The Great Texas Snow-In

Sure. Laugh while you can, Monkey Boy. Ice and (minimal) snow shut down the city for two days. But you see, that doesn’t happen around here. Sure, there’s trucks to spread sand on bridges, but not many of them – they’re not needed that often. I don’t think you can even buy snow tires south of Dallas/Fort Worth (and maybe not there). Every video of a car crash due to ice is usually somewhere that has some experience with those conditions. Don’t get me started on what it would be like here, where driver considerations of safety and sanity go out the window when it rains.

I remember briefly reading how to put snow chains on a car back in high school, during driver’s ed class. There was no practical exercise, of course. It was as exotic an experience as learning the proper way to don lacquered samurai armor. Like algebra, it was believed that no use for it would be found in our adult lives.

So a long weekend – for me, two days in a row is a long weekend – turned into a four day unpaid vacation. Well, sometimes, all you can do is watch movies, right?

God help me, the first movie was Roller Blade.

Now, a couple of Crapfests ago, Erik broke us all with The Roller Blade Seven, which is the second sequel to this. Doing a bit of research, I got the impression that the earlier movies were well-regarded, and like a fool, I checked that out.

Post-apocalypse, we are informed that it is the Second Great Dark Age. Some semblance of peace is kept by the roller skating Bod Sisters and the police force of the Good Marshall (Jeff Hutchinson). The motto “Skate or Die” is pretty much proven by the murder of a guy on foot in the first few minutes. The killer is a mercenary (Shaun Michelle) who is sent by the villainous Dr. Saticoy (Robby Taylor) – or, to be precise, his literal right-hand man, a hand puppet – to infiltrate the Bod Sisters and steal their power source, a pre-apocalypse gizmo that will power his rocket cycle to reach an isolated automated factory that is still producing energy weapons (incidentally, he doesn’t tell us this until an hour into the movie, because I don’t think the writers knew up to that point, either).

“Curse you, Direct-To-Video Reed Richards!”

That is a half hour worth of plot spread unevenly over 88 minutes. The remainder is filler, and it feels like improvised filler. There is occasional cleverness, like all of Marshall Goodman’s lines sounding like they had been written by whoever did the King James version of the Bible, but that may also be me clutching at straws while I drown in DTV crap. I was pleasantly surprised by the sudden appearance of Michelle Bauer, who was apparently paying back some favors at the time? If that implies to you there is some full frontal nudity, you are correct. I gave the movie a half-star on Letterboxd, and that is largely thanks to my beloved Michelle.

So what do I decide to follow that up with? The Snowman, of course. Really, it seemed kind of climatically necessary.

Yes, this movie was universally excoriated when it was released. And that is the sort of movie I have to check out, because, you know, oftimes people are just wrong. This is a case in point. The Snowman is not terrible, it’s just aggressively mediocre.

We’re in Norway. Michael Fassbender is formerly well-regarded police detective Harry Hole, who is currently in the midst of a long drunken spree. His superior is tired of covering for him, but also ignores Hole’s protestations of “All I need is a case.” Hole manages to slide into a visiting officer’s case, leading him to a serial killer who’s been operating for years – and has also contacted him with a cryptic letter even before he started investigating.

This is based on a long-running mystery series by Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø – in fact, the seventh book in the series – and apparently deviates from that book quite a bit. Folks I know who enjoyed the book were rather dismayed. Its production history is somewhat tortured; it started production in Norway (to take advantage of a state funding program to promote filming in the country), then moved to London, for whatever reasons.

I’m hamstrung in any critique by not reading the book; what I can say is that the movie is deadeningly predictable. Any questions I had were answered an hour later, and none of those had anything to do with the plot. They were questions like “What does this alarmingly puffy-faced Val Kilmer have to do with anything?” and “When will we get to see more goateed Toby Jones?” I will admit the Kilmer one is little unfair, as he was apparently recovering from cancer treatment at the time. But that’s some problematic storytelling, and I wasn’t encouraged to spread any spackle on the gaps. I suppose the movie did make me care enough to go “Oh come on!” when the coincidences and conveniences started piling up toward the end. I do wonder about the killer’s fondness for Hot Butter’s proto-techno song “Popcorn” – is that in the book, or is it an attempt to co-opt a cultural relic, as Zodiac did with Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man”.

