Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Thunder of Gigantic Serpent (1988)

I’m just going to be plain about this.  I’m not a fan of snakes.  I realize that there are people out there (maybe even one or two reading this) who love them.  I realize that, like most animals, they don’t have it innately in for humans.  I realize that my fears of them are massively unfounded and irrational.  But that’s the point.  Many times, fear is irrational.  It’s a ping deep in the darkest parts of the human mind that puts you on edge.  It’s the idea that there may be some nefarious lurker in the basement with you, over there in the part with no lights, just waiting to spring on you as you pass by.  Fear is the unknown.  Fear is ignorance.  Having said that, I still don’t think that, even if I knew everything under the sun there is to know about snakes, I would trust them in the slightest.  This goes back to my deep-rooted distrust of most things in this world.  Call me a pessimist, but I prefer the term pragmatist.  For instance, I love dogs, but I wouldn’t trust a strange one as far as I could throw it (and what with my bad back and all…).  This, of course, cuts me off from certain life experiences, but you know what?  I think I’m good with that (a mindset some folks just can’t seem to wrap their heads around).  Would I have the same phobia about snakes if I had a pet snake like Mozler (where this name came from is anyone’s guess, and my spelling is going solely from the way it sounded in the film) in Godfrey Ho’s Thunder of Gigantic Serpent (aka Daai Se Wong aka Terror Serpent)?  Possibly, but I’d still take Lassie over this any day.

Thunder cracks on the soundtrack, and snakes pour out of a mountainside.  Why?  Because.  Tense villain Solomon practices his beer can target practice and declares his great need to own a formula that makes plants (and soon animals, natch) huge so he can dominate the world food market.  Scientists in league with the military (who, if my eyes deceive me, have the Harley Davidson logo on their berets) kick off something called Thunder Project when their base is set upon by Solomon’s henchmen.  Young Ting Ting plays with her beloved and obedient Mozler, stumbles upon the formula, and – Voila! - next thing you know, Mozler is Kong-sized (or in this case, I suppose it would be more appropriate to say Manda-sized).  Oh, and Ted Fast (Pierre Kirby) is inexplicably on the case, too.

Humans (with or without special abilities) with special friends and/or pets (who almost certainly have special abilities) have been around for, what seems like, eons.  In everything from Flipper to E.T. to Willard and back again, there is a commune forged between the innocence of youth and nature (films like Willard and Stanley and so forth are slight exceptions in regards to innocence [though their protagonists normally start off as rather ingenuous before heading down a dark path], but I think it means something that the main characters in films like those are typically adults, not children).  Kids have the ability in films like this to touch something that adults usually can’t, and I think it comes from their purity.  Filmic kids see the world differently, and have none of the jaded perspectives of folks like their parents, authority figures, and so on.  This point of view is what creates the rapport children have with the natural (and sometimes supernatural) world.  Their love for each other is unconditional, and they would go to the ends of the Earth for one another (yet it’s often the non-human character who winds up making the sacrifice for the human and not the other way around).  Ting Ting and Mozler get along like a house on fire (the snake even saves the girl from an actual one), and Mozler appears to have the brain capacity of, if not a college graduate, a fourth grader.  He understands what Ting Ting says and nods in agreement with her when she asks him questions.  This is before he grows.  Afterwards, they toss a ball back and forth to each other.  But, as I’ve been trying to intimate, I don’t think it’s that Mozler is special in and of himself, so much as it is Ting Ting who is able to bring this out in the serpent.  Had the snake been with another child, I don’t think he would have been nearly so exceptional (and if Ting Ting had a pet lepidopteran, she may have inadvertently created Mothra).

