Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Listomania: Thomas' The F Month 2012


Damn, it's almost April and I haven't posted pint-sized ramblings about some of the amazing stuff I took in. While I've been revisiting a lot of old favorites in HD (I was never really sold on old movies in squeaky clean digital formats until I revisited BLADE RUNNER on blu-ray), here's a minor sampling of random flicks:


PRISON (1988): Honestly, I'm shocked at how well this movie has aged. The new transfer from Shout Factory really throws that into sharp relief with the lush cinematography being beautifully represented in a new widescreen presentation. Will throws the switch here. This impressive production was made right before the collapse of Empire pictures, making their demise even more bitter. There's a huge amount of talent on a very small budget and it really comes together dead on target without a wasted minute. On the casting side, we have Lane Smith as the prison warden, who not only has a subtle character arc that would be completely flattened in a modern genre film, but he chews the grim, neo-gothic scenery to just the right degree. Even when wide-eyed, sweaty and drooling, he never crosses the line into camp. Of course there's this guy named Viggo who I don't think went anywhere after this, Hal Landon Jr, who once again is a guy with a badge who has his keys stolen ("Deputy Van Halen?"), "Tiny" Lister who actually shows a surprising range of emotions, and Irwin Yablans' son who had the opportunity of playing the "special friend" of "Rhino" (the very real convict Stephen E. Little who was shackled in full restraints when the camera wasn't running). A real sleeper classic that never really got its due until now.


MEAN GUNS (1997): Albert Pyun has always had an erratic career. Even in the early days he transitioned from one of my all-time favorite films, THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER (1982), right into the completely off-the wall post-apocalyptic, neo-noir accented, action-comedy with song and dance routines, RADIOACTIVE DREAMS (1983). Even so, there is a point where Pyun's output turned into some seriously rough riding. As fellow Junkie Will has mentioned in the past, MEAN GUNS is that tipping point. The last of the entertaining Pyun films. I'm not saying this holds up to NEMESIS (1993), CYBORG (1989) or even BRAINSMASHER... A LOVE STORY (1993), but it is fun. Which is a hell of a lot more than can be said about LEFT FOR DEAD (2007), a movie that I have tried and tried to sit all the way through several times over the years. The premise of MEAN GUNS is simple, but the, *ahem*, execution is what makes it. Mafia middle-management badass Vincent Moon (Ice-T) is given the seemingly laborious assignment of smokin' roughly 100 criminal scumbags who screwed up in the eyes of the mob. After sending them all invitations, they all show up in a soon to be opened penitentiary (ironic, no?) where instead of simply gassing the place and heading home for a cocktail, Moon offers them an ultimatum. Instead of simply being shot on the spot, they can kill each other with weapons provided and the last three standing will be allowed to walk free. Oh, and there is a cash prize of $10 million stashed in a suitcase somewhere in the prison.
That's really about it. Alliances are formed, dissolved (violently) and we get bits and pieces of some of the infractions that brought the criminals to this point, plus a little bit of character development with a woman (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) who took some incriminating photos, but is by no means a killer. Christopher Lambert has the most interesting part as a guy who is sort of a renegade nutball and, in spite of being a calculated charmer, is not well liked and is known for making a bloody hash of things. Set to mambo music that Moon has piped in as a soundtrack to the best PPV ever (he sits in a control room watching the action via video cameras), MEAN GUNS isn't exactly deep, but it's fast-moving and fun to watch. It should be pointed out that the fun factor is largely diminished if you watch the cropped, poor-quality transfer that Lionsgate has has blessed us with here in the States on DVD and VOD. Pyun shot the film with a wide FOV lens that distorts at the edges. It gives the film an interesting look in widescreen, but in the cropped version it feels like you are watching the film with a fishbowl on your head. European DVD releases, such as the Italian and German editions, feature not only a much more detail picture, but the full-scope ratio that the movie desperately needs preserved, as evidenced in this shot comparison.


