Monday, March 31, 2008

Black Mama, White Mama (USA, 1972)

One of Pam Grier's early name-making exploitation projects, Black Mama, White Mama is less a true Blaxploitation film than simply another convoluted spin on the ever-popular women-behind-bars genre. Indeed, Ms. Grier is about the only truly black person to appear in this female take of The Defiant Ones (1958), and if this flick doesn't get as much press as some of the other films she made back in the 70s, it's probably because this film isn't really as good as some of the true Blaxploitation classics she was to made around the same time (Coffy (1973), for example).
Director Eddie Romero, better known outside of the Philippines for cheaply cheesy and entertaining trash horror films such as Mad Doctor of Blood Island (1968), Brides of Blood (1968) and Beast of Blood (1971) has since become a respected filmmaker on the islands, and in Black Mama, White Mama he displays a professional hand that neither helps nor hurts the film. The real problem with the film is the script: while it is indeed sleazy and violent enough, it nonetheless gets lost in an excess of subplots. By the time it meanders to its surprisingly depressing finale, the viewer is more or less ready to for the movie to end.
The first half of the Black Mama, White Mama is definitely aimed at the fans women-in-prison films and begins with a bus transporting new inmates to the prison. Among the new arrivals are Lee Daniels (Pam Grier), a street-wise hooker, and Karen Brent (Margaret Markove), a rich girl gone revolutionary, both of whom have their own reasons for wanting to escape: Lee has a stash of hidden cash and wants to blow the island (and her pimp Ernesto (Zaldy Zschornack), while Karen needs to meet up with some arms dealers that are bringing in the fire power needed for a successful revolution. In no short order Black Mama, White Mama dishes out the required lesbian warden (Laurie Burton), group shower scene, lesbian guard (Lynn Bordon) that likes to masturbate as she watches the babes shower through a hole in the wall, a food fight in the mess and naked punishment in the "hot box." (Regrettably, we don't actually get to see a lot of Ms. Grier's attributes in their prime; after the initial scenes at the prison, the extensive female toplessness that follows leans heavily towards the Filipino side.) Soon Lee and Karen are chained together in bus on its way to a maximum security prison across the island, but the interracial duo manage to make their escape — and kill the lesbian guard — when the bus is ambushed. The dynamic duo argue, fight, dress up as nuns, run and bicker straight into each other's hearts as they are pursued by island police, Karen's revolutionary compatriots, Lee's pissed-off pimp and a bounty hunter (an always excellent Sid Haig). Everything culminates as everyone meets up for a big showdown on the Filipino docks and a surprise ending...
Black Mama, White Mama has its moments and is definitely worth watching at least once, especially for fans of 70's sleaze, Blaxploitation or Pam Grier. That said, the film is hardly a classic of any of the genres it belongs to and doesn't move as quickly as it should. It is the Miller Lite on a shelf of Czech and German beer: You know what you're getting and it does serve its purpose, but if you can have a choice amongst many, why choose it?

Survivor (USA 1987)

