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!

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The XXX-Factor: SHE-HULK XXX (2013)

We once had a loyal reader on the blog who accused
us of being nothing but porn hounds thanks to our porn parody reviews. Truth is we only get two or three of these out in a year and have only done just over a dozen in our meager three years of existence. And, honestly, we do this as a public service for the masses who are curious about the state of porn spoofs, but not typically buy-curious (ah, boo yourself). Anyway, it has been nearly 8 full months since our last XXX review and it is time to (e)rectify that.

No joke, the most popular review on this blog is our look at THE AVENGERS XXX.  The write up still brings the hits day in and day out and we think it is safe to say it is mostly folks ogling at the pictures.  Also, there is the factor of former WWE superstar Chyna delving into the world of “legit” porn in her co-starring role as She-Hulk.  The point is that Axel Braun’s porn send up starring a former pro-wrestling female superstar might be just as popular as 2012’s biggest box office success.  So you knew it was only a matter of time before the director returned to such fertile ground.  The stand alone SHE-HULK parody project was quickly announced after the triumph of THE AVENGERS XXX with Chyna returning to the role.  Things got quiet for a while with some suspecting it wouldn’t actually happen.  Alas, the film finally hit DVD in the spring of 2013 via Vivid’s XXX Super Heroes line.

The movie wastes no time getting the action rolling as we open with Jennifer Walters (Gracie Glam) waking up in a hospital.  A detective by her side tells her she was shot in the back by some men working for crime boss Trask (yay canonical points!) and that she received a blood transfusion from her cousin, Bruce Banner.  Asked what she last remembers, Walters recalls being in her law office working on a deal with another attorney (Mark Wood).  When he says her proposition is a “tough sell” she responds by saying, “I bet I can close this deal.”  So, yes, at one minute and thirty seconds into the film we get our first sex scene as Wood teaches Glam on the finer points of the penal system.  Yeah, I went there.

Following this spirited, nearly 25 minute sex session, we have another flashback where cousin Bruce (Richie Calhoun) shows up and says, “I need your help, Jen.”  He informs her that he is the Hulk and tells her of the havoc it has wrecked on his life (“Gamma rays and anger. It’s a bad combination.”).  He tells Jennifer just to warn her, but she offers her unwavering support by stating, “I would hate to live my life turning into a raging green monster every time I got angry.”  Uh oh, you just sealed your fate, honey.  As expected, the progression from here is she ends up getting shot (never shown onscreen) and then gets Bruce’s blood.

Back in the real world, a couple of mob goons hang out in the hospital lobby and pay off a nurse (Tara Lynn Fox) to distract the guard outside of Walters’ room.  Naturally, since this is an adult feature, that diversion involves her giving the guy a blowjob in the x-ray room. Following that ten minute oral scene, the thugs break into Jennifer’s hospital room and try to inject her with some fluid. She fights them off and the resulting anger morphs her into She-Hulk (Chyna), who promptly leaps out of the window and lands on the city’s green screen streets.  “Where am I supposed to go like this,” she wonders exposed in her torn gown.  She wanders the CGI streets for a bit before – in the finest computer effects of 1996 – morphing back into Jennifer Walters.  She is obviously confused by her situation (“The fuck am I going to do now?”) but all of her problems appear solved when she spots some posters on a wall touting an appearance by Mister Fantastic (Ryan Driller) and The Invisible Woman (Alexis Ford) of The Fantastic Four fame.  So Ms. Walters heads to their place with the hope that Mr. Fantastic can live up to his name and find a cure for her.  In She-Hulk form, she questions if he can help and he says he’ll see what he can do with a vial of her blood.  “That’s the last I’ll see of him for several days,” complains The Invisible Woman.  Seeing as this is a skin flick, you know that is code for “lesbian encounter” as The Invisible Woman decides to show She-Hulk her very visible naughty parts.

After this Sappho-centered session, Jennifer leaves the Fantastic’s home and is chloroformed by a green suited baddie hiding in the back of her car. She awakens in a warehouse strapped down to a surgery table.  Seems her kidnapper is Madame Hydra (Jennifer Dark), who is looking to harvest the She-Hulk’s blood in order to create a super army. When an underling (Alan Stafford) informs her their plan might work, Hydra makes him kneel before her and then shoves his head into her crotch.  Wow, talk about a hostile working environment.  This affords us sex scene number four as the two get it on down-and-dirty in the makeshift lab. Madame Hydra fans, you may now cross off “watch Madame Hydra have sex” off your bucket lists.

After Madame Hydra gets properly dehydrated, Jennifer changes into She-Hulk and breaks free from her restraints (all done off screen).  As she wanders around the building, She-Hulk runs into Hawkeye (Eric Masterson, reprising his THE AVENGERS XXX role) and says, “You’re that Avenger…Nighthawk?”  He corrects her and says he is setting up a West Coast faction of The Avengers and could use her.  Unsurprisingly, such a proposition leads to our next sex scene as Chyna and Masterson get it on.  Let’s just say all the bases are covered here.

