Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Cop Game (1988)

There once was a man named Vladimir Koziakin, and about this man’s personal life I know very little (read: nothing).  What I do know is that he produced one of the most entertaining, engrossing, and lovingly remembered books of my youth.  I’m of course speaking of Movie Monster Mazes, the 1976 tome that not only reinforced my love of monsters but also gave me new creatures to track down (if only their films would play on one of our stations; bear in mind this was back when we had maybe thirteen channels that could be tuned in on our television, and you were subject to whatever their programmers wanted to/could afford to run).  The premise is self-evident; there were fifty (“a panoramic journey through FIFTY (not Forty-Nine) FIFTY Monstrous Mazes!”) puzzles in the shapes of different cinematic fiends (as common as Godzilla, as obscure as The Monster of Piedras Blancas).  The accuracy on a few of the pieces would drive monster perfectionists insane (He spells Ghidorah as “Gidra” and calls Ray Harryhausen’s Ymir “Giant Ymu”), but I didn’t care.  I was too intent on running through the mazes (in pencil, of course, because the book cost ninety-five cents [!], and it’s not as if the book was easy to come by [that I recall]), erasing the lines, and doing it all over again (the erasures made their own permanent paths on the paper after a while, but the artwork was still attractive enough on its own to warrant paging through again and again).  There is a PDF of the book you can find online, the great tragedy of which is that many of the mazes have already been solved.  I’ve made it my mission in life to digitally remove all that and print each of these pieces to do again (and to share them with my monster-loving godchild if I can get him to lift his head up from his Nintendo DS or whatever the hell that thing is).  It’s good to have goals.  The relevance of this circuitous circumnavigation to Bruno Mattei’s (under the pseudonym of Bob Hunter) Cop Game (aka Cop Game: Giochi di Poliziotto), is that the film’s plot is so convoluted, you’ll almost certainly need to use the rewind button (the modern film viewer’s equivalent to a pencil eraser on a maze) to get all the way from start to finish with some idea of the plot intact.

During the final days of the Vietnam War, officers are being picked off one by one by former (maybe current?) members of the Cobra Force.  Enter special investigators Morgan (Brent Huff) and Hawk (Max Laurel) who are charged with getting to the bottom of this mess.  And they’re not afraid to break the rules in order to do it.

Post-Vietnam-War, movies set during almost any conflict tend to have a very dim view of the governments who send the soldiers off to fight in them as well as of war itself (though the latter notion in cinema has been around for much longer, it rose in prevalence around the time of this war and carried on ever after).  Typically this stink eye is focused on America, and there is far more anti-colonialist subtext at work (and not wrongfully so in both regards, I think).  Gone is the homogenized “rally round the flag, boys” depiction and attitude of good men fighting the good fight for a good reason.  Having the bloody footage of a war broadcast into homes on a daily basis not only peeled away the clean cut façade of warfare and changed the public perception of the men and women who fight, but it also forced filmmakers to steer toward more realistic portrayals of war time, even when the stories were fantastic in nature.  Things became grottier.  Characters became less idealized, and many began to lean far more to the dark side than to the light.  Italian filmmakers, combining the neo-realist movement developed and popularized by auteurs such as Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini with the sensational, primal elements which would quickly transform into a sleazy aura that became like a signature writ in giant, glowing, neon letters for exploitation hounds the world over, tucked into this new approach with gusto.  

Naturally, different filmmakers achieve different levels of success with this approach, and, if you know anything about Mattei you know he does his level best to hit all the right notes, though rarely do his compositions orchestrate the way I’m sure they were first envisioned.  I’m also quite confident that his motives were more monetary than artistic, and I have zero problems with this.  So, we get a lot of exterior shots of the Philippines standing in for Vietnam, and the footage from the streets adds the appropriate flavor to the proceedings.  The attitude is present with Hawk telling Morgan that he comes “from a country of assholes,” that America is “playing cowboys and Indians” in Vietnam, and most presciently, “After you get back home, you will forget all about me.  But I will still be here, drowning in a sea of shit.”  Shooman (Robert Marius) commands the Cobra Force, and is alleged to have destroyed a village full of women and children in bloodthirsty pursuit of the Viet Cong (a trope of Vietnam War films inspired by the infamous My Lai Massacre in 1968). 

