Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Bore in the Cellar: "The Beast in the Cellar" (1971)

Beryl Reid is Ellie and Flora Robson is Joyce in this very British, and very dull, horror effort.

The film seems like a stage play, as soldiers from a local base are murdered by what seems to be an animal. Ellie and Joyce are spinster sisters living in an isolated house, regularly visited by another young corporal. Ellie and Joyce realize their brother Steven might be responsible for the murders since the victims are all uniformed servicemen, Steven wanted to be in the military, and, oh, he has been walled up in the basement for thirty years.

The attacks on the soldiers are all closeups and blurry shots. The majority of the film has Ellie and Joyce arguing about mundane matters, dancing around the fact that they are sure they know who the killer is. Later in the film, Beryl Reid is given a very nice long scene as she talks to the police about her upbringing, and the circumstances of Steven's imprisonment. Flora Robson is equally good as the level headed sister with a warped maternal instinct.

Because the films feels like a play, there are some very long dull stretches here. The attacks on the soldiers may have been an effort to open the proceedings up a bit, but as horror, this does not work. Also, the running time reads 89 minutes, and IMDB has a version listed with thirteen additional minutes. This is obvious in a couple of very strange edits and shortened scenes. There is also little suspense to the killer's identity, since all the reviews and video box notes I read told of the brother. The cast does not figure it out until well into the film.

Reid and Robson, two grand dames of British film and television, are excellent in their roles. It is too bad director Kelley could not come up with better material to match his actresses' performances. (* *) out of five stars.

This Movie Doesn't Have Enough Balls: "Battlefield Baseball" (2003)

The exploitation fan in me could not wait to slam this sucker in the DVD player and be blown off the couch by wall to wall sick comedy and sicker gore. Instead, I was "mildly amused" for about an hour and a half.

Seido High School has an incredible baseball team. Everyone but nerdy student Four Eyes (Atsushi Ito) is at their best, and they are totally prepared for the big tournament coming up. Rumors spread around school about the new student transferring in, Jubeh (Tak Sakaguchi), and then the school's principal Kocho gets horrific news.

Seido will be playing Gedo High School in the tourney's opening round. Gedo is made up of monstrous, gray skinned zombies who literally kill their opponents. Jubeh is spotted playing a new kind of baseball- fighting baseball- and is recruited to join the team (think Jackie Earle Haley in the original "The Bad News Bears"). Jubeh refuses, singing a song about why (his father was killed in a game of catch), and Seido is annihilated by Gedo.

Our heroic team bands together to play Gedo again, complete with Jubeh, some robotics, and touching narration explaining the bigger philosophies of the game...from a dog.

With the cool DVD cover, I was expecting something completely different. Yes, there are some laughs in "Battlefield Baseball." The Head Teacher who is in a constant state of hysterics. Jubeh's tortured turmoil at going back to baseball. The hilarious cheerleaders. Jubeh's family reunion. The constant use of slapstick. All kind of funny. The gore is badly done, though. The fake blood looks really fake, as does the fake body parts. The zombie make-up is cheap and unconvincing.

For a horror comedy, the film does not seem to get either one right. I wanted the gore and the laughs to be bigger and make an impression on my otherwise jaded conscience. Instead, I sat watching the film with a goofy grin on my face, and forgot it pretty soon after. Hot Sakaguchi looks like a Japanese Johnny Depp, and Yamaguchi's direction is over the top and often very clever.

Subversive Cinema does another good DVD job, with making-of features, a really goofy subtitled commentary, strange short films, and trailers. I wish the film had been as good as the hype and extras. (* * *) out of five stars.

Hinder Sight is '2020': "Battle Queen 2020" (2001)

Julie Strain shows everyone her boobs...again. Julie Strain shows everyone her boobs in a terrible film...again. She teams with Roger Corman for a terrible science fiction epic shot with a budget equal to the amount of change under your couch cushions.

A giant asteroid has hit the Earth and wiped out most of the population. Some do survive. The Elites are a group of cigar chomping high rollers who have plenty of mistresses and little care for the normal folk (yes, just like the U.S. Congress). The rest of the people live underground, where they hold out that the rebel army, and you just knew there would be a rebel army, will deliver them from the Elites.

