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Anger of the Dead (2015)
A willing jump into the apocalypse.
The latest entry in the saturated zombie sub-genre may not have much new to say but offers more maturity and technical competence than the average DSLR bloodbath. Director Francesco Picone manages to create dread and tension with carefully paced suspense and neatly-drawn characters even within the standard genre tropes of utopian hope and bleach-bypassed visuals. The result is a slick experience, if a familiar one, but with occasionally-welcomed twists and character reveals.
The attempts to hide Italian aspects of its production, like many 80s direct- to-video foreign action programmers, becomes apparent at times, but here the acting towers over its budget and shines enough to realistically portray an American landscape. The standout in the capable cast, Aaron Stielstra, is given an emotional subplot that is both heartbreaking and morally repugnant amidst the already copious amounts of gore and convincing practical effects. The film even allows for a quiet, introspective moment with this character to reveal the childhood memories of his dog. Luckily, the filmmakers and performers are able to balance this sentimentality with all the on screen mayhem in a way that helps raise the stakes rather than shamelessly manipulate them with hackneyed Hollywood ploys, even if much of the music seems recycled from inferior products.
Overall, a worthwhile production with some fine acting and thought put into it beyond just creative effects and kills.
Spartaco Castelluci's international crime thriller contains the usual complacent deviants and human garbage we've come to celebrate from Depth Charge Productions. Starting with a brutal assassination in a group therapy session, the action soon relocates to Italia where the ever- running DC themes of paint addiction, human livestock trading and traditional drug smuggling begin to whirlwind out of control. Meanwhile, a snitch musician gets mixed up with a shady lawyer and homosexual closeted government agents over a massive cartel shipment. Apparently, a drug runner Cornell Parker is under FBI scrutiny after a series of brutal killings and kidnappings. Faceless hero Gus Benedict returns to make things right, or sulk in anger, depending on his mood and location to any given on screen scumbag looking to eliminate him. Or something like that. The on screen directions to a website for additional plot information led me to a broken link.
There's much more variety in cast and depravity than the movie's countless prequels, and with a healthy collection of cameos from excellent unknowns. The whole affair seems more epic and focused. Stielstra is back playing a plethora of scum, his most repugnant being the permed half-breed Parker. Parker drives the movie's sordidness and hatred to its comical peak but ultimately fizzles up in a series of shootouts. It makes Buster Pie's heroin-addicted saxophonist seem relatively stable. More characters come and go to be promptly executed before receiving ethnic insults or abuse. Standouts include Michael Fredianelli as Isaac Abrahams, a harmless Jewish attorney forced to associate with whiny musicians and narcotics smuggling. His hideous sideburns, cowboy boots and thrift store jackets--not to mention Fredianelli's bloated countenance--make for a pathetic presentation of authority. But it's that rare character in the film we root for and sympathize with. Until he's eaten by Mexicans. Actor Mike Malloy gives the other great supporting performance as a federal agent confined to an abandoned building with more antiquated surveillance and gadgetry than Jigsaw's basement. He's inexplicitly dubbed for a majority of the film, but it's his smarmy Bruce Dern delivery and ambiguous sexuality that really shock the audience and supplies a welcomed 70s crime throwback to the proceedings. Unfortunately, his character's fate remains unexplained through the end of the movie.
The film definitely has its assets, despite its amateurish shortcomings. The most impressive aspect of the narrative being the spot-on social commentary regarding pop culture and obesity in America, two motifs I'm pleased Stielstra has not yet abandoned. Other jabs at our decaying modern civilization include disgusting pop videos, a reoccurring news bulletin regarding an infant on a rampage, and a nauseating montage of bulbous ATV drivers. Not very subtle, but an appropriate commentary nonetheless. Sadly, the film's annoying medievalists were not mowed down by a nearby explosion.
Technically speaking, this is the most advanced and visually impressive of the DC productions. Some shots are very cleverly setup and executed, such as an extreme telephoto long take of a confrontation at the train tracks pre-firefight, and a sweeping pan across the Mexican border. Lighting is also used more effectively and sparingly, the best example being a moody showdown between Buster and Bud that ends in morbid David Lynchian fashion and weirdness. As per par for the course, the soundtrack rarely disappoints with enough stingers and drones to make any Bill Lustig fanatic take noteespecially when they accompany a flaming miniature car explosion. The suspenseful compositions, such as Gus's themes, appropriately build tension and rarely falter. The remainder of the songs contain enough funk and groove to make the on screen atrocities more palatable and enjoyable.
