Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Don't Panic (1988)

I honestly have no idea why Ruben Galindo Jr’s film is titled Don’t Panic (aka Dimensiones Ocultas, which sounds suspiciously more accurate to me) outside of the fact that it’s also the title of the steadfastly Eighties song sung by the film’s lead, Jon Michael Bischof.  When Michael’s (Bischof) jerkwad pals show up after his seventeenth birthday party is already over, he panics.  His drunk mother might hear them.  When his helmet-haired bestie Tony (Juan Ignacio Aranda) starts playing with the Ouija board that he and the rest of the gang gifted to Michael, he panics.  Don’t they believe in the Devil?!  When Michael starts having visions of a demonic killer picking off his buddies and his eyes turn red (not bloodshot, but red), he panics.  That last one, at least, I can understand.

It can certainly be argued that just about any (if not every) film involving teenagers being either stalked by monsters/slashers or turning into monsters/slashers is actually a film dealing with sexual frustration/awakening (I suppose the argument could be made to encompass all films involving teens, period).  Don’t Panic is no different.  Michael, we are lead to believe, is a virgin.  He has a “golly gee” sense of puppy love, and this is directed toward Alexandra (Gabriela Hassel).  The two play hooky from school and enjoy a light, pleasant dating montage that’s as syrupy as it is superficial.  Alexandra is also a virgin, but she seems to handle it better than Michael (even though she expresses her vast love for him after knowing him for one day).  Michael is coded as so nascently pubescent (despite his actual age), he wears children’s pajamas (they have little, colorful dinosaurs on them; everything but the footies), he doesn’t bat an eye about wearing them out in public, and strangest of all, no one ever comments on this.  He has no car, riding a bike everywhere.  He gives Alexandra a “Magic Rose” that will never wither “as long as love exists between [the] two.”  Michael is a child doing childish things, and the concept of love in this film is just as simplistic.  Pretty in Pink this ain’t.  

All of Michael’s sexual frustrations start after messing with the Ouija board, which is also the night he is introduced to Alexandra.  Many times, his visions happen at night when he’s sleeping, and they typically end with him springing out of bed, a reference to the dreaded wet dreams of teenaged boys everywhere (with blood being dripped on his face, a substitute for ejaculate).  The blood red eyes that he gets at the most inopportune times is the equivalent of the erections boys get when sitting in class, idly considering sex with all of the women in their lives, or bouncing around on just the right seat on the school bus (or, let’s be honest, for absolutely no reason at all other than for their dicks to make them aware that they’re awake and have had a full pot of coffee).  The visions of Virgil (did I forget to mention that, according to this film, the Devil uses the alias of Virgil?) slaying other young teens (with a giant dagger; get it?) is the peristaltic contraction of Michael’s sexual vexation.  Even after Michael and Alexandra have sex, Michael can’t deal with the relationship maturely, because the whole of his being is subsumed by hormones, and the killings and visions continue.  He has a hard time even facing Alexandra, perhaps embarrassed by the intimacy they shared.  Michael’s maturity (or what maturity this film will allow any of its characters to attain) is shown in a scene where he throws his toys around his room and tears down the car posters from his walls (the act itself is still immature, however; it’s the realization that maturity needs to happen, whether Michael likes it or not).  Virgil continues to stalk Michael and his friends, an omnipresent avatar of the sexual spark that has been ignited in Michael, one over which he still has no control.

Similarly, Virgil is a metaphor for the domestic stress in Michael’s life.  His mother is an alcoholic.  We assume that this addiction kicked in after her husband left her or was part of the reason why he did.  Michael’s dad is absent from his life, sending money on occasion, never having time to see his son.  Naturally, these are the things Michael’s folks argue about whenever they speak.  In this sense, the murders are a means for Michael to vent about the tensions at home.  Note that Virgil doesn’t stalk adults, because they hold authority over Michael.  His targeted victims are Michael’s peers, a means of becoming king of the heap, as it were, to mirror the beastliness of the adults in Michael’s life and gain control over some aspect of his life.  In other words, to become an adult.  This also ties in with Michael’s sense of sexual frustration, because his mother is the only woman he has had in his life for some time.  She saunters around the house in silky robes and negligees, constantly trying to touch and comfort him, while still convinced he’s going crazy.  Since sex with his mother would be transgressive, Virgil gives Michael an equally satisfying (and somehow less transgressive) outlet for the Oedipal feelings he may be harboring.