Strain is Gayle, the head mistress of the Elites. She is busy sleeping with the Elite leader, Spencer. Crazy Dr. Braxton (Bill Baker) has underground dwellers kidnapped and takes their brain glands, keeping the Elites immortal. Military style leader Manson (Brian Frank) is tired of Spencer's softening with the underground people, and plots a coup. In the meantime, Gayle meets a cute little girl, and you just knew there would be a cute little girl, and young Clare (Jade Kroll) shows Gayle that there is more to live for than just constant wealth and sex...I guess.

I was not sure how to credit the actor who played Spencer. The end titles list him as Jeff Wincott, but the DVD extra biography about actor Jeff Wincott shows a picture of the rebel leader Joad, played (according to the end credits) by Paul Rapovski. I guess when a film sucks like this, I would not really want my correct name on it, either. As with any Julie Strain film, I marvelled at her immense screen presence, and how her physical stature dwarfs all the other silliness going on. Most of the film is shot on a cheesy soundstage that looks like it was rented in between porn shoots.

The special effects are awful. Cheap computer animation is everywhere. The script can be blamed on four writers and an "additional writing" credit. Plotlines are introduced and dropped- Gayle's brother, little sick Billy, new mistress Michelle- all especially noticeable in an eighty minute film. D'or's direction is standard, you cannot show the world your true cinematic vision with a two room set, a five dollar budget, and half a dozen clueless extras. Listen for the voiceover, as a grown up Clare laments her days spent in the brothel. Or Gayle's hypothermia treatment, where warm water is cascaded over her augmented chest. Or the goofy actionless escape sequence, where the narrator must tell you what happens, instead of the audience actually seeing a fight. Or the laughable finale, with some of the worst computer animation ever rendered.

Oh, you could enjoy "Battle Queen 2020" on a "bad movie" level. But do you really want to be responsible for encouraging this type of behavior, resulting in possible sequels? Think responsible, man (or woman), and leave it to me to bear the burden of watching and reviewing this! It's the least I could do! (*) out of five stars.

Battle Forced: "Battle Force" (1978)

Umberto Lenzi used a more American sounding alias for this video version of a film also known by at least half a dozen other names. If ever there was a prime candidate for a really good DVD transfer and deleted scenes restoration, this might be it.

The big name cast meet at Berlin in 1936 after the Olympics. British correspondent John Huston, German officer Stacy Keach, and American general Henry Fonda exchange pleasantries and small tokens of friendship, denying that the three countries would ever be at war. We know better. Eventually, but indirectly, the paths of the three men cross in North Africa. Fonda's ne'er-do-well son is heroic there, Huston wanders around there, and Keach dies there. Trying to follow all of these paths, plus those of characters who really have nothing to do with the main plot, gets to be a chore.

Samantha Eggar is Keach's half Jewish wife. The main characters are set, but then the film begins jumping forward in time to major European battles without much characterization or set up. We see Fonda's son get through the war, and Fonda himself spends the rest of his scenes in an office waiting for word about him. Sadly, someone forgot to tell Huston he was playing a Brit, since he makes no attempt at an accent. It is funny to hear him call his protege "Yank" in a completely Midwestern American accent.

Orson Welles provides ominous narration to try to keep the proceedings moving along, but characters are introduced, play their little scene, and are dropped immediately. The vignettes eventually get in the way of some very spectacular war footage, not much of it being stock. There is a tank battle that probably looked fabulous on the big screen. The English speaking actors are alright, but much of the Italian cast is badly dubbed.

Despite some top flight talent, "Battle Force" feels like a miniseries sliced into a ninety minute film. Lenzi seems more interested in action than dialogue, and it shows. I do not recommend this, except for the action scenes. (* *) out of five stars.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Guano: "Bats" (1999)

Take flight, or hide in a cave, either way you cannot escape the stupidity of this film.

Dina Meyer is the beautiful bat zoologist Sheila, who is recruited to fly to little Gallup, Texas to investigate some strange bat attacks. Her wisecracking assistant, Jimmy (Leon), is along, able to lighten any bloody situation with a "funny" line.

