Thursday, July 24, 2014
Long before "The Purge" and its sequel slapped audiences with heavy-handed political allegory, director Elio Petri applied a lighter touch in his delightful 1965 satire "The 10th Victim," based on a story by science fiction writer Robert Sheckley and starring Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress.
"The 10th Victim" is available on Blu-ray and DVD, as well as on video on demand from Amazon.
In the near future, psychopaths have a legal outlet for their violent tendencies. That outlet is the Big Hunt, a globe-spanning contest pitting some of the world's most dangerous people against one another in a game of kill or be killed. At stake are the thrill of the hunt and cash prizes. But, alas, there are no parting gifts, not even a home version of the game.
The object is to survive 10 hunts, half as hunter and half as hunted. The hunters know all about their intended victims, but the victims know nothing about who is after them. They must be on constant alert if they hope to survive. And if either hunter or hunted kills an innocent person by mistake, that's an automatic 30 years in prison.
There are other rules, too. In Italy there's no hunting in churches, restaurants, hospitals or orphanages. For veteran hunter Caroline Meredith (Andress) those rules are just a nuisance.
"In America we don't have such restrictions," she says.
Only 15 players have survived 10 hunts, and Caroline is looking to become the 16th. Her target is Italian contestant Marcello Poletti (Mastroianni).
All that remains is for Caroline to lure Marcello to his doom, which, naturally, is more complicated than it seems. But if all goes according to plan, their destination is Rome's Temple of Venus, where Caroline's final kill — if she's successful — is to be broadcast on live television, sponsored by Ming Tea.
"Ming Tea makes better lovers!" as their slogan goes, and all is fair in love and you know what.
Caroline is a killer with few qualms about what she does, but Marcello is by turns fatalistic, morose and neurotic, although he prefers to think of himself as a romantic.
Still, when the penniless Marcello, who plays the Big Hunt for the money, begins to suspect that not only is Caroline his hunter but that she has a commercial endorsement, he arranges an endorsement deal of his own. It is a diabolically good idea, after all.
"The 10th Victim" has more in its sights than just contemporary society's blasé attitude toward violence. The elderly are shipped off to the Center for the Aged so they won't get in the way of everyone else's fun. And the only books anyone reads are comic books. Vintage titles like "The Phantom" are "the classics."
At the height of 1960s youth culture, "The 10th Victim" stands athwart history and tells those noisy kids to get off its lawn. There's more to life than kids' stuff.
Forty years later, hardly anyone reads comic books. But just about the only movies anyone sees are based on comic book characters. And like those superhero movies, "The 10th Victim" is about a timeless battle. Not good vs. evil, though, but the battle of the sexes.
It's Marcello vs. Caroline or, if you prefer, Marcello vs. Ursula.
Mastroianni, as he did on several other occasions, including Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita," portrays a character who shares his name, blurring the line between character and actor.
The same goes for Andress, who first achieved fame as the original Bond girl. The sex goddess who arose from the surf in "Dr. No" is as strong a metaphor for the love goddess Venus as you're likely to see. No wonder their showdown is destined for the Temple of Venus. Anywhere else would be sacrilegious — and would ruin the joke.
In the end, the line between love and death is no clearer than the line between Marcello and Marcello, or between Venus and Venus.
Thursday, July 17, 2014
Then the 1980s came along, and before any of us realized what had happened, we were wearing spandex and sweatbands, Jane Fonda had a second act selling workout tapes, and "jazzercise" became a normal word normal people used in normal conversation. It was terrifying.
Ironically, we were all thinner then, too, which leads me to wonder if science really has worked out the causal relationship between exercise and being fat. But I digress.
If ever there were a craze ripe for treatment in a horror movie, the '80s aerobics craze is it. David A. Prior's 1987 slasher flick "Killer Workout" got to theaters first, but Michael Fischa's "Death Spa" (1989) is the first to stage a comeback on Blu-ray.