Hawkeye finishes with a facial that makes me question his marksmanship.  He ends the scene with perhaps the film’s funniest line as he looks at She-Hulk and says, “Can you not tell Mockingbird about this?”  Haha, that is pretty damn good.  Anyway, now I’m getting into this movie’s groove.  I can’t wait to see how She-Hulk defeats Hydra, how Jennifer Walter’s gets her revenge on Trask, and how Mr. Fantastic uses his lab skills to save them both. Wait…what the hell is that on my TV?  Are those…no…it can’t be…END CREDITS!?! Fuck me.

Yup, the freakin’ movie is over.  Clocking in at a mere 90 minutes, SHE-HULK slams the door on the viewer just when things start to get good.  It is the porn equivalent of erectile dysfunction on your wedding night.  I’ve accused Axel Braun of being lazy before, but this one really takes the cake and makes earlier stuff like THE DARK KNIGHT XXX seem like a masterpiece in comparison. Now, as I’ve always said, the goal of porn (and the popular parody subgenre) is to get the viewers off.  And Braun will no doubt do that.  However, when powerhouse Vivid is touting you as the King of the porn parody, you better deliver. SHE-HULK is barely a film.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the obligatory “non-sex version” offered on the bonus disc.  This thing runs less than 15 minutes, which shows you that Braun and his team aren’t really trying when it comes to the parody department.  The script couldn’t have been more than ten pages.  Is it really that hard to envision a few extra scenes to at least make a cohesive movie?  I guess it is. Braun can’t even be bothered to have a scene showing Jennifer Walters getting shot. How freakin’ hard can that be?

Watching the film, I was just flooded with the sense of missed opportunities.  You’ve got the first porn appearance of Mister Fantastic and you can’t work in stretching joke?  Or, better yet, you can’t work in a gag where he uses his superhero ability to fling his dick across the house into the lesbian scene.  Yes, I know it might take a little more effort, but goddamn, the creativity level here is nil.  An even better example is the use of Chyna as the titular character.  Hehe, he said “tit.”  Is it too much to ask to have her actually have a fight scene where she beats down a few guys?  I know folks are tuning in to see her green body in action, but I’m sure the Amazonian market would be thrilled to have her squashing a few dudes in between.  And, once again, her two sex scene keep her in full costume and refuse to show off her breasts (you can see them getting painted green in the bonus features).

Sadly, all of this stuff undermines what Braun does right.  The casting is pretty good and the idea of having Gracie Glam as Jennifer Walters is a smart one.  Braun even earns points for casting Euro starlet Jennifer Dark (pictured left) as Madame Hydra, keeping true to the character’s Eastern European origins.  Not only is she hot, she’s totally into her scene. Yet Braun can’t even be bothered to have Hydra and Walters in the same room together. Nope, not even a scene where she threatens the subdued superhero.  It is pretty apparent Braun is working with a schedule of “get costume, film sex scene, slap together” filmmaking.  Sadly, this method just results in the biggest cash grab yet for Vivid.  I don’t expect them to pay attention to a review like this as their millions in the bank account will keep diverting their eyes.  But the porn parody subgenre – the great bastion for a little fun and creativity – is going to wither up and die if you keep treating it as nothing more than XXX cosplay.  Look, you have capable performers, great costumes and sets, and inventive behind-the-scenes players.  Let’s try to get back to the level of STAR WARS XXX.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Soppy Cinema: THEY BITE (1996)

Pardon the nearly two week delay in our blogging.  I’m sure we were missed.  Truth is I’ve been busy saving the world from unwatched DVD-Rs while Tom has been traveling up and down the Golden State in an effort to avoid watching Albert Pyun’s COOL AIR (can you blame him?).  Anyway, we’ve got to get back into the swing of things so here is a tiny review about things that go bump in the night.  Or, more appropriately, things that go splash in the sea!

THEY BITE centers on some humanoids from the deep that are causing all sorts of problems down in Florida.  The film opens with a model and her photographer out on a pier.  She refuses to do topless shots for him but eventually relents on the condition that he stays far away for his shots.  Ah, the innocence of not knowing about a zoom lens. Anyway, he gets his shots and, showing she is such a free spirit, she dives into the water for a swim.  Bad move as an aquatic monster is lurking nearby and decides to chow down.  The photog does the responsible thing and leaps in to save her in the nick of time.  Just kidding…he stands with his mouth agape while taking pictures of her being clawed into a bloody mess.  Naturally, someone with such sharp fight-or-flight instincts does the next logical thing and anonymously mails his photos to the local police department.

And this is where our chaotic plot begins. A deputy decides to mail the photos to Melody Duncan (Donna Frotscher), an ichthyologist (one who studies fish) friend of his.  She is staying at a hotel where she is constantly being annoyed by the sounds of moaning and groaning coming from the adjacent room.  What exactly is going on in there?  Well, seems a porn company (including Ron Jeremy cast as a crew member…what!?!) is shooting their latest film, a porn parody of Rambo. Leading a scant crew of two on this magnum (condom) opus is director Mel Duncan (Nick Baldasare, star of the totally weird BEYOND DREAM’S DOOR).  Wait a sec…Melody Duncan…Mel Duncan?  I suspect some wacky mix up hijinx in the film’s near future. Indeed, Mel Duncan, porn auteur, ends up getting the highly secretive pics sent to Mel Duncan, fish fan.  Soon our director in charge is snooping to try and figure out just what these things are.  To help the locals?  Nah, his producer has totally fallen in love with making a movie called INVASION OF THE FISHFUCKERS. Naturally, these two name sharers must eventually team up and they better hurry because the beasts coming out of the sea seem to be growing in numbers and appear to be out of this world.

