Saturday, October 28, 2017

Chicago Overcoat (2009)

Directed by: Brian Caunter
Run Time: 94 minutes

This is an odd entry in organized crime drama genre. On one hand, it's a movie dripping with style and a few scenes over the top violence. On the other hand, it's a meandering story that cares more about style than exposition. Let's dive into the stylish insanity that is Chicago Overcoat.

The start of the movie confused the hell out of me at first because it looks like a cut scene from Sin City. A black and white flash back of a sleazy strip club in the late eighties with a sound track that was lifted from Sin City. The focus of the scene is the Sleazy Guy. A nameless sleazy creep that hangs around strip clubs and behaves in a sleazy manner. Unknown to Sleazy Guy, Lou Marazano (Frank Vincent) has orders to kill Sleazy Guy and does so in a graphic manner.

The movie cuts to the present (or 2009 which ever works) and we get an introduction of sorts to Lou Marazano. A career mobster who is caught between two family obligations and is wanting to retire to Las Vegas. His daughter divorced a deadbeat wiseguy from an affiliated mob crew so he is helping her and her son out. Then there is his mob obligations and his growing disenchantment with what the mafia has become. An opportunity for Lou to take care of his family and retire arises when imprisoned mob boss needs to eliminate three federal witnesses. The problem is no one wants to do the job for eighty thousand dollars so Lou is given the job.

After a few days of following the witness and setting an alibi for himself Lou takes out the first witness. With the body disposed of, Lou sends flowers to his victim's wife and gets ready for the next target. In the b plot, walking hangover and stereotypical burnt out cop Ralph Maloney (Danny Goldring) is going through the motions of investigating the disappearance of the first witness. That all stops when he discovers that flowers were sent to the first witness' wife. So Ralph and his partner, soon to be killed guy, look at past case files regarding the mob killer that leaves flowers as a calling card. However someone in the police department has tampered with the files and could be a mole. There is also a pointless cameo with Stacey Keach where Ralph and Keach's character talk about the investigation and getting older.

The third act is a mixed bag of both kinds of family drama, character development that doesn't go anywhere, and film padding. It goes from a story about man with two family loyalties to a story about an aging gangster who is going on a killing spree and looking dapper while doing it. The b plot has the Ralph becomes a massive dick and wants to arrest Lou by being a massive dick. Sprinkle in some impressive and violent action scenes and that is pretty much the movie.

It's not a bad movie, it just lacks a point to the story. The focus is more on showing the glory days of the 1920's Chicago mafia when none of the characters were alive during the 1920's. It's a gangster lite film. All violence and some light drama but none of the moral or emotional baggage of other crime and gangster films. It's a great rental movie if you're struggling to find something watchable but painful if you're a fan of the genre.

MVT: Dapper silver haired terminator in a three piece suit with a tommy gun firing on modernish gangsters.

Make or Break: A tie between plot lines that go nowhere and character development being used a run time padding. Both broke me out of the film a lot.

Score: 5.5 out of 10

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Day of the Triffids (1962)

A meteor shower blankets the Earth, and with it comes a new plant, the Triffid.  While the plants are certainly ugly as sin, they also have the added benefit of being lumbering maneaters.  Bill Mason (Howard Keel) wakes after eye surgery to a world in chaos, as everyone who witnessed the celestial event is now blind.  Desperate to find a sanctuary, he crosses Europe, picking up travel mates like young Susan (Janina Faye) and French well-to-do Christine (Nicole Maurey).  Meanwhile, in a lighthouse off the coast of Cornwall, marine Biologist Tom Goodwin (Kieron Moore) and his long-suffering wife Karen (Janette Scott) race to find a way to stop the vicious plants from destroying all life on the planet (seeing as they’re carnivorous, this wouldn’t really benefit them).

