Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Return of the Killer Tomatoes (1987)

I don’t like raw tomatoes.  I like ketchup, spaghetti and pizza sauce, barbecue sauce, salsa (figure that one out) and so forth, but raw tomatoes give me fits.  Pizzas with slices of tomato on top are gross to me.  Getting a burger with tomato on it is almost as bad as getting one with pickles and mustard (don’t get me started).   Maybe it’s the smell of tomatoes.  They always have a slightly rotten scent, at least to my nose.  Still, I respect this odd little fruit, more for what can be done with it than for what it is in its natural state.  For example, if you ever fuse some aluminum foil to the bottom of your oven, put some ketchup on the spot and let it sit for a while.  The acid in the tomatoes and vinegar eats the foil, and you can usually clean it up pretty easily (there’s your pro tip for the day).  I wouldn’t say that my reaction to tomatoes is quite on par with that of the characters in John De Bello’s (not to be confused with DJ John DeBella) Return of the Killer Tomatoes, but it’s not terribly far off, either.  Maybe this was the impetus for the idea in the first place?  The world holds its breath.

The evil Dr. Gangreen (John Astin) plans to take over the Earth with his (literally) homegrown army of tomato men (who all resemble a certain Sylvester Stallone character).  Complicating matters is the young Chad (Anthony Starke) who falls in love with Tara Boumdeay (Karen Mistal, whom I fondly recall from The New Adventures of Beans Baxter, first and foremost; I don’t know about you), arguably one of the sexier creations to emerge from the bad doctor’s apparatus.

Arrow Films have released yet another great edition of a film which, at first blush, may not have been most people’s first choice for bluray upgrade.  Aside from the fantastic transfer (featuring the original uncompressed stereo mix), there is also a nice interview with star Starke (to no one’s surprise, George Clooney, here in one of his earliest feature films, didn’t participate in this release).  As usual, the slip cover art is reversible with a new piece by artist Matthew Griffin on one side and the original poster art on the other.  Further, there’s a booklet featuring writing by James Oliver.  I honestly don’t know how you can expect more, especially from a film of this caliber.

When I first saw this film, I believe it was on USA Up All Night (hopefully one of the episodes hosted by Caroline Schlitt; I just was never that much into Rhonda Shear, sorry), and I recall thinking that it was pretty much a waste of time.  I had, of course, seen Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, and it was a favorite of mine way back when, but with the sequel, things had changed.  The original was a send-up of Fifties monster movies, more or less.  Here, it’s a love story, albeit a very odd one.  Yet, it still pays homage to Sci Fi and Horror (and even a little Film Noir) movies of the Forties and Fifties.  Gangreen’s lair is a classic mad scientist lab with lots of bubbling beakers, archaic power switches, and so on.  Astin plays Gangreen like any number of arch villains of that bygone time, his hair bedraggled, his mannerisms both manic and pseudo-rational.  There is panic in the streets whenever a tomato rears its ugly head, calling back to scenes from crowds running from monsters in the Godzilla franchise, etcetera.  

When Tara first appears, she’s framed in a doorway with smoke billowing out behind her.  Some Noir-y sax plays on the soundtrack.  She’s a perfect femme fatale for the Eighties.  In fact, her character is a satire of the classic portrayal of feminine domesticity of the Fifties.  She’s always dressed up in chic gowns and outfits while she does housework.  She says that two of the three things she does very well is cook and clean.  The third is sex, and this points to how women were broadly viewed way back when as simultaneous servants and objects of desire (this is a blanket statement; of course, there were strong women and women’s roles, but this film is very general in its reference to a general viewpoint, i.e. “the perfect woman”).  Interestingly, Tara is open about sex.  When she first approaches Chad, she asks if he wants to make love.  It’s Chad who doesn’t immediately jump at the chance, being a “virtuous” kind of guy (have no fear, this hurdle is quickly surmounted by our hero).  Later, Tara says that “sex is good, sex is normal.”  Moreover, she’s not afraid to get a bit kinky, eyeing a pair of handcuffs in a sex shop like she may a new set of pots and pans.  The big change in the film takes place with Chad, who has to adjust his worldview about tomatoes (both fruit and women), sex, and modern relationships.  Tara, a relic of the past, is the arbiter of this, ironically enough.  

