Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Gladiator Cop (1995)

A museum tour is halted at its centerpiece, the sword of Alexander the Great, by Chris Kilos (George Touliatos), a weird, old man who is obsessed with the sword and its fabled ability to protect its wielder.  Using Machiavellian levels of deception (read: he gets a guard to fetch him something while he rigs the security system), Kilos’ muscle manage to steal the sword without a whit of subtlety but the loss of life of several people.  Not understanding the true nature of the sword (even though we’re supposed to think he does, because his knowledge of Alexander the Great is kind of part of the reason why he was fascinated by the weapon in the first place), Kilos uses the sword, as wielded by his henchman Jodar (Christopher Lee Clements), to make a mint in illegal, underground death matches.  Oh, psychic cop Andrew Garrett (Lorenzo Lamas) and museum curator Julie (Claire Stansfield) are tepid on Kilos’ trail, too.

Nick Rotundo’s Gladiator Cop is rather ambitious, on paper at least.  It’s set up as a story about destiny in line with something like The Sword in the Stone (or Matt Wagner’s Mage comic book series), replete with magic blade.  It has elements of reincarnation and revenge.  It has a psychic police officer, who you would think was an absolute boon to the department, but in reality is not so much.  It has blood sports aplenty, engaged in by colorful (yet somehow still bland) characters like The Angel of Death (Gary Goodridge), The Butcher (Howard Putterman), and (most importantly) Mongol (Garry Robbins).  Yet, it’s this last component in which the film has any real interest.  The movie feels like time killer scenes interspersed between scenes of gladiatorial combat (which are longer [or feel longer] and are handled with more care than the non-action scenes).    

Andrew is alerted to the museum break-in, not by his partner (or I assume it’s his partner, since they work together when it’s convenient for them to do so in a scene) Leo (Frank Anderson), but by Julie, whose relationship to Andrew we have absolutely zero information about (and at first, I assumed she was his partner).  Andrew appears to have absolutely no responsibilities around his precinct, and he dives into this investigation (despite some very light admonishment not to; and this doesn’t even come from his moderately tempered black captain, played by Eugene Clark) alongside Julie, which makes no sense in the slightest, seeing as how at this point there is no reason he needs to keep her near him and under guard, and she most likely wouldn’t know sweet fuck-all about how to maneuver around a crime scene (not to mention morgues typically make for bad dates).  Their love scene is completely unmotivated and abruptly inserted (no pun intended).  We simply cut to them sliding into bed together, but the worst part of it all is that the scene is entirely non-titillating.  All of this is filler until Andrew finally gets his hands on the sword and enters the arena/abandoned factory.  And even then, the film pays off none of what it promises in its plot segments.  I could get behind a hodgepodge of a film if the filmmakers at least try to link their plot points together.  But all Gladiator Cop leaves you with is the dots with no numbers and no pencil with which to connect them.  

Andrew is an incomplete man.  The first time we see him, it is in a dream where he sees himself being killed (or maybe just stabbed, though the implication is heavy on the former) on a very loosely decorated Ancient Greek set (it looks like something out of a Heart music video, circa 1985).  If the notion of Alexander the Great’s belief in reincarnation and our hero’s introductory scene don’t clue you in to what I’m sure the writers thought was a huge twist, you’ve probably not seen very many movies.  Still, I like the idea that Andrew is meant to be together with the sword, that he needs it.  In some ways, he embodies the duality of the warrior and the artist.  He keeps a dream journal, in which he draws what he remembers.  He’s also psychic, the implication being that he has a certain sensitivity, since when he reaches out with this power, he is affected on both a physical and an emotional level.  He even flashes back to his past life while fencing, an indication that he is a born blade wielder; he’s just stuck with the wrong blade (for now).  Of course, he also works as a police officer, a modern equivocation with the classic warrior ideal.  However, he needs Alexander’s sword specifically in order to sync these two sides up with each other, to become whole.  

Amazingly, Kilos has no interest in the sword as anything other than a means to make money (which, in turn, allows him to hire pricey hookers), especially since he claims to believe in the true power the sword has.  He doesn’t care who wields the sword for him, and we have no clue as to why Jodar was chosen as his champion in the first place.  On the other side, there is Parmenion (James Hong) who knows a lot more about the sword than anyone else, and has a close link to Andrew’s past (hint: you’ll never guess what it is from the flashback sequences).  About Kilos’ exercising the sword’s might, Parmenion says “He has the right sword but not the right man.”  And even here, Parmenion’s motivations aren’t displayed as being about the eternal struggle between good and evil.  They’re actually quite silly (considering the circumstances), and my mind boggles as to why he went to all this effort in order to reach this end.