THEY BITE is a flick that has been on my radar ever since Gorezone mentioned it in a piece on independent horror cinema in the early 90s.  It eventually came out on VHS from MTI Entertainment in 1996, but trying to locate a copy to rent was a challenge in itself.  And this monster mash has inexplicably not hit DVD yet. However, thanks to recently becoming independently wealthy, I decided to take a plunge on the VHS.  Director Brett Piper was also familiar due to his involvement in the incredibly convoluted saga of what eventually became RAIDERS OF THE LIVING DEAD (1986).  The one thing I knew about him is he loved to use practical and stop motion effects in his films and THEY BITE is no exception.  If you love some HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP (1980), you’ll dig this film.  The monster suits are suitably gooey with lots of nice detail and there is a ton of cool FX throughout the film.  There is also a great faux trailer for INVASION OF THE FISHFUCKERS done in a 1950s style midway through the film. Perhaps the film’s highlight is a scene that feels like it was added after initial photography in order to up the blood, breasts and beasts factor. Playboy Playmate Susie Owens gets attacked by one of the beasts on the beach and ends up later attacking her lover with her fang-sporting lady parts.  Reminds me of a girl I once dated.  Anyway, it is true a one-of-a-kind moment in movie history (according to FEMME FATALES magazine, it garnered the film an NC-17 rating) and when you’re dealing with low budget cinema, moments like that can only raise a film in one’s esteem.

Such moments are important in helping the film surmount a rather wonky plot.  I’m not quite sure why Piper opted for such an odd porn filmmaker vs. fish doc set up – complete with the goofy “you got my mail” happenstance – that occasionally drags the film down as it splinters into odd directions.  The truth is the scattershot plot, which also includes some religious zealots, hurts the film at times when a straight up “monsters attack the locals” would have been sufficient.  Honestly, I wish Piper had done a more straightforward JAWS-type parody.  The film is, after all, a comedy of sorts and I’m saddened about the missed opportunities to poke fun at years of classic aquatic cinema. Perhaps the film is best known for being one of the first mainstream flicks to give porn legend Ron Jeremy as substantial supporting role.  He’s decent in his role and this was shot in the period before the Hedgehog – as Rodney Dangerfield as Thornton Mellon would say – ballooned up nicely.  And, contrary to what the Jeremy documentary PORN STAR (2001) would lead you to believe, he isn’t killed in this one.  Also, THEY BITE casts NYC comedian Charlie Barnett in one of his few acting roles (he was a supporting player on MIAMI VICE at the time).  Those are just two more reasons to see out this entertaining entry in the water logged history of soppy cinema, which also might win the award for best title of the 1990s.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Cinemasochism: A NIGHT TO DISMEMBER (1983)

Confession time!  Despite having a doctorate in Cinemasochism (aka The Study of Bad Movies), I have never seen a Doris Wishman film.  I remember the Incredibly Strange Film Show episode on her, but her films have always escaped me.  Odd since you’d think a filmography with titles such as NUDE ON THE MOON (1961) and BAD GIRLS GO TO HELL (1965) would, ahem, raise my interest.  Regardless, the work of the world’s first female nudie director has never graced my home video set up.  A recent bout of 1980s slasheritis made me change all of that as I braved A NIGHT TO DISMEMBER, Wishman’s lone horror feature made outside of her nudie confines.

You’ll know you are in for something “special” after the opening 5 minutes of this film, which throws so much expositional material at you at a pace that would make a meth freak scream, “Whoa, slow down!”  Let me see if I can correctly process this. Detective Tim O’Malley (played by a guy who receives no screen credit) narrates the story of the Kent family of Woodmire Lake.  It seems October 15th is a particularly bad day for the Kents as lots of family members seem to get killed.  At 10:30am, Fiddeus Kent had his family torn apart when his oldest daughter Susan killed his favored daughter Bonnie in the bathtub with an axe before accidentally falling on the weapon herself.  At 1:30pm, Broderick Kent called O’Malley to report his wife Lola had been murdered.  But intrepid O’Malley felt “his story was too pat” and Broderick soon confessed to hiring an ex-convict to kill his wife for the insurance money.  He hung himself in jail.  In seemingly unrelated news, Adam Kent knew nothing of what happened to his family that day, but is preparing for the release of his daughter Vicki, who was sent to the mental hospital for killing two boys she murdered 5 years ago in – you guessed it - October.  As if all that murder and mayhem wasn’t bad enough for the Kents, cousin Clark also never returns their calls and always seems to disappear when Superman shows up.

