Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Tuff Turf (1985)

When I was young (yes, it’s going to be one of those introductions), one of the first (maybe even the first) “big boy” bicycles that I had was a Schwinn Stingray.  It had the banana seat, those sweetly smooth curves, and it was piss yellow (I can only imagine the good folks at Schwinn calling it “canary yellow” in their corporate poltroonery, but I knew better).  It was bought used, and I honestly couldn’t even say where it came from; a yard sale, a friend of the family, wherever.  I used to ride it on my newspaper route (remember when kids had those?), and it could be as cumbersome as it was helpful depending on the bulk of the papers on a given day.  But usually more helpful.  One time, I skidded and slid out right up to the tires of an oncoming car (no damage to me from the car nor to the car from me, but the backs of my thighs had road rash that was legendary for some time [and you haven’t lived until you’ve tried to peel shorts from the large scabs to which they have fused]).

Well, one bright, sunshine day, I went out to mount my wicked steed only to discover it was gone; vanished, as if it had never been there.  While nothing could be proven, I always suspected that the culprit was a neighborhood malcontent named Hubble (I don’t remember his first name, nor do I care to), whom we had nicknamed Hubble Bubble (after Hubba Bubba bubblegum; get it?).  Shortly after my Stingray went missing, Hubble was seen riding around on a black (spray painted?) bike which closely resembled the shape of mine.  Upon confronting him about this, he denied everything and fled, and I don’t remember seeing him around much after that.  But I eventually got another bicycle, and life moved on, as it does.  So I totally get where Morgan Hiller (James Spader) is coming from when Nick (Paul Mones) and his dickhead cronies mess with his ten-speed in Fritz Kiersch’s Tuff Turf.  Fuck you, Hubble.  Wherever you are.

Morgan is the new kid in town, and he quickly runs afoul of Nick, his girl Frankie (Kim Richards), and his lackeys while thwarting their attempted armed robbery of some drunken businessman.  Wonder of wonders, it’s soon discovered that they all attend the same high school, and even though Morgan makes fast friends with the clearly off-kilter Jimmy (Robert Downey, Jr.), he has an itch that only Frankie may be able to scratch.  There may be trouble ahead.

Before we get into anything else, let’s go over what in this film didn’t work for me.  To say that a film could use a trim is simple when you don’t have to do the trimming, and I accept that it can be easier said than done.  But this one could easily lose a good twenty to thirty minutes and still be a solid film.  By that same token, much of what would likely be cut is actually part of what I enjoyed about this one (which I will get to shortly).  The film also sets up much more than it actually pays off, and I think that screenwriter Jette Rinck thought that she was being clever and mysterious with some of these elements (just what exactly did Morgan get up to at his last school?  Why are he and brother Brian [Bill Beyers] so at odds?), though they’re little more than throwaways from a possible set of notes we’re never allowed to glimpse.  The movie’s climax, though it does satisfy, is finifugal and wears out its welcome by the time it finishes.  Plus, there is a deus ex machina which is completely unheralded and is rendered by a character I had all but forgotten was even in the film.  While these flaws do make the going a little sluggish, they are not enough (at least for me) to condemn the work on the whole.  

This brings me to one of the more interesting aspects of the film.  At its heart, Tuff Turf is a combination of 1950s and 1980s Juvenile Delinquent films with quasi-Musical components thrown in for good measure.  These JD-by-era aspects are clearly delineated in the characters and how they behave.  The world that Morgan inhabits is reflective of the pop culture of the Fifties.  The very first words out of Morgan’s mouth are the words to the Gene Vincent hit Be Bop A Lula as he rides through Nick’s gang like a knight errant.  Morgan’s style of dancing is straight out of a sock hop.  He fits the James Dean mold almost perfectly (a mostly polite boy on the surface with boiling storm of emotion and indecision roiling underneath this veneer).  By contrast, Nick’s gang is of the Class of 1984 variety.  They dress like Eighties punks of the Hollywood persuasion.  More importantly, they are not merely menacing like teenagers testing boundaries or doing a little criminal mischief.  They stuff a dead rat in Morgan’s locker.  They throw him a pretty harsh towel party in the gym locker room.  These are criminals-in-training, and it only takes the right confluence of events for this end stage to totally and violently emerge.  The musical sequences, then, are very choreographed (though they would more accurately be described as dance numbers, since the characters don’t feel the need to convey their emotional states in rapturous song while they strut their stuff), and these are what truly make the film a standout for me (it’s no Footloose, but what can you do?).  They are so unexpected, so different from what I anticipated, I found them instantly charming.  Do they fit tonally with the rest of the film?  No, but all of its disparities together are what sets this movie apart from the crowd.

