Friday, August 28, 2015

Rustlers' Rhapsody (1985)

Directed by: Hugh Wilson

Runtime: 88 minutes

If you ask someone to name a western parody most people will name Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles. Now a friend pointed out to me that Blazing Saddles is more Mel Brooks taking the piss out of racism with a western backdrop. He then went on to pointed out that Rustlers' Rhapsody is more a parody westerns than Blazing Saddles. And after seeing the film I have to agree with him.

The movie starts as a black and white poverty row western. A voice over explains how the narrator was a Rex O'Herlihan fan as a kid and wonders what these movies would be like if they were filmed in the 80's. That means it would be in colour, so the introduction chase between O'Herlihan and some generic bad guys comes to a stop as they get used to being in colour. Next the narrator points out the the bad guys would not be so cowardly, so the bad guys notice there are three of them and one hero and chase O'Herlihan. Finally this leads to O'Herlihan to escape the bad guys but the narrator points out he would not be so damn perfect. So his escape into a near by tree branch works but he hurts himself in the process.

This opening leads into Rex riding into town and pointing out how all towns in westerns are the same.  Like how all towns are waiting for the railway to come through, the town paper is run by a young idealist who has sold everything to buy a printing press, whiskey is served with a hair in it, or how the saloon madame with a heart of gold will whisper dirty talk into ears of men for a lot of money. Also the source of problems in town is the local cattle baron, Colonel Ticonderoga, who owns a lot of cattle that are never seen and who is a colonel but not part of an army. To make Rex's life more complex the town drunk, Peter, has appointed himself Rex's sidekick.

Now Colonel Ticonderoga is harassing the local sheep herders and Rex shows up just in time to be the big hero. Being that it is a serial western every plan fails because Rex is the hero and has seen every villain plan. At this point the narrator points out that as he got older that spaghetti westerns were popular and they always dealt with the railway and men who wore dusters all the time. The railway baron is also a colonel for no reason and the two colonels try to defeat Rex. Again they fail because Rex is the hero of this movie and they employ morons.

This leads to the colonels come up with a brilliant idea to defeat Rex. They hire a hero of their own to beat Rex. This leads to hero off in the local saloon where the two heroes measure each other up to see who is more the hero. Rex fails because he buys whiskey in saloons that he never drinks, he had unmarried women in his camp, and he not sure if he is a confidant heterosexual.

Defeat and lacking confidence Rex goes back to his camp to pack up and move on. On seeing how Rex has given up his sidekick leaves him only to be shot. As sidekicks lack plot immunity and are official lead catchers. This is the kick in the ass Rex needs to be the hero again and rounds up the sheep herders for the final showdown. Which results in the cattlemen, railway men, and the sheep herders shoot each other  Leaving both heroes to duke it out again and the other hero losses the confidence battle by admitting that he is a lawyer. Giving Rex reason to shoot the other hero in the head instead of the hand.

With the conflict resolved everyone heads to Colonel Ticonderoga's ranch for the end of the movie party. Most of the dead bit characters are there with bandages and no explanation as to why they are not dead. Only thing left is for Rex and few minutes later his sidekick to ride off into the sunset.

This movie is insanely fun. It is PG but has a lot of subversive humor. Like both the cattle baron and his daughter were romantically involved with one of the henchmen that gets killed by his own stupidity. I would recommend this movie in general and suggest an own if you are hardcore into westerns. 

MVT: Attention to detail with the poverty row western serials. Right down to the costumes that Liberace may wear if he decided to do a country and western routine in his show.

Make or Break: What broke it for me was the lack of spaghetti western things to make fun of. The majority of the film focuses on the western serials and just mentions the spaghetti westerns in passing.

Score: 7.1 out of 10


Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Punk Vacation (1987)

Punk to me has always been epitomized by Dead Kennedys.  For educational purposes, I love a whole slew of punk bands, from Negative Approach to Dead Boys to D.I. to The Ramones (the only one of those listed here I ever got to see live, though sadly without Dee Dee, but it was still outstanding), and back again.  Anyway, DK was unique in punk.  There was strong musicianship involved in their song writing (and no, that doesn’t mean that I think that other punk bands are musically talentless).  Jello Biafra’s vibrato vocals were singular (and a blast to imitate to this day).  Their subjects ranged from political (California Über Alles) to personal (Dead End) to silly (Dog Bite), and they tackled them all with equal parts wit, anger, and raw power.  As of this writing, no punk band has made a bigger impression on me than these guys (and frankly, I don’t see that happening ever if current acts are any indication), and I think their place in the punk pantheon is certainly well-deserved.  So, why don’t any of the punks in Stanley LewisPunk Vacation listen to them (music rights notwithstanding), huh?  One of the mysteries of the ages, that one.

