Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Cobra Thunderbolt (1984)

I can still remember the day I got my driver’s license.  It was a sunny, snowy Saturday morning in late 1989.  I had been taking lessons from a local driving school (I’ll leave names out of it so as to spare anybody excessive emotional pain).  These lessons generally consisted of me being picked up by the instructor at my house.  I would then putter around town for about an hour and be dropped back off.  Anyone who knows me at all knows I’m of a rather nervous disposition at the best of times.  Now imagine that sort of personality in the driver’s seat of a car with an equally anxious fellow in the instructor’s seat.  If you remember what Keith Coogan’s character had to go through in 1987’s Hiding Out, this was like that but less jovial.  At any rate, after whatever number of mandated outings with the instructor, we mutually decided it was time to end our relationship by getting me the hell out of his lack of hair.  Since we had a snow storm the day before my exam, I had to drive an extra twenty minutes to the only place that was open for road tests that day, thus forcing us to spend that much more time in each other’s company.  After earning that prized sliver of laminated card stock, my instructor and I headed back to my house.  As I was being released from my bondage, he made sure to register his lack of faith in my then-current level of skill behind the wheel and suggested that I should drive with an experienced motorist for a few more months.  I thanked him for his time, proceeded to ignore his sage advice, and have regretted none of it to this day.  I can’t honestly say I’m the world’s greatest driver, but sometimes good is good enough.  Like this week’s film.

Weapons manufacturer Kang Wan and his mercenary army are gearing up for war from their ultra-high-tech headquarters.  But in order to dominate the world, he absolutely must have the plans to Colonel Dave’s (Krung Srivilai) brand-spanking new battle truck, the ultra-high-tech Cobra Thunderbolt.  Needless to say, Dave doesn’t feel like complying, which forces Kang Wan to resort to more nefarious methods of persuasion.  Dick (Sorapong Chatri), a former soldier under Dave’s command while stationed in Laos, and Dave’s own daughter, Lieutenant Molly, pitch in their own unique skills to bring justice to the power-mad wannabe warlord.

Airwolf, Blue Thunder, the Landmaster from Damnation Alley (this is only a partial list, admittedly), are all part of a lineage of super vehicles that became wildly popular starting in the late Seventies.  Yes, there were vehicles that exuded personality before then: the 1966 Batmobile, Star Trek’s Enterprise, and the Seaview from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, just to name a few.  The thing that separates those earlier vehicles from something like the Thunderbolt in my mind is in the relationship between the machines and the people who pilot them.  Going into the Eighties, these vehicles became far more utilitarian in purpose.  They were still tricked out like crazy, but they tended to be rooted in some form of reality.  Their pilots were forthright and steadfast in their resolve.  They were very much men with a mission.  There were exceptions like Knight Rider, but even with that one, there is a sense that Michael Knight and KITT work best together, and that is their strength.  Batman can vanquish the Joker without his car.  Michael cannot take down Goliath without KITT.  

Concepts like Cobra Thunderbolt are high tech weapons.  Conversely, their operators need to be old school warriors, because it’s the synthesis formed between the two which creates an optimal efficiency between them.  Like a sniper and his favorite rifle, certain people work better with certain machines than with others.  Dick and Molly understand Dave’s technology, so they’re the best equipped to operate it.  The idea is that putting any old person behind the wheel wouldn’t produce the same results.  There is a (God help me for using this word) synergy that is generated, and even if the personality of the driver is rather blandly drawn (as they most assuredly are here), the effect the two have on screen as a unit is evident.  You could likewise argue that part of why the new tech/old soldier dynamic works so well is due to the stoicism of the human element.  The repression of emotions in service of a goal encourages a smooth interface between human and machine.  This is not to say pilots lack emotion.  They simply exercise greater discipline in controlling and compartmentalizing them than the average person, and some part of a viewer’s mind admires this.

