Archive for the ‘Films That Made Me’ Category



April 25, 2019

In this not-so-regular series, I’ve tried to avoid saying the usual “Star Wars” or “Jurassic Park” type thing because while these films are excellent and had a profound effect on me as an audience, they didn’t always help to mould me into the filmmaker I am today. 

Moontrap, however, did.


I’m willing to bet that no-one reading this has ever seen this movie. But if you’re a fan of shlocky scifi-horror, Bruce Campbell, Walter Koenig and bizarre robots, then boy is this the piece of direct-to-VHS bollocks for you!

Moontrap was one of those movies on our video store’s shelves in the late 80s-early 90s and for some reason, I found the cover art compelling. Given that the original cover art was a lunar eclipse with an astronaut floating in front of it, it’s hard to see why now, but I suppose when all you have to go on is a weird cover and a bit of blurb on the back about giant robots on the moon, you learn to give your expectations a low bar.

And a low bar is frequently needed because while Moontrap has a lot of atmosphere and some inventive production design and model work, it’s let down by a borderline nonsensical plot with more holes than a twenty year old pair of lucky underpants. The actors also try their best with the often cliche-ridden material, leading to a mixed bag of entertainment and eye-rolling.


Bruce Campbell is his typical, scenery-chewing self in this flick.

It’s set in present day (or 1988’s surprisingly grounded vision of the near-future at least); space flight is routine for NASA even if Joe Public isn’t Jetson-ing off to work every morning and Koenig and Campbell play Grant and Tanner, a pair of veteran astronauts. On a routine orbital flight in a space shuttle, they come across a massive derelict alien spacecraft, complete with a human skeleton and a mysterious small, red pod. Back on earth, they discover the ship and the skeleton came from the moon’s surface thirty thousand years ago and that the pod contains a mechanical lifeform that soon constructs itself a body from a bunch of medical equipment and proceeds to attack the base. Cue our heroes going to the moon to track down the source of these invaders and solve the mystery of how humanity was on the lunar surface thousands of years ago.

Except they don’t. Solve the mystery, I mean. They destroy a few miniatures, meet a 30,000 year old woman who doesn’t look a day over 30 (alien skin cream must be top notch), have a few jump scares and Koenig makes a ridiculous-even-by-80s-scifi-standards escape from the alien ship using an Uzi. It’s pretty dumb, is what I guess I’m saying. Very few questions are answered, even fewer plotholes are filled in, but the film keeps you interested with a stream of atmospheric moments and plain old shlock value.


The version 1 of CyberWeinstein was a lot less subtle than later incarnations.

But I think what sold me on the film was that initial hook. The derelict spacecraft, the ancient human, the pod with it’s robotic lifeform… all that worked great and while the rest of the film fails to live up the promise of its premise, that hook worked wonders for me. And I suppose that’s one of the things that influenced me the most with this film. Whenever I’m developing film ideas or reading a script or putting together a pitch, I’m always looking for that hook, that premise that really grabs your attention and lets you as an audience realise the possibilities of that story. I’ll be the first to admit that, like Moontrap’s director Robert Dyke, I don’t always manage to follow through on that hook, but I always look for it and try to play to it in my films.

The other thing that stuck with me about Moontrap was the atmosphere. This was a film with a very small budget, very little location work, very little money for effects shots (they used stock footage for the rocket launch sequence) and yet they managed to create a mood and atmosphere on this film purely by building tension and through considered lighting and framing. It was probably one of the first films I saw that was distinctly low budget and yet didn’t let it hold back from achieving the things it wanted. Even today, my ambitions with a film far outweigh my means to make it, but I always try to tell the story anyway. At heart, I think I’m definitely a B-movie director…


Robot model… check. Blue backlight… check. Straight to video career… check.

While it went by unnoticed on release, Moontrap is considered something of a cult classic today by those who have seen it. A sequel was made a couple of years ago, but it is one of the worst films I’ve ever seen (worse than The Room and Manos Hands of Fate), full of student film level greenscreen and VFX work, abysmal acting, an insultingly unfathomable plot and all the charisma and charm of a raw and bloody chicken burger bought from a van in a layby at 3am. And it looks like the results that culinary risk would lead to as well.

But the first film is half-decent. And if you spot it on Netflix or similar, then I suggest giving it a go. Hopefully, it’ll hook you in within the first ten minutes. 


Movies That Made Me #2 – Crying Freeman

April 14, 2018

Continuing my series of off-the-radar films that influenced me as a filmmaker, today I want to talk about Christophe Gans’ “Crying Freeman.”


