Sharktopus Kills More Brain Cells Than Victims

sharktopus (2)

There are some movies so tragically stupid, I firmly believe watching them will make you dumber. There aren’t many of them, but SyFy Original Pictures’ Saturday night time-killer, SHARKTOPUS, certainly qualifies. My plan had been to write and post this review immediately following the film’s 9PM premiere on September 25, but it took me three days to recuperate from that one screening.

As with most of these SyFy monster mash-ups (MEGA SHARK VS. GIANT OCTOPUS, DINOCROC VS. SUPER GATOR, etc), the plot is nominal and only serves to loosely tie together scenes of creature carnage. In this case, Blue Water Corporation head Dr. Nathan Sands (Eric Roberts) and his daughter, Nicole (Sara Malakul Lane), have bio-engineered a shark-squid hybrid (yes, even though they repeatedly say it’s half-octopus, the features are clearly those of a squid) for the US Navy to use in its ongoing fight against drug runners and pirates. After a brief test in Santa Monica for Navy liaison Commander Cox (Brent Huff) ends with the creature’s control harness damaged, the monster escapes and heads south to Mexico. Sands puts together a team to capture the beast, known as S-11, headed by former Blue Water diver Andy Flynn (Kerem Bursin).

sharktopus 3Once S-11 hits the waters off Puerto Vallarta, it starts snacking on locals and tourists at random. Also on the creature’s trail are opportunistic TV reporter Stacy Everheart (Liv Boughn) and her cameraman, Bones (Héctor Jiménez). Even after Everheart broadcasts footage of the creature she dubs Sharktopus chowing down on chowder heads and beach blanket bimbos, most people think the whole thing’s a prank. After S-11 makes mincemeat of Flynn’s commandos, he and Nicole team up with Stacy and Bones to try to regain control over the monster, or somehow kill it.

I’m sure executive producers Roger and Julie Corman made a nice chunk of change off this and previous SyFy sludge like DINOSHARK, and the ratings must surely be high enough to keep them pumping these things out;  in fact, with 2.5 million viewers, it was SyFy’s highest-rated September original movie ever. But, seriously, it’s getting insulting! Scripter Mike MacLean and director Declan O’Brien come up with some of the cheesiest dialogue and horrifically poor performances from the cast (Eric Roberts looks like he just wants to take a long, hot shower to wash off the dirt throughout the film). It’s so bad you don’t even care who lives, dies, or just walks off-screen and is never seen again.

Sharktopus - watch out!As usual with these direct-to-SyFy flicks, the special effects range from bad to why-didn’t-the-digital-effects-company-ask-to-have-their-name-removed-from-the-credits (just for the record, the company is called Dilated Pixels). Given that the draw for these flicks are the monsters, this one is probably the dumbest thing to come down the pike in decades. In the water, you can sort of accept this dumpy, tentacled, shark-mouthed oddball. Once it crawls out on land, it just looks like Humpty-Dumpty with a serious overbite, wearing a hulu skirt. Nobody expects these films to be on the level of METROPOLIS or 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, but this one’s not even up to the standards of THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD or Corman’s own HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP. Tragically, SyFy’s own slogan, “Imagine Greater,” seems to be turning into “Imagine Greater, Then Do the Opposite.”

Undoubtedly, a DVD/Blu-Ray release is in the offing, and I can’t imagine the audio commentary or other special features that will accompany it. Actually, a music video for the SHARKTOPUS Theme Song, a mindless-but-harmless little toe-tapper by the director’s nieces (the band’s called The Cheetah Whores), could be good for a giggle or two. Otherwise, they might as well just hire Michael J. Nelson and the Rifftrax crew and be done with it! Even then, watch at the risk of millions of your own brain cells going “Pfft!”

SharktopusSHARKTOPUS (U.S. SyFy premiere: Sept. 25, 2010). Directed by: Declan O’Brien. Screenplay by: Mike MacLean. Starring: Eric Roberts – Dr. Nathan Sands, Kerem Bursin – Andy Flynn, Sara Malakul Lane – Nicole Sands, Brent Huff – Commander Cox, Liv Boughn – Stacy Everheart, Ralph Garman – Captain Jack, Héctor Jiménez – Bones.