The thing I found most charming about Return of the Killer Tomatoes on this second viewing isn’t its sillier moments but its more absurdist ones, specifically, its self-reflexivity.  De Bello and company constantly refer to the fact that this is just a movie, and you’re supposed to be having fun.  The film opens with a television host introducing the film (mistakenly, the picture that starts rolling is Big Breasted Girls Go to the Beach and Take Their Tops Off).  Later, said host will intervene in the middle of a scene with “the” word of the day so some viewer can win the $9.22 prize.  Most inventive, however, is the product placement gag that comes about halfway through the runtime.  The director calls “cut” and states that they don’t have enough money to finish the movie.  Clooney (as Clooney) says that the solution is product placement.  The rest of the film contains flagrant instances of this practice, with everything from Moosehead beer to Crest toothpaste to Oh Henry! candy bars being shilled.  This visibly irritates the actors who have to deliver ridiculous dialogue to sell this crap.  For my money, it’s these more subversively self-conscious elements that play way better than any of the more sophomoric ones (though I do have a certain appreciation for those as well).  Even though this is a slicker and more conventional outing than the first film, I have to admit, it’s just about as entertaining, and that’s really all the filmmakers want you to get out of it.  Mission accomplished.

MVT:  As stated, the self-reflexive elements.  They’re sly and blatant at the same time.

Make or Break:  You’ll know from the film’s introduction whether you’ll be into the film overall.

Score:  6.75/10

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

A Cold Night's Death (1973)

As I type these words, the temperature outside is nineteen above zero.  Add in a brisk ten-mile-per-hour wind, and things get downright chilly.  I’m someone who likes colder temps.  Fall is my favorite season.  But once you get to the point where the cold physically forces itself into your bones and strips the skin off your face, you have to admit that enough’s enough.  My local forecast also calls for snow and freezing rain in the next twenty-four hours.  Nothing like adding insult to injury.  Of course, it’s not the twenty-below that the characters in Jerrold Freedman’s (director of the fun Raquel Welch roller derby film Kansas City Bomber) A Cold Night’s Death (aka The Chill Factor) have to endure, but you know what?  They can have it.

Robert Jones (Robert Culp) and Frank Inari (Eli Wallach) are a couple of scientists flown to the Tower Mountain Research Station, where the previous occupant, Dr. Vogel, has apparently gone insane and killed himself via exposure to the elements.  Or did he?

A Cold Night’s Death was an ABC Movie of the Week, and it lives up to the genre.  This was back when movies made for television were allowed to be scary.  They didn’t necessarily need all kinds of shit blowing up.  They didn’t need mass quantities of gore.  They didn’t need swearing for the characters to be believable in their situations or have tits and ass hanging out of every frame (no matter how much you’d personally love to see Wallach in a thong).  All of those things, incidentally, are fine and dandy with me in the right time and place.  There was a very tangible sense of dread (and even a grimy level of sleaze from time to time) that these films carried; something lost today where spectacle has replaced things like tension, story, etcetera.  What I’m saying is, the constraints forced the filmmakers to get creative with how they crafted their chills and thrills; something I enjoy.  In fact, whenever I hear people complain about how repressive the Forties and Fifties were in terms of cinematic themes, I always think that, yes, this is true, but look at how much more effort was put into getting their point across or tackling things considered risqué.  Subtext, a thing as rare as hen’s teeth these days, was necessary.  There’s a reason why people often say it’s better to suggest a monster than to show it.  Compare Robert Wise’s The Haunting to Jan de Bont’s version for further proof.  I’m not saying I’m against seeing monsters.  I love monsters.  But sometimes it really is better to conjure something in your head, at least in terms of actually producing scares.  Plus, some monsters just shouldn’t be shown.  I’ll let you debate which ones should be included on that list.  You can level the “he’s just old-fashioned” argument against me about this topic if you wish.  That doesn’t make me wrong.

 One very large comparison almost every person who sees this film will make is to John Carpenter’s The Thing (which was released and bombed nine years later), so I may as well do it, too.  There is the setting itself, naturally (and this is really a large portion of what lines can be drawn between the two).  There is the helicopter ride in with pilot Adams (Michael C Gwynne), though he is only in the film for a few minutes, and he isn’t a spot on Kurt Russell’s MacReady.  There is the discovery of the frozen dead guy in the electronics room.  Most especially, there is the haunting sense of isolation, and I would say it’s amplified in this film, because there isn’t a whole team of men in these tight quarters.  It’s two men in a place that now expands out the areas where dread lurks, because there are no warm bodies filling them.  What Freedman does to augment this is employs a lot of low angle shots and some slight Dutch angles, keeping us from experiencing this world from a normal perspective.  Throughout the film, he also composes shots where the characters are seen through cage bars, chicken wire, door windows, and so on.  In other words, these guys are confined, the same as the primates on which they experiment.  They can go anywhere inside the station they would like, but they can’t leave, and they never may.  

