Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Rare Westerns on Netflix Instant Watch Capsule Reviews, vol.14

Thunder in the Sun (1959)

A group of wine grower immigrants travel through Indian country, hoping to settle a new vinocracy. Among them are strong hero Jeff Chandler, and foot stomping, Flamenco dancing, sassy French lady Susan Hayward (to be fair, she always stomps her feet). They are repeatedly besieged by Indians, including some that seem to jump off of trampolines and into the frame. At one point, one of the settlers combats an Indian by hitting him in the head with a ball hurled with one of those jai alai rackets (whatever they’re called). A standard story is handled melodramatically (bordering on camp at times) with these and a few other odd touches, and the results are fairly entertaining. The compositions by DP Stanley Cortez are very good, but sometimes the studio shots and the location shots are badly mismatched.

Okay color transfer is a notch above VHS. Never released on home video.

The Jayhawkers! (1959)

The “Jayhawkers” are a group of enterprising young men trying to take control of Kansas, led by Jeff Chandler, who has a Napoleon complex (he’s not short, he just thinks he’s Napoleon). Fess Parker breaks out of prison and returns home, only to find that his wife is dead and his ranch has been legally acquired by a French woman who has two kids. The woman adopts him as a defacto husband, since she needs a man around the house to do things like chop wood and teach her kids English (the kids learn how to say “y’all be fixin’”). She must be desperate for a man to immediately hook up with a stranger that just broke out of prison. Anyway, Fess is offered a pardon by the governor of Kansas if he kills Chandler, and he also finds out that Chandler had a relationship with his wife while he was in prison, and then killed her because he was “bored with her”. You’d think this would setup a clear case of a hero out to get revenge against a scumbag villain at all costs. However, Fess goes undercover and joins the jayhawkers, developing respect for him along the way, despite the pleas of his new French girlfriend that Chandler is an murdering, woman-hating dictator. If you can get over the curious non-revenge plot and the apparent misogyny, this is a well done, well filmed take on the “go undercover to catch the crook” plot. Look for Harry Dean Stanton in a tiny role, and Henry Silva as Chandler’s slimy heavy.

Originally shot in Vistavision (1.85:1), the transfer is cropped and dull, but is perfectly watchable. Previously released on VHS.

Pawnee (1956)

George Montgomery plays Pale Arrow, a white man raised by Pawnee Indians. He saves some white people from a stagecoach attack by other Pawnees. His “father” Wise Eagle doesn’t want to fight the white man, but Arrow’s rival Crazy Fox (who gets sweet with his love Dancing Fawn) wants to wipe out the honkeys. Pale Arrow goes undercover as a white man (i.e. rubs off his face paint) in order to go into town and gauge their feelings (“the heart of the white man”). Crazy Fox follows him into town to snoop, believing him to be a turncoat. George tries to get frisky with a white woman who has another man after her (mirroring the trio with Fawn and Fox). George then agrees to be a stagecoach scout while Crazy Fox sends the Pawnees after the stagecoach, as Wise Eagle had recently passed away, and George/Pale Arrow is caught in-between. Cheap and sloppy, but I found the two love triangles cute and appealing, and Montgomery makes an interesting central figure torn between several different conflicting entities, despite the silly transition from Indian to white man.

Decent transfer has dull colors and some ghosting problems during movement, but is certainly watchable.

Monday, November 21, 2011

ABERRATION (1997) - if you thought geckos couldn't be more of an annoyance than that Geico gecko, think again

Here's the big scene of gecko horror action.

The “animals run amok” genre has a long and proud tradition of entertaining us by showing innocent animals eating a bunch of privileged white people. You know, the kind that drive along in an SUV to a house in the woods, throwing non-biodegradable styrofoam burger containers out of the window along the way. Now, I don’t know how a radioactive squirrel knows that these people are privileged and selfish and therefore deserve to be killed, but I’m certainly pleased with the results.