In west Texas, she meets with hunky sheriff Kimsey (Lou Diamond Phillips). Sheila and Kimsey immediately do the cute verbal sparring routine, and investigate the strange bat attacks while making goo goo eyes at each other. Our bat hunting crew is completed by CDC guy/"I'll be dead before you know it" Hodge (Carlos Jacott) and the mad scientist McCabe (Bob Gunton, who was better as the warden in "The Shawshank Redemption").

The group looks at the remains of a couple of people who were killed in the opening minutes by the bats. The bats were genetically mutated by McCabe, and this mutation is being passed on to other local bats. These bats are collective and able to work together to achieve a common goal- eat people.

The small town of Gallup is overrun, in a seriously flawed flight of reason, and everyone is evacuated, except our bat hunters (minus the dead Hodge). Using satellite technology, they discover the bats are hanging out in an abandoned mine, and they must get rid of them before the military (who ain't got time to listen to book smart science-types, they just want to blow stuff up) drops a few bombs on the place...which would actually release the bats across the country...but who said they ever had the public's good in mind?

Typical Hollywood military treatment. As military jets that haven't been used in fifteen years fly toward the mine, Sheila, Kimsey, and Jimmy work to blow things up themselves, saving the audience from bats and a suggested sequel.

Believe everything negative you have heard about "Bats." The screenwriter's idea of character development is to have the sheriff listen to opera while the group barricades themselves in an abandoned school. Why did the evil McCabe make the evil bats? Don't really know, there are some vague mumblings about the perfect killing machines (something we have never encountered before in superior films) and being able to control them, but we never get a sense of a master diabolical plan. Leon, who has been much better in other films, is embarassing here. He is given such weak comic relief, I am wondering if he read the script before he signed on.

In the first bat attack on the bat hunters, Kimsey and Sheila jump in the sheriff's cars in the nick of time...and then he cannot find his car keys. The characters all march around, huffing and full of themselves, and begin lines with such trite and true dialogue as "let me get this straight, you knew about..." and "are you saying you knew about..." and "if we don't make it you know what to do..." I do believe this is the first draft, not a final screenplay, for a motion picture.

The special effects are good and bad. The gore scenes are strong and convincing. The bats are not. One great scene has Kimsey and Sheila running for said sheriff's car, with mountains in the background that seem to be exploding in swarms of bats. Too bad we could not keep the flying rodents at a distance, and the effects degenerate into unconvincing CGI and awful puppetry on par with a third grade assembly. The film's cinematography is gorgeous, better than the film deserves. Every scene is well lit and imaginatively expensive looking. Until the effects started sucking, I thought this was going to be a misunderstood multi-million dollar film.

Mourneau is not a bad director, he seems to have been overwhelmed by a poor script and poorer effects. He lets stupid stuff get through: the small town's movie theater marquee reads "Now Playing Nosferatu" (har dee har har); and the weak excuse on why the town did not go indoors when warned is because "we're Texans, and we don't want no one tellin' us things we think we already know." I am originally from Texas, I have family in Texas, and "Bats" knows nothing about Texas (it was filmed in Utah). At least Texans (and the rest of the U.S.) knew enough not to flock INTO the theater when this was showing.

"Bats" has gained a notable reputation for its badness, resulting in the near career deaths of Dina Meyer and Lou Diamond Phillips. I cannot recommend this loser. (*) out of five stars.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Blood Clot: "Baron Blood" (1972)

In Europe, Dr. Hummel (Massimo Girotti) meets his hunky nephew Peter (Antonio Cantafora) at the airport, and begin verbalizing one of the most inane horror scripts ever written (by Vincent Fotre).

Peter decides to do a little family history research, and he meets up with cutie restoration expert Eva (Elke Sommer) at the old ancestral castle. It was owned by a baron, known as the title, thanks to his penchant for torture in the dungeon and hanging impaled victims from the tower ramparts. Baron Blood was cursed by a witch, and sent to a very hot place run by a very red angry former angel, but Eva and Peter happen to have the witch's incantation to revive the Baron.

