Thursday, May 18, 2017


Sometimes, a guilty pleasure can be a lot of fun.  Watching the straight-to-video, Lou Ferrigno, action DVD “Instant Death” (**1/2 OUT OF ****) revived memories of Charles Bronson’s “Death Wish” movies, Liam Neeson’s “Taken” trilogy, and the Sylvester Stallone “Rambo” franchise.  If you haven’t seen “Death Wish” (1974), you’ll have a chance to watch Bruce Willis step into Bronson’s shoes for the 2017 remake when it comes out later this year.  Suffice to say, “Death Wish” dealt with a mild-mannered New York City architect who embarked on revenge binge after his wife’s murder and his daughter’s rape during a home invasion. The Charles Bronson hero meted out vigilante justice from the barrel of a revolver to a variety of low-life criminals that prowled the streets after sundown.  Ironically, he never found the hoodlums who terrified his family.  Nevertheless, while cleaning up the city streets, he evolved into an urban legend. “Death Wish” qualified as one of the notable examples of the revenge movie genre about a private citizen who avenged his relatives after the police proved ineffectual.  

“Skin Traffik” director Ara Paiaya and scenarist Adam Davidson replicate the revenge movie formula without tampering with any of the usual clich├ęs.  Were it not for the steely presence of body-builder Lou Ferrigno, who rampaged on television as “The Incredible Hulk” from 1977 to 1982, “Instant Death” would constitute just another routine crime thriller.  Indeed, Ferrigno is the star rather than merely a supporting character or an actor appearing in a cameo.  The 66-year old Ferrigno performed all his stunts. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Can Ferrigno act?  Although he seems self-conscious around other actors, Ferrigno plays a flawed father figure hero who might behave in such an aloof manner.  The personification of the Grim Reaper, Ferrigno’s paterfamilias suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. The realistic, gritty action occurs primarily in contemporary London, and the filmmakers pit the former “Hulk” against a repellent Cockney mobster nicknamed ‘Razor.’ Jerry Anderson plays Razor, and he is a dead ringer for popular British tough-guy actor Ray Winstone.  Anderson plays such a deranged dastard that the actor should think twice about strolling in public without bodyguards.  Imaging what Ferrigno’s revenge-minded father will do to Razor when they tangle heightens the suspense of “Instant Death.”

Ferrigno plays veteran Special Forces fighter John Bradley.  Although he has been out of combat for six months, Bradley hasn’t recovered entirely from the untold horror. The lonely lifestyle that he describes to his sympathetic psychiatrist recalls the toxic activities that Robert De Niro’s cabbie Travis Bickle indulged in throughout director Martin Scorsese’s classic, urban shoot’em up “Taxi Driver” (1976).  The psychiatrist recommends Bradley reconnect with his two surviving family members: his grown-up daughter Jane (Tania Staite of “Crossing Bridges”) and his young granddaughter Wendy (newcomer Sophie Wembridge), who live in London, England.  Bradley catches a flight out of New York City.  After he lands and sets out to visit Jane and Wendy, Bradley witnesses a vicious gangland slaying.  A ferocious underworld enforcer, Razor (Jerry Anderson), is eradicating all rival drug dealers in his domain.  Anybody who peddles narcotics on Razor’s turf won’t die from old age.  The desperate fools who buy those forbidden narcotics don’t last long.  Razor is torturing an independent drug dealer, Carnie (Sven Hopla of “The Foundling”), when Bradley sees the murder.  Not only does Razor kill the rival drug dealer, but he kills another innocent bystander who walks in front of Bradley when Razor tries to shoot our hero.  Razor dispatches his intimidating henchmen to liquidate Bradley.  Before he eludes Razor’s thugs, Bradley guns down two of them. 

A furious Razor demands Bradley’s head.  A young street hoodlum locates Bradley after he shadows him to his daughter’s apartment building.  Naturally, Jane is ecstatic about finally seeing her dad again.  Bradley rarely spent time around his family while he was in the service. He explains he must visit an old friend in town the next day.  The old friend turns out to be Colonel Neal (newcomer Michael James MacMahon) who served with Bradley in the military.  Essentially, Colonel Neal is comparable to Samuel Trautman (Richard Crenna) from Sylvester Stallone’s “Rambo” quartet.  Trautman acted as the go-between Rambo and those who availed themselves at his combat skills.  Predictably, Razor and his hooligans show up at Jane’s door inquiring about Bradley.  When Jane cannot tell them where her father has gone, Razor’s henchmen rape her on the dining room table.  Later, Razor brandishes a razor and carves up Jane’s face.  Before he leaves, Razor smothers helpless Wendy with a pillow.  After Bradley learns about his family, he launches his own crusade of vengeance against Razor and his depraved crew. 

