Sunday, February 11, 2018

Film Review: THE FORCE WITHIN (1993, Richard E. Brooks)

Stars: I don't even know anymore, man, out of 5.              Running Time: 82 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Stuart Steel, Joseph Campanella (NIGHT GALLERY, THE GOLDEN GIRLS, MANNIX), Kathleen Kelly, Ross Haines (3000 MILES TO GRACELAND), Bob Manus, Gigi Greco, Sunny Hom Thoon.
Tag-line: "A sexy film with a heart of gold"
Best one-liner: "Hey, happy birthd–––SON OF A BITCH!"

 In a familiar, darkened alleyway:

"What's up? You look dejected, yet oddly satisfied."
–"I've seen things... you people wouldn't believe."
"Try me. You made me sit through THE GARBAGE PAIL KIDS: THE MOVIE, remember?"
"Oh, I remember. And, well, what we're looking at here today is an independent, NYC-set, kung fu/gangster action flick called THE FORCE WITHIN."
"It doesn't sound so bad. Or remarkable."
–"Just you wait, my friend. Just you wait. This is a Stuart Steel Production.

It's based on an original story by Stuart Steel. Executive produced by Stuart Steel. And starring Stuart Steel."
"Sorta like THE ROOM?"
–"Sorta exactly like THE ROOM. Look at the main title card."

"Eh, anything that begins with the words 'Stuart Steel Productions Presents...' can't be all bad. Nice pseudonym, too. What is he, a porn star?"
–"I'm pretty sure he wishes he was, being as he wrote and produced a half dozen scenarios where his character is slobbering over underpaid nude and semi-nude actresses, Tommy Wiseau-style. Also, I can't 100% determine if it's a pseudonym: he has no other IMDb credits, and if you google 'Stuart Steel,' you only get a steel pipeline-coating company from Jersey."
"I think you're getting ahead of yourself."
–"I think I am, too, because I didn't mention that Stuart Steel kind of looks like Richard Lewis. And once you come to this realization, you cannot unsee it."
–"The same. I mean, look at him.

Pictured: Stuart Steel. 

Pictured: Richard Lewis. 

Look at this image of Stuart Steel––on the right, helping kill a cop by feeding him too many dollar bills––and tell me that's not Richard Lewis."

"You've made your point. Er, you've made a point... Wait, who's that silver-haired guy on the cover, if not Stuart Steel?"
–"Oh, I'll get to that. First, let me try to tell you what THE FORCE WITHIN is about. Then I'll tell you What It's About."
"Kinda metaphysical-like?"
–"Something like that. So Stuart Steel is 'Nick,' essentially a fusion of 'Johnny' from THE ROOM, JCVD from BLOODSPORT, and Ray Liotta from GOODFELLAS. He runs the dope game in NYC and cuts such a terrifying profile throughout the five boroughs that he's considered the most powerful gangster in New York. He's also a martial arts expert, whose foster father is a Kung Fu Master. You can tell, cause his foster father––named 'Master'––lives in a rundown Kung Fu Academy.

He sort of looks like if latter-day Edward James Olmos were a middle-school science teacher who embarrasses his class by dressing up as Bruce Lee for Halloween. Anyway, Stuart Steel has had a falling out with foster dad, though he still keeps up with his Kung Fu rehearsals: he works out, basically non-stop, doing unflattering and largely unimpressive exercises in cheap, dirty rooms, usually with an audience."

The ol' wall-kick 

The ol' slap the bag

The ol' head-stand

The ol' cinder-block

"Wait, the most powerful drug kingpin in New York has that for his backyard?"
–"Suspend your disbelief, my friend, and pretend that this movie was not shot in friends' apartments, blackbox theaters, abandoned warehouses, and church basements. Anyway, that young woman beside him is his girlfriend, who's supposed to be sixteen. (Mercifully, the actress is not.) He keeps her out of the action, like a princess trapped in a tower, plying her with Diet Cokes and jigsaw puzzles. Meanwhile, he cheats on her every chance he gets, presumably so the actor/producer/writer could boost his ego onscreen.

An example of THE FORCE WITHIN's pillow talk: 'You were great.' 'I know. That's what all the boys say. And Nicky, you weren't so bad yourself.' 'I know.' End scene."
"Sheer poetry."
 –"You think that's post-coital poetry? You ain't seen nothin' yet. Check this out:
The actress (who, in a Parker Posey-esque manner, seems to be slyly aware of the scene's quality in ways that our hero is not) says, 'You were great, but you didn't come. Why?'

He responds, 'I never come on the outside! I come on the inside! That's how I build my power.'"

