Cyber Monday: Project Shadowchaser Trilogy

Frank Zagarino dies hard!

Cinemasochism: Black Mangue (2008)

Braindead zombies from Brazil!

The Gweilo Dojo: Furious (1984)

Simon Rhee's bizarre kung fu epic!

Adrenaline Shot: Fire, Ice and Dynamite (1990)

Willy Bogner and Roger Moore stuntfest!

Sci-Fried Theater: Dead Mountaineer's Hotel (1979)

Surreal Russian neo-noir detective epic!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

What's Up Doc?: DEATH RIDERS (1976)

I recently talked with a friend about trends that seemed like they could only have happened in the 1970s.  Culturally, the “Me decade” gave us such unique things as disco and punk rock; the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis wars; totally 70s TV shows like THE BRADY BUNCH and THE ELECTRIC COMPANY; and Elliot Gould’s career as a big screen leading man.  If these things didn’t emerge during those tens years, they would have never happened at all.  Another popular 70s culture trend (in the West, at least) was the rise of the daredevil stunt show.  Although around for decades before this, epic stunt performances took on a distinctly 70s hold and awareness thanks mostly to the mainstream popularity of Evel Knievel.

DEATH RIDERS follows the Death Riders Motorcycle Thrill Show as they traverse the United States over the course of 1974.  Based out of Danville, Illinois (only crazy folks live in the Land of Lincoln), this destruction demonstration was the brainchild of Floyd Reed, Sr.  No doubt he sat a home one day and thought, “Demolition derbies don’t do it for me. I know what we need: fire!”  Seizing on the 1960s mondo documentary trend, the film opens with a onscreen graphic stating it is dedicated to the stunt performers who died over the years doing the various stunts you are about to see.  If that isn’t salacious enough, they then list each performer, the stunt that caused their death, and the date of their demise (some dating back to the 1940s).  Ouch.  DEATH RIDERS lets you know right up front, this is as real as it gets and you are going to see the real life of a caravan of thrill seekers.

We get our first knowledge of the Death Riders thanks to a monotone voice over by young performer/narrator Larry Mann. He lays out the group’s philosophy right away as they “aren’t like the stuntmen you see on the TV or in movies. We all do our own stunts with no tricky gimmicks, no rehearsals, and no special safety precautions.  That’s the way we like it.”  This plays over a clip of stuntman Danny Reed doing a car flip that freezes in mid-frame as the title DEATH RIDERS thrusts toward the audience while the Death Riders theme song by rockabilly singer Dorsey Burnette blasts (“Death Rider. I didn’t need to learn how”).  Damn, this is gonna be good.   We then get a sequence of a car on fire jumping up a ramp and smashing into another car.  Yeah, this is gonna be awesome.

Larry informs the audience that the Death Riders show is different because “most of the guys are only 17 or 18 years old.”  Ah, reckless child endangerment, another great 1970s staple.  Of course, he says, the best part is staying alive so you can meet all the single chicks afterward.  As Danny Reed puts it, “a single guy has it made.”  The young ladies are just a distant memory soon as the group heads out to their next location in their bright yellow vans with the Death Riders logo painted on the side.  We get to see them set up the ramps and pyrotechnics for the show at a fair while Reed, Sr. hires on young rookie Bob Spears.  “You just joined the show? I feel sorry for you,” says lanky Russ Smith aka Squeeks the Clown.  Squeeks is there to provide comedic relief and keep the audience occupied during ramp set ups.  He even gets in on the stunts, like lying on the hood of a car while it bursts through a wall of fire.  Poor Squeeks.  

We then get to see the downside of being a stunt rider as Spears sees his ego take a hit when he crashes during a bike jump through a wall of, naturally, fire.  Then we see Jim “The Maine Maniac” Moreau throw out his back on a double jump (two guys on one bike).  No doubt this stunt failed because they didn’t jump through anything on fire.  His pain vividly plays out on screen while he narrates what went wrong.  The show must go on though and the next scene has the crew picking Jim up at the hospital, with Larry saying “all the doctor did was tape Jim’s back and tell him to stay away from motorcycles.”  Ah, the 1970s indeed.  $50 says that doctor was smoking a cigarette while he dispensed his advice.  The group then visits as nudist colony where the People Jump gets the added thrill of being the Naked People Jump as the song “Sunny Side Up” plays. As if that weren’t scary enough, the doc juxtaposes that with a visit with Claire Reed, Floyd, Sr.’s mom.  She is quite approving, saying of the show, “I don’t think much of it.” Well, Floyd, Sr. shows her by having Danny a dangerous stunt that he flips end-over-end which causes her to pass out.  I guess that wasn’t enough so then he does the Mr. TNT bit where he gets in a box and is blown up.  How you like me now, grandma?