Yo-o-o-o, ‘Joe’! Let’s Blow Up Toys an’ Stuff!

Once Paramount Pictures and Hasbro joined forces on the live-action TRANSFORMERS (2007), was there ever any doubt that the G.I. Joe toy line would be far behind? The project went through several years of “development hell” following the 9/11 attacks and international backlash against the U.S./Iraq War. A balance needed to be reached that would give Americans their flag-waving moments, without completely alienating the lucrative overseas markets. So, G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA is as much of a political compromise as an artistic one.
Good guys wear black, bad guys wear black. Yo, Joe, that's confusing!
Good guys wear black, bad guys wear black. Yo, Joe, that's confusing!

The old ’80s G.I. Joe toy line, and its monthly Marvel Comics book and accompanying half-hour animated series, spawned legions of rabid fans. I wasn’t one of them. I was certainly aware of the figures, having played with the original, twelve-inch ones in the ’60s and ’70s. When Kenner Toys’ 3 3/4-inch STAR WARS toys became hugely successful, Hasbro down-scaled the Joes,  creating an entire team of men and women, as well as the evil Cobra organization, hell-bent on world domination. The film takes the Marvel comics as their primary inspiration, and Marvel’s G.I. Joe writer Larry Hama was hired as a consultant. Much online anxiety over the treatment of the beloved characters and their globalization resulted in untold hours of message board chest-thumping and hair-pulling. All over little plastic army men that fit in your shirt pocket, and were often tied to firecrackers and blown to plastic bits!

After a prologue featuring the backstory of 17th century Scottish weapons dealer James McCullen’s (David Murray) branding as a traitor and imprisonment in an iron mask, we shoot forward to the “Not too distant future,” where descendant James McCullen XXIV (Christopher Eccleston) runs the weapons company MARS Industries. MARS is set to deliver new nano-mite technology warheads to NATO, featuring microscopic robots that can decay any metal and use it to self-replicate. The delivery is being overseen by soldiers Conrad “Duke” Hauser (Channing Tatum) and Wallace “Ripcord” Weems (Marlon Wayans), when they are attacked by mysterious warriors using sonic-based weapons. Leading the ambush is The Baroness (Sienna Miller), whom Duke recognizes as his ex-fiancee, Ana Lewis. Baroness gets away without the warheads, but Duke and Ripcord are rescued by a sophisticated assault team: Scarlett (Rachel Nichols), Snake Eyes (Ray Parks), Heavy Duty (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and Breaker (Said Taghmaoui). They transport the two to The Pit, headquarters of G.I. JOE (Global Integrated Joint Operating Entity) in Egypt, where the best military and tactical operatives from around the world operate in secret to combat global threats. Leader General Clayton “Hawk” Abernathy (Dennis Quaid) recruits Duke and Ripcord into G.I. Joe after learning that Duke knows The Baroness’ true identity.

Like his ancestor, McCullen is playing both sides, using his nano-mites to create an army of super-soldiers with the aid of the scarred genius, The Doctor (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). He plans to use the nano-mite warheads to create a global panic, resulting in a worldwide arms build-up. He uses a code to activate a tracking device in the warhead case, and sends The Baroness, ninja Storm Shadow (Byung-Hun Lee), and disguise expert Zartan (Arnold Vosloo), to infiltrate The Pit. After a fierce battle, Baroness and her army of Neo-Vipers escape with the warheads. She returns to Paris where her scientist husband, Baron DeCobray, is forced to active the warheads before Storm Shadow executes him. As the Joes track the warhead case, thanks to Breaker, they race through the streets of Paris, trying to stop her from firing the warhead at the Eiffel Tower. Using advanced, armored Accelerator Suits, Duke and Ripcord are still too late to stop Storm Shadow from firing the missile and destroying the landmark. Duke is able to hit the kill switch on Baroness’ control unit, keeping the devastation to a minimum, but he’s captured by her in the process and taken to McCullen Arctic Headquarters.