Steve Sekely’s (with an assist from an uncredited Freddie Francis, who directed the lighthouse scenes, making the film feel like two films but still working despite this) The Day of the Triffids is an adaptation of the John Wyndham novel of the same name.  Of the novels he wrote, I would suggest that this one is only edged out in popularity by The Midwich Cuckoos (which was adapted for films under the title Village of the Damned).  Wyndham dealt in a style he called “logical fantasy,” one in which the descriptions and functioning of the normal world are integral to how the fantastic elements play.  This certainly is the case in this film.  Bill is a sailor and all-around handy man.  He is the Common Man hero that was the norm for many decades in genre cinema.  These are people who work for a living.  They are resourceful and pragmatic, and they care about their fellow man as much as is humanly possible to do without getting themselves killed.  For example, Bill knows how to get a car moving when it’s bogged in the mud.  He knows how to get the generator working at Christine’s chateau.  He knows how to repair a radio.  He knows how to electrify a fence.  He knows how to turn a gas truck into a makeshift flamethrower.  But he knows these things because he has a working knowledge of the world.  Necessity insists that he be able to do these sorts of things, so they are second nature to him, even if he doesn’t necessarily know a transistor from a transformer (in other words, general knowledge, not specific).  Tom is a specialist, and he and his wife are cut off from society (but not from the threat).  Tom is also an alcoholic, a condition that gives tension to the situation they are in and humanizes him.  He is further normalized by his inability to find a weakness in the Triffids.  As a scientist, he cannot succeed in this turmoil, but as a Common Man, working with his hands and wits, he discovers the ultimate weapon against the plants totally by accident.  In the modern film world, where every protagonist is either super-powered or super-sophisticated to the point of ennui, I always return to characters like the ones here as a respite.

Society in the film breaks down literally overnight.  It goes from business as usual to complete disarray in a matter of hours.  This is heralded by a fantastic sequence in the Royal Botanic Gardens.  A night watchman (Ian Wilson) sits alone at his desk as a Triffid sneaks up on him.  The man knows that there’s something wrong but doesn’t act, and the tension builds until the creature is upon him.  He is a representative of the world, its inability to prepare, and its fate for its inaction.  This is reinforced by several sequences of mass transit systems (a ship, a plane, a train) as they traipse over the proverbial cliff, the people in charge of them lying to the passengers in their last moments, trying to salvage some normalcy in the face of death.  But it doesn’t avert the inevitable, salvation being a wish that shall never be granted.  As Bill explores the hospital the next morning, the place looks like it was ransacked by Cossacks, trays strewn, glass scattered all over, and the building is like a ghost town, bereft of souls.  Only Dr. Soames (Ewan Roberts) remains, now blind, and his prognosis for the world is grim.  Discovering that Bill’s surgery was successful, he states, “I don’t envy you.”  Soames knows what comes next, knows that it won’t be pretty, and knows that Bill’s options for survival are limited (but not as limited as his own).  Throughout the major cities like London and Paris, the streets are littered with cars and blind people stumbling and pawing around like zombies in search of some fresh brains.  Bill learns that sight has become not only an asset but also a weakness.  At a train station, people hear that Bill can see, and they swarm over him with pleas for assistance.  After a train derails coming into the station, young Susan is almost kidnapped for her eyesight (there is a slight pedophilic air to this moment, as well).  People have become pathetic, desperate, and callous, yet maybe they were always that way.  

The bleak tone of the film is perhaps best displayed in the sequence at Christine’s chateau.  She is taking care of her friends who have gone blind, including the young Bettina (Carole Ann Ford, likely best known as Susan on the first few seasons of Dr. Who).  Bettina takes to Susan, and in a scene that’s positively heartbreaking, she guesses multiple things about the younger girl (hair and eye color, etcetera), all of which are wrong, and all of which Susan lies about to keep up Bettina’s spirits.  Bill suggests that Christine and those who can see should abandon the manse, as it makes them sitting ducks, but Christine can’t bear to leave her friends to die (which is most certainly what it would be).  This decision is taken away from her when a gang of convicts overrun the chateau and force the blind women to “dance” with them.  Bettina, stumbling outside after escaping being raped, is surrounded by Triffids and killed.  There is no mercy here, if there ever was before, and even that was illusory.  It if isn’t plant monsters, it’s human monsters.

Nevertheless, The Day of the Triffids contains elements of birth and rebirth.  Bill is reborn with his eyesight.  Susan is a sighted youth that must be protected and allowed to carry on the human race.  Tom and Karen are surrounded by water, the giver of life, and Bill and his companions spend a lot of time racing to sea ports in search of rescue (it doesn’t hurt that he’s a seaman).  Tom is forced to give up booze, and he finds a new purpose in dissecting a Triffid, looking for flaws.  His marriage is renewed in a way by this.  Bill comes upon a blind pregnant woman, and Christine assists in the birth.  Life will go on, just drastically changed.  Though the world is in apocalypse mode, the human will to survive remains, bloodied but unbowed.  The film tacks on a quasi-happy ending that speaks a little too bluntly of hope, but it also acknowledges that the world has a long way to go before it recovers from this situation.  As End of the World fictions go, that’s pretty much the best we can hope for, right?

