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

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Golden Queen's Commando (1982)

I honestly cannot remember if the first eyepatch-sporting character I ever encountered and became fascinated with was Snake Plissken or Nick Fury (and even though I love Fury, the edge for me goes to Plissken as far as which I favor more).  Unlike with, say, pirates (where it’s somewhat of a symbol of shame and a life of debauchery), an eyepatch on an antihero (and when it isn’t used on a villain to augment their inhumanity it is a very distinctly antiheroic visual motif) garners a sense of respect.  It’s a symbol that the character has led a hard life, survived a terrific ordeal, and now has a badge of honor to prove their fortitude.  

The same applies to eyepatch-wearing women characters, though for some reason (perhaps just the tendency of the male psyche to have some slight pity on women who are pronouncedly imperfect, right or wrong, wanted or unwanted) here it also implies a sense of victimhood, and to my mind this is even more badass, the respect even more hard-won.  Here are some quick examples off the top of my head: Ana de Mendoza (Olivia de Havilland) from That Lady (the first onscreen example?), Frigga (Christina Lindberg) from Thriller - En Grym Film (arguably the most popular/instantly recognizable example), Patch (Monica Gayle) from Switchblade Sisters, Eden Sinclair (Rhona Mitra) from Doomsday, Elle Driver (Darryl Hannah) from the Kill Bill films, and Molotov Cocktease (voiced by Mia Barron) from Venture Bros.  All of these characters have some masculine traits, yet they still somehow maintain a strong core of femininity.  If nothing else, they all take charge and do things their own way, because being passive only leads to pain, as the back story (implicit or explicit) behind the patch suggests.  I can now happily add to this very short, very incomplete list Black Fox (played by Brigitte Linn, here credited as Venus Lin), the distaff Major Reisman of Yen-Ping Chu’s Golden Queen’s Commando (aka Hong Fen Bing Tuan aka Seven Black Heroines aka Amazon Commandos aka Jackie Chan’s Crime Force).

Six women (Amazon [Theresa Tsui], Black Cat [Elsa Yeung], Brandy [Hilda Liu], Quick Silver [Sylvia Peng], Sugar Plum [Sophia Ching], and Dynamite [Sally Yeh]) are sentenced to a very claustrophobic prison camp, circa 1944 (by way of 1982, naturally).  The aforementioned Black Fox shows up and embroils the women in a plot to destroy a heavily fortified secret chemical lab.

Since the above synopsis doesn’t completely do justice to these ladies, allow me to expand a bit on their individuality (as the film itself does with rather extensive introductions for each of them).  Amazon appears at a death match where some guy has just torn the throat out of his opponent with a set of spiked knuckles.  Wearing nothing but an animal print bikini and sporting several (I can only guess they’re supposed to be) tribal tattoos, she of course kills the fighter.  Amazon doesn’t say a single word the entire film, but she’s the brute strength of the team.  Black Cat is a gunslinger who may or may not be extremely religious (she wears a giant cross around her neck and sports a “trick” Bible), has David Bowie’s hairdo from Labyrinth and Dale Bozzio’s makeup sense (both of which were extremely popular during the Forties, as I understand it).  She gets caught cheating at poker and winds up shooting the other player.  Brandy is a lady samurai who begs for the money to buy wine.  Once she gets it, along with some unwanted groping and humiliation from some typically piggish drunken soldiers, she transforms into an acrobatic martial arts master and kills the men who tormented her.  Quick Silver is a thief with the fashion stylings of a 1930s gangster who we assume can break any safe and/or pick any lock.  Ever the kleptomaniac, she gets caught trying to steal the necklace right off of a slumbering French consul.  Sugar Plum is a hooker of the Southern Belle variety.  She gets shorted money after playing out an overly elaborate fantasy for some clown of a client and proves that Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.  She also sports a couple of facial tattoos, one of a heart, one of a bow and arrow (a Cupid reference?).  Dynamite is a bandit (I think) who routinely wears (you guessed it) dynamite on her person to avoid being shot.  When a deal she had in place goes sour, she nonchalantly blows up the house with the men who screwed her over still in it.  She also sports a tied off denim shirt and jorts.  Aside from her distinctive eyepatch, Black Fox dons a fur hat and vest that makes her vaguely resemble a Cossack.  How’s that for an assortment?

This film is purely a vehicle for women to kick ass, and they do it very well.  They are up against either evil, evil men or complete buffoons.  The Commandant of the prison camp (Hsiu-Shen Liang), aside from being in league with the Nazis, is both a rather charming sadist and a James-Bond-esque, cat-stroking villain.  After a prisoner is fried by the electrified fence/wall encircling the camp, the Commandant asserts that they are all one “big, happy family.”  He then demonstrates that his tower guards are expert marksmen, and that if they fail in killing escapees, they also will die.  All of the bad guys in Golden Queen’s Commando are smug, and they are all equally well-versed in the art of the heartless cackle.  

Conversely, the Warlord (Bat-Liu Hui) who captures the women is a clod (as well as all of his men, one of whom is, of course, named Fatty).  The women challenge him to a tournament to compete for their freedom.  Said competition includes (but is not limited to) a spaghetti-eating contest (guess who the male contestant is), a drunken sharpshooting contest, and a blindfolded marksmanship contest.  This last bit really nails home the point of just how inept the Warlord and his men are.  The balloons being used as targets are rigged to explode and inevitably do so at just the right moment to embarrass them.  But he unites with the commandos, and he becomes the sole witness to their bravery and sacrifice.  His perspective on them turns, and it’s he, as a sort of audience surrogate, who comes to understand the innate bond the disparate women formed (despite their differences, tensions, et cetera).

Chu’s movie is flawed, to be sure.  The mission portion of the film is extensively just the women fleeing their captors, and the plotting gets muddled around the midpoint before speeding up to fly through its climax, giving the final set piece short shrift.  That said, it also spends the entire first half of its runtime establishing the characters and dealing with situations in the prison camp, and this is key in getting us to follow characters that are simultaneously cartoonishly broad and strangely sympathetic.  The seven women are distinct (the possible exception being Amazon, who, in fairness, is just kind of there).  Quick Silver is scared, unsure of herself.  Sugar Plum is a crass opportunist.  Black Cat is an equal to Black Fox (cat and dog, get it?), and challenges her to a duel to prove her worthiness as leader (and also to see who’s better).  Brandy is an alcoholic who routinely puts herself in harm’s way to feed her addiction.  Dynamite is a cold pragmatist who still flirts with danger (how else to explain her fetishization of explosives?).  Black Fox is supposedly the aloof mastermind, but she still openly displays true concern for her teammates.  

Nevertheless, this is an action film, and it plays well in that regard.  There is a comfortable mixture of explosions, gunplay, and martial arts, and they flow together admirably.  Visually, Golden Queen’s Commando is quite stylish, making solid use of lighting, composition, slow motion (especially the shots of the pursuers on horseback, which give a distinct, otherworldly sense that they’re riding forth straight out of Hell), and editing that’s much more cohesive then you get with some Asian genre cinema.  In the end, the film is a comic book come to life, a jumbo box of your favorite candy with no repercussions, and weird sex with one of the more fascinating people you’ve ever met, all rolled into one.

MVT:  The women take it away in this one.  I wanted more and more of all of them (and not just because they’re all attractive).

Make or Break:  All of the girls’ introductions are great little mini-set pieces punctuated by freeze frames with title cards and stats of what they each did and their punishments.  Good fun.

Score:  7.5/10