Billy, a motorcycle-riding punk who really can’t stand cola-flavored soda but loves orange, gets run off from Mr. Kemper’s store at the end of a shotgun, but he comes back with his punk (in the Adam Ant vein) gang, who proceed to kill the old man and rape his youngest daughter, Sally (Karen Renee).  While responding to the store’s alarm, fairly useless cop Steve (Stephen Fiachi) accidentally nails Billy with his cruiser while the rest of the gang flee.  Enraged, older daughter Lisa (Sandra Bogan) vows vengeance.  It’s funny, because, back in the day, I and some friends of mine wanted to shoot a movie called Rednecks Versus Punks that was essentially the plot of this film (which, I hasten to add, we had never seen), just without the seriousness, rape, and budget, but with more beer.  We got exactly one shot done.   

There is a very clear theme about America illustrated within the film’s first moments.  We get a montage of a sunrise over a forest, the American and California flags, railroad tracks heading off into the distance, a church, and running water.  Alongside the images that are self-explanatory, the others combine with them to paint an idyllic, idealized version of small town America (how many beer commercials have we seen with sunrises/sunsets over lush foliage and crystal clear streams [which obviously flow straight into a brewery’s water taps]).  This is the American Dream visualized.  It is then shattered by the sounds of gunfire as Steve practices his shooting on some empty bottles (the police don’t have a range for this?), and this disruption is the foreshadowing of what’s coming down the pike for this town.  Naturally, the punks are antithetical to everything that Steve and his friends and colleagues hold dear.  And yet, the filmmakers are just as critical of the establishment in the town as they are of the villainous punks.  This is exemplified by Sheriff Virgil (Louis Waldon), a loud, idiotic, cigar-chomping ultra-patriot.  He calls the punks “fascist communist pinkos” (as I’m sure he would term any person or group of people different from himself).  He wrongly declares (a la Animal House’s Bluto), “Did Patton call in the state troopers when he took Iwo Jima?!”  When he thinks of America, he salutes, and military march music pours in on the soundtrack.  Later, he will lead a pack of rednecks (affectionately referred to as “The Gun Club”) in a tonally incongruous (and there are tonal incongruities aplenty in Punk Vacation) attack on the punks.  People like Steve (and by extension Lisa) are in between the two groups, more or less shunned by the two groups (Steve is ridiculed and browbeaten by his boss, and Lisa is considered little more than a nuisance), and so are alone in a world gone mad around them.  The realization of the film (to me, anyway) is that the American Dream doesn’t exist as anything other than a romanticized concept.  Rebelling against it is futile, but playing along by its rules is equally insane.  And while this stance does finally give some closure to the story, I found it less than satisfying.  Further, I felt that this perspective was cowardly on the part of the filmmakers.  To imply that doing nothing and walking away is better than taking a stand one way or the other may seem like an enlightened viewpoint (and, hey, maybe it is for all I know), particularly in light of the film’s dim view of its world and characters, but it feels like the exact opposite.  It feels like a lazy cop out, and it took away from my enjoyment of this movie.

The film can be looked at as a Western in some respects, as well.  A gang of rowdy outlaws rides into town and interrupts the normal lives of its inhabitants.  A posse (and they do use that word in this film) is formed to take care of the problem, but of course, they can’t (they are even confounded by a net for far longer than they really should have been).  The outlaws hide out at the old ranch on the town’s outskirts, waiting to bust their pal out of jail.  A lawman, his trusty deputy pal (Don, played by Don Martin), and his loyal woman are the only ones who can run the bad guys out of town.  Further, the punks also refer to themselves as Indians (one of them even says he likes “playing Indians”), and their leader Ramrod (Roxanne Rogers) claims to be their shepherd (I was a bit surprised she didn’t call herself their chief).  She even has theme music which emphasizes Native American flute.  Nonetheless, the Western influences are only decorations, like so much else in the film is.  There’s no intelligible point, because Lewis and company do everything in halves.  They don’t go far enough in any one direction to make any kind of cogent point, and the schizophrenic tone robs their non-finale of any impact.  From what is a solid set up for a small revenge tale, the film simply plods along and then peters out, as if the filmmakers either simply lost interest in where they were heading, or they wanted to cram so many disparate facets into one film that none of them fully gels.  Punk Vacation disappoints more than it gratifies.  It’s more mundanely bad than offensively bad, but I know I’m not in a terrible hurry to rewatch it, whether I’m on vacation, taking the skinheads bowling, or just lying on the couch.