Although they are only a few in number, these musical scenes also help to illustrate the major theme of the film, and it is one of choice (because how the characters engage with these scenes helps describe them).  However, even though Morgan is clearly of the upper crust and he is our protagonist, it is Frankie upon whom the major decision of the film rests.  She comes from a lower/working class background, and she feels that this is all she deserves.  When Morgan shows her his world, she becomes more attracted to it and to him.  Morgan mocks those he used to rub elbows with, and this is both his giving Frankie, Jimmy, and Ronnie (Olivia Barash) entrée into his world and his distancing of himself from it.  When Frankie sees how the other half live, she changes her appearance to fit in better, and this is specifically emphasized in two shots.  Early on in the film, while still in league with Nick, there is a closeup of Frankie applying cherry red lipstick.  She is trying to stand out, to be recognized.  Later, before going to dinner at Morgan’s and meeting his parents, we get another closeup of her applying lipstick, but this time it’s a more natural shade.  This is her desire to assimilate, to fit in (and I suppose on some level this could be considered sad or undesirable, though clearly that’s a matter of perspective on the part of the viewer).  It is the series of choices that Frankie makes in what she will allow and not allow in her life which will ultimately define her (as we see in her physical/emotional relationships with Nick and Morgan).  And while Spader is the headliner and physical hero of Tuff Turf, it is Richards who embodies the internal conflicts and gives the film what emotional impact it has.

MVT:  Spader or Richards?  Richards or Spader?  I’m tempted to give it to both, since I am a huge fan of Spader, but I think I have to go with Richards on this one.  She does a hell of a lot with a part which could easily have been a passive damsel in distress role.  She truly goes a long way in elevating this material.  And she can dance.

Make Or Break:  The first dance scene Makes the film, and it sneaks up on the viewer in its unfolding.  You’re uncertain of what you’re seeing until you’re convinced it cannot be anything else.  And that the filmmakers had the stones to do this, and then continue doing it later, helps the film distinguish itself.

Score:  6.75/10                   

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Lightning Bolt

Just about every Eurospy film that got made during the craze that began right after the death of peplum and right before the rise of spaghetti westerns got made because of the success of the James Bond films, and most of the Eurospy movies aren't shy about wearing their influences on their sleeve. For some, it was by way of casting one of the many European actors who played a villain or a love interest in a Bond film. Thunderball's Adolfo Celli appeared in several Eurospy productions, as did Bond girls like From Russia With Love's Daniela Bianchi. Bernard "M" Lee and Lois "Miss Moneypenny" Maxwell actually both starred as characters very similar to their Bond characters in a Eurospy film starring Sean Connery's younger brother, Neil, who was passed off as 007's brother in a way vague enough to avoid being sued by the producers of the Bond films. For most, however, it was simply a case of repeating the formula and mimicking the ad campaigns.

Lightning Bolt is particularly obvious about its intentions to compare itself to Thunderball, which came out in the same year, right down to the tagline, "Lightning Bolt -- He Strikes Like a Ball of Thunder!" Which makes even less sense than just the word "thunderball," which already doesn't make any sense. What the hell is a thunderball? But hey -- that was just for American audiences, right? It's like when shifty distributors insisted on forcing Bruce Lee's name into the title of every kungfu movie ever made during the 1970s. You can't blame the filmmakers for that, right? Sure, except that the original Italian title for the movie makes the Bond exploitation even more obvious. The main villain is straight out of Goldfinger with a dash of the Matt Helm film The Ambushers, of all things, thrown in. The original Italian title, in fact, works as hard to recall Goldfinger as the American one does to recall Thunderball. Unless you think Operacione Goldman is a coincidence.

The plot -- in which a nefarious arch villain is using laser waves to misguide and blow up moon rockets launched from Cape Canaveral, is actually quite similar to the plot of the Nick Carter novel, Operation Moon Rocket, which was published in 1968. Although it seems unlikely that an obscure Italian spy movie would have been an influence on the Nick Carter novels, it's certainly still a possibility. The Nick Carter stable of authors was varied, after all, and they were drawing ideas from everywhere. So here we go. NASA is in trouble. Every moon rocket they've tested has exploded into a great, fiery ball, though whether or not it's a thunderball remains debatable. The scientists are convinced that computers and technology behind the rockets are sound, so the only answer must be sabotage.

Lt. Harry Sennet (American actor Anthony Eisley) is called in to get to the bottom of things. His cover, naturally, is that of a rich, womanizing playboy looking for good times and big boobs along Florida' coast, which has been visited by just about every 1960s spy from James Bond to Matt Helm. Assisting Sennet on his mission is bombshell Captain Patricia Flanagan, another genre stalwart who had appeared in everything from The Awful Dr. Orloff to Superargo and the Faceless Giants. In between gratuitous but welcome scenes of Sennet cruising around the bikini-clad babes lounging about the hotel swimming pool area and frequent grainy stock footage of rockets from NASA, our tale of intrigue is woven, and it leads to a powerful, um, beer brewer (thus the Matt Helm movie similarity).

