Archive for the ‘Robots’ Category

I, Frankenstein (2014)...


I, Robot (2004)




(a Frankenstein who is also a Robot)

Robot and Frank (2012)




(former Nixon speechwriter who talks like a robot)

Kissing Jessica Stein (2002)


Larry Fine


(At this point I tumble down the rabbit hole of watching Three Stooges cartoons all day, and completely forget to go to the movie theater.)





Never trust a poster.  Enjoy them, admire them, put them on your wall, but don’t you ever take their words as gospel.  My point:  If DEADLY FRIEND is “Wes Craven’s Most Terrifying Creation,” well then I’m an eight-foot-tall fuck machine.  Truth in advertising would read more like, “Wes Craven’s Most Inadvertently Hilarious Creation.”  Because otherwise you’re misleading people.  Imagine if somebody’s first exposure to Wes Craven’s work was DEADLY FRIEND!  They’d think he was a modern-day Ed Wood.  Actually, that’d be an awesome prank.  Show a young person DEADLY FRIEND first, and then show them THE HILLS HAVE EYES or A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET.  Nice way to demolish someone’s sanity.








Wes Craven is a vitally important yet somewhat problematic figure in horror cinema.  He’s made some viscerally horrifying movies that easily earned him a spot in the pantheon, yet he seems to yearn to  scare us in other ways, such as making some movie with Meryl Streep called “MUSIC OF THE HEART” and in this case, making what seems to be a kids’ movie about yellow robots and street basketball that takes a sharp right turn into some kind of weird BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN zombie movie.  Put it in chronological perspective and there’s some truly inexplicable stuff going on:







In 1984, Wes Craven released A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET onto the world. Pantheon spot assured. Just two years later, the fatally-compromised DEADLY FRIEND threatened to revoke his horror-master status.  What a thundering misfit of a film.  Clearly several people along the way had drastically different ideas about the movie they were making.  Is it a horror movie?  If so, what kind?  Is it a suburban nightmare vision like Craven’s previous film?  Is it a science-gone-mad story like Mary Shelley’s classic Promethean myth?  Is it an R or a PG-13?  No one knows!  DEADLY FRIEND only works as a comedy, but if you look at it that way, it’s absolutely phenomenal as a comedy.  The movie concerns one of those genius kids you could only meet in the 1980s who teaches college courses and invents a bright yellow robot named “B.B.” (voiced by the same guy who voiced Roger Rabbit).




robot v. punks





The robot, which is like a big yellow Johnny Five from SHORT CIRCUIT if Johnny Five had less motility but still a decent pickup game, and if he’d lacked Steve Guttenberg as a calming influence and thusly been willing to crush the nuts of neighborhood punks in a vise-like grip, is the equivalent of problem dog. The kid loves him, but he bites, and eventually he’s got to be put down. The one holding the shotgun is the one-of-a-kind Anne Ramsey – you know her from THE GOONIES, THROW MOMMA FROM THE TRAIN, and SCROOGED. She plays the mean neighborhood lady who shoots up the kid’s robot. A sad day.







Meanwhile, the kid has managed to befriend his troubled next-door neighbor, who is played by a very young, distressingly-cute Kristy Swanson. The girl, Sam, suffers under an abusive father, who ends up knocking her down the stairs, which sends her into a  coma. Insanely, the doctors comply with Dad’s decision to pull the plug.  Having now lost his two only friends in the world, what else can the science kid do but put B.B.’s robot personality into Kristy Swanson’s body? If this were any other 1980s teen movie, there’d be sexual overtones concerning having your very own Kristy Swanson robot at home, but it’s a Wes Craven flick, so the robot Sam has to end up going on a killing rampage, despite the fact that, no offense, Kristy Swanson isn’t all that scary.








Come for the STORY OF RICKY-esque scene where Kristy Swanson destroys Anne Ramsey’s skull with a basketball, stay for the hilariously non-frightening end-credits song where B.B. the robot raps his own name over ominous synthesizer strains.  There’s no way to tell what on earth anyone was thinking, but the end result is a nutball classic.








This is an expanded version of an article that appeared on the great movie site Rupert Pupkin Speaks. Please go visit! 



And me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb



The bad news is that sometime in the near future, the armies of Hell are coming to Earth.  Mankind simply does not currently have the resources to withstand their necro-technological might.  The seas will run with the blood of billions and the SuperBowl will presumably be cancelled.

The good news is MANBORG.

A soldier who is mutilated and left for dead by the ravenous hordes of Hell, the hero who will be come to be known as Manborg is reconstituted and outfitted with a cybernetic weapons system powerful enough to turn the tide.  He is re-captured by the Hell armies and forced to fight in an arena alongside a trio of super-powered martial artists — #1 Man, Mina, and her brother Justice — who will become his new friends and help him combat the overwhelming forces of Count Draculon, and at this point I admit I kind of lost the plot, but who cares?  MANBORG is so silly it’s beautiful.

