Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Killer Workout (1987)

Back in my college years (you wouldn’t know it from speaking to me, but yes, I went to college), I tipped the scales at about two-hundred-and-sixty pounds, soaking wet.  This wasn’t because of a glandular condition or emotional issues.  I loved eating (and still do, make no mistake).  The problem was I would eat any crap that hovered under my nose for long enough, with nary a vegetable in sight (the lettuce on Taco Bell’s soft tacos notwithstanding).  Combine this with a binge drinking mentality and a sedentary lifestyle (let’s simply call it laziness), and it’s really little wonder that I reached the proportions I did.  

I went to work in an office a while after graduating, and it was only then that I began to lose weight.  You see, I had a nervous stomach due to certain anxieties over working in that setting, so a large portion of my diet (at work, anyway) consisted of pretzels.  After several months of eating those crunchy, golden-brown, salty glories almost exclusively, I discovered that I had accidentally begun to drop weight.  From there, I began to actively monitor what I would eat, and I also started to exercise, going so far as to join a gym (something anathema to my worldview until then).  I won’t say that the weight melted off, but I did get down to a more healthy poundage.  Naturally, I continued drinking and smoking during all of this, so I won’t pretend like I was the picture of healthy living, nor was I what anyone would consider a physical specimen at any time.  I guess the point (if there is one outside of the nebulous connection to (the late) David A. Prior’s Killer Workout [aka Aerobicide]) is that sometimes good things occur simply by happenstance.  Because I know for a fact that things rarely come together the way I’d like them to if I actively plan for them (your mileage may vary).

Valerie is a young model who just scored the cover of Cosmopolitan.  Hooray!  To celebrate, she treats herself to a tanning session, but things go horrible awry when the machine malfunctions and bursts into flames.  Some time later, Rhonda (Marcia Karr, whom you might know better as Stevie in Savage Streets) tries to keep her shit together as some maniac runs around her gym, killing her clientele willy-nilly.  Enter craggy Lieutenant Morgan (David James Campbell) and beefy Chuck Dawson (Ted Prior) who may just get to the bottom of things if everyone hasn’t already been killed first.

Transitions can be a tricky thing in films.  They can be invisible or conspicuous, stylish or modest, depending on the device the filmmaker chooses to use, but above all, their purpose is to create chapter breaks for the audience.  What Prior does in Killer Workout is give us aerobics montages for his transitions.  So, whenever the story needs to take a pause and move forward a tiny bit in time (or just because why not?), we get to watch extensive scenes of women in spandex gyrating, splaying their legs, and dry-humping the air, all set to some fantastic Eighties pop.  Well-played, sir!  Aside from the surface greatness of these interstitials, they do serve to reinforce part of the film’s major theme: vanity.  The women doing their aerobics are very concerned about how they look, and the film’s audience loves to look at them because of this.  They’re two sides of the same coin; one wanting to watch, the other wanting to be watched.  This extends to some of the men working out, particularly our introduction to Chuck, who is first shown doing barbell curls, and there are several closeups of his large, glistening biceps, hitting the nail directly on its head.  

The killer, who we already know is going to turn out to be Valerie since we’re never shown her face in the prologue, has a hatred of the beautiful people (and the beautiful people at this gym are pretty easy to hate).  This despite the fact that in order for her to walk among the gym’s patrons undetected, she would also have to be outwardly beautiful.  More than this, I think that Valerie’s hatred stems from her own vanity rather than from simple resentment.  After all, the whole reason she got burned is because she was doing something in order to make herself look better outwardly.  Her inability to recognize this is interesting to me as a metaphor for beauty being only skin deep.

The film is also focused largely on the male characters’ assertions of their dominance (aka dick swinging).  The men at this club gossip like they’re bragging about their latest sexual conquests and blatantly hit on the female members in the most meatheaded ways imaginable.  Chuck loves getting into fights at the drop of a hat, going so far as to jump a set of stairs (read: to conclusions) in order to whale on Tommy (Richard Bravo), whom he suspects may be the killer (due to some specious reasoning, naturally).  Chuck also thinks nothing of taking a ride with Debbie (the voluminous Dianne Copeland) and banging her right in the middle of his first day at work.  More than all of this, he chomps at the bit to throw down with local sleazeball Jimmy (Fritz Matthews) at every opportunity, and he really can’t be faulted for that, because Jimmy is truly an odious dickweed (after one altercation between the two, Debbie exclaims, “That was rad,” thus summing up all you need to know about these scenes, I think).  Jimmy is dying to get into Rhonda’s pants, and from the aggressively skanky way he goes about it, you really have to wonder how he’s allowed to remain a member at the gym at all.  The tension between Chuck and Jimmy is, appropriately enough, where the majority of the film’s action is.  There is more time spent showing these two guys beat the crap out of each other than there is showing the murders, some of which are only shown momentarily and one major one which is handled completely offscreen.  

Killer Workout is a movie disconnected from reality, aside from its world being entirely centered on flesh (an intriguing commentary by itself).  Morgan handles evidence with his bare hands.  The killer’s weapon of choice is a giant safety pin (yes, really).  Gym employees routinely work with the lights off.  Chuck blatantly tells Morgan that he committed breaking and entering, and this not only passes like it was nothing, but later on after catching Chuck doing it again, Morgan gives him the keys to waltz right into the gym.  Morgan tries to protect a potential victim by pounding on her door and barking that he’s a cop.  The film doesn’t have a central character.  It has characters who run through the story, but none of them are all that interesting, and we don’t follow any of them in any sort of depth (again referring to the notion of a superficial meat culture).  They just pop up now and again to do whatever it is they do and then kind of move into the background until they’re needed again.  The film’s last act is absolutely insane, with mind-numbingly improbable twists and turns flying in rapid succession.  Nevertheless, Prior and company keep things so breezy and loaded with interesting visuals (read: hot bodies in tight clothing, because, let’s face it, we’re all shallow in this regard to one degree or another), the whole thing somehow transcends its flaws and, in fact, incorporates them all into one of its greatest strengths.  I suppose sometimes two (or three, or four, or…) wrongs do make a right.

MVT:  The characters are the sort of forcefully vapid, sneering, catty people you love to watch butt heads.  And they’re almost uniformly batshit crazy.

Make or Break:  I still cannot wrap my head completely around the big reveal of the killer’s identity, the offhanded reasoning given for the killing spree, and the events that transpire around and after it.  And this makes me love it all the more.

Score:  6.75/10             

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Angel Terminators 2 (1993)

One of the fascinating things about words (aside from the power they can wield; I do believe they can be mightier than the proverbial sword) is their ability to be misunderstood.  I’m not simply referring to the varying extents of people’s vocabularies and the confusion that can cause.  I’m talking about the misinterpretation of words, and how people react to such misinterpretations.  For example (and I am completely stealing this from local radio personality John Webster, so if he happens to be reading this [which is doubtful], thanks and sorry), if you say, “throw the cow over the fence some hay before you leave,” the syntax is funny, first because of the mental image it immediately conjures (throwing a cow over a fence, at least momentarily), and second because we know these words don’t go in this order, and we love to laugh (however lightly or cruelly) at the mistakes of others.  

Another way misinterpretation can be a positive is in its ability to inspire.  A great many writers mis-hear phrases, and it stimulates something in their brains that ignites an idea for an essay or story (I’m thinking specifically here about Harlan Ellison as the first author from whom I heard this [as the impetus for his story Jeffty is Five], but I also think it’s one of those innate skills/quirks of scribes, seasoned and neophytic).  This leads into this week’s film, Tony Liu Jun-Guk and Chan Lau’s Angel Terminators 2 (aka Huo Zhong aka The Best of the Lady Kickboxer), which is one in an avalanche of Hong-Kong-produced films whose English subtitles are so literal they’ve become a trope in and of themselves.  You get such gems as, “You shall be responsible if I suffer loss today,” “You come only now?” and “Hey, you’re nut.”  This oddity doesn’t detract from the quality of the better-made Hong Kong films, but it does add a layer of fun to both accomplished and less polished efforts alike.  Thankfully, this film falls in the former category. 

After cops Great Aunt (Sibelle Hu, who wears sweat pants almost exclusively while on duty) and Bao (Jason Pai Piao) bust up a robbery, they head on over to the local prison.  Bao’s daughter Bullet (Yukari Oshima, who also wears some tragically baggy pants throughout the film) is being released, but she wants nothing to do with her old man.  Bullet’s best friend Chitty (Moon Lee, who we first see wearing a sweatsuit, notice a trend here?) and a gaggle of friends show up and take her into their care.  But vile gangster Mad (Anthony Cho Cheuk-Nin) entangles himself in all of their lives, and the only way out is through blood.

One of the things this “girls with guns” film has at its heart is a theme of bonds between people (like a great many Hong Kong movies).  Great Aunt and Bao are tight as partners.  She is the loose cannon, while he is usually the voice of reason (though he can certainly handle himself in a fight).  It’s a trait she admires in him, and she looks up to him both as an equal and (I got the impression) a surrogate daughter.  Likewise, Chitty and Bullet are best friends from way back, and they look out for each other to the extent that Bullet will defy people she probably shouldn’t (and this points to a key aspect of her character, as well).  Their friendship is primarily expressed physically in the fights in which the two girls seem to take great delight (with other people, not one another).  

But for how alike they are in that respect, Bullet and Chitty are different in how they relate to their actual families.  Bullet unrepentantly hates her father and displays her disdain openly (and considering her reason, you can’t really blame her).  Bao tries to reach out to his daughter, but his apparent lack of emotion, his detachment from what family means, and his belief in duty over all, only helps keep the two at odds.  Consequently, Bullet joined a gang in her youth and sought some form of acceptance in that lifestyle (this is never developed outside of a plot point, but it does make a certain sense for Oshima’s character).  Conversely, Chitty’s Uncle Tiger (the late, great Lo Lieh) is a retired gangster, and Chitty does her best to make him believe that she is straitlaced (she changes into demure eyeglasses directly before seeing him).  For how much she rebels, however, Chitty cares a great deal for Uncle Tiger.  She has what Bullet doesn’t have (more precisely, what Bullet rejects) – a family – and so, she is a kind of substitute family for Bullet.  As you may have guessed, these relationships become bonded by blood in a very actual sense, and it is in this way that the film resonates, as the best heroic bloodshed films (and action films in general) do.

These bonds and interrelationships carry over into ideas of individuality and conformity.  Chitty rebels in her friendship with Bullet and their skirmishes together, but she plays the part of a nice young woman for her uncle.  She wants to fit the mold she perceives as the norm, to please others over herself.  Bullet is fiercely independent, though she has to rely on her friends for support.  At one point, she tells Chitty, “If you don’t resist, others will beat you,” and this is the summation of her character from start to finish. This is not necessarily a philosophy she picked up in prison, although it would certainly aid in surviving on the inside.  It’s a wall she has built up over time to protect herself from harm: hurt others before they can hurt you.  By that same token, Bao is the model of conformity (and the film does make a point of emphasizing aspects of the British colonialism extant at the time of its production; so, there’s that).  While Great Aunt does act out in the same sort of way that Bullet does, she is able to be reined in to some extent by Bao and the powers that be.  Ultimately, it’s the two characters between the extremes (Chitty and Great Aunt) who will decide how they choose to live their lives for themselves and benefit from the lessons from both ends of this spectrum.

The fight choreography in Angel Terminators 2 is truly outstanding, and the participants (particularly the three main female characters) are a pure joy to watch (while I suspect there may have been some undercranking used to speed up the fights just a little, and if it wasn’t, color me even more impressed), and they are liberally sprinkled across the runtime.  The filmmakers, in the Hong Kong tradition, use stylistic flourishes to emphasize the kinetic characteristics of their action scenes with Dutch angles, quick tracking shots, slow motion, low angle shots, and wide angle lenses all thrown into the mix rather smoothly.  Also as is the norm in Hong Kong action films, the story brings up plot points that it forgets about and reintroduces them much later on, granting them more emotional weight than they probably should have for their lack of development.  Ergo, its pace moves in fits and starts in spite of the frequency and velocity of its action beats.  Despite its deceptive (some would say “sloppy,” and to be fair, I would probably prefer the term “ambitious”) structure, there is a ton to love about this film, and any fan of action films, foreign and domestic, should give it a whirl.  

MVT:  Yukari Oshima carries a lot of the film’s weight with a constant intensity that impressed me, her magnificent martial arts skills notwithstanding.

Make or Break:  Coming as no surprise to anyone, the Make for me is a scene towards the end involving Bullet, some Molotov cocktails, and a very large knife.  The first shot by itself was enough to engrain it in my head until the day I die.

Score:  7/10      

Friday, September 18, 2015

Black Scorpion II: Aftershock (1997)

Directed by: Jonathan Winfrey
Runtime: 86 minutes

This is the last of the Black Scorpion movies. It is cheesy, the hero has a tendency to kill villains, has nudity to encourage rental sales, and it is low budget. Despite this it is fun, feels like a comic book hero movie, and does not require antidepressants after viewing.

The opening title sequence also doubles as a montage to show what happened in the last film. Which leads into the movie proper with villains dressed as newly weds in a car chase with police. So of course the Black Scorpion shows up right after the only marked police car crashes and she goes after the newly wed bandits. Once she catches up to the bandits she promptly blows up the car because the villains just ran out of plot immunity.

This movie has three plots running at the same time. Plot A involves the Gangster Prankster. A low budget version of the Joker that has half of his face damaged and uses clown makeup to cover the scaring. He and his gang are out to cause as much mayhem as possible and destroy the Black Scorpion. Plot B involves Darcy and her relationship with her alter ego the Black Scorpion. Darcy is wanting to be cop less and being the Black Scorpion more. This is leads to all kinds of problems at work and in her personal life. At work her partner is not sure if he can trust her as she seems to be unwilling to go into dangerous situations. Her personal life is just as complicated as she wants her partner in bed without the aid of a costume and a taser. Finally Plot C deals with the fact that Angel City is broke due to the mayor stealing money from city and is hoping for earthquakes and federal disaster funds will help hide his crimes. However a scientist has found a way to stop earthquakes and the mayor can't have that. So he send some yes men to destroy the scientist machine and end up turn the scientist in the villain Aftershock.

In short that is the whole movie. There is not much else to talk about plot wise. A few scenes of female nudity at the beginning to sucker anyone who rented back when movie rental was a thing. There is no rape in this movie unlike the first movie. Also the villains suck in this movie the Gangster Prankster is an insufferable tool that is annoying in every scene he is in. Aftershock is just boring, she was created by a lab accident and mcguffin radiation and doesn't do much other than to advance Plot A.

Unless you are a hardcore Black Scorpion fan or suffer from clinical completion syndrome I can't really recommend owning this movie. This is a great movie if it happens to show up on one of the movie streaming sites or randomly on cable. Also if you are trapped inside due to heavy rain, snow, or a media circus has  taken up camp on your front lawn.

MVT: They use the 67 Stingray in this movie as well.

Make or Break: Every scene that has the Gangster Prankster is annoying and painful. Best way to put how annoying he is into words, a twelve year old high on sugar and adderall screaming fifty year old jokes and hitting you about the head with the book he got them from. 

Score: 4.3 out of 10

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Evilspeak (1981)

I’ve often said, and I maintain that I’m correct in this, that I have never been what anyone would consider cool.  I don’t say this to be humble or to be self-effacing or to be hip by being square.  I say it because this has been the accumulation of my experiences in my life.  I am too antiestablishment for establishment people.  I am too establishment for antiestablishment people.  I am too conservative for liberals.  I am too liberal for conservatives.  I am too smart for the low brows.  I am too dumb for the high brows.  Hell, I rode a skateboard for a few years and never even learned to Ollie (yeah, I was that kid).  Consequently, it has always been a very rare thing for me to feel like I truly belong anywhere, and so I’m usually not comfortable in most public situations (that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it).  Don’t misunderstand; I don’t think that this makes me unique in any way, shape, or form (if anything, it should simply make me average, but our own problems are always bigger and crummier than other people’s, right?).  In fact, I think the vast majority of us have felt this way at one time or another, and it is precisely the reason why we love films about underdogs and about outcasts taking revenge on their tormentors.  Even people who have always seemingly been “on top” enjoy movies like these, because deep, deep down (cue the Danger: Diabolik soundtrack) they have insecurities on which these films touch.  Plus, the very act of growing up ensures that, at some point in their youth, damned near everyone has felt less powerful than someone else.  Movies like Eric Weston’s Evilspeak resonate with that ingrained, possibly even buried, crack in people’s psyches.  If you’re human, you identify on some level with characters like Stanley Coopersmith (Clint Howard).  You probably haven’t gone to the extremes that he and his classmates do, however, but you understand why these events transpire.

Lorenzo Esteban (Richard Moll) is your average sixteenth century heretic who gets drummed out of Spain for turning his flock on to Satanism and human sacrifices (and who immediately performs a black mass in protest).  Via a pretty clever form cut we are transported to contemporary California, where the boys of the West Andover Military Academy have lost yet another soccer match because Stanley (whom they call “Cooperdick”) is incompetent at the sport (and having nothing at all to do with their goalie being absolutely awful).  Stanley endures the steady stream of threats and abuse, both emotional and physical, from his classmates and superiors in equal measure as best he can.  Inevitably, he comes upon the writings of Esteban in the school basement (maybe sub-basement, but who’s counting?), and, with the help of a purloined school computer, translates the how-to manual for his occult revenge.

The interesting thing that Evilspeak does is it incorporates the then-burgeoning world of computers (or at least I personally knew of very few people who owned a home PC at that time) with the world of occult horror.  In this filmic world, as in so many, technology becomes conflated with evil, even though Stanley’s computer is merely a tool, a conduit for Esteban, not an active participant in any flagitious behavior.  That said, it becomes a metaphor (not the most cogent in the way that it’s handled in the film, but still…) for technology in modern life.  In much the same way that science fiction films of the Fifties and into the Sixties warned us not to meddle with nature because of the dire results to be wrought, this film warns us that technology, for as much as it makes certain things in our lives easier (translating black mass rituals, for example), also presents us with additional temptations that, if allowed to go unchecked, could consume our lives.  Bring this notion into the twenty-first century.  A great many people today can’t go even a day without their computers, their smartphones, and so forth.  Rather than engage in actual human conversations, many kids have abbreviation-loaded chats (even when sitting inches from the person they’re talking with) where any conflicts are devoid of actual discomfort because of the disconnect inherent in the medium.  Naturally, this makes neither texting nor these kids “evil.”  But what it does do is insidiously detaches them from the real world where real people deal with real emotions and real actions carry real weight.  My polemic out of the way, Stanley untethers from the normative world in a similar way through his interaction with Esteban in the computer.  What starts off for him as a tool to help with a school project becomes a cookbook for evil, and it becomes Stanley’s obsession and his downfall.

