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, May 10, 2012

The Spy Who Flubbed Me: THE GOLDEN LADY (1979)

I can't claim to be a Jose Larraz expert, but I've seen enough of his films to where I have a handle on his particular outlook and look forward to anything of his that happens to pass through my hands. Juxtaposing sensual visuals and graphic bloodletting, YAMPIRES (1975), sorry, I mean VAMPYRES is probably Larraz's claim to fame worldwide. Very much a Spanish take on a Jean Rollin film, VAMPYRES, even though it was shot in England with an English cast, belies it's meager budget with a great location, gorgeous naked vampire girls, soft-core sex and lots of the red stuff. Larraz was one of those Spanish filmmakers that really felt the need to push back after Franco died. Most of his stuff I've seen has been low budget, but he always has something compelling going on, usually involving people not being very nice to others. For some inexplicable reason, someone felt that he would be just the man to throw a spanner in James Bond's gears with a bafflingly befuddled re-working of "Charlie's Angels". Yep, he would be my top pick for this sort of thing. The guy who made the Satanic orgy flick BLACK CANDLES (granted that wasn't made until 1982, but you get my point). When I think Bond rip-off, I think Jose Larraz... and disco.

Allegedly sexy British mercenary Julia Hemingway (Ina Skriver looking about as sexy and deadly as your aunt) runs the best securities firm in Europe, staffed only with deadly, sexy ladies doing the dirty work their way. When the heir to a murdered Arab oil baron offers his fields up to the highest bidder, influential British cigar-smoking, asthmatic blowhard Charlie Whitlock (Patrick Newell) hires Hemingway to "take care" of the other bidders so that the Brits can score the contract. Of course they don't tell you that right out, no, no, it must be picked out with tweezers, like a game of Operation, after slamming a beer and being spun in a circle. Oh, like you never did that.

With airplanes and a theme song by The Three Degrees, a Philadelphia soul/RB/disco group that are desperatly trying to be mistaken for ABBA, our story takes flight. Or at least gets off the ground... somewhat. Whitlock is actually planning a screwjob, as he tells some random guy that we aren't introduced to, after Hemingway leaves his estate: "We'll use her as long as we have to, then you can take over." Or maybe it's not a screwjob. Who knows? Back at Hemingway's headquarters, Professor Dixon (Desmond Llewelyn) meets Hemingway and tells her assistant (June Chadwick) "I think you'll find these satisfactory", handing her a tray of scrap metal. He then walks out the door, never to be seen again! Apparently he was on his lunch break during the shooting of MOONRAKER and needed some drink'n money. After making some really canned comments about having seen him somewhere before, the girls settle down to the task of picking out their lethal force of commando kittens via a computer that looks something like the original Apple. It helps them pick out suitable members for the mission by listing their strengths as well as their weaknesses. Weaknesses such as "vanity" and "nymphomania". Huh?

After finally getting all of her recruits selected and mustered, it's time for Hemingway and company to kick some ass, right? Chicks in skin-tight, gold-lame outfits that leave little to the imagination, toting M249 SAW rifles, wrecking cars and blowing shit up! Uhhhh... no. It's time for them to sit down and relax while discussing the players. Apparently the German liason (who the Jewish agent is suspicious of) goes both ways, so they figure there might be a way to exploit that. There's an American guy, Max Rowlands (Stephan Chase), who everyone thinks is a hottie, in spite of his peach fuzz mustache and a balding mullet. Then there's the... Oh jeezus, can we just get some action here? And the answer is a resounding "no!" There is one point in the film where you think the action is going to kick in with a badass car chase. The cars take off after each other, turn two corners, then everyone stops to get out and confront each other! Bastards!

Now this is the Larraz I know!
To be fair there is a gag with a cigarette lighter that doubles as a smoke bomb, and a bit of nudity here and there, though the Hungarian bombshell Ava Cadell is shot in such a way that you barely get glimpses of her knock-out physique. There's also a body found in a bathtub, though, to be honest, it's not really clear who it was that was killed. The print quality of my copy is so fuzzy it's hard to make out details at a distance, so it took until near the end of the movie in a dialogue exchange to find out it was the German's boy toy. When this character is found dead, we also find out he was killed because he was after "the briefcase". Hemingway is pretty steamed up about the murder and wants to find out just "what was in that briefcase?!" A fine questions since up until that point there was no mention of a friggin' briefcase in the movie at all!

