Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Country Of Beauties (1981)

You know, pirates have never appealed to me on a cinematic level as much as they should.  I mean, their tales include, to use the cliché, “high adventure” on the high seas, and they usually look great.  They have grizzled, swarthy men doing manly things (with just a whiff [sometimes more] of homoeroticism).  They have pillaging of villages and molesting of maidens.  But they’ve simply never done it for me completely.  I’ve enjoyed some, to be sure, like Captain Blood and the underseen Nate and Hayes (hell, I even dug The Pirates of Penzance for a hot second back in the day), and the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad films are some of my favorite fantasy films of all time (though, let’s be honest, that’s way more for the stop motion monsters than for any piratical hijinks [which Sinbad didn’t really get into anyway]).  Nevertheless, the mere conceit of pirates in a movie never piques my interest beyond a halfhearted “okay, then.”  This even extends to the wildly broad, threadbare pirates of Ulysses Au-Yeung Jun’s (aka Yang Ming Tsai) The Country of Beauties (aka Island Warriors aka Warrior Women aka Yang Yang Jun).  They’re filthy and skanky, and their captain (Cheng Fu-Hung) is a flamboyantly adorned (his “crown” resembles nothing so much as a glorified hat from The Flintstones’ Loyal Order of Water Buffalo) malcontent, so all the bases are covered.  And they still didn’t distinguish themselves for me overmuch.

Years ago, a “lascivious” tribal king exiled his wife to a remote island (read: Taiwan), where future generations of women became “Amazons” and formed a She-Woman Man Haters’ Club all their own.  The women spend their time fending off pirate attacks, disowning the inhabitants of the nearby Men’s Island (yes, it actually has that uninspired name), and doing gymnastics and wicked dance moves en masse to a poppy, little rock number.  When three idiots show up intent on stealing the legendary treasure of the Amazons (for the sake of argument, I’ll just refer to them as such from here on out, even though they’re not literally Amazons in the mythological sense), a monkey wrench is thrown into the not-so-delicate balance of the distaff society.

 The Country of Beauties is an odd duck of a film in more ways than one, and I think this is largely due to its tone.  On the one hand, the film is about women who hate men so much, they set any male infants born there adrift in the sea to be eaten by sharks or drowned, and they ritually castrate men who either trespass on their island and/or fail to produce female offspring.  On the other hand, their entire existence is due to some asshole male who booted his wife to an island (assumedly so he could wet his wick with other women unfettered).  The pirates regularly lay siege to the island and make off with some ladies.  The Amazons have a right to not like men; all of their headaches were caused by men.  The film takes this angle very seriously, but it does so to the point of condescension, because the filmmakers treat the women as completely wrongheaded in their ideology.  

This patronization mainly takes the form of the denizens of Men’s Island.  The men’s chief, Wan, sends envoy Lu (Don Wong Tao), along with the corpse of one of their citizens (for emphasis), to beseech Queen Nadanwa (Elsa Yang Hui-Shan) to “change your female chauvinist system” and calls the Amazons “barbarians” (way to win hearts and minds, man).  Wan himself admonishes Nadanwa that “women can’t live in harmony without men,” and “everyone should live happily together.”  It’s not until the men actually show that they’re willing to help the women that any of this is acknowledged.  The women are presented as wrong, pure and simple.  Naturally, then, one of the princesses, Chung (Fanny Fong Fong-Fong), falls for one of the men and violates the Amazons’ rules in order to be with him.  Chung is willing to go to the point of self-injury to prove her point, but her chosen beau uses the opportunity to further browbeat the Queen and her people.  Moreover, an Amazon uses up all of her “Virgin Kung Fu” energies to save the life of a man.  Afterwards, they make out, and she turns into the old hag she actually is (she’s over a hundred years old, her youth and power maintained by her chastity), but she states that she regrets nothing.  For a film which is ostensibly about female empowerment, it’s actually a vehicle for male dominance (you could, I suppose, argue that it’s a call for the harmony embodied by the yin and yang principle, but I just didn’t get that vibe).