The Joes locate McCullen base and fly to rescue Duke and retrieve the remaining warheads. McCullen fires the three remaining missiles, although Snake Eyes is able to disable one. Ripcord steals a prototype Night Raven jet and pursues the other two missiles, while The Doctor attempts to convert Duke into one of his Neo-Vipers. During the process, The Doctor is revealed to be Ana’s brother, Rex Lewis, a computer genius thought killed in a mission four years earlier. He survived, but was burned and rescued by MARS scientist Dr. Mindbender (Kevin J. O’Connor), joining McCullen’s organization as its chief scientist. Although he’s kept his identity a secret from his sister, he’s been controlling her mind with nano-mites injected into her brain. During the missile crisis, as one hurtles towards Washington, D.C., Zartan breaks into the White House and assumes the identity of a Secret Service agent. Meanwhile, Breaker, Scarlett, Heavy Duty, and Snake Eyes infiltrate the base. Snake Eyes duels his former rival, Storm Shadow, while Ana overcomes the nano-mites and sets Duke free. As the battle outside in the Arctic Ocean intensifies, McCullen attempts to kill Duke, but is burned instead. Rex drags McCullen into an escape sub, injecting him with nano-mites to heal his burns and control his mind, his face encased in living metal; Rex then declares himself the Cobra Commander. But the Joes close in and capture the two. The world is saved, and Ana is put into protective custody aboard the supercarrier U.S.S. Flagg while Joe scientists try to figure out how to remove the nano-mites. Crisis over, the President (Jonathan Pryce) returns to the Oval Office, whistling the same tune as Zartan from his previous scenes!

So, a fast-paced, big-budgeted blockbuster based on a toy line can’t be all bad, right? Well, no, not all bad. Just pretty damned cornball, with giant plot inconsistencies, way too many characters vying for our attention, and lots of scenery-chewing by some fairly talented players. The special effects are hit-and-miss, with the Accelerator Suits looking decent but the nano-mites basically a cross between Herbert West’s re-animation juice and toy store-grade slime. Most of the actors play it straight, although Gordon-Levitt is channeling both Darth Vader and The Emperor from RETURN OF THE JEDI as The Doctor/Cobra Commander. Tatum is a bit too bland as Duke, but Wayans achieves a good balance between action and comedy as Ripcord. Miller slithers across the screen convincingly as The Baroness, but her flashbacks as Ana Lewis are pretty pedestrian. The rest of the cast is competent, and Ray Parks has all the moves for Snake Eyes, but this mute character is too close to his Darth Maul from THE PHANTOM MENACE for comfort.

Director Stephen Sommers took on the project for its James Bondish qualities, and there are more than enough nods to that franchise for casual fans to note. It’s not the total misfire that was VAN HELSING, but it’s not nearly as fun as his 1999 remake of THE MUMMY. It’s closest to his THE MUMMY RETURNS (2001), which also ramped up the action by sacrificing what little characterization THE MUMMY had to offer. (THE MUMMY’s Brendan Fraser even has a cameo as Sgt. Stone.) Movie-based action figures and other toys glutted the shelves for months, and more than a year later still can be found alongside Hasbro’s new “Pursuit of Cobra” toys. With a worldwide box-office take of $302.5 million, Sommers is already on tap to direct a sequel, to be scripted by ZOMBIELAND’s Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. I’m sure it already has G.I. Joe purists frothing at their keyboards, but at this point all they can really hope for is a better film, not the action figure equivalent of THE SANDS OF IWO JIMO.

G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA (U.S. premiere: Aug. 7, 2009). Directed by: Stephen Sommers. Screenplay by: Stuart Beattie and David Elliot & Paul Lovett. Starring: Dennis Quaid – General Clayton “Hawk” Abernathy, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje – Hershell “Heavy Duty” Dalton, Channing Tatum – Conrad “Duke” Hauser, Marlon Wayans – Wallace “Ripcord” Weams, Joseph Gordon-Levitt – Rex “The Doctor” Lewis/Cobra Commander.

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Oh What a ‘Night’: Looking Back at the ‘Living Dead’

"They're coming to bookstores, Barbara!"
"They're coming to bookstores, Barbara!"

