Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Nine Days of the Ninja: Day Eight!

Steve Miller. Cinema Steve. Me. Let's Get Out of Here. Ninjas.


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Buddha Manja!

Stealthily not finding these movies that great...

Unmasking the Idol  (Celebrity Home Video, 1988)  Oh my, the epic 80's phenomenon that was Duncan Jax. Wait, you've never heard of the incredible action hero Duncan Jax? I mean, the guy headlined TWO movies in the late eighties! TWO! And this is one of them! So, for those bare few who don't have their walls papered with Duncan Jax movie posters, I'll fill you in. Duncan Jax is the world's greatest baboon owning ninja spy who greatly fears head injuries. You may wonder how I know all of these things about Duncan Jax. I will show you. See the caption under the picture.

Note - Baboon, and Ninja mask, made of chain mail. For
those times when protecting your head far outweigh the
clanking sound of your head armor negating your ninja
stealth skills.

He is played by Ian Hunter, who has on his IMDB page his entire filmography, which consists of BOTH Duncan Jax movies. Ian Hunter brings a formidable presence to Unmasking the Idol, although that formidability does not include a full head of hair or a British accent that does not come and go from scene to scene. But he does bring a monkey to the table, so slack is cut and we move on. The movie begins as all 007 ripoffs must, with their version of the precredits sequence. Of course, any actual Bond precredits sequence probably had a budget higher than this whole movie's, but so what - let's get off to a start with a building assault that features a big gas balloon and dummy stand-in for Duncan Jax at a key moment. (And, no, not a prop dummy to fool the bad guys - I mean the actor is doubled by a stiff armed dummy instead of a human stunt performer for part of the opening action.) We also get to meet Boone (Boon? Whatever the spelling, my movie pal nephew James started calling him Bubbles, which had us all bubbling with giggles), the incredibly talented baboon sidekick. Then we settle in for some plot as Duncan is briefed on his archenemy Goldtooth, (!) who together with Johnny-come-lately baddie Scarlet Leader, plans to buy a bunch of nuclear weapons from somewhere and use them to start World War III - you know, the one where the Earth will end up a burnt out cinder? Seems like a plot that will leave its instigators in straits as dire as their victims' if they pull it off, but who are we to judge?

Scarlet Leader shows off the lair to his archenemies - the
old folks who live down the street.
 Duncan then decides (or maybe it's Boone/Boon doing the thinking - not sure) to assemble a team and go after Scarlet Leader and Goldtooth. He proceeds to do this in the strangest way possible - he assaults the stronghold of each prospective team member, laying waste to their security staff and then asking for help. "You kill three guards breaking in, and you want me to come with you to kill some guy? Sounds reasonable." The best of these involves Duncan and the new team member having to sneak/fight their way back out of the headquarters, perhaps because the guards were really close pals and wouldn't take kindly to the boss chumming it up with the guy who just killed several of them. Don't lose sleep over why, actually. The filmmakers certainly didn't. In any case, waaay into this thing Duncan and his team (including a really overweight guy named The Whale - no carpenter has ever hit a nail as squarely as these filmmakers do...), anyway, Duncan and Boone/Boon finally take off after Scarlet Leader and Goldtooth, infiltrating their lair on Devil Crown island and letting the monkey take care of most of the bad guys with his penchant for throwing bombs.

Goldtooth and his Nazi sub captain pal marvel at my caption font.

