Thursday, July 30, 2009

Film Review: SPIDER BABY (1964, Jack Hill)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 81 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Lon Chaney Jr., Beverly Washburn, Sid Haig, Carol Ohmart, Jill Banner.
Tag-lines: "Come into my parlor, said the spider to the..."
Best one-liner: "I caught a big fat bug right in my spider web and now the spider gets to give the bug a big sting. Sting! Sting! Sting! Sting! Sting!"

Do you like spiders, Mr. Howe?" (You should probably think very carefully before you answer that.)

In 1964, after doing some mostly uncredited work on some Corman pics and directing a brilliant, existential student short (THE HOST), Jack Hill finally got a shot at his first feature, and boy, is it a doozy. It's in turns manic, hilarious, sincere, terrifying, and devastating- and it's probably the greatest, most original American horror film to emerge from the 1960's. Unfortunately, due to bankrupt financiers, it didn't see the light of day until '68, but it was the first in a series of bona fide low-budget masterpieces from Hill that would later include the Shakespearean SWITCHBLADE SISTERS, the hard-hitting Blaxploitation gem COFFY, and the radical/reactionary treatise THE SWINGING CHEERLEADERS. SPIDER BABY made an indelible impression on many a filmmaker, from Tobe Hooper and his cannibalistic family units to David Lynch and his chillingly chipper oddities to Wes Craven and his 'people under the stairs' to, most recently, Rob Zombie and his weaker noodlings on the same subjects.

But a movie as freakishly visceral as SPIDER BABY deserves far more than just a history lesson, so allow me to explain why it works (without giving too much away, of course). The film is at its best when eerily combining completely disparate elements: from the opening credits (with children's book cut-outs accompanied by Lon Chaney Jr.-sung lyrics about cannibal orgies) to Sid Haig's lanky man-child to the blurry line between kid's playthings and murderous implements, SPIDER BABY delights in fusing the juvenile and the macabre. Why have a scene with just incestuous undertones when you can have a scene with incestuous, pedophilic, violent, AND insectoid undertones?

And for being a 7-day bargain basement shoot, it has an incredible amount of class- almost as if Nabokov and Tennessee Williams collaborated on a script directed by a German Expressionist (turned Corman protégé). The acting (particularly by the aforementioned Haig, the well-meaning caretaker Lon Chaney Jr., and the two psychotic sisters, Beverly Washburn and Jill Banner) pulls of the difficult feat of being at once sinister, darkly hysterical, and full of pathos. Whew! Now: revel in the majesty that is SPIDER BABY...if you dare!

-Sean Gill

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Film Review: SCREAMERS (1995, Christian Duguay)

Stars: 3 of 5.
Running Time: 108 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Peter Weller, Jennifer Rubin, co-written by Dan O'Bannon, who'd been kicking around the screenplay since the early 80's.
Tag-lines: "The silence of space is about to be shattered." Although, given the involvement of O'Bannon, maybe it should have been "In space no one can hear you... scream(ers)."
Best one-liner: "He's a fucking toaster!"

For what it is, I was pretty impressed with SCREAMERS. It ought to have three strikes against it from the outset:
1. A fairly low budget for an outer space epic,
2. A release date of 1996 (a dark time for quality sci-fi, as bad CGI began to rear its loathsome head), and
3. Direction by Christian Duguay. Duguay is basically David Cronenberg's sloppy seconds. He's Canadian, he made SCANNERS into a straight-to-video trilogy (WITHOUT Michael Ironside), he uses post-NAKED LUNCH Peter Weller, and here he also tackles Philip K. Dick (one of Cronenberg's greatest influences- see VIDEODROME). And SCREAMERS is basically THE THING meets TREMORS meets PHANTASM, but without being as good as any of them. This should be awful. And the mawkish, inane ending is. But everything that precedes said hideous denouement is extremely solid.

As solid as Peter Weller.

We've got a screenplay by Dan O'Bannon (RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, TOTAL RECALL, ALIEN), an excellent lead performance by the always serviceable Weller, and- be still my heart- minimal use of bad CGI! (With stop motion, trick photography, and makeup used to a generally favorable effect.)

Jennifer Rubin (the switchblade swingin', recovering junkie from NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3) is our female lead, and appears to be quite literally under the influence of 'ludes for her first couple scenes- but somehow it works!

