Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Riot on 42nd Street (1987)

Glen Barnes (John Patrick Hayden) has just gotten out of prison and returned to his home turf of The Deuce.  Trying (but not very hard) to reconnect with his estranged brother Tom (Lance Lewman) who leads a gang of young toughs now, Glen reopens his father’s theater, The Garage, pissing off rival club owner Leonard Farrell (Michael Speero), whose Love Connection strip club across the street has basically become a brothel.  Sparks are gonna fly!

So, this is Tim Kincaid’s Riot on 42nd Street (aka New York 42nd Street), and it plays by the “Badass Returns Home to Clean Shit Up” rulebook, while it also has enough wrinkles of its own (intentional or not) to make it a very odd duck, indeed (a running theme in Kincaid’s oeuvre).  For starters, Glen was imprisoned for a crime he did commit, killing a pusher in his family’s theater (and in front of an entire audience of witnesses; not smart).  Many times, this type of character either was wrongly convicted or is trying to atone for the crime he committed and how his absence affected his family.  Glen has no regrets about killing the pusher.  In fact, it never comes up except as exposition.  If anything, the audience is asked to see it as completely justified, because, naturally, pushers are scum.  Glen does try to make amends with his brother Tom, but it’s so halfhearted and undeveloped (as so much of this film is), it doesn’t even satisfy as the genre cliché it clings to so tightly.  Of course, the first two things that Glen does on arriving back in town are meet up with an old friend from the streets (Thelma, who works for Farrell and is played by Ceal Coleman) and beat up a mini-gang of hoodlums.  Then Glen’s old flame, Michelle (Kate Collins), shows up to fling herself into his arms and completely abandon her career as a cop (to the eternal disgust of her partner Frank [Jeff Fahey]).  These things happen, I suppose.  And none of this means anything other than as scenes in a film.      

Yet, the movie doesn’t fully commit to any of the clichés it requires as a cash-in action romp.  Farrell dresses smoothly, and he has a hot girlfriend (the ever-lovely Frances Raines, grand-niece of the late, great Claude Raines, and whom you may recall from the “quirky” slasher The Mutilator) whom he treats like shit.  He has a few skanky, musclebound henchmen (most prominently the actually creepy Remy [the fantastically named Carl Fury]) whom he also treats like shit.  And that’s the sum total of Farrell.  He has no personality other than thinly concealed rage and full-blown rage.  He has no charm whatsoever, and his few meetups with Glen are tensionless snarkfests.  Farrell has no sense of subtlety, no head for subterfuge, and since the cops who exist in this cinematic world don’t do a fucking thing to uphold the law, it doesn’t matter anyway.  For example, if you were a cop, and you were present when a decapitated head was delivered to your boyfriend directly from his sworn enemy, wouldn’t you do something - anything - coplike?  Does your commitment to upholding the law suddenly vanish when your old boyfriend reappears in your life?  Maybe, but it doesn’t matter.  The one action beat the film comes close to getting right is the massacre at Glen’s club (you didn’t think there wasn’t going to be one, did you?).  It’s filled with slow-motion gunfire and squib-covered bodies jerking in reaction.  It’s also overlong, which if you thought a sequence like this couldn’t be, you’d be wrong.  Furthermore, it’s also bewilderingly intercut with a local rock band performing some anonymous songs, strippers doing their routines (one of the few things that actually feels authentic), and a standup “comic” (Zerocks [get it?], playing himself) shot in direct address doing jokes so stale, you’ll want to check them for mold and rot.  Last, but by no means least, the titular “riot” is just a bunch of unpaid extras who are unable to lift their legs high enough to deliver convincing kicks (there’s one guy in particular who consistently draws your eye in this regard; you’ll know him when you see him) or who know anything even remotely about selling an onscreen punch (and part of this is clearly the filmmakers’ fault; okay, the whole thing is) prancing around each other like this was Michael Jackson’s Beat It video without the commitment to just calling it “fight dancing.”       