However, the problem with such a well-mined genre is that most every animal has already been used. Filmmakers have fused animals together in order to keep things innovative, whether the shark octopus or the gorilla squid or the lobster giraffe. Hell, even a plant was used in the “animal run amok” classic The Little Shop of Horrors. Now, I know that nobody else on this planet would consider Little Shop of Horrors an “animal run amok” movie, considering that it stars a plant that doesn’t move. However, I think that a plant that eats people is pretty much an animal (editor’s note: writer is not a zoologist; he’s not even a crypto-zoologist), and there’s no need for the plant to run amok when it can coerce Seymour into doing his dirty work for him. If a grizzly bear with crab hands who lives in a cave had a cronie to bring him victims, he wouldn’t even bother to leave the house. Well, it makes sense to me.

Anyway, the plot as standard as it gets, as Pamela Gidley is a hip chick that heads out to a cabin in the woods and is forced to defend herself against radioactive (although regular sized) geckos. Yes, Aberration is about killer geckos, which sounds pretty ridiculous, but admittedly they are rarely glimpsed. They live beneath the floorboards of the cabin and when the geckos do get out and about, they do so in POV shots (reminiscent of the classic killer tarantula flick Kingdom of the Spiders, starring legendary space stud Bill Shatner). They even spy upon Pamela’s ass as she gets ready to take a bath. I guess it can get pretty boring living under some floorboards, so these geckos take any cheap thrills they can get.

So, if the TYPE of critter doesn’t play a big part in the story, why go with the gecko? Why not go with an old standby, like tarantulas, for example? Well, basically, Aberration is a quirky, post-Tarantino (there’s even a subtle reference to Reservoir Dogs), post-Twin Peaks (Gibney was in Fire Walk With Me) variation on the “animals run amok” genre, and the gecko fits as a quirky and original choice. Fittingly, Pamela combats them in quirky ways, whether arming herself with a Super Soaker filled with poison, or when she tries to drown one in a fishtank, only to be forced to electrocute with a lamp when she discovers that these geckos can breathe under water. Instead of going for straight horror or camp, the movie goes for quirk, without being self-conscious to the point of annoyance. Pamela is a perfect heroine for this style, with her pink highlights and alternative style (“alternative” meaning “120 Minutes with Dave Kendall”) and dialogue that conveys a detached cool, keeping her composure while subtlety cracking wise. She also talks to her cat, which is something that quirky girls do, and continue to do as they grow up to be crazy cat ladies. She also bumps into some off-kilter characters along the way, in particular a creepy old man who lives in a nearby shack, as well as a slightly nutty but charming ecologist whom she develops a bit of a relationship with. The soundtrack is surprisingly good and fitting of the Pamela character, with some tremolo guitar score (a bit Twin Peaks) and alternative songs, a few which sound like Concrete Blonde. There’s also a twist ending that will seem familiar to anyone who remembers what movies were like in the aftermath of Pulp Fiction. You know, a movie about quirky criminals. I think I have now set a record for the most uses of the word "quirk" within one paragraph. There's another one.

A good point of comparison is Ticks (1993), another Evil Dead-influenced (specifically the camera work and location) “critters in a cabin in the woods” movie, employing genre revisionism in a 90’s style. The difference is that the “hipness” of Ticks is decidedly pre-Tarantino. The characters also employ self-referential humor, but are still partially in the “dumb victim” mold. The characters in Aberration play it smart while keeping it cool, slyly commenting on the situation without drifting into camp, and never rendered helpless or shrieking. However, at its core, Aberration is basically about a girl in a cabin forced into pest control, so it never really inspires terror in the way that the best “animals run amok” movies do. It may as well be a movie about a quirky girl dealing with an annoying roach problem. However, pest control, no matter how well done, is not going to put asses in the seats. You gotta sell it as a movie about some crazy ass monster eating people and ripping limbs off. In other words, subtlety and quirk is what opens on Friday and closes on Saturday or, in this case, goes direct-to-video.

