Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Neon City (1991)

Man, you never hear anyone talk about the depletion of the Ozone Layer anymore, do you?  Back in the late Seventies through the mid-Eighties, all you heard about was how humans were accelerating its destruction through our love of chlorofluorocarbons (I remember fast food joints like McDonald’s being particularly lambasted for their use of Styrofoam containers for their delicious burgers; And why have they not brought back the McDLT?  That’s right, because it was useless).  Everyone was petrified that the holes in the Ozone Layer were going to kill us all like the Eye of God opening wide to annihilate us and our evil ways.  But these days, almost no one ever brings it up.  Maybe this is because the erosion has slowed because we changed our ecological policies (though someone please tell me how mandating that all lightbulbs be replaced with ones that contain mercury gas was a good idea [yes, I know that some of them don’t have it, but how many people do you know who actually read the packaging before buying them?]).  Maybe it’s because we’re all caught up with Global Warming as the eco-disaster du jour, and the Ozone Layer just gets swept into this bin.  Or maybe it’s because Monte Markham’s Neon City has already shown us what the Ozone’s obliteration would actually be like, and we’re mostly okay with that.

Harry Stark (Michael Ironside) is an ex-Ranger-turned-bounty-hunter who scours the Outlands picking up and picking off perps.  Capturing super-wanted criminal Reno (Vanity), Stark is forced to escort her up North to the titular metropolis aboard Bulk’s (Lyle Alzado) camper-turned-transport.  Alongside a microcosm of characters, Stark weathers the travails of the post-apocalyptic world, but what’s waiting for them in Neon City may not be what they expected (but it mostly is).

As the film opens, it feels like a typical post-apocalyptic movie.  The land is barren.  Everyone dresses like a Tusken Raider auditioning for Duran Duran’s “Union of the Snake” video.  People have been reduced to their basest needs for survival.  Once Stark and Reno get to Jericho Station, however, Neon City becomes a remake of John Ford’s Stagecoach.  This is no real surprise.  Stagecoach has been remade and stolen from a nigh-infinite amount of times.  I know that Neon City is compared to the Mad Max films, but that’s a tenuous connection in my mind and the default comparison for post-apocalyptic movies.  No, this is Stagecoach.  Granted, the characters don’t fit one-to-one between the two films, but they’re certainly similar enough.  So, Stark and Reno, together, are the Ringo Kid character.  Stark is the antihero, and Reno is the outlaw being taken to face justice in Lordsburg.  Further, Stark has a grudge he needs to settle once he reaches his destination.  Sandy (Valerie Wildman) is the hooker with the heart of gold a la Dallas, though she isn’t ostracized.  She also has a past with Stark that illuminates how she got where she is.  Twink (Juliet Landau) is the Lucy character, and if anyone is treated rather coolly in the group it is her, due to her moneyed status (she has a book [by Agatha Christie], a rarity in this world).  Bulk is, naturally, Buck, and Alzado plays it with almost enough charm to at least get his feet inside of Andy Devine’s shoes.  The other three characters, Dickie (Richard Sanders), Dr. Tom (Nick Klar), and Wing (Sonny Trinidad) have aspects of the remaining Stagecoach characters in them.  Markham gives them all some distinction and adds in original touches of back story and motivation, though they don’t feel nearly as solid as in Ford’s film.  Instead, they feel like characters.  Oddly, it’s enough for this film.

One could ask the question, “why neon?”  Cinema depicting the future is rife with the stuff, because it looks futuristic (never mind that neon signs were basically invented circa 1917).  More than this, however, is that it is bright, colorful.  In the context of this film, it is upbeat.  It symbolizes hope, and hope is something which the vast majority of post-apocalyptic films embrace.  After all, the worst has already supposedly happened, so the struggle for survival against the brutality of this new world has to lead to some kind of positive.  Even when the protagonists of such films can’t (or won’t) partake in this hope (Snake Plissken in Escape from New York or Max in the Mad Max films [who, more often than not, plays the role of Moses, leading a persecuted people to safety but is not allowed to enter the Promised Land himself]), even when they act aloof and self-serving, they will always do the right thing and protect others.  Stark does his damnedest to be disassociated, but the script keeps giving him feelings.  While he takes charge, he trusts in Reno enough to uncuff her.  His past with Sandy is an open wound about which he doesn’t mind playing passive-aggressive.  He strikes up a romantic relationship culminating in a gentle love scene.  The problem is that, for this kind of film and this kind of character, it works better for them not to say anything.  Ironside can certainly act well enough that he shouldn’t need to do and say the things he does, but the filmmakers either didn’t trust in their talent or their audience enough to take that risk.  