The film then shows the lighter side of death defying, namely picking on announcer Henry.  The crew gets into a shaving cream fight with him and later makes him a hamburger made of dog food.  It is then that I realized what DEATH RIDERS is – it is the grandfather of JACKASS minus all the butthole and penis stuff.  This is reinforced in some staged bits where the boys are “challenged” by locals to do wild stuff like ride a motocross track in one town and ride some bulls in another. Hell, one of the guys even swallows a goldfish at an amusement park, but doesn’t have the courtesy of Steve-O to barf it back up.  Yes, the Death Riders are the true originators of the insane stunt guys but they didn’t sell their soul to the Hollywood devil at the drop of the hat for fame and money or to star in lame comedies like Johnny Knoxville.  No, the Death Riders sold their souls to God, namely Earl Owensby.  After this documentary was filmed, the crew filmed some scenes in 1975 for Owensby’s stunt driving classic DEATH DRIVER (1976).    

If you are a fan of watching stuff get blow’d up and smashed, then DEATH RIDERS is essential viewing.  Of course, you can always expect me to pimp a production where apparently I was the assistant director. News to me, but I’m sure I enjoyed hanging out with the Death Riders crew. And don’t just go in thinking this is some cheapjack documentary either.  Director James Wilson was an experienced cinematographer with over 150 credits dating back all the way to the 1920s!  His co-cinematographer is none other than Hungarian DP Vilmos Zsigmond. Zsigmond would go on to win the Academy Award for cinematography just a few years after this for his work on Spielberg’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977).  Both men know how to perfectly capture the stunts with incredible slow motion and camera placement (I’m pretty sure one stunt ended up with a camera getting smashed).  Combined with some top notch editing and moody score, the film offers some grand stunt moments that reach an ethereal level; these bits are more befitting a documentary contemplation the meaning of life, not adrenaline freaks putting on a daredevil stunt show.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Comedy Cataclysm: THE EXTERMINATORS (1989)


It’s the second largest country in South America, famed for its grass-fed beef, fine wines and European influence. Centuries old architecture frames its panoramic ranchero vistas, unique cuisine and modern fashion. Latin style melded with European sophistication. So it is only proper that this comedy starts out with one of the lead characters being kicked in the balls.

Yes, all of that wistful Travel Channel rhetoric is great, but if you want to see the Argentina of the people, you need look no further than THE EXTERMINATORS. Fondly remembered and spawning no less than three sequels, this is what Argentine cinema is all about; cheap entertainment that distracts the masses from the dictator du jour, the abject poverty and everything else that you never see on the tourist guides.

Really if there’s anything that is good in the world, it’s cheap movies that were never intended for export.

The famous mercenary duo The Exterminator and The Destructor are taking a pleasure cruise to Buenos Ares to meet The Colonel, receive medals of honor and get briefed on their new assignment. Deep in the Argentine jungle, a martial arts madman named The Dragon (world champion karate expert Néstor Varzé doing his best Matthais Hues impersonation) is running a ninja terrorist camp complete with what appear to be Robert Palmer girls dressed up in skimpy ninja outfits. Also on board the ship are two numbskull swabbies who do menial labor (badly) while ogling the swarms of bikini-clad models who are, for some reason, also on the cruise. Three smokin’ hot reporter “chicas” try to stick to their story while ogling the musclebound mercs, while two Asian agents of evil plot to do away with the duo so that they will not destroy their ninja camp.

After poisoning their orange juice and dumping their bodies overboard, the Asian agents feel confident that they have eliminated the threat to their camp. Unfortunately for them, the swabbies, Emilio (Emilio Disi) and Guillermo (Guillermo Francella), find The Exterminator and The Destructor’s outfits while cleaning their cabin and decide to try them on. In spite of the fact that The Exterminator and The Destructor are easily twice the size of Emilio and Guillermo, the uniforms fit perfectly and you can guess what happens next. Without a blink of an eye, the two buffoons are assumed to be the war heroes who have massacred entire battalions (presumably in the ‘82 Falkland’s conflict) single, or rather, double handedly. The only snag, aside from them not knowing how to fight, is that the journalistas know that the pair are imposters and they want the real story. As if that wasn’t enough plot, we also have a subplot shoehorned in about a martial arts tournament that they are supposed to be in once they have completed the raid on the ninja camp!