Incantated, the decomposing Baron wanders around the countryside, killing Austrians. As most of the supporting cast is dispatched by a caped figure with a broad brimmed hat, Eva and Peter cannot figure out how to get rid of him again. Their ancient parchment was accidentally torched. They go back to Dr. Hummel for help. Cue the mysterious Becker (Joseph Cotten) who swoops in and buys the castle, fixing it up and taking a special interest in Eva. With the help of clairvoyant Christina (Rada Rassimov), Hummel, Eva, and Peter tour Becker's castle, and defeat the baron.

Mario Bava is a cult icon in the world of Italian cinema, and this film proves why. He has some horrifying shots, the Baron is very scary. There are too many shots of Eva being chased, but enough creepy shots happen to make it entertaining. On the other hand, Elke Sommer. Elke is awful, overacting and constantly screaming at the slightest provocation- zombie or otherwise.

The script will have Eva running for her life one minute, then smooching with Peter the next, never keeping her in any sort of character. Many scenes here could have been cut, it is unbelievable that poor Joseph Cotten is not wheeled in until almost half way through. I forgot he was in the picture.

This is the ninety eight minute version of "Baron Blood," the film released in the U.S. was only ninety minutes. The added gore scenes are not all that spectacular, I have seen bloodier on "The X Files." Elite/Video Treasures has released this on video letterboxed, but the sound quality is awful. I kept having to max the volume out on my television trying to hear dialogue, only to be deafened by the silly European score.

All in all, if you are an Italian horror buff, you might take this out. Bava's direction is worth the price of rental. Just do not get this expecting a great work of literature. Once again, Bava outclasses his material. (* * *) out of five stars.

Grin and Bare It: "The Bare Wench Project" (2000)

What can you say about a film that makes "The Erotic Witch Project" look like "The English Patient"? Again, the plot and characters are secondary, but the plot is almost an exact copy of "TEWP."

Four buxom sorority sisters and a goofy male guide enter a forest to look for the bare wench, and the women become sexually charged. The bare wench leaves porno devices and a blow up doll, just like in "TEWP." They get lost, the doofus gets lost, and the girls find their way back to their hotel. There they reenact the end of "The Blair Witch Project," as cameras are dropped and the guide is seen playing hopscotch, a game integral to the thin plot.

At least three of the sorority sisters here have unnaturally large breasts full of dimples and stretch marks, along with the rather obvious surgery scars. The one "natural" gal here is humiliated by the director. In a very unfunny, and overlong, end credit segment, outtake scenes where she could not get a line right is played over and over again ad nauseum.

Julie Strain shows up in a fright wig to play the bare wench. This one scene seems to be added later, since no one could possibly be credited in the cast with shooting it. In the background, as the women cavort and stroke, you can see someone's picket fence. This may be director Jim Wynorski's backyard.

This is just bad stuff. The lesbian love scenes are kelvin degrees cooler than "The Erotic Witch Project"'s. Most of the lovin' consists of the four women mashing their eight collective breasts together. I think they are trying to form a silicone based lifeform that would rescue them from this bad career decision. No such luck.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the makers of "The Blair Witch Project" should be really really mad. (*) out of five stars.

The Barber of the Kill: "The Barber" (2002)

Malcolm McDowell is Dexter, your typical elderly small town Alaskan barber who is put out a bit when his latest murder victim is discovered before the spring thaw.

Revelstoke, Alaska has two hundred and fifty people and almost complete darkness in the winter. A seasonal disorder afflicts the population, who self-medicate with booze and banging Lucy, the local town slut, in the back of her taxi cab. Lucy disappears with her husband's best friend Hawkins. Then two drunken morons, Levi and Buffalo, discover Lucy's body out on the tundra. Local police chief Corgan (Jeremy Ratchford) is immediately called in, and immediately over his head, with a murder investigation.

Cool FBI agent Crawley is then called in, and begins investigating the murders, as another local girl, Sally (Brenda James) turns up dead. Hawkins' body is discovered in another town, so he is out as a suspect. Cecil (John Destry), Lucy's older and clueless husband, is locked up for a while, but his prints do not match.

Corgan's relationship with Lucy is discovered, as Crawley begins letting the town get to him- he's drinking and dallying with the police secretary Jewels (Erin Wright). Corgan is suspended, and he begins his own investigation of the murders. Crawley is convinced that the killer is really the Green River Killer of the Pacific Northwest who has moved on to new territory.