Gorgon Video, best known for releasing the infamous "Faces of Death" series back in VHS's heyday, has resurrected "Death Spa" in glorious high definition. Gorgon's Blu-ray/DVD combo set presents "Death Spa" with all the eye-popping color that made the '80s either gnarly or nightmarish, depending on your point of view. It comes topped with bonus features that include the director's audio commentary, a making-of featurette and trailers. (Amazon offers a movie-only "Death Spa" for purchase or rental on video on demand.)
Fischa knows his stuff. He kicks things off with a tracking shot that might remind horror aficionados of the one that opens John Carpenter's "Halloween." But that's where the similarities end. "Halloween" seems pretty tame in retrospect, but "Death Spa" comes across just as splattery and excessive as ever.
The premise is too much to pass up. Take a bunch of narcissistic, body-obsessed yuppie types (the forerunners of today's dude-bros and woo-girls) and put them in a haunted health spa where the equipment tries to kill them in increasingly gruesome ways. It's body horror for people who listen to Huey Lewis and the News' "Hip to Be Square" unironically. Imagine Patrick Bateman of "American Psycho" torn apart by a possessed elliptical machine, and you'll get the idea.
But to get to all of this death and dismemberment, we have to have a plot of some sort.
Our hero is Michael, played by William Bumiller, who's probably best known for a late-'90s stint on "Guiding Light." Michael is the spa's manager and part-owner. He's also dating one of his employees, the lovely Laura (the underrated Brenda Bakke of "Hot Shots! Part Deux"). And that doesn't sit well with his ex-brother-in-law, David, played by the late Merritt Butrick of "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" in his final role. It's "ex-brother-in-law" because David's sister, Catherine, committed suicide.
David blames Michael for Catherine's death. Yet despite that simmering hostility, David sticks around the spa because he is the only person who can run its state-of-the-art computer system, which controls everything from the temperature in the steam rooms to the resistance of the weight machines.
You know, it would be a catastrophe if Catherine (Shari Shattuck, who was the replacement Ashley Abbott on "The Young and the Restless" in the '90s) returned as a vengeful spirit, possessed David's computer and then proceeded to maim and kill Michael's customers left and right.
If only Michael could close the spa until he figures out what's up. But the spa's other owners insist on keeping it open for a big Mardi Gras celebration, because that's something health clubs do.
Everyone plays it straight, except for well-traveled character actor Frank McCarthy in the time-honored role of Comic Relief Police Officer. But Fischa cranks up the gore — fake blood, rubber body parts and what looks like ground chuck — to absurdist levels. It's as ridiculous as it is grotesque, but it never fails to be entertaining.
Fischa is having a joke at the expense of every overly macho mullet-head who ever pumped iron. When Michael feeds Laura — temporarily blinded by a spa mishap — a limp stalk of asparagus during a "romantic" dinner, it says it all so obviously you don't even need Sigmund Freud to explain it.
Thursday, July 10, 2014
It's an unexpected turn for the man who wrote and directed standouts of shlock such as "Bride of the Monster" (1955) and the semi-autobiographical "Glen or Glenda" (1953).
"Mystery Science Theater 3000," home video and the Syfy channel have exposed audiences to horrors poor Ed could scarcely have imagined. Compared to the films of Coleman Francis ("Skydivers" and "Red Zone Cuba"), rediscovered obscurities such as "Manos: The Hands of Fate" and "Death Bed: The Bed That Eats," and Syfy originals such as "Mansquito," Wood's films barely stand out anymore. They seem almost ordinary, common, unremarkable.
Wood's tin star has dimmed since Michael and Harry Medved first spit on it in their 1980 book "The Golden Turkey Awards," giving Wood a notoriety in death he never had in life. Even Tim Burton's Oscar-winning 1994 biopic "Ed Wood" seems just a distant and sad memory of when Burton and Johnny Depp still made great movies. It's more about them now than it is Wood.
Perhaps we've been looking at Wood's films the wrong way. Maybe they're more than just bad movies. Can your heart stand the shocking facts, my friends?
