Wednesday, March 30, 2016

March Quick Picks and Pans

Turbo Kid (2015) Whenever I see too much buzz about an indie genre flick on Twitter, I get suspicious, but here’s a little gem that lives up to the hype. Turbo Kid exceeds your RDA of fun by a substantial margin. This Canadian-New Zealand co-production from co-writer/directors François Simard, Anouk Whissell and Yoann-Karl Whissell cobbles together elements from numerous sources, but it somehow seems fresh, feeling like a lost artifact from the ‘80s. Set in a post-apocalyptic (1997) landscape, a teenager, known only as “The Kid” (Munro Chambers), forages for his existence and reads about his favorite comic book hero. After he discovers a derelict spacecraft, he gets the chance to play the fictional character for real. Along his travels, he meets an eccentric android companion (Laurence Leboeuf), and incurs the wrath of arch villain Zeus (Michael Ironside).

Ironside plays the sort of antagonist role he could do in his sleep, but manages to make him seem fresh and original. He’s accompanied by a mute sidekick with a heavy metal skull mask and a rotary blade launcher. The over the top gore effects reminded me of Dead Alive (aka: Brain Dead), and are more playful than disturbing. The young leads are appealing, the dialogue is snappy and the action is brisk. Any low-budget filmmakers that wish to make a throwback action film would be obliged to watch and study this movie.  

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray, DVD, limited edition VHS (!) and Netflix Streaming

Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday (2016) After a nearly 30-year absence, Pee-Wee Herman (aka: Paul Reubens) makes his mostly triumphant return in this charming little Netflix-produced comedy. It never quite reaches the heights of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, but it’s superior to the misfire that was Big Top Pee-Wee. Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday follows a similar road trip format to the original film, with Pee-Wee racing against the clock to get to his new friend’s birthday party, but doesn’t just repeat the same old shtick. I got the impression he compiled a bunch of unused gags he’d saved up over the years, which results in an uneven ride. While the results are hit and miss, it’s just so cheery and eager to please that I couldn’t help but smile. Reubens settles back into the character like a well-worn white loafer, and all but the most cynical fans should be delighted. He has a enough new tricks up his sleeve to keep things interesting, and it left me hoping we don’t have long to wait for another feature or TV series.

Rating: ***. Available on Netflix Streaming

All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records (2015) For Generation X-ers like me, Tower Records was a significant component of my formative years, where I spent untold gobs of time and money. With this in mind, I was intrigued to learn the story behind this once mighty music store. Told mostly through the recollections of the retailer’s executives, director Colin Hanks (yep, that Colin Hanks) traces Tower’s origins in San Francisco during the hippie era, through its massive worldwide expansion in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and eventual collapse in the early 2000s. The anecdotes from its founder, Russ Solomon, about Tower’s early days are fun, but somewhere along the way Hanks loses focus about what made the store great. We hear from too many people at the top, and only a handful of musicians. There’s far too much about the business side, and little from the fan’s perspective. Instead of feeling sorry for the chain’s downfall, I was left thinking: “So what?”  

Rating: **½ Available on Blu-ray and DVD

The Road to Wellville (1994) Director Alan Parker’s semi-fictionalized account (based on T.C. Boyle’s novel) of turn-of-the-century health guru Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (Anthony Hopkins) is bursting with ideas, but like a bowl of soggy cornflakes, fails to satisfy. Bridget Fonda and Matthew Broderick play a married couple who travel to Kellogg’s sanatorium for rejuvenation. What awaits them are Kellogg’s less than orthodox methods, theories (he feels that sex is the road to death, and good health is connected with the bowels), and marital discord. The Road to Wellville almost seems like two movies, with a parallel story about a would-be entrepreneur of breakfast cereal (John Cusack) and his shady business partner (Michael Lerner). The film has its brief moments when it lampoons health fads and medical quackery, but it’s not funny enough to be a comedy, and not serious enough to be a drama. Mostly, it just feels like an enormous missed opportunity about a fascinating subject.

Rating: **½. Available on DVD

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Color Me Blood Red

(1965) Written and directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis; Starring: Gordon Oas-Heim, Candi Conder, Elyn Warner, Pat Finn-Lee and Scott H. Hall; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: *½

“These things really were almost hatched in a mutual brain. Dave (Friedman) and I might be riding in a car, saying ‘What do you think of such and such,’ and by the time the weekend was over, we had a script.” – Herschell Gordon Lewis

Herschell Gordon Lewis helped create a revolution in the world of horror, depicting unprecedented levels of gore with 1963’s Blood Feast. Along with producer David F. Friedman, they assembled a loose “Blood” trilogy that continued with Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) and concluded with Color Me Blood Red.* Perhaps the most memorable thing about the third film was its ad campaign, reminding us “It’s just a movie. It’s just a movie…” This little mantra was subsequently recycled, to great effect, for 1972’s The Last House on the Left (“It’s only a movie...”). Oh, if only the filmmakers had put as much effort into the film itself, rather than the promotion…

* According to Lewis and Friedman, they never intended to stop at three films, but their collaboration was cut short when their partnership dissolved. Their insightful DVD commentary sheds some light on the events that led up to their disagreement.

Lewis filmed Color Me Blood Red in Sarasota, Florida for approximately $30,000, utilizing mostly local talent and existing locations. The story, about a crazed artist who paints with human blood, is similar thematically to Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood, but without the wit or fun performances. Gordon Oas-Heim, who plays loathsome struggling painter Adam Sorg, is no Dick Miller. He approaches his character without a hint of humor or self-deprecation. While no one’s bound to win any awards for their acting in this movie, the best performance is from Elyn Warner (in her only film appearance) as Sorg’s nagging girlfriend Gigi (“…If we ever get married, the first thing I’d do would be – get a divorce.”).

The film takes off, so to speak, after Sorg has an epiphany with one of his paintings. After Gigi cuts her finger, he experiments with her blood on canvas and likes the results. The trouble is there’s not nearly enough blood from one little cut to go around, so he resorts to drastic measures to obtain more crimson pigment to complete his work. Sorg’s latest painting is a hit with the art crowd, including an influential critic named Gregorovich (William Harris). Soon, he feels pressured to produce another work of similar caliber, but needs a fresh supply of blood.    

The gore effects are about what you would expect from a no-budget production, using available materials. When Sorg runs over a pair of seaside frolickers with a speed boat, the carnage was simulated with pieces of meat.* In another scene, when one of his victims is discovered with worms crawling over her face, the filmmakers resorted to borrowing a can of worms from a Sarasota resident who raised earthworms as a hobby.

* Fun fact: Lewis remarked that one of the complications in filming the scene was that seagulls kept flying off with the meat.

The most damning aspect of Color Me Blood Red is that it fails to meet the low standards set by the premise. Considering the ghoulish subject matter, there’s a conspicuous lack of paintings in the film. Sorg only manages to produce two pieces of art with his new preferred medium, after dispatching three people. Instead, much of the film is filled with scenes that go nowhere, and do little to advance the plot. Even with its brief 79-minute running time, Color Me Blood Red seems overlong. Lewis admitted the story was a “one-string fiddle,” and that he had to resort to “filler” to pad out the movie, making it a suitable length for distribution. Thus, we end up spending an inordinate amount of time following four friends as they cavort on the beach and engage in witless banter.

The entire film has a lackluster, cobbled-together quality that makes its predecessor look epic in comparison. At least Two Thousand Maniacs! seemed to take delight in its revenge-fueled premise, and had the conviction to follow through with some inspired mayhem. At the end of the day, however, it's not the act of painting with blood or the killings that make the picture, but what surrounds the events. To borrow another page from the superior A Bucket of Blood, more time should have been spent depicting the stir that Sorg’s paintings caused in the art community. By far, the highlight of the Color Me Blood Red DVD (from Something Weird Video) was hearing Lewis and Friedman’s reflections on low budget filmmaking, which eclipses the movie itself.  

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Shakes the Clown

(1992) Written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait; Starring: Bobcat Goldthwait, Julie Brown, Tom Kenny, Blake Clark, Adam Sandler, Kathy Griffin and Robin Williams; Available on DVD

Rating: ***

"I remember going on the `Today' show and debating a clown… I couldn't care less about clowns, really. But I told the guy that the only reason why clowns always perform at hospitals is because that's the only place where kids can't get up and run away from them. And he started yelling at me.” – Bobcat Goldthwait (excerpt from 1992 interview with Amy Longsdorf, The Morning Call)

Comedian/actor Bobcat Goldthwait’s feature directing debut Shakes the Clown was once touted as “the Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies,”* and who am I to dispel that notion? It’s a sordid tale about love, lust, angst and substance abuse amidst the dark, seamy underbelly of party clown culture. The world of the clown, at least in Goldthwait’s imagination, is filled with isolation, self-loathing and debauchery. I’m aware I say this quite often around here, but it bears repeating that this movie is not suited to everyone’s taste. We’re introduced to the title character (played by Goldthwait, who also wrote the script) the morning after a one night stand with a lonely middle-aged woman (Florence Henderson). This opening scene will probably determine if you’re ready to bail out or willing to go the distance. Still with me? Great...

* Credited to Betsy Sherman from her review of the film (source:

Shakes the Clown is set in the mythical town of Palukaville (which looks suspiciously like Los Angeles), where clowns are regarded as a social disease. Shakes belongs to a group of party clowns, who enjoy a bitter rivalry between rodeo clowns and mimes (which for the purposes of this film portrayed them as a sort of bastardized subset of clowns). He hangs out at a clown bar The Twisted Balloon with his enabling buddies, Stenchy and Dink (Blake Clark and Adam Sandler), where they drown their sorrows after performing at birthday parties. When they’re not boozing it up, they’re cruising the streets looking for mimes to terrorize.

Goldthwait skirts the line between loathsome and sympathetic as Shakes. He’s a barely functioning alcoholic who lives from one binge to another, and habitually shows up late to kids’ birthday parties. His failed attempts to sober up continue to perpetuate a downward spiral. Things go from bad to worse when he’s framed for murdering his boss (Paul Dooley), and running from the cops. Suddenly, he’s forced to rely on the same friends he’s alienated to help prove his innocence.

The movie boasts an impressive assortment of quirky performances by comic actors and comedians (many of whom were friends with Goldthwait), which help offset some of the more depressing thematic elements. Tom Kenny (Spongebob Squarepants) plays Shakes’ archrival Binky, who hosts a kids show and hates himself almost as much as he despises Shakes (“Binky the Clown? ...Binky the doormat!”). Adam Sandler displays surprising restraint and likeability (probably because he wasn’t a headliner at this point) as self-esteem-challenged Dink. In one scene, he attempts, and subsequently fails to make small talk with a woman at a bar. Julie Brown is Shake’s long-suffering, dim-witted girlfriend Judy, who speaks with an Elmer Fudd-esque lisp. Her cynical friend Lucy (Kathy Griffin) encourages her to dump the clown and move on. There’s also a pair of bickering cops, who keep getting into petty arguments. The cherry on the top of this somewhat rancid dollop of whipped cream, however, is a terrific cameo by Robin Williams as a mercurial mime instructor.

Upon its marginal release, Shakes the Clown created a minor furor among professional clowns who felt Goldthwait’s film cast them in a negative light. While the opinions of a few disenchanted clowns probably didn’t sway public opinion, the movie was reviled by most critics, who focused on its more unsavory aspects, and it flopped at the box office. Despite the critical kneecapping, it’s since earned a small but loyal following. Shakes the Clown is uneven in spots, and Shakes, as a protagonist, is more pathetic than funny, but it has its own dubious charms. If you’re as tired as I am with formulaic, feel-good comedies, give it a try. But be forewarned: If you hated clowns before, you’re not going to love them after watching this movie; and I don’t think Mr. Goldthwait would have it any other way.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

They Live

(1988) Directed by John Carpenter; Written by Frank Armitage (aka: John Carpenter); Based on the short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning,” by Ray Faraday Nelson; Starring: Roddy Piper; Keith David, Meg Foster, Peter Jason and George “Buck” Flower; Available on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Rating: ****

“I believe that the ‘80s have never ended. They’re still with us today. We’ve never repudiated this Reaganomics idea. Everything is trickle down. They’re still here. They’re making more money than ever. They’re still among us.” – John Carpenter

“The name of the game is ‘make it through life,’ although everyone’s out for themselves, and looking to do you in at the same time.” – Frank (Keith David)

Science fiction has consistently been one of John Carpenter’s favorite genres, creating an ideal playpen for examining social issues. Carpenter’s 1988 film They Live, based on Ray Faraday Nelson’s 1963 short (and I mean short) story, “Eight O’Clock in the Morning,” is a vitriolic Trojan horse, under the auspices of a grade-B action movie. In the original story, the protagonist George Nada is commanded to “awake” during a hypnotism demonstration, which changes his perception of reality. He discovers humanity has been hypnotized to accept our masters, an alien race known as the Fascinators, who are bombarding us with a constant barrage of subliminal messages. They Live updates the story to address the Reagan years and the growing divide between rich and poor. It exemplifies how knowledge is power, but also how the mere possession of that knowledge can be dangerous.

Writer/director Carpenter expands on Nelson’s story, depicting Nada (meaning “nothing” in Spanish) as a homeless man who stumbles onto the truth, thanks to a pair of special sunglasses. He discovers that an alien invasion has covertly taken place, and humans blindly serve their new masters. They transmit a signal that keeps us blind and deaf to what’s going on under our noses, influencing us at every turn about what to buy, what to think and how to live. Hidden messages are peppered throughout the city, reinforcing the aliens’ message of compliance, including: “Consume,” “No Independent Thought,” and “Marry and Reproduce.” Money and mass-consumerism become the opiate of the masses, keeping the human populace distracted from the real issues at hand. Tranquilized by mindless television shows, magazines and a lack of critical thinking skills, people go about their daily lives, guided like rats in a Skinner box. When police demolish a homeless camp, it’s just another example of an eyesore that needed to be eradicated, better kept out of sight and out of mind.            

Pro-wrestler Roddy Piper seems an unlikely choice for the disenfranchised everyman Nada, but he pulls it off with credibility, humor and pathos. His character is aptly named, as marginalized individual living on the fringes of society, lacking the political clout or social wherewithal to evoke change. Status and worth are determined by the size of your bank account. Nada belongs to a growing population of working poor – he’s employed, finding a job at a construction site, but can’t afford to keep a roof over his head.

Frank (Keith David) is Nada’s nominal, albeit skeptical companion, who works at the same construction site. Things aren’t exactly amicable between the two after Nada becomes a fugitive from the police. When Nada attempts to convince Frank to don the glasses that enabled him to view the aliens, things fall apart in a hurry.  What ensues is one of the longest fight sequences* on record. About halfway through, you’ll wonder why Frank didn’t just humor his buddy and put on the damn glasses, but of course, we wouldn’t have the elaborate, protracted scuffle. This self-indulgent nod to The Quiet Man by Carpenter is undeniably excessive, but memorable.

* Depending on whose version you believe (Carpenter, Piper, or David), the fight scene took anywhere from two weeks to two months to plan in Carpenter’s back yard.

The third principal character in this cautionary tale is Holly, a successful television producer played by Meg Foster. Unlike Nada and the other individuals involved in the alien resistance effort, her motives are more ambiguous. She’s obviously profited from the current arrangement, and seems to be okay with being manipulated. This raises the question: Is it more disturbing to be deaf and blind to what’s going on, or aware of everything, and complicit? No matter how repressive a society is, there will always be those who will buy into it, favoring personal comfort over the suffering of others. Carpenter argues it’s an easier decision to make if you’re one of the “haves.” even if they know they’re being manipulated.

Considering the film’s modest $4 million budget, Carpenter really got his money’s worth. The bug-eyed, skull-faced aliens,*/** courtesy of Francisco X. Pérez (listed as Frank Carrisosa in the film), are among cinema’s most recognizable movie monsters. Jim Danforth provided the matte paintings for the hidden messages, which are depicted in black and white, along with the aliens themselves. The filmmakers created a homeless camp, hiring many actual homeless individuals as extras. For one of the key scenes, Carpenter and crew filmed in subterranean access tunnels underneath Los Angeles municipal buildings, providing a believable center of operations for the aliens.

* Fun Fact: Stunt Coordinator Jeff Imada played most of the aliens (known as “ghouls” during the production).

** Bonus Fun Fact: Carpenter’s wife Sandy King (who also served as associate producer and script supervisor) designed the alien faces.

They Live proudly wears its B-movie lineage on its working-class sleeve, with its fair share of crazy stunts, gunplay and corny one-liners (courtesy of Mr. Piper). These low-brow, but endearing elements make the socio-political commentary easier to swallow. On the other hand, some elements don’t work quite as well. Nada and Frank appear a little too well-toned and nourished for people living on the streets. Also, I’m not sure how the glasses affect the ability to hear subliminal messages, but these are moments when it’s best to suspend disbelief.

They Live is Carpenter at his subversive best, reminding us how little society has changed in nearly 30 years. Unlike some more disposable movies from the dayglow decade, the film remains as relevant now (if not more so) as it was then. As with so many of Carpenter’s movies, They Live wasn’t an enormous hit, but it’s gained a fervent, well-deserved following. This could be Carpenter’s scariest film, from an ideological perspective, since the war was already lost before it started. Along with Escape from L.A., it’s one of Carpenter’s most political films, a call to wake up and see what’s going on. Whether or not we choose to heed the call is up to us. The sad truth is, however, it doesn’t take aliens to produce an anesthetized society, void of conscience or independent thought. Or maybe that’s exactly what the aliens wanted us to think all along.