P.S. This was written as part of "Project Terrible" over at Mondo Bizarro. If you like crap, click on the link.

Friday, November 18, 2011

ACCIDENTS (1989) - an unlikely sci-fi terrorist plot thwarted by a scientist with an unlikely and unfortunate hairstyle

The mullet rarely works, but when it does, it really fucking works. It’s the perfect hairstyle for a 6’4’’ hockey goon from Ottawa, and Dalton from Road House just wouldn’t be the same without his patented mane. However, for every Martin Riggs from Lethal Weapon, there are a thousand mulleted meatheads out there with follicles to horrify the retinas of humanity. A bad mullet is a hairstyle not to be taken seriously, and this can spill over to the man himself. Take, for example, scientist Eric Powers, star of Accidents. I cannot take any of his scientific discoveries seriously because of the mullet. A scientist should no doubt be business in the front, but that much party in the back can only lead to trouble. If you party that much on your off hours and show up to the lab hungover the next morning, no doubt your data is going to suffer.

Also, it’s hard to take a scientific discovery seriously when it’s a little piece of plastic. You see, Mr. Powers has created an anti-terrorist weapon that looks like a model kit UFO that is operated by remote control. As he explains to his daughter, the thing shoots lasers that screw with the electromagnetic fields in someone’s brain and they blow up (it’s an “amplified brainscan system”). If this description seems obtuse to certain viewers, they show the scientists testing the weapon on a mouse wearing one of those little metal helmets that they hook electrodes up to. That way, they can record data when the mouse’s head starts sparking, in order to find out what happens scientifically speaking right before it blows up.

Of course, Powers finds out that his secret terrorist-fighting project is being sold to…TERRORISTS! I guess they put in a higher bid. Anyway, we know this because the main official of the project is seen sitting on a park bench with a shady looking guy with a shady sounding accent. Just remember; if you ever see an older white man in a suit whispering quietly to a Middle Eastern or Eastern European guy with a beard, there are either state secrets being sold, or someone’s ass is getting assassinated. You know what, I just realized that the word “assassinated” begins with the word “ass” repeated twice. That’s amazing.

Anyway, people who know too much are being murdered, and Powers is thrust into a conspiracy. His best friend and fellow researcher leaves a worrisome message on his answering machine that “sounds like a Woody Allen monologue” (this was back in the day when people made fun of Woody Allen for his neuroticism rather than because he boinked his stepdaughter). Soon after, he steps in his jacuzzi at home and is mysteriously electrocuted. Nobody finds it strange that he is magically electrocuted just by dipping his toes in some water, but Powers does connect the phone call with the murder and he becomes suspicious. Later, another guy with knowledge of the project is driving along minding his own business when the little saucer magically appears hovering above the car and shoots a laser through the windshield and into his brain (or whatever it does).

Now, I’m probably putting too much thought into this (i.e. any thought), but why use the secret undercover weapon to kill people that know too much about the secret undercover weapon? Why not just hire a vaguely European goon (not to be confused with a hockey goon, since Canadians draw the line at murder) to shoot these guys? The weapon could be damaged or noticed by someone or even stolen in the process. Also, how is this thing supposed to stop terrorism? Maybe you can find out where the terrorist lives and sit outside in the bushes and try to remote control the saucer into the house and into the guy’s bedroom and shoot him with a laser. That’s a whole lot of trouble when you can just launch a missile from above and nuke the guy’s house. It’s not like the U.S. military is above blowing up a terrorist's house, no matter who else is inside.

The other thing is that this little saucer just seems to shoot a laser at people, and I don’t see what is so special about that. Maybe that was a bit cutting edge for 1989, but it even pales in comparison to a similar laser in the film Real Genius, released 4 years prior. That laser could nuke an exact site from space using a satellite tracking system, which is balls out more impressive than a little remote control piece of plastic that looks like a NES accessory.

