Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Bangers n' Mash 5: Friday the 13th Slash-a-Thon

Here's the latest episode of the Bangers n' Mash Show. If you couldn't figure it out from the title above, JD and I are talking about the Friday the 13th film franchise. It should be somewhat obvious that this was originally meant to come out over a month ago on the thirteenth of April. That didn't happen, for a number of reasons. 

Man, those plans of mine for having more then one episode a month really has fallen through, didn't it? (Hey, it's still May! I got it in! It counts!) I really need to get a new microphone as the one I bought only five months ago is all ready started to falter. So that's why the audio is so damn choppy in spots. (It's possible I might have over-edit. I regret nothing.)

I don't really have too much to say about this one. There are some good moments in the show, there are a lot of the same problems I've had with the show from the beginning. Hopefully the next episode will come out quicker but I guess I shouldn't make promises at this point.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Director Report Card: Paul Bartel (1993)

9. Shelf Life

“Shelf Life” is rare. It barely got a theatrical release, playing in a few art houses in New York City. I’m not sure it ever got a legit home video release at all. My VHS, bought off of eBay and with a “Rocket Video – Hollywood, CA” label on it, is in a nondescript black box with only the film’s title on the tape. And you can forget about DVD. Considering the format, the picture and sound quality are surprisingly good. A handful of on-line retailers claiming to carry a DVD of the film are actually selling the unrelated 2006 film of the same name. The point I’m making is: “Shelf Life” is an obscure film in a career full of them.

The story has got a great hook. Opening in 1963 on the day of JFK’s assassination, a family, composed of Mom, Dad, and three kids, Tina, Pam, and Scotty, go down into a bomb shelter. Thirty years later, they’re still down there. Mom and Dad died at some point, their skeletons neatly displayed in a bed in the back of the room. Tina, Pam, and Scotty, though now adults, still act like children. Their entire lives have been informed by obscure memories from childhood, a bunch of old records, and television. The TV doesn’t really work and mostly plays static, with an occasional flash of some recent television appearing. The three kids spend their day acting out weird play sessions, like “Egyptian Fantasy,” or pretending to go to school or be their own dad or go out to eat. Really, what would you do all day if you’d been stuck in a twelve-by-twelve room for almost your entire life?

The film stars performance artists and Hollywood bit-players O-Lan Jones, Andrea Stein, and Jim Turner, based on a stage play they had written. The story’s origin is fairly obvious. After all, particularly the entire film takes place in the same small room. However, Paul Bartel works around this nicely and throws in enough cinematic flair to prevent the film from coming off as stagy.

Obviously, there’s not a lot of story here. Truthfully, there’s not really any story at all. There’s some dramatic tension around the siblings. Early on, the two sisters feel the brother is demanding too much attention. There’s some weird sexual tension floating around. While wrestling around on the floor, the three come close to dry-humping each other. While acting out a day at school, Tina plays-pretend at being a seductive teenage tease, while Scott fills the role of her bad-boy boyfriend. Later on, we find out Pam was entrusted by Mom and Dad with the key to the food vault. This winds up being central to the film’s climax, as it is.

Mostly, however, the film’s run time is taken up by the trio doing their thing. Before each meal, the group does an odd prayer that combines the Pledge of Allegiance, the Lord’s Prayer, and military chants. The Egyptian Fantasy involves confusing Moses, Samson, Rip Van Winkle, and Superman. At one point, Scotty pretends to be a superhero called Super Car that involves saving some kids from a villain named Thack. There’s an extended sequence where Scotty pretends to be Dad, criticizing the world around him, and another where he pretends to be a mailman, which involves shoving pieces of paper up his butt. Some of the sibling confrontations are later reenacted and reinterpreted as lessons to be acted out in the future. The high-light of the film includes a big dance number at the end, which Pam calls her history of music. For a fact, there’s a lot of singing and dancing in the movie. IMDb even lists it as a musical, not incorrectly.

“Shelf Life” perhaps would have been better suited as a short film. Since there’s so little to it, even the brief 87-minute run time feels a little long. Ultimately, it’s not about dramatic pacing or story-telling so much as it is about meeting these fascinating, strange characters and the bizarre, eccentric world that they inhabit. As a film for Paul Bartel’s directorial career to go out on, it’s oddly representative of his career as a whole. It’s funny, strange, surreal, satirical, and a fiercely independent film from a fiercely independent filmmaker. Watch it if you can find it. [Grade: B+]

Don't say I'm not committed to my work here. Even though I suspect very film people are interested in Bartel's films, especially his forgettable mid-eighties output, I went through with all of it, watching each movie, writing reviews for them all, and posted them here, where very few people will ever find them. There are a few gems in here. Bartel's work certainly doesn't deserve to be relegated to obscurity like it frequently is. I'd recommend going on the journey yourself, for the most part. Everything is a learning experience.

The biggest thing I've learned from this report card? Writing about comedy is hard. I could dissect horror or drama all day. But comedy? If these reviews frequently degraded into me repeating my favorite skits from each film, sorry about that. It's hard to find something more to say about a funny film other then if you laughed or not. I'll work on that in the future. Probably. (Not.)

Anyway, as always, thanks for reading. More stuff, more reviews, more report cards, coming soon.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Director Report Card: Paul Bartel (1989)

8. Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills

After a few years of work-for-hire jobs, Paul Bartel returned to directing his own screenplays. “Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills” is a ribald satire about, you guessed it, class struggle in Beverly Hills. The glamor of Hollywood contrasts strongly with the nitty-gritty boning and double crossing at the center of the film’s story.

The plot description on the back of the VHS box (you heard me) says the movie is about the houseboy of a recently widowed sitcom actress and the chauffeur for a recently divorced socialite making a deal that they can bed the others' boss. Technically, the movie is about that. Really, that thin plot outline is just the entrance into the movie’s world. This is a film about the convoluted romantic lives of its large cast of characters.

Jacqueline Bisset plays Claire, the widow, a washed-up sit-com star, looking for a comeback. She is literally haunted by the ghost of her husband, whom she had a strained relationship with. Her daughter is distant. Mary Woronov plays Lisbeth, the divorcee, and Claire’s best friend. Lisbeth’s son is dying of some sort of cancer. The son has a crush on the daughter but she doesn’t have any time for him, though she does have time for other men. Lisbeth’s brother Peter, played by Edgar Beagly Jr, is a playwright. He just married sassy black woman To-Bel during a weekend in Las Vegas after only knowing her a few days. Despite this, he’s trying to seduce Claire. Lisbeth’s drunkard husband, played by a hilarious Wallace Shawn, keeps wandering back into the home and attempts to wander back into his ex-wife’s bed. To-Bel is also the woman that the ex-husband was sleeping with and left his wife for. She’s all too aware of the situation and is trying to take advantage of it. There’s a doctor too, who is attempting to start a Hungry Drive in Africa, played by Bartel himself. Oh, and a Mexican maid named Rosa who has the bad tendency of dropping odd animal-related non-sequitur.

So, really, the attempts by unlucky Juan (Robert Beltran) and bisexual Frank (Ray Sharkey) to get into the two female lead’s pants just further complicated things. You could make a pretty crowded graph charting which characters are sleeping together.

Despite all this stuff going on, the movie never looses track of what it’s doing. The film starts with a scene of the spoiled rich scolding and then murdering in cold blood one of their ethnic housekeepers. That’s a pretty blunt visualization of the movie’s theme but it certainly starts the movie with a bang. The scenes of Juan and Frank developing their bet and discussing their sexual history are inter-cut with scenes of Claire and Lisbeth discussing their own history and how their employees are attractive in an animal way. This illustrates each social class’ misunderstandings about the other.

Ed Beagley Jr.’s character is a pretentious windbag. His plays mostly seem to be characters bitching about their personal problems in long-winded speech. He likes to pick fights with people about his writing. When To-Bel finds out just how little money playwrights actually make, she seems crestfallen. Bartel’s doctor seems to be doing charitable work for strictly selfish reasons. No body seems particularly sad about Claire’s husband’s passing and his wake is more of a party then a gathering to morn a friend's death. The movie goes out of its way to portray the idle rich as bastards. Not that the working class folks come off much better…

This is a Bartel project through-and-through. The opening sequence and the reoccurring ghost appearances are just two examples of the wacky surrealism running in the movie’s blood. There are a number of very funny sequences here. The doctor’s dog, no doubt intentionally named Bo’Jangles, gets a little too friendly with To-Bel. After the dog is surprisingly killed, the animal’s wake is held at the same time as the late husband. A passage from Peter’s latest play about castration is spoken by three different characters in attempts to seduce the same woman, getting increasingly mangled with each alliteration. To-Bel’s previous career as a porn actress almost gets revealed to the entire cast in a predictably, but quite amusing, contrivance. All of the group’s tension ends up boiling over at the breakfast table while Claire attempts to give an interview with a magazine reporter. In “Eating Raoul,” Beltran easily seduced Woronov. In this film, his attempts to do the same are constantly frustrated. The film almost comes off as a parody of soap operas and is definitely the director’s funniest in quite some time.

Despite all the caustic humor floating about, the film wraps up in a surprisingly sweet manner. Claire decides to become her own person and not let other people manipulate her. Juan and Lisbeth unexpectedly fall in love with each other. Everyone gets their horizons broaden in one way or another. Despite every character being something of a scumbag, the filmmaker obviously likes all of them. It's just as much about humanizing rich assholes as it is about skewering them.

I’m surprised “Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills” has never wound up on a list of “cursed” movies. 21-year old Rebecca Schaeffer, who plays daughter Zandra, was murdered by her stalker six weeks after the film’s release. Ray Sharkey died of AIDS only four years afterward at the young age of 40. Of course, Paul Bartel himself was gone too soon not long after that. Maybe that’s why the film hasn’t received a stateside DVD release. Whatever the reason, this one is begging to be rediscovered. It’s a funny, smart, and sexy satire, one of the director’s defining works. [Grade: B+]

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Director Report Card: Paul Bartel (1986)

This poster is hilariously bad.
7. The Longshot

Tim Conway is a performer who, I think it’s fair to say, had his highest period of popularity many, many years before I was born. Considering this is a film featuring other comedic actors who are probably best known now for bit parts on TV Land reruns, like Harvey Korman or Johnathan Winters, you can excuse me for thinking that “The Longshot” might be a movie for, you know, old people. It’s a movie about horse racing and gambling which, you might notice, are not subjects usually enjoyed by younger generations. The film opens with Tim Conway rapping with a pre-“Cop Killer” Ice-T, which just seem to further reinforcement my prediction of painfully unhip comedy.

