Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Hey, World, Liberate THESE: "The Sexually Liberated Female" (1970)

This faux documentary, released to capitalize on the runaway bestseller "The Sensuous Woman" by the pseudonymous "J," and written and directed by one of Jayne Mansfield's ex-husbands, is a goofy hoot.

Narrated by a breathless and oddly named Lindis Guinness, the sixty-five minute film tells American women that they need to step up their sexual game if they want to compete with the more sensuous (and in some ways, looser) European and Oriental women for the American Male's attention. If only our country wasn't founded by the Puritans, whose belief system was somehow ingrained into the American female psyche all of these generations later...one example of the suspect science at work in the film.

Because most American women lay around all day, without employment or children to worry about, they should use things around the house to explore their bodies. One hilarious sequence involves a woman caressing hideous late 1960s decorous items like a lamp and that sexy vase. Sensuously rubbing yourself with an apple is funny enough, but choosing assorted vegetables to insert into your genitalia (watch out for that radish) is both hysterical and gross. The hardcore sex scenes are not sensuous at all, and filmed in the name of "instruction."

The uncredited cast of women go through the motions, with the woman who masturbates being the cutest one. A couple of women sport ill-fitting wigs, one of which almost falls off during an explicit sex scene. The anal sex scene is difficult to watch mostly because the couple looks angry at each other, and Matt Cimber's camera may be recording the beginnings of a physical altercation. A brief interview on Vinegar Syndrome's release of the film (the company had to make do with a pretty lousy source print) with Cimber indicates that Cimber wrote and filmed this as a lark, and was sued over the film. The director was triumphant, the film was a smash, and Cimber is correct: the film is a lark, and a relic.

"The Sexually Liberated Female" is also known as "The Sensually Liberated Female"- the opening credit's title as well as sounding a little more similar to the sexual manual that inspired it. Feminists today would probably protest this as misogynistic, but in all honesty it's funnier than a lot of mainstream comedies in your streaming queue right now. (* * *) out of five stars.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Don't Worry, "Taken 3," You Aren't the Worst Sequel of 2015: "Hotel Transylvania 2" (2015)

The gang from the smash-hit is back, in a film that screams for more hotel and less Adam Sandler screenwriting.

Dracula's (Adam Sandler) daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) is living with her human dude husband Jonathan (Andy Samberg) at the titular hotel, where Jonathan is given a social networking job to deal with the influx of humans into Transylvania. Mavis and Jonathan also have a toddler named Dennis (Asher Blinkoff), who is half human and half vampire, and no one is sure if the boy will be a monster or not. Dracula wants Dennis' fangs to come in as soon as possible, but the overly protective Mavis is letting nature take its course. Jonathan loves his job at the hotel, so Drac sends the couple off to California to show Mavis how awful Jonathan's home state is (so the couple won't move away), and to work on turning the adorable Dennis into a bloodthirsty supernatural being. Dracula and his friends take Dennis on a road trip, exposing Dennis to all of Dracula's old haunts (which have all changed since humans arrived), and each monster tries to demonstrate their evil with disastrous results. In the meantime, Mavis is enthralled by the human world, until she realizes what Dracula has been doing and literally flies back to Transylvania to confront her meddling father.

Wait. There's more wackiness. Mel Brooks is introduced, much too late, as Dracula's estranged father Vlad. He also is worried that Dennis' fangs haven't come in, and no one has told him that Mavis married a human. Much like Jonathan disguising himself as a monster in the first film, Jonathan's visiting suburban family must all disguise themselves as monsters to fool the old vampire.

"Hotel Transylvania" worked because of the manic energy that Sandler and Samberg brought. That film moved, not allowing anyone to catch their breath, and brought some nice emotional moments as well. Its sequel lays there like a corpse. All of that energy is gone, and the two main plot thrusts of the film make it feel like two DIFFERENT films, and therefore, much longer. Gone is the poking fun at human conventions through the eyes of the monsters. Here, bad puns take over, and for a film called "HOTEL Transylvania 2," we don't get a lot of time at the hotel. Some great ideas are touched upon, but Sandler and Robert Smigel's script doesn't pursue them. The first film ended with a fun musical number, this film ends with a whimper- and makes the viewer sit through half the credits hoping another clip will pop up where they were saving the real laughs...we left once the cast list started rolling, possible mid-end credits joke be damned. I write this review in the final hours of my birthday (what'd you get me?). On my birthday two years ago, me and the little woman sat through "Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2"- another disappointing sequel to a fun original animated flick. I'm thinking this tradition will be ending after tonight.