GLEAMING THE CUBE (1989): I really hated this movie back in the day. Christian Slater as a skater? In his f'n dreams! This utterly ridiculous 1930s "yellow-terror" murder mystery thrown on to a skateboard and given a day-go 1980s whitewash, comes complete with  Tony Hawk and the Bones Brigade in bit parts, and damned if it isn't 110% better in retrospect. While working for an allegedly Vietnamese grocery store, Brian Kelly's (Christian Slater) half-brother Vinh (Art Chudabala) is murdered by (allegedly) Vietnamese mobsters after finding some irregularities in a shipping invoice. If you've ever worked in retail, I'm sure you can relate. Set-up to appear as a suicide, the cops don't even question the fact that some kid decided to hang himself in the shower of a random motel that he never checked into. Now it's up to Brian to... hit the half-pipe! Oh yeah, and get to the bottom of the mystery.
Screenwriter Michael Tolkin's messages are writ pretty large in this movie. One being the "Asian menace" theme, the other is that being a member of a fringe group that does not conform to mainstream acceptance is not only bad, but will make you unpopular, unlayable and your parents will hate you. Ok, so that last part might be true. At one point in the movie Brian realizes that he needs to essentially dress preppy with a sweater, khakis and loafers in order to gain acceptance, from what appears to be the entire planet, and get the drop on the bad guys.
Hijole de la chingada! Check out the price of gas in LA!
Aside from (or because of) the wonky messages and laughable stereotyping, the most amusing bits in the movie are the unintentionally hilarious skate scenes in which Slater is doubled by the considerably skinnier Hawk and the considerably more talented Rodney Mullen. Actually seeing Mullen in a bad Slater wig during a segment in which an angry Brian is supposedly skating off his pain at the loss of his brother by doing Mullen's patented, whimsical flatland tricks is nothing short of hilarious. The skate-aesthetic production design is actually really ambitious with each skater having a completely different, highly detailed bedroom set. Clearly the design team were having a ball. The movie has gotten quite popular over recent years due to the intense '80s kistch factor and fun action set pieces, but there's more than that to get a kick out of. There is a whole host of priceless dialogue, my favorite line being when the coroner is checking out Vinh's body and says "shit, kids didn't kill themselves when I went to highschool, what the hell is going on around here?" Plus you have Slater starting a car by sticking a skateboard truck-key in the ignition lock (!), a cameo by Buddy Joe Hooker in a red Corvette, and Tony Hawk in a Pizza Hut delivery driver uniform (why was this never an unlockable outfit in the Pro Skater games?). Sure, it's not going to change your religion, but it is much more fun than it deserves to be.


BUSTING (1974): Peter Hyams has had a wildly erratic career as a director, but you can't accuse him of following the herd, not even when he has formula stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude Van Damme in front of the camera. Here, in his first feature film, Hyams directs Elliot Gould, known for making weird films, and Robert Blake, known for being weird. Even though this follows a trend of early '70s disillusioned cop movies (1972s THE NEW CENTURIONS arguably being the poster child for this sub-genre), it definitely marches to the beat of its own drum. Gould and Blake play Keneely and Farrel, a pair of shabby, cynical vice detectives who have good intentions, but seem to make a hash out of a simple bust of a high-class hooker. The minor foul-up is less important than the fact that she has friends in high places who don't want to see her busted, nor her crime boss Rizzo (Allen Garfield) who seems to have bought off the entire Los Angeles police force. Every time they try to follow up on Rizzo, they get knocked down by the chief who is being told to put Keneely and Farrel on a short leash. In addition to the off beat performances (Blake seems like he was shot-up with thorazine before every scene), there are bizarre "comic" sequences of the duo being put on menial tasks such as hanging out in a men's public toilet waiting to be propositioned or better still, being ferociously attacked by a mob of cross-dressers in a gay bar that is envisioned with red lighting and hand-held camera work. The punchline to the latter scene is Keneely leaning up against a car while Farrel examines a bite on his leg, rhetorically composing a letter to his parents "Dear Mom and Dad, how are you doing? I am swell. Fag ate my leg. Your son, Michael." Trust me, I'm not taking that out of context. Hyams ropes in a few cool bit players as well, with Antonio Fargas playing a catty queer (again), Sid Haig as one of Rizzo's henchmen and even Michael Lerner shows up briefly. Imagine THE NEW CENTURIONS (1972) on pills and dope with don't-give-a-shit attitude and you kind of get the picture.