MVT:  The foreboding wasteland that the world has become is effectively presented both visually and attitudinally.

Make or Break:  The greenhouse sequence is a standout in the horror genre, in my opinion.

Score:  7/10 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Dance or Die (1987)

Jason Chandler (Roy Kieffer) is a dance choreographer/aerobics instructor in Las Vegas.  He’s also a recovering coke fiend, which isn’t helped any by the fact that his roommate Alan (Jack Zavorak) is a coke dealer.  After Alan is killed for his illicit activities, Jason is hounded by a crime kingpin who goes under the alias The Turtle.  But Jason has a show to finish prepping and a burgeoning romance with blonde bimbo Diane (Rebecca Barrington) to stoke.  What’s a guy to do?

Dance or Die is Richard W Munchkin’s directorial debut, and it’s a mostly solid one.  Shot on video, with a few stock establishing shots that were done on film, the movie almost holds together from start to finish.  That said, it is deceptively marketed, if the video box art is all you have to go on.  What a viewer expects is a slasher set against the backdrop of the world of dance, a la Michele Soavi’s Stage Fright which, by coincidence or kismet, was also released in 1987.  But the two couldn’t be further apart if they tried.  Soavi’s film knows what it is, and stays true to itself despite its ludicrous turns (this is, in fact, its biggest asset).  Dance or Die wants to serve several masters, never completely satisfying any of them, though it also sticks to its guns, for better or worse.  It is, at its core, a gutter level All That Jazz with a few more bullet hits and characters culled from the Cannon Films stock character list.  

The crime angle of the film isn’t nearly as important as either the dance numbers or Jason’s addiction.  There are multiple scenes of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, where background characters tell their tales of woe.  Since none of these advance the plot any or develop the characters beyond what we already know, they become superfluous after the first one.  They do, however, introduce the character of Kay (George Neu), Jason’s sponsor.  She always has words of wisdom for Jason, and he rarely, if ever, listens to them, but she remains steadfastly in his corner.  But Jason doesn’t really seem to have any great cravings for drugs until the end (okay, a little at the beginning, too).  The time he spends with Kay is typically centered on the threats The Turtle makes against him (he has something the bad guy wants, although The Turtle is coy about naming it, which would, you know, expedite things, maybe) and his growing love for Diane.  Considering the amateurish way the action is orchestrated, perhaps this is for the best.  

The scenes which would attract action fans appear to have been done on the fly, with no regard for coverage.  Consequently, the geography is confused, and the shots don’t quite cut together well enough to be convincing or entertaining (except in a cheesy sort of way).  For example, a character on a motorcycle is chased by a car.  The two roll along streets in a way that makes M C Escher’s “Relativity” look like Route 66.  Things happen in defiance of the laws of time and physics just to have action beats.  So, instead of being pulled along by any sort of rising tension, the audience’s time is spent trying to figure out what exactly it is they’re looking at.  The initial hit on Alan and his barbecue buddies consists of random people, who may or may not have been seen prior to the attack, getting hit with blood splatter (the standouts here are the guy who tries to shield himself with a bag of briquets and the woman who nonchalantly eats her food well after the mayhem has begun, as if panic and gunshots wouldn’t tip one off that maybe they should run for shelter).  For as shoddy as this stuff is, there’s also just not enough of it.  Jason never becomes the action hero we expect him to become.  He remains a drug-addicted twit to the bitter end (like Joe Gideon, see?).

One interesting thing about Dance or Die does is how it incorporates its dance numbers into the film.  What Munchkin and company do is intercut clips from a particular routine with actions in the real world (which are not necessarily action-packed), until we get the full sequences.  While this does work as far as the technical editing goes, it doesn’t actually do anything for the plot lines of the narrative.  The threads are disparate, and they seldom tie together.  They mean nothing in direct relation to each other (with one exception: the big sex scene).  They’re just juxtaposed against one another, as if that’s all they need to be, bizarre transitions that look nice but are empty.  

It can be argued that dance and action sequences are basically the same thing (this most definitely applies to martial arts, but it can extend to more traditional action).  The difference lies in the fact that dance scenes tell you that they are a performance (most people don’t just break out in song, and, if they do, rarely are they instantly backed up by music and dancers who telepathically know all the steps).  Action, when done right, is just as choreographed, just as heightened, and is even often set to music, but it integrates into the world of the film.  Audiences accept this over the dissonance of the narrative break that accompanies dance numbers, even when the action portrayed in a fist fight or car chase is as ludicrous as anything in a musical number.  Dance or Die emphasizes the similarities and disparities simultaneously, just without any real context to make a connection.  