Let me be clear; this film is a mess.  Its story is as vanilla as a bean, the characters are, by turns, stultifyingly bland and obnoxious, and the effects work floats along at about sea level.  And yet, there is an otherworldly dementia at play that makes it kind of enjoyable.  This is the sort of cinematic world where a character stops to buy smokes while he’s supposed to be sitting watch over an intended victim, where a character thinks that a Ouija board is THE FUNNIEST THING EVER, where a character shoots up his girlfriend’s house after being the most dreadful, uninvited dinner guest in the history of cinema (and that’s okay in the end).  The film can’t really decide if it wants to be more of a domestic melodrama or a supernatural slasher (and in either capacity it’s a fairly rote, drab affair), so it splits the difference and gifts the audience with these surreal bits and character traits.  It’s essential viewing in the same way that P.T. Barnum’s “Feejee Mermaid” is: you don’t believe a lick of it, but you’re drawn in by its horrific mishmash of oddball pieces.

MVT:  Michael’s petulant man-child persona is truly one for the ages.

Make or Break:  The opening birthday/post-birthday party sequence cements the full flavor of this particular dish: simultaneously mundane and arch.

Score: 6.5/10 

Monday, August 29, 2016

Drive-In (1976)

Recently, I took a trip into the past at the Mahoning Drive-In. It’s a lovely place showing retro films every weekend. I took in a John Carpenter marathon, six films over two nights, and had a blast! With so many films, it was only a matter of time until I hit the concessions stand for refreshments. The stand is adorned with posters, tapes, and various knick-knacks, creating a welcoming atmosphere. One poster caught my eye, promoting a film all about the drive-in experience, plainly titled “Drive-In.” The poster plays host to a bevy of colorful characters, smiling and laughing and causing a ruckus. The tagline reads “There’s nothing but action at the drive-in, and some good stuff on the screen too!” I knew then and there I had to see this film, one way or another.

I tracked a copy of the film down upon my return from vacation and waited patiently for its arrival. When it came, I popped it in immediately. What I seen on screen was reminiscent of how I felt at the Mahoning: a sense of joy. An innocent pleasure encapsulated under the stars, in the comfort of cars surrounding a gigantic screen. I could almost smell the popcorn overwhelming the air supply and taste the hot dogs hot off the grill. However one feels about the film, they can’t take its sense of atmosphere.

Rod Amateau so badly wants to make a love letter to the drive-in that he sometimes feels weighed down by the mechanics of storytelling. He relies on the script, written by Bob Peete, to carry him through. It’s of a madcap variety, with interweaving stories of high-school romance, gang warfare, discrimination, and armed robbery. They’re loosely tied together, with most flimsily stitched together on their own right. Even so, each has their own charm to them.

The stories exist to anchor the main attraction: the drive-in. The final destination for all is the drive-in, which plays host to many memories and important decisions. The drive-in itself isn’t important, but what it represents is. For some, it’s another activity to do on the weekend. For those in this sleepy Texas town, it’s the activity of the weekend. Pay no mind to what’s showing; just attend to get away from it all. The only other option in town is the roller rink, back when they were still a booming business. The teenagers occupy that, with the drive-in acting as a break from it.