I am pretty bemused that The Snowman managed to make me feel ambivalent toward Fassbender, an actor I generally admire, and make one of the most beautiful countries on Earth look dreary.

The opening scene (aka “The Secret Origin of The Snowman) is the best sequence in the movie. Featuring Chloë Sevigny, it is bleakly affecting. I just wish the rest of the movie lived up to it.

Man, that’s a pretty exciting trailer. Odd how much of it’s not actually in the movie.

In the interest of actually wrapping up the post for this week, we’ll end up with the next entry in this Trip through Hell: I suddenly remember that Tarsem Singh did a Greek mythology movie called Immortals that just sort of vanished, and I wondered why. Why it was so rapidly forgotten, I mean, not why he made the movie, though that turned out to be a fairly cogent question as well. Because it doesn’t have that much to do with Greek mythology, and more to do with 300. I mean, there it is, right on the box: “From the Producers of 300“.

Tremendous cast. Henry Cavill, ripped to the gills after months of training, plays Theseus (who’s kind of turned into the generic Greek hero over the last few decades, hasn’t he?). John Hurt is Zeus in human form, who’s been training Theseus. Mickey Rourke is the villainous King Hyperion, conquering everything with his horde and tearing it apart to find the Epirus Bow, a weapon that does not exist anywhere in the Greek myths, but is the only thing that can release the imprisoned Titans and destroy the world or some damned thing. Theseus is Zeus’s trump card that he hopes will somehow save the world.

Zeus in his celestial form is Luke Evans, and, in fact, all the gods are young, beautiful, and have lifetime memberships to Planet Fitness. Despite Zeus’ training of Theseus, it is apparently God Law that the pantheon will not interfere in the affairs of Man, which is the first instance where it occurred to me that I wasn’t exactly dealing with Bulfinch’s Mythology, or even someone who had read the Classics Illustrated version.

Just when it seems that Immortals is going to cut loose with the mythological grandiosity, it undercuts itself. Both of Theseus’ big fights – with the movie’s version of the Minotaur and the final confrontation with Hyperion – are gritty mano a mano hand-to-hand fights which is fine (if boring) – but the first appears after the discovery of the Epirus Bow, which has no bearing on the ensuing fight, and you keep waiting for the Chekov’s Gun rule to kick in. You will, in fact, be waiting for that for-freaking-ever, because Theseus gets to use it once before losing it. The Titans will be released, and that’s it for the Magic McGuffin. There is also a pitched battle in a long corridor from a hardened gate blown apart by the Bow, giving Immortals its Thermopylae with an added touch of Helm’s Deep from The Two Towers.

It has its moments, like a gorily effective sequence where Ares defies Zeus and literally destroys a group of Hyperion’s troops that are about to kill Theseus. But they are so few and seemingly horned-in to an unengaging and derivative story – and not even derivative of the mythology it’s attempting to exploit – that the whole enterprise feels like nearly two hours of wasted, misguided energy.

I finally rebelled and determined to watch some movies of (harrumph) quality… but we’ll have to leave that for next week. We’ve thawed out and I’ve got a ton of work to catch up on.