But this is a Eurospy film, and one of the wackier ones at that, so this particular evil brewmeister (who bears more than a passing resemblance to Gert "Goldfinger" Frobe), has a laser he uses to blow up rockets from his -- get this -- space age underwater lair where he keeps his biggest enemies frozen in a state of suspended animation so he can thaw them out from time to time, taunt them, and get them up to speed on the success of his mad, evil schemes.

Although the production is cheap and the plot is outlandish, this is actually a pretty fun little adventure. Anthony Eisley looks tough and handsome, and he's probably one of the few spies in any of these movies who begins his mission by trying to buy off the bad guys -- with a check! Imagine Sean Connery asking Robert Shaw how much money he'd need not to kill Bond, then saying, "OK, mind if I write you a check?" The women surrounding Eisley are ridiculously gorgeous, which is one of the things even the cheapest of Eurospy films could get right. The set designs are actually pretty impressive considering the budget and have a swanky 1960s pop art feel to them. There's plenty of fist fights, lots of clumsy sexual innuendo, shoot outs, sea plane flying, and then the whole finale in the undersea fortress.

Eurospy films are like any other continental knock-off of a popular American or British genre. Some are very good and lavish, managing to rise above small budgets to deliver a slick looking little thriller full of beautiful women, sets, and locations. Others are threadbare pieces of junk that will bore you to tears. And some are utterly bizarre and incompetent in the most wonderfully enjoyable of fashions. Lightning Bolt falls closer to the last description. A lot of the film's energy undoubtedly comes from director Antonio Margheriti, possibly the most prolific of all Italian action and thriller directors. Margheriti, who was often renamed "Anthony Dawson" when his films were exported to America, directed his fair share of clunkers, but the bulk of his career is filled with perfectly acceptable genre films, and a few genuine classics. Lightning Bolt, like most Eurospy films, is completely ludicrous, but it's not as if anyone involved with the film doesn't seem aware of that. There's a playful sense of fun, almost tongue in cheek, that makes the film a great deal more entertaining than it might otherwise be.

MVT: The set design. For a movie that had a tiny budget, they get the most out of matte paintings and cardboard when they designed the villain’s underground lair. And even the worst Eurospy productions were usually full of cool suits and bikini models.

Make or Break: The hero attempting to end all this intrigue by offering to buy the villain off with a check. If you can’t roll with that concept, this movie will try your patience.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Episode #284: Meet Him and Swim

Welcome to our sponsored episode this week!!!

We are joined for this episode by Scott from Married with Clickers podcast for coverage of The Swimmer (1968) directed by Frank Perry and Meet Him and Die (1976) directed by Franco Prosperi!!! We wnat to thank Scott for coming on with us, a true Gent!!!

Direct download: ggtmc_284.mp3

Emails to


Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Avenger X (1967)

I used to have a small yellow afghan (blanket, not hound).  It would be more accurate to say that my family used to have a small yellow afghan.  It was about two feet by three feet, and it was as plain as an afghan could be.  Its yellow was not brilliant, more like the color of lemonade, maybe a shade deeper.  When it wasn’t covering up sick kids or cold feet, it substituted as the cape to my own personal superhero costume (add one safety pin and go).  It didn’t matter if the color didn’t match whichever character I was playing.  What mattered was that it was just the right size for me at that time.  For me, this is the encapsulation of what made American comic books great when I was a tyke.  They were for kids, and they didn’t make much sense, but they were loaded with imagination, and that counted for a lot.  

On the other hand, my experience with European comics isn’t nearly as extensive, but they tend to be far more mature in content if not necessarily in approach (look at the ultra-popular work of creators like Crepax, Jodorowsky, Manara, et cetera).  But what they also had is an emphasis on criminals (costumed and non) as protagonists.  Everything from Diabolik to Kriminal and back again, these are characters who we in the States would likely read about battling against a superhero like Batman and getting locked up in Arkham Asylum.  Of course, the atmosphere in American comics today has swung closer to this European model, mostly because the readership is generally older than they used to be.  By this I mean that comics were aimed at about an eight to twelve-year-old male readership for many decades, and this audience would turn over and restart, but then more and more readers didn’t stop reading comics.  These older readers then became comics creators, and they consequently started making books for people their own age and so on.  It’s a bit more complex than that, but we’re not here to spend the whole day on this.  I’m just pointing out that there is a cultural difference between American and “World” comics which results in films like Piero Vivarelli’s Avenger X (aka Mister X), for better or worse.