I recently picked this one up on Blu-Ray (I had to import a French version because it’s not available in the UK) and I won’t mention how much for, but this is actually by far the most expensive disc I own! So, why, I hear you ask, have I spent a fair chunk of change on a) a Blu Ray and b) this little-known action flick? The first is easy- it isn’t available in HD any other way- but the second…

This is probably the movie that has influenced my style as a filmmaker more than any other film. It’s no cinematic masterpiece by any means (although much of it is beautifully shot and put together) and it’s not coated in nostalgia like some other films I could mention, but from the moment I first watched it, it has affected how I tell stories- first through the comic books I drew and then through the films I’ve made. I’d hesitate to call it my favourite film, but it’s certainly the most influential for me as a filmmaker.


If you’ve seen my work, I think you can see where I got it from…

So, what is the film about?

Based on a manga, “Crying Freeman” is about a young woman called Emu who witnesses an execution by a professional assassin, the Freeman. The Freeman (Mark Dacascos) is an unwilling killer, hypnotised into action by a secret triad society, and he cries tears of regret every time he kills. Now that Emu has seen his face, the Freeman is ordered to kill her too, but chooses not to do so when he falls in love with her- a decision that sets in motion a power struggle within the yakuza and a series of massacres in the Japanese underworld. The film has some beautifully shot and edited action scenes and some solid performances as well as a sense of style rare in action movies of the mid 90s.

The flick hit the shelves of our local video store at some point in 1995. I remember I’d seen a tiny mention of it in one of the manga magazines I bought semi-regularly at the time and to be honest, I had never heard of the manga before. I had heard of the movies’ star, Mark Dacascos, however. Growing up on a diet of martial arts films, I had seen several of his flicks and by this point, he was one of my favourite action stars. One of the nice things about Dacascos was that he’s a decent actor- something the role of Yo Hinomura, the titular crying freeman, lent itself to. And Dacascos got to show both his acting chops and his martial arts skills in the film and demonstrated he had great potential as a leading man. It’s a shame his career went in a different direction, because although his role as the Iron Chef on the US TV show undoubtedly pays well and keeps him busy, I think that with more roles like Crying Freeman, he could’ve broken through into mainstream cinema.


Tcheky Karyo and Masaya Kato put in compelling performances, as does Julie Condra (soon to be Mrs Dacascos!) as Emu. There are also appearances from well-known faces like Yoko Shimada, Rae Dawn Chong, Byron Mann and Mako and each one does sterling work and helps the film feel a lot bigger budget than its meagre $5 million.


A butterfly twist between two sword strikes is equal parts illogical and cool as hell.

Like the previous film in this series of reminiscences, “Hard Target,” “Crying Freeman” has some outstanding action sequences and they are also well-shot and edited, stylish affairs. In fact, it’s fair to say that Christophe Gans’ style was influenced by John Woo’s heroic bloodshed movies, what with his liberal use of slow motion, long takes and subtle gestures. From a tense sequence at a Yakuza funeral that ends in a ballistic gunfight to the final katana and kicks battle at a crumbling forest shrine, Gans shows he has a talent for directing stylish and fluid action, something he’d do again in his next film, “Brotherhood of the Wolf,” also starring Dacascos.

But aside from the action, there’s also a beauty to this film, partly in it’s cinematography (that always looks rich, full of depth and evocative) but also in its soundtrack (full of detail and subtle textures and enriched by an atmospheric score).


“Mark, stop feeding the swans, we’ve got a movie to shoot!”

And this is what I think influenced me the most. “Crying Freeman” was probably the first film that I saw that had real artistic value. Prior to this, I’d only really watched popcorn blockbusters, low-budget scifi, animation and B-movie action flicks. This film had visual elements and soundtrack cues that I had never encountered before and they opened up a new world of cinematic language for me. Although it would be a while before these elements turned up in my own films, they became a benchmark for me as a film viewer. I started looking for this level of craftmanship in other films and this eventually led to me broadening my cinematic palate and watching a wider range of films that didn’t involve jumping kicks.

So if you get a chance and it comes up on Netflix or you find it on DVD, I heartedly recommend checking out the live-action version of “Crying Freeman.”


Movies That Made Me #1- “Hard Target”

January 26, 2018

In what I hope will be a repeated, if not entirely regular, series, I thought I’d look at some of the films that have influenced me as a filmmaker. Now before people get all commenty in the comments section (best place to do it other than a toilet wall somewhere), most of these are not going to be undisputed classics. In fact most of these films would prompt an expression of confused disgust from many filmmakers and movie aficionados. But, good or bad, they have had an effect on me and the way I perceive and make films to this day.

