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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

MACHETE (2010)

"Exploding houses? Bodies falling from the sky? Jesus Christ, Machete! You're a walking shit magnet!"
-Santana Rivera (Jessica Alba)


Sometimes you just have to check your brain at the door and enjoy an out of control roller coaster ride of a movie, and that's certainly the case with Robert Rodriguez's balls-to-the-walls non-stop actioner, MACHETE. And the true beauty of it is that it doesn't take itself seriously for even two seconds.

MACHETE sprang from a fake trailer that preceded the PLANET TERROR half of 2007's GRINDHOUSE (the most fun I had at a movie that year), a coming attraction that really made the viewer want to see the flick in question. Judge for yourself:



Audience reaction was strong and favorable, so Rodriguez actually rendered it into feature length, utilizing some of the footage from the trailer and spinning a wild, gore-drenched "Mexploitation" flick that's a delight for old school aficionados of 42nd Street-style fare and the uninitiated alike. (I took my girlfriend to see it, a woman who had somehow managed never to see an exploitation film before, and she loved it.)

Our hero.

MACHETE stars my man Danny Trejo as the title character, a completely badassed Mexican federale who dishes out evisceration and dismemberment like Halloween candy. Following a bloody encounter with vicious drug lord Torrez (Steven Seagal), who's pissed at Machete not allowing himself to be paid off to look the other way, Machete's wife and daughter are killed and a seriously injured Machete is left to die, presumed burned alive when the bad guys torch the house. Skip ahead by three years and we find the grizzled badass eking out a living as a low-paid day laborer near the Texas border, blending in as just another illegal immigrant.

Don Johnson at his most villainous.

It's a bleak existence marked by hatred for illegals, an animosity personified by the likes of vigilante sheriff Von Jackson (Don Johnson) and his pack of redneck scum who patrol the border and kill wetbacks, an activity they lovingly capture on video.

A scenery-chewing Bobby D as the loathsome Senator John McLaughlin.

Also along for the murderous ride with those assholes is Senator John McLaughlin (Robert DeNiro in a scenery-chewing turn), a politician who's up for re-election and riding a campaign platform based on stringent anti-immigration policies while secretly being funded by drug lord Torrez. From out of nowhere, Machete is approached by Michael Booth (Jeff Fahey), a businessman who claims to feel that the Senator's point of view fails to realize that the country, and more immediately the state, runs on illegal labor and cutting that off would fuck things up bigtime.

Machete takes aim, only to find himself royally screwed.

Booth offers Machete $150, 000 to assassinate McLaughlin during an outdoor political rally and Machete accepts, unaware that he's being set up himself; Booth has one of his own men shoot Machete as Machete wings McLaughlin in the leg, intending for the whole thing to be witnessed by the media and made to look like a conspiracy to stop the senator, thus garnering sympathy votes. Unfortunately for Booth's plans, Machete does not die easily, and once he susses out what's up, a hardcore odyssey of gory vengeance begins. That bloody trail also brings Machete into contact with two beautiful sides of the immigration issue: Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Santana Rivera (Jessica Alba) and work site taco truck proprietress Luz (Michelle Rodriguez), who is actually the head of a network that smuggles illegals into the country. With all the pieces in place on the chessboard of hate and retribution, all hell breaks loose and it soon becomes hard to distinguish between splattering sanguinary spew and salsa picante.

MACHETE is packed to the rafters with crazy, ultra-violent set pieces, some amusingly heavy-handed political commentary, and a cornucopia of tongue-in-cheek exploitation movie fun. In fact, if it were up to me I would classify this film as a completely straight-faced action comedy, and a very funny one at that.

Assorted notes and observations:
  • At age 66, the leathery Danny Trejo makes for a grizzled and Charles Bronson-like protagonist, a man of few words and positively lethal badassery, and I hope to see more from him as Machete (which may happen if Rodriguez is serious about making two sequels).
  • We get the welcome return of the toothsome Avellan sisters, Elise and Elektra, aka "the crazy babysitter Twins" from PLANET TERROR (who also happen to be the director's nieces).
Robert, give these gals a movie of their own while they're still hot, for fuck's sake!
  • Lindsay Lohan appears in the role she was born to play, namely a drug-addicted, spoiled rich kid who gets into a lurid threesome with her mother and Machete before having a change of heart and becoming a vengeful, gun-toting badass in a nun's habit.
Lilo's best role next to MEAN GIRLS.
  • Steven Seagal's sadistic and assholish Torrez is a fun bad guy with plastic hair like something out of the Devo merchandise catalog, circa 1981, and he's a scary antagonist in many ways. It's a hoot to see Seagal ditch his good guy badass image to essay a bad guy badass, one who used to be a fellow federale with Machete, so you just know the guy's beyond deadly.
Torrez (Steven Seagal), living the pimp life.
  • Also on hand is the the always welcome Cheech Marin as Machete's brother, a priest whose line "God has mercy...I don't" pretty much defines his role.
Cheech: a long way from his days with Tommy Chong.

To sum up, MACHETE is the kind of film whose enjoyment factor is contingent upon the kinds of films the viewer digs. If you love old school exploitation excess, ultra-violence, gratuitous nudity and general mayhem, this film is right up your alley. If your taste runs toward Merchant Ivory films of genteel ruminations on the human condition, this ain't for you. Ya pussy.

Machete and his army of kickass day laborers!

TERMINAL ISLAND (1973)

I first heard of this flick during high school when my friend Kenny told me about the trailer, which was included in the theatrically-released coming attractions collection THE BEST OF SEX AND VIOLENCE and when I saw that collection for myself years later, I was greatly intrigued. Then came my college days and the exchange of sleazy films with fellow connoisseurs, and TERMINAL ISLAND fell into my hands thanks to a freshman who would later gain deserved renown as writer/critic Selwyn Harris (at least I think I got it from him). I remember watching the film (admittedly through a thick fog of bonghit smoke), but if truth be told it happened during the first of what I now refer to as my "lost years," a period where I was perpetually drunk and/or stoned, so my memories of it remained spotty at best until a few days ago, when I got my hands on the film now that it's out on DVD. So was it worth revisiting after over twenty years?

A knife fight over one of the few available females. Just another day on Terminal Island.

TERMINAL ISLAND takes place in what was then the near-future (an element that adds nothing whatsoever to the plot) and brings viewers to its titular location, the San Bruno maximum security penal island, where the most vicious of convicted murderers are sent for life, there to eke out a meager existence or perish, or as the film's trailer so matter-of-factly states, it's "where we throw our human garbage." We watch as Carmen (Ena Hartman) is sentenced to the island, where, to her horror, she discovers she is only one of four females in the place, and is thus doomed to slavery — sexual and otherwise — under the iron hand of the psychotic Bobby (Sean Kenney) and Monk (Roger Moseley), his huge black enforcer. From the moment she arrives in the camp, Carmen is brutalized by Monk while the other female prisoners look on with mute resignation, each having no choice but to accept their status and service a minimum of four men per night on a semi-regular basis (the men outnumber the women roughly ten to to one).

Carmen's arrival: "Welcome to Terminal Island, baby."

After what appears to be a few days of such degradation, Carmen and the rest of the women are stolen from the bad guy murderers by a small group of nomadic good guy murderers who live on the other side of the island. Once among the new group of men, the women are (mostly) treated as equals and no longer forced to give it up on demand. Meanwhile, Bobby and Monk send out men to track down and retrieve the women and kills the dissident good guy murderers in the process. It all builds to a head and the good guy murderers pool their skills to organize themselves into a smart guerrilla army.

The "good guy" murderers.

With casualties on both sides, when the smoke clears it's a brand new day on Terminal Island as the good guy murderers take control and embark on a more pleasant, equality/cooperation-based way of existence.

In answer to my earlier question, TERMINAL ISLAND was not really worth coming back to after twenty-some-odd years and was very much a disappointment after its classic bombastic trailer. For a story with such sleazy potential, surprisingly little is made of it and its gore, nudity and violence are tepid at best. All of the sexual slavery takes place off-camera — which suits me fine, but the audience that came expecting it was certain to be disappointed and pissed off — the characters are pretty much all murderers, so it's kinda hard to root for any of them, and the thrills are quite tepid, especially when measured against the across the board excesses of the film's contemporaries in the exploitation field.

The only thing that's really of interest here is the cast, several of whom cane from or went on to careers in TV. For most viewers, TERMINAL ISLAND is of interest for early appearances of Roger Moseley and Tom Selleck (as the sole innocent on the island), who would go on to co-star on MAGNUM, P.I. some seven years later.

A pre-MAGNUM, P.I. Tom Selleck (with Barbara Leigh).

For a geek like me, this film is of interest thanks to seeing two childhood favorites and veterans of Irwin Allen kids' sci-fi TV shows from the 1960's appearing in a potentially-sleazy R-rated flick. Both Don Marshall, who played Dan Erickson on LAND OF THE GIANTS (1968-1970), and the lovely Marta Kristen, who launched many young lads into puberty as Judy Robinson on LOST IN SPACE (1965-1968), are on hand and of the two it's Kristen who has the more interesting character, specifically that of a radical bomber whose political rampage resulted in the accidental deaths of innocent civilians. During the climactic coup, her character's skills at creating homemade munitions come in very handy and she proves to be the polar opposite of the stereotypical dumb blonde. She's really cool here and displays a presence that was never allowed to flower during her days among the Jupiter 2 gang, and it's a shame that she's only been seen sporadically ever since.

Irwin Allen refugees in da house: Don (LAND OF THE GIANTS) Marshall and Marta (LOST IN SPACE) Kristen.

And just so we're clear on this and to spare you any disappointment upon rental, at no point does Marta Kristen get nekkid or fuck Don Marshall. Pfooey.

So the bottom line on TERMINAL ISLAND is that I don't really recommend it unless you're curious about what the aforementioned TV actors bring to the table. It's only 89 minutes long, so if you choose to see it at least you won't be wasting too much time. Oh, and some critics have made much of the film being directed by a woman, Stephanie Rothman, and how the film allegedly has some sort of political message, but neither aspect helps make TERMINAL ISLAND anything other than a footnote in the annals of '70's exploitation cinema.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

DEADLIER THAN THE MALE (1967)

Back in the 1960’s when the world went positively apeshit over the exploits of cool superspy James Bond, filmmakers all over the globe flew into action and released a slew of imitators in hope of cashing in on the secret agent zeitgeist. There were seemingly hundreds of Bond imitators unleashed upon an innocent moviegoing public and the majority of them sucked out loud, being cloyingly and unfunnily campy at best or downright boring at their worst — the Derek Flint movies, OUR MAN FLINT (1966) and IN LIKE FLINT (1967) being among the best of the lot — so finding a gem amongst that misbegotten subgenre, the so-called “spy spoofs,” is a rare occurrence. DEADLIER THAN THE MALE isn’t just a rare gem, it’s a downright treasure of the genre and it came from out of nowhere to make my list of all-time favorite espionage thrillers.

Top oil company executives have been dropping like flies, horribly and creatively done in by a pair of mouth-watering assassins: cold, Teutonic Imma (Elke Sommer) and sunny-but-sadistic nympho/kleptomaniac Penelope (Sylva Koscina).

The luscious and lethal Imma (Elke Sommer) and Penelope (Sylva Koscina).

As the body count rises, British secret agent Bulldog Drummond (Richard Johnson, a good ringer for Sean Connery) is called in to investigate and must figure out who the murderesses are and, more importantly, why they’re on a killing spree, resulting in Drummond’s efforts placing him and his randy nephew, Robert (Steve Carlson), square in the killers’ sights. To say any more would give away much of this thoroughly entertaining adventure, so I’ll shut up right here and now. Just take my word for it that if you’re a fan of Bondish thrills, an enthusiast for “chicks who kick ass” movies, or even a casual observer, you won’t go wrong by seeking this one out.

DEADLIER THAN THE MALE shamelessly set out to ape what made the earlier Bond films so much fun and possesses all of the elements that we’ve come to expect from the 007 series, so much so that one could have easily taken an unproduced Bond script, crossed out the words “James Bond,” replaced them with “Bulldog Drummond,” and no one would have been any the wiser save for noticing Richard Johnson (heh, "Dick Johnson") filling in for Sean Connery. No bullshit, it's got everything you need to make a decent James Bond flick:
  • An interesting plot that takes the hero on a globe-trotting adventure.
  • Hot chicks, this time being much more clever than just about any Bond Girl you can name.
  • A cool car; Drummond drives a Rolls and puts it to brutal offensive use.
  • A memorable title song, sung here by the Walker Brothers, the guys who performed the 1966 #1 chart-topper "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore."
  • The hard-to-achieve spot-on balance of thrills and humor; the laughs here are genuine and played totally straight, with Sylva Koscina's kooky and homicidal Penelope stealing the film.
  • A cool/weird lair for the chief baddie.
  • Kickass fights; the ass-whuppin' found here is better than anything found in the entire 007 series, with the exceptions of FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963), ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE (1969), AND CASINO ROYALE (2006).
  • No over-the-top gadgets that allow the hero to win without really trying, in other words technological superpowers.
  • Kinky torture.
Penelope convinces Robert (Steve Carlson) that smoking is very bad for his health.

In short, it's all good and I had a big, satisfied smile on my face when the film ended.

Other than stumbling across it and reading many reviews touting how good it was, DEADLIER THAN THE MALE further piqued my interest with the presence of Elke Sommer, one of the rare Aryan types who gets me going.

