Casino: Scorsese's Unsung Masterpiece

by Jason Elizondo

When Casino was released in theaters in 1995, I fondly remember hitting the theater opening weekend. I must have been 19, and alone no less. And for 3 full hours, I remember being immersed in this glitzy world of Las Vegas corruption, murder and politics. For a guy who didn't care too much for topics like that at the time, I was fully engrossed in this world brought to gorgeous life by Martin Scorsese and his incredible cinematographer Robert Richardson, who's worked regularly for Tarantino, Oliver Stone and Scorsese, giving each one of their collaborations some of the most stunning visuals ever put to film.

When Casino was released on VHS, I bought it immediately, and not just any VHS, no sir. Since the film was so long, it came in one of those 2-pk sets, but the best and most important thing about this particular release was that it was released in widescreen, which is truly the only way to see it. Yet somehow I never upgraded from that VHS release and worse yet, I rarely remember revisiting it. When I noticed it was streaming on Netflix in HD recently, I jumped at the chance to not only revisit it, but to introduce it to my wife who isn't much of a Scorsese fan to begin with, hoping this would change her mind.

We sat down one Sunday afternoon and threw this on for what felt like the entire day; and I mean that in the best possible way. Yet despite it's 3 hour running time, not once did it feel tiresome or overstay it's welcome. In fact, after a good 2 hours, I paused to ask my wife if she wanted to take a break and get back to it later, thinking maybe it was too long for her taste, where she just gave me a "are you crazy?" look. She was hooked and did not want to stop watching it. And my feelings were exactly the same because upon revisit, I've come to realize that this film is my favorite Martin Scorsese film.

For a film that runs 3 hours, you never feel it because the film moves along at such a brisk pace, never once slowing down, not even for the dramatic moments, because Scorsese and Richardson's lush visuals, tight editing and excellent 70's soundtrack keep the film floored at such a breakneck speed that it's almost exhausting. But that's a good thing! Because long films, while quite excellent, can oftentimes overstay their welcome. Casino doesn't. In fact, you want more.

Though writer/director/producer/actor Martin Scorsese will almost always be known for his gangster films, he had been experimenting with different genre's between his seminal classic Goodfellas (1990) and this film. 1991's Cape Fear was a sort of Brian De Palma-on-crack-style thriller where Scorsese really let loose with some crazy camera-work, but didn't quite deliver the punch it could have. He followed that up with 1993's Age of Innocence, a period piece where he took a sharp detour from his usual violent fare into drama and costumes before heading back into the crime genre once again with Casino in 1995, which would mark his first of many collaborations with legendary cinematographer Robert Richardson, who was fresh off the success of Stone's Natural Born Killers. Goodfellas screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi returns and along with Scorsese, co-writes another instant Italian Crime classic.

It's a shame that this film is rarely ever mentioned, or even put in the same league as Goodfellas. Everyone seems to just automatically refer to Goodfellas as their favorite Scorsese film, yet personally speaking, I feel this one is a little better. Sure it's all relative, but I think if you really take the time to study this film, you'll find that there's so much more Casino has to offer than Goodfellas. That's not to say Goodfellas isn't great, because it is. It's fantastic. Casino is just a very different type of gangster film. It's a much more polished and glamorous looking film, but doesn't glamorize what's happening either. It's every bit as graphic, violent and shocking, but just in a more flashy and almost gaudy way within  it's Las Vegas setting and Scorsese and Richardson's lush gorgeous visuals that take full advantage of the bright neon lights and fashion of the 70's and 80's.

Casino is an experience unlike any other. It's a film that's sadly been sidelined in both the gangster genre and Scorsese's own filmography in favor of the landmark Goodfellas, a film that very much deserves it's praise, but in my opinion, falls a bit short of Casino's grande, epic storytelling. If it's been a while since you've last seen this, I urge you to give it a watch. I'll bet it's far better than you remember it being, and I think it's high time I finally upgrade this to Blu-Ray for the collection.


80's Action Attack! Shakedown

80's Action/Thrillers just don't get any better than this

by Jason Elizondo

Let me just start off by saying that I am an idiot. I'm an idiot because I waited so long to finally watch this film. I'm an idiot because despite the fact that it starred 2 actors I greatly admire, released in a decade that I worship, and in a genre I love to death. So why did I stay away for so long? I honestly have no idea. It may be because I knew it was directed by James Glickenhaus, and knowing he also did The Exterminator, I might not have been so keen on checking it out because despite the fact that The Exterminator is a huge cult classic, I didn't much care for it. I know I'm in the minority with that one, so don't kill me. I should revisit it, just to be sure. But in regards to Shakedown, all I can say is what a fool I've been.

Released in 1988, a year after Weller made cinematic history in Robocop, Shakedown tells the tale of a hotshot lawyer (Peter Weller), who's on his way out of the law game and ready to transition into banking when he teams up with an undercover cop (Sam Elliott) on a case involving the murder of a rogue cop that could potentially open the door on police corruption within the department. Once the department learns of his investigation, they will stop at nothing to protect their own.

Shakedown is quite frankly one of the best action/thriller's ever made, not only within the 80's, but any decade. It has everything I could have hoped for and more, resulting in a film experience that not only met my expectations, but defied and exceeded them at every turn. While there's nothing truly remarkable about this film, it's in it's solid structure, tight editing, it's very retro cool 80's vibe, some killer action set pieces and strong performances by not only the two main leads, but everyone involved that make this one a standout. You'll even spot a few notable faces littered throughout who've gone onto bigger and better things.