 

 

 

 

How to Waste A Labor Day Weekend

Ah, Labor Day. You are a welcome surcease, a chance to sleep in a bit, to attend an impromptu lunch honoring a returning comrade, a chance to catch up on this blog. You are also a cancellation of The Show, which I may find tedious, but is a vital part of my patchwork economy in these troubled times. I could moan about that, or I could drown my sorrows in crap cinema, which I did. Rick was the only one of the Four Horsemen brave enough (or, alternately, in town enough – curse you, Final Weekend of Summer!) to attend. I was determined to make a dent on The List of movies I had required myself to see this year, which left us a whoooooooole bunch of leeway in our viewing, as I still had 33 movies to go, 24 on the B-Movie List, 9 on the Quality List. How’d we do? Well, the list is now down to 30, thanks to our valiant efforts. First, though, I put on a DVD-R I had gotten from Something Weird Video. To be precise, I got it for Adventures in Balloonland, but I am saving that in retribution for Strange Beings, which was inflicted on me at the last official Crapfest. No, I went for something Rick had once expressed interest in, even though he will deny it: the unaired pilot for a children’s TV show, Polly Pockets.

The King and Queen of Gloom. There goes the budget.

As the box copy points out, Polly Pockets has nothing to do with the toy line of pocket-size dolls; Polly Pockets is an effervescent brunette with a skirt composed of nothing but pockets, and theoretically anything can be pulled from them. Her accomplice is a Royal Dano-type named Dandy Andy, who is notable for failing at everything in a komedic fashion. At one point, Polly pulls something – an onion? – out of a pocket, reminding her of her trip to the Castle of Gloom, at which point the entire thing turns into a community theater production of Marat/Sade complete with songs. We were especially appreciative of the King and Queen of Gloom, whose crowns were so-very-obviously made of construction paper. The King’s was decorated with Magic Marker, but the Queen’s had some fancy glue-and-glitter detailing. Rick pointed out that the box copy also promised “A Visit to Santa”, and we figured what the hell, we’re here, and proceeded to suffer through the worst damned Christmas themed thing we had endured since The Magic Christmas Tree. Two kids write and ask Santa if they can visit him at the North Pole, and Santa – I’ve seen worse Santa beards, but not many – thinks, “Well, it’s Christmas Eve, my busiest night of the year… but what the hell,” and sends an elf to pick them up and bring them to his split-level ranch living room so they can tour some shopping center Christmas displays. Just when it starts to get really stultifying, apparently Something Weird thought, “Christ, this is boring,” and slapped in a puppet show.

But this is not just any puppet show. No, this is Labor Day weekend, after all, so this is a Union puppet show. I am duty-bound to inform you that I Cannot Make Shit Like This Up. That title card just sort of passed us by, but then we find ourselves confronted by the happy worker puppet, telling us the sammich his wife made was so good, it practically had a beer on top. He is then bedeviled by some sort of boxer with a glass bottle for a body, who claims he is “the champion”, only to be set straight by the Worker, who informs him that the AFL-CIO is the true champion. The scene then changes to a kitchen, where another glass-bottle homunculus tells us how safe he is because he’s sterilized, which gets reallllllllly creepy when the Mom puppet shows up to be told how she needs more sterile men like himself in her life (for instance, she had been buying milk in those horrible opaque paper cartons and last evening, when she discovered it was actually empty, her husband almost left her!) . The camera keeps cutting to an audience of children who must actually be at a Howdy Doody taping or something, because they are not banging at the doors begging to be released. Then it ends, threatening us with “50 TV stations”. I don’t know what that was about, and I sure as hell ain’t going back to find out. Until I spring this on the next Crapfest, anyway, because the workers control the means of production.

Well, enough of our civic duties, it was movie time, We started off with Big Bad Mama, something I had been trying to work into a Crapfest for ages. Pity I never did get it in, because the first bare breast shot is about two minutes into the movie, and the boys of Crapfest dearly love their gratuitous nudity.

Roger Corman had a nice little cottage industry remixing Bonnie and Clyde throughout the early 70s. This time the gang is all-female, Mama (Angie Dickinson) and her two nubile daughters (Susan Sennett and Robbie Lee), trying to make it in 1932 East Texas. If you actually live in East Texas, this will amuse you, as mountainous Southern California is not really a good match. Anyway, the girls wind up helping hapless bank robber Fred Diller (Tom Skerritt) whose heist is going terribly wrong, and thus begin their lives as felons. Mom sleeps with Diller while the girls fume over the unfairness of it all, until Mom runs into William Baxter, a smooth con man who takes Diller’s place in bed, while the two girls share the discarded Diller.