To read that cast list, you would have thought the film would be a riot. It has a few laughs and too few great scenes, but those bright spots are overwhelmed by a cast and director turning in a half-assed effort. I checked out of "Hotel Transylvania 2" just after the opening title credit. (*) out of five stars.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Eye Witness: "Amish Grace" (2010)

This Lifetime made-for-television film commits a huge blunder in its opening seconds.

The Grabers are an Amish family- father Gideon (Matt Letscher), mother Ida (Kimberly Williams-Paisley), and daughters Katie and Mary Beth (Karley Scott Collins and Madison Davenport). The girls attend a nearby school in their Pennsylvania community, and life is good. In October of 2006, Charlie Roberts (Matt Churchill) walked into the schoolhouse and murdered five girls before taking his own life. One of the children killed was Mary Beth. Among those grieving is Charlie's wife Amy (a fantastic Tammy Blanchard), and her father (Gary Graham). They had no idea this upstanding husband and family man was going to do something so horrible, and the Roberts family is really thrown when the Amish males come to help Amy and forgive the man who killed some of their offspring.

Not everyone is forgiving, however. Ida's sister is shunned for leaving the Amish faith, and with the help of a completely unrealistic television news reporter (Fay Masterson), Ida decides to leave the community herself. She cannot stomach forgiving anyone for what happened, but she isn't allowed to vent and speak out about her disagreement with the others.

The film desperately tries to raise some important questions about forgiveness and faith. I know straight away I wouldn't be able to forgive the killer so quickly. I can't even forgive those who have done less against me on a daily basis! The screenwriters present both sides of the argument, with Ida and Gideon seeming to be in the right. The crime was horrible and heartbreaking, and we may never know why Roberts did what he did, despite the easy movie reasons (which differ from other motives I have read about). And what of the Graber family? Did they ever reconcile their anger with their faith? I don't know. According to an opening crawl before the film, the Grabers are a fictional family. This tidbit of information almost completely negates the following hour and a half. The Grabers are based on a real family, but if they are fictitious, then how many more liberties did the screenwriters take with the characters (aside from the obvious). Names have been changed, families imagined, and what we are left with is something along the lines of a "Law and Order" episode that was torn from today's headlines, but *wink-wink* isn't based on any real people.

The Amish domestic scenes are excruciating in their bland happiness, and Williams-Paisley can't seem to nail her character down until after the shootings. Blanchard is excellent as Roberts' wife, never understanding why these strange people are helping her. Champion's direction is good, but his shots feel confined. He breaks out once in a while, but then pulls a scene out of his hat that is cringe-inducing in its obviousness (Roberts' funeral).

The film was based on a book of the same name, and I have also read that the authors tried to distance themselves from the production (which broke ratings records when it debuted). "Amish Grace" is a well-acted mess, and I wouldn't take anything you see as gospel. It was rated TV-PG and contains some adult situations. (* * *) out of five stars.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Long and Hard...to Endure: "Marathon" (1983)

Considering I can condense the plot of this film into one sentence, this might be a short review. A costumed group of people, numbering over a dozen, have a sex party, which they move to a hospital room when they find out two partygoers were injured in a ski lift accident. Plot done.

The film is nothing more than two marathon orgy scenes, interrupted only when Jamie Gillis magically answers a non-ringing phone. The wasted opportunity boasts well-known porn performer names, even if you are not familiar with porn- Gillis, William Margold, Sharon Mitchell, John Holmes, and Ron Jeremy. Unfortunately, Gillis seems bored and Holmes looks like he was hit by a bus on the way to the shoot.

The Vinegar Syndrome transfer is their usual bright and clear job, but in this instance the film wasn't worth the effort. Sure, there's a big name cast here literally going through the motions, but anyone looking for a clash of the porn titans will need to look elsewhere. Also surprising is Edgar G. Warren's writing credit, since no one can convince me anything you see onscreen was written down beforehand. The canned music is more entertaining than the sex scenes, or when bored you can see how many times Tobalina's camera finds the edge of the carpet on set, downstage from all the humping.

"Marathon" is a chore to sit through. You can almost spot the moment when adult films went from stories with explicit sexual scenes to nothing but anatomical parts bumping together (Tobalina shows only a few faces, so half the time you have no idea who you are seeing have sex). Don't run this marathon. This is self-rated (X) and contains very strong pornographic sexual content, very strong nudity, and profanity. (*) out of five stars.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Clay Causes Carnage: "A Plague So Pleasant" (2013)

It must be frustrating for a film maker to have a vision of their story in their head, but not the budget to make it a reality. Some film makers give up and move on, and some make do with what they have and hope for the best. Benjamin Roberds and Jordan Reyes make do, and make an effective film that shakes things up in the zombie cinema canon.

Clay (David Chandler) narrates his bland black and white world. The recent zombie apocalypse lasted twelve hours, and now the living and the walking dead coexist uneasily. Shooting a zombie in the head is a crime, since that act provokes the zombies. The zombies cooperate by not eating humans, instead snacking on oats. Visiting dead friends and relatives is a possibility thanks to zombie reserves where they roam around. The undead are a nuisance, as humans must sit in on boring meetings about how to handle the infestation but as always, the government has a plan in case there is an uprising.

Clay's ultra-douchey roommate Todd (Max Moody) is interested in Clay's sister, Mia (Eva Boehnke). Mia turns him down, saying she has a boyfriend- which is partially true. Twice a week, Mia visits her dead boyfriend at one of the zombie reserves, knitting him clothing and pretending everything is fine except for the fact that he is dead. Todd hits on an idea. Why not remove the boyfriend from the equation by shooting him? He's on a reserve, what could possibly go wrong?

Roberds and Reyes pick this moment to do a complete change in the look of the film that works so well. This isn't a comedy, the opening scenes are more satirical on par with a Coen brothers film. When the film heads into gory horror, that is also handled well. The story clocks in at under eighty minutes, a perfect running time for the plot. Budgetary restraints are evident, though. Some of the makeup is obvious, the video picture is less than clear here and there, and the sound mix is all over the place (the lone song in here is played too loudly).

However, the cast is very good. Roberds edited and Reyes did the cinematography, and both handle those extra jobs very well. I liked Roberds' ideas in the film, and that he didn't turn this into a guffawing comedy that probably would not have worked as well. The violence and gore are strong, and Chandler dutifully carries the film on his shoulders.

"A Plague So Pleasant" is definitely something different, and refreshes a genre that is getting more and more stale by the week. Zombies deserve more efforts like this (from Wild Eye Releasing). The film is not rated by the MPAA, and contains strong physical violence, brief gun violence, strong gore, profanity, brief nudity, and adult situations. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Horse Dicks ARE Funny: "Seth" (2015)

Actor Zach Lasry steps behind the camera for this funny short film. Seth (a very good Logan George) wakes up and resolves to complete all of his goals in one single day. With the urging of his stuffed animal friends, he does indeed eat more corn, and reads inspirational Michael Jordan quotes. He checks each item off the list, and celebrates with a party before being called out by one stuffed bunny (?) named Christopher- Seth didn't impress his stoic father (Emmett Smith). Dad is attuned to Seth's bizarre behavior, and tolerates it for the most part, admitting he doesn't think much of his obviously disturbed son. Seth sets out to complete his goal anyway.

Because the running time is just fifteen minutes, Lasry jumps into the madness right away, not giving the viewer a chance to breathe. George is hilarious, embracing the character with little benefit (to us) of a back story. Smith is also great, and he and George work well together. The humor is bizarre and fast-paced. We even get a musical montage while watching the preparation Seth goes through. Not everyone will think this kind of thing is funny, but I think it caught me on the right day and mood...hopped up on pain killers and planted in a recliner thanks to a thrown-out back.

On the technical side, the film is flawless. A clear picture, nice editing, perfect sound recording; all of it scores. I don't know if something like this could be expanded to a feature length idea (think "The Jerk" on acid), but the likable two-man cast is fun to watch. "Seth" is currently making the festival rounds, you could do worse than spare it a quarter hour or so. "Seth" contains mild physical violence, some profanity, brief nudity, sexual references, and strong adult situations. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Penthouse Gore 'Em: "The Comeback" (1979)

I haven't seen this film in over three decades, but a rewatch shows it still packs an over-the-top punch. Jack Jones is pop singer Nick Cooper, who has been on a six year hiatus from recording at the insistence of his wife Gail (Holly Palance). The couple has just divorced, and Nick decides to go back to recording for music executive Webster (David Doyle). Gail? Oh, Gail is savagely murdered in the estranged couple's London penthouse by a killer with a small scythe and sporting an old woman's mask.

Nick is put up in an English country house where the servants Mr. and Mrs. B (Bill Owen and Pete Walker regular Sheila Keith) are taking care of the estate while it's owners are on a year-long cruise. The B's are an odd couple, but Nick takes to the house's isolation and starts recording. Nick also takes to Linda (Pamela Stephenson), Webster's secretary. The two begin seeing each other, as Gail's body decomposes in the penthouse, almost getting discovered on a couple of occasions. Red herring suspects in the murder increase with the introduction of Harry (Peter Turner), Nick's creepy go-fer. Nick begins having nightmares, and the hallucinations turn real as someone wants to either drive him insane or kill him off themselves.

Although I had not seen this in over thirty years, some scenes still stuck with me: the murders are gory, a surprising cast member's character is actually a cross-dresser, there is an instance of tree vandalism, and Stephenson's bare rump. What I didn't remember is how good a job Jones does despite some convenient filmmaking cheats. When Nick sees a gory sight, he runs away from it or hides, giving the body or body part a chance to disappear. Jones plays his role well, sporting a nice delivery whether singing or reacting to the craziness around him. Stephenson is an attractive leading lady, and Doyle and Johnson provide ample support. Sheila Keith is always good in these roles, but I dare you to shake her similarity to Robin Williams' Mrs. Doubtfire. Now that I have mentioned it, that is going to be all you think about when she is onscreen.

Walker is known for his crazed exploitation (I saw "House of Whipcord"), and he is given ample opportunity here. The description I have read about the film, that Nick's ex-wife haunts him, isn't really true, although there is a supernatural element tossed into this glossy slasher flick, which will remind you of everything from "Curtains" to any other slasher film of the late 1980's. The story does drag a bit in the third act, and I probably would have figured out (and remembered) the climax if I had thought about it a little more.

My poor father. He dragged his rabid film loving son to this, "Friday the 13th Part 2," and "An American Werewolf in London" before he realized that I was thrilling to the gore and nudity while he desperately searched for a Universal monster like the ones he grew up watching. Once HBO came along, kids my age didn't need to get an adult to vouch them into a theater, the blood and boobs appeared in our living rooms!

I watched "The Comeback" on a dodgy Media Blasters DVD transfer that left a lot to be desired. Horror fans will want to seek it out, some parts of this have to be seen to be believed. The MPAA rated this (R) and it contains strong physical violence, gore, some profanity, brief nudity, some sexual content, sexual references, some adult situations, and alcohol and tobacco use. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

From Frankenstein's Monster to Some Dude in a Monkey Suit: "The Ape" (1940)

Boris Karloff is a subdued mad scientist trying to cure a debilitating disease despite the best efforts of local townsfolk, his patient's simple-minded boyfriend, and an escaped circus primate.

Dr. Bernard Adrian (Boris Karloff) is a reclusive physician whose house the neighborhood kids regularly vandalize. He lost his wife and daughter to a "paralysis disease" (polio is mentioned on one video box) and he is treating the beautiful wheelchair-bound Frances (Maris Wrixon). A cut-rate circus comes to town, and Frances and beau Danny (Gene O'Donnell) gleefully react to stock footage of clowns and trapeze artists.

The circus' ape attacks a cruel trainer after the show, and a fire erupts from a dropped cigar. The trainer is taken to Dr. Adrian's, where the doc is able to continue his experiments on this gift of fate (in the film's one memorable scene). The trainer dies, but suddenly Frances can feel her legs, thanks to some spinal serum the doctor was able to extract. The ape attacks the doctor's home, and Adrian subdues him. As the local sheriff and fedora-brandishing posse search for the murdering ape, Adrian both hides the animal and works for an ever-improving Frances' cure.

This cheap little Monogram production runs just 62 minutes, and the majority of the budget may have gone to the ape suit some uncredited actor must wear. The film is almost too lean, the story moves so briskly that the big climax is hilarious. After three-second shots and characterization lumped into goofy lines of dialogue (at one point, Danny confesses that he hates things he doesn't understand), the film makers try to slow things down for emotional scenes full of Scooby-Doo-like unmaskings and medical miracles. It doesn't work.

The cast is alright, given the material (which was inspired by a play?...yikes!). Karloff is very good, not playing the role as evil but sympathetic. Even his body language is interesting, hunched over and trying not to be noticed. Nigh's direction is standard- nothing showy.

"The Ape" is cheap, fast, and too controlled. It won't touch you, change you, or challenge you. (* *) out of five stars.

Does the World Really Need Another Mafia Comedy?: "Avenging Angelo" (2003)

With the terrific success of "The Sopranos," and with "Married to the Mob" and "Prizzi's Honor" lurking in their collective subconscious, the film makers behind "Avenging Angelo" have some big cement shoes to fill, or I should say, fail to fill.

Angelo (Anthony Quinn) is a dying mob boss accompanied by his faithful bodyguard Frankie (Sylvester Stallone). Years before, Angelo fathered a daughter, Jennifer (Madeleine Stowe), but gave her up to a childless family. A contract had been put out on any child Angelo may have, so he and Frankie kept their distance but always kept an eye on Jennifer.

Jennifer grows up into a rich neurotic housewife married to jerk Kip (Harry Van Gorkum). Angelo gets whacked, Frankie is injured, and he goes to Jennifer to tell her the truth about her real father and protects her as hitmen begin hunting her down. Now, that's only the beginning! Author Marcello (Raoul Boya) enters Jennifer's life, sweeping her off her feet. Frankie's love stays unrequited as Jennifer decides to take out a hit on the man responsible for Angelo's death.

What the DVD cover for the film doesn't tell you is this tries to be a comedy, and I emphasize the word "tries." Stallone is very likable as Frankie, and Quinn is sympathetic in his last role. Stowe throws herself completely into the film, giving us her most memorable character since "12 Monkeys" and "The Last of the Mohicans." It's a shame the film tries too hard to cram every funny idea it has into ninety-some odd minutes, because snappier editing might have helped. Jokes about Jennifer's adoptive dad's homosexuality go over like a fart in church. A running gag about Frankie disposing of bodies at Jennifer's mansion (where a farting hitman goes over like, well, a fart in church, too) is abandoned. Jennifer's first "hit" takes too long and comes at a weird time in the film.

The story never progresses smoothly as characters and situations are hurriedly introduced and executed, as if a treatment and not a screenplay was filmed. It's easy to see why "Avenging Angelo" went right to video, and probably resides in the Action section at your local video store thanks to the misleading cover art. Forget Angelo, I want my ninety-six minutes avenged. (* *) out of five stars.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

A Case for Treatment: "The Treatment" (2015)

Ye olde police procedural has been around for decades, with dozens of examples being shown on television every night of the week. There is rarely anything new to offer, and the comfortable television shows follow a routine in their episodes that rarely challenges the average viewer- "Bones" and "Criminal Minds," I'm looking at you. Director Hans Herbots and screenwriter Carl Joos takes an English crime novel (by Mo Hayder), and the age old police conventions, and shakes things up a bit. The evil of some of our fellow humans is ratcheted up, and this film contains an excruciating final scene that will stick with you for days. To say "The Treatment" is a dark film is an understatement.

Nick Cafmeyer (an excellent Geert Van Rampelberg) is a driven inspector dealing with the demons of his past. His younger brother was kidnapped, and the uncharged prime suspect (Johann van Assche) in the case continues to bother the detective to this day. Nick's new case involves another missing child, and old wounds are reopened as Nick confronts similarities to his past. The missing child's parents almost died from dehydration as the kidnapper handcuffed them for days without food or water while the boy was assaulted. Many suspects come out of the woodwork (I wouldn't identify them as "red herrings," though), and a driven Nick investigates under the sympathetic watchful eye of boss Danni (Ina Geerts).

The brilliance of Joos' screenplay is that just when you think you have everything figured out, the film throws a curve ball that has you questioning yourself again and again. This is not a gimmicky strategy, but an organic product of the story. The film upsets the conventions (thankfully, no interrogation room theatrics) expertly. The plot is so damn compelling. I was glued to what was happening, and followed the characters to where the story went with both fascination and repulsion.

Herbots' camera is cold and unflinching. There are a number of scenes that will make you squirm and turn away, and it's depressing that this type of crime is being committed on a daily basis around the world (don't believe me, just watch the news). The editing by Philippe Ravoet is breathtaking. Often, the film will cut back and forth between two or three scenes, all of which have something vital to the plot happening, and the viewer won't be able to take their eyes off the screen. Van Rampelberg is a handsome actor, but this isn't an action film, and he is able to deliver a troubled performance that should get him awards. Of course, if this is remade, the role is perfect for Liam Neeson, if he hadn't played almost the exact same character in "A Walk Among the Tombstones."

"The Treatment," also known as "De Behandeling," is another winner from Artsploitation Films, and one that will haunt you for days. You'll never look at "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" the same way again, and if you do, you might find it bland. This is one of the best films of the year. (* * * * *) out of five stars.