Knowing what little I do about Ho’s work, I was kind of surprised at how many special effects are on display in this film.  Mozler is usually depicted as a duo of hand puppets, one for his head and one for his tail, with his midsection conveniently hidden out of frame, though we do get a life sized prop of his giant head that Ting Ting rides around on for a bit.  I’m a sucker for miniature work and practical monster effects, even when they don’t quite stick the landing (I am, for example, perfectly fine with the marionette from The Giant Claw).  That is not to say that the effects are very good, but they are plentiful and kind of fun.
Ho was notorious for making Frankenstein films.  In other words, he (and frequent producing partner Joseph Lai) would buy the rights to one film, shoot some additional scenes (oftentimes with white actors to give them, I’m guessing, an international flavor) and then edit everything together in a patchwork fashion whose seams not only show but also threaten to burst open at the slightest touch.  This is why many of his films feel like two films smashed together (or three of four, for all I know); Because they were.  This also explains the schizophrenic, disjointed, nature of his films.  Scenes rarely lead one into another.  Characters (like our own Ted Fast) act as if they are in their own storyline which ties in only tangentially to the main storyline, popping up every so often to have a martial arts scuffle and then disappearing again from the film for a long stretch (or even the remainder of the runtime).  It’s an economy of filmmaking (one could even call it a dearth of economy of filmmaking) that leads to some very odd choices (and what I would argue is the primary reason for Ho’s fanbase).  Characters often have information there is no way they could possibly have just to keep the movie hopping along.  Sequences just happen for no motivated, structured reason.  There are long scenes of characters watching one another and then reporting back to their superiors rather than actually taking any sort of action or talking and saying nothing outside of some exposition and filler.  Still and all, I did find myself enjoying this film to an extremely minor degree, lumps and all.  If you’re familiar with what a Godfrey Ho film is like, you know precisely what you’re getting here.  If you’re not familiar with his oeuvre, this is as good a place to start as any.
MVT:  Giant Mozler is the tops for me.  I have always loved giant monsters, I always will, and Thunder of Gigantic Serpent shows their giant monster quite often (wires and all), so I got my fix.
Make or Break:  The Make is the first time you realize that Mozler is actually reacting to what Ting Ting is saying to him.  If you can go along with this, you can go along with everything else in the film.
Score:  6/10

Friday, January 22, 2016

Four Lions (2010)

Directed by: Chris Morris
Run time: 97 minutes

This movie is a biting satire of Islamic extremism and human stupidity. Written and directed by Chris Morris who has also written The Day Today,  Brass Eye, and episodes of Veep. The Day Today and The Brass Eye were satirical takes of the media with no care given to how badly they made fun of them or what subject matter they choose to satirize. The best example of this was the Drugs episode of Brass Eye, the show claimed there was an Eastern European drug called "Cake". "Cake" affects the Shatner's Bassoon region of the brain and slowed the users perception of time. It also was claimed to cause water retention in the neck. Now they asked David Amess, a Conservative member of parliament, to film a PSA about the evils of "Cake". He was so taken in by the joke that he asked the government if they knew what it was and had they banned it yet. This is the level of satire Chris Morris brings to his work.

The tone of this movie is set with the opening scene of the character Waj filming his martyr video with a small toy AK-47 and a camera with low battery life. Instead of recording his last message, he is busy arguing with the other members in terrorist cell on the best way to make the toy look like the real thing. This is one of many videos that Omar, leader of the cell, is trying to edit in some way that does not make their group look like a collection of morons. Like Faisal, who refuses to be filmed unless he is wearing a box over his head. Or Barry, a recent convert to Islam and thinks ingesting sim cards is a brilliant way to avoid authorities listening in or tracking them on their cell phones.

The cell's problems start when Omar and Waj go to Pakistan for terrorist training and direction as to what their target will be. Their training doesn't even start when Waj takes a real AK-47 and uses his cell phone to take a video of himself firing it. This pisses off the people running the camp and Omar and Waj will be sent back to England without the training or guidance. Ensuring that the situation is made worse, Omar spots a drone and gets the bright idea to shoot it out of the sky with a rocket launcher. This dumb idea is made worse by the fact Omar has never used that weapon and is holding it backwards. So instead of missing the drone he hit another near by training camp. Omar and Waj get the hell out of Pakistan and get back to England as quickly as humanly possible. Instead of cutting their losses the group just doubles down on the stupidity.

This movie does a great job of showing four flawed people who are all for killing themselves in the name of God. Collectively the four of them can't agree on why they are dying or where they should attack but they all ready to be welcomed into paradise. No one in this film is the cunning evil terrorist, the ultra innocent bystanders, or officer Amazing Slab Chunkhead. It is a movie universe full of people with absurd ideas with an absurd and satirical slant. It is dark, unapologetic, funny, and unafraid to call everyone an idiot. If you like what you have read so far go out and watch this movie. You will not be disappointed.