This whole tournament subplot could have actually been turned into another movie entirely, but is instead wedged in awkwardly before and after the main plot with the ninja camp. The purpose though, is obvious, to spoof KARATE KID rip-offs like NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER (and it’s completely unrelated, but vastly entertaining sequel). This allows the two hugely popular comic actors a forum for extreme silliness during a training demo at the dojo of their military liaison, Hector (world champion kickboxing expert Hector Echavarria). In one bit Hector wants to demonstrate the art of dodging arrows (because, as we all know, ninjas don’t use guns), when it comes time for Emillio to stand in front of the crossbow, trembling and squealing, he somehow manages to actually catch the arrow. So ecstatic is he that while jumping for joy, he throws the arrow to the floor. Suddenly his eyes go wide and he starts screaming in pain, only to lift his foot to the camera showing the arrow embedded in it. Is the hilarity ensuing? Yep, that’s what you get. It’s either that or groinshots, take your pick. Most of the humor in the film is shrill gags about the guys either shrieking in pain, shrieking in fear or shrieking in excitement over mucho chicas calientes. On the other hand, you have a ninja camp, girls in skimpy outfits, stuff blowing up and two world-class marital artists! Works for me!

Following the traditional Ninja Terrorist Camp bylaws, Dragon spends most of his time arranging pit-fights, killing off his top men. I never said the bylaws allowed for effective team management, I just said they were traditional. It also gives us an excuse to have Varzé and  Echavarria square off not once, but twice, here at the camp and again as another byproduct of the whole martial arts tournament subplot. In spite of the occasional undercranking, the martial arts choreography is surprisingly good for a movie this low budget and both of these guys are top-drawer fighters. Echavarria should be instantly recognizable to MMA fans as this film was a launching pad for his career in TV and movies.

Reflecting the country’s brutal economic issues, this movie is cheap and is completely unhindered by the ravages of subtlety. Frequently feeling like a Godfrey Ho movie, complete with stolen footage spliced in to the action, director Carlos Galettini gets the most out of his obviously miniscule budget by featuring Hefner-esque levels of gorgeous women in tiny outfits in every scene he can manage to squeeze them in to. In the reporter’s offices, it seems as if the entire newspaper is staffed by dozens of fashion-plate models whose job description seems to be “walk from room to room” and “look hot”. When raiding the ninja camp, the journalist girls smuggle themselves aboard and once in the jungle decide that their city clothing just won’t do and decide to fashion themselves some super-skimpy mercenary outfits out of the guy’s spare clothing and a machete. This is actually funnier than any of the pratfalls and bug-eyed screaming. A little easier on the eyes too.

In spite of the fact that I don’t have the nostalgia trip for this movie that many Argentinians seem to have, and the comedy is straight out of the ‘60s (seriously, who did the old guy-in-full-body-cast-in-pain comedy gags in the late ‘80s?), it’s still a fun little flick. As one Argentinian fan said, you’ll laugh, not because the jokes are funny, but because they are actually there. The ending bit where both of our “heroes” are undercranked, hobbling in casts, running down a hallway, supposedly being chased by the real Exterminator and Destructor (even though they are never seen in the sequence), while screaming like banshees illustrates that point perfectly. So why am I so looking forward to checking out THE EXTERMINATORS 2: REVENGE OF THE DRAGON?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Comedy Cataclysm: RACQUET (1979)

Never let it be said that I am not one for empathy. Tom endured the dreadful 70s comedy SWAP MEET (1979) a few weeks back and I must have subconsciously felt bad for him as I sought out RACQUET, an even more abysmal comedic offering from the same year.  If swap meets get your 70s nostalgia rolling, then RACQUET will send it into overdrive with its focus on the swap meet for rich folks – tennis!  With visions of hilarious hi-jinks thanks to the Jack Davis style poster, I thought I was going to get the story of an irrepressible rebel ruffling feathers at a stuffy country club. Instead, I got a vanity project for perennial game show host Bert Convy that casts him as stud muffin that is not only desirable to all women, but is able to hold his own with world tennis champ Björn Borg on the tennis court.  If this movie was an eBay seller, I’d leave negative feedback about false advertising.    