Proof that computers are never wrong.
Writer-producer Joshua Sinclair (who is better known for his acting in Italian low-renters), tries to gussie up this simple premise by burying it under loads of long, occasionally surreal dialogue that will sometimes veer next to a point relevant to the plot. Occasionally. Mostly it's just long speeches that make you think that he spent the weekend reading Tom Stoppard and thought to himself "that's easy! I can do that!". For example, the major player is a Greek guy named Yorgo Praxis (Edward de Souza), who doesn't break any plates, but does bust out the old "Greeks invented everything" card, in this excerpt from yet another lengthy exchange:

Praxis: "I am a self-made man, as you would call it. I started from nothing many years ago, I'm not all that afraid of ending with nothing. I believe in circles, they are perhaps the most perfect geometric form that exists and after all, we Greeks created geometry." (looks smug)

Hemingway: "You also created tragedy, but Wayne Bentley's death was more in the realm of a cheap soap opera. If you wanted to hit Schouster, you could have been more direct. A straight line is also an exact geometric form." (looks smug)

That sort of thing is pretty much 80% of the film, by the way. As if this wasn't enough to completely dash the hopes of anyone expecting to get anything close to what this film pimps as a "female James Bond", for some reason Larraz features a long musical number by Nina Carter and Jilly Johnson (Blonde on Blonde) that features the duo in some Marlene Detrich-inspired costumes performing the entirety of their song "Woman is Free" (which doesn't make any sense lyrically or visually). Of course all of this becomes necessary when Hemingway asks Rowlands if there is somewhere they could go to talk. Oh, yeah, a nightclub is the place to have an intimate, important discussion involving secret world events that could tip the balance of power. We are then treated to the second act, a musical dance review that features a school girl, a dominatrix and a couple of black men doing a gay bondage number. I shit you not. What this has to do with the price of tea in China we will never know. Just to add to the weirdness, the gay bondage number is actually intercut with Heminway and Rowlands, in soft focus, messing up the sheets in a hotel room. Ok, everybody, all together now... "WTF?!"

I really can't imagine how Larraz got sidetracked into such a collossal mess of a film. I mean, if it had been a soft-core romp without the pretension of being a legit espionage-thriller, I could see that. It's also interesting that many sources on the internet(s) claim that this is a Hong Kong co-production, yet that doesn't seem to be reflected in either the casting or the credits. As much as I like Larraz, this doesn't even feel like one of his films, instead we get a "thriller" that Lindsey Shonteff should have no trouble looking down his nose at.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Listomania: Will's Awesome April 2012 Viewings

April saw me getting back into my viewing groove a bit.  I took in 27 viewings and only 1 of those was a revisit (the cyberpunk actioner CLASS OF 1999).  Of that group, only two were on VHS.  The rest were either DVDs or DVD-Rs (most courtesy of the Simmons Museum of Modern Mayhem).

THE LOCKED ROOM (1993) – Yep, looks like I’ve caught a case of Martin-Beckitis from Tom as I took in this Sjöwall and Wahlöö adaptation after watching ROSEANNA (1993), which Tom reviewed here.  In terms of lineage, this Dutch production adapts the eighth book (Det Slutna Rummet) in the series.  This sees seasoned detective Martin Beck (Jan Decleir) returning to the force after being shot during the events of the previous novel (adapted into film as THE MAN ON THE ROOF [1976], reviewed by Tom here).  Hoping to slowly re-accustom Beck back to the rigors of police work, his chief assigns him a bit of “occupational therapy” in the form of a mysterious case of a decomposing body of a warehouse worker.  The body was found next to running heaters inside a tiny apartment with the windows all sealed and the door locked from the inside.  The police ruled it a suicide with a gun wound to the chest, but there is one problem – there was no gun found at the crime scene. Meanwhile, Monita (Els Dotterman), a recently unemployed immigrant single mother, must decide the best way to provide for her daughter – either by posing nude or resorting to crime.

Now I won’t ruin how these two storylines intertwine, but they eventually do. This was fascinating to watch right after ROSEANNA to see not only a different filmmaker’s take on the material, but also how a different actor handled the portrayal of the famed detective in the same year.  Decleir, looking like the lovechild of Gerard Depardieu and Steve Coogan, is far more cynical and gruff compared to ROSEANNA’s Gösta Ekman as Beck.  Director-writer Jacob Bijl also casts Beck as much more of a loner, who doesn’t work well with others and scoffs at his inept superiors.  The film does have one major problem when it comes to a plot point that is a HUGE matter of convenience, but other than that, it is well worth seeking out.  Especially if you enjoy seeing a actor give a different spin on an established character.