MVT:  There is an attempt to flesh out the punk characters to some small degree, so they’re not strictly one-dimensional.  Simultaneously, I never bought that these people would actually hang out with each other if this is who they are.  Maybe I’m just shallow.

Make or Break:  The initial attack on the Kempers was interesting to me, particularly because of what happens to Sally.  It’s not very often that you see very bad things happen to child characters, and I was a little bit taken aback, quite frankly.  And then, almost all of this was forgotten and completely left dangling, so…

Score:  6/10

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Evil Spawn (1987)

The Hollywood studio machine eats people up and spits them out.  We all know this.  It’s understood as a given for anyone entering the world of cinematic celebrity.  Aside from those who get involved in drugs and murder and sleazy sex/religious cults or whatever, there is the omnipresent threat that at any moment, the phone may stop ringing because you have been deemed too old.  The difference between the former examples and the latter is that people have no choice in the aging process.  We begin dying the moment we’re born, and careers in Hollywood tend to die very prematurely indeed.  I think (I have no hard evidence for any of this, mind you) that an actor or actress knows that their career is on the downswing the moment they receive a screenplay wherein they will be playing the parent of one of the main characters or worse the grandparent (or – Horror! – scripts for television movies).  And women get it worse than men, clearly.  Men are said to get distinguished with age.  Men mature.  Women age, and the shelf life for a top actress who can headline a film and put asses in seats (who are scarce enough to begin with) is shorter than that of a mayfly.  It’s not uncommon to be considered over the hill by the time an actress is in her thirties.  It’s no wonder that they cling in desperation to their careers by getting all manner of plastic surgery done.  The sad irony is that said work typically makes them look more cartoonish than if they had simply allowed themselves to grow old with grace.  They make of themselves a freak show, and one thing that people love to watch is a freak show (celebrity or otherwise).  I believe we’re all culpable to some degree or another in this cultural perpetuation, but to go into it and all of its permutations at any length isn’t why we’re here, so I’ll be brief.  We moan that older actors and actresses get shit parts in shit films, but how many of us would pay for a theater ticket to see a big budget film with Diane Lane playing the lead role?  Don’t lie.  The vast majority of people would either wait until it hits video or cable or pirate it off a torrent site, if it even hits their radar at all.  How many studio executives would take a chance on a project like that?  Very few, if they value their tenuous jobs.  Though the occasional bright light does shine through this darkness, these glimmers are few and far between.  All of this ties into the Kenneth J Hall (Ted Newsom and Fred Olen Ray are also listed on IMdB as directors, but if memory serves, only Hall is credited onscreen) schlockfest Evil Spawn (aka Alien Within aka Deadly Sting aka Alive by Night aka Metamorphosis).  It just does very little to save the film.

A space probe brings alien microbes (which are actually quite large for microbes as I would define them and so not actually microbes at all) are brought to Earth to be studied.  Evelyn (who pronounces her name like He-Man villainess Evil-Lyn and is played by Dawn Wildsmith) murders a fellow scientist (apparently in his garage-turned-laboratory) and takes the microbes back to her mentor Dr. Zeitman (John Carradine who really struggles just to get through his scene; I felt bad for the man, frankly), who also promptly croaks.  Evelyn approaches aging actress Lynn Roman (Bobbie Bresee, thirty-seven years old at the time this was released) with an anti-aging serum derived from the microbes, and once Lynn reaches her snapping point and decides to take the drug, the beast that has been raging inside her is finally unleashed.