Following a catchy theme that declares “there’s nothing like a slam to make you feel like a man,” we are introduced to tennis vet Tommy Everett (Convy).  An aging pro who teaches at a country club, Tommy finds out his boss Charlie (Bobby Riggs, still cashing in on his “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match with Billie Jean King 6 years later) is looking to replace him with 22-year-old Joe.  This puts Tommy into action and he figures he can start up his own tennis club.  He finds the ideal house in Beverly Hills, but the snobby realtor Miss Baxter (Susan Tyrell) wants $200,000 upfront. That is no problem as Tommy has a side business – humping the horny housewives of the Hills under the guise of “tennis lessons.”  His main client is role play loving Leslie Sargent (Edie Adams).  Their first onscreen session has him as the Bionic Man and her as the Bionic Woman (how contemporary).  The gag here is that Tommy says he has a “Bionic peeper” which causes them to have a Bionic orgasm that shoots them to the ceiling in slow motion (see pic). Sadly, they don’t use the familiar Bionic leap sound.  The session ends with her saying “I think I liked you better as Hitler” and promising Tommy the cash for his tennis club from her husband Arthur (Phil Silvers).  To make matters worse, Mrs. Sargent’s 17-year-old niece Melissa (Kitty Ruth) is spending the summer with them and she just finds Tommy dreamy.

Anyway, professional gigolo Tommy seems to have it all going his way until he gets booked for a tennis lesson by Mrs. Monica Gordon (Lynda Day George). Seems she is an old flame, recently divorced and the only lady really looking for tennis lessons from Tommy.  Well, you know he is going to work that irresistible charm and woe, er, woo her back even though she “doesn’t want to get hurt again.”  That is what picnic montages are for baby and soon the couple is back in love.  Even though he has feelings for Monica, Tommy can’t resist that two hundred thou that Leslie dangles in front of him.  With her husband heading out of town on business, Tommy heads over for a game of Anthony and Cleopatra, but not before the cab driver warns him there is a sex maniac on the loose wearing only underwear and carrying a tennis racquet (can you see where this is heading?).  Post-session Leslie goes out for some cigarettes and – wouldn’t you know it – Mr. Sargent comes home early.  He even has the same cab driver who warns him about the sex maniac on the prowl (for the slower audience members apparently).  Mr. Sargent mistakes Tommy in bed for his wife and slips into something more comfortable so he can get his freak on.  More specifically, he dons a turkey costume and proceeds to run around the room gobbling in what surely has to be the low point of Silvers’ career.  Tommy sneaks out of a window in the nick of time.  Meanwhile, Leslie arrives back, jumps into bed in a Wonder Woman costume, discovers her husband and says, “Arthur, you turkey!”  Wah, wah, waaaahhhh!

But don’t you dare think the hilarity has ended there!  Tommy is quickly whisked off the street by some black guys who want to steal his wallet.  He tries to reason with them by saying, “Wait. Listen, you guys don't have to rip me off. I'm a soul brother. Yes, see my curly hair? I speak your language. Alright! Far out! Outta sight! Mutherfucker!” This goes over so well that they drop him off on Hollywood boulevard in – wait for it – his underwear.  Gee, I wonder if some cops will…too late!  They spot him and immediately think he is the sex maniac on the loose, despite not having a tennis racquet. This results in a convoluted chase that ends with Tommy at the mercy of some drag queens before he is saved by the teenager Melissa, who then takes him to a disco.  The next morning the same cops (they working 24 hour shift back then?) spot him again and Tommy steals a “just married” car with a couple actively screwing in the back.  This leads to a car chase that ends with Tommy smashing into an Italian wedding party, which naturally leads to a food fight.  The girl in the backseat pops up from her sexy time to see the wedding party and exclaims, “Oh my god, it's my mama, my papa…and my husband!” Wah, wah, waaaahhhh!