“Instant Death” resorts to neither humor nor comic relief characters.  The violence is staged with a sense of spontaneity, and our hero emerges as just as cold-blooded as his nemeses.  For example, Bradley holds an arrogant British gangster at gunpoint, and the gangster proposes they negotiate.  Our grief-stricken hero refuses, and the gangster’s head vanishes in a bloody explosion. This could rate as the darkest movie that Lou Ferrigno has ever toplined, and he delivers a solemn performance as John Bradley.  Paiaya produced the straightforward but violent “Instant Death” on the streets of London for added authenticity.  He does a good job of establishing both the characters of Bradley and Razor before he turns them loose on each other.  Part of the fun of watching “Instant Death” is that you can savor what the hero will do to his foes.  Mind you, you won’t find any gratuitous nudity in the unrated DVD version of “Instant Death,” because it emphasizes blood, gore, and guys. The homicidal content and the casual depiction of murder and rape may appall the squeamish but appeal simultaneously to stout-hearted action junkie fans who can tolerate a little blood and gore.  One of the chief virtues of “Instant Death” is British director Ara Paiaya doesn’t let his efficient 84-minute melodrama wear out its welcome. 

Monday, April 24, 2017


Combine “The Blair Witch Project” with “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and you’ve got the gist of freshman director Justin Barber’s found-footage, sci-fi, horror chiller “Phoenix Forgotten” (* OUT OF ****), involving an alleged UFO sighting in Phoenix, Arizona, on Thursday, March 13, 1997.  “Maze Runner” scenarist T.S. Nowlin and Barber have appropriated that larger-than-life incident known as “Phoenix Lights” for their superficial saga about three teens who took off into the desert to document this phenomenon with a camcorder.  Unfortunately, they vanished without a trace, but left behind their camcorder.  For the record, “Phoenix Lights” made national headlines, and experts have described as it as “the most widely seen mass UFO sighting in US history,” second only to the renowned Roswell UFO crash in 1947.  Nevertheless, I’m fed up with low-budget, found-footage thrillers as uninspired as “Phoenix Forgotten.”  They neither make my skin crawl nor make me feel sympathetic about the plight of characters too asinine to know better.  Basically, the actors and actresses play stock characters, with little aside from biology and apparel to differentiate them.  Neither the original (and extremely overrated) “Blair Witch Project” (1999) nor its abysmal 2016 remake did little to arouse either my curiosity or raise my hackles.  Mind you, found-footage movies aren’t all awful.  The Vietnam war epic “84 Charlie Mopic” (1989) was one of the best.  “The Paranormal Activity” franchise has been consistently gripping.  You may have your favorites, too. Nothing in “Phoenix Forgotten” will make you gnaw your fingernails, unless you’ve never watched a horror movie.  Furthermore, this formulaic film features pedestrian performances by unknown thespians without a bit of charisma who were cast largely for their ordinary, inconspicuous looks.  Nowlin & Barber have forged characters that aren’t interesting for their own sake, and their dialogue isn’t quotable.  Worse, the film doesn’t spring any surprises that would make you scream.  The first half of “Phoenix Forgotten” is dreary enough to lull you into a stupor.  The marginally better second half struggles to compensate for the somnambulance of its monotonous first half.  The convenient found-footage sequences are predictably designed to trouble you with lots of wobbly camera work with sporadically scrambled video imagery.   

Sophie (Florence Hartigan of “Magik and Rose”) has returned to her hometown of Phoenix. She plans to produce a documentary film about her older brother Josh (Luke Spencer Roberts of “Hail, Caesar!”) and his two friends, Ashley (Chelsea Lopez of “Novitiate”) and Mark (newcomer Justin Matthews), who got lost in the desert 20 years ago while making their own documentary about the “Phoenix Lights.”  Josh had been a videophile for years.  The first time that we see Josh, he is recording his younger sister Sophie’s sixth birthday party when mysterious lights illuminate the skies over Phoenix.  Local television stations broadcast reports about the suspected UFOs, while public officials stage a press conference with a guy masquerading as an extraterrestrial to defuse the paranoia surrounding the sightings.  The UFO coverage whetted Josh’s curiosity, and he started shooting interviews with anybody who had either witnessed or heard about the unidentified flying objects over Phoenix.  Naturally, the military discredited those UFO sightings.  Indeed, Air Force officials issued a statement that aircraft on training maneuvers had deployed flares that would have resembled a UFO. 