The obvious place to start digging is Wood's 1959 magnum opus, "Plan 9 from Outer Space."
For decades "Plan 9" has fooled everyone, critics and fans alike. At first glance, it seems like a movie about extraterrestrials coming to Earth and raising the dead. The aliens' plan (their ninth) is to stop humanity from developing a weapon that could destroy the entire universe. (Wood never does anything halfway.) In other words, "Plan 9" looks like a technically inept, dollar store remake of 1951's "The Day the Earth Stood Still." But despite itself, "Plan 9" is much more than that.
The addition of zombies to the plot is a commercial consideration. It plays to the Cold War fears of the drive-in frequenting youth audience, inculcated since grade school with a dread for the mindless, conformist Red Menace. Yet Wood mines this for an ironic comment on America's Red Scare paranoia. One of his alien visitors, named Eros after the Greek god of love, says, "It's an interesting thing when you consider, the Earth people, who can think, are so frightened by those who cannot: the dead."
Whether intentional or not, Wood both deflates the dead ideology of communism and lampoons a nervous America's dangerous overreaction to it. Only with hindsight and the collapse of the Soviet Union does it become clear.
|Tor Johnson, left, and Vampira in "Plan 9 from Outer Space."|
In the end "Plan 9" is ahead of its time. It plays as a movie about the artifice of Hollywood. From the rickety sets and unspeakable dialogue to the non-acting actors and disregard for basic continuity from one shot to the next, "Plan 9" practically screams, "I am not real! I am only a movie!"
Perhaps "Plan 9" belongs in a different pantheon, among the great movies about movie-making: "Singin' in the Rain," Robert Altman's "The Player," and Federico Fellini's "8½." (OK. Maybe not.)
Wood didn't just make bad, incompetent, baffling films. He made bad, incompetent, baffling films that strove for deeper meaning. When he failed as a filmmaker, which was almost always, he failed magnificently. By a strange combination of delusional ambition and fortunate accident, he made terrible movies that not only are fun to watch but that surprise us with something new every time we revisit them. That is why Wood remains the Orson Welles of ineptitude.
Thursday, July 03, 2014
Then Team USA gets knocked out of the tournament, and everything goes back to the way it was.
Well, almost. Soccer emerges ever so slightly more popular than it was, getting a tiny boost in its slow, yet inexorable climb. It's not a lot, but it's something. And a few more kids who would have gone out for football or basketball try soccer instead. Critical mass is just around the corner.
Still, if ever there were a World Cup to ignite Americans' passion for the sport, it's this one. The U.S. team survived the "group of death" only to lose a heartbreaker to Belgium despite goalkeeper Tim Howard's heroics. But scoring is up and even the draws have been exciting. Normally there is nothing worse than a game decided by a tie-breaking penalty shootout. But in the first match of the knockout round, Brazil and Chile managed to make even that outcome compelling.
This World Cup also gives us heroes and villains. Everyone loves Argentina's reserved Lionel Messi. Everyone hates Portugal's prima donna Cristiano Ronaldo. Everyone just shakes their heads at Uruguay’s serial biter Luis Suarez. It's almost like professional wrestling, except not scripted, although there's just enough dodgy officiating to make one wonder. (Thanks, FIFA!)
Team USA is led by Clint Dempsey, who goes by the nickname Captain America. Meanwhile, host team Brazil has a Hulk, aka Givanildo Vieira de Souza. Somehow Disney, which owns both ESPN and Marvel Comics, dropped the ball on this marketing tie-in opportunity. But it's just one more bit of flourish for the fans. (Hulk's goal disallowed on a bogus hand ball? Hulk smash!)
It's all much too much for America's steadfast anti-soccer faction, which views soccer as foreign, slightly sinister and undoubtedly a threat to American Exceptionalism.
American Exceptionalism has always been something of a myth. Most of the things that supposedly make America unique were invented elsewhere. Capitalism? Representative government? Individualism? Sorry, but the English, Scots and Dutch all got there first. We invented jazz, but only the Europeans and the Japanese ever appreciated it. But soccer apathy? That does set us apart.
