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!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Listomania!: Thomas' October 2011 Viewings

FELONY (1995): Pheewwwww! Bad by even our humble standards, but not for a lack of casting. A truly amazing cast in a truly braindead DTV actioner. A group of rogue CIA agents are caught on tape shooting down a dozen DEA agents during a drug bust and now everyone is after that tape. Directed by David A. Prior and stars (*deep breath*) Jeffrey Combs, David Warner, Lance Henriksen, Ashley Lawrence, Joe Don Baker, Leo Rossi and Charles Napier! This is probably the best part of the movie which has to be THE most implausible escape from a bunch of badguys EVER committed to celluloid. Well, temporary escape anyway. The driver looks like one of the hitmen from 15 minutes earlier in the film, so conceivably, he could have been shot because he was recognized and the escape was just happy happenstance. The only problem is… the shooter never encountered that hitman before and even worse, the hitman was already killed by Joe Don Baker that same 15 minutes earlier! Some hilariously braindead moments aren't enough to make up for the lack of everything else, including (sadly) stuntwork. The lack of financing (and maybe the cast's combined wages) meant that the one stunt included is simply stock footage and even worse, the cast is somewhat misused as well. Why did someone think it was a good idea to have David Warner play Lance Henriksen's monosylabic, gum-chewing henchman? I'm pretty sure that is the source of the film's title.

MAN FROM MAJORCA (1984): Bo Widerberg's second police thriller following the classic MAN ON THE ROOF (1976) and it is quite the corker. Loosely based on a story ripped from the headlines and written by someone who was close to the scandal, the film starts with the robbery of a Stockholm post office, evolves into murder and suspicions of corruption at a high level. In addition to all of the normal elements of a taught thriller crafted abnormally well, we get some great character moments with the two detectives, including a sudden decision to only eat Swedish food. Based on Leif G.W. Persson's novel of the same name, this will either infuriate you or captivate you, as Widerberg presents the story almost as a slice of life and doesn't go out of his way to really explain anything to the audience. The viewer is left to puzzle over all the clues while following the detectives and even in the end you will probably have to watch the film again to figure it all out. Gritty and realistic without resorting to cheap tricks, such as excessive hand-held camerawork, I’m saddened by the fact that Widerberg didn’t make a trilogy of police films.

THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1978): Smut-free Radley Metzger! Who would have thunk it? Opinions are deeply divided on this fourth film version of the 1922 play by John Willard. Yes, some of the cast deliver their lines as if they are in their first high-school play, but when do you ever have Honor Blackman, Olivia Hussey and Wilfrid Hyde-White in the same movie? A group of estranged family members meet for a will reading at an eccentric relative's mansion. The will reading is unusual, not only for the fact that the deceased reads the will himself, via film and synched wax recordings, but for the fact that the benefactor will change the next morning, if the heir proves to be mentally unsound or stops living. During a violent thunderstorm a doctor (Edward Fox) from the local asylum stops in to warn them that a psychotic killer who thinks he is a cat is on the loose and could visit this very house! Of course, he does. Wouldn't be much of a movie if he didn't, would it? The film feels a bit stagey, and that may be intentionally so, but while I usually find that sort of thing off-putting, here I rather enjoyed it for some reason. The dialogue (of which there is a lot) moves along at a brisk pace and there are plenty of effective moments. For what it's worth, I thought it was a lot of fun and a perfect antidote to some of brutally braindead stuff I suffered through in October... though you'd never know it from this trailer:

GRIEVOUS BODILY HARM (1988): Slick, twisted thriller that separates itself from the standard '80s Cinemax fodder by being stylish, well acted and Australian. A school-teacher (John Waters in another well-controlled performance) mourning the death of his wife, begins to suspect that she may not actually be dead and that their mutual friends with benefits might be trying to hide him from her, causing his grief to turn to homicidal rage. A crime reporter (Colin Friels) stumbles across the mileu after borrowing some stolen money from a crime scene, while a detective (Bruno Lawrence) tries to figure it all out. There's a lot more to it than that, but telling would ruin the fun. Bits of the plot are uncovered slowly as a the story progresses, but it moves at a fast pace and like many Aussie thrillers allows the audience to piece things together. Drawing inspiration from Italian giallos, the film injects style, atmosphere and characters whose motives and agendas shift as the plot rolls out. Great stuff that would never be made the same way in Hollywood.