The general look and feel of the movie still feels amateurish. A big part of the blame can be placed on all the worthless one-chip cameras and a lack of proper sound equipment, but there's still room for improvement in areas that don't require any budget or a big crew. Some more controlled camera-work would have helped, mostly in the countless montages that consist of sloppy hand-held pans, zooms and tilts. Also, too many scenes are obviously stitched together from numerous locations and it shows: the worst offenders being two brief action sequences.
Narrative-wise, the story is a lot easier to follow this time around, but there's still a large amount of talky exposition, incessant name dropping and elongated dialog scenes. More editing would have helped, even at the expense of creating plot holes. Also, the entire cast seems to fall into two camps, and since the main parts are acted so well, it just makes the inexperienced, weaker performers that much easier to spot.
Overall, the film delivers on the expected laughs and bloodshed despite its limitations. Eternally quotable lines such as, "Suck my buttocks," have already penetrated the everyday dialog of this viewer, and many gags will burn out the rewind button on my remote. Recommended, if you can focus on the main characters and ignore the plot confusion and visual patchwork.
Black Devil Doll from Hell (1984)
Unbelievable obscurity from the mid-80s revels in its pornographic and horror inspirations. A church-going lady saving herself for marriage goes shopping at a thrift store and picks up a Jamaican puppet believed to have evil powers. It then proceeds to rape the living bejeezus out of her and turns her into a horn dog, only human meat cannot satiate her newfound hunger for puppet penis. Absurd on every level with pacing that can block a magnum bullet, this has garnered a cult status for all the right reasons. Only a few freeze frame montages show any creativity and deliver the biggest belly laughs, unless you count the disco scene from 1984 with numerous extras shaking their booties to Casio music. Which is the film's other main asset: score. The opening credits droll for a full 6.5 minutes with an accompanying song you'd swear was performed and vocalized by Aaron Stielstra; the rest of the songs coming from a Casio keyboard demonstration (literally) and an unbearable one-note synth drone that sounds like your tape is broken. Remarkably, the puppetry is very competent and I couldn't spot any humans manipulating the Fat Albert-voiced doll. Many, many scenes of erotica and nudity from one of the most unattractive women to grace the screen. The thrift store owner's line reading is hilarious and deserves its own drinking game.
99 and 44/100% Dead (1974)
The one Frankenheimer wants you to forget.
John Frankenheimer's post modern stab at the crime genre comes hot off the heels of Michael Ritchie's Prime Cut (from the same author no less), only the tone is more cutesy and the body count is nearly tripled. After a Pycal-inspired opening and an excellent underwater graveyard montage, we are introduced to pearly pistol gripped gangster Richard Harris who's en route to Chicago (?) to help win a dangerous mob war. The substandard mafia plot sits second tier to the film's sporadic comedy spoofing and mugging, much of what both fails and succeeds simultaneously at the hands of its dramatic director who must have been at the peek of his well publicized cocaine binge. Harris, with his balding curl mullet and wide-brimmed glasses resembles a young Michael Caine or Woody Allen depending on the lighting and camera angle, but performs his actions and delivers his dialog like a stone cold stoic; the juxtaposition is startling and dare I say cool as hell. Action scenes come out of nowhere and are framed and executed with professionalism, including a crazy ambush on an elevated bridge, and Chuck Conner's interchangeable James Bond claw which can alternate between knives and sex toys given the occasion. Much maligned and obscure gem. The skeletal dead humans and accompanying narrator reminds me of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland.