My initial reservations about Glickenhaus being in the directors chair were quickly laid to rest within just a few short minutes because it seems he's grown considerably as a director, and with a much higher budget than usual to work with having been backed by Universal this time around, it's all laid out on the screen in glorious 80's neon drenched colors, with a very slight gritty feel to it all. It seems a higher budget works wonders with Glickenhaus' creativity and the film looks fantastic. The film oozes style out of every single frame, even in the seedy moments as our hero's meander through the seedy underbelly of New York City via 1987 (the year it was shot). Which brings me to an amusing moment in the film where Dalton (Weller) and Marks (Elliott) are both walking out of a theater on the legendary 42nd street in NYC, where you can see a number of films listed on the marquee's as they walk along the sidewalk. Some are just shameless self-promotion of Glickenhaus' prior films like The Exterminator and The Soldier, while others are certified classics like A Nightmare on Elm St. 3: Dream Warriors and The Hidden, giving you a clear idea of when this was filmed on the streets of New York.

I honestly couldn't have enjoyed this anymore than I did. It was exactly the experience I'm always hoping for when I dig into these, and seldom enjoy because more often than not, they're just not very good. Shakedown was different though. Weller, hot off the massive success of Robocop, and Elliott, on the heels of the shockingly underrated and badass Fatal Beauty, and right before heading into another classic with Road House the following year, both deliver powerhouse performances that seem tailor made for them. Weller would follow this up with the excellent big budget B-Flick Leviathan the following year. Needless to say, these two were on a roll delivering solid classics, one after the other around this time.

This excellent action/thriller delivers the goods in healthy doses, never staying too long in the action or thriller department, or even the minor subplot involving Weller's Dalton having an affair on his fiance with an old girlfriend who's now a district attorney, giving ample time for each while building strong character development. Of course no action/thriller would be complete without a killer ending, and boy does this one deliver. Let's just say it involves a plane and is fucking spectacular and sure to blow your mind.

If anything Shakedown has proved that I might have judged writer/director James Glickenhaus a bit too harshly before, and if this film is any indication, I need to track down some of his other films (he's only directed a total of 8) immediately.

How to see it:
Released on every format to date, you can pick up the DVD pretty cheap. However, your best bet is grabbing the new Shout! Select Blu Ray because it's that visual of a film experience and you'll want to see it in glorious HD. Trust me.


Never Too Young To Die "Stargrove" Custom Action Figure

by Jason Elizondo

Apologies for the absence and slow streaming of reviews, but as you can see, I've picked up a new hobby. With my work schedule, I'll need to try harder at managing my free time to work on these and my reviews from now on.

I've been a toy collector all my life, and as I've just turned 42, that's a very long time. While I do tend to take breaks from it here and there, I can't remember the last time I was this into it. Initially starting as a project and journey to re-acquire every toy I had as a kid (mid-life crisis maybe?), It's since become a full-on obsession as I dig into other area's of the toy market, including custom action figures.

What I love about custom action figures is that most of these are toys that have never made it into production, and more than likely never ever will. There are some insanely talented custom action figure artists out there, and others not so much. One of the best guys out there doing this is Dan over at Death By Toys, whom I credit as my inspiration and who I aspire to be as good as some day.

One thing I've learned on this journey is that each one of these takes a lot of work and a lot of money, hence the high price tags for these when and if they're ever for sale, which most of the time they're not. They're more personal projects than anything. Personally speaking I couldn't imagine selling these because they take so much time, money and effort for each one, which I barely have enough of with my current schedule. So as far as I'm concerned, whichever ones I continue to make, will always just be a one-off and that's it. Plus, I just don't think they're good enough to actually sell. As much as I like what I've done so far, all I see are the flaws.

When I decided to start playing around with making custom action figures, my list of possible figures was insanely long. But I had to start with something easy, or less involved I should say. And one of the first ones I chose was the character of Stargrove, from one of my all-time favorite films, the 1986 cult classic Never Too Young To Die, a true batshit crazy experience that blows my mind every time I watch it.

How To Do It:
This one took cutting off various body parts of 2 different ReAction action figures (you have to find the exact parts you need because chances are any 1 single figure won't be good enough), painting and gluing back together to form the one I wanted to make. Then came the cardback design and printing, which cost me a pretty penny in various types of paper and supplies until I found the one that worked best with my printer. Even though you can watch any number of tutorials online on how to make these, I found that every single one of them failed to mention that very important detail, because it does make a huge difference. It really all depends on what printer you are using, what the settings on that printer will be for the specific paper you decided on and finding the right type of thick paper that works best with your printer.

Please comment if  you have any questions or like what I've done so far. I' have another one I'll be posting in the next few days. Until next time!


Blu-Ray Review: Victor Crowley

A valiant attempt to bring back some of the magic that made the first one so great doesn't always hit the mark, but tries very hard to

By Jason Elizondo

I have to be honest. I was completely on the fence about going into this one because of my personal feelings towards Kane Hodder, an actor I admired all of my teenage years and up, only to be slapped in the face (figuratively speaking) by a brute who picked on me and physically assaulted me at a convention because he was trying to impress my wife, whom he had been flirting with for a few days prior. Mind you, I have a physical disability, but that didn't seem to deter him. But hey, that's another story, and one I already detailed in an article a few years ago.

So when I heard Hodder and writer/director/creator Adam Green was going to be bringing the character of Victor Crowley back to life, I was both excited and hesitant. Excited because I love Adam Green as a filmmaker and the work he does, giving the world old-school style horror driven by practical effects work, and hesitant because I just loathe Kane Hodder as a person and did not want to put another cent into his pocket by supporting anything he does. Yet, I want to support Adam Green, and encourage him to keep making more horror films, so my feelings towards him ultimately outweighed my personal feelings and dislike towards Kane Hodder. And with the new Blu-Ray being so damn affordable, I gave in. So lets dig in.

