Wednesday, September 27, 2017

They Call Me Macho Woman (1991)

Seeing the chintzy, but charming, cardboard city skyline accompanied by the words “A Troma Team Release” is something that can send paroxysms of anxiety through even the stoutest film lover’s heart.  Troma built their brand from the ground up, and they did it through the most blatant of hustling.  Lloyd Kaufman is a man who knows the value of getting something for nothing.  If Roger Corman is lauded for stretching every dollar he ever spent on his films, then Kaufman can pinch a penny into a piece of copper wire for his, and should be equally applauded.  I admire Kaufman’s particular brand of hucksterism.  He sells every film he puts out like it was “The Citizen Kane Of” whichever genre.  I’m quite certain he has no illusions about the level of quality in the movies he produces.  They are what they are, they are made (usually) with some heart, and they are typically exploitative as all hell.  Yes, the humor is normally not above the level of a twelve-year-old trying to light a fart.  Yes, the effects would make Ed Wood wince.  Yes, the acting lacks the subtlety of, well, it lacks subtlety entirely.  These are the things that attract their fans.  

Troma has also released films they had no role in producing, and this is where the nervousness about seeing their logo at the start of a movie arises.  For example, they were involved in the re-release of Dario Argento’s The Stendhal Syndrome as well as the distribution of Joel M Reed’s Bloodsucking Freaks.  While one could argue the merits of either of these films, one would have to agree that they are almost nothing like the stuff that Troma actually produces and distributes (although Bloodsucking Freaks comes close).  In other words, when you see the Troma logo, you know you’re in for a crap shoot.  This brings us to Sean P Donahue’s They Call Me Macho Woman (aka Savage Instinct), a movie Troma co-produced.  If the lack of resemblance between the woman on the box cover art and the film’s star (Debra Sweaney) doesn’t tell you you’ve entered Tromaville, nothing will (and maybe they’re both Sweaney, but I’ll be damned if they don’t look worlds apart to my eye).  And like the majority of Troma’s output, your mileage will most definitely vary in terms of enjoyment, depending on your threshold for uncut schlock.

Widow Susan Morris (Sweaney) and her realtor Cecil (Lory-Michael Ringuette) are en route to see an out-of-the-way property for Susan to purchase.  A chance auto mishap puts Susan in the crosshairs of Mongo (Brian Oldfield) and his kookie gang of drug dealers.  Now, she’ll have to man up if she wants to survive.

They Call Me Macho Woman (by the way, no one in the film ever calls Susan “Macho Woman”) falls into the category of movies that tell us, quite clearly, that, no matter where you go, trouble will find you.  Susan wants to get out of the city and fulfill the dream she and her husband had of moving to some place quiet and peaceful before a drunk driving accident took his life.  Solitude, however, is an impossibility.  The menace of city life expands to the countryside.  If it isn’t rapey, drug-addled thugs in the urban jungle, it’s rapey, moonshine-addled/inbred hicks in the woods (or, alternately, rapey, shitkicker cops).  In exploitation cinema, true peace is elusive, but it can be earned through violence.  The protagonist is broken down only to be built back up (by their own ingenuity) into a figure more frightening than those who threaten him/her.  To be at the top of the heap, to win the right to live as they want, they must sink to the level of savagery with which they are opposed.  And then top it.  Susan is handy from the start.  When their car gets a flat tire, Cecil proves worthless.  It’s Susan who has the know-how to change it, having been schooled by her brothers.  Eventually, she kits herself out with all manner of makeshift weaponry (while also taking the time to polish her mini-axes to a mirrorlike sheen; fashion and function).  Every situation in which Susan finds herself, she has to dig deeper and deeper into her primal core.  She has a cat fight with a predatory lesbian that ends with Susan tackling her opponent off a hay loft.  She seduces one of her attackers (I mean, he was going to rape her anyway, but still…) and impales his head on a nail.  She stabs a gang member in the ear with a stick (leading to a rather funny running joke for the rest of the film).  By the end of the movie, Susan can not only kill another human being, but she can do so brutally.  The question becomes, has Susan gained her freedom or lost her humanity?  Are the two the same?