This is a real movie I’m describing. I’ve seen it.  (Three times now!)  It wasn’t a dream.  I’m awake, and stone-sober.  MANBORG is an actual thing that exists.  You can experience it too, and I highly suggest that you do.  I can’t answer all of the questions you will probably have.  For one thing, the origins of the film remain hazy to me, as if shrouded by Hell-fog or the smoldering fires of an infernal battlefield.  IMDb lists the film’s creation date as 2011.  It traveled the festival circuit in 2012.  It appeared in stores on DVD in 2013, where I grabbed it immediately.  Could you resist that poster artwork?

MANBORG was made by a Canadian filmmaking collective known as Astron-6. They’re a bunch of guys who make movies on the cheap, pitching in on each others’ projects in every function including stepping in front of the camera.  The director of this particular outing is Steven Kostanski, who shows an impressive command of genre-cinema film-checking.  The movie, like Manborg himself, is a lumbering patchwork Frankenstein’s monster of other movies: ARENA, HARDWAREROBOCOP, TERMINATOR, TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY, MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME, RETURN OF THE JEDI, HOWARD THE DUCK, ROBOT JOX, DR. STRANGELOVE, THE FIFTH ELEMENT, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, MORTAL KOMBAT, G.I. JOE, and TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE.  To name only a few.  If you, like me, spent countless sugar-fueled late nights in front of a TV screen mainlining action movies, you will be in hog heaven with this flick.  It’s not quite accurate to say that MANBORG is a snug fit on a shelf with some of the more esteemed films on that list, but it would be absolutely true to maintain that MANBORG completely captures the giddy rhythms of euphoric movie-love.  The way you felt when you were talking about these movies, the way you still may feel when talking about them; that’s the spirit in which MANBORG was made.

Another thing about the making of this movie:  The production budget for MANBORG was somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,000.  That probably wouldn’t even cover the price of the yellow tarp for a Scientology tent on a Tom Cruise movie.  It’s hardly any money when you’re talking about mainstream filmmaking.  However:  In absolute sincerity, I insist that this is incredibly impressive work for that budget.  Sure, it’s goofy-looking, but that’s intrinsic to the charm of the thing.  It says a lot about these filmmakers that they could stretch the money as far as they do.  It suggests that they have a future in so-called serious movies, if that’s what they want, although I kind of hope they don’t.  I want to see more movies like this one, although I’m fine with re-watching this one until then.

There’s something fantastically charming about this movie, the way it simultaneously feels like a bunch of film-fanatic friends getting together to make a movie and still invites just enough suspension of disbelief to enjoy as a somewhat corny, bizarrely sincere addition to the ranks of bizarro action movies.  In other words:  Even as you know it’s a goof, you still feel like going with it.  Because it’s just more fun that way.  And I don’t know, man — there’s even something touching to me about the fact that I could walk into Best Buy and see MANBORG sitting on the shelf.  Right in between MAGNUM FORCE and MARS ATTACKS!  This is one for us.  The weird kids.  The movie freaks.  The up-all-nighters.  We made it!  Feels like home.


P.S.  Be sure to stay through the credits for the trailer for… BIO-COP!


Read more about MANBORG at the official MANBORG site:


Listen to Brian Wiacek’s authentically-radical score here:



And say hi to me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb





manborg  ManborgTeaser_Mina Scorpius

lilguy   Baron

Cloud Atlas (2012)


If you didn’t see this movie on the big screen, you missed out.  If you missed it entirely, you fucked up.  And if you were one of those who called it “the worst movie of the year” (whoever Mary Pols at Time magazine is; stupid stupid Peter Travers) – God help you.  When this movie comes to be seen as a lost classic in a few years, you may wish you weren’t so nasty.

I won’t be gloating though.  I choose the avenue of love.  This movie encouraged me to be that way.  This movie is about a lot of things I may or may not believe in – fate, true love, reincarnation of sorts – and it made me believe – strongly – in them all.  That’s the power of love, son.  That’s the power of cinema.  And I was skeptical too.  I’ve always liked the Wachowskis but I’m not as high on THE MATRIX as so many are (although, weirdly, I liked the sequels better than most), and I haven’t seen a Tom Tykwer move that really resonated with me since RUN LOLA RUN.  Most of all, without having read David Mitchell’s original novel it was hard to tell in advance what the hell this movie was going to be about.  Answer:  It’s kinda about everything.

It’s a 19th-century nautical drama involving slavery and other human cruelties.

It’s a period piece about the creation of classical music and an impossible romance.

It’s a 1970s political thriller about an intrepid reporter (co-starring THE THING‘s Keith David as SHAFT‘s Shaft!).

It’s a whimsical farce about an attempted escape from a nursing home.

It’s a science-fiction anime action-movie love-story.

It’s a post-apocalyptic future-tropical tribal-warfare-slash-horror-movie that turns into a campfire fable.