Elke Sommer, a mainstay of trashy sixties cinema, seen here in THE WRECKING CREW (1969).

Her beauty was compounded by a genuine sense of humor and great comedic chops as proven in A SHOT IN THE DARK (1963), and she turned up frequently in sixties flicks that required a hot piece of Eurotrash who could actually act, perhaps most notoriously in the howlingly-bad must-see all-star disaster THE OSCAR (1966). And as if Elke wasn't enough to get my attention, she's aided by Sylva Koscina, a Croatian cutie probably best known to film goons as Iole in the Steve Reeves peplum classics HERCULES (1958) and HERCULES UNCHAINED (1960), a character I've carried a torch for since I was but a wee Bunche.

Sylva Koscina as Iole, the demigod's squeeze in the first two Italian Hercules flicks.

Koscina's turn as Penelope was bound to appeal to me since she's not only cute and sweet as can be, but is also a professional killer who genuinely enjoys her job as much as she likes chasing guys. Hot + crazy = a typical Bunche girl, and I have no explanation for this phenomenon. It just is. But I digress...

Unlike most of the legion of Bond clones, this one delivers in spades, even when the actual series began to suffer under its perceived need to outdo itself, becoming an excessive self-parody by virtue of sacrificing the plot in favor of spectacle and gadgets while the scripts became more ludicrously fantastic and convoluted. I’d even go so far as to say that DEADLIER THAN THE MALE is actually a hell of a lot better than the two Connery Bond films that came out right before and after its release, namely THUNDERBALL (1965), a slow-moving bloatfest worth seeing mostly for a great villain, and YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967), the first of the insanely over-the-top Bonds that blends spaceships, assault helicopter fights, offensively stereotypical western male fantasies about Japanese women, and — I shit you not — ninjas to form what amounts to a listless travelogue with would-be clever dialogue. In every way, DEADLIER THAN THE MALE is the Bond film that should have been a part of the series rather than those two lackluster entries, both of which used to hold a fond place in my younger Bond fan's heart, but now stand revealed in my eyes as nothing more than examples of a franchise operating on autopilot and following the theory of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." Why sit through either of those for the umpteenth time when you can add this overlooked classic to your Netflix queue? TRUST YER BUNCHE and give this a look at once!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

TENEMENT: GAME OF SURVIVAL (1985)

WARNING: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!

Is there any better lure for an exploitation movie junkie than the promise of a film that was allegedly deemed too ultra-violent to be rated? That was certainly the case with TENEMENT: GAME OF SURVIVAL — aka SLAUGHTER IN THE SOUTH BRONX, which, if you ask me, is a better title — , a very, very nasty 1985 grindhouse classic that was legitimately awarded an X rating by the MPAA for its foul language and generous lashings of sadism, gore, and humanity-degrading brutality. I'd never heard of it until it popped up a while ago as one of three films included in a "Grindhouse Psychos" boxed set, and my interest was piqued as I read a description of its plot. I love revenge movies and films about people trapped in a location where they're pitted against psychos or monsters and there's no way out other than to become as savage as their assailants, and that's exactly what we get with this low budget, balls-out visceral mamma-jamma. (I don't know how the fuck I missed this during its theatrical run, but I'm guessing it came out during the period in my third year of college where the only movie I saw in the theater was RE-ANIMATOR.)

The Gang: these guys make the droogs in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE look like choir boys by comparison. And is it just me, or does the guy with the red sash have a kind of Shabadoo Quinones thing going on?

The plot of TENEMENT is a study in exploitation movie simplicity: a bunch of totally '80's multi-racial thugs/gang members of the type common to films like VIGILANTE, SAVAGE STREETS and the sublime DEATH WISH 3 are hanging around in the basement of some South Bronx shithole tenement building — located in an area so desolate that it's nearly as surreal as the myth-ready wasteland in THE ROAD WARRIOR — snorting Angel Dust off of switchblades (no, really) and apparently eating rats (no, really) while making feeble attempts at break dancing, but otherwise not bothering anybody. The building's drunken Hispanic busybody of a superintendent calls the cops and has the gang busted, but the gang hears the approaching cops and has time to rid themselves of their stash and hide their weapons before their trip to the local precinct. The super mocks them to their faces as they're led away and the building's residents immediately throw a party to celebrate, secure in the knowledge that the gang is gone for good. Seeing as we're only about eight minutes into the movie at that point, it's no surprise to viewers when the gang is released a few hours later due to lack of evidence. Once freed, the gang scores some primo Angel Dust, gets staggeringly high (their leader has crazed, blood-filled visions), and embarks on a vicious mission of payback that sees them make their way up the tenement floor by floor, raping, killing and mercilessly torturing as they go.

That's pretty much it as far as the basic plot goes, so the bulk of the film is taken up with the building's residents being horribly slaughtered and finally banding together once they've had enough. As is par for the course with the urban terror genre, the tenement's residents are a corny collection of ethnic/religious stereotypes straight from Central Casting:
  • an unwed, very pregnant Hispanic girl
  • her "Ay-yi-yi"-accented mother
  • the bitter black handyman who becomes the de facto leader of the residents.
  • a tough-as-nails Jewish old lady from "the old country"
  • a loving middle-aged black couple, of which the wife is a broad-beamed complainer who would be right at home in a Baptist revival meeting
  • the savvy black single mother who fantasizes about moving to a Park Avenue apartment where she can raise her daughter in safety while drinking champagne all day
  • a blind Hispanic man and his companion dog
  • a number of cute kids for instant audience sympathy
  • the once-well-off white girl who's become a whore in order to pay for her boyfriend's raging heroin habit
There's little attempt at characterization, but that's beside the point since we're given all we need to know in brief bits of character shorthand since the real point of the movie is the carnage and the fighting back in response to it. And what carnage it is! I haven't seen so much red paint used in lieu of stage blood since the LONE WOLF AND CUB movies or one of Chang Cheh's Shaw Brothers flicks, and every now and then random bits of ripped out (and hard to identify) internal organs are on display. We're even treated to a bit where the head creep, Chaco (Enrique Sandino), and the gang's sole female member get it on beside the corpse of one of their fallen comrades (who was ingeniously killed when he shot up what he thought was heroin but was instead rat poison) and his gut-stabbed victim, engaging in some blood-smeared foreplay that made me laugh out loud at how fucking sick it was.

The only way this bit could have been more repulsive is if Chaco had wanked off between her blood-anointed tits.

The film is certainly not shy in the violence department and its "X" was earned due to that and relentless uses of "motherfucker" in the dialogue. According to director Roberta Findlay's commentary, there was actually a point when multiple uses of the F-bomb, especially when used in a maternally incestuous context, would ensure an X-rating, which would explain why RICHARD PRYOR LIVE IN CONCERT (1979) went out unrated. Then again, John Waters' A DIRTY SHAME (2004) reportedly earned its NC-17 for dialogue involving frank sexuality and concepts related to various kinky acts, so I guess things haven't really changed at all...

But the one sequence that really gained TENEMENT its X is one of the nastiest rape scenes ever committed to celluloid, and it's even more amazing/horrifying because it has such hideous impact without showing one bit of nudity. It's often been said that what the viewer can come up with in his or her imagination is far worse than anything a director can show directly onscreen, and that's proven true by this scene. The rapee is hauled into her bedroom by about four gang members and has her wrists tied as the assault begins, but a pair of sewing shears is within reach on her nightstand and she swiftly grabs them and plunges them through the eye and into the brain of her rapist, killing him stone dead. That was shocking enough, but then the remaining gang scum proceed to pummel her senseless before hitting upon the unsavory idea of killing her by unceremoniously shoving a broom handle into a place where such household items were in no way intended to go... This landmark in cinematic good taste occurs while the woman's five-year-old daughter hides in the closet, eventually coming out once the gang has taken their leave, there to discover her mother's horribly violated corpse.

Do I need to tell you I don't recommend this one as a date movie?

Following that bit of business and several other heinous atrocities, the tenants take the fight to the gang in earnest, resorting to blunt instruments, scalding water, a swiftly MacGyvered electrified fence, and other defenses before the day is eventually won by a handful of survivors.

Lesson learned: an old Jewish broad with a grip-taped baseball bat is a dangerous thing.

TENEMENT is a down-and-dirty, relentlessly vicious story that appeals to those who can handle it because it's simply impossible not to put yourself in the place of the besieged tenants. Made in the years before cell phones and during the days when a cut phone line meant no way of contacting help, this is an urban horror story that brings one back to the bygone time when New York City could still (almost) believably be depicted as an earthly manifestation of Hell itself. It's kind of a campfire horror story transplanted from the deep woods into the concrete jungle and as such it's very effective, provided one can stomach its excesses. I know I could, and stories about people resorting to savagery when backed against a wall have for some reason always spoken to some dark place deep within me, so if you also understand the appeal of that primal, on-the-defensive animal urge, by all means give TENEMENT: GAME OF SURVIVAL a look. It ain't great cinema by any means, but you can certainly do worse with a Netflix choice.