Thursday, May 3, 2018

Only now does it occur to me... THE GOLDEN CHILD

Only now does it occur to me... that John Carpenter and THE GOLDEN CHILD share a curious history. Apparently, the script to THE GOLDEN CHILD––a fantasy/action/comedy rooted in surreal distortions of Chinese/Tibetan mythology/mysticism––was first offered to John Carpenter to direct as a film starring Mel Gibson. Carpenter declined, because he much preferred the script to a different fantasy/action/comedy rooted in surreal distortions of Chinese mythology/mysticism called BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. He even expedited the production schedule of his own film so that it wouldn't compete with the much larger production, which by then had transformed into an Eddie Murphy vehicle directed by Michael Ritchie (PRIME CUT, THE BAD NEWS BEARS). When the dust settled, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA had grossed $11 million and THE GOLDEN CHILD, $80 million, which apparently was demoralizing to Carpenter. However, I must note that while the cult appeal of Carpenter's film has endured, THE GOLDEN CHILD exists mainly as a footnote in Eddie Murphy's filmography (and for fairly good reason).

While I freely admit my own pro-Carpenter bias, I think it's fairly clear that Carpenter's film approaches its subject material with a greater (albeit absurd) sense of sincerity. It's a nearly timeless, well-choreographed, crackerjack throwback to the cinema of Howard Hawks, whereas THE GOLDEN CHILD feels more like a generic '80s flavor of the week. BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA outshines it in action, pacing, and comedy; Ritchie's film is neither particularly funny nor exciting. However, that's not to say that there's nothing of value here for genre fans––there are a few interesting elements at play.

#1. Practically half the cast of BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is in THE GOLDEN CHILD. We have Victor Wong ("Egg Shen" in BTILC):

Peter Kwong ("Rain" in BTILC)

and perennial "that guy" actor James Hong ("David Lo Pan" in BTILC)

in roles that are amusing, but substantially more bland than their work with Carpenter.

#2. Ray Harryhausen-style creatures, like a snake woman who recalls Medusa in CLASH OF THE TITANS:

and this little Pepsi can man, who dances to "Puttin' on the Ritz" to the amusement of Randall "Tex" Cobb:

Alright, maybe that alone is worth the price of admission.

#3. There's a bizarre, semi-music video sequence (not pictured) whereupon Eddie Murphy beats up a bunch of bikers listening to "Body Talk" by Ratt, while (contractually-obligated?) images of Ratt's music video intercut the scene. Okay, sure.

#4. Charles Dance. Best known to modern audiences as Tywin Lannister on GAME OF THRONES (and to '90s kids as Benedict in LAST ACTION HERO), Dance is one of the best, most subtle "villain" character actors working today.

As a GAME OF THRONES fan, I must say that it is bizarre to see Tywin Lannister, in the dead of winter, striding into a throne room like he owns the place.

He's later revealed to be a shapeshifting madman who ultimately transforms into a hell-demon like something out of ARMY OF DARKNESS.

Which is fine! It's not quite enough to make this a particularly memorable movie, but it's fine, and certainly plays to my interests on the character actor/hell-demon continuum.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Only now does it occur to me... CLEOPATRA JONES

Only now does it occur to me.... that Shelley Winters' name––writ in the 'CLEOPATRA JONES font' and projected against a Tatooine-esque Turkish landscape––might have inspired the iconic STAR WARS main title.

This was 1973, a full two years before STAR WARS went into production, and while font designer Suzy Rice has explained her influences, isn't it possible that some subliminal memory of seeing Shelley Winters' name so stylishly depicted could have played a small role in one of the most recognizable movie fonts ever made? I'm gonna go ahead and say yes, because it makes me happy.

A few quick thoughts on CLEOPATRA JONES and why it's worth your time: Tamara Dobson (CHAINED HEAT, NORMAN... IS THAT YOU?) is Cleopatra Jones, a fabulous, kung fu-savvy, dirtbike enthusiast, stunt-driver, crack shot DEA Agent who is introduced to us while overseeing an air strike on poppy fields in Turkey.

 It's a special breed of film that begins with exploding flowers.

Later, we learn she has a ridiculous customized Corvette Stingray (see also: Mark Hamill's in CORVETTE SUMMER) with low-key U.S. Government vanity plates

and a specially-built hydraulic roof that automatically lifts up when she opens her door so that her afro remains unmussed.

Her boyfriend is the sensitive community organizer Bernie Casey (THE RUNNING MAN, THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH),
pictured here, as he should be, in an amazing glamour headshot that happens to be decorating Cleo's wicked bachelorette pad/lounge.

Her nemesis is Shelley Winters as the drug kingpin, "Mommy" (to whom the aforementioned Turkish poppy fields belonged), a raging, racist, lesbian who wears a different wig in every scene and delivers a high-hag horror-worthy performance, chewing not merely the scenery, but entire tableaux, co-stars and all.

And yes, on the far right, that is perennial 1970s/Charles Bronson-baddie, Paul Koslo,
whose own, humble, scenery-chewing skills cannot compete with the mistress.

Elsewhere, we have Cleopatra Jones laying down some JCVD-style, high-kicking smack 

on Bruce Glover-lookalike and DELIVERANCE rapist Bill McKinney...

...we have one of the finest comebacks in film history from character actor legend Antonio Fargas (FOXY BROWN, SHAFT) who, when asked if he is willing to cross Shelley Winters' "Mommy" responds:

...and finally, I must tip my hat to a film that not only has the balls to make Shelley Winters its lead villain in a performance that might prompt even Divine to advise "maybe you should tone it down a notch," but also is bold enough to end with a show-stopping kung fu battle/fistfight between Shelley and Tamara Dobson.