A Cold Night’s Death plays with paranoia and obsession, and its leads are perfectly cast as semi-foils to develop this.  Jones is an explorer, a detective, while Inari is more affable, less audacious.  It’s marvelous watching the protagonists slowly become more paranoid, more suspicious of each other as the story unfolds.  They have only each other, and though they are both friends and colleagues, there are resentments lying under the surface of their amity, and these will inevitably come to the fore.  Being out of contact with the rest of the human race, their minds fill the gaps in logic that they encounter with suspicion and flights of fancy.  These are fairly restrained men, so when they experience this loss of control, they respond by attacking each other (verbally; at least, to start).  After all, there’s no one else on which to take any of this out.  Culp and Wallach embody the characters to a tee, with Culp bringing his usual tight-lipped pragmatism, and Wallach his innocent sincerity.  Being the two consummate professionals they are, the actors bring their A Game, and it lends the film a gravitas and believability less capable actors may not have accomplished.  Wisely, Freedman never plays his hand until the very end, keeping his camera and editing controlled enough to not give the surprise away while giving enough clues from the start to allow you to figure it all out, if you’re of a mind to.  Some might say that the reveal is a tad dumb or even ludicrous, but personally, I loved it, and the closing shot is one of the more chilling (no pun intended; maybe a little) I’ve seen in my horror film watching experience.  

MVT:  The atmosphere that the film and its actors generate is appropriately heavy and foreboding.

Make or Break:  The ending.  You’re either going to love it or laugh at it.

Score:  7/10        

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Madmen of Mandoras (1963)

Directed by: David Bradley
Run Time: 74 minutes

The Madmen of Mandoras promises intrigue, adventure, exotic locations, and a plot to destroy the world. Instead it delivers boredom, a meandering plot, and dollar store nazis.

The movie opens with a public service film about the dangers of G-gas and is being explained by Professor McGuffin to a dark room with people in military uniforms. G-gas is a chemical weapon that once released is lethal in every possible environment and in sealed buildings. Due the lethal nature of G-gas, every country on the planet is developing an antidote to this gas. In the US, Professor McGuffin is leading the efforts to create an antidote.

The protagonist of the film,  Jack Squarejaw, finally makes an appearance to help the plot stagger in the general direction of that way. Jack is Professor McGuffin's son in law and with the C.I.D. (I'm assuming Criminal Investigation Division of the US army, it's never explained and it's never mentioned again). He shows up to remind Professor McGuffin of his two daughters and that Jake is about to go home to have a mid afternoon martini with his wife.

Suddenly someone remembered that this is supposed to be a form of entertainment and stuff happens.  Professor McGuffin's youngest daughter, Suzzie McGuffin,  has been kidnapped by sinister men. When Professor McGuffin goes to investigate why his daughter has been kidnapped,  he in turn is kidnapped by yet more sinister men. Mr and Mrs Jack Squarejaw finished their mid afternoon martini and are about to go out for the evening when they are kidnapped by Juan Exposition. However, the sinister men show up and kill Juan before fulfill his family tradition of explaining the plot.  Also the sinister men have a union and they really hate scabs.

Jack Squarejaw leaps into action and searches Juan's body for any clues that will help advance the plot. Discovering that Juan is from the cough cough American country of Mandoras. So Jack leaves Juan's body for anyone to find and Jack and the wife fly off to Mandoras. In Mandoras, Jack and his wife meet the rather odd chief of police of Mandoras. Apparently Mandoras is a city state in cough cough America. The couple meet the Carlos Exposition after he breaks into their hotel room and he goes about discharging his family's sacred duty of explaining important plot points.

