Sunday, August 29, 2010

Love Bites

For all my complaints about Twilight--and I have many--the fact that the series plays with the vampire mythology doesn’t bug me in the least. Sure, vampires aren’t supposed to sparkle, but if artists didn’t experiment with canon, we wouldn’t have Buffy, Lestat, Martin or Near Dark.

But perhaps I’m getting ahead, as Ganja and Hess is barely a film about bloodsuckers. Commissioned in 1971 as a blaxsploitation horror, filmmaker Bill Gunn instead delivered something that defies easy classification, a pseudo art-house love story that uses the bare bones of vampire lore to explore addiction, faith, and in part, the African American upper middle class.

Quick Plot: 38 year old Dr. Hess, a handsome but single anthropologist (as played by Night of the Living Dead’s Duane Jones) hosts a visit from his troubled colleague George Meda (director Bill Gunn). Meda flirts with suicide, much to the chagrin of Hess (who knows that a black corpse will raise eyebrows on his all-white block). Ultimately, Dr. Meda takes his life five minutes after rudely stabbing Hess with an infected knife.

Hess’s wounds heal in record time, but one lasting scar is a newfound taste for human blood. Before you can summon images of Blacula in doctor’s coat, it’s vital to know that Ganja and Hess never utters the V word. Hess can walk in daylight and pray in church. He just has an adjusted diet and newfound resistance to common methods of death.

Rather than relax at his estate with a wine collection, Hess is soon called upon to welcome a new guest--Ganja, wife of this mysteriously missing partner. A beautiful, beastly woman, Ganja doesn’t take long--about 3 hours by my estimation--to seduce the man who probably killed her husband. The sex seems great, but how long can love last when only one lover has an expiration date?

I can’t imagine my synopsis has whetted your appetite for Ganja and Hess, but dang it if this ain’t one tough movie to sell. That’s old news to director Gunn, who sadly saw his 110 minute enigma sliced and diced for the most likely bewildered drive-in crowd.

Sold as a vampire tale, Ganja and Hess is a little pretentious, a little quiet, and extremely slow. It’s also weirdly haunting and somewhat extraordinary. While there are tokens to be found summoning the ‘70s--pimps, smoking during a doctor’s checkup--this is far less cheesy fun than its genre would suggest. It’s not a party movie, but it sure has some merit.

High Points
Marlene Clark and Duane Jones give more than outstanding performances, charismatic yet not necessarily likable, sexy yet smart, and always simply interesting people you want to learn more about

Out of context, it may hurt your ears but overall, the odd score--mixed with chanting, laughter, gospel and tribal screams--adds a great deal to the unusual feel of the film

Low Points
It’s a little wrong to pick on the DVD production values of a film that due to its troubled history, is lucky enough to finally exist in its feature length...but when the audio is so rough, couldn’t we at least have subtitles?

Lessons Learned
The only questions worth asking are the ones that are impolite

When starring in a low budget movie and filming an outdoor scene, it’s very courteous to the audience to pause your dialogue and wait for planes to pass overhead

Sneaking mysteriously poisoned knives through customs was fairly simple in the ‘70s

I’ve used this statement before, but it’s never been truer: this movie is not for everyone. In fact, I’ll even confess that sleep became my enemy as the film neared its two hour length. It wasn’t until watching the extras--lovingly put together in a commentary and several featurettes--that I really started to appreciate Ganja and Hess. On that front, anybody with an interest in 1970s cinema, new twists on the vampire mythology, or unusual African American-centric films should definitely give the film a try.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Cruisin (not like thaaaaat)

Summer may be ending (thank goobers) but those lightening bugs are in full swing as one of my favorite bloggers and I get our recommend on. This month, I assigned T.L. Bugg of The Lightening Bugg’s Lair  the early ‘90s, pre-Scream meta-ish slasher Popcorn while I sat down with some lower cased popcorn and 1991’s Motorama. Did it beat the grease off Hot Wax Zombies On Wheels ? Read on...