"Uh... what?"
–"That's right: gag me with a chainsaw, but this is 'The Force Within' referenced by the title. When this superpower is first described, it is set to public domain footage of 1970s Shaw Brothers flicks. To punctuate the creepy semen-conservation idea, we see a beautiful clip of a Buddha statue ejaculating lasers.

The Master explains it further, saying 'This involves air... it involves breath... it also involves your sexual energy! You must contain your essence. It involves holding in your semen to rejuvenate strength!' Indeed, this is a line delivered with a straight face."
"WHAT? This is all feeling very 'General Jack D. Ripper from DR. STRANGELOVE.'"
–"Yes. In any event, it makes me very glad that Yoda never delivered similar sentiments about the Force in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK."
"Oh, good god."
–"Yes. So Steel runs drugs, works out, conserves his semen, and romances the ladies. He also does youth outreach, running a dojo for underprivileged kids."

"So he has a heart of gold? Are we supposed to like this guy?"
–"Who can say. The back cover of the DVD says, 'Nick is a study in opposites––he surrounds himself with junkies, drunks, stooges, losers, corrupt police officers and Mafia henchmen, while simultaneously taking time out of his morally corrupt day to teach the spiritual fundamentals of King Fu to a group of disadvantaged youngsters.' The children's dojo is truly a sacred space for this sperm-hoarding degenerate, and he lets his colleagues know when they cross the line."
–"Now I must describe to you an element of THE FORCE WITHIN that certainly does not drive the plot, yet it eats up a at least good one-third of the screen-time. I must tell you about 'The Club.'"
"Go on..."
–"So a friend of the production must have had their own sad-sack theater/strip club/comedy club, probably in New Jersey or Staten Island. This allowed the filmmakers to create a credible environment where mobsters would hang out that was not the Script Girl's uncle's dojo, or the Best Boy's friend's backyard. In the universe of this movie, mobsters gather here to watch strippers, stand-up comedy, and ventriloquists. It's a regular variety hour. Bored strippers gyrate to songs like one I can only assume is titled "Move Around," featuring the lyrics "Move around/Move around/Why don't you move around/move around/move around." There is an extended scene where a woman dances with a snake.

This leads me to the following idea: if this movie has anything resembling an ethos, it's probably just 'Snakes n' Butts.'"
"Did you say, 'ventriloquists?'"
–"Allow me to introduce Otto and George. Otto is Otto Petersen, a Staten Islander and local 'celebrity' who claimed to have once met John Lennon and made a brief appearance in THE ARISTOCRATS.

He and his terrifying, possibly papier-mâché dummy George do three full routines through the course of this movie. Without them, this movie is under 74 minutes. With them, it's 82.  This dummy, who at present is looking into your soul, pushes this over the edge into feature length.
Even the extras, who are probably unpaid, understand their complicity and look existentially perturbed.

Otto and George's routine is full of material that is at least five years out of date, even in 1993, consisting of jokes about Ronald Reagan ('Fuckin' Reagan. Cocksucker.'), ALL IN THE FAMILY (a graphic descriptions of Archie and Edith's sexual habits), and Michael Dukakis ("Dukakis. He was Greek. What's a Greek guy gonna do? He woulda turned the White House into a diner within a week!"). By the time he reaches the topic of AIDS ('I ain't gettin' AIDS, fuck that shit! This AIDS thing sucks!') we're praying for them to leave the stage. But still they do not.

No, they do not. At least Otto throws in some Woody Allen pedophilia jokes, which may, sadly, be the only parts of his routine that have maintained their relevance."
–"Probably the best part of the 'variety hour' sections of the film is when four women dress like they're in Fleetwood Mac but dance like they're the Fly Girls from IN LIVING COLOR."

"I'll take it."
–"There are other plots (subplots?) too, like when the Master trains his henchmen to go after Stuart Steel and make him reconsider his life. There are extended training montages (2!) of these henchmen dipping their hands into pots of dry rice.

There are plenty of mullets, too. And exposition. Exposition and mullets, worry not."

"I wasn't worried."
– "There's lots of eyebrow indicating, which is to be expected in this genre. The audio frequently drops out, mid-dialogue. There is an almost avant-garde element to the plot's construction, which seems designed to lack momentum of any kind. There's also a nice scene when Steel attacks some of his backstabbing associates at a birthday party."
"I thought he had a code, like 'no drug talk at the dojo.' Shouldn't there be 'no killing people at the birthday party?'"
–"One might think that, but alas:
My favorite part of that scene is the low-level mobster who comes down the stairs, mid-carnage, and says––with an incredible delayed reaction––'Hey, happy birthd–––SON OF A BITCH!'"
"I like it."
–"Afterward, Steel threatens the survivors with a large plaster sculpture of a hand giving the middle finger.