Juan had been a lab tech for Hitler's inner circle and assisted in removing removing Hitler's head from his body and keeping it alive. Also, Carlos warns the couple that Mandoras is crawling with unsavory types that will have next to nothing to do with the plot. Not heading Carlos' warning, the couple go to the only bar in Mandoras and meet up with Suzzie McGuffin. While hitting on Jack, Suzzie explains that the sinister men let have free reign of Mandoras as long as she didn't leave. This leads to a belly dancing slash shoot out were Suzzie and Mrs. Squarejaw are kidnapped. The chief of police cleans up after the sinister men and takes Jack Squarejaw to the next scene.

Everyone gets taken to the governor's mansion and find that Professor McGuffin is being subjected to an annoying  art installation or torture in the basement. In the basement it is revealed that the bloody nazis are behind all of the sinister behavior and are going to use G-gas on Mandoras and this will allow them to rule the world some how. The Squarejaws, Suzzie, Professor McGuffin, Carlos, the chief of police, and the governor of Mandoras all escape the mansion and the nazis and Hitler's head follow them. Jack Squarejaw has had enough of these nazis and Hitler's head, so him and Carlos ambush the nazis and kill them all. The End.

Underneath the D grade sci-fi cheese there was a decent noir thriller that for whatever reason never made it on to the screen. The only evidence I have that this movie did not start out as a weird sci-fi movie is that in 1968 Crown International Pictures, the distributors of this movie, got some film students to shoot an additional twenty minutes of film so it be sold as a TV movie. Repackaged as They Saved Hitler's Brain, the tone of the new footage is much darker than The Madmen of Madoras and leads me to believe that the original premises was more inline with a noir nazi hunt in South America.

As for is this movie watchable, the answer is a sold not really. It's a mess of a film that I fell asleep through on the first two viewings and the third time I watch the whole thing discovered that I didn't really miss a lot it just poorly explained. There is very little one can do to make this movie more entertaining other than to use it to torture people who are easily offended. As of this review being published it is available for free on Youtube and there are two or three Mill Creek DVD collections that include this movie if you are really hellbent on seeing this thing.

MVT: The most valuable thing goes to the mixture of bourbon, lemonade, and iced tea. It saved what little sanity I have left and made the stupidity on screen just fly by.

Make or Break: This movie goes through the effort of presenting all kinds of threats and reasons to be invested in the well being of the protagonists. Then minutes later forgets about the threats and hopes that the cardboard cut outs they passed off as characters will be enough to keep you interested.

Score: 0.5 out of 10

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Dragon Lives Again (1977)

I was a fan of Bruce Lee before I had ever seen one of his films in full (which wouldn’t have been until my college years).  Further, he died before I was born, so the fact that he had (and I would argue still has) such a cultural impact is fascinating.  Ironically, the first film of his that I was intrigued by as a youth was Game of Death, the one during the production of which he died.  When I saw that brief shot from the trailer of Lee squaring off against Kareem Abdul Jabar, I was mesmerized.  It had to be a special effect or a trick shot.  The difference in size between the combatants was mind-bending for me.  More than that, it made Jabar into a monster simply by dint of his gargantuan size, something which was right in my wheelhouse.  

Later, when I saw the slow motion shot of Lee preparing for battle (I want to say from Enter the Dragon), his arms duplicating and flowing into one another, reminiscent (again, maybe only to me) of Ray Harryhausen’s Kali statue from The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, it made the man into the myth in my eyes.  How many pop culture figures can say that they inspired an entire wave of exploitation films feeding off both their lives and their legends?  I don’t know that Lee would have appreciated films like Law Kei’s The Dragon Lives Again (aka Deadly Hands of Kung Fu; incidentally, also the title of a Marvel Comics magazine that featured martial arts characters like The Sons of the Tiger and Iron Fist), but you must admit, it would certainly catch his attention.

Bruce Lee (Bruce Leong aka Siu-Lung Leung) lies in state before the King of the Underworld (Tang Ching).  Upon waking and learning of his situation, Bruce is shunted off to a local village, where he runs into and makes an enemy of Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman (Wong Mei).  Turns out, Zatoichi is in league with the Exorcist (Fong Yau, dubbed in English with a French accent for absolutely no reason), the Godfather (Sin Il-Ryong, who looks more like a Sonny Chiba character than either Vito or Michael Corleone), Clint Eastwood (Bobby Canavarro, in Eastwood’s Man with No Name guise), Dracula (Cheung Hei), James Bond (Alexander Grand), and Emmanuelle (Jenny), who want to usurp power from the King.  Joining forces with the One-Armed Swordsman (Nick Cheung Lik), Kwai Chang Caine, and Popeye (a very young, fit Eric Tsang), Bruce takes on the villains and stands up for the rights of the common man.  Huzzah!

Bruceploitation is one of the oddest trends to ever hit celluloid.  I can think of no other personage who inspired an entire exploitation cottage industry.  Sure, there have been Nazisploitation, Nunsploitation, Blaxploitation, Mexploitation (which is just exploitation films made in Mexico, not genre films exploiting Mexicans), Canuxploitation (again…), but there has never been Elvisploitation (for the most part, and if there has been, it’s an extremely small pool), McQueensploitation, and so on.  Lee’s legacy carried beyond his actual achievements.  Many of the Bruceploitation films are either factually inaccurate biopic/documentaries (a la Chariots of the Gods) or simply cheap Martial Arts films where its star was given a moniker similar to Lee (Bruce Li, Bruce Le, Bronson Lee, ad nauseum) and billed on the poster as the true successor to the genuine article.  The Dragon Lives Again is something altogether different.  It’s a pure fantasy that plays with the legend of Bruce Lee as a symbol.

The film skirts the more unsavory aspects of the whole Bruceploitation movement (but that someone had this idea at all is audacious as hell) by dealing with the man as myth.  Bruce is first shown with a blanket over his dead body and sporting a massive erection.  Said tumescence is revealed to actually be Lee’s signature nunchaku, a weapon he keeps on him at all times.  Right off the bat, we get allusions to Lee’s sexual power and his skill with nunchucks in one fell swoop.  The two are inseparable.  Just about every character remarks about how sexually powerful Lee is, and the women all want to bed down with him (even the King’s wife and concubines, who want to “try him out for size”).  Once Bruce gets to the village, he becomes a hero of the people, teaching villagers Jeet Kun Do (let’s just say that’s what it is), standing up to corrupt policemen, and staving off the machinations of both the bad guys and the King.  Yet, Bruce isn’t exactly a nice guy.  He’s a conceited braggart who knows just how good he is at what he does.  He has posters of himself in his room, for crying out loud!  Conversely, Bruce realizes that he was flawed when alive.  He states that, “I used to play around just too much,” and even apologizes to Linda Lee Cadwell (Lee’s widow) directly.

Similarly, the characters Bruce encounters in the Underworld are myths, cultural icons of the time.  That he is thrown in with them asserts that this is an idealized Bruce, a character of superheroic proportions.  Still, Bruce is Bruce, and though he is the legend, he is also the person (though he’s not really).  Even when the other characters use actual peoples’ names (read: Clint Eastwood), they are still acting as the character that person made famous.  Most surreal in this regard is the appearance of Kwai Chang Caine, a character reputedly created to be played by Lee on the Kung Fu television show but that wound up being portrayed by David Carradine.  Needless to say, Bruce takes potshots at Caine throughout the film, and the floppy-hatted, wandering warrior-philosopher takes it all with a sheepish grin, knowing his place before the true master.  Further, Bruce himself appears in the film in the guise of Kato, the sidekick character he played on The Green Hornet.  Why?  Why the hell not?!  The point is that Bruce is simultaneously the most iconic and the most real of all the legends of the world in this film.  While he’s still a cartoon portrayal of the man, Bruce is less of one than everyone else here.  The sole exception to this is the villagers, and even they are playing the roles laid down in every Kung Fu movie ever made; even they are cultural reference points.

You can’t really judge this film based on its story (it doesn’t really have one that it cares enough to follow, and what is there is standard for its base genre), its acting, its success as a comedy (it isn’t, or at least, not intentionally), or even its fight choreography (which is passable but unremarkable).  Instead, The Dragon Lives Again should be judged on how far it’s willing to go, on how imaginative the producers were willing to get with their premise.  For example, whenever Bruce squares off against one of the villains, they suddenly all appear in a rock quarry, and the film essentially becomes one shade away from a Japanese Tokusatsu effort.  The film pushes every limit it has (budget, scope, taste, you name it), and though it’s ultimately a wildly hot mess, it’s still wild, and, I would argue, one of the most unique films ever made to cash in on a pop culture icon.

MVT:  The size of the balls it took to make this film.

Make or Break:  The opening credits where Bruce spars with each of the fantastical characters he’s about to meet in the film.  This itself is a common trope in the Martial Arts genre, but it’s somehow more insane in this instance.

Score:  7/10