For the soccer fan in America, that apathy is a mixed bag. If you want to follow top-notch soccer, Major League Soccer isn't there yet. Following the best of the best means following the English Premier League.
England's national team may be a source of constant disappointment, but the Premier League is anything but, largely because its teams are loaded with foreigners. If you're watching the World Cup, you've seen them. Suarez may play for Uruguay's national team, but he plays his club ball for Liverpool, or he will as soon as he completes his four-month suspension.
I upgraded my cable mainly so I can watch Premier League matches — specifically Manchester City — on NBCSN. This is not an inexpensive habit. You can't count on the local sports bar's telly being tuned to soccer, except during the World Cup. The rest of the time, you have better luck finding soccer on TV at a Mexican restaurant, and then it's likely a Spanish-language broadcast. (Unfortunately, I studied German rather than Spanish in school. Not one of my wiser decisions, all said. Dummkopf!)
There is, however, a sunny side to this. American soccer apathy means you can escape soccer when you want. One might complain of "too much" World Cup hype, but that's one month every four years. Try escaping college football in America, to say nothing of in Alabama. It's impossible. It's all some people talk about. And while I'm not a mental health professional, I am worried about some of you. If your vehicle has more than two bumper stickers proclaiming your preferred college football team, you probably have too much of your self esteem wrapped up in the team's success.
But that's just one layman's assessment. Regardless, I've no delusions about soccer's place in America's sportsball pecking order. But where it sits isn't all bad.
Thursday, June 19, 2014
|Elke Sommer, left, and Sylva Koscina are "Deadlier Than the Male."|
"Deadlier Than the Male" is just such a movie, and I'm kicking myself for only now getting to it.
One of a flood of movies released during the James Bond-inspired spy craze, "Deadlier Than the Male" (1967) gets lost among its better-known contemporaries. Dean Martin's Matt Helm films and James Coburn's "Our Man Flint" receive far more repeat airplay. Sometimes, sadly, even Turner Classic Movies falls down on the job.
Yet unlike those straight-up parodies of Sean Connery's 007 outings, "Deadlier Than the Male" could almost be a Bond film. It opens with an airborne assassination that would easily be ranked among the best pre-credit set pieces of the Bond series.
Hen's Tooth Video released "Deadlier Than the Male" on DVD, but an upgrade on that decade-old pressing is in order. Hen's Tooth's disc is widescreen but non-anamorphic. That said, it's still colorfully vivid on my HDTV, even in zoom mode.
Richard Johnson (1963's "The Haunting") stars as Hugh Drummond — like Bond, a character with literary origins, in this case H.C. McNeile's 1920s gentleman hero "Bulldog" Drummond. Updated for the swinging '60s, Johnson's Drummond is an insurance investigator assigned to look into some very expensive and deadly "accidents."
The trail leads to a scheme to eliminate stubborn businessmen who stand in the way of — well, that would be telling. Let's just say someone has a rather aggressive idea of a "hostile" takeover.
Johnson turned down the role of James Bond, not wanting to commit to a long-term contract. His loss was Connery's gain — and ours. But "Deadlier Than the Male" gives us an idea what kind of 007 Johnson would have made. With his slighter build, less-rugged appearance and greater refinement, Johnson comes across as a Pierce Brosnan-type Bond in a Connery-type Bond movie. The approach works surprisingly well, hinting that the problem with the Brosnan-era 007 movies was never Brosnan.
Yet's Johnson's charming, unflappable Drummond is destined to be overshadowed.
The "deadlier than the male" assassins referenced in the title (and the catchy title tune by the Walker Brothers) take the shapely forms of Irma Eckman, played by Elke Sommer ("A Shot in the Dark") and Sylva Koscina ("Hercules," "Hercules Unchained"). When the two emerge bikini-clad from the Mediterranean to carry out a spear-gun assassination, it's Ursula Andress times two. Calling Dr. Yes.
