Category Archives: Sci-Fi

The Last Starfighter (1984)

laststar1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Teen recruited into battle.

Alex (Lance Guest) spends his time playing an arcade game called ‘Starfighter’ and gets so good at it that he becomes the game’s highest scorer. He’s then approached by the game’s inventor, Centuri (Robert Preston), to take a ride in his  futuristic-looking car as a prize. Alex accepts the invitation only to learn that Centuri really isn’t human, but instead an alien recruiting Alex to help them protect the frontier from Xur (Norman Snow) who has found a way to breach the forcefield that protects Rylos and the surrounding planets from invasion. The ‘Starfighter’ game was meant to be a test to find those that were good at the game and then bring them into the battle since the skills needed to win the game are the same ones needed for the battle.

While the film did quite well at the box office, bringing in $28 million from a $15 million budget, as well as spawning a novel version, a video game, and even an off-Broadway musical, I still found it to be a complete bore to watch. I don’t mind sci-fi, space-age movies, which were all-the-rage in the 80’s, but the special effects in this one are so tacky looking that I couldn’t take it seriously. This was one of the first films to use computer graphics instead of physical models, but the result makes this entire galactic war look like a video game. Maybe that was the intention, but I didn’t care for it.

The story, which was written by Jonathan R. Beutel while he worked as a cab driver, is full of too many plot holes. Having the setting inside a trailer park, which wasn’t even Beutel’s idea anyways, but instead director Nick Castle’s, is the only original thing about it. I didn’t understand though why all the people living in the trailer park would be so excited about Alex getting the high score in the game and come out of their homes to cheer him on. To them it’s just a silly kid’s game and becoming good at it doesn’t really mean much in the real-world, or lead to anything, so outside of an idle teenager with too much time on his hands, why care? It would’ve been more ironic had Alex achieved the high score with no one else around making him feel his efforts were under appreciated, only to later learn that in a far off galaxy it was anything but.

The way Centuri finds him, by literally driving up to him in the middle of the night in his snazzy car while Alex is conveniently walking alone is not interesting and this scenario could’ve been played-up in a more creative way by forcing Centuri to tour through the trailer park and visiting the many residents, which could’ve included some offbeat interactions, before he finally comes upon Alex. Also, why are these aliens forced to recruit a human teenager in their effort to save their own space fortress? Aren’t there other aliens within their own galaxy that could take-up the cause? What’s in it for Alex to get involved and put his life on the line for some distant, separate universe that he has nothing to do with and won’t directly affect his life in any way should these planets get invaded? The idea too that only two individuals, Alex and his alien pal Grig (Dan O’Herlihy), can take on this massive army and win are long odds that would only make sense in a cheesy Hollywood movie.

Guest was not the right choice for the part either as he was too old, playing a teen when he was already 23 at the time of filming and looking it. The part should’ve been played by a 12-year-old especially since the storyline is at a bubblegum level that only a preteen would be able to buy into. Preston is certainly a great actor, but I didn’t understand why his character felt the need to wear a human mask to disguise his alien face when all the other aliens freely showed who they were. It’s disappointing too that Norman Snow, who gives an campy performance as the villain, disappears too soon, but I really did like O’Herlihy, who’s completely unrecognizable underneath all of the make-up, and the only thing that makes watching this dopey thing slightly worth it.

The one aspect of the plot that is amusing is the Beta Alex that’s put in Alex’s place to help disguise that the real Alex is missing. These scenes, where the Beta learns to adapt to the human culture in awkward ways, are the only original bits in the film and where filmed after production had already finished when test audiences reacted favorably to the character forcing Guest to return to shoot the added scenes, but because he had already gotten a haircut by this time, the Beta Alex is then seen wearing a wig. Outside of these moments though I found the film to be pretty flimsy especially on the logical end and one of the weakest entries of the 80’s sci-fi craze.

laststar2

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: July 13, 1984

Runtime: 1 Hour 41 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Nick Castle

Studio: Lorimar Film Entertainment

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

Shirley Thompson Versus the Aliens (1972)

shirley4

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Lonely girl meets spaceship.