When he's not writing television series, where he currently has 3 running simultaneously, or short films, Adam Green sporadically takes the time to sit down and write and/or direct a film here and there, with his last writing effort being Hatchet III in 2013, and his last directorial feature being 2014's Digging Up The Marrow. So when I heard he would be returning to the directors chair as both writer and director for a Hatchet sequel, I think we were all pretty fucking excited. And even though one could argue the quality of his work is all over the place, you can at least say that for the most part, they're all entertaining in their own unique way, and Victor Crowley, the 4th in the series, easily falls into that classification. While not the best in the series, it's a far step up from Hatchet II, but a slight step back from Hatchet III. Here writer/director Adam Green tries really hard to get back to the theme and roots that made the very first Hatchet so enjoyable in the first place, by being a solid old school slasher horror film, but also being surprisingly and genuinely funny. While the first film did it effortlessly and with incredible results, this 4th entry doesn't quite hit the mark as well, and a good half of the humor feels too forced and doesn't land.

But I think that's really dependent on your level of humor, and others might find it funnier than I did. But really, despite that, it's ultimately a good time because Green makes sure to give the film an intense amount of gore, blood splattering and pretty nifty practical effects, all the hallmarks of his Hatchet film series.

Parry Shen, who's played a different character in every Hatchet film, here resumes the role of Andrew, his character from the third film, who escaped Victor Crowley's killing spree and is now touting a book on his experience surviving that nightmare. When his unscrupulous agent convinces him to go on a book tour on the actual site of the massacre, they unwittingly resurrect Victor Crowley from his grave where he goes on yet another killing rampage.

On the one hand, it's a better than average horror/comedy that delivers the goods in an unexpectedly polished way, but on the other it starts to feel a bit stale a good halfway through and with some of the humor not being as clever as you hope, considering how damn near perfect the first one was. But I know how it goes, it's hard to carry that same quality throughout any franchise, so I get it. Yet despite my issues, I have to admit that it's a damn good horror/comedy/slasher, if you can stomach some truly annoying characters.

I love finding out about the Hatchet fans favorite films in order, because they're all so different from one another, but each fans list always starts off with the first one, which is honestly and legitimately the best in the entire series. My personal favorites are as follows: 1, 3, 4 and 2. I just didn't think part 2 was very good, and more than anything, it felt rushed and uninspired.

Just The Disc:
As far as presentations go, the transfer is really good. Then again, I would expect it to since this film was literally just made last year. One of the great things about all of these Hatchet films is that you can be sure to find some special features, and while there aren't a ton this time around, there are enough to make some happy. For starters, there's a fun cast commentary with Adam Green, Parry Shen, Laura Ortiz and Dave Sheridan. Then there's a technical commentary with Green again, and cinematographer Jan-Michael Losada, editor Matt Latham and makeup f/x artist Robert Pendergraft. There's also a new interview with writer/director Adam Green titled "Raising the Dead.....Again", and some behind the scenes stuff and a trailer.

While not one of the best in the series, to be fair, it's pretty much a steal for what it's going for and definitely worth the price and worth your time to watch. I've seen it for $10 at Walmart and $11 on Amazon. This may be a sign that the series has run it's course, or that Adam Green is too busy working on his television shows. Whatever the case may be, I'm not entirely sold on the idea that we need more of these, unless Green allows some new blood to come in and give the franchise some new life. Until then, we'll just have to wait and see.


Blu-Ray Review: Showdown in Little Tokyo (1991)

Dolph Lundgren and Brandon Lee take on the yakuza in this insanely entertaining and hyper-violent early 90's neon-drenched actioner

by Jason Elizondo

Growing up an action fan all of my life, of course Showdown in Little Tokyo was right up my alley. While I had not yet learned just how awesome Brandon Lee was at that time, I certainly knew who Dolph Lundgren was, and better yet, director Mark L. Lester. After all, he is the man who helped make Arnold a box office star having directed him in Commando. And really, I think it was just knowing that Lester directed this was the main attraction for me. Well, that and Dolph starring in it.

I can honestly say I wore out my VHS of this excellent film through many, many repeated viewings and when I eventually upgraded to DVD, I was sad to see that it was still in full frame. Thanks to Warner Archive's new Blu-Ray, they finally fixed that issue. In fact, as far as I'm aware, this Blu-Ray transfer is the very first time being able to see this film in the U.S. in widescreen. Not sure about the other regions, but I know here it's never been available in it's original aspect ratio, so this is sort of a big deal. While I was on the fence about upgrading to Blu-Ray for a while, I finally did thanks to the urging of my friend and Dolph Lundgren expert Jeremie Damosaeu, author of the book The Punisher: The Secret History. All I can say is I'm so glad I did. Let's dig in.

It's no secret that I love this movie, or that it just flat out rules. Released in 1991, it's remained a cult classic and an important entry within the realms of Badass Cinema. Additionally, it's one of the best examples of the cop/buddy action formula, and by giving it a very distinct Asian angle, sets itself apart from the flood of similar films flooding the market around that time. Brandon Lee and Dolph Lundgren's undeniable chemistry is what makes this one so special, playing off each other in such a natural way that it's a true shame these two never got the chance to possibly make more films together, whether it be direct sequels to this film or other projects.

I recently had a birthday, where I turned 42. So you can imagine I was pretty much just the right age to enjoy this film when it first came out, being around 15 years old. I don't like to celebrate my birthday anymore but I do use it as an opportunity to do something for myself, and on this birthday all I wanted to do was pop in this new blu-ray and enjoy some nostalgia. And a funny thing happened, I had a grin a mile wide and felt like that 15 year old kid again. I just couldn't stop smiling because despite nearly 30 years, Showdown in Little Tokyo hasn't lost it's edge, ability to entertain, and most importantly, it's "cool" factor. Sure you could easily pick this film apart, because anyone who doesn't love action films easily could, but despite it's flaws, Showdown beat the odds and became a certified cult classic, and it's audience is still growing.

