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Friday, June 21, 2019

Glen or Glenda


Glen or Glenda
1953
Edward D. Wood Jr.

Here it is, the legendary Ed Wood’s big feature-length debut. Wood takes on cross-dressing, a topic very personal to himself, and presents it with an earnestness and a call for sympathy that could have been revelatory in the post-World War II rise of stringent gender roles. Alas, the film was shoveled out along with a flood of cheap productions for the teen market and went largely ignored for decades. Compounding the problem is that whatever good Ed Wood was looking to accomplish is lost under a mass of stock footage, a montage of kinky imagery inserted by another director, and a whole last minute second story-line meant to include gender confirmation surgery.

Wood’s goals are muddled, but this mess does have the added benefit of creating an unhinged fever dream of a movie that begins as a  pseudo-documentary look at how Glen (Ed Wood) copes with his desire to appear feminine. This is interrupted by a series of vignettes featuring Bela Lugosi, the Devil, and some S&M before swerving back just into time to not only close out Glen’s story but introduce Alan, an intersex person who pursues surgery. If Glen or Glenda had just ended up being a dry yet honest attempt to discuss gender non-conformity, it would probably just be regarded as a minor curiosity, but circumstances conspired to transform it into a proto-camp classic.

"I'm  huge! I'm Bela LuGROWsi, get it? Huh? Do you get it?"
This is the first time I’ve rewatched the film since I, myself, came out as non-binary gendered and I found myself surprised at how hard the opening scene actually affected me. In it, the police arrive to find a person named Patrick/Patricia dead from completing suicide. They have left behind a note asking to be buried in the clothes they weren’t allowed to wear in public. It’s a harrowing reminder of the high rate of suicide among transgender people and one people were aware of even in 1953.

There are some big missteps (aside from the stilted acting and general production you get in an Ed Wood production), the film takes great pains to separate crossdressing from homosexual behavior, which makes sense since one does not necessarily equate the other, but in doing so it paints homosexual men as aggressive creeps. The second problem comes at the end when Glen is told he can cure his desires by transferring his “female character of Glenda” to his wife, it is a load of nonsense and it feels mandated by the producers. Even Ed Wood doesn’t believe its real and basically says so in the scene.

"How's Annie?"
Glen or Glenda is a big earnest hot mess of a film, and it is all the better for it. We not only get an attempt to broach a subject beyond the pale in 1953 (heck still controversial now in some places), but we also get to peek into an artist who reveals a lot about himself despite interference from producers. If you have any doubts go back and watch the scene were Glen reveals the truth to his wife, Barbara (Delores Fuller), it’s a touching moment that is simultaneously deftly handled and filled with delightfully loopy moments which make Ed Wood Jr. the cult icon he is today.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Liquid Sky



Liquid Sky
1982
Slava Tsukerman

Margaret (Anne Carlisle) is a drug-addicted model who finds a rival in Jimmy (also Anne Carlise). Some aliens in a small flying saucer land on a nearby building to observe Margaret. They have the nasty habit of killing anyone she has sex with in order to harvest their endorphins.

Liquid Sky is a great antidote to the saturation of retro 1980s imagery. It has sound and imagery that would become more commercialized in the coming years, but here the synth sounds are sharp and angular, the looks are tribal and aggressively androgynous. This isn’t the user-friendly nostalgic 1980s, this is something much more raw. It’s easy in the twenty-first century to look at the early 1980s, New Wave, and the fashions of this era and wonder how this was ever edgy or daring, but Liquid Sky shows you exactly how that could be true.

SAUCERS SEEN OVER NEW YORK (looking for drugs.)
At nearly two hours long, it can seem like a slog if you are expecting a traditionally structured film. This is not a plot-driven movie, it is an exploration of people who are alien to themselves being observed by beings human and otherwise. It occupies the space between a genre film and an art film. The science-fiction elements mostly occur at the edges of the narrative until they provide the means for a psychedelic finale. The real draw of Liquid Sky is in its uneasy and often sinister atmosphere, this is a film where you don’t just watch, you also bathe in its radiation.

Anne Carlisle is amazing in her dual role as Margaret and Jimmy, two characters who loathe one another yet seem unable to escape each other’s orbit. It is through this dual role that the film also explores some distinctly queer territory with bisexuality and androgyny. Bob Brady as Owen the sketchy drama teacher and Otto von Wernherr as the scientist Johann Hoffman both provide some interesting moments as characters who exist outside the drug/art circle of Margret and treat it like some alien biosphere. There is a recursion of outside observers here Margaret > Aliens > Hoffman > The Audience. Once Margaret becomes aware of her position, she and the film cease to exist. The nihilism at the core of Liquid Sky is exposed.