MVT: The Cast and the writing are the reason this movie is funny as it is.

Make or Break: This is filmed as cable news feature showing the lead up to an event. So a lot of the footage is from closed circuit tv, news footage, cell phone footage, and documentary like footage. It was jarring getting used to the way this movie is put together.

Score: 7.95 out of 10

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Last Match (1991)

Cliff (surly Oliver Tobias) is the super-terrific quarterback of some unnamed football team, and as Fabrizio DeAngelis’ (under the super-terrific nom de guerre Larry Ludman) The Last Match (aka L’ultima Meta) opens, he somehow manages to pull a super-terrific win against another unnamed team out of his ass (not that any of this is shown in any coherent fashion), all while super-terrific Coach Keith (the ever-enthusiastic Ernest Borgnine) cheers him on from the sidelines.  Shortly thereafter, and for absolutely no discernible reason, some anonymous guy slips drugs into the handbag of Cliff’s daughter Suzy (the super-terrifically cute Melissa Palmisano), who has been vacationing in the Dominican Republic with her super-terrifically overstimulated boyfriend George (Robert Floyd).  Suzy is taken to the not-so-super-terrific prison governed by Warden Yachin (Henry Silva), and after Cliff kind of/sort of runs into nothing but red tape, he decides that his only option is to bust his little girl out.  In his football uniform.

Sports films are typically about the triumph of the human spirit.  It is less important that the protagonist emerges victorious in whatever athletic field in which they are engaged than it is that he/she overcomes his/her inner demons and character flaws to become a stronger person in the process (Exhibit A: Rocky).  Audiences love to cheer on the underdog, because they identify with the archetype.  Everyone feels like they’re up against seemingly insurmountable odds at some point or another.  Not being a sports fan, you would think that sports films wouldn’t appeal to me, but the plain fact is that they do, and this is because of what I mentioned above.  The best in this genre play to a broad audience that transcend the sports aspects.  

If anything, the actual sports in a sports film usually play like the fights in an action film or the finale of a horror film.  In the good ones, they are the delicious gravy on the meat of character development and thematic exploration.  In the bad ones, they are filler designed to distract you from the film’s innate shortcomings.  It’s kind of rare that we get a sports film where the athletes are on top and stay on top from beginning to end.  After all, where’s the excitement in that?  What’s the point if the protagonist(s) never have to rise above mighty hardships?  This, then, is the primary reason why The Last Match is a dud.  We’re told (but not until the film’s end) that Cliff’s team starts off poorly in every game, but they always manage to turn it around and win.  As previously hinted, the football games are edited in such a random manner (by Adriano Tagliavia, under the super-terrifically-on-the-nose pseudonym Adrian Cut; get it?), we never see Cliff’s team go through this supposed struggle, because we’re never one hundred percent certain what the hell is going on at all.  In fact, I would go so far as stating that the only shots that make any sense in these sequences are those of Coach Keith doing his coaching thing and those of the cheerleaders doing their cheerleading thing.  We have to take it as writ that Cliff’s team are all winners all the time, which is great if you bet on their games, but it doesn’t work for a film, even one that’s not strictly about football (despite the inordinate amount of time devoted to showing football games onscreen).

Football players are often likened to modern day gladiators; warriors who do battle on a field of honor (we’re talking theoretically here).  Consequently, they tend to be depicted in fictive works as large, scowling thugs (sometimes with a heart of gold, if the classic “Mean” Joe Green Coca-Cola commercial has taught us anything at all).  Nevertheless, this doesn’t really work on film, unless their purpose is as either henchmen or cannon fodder (and make no mistake, the majority of Cliff’s team are exactly that, though I don’t recall any of them getting so much as grazed by a bullet with one exception).  The sports film protagonist needs to have something with which viewers can connect, even if they’re not very nice people (Exhibit B: Raging Bull).  This is the secondary reason why The Last Match is a clunker.  Cliff, as essayed by Tobias, is one of the most miserable pricks I’ve seen as the protagonist in a film in quite a while.  He mildly tolerates everyone with whom he comes into contact.  He is aloof to the point of apathy, even when talking with his daughter, who we have to take it on faith that he loves since he goes through all this hassle to help her out (watch his non-reaction to the injury of one of his pals which is discovered, predictably, on the plane ride home, if the rest of the mountain of evidence in the film up to that point doesn’t convince you).  He is condescending, even to the people who are on his side (including, but not limited to, a perfectly wasted Martin Balsam).  When a character who previously gave Cliff shit (justifiably or not) suddenly pops up and says he wants to talk, Cliff instantly whoops the man’s ass (justifiably or not) rather than hear even one word he has to say.  While we certainly feel for Suzy to some extent or another, Cliff is nothing but a curmudgeon, the blunt, dull instrument this film uses to bang square pegs into round holes.

