Friday, December 30, 2016

Not So Super Superheroes

Most people, especially boys, enjoy a good ol' superhero movie. You have them everywhere now with DC and Marvel films battling it out in the theaters as well as infiltrating broadcast and cable TV in mostly equal numbers. Even non-geeky fans have come to enjoy seeing beefy hunks and sexy ladies in tight outfits clobber the snot out of bad guys, aliens, Nazis, and each other. Spectacular light shows of glittering CGI work pounds your brain into submission as octophonic sound batters your ears into believing you are Ground Zero for a 30-plus minute climatic battle.

Not all superhero films are made equal. Many were filmed way before the innovations in special effects allowed the blockbuster action films we see today. They had to rely on character, costume, music, and a massive amount of willing suspension of disbelief to bring you their tales of heroes and adventure.

Today, we want to take a fond look back at some of the more interesting, yet little-known, superhero movies that you might want to add to your collection.

The Black Ninja
(2003)
Directed by Clayton Prince



Ever watch a movie that hit you like a hammer between the eyes and left your brain so scrabbled that you didn't know whether to laugh or seek medical attention? That you just kept shaking your head and muttering, "Wow!" because there are no coherent words to summarize the experience you have just survived?

Have another one.

The Black Ninja tells us the story of Maliq Ali (Clayton Prince), an obscenely successful defense attorney who routinely saves the worst scum in the city from conviction. In his spare time, he dresses up and becomes the Black Ninja, who tracks down the scum he helped free and beats the living shit out of them. Kind of a conflict of interest, don't you think? Or is that job security?

You want a plot? Batman -- sorry, the Black Ninja finds his lady love is suddenly threatened by some scum he helped free. He has to protect her while hiding his secret identity. Yup, that covers it.

There are occasional flashes of what might of been humor if handled by a decent director. Everything else, just avoid. Having said that, I have to add that if seen in the right frame of mind, The Black Ninja can be quite a hoot.
If you happen to get the legal DVD version, there is a documentary on the making of the film. The documentary is definitely worth watching as it is inspiring, and you can't help but respect the loyalty the crew projects.

Honestly, the documentary is way better than the movie.

Flesh Gordon
(1974)
Directed by Michael Benveniste and Howard Ziehm



You are probably wondering if it is possible for me to make a list without adding a porn title into the mix. The answer is: Yes, but not today.

Before Star Wars, kids thrilled to adventures of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. These were superheroes with ray guns! Those same children grew up still loving those space adventures, but found them lacking. The space rangers took themselves way too serious. Enter Flesh Gordon.

It's the same old story of the All-American Boy saving the world from evil aliens, but it is told through the eyes of a perverted 14-year-old boy. Flesh Gordon, Dale Ardor, Dr. Flexi Jerkoff, and Emperor Wang are our cast of characters. The ray guns look like dildos. The spaceship looks like a penis. You get it, I'm sure.

As goofy as it sounds, Flesh Gordon is rather entertaining. The sex basically gets little more than eye rolls as it is mostly suggested and over the top. If you watch some of the orgy scenes with an eagle eye, you will see some actual sex, but it's far from being the focus of the shot.

Not everyone's cup of tea, but how many porn flicks have you seen that featured a stop-motion animation monster voiced by Craig T. Nelson? That's what I thought. Now go watch it.

Abar: Black Superman (aka Abar, the First Black Superman, In Your Face)
(1977)
Directed by Frank Packard




Abar is an odd film. It passes itself off as a superhero movie, but it is more of a social message film that has a superhero in it.

Dr. Kincade (J. Walter Smith) and his family move into a new neighborhood. At first, the neighbors think they must be the hired help, but slowly they realize that their block now has a black family living on it. This results in one woman flipping out, which leads to a small crowd of white folks tossing slurs and insults along with trash at the black family's new home.

Eventually, a black community group steps in to protect Dr. Kincade, his family, and their home. After a couple of politically-minded conversations, Dr. Kincade offers Abar (Tobar Mayo) the chance to become a superhero with a formula the good doctor has whipped up.