Artists Only
A major element of Liquid Sky is its sound. The music alternates between a raw analog synthesizer and carefully laid atonal drones. The end result is a sound that drives home the strange plastic existence of these characters, it underscores their distance from themselves and each other, but at the same time, there is something angry underneath trying to burst through the heroin and cynicism.

Liquid Sky is a stunning work of art/cult/SF film and I think it is essential viewing for not only grasping the alienation taking hold in popular culture during the 1980s but also as a solid piece of midnight cinema. There is nothing quite like it, and although it is hackneyed to say something is an ‘experience’, Liquid Sky is just that, a unique experience worth having.

Friday, June 7, 2019

She-Man: A Story of Fixation


She-Man: A Story of Fixation
1967
Bob Clark

Lt. Albert Rose (Leslie Marlowe) finds himself being blackmailed by the mysterious Dominita (Dorian Wayne). If he doesn’t live for a year as Rose Albert and be Dominita’s personal servant, she will release damning evidence that could ruin Albert’s life. “Reluctantly” Albert agrees, he’s shaved, dressed, and given a handful of pills. Before long Rose Albert finds herself not only enjoying her new life but she finds love as well in the form of Ruth (Wendy Roberts).

Taking a note from Glen or Glenda (1953), She-Man opens with an appeal for compassion from an authoritative figure. In this case, it is supposed to be a medical doctor of some sort. Whether this is a legitimate call from the film or just a way for setting up the audience to fall for the ultra-ridiculous plot, I can’t say for sure. Director Bob Clarke, better known for Black Christmas (1974), and A Christmas Story (1983) (and around these parts, Karate Dog (2004)) is a clever person and more likely than not he understood that the real draw for this film wasn’t the thin revenge plot but the crossdressing and kink.

"That Tribble you ordered finally came in."
It is a stretch to call She-Man progressive, it is an exploitation film through and through but interestingly enough, Albert Rose/Rose Albert is never really an object of ridicule. Yes, he’s forced into servitude and living life as Rose Albert, but the film makes a point to show that this side of Rose was there before these events occurred. Rose even falls in love with Ruth who is a lesbian and it pains her that Ruth is having trouble reciprocating. A mainstream film wouldn’t touch any of these topics and it the strength of small exploitation films like this that they can address these things more openly. It is also interesting to see that Dominita enjoys coercing people to present as more feminine or masculine, it is a power move that is never commented on but becomes a notable element by the end of the movie.

Dominita feels like a proto-Dr. Frankenfurter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), she’s a cruel dominatrix who lashes out at her lackeys. There is a cool elegance about her, but she is never as well developed a character as Rose. Her reasons for forcing Rose into being a servant make a kind of sense but her methodology goes unexplored. I’m not so foolish as to call out for real character depth in a movie like this but it would have been interesting to see that they shared the core need to express themselves as feminine.

"I am going to be the Queen of Posture if it kills me."
While it lacks the bizarre energy of Glen or Glenda, She-Man should be viewed as a very minor stepping stone on the road to trans representation in film. It has plenty of faults (estrogen doesn’t instantly turn you into mind-zonked slave for example), aside from Dorian Wayne, the acting is, at best, unremarkable, the sets are cheap and the pace too languid. Still, I can’t totally write-off She-Man as complete trash, because it does attempt to retain just a small amount of sympathy and understanding for its put-upon main character.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Abraxas: Guardian of the Universe


Abraxas: Guardian of the Universe
1990
Damian Lee

Abraxas (Jesse Ventura) is a Finder, a millennia-old being who has been tasked with protecting the universe. Abaraxas is hunting down his former partner Secundus (Sven-Ole Thorsen) who has escaped to Earth and impregnated (via putting his hand on her tummy) a woman named Sonia (Marjorie Bransfield) with a hybrid child. This child is the Culmator, a being capable of solving ‘The Anti-Life Equation’ and bringing Secundus ultimate power.

Abraxas is a shameless steal from Terminator (1984), just with 10,000-year-old middle-aged looking space cops. They chase each other around, shoot guns, crash cars, and get into the occasional lamp stabbing battle. The fact that this all takes place in a small Canadian town only adds to the ludicrous nature of everything going on. Not only does Abraxas steal from Terminator but it also lifts quite a bit from Jack Kirby’s New Gods comics, substituting Answer Boxes for Mother Boxes, and just straight-up ripping off the Anti-Life Equation. Writer/Director/Producer Damian Lee makes sure to heap on a lot of unexplained technobabble to try and keep all this thievery from looking too obvious but it doesn’t work. Science-fiction elements appear randomly only to serve lazy plot developments like removing our hero's weapons or why one Finder can withstand a machine gun blast while the other nearly gets put down from a minor stab wound.

