Tuesday, 29 March 2016

The Great Dictator (1940)

Perhaps even more than his ground breaking short work, The Great Dictator is Charlie Chaplin's most important and daring work. At the time when world leaders, never mind Hollywood studio bosses were reluctant to annoy Hitler, Chaplin had the guts not only to put his reputation and money on the line, but to make the end product largely free from pious moralising, instead going for the giant raspberry in the face of the despot.

The plot is a slightly contrived piece of farce. Chaplin plays a barber (unnamed, just like his tramp character), from the fictional country of Tomania. During military service during the First World War, he saves the life of Schultz, a German pilot, crashing a plane and giving himself amnesia for 20 years. He eventually returns to his barber shop, only to find that a dictator, Hynkel, who is also a dead ringer for the barber, has come to power, and his goons are sweeping through the country's ghettos, smashing up businesses and rounding up Jews. The barber ends up in a concentration camp, from which escapes, just in time for Hynkel to suffer a mishap on a boat which ends with him in the camp and leaves the world with a serious case of mistaken identity.

The film largely consists of set pieces, featuring some of Chaplin's best physical comedy, much of it dialogue free as well, such as the graceful dance with the balloon, the hair raising plane ride to freedom, and the running gag involving confusion over the correct salute. Chaplin's reputation as a perfectionist is well deserved judging from the elaborate staging and construction of the scenes.

Special mention also needs to go to Jack Oakie, who plays a thinly disguised version of Mussolini, Benzini Napaloni, the ruler of neighbouring Bacteria. The state visit is an increasingly ridiculous exercise in one upmanship, with a misbehaving train carriage, uneven furniture, and a barber chair gag that predates the Bugs Bunny cartoon Rabbit of Seville.

The film only really comes unstuck at the very end, when the barber, impersonating Hynkel, takes to the microphone to deliver a heartfelt three minute monologue to the assembled crowd, both on screen and those sitting in the cinema. There is very little to find fault with in the content, a plea for kindness and humanity in the face of industrialisation and war, and a reassurance to those suffering under Hynkel/Hitler that freedom will eventually prevail. As a standalone piece it is certainly moving and stirring, however as part of the film, the speech jars with the style and content of that which has preceded it and moves towards the earnest lecturing Chaplin had avoided up to then.

Your perception of the film's success as a satire may depend on how you personally define satire. Other than the climax, rather than hand-wringing or over intellectualising Chaplin is more interested in showing Hynkel to be a stupid buffoon. He spent a lot of time studying and aping Hitler's mannerisms and speech patterns, and clearly wanted the audience to link their scornful laughter at Hynkel with their attitudes to Hitler. However, writing some years later in his autobiography, Chaplin said that could not have made the film if he had known at the time of the true horror of the Holocaust. While understandable, this would have been a great shame and a great loss to the world. Despots are invariably humourless, and fully deserve to have a raspberry blown in their faces. It may not bring them down, but it may make a chink in their armour, and sometimes, as Mark Twain once said, the human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Atlantis Interceptors (1983)

During it’s heyday in the 70s and 80s, Italian exploitation cinema tapped into the success of any number of successful films and genres, such as zombies, maverick cops and Mad Max style post-apocalyptic worlds. Atlantis Interceptors adds a new twist to the latter by splicing it with the well-known but untapped mythology of the lost undersea kingdom of Atlantis.

When radioactive material leaks from a Russian nuclear submarine sunk in the Caribbean, it causes the legendary city of Atlantis to rise from the sea. A group of scientists led by Dr. Cathy Rollins (Gioia Scola) team up with two mercenaries, Mike Ross (Christopher Connolly) and his sidekick Mohammed (Tony King), in a battle for survival after descendants of the original Atlanteans decide to reclaim the world for themselves by destroying everything and everyone already here. 

The script is a jaw dropping mix of fairly well constructed action and adventure, and baffling lapses in anything approaching logic. Well constructed in as much as it takes time to introduce Ross and his mercenaries in a way that pays off when needed, and also drops in twists and turns, and ups the stakes and the threat at the right time. Illogical as in where the hell did the Mad Max band of bikers come from, and why are they smashing up Miami, leaving a trail of bloody corpses and burnt out buildings in their wake? Unless I blacked out during a vital scene, no explanation is ever given as to how or why they suddenly appear.