Cards on the table, I am very inexperienced in the world of Thai films, and I have to say I’m fairly comfortable with that.  From what I have seen up to this point, the product can be a real crap shoot.  Thus, I’m okay with letting others traverse the mine field of highs and lows in Thai cinema and then cherry picking what I watch from their reports.  In saying that, I’m also ignorant as to the breadth of strong female roles in Thai films.  Yet, we get two in Tanong Srichua’s (one and only, according to IMDb) film.  Molly is a soldier through and through.  She drives the Cobra Thunderbolt for her father’s tests, and she doesn’t show much in the way of inner weakness.  Her mother (whom I never caught a name for, and while I’m at it, you may have noticed a lack of attribution between actors and characters; Despite my best efforts, these kinds of things tend to be nebulous at best to research on the internet; Yet another reason I’m happy to let others trudge through the murk of Asian film credits) is skilled as a Thai boxer, a samurai swordswoman, and other martial arts.  To her, these skills are more important for a woman than learning to put on makeup.  Between this attitude and the lack of rape-y situations in the film, I found this to be quite refreshing, especially since genre films from this nape of the woods can tend to be rather misogynistic.  Naturally, Molly looks up to her mother because of her strength, and we get the impression she would like to live up to this model.  Nonetheless, unlike her mother, who does maintain a nice sense of balance between femininity and masculinity (though she really doesn’t have tons of screen time), Molly is almost sexless.  She could as easily have been played by a man, and in some sense this could be viewed as a leveling of the field.  Not that the story really gives a shit one way or the other.  The film consists of the sort of coincidental writing which can be seen in a vast array of Asian films of this ilk.  I’ll give you an example.  While Dick is eluding some pursuers, he is picked up by a woman in a car.  Mere seconds later, he spots Dave’s van on the other side of the road (Dave had no idea that Dick would be in this area, or if so, we are never informed of this) and hooks up with his old commanding officer.  The film is littered with incidents like this, but, even if you’ve only seen a few Asian films from this era, it’s not unexpected.  In fact, it’s probably more than half the charm.

MVT:  The Cobra Thunderbolt is a low grade hodgepodge affair of a vehicle (and film), but it is just distinctive enough that it does what it needs to do: it captures the eye and keeps the viewer watching to see what it will accomplish.

Make or Break:  Without spoiling things, there is a major turn around the midpoint of the film.  What occurs at this moment is not terribly surprising (in the sense of genre expectations).  How this moment plays out, however, is not only out of the blue, but also jaw-droppingly over the top, and it actually made me sit up in my chair.  Well played.

Score:  6.75/10 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Cut and Run (1985)

Ruggero Deodato’s Cut and Run (aka Inferno in Diretta aka Straight to Hell) opens with a vicious attack on a jungle drug lab by loincloth-clad natives led by topless madman, Quecho (Michael Berryman).  Waiting in the wings for the narcotics is Colonel Horn (the late Richard Lynch) and his amphibious plane.  Meanwhile in Miami, reporters Fran (the late Lisa Blount) and Mark (Leonard Mann) stumble upon another drug-related massacre while investigating a smuggling ring.  The duo talk their way into a travel assignment to probe deeper on the premise that their search will also turn up TV exec Bob’s (Richard Bright) missing scion Michael (Willie Aames).  Naturally, this is a great idea, and will turn out just fine and dandy.

Cut and Run is an Action film.  It is a Cannibal film (in texture if not content).  It is a Survival film.  It is a Cult film (in the zealotry sense of the word).  You’ll notice that’s a lot of influences.  You’ll also notice that sounds like an awful lot to try and pack into a ninety minute film.  And you would be right.  For as much as this is any one of the things it wants to be at any given point in its runtime, it doesn’t completely satisfy that facet before it leaps to the next one.  The film begins with a strong action scene.  The natives and Quecho are brutal, terrifying in their animal ferocity, yet the filmmakers cut around some of the “money shots.”  They take the time to show the natives strip and attack two women and then cut away at the moment of their fate.  Yes, we get an aftermath shot, but it feels like a whole lot of build up to not much payoff.  And this is the general approach to almost every scene in the film.  It’s not simply that they exit scenes early.  They exit scenes prematurely, and so the viewer is left dangling.  Interestingly, there are some extremely graphic splatter effects later in the film.  Yet, what they chose to show and what they chose to edit around is baffling, because it doesn’t feel motivated in the slightest.  Coming from a director who is best known for one of the most notorious Splatter films ever (Cannibal Holocaust, in case you were wondering), this backing off on the grue is a letdown.

