Saturday, March 18, 2023

#2,901. Powaqqatsi (1988) - Qatsi Double Feature


Godfrey Reggio’s follow-up to his 1982 documentary Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi (which, in the Hopi language, means a parasitic way of life, or life in transition) is, at times, a beautiful film.

Shot in Africa, India, South America, Jerusalem, and other locales around the world, it observes how industrialization has encroached on more traditional ways of life. A boy walks along a road as a truck speeds by him, enveloping him in a cloud of dirt. A cart pulled by oxen makes its way down a busy city street. Customs and traditions that have gone on for thousands of years are still observed, but now against the backdrop of the late 20th century. In the villages of Africa, festivals are held (shown here in glorious slow motion). Along the Ganges, women wash their clothes by beating them against rocks. Yet there are skyscrapers now, and automobiles, and traffic.

Life is indeed, in transition.

As with Koyaanisqatsi, Philip Glass composed some extraordinary music for Powaqqatsi. The opening moments of the film grab you: thousands of men at the Serra Pelada gold mine in Brazil are carrying bags of dirt up a hill. They are covered in mud, and the work is clearly grueling. Yet set to the music of Philip Glass, there is something majestic about it. While Glass’s compositions for Koyaanisqatsi were also excellent, I believe his music in Powaqqatsi is even stronger. There is an old-world feel to it, and it enhances every image, every sequence.

Not all of Powaqqatsi worked for me. As with the first movie, there are two brief segments that show TV news broadcasts and portions of commercials from around the world (no audio, just video). Christie Brinkley, Dan Rather, and other recognizable celebrities pop on for a second or two. These quick asides worked with the theme of Koyaanisqatsi, where North America and other modern cities were the focal point. Here, these two segments stand out like a sore thumb. They were not necessary. Reggio was driving his point home well enough without them.

Arguably, the most impactful moments in Powaqqatsi are when Reggio and his cinematographers are focusing on the faces of children, most of whom stare directly into the camera. Some have inquisitive looks. Others are stern, perhaps even annoyed by the intrusion. These moments made me reflect on how these kids are growing to adulthood in areas that are both old and new. I found myself wondering what the future had in store for them, and which values they would embrace.

It’s one of several times Powaqqatsi caused me to think, and that makes it the perfect companion piece to Koyaanisqatsi.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Saturday, March 11, 2023

#2,900. Koyaanisqatsi (1982) - Qatsi Double Feature


In the Hopi language, Koyaanisqatsi means “life of moral corruption and turmoil”, or “life out of balance”. Director Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 non-narrative movie of the same name offers up images of the world as it existed at that time. Nature collides with cityscapes; humanity collides with technology. Aided by the excellent cinematography of Ron Fricke (who would himself dabble in non-narrative with Chronos, Baraka, and Samsara) and the otherworldly music of Philip Glass, Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi is equal parts beautiful and disturbing, moving and frightening.

Shot mostly – but not entirely – with time lapse photography, Koyaanisqatsi opens with the serenity of the natural world: Canyonlands National Park in Utah. From there, we’re treated to cloud formations, a waterfall, and other such images, which are abruptly, violently disturbed by footage of nuclear tests in the desert, the mammoth mushroom clouds filling the screen, and signaling our entry to the world of progress.

Sunbathers gather on a beach next to a nuclear generating station. Traffic moves quickly along the streets of Los Angeles and New York. Hundreds of tanks gather on the shoreline of an unknown country. There is plenty of urban decay as well, with the implosion of several dilapidated buildings.

Microchip manufacturing and assembly lines are interspersed with malls and shopping centers. Professionals as well as the homeless are given equal screen time. It all culminates with a rocket that explodes soon after its launch, the camera following the burning debris as it falls to earth.

The images come fast and furious throughout Koyaanisqatsi, and there is no dialogue, no narration of any kind. It is a movie defined by its visuals. But what does it all mean? Is it, as its title suggest, a depiction of “life out of balance”, or simply an exploration of the modern world?

When speaking of Koyaanisqatsi and its sequels (Powaqqatsi in 1988 and 2002’s Naqoyqatsi), director Reggio said “These films are meant to provoke. They are meant to offer an experience rather than an idea, or information, or a story about a knowable or fictional subject”, adding it was up to the viewer to determine what it means to them.

So what does Koyaanisqatsi mean to me?

Well, this was my second viewing of the movie, and I’ve had very different reactions each time. The first was about 15 years ago, and while I admired the film, it did not penetrate my mind or my emotions. It left me cold.