Your humble reviewer after the first 5 minutes:

Our plot proper begins with the release of Vicki Kent (70s/80s porn sensation Samantha Fox) from the mental institution.  Her folks Adam and Blanche bring her home, much to the dismay of her brother Billy (William Szarka) and sister Mary (Diane Cummins), who think she isn’t cured.  They might be right as Vicki shoves full slices of meat and cheese in her mouth at the dinner table.  Looney, I tell ya!  These siblings have a plan though – Billy is going to drive Vicki crazy through a series of
costume shop-aided hoaxes (pretending to be a water dwelling zombie, wearing a mask to be a creepy old man) in the hopes that she will be locked back up. Why does he want to do this?  We’re never really told outside of they think Vicki might still be dangerous.  But Billy might just be onto something as the moment Vicki is released, the murders start all over again.  Vicki’s old beau Frankie and his new girlfriend get chopped up after Vicki meets up with him again.  And a family that questioned Vicki’s sanity gets wiped out in one rather brutal attack.  And, of course, someone keeps tipping O’Malley (always shown in the same shot in his office; see pic) off to all of these murders.

After watching this flick, I’m not quite sure if the title A NIGHT TO DISMEMBER refers to the axe murders seen on screen or the film’s editing style.  Now, to be fair, Wishman claims that the reason her choppy film runs a scant 69 minutes is that half of the negative was destroyed by a disgruntled film lab worker who trashed the place housing her film after finding out it was going out of business.  So she hacked together something out of the surviving footage to make sure her investors had a product.  A dubious claim (especially since most of the running times on her other flicks land within the 70-75 minute range), but I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt as it doesn’t seem someone who has worked in the exploitation field could be this inept.  But then I start thinking about the Millards and the Stecklers out there; folks who haunted the lower tier of the exploitation film world for decades, stubbornly refusing to adhere to conventions such as camera movement or smooth editing transitions.  They’ve waged a cinematic war against mis-en-scene and DISMEMBER is one of the worst.  In fact, I bet Nick Millard would see this and scream, “What the hell is this amateur hour?”  Yup, I ain’t buying your excuses, grandma.

Without the benefit of previous Wishman exposure, I can’t really tell if A NIGHT TO DISMEMBER is below or above her already low standards.  But even a quick scan of something like Wishman’s DIARY OF A NUDIST (1961) on Youtube provides me with enough clues that – even in truncated form – Wishman’s style was definitely one of less is more.  You’ll find the same elements on display in DISMEMBER – static camera shots, scores of stock music, and no use of synch sound resulting in obvious dubbing. It makes it tough to concede that DISMEMBER’s ineptness is due solely a dude going postal on some film reels. The film is rife with inept staging, such as Wishman’s attempts to convey Vicki’s crazy state of mind by having the cameraman jump and spin around in an epileptic craze.  Then you have one of the craziest musical soundtracks I’ve ever heard, switching from classical music to muzak without any rhyme or reason.  I’m talking the type of switch ups that would give Michael Bay a headache. Or how about the scene where a pearl white dummy head is placed into a fireplace to represent a victim's severed head. I'm talking no make up, no wig. Perhaps the greatest example of the film’s clumsiness is when (SPOILER) Wishman clearly films Mary’s face during a murder spree when the audience still don’t know Mary is the real killer.  To further compound this, she has Vicki wearing the murderess’s clothes in the very next scene and the mom says (dubbed, of course), “Must you wear your sister’s clothes?”

Surprisingly, the film is light on the nudity
Perhaps the film’s biggest irony is that Wishman, known for her penchant of filming nudie cuties, delivers an exploitation nearly bereft of bare flesh.  Take the Samantha Fox strip tease scene for example.  The sequence is probably the better of the constructed scenes in the film and yet Wishman shot Fox – at the time of filming one of the adult industry’s biggest stars – from behind and never gets a second of nude footage on film.  Yes, she cast a popular porn star and then didn’t have her get naked. The only greater irony is Fox mostly likely took this project in the hopes of crossing over to more mainstream film work, but ended up in something that has WORSE production values than some of her X-rated work.  That, my friends, takes some talent (or lack thereof).  Despite being a completely incomprehensible mess, I’d actually recommend A NIGHT TO DISMEMBER solely as a recharging station for the burnout Video Junkie who thinks, “Man, I’ve seen it all.”

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Obscure Oddities: TOWN ZERO (1988)

As an American, getting into Russian cinema can be as near a fatalistic experience as the films themselves. Your choices are limited and in the end, no matter what you do, they lead you down an ever narrowing path to the solitary, inescapable conclusion of nothingness. If you read film books and have been to some sort of remedial film class, you'll be introduced to the works of turn of the century filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein (inventor of the "bedhead"), without whom the 1980s American comedy and romance films would simply not be. You will also be introduced to Andrei Tarkovsky who seemingly picked up the slack after Eisenstein's death. Yes, for one hundred years, Russia only had two filmmakers. Then in the past 30 years, it's been nothing but embarrassing Hollywood clones like NIGHT WATCH (2004) and the astonishingly blatant, but fun D-DAY (2008). Right? Well, it sure seems that way in America.

Of course, Russian cinema has had a rich history, but unlike Hollywood, what few pre-modern Russian films I've been able to see have been rather personal, in a cultural sense. Russians made movies for Russians. Sure they let Hungarians see them, and the Polish had no choice, but it seems like the Russians in their imperial arrogance felt that no one else would appreciate their pains, their delights, their mindboggling bureaucracy. To an extent, they may very well be right.