HAMMERSMITH IS OUT (1972): Amazing, even in it's cut form, that this ever got made at all. The power of Liz n' Dick, I guess. Peter Ustinov's notorious and notoriously obscure retooling of the "Faust" legend into a black comedy with of the era social satire. Small-minded slob Billy Breedlove (Beau Bridges) does the one thing everybody in the asylum tells him never to do, he listens to Hammersmith (Richard Burton, flawlessly cast). Hammersmith is an inmate who promises anyone who will listen that if they get him out, he will make them "rich and strong, strong and rich". Breedlove, not being the brightest bulb in the pack, sets him free and with an equally deficient waitress (Elizabeth Taylor) they set off to achieve Billy's dreams of richness and strength, without realizing that Hammersmith is a homicidal psychopath with his own agenda. That description doesn't even scratch the surface of the bizarre, twisted insanity that is this film. One great scene has the now wealthy Breedlove's poolside while Hammersmith, in ridiculously giant chef toque, is roasting "baby pigs" with a subtle malicious glee that only an accomplished actor like Burton could pull off.
Independently financed and distributed by John Cornelius Crean, a Fleetwood trailer mogul who decided he wanted to get into the motion picture business, it was critically well received, but a financial flop. Crean only released one other film (the 1971 Bill Cosby drama MAN AND BOY) before folding his tent. Originally released with a 120 minute running time, in spite of the good notices, it was undoubtedly considered too damn strange for the general public and was subsequently cut down to 117 minutes and finally edited to the 108 minute version that can be found on long out of print VHS tapes. According to those who recall seeing the full version in theaters at the time, the deleted footage was some even more bizarre comedy bits, and it seems that those deletions may be permanently lost. There was a rumor that the original pre-cert UK VHS release had a longer cut of the film, but after years of hunting and finally shelling out a fair chunk of change, I can tell you that is definitely not true. Even so, if you like Ustinov's cracked sense of humor, or just enjoy movies that would never be made the same way these days, this is well worth tracking down. It will make you rich and strong... strong and rich...

SHERLOCK - Season 1 (2010): Both gratingly hipsterish and occasionally clever, this BBC updating of classic stories and all new ones manages to be a roller-coaster of cringing youth pandering and occasional moments of quality entertainment. On the plus side, you have Stephen Moffat & Mark Gatiss' years of experience and abilities to craft plots and snappy dialogue, on the other hand you have these two talented men shovelling on the obligatory youth market crap including constant use of cellphones, laptops and that new fangled thing called "blogging" (whatever that is). Not to mention the rampant (and apparently successful) attempts at appealing to the gay demographic (I'd recommend not Googling this show lest you see a lot of fan art depicting things you really don't want to see - unless you're into that sort of thing, not that there is anything wrong with that). The acting is relatively decent, I actually kind of like Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes, and Martin Freeman is fine as Watson, though it's hard to shake his "Office" persona. Then there is Moriarity, who with a master-stroke of self-aggrandizing idiocy is played by Mr. Gattis himself who flamboyantly camps it up to levels that would make Lady Gaga blush.
Director Paul McGuigan (responsible for 2006s LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN, if anyone remembers that mess), desperately tries, like all of the other modern filmmaking fourtysomethings, to suck up to the skinny-jeans crowd with rapid edits, slick visuals and text graphics across the screen instead of cutting to a shot of a note or (groan) another freakin' text message. There is some good stuff to be found, like Moffat's penchant for fast-paced, punchy patter, but the constant jokes about Holmes and Watson's questionable ummmm... "orientation" (thank you Mr. Gatiss) and obsession with cell-phones makes this series reek of the desperation of men desperate to retain their youth(market). There is potential for greatness here, and I have no qualms with doing a modern day adaptation, more with the fact that Holmes uses his cell phone more than his brain to solve crimes. That would be like a world-class surgeon checking Web MD before every operation. Some of this is tolerable, but the first episode in particular is total overkill. And speaking of overkill, seriously Gattis needs to be banned from ever appearing on television or film after this ludicrously self-indulgent, over-the-top, cartoon-inspired performance. Dude, this is not a claymation comedy, that behavior is not ok and yes, you are gayer than Christmas (not that there's anything wrong with that).