When Sophie comes home, she interviews her parents, who have been divorced because the search for their son devastated their marriage, as well as Josh’s friends to find closure.  Sophie and her cameraman are about to call off their documentary when a high school librarian discovers a package stashed in the school’s storage facility.  The package contains another camcorder with a cassette cartridge in it.  Sophie’s hopes soar when she learns that not only can the tape still play but also that Josh shot the footage.  All along everybody, including local law enforcement, could never adequately explain why Josh would have left behind his camcorder in his vehicle.  The revelation is that Josh had two camcorders!  Sophie lends the footage to a military official to examine.  He warns Sophie that she shouldn’t show that tape to anybody.  The remainder of “Phoenix Forgotten” concerns what Josh and his friends recorded after they plunged into the desert.  The three wind up lost, and tempers flare as they struggle to find their way back to Josh’s SUV.  After they get back on the road to Phoenix, Arizona, something with a glaring light approaches them from behind and overtakes them. Inexplicably, Josh’s vehicle conks out, and the three set out on foot on a lonely highway.  Before long other mysterious things occur, and they are swept up in turbulent winds, explosive sounds, and bright lights.

Presumably, producer Ridley Scott, who directed the original “Alien,” must have felt that teen audiences afflicted with ADDH would mob the multiplexes and parlay this $2.8 million feature into a weekend blockbuster, like “The Blair Witch Project.”  The trouble with Barber’s film is that he takes too long to establish both the characters and set up the predicament. Unfortunately, the filmmakers wear us out keeping track of a lot of insignificant details about the characters and their environment designed to enhance the plausibility of “Phoenix Forgotten.” The staccato editing stresses the spontaneity of the moment, but Barber neglects to align our sympathies with those characters.  As the chief protagonist of “Phoenix Forgotten,” Sophie searches desperately to determine what became of her ill-fated sibling.  Incredibly, “Phoenix Forgotten” partially duplicates the plot of a 1989 micro-budgeted, straight-to-video epic entitled “UFO: Abduction.”  The big brother in the latter film is taping his niece’s fifth birthday with a hand-held camera when UFOs blasted out of nowhere.  Afterward, the hero and his two brothers rushed into the woods to investigate their sighting.  They located the flying saucer and encountered three aliens.  Frantically, the brothers withdrew to their house, and the aliens besieged them.  Predictably, Josh’s found footage suggests that aliens abducted the trio.  Altogether, “Phoenix Forgotten” is best forgotten as just another crackpot conspiracy theory orchestrated with little imagination.

Saturday, April 22, 2017


The people who produced "The Return of Josey Wales" should have changed the hero's name. "Return" went straight to video in 1986 without significant theatrical release, while "The Outlaw Josey Wales" was released in 1976. Ten years is a long time to delay a sequel, though "Star Trek" fans weathered decades before their cult NBC-TV show finally reached the big-screen. Reportedly, Clint Eastwood had considered making Forrest Carter's second Josey Wales novel "The Vengeance Trail of Josey Wales" as a sequel. Nothing came of the project. Anyway, only the fictional characters from the original show up in "The Return of Josey Wales." None of the original cast members reprised their roles, and Clint Eastwood had nothing to do with the low-budget oater. Forrest Carter, author of both "Josey Wales" western novels received screen credit for both story and screenplay.  The producers changed the ending.  Several characters from the original novel reappeared in the second novel in an early chapter.  Nevertheless, “The Return of Josey Wales” is at best generic from fade-in to fade out compared not only with the previous movie as well as Carter’s novel. 

