Absentee Landlord Writes In

You may not believe it, but I do try to post here at least once a week. That really doesn’t seem too much to ask, does it? A few hours a week, devoted to this little corner of the Web? Except that this hasn’t happened this month, and here’s why.

The stunningly obvious: there was that Roger Ebert month burning me out on watching movies and writing about them, followed up by the local Independence Day festivities, which always serves to point up exactly how old I am and how many of my body parts have been busted over the years (fewer than Jackie Chan or Evel Kneivel, but then, I don’t feel their pain except in the most vicarious ways). I retreated to one of my older favorite activities: sitting in my easy chair and reading.

devil saidSo, for our first digression: I finished Richard Kadrey’s Devil Said Bang, the fourth Sandman Slim novel. I love Kadrey’s work – its punk tone, the characters, the dialogue. It’s Raymond Chandler for people who cut their teeth on splatterpunk and b-movies. If I have one complaint about Kadrey’s novels, it’s that his prose is so stripped down, eschewing even the idea of chapters, that his novel’s climaxes don’t have as much raw power as they deserve. His endings seem a little too tidy, with the exception of Aloha From Hell, which had a pretty remarkable game-changing denouement. I still look forward to Kill City Blues, out at the end of this month – his novels are great rides, and the pros far outweigh the cons.

gun machineWarren Ellis’ Gun Machine was taken up after that, which, while not as gonzo as his previous prose novel, Crooked Little Vein, is still a bracing, fiery beast of a detective novel. In one day, NYPD detective John Tallow loses his partner and opens the most bizarre case in the city’s history when he discovers evidence of a serial killer’s work going back 20 years: a room decorated with guns used in practically every unsolved homicide in that time. He’s aided in his investigation by two eccentric CSUs named Bat and Scarly, a very entertaining Odd Couple. Intriguingly, the killer himself seems to slip and slide between present day and pre-Revolutionary War Manhattan. The ending was a tad disappointing, but the characters are incredible, and it’s with a mixture of joy and sorrow that I find out Gun Machine is being developed for TV.

I needed something to fill my time between Gun Machine and the release of Kill City Blues (which I hope to tide me over until Lyndsay Faye’s Seven for a Secret comes out in September), when I remembered Andrew Vachss had a new novel out, Aftershock.

andrew-vachss-aftershockI’ve been reading Vachss for years, starting with his Burke books. He writes fascinating, dark books filled with compelling characters on the fringe of society. He’s also a writer who pumps a very large amount of his personal rage into his novels. Aftershock is very obviously based on the Stubenville High School rape case, and presents a new character, Dell, a highly-trained, emotionally-damaged mercenary trying to make a new life with the woman he loves (a former nurse with Doctors Without Frontiers who saved his life and his soul). Dell has the smarts and the skills to take on the people responsible for the rape culture in his new hometown, but is savvy enough to use the System to pull it up by the roots. Not my favorite Vachss novel, but I also have to admit I could not put the book down in the last 75 pages or so.

Well, that was a nice diversion. Now let’s get to the bad stuff.

There has, thank God, been an uptick in paying work this year. The hanging on by fingernails stuff was getting very wearying. That, you might point out, is good, and I agree. I enjoy having a little money as compared to no money at all. But. This also means I was able to pay for the labwork my doctor was insisting on. Oh, it was high time for it, I admit. I’ve been on blood pressure and two forms of cholesterol medication for the past year and a half. In my last bout of dental work, a routine BP check showed it to be running a little high, so that dosage needed to be looked at, blah blah blah.

When I received my copy of the lab results, I knew trouble was on the way. I had successfully gotten a couple of the cholesterol counts down, but one was still a little too high and my triglycerides were through the roof, and probably took out three jet liners on their way up. But there were other indicators that confirmed some suspicions I’d had for a year and more.

At my last eye exam, the optometrist said, “Hm, your eyes are dilating very slowly.” There was a lessening of sensation in my feet. My vision would be very blurry after waking up – when I managed to sleep. My blood pressure med is a diuretic, so I had to go to the bathroom more often, but I was doing that with ridiculous frequency. Constant fatigue was beginning to be a problem.

hmmm-diabeetus-you-saySo while the nurse practitioner was going over my results with me, she looked up and said, “Have you gone diabetic on me?” I could only say, “Sure looks like it, doesn’t it?” Following in the footsteps of my father and his father before him.

So I have more pills now. No insulin – at this point, we try to control it with pills, diet and (ha!) exercise, meaning I have to find one that doesn’t put me on the cane more than I already am. A lot of the lifestyle changes I had already made; I’m now working on stuff like reducing carbs and saying farewell to my beloved hot dogs. Sugar I largely cut out years ago. I stick myself for the glucometer twice a day; the initial outrageous readings have trended downward since.

The blurry vision has abated. I’m sleeping a little better. I may not have pep in my step but my mind seems clearer of late. It’s kind of like I was cocooned in some sort of white noise for the last few months and that’s finally diminishing as my chemistry normalizes.

Needless to say, this isn’t an experience I recommend. Just stepping into the field of glucometers was a nasty eye-opener, as those things and their test strips are based on the printer/ink cartridge business model. The first thing I did was search the Internet for a place that sold test strips at a quarter of the price of my drug store. My wife, who has years of experience as a diabetic, has been an invaluable resource to me in this time. I think she’s glad to finally have someone close to share this with.

fail-owned-wendys-failSo that took up quite a lot of my time (the saga of six separate trips to the lab? Won’t bore you with that story). Finally, in attempting to end this on an up note, I’ll say that a couple more writing projects have presented themselves. One won’t start paying off until next year, but another will this year – and the other writer backed out on this one due to time constraints, so I’m flying it solo – for more money – but that means my work there just doubled. My weekend acting gig has decided it is time to mount a new show NOW DAMMIT, so there goes even more time. My time management skills will get a workout, even if it’s not the kind of workout I need.

I’m still finding time to watch the occasional movie, though. Maybe I’ll even have time to tell you about those. Some time.

The Return of the Crap of July

If you’ve been around me any length of time, you know that every July my Day Job tries to kill me. We cover the City’s Independence Day Festivities; the July 4th Concert, itself, is not so bad – it’s in an air-conditioned auditorium. Ah, but July 3rd, and the Parade – which takes place at 7pm, necessitating setting up equipment and running cable in the heat of a Texas Summer afternoon – that can be perilous. Because of my advanced age, I get reduced duty, but I feel every one of my infirmities at the end of day, and several days afterwards.

So I always celebrate my survival by watching terrible movies at a Crapfest.

I arrived on time, which meant I was practically the last one there. This was to be one of our most well-attended Crapfests, making seating tricky. I, however, had purchased a camp chair earlier in the day for the lordly sum of seven dollars, so I was set.

Host Dave started off with a vintage VHS of the classic days of Night Flight, including an episode of Dynaman, which thrilled me to no end. I followed up with some files culled from Everything is Terrible, with the biggest hit on everyone’s psyche being provided by Philip Michael Thomas’ music video. Hell, Don Johnson did it, why not?

Once again, I found myself leading off the movies. I had spent a goodly amount of time second-guessing myself here; this was soon after the passing of Hong Kong movie legend Lau Kar-leung and I wanted to show one of his movies. I had narrowed it down to Heroes of the East, my personal favorite, and Legendary Weapons of ChinaLegendary Weapons is more of a traditional kung fu movie, and ends with a king-hell fight between Lau and his younger brother, who were both accomplished martial artists. Heroes of the East gets my vote for best martial arts movie EVAR, but the first 40 minutes or so is character-developing comedy (punctuated by some minor fights), which could be the kiss of death for a rowdy bunch of Crapfestistas.

She's baaaaack...

She’s baaaaack…

The deciding vote in my head was influenced by one thing: Dave had dug up a copy of Witch With Flying Head, a Taiwanese horror movie I had long wanted to see. Taiwanese movies are visually similar to Hong Kong movies, so I tossed out the Lau movies and went with Lady Terminator, which I wrote about recently, doncha know. I knew the mob would appreciate it. It has boobies.

The main subjects during the viewing were: this was not as good a movie as Terminator (“You’re complaining about the quality of a movie at Crapfest?” asks Dave), and the fact that my seven dollar chair folded under me, trapping me in a cheap steel talon of death. Yeah, thanks for helping me out of that, guys. I look forward to standing by while you sink in quicksand some day. Alan very kindly surrendered his seat to me, and Dave wheeled out his office chair for Alan.

Lady Terminator also brought the terms “Vagina snake” and “Wang shot” into our vocabularies, for better or worse.

humanoidNext up was another Alan discovery, The Humanoid, which was fortuitous, because I had recently stopped hating Alan for Road to RevengeThe Humanoid is another Italian science-fiction movie produced after the success of Star Wars, but what it has over the venerable Starcrash is that the filmmakers got to actually see the movie they were ripping off before making their version. The Humanoid  often has the look down, from Death Star corridor look-a-likes to a villain with a black helmet modeled on Samurai and gladiator armor. This advanced civilization, like Star Wars’ has also advanced beyond the need for things like bras. Just like Starcrash, though,when we finally get a space dogfight, all the models still zoom around in a straight line.

Oh, the plot? Uh… Dark Helmet wants to do bad stuff. He is aided by Barbara Bach as Space Countess Bathory and her pet Mad Scientist, Poor Arthur Kennedy. Poor Arthur Kennedy has some sort of hate-on against Corinne Clery, because she gave him a bad review on Space Yelp or something, and once he uses some nook-you-ler popcorn mixed with an atomic missile to turn Richard Kiel into a “humanoid” with super strength and invulnerability (and give him a shave, to boot), he sends the monster to kill Clery, but she’s the tutor of The Golden Child who uses Zen mysticism to bring the Humanoid back to himself and also there are two albino space elves who crop up to save the Golden Child when necessary.

In other words, I had no damned idea what was going on.

humanoid_09I haven’t even mentioned the robot dog, which is a real 1979 robot – in other words, limited mobility and utility. Most of the time was spent with Dave and I convincing the others that Corinne Clery was O in The Story of O and the darkness punctuated by men desperately using their smartphones to access Google Image Search, and then, once more, cursing that we were not watching another movie.

I don’t usually feel this nice, but here’s Humanoid cut down to ten minutes, almost half of which is the opening credits. Prepare to have your heart broken, as were the hearts of many Crapfest attendees, by the credit, “Music by Ennio Morricone”. Take what comfort you can in the fact that the spoken language is Italian, which means you have to concentrate on the pretty pictures:

flying headNow finally we had Witch With Flying Head, and it turned out my choice of Lady Terminator had given Dave a reverse case of the nerves, because technically the monster in Witch With Flying Head is a penanggalan, an Indonesian monster which is a woman’s head severed from her body, flying around with its guts dangling beneath, as detailed in Mystics in Bali, a movie shown at an earlier Crapfest. Dave was worried about two Indonesian flicks on the same bill – an inverse version of my earlier worries – but this movie was Taiwanese, as earlier stated.

Back in the 90s I watched an awful lot of Chinese laserdiscs with my pal Parker, and a lot of them had the same flaws as this copy: taken from a widescreen master with the telecine set to the absolute middle of the screen, causing the subtitles to drool off the edges of the screen. VHS tracking fuzz at the bottom of the screen, often obscuring the already-blurry subtitles. Those subtitles were often created on the fly, a bi-lingual translator dictating to a typist for whom English was a second language, resulting in very fractured results (which form my most cherished memories of those days). Then the operator shifting the image down to obscure the fuzz, and obliterating the subtitles. No image control on the print, meaning that nighttime scenes – and in a horror movie, there are a LOT of nighttime scenes – that would have alright with a projector bulb behind it, were pitch black.

In other words, welcome to how we had to watch obscure cult movies at the turn of the century, you spoiled brats. Let me tell you about the time I watched Jigoku without subtitles.

WitchWithFlyingHead+1977-27-bOh God, now you want a plot, don’t you? Okay. So this nice lady gets cursed by a wandering sorcerer who wants to marry her (this actually happens quite a bit in HK horror movies) so that she becomes “the flying evil” – a penanggalan – at night, until she accedes to the wedding. She and her two ladies-in-waiting escape to the country, where she can’t hurt anyone while she’s the Flying Evil – yet she does, anyway, because, you know, movie. A wandering wise man manages to lessen the curse (and number of snakes in her body) so that she will only become the Flying Evil on the 15th of each month, and leaves her friends a spirit box that will trap the Flying Evil on those nights. Until he learns some better mojo and can come back to cure her completely.

But then a Snake Monster sets up shop in the vicinity, seducing men in the night and killing them. Our cursed lady uses the spirit box to trap the Snake Monster, and winds up falling in love with and marrying the man she saved. The women always make hubby leave on the 15th of each month – eventually, taking their child with him – and so it goes. Until the Snake Monster escapes, the original sorcerer shows up, still hot for marriage, and everything comes down to a low-budget monster magic showdown at the end.

Now, I can say I’ve seen it, but I really wish Mondo Macabro or someone would put out a decent print so I can say that I’ve seen it. There is a full-length (and likely illegal) version on YouTube that is un-subtitled, but at least you can see everything. I was pleased to discover that the penanggalan is actually pretty well done.

wsposterHow do you wrap up an evening like that? There is only one way, prompted by the uncommon attendance of David (Not Dave), and that was Can’t Stop The Music.

Can’t Stop The Music, as if you didn’t know, is the fictionalized story of how The Village People got together in the glory days of the late 70s. I had never gotten more than five minutes into it, because those first five minutes feature Steve Guttenberg, in short shorts, on roller skates. Past that, though, the movie’s a pretty harmless affair, a combination of old showbiz movie cliches and lets-put-on-a-show tropes. Mark kept entoning that shortly after this movie, Valerie Perrine turned into the Sea Hag or something, causing one to think that Perrine had burned Mark’s village to the ground when he was a child.

The other memorable thing is the acting debut of Olympic decathlete Bruce Jenner. Jenner seems to feel that as long as his face is moving, he is acting, and he acts a lot. This leads to many scenes where Steve Guttenberg and Bruce Jenner try to out-mug each other. There is also a scene, just prior to the “YMCA” production number, where Jenner’s costume manages to out-gay The Village People, which is sort of amazing. After the “YMCA” number, every man in the room had turned gay, except for David, who had become supergay. Such is the power of cinema.

Here, you can be gay, too:

So I crossed off a couple of wanna-sees that evening, which is all I ask of a Crapfest. Well, food and folks, of course, but there are few things we enjoy so much as being able to say, “My God, that was really horrible.”

After Ebert: More Movies 2

Having survived covering the City’s Independence Day festivities (two days of grueling remote television work), I should probably finish playing catchup on my movie watching.

vhs2First off, about a year ago I held forth on V/H/S, a horror anthology where all the stories were presented in the found footage format. Bucking the trend, I like it if it’s done well – my definition of “done well” is apparently far looser than most others. Then again I also recognize shades of quality between “Excellent” and “Worst Thing EVAR”. Like any movie anthology, V/H/S had its high and low points, and was successful enough to spawn a sequel. I wish they’d stuck with the original title, SuperV/H/S, but that was probably deemed too obscure a reference, so V/H/S 2 it was.

This time there are only four stories, which proves to be beneficial. As usual, our primary concerns with the found footage format is 1) Why is there a camera running? and 2) Why does whoever’s running this camera keep shooting while the story unfolds around them?

The first story, “Phase I Clinical Trials” circumvents both of these by presenting us with a man who lost an eye in a car accident and is fitted with an electronic eye that restores his sight, but also has an embedded chip recording everything for clinical test data. The catch (and there had to be a catch because this is, after all, a horror movie) is that he starts seeing some very unfriendly-looking ghosts. Not the most original concept, but it helps that he’s found by a woman who had a similar cochlear implant some time before, and who can hear the ghosts. This first story gave me at least one jump scare (even when I knew it was coming), some chills, and even a couple of laughs. Its only crime is that it could have used a little more development.

The second story,  “A Ride in the Park” by The Blair Witch Project‘s Eduardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale, kicks the quality up a considerable notch. A bicyclist attaches a GoPro camera to his helmet to record his *ahem* ride in the park, which is interrupted when he rides into the zombie apocalypse. Okay, a first person view of the ZomApoc has been done, but this time the cyclist gets bitten so it becomes a first zombie view. “A Ride in the Park” makes use of what has become common knowledge of zombie tropes to form a lean, mean story that is exactly as long as it needs to be.VHS2_Still02

I might have been satisfied with “Ride” being the best in show, except next up was the real reason I was jonesing to see V/H/S 2, the segment “Safe Haven” by Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Huw Evans. I blush to admit that I am unfamiliar with Tjahjanto’s work, but I became a fan of Evans when I saw The Raid: Redemption and Merantau in the same day.

“Safe Haven” involves a TV crew finally getting permission to tape an interview with a controversial religious leader in his equally controversial commune. It turns out that this guru, a combination of Jim Jones and David Koresh, has agreed to let the crew in because their presence coincides with his cult’s horrific endgame, which proceeds to play out in real time.

2013-05-23-vhs2_havenEvans and Tjahjanto open up the found footage concept neatly; not only does the crew have two cameras, but each member has a spy camera concealed in the top button of their shirts (they’re hoping for a muckraking expose, not the fair and balanced story they promised), but once they arrive at the commune, the directors can also rely on the extensive closed circuit TV network. “Safe Haven” is the longest of the stories (and the probable reason for four rather than five stories in this outing), and that really pays off. There’s even a bit of character development, for pete’s sake.

The last story, “Slumber Party Alien Abduction” probably suffers from following “A Ride in the Park” and “Safe Haven”. You might remember some years back, back in the Alien Autopsy years, there was also a tape floating around that was supposed to show an alien abduction in progress at a family gathering. That’s what this is, with better special effects. This time the GoPro is put on a dog for a prank, so there’s a novel point of view, but I found it needlessly confusing and didn’t give a tinker’s damn for anybody but the dog.

But the first three are well worth watching.

I had wanted to embed the less spoiler-iffic green band trailer, but that one has links to other pages all over it (insert cursing here), so here’s the red band trailer, with some unnecessary commentary (oooh, there’s some hypocrisy right there):

Land-of-the-Dead-2005-Hollywood-Movie-Watch-OnlineAfter that, I put aside my long-standing moratorium against zombie movies to watch George Romero’s Land of the Dead. Italian zombie movies just about did me in, then the Resident Evil movies combined with Uwe Boll’s House of the Dead informed me that the zombies of my youth were no longer edgy and scary, they were a cardboard commodity to be thrown at the screen while the director did his best Count Floyd: “Oh Look! Eesn’t it SCARY keeds! A-WOOOOO!” Something broke in me that day, and I walked away.

Land of the Dead, though, was like a breath of fresh air. Romero posits a pretty realistic outcome from his last three zombie flicks: humanity in a fenced-off enclave, at the center of which is a tower block where the rich live in luxury while the rest of the populace is either guarding the perimeter, scavenging supplies from surrounding towns overrun by zombies, or living a Thunderdome-type free market existence.

land-of-the-dead-1I knew John Leguizamo was one of the scavengers, but I was caught off-guard by Simon Baker playing their leader. As ever, Romero proves himself ten times more thoughtful than almost anybody working in the genre; the zombies are falling into their former life patterns, as implied in the earlier movies, but  Alpha Zombies are starting to emerge, and as Herbert West would point out, they’re starting to use tools. One of the city’s raids pisses off the emerging alpha zombie, and he leads a march on the distant tower; there’s a reason people refer to this as the Occupy Wall Street of zombie movies.

People rushed onto my Twitter timeline to inform me that the movie sucked or Romero should have stopped right there. Well, it didn’t, and I don’t know about him stopping. But I’m more willing now to find out, and picked up a copy of Diary of the Dead at Half-Price Books the next day. Take that, nattering nabobs of negativity!

Kill_List-2011-MSS-poster-02Kill List would likely have flown under my radar were it not for the ardent advocacy of Internet film critic Scott Weinberg, who championed it on Twitter. A British movie directed by Ben Wheatley, Kill List introduces us to Jay (Neil Maskell), a hit man who’s suffering a form of PTSD after an assassination went very wrong in Kiev eight months earlier. The money is running out and his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) is none too happy about what she perceives to be his indolence. Jay’s old mate Gal (Michael Smiley) shows up with a high-paying job, a chance to get back on the horse.

Jay and Gal are given a list of three people to murder, and they go to it with the ease of professionals comfortable with their work; things start to go awry almost immediately, though, when their first target, a priest, spots them before he shot through the head, smiles, and says, “Thank you.”

Their next target is known only as The Librarian – the library he presides over is a series of torture/snuff films, which sends the already edgy Jay right over that edge. He tortures the Librarian to find out where the films are made, and while Gal is upstairs looking for clues and money, the Librarian sincerely tells Jay it is an honor to meet him, and thanks Jay after every blow with a claw hammer.

killiist2Something really weird is going on, and after Jay makes a detour to kill everyone in the snuff film production company, Gal manages to walk him back to a sane enough place to try to back out of the contract, but their Client will have none of it: Jay is the man for the job. So Jay and Gal seek out their last target, an MP on his own country estate, at which point things begin to really go to shit.

Kill List has a very intriguing tone; it feels like a low-budget indy relationship film that loses its way and strays into Charles Bronson territory, then, totally lost, careens into a Dennis Wheatley novel. As Jay and Gal struggle through their trip to the end of the Kill List and the corresponding heart of darkness, things get stranger and more disorienting; it all leads to a gut punch of an ending, making it one of the more memorable horror movies of the last few years.

My only problem with it – and this is a personal failing – is that I find the indy relationship parts uncomfortable and in some places, mere filler. The uncomfortable part means the director and the actors are doing their job well; I’m just a slob who wants to get to his scary stuff.

I finished up my week of weirdness with Holy Motors, and now I am going to have to try to describe it.

holy_motors_ver5_xlgDenis Levant is M. Oscar, an actor who is driven around town in a limousine, chauffeured by Edith Scob (yes, Eyes Without A Face Edith Scob) to his various assignments. The limousine is a self-contained costume and makeup shop. Oscar has nine assignments that day, and he will become nine different people.

This sounds like some espionage movie, but it’s not; it’s a surreal collection of short scenes that have no relation to each other, played out for the benefit of who-knows? He will become an elderly beggar woman, a bizarre troll-like creature, the father of an awkward adolescent girl, an old man on his death bed. He will meet two other such actors (at least). He will get killed twice, none of which seems to matter.

Any attempt to describe it further would simply involve a listing of every event. It is a deuced odd film. Its surrealism is not on the extravagant level of Alejandro Jodorowsky, but attempts to assign logic and a through-line to it would likely cause headaches if not serious damage. If nothing else, it is a great showcase for the talent of Denis Levant; If you want to mutter to yourself “What the living hell-” for two hours (and have no Jodorowsky available), it will fit the bill.