The film is also adamant in its depiction of the local populace.  The Dominicans in The Last Match HATE Americans (I don’t think any Dominican ever refers to any non-Dominican characters by their actual names; it’s always as “American”).  One of Suzy’s jailers states “nothing is denied you people in my country.”  Yachin basically tells Cliff point blank that he’s banging Cliff’s daughter and throwing it in his face simply because Cliff and Suzy are Americans.  Whether or not this enmity is warranted, the filmmakers waste even less time jumping to portray Dominicans as base creatures and their nation as a corrupt hellhole (though I don’t think it has to be Dominicans; I’m sure just about any non-white country/populace would suffice for the filmmakers).  Suzy is stripped and searched after her arrest, and we get reaction shots of the male guards ogling her like wolves eyeing up a lame deer.  Balsam’s character states, “Nobody of any importance ever comes to this godforsaken part of the world.”   A character wants Cliff and his pals to take his son out of the country with them, because he knows just how horrible it is living there.  We’ve definitely seen these sorts of attitudes before in genre films, but ordinarily they aren’t so pointed, so mean, as they are here.  

Finally, the film’s climax seems to miss its own point.  Even while we look forward to the assault on the prison, it doesn’t play out satisfyingly.  The only standout to the affair is that the good guys all wear their uniforms (which boggles the mind if they weren’t looking to be recognized and/or cause an international incident).  After all of the relentless dourness that comes before it, the film needed a win in this regard, but it’s as joyless as everything and everyone else in the film, and it robs it of what appeal it may have had.

MVT:  Borgnine gives it a lot of gusto, but he’s the one brightly over-ebullient spot in an otherwise moribund picture. 

Make or Break:  When Yachin receives his comeuppance, it’s anticlimactic in just about every respect.  Silva (and the audience) deserve better.

Score:  4.5/10

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Light Blast (1985)

When CHiPs originally aired (from 1977 to 1983), it was clear early on that co-star Erik Estrada was the lynchpin around which this televisual universe spun.  His Frank “Ponch” Poncherello was a swaggering ladies’ man who was adept at his job but also wasn’t above being taken down a peg when he acted like an ass (which was at least once per episode).  Contrasted against his straitlaced (nay, torpid) partner, Jon Baker (Larry Wilcox), it’s little wonder why Estrada garnered the majority of the popularity from the show.  He had charisma and looks (including a smile usually reserved only for grade school class photos), and sometimes that’s enough.  Of course, part of CHiPs’ fame also rested on the fact that it showcased some truly beautiful ladies being beautiful in tight uniforms, like Randi Oakes and Brianne Leary, and sometimes that’s enough, too.  Add to this the comedic relief stylings of Grossman (Paul Linke) and Harlan Arliss (Lou Wagner), and you get a recipe for success.  But television series don’t last forever, and Estrada rode his popularity as far as he could, appearing in a slew of direct-to-video films that varied in quality from middling to piss-poor.  He also gave a great turn as Marco Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar Diego Garcia Marquez on the animated Sealab 2021, prominently displaying his funny bone (though honestly, the show was only good up until the fantastic Harry Goz passed away, in my opinion).  So, where does Enzo G. Castellari’s Light Blast (aka Colpi Di Luce aka Neonkiller), a film which I believe actually had a theatrical release (but I’m not one hundred percent on that) fit on the Estrada spectrum?  I’d say it sits at the higher end of the curve, but it’s still not very good, and I believe that Estrada himself has very little to do with its quality, regardless.