Every person in this film is a shithead.  Mongo (who looks like a larger version of Nick Cassavetes) growls at everyone, and he isn’t above allowing his gang members to die in order to keep more of their illicit gains for himself.  He also kills people with a spiked bit of fetish headgear instead of, oh, say, shooting them.  With the exceptions of Mongo, Cecil, and Mr. Wilson (J. Brown), there is not a man or woman who doesn’t attempt to sexually assault Susan.  This even stretches to a trio of guys who could have been her saviors.  She flags down a car and is picked up by Geno (Paul Roder) and his mates.  They quickly pull off to the side to get some, cackling, drinking beer, and basically being assholes.  Things don’t go well for them.  Hand in hand with this omnipresent shitheadedness is the fact that every character says whatever is on their mind every moment of the film (typically consisting of calling their associates “idiots,” etcetera).  None of them has either ever heard the mantra that silence is golden, or they simply never paid it any mind (but mostly, let’s just blame Donahue, who is also the screenwriter).  This might not have been quite so bad if they didn’t all speak and relate on the level of eighth graders (one could imagine them trading spitballs with ease).  This is illustrated and/or compounded by the constant use of the term “bitch.”  In fact, its usage is so prevalent, you could easily make a drinking game out of it.  And that’s the territory in which They Call Me Macho Woman exists.  It is tiresome in its drudging repetitiveness.  It is not well-written, shot, or acted.  It is not even especially satisfying in its resolution.  Nonetheless, it is a singular cinematic experience that distinguishes itself by its insistence on trying to be as generic as possible.  A sort of failing upward, I suppose.

MVT:  The premise is solid enough.  That’s why it’s so well-worn.

Make or Break:  The fate of Geno and his crew is nicely executed.

Score:  6.5/10

Friday, September 22, 2017

Psychopathia Sexualis (2006)

Directed by: Bret Wood
Run Time: 98 minutes

I found this movie after a co-worker was telling me about a screwed up movie they had seen but could not remember the name. After a few hours of searching I couldn't find the movie they had seen but this is nearly as screwed up. Psychopathia Sexualis was a book written by Richard von Krafft-Ebing and was a study of various sexual mental illnesses. Some examples are homosexuality, sexual fetishes, vampirism, sadism, masochism, bestiality, necrophilia, and deviation from gender stereotypes. Without an essay about the book and it's contributions to psychology, this book opened the way for the study sexuality and psychology but makes a lot of assumptions that have been disproved.

The film itself is a series of vignettes based on selected case studies found in the book. The vignettes are held together with narration from the book and providing a counter point to what is being shown in the vignette. The result of this is a tone that comes off as a giant middle finger to the author of the title book. An example of this is the vignette that deals with sanitariums and treatment. The narration talks about how great the facilities are, professionalism of the staff, and the benefit of the treatments available at the time of the book's first printing. The vignette shows deplorable facilities, corrupt and unethical staff, and the brutal reality of some psychological treatment at the time.

This is the major flaw of the film. It's so busy pointing out how wrong von Krafft-Ebing conclusions were that it sacrifices the flow of the narrative. Also other vignettes don't fit into the narrative that is already established. So a lot of the time I found myself being jarred out of the film because the narrative was trying to cram in as much weirdness as possible. At other times I thought this was well edited Scientologist anti-psychologist movie rather than a history exploitation film.

It's not all doom and failure with this film. The orchestral score is a prefect fit for the movie and the time period. The sets, locations, and costumes are so close to the eighteen hundreds that only hardcore history buffs would be able to point out what out of place. Finally, the director of photography did a great job of shooting the film.

I don't know who or how to recommend this movie. It's subject matter would be better suited to a documentary, it's on the extreme shallow end of the exploitation pool, and it's so limited in scope that only a small amount would care about the subject presented. It's not bad enough to mock, it's not good enough to be disappointed at, and it's book and subject that only appeal to a limited audience. I have to go with avoid unless you are passionate about this topic.

