Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Wild Team (1985)


On the fictitious island of Manioca (incidentally, Manioca is a starch used in Tapioca), Tiquito, the son of deposed President Cordura (Franco Fantasia) is kidnapped by minions of the tyrannical (and very European-looking) General Gomez.  A mining company with interests on Manioca hire super nice mercenary Martin Cuomo (Antonio Sabato) and his team to rescue the boy.  Explosions and double crosses ensue.

Umberto Lenzi’s Wild Team (aka Thunder Squad aka I Cinque Del Condor) is a Men on a Mission film with a slightly different angle.  Rather than being hired by a crooked government agency, the team are hired by a crooked corporation.  The basic idea is that it’s money, not government, that truly controls the countries of the world.  Cordura is a freedom-loving idealist, but he has to make a deal with this devil in order to save not only his son but also his country (the former takes precedence over the latter).  Martin only cares about the money he’ll get for this job, but of course he and his crew become more personally invested as events unfold (or at least that’s the idea; I never felt that anyone in this film gave much of a shit about anything other than being a warm body in a movie).  The corporation, headed by fat cat Harker (Geoffrey Copleston), cares only for their bottom line.  Consequently, they have no qualms about betraying Martin and his team and the people of Manioca as soon as there’s the faintest whiff that the winds of change are going to blow.  The corporation starts off working with Gomez, switches to Cordura, then back to Gomez.  It’s baffling, since they had projected a fifteen percent increase in profits under a more democratic government, but I’m not enough of a global economist to parse out the reasoning.  This is a theme running though many Action films of this bent: The people holding the purse strings and/or the leash are never trustworthy.  No matter how many guarantees they give, they’ll screw over their operatives if it suits their needs (and many times, they are never forthright in their goals and motives in the first place).  So, pro-tip: If you’re a mercenary with a high price tag, get paid up front, and always cover your own ass.

There are a couple of touches in the film that come out of left field, though they make sense in an Italian genre film sort of way.  The first is the use of psychics (yes, really).  Three people with ESP are hired by the mining company to help locate Tiquito.  They are strapped into a computer, and as they describe the “hits” they get on the boy, the computer “interprets” what they say and pukes out unhelpful data.  This scene is, number one, just plain odd.  I mean, why would you hire psychics, who are unreliable at best and charlatans at worst, when you can fly surveillance planes over the area to find what you’re looking for (and to be clear, it’s not as if Gomez’s camp is all that well-hidden)?  They certainly have the resources for it.  Number two, this sequence is way longer than it should be (always a sign that there’s simply not enough material to make one decent film).  This section of the film stands out because of the focus on it.  Yet, there are no parapsychological or fantastic elements in the entire rest of the film (I’ll admit, I got my hopes up for a fight with a giant snake toward the end, but naturally, they were dashed).

The storming of Gomez’s camp takes up a large part of the film’s middle portion, but it leads off with our heroes hang gliding down into the valley.  As with the psychic scene, this sequence is entirely too long, and it stops the film dead (this in a film without much life to begin with).  More than this, it’s bewildering because the hang gliders they use are the most brightly colored things they could possibly find.  Obviously, being covert is not a big priority on this covert mission.  Maybe Martin got a great deal on the hang gliders that he couldn’t pass up?

This leads into another interestingly flubbed facet of the film.  One of the team members is Sybil Slater (Julia Kent), and she is their explosives expert.  Apparently, her brother was meant to be in on the mission, but he’s in jail (let’s assume for blowing things up), and Sybil needs money for an attorney.  In order to prove herself, she blows up a ramshackle hut while she’s inside it (she gets a couple of black smudges on her face).  Sybil is also very aggressive.  As soon as the men pull up and commence drooling over her, she warns that she’ll “blow [their] balls off.”  For as tough as she’s supposed to be, however, she’s just a girl in a man’s world.  She’s scared by a snake in the jungle, and all the guys get a good laugh over this.  She lands her hang glider in a tree and can’t get down by herself, and all the guys get a good laugh over this.  In her defense, Sybil does blow stuff up real good, but she’s not going to win any awards for being a strong female role model.     