Sommer's trademark "Teutonic temptress" — really, even her Internet Movie Database bio calls her that — is more than a match for any man, except maybe Bulldog Drummond. But as captivating a screen presence as she is, even she is outdone by Koscina, who would also be her co-star in Mario Bava's ghostly 1972 masterpiece "Lisa and the Devil." Koscina's playfully sadistic Penelope steals the show, especially when she's called upon to torture Drummond's clueless nephew (Steve Carlson) for information, or when she's "borrowing" from Irma's wardrobe. With their banter and bickering, Penelope and Irma are like a couple of mismatched college roommates, which adds humor without quite falling into camp — as befell the Bond series starting with "Diamonds are Forever."
Rounding out the cast is underrated British character actor Nigel Green, perhaps best remembered as Hercules in 1963's "Jason and the Argonauts." Indeed, there's a lot of under-appreciated talent here, in front of and behind the camera. "Deadlier Than the Male" boasts a story by Hammer veteran Jimmy Sangster ("Horror of Dracula"), gorgeous cinematography by Ernest Steward (the "Carry On" films) and a swinging spy-fi score by Malcolm Lockyer (1965's "Dr. Who and the Daleks").
If some company wants to revisit "Deadlier Than the Male" for a much-needed Blu-ray upgrade, throwing in a bonus CD of the score wouldn't make any enemies.
Thursday, June 12, 2014
"I, Frankenstein" is "Frankenstein" meets "Highlander II: The Quickening" meets "The Matrix" meets "The Prophecy." As its poster helpfully warns, it's from the producers of "Underworld," so there's quite a bit of that, too. The result — directed by Stuart Beattie from a screenplay he co-wrote — is a shambling wreck, with its constituent parts pulling in different directions.
Frankenstein's monster — a one-note Aaron Eckhart, who seems as bored as I was — doesn't know who he is, philosophically speaking. And "I, Frankenstein" (now on Blu-ray and DVD) doesn't know what kind of movie it wants to be. The former is expected when it comes to Frankenstein tales, but the latter is disastrous. Yet one thing is sure: "I, Frankenstein" doesn't think much of its audience.
It opens with the monster relating his life story in a tedious monotone. It's a story most of us learned in childhood, but this is a movie that assumes no prior knowledge. Prior knowledge probably just gets in the way.
"I, Frankenstein" picks up where Mary Shelley's novel ends. Victor Frankenstein and his monster have chased one another to the arctic wastes. Now Victor is dead from exposure, and the monster is left to wander until he, too, dies. Only he doesn't. Instead, the monster takes Victor's body back to the Frankensteins' ancestral home and is busy burying it when he is unexpectedly attacked.
The monster's attackers, as it happens, are demons. So now he is caught in the middle of a centuries-old war between demons and gargoyles. That's right: gargoyles, not angels, because angels would be too cliché. But these gargoyles are a lot like angels, especially when in their human form, which they are most of the time to save on the effects budget.
The gargoyles' queen, Leonore (Miranda Otto of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy), names the monster Adam, because apparently that's not too cliché.
Now you might think Adam, consumed with questions about his creation and all that, would take advantage of being in the presence of an angel — sorry — gargoyle queen with a direct line to God. But then you'd be confusing "I, Frankenstein" with a good movie, or at least one that follows its own logic. Instead, Adam leaves, goes as far away from civilization as possible and presumably hones his fighting skills so, 200 years later in the present day, he can walk the streets of an unnamed metropolis and kill demons, which amounts to "descending" them back to hell.
In the end, there can be only one — sorry, wrong movie.
Meanwhile, the demons, led by Prince Naberius (Bill Nighy, playing roughly the same role he did in "Underworld") have determined the soulless, man-created Adam is the key to finally winning their war against the angels — I mean gargoyles.
There's also a scientist (Yvonne Strahovski) who is trying to recreate Dr. Frankenstein's experiments. But none of that really matters. Mainly, "I, Frankenstein" is a movie in which Frankenstein's monster beats up a lot of CGI demons who beat up a lot of CGI gargoyles. Occasionally, for a change of pace, the monster beats up some gargoyles, too. He's not a people person.