Further to this, the hopscotch approach by the filmmakers is a detriment to the narrative.  For example, Michael cares for fellow prisoner Ana (Valentina Forte).  He watches her be used for the pleasure of any man Vlado (John Steiner) wishes.  He does nothing to stop this (and it should be noted, Aames’ character does little more than mewl whenever he’s on screen).  He connects with her afterward in a very cursory way.  They get split up.  They meet their individual fates.  The various arcs in the film have beginnings and endings, but they lack any real sense of development before they finish.  Consequently, there is no resonance and very little gratification.  And this doesn’t just apply to Michael and Ana’s story.  The whole reason the audience is willing to take the journey to the jungle in the first place is because we want to see what Horn and his minions are planning.  But even after we get any kind of an explanation, we still have no idea what the hell is going on; the reason given is as nebulous as the course Fran and Mark followed to get there.  It’s like having a comic book with all but the first two and last two pages torn out, and the last two are sliced down the middle besides.  The art may be appealing.  What writing you take in may be entertaining, but that doesn’t change your feeling of being cheated (or maybe just frustrating your desire for completion).  With a little bit more connective tissue, a tiny bit more fleshing out, and a tighter focus on the end goal, this could have been a great film.  Inexplicably, what the film does give you is certainly enjoyable up to a point.  However, by continually pulling the rug out from under our expectations, the film ultimately only ever confounds.  Despite my kvetching, however, I have to say I will almost definitely revisit this film at some point, and I dare say I’ll find something to like when I do.  Nevertheless, anyone coming to this movie for the first time really needs to do so with lowered expectations.

As with Deodato’s aforementioned gutmuncher classic, there is an element in Cut and Run about the media.  When Fran and Mark come upon the initial bloodbath in Florida, they do what we expect from the media: they film a report detailing the carnage, exploiting it.  Later, they will do this again as they send transmissions from the jungle back to America.  Unlike the despicable characters in Cannibal Holocaust, Fran and Mark do not facilitate the butchery they are in the midst of, yet they impassively dwell on it, leer at it.  By following the “if it bleeds, it leads” ethos to the letter, they surrender part of their humanity.  They never really do what’s “right” outside of their documentation of their experiences.  Of course, the viewer becomes complicit in this dehumanization because this is what we want to see from the comfort of our seats.  Additionally, it should be noted that Horn’s interaction with Mark and Fran is a form of punctuation on this.  He has the reporters film his statement of purpose (it doesn’t matter that it’s head-scratchingly vague) because he knows that this is the only way to be heard in this world.  For years, he hid away, believed dead, but Horn understands that through the media his thoughts can live on and perhaps inspire others to follow.  To be fair, this most likely will never happen since his words and deeds seem contradictory and unconvincing, but that he wants his actions filmed for posterity forces viewers to confront how they interact with the media, to some degree or another.

Similarly, there are themes of idolatry.  Horn was a follower of the infamous Jim Jones, and Horn’s own cult among the natives is an extension of that.  Like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now, Horn is, for all intents and purposes, a god to these people.  He understands the value of showmanship to promote his brand of cultism to his select few, but he also appears to be a true believer.  He wants to keep these people “pure,” and he feels that the outside world, especially the media, has brought nothing but contamination into the jungle.  Despite this, Horn claims no ultimate wisdom.  He states, “There are no answers.  Only actions.  By our actions, we are judged, pure or unholy.”  It’s an intriguing enough philosophy on its surface, but how Horn draws it to its final conclusion belies his words.  He thinks he’s showing members of the electronic jury a true path, but what he is actually doing is giving them more of what they want.  I do think the filmmakers have things like this to say in Cut and Run, but the questions they want to raise are muddled by the schizophrenic film that surrounds them.  Like I said, it’s confounding.