Speaking of which, do you remember that scene in Real Genius where the kids sit at a restaurant table in celebrations of having completed building the laser? They made the laser cannon thing out of a love for science, but it dawns on them that the laser was going to be used as a destructive force. Apart from the two ridiculous murders early on and the lame shoot out at the end, Accidents is basically that scene drawn out to 80 minutes, only without the fun nerdy characters and the Val Kilmer wisecracks. Marry that to a soul-curdling synth score and you have a conspiracy movie where the real conspiracy is that it conspires to bore you. That’s as close as I’ll get to Gene Shalit folks.

P.S. This was written as part of "Project Terrible" over at Mondo Bizarro. Check it out!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

BLOODRAYNE: THE THIRD REICH review over at Planet Fury

If you haven't been keeping up with cutting edge action cinema, you might not realize that the third movie in the Bloodrayne franchise was recently released. I wrote a review of it for the site Planet Fury, and here it is. The movie is about a hot chick armed with two swords who fights Nazi vampires, and that is all you really need to know. I believe that this is the first Uwe Boll movie I have reviewed, which is surprising considering I'm a notorious Boll apologist. Well, enjoy, and remember, if you meet a Nazi on the street, punch him in the balls. He deserves it.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

THE DIVINE ENFORCER (1992) - perhaps the greatest achievement of the "priest-fu" genre, and most definitely the nadir

Maybe you’ve heard of the “phone-in” performance. You know, where an actor shows up for one day of shooting without bothering to give a shit or bothering to have read the script, instead
reading the dialogue off of a cue card or a piece of paper. An actor might also show up drunk as well, otherwise known as the "Dean Martin phone-in". Phone-ins are common in the world of B-movies, where desperate actors are hired for their name value, and some of these actors are too filled with shame about appearing in so-called “trash” to bother caring.

Maybe the biggest dual phone-in in cinematic history is found within the little-seen trash actioner The Divine Enforcer, courtesy of Jan-Michael Vincent and Erik Estrada. They play two priests who sit around a breakfast table and stumble over expository dialogue, often reading it off a newspaper, since memorization requires effort (as does storytelling that doesn’t involve people sitting around telling each other what’s going on). Rather than trying to find a parish to shoot at, or dressing a set to look like a parish, the filmmakers just shoot these scenes at what looks like some small house in the valley. At least Jan-Michael has the decency to visibly drown his shame in booze and pills.

They are joined by a third priest at their breakfast table parish, and he at least gives a shit. Not only does he ineptly recite dialogue with passion, he explores the neighborhood looking for ruffians to attack mid-crime. You see, he’s a vigilante priest that has been pushed to the limit and sent over the edge by the evil of man, and serves god by kicking people in the head and snapping collarbones. Since god is all-powerful and all-good, I don’t know why he doesn’t just handle it himself. I guess he creates scruffy punks to commit crimes for no reason as fodder for Z-grade action movie heroes. That must be it.

Meanwhile, sleazy nutbar Don Stroud is draining the blood of women before torturing and murdering them. The astute viewer will probably conclude that these two will eventually battle, but it takes most of the run time to actually get there, requiring some hamfisted coincidence along the way. So, much of the time we have two separate stories that involve separate random encounters that don’t even connect to one another until late in the film. Having said that, each scene is a ramshackle delight that scrapes the bottom of the direct-to-video action/thriller barrel. I dare say that it occasionally even reaches underneath the barrel to scrape off some action trash grime, then uses a needle to inject the grime directly into your already rotting cerebral cortex. Every frame is soaked in failure and shame, like Jan-Michael Vincent’s bloodshot eyes the morning after he got so drunk he punched out a stripper and set his own car on fire for no reason whatsoever.