Just in time for the pre-Halloween gift-giving crush comes this breezily entertaining yet critically informative tome on the evolution, production, and aftermath of 1968’s seminal horror film, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

Joe Kane, a.k.a. The Phantom of the Movies, has been covering the exploitation and B-movie scene for thirty-plus years. As editor of the tabloid The Monster Times from 1972 to its premature demise in 1976, he oversaw coverage of a slew of genre flicks, as well as running a 1974 presidential campaign for the King of the Monsters himself, Godzilla (who better to replace the reptilian Richard M. Nixon, even if it wasn’t an election year?). Since 1984, he’s been writing as The Phantom of the Movies, a hip, streetwise counterpart to trailer parkdom’s drive-in guru, Joe Bob Briggs. Whether covering the demise of NYC’s Forty-second Street grind houses for the New York Daily News or the inexorable rise of the home video marketplace for The Washington Post — in addition to editing and publishing his own quarterly film magazine, VideoScope — Kane’s credentials for the task are indisputable, while his passion for the subject is undeniable.

In his foreword, writer/director Craven (A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, SCREAM) credits NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD as having “liberated me to make LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, because I knew that after [NOTLD] there was a whole new kind of film blossoming in American cinema.” As Kane points out, film zombies were still mired in the voodoo traditions of 1932’s WHITE ZOMBIE before NOTLD, although 1943 became a banner year with the release of REVENGE OF THE ZOMBIES and THE MAD GHOUL. It wasn’t until 1964’s gritty, Italian-lensed THE LAST MAN ON EARTH and Hammer Studios’ period-piece THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES that we see the true cinematic forefathers of director George A. Romero’s re-animated flesh-eaters.
 
Through interviews with the primary participants (some posthumously culled from previously printed sources), Kane recalls the struggles of Pittsburgh, PA-based The Latent Image, Inc., a commercial/industrial film production house, to come up with a viable concept for a feature film they could shoot on a shoestring budget — actually, more like a penny-candy budget! After rejecting a science-fiction comedy about “‘hot-rodding’ aliens” and their BLOB-like pet coming to Earth for some highjinks, Latent Image partner John A. Russo concocted an outline that combined elements of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956) and, oddly enough, 1953’s LITTLE FUGITIVE. After discussing the idea of “ghoulish people or alien creatures … feeding off human corpses,” Romero, another partner at Latent Image, came up with forty pages of story that was basically the first half of what would become NOTLD’s plot. Once the story was in place (Russo would complete the screenplay), the major hurdle of actually making their first full-length feature loomed large. Casting friends as well as professionals, a significant shift in the film’s ultimate tone and focus occurred once African-American actor Duane Jones was cast as lead character Ben, a role originally written as a redneck trucker.
 
While the making-of section contains much that’s been previously revealed through various print and video sources over the four decades since NOTLD’s release, it’s the aftermath of production where the story gets truly complex. Changing the title from “Night of the Flesh Eaters,” distributor Continental Releasing (a division of the esteemed Walter Reade Organization) cost the original investors their copyright of the film. Then, Continental reneged on royalty payments, and lawsuits ensued until Walter Reade Organization finally went bankrupt. Once the film’s copyright was restored to the producers, however, they had no money to pursue legal action against the many infringers.
Meanwhile, the original cast and crew drifted apart, with Romero rising to the top of the notoriety pool. Kane chronicles his post-NOTLD career with efforts such as THERE’S ALWAYS VANILLA and JACK’S WIFE (both 1972), then his return to the horror genre with THE CRAZIES (1973) and the modern vampire tale MARTIN (1977). He eventually returned to the world of flesh-feasters with 1979’s DAWN OF THE DEAD and 1985’s DAY OF THE DEAD, in addition to such varied genre-related projects as KNIGHTRIDERS (1981), CREEPSHOW (1982), MONKEY SHINES (1988), TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE (both the 1984-88 television series and the 1990 film), TWO EVIL EYES (1991), THE DARK HALF (1993), and BRUISER (2000). After twenty years, Romero revisited his ghoul-friends with his first studio-bankrolled zombie epic, 2005’s LAND OF THE DEAD, which served as a finale to his original DEAD cycle. Two years later, he returned to his low-budget roots with DIARY OF THE DEAD (2007), which rebooted the zombie plague and spawned the first-ever direct Romero/zombies sequel, SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD (2010). Kane also briefly spans the period in Romero’s career where he became a victim of numerous unrealized projects, such as an adaptation of Whitley Streiber’s novel UNHOLY FIRE, and remakes of both THE INNOCENTS and THE MUMMY (which Universal eventually assigned to Stephen Sommers), as well as the first film version of the NOTLD-inspired videogame RESIDENT EVIL. (After shooting a wildly acclaimed 30-second, live-action spot for the game RESIDENT EVIL 2, shown only in Japan, Romero was tasked to adapt the game to a feature, but the producers were unhappy with his script and the project went to EVENT HORIZON director Paul W.S. Anderson.)