From Swedish supercops, we now got to American asskicking cops with…

TERMINAL FORCE (1989) – Renegade cop Nick Tyree (Richard Harrison) gets suspended after blowing away a liquor store robber who interrupts his alcohol purchase. Naturally, his hot headed chief wants him back when the young daughter of key witness against mob boss Johnny Ventura (Jay Richardson) is kidnapped because Tyree's law pushing ways are the only solution. Poor Richard Harrison never got a fair shake in the United States film scene. After traveling the globe from the 1960-1980s, he ended back up in America and got stuck in this Fred Olen Ray disaster. Not much really happens in this flick and Ray proves that sometimes he is only a step above Nick Millard when it comes to shoddy action. If the film is worth seeing for any reason, it is to watch the completely terrible performance by FX man Cleve Hall, currently on SyFy in his own reality series THE MONSTER MAN, as demented stooge Leonard. Sporting a GODZILLA t-shirt, ill-fitting black trench coat and teased hair, it is truly one of the worst performances I've ever seen. Troy Donahue shows up for two scenes as bar owner Slim. FOR's wife Dawn Wildsmith is the female lead and Angela Porcell, who provides the film's only nudity, is the kidnapped girl. And poor Joseph Pilato (DAY OF THE DEAD) gets one scene as a detective being tortured and has his name butchered in the credits (as Josef Piato).

THE NEW PEOPLE (1969) - A group of really annoying college students on a cultural exchange tour in Southeast Asia are called back to the United States by the State Department because, well, they've been really annoying. Flying back, their plane crashes on a remote deserted island that the U.S. had set up to use as a nuclear test site. With only one adult, Mr. Hannichek (Richard Kiley), surviving the crash, the group of around 40 kids must start society anew and it won't be easy given the number of stereotypes on display. Among them are Susan Bradley (Tiffany Bolling), the spoiled Senator's daughter; Robert E. Lee (Zooey Hall), the racist Southerner; Gene "Bones" Washington (David Moses), the self-referred "house negro"; and George Potter (Peter Ratray), the Marine who served in Vietnam who is now a pacifist. Can ya dig?

This Aaron Spelling production lasted only one season and was part of a failed experiment by last place ABC to combat the power of ROWAN AND MARTIN'S LAUGH IN. It was the second half (following a variety show called THE MUSIC SCENE) of a 90 minute viewing block that started on Monday night's at 7:30 pm. So from 7:30-8:15 pm you got THE MUSIC SCENE and then THE NEW PEOPLE went from 8:15-9:00 pm. Genius? This pilot is probably of note solely due to the fact that it was written by Rod Serling (under the pseudonym John Phillips) and tackles a lot of the social issues at the time. Most of the work is routine (did you really name your racist villain Robert E. Lee?), but there is some nice work towards the end where Hannichek stops Bones from leading a lynching against one guy ("I bet if he examined your family tree we'd find twelve branches where your relatives hang," the old man scolds). Director George McCowan did lots of TV work and would later give us FROGS (1972) and THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME (1979). The episode works best in the shots of the creepy deserted town with its mannequins covered in dust and cobwebs.

EMPEROR OF THE NORTH (1973) – A-No.-1 (Lee Marvin) and Cigaret (Keith Carradine) are a pair of Depression-era hobos who run afoul of a sadistic railroad conductor known simply as Shack (Ernest Borgnine). Shack prides himself on no one ever getting a free ride on his cargo train, even if it means having to brain some hapless hobo with a hammer and watch him get crushed and sliced in half on the train tracks. Hey, he takes his job seriously. This rep is threatened when A-No.-1 lets it be known that he is going ride the rails for free all the way to Portland, resulting in a game of cat and mouse in the wilds of Oregon.

This Robert Aldrich movie blew me away.  Not only is it entertaining as hell, but even works on an allegorical level with the main characters acting as different levels of society. Marvin and Carradine are both great in their roles, but the real reason to see this is Borgnine as the villainous Shack. Imagine the bastard boss he played in WILLARD with a thirst for blood. His character seems to love torturing these guys and Borgnine really brings him to life without being over the top in a role that easily lends itself to that. He is also incredibly physical in the role, insane for a guy in his mid-50s at the time of shooting. Second to this excellent performance are the gorgeous Oregon locations. Co-stars include Charles Tyner and Harry Caesar as members of Shack's train.  This film gives new meaning to the statement “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”  If Hollywood tried to remake this (seriously, we know they wouldn’t as they’ve probably never heard of it) we would get Liam Neeson as A-No.-1, Jason Statham as Cigaret, Gary Oldman as Shack (with his face half-burned for no reason), Scarlett Johanssen as Boxcar Annie (the love interest who drives the two Hobos apart) and Taylor Lautner as One Armed Willie (the kid whose arm loss at the hands of Shack inspires A-No.-1's quest).

Last but definitely not least is a film that was originally supposed to be reviewed in Video Junkie #3 way back when.  A revisit shows it still holds up.