Quick Plot: 10 year old Gus (Jordan Christopher Michael) ditches his seemingly monstrous parents (heard offscreen in a fight that would make Edward Albee blush) to drive across the country in search of eight “Motorama” cards collected at select gas stations. Like those McDonald’s summer cash-in games (I was always partial to the Dick Tracy one myself), Motorama offers an elusive grand cash prize for the savvy driver who completes his set. Despite being underage and under five feet tall, Gus gets off to a quick start cruising in a gorgeously vintage cherry red Mustang and a clever contraption to reach the pedals.

But what kind of road would let a child cruise by through six states? One that isn’t quite the America we know. Motorama takes place in a mildly alternate universe, one with slightly surreal leanings that fall somewhere between the brunch plate of David Lynch and Tim Burton. Like other tried and true road movies, it’s filled with elegant landscape shots and quirky locals that pop in for brief and odd episodes with our young and wise-beyond-his-years (maybe) hero. 
But rest assured, this ain’t North.

Although Gus has the makings of a precocious elementary schooler, he’s actually something of an adult jerk, never really endearing himself to the audience for any reason aside from his pluck and age. He steals from strangers, takes advantage of the stupid, and until the final scene, fails to make a single friend in his quest for the not-quite-American dream. It’s an interesting choice that makes Motorama both unusual and slightly cold. We like Gus because he’s ten going on fifty, but putting aside his smarts, there’s no real joy to the kid.

...Which is also pretty neat. It’s refreshing to not have the tried and true father figure waiting to be discovered or quirky sidekick tagging along. Gus has plenty of wacky adventures with impressive cameos--House of the Devil ’s Mary Woronov and Seinfeld’s Sandy Baron as unforgiving motorists, Garrett Morris as a good-natured mechanic, Drew Barrymore as a one-scene dreamgirl--but this isn’t a film about relationships. It’s a film about...well I don’t quite know yet. America, greed, futility, wasted youth, stamp collecting. It’s not clear, but that’s part of its charm.
High Points
The sheer detail in taking everything familiar and twisting it a few degrees is just impressive. Once you get past the Monopoly-like money and ridiculousness of Gus’s east at acting like a grownup, the universe of Motorama feels comfortable, interesting, and still believable

Low Points
While I'm extremely glad that Motorama doesn't go for the easy tricks, like narration or a token tell-me-your-story character meet, the lack of a real central voice does prevent the film from truly bringing us into the fate of Gus. We’re not really sure what he learns or if we should even care
Lessons Learned
Never accept an arm wrestling challenge from Meat Loaf. Especially if you’re 10

Likewise, use caution when gambling on horseshoe tosses, unless, of course, you’ve been looking for a way to get out of parenting
Cooks carry cash
It’s a shame that the DVD is so barebones, as this is a film that I’d love to hear discussed by all parties involved. Motorama is a bizarre little piece of light surrealism peppered by an odd dose of black comedy. I like it so far, but after just one viewing, I’m already itching to revisit Motorama and see how it plays again. It’s whimsical without being wishy washy, kooky yet fairly grounded in its own sense of alternate reality. A recommend for those days when you want to watch something you haven’t quite seen anything like before.

And speaking of recommendations, head over (probably this afternoon) to The Lightening Bug's Lair  for some buttery talk about Popcorn. Also, wish him a happy birthday as his blog forges into the terrible (but probably not actually terrible) twos!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Brain Bugs! Strippers! Cheetahs! Ninjas! & Muppets!

It is my belief that the world can never have enough conversations about the cinematic canon of Paul Verhoeven. Yes, I’m constantly saddened by the decreasing popularity of drive-in movie theaters, library cards, English grammar, and international peace, but really, all those problems would be solved if people just spent more time watching and talking about Verhoeven movies.
But where, you cry, can I find such audio treasures? Well, this neat little trend known as the Internet is proving itself to be quite the resource, as this week, I bring you not just one but two free podcasts covering some of the funnest films of all time.

First up is Girls On Film Radio, a biweekly(ish) roundtable where myself and a few ladies headed by Rach of RachOnFIlm( engage in meaty film discussion about nothing less than the best bug squishing cinema of all time, Starship Troopers. Also, we cover the Shaw Brothers’ 5 Element Ninjas (aka Chinese Super Ninjas) which somehow leads me to quote The Muppets Take Manhattan. There’s also talk about the horrors of bra shopping, proving that we’re the most well-rounded assortment of females you’re likely to find watching action cinema.

Meanwhile, those looking for more audio boob talk can head to Chinstroker vs. Punter, a 100 plus episode and running film podcast hosted by two lovely British chaps, Mike and Paul. For their 110th episode, they put aside the pains of a Revolutionary defeat to host my presence on a Showgirls extravaganza, Ver-sase and denim fringe prominently displayed. It’s a great conversation with two fantastic pod presences and once again, it somehow leads me to cite Kermit’s New York City adventures.

Don't ask. Just listen.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Throw Out the Manipulating Night Trains From Harlem! aka The Return of Mill Creek Madness

It's that time again...

For the uninitiated, Mill Creek Madness marks the not at all monthly post wherein I review an entire DVD from the magnanimously cheap Mill Creek 50 Packs. Up today: Disc 9 from Drive-In Movie Classics.
1. Night Train To Terror, aka Shiver

Year: 1985...extremely 1985

Warp Speed Plot: The most enthusiastic ‘80s dance party ever tells us that Everybody’s Got Something to Do (Everybody But You) and engages in all sorts of crimes of Reagan Era fashion, including, but not limited to the following:

Head bands

Acid washed jeans
Puffy pants
Primary colors
Half shirts
Half shirts over whole shirts

Fingerless gloves
Leg warmers
One earring
Off the shoulder sweaters
And they’re just the framing device of a framing device as Mr. God (a man with a dangerous resemblance to Colonel Sanders, proving where the filmmakers’ sympathies lie) and Mr. Satan (think Christopher Lee’s Hammer Dracula put through dry cleaning) discuss three short stories in order to decide who gets to claim whose soul. This may very well be the best anthology setup of all time. Anyway, the stories are as follows:

1- A man gets in a car accident and ends up in a hospital that specializes in lobotomizing male patients, raping the females (I think; ‘rape’ may be a subjective word better defined as pawing and shaking back and forth) and dismembering the remains to sell to medical schools. I think other stuff happens but it’s incredibly not clear. Still rather awesome though, plus heads in a jar!

2- A very active narrator tells the story of Greta, a struggling musician with an aversion to pants, who leaves her job selling popcorn in a carnival to star in porn films under the patronage of a millionaire. When a frat boy falls in love with her, Greta’s life gets complicated, leading her and her two paramours to start attending game night at the Death Club, where a random assortment of folks engage in Russian Roulette, Saw style. People die in hilarious ways. The story ends.  It involved this:

which is fine by me.

3-A lot of stuff happens, some of which involves Nazis, Satan, doctors, and the best stop motion animation since Pee Wee’s Playhouse. An extended scene is scored to Holst’s classical piece Mars, the Bringer of War, which just brings me back to high school band. I actually have no idea what this segment was about, but it happened and I think I watched it.
Celebrity Cred: At this point, seeing Cameron Mitchell in a Mill Creek film is hardly noteworthy, but Night Train to Terror redeems itself with TWO appearances by Richard Moll (who can also be found on the hilarious Mormon propaganda epic Savage Journey) as a rapey orderly in the first story and a doctor (I think) in the third.
The Winning Line: 
“The electrocution death was the turning point for Greta.”
Now if that’s not a dealbreaker, I don’t know what is

Verdict: An abominable movie, a fantastic time. Apparently the three stories were culled from half-finished unreleased films, which is appropriate and wonderful. The effects are about on par with a second grade art class project and the acting, a smidgen better than  the film on the disc that follows it. Satan is played by Lu Sifer, God is played by Himself. My conclusion, therefore, is as follows: If you don’t see this movie, you will go to purgatory.

2. The Guy From Harlem

Year: 1977

Warp Speed Plot: I temporarily wonder if I was accidentally fast-forwarding through the entire film when it opens with a credit reel. All of it. I can’t tell you how happy I am to know the names of the actors that played Man #1 and Man #2 before I even know what the movie is going to be about. Talk about innovation. 

Anyway, back to the *story.* Loye Hawkins plays Al Connors, the guy from Harlem who I assume spent his Harlem days as a banker. Now, however, he spends his days protecting attractive women (sometimes ones married to powerful African politicians) from kidnapping and murder schemes, then shagging them, much to the chagrin of his wife/roommate who has a constant overnight bag for those typical sleepovers. The oddest thing about this marshmallow textured blacksploitation is that the film seems divided into two complete plots, almost as if The Guy From Harlem was a failed television pilot. 
Celebrity Cred: Skimming through the credits on IMDB, I can't seem to find one actor with more than two other film credits to their name. It's quite shocking.
The Winning Line: “Okay. Let’s get this over with.”
...says the man about to sexually assault a kidnapped woman. Has there ever been a more reluctant rapist? As his would-be victim, how does your self-esteem recover?

Verdict: When the actors are lucky, the best they do is step on each others lines. At other moments, entire scenes are just looped so that we literally watch a conversation happen three times, cut at different points in the discussion to make us think we are indeed watching an actual scene (was this THAT much easier than just reshooting two minutes of dialogue?). The movie is awful, know...kind of great. Great in the way that our hero rumbles with a shirtless bad guy--whose sole character trait was that he lifted weights in every single scene--as his friends/coworkers/enemies stand behind, look at the camera, and alternate cheering based on cues. With liquor, this movie becomes Citizen Kane. Without...a damn good time.

3. The Manipulator, aka B.J. Lang Presents

Year: 1971

Warp Speed Plot: Mickey Rooney is B.J. Lang, a Hollywood makeup artist on the edge. As he prances around a soundstage with stuffed animals and mannequins (don’t judge, that’s what I call a typical Friday night), we soon learn that he has kidnapped a young actress named Carlotta in order to make her reenact scenes from Cyrano De Bergerac. What follows is essentially 90 minutes of Rooney trying every single trick in a book about insanity to act insane, with the cameraman following suit by speeding up the reels, slowing down the reels, filtering the color, reusing the same shot in a quickly edited montage, and eventually, just flashing back to what he’d already done. 
Celebrity Cred: Rooney, naturally, making us forget his horrendously offensive performance in Breakfast At Tiffany’s by donning blue eye shadow and being scary.

The Winning Line(s): ”Please don’t die. I hate you, just die! Please don’t die.”
Sweetheart, I know being kidnapped and starved is stressful, but realize that your manic pleas are only confusing your manipulator.
Verdict: As experimental avant garde cinema goes, The Manipulator isn’t without merit. At the same time, when you’re actually watching 90 minutes of aggressive electronic music that makes the soundtrack of Irreversible sound like Beethoven, the effect is just kind of annoying.

4. Throw Out the Anchor!

Year: 1974

Warp Speed Plot: A single dad PR fella heads to a swampy community where he quickly falls for a resident and decides to save the town by protesting the crooked local government and their polluting happy ways. I think. 

Celebrity Cred: A classy Dina Merrill and an aight (is that how the kids spell it?) Richard Egan

The Winning Line: “You’re quite virile looking when you’re asleep.”
Use it. It will never fail to get you into someone’s pajama pants.
Verdict: I have to blame myself more than the movie in this case, as it took me three days to get through this 80 minute family-friendly film. Part of it was a subject matter that just couldn’t keep my eyes opened, while another part comes from the simple fact that Throw Out the Anchor is just a dull tale. Unless you’re incredibly environmentally conscious or have an attraction to stereotypical sea captains, there’s really no need to give this one a try. Watch Summer Rental instead.
Cumulative Lessons Learned
Just cause a gal’s bored doesn’t mean she’s hot to trot

Always keep a supply of bloody marys on hand when city folk stop by
Harlem is the experience playground of all people interested in becoming detectives
Being a great actress with a Brooklyn accent is a huge turn-on for short little psychotics

Women who don’t wear bras are very into women’s lib
Everybody’s got something to do, everybody... but you

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Go Fish

Sunday. 10 AM. This:
Quick Plot: It’s a “big financial week” for Lake Victoria as spring break sends in all the obnoxious, tanned, and impressively trim twentysomethings for a few days of wearing bathing suits and dancing on boats to the whooing! of overly excited extras. Sheriff Julie Forester (played by Elisabeth Shue, aka the World’s Greatest Babysitter) prepares for the usual drunken shenanigans while her likable teenage son Jake stumbles upon the role of location scout for a Girls Gone Wild-esque production company.

It’s the dream job for any high schooler, but Jake's smile fades quickly due to the intense Joe Francis-ness of a hammy Jerry O’Connell and last minute invitation of his crush, Kelly (notable only for the fact that she’s played by a Gossip Girl cast member). Sure, that’s a bummer, but the sunny day gets even worse when the town discovers their wet t-shirt contests are being judged above a school of prehistoric and pretty hungry 3D!

Yes, there are boobs, Jaws references (despite the absence of a mayor, it seems to be an unspoken law to not close the water), boobs, penis feasts, boobs, and even actual breast implants (specifically). The primary characters are pretty much transported directly from Eight Legged Freaks and the story, rushed and to the point. Like a lot of recent creature feature fare, Piranha 3D has a knowing goofiness about itself that simply wants you to be happy. It’s almost like the movie is a cold bottle of beer thrusting itself into your mouth (but not in a rape way).
This is not to say Piranha 3D is an instant classic (one of my least favorite oxymorons) or the best popcorn flick since Orville Redenbocker discovered butter,. The movie has its flaws but like last year’s My Bloody Valentine, it knows its audience and has fun giving them what they paid for. The gloriously gruesome mass lake massacre is like a Jersey Shore viewer’s wet dream, made even juicier by the inclusuion of Eli Roth’s head getting squished by a piranha-scared boat.

High Points
I won’t reveal the opening cameo, but rest assured it’s a pretty great way to start a summer movie based in the water (even if mysterious guest star did walk through me without saying excuse me back in October)
Great Scott! Look who’s back:

Low Points
Though I dodged my usual 3D inspired headache, I did find myself squinting in minor pain in trying to decipher the piranhas through the foggy darkness. I understand that the lake was supposed to be polluted, but couldn’t there have been some sort of problem solving plot twist, like how piranhas urinate with cleansing light?

Note this guy is in a lighted aquarium. And he's still shady!
The Winning Line
“Hit it DJ Chocolate Thunder!”
I have a sneaking suspicion this is going to become my new go-to catchphrase
Lessons Learned
The reason to study pole dancing is primarily for developing life skills in order to escape carnivorous fish
Girls, how many Saw IVs and Piranha 3Ds do you have to see before you get it: when in a horror movie, pack a hair tie and for the love of Pantene, USE IT!
Piranhas eat humans in the same way shy girls on dates eat ribs, i.e., leaving most of the good meat on the bone

See/Skip/Sneak In
I’m starting to wonder if the new 3D trend is more to prevent theater hopping than to just juke up the ticket prices. This is a movie that doesn’t necessarily warrant $15 (though my cinema apparently has a $9 early bird show, making me thankful for my inner 75 year old) but it’s a darn good time that I thoroughly enjoyed. Summer cinema at its trashiest.