Likewise, we get the populist components such as plentiful gun fights, chases, and brawls.  Hawk and Morgan break a suspect’s fingers to get him to talk (in broad daylight and full view of anyone wandering by).  What feels like a large chunk of run time takes place intercutting back and forth to scenes in a strip club (with French cut bikini bottoms and fashionably torn half shirts aplenty, but somehow no nudity) which feels more Eighties than anything else in this film, barring Huff’s dangly left earring.  Morgan and Hawk are flippant to their direct superior Captain Kirk (yes, really, and played by the late, great Romano Puppo) and everyone else they encounter, dress exclusively in street clothes, and don’t give shit one about any collateral damage they cause while doing their job.  The film does manage to balance these two perspectives (gritty, yet overwrought) fairly well, but it also piles on plot points nigh unto the breaking point.  In fact, once you add on the idea that a Russian spy named Vladimir has infiltrated the American armed forces, may or may not be a heroin dealer, and may or may not have had a hand in or is just spreading rumors about the village massacre and what any of this has to do with the initial murders, your head will be spinning, especially since the filmmakers don’t care about connecting scenes or ideas until it’s absolutely necessary.  Luckily, the aspects of the film that work (Mattei knows his way around action sequences, and there is a quasi-Noir angle that I enjoyed) do so well enough that the labyrinthine story and the writhing the script has to do in order to attempt resolving it become like frosting on the multi-flavored layer cake that is Cop Game.

MVT:  Huff loves giving everybody guff (yes, I made this sentence rhyme; sue me).  He is jaw-clenchingly anti-everything, so much of the joy in watching his character do his thing lies in how relentlessly hard-headed he is in every single way.

Make or Break:  Without giving away exactly why it’s so outstanding, there is a car chase in this film that I would attest can stand up to any in the history of cinema.  Okay, that’s an outright lie, but it’s so much damned fun, I couldn’t help loving every second of it.

Score:  6.5/10     

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Boneyard (1990)

I’ve said before that I’ve been to a lot of funerals.  From the time I was a toddler, I’ve seen quite a few corpses (post-undertaker, of course).  I believe the first time I ever saw a dead body in the more distanced, clinical sense was in Faces of Death, the notorious Mondo/faux-u-mentary film that included crime scene footage and scenes of bodies being cut open in morgues.  The dispassionate way that faces were peeled off to display the skulls underneath was both instructional and repellant (let’s be honest, I’ll never be a doctor).  But it’s because this is something most people don’t see every day, and death is something which fascinates and terrifies many folks, that it feels forbidden and sideshow-esque, and that’s the appeal.  Compare that to most narrative film morticians, who are usually quirky, nonchalant, and flat-out morbid.  These are people who seem to make a point of eating while performing autopsies (some even place their food on top of the corpses), and their sense of humor is jet black.  Sure, sometimes they’re portrayed as strict professionals, but this is typically when their sole purpose is to supply some expositional information for other characters to pursue.  In James CumminsThe Boneyard we get Shepard (Norman Fell), who looks as if he were auditioning to be one of Zartan’s Dreadnoks in a G.I. Joe movie and falls squarely in the former category.  Yet, both he and his colleague Miss Poopinplatz (an un-feather-boa-and-fright-wig-adorned Phyllis Diller) are incongruous in a film seemingly built on incongruity.  They are comedic characters instructed to play it straight.  Sort of.  It’s things like this that make the film simultaneously stand up and fall over.