Kane examines the various LIVING DEAD spin-offs, beginning with 1985’s RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD. Romero and Russo struck a deal, whereupon Russo could use the LIVING DEAD title as long as any projects weren’t promoted as direct sequels to the original NOTLD. However, Russo’s script for RETURN was exactly that, and it was a project he hoped to direct himself. After languishing for several years, Russo turned the screenplay into a novel, then sold the project to producer Tom Fox, and it wound up at Orion Pictures. ALIEN scripter Dan O’Bannon (DARK STAR) drastically rewrote the film into a dark, twisted comedy, and ended up replacing TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE auteur Tobe Hooper as director. The film’s punk rock-influenced cast and soundtrack gave it a lively twist, but its release at the same time as Romero’s own DAY OF THE DEAD overshadowed that project. RETURN was constantly being misidentified as Romero’s work during its initial release! RETURN spawned a bevy of sequels, of which only 1993’s RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 3 (directed by BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR’s Brian Yuzna), is worth a viewing. Russo and the other Latent Image partners were joined by Romero for the ill-advised 1990 remake of NOTLD, scripted by Romero and directed by DAWN and DAY’s make-up effects maestro, Tom Savini. Although a larger budget and a genre-savvy cast made for some solid production values, it was ultimately a letdown for both fans and the investors. Changes made to the plot seemed perfunctory at best, such as Barbara’s (Patricia Tallman) transformation into a Sigourney Weaveresque tough chick. It smacked of exactly what it was: an effort by the original investors to finally turn a buck. Even more desperate (and despicable) was the so-called NOTLD: THIRTIETH ANNIVERSARY EDITION, released direct to home video by Anchor Bay Entertainment. “Inspired” by George Lucas’ successful twentieth anniversary re-releases of the original STAR WARS trilogy with enhanced special effects and added scenes as “Special Editions,” Russo, Karl Hardman (“Harry Cooper”), Bill Hinzman (“Cemetery Zombie”), and Russ Streiner lensed new sequences, re-edited the film, and added a new synth-rock score that was already a decade outdated. Romero, at the time hip deep in RESIDENT EVIL scripting, wisely avoided the project. It was instantly decried by fans and critics alike.

Throughout the volume, Kane scatters recollections on NOTLD by such genre luminaries as Peter Jackson (DEAD ALIVE), Danny Boyle (28 DAYS LATER), Lloyd Kaufman (THE TOXIC AVENGER), William Lustig (MANIAC), Allan Arkush (ROCK’N’ROLL HIGH SCHOOL), and Frank Hennenlotter (BASKET CASE). Also examined are spoofs such as NIGHT OF THE CREEPS (1988) and SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004), as well as the Romero-less remakes/sequels DAWN OF THE DEAD (2004), DAWN OF THE DEAD 2: CONTAGIUM (2005), DAY OF THE DEAD (2008), and the non-sanctioned NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD 3D (2007). The upcoming NOTLD: ORIGINS (2011) sounds utterly yawn-inspiring.

Illustrated only with b/w photos, the book includes Russo’s complete NOTLD screenplay (with red-necked dialogue for the “Truckdriver” character that became Duane Jones’ more refined “Ben”). Kane’s writing style is conversational, so you never feel lectured at while he tells the tortured tales of the film’s four-decade odyssey. My own experience with it began with a 1980 screening of DAWN OF THE DEAD at Cambridge, MA’s Orson Welles Cinema, where beer-fueled Harvard frat boys chowed down on ketchup-drenched KFC during all the zombie-feasting sequences, then tossed the denuded chicken bones at the screen! Fortunately, a Harvard Square Cinema showing of NOTLD soon followed, making me a member of the DEAD-head ranks forever after. It’s an interesting, generational divide, as Jackson and Boyle both point out their own zombie epics were more influenced by DAWN than NOTLD. DAWN was the over-the-top, kick-in-the-nuts that then drove you to seek out the more subtle, sucker-punch-to-the-gut that was NOTLD. Twenty years from now, it would be interesting to see what the filmmakers whose first exposure to the living dead is 2004’s DAWN remake or Romero’s DIARY will be inspired to unleash upon us.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD: BEHIND THE SCENES OF THE MOST TERRIFYING ZOMBIE MOVIE EVER, by Joe Kane, foreword by Wes Craven. Citadel Press, New York, NY. August 31, 2010. 316 pp. $16.95.