Watching it again now, the images, the music, the conflict of the natural and modern world, resonated with me. I was engrossed in Koyaanisqatsi, and when it was over, I came away feeling life truly was out of balance, perhaps even more so now than in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s (Reggio and Fricke started shooting the movie in 1975).

Koyaanisqatsi gave me plenty to think about, and I will likely continue turning it over in my mind for days to come. What was initially an empty experience has become something I will not forget.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Saturday, March 4, 2023

#2,899. Terror Firmer (1999) - Troma Triple Feature


Inspired (ever so loosely) by the Lloyd Kaufman / James Gunn book “All I Need to Know About Filmmaking I Learned from The Toxic Avenger”, 1999’s Terror Firmer is Troma’s attempt to out-do Troma, making as disgusting, as slimy, as sexy, and as hilarious a film as the studio ever produced.

Trouble is brewing on the set of Troma’s newest movie, helmed by blind director Larry Benjamin (played by Kaufman himself). First, lead actress Christine (Debbie Rochon) is sleeping with every guy she gets her hands on, right under the nose of her boyfriend, crew member DJ (Mario Diaz). Then, production assistant Jennifer (Alyce LaTourelle) finds herself juggling two guys who are smitten with her: boom-mic operator Casey (Will Keenan) and special effects artist Jerry (Trent Haaga).

On top of that, a maniacal killer in a dress is systematically - and quite messily - murdering the members of Benjamin’s crew. Can the police track down the psychopath? More importantly, will this next Troma “masterpiece” be completed on time?

Terror Firmer doesn’t waste a single moment, opening with the mysterious killer first tearing a guy’s leg off and beating him to death with it, then attacking a pregnant woman, ripping the unborn fetus from her body.

Sounds pretty intense, right? Well, would you believe these are two of the film’s subtler moments?

Throughout its 114 minutes, Terror Firmer throws everything at us: piss, shit, snot, farts, blood, dismemberments, exploding heads, masturbation, nudity and sex. Even Toxie gets laid at one point!

As for the humor, it’s mostly broad and aims very, very low (no surprise there), but I have to admit I laughed quite a bit throughout the movie. Especially funny were the Seinfeld spoof (complete with a laugh track), when Casey and Jennifer go to a café for dinner; and the “closed set” that is ordered when Jennifer and Jerry, standing in for the actors, have to do a sex scene. I also cracked up at the shameless commercial for Troma videos and DVDs, which was inserted into a random scene.

A few celebrities pop up in cameos, including Ron Jeremy as Casey’s dad; Lemmy from Motorhead as a TV interviewer; and Tiffany Shepis as a witness to one of the killings. Even Lloyd Kaufman’s real-life daughter Charlotte plays a small role (Larry Benjamin’s mute daughter). As for the violence, it’s very Troma-like, meaning it is way over the top. But that only adds to the fun.

Terror Firmer was designed to be an exaggerated account of what goes on behind-the-scenes of a Troma production. But aside from the killings, I have a feeling it isn’t as “exaggerated” as Kaufman and company would have us believe.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Saturday, February 25, 2023

#2,898. Rabid Grannies (1988) - Troma Triple Feature


With a title like Rabid Grannies, it has to be Troma!

Elizabeth Remington (Dany Daven) and her sister Victoria (Anne-Marie Fox), two sweet – and very wealthy – elderly ladies, are celebrating their birthday. Hoping to one day get their hands on the sisters’ fortune, a collection of greedy nieces and nephews descends upon the old girls’ estate for the birthday “celebration”, including Fred (Guy Van Riet), a factory owner who recently married a stripper (Francoise Lamoureux) half his age; wild playboy Roger (Michel Lombet); Catholic priest Father Percivel (Robert Du Bois); niece Helen (Catherine Aymerie) and her husband (Elie Lison) and two children (Caroline Braeckman and Richard Cotica); Harvey (Jacques Mayar), who works as an arms dealer; lonely spinster Bertha (Florine Elslande); and lesbian magazine editor Erika (Bobette Jouret), who brings along her newest “friend” Rachel (Francoise Moens).

As the party progresses, the cousins try to one-up each other, in the hopes of being mentioned in the sisters’ will. But a gift sent by Christopher, the black sheep of the family and a man who dabbles in Satanic rituals, will unleash an evil that, before the evening is out, will have most of the family running for their lives.