Yet another forgotten low-budget, post-apocalypse science fiction film from the 1980's that followed in the wake of Mad Max (1979) and its sequels. Not as good as the few good ones, but nowhere near as bad as most. Considering that many a profitable career in film began with a movie worse than this one, it is a bit odd that director Michael Shackleton has seemingly fallen off the face of the earth since making this thing. One can only guess that Survivor was a labor of love and that having shot his load, Shackleton decided to leave the business. All in all, Survivor is an interesting contribution to the post-apocalypse genre, much like The Quiet Earth (1985)…nowhere as good as something like The Terminator (1984) but it is miles above any thematically similar Albert Pyun film, including Cyborg (1989) and Radioactive Dreams (1985).
The story of Survivor tells of an astronaut who returns to earth after watching the planet self-destruct in a nuclear war, a war that started because of the Star Wars satellite he was putting into orbit. The planet is now a desert hell and the few survivors seem more interested in killing than befriending each other. Searching for a legendary city of survivors, he unwittingly saves some woman from death and after the expected initial difficulties, Adam and Eve get down to a long but oddly boring sex scene before she gets kidnapped. It seems she is an escapee from the underground city, which is ruled by a psychopath who has confiscated all healthy, fertile tits for his own harem, convinced that his sperm is the right sperm needed to repopulate earth. The Survivor manages to stumble upon the city and eventually even manages to rid the world of the bad guy…
The film is enjoyable enough despite some big flaws, the biggest of which is why so many people would want to live underground in a gloomy, fascist hell with disgusting ooze for food when there seems to be a huge ocean full of fish above ground. Indeed, for a world without water and in which people die and kill for a few mere drops of liquid, the ocean is pretty huge. (Saltwater or not, there are still relatively easy abet time consuming ways to take the salt out of salt water, most obviously being boiling and collecting the condensation.) Also, the plot twist in which certain functionaries of the city let the Survivor free to kill their nutso leader makes no sense since they have no guarantee for either his success or loyalty. And, as happens in the film, his initial failed attempt leads directly back to the functionaries anyway. And, also….
OK, so let’s skip paying attention to logic, since logic is seldom an element found in films in any event. For what it is worth, Survivor moves along quick enough and the director does get a lot of mileage out of an obvious low budget. It might not be an undiscovered masterpiece, but it is surprisingly watchable and does make the time pass quickly enough. Odd that it did so little for the director – like give him a career.
But then, Survivor seems to have done little for anyone involved, be it the director, writer or the three main actors. The career of the tits of the film, belonging to Sue Kiel, never went beyond a few episodes of Red Shoe Diaries; Kiel herself has seemingly never made it further than the background of Repo Man (1984) and Straight to Hell (1987). A shame, for the tits are nice, even if her haircut is a monstrosity. The so-called Survivor is played by Chip Mayer, whose beautiful blue eyes might be remembered by some from the regular characters he played in the television shows The Dukes of Hazard and Santa Barbara. Still occasionally active, his eyes aren't piercing enough to lift his face out from the background of the straight to video fodder he usually is in nowadays. Richard Moll, who makes a more than credible heavy in this film, is the most familiar face in Survivor. Remembered by most as the bald-headed bailiff in the sitcom Night Court, he can be found in movies as varied as Evil Speak (1981), The Flintstones (1994), Route 66 (1998) and Scary Movie II (2001), though his parts are seldom as large as in Survivor. Scriptwriter Bima Stagg, who began his career by writing the forgotten blaxploitation turkey Soul Patrol, aka Black Trash (1980), disappeared like Shackleton, though he did resurface briefly in 1996 to write Inside for director Arthur Penn. (Tells a lot about where Penn's career is has gone since Bonnie & Clyde (1967).)

Red Planet (2000, USA)

Another B-film with an A-film budget, Red Planet is both a bore and good example of everything that is wrong with Hollywood product. No real story, no real character development, no point. A complete and utter waste of time that might, in about 20 years, achieve some sort of cheesy, camp veneer and become an enjoyable laugh – much the same way a number of similar titled bad sci-fi films from the fifties are enjoyed today.
That Red Planet is an blatant if uninteresting and bland homage to the classic and not-so-classic space films of the atomic age, as is already obvious by the film's title, an overt nod to Harry Horner's 1952 commie-scare sci-fi flick Red Planet Mars and the cult favorite The Angry Red Planet (1959). Two grating aspects of Red Planet are lifted directly from one of the campiest of all space soaps of that era, the George Pal produced turkey Conquest of Space (1955). The long, badly intoned explanatory monologue by Commander Kate Bowman (Carrie-Anne Moss) sounds less like the plausible future possibility (as it should) than like a direct continuance of the embarrassingly racist and dated monologue about the Japanese, their food and chop sticks given by Imoto (Benson Fong) in Conquest of Space. Likewise, all the dialog about god and faith given by Dr. Bud Chantilas (Terence Stamp) is oddly reminiscent and equally out of place as that to be found in Pal's production.
One can argue about which of the two films is actually the worst, but Conquest of Space has the excuse of innocence and idealism, whereas Red Planet has no excuse at all. The film is an embarrassing film debut for director Hoffman (and, as might be expected, his only film to date), revealing him to have a hack mentality perfect for television drama, and for the film's stars, most of whom should have known better. A kiddy film with one gratuitous nude scene, the first scene of men pissing on mars and a dozen predictable plot twists, the script was not as much written as simply culled from a dozen other films. (Not surprising, seeing that one of the scriptwriters, Chuck Pfarrerr, is the man behind three other equally derivative disappointments, Sam Rami's Dark Man (1990), the cleavage-driven wanna-be cult film Barb Wire (1990) and John Woo's Hard Target (1993).)
And the plot? In 2050 a bunch of astronauts go to mars, most of whom end up crash landing on mars where they die one by one. Oh yeah, there are some nasty cockroaches there that eat everything and are capable of crawling up your ear and eating you from the inside without you even noticing it – and they are the eventual salvation of mankind! That one of the crew is a woman is due to any sense of equality, reality or P.C. than simply to add another pointless (love) sub-plot. Neither involving nor entertaining nor even slightly suspenseful, Red Planet is a true piece of shit.