Shirley Thompson (Jane Harders) is an alienated young adult living in 1956 Australia who one day makes contact with a group of aliens. It happens while her and her biker gang sneak into Luna Park after dark, which is a amusement place for children and when they go into after it’s closed they can go on the rides for free. It’s while doing this that Shirley sees a spaceship and starts communicating with it while the rest of the gang gets scared and leaves. The aliens within the ship tell her that they plan on invading earth and it’s up to her to warn the others of their intent, but if she does it right they’ll reward her with ‘power’, which is what she’s always wanted as she’s felt insignificant otherwise. The aliens then produce a massive rain storm that creates much damage and then the next day they interrupt a radio broadcast to proclaim what they’ve done, but no one believes them especially Shirley’s parents (Marion Jones, John Llewellyn) who thinks it’s a joke. Everyone else responds to Shirley’s alien warnings like she’s a kook, which ends up getting her committed to the mental institution where she then recounts her tale to a cynical staff.

This is the first feature length movie directed by Jim Sharman better known to American audiences for having helmed Rocky Horror Picture Show and to Australians for his work in experimental theater of which he is highly regarded. This film works in line with many of his other Avant Garde efforts where the emphasis is more on the imagery than the story. For mainstream audiences though it may be considered inaccessible as it bucks all areas of conventional storytelling including having it alternate between black and white and color with each scene. There’s also very little dialogue with the focus more on mood. The film does have its share of interesting moments, but how much one appreciates it is completely up to one’s own temperament.

I was struck by how similar the theme was to Sharman’s later film The Night, The Prowler with both movies dealing with an alienated young adult woman still living at home with her parents who feels that no one can understand her and has inner anger/disdain at the world around her. It also has shades of Liquid Skywhich came out 11 years later and dealt with a young woman who befriends some aliens, but instead of being scared of them like everyone else she has a special connection to them and feels as much like a stranger on this planet as they do.

If you’re looking for a typical sci-fi flick then you’ll be sorely disappointed as you won’t even end up seeing any aliens or spaceships. I’m not sure if this was due to budgetary restraints, but in any event the camera stays fully locked on Shirley and becomes more of a satire on life in the burbs and in that regard it succeeds. While not a perfect movie it does have its share of memorable moments especially the ending where Shirley gets strapped to a spinning hospital bed while laughing maniacally.  Why I found this part to be so cool I don’t know, but that’s how the movie works. You either go with the flow or you don’t, but those who are game may find it a fun ride. It’s certainly different than anything you’ll find released today and could only have been made in the early 70’s.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: June 6, 1972

Runtime: 1 Hour 11 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Jim Sharman

Studio: Kolossal Piktures

Available: None

Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Tarantulas take over town.

Rack (William Shatner) is a veterinarian residing in a rural Arizona town who gets a call one day from a local rancher (Woody Strode) complaining that his prize calf has come down with a mysterious illness. Rack examines the animal, but can’t come to any conclusion so he sends the animal’s blood sample off to a university lab. Diane (Tiffany Bolling) a arachnologist then arrives telling him that the animal was killed by a massive dose of spider venom. At first Rack does not believe her, but as more animals and then eventually people start to fall prey to the same aggressive spiders the two soon pair up to help try to save the rest of the town and themselves.

Over $50,000 of the film’s $500,000 budget was spent on procuring 5,000 tarantulas for the film’s shoot, but personally I didn’t think it was enough. Shots showing the spiders ‘invading’ by having them lining the town’s roadways weren’t really all that frightening because there was still ample space between the spiders that a person could easily step around them and not get bit. The spiders are also very slow, so a potential victim should have plenty of time to get out of the area once they saw them converging.

The idea that the spiders are doing this is because of the heavy use of pesticides doesn’t logically work. For one thing spiders are not like ants and do not create working colonies. They are anti-social and do things alone. They can even be cannibalistic, which is why the production crew was forced to keep each of the 5,000 tarantulas in separate containers to avoid having them eat each other. With this all in mind why then would they begin behaving in ways that’s so unnatural to their species? Being desperate for a new food source is one thing, but how could the spiders communicate with each other to get them all to work together that are completely alien to their nature? Sometimes it’s very hard to get humans to work together even when they know it’s in their best interests, so suddenly getting an anti-social species to do it is breaking astronomical odds.

Another issue is how do these spiders suddenly get so smart? For instance the spiders sneak onto a crop duster plane and kill the pilot (Whitey Hughes) who was going to spray down a pesticide that would’ve destroyed their spider hills, but how would spiders have the sophistication to know that was what he was doing? Spiders cannot speak or understand English, so it’s not like they could’ve ‘overheard’ what the people were planning to do and then went on the counter-attack though that’s ultimately what the movie tries to convey happened.