For as po-faced as the film is about its theme, it also has some prominently unsubtle humor that not only doesn’t work due to its vapidity (which is standard in many Chinese genre films) but also turns on a dime back to the rather grim, self-serious approach of the rest of the picture.  For example, a tubby pirate lands on top of an Amazon, impressing her into the sand on the beach like one of King Kong’s paw prints.  Later, he is killed in a manner most bloody and without a hint of the drollness displayed earlier.  Primarily, however, this odd dichotomy is exemplified by the three treasure hunters.  They inveigle their way into not being castrated by stating that they are, by turns, a doctor who can cure any ailment, an expert cannon builder, and a schlub whose sole claim to fame is having fathered thirty-six children.  The doctor handles a difficult childbirth by accidentally jumping on the mother’s stomach.  The cannon builder digs his heels in about not wanting to be used as a stud.  But the profligate guy, Dahai (Hui Bat-Liu), is the real exemplar.  He mugs and gurns in the most ham-handed manner possible.  When he’s taken to impregnate a couple of Amazons, they turn out to be not only kind of hideous but also biters.  Later, he is castrated for trying to get with a lesbian princess, and he immediately turns into a swishy queen.  Regardless, he falls into despair over this, and he plans to take revenge or die trying.  The admixture of idiocy and sobriety sits uneasily, and in combination with the disdainful air aimed at the Amazons, The Country of Beauties produces conflicting viewpoints, not in the sense of sparking honest discussion but rather in the sense of wanting to be a fun, exploitative romp while also wanting to be a snotty reprimand to all the world’s uppity women.  You want to like it.  There are elements of it to like.  But its waters are just a little too muddy to want to go swimming in them for any extended period of time.

MVT:  The outlandish designs, from the unlikely costuming of the Amazons to the giant, naked, cannonball-firing (from its eyes, not from where you would at first assume) statue of the Amazons’ founding mother are just great.

Make or Break:  The very opening of the film, with its dancing, cheerleading, and gymnastics truly drew me into the moment, although it belies where the film will go rather swiftly.

Score:  6.5/10 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Gas Pump Girls (1979)

June (Kirsten Baker) and her friends at Hometown High have just graduated, and look forward to spending one last summer hanging out with each other.  But when her Uncle Joe’s (Huntz Hall) gas station is ready to go out of business from a combination of Joe’s failing health and fierce competition from the more upscale Pyramid gas station directly across the street, June connives her buddies into pitching in and bringing the dingy, old gas station back to life.  Through the miracle of erections.

Joel Bender’s Gas Pump Girls (aka The Mechanic Girls) is a fairly typical teen sex romp that plays fast and loose enough with the standards of the genre to be slightly refreshing.  The girls, with the exception of one (January, played by Rikki Marin), are distinguished from one another.  There’s Plain Jane (Leslie King), the wallflower who barely speaks at all.  There’s April (Sandy Johnson), the sexual (but eager) innocent.  There’s Betty (Linda Lawrence) the busty, high maintenance brunette who knows all about manipulating men’s lechery to satisfy her material desires.  And, of course, there’s June, the energetic go-getter with a purpose.  

Their boyfriends (or boy toys, if you want), by contrast, are largely forgettable dullards who only prove Betty’s theories true (but, let’s face it, every guy in this movie does).  June’s beau Roger (Dennis Bowen) is the isolated case, as he genuinely wants to spend time with June, and is upset that he may never see her again after summer’s end.  The third group in this triangle are the local biker “gang” The Vultures, led by the Fonzarelli-lite Butch (Steve Bond).  The Vultures make Eric von Zipper’s Rat Pack look like The Satans.  They are juvenile delinquents only in the sense that they think they’re juvenile delinquents.  They don’t do much more than a little loitering, but this fits with the film’s breezy attitude.  

The other way that Gas Pump Girls stands out from others of its ilk is in the portrayal of its main theme.  Primarily, this is an underdog/save the rec center plot, but instead of a bunch of teens confronting some greedy land developer, here the conflict is with the esurient gas station owner across the way, Mr. Friendly (Dave Shelley).  It’s a socioeconomic struggle between a united working class and a soulless corporation, and we know it’s essentially soulless (outside of the mere fact that it’s a corporation in a movie) because they are homogenized and gentrified, as opposed to the creative, all-inclusive workers of Joe’s Super Duper.  The Pyramid goons conform to the standards of what’s expected of a gas station in generic terms, but Joe’s Super Duper provides an individualized, exciting gas-pumping experience (there’s even an extensive double entendre about the process [“Grab it, stick it in, squeeze it, and let it peter out”]).  Joe’s Super Duper is the new blood in the local gas pumping industry.  They are the rebirth of a dead business from out of the ashes, fueled (ahem) by youthful enthusiasm.  Why more full service (ahem, again) gas stations didn’t follow this film’s business model in real life, like bikini car washes, is beyond me.