American Strays (1996, USA)

(Trailer) Somewhere out there on the world wide web, some website described this film fairly accurately as "bargain basement Quentin Tarantino." But though the influence of Tarantino drips from every characterization, every line spoken and all action in general, the description "bargain basement" is a bit too negative. American Strays, as derivative as it is, is still very entertaining, and at times is better than some of Tarantino's own excesses, such as Four Rooms (1995) and most films he has had the pleasure of producing. Likewise, seeing how much Tarantino likes to borrow from other films, it seems a bit hypocritical to hold it against director Michael Covert that he let his influences hang out so obviously in his own directorial debut.
Okay, so virtually every character is an eccentric or oddball—but then, isn't that the way it really is in the USA? (Leave the country a year and then come back and you too will think everyone you meet has walked out of a Tarantino film.) And like most Americans, both in real life and in the films of Tarantino, Covert's characters like to gab a bit too much, forever holding prolonged discourses on such subjects as 8 tracks verses CDs, Francis Scott Key and the national anthem, old Aerosmith vs. New Aerosmith, or the similarities between moms and their daughters. These monologues and discussions are the biggest flaws in American Strays, often as overly drawn out and uninteresting and exhausting as the verbal excesses continually expostulated in Tarantino's films. That aside, for a first film, Michael Covert does a pretty entertaining job. Perhaps Covert is a bit too enamored by his own quirkiness and perhaps he does try too hard to make a cult film, but the movie is still much better than the average crap that gets released nowadays.
Of course, ignore the DVD cover, which features Luke Perry, Eric Roberts and Jennifer Tilly sporting guns like some bank robbing trio, for though all but Roberts do hold a gun at one point or another in the movie, the closest their paths ever cross throughout the film is perhaps when they drive by each other. And a lot of people drive by each other in this movie. Covert takes 6 or 7 different story lines of about 10 minutes in length and inter-cuts them, with all but two of the threads resolving in a climactic shoot out at Red's Desert Oasis, a grimy roadside restaurant where all the weary driver's accidentally meet up. The three sets of characters that continue their travels afterwards do so with a new found sense of peace and love, their future suddenly much rosier than before. But before the lunch that leaves everyone else worse off than just suffering indigestion, the viewer is introduced to – amongst others – a duet of horny crooks on the road, two hit men who never stop arguing with each other, a wimpy & freshly unemployed corporate employee and his family from hell, a serial-killing traveling vacuum cleaner salesman and his various "customers" and a Gen-X would be suicide masochist.
Like most ensemble films, American Strays features some amazingly eclectic casting, with familiar faces sometimes appearing for merely a minute or two (as with Michael Horse, whose biggest success since debuting as Tonto in The Legend of the Lone Ranger in 1981 was his regular roll as a deputy in television's legendary Twin Peaks). Luke Perry looks good but lacks virtually any facial expression as the oft pissed upon would-be suicide, his would-be murderer The Exterminator being the much less recognizable Sam J. Jones, who only the most trivia minded might possibly remember as the Playgirl centerfold of June 1975 (as "Andrew Cooper III") or the chunky star of the misfired remake of Flash Gordon (1980). Eric Roberts is surprisingly effective as the wimpy family man, an example of how well casting against type can sometimes work. (But then, if one ignores most of the B-films and straight to video fodder Roberts has specialized in during the last years and goes instead to his earlier projects like King of the Gypsies (1978), Star 80 (1983) or Runaway Train (1985), one would be less surprised to see that the man is actually a good actor.) Likewise, John Savage does well as Dwayne, the serial-killing vacuum salesman. Dressed like Johnny Cash, his wimpy demeanor plays well against his actions, and he gets a good laugh when he dances on and vacuums the graves of his freshly buried dead. Of course, no film like this would be complete without at least a couple of jive talking homeboys, played by Vonte Sweet and Anthony Lee, though they tend to be the least delineated characters of the whole film. (Lee's career as a character actor ended in October 2000 when a couple of Rodney-King-hating cops blew him away through a window at a Halloween party where he was toting a toy gun that was part of his costume.)
Derivative but fun, stylish and violent, American Strays is nothing new or exciting, but its 1½ hour playing time sure flies by quickly and painlessly.