The film is too dependent on viewers being creeped out at the sight of spiders and hoping that will be enough to carry through for the entire movie as pretty much nothing else happens that’s genuinely scary. Just a lot of shots of spiders slowly moving around while the actors scream in horror and try to flick them off and that’s about it. The ultimate irony is that tarantula bites are not lethal and will cause only a minor irritation similar to that of a bee sting.

Spoiler Alert!

I did however like the film’s ending which has the spiders covering the entire town with a giant cobweb. While it’s obvious that the shot of the cobweb over the town is clearly that of a painting I still felt it was a cool concept, but this needed to come in to play during the second act. Showing how the people fought through this new dilemma would’ve given the story a more creative direction instead of just waiting to the very finish to introduce it and then abruptly ending just when it finally started to get interesting.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: August 24, 1977

Runtime: 1 Hour 35 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: John ‘Bud’ Cardos

Studio: Dimension Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video

Psychic Killer (1975)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Killing through astral projection.

Arnold (Jim Hutton) finds himself behind-bars for a murder he did not commit. He conveys his dilemma to fellow inmate Emilio (Stack Pierce) who informs Arnold that he has special powers that can help Arnold get out of his predicament and once Emilio dies he promises to transfer those powers to him. Then 2 days later Emilio jumps to his death and later Arnold receives a small box that has an amulet inside of it. Arnold puts the amulet necklace on and discovers that he now can kill his enemies through astral projection without him having to be present when it occurs. Police Lt. Jeff Morgan (Paul Burke) suspects what Arnold is doing, but can’t seem to prove it.

The script, which was written by Greydon Clark, who went on to write scripts for many other interesting low budget films, has definite potential and I liked the idea, but the concept isn’t thought through well enough and ends up leaving many more questions than answers. For instance how is Arnold able to know where his victims are when he tries to kill them? All of the killings take place with Arnold sitting in the comfort of his own bedroom in a comatose state, but if that’s the case then what signals him to make the automobile one of his victim’s is driving in go haywire, so that it crashes? How would he know that the victim was for sure driving in it when he mentally causes the car to go bonkers?

How was Arnold able to learn the art of astral projection so quickly? This seems like something a person would have to hone their skills a bit to completely master and yet Arnold acts like a pro at it instantaneously. Also, if Emilio initially had the amulet with all these massive powers then why didn’t he use it to get himself out of jail instead of wasting away in a cell when he really didn’t have to?

With the exception of a death that occurs inside a butcher shop the rest of the killings aren’t all that impressive or gory and in many ways cheesy stuff better suited for a TV-Movie. This could be better categorized as a tacky sci-fi flick than a horror one anyways especially when one the deaths, where a man gets crushed by a giant cement block, gets played-up more in the comical vein.

Ray Danton, a former actor turned director, manages to keep it somewhat lively by introducing a variety of different settings, which is good. However, the outdoor shots get compromised by looking like they were filmed in some studio backlot, which includes a scene where a rich elderly man (Whit Bissell) takes a young chick (Judith Brown) to his isolated cabin hideaway, but cabin’s front yard looks like a giant gravel pit that nobody would either build or buy a place with that type of outdoor eyesore.

While I enjoyed Della Reese and the verbal sparring that she has with Neville Brand inside a butcher shop, the rest of the acting, which gets made up entirely of B-actors on the decline of their careers, isn’t too interesting. Hutton’s presence though is an exception. He had been a rising star in the 60’s doing light comedies, but here he takes a stab at something much darker and he delivers. I thought this would’ve helped him get more movie offers, but instead he got relegated to TV assignments afterwards before eventually dying just 5 years later from cancer at the age of only 45.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: December 12, 1975

Runtime: 1 Hour 30 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Ray Danton

Studio: Embassy Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video

The Man with Two Brains (1983)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Brain in a jar.

Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr (Steve Martin) is a world famous brain surgeon who accidentally hits Dolores Benedict (Kathleen Turner) one day while driving his car. He immediately does surgery on her and during the recovery the two get married. However, Dolores is only interested in Michael’s money and continues to see other men behind his back. Michael on-the-other hand  meets with Dr. Alfred Necessiter (David Warner) who keeps live brains in jars in his condo. Michael (Steve Martin) begins communicating with one of the brains (voice of Sissy Spacek) via telepathy and decides it is she that he really loves. When he becomes aware that the brain will not survive much longer on its own he desperately tries to find a suitable body to transplant it into.

This Steve Martin/Carl Reiner production, which is their third project together, certainly has its moments and I particularly liked the the mysterious elevator killer although once his identity is finally revealed viewers today will have no idea who that person actually is. However for the most part the film is highly uneven. Having it centered as a horror movie parody would’ve given it better focus and the jokes more of a point-of-view instead of just throwing in any haphazard gag it wants many of which have nothing to do with its already paper thin plot.

I realize this is all meant to be a very silly comedy, but having two victims get hit by a vehicle, once with Turner and then later on with Stephanie Kramer, in her film debut, where neither victim shows any sign of blood, scratches, or bruising is a bit ridiculous. This is where if it had been approached as a horror/comedy then they could’ve thrown in some gore, but in an over-the-top goofy way, that would’ve allowed a new dimension for laughs while also given it just a smidgen of reality to it, which otherwise is lacking.

Martin’s ability to have a conversation with a brain in a jar without any special apparatus connecting the two is equally ridiculous. The excuse is that it’s ‘telepathy’, but why is he able to communicate with just the one brain when there are many others that are also in the room? What special ability does this brain have over the others and why is Martin the only one that can hear it and no one else?

Having Martin hear Spacek’s voice as her thoughts come into his brain doesn’t make sense either. The definition of telepathy is the  communication of thoughts and ideas other than the known senses, but nothing to do with voices. Thoughts in themselves don’t have a distinct voice connected to them unless the brain is attached to a voice box, which this one isn’t.  It is true that thoughts going on in person’t own head may have that person’s voice, so Martin should actually be hearing his own voice as his brain deciphers the messages being sent to it from the other one much like if he were reading out loud a note that had been written by someone else.

This also marks an odd career choice for Turner who burst onto the scene with her sexy performance in Body Heat . I realize that in her effort to avoid typecasting she wanted to do something that was completely different from her first film, but her character is too campy and one-dimensional and she ends up getting completely upstaged by Martin in every scene they’re in. The role also has a creepy foreshadowing as her character gains a lot of weight much like she has in reality due to her rheumatoid arthritis. In real-life it’s the drugs and chemo that caused the weight gain while here it’s created through make-up and a body suit and intended for comical effect.

There’s also an interesting behind-the-scenes story dealing with a scene involving a 5-year-old girl, played by Mya Stark, who must verbally repeat back to Martin from memory a very complicated set of directions that he had just told her. Since she was too young to read no cue cards were used and director Reiner figured it would take all day to film the scene convinced that many retakes would inevitably be required for her to finally get the lines right, but instead to his shock she repeated the lines back correctly the very first time. Then 30 years later in 2012 Reiner was standing in line at a store when a female business executive approached him and introduced herself. She stated that they had met many years before, but Reiner didn’t recognize her until she told him that she was that little girl now all grown up.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: June 3, 1983

Runtime: 1 Hour 31 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Carl Reiner

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

Heartbeeps (1981)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Robots fall in love.

Val (Andy Kaufman) and Aqua (Bernadette Peters) are two robots who meet one day at the factory while awaiting repairs. They quickly fall in love and decide to escape out into the wilderness while bringing alone Phil a small robot who does not speak as well as Catskill (voice of Jack Carter) a robot made to resemble a cigar smoking vaudeville-type stand-up comedian. However, two employees from the factory, Max (Kenneth McMillan) and Charlie (Randy Quaid) go on a pursuit to retrieve them. There’s also the malfunctioning law enforcement robot known as Crimebuster who also chases after the robots and will stop at nothing to bring them back.

This is a highly unusual film in that it uses robots as its main characters and has their point-of-view the whole way through. Other films have had robots of course, but they are put in supporting roles to the humans.  Here director Allan Arkush was determined to keep it authentic to the ‘robot experience’, by implementing a computer-type logic to everything that goes on, which creates  some surreal moments, but ultimately falls flat.

To be a successful film you still need to have characters that the viewer finds relatable and the robots are too, pardon the pun, mechanical. They never say anything that is interesting or funny and while they at times have an endearing child-like quality they do not create any emotional bond with the audience.

There still needed to be a human as the centerpiece, maybe someone the robots met during their escape, who takes them in and helps them in their quest to hide from those that are after them while also having the robots in some way help their new human friend in whatever personal challenges or battles they were going through.  They are a couple of times that the robots do come into contact with people with one occurring when they crash a party at a swanky hilltop resort with Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov playing two of the partiers, but the guests at the party are broadly played caricatures and the scene itself too brief. They also later meet-up with a couple, played by Melanie Mayron and Christopher Guest, who run a junkyard, but this occurs too late in the movie and should’ve been introduced earlier.

While the wilderness setting is scenic it fails to add much in the way of either excitement or comedy. Having the two escape into a big city would’ve been more compelling. The crimebuster robot that chases after them is too goofy and offers no tension or intrigue. Sometimes even in a comedy it’s good to have a little bit of that, or at least a bad guy that is competent enough to make the viewer wonder, if even for a second, whether our heroes are going to safely outsmart him or not, which doesn’t occur here.

It would’ve been nice too had there actually been some genuine laughs. The only attempts at humor are when Catskill cracks one of his long line of incredibly dumb jokes, which are intended to be lame, but having a few that were actually clever, would’ve helped. Even the talented Kaufman flounders as he uses the same accent of his famous foreign man character that he did during his stand-up routines as well as in the TV-show ‘Taxi’ ultimately making it seem like Latka in a robot disguise.

The make-up effects by Stan Winston are impressive especially the opening credit sequence at the beginning where the camera focuses onto the robots’ various parts close-up. Winston used a gelatin substance that gave off a authentic looking metallic appearance versus how it had always been done before where it had been painted on. However, two holes where created around the robots eyes, which gives it a mask-like appearance and ultimately ruins the attempt although it gets kudos for at least making a strong effort. I also liked the  clicking sound effect every time one of the robots blinked their eyes, which resembled the noise of a camera taking a picture. but it’s not consistent as it’s heard during the first half, but not during the second part.

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: December 18, 1981

Runtime: 1 Hour 18 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Allan Arkush

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

Explorers (1985)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Kids go into space.

Ben (Ethan Hawke) is a teen who keeps having dreams dealing with a spacecraft and eventually writes down the dimensions of it onto paper and then sends it to his super smart friend Wolfgang (River Phoenix) who uses it as a blueprint to eventually create it in real-life using various parts that they find in a junkyard. Once completed Ben, Wolfgang, and their other friend Darren (Jason Presson) decide to take it for a ride. Initially they fly it around their coastal California town, which catches the eye of the police (Dick Miller), who chases after it to no avail. Eventually though they decide to take it into outer space where they visit aliens inside a intergalactic space station.

Out of all of the sci-fi movies that came out during the 80’s this one has gotten lost in the shuffle and wasn’t too well received by the critics when it was first released though it has achieved a cult following since then. Director Joe Dante has complained that the final cut was taken out of his hands and he was never able to complete the ending that he wanted though for the most part the film never really gels, has a slow pace and only spotty moments where it becomes even halfway amusing.

One of the things that I did like was that the cast is age appropriate for their parts and the scenes done on a junior high campus have a student body that really looks to be teens instead of older college age actors trying to look younger, which happens in so many other teen films. The three leads thankfully aren’t crude or foul mouthed and aren’t obsessed with parlaying a ‘cool’, trendy image, which is also nice, but they seem just a bit too smart and able to do things that most adults can’t like welding and carpentry and  building a craft to exact specifications without any hitch or screw-up. Sure that Wolfgang kid is supposed to be smart, but even geniuses can make incorrect estimations, but this guy never does.

Watching the silly looking contraption actually get off the ground is farcical as in reality it most likely wouldn’t and the science gets completely thrown out the window. When they go out into space on their second trip they don’t even bother to equip themselves with oxygen and since there’s none in space I wasn’t able to figure out how they could breath. There’s no explanation either for how they were able to survive the extreme drop in temperature that occurs in high altitudes nor how the craft was able to get back through the earth’s atmosphere without burning up.

Spoiler Alert!

The scenes where the boys fly the craft around their town and even disrupt a sci-fi movie that is being shown at a local drive-in is when its funny and where the story should’ve stayed. Having it venture out into space and meeting other teen aliens is when it jumps-the-shark. The first hour plays like a whimsical fantasy, which is passable, but the third act becomes too campy. It also criminally under-uses Amanda Peterson, who plays Ben’s attractive love interest, who gets barely seen at all even though she should’ve gone on the trip with the other three boys, which would’ve bolstered the entertainment value and the fact that she doesn’t makes this already weak file even weaker.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: July 12, 1985

Runtime: 1 Hour 49 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Joe Dante

Studio: Paramount Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

The Swarm (1978)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Killer bees invade Texas.