Piranha (1978): Lenticular DVD Review

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Exploitation original gets new DVD makeover

On August 3, Shout! Factory released PIRANHA in a new DVD edition, as well as a Blu-Ray disc (its debut in the latter format), to tie in with the theatrical release of the 3D remake. Both releases feature 1.85 anamorphic widescreen transfers and a bundle of special features from the previous DVD “Special Edition” of  1999.

New to this release is “The Making of PIRANHA” featurette. Interviews with many of the principle crew and some cast members (including Roger Corman, director Joe Dante, actors Dick Miller, Belinda Balaski, effects experts Chris Walas and Phil Tippett, and others) provide lots of fun facts, amusing stories, and some insights into late-‘70s low-budget filmmaking at its grittiest. For instance, you’ll never guess why the US swim team did so poorly at the 1978 Summer Olympics until you watch this featurette.

Also new to this release are Radio and TV Spots, which really are something of a time portal into how movies were promoted in the not too-distant past. The film’s theatrical trailer now has an optional commentary track with producer Jon Davison, thanks to Trailers from Hell.

Scenes added to the Network Television Version have been included separately, although the option to watch them as part of the feature would have been more interesting. Finally, a Behind-the-Scenes Stills Gallery has been added, with material taken from Phil Tippett’s personal collection. There are trailers for the other releases in Shout! Factory’s Roger Corman’s Cult Classics collection, too.

Holdovers from the previous DVD release include feature-length audio commentary by Dante and Davison, Behind-the-Scenes Footage (with audio commentary), Bloopers and Outtakes, and a Stills Gallery that features posters from the international releases of the film.

A hapless victim
A hapless victim

The packing features a 3D lenticular slipcase that’s actually quite entertaining. The DVD case features a reversible inner cover, and there’s a nice booklet with photos and info on the film (notes provided by Michael Felsher), as well as a brief introduction by Roger Corman. The widescreen transfer is crisp and clean, with great sound quality. Some of the bonus materials are a little shabby, and the network TV scenes could have been cleaned up better. Otherwise, a rather fancy presentation for a cheap knock-off that no one ever expected to still be around in any form over thirty years after its release – and we‘re so thankful it is.

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Favorite Nightmares from Elm Street: Freddy’s Revenge

A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985)Although a lot of fans and critics find A NGHTMARE ON ELM STREET PART 2: FREDDY’S REVENGE (1985) one of the weaker entries in the series, what I’ve always admired about it was the progression of Freddy’s character in it. The burn make-up is more vivid. Freddy sheds his glove for genuine finger-knives, embedded in his digits. He starts wise-cracking as a way to bait his intended victims. Robert Englund’s voice was even more heavily filtered than in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984), although in some scenes it’s pretty much left untouched. While the film is barely referenced in any of the other entries in the series, it really was the film that put Freddy on the path to horror icon status. Which was then cemented with PART 3: DREAM WARRIORS, which played off many of the character progressions made in PART 2.

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KROD MANDOON draws more yawns than yucks – Fantasy TV Review

The heroes of Comedy Centrals Krod Mandoon & the Flaming Sword of Fire
The heroes of Comedy Central's "Krod Mandoon & the Flaming Sword of Fire"

Comedy Central’s first foray into classic sword & sorcery spoofery, KROD MANDOON AND THE FLAMING SWORD OF FIRE, pretty much sums up its own level of humor right there in the title. See, it could be “… and the Flaming Sword” or “… and the Sword of Fire,” but making it “… and the Flaming Sword of Fire” makes it goofy and screwball by using the same basic adjective twice. Right? Isn’t that silly, and clever, and … anyone?