Continuing with my harping, Andrew is an extremely passive protagonist.  He makes almost no major discoveries in the course of his investigation.  He doesn’t even take his job all that seriously.  One example of this is when Julie tells Andrew that she wants to go to the museum, but he says no because it’s too dangerous.  But after she suggests they look at more of Andrew’s dream journal instead, he says he’ll get Leo to drive her there (jocularity!).  As if Andrew has something better to do at this point in time (which we don’t see him doing, regardless).  Further, the next scene at the museum involves Julie and Kilos, with Leo (her supposed bodyguard) nowhere in sight.  This passivity is the film’s biggest detriment.  Andrew is just there.  He doesn’t partake in the plot.  He doesn’t move the story forward.  His sole purpose is to make it to the end fight, but by that point, I honestly couldn’t give a shit whether he lived or died.  Furthermore, there is no denouement after all this has been piled up in front of us.  There are no clarifications, no tying up of loose threads (of which there are plenty); just a cut to the end titles.  If filmmakers don’t care enough to give a viewer a complete film, I don’t think it’s too much to suggest that the viewer shouldn’t have to give them their full attention.  Maybe if you don’t, you’ll enjoy Gladiator Cop more than I did.

MVT:  The basic ideas in the film are solid, and there are a lot of intriguing ways they could have played out.  But they didn’t.

Make or Break:  The opening burglary scene was actually quite impressive, and it got my expectations falsely heightened for a good, little, low budget action film.  For a hook/inciting incident, it does its job admirably.  

Score:  5.5/10         

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Caveman (1981)

When I first considered reviewing Carl Gottlieb’s (co-screenwriter of JAWS) Caveman, I immediately thought of it in terms of comparisons to Eddie Cline and Buster Keaton’s Three Ages with the latter’s Stone Age segment.  I also assumed that the 1923 film was the earliest cinematic depiction of cavemen in comedic fashion (however, cavemen have been beating up dinosaurs in an adventurous vein on screen going, to my knowledge, as far back as 1912 in Man’s Genesis).  To absolutely no one’s surprise, I was wrong, and (to the best information my five minutes of research could cull) the earliest funny caveman movie was Charlie Chaplin’s 1914 short His Prehistoric Past (although it is feasible to disqualify it from this particular discussion, because it’s a short film [the same could be argued about the Keaton film, since that one is three short films cut together, but I digress], and because it’s not a straight up caveman film [I’ll let you spoil the particulars on this hundred-and-one year old film for yourself]).  Still, both of those films and Caveman (and the vast majority of prehistoric films) deal with a man standing up to a strong, evil tribal leader/rival in order to win the hand of the woman he loves (whether or not he realizes who that is).  To my mind, the reason this plot is so pervasive is because it is simple and primal.  It deals with the will to survive/dominate one’s world, and what could play to that better than killing giant beasts and taking the person you desire sexually?  Naturally, unlike something such as Don Chaffey’s One Million Years B.C. (which, of course, gave us arguably the world’s most famous fur bikini), Gottlieb’s film has to frustrate our protagonist Atouk (the unlikely, but brilliantly cast when you think about it, Ringo Starr) in comedic ways, even when his life is threatened.  But the basic themes are present, and they work well (as they work well in most of the subgenre just for being what they are).

Atouk is the runt of a clan ruled by Tonda (the late John Matuszak), and he desires Tonda’s voluptuous woman Lana (Starr’s real life spouse Barbara Bach, who proves here that even cavewomen knew how to crimp hair).  However, after being kicked out of the clan on a trumped up gross incompetence accusation, Atouk and friend Lar (Dennis Quaid), meet up with Tala (Shelley Long) and her blind friend, the elderly Gog (Jack Gilford, who, unsurprisingly threatens to steal the entire movie at times).  But while Tala has eyes for Atouk, Atouk still pines for Lana and hatches schemes to take her away from Tonda.