The dance scenes are representations of Jason’s inner conflicts.  For example, one routine has Jason strung upside down in a strait jacket while face-painted dancers in frill-accented bondage gear and hot-pink fright wigs attack him with clubs (indeed, it’s as much fun to watch as it sounds).  Another has a man and woman slither around each other on a motorcycle (in relation to the aforementioned sex scene).  Most startling is the one where the dancers are all hit by faux gunshots while they gyrate and paw at each other.  Any way you slice it, these are Jason’s anxieties visually translated for an audience: the feeling of insanity as the world beats you down, the passion of new love, the fear of death by gunshot, etcetera.  While these sequences are entertaining for their extremely Eighties conceits, it’s a shame they mix together with the rest of the film like oil and water.  And that, unfortunately, is the movie’s biggest drawback across the board.  That and the endless profile shots of Jason driving around Vegas.

MVT:  The dance routines are fun for what they are.

Make or Break:  The douchey, forced Meet Cute between Jason and Diane in the supermarket.  It’s pretty pathetic.

Score:  6.25/10

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Angels of the City (1989)

I’m in a pretty crass mood today, so I’m just gonna run with it, and this week’s selection most assuredly abets this.  A learned man (it may have been Friedrich Nietzsche) once sad that pimping ain’t easy.  I would imagine not.  While I don’t know scoot about this career choice, I know that it would have to involve, on some level, accounting, something with which I have only a passing acquaintance.  What’s the tax allowance for birth control and transportation?  Could the whole thing be written off as entertainment expenses?  I would guess that the logistics alone would be murder, too (assuming one offered a delivery-type service).  Who needs how many “friends,” and where, and when?  What if the pimp overbooks?  And I’m sure collections are a whole other pain in the ass.  I had a paper route for about five years when I was a kid, and I can tell you with confidence that many people don’t ever want to pay for services rendered (and that was only about $1.50 per week back then), even when they’re satisfied with them.  That’s if the tricks pay the pimp directly.  Getting the money owed from your “workers” is probably a lot like how the IRS feels when reviewing a person’s tips reported for the fiscal year.  I mean, pimping is almost like work.  Of course, it ain’t easy!

Cinematic pimping, on the other hand, is really easy.  You get to wear great clothes (everything from tailored suits to plumed, fuzzy hats), ride around in nice cars, drink champagne constantly, and be surrounded by hot women who act like you’re the bee’s knees (totally not because of the money or because they’re in fear for their lives, I’m sure).  All you have to do is relax and alternate your moods between threatening and saccharine (the really great thing here is that you can still call absolutely everyone “bitch,” whether they work for you or not).  Pimps in film are arguably more pimp-ian than real pimps.  Just look at Fly Guy from I’m Gonna Git You Sucka versus Iceberg Slim, if you doubt me (alternately, see Roy Scheider’s turn in Klute for something a bit more verisimilitudinous).  You’re basically a gangster, just without the family ties that prove so vulnerable to folks like the Corleones.  So, when dueling pimps Gold (Michael Ferrare) and Lee (Renny Stroud) go toe-to-toe over whose territory is whose in Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs’ (you know him better as Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington on Welcome Back, Kotter) Angels of the City, you know that one of them is getting paid, and the other is getting laid out.

While Gold and Lee hash out their differences, college asswipes Mike (Brian Ochse) and Richie (Rusty Gray) hire a prostitute while wasted.  Meanwhile, their girlfriends Cathy (Kelly Galindo) and Wendy (Cynthia Cheston) are forced to dress up like hookers and collect one hundred dollars off a john (but, hey, it’s still, like, their choice if they want to actually sleep with some guy for it, and stuff) as part of their initiation into the Delta Delta Delta (Can I help ya, help ya, help ya?) sorority.  Never thinking that they could have just gone out for the night and then handed their sorority sisters the money and said that they did what they were supposed to do (because no one is monitoring them), these two idiots get embroiled in the middle of the heated pimp turf war.  After about ninety minutes, the credits roll.