HOT STUFF (1979): In his massive career spanning over 50 years of television and film, Dom DeLouise only directed one feature film and this is it. Personally, I think if you are going to direct only one feature film in your half-century career it should be written by Donald Westlake with a title song by Jerry Reed. I think that's fair.
A group of frustrated undercover cops (DeLouise, Jerry Reed, Suzanne Pleshette and "The Electric Company's" own Luis Avalos) get tired of trying to bust the  perps the hard way. You know, with warrants, miranda rights and random ball shots. Also plaguing their careers is the wrath of their hot-tempered chief (Ossie Davis) who wants them to go by the book, goddammit! Seems that whole angle isn't working, so they get the idea to set up a pawn shop where they can pretend to be fences allowing them to videotape the scofflaws in the act of selling their stolen goods. Once the team has spent all of the department's money on buying up stolen goods, they'll just round everyone up and arrest them. What could go wrong?
Ok, I'm not going to try and sell you some line about this being a piece of subversive cinema in mainstream clothing, but it does have a nice grimy backdrop.
Westlake (with the help of ham-handed script-doctor Michael Kane) dial in a nice combination of freewheeling action and what basically amounts to stand-up comedy cameos. Additionally, in spite of Burt Reynolds' conspicuous absence (apparently too busy with the 1979 romantic comedy STARTING OVER), we still get Trans Am action sequences, though it does amazingly transform into a beat-up Camero right before it is blown up by the mob. When I was a kid I was fascinated by Stockton, California's seedy bars, pool halls and pawnshops (which puts me in good company as FAT CITY was famously shot there in '72). Maybe that's why this movie made such an impression. Watching this through a kid's eyes in a Stockton theater made it seem like this could be happening right down the street. Though I really couldn't fathom what was so damn funny about those skinny cigarettes.


TOTAL RECALL (2012): Well, since you asked, my opinion of Colin Farrell hasn’t changed in the slightest. I’d say he was miscast, but that implies that there is a role that he would be good in. As for this film, it’s amazing how much stuff they rip off from movies that they are not remaking. They did a great job of re-creating Mega City 1 and Los Angeles 2019. You see, the basic premise is that there are only two inhabitable areas left on earth. Both are highly compact city states, like I dunno… a “mega” city. On one side of the Earth we have the affluent, totalitarian UK (blatantly stolen from "Judge Dredd" comic books) and on the other side of the Earth is the poor downtrodden Down Under (blatantly stolen from BLADE RUNNER). There is a massive shuttle transport that runs through the center of the earth in between the two, mainly to ferry poor menial laborers from the oddly dystopian outback into the unsurprisingly Germanic Pommyland to assemble military robots. As a political ploy the prime minister of the UK (*spoilers!*) sets up a rebel movement in Oz, so that he will have an excuse to invade with the robots the their own population has assembled. It's not really a remake of the Schwarzenegger film (which bizarrely is now being vaunted as a "classic" of the genre), though it does throw in a few reworkings of "classic" bits from that film that are about as welcome as a homeless guy at a Republican convention. Just in case you were wondering, the tri-boobed prostitute was not in the original Philip K. Dick story. On the plus side, those bits are the only parts of the film that fall into camp.
He say you... eh, you know.
Who is the Law?
The really interesting thing about this movie, is not so much the movie, as the studio's interference with it. Columbia contractually bound director Len Wiseman to created a short, “dumb” edit for theatrical distribution. In spite of studios dumbing down movies for decades, this is a pretty amazing example. The director’s cut, which can be found on a limited blu-ray, has a staggering total of 92 changes. Ninety two! In my guestimation some 80 of those changes are story/character/dialogue related, not only adding depth and complexity to the film, but also significantly altering the story and characters. Many parts of the film the studio felt would be simply too confusing for the average movie goer. I mean, obviously you wouldn't want to challenge the viewer to actually think during a movie! Particularly not a Philip K. Dick adaptation. Too bad there weren’t a few more changes removing all the annoying CGI lensflair. I love the irony that a majority of the criticisms aimed at the film were from an audience and critics who hated it's simple-minded approach that neither offered an interesting plot and characters nor a straight-up remake of the original adaptation. No doubt Columbia has blamed the hatred on a hater market that is not interested in science fiction.
Personally, I didn’t hate it. It fumbles a lot of stuff (like casting Farrell and Jessica Beil), but it’s definitely not a remake. There are three or four scenes that deliberately echo the Arnold movie and I don’t know why they even bothered. Maybe that was something else that Columbia demanded. They changed some stuff back to the way it is in the original PKD story, but then changed other stuff to make it a high concept Hollywood film. Interestingly while in the theatrical film Farrell receives video-recorded messages from his own post Rekal self, in the director's cut we have Ethan Hawke leaving those messages. I think this is the one time in my life that I've been delighted to see Ethan Hawke in a movie.
This version of TOTAL RECALL really doesn’t hold much to the source material, borrowing liberally from other films, but it’s definitely closer than the Paul Verhoeven film. That's got to count for something.

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