Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Dance or Die (1987)

Jason Chandler (Roy Kieffer) is a dance choreographer/aerobics instructor in Las Vegas.  He’s also a recovering coke fiend, which isn’t helped any by the fact that his roommate Alan (Jack Zavorak) is a coke dealer.  After Alan is killed for his illicit activities, Jason is hounded by a crime kingpin who goes under the alias The Turtle.  But Jason has a show to finish prepping and a burgeoning romance with blonde bimbo Diane (Rebecca Barrington) to stoke.  What’s a guy to do?

Dance or Die is Richard W Munchkin’s directorial debut, and it’s a mostly solid one.  Shot on video, with a few stock establishing shots that were done on film, the movie almost holds together from start to finish.  That said, it is deceptively marketed, if the video box art is all you have to go on.  What a viewer expects is a slasher set against the backdrop of the world of dance, a la Michele Soavi’s Stage Fright which, by coincidence or kismet, was also released in 1987.  But the two couldn’t be further apart if they tried.  Soavi’s film knows what it is, and stays true to itself despite its ludicrous turns (this is, in fact, its biggest asset).  Dance or Die wants to serve several masters, never completely satisfying any of them, though it also sticks to its guns, for better or worse.  It is, at its core, a gutter level All That Jazz with a few more bullet hits and characters culled from the Cannon Films stock character list.  

The crime angle of the film isn’t nearly as important as either the dance numbers or Jason’s addiction.  There are multiple scenes of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, where background characters tell their tales of woe.  Since none of these advance the plot any or develop the characters beyond what we already know, they become superfluous after the first one.  They do, however, introduce the character of Kay (George Neu), Jason’s sponsor.  She always has words of wisdom for Jason, and he rarely, if ever, listens to them, but she remains steadfastly in his corner.  But Jason doesn’t really seem to have any great cravings for drugs until the end (okay, a little at the beginning, too).  The time he spends with Kay is typically centered on the threats The Turtle makes against him (he has something the bad guy wants, although The Turtle is coy about naming it, which would, you know, expedite things, maybe) and his growing love for Diane.  Considering the amateurish way the action is orchestrated, perhaps this is for the best.  

The scenes which would attract action fans appear to have been done on the fly, with no regard for coverage.  Consequently, the geography is confused, and the shots don’t quite cut together well enough to be convincing or entertaining (except in a cheesy sort of way).  For example, a character on a motorcycle is chased by a car.  The two roll along streets in a way that makes M C Escher’s “Relativity” look like Route 66.  Things happen in defiance of the laws of time and physics just to have action beats.  So, instead of being pulled along by any sort of rising tension, the audience’s time is spent trying to figure out what exactly it is they’re looking at.  The initial hit on Alan and his barbecue buddies consists of random people, who may or may not have been seen prior to the attack, getting hit with blood splatter (the standouts here are the guy who tries to shield himself with a bag of briquets and the woman who nonchalantly eats her food well after the mayhem has begun, as if panic and gunshots wouldn’t tip one off that maybe they should run for shelter).  For as shoddy as this stuff is, there’s also just not enough of it.  Jason never becomes the action hero we expect him to become.  He remains a drug-addicted twit to the bitter end (like Joe Gideon, see?).

One interesting thing about Dance or Die does is how it incorporates its dance numbers into the film.  What Munchkin and company do is intercut clips from a particular routine with actions in the real world (which are not necessarily action-packed), until we get the full sequences.  While this does work as far as the technical editing goes, it doesn’t actually do anything for the plot lines of the narrative.  The threads are disparate, and they seldom tie together.  They mean nothing in direct relation to each other (with one exception: the big sex scene).  They’re just juxtaposed against one another, as if that’s all they need to be, bizarre transitions that look nice but are empty.  