It’s like no other movie I’ve ever seen before, which for the record is exactly why I go to the movies:  To see things I haven’t seen before.  The performances are surprising and exhilarating, the score is clever and moving, the cinematography is colorful and absorbing, the scope is bold and ambitious.  Does it matter too much that some of the storylines are more affecting than others?  You think I care about anybody’s stupid little quibbles over some of the makeup effects?  This is a movie that shoots for the moon and more than once hits the stars.  This movie didn’t just surprise me with what it is – it surprised me about ME.  It’s sad that more people haven’t embraced it yet, but believe me, I’m happier loving this movie than you are disregarding or ignoring it.  Feel free to come over to this side anytime!

I wrote this for Daily Grindhouse and reposted it here because CLOUD ATLAS is out on DVD & Blu-Ray today. Now’s your chance to remedy the mistakes of the past…


Hardware (1990)

Richard Stanley is a drastically-underrated director and Sergio Leone enthusiast from South Africa whose work is ripe for rediscovery.  I’d seen his 1992 film DUST DEVIL before, but not his debut feature, HARDWARE, which I happened to finally get around to during the same weekend I saw the new DREDD movie.

Hardware (1990)

From where I’m sitting, there aren’t many movies as true to the post-punk 2000 AD aesthetic as these two movies, DREDD and HARDWARE, although my friends in the UK will definitely have more trustworthy opinions on the matter.  HARDWARE is based on a short strip from 2000 AD, the same series from whence Judge Dredd arrived.  It actually is derived from a Judge Dredd storyline!

Hardware (1990)

Hardware (1990)

This is the basic pitch:  A trenchcoat-rocking soldier named Moses (Dylan McDermott) purchases the wreckage of a robot found in a post-apocalyptic desert, and brings it back to his sculptor/artist girlfriend Jill (Stacy Travis). While Mo is out, the robot activates and attempts to murder Jill in her apartment.  It may visually call to mind the Terminator of 1984, but this guy’s got some even nastier moves than that cyber-Arnold had.

Hardware (1990)

The deceptively-cheap movie — it’s stylish and relentless and looks like plenty more than a million bucks — is almost entirely about this battle, although it makes time for awesomely bizarre and/or disturbing performances by John Lynch (BLACK DEATH), Mark Northover (WILLOW!), and most unshakably, William Hootkins (STAR WARS, BATMAN, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK) as maybe the grossest movie pervert ever.  Iggy Pop and Lemmy also briefly contribute their talents, but with all that craziness surrounding, it all comes down to Jill and her fight to stay alive under attack by that freaky, ferocious robot.  It plays out, under Stanley’s direction, as an intensely tangible experience, despite springing out of a totally bonkers sci-fi set-up.

HARDWARE is available for purchase from Severin Films.

Hardware (1990)

This piece originally appeared on Rupert Pupkin Speaks.



Now here’s a strange duck:  A hard-R horror-comedy adult cartoon feature from musician/director Rob Zombie, featuring the usual voice suspects and a couple surprise voices. The Haunted World Of El Superbeasto is a filthy, funny, deranged mess of a kitchen sink of a movie that will please a certain kind of person, ideally in a certain state of mind (if you get me), and will turn off the straight-laced. For my part, I’m just glad that something like this exists – it’s comfortable knowing that there’s a place in the world for adult animation, even if it’s not exactly my flavor.

The story, as much as I can collect it all in one column, goes a little something like this: El Superbeasto (voiced by comedian and co-writer Tom Papa) is an insanely horny luchador – somewhere between Santo and Dirk Diggler – who is the big cheese in the titular Haunted World, a geek-dream dimension where zombies and werewolves and strippers coexist in constant hysteria. As soon as El Superbeasto falls for the town’s alpha-stripper, Velvet Von Black (voiced by Rosario Dawson!), she is abducted by the misleadingly named Doctor Satan (voiced by Paul Giamatti!) and his long-suffering gorilla henchman. El Superbeasto is aided in his rescue attempt by his younger sister, Suzi X (Sheri Moon Zombie) and her hopelessly infatuated robot sidekick (Brian Posehn.) At the end of the day, this is all about high school: Doctor Satan was the school nerd, in love with the head cheerleader (Suzi X) and constantly tormented by the school bully (El Superbeasto.) Doctor Satan will have his revenge, and hump it too!

El Superbeasto is fairly described as Heavy Metal meets Ren & Stimpy (the design, pace, and much of the voicework is heavily indebted to John Kricfalusi’s surreal/absurd classic series.) It’s also probably fairly described as Rob Zombie’s most fun movie, even his best. I’m on record as saying that I root for Rob Zombie’s cinematic endeavors – he loves a lot of the same things I love (rock n’ roll, old horror movies, pretty girls, badass character actors, monsters, and mayhem) and he brings a competitive energy and enthusiasm to the horror genre – but his movies have thus far turned out unnecessarily unpleasant, even sadistic, in finished form. (Haven’t seen his Halloween 2, but that goes back to the old cliché about not wanting to put my hand back on the hot stove that burned me once before.)