To break down each story is inconsequential. Just know there’s a romance brewing between a preppy popular girl and a shy outcast, and of course he stands up to her abusive ex and wins the fight. Understand the gang warfare only exists to show off how intimidating the ex seems when surrounded by backup. Realize there are two bumbling idiots planning on robbing the joint near the end of the show, but they serve no real threat, just guffaws. Even their child hostage doesn’t deem them a threat, cracking wise at every turn. Accept the many go-nowhere subplots involving a doctor feeling discriminated against because of his color, the vigilante who brings his elderly and dismissive mother to the show (and eventually aids in saving the day), the clergymen sneaking into the show to save a buck, and the drive-in owner driven only by greed. These all exist not just because a film requires conflict, but to act as an entryway into the Alamo Drive-In (you better never forget).

Amateau is seemingly more concerned with the film-within-a-film being shown on screen, a parody of disaster films of the time simply titled “Disaster ’76.” A parody so well done I honestly believed it to be authentic. It tells the tale of a crash-landed plane in Rio, with the survivors trying desperately to survive. The captain, looking strikingly like George Kennedy, leads the crew through treacherous terrains, while officials back in safety spout out inane dialogue about the abundance of stairs in the building. The few scenes we see produce the biggest laughs of the film, so much so I had hoped they filmed an entire parody out of it. Alas, they did not.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say I found my interest waning quite a bit during “Drive-In.” The film meanders too often, producing as many dead spots as “Jaws” references. Two upbeat songs, one about the downfall of cinema and the other about God’s disapproval for your sinful ways, play repeatedly on the soundtrack. This becomes annoying, then almost endearing in its simplicity. Amidst all of the dead spots and soundtrack cues is a sense of geniality, even during the darker moments (such as the physical abuse of the popular girl, which is admittedly quite jarring).. The film may suffer from rickety pacing and construction, but it’s never without a smile.

MVT: The atmosphere. Amateau perfectly captures the feel of the drive-in and that feel alone is beguiling enough to keep one’s attention throughout.

Make or Break: The opening aerial shot of the drive-in. It shows off the grandeur of the drive-in, what with its large screen, while also showcasing its quaintness in the form of endless plains and a shack playing host to concessions. It sets the mood for the film quite well.

Final Score: 6.25/10

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Dog Tags (1988)

A group of American soldiers (and one German guy, played, I believe, by one Robert Marius) are rescued from a Vietnamese jungle prison by American operative Cecil (Clive Wood).  During exfiltration, the men are ordered to reclaim some important papers that were being transported in a now-downed helicopter.  But the helicopter’s cargo may be more valuable than mere documents (okay, it’s gold).  All of this is told in flashback to writer Christopher Hilton (Christopher Hilton, perhaps better known as a voice actor for such films as Five Deadly Venoms) by one of the survivors.

Romano Scavolini’s Dog Tags (aka Dogtags - Il Collare della Vergogna aka Platoon to Hell) is a film about the ugly truth of humanity.  Like Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, it frames this discussion through an observer/audience surrogate character who unveils this truth after the events.  In that film, Professor Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman) reviews the footage left behind by the “victims” of the jungle slaughter as it’s reconstructed.  In this film, Hilton interviews Tanoy, the only known survivor of the events from so long ago.  Both films construct a truth from the evidence of the past, and in this sense, the films are about storytelling and about revealing said truth through storytelling.  Dog Tags even structures its tale in acts (Prologue, Act One: The Facts, Act Two: The Getaway, Act Three: The Chase, and an Epilogue), plainly telling us that this story, though conveying truth, sticks to the framework of classic storytelling.  It’s presented to us as a fiction in order to relate fact (it even gives us a quote from a United States Senate hearing about the preceding premise in general; whether these hearings happened or not, and whether this subject was actually discussed is inconsequential here [personally, I find it all very easy to believe, so mission accomplished], as it’s the intimation that it’s true which matters).

