Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Karate Rock (1990)

During the opening credits of Larry Ludman’s (aka Fabrizio De Angelis) Karate Rock (aka Il Ragazzo delle Mani D’Acciaio aka The Kid with Iron Hands), a car passes by a Burger King, and the first thing that popped into my head was how appropriate that is.  When I was a boy, fast food was something you got once in a blue moon.  It was a “treat,” not the go-to for every meal of the day.  Fast food was considered trash food.  I suppose it still is, but it’s much more readily accepted as a meal option now.  The same holds true for trash cinema.  It’s probably not “good for you” (yes, I know that sounds snotty), but damn it all, it sure does taste good.  The acceptance of trash cinema has certainly grown over the years from a rather small cult following into a veritable legion or people who devote the entirety of their moviegoing lives to it.  I have no grudge against trash cinema nor against the people who live and breathe it (I would consider myself at least partially in this category).  But I do find myself, from time to time, trying to figure out the “why?” of it’s appeal.  This is something which can be especially confounding when you’re a devotee as well as an observer.  

I’m sure the answer is likely far more complex than any of the films which fall under the trash purview (and definitely more in-depth than I have room for here), but I keep coming back to fast food as the appropriate analogy.  Trash films, even when they drag, when the camerawork is horrible, when the action is less than thrilling, almost always give you at least one moment you won’t see in any other film (or, lacking a specific moment, an attitude).  Just like you can’t get a Burger King burger at McDonald’s and vice versa, you can’t confuse something like 1990: Bronx Warriors with 2019: After the Fall of New York, no matter how hard you try.  In fact, the individual flaws may be the things that make them stand out.  These are films totally concerned with trying to be entertaining.  They don’t care about expanding the vocabulary of filmmaking.  They don’t care about making any cogent statements about the human condition (though, I would argue, they sometimes do despite their best efforts).  They don’t want to suggest anything.  They want to be as plain as the nose on your face (and 99.999% of the time, they are).  Like Burger King, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, et al, they all want to sell you a hamburger, fast and cheap, and, most importantly, from one of their franchises.  So, Karate Rock is perhaps the most bonkers ripoff of The Karate Kid ever made, yet it still partly works in spite of itself, but not because of any inherent virtues.  That said, the distinct lack of Elisabeth Shue is truly, truly tragic.

Kevin Foster (Antonio Sabato, Jr) is moved from his Savannah, Georgia home to the small town of Bend because he got into too much trouble for his policeman father John (David Warbeck) to take.  Rooming with the happy-go-lucky Billy (Robert Chan), Kevin runs afoul of local jerkoff Jeff Hunter (Andrew J Parker) and his gang of thugs.  From there on out, it’s nothing but dancing at the local slushie bar and karate-ing (-ish).

As previously stated, the clear and obvious “inspiration” for Karate Rock is 1984’s The Karate Kid.  There is the new kid transplanted to a town where he is all alone and outcast for his background.  There is the young love angle.  There is the karate angle, replete with the old, retired (and retiring) Asian mentor.  There is the gang of young toughs who dominate the protagonist’s life and make it infinitely more difficult.  The thing of it is, Karate Rock has none of the heart of the John G Avildsen film, and it completely misses the whole point of its progenitor.  For the first part, there are still all the setups we expect from this story, and they all turn out exactly as one can predict.  Nonetheless, there is no connective tissue to get us there.  There is no development of the characters, from the top down, to make us care about anything that happens to any of them.  Kevin is practically a doorstop who keeps getting in Jeff’s face just to make himself feel bigger and salve his own pride.  Billy offers no wisdom or insight into how Kevin can better himself until he decides to train him (he does get a half-assed back story, however).  Conny (Dorian D Field), the girl next door, never shares a heartfelt moment with Kevin, and she pathetically keeps trying to change herself to match Jeff’s hotty girlfriend Kim (Natalie J Hendrix) rather than showing Kevin (and the audience) anything unique she has to offer.  John behaves more like Kevin’s parole officer than his father, and there is no depth to their relationship for a reconciliation to mean anything.  These are warm bodies occupying spaces until it’s time for them to do something.

For the second part, this film has nothing to do with self-discovery or conquering one’s fears.  This is because it is entirely shot through a thick, oily filter of pure Italian machismo.  Kevin wants Kim because she’s beautiful, and, according to various moments between her and Jeff, she puts out.  Conny flings herself at Kevin because he’s hot, not because he is in any way distinctive.  And Kevin frankly couldn’t give a shit about Conny until he needs her, anyway.  The impetus for Kevin’s martial arts training has nothing to do with improving himself.  He’s doing it just to get revenge on Jeff for publicly kicking his ass multiple times (and never mind that Kevin names Kim as the prize for the winner of their climactic showdown, something she protests not in the least).  Billy’s decision to teach Kevin has nothing to do with anything other than that he’s an old Asian guy who knows karate (and the training montage is not only substandard in its techniques [read: no “wax on, wax off” stuff] but also mindboggling in its intercutting with shots of Jeff dancing at the slushie bar), and there is no thought given to the ideals and philosophy of martial arts.  It’s strictly used here to beat the shit out of people.  Finally, just to keep the viewer even more off-balance, the whole inner turmoil that Kevin has completely not been struggling with for the entire movie is his desire to be accepted by his old man, which he does by beating up a couple of kids (wasn’t that part of the reason he was taken away from his home in the first place?).  The whole film is like getting Chinese noodles and putting pesto sauce on them.  Yes, it’s still noodles and sauce, and it tastes fine, but it is not in any way what you expect.  And that’s without even getting into all of the disco dancing that takes place to music I could have whipped up at twelve-years-old on my Casio SK-1.

MVT:  The pure wrongheadedness of De Angelis’ approach and the bizarre view that the Italian filmmakers had of American life.

Make or Break:  The “rock dance” competition.  It’s one for the ages in so many ways.

Score:  6.75/10             

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Alley Cat (1984)

Cinematic villains love to cackle, and few bad guys cackle more or better than those from Hong Kong genre cinema and English-speaking exploitation cinema.  Show me a martial arts film made anywhere from the Sixties up to about the year 2000 that doesn’t have one (usually either followed by or while simultaneously stroking a ludicrously long, stringy beard), and I’ll show you a cigar box full of four-leaf clovers.  American action films typically have a gang of lowbrow guttersnipes who all think things like rape and murder are the funniest things in the world.  I can’t tell you where this tradition started, but I know that it swiftly became a staple/cliché that carries through to today.  The idea is that the villains have a sense of superiority, and their haughty laughter shows this to their enemies and victims.  Likewise, it’s meant to show the audience that these characters are vile.  The things they find uproariously hilarious are things a normal human being finds odious and tragic.  It also removes the films further away from reality, because these guys are so heightened in their reactions to everything, they become cartoonish.  Take Edward Victor’s Alley Cat, for example.  The iniquitous Bill/Scarface (Michael Wayne, an actor who only appeared in this one film but could very easily have been the Anthony James of films that only had $1.22 to spend on casting) brays when he thinks of what he’s going to do to our heroine Billie (Karin Mani), and his underlings follow along, because being a scumbag is fun (conversely, this is also meant to be menacing for the same exact reasons).

Billie chases a couple of thugs away from her car with her Karate skills (and it should be said that either Mani actually knows martial arts or the stunt-doubling is impressive, maybe both), but their boss Scarface decides to teach her a lesson by stabbing Billie’s grandmother.  Billie decides to take this rather personally.

Alley Cat is a standard revenge film in every way, and that includes its philosophy of disproportionate responses.  Billie kicks the stuffing out of Tom (Tim Cutt) and Mickey, who run off crying to Scarface.  To show her who’s boss, these jerks follow Billie’s grandparents and assault them, leading to Grandma Clark being comatose and, eventually, dead.  The average man might have just forgotten about having their ass whipped by a woman, been thankful they didn’t wind up in the pokey, and gone about their felonious business elsewhere.  Not these guys.  Every affront must be met with five times the violence and viciousness.  Billie, however, is just like them.  Yes, she starts off defending her property and family or helping a stranger, but she quickly discovers that the adage about if you can’t beat them, join them, holds true when it comes to thugs.  Inevitably, she does to the bad guys what they tried to do to her, tracking them down and killing them (I assume; there’s only one definitive onscreen death).  Yet, we side with her because we repeatedly see her attacked (honestly, I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t give up jogging at night if they were assaulted even half as much as Billie is) for no real reason.  She goes from defensive to offensive, but morally, she’s correct.  The justice system we rely on also lives up to the rule of disproportionate responses.  After Billie rescues a woman from a rape using a handgun, she is arrested for a variety of crimes which she did violate, but that any decent cop would let slide, all things considered.  The judge who presides over every single case that Billie is involved in chucks her in jail for contempt of court (where she makes a few friends for life).

This leads to the idea of misogyny that pervades the film.  Every man in the film either hates women or is ineffective (read: a pantywaist).  All the men on the street want to have sex with every woman they see (willingly or not).  Billie is chased and set upon multiple times in the park, and the men who do this have nothing but sex and violence on their minds.  Scarface’s girlfriend is treated like the piece of meat she is.  He calls her “Miss Blowjob,” and the two are not above throwing things at each other.  He puts her down and reminds her constantly that she’s nothing but a warm hole.  She puts up with it likely because she’s been beaten down and is now simply inured to the fact that this is the way of things.  Boyle (Jon Greene), a beat cop, is the one who gives Billie a hard time about her need to carry a gun when she goes out at night.  He delights in handcuffing her and charging her with every single thing he can.  Boyle also has a hooker (Britt Helfer, whom you likely remember from Raw Force or the soap opera Loving, but, either way, is physically impressive, just to play my own pig card for a moment) he bangs while on duty (and, we can infer, without paying for her services).  The single male who isn’t a complete swine is Johnny, the cop Billie meets cute with at the hospital and who quickly becomes her boyfriend.  At first, Johnny is the paragon of virtue, standing up for the little guy and attempting to keep Billie out of danger while trying to bring the bad guys to justice by the book.  even he has a level of sexism about him, trying to show Billie how to do Karate without knowing she’s working on her black belt.  What Johnny finds out, however, much like Billie did just slower, is that to get justice one must get one’s hands very dirty.  You can’t clean up a Jell-O wrestler without getting some on you, so to speak.  As in all movies of this stripe, the system is moribund, if not five weeks gone, allowing the misogyny perpetrated on the streets to corrupt the decency it’s supposed to stand for.  The choice left for victims is surrender or vigilantism.

Alley Cat has some good things going for it.  Being an exploitation film, it is loaded with beautiful women who don’t mind doffing their clothes onscreen.  There are action scenes every few minutes.  There is a layer of grime all over it; you can almost feel the grit on the characters and smell their b.o.  What it gets wrong is that it is unfocused.  Did we need the lengthy sequence of Billie in prison?  Did we need the lengthy sequence of Johnny tormenting the Helfer character for information?  Did we need the random jogging assault attempts that have nothing to do with the main story?  No, to all.  Yes, they each satisfy for this type of film, but they are all extraneous.  You could argue that they are necessary as illustrations of systematic misogyny, but they distract from the main narrative.  Maybe that’s the point?  Maybe the filmmakers wanted to do a more holistic approach to a Woman’s Revenge film?  It’s possible.  But, at eighty-two minutes, the tangents drag down the pacing, and they made me think that the filmmakers simply didn’t have enough story to fill out that time frame.  Fair enough, because the distractions do what distractions are supposed to do.  But they also remind the viewer that time is dragging by.

MVT:  Mani can keep a movie together and handle physical action, and, with a better script and some better direction, I believe she could have been a genre luminary.

Make or Break:  The finale drops what scant subtleties the film had and digs into its genre trappings full bore while displaying exactly what Billie has become.

Score:  6/10       

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Three-Head Monster (1988)

There’s something about things with two heads that fascinates us.  When we see genuine Siamese twins, our heads fill with thoughts about how they live their lives.  How do they get around if one side wants to go a different way than the other?  What is that total lack of privacy like, to be forever physically linked with another person?  What do their arguments go like?  Sure, we’re also entranced by the biology of it, the uniqueness (call it freakishness, if you like).  But more than that is the fantasy of a life so alien to our own.  In cinema, things with two heads are almost universally maleficent.  There’s The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant, The Thing with Two Heads, Dioskilos/Orthrus from Clash of the Titans (the good version), The Manster, that purple, beardy Muppet from Sesame Street, and so on (yes, that last one is actually fairly good-natured).  They are typically portrayed as two sides of the same coin, at conflict with one another, each struggling to be the dominant personality and maintain control.  They are, in effect, the dual nature of man.  Now, bring one additional head into the equation, and the dynamic changes.  King Ghidorah is likely the first creature most people think of when they think of three-headed monsters.  All of his noggins work in concert toward a common goal, because Ghidorah, the body, is the one who needs to be sated.  By contrast, in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the three-headed knight is indecisive and bitchy, immobile and ineffectual.  It’s no longer about grappling with the twin sides of a man’s soul but about the ability or inability to act at all.  It’s an answer to the old saw about “too many cooks spoiling the broth.”  So, the Three-Head Demon King in Wang Chu-Chin’s Three-Head Monster (aka San Tou Mo Wang aka Ginseng King) knows exactly what he wants, and his heads act in concert toward that goal.  With this in mind, when somebody says that two heads are better than one, feel free to disagree.  But three heads?  Hoo, boy!

Hsiaoming is off collecting herbs for his ailing mother when he is bitten by a cobra but is saved by the affable (if creepy-looking) 1000 Year Ginseng King.  Turns out, the Ginseng King is also in need of some saving when Princess Hsiaoli (Cynthia Khan) captures him for the titular beastie to devour and become immortal.  Hsiaoming quests it out, both for his new, Man-Thing-ian pal as well as for the sake of his mother.

Three-Head Monster is a fantasy for children, but, like many filmic fantasies for the pre-adolescent/adolescent set produced in the Seventies and Eighties (and especially when hailing from places like Taiwan), there is enough gruesomeness to make the Brothers Grimm quite happy indeed.  For example, a Nazi zombie (possibly a Jiangshi) terrorizes the young boy and his mother, destroying their hut in the process.  He pauses at multiple times to Sieg Heil, and he is stopped in his tracks by the swastika on a young monk’s satchel (never mind that it’s facing the wrong way).  Every supernatural character, with the exception of Hsiaoli and Grampa Earthgod, is hideous, their skin mottled and peeling off.  There are more bloody squibs and explosive body impacts than one might expect in such a movie.  But this is also part of the appeal to kids (and, let’s be clear, to many adults).  It has the simultaneous sense of wonder and imagination that captivates a young person’s mind and the violence which not only ups the ante but also satisfies as something which is partially taboo to stare at and partially exactly how the scenario might play out in a kid’s head (death, not imprisonment or banishment, is the ultimate fate of bad guys).  

Like fairy tales and parables, the film also contains a valuable lesson, and it is that greed is bad, and self-sacrifice is good.  The Demon King is concerned only for himself and the prospect of his own immortality.  He imprisoned his own wife (who looks like a grade school play’s version of the Wicked Witch of the West) because she stood in his way.  The Ginseng King is kindly and helpful to people in need.  He heals Hsiaoming’s snake bite.  He gives the lad a “whisker” to heal his mother (this backfires in a big way when the Nazi zombie drinks the broth with the root in it; the Nazi zombie also being a symbol of greediness in both his worldly and otherworldly natures).  He helps Hsiaoli escape from the Demon King’s minions, unaware that he’s actually falling into a trap.  He will even sacrifice himself to save them all, if that’s what it takes.  Grampa Earthgod starts off greedy, thinking only of his own safety, reluctant to admit what he is or to help Hsiaoming on his journey until he’s shown that this is his purpose.  Hsiaoli also skirts this line, at first seeking the Ginseng King with all her resources.  Later, she sides with Hsiaoming and the forces of good, because her genuine motivation lies in helping her mother, not in the betterment of her father.  Therefore, the more we can do for others while ignoring our own needs, the better we are as people.

Like an after school special, Three-Head Monster is simplistic and obvious, almost to the point of pandering.  It is also repetitive, not in the sense of the overcoming of similar obstacles and circumstances but in the facility with which the protagonists’ problems are dispatched.  “We need to convince Magic Eyes and Magic Ears to help us.”  “Okay, let’s ask them, but they probably won’t do it.”  “Hey, guys, would you help us out?”  “Sure.”  When the characters need to find something or escape from somewhere, the solution is always right at hand and/or achieved with a minimum of fuss.  It takes any tension out of the story.  Yes, we know from the outset that the heroes will prevail, but without any real resistance or effort, it deprives their victories of resonance.  The action scenes are edited with jump cuts and shot with enough shakycam to make modern action filmmakers drool.  I can at least rationalize in my own mind the jump cuts as playing to the supernatural nature of the characters and as some vain attempt to display the speed at which these characters move.  The rest of it is simply messy filmmaking.  The film also ends abruptly, engendering shrugs of disinterest rather than reinforcing the sense of wonder the filmmakers likely set out to capture.  Ultimately, the audience is left with the question, “Why?” and the offhanded reply, “Eh, why not?”

MVT:  The ambition of the filmmakers.  

Make or Break:  The Nazi zombie scene comes out of the blue and threatens to derail the whole affair with its conspicuousness.

Score:  6.25/10