Angels of the City was shot on video, and this is something that can blow up in even the best filmmaker’s face.  Audiences tend to think of one of three things when watching something in a video format: home movies, institutionals, and porn.  One of these things is actually likely to excite a viewer.  Now, I understand that there were and are a great many features shot on video, and some of them are very good, and the format even has a healthy cult following.  I have nothing against it, personally.  My philosophy is that any way a filmmaker can get their vision put together and shown to people, do it.  Nonetheless, I also think that there are standards and a certain level of quality that even the cheapest production needs to have (even if that quality is trash level; there’s still something to be said for it when it’s done right).  Hilton-Jacobs shows glimmers of hope throughout the film.  The basic premise is solid and holds some promise (the idea of buying and selling flesh objects from the male and female sides of the coin, the harsh realities of the streets contrasted against the sequestered safety of college life, the pimp war with the unwitting kids in over their heads/fish out of water element, etcetera).  Some of the set ups and compositions are solid, evocative, and downright professional.  The action is choreographed and edited well enough (though not quite up to the highest standards of PM Entertainment, the erstwhile kings of low budget action cinema).  The big problem is everything else that is not either technical or philosophical.  Read: ninety-five percent of the movie.

With that in mind, then, let’s dig into the film’s faults.  First and foremost, the film is confused about who its protagonists are.  During an overextended college classroom scene (we will come back to this, trust me), the film sets up the two main couples and even possibly a few other students who may take part in the plot.  The scene immediately following this focuses on Mick and Richie slavering and all but high-fiving about fucking (you’ve likely heard guys actually talk like this and just wanted to immolate them).  These two dicks then go to a sleazy motel with Carmen, the hooker they picked up at a bar.  We are then treated to an extended scene of Mick and Carmen doing it in POV, with Mick gurning and mugging the entire time (in my opinion, the only way to save this acting choice would be if Carmen did the same thing; she doesn’t).  Meanwhile, the girls are attending their candlelit sorority meeting, get dressed up like strumpets, and hit Hollywood’s underbelly.  The amount of time spent with the two guys is disproportionate to their importance in the film.  We already got the message that they’re complete douchebags (in fact, the movie goes to great lengths to show us that every male in it is one).  We don’t need to follow their idiotic escapades, since everything following from them is tangential, at best.  

Second, Angels of the City follows a pattern of setting Wendy and Cathy running into “colorful” locals and then running away from them.  They are accosted by a crackhead/alcoholic that would make Dave Chappelle wince and are “saved” by Maria, who bums a smoke and then exits (we will come back to this, trust me).  They meet a homeless man who tells them about the hardships of his life and then exits.  They meet some young punk who takes them to meet his gang of juvies.  The girls are robbed before being chased, first by the kids, and then by a large dog (yes, really).  They go to a private club (go ahead and guess what the password is), where Wendy makes out with the owner before he’s shot.  This is in between their various run-ins with Gold and Lee.  What it all boils down to is a very serious lack of coherence and focus on the part of the screenwriters, one of whom just so happens to also be Hilton-Jacobs and none of whom ever got the point of the old saw “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

Which brings us to problem number three, and the one which contains the most SPOILERS.  This movie juggles tones in nonsensical fashion.  It wants to be a fun exploitation/action picture.  It wants to be a broad comedy.  But worst of all, it wants to be a deep, meaningful treatise on how the dregs of society are overlooked and abandoned.  After the events of their fateful night, Wendy is now a vegetable, and Cathy visits her and tries to talk to her at the hospital.  You know, deep, meaningful shit.  Gold is still after Cathy, and she has a live-in cop guarding her, who, to no one’s surprise, is also a douchebag, and takes great joy in hearing her fight with Richie.  Capitalizing on her vulnerability in the creepiest way possible, the cop has sex with Cathy, and the impression we’re given is that it is the best fuck of her sweet, young life.  Bear in mind, the audience just met this guy.  It is conceivably the emptiest sex scene ever committed before a camera (I am including porn loops in this category) made all the more ridiculous by the emotional weight it’s supposed to have (yes, really; we’re meant to get something out of this aside from various shots of Galindo’s admittedly nice breasts).  Finally, Cathy does her project for the aforementioned Sociology class, where she talks about Maria, the runaway kid who has the entire “shitty life moments” checklist befall her (junkie, hooker, abusive boyfriend, ad nauseum).  This is delivered aurally and visually with all the conviction and meaningfulness the rest of the film has served up ice cold (i.e. none).  Once again, Hilton-Jacobs and company find a way to completely misplace the big dramatic resonance they thought would give this shit show some value outside of its exploitable elements.  Trying to think of something witty to sum up Angels of the City is just fruitless, since I’ve already devoted more time and effort into discussing this turd than it will ever deserve.  Have a nice day.

MVT:  The few moments of professionalism on display.

Make or Break:  Mick and Richie spend some time with Carmen.

Score:  1/10