Monday, March 19, 2018

Only now does it occur to me... THE INDIAN RUNNER

Only now does it occur to me... that the probability of the THE INDIAN RUNNER existing is so unlikely that I'm not, in fact, sure that it does exist.

Picture, if you will, a movie directed by Hollywood activist Sean Penn, based on a song ("Highway Patrolman") by blue-collar hero Bruce Springsteen, and produced by infamous former White House Chief Strategist and crypto-fascist Steve Bannon. A motley crew, indeed! (Though I kinda doubt Springsteen ever sat down in a room with the other two, perhaps exhausted enough by Penn's middle-of-the-night phone calls.)

So, THE INDIAN RUNNER stars David Morse as a highway patrolman (okay, that is incredibly likely, I'll give you that)

and young Viggo Mortensen as his wild, lawbreaking brother.

I would posit, as many have, that they represent the dueling aspects of Sean Penn's interior struggle/personal contradictions, with David Morse as the Sean Penn who does volunteer work and saves people from hurricanes, and Viggo as the Sean Penn who (allegedly!) tortured Madonna and dangled paparazzi over balconies.

But now for something truly unlikely: Charles Bronson plays their father, in his only theatrical role post-1984 that didn't involve Cannon Films' Menahem Golan.

And wait––what's this?––it's almost like there's something missing... something that belongs between his nose and upper lip...

Indeed, Bronson is missing his signature mustache. Back when Don Siegel tried to get him to shave it for 1977's TELEFON, Bronson's sole reply on the subject was "No mustache, no Bronson." Apparently it was somehow a different matter when Sean Penn called (!?). Perhaps old age had softened his stance, though he certainly grew it back quickly enough for YES, VIRGINIA THERE IS A SANTA CLAUS and THE SEA WOLF. It's also worth noting that this is a role of considerable pathos: a sweet old man from Nebraska who is not and has never been a pocket bazooka-wielding vigilante. (This is also one of the rare post-DEATH WISH roles in which he does not handle a firearm onscreen.)

Furthermore, legendary Oscar-winning character actress Sandy Dennis (WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, THE THREE SISTERS, GOD TOLD ME TO, 976-EVIL) plays Bronson's wife. Frankly, it's bizarre to see the man who so beautifully uttered "Chicken's good... I like chicken" playing scene partner to one of the masters of the American stage.

Bronson: not a master of the American stage, but only because they never made KINJITE: FORBIDDEN SUBJECTS––THE MUSICAL!

Also, I must note that this image of Bronson praying before a pile of Wonder Bread and a gravy boat while sandwiched between a cornfed David Morse and a Gerber Baby might just be the whitest tableau ever committed to film:

I'm beginning to comprehend Steve Bannon's interest in the project. Also of note: Viggo's character has Nazi tattoos and hangs a confederate flag in his bedroom...

Next, we have Patricia Arquette as Viggo's pregnant girlfriend, and apparently she is meant to be the doppelgänger of Mia Farrow in ROSEMARY'S BABY.

"Nothing but a mild sedative to calm you down, Rosemary..."

Finally, we have Dennis Hopper as a terrifyingly intense bartender

Okay, so this is extremely likely, too

who leans in real close and whispers things like, "Did you ever wanna kill someone... just out of rage?"

Wow. I mean, look at that. I can't help but feel this must be the (slightly?) fictionalized version of an actual conversation that went down between Sean Penn and Steve Bannon. 

[In any event, you're probably wondering: is it any good? It is––but with a few caveats. It's very much an early '90s attempt to capture the spirit of '70s indie dramas by guys like Bob Rafelson, John Cassavetes, Peter Bogdanovich, and Hal Ashby. It's amped up by post-BLUE VELVET, expressionistic/Lynchian touches, some of which are visually interesting, and some of which are a little too pretentious for their own good. The first half of the movie outweighs the second (for reasons I can't get into without spoiling it), and it's really at its best when Bronson, Dennis, or Hopper are on screen, though Morse and Viggo are certainly in top form as well.]

Monday, March 12, 2018

Only now does it occur to me... PERVERSION STORY

Only now does it occur to me... that Lucio Fulci staged one of the most outré striptease numbers to ever appear in a third-rate VERTIGO remake.

The film in question is PERVERSION STORY (a.k.a., ONE ON TOP OF THE OTHER), a clumsy, proto-giallo, trashtastic reimagining of Hitchcock's classic. It's even set in San Francisco (though, it must be said that when Fulci films in America, i.e., THE NEW YORK RIPPER, MANHATTAN BABY, he can make even the most iconic American locales feel extraordinarily Italian in flavor). The scene in question is meant to be the equivalent of "Jimmy Stewart spotting Kim Novak again as 'Judy the Shopgirl,' post-fall." It's set at a strip club on Montgomery Street, and depicts the poor man's Bardot (Marisa Mell, of DANGER: DIABOLIK) in a snow leopard-print tracksuit lounging on a motorcycle:

then stripping down to reveal a preponderance of stickers advertising European car races (such as Le Mans):

 and ultimately providing the punchline (?) of a bizarro, googly-eyed codpiece:

all while the poor man's Alain Delon (Jean Sorel, of BELLE DU JOUR) looks on, completely horrified and entranced.

It's a particular avant-garde highlight in a film which includes such beautifully wacky Italo-dialogue as "You just dropped in for a few BUMPS and GRINDS? Or maybe a few... KICKS?!" and "Bye, girls, I'm gonna go see a Mickey Mouse flick!" God bless you, Lucio Fulci.

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."