Don't get too hopped up about action. You don't get it. This superhero is kind of like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Charles Xavier (the guy Patrick Stewart plays in the X-Men movies) were blended together. I won't say anything more as I want you to be as surprised as I was at how Abar deals with crime, hatred, and injustice.

Made on a low budget, Abar has iffy acting, stiff dialogue, and a pace that could bore a sloth. Sounds like gold to me.

Supersonic Man
(1979)
Directed by Juan Piquer Simon




A straight-up Superman ripoff, but with one exception: This movie isn't nearly as smug as the American versions of Superman. In fact, this film seems to accept the fact it is silly and runs with it. Some say it is meant as a spoof of superhero films. I don't know if I agree completely, but when Supersonic turns a gun into a banana, you have to wonder what the filmmakers were trying to say.

Supersonic (José Luis Ayestarán as Richard Yesteran) is sent to Earth to foil a master criminal. On Earth, Supersonic assumes the mundane identity of Paul (Antonio Cantafora as Michael Coby), a private investigator who helps the daughter (Diana Polakov as Diana Polakow) of a famous scientist. The scientist has been kidnapped by the master criminal Dr. Gulik (Cameron Mitchell as Cameron Mitchell) so his formula can help Gulik take over the world.

The prize-winning moment of this joyfully bad movie is when Supersonic lifts a steamroller that is shot close enough that you can see the machine is made out of what appears to be wood of some sort. Hell, the front "roller" almost pops loose when Supersonic sets the vehicle down.

From the crappy "flying" effects to the models of a helicopter and Supersonic being twirled around miniature sets, this movie has enough entertainment for you and all your friends. Of course, you might not have any left after watching this.

Super
(2010)
Directed by James Gunn




In this world, you have either superhero movies, or you have movies about superheroes. Superhero movies have superheroes dashing about saving the world, and the film focuses on the details of the adventure. Movies about superheroes give you insight into the person inside the suit, which is often a richer story, and whatever plot the superhero is attempting to thwart becomes secondary to the story raging inside our main character.

Super is a movie about a superhero.

Frank D'Arbo (Rainn Wilson) is a basic guy who gets through each day by just trying to live life by the rules. His wife, a recovering addict, is the glue that holds all the loose bits together in his life.

When his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) leaves and takes up with a local drug dealer (Kevin Bacon), Frank's world no longer holds together, and the rules he had always lived by no longer apply. He has a vision that he believes is telling him to fight crime and uphold the basic rules of being a decent human. He ultimately becomes the Crimson Bolt and takes to the streets to learn how to fight crime and save Sarah.

You see Rainn Wilson is the star of this movie. Couple that with a trailer which plays up the comedic elements of the film, and you might think you are wandering into a giggle-fest. You aren't. Yes, Super is funny, but it is far from being a comedy. Keep that in mind if you choose to watch. I think you might be pleasantly surprised by this under-promoted film.

Superargo (aka Superargo and the Faceless Giants, Superargo the Giant, The King of Criminals)
Directed by Paolo Bianchini as Paul Maxwell




I have opted to bypass the Mexican wrestler films starring such heroes as Santo and The Blue Demon because they deserve their own article.

That being said, I have chosen to include Superargo simply because an Italian/Spanish film with a wrestler superhero just seems a bit weird.

Superargo is called in to help with a series of kidnappings of various athletes. These kidnappings are performed by automated men. Who is behind these faceless robots?

Don't expect to be wowed. Superargo stays in his costume constantly, and he tends to want to use a car to fight the robots instead of his fists. Actually, he looks a bit like The Phantom, but not as exciting.

On the upside, the whole film is played fairly straight, and it is a superhero film, so sit back and let Superargo kick some robot butt and don't worry about subtext.

The Incredible Paris Incident (aka Fantastic Argoman, Argoman, Argoman the Fantastic Superman)
(1967)
Directed by Sergio Grieco as Terence Hathaway




Every now and then, you just have to respect a movie when it realizes it is so whack-a-doodle that, instead of trying to act edgy or ironic, it swaggers across the screen dripping sweat off 'nads so big that the mind boggles. That's why I dearly love Machete.