FROSTBITEN (2010): I'm not sure whether this is proof that the entire planet is in a creative cinematic slump, or just that distributors won't take a chance on anything other than the most obvious wannabe Hollywood films. The opening scene, set during WWII, features a squad of German soldiers taking refuge in a recently abandoned, snowed in cottage. In the middle of the night they realize that if the cottage is snowed in, how did the residents get out? A creepy, atmospheric segment that could have been the springboard for a fantastic film. ...and isn't. All the elements for a great little vampire flick are handed to us and after the set-up it's your standard teens-in-highschool flick that would be right at home in the US (which is probably why it got distribution here). Add a bunch of sit-com set-ups, (how funny is it if you are turning into a vampire and have to meet your girlfriend's parents for the first time? Ummm... not very) and teen comedy and you have a very banal outing punctuated a few glimpses of potential.  What little vampire stuff there is, is either stuff we've seen a million times before (teens with big fangs and glowing contacts growling and snarling like they are pretending to be wild animals on a Mutual of Omaha series), or we've seen it a million times before and it's badly done (cheap CGI, yes!). As we all know, turning into a vampire means animals will talk to you and apparently your enjoyment of this film depends solely on how funny you think foul-mouthed talking dogs are. Damn, that pre-credit sequence was good, though, and this trailer sure makes it look promising, doesn't it?

THE RETURN OF THE WORLD'S GREATEST DETECTIVE (1976): Surprisingly well made TV outing that pretty much rips-off the George C. Scott vehicle THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS (1971). Larry Hagman is Sherman Holmes, a bumbling motorcycle cop who spends more time reading Doyle than catching crooks. After his motorcycle falls on his head, he suddenly believes himself to be Sherlock Holmes and enlists the help of Joan "Doc" Watson (Jenny O'Hara) to help him solve a series of murders. Feather-weight, in tone and budget, it still is still a lot of fun with Hagman turning in a fine performance and even Sid Haig popping up at the end.

COUNTRY CUTIES BARNYARD BASH (1989): We had this at the video store I worked at back in the day and when we got this in, for some reason, the owner decided it should go in the "Special Interest" section along with the 20 or so Jane Fonda work-out videos that we had. Hey, it's got girls who look kinda like they are dressed for some sort of aerobic activity, right? Shot on the cheap in Ft. Lauderdale (of course!), this is basically a series of Southern-inspired team competitions between girls with teased hair and skimpy blue or pink outfits that frequently have trouble covering up the goodies. Sporting an introduction by a talking horse, a biker announcer, some mulleted refs that essentially do nothing more than stand around with (understandably) goofy grins, and a token black girl for those redneck "plantation" fantasies (err, did I just go there?). The "games" include catching a greased pig, sack races, mud-wrestling, tug-o-war and a variety of other dignified events that would be sure to give Gloria Steinem a myoclonic seizure. Think white trash "American Gladiators" without the budget and with lots of jiggling nekkidity. Tasteless and gratuitous in every conceivable way, this even includes an intermission where some of the girls play country songs topless with the live band that is on hand for no apparent reason. Total moronic trash. God, I wish they had made a sequel.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween Havoc: Dueling HALLOWEEN porn parodies

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Like millions of Americans in the ‘70s and ‘80s, my family spent precious hours of our lives every year watching the most inane tripe American television had to offer. They were called “Holiday Specials”. I’m sure it sounded like a good idea when they were invented. “Hey, let’s have some one-shot seasonal programming with some of our biggest stars telling jokes, singing, dancing, and participating in lethal blood-sports!” Ok, so that last one was mine. I can't tell you how desperately I wanted to see Bob Hope slam a steel sphere in Shari Lewis’ face ala-ROLLERBALL. But I digress.