Okay.  From the above synopsis, the film’s plot probably doesn’t make a ton of sense.  That’s because the film doesn’t make a ton of sense.  Characters come and go just because.  Plot threads are brought up, scarcely tied into the main plot, and then completely forgotten.  The characters all act extremely dumb and/or whiny.  The world these people exist in is entirely unbelievable, even if you look at it through the lens of trash cinema (though doing that would likely make the film a bit more palatable).  Not one of these people are motivated by anything other than plot conveniences.  The picture’s story is almost a total lift of 1959’s The Wasp Woman (and if you want to read about a seriously messed up end to a starlet’s career and life, look up some information on Susan Cabot sometime) an, to a lesser extent, both versions of The Fly, but at least in those films, the characters pretended to do something every now and then.  The lion’s share of Evil Spawn is Lynn crying about her career, bellyaching about the movie she wants to be in, and being hopelessly untethered from reality a la Norman Desmond but not nearly as interestingly (and Sunset Boulevard is another influence on this film, though Billy Wilder likely spins in his grave every time this film is screened).  Even at seventy minutes long, this film outstays its welcome.  It’s like waiting for a boring guest to leave, then he says something that briefly piques your interest and snaps you out of your stupor, but then you swiftly realize that they’re still depressingly tedious, and go back to counting the seconds until it’s all over.  The only thing this film has a plenitude of is naked women, and they are certainly attractive enough, each and every one.  Just not enough to make sitting through this whole thing worth the effort.  There’s also some gore and a relatively decent monster costume (especially impressive if the estimated thirty thousand dollar budget is to be believed), but again, it’s just too little, too late.

Outside of the fear of irrelevance embodied by Lynn in her bid to stay in the spotlight is the motif that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.  Her biographer (Ross Anderson) is essentially a meathead.  Her boyfriend Brent (John Terrence) gives the impression he doesn’t want to be seen in public with Lynn, and is cheating on her with some floozy (who he brings to Lynn’s house just so they can both become victims…I mean, just to get a little action).  Her agent (Fox Harris) is a two-faced slimewad, who dicks Lynn over for a younger client.  Her producer pal (Mark Anthony) lets her have it with both barrels when she all but begs him for a role in his next big movie (“No amount of diffusion can take that away,” re: Lynn’s wrinkles).  Naturally, there’s only so much a woman can endure, and since almost all of these characters are so deplorable and/or bland, we can’t wait for Lynn to “Hulk out” and start laying waste to them.  We’re in her corner, because she’s the victim.  Normally, audiences love films like this, but our main character in this one simply isn’t sympathetic enough for us to give a shit about her travails.  Sadly, it makes the creature/murder scenes little more than bathetic rather than cathartic.

MVT:  The only reason to watch this is for its exploitable elements (read: nudity and blood), and even then I would likely just recommend trying to find a condensation of those scenes without all the other shit.

Make or Break:  The death of Elaine (Pamela Gilbert) is the highlight of the film for a few reasons.  One, I think she’s the best looking woman in this film.  Two, she’s stark raving nude when it happens.  Three, the blood streaming down her back and into the crack of her ass does actually make a great image, all things being equal.  You got me on that one, Mr. Ray.

Score:  3/10             

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Kill and Kill Again (1981)

Steve Chase (James Ryan, whose Kiai [the yell martial artists do when practicing their art] my brother and I used to imitate constantly when we were kids) is an agent (or maybe a mercenary or just an upstanding citizen, but he is definitely the top dog in the South African martial arts world) who is approached by Candy Kane (Anneline Kriel, 1974’s Miss World) to rescue her scientist father Dr. Horatio Kane (John Ramsbottom) from the clutches of the evil Marduk nee Wellington Forsythe III (Michael Mayer, who has a fantastic, stentorian voice and a horridly fake beard).  But Steve will need the best team of men he knows to invade Marduk’s compound, rescue Horatio, and foil the villain’s nasty plan to control the minds of the world’s population.  It’s time to get the band back together.
One of the things that struck me about Ivan Hall’s Kill and Kill Again (the sequel to 1977’s Kill or be Killed) was this idea of games of one sort or another that runs throughout the film.  Steve takes on Gorilla (Ken Gampu) in a tug of war.  Hotdog (Bill Flynn) is found playing a game with a bunch of men where he tosses a loaded gun somewhere in a room, and the last one to remain uninjured wins the pot.  The Fly (Stan Schmidt) makes Steve’s pursuit of him into a game, challenging our hero to prove his worth before he’ll follow him.  Later, Gorilla and Hotdog play poker across the hood of their ride while the other characters take out some random minions.  And, of course, you can’t have a film that’s this indebted to the films of Bruce Lee (Game of Death and Enter the Dragon being foremost in my mind) without having an open air tournament where the good guys can defeat the bad guys in single combat.  This game motif appeals to a great many people, because there is no ambiguity about what is happening or who the victor is.  There is a focus, especially when the tournament approach is used, where the truth of the characters can clearly be sussed out.  In a gladiatorial arena, there is nothing to hide behind but your pure wits and your physical skills.  This is the same sort of thing that appeals to many children (of all ages) for the same reasons.  I know when I was young, playing with my action figures usually transformed from some paper-thin storyline into a tournament milieu pretty fast.  It satisfies the jones from questions like, “Who would win in a fight?  The Hulk or Batman?”  It’s why pro wrestling and MMA and fighter video games are so popular.  The one-on-one death match is as primal as our modern society can get, and it serves to prove that, for all the layers of civilization we paper over it, our base nature is ofttimes more animal than man.