RAGE (1995) – Crashing cars! Slamming semis! Monster explosions! Kickboxing! Blazing gunfights! Smashing glass! Have I got your attention? All this and more can be found in PM Entertainment's vastly entertaining actioner. Gary Daniels stars as Alex Gayner, a mild mannered second grade teacher (!) who becomes involved in a complex web involving everyone from the U.S. Government to illegal immigrants from Mexico. Having just dropped his daughter off at a slumber party, Gayner is carjacked by a Mexican gangbanger, who just also happened to be harvesting immigrants for some experiments. Before they get too far, both men are apprehended and taken to a secret lab. Having worked mostly with malnourished Mexicans, the docs see Gayner as the ultimate physical specimen to try out their new superman serum on. It works, but Alex doesn't cooperate and maims a dozen agents. Gayner is taken to the desert to be killed, but they underestimate the martial arts skills of a school teacher. From then on, it is non-stop chases as Gayner tries to escape from Government goons led by Tim Colceri. I might hold this up as the pinnacle of PM Entertainment, the small time studio owned by Richard Pepin and Joseph Merhi. They mostly relied on big explosions and a cavalcade of crashing cars. The end also had a nice POLICE STORY style destruction of several mall stores (including a video store that only seem to stock PM movies). All of this work was done top notch by stunt coordinator Spiro Razatos, who always knew exactly where a car would land and made sure to put a camera there. He started this kind of insane stunt work with William Lustig on the MANIAC COP films and carries it over here. It worked wonders for his career as he is now a top stunt coordinator on big budget films.  If this trailer doesn’t make you drool, you be crazy!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Listomania: Thomas' April 2012 Viewings

My movie viewing habits go one of two ways: Either I am watching a whole bunch of movies that don't have a single thing in common or I binge on a favorite type of movie, waking up in the morning with foreign accents sloshing around in my brain like beer in a college student's guts. Australian cinema has been a drug of choice, but they, before the advent of the internet(s), were hard to come by. Even harder for a monolingual American to track down are films from Sweden and The Netherlands. Gud förbjude you actually want to see something not designed for export out of Scandinavia. If they in fact are exported out, they will never see the light of day here in the US, instead Hollywood buys the rights to remake the film or just rips it off. How may people in a US multiplex are going to know anyway? Hollywood has done a great job of building a wall to keep out those damn cinematic immigrants who are stealing our entertainment jobs! Sadly it's not just our milk that's homogenized. Ok, rant over. Here's a few of the Swedish films that I've been obsessing over, and so as not to bludgeon you like a viking raider with Nordic cinema, I've thrown in some others as well.

ROSEANNA (1993): Superb third entry in a series of six Swedish made for TV movies based on Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s famous Martin Beck novels, with Gösta Ekman as Beck. When a woman’s body is fished out of the river without a single clue, Martin Beck is assigned to the case. Since the case is proving especially difficult, the insufferable Gunvald (Rolf Lassgård, flawlessly cast) is transferred over to assist in setting a trap for the killer. I know that was probably the most generic Leonard Maltin-ish plot synopsis ever, but it’s almost impossible to synopsize the twisting plot and character interplay of a good Beck movie. Not only that, but if you are the least bit interested in the genre, I don’t want to give away any spoilers. Ekman has a good take on Beck, but Lassgård steals the movie as Gunvald and in spite of the TV pedigree and a few flatly directed family scenes, the cinematography verges on giallo-esque at times and the suspense is wound nice and tight. Some folks have complained about the American-style ending where everything is wrapped up and not left open, as the Swede’s seem to love, but it’s probably the only thing that rings as Americanized. As Will mentioned via e-mail, if it had been an American film, there would have been a subplot about conflict at home over his devotion to the job and have some loud shouting matches about procedure between Beck and Gunvald. Meh, leave that for the new kids like Kjell Sundvall.