For some reason holiday specials managed to draw in millions of viewers with no-budget productions of hastily-written, cringe-inducing scripts, usually shot on a soundstage in Burbank, frequently live in order to pull in the cynical crowd (me), who were hoping that someone will flub their lines. As if that would make the agony of canned scripts and shameless mugging worthwhile.

In 1989 the two-bit upstart Fox decided they were going to produce their own Halloween special! Rebelling against the status quo, they decided they would (wisely) ditch the song and dance stuff and (unwisely) take their cue from WGN’s notorious “Mystery of Al Capone’s Vault” (1986). I can hear the discussion: “A two hour special shot live in Transylvania, hosted by… hmmmm… Bela Logosi! No, wait, he’s dead. Klaus Kinski! No, too much insurance. We need someone who is linked to the character, easy to manage and is a total man-whore. George Hamilton!” Seriously, I cannot imagine how he could have read the script without blushing? Of course, he may have and we just don’t know because of his perpetual bronze glow. Even Geraldo Rivera would have turned his shrub-adorned nostrils up at this.

Boldly announced with more gravitas than a Presidential inauguration, the first ten minutes shows that the script is thinner than Kate Moss on a hunger strike. Says the announcer:
“We will… Walk where the real Dracula walked! Meet men and women who have followed in his blood-sucking footsteps! Open coffins closed for centuries… LIVE!”
Wait, Dracula’s feet sucked blood?

Cut to a stage director who looks and sounds exactly like a female version of Latka from “Taxi”, George Hamilton is nowhere to be found! George has apparently gotten very lost on his way from the make-up trailer to Solomon’s Tower and ended up in the local pub. Was this written for Oliver Reed? Of course, the locals ice over as soon as Hamilton mentions his destination and warn him not to go there, while Geoge makes awkward references to his (at that point) 10 year-old success in LOVE AT FIRST BITE. After taking a coach to the set and pretending to flub his lines and be nervous about the fact that they are live, the announcer comes back to let us know that he wasn’t finished telling us what we would see tonight!

“We will… Meet Vlad the Impaler – the real life Dracula. Torturer, sadist and murderer of over 100,000 men, women and children, but to many people he is still a national hero. We’ll walk the original English cobblestones where Bram Stoker brought Dracula to life and discover one of the most valuble manuscripts in all of literature, hidden for years in an ordinary Pennsylvania barn! We’ll go back in time, 500 years and hear the chilling tale of Elizabeth Bathory, the fiendish countess who sacrificed 650 virgins for the sole purpose of bathing in their blood!” And the announcer doesn’t stop there. “Noreen Dresser is an American folklorist with a mission; to find out why Dracula has become a national obsession.” Plus we get to learn about a modern vampire sighting in an English cemetery with “scores of witnesses” who “authorities believe… were telling the truth!”

To be fair, the narrator doesn’t lie, they do cover all of that, uhhhh… “fascinating” ground. Much of it is Hamilton camping it up while talking to alleged “experts”, one of whom, Romanian scholar and diplomat Radu Florescu, claims to be a direct descendant of Vlad Tepes. A sample of the insightful exchange about Vlad Tepes while walking up a flight of stairs:
Florescu: “Many artists came to paint him. They painted him here.”
Hamilton: “They painted his body?”
Florescu: “No. They painted him fully clothed.”
After Florescu rambles on about the beauty of the Carpathians, Hamilton looks straight in the camera and says “frankly, when I’m planning my next vacation, I doubt Transylvania will the be at the top of my list.” It definitely won’t be by the end of this special because I’m pretty sure after another hour of grossly insulting Romania, you might end up in a reenactment of Vlad’s favorite pastime.

As you would expect from Fox Television, ol’ Gorge does his best to shed his glamorous image and be the ugliest American possible. During one segment he is invited to dinner, which he demurs sneering “I’ve never been a fan of stewed goat”. George, if you only had a fucking clue in that pretty little head of yours. Stewed goat is delicious. Like lamb, except without the gaminess. During a staged “Point / Counterpoint” style discussion of whether Vlad was a Romanian hero or a bloodthirsty dictator, Hamilton sits down to a meal based on Harker’s Hungarian meals in Stoker’s novel. When I was a teenager reading the novel, all of the descriptions of the exotic food really stuck with me and to this day Chicken Paprikash is one of my favorite things to make at home. Of course George looks at the table with distain and after a forkful of Robber Steak, makes disgusted faces and is on the verge of spitting out his food and when told that it was Jonathan Harker’s last meal, Hamilton quips “I can see why now”. Can someone from craft services please get Mr. Hamilton some real food, like a Big Mac?