This goes across the board for the film.  It wants to give depth to its characters, but it wants to do it in nothing but broad, melodramatic strokes.  It wants to give us action, but it doesn’t know how to block, shoot, and edit it in a dynamic, organic fashion (this, more than anything else, really lets its budget show through).  Its pacing is uneven, with dramatic sequences stretching on far too long and action sequences stacked one on top of another, so they bleed into each other and feel contrived and forced.  It wants to show us that this world is fucked, but it wants to give its heroes a smiley ending.  I think that Neon City is better than its reputation would lead you to believe (assuming it has much of a reputation outside of IMDb user reviews), but I also think that its flaws keep it from being a diamond in the rough.  More like a seed in the fertilizer.

MVT:  The cast is solid, and they do what they can with the material.

Make or Break:  The scene where the transport passes through a Bright (see the movie, if you want to get the reference).  It is one of the few well-balanced beats in the whole movie and proof of what this could have been.

Score:  6/10        

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Silk (1986)

We’re all familiar with the expression “smooth as silk” (even the titular character in Cirio Santiago’s film knows it; “Because I’m so fuckin’ smooth”).  We’re all familiar with how the material is produced, as well (from the butts of caterpillars, amongst other creepy crawlies, just in case you weren’t).  For the life of me, however, I’ve never understood its appeal.  Sure, it looks nice and shiny and supernaturally wrinkle-free.  I get that it’s considered a luxury due to the arduous process of harvesting it (have you ever tried to milk a caterpillar?  Me neither, but I can’t imagine it’s easy).  I get that it’s exotic due to its origins in ancient China (at least to Westerners; Do people in the East just think of it like we do polyester?).  Thing is, I don’t particularly care for the feel of it.  It’s too smooth.  Despite its organic nature, it feels unnatural (again, like polyester, which I would, frankly, prefer).  I wore a pair of silk boxers once.  Once.  The constant, smooth sensation it provides just made me very self-conscious about how things were rearranging themselves down there every time I moved.  I can’t even imagine how much this gliding would irritate my nipples were I wearing a shirt made of the stuff.  I could see its worth in the ascot department, but I think that’s as far as I’m willing to go.  If you dig on silk, more power to you.  Give me cotton any day of the week.  Nice, plush, sweat-absorbing, snug cotton.

After massacring a bunch of thieves, intrepid cop Silk (Cec Verrell) finds herself following the trail of head gangster Austin (Peter Shilton) as he smuggles something somewhere.  Meanwhile, a couple of Nam vets run around killing and mutilating people.

Silk, the character and the film, is practically a carbon copy of George P Cosmatos’ Cobra, the main differences being that the protagonist is a woman, and she doesn’t cut her pizza with a pair of scissors.  Silk also borrows heavily from the Dirty Harry playbook (at one point, she has a villain dead to rights and says, “How do you feel, Slick?  Feel like takin’ the big ride?”; Of course, he does).  She wades into action in a heartbeat, climbing trestles, jumping on trains, leaping from rooftops, and shooting the shit out of bad guys with unerring accuracy.  And Silk is as disassociated with the violence she causes as any male action star ever was.  Maybe moreso.  In the opening sequence, she watches as the thieves’ car explodes into flames.  Santiago shoots Silk’s reaction in slow motion, her ice-blue eyes peering satisfactorily and disinterestedly at the deaths she brought forth.  The loss of life means nothing to her, because criminals, from the pettiest to the vilest, don’t deserve to live.  Her first rule of dealing with the lifestyle of a cop is “Don’t let it get to you.”  On the one hand, this makes sense, because there are surely a great many things about the livelihood that could desensitize a person.  On the flip side, though, it also means that one must be desensitized in order to kill crooks.  They must be dehumanized in the eyes of justice, unworthy to exist.  

Silk, the cop, is, in effect, a macho hero with female genitalia (which we don’t get to see, in case you were wondering).  She wears her hair slicked back.  She pauses before working to don a fingerless glove, but she doesn’t balk at getting her hands dirty.  The filmmakers, simultaneously, enjoy showing off Verrell’s female attributes.  Pulling herself over a ledge, we get a nice view of her hard nipples poking through her tank top (I guess it wasn’t made of silk?).  The camera also delights in focusing on her butt in various tight pants.  You can’t fault the filmmakers or the audience for this stuff.  Both know what they want, and both get it (plus, Verrell is strikingly beautiful).  For all of her testosteronic attributes, there are attempts to feminize Silk.  As the police celebrate a solid bust (you know, the kind where most of the perps are dead), Silk sits to the side, aloof.  Fellow cop Tom (Bill McLaughlin) approaches her to join in on the fun.  Silk tells him to meet her at her place.  This romantic relationship with a fellow officer carries tones of a teacher/student affair, Tom being a bit older and Silk’s superior.  When they go out, Silk wears dresses and does her hair up in curls, the opposite of her masculine appearance at work.  She needs Tom to provide a grounding against the rough life she leads, even if only physically.  Their romance never comes across as being between equals.  Tom leads the dance, and Silk follows, taking away some of her badass cred.  Part of the problem lies in the fact that Verrell is simply not a very good actress.  She can swing the deadpan delivery necessary for wasting bad guys, but she’s incapable of changing it up and actually showing emotion when it’s called for.  She tries to act everything with her piercing eyes, and it just doesn’t work (this is not helped at all by her covering them up with sunglasses in several scenes; Instead of playing enigmatically cool she’s simply inscrutably wooden).

The film’s plot is incredibly convoluted.  I’m sure it made sense on paper to Santiago and company at some point, but it’s confusing on screen.  For this film, however, it’s also unnecessary, and Santiago understood this.  All we need to know are these are the good guys, those are the bad guys, and there are a lot of punches, gun shots, and explosions between the two.  The stuntwork is well-handled, and it appears that they actually allowed Verrell to do quite a bit of it, which helps sell the copious action.  I suppose on the one hand it’s unfair to criticize Silk for being so devoted to its action aspects, as it delivers on them so well.  That being said, without a strong story to hold the set pieces together, it becomes little more than a highlight reel.  Granted, a slick (dare I say, smooth as silk?) highlight reel, but one, nonetheless.  For the undiscerning action junkie, this movie will work a treat.  For everyone else, it’s more like a snack you’re unsure if you regret or not after the fact.

MVT:  Santiago’s direction is tight and slick.  It’s his writing that needs to catch up with this skill set here.          

Make or Break:  The opening action scene sets the table for the film, both good and bad.

Score:  6/10

Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Outfit (1973)

The 70s was hands down the greatest decade for crime cinema. Hard boiled cops in the west and rampant Yakuza in the east. I opened the pandora's box many years ago and I am still constantly finding gems as I dig deeper and deeper.

The Outfit feels like a test run for John Flynn's masterpiece of revenge cinema, Rolling Thunder. But in it’s own right The Outfit is one hell of a film. Following his release from prison, Earl Macklin (Robert Duvall) finds a standing contract still on his head from a previous bank robbery. The bank of course is owned by the mafia. The mafia doing what the mafia does best takes out Macklins brother as revenge and down payment on his head.

Duval plays Earl Macklin to an almost calculated stoic perfection. Never once showing any form of emotion, just revenge plain and simple. Hooking up with an old partner in crime Cody (Don Baker) and his current ‘girl’ (Karen Black) the trio sets in motion a smoothy ran unit picking off mafia drops and casinos taking a hefty bounty as they go. This is all to get the attention of the Mafia Kingpin, Mailer, fantastically played by Robert Ryan. A man who treats his woman like his business. With a cold and heavy hand.

Like a lot of 70s crime films the female protagonist takes a literal backseat to the budding relationship between Macklin and Cody. There are no jokes or long speeches about days gone by, just an airtight mutual respect. Without even having to mention it you know either would take a bullet for the other.

Picking off the mafia spots is done with ruthless professionalism. No unnecessary body count, just the money. The heists are perfectly executed too. No gimmicks, just men with a plan. Tracks are covered too. Even the slight look at the getaway vehicle causes Macklin to search for a new car in a scene that brings fantastic character actors into a small but well placed scene. The culmination of the heists is carried out at Mailers mansion. A heavily guarded almost Fort Knox of a building with Mailer inside almost expecting the duo to arrive at any minute.

John Flynn doesn’t once dwell on the violence in the film. At times it’s needed, but instead of heavy body counts Macklin and Cody use their heads to escape situations. Sometimes a simple outfit change helps them escape a torrent of mafia bullets.

The Outfit is a true classic of 70s crime cinema. Flynn gets the best out of both leads by letting them play off one another. The film is tough, but also exciting when it needs to be. A wonderfully paced classic of the genre.

MVT: The duo of Baker and Duvall. Two grizzled veterans of the 70s giving their all

Make or break: The heist where brains instead of bullets get them to safety.

Score: 8.5/10