Tag Archives: adventure

Suck Wall! REMO WILLIAMS: THE ADVENTURE BEGINS

REMO WILLIAMS: THE ADVENTURE BEGINS


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(3.5/5)

Pros: Stuntwork is pretty astounding; nice use of real locations
Cons: Ending seems flat; potential problems with the Chiun character


Made in 1985 as the first installment of a series based on The Destroyer novels by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins has to be one of best, consistently overlooked mindless action films from the ‘80s. The plot here centers around a former NYC policeman named Sam Makin who is recruited by a secret organization known as CURE who, after faking Makin’s death, rechristen him as the titular character (named after – you ready for this – a company who manufactures bedpans). CURE’s goal is to stamp out government corruption and this mainly involves taking down a manufacturer that is wasting government funds on weapons systems that are at best defective and quite possibly completely inoperable. Before that operation can proceed however, Williams must learn his craft from a “Korean master” named Chiun, thereby providing the film’s mandatory and nearly feature-long training sequence.

Remo and Chiun
Remo and Chiun: not quite Mr. Miyagi and Daniel-san.

Christopher Wood’s script presents a mixture of the typically outrageous ‘80s action film story with a comic book mentality and plenty of goofball humor. The majority of the film deals with the interaction between Williams and Chiun: as might be expected, Chiun initially believes that training the very rough-around-the-edges Williams is a hopeless proposition and obviously, a major point of the script is to show that anything can be attained through hard work and perseverance. While the training sequence provides moments of dry wit and Three Stooges physical comedy, the familiar routine is a bit dull and nothing if not entirely predictable. Thankfully, Wood peppers the film with a handful of downright awe-inspiring action sequences that effectively break up the monotony and provide definitive highlight moments.

crazy thing is
The crazy thing is, it seems like this was actually filmed at height on the huge scaffolding surrounding the Statue of Liberty. Note the Manhattan skyline in the background.

One such sequence finds Williams climbing on and through Coney Island’s famous Ferris Wheel, dodging incoming baskets and support wires as a way to test his mettle and overcome his fear of heights. Filmed in a way which really emphasizes the mind-blowing stunt work that had to be pulled off to complete the scene, even this impressive moment pales in comparison to another action set piece in which Williams encounters a gang of thugs on Liberty Island. In real-life 1985, a massive renovation project on the Statue of Liberty was ongoing, so the structure was surrounded by a tall scaffold. Needless to say, the film’s pursuit sequence that takes place in this criss-crossing maze of metal is nerve-wracking and exciting. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this film is that, unlike any number of Schwarzenegger or Chuck Norris vehicles from the period, Remo Williams doesn’t rely on over-the-top violence or plentiful explosions to keep a viewer interested. Director Guy Hamilton (who cut his teeth directing four Bond films from the ‘60s and ‘70s) simply emphasizes the impending peril that the main character is facing. His very assured handling of the material seems very old school (particularly compared to the loud and overblown action cinema of the post-Michael Bay era) yet is entirely effective: I certainly wish more of today’s directors would subscribe to his methodology in making this kind of film.

Stuntwork
Stuntwork in the film is pretty outstanding – as is the replica Lady Liberty set.


Though he’s not quite the person I might have expected to play a role like this, Fred Ward (of Tremors fame) is actually very believable in the lead. It’s immediately apparent that the actor does many of his own stunts, which adds significantly to the viewing experience: I actually could buy Ward as a bad ass who could pull off these acrobatic parkour moves while ripping off one-liners at every opportunity. The script doesn’t allow for much genuine character development, but being entirely realistic or indeed logical isn’t remotely the point of this picture in the first place: it’s more or less a comic-book come to life. Playing Chiun we have obviously Caucasian actor Joel Grey. Depending on one’s perspective, Grey’s portrayal could either be taken as being quite humorous or completely offensive – the Chiun character is extremely stereotypical across the board, but listening to a painfully white dude deliver his interpretation of an “Asian accent” may be the icing on the cake. In 1985, being politically correct wasn’t much of an issue (particularly when dealing with Asians – I’m not so sure a character named – or like – “Long Duk Dong” would fly in 2015), and I guess today’s viewers can either choose to chuckle at the absurdity of the whole thing or find something else to watch. Regardless, there’s a nice rapport between Ward and Grey, especially when the two start exchanging wise cracks with one another. Ultimately, the chemistry between this duo benefits the picture since the story mostly revolves around them.

grey and ward
Grey and Ward have a nice rapport with one another – this picture sums up their interaction during the early parts of the film.

Smaller roles here are occupied by the likes of A. Wilford Brimley (under-utilized as the mastermind of CURE who spends the entire film pecking on a very primitive computer), J.A. Preston (as the streetwise CURE agent who is Williams’s only partner), Kate Mulgrew (an Army major investigating the corruption claims), and Charles Cioffi as a shady businessman who’s the main villain of the piece. I found it refreshing that a romantic relationship between Mulgrew and Ward’s characters never quite materialized even if the film’s somewhat goofy climax left the door open for one. Andrew Laszlo’s photography is outstanding with Craig Safan’s soundtrack adding punctuation to the more attention-grabbing moments, and the film makes exquisite use of authentic NYC locations. I was completely astonished by the fact that downtown Manhattan is visible in the background of many shots – particularly those filmed on the scaffold surrounding Lady Liberty. Amazing that some of these scenes could be pulled off and again, I really commend the stunt personnel who worked on this film.

on the coney island ferris wheel
Needless to say, Remo Williams didn’t find its audience at the box office, and the planned sequels and TV show never materialized. This is somewhat of a shame considering how decent this first film is – much better than any of the various, completely asinine flicks of the era starring the likes of Ah-nold Schwarzenegger (Commando or Raw Deal in particular), Chuck Norris, or Michael Dudikoff. Maybe Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins didn’t pack enough pyrotechnics or bullet-riddled bodies into its run time (the title character leaves many of his “victims” alive and the ending is admittedly flat), but whatever the case is, this genuinely fun movie is well worth rediscovering some three decades after its release. This is what the ‘80s were all about, and while this may not be a masterpiece of cinema, it’s indisputably entertaining.


fred's hand signals


MGM’s DVD version is, unfortunately and rather inexplicably, in full screen version only with no accompanying bonus features.


3/10 : Some violence and chopsocky; just a bit of blood


3/10 : Occasional minor profanity



1/10 : Fleeting sexual references, but not even a bit of romance – which is a actually a good thing


6/10 : Though imperfect, this is a definite step above the usual moronic ’80s action vehicle


“If I’m the best you could find, you’re in pretty deep shit, pal.”

Treasure? If you say so…if you say so…LEGEND OF THE SUPERSTITION MOUNTAINS

LEGEND OF THE SUPERSTITION MOUNTAINS on History Channel


(2/5)

Pros: The myths surrounding this mountain range are fascinating…

Cons: …but watching a group of half-assed treasure hunters struggle through them is not.

In the past couple of years, History Channel seems to have decided that America Unearthed could be used as much as the next show as the inspiration for a whole lineup of new programs (to be honest, after a block of shows more or less inspired by Ancient Aliens, the change is not entirely unwelcome). 2014 saw the debut of The Curse of Oak Island and Search for the Lost Giants, a pair of reality television programs that played more like protracted treasure hunts than genuine documentaries. That trend has continued into 2015 with the February premiere of Legend of the Superstition Mountains, a show in which a group of would-be prospectors head into the Arizona desert in search of the infamous Lost Dutchman gold mine.

ominous music playing
*ominous music playing*

takes its name from a 19th German immigrant named Jacob Waltz, who supposedly stumbled upon an incredibly rich mine, which may have originally belonged to a group of Mexican prospectors, in the mountainous desert east of Phoenix. After a deathbed confession in which Waltz revealed cryptic clues about the whereabouts of the mine, various adventurers made it their goal to find it, using an odd stone map as a guide or at least, starting point. Many of these adventurers never returned – Indian attacks, mysterious disappearances, and general mayhem loom large in the mythology of the Superstition Mountains and the mine reported to lie within them. Though many historians have disputed various facts relating to the mine’s existence, interest in this lost treasure has persisted to this day…which is where the new History Channel program comes in.

grave of the deutschman himself
The grave of the lost Deutschman himself, Jacob Waltz.