Weird Al?
Another wonderful bit of gruel is a taped segment with Noreen Dresser, an author who is alleged to be on a “mission: to find out why Daracula has become a national obsession”. Oh, this should be good. According to Ms. Dresser, 27% of those polled believe vampires are real! What a shocking statistic! Unbelievable, in this day and age. Yeah, but if you pay attention, you’ll discover that the pollees were a small group of students from her local highschool! Well at least there is some credible research behind her theories. Noreen also goes on to blame vampire TV shows like “The Munsters” (yes, you read that right) and states that the vampire is “almost a classic Halloween figure”. Uhhh, Noreen, can you explain to me how it is not a classic Halloween icon? My favorite bit of insight is her discussion of why women like Dracula. According to statistics, women complain of a lack of foreplay in their lives and vampires “are all foreplay”. She goes on to say “vampires take women with elegance and style… it’s never a violent act.” Presumably aside from the whole laceration of the main artery and subsequent death from the resulting bloodloss. No, not violent at all.

We also get to meet Bernard Davies, the chairman of The Dracula Society and the stiffest cue-card reader in TV history. Davies blathers on, mostly feeding Hamilton set-ups for his badly written and badly delivered one liners.
Davies: “for it’s time, ‘Dracula’ was the ultimate in horror.”
Hamilton: “except he wore a cape, not a hockey mask.”
Oh jeeeeeezus, make it stop! Davies also provides voice-over narration for a taped reenactment of Bram Stoker’s manuscript for “The Un-Dead” being discovered by some Amish in a barn. Still more lifeless segments include a voice-over talking about Elizabeth Bathory while showing clips from Hammer’s COUNTESS DRACULA (1971). Better still we start getting some allegedy true incidents, such as one at London’s Highgate Cemetery, where a vampire was said to be found. Basically the story is that an investigator of rumors found a fresher than expected corpse in an unaccounted for coffin in a tomb and wrote a hyperbole filled account of it. The investigators embellishments included the corpses eyes glowing red, that it had blood on it’s teeth and that the tomb was walled up with cement mixed with garlic. To which Hamilton quips “cement mixed with garlic? Sounds like the pizza I had last night! Ha!” Even worse, when it is revealed that it is believed that the vampire still walks the cemetery because the investigator didn’t drive a stake through the corpse’s heart, Davies says “no stake, you see.” To which Hamilton comes back with “mis-stake!!” Are you feeling my pain yet? I know you are.

As if all that wasn’t enough, we get more of Noreen who claims to have investigated and infiltrated and discovered that vampires live amongst us! Yes, the people we meet every day could be vampires! Apparently Noreen has something against airline hostesses, as she singles them out as prime suspects. This goes against the grain of popular mythology, as I always thought they were supposed to be lawyers. Anyway, Noreen not only claims to have befriended some real life vampires, but interviews these losers who claim (under anonymity) to be a vampire and a “donor”. The girl, Pam, likes to stab people’s fingers with needles and suck the blood off of them. What? Seriously? That’s it? Apparently it’s enough to send ol’ George into a tizzy, running off to get stakes and garlic and call his agent to get him out.

When he’s not patronizing the educated and stroking the crack-pots, George runs around crying about the lousy job: “Easy gig, my agent said. Be over before you know it, he said, I wonder what he’s got lined up for me next? …Live from Cherenobyl, is the reactor really cooled off? George Hamilton finds out live!”

As gruelingly painful as it is to watch, there is one interesting thing. The producers lend an air of respectability to laughable, half-baked theories passed off as fact, and portray Romanians as simpletons and peasants and mocking their beliefs, country and food with sniggering arrogance. This foreshadows the same brand of xenophobia and disinformation that Fox has now made their trademark on their “news” shows. Other than that, you’ll be hard pressed to find anything funny, interesting or cool.