(On Cable TV, September 2014) Oy… Repeat after me: low-budget Canadian science-fiction movies are rarely good. Having been burned a few times already, I really should know better by now. Still, there’s a lower threshold of quality that one expects, and it’s fascinating to see Stranded struggle to even meet that basic level. The first five minutes are almost promising, as a small crew on a lunar mining base is threatened by a catastrophic meteoroid impact. Is this a survival story? Alas, no: Within moments, the lone female character discovers something alien, is impregnated, gives birth to a shape-shifting monster that decides to look like another character and then go on to kill enthusiastically. Dull stuff, rapidly crashing at the bottom of the list of Alien rip-offs. Stranded is so bad that I’m actually offended at the impregnation subplot, which throws a charged plot development in the middle of a movie that doesn’t earn or deserve such emotional heavy-lifting. Beyond the dull characters and repetitive scripting, much of the rest of the movie is just too dull to care about: badly-lit, limply propelled forward, saddled with an Earth-bound epilogue that weakens the result rather than strengthen it, Stranded is just yet another Canadian SF film filmed in a dim warehouse (in no less a film powerhouse than Regina, Saskatchewan) featuring a handful of characters and a monster. With this, director Roger Christian has actually made a film worse than his own Battlefield Earth, which is praise of an impressive sort. Poor Christian Slater looks a bit confused here: sure, he’s getting paid, but is it all worth it? I was sort-of-impressed to see obvious models being used for moon-base shots rather than CGI: Nowadays, it’s the kind of artistic decision that shows a commitment to lack of quality, and speaks for the rest of the film.
(On Cable TV, November 2013) One of the small underrated pleasures of watching movies on specialized cable TV channels is the opportunity to discover small films that otherwise flew underneath everyone’s radar, especially when so much attention goes to theatrical releases. So it is that we get to Guns, Girls and Gambling, a low-budget crime comedy that doesn’t try to innovate, but still manages to earn its share of twisty comic pleasures. Featuring Christian Slater in a lead role good to remind everyone that he can actually be funny, this is one of those crime comedies heavily-narrated in non-linear fashion, and where seemingly-random bizarre occurrences in the first half are (almost) all explained by the twists of the film’s second half. It works as long as you’re willing to cut writer/director Michael Winnick a lot of narrative slack (and even then, you can’t really explain characters such as “The Blonde” assassin in anything resembling our reality.) It works if you want to play along, but it’s certainly rough around the edges: many of the recurring gags are a bit exasperating, and there’s a sense that another pass at the script would have cleaned up some of the less-funny material. Many of the last plot twists can be guessed ahead of time as the only sane way to explain what’s going on (If you’re thinking Lucky Number Slevin after the first half-hour, well, you’re not far off), and the violence gets a bit excessive for what is otherwise a fairly amiable comedic romp. Also disappointing is the film’s rather less-than-promised exploitation content: With a title like Guns, Girls and Gambling, I would have expected a lot more of all three, and definitely more Girls. Still, those with a tolerance for the film’s own brand of excess are likely to get a few laughs out of the film: It’s genuinely attempting to be funny, and a number of the cameos are successful: Gary Oldman as an Elvis impersonator is, by itself, enough to warrant a look at the film’ trailer. Winnick’s direction is both stylish and engaging, and some of the sugar-rush enthusiasm of the film’s early moments produces enough momentum to keep viewers past the repetitiousness of the second third and well into the revelations of the final act. For a film that seemingly came out of nowhere and onto DVD shelves and movie channel line-ups, Guns, Girls and Gambling is a decent find.
(Second Viewing, on DVD, February 2011) I hadn’t seen Broken Arrow since its opening weekend in theatres, but I’m not really surprised to see that it has held up so well as an action film. The mid-to-late nineties had some fantastic examples of the form (Speed, The Rock, Face/Off, etc.) and Broken Arrow still holds the distinction of being one of John Woo’s better American features. Structured around a script by Graham Yost, Broken Arrow features a pleasant mixture of military technology, criminal activity and all-out action indulgence. Christian Slater is forgettable as the hero and baby-faced Samatha Matthis looks completely lost as an action heroine, but John Travolta steals the show as a charismatic scenery-chewing villain, coolly charming as a killer with the best dialogue in the entire film. (From the seminal “Ain’t it cool?” (dot-com) to the clenched-teeth “Would you mind not shooting at the thermonuclear weapons?”) Planes, helicopters, trucks and trains are all destroyed along the way, but the clarity of the film’s action sequences still holds up as a fine example of the genre, especially after the erosion of action filmmaking during the last overly-edited decade. Here, every shot seems meaningful, and we get to appreciate both pending dangers and minute developments. A few of the night-time effect shots look dated, but the rest is still technically impressive. Broken Arrow doesn’t make too much sense and definitely feels contrived, but it still carries an action-packed charge with a smile and presents B-grade action films as they should be more often. The 2010 DVD re-release, sadly, is not even enhanced for widescreen TVs and offers no other features than the trailer –a real shame considering the documentary material available to a logistics-heavy action film.