Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Entropy and the livin' is easy

As I drove down Melrose, I noticed a bus stop ad for the new film The Other Woman, starring Cameron Diaz, Kate Upton, and the Rebecca Pidgeon of comedy, Leslie Mann. I instantly felt a twinge of sympathy for the men going to see this with their significant others, but hey, that's part of the deal. If Jane Average with her love of rom-coms had to sit through The Raid 2, then Joe Average with his love of ownage has to sit through this bullshit.

Me, I'm neither Joe or Jane Average. I'm Juan Weirdo, who long ago turned Loneliness into Solitude, and thanks to my freedom via unattachment I can do last minute things like attend a midnight showing of Death Promise from The Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre in Los Angeles. Which is what I did.

Some things will never go away: while I waited in line, I counted the first of many party vehicles of the evening that would speed down Fairfax while one of the Dude-Bros inside would scream/yell/WOOO at us. They were young, HBO's Entourage was becoming a feature film, and the potential of late night digital insertion into various females was high. Life was good and the night was theirs.

Live your lives, gentlemen, and enjoy every moment -- because one day it will all be gone, you will be gone, and all that will remain to inform future generations of your past existence is the faint lingering trace of AXE Body Spray in the air.
Smell on my scent, ye mighty, and despair! 

You know what, I can't even dog on AXE Body Spray, because of some really sad shit. A couple years ago, I got a free sample of AXE in the mail and I decided Why Not? and put that shit on. I ended up seeing my mother for lunch that afternoon, and upon our greet-hug she stopped to ask me what I was wearing because IT SMELLED NICE AND MAYBE SHE CAN GET SOME FOR MY FATHER. I immediately excused myself, went home, and had one of those Tobias Fünke showers where I cried the deepest tears. I had plenty of soap but nothing could scrub away the pain and filth within.

But at least I showered, motherfucker. Thrice I had to inhale the stench of B.O. from my fellow movie geeks inside the theater while waiting for the film to begin; the first couple times came from a dude who left his seat to get popcorn and returned, the third was from another guy walking up the aisle. I don't give a shit what excuse they might have, if they have one -- to me sharing your stink bespeaks a kind of hostility that deserves to be met with nothing less than a firehose straight out of the 1960s Deep South.

The Honorable Phil Blankenship presided over the screening; he seemed pretty jazzed about so many people showing up to a screening of a damn-near forgotten grindhouse joint from 1977 that probably never even made it past 42nd Street during its run. He talked about how the director of the film, Robert Warmflash, lived in New York City and couldn't make it but gave us his regards. Death Promise was his only feature as a director; Warmflash has since gone on to a successful career as a post-production supervisor on films like Capturing the FriedmansLike Water for Chocolate, and The Cove. He then asked the audience how many had seen this film before and I counted about 3 hands and one WOOO, so this large crowd was going into it fresh.

Phil then politely requested us to not MST3k the movie, which I totally understood. I mean sometimes they're bad but there's enough going on in the film that you don't have to supply your own jokes, the shit is funny enough as is. Give it a chance -- hell, the movie might actually be some legit good shit, for all you know. But some motherfuckers are all like HWAAAAW HWAAAAW HWAAAAW SO FAWCKIN' STOOOPID from frame one and I'm like It's just the opening credits! Nothing's happened yet!

But in the case of Death Promise, shit's going down as soon as the opening credits begin because while visually we're being introduced to our heroes jogging through 70s New York, aurally we're being introduced to the awesome theme song to the film, courtesy of a group named Opus. The song -- hell, just listen for yourself:

I'm surprised that the song was never co-opted by some local news program for their investigative consumer reports in the 1980s. I can see Judd McIllvain or David Horowitz or that gruff old man who used to be on CBS but I can't remember his name being intro'd with this tune, standing with their arms crossed because it's their life mission to Fight For Your Rights:

"Have you been ripped off? Sold a bill of goods? Hoodwinked by scam artists? My name is Stern McConfrontation and this is "That's a Promise!" where I will fight for your rights as a consumer and teach these criminals that you can't get away with betraying the trust of the public -- and that's a promise!"

The film stars martial artists Charles Bonet and Speedy Leacock, playing Charley and Speedy, the best of friends who like to jog together and spar together and put their arms around each other whenever possible. Not one to be left out of the arms-around-each-other game is Charley's father, Louis, a former boxer who has just about had it with the conditions of the fucked up slum apartment he and his son live in.

Life in New York City was hard in the 1970s, on account of all the pimps and the C.H.U.D.s. But as the helpful narrator informs us, it was even worse for low-income families living in shitty apartments owned by rich asshole landlords who are all about making as much money as possible. The easiest way to do that is to make the already difficult life of your average poor renter even worse by frequently shutting off the gas, water, and electricity, that way the tenants will have no choice but to move out. Then the landlords can rent out the place for a higher price or tear it down and put up some new shit. Our main characters live in one such targeted building and things have been heating up between them and the evil landlords that form the Iguana Realty Company.

Charley and Louis have to deal with hired goons coming in and fucking up the works on purpose with smuggled rats or sad attempts at arson that result in cartoony explosions straight out of The Executioner Part II. The rat smuggling is awesome because it starts out with two of these goons walking into the building and one of them is holding a medium sized box, followed by a sudden cut to a close-up insert of a rat's face, then it cuts back to the guys walking inside the apartment building. Kuleshov in full effect, homie -- replace the rat shot with a shot of a birthday cake or a stack of cash or tubes of KY Jelly and you'd have a completely different scene each time.