I had seen both of the Duncan Jax movies on video store shelves somewhere in my travels - most likely either in Florida in 1988 when they were New Releases, or in the early 90's in North Carolina. I don't think they had spread to Illinois or Indiana while I was still there - they certainly weren't on the shelf when I worked at Box Office Video in Indiana from 1990-1991. I avoided them when I found them at the time - possibly due to a lack of rental money, or possibly due to a moment of Bond fan snobbishness - nonetheless I never ended up seeing either one back in the day. I know now that they were the work of director Worth Keeter (L.A. Bounty), a director who got started with producer Earl Owensby in the late 70's and who proceeded to rack up a pretty long list of action fare, including a lot of Power Rangers episodes. I found both of the Jax movies available to be added to my instant Netflix queue, and I watched UtI along with a couple of my regular movie pals late one night recently when the rest of the household had settled down to sleep. I would assume (and I have to assume as there's not much info on the web about these movies) that both Jax movies were shot at Earl Owensby's EO Studios in Shelby NC, which is pretty awesome. And I will say that most of the time Unmasking the Idol has the look of a movie shot in bigger locations than the woods in North Carolina. But other than that, this is an awesomely silly movie that ends up being a laugh riot. Obviously, with villains named Scarlet Leader and Goldtooth there's a certain amount of tongue in cheek - but not enough to explain some of the jawdropping nonsense that goes on in the movie. I'm not sure how well it would go down by yourself on a slow evening, but with friends, and mind altering substances of choice (including the one we used - lack of sleep into the wee hours) this could well be the highlight of a Movie Night for you and yours. And when you end up Jax or better to open - you might find this one is worth checking out!

Puppet Master: Axis of Evil (Full Moon Features, 2010) Wow it pains me to write this, but after about a year of buildup by Charlie Band, videocast after videocast from the set in China, and a special trailer screening at the 2009 Full Moon Roadshow, the movie finally hits DVD, and its...

...not much, I'm afraid. We start off with a bunch of scenes from the first Puppet Master movie mixed in with a little new film shot in China on set reconstructions. Storywise it's 1939, and it's the Bodega Bay Inn in California. The new stuff seems to consist of one to two minutes of lead Danny (Levi Fiehler) almost being present when the Nazi baddies arrive to kill Andre Toulon (the late William Hickey returning via old footage), then in the aftermath taking the puppet trunk from its hiding place and heading back to his place with it.

William Hickey joins the pantheon of actors appearing in movies long
after they died.
 Stop Right There! (as the lady in Paradise by the Dashboard Lights says). That trunk has to be present for the team of researchers to find in 1989 for the rest of the first Puppet Master movie to take place. (Not to mention the other eight or nine sequels). Now, my first assumption was that we're going to come full circle and end this movie with the lad returning the trunk to the wall where it was hidden...some secrets man was not meant to know and all that... but that's not exactly how it worked out... So, anyway, all this videocast noise about reconstructing the Bodega Bay Inn sets, and all we get is about 111 seconds of it? They could have taken the money and digitally inserted Fiehler into one of the first movie's scenes, built one small wall section to pull the trunk from, and achieved more, quite frankly. But okay, we're past that and now Danny has the trunk back at the little house he shares with his mom right next to their city's Chinatown section ('cause it was shot in China, see, and it's easier to explain the Chinese extras!). He pulls the puppets out, looks them over for a moment...then goes downstairs to piss and moan to his mom, brother and girlfriend Beth (Jenna Gallaher) about not being allowed to go to war due to his bum leg for about thirty minutes.

Jenna Galleher
 Stop Right There! The first movie establishes Toulon's death as happening in 1939. You're using film from that movie in this movie. Danny came home with the trunk, went upstairs, came back downstairs, and America is somehow in the war? Two years early? This could have been explained with about another hour of script writing, but it wasn't. Anyway, we're now almost halfway through the movie, and the puppets haven't moved in any footage shot after 1989.

Villainess Ozu and her two henchmen.
 Eventually, we get a smidge of plot about the two young Nazis who killed Toulon teaming up with three Japanese spies (the leader a woman in full geisha gear and full dragon lady mode) to blow up a factory nearby where Danny's girlfriend Beth works. Both Germans use their impeccable American accents to infiltrate the factory - accents so impeccable they never stop using them, even when alone or hanging with their Japanese buddies - and the Japanese provide them a bomb they apparently got from the Acme company, as it appears to be several 8 inch sections of sawed off red broomstick taped together with an old clock attached.

And here's the reason this review features in Nine Days of the Ninja: The Blogfest.