It can be argued that dance and action sequences are basically the same thing (this most definitely applies to martial arts, but it can extend to more traditional action).  The difference lies in the fact that dance scenes tell you that they are a performance (most people don’t just break out in song, and, if they do, rarely are they instantly backed up by music and dancers who telepathically know all the steps).  Action, when done right, is just as choreographed, just as heightened, and is even often set to music, but it integrates into the world of the film.  Audiences accept this over the dissonance of the narrative break that accompanies dance numbers, even when the action portrayed in a fist fight or car chase is as ludicrous as anything in a musical number.  Dance or Die emphasizes the similarities and disparities simultaneously, just without any real context to make a connection.  

The dance scenes are representations of Jason’s inner conflicts.  For example, one routine has Jason strung upside down in a strait jacket while face-painted dancers in frill-accented bondage gear and hot-pink fright wigs attack him with clubs (indeed, it’s as much fun to watch as it sounds).  Another has a man and woman slither around each other on a motorcycle (in relation to the aforementioned sex scene).  Most startling is the one where the dancers are all hit by faux gunshots while they gyrate and paw at each other.  Any way you slice it, these are Jason’s anxieties visually translated for an audience: the feeling of insanity as the world beats you down, the passion of new love, the fear of death by gunshot, etcetera.  While these sequences are entertaining for their extremely Eighties conceits, it’s a shame they mix together with the rest of the film like oil and water.  And that, unfortunately, is the movie’s biggest drawback across the board.  That and the endless profile shots of Jason driving around Vegas.

MVT:  The dance routines are fun for what they are.

Make or Break:  The douchey, forced Meet Cute between Jason and Diane in the supermarket.  It’s pretty pathetic.

Score:  6.25/10

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Angels of the City (1989)

I’m in a pretty crass mood today, so I’m just gonna run with it, and this week’s selection most assuredly abets this.  A learned man (it may have been Friedrich Nietzsche) once sad that pimping ain’t easy.  I would imagine not.  While I don’t know scoot about this career choice, I know that it would have to involve, on some level, accounting, something with which I have only a passing acquaintance.  What’s the tax allowance for birth control and transportation?  Could the whole thing be written off as entertainment expenses?  I would guess that the logistics alone would be murder, too (assuming one offered a delivery-type service).  Who needs how many “friends,” and where, and when?  What if the pimp overbooks?  And I’m sure collections are a whole other pain in the ass.  I had a paper route for about five years when I was a kid, and I can tell you with confidence that many people don’t ever want to pay for services rendered (and that was only about $1.50 per week back then), even when they’re satisfied with them.  That’s if the tricks pay the pimp directly.  Getting the money owed from your “workers” is probably a lot like how the IRS feels when reviewing a person’s tips reported for the fiscal year.  I mean, pimping is almost like work.  Of course, it ain’t easy!

Cinematic pimping, on the other hand, is really easy.  You get to wear great clothes (everything from tailored suits to plumed, fuzzy hats), ride around in nice cars, drink champagne constantly, and be surrounded by hot women who act like you’re the bee’s knees (totally not because of the money or because they’re in fear for their lives, I’m sure).  All you have to do is relax and alternate your moods between threatening and saccharine (the really great thing here is that you can still call absolutely everyone “bitch,” whether they work for you or not).  Pimps in film are arguably more pimp-ian than real pimps.  Just look at Fly Guy from I’m Gonna Git You Sucka versus Iceberg Slim, if you doubt me (alternately, see Roy Scheider’s turn in Klute for something a bit more verisimilitudinous).  You’re basically a gangster, just without the family ties that prove so vulnerable to folks like the Corleones.  So, when dueling pimps Gold (Michael Ferrare) and Lee (Renny Stroud) go toe-to-toe over whose territory is whose in Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs’ (you know him better as Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington on Welcome Back, Kotter) Angels of the City, you know that one of them is getting paid, and the other is getting laid out.