Argoman isn't quite as testosterone-laden, but it still swaggers onward while ignoring reality, common sense, and respect for women.


Argoman (Roger Browne) is a superhuman who can control minds, kick ass, and sport a lovely cape like nobody's business. When fighting crime, he wears a bright yellow outfit with a black hood that has Geordi LeForge eye wear. 

In his off time, he is Sir Reginald Hoover, noted scientist, who happens to be on a friendly basis with Argoman. Sir Reggie is also apparently quite the stud as he keeps a video file for all of his "harem" of available women and has all of them on speed-dial for live video calls.

The Crown of St. Edward is stolen. Scotland Yard's representative instantly assumes Argoman is a likely suspect. In a twist of events, Scotland Yard learns it was not Argoman but the evil Jenabell (Dominique Boschero) who returns the crown with a demand that a rare crystal of immense power be delivered to her in a matter of hours.

Argoman races to clear his name and save the world while barely keeping his loincloth attached. This guy is a major horndog.

It's the standard male fantasy of the 60's. Men are clearly in charge, and strong women are equated with evil. If you choose to watch, check your PC-mindset along with your brain at the door.

There seems to be two versions of this film out there. One version is labelled The Incredible Paris Incident. It starts with the opening credits. The version I have is called Fantastic Argoman, released on VideoAsia's Kick Ass Heroes collection. This version has a pre-opening credits sequence showing Argoman foiling an execution attempt and working with the Russians. Maybe this was considered in poor taste during the Cold War and was snipped from some versions. Who knows?


If you see the full version of this movie, I DARE you to get Argoman's chant of "Kill each other! Kill each other! Kill each other!" out of your head after watching it.

The Super Inframan (aka Inframan, Infra-Man)
(1975)
Directed by Hua Shan




This movie is one of my favorites. I remember walking out of the theater back when I was 13 or so, and my brain was still awash in the blindingly colorful world of Inframan. I had a sequel worked out in my head.

I was like a kid who had overdosed on cotton candy.

Princess Dragon Mom (Terry Liu) decides it is time to strike from her underground lair and take over the world. She sends her monster minions out to stop all who oppose her plans while she spreads fear and destruction. A scientist in a nearby science-type facility full of guys in shiny suits turns one of these young men into a superhero called Inframan (Danny Lee).

The rest of the film is a running series of battles as Inframan and his shiny suited friends fight their way to Princess Dragon Mom's hideout.

The whole thing is like a carnival ride running at double speed. You just keep waiting for the whole thing to fly apart. It slaps you silly with the insanely bright colors of the costumes. It inhibits your ability to think as you attempt to make sense of the silly dialogue and scientific gibberish. 

The Super Inframan is just plain stupid fun. It's like an amped up Power Rangers episode about their black sheep cousin. The whole movie is great alone or with friends who also enjoy a bit a weirdness.





Of course, this isn't an exhaustive list. Don't be shocked if this topic should happen to surface again as there are plenty more oddball superhero movies out there.

Remember, if you're gonna go out on those mean streets and fight crime, don't forget your jacket. You wanna catch a criminal, not a cold. 

 

Friday, December 23, 2016

Catch THAT and paint it green!

Like the title? It's the punchline to a joke I heard numerous times while I was a youngster. If you don't know the joke, look it up. There are lots of variations on it.

The point of the joke is the image of attempting to take something insubstantial and render it...umm, substantial by painting it. Kinda what people try to do with remakes, reboots, re-imaginings, and all that other crap Hollywood seems to be so in love with. You take something that was popular at one point in time and you attempt to capture its lightning a second time.

This method does work from time to time. A lot of the time, these "re-whatevers" just leave you pining for the original. After a while, you start wondering what else will Hollywood attempt to clone in an effort to take your money. North By Northwest? Citizen Kane? Or, heaven forbid, Bio-Dome?!?!

We have but to look at the train wreck that is the Psycho remake to realize that some films possess a special quality that defy being remade, no matter how great your intentions may be. That special something, that indefinable element of uniqueness, that magic, if you will, exists in other films, though you might object to the use of the word "magic" once you see the list for today.