Like "Underworld," "I, Frankenstein" tries to turn a Gothic horror character into an action hero. Also like "Underworld," it fails utterly. Just as the vampires in "Underworld" are too busy with their gun fights and wire-fu to behave like vampires, Adam doesn't do much you'd expect of a reanimated corpse. He's far too preoccupied with hitting things with his Franken-fu.
"I, Frankenstein" is Hollywood's latest attempt to remove anything monstrous from our monsters, turning them into superheroes who brood even more than Batman.
First it was vampires, then werewolves and now Dr. Frankenstein's creation. All of our monsters have been domesticated.
Thursday, June 05, 2014
Like "Super Dimension Fortress Macross" (aka "Robotech"), "Beast King GoLion" ("Voltron"), "Space Battleship Yamato" ("Starblazers") and "Science Ninja Team Gatchaman" ("Battle of the Planets"), "Space Adventure Cobra" hails from the golden age of Japanese animation. But unlike them, it didn't make the trip to America in the late 1970s and early '80s. It was something we first-generation anime fans could only read about, unless we were lucky enough to score bootleg VHS tapes that some other fan had subtitled. So it never got an Americanized title like "Sailor Moon" (known in Japan as "Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon").
One fan was alt rocker Matthew Sweet, whose music video for his breakout 1991 hit "Girlfriend" is mostly footage from the 1982 "Space Adventure Cobra" movie.
Back then we knew only that "Space Adventure Cobra" was about a pirate named Cobra who had adventures in space, and that it looked pretty cool. Turns out both are true.
The "Cobra" movie finally hit VHS in 1998 and was released on DVD just two years ago.
Now American anime fans can finally see the 31-episode TV series, too. Right Stuf, one of America's most venerable anime distributors, has released "Space Adventure Cobra" in two DVD box sets, which retail for roughly $40 each. Complete episodes are also online at Right Stuf's YouTube channel, youtube.com/user/nozomient.
Set in the far future, the series starts by borrowing from Philip K. Dick's "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale," which later became the 1990 movie "Total Recall."
A bored office worker can't afford a vacation, so he instead opts to have one implanted in his brain, so he can remember it as if it really happened. Instead, the implantation process awakens repressed memories: The office worker is really Cobra, a legendary space pirate who five years earlier changed his face, wiped his memory and went into hiding from the sinister Pirate Guild.
Now that Cobra remembers who he is, he decides to hit the spaceways again, even if that means avoiding both the Guild, which still wants him either to join or die, and the Galactic Patrol.
So, along with Lady, his android partner, Cobra sets out in his starship to have adventures, which, oddly enough, don't involve any real piracy, although he isn't averse to a heist or two for a good cause.
Cobra is the prototype for the heroes and anti-heroes who would come along later in "Cowboy Bebop," "Trigun" and "Outlaw Star."
His first adventure, which in heavily altered form is also the basis for the 1982 movie, involves a beautiful bounty hunter named Jane, her two twin sisters and a map to their father's hidden treasure.
Naturally, Cobra isn't the only pirate on the trail. The Pirate Guild's most dangerous member, the cold, calculating Crystal Bowie, is after it, too.
Cobra's life of adventure is pure wish fulfillment. He has the best ship. He's surrounded by beautiful women. And concealed in his left arm is the "psycho-gun," a deadly weapon that never misses its target. How did he get such a magical device? It's not important. But it is enough to make you wonder if maybe this whole Cobra thing is really just the bored office worker's virtual vacation after all.
Even though it's 30 years old, "Space Adventure Cobra" holds up well compared to a lot of other animation from the same period. That's mostly because of the series' lush, airbrushed style. Almost any random frame of "Space Adventure Cobra" would look great painted on the side of a van — the sort of van on which you don't come a knockin' when it's a rockin'.
That's apt, because that's exactly the sort of van Cobra would drive if he didn't have a spaceship.