Hilton first comes to this particular story through a guy named Jack, a radio operator who was stationed in Nam at the time (whom we never see in this capacity, or if we do, he’s never identified to us in the film, and he plays no part in the plot outside of also being an observer).  Tellingly, Jack has overdosed on heroin as the film opens, so we never get to see him in the present, either.  What this does is informs us that what he encountered during his tour of duty was too much for him to deal with emotionally.  To paraphrase Colonel Nathan Jessup, he couldn’t handle the truth.  Likewise, the characters in the film cannot handle what’s happening to them.  This isn’t a Kelly’s Heroes type of War/Caper film.  Many of the characters in Dog Tags die, and they die very badly.  Primarily, they are picked off by booby-traps, of which there are tons in the film.  In fact, I can think of very few direct interactions between the soldiers and any actual Viet Cong.  The enemy is mainly faceless, absent in body, if not in spirit.  The one exception I can recall is the scene where Glass (Peter Elich) is told to wade into the tall grass and get the Viet Cong skulking there. Faced with the situation of killing one with a machete, Glass hesitates, cracks, and then turns on his comrades.  Like the jungle the men traipse through, the Viet Cong threat is ever present, overwhelming and surrounding the soldiers on all sides.  There is no escape from the enemy in the same way that there is no escape from the jungle.  Pushed to the brink, the men either die or go insane (often both).

If it wasn’t bad enough for the men to be stuck in a Viet Cong cage, it’s far, far worse for them in the open jungle.  Things were bad in the cage.  The men were at each other’s throats, but they survived.  Once freed, things degenerate swiftly, and between the paranoia of the unseen adversary and the weariness of the soldiers being faced with another mission when they clearly aren’t up for it, the men become animals, become corrupted.  Once the gold is discovered, the soldiers’ avarice shines through, and their humanity is lost completely.  This is best exemplified by Roy (Baird Stafford) whose leg is injured by a booby trap hidden in a river.  His leg becomes gangrene, and it has to be amputated as the infection spreads.  The amputation scene displays the totality of the notion that this is a place which humanity has fled.  As his fellow soldiers set to work on the leg, we get a shot from Roy’s POV.  His companions’ faces are gaunt, feral, and sickly.  They could as easily be preparing to remove his leg as his life.  The contrast to this evaporation of humanity is Mina (Gigi Dueñas) and her family (including her brother Tanoy and her elderly father).  The family are taken hostage by the soldiers out of fear that they’re in league with the Viet Cong.  We are never told explicitly whether or not they are; it’s the tension of the situation that counts.  At any rate, Mina services Roy with her hand as his health fails.  She does this without a word, without a readable emotion on her face, but the empathy she feels for Roy in this circumstance is clear.  While the men are losing their minds with anxiety and greed, Mina performs an act of kindness that is both compassionate and empty.  Mina and her family have lived in these conditions far longer than the soldiers.  They understand that this is the state of the world (and not just their localized world in a case of the specific highlighting the general), so a modicum of physical pleasure is all there is to make life bearable, and even then it’s as transitory and meaningless as the act itself.

I was surprised as hell when I watched Dog Tags.  I had expected something along the lines of Enzo G. Castellari’s Inglorious Bastards or Bruno Mattei’s Strike Commando, essentially a loud, dumb, fun action film with a lot of explosions.  And while there are a lot of explosions (and it should be said, they are large and extremely impressive) and a thin, gritty texture of exploitation in Dog Tags, the film maintains an utterly serious tone from start to finish.  This is a grim, bleak, cynical film that reflects on its ugliness rather than revels in it, much of the runtime filled with strained, formidable silence.  I won’t say that Scavolini’s film is as powerful or as slick as something along the lines of The Deer Hunter or Apocalypse Now, but I do think it deserves to be in the same conversation with them.

MVT:  Scavolini does a remarkable job crafting tension in almost every moment of the film while doing it on a believable scale for a War picture.

Make or Break:  The first booby-trap that’s tripped comes swiftly, unheralded, and it delineates the stakes of the film for both the characters and the audience.

Score:  7/10       

Monday, August 22, 2016

Best Seller (1987)

As far as bringing together two powerhouse actors, “Best Seller” is a success! The casting of Brian Dennehy and James Woods is ingenious, with the two working off of each other splendidly! Both are saddled into familiar roles: Dennehy the calm & calculated officer, Woods the charismatic and diabolical criminal. The criminal brings out the inner demon in the cop. The cop brings out the humanity in the criminal.