Caveman is one of those movies that exemplifies just exactly how far a PG rating could be stretched back in the early Eighties.  There is cleavage and fur-clad bums thither and yon.  There is toilet humor galore, including, but not limited to, an explosive fart gag, a fart in the face gag, and (most famously) a scene where characters literally dig through a pile of dinosaur shit.  Atouk gets goosed and molested by a sentient plant.  A dinosaur gets its genitals stimulated.  Perhaps most startling, our hero basically Rufies his desired and tries to get in her loins while she’s passed out.  Yet, this is handled so innocently, so desperately on the part of Atouk/Starr that it doesn’t play as offensively as it could have in another context.  Atouk genuinely has feelings for Lana (however wrongheaded they may be), and he has a sense of wide-eyed reverence for her (he offers her fruit he has squirreled away, while the rest of the tribe has failed to “bring home the Bronto”).  That I saw this at such an early age amazes me (well, not really; this would have attracted me just from the Chris Walas designed Abominable Snowman [played by Richard Moll] and David Allen’s stop motion dinosaurs [an obsession I’ve had since 1933’s King Kong and set in stone by The Valley of Gwangi, a film my uncle claims was made for kids who like to pull the wings off of flies, though I only half agree with that statement]).  That I understood all of it, including the “naughty” bits, is impressive and indicative of just how much can be conveyed through an extremely limited vocabulary (I still like saying “zug zug” from time to time), and pantomime/gestures (a filmic vocabulary created and refined in the silent era by luminaries such as those named in the first paragraph).

The film’s primary theme concerns itself with misfits and the coalition/power built around what many consider to be the dregs of society (yet another in the long, long list of things that I would argue harkens back to Tod Browning’s superlative Freaks).  As previously stated, Atouk is a runt.  Lar, who is good-looking and in relatively good health, is kicked out of the clan for hurting his leg (a wounded hunter-gatherer is a useless hunter-gatherer).  Gog is sightless and old.  Later on, Atouk will meet up with a black man, an Asian man (who, of course, is the only one who can speak fluent English), a little man, a gay couple, and various other throwaways.  Outside of those more clearly defined in their outsider status, the majority of the others in this makeshift tribe are closer in resemblance to Atouk.  They are slight of build, odd, shorter than normal, essentially square pegs.  Just as Atouk is the opposite of Tonda (weak versus strong, short versus tall, Ringo versus handsome, et cetera), Tala is the opposite of Lana.  She is blonde, skinny, small-chested, and quite intelligent (Lana may be intelligent as well, but her unwavering obeisance to Tonda marks her as a sheep, not a shepherd, so to speak).  In cinematic terms, this signifies Tala as “good” and the natural choice to be Atouk’s mate (in a Betty versus Veronica sort of way).  Atouk just needs to have his eyes opened, because even though he accepts these oddballs who have coalesced around him, his desire lies with the popular opinion of what a man should be and should want in a woman (be they cave or otherwise, and rather ironic considering Starr and Bach’s relationship off screen, but this is the movies where there is little difference between what’s “right” and what choices its traditional, underdog protagonist will make).  Atouk doesn’t want to be a misfit (hey, who does?), yet this is the exact thing he must embrace in order to triumph in his prehistoric world.

Caveman was released in America on DVD and Blu-ray via Olive Films, and it’s presented at 1.85:1 ratio.  The color palette of the film was never something that popped off the screen, but its hues look nice here, and the picture quality is as pristine as it can get.  The mono soundtrack is in English only (not that this movie would need much in the way of dubbing or subtitles), and it’s satisfying with every grunt and gaseous expulsion coming through loud and clear, but especially Lalo Schifrin’s jaunty score, which is so catchy, it will resound in your head for days (nay, years) after hearing it.  The disc includes a trailer for the film.

MVT:  I love the film’s light, slightly naughty tone.  You can slip into this film like a comfy pair of old slippers and just enjoy it like a pot of macaroni and cheese.

Make or Break:  The Make for me is the Ice Age scene.  Anyone who has read my reviews knows of my adoration for hirsute monsters, and the Snowman is a great costume.  Plus, the slapstick chase across the ice just works in spades, like something out of a Three Stooges short.  Sold!

Score:  7.5/10

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Third Man (1949)

Directed by: Carol Reed
Runtime: 104 minutes

For something completely different I decided to review something that is both classic and classy. Luckily The Third Man does not disappoint on either of those criteria and it is not another direct to dvd Dungeons and Dragons sequel.

The opening of this movie threw me as I was not expecting a happy opening. I was expecting sinister or dark music and the tension being built up. Instead the soundtrack is happy zither music and Orson Welles giving a voice over as Harry Lime. Harry demonstrates how much of a likable bastard he is by talking about Vienna (circa 1946), the black market and his contempt of the military police that patrol the four sectors of Vienna. All while showing the ugly reality of post war Vienna black market.

The movie then transitions to the train station in the American sector. Holly Martins, a unemployed pulp western writer, arrives in Vienna on the invitation of Harry Lime. He came all that way because Harry promised him a job. However, Harry is not at the station to meet him and after walking to his apartment he learns that he is just in time for Harry's funeral.

Holly arrives at the funeral just in time to see Harry's casket lowered and to meet the rest of the cast. There is Anna, Harry's lover, Dr. Winkle and Baron Kurtz, Harry's former business partners, and Major Calloway and Sgt. Paine, British Military Police. The good Major Calloway starts Holly journey of investigating Harry Lime's web by giving him a lift to the nearest bar, getting him drunk, and interrogating Holly badly. This sets Holly in motion to find out what really happened to Harry Lime.

As Holly probes into Harry's life, we learn that Harry is a complex and interesting person. We also learn that Harry is the kind of bastard that would sell watered down penicillin during a meningitis outbreak because it would up his profit margin. The more Holly learns about Harry and post war Vienna, the more confused and horrified he becomes.

Normally I would write about the rest of the plot but I rather not for two reasons. One, this is a good movie that has relevance today and is worth watching. And two, you will find at least twenty better written reviews of this film.

So yes go watch this film by all means it is a great film.

MVT: At one point Major Calloway shows Holly the mountain of evidence they have against Harry in an impressive montage. Unlike the CSI shows were all the evidence they need is half an eyelash to arrest the criminal of the week.

Make or Break: What made this movie for me was the way it slowly and subtlety builds tension. This kept me interested in the movie. As for what broke me out of the film was the dutch angles. I know a dutch angle is to show the viewer there is something wrong the actions in the scene. However, I was getting flash backs of Battlefield Earth and was waiting for something stupid to happen.

Score: 8.08 out of 10

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Unholy Rollers (1972)

Sometimes it’s fun to watch movies (especially older, low budget genre movies) when you’re really tired.  I’m talking barely keeping your eyes open, oncoming coma-nap tired.  You may wonder why that would be a state you’d want to be in, since sleeping through a film is antithetical to the whole movie-going experience (and in fact, a great many experiences, believe it or not).  The answer lies in the narrow space between consciousness and unconsciousness.  As your lids grow heavy, and the snap of the film’s soundtrack crackles from your television like a siren song, your mind enters a sort of waking dream state, and you feel as if you’re watching the movie from your childhood perspective (at least, that’s the way it works for me).  This feeling recalls the lazy Saturday afternoons watching creature double features and martial arts marathons.  It is, in my opinion, the closest I will ever come to actual time travel, and the beauty part is, it’s time travel back to the good times in my life (not to say I’ve lived a miserable life, but I prefer the ups to the downs, don’t you?).  It’s like a drug that gives you a few minutes of the purest nostalgia, and it never feels false.  Granted, it doesn’t happen all the time, and sometimes when you watch a film while exhausted all you do is pass out, but when the pieces all fall into place, it’s a marvelous sensation made all the more valuable by its transience.  I’ve heard tell that some people like to do the same thing while having sex (under the influence of certain chemicals, since if anything should keep you awake, I’d think it would be a right, good rogering), and while I haven’t undertaken that specific adventure, I can definitely understand its appeal.

Karen (the late, great Claudia Jennings) works in a cat food factory and loves watching her favorite roller derby team, The Avengers (just not at the same time).  After walking out on her job, however, she needs some new employment, so she decides to try out for (and obviously manages to get on) her beloved squad.  Karen’s personality clashes with everyone around her, and as her star ascends, her life declines.

I think it is interesting to note that Vernon Zimmerman’s Unholy Rollers lists a certain Martin Scorsese as Supervising Editor (something I’m sure most reviews of this film emphasize, and I’m clearly no different).  Naturally, Scorsese (to my knowledge) had no hand in the screenwriting process or the actual production of the film, but on some level he would have to have contributed to forming the film during the post-production process (how much, I couldn’t say, so let’s just accept that what I’m saying here is possibly tenuous or even a conceivable flight of fancy).  With this in mind, the film is loose in structure, nonlinear.  There is a narrative at play, but it doesn’t move from A to B to C.  Elements are dropped into the film and then forgotten, and then maybe later on they’ll be reintroduced, and maybe they won’t.  This is the same sort of approach to structure that can be observed in films like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and even The Wolf of Wall Street.  Since 1972 was the same year Scorsese directed Boxcar Bertha for Roger Corman and American International Pictures, I think it would be fair to say that there’s an argument to be made about the connections between this film’s approach to its story and that director (though any detailed discussion should likely be reserved for a more thoroughly researched, in-depth investigation than we’ll take here).

It’s this nonlinear style that I would suggest elevates Unholy Rollers slightly above this type of genre fare being produced at this point in history.  The film takes chances, and it doesn’t fill in all the blanks for the audience, who then have to either make connections for themselves or accept (or dismiss) what they’re seeing at face value.  One of the key moments exemplifying this is when Karen visits her mother (played by the legendary Kathleen Freeman).  We know instantly that their relationship is rocky at best, and that Karen is at a point where she is desperate for someone to reach out to (Karen’s mother doesn’t even smile upon seeing her daughter, and would rather wrap her lips around a cigarette than kiss her overeager child).  The scene takes a turn when (childhood?) friend Duane (Dennis Redfield) shows up to say hello.  One of his arms is crippled, but we’re given no indication of how this happened (In Vietnam?  In a car accident?  Was Karen involved?).  Karen’s mood suddenly changes, and she makes excuses to leave, now realizing that you can’t go home again, literally and figuratively.  This is the first and the last time that either of these supporting characters are seen or spoken of at all in the film, but I believe they are participants in the most important moments in it.  Not all of the film’s scenes have the impact of this one, but what they do is produce a cumulative effect in delineating Karen’s character and charting the arc of her story (which we can read as the arc of her life), and it does it quite well.

Outside of very rough notions, I have little-to-no direct knowledge of the sport of roller derby.  I know (or deduced from a throwaway line of dialogue about the game not being this exciting for thirty-five years) that it has been around since the late Thirties/early Forties, that it involves people skating in a circle, and that one of them scores points while the others throw elbows (massive generalizations, I know).  In that way, I used to think of it kind of as NASCAR without the vehicles (and indoors).  Color me surprised when Unholy Rollers describes the game as being as flamboyantly spectacle-driven as pro wrestling (something I loved for a few years in my youth).  Team managers (coaches?) Horace McKay (John Mitchell) and Angie Striker (Maxine Gates) trot around the infield, gesticulating and yelling, dressed in eye-searing outfits (think: “Classy” Freddie Blassie).  Horace regularly enjoys getting the boot in on the opposing players, either personally or through Demons’ (the “bad” team he leads) henchman/mascot Masked Marvin, who bounces around in tights, a cape, and (obviously) a mask.  Angie would give Edith Massey a run for her money (perhaps not in the realm of “egg lovin’,” but, y’know…), brandishing a large bullwhip at all times.  The players are trained to “sell” hits to the audience (both sitting in the bleachers and watching on television).  

But intriguingly, some of the assumedly manufactured animosity makes its way off the track and interweaves itself into the characters’ personal lives.  You could argue that the reason Karen finds herself the target of a lot of this is because she is a staunch non-conformist (best displayed by the tattoo she gets and flaunts as her symbol; the idea of a woman with a tattoo being something out of which much is made, which only goes to show just how much times have changed), and the entire metaphor of the film is about the rejection of conformity, no matter the cost (a sort of “die on your feet” analogy).  Conversely, you could say that the film champions the idea of conformity, and that Karen’s asshole-ish attitude (this is, after all, a person who fires a gun at random targets  while riding down the street on the back of a motorcycle) is what undoes her (a bit more nefarious, but no less legitimate, I think).  Either way, I think that this film endeavors to be deeper than its surface elements, and, by and large, it succeeds.

MVT:  I was going to give it to the film’s structure and approach to storytelling, because I do think it’s ambitious, but I think I have to give it instead to Jennings (once again).  She truly does a marvelous job carrying the weight of the film, and reminds me that her star burnt bright for far too short a time.

Make or Break:  The first derby scene is extremely well-done.  Combining overlapping dialogue, solid handheld camerawork, and subjective camerawork, the sequence delivers on both the experience of watching a match as well as the experience of being in one.

Score:  6.75/10