These situations usually end with Charley and/or Speedy kicking some ass and then turning into Brock Landers with their fists primed for another punch and demanding to know "Who sent you?!" from the defeated, then Louis will have to jump in and tell them to ease up because they're just, you know, hired goons. And he's right; while the scumbag landlords are later revealed to have cops and bodyguards protecting them, the people sent to the buildings to cause trouble appear to be amateurs who are just as desperate as the tenants themselves.

I actually felt bad for these baddies, despite being the kind of jerks who like to pick on old people while doing their job, knocking off hats and shit. And while it's super fun to see them get theirs while some onlooker points at them and yells "Yeah kick his ass!", they always end up looking way-too-pussied out when they're helpless on the ground with their hands up, begging Charley or Speedy not to give them no-budget facial reconstruction because they were given $10 to do this simple but morally wrong task. They don't even know who they're working for, they just need the bread (to buy some bread, I guess).

God damn. The shit a person will pull to put food on the table, even if it means fucking up your own people (racially or class-wise). It's easy to say that you would never burn your fellow man while the lights are still on and the fridge is full. But take that shit away and watch how fast your scruples head for the fuckin' hills, leaving you behind. Shit, I'll flambé a whole fuckin' school bus full of blind children if you'll promise me free gasoline for life.

Where you really want to deliver the ass-beatings, Louis tells Charley and Speedy, is to the men who run the Iguana Realty Company and are paying off the poor to fuck up the other poor. They are human garbage in expensive suits, these one-dimensional asshole fucks from the 1% who gleefully share their plans with each other about what they're gonna do with their future earnings as a result of demolishing the old tenement and putting up some new shit. They'll talk shit about the tenants being spoiled by welfare, which to me sounds like self-justification to help them get a full night's sleep on their giant comfortable beds in their big houses. Not even Joe Pesci in The Super was this big a scumbag.

Our head villains are a mixed group of WASP, Conservative White Man, Black, Italian, and Jewish dudes from different walks of life and lines of work. For example, the Black brother is a drug dealer with a taste for naked desperate women, and the Italian paisan is a Mafioso with a taste for archery. (I only assume the Jewish guy is Jewish because he plans to move to Miami; he could be Cuban for all I know.) While the WASP appears to be the main dude, he has his own higher up to answer to, some scary unknown Mr. Big whose face we don't see until the end. What we do see is his arm as he pets his always meowing/always purring black cat, because that's what Big Bosses do. By the way, as far as I'm concerned, black cats are the only cats. I used to have a black cat, and then later I got a black dog. I'm like the Robert De Niro of pet owners over here.

Iguana's attempts at emptying out that building are roadblocked by Louis, who is just too pure a human being to accept a payoff from them to look the other way. So you know what's going to happen next. You fuckin' know what's going to happen next. Even Louis knows what's going to happen because he ends up writing a letter to his son in the highly unlikely event of his death-by-murder, naming those that are surely responsible. You fuckin' know that letter is going to get read eventually. And you know a promise will be made by Charley -- a Death Promise -- to right those wrongs with beautiful violence. And lady and gentleman, he and this film keep this promise.

I don't want to give away too much, but there's a DVD available and if you get it, you should watch this movie with friends and your drink/smoke of choice. It's an incredibly entertaining revenge picture that mixes 70s chopsocky action and good ol' fashioned wish-fulfillment with just a touch of twisted grindhouse sadism, as you watch these smug rich assholes get theirs. It's also goofy as fuck, man.

The performances are mostly of the incredibly low-budget variety; the martial artist leads are pretty shaky as actors but their likability really goes a long way here. Charles Bonet reminded me of a young Tomas Milian, had he been in one of those body-switching movies with young Henry Winkler. Speedy Leacock actually has a nice little moment of thespian-ing where he states his case as to why he should be the one to take out the Black landlord, delivering his lines with a confident flow that was more or less absent from the rest of his performance. The lines may have been scripted or partially ad-libbed, but it's obvious Leacock shares his character's hatred for drug dealers who push poison to his people.

A couple of the Asian actors playing karate/kung fu/whatever grandmasters in this film appear to have been hired for verisimilitude and nothing else; they can put up a good fight with the kicking and the punching, but their fluency in English made many an audience member reflexively reach for their remotes in search of the Subtitle button. Later in the film, Charley and Speedy are joined by Mr. Kim, played by Bill Louie, another dude from the 70s NYC karate scene who also appeared in the Sonny Chiba joint The Bodyguard. I don't know if you've seen that movie but it was pretty bloody. This one, on the other hand, keeps its occasional gore on an implied level, but it's still pretty badass with all the kicking and punching and occasional bone breaking. Goofy badass, but badass nonetheless.

The fights aren't the most wow-inspiring, at least not to modern eyes -- particularly those who recently had their retinas singed from the ingested bouillon cube of violent awesomeness that is The Raid 2 -- but they're impressive for a 70s grade-Z kickpuncher (Bonet and Louie choreographed the fights). Also, this film is chock full of fight screams and yells and duck calls and other various nonsensical vocals -- especially during the climax where it just became too much for me to see what looked to be Mr. Kotter's yoked-up stunt double screaming his cocaine'd head off while clenching a knife in his mouth. I was in hysterics, as was the audience.

Speaking of screams, there's a part where one character walks into a building and we hear him scream from inside "OH MY GOD!" upon discovering something terrible. Then later in the film, when another guy takes a ninja star to the cranium, he also yells out "OH MY GOD!" and I swear it's the same exact Oh My God! audio clip from earlier. A questionable choice in sound editing? Or maybe the director was trying to make a statement about how the cry of the wounded -- physically or emotionally -- is a universal one that sounds the same because as human beings we are all connected. Whatever the case, Death Promise is Good Times with a better theme song than, uh, Good Times.

In conclusion, I actually like Rebecca Pidgeon.