KROD MANDOON ‘s hour-long premiere on Thursday, April 9th at 10PM, “Wench Trouble”/”Golden Powers,” also gives us further insight into the level of humor in its titles. (Really, it was just the first two half-hour episodes strung together.)  The word “juvenile” is too kind. In a cracked nutshell, Krod Mandoon (Sean Maguire)  is a freedom fighter during the bygone Makonian Empire, where the evil Chancellor Dongalor (Matt Lucas) seeks to crush the rebellion while overthrowing despotic Emperor Zanus and ruling the empire himself. Krod is joined in his battles by Aneka (India de Beaufort), a pagan priestess/warrior whose main weapon is her insatiable libido; Loquasto (Steven Speirs), Krod’s oafish, ogre-ish servant; and Zezelryck (Kevin Hart), an African sorceror whose greatest magick is his ability to B.S. Together, they set out to free resistance leader General Arcadius (Roger Allum) from Dongalor’s dungeon. During the breakout, Arcadius is fatally wounded, but his lover Bruce (Marques Ray) — it was a long two weeks in that dungeon — vows to join the fight for freedom. Meanwhile, Dongalor has reclaimed an ancient weapon that laid waste to Atlantis, the Eye of Galga Gremda, and could be the key to his ruling the world … if he can just stop killing peasants and messengers long enough to figure out how it actually works.

KROD MANDOON AND THE FLAMING SWORD OF FIRE looks to have a long, drawn out storyline in place, which would be true to the epic fantasy films and sword and sorcery tales it’s spoofing. The problem is, the cast is barely adequate at best, and often just plain bad. Maguire’s thin-skinned, insecure Krod (“dork” spelled backwards, get it?) looks like he’d be more at home co-starring with Seth Rogen in some inane slacker comedy (special cameo appearance by Jack Black!) than swinging a sword, flaming or otherwise. Lucas is just grating and reads his lines like he needed another couple of hours of rehearsal. De Beaufort looks great in her slinky, sexy, quasi-Xena outfits but otherwise barely registers. Speirs is the only one that actually fits his character, with halfway decent make-up giving him the look of a troll-human hybrid. But, his poor aim with a crossbow is a running joke that wore thin inside of just ten minutes! The jokes are tired and mostly uninspired, and the reliance on stereotypes is both boring and lazy.

Part of the problem is that the spoof genre has fallen on truly hard times. 1948’s ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN is arguably the greatest spoof of its kind, because if you remove all the schtick, you still have a halfway decent Universal Pictures classic monster mash. Mel Brooks and Buck Henry perfected the half-hour format with the original GET SMART in the 1960s; then Brooks went on to create comedy classic spoofs like BLAZING SADDLES, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, and HIGH ANXIETY. The team of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker upped the ante with 1980’s AIRPLANE! and followed up with the short-lived 1982 series POLICE SQUAD! But, soon, Brooks started to falter with offerings like LIFE STINKS (1991), ROBIN HOOD: MEN IN TIGHTS (1993), and finally, the atrociously unfunny DRACULA: DEAD & LOVING IT (1995). Z-A-Z gave us TOP SECRET! (1984) and a few good THE NAKED GUN: FROM THE FILES OF POLICE SQUAD! outings, but then took over the already terrible SCARY MOVIE franchise from the Wayans Brothers. Their involvement as producers with garbage like DATE MOVIE, EPIC MOVIE, and SUPERHERO MOVIE shows how badly things have declined. (And yet, their direct-to DVD THE ONION MOVIE, based on the spoof news website, had its moments.)

Decent fantasy film spoofs do exist, but for my money the best was actually the syndicated series HERCULES: THE LEGENDARY JOURNEYS and XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS. Both shows brought a 1990s sensibility to the genre, but usually brought wit to even the most serious storylines. However, when they decided to get goofy, both shows knew how to affectionately skewer their genre quite effectively and cuttingly. (I know, I know: collective groan!)