El Superbeasto, thankfully, plays out differently. It has its excesses – who am I kidding? It’s ALL excess!  But there’s a sense of gleeful anarchy and a swinging swagger that permeates the whole thing and makes it never less than watchable. For me, there were two elements to elevate it:

1)      The voice work by the unconventionally wonderful movie stars Paul Giamatti and Rosario Dawson is unconventionally wonderful. If I didn’t see from the credits that they’d be featured, I might never have guessed. Is there such a thing as Method voice acting? Giamatti and Rosario are completely and unrecognizably committed to their wackadoo characters, and the results are weird and funny, truly superior voice acting.

2)      The movie features several original songs by Hard N’ Phirm, the comedy team of Chris Hardwick and Mike Phirman. The songs are by far the funniest part of the movie – they’re exactly the right tone and vibe and they smartly comment on the action and the more blatantly exploitative parts of the story. It makes certain scenes that might have been creepy to watch hilariously creepy. I’ve seen these guys do their thing before live and they’re great – it was a fun surprise to enjoy their contributions here.

So whatever it says about me, I watched the whole damn thing. I probably wouldn’t watch it again but I’m happy to have watched it once. It’s crazy in its own very specific way and I can respect that. However: If you’re the kind of person who is offended by cartoon boobs or cartoon sex, be forewarned. Stay away. It’s understandable, but you won’t want to see what happens here. As for the rest of you maniacs? Eat, drink, and be merry.


Originally written on October 10th, 2009.


Wanted to clue everyone in to a guest post I did for the terrific movie blog Rupert Pupkin Speaks, which has been inviting all kinds of well-travelled movie writers to contribute their lists of favorite quote-unquote “bad” movies.  (It’s all subjective, right?) 

I think you’ll enjoy this one.  I had a lot of fun putting it together.  I’m very proud to be featured on another site I enjoy, amongst some fun people.  You’ll have to click through to get to the meat of what I wrote, but I wanted to share some posters, still frames, and YouTube clips also, so scroll down for those.

>>>Read my list HERE!!!<<<

If you know me or have stopped by my site before, you know that this is hardly the end of my voyage into tremendous cinematic badness.  It’s only the beginning.

The journey continues! 

Find me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb.































Movie Review: HUGO (2011).

Posted: December 29, 2011 in Movies (H), Robots, Silents

I’m having a hard time collecting my thoughts about Hugo because I’m not sure how to write about it definitively yet.  My thoughts are still percolating.  I’d say that’s a good sign.  I’ve seen plenty of movies this year that I forgot about the moment I stepped out of the theater.  That’s far from my problem in describing Hugo.  My problem in describing Hugo is in deciding whether or not I should use the term “masterpiece.”

It’s certainly a masterwork, in that it’s the picture of professionalism, all immaculate composition and delirious craftsmanship.  But would I be too eager in calling it a masterpiece, as in “a film that will endure and come to be acknowledged as a classic”?  I mean, we’re talking about Martin Scorsese here.  It’s not like he hasn’t made a couple masterpieces already.  But I also know that I can get overly enthusiastic.  So maybe I’ll keep this short, and come back to it some day soon.

The story centers around a boy named Hugo (Asa Butterfield, terrific), who is raised by a single father (Jude Law, in a brief role) to be a builder and fixer of clocks in the city of Paris.  When Hugo loses his father, he is taken in by his brute of an uncle (Ray Winstone, in an even more brief role) to help run the clocks in the central train station.  The uncle wanders off in a drunken stupor, leaving Hugo alone to keep the clocks running.  A nasty security guard (Sacha Baron Cohen, a precision instrument of comedy) patrols the station, scooping up unattended minors to ship off to the orphanage, and Hugo spends his days avoiding this creep, literally living in the walls.  Hugo has exactly one artifact to remind him of his beloved father — an “automaton”, basically a small robot that waits, poised, to write a message with pen and paper, which Hugo diligently labors to activate.  Events put Hugo in the path of a girl (Chloe Grace Moretz, the talented young actor from Let Me In) and her guardian, an embittered toy maker (Ben Kingsley), who literally hold the key to making the automaton work and getting it to reveal its secrets.

There are other wonderful characters populating the station and the film, such as a portly gentleman who is continually harassed by a small dog (Richard Griffiths, in a great tribute to Oliver Hardy), a lovely flower girl (Emily Mortimer) who the patrolman loves from a distance, a friendly academic (Michael Stuhlbarg, initially unrecognizable from his turn in A Serious Man) who comes into play later in the story, and best of all, Msr. Labisse (Christopher Lee), the saintly owner of the station’s bookstore, who generously lends books to the kids just because they love to read so much.  Christopher Lee, with that unearthly voice and unmistakable frame, haunts this movie in the best possible sense.  As one of the living legends and literal icons of film — the words “legend” and “icon” are overused but this man eminently qualifies — he is like a human testament to the love of filmmaking which gilds every frame of this movie.