Every character in Riot on 42nd Street is a cypher.  Glen delivers nothing but blank, open-mouthed stares in lieu of acting throughout the entire movie, and these are met and returned by equally vapid gazes from Michelle, completely not heating up the screen or creating any chemistry whatsoever.  Glen’s employees are only distinct for their ethnicities (a white, a black, an Asian) and their willingness to throw down as required by the script.  The one character in the film that is in any way compelling is 42nd Street itself.  There is a plethora of shots, clearly done guerilla style, that showcase The Deuce from this time period.  These are the heartbeat of the film.  Seeing the bustle of bodies hustling and mingling, the multitude of grindhouse theater marquees, and the unabashed selling of sleazy sex every few inches is the star attraction.  It’s this grimy, desperate milieu that makes the film watchable, and Kincaid wisely keeps returning to it, even though it’s little more than filler in a film whose narrative is a string cut into uneven lengths.  I love seeing New York from this era when it conveyed life and menace simultaneously, vibrant and rundown all at once.  Nevertheless, I know I wouldn’t have wanted to actually live there, because I’m pretty much a scaredy cat.  New York in cinema through the Seventies and Eighties is, for my money, the purest form of vicarious living you can get.  You have all the danger, the grit, and the debauchery, and you can revel in it from the safety of your couch.  With that in mind, if you choose to watch this particular film, do it for the right reasons.  Otherwise, I can’t be blamed for your boredom and apathy.

MVT:  42nd Street in the late Eighties.  It’s the sole thing in this film that actually feels alive.

Make or Break:  The opening credits (rendered in graffiti-style lettering) unspool along with shots of the area and some colorful, non-sequitur scenarios like a hooker who keeps beating up potential customers and a three-way brawl on roller skates.  The rest of the film isn’t as interesting.

Score:  5.75/10

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Devil's Man (1967)

Destro was easily my favorite of the G.I. Joe cartoon characters.  Here was a guy who wasn’t afraid to wear a high-collared, padded jumpsuit.  He had cool weapons, including wrist rockets attached to his metal gauntlets.  He was, per the original file card by comic book writer Larry Hama located on the back of his action figure’s packaging, an unknown.  He had no name other than Destro, no one knew where he came from, and no one (with one exception) knew what he actually looked like.  It wasn’t until later that he got a name (James McCullen Destro) and a place of birth (Scotland).  Whether these things were known or not at the time of the character’s creation, he works better (as most things do) with the mystery intact, in my opinion.  He had one of the best cartoon voices this side of the original Starscream and Cobra Commander (both played by Chris Latta), especially since, at least retroactively, he was a white Scottish fella with a black man’s voice (the great Arthur Burghardt).  Kind of reminds me of Darth Vader in that regard.  Plus, he got to bang The Baroness, the leather-constricted, Eastern-European-accented femme fatale who undoubtedly launched many a young boy on their way to puberty (she was the only one who knew Destro’s actual identity at the time; a small club to be a member of, to be certain).  More than all that, Destro wore a shiny, silver mask at all times in public (and, I like to imagine, sometimes in the boudoir) and it would even move with his mouth when he spoke; that’s some flexible metal.  He was like a luchador without the tights (for better or worse), a badass baldy with a penchant for destruction and mayhem, and if you saw him coming, you were as good as dead.  The Professor (Giancarlo Cianfriglia) in Paolo Bianchini’s The Devil’s Man (aka Devilman Story) also wears a metal mask, though his looks more like one of the robots from the Doctor Who story The Robots of Death, just without the molded hair.  He also doesn’t have wrist rockets, and there’s nary a Baroness-esque figure to be found.  More’s the pity.

In an ultra-abrupt prologue, some guy escapes from a desert lair.  Next thing we know, we’re watching a bunch of planes landing in Rome.  On one of these ubiquitous Pan Am flights is Professor Becker (Bill Vanders) and his daughter/assistant Christine (Luisa Baratto), who are there for some top-secret meetings and such.  Becker goes missing, and this is the cue for Mike (Guy Madison), a two-fisted journo, to enter the picture.  Together, Mike and Christine set off to locate Becker and stop the villains in their tracks.