While Gold and Lee hash out their differences, college asswipes Mike (Brian Ochse) and Richie (Rusty Gray) hire a prostitute while wasted.  Meanwhile, their girlfriends Cathy (Kelly Galindo) and Wendy (Cynthia Cheston) are forced to dress up like hookers and collect one hundred dollars off a john (but, hey, it’s still, like, their choice if they want to actually sleep with some guy for it, and stuff) as part of their initiation into the Delta Delta Delta (Can I help ya, help ya, help ya?) sorority.  Never thinking that they could have just gone out for the night and then handed their sorority sisters the money and said that they did what they were supposed to do (because no one is monitoring them), these two idiots get embroiled in the middle of the heated pimp turf war.  After about ninety minutes, the credits roll.

Angels of the City was shot on video, and this is something that can blow up in even the best filmmaker’s face.  Audiences tend to think of one of three things when watching something in a video format: home movies, institutionals, and porn.  One of these things is actually likely to excite a viewer.  Now, I understand that there were and are a great many features shot on video, and some of them are very good, and the format even has a healthy cult following.  I have nothing against it, personally.  My philosophy is that any way a filmmaker can get their vision put together and shown to people, do it.  Nonetheless, I also think that there are standards and a certain level of quality that even the cheapest production needs to have (even if that quality is trash level; there’s still something to be said for it when it’s done right).  Hilton-Jacobs shows glimmers of hope throughout the film.  The basic premise is solid and holds some promise (the idea of buying and selling flesh objects from the male and female sides of the coin, the harsh realities of the streets contrasted against the sequestered safety of college life, the pimp war with the unwitting kids in over their heads/fish out of water element, etcetera).  Some of the set ups and compositions are solid, evocative, and downright professional.  The action is choreographed and edited well enough (though not quite up to the highest standards of PM Entertainment, the erstwhile kings of low budget action cinema).  The big problem is everything else that is not either technical or philosophical.  Read: ninety-five percent of the movie.

With that in mind, then, let’s dig into the film’s faults.  First and foremost, the film is confused about who its protagonists are.  During an overextended college classroom scene (we will come back to this, trust me), the film sets up the two main couples and even possibly a few other students who may take part in the plot.  The scene immediately following this focuses on Mick and Richie slavering and all but high-fiving about fucking (you’ve likely heard guys actually talk like this and just wanted to immolate them).  These two dicks then go to a sleazy motel with Carmen, the hooker they picked up at a bar.  We are then treated to an extended scene of Mick and Carmen doing it in POV, with Mick gurning and mugging the entire time (in my opinion, the only way to save this acting choice would be if Carmen did the same thing; she doesn’t).  Meanwhile, the girls are attending their candlelit sorority meeting, get dressed up like strumpets, and hit Hollywood’s underbelly.  The amount of time spent with the two guys is disproportionate to their importance in the film.  We already got the message that they’re complete douchebags (in fact, the movie goes to great lengths to show us that every male in it is one).  We don’t need to follow their idiotic escapades, since everything following from them is tangential, at best.  

Second, Angels of the City follows a pattern of setting Wendy and Cathy running into “colorful” locals and then running away from them.  They are accosted by a crackhead/alcoholic that would make Dave Chappelle wince and are “saved” by Maria, who bums a smoke and then exits (we will come back to this, trust me).  They meet a homeless man who tells them about the hardships of his life and then exits.  They meet some young punk who takes them to meet his gang of juvies.  The girls are robbed before being chased, first by the kids, and then by a large dog (yes, really).  They go to a private club (go ahead and guess what the password is), where Wendy makes out with the owner before he’s shot.  This is in between their various run-ins with Gold and Lee.  What it all boils down to is a very serious lack of coherence and focus on the part of the screenwriters, one of whom just so happens to also be Hilton-Jacobs and none of whom ever got the point of the old saw “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

Which brings us to problem number three, and the one which contains the most SPOILERS.  This movie juggles tones in nonsensical fashion.  It wants to be a fun exploitation/action picture.  It wants to be a broad comedy.  But worst of all, it wants to be a deep, meaningful treatise on how the dregs of society are overlooked and abandoned.  After the events of their fateful night, Wendy is now a vegetable, and Cathy visits her and tries to talk to her at the hospital.  You know, deep, meaningful shit.  Gold is still after Cathy, and she has a live-in cop guarding her, who, to no one’s surprise, is also a douchebag, and takes great joy in hearing her fight with Richie.  Capitalizing on her vulnerability in the creepiest way possible, the cop has sex with Cathy, and the impression we’re given is that it is the best fuck of her sweet, young life.  Bear in mind, the audience just met this guy.  It is conceivably the emptiest sex scene ever committed before a camera (I am including porn loops in this category) made all the more ridiculous by the emotional weight it’s supposed to have (yes, really; we’re meant to get something out of this aside from various shots of Galindo’s admittedly nice breasts).  Finally, Cathy does her project for the aforementioned Sociology class, where she talks about Maria, the runaway kid who has the entire “shitty life moments” checklist befall her (junkie, hooker, abusive boyfriend, ad nauseum).  This is delivered aurally and visually with all the conviction and meaningfulness the rest of the film has served up ice cold (i.e. none).  Once again, Hilton-Jacobs and company find a way to completely misplace the big dramatic resonance they thought would give this shit show some value outside of its exploitable elements.  Trying to think of something witty to sum up Angels of the City is just fruitless, since I’ve already devoted more time and effort into discussing this turd than it will ever deserve.  Have a nice day.

MVT:  The few moments of professionalism on display.

Make or Break:  Mick and Richie spend some time with Carmen.

Score:  1/10

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Shredder Orpheus (1990)

Skateboarding and punk rock and mythological tales should go together like spaghetti and meatballs.  Skating personifies the idea of the journey (even though there may be no destination; the path itself and what the skateboarder does during it [read: tricks] are enough), something to which every Greek myth adheres.  Punk (or even music in general) celebrates freedom of expression and (ideally) individuality, another trait shared by some myths.  While myths tend to rely on a certain rigid framework of parables to get their point across, skating and music, on their surfaces, go in the opposite direction.  They follow in the belief that there are no limits, anything goes.  Yet, there are basics that have to be followed in order for either enterprise to succeed.  Music, even and especially punk, uses verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure in most cases.  For skating, one must know the rudiments of the functionality of the board; how to set your feet, push, transfer weight, and so forth.  In both, however, it’s the style of the performer that counts most.  Musicians know the basic chords.  It’s the attitude and coarseness that distinguishes, say, The Ramones from The Germs.  Likewise, a skateboarder like Rodney Mullen does totally different things on his deck than does someone like Tony Hawk, but the rudiments remain the same.  To combine music and skateboarding and myths is an intriguing aspect, but there has to be a line drawn between servicing the fans of the former two with honoring the narrative of the latter.  Otherwise, you get something like Robert McGinley’s Shredder Orpheus, which gives us all three but doesn’t know how to combine its component into a coherent whole.

After the Big War, the poor have been shuffled into the Grey Zone, a housing project consisting of shipping containers.  There, Orpheus (McGinley) and his band, The Shredders, are the most popular act (I’m guessing because they’re the only one).  Hades (Gian-Carlo Scandiuzzi), the owner of the villainous Euthanasia Broadcast Network, wants Orpheus’ stage dancer/girlfriend/wife Eurydice (Megan Murphy) for his show, so he has her killed and absconds with her soul.  Orpheus decides to go after his love, armed with a lyre-guitar prototype, supposedly designed by Jimi Hendrix.