Yet, even the film’s antagonists comply with the movie’s jaunty disposition.  Friendly mocks the girls, but aside from sending useless thugs Bruno and Moiv (Joe E. Ross and Mike Mazurki, respectively, and please note the ethnic spelling of Marv, just so you get the full picture) to intimidate June, things never get too personal for the upscale station owner.  Friendly is easily thwarted, even when he ups his game and gets the gas supply cut off to Joe’s pumps.  Further than this, when the youngsters go straight to Pyramid corporate headquarters (disguised as Arabs and belly dancers, naturally), the expectation is that corporate fat cat Mr. Smin (Jack Jozefson) will be even more heartless and venal than Friendly.  However, he’s one of the biggest pushovers for a sob story ever, and the whole thing is executed so as not to get in the way of the fun.

Another aspect of the film that I found intriguing is the notion of childhood’s end.  At the high school commencement, a practical joke by The Vultures leads to our female leads baring their boobs for all the audience to see.  The girls are all technically adults now, and though embarrassed at first, they are pretty hunky dory about it in the next scene in the same sense of discovering the joys of drinking alcohol and then discovering the joys of drinking alcohol legally in a bar.  As previously stated, Roger takes the inevitable departure of June from his life pretty hard.  He goes from playful flirting to stunned contemplation, though June seems okay with it all until she gets the phone call regarding her uncle’s health which perhaps reminds June of the transitory nature of life.  That said, June also gets a little song to sing to herself while hanging out at her uncle’s closed gas station which belies her original nonchalance (curiously, the only song any character in the film sings, and it made me suspect this was actually a musical; it isn’t).  Its title is All Of My Friends, and it includes the lines, “Just gimme all of my friends, and I’ll be happy again,” “bring ‘em back home, where you know they belong,” and most importantly, “I’m lonely.”  It’s half-lament, half-retrouvaille for long held friendships that are slowly dispersing.  The kids’ entire business escapade is a final fling for them to both solidify and begin letting go of their relationships.  Even The Vultures’ sudden sense of community spirit appears to stem from their connection to these teens specifically and their realization that soon they won’t be around to prank and harass (plus, the age divide between them and active high school kids is only widening, so these may be the last high school kids with which they can partake in their particular brand of mischief without just being creepy).  The film, then, is a last hurrah for youth, as well as being a call to seize the opportunity to do something, have some fun, and maybe use your body to sell some petroleum products.  And that’s the big take away; the film is an ultra-casual ode to youth.  As a dyed in the wool nostalgist, it works in spades for me.  For as much as the film is a snapshot of the West Coast in the late Seventies (something I never tire of seeing), its message applies to youth (American and otherwise) on the whole: Grab it, stick it in, squeeze it, and let it peter out.

MVT:  The film’s innocent joie de vivre joined with its slightly melancholic undercurrent.  

Make or Break:  The locker room scene, wherein the girls talk about how they feel about what happened and how they view the world.

Score:  6.75/10

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

La Bambola Di Satana (1969)

Elizabeth (Erna Schurer) travels with her fiancée Jack (Roland Carey) to her uncle’s creepy old castle after the passing of the old man, but someone doesn’t want her to stick around for too long.

Ferrucio Casapinta’s La Bambola Di Satana (aka The Doll of Satan) is a gothic mystery in a quasi-giallo mold.  The castle provides an appropriately spooky setting, perhaps one of the most essential of all gothic elements.  Said castle has a dungeon with mannequins occupying its requisite torture devices (it was a “museum” according to sexpot governess Carol [Lucia Bomez], though it’s about as effective in that regard as the display cases at a carnival freak show, maybe less).  It has a ghost story running through it in classic Scooby Doo fashion (again, maybe less).  It has black-hooded malcontents skulking about and knocking off people.  Like many gothic fictions, the film relies on the mood created by the locale rather than anything generated by its story.  There is innate menace in the stones of medieval architecture, and the filmmakers try to capitalize on this.  

