28 March 2013

Ultra Warrior

Ultra Warrior
United States - 1992
Director - Augusto Tamayo and Kevin Tent
New Horizons Home Video, 1992, VHS
Run Time - Ah shit, well, probably around an hour and 20 minutes.

Not really an original movie, but a frankenfilm cobbled together from a number of other film scenes and stitched with a little extra footage.

26 March 2013

Captain America II

United States - 1979
Director - Ivan Nagy
MCA/Universal Home Video, 1993, VHS
Run Time - 1 hour, 28 minutes

This made-for-TV sequel starring Reb Brown is downright bad in a highly entertaining way. Christopher Lee is also in there slumming it up. A few years after this little nugget hit the small screen, director Ivan Nagy cranked out the reactionary Sally Struthers vehicle A Gun In the House.

18 March 2013

Busted Up

United States – 1986
Director – Conrad E. Palmisano
MCA Home Video, 1987, VHS
Run Time – 1 hour, 33 minutes

If you’ve ever wondered why the hero so often makes a boneheaded deal with the villain, one that contradicts what we’ve been let to expect by the last hour of the movie, then film theorists have an answer for you. Movies are like dreams they say, offering us a vision of the impossible or improbable fantasy. Continuing in this vein, later critics rely on the Freudian psychoanalytical assertion that dreams are a manifestation of subconscious desire.

I suppose that this makes sense considering that the hero’s bargain flies in the face of logic and lived experience (both his and the audiences) which tells us that “might makes right”, that he is good because he wins. Instead, these movies proffer a reflection of that in the claim that right makes might, that the good guy wins because he is good. (Or at least normatively. He should have even if he doesn’t, therein lies “tragedy”, that generic leakage of reality into fantasy that seems intent on capturing our trust.) It’s a rather large leap to expect that devious characters we’ve just been led for the last hour and a half-plus into despising will suddenly be humbled into keeping up their side of the bargain. A roller coaster ride of emotions going from hate to trust in less time than it takes to digest your corn-nuts, but that’s the point. Not only does it make for some compelling tension and storytelling but it also feeds our more modern, more secular (Democratic) desire to believe that for the little guys (us!) whose reality is far too often dictated by the whims of Capitalist might) there really is an inviolable and objective moral justice out there, somewhere.

Such is the fantasy of Earl Bird, an ex-con, single father, amateur boxer who wants to believe, has to believe that adherence to a simple moral code will bring him absolution. Boxing has always been a sport imbued with blue collar mythos, and indeed, for Bird, boxing is just a fucking job, but this particular job just happens to be the foundation of an old neighborhood. When the gym he co-owns with his partner/trainer Angie (Stan Shaw) is threatened with a hostile buyout, Bird agrees to wager the fate of the entire neighborhood on a single fight. Presciently named “The Foundation,” the gym serves as a literal community center for a parade of old-timers and troubled kids, and as a metaphorical anchor in a neighborhood suffering economic decline. And, in case the drama wasn’t tangible enough, in steps Bird’s “ex-old-lady” Simone (Irene Cara,) a failed pop singer doing a low rent Irene Cara act in a strip club and now demanding Bird’s retirement and the foundation of a cozy family life.

And oh what a feeling it is now that the fate of an entire demographic hinges on a single boxing match. The battle between Bird and Tenera (who, thorough unexplained flashbacks we are led to understand killed Bird’s pal in prison) although mined for second act tension and inspiring montages, is only a distraction. The real conflict is between flannel and denim community struggling for survival and (white)wine-swilling, classical music-listening capitalism intent on gentrification and “progress.” Couching this class war in the very contemporary economic depredation of the Reagan dynasty, firmly places it in the fantasy world where issues of great moral import can be decisively resolved through acts of personal heroics. Busted Up’s simpler more subtle narrative calls to mind the extreme jingoism of another 80’s "boxing" movie, 1989’s Robot Jox (Stuart Gordon) in which the Soviet Union and the USA not-so-symbolically pummel each other into spare giant-robot-parts. Humbled by Achilles’ victory and moral constitution Alexader is “saved,” and the Cold War is resolved with a friendly man-hug. If in the course of dissecting the socio-cultural symbolism of a low budget movie, I am ever again accused of reading too much into it, of expecting too much from what is claimed to be “just a movie,” I shall say; “No, this movie is expecting too much of me.”

In 1986 things turned out well for Bird’s demographic, but by the end of the decade writer/producer Damian Lee had apparently lost hope. 1989’s Boxcar Blues (aka Thunderground) found Bird (played again by Coufos) fallen on Hard Times, utterly destitute and riding the rails in the deep south, boxing for booze money. Busted Up could probably be dismissed and forgotten as a cheap, three-sequels too late Rocky knock-off with an unnecessarily jazzy score, or a less priaprismic pre-make of Bloodsport minus the screaming. Despite its grandiose trappings, Busted Up is not a grand-scheme type of movie. There is no glory, no celebrity for Busted Up’s humble, blue-collar protagonist Earl Bird, but for all its humility, the implications are nonetheless universal.

Boxcar Blues
United States - 1989
Director - David Mitchell
VCII Home Entertainment, 1991, VHS
Run Time - 1 hour, 36 minutes  

05 March 2013

The Deadly and The Beautiful

Philippines – 1973
Director – Robert Vincent O’Neill
Media Home Entertainment, 1984, VHS
Run Time – 1 hour, 32 minutes

When a famous Jai Alai player disappears without a trace, Mike Harber is off to track him down. Leading with his libido, he soon discovers that a syndicate of beautiful but deadly Wonder Women (the film’s original title) is behind the kidnapping. When Mike decided to pursue a career in insurance he never quite pictured himself fighting criminal masterminds or mad scientists in the seedy underbelly of Manila. The job description “insurance investigator” doesn’t exactly ooze sex appeal after all, but nothing is quite like it seems in The Deadly and The Beautiful. In fact, cockfights and cycle-cab chases aren’t exactly the “underbelly,” and Dr. Tsu’s Go-Go squad aren’t quite a syndicate.

Combining the well worn action spy/secret agent plot (the pre-credit sequence does a worthy Bond imitation, only topless) coupled with the mad scientist performing unorthodox experiments on humans, The Deadly and The Beautiful is essentially a film version of a men’s adventure magazine come a few years after its time. As such it’s not exactly unique or terribly inspiring in it’s content, at least nothing we haven’t seen from Eddie Romero or Cirio Santiago a few dozen times by now. Where it might suffer from a lack of budget or originality however, The Deadly and The Beautiful is extremely generous with sincerity. With all the dire intensity of a 40’s science-fiction serial, and the gritty peril of a location shot action flick, this film literally revels in it’s milieu like a pig in shit. Sincerity goes a damned sight farther than “propriety”, and no matter how many bad rubber monsters and shitty drunken lead actors you have, what an old friend of mine used to call “heart,” will make your movie.

Using a decrepit warehouse to transplant the organs of young athletes into the aging bodies of her wealthy clients, Dr. Tsu somehow manages to turn a profit despite her rickety handmade equipment. When Mike Harber shows up, Tsu cuts short her vinyl clad hit-squad’s latest session of frozen donor boner and sends them to make-out/take-out the erstwhile insurance investigator. Careening through a veritable buffet of Manila scenery and culture with the help of the ubiquitous Vic Diaz and crushed-velvet and ascoted Sid Haig, Mike at last lands on the couch for an up-close-and-personal round of ‘brain sex’ with the good Dr. Tsu. Just before they can reach whatever climax happens at the end of brain-sex, the doctor vanishes in a puff of smoke promising to return a-la Mad Doctor of Blood Island for a second round and possibly even a franchise. I suppose that would explain the carboard laboratory. If you had to abandon all that equipment every time some clunky gumshoe with an ethical hang-up came snooping around (and this seems to happen a hell of a lot,) you’d probably build your lab on the cheap too.

The Deadly and The Beautiful isn’t purely Pinoy. The writer/director and the big ‘stars’, Sid Haig, Ross Hagen (Mike,) Nancy Kwan (Tsu) and Roberta Collins are all American, but as soon as the principals are done forwarding the plot or whatever it is they do, all sorts of Filipinos suddenly appear with vintage WWII weapons and start blasting the shit out of each other on behalf of one or the other side. It reminds me more than a bit of Western colonialism in that the Westerners (Europeans and Americans, in that order here) moved in and made the locals do the rough stuff. Only, underneath it all, nothing would have run without the locals, it was an economy of deception.

The more contemporary Westerners in question were just as dependent on this “cheap” exoticism (and labor) to make their movie(s.) There is an exemplary scene in The Deadly and The Beautiful when, after seducing and attempting to assassinate Mike, one of the Wonder Women flees and initiates a long chase scene through the streets of Manila. The local color makes for some exciting realism, but at the same time can’t help but reveal true local flavor. At one point can be seen a Mule carrying a man with a bullhorn followed by a string of pedicabs bearing banners campaigning for “Remy – Councilor.” This is, I am pretty sure, a frozen historical reference to the late martial artist Remy Presas who worked for the Philippine government for a minute in the early 70’s and which only Pinoy audiences would have appreciated.

To tell the truth of course, the movie industry in the Philippines was initially a product of colonialism as well. Dependent on the whims of the Western dollar to a great extent, but as with any local industry, the Filipinos built their own cinematic house with the master’s tools. The underlying myth to this whole narrative is revealed in the fact that without the local, without Pinoy, the whole ruse would be both narratively and economically impossible. Filipino, and I dare say Southeast Asian films in general (I'm thinking here specifically of Indonesian and Thai, but assuming it applies elsewhere) are some of the best in the world. I hate to say it’s purely a factor of scarcity because despite a relative dearth of these films in USAmerica, I don’t think it is. One gets the impression however that, at least during this period, Filipinos must have really cared about making movies because they put their heart into every one. The Deadly and The Beautiful is a prime example and a rare treat which, thanks to Jack at En lejemorder ser tilbage (among other fine sites,) I’m glad that I revisited.

Sorry about the image quality, its an old tape of a bad print!

01 March 2013