Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Listomania: Thomas' November to Forget 2012

Funny thing November turned out to be. Not exactly the banner month for either Will or myself, with a lot of iffy titles taken in. So much so, that I actually cheated a bit and grabbed a few titles from previous months that were worth mentioning here.

CELLBLOCK SISTERS - BANISHED BEHIND BARS (1995): It should be a simple formula: PM Entertainment + WIP genre = Jiggling, Exploding Awesomeness, right? Eh, well, no. A pair of girls sold by their hick father before accidentally killing their mother grow up in two completely different ways. Twenty some odd years later, April (Annie Wood) is running a criminal biker gang that not only pulls off the most obvious, boneheaded heists in the history of criminals who never get caught, but show their lack of class by having a band at their party that only knows one song and it's riff is a blatant rip-off of ZZ Top's "Tush" (no, it's not a cover). The other, May (Gail Harris) is visiting America from England, where as we know, everyone is prim, proper and polite. Once reunited, April kills pops and May takes the rap. Harris is supposed to be a vestigial babe in the woods of the slams, but it's really hard to pull off that shtick with bleached hair and big, fake stripper boobs. Not that we get to see them that much. For a women's prison movie writer-director Henri Charr seems more interested in cliched prison power-plays with canned, generic dialogue, and badly delivered at that. That might be passable if he had written in a whole mess of sleazy scenes involving nudity, shanking and lesbian antics. I mean, seriously, what is a trashy WIP flick without a lesbian sex scene or two (or twelve)? We have a brawl in the yard, but no tops get ripped off? What the hell are you thinking Henri? Hell, he even manages to botch the staple scene of the genre where the new inmates are forced to strip out of their civilian clothes in exchange for prison gear. He sets up the scene and then cuts away to a debriefing (so to speak) where most of the girls are shyly covering their naughty bits. Apparently, in spite of completely missing the point of the genre, the movie was popular enough (no doubt due to the trailer) for PM to employ him yet again for the "tasteful" (as one IMDb user called it) WIP flick, CAGED HEARTS (1997). And we wonder why PM went out of business.

FORTRESS (1985): Surprisingly bloody Aussie TV movie adapted to the screen by Everett De Roche who wrote a slew of great movies including LONG WEEKEND (1978), ROAD GAMES (1981), and RAZORBACK (1984), just to name a few. Rachel Ward plays a small-town school teacher who is suddenly taken hostage along with her school children by three armed men wearing cartoon animal masks led by one in a Santa mask. After escaping from the cave they were being held in, it's a game of cat and mouse between hostages and kidnappers that goes on across the outback over a couple of days and culminates with our mousy school marm training the kids to defend a cave in the high ground with jungle traps and spears. A nicely twisted ending seals the deal. If this had been broadcast on American TV, there would have been a Congressional inquiry and Tipper Gore would have snapped. Director Arch Nicholson makes the wise decision to keep the bad men masked at all times, making them seem even less human than they are and in doing so ramps up the menace. Granted this is not a totally new concept, but it's well played out with some great little moments and the added attraction of having Ward swimming around in her bra and panties. Oh and that Santa mask is about the creepiest damn thing I've ever seen.

V2 - DEAD ANGEL (2007): Sometimes less really is more. This sequel to the embarrassingly clumsy (though apparently very popular), over-stylized, 2004 PULP FICTION / USUAL SUSPECTS knock-off VARES - PRIVATE EYE (which Vares barely even appeared in) is so much better for what it's not. Gone is the obnoxious references to the movies that it is trying to emulate, gone is the goofy, over-the-top characters, gone is the laboriously forced f-bomb hipster-talk. Well, gone for the most part. Here Vares (Juha Veijonen in his final turn in the role) is actually hired to solve a murder that his former schoolmate, a toupee-wearing, alcoholic used-car salesman (Hannu-Pekka Björkman), has been acquitted of. After his "reputation" was raked through the mud, the bank will not allow him a loan to fix up his auto dealership. Along the way Vares discovers that he is in the middle of a tangled mess in which a group of high-ranking professionals are trying to cover up a crime and will kill to get the evidence. The kitschy characters are scaled way back, but they are still there, and the plot generally takes a backseat to their shenanigans, a neurotic, brillcreamed ex-con, a hulking 6'7" hitman who looks like Lemmy Kilmister in a duster and an Aussie bush hat (Jussi Lampi), and so on. The comedy is still there, but toned down and but it still gives the whole thing an air of not being taken seriously. In fact Vares never solves the main murder, and the audience is clued in at the end when they show you what nasty fate befell the girl. Played for laughs, of course. Far and away better than the first film, but still nothing remotely earthshaking. I'm guessing this movie holds a little closer to Reijo Mäki's novels, but it still couldn't garner enough enthusiasm for a third sequel. Vares was resurrected in 2011 in a series of six films with Antti Reini taking over the role.