It may be a gesture intended for the audience, but then again it may be a reference to the phallic sculpture attack from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, the poster of which is on Stuart Steel's bedroom wall. The scene reaches its climax (on the inside, no doubt) when Steel says 'Have some cake!' and smooshes it into his adversary's face."

"That's fair. So wait... who is the silver-haired guy on the cover?"
–"Hoo boy. Okay. So that's Joseph Campanella, a TV guest actor and soap opera day player. He has the most impressive acting resume of anyone in this production, though this is in itself not saying much. He has been shot separately, either in Florida or California, and appears throughout the film in 'phone call scenes.' He's a corrupt cop who wants to destroy our friend Stuart Steel.

He's inserted awkwardly into the film like he's a celebrity (which he's not) doing a cameo, like Donald Trump in HOME ALONE 2 or Vanilla Ice in TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES II. He's supposed to be located in Brooklyn as well, which is a little confusing given all the visible palm trees. At one point, an actor walks in and says,

'Palm trees in Brooklyn?! Whaddya, grow 'em here?'  'I imported 'em from Florida last week,' retorts Campanella. There! Continuity problem solved!"
–"We return to Campanella every so often to hear him express sentiments like 'I love silk shirts!'

If these scenes weren't shot at some crew member's grandmother's beach house, I'll eat that Navajo rug, right off the wall."
"So how does this thing end?"
–"Stuart Steel finds out that his sixteen-year old girlfriend has been doing lower-case coke (remember, he has been plying her with upper-case Coke for the rest of the movie, which is in this context perhaps meant to be a joke, or perhaps a stab in the dark at irony) and he chokes her while saying,

'I thought you were SWEET and INNOCENT and I come HOME and you're putting this shit up your NOSE!?'

Then he kills the employee who gave it to her (another dirty cop) by forcing him to O.D. on lower-case coke."

"Is this like one of those Shakespeare plays where everybody dies?"
–"Hold your horses. So, on a dilapidated rooftop, his adopted dad––the Master––and his henchmen catch up with Mr. Steel. We are forced to endure a deeply unimpressive Kung Fu battle.

When the Master finally steps up to show us his moves, he only has one: he reaches over and strangles Stuart Steel to death in one more-or-less fluid motion.

Because he has killed the prodigal son, he cries out to the heavens like he's in a Lars von Trier movie.

Then he takes over Steel's dojo and hopefully does not pass along any more of the creepy, sperm-stockpile theories of martial arts."
–"I'll say. Then, in a shocking coda, we receive the moral of the story, scrolled out for us in Apple Chancery font. It's a Lao Tzu quote, accompanied by some generic house music from 1993."

"I like a movie with a good moral message."
–"The credits are pretty illuminating, too. We learn there is a character credited as 'Nancy (Cokewhore),' who is not to be confused with 'Girl in Crack Den.' Later, I am proved right, in that the song I thought was called 'Move Around' is indeed called 'Move Around.'"

"Is that a song called 'Butt Naked,' by Charm?"
–"Sure is. You should probably buy the soundtrack album. Finally, remember, the ethos: 'Snakes n' Butts.' It's metaphorical and metaphysical."
"This looks horrible."
–"Oh, it is."
"Why did you tell me about it, then?"
–"Lao Tzu once said, 'Health is the greatest possession. Contentment is the greatest treasure. Confidence is the greatest friend. Non-being is the greatest joy.'
"Is that supposed to be the moral of this review? That THE FORCE WITHIN has pushed you closer toward a state of non-being?"
–"I shall not disagree with that. Now, pardon me while I put on a lesser Lucio Fulci––I'm getting closer to non-being every day."

Monday, February 5, 2018

Sean Gill's "The Mysterious Ecastasy of Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball for Super Nintendo" in Hobart

My latest essay, "The Mysterious Ecstasy of Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball for Super Nintendo," chronicles the delightfully bizarre cultural connections (involving the likes of Stephen King, John Waters, Judy Garland, Werner Herzog, etc.) that exist in the vintage SNES baseball game. It's just been published by the literary journal Hobart, and you can read it online here.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Only now does it occur to me... ALEXANDER

Only now does it occur to me: let us briefly talk about how, in Oliver Stone's sprawling sword-and-sandal biopic ALEXANDER, at a pivotal moment during the Battle of Gaugamela, Stone has one of his commanders scream, "Back and to the left!  Back and to the left!,"

arguably the most famous and oft-repeated line from Stone's JFK. Somehow, it simultaneously trivializes both JFK and ALEXANDER, though the latter does not require much assistance in this department.