And who sits in the middle of all of this, clipping hair and keeping quiet? Dexter, the barber, who is in fact the killer. This is no spoiler, Dexter freely admits to the killing spree in his narration. The film's suspense comes from Dexter trying not to get caught, but also trying to keep his homicidal rage under control- it has a tendency to rise through his calm demeanor once in a while. The entire film is a cat and mouse game between the cops and Dexter, and the cat has no idea who the mouse is. There are no onscreen murders, just crime photo aftermaths, and this heightens the tension.

McDowell is always good, and does a great job here. Ratchford plays Corgan as kinda dumb, but kinda smart, too; he never turns him into a backwoods idiot. Garwin Sanford as Crawley is all anger and business until he starts living like local townspeople, and begins to slide. The rest of the supporting cast are full of stereotypes, as all Alaskan women are loose and lonely and all the men are drunk and lonely.

Bafaro shot this in Revelstoke, British Columbia, so the snowy setting is authentic. There is just one daytime scene, the rest are night, and the cinematography is great. The script does take a few too many conveniences at the clever finale, as Dexter plans to move on to more fertile killing grounds. This should have ended five minutes before it did.

If you are looking for something along the lines of Corbin Bernsen's goofy "The Dentist" series, look elsewhere. "The Barber" is not a typical slasher film, even has a couple of laughs, and is strongly anchored by some good acting. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Friday, August 12, 2011

All Four One: "41" (2007)

Christian de Rezendes and Christian O'Neill deliver a wrenching documentary about a young man whose life was cut short, but who may still be around to let his loved ones know that he is okay.

Nick O'Neill was the 18 year old lead singer of a local Rhode Island band named Shryne. The band opened for Great White at the Station Nightclub in Rhode Island but on February 20, 2003, pyrotechnics set the building on fire, killing one hundred people. Nick was the youngest victim, the concert was open to ages 18 and up.

It turns out that Nick's older brother Christian ran a video camera constantly as his sibling was growing up. Nick was outgoing and photogenic, getting parts in local children's theater productions. As a teen, he got a guitar and started writing songs while dealing with some very sad events- one of which was the death of his mother's former husband (he was born in 1941) from cancer when Nick was 15.

The number "41" always seemed to be a constant in Nick's life. The film makers find ample footage and photos of the number on things like addresses, important dates, and even telephone poles, making one believe that it couldn't be a coincidence. The number was Nick's lucky number (especially if found with his N.O. initials), and his family believes Nick communicates with them now using the number- except for Nick's older brother, who has a point that if you obsess about looking for that specific number, you'll probably find it (like that Jim Carrey flick from a couple of years back).

Nick seemed to be going places. His band was having local success, and the teenager even penned a provocative play about religious intolerance that was rediscovered after his death. The pain of Nick's death still weighs on the family when this was shot in 2006, with many subjects breaking down on camera. Watching the footage of Nick, I was struck by how normal he seemed. He went to church, had a cute girlfriend, did lousy in school and eventually dropped out, but kept up a prolific pace with his song writing, filling many notebooks.

De Rezendes follows Nick's brief life, as well as the aftermath of the fire, and the various memorials and a staging and then the filming of his only original dramatic work. In order to cope, Nick's mother and stepfather frequent mediums (something I don't think I could do) for communication with Nick, and some of their information is uncannily correct.

The most chilling footage is the now famous video of the fire starting just as Great White was taking the small stage. Through slow motion, we can see Nick in his final few minutes of life. I know tragedy and loss occur everyday, but the film's focus on this one victim had me overwhelmed with emotion. I'm sure any documentary that focused on any of the other victims would be equally emotional, and I hope this film encourages others to deal with their loss instead of keeping the anger and grief bottled up inside.

I haven't been this touched by a documentary since "Dear Zachary." "41" made me mourn a guy I never met, and mourn the words and work we never will get from him. The tone, editing, music, and direction are perfect. This film simply must find a larger audience, Christian de Rezendes can be proud of this film, and Christian O'Neill can be proud of Nick.