Children are turning up dead, and, having hit a brick wall in the investigation, Lieutenant Jersey Callum (Ed Nelson) turns to psychic Alley Oates (Deborah Rose), who has holed herself up in her house.  Following a lead on Chen (Robert Yun Ju Ahn) who speaks about having to feed dead flesh to some evil being called a Kyoshi (which, according to my minimal research, doesn’t exist in Chinese folklore; the closest thing I could find to its name is the Jiangshi, or hopping vampires, which the monsters in this film definitely are not, so perhaps “Kyoshi” is the spirit’s/demon’s proper name, like “Phil” or “Stan?”), our heroes find their way to the county morgue where the dead kids’ cadavers don’t want to stay dead.

The film centers on death and grief through metaphors of same, while not being strictly about the cessation of physical life.  Alley refuses to leave her home because being out in the world is painful.  Her psychic powers are too emotionally agonizing, and she cannot handle the grief that comes with them.  She carries a burden for the dead, and it is killing her.  She also has a more personal reason for her sequestration, and this turmoil is reflected in the state of her house.  It is in complete disarray, a mirror for her mental state as she deals (or refuses to deal) with the torment of living.  Likewise, Dana (Denise Young) attempted ending her own life because she couldn’t handle it.  The two women encompass the despair of living, one mentally, the other physically.  In this way, these living characters relate to the living dead in the film.  These people have stopped living though they continue to draw breath.  The correlation is that, if Alley and Dana continue on the paths they are on, they will become truly dead and, like the zombie kids, corrupted and evil.  The core of their journey then is to find a reason to live, but they must desire this and fight in order to do it.

The Boneyard also deals with issues of horrors of the past and their effects on the present.  Alley carries the weight of a personal loss which cripples her.  This is portrayed in the files and photos she keeps from previous cases.  She tries to burn these things, to divest herself of her responsibility, but she can’t do it.  It is tortuous for her to get involved, but she is obligated to do so; she owes the dead a debt only she can pay.  Similarly, Chen is a descendant of people who first unleashed a force of evil centuries ago (in order to do something good, though selfish), and his family have been doing penance ever since (and still performing questionable acts, though now for a more “noble” purpose).  The zombies and monsters are a legacy of evil, a bastardization of good intent, and they are the embodiments of what happens when the agony of grief is not dealt with in a healthy fashion.  For the characters to find closure and new roads toward their emotional healing, they must confront this debasement and defeat it.  

One of the first things that stood out about this film for me was that the leads are completely not the standard for the Horror genre (or most mainstream, populist fare, for that matter).  Jersey is a middle-aged cop, and Alley is an overweight woman.  Not being teenyboppers or hip, energetic twenty-somethings, they go against type, and Cummins gears the story, at least initially, toward a more serious, adult-oriented audience.  This is reinforced by the inclusion of Dana, a woman who is in the morgue because she was mistakenly presumed dead following her failed suicide attempt.  You would suspect that her character and her relationship with Detective Mullin (James Eustermann) are included in order to appeal to a younger audience and handle the film’s action scenes, but this is not strictly the case.  Alley still gets to do quite a bit of physical action, and it’s refreshing to see.  The zombie children are also extremely creepy and truly shiver-inducing.  Even Diller doesn’t go for a lot of one-liners (though she does get a few in).  The casting of both her and Fell in more earnest roles is perplexing, since neither one is especially known for this type of character.  

Still, there are heightened elements that don’t match up with the more somber aspects of the film.  The story begins as a police procedural, and the first half of the movie is rather slow-paced and inactive.  It isn’t until after the half way mark that the supernatural aspects kick in.  Once they do, the film attempts to tread a thin line between genuine frights and outlandish, creature feature action.  A couple of the monsters toward the end are discordant with what comes before and appear to have been inspired by Ed “Big Daddy” Roth (and if you’ve ever seen a still from this movie it was most likely the semi-iconic Floofsums who is given more importance than she probably should have [while being a fantastic-looking beast]).  The absurdities that pop up in the back half just don’t sit well with the more somber first half, with the finale being a full-on series of action sequences which do work rather well.  Nevertheless, while The Boneyard never gels as a whole, and I can’t say that I loved my viewing of it, I value the chances that the filmmakers took and the ideas they brought up, and I respect them for that.

