with the issue of discrimination based on social class. In society you’re either high class, middle class, working class, or just plain old poor. Films like Metropolis deal with the differences between these diametrically opposed worlds. The question Metropolis asks is: can those in power and those in the working class learn to live together in peace? In the world of Metropolis, the high class lives in the magnificent, brightly lit, buoyant city of Metropolis, an impressive city to behold. They live in bliss, oblivious to the horrors experienced by the underpaid working class who live in the underground ghettos, in darkness and poverty. What keeps the working class going in spite of their sad and tiresome lives? Simply put? The hope offered by religion. They all gather around and listen to Maria, a religious community leader who preaches about hope and love. They soothing words that come from Maria makes them think that somehow, things will get better. Will the work force that built Metropolis ever be treated with respect? Or will the powerful keep turning a blind eye to the horrors of working ten hours shifts? Can a happy medium be reached?

The message sent out by Metropolis is a strong one, which is probably why it was banned and edited in so many countries. You see politicians don’t like films that touch upon politics and religion the way Metropolis does. This is a film that’s telling rich people to take the working class in consideration, it’s telling the powerful that they need to warm their hearts and feel some empathy for the hard workers who leave their blood and tears on the factory floor. But how can the rich and powerful know of the woes of the working class if they never interact with it, if they don’t know how they suffer? Enter Freder, the son of the rich and powerful leader of Metropolis. He empathizes with the children from the ghettos when he sees them come up to Metropolis to see the sights, to see how the other half lives. His eyes swell up, he feels for them. He also falls for Maria, the woman who brings the children up to see the city. Freder becomes curious and decides to go down to the Ghetto’s to see how the worker bees live. The experience ends up being a real eye opener for Freder, this is after all, a side of life he had never seen before.  

One of the questions Metropolis addresses is, how can you feel sympathy for something you ignore or don’t understand? When Freder goes and sees the working class, laboring away, nonstop, exhausted, even to the point of putting their lives in danger, he has a change of heart. Now he understands, when he sees things with his own eyes, when he experiences their pain. Freder literally switches places with the working man. There’s a spectacular scene in which Freder visits a factory and sees this gigantic machine, puffing and pumping away at great speeds. The workers try to keep up with the frenetic pace of the machine, but cant! When the gargantuan machine breaks down some of the workers are hurt in the process showing us that over worked employees is the perfect ingredient for catastrophe. Mistakes are bound to happen. And we have to remember, the ten hour work day was a very real thing back in those days, so we can see why this film addresses this important subject manner. In one sublimely surreal point in the film, they depict the machine that the workers run as an ancient Egyptian god to whom human sacrifices are being made to. Suddenly the machine is this giant God swallowing up human lives! It’s moments like these that help us realize the vision and artistry involved in this masterpiece. As a side note, it's also important to mention that this was one of the most expensive German films made up to that point, evidenced in the art direction which is something to behold. 

Fritz Lang wasn't just telling a story, he was making art; he was making visuals that would stay with us long after the film was over. I mean, this movie has so many visually dazzling moments. The Moloch Machine, the creation of Evil Maria a.k.a. The Machine Man, the Night Clubs scenes in the Yoshiwara District. The surreal moments, like the scenes in which Feder encounters Death and the seven deadly sins, the construction of the city…I mean, the film goes on and on with these indelible visuals. Images you’ll want to re-watch over and over again through the years.  This movie was so ahead of its time, it’s no wonder it’s been such an influential film.

The Machine Woman

If you have never seen Metropolis then you should know that it is a silent film, so don’t expect any dialog, the story is told through visuals, facial gestures and pantomimes, the occasional title card appears with dialog or information absolutely necessary to move the story along. This might take a little bit of getting used to, so you’ll have to adjust your movie watching speeds for the silent era, a time in which feelings where expressed through exaggerated facial gestures and hand movements, sometimes performances come off as caricatures because the actors have to amplify the feelings in order for the ideas and the feelings to be transmitted. I’m sure you’ll agree once you start seeing the film that it’s all worth it. Speaking of performances, Brigitte Helm as Maria/Machine Man is an outstanding performance, she makes the movie for me in terms of the acting. She does polar opposites in her performances, on the one hand she plays the socially conscious Maria, who minds the children and is a leader to the working class. She spreads only hope and love and on the other hand she plays The Machine Man, a robotic version of Maria that manipulates the workers into turning violent and hateful. Brigitte Helm does such an amazing job portraying both characters; her performance is without a doubt one of the finest points of the film. Her facial expressions are fantastic!