Now don’t you double dare think the hilarity has ended there!  Mrs. Sargent gets wind of Tommy having flirted with her niece and refuses to give him the money now (using the old “I was going to give you the check tonight” routine). Monica offers to give Tommy the money he needs for his tennis club.  Of course, he is a man and he “wants to do it my own way.”  Dumbass.  This allows for Tommy’s other client Mrs. Kaufman (Dorothy Konrad) to make her move. See, she’s been hearing gossip about Tommy’s extra curricular activities and, like all ladies, wants a piece of that ball boy. So she whisks Tommy off to Las Vegas for business but when she tries to put the moves on him, he recoils in fear.  Why would professional lothario Tommy refuse money-for-sex? Well, she is fat!  Oh folks, this is comedy right here. Anyway, Tommy has somehow discovered what he is doing is wrong and heads back to the loving arms of Monica back in California.  Good luck with that relationship kids. Oh, I forgot to mention, somewhere in the middle of all that he manages to play in a tennis tournament where he loses to but holds his own with the world’s no. 1 tennis player, Björn Borg.

Okay, I think I have officially put more work into writing about RACQUET than the actual screenwriters did.  But even my words can’t describe how bad and unfunny this film is. First off, you have to realize Bert Convy is the lead.  Convy was best known for hosting a billion game shows so casting him as the lead in comedy is absurd.  That would be like giving Pat Sajak his own talk show.  It ain’t gonna work.  But they take it a step further by playing him as a sex god to women.  Uh, even to my heterosexual eyes this guy is no panty dropper.  He’s always looked like the missing Brady son to me.  Even worse is having the 46-year-old hold his own with Borg, the world’s no. 1 tennis player at the time.  Their match turns into a hilarious affair that would make Leni Riefenstahl proud as director David Winters focuses on Convy’s hamstrings in slo-mo.  Now I’m all for the suspension of disbelief in movies, but I can guarantee you that Convy said to Hollywood friends, “Eh, he was okay.  I could have beat him.”  Borg was definitely in the wrong era when it came to sports star crossovers.

Director Winters, who would later do THE LAST HORROR FILM (1982) and THRASHIN’ (1986), seems to have no idea how to do comedy.  I knew I was in trouble when the first 5 minutes has a fat lady walking and they shoot her butt while inserting thumping sounds with each step. If Winters hadn’t co-founded 90s cheese staple A.I.P. (Action International Pictures), I would be really pissed at him. Even more amusing is this Box Office magazine piece about Convy wanting good, fun family flicks on the market.  He says one rewrite of the RACQUET script was “just trashy and terrible.”  So they gave it over to the man himself and he rewrote it.  His final, star approved product brought forth a film with a dozen “shits” and one “wanna fuck” in the first ten minutes.  Ah, classy.  I would have preferred “trashy and terrible” cuz maybe I would have gotten a topless tennis scene.  I also love that Convy has a plot point of trying to get it on with a 17-yeary-old.  I’m sure Chris Hansen sat in the theater enraged…like the rest of the audience for other reasons.

About the only enjoyment I got from this “comedy” is the aforementioned catchy theme sung by Guy Finley (linked below). Finley actually left the music business in 1979 because he felt his life was empty and moved to India to become a mystic guru. Hmmm, empty life…l979…hey, that is when RACQUET came out.  This film is so freakin’ bad that it drove a guy halfway across the globe to escape it. That has to be it.  Either that or he got a threatening note from Randy Newman saying, “This town ain’t big enough for the two of us.”

Box Office review, June 18, 1979:

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Cinemasochism: LITTLE LOST SEA SERPENT (1995)

It is no secret that I watch a lot of bad movies.  Hell, this whole blog is practically a virtual shrine to the kind of movies that make you want to pop your eyeballs out and soak them in bleach.  In my humble opinion, however, one filmmaker sits high atop the cinemasochism mountain.  He made films so bad that I run to Albert Pyun or Nick Millard for relief. This man is Donald G. Jackson.  There is a scene in MARATHON MAN (1980) where Sir Laurence Olivier’s Nazi character tortures Dustin Hoffman by drilling into his teeth sans anesthetic.  He then offers him a choice – numbing solution to dull the pain or further prodding with his dental pick. Jackson’s filmmaking is that pick, constantly plucking at the raw, exposed nerves of filmdom or, dare I say, humanity.