Likewise, there are some issues of masculinity going on in the film.  Steve is an alpha male.  He likes his jeans painted on and his shirt opened down to his glory trail (if he had a glory trail).  He lays down the law, and the others must follow.  He even proves that he is the better of the Fly, a character people speak of with great reverence.  All of the men love to go around with their shirts off, displaying their torsos (though this may just be because the film was produced in South Africa).  Naturally, when Candy shows up, Steve has to let his chauvinist pig flag fly hard.  Right off the bat, he states that he doesn’t work with women.  After she gets to go along anyway, he deigns to show her some karate moves…but first she needs to cook them breakfast.  He tells her to stay behind and look after their ride.  The Fly queries about Candy, “why does this soft lady travel with warriors?”  To no one’s surprise, Candy can’t be kept under a man’s thumb and is capable of handling herself in physical situations.  On the flip side, Marduk surrounds himself with hot women in bikinis or small terrycloth shorts or similar, but he has to control their minds in order for them to do it for him.  He wears his brown ensemble with his sexless tunic at all times.  He is petulant when things go askew (like getting upset when Dr. Kane summons Marduk to his lab).  His right hand, Minerva (Marloe Scott Wilson), is unlike the floozies Marduk keeps around.  She has short, hot pink hair.  She dresses in leather and animal print pants (also sometimes hot pink).  She addresses Marduk by pet names (chuckles, dimples, poopsie, popsicle, et cetera), and it upsets him when she does this on front of the other women.  In fact, the oddness of their relationship and the oddness of these two characters themselves makes me think that they are supposed to be coded as a homosexual couple or at the absolute minimum as deviant.  Marduk is effete, and Minerva is rather butch.  So, in a world where the heteronormative is what’s desired most of all, this villain and his henchwoman are somehow even more destined to meet defeat than would normally be the case.    

I got the sense that Marduk was a classic bullied child who grew up to be an even bigger bully.  This is evidenced not only by his demeanor but also by his relationship with Minerva, the only person (outside his guards, I assume) whom he doesn’t drug and who is clearly the more forceful personality of the two.  But he uses his mind (and, we can surmise if his pre-world-conquest name is any indication, his money) to advance his nefarious scheme, and it is with his mind that he desires to defeat Steve Chase.  For the armies of martial artists that Marduk trains and admires, he likely doesn’t know a leg sweep from a leg of lamb.  Even his champion, the Optimus (Eddie Dorie), is the complete opposite of Marduk: tall, muscular, stoic, a skilled hand-to-hand combatant.  Nevertheless, Steve and his cohorts come out on top at every turn.  Indeed, even when Marduk thinks he has out-thought Steve, he’s still shown up handily.  Whenever the villain attempts to be physical, he’s a failure at it.  This is why he has so many henchmen.  That said, there is a crosscut sequence where both Marduk and Steve explain their martial arts philosophies.  Marduk talks about breaking traditions and transcending the physical and mental being.  Steve talks about elegance, unity, art, and precision.  Neither character is wrong, per se.  As it happens, they are quite similar, and it is easy to see their thought processes interweaving with one another, as if the one were speaking the other’s lines when not on screen and vice versa.  All the same, Steve practices what he preaches, whereas Marduk has others do it for him.  The combination of philosophy and physicality trumps philosophy alone in the same way it can be said that talk minus action equals nothing.  

MVT:  I love the team aspect of the film, and while not all of them are overly distinctive (the Fly and Gypsy Billy [Norman Robinson] are very much alike, especially once the mystique of the former is stripped away and replaced with a lot of hokey, Chinese fortune cookie pontifications), they are all enjoyable, and they mesh extremely well with one another.

Make or Break:  The tournament is the Make.  It was good enough for me when Lion-O and Snake Eyes squared off, and it’s good enough for me today.

Score:  7/10