Vares is on the case! Though, you'd never know,
as this is about 90% of what Vares does in the first two films.

SEASON OF THE WITCH (2011): I'm really amazed at all the negativity heaped on this film. First off, I really can't stand Nicholas Cage, secondly I'm not a big fan of Ron Pearlman either, but I actually enjoyed this film. Ok, stop throwing those eggs and hear me out! Set in a vague, fictionalized era of the Crusades, two killers for the cross, Behmen (Cage) and Felson (Pearlman), desert and subsequently find themselves escorting a witch to a far-off abbey in exchange for the dismissal of their desertion charges. Is she a witch, or is she an abused girl on her way to be tortured and murdered by the church? If you've seen the trailers, you already know the answer to that (thank you Lionsgate), but either way it makes for a pretty entertaining adventure. Much ado has been made of Cage's performance, which is certainly not deep or complex in any way, but this is easily the least offensive performance he's given since FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH. There has also been a lot of reviewers up in arms about its perceived lack of historical accuracy. I find this baffling as the film contains undead, witchcraft and holy verses that dispel evil. So, you are saying, it is the inconsistencies with the time period that keep this from being a factual drama? The movie is about as historically accurate as LADYHAWK, and there’s a few bits of questionable CGI, but I thought for what it was, it was entertaining, though not without a fistful of caveats.
Interestingly the film had some ire from the execs who demanded reshoots to bring the movie in line with what they believed the general public wanted to see (and of course they were wrong). I can see a studio suit flipping out, shouting "Where's the CGI monsters and why isn't Ron Pearlman saying funny stuff like in HELLBOY!?" Maybe some day we will get a director's cut, but in the mean time, be sure to check out the original ending that is included on the DVD and Blu-Ray releases which has a significantly different and vastly superior final 10 minutes. This is a perfect example of how Hollywood studios think that they can make more money by pandering to the lowest common denominator and in the process losing their audience. Even worse, this leads the studios to believe that it wasn't their meddling, but the subject matter that offended audiences.

THE LAST RUN (1971): When I was a teenager discovering the cool tough-as-nails movies of Eastwood and Bronson, I always thought George C. Scott was one of those Academy actors that made pretentious critics happy. In spite of enjoying him in films such as THE HUSTLER (1961) and DOCTOR STRANGELOVE (1964) It wasn't until I saw THE NEW CENTURIONS (1972) and HARDCORE (1979) that I really started to get the picture. Then Will sent me RAGE (1972) and that was it. George C. Scott is cool. So now I'm always looking out for some of his lesser known, or distributed films and this is one. Scott plays a retired underworld driver living in Portugal who's child has died and his wife has left for parts unknown. His sad life consists of realizing that he isn't any good at fishing and finds comfort in the company of an aging prostitute. After deciding to take a job driving a con (Tony Musante) and his girl (Trish Van Devere) through Spain and France, he discovers that the men who hired him to help spring the young shooter are the people who also want them dead. There are some vague political allusions that don't really do anything for the plot which feels dated even for '71. Credibility is stretched to the breaking point as Scott is cast as an aging, but still allegedly sexy, criminal and Musante is simply loud and obnoxious. There's potential for some interesting character bits here, but notoriously flat writer Alan Sharp's script just isn't up to it and Musante plays the role without a lick of subtlety. The highlight of the film is a decent chase sequence between Scott's suped-up '57 BMW 503 and a hitman's '69 Jaguar XJ6 through the hills of Spain. It's not a bad movie, but my expectations were pretty high.