I’m going to be honest with you.  I’m not the world’s biggest Lenzi fan.  I know a lot of folks go apeshit over films of his (especially Nightmare City, which is decent fun in an incoherently incompetent way), but for me, they tend to be middle of the road at best, and Wild Team is no exception (in fact, it’s maybe more middle of the road than other films of his).  Granted, it was made with a tiny budget, but I’ve seen films with less money behind them made by people with less experience than Lenzi (who was used to low budget filmmaking) that were more cogent than this one.  Even Sabato, who normally provides some magnetism in his films (funny enough, his and Lenzi’s Gang War In Milan is a film I do enjoy), is as plastically charmless as the toy guns the actors use.  If you like seeing things explode, you’ll find something to like here, but this isn’t essential as an Umberto Lenzi film, an Antonio Sabato film (or an Ivan Rassimov film, take your pick), or an action film in general.

MVT:  For as blandly slapdash as it’s shot and edited, the action in the film is the only thing holding this film together, like a cheap brand of duct tape.

Make or Break:  We are introduced to Martin and his team during a training exercise for soldiers.  After beating the soldiers quite handily, Martin’s crew still come out of the site in handcuffs (and if they didn’t, it sure looked like they did from where I was sitting)!  There’s absolutely no logical explanation for this, and it lets you know just how dumb this whole thing is going to be.

Score:  5/10

Monday, July 18, 2016

Deadbeat at Dawn (1988)

Jim Van Bebber subverts expectations with “Deadbeat at Dawn.” It’s ultimately a revenge fable, but it isn’t structured like a common one. It looks as if it’s going to go down the beaten path at the outset, but turns a corner into a dark alleyway. The entire film feels like it takes place in a dark alleyway, basked in the seedy underbelly of a rundown neighborhood. This is an unpleasant film, albeit a well-made one.

Goose (Jim Van Bebber) is looking to leave his gang, the Ravens, in favor of a life of solitude with his squeeze, Christy (Megan Murphy). His cohorts don’t take kindly to this, breaking into his home and brutally murdering Christy. Goose believes the murder was at the hands of their rival gang, the Spiders. Naturally, he seeks vengeance.
Except “Deadbeat at Dawn” isn’t a natural revenge flick. It moves to the beat of its own drum with the rhythm coming across as chaotic and out of tune. You slowly realize this is the point. Bebber isn’t concerned with telling a generic revenge story. He’s more concerned with examining how a lowlife thug copes with loss. Not just loss of his girlfriend, but loss of his life. Without the love of his life or his gang, Goose is directionless. He has nothing left to lose and, as we all know, there’s nothing more dangerous than a man with nothing left to lose.

Goose is a sad sack for the majority of the film, moping around aimlessly for the first half (and understandably so). He has no intentions of hunting down the Spiders, feeling more comfortable wasting away his existence in bars or in his father’s broken home. He goes to the latter first seeking comfort, but gets none from his abusive alcoholic of a father. He’s more concerned over his son replacing his beer and helping him get his fix than comforting him.

The father scenario is a tricky one. On paper, it’s reasonable; necessary even. It exists to show how Goose fell into the wrong crowd, a broken home damaging him emotionally. His father’s PTSD from serving in Vietnam parallels the war Goose engages in on the streets constantly. It even highlights Goose’s desire for compassion, hoping to bond with his father despite knowing that won’t happen. The problem is Bebber directs the father angle too comically. The father’s attitude is too over-the-top, resulting in unintentional laughter at points. Any time the drama and tension from the scenario begins to surface, it’s sunk by the overbearing performance.

This is a problem that plagues “Deadbeat at Dawn,” though it’s thankfully not consistent. While the film is always manic, as are the performances, most of it is complementary to the tone. The gang members can get away with being over the top, as that matches the lunacy of their carnage. Their outlandishness is reigned in via their heinous actions. It’s hard to laugh at them when they’re viciously beating people with bats or mowing enemies down with guns.
Bebber revels in the sleaze and grime. While this can be off-putting for some, it’s not sleazy for the sake of being sleazy. It’s representative of the world created, a languid cesspool riddled with crime and despair. The gangs exist because they have to out of survival. None of the denizens in the rundown neighborhood are given a chance to escape by society. Their Hell is a creation of segregation.

The only reason Goose is able to live out his revenge fantasy is by circumstance. He’s forced back into the gang, no longer the leader but the errand boy. He’s tasked with aiding in a theft, the kind all thugs dream of: the big one that can secure them for life. It’s through this theft that Goose is able to exact his revenge, slowly piecing the puzzle to his girlfriend’s murder along the way. He really only obtains his vengeance out of defense, snapping and turning his hand against his own gang as well as their rivals. And man, is it something! Goose becomes a badass, a one man gang who eliminates his enemies with nunchucks, guns, beheadings, and even ripping a man’s throat out!

“Deadbeat at Dawn” is no doubt a vile film. It’s one that goes too over the top at times, but never loses focus. It’s structured awkwardly, but that’s purposeful. The awkward structure matches the awkward nature of Goose’s life. It’s a disgusting life, resulting in a disgusting film. It’s not always easy to stomach, but it’s satisfying in its execution.

MVT: Jim Van Bebber. He has a tight grasp on the film and the world he created. He has a concise vision, even if the structure says otherwise. The repulsiveness of it all could have easily become too overbearing, but he does a fine job of anchoring it.

Make or Break: Strangely enough, it’s the father scenario. While that may be one of the weakest scenes due to the comical performance, it doesn’t break the film. It represents the path the film is going down, what Bebber is most interested in, and does a lot to develop the character of Goose. The scene works in spite of the comical performance, making the film as opposed to breaking it.

Final Score: 7/10

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Suckling (1990)


An opening crawl informs us that, on April 1, 1973 (y’know, April Fool’s Day), a bunch of prostitutes and other sundry folks were killed at a rundown brothel/abortion clinic.  The lone survivor, an unidentified woman (in both the film and its credits, though she’s played by Lisa Petruno, and for the purposes of this review I’ll refer to her as The Mother), is kept at an asylum, where two doctors somnambulistically discuss her case.  Flashback to: the fateful day, where an abortion goes very, VERY wrong.

Francis Teri’s The Suckling (aka Sewage Baby) is a simultaneously tasteless and fascinating film.  Obviously, any movie using abortion as a springboard for gore effects is going to be tacky to some degree or another, yet there are things going on under the surface here that intrigue as well as exploit.  So, let’s look at the more serious side here to start.  Roe v. Wade was passed in January of 1973, making abortion legal under the Constitution of the United States of America.  Since the film takes place in April of that same year, it follows that Phil (the father) and The Mother didn’t have to go to a back alley abortion clinic from a legal standpoint (she states that “this place is illegal”; it wasn’t by this point, but for the sake of argument let’s agree that maybe she didn’t know about the Supreme Court’s decision).  Nonetheless, the very idea of abortion still had a stigma to it (and still does to a certain extent even today), as did pregnancies outside of wedlock (damned if you do, damned if you don’t).  The Mother doesn’t want the abortion.  She wants to put the baby up for adoption as soon as it’s born.  Phil, surely thinking only of his reputation, insists that she go just to talk it over with Big Mama (Janet Sovey), the madam and abortionist at the whorehouse.  The Mother is drugged, and the fetus is forcibly aborted, an encroachment of The Mother’s rights and an assault on her body that is, frankly, heinous.  By violating The Mother so personally, the characters in the brothel (and anyone associated with them) damn themselves.  Because she didn’t want the abortion in the first place, The Mother and the Suckling still share a symbiotic connection, symbolized by the deadly umbilicus that the fetus grows (helped greatly by some convenient toxic waste that drips down onto it) after being flushed down the toilet and landing in one of the smokiest sewers ever put to film.  The Mother is devastated by the loss of her baby against her will, and the Suckling responds to this.

This bond between The Mother and the Suckling manifests itself in the brothel.  After beginning its assault, the Suckling envelops the house in a placenta that the characters cannot break through, and even if they did, it would dissolve them.  First, this traps the characters in one location for easy pickings.  Second, it re-encases the Suckling in the womb from which both it and its mom didn’t want it to be removed.  The Suckling reacts, I tend to believe, to The Mother’s conscious and unconscious desires and protects her while also taking revenge against the people who hurt her.  The longing to return to the womb exhibits itself later on when the Suckling literally shrinks to its birth size and reinserts itself into The Mother.  She is already on the edge by this point in the film, and it really makes you wonder whether this wish fulfillment pushed her over the precipice, because something monstrous happened to her when the fetus was removed from her (with a wire hanger on which Big Mama hangs her coat, by the by) and something monstrous happened to her again when this malevolent creature thrust itself back inside her (which is also a bit Oedipal in my opinion, especially considering what happens to Phil).  In a way, The Mother’s body ownership is taken away from her completely by both the abortionists and by her own child, and in the end, she has shut down, a piece of meat that can no longer choose for herself what to do with her body.  The Suckling protects her from harm while it also possesses her body for itself, the symbiosis between mother and child turned toxic and permanent.

The Suckling is also unafraid to go extremely broad in its humor, a decision I’m unsure about to the extent of whether it helps or harms the film (though I do tend to lean towards the latter, because it’s frankly not clever or subtle enough to be successful as black comedy, and in the context of this film, I think that’s key).  For example, a nerdy guy in a loud plaid suit and bowtie and a kid with the word “fuck” written on his tee shirt gawp as a man liquefies in front of them (a blunt, one-note “joke,” to be sure).  The clearest exemplar, however, is the rich john who visits the brothel while the abortion is taking place.  He enjoys getting pegged with a large dildo while wearing a propeller-topped beanie.  Said propeller, naturally, responds to what happens to this guy’s body, spinning and even popping off at one point (to the accompaniment of goofy sound effects).  The prostitute he’s with rolls her eyes and leaves in the middle of their session.  Later, he’ll be made to bark like a dog in a different context.  But he’s wealthy and entitled, and for as much as he sees himself as above the prostitutes in the brothel, his bizarre proclivities, his dirty little secrets, make him lower than them.  The prostitutes work for their money, and this is just a job for them, an act they put on in private.  The john, by contrast, puts his act on in public.  In private, his true self comes out, and it’s the hypocrisy of respectability that is lampooned (successfully or not) in the scenes with him.

The Suckling itself is a decent monster makeup, even for how odd it is.  It has spikes everywhere on its body and hook hands (and I have never completely understood beasts with hooks for hands like Gigan, the Hook Horror from Dungeons & Dragons, et cetera; they’re totally impractical outside of the one obvious function, but whatever), and its teeth are about the length of a man’s forearm and protrude from its maw, resembling a pink, slimy Venus flytrap (or the monster from The Terror Within on crack, and The Suckling bears some resemblance to that film in the monster child department, as well; coincidence?).  As a concept, it makes no sense, but as something cool for makeup effects lovers, it works well enough in its uniqueness.

And yet, the film itself is lifeless outside of the gore/effects scenes.  The acting is wooden across the board.  The characters are either irritating or distasteful or both.  There is zero sympathy built up for any of them, including and especially The Mother, who spends the entire movie as a passive, crying lump.  The cinematography is flat and static with the brief exception of the few scenes shot in the sewer which actually looked visually interesting.  There is no plot once the killings start, no tension either between the characters (despite the attempt to do so with the shitheaded thug/contagonist character Axel [Frank Rivera]) or as anticipation for where and when the Suckling will strike next.  So, the best advice I can give to anyone interested enough in watching this movie is to be sure you keep your finger floating over the fast forward button.

MVT:  The effects are about the only thing that worked for me in this.  Maybe that was the point/intent, so credit where it’s due.

Make or Break:  The Break for me was the “funny” scene between the rich john and the hooker.  Humor that low grade takes a certain talent to pull off, and sadly, that talent is lacking here.

Score:  5/10     

Monday, July 11, 2016

Sisters (1973)

“Sisters” opens with one of the best misleading sequences in cinematic history! A blind woman accidentally walks in on a man in a changing room and begins undressing, his presence unbeknownst to her. Just as he approaches for a closer look, the film freeze frames. It’s revealed this is a scenario for a raunchy game show in which unsuspecting men are lured into situations in which they’re peeping toms. The contestants bet on which option the man in question will take: prey upon the lady with voyeuristic eyes or retreat.

Phillip Woode (Lisle Wilson) goes the chivalrous route and retreats, which lands him a date with the actress in the prank, Danielle Breton (Margot Kidder). All goes well, sans a run-in with her obsessive ex-husband, Emil (Bill Finley), who stakes out in front of her house every night. Despite the omnipresent ex-husband, the two engage in a one night stand. The next morning, Danielle’s sister arrives and murders Phillip.

Catching all of this is Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt), who just so happened to witness Phillip’s crawl for help through the window (a callback to the peeping tom game show). She immediately calls the police, but by the time they arrive, the body has been hidden. What we the audience seen was Emil return and for him and a frightened Danielle frantically hide the body inside of her pull-out couch. This scenario plays alongside Grace’s sprint toward the apartment in a unique and ingenious way of building suspense! Instead of cutting back and forth, De Palma lets the two scenes play out alongside one another to highlight the immediacy and ratchet up the tension. It’s very Hitchockian.

“Sisters” is as Hitchcockian as a Brian De Palma film gets. It plays out just like one of Alfred’s thrillers, with the mystery of the plot slowly unraveling. In this case, we the audience already know who did the killing and what the twist is. The twist being that Danielle and her sister, Dominique Blanchion (Margot Kidder in a dual role), were conjoined twins; keyword being were. What we don’t know is when and how they got split apart and why Dominique is crazed.

This is why De Palma introduced Grace. She’s our makeshift detective, a feisty reporter who is determined to prove she witnessed a murder. She’s driven by selfishness, both professionally and personally. The professional aspect coming from landing a big story, the personal aspect coming from overcoming doubt. The police don’t trust her story, both because she’s already written puff pieces on police brutality and there’s no evidence to back up her claim. The former is a clever way to throw out the police investigation and add suspense to Grace’s search (as well as the initial investigation). It could easily come across as a cheap tactic, but it plays into Grace’s personality wonderfully. It exists not just to serve the plot, but in development of the protagonist.

For as sharp as De Palma’s script and direction are, he does stumble in Grace’s actual investigation. The murder and immediate police investigation took up the first forty-five minutes of the film, leaving only an hour left. Thirty minutes of that is in revealing the sisters’ backstory and the eventual finale. This leaves only thirty minutes into Grace’s investigation, which in turn gets rushed. It’s too quick and convenient for Grace to piece the puzzle together, even with the help of a private investigator in Joseph Larch (a scenery-chewing Charles Durning). This lessens the suspense of the search as well as Grace’s personal redemption.

While “Sisters” may be De Palma’s most Hitchcockian film, it doesn’t feel like a rip-off. De Palma has been labeled as such in the past, but I’ve never felt that was justified. His films may pay homage to the master of suspense, but they each have their own flavor to them. Case in point, the voyeurism in “Sisters.” This has been a trademark of De Palma’s and it’s present here. Not only do we have the aforementioned peeping tom angle, but the entirety of the mystery hinges on voyeurism. Grace’s fascination with the conjoined twins mirrors our own, with each new detail feeling like a dirty little secret. Sexuality as a whole is explored in one scene in which Emil reveals he can never shake the thought of Dominique when making love to Danielle. These acts of voyeurism drive the film, giving “Sisters” its own identity. Both Hitchcock and De Palma are concerned with character motivations just as much as the twists, but Brian is more curious about their sexual deviance.

Brian De Palma was inspired to make “Sisters” after reading a story on conjoined twins being separated. The photo provided in the article showed one sister as jovial and the other despondent. This one photo sparked a tale of madness in him, which I’m all the more thankful for.

MVT: Brian De Palma. Both his direction and script are sharp, with his fetish for the forbidden being the driving force behind everything. We feel as if we learn just as much about him as we do the characters in the film. “Sisters” wouldn’t be half as strong as it is without his touch.

Make or Break: The first forty-five minutes. While not being one-take, it all flows together seamlessly, feeling like one. The opening game show meet cute seguing into the one night stand seguing into the murder seguing into the investigation is done flawlessly! It moves so quick in effortless fashion that it’s quite the spectacle. It perfectly sets the tone for the film!

Final Score: 8/10