These are the movies that made me.

First up to bat, it’s the slow motion Jean Claude Van Damme action vehicle and mullet enthusiast’s propaganda film, “Hard Target.”


For a teenage boy growing up in the early 90s, the local video rental shop was a godsend. I’ve mentioned it before, but my Dad knew a good deal when he saw it and for £10 a month, we could rent any three tapes we wanted, for as long as we wanted and swap them out as and when we felt like it. This meant that I saw pretty much every action movie ever made in the early years of that decade and for a boy who’d developed something of a fascination with martial arts (even before he took his first karate class), that was a lot of small screen inspiration.

I’d been a fan of Van Damme ever since I saw the first Universal Soldier, but it was Hard Target that really cemented him as an action star for me. It was also the film that introduced me to one of my greatest directorial influences, John Woo Yu Seng. It’s only in recent years that I can look back on Hard Target and see how profound an effect it had on me as a filmmaker.


Don’t eat all your snake, Van Damme, or you won’t have room for your scorpion tortillas.

If you haven’t seen the flick, it’s John Woo’s first American movie and while it’s a mixed bag compared to his previous Hong Kong outings like The Killer and Hard Boiled, it was a tour de force for a thirteen year old boy who had never seen anything like Woo’s flavour of balletic action before. The remarkably thin plot is about a group of mercenaries turned entrepreneurs hunting homeless veterans for sport in New Orleans, with Van Damme playing one such vet trying to help a young woman find her previously hunted father. And while that might be an awkwardly long sentence, it does pretty much sum up the story of the movie in one breath.

New Orleans makes for an interesting backdrop, even if it’s usually just used as a generic “small town America” and the Deep South references are relegated to soundtrack cues and architecture, but it makes a change from the usual L.A/New York setting most 90s action flicks find themselves in. It helps give the film a bit of character- something most of its contemporaries on the straight to video shelves lacked.


The acting itself is exactly what you’d expect from a 90s actioner directed by a man who didn’t speak English all that well- it’s pretty pish. Lance Henricksen and Arnold Vosloo are the best performers in the flick, Yancy Butler is alright but has very little to work with and JCVD… well, dialogue was never his strong suit, certainly not at this point in his career. Kicking people in the face, however, was, and while the movie isn’t overflowing with Van Damme’s usual bootwork, there are enough kicks mixed in with the gunplay to showcase what he can do.

Which brings me on to the action…


Wide angle spinning split kick- the best moment in the film and possibly in JCVD’s entire career.

As a 14 year old boy, this film blew me away. I’d seen action films before obviously, but this was refreshingly different, high energy and balletic compared to the Schwarzenegger-style flicks I’d seen previously. Bad guys flew through the air when shot, guns held about seventy rounds per clip, everything exploded when hit and diving sideways while doves flew past was the preferred mode of locomotion. I fucking loved it. And looking back on it, it had a huge effect on me as a filmmaker.

What made this film stand out for me at the time was the way it’s shot and edited. Woo’s style uses double cuts, replays and changing film speed (in particular, his often-cited slow motion) to enhance the feeling of an action sequence, making them a thing of beauty as well as a visceral experience. But he also uses frequent big close-ups, smooth dolly shots and mirrored compositions to tell a story- such as when Van Damme and Vosloo have a mid-gunfight conversation back-to-back against a wall. A lot of the story is told visually- characters don’t explain their feelings in dialogue, they show it in their eyes and the way they react to the things around them. This is one of the things that I notice a lot in my own work- a story told through when and how characters react to events in the scene. Little looks and gestures given decent screen time to highlight them. Obviously, Woo wasn’t the first to do this- it’s kinda filmmaking 101- but for a kid who was only just starting to notice movies for the craft involved, Woo’s work was a revelation.


So this is a “face.” But can it come “off?”

But probably the biggest takeaway for me was how Woo shoots and edits action. Action sequences rely on audiences understanding the geography of the location and having certain elements set up and paid off within the scene. For instance, the big finale takes place in this abandoned warehouse full of carnival floats, providing both a nice nod to the New Orleans setting and an interesting splash of colour to what could’ve been a drab and dingy location. The warehouse is a maze, full of all this junk and Woo sets up the size and creepy chaos with a suspenseful sequence where the bag guys led by Henricksen and Vosloo hunt for JCVD before all hell breaks loose. And it’s this suspense-release pattern that stood out amongst all the straight-to-VHS action films I’d been used to.

So, yes, it’s not the greatest film in the world and its not the greatest film in Woo’s catalogue, but Hard Target will always be the film that taught me how action design and editing worked. If you get a chance, it’s worth a look!