I debated whether I should write the following because it supports both the idea of 41 being a coincidence in our lives, but perhaps something more... I screened this film on my sometimes fussy DVD player, which will freeze an image if so much as a speck of dust is on the disc. I'm hoping this wasn't a conceit on the part of the film makers, but the disc froze at the running time of 1:41:00. I took the disc out, wiped it with a dry cloth, and replayed it from 1:40:00. Again, it froze at 1:41:00, when de Rezendes is talking about seeking the number 41, then the picture skipped ahead ten seconds to a scene from the end of Nick's play. Am I being punked? The deleted scenes run almost an hour, but nothing happened while I watched them. I have tried to get past that 1:41:00 spot half a dozen times now, and the same thing keeps happening. I have been reassured that this was not intentional on anyone's part.

After the film, I opened up the only other mail I received besides the disc that day- a statement for a personal loan I have. I noticed the "plus four" four digit zip code for my apartment building ends in 41. The suite number of the lender on the return address also ends in 41. If you add up the numbers of my street address, you get 14- 41 reversed. You be the judge.

One thing I can control is my enthusiasm for this film, and my condolences to Nick's friends and family. Because of this film, I feel like I got to know Nick O'Neill a little bit, and I hope his friends and family continue to celebrate the time they had with him. "41" is something to experience. (* * * * *) out of five stars.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

This is Not Your Father's Uplifting Wishy-Washy Biblical Epic: "Barabbas" (1962)

This is a violent, dark, and sometimes depressing story that is quite a change from many religious films.

Based on a novel, this film imagines what happened to Barabbas after he was chosen over Jesus to be released before crucifixion. Anthony Quinn is a perfect choice as the unrepentant thief who goes back to the world he knows- crime and carousing. His favorite prostitute Rachel, however, has become a Christian and is later stoned for it. Barabbas is not just an observer, he sees Jesus go to the crucifixion, and later finds Rachel at the open grave.

Barabbas goes back to his old gang of thieves, murders the new leaders, and they rob some Jewish clerics. Caught, he is sent to the sulfur mines for life, where he meets Christian Sahak, played by Vittorio Gassman. Sahak knows Barabbas' name and reputation, and attacks him. They eventually become friends, since they are shackled together in the pit. Barabbas survives in the mine for twenty years, refusing to die. He is tormented by the memory of his near death years before, and he sees the sacrifice Jesus made not just for him, but for all of us.

Barabbas and Sahak survive a cave-in at the mine, and are taken to Rome as good luck charms by a newly appointed senator's wife. They are recruited to fight in the coliseum, ruled by a maniacal gladiator played by a very young Jack Palance. The duo also make contact with a Christian servant, Ernest Borgnine in a small but good role. Eventually, Sahak dies for his beliefs at the hands of Palance, and Barabbas has his bloody revenge on the field. Granted his freedom, Barabbas takes Sahak's body to a group of Christians, who reject Barabbas' half hearted attempts at Christianity. Barabbas misunderstands God's word and helps in the torching of Rome, eventually ending up a martyr himself.

Just under two and a half hours, there are a few slow spots. The cast is excellent, however, and Fleischer does an impressive job with a cast of thousands. No CGI to rely on here, Fleischer uses his assorted set pieces to their fullest extent without trying to fix or better anything in editing. What is left are a series of scenes that can stand on their own as highlights in early 1960's film making, when the cinema was hotly competing with television to win viewers back. The stoning of Rachel, the sulfur mine collapse, the burning of Rome: all are unforgettable scenes.

Two stretches of the film are very memorable. First, an extended sequence between Palance and Quinn fighting in the coliseum. There is no dialogue, just brutal violence and action. Another scene is the final tracking shot of dozens of crucified Christians, including the now ironic Barabbas. This shot sent chills down my spine.

This film is very dark and very different. Barabbas is a man torn between his heathen upbringing, and what he knows is right through what he has witnessed in Jerusalem and Rome, no matter how much he denies what he has seen.

Produced by Dino DeLaurentiis in Italy, this film has a European feel that makes it different and lends a certain credibility to the proceedings. The Oscar heavy cast does not fall victim to any preachy speeches or effects laden miracles, these are seemingly ordinary people caught up in tumultuous times.

I highly recommend "Barabbas" to any film fan, especially those who think "Gladiator" is the only decent sword and sandals epic out there. (* * * * *) out of five stars.