Producer/Second Unit Director R.O. Taylor received credit as "writer: special scenes."
"The Outlaw Josey Wales" qualified as an indisputable magnum opus. Meanwhile, "The Return of Josey Wales" (* OUT OF ****)npales by comparison, more of a drab, saddle-sore, horse opera with little to distinguish it. According to IMDb.COM, the produced lensed on location at the Alamo Village, in Brackettville, Texas, where John Wayne filmed his own magnum opus "The Alamo" in 1960. A large percentage of the cinematography is master shots. Master shots are typically long shots with actors shown from head to toe in their environment.  Star/director Michael Parks, who graces himself with an adequate number of close-ups, should have known he was setting himself up for a fiasco. The original "Josey Wales" overshadows this threadbare sagebrusher. Had the protagonist's name been altered, "The Return" wouldn't have found itself at such a tremendous disadvantage compared to its lofty predecessor. The Internet Movie Database lists no release date, but I remember a trailer at a drive-in movie theater advertising it. Like another reviewer, I bought a VHS copy through Amazon so I could say that I have seen it.  The picture quality is mediocre, and the film may have been cropped to accommodate the standard 1:33.1 screen ratio.

Despite the somewhat brutal events in the prologue, you're going to feel like you're watching a conventional television western. Tame, lame, with little of the same from the original, "The Return of Josey Wales" ranks as an uninspired sequel. Repeated viewings of the Eastwood original allow you to appreciate its perfection. Eastwood did a marvelous job when he condensed the entire Civil War in the prologue after Union sympathizers slaughtered Josey’s wife and son, and later he joined Bloody Bill Anderson. "Return" doesn't raise the stakes, boasts few surprises, breaks no new ground, and doesn't leave you wanting more. Character actor Michael Parks—an outstanding thespian in his own right—replaced Clint Eastwood. Indeed, some resemblance appears between the two, and Parks looks persuasively authentic in his black sombrero, white shirt, and dark britches. Aside from preserving Josey's tobacco spitting routine, Park's Josey Wales isn't as interesting as Eastwood's character. He has no love interest in this film, and he doesn’t have any memorable showdown scenes. Parks packs one revolver in a standard, low-slung, right-sided holster, like a prime-time, TV cowboy, and wields an occasional Winchester. Eastwood's Josey Wales armed himself to the teeth with as many as four revolvers. Eastwood knew how to make an entrance, whereas Parks ambles into and out of scenes as if by accident without a trace of charisma. He mumbles in his dialogue scenes like Marlon Brando. Occasionally, he says something insightful.

As director, Parks stages the western shenanigans without fanfare.  Watching it once is probably more than enough. I've seen it several times for this review. You'll have to wait patiently about 20 minutes for the first gunfight. The gunfight is minor like something out of a Randolph Scott western. Rafael Campos is the only other recognizable cast member.  Campos gives the best performance as a liquor-loving vaquero.  Everybody else, even in speaking parts, looks and sounds like amateurs. Some of the male extras wear atrocious hats that resemble party favors instead of Stetsons. Basically, like Clint Eastwood's "The Outlaw Josey Wales, "The Return of Josey Wales" has a savage prologue involving a heinous atrocity. The hero's extended family of friends suffers at the hands of the slimy villains. "The Return of Josey Wales" doesn't deliver an eye for an eye western with an icy-cool looking hero. Parks can be heroic.  Happily, he does handle himself acceptably in the first shoot-out both on foot as well as horseback. Appropriately enough, the villains—Mexican Rurales who scalp Indians for the bounty--are unrepentant devils.

The Rurales rape a defiant saloon girl, Rose (Suzie Humphreys of "Deep in the Heart") and beat a poor bartender to a pulp, while a one-armed Mexican peon, Pablo (Paco Vela of “The Job”), witnesses these horrific acts. Later, Paco relays his information to Josey Wales. Predictably, Wales saddles up and hits the trail, but with considerably less gusto compared to its predecessor. Furthermore, one of Josey's friends, a tin-horn gambler named Ten-Spot (Robert Magruder of “Five Days from Home”) has been taken. Mexican Rurales commander, Jesus Escabedo (Everett Sifuentes of "Selena"), plans to hang Ten-Spot, and Josey tracks them down with his Mexican vaquero, Chato (Rafael Campos of "The Appaloosa"), but Chato gets himself shot-up.  Sadly, Ten-Spot catches a bullet in the finale. Josey leaves Escabedo buried up to his neck in the ground as he rides off with his friends.  In Carter’s novel, Wales repeatedly shot and killed Escabedo during a face-to-face confrontation in a canyon.  Furthermore, in Carter’s novel, real-life Apache chieftain Geronimo played a peripheral role.

Josey Wales desired better than this grubby little western delivered.