Special musical guest Hiroko, performing a house remix of her semi-hit “My Love’s Waiting”, only wants to entertain with spirit and spunk, but seems completely out of place, as if she showed up to perform on film without realizing how the footage was going to be used. Maybe she was hoping to break into American dance clubs through a direct-to-VHS trash actioner that no one will ever watch. Either way, she contributes a catchy ass song that carries the viewer through the soul crushing depths of genre cinema, where those with a special brand of intestinal fortitude will find themselves massively entertained while hopelessness and shame creeps into their pores.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Rare Westerns on Netflix Instant Watch Capsule Reviews, vol.13

Montana Belle (1952)

Jane Russell plays Belle Starr, who is about to be lynched, but is rescued by the Dalton gang (because she’s hot I guess), and the two Dalton brother argue over her for the rest of the movie while they team up to rob banks. The gang branches out by having Belle pretend to warm up to a wealthy saloon owner in order to bilk him out of his money. I guess they might as well use her hotness to their monetary advantage. Pretty lifeless and uninteresting, except for Jane Russell’s scowls and the occasional zinger. Directed by Allan Dwan, and Andy Devine provides comic relief.

Pretty decent color transfer. It’s in a turquoise-y two strip technicolor process (like Brimstone), but it looks like there were color problems with the original print, like one of the strips was faded, so that the color bleeds at times or goes way overboard into green or blue. Either way, it’s perfectly watchable, but a little strange looking. Previously available on VHS.

Run For Cover (1955)

James Cagney and a newly befriended young man named Davey are shooting at birds as a train is approaching. Two bank employees think the pair are bandits trying to rob the train, so they throw them the bag of money they are guarding, accepting defeat in in record time for a train robbery. But hey, they are insured out the wazoo. The pair are shot at and brought in as criminals, but the truth is quickly revealed. However, Davey is recovering from gunshot wounds, being tended to by Swedish farm daughter Viveca Lindfors. Cagney had a son that died at roughly the same age as Davey, so he wants to see him survive, and becomes a father figure to him. Viveca and Cagney fall in love as Davey recovers, so they become a defacto family unit, reminding me of a comparable family unit that develops in director Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (released the same year). Cagney eventually becomes sheriff of the town and always looks to do the right thing, and even makes Davey his deputy. However, Davey is not so keen on becoming the man Cagney wants him to be, and seems to resent being molded.

Lindfors and Cagney are both excellent individually, but their differing acting styles and difference in age make the romance a bit implausible. The setup is also pretty absurd, but perhaps intentionally so, considering Ray’s other films, and it seems to drag a bit in the middle. However, this is worthy as both a western and as a portrait of shifting dynamics within a makeshift family unit that is particular to Nicholas Ray.

The image is perfectly watchable, but it is cropped from about 1.85:1, and the colors are pretty dull. The movie was originally filmed in Vistavision, so the picture quality is a bit of a disappointment, considering what it could have been. It would probably look pretty fantastic in a properly restored print. I don’t think the movie was ever released on home video in the U.S..

Warpath (1951)

Edmond O’Brien hunts down and kills one of three men responsible for murdering his wife, but not before the man reveals in his dying gasp that the other two murderers are in the Cavalry. So, Edmond joins the Cavalry under Custer in order to track the other two men responsible for the death of his wife. So, in order to avenge a murder, he wants to go undercover and help mow down waves of Indians. I guess that makes sense. Anyway, this first act is wrapped up by minute eight in a 94 minute film, so what little mystery plot that exists is unmercifully stretched over the rest of the run time. Most of the movie is spent on Edmond’s several year career as a member of the Cavalry, despite it only being a ruse in order to get at his wife’s murderers. Revenge is a dish best served cold, but if it takes several years to prepare, it’s better just to order some take out and hope a meal of justice gets served on its own. Boy, these fortune cookie sayings just keep getting more and more complicated. Maybe I just wanna eat a goddamn cookie.

Very good technicolor transfer, although there does seem to be some occasional fading at the bottom of the print. Never released on home video. A Paramount production.