Like most folks, my first exposure to Jackson’s filmography came with HELL COMES TO FROGTOWN (1988) starring “Rowdy” Roddy Piper.  It was a decent post-apocalypse flick with an unusual twist and tongue firmly planted in cheek.  Then my “friend” Marty sent me Jackson’s ROLLER BLADE (1986) and it was all downhill from there.  Now, I'm not much for reading into things, but - no joke - my VCR spit ROLLER BLADE out twice when I first tried to watch it. Turns out I'm dumb enough to fix the problem (stuck gate) and throw the video back in.  The film is torture on celluloid and easily in my top 5 of the worst films I’ve ever seen.  It also virtually created a new fetish subgenre that I’m sure only Jackson was a member of – scantily clad chicks on rollerblades with samurai swords.  He would go on to make 4 more legit sequels to it and – heaven help us – a bunch more semi-related flicks with “roller” in the title. Imagine your craziest Uncle with a camera and that is Jackson.
Sometime in the mid-90s, Jackson made a choice that only most novice filmmakers made back then.  Namely, he decided to switch to “filming” his productions on video because it was cheaper and, hell, there is no difference between film and video, right?  Not a good move when the one saving grace of your movies is that they were actually shot on film.  At the time, video wasn’t at the level it is today and anything going down the SOV road immediately took on a garish porn aesthetic.  I think I can count on one hand the number of good shot-on-video product.  Regardless, Jackson ventured forward and gave the world LITTLE LOST SEA SERPENT (1995).  A shot-on-video kids flick? Could this be any worse?  Well, sure, let’s put Conrad Brooks in it!

The “film” opens with Tommy Rockwell (Brad Bufanda) and Julie Lockett (Linett Axelsson, who looks a bit like 80s Daryl Hannah) being dropped off at the beach by Tommy’s mom.  Seems there is turmoil in the Rockwell household as Tommy’s workaholic journalist dad (Joe Estevez) is never around and mom’s solution is to drop her kid at the one place he used to like going with his dad.  Nice passive aggressive move there, mom.  Anyway, wandering the beach the kids discover the title creature washed up on the shore after a big storm. Witnessing the discovery from afar are Ozzie (Conrad Brooks) and Wilbur (Jeff Hutchinson), two bumbling tabloid journalists.  The kids, naturally, decide the best thing to do with a sea creature is take it as far from its home the ocean as possible (did Tommy learn this from his mom), while the muckrakers decide they must try to steal this find of the century.

After the little monster (“He’s a sea serpent,” Julie would scold me) eats a bunch of hotdogs and the kids scare an old man (director Jackson in a non-Hitchcockian cameo), they get him home and more hi-jinks ensue.  The family dog Duke tries to get at LLSS and our cute creature eats some of mom’s tropical fish. Meanwhile, we get lots of cutaways to Ozzie and Wilbur in their car waiting for the best moment to strike (they never do) while eating lots of hamburgers and hotdogs. The kids show the sea serpent to their friends and they all decide the best course of action is to return it to the ocean so it can reunite with its family.  Of course, things gets crazy when Tommy’s dad sees their discovery and, like any good parent, decides this is his ticket to fame and fortune. So it is a race to get this little punk starfish back to the beach.

Oh man, I thought there was nothing worse than SOV horror and sci-fi flicks (CRYSTAL FORCE II is a good example), but there is: shot-on-video kids films!  At least the horror/sci-fi ones offer the possibility of some cool gore or cheesy T&A. LITTLE LOST SEA SERPENT offers nothing but the possibility of pain, which it delivers overwhelmingly.  Yes, Jackson must have thought he had hit the goldmine at the cost of a VHS ten-pack as he hoped to cash in on the fervent love kids have for movies.  But this guy can barely make a film, let alone a children’s film.  I’m not kidding, there is an early dialog scene between Ozzie and Wilbur where some guy in the background starts digging through a dumpster.  That is symbolism at its finest.  Jackson can’t be bothered with stuff like continuity and camera set ups, so you can’t be surprised when he fails in the family film plot department.  Here is his take on the classic “parent almost discovers the secret” scene:

Believe it or not, that kid in the clip actually went on to have a career in Hollywood, making this film his equivalent of Vanessa Williams’ nude pics.  I also love how Julie’s line is “we were going to build you a lamp” but it sounds like “we were going to build you a man.”  He also commits the ultimate sin of not including a “I’m going to name you ______” scene. This is required of all kids’ films (per Spielbergian law #1982-ET) where they discover something cute and take it home.  As evidenced by that clip, the acting is horrible as well.  You know your film is in trouble when Conrad Brooks gives the best performance. I give Brooks a hard time for his contributions to cinema like HILLBILLY MONSTER (2003), but he truly is the best actor here as he plays it totally goofy.  There is a long bit where he and his pal talk vaguely about Ed Wood’s PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (for the uninitiated, Brooks co-starred in that) and they decide since their previous Plan 8 failed that it is time to use Plan 9.  Get it?  It is strange that he and his friend never actually do any kind of attempts at stealing and, most likely, their scenes were added later as they are never onscreen with any other characters.  

Even weirder is the relationship between the two lead kids. Julie is several years older than Tommy and it is never established if she is his babysitter or what (“she’s down for the summer” is all we get about her from one character).  The finale has Tommy giving her a peck on the check (which he misses!), so I’m thinking she has a teaching career ahead of her.  There is also this awkward exchange after they scare Jackson’s character off the beach again.

Tommy: “You’re pretty sneaky.”
Julie: “Hey, I’m a woman.”

The ending is a total hoot as the mother of the sea serpent appears and says in English, “Time to come home.”  The little lost sea serpent then says something to the kids in English.  Wait a sec, the whole time you could communicate but decided to annoy the kids (and the audience) with high pitch bleeps?  Little lost sea prick is more like it.  The theme song (“nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah”) is repeated so many times time that I swear you will be humming it by the end of the film.  Ha, who am I kidding?  You’re not going to watch this as only idiots would watch this *goes to sit in corner*.  The film threatened ANOTHER LITTLE LOST SEA SERPENT in the closing credits, but thankfully Jackson never made it that far.  If I ever have kids, I am totally going to show them this film…as punishment. Any bad behavior will be treated with a “don’t make me get the LITTLE LOST SEA SERPENT disc out” threat.  No doubt I’d be getting a visit from Child Protective Services real quick. Welcome to my top 5 worst films of all-time, LITTLE LOST SEA SERPENT.  I think you’ll find a cozy seat right over there next to your brother ROLLER BLADE.  Special thanks to my "friend" Dave for sending this to me.  I think he might be in cahoots with my other "friend" Marty and they are trying to get me killed via Bad Movie Overdose.  Friends don't let friends watch Donald G. Jackson movies.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

No Deniro Pistolero: LUCKY LUKE (2009)

I’ll be the first to admit, as an American, I have no deep-rooted emotional connection and pangs of nostalgia when it comes to the Belgian comic that has dated back a full 65 years. In spite of the fact that it has been one of the three most popular comics in Europe for over half a century and has been translated into 26 languages, it really never caught on here in North America. Well, except for Canada, but come on now, that doesn’t really count does it? All nationalistic snideness aside, Lucky Luke was a bit too nice and a bit too subtle for American comics readers who preferred straight-up heroics or broad comedy in their illustrated stories, not a reworking of Jesse James into a self-styled, Shakespeare-quoting Robin Hood! Shakespeare? In comics? Preposterous, I say! How do I know this, you ask? Well, truth be told, when I was a kid my french aunt gave me a fist full of European comic books that included Lucky Luke and Asterix the Gaul. I got them, but I sure didn't get them. Of course, I’m sure it didn't help that they were all in French. A nice thought, but follows French logic that anything French is a gift from god, even if you are an eight-year-old American kid in a Mexican neighborhood whose understanding of French is limited to those fried potato snacks at fast food joints.

Lucky Luke is a cowboy from the tiny, eternally troubled Daisy Town, who seeks out justice, but has never killed a man. His gun is faster than his shadow and he rides Jolly Jumper, the smartest horse west of the Pecos. He quit smoking in 1983 after much heated press on the subject and took up chewing on a weed. Interestingly this bit of political correctness was alleged to be an attempt to gain a foothold in the American market. Silly Europeans! We don’t care if he smokes or not, he just needs to start killing people! Americans have no interest in a hero that puts the bad guys in jail. They are bad guys! Bad guys are dispatched with extreme predjudice and a witty pun. Duh!

Amazingly it wasn’t until 1991 that Lucky Luke became a live-action film, only four animated films were his only legacy up until that point. From ’91 to ’93 Terence Hill stepped into Lucky Luke’s big boots with two feature films and an eight episode TV mini-series. As much as I enjoy this version of Lucky Luke and as hugely popular as they are, it is really just Hill doing his thing with a smattering of Daisy Town trappings.