The Devil’s Man is essentially two films in one.  The first of these is a hardboiled private eye story, wherein Mike isn’t afraid to get his knuckles dirty to get the info he needs.  He’s squarely in the Mike Hammer mold: tough, cynical, and an opportunistic manipulator.  When he’s introduced in what I’ve taken to calling a “meet cruel,” he completely ignores Christine and any of the panic or horror she’s experiencing and instead inspects a crime scene for clues (Bianchini points these clues out to us by having the camera zoom in on them as Mike discovers them).  Later, he blatantly uses Christine as bait, unbeknownst to her.  He’s not above hanging a guy out of a car to extract information from him, either.  In other words, Mike’s a prick, but this type of character has a certain sort of appeal in how forthrightly prick-ish he is.  At least he’s honest about it.  Christine is a damsel in distress, pure and simple.  She exists in this film to give Mike someone to kiss and rescue.  The funny thing about the mystery angle of the film is that, while we’re given clues along with Mike, we’re not given any context to connect them together.  It’s like a jigsaw puzzle missing the corner pieces: you still get the picture, but it’s just a little bit harder to put together.

The second half of the film is a gonzo, Eurospy, science fiction narrative that livens things up a bit (but only a bit) with some interesting elements.  In line with the Professor’s personal visual aesthetic (and, by extension, his modestly budgeted super-science laboratory), is the facet of the loss of humanity.  His big plan is to create human robots (more or less).  This, of course, means that any personality his subjects had before experimentation vanishes.  Like the Professor’s expressionless facade (which hides, but we are never shown, a horribly disfigured face, thus matching the inhumanity on the interior to both of his exteriors [flesh and metal]), there will be nothing left in his subjects, living machines with no free will.  As he states, “Science goes far beyond physical desires.”  He also tells Christine that she must “surrender [her] will to [his].”  For the Professor, the human brain is so imperfect that he is even willing to further dehumanize himself by planting a mechanical brain in his own body.  There’s a bit of a sleazy component added to all this when Mike is tempted with the possibility of sex with Yasmin (Diana Lorys), an experimentee who is now simply a sex slave.  After refusing, Kew (Luciano Pigozzi), the Professor’s greasy little assistant, suggests that he will gladly have his way with her later.  The film’s villains may believe in “science at all costs” and the obliteration of individuality, but their motivations are rooted much more in the very human desires lying at our base levels (namely, sex and power).

For as intriguing as The Devil’s Man threatens to become, it’s overall execution deprives it of any real impact or enjoyability.  It’s sloppy in its editing, its story is contrived as all hell, and the lead characters come off as flat jerks rather than compelling people (or even compelling archetypes).  Its few moments of brilliance are wasted by remaining largely undeveloped, sparking a smattering of ideas and then dropping them just to get to the end.  As a curio, the film should be a seen as an extremely minor point in the Eurospy constellation that tries to mix things up a bit, like oil and water.  Nevertheless, it’s by no means essential, and it may very well leave you with the same blank expression as the one on the Professor’s visage.

MVT:  The pulpier elements spice things up a little bit, but it could have used a dash more of these along with some complimentary flavors.  It’s an okay stew that could have been a great stew.  Now I’m hungry.

Make or Break:  There’s enough travelogue footage, especially once the characters get to Africa, to kill what pacing the film has not only by constantly being cut to but also by feeling like the exact same shot over and over again.

Score:  5/10    

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Blood Sorcery (1986)

On a pitch black night in Burma, two guys, Li (Ying-Chieh Han) and Au Yeung (Hoi-San Kwan), flee from a bunch of torch and arrow-wielding villagers with a jade statue they’ve stolen.  Yeung escapes with the help of the god whose icon he’s pilfered (who is never given a name), but Li isn’t so lucky (though Yeung does get an arrow to the thigh).  Cut to Hong Kong, where Mak Long (Jason Pai Piao) loses his wife due to impotence after some noisy body smooching.  Doctor Au Shau (Alan Chan Gwok Gwong), son of Yeung, comes upon Mak bleeding mysteriously from his leg, and the two discover that they have more in common than they might have expected (namely a certain village in Burma and its vengeful Wizard [Feng Ku]).

Ling Pang’s Blood Sorcery (aka Xiong Zhou) is a supernatural revenge film with enough interesting elements to make it worth a watch, but it’s also enough of a mess to make it largely unsatisfying.  The revenge angle stems from dishonor, both personal and societal.  Yeung stole a statue that had value to the villagers as a symbol of their deity.  It has a spiritual meaning for them, whereas it has only a monetary value to Yeung (something which never comes to fruition anyway, as the statue comes to have a spiritual meaning for Yeung as well).  On the other side, Mak has transgressed against the Wizard in a personal way.  While on leave in Thailand, he visited the Wizard’s bar (they moved from Burma; I don’t know what their livelihood was there), and he met Lina (Git Ling Fung), the Wizard’s daughter.  After a drunken, impassioned evening rolling in the hay (as it were), the two vowed to get married, but Mak got shipped elsewhere and seemed to forget completely about Lina until now when it’s become inconvenient for him.  Not only has the Wizard’s daughter been jilted, but she’s also been left with a bun in the oven, and the whole affair is a source of dishonor for the Wizard and his family.  Despite this, Mak’s intentions were true when he pledged his love for Lina, who begs her father to call off the curse he’s placed on Mak.  Now, most normal people would simply move on and maybe give Mak a sock in the eye if they were to ever see him again, but honor trumps all for the Wizard.  Once it’s lost, it cannot be regained, except through blood.  Similarly, Yeung won’t allow Shau to marry his sweetheart, Shuk Fong (Jo-Jo Ngan), because she has to prove herself to the old man (at least this was what I discerned; maybe you’ll see something different).  The father/child/marriage situations parallel each other.  The Wizard wants Mak to prove himself by being a normal, decent man.  Shuk will have to prove herself by standing with Yeung against the Wizard.  The fantastic needs the ordinary as the ordinary needs the fantastic.

Blood and decay, then, are the symbols of shame, dishonor, and corruption.  Both Yeung and Mak have wounds on their thighs that bleed profusely at any given moment.  Yeung now resides in a wheelchair, we can assume from this wound (and it’s intriguing that Yeung’s initial leg injury was inflicted physically before it became a chronic condition, while Mak’s wound simply appeared as a result of black magic).  His and Mak’s dishonor links them through a very specific condition, and in a very specific bodily location.  The trouble spot on their thighs correlates (maybe just in my mind) to the acupressure point SP-10 or the Sea of Blood (or Xuehai).  This point supposedly invigorates and/or cools the blood (amongst other things).  Therefore, that it is the site of such massive blood loss has some meaning as to how the actions of these men has thrown their bodies and spirits into disarray.  There is also a lot of worm imagery in the film (as there seems to be in most Chinese Horror films).  These worms crawl around and wriggle forth from the leg wounds, swimming in pools of blood, and looking generally very gross.  They are the interior rot of Mak and Yeung’s bodies and souls, being as closely related to corpses as worms are (and they will appear later in the film in that precise role).  Comparably, the Wizard is physically corrupted by the magic he uses to corrupt others.  When performing a ritual against his enemies, his hair suddenly becomes long and white, and he sprouts large fangs.  He literally becomes a monstrosity when doing monstrous things.  By that thinking, neither victims nor revenger have any claim to a moral superiority.  They are equals sunk to their lowest levels.

Though Yeung, Mak, and certainly the Wizard believe in magic, Shau doesn’t (or doesn’t want to), so he tries to find scientific methods of treating Mak.  It’s the classic science versus the supernatural trope of many movies dealing with magic, yet here it doesn’t play as one might expect (or maybe it does).  Outside of watching Mak hemorrhage blood and worms, Shau makes no real effort to get to the root of the issue (the answers basically fall in his lap) and no real headway in curing it once he does discover the condition’s source.  Shau is ineffectual in the face of magic, thus he is ineffectual as a hero.  Shuk, a nurse at the same hospital, crosses the divide between the natural and the supernatural.  In an inversely proportional way, Lina mirrors Shuk.  Lina’s desire is to become a mundane wife, to move away from magic.  The two women cross paths headed in opposite directions.
Blood Sorcery is a difficult film to follow (completely not helped along by very literal subtitles), but we’ve seen this before in genre films from Hong Kong, so it’s not only expected, but it’s also part of the charm (or at the very, very least it’s not a complete deterrent).  Scenes stop abruptly in mid-action with no resolution before being thrown into the next inexplicable scenario.  The characters are flat and uninteresting.  The reason to watch the film is to see how wild it gets with its visuals and situations.  By that measuring stick, I’d say it makes it a little past average.  You won’t see anything here you haven’t seen before, done better, or done more coherently.  I guess in that way, it’s a lot like porn, huh?  And like porn, it does its function well enough.

MVT:  The more colorful images (both gross out and mystical) are the entirety of this film’s existence.

Make or Break:  The sight of the first ball of worms squirming in blood soup.  Too sickening for some, not sickening enough for others.

Score:  5.5/10