The two are brought together in clever fashion. Brian Dennehy is Dennis Meechum, a Los Angeles cop who moonlights as a best-selling author. His first book, an account of his experience in a near-fatal holdup that opens the film, is wildly successful. Fifteen years later, he’s penned numerous fictional and non-fictional novels, but is now struggling in churning another one out. The death of his wife, the pressures of police work, and the grind of single parenthood are stifling his creativity.

In comes James Woods as Cleve, a hitman offering Meechum a golden goose on a silver platter. He will give him his life’s work to pen, as well as incriminating evidence against crime boss David Madlock (Paul Shenar). In return is a mystery, as Cleve never reveals his true intentions. It’s clear after watching him for a while that his reasoning isn’t salvation, but salivation. He craves power and gets off on controlling others. He’s able to manipulate Dennis into this agreement after initially being handcuffed simply due to his cunning wit. He pries on emotions, using his charm to trick people into letting their guard down. He has grown tired of senseless killings, now desiring a challenge in working alongside an officer. He gets off on the impending doom.

It is Cleve’s arresting personality (pardon the pun) that leads us to believe that Meechum would take him up on his offer. He is exactly as Cleve describes him: tired and stuck in a rut. He needs inspiration and, as much as he hates to admit it, Cleve represents that. It is with hesitation that he probes the hitman for answers all the while resisting the urge to book him. This power struggle between the two is tantalizing, with director John Flynn balancing it nicely.

Thus sets up multiple sequences in which Cleve drags Meechum to his old stomping grounds. Former murder hot spots set the scene for the detective/author to illustrate, while a meeting with the criminal’s family acts as a doorway to the book’s psychological analysis. Sprinkled in throughout are hints at Cleve’s involvement in Dennis’ past and evidence to frame Madlock with. The former produces an intense fight between the two

The relationship between Cleve and Meechum plays out like it would in a pulp crime novel. Cleve appears out of the blue, saving Dennis from a fatal gunshot during a shootout. He disappears into the night, only to reappear at will. He stalks the man’s daughter, Holly (Allison Balson), convincing her (and him) that he’s a friend, not a foe. He’s able to avoid catastrophe with ease, such as evading a bomb planted in a taxi. It’s all too good to be true, the workings of a fictionalized character. This should suffer when implemented into a real-world scenario, but Larry Cohen’s script is sharp enough to avoid the pratfalls. It’s all meant to play out like this as a way of complementing Meechum’s stories.

Where the script stumbles, in turn causing the direction to suffer, is in its handling of David Madlock. He’s kept to the sidelines, which is understandable considering the true villain here is the puppet master Cleve. However, the reasoning and subsequent takedown of his operation is flimsy, leading to a half-baked finale. After sufficient build, the film sputters out dramatically.

A lot of this can be attributed to the film’s short running time. The film is only eighty-five minutes long when it could’ve done with an extra thirty. The first hour is all setup, with the finale being rushed through in order to attain the story’s purpose. More time was needed to build up Madlock as well as more info on Cleve to sink one’s teeth into. “Best Seller” is a novella that needed to be a novel.

While “Best Seller” may crash and burn, the ride up to it was smooth. Brian Dennehy and James Woods are actors whom I could watch read the phone book and be engaged, so it’d be a near impossibility for their interactions to warrant apathy. They were able to keep my attention throughout, elevating the material when it began to flounder. If only they were bolstered by a stronger third act that didn’t sacrifice their hard work in the first two.

MVT: Most definitely Brian Dennehy and James Woods. Picking just one would be a crime, as the two work as a cohesive unit here. Without the other, they would crumble (as it should be).

Make or Break: The fight between the two in the bar. Intense and perfectly encapsulates what both men represent.

Final Score: 6.5/10