In 2004 Til Schweiger of all people, saddled up for LES DALTON, a film that featured Lucky Luke’s Dalton Gang as central characters as essayed by French comedy team Eric Judor and Ramzy Bedia, better known as Eric and Ramzy. Yes, the words “French”, “comedy” and “team” all mashed together fill me with horror and dread too. Still, this set the stage for what is probably the most ultra-stylized western to hit the cinema screens in… well, a really long time! From the same producers, LUCKY LUKE (2009) has the good fortune to star French comic actor Jean Dujardin. Dujardin claimed international success with the low-key, impeccably detailed send-up of ‘60s spy films OSS 117: CAIRO NEST OF SPIES (2006) and it’s very ill-advised 2009 sequel. Here he slides flawlessly into the role, right down to the shock of hair jutting out from under his hat. As much as I love me some Terrence Hill, Dujardin nails Lucky Luke.

Setting the stage for what is quite possibly the most visually arresting western ever made, a young Johnny Luke witnesses the brutal murder of his parents by the Cheater gang. Raised by his father’s best friend and mayor of Daisy Town, Cooper (Jean-François Balmer), John Luke was lucky to have survived. Flash forward and Lucky Luke is summoned by the President (of the United States, of course). It’s coming down to election time and the First Transcontinental Rail Road is at an impasse. The joining point is Daisy Town, Utah (in place of the actual point, Promontory, Utah), but Daisy Town has become so overrun with cutthroats and outlaws that nobody from the rail companies will get near it. So who better to clean up Daisy Town than its most famous former resident? The god-fearing folk of the town hide anywhere they can (like in barrels) from the rampaging vermin in the streets. Naturally Luke makes short work of the dastardly denizens with his lightning fast draw, which puts him square up against Pat Poker (Daniel Prévost); A slick card wielding mob-boss who is ruling the town with an iron fist. After a few altercations, it’s time for a showdown in the street. Poker is good, but he cannot match the lightning fast draw of Lucky Luke who shoots him straight through the heart. The end.

Wait! No, sorry, that’s not the end, in fact that is the first 30 minutes! And what a stunning first act it is. In that 30 minutes alone there are more camera set-ups, lighting effects, oblique angles, complex rack focus shots than in a whole mega-plex of summer blockbusters. Every shot is bursting with detail, complete with amazing sets that were built from the ground up to look exactly like they came out of the comics. Unfortunately, we still have another hour to go and the French, no matter how hard they try to ape American films with some of their recent big budget productions, will always be French and the story segues from an inspired translation of the comic to a brooding, completive drama. This total shift in attitude is like taking a Lamborghini doing 150 in sixth gear and dropping it straight down into first. Not only does it bring the fun to a complete halt but it’s a real pisser that almost ruins the whole damn thing.

Luke, completely disillusioned and wracked with remorse decides to hang up his clover-etched pistols forever and settle down with saloon girl Belle (Alexandra Lamy) and take up farming, just like his old man did. Hearing the news, Billy the Kid (Michaël Youn) and Jesse James (Melvil Poupaud) show up vying to be the first man to take down the now no lo quiero pistolero, Lucky Luke. Also arriving on the scene is Calamity Jane (Sylvie Testud) whose crush on Luke leads her to saving his bacon from the ruffians who are now taking advantage of his demoralized state. See? I told you it was French. In spite of this misfortunate miscue, there’s still plenty of fun to be had before the final act. Youn and Poupaud are having a blast running with their characters; Billy being almost literally a kid at heart, complete with lolly pops and childish behavior, and Jesse (dressed up like a reject from TOMBSTONE) quoting Shakespeare at the drop of a shell casing.

The big twist at the end will come as no surprise to anyone, but the finale is so incredibly stylish with one of the most amazing sets I have ever seen on film, that you won’t really mind. Which is what this film is really all about for me. Sure, if I had grown up with the comics and considered them a national treasure, I’d probably find plenty to bitch about. As it is, it's still a lot of fun aside from the rather ill-advised fumble in the middle of the film.

Luke’s meeting with Pat Poker is a perfect example of what this film does right. Oozing with atmospheric smoke, light and shadow Luke and Poker trade off tricks in the sherriff’s office to the amazement of the on-looking prisoners. Finally Poker fans a deck of cards, throws them in the air and shoots down all four kings. Luke whips out a dollar bill throws it up in the air, fires one shot and four plugged quarters fall down on the desk. The film has so many goofy sight gags in between the character bits and the stunning visuals, that it’s hard to walk away unimpressed. They actually pull off a rack focus shot that goes through four fields of focus in a non-linear sequence. Did that make any sense at all? Well, trust me, it’s pretty amazing. So yes, it’s technically gobsmacking, trips on its own spurs, but at the same time still comes up aces, or at least a full house anyway.