Good Times (1967)
A sign of things not to come
First feature from William Hurricane Friedkin in 1967 is a comedy musical starring Sonny and Cher(!), and we're a far cry from the all the vehicular mayhem, gay themes and people getting shot in the face which was to soon follow from the man. Sonny Bono, here resembling the love child of an ogre and Gerard Depardieu, plays himself in a silly fantasy plot about trying to get his pre-surgical wife Cher in the film business. No, this is not a documentary, but a fun, harmless "what-if" caca comedy. We are then treated to three daydreamed scenarios: a Western with wimpy Bono cleaning up a corrupt barroom; a Tarzan jungle movie; and a film-noir detective parody. It's amazing how low and childish the direction sinks at times with its pseudo-hippie sensibilities and innocent morality. The slapstick gags are usually unfunny with only a few inspired moments: a card game with talking chimps and an overdone nightclub shootout. In between each episode comes the musical number which may or may not serve as anesthesia for the sequences that come before. Sonny's pilgrim haircut and squash physique may turn viewers off, but it's surprising to see that Cher was actually cute at one point.
They Call Me Fred (2010)
Sweaty modern day Western outing is a shot in the right direction
First film directed by promising Vince Lopes Jr., the familiar face from various AZ indie projects, most notably the ones from Aaron Stielstra (See Naples
then Die) and Angelo Lopes (Armas .45). This modern day film noir Spaghetti Western hybrid showcases an ultra hot and ugly stucco Tucson landscape as the battlefield between a desperate loner and a plethora of two-timing half wits, femme fatales, hotel-dwelling lowlifes and dueling desert nomads. Like any good film noir, the protagonist even has his own self-loathing angel of reason (if you can call it that) via split screen special effects in place of the more traditional voice-over. The result is a sometimes compelling, sometimes random series of events, the best being a middle act dedicated to life-threatening Sergio Leone gun draws. For the most part, this film delivers the goods on almost all fronts: it's entertaining, the characters are memorable and the tone will definitely appeal to crime and Western fans. Unfortunately, it doesn't have enough content for a feature length project and much of the sound is poorly recorded and mixed, especially in some dialog scenes that overstay their welcome (the film's major flaws). The original music is a wonderful, eclectic marriage of old Morricone (when he was good) and Mexican funk an odd merge, but one that pays off in an offbeat way; and the widescreen visuals immediately invite us into the SW world it tries to imitate. The acting is a mixed bag but the standouts are readily apparent: the reliable Aaron Stielstra and Brendan Murphy steal every scene they're in, and the lead performance from the director himself proves a powerful inner and physical presence as well as a romanticized loneliness which should get him bigger, more thankful parts in future WD and DC productions (one could only hope). This movie is very hard to find, but if you run across it, I suggest picking it up.
Boats Beat Back (2009)
Against the currents...
After a slew of shorts, genre scripts and a handful of Wild Dogs contract assignments, the first feature from director Todd Jurgess finally gets its overdue release. Ripping a page from the book of troubled twenty-something relationship turmoil (a Jurgess hallmark) Boats throws its average Joe nice guy into a dangerous drug trade of Asian mules, wholesale dealing and suburbanite cokeheads that listen to their death metal way too loud and way too late in the evening. Derek is your mild-mannered numbers puncher with a life so humbly satisfying and straight, the only possible direction it can take is a downward spiral. When given the opportunity, he hooks up with an old dope fiend from the past, much to the secrecy of his girlfriend who leaves town for job interviews, and life expectedly begins to unravel at a startling pace until its inevitably violent and exhausted climax.
At its core is Derek: the prototypical Jurgess young white male. It's a reoccurring theme in past projects (Time to Talk, You Know Best, Safety Nets, etc.) of a man coping through his loss of control at the expense of his romantic happiness, usually created by his own personal choices or past infidelities. Derek's current situation consists of a ho-hum desk job and a relatively happy partner; his nights plagued by reading books in dimly-lit rooms and suffering boredom (or merely just a longing remembrance of drug days past). Resurrecting a broken friendship with a seller back in town, his addictions obliterate any mundane computer work and open up a new lifestyle punctuated with lots of travel and good times, but at the cost of sanity and safe living.