CATACOMBS (1988): Nice little horror yarn from David Schmoeller that actually predates the extremely similar Michele Soavi film THE CHURCH (1989). Starting out with a sequence that echoes THE BEYOND (1981), a long-haired, albino Antichrist is entombed alive in the catacombs under a monastery  A few hundred years later, the monks are investigating the catacombs and manage to release the evil within. After sitting on the shelf for five years, the film was unceremoniously dumped on video as CURSE IV: THE ULTIMATE SACRIFICE, of which, none of those words has any bearing on what happens in the film. It got a mixed reception with people unfairly comparing it to other CURSE sequels (all of which had nothing to do with THE CURSE). It's not particularly bloody, nor is it particularly scary, but it is rather compelling viewing anyway. The most famous scene is probably the one with Jesus removing himself from the perch that he'd been nailed to, and it is pretty damn effective. I would have loved to see some of the main characters fleshed out a bit more and maybe some more creative demises (there's a lot of chest clutching and falling over in this abbey), but it's still good fun.

KAMEN RIDER - THE FIRST (2005): Cutting edge scientist (Masaya Kikawada) studying water crystals (I don't know either), finds himself kidnapped by a secret evil organization known as Shocker. Shocker rules the world in the shadows via it's army of human-animal hybrid cyborgs. Our humble scientist, now turned into a grasshopper cyborg, rebels against Shocker in order to save a reporter who he has always had a crush on. Multiple subplots ensue including a particularly heavy-handed and sappy one about a teenage boy and girl who are in a hospital due to terminal illnesses. The twist here will be pretty obvious to anyone with half a brain and it seems like it is time that could have been better spent driving forward some sort of plot. The film meanders around, frequently wallowing in soap-opera sentimentality, which has become obnoxiously trendy over recent years (I never thought I'd say this, but damn you Peter Jackson!). On the plus side, the cyborg suits are frickin' uh-maaaazing. There's even a few flashy close-ups on several of the characters where you can see all of the hand-stitching and painstaking detail in the costumes. The action, though heavily edited, is pretty good too with signature moves and evil cyborgs exploding in massive balls of flame after receiving electric kicks and such. The CG is minimal, unlike the previous year's ULTRAMAN: THE NEXT, which is also a good thing. If only that script could focus on a plot. Directed by Takao Nagaishi, who has worked on no less than five different Kamen Rider TV shows, and cut his teeth with the notorious RAPEMAN DTV movies, there are a lot of things to like about this reboot... then there's the script. Written by Toshiki Inoue, a long time veteran TV and anime writer, the script really would like to be a soapy drama about teens and friends and cheap sentiment instead of a crazy, tilt-a-whirl superhero outing with mutant cyborgs. Even so, it's still a damn sight better than a lot of the modern Japanese tokusatsu stuff that I've seen lately.

THE WOLVES OF ARGA (2011) aka GAME OF WEREWOLVES. This Spanish horror-comedy has gotten an amazing amount of positive fan press lately and while I hate to seem like I'm pissing in everyone's Wheaties, this movie is one big misfire for me. A nebbish, somewhat unsuccessful writer, Tomas (Gorka Otxoa), goes back to his rural village after decades of city living only to discover that there is a lycanthropic curse that the hicks have been living under for the past 100 years and only his flesh will stop it. Sounds decent enough, but this is a comedy first and foremost. Tomas quickly meets up with his childhood friend Calisto (Carlos Areces), who is the fat comic sidekick (if it was an '80s American film, he would have been an urban black guy). This sets the stage for a very SHAUN OF THE DEAD derived jokefest about masturbation, sheep-screwing (you could make a drinking game out of those two subjects), a gear-jamming grandma and lots of cute doggie hijinks courtesy of Tomas' pet. There is some werewolf stuff, mostly at the end, and it's not bad (no CGI thank you), but it's certainly not remotely effective as horror. There are no scares, no shocks, some questionable use of wire-work to make the lycanthropes leap on and off of buildings and fly across rooms and it's very light on the red stuff. Add to that the fact that the werewolves tend to stand around and wait to be shot or set on fire when they could easily slaughter the cast if they didn't seem to have their feet nailed to the floor. As far as I'm concerned there is no "horror" in this horror-comedy and I found the jokes to be under-reaching at best. I'm surprised that there were no gags about werewolf farts or people slipping in werewolf poop. They must be saving those for the sequel.