Lost Souls (2000, USA)

If you have rented this film, be forewarned, you are Doomed! Doomed! Doomed to two hours of fabulously filmed pretentious bullshit that will bore the shit out of you and disappoint you at every turn, all the while tormenting you with the question "How can a film that looks so good be so bad?"
Okay, fans of slow moving, artsy-fartsy devil and possession films like Rosemary's Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973) might like this flick, but methinks even they might decide that in the case of Lost Souls, the packaging is much, much better than the contents. No wonder it took two years to get released and that little Winona supposedly refused to do any publicity work for the movie. Not that she is all that bad in the film, for a change. Tiny, lithe, chain smoking and with baggy eyes, she looks all the part of an emotionally scarred and frightened little lady. That she is so willing to pick a fight with Satan is a little less convincing, however, or does the fact that she was already exorcised as a young teen give her some sort of immunity, like some supernatural vaccination. Dunno, for being so good in Beetljuice (1988) and Heathers (1989), Lost Souls — much like the pitiful Alien: Resurrection (1997)— raises serious doubts about her acting abilities (like: does she have any?).

The story concerns a group of religious folks and fathers that, after a misfired exorcism, become convinced that the Satan shall take over the body of true crime author Peter Kelson (Ben Chaplin) on his 33rd birthday. They actually realize this by decoding a message from the devil using the simplest of all codes any child has ever used, in which the numbers 1 to 26 corresponds to the letters A through Z. (Satan is obviously not very intelligent.) Maya Larkin (Ryder) tries to warn Peter, but he thinks she's batty, until a series of semi-supernatural and mildly spooky things happen to him. Oh, no! He's doomed! And everyone he knows is obviously in on the plot. The two run around a lot trying to stop the unavoidable, but, in the only surprise of the film, they don't. (Well, not completely, in any event.) And that's the end. A few other things happen because otherwise Lost Souls would be one short movie, but basically the flick is all cinematography and not much story. Gee whiz. How is it that a power so mighty that he can fight god, possess all sorts of people, cause regular hallucinations, make people kill and maim and generally create untold havoc always be stopped so damned easily?
That the film is so well shot is hardly surprising seeing that Janusz Kaminski is an Oscar-winning cinematographer who points the camera for virtually all Spielberg films, despite his lowly beginnings with Grim Prairie Tales (1990) and The Terror Within II (1990). Lost Souls, Kaminski's directorial debut, shows about as much promise of directorial talent as Grim Prairie Tales did in regards to cinematography, so perhaps one shouldn't write the man off completely yet. But next time he should probably demand a script for his film.

Bubba Ho-tep (2002)

Contrary to popular assumption, Elvis (Bruce Campbell) is not dead. No, he's now an overweight geriatric in need of a walker and with a cancerous growth on his penis who is living the sad tail-end of his life at a nursing home in Mud Creek, Texas. How he got there is explained shortly into the film and is believable in its own way, but for most of the people that work or visit the home, he's a has-been Elvis impersonator with delusions.
His best bud at the home is Jack (Ossie Davis), a black man who's convinced that he is JFK. (As Jack says
at one point when Elvis points out that JFK was white man: "They dyed me this color! That's how clever they are!") But it's not the CIA, FBI, AA, ASCPA or any other insidiously evil anti-democratic organization that Jack has to fear now: the never-ending hallways of the nursing home he and Elvis share has been invaded by Bubba Ho-tep (Bob Ivy), an Egyptian soul-sucking mummy wearing cowboy boots and a Stetson who knows a good free lunch when he sees one. And as the other old folks begin to drop like flies, Elvis decides that the time has come to fight back. As he says, "Ask not what your rest home can do for you. Ask what you can do for your rest home."
There is a really valid reason why Bubba Ho-tep (trailer) keeps getting so much positive word of mouth: it's good. True, it is a far cry from the type of film one might expect from director Don Coscarelli, a man better known for the never-ending, highly unsubtle and continually over-rated Phantasm franchise, but as ridiculous as the plot of Bubba Ho-tep might sound, Coscarelli displays a remarkable subtle hand and delivers neither a typically disrespectful throw-a-lot-of-shit-everywhere-and-some-of-it- will-stick "comedy" (ala the Scary Movie franchise) nor does he go for a straight horror movie (like that he is known for). Instead, Coscarelli delivers a truly creative film that is both humorously serious and melancholically endearing and that never once resorts to condescension.
As ludicrous as the course of events are, Coscarelli and his actors treat everything with totally straight faces — to the great advantage of the film as a whole. Which is not to say the film isn't funny; indeed, for all it innate pensiveness of the topics ruminated upon by the aged Odd Couple, Bubba Ho-tep remains nonetheless enjoyably fun and well-peppered with laughs. But much like how the horror and action is far from over-the-top, the comedy is not played broad. As silly as everything is, it never devolves into camp, but remains amazingly believable — a remarkable directorial and thespian feat, to say the least.
Based on a story by the cult Texan "mojo" author Joe R. Lansdale, Bubba Ho-tep cost around a half-million dollars to make; and even with a budget of probably 1% of the average big-budget Hollywood project, the film easily delivers 100% more satisfaction than the average mainstream drivel that gets released on a daily basis.