And that’s at heart what Hugo is about.  Love, filmmaking, and the love of filmmaking.  Scorsese’s famed encyclopedic knowledge of world cinema history abounds in total glory, from the aforementioned tribute to the slapstick tradition of Laurel & Hardy and others (Charlie Chaplin, Charley Chase) to the more overt references to Harold Lloyd, both in the movie and on the poster —


— from the design of the automaton which hearkens back to Metropolis, to the skeletal dancers in another scene which recall a similarly fleeting ominous omen from Renoir’s The Rules Of The Game, to Sacha Baron Cohen’s melange of influences including Jacques Tati and Inspector Clouseau, right up to the smorgasbord of silent films both real and imagined which bring the viewer back to the joy and the innocence and the freshness of the very early days of cinema, birthed by the Lumière brothers and Georges Méliès and their compatriots.  Scorsese’s joy is so palpable that he can’t help himself from hopping into the action and making his first director cameo in many years.  And the joy is infectious.  Between Robert Richardson’s cinematography, never more vibrant, and Dante Ferretti’s astonishingly meticulous production design, Hugo is a literal feast for the eyes.

More like dessert.  “Eye candy” is another cliché, but it’s never been more relevant.  Watching Hugo feels like someone coated your eyeballs in chocolate and gold.  Its color palette is warm and accomodating, just plain wonderful to behold.   Hugo has that excitement of those special occasions, maybe some long-ago Christmas dinner, where your parents let you have more candy than usual, more than even you think is enough.  It’s both impressive and inspiring that, at a time when most artists might consider resting on their laurels, Scorsese has shot a movie entirely in a newer technology, 3-D, and surpassed all pretenders.  This is without question the best-looking 3-D movie since Avatar, and this one has a much better story.  My initial one-line review of Hugo is that “Scorsese found a way to turn film school into cinema.”  Now I’m leaning towards referring to it as “Scorsese’s Watch The Throne.”

Would I quibble?  No, actually, I don’t think I can! Not with the movie itself, but I do have slight concern about its marketing.  I saw this movie without my four-year-old niece, who is normally my favorite companion for G-rated and PG-rated movies.  She wants to see it, and I feel that eventually she will love it.  But I don’t think she’s ready for a 3-D movie that lasts over two hours.  Hugo may be too long for all but the most patient of children.  I could be wrong.  I’m hoping I am.  It looks likely that I’ll be testing that prediction soon.  I can tell you that I personally will gladly sign up for another screening.  This time I’ll watch her smile as she watches the movie.

It’s great.  Heed none but the most favorable reviews.  Go, now, while it’s still playing in 3-D on the biggest screens possible.

Seriously.  Get going.  Or else I’m going to start back up writing more about it.


More of me on Twitter: @jonnyabomb


Review originally filed to

Been thinking about the 3-D format lately, due to Hugo.  Seems a good reason to review some thoughts from two years back. 

Avatar is like nothing you’ve ever seen before, even though you’ve absolutely seen this story many times before.  Is that a coy contradiction?  Is it a negative statement?  I hope not.  I think you can love something while still seeing and understanding its flaws.  Bottom line up top:  I loved watching Avatar and I entirely recommend the experience.  I saw Avatar on the IMAX screen in 3-D, and I can’t imagine wanting to see it any other way.  This movie is meant to play big.  It’s supposed to fill your peripheral vision and take you to places no one’s ever been.  It does that.  It takes you to an imaginary planet called Pandora, drops you directly into the atmosphere, and alongside lead character Jake Sully, forces you to experience a new world for the first time.  The world is convincingly detailed and absorbing.  If only for the thorough immersion in a foreign landscape it affords – hell, if only for the strange and intimidating animals that populate it – Avatar is a good movie, even a special one.  But is it a great movie?  I’m not sure.  What we ask our greatest movies to do is to make us believe in things that aren’t real and to care about characters who never were.  For the most part, Avatar made me believe.  I only wish it could’ve made me care more.  That didn’t stop me from loving the movie, but it does keep me from loving it unconditionally.

James Cameron has entertained and influenced a generation of film nerds.  I’m very much one of them.  His two Terminator films, in particular, are a model of how to balance explosive action filmmaking with relatable and sympathetic characters.  Aliens, his entry in the Alien franchise, remains my personal favorite of the four.  The Abyss is an underrated film, full of suspense and wonder and blessed with arguably Cameron’s best lead actor, Ed Harris. True Lies remains a pleasant diversion, a mix of old-school Hollywood playfulness and new-school Hollywood spectacle.  Titanic is not my favorite of his movies, but a serious filmmaker wouldn’t overlook Cameron’s ability to mix effects with story and to orient both characters and audience in a believable landscape.  If you’re interested in action cinema, it’s foolish to overlook Cameron.  He’s just plain a canon filmmaker when it comes to action and believable sci-fi environments.  One could convincingly argue that he’s not much of a writer of dialogue, as Titanic in particular suggests, and Avatar unfortunately corroborates, but Cameron can make the places seem real in a way that few other filmmakers can, to the point where it’s easy to forgive the frequent clichés of speech.