There's mind-boggling soundtrack choices and bad comic relief (with the taciturn Weller getting annoyed by a chatterbox rookie), but out of nowhere, a few genuine (O'Bannon) humanizing moments creep through. And, eerily, it seems that the flick wanted to make "Can I come with you?" a catchphrase in the same vein as "Want some candy?" in PREDATOR 2.


In fact, for the dipsomaniacal drinking game fans among us, if you take a drink every time you hear the repeated lines "Can I come with you?" and "Get off my back!," by the film's close you'll probably think that you're a Screamer. Solid sci-fi, disappointing ending, three stars.

-Sean Gill

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Film Review: MODESTY BLAISE (1966, Joseph Losey)

Stars: 1.5 of 5.
Running Time: 119 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Monica Vitti, Terence Stamp, Clive Revill, Dirk Borgarde.
Tag-lines: "Nothing can faze Modesty Blaise, the world's deadliest and most dazzlingly female agent!"
Best one-liner: None.

Joseph Losey, Monica Vitti, Terence Stamp, and Dirk Bogarde collaborating on a candy-colored Bond-ian romp sprinkled with flaming houseboys, outrageous mod fashions, gigantic glasswear, and all manner of vivid campitude- what could POSSIBLY go wrong? Well, I'll tell you.

How could you possibly misuse this setting? Watch the movie and find out.

First, Losey. A director known for alienation and paranoia probably shouldn't have been chosen for a light-hearted spy escapade. And for a first time action/comedy director, I understand there must be an incredible temptation to conclude your film with a chaotic brawl set to something snazzily approximating 'Yakety Sax.' There must be a tremendous urge to have a bunch of 'people of color' show up to comedic effect (i.e., the Native Americans in CASINO ROYALE or the zany Arab in THE PIRATE MOVIE). In MODESTY BLAISE, it's an army of Arabs. Isn't it hilarious how they all showed up at once, out of nowhere, to do pratfalls? Um, not really.

Next, there's Vitti. The muse of Antonioni (for whom she's perfect), she flawlessly portrays existential angst and modern malaise. Unfortunately, she's completely unqualified to appear in scenes meant to elicit laughter (intentional or unintentional).

She comes across as awkward, stilted, and embarrassed- which does not befit a glamorous, globe-trotting secret agent. She simply lacks the comedic chops or sheer presence of Jane Fonda in BARBARELLA, or even Marisa Mell in DIABOLIK.

Then, there's Stamp. One of the finest actors of all time, and they've put the kid gloves on him.

In a muted, sidekicky role, there's really no reason for him to be here. It'd be like making Joan Crawford a Bond girl.

Finally, there's Bogarde, who deliciously sinks his teeth into the swishy role of a purple parasol-twirling mastermind (with a shock of white hair).

Only he emerges unscathed. I don't even have the time (or desire) to further discuss the insufferable pacing, the excruciating runtime, or the humiliatingly out-of-place musical interludes (with unaltered vocals from non-singers Stamp and Vitti). One and a half stars.

-Sean Gill

Monday, July 27, 2009

Film Review: DEATH WISH 3 (1985, Michael Winner)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 92 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Charles Bronson, Martin Balsam (PSYCHO, TWO EVIL EYES), Alex Winter (BILL & TED'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE), Kirk Taylor (THE LAST DRAGON, FULL METAL JACKET), Gaven O'Herlihy (WILLOW, SUPERMAN III), Ed Lauter (TRUE ROMANCE, FAMILY PLOT), Deborah Raffin (GOD TOLD ME TO, SCANNERS II), music by Jimmy Page.
Tag-lines: "He's back in New York bringing justice to the streets..."
Best one-liner: "WE know that you did it! YOU know that WE know that you did it! WE know that you know that we know that you did it!"

ER doc: "Mrs. Rodriguez has expired." A concerned, brow-furrowing Bronson: "But you told me over the phone she only had a broken arm?" DEATH WISH 3 is golden 80's trash, bedazzled with that sparkling magic wand known as Golan-Globus.

The problem: out in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn, (filmed on location!) a poor man's Klaus Kinski and a bunch of face-painted background dancers from BREAKIN' have declared war on the elderly.