Once you look into the dreamy bedroom eyes of Jesse Ventura you're never the same again.
Abraxas is a film defined by its quirks and one of its quirkiest elements is its use of music. This is a science-fiction action film that is scored with the remnants from a New Age CD bargain bin. You can watch dismayed as two giant men pummel each other while soft haunting synth choruses play. The final showdown between Abraxas and Secundus is set to a strange melancholy pop number that undercuts the action but not in an ironic way which would probably be the case were it produced today.

It is strange to see Jesse Ventura playing the stoic lead. Ventura’s entire career has been based on his bombastic personality, so to have him underplaying a character and given moments that (at least on paper) are supposed to be tender just come across as very odd. This is in no way Ventura’s fault, he really seems to dig as deep as can to try and bring some compassion across on the screen, but this is not the script nor the director to make that a possibility. Sven-Ole’s Secundus, on the other hand, gets all the best over the top scenes and lines, from threatening school children to eating the bill from a large breakfast.

See?
Surprisingly there is a lot of intentional humor in Abraxas that actually works. Jim Belushi cameos as a principal who never realized he could ask kids to stop bullying one another. Abraxas explains to the cops that he has VD (Vibration Detection.) Secundus’ search for ‘birthing members of this species’ leads him to a strip club. Combining this with the unintentional moments and a breakneck pace creates a film that is never exactly ‘good’ but remains delightfully entertaining for its entire running time.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Beyond the Universe

 
Beyond the Universe
1981
Robert Emenegger

Earth is sick, the oxygen is running out, and everything is dying. A group of scientists is tasked with creating a machine to put the old and infirm into a coma so they can be quietly dumped into space to make room for the healthy population. Rather than do this, these scientists build a laser to talk to God and beg for some help.

I have a real soft spot for the various Emenegger/Sandler SF creations of the early 1980s, heck I named the site after one of them. I find something really engaging about their mix of dark science-fiction and micro-budgets. Emenegger was (and still might be) a semi-notable figure in the 1970s and 80s UFO scene, including its tangents into ESP and such. Beyond the Universe taps into the New Age subculture that emerged out of the hippie movement along with growing interest in aliens and government conspiracies. Out of all the Emenegger/Sandler efforts, Beyond the Universe is falls furthest from SF and into some very new age ideas.

T.J.Maxx 2099
Beyond the Universe is inspired (or steals if you are feeling less generous) by a number of other films. The subject of an overcrowded and ecologically unstable Earth has all the hallmarks of Soylent Green (1973), a group of renegade scientists on the run from their own government no doubt borrows from Silent Running (1971), and it wouldn’t be new age SF if it didn’t steal the ending of 2001 (1968) in some fashion. The opening and closing narration scenes have a lot in common with The Visitor (1979). So if you can, imagine all of these films crushed together and then remade for about $1000 and you have Beyond the Universe.

The film sports cheap effects, constantly reused tiny sets, and a bus station that is supposed to be a refuge check-in on an asteroid. Those Killing at Outpost Zeta fans out there (i.e. just me) can spot all the reused props and actors. Most of the acting is exactly terrible, but I’d say it was just passable for something you might catch on late night television back in the 1980s. The analog synthesizer score is a delight which seems to hold true for most of these Emenegger/Sandler films.

"Yes it is a laser capable of talking to God, and yes it is also happy to see me."
What really sets Beyond the Universe apart from other cheaply made SF of the time, is that there is an earnestness about its subjects. The movie brings up the idea that Earth as an entity is sick with some kind of mystery cancer, a world government that is just going to throw old people into  space, and magic crystal lasers that focus thoughts to talk to God without even so much as even the mildest notion that this all might be a little silly.

All the earnestness in the universe isn’t going to make a movie automatically any good, and Beyond the Universe bears this out. There are some fascinating ideas here, but the pace is plodding. There is no visual sparkle to smooth over these plot issues, and there are only a few characters that really manage to engage the viewer. Beyond the Universe is a film with some big ideas but it fails to communicate them in a way that makes for an interesting film.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Karate Rock


Karate Rock (aka Il ragazzo delle mani d'acciaio)
1990
Fabrizio De Angelis

Just a year after Karate Kid III (1989) underwhelmed everyone, Italian director Fabrizio De Angelis released a movie that takes the same basic premise of the original Karate Kid (1984) stripped of  anything heartfelt or interesting and gave it into the world as Karate Rock. While the drama and the action completely fall flat, there some tremendously odd touches that occur during the course of the film that warrant at least a cursory viewing while you are folding laundry or waiting for the bus to finally show up.