So, it was into this environment of cookie-cutter spoofs that depend on cheap laughs from poop and fart jokes, lazy guffaws from outrageous stereotypes, and not much real understanding of the wealth of comedy gold to be mined from sword & sorcery flicks, that KROD MANDOON AND THE FLAMING SWORD OF FIRE was hewn. Seriously, have none of these writers ever read Harvard Lampoon’s “Bored of the Rings”? Didn’t they see the STAR WARS vs. LORD OF THE RINGS scene in CLERKS II? There’s plenty of stuff to make fun of in fantasy films and fiction, whether it’s done with reverence or with brutal kicks to the crotch. But none of that was on display in the series’ premiere. And that doesn’t bode well for the half-hour episodes to follow, every Thursday at 10:00 PM, on Comedy Central.

Shout! Factory Gets MSTied

The ‘bots are on the move again! After being relaunched as animated characters for the new MST3K.com in November 2007, now Tom Servo, Crow T. Robot, and Gypsy make the move from longtime home video distributor Rhino to Shout! Factory, it was announced by Shout! Factory President Garson Foos.

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Under the terms of the multi-year agreement, Shout! Factory will be the exclusive worldwide home entertainment and digital media distributor for Mystery Science Theater 3000 branded properties, which include a vast library of original episodes that have never-been-available on DVD or for digital download.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 is a true cult-classic series. Its high-camp rendition of B-movies to the small screen makes it one of the most memorable pop culture shows of our time,” said Foos. “MST3K lines up perfectly with Shout! Factory brand. We’re thrilled to work with Jim to further the legend of MST3K on DVD and in the digital marketplace.” Read More

NBR names Burton best director for SWEENEY TODD

Variety reports that the National Board of Review has named Tim Burton “Best Director” for his film adaptation of the gothic musical SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET. The NBR, comprised of film educators and other industry professionals not part of the studio system, puts out its annual Top Ten list each December. While the Western NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN received “Best Picture” honors, SWEENEY TODD did make the NBR’s Top Ten Films of 2007 list, too.

Meanwhile, just hours before the New York City premiere of SWEENEY TODD, star Johnny Depp announced he would go from “The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” to ruthless gangster John Dillenger for director Michael Mann (MANHUNTER) in PUBLIC ENEMIES. Based on Bryan Burrough’s 2004 non-fiction account of the crime waves of 1933-34 carried out by such notorious figures as Dillenger, Baby Face Nelson, and Pretty Boy Floyd, the film rolls March 10 on location in Chicago.

Tin Man: Part Three (2007) – TV Review

advance TIN MAN posterSci-Fi’s “re-imagining” of L. Frank Baum’s THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ concludes as DG (Zooey Deschanel), Glitch (Alan Cumming), Cain (Neal McDonough), and Raw (Raoul Trujillo) learn that the sorceress Azkadellia (Kathleen Robertson)–DG’s older sister–is actually possessed by a terrifying Witch (Karen Konoval). Now, having arrived at the once-peaceful Finaqua, DG must dig deep within herself to unlock her mother, the rightful Queen’s (Anna Galvin) final clue to the location of the Emerald of the Eclipse. Tutor (Blu Mankuma) is caught by Cain with the magical coins he’s been leaving for Azkadellia’s Monbats to find, but confesses he only agreed to be the sorceress’ spy to help DG defeat her sister. Meanwhile, Azkadellia’s hunt for DG and the Emerald intensifies as the O.Z.’s duel suns near the double-eclipse that will allow her to activate Glitch’s Sunseeder. The device was intended to extend daylight and allow for a longer harvest season for the farmers, but Azkadellia wants to reverse it during the eclipse, plunging the realm into eternal darkness. Read More

Reviews, Television

Tin Man: Part Two (2007) – TV Review

TIN MAN's main castThe Sci-Fi Channel’s “re-imagining” of L. Frank Baum’s THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ continues along the Old Road as DG (Zooey Deschanel), Glitch (Alan Cumming), Cain (Neal McDonough), and Raw (Raoul Trujillo) are confronted by sorceress Azkadellia (Kathleen Robertson) in the frozen palace of the North. DG awakens to find herself back in her room in Kansas, with her parents telling her about the storm from the previous night. DG tries to tell her father about her “dream” of The O.Z., particularly the part where her real mother, the sad former Queen, tells her the location of the fabled Emerald that will allow her to stop her evil sister, Azkadellia. When DG can’t recall the secret, the farm fades and DG realizes it was all an illusion created by her sister, who reprogrammed her robotic surrogate parents. Read More