What makes Avatar a problematic movie is that the clichés extend beyond the dialogue to the story itself.  A corrupt, greedily imperialistic society sends a pale-faced emissary into harm’s way – the hero gets to know and fall in love with a native culture of differently-colored people who worship more earthly and simple spiritual things.  Because this is a Hollywood film, that love is personified in female form.  While the hero proves himself and wins over the family of his love interest, she has another suitor who becomes his fierce rival.  Eventually, the hero is faced with the decision to stand with his adopted culture or to return to the civilization he once knew.  A friend of mine described Avatar as “Dances With Wolves on mescaline.”  He’s right, and it’s unavoidable:  Dances With Wolves is certainly a movie that Avatar thematically resembles to a tee, but this kind of stuff goes all the way back to John Ford and Anthony Mann (see Broken Arrow), and has only continued and proliferated, in the Western genre particularly, as feelings of racial apology have increased over the years.  It’s not limited to Westerns and Native Americans – movies as diverse in content as Witness, The Fast And The Furious, and The Karate Kid Part 2 all traffic in similar scenarios – but Avatar so specifically evokes the Native American situation that it just has to be discussed in any serious discussion of the movie.  The Na’vi, the nine-foot-tall blue-skinned alien race who are at the center of Avatar, ride horse-like creatures barebacked, wear their hair in ponytails and their loincloths in thongs, and pray gently to creatures they’ve killed for food.  Their leader is played by Wes Studi, Hollywood’s go-to Native American actor, who really deserves to work more often in more varied parts.  (His wife is played by CCH Pounder and his chosen successor played by Laz Alonzo, both great African-American actors whose casting adds another layer of racial confusion to the film.)

My issue is this:  The treatment of the Native American people by the United States is something that this country has never properly addressed.  It involves crimes of race and history that there may never be any atoning for, even if atonement were possible.   It’s not an escapist topic.  You can’t disappear into a movie if you’re thinking of the mistreatment of the Native American people throughout the entire movie.  If Cameron wanted to probe these questions with Avatar, he should have acknowledged the complexity of the issue.  Unfortunately, when it comes to matters of race and history, Avatar’s conclusions are disappointingly simplistic.  I don’t want to spoil any of the plot details here, so if you disagree with me, please feel free to let me know in the comments or at the provided addresses where we can continue the discussion.  But when I started thinking about the politics of Avatar, I started to think that it makes District 9 look like all the more of an impressive achievement.  If you feel the need to slip real-world subtext into your escapist science-fiction film, you ought to make sure it’s subtext worth stating (or re-stating) in the first place.

The other, possibly greater, problem for me in unreservedly adoring Avatar is that its lead characters didn’t resonate within me as deeply as the protagonists of earlier Cameron films did.  Since there is a love story at the heart of Avatar, this is a problem.  Think of the tragic one-night-only true love of Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor in The Terminator, the fierce maternal instinct that bonds Ripley to Newt in Aliens, Virgil Brigman pleading with Lindsey Brigman to return to life in The Abyss, young John Connor pleading with the T-800 not to leave in Terminator 2, even Jack risking everything for Rose in Titanic.  Some writers believe that an audience must fall in love with the two participants in a movie love story in order to truly buy into it.  I suppose that’s true, but for me, all I ask is that when I watch the movie, I believe that the two people love each other.  I’m no Kate Winslet fan, but DiCaprio makes me believe that he loves her in Titanic, so I cared.  I certainly believed in and related to all of the other examples I’ve just quoted.  I really can’t say the same for Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).

She’s nine feet tall, blue, and as much like a cat as a person.  He’s confined to a wheelchair and quintessentially human.  The one moment where they appear in frame together, a dramatic moment late in the game, is unavoidably humorous.  I was taking the movie pretty seriously by then and I still couldn’t suppress a chuckle.  A Woody Allen/Diane Keaton moment at best.  Short guy/tall chick is just internally received as comedy by modern filmgoers; that’s just how it is.  Believe me, as a vertically challenged man myself, I wish it weren’t.

Here now, some words from James Cameron himself, in the pages of this month’s Maxim, when asked about how much effort was put into making Neytiri look hot:

“…We figured the story wouldn’t work if you didn’t want to do her.”

 That’s a somewhat telling statement.  I will admit that I spent about an hour searching for a glimpse of blue nipple, but to me, the most exciting moment of the movie in that regard was when Michelle Rodriguez showed up in that tank top.  And I’m not much of a Michelle Rodriguez guy.  In other words, when it comes to the giant blue cat lady, I don’t want to “do her.” At all.  So I guess the story doesn’t really work.  As talented and convincing as the voice actors are and as brilliantly believable as the movements of the Na’vi are, there are still moments where you break free of the illusion and remember that you are watching a computer-aided performance.  For me personally, that moment was the sex scene.  Again, I chuckled ever so briefly – I felt for a moment like the entire packed theater was watching that weird Japanese anime porn.  The thought of that scene scored to the end-credits Leona Lewis love ballad just seemed comical to me.  As much as I liked everything else about the movie, I just wasn’t hot for the cat lady.  I didn’t take her seriously enough.  Ultimately, nothing beats the real un-animated Zoe Saldana.  And so on.