Essentially a replication of the basic formula of The Curse of Oak Island, Legend of the Superstition Mountains follows an eclectic team of would-be treasure hunters on their search to discover the location of the gold mine. Leading the expedition is Wayne Tuttle, who has been researching the mine for decades. Though somewhat wary of recruiting others join him, for the purposes of the program, Tuttle has enlisted the help of police detective-turned-treasure hunter Frank Augustine, seasoned gold miner Woody Hampler, self-proclaimed “rock hound” Eric Deleel, and “tech expert” Eric Magnuson. Because, you know, a show about a single dude looking for gold would be boring. Inevitably, conflict arises among the team (in the first episode, the main problem seems to be Woody’s frail physical condition, which makes the hike into the remote wilderness increasingly difficult), but the show also (perhaps over-)emphasizes the potential lack of trust between Tuttle and Augustine. Augustine has in his possession a replica of a “tesoro map” which he believes will lead to the treasure, but whether or not anyone can believe his claims that various landmarks the team encounters are the same ones apparently referenced on his map is anyone’s guess.

physical similarities
Despite some striking physical similarities, even the show’s “wildcard” character Woody don’t got nothing on the genuinely disturbed but somehow entertaining Face from Alaska Monsters.

Like most of History Channel’s pseudo-documentary reality shows of recent times (Oak Island and Lost Giants in particular), Legend of the Superstition Mountains is likely to get really good only when something of legitimate value is discovered. Walking around in the desert speculating about what may lie over “that there ridge” can only sustain viewer interest for so long and this program isn’t nearly as outwardly entertaining as the clinically moronic likes of the typical monster hunt show. Superstition Mountain’s first episode culminated in the team locating the “heart-shaped rock” depicted on the tesoro map – which Augustine promptly declares as having a carved ‘X’ on it. This whole scenario left me more than a little skeptical – and not only because the rock didn’t appear to me to look “heart-shaped” at all. In the same way that a group of morons literally bumping uglies with various legendary beasts on shows like Mountain Monsters seems blatantly fabricated, it seems very unlikely that a team of half-assed adventurers (who supposedly have been searching for the Lost Dutchman mine for decades) would miraculously stumble onto the correct location of the treasure now that a TV crew has been entrenched with them. Also, if they found the mine that quickly, it wouldn’t make for much of a series, would it?

put that down!
Hey, put that down! We can’t find gold until at least the season one finale!

In the same way that the Curse of Oak Island show constantly reminds a viewer of the curse which supposedly dictates that “one more will have to die before the island reveals its secrets,” Legend of the Superstition Mountains makes sure that a viewer is well-aware of the bloody, mysterious history of the region. This tendency reaches an almost ridiculous level when the producers decide to include occasional, numbered “Mysterious Death” segments in which we’re told about one or another person who died while searching for the treasure. Since there’s no hard evidence to back up any of these stories, I think taking them with a grain of salt is probably the best option: traversing the Arizona desert can be hazardous for any number of reasons, most of which probably have precisely nothing to do with any sort of “curse.” You’ve got to hand it to the show’s producers though for making what could have been a pretty tiresome, bland program as sensational as possible – History’s team of video editors have their reality TV formula down pat at this point.

the whole gang
The whole gang settles down for a little fireside chat.

Even if this series would be at least somewhat worthwhile if the team does in fact eventually find treasure, for the time being, we’re left with a slickly-produced but undeniably manipulative show that pushes a viewer’s suspension of disbelief – to say nothing of his patience – to the breaking point. Like The Curse of Oak Island, the basic premise of Legend of the Superstition Mountains simply doesn’t seem all that compelling – not when individual episodes would likely revolve mostly around a rather dull group of guys hiking through the desert bickering about what may be “out there.” The presence of the camera crew tells me that the sense of danger in the program has been greatly exaggerated – I really doubt anyone is going to run out of food or water or be attacked by mountain cannibals – and since there’s virtually no honest evidence backing up any of the program’s claims, most viewers would undoubtedly be better off waiting for a Eureka moment which may or may not ever actually turn up. Fascinating though the myths of the Superstition Mountains are, this reality show based on them is strictly par for the course – a passable time-waster perhaps, but perfectly skippable.

Uninspired by a True Story! THE WHALE: REVENGE FROM THE DEEP

THE WHALE: REVENGE FROM THE DEEP on Animal Planet

(2/5)

Pros: First half isn’t bad; nice sense of what whaling was like; interesting original story

Cons: The film as a whole is woefully uninspired – particularly during a deadly second half

A British-American co-production based on the true story that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick, the 2014 made-for-cable production The Whale: Revenge from the Deep (also known simply as Revenge of the Whale) tells the tale of the Nantucket-based whaling ship Essex, which sank in the Pacific Ocean after being rammed by a sperm whale. Obviously influenced heavily by the classic 1956 filmed version of Melville’s novel, director Alrick Riley, working from a script by Terry Cafolla, initially sets the picture up as a rousing tale of adventure on the high seas, introducing us to a “greenhorn” sailor named Thomas Nickerson who signs up as the cabin boy on board the Essex in 1820. Captained by George Pollard, Jr. who draws the ire of some of his crew due to his inexperience at the helm, the vessel sets sail for the Pacific in search of large whale pods. Upon finding and harvesting several of the creatures, the once-mutinous crew is momentarily pacified, but disaster strikes when one whale charges the ship, sending it to the bottom in a matter of minutes. Now the remaining crew, clinging to life in a trio of small and rickety whaleboats (which are essentially, glorified rowboats), try and survive as their supplies run dangerously low – and their morale starts to disintegrate.


A handful of action sequences exist early on – but they’re sorely needed during the film’s painfully dull second half.

Premiering on the Animal Planet channel in late 2014, The Whale has numerous elements both good and bad. On the plus side, the production as a whole looks marvelous. A viewer really gets a nice sense through the first half of the film of what it was like to be a sailor during the golden age of whaling. Cafolla’s script represents everyday life on board a whaling vessel well enough and the photography effectively captures both the freedom of the open sea and the grimy conditions on the lower decks on the ship. While the film doesn’t show any whales actually being killed, in detailing the grisly process of harvesting the creatures, it very nearly plays like a horror flick for brief periods: flesh is sliced up, guts are thrown around, and blood rains down on crew members, presumably from the blowholes of dying marine mammals. Though this gore might turn off some viewers, the film is actually quite restrained compared to how gruesome it could have been. Acting here is fairly decent if unexceptional: Charles Furness stars as young Nickerson, Jonas Armstrong as the wily first mate Owen Chase, and Adam Rayner as Captain Pollard, who eventually starts to realize he’s in way over his head. Honestly, I was more impressed by the supporting players who, in portraying a rather colorful group of peripheral characters, add significant authenticity to the proceedings.

ah yes
As might be expected from a TV movie, there’s some racial commentary thrown in for added poignancy.

The most glaring problem for me was the script, which played out in a manner that was all-too-familiar to anyone who’s seen a sailing/pirate movie or three and had way, way too much “padding.” As might be expected, there’s a “journey into manhood” aspect to the story since Nickerson literally grows up on board the Essex, but even more than this, writer Cafolla inserts minimal imagination into the mix: he may as well have gone down a checklist of cliché elements to include here in one shape or form. Considering the film’s title and its marketing, it’s odd that so much of the story revolves not around more action-oriented sequences or even the whales themselves, but instead around the predictable power struggle between first mate Chase and Captain Pollard. The sequence in which the boat is sunk – a moment that could have been a legitimate highlight – is so poorly executed that it comes across as an almost incidental, “blink and you miss it” event.

real dangers
Bearing in mind the very real dangers associated with whaling (to say nothing of the fascinating factual basis), I might have expected this film to be more exciting – or at the very least, capable of holding a viewer’s attention.  Sadly, it’s not the case.

Following the actual sinking, any kind of momentum or energy in the film swiftly vanishes. We’re left with a familiar and painfully dull tale of survival against all odds. Since we’re sure from the start that at least the main character survives (the story presented in the film is, as was the case in Moby Dick, told in hindsight from the perspective of an older incarnation of Nickerson, played by Martin “I’m here for the paycheck” Sheen), at least some of the underlying tension in the piece is nullified. In films like the newer Star Wars entries, even though most viewers would know that Obi-Wan Kenobi survived the predicaments he was getting himself into, the story was strong enough to sustain viewer interest, but in the case of The Whale, finding out how Nickerson survives this ordeal is tedious and largely pointless. Director Riley seems to have no clue how to get some wind back in the sails, and even the touches of style he demonstrated during film’s first half are nowhere to be found down the line. As if this isn’t bad enough, at a certain point, it seems as though the director had reached his contractually-stipulated time requirement and things are finished up quickly in a tidy, none-too-satisfying manner.

...and don't you forget it!
…and don’t you forget it!