Since the story is not actually set in the past, our main characters are modern in dress and manner.  Jack doesn’t just have a car, he has a little two seat convertible (I couldn’t tell you the make and model).  Carol doesn’t care for these youngsters coming to the castle.  She believes that all young people want to do is get hopped up on goofballs and party (or something).  There is an intersection and conflict, then, between the present and the past at work to some degree in the film.  Carol represents the old, Elizabeth the new.  For example, there’s some discussion about wiring (maybe it was re-wiring) the castle, a suggestion at which Carol scoffs (please note, this is also about as interesting as most of the conversations in this film get).  Sir Balljanon (the uncle) lived in a castle but was doing research on Uranium.  There are scenes of the local teenaged fauna dancing to groovy pop music at the local café.  Contrarily, for as much as Carol puts on the air of a stuffy, Victorian governess, when the glasses come off and the teddy goes on, she becomes much less repressed (she’s also into some BDSM action).  It’s a commonly held belief that gothic stories are about repression and the desire that must boil up over it, and that’s certainly present here.

Interestingly, it’s the film’s representation of sex that stands out even more than any mystery or gothic elements.  As to the aforementioned teens (who have absolutely no bearing on the narrative, despite the length of time we dwell on them), the camera leers at the girls shaking their moneymakers in their tweed, knee-length skirts (in fact, it tilts down and holds on their lower halves).  Elizabeth’s friends, Gerard (Giorgio Gennari) and Blanche (who have absolutely no bearing on the narrative, despite the length of time we dwell on them; are you noticing a trend yet?), sleep together in one bed (we don’t know their marital status, but let’s assume for the sake of argument that they’re unmarried).  By contrast, and more importantly, Elizabeth and Jack not only sleep in separate rooms, but there’s also the intimation that Elizabeth is a virgin, and they’re saving it up for marriage.  Out of everyone in this film, these two are the most traditional (you could call them out of date) in their perspective on sex.  If anything, they are tied more closely to the creaky, old castle and what it represents than anyone else.  They belong at the castle, despite their trappings of modernity.  By that same token, Elizabeth is the only person who gets naked on screen multiple times.  It’s as if the filmmakers want us to lust for this woman specifically (actually, they want us to lust after all the women in the film [with the possible exception of Blanche], though the focus is on Elizabeth) because of her chastity.  It’s sort of a Madonna-whore complex going on, which is why Elizabeth is also the only character who has sex on screen.  That this is a hallucination/dream points back to the clash between old and new attitudes, as it symbolizes Elizabeth’s desire for sex in spite of her physical denial of it.  Because the audience is invited to watch for titillation indicates a subversion of her traditional outlook, a vicarious deflowering of Elizabeth, if you will, and a quasi-condemnation of archaic sexual mores.

So, let’s get down to brass tacks.  La Bambola Di Satana is lackluster in just about every way (or at least in all the ways that count).  The compositions are standard fare that even the castle’s interiors can’t quite manage to spruce up.  The score is unmemorable, as are the characters (Carol is the only one who generates any kind of interest, but that’s more for the straitlaced/sex kitten dichotomy she has going on, which is also sadly more teased than pleased).  The film brings up points and then completely forgets about them rather than capitalizing on them.  Chief among these is the inclusion of Jeanette, the sister who has gone insane and now spends her time taking up occupancy in Elizabeth’s old room and making faces at her dolly.  Even after Jeanette witnesses something fairly early on, it has no consequence on anything.  Mr. Shinton, Sir Balljanon’s research partner has papers that Elizabeth needs to see, but, to my recollection, that’s where the reference to them ends.  Even the subplot involving “starving artist” Claudine (Aurora Bautista), which should have had a huge impact on the story, just piffles along and comes to an undistinguished end.  The nail in the proverbial coffin, however, is the constant repetition of dull scenarios that stop the story dead and then bludgeon it a bit longer for good measure.  There are at least half a dozen scenes of characters eating (mostly at the castle, but sometimes at the café), so they can deliver dialogue that is neither expository nor revelatory (okay, sometimes there’s a little exposition, but not much).  Further, the multiple scenes of the teens dancing at the local hangout serve less than zero purpose.  I take that back.  They show us that there is a character hanging out eating in the background, and we know he must be important for two reasons.  One, none of the youngsters mean fuck all to the film.  Two, he’s always lounging in the background of the cafe while extraneous characters writhe about in the foreground, sucking up the viewer’s attention.  Needless to say, his part to play in this whole affair is yet another misfire in a film that unfortunately is more fizzle than steak.

MVT:  The castle is a decent setting for the film, but I’m just going to be honest and give it to Ms. Bomez.

Make or Break:  The first café dance scene dropkicks the film’s narrative right in the head.  The problem is, it takes a few moments for the viewer to realize how utterly useless this scene is in spite of the fact that there’s so much attention paid to it (and one girl in particular, who I expected to play some larger role; she did not).

Score:  5/10