Kevin Foster (Antonio Sabato Jr.) is a troublemaker and his dad, John (David Warbeck), is a cop who’s had enough of it. John dumps Kevin off on his friend (and martial arts master) Billy (Robert Chan). Kevin runs afoul of the local bully (and karate champion), Jeff (Andrew J. Parker) after winning a dance contest with Jeff’s recent ex-girlfriend, Kim (Natalie Hendrix). Kevin ignores the advances of his nerdy next door neighbor, Conny (Doran D. Field) while being challenged to car races and getting beat downs from Jeff. Kevin turns to Billy in hopes that he can teach him how to fight and defeat Jeff once and for all.

The only defense against atomic sit-ups.
You’ve seen the story of an outsider facing off against intolerant townies and their own lack of discipline a hundred times before, Karate Rock offers very little that is fresh or even engaging. The biggest flaw is that the martial arts, arguably the reason you’d ever pick this movie up, is weakly performed and filmed. To make matters worse, the entire journey of Kevin from dope to karate machine is crammed into the third act making it feel rushed. Perhaps this was a small favor on the part of the director seeing as the action is so bland.

Karate Rock does give us some goofy gems along the way: A side character who’s entire existence seems to be to eat ice cream cones and carry a dog around, two punks brought in by the cops for playing their trumpets late at night, and most notably, Kevin training while wearing a foam Jason Vorhees mask and smashing his face against a heavy bag repeatedly. None of this is enough to save the movie or even push it over into becoming enjoyably terrible.

"Who's king of the strip mall now, punk?"
If Karate Rock has one legitimately interesting it moment it comes at the very end; Kevin whups Jeff in a final karate battle (surprise), and not only defeats him but beats him badly and breaks his arm. Other movies might have their main character show some compassion for their foe or regret about the violence, Kevin mocks Jeff, practically spits on his prone body. Kevin becomes the bully. A smarter script could have build up to this moment and made it into a dark dramatic beat, but Karate Rock isn’t interested in anything more than getting from the finale to credits as quickly and cheaply as possible.

Out of 90 minutes, Karate Rock has about 20 seconds worth your direct attention, use your time wisely, I sure didn't.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Rock and Rule



1983
Clive A. Smith

Prior to anime becoming mainstream in Western culture, there was a serious dearth of so-called ‘adult-animation.’ With the advent of underground comix in the 1960s and Heavy Metal magazine appearing on North American shelves in 1977, a flavor of more adult (not necessarily more mature) graphic fiction became popular. Ralph Bakshi brought the sensibilities of comix into the animated form and Heavy Metal spawned an animated film in 1980. Darker tales in western animation never caught on in the way Japanese animation would eventually succeed at, but that didn’t stop the occasional attempt. Enter Rock and Rule, a film that attempts a darker story without the excesses of Heavy Metal.

An opening text explains that the story begins post World War III with mutated street animals now the dominant life-form. Rock and roll superstar Mok (Don Francks) is searching for a voice that will form part of a key. That key will unlock the door to another dimension and allow a being to come through that will grant him unlimited power. The voice in question belongs to Angel (Susan Roman), singer and keyboardist of a garage band. Mok kidnaps Angel and takes her Nuke York, leaving her bandmates Omar (Paul Le Mat, ),  Dizzy (Dan Hennessey), and Stretch (Greg Duffell) to try and rescue her.

Typical Canadians.
The story itself is very simple, but I don’t see that as a flaw. In terms of world-building, there is a lot to take in here, so keeping the story sparse keeps things from feeling too rushed. The story flirts with death, sex, and drugs but it never crosses over into anything beyond a PG rating. It is interesting to note that in the American cut actually makes the end slightly darker than the original Canadian edit, usually it seems the opposite would be true.

Rock and Rule features some beautiful hand-drawn animation. There is an expressive rubberiness that computer-based animation can rarely ever replicate. The animation is usually very fluid and there are some good looking rotoscoped character moments. The camera is constantly moving through and around its environment. The large scale painted background plates show some impressive design work. The character designs are more of a mixed bag, for every really wonderful looking character (Mok), there is a truly awkward one (Omar).

"Don't laugh this is only way I can achieve an erection."
For a film about music,  the sound editing and design are not as successful. Most of the musical numbers are best, acceptable. The notable standouts being Lou Reed’s, “Mok,” and Earth, Wind, and Fire’s, “Dance Dance Dance.” The dialogue feels disjointed, it often seems like characters aren’t really interacting with each other, much of this is due to Omar’s voice actor being replaced and his dialog changed which creates odd pauses here and there.

It might sound like I am being unkind to this film, but most of these issues are quirks rather than flaws. They don’t detract from the film so much as give it a texture and a personality that reminds the viewer that there were human hands behind its creation. Rock and Rule is a weird little piece of cult animation that offers such a unique experience and an interesting snapshot of where animation, music, and pop-culture were in 1983 that is very much worth your time checking out.