The plot structure owes a lot to Corman’s own Bloody Mama, with stress in the gang finally leading up to a kidnapping that goes wrong. Throughout, you can sense the presence of Corman, doubtless wearing a green visor and holding an open accounting ledger, nudging director Steve Carver and saying, “Excuse me, but we haven’t had a bare boob in almost four minutes.”

Yes, once again we find ourselves ogling Angie Dickinson’s unclad charms, and viewers of a certain age can get a bit of a pleasurable thrill by realizing that this hit the drive-ins just as Police Woman was gearing up on TV. Now a word about Shatner: I have always liked Shatner, even – perhaps especially – when he goes way over the top. There’s not a lot of it here, but I will say this: he doesn’t cheat in his nude scenes. America being what it is, the little Shatner isn’t going to hove into view, but it comes close. By God, if Angie was going to be in the altogether, so was he.

In a less salacious light: there is one scene where, in the foreground, Dickinson and Skerritt are having a yelling, screaming argument. In the background is Shatner, who, with no lines, no blocking, still manages to steal the scene. I have to respect that.

Then came the Blu-Ray (!) of The Exterminator, starring Robert “Paper Chase” Ginty, embarking on his 80s career as an action hero. Exterminator  spends a lot of money in its pre-credit sequence, showing Steve James saving Ginty’s life in Vietnam. Then we go to New York, where Steve James again saves Ginty’s ass from a gang called the Ghetto Ghouls. You might think be thinking “Hey, I hope this movie is about Steve James,” but stop thinking like that, because the Ghouls mug James the next day, breaking his neck and paralyzing him for life. Ginty starts thinking positively, tracks down the people responsible, and lets them get eaten by rats.

Hey, good movie, you might say, but no, we are only 20 minutes in. Ginty then goes about stealing money from the local head of the Beef Mafia (the cops refer to them as “meat mobsters”) to take care of James’ family. The meat mobster doesn’t tell Ginty about the trained attack dog at his house, so once Ginty dispatches the dog with an electric carving knife, he feeds the mafioso through an industrial grinding machine.

We still got tons of movie left, so Ginty just sort of starts wandering around, looking for lowlifes who need exterminating. He finds them in great plenitude in 1980 New York. There is also, needless to say, a cop on his trail: no less than Christopher George, who, like Ginty, is going to be going back and forth between USA and Italian sound stages a lot in those years. George’s story is teased out over most of the movie – very slowly teased out because we spend a lot of time on his romance with a doctor played by Samantha Eggar, which slows the plot down to a crawl.

The most interesting bit is when Ginty pulls out what we referred to as his “Vietnam Box”, a case holding a ton of weapons, including grenades, that he supposedly stole from the Army. Later, when he has a solid lead on The Exterminator, George reaches into his locker and pulls out his own Vietnam Box, with a .45 auto and a tactical shotgun.

We also get some political intrigue, which feels rather half-cooked and shoe-horned in. There’s CIA agent demanding information from George because “The Exterminator… is making the incumbent look bad.” Man! Politics! Can’t even get away from it in a crap movie!

I have to say, The Exterminator  does deliver on what it promises. If you want a gritty Death Wish type rip-off, you could do a lot worse (I know I have). And that Synapse Blu-Ray is gorgeous.

Next up: a movie my pal Dave has been pestering me to see forever: The Cell.

In The Cell, there is an experimental procedure that allows a child therapist (Jennifer Lopez) to journey into the mindscape of a catatonic boy. The procedure is suddenly, urgently pressed into use to send Lopez into the mind of a comatose serial killer (Vincent D’Onofrio), to attempt to find his latest victim before she is killed in an automated death trap.