In this entry, we are going to take a quick look at a few films that possess a certain quality, or qualities, that would render remakes pointless. You could also use words like "tasteless" and "inappropriate"; we aren't bashful around here.

Deadly Weapons and Double Agent 73
(1974)
Directed by Doris Wishman





I shall attempt to discuss these films without resorting to jokes about breasts. Seriously.

Basically, everything Doris Wishman directed would be outside the reach of being remade. Other than the "who cares about her movies" mentality, her films embody her make-do attitude (which is a nice way of saying her movies had insanely low budgets) to such an extreme that you cannot really recapture what makes her films fun.

Let's face it, her films did not have great stories. Unique, yes, but not great. I can see someone trying to remake some of her films, but it would be in vain.

Two of her films incorporated a gimmick in the form of an actress. The actress went by the name Chesty Morgan. How is an actress a gimmick? you might ask. Simple. She had a natural bust measurement of 73 inches. That's 6 feet. Yes, they are massive. No, they really aren't that sexy. Actually, you just feel sorry for her, and that's before you realize she cannot act AND that her voice was dubbed because her Polish accent was too thick.

Both films are built around exposing Morgan's breasts as often as possible. In Deadly Weapons, she uses her massive chest to smother the mob guys who killed her man. Double Agent 73 has a camera implanted in one of her breasts which results in Chesty hoisting her boob around with the sound of a camera shutter snapping looped over the "action".

While it does work as a gimmick, you end up feeling like you are watching some twisted freak show with only Doris Wishman's insane camera work diverting your attention.

See? I did not crack one boob joke.

Don't Go in the House
(1979)
Directed by Joseph Ellison

There is a story that Joseph Ellison, director of Don't Go in the House, was checking out his film on its opening weekend. He stuck his head in where Friday the 13th was showing, and he noted how the audience was lively with screams and laughter. When he found the screen showing his movie, he noted that the audience was dead quiet and that the room had an air of despair about it. He then realized that his movie had stuck a completely different nerve than he intended.

Don't Go in the House is a dark and disturbing film that tells the story of Donny (Dan Grimaldi) whose mother abused him with fire to cleanse his sins. He's all grown up, but still under his mother's oppressive and controlling thumb even as she lingers on her deathbed. When she finally dies, the repressed child in Donny comes out, and he wants all the things his mother said were bad and sinful.

Even in death, his mother won't leave him alone, and now Donny must burn away the sin.

People find this film dark and repellent. Oddly enough, it really is. Child abuse, repressed anger, co-dependent relationships, and using a flamethrower on naked women are just a few of the things that can make viewing this film more than a bit of a bummer. Add to that the intense violence towards women who are seen as sinful by the voices in the main character's head, and you have a film that is not likely to be remade any time soon, unless you find a way to shift the gruesomeness like the remake of Maniac did.

This movie is recommended only for people who want to watch a serious and depressing film about a severely mentally and emotionally abused man acting out years of repression and pain.

Who has the cold beer and pretzels?

Koyaanisqatsi (aka Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance)
(1982)
Directed by Godfrey Reggio



Koyaanisqatsi is an utterly singular piece of work. I'd even venture so far as to call it a work of art. Even with the themes intentionally placed in the structure of the film, each viewer will experience a different film given their differing points of personal reference. That is the essence of art.

What is this work of art about? The title is from a Hopi term meaning "life out of balance". The film is a series of filmed images contrasting and comparing nature to the constructs of mankind. Layered over these images is the music of Philip Glass. The whole film becomes something greater than its individual parts.

Yes, I love this film.

Like any work of art, Koyaanisqatsi is what it is. You make of it what you wish. While this can be said of anything, this film intends for you to take in its images, sounds, and forms to create something personal by way of response. Friday the 13th just wanted your money so it could make your girlfriend scream loud enough to damage your hearing.

That's why we've had remakes and reboots of the Friday the 13th films, but Koyaanisqatsi keeps resurfacing to show that something truly unique will endure history.

Okay, lemme yank this stick out of my butt. Ahhh...much better.