ZERO TOLERANCE (1999): So, let me get this straight. You can work on films like ANIMAL PROTECTOR (1988) and WAR DOG (1987), both of which I really enjoy, and ten years later someone will hand you a check to make a big, splashy, slick police thriller that three years later is ripped off by Hollywood for the new version of THE BOURNE IDENTITY (2002)? Goddamn, only in Sweden! Anders Nilsson, you have come a long way, baby. Gotthenburg cop Johan Falk (Jakob Eklund) attempts to foil what appears to be a simple jewelry store robbery on Christmas Eve. The robbery turns into a bloodbath and after finally tracking down the surviving robber, the tables are turned and Johan Falk finds himself being hunted. The cops want to make an example of him for his alleged abuse of power and the criminal underworld has a bounty on his head. Mad as hell, but cool as a gurka, Falk must use his wits and police training to survive and bring in the killer. Yeah, nothing totally earthshakingly original in the plot department, but the execution is dead on target with Eklund so well cast that he went on to play the character in no less than eight sequels from 2001 to 2009 and in a TV series starting this year. Also well cast is Peter Andersson as Falk’s nemesis Leo Gaut. Andersson, who you may remember from the original GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO series (that I still haven’t gotten around to watching), plays a conniving criminal in silk, but shows a range of emotion and subtlety that isn’t usually required for these kinds of roles. Certainly not if it was produced in the US. Damn Anders, look at you go. Sadly, while the rest of the planet appears to be hooked on Falk, it still hasn't seen the light of day here in the US, in spite of the demand being high enough for people to watch it off of YouTube in it's entirety. Followed by two outstanding sequels and two series' of six films each.
The German dubbed trailer:

THE HUNTERS (1996): Slick and technically solid Swedish thriller from director Kjell Sundvall, about a Stockholm cop, Erik Bäckström (Rolf Lassgard), who, after recovering from being shot during a robbery, decides to move back to his rural home town and live with his brother whose life hasn’t gone so well. Arriving in the middle of a years-long wave of organized reindeer poaching, he finds out quickly that poaching can turn to murder and in a town where everyone is related, you can’t even trust the cops. The acting is great, particularly Lassgard, and the production values are high, but in the end, the script goes exactly where you think it will, much like a Hollywood film. You find out who the poachers are in the first 15 minutes and when they start feeling the pressure, everyone does exactly what you think they will, straight through to the end. It’s a little bit of a letdown considering the fine pedigree of Swedish crime thrillers, but this is considered a classic by many and is extremely popular in Sweden, so perhaps your mileage may vary.

THE HUNTERS 2 (2011): aka FALSE TRAIL. Looking every day of the 15 years that have passed, Erik Bäckström (Rolf Lassgard), is given a no choice by his CO to head out to his small home town once again to help with a missing persons investigation that turns out to be a gristly murder of a young woman. Could one of the local police be involved? It’s a Swedish thriller, so you know what the answer to that is. While the first film played with familiar American-style back-woods thriller elements, this sequel steers straight in Martin Beck / Kurt Wallander territory with excellent results aside from some rather clunky ties to the original (so the brother who couldn’t get laid with a sack of coke and a fistful of hundreds had a kid that nobody knew about in the original film? Whaaaa?). It feels as if a script with a similar setting was rewritten to link the two films, and it may have been, but fortunately it’s just a few scenes, mostly in the beginning. It still feels a bit American in spots with lots of emotion running rampant, explosive confrontations, hot button issues, a clumsy numeral instead of a new title (a Swedish film, with a numbered sequel?) and a poster that implies nothing but a rehash with more hunters. Aside from those minor gripes, it’s a gripping, more traditional Swedish thriller with fantastic cinematography and a subtle score that really ratchets up the tension without being overbearing.

THE ST. PAULI HOURLY HOTEL (1970): Rolf Olsen’s sleazy police thriller centered around a murder in a hotel for hookers. Hamburg police commissioner Canisius (Curd Jürgens) is forced to work the streets of St. Pauli due to a shortage of beat cops and finds himself investigating a stabbing. Of course, the whole pretension of this being a police thriller revolves around the sleazy activities of the hotel patrons. Strung out junkies, brawling queers, nude voyeurs, cheating spouses, thieving hookers, costume fetishes, drunken businessmen, anal deskclerks and even the most laughable squad-car crash ever committed to celluloid. Oh, and let’s not forget the completely gratuitous subplot about the commissioner’s son requiring a heart operation after getting beat up by the cops at a political demonstration. Clearly this was added because someone had some stock surgery footage lying around and felt there just wasn’t enough exploitation value in the film already. Erwin Halletz provides the bizarrely cheery Henry Mancini-esque score, which kind of makes it feel like an R-rated ‘70s TV show. Not the brilliantly nasty gut-punch that Olsen’s masterpiece BLOODY FRIDAY (1972) provided only a few years later, but definitely entertaining, if you are in the right frame of mind.

HOLLYWOOD BABYLON (1971): Kenneth Anger’s legendary book of half-truths is adapted into a soft-core pseudo-documentary during the decade in which the book was pulled by the publisher. Compromised of at least 50% public domain newsreel footage and silent movie clips, with at most 50% fumbling and silly reenactments, this is something that you will either find hilarious or boring. The monotone narration will take you back to the days of grade-school science films, but on the other hand you do have Uschi Digard playing Marlene Detrich and Marland Proctor as silent film star Wally Reid! Fortunately only one of them gets naked. From Fatty Arbuckle’s alleged accidental homicide, Wally Reid’s drunken parties, Marlene Detrich’s lesbian affairs, Rudolph Valentino’s voyeurism, Charlie Chaplin’s penchant for under-age girls, and so on, it’s minorly amusing, but could have been so much better by losing the “documentary” angle and simply making a full-blown softcore anthology.

