Sunday, January 31, 2021

Bikini Beach (1964)

The gang at the beach are having their usual fun when they receive two unexpected visitors. First is international music celebrity The Potato Bug, who drives all the girls crazy, but baffles the boys. Second is the talented monkey Clyde, who frequently shows the teens up at their own activities, all as a ploy by the scheming Harvey Huntington Honeywagon III, who is determined to get rid of these sex and surf obsessed teens off the beach so he can expand his 'Siesta by the Sea' old folks home...

Bikini Beach is another fun entry is this series. It has all the expected shenanigans, and a few more. It improves on past entries in a few ways, and even though it's not a perfect film, it's as entertaining as it needs to be, and is one of the best in the Bikini cycle.

While there's plenty of time for the sun and surf, the movie also focuses on drag-racing, in a way that manages to be enjoyable even if you're not into that scene (me, case in point). 

The story is an engaging one on all fronts, never boring, and never overstuffed either. While it is a shame that the teens (besides Frankie and DeeDee) mostly get overshadowed in what's supposed to be their own movie, it's ultimately not that big a deal here. The first big story focuses on Frankie's grudge against the Potato Bug, which leads him to try and one-up the singer in his sport of choice-drag racing-which leads to more troubles when DeeDee voices concern at such a dangerous sport.

The second story, running very fluidly alongside the first, is that of Harvey Honeywagon, who is often trying to demoralise the teens, all while reporter Vivian follows him around, trying to get the old buzzard to see reason and change his ways.

Something I liked here is the idea that everything he makes Clyde do is fun, and seen positively by the community, but it's his intent behind doing this that makes it bad. Everyone's all having a good time seeing the monkey surf until Harvey tells them in no uncertain terms it's because they're all [fucking] idiots.

My favourite moment of the story was when a royally pissed off Vivian confronts Harvey after seeing his latest screed, and she dresses him down with the amazingly blunt and well-worded "You're holding a double-barreled shotgun, killing off the old folks while you kill off the fun for the youngsters. I guess it never occurred to you that the beach is a place to live, not to die."

As for the romance that develops between them, it's nice! A little sudden perhaps, and certainly played subtly, but it's sweet. Although the apparent (but nonexistent) age gap between the two does surprise one at first.

The romance between the two leads goes through all the typical stages. These two break up more times that Liz Taylor and Richard Burton! Frankie is level-headed for the most part, though naturally goes overboard with some of his stunts, pissing off DeeDee. She comes off a little mixed too though. Either she knew Frankie was pretending to be the Potato Bug the whole time they talked, or she's a two-timing chick! Thankfully she does eventually see reason, and support Frankie and co. when she realises it's become a genuine and sincere interest for them.

Eric von Zipper and his gang continue to be the series highlight! They are so sweet, and adorably wholesome. You can't stay mad at them, even when they try and sabotage the heroes' races.  All their catchphrases and lingo is back, and used in hilarious ways, like when they're having a snoop-around after dark, and promptly bellow "RIGHT!" on impulse when Eric gives the instructions. Bikini Beach contains probably the greatest comeuppance the Rat Pack ever get. Normally they get off scot free, or are minor obstacles in the grander climax, but here the whole final chase and brawl is devoted specifically to getting back at them.

The movie climaxes with a silent film inspired chase scene. It's admirable seeing the respect these Bikini flicks had for the old films and stars! It always feels earnest, and never taking the piss. Though it's a little disappointing that it deprives us of a proper race, to finally settle the feud between the Potato Bug and Frankie.

The actors here are all fine. Keenan Wyn is his usual gloriously-voiced self, while Martha Hyer plays off well with him, the two sharing good chemistry. Clyde the monkey does a spectacular job, and I'm sure the Screen Apes Guild can be very proud that one of their own has done so well.

The 'teen' regulars all do fine jobs, as expected. Frankie Avalon gets the most to do with his double role, also playing the Potato Bug. Whether or not he is funny or the most godawfully annoying thing on planet earth really depends on you. Personally I'm half and half. In some ways he really overdoes it, and he's such a ludicrously exaggerated Brit (embodying all the stereotypes Americans think about England) that any English people watching might wanna chop his balls off. However, I'm not British, I'm Australian, so I find it bloody hilarious!

Likewise, the singing is great. Annette sings with syrupy smooth tones, and Frankie does well with both characters' voices. I feel the movie does a good job mixing the Potato Bug's nasally British twang with a genuinely Beatles sounding track. Definitely more exaggerated, of course, but they're not totally over-the-top either.

The songs are nice throughout, with the aforementioned rock ditty's, the perfect introductory track, and Annette's emotional ballads, such as the charming duet Because You're You. 60s shindig girl Donna Loren gets a fun tune, as do popular band The Pyramids, and 'Little' Stevie Wonder. Some of those are in the forefront, while others are more in the background, and they work fine, even if many of the movie's songs are 'filler tracks'.

Bikini Beach is yet another score for the series, proving that it could still entertain and keep things fresh...

Beach Blanket Bingo (1965)

The 60s might not have been all golf and badminton, as they say, but for all the strife going on at the time, the period was also never short of fun. This is best evidenced with AIP's Beach Party series, which released its 5th entry after only 2 short years! These movies would eventually run their course a few films later, but at this point they were still strong outings, holding plenty of popularity.