Their heinous acts are accompanied by Jimmy Page's rootin' tootin' burlesque synths, slap-happy bass (imagine SEINFELD times one thousand), and a general easy listening jazzy funkitude that words can't quite describe.

The solution: send in Bronson, make 'im mad, and turn 'im loose.

Now here's 15 reasons why DEATH WISH 3 may be the greatest movie Cannon ever made:

1. A bored Bill S. Preston, Esq. being told to "Stay awake while we're killin' this guy."

Each DEATH WISH film has an unlikely, famous- or pseudo-famous- henchman. In 1, it's Jeff Goldblum. In 2, it's Laurence Fishburne. In 3, it's Alex Winter. Hell, ST. IVES has even got Goldblum AND Robert "Freddy Krueger" Englund.

2. “Chicken’s good. I like chicken.” Yeah, Bronson’s easy to please. As long as you've got chicken.

3. The Hispanic family has a giant sombrero hanging on their wall.

Similarly, the Jewish family has an enormous Menorah. Golan-Globus films take place in a kind of post-racial universe where sterotypes abound, but complete racial harmony can proceed as soon as the [land developers, evil gangs, rich kid's dance team] is defeated. See also: RAPPIN', LAMBADA, etc.

4. The jarring, semi-frequent roach squishing. The pacing in a Cannon film seems completely designed to illicit spit-takes. The whackiest moments come out of nowhere- just as you're taking that sip of Coke II...

5. The little zoom in on the portrait of the Rough Riders as the music noodles out a little martial flair (for no reason). See #4's note on spit-takes, and previous notations on Jimmy Page.

6. Bronson's disquieting smile and his ill-considered, matter-of-fact one-liner delivery: "It's MY CAR!"

"It's MY CAR!"

7. Four words: Mail, Order, Rocket, Launcher.

Not to mention the legal improbabilities of Bronson setting up a P.O. Box and immediately having truckloads of illegal weaponry shipped to him.

8. Bronson's continued love for ice cream (see DEATH WISH 2).

9. The purse-snatching 'Giggler.' "He laughs as he runs."

And that he does.

10. "Believe it or not, this used to be a great neighborhood." Ummm…WHAT?

11. Bronson shooting an unarmed man in the back, prompting the ghetto to erupt in a chorus of 'Right-ons' set to ROCKY-esque MIDI music.

12. When Bronson punches a dude out and he goes into an artful jazz-dance fall.

13. The fact that, without exaggeration, nearly EVERY single car seen in this movie ends up EXPLODING.

Car explosions would probably make a good starting point for a drinking game if you're so inclined.

14. The Commodore 64 adaptation with the tag-line: "You ARE Bronson."

15. And because the Italian marketing was so memorable.

I could easily come up with fifteen more. Probably even a thousand more. And maybe I will, someday. In the meantime, Charlie, here’s five mind-blowing, chicken-flavored stars. You earned ‘em. Eat up. Maybe we'll get some ice cream in here for dessert.

-Sean Gill

Friday, July 24, 2009

Film Review: FREDDY VS. JASON (2003, Ronny Yu)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 97 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Who cares, beyond Robert Englund? (Well, Evangeline Lilly appears as a green-shirted high school extra.)
Tag-lines: "The "Slicer"...The "Dicer"...And This Time, They're Not Any "Nicer"!"
Best one-liner: Maybe "Dude, that goalie was pissed about something!" or "Now... it's time to put this 'bad dog' to sleep... FOR GOOD."

"Versus" movies beg to be judged by a different set of criteria than, shall we say, "art" films; otherwise, I do not think I would have awarded FREDDY VS. JASON the same number of stars as I gave Ingmar Bergman's PERSONA (though I suppose the argument could be made for it being a "versus" movie as well). But I cannot lie: I enjoyed this quite a bit. Even before the film begins, there is something, maybe even magical, upon hearing the electro-harpsichord NIGHTMARE theme followed up by the 'Ki-ki-ki Ma-ma-ma" which FRIDAY fans hold so dearly.

And the film, though besotten with the trappings of a 2003 horror flick, manages, to the greatest degree that it can, to remain consistent with its 80's-entrenched series' roots. Something else that 2003 offers is a new breed of tool: neckless Abercrombie jocks and glow-stick waving dunces make much more cathartic machete fodder than, say, a freak-dancing Crispin Glover. But missing from 2003 are rockin' 80's tunes, Power Glove references, and, sadly, a freak-dancing Crispin Glover. Robert Englund is back and out of control.