MVT: The film uses Iris wipes to great effect and gives the feel that the film sort of belongs in the silent era.

Make or Break: There are a lot of film breakers in this one. The tone of the film and how the subject matter is presented are the two things that kicked me out of the movie.

Score: 3.5 out of 10

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Shocking Dark (1989)

I’ve often said that, if I was ever rich enough, I would move to Venice, Italy to live out the remainder of my days (it’s usually either this or buying my own island/small country).  I’ve done no research into the place, unless movie viewing counts.  It just looks like the kind of city that would appeal to me.  There are no cars to run you over or blare their shitty music at all hours of the day and night (maybe they do that by gondola?).  It has a quiet, rustic quality to it while also being just modern enough for my taste.  This is why it works so well as a horror film setting (witness: Don’t Look Now).  Its silence, its narrow, mazelike streets, and its floating, sea-worn characteristics are both peaceful and unsettling.  I tend to think, based on its location, that there is likely a large rat issue, so that wouldn’t be fun, and I’m sure that the salty, ocean air plays hell with the architecture and metal plumbing (thank God for PEX).  Still, I imagine that the positives would vastly outweigh the negatives, so all I have to do now is become a multi-millionaire.  Not even a toxic cloud over Venice, like in Bruno Mattei’s Shocking Dark (aka Terminator 2, aka Aliens 2, aka Alienators), could deplete my desire to live there.  The genetic mutations might be a sticking point, though.
An S.O.S. is received from some underground scientific/military bunker.  Operation Delta Venice is activated, and the Mega Force (Hal Needham should sue) of Space Marines are called in to investigate and retrieve the head scientist’s diary (automatically assuming that everyone is dead or about to die).  Joining the cosmic grunts are Sam Fuller (yes, really; played by Christopher Ahrens) and Sara Drumbull (Haven Tyler), a fellow scientist.  And then the rest of the plot of Aliens plays out with a smattering of The Terminator.
There is an earnestness present in the best of trash cinema.  Even at its most mercenary, even when you can almost hear the conversations behind the scenes about blatantly ripping off popular films for the sake of quick box office (possibly the progenitor of the current pass/fail attitude towards opening weekend sales?  Maybe), junk movies often still contain an openness that appeals in part because they are taken or given in “as-is” condition.  They are the runts of the litter, the dog or cat with an overemphasized underbite or other physical imperfection that plays to our sympathies and fondness for things that may need a little more love than others.  This is part of the reason why it has become so fashionable to like “Bad Movies” (and something which most intentionally “bad” or throwback films don’t seem to grasp), the line between intent and result.  Most filmmakers don’t set out to make bad movies.  Yet, when the reach of a film exceeds its grasp, it becomes fodder for mockery (right or wrong).
In films like Shocking Dark, no one bats an eye at the inanely wrongheaded actions of the characters or the dialogue that wouldn’t even make it into a comic book (and this is coming from a longtime devotee of the comic book form).  To wit: Two of the Marines enter a room, walk a couple of steps, and stop.  Koster (Geretta Geretta) turns to Kowalsky (Paul Norman Allen), and pulls a photo of how Venice used to look out of her pocket.  They both pine for a moment, and then Koster gives Kowalsky the picture, stating that she has a lot more.  Hopefully, in her other pockets.  In generic terms, this scene is meant to flesh out the characters a bit, to spark in the audience a desire for these people to make it to the film’s end.  Instead, it plays like an awkwardly inserted scene that kills a bit more time so the film can reach feature length.  There are a couple of video presentations that are just like any other dull, corporate video presentations except these ones are for evil exposition (because if you’re going to do something highly illegal and unethical and immoral, you should keep some evidence of it on video).  And sample some of this dialogue.  “Let’s get out the KY so we can shaft him real good.”  “What bastards.  They’ve done it.”  “We’re the computer.”  And so forth.  This is all done with the straightest of faces, and you just know that Mattei and screenwriter Claudio Fragasso (he of the infamous Troll 2) felt genuinely proud of their accomplishments.  Too bad that what accomplishments this film does achieve were done so three years earlier by James Cameron and have nothing whatsoever to do with this film’s writing and/or direction.
To say that this film is derivative is like saying that the Big Bang was a historical event of note.  Shocking Dark doesn’t just follow in the footsteps of Aliens.  It stomps in them.  The Space Marines are the same ballbreaking hardasses.  Koster is Jenette Goldstein’s Vasquez character with the exception that she LOVES taking potshots at her mates’ ethnicities (there are many references to Italians and grease; Again, you can almost hear Fragasso and Mattei grinning).  Fuller is a representative of the Tubular Corporation (I can’t imagine this world being bereft of other corporations with names like Radical, Gnarly, and Totally), and his reason for being there is sneaky and underhanded.  There is an android who nobody can guess is an android, even though he acts like an android from the very start.  There is a young girl, Samantha (Dominica Coulson), who has managed to stay alive on her own, and she connects with Sara in a maternal way.  The monsters wrap their victims in cocoons for later feasting.  There are some deviations from Cameron’s template, but they’re so blatantly and haphazardly tossed off, they trigger nothing so much as incredulity.
I guess I could get over this film’s swindling of its audience if it were competent.  After all, how many art forgeries are there that we still enjoy based on the assumption that they are the originals due to their technical quality?  But no, Shocking Dark is painful in its lack of originality.  It doesn’t try to do anything more interesting than evince thoughts of better films.  This is a copy of a film done with tracing paper, getting the shapes and placement right (mostly), but completely fucking up the details.  There are endless scenes of people walking through factory corridors.  When they do stop for some action, it’s shot and edited in the exact same way every time, with the exact same result, and presaging more endless walking through factory corridors.  My Dinner with Andre had more shot variety than this film.  The thing which completely flattens any chance of a good time, however, is that the characters all seem extremely depressed.  Not so much because of the situation their world is in, but because of the situation that the actors are in.  Namely, Shocking Dark.       
MVT:  James Cameron’s script by way of Claudio Fragasso, such as it is.
Make or Break:  The break really depends on how long you can stand watching Aliens filtered through store bought marinara sauce.  Personally, I’d prefer a homemade pesto, but whatever.
Score:  2/10