 Brigitte Helm as 'Evil Maria'

Another aspect of this film that has to be mentioned is that Metropolis forms a very important part of the cinematic era known as the era of ‘German Expressionism’, this was an era in German cinema in which filmmaking was very experimental, it was trying new things, new looks, new camera movements, these films had a stylish distinction about them that influenced the rest of the world, including Hollywood films, especially the crime dramas of the 40’s. In other words a lot of Hollywood’s film noir was directly influenced by German expressionism. These films experimented a lot with set design, something very obvious in films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). If you notice the sets and art direction in that particular film, it’s all very angular, purposely unrealistic. The art direction in these films creates their own twisted sense of reality, in fact these films were a direct contrast to realism. For these reasons, these films are a beauty to behold, these films have a very unique, distinctive look. The same can be said of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1926), yet another groundbreaking film from the same era.

A scene from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), showcasing the singularity of German Expressionism

How many films can we mention that have been influenced by Metropolis and its German Expressionism techniques? Well among them are most of Tim Burton’s films like Batman (1989), Batman Returns (1992), where Gotham City is a complete homage to Metropolis, but then, a lot of Burton’s films owe a lot to German Experssionism. The Fifth Element (1997) owes as much to Jodorwsky’s and Moebius’s The Incal as it does to Lang’s film, right down to those scenes involving the creation of Leloo Dallas, which are similar in look to those scenes in Metropolis involving the creation of Evil Maria. The look of Dark City (1998) comes straight out of Metropolis, same goes for Blade Runner (1982). I guess the most obvious of all influences is C3-PO from Star Wars, a direct descendent of The Machine Man seen in Metropolis. We can clearly see Metropolis has been and continues to be a huge influence on today’s modern filmmakers and it’s not without reason, Metropolis has such unique visuals, they will no doubt make an impression on you.

Above, Blade Runner (1982) below Metropolis (1927)

It certainly made an impression on Hitler and the growing Nazi party and here’s where I give you a bit of historical background behind this amazing film. You see, the Nazi’s were so impressed by Metropolis that they wanted Lang to work for them making propaganda films, in fact, they wanted to name Lang head of the German film studio, UFA. They were willing to “forgive” the fact that Lang was of Jewish decent.  Lang knew better and fled to Paris on the very same day they made this offer to him. He was not the first or last German filmmaker to migrate to another country fearing the Nazi party, reportedly, about 1,500 German filmmakers did this. Lang’s wife, Thea Von Harbou who had written many of Lang’s films including Metropolis (which by the way was based on her book) stayed behind and became a Nazi, Lang divorced her. It was a good thing Lang departed for Paris because if he hadn’t, in a few short months, he would have been banned from filmmaking by the Nazi’s who prohibited anyone not of Aryan descent to work in the film industry! Hell, the Nazi party even banned film criticism! Many non German actors and filmmakers ended up in concentration camps. Thankfully Lang emigrated on time and his cinematic career continued. After Paris, he moved to America, were Hollywood received him with open arms, like many German filmmakers who fled to Hollywood. He went on to form a huge part of the film noir movement, though with less of an emphasis on his expressionistic style, this of course due to the restraints of Hollywood film making; I guess Hollywood has always played by the rules. Still, he continued making influential films until he could make them no more. Looking back at Metropolis, it can be seen as his crowning achievement, a high watermark in his career and the one he’ll be remembered by. Any true film lover should see this film before they die.

Rating: 5 out of 5   

Above Metropolis (1927), below The Fifth Element (1997)


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