Though the '03 makeup is much more demonic in flavor, Englund brings a certain glee and frustration that humanizes Freddy. Who can't relate to his "Aw, give me a break," when the mine car he's trying to push onto Jason gets stuck? Or the childish, genuine delight when he discovers he can launch pressurized air tanks at his foe? "Man the torpedoes!" Jason is similarly humanized with some flashbacks of camping torment and his near-pitiful phobia of water. So it all comes down to: Whose side are you on? It seems nearly impossible to me that one could prefer the completely taciturn blank slate killing machine that is Jason, when there exists a one-liner dropping, pop-culture referencing alternative who released his own pop album in 1987.

But since the fans will debate that to the death, I suppose it gives the film even greater appeal. "Place your bets!"

-Sean Gill

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Film Review: DEATH WISH II (1982, Michael Winner)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 95 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Charles Bronson, Laurence Fishburne, Anthony Franciosa (TENEBRE), Jill Ireland, soundtrack by Jimmy Page. Produced by Golan and Globus.
Tag-lines: "First His Wife. Now His Daughter. It's Time To Even The Score!"
Best one-liner: "He saved our lives dammit! Where we you, giving out parking tickets?"

I could say, like many have, that this is a bleak, disturbing view of crime-addled humanity on the brink of ruin. Instead, I will say that this is a movie where someone gets shot in the face through a ginormous boom box.

But still, there's a lot to be learned from DEATH WISH II, whether you're a two-bit punk, a film scholar, or something in between.

MYTH: It's worth it to steal Bronson's ice cream money.
FACT: No. Cause Bronson is one of those pacifists that will just look for ANY excuse to kick your ass.

MYTH: "We all look the same to Whitey- he'll never pick you out, Jiver!"
FACT: Not true. And when he gets you, he doesn't even need a one-liner, it's just: "Goodbye."

MYTH: No movie should every be unfairly truncated.
FACT: Every once in a while, it doesn't really matter. So some post-rape bloody 'vag shots got cut out? Probably a good thing. This is a Golan/Globus production. It's not like we're talking IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES here.

MYTH: Golan and Globus like dance sequences in gritty movies.

FACT: Golan and Globus love dance sequences in gritty movies.

MYTH: Bronson loves orangutans.
FACT: Score one point for Bronson in the eternal Bronson vs. Eastwood battle- Bronson sneers, then chuckles at a theater marquee playing an EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE double feature. Damn!

MYTH: When Bronson gets hurt, he promptly seeks medical attention.
FACT: He smoothly makes dinner plans with his British ladyfriend (real-life wife Jill Ireland) and hides his arm behind his back as he bleeds out from a ridiculous switchblade gash. After she leaves, he casually dresses it himself and then makes it to dinner, unruffled.

MYTH: When murder and rape are the crimes, only the judicial system may judge.
FACT: Well, according to the trailer, "When murder and rape are the crimes, BRONSON is the only punishment." And that he is. "Do you believe in Jesus?," he inquires of a punk wearing a crucifix. "Yes," replies the wimpering wrongdoer. "Well, you're gonna meet him," intones Bronson before blowing him away. Wow. Four stars. Keep 'em in that little woolen cap that you think functions as a 'vigilante disguise.'

-Sean Gill

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Film Review: ROADIE (1980, Alan Rudolph)

Stars: 3 of 5.
Running Time: 106 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Director Alan Rudolph (MRS. PARKER AND THE VICIOUS CIRCLE, BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS, AFTERGLOW). Meat Loaf, Kaki Hunter, Art Carney, Alice Cooper, Roy Orbison, Debbie Harry and Blondie, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Hank Williams Jr., Peter Frampton, Kurtwood Smith (RAMBO III, ROBOCOP, THAT 70's SHOW) in a Security Guard cameo.
Tag-lines: "The story of a boy and his equipment."
Best one-liner: "Well that's a strange and wondrous tale, son, but like everything else, it'll work if you let it." (said by an insane Art Carney).

A meandering, slightly mediocre, BLUES BROTHERS-style, rock 'n roll pileup of a movie that pays the bills by phoning in some car wrecks and barroom brawls, but justifies its cultish appeal via a number of truly, befittingly insane elements.