CORMAN’S WORLD (2011): Probably the most feather-weight, uninformative modern documentary I’ve ever seen. If you’ve never seen a Roger Corman film and only know who he is because Quentin Tarantino said he was awesome, this is for you! Several big names are interviewed and they all say the same thing: "Roger gave me my first job, I owe everything to Roger, thank you Roger". Very true and quite remarkable, but uhhhh... yeah, we knew that coming in. Plus, for some reason anybody who makes a documentary or audio commentary for anything made pre-1990, Eli Roth turns up to babble pointlessly about how great whatever the thing is that was made before his birth that he has no insight into. If you really want to see a docu on Corman, watch MACHETTE MAIDENS UNLEASHED (2010). It may not reach the dizzying heights of awesomeness that Mark Hartley achieved with NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD (2008), and it really only covers his Philippine co-productions, but you will get far more out of it than this wannabe VH1 special.

PRISONER OF RIO (1988): Decidedly one-sided, highly fictionalized account of the kidnapping of Ronnie Biggs, England’s most famous train robber, or to be honest, England’s most famous criminal outside of Jack the Ripper. The funny thing of it is, Biggs had an incredibly small role in the 1963 crime and wasn’t even part of the actual robbery, but that fact as well as many others are swiftly cast aside in this lightweight, but thoroughly entertaining thriller. Polish filmmaker Lech Majewski and Biggs himself, take the bullet points of Biggs’ life after moving from Australia to Brazil in 1970 and lightly scramble them, garnish with cheese and serve them up in the context of the 1981 kidnapping attempt by the British government. In a nutshell, the head of a secret section of the British government, Commissioner Ingram (Desmond Llewelyn) gets a wild hair to finally put The Crown's biggest embarrassment behind bars. The plan? Officer Jack McFarland (Steven Berkoff, in an amalgamation of two real life characters), posing as a reporter with the help of Ingram’s son Clive Ingram (Peter Firth), will lure Biggs (Paul Freeman) on to a British Navy ship as a publicity stunt by offering him a massive wad of cash. Of course Biggs thinks this is an incredibly stupid idea. This leaves McFarland and Ingram to hatch a plot to have him kidnapped by some local thugs, and hold him in an unused mansion of a local crime lord until they can smuggle him aboard the ship.
In spite of the fact that the plot is a pretty loose recounting of real events, the cast is nothing short of superb with Freeman being surprisingly good at portraying the freewheeling, gregarious Biggs and Florinda Bolkan even shows up as Stella (or in real life, Raimunda de Castro) the mother of Ronnie's Rio-born son Michael. Majewski, who co-wrote the scrip with Biggs, uses some great camera work without being overly-expressionistic to evoke a sense of paranoia and tension in some scenes, but gets a little carried away with long scenes of Rio's carnival nightlife in others. On the one hand, I would have loved to see more of Biggs’ history included (such as his collaboration with the Sex Pistols in the same year) and maybe even a more factual account, but on the other hand, what you have is a solidly entertaining, well made movie with a great cast. Also, you gotta love Biggs’ cameo, shamelessly mugging, during the beginning of the movie.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Prison Prescription: PENITENTIARY II (1982) & PENITENTIARY III (1987)

Earlier this month, pioneer black director Jamaa Fanaka passed away. His status as a pioneer comes mostly from his being in the L.A. Rebellion, a group of black U.C.L.A. film students in the early 1970s, and from his early independent exploitation flicks.  He started out with WELCOME HOME BROTHER CHARLES (1975), a horror film about a black prisoner who murders those who conspired to put him in jail with his, uh, rather large penis.  Such social commentary!  He followed that with EMMA MAE (aka BLACK SISTER’S REVENGE, 1976), but Fanaka really struck gold with his next film, PENITENTIARY (1979).  Focusing on the plight of falsely imprisoned boxer Martel “Too Sweet” Gordone (Leon Isaac Kennedy), the film became a surprise hit at the box office over 1979 and 1980.