Director Ruggero Deodato is perhaps best known for notorious pseudo snuff video nasty Cannibal Holocaust but this is a million miles away from the grim depressing feel of that. The model work and special effects are about what you would expect for something made cheaply and quickly, the action scenes are competently handled and the production design of a burnt out looted city is well executed. 

The human star of the show is definitely Christopher Connolly, who became a regular in the Italian film industry. Here he throws himself into the role with obvious relish and is great fun to watch.

Like any of these sort of films, please don't think about it too much, just enjoy the action, gore, cheesy dialogue and brain hurting plot twists. Oh and the disco theme tune.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Demon Cop (1990)

The phrase "worst film ever" has been bandied around so often that it has lost all meaning, but it also invites debate as to how we define what that phrase actually means. I have a great fondness for films like ROTOR, Gymkata, and The Courier of Death, as well as the work of Ed Wood, but while the makers of these may lack the budget and skills of others, their lack of self-awareness creates a fun, delirious, anything-can-happen approach that is rarely boring, at least not for long. Boring to me is a bad film, and the worst one ever would have to be the most boring.

Demon Cop is not boring, but neither could you call it entirely fun. It is in fact one of the most painful, deranged, useless, and hilarious messes I have ever sat through. The plot is just about impossible to decipher, crammed as is with characters and storylines that come and go at whim. An ageing Cameron Mitchell appears for an opening monologue, playing a chain-smoking psychiatrist who rambles on about Edgar Allen Poe and madness, none of which has anything to do with anything.

The main character is neither a demon or a cop, but a probation officer, who may or may not have been in Vietnam and may or may not have contracted something during a blood transfusion that turns him into a werewolf. Every now then two detectives show up and moan that they are investigating gang shootings when they should be on vacation. In addition, a radio talk show host and an ostensibly German Interpol agent put in appearances for some reason. At this point the relentlessness of the noise, the editing, the overloaded incoherent script, the teeth grindingly awful dialogue becomes too much and the experience becomes a painful blur, something to be endured, that you can brag about to your friends.

Without knowing anything about the film’s production history, I would say that it feels like somebody has got hold of some half-finished footage and gamely tried to stitch something together as quickly and cheaply as possible, to shove out to an unsuspecting audience.  The video box promises special effects from “the creators of Terminator 2”, but wisely avoids getting bogged down in too much detail as to who these people might be.

Demon Cop is hard to describe or write about and it’s even harder to recommend. Frankly if the inmates at Guantanamo Bay had been subjected to this rather than waterboarding, they would have sung like canaries. However, if you do get to the end with your brain catching fire, pat yourself on the back, as you will have joined a very elite club.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Eliminators (1986)

An affable, sometimes crazy piece of sci-fi action, Eliminators makes the best of a low budget, as well as having a storyline that predates the likes of Robocop and Universal Soldier.

Elderly billionaire recluse Abbott Reeves (Roy Dotrice) has been a busy boy, keeping himself alive with skin grafts, and transfusions, as well as perfecting his time travel matter transfer device, and turning the body of a pilot pulled from crashed plane wreckage in Mexico into a half-human, half-robot "Mandroid" (Patrick Reynolds) in order to send him to and from Ancient Rome. When Reeves orders his assistant Dr. Takada to dismantle Mandroid, Takada refuses, and is killed as he and Mandroid escape. Mandroid teams up with Takada's colleague Colonel Nora Hunter (Denise Crosby of Star Trek TNG and Pet Semetary), Takada's Ninja son Kuji (Conan Lee of Gymakta fame) and mercenary Harry Fontana (Andrew Prine) to take out Reeves. As they get closer to their target, they realise Reeves isn't just time travelling in order to collect antiques - his plans could alter the history and fate of the whole world.

For the most part, the story zips by at a great pace, keeping the twists and turns coming, as long as you don’t stop to think too hard about some of them, peppering them with plenty of gun fights and chases. The star of the show is Mandroid, who has some pretty nifty interchangeable weapons, not to mention his “mobile unit”, a mini tank which he detaches his legs to climb into. The action is not too grim or gory, making the film fine for teenage viewers, and I did wonder at one point whether anyone had planned a toy line based on the characters.

With Mandroid being, by his nature, pretty stern and emotionless, it’s left to Hunter and Fontana to maintain the human interest, and during the riverboat scenes, while they are no Hepburn and Bogart, they keep the lulls in the action going with their bickering. Lee does his best with a limited role, but his character is brought in at just the right moment to give the story a lift and an extra dimension.

The final twist in the tale seems to come from nowhere, and provoked a laugh out loud response from the audience I saw the film with, but in the schlocky, good natured context of this film, it works.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Sorority Babes In The Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama (1988)

If you could have any wish come true, what would it be? Have Sorority House Initiations gotten out of hand? Where is the best place to keep a jive talking imp trapped for all eternity? All these questions and more are explored in Sorority Babes In The Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama.

The story starts off in Animal House territory, with three nerds ogling female students before getting roped into helping with their sorority task of stealing a bowling trophy from a shopping mall. It then takes a turn towards The Monkey’s Paw, with the discovery of an Imp that had been trapped inside the trophy, an Imp that can grant people one wish. The wishes go horribly wrong, of course, and the gang find themselves trapped in the mall, at the mercy of the Imp (with one of them turned into a lookalike of Elsa Lanchester as The Bride of Frankenstein).

The obvious criticisms of this film are kind of pointless. It looks like it was shot for next to no money, in a few days, with a half-baked script and a shitty puppet character, because it was, and the arch, knowing tone of the film acknowledges this, and revels in it.

If you can cope with this, and/or you are a fan of any of the holy trinity of scream queens in the cast (Linnea Quigley, Brinke Stevens, Michelle Bauer) then it is definitely worth a watch. Quigley especially shines, her spunky heroism making the men look stupid and going some way to correcting the leering sexism of the shower scenes.

The soundtrack I found also particularly memorable, veering between nauseating schmaltz, generic 80s chase music, and what sounded like outtakes from late 80s era Skinny Puppy.

Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama (1988) Grindhouse Collection from Full Moon Screeners on Vimeo.

Light Blast (1985)

A mix of mad villain sci-fi film and urban cop thriller, Light Blast is a gloriously cheesy slice of entertainment.

Dr Yuri Sobada, a crazed scientist, has created a laser weapon that can melt people on contact (especially sexy teens getting naked in a disused railway carriage) when fired at large digital clocks, and is now holding the city of San Francisco to ransom, for the sum of $10 million dollars. Inspector Ron Warren, played by no less than Erik Estrada, is the maverick cop sent to stop him, using his own renegade methods to get results, with firing guns and chasing take precedence over questioning suspects and filling in paperwork.

Like so many Italian genre and exploitation films of the 70s and 80s, Light Blast feels like a producer had a good idea, then maybe he (or another producer) had another, then another, until finally the poor scriptwriter is tasked with sewing the disparate elements into a screenplay. With a story revolving around a cop hunting a madman terrorising San Francisco, the main influence is obviously Dirty Harry. Like Inspector Callahan, Warren has a penchant for shooting first and asking questions later, if there’s anything left of the suspect to question, as well as his own unique technique of ending hostage situations. Callahan likes to drive a squad car through a shop window, while Warren employs a plate of chicken, a tight fitting pair of underpants and a surprisingly concealed firearm. The mad scientist is a movie staple but it’s interesting to see it matched with the cop thriller. The producer must have also had a soft spot for Raiders of the Lost Ark, or at least the melting face special effects of the climax (Temple of Doom had been released the previous year, so perhaps it was fresh in their minds), as a similar, albeit cheaper attempt crops up here.

Like so many of his contemporaries in the Italian film industry, Enzo G. Castellari helmed a dizzying number of films from all genres. Here he handles the different elements perfectly competently, especially the car chases, shot with a street level, in-your-face feel. It’s a low budget film, and it’s hard to imagine them having the cash to get permission to shut down the highways in a busy city, so I wonder if there was some guerrilla filmmaking going on.

Castellari also knows not to over stay his welcome, and wraps the whole thing up in a tight 90 minutes. There aren’t many lulls, and when they do crop up, they are the perfect opportunity to run to the fridge and get another beer, the perfect accompaniment to this goofy, highly entertaining piece of fun.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (2014)

Although Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films is often little more than talking heads interspersed with clips, the jaw dropping stories, both on and off the screen, coupled with the contrasting, larger than life characters of maverick studio heads Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, makes for riveting viewing.