Hotel der toten Gäste (1965, Germany/Spain)

Eberhard Itzenplitz garnered his first experience in films as an assistant director in the late 1950s – he even worked on the classic German movie Das Totenschiff (1959) – before going onto a long career as a television director. Hotel der toten Gäste is one of the few films he has ever directed that was actually made for general theatrical release. Featuring a catchy title – it translates literally into "Hotel of Dead Guests" – and one of the best and most haunting film melodies ever recorded by Gert Wilden (Germany’s semi-forgotten master of low-budget music), the movie is an unbearably boring piece of celluloid, a complete waste of the film material used to make it. Before spending your hard-earned Euro to rent the DVD to this sleep-inducing flick, you would be much better advised to put the dough towards buying the Crippled Dick Hot Wax CD release of selected Wilden movie tunes entitled I Told You Not to Cry or Schulmädchen Report. Amongst the numerous masterpieces of sleazedom and B-filmdom music found on the CD I Told You Not to Cry is the tune Beware, a slower and more haunting version of which threads its way through many a scene of this movie.
Oddly enough, despite the lack of a track record as director, Itzenplitz’s film features some pretty big German names for its day. Aside from a short guest appearance of an attractive, young, and well-coiffured Elke Summer, the leads are Karin Dor and Joachim Fuchsberger, both of which were at the high-point of their popularity when the movie was made. Karin Dor was so popular at the time that she even had a nickname in the popular press: "Miss Krimi." Still, despite her popularity within her own country and her eventual appearance in a few big, international productions – namely, You Only Live Twice (1967) and Topaz (1969) – her star was just beginning to wane by the time this film was made. (Nowadays she splits her time between occasional TV and theatre productions in Germany and her home in Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband the stunt director George Robotham.) In Hotel der toten Gäste, Fuchsberger gives one of his typically smooth performances, but unlike normal Dor comes across much too uptight and bitchy to be very likeable. As, in fact, all the females are in the movie.
Based on Heather Gardiner’s novel Die rote Vase ("The Red Vase"), the movie is a German/Spanish co-production. Most of the movie supposedly takes place at a hotel in San Remo, Italy during a celebrated and famous annual "Schlager Festival," but the action is so interior bound that little in the movie feels "Italian." (For those of you not in the know, Schlager is the European equivalent of the music your "un-hip" parents or grandparents used to listen to in the 1960s. The word itself is usually translated into "pop tune," but the music it describes is less The Beatles or Madonna than Englebert, Vicki Carr, Connie Francis or any other of the numerous has-beens that now haunt the budget-priced polyester-flavored lounge shows in Las Vegas. (Real Schlager, however, is less "loungy" than simply "lousy.") Whereas this type of music has generally been forgotten in most English speaking countries, Schlager remains an important aspect of the music industry in both Germany and Italy, if not Europe in general. Good examples of German Schlager music at its best/worst is anything by Heino, selected cover versions by James Last Orchestra and the unbelievably atrocious Hammond organ interpretations by Franz Lambert. Elke Summer’s appearance in the movie is actually not even a speaking part: she sings a song as an example of a performance at the festival.)
Hotel der toten Gäste begins it tale in London, where reporter Barney Blair (Joachim Fuchsberger) finds a hotel detective from San Remo dead in his office. He travels down to the hotel, where fellow reporter Gilly Powell (Karin Dor) is already staying. The successful Schlager record producer Ruth Cornell (Gisela Uhlen) is debuting her new star at the festival, but before she can do so, she gets strangled. Of course, everyone at the hotel from her brother Larry (Frank Latimore) to a spurned ex-star singer to Ruth’s husband to Gilly herself could possibly have a motive. In no short order another two murders occur, all seemingly directly related to the Ruth’s missing, fabulously expensive brooch which Gilly just happens to discover in the flower vase in her hotel room…
Considering the amount of murders and soap opera aspects in the movie, one would expect Hotel der toten Gäste to feature at least a little action, but it doesn’t. A dull talkathon, the few scenes which might have lent themselves to a little life are killed by Itzenplitz’s static, unexceptional direction – it is really no surprise that he went into television, for as director his visual flare is nada. As a mystery, the movie is a flop as well, for the identity of Ruth’s murder is easy to figure out. That there is a second murderer at work as well is a little more than a contrived attempt to add more mystery to the entire proceedings…
Despite the catchy name, the cool music and the numerous name stars (and co-stars) of the decade, Hotel der toten Gäste is anything but a forgotten classic of the Golden Age of German B-Films. In fact, it is more like one of the forgotten big disappointments of that decade…