ALEXANDER is faintly better than its reputation, though its essential elements are incest, snakes, CGI birds, and chubby Val Kilmer.
Remember when this was considered chubby Val Kilmer?

I suppose we don't need to question why the Macedonians all have Irish brogues, nor why Molossian barbarian queen Angelina Jolie has a modern Eastern European accent. We definitely shouldn't question why Angelina Jolie––who is less than one year older than Colin Farrell––is playing his mother.
I suppose we can take some solace in the fact that she is a serpent-worshipping cultist who is draped in more snakes than Alice Cooper.
She also has ample opportunity to flex her acting muscles, á la James Earl Jones in REVENGE OF THE SITH:
Finally, I must mention––simply to walk it back into the darkness––that the less said about Jared Leto here, the better. 

That's all!

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Film Review: LEMORA: A CHILD'S TALE OF THE SUPERNATURAL (1973, Richard Blackburn)

Stars: 3.5 of 5.
Running Time: 85 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Lesley Taplin (THE ACTIVIST), Cheryl Smith (LASERBLAST, THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN), and Hy Pyke (BLADE RUNNER, DOLEMITE). Directed by Richard Blackburn (who also co-wrote EATING RAOUL and wrote and directed a TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE episode). Cinematography by Robert Caramico (BLACKENSTEIN, FALCON CREST, JUST SHOOT ME).
Tag-line: "Through the doors up the dark stairs behind this window... a possession is taking place! Run, little girl... innocence is in peril tonight!"
Best one-liner: "I am the unkillable. My spirit is the strongest ever."

Longtime readers of this site will know of my interest in what I call "melancholy horror," which I roughly define as a sub-genre of especially artistic horror/thriller/supernatural drama films that offer  genuine scares and genuine sadness in equal measure. They routinely begin and/or end with a tragedy, often of an accidental, non-supernatural variety; and they were made, by and large, between 1970 and 1981, mostly on lower budgets which lend them a 'documentary' feel. Their visuals are impressionistic, hypnotic, and dreamlike, the 1970s film stock often lending sunlight, candlelight, and fall colors a special ethereal prominence. LEMORA: A CHILD'S TALE OF THE SUPERNATURAL fits firmly into this category, a truly American indie that later found a cult audience in France. It's a peculiar hodgepodge of Jesus and Lovecraft, of folk tales and arthouse sensibilities, drenched in scary-weird amateur acting choices and vibrant, expressionistic lighting.
LEMORA is mostly notorious for a lengthy condemnation by the Catholic Legion of Decency, and the re-release poster pictured (at the top of the review) is retroactively trying to cash in on these religious horror aspects by making visual reference to CARRIE. Truthfully, the film has much more in common with melancholy gems like LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971) or VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS (1970). Technically, this is a PG-rated children's movie, but it's also a perverse psychological miasma of adolescent paranoia and sexual aggression, and the fact that sections of it were filmed on abandoned sets from THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW only adds to the effect.
Welcome to Mayberry!

The plot revolves around the thirteen-year-old Lila Lee, a doe-eyed gangster's child turned evangelical starlet,
the "singin' angel daughter of a real life devil,"
who escapes her (possibly pedophilic?) foster Reverend for the Lovecraftian hamlet of Astaroth, where her father may be hiding out. Here, factions of proto-Fulci-esque zombies 
vie for dominance against Edwardian lesbian vampires who look like they just escaped the PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK.
To paraphrase Bush 43, "ladies and gentlemen, this is some weird shit." Essentially, every character that Lila Lee encounters attempts to exploit her to some end (whether by sexual or culinary means)
and the result is a deeply alienating life lesson (ostensibly for child viewers) regarding society's view of adolescent female sexuality. Minus the horror elements, it is a message that easily could have been delivered by Catherine Breillat, Simone de Beauvoir, or Chantal Akerman. LEMORA's inability to commit to a single horror trope (zombies, vampires, witchcraft, hag horror, ghosts, religious horror, haunted houses) feels deliberate, speaking to the universality of the message––almost as if to signal that all female Bildungsromane lead here, from  LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD to THE BELL JAR. 

At the center of all of this is a deeply bizarre performance by Lesley Taplin as the eponymous Lemora, a predatory vampiress who may very well be the most likable character in the film.
In the end, it's an obscure, atmospheric, and generally quiet entry into melancholy horror genre, and like ALICE IN WONDERLAND and many a coming-of-age fairy tale, it is ambiguous enough to inspire a wide range of reactions (I could just as easily analyze LEMORA as a progressive text, or regressive one).