All of this might technically be true but it doesn’t prevent “The Longshot” from being a funny movie, at least most of the time. The film revolves around a group of four losers who have lost a lot of money over the years on the ponies. The group gets a hint that one of the horse tamers has a secret that is going to make one of the second-stringer horses a sure shot at winning. After borrowing five-thousand dollars from a local mob boss, the guys go on a number of wacky misadventures to make sure everything goes according to plan. Naturally, of course, things go off the rails. Because we wouldn’t have a movie otherwise.

The movie was written by Tim Conway so the script plays to his strength as a performer. There’s a lot of amusing dialogue exchanges among the group and they frequently employ Conway’s trademark quick-paced, slightly mumbling delivery. Moments when he’s allowed to stammer nervously are preferable to the more slap-stick-y moments, such as a scene where he struggles with an increasingly more broken toilet or battles or battles a malfunctioning car gate. However, one slap-stick filled sequence is actually the funniest funny moment in the film. While attempting to seduce an older woman in order to get her involved in the scheme, Conway finds himself making increasingly more wacky mistakes, such as burning his tongue on fondue, or setting a fire with a cigarette, or sitting on a dog. It comes to a suitably wacky conclusion as well. All of this follows a run-in with Eddie Drezen as a carhop which features a cardboard car window.

The rest of the quartet are played by a grumpy Harvey Korman, increasingly stumbly Elton played by Jack Weston, and the dumb Stump, played Ted Wass. Stump proves to be one of the more entertaining characters in the film. He’s obsessed with his pet goldfish, Ollie. In another stand-out scene in the film, Stump’s falling-apart car slams into his rickety old trailer. He has to break into his own home in order to rescue his goldfish by refilling his fishbowl and throwing him back in. It’s inane and goofy but actually comes off as kind of sweet, especially he leaves a photograph of himself next to the fishbowl so Ollie won’t get lonely.

Other stand-out moments include the group arguing over whither it’s appropriate for a grown man to refer to his penis as a “winky” or keeping a coffee table clean by covering it with newspaper. The gang meets the mob boss at a restaurant. They repeatedly steal his calamari, Conway goes into a sneezing fit, Korman constantly has to backtrack over his partner’s mistakes, and Stump crawls under the table to keep it form wobbling. Another funny moment involves Johnathan Winter’s extended cameo as an eccentric truck driver.

The movie isn’t a laugh-a-minute gag-fest and its humor comes more from dialogue and the back-and-forth of its ensemble.  So there are some long stretches without laughs. If anything, the horse-racing stuff comes off as a bit of a distraction from all the wackiness around it. The musical score for the film is aggravatingly wacky and overdone. The rest of the soundtrack, from the embarrassing rap intro to a pop song from Irene “Flashdance” Cera that doesn’t really fit the material, isn’t any better.

“The Longshot” is really a showcase for Conway and his friends. There’s not a whole lot of Paul Bartel here and I suspect it was a work-for-hire job for him. Despite that, it’s actually one of the director’s better films from his mid-eighties output. It’s a fairly light-weight, disposable, kind of forgettable comedy that still is good for a handful of healthy laughs. [Grade: B-]

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Director Report Card: Paul Bartel (1985)

6. Lust in the Dust

“Lust in the Dust” was not really Paul Bartel’s project. It was originally conceived by star Tab Hunter. After working on John Water’s “Polyester,” he managed to pull drag-queen extraordinaire Divine into the project. Hunter had gone so far to try and get fellow Waters cast-member Edith Massey in the movie and even asked Waters to direct. Those last two attempts didn’t come to fruition but the fact remains: Bartel was brought to the film late in its development. Understandably, not that many of his touches are all too visible.

The movie is a bawdy parody of westerns. The film liberally references “Duel in the Sun,” to the point that IMDb lists it as a remake. The finale directly pokes fun at the famous conclusion to “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” while also borrowing the gritty, dusty, dirty look of spaghetti westerns.

The story revolves around the New Mexico dive town of Chile Verde and a trio of characters wandering around it: A strong-silent-type gunfighter drifter (Tab Hunter), a big fat dance hall girl (Divine), and the owner of the local bar/brothel. The trio is brought together out of a mutual quest for the town’s legendary hidden treasure. A bunch of other characters are thrown into the mix, including the town’s very knowledgeable preacher (Caesar Romero), a Mexican bandito, an elderly prostitute, and a rival group of wandering gunfighters. Wackiness ensues, such as an important plot points revolving around maps of Ireland tattooed on people’s asses.

The biggest issue with “Lust in the Dust” is the same issue to be had with most of Paul Bartel’s post-“Eating Raoul” output: There are many long, quiet spaces between laughs. Divine’s typical schtick is pushed too far. His character acts as if she’s a beautiful woman that inspires violent lust in men. (Even if she doesn’t.) The character is raped and seduced several times throughout the story. The movie seems to delight in showing us the fat cross-dresser's ass and fake tits. (Unless those are Divine’s real big floppy man-titties. Which is even worst.) There’s a lot of perversion rolling around the story, especially towards the end when Laraine is trying to manipulate the men around her with her sexuality. Considering the setting, director, and title, it’s no surprise that the movie has a preoccupation with gross sex. But there comes a time when it stops being funny and starts being just, well… Gross.

In the last act, once the treasure is located, the movie quickly devolves into a series of confusing double-crosses. It’s a potentially clever idea and a suitable send-up of traditional western treachery. However, it drags on for way too long. The movie has a generally turgid, listless pace, and you definitely tire of it before it’s over.

The cast seems similarly enervated. Hunter’s take on the stoic gunfighter part revolves mostly around squinting. Divine’s camp overload wares out long before the conclusion of the movie. And Marguerita’s motivation seems to shift around constantly. Caesar Romero and Henry Silva have a little bit of fun, but their parts come off as mostly afterthoughts.

“Lust in the Dust’ isn’t a total slog. For a fact, it almost starts out promisingly. A short opening narration, provided by Bartel himself, about the hot heat in the desert is amusing. The movie is almost a musical, and features three song-and-dance numbers, including the opening credits. These scenes are fairly energetic and the music’s pretty catchy. If nothing else, the movie totally nails the dusty, dirty look of your traditional western.

“Lust in the Dust” apparently has a fan-base among camp-enjoying gay men. I found it pretty tiresome. There might have been enough meat on these bones for a half-hour short, but a feature, even a fairly brief 88-minute one? Nah. [Grade: C]

Friday, May 18, 2012

Director Report Card: Paul Bartel (1984)

5. Not for Publication

The very first scene of “Not for Publication” features a group of machine gun wielding showgirls, decked out in leopard-print one-pieces. Our protagonist, Lois Thorndyke (Nancy Allen), caught in the cross-hairs, is a reporter for a sleazy tabloid rag. She continues to pursue her stories, grabbing juicy by-lines from the shooter’s intended target, her photographer continuing to snap photos, even admit the hail of bullets. This first scene seems to establish “Not for Publication” as a mad-cap, burlesque satire of the journalism world. It would appear to be the kind of comedic style Paul Bartel excelled at.

However, there’s a turn very quickly. Turns out, Lois Thorndyke leads a double life. She’s only a writer for scuzzy tabloids by night. By day, she’s holds the more socially acceptable position of political aid to New York’s mayor. She’s hoping her political career is successful enough to buy out the magazine and reinvent it as a serious news paper. The Mayor is pretty obviously interested in putting some romantic moves on her too. After recruiting a new, bird-obsessed photographer, played by David Naughton, Thorndyke soon finds her two lives bleeding over into each other. Many of these scenes have a softer, character-oriented feel to them. Their comedic nature is only detectible in the rom-com back-and-forth between Allen and Naughton.

The late-night adventures of our characters find them interacting with some bizarre characters. There’s a pimp with a greased-up pompadour, who speaks in an almost undecipherable accent and wears a mask. The editor for the tabloid is a grotesque figure, cramming food down his greasy mouth while yelling about sex scandals and frog-babies. There’s a trio of mayor aids obsessed with toy trains. A dwarf drives a car, a mobile dark room disguised as a milk cart on the back. The duo’s investigation brings them to an animal-themed sex club, which is by far the film’s strangest and most explicit sequence.

These wacky, ribald scenes certainly speak to Bartel’s interest in perversity. There’s an extended shot of the camera scanning the orgy pit. Greasy bodies intertwine, their faces covered with animal masks. Soon, a group of robbers, also dressed up in animal costumes, stick up (So to speak) the club’s visitors. The entire sequence set in this club really points to the film’s competing spirits. Allen and Naughton dress up as a pink sheep and blue bird, respectively, before doing a cute little song and dance number together. This is definitely the movie at its most charming and cute. They are immediately side-lined by the explicitness of the aforementioned scene.

The subplot about the robbers reveals that the movie is actually about a political conspiracy. The mayor is revealed as a less then benevolent figure, with ties to the smut he claims to be battling. The movie quickly descends into convoluted double-crosses and character turns. There’s a hidden bug in a necklace, pirate radio stations, a pilotless helicopter, and a daring escape by parachute. During all of this, our two main characters are suddenly forced together into a really awkward romantic relationship that doesn’t go much of anywhere. The story wraps up in a grossly unsatisfying way.

“Not for Publication” is an utter failure as a comedy. There’s not a single laugh anywhere in the film. The funniest moment involves the tabloid’s editor describing in detail the saga of the Frog-Babies, a new story that apparently sold a lot of magazines. It’s a story that involves deformities, incest, murder, and a large cash inheritance. During these moments, the movie comes its closet to parodying tabloid excess and getting a laugh. The movie occasionally comes close. Naughton’s interaction with his increasingly quirky mother is amusing. As the story goes on, these grin-creating bits become fewer and fewer.

It’s a failure as a comedy but not a complete failure as a movie. This is a rare starring role for Nancy Allen and, when the film works at all, she really carries it on her shoulder. A sequence early on, of her morning ritual in her apartment, which features a snooze-alarm pressing cat, really shows up what a relatable screen presence she has. Lois Thorndyke is a real can-do character and Allen’s winning smile and charming personality makes her a protagonist in search of a better movie. Really, the script’s attempt to push her into a romantic relationship with both of the male leads is awkward and unnecessary. David Naughton does an okay job in his part and has a decent back-and-forth with Allen, even if he mostly seems like a lost puppy throughout the majority of the run time.

So, “Not for Publication” is a bit of an aimless mess. I’m not sure if it got jerked around and recut in post-production or if it was just a muddled screenplay to begin with. A lot of Paul Bartel’s interests and fetishes as a director are straining to come through but none reach a real comic pitch. It’s by no means a terrible movie but, I suspect, without a capable lead it would have been totally unwatchable. It’s definitely not required viewing. [Grade: C]

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Director Report Card: Paul Bartel (1982)

4. Eating Raoul 

In an odd way, “Eating Raoul” was Paul Bartel’s break-out movie. It wasn’t his first success, critically or financially, but it seems to be the first time people starting paying attention to him as a director. It was certainly his breakout film as a comedy director. He wasn’t making anymore race car movies after this. It shows off his wit as a screenwriter and his ability to make a competent film under the restraints of a tiny budget.

One of Paul Bartel’s strengths as a filmmaker was how he could make movies with sick, perverse subject matters while not making them feel sleazy or gross. His interests in so-called sexual deviants seemed to be, not exploitative, but rather humanistic. Let’s point and have a ribald laugh at human foibles, at the silliness we go through to get off. That chuckling exploration of the seedier parts of the human mind provides the movie with not only its primary theme but its comedic spirit.

The movie begins with a short info-log detailing the depravity that exists in (then) modern Hollywood. Even the morals of stand-up people degrade over time in such an environment and the line between food and sex has blurred. This stands in sharp contract to the lives of our main characters, Paul and Mary Bland, played by the director himself and his favorite actress Mary Woronov. (No points for guessing who plays who.) The Blands live an almost fifties-sitcom style existence and joyously declare themselves squares. They even sleep in separate beds. How at odds they are with this world is illustrated immediately, with nurse Mary being sexually propositioned by a patient and wine-snob Paul being robbed at gunpoint. The married couples’ dream of opening a country kitchen restaurant is in peril from rising apartment rent and sudden unemployment. And their peace-of-mind is threatened by the riotous swingers party next door. It isn’t long before the two strike upon an idea that solves both of their problems, especially once they realize those swingers type have a lot of free, petty cash on them…

Despite devising a scam that resolves around frying-pan-murder and catering to strangers’ increasingly cartoonish sexual fantasies, the Blands maintain their sense of smug moral superiority. After all, they’re ridding the world of the kind of people no one will miss and it’s all for a good reason. A wrench is thrown into their solid plan by the appearance of Raoul, a locksmith and small-time thief. He quickly figures out their con and agrees to help them, for a price of course. Paul is immediately suspicious of Raoul but Mary is intrigued by him. With the help of some heroism and marijuana, Raoul seduces Mary and unleashes her latent sexual desires, starting a torrid affair between the two. This, naturally, complicates things. Because there’s no such thing as a simple plan in the movies.

All of this adds up to what is the director’s most consistently hilarious film. The laughs come steadily from the opening minutes up until the end. There’s a lot of sharp one-liners here and funny scenarios. Paul is an asexual wine nerd and that stiffness gets him in trouble over and over again. The scene where he wanders into a sex toy shop and has to put up with an especially pushy and loud-mouthed salesman, played by John “Jambi the Genie” Paragon, is a highlight.

Notable one-liners include reluctance over cooking in the same frying pan they use to kill people and Mary inquiring about the price for wall handcuff installation. Once we find out what goes in, the overly cheery Doggie King dog food commercial is made even funny. One of the film’s best reoccurring gags resolves around Doris the Dominatrix, played by the very funny Susan Saiger, who’s part-time job doesn’t seem to interrupt her regular life as a busy house-mom very much.

Of course, most of the laughs come from just how absurd many of the desired sexual fantasies turn out to be. You’ve got Nazis and pirates and full body Minnie Mouse costumes and a midget dressed up as a cowboy riding a Great Dane. I think one of those things has got to make somebody laugh. This all climaxes with a scene at a swinger’s party featuring an actor I thought was just making fun of the Real Don Steele, but turned out to be the actual Don Steele. What I’m saying is the movie’s pretty funny.

Obviously, there are limitations. The tiny budget is apparent more then a few times, especially when you notice that most of the movie takes place on one set. A scene featuring Ed Beagly Jr. as a Vietnam vet with a hippie fetish quickly turns ugly and really stands out as the movie’s sole unpleasant moment. In the middle section of the film, the focus of the story shifts to the love affair between Mary and Raoul. This ends up derailing the central plot a little, especially the extended bit when Paul sends Doris the Dominatrix in various guises in an attempt to unnerve the guy.

Bartel and Woronov both give good performance, both very funny, but a few times their tone falters a bit. I wonder if either actor had any problem getting inside of the brain of such totally square people. Finally, the ending of the movie winds up being a bit anticlimactic since it, firstly, takes place completely off-screen and, secondly, it’s right there in the title.

A beloved cult classic, “Eating Raoul” is the filmmaker’s signature work. Considering he wrote, produced, and starred in it, it’s tempting to say it's the most Bartel-like of anything he did. It’s an extremely funny black comedy and I highly recommend it to anyone with an even slightly twisted sense of humor. [Grade: B+]

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Director Report Card: Paul Bartel (1976)

3. Cannonball!

“Cannonball” is a movie Paul Bartel apparently made with some reluctance. After the success of “Death Race 2000,” all he was getting offered were action films, or even more narrowly, car films. Bartel was pretty obviously a comedy director so this was frustrating for him. But, no need to turn down steady work, right? His lack of satisfaction with the material is all too evident some times. The director did give it a decent shot though. “Cannonball” is far from a failure, if a bit uneven.

The premise is easy to understand and captivating enough that it actually spawned a number of imitators, including the big budget “Cannonball Run” series. (“Gumball Rally,” too.) Every year, there’s an illegal, underground, cross country race held, from California to New York. Any one with a vehicle on four wheels can entered and the winner has the chance to win 10,000 dollars. Coy “Cannonball” Buckman, a former cop recently released from prison, is primed to win, much to the consternation of his parole officer/girlfriend, and much to the glee of his high-risk gambler brother. Of course, Cannonball is just one of a group of racers, which include his best friend and mechanic, a psychotic rival, a teenage couple, a manic German, a van full of sexy twenty-something girls, and a black kid constantly on the tail of the girls. There’s other subplots too, among them a cheating fat guy, a singing cowboy, Cannonball’s brother’s underhanded attempts to swing the race in his favor, and his run-ins with an especially eccentric booky.

Due to the large cast, none of the characters are really developed beyond quirks and gimmicks. So it’s really up to the cast to imbue the thin sketches with enough personality to make them worth watching, or at least take the one-note joke and run with it. The movie is a cousin to “Death Race 2000” not just because of the same director and a premise involving cars and a cross-country race. It shares cast too.

David Carradine stars as the title character. Important question: Could David Carradine act? He brings the same emotional coldness to Cannonball that he brought to Frankenstein. While it made sense for that character, here Carradine just seems kind of sleepy and uninterested. More interested is Dick Miller as the unlucky brother, Richie. Miller is just doing a variation on his scumbag routine he played so many times for Roger Corman, but he’s as lively as ever. Carradine brother Robert shows up as the male half of the teenage couple. While that storyline is one of the film’s thinner moments, Robert does have some fun, especially in the scene that involves tricking a cop and jumping around a parking lot.

Mary Woronov is underused as the ringleader of the group of underdressed girls. That group’s interaction with the mischievous black teen and a pair of horny patrol cops provide some of the film’s funnier moments. Doing his own singing, in a subplot that is amusing but mostly unrealized, Gerrit Graham has a lot of fun hamming it up as a country singer who is along for the ride for some reason. James Keach takes the part of the wacky German and takes it to Udo Kier levels of silliness, resulting in some pretty funny exchanges. (He wisely exits the soon fairly early, as not to overexpose the character.)

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Bill McKinney plays the villainous Cade Redman as a steely gazed professional with a violent, obsessive desire to crush Cannonball. Rounded out the cast is Bartel himself, as Miller’s bookie, a man who fashions himself a Cole-Porter-style singer-songwriter. The movie is loaded with cameos from New World Pictures crew like Joe Dante, Allan Arkush, Martin Scorsese, Sly Stallone, and Roger Corman, no-doubt intentionally playing a hardass police chief.

The script is co-credited to Bartel and Don Simpson. The film seems to be of two minds. The main storyline is a pretty typical seventies car flick, with all the crashes, explosions, and gap-jumping you expect of the genre and time period. None of this is surprising, since Simpson later found much more success as the producer of such big-budget action films as “Beverly Hills Cop,” “Days of Thunder,” and “Bad Boys.”

However, Bartel’s influence is still present. All the funny and wacky stuff, like the singing cowboy or naughty girls, were pretty obviously his work. I suspect a lot of the amusing one-liners probably came from his typewriter as well. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Bartel was handed a completely ordinary car chase script and ended up adding a bunch of stuff that appealed to him. The funky score similarly goes back and forth between light-hearted and more driving.

The two tones end up conflicting with each other, especially come the last act. Towards the end of the movie, a character is shot and killed, someone is crushed when the car they are hiding under is knocked off the jacks, a car explodes in an enormous fireball, and a huge pile-up results. While the last item on that list could be going for “Blues Brothers” style over-the-top humor, the flames and explosions leave a bitter taste in my mouth. Some of it is cool, of course, like a flaming tire shooting high into the sky, but over all the graphic violence definitely sticks out and clashes with the film’s overall breezy, goofy tone. Maybe Paul was still bitter about the gore-filled inserts added to “Death Race” and decided to give Corman what he wanted this time.

This is an action movie of course. There is a lot of stunt driving, as expected. However, while “Death Race” was shot in a frequently dynamic and exciting way, the action-direction is a lot more typical here. The roll-overs and crashes are exciting enough on their own but the regular driving doesn’t amount to much. If anything, the number of hand-to-hand fight scenes gratuitously injected into the script, probably to appeal to Carridine’s “Kung Fu” fandom, are much more exciting and interesting to look at. A scene in which Carradine and McKinney demolish a small gas station during their fight is probably my favorite in the movie. An earlier scene, where Cannonball tussles with a hitman disguised as a patrolman, is fun but really shows the limitations Carradine had as a martial artist.

The film’s ending is a tad abrupt. Most of the dangling plot threads are resolved quickly in natural, if slightly rushed pattern. However, considering all the sudden killing that goes on in the last fifteen minutes, the last-minute hospital visit really doesn’t resolve the film’s emotional issues, as they are.

Over all, “Cannonball!” is probably best taken as the light-weight, disposable drive-in fair it was no doubt intended to be. You can tell Bartel’s heart wasn’t completely in this one and his attempts to make the movie more to his liking just ended up making it more uneven. Fans of polished chrome and burning rubber will probably love it though. [Grade: B-]

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Director Report Card: Paul Bartel (1975)

2. Death Race 2000

A lot of famous future directors came out of the Roger Corman / New World Pictures factory: Peter Bogdanovich, Joe Dante, Jonathan Demme, Coppola, James Cameron, Ron Howard, etc. Out of all those directors, Paul Bartel is probably one of the less well-known. Which is a shame because, not only was he a fine director, but his output for New World was some of his best. “Death Race 2000” stands above as the definitive Paul Bartel movie.

The premise is pure drive-in punch-line brilliance. In the far-off future date of 2000, America has become a crazy dystopian society, ruled over by a quasi-cult leader like, The President, who perches love while blaming all of the world’s problems on outside countries. What is the opiate of the people, that keeps the masses in line with such dictatorial rule?: Death Race! A cross-country race in which no one is safe, not the drivers, and especially not the pedestrians.

Sounds like pretty dark and grim stuff, right? Here’s the thing, “Death Race 2000” plays it all for laughs. It’s the comic book parody version of not only the death sport concept, but of many aspects of American society in general. The movie is a rich satire of America’s love of violence. Points are awarded for each pedestrian run down, with the elderly and infants being worth the most, and women of any age being worth double! Keep in mind, “Death Race 2000” predates ultra-violent video games and reality television. The movie is knowingly absurd.

Each one of the drivers have a personal gimmicks, like professional wrestlers, with themes ranging from cowboy to Nazi. People gleefully volunteer for their favorite drivers, throwing themselves to the cars or even playing matador with one of the vehicles. Brainless media personalities like the appropriately named Grace Pander or The Real Don Steele, essentially as himself, report slavishly on the race, talking about the murder and mayhem in strictly sports-talk style. An underground resistance group, who themselves talk in jingoistic Americana speech, are attempting to derail and destroy the race. Their methods, which include bombs, mines, motorcycles, and a bomber jet, are indistinguishable from terrorism. The attacks are blamed by the President on the French army. Hell, a religious figure even gets cavalierly ran down. Nobody is spared by the Death Race. While all of this is obviously cartoonish in nature, honestly, in today’s era, it doesn’t seem too out-there. “Death Race 2000,” with its strictly broad intentions, ends up being kind-of close, in tone, if not actuality.

This is fine stuff, obviously, if you go for it. But what really makes the movie work for me is its cast of characters. The five racers all fit a clear role. Nero the Hero, with his navigator Cleopatra, driving the Lion, is based from gladiator tropes and fills the role of the has-been, screw-up driver. Martin Kove plays the part as a lisping homosexual fairy. Matilda the Hun drives the Nazi-themed car, the Buzz-Bomber, with her ironically nebbish navigator, Herman the German. Matilda is, obviously, the most abrasive and obnoxious of the group, determined to up-stage the rest of the racers and win for Aryan ideals. Roberta Collins has great fun playing off the rest of the cast.

Calamity Jane, driving the horned Bull, is by far the snarkiest and most entertaining of the drivers. She’s cocky, sarcastic, but also the most intelligent of the drivers. Played by the great Mary Woronov, in her first collaboration with Paul Bartel, Jane is certainly the scrappiest of the group. I love the sequence of her fighting off the Resistance attackers, jumping onto her car from motorcycles. Woronov plays the whole role with a sardonic twinkle in her eye. She’s in on the joke but is fully committed to creating this highly memorable character.

That’s really all window-dressing though. The main characters of the film are Frankenstein, his navigator, and Machine Joe Viterbo. Frankenstein is the nation’s hero. He’s been in so many Death Races, has survived so many gruesome car wrecks, that he is now supposedly more machine then man. Played by David Carradine, right off his “Kung-Fu” run, Frankenstein cuts an intimidating figure in an S&M-style leather suit, a deformed face peeking through the mask and Darth Vader-like helmet. Carradine plays the part as a heartless bad ass, initially, somebody who kills because it’s his duty. However, as the movie goes on, the character evolves. He’s not deformed, he's not the original Frankenstein, and he’s got motives of his own. I wouldn’t call it a great performance but it’s an incredibly entertaining one. Frankenstein, if nothing else, is an iconic grindhouse hero. It’s maybe my favorite Carradine role.

Frankenstein’s navigator, Annie, is played by the very attractive Simone Griffeth. Griffeth and Carradine have great chemistry together. Their back-and-forth definitely forms the backbone of the movie. Machine Joe Viterbo, played by Sly Stallone on the brink of stardom, is Frankenstein’s main rival for the Death Race title. He’s a grease-head gangster, an asshole, almost homoerotically fixated on defeating Frankenstein, and a wonderfully funny villain for the film.

The production design of the movie, despite its tiny budget, is honestly pretty impressive. Early on, we see a painfully bad mat-painting of a futuristic city-scape. After that, the movie sticks to scenic road views. The money obviously went to the five cars. They are so cool, man. The Monster, Frankenstein’s car, is a green, dinosaur looking thing. For a horror fan, I can’t imagine a cooler set of wheels. (Except for maybe Christine. Or The Car.) The rest of the cars are pretty awesome. In particular, I like the Bull, armed out with horns and a nose-ring, and the Buzz-Bomber, designed to look like a cross between a Panzer tank and a V4 rocket. Machine Gun Joe’s car, with a giant switchblade and two-machine guns mounted on the hood, is maybe the only design that goes too silly. The costume design, though also done very cheaply, is impressive too. Each character's personality easily shows in their outfits.

As only his second film, Paul Bartel hadn’t really show any strength or interest in action direction. But, make no mistake, “Death Race 2000” is a bad ass action flick. There are some inventive camera shots, mounted from the front of or the side of the cars. The sequence where Frankenstein outruns a jet fighter is the best action scene in the movie. The climatic struggle between Frankenstein and Machine Gun Joe is impressive as well. The action is powered by Paul Chihara’s varied, funky score. The movie is full-speed ahead and is almost completely action.

Except for the brief pit stop scenes. This is a ‘70s exploitation movie after all. These scenes indulge heavily in gratuitous T&A. Our characters stop, rest, eat, get massages, but its all mostly a story device so some sex scenes can be introduced into the film. Because what's violence without a little sex thrown in? The female drivers and navigators lay on the massage tables, totally in the buff. (The males are at least covered with towels.) Carradine and Griffeth's are at their best here. I especially like the moment where he leaves his fetishistic Frankenstein mask on during the love making. Oh yeah, of course, the nudity and sex is completely unnecessary. But I can’t say it doesn’t add to the enjoyment of the film. In addition to Griffenth and Woronov, I have to mention Louisa Moritz, another buxom blonde all too willing to shed her clothes.

Apparently, when Paul Bartel submitted this film to Roger Cormon, the producer was disappointed by the lack of blood in the film. Some nasty gore shots where hastily inserted. We get a crotch slammed across a giant knife. A head is crushed under a spinning tire, blood spraying into the air. There’s more too, of course. These shots are obviously inserted, pretty roughly, but it just adds to the flavor of the film. It wouldn’t be Death Race without some bloody death, after all.

The movie wraps up on a hilariously ironic note. The Government of United Provinces could have learned a lesson from the same year’s fellow blood sport flick, “Rollerball.” One player should never be bigger then the game, after all. The epilogue, in which things get changed and Don Steele delivers the iconic line, “Death Race is America!,” couldn’t better sum up the exploitative, smart-ass tone of the movie. So, yeah, I love this movie. It’s got just about everything you could want in 1970s drive-in/grindhouse cinema. Check it out. [Grade: A-]

Monday, May 14, 2012

Director Report Card: Paul Bartel (1972)

Paul Bartel isn't a director you hear a lot about. This is somewhat surprising considering how many beloved cult films he's had his hand in. Maybe it was due to his early passing or, perhaps, his tendency to show up as an actor in more famous films.

A key director from Roger Corman's New World Productions, Bartel was a comedy director who, early in his career, found himself directing horror and action films. Later on, he broke away to make independent films in his own style. His movies lean towards the surreal, the satirical, and almost always the perverse. Long time readers should know by now that this is a winning combination for me.

1. Private Parts

“Private Parts” is the kind of cool, weird quasi-horror film that is best viewed late at night on a far end cable channel, stumbled on to unprepared. The story of an innocent teenage girl living at this hotel, a weird world full of oddballs and deviants, provides plenty of opportunities for the director to indulge in his idiosyncrasies. There’s at least three characters, a priest/gay leather freak, a senile old woman constantly wandering the halls calling out for a missing girl, and a falling-down drunk. (In a later film, I suspect Bartel would have played the priest himself. Laurie Main amusingly suffices in the part while Bartel has a brief cameo as a public urinating bum.) These characters make minor contribution to the plot themselves but their prescene add a quirky sense of personality to the film.

What also adds to that personality is the location itself. I don’t know if the history of the hotel this movie was shot in or whither or not it’s still standing, but the obvious textile history of the location adds to the total atmosphere completely.

There’s a sense of sleazy sexuality running throughout the entire film. Voyeurism is prevalent. The opening scene of the film is Cheryl, our lead character, snooping on her roommate coupling with a male friend. Later on, she peaks through an eyehole. There’s a hidden room adjacent to the bathroom, where peering eyes can watch undetected. What’s most surprising about the film is that, later on, Cheryl embraces being watched. She dresses up in a kinky mask and stockings for her observer. Most filmmakers would exploit this kinkiness for revulsion and fear but Bartel, instead, approuches it from an agreeable cocked grin.

Aye Ruyman is fantastic as Cheryl, a young girl coming into her own sexuality. She is na├»ve in many ways but her snooping, Nancy Drew curiousity is involving and charming. The main thrust of the plot involves her relationship with her observer, a strange man named George. His room is filled with weird, kinky photographs. He fills a blow-up doll with water, glues a picture of Cheryl to its face, and injects it with a syringe of his blood. If all of that wasn’t off-putting enough, he was obviously involved in the disappearance of a previous girl. John Ventantonio brings an appropriate amount of off-putting strangeness to the part. The final main character is Lucille Benson as Aunt Martha, a controlling old lady who keeps a scrapbook of funerals and is clearly hiding something.

Now, is this a horror film? There’s a surprisingly graphic decapitation early on and another off-screen murder but, for the large stretch of the film, this is a surreal comedy and a creepy mystery. The ending pushes the film into the full horror again, as the twist ending (which isn’t too hard to predict, if you pay attention.) is revealed and the violence starts up again. There’s a little coda that brings things full circle but doesn’t make much sense, story-wise or emotionally.

“Private Parts” turns out to be as quirky, cultish, funny, and oddly creepy as any thing else Paul Bartel would go on to make. (Odd, considering he didn’t write it.) It’s doesn’t all line-up and the story is a little rough around the edges but, as late-night midnight movie madness, it satisfies fantastically. [Grade: B+]