When his parents (Robert Varney, Doria Cook) are attacked by African Killer Bees while out on a picnic their young son Paul (Christian Juttner) manages to escape by jumping into their car and driving off. He then drives into the small town of Marysville, Texas where he tells the people about what happened. Scientist Bradford Crane (Michael Caine) and Army General Slater (Richard Widmark) are put in charge, but neither can agree on what strategy to use. Meanwhile Paul gets some of his friends to go back out to the park where the attack occurred to set fire to the hive, but instead of killing the bees it gets them to swarm onto the nearby town and the unsuspecting citizens.

Director/producer Irwin Allen was by the late 70’s known as the disaster master after having by that time either produced or directed 4 ( he ultimately ended up making 7) disaster flicks for both TV and the big screen many of which like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno made a ton of money, so he was riding high coming into this one only to have it bomb monumentally at both the box office and with the critics. He took the failure of this film so personally that he refused to ever mention it and even walked out of an interview when he was asked about it.

In retrospect it’s easy to see why it failed as the special effects just aren’t interesting enough. Watching repetitive shots of swarming bees can only go so far and the victims just lay there without having their skin show any signs of swelling from the multiple stings, which you’d expect them to have. The shots from the point-of-view of the victims, which shows the bees in a giant form, is the only cool thing though, like everything else in the film, this ends up getting overdone and corny.

The script is ripe with unintentionally funny moments including having the authorities attempt to kill the bees by spraying at them with a flame thrower, which doesn’t seem to affect the bees at all and instead only sets buildings on fire as well as some of the people. The idea that the bees were set off by an alarm siren at a military base, which somehow sounded exactly like their mating call is too preposterous to believe and only makes the ‘science’ behind the film completely silly.

The film also makes the mistake of having the setting be in Texas, but not actually filming it there. Sure there’s a few shots of some famous Houston landmarks that get briefly shown, but the majority of it was clearly shot on a studio backlot in California and any true Texan will easily spot this as the topography and landscape between those two states are quite different. Had the film been made on-location it would’ve helped give it a little more character, which it is otherwise lacking.

The cast is made up of a lot of famous names, but they all get wasted. Lee Grant appears only briefly as an aggressive TV reporter that for the most part has little to do with the progression of the plot. Fred MacMurray, in his last film appearance, plays a rival to Ben Johnson who both compete for the affections of Olivia de Havilland, but all three get killed off in the second act, so what’s the use of introducing this potential story arc if it ends up not really going anywhere?

Caine makes for one of the most boring screen heroes in film history and gets seriously upstaged by Henry Fonda, who plays one of the scientists trying to create a serum to combat the deadly bee stings, even though Fonda is confined to a wheelchair the whole time. This was the first of many ‘paycheck movies’ that Caine did and in fact he admittedly never even bothered to read the script before agreeing to sign on, but still felt it was worth it as he was able to use the funds to purchase a nice mansion in Malibu unfortunately for the viewer there’s no such mansion just boredom instead.

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: July 14, 1978

Runtime: 2 Hours 35 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Irwin Allen

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD, Blu-ray (Warner Archive), Amazon Video, YouTube

Repo Man (1984)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Alien in the trunk.

Otto (Emilio Estevez) has trouble accepting authority, which causes him to get fired from many of his jobs. He eventually gets courted into the car repossession business, which he at first resists, but then, especially with its lure of quick cash, he grows into. This then leads him in pursuit of a Chevrolet Malibu with a $20,000 bounty on it driven by a very strange man (Fox Harris) who harbors a glowing radioactive substance in its trunk that kills anyone who comes into contact with it.

The film’s best selling points is that it gives one a gritty feel of what being stuck in society’s poor underbelly is really like as it traps the viewer inside the inner-city of Los Angeles with its almost non-stop capture of its rundown buildings, which becomes like a dominant third character. The viewer then begins to share the same anxiety, anger and frustrations of the people in a place they don’t really want to be, but with no idea of how to get out of it. The only time the film shows the more vibrant area of L.A. is during a brief shot of the skyline from a distance making it come off like a far away place that’s out-of-reach.