Warner Archive released this film in 2015 on Blu-Ray for the very first time in HD and most importantly, in widescreen. While the film has been released countless times on DVD in it's single snapcase edition or as part of a film pack, it was always in the dreaded full frame. You couldn't even find it in widescreen on Laserdisc, which is sometimes the go-to route for these under-the-radar classics in their original aspect ratio. So for you purists out there, this purchase is a must.

Now that I think about it, this reminds me a lot of another martial arts cult classic that had a similar release, the 1991 Jeff Speakman classic The Perfect Weapon, released by Olive Films on Blu-Ray in 2012. Just like Showdown, The Perfect Weapon was another martial arts action film released in 1991 and gained a huge following within that very specific martial arts/action genre, back in the early 90's where it was at it's peak. And just like Showdown, Weapon was never released in widescreen on any format until it's 2012 Blu-Ray release.

In terms of the transfer, let me just say it's damn impressive in it's new 2K restoration. We have to remember that this was in a time when films were shot on actual film, in analog, and unlike films shot on digital camera's and released on Blu-Ray, these older films will always have a slight graininess to them, because that was one of the beauty of shooting on film. It looked and felt organic and by preserving it in glorious HD, it's given new life while also being preserved forever.

The bright neon colors of the early 90's, mixed with the traditional bold colors associated with yakuza films are put on display in a confident and impressive 1080p image. The original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 has been changed to a 1.78:1, which isn't a huge difference, but still in widescreen and leaps and bounds better than any previous release in terms of aspect ratio and picture quality.

And that's really where the praise ends because that's all we have here. Just like all of their other releases, there are no Special Features to import from previous releases because there were none, and they do not make it a habit of producing new ones for upcoming releases, which is both sad and frustrating. I'd love to hear from Dolph and director Mark L. Lester about their memories making this film, it's impact on the action genre, and their memories regarding Brandon Lee. It's a shame nothing in terms of new interviews, behind the scenes stuff and any form of supplemental material has ever been done regarding this film. It might take a re-release someday down the line by a studio like Shout! Factory to get anything new like that. One can only hope.

If you love this film already (who doesn't?!), or were curious about it but have never seen it, this new Blu-Ray is a must buy. There's no question about that. It easily stands as both one of the best films ever made in the martial arts/action and cop/buddy genre's, as well as a high point in the career's of both Dolph Lundgren and Brandon Lee (marking this as his first U.S. film) and even director Mark L. Lester, who's give us some killer gems just as much as he's given us some pretty forgettable films. But we could take comfort in knowing that his work throughout the 80's and early 90's are his best, where he gave us some true classics, whether it be big budget studio films or under-the-radar cult films, and Showdown in Little Tokyo is arguably one of not only his best, but one of the best period.


A Second Look: Out for Justice (1991)

by Jason Elizondo

I've always considered this to be the weakest of Seagal's early films, when his films were still hitting the local theaters and he was going toe to toe with Van Damme as the leading martial arts movie star. For some reason I could never connect to Out for Justice. I always felt it didn't have enough action, and I found the grittiness to be too far out of left field compared to his other films around that time. I guess in a sense it's the same way I felt about Schwarzenegger's Raw Deal, another film that took a sharp detour from his usual fare and dove deep into the Italian Crime genre, just like this one. Only, I ended up enjoying Raw Deal quite a bit upon revisit, so maybe the same would happen with this one? Let's dig in.

Despite my feelings about this entry before, and the fact that I had only seen it that one single time, revisiting this recently made me realize something very important, and that is that Out for Justice is arguably one of his best films out of his entire filmography. This was only Seagal's fourth film, and he had quickly and systematically just come off a string of box office hits like Hard to Kill and Marked for Death. Professionally speaking, he was on a roll and while Out for Justice didn't do the kind of business his previous 2 films did, it was still a hit and he would move onto his biggest hit to date with Under Siege the following year. Still, you can't argue with this films impact. It delivers the kind of visceral punch very few of his films can deliver, and in the hands of director John Flynn, Out for Justice became one of the most brutal and grittiest films in both Seagal's filmography as well as within that genre.

I had always considered this film to be very bland visually, which is probably one of the reasons I stayed away from it for so long. But I was wrong, and that couldn't be any further from the truth. John Flynn, who's previous films included the revenge classic Rolling Thunder (1977), the excellent thriller Best Seller (1987) and the Stallone prison classic Lock Up (1989), does a magnificent job here giving the film a grittiness not found in any other Seagal flick before or since. While my initial reactions to his very specific way of directing was met with sharp criticism, I have to admit it works wonders for the material here and I honestly couldn't think of a director who could've handled it better. While this type of film is generally a stark contrast to what Seagal usually does, especially back then, it's not any less entertaining, and that's largely due to director John Flynn's impeccable direction.

Seagal has never been a great actor, or an even charismatic one. But his role as Det. Gino Felino almost seems tailor-made for him. Here he's able to let loose a bit and though I don't think Italian is anywhere in his lineage, he pulls off that whole Italian tough guy rather well, even down to the specific way of using certain words and mannerisms. He looks and acts the part and that's better than most of his films personally speaking.

As great as Seagal is in this, the real star here has to be William Forsythe, delivering a powerhouse performance as a fat out of control mob coke-head who goes on a murderous rampage through the streets of Brooklyn, some victims seemingly killed at random, while others are targets from his hit-list. He fully intends to die this night, and makes it his mission to go out in the blaze of glory taking down everyone on his list. He is an absolute beast in this and yet another reminder of why I've always loved Forsythe. The guy is a chameleon who often goes from thin to fat from film to film, and changes his appearance so rapidly that you forget it's the same guy. Take for example this year alone, 1991, where he made this film, sporting black hair and a mustache as opposed to his usual blonde, and then appearing as a biker in the cult classic Stone Cold the very same year, still fat with black hair, but sporting long hair and a messy beard. He couldn't look more different from one another and that's what makes him so great. Not to mention he's just a fantastic actor all around.

Ultimately Out for Justice proves to be one of Seagal's best films and efforts, while also maintaining director John Flynn's exemplary record of quality work. It remains a standout among Seagal's films because it's starkly different from anything he had done prior or after. Though if I were to be frank, I can't stand him as a human being, especially the man he's become in the last 10 years. But I can appreciate his work as an actor (and I use that word loosely) and martial artist in the beginning of his career. His early films are what made him a star, and each one of them are quite excellent. Of course we all know what happened shortly after he hit superstardom; his ego got much bigger than his actual body weight and he's since become a caricature of his former self and it's pretty sad. But at least we have these golden moments from early in his career.


90's Action Attack!: Raven Hawk (1996)

2-Time Ms. Olympia winner Rachel McLish and legendary cult filmmaker Albert Pyun team up for a Native American revenge tale that surprises as much as it plays it safe

by Jason Elizondo

Legendary cult film filmmaker Albert Pyun, ever the prolific director, made a whopping 5 films in 1996, Adrenalin: Fear the RushNemesis 3Nemesis 4Omega Doom and Raven Hawk. Starring former bodybuilding champion and the very first Ms. Olympia winner Rachel McLish, Raven Hawk tells the story of a Native American girl who was framed for her parents murders, who as an adult after years in a mental hospital, escapes and seeks revenge on those responsible.

Raven Hawk is such a unique experience for a number of reasons. Two-time Ms. Olympia (retired from competition in 1984) Rachel McLish only appeared in 3 films in her entire career, marking this film as her last. Before this, her only other big role was in Aces: Iron Eagle III 4 years earlier in 1994. She's virtually dropped out of the public eye since, only appearing in a handful of interviews throughout the years, but still looking incredible. While Raven Hawk doesn't give her the opportunity to really flex any of her acting chops, her physical presence more than makes up for that in this. Each moment she's on screen, you see her stone-chiseled physique in all it's glory and Albert Pyun does a great job showcasing her finest assets; her figure.

Doing some research, I learned a few things - like the fact that there's virtually no information online about this film at all (or very little at least), and that McLish has pretty much disappeared from the spotlight completely ever since she made this. It's also a surprisingly difficult film to find in any physical form here in the states. As far as I'm aware, it's only ever received a VHS release and nothing else, making that VHS insanely rare and incredibly hard to come by. Of all the films Albert Pyun has directed, with a whole bunch of them being hard to come by anyway, this one easily stands at the top of that list of hard to find Albert Pyun classics. I'm sure the question you're wondering is whether it's worth the effort? Let's dig in.

In my humble opinion, I would say yes. While not one of Albert's best films, it's got enough of the specific Albert Pyun magic to warrant at least a single viewing. It's a bit frustrating at the same time because while it has some things that I do like about it, it's also painfully obvious that his hands were tied (pretty common with a lot of his films) and his true original vision is not what ended up on the screen. He also seems to have taken a different approach to this one by shooting most of the film in closeups, something that was hard not to notice. It also feels a bit safe, meaning it's not nearly as violent as most of his other films. Most of it happens either off-camera, and even then, it never goes as far as you expect or hope it to.

Reading up on this film I discovered that some of the criticisms come from McLish being pretty stone-faced during the entire film, resulting in a less than stellar performance. And while it's true that she has very little dialogue to deliver, I would have to disagree with that critique because she's able to convey enough emotion through her body language and facial expressions to get her point across. I don't think she's a bad actress at all; she just didn't really have a lot to work with. And keep in mind, McLish was pushing 42 when she made this, and could easily pass for her 20's. Not to mention she just looked incredible, with a tougher body than any male in this film.

Yet, despite these little issues, I thoroughly enjoyed this Native American revenge tale. I think the two biggest things it has going for it is it's impressive supporting cast and Pyun's solid direction, even if it's a bit jarring at times with the extreme closeups. At the same time, there are purely classic Pyun moments visually. He's always been one of those rare directors who can pull off quite an impressive shot under the most normal circumstances, and his work here does not disappoint. A shot of McLish standing in a doorway backlit by the sunlight giving her a strong silouhette, and a sequence in and around a rocky cave are impressively well done.

Let's dig into the cast. For starters, there's William Atherton (Richard Thornburg from Die Hard 1 & 2), as the slimy villain. But we also get Mitch Pileggi (Horace Pinker from Shocker) as the top henchman, Ed Lauter (True Romance, Gleaming the Cube, Extreme Prejudice, Death Wish 3), character actors Matt Clark, Michael Champion (Total Recall), Mitchell Ryan (Lethal Weapon, Judge Dredd), Thom Mathews (Return of the Living Dead, Friday the 13th Part 6), Vincent Klyn (Cyborg, Point Break) and the familiar faces just keep rolling in. It felt like every 5 minutes I was yelling "He's in this too?!". A killer cast to say the least!

All in all Raven Hawk was a decent flick. While it doesn't really give Rachel McLish much of a range to work with, she certainly comes off as a true badass. Sadly, this was her only starring film and her last role in a feature length production. Regardless, she leaves a strong impression and it's a shame she didn't continue making more.

The killer cast of regular bad guys was a hoot (Horace Pinker!) and despite an uneven tone, Pyun gives the film enough of his special flavor to register as an Albert Pyun film. I reached out to Albert regarding his memories of making this film because surprisingly, there is zero information available about it online. Albert was extremely kind enough to respond with some insight:

Albert Pyun: "Ravenhawk was a film taken away from me during editing. The producer and I didn't see eye to eye. Rachel was a dream to work with. Professional, kind and totally committed. I thought she gave a much more nuance than what appears in the released version. But Ron wanted more of a female Rambo so many of the subtleties of her performance we're lost as well as many of the beats I envisioned for the whole film. I had a much more mystical film where there was some question if Rachel may have died in the crash etc. Sadly, no one will see that."

I had just finished another Native American revenge tale, the 80's Italian Trash epic Thunder Warrior, and felt like keeping that very specific genre going. When I remembered this has been sitting on my shelf forever and I still hadn't gotten to it yet, I thought it was the perfect time. I'm so glad I finally took that plunge because it was a better film I anticipated and an unexpected surprise.

I'd also like to take this moment to share my connection with Rachel McLish, something I wasn't even aware of until now. Rachel was born in my hometown of Harlingen, TX, where I still live today. Her maiden name is Elizondo, which is my last name, and not a very common last name in the Hispanic community. She opened a local gym called SPA, and I remember seeing that facility all throughout the 80's because my uncle lived in the neighborhood, but being a kid I didn't know what it was. Knowing it was opened by Ms. Olympia herself Rachel McLish makes it all the more special.

Sadly Raven Hawk is a really hard film to come by in the U.S., unless someone uploads it to YouTube someday. I'm not sure what the situation is in any other region. Who knows what type of film we would have ended up with had Albert been given the freedom to make the film he intended? One thing's for certain; Rachel McLish should have been a bigger star.

Editors Note:
Through a mutual acquaintance who's related to Rachel, I attempted to reach out to her regarding her experience making this film. She has yet to respond but when or if she does, I'll be sure to post a new article about that. 

I would also like to take this moment to offer my sincerest gratitude to director Albert Pyun for taking the time to respond to my inquiry. It's just another reason why he has and always will be one of my favorite filmmakers and proves what a solid guy he is. 


80's Action Attack!: Cherry 2000 (1987)

by Jason Elizondo

A title and poster that has been perpetually burned into my brain for 31 years, Cherry 2000 has been a film that has always sort of been in the back of my mind throughout the years because there are so many things about it that just scream my name. Yet, I never actually took the time to watch it but just one time many, many years ago in the late 80's, and I honestly don't remember anything about it.

Flash forward a few decades and I discovered a little-seen gem called Miracle Mile, written and directed by Steven De Jarnatt. De Jarnatt also happened to direct Cherry 2000 just a years earlier. I loved Miracle Mile so much that it immediately became a personal favorite and I figured if he could do something that special, then maybe there was really something to Cherry 2000? Let's dig in.

One of the first things immediately apparent is that this was a great looking film visually. Not once does it ever look cheap or low-budget, especially in the direction. Thanks to director Steven De Jarnett, Cherry 2000 packs a visual punch and it's a good thing, because unfortunately it lacks in several other departments, starting with it's tone. As great as the film looks, it's sadly hampered by an uneven tone, not really knowing what type of film it wants to be. At times too quirky and goofy to be a straight-up post apocalyptic film (which it very much wants to be), and at others too serious to be taken as anything but an 80's action/adventure tale. The constant back and forth between the two is jarring and the result is a film that tries too hard to be funny and quirky, but then falls flat and you end up being bored. Melanie Griffith's annoying voice is another turnoff for me here, and while I can appreciate her devotion, it's hard to take her serious.

On the positive side though, the supporting cast is pretty fantastic with killer performances from the late great Brion James, Tim Thomerson hamming it up as the main villain, and a severely underused Robert Z'Dar a full year before he became immortalized as Maniac Cop.

One could say that director Steve De Jarnatt was finding his groove here because this was his first gig directing a feature length film, having only directed a short and an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents previously. You see the raw talent, and combined with it's impressive production design, Cherry 2000 looks better than you'd expect. But the same could be said for the films screenwriter, Michael Almereyda, who's no stranger to quirky films as he's made a career out of writing and directing them. But again, this was his first credited screenplay for a full length feature and combined with De Jarnatt's inexperience, maybe it was too powerful a force to fix, even in editing, which also could have saved this experience.

To his credit, Steve De Jarnatt completely redeemed himself the following year with Miracle Mile, a brilliantly quirky and beautiful end of the world disaster film that flew so far under the radar that nobody saw it, yet has held a nice cult following ever since. I implore you, if you haven't seen it yet, you need to fix that pronto. It's fantastic and quite the pleasant surprise. Sadly, De Jarnatt would mark Miracle Mile as his crowing achievement because he's stuck strictly to television ever since, making Cherry 2000 and Miracle Mile his only feature films.

It's not a terrible film, but it's not a very good or entertaining one either. It very well could be, had the right powers that be guided this thing a little more coherently. As it stands, it's a bit of an uneven mess that boasts a killer cast and looks pretty great. I'm just glad I didn't shell out the big bucks for the new Blu Ray.

How to see it:
Available for cheap on every single format, it got a spiffy Blu Ray release in 2015 courtesy of Kino Lorber with a slick impressive new transfer, a commentary by director Steve De Jarnatt and a short "Making of" documentary. You can snag it for under $20, or you can rent it in HD via Amazon Instant Video.


DVD Review: Inoperable (2017)

by Jason Elizondo

Scream Queen Danielle Harris stars in this horror/thriller about a woman who wakes up in an evacuated hospital on the heels of a fast approaching hurricane, only to discover she's stuck in a time loop and must figure out why it's happening and how she can escape. With the help of a security guard and a party girl, they plan their escape from the forces that might keep them trapped in this hospital forever.

Writer/Director/Producer Christopher Lawrence Chapman delivers a surprisingly competent film that offers ample amount of visual eye candy and strong performances from it's small cast. And while the idea isn't all that original, the execution is pretty solid for the most part. And if there's anything that stands out about this film in general, it's the strong performances, even from the minor roles, and it's really impressive score that makes it seem like a bigger movie than it actually is.

Danielle Harris is great as always, and truly earns the title of Scream Queen. I recently revisited Halloween 4, where she was but a mere 11 years old, and even then, you can see her undeniable talent as an actress. In fact, I'd have to say she was the best part of that film and she's continually proven to be one of the best actresses in the horror genre. Her work here is another solid example of that.

Inoperable is engaging enough to keep you invested, with the gore being handled impressively well. And really, what's a horror film without decent gore? Thankfully the f/x department here do an outstanding job. I enjoyed it and didn't see the twist ending coming at all, which was a nice surprise. Christoper Lawrence Chapman surprised me at nearly every turn with his solid direction and camerawork. His slick direction was only momentarily marred from time to time with some less than stellar "made-for-tv / low-budget" camerawork, which is a shame because for the most part, he did a far better job than you'd expect.

The score also needs to be mentioned because quite frankly, I was surprised at how good it was. Composer Jonathan Price hasn't really done anything big, but you'd never know it by the score he's provided here. There were moments where it was so good that it almost felt out of place, considering the budget of the film. Yet at the same time, it works so well it makes the film better and stronger.

While I didn't love it, I did enjoy it and can appreciate the fact that a lot of hard work and love went into it. Danielle Harris was on fire, and Chapman's slick direction was a definite added bonus and nice surprise for a production this small.

Just The Disc:
The transfer is pretty great, with the sharpness bringing out the details of Chapman's direction and strong color palate. The extra's include a commentary by writer/producer/director Christopher Lawrence Chapman, writer/producer Jeff Miller, actors Jeff Denton and Katie Keene as well as trailers.

Inoperable was released by Cinedigm this past February and is available at any number of online retailers.


80's Action Attack!: Thunder Warrior (1983)

A First Blood ripoff that fails to pack a punch

by Jason Elizondo

Released in the crux of the 80's Italian Trash explosion, Thunder Warrior aka Thunder is a First Blood ripoff that twists the tale a bit by making the lead a Native American named Thunder, who's coming home from the war to find that a sacred cemetery is going to be moved by greedy land developers. When he tries to involve the authorities, he quickly learns the racist local sheriffs department are of no help and decides to take matters into his own hands.

Starring Mark Gregory, fresh off his stint  in 2 other notable Italian Trash classics, 1990: The Bronx Warrriors and Escape From the Bronx, Thunder Warrior comes just a year after it's inspiration, First Blood, hit theaters and turned Stallone into a mega-star. While Thunder Warrior wouldn't do the same for Gregory, save for the Thunder Warrior sequels, it's retained quite the status as a true cult classic, primarily within the Italian Trash genre. It was so popular in fact that it ultimately spawned 2 sequels, each about a racist sheriff that Thunder must go up against and each starring Mark Gregory and directed by Fabrizio De Angelis. Mark Gregory would retire from acting altogether in 1989 with only 11 film credits to his name and hasn't been seen or heard from since. But that's another story.

Thunder Warrior was pretty solid overall. I think the one thing I was hoping for was that it would maybe be on the "So bad it's good" side, with possibly a few WTF?! moments thrown in, which is what made these Italian Trash flicks so damn good to begin with. Unfortunately neither of those things are found in here, making Thunder Warrior a pretty straightforward First Blood ripoff without any of the unintentionally endearing elements found so common in this genre.

Mark Gregory, to his credit, does a splendid job in the role of Thunder, a man pushed to the edge by the local authorities who throw bigotry in his face at every turn, who feels he has no choice but to not only defend himself, but the sacred cemetery that they're hellbent on destroying. Despite a man of few words, his physical presence alone does the job.

I think one of the things that most people will remember about this film is not that it's awesome, or has some amazing stunts and action, but it's often harsh depiction of racism. Extremely un-PC by today's standards, the insane amount of racist language and hate spewed out of nearly every character in here makes the experience awfully uncomfortable for anyone who's ever had to deal with that in their life. Of course this was during a time when things were a little different, and I'm fairly certain the language and derogatory terms in here wouldn't be used had this film been made today.

I think the film could have been better. It works well enough for what it is, but you keep waiting for that one kickass moment that never comes. Director Fabrizio De Angelis, here marking his directorial debut, isn't the most competent or stylish director either, giving the film an almost amateurish rushed look and feeling for the most part. At least we're treated to a finale that satisfies in the action department, it's just a shame that most of the film feels a bit tedious.

Years later Mark Gregory and director Fabrizio De Angelis would re-team for the sequels Thunder II (1987) and Thunder III (1988). Part of me wants to check these out because I'm curious where they take the story, and if De Angelis ever got better as a director. I'm in no rush though, so only time will tell. Until next time.


90's Action Attack!: Surviving the Game

A director who cut his teeth as Spike Lee's cinematographer and a rapper with very little acting experience deliver a solid "Man is the prey" action/thriller that defied the odds and is actually really good

by Jason Elizondo

It really doesn't get said quite often enough, but Gary Busey is one hell of an actor. Even with his limited screen time in this one, if there's anything that most people will walk away from this with, it's that Busey can deliver the goods. Of course, when we think of Gary Busey, the first thought that pops up is probably how crazy he is, which seems to get more severe the older he gets. Too bad though, because given the right material, he's quite talented and always leaves an impression. Take for example his "becoming a man" speech in this. It's a brutal story, and told in his very specific Busey way, it's unnerving, haunting and a bit emotional. It's his true moment to shine here and it's a shame his role wasn't bigger.

But Busey isn't the only reason to go into this one. With a stellar all-star cast under the helm of Spike Lee protege Ernest Dickerson (Demon Knight), Surviving the Game ends up being quite frankly a refreshingly unexpected surprise that defies the odds and sets itself apart not by being different from any other "hunting a guy for sport", a la Hard Target, but by being good, apt, and skillful. Let's dig in.

When a homeless man (Ice-T) is hired as a hunting guide by a group of wealthy businessmen, he soon discovers that the job was in fact a rouse, because he is the prey. Now he must use his skills at survival to beat them at their own game.

While director Ernest Dickerson will always be known as the guy who did Tales From The Crypt: Demon Knight, or the fact that he was Spike Lee's cinematographer for many of his best films in the 80's and 90's, I think much of what makes this film work as well as it does is because of his sure-fire hand behind the camera. Others may not agree, or prefer some of his horror films to this one, but I'd have to disagree and say that this is probably his best and finest work as a director. It's not overly stylish to a fault, but visually impressive on a level that you don't often find in these types of films. Add to that it's very "90's" feel, it's stellar cast and how surprisingly immersive it is as an action/thriller, and it easily stands out as one of the best in this type of genre. It may not be the most original idea, but it sure is a helluva fun film.

I have to give props to Ice-T. The guy never gets much credit for being a decent actor. Yea he started his career as a rapper, and has been a regular on Law & Order: SVU for what seems like decades now, but despite the plethora of bottom of the barrel films he releases on such a regular basis that it's hard to even keep up, he certainly had his moments. The early 90's were really his defining moment. After his breakout role in New Jack City, he was hitting them out of the park one after another with solid turns in Ricochet, Trespass, Tank Girl, Johnny Mnemonic and this film. He does a fine job here, proving that his tough-guy persona works well with certain roles. Hell, in the nearly 20 years he's played a cop on L&O:SVU, he's been given several moments to shine in that role and he's proven he's got the acting chops; he just needs the right gig to prove it.

Of course, despite a pretty stellar cast all around, the real standout here is the one and only Rutger Hauer, once again turning in a richly devilish performance. A bit unrecognizable at first with his long hair and thick goatee, he plays the leader of the group of wealthy hunters and runs the group with a brutal iron fist, hidden beneath a likability that always keeps you on edge. Seriously, Hauer has mastered this type of character to the point that he doesn't even have to try anymore and it's just good, evil, creepy and always enjoyable, and he does not disappoint here.

Surviving the Game doesn't try and change the formula, but it does it so well with such a fascinating cast (F. Murray Abraham??) that it ultimately ends up being pretty great, even if it does play on familiar themes. It's visually stimulating, highly engaging, and clever in a way I hadn't expected. The large ensemble cast is quite impressive, and though Ice-T was generally a newbie here, he holds his own in a crowd of seasoned pro's. If it's been a while, then it's definitely time for a revisit. If you've never seen it, it's a must.


Animation Attack!: Fire and Ice (1983)

by Gabriel Gonzalez

Yin and Yang, darkness and light, Winthorpe and Valentine-- the struggle between polar opposites is as old as time itself. Told and retold through every medium imaginable, from spoken word to moving pictures, today’s feature is without exception—the fantasy adventure Fire and Ice (1983). So, get your loincloth back from your neighbor, and travel back to a simpler time, before we were encumbered by the modern trappings of things such as smartphones, internet, or pants. This installment of robotGEEK Cult Cinema- ANIMATED Edition, is about to begin!

"The last thing you want your loincloth to do is lift and separate"

In this tale of scantily-clad barbarism and magic, we join a young warrior by the name of Larn—the sole survivor of a mystical attack, whose entire village was destroyed by a colossal glacier, sent forth by the evil Nekron, Lord of Ice. On his quest for vengeance, Larn learns of the Ice Lord’s plot to invade and conquer Fire Keep, where King Jarol and his sultry daughter, Teegra reside. Violence ensues, and Nekron’s minions kidnap Teegra, turning Larn’s quest into a rescue op.

"Paleo diet - because blood parasites are a conspiracy, man!"

Fire and Ice was directed by Ralph Bakshi and Tom Tartaranowicz. Bakshi has numerous credits in animation, spanning over five decades, including Wizards (1977) and Cool World (1992). Tartaranowicz’s credits include Biker Mice from Mars (1993-1996) and Bobby’s World (1993-1998). Writer/producer Frank Frazetta was one of the most prolific illustrators of the 20th century, designing the poster art for films such as What’s New Pussycat (1965) and The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967).

The film was composed using an animation technique called Rotoscoping, where live-action actors are filmed and the footage is then traced over, frame by frame, to produce realistic movement. Though painstaking and tedious, the results were fluid and spectacular. For this reason, it was very difficult for the filmmakers to find a female actor with a physique to match Teegra’s *ahem* curviness. It was also rumored that between this and Frazetta’s demanding and temperamental ways, working this project was very stressful for the cast and crew alike.

"It's amazing what passed for PG in the 80s"

Overall, this movie was quite enjoyable. It started off with a breathtaking score, written by William Kraft, and an accompanying opening monologue that was worthy of any fantasy epic. The action, like the dialogue, was simple and direct, with the occasional ‘wtf’ moment. One of the only things that irked me about this film was the mysterious loner, Darkwolf. Though the character himself wasn’t bad, it felt like Larn took a back seat to him, and somehow became the main protagonist. Other than that, yes, check out Fire and Ice, and have a skull-busting good time.

"Batman? Never heard of her"

Well, thanks again for playing along. Feel free to post any suggestions for future installments of robotGEEK Cult Cinema—Animated Edition.

"By the way, 13 year old me wants to remind you of Teegra"

Gabriel Gonzalez - contributor 

G. J. Gonzalez is a doer of many things, including but not limited to writing sci-fi stories, acting, and developing software. Keep an eye out for his latest work, Althea: An Oneiric’s Tale, coming soon on Amazon.