Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Chan is Missing or 5 China Dolls for an August Moon

"China is here Mr. Burton" - Uncle Chu

My best friend in grade school was a Chinese-American kid named Nelson. His parents had immigrated to the states from China before Nelson was born, and his dad had been successful enough to buy a home in an upper-middle class northern California suburb. From the outside, Nelson's house looked like everyone else's in the neighborhood - boring, Spanish style architecture covered in beige stucco with a well-appointed lawn in front. The inside of the house was a different matter. Once past the foyer, the first thing you noticed was the subtle but rich colors of black, red, gold and white. The colors emanated from a tasteful blending of framed dragon prints on the walls, porcelain doll figures on the bookshelves, and the lacquered wood and glass coffee and end table furnishings topped with various exotic ornaments. It was almost like stepping into a museum of another culture. My parent's house had the ubiquitous orange and avocado green interior motif of mid-70's Brady Bunch America. Nelson's bedroom was upstairs at his house, and unlike the ground floor, looked like any kid's from California in that era - a poster of Reggie on the wall, a lava lamp on the nightstand, and Universal monster glow-in-the-dark models on the the headboard. Somewhere along the staircase to Nelson's second story bedroom, the culture shifted from primarily Chinese to primarily American. I never thought about the dichotomy between the generations then, Nelson's parents came from someplace else, and they had just brought a little of that culture with them, it was as simple as that to me. But, thinking back, I wonder how Nelson's parents felt about this generational cultural shift. They certainly didn't discourage there son from becoming very Americanized, but how much did they want him to hold on to the old culture? And how did they want their son perceived in the new culture - as a Chinese-American or just an American? 

Questions of cultural identity are intelligently and subtly addressed in Wayne Wang's 1982 mystery Chan is Missing.

Synopsis: A cabbie and his nephew search for their missing investment partner in San Francisco's Chinatown.

Chan is Missing is a cleverly written indie, art house, mystery with two likable leads played by Wood Moy and Marc Hayashi. Moy plays Jo, the patient and persistent uncle who has a wry sense of humor and is knowledgeable of the old world culture. Moy also provides the film's narration which  actually proves useful, and not the redundant distraction that most film narration tends to be. Hayashi plays Jo's nephew Steve and often brings a welcome playfulness to his character and the story. The film works best when both these characters are on screen with each other or a third party. The two leads are very relaxed and natural in each others presence and often seem to be doing some improvisational riffing. Thematically, the film is about cultural identity and its perception by others in and out of the culture. This is easily the film's strongest suit. Co-writer/director Wang delivers his message very effectively through the story, characters, narration and some interesting musical choices like a Chinese version of Bill Haley's Rock Around the Clock.

On the downside, the film is shot bare bones in B & W 16mm which is kind of a shame when you're shooting in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but Wang was financed off a grant and seemed to do as much as he could with what he had. The pacing is slow with some scenes seeming to start a little early and holding on a beat too long. I also wanted to see a little bit more of Chinatown, but this would have only exacerbated the pacing problem.The musical choices were inspired, but sparsely thrown onto the soundtrack. For an early effort, this was a solid film with something to say and likeable characters. I just wish there had been a little more material and music.

 Final score:


Very Cool - Available on Netflix Instant

Not so much - $26.99 list price on Amazon 

WTF? - Henry the cook simultaneously drinking milk and smoking cigarettes while cooking.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Baise-Moi or The Killers Are Our Porn Stars

"I've thought about taking a jump or burning alive. Self-immolation is pretty pretentious. After we finish in the Vosges, let's do the jump without the bungee." -Manu

Successful examples of adult film stars crossing over into mainstream movies are rare. You're more likely to spot The Loch Ness Monster in a mainstream film (and Nessie would probably be more entertaining) than a porn star. There are several possible reasons for this lack of crossover:

1) Talent Vacuum - Adult film stars are notoriously bad actors. Whatever gene allows porn stars to have uninhibited sex on film also seems to prevent them from acting with any degree of believability. I could list all the bad performances I've seen, but it's just more expedient to say that there are only a select few adult star exceptions like Georgina Spelvin or Marilyn Chambers that have been able to actually sell a believable character on the big screen.

2) Drawing Power - Whatever popularity an adult star has gained in the porn genre just doesn't seem to translate to mainstream ticket sales. Using them as a selling point doesn't seem to work - Sasha Grey is arguably the most popular adult star working nowadays, but she didn't sell a lot of tickets for The Girlfriend Experience regardless of whether they were On Demand or theatrical. 

3) Studio blacklisting? - Since the 70's, there have been rumors of studio's blacklisting adult film stars in mainstream productions. Brian De Palma reportedly wanted to cast Annette Haven as the Holly Hollywood character in Body Double, but got C-blocked by the studio. And, as long as porn stars don't make the studios money (see #2 above), why would they want to cast them anyway?