The rebel mystique gets better explored and examined here than in other 80’s films where the term ‘rebel’ seemed to apply exclusively to mouthy suburban teens who didn’t like their parent’s rules and would wear punk attire because it was ‘trendy’. Here you get a much more authentic feeling of being an outsider and the unglamorous, desperate qualities that comes with it.

Writer/director Alex Cox also examines the thin, merging line between being a conformist and non-conformist and the ironic/contradictory results that can occur. This gets best captured with the character of Duke (played with gusto by Dick Rude) who is an in-your-face-I-don’t-like-any-rules street punk one minute only to turn around and tell his girlfriend at another moment that he wants to get married and have kids because ‘everybody else is doing it’.

Estevez gives his signature performance here though his excessive cockiness becomes a bit of strain, which fortunately gets tempered in the scene where he gets shot at and panics showing that even a streetwise brash kid like himself has  his limits, which makes it all worth it. Harry Dean Stanton as his partner is terrific and the vast 40 year age difference between the two isn’t apparent at all. Olivia Barash is quite good too without even trying. Her likable unrehearsed quality makes for a refreshing contrast to all the rest who are more compelled to put on a facade and for the this reason I wished she had been in it more.

Honorable mention should also go to Fox Harris who plays Parnell the driver of the much sought after car even though in real-life he couldn’t drive and he got the vehicle in a few accidents and even damaged other props on the set in the process. Normally this would’ve gotten him fired, but because he had been the only actor who was nice to Alex Cox when he worked as a lowly security guard at the Actor’s Studio and before he became a director, he choose to stick with him despite the problems, which shows that if your nice to everybody even those that have very little social standing it can come back in rewarding ways in the long term.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: March 2, 1984

Runtime: 1 Hour 32 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Alex Cox

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD, Blu-ray (Criterion Collection), Amazon Video, YouTube

Embryo (1976)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Accelerating the growth cycle.

Late one night while driving home in raging thunderstorm Dr. Paul Holliston (Rock Hudson) accidentally hits a pregnant dog with his car. He takes the dog home to his lab and is able to save one of the embryos by placing it in an artificial uterus and then injecting it with an experimental hormone that speeds up its growth cycle. Paul is so excited about the results that he gets one of his colleagues (Jack Colvin) to agree to give him an unborn human baby from a mother who had committed suicide. Paul uses the drug on the fetus and finds that it grows at an even more accelerated rate, which leads to many unforeseen and horrifying scenarios.

For a grainy looking, low budget production (the DVD transfer is horrible) the plot isn’t too bad and had me guessing all the way up to the end at how it was going to turn out. The story has a lot of holes and most likely won’t be plausible to a science purist, but Ralph Nelson’s competent direction keeps the drama moving at a brisk pace, so you never dwell on the absurdities for too long and for the undemanding viewer it may come off as believable enough. The film also has a unintentionally funny moment that may not have floored audiences back in the 70’s as it did with me and features Barbra Carrera reading the Bible, which she finds ‘illogical’ only to have Hudson a supposed scientist tell her that it’s an ‘accurate account of how life began’, which blew me away as I’m sure there are few scientists who would say that today.

Carrera does surprisingly well in a difficult role, but her ability to retain knowledge and learn things happens a little too quickly and isn’t interesting. I realize she’s supposed to be super smart, which is fine, but even a smart person needs to be taught how to read and the meaning of words to communicate, which is something that the film just glosses right over.

I was glad that there was a big age difference between the two stars and that a romantic angle wasn’t forced into the proceedings that would’ve just bogged everything down, but having the two end up going to bed together was almost as bad. Hudson had taken a very paternal approach to Carrera almost like she were his daughter, so when she asks him to have sex with her, so she can feel what it’s like, I would’ve thought it would be too uncomfortable and too awkward a situation for him to go through with.

Roddy McDowall has a great cameo as an arrogant chauvinistic chess player. There’s also an interesting car chase, a neat twist ending, and some good aging make-up effects, but Carrera’s dilemma of suddenly going from being healthy and vibrant to on the brink of death is jarring. It’s almost like the writers wrote themselves into a hole and couldn’t think of any way out of it except to insert having the character die from some mysterious illness even though the dog, who went through the same treatment, is not affected, which is a shame as the premise is intriguing and works for most of the way.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: May 21, 1976

Runtime: 1 Hour 44 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Ralph Nelson

Studio: Cine Artists Pictures

Available: DVD-R, Amazon Video