An average middle management type, Aleksei Varakin (Leonid Filatov), travels by train from his Moscow factory to a small town in order to have a meeting with the head of an air conditioner manufacturer. After finding that security doesn't know anything about his arrival, he discovers the receptionist is completely nude. The factory head (Armen Dzhigarkhanyan) has no knowledge of this fact, nor of Varakin's arrival, in spite of the fact that blueprints and phone-calls had been exchanged in prior weeks. This of course can be all squared away if they get the plant engineer up to the office. As it turns out the engineer has been dead for eight months after drowning in a lake. The best thing to do at this point is set up another meeting in two weeks.

Perplexed Varakin decides to go out to dinner before catching his train back to Moscow. After Varakin finishes his meal, the waiter brings him dessert, which turns out to be a cake replica of Varakin's head. When Varakin refuses to eat it the waiter tells him that if he doesn't, the cook will shoot himself. Thinking this to be a twisted joke, Varakin attempts to leave, only to hear a shot and see the cook fall to the floor with a crimson stain across his chest.

So starts Varakin's quietly desperate efforts to escape the town which is seemingly populated entirely by people who seem normal from a distance, but get very strange once you get up close. In an early part of of the film, Varakin finds himself at a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere after a taxi dumps him off (the driver is unable to leave the area surrounding the town - shades of Alex Proyas' 1998 film DARK CITY). While sitting at the table in the farm house, a young boy stares him straight in the eyes and tells him "you will never leave our town" and predicts the date of his death. As it turns out, creepy kids are the least of his problems.

Later in the film Varakin is hauled into the police station and interrogated about his relationship with the dead cook. He is shown a picture of himself that the dead man possessed with an inscription in Varakin's handwriting that claims to be the cooks son! At a later point the local prosecutor (Vladimir Menshov) tells Varakin that he believes that the cook may have been assassinated and Varakin used as a witness, with grave political repercussions. At this point you start feeling a bit comfortable. You start feeling like you have a plot to grasp on to. This is when director Karen Shakhnazarov yanks the carpet out from under you. Not only is there a suicide, or maybe murder, but that dead cook was actually a great historical figure... well, in that town's proud and rich history. He was the first person to "dance rock and roll"! While this "plot" is explored a bit, it really has nothing to do with the film's modus operandi, which is to satirize Russian political and social mentality with the incredibly elaborate history of this small town.

Feeling something like what would come out of a brief romantic liaison between Alejandro Jodorowski and Terry Gilliam in a Bolshevik prison, this is essentially a pitch-black surrealist comedy that underplays every bizarre moment. This is one thing that I think makes this somewhat unpalatable to North America and the English. There's no crying, no yelling, no hysteria. Varakin finds himself following a path that he cannot change, all he can do is shoulder his burden and push forward. So very Russian.

Also, the second act has a very long sequence in which Varakin finds himself in the local museum which has been set up in the remnants of the old coal mine. During his guided tour he is shown elaborate, life-size wax dioramas depicting significant events in the town's history. Since my knowledge of Russian history is only slightly more advanced than what I learned in high school ("commies are bad, ummmkay?"), a substantial portion of this scene went right over my head. On the other hand there is so much to appreciate here that transcends the culture gap. A scene where a major character ludicrously fails a public suicide attempt is both darkly hilarious and at the same time rather pitiable. There are endless details to muse over, rife with symbolism and outright surreality. Why do we get musical cues only when Anna (a very minor character) shows up? Why is The Prosecutor wearing a rather loud suit instead of his uniform at the end? Why did the jazz band start to play at exactly that time, indeed?

The sense that something is not at all right starts with the first shot of the movie. Shakhnazarov has apparently made a small but well-received career out of making moody, semi-surreal movies. This is a mid-career film for him, but it feels experimental, like an early film for someone else. On the other hand, he is completely confident and does not hesitate to open the film with a two-minute sequence in which the camera dolefully views a fog-shrouded train station in utter silence. Eventually the train begins to move, picking up speed and leaving the station as the camera slowly cranes up until the platform is empty and a solitary figure walks across the tracks. This sort of sequence evokes a sense of fatalism and isolation that permeates the entire film. Even when Varakin is in a room full of people, he is completely alone. Mainly because everyone else is a complete loon operating on a wavelength he cannot begin to fathom.

This style of fish-out-of-water film had been done in Ray Lawrence's BLISS (1985) and Martin Scorsese's AFTER HOURS (1985), but while the latter was a frantic, sweaty, and very American style experience, this is very much a low-key exercise in minimalism with lots of lingering shots and subtle facial expressions to convey alienation, manipulation, conformity and fate. Perhaps the Russians are right. I can't imagine this playing at a multiplex in 1988 right next to DIE HARD, BEETLEJUICE and COMING TO AMERICA... but I really wish it had.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Adrenaline Shot: ACTION U.S.A. (1989) and CARTEL (1990)

Since the birth of the film industry, it has always made sense for people who did stunts to become film directors.  In a medium built on conveying movement, it is perfect. Silent stars like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin showed they knew best when it came to filming their own knuckle whitening stunts.  In the 1970s and 80s, stuntman Hal Needham reigned supreme at the box office with his car crazy flicks like SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT (1977) and THE CANNONBALL RUN (1981); Jackie Chan took his career to new heights when he decided he needed to be the one calling the shots on his death defying stunts; and even Vic Armstrong parlayed a career of stunts and second unit direction into the classic Dolph Lundgren feature ARMY OF ONE (1993).  The point being: if a stuntman gets his bruised tailbone in the director’s chair, you can expect lots of action (hey, don’t you dare bring up Spiro Razatos’ feature CLASS OF 1999 II: THE SUBSTITUTE [1994]). Nowhere is this more on display than in these couple of features from stuntman John Stewart.  A veteran actor and stunt coordinator, Stewart made the transition to directing in the late 1980s and made sure to make the most of it when it came to capturing his brethren doing extreme bits.