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Prisoner Maria: The Movie (1995)

Prisoner #206 (in a clear homage/ripoff of the Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion series), the titular Maria (Noriko Aota), is employed by her warden to take out bad guys.  Meanwhile, an insane doctor gets involved with Taiwanese gangsters in a scheme to control the minds of people for fun and profit.  Who will Maria’s next target(s) be?

Yes, Shuji Kataoka’s Prisoner Maria: The Movie follows in the footsteps of Toei’s fantastic, Meiko-Kaji-starring franchise.  It also owes tons to the films of John Woo (and just about every action film director to come out of Hong Kong), Luc Besson’s Nikita, the Pinky Violence and Women with Guns genres, and comic books in general.  Given its title, I don’t know if it is an adaptation (I could find nothing regarding this information, but then my fluency in Japanese is crap), however two manga writers worked on it (Keiji Nakazawa and Shigeru Tsuchiyama).  The problem is that this film takes all of these elements, regurgitates them across the screen, but adds nothing of its own.  It can be argued that its more bizarre elements are what distinguish it, and that’s a fair statement.  Yet, the film is so disjointed, wanting to be so stridently unoriginal, that it becomes little more than a pile of hand-me-down clothes, more disappointing to sift through for its sameness than any gems that may hopefully be hidden at the bottom (one can only own so many “vintage” Hawaiian shirts or whatever; this point is, of course, up for debate).  The first scene has Maria pulling a hit on a gangster which involves a nice throat-slashing, a great many bullets, and camera angles that make you want to stand on your head.  Maria sequesters herself in her concrete apartment when she’s not sequestered in her concrete cell.  She has a mini-arsenal under her bed that she seems to be proficient in, although in practice she’s not nearly as smooth as we expect her to be.  She meets a cop, Igarasi (Tetsuo Kurata), with whom she naturally falls in love, despite their being at cross purposes.  And so on, and so on.  If this is an adaptation of a manga or a novel, it’s less like a side by side comparison than like staring at a stack of pages which may or may not be in order, but the result would be the same.

Prisoner Maria is an absolute sleazefest, but rarely to any effect other than being skanky.  For example, a young serial killer ties up a woman in his home operating theater.  He cuts her clothes off with a large hunting knife.  He runs the blade across her breasts and crotch.  He sucks on her nipple for a second.  Then he slices her torso open, and we get to watch the life fade from her eyes.  Fair enough.  This scene works in setting up the level of evil Maria must oppose.  Compare it with the scene where the Taiwanese gangster kidnaps a brother and sister.  Before taking them away, he has his men haul out some anonymous Taiwanese woman, and the baddies double team her in front of everyone.  Why?  The victims already know what’s in store for them.  This is sleaze for the sake of sleaze.  I guess there’s a place for that, but as I was watching the film, the word “gratuitous” kept flashing across my mind.  To me, then, it’s more distraction than necessity, either as genre or narrative requirement.  After all, formless pornography is readily available elsewhere, even back in the 90s when this was made.  Surprisingly, Aota’s sex scene is chaste.  Considering the film it’s surrounded by, this sticks out like a sore thumb.  Perhaps its modesty is meant to highlight some emotional involvement between the two characters.  Unfortunately, their chemistry is more like a sparkler than a roman candle.

Male power trip and rape fantasies clearly make up the film’s raison d’etre.  Maria’s warden plays like the Niles Caulder of the story.  He emotionlessly flings Maria into situations with little-to-no information.  He withholds and/or just doesn’t update his operative with new data that would facilitate her work and reduce the risk level to himself.  He coerces Maria’s participation by keeping her from her son (who doesn’t seem to miss his mother at all, when we do get to see him).  In other words, the warden is a dick who can’t even bring himself to work in his own self-interest.  The other men in the film who are not Igarasi exercise control over women, by will or by force.  Women are meat to them, and their white slavery/prostitution/mind control racket confirms this.  There are very few women in this movie who aren’t bound, gagged, or drugged at some point or another.  Dr. Kito’s mind control experiments are the ultimate display of this desire to erase women’s minds and keep their bodies as literal receptacles for sex.  He believes himself to be God (that’s not an analogy), forming and casting off people as it pleases him.  

Despite the surface differences between the bad guys and Igarasi, he is just as much of a male power fantasy, simply tilted toward the more benevolent end of the spectrum.  He’s clearly smarter than Maria (but the way she’s written, just about everyone is), since he effortlessly follows her trail and tracks her down.  Worse than that, for as talented as Maria is supposed to be, and for as good as Aota looks all kitted out in her leather hitwoman outfit, she’s given very little opportunity to kick some male chauvinist/misogynist ass.  She gets thrown around and has the tables turned on her almost constantly, her victories occurring more by accident than skill and planning.  To that point, Igarasi shows up more than once in the nick of time to save her bacon, robbing her of any true sense of empowerment, and it’s only through his largesse that she escapes in the end.  Like every other woman in the film, Maria is just another object to be used.  Prisoner Maria: The Movie thwarts every moment for its protagonist to shine until one begins to wonder why she’s the protagonist at all?  Possibly because she’s not meant to have agency in this world, a powerless cog that thinks she’s the motor driving her life?  Her disenfranchisement and oppression are inescapable.  She’s serving a life sentence as a prisoner in more ways than one.  I’d like to believe that this is what the filmmakers were going for, as it would bestow the film with a darkly cynical outlook on the unchanged place of women in a male dominated society, given the illusion of power and hope to keep them in their place.  But from the evidence of the film’s construction and prurient attitude, I tend to think the people behind this just didn’t care about the film and its characters.  So, neither did I.

MVT:  Aota shows some talent, and she has the potential to carry an action film.  She just doesn’t get her shot to do so here.

Make or Break:  The first female victim’s torture and death is about as blatant a sign post for what this film is as you can get, for better or worse.

Score:  5/10