In his DVD introduction for Rabid Grannies, Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman tells of how, in the late ‘80s, he and Michael Herz were contacted by Emmanuel Kervyn, writer / director of Rabid Grannies, who grew up a fan of Troma and wanted very much to make a Troma-like movie in his native Belgium. Impressed with Kervyn’s two-page treatment, Kaufman and Herz agreed to distribute the film. Without a doubt, there are moments in Rabid Grannies that are very “Troma-Like”, with blood and gore aplenty, yet the opening scenes also feature an air of sophistication. The beginning credits play out over classical music, while the setting (the movie was shot primarily at Ingelmunster Castle in West Flanders) and introduction of the main characters could have been lifted straight out of Robert Altman’s Gosford Park. Kervyn does a fine job setting the stage in these initial sequences, and we find ourselves pitying the poor elderly aunts, whose relatives see them as nothing more than a potential payday.

Then, all at once, things get… crazy! Not to mention bloody. It’s at this point Rabid Grannies crosses into full-blown horror, with plenty of blood, gore, and even some well-crafted tension (like the relatives, we never know where the evil is lurking, or when it will strike).

Some of the effects are admittedly weak (though, for a low budget film, they really aren’t terrible), but in the end, Rabid Grannies proved the perfect blend of European refinement and Troma insanity, and I had a great time watching it!
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Saturday, February 18, 2023

#2,897. Combat Shock (1984) - Troma Triple Feature


As gritty as 1980’s Maniac and as unsettling as Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Buddy Giovinazzo’s Combat Shock grabs you by the scruff of the neck and drags you on a blood-soaked journey through hell.

Haunted by the horrific memories of his tour in Vietnam, Frankie (Rick Giovinazzo) lives in a rundown apartment in Staten Island, New York with his nagging wife (Veronica Stork) and infant child (which was born deformed). Unemployed and struggling to find work, Frankie, at one point, was forced to borrow money from drug dealer Paco (Mitch Maglio), who is now demanding to be repaid.

While walking the streets day in and day out, trying to find a way to make ends meet, Frankie experiences flashbacks of the war, including his stint in a POW camp and three years recovering in a military hospital. His back against the wall, Frankie will try to borrow money from his estranged father (Leo Lunney) and even resort to stealing, an event that will mark the first step on his final descent into madness.

Distributed by Troma, Combat Shock is much more than a cheapie exploitation film; Giovinazzo explores the crippling effects of PTSD in a manner few movies have before. From the moment we meet Frankie, played so well by the director's brother, we sense he has been irreparably damaged by his wartime experiences. This is further conveyed to us throughout the movie via flashbacks and dream sequences. While the Vietnam scenes aren’t particularly convincing (they look like they were shot in an abandoned lot), director Giovinazzo does a masterful job navigating the urban decay and squalor of Staten Island, drawing parallels between his lead characters’ past and present, and how both are taking their toll on his already fragile psyche.

As with Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Frankie narrates the film, clueing us in on just how warped his mind has become. We the audience know it’s only a matter of time before Frankie snaps, resulting in a blood-drenched final act that, for a low-budget film, features violence that is astonishingly realistic.

Combat Shock is one hell of a disturbing motion picture, and if you’re like me, you won’t have an easy time recovering from it. Yet I enthusiastically recommend the film. Combat Shock will, indeed, shake you, but it also stands as a testament to what can be accomplished with a vision and very little money.

Combat Shock is a low-budget tour de force.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Saturday, February 11, 2023

#2,896. Teenage Exorcist (1991) - Eddie Deezen Triple Feature


Written by and starring Brinke Stevens, Teenage Exorcist is notable, in part, because there isn’t a teenager to be found anywhere!

In her DVD commentary, Stevens said a late-minute change eliminated the movie’s lone teenage character, but it gave them a chance to cast Eddie Deezen in the movie, and though he appears briefly, he’s one of the most entertaining aspects of this 1991 horror / comedy.

College student and wannabe teacher Dianne (Stevens) moves into a spacious mansion, never once asking the landlord (Michael Berryman) why the rent is so cheap. The reason, of course, is the place is haunted by the evil spirit of previous owner Baron DeSade (Hoke Howell), as well as a demon from hell (Oliver Darrow, in make-up that looks pretty darn good).

Fearing for her life, Dianne invites her sister Sally (Elena Sahagun) and Sally’s workaholic husband Mike (Jay Richardson) to spend the night. Also turning up is Jeff (Tom Shell), who has a thing for Dianne. Unfortunately, by the time they all arrive, Dianne has been possessed by DeSade’s spirit, transforming her into a seductive temptress.