ACTION U.S.A. (1989)

John Stewart’s debut feature as a director came out on VHS via the Imperial Entertainment label.  This meant that two things were for certain.  One, the film was going to have a lot of action.  Two, you are going to sit through the trailer for BLACK EAGLE (1988) again whether you like it or not.

This film wastes no time getting into the mix and delivering on its titular promise as the opening has drug dealer Billy Ray (Rod Shaft, if that is your real name) and his girlfriend Carmen (Barri Murphy) speeding around a Texas town in a souped up Corvette with a personalized license plate that reads SLEEK 1.  They get to his house and start making out, but this afternoon quickie is interrupted by a couple of thugs who kidnap them both.  This results in a 20 minute action sequence that involves a car chase, a car and helicopter chase, a helicopter freefall and another car chase that results in a mobile home exploding in a huge fireball.  Yeah, I think I’m going to like this movie.  Anyway, since Carmen was a witness to all of this, she is placed under the care of FBI agents Osborn (Gregory Scott Cummings, recently seen as the bad guy in PHANTOM OF THE MALL) and McKinnon (William Hubbard Knight).  Their boss, Conover (William Smith), orders them to keep her safe while he builds a case on Frankie Navarro (Cameron Mitchell), the mobster behind all of this mayhem who is looking for a stash of diamonds.  Seems like a pretty routine job for our Fed boys, except that Navarro has hired hitman Drago (Ross Hagen), who has the unfortunate and uncanny ability to show up wherever our heroic trio ends up.

If there is ever a film that lives up to its title, it is this one. There is lots of action and it is filmed in the U.S.A. (the title on the clapper shown in the end credit bloopers is A HANDFUL OF TROUBLE). I mean, the VHS cover has a guy falling out a window, a guy on fire, and a flying car smashing into some parked cars.  Can you see what drew me to it?  Director Stewart can't go ten minutes without staging some crazy action scene. It is weird though as his film unfolds almost in reverse as the biggest action scenes take place in the opening twenty minutes. Not that the film's finale is a let down, it just doesn't have the huge explosions and insane car jumps that the film’s opening display.  Having been a stuntman, Stewart knows exactly where to place the camera in order to the maximum impact (pun most definitely intended) on a car slamming into the pavement.  No CGI cars and explosions a la FAST AND FURIOUS that drive the kidz wild nowadays (how anyone can get excited during a CGI car chase is beyond me).  There are even a few scary bits (like where Carmen’s character is flung out of a car during a chase and hangs onto the ajar door) which remind you that back in the day stunt folks were some crazy people.

Is that your raised motorblock 
or are you just happy to see me?

"Yep, they're real."
The entire cast is good although it is strange for me to see Cummings cast as a good guy. He and Murphy’s character naturally fall for each other, but the real relationship is the rapport between him and his partner played by Knight.  It is stock 80s action cliché (Cummings is white, Knight is black) but it works and they are obviously having fun in their roles. The highlight is a 48 HRS (1982) type sequence where they end up in a redneck bar and all hell breaks loose.  The supporting cast is also a dream for any exploitation cinephile as you get Cameron Mitchell (whose scenes were shot away from everyone else), William Smith, and Ross Hagen listed in the opening credits back-to-back.  I think I about died when I saw those names pop up.  Had they somehow worked in Aldo Ray, no doubt you wouldn’t be reading this review as I would have been found dead of b-movie player overdose.  All in all, ACTION U.S.A. is a perfect example of an era that has long since left us – a movie that serves as a vehicle for a bunch of insane stuntmen to show their wares.

CARTEL (1990)

Just a year later saw the release of Stewart’s second action film with the direct-to-video CARTEL (his third film as a director after co-directing CLICK: THE CALENDAR GIRL KILLER [1990] with his ACTION star Ross Hagen).

The film opens with freelance airplane pilot Chuck Taylor (Miles O’Keeffe, of ATOR fame) touching down in California with what he believes to be a cargo of medical supplies for delivery.  The Federal agents who greet him, however, have bad news as he was carrying boxes full of cocaine.  Also at the airport are the men of Tony King (Don Stroud), the head honcho in this drug ring who wants to make sure he gets his shipment.  While Taylor is being arrested, King’s men roll up guns-a-blazin’ to procure their product.  Naturally, just like ACTION U.S.A., this erupts into a huge action scene where Taylor takes off in a plane with goons hanging on both sides and King puts the pedal to the metal in his Lamborghini as the cops give chase.  The events end poorly for the good and the bad as Taylor is arrested (“Whoa! What are you doing, man?”) and King and his car are launched 100 feet into the air in a huge fireball before he crashes and is then arrested.