The EBN starts off as a sinister device that pulls the souls from people.  On air, Hades and Persephone (Vera McCaughan) drone on about praising the Cathode Ray.  The idea is that this thing is killing people slowly, without their knowledge, from the inside out.  Immediately, this brings to mind memories of Videodrome and Halloween 3 (and even They Live).  In those movies, television is bad (ain’t it always?).  It draws its victims to it, like junkies to a dealer, then it takes them over and/or kills them.  What you see is not what you get.  The complacent act of watching, of being narcotized by the banality on the boob tube, is like the lame gazelle at the watering hole.  The New Flesh of Videodrome is a cancer that causes hallucinations and likely warps reality.  The signal sent by Silver Shamrock to the wearers of their masks draws forth a supernaturally apocalyptic scenario in Halloween 3.  But the power of television to enthrall and enslave is the primary point.  In Shredder Orpheus, the programming on the EBN is as soulless as it can be.  For example, Hades does a muzak version of “Up a Lazy River.”  Eurydice dances for the network, but she’s a shadow of her former self.  On stage with Orpheus, the music unlocked her inner spirit, and she gave herself over to it, because that’s who she is at her core.  Hades and Persephone stare blankly out at the viewer, hypnotizing the audience with the siren call of the television screen.  Television becomes God.  Outside of this basic premise associated with the EBN and its application as a modern device for worship, it doesn’t mean much of anything in the overall narrative of this film.  It’s simply a way to show the corporatization of pantheon figures and provide the bad guys with a lair.  Its signal doesn’t present a threat throughout the film, because we only see one example of its deleterious effect.  It never comes up again.

In visual media, specifically film and video, skateboarding falls into one of two categories (you can argue the same about any sport, from volleyball to broom ball to chess).  Either it’s a gimmick (think: Gleaming the Cube or Thrashin’) or it’s a spectacle (think: Public Domain or any of the scads of skateboarding promo videos from the Eighties on).  Its focus is meant to draw in viewers inherently predisposed to skateboarding and those who find it appealing enough as a curiosity but still want what they expect from any other movie.  To integrate it into a film is difficult, because it’s not a sport with sides that an audience can root for (though it almost works in this regard with the jousting and racing scenes in Thrashin’).  Any scene in which it is featured prominently is bound to be a showcase, stopping the pacing dead, like the superfluous race sequence in The Phantom Menace.  McGinley attempts to make skateboarding relevant here.  Everyone in The Grey Zone is a skater, so everywhere they go, they can do a couple of simple moves along the way.  Orpheus and his pals “shred” the EBN parking garage, a structure which terminates in an elevator to Hell.  Thus, we get an extensive sequence of the skaters rolling down the entirety of the spiral ramp.  The story halts.  A smoking skateboard shows up to valet Orpheus back to EBN/Hell.  I don’t know how a filmmaker could make something like this and not have the skateboarding hook feel like a contrivance.  I do know that McGinley fails at this intermingling, though not as egregiously as Gleaming the Cube does.

Shredder Orpheus is a valiant effort, but it’s also proof that you can’t simply “adapt” a story.  It gets the large picture mostly right, and it supplies enough details to be recognizable as the legend of Orpheus.  But it also tries to serve two masters, and it doesn’t devote enough attention to either for their fusion to be satisfactory.  Further, and perhaps worst of all, McGinley managed to rob this myth of any momentum and/or urgency.  It relies on angst over tension (the dream scenes with McGinley in a loincloth are just…c’mon), yet even this doesn’t solve the main problem of doing something like this in the first place.  Myths are traditionally told in general, sweeping motions.  We know who the heroes and villains are, because they are the heroes and villains.  Films need to flesh out the characters, to breathe some life into their interpretations, and to give these people something to do when they’re not out Questing.  McGinley doesn’t outside of skating, which tells us nothing about these guys other than that they skate.  His characters meander around, or play music, or talk a lot while saying nothing.  There is no invigoration or development of the archetypes.  Like skateboarding, Shredder Orpheus’ characters are on screen only for show.

MVT:  The underlying idea behind the project is noteworthy.

Make or Break:  Orpheus’ first story-cancelling song is enough to let you know that the filmmakers didn’t quite know what to do with what they had but still had to get it to feature length.

Score:  5/10