All of that constructive criticism out of the way, there is so much about Avatar that I loved.  The magnitude of imagination on display from Cameron and his technical crew is astoundingly thorough.  I loved the meticulous design of the various spaceships, equipment, and weapons.  Predictably, I loved the creatures the most.  At its most transcendent moments, Avatar feels like an Animal Planet documentary filmed in your wildest dreams.  I loved the dragon birds and the snake panthers and the rhino dinosaurs and the jellyfish spirits.  The human cast is uniformly good, despite my earlier stated reservations about how some of them were used.  In particular, I loved seeing Sigourney Weaver in a movie like this again – there are few actors who can be so firm and sympathetic and genuine amidst such unbelievable backgrounds.  And those backgrounds, particularly in the IMAX/3-D format, are breath-taking.  You truly feel the depth and scope of the world created.  As dangerous as the jungles and skies of Pandora prove to be, you still feel like diving right in.  That’s not just a case of me loving the format – the craft gone into the movie is what achieves that; the format only accentuates the effect.  Cameron has done something special here.

Avatar is a movie that demands to be seen by everyone who truly loves movies.  It’s one transitional moment in a probable string of many future transitional moments for this mode of mass entertainment.  The writer in me sees the flaws, small controversies, and problem areas, but the rest of me is damned if any of that stops me from enjoying what was otherwise such a great trip to the movies.

[December 20, 2009]

Some movies can only be watched after midnight.  They shouldn’t be fed, but they can be watched.

And they’ll be watched by a very specific kind of personality.  For me, it started sometime in the very early 1990s.  If I wasn’t wearing out my Ghostbusters or Big Trouble In Little China VHS tapes, I was glued to HBO for any movies I could watch.  The problem with HBO was, you were at the mercy of their programming schedule (this was long before Tivo or Netflix or Hulu or whichever), which meant that you were going to watch Caddyshack 2 or Just One Of The Guys over and over and over again.  At a certain age, that routine wasn’t enough anymore.  Some turned to dating.  Others forewent dating, staying glued to the TV, but doing it later and later. That’s where you’d meet folks like Joe Bob Briggs, Elvira, or the Crypt Keeper.  That’s where you’d catch Mystery Science Theater 3000 0n Comedy Central, or Up All Night on USA. 

MST3K was a show with the premise that a space janitor and his robot companions were forced by mad scientists to watch the worst movies in the universe; the guys would then crack wise through movies like Mitchell and The Pod People.  I would argue that the sensibility of MST3K has been an underrated influence on a huge portion of the way movies are so often written about on the internet; sarcastic and blustering about movies, yet consumed by them.  Up All Night, meanwhile, was hosted alternately by Rhonda Shear, a voluptuous blond who never wore much in the way of clothes, but always seemed to be in on the joke, or Gilbert Gottfried, a squinting, screaming comedian who has made a long career of annoying people.  I loved them both, personally, but I loved the movies they showed even more.  Up All Night showed bad genre movies, the way MST3K did, but they showed the naughtier ones (with all the naughtiest parts cut out, USA being a network subsidiary and all).  Now you’ve gone into the world of folks like Shannon Tweed and The Toxic Avenger, Betsy Russell and The Beastmaster, Andy Sidaris and Robert Z’Dar.  You might see a movie like “Rowdy” Roddy Piper’s post-apocalyptic horney-mutant neo-classic Hell Comes To Frogtown.  (Still the greatest movie title of all time, for my money.)  Or you might see a movie like Chopping Mall.

[Watch the trailer for Chopping Mall!]

Chopping Mall, or as it is sometimes known, Killbots, is a movie about killer robots.  In a shopping mall.

So there’s that.

The movie begins with a scene of a jewel thief, who maybe not accidentally resembles Michael Biehn from The Terminator, ripping off a mall jewelry store.  His flight is intercepted by one of the Killbots, who will come to play a larger role in the film, for now interrupting and punishing petty theft with a taser-type device that looks a hell of a lot like electrocution.  In the first surprise of the movie, this is actually a corporate video, being shown to a civilized crowd of investors by some very standard ’80s-type capitalists.  Most of the crowd is very impressed with the mall’s new crime deterrent (the exceptions being Corman regulars Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov, who roll their eyes).  The robots look to me like a cross between Cyclops from the X-Men and a rolling version of that teleportation chamber Jeff Goldblum invented in The Fly, though fans of Chopping Mall less eccentric than I have compared them to Johnny Five from Short Circuit (a movie which, not for nothing, came out one year earlier.)