Not surprisingly, both men end up in the slammer (a prison that shows ACTION U.S.A. on its television…hell yeah!).  As cinematic laws dictate, they are both on the same cellblock and King, who shows now visible damage from his fiery fiasco, rubs Taylor the wrong way by openly snorting coke and picking on other prisoners.  Their tempers flare and this quickly escalates into a…uh…arm wrestling match!  Yes, when you see someone unmercifully beating up your fellow prisoners, the only way to set them straight is to slam their appendage onto a table.  Anyway, Taylor shows King who is boss and beats him handily (haha).  This only fuels the bad guy’s vengeful mood more.  You see, he is still upset over all that coke he lost and tells Taylor he can work off his “debt” by working for him for a year.  Taylor passes, which is a bad move as King sends his henchmen (including ACTION’s lead Cummings) on the outside to kill Taylor’s girlfriend Donna (Crystal Carson), his sister Nancy (Suzee Slater) and her son Tommy (Bradley Pierce) in order to persuade him.  When they succeed in killing Nancy, Taylor decides it is time to bust out of this joint.  With Nancy’s investigative help, he learns the routines of the drug runners and decides to get revenge on those who framed him.  The bad news?  King has also escaped from prison and is looking for some payback as well.

Frankie Sweatpants always wondered why 
the other assassins never took him seriously:

CARTEL sees director Stewart working with a bigger budget and, as we all know, bigger means better.  Actually, that might not be the case here.  In contrast to the aforementioned ACTION U.S.A., CARTEL is surprisingly restrained.  Not that this is a bad thing, it is just that the action is more even spaced out over the picture and Stewart spends more time developing the drama between the characters.  Like ACTION, it seems to also be working in reverse as the opening action scene is definitely the highlight of the film and makes the finale (which takes place at a boatyard) pale in comparison.  There are some great little bits in here though that shows off that the stunt crew still needs their required adrenaline rushes.  For example, when the thugs show up at the house to terrorize Taylor’s family, they don’t just come in the door.  They drive a station wagon right into the house.  Even one guy attacking Nancy can’t be done simply as he has to attack her by jumping into the room through a glass window.

Stroud in one of his quieter moments
The cast is again good and O’Keefe proves again to be a solid leading man.  He does do this one thing with his voice every now and then that makes him sound like Elvis though.  The supporting players aren’t as diverse this go around, although that was probably due to safety matters of being on set with Don Stroud.  As we’ve come to expect from cinema’s wild man, Stroud gives a totally unhinged and manic performance to the point that I wonder if the coke he was snorting was real.  I bet the carpenters and set dressers were pissed when they showed up for work the next day and were all like, “Who has been chewing on the scenery?”  There is a bit of disappointment with the William Smith casting though as he is only in a few scenes and his crooked guard character never gets his comeuppance.  However, you can tell the filmmakers were once again having fun while making stuff get blow’d up real nice.  When looking for action, what more can you ask for?

Nancy's modeling career was really taking off!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

An Acute Case of Sequelitis: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD: RE-ANIMATION 3D (2011)

It's not just obsessive and compulsive movie watchers like us here at VJ that become jaded, the movie viewing public does. We all operate on expectations and make evaluations of films based on those expectations, no matter how hard some of us try, it still happens. So what exactly do you expect from a DTV movie with the title NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD: RE-ANIMATION 3D? Nothing good, that's for sure. For me, I expect something low-budget, badly acted, indifferently directed, with lots of very cheap CG gore and even cheaper jokes because nothing with that title could possibly take itself seriously. I mean, come on. Trying to rip off two horror classics and throw "3D" in on top of it just reeks of DTV desperation.

Set almost entirely in a run-down mortuary, head mortician, Gerald Tovar, or as his name tag says "Junior" (Andrew Divoff), lives in his dead father's shadow. He is troubled and on edge getting into conflicts with his apathetic staff, goth-girl DyeAnne (Robin Sydney) and stoner/slacker Russell (Adam Chambers). The only person he maintains a good relationship with is the obese bookkeeper/receptionist Aunt Lou (Melissa Jo Bailey) who spends most of her time watching FIXD News, a right-wing cable station. We quickly find out that the root of Gerald's problems are deeper than his problems with poor staffing and inner demons. For some reason his crematorium is kept locked and is filled with rotting corpses, flies and a video camera that Gerald leaves running. During an unscheduled inspection, what is clearly a member of the walking dead shambles through the graveyard and attacks the inspector. Gerald is at least well mannered as he apologizes for killing the inspector with a shovel after dispatching the undead.

After bringing on a new assistant Cristie (Sarah Lieving), Geralds issues are compounded by having his half-brother Harold (Jeffrey Combs) show up out of the blue. Harold has lost his veterinary business and is a little bitter about his brother getting the bulk of daddy's estate. As it turns out, Dad had a deal going with the US military: they would truck over strange bags from a nearby base which he would burn in his retort. Unfortunately, since Daddy died, Gerald has found himself with a deep and intense phobia of fire and has let the bags and the corpses stack up.