A documentary aesthetic is applied to the visual style, sort of like a hodgepodge of early 80s Jim Jarmusch mixed with current hand-held trends. The approach gives it a sense of realism and simplicity with an occasional risk taken here and there. The drug high scenes take on a hyperactivity without the pretentious push and excess of a similarly themed Aronofsky movie which shall remain nameless, and the use of sound during the action scenes brings everything to a much more personal level. Not all of the cutting is a success though, much of what I suspect is trying to hide sloppy directing rather than setting a particular mood. There are a few odd scene transitions in the first half, a permanently broken 180 line, and many dragged too long sequences. The narrative would have greatly benefited with about fifteen minutes of fat trimmed from the more bloated segments without sacrificing the artistic merit of "time wasted on drugs." A wonderful score and scary ambiance accompanies the proceedings and dues must be paid to composer Aaron Stielstra. My favorite songs are the romantic thriller overtones which bring to mind early 80s DePalma.
All in all, it's rough around the edges, and a more polished technical construction would help sell the narrative, not to mention some stronger acting, though I will admit, the performances significantly improve as the film progresses. I was also upset to see writer/director Todd in only a brief glorified cameo. His profane dialog, delivery and ultimate demise were too entertaining to be relegated to the sidelines. Better than just a Hitchcock walk-on I suppose.
The Men Who Fell (2007)
Dark sci-fi delivers chills and endless bickering
After two space prisoners crash their aircraft in the desert, they enter an underground hallucinatory bunker under orders from a company willing to knock time off their sentences upon completion of a mysterious mission. Ultra indie sci-fi effort squeezes every last penny from its wallet, AE and available warehouse sets to convincingly portray a beautiful/ugly fantasy world. The film relies heavily upon its two leads (Wild Dogs alumni Aaron Stielstra and Brendan Murphy) who endlessly bicker and whine much more than your average space detention criminals, but add a level of professional that clashes with some of the sillier plot elements that later enter the picture. Which is part of the problem. The film's first act is so good and gritty it's like a Don Siegel program with nomads and Mad Max action, including a documentary-lite space shootout complete with bo staff needles and other crap I can't even explain. The story soon takes a more whimsical sci-fi turn with the heroes walking around and talking in set after CG set, which admittingly look good, but bring the pacing to a grinding halt. Some other mumbo jumbo, inner and physical demons appear but can't do much to elevate the already sloggy second act, further compromised by a weak Slayer character and it's decision to drop the second male lead from the plot (only to later appear in a dynamite return). But even if the monsters and demon children threaten the established dark tone, they are appropriately gooey, atrocious, and most importantly, scary. Visuals are as good as they can get from a DVX100 with lots of balanced lighting, pleasing widescreen compositions and stark contrast, all accompanied with a decent score. Perhaps some more cutting all around would help things, but as it stands, a highly recommended and enjoyable effort. 7/10
See Naples... Then Die (2008)
A dangerous movie
After securing enough funds from playing bit parts in a variety of Wild Dogs features, director/writer/actor/musical talent/caterer Aaron Stielstra assemble the closing(?) crimer in his trilogy of sadism, perversity and atrocity-laden mayhem nestled quite violently and belligerently in an abundance of absurd action conventions. Those seeking more metal yetis, Tucson immigrant personalities and beautiful hand-held pans of Genoa look no further than this shocking tale of paint smuggling and revenge. While the plot may lose viewers that don't have the fortune of a map and instructions, there's enough singular action and bulbous Italian humor to keep the funny bone tickled and satisfied. Authentic dag0s and sceneries push the boundaries of the film's limited origins with a few newcomers offering their sweaty, foreign flavor to the American based production - the squash like ogre kingpin Scugnazzi constantly exudes menace whether he's berating his henchmen or crippling a cacco fruit (his two favorite activities) and a poorer Ray Lovelock lookalike brings a much needed poliziotteschi element to the promised title with a collection of Italo winter wear and scarfs.