Really, more than anything, the Killbots are a cinematic prelude to the ED-209, from 1987’s Robocop.  Both are security measures prone to malfunction, both are peacekeeping agents with lethal tendencies, both warn their victims in calm robotized voices.  (Although the Killbots, hilariously, have Long Island accents, voiced as they are by the film’s director.)  I’m not suggesting that Robocop was influenced by Chopping Mall, but I am suggesting that malls in the 1980s were clearly the locations of an under-reported crime wave that seems to have necessitated the implementation of murder-prone robot enforcers.

The mall in question here is the Sherman Oaks Galleria, which you may know from Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Commando, Terminator 2, and Innerspace.  I know it because I used to go to the gym there regularly (and in recent years they put in an Arclight Theater).  As far as I know, the Sherman Oaks Galleria has never tried to institute robot tanks as mall security, but it’s not the worst idea I ever heard.  The problem comes, as it so often does in movies, when a lightning storm descends on the mall, bringing the Killbots to murderous life.  Among their first victims are a technician played by Gerrit Graham, a character actor who once played Bud the C.H.U.D., and a janitor played by Dick Miller, the tough-talking Corman regular who is such a favorite of Joe Dante.  Dick Miller gets surely one of the more dramatic death scenes a film janitor has ever received:

But the majority of Chopping Mall, of course, centers around eight teenagers who camp out in the mall overnight, for an all-night make-out party.  Little do they know that they’re violating mall-time martial law, and the punishment for that is death.  The kids are a mixed bag of forgettable and awesome, including Kelli Maroney (Night Of The Comet, a movie I will get to reviewing sooner or later), Tony O’Dell (TV’s Head Of The Class, apparently), John Terlesky (the Deathstalker in Deathstalker 2), Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator), and a girl named Suzee Slater, who somewhat heroically pulls double-duty by providing most of the movie’s best T&A and also providing the movie’s single best death scene.  Seriously.  I’m not much of a gorehound; I’m the guy who’s always rooting for everyone to get out alive, but every once in a while a character bites it in a way that even a humanitarian like me has to stand up and applaud.  That’s the brand of hilariously ridiculous death scene that Suzee Slater receives in Chopping Mall.  If you watched that trailer, you’ve seen it, but you really should check it out in the context of the movie if you can.  It’s hysterical, so obviously great that the movie actually repeats during the end credits.

Once that character’s death occurs, the rest of the kids are motivated into action, running into a sporting goods store subtly named Peckinpah’s and loading up on automatic weapons.  Apparently malls in the 1980s provided automatic weapons — no wonder the Killbots were deemed necessary.  Some of the movie’s most intentionally/unintentionally (it’s hard to tell) moments come from the way these San Fernando Valley teens almost instantly start acting like the roughnecks from Predator — although no joke, these kids are not half the convincing actors that Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura were.  There’s actually a scene where you can see three of the teens marching in step, loaded down with artillery.  Also, one of them has a habit of hunching down with his legs spread wide, in the manner of a child imitating Arnold in Commando.  It doesn’t do them any good.  I mean, the Killbots have laser eyes.  How can any teenager stand in the face of laser eyes?

Chopping Mall comically apes the structure of the slasher movies of the era — the eight kids are reduced in number in order of promiscuousness, and they’re killed off in couples, just the way they paired themselves off.  The last two kids to remain are the nerdiest (and least interesting, naturally), although there is a fun scene where a girl hides out in a pet store, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure style, and tries desperately to suppress a scream even as tarantulas and garden snakes climb all over her.

In the end, you basically know how this movie’s going to go from the moment you sit down to watch it, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.  This is the kind of movie that flexes a different viewing muscle than any of the “better” movies I’ve been referencing all along — your expectations are different, so you’re freed up to enjoy the senseless mayhem without demanding much in the way of character development or intricate plotting.  It’s dumb fun, and there’s an important place for that.

Chopping Mall was co-written and directed by Long Island’s Jim Wynorski, a filmmaker who has had an interesting career arc, to say the least.  He started out as a Roger Corman adjacent (Corman’s wife Julie produced Chopping Mall), directing movies like Big Bad Mama 2, Deathstalker 2, The Return Of Swamp Thing, and Munchie Strikes Back.  But where some directors (i.e. Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Joe Dante) moved on from their Corman work into mainstream Hollywood movies, Wynorski has worked for the past two decades in softcore porn.  Quite honestly, I haven’t seen any of those — they could well be the best softcore pornos ever made, but I can’t speak to it.  So for the time being, we’ll have to look at Chopping Mall as Wynorski’s Mean Streets (The Lost Empire being his Boxcar Bertha), with no Raging Bull or Goodfellas on the horizon. Yet.   Next up in 2011: Piranhaconda, starring Michael Madsen and Rachel Hunter?  Could this be Wynorski’s The Departed, his star-studded return to mainstream acclaim?

Well, no.  I’ve stretched that comparison too far.

But will I see Piranhaconda?  Absolutely I will.