Black Devil Doll From Hell
(1984)
Directed by Chester Novell Turner


Admittedly, Black Devil Doll From Hell (referred to hereafter as BDDFH) falls into that category of films that are so bad and ineptly created that it doesn't deserve a remake, except for one small factor: it is infamous.

BDDFH is the story of Helen Black (Shirley L. Jones), a very moral and religious woman who is a bit lonely. One day she stops at a thrift store, and, while shopping, stumbles upon a black ventriloquist dummy. The clerk tells her that the doll is cursed and will give the owner her deepest desire. Helen buys the doll, takes it home, and props it up on the toilet while she takes a shower in front of it.

I think you can see where this is headed. You are treated to ample shots of the doll coming to life, tying her up, and sexually assaulting her while shouting insults. The woman becomes sex obsessed as she attempts to regain the levels of pleasure the doll gave to her.

The term "hot mess" comes to mind. This one hits all the marks: racism (even though made by African-Americans), sexual violence against women, somewhat questioning religion and faith, and just plain icky if you think about it too long. Even with a cult following, this title hits way too many sour notes these days to be considered worthy of a remake.

However, a sequel would be nice. Hello? Mr. Turner?

Poor Pretty Eddie (aka Black Vengeance, Heartbreak Motel, Redneck County)
(1975)
Directed by Richard Robinson and David Worth




A popular singer, Elizabeth Wetherley (Leslie Uggams), decides to take a break and drive herself to her next gig. She wants to see country life where she can be herself and get in touch with her inner being. Next thing you know, her car breaks down, and she finds herself dealing with some rather strange characters. 

You have faded star Bertha (Shelley Winters) who uses her distant connection to fame as a way to control the man who gives her the attention she craves. There is tall and mostly quiet Keno (Ted Cassidy) and his desire to be left alone to do his work and take care of his dog. The local Justice of the Peace Floyd (Dub Taylor) and Sheriff Orville (Slim Pickens) are just a couple of good ol' local boys keeping the community safe from itself and outsiders.

Then you have Eddie Collins (Michael Christian). He may be a small-town boy, but he wants to be a famous singer. He puts up with Bertha because she is the closest connection to the world of show business he has. Eddie intends to stop at nothing to make his dream come true. It doesn't matter who gets hurt, or killed, as he crawls, beats, rapes, and screams his way to fame.

Poor Pretty Eddie is one of those films that leaves you feeling like you've participated in something wrong and sleazy and require a long scalding hot shower to wash away the general ickiness of the movie. It is loaded with violence against women (well, mostly ONE woman who happens to be black in a Southern all-white community), racism, co-dependent issues, and brief dog porn as Eddie attempts to dominate the women in his world to achieve his goal and everyone else is along for the ride.

The subject matter is seedy and very dark. When I see a movie like this, I wonder what a star like Leslie Uggams saw in the script that made her think, "Oh, I get raped, molested, beaten, ignored, and called various ethnic slurs throughout the film. I can't wait to do this!" She does a very good job of portraying a woman who has had everything handed to her because of her fame but now she has to find a way to break free from the insanity around her. Still, I'd like to think she didn't take this role because she needed the money.

Poor Pretty Eddie is never a pretty film. With its message of control and dominance by using any method, including violence and race differences, this movie stands little chance to being remade. In 1975, coming out the turbulent racial conflicts of the 60s, this film most likely had a certain level of relevance. The same story now would be using current racial tensions as bait to draw in rubber-neckers to fill seats.

Oh, wait, that IS the nature of exploitation cinema! With that being said, this film is still too rough to have a valid place on modern movie screens. I'd love to see someone prove me wrong while still making the film relevant to modern concerns.

Good luck with that.

Fight for Your Life (aka Bloodbath at 1313 Fury Road, Getting Even, Held Hostage, I Hate Your Guts, The Hostage's Bloody Revenge, Hostage, Staying Alive)
(1977)
Directed by Robert A. Endelson


This wild and wooly 70s film is one of those movies that kept resurfacing throughout the era of VHS mania under various titles and various run times due to edits made in an attempt to get this certified for release in other countries. It has a history for being one of the most notorious of the "video nasty" tapes in England and has been denied release in many countries, even with various scenes removed.  

I guess the main question would be: Does the film deserve this level of reaction? The answer is a flat out yes. But I'm not slamming the film by saying that. The film is written to be confrontational. The goal is to PUSH YOUR BUTTONS!!!

It does. 

Liberals should probably avoid this movie. It contains so many racial slurs towards so many different races that even a racist would feel a touch embarrassed by the dialogue. Since so many of the slurs are mixed with violence, the effect of these terms do not lose their punch (no pun intended). Each one stings like a slap of a Bible across your face (which refers to a scene in the film, so pun intended here).

Yet this film is about much more than the racism of the main character, Jessie Lee Kane (William Sanderson in a very early role). This film looks at traditional roles that we all assume and asks how much pressure does it take to break that role and unleash the human animal inside. It also shows that no matter what our roles, we all carry a seed of racism inside of us; it's all just a case of how far do you need to be pushed before it comes out.

Basic story: group of convicts escape custody, invade the home of a preacher and his family, and proceed to assault, insult, abuse, and rape various members of the family. Add the whole racial layer with the convicts being white, Asian, and Hispanic and the family besieged being African-American, and we are off to exploitation realms with social questions about racism and breaking free of societal roles.

Not a film to be viewed lightly as it has something to piss off and offend just about everyone. Except PETA. I don't think animals entered into the mix. Watch it with an eye towards what it is saying, but expect a bumpy ride.


If you came here, say Hi and if you have a theme idea , let me know.



Parting Word of Advice: Never drop acid and watch A Serbian Film. I don't see anyone ever coming back from that trip.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Is That a Ninja in Your Pocket, or....

I tend avoid movies that came out after the early 1990's. That was when Hollywood started mining previous works for pointless remakes/reboots of familiar movies and television series. Sadly, that trend continues alongside the shitstorm of superhero movies. Don't get me wrong; I occasionally watch more recent films, and I tend towards Team Marvel when I want my superhero fix.

Given my vague cut off date for films I prefer to watch (not so hard to understand given 80+ years of cinema to chose from compared to just the last 20 or so years), I sometimes show up late to the game for certain films, like The Room and Birdemic: Shock and Terror.

Add to this the fact I'm not a huge fan of martial arts films in general (I mean, didn't they have two guys and one woman do 90% of the dubbing for most of the kung fu flicks from the Seventies?), and you can see how something like Pocket Ninjas wouldn't exactly make it on my film radar. Made in roughly 1994 and not released until 1997 and was apparently made for foreign markets in an effort to cash in on the vaguely similar 3 Ninjas movies, which were making some decent bucks back in 1992 and 1994, it's easy to see how this got lost in the shuffle.

Well, after watching it recently, I can honestly say I've seen worse, but I'll be damned if I can think of a title right off the top of my head.

Three young karate students are recruited by their instructor to help fight a rise in crime being perpetrated by a group call the Stingers. To be honest, given how bad the sound is, I kept thinking they were called the Stinkers. Doesn't really matter as they all look and act like stereotypical thugs just so you know they are the BAD GUYS.

At this point, please place your brain in a jar of pickling brine. It's for the best. I will attempt to explain the rest of the plot, but I only have what I was given by the movie, and even the film has no idea what the hell it is or wants to do or tell.

There is a supposed leader of the Stingers called Cobra Khan. You see him now and then, and the 3 kids are told never to engage him in combat as their instructor, who is also known as the White Ninja, is the only person capable of defeating him. But when we finally met the leader of the gang, we get some 12-year-old kid who is known as Cubby Khan. Aww, isn't that as cute as a LOLCat meme?

The Stingers are also helping some industry fat cats with dumping toxic waste into the ocean/river/lake. It would seem that this isn't terribly profitable as the gang still spends time roughing up the local citizens, though they never really seem to rob anybody. Again, the main thing is that you know they are the BAD GUYS.

Our supposed heroes hang out in a tree house where they spend a lot of time trading snarky insults and trying to figure out what is happening in a foreign language comic book called White Ninja, which features a guy dressed like their instructor, who is also the White Ninja. The kids envision wildly different interpretations of the comic which makes no sense as a comic book is a visual format so the only thing that would be up for interpretation would be the dialogue.

Toss in endless montages of the kids and Stingers training (this is obvious padding to get the film to a proper length for the foreign distributors as well as enhancing the mind-numbing factor of the film), an out-of-place and overly long fight sequence in a room full of balloons replete with cartoon sound effects and music cues, the bizarre sudden inclusion of one character's mom who chases after coupons and a beefcake photo pulled by fishing lines by the Stingers, and a weird injury suffered by the White Dragon that seems to come and go according to the needs of the plot.

If none of this seems to make much sense, you are right. The film supposedly started out being directed Donald G. Jackson, who, based on his other films (Roller Blade, The Roller Blade Seven, Roller Blade Warriors), has an unhealthy fascination with roller blades and fighting. After shooting a portion of the film, Jackson was cut loose by the producer, David Huey, who wasn't happy with what he was seeing. Supposedly, Huey stepped in and added to the script, then brought in Dave Eddy to finish off the shoot and try to make the whole thing come together. 

Well, that would explain quite a bit about the disjointed mess we now know as Pocket Ninjas. Things happen and then are forgotten. Characters are introduced and suddenly no longer appear. Dialogue is beaten, chewed up and spat out by actors who appear to want to be anywhere but in front of the camera. And poor Robert D'Zar hitting a low point in a career that wasn't the most buoyant to begin with.

I spent the bulk of the film feeling fairly queasy. I'm not sure how much of it was the film and how much was the Cymbalta I started taking the day before. I think I'll put equal blame on both.

Is Pocket Ninjas worth checking out? Not really. It tends to be just bad instead so bad it's fun. I think even kids with low standards would have trouble sitting still for this after the third or fourth training montage. About the only good thing I can say is that I didn't fall asleep. Take that for whatever it is worth. 

Friday, November 18, 2016

Bring Out Your Dead!

Recently, I pulled out a couple of DVDs that had been gathering much dust on my shelves. Well, not really gathering dust as I make the occasional excavation run through my DVDs to find titles I know I have on hand, but that I can't seem to find by just general review of the spines.

In any event, I pulled the two movies for two reasons: One, they were originally packaged together in a special deal from Blue Underground, and, two, the films deal with similar issues even though the method of how those issues are presented form completely different end results. The two films are Deathdream (also known as Dead of Night, Night Walk, and The Night Andy Came Home) and Uncle Sam.

Though both are incredibly low budget, both deal with themes of duty, loss, and love or the lack thereof. All very lofty targets for small movies, but how do the films handle their themes, and are they successful?

Deathdream does not beat around the bush with pretension or mystery. You see the major character Andy killed in Vietnam (though it never really states that war by name), so you know that when he shows up the night his folks are informed of his death that he is dead but has been drawn home by the power of his mother's love and prayers. Just because we think we want or need something or someone doesn't mean that our desires are the best for everyone involved, as we see Andy has returned as his mother wished, but that which made Andy ANDY was left on that battlefield thousands of miles away.

Uncle Sam has Sam Harper, a soldier who was MIA in a more recent Gulf War conflict, found dead due to "friendly fire" (meaning he was hit by weapons wielded by his own troops). His body is sent to his loved ones, a wife and a sister as well as a nephew who idolized Sam, back home. We find out that Sam is not the hero his nephew thinks he is. He apparently abused his sister and his wife to the point that both distrust and detest men. Even his closest friend, played by Isaac Hayes, admits that Sam was a person who enjoyed hurting and killing others, and that in no way makes him a hero. But Sam, possibly triggered by a vast number of "un-American" activities involving a Fourth of July celebration, rises from the grave to defend America once again.

Two stories of American dead returning from questionable conflicts. But, oh boy!, do they take different paths!

The script for Deathdream, written by Alan Ormsby and directed by Bob Clark, is a slow build up from the moment Andy returns home. He is different, quieter, and withdrawn. His lack of interest in much of anything begins to claw away at the tightly-drawn smiles of his family. Everyone keeps up a façade that everything is fine and dandy, but it is obvious that Andy is not the same person who left home many months ago to fight overseas. Whether it is intentional or not, it clearly notes the mental trauma of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that has become connected with the Vietnam War, even though they use the fact that Andy is actually dead to convey the disconnected mental status.

We watch as Andy and those around him slowly descend into a pit of confusion, pain, and anger while Andy is rotting away (quite literally) in a half-life that he did not ask for and doesn't know how to escape.

The film is quiet and understated in such a way that the viewer is pulled into the story and is faced with the same questions the family has: What happened to the Andy they knew? How do they handle his changes and get on with what used to be a fairly happy and stable life? Why is this happening? How can they help Andy who now seems almost alien to them?

On the other hand, Uncle Sam trades the slow psychological burn for in-your-face splatstick and unsubtle commentary on patriotism and blind acceptance of "America: Love It or Leave It" jingoism. Of course, the film was directed by William Lustig (director of the supremely unsubtle Maniac) and written by genre veteran Larry Cohen. If you need an introduction to what you are about to get involved, watch Maniac Cop made by the same dynamic duo, and I think you'll understand the territory you are wandering into.

The first quarter of the film seems aimed at putting the viewer on the side of Sam Harper. We first see Sam, or what is left of him, in the wreckage of a helicopter downed by friendly fire. While the commanding officer tells his men that these kind of things happen in combat, Sam uses the last of his strength to shoot both the soldier examining him and the commanding officer and to say, "Don't worry. It's only 'friendly' fire!" As Sam's body is brought home, we are introduced to a weak-willed draft dodger posing as a kindly teacher, a pervert on stilts dressed as Uncle Sam, and some young punks who feel spray painting swastikas and burning American flags are fine ways of working off that teenage energy. Let's not forget the leering military officer assigned to inform Sam's widow that her husband's body has been located and is being returned, or the slimy politician who, in spite of being a known crook, is looking to rack up some votes at the small town's Fourth of July gathering.

When Sam begins picking off these miserable excuses for humans, we can feel a pinch of pride that the American way is being upheld.

Then we start learning the truth. Sam was a cruel and violent person before he ever joined the military. He committed acts upon his sister, starting when she was six, that she has trouble talking about when explaining them to her son, Sam's hero-worshiping nephew. He routinely terrorized and abused his wife. He took delight in hearing stories about war and killing and realized that the military would be his best chance to act on his twisted needs.

Okay, so his motivations aren't as noble as those of Andy in Deathdream.

Larry Cohen is a great writer for exploitation flicks. He manages to work in social and political commentary into a lot of his films like Q, It's Alive, and God Told Me To. Admittedly, he also directed his own screenplays in those instances, but even in Maniac Cop, directed by Uncle Sam's William Lustig, Cohen managed to get a few well-placed digs at social ills. Here, he sets up a number of characters primed for fleshing out to make some biting commentary on patriotism, military swagger, and honoring the country you live in, but his script does little more than give you characters with bull's eyes on their heads for the underplayed death scenes. Instant set up for off-hand kills by Sam.




Compared to Deathdream's slow build up that uses the family dynamic as a way to focus the story, Uncle Sam uses a scatter-shot approach that allows for a more inclusive look at the issues at hand but that same approach also dilutes and undermines the potential power the film could have had. Essentially, Uncle Sam comes across as mostly plot points with little story to give the film an impact of little more than a variation on the slasher genre. That Larry Cohen opted to go that route is such a shame given the split in the country over the Gulf War, similar to that of Vietnam, with one side pro-America with the ideal that we are right in our involvement overseas compared to those who feel the war is designed to protect the status of American petrodollars and bolster corporate bottom lines.


Admittedly, given the vast difference in how the films approach their topics, one could almost assume I am comparing pickles and grapes. Maybe I am, to a certain point. Still, with roughly similar ideas (those killed in the war returning to life in their home country which doesn't know how to process inner conflicts over the wars that caused the death of the soldiers), we could have had two strong films that rose above their horror film labels to be excellent commentaries on how those on the home front deal with the tragedy of war.


Instead, we have one potential classic and one attempt at satire that squanders its power in rapid-fire, mindless kills with minimal consideration towards commentary.