MVT:  Deodato is quite adept at manufacturing atmosphere, and Cut and Run certainly has a palpable texture to it.  It’s just laid over top of seriously shaky foundations.

Make or Break:  The opening assault is impressive.  Its culmination is indicative of what to expect: simultaneous highs and lows.

Score:  6.75/10                

Friday, November 14, 2014

Episode #312: Eye of the Boat People

Welcome back for another episode of the GGtMC!!!

This week the Gents bring you coverage of Eye of the Tiger (1986) starring Gary Busey and Boat People (1982) directed by Ann Hui.

Direct download: ggtmc_312.mp3

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Episode #311: The Dance Across 110th Street

Welcome back for another episode of the GGtMC!!!

This week the show is brought to you by the fine folks at and it was Large William's turn to program. We cover The Dance of Reality (2013) directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Across 110th Street (1972) directed by Barry Shear.

Direct download: ggtmc_311.mp3

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Lifeforce (1985)

I can honestly remember a time when vampires scared me.  Christopher Lee’s intense portrayal of Dracula in the Hammer films hit me like a ton of bricks.  I watched in queasy astonishment as the upraised, juicy, blood-tinged bite marks of his victims were unveiled on screen.  Even while watching such films on Creature Double Feature in the bright light of a Saturday afternoon (okay, in a darkened basement; work with me here), my skin crawled.  After watching Tobe Hooper’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, I slept with the covers pulled up right to my chin (because, y’know, vampires are incapable of pulling covers down to get at the warm, succulent necks of chubby Horror fans).  While there has always been a sexual component to most neck-biter works, they rarely failed to be frightening as well.  Vampires are, after all, monsters.  They prey on the living.  Their whole world view is bathed in blood.  Over time, the sensual angle came more and more to the forefront, as did the emphasis on their superhuman abilities.  Vampires have gone from being twisted bastardizations of humanity, lurking around fog-shrouded graveyards and raining death down upon their victims to angst-ridden, love-struck superheroes, who you wouldn’t mind tipping back a drink with if they just so happened to drink…wine (or whatever their non-sanguinary tipple preference would be).  I’m not going to point to any one example or franchise as being the turning point in this regard, because things like this are usually a progression of events rather than spontaneous occurrences.  And there are vampire stories today that keep the creatures’ ghoulish origins close to their hearts, to be fair.  It’s just that the balance of power (so to speak) has shifted.  Here’s to hoping it shifts back before the day I die.

While investigating Halley’s Comet up close, the crew of the S.S. Churchill discovers a large spaceship hidden in its tail.  Inside the ship are crystal sarcophagi containing two handsome young males (Chris Jagger and Bill Malin) and one astounding young female (Mathilda May), all very naked (and some bat things, but we all know what the astronauts would rather investigate).  When the space shuttle is eventually found burnt out in Earth’s orbit like an interstellar Demeter, the crystals and their contents are brought back to the European Space Research Centre.  And Hell is soon unleashed upon the planet.

Hooper’s Lifeforce is a mash-up of genres, in much the same way that its clearest predecessor, Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires is.  They both involve creatures which have the attributes of classic vampiric legends but with Science Fiction trappings.  Both also attempt to come up with a reason why vampires were ever “invented” as boogeymen on our planet.  I’m a sucker for Cosmic Horror of this variety, though I think that Lifeforce leans more toward the Cosmic side than the Horror side.  It also ramps up the sexuality angle, making this one something of a triple threat.  May’s Space Girl spends a large portion of her screen time in the buff, and it is her relationship with Steve Railsback’s Colonel Carlsen that is the prime driving force for the plot.  In an odd way, you could look at this as a reversal of the traditional Dracula/Mina Harker seduction trope.  It’s not quite as clean-cut as that, but we’ll come back to that issue later.  Carlsen has nightmares where he has sex with the Space Girl (what torture).  Her first words in the film are “use my body,” and she then proceeds to suck a man dry via liplock (not of blood, though; see the film’s title for further reference).  Carlsen behaves as if he doesn’t want anything to do with her, even though his first contact with her left him “invigorated.”  After Carlsen has a psychic vision of the Space Girl (in another woman’s body now) seducing a middle-aged man, he behaves like he’s jealous.  Their story is a romantic chase (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl gets boy), though for as much as they want to come together, they don’t want to come together.  The Space Girl beckons him to her, though their consummation can only end in either total victory or total destruction.

There are other sexual aspects to the film other than this gender reversal.  The spaceship that houses the space vampires is shaped vaguely like a penis.  Its interior (which is likened to the inside of an artery) is also reminiscent of a vaginal canal.  The entry to where the crystals are kept opens accompanied by blinding light, revelatory in its connotations as the “promised land” in sexual terms (as well as a signpost to ultimate knowledge).  When Carlsen enters it, the camera is turned upside down, the same as his world and his perspective on it are about to be.  After an encounter between Dr. Bukovsky (Michael Gothard) and the Space Girl, he describes her as “the most overwhelming [sexual] feminine presence.”  This intensity of female sexuality is horrifying to (most) males.  The male vampires, by contrast, don’t appear to have the same powers of seduction.  They are more blunt instruments, knocking stuff around as if with their bare penises (which are never shown on screen in case you were wondering).  More interesting, these monsters pass on their vampirism to the humans that they kill, and this evokes notions of sexually transmitted diseases, specifically HIV/AIDS, in how this is displayed visually.  They becomes husks, wasted away.  When the human victims come back to life, they, of course, seek out the lifeforce of others.  If they cannot get it, they dry up, rot out, and eventually explode in a cloud of biological desiccation.  Unfortunately, this element is treated as little more than a “zombie apocalypse” device in the film.

Which brings me to the problems I have with the film.  Being an adaptation of a novel (The Space Vampires by Colin Wilson), you can expect a certain amount of either streamlining or sprawling in terms of the plot.  With the former, you stand the chance of losing some of the more intriguing elements.  With the latter, you stand the chance of losing focus entirely.  And unfortunately, that is the case here.  There is a ton of exposition running through this film, and it is delivered by men basically standing around the Space Research Centre, observing some admittedly engaging events unfolding right in front of them.  We could probably call this the Kaiju Expositional Device (or KED), since it’s a common complaint of films involving giant, Japan-crushing monsters.  Railsback does the film no favors, since his usual “smolder/explode” method of acting is on full display, and rather than conveying the conflict within his character’s mind, he simply comes off as overwrought and cranky.  The logic gaps in the plotting refuse to be sewn up, no matter how much you stretch your thinking to make the ends meet.  The majority of characters outside of Carlsen and the Space Girl (including Peter Firth’s Colonel Caine, who serves no purpose other than as an authority figure by which Carlsen can access certain British government facilities; a role which could easily have been written around or out) mean little to nothing in the grand scheme of things.  The script leaps around, playing out the same scene using the same beats ending the same way just so it can be repeated again until it all comes full circle (and a rather small circle, at that).  Most disappointing, though, is that the siege of London is little more than a set of minor obstacles to drag the runtime out a bit further.  It’s almost an afterthought rather than a planned set piece.  Lifeforce is a mess of a film.  In its desire to achieve an epic sense of scope (evidenced right off the bat by Henry Mancini’s bombastic, symphonic score), it loses sight of its story in a forest of details it doesn’t take the time to flesh out satisfactorily.  Despite its good looks and infrequent moments of enjoyableness, it is a fairly dull, dry affair.  A bit like the prey of the space vampires.

MVT:  The level of production value and the special effects work are very impressive.  No surprise since John Dykstra was involved.  If nothing else, between the effects and the striking beauty of Ms. May, the film is never ugly to behold.

Make or Break:  The scene involving one Patrick Stewart is one step beyond ridiculous in a film loaded with ridiculous scenes.  I actually verbalized the sympathy I had for the actors while watching it unfold.

Score:  6/10