George Lamarr (Armando Calvo) is a CEO and a drug kingpin whose subterfuge is discovered by secretary/sexbomb Veronica (Nieves Salcedo).  When she tells him that she wants him to marry her in order to keep her quiet, she winds up dead, an X stamped in her forehead.  Naturally, Inspector Roux (the gloriously-named Franco Fantasia) recognizes this as the mark of master criminal Mister X (Pier Paolo Capponi), who was believed dead.  Also naturally, the very much alive X takes offense at someone using his modus operandi, and worse, using it incorrectly (he would never stamp his X on a woman’s head).  So, gangsters gotta pay.

Disguises for comic book characters are generally used to hide a secret identity, to protect a character and the people he/she knows who may be hurt by their enemies.  It can be argued whether the costume and the alter ego are one and the same (which they can be, though they almost always behave differently, the amplification of certain personality traits over others being kind of the whole point), whether they are different personae, which one is the “true” self, and which is repressed.  And depending upon the character, you would come up with different interpretations (or even multiple interpretations for any given one).  X does wear a costume from time to time (essentially a knockoff of Lee Falk’s The Phantom with a large “X” on his belt buckle), but it doesn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things.  This is because he acts exactly the same in or out of costume.  He changes not at all, plain-clothed or not.  If anything, his comic book costume is merely one more affectation, a way to draw attention to himself rather than to deflect scrutiny.  You can argue that so many of these types of characters are the same way, but somehow it just falls completely flat with this one.  By that same token, X is a master of disguise (like Fantomas, Sherlock Holmes, or Pistachio Disguisey), and he uses these skills to walk among his enemies.  This illustrates for us exactly how he regards his lifestyle, and that is blithely.  He couldn’t care less about the lives of anyone around him (maybe with the exception of squeeze Timy [Gaia Germani]), and further, all of this is little more than a game to him, a lark.  His “good” name gets sullied, and he starts killing people (as well as trying to turn a tidy profit).  

Naturally, this brings up the debate over whether fictional characters need to be likable, and I don’t think they do.  However, they do need to be interesting enough to want to follow, and I think X is not.  He is a poor imitation of Diabolik with none of Diabolik’s more charming attributes.  Diabolik is all but a mute.  X talks constantly and says sweet fuck all.  Diabolik’s plans are clever and engaging.  X barely makes plans at all, his scheming more a hammer than a scalpel.  Diabolik’s haughty attitude is loaded with sexy style.  X’s haughty attitude is loaded with repulsive smarm.  Bearing this in mind, the characters in this film are divided into three social levels.  The working men are represented by characters like Roux, and they are generally dim-witted and gullible, ineffectual and harmless.  The gangsters are lower class, playing at their patrician machinations.  They have lavish, chic parties, and they sit around playing at pulling strings.  But at the drop of a hat, they would turn on one another, and whether this marks them as proletarian or bourgeois is up for discussion (as much as anything in this film can be).  X is the only truly upper class person in the film.  He considers the work of people like Lamarr to be “vulgar.”  He has tea served by a geisha.  He is a world-class golf champion.  He knows that going to Capri in March is out of season and oh-so-common.  Unfortunately, he’s also not nearly as witty as he thinks, and he’s insufferably snobby.  

I blame a lot of the problems with this film on the wretched screenwriting, which apes the genre in which it’s set, but like a voice actor (or any actor, for that matter) who can’t do accents, it winds up just being embarrassing in execution.  For example, it took over twenty minutes of screen time for the first action scene to hit.  It took more than twenty more for the next one.  The plot, such as it is, is little more than a series of plot conveniences, and it follows a flat line rather than the standard peaks and valleys (witness: the intermittent snooping of Roux simply for the sake of being a monkey wrench and sucking up some time).  Likewise, the direction is bland and truly uninspired (like so much else on display here), and the aforementioned action scenes aren’t exciting, period.  Instead of being stylish and sexy like the Bond films it is clearly influenced by, Avenger X manages to be patently unattractive.  How else do you explain a film where the women, played by some genuinely lovely ladies (including the dazzling Helga Line), are treated as nothing more than humdrum arm candy with an emphasis on the fashions they wear rather than on the tease of their disrobing?  The old saw says, “X marks the spot.”  Not so much with this one.

MVT:  X’s costume is the most interesting thing about the film, and considering how weak it is, that ain’t saying much.

Make Or Break:  The break is not a scene.  The break is that the film is loaded with tepid scenes of people lounging, and talking, and swilling booze rather than anything happening for lengthy periods of time.  What you see and what you get are two totally different things with Avenger X.

Score:  4/10