Ultimately, even if The Whale: Revenge from the Deep has some good elements and moments (for instance, an underwater ballet of sorts between Nickerson and a computer-generated whale is pretty cool, and the music score by Debbie Wiseman and Richard Fiocca nicely establishes mood), there are simply too many missteps made by the director and writer for it to seem like a worthwhile expenditure of time. Instead of a thrilling sea adventure, a viewer is treated to an exhausting and lifeless survival drama. “Ominous” shots of whales gliding through the sea which pop up during the film’s second half appear to have been thrown in as a corny afterthought, hinting at the lack of creativity and inspiration which went into the production and don’t so much seem threatening as remind a viewer of what he probably would have wanted from the film in the first place. This may have worked as a hour-long made-for-TV program, but as a two-hour feature, it’s disappointing. Viewers would be much better off re-watching (or – imagine this – reading) Moby Dick than trying to slog through this: I’d skip it.

if only...
If only…if only…


Not available on home video to the best of my knowledge.


3/10 : Shows the gruesome reality of whaling seen in brief snippets and also features implied cannibalism


3/10 : No outright profanity, but plenty of rough language from a colorful bunch of sailors

hi ho!

0/10 : This is perhaps the most chaste band of seadogs ever.


2/10 : The basic story of the Essex is compelling. This film is not.


“There is a darkness blacker than the blackest night. Blacker than greed even. When it bites, it eats you alive. It wasn’t the sea or the elements – it was ourselves.”

“It Wasn’t a Man…It was One of Them…” ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU

ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU

(2/5)

Pros: Allison Hayes! A few moments both comical and creepy

Cons: Clumsy script never is able to build adequate (or really, any) suspense

An old-school zombie movie if there ever was one, 1957’s Zombies of Mora Tau deals with a group of American treasure hunters trying to recover a cache of diamonds from a shipwreck located just off the African coast. The financier of the operation named George Harrison (rimshot please!) and his wife Mona have been joined by a professional diver named Jeff, who’s job it is to actually bring the stones to the surface, and a doctor who’s planning on writing a book about the whole thing – but they all get more than they bargained for when it becomes apparent that tales of a curse surrounding the diamonds are true. The sunken treasure is protected by a group of undead sailors who went down with the vessel in the first place, and these zombies cause problems at every turn – not only for the dive itself, but also for the obligatory romance that starts up between Jeff and a local girl named Jan Peters, whose elderly grandmother is the only one who seems to know how to control and defeat the zombies.

zombies!
Though the creatures are decidedly non-threatening, several sequences involving the zombies are actually pretty neat.

Directed by Edward L. Cahn (longtime director of short subjects and B-movies who would make IT! The Terror from Beyond Space the following year) from a script by George H. Plympton and Bernard Gordon, Zombies of Mora Tau suffers considerably from not having enough action or suspense to fill even its thankfully brief 70-minute run time. The picture doesn’t waste time dropping a viewer into the fray right off the bat, but doesn’t quite seem to know where to go from there since it’s built around a predictable, clumsily-concocted scenario into which nary a smidgen of logic seems to intrude. Though I was moderately impressed with some of the sets and locations seen in the picture (the jungles actually look pretty convincing) and found the way in which the production managed to create the illusion of underwater sequences without leaving the studio to be clever, any semblance of technical quality is undermined by a nearly endless string of poorly-executed day-for-night shots, to say nothing of the disconnected insert close-ups that positively ruin the continuity of any and all underwater sequences.

This never
As everyone knows, underwater fist-fights will never be as cool as a real zombie attacking a fake shark…

One of (if not) the only reason why Zombies of Mora Tau has achieved some semblance of a cult following over the years is because it features Allison Hayes in a major role. Best known for starring in the title role of 1958’s trash classic , the voluptuous Hayes was a one-time model who eventually made her way to Hollywood only to be featured in a string of low-budget genre flicks and television productions before some incredibly unfortunate health problems cut short her career. Though Hayes never quite achieved a breakthrough moment that would have made her a star, she’s managed to attract a cult of admirers none the less due to her undeniable sex appeal and the fact that all her performances are downright fun to watch. This is certainly the case with regard to her work in Zombies of Mora Tau in which she plays the devious Mona.


My my, Allison…

Cackling and barking out her lines while threatening to literally bust out of the tight tops she’s wearing, Hayes (whose character “learned her manners as a hostess in Eddie’s Front Street Saloon”) is front and center for all the film’s best moments, carrying on a sort of war of words not only with her aloof husband George (played by Joel Ashley) but also the wholesome Jan (a part performed by the wide-eyed Autumn Russell). Eventually Mona, chest heaving as she hyperventilates and scowls, comes to blows with her husband (George explains that he’s giving her “the only message she understands…”), yet no one seems to mind the peace and quiet provided when she vanishes from the narrative for a few minutes. Once the writers realize they need some sort of conflict down the stretch (this before a tiresome climax and plain dumb ending), Mona re-emerges when it becomes apparent that she now (duh!) needs rescued from the zombies’ underground lair. Again, no one is ever going to confuse this film with a masterwork in terms of its script development.

A suspenseful masterwork this isn't
Nope, this is not quite the suspenseful masterpiece one would want…

Try as Hayes might however, nothing can save this film from the fact that it’s never, ever suspenseful. Downright creepy shots of the zombies amassing in their dark, subterranean catacomb or stumbling out of an otherwise tranquil lake are utterly wasted when it becomes clear that these beings (who universally appear stone-faced and glassy-eyed) are not threatening in the least – not even the one with the pro wrestler physique and horseshoe haircut and not even when they’re engaging in slow-motion underwater fist-fights. It’s never quite revealed how these zombies could/would eliminate their enemies (or why in the hell they’d want to kidnap either of the two women apparently just to throw them on the cold, dirty floor of their crypt), yet a viewer is supposed to buy into the hysterical fits of fear that these “fiends” inspire in their supposed victims. Sorry, but it just doesn’t work, and the purported highpoints of this film are further mitigated by a dull soundtrack from Mischa Bakaleinikoff. On the other hand, the film’s “action scenes” do occasionally offer up a bit of amusement, such as when Gregg Palmer’s heroic Jeff character receives a couple of stiff, clubbing overhand blows from the aforementioned “Horseshoe Haircut Harvey” ghoul or when Captain George finds out that zombies will “no-sell” any amount of punches coming their way.


Sad thing is, I had a similar glassy stare by the time this flick was over…

OK, you got me. I’m pulling for straws on this one: there’s really not that much here, even for those who get a kick out of bad movies. The somnambulistic “Zombies of Mora Tau” can’t hold a candle to the cannibalistic ones which would appear and positively dominate movie screens from the late ‘60s onward. That said, I could think of worse ways to spend 70 minutes than watching this overwhelmingly mediocre but nevertheless agreeable ‘50s “shocker.” It’s not quite on a level with the best of the worst films out there, but those who would watch something like this in the first place may just find it to be an acceptable time-waster.

arg!


Released as part of Sony Pictures’ Sam Katzman: Icons of Horror Box Set. This package includes a trio of other schlocky gems: 1955’s Creature with the Atom Brain, 1957’s The Werewolf, and arguably the cream of the crop, 1957’s The Giant Claw. All four films are presented in full-frame format, with a variety of trailers and a trio of short subjects as extras. While this set would have precisely no appeal to those looking for good movies, it would be most enjoyable for fans of jaw-dropping B flicks.


2/10 : A knife to the throat of a zombie has little effect and produces no blood


1/10 : No profanity, but plenty of bad attitude


2/10 : Allison Hayes parading about in some of the tightest sweaters imaginable


3/10 : Sure, it’s a zombie flick and it does have amusement value, but most people will find this to be dull.


“Only fools are afraid of the grave…there are worse things…”

Trailer:

…or watch the whole damn thing (with intro by Robert Osborne!):

A Thorough, Well-Organized Examination of Everest’s Tragic 2006 Season: DARK SUMMIT by Nick Heil

DARK SUMMIT: THE TRUE STORY OF EVEREST’S MOST CONTROVERSIAL SEASON by Nick Heil

(3.5/5)

Pros: Covers the 2006 season – and its numerous tragedies – quite well

Cons: Not as commanding as some of the other books relating to this topic

Yet another book based around stories of triumph and ultimately tragedy set on the world’s highest mountain, Nick Heil’s 2008 Dark Summit: The True Story of Everest’s Most Controversial Season, like the 2007 documentary film , focuses on the 2006 climbing season in which eleven persons died. It was during this time that dozens of climbers passed stricken British climber David Sharp in the upper elevations without stopping to offer help. When word of Sharp’s death reached news outlets, a massive firestorm ignited: how could human beings – let alone those in the once-noble pursuit of mountain climbing – literally walk over another man in desperate need of aid? Had “summit fever” become so prevalent and overwhelming that actual human lives were of secondary concern?

crowds
Crowded conditions on Everest have been an underlying cause of many problems in recent years. Looking at this picture, it’s not hard to understand why.

Heil’s book doesn’t so much examine these tough questions as provide a journalistic examination of the whole of events from the north side of the mountain in 2006, starting with an introduction to the various major players in that year’s climbing season. As with most other years, this year saw a number of commercial expeditions on the mountain: these outfits operate as “for hire” treks in which clients (some of whom are woefully unequipped for the task of climbing a 29,000 foot mountain) pay for a guided ascent up the mountain in which all (or at least some) of the logistics are taken care of. Though signing up with a commercial operation doesn’t guarantee a summit for every individual climber, the chances of surviving the attempt are much higher when meals, shelter, oxygen, and tactical support are provided by an experienced organizer. Unfortunately, some of the commercial operations aren’t as thorough as others, and the one David Sharp signed up with in 2006 provided him with little more than a permit to climb and transportation from Kathmandu, Nepal to the Himalaya.

Mind you, having a “barebones” climb isn’t necessarily a fatal proposition. After all, Sharp was an experienced climber who had been to Everest twice before, and who had purposely signed up for a climb which tested his mettle and endurance. When things went wrong in the higher altitudes however, Sharp had precisely no one looking out for him – or anyone that was even aware that his life was in serious jeopardy. By the time he was found after spending the night exposed at 28,200 feet, there was little anyone could have done to save him or bring him down from the mountain.

green boots
The infamous “green boots” cave, named after the footwear on the dead body which sits outside it, is where David Sharp spent his last hours.

Along with the story of Sharp, Heil also chronicles some of the other tragic and near tragic events that occurred on the north side of the mountain that year. Among them was the story of German climber Thomas Weber, who had signed up with a better-equipped commercial expedition but was harboring a bit of a secret: he had an unusual medical condition in which high altitudes caused him to become blind. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that this is not a good proposition – not when one is already facing a rigorous, exhausting climb through terrain that’s confined and treacherous. Arguably the most baffling story chronicled in Dark Summit is the story of Australian climber Lincoln Hall: a very experienced mountaineer who nonetheless become disabled on the mountain (likely due to the debilitating effects high altitude has on the human body) and was left for dead. Only one of these tales has a “happy ending” of sorts, but both make for fascinating reading.

Weber
Thomas Weber on the way up. He wouldn’t come back down…

Compared to other books I’ve read about Everest, Dark Summit is a bit of a different animal. For one, this book is one of the few told from the perspective of an outsider – author Heil wasn’t actually on the mountain that year and isn’t telling his personal story in the text. This fact alone separates his book different from the likes of Jon Krakauer’s best-selling Into Thin Air, which told a first-hand account of the infamous and utterly disastrous 1996 Everest climbing season, and Michael Kodas’ , which related both the author’s personal experience on the mountain in 2004 as well as the story of an ill-fated elderly Bolivian-American climber who signed up with the wrong guide to lead him to the summit. Though there’s quite a bit of crossover between Heil’s book and Kodas’ (particularly in terms of the personnel involved), the tone of the two books is dissimilar: Heil’s is much more a blow-by-blow chronological third-person account of the 2006 season, while Kodas’ first-person account of his experience in 2004 is combined with an after-the-fact examination of what happened in 2006. I found that High Crimes ultimately had more of an explicit point to make (considering the book’s subtitle “The Fate of Everest in the Age of Greed,” this probably isn’t surprising), while Dark Summit leaves the reader to interpret its “message.”

second step
The treacherous “Second Step” on the way to the summit.

As is the case with most books about mountaineering in general and Everest in particular, Heil devotes a decent amount of time in an early chapter to chronicling exploration of the Himalaya. This crash-course history of Everest mountaineering is very nicely done, discussing early geographical surveys and summit attempts. It’s always amazing to be reminded of the story of British eccentric (and highly inexperienced mountaineer and aviator) , who in 1933-34 illegally flew a plane into India, forced his way into Nepal, then attempted to scramble up Everest before succumbing to starvation and exhaustion at the frankly astonishing altitude of 22,000 feet. Many of these early expedition stories foreshadow the tragedies that the reader will find later on in the text. There’s a nice attention to detail throughout the book (which has more than a few disturbing elements – the story of climbers high on the mountain being sent up an oxygen rig with the nose of its previous user literally still stuck in the facemask is absolutely cringe-worthy), especially when Heil details the way in which high altitude affects the human body. This information makes the plight of the characters more real and is absolutely critical when trying to understand the situation regarding David Sharp’s death in particular: while high altitude rescue is feasible under certain conditions, it’s nearly impossible to lug someone who is essentially immobile down from above the 28,000 foot mark.

sharp's marker
Sharp’s marker among other memorials at the base of the mountain.

On the downside, Dark Summit is never nearly as arresting as Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, and at least part of that is due to its more clinical and less personal nature. While Heil makes every attempt to get the reader into the minds of his characters – especially when detailing the situation faced by Lincoln Hall, who found himself delusional and alone high on the mountain, some of these descriptive attempts simply don’t work and there’s a sense of detachment throughout the book. I also have to say that Heil seems to assume that the reader has a basic, working knowledge of mountaineering. Some of the terminology used and references made are never adequate explained in my opinion, and this makes his book mostly unacceptable as an entry-level text for those interested in its subject. Finally, since memory is severely compromised when the human body finds itself at high altitudes, piecing together a genuinely accurate account of the events detailed in this book is positively impossible. Even if Heil made every attempt to corroborate stories, there are sections of this book in which a sort of personal agenda seems evident. To be fair, every book about mountaineering suffers from this same problem, but it’s still not a good thing.

not sketchy at all

Despite the handful of problems however, I thought Dark Summit was extremely well-organized and written capably. I liked the fact that, although it hinted at the author’s perspective regarding the events of 2006, it more or less left it up to the reader to determine his or her own opinion. This isn’t among the best books about mountaineering that I’ve read, but like High Crimes, it is a solid second-tier effort that should satisfy those who enjoy these sorts of stories. Running around 250 pages and containing a section of full-color photographs in its hardcover edition, Dark Summit is a fairly easy read that I’d have no problem recommending.

Is the view worth it? You be the judge…

Where in the World is Josh Gates? EXPEDITION UNKNOWN

EXPEDITION UNKNOWN on Travel Channel

(3.5/5)

Pros: Entertaining and enjoyable, with some educational value tossed in for good measure

Cons: SURPRISE! The show doesn’t conclusively prove anything

Premiering in 2007 and running for a full five seasons, Syfy Channel’s Destination Truth can now be regarded as one of the best paranormal (and more specifically monster hunt) series ever produced. Centering on archaeologist/explorer/adventurer Josh Gates and his quest to identify mythical cryptids (i.e. unknown creatures) and uncover strange phenomena in various locations around the world, the show was part travelogue, part speculative documentary with its best trait being that it didn’t bullshit its audience. If Gates and his revolving crew of companions didn’t find anything, they didn’t try and convince the viewer they did. Regardless of whether anything unusual was encountered on the average Destination Truth episode however, the program was consistently entertaining…and not nearly as moronic as the current wave of monster-related cable programming. Hell, you’d think DT was made for intellectuals when comparing it to the likes of Alaska Monsters, which serve up the lowest common denominator of entertainment.

Gates in Peru
Gates in Machu Picchu – there certainly plenty of subject matter for this new series.

In 2014, Gates confirmed that Destination Truth had in fact run its course after a couple year hiatus, but this wasn’t the end of the line for Gates in the genre of the speculative documentary. I have to admit I was pretty stoked when I heard that Travel Channel had ordered a new series in which Gates would investigate various “iconic mysteries” (whatever that means) – the new show was entitled Expedition Unknown and debuted in early January 2015, with its first two-hour episode dealing with the search for clues in the disappearance of famed aviator (the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic). Arguably one of the most widely-known and enigmatic missing persons cases in the world, the Earhart disappearance has captivated the public for more than seventy years: while attempting to fly around the world on an equatorial route in a twin-engine Lockheed Electra, Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan vanished while flying from Papua New Guinea to small Howland Island in the Pacific. Despite a massive Naval search, no trace of Earhart, Noonan, or the plane has ever been conclusively found, leading to not only to endless speculation about her ultimate fate but also to numerous, conspiracy theories.