Golan's early life was spent learning the ropes in the Israeli film industry, before teaming up with his business minded cousin Globus and moving to Hollywood. There, they proceeded to do what many film producers before them have done, taking the latest movie trends or news stories (Operation Thunderbolt was based on the Entebbe hostage crisis) and churning out cheap and cheerful product that people wanted to see. By 1979, they were in a position to snap up Cannon Films, and spent the next decade filling cinemas and video stores with a mix of quickly made, quickly shot action flicks, (often starring the likes of Charles Bronson or Chuck Norris), thinly plotted cash-ins on the pop culture phenomenon de jour (such as the mega hit breakdancing flick Breakin' and it's sequel Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo, which gave this documentary it's title), and, surprisingly, occasional forays into the arthouse. All these were helped by an efficient marketing machine, churning out lurid artwork and film titles. 


They also had strong links to the horror genre, having started with slashers such as Hospital Massacre and New Years Evil, before teaming up with Tobe Hooper for the likes of Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and the vampire/zombie/apocalypse/nudie oddity Lifeforce

Without the participation of Golan and Globus themselves, the film relies on those who worked alongside them in front of and behind the camera. Some of the anecdotes border on farcical, my favourite being Golan's demand that he get "that Stone woman" for the 1985 Indiana Jones knock-off King Solomon's Mines. Sharon Stone was duly cast, the film was shot – only for Golan to be horrified at his leading lady – he meant Kathleen Turner from Romancing the Stone.

Three things soon become apparent; firstly, the speed that many of the films were produced at, coupled with Golan's inability to stop coming with ideas, regardless of relevance to plot or character, meant that a lot of them were not always as good as they could have been. Screenwriters who had crafted tightly plotted stories found their screenplays jettisoned in favour of random action spectacle at the editing stage. Still, without that willingness to try anything we would have been denied Ninja 3: The Domination, which manages to cash in on Cannon's existing success with Ninja films, as well as ripping off Flashdance, and putting in a possession storyline straight out of The Exorcist.

Secondly, it didn't matter one jot about the quality, audiences lapped them up. This coupled with Globus keeping a tight rein on the purse strings, and the tried and tested business model of pre-selling films that had not been written yet, meant the money flowed in at an astonishing rate.

Thirdly, this success clearly offended some people in the Hollywood of the mid 80s, who regarded the crude noisy studio as lowering the high tone set by the likes of Top Gun and the Police Academy franchise.

The documentary also sheds light on the Cannon studios indulgence of some of the top arthouse directors in cinema, bankrolling films by the likes of John Cassavettes, Barbet Schroeder, Franco Zeffirelli and Jean-Luc Godard. Unlike their more commercial product, with the highbrow material, Golan and Globus seemed happy to let the artists get on with it undisturbed. The results were as mixed as their less intellectual efforts. Cassavettes' Love Streams, Schroeder's Barfly and Zeffirelli's Othello all garnered critical acclaim, but Godard's take on King Lear is a tedious baffling mess.

Inevitably, our heroes fly too close to the sun, and stray from their careful business model. Overreaching themselves, they tried to move into comic book and toy franchises, snapping up Superman, and Masters of the Universe. Both had millions spent on them before having budgets slashed (leading to Milton Keynes doubling for Metropolis) and both tanked at the box office. The final straw was the aborted attempt to make a low budget Spiderman, to be directed by Tobe Hooper, an attempt that never got in front of the cameras, and by 1988 they were bankrupt, and the movie world was a duller place.

This is not the first time Electric Boogaloo director Mark Hartley has explored a specific strand of weird and wonderful cinema, having previously made Not Quite Hollywood and Machete Maidens Unleashed, which covered the exploitation films of Australia and The Philippines respectively. Here he manages to sort the crazy tale into a coherent and fast moving narrative, resisting the temptation to show off visually, letting the stories and clips tell their own incredible story.

It's easy to sneer at Cannon Films and their output, but to me they simply follow in the tradition of the likes of Roger Corman, giving people what they want (and letting people behind the camera get a foothold in the movie industry). This torch has been passed nowadays to the likes of the Asylum Studio, but although the business model may be the same, their end product usually feels too self knowingly ironic and sanitised for my taste, lacking the unhinged insanity of a Cannon classic.