Eventually somehow the Nazis realize Beth is shmoozing with the guy who has Toulon's puppets stashed away and since they're really in America to get the secret of Toulon's magic in bringing the puppets to life, they divert from the factory bombing to kill Danny's family and kidnap the girl. Danny somehow figures out everything that took Toulon decades to learn about transferring the souls of recently deceased pals into puppets in about three minutes, and with new puppet Ninja containing some of his dead brother Don's life force, takes Blade, Tunneler, Pinhead, and Leech Woman along as well with him to the easily found spy hideout in a local theater to get revenge. Stop Right There! Hmm, a new puppet created days after Toulon passes, which we haven't seen again in any of the sequels? You guys are digging a pretty big hole scriptwise, fellas! In any case, the puppets finally go to work, and a few dead bodies are soon scattered about the theater. At this point it's time for the climactic showdown between Our Hero and the Last Remaining Villain. No - instead - cut to credits.

Yes, [spoiler alert] the movie ends on a freakin' cliffhanger! Sorry to take the plot description through to the end, but I couldn't avoid mentioning that this movie stops instead of ends.

Having met Charles Band, and finding him to have been a very likable fellow, I so wanted to really like this. Sadly, despite enough positive elements to have made a decent little horror pic, this just doesn't cut the mustard. I put 85-90% of the blame on the script. I don't know who this "August White" person is who writes all of Full Moon's screenplays these days, but speaking from experience, you can still make a movie entertaining and fun no matter the budget if you write it correctly. August White puts enough words on enough pages for the script to be passed through into production. I could have taken all these same elements and made it work better, quite frankly. The first thing I would have done?

Blade. The Puppet. The Legend.
Well, as Dr. Evil might say "Get the frickin' stars of the frickin' movie into the frickin' movie!" We're putting this disc into the player to watch little puppets move and do things. They don't have to move in giant ballets of motion and light, and they don't have to do things involving large budgets and giant production values. If a second camera and the puppet effects people could have on their own worked on just popping off shots of the puppets peering around furniture, listening, moving, turning, brandishing their weapon(s), scaring the family cat, ANYTHING, these shots could have been edited in all around and through those long dialogue scenes and would have at least added more puppetduction value to the flick. Then the script needed a rewrite where the puppets show Danny how things work with their magical chemicals and injectors and neck holes. They also could have been spying all around town (again, a couple of shots of them on the streets looking around, maybe another low-to-the-ground puppet-cam shot or two) and they could be the reason Danny goes to the theater. The puppets lead him there so they can all seek revenge together. Making our little pals from eight other movies a little more proactive makes them more sinister while still being heroic by default. It works. If the effects people weren’t up to these tasks I’ve described, then Charlie needed to invest more money and hire different effects guys. Period. End of story.
And end of review.
No, kidding, I don’t leave my readers with abrupt endings and cliffhangers. But I do need to wrap this up soon, or the reading of it will take longer than watching the movie. Yipe! So, script - mediocre. Direction? Well, David DeCoteau has made three other Puppet Master movies. He made the best (Puppet Master III: Toulon's Revenge), but he also made the worst (Curse of the Puppet Master). His other effort was Retro Puppet Master, which falls in between the previous two in quality. (and I think it's telling that he used his own name for part 3 and pseudonyms for the other two). And Axis of Evil is on a par with RPM direction wise. It's well shot, but bites off more than its budget can chew. The acting is fair, with lead Fiehler coming off as a second tier Chris Klein, and Gallaher an attractive (if awfully slender and boyish) girl-in-danger. The effects are okay, but as noted before they are far too sparse. And since they didn't shoot another movie with this one back to back, that cliffhanger ending is inexcusable. If announced the day after this one was released and produced in the same timeframe as this one, the next Puppet Master movie would be released in late 2013.

If you've watched all the other movies in the series, you might as well rent this one, but this is certainly no place to start watching them. The first Puppet Master movie had the tagline "No strings attached." I wish that was true of this latest sequel, and it was referring to Charles Band's purse strings.

Tomorrow we finish the Nine Days of the Ninja, and until then, you Can Poke Me With A Fork, Cause I Am Outta Here!


  1. I loved little Blade and Puppet Master. This sounds like an awful revisionist let down. William Hickey was just awesomely creepy. He stars in my very favorite holiday movie, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.

  2. William Hickey really went through a period of being in every third movie made there for a while - I love him in NLCV. My favorite out of left field cameo (other than Puppet Master) is when he turns up for a couple of minutes as a carnival barker in Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins...