A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 414 – Paris is Burning

Paris is Burning – April 18th, 2011

I had heard about this documentary ages ago. I think we had a copy at the video store Andy and I worked at when I was in college and I know for certain that it was shown for a couple of classes. But I never saw it. I knew it existed and I had a vague idea of it being about drag culture in New York. But I never took the classes it was shown for and I never grabbed it from work so I never really got the specifics until I started poking around online after reading some comments about one of the contestants on this year’s RuPaul’s Drag Race.

One of the places I frequently read (though almost never post to – I’m a lurker by nature) is Television Without Pity. The forums on there can be horribly biased towards their favorites, and back when a certain show I enjoyed was still running I had some issues with the person they had reviewing it, but overall I find that there’s some good discussion. And frequently there’s a wealth of information on things I myself have no experience with. So when the Drag Race forums were discussing Mariah Balenciaga there were mentions of the House of Balenciaga, and they weren’t talking about the fashion designer. They were talking about drag balls and the Houses that compete in them. I had to know more and knowing more led me back to this title. So we bought it and tonight we watched it as RuPaul’s Drag Race draws to a close (finale next week).

I’m not sure what I was expecting from this documentary. On one hand, I knew it would be showing me a culture that I am not at all a part of. I knew that I would be learning new terms and cultural history that I’ve never really been exposed to. In many ways, I expected a lot of the content, but it still felt fresh. Even so clearly dated from the eighties, it felt fresh. Perhaps because it’s new to me. You can know a concept and still not be acquainted with the reality. And this documentary might not have been made by someone from inside the community it documents, but it does present some pretty impressive reality.

The movie has a variety of types of shot. There are interviews with many of the key members of the scene as well as some lesser knowns (at the time – I have no way to judge how successful any of the up-and-coming members ended up being after the filming was over). They tell the viewer about some of the history of ball culture and how it came to be and where it began and how the Houses started and what the current state of it all is at that time. They talk about voguing and shade and realness and fantasy and passing. There’s plenty of footage from what looks like one or two balls, complete with several different costume categories, dancing competitions, arguments over rules, requests for stolen items to be returned, etc. And then there’s footage of many of the people involved just out and about in the city, hanging around with each other, showing off their fabulosity, chatting about why they’re into the scene, what they hope to accomplish and how they live their lives.

It would be incredibly presumptuous of me to try and explain what the documentary explains, but I’ll give the basics. Drag balls as shown in the documentary are sort of competitive parties. Various attendees dress up for different categories and we’re not just talking ballgown and swimsuit here. We’re talking everything from passing as straight (male or female) to specific careers and situations. Executive wear, student wear, high fashion, first time in drag. And that’s just the fashion, though I certainly don’t want to give the impression that it’s at all minimal. It’s fantastic and very clear right from the outset that tons of time and effort and money go into these looks. They’re stolen or created or bought, sometimes at the cost of buying food. This is a big deal. But then on top of it is the dancing. And it is amazing to watch. Madonna’s version is so very tame in comparison to what these folks were doing in a banquet hall in the middle of the night in 1988. Through it all the audience cheers and jeers and gets up close to get a good look at what’s going on. It is utterly unlike anything I have ever seen or lived.

Also unlike my own personal experience are the Houses. They’re described as surrogate families or gay street gangs who fight through dancing and fashion. The Houses have parents who lead the groups, take in new members and help them out. The people in the documentary are mostly African American. Most are gay and many aren’t just drag queens, they’re transsexuals at various stages of transition. They are people whose families have rejected them or who’ve left their families preemptively to avoid rejection. On one hand, I wish there wasn’t such a need for groups like these to form. On the other hand, the need exists and I’m glad that the Houses are there and provide the support and kinship that they do. In an ideal world people’s families wouldn’t reject them for their sexuality or gender identity or for being themselves just because being themselves isn’t “mainstream”. But we don’t live in that world. We live in a world where over twenty years later I know there are still people who need those support networks because they have no others.

So it’s not just about a bunch of drag queens getting together to out-stomp each other in fabulous gowns. It’s about community and family and the difficulty of living day-to-day for most of the people involved and how these balls are their escape and their connection to each other and a common interest and passion. And oh, some of the people in this movie break my heart. Venus Xtravaganza, particularly, who is so clearly talented and determined and amazing, and who was murdered in a hotel room before this documentary was finished. And there are two boys who show up a few times, thirteen and fifteen and hanging out outside one of the balls. I want to know who they were and what happened to them. What they went on to do with their lives because they were so obviously taken with the balls and wanting to be a part of it. The fifteen year old claims his parents are gone and he lives with a friend. And I want to believe he did something amazing but I don’t think they give their names and I don’t know. As is made clear from so many of the people in the documentary, life for many or most of the members of this community isn’t easy.

The trouble I run into with this documentary is that it makes me feel like a voyeur. And really? I am when it comes to a culture like this, so far removed from my own life. I’m a white straight cisgendered woman who grew up in the suburbs. I went to a private school and a small women’s college. I can work a pair of heels, but that’s pretty much the only thing I’ve remotely got in common with anyone on the screen here. And it’s an uncomfortable feeling. But that’s valuable too. Because I’d rather know that there are things outside of my experience than go through life assuming that my experience is universal. Which is likely the point of this documentary being made. But still, it was made by a woman who wasn’t part of the community herself. It wasn’t one of the members of the group who went and got a grant to make a movie about the balls and Houses and culture. It was someone from outside. Which immediately makes it a display. As candid as the interviews are and as real and honest as the footage is, it’s still being put together from the outside. It’s frustrating, because it’s valuable, but it’s also problematic.

Still, I’m glad we have it and I’m glad we watched it. I’m under no illusions that the culture exists for me to take in, regardless of shows like Drag Race. The culture existed then and exists now for the people in it. They are their own audience and their own judges and while many of the people in the documentary say they want to be known in wider circles and achieve fame more akin to, say, RuPaul’s, the balls themselves aren’t there for that. But I am glad I got to see them. I’m glad I know a little more about it all than I did earlier tonight.

April 18, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

The Punisher (1989)

March 24, 2011

The Punisher (1989)

We own an awful lot of movies based on comic book properties. For years I made it my policy to collect anything based on a comic book – it was just a thing I enjoyed doing. It gave me a simple guideline for my purchasing decisions. My point here is that I’ve watched an awful lot of comic book movies, and I feel that I’m pretty familiar with the genre. So I hope you’ll believe me when I say that this movie doesn’t hold to most of the common trends that generally hold true for such films. I find this refreshing, really.

The primary difference between this and most other comic book movies is that it makes no attempt to be an origin story. As the movie begins Frank Castle is already the Punisher. In fact this movie starts where most other comic book movies would end: with the Punisher blowing up the palatial mansion of the crime boss who killed his family. Because this movie isn’t about how the Punisher came to be – it’s about Dolph Lundgren slaughtering hundreds of Mafia and Yakuza killers.

After he kills the mob boss Castle is tipped off by his drunken actor friend that the remaining Mafia families are banding together. He goes to a drug delivery they are accepting at a pier with the intention of killing a bunch of them, but is beaten to the punch by the Yakuza, who are taking advantage of the power void he has created and want to take over the city. Castle has no problem with the two groups going to war and killing eachother off, but when the new head of the Mafia, Gianni, refuses to allow the Yakuza boss, Lady Tanaka, to take control of his territory she has all the Mafia bosses children kidnapped to be sold abroad as slaves. Because Castle is all about punishing the guilty and protecting the innocent, and it is implied that even the children of mob bosses are innocent, he decides to start murdering Yakuza for a change and get the children back.

It’s an odd choice of plot in an odd sort of movie. What, exactly, does Castle plan to do with all these children he’s rescuing? Raise them as his own? Give them to orphanages? By the end of the movie practically none of these children have fathers any more because either the Yakuza or Frank has killed every one of them. I suppose the kids must still have mothers – in theory since the only women we see in this movie are strippers, a single female detective who used to work as a plain clothes detective in the guise of a hooker and the two chief Yakuza bosses.

There’s nothing aside from the character names here that really makes this a punisher movie, per se. It could be any taciturn vigilante in black with a whole mess of guns and knives that have skulls on the pommels. (Speaking of which, how does a disgraced ex-cop living in the sewers get his unlimited supply of knives, ammo and firearms? It’s best not to ask questions like this really.) He doesn’t even have the trademark skull shirt with shell casings for teeth.

It’s a silly movie with a silly plot that’s pretty much just an excuse for a loosely connected series of action scenes full of guns, swords, and lots of death. I enjoyed it from a sort of nostalgic viewpoint of looking at a plotless eighties action movie, but it could never be confused with any of the much better comic book movies in our collection like Iron Man or X-Men. It is, however, unique in being the only movie based on a Marvel property I can think of that wallows in its R-Rating. It’s a reminder of the day when any proper action movie had bare breasts and lots of cursing, comic book characters or no. And starred either Steven Segal, Dolph Lundgren or Arnold Schwarzenegger. I kind of miss those days of big muscled foreign action stars. What happened to those?

March 24, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Robocop

March 23, 2011

Robocop

I can’t believe what a joy it is to be watching this movie again. I have a long history with this movie and I may have watched it more than any other movie we own. I was fifteen years old when this came out and it was only the third R-rated movie I saw in the theater, and the first one rated R for violence. (The first two had been Airplane II: The Sequel and DC Cab – starring Mr. T!) When I first saw it I was horrified by the excessive gore. I was a fairly sensitive fifteen-year-old and seeing Buckaroo Banzai’s hand and arm blown off in vivid detail was difficult for me. The next year, though, we got a VHS copy of Robocop in the AV at my high school. It was one of a few non-educational movies that somehow made it into the AV stacks and my friends and I watched the HELL out of this movie. Over and over and over again. It was almost always on in the background while there was anybody in the AV. (This or Clockwork Orange or Amadeus.) We watched it backwards and forwards. Using the high end editing decks in the AV we stepped through the movie frame by frame. I know every shot, every line, every moment of this movie.

The astonishing thing is that the movie is good enough to withstand that kind of scrutiny. I mean, it’s a Paul Verhoven cheesefest about a cyborg police officer in the not too distance future. It’s full of gratuitous violence, silly spoof ads, drug use and profanity. In spite of all that (and perhaps to some degree because of it) this movie oozes pure cool.

The plot is surprisingly nuanced. Sure there’s the main stupid action movie about a dedicated police officer killed in the line of duty and brought back as a cyborg crime fighting machine, but there’s so much more. There’s cut throat office politics between rival officers in OCP, the corporation that has privatized the Detroit police force and is trying to commercialize on the business of law enforcement. There’s commentary on the business of crime, with none too subtle implications that the chief villain, Dick Jones, sees no difference between criminal enterprises and the world of business. (It’s an eighties thing I think.) There’s also a sort of tragic and haunted feel to Robocop himself as he begins to become aware that he used to have a human life which is lost to him now. All of this is artfully put together in a wonderful script that it both playful and insightful.

Edward Neumeier carefully lays out all the various plot elements in advance so that all the exposition and foreshadowing in the first third of the movie is actually entertaining and all the plot threads fit together very organically. I’d say that it is a perfect example of movie storytelling where every line and action plays a part in setting the stage for future developments. Right from the beginning we know there’s going to be a police strike because we hear the officers talking about it. We’re given several iconic habits that officer Murphy has that will be part of Robocop as well. It’s not a movie that relies on tricks or surprises but rather one that builds steadily towards an inevitable conclusion.

Peter Weller’s performance is one of the highlights. Confined to a restrictive, hot, bulky and heavy suit he is by turns the ultimate badass, a haunted shell of a man, and a vengeful force of nature. That he was able to convey so much with just his mouth showing for most of the movie is a marvelous acting accomplishment.

Indeed everything about Robocop himself is cool. I’d say he’s as awesome today as he was twenty five years ago. The great sound design works with Peter’s determined robotic movements to give him a sense of unstoppable weight. The POV camera they use for him with his DOS based HUD was retro even in 1987. He’s the ultimate super hero, really, pitted against corruption and impossible odds. What’s not to like about that?

Then there’s Verhoven’s direction. It’s his usual mix of oddball satirical humor over the top gore (or over the top nudity in the case of Showgirls) and obscenity, but in this case it clicks. He does a wonderful job of teasing and slowly revealing Robocop. We see him out of the corner of our eye in a television monitor or through warped glass or from behind before the final reveal. The anticipation of discovering what Murphy has become is wonderful, and the montage of crime fighting as he goes about his duty is great fun.

The special effects deserve special note as well. Particularly the integration of the stop-motion ED-209 with the live action. For a stop motion model ED-209 is wonderfully menacing, and surprisingly funny. You have to love the work of Phil Tippett.

God. What a completely fantastic film. And what an iconic one. Look in IMDB at all the pop culture references to this film. It is something that resonated with my entire generation and is firmly entrenched in the public consciousness. I’ve seen this movie so many times that I feel it’s almost a part of the very process of my growing up, it’s a part of my life in a way. I find it gratifying that so many other people have these same associations and this same appreciation for a stand-out and fantastic super hero. Witness the recent efforts to commission a statue in Robocop’s honor to inspire the flagging morale of the city of Detroit. Detroit needs Robocop indeed.

March 23, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | 2 Comments

The Legend of Billie Jean

March 8, 2011

The Legend of Billie Jean

Apparently today is the one hundredth annual international women’s day. As such we’ve decided to put our Grindhouse viewing on hold and watch a movie that is a little more empowering for women. (Not that Rose McGowan with a machine gun for a leg isn’t empowering, but we wanted something a little more meaningful.

If it were not for our movie-a-day project we might never have purchased this movie. It was one of those hard to find out of print gems that we had always intended to own but which was kind of difficult to locate. But when we started evaluating our collection and looking for holes we decided that it was high time we found a copy and bought it. The fact that the VHS copy we eventually found through E-Bay is a little washed out and has slight tracking problems in a couple places actually kind of helps make the viewing a more authentically eighties experience. Because this movie is so very eighties that it almost hurts, so it seems appropriate that our viewing tonight feels like a flash back to the days of well-loved video cassettes rented from a little hole in the wall.

The story here is inspiring. Deliberately so. It tells of a young girl and her brother unjustly hunted by the law and the movement that she inspires. It’s painted as a larger than life story about how one girl refusing to put up with the misogynistic crap that life throws at her can make it possible for so many others to walk in her footsteps.

It all starts with a bike. Billie Jean’s brother Binx has a motor scooter that he loves. When a local bully steals it, trashes it and beats Binx up Billie Jean goes to the bully’s father to demand restitution. What she gets instead is almost molested by the skeevy bastard and only the fact that her brother and friends show up to see what’s taking so long saves her. Unfortunately in the process Binx accidentally shoots the molester and so he and his sister and a couple of their neighbours end up on the run. They repeatedly try to do the right thing, only to have Mr. Pyatt and his son Hubie drive them back into hiding. There’s a well-meaning police detective named Ringwald who knows just what’s going on, but he seems unable to find a way to a peaceful resolution of matters.

All Billie Jean wants is the money to repair her brother’s scooter. She doesn’t want to be an outlaw. She doesn’t want to be a martyr. She’s just standing up for what is right. “Fair’s fair,” after all. Eventually the four kids hide out in what appears to be an empty mansion, where they find a disaffected young rich kid who happens to have a whole lot of AV equipment. Billie Jean cuts off her hair and records a manifesto which they send to all the news outlets. A whole movement is created with girls chopping off their hair in solidarity. But things escalate once more because Lloyd runs away with the gang and it turns out that his father is the local DA and is running for Attorney General.

What makes this movie great for me is the whole popular movement that Billie Jean starts. I love seeing all these girls with their punk hairdos standing up for what’s right. I love the Pat Benatar soundtrack. I love the fantastic cast they have. Helen Slater makes a great stron female lead and looks damned powerful with her short hair. Christian Slater as her brother binx is fun and hardly seems like he’s doing a Jack Nicholson impression at all. There’s Dean Stockwell as Lloyd’s politically motivated absentee father. And my favorite part of the entire movie is Yeardly Smith as the impressionable young Putter who is tagging along. Yeardly apparently has been cast as a young girl her entire adult life. She was twenty one years old here and plays a just barely pubescent teen. And of course she’s been playing an eight-year-old for more than twenty years now. But Putter’s youthful exuberance and fun non-sequiters steal every scene she’s in.

Watching my wife watch this movie was almost as much fun as watching the movie itself. It is so deeply rooted in her teenaged years. A few years back somebody asked me (at the age of 35 or so) what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I replied “Buckaroo Banzai.” I strongly suspect that my wife wants to grow up to be Billie Jean. (Or Emma Peel.)

March 8, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Swamp Thing

March 3, 2011

Swamp Thing

I have bought a lot of comic book based movies over the years. Some of them are spectacular, and some of them are less so. At one point I had made it my mission to buy every movie based on a comic book property that I could find. This is why we have in our collection such jems as Daredevil and Cat Woman. Compared to those I’d say this movie is far more watchable. It’s not a great film, but it doesn’t really have such ambitions. It’s a pleasantly cheesy movie with some rubber monsters that reminds me most of the second Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie.

I’ll admit that I’m not too familiar with the books this movie is based on. I didn’t start following Swamp Thing until the Alan Moore reboot. Moore gave the Swamp Thing a mythical feel – building him up to be an elemental force and defender of the forgotten outskirts of the world. He also tried to create a darker horror themed comic which led to some interesting supernatural stories (and the introduction of a certain John Constantine.) It seems that the earlier Swamp Thing (if this movie is anything to go by) was more of an Incredible Hulk rip off.

Strangely Wes Craven (of Nightmare on Elm Street fame) chose when he adapted the comic for the screen to not really make the Swamp Thing the star of the movie. Maybe it’s that he knew with the make-up available to him at the time (1982) that his creature was going to have almost no ability to emote. Indeed it appears that the actor portraying the beast could barely deliver his lines, much less give a moving performance. So this movie is mostly about a young woman named Alice Cable, and how she was present during the genesis of the Swamp Thing.

I won’t argue with the casting of Adrienne Barbeau (and her cleavage) as the lead character. As a character Cable is actually fairly capable and able to defend herself. As an actress Adrienne manages to make her more than just a damsel in distress with a series of outfits that seem intended to accentuate her bust and disturbingly large eighties hair. I mean that, yes, that is the character she is given to play but it feels like she’s able to make her character more than just eye candy. Cable is some sort of government agent (it’s never quite clear what branch of the government) who is attached to a top secret and high security research project out in the middle of a swamp somewhere. The reclusive scientist heading the project is Alec Holland and he is working on a formula that will allow plants to grow in hostile environments by melding them with animal tissue to give them survival instincts.

No sooner has Alice been introduced to Dr. Holland (and abruptly fallen in love with him apparently) than a group of paramilitary hoodlums under the command of a nefarious mad genius named Arcane show up and sack the lab. They want this plant formula for its obvious applications as a weapon of mass destruction. (You just kind of have to accept some of this. There are a lot of government agents with guns defending these botanical experiments, so I suppose they must have some military applications. Somehow.) During the chaos of the invasion Alec’s sister is killed and he is doused in his formula and left for dead. But he does not die. He becomes a towering muscular plant-man with regenerative abilities and super strength.

The whole rest of the movie is about Arcane and his goons trying to capture Alice (who has the crucial last notebook that will allow them to re-create Alec’s formula) and the Swamp Thing showing up suddenly to toss them around like rag dolls and scream incoherently. Alice flees to a little middle-of-nowhere convenience store and befriends an extremely laid back young clerk by the name of Jude (one of my favorite characters in the movie because of the bizarre and hilarious line deliveries by young Reggie Batts who portrays him.) Then she runs away from the convenience store and back to Alec’s lab. Then from there deeper into the swamp where she takes off all her clothes for a while. And at every turn she and Alec are hounded by doofuses with guns and grenades who have no hope whatsoever of overcoming the unstoppable creature that Alec has become. Until ultimately she and the Swamp Thing are captured and taken back to Arcane’s lair for a completely predictable final showdown.

It’s not a movie that relies on plot twists or clever writing. It’s a movie that relies on rubber monsters, Adrienne’s skimpy (or absent) costumes, and some shootouts and explosions. It’s a care-free eighties monster cheesefest that feels like it could well be a feature length episode of the Incredible Hulk TV show of that era except that the guy in the rubber monster suit of the Swamp Thing isn’t as buff or as expressive as Lou Ferrigno.

You know what? I don’t hate this movie. It’s a silly little diversion that mostly accomplishes everything it sets out to do. It doesn’t have any of the sense of awe or power or larger purpose that I got from the Alan Moore Swamp Thing books, but it’s not supposed to. It’s just supposed to be an eighties adventure movie that keeps you mildly amused for about an hour and a half.

March 3, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 366 – Repo Man

Repo Man – March 1st, 2011

I know I mentioned it yesterday, but I still find it weird to think that we’ve been at this for a year. And what’s really great about it is that I’ve seen so many movies that I’ve always meant to see and never gotten around to. And not just stuff that we already had lying around the apartment. I mean, last night’s movie? Yes, when it came out we meant to see it. When it came out on DVD we meant to see it. We bought it and never put it in. That was the original purpose of this project, to justify owning the movies we own. And then we started buying more and collecting other movies I’d meant to see but which we didn’t own yet. Like this one. A cult classic I must have heard references to a million times and never watched myself.

Now, I’d always been told that this was a weird movie, and make no mistake, it is. It’s about a cadre of repo men, a couple of car thieves, some punks and a van full of quasi-governmental UFO chasers trying to track down a Chevy Malibu that might have aliens in the trunk. Weird is a rather inadequate word for all that. And I think part of the movie’s charm is that it could have been some slick and utterly cheesy sci-fi flick, but it’s not. It’s awkward and gritty and idiosyncratic in just the right combination. There’s something about the tone of it, with the off-hand strangeness of the world it’s set in and the characters who inhabit it, that reminds me of Buckaroo Banzai. It’s all just so matter-of-fact and yet off-kilter. I like that.

The movie follows Otto, a punk kid turned repo man. Otto starts out kind of aimless and really, despite the repo gig he remains aimless. He doesn’t seem to really enjoy the work. He gets shot at, beat up, chased. He doesn’t seem to like most of his coworkers who are, admittedly, a bunch of jerks much of the time. And his old friends are running around town holding up liquor stores and stealing drugs. His parents are stoned all the time and obsessed with some televangelist. Why should he care about anything? Why would he? And really, the same could be said about most of the people in this movie. They all seem to be looking for something to give a damn about, except Leila, a girl Otto meets while he’s driving a car back to the lot. Leila cares about aliens.

The movie bounces back and forth between the various groups involved. The Chevy Malibu changes hands several times, starting with a mysterious man wearing a pair of glasses with one blacked out frame, then the Rodriguez brothers grab it, then the punks grab it from them, then the guy gets it back from the punks, then Otto manages to get behind the wheel, then his coworker, Bud, nabs it. It goes all over, and something is very strange about that car. It’s overheated inside, and the trunk? Well. You don’t want to look in the trunk (in a similar way that you might not want to look inside Rincewind’s Luggage). The UFO chasers show up in the background over and over. Men in white hazmat suits carry off bodies. The punks are all over the place. There’s always something in the background. Someone always shows up from earlier in the movie. It’s oddly insular in the way that small towns are.

The feel of the movie is more than a little surreal, with the generic food and drink everywhere (beer just labeled Beer and the like, including a tin of Food – Beef Flavored) and all of Otto’s beer-named coworkers (Miller, Bud, Lite). It’s like everything’s just off from the center. A little out of focus. A little self-conscious about itself. So even though it’s bouncing around from faction to faction and all, it never quite loses sight of being a movie about a Chevy Malibu and aliens. You can’t make a serious movie about that. It has to have some level of awareness about itself and this movie hits that note just perfectly. It hits every note. Like a John Cage piece. Odd and not played on the instruments you expect and probably unsettling and a little gimmicky but fun all the same.

March 1, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Repo Man

March 1, 2011

Repo Man

I really wanted to watch this movie right after we reviewed Southland Tales, but at the time we didn’t own it. I had seen Repo Man many years ago – some time in the eighties – and it made an impression on me. In particular the iconic crazy ending sequence stuck in my mind and Southland Tales reminded me of it in a lot of ways.

I freely admit that I missed the entire punk scene in the eighties. I knew only the kind of distilled cliche of punk that made it to the mainstream media. Like the annoying guy on the bus in Star Trek IV that Spock does the nerve pinch on. I get the feeling that this movie is a lot closer to the real world of punk, even though it spends most of its time poking fun at the stereotypes. But the whole attitude of the movie, which is kind of a giant raised middle finger to “the man” and the notion of normality, has that rebel air to it. There’s also a kind of edgy zero budget guerrilla film feel to the movie.

It’s a movie about people living on the fringes of society. Our anti-hero “Otto” is a slacker who at the start of the movie gives up on his menial stock-boy job and doesn’t really have any plan for his life. He encounters a repo-man named Bud who believes in a code and has a work ethic, but is using every con and trick he knows to steal cars from deadbeats who are behind on their payments. Bud takes Otto under his wing and tries to show him how to make it in the edgy, fast paced, dangerous world of the professional car repossession business.

All that is fairly normal. But there’s something else going on in this movie. For one thing the world Otto inhabits is one of odd co-incidences. There are running gags like the trio of punks (led by a friend and ex-girlfriend of Otto’s) who rob every convenience store Otto goes in to. There’s Otto’s nerdy friend Kevin who seems to show up in all the oddest places. There’s the fact that all the groceries and consumer products in this world are generic items with white labels and bold blue print. Miller, the mechanic at the lot where Bud and all his repo buddies work, seems well aware of just how strange the world they live in is. He has it all figured out.

Of course the coolest, and strangest, thing in this movie is contained in the trunk of a ‘64 Chevy Malibu that everybody wants to get their hands on. There’s a group of UFO freaks that wants it. There’s a shady MiB group with geiger counters, hazmat suits and a sinister cyborg leader. And there’s a $20,000 bounty on the car so naturally every repo man in LA wants it was well.

The whole charm of this movie is that it’s so incoherent. It is far more lucid than Southland Tales of course (though I still maintain that Southland Tales was in part inspired by this film) but it revels in its own sense of farce. There’s a good deal of wry comedy to the film, but it’s not necessarily played for laughs. Instead it tries to be funny by messing with your head, which is a much cooler way to do it. There are a lot of subtle gags that you won’t necessarily catch on the first viewing, which is cool as well because when your watching this movie you don’t necessarily think of it as subtle.

I miss the drugged out head-trip sci-fi of the eighties. This movie fits right in with Videodrome and The Naked Lunch. Just with a much smaller budget. It’s an edgy, weird micro genre that I don’t think exists any more. That’s kind of too bad.

March 1, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Flash Gordon (1980)

February 18, 2011

Flash Gordon (1980)

Oh the glorious eighties cheese! Dino De Laurentiis take me away. This movie is what you get when you combine the psychedelia of Barbarella, the camp of the old Batman television show, the characters of the Flash Gordon comic strip and serial, and spice it all up with a dash of Brian Blessed and Queen. Pure distilled joy. It’s not a good movie, I freely admit, but it is a wonderful encapsulation of the manufactured excess of the eighties.

I have to wonder what kind of movie these people thought they were making. On the one hand it is a big budget homage to the classic serial and comic strip it is based on. You can see a clear inspiration carried over from the comic strip into the movie in the bright Sunday-paper primary color palette. The space craft look strikingly like those of the serial in design. The characters are almost archetypal they’re so ingrained on the psyche of the 20th and 21st centuries. There’s Dale Arden, Flash’s girlfriend from Earth, ever the damsel in distress. There’s Princess Aura, the heartless conniving daughter of Emperor Ming who can’t resist Flash’s charm. There’s the brilliant Doctor Zarkov who brings Flash and Dale to Mongo. There’s the cold-hearted emperor Ming the Merciless. And of course there’s Flash himself, the lovable lug. About the only liberty the movie takes is that it makes Flash into a famous football star back on Earth. The DVD features the first episode of the 1930s Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon, and it’s fun to see just how faithful to the spirit of those old shorts this movie is.

On the other hand, this movie is just so campy. Maybe it’s the De Laurentiis influence with all the women posing in glittering bikinis. Maybe it’s the ludicrous fight scene in Ming’s throne room where Flash uses his football movies to overcome a phalanx of guards. Maybe it’s Queen’s thrilling, catchy, and oh so literal theme song which plays over the entire climactic battle. (Flash! Ahhhahhh! He’ll save every one of us!) Undoubtedly it is the grinning, hammy, over-done performance of Brian Blessed as Vultan, the prince of the hawk men. There are some slow bits in the middle of this film, but once it gets going and allows itself to be every bit as silly as it could want to be I can’t help grinning from ear to ear.

Oh, and there are so many familiar faces. Brian Blessed of course, but also Timothy Dalton (the first James Bond I saw in the theater would you believe) and Topol (with narry a fiddle in sight) and Richard O’Brien (complete with his hunched RiffRaff walk.) The screen is simply brimming with camp movie legends all vying for attention. Heck, when Ornella Muti first shos up on screen she’s got the inimitable Deep Roy on a leash following her around.

The other star of this movie is the production design. The costumes are inspired. I already mentioned the rich color palette, but there’s a fantastic and stylised look to this film. The different groups of storm troopers for example, from the skull faced inquisitorial troops to the pig men to the imperil guards. There are all the different races conquered by Ming who populate his throne room, each with their own different theme costume. It’s like the gangs from The Warriors attending a model UN – but with a bigger budget. The sets are cavernous and complex, not at all what you would expect from Flash Gordon which I associate with sparse plywood sets. The mad, joyous, insane gaudiness of it all just adds to the movie’s charm.

As we watched this Amanda (with her uncanny ability to recognise actors instantly) spotted the actor who portrayed Lobot, Lando’s cyborg henchman from The Empire Strikes Back, which made me realize just how much this movie shares with that one. It’s not just that they came out in the same year – they have many striking similarities: cloud cities, a swamp planet, a masked henchman of the emperor who is interrupted while meditating/sleeping. There’s one scene where Flash slides down a chute in the hawk-man city which was strikingly reminiscent of Luke sliding down the tubes after leaping to his doom to avoid Darth Vader. Perhaps it is inevitable that the two movies would share so much in common since the Star Wars films were so heavily based on the Flash Gordon serial which also inspired this movie. But come on! This movie even has Porkins in it!

I note in the trivia on IMDB that Kurt Russell was considered for the role of Flash Gordon and turned it down. This raises in my mind one important question: Why does our collection not include Big Trouble in Little China? It would make such a natural follow-up to this movie.

February 18, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

January 19, 2011

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

This movie is cheesy, silly, and ludicrous. And I can’t help loving it. At the start of the movie we are told not just that it was directed by Leonard Nimoy, but that this is a Leonard Nimoy Production. It would appear that unlike the character he is best known for portraying Lenny does actually have a sense of humor. This film is loaded with cute and classic moments, even if its “modern day” setting seems somewhat dated today.

The action in this movie picks up shortly after that in the third film with Kirk and his crew still on Vulcan preparing for their return journey in their hijacked bird of prey while on Earth the Galactic Council is preparing to court martial Kirk and all for their theft of the Enterprise. Very soon, however a mysterious alien probe with unimaginable power appears and makes a beeline directly towards Earth, disabling every ship in its path with some mysterious and powerful energy signal. Who can possibly save the planet? (Again?)

The Enterprise crew (well the Bounty crew since they’re not on the Enterprise any more) figure out that the massive alien signal (which is ionising the Earth’s atmosphere and boiling its oceans) is whalesong – specifically the song of the humpback whale. Unfortunately the humpback whale was hunted to extinction in the twenty-first century, so naturally the only solution is for the Bounty to fly into the past – going back to the nineteen eighties to find and recover some whales and bring them back to the future.

The notion of time travel is nothing new to the Star Trek universe (I could remember two episodes of the original series that involved it and a little research reveals a third) but what’s fun about this movie is that the time travel is not so much a serious plot device as it is a set up for a series of gags about how out of place the folks from the future are when in San Francisco in the Eighties. It’s fertile ground and they mine it well. As we watched tonight I found myself chortling with glee and quoting many of the great lines in anticipation. “A double dumbass on you!” “He might have done a little too much LDS.” and of course “We are looking for the nuclear wessels.” This movie may not be serious science fiction or even great drama like Khan was, but it is pure unadulterated fun.

This movie is filled with joy. Even Leonard Rosenman’s score is playful, bouncy and upbeat. It’s always fun when Star Trek explores it’s lighter side, and as a result this is among my favorite Star Trek films. Tomorrow: the nadir of the movie series and a movie I have not seen all the way through since I first saw it on opening night in the theaters. With good reason.

January 19, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Movie 307 – Megaforce

Megaforce – January 1st, 2011

I will admit, I am feeling burnt out. Maybe it was last night’s movie and the vast amounts of analysis on it that I’ve avoided reading. Maybe it’s that we’ve been at this for over 300 days without a break, even through PAX East and a late evening trip to the ER. We’re two months away from spending a year doing this and even then we’ll probably still have around 200 movies to go (I’m betting on us getting another fifteen to twenty movies between now and then). In some ways it’s more daunting to look at from here than it was when we started. There’s something about knowing just how much we’ve done and how much there still is to go.

But still! We have a movie to watch, and we had to pick something for New Year’s Day. Something to set the tone for the year. What better than something picked up out of the bargain bin at the video store we used to work at? Starring Persis Khambatta, Barry Bostwick and Henry Silva? Something that we thought was a retitling of the done-by-MST3K Warrior of the Lost World (which we do plan on purchasing) until we read the cast? Really, it’s perfect, for the same reason Sharks in Venice was perfect for our anniversary. Watching this, I cannot believe we own it and it doesn’t have some professional movie riffers providing commentary.

I should clarify that this movie really isn’t much like Warrior of the Lost World at all, aside from the super motorcycle and Persis Khambatta and general freedom fighters against fascists story. But only in general. In particular it’s about a couple of representatives of some foreign army going to find Megaforce, a secret mercenary group that fights for causes of freedom and whatnot, to hire them to help them fight the invading Duke Guerara. Where is this all happening? Who cares. It’s happening somewhere. Somewhere that needs help from Ace Hunter and his band of super soldiers.

We’re not entirely certain of the geography of this movie. It was all filmed in Nevada and it’s pretty obvious. It’s all desert. The names of the fictional countries at war are unclear (Sardoon and Golibia? Gomibia? Our VHS copy’s soundtrack just isn’t clear enough there for us to be sure) but we can be certain that they have desert! We just don’t know where that desert is. Not that it matters! They’re not really at war, though. The evil country is raiding the good country and blowing up their factories and kidnapping their people, but the good country can’t prove anything and can’t cross the border since that’ll be an overt act of war. So they call in Megaforce and Megaforce heads in and… all but crosses the border, which would be an overt act of war, so the whole thing gets called off after a skirmish and then there’s a flying motorcycle. I am not in any way simplifying things here. There’s a short battle with explosions, and then the good country’s military leaders show up and tell Ace Hunter that they’ll have to call it off so they don’t start a war. Megaforce has to carefully pull out in such a way that they don’t start a war or get ambushed by the bad guys and Ace Hunter ends up flying his motorcycle onto a plane to get out in time.

Oh, and Ace Hunter knows Duke Guerera. Obviously! They’re old buddies who are now enemies, apparently because of a stolen lighter? Who knows. Who cares! Henry Silva plays Guerera and chews scenery like his life depends on it. Henry Silva, for all your Henry Silva needs! Barry Bostwick plays Ace Hunter with a similar level of mastication and the two of them ham it up together, slapping each other’s backs and trading knowing barbs worthy of the best Toblerones. Silva, in particular, has some great “You magnificent bastard!” laughing moments at the end. It’s this bizarre high stakes friendly military rivalry. The whole second half of the movie is devoted to this odd set-up with the not-a-war and lots of explosions and mini rockets and flashy motorcycles and dune buggies and rainbow colored smoke screens. The first half of the movie, on the other hand. Oh, the first half of the movie.

The first half of the movie is the introduction of Megaforce. They’re a rather diverse group of elite soldiers living in a secret base in the desert (of course) with all sorts of high tech equipment. When we get there we meet Dallas, the cowboy comic relief (played by Michael Beck from The Warriors) and a number of other members of the group, all different ethnicities and possibly nationalities but I admit I never caught some of their shoulder flags – and I’ll get to the shoulder flags in a moment. One in particular made us grin as he’s played by Evan Kim, whom we know best from Kentucky Fried Movie. The Megaforce base has a huge hangar, lots of computers and also a classy restaurant with candlesticks and carpets. It’s so incredibly and hilariously over the top, it’s fantastic. It’s definitely a case of so bad it’s good, what with the cheese and effects and all.

Now, do I have some somewhat serious issues with the movie outside of the cheesy production values and script and the overwrought soundtrack and laughable effects? Yes, yes I do. It is a plot point that Hunter assumes Khambatta’s character, Major Zara, is totally useless and couldn’t possibly be combat trained. Of course she proves him wrong, in a lengthy montage of combat skill tests. And of course they apparently fall in love during said tests, as evidenced by the mid-air skydiving romance and the fact that even when he flat out tells her that he’s been wasting her time cause he’s not letting her come on the mission anyhow cause she’d be distracting, she’s all “Oh, I understand, cause you’re dreamy!” Whatever. It’s not like I expected gender equality here.

See, the thing is, I go into a movie like this expecting cheese. I expect a thoroughly ridiculous action movie full of stereotypes and unfunny comic relief and bad acting and stilted writing. And I don’t expect equality, as I said. But it’s like the movie went out of its way to kick me in the ovaries. I expect it’s horribly offensive in other ways too, what with the bad guy with the bad German accent and all. Oh, and there’s a Stargate sort of deal going on with all the Megaforce soldiers having their nation-of-origin’s flags on their shoulders (alas, while I could tell that some of them weren’t the USA flag I also couldn’t quite identify them in the quick glance I got), but the stereotypical cowboy, Dallas? He gets the Confederate flag. What do you even say to that?

I really wish that the sexism hadn’t been so blatant and that they’d left the flags off the uniforms because without them this would be a ridiculous but fun piece of 80s action cheese. With them, it’s frustrating. They’re little things in the grand scheme of the movie (the flags aren’t visible most of the time and the stuff with poor super competent but Y-chromosome-challenged Major Zara is done halfway through and does involve Zara kicking ass), but they leave a sour taste in my mouth. I want to love this utterly laughable movie without reservation in the way I love Sharks in Venice. But I can’t. I’ll have to ignore bits in order to love it. And I can! Because I’m willing to move past the offensive crap to embrace the cheesy crap. When a movie ends on the line “The good guys always win. Even in the Eighties!” I can cope with compartmentalizing the movie. So, even with my reservations, I’ve got to say this was the right movie to watch tonight. It was weird and ridiculous and fun, but I could also bitch about it a little, and thoroughly justifiably I believe. And it made me laugh. We own this. We own this movie and now we have watched it.

January 1, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment