Crap of July: The 80s Strike Back

Once more, I survived working the City’s Independence Day festivities, with only slightly more than usual aches and pains afterwards. It was time for celebration, celebration that required little or no work from yours truly, ie., a Crapfest. (Click here for a visual representation of our gatherings, putting the “odd” back in “odyssey”)

Slightly lower attendance this go-round – Paul had a sibling’s party to attend, The Other Dave was recovering from what he described as “eating like Orson Welles for three days”, leaving us with host The Original Dave, Alan, Rick, Erik and myself. Mrs. Dave excused herself and got the hell out of Dodge. Like all of us, she had lived through the 80s, and unlike all of us, she had the sense to know that once was enough.

2278449962_89fbd266b3_oYou see, there was a motif that, unplanned, began to assert itself as the evening wore on, and past a point we stopped resisting and just went with it. And the 80s came, and had their way with us. Roughly.

Dave’s opening salvo was the motivational classic, Mr. T’s Be Somebody… or Be Somebody’s Fool, a direct-to-video outing from 1984 (the hot middle of the VHS boom, a time when something like this being successful in the video market was a real possibility). The intentions behind this are so good, it’s really kind of hard to be mean to it. If it has any weaknesses, it’s that it tries to cover 14 different topics like Peer Pressure, Shyness, Frustration and Styling (featuring “Zina and Zina from San Bernadina”), so it’s like every PBS morning and Disney kid’s show compressed into 52 minutes.

Oh, stop screaming.

T is very game in this whole enterprise, even if he looks very uncomfortable when visiting a street scene that is basically the Shaolin Temple of breakdancing (he does not make it past the first chamber). Guest stars like New Edition and a very young Fergie keep you watching for other possibly hidden details, and I have to say the rap Ice-T wrote for Mr. T is actually pretty good, delivering the message while playing to T’s vocal strengths. It was a fairly easy way to slide into the horrors of the evening.

Well, “fairly easy” gives way to “Necronomicon-level horror” when whatever file Dave has Mr. T residing in on his hard drive then flips over to the pilot episode of The Lost Saucer, a Sid and Marty Krofft monstrosity hailing from 1975 starring Jim Nabors and Ruth Buzzi as bumbling robots (Nabors is from “the Southern Cosmos”). As it was from 1975, it was purged somewhat speedily, but not before the theme song wormed its way into our brains:

Much easier for us to glom onto than T’s rapping, and it would pop up over and over for the next five hours.

We would need it.

A movie I had been trying to get on the agenda for over a year was The Miami Connection, a strange concoction concerning a group of five orphan tae kwan do black belts who are friends forever, as they will tell us in song. You see, they are also the rock group Dragon Sound, “a new dimension in rock and roll,” the bold new direction being that they dress in karate gis while pretending to play their instruments.

You can be sure that this number was the first time we used The Lost Saucer defensively. The scowling GI Joe with Kung-Fu Grip lookalike who’s so concerned about his sister is the leader of the improv street gang (all their dialogue is obviously – and poorly – improvised), who have some sort of affiliation with the Miami Ninjas, who are taking over the lucrative drug trade. The position of house band in this joint seems more than a paltry paycheck and unlimited well drinks, it must control trade routes from its lofty perch, or something, since the band replaced by Dragon Sound is willing to fight them for it, and when they get tired of having their asses handed to them by Dragon Sound, they employ GI Joe’s Improv Mob to get their asses kicked instead.

miamiconnection_poster-final__smallNone of that synopsis will help you with the horrible line delivery of star/co-director/writer Y.K. Kim, who is a good martial artist but a terrible actor (casting by Y.K. Kim). Two of the band members are similarly good at the kicking, not so hot on the emoting. The other two are the opposite, kind uhhhhhh adequate on the acting, not seen doing much on the fight scenes. They are: the black one (who actually does track down his father, with a shrill “Oh my Godddddd!”) and John Oates. As there is no girl on the band, John Oates is the de facto girl, getting kidnapped and held as bait.

We haven’t even gotten to the biker gang who shows up out of nowhere to provide us with our bare breasts for the R rating. And the final showdown with the Miami Ninjas, in a park that resembles the jungles of Da Nang (Orlando is truly a city of wonders). This movie got kicked around to various distributors, none of whom cared to even give it a video release, and mind you, this was in 1987, when anyfuckingthing could get released on VHS. One guy at Manson International (appropriately) finally agreed to pick it up if they changed the ending (the original, tragic ending required acting, and talk about trying to find water in the middle of a desert…).

Erik had been wanting to see this for a while, and he avowed that it was worth the wait. I was not prepared, however, for how much it hurt Dave, which was a lot. So much that he decided to forego his original planned entry, and also show something horrible and soul-shriveling from the 80s, locking in our course for the evening. And that something terrible was Where the Boys Are 84.

Where_the_Boys_Are_'84There is a fair amount of demented genius in this choice, mainly because I don’t think there was any way in Hell any of us had seen this movie, unless it was by accident while flipping through cable movie channels.

The premise is: you have four college co-eds (Lisa Hartman, Lorna Luft, Wendy Schaal and Lynn-Holly Johnson), who head to Fort Lauderdale for Spring Break, with no higher mission than to get drunk and laid. Lynn-Holly wants to screw “Conan the Barbarian” – whoever might fit that description – Lisa wants to make time with Camden (Daniel McDonald), the famous classical piano player cousin of the rich Wendy, and Lorna just needs a break from her jealous boyfriend, who will proceed to track her to Lauderdale. Got all that? It’s a sexy madcap romp! Or so we’re told.

It is! It's a sexy madcap romp!

It is! It’s a sexy madcap romp!

The movie itself is not too awful, though keeping track of all the subplots is sort of a full-time job (the tequila sunrises Dave kept bringing into the room didn’t help). A hitchhiker the girls pick up on the way is an itinerant musician named Scott (Russell Todd, leading to many unsaid Time Squad riffs), who is going to be Camden’s chief competition for Lisa’s attention. There’s a Stray Cats wannabe group that keeps cropping up – called, rather nakedly, The Rockats – ensuring that every five minutes I could ask, “Is that Brian Setzer?” no matter who walked across the screen.

The first night, when the girls go out to become, as they put it, “shitfaced” rapidly becomes very uncomfortable, especially when Wendy gets drunk and begins to do a striptease in the middle of the bar (to Rockats accompaniment). I swear to you, the scene was two camera setups away from becoming The Accused before Lisa intervenes.

Of course, if you really want uncomfortable, there’s always this scene:

This movie fails the Bechdel Test, fails it repeatedly and fails it hard. So hard there were probably smoking craters all over Lauderdale from repeated attempts. I will further postulate that its very title implies an impressive fail on that point.

Do I really need to tell you how the various plot threads play out? Lorna and her boyfriend will get back together. Conan the Barbarian turns out to be a tiny-dicked hustler. Wendy gets busted for DUI and starts dating the cop who busted her. (Spoiler: he’s married). Scott publicizes the snooty party Wendy’s mother is throwing for Camden’s big concert so he can crash Lisa’s alone time with Camden. The supposedly comic shenanigans that ensue also include the Rockats – of course – staging an impromptu concert of their own, and the string trio that was supposed to be entertaining the posh crowd start jamming with them. I really could have used more of that.

Camden is confessing that he is having trouble finishing his new suite because he can’t find “the proper phrase”. I suggested that the missing phrase might be “…THE LOST SAUCER!” but he ignored me. Scott bursts in and tells him what the phrase should be, saving his rival’s bacon. AS MOVIES TRY TO TELL US OVER AND OVER AGAIN, RICH PEOPLE SUCK AND ONLY POOR PEOPLE HAVE THE LIFE FORCE.

Oh, hey, was that Brian Setzer?

So how do we follow up that slice of drive-in fare (from an era with practically no drive-ins)? Is there any topping that, in a very real way finishing off the evening, like a blow to the head on the killing floor? Why, how about another movie from the 80s I had been trying to shoehorn into a Crapfest forever: Rock ‘N’ Roll Nightmare.

220px-RocknrollnightmareAs some of you may be aware, the movie’s original title was The Edge of Hell, which it retains on the Synapse Films disc I was using. This allowed me to pull the “Oh no! I brought the wrong movie!” bit for a while, never mind we had spent the last five minutes grooving to the 5.1 menu song of “Talkin’ ‘Bout Rock”.

So we have a rock group, The Tritonz, setting up shop in a remote (except you kept seeing car headlights on a nearby highway in the numerous night shots) farmhouse, where a family were mysteriously and supernaturally murdered years before. But this is the perfect place to finish our album! We built a state of the art recording studio in the barn! (The state of the art was apparently pretty sad in 1987, especially in Canada.) The Tritonz’ journey to the farmhouse in their non-custom van is pretty much accomplished in real time, the sure mark of a movie that came up short on running time. Interminable love scenes (and slow motion during same) is another clue.

(Speaking of love scenes, here’s some “fun” movie lore: the requisite breasts for an R rating were supposed to be provided by the groupies in one scene. Said breasts are even referenced in the dialogue. Their agent, however, told them to refuse on the day of shooting, and the ladies in the Tritonz were called upon to take up the slack. As it were.)

rocknrollnightmare2_05504ad066b68a611fbd6ab293425aa2The leader of the group, John Triton, is, as aficionados of crap cinema know, played by real-life rocker Jon Mikl Thor, who also wrote, produced, and provided the music. I actually like the music – very little LOST SAUCER needed, it provided its own riffs – but the story is plodding and pretty cliche. The drummer is even named Stig, for God’s sake. In any case, the forces of darkness -represented by rubbery cyclops puppets and the occasional decent makeup effect – pick off the band one by one, leading to a closing act that I still refuse to say anything about. It must simply be witnessed, with as little preparation as possible.

All online trailers seem to have gone bye-bye. Well, they all pretty much blew the surprise, anyway. Spoiler alert, and all that.

Another thing learned this evening: most 80s movie scores were written by rummaging through John Carpenter’s trash can.

The best part is I can now threaten Crapfest with the sequel to Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare, Intercessor: Another Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare. But you know what? That is below even me.

With this particular Crapfest, though, it felt like we had finally hit our stride again, after the long time off. Is that a good thing? Or a bad thing? Given the Crapfest experience, it is probably a bad thing. And that’s good.


Hey… was that Brian Setzer?





The ABCs of March, Part Four

Blah blah blah blah March Movie Madness blah blah Movie starting with “A” on March 1, “B” on March 2, blah.

Miami Connection (1987)

miami_connection_ledeA minor cultural artifact that would be languishing in the used VHS bin at Half-Price Books were it not for Drafthouse Films, who managed to turn it into a sort of cause celebré last year. If you like your heroes to be a rock band made up of five orphans who have sworn friendship forever, and who use the proceeds from their club gigs to pay for college, this is the movie for you. If you’d like these five friends to be “black belts in Tae Kwan Do”, this is especially the movie for you. If you want your five black belt rock stars to fight a bunch of motorcycle-riding, drug-dealing ninja (in Orlando, Florida), then you already own the Blu-Ray.

I put “black belts in Tae Kwan Do” in quotes because it becomes pretty obvious that only three of the members of Dragon Sound have any moves (in fact, the diminutive Gino Vanelli-looking lead guitarist is pretty much the girl of the group), and one of those is star/producer/co-director Y.K. Kim, for whom English is a distant second language.

fyc_5The dialogue is largely improvised, which means I give the movie’s sound man a big thumbs up, because there would be no way to convincingly loop any of the scenes, because everybody talks at once (and not in a good Howard Hawks way). The fight scenes aren’t dreadful, and some are pretty good, though watching the bad guys dutifully line up to attack our heroes one-by-one on a largely empty street is kind of painful.

An interview with Y.K Kim on the DVD reveals that Miami Connection was turned down by every distributor as, quote, “Crap”, unquote, until one guy agreed, but only if they completely re-did the ending, since in the original the bad guy got away and a Dragon Sound member died. With a new bloody showdown and a formerly fatal sword wound downgraded to “Walk it off, wuss” status, Miami Connection went out into the world, to wait 25 years for anyone to appreciate it.

Maybe it’s due to having seen Intercessor only a few days before, but I didn’t find Miami Connection all that bad. Not all that good, either, but a likely candidate for a Crapfest.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

night_of_the_hunter_posterAnd for every story where a distributor said that something was “crap” and was right, there seem to be five stories about the same thing, but the movie in question was a masterpiece that the bean-counter could not appreciate. Such is the case with actor Charles Laughton’s sole directorial effort, The Night of the Hunter.

Based on the novel of the same name by Davis Grubb, Hunter is the tale of serial killer Harry Powell, a travelin’ man who professes to be a preacher, finding widows with money, marrying them, killing them, and moving on. While serving time in prison for auto theft (30 days!), he meets up with Peter Graves, due to be hanged for a bank robbery in which he killed two men. Powell manages to find out that Graves hid the ten thousand dollars, but won’t tell where; after his release, Powell goes searching for this newly-created widow, and the ten thousand.

The story is largely told from the point of view of Graves’ ten year-old son, John (Billy Chapin), sworn to protect his younger sister Pearl and the location of that ten thousand dollars. With an ease born of practice, Powell sweeps their windowed mother off her feet (Shelley Winters, very convincingly projecting a brittle, damaged vulnerability) and eventually murders her, tying her body to an old model T and dumping it in the river, producing one of the movie’s indelible images: Winters’ hair drifting lazily in the current, echoing the surrounding weeds.

img-night-of-the-hunter_095346717469The kids strike out on their own down the same river, Powell in inexorable pursuit (“Don’t he never sleep?” marvels John), eventually winding up in the care of Lillian Gish (who came out of retirement specifically for this role), playing a woman who has found new meaning in her life caring for orphans the Depression has sent her way. She sees through Powell’s guile immediately, and in a nighttime confrontation, the spurious preacher finds himself no match for a good woman with a shotgun.

Part of the genius of Night of the Hunter is that it slips so subtly into the boy’s point of view, we almost don’t realize we’ve left an adult’s mindset behind. We’re surprised that the adults of the tiny town don’t see through Mitchum’s bullshit as easily as we do, but that’s because we’re sharing John’s experience. Powell is a surprising change for sex symbol Mitchum, who must have leapt at the chance to play a character so different from his usual fare.

hunterIn a story that is going to be too familiar, an executive at the first screening called the movie “too arty” and buried it on the second half of a double bill with the now largely forgotten medical potboiler Not As A Stranger, also featuring Mitchum. The posters and advertising materials reveal just how clueless United Artists was as to what approach to take with Night of the Hunter, and it almost vanished from sight, championed only by a very few until its true status as a classic was embraced.

Laughton, never the most confident of artists, took it all very much to heart and never directed another movie. Which is a damned shame.

Orca (1977)

7“I know! Let’s remake Jaws, but rig it so that this time you root for the shark!”

BRILLIANT! Another round!”

Fisherman Nolan (Richard Harris) thinks that capturing a killer whale and selling it to an aquarium or sea park will finally pay off the mortgage on his boat. What he manages to do is harpoon his target’s mate, resulting in a gruesome whale miscarriage on his deck and the unending enmity of a killer whale who, doctor Charlotte Rampling informs us, is capable of feeling grief and unending vengeance.

This is indeed the McGyver of killer whales, causing huge explosions in the seaside town and targeting vulnerable supports of buildings so he can bite off Bo Derek’s leg. Nolan is responsible for four human deaths and millions in property damage by the time we reach the final showdown, and despite attempts to generate sympathy for the character, I never stopped rooting for Orca.

At least I now have seen the movie was that was plastered all over the back of comic books until they invented Megaforce.

Prometheus (2012)

Prometheus-2012-Movie-PosterFinding identical star maps in several ancient civilizations, two scientists (Logan Marshall-Green and Noomi Rapace) have figured out that a race of beings called The Engineers created life on Earth and left this calling card as an invitation. The near-ubiquitous Weyland Corporation funds an expedition to the planet to try and make contact. Things do not go well.

First: Jiminy Christmas, what a cast. Beside Rapace, you have Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Michael Fassbinder, and, eventually, Guy Pearce. That is a hell of a lot of quality acting talent. You have special effects that are often incredible. What you do not have is much of a compelling story. In short, you have a Ridley Scott movie.

Prometheus is at its best when it is functioning as a sense-of-wonder story, a stripped-down-to-the-basics space opera about exploration and first contacts. It veers into horror (and even Cronenbergian medical horror in the movie’s most intense segment) in ways that worked like gangbusters in Alien but seem somehow tacked on here.

PROM-008 -  Aboard an alien vessel, David (Michael Fassbender) makes a discovery that could have world-changing consequences.Because Prometheus, you see, is a prequel to Alien. What our heroes find is a seemingly abandoned Engineer base full of bioweapons that was going to be shipped to Earth but something went wrong and the Engineers themselves were the ones that got destroyed. Exactly why the Engineers, having created life on Earth, were  suddenly so determined to eradicate it is a question left unanswered, and in fact is the entire reason for the movie’s denouement, and possibly a reason for all the bad press and rancor I had heard during the general release. My pal Roger Evans had read an interview with Scott that explained it all, and proceeded, like a kindergartener with a dead rat chasing his classmates all over the playground, to pursue me until I read it. I really don’t need to have everything explained for me. I frequently enjoy the mystery more than the solution. But now I know. And it did kind of bruise my opinion of the movie.

Really, I think  Prometheus works better outside the Alien universe. Trying to shoehorn it in is just going to cause headaches. And this is from someone who strenuously pretends the Alien vs Predator moves never happened.

prometheus_01Honestly, the biggest, most jagged pill for me to swallow in the movie is that it takes place in 2094 or so. Which means interstellar flight in 80 years. I suppose that’s possible, but I’m doubtful. When I was a kid, we sent men to the Moon regularly and you could fly from New York to Paris in a few hours. What the hell happened? Whatever it was, it makes a rapid advancement like that, even financed by a voracious corporation, very dubious to my mind.

Then again, my next movie will be Queen of Blood, which takes place in 1990, when a mere 21 years after the Moon landing, we have a fully functioning Moon Base and  plans to go to Mars. That didn’t seem too far-fetched in 1966, so I’m hoping I’m wrong and we do, indeed, wind up on that road again.