If you are thinking "holy crap, that is a lot of plot!", you aren't alone. It actually took me a good 20 minutes of the running time to mentally switch gears from the expected low-brow NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and RE-ANIMATOR rip-off that I expected it to be, to the low-key, deliberately paced, character-driven movie that it actually is. Writer-producer-director Jeff Broadstreet seems to have garnered himself quite a reputation for making very low-budget movies that are not well received by critics, fans or really anybody. I never even considered checking out one of his movies until this one came along and the only reason I decided to watch it was because I wanted to see if a low-budget indy flick would fuck up 3D just as much as Hollywood's "big" movies (the answer, obviously, is no - nobody fucks up great ideas like Hollywood). I thought it would make a fun bit of blogfodder, an easy target for some of my own cheap jokes. Instead I got something that took me completely off guard and took some effort to readjust to. A slowly unfolding character piece in which the "Living Dead" and "Re-Animation" is left in the background, as sanity-eroding forces that eat away at the main characters.

Gerald is a snarling ball of neuroses, but generally seems like a good guy. Harold is very confident and assertive, particularly in his right wing beliefs and hatred of diet sodas. At least that's what you might think at first. As the film progresses and more dirt is dug up, the viewers perception of the characters will change and evolve. The movie is essentially a character piece with Divoff and Combs giving exceptionally solid performances with a sincerity that surpasses many Oscar nominees. While mostly it is the two brothers exploring each other's characters, trying to pry out dirty secrets, the employees in the embalming room are trying to simply get along. Cristie is college-educated and professional, but finally gives in to the lure of the slacker mentality when Russell swings by with da kine and everyone decides that it's time for a smoke break. Broadstreet could have used this sequence as an opportunity for sophomoric laughs (or lack there of), but instead tries to get into a surreal space. DyeAnne shows an intense interest in the dead ("you mean, like for sex?" says Cristie), but it doesn't really go anywhere and her character doesn't even have a satisfying conclusion. It felt like they were cribbing a riff from RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD's Trash, but without even trying to match the energy or envelope pushing of that classic character. Matter of fact, if anything, this movie feels far more like a quasi-sequel to RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD rather than a quasi-sequel to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

Therein lies the crux of the problem. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD: RE-ANIMATION 3D is a semi-prequel to Broadstreet's  NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD 3D, a quasi-remake that wasn't well received in the least. While this outing is far and away better than it has any right to be, it still doesn't deliver in what is a vital area: the raison d'etre, the living dead. There are a few cool scenes (the fridge in Daddy's office), but for the most part the horror factor is somewhat underplayed and the effects, both physical and CG are rough around the edges at best. Even worse, a few ideas are set up, including the ultimate fates of most of the cast, and are fumbled out-right. One of the major missteps is the inclusion of a character that parodies Sarah Palin, who is seen on TV and for no explained reason simply shows up at the mortuary near the end of the film. It's completely out of left field  we get no real payoff with her character (spoiler alert - she dies, but that's about it) and even at the time this was made in late 2011, everyone had skewered Palin so often, that she was like Pam Anderson at a butt-rock re-union tour, even the late-night comics were starting to look for fresher material. Hell, Hustler's NAILIN' PALIN porn parody came out in 2008, a full three years earlier! This is what I will henceforth refer to as "The IRON SKY Syndrome".

Shot in stereoscopic 3D on digital video, the 3D really isn't necessary to the film, but does highlight the craftsmanship that went into the set dressing. While it was shot on a TV soundstage in Burbank, you'd never know it as the sets are highly detailed and have a fantastic, cluttered, lived-in (or maybe "died-in") look about them. It's also interesting to note that while Hollywood makes hundreds of millions of dollars on a film like IRON MAN 3, they can't be bothered to actually spend the money on shooting in 3D, instead relying on a computer to make a 2D movie that must be watched with 3D glasses and still look 2D. Here, even a simple shot of the graveyard looks great with each headstone occupying its own place in a three dimensional field. There's a scene early on where a candle is blown out and the smoke beautifully wafts off of the screen. Is it intrinsic to a story about two brothers with deep, dark personal issues? Not in the least, but it's still a better 3D experience than Marvel, Paramount, Columbia, or Universal are willing to give us, which is simply shameful.

In spite of the stumbles, the movie is an unqualified success with its main characters. Feeling somewhat like a stage play based on a Joe R. Landsdale short story, this is Broadstreet's first attempt at writing a screenplay. Granted there are plenty of areas where this is very apparent, but by the same token he wrote some great material that gave Divoff and Combs meaty roles that they could sink their teeth into. You can see the gears turning in each of the actor's heads when they are slowly revealing their motives and trying to figure out how to work the situation to their advantage. These guys didn't phone this movie in, they are invested in their parts. Divoff, bearing a producer's credit, apparently invested in a fiscal sense as well, but that's even better as he clearly isn't there for an easy paycheck.

So, yes, the movie doesn't payoff on expectations, but at the same time, I never felt like walking away from it either. There's enough going on to keep your interest and find out if Gerald and Harold will actually solve their problems or die trying. I wish I could say the same for some recent major studio efforts.