Reading about Fanaka’s death, I suddenly realized that I’d been aware of the man since probably my early teens when I saw a PENITIARY flick on the video store shelves, but I’d never actually seen any of the 6 feature films he made.  I decided to rectify that and gave the two PENITENTIARY sequels a viewing.  After watching the second one, I talked with Tom about it via email and came to the same conclusion as him.  I’d built these films up in my head (thanks to some great posters on the boxes) and heard so much about how gritty and tough that they were, that I was ultimately let down by how subpar they were.  I went in expecting ROCKY (1976) mixed with BRUTE FORCE (1947).  What I got was ROCKY by way of Rudy Ray Moore.

PENITENTIARY II (1982) opens with a ridiculously long opening crawl a la STAR WARS (1977) that brings us up on the plight of “Too Sweet” Gordone.  Having been released on early parole due to beating Jesse “The Bull” Amos in a prison boxing match, Gordone is supposed to work for a year at the boxing gym owned by the warden’s brother. Wait a sec, this movie is called PENITENTIARY and takes place in the free world?  Um, okay.  Gordone wants nothing to do with the brutal sport of boxing though, so he takes a job as a roller skating messenger and begins a relationship with Clarisse (Eugenia Wright). He also gets to live rent free with his lawyer sister (Peggy Blow) and her husband (Glynn Turman).  Everything seems to be going right for the ex-con and we can't have that happening.

Ah, the 1980s! A simpler time.

Of course, you just know his world is going to be turned upside down and it is courtesy of escaped con “Half Dead” Johnson (Ernie Hudson, taking over for Badja Djola in part 1). No joke, that crawl mentions how “Half Dead” has become obsessed with “Too Sweet” after he refused his “amorous advances” while in prison and got the crap beat out of him.  It sounds like our villain has a bad case of Battered Cellmate Syndrome.  The night Martel and Clarisse are going to get it on, “Half Dead” sneaks in and rapes and kills her in the bathroom that is 5 feet away from our hero (the sound of the shower was supposed to cover this brutal murder?).  “Too Sweet” finds his sweetie dead and proceeds to beat “Half Dead” half to death.  Wait, wouldn’t that mean he was fully dead?  Well, he beats him bad enough that when the cops show up he is arrested and barely living “Half Dead” (shouldn’t he be 99 and 44/100% dead?) is taken to the hospital.

"Thanks for the ride, lady."
(If you get that, you're awesome)
Anyway, “Too Sweet” gets off on self defense thanks to his sister (the trial is never shown) and decides there is only one thing he can do avenge the murder of his girl.  He must train boxing again to become a champion and he will start by fighting Jesse “The Bull” Amos again…in prison!  Haha, I knew we’d get some a penitentiary in here.  Wait a sec…Gordone’s brilliant plan for revenge is to get back into the boxing world and beat up a guy he already defeated?  What? That shows a lot about Fanaka’s script writing skills.  So “Too Sweet” starts training under the tutelage of Mr. T (billed as “himself”) and his old prison friend/trainer “Seldom Seen” (Malik Carter).  Meanwhile, “Half Dead” has escaped from the hospital thanks to his two bumbling buddies, Do Dirty and Simp.  Gotta give the movie credit, they do have amazing nicknames.  Believe it or not, the prison match is going to be nationally televised (in a room with about 75 people) and “Too Sweet” gets his ass whooped.  So this sets up a rematch that happens 15 minutes later (with no additional training scenes) to close out the film.

Truth be told, PENITENTIARY II is pretty cheap and cheesy stuff. I had to laugh at the Box Office review that called it “probably the clumsiest, shoddiest movie ever from a major distributor” (MGM/UA released this sequel theatrically). Fanaka has very little concept of how to present a realistic portrayal of something as simple as real-life.  You'll laugh at some bits (like when Mr. T’s sparring partner whips out a straight razor in the ring; where did he hide that and how can he pull it out so easily while wearing boxing gloves) and shake your head at others (like the aforementioned way they work a prison into the film; apparently you can do boxing shows on national TV from inside prison with real announcers and prisoners can gamble while one con constantly plays the saxophone). To match the nonsensical plotting, Fanaka just has completely random shit in here, like Mr. T showing up at the boxing matches dressed as a genie with a magic lamp that emits purple smoke.  This interesting character turn is never explained! There is a creepy angle exploited early on with Half Dead’s fixation on his prey (he literally rapes and kills Gordone's girl while stabbing her with a knife and calling out his “Too Sweet” name), but that is dropped as the villain becomes as comical as his sidekicks. Look for the scene where he smears potato salad on his girlfriend’s face and then lustfully licks it off.  Also look for Rudy Ray Moore in a cameo and Tony Cox as a gambling con who propositions ladies from under the ring.  The worst thing is the boxing matches are terrible.  Now I’m not expecting a ROCKY style fight here, but these guys look 3 weight classes apart, swing wildly and puke up gallons of blood when getting beaten down.  To the film’s credit, it may be inept and chaotic, but it is never boring.

Five years later, Fanaka and Kennedy returned with PENITENTIARY III (1987), which got funded by Cannon Films. I’m pretty sure the pitch meetings went something like this.

Fanaka: “So we have this prison boxing sequel…”
Globus: “Okay, here’s a check for $3 million.”
Golan: “Where the hell are the sandwiches we ordered?”

This sequel wastes little time setting up the plot as “Too Sweet” Gordone is boxing his friend El Cid in what appears to be a small conference room with, again, 75 spectators. Unbeknownst to our champ, someone slips a drug called valadine (?) into his water and he goes nutzo, killing his buddy in the ring.  Naturally, he gets sent up the river for three years (again, no court room scene) and heads to the pen in a paddy wagon with a prisoner kid playing a saxophone.  Jesus, what is with the saxophones, Jamaa? Anyway, the sax player, a white kid named Roscoe (Steve Antin), recognizes “Too Sweet” and informs him that, wouldn’t you know it, a big boxing tournament is coming up in the prison they are heading to. Yeah, it is one of those kinds of movies.

The way things work in this prison is that there are two boxing teams that face off.  One is run by the warden (Ric Mancini) and the other is run by the real boss of this joint, gangster Serenghetti (Anthony Geary, looking like a Tobin Bell in SAW impersonator).  This guy has so much power that he has his own lavish cell, a cross dressing courtesan who does his nails, and his own French chef (really!).  Gordone politely refuses offers from both gentlemen to be on their respective teams because “he is done with boxing” (yeah right). This is a bad move on his part as Serenghetti orders The Midnight Thud (Raymond Kessler, who wrestled professionally as The Haiti Kid) to be released to kill Gordone.  Who (or what) is The Midnight Thud?  He is a black midget who is locked in a dank cell in the prison basement who smokes crack while watching endless 16mm porn loops.  Really!

Amazingly (or not), “Too Sweet” defeats The Midnight Thud in a hilarious fight scene that goes on and on and on.  His punishment is he is taken down to the cellar and given electric shock treatment. Naturally, he becomes a vegetable but he manages to get it together when Roscoe, who is now in the tournament, asks him to train him. Oh man, this kid has no idea what he is in for. The night of his fight, “Too Sweet” is distracted while having sex with a female boxer on the card (“They call me Sugar, because I love the sugar cane” WHAT?) that he doesn’t know Roscoe’s fight has been moved up.  Roscoe takes a hellacious beating by one of Serenghetti’s men (Danny Trejo) hopped up on that super juice. When Gordone sees what has happened, he can do the only thing he knows to rectify this situation. That’s right – he challenges Serenghetti’s top man, Hugo (the deliciously named Magic Schwarz), to a fight.  And not just any old fight, this is going to be a no holds barred fight!  “Too Sweet” then gets the unlikeliest ally in…THE MIDNIGHT THUD! Thud, whose real name is Jessup, decides “crack is whack” and sobers up to start training “Too Sweet” for his revenge match (no joke, Thud’s teeth go from rotten green to pearly white in one scene during his transformation from crackhead to sensei).  He teaches “Too Sweet” that it is all about “Guts! Guts! Guts! Guts!” and, of course, he whoops dat ass in the finale.  And he better win given the shorts he chooses to wear in the final fight (see right).

"Too Sweet" died for our sins
For those who found PENITENTIARY II jus too damn realistic, Fanaka offers this off-the-wall trilogy closer that might be the most absurd prison flick after the classic ERNEST GOES TO JAIL (1990).  Of course, you know something is going to be messed up when you have a white kid named Roscoe in it. Fanaka’s attempts to capture brutal reality of prison life are again negated by scenes like Serenghetti having his own personal French chef complete with toque pushing his cart past prisoners and by characters like The Midnight Thud, whose grunts sound like the came from the same foley team who handled The Toxic Avenger’s sounds. That character is goofy enough, but to have him suddenly morph into the mystical trainer role is hilarious.  I guess you have to admire Fanaka’s absurdist tendencies, even if they were born out of ineptitude.  He is after all a filmmaker who gave his wife 5th billing in the opening credits, despite her only having one scene. Fanaka was obviously going for some religious parables here, but it is pretty heavy handed (the final fight has “Too Sweet” punched into a wall that leaves his bloody imprint Jesus-on-the-cross style and Serenghetti says, “Crucify him!”).  The only surprise here is that the warden character actually turns out to be a nice guy.  I didn’t see that coming.  But, as the warden says to Serenghetti, “You know what your problem is?  You’ve seen too many bad prison pictures.”  You can say that again.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The XXX-Factor: CABARET SIN (1987)

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