Take a Baoh: "Baoh the Visitor" (1989)

Japanese anime is an acquired taste, either you find it pretty cool, or you are bored stupid by it. This one is pretty cool.

Dubbed in English, Baoh is actually Ikuroo (voiced by Brian Hinnant), a seventeen year old amnesiac traveling with young girl Sumire (voiced by Kem Helms). The opening chase onboard a train shows Sumire has special powers. Ikuroo has escaped from a pod being controlled by evil Dr. Kasuminome (voiced by Mike Way). He refers to Ikuroo as "Baoh." Kasuminome has found a way to speed up evolution with the help of a parasitic worm that lives in the host experiment. The worm changes the host as needed, usually making them unstoppable in a fight.

The villains send cyborg hitman Dordo (voiced by Dave Underwood) to kill Ikuroo and Sumire after others have failed. Ikuroo keeps recovering from seemingly deadly wounds, the only way to completely stop a baoh is to shoot it in the head and then torch the body. Dordo is dead, but Walken (voiced by Chuck Denson) waits in the wings. Walken is a powerful Native American. The bad guys capture Sumire and use her to lure Ikuroo to the secret lab, unaware that Ikuroo is experiencing baoh powers that no one could foresee. At fifty minutes, the action is quick and the plot sparse as Ikuroo finally meets his evil creator, and tries to rescue Sumire.

Unlike a lot of anime I have seen, this piece does not feel like the first episode of a series we never get to complete. The story is self contained, but does leave room for a sequel. Ikuroo's baoh is pretty cool looking, as is the giant Walken. The pace is brisk, and the gore is heavy. Kiddies expecting Pokemon will be grossed out and probably have nightmares.

I could easily picture this as a big budget action flick along the lines of "Blade" or "Spawn." The story is certainly interesting, if not overpopulated with characters, and the hero is likable, whether severing his own arm in order to escape Walken or giving Sumire a mouthful of his own blood to revive her after an attack.

"Baoh the Visitor" is nothing earth shattering, but plenty entertaining. Ignore the lousy end credits songs, the nerdy baoh powers literally spelled out for you on the screen, and enjoy the carnage. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Ode to Little Jo: "The Ballad of Little Jo" (1993)

Before watching this, do not make the mistake of lumping this film in with silly cross dressing comedies like "Tootsie" and "Mrs. Doubtfire." While based on a true story, director Greenwald sidesteps many western (and Hollywood) conventions to bring one of the best westerns of the 1990's.

Suzy Amis plays Jo, a woman who is a little too trusting of some bad men. After escaping to the west and leaving her born out of wedlock son behind, she is almost raped by two soldiers. To hide from them, she wears men's clothing and scars her face, eventually using her new facade to get what she needs in the west to survive. Ian McKellen plays a woman hater who takes her in, believing she is a young man. She eventually befriends Bo Hopkins, who has his best role in years, and starts a sheep ranch. She falls in love with a Chinese man she was forced to hire as her cook, and must eventually do battle with a cattle conglomerate trying to get a foothold and driving the sheep ranchers out.

Amis resembles Eric Stoltz in her scenes as a man, and is totally believable. McKellan and Rene Auberjonois have small but pivotal roles as older father figures who Amis trusts, but eventually turn on her. Bo Hopkins is great as the neighbor Amis tolerates, befriends, and tolerates. David Chung plays the Chinese man nicknamed Tin Man as an ailing opium addicted flawed man. He looks perfect for the part, life scars and all. Heather Graham also has a small part as Amis' paramour, and does her best with it.

The most surprising aspects of this film is what the film is not. There are no cute "Yentl" scenes, where Amis falls in love with a man as a man. The cattle company war, a standard western plot point, never overwhelms the story, or comes to a trite conclusion. The final scenes, with Jo's unmasking, seem almost like farce, but when thought about later, play very truthfully and touchingly, especially Hopkins' reaction.

Greenwald's camera turns a small film into an epic, with gorgeous Montana scenery. Her script is also very smart, never going for cheap laughs or the kind of exploitation that a male director may have gone for. I strongly recommend "The Ballad of Little Jo." (* * * * *) out of five stars.