HANNIE CAULDER (1971): After years and years of procrastination I finally got around to watching this British attempt to cash in on the Spaghetti western, from Tigon, of all studios. Don't expect British wit, nor should you expect the twisty plots and style of a Spaghetti. This star studded western is essentially an American film, written and directed by the one and only Burt Kennedy, well known for bringing touches of humor to the many westerns to his credit. Here is no different. It's a cheerfully light-hearted western-comedy about a woman (Raquel Welch) who is repeatedly raped by a gang of outlaws (Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam, and Strother Martin), whose husband is murdered, their house burned down and their horses scattered. After a lot of convincing, a bounty hunter (Robert Culp) decides to teach her how to be a badass so that she can have her revenge. Christopher Lee has an amusing bit part as the tallest wedo in Mexico. A solidly entertaining American-style (read: simple) western, marred only by the fact that Kennedy is aiming for laughs out of Caulder's rape and the destruction of her life. Black comedy is one thing, this actually has wacky music when the outlaws are drunk, giggling and stumbling to their horses after killing, raping and burning. With a lesser cast and director this could have been an underground trainwreck (as opposed to this above-ground trainwreck), so I guess what I'm trying to say is, the cast is what makes this movie worth watching.

Let the hilarity begin!

RAGE OF HONOR (1987): Fresh off of the notoriously censored ninja flick PRAY FOR DEATH (1985), director Gordon Hessler and star Sho Kosugi re-team in an attempt to reinvent the ninja as a modern-day James Bond. Heading straight into what was then topical action waters, Kosugi stars as government agent Shiro Tanaka, who has been hot on the trail of sadistic South American drug lord (are there any other kind?), Havlock (Lewis Van Bergen). After Tanaka's partner stupidly walks into an ambush and is taunted, tortured and terminated, Tanaka defies his orders to sit on his shurikens and tosses in his badge, determined to make the bad guys pray for de- oh, sorry, wrong movie. Well, he's going to see justice is done anyway and he's going to do it in a spiffy black outfit with lots of ninja weapons! Chasing down Havlock is not as easy as he thought, Havlock and his men are armed to the teeth and have no problem blowing up half of Singapore and Buenos Ares. I see your tanto and raise you a LAW rocket! Hessler wisely throws out all but the most basic of ninja pretensions and makes a slam-bang action flick that hits the ground running with a shoot-out, some light martial arts and a high-octane speedboat chase all before the opening credits. Sure, the plot is the epitome of '80s cliche, but where else would you get to see both Sho Kosugi and Gerry Gibson struggle with their American accents in the same scene? Cinematic gold, I tell ya.

6 Reactions:

  1. You know, I'll stand alongside you in that "wasn't nearly as bad as I was expecting it to be" with SEASON OF THE WITCH. Also watched HANNIE CAULDER this year - what a weird little flick. If it weren't for such likeable actors in the roles of the brothers, this movie would be completely uncomfortable to watch...and it's still pretty uncomfortable.

    So bummed that you didn't enjoy GAME OF WEREWOLVES, especially since I was doing much of the ballyhoo. The only thing I can think of is a) I've only ever seen it in the company of an audience where the humor probably plays best. That said, what do you mean the horror doesn't work? Was it ever supposed to be genuinely scary? I just thought it was a fun monster movie, which is all I think it sets out to be. (I agree, I don't get the whole sheep-banging hilarity. Maybe it's a Spanish thing.)

  2. Don't take it personally, you weren't the only one waving the GoW flag.

  3. It's not Colin Blakely. It's Gerry Gibson, who I think is Irish or British, most of his career is in US, doing Irish episodes of Murder She Wrote or playing Brits including Inspector Lestrade in Voyagers. His only British credit is in a pre-Tigon Tony Tenser 1964 exploitation, Saturday Night Out, which was supposed to have the Beatles in it, but Tenser refused to pay the train fare from Liverpool.

  4. Thanks for catching that goof George, it must have been wishful thinking on my part. Corrected.

  5. Further research indicates that Gibson was in fact an Australian ex-TV host.

  6. "Fortress" WAS broadcast on American TV - on HBO, in fact.


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