Bearing in mind my opening paragraph, I feel that Evilspeak also posits evil (or alternately Satanism) as being a form of individuality (even though in this case it’s, you know, bad and leads to things like slaughter, madness, and such).  There are three people at the academy who don’t traditionally fit in: Stanley, his one friend Kowalski (Haywood Nelson of What’s Happening fame) who is seemingly the sole black student at the school, and Jake (Lenny Montana of The Godfather fame) who is the lowly, shirtless, neckerchieved cook who befriends Stanley.  You could argue that Sarge (R.G. Armstrong) is in the same class as Jake, but Sarge was in the military prior to his current state, and he sides with the others against Stanley, so this makes him an establishment figure (or at least moreso than it does Jake).  All of the other characters are conformists.  The very idea of setting the film in a military academy explicitly points to this idea.  Characters from Colonel Kincaid (Charlie Tyner) to Coach (Claude Earl Jones) to Reverend Jameson (Joe Cortese) are the ruling class.  They tolerate people like Kowalski and Jake because they are useful in some way (Jake cooks, and I don’t know what Kowalski’s saving grace is, but he must have one for the students and faculty to refrain from punishing him like they do Stanley).  For this same reason, they despise Stanley.  Stanley can’t even get out of his own way, often tripping, dropping his books, and so forth.  Whatever he attempts, he flubs.  Because Stanley can’t conform (not won’t; he tries and fails, and this is unacceptable), he is left with no respite from his abusers than to turn to evil.  Under Esteban’s computerized influence, Stanley finds something that he can do.  He distinguishes himself from the others at the school (even while aligning himself with a drift of pigs [Esteban’s spirit animal apparently]), and in this distinction he makes himself more powerful than all of them.  For a time.

Evilspeak is the sort of film in which almost nothing happens between kill scenes (unless you count electro-Esteban messing around with all kinds of computer-inspired animations and typographic designs).  As a result, you find yourself asking questions you really shouldn’t be asking of a film of this nature and picking up on the logic gaps and plot holes that run rampant throughout the whole thing.  For example, how do Bubba (Don Stark) and his cohorts find out about Stanley’s puppy without having seen it or heard about it (since I’m almost positive neither Jake nor Stanley would have told them)?  What school has a bikini pageant (dubbed “Miss Heavy Artillery,” get it?) for its students, even if it is a military academy?  How did absolutely no one ever find out about Esteban’s chamber and ancient apothecary, especially Sarge who’s been sleeping practically on top of it for years?  What was the purpose of the scenes with Mrs. Caldwell (Sue Casey) being escorted around the campus except to show us that she’s Bubba’s mother (a useless bit of information that is never paid off or brought up again).   

Speaking of characters, the ones in this movie are completely undeveloped.  If Kowalski and Stanley are such good friends, why do they never hang out together?  The adult bullies are irrationally cruel and don’t have a sympathetic bone in their bodies.  The student bullies are arguably even worse.  Kincaid’s secretary Miss Friedemeyer (Lynn Hancock) at least serves the purpose of getting naked during the film, but we still spend an inordinate amount of time watching her try to pry the medallion off of Esteban’s journal (assumedly because she thinks it’s either shiny/pretty and/or worth some money), and we learn nothing about her as a person.  Everyone is strictly in this to get to the big finale (or die beforehand).  Jones states in an interview on the Scream Factory disc that the film is a comedy, and I suppose that’s a good possibility, because it is so over the top, you can’t take any of it seriously.  However, if it was actually intended to be funny, I didn’t find much at which to laugh (this seems to be a trend in my moviegoing experience of later).  By that same token, the mean streak running through the film would make any intentional laughs uneasy.  The film is still interesting as a curiosity, and there are some standout segments (Miss Friedemeyer, I’m looking at you), but its deficiencies and that the filmmakers allow the audience the free time to ponder its deficiencies really drag it down.

MVT:  The build up to Stanley’s vengeance is the name of the game, and it is long and grueling.  The filmmakers put the cherry on top with the final insult, and I have to admit, by that point I wanted all of these pricks dead, too.

Make or Break:  The finale cuts loose in a big way, and it is oh-so-satisfying watching these jerks get their gruesome comeuppance.  Incidentally, the moment with the crucifix in the chapel scared the ever-loving shit out of me as a child.

Score:  6/10