Earhart
New evidence may solve the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance. Or not…

Inspired by some “new” evidence, the debut episode of Expedition Unknown follows Gates on a journey to various Pacific locales in search of what may have been Earhart’s final resting place. As mentioned, many theories exist about where Earhart’s plane may have gone down – all of which assume that the official story that the plane was ditched and sank in the ocean near Howland Island was somehow false. In any case, Gates begins by investigating a theory stating that Earhart somehow circled back to Papua New Guinea and follows up on reports of plane wreckage in the remote jungles of the island nation. Despite the fact that stumbling on these crash sites would be akin to locating a needle in a haystack, Gates actually does find a downed plane – though it turns out to be a Japanese craft likely lost during the second World War. Continuing on, Gates scans the ocean bottom off the coast of the island of New Britain in search of other crash sites, locating additional WWII wrecks including one that appears to still have the bodies of its pilots strapped in the cockpit. The second major theory investigated in the episode examines the notion that Earhart and Noonan actually made it to uninhabited Nikumaroro island, where unknown human remains were discovered in the ‘40s and subsequently taken to Fiji for analysis. Attempting to locate these skeletal remains in Fiji, Gates is eventually led to the crawlspace under a house where he discovers human bone fragments…

random bone fragments
Random bone fragments under random house in Fiji…wait a minute…THEY MUST BE AMELIA EARHART’S!

Like Gates’ previous program, Expedition Unknown stands as a cross between a travel video that’s filmed in exotic and and a speculative documentary centered around increasingly eyebrow-raising theories. Clearly, Gates and his production team have the basic formula for this show down pat: though the production seems somewhat more modest than what was featured in the typical episode of Destination Truth, Expedition Unknown is more polished and focused, at least in this initial episode. I rather liked the moments in which glimpses of the local cultures of Papua New Guinea and Fiji were seen as Gates continues his investigation; these sequences arguably provide the most memorable moments from the episode including one where a small but powerful earthquake strikes while Gates is conducting an interview with a native chief. Even if the moments in which Gates has to conduct some sort of “welcoming ritual” to be accepted by various local peoples seem quite cliché and, honestly, ridiculous, it’s neat to be able to see how life operates in these remote corners of the globe nonetheless. Photography throughout the program is pretty outstanding and looks professional – especially compared to the shakycam overload that the majority of the reality/monster hunt shows on cable nowadays rely on. The producers and editors do a fine job of capturing the look and feel of the places Gates travels to, and I was particularly awed by images of the (smoldering) volcanoes which exist in the area around New Britain (an island in Papua New Guinea).

places I'd rather be
Places I’d rather be: this show features many of them.

As was the case in Destination Truth, Expedition Unknown goes out of its way to not only hold a viewer’s interest, but also to keep him entertained. There’s plenty of humor present in the program – most of which comes from the quick-witted commentary of Gates himself. Perpetually good-natured with a never-ending enthusiasm, Gates is the ideal host for a program like this, ensuring a viewer remains captivated throughout since he puts forth a nice balance of more light-hearted, comical material and cold, hard facts. One could easily point out that nothing overly dramatic or mind-blowing happens during the course of this initial episode, and I don’t think I’m spoiling the show by saying that Gates doesn’t conclusively prove anything relating to Earhart’s disappearance. Nevertheless, the editing of the program generates a nice sense of forward momentum while emphasizing a few minor cliffhangers (which conveniently appear right before commercial breaks).

culture
What would a globe-trotting documentary be without the obligatory “I must become one of the tribe” sequence?



On the downside, those looking for a more straight-forward, “lets stick to the facts” program will likely be less-than enthused about the format of this show. Clearly, this show is more entertainment than education, though it’s excellent as a combination of these two things – a viewer does get a crash course history of Earhart’s life and flying career for instance. I could also point out that the episode’s final segment – in which human remains are uncovered in the foundation of a Fijian residence – in all likelihood has absolutely nothing to do with the Earhart disappearance. To some extent, I can see how more outrageous, sensational material like this is almost necessary in modern speculative documentary programming (how else could the comparatively sober and documentary-like Expedition Unknown compete with the likes of the ridiculously absurd Mountain Monsters and the like?), but throwing in this climax that seems to have little to do with the subject of (or frankly, the rest of ) the episode nonetheless remains somewhat sketchy. Finally, I should point out that this show (like Destination Truth before it) sometimes feels like one big ego trip for Gates, showing how “cool” and “hip” he is. Over time, I think one warms up to the host, his humor and style, but I could see some people being turned off by his approach (as I was when I first saw Destination Truth years ago).

Future episodes
Who knows what future episodes of the series will bring, but I’m cautiously optimistic.

Ultimately, the problem with this show (and many others of its kind) is that no major revelation comes out of it – but that’s strictly par for the course these days. Expedition Unknown is perfectly agreeable for what it is: an entertaining and enjoyable program that attempts to shed light on mysterious places and events while following its host around the world. It may be too jokey for some, but I think this show has just the right amount of fun and fact, making its subject matter tolerable for those who wouldn’t otherwise watch an “educational” program. I’ll be interested to see what direction this first season heads in since there are so many potential topics out there for the show to explore, but at this early juncture, I’m calling the series worthwhile and recommended.

“Not a Place Where a Human Being Should Be…” The EATEN ALIVE Documentary

EATEN ALIVE on Discovery Channel

(4.5/5)

Pros: Pretty intense jungle hunt, good insight into snake anatomy and behavior, finale is kinda crazy

Cons: The misleading ad campaign apparently pissed some people on the internet off.  SURPRISE!  It’s worth keeping in mind that this is a documentary, not a carnival sideshow.

Proving that alongside all the reality TV bunk and staged and/or speculative programming, Discovery Channel still can make outstanding legitimate documentaries, 2014’s Eaten Alive special has to be one of the more jaw-dropping things the channel has aired. This two-hour program followed snake expert/conservationist/explorer Paul Rosalie into the deepest, darkest corner of the Peruvian Amazon in search of a huge green anaconda known locally as the “Chu’ mana.” Though Rosalie’s main goal was to prove that such a creature could and in fact does exist in this untouched habitat, as the title of the program suggests, there was an ulterior motive to the snake hunt. Having constructed a suit specially designed to withstand the constricting coils of a thirty-foot snake, Rosalie intended to capture one of these beasts and offer himself up as prey to demonstrate the truly awesome abilities of this apex predator.

snake
“Aww, that’s just a baby…”

The first ninety minutes of so of Eaten Alive however plays more like a jungle adventure than a sensational program about a dude getting eaten by a huge serpent. Rosalie, his wife, and a team of researchers, trail guides, and animal trackers head well off the beaten path in search of the virtually unexplored region of the Amazon known as the “Floating Forest,” made up of small, spongy islands floating on a pitch black bog some thirty feet deep. The fact that palm trees growing here barely peek above the water level gives some indication of the make-up of his swampy area, and it’s full of hazards both in terms of its unstable terrain and the various animals that live here. Aside from being prime breeding ground for anacondas, the swamp is teeming with poisonous spiders, snakes, and caiman, seeming to be about the last place any expedition would really want to camp out. Regardless, Rosalie and his team set about exploring the area in search of signs that large snakes are on the prowl – and wind up tracking down several of the creatures.

insane
Jumping into this mud bog in an attempt to wrestle a thirty-foot anaconda? Not sure that’s such a good idea…

Edited in such a way to both accentuate the dangers of the Amazon and heighten the tension as the team tries to stay alive within it, the indisputable highlights of the first half of the show deal with various, hairy encounters with Amazonian wildlife. At one point, while traversing through a chest-deep creek, the team stumbles on an electric eel ready to throw a charge that could measure six hundred volts their way. This situation hammers home the notion that even when there’s not a large predator of the reptilian variety around, traipsing through the Amazon is incredibly dangerous. The situation only gets worse once the team reaches the “Floating Forest.” Here, they first square off against a twelve foot snake, then one measuring just under twenty feet in length, before finally wrestling with one that could top out at thirty feet long. Even with the smallest of these animals, it’s readily apparent how powerful anaconda really are, and when Rosalie dives headfirst into the pitch black waters of the swamp in pursuit of an animal that’s the size of a bus and could literally swallow him whole, I was forced to come to the conclusion that the man may be entirely certifiable.


Now that is a big ass snake!

The portion of Eaten Alive in which the team attempts to corral a large snake is filmed and edited exceedingly well, often filmed from the first-person perspective, literally putting the viewer in the middle of the action. There are many absolutely astonishing, breath-taking views of essentially unexplored parts of the Amazon; these places aren’t areas that most people would ever want to visit due to the extreme risk involved in exploring them, but they are without doubt stunningly beautiful to look at. There’s even a few moments here that could be genuinely unsettling: in one instance, the camera pans around the bog at night to reveal dozens of glowing caiman eyes glaring at the team members. Along with the solid filmmaking involved, I also really appreciated the fact that various herpetologists (i.e. reptile experts) intermittently provide explanations and insight into the anatomy and behavior of the anacondas the team is searching for. There are some really nifty computer animations demonstrating how anacondas first kill and then devour and digest their prey, and though it’s not the most pleasant thing to hear about, the entire process is fascinating and pretty darn amazing. Along the way, we also get some brief background into legends and myths about giant serpents and, in case the documentary isn’t outrageous or fast-paced enough for viewers raised on a steady string of consistently bonkers reality TV, one segment deals with constrictor attacks on humans. A rather startling actual photograph of a large python devouring a Malaysian man is about the most eye-opening thing in the documentary…at least until the final twenty minutes or so.

I don’t think I’m especially giving anything away by revealing that Rosalie and the expedition team don’t actually succeed in capturing the thirty-foot monster anaconda during the course of this program (honestly, I don’t know how they ever expected to do this in the first place), but that failure doesn’t mean that the genuinely insane stunt/experiment at this program’s center doesn’t take place. Though Rosalie has to settle for an especially aggressive twenty foot anaconda instead of the thirty-footer he’d hoped to find, he nevertheless does don the elaborate snake-proof suit and allows the reptile to attempt to devour him. And this is where Eaten Alive attempts a level of jaw-dropping spectacle that few programs on television these days come close to despite their best, most desperate attempts.

Suit
Rosalie, on the left wearing the snake-proof suit, attempting to goad a twenty-foot specimen into attacking him

It’s pretty remarkable to see how even this comparatively smaller animal is able to pin down a fit adult human male, going so far as to start to wrap its expanding jaws around the oversized helmet that Rosalie is wearing. The fact that I would think that the creature at some point must have realized that this thing in its mouth wasn’t especially edible makes the footage included in this documentary all the more shocking: views directly into the gullet of an anaconda could potentially be quite creepy. It’s not difficult to imagine a snake being able to fully devour a human after watching this program: in the same way that Discovery Channel’s Shark Week seems a bit suspect in its supposed goal of advocating for shark conservation even though it focuses heavily on stories of shark attacks, I’m not sure that Eaten Alive is the best way to get the word out about saving the Amazonian snake habitat. Still, I guess any program that gets easily distracted American viewers at all interested in nature is better than nothing, right?

eaten-alive
Rosalie in the clutches of the snake.

OK OK, so a dude isn’t actually devoured then regurgitated by a huge snake during the course of this show, but honestly, did anyone actually expect that that would happen?   If so, the ad campaign worked flawlessly.  Even though it doesn’t completely follow through on its main selling point, Eaten Alive was positively compelling viewing that only seemed to get more unbelievable as time went on. The jungle adventure portion of the program is quite interesting in and of itself, providing plenty of moments to disturb those afraid of creepy crawlies or large reptiles, but when the program switches gears and focuses its attention on the promise of showing a man being attacked and very nearly eaten by a large anaconda, it reaches another level of fascinating spectacle. It’s a program like this that reminded me how rewarding legitimate documentaries can be, and I have to wonder why Discovery has become more reliant on obviously fabricated programming in recent years. If they are perfectly capable of making a jaw-dropping, positively authentic show like this that’s both extremely entertaining and quite educational, what’s the point of programming like Russian Yeti, Megalodon, or Shark of Darkness that do little more than test the gullibility of viewers? In any case, I’m hoping Discovery makes more programs like this in the future: I have a much easier time getting behind something real than the load of malarkey that the channel sometimes passes off as fact. Eaten Alive comes highly recommended.

“The Lord is Sabata…” The Polished but Familiar Sequel ADIÓS, SABATA

ADIÓS, SABATA

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(2.5/5)

Pros: Memorable ending, quirky details and a nice sense of scale

Cons: Extremely familiar story that makes it very nearly a remake of the first Sabata film

The somewhat strange middle entry in the Sabata Trilogy, 1970’s Adiós Sabata sees actor Yul Brynner take over the title role from Lee Van Cleef (who coincidentally couldn’t do this film because he was replacing Brynner in a Magnificent Seven sequel). This time around, the titular gunfighter joins forces with Mexican revolutionaries and an prankster American named Ballantine to steal a wealth of gold from an Austrian colonel hiding out south of the US border. Predictably, the plot to capture the gold (initiated by a guerrilla leader who’s trying to fund an uprising against Austrian emperor Maximilian I) doesn’t go exactly to plan – after capturing a wagon supposedly transporting the treasure, Sabata and his partners discover that they’ve been fooled into stealing a cart full of sand and are forced to come up with a more decisive plan of attack. This eventually leads to an all-out assault on the colonel’s fortress, but can Sabata really trust any of his sneaky co-conspirators considering that they all have their own motives and ambitions?

adios!
Sabata (in all black) discusses his plans with his compadres.

Compared to the first Sabata film, this sequel is probably a more serious affair, mostly due to the fact that Brynner takes an entirely different approach to the main character than did Van Cleef. While there was a playfulness to Van Cleef’s Sabata, an almost emotionless Brynner (sporting an all-black get-up and a continual scowl) is all business in the part and definitively appears like the more typical (and hence, somewhat tiresome) Italo-western protagonist. Due to his stoic performance, the tone of this sequel is a bit off: the same team of writers (Renato Izzo and Gianfranco Parolini, who also directed) wrote both these films, the first of which played almost as a tongue-in-cheek parody of the Spaghetti Western genre. Adiós Sabata, originally planned as a standalone film dealing with a character named “Indio Black,” never quite seems to decide whether it wants to be a more serious film or a comic one. Parolini and Izzo throw in quite a few slightly offbeat and/or goofy details, but Brynner’s no-nonsense attitude doesn’t really allow a viewer to really buy into the efforts at comedy.

Austrians in Mexico?
Gerard Herter as Colonel Skimmel of Austria. Though the idea of Austrians in Mexico circa 1867 being the villains of this story seems odd, it’s historically accurate.

One of the more confusing aspects of this film is that a number of the same cast who appeared in the first Sabata film show up in this sequel in entirely different roles. This takes a bit of getting used to: at first, I was under the impression that the writers were trying to make a sequel that (gasp!) was generally consistent with the first film (albeit with a different actor in the title role), but it soon became apparent that there’s about no connection in the story between the original Sabata and this second series entry. That said, one could definitely make the argument that Adiós Sabata is very nearly a remake of the first film. The main villain of the piece (the Austrian colonel played by Gerard Herter) comes across as a virtual carbon copy of Stengel from the first film (hell, even the name of the Austrian is similar – “Skimmel”). Additionally, the Ballantine character (played as a conniving jokester by musician-turned-actor Dean Reed) seems almost identical to the Banjo character in the first film, and the returning Ignazio Spalla, playing another buffoonish Mexican who acts as Sabata’s main partner in crime, performs essentially the same duty that he did in the first film. Considering that Izzo and Parolini’s script isn’t exactly the most original thing I’ve ever seen in the first place, the fact that we’re getting mostly the same exact thing this second time around makes this sequel all the more disappointing and questionable.

musician Dean Reed
Dean Reed as Ballantine, the smart-ass gringo who may just run off with the gold himself.

On the plus side, Parolini’s handling of the direction seems a bit more sure-handed during this film. The original Sabata had a handful of stylish moments that suggested that Parolini did have some nifty tricks in his repertoire, but more often than not, the director played it relatively safe. Adiós Sabata sees Parolini let loose a few times with some eye-popping visuals and wild camera moves (check out the swirling camera suggesting the feeling of jubilation when Sabata and his crew first get their hands on what they think is gold) and also seems to have a more grandiose sense of scale. Contrary to the confined nature of the first film, the sequel features quite a few scenes filmed in extreme long shots in rather expansive locations which are nicely captured by cinematographer Sandro Mancori. Thus, the picture (boosted by a fine music score from the always-reliable Bruno Nicolai) feels bigger and more spectacular, even if the story leaves a lot to be desired.

Superb location photography
This sequel features superb location photography and a more grandiose sense of scale than the first Sabata film.

I love some of the quirky, eccentric details in the film – the mute gunslinger who’s claim to fame is his ability to fling rocks at his opponent with his feet; the handful of scenes where a gunfight erupts immediately after a cowboy stops his tap-dancing routine – and it’s not hard to see why this offbeat film was a favorite of Quentin Tarantino. The entire last act of the film is actually pretty impressive, with the loud and exciting raid on the colonel’s fortress being followed up by a genuinely clever final scene which is rather funny and positively memorable in the history of this genre. Even if it’s difficult to deny that the film saves its best ideas for last, I can’t help but wish some of this inspiration had found its way into earlier scenes in the movie which are pretty formulaic and forgettable. A little spark early on would have gone a long way in making this picture better as a whole.


The film’s ending is outstanding…I just wish there were more genuine highlights on the way there.

Admittedly, a western has to be pretty outstanding for me to really fall in love with it – I usually find this genre of films to be relatively dull and predictable. Adiós Sabata is one that’s very watchable but nothing special: there are certainly some unique elements to this film, enough weird details to keep things interesting, and generally enjoyable acting performances (even if the English language dubbing is sometimes quite sketchy), but nothing can make up for the fact that everything in the film seems very familiar. Director Parolini was clearly capable as a filmmaker, but he simply doesn’t seem to possess the level of inspiration that led directors like Sergio Leone or Sergio Corbucci to produce what are easily the best films of the Spaghetti Western genre. The Sabata films then are better than many of the cheapo programmer westerns that were pumped out in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and probably would be worth a look for genre fans, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to track any of them down.

sabata


Nice-looking widescreen DVD from 20th Century Fox as part of the Sabata Trilogy package offers no extras. This film can also be on amazon.


5/10 : Standard western gun violence with brief glimpses of gore.


1/10 : Maybe a few isolated instances of rough language; nothing major.

groan!
0/10 : Sabata doesn’t hang out too  much in the brothel this time around.


3/10 : Even with some eccentricity to it, this doesn’t hold up to the best of the Spaghetti Western genre.


“Well gentlemen, it’s been fun, but I can’t waste any more time. I wanna wish you all the…uh…very best of luck, especially you Escudo. You’re going to have a hard time convincing the revolutionaries that you didn’t steal the gold. And you know what’ll happen – I’m afraid that you must just end up dripping the fat into the fire, with an apple up your big mouth and a spit up your caboose…”

An Overlooked Classic for the SNES: SHADOWRUN

SHADOWRUN for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System

(4.5/5)

Pros: Innovative gameplay; compelling story and atmosphere

Cons: Low-key ending; difficulty level can be frustrating

Among the many role-playing games for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, a few truly stand out as being wholly unique. Earthbound, for example, switched up the setting from a medieval-like fantasy-like world to a sort of deranged interpretation of America, while Chrono Trigger threw time travel into the mix as a wild card element. It’s safe to say however that no RPG for the system was quite as odd as Shadowrun, based on the pen and paper game of the same name and developed by Data East for release in 1993. This game is set in a dystopian future ruled by all-powerful corporations (could it be that the game developers actually predicted how modern society operates?) and plays out much in the manner of an old-school film noir story, albeit one that has orcs, dwarves, dragons, and magicians as peripheral characters and enemies.

main perspective
Main perspective of the game, showing Jake (center of screen) fighting off a pair of enemies.

Taking place in a cyberpunk version of Seattle, Washington in the year 2050, the player assumes the role of Jake Armitage, who wakes up in a mortuary. As seen in the game’s prologue, Jake has been gunned down by unknown assailants only to be saved by an equally enigmatic shape-shifting fox (ok, so this game does have some weird elements to it…bear with it!). Unable to determine how he got to this point, Jake embarks on a mission to try and uncover the circumstances leading to the attempt on his life, eventually uncovering a plot in which he was used as a courier for one of the corporations, having vital information implanted in a computer inside his head. As the game progresses, more and more of the plot details surface as Jake has to take on a variety of increasingly unusual boss-like characters, including a rat shaman, an underground club full of vampires, and eventually the head of the biggest corporation in town who assumes the form of a giant snake. Along the way, in addition to battling enemies in real time battle while seeking guidance from a mysterious figure who takes the form of a dog, Jake must use his computer skills and a device called a cyberdeck to tap into and hack “The Matrix,” a digital realm (i.e. cyberspace) in which he can manipulate various objects in the real world and uncover additional information hidden behind digital interfaces. If nothing else, you’ve got to admit that Shadowrun was well ahead of its time in dealing with these kinds of ideas – remember, this was made six years prior to the original Matrix film.

inside the matrix
Once inside The Matrix, perspective switches to this overhead view showing the player’s progress through the digital realm.

Made very quickly by the same team that developed the quirky NES title Nightshade, Shadowrun has a plethora of eccentricities to it (in case that wasn’t obvious from my brief plot summary). The main part of the game is a free-roaming section that finds the player wandering through various nightclubs, shops, and rundown areas of Seattle and interacting with the oddball characters who inhabit it. The only way to progress through the game is to talk to various characters in an attempt to find out what they know, and this is where one of the game’s most intriguing gameplay elements takes shape. Throughout the game, Jake builds up a library of terms that he can question the non-playable characters about. It’s through this inquiry that new terms are learned and additional information is gained, and the process by which a player has to double back and talk to characters encountered previously in the game in an attempt to gain new perspective and insight makes the playing experience both complicated and incredibly compelling. Combine this notion that the game doesn’t necessarily proceed in a straight-forward manner with the fact that minute details and hard-to-find items (which are often quite difficult to spot onscreen) play a big role in how the game progresses and a player faces a game that’s nothing if not extremely challenging yet undeniably fascinating and completely enveloping.

talking
Talking with each and every character becomes increasingly important, since it’s the only way to learn new terms and keywords and thereby further the game.

Battle sequences in the game can occur at most any time since various hitmen and assassins are continuously trying to eliminate Jake and stop his investigation. More substantial enemies also pop up from time to time along with the expected RPG game “boss” figures, and it becomes rather difficult to manage Jake’s health, particularly late in the game (the only way to fully restore Jake’s magic and health levels is to sleep in a bed, only a few of which appear in the game). Fortunately, the mystical “Dog” character teaches Jake various magical spells from time to time which not only can heal his injuries, but also allow for offensive attacks and general assistance during battle (the invisibility spell for one is quite useful). Defeating enemies in battle using one of various firearms that can be purchased at shops or through the use of magic provides Jake with “Karma,” which is essentially Shadowrun’s version of experience points. These Karma points can be applied to expand Jake’s abilities with regard to various skills, enabling him to inflict more damage, resist enemy attacks, and even function better in the world The Matrix among other things.

adult content
Shadowrun is probably more violent and obviously adult-oriented than most games of its era.

The ability to function in the world of cyberspace becomes more important as the game progresses, and when a player “jacks” into The Matrix, the game’s perspective switches from an isometric perspective to an overhead view that shows an effigy of Jake navigating through various digital terminals and relays. During these sequences, the game operates somewhat similarly to the familiar Minesweeper game since a player must combat various defensive computer programs that attempt to keep him from having access to sensitive information. Successfully making it through the screens in The Matrix can provide the player with money achieved by transferring funds from corporate accounts, data which further explains the rather complex storyline, or can actually manipulate objects in the real world (modification in cyberspace is the only way for instance to ensure that various elevators and lifts work as intended). The cyberspace screens in Shadowrun take a bit of getting used to and can be frustrating until one gets the hang of how they work, but I found this to be one of the most clever and fun aspects of the game.

inside the nightclub
The setting of the game includes several nightclubs populated by a colorful cast of characters.

Shadowrun gets its name from in-game characters known as “shadowrunners” who act as mercenaries of sort that can be recruited by the player to aid his journey through the storyline. Hired for a limited amount of time, all of these characters (of which there are a dozen) have a specific skill set and range of abilities: some are valuable more for their ability to fight enemies, while others specialize in magic or are computer specialists. It’s worth noting that at no point is it entirely mandatory to hire any shadowrunner: one can make it through the game without hiring any of them. These characters can however come in handy during certain parts of the game and do allow a player to accomplish things he would not otherwise be able to do.

real-time battles
The real-time battles in the game are often quite challenging.

Graphically-speaking, Shadowrun is a really nice-looking game that made the best of the 16-bit capability of the SNES. The entire world has a run-down, grungy look to it, with squalor and low-life characters lurking in the periphery of the more destitute sections of town. During the last section of the game, the player finds himself in the more bustling downtown district, which looks appropriately futuristic and imposing, with huge skyscrapers and more high-class, glitzy nightclubs. The soundtrack for the game (written by Marshall Parker) perfectly captures the menacing vibe of the game and has a hard-edged, industrial feel to it. My personal favorite aspect of the game are the character portraits, all of which are intricately detailed, plenty strange-looking, and occasionally downright creepy. I could probably make a case for Shadowrun existing as a cyberpunk Mad Max in terms of its story and the wacky characters found in it.

characters

There really are many elements to this game which would be impossible to cover in the context of a review, but the player willing to devote some time to learning the ins and outs of this game is likely to find it to be an outstanding title that was largely overlooked and ignored when it came out – perhaps because it was more adult-oriented than many or most titles at the time. The game has earned a reputation since the mid-1990s as being one of the most unique and captivating games for the SNES and I’d be inclined to agree with that assessment even if the ending is fairly low-key and indicative of the fact that the whole project was rushed through production and programming. The length of the game is decent and the level of challenge offered in Shadowrun is very high. It certainly forces a player to think through and evaluate his actions as he progresses through the story (though anymore, it’s possible with the help of online guides to breeze through the game without much problem), and the ways in which this game works were quite innovative at the time. It would be hard to come up with many titles that are even vaguely similar to this one, and I’d label this as being one of the best Super NES games out there: well worth checking out for the gamer looking for something definitively different.

brain burnt

A Pirate’s Life for Me! UNCHARTED WATERS for the NES

UNCHARTED WATERS for the Nintendo Entertainment System

(3/5)

Pros: Complex, open-ended gameplay and lots of small detail

Cons: Man, does this game get tedious in its middle section….

Taking place during the Age of Discovery shortly after Columbus’ journey to the New World, Koei’s 1991 Uncharted Waters stands as one of the most unique titles in the Japanese publisher’s already intriguing lineup of historical simulations and hard-core strategy games. A player in this game takes command of a young Portuguese sailor named Leon Franco whose noble family has fallen on hard times. Choosing a life of adventure on the high seas the player guides Franco as he sails between various cities trading goods, hunting for treasure, and eventually fighting pirates and rival fleets. During the course of the game, Franco is entrusted with various tasks by merchants, barkeeps, treasure hunters and even the Portuguese king, accumulating wealth and royal titles in the process. Royal titles help enhance the player’s fame, which eventually leads to him having a chance to woo Princess Christiana, who resides at the Portuguese castle in Lisbon. Ultimately, the storyline here sees Franco having to rescue the princess from kidnappers, leading to a predictable storybook conclusion of the game.

ARGH! Surrounded by enemy ships on the open sea!
Graphics are definitely not this game’s strong suit – I’d go so far as to say that they’re ugly.

Perhaps the best thing about the game is the fact that its very open-ended with regard to how a player completes it. Initially, the storyline of Uncharted Waters is focused more on the player trading goods from far away lands for profit, but as it goes along, there’s more emphasis placed on engaging in sea battles with pirates and enemy fleets. Conversely, a player can simply become a pirate right from the start and make a living off the spoils of battle (in its operation, I’d declare that Uncharted Waters plays like a more complex, all-encompassing version of Sid Meier’s Pirates! which also was ported for the NES in 1991). Piracy has ramifications of course, since simply going against all flags (i.e. the foreign powers of Spain and Turkey) will cause those countries to act aggressively and hostilely towards the player and his fleet. Though not entirely accurate, the world map the player and his fleet sail around and in which most of the game’s action takes place is relatively true to life, and more exotic goods can certainly be found by exploring the far-away lands of the Americas, the Arab countries, and the Far East. Sailing to these areas is dangerous however, as storms will ravage the player’s fleet and enemy pirates will show up to pillage his gold.

pirate!
Them’s fightin’ words! Challenging a pirate to battle…

Another positive element in the game is the sense of complexity present. Even if this game is quite obviously limited by the 8-bit technology and data storage capability of the NES, there are a ton of intricate details in the game which would be nearly impossible to cover in the context of this review. Various ships can be purchased, with the top-end models being both better at navigating the high seas and more well-equipped for battle. Additionally, there are many things a player can do in the various towns he comes across: most every town has a shipyard, marketplace, tavern, and many also have an exotic item/weapon shop. Investing in the marketplace allows the player to purchase more items as well as receive higher profit margins for the goods he sells, while investment in the shipyard is the only way elusive and powerful ships like the war galleon (which, with its capacity for up to 500 crew and 150 cannons, is essentially invincible during battle) can be purchased. The tavern not only provides for the recruitment of additional skilled sailors and crew members into the player’s party, but also acts as a sort of information exchange due to the fact that waitresses and bar patrons can provide important information and clues for the player about the tasks he undertakes during the course of the game. Some of the most fun and challenging portions of the game involve finding hidden treasure that’s unanimously situated in the most remote, borderline inaccessible portions of the globe – managing food and water resources on these voyages requires some skill.

town
Most every town has various shops and buildings to explore and people to interact with.

Despite the fact that the game lets the player choose how to go about playing it, there are some glaring problems with Uncharted Waters. First, like many Koei games which focused much more on gameplay than any technical aspects, this game is plain ugly to look at from a graphical standpoint and has repetitive music that will likely drive most players bonkers. Even if the character portraits and cut scenes are colorful and generally attractive, much of the game takes place on the entirely blue background of the open sea. It’s easy to be hypnotized by the dull backgrounds in this game which grate on the eyes after a relatively short time, and though the looped music written by Yoko Kanno of Cowboy Bebop fame does capture the mood of the game well (the music around the polar regions sounds very foreboding for instance, while the music heard when sailing around Europe feels very comfortable), it quickly becomes monotonous. The entire middle portion of this game, in which a player completes rather mundane tasks for merchants and the king while in the process of building his reputation is mind-bogglingly tedious and seems utterly pointless. This game takes an unnecessarily long time to complete (I try and play all the way through the games I review, but came very close to just calling it a day on this one), and I’m not at all sure that the ultimate payoff (which features a sequence of graphics that would have looked downright pathetic even in 1991) makes it entirely worthwhile to get through. A player almost has to invent fun things to do during this middle stretch of game, since simply completing the genuinely unrewarding tasks required in the story not only doesn’t achieve fame fast enough to really seem adequate, but also because these tasks are excruciatingly repetitive. How many times can one sail from the Caribbean to the Middle East around the coast of Africa in search of one spice or another?

trade
Though trading takes priority early on, it’s necessary to focus more on piracy later in the game.

While it’s almost imperative that a player simply become a pirate at some point in order to both spice up the gameplay and further the storyline, the sea battle interface present here is fairly clunky. When engaging in battle, the viewpoint switches from a macroscopic view of the open ocean to a closer-range perspective showing the relative positions of the player’s fleet and that of the enemy. At this point, one must carefully maneuver his ships in order to either open up with long-range weapons (i.e. cannons or their less-powerful cousins) or storm enemy ships in hand-to-hand combat. Maneuvering ships is both difficult and frustrating, since the bigger vessels have extremely limited mobility and can only attack enemies who fall within a very specific range of their cannons. Each ship has both a finite number of crew and a strength index which gradually diminish as cannon-fire is absorbed or enemy attacks are repelled, and if either number reaches zero, the ship is destroyed. Winning sea battles eventually becomes quite easy since all a player has to do is destroy the enemy flagship: once this fact is realized, the sea battles don’t especially offer up any level of challenge either, adding yet another level of “blah” to this game.

battle interface
The battle interface – and yes, it’s about as clunky as it looks.

In the end, I’d call Uncharted Waters an interesting failure as a game. Taken on its own merits, it’s a title that (like Koei’s Aerobiz, a Super NES title that operated as an airline business simulator and is a much better game than that concept suggests) suffers considerably because its sequel is just so damn good. The outstanding Uncharted Waters II: New Horizons, released for the Super NES in 1994, improves on every aspect of the original game to the point of nearly rendering the original unplayable. In a way, this is unfortunate because Uncharted Waters is a genuinely well-designed thinking man’s game possessing a very cool concept that’s pulled off about as well as could be expected considering the limitations of the NES. Like most of Koei’s extremely complicated strategy titles though, this game would only appeal to a select crowd willing to devote time and energy to a game that offers only a moderate payoff. While Uncharted Waters would have been something special and truly unique in 1991, it hasn’t held up well over time – this in my mind is largely due to the fact that New Horizons perfected the formula that originated here. If the game at all sounds interesting, I’d recommend that players try and hunt down that second game in the Uncharted Waters series rather than waste effort on the fruitless original.

lost at sea...
LOST AT SEA…