It's June 1999 in Isla Vista, California. There's a local CD swap shop not too far from casa de Shiftless that I occasionally peruse for old VHS tapes. As luck would have it (or not), I find two Linda Blair videos that I pull the trigger on without even looking past her name in the credits. One film is a horror flick called The Chilling, the other is a thriller called A Woman Obsessed (aka Bad Blood). I popped in the latter film as soon as I got home, and was surprised to see none other than silky-voiced Randy Spears playing Blair's husband. He was going by a pseudonym, but it was Spears, and he was awful. It's not like the film could have been saved without him, but man was he bad. I vowed never to watch a mainstream film starring a porn star again. Two years later, I would break that vow, and be happy that I did.

Two French women meet while on the run and embark on a sex and violence-filled rampage.

I'm not surprised that this film didn't get a lot of attention. Once I heard there were French porn stars playing the lead roles, I almost dismissed it myself. The thing that gave me pause was the fact that the film had been banned in France upon its release. "Banned in France" is not a term you often hear. A co-worker of mine who had actually lived in Paris, and still had family there, was absolutely floored when I told him about this. We both then became obsessed with seeing the movie.

The film is really an exploitation throwback, nothing more, nothing less. It is a revenge thriller, but with the two main characters, Nadine and Manu taking revenge on society in general for their crappy lives instead of any one individual. Karen (Lancaume) Bach and Raffaëla Anderson play the chillingly sociopathic leads who are just as likely to have random sex with a man as they are to stomp him out of existence with their stolen high-heels. These aren't weak-kneed, sappily sentimental Thelma and Louise types; they're hard-partying, homicidal  maniacs without conscience. If you get in their way, too bad for you.


The best thing about the film, without a doubt, is the acting by Lancaume and especially Anderson who does the lion's share of the emoting and is very scary as the short, cute and lethal Manu. The characters are well written enough to be believable, but not so overly detailed as to get in the way of the story or slow it down. The script also contains some darkly humorous moments as when Manu and Nadine debate whether to come up with a witty catchphrase before killing their victims. The film was shot mostly with a hand-held camera which really lends itself to the grittiness and immediacy of what's going on. As a result, there's not any stylization ala Natural Born Killers - it isn't needed. The story is quick (77 minutes), brutal, explicit, but surprisingly restrained. With explicit sex and graphic violence available to directors Virginie Despentes and Coralie, they really use them sparingly, in short but effective bursts, and rarely go over the top.

I can't imagine any exploitation fan disliking this movie, some may like it more than others. One thing is for certain, I'll never underestimate an adult film star again. I promise. Now, please don't hurt me. Final score:

Very cool - Lancaume became an almost overnight sensation in France due to her participation in the film.

Not so much - Anderson and Lancaume's real lives were just as tragic as their characters'.

WTF? - Did she shoot that sex club guy in the taint?!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Times Square or What Has The Studio Done to Your Daughters?

"No sense makes sense" - Aggy Doom of The Sleez Sisters

John Waters once said that there's no explaining the 60's to someone who didn't live through it. I think the same can be said for the late 70's cultural battle between disco and punk. On one side, you had the sparkly disco-ness of The Bee Gees, Donna Summer and KC & The Sunshine Band, on the other side, the urban grittiness of The Ramones, Patti Smith and Lou Reed. The musical genres were mutually exclusive, no one was a fan of both. It would have been the equivalent of saying you were a fan of both the Red Sox and the Yankees. The front lines for this war were located in New York City with the beautiful and wealthy headquartered at Studio 54, and the poor and grungy bivouaced at CBGB's. The west coast missed out on a lot of this war (we had just flat out surrendered to disco), but there were some stray soldiers ambling about...

It's May of 1980, a young Shiftless teenager from central California is leaving a BART station after an A's/Red Sox night game at the Oakland Alameda coliseum when he spots several young women dressed in garbage bags with their eyes blacked out by mascara. "WTF?" was not in common usage at the time, so I may have actually invented the term when I saw these girls. It would take another year before catching Allan Moyle's film Times Square on cable before this would all make sense to me. But then again, no sense makes sense...

Calling a film dated is usually a bad thing. But seeing the marquees of all the 42nd street grindhouse theaters in a film from 1980 is like opening a super cool NYC time capsule. It's hard to believe House of Psychotic Women ever really played in a theater until you see the title up on a Times Square marquee. It's equally difficult to believe that young women use to walk around in trash bags as a fashion choice. But as quickly as that trend appeared, it evaporated like the sleaziness of Times Square itself. The 80's feel good blandness of "morning in America" and the morphing of punk into new wave by the music industry put the brakes on that shit PDQ. I guess disco won the war after all - shut off your brain and dance robot. However, for a few brief moments in a few big cities in American, that anarchic punk attitude, originally imported from the UK, found purchase. I know, I witnessed it one night after a baseball game. Allan Moyle (who would later direct Pump Up the Volume) did his best to try and capture a punk rock moment in time with the movie Times Square. Unfortunately, the forces of evil (aka disco) were arrayed against him. Castrated and oddly fattened up by it's own producer, Robert Stigwood, the film was subsequently torpedoed mercilessly by the critics and ignored by all but a few future trash bag wearing girls upon its release. Times Square never really had a chance. But as beaten and defeated of a project as it was, it still survived and wasn't half bad. The sad part is, it could have been great.

A street girl and a politician's daughter run away to Time Square circa 1980.

There are basically three things that make this film worth seeing, the acting, the setting and 1/2 the soundtrack.

Acting  Trini Alvarado, Tim Curry and Robin Johnson pretty much did all the heavy lifting acting-wise in the movie. Alvarado and Johnson have great chemistry and Johnson very nearly tore the roof off as the somewhat screwed up street kid Nicky Marotta. Curry is incapable of not being interesting on screen, and he was solid again here as radio DJ/philosopher Johnny Laguardia who reports on the runaways' exploits.


Setting   NYC Times Square at night in 1980 in living color. Just amazing looking. Reading the film titles on the marquees will give any genre fan wood.

Soundtrack  It's half awesome CBGB-type artists like The Ramones, Talking Heads, The Pretenders etc. and half RSO disco poop. The explanation is this, with the movie almost completed, the producers informed director Moyle that RSO was going to do a double album soundtrack and wanted Moyle to shoot extra scenes without dialogue so they could jam more songs into the movie. The songs in question were by disco artists on the RSO label. So what you had was the world's first disco/punk soundtrack, which is kind of like a gangsta rap/bluegrass album. Moyle quit, and someone else came in to shoot the extra scenes and finish the film. The runtime wound up being a bloated 111 minutes.

Which brings us to the films shortcomings. Not only was there major damage caused by the idiotic soundtrack and padding decision, the movie was watered down to a large degree which is strange and pointless because it was destined for an R rating anyway due to the subject matter. The film would have benefited greatly by some additional grittiness, sleaze and maybe even an acknowledgement of the very apparent gay relationship between the two lead characters. Why hold back? Alvarado's character is a 13 year old runaway, having a relationship with a girl of 16 and dancing in a strip club in Times Square - who is there left not to offend at this point? If that doesn't bother you, I guarantee the lyrics to Your Daughter is One will offend anyone, and yet that wasn't edited out.

Despite the problems, the film has many ardent fans, myself included, who fully acknowledge its flaws but love it anyway. Moyle did manage to effectively combine character and music, as he did in 1990's Pump Up the Volume, to create something enjoyable, if with its imposed flaws. Robin Johnson did an excellent job acting and singing in what was her very first film role. The actual Times Square looked great, the bad disco songs were ignorable and the punk/new wave songs very enjoyable. Final score:

Very Cool - Robin Johnson's renditions of Damn Dog and Your Daughter is One are on the soundtrack along with a duet with David Johansen of The New York Dolls.

Not So Much - Anchor Bay put out the DVD which includes a very good commentary track with Allan Moyle and Robin Johnson. It's currently out of print. The soundtrack is also out of print.

WTF! - In a scene during a musical segment in the Cleopatra Club, porn star Sharon Mitchell is visible in the audience in close up!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Fire with Fire or School Girls (Virginity) in Peril

Prior to the late-seventies, if you wanted to see a specific movie there were only two viable options, see it at the theater, or wait, sometimes years, for it to come on commercial television. The widespread commercialization of the VCR, proliferation of video rental places, and cable TV changed all that. But it was a change that happened very slowly due to the high cost of the media products (VCRs were close to a thousand dollars when they first hit the market and video cassettes averaged around $99, if they were available for sale at all). But as the years passed, the prices came down and more and more people enjoyed the unique experience of owning a movie. There was something almost magical about that experience and the newfound ability to view a film at any time and as frequently as you wished. The first video movie you obtained was particularly memorable. Whether it was a good or bad film, it belonged to you and could be viewed at will. Sounds passé, and kind of ridiculous now, but I can't overstate the impact of that feeling of entertainment empowerment. It was like being a lifetime mass transit user who finally enjoys the freedom of his own car. Unfortunately, with the demise of the brick and mortar video store, and the progression of digital technology, that magic has all but disappeared. Watching a movie on the iPhone is a technical marvel, but lacks the impact of obtaining the previously unobtainable. "What was the first movie you watched on Netflix Instant?" is a question that just doesn't resonate nostalgically. But, like my first car, my first love, and my first beer, I still remember my very first video movie purchase…

It was 1987, I was broke and literally eating the government cheese. The good news was, I'd just been hired by the same people who were giving out the free cheese to sort tax returns. Now all I had to do was figure out how to spend all of that newly acquired fresh government salad. I could replace the packing crates in my studio apartment with real furniture, or I could buy one of those new fangled home cinema viewing machines I'd been hearing so much about over the past decade. I wound up buying a new, super cheap, video cassette player, that's right, a VCP, and it still cost me over 125 large. I then realized I still needed to get a movie to play on it. It somehow felt wrong to stick a nasty, used, disease ridden rental cassette in my shiny new virgin machine, so I stopped off at the local Tower Records and blindly grabbed the cheapest new cassette out of the bargain bin I could find. Basically, I just wanted to make sure my player worked, and my expectations were beyond low for a movie that could be purchased for $5.99 plus CA sales tax. I was fairly surprised by what I got -

Synopsis: Craig Sheffer plays a nice hunky boy who has been sent to a juvenile offender youth camp in the woods. While competing in a marathon run with a rival group, he espies Virginia Madsen's character photographically recreating Millais' Ophelia in a river he stumbles across. She simultaneously peeps him, and is smitten. They spend the rest of the movie trying to get together. 

Despite the unbelievable and overly romanticized premise, this film is actually quite strong and enjoyable in a number of areas:

Setting/Cinematography  The British Colombia forest locations were incredibly beautiful and cinematographer Hiro Narita, who was the DoP on Never Cry Wolf, did a solid job with the outdoor photography.

Music and score   Howard Shore did the lush orchestral score which was very good and complemented the 80's pop hits on the soundtrack quite nicely. They included some nice selections from Prince, Bryan Ferry, James House and Wild Blue.

Acting   Sheffer and Madsen are both excellent and have good chemistry together. I was a fan of Madsen's after seeing her in Electric Dreams, and she put in another solid performance here in what could have been a two dimensional dream girl role.

Cast  Besides Madsen and Sheffer, whose characters take up most of the screen time, there's a pretty solid cast backing them up including, DB Sweeney as Sheffer's nemesis, Jon Polito (Casper the gangster from Miller's Crossing) as the boss guard, veteran TV actress Jean Smart as the Nilf-y Sister Maria, Kate Reid from Atlantic City and Equus, Kari Wuhrer from Sliders, Tim Russ from Star Trek Voyager, Penelope Sudrow from NoES 3, Jeffrey Jay Cohen from the Back to the Future trilogy, and David Harris who played Cochise in The Warriors.

In addition, for the type of movie this was, the production value was pretty darned impressive. Someone spent some time, money and effort on the film, and it showed.

Sounds pretty fantastic so far right? Unfortunately, there is a near fatal flaw and it's the screenplay. I knew there was going to be trouble the first time I watched the film and observed no less than four screenwriters credited in the opening. Never a good sign, and it wasn't for this film. The story seemed like a misbegotten mash up of Bad Boys, Romeo & Juliet and Heaven Help Us. You can actually see vestiges of the script re-writes if you look closely. Jon Polito's character, who was right out of a 70's prison movie, was wildly over the top and unbelievable. For the entire length of the movie, his character ran around brandishing a loaded shotgun and threatening unarmed teenaged boys. It's not Polito's fault, that's how the character was written. The Jeffrey Jay Cohen character, who has some of the film's worst dialogue, played a combination of juvenile delinquent, cartographer and class clown. Whatever. The majority of the clunky writing seemed centered around the boys and the goings on at their detention camp. The dialogue in these scenes just sounded false and cringe-inducing. It didn't break the movie, but it was definitely the weakest aspect. However, the writing seemed to markedly improve when the focus switched to the girls' school or just the Madsen and Sheffer characters and became at least passable. 

Overall, I received more than my money's worth for the video which I still possess, and have easily viewed more times than any other. I was surprised by the strengths of the film, and I think they ultimately won out over the weak script. Not a classic, but entertaining and of surprisingly high quality, and best of all, the first movie I ever owned. Final Score:

Very Cool - Friday the Thirteenth part V: A New Beginning is the movie the boys go to see in the nearby town, and you can actually see it playing up on the screen for a change. Nice!

Not So Much - This film is unavailable on DVD which is not surprising because getting the music rights alone for Computer Blue from His Royal Doucheness would be highly unlikely. Shame, because the look and music in the film would shine even more on DVD or Blu-ray.

WTF? - For a film that was made right in the middle of the 80's and which features a big dance set piece, the clothing and hairstyles were very conservative and distinctly un-cheesy. The music video for the film was another matter entirely. While it serves as a great trailer for the film, and the song is very catchy, check out the humongous 80's hair on Wild Blue's lead singer Renee Varo and note that it is actually dwarfed by her bandmates':