This is Tarsem Singh’s first movie, and his penchant for manipulated images serves the trips into mental spaces quite well. Rick tells me this is a pre-nose job Lopez, and I’ll trust him on that. If there were any misgivings about Lopez as an actress, The Cell should have put them away; she does very well. D’Onofrio is, as usual, fantastic, though I think there are a few times that Singh either let him, or directed him to, go too far. Vince Vaughn is the federal agent tracking down D’Onofrio, and it was shocking to see how thin the 2000 Vaughn was.

If I have one problem with the script, it’s that when Vaughn figures out how to find the death box (after he himself has a traumatic trip into D’Onofrio’s mind), the clue that he’s sussed out is so obvious, it could only have been missed by sloppy detective work. Given the number of men working on the scene, it’s pretty unlikely.

If I have two problems with the movie, it’s that it bears some resemblance to a script I wrote back in college. My tragic mistake? I didn’t think to put a serial killer in the plot. What was I thinking?

A good enough movie. I don’t think I would have been more impressed with the visuals in 2000, though. There is just some level that it doesn’t engage me like I feel it should. I don’t delight in the process of discovery, so it fails as mystery (I’ve already bitched about that final clue). It’s not intense enough to qualify as horror, but it does come close a couple of times. It is even too busy trying to tell a touching story as Lopez struggles to save the little boy version of D’Onofrio trapped in his head to qualify as a thriller or a science fiction story. It’s an odd creature, not fish, not fowl, and I can’t find its own terms to meet it on.

But enough of that flighty stuff. We ended the evening with Women in Cages, classy fare if there ever was.

I think this may be at the start of Corman’s Filipino Women In Prison cycle; it’s directed by Gerardo de Leon, an old pro in the Philippine film market – you can thank him, at the very least,  for two of the Blood Island movies and Terror Is A Man, a surprisingly effective Island of Dr. Moreau rip-off. So Women in Cages is a well-made, efficient WIP movie, with the usual demeaning work in the sugar cane fields, showers, and catfights.

One of the very few things that sets it apart from its kin is the casting of Pam Grier as a bad guy, the Chief Matron, Alabama, a lesbian who picks her lovers from the convict pool and has a torture chamber stocked with bizarre instruments called “The Playpen”.  Alabama – who’s from Harlem, go figure – has issues, to be sure, not the least of which is the immediate assumption that the three Americans under her charge are “racist bitches”.

Alabama gets taken hostage when our heroines, such as they are, escape, and finds herself on the receiving end for a change, then in deep trouble as the savage hunters – whose job it is to bring escapees back dead or alive, usually dead – assume she is also an escapee.

There is hell of backstory here – our main prisoner is only guilty of trusting the wrong man, who is trying to have her killed in prison, and after a while you lose track of who’s double-crossing who, and then we’re back where the movie started, on a floating whorehouse where the same topless dancer has apparently been dancing for the past three months without a break. Some guy who I didn’t know was a cop for most of the movie rescues our heroine, leaving her junkie cellmate (who was the one trying to kill her) to her floating whorehouse duties in a pretty disquieting ending. Serves her right, I guess.

Women in Cages isn’t quite up to the follow-ups, Big Doll House and The Big Bird Cage, both directed by Jack Hill, which had a lot of subversive humor buried in them. Also missing is Vic Diaz. I demand Vic Diaz in all my Filipino movies, because whenever he’s around, I’m sure to be delighted with the results. Diaz retired in 2001, but he’s apparently still alive. If that is indeed so, I hope he’s well, and continues to have a long, happy life.

Vic Diaz! Praise his usefulness! (ululate)

This may be the only place on the Web where you can start out talking about the quantity and quality of boob shots in movies and wind up with a love letter to Vic Diaz. (Actually, I can think of several other places where that could be the case, but never mind that) That is the world of crap cinema in a nutshell, my friends: you often start in one place, then the journey takes you to another, surprising place. The trick is often finding a way to enjoy that journey.