MVT:  The monster effects are great on the more serious and the more absurd creatures equally.  So, big applause to Andy Clement and the entire makeup effects department on the film.

Make or Break:  The first dream vision that Alley has is chilling and effective.  After seeing it you can understand why she is reticent to use her abilities, and you understand a lot more about her character.

Score:  6.25/10 

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Zebraman (2004)

Directed by: Takashi Miike
Runtime: 115 minutes

Time to learn some useless knowledge. Super Sentai  is genre of Japanese television programing that involves a group of costumed heroes with a gimmick. That gimmick being any combinations of magic, robots, amazingly stupid choreography, random explosions, alien technology, and or anything else that can be merchandised. The plot of these shows is a group of photogenic nineteen to twenty five year olds who get the ability to wear weird costumes and fight the forces of evil until their contract runs out. Now that's out of the way, time to cover the insanity that is Zebraman.

In 1978, a sentai set in 2010 aired about a human school teacher who turns into Zebraman and battles aliens. Due to horrible ratings the series was canceled after seven episodes. Thirty two years later the movie catches up with Shinichi. He was fan of the show, currently a teacher, and his life has more or less fallen apart. His wife is having an affair, his daughter is dating older men, and his son is being bullied at the school he teaches at. He copes with his life falling apart by making and dressing in a Zebraman costume.

This all changes when a series of violent unexplained murders starts happening and Shinichi has new transfer student named Shinpei. Shinpei is also a fan of Zebraman thanks to someone uploading the original Zebraman episodes on to a site like Youtube. Meeting this kid encourages Shinichi to be Zebraman and to fight crime. This crime fighting leads to Shinichi being able to carry out the same silly moves that the TV Zebraman could do. Also, he learns that people are being controlled by bad cgi green slime aliens.

As superhero movies go, it has less plot holes than a Marvel movie and is happier than DC movie. Overall, it is an enjoyable movie but the plot tends to drag due to showing as much information as possible about Shinichi. There are a lot of scenes that would have been better as montages like Shinichi trying to fly as Zebraman. Yes watching a grown man in a silly costume throwing himself off a bridge in the hopes missing the ground is funny but too much time is spent showing this.

This is a go see it now to any Takashi Miike fans and worth watching over all.

MVT: The way this movie takes PG-13 material and all the sentai silliness without making you feel dumb for watching it.

Make or Break: Keeping the CGI as cheap as what you find on a TV show.

Score: 7.2 out of 10

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Hell Squad (1986)

The creation of the Ultra-Neutron Bomb really has young firebrand Jack (Glen Hartford) cheesed off.  After browbeating his diplomat dad Mark (Jace Damon) and threatening to reveal this new horror to the whole world, the young man is kidnapped and held for ransom by the Sheik (Marvin Miller).  Government stooge Jim (Walter Cox) has a not-so-brilliant idea: get Las Vegas showgirls, give them ten days of combat training, and send them off to Syria to rescue Jack.  Enter Jan (Bainbridge Scott) and the Hell Squad.

It’s kind of amazing to me that Kenneth Hartford’s Hell Squad (aka Commando Squad aka Commando Girls) was released in 1986, because this is a movie dated by at least a decade or two in all of its aspects.  The score consists of library pulls which are recycled ad nauseum, and their style screams of low rent Sixties fare.  The sets are spartan to the point that they look like the set dressing for a school play, and the film is also conspicuously setbound (even the exteriors feel like they were shot indoors; they couldn’t afford a fan to blow the characters’ hair while they pretend to travel in topless vehicles?).  The comedy is as low brow as low brow gets (Colonel Balin [Lee Coy] gawps at the ladies’ breasts through binoculars while standing just a few feet away from them), and it’s the type of good-natured burlesque-y chauvinism that was grinned and shrugged off for a long while.  It even has a genuine Scooby Doo ending.  There is endless moralizing from characters about this new weapon, which is interesting since the film’s premise is militaristic, but this was also at a point when nuclear proliferation was a big issue.  At a time when macho films like Rambo: First Blood Part 2 and Missing in Action were the standard for action films, Hell Squad plays like a throwback.  However, I tend to think that this is more due to budget restrictions and Hartford’s talents and proclivities than it is to some kind of quasi-counterprogramming or nostalgia trip.  