Filmed with a cornucopia of one chip camcorders and on-camera mics (I heard a couple of audio scenes were recorded using tin cans and string) it's up to the performances and scriptwriting to keep the whole affair afloat. Unfortunately, the script is a mixed bag. While the premise is original and utterly ridiculous, the story arc and plot lineage is contrived and uninvolving. Many of the action cliché staples rear their ugly heads including the most annoying: bad guys reveal their plans without killing good guy. But Stielstra's gifted ear for scumbag speak makes for a delightful collection of colorful dialog and profanity without getting too cutesy or self-referential on itself ala Kevin Smith. And there is a scary surprise ending that is both tragic and heartbreaking in its implied nihilism and misanthropy, though in retrospect it should really come as no surprise as it seems the director's intent all throughout is to blueprint the downfall of civilized society. Even when the focus shifts away from criminal activity, we see quick inserts of normal civilized folks and how they struggle with equally life threatening issues such as obesity (as personified in Fat Jessica) This need to exploit such helpless figures is a brilliant mirror image to the bigger picture of hooking teens on inhalants, a theme the movie feels it wants to explore but never really gets to develop adequately.
Stielstra gives us possibly his best acting work with a whole line of characters that each have a distinct (and severe) mental disorder or physical deformity, and on the opposite end, he injects enough sympathy and melancholy into Gus to keep the overall conflict balanced. My favorites are Mr. Nido, a self-absorbed health nut with a hankering for barbarian metal and the need to speak in Shakespearean tone, and Nosotros Martinez Parker, a little bald-headed Mexican with thug aspirations and sociopathic tendencies. It's too bad Stielstra is way too tall for this character. I think Joe Tamayo would have nailed it but I guess he wasn't available. The action scenes are all brief and range from OK (foot chase) to cool (end shootout) to awesome (Nosotros' deft massacre of two FBI agents is straight out of a Glickenhaus flick and the subsequent gorno viewing with a Jewish rabbi discharging urine from his anus may just raise the film to genius level). All the original music is great and fun with its synth and stingers and drummy Chuck Norris notes. The tunes easily shift tone to accompany the more somber montages and voice-over sequences which are well conceived and written. Todd's metal song about demons and his vision of the ultimate music video is a candidate for MTV's Headbanger's Ball. The supporting cast is all decent but it's easy to spot the players with less experience. Nose phones it in letting his coke bottle glasses do the work for him, but he really isn't given much to do anyway. His character IS given the dignity of a pulpy slow mo shooting, but I still can't figure how he appeared in Italia (my only guess is that he was shipped with Sean Levine's body but the film doesn't leave many clues). The one actor that plays the squeaky, annoying Virgil Barleycorn is terrible. I can't tell who it is under all the latex and overalls, but judging from the broken nose and scarecrow arms, I would guess it's Fredianelli. Brendan Murphy seems to have put on some weight for his role, but the magical beard and right-wing hunting caps he so proudly displays make his Scarsdale hillbilly a hilarious and frightening creation.
The only major concern is the abysmal video quality that fluctuates from camera to camera and location to location. Content is important but presentation is as well, especially when your audience is weaned on perfectly filmed one-hundred million dollar blockbusters. A lot of the scenes seem too disjointed and odd partly due to inferior equipment being used and the necessity to shoot and dub shots from single scenes on completely different sets and audio background. Ignoring the homemade difficulties and mediocre storytelling, the flick does deliver on hilarious characters, content and intentions. I feel like buying Stielstra a proper camera and microphone to make something that LOOKS wonderful too.
Robin Hood (1998)
"Merry" this ain't
Perhaps not the *worst* short in the Martinez cavalcade of shock, this backyard fairy tale takes a sadistic and darkly humorous approach to its folklore legend like a Monty Python skit. We are immediately introduced to Robin Hood, a dashing Errol Flynn persona, here dressed in a hooded sweatshirt and sweats comfortably awkward in that his rich victims are wearing the same (but with a thrift store blazer for a capper). It isn't long before all heck breaks loose and we are treated to a violent river crossing with Little John that includes enough broken tree branches and stuntman leaps that it makes the similar sequence in Robin Hood Daffy seem like a mere child's parody. Then fat-ass Friar Tuck gets in on the act and beefs his way through on onslaught of merry men/henchmen and (spoilers) chucks a spear through Robin Hood's chest plate, killing him instantly! I was shocked by this surprise twist. Appropriate narration is humorous and informative and is not shameless enough to shoehorn in a John Saxon reference in its devilish parade of charlatans and miscreants. A poor man realizing he now has money turns into tragedy as his excitement sends him crashing down a grassy hill. As per usual for these pre-2000 productions, the cinematography looks like an underground bestiality video.