Hey, at least it's better than MRS. PARKER AND THE VICIOUS CIRCLE.

Meat Loaf plays the eponymous ROADIE, fixing equipment for rock bands across the armadillo-covered roads and byways of Americana. Art Carney plays his dad, who putters and mutters and does all manner of things that I'm sure had some whacked-out rationalization in the screenwriter's mind.

Art Carney: irascible.

By the way, the owner of said screenwriting mind is named "Big Boy" (Medlin). Regardless of its shortcomings, however, ROADIE does have its share of street credentials: Debbie Harry giving surreal advice about the "Age of Specialization," and her band (Blondie) covering Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire;"

The Debbie Harry factor is pretty high.

a character ("The Groupie," played by Kaki Hunter) who wears a different, insanely colored pair of tight pants in nearly every scene; a slew of cameos from Roy Orbison to Hank Williams, Jr. to Peter Frampton; and, as its 'piece de resistance,' a dinner with Alice Cooper that involves a boa constrictor and one of those Martian bug-out stress relievers dressed as Alice himself!

Alice Cooper orders around some security flunkies....including (!) Kurtwood Smith (on the left).

So despite possessing the storytelling aptitude of a tipsy gnat, ROADIE has some pretty rockin' tunes (by the likes of Pat Benatar, Cheap Trick, Styx, The B-52's and a shit-ton of others) and a palpable dive bar rock concert atmosphere. If this sounds up your alley, then I guess you can lose yourself in the ambience, kick back some beer (straight from the pitcher), relax, and enjoy yourself some ROADIE.

-Sean Gill

Monday, July 20, 2009

Film Review: THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE (1973, Peter Yates)

Stars: 4.5 of 5.
Running Time: 102 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Robert Mitchum, Peter Boyle, Steven Keats, Richard Jordan. Cinematography by Victor J. Kemper (DOG DAY AFTERNOON, CLUE, XANADU, HUSBANDS).
Tag-lines: "It's a grubby, violent, dangerous world. But it's the only world they know. And they're the only friends Eddie has."
Best Mitchum lament: "Look, I'm gettin' old, you hear? I spent most of my life hanging around crummy joints with a buncha punks drinkin' the beer, eatin' the hash and the hot dogs and watchin' the other people go off to Florida while I'm sweatin' out how I'm gonna pay the plumber. I done time and I stood up but I can't take no more chances. Next time, it's gonna be me goin' to Florida."

Something happens early on in THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE that nearly caused me to fall out of my chair. Bob Mitchum opened his mouth, and something approximating a Boston accent came out. Mitchum's one of the greatest actors of all time, but when he worked on a movie, his attitude generally fell between "doesn't give a shit" and "hardly gives a shit."

But doing an accent?! That's going above and beyond- that means he might have felt strongly about the material- (well, as strongly as Mitchum can feel about these things). So if a film can command Mitchum's respect, then, by God, you'd better sit up straight, sober up, and give this your full and honest attention.

Directed by Peter "BULLITT" Yates, EDDIE COYLE takes aim at genre convention. 'We gotta have action! Gotta have CAR CHASES!' Nope, it's a somber character study. A melancholy look at the everyday goings-on of those who choose to partake in this 'left-handed' form of human endeavor. It has far more in common with a film by Antonioni or Jacques Becker than a genre pic. 'But, wait, I wanted explosions! One-liners!' How about just Bob Mitchum sitting at a barstool, thinking about his life: that pretty much beats the shit out of any action sequence I can think of.

There's heaps of reasons to love this film: the beautiful, immersive atmosphere of Boston in late autumn; Steven Keats' smarmy Jackie Brown ("This life's hard, man, but it's harder if you're stupid!"); Richard Jordan's pithy, no-frills cop; Peter Boyle's loathsome, sad sack bartender; Mitchum's explanation of what happened to his knuckles as a master's class in acting; that bank robbery scene we've all seen a thousand times made fresh and taut... the list is nearly endless. And it's all there in Mitchum's rumpled eyes. What once indicated disinterest and badassery now merely observes, pensively. With crestfallen passivity, Mitchum awaits his turn, his moment, his Florida retirement. And he waits. And waits...

-Sean Gill