The core concept of the film is a good one.  The idea of a group of women kicking ass and taking names had certainly been done before (Ted V MikelsThe Doll Squad, to name but one), but these women are more of a single unit than they are unique individuals creating a platoon.  To my mind, for as empowering to women as this is on its surface, this is still very much a male fantasy film.  Men love watching women being aggressive, and I think (bearing in mind I’m no psychologist) this relates directly to sexuality.  Women who are physically forceful and/or violent are imagined (and let’s be honest, it’s true sometimes) to be more bold in their sexuality.  This means that they are perceived as not only more sexually open but also as more dynamic (let’s call it) in the sack.  This film plays to this basic assumption, but it never takes it that extra step to actually have the women seize men sexually.  No, they kill men (and get to slap a few around a bit), and then go home and take communal baths.  While this plays on a hard/soft dichotomy, it also relates back to this being a film out of time.  The filmmakers are much happier to be voyeurs on the women (the baths, they all gather in their swimsuits to await the announcement of who made the squad [not that it matters, since the characters are all anonymous], a scene actually stops just so the camera can tilt down to leer at a couple of girls’ jugs, and so forth) in an R-rated, cheesecake kind of way.  This lack of non-battlefield action undercuts what the film advertises itself as (consciously and subconsciously), and it robs it of any impact it may have had. 

I love the sort of unorthodox teams that films can give us, such as the bikers who took on the Viet Cong in 1970’s The Losers.  Naturally, it doesn’t make any real world sense to take a person or group of people who have some basic skill (bikers, showgirls, florists, whatever), train them to kill, and send them into a danger zone.  If these scenarios actually occurred, the powers that be would almost certainly simply take available agents, soldiers, and so forth, and mold them to fit a cover story (that is, after all, their job).  But we kind of like it the other way around.  To take normal folks and force them into these new roles, again, it plays into an audience’s fantasies.  We all want to believe that we’re special.  We all want to believe that we could whack villains and score women like a James Bond, and movies like Hell Squad are meant to give us a bit of that hope.  After all, if a bunch of Vegas showgirls can kill terrorists and rescue hostages, couldn’t we all?  

But for how offbeat this film is, it almost completely fails to either maintain interest or satisfy in any way.  There is a cyclical nature to the story’s structure that kills any building of tension and momentum.  The girls go to their hotel room.  They all get in the bath and shoot the shit for a while (none of which means anything to anything).  The phone rings.  Jan is told where the girls need to hit the next day by an anonymous male voice (shades of Charlie’s Angels).  The girls go out and kill the Arabs they’re told to kill.  They come back to the hotel.  The terrorists mistreat Jack for a few seconds.  Back to the women in the bath.  There is little to no variation in this routine, and it quickly wore down my patience (and the paucity of actual naked showgirls did nothing to bolster it, I can tell you).  Add to this that the violence in the film is utterly sanitized (I don’t think there’s a spot of blood in the entire film, and that’s even with a tiger attack [don’t get your hopes up; it’s not as exciting as it sounds]), and you get an extremely bland execution of an intriguing idea.  None of this is helped by the dirt poor acting abilities of everyone involved (with the exception of Miller, who made quite a career for himself with his unique voice), which is akin to watching people describe grass growing.  If you want to see women in strong action roles, you’d do better to watch an old episode of G.L.O.W. (Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling).

MVT:  The idea at the film’s heart is a good one.  It could have been the foundation for a fun movie.  But it’s produced like a cake full of air.  It looks good at first glance, but there’s nothing inside.

Make or Break:  Around the third time that the squad return to the hotel and gather in the bathtub it becomes apparent that this is as high as the bar is going to be set for this thing.  And you could likely step over that bar without the slightest worry of tripping on it.

Score:  4/10