A randy couple are melted (in imitation of the Nazis being melted at the climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark) during Yuri Svoboda’s (Ennio Girolami) testing of his new light-based superweapon.  Cut to: Detective Ron Warren (Estrada) taking out a couple of bank robbers wearing nothing but his gotchies and a turkey (with fries on the side).  Ron and his partner, Curtis Swann (Michael Pritchard, in the Jon Baker/Grossman role), are assigned to track down Yuri and his goons after the physicist (NOT a physician as stated on IMDb) threatens to destroy San Francisco if he’s not paid five million dollars (and then ten million, and then twenty million).

Light Blast is very much a conservative film in how it views the world, particularly with regards to the criminal element.  This is underscored in the sequence of Ron’s introduction.  The bank robbers are filthy scumbags, cackling with glee at their vicious misdeeds.  They even shoot a hostage in the back a few times just for kicks (and to make the audience detest them all the more).  An older woman watching this goes positively bloodthirsty, demanding that the cops murder the bad guys outright.  Naturally, Ron is happy to oblige, taking out the robbers and stating, “It’s maggots like you that make me like my job.”  Crime is not to be tolerated, and its perpetrators cannot be allowed to live (one has to wonder how Ron would deal with, say, a jaywalker?).  This is a black and white world, populated with black and white characters.  The film this most resembles in this respect (or at least the one I kept referencing in my mind) is Cobra which opens in a similar fashion (and to be fair, a great many films of this ilk contain prologue/hero intro scenes in this vein), but was released the following year.  Could it be that for once the Italian film industry were leaders rather than copycats?  Well, no, not really, since Light Blast’s attitude towards criminals is an extension of films like the Death Wish and Dirty Harry franchises, and certainly there were other films in between with a similar outlook (typically with a vigilante hero rather than a cop, but the two quickly intermingled and became a third thing), but the Light Blast/Cobra comparison really sticks out to me.  

Further to this is the idea that Ron is a man for whom his job is his life (killing’s his business, and business is fine).  Sure, we’re given a few token scenes of “domestic” life with his girlfriend Jack (Peggy Rowe), but they are totally joyless.  There is absolutely no chemistry between these two characters, and Jack is essentially an expositional tool and a motive for vengeance only.  In the middle of a miserable dinner, Jack races to the phone when it rings and then jets out when work comes a-calling.  He gets more excited investigating a crime scene than he does spending time with his lady friend.  Ron is so myopically intent on taking out bad guys, he neither blinks nor shows any sense of loss when his colleagues are killed or hurt (actually, he is further encouraged to go on the warpath by a wounded co-worker [“get those son of a bitches”]; Ron’s sensibility is the only correct one).  He doesn’t hesitate to pull the trigger on an adversary.  He has no compunction about using innocent bystanders to aid him in tailing one of Yuri’s henchmen rather than using the skills we assume he should possess as a police officer.  He is a sociopath, a characteristic remarked upon explicitly by Yuri, who claims that he admires Ron’s “cold efficiency.”  And that’s coming from a guy who liquefies human beings for a living.

This brings us to the character of Yuri himself, an equally forbidding character and the one interesting concept in the film.  Yuri is a pure comic book supervillain.  He employs a super-science weapon to hold power over the masses (the fact that it only affects people in proximity to liquid crystal display time pieces is a flaw, to be sure).  He has numerous henchmen, a notion I’ve always simultaneously loved and questioned, because for how marvelous it would be to have them, the practicalities of recruitment and retention make them extremely implausible (so let’s just take them on face value).  He has an underground lair in an unusual location.  But most of all, he believes that he’s doing all of this horrible stuff with the noblest of intentions driven by a personal tragedy.  Yuri understands that “money buys power,” and that his invention will make him “more powerful than God” (assuming God wears a digital watch; most likely a Casio Databank).  Nevertheless, he declares that his ultimate goal is world peace, might making right and all that.  He is a monster with a cause, just like Ron.  The only difference is that Yuri is indiscriminate in his choice of victims, while Ron is only slightly more discerning.

MVT:  The film’s action sequences stand out for being both multitudinous and well-executed.  They are the glue binding the film together, but I think they ultimately struggle to do so because the non-action scenes are so incredibly hollow, it makes sitting in one spot in anticipation of the next car chase/shootout/et cetera something of a chore.  Unless you enjoy reaction shots without reactions.

Make or Break:  The first body melt piqued my interest, and Castellari doesn’t shy away from the gore.  If only there had been just a few more of them.

Score:  5.75/10