Father McFerrin (Robert Quarry) is called in to perform an exorcism, but when that fails, it’s pizza delivery boy Eddie (Deezen) to the rescue!

Teenage Exorcist favors comedy over screams, and while many of the jokes and situations are straight-up goofy, there are a handful of legitimate laughs here, most provided by Deezen and Richardson, who is perfectly smarmy in the part of Dianne’s brother-in-law (a spilled drink results in him spending the remainder of the movie in drag). Stevens is well cast as both the mousey Dianne and her succubus-like alter-ego, a throwback of sorts to her role in Nightmare Sisters, while Berryman, Howell, Shell and especially Quarry generate a few smiles along the way.

It’s when Deezen finally shows up (well after the one-hour mark) that Teenage Exorcist gets a bit wilder. He is in full Deezen mode throughout, with most of the laughs coming courtesy of his patented delivery.

Teenage Exorcist runs a bit longer than it should, and wears out its welcome well before the end. But with decent make-up and set pieces (the Demon’s basement lair is very cool), a catchy theme song, and of course Eddie Deezen, it’s a pleasant enough diversion.
Rating: 6 out of 10

Saturday, February 4, 2023

#2,895. Surf II (1984) - Eddie Deezen Triple Feature


Some movies confound me.

Take, for example, writer / director Randall M. Badat’s 1983 comedy Surf II. For starters, there is no Surf I… this is a stand-alone movie. Then there’s the strange blending of genres, merging a surf flick with a teen monster movie (zombies, to be precise). And despite its rather impressive cast, including a young Eric Stoltz (making only his second big-screen appearance, after 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High), the film is a jumbled mess, with only the framework of a story and no genuine attempt to string scenes together in any logical way.

Surprisingly, none of this prevents Surf II from being an entertaining film. I was scratching my head as I watched it, but smiling for hours after it ended.

Chuck (Stoltz) and Bob (Jeffrey Rogers) are gearing up for the big surf contest. But when two bodies wash ashore, police chief Boyardee (Lyle Waggoner) threatens to close the beach and cancel the competition.

To make matters worse, Jocko O’Finley (Tom Villard), a friend of Chuck’s and Bob’s and the brother of their girlfriends Cindy Lou (Corrine Bohrer) and Lindy Sue (Lucinda Dooling), has been acting strange, dressing like a punk rocker and drinking everything from motor oil to the very disgusting Buzz soda.

What nobody knows is that Menlo Schwartzer (Eddie Deezen), who is seeking revenge against all surfers, has changed the formula for Buzz. Now, whoever drinks it will become a mindless zombie! With the help of Chuck’s dad (Morgan Paull) and Bob’s dad (Biff Maynard), as well as his reluctant girlfriend Sparkle (Linda Kerridge), Menlo intends to make Buzz soda the official soft drink of the surf contest, and enter his zombie hordes as contestants! If Chuck and Bob do not stop him, Menlo may even take over the entire town.

Surf II was not Eric Stoltz’s finest hour. He’s passable as Chuck and nothing more. And despite being a comedy, the film doesn’t have all that many laugh-out-loud moments. In fact, I’m struggling to remember a single one. What it does have, though, is Eddie Deezen as a mad scientist. His scenes are the film’s most entertaining.

In addition, there are a handful of WTF moments scattered throughout Surf II that are so outlandish they’re almost intriguing. The best has Tom Villard’s Jocko, in full zombie mode, hanging out on the beach with his fellow punks. Chuck’s and Bob’s good friend, the always mute Johnny Big Head (Joshua Cadman), sits down across from Jocko, as if challenging him to an eating contest. With that, they start consuming seaweed, discarded debris, and pretty much everything they can get their hands on, each trying to out-do the other.

I also got a kick out of Cleavon Little, who plays high school principal Daddy-O, a clear (and pretty witty) reference to Glenn Ford’s schoolteacher in the ‘50s classic Blackboard Jungle. Also turning up in supporting roles are Ruth Buzzi (as Chuck’s mom) and Welcome Back, Kotter’s Horshack, Ron Palillo, who plays Chief Boyardee’s deputy. Another strength of Surf II is the music, which features hit tunes like The Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ U.S.A”, Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science”, and “Talk Talk” by the band of the same name.

When reflecting on Surf II in the 2010 book Destroy All Monsters, writer / director Badat said “We set out to make the most brain-dead movie of all time. In that regard, I believe we succeeded”. Sure, Surf II isn’t a great movie, or a smart one. In fact, it’s bad and kinda dumb. But in a fun way.
Rating: 6 out of 10