A new fad is all the rage on the beach, as pop starlet Sugar Kane's latest publicity stunt ignites an interest in skydiving. Both Frankie and DeeDee express interest, to the other's chagrin, while jealousy abounds in various ways. Meanwhile, motor-sickle rider Eric von Zipper has his eye set on the lovely Sugar...

Beach Blanket Bingo is a ball of fun! Silly, and not to be taken seriously, it's a movie that entertains on just about all levels. It's full of good innocent cheer, plenty of sexiness, great humour

The first main story concerns the skydiving scene, and there's plenty to enjoy. The two skydivers/pilots have an amusingly dysfunctional relationship, with the girl being a man-eating tiger. It's surprising that for once Frankie isn't the lothario in the situation! She gets some hilarious scenes, like when she tears off her clothes mid-flight to make her boyfriend jealous. Thankfully this all ends in a satisfying way, with minimal awkwardness.

The second big story is all about Sugar Kane, with a sneaky publicity man trying to create plenty of drama, and the Rat Pack biker gang setting their own eyes on the singer. The two stories intersect a little, but are mostly pretty separate, each even getting their own climaxes. Though there is a halfhearted attempt to tie the skydiving into the big chase scene at the end, in a way that didn't entirely make sense. But at least it's enjoyable.

An important subplot features comic relief Bonehead (sometimes known as Deadhead) in a bigger/an expanded role here, and it's surprisingly sweet. The presence of a mermaid is strange, but not too out of place in the setting, and isn't laid on too thickly. While dopey, Bonehead is a likeable character. He may be dumb, but he ain't stupid!

My only issue with the stories in the film is that there are a lot! They're all great, but the movie does have a little trouble juggling everything. It does good enough at everything, and nothing is really shortchanged, but you can still tell things would've been more free and comfortable if the parachuting and Sugar Kane stories had've been separate movies.

Eric von Zipper is the highlight of the movie. He's so goofy and loveable. His cohorts, the Rats and Mice are adorable too. Their catchphrases and recurring gags are in full force here. I love their automated movements, like how Alberta/Puss mechanically applies Pool chalk to Eric's cue, not realising she's splattering it all over his hands. Eric's goal is to find his idol, who he thinks he's found in Sugar Kane. It's a bummer that things don't go his way, because Sugar actually digs him, and likes his whole kidnapping scheme. She thinks it's marvy!

The main villain here (in the last 15 minutes, at least) is South Dakota Slim, who goes from being a patron at von Zipper's club to being the only kidnapper Sugar isn't happy about, intending to slice her to pieces on an old-timey sawmill! I don't care what North Dakota Pete says, the worst he ever did was try and feed someone to a tiger, so where does he get off saying Slim is the Baby of the family? The jealous Mice briefly help him to get rid of Sugar, but true to form, they may want revenge, but they don't approve of Slim's scheme to saw her in half. Thy don't think it's nice.

The actors here are plentiful, really packing the film to the gills. Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello deliver fun duelling performances. Series regulars Jody McRae, John Ashley, and Deborah Walley all do fun jobs, with the former getting a more meaty and sensitive performance, while the latter two play totally different characters as the two pilots.

Harvey Lembeck is great as usual as Eric von Zipper, with his Rat Pack being a great accompaniment. Linda Evans is fine as Sugar Kane, while Marta Kristen is good as mermaid Lorelei. Comic actor Paul Lynde gets a great role here, equal parts smarmy and sarcastic.

Don Rickles is fun as usual, as he appears for yet another role. In a standout scene, he breaks character in a way and does a comedy routine, lovingly roasting the characters/cast members, including a hilarious jab at Frankie and Dee Dee's ages. It's great to watch, and the reactions from all the other actors are probably genuine here.

The Beach Party's respect for classic Hollywood continues, with Buster Keaton getting a nice role, and silent cinema influencing a lot of the humour. This is most evident in the last act, which is one big silent film themed adventure, with a big chase, sped-up slapstick antics, and a Perils of Pauline style damsel and deathtrap.

There's an abundance of fun songs to enjoy in Beach Blanket Bingo. They're simple disposable 60s fluff, which is to say they're short, sweet, and may not be masterpieces or anything, but are still very enjoyable. There are no bad performances or tunes, and the best for me were the opening track, the 60s ballad It Only Hurts When I Cry, the fun (and delightfully building) duet I Think, You Think, and Eric von Zipper and his Rat Pack singing all about them rotten soifers.

Beach Blanket Bingo is one of the best in the series, and is a great example of lighthearted 60s cinema, the surfer subculture, as well as what teens in general were getting up to at the time. I think back to my own teenage years and I wish I could've done the things they did! But then again, I'm still younger than all the actors playing the teens here, so I guess it's not too late!...

City Dragon (1995)

If No Retreat, No Surrender was emblematic of ridiculous 1980s kung fu cinema, City Dragon is the same for 90s kung fu fare. It's the passion project of a few mates, working with no money and a cheap camera, telling a story they were clearly eager about. But how does this translate on the big screen?...

Ray is a real player, training in the gym all day and going out and partying all night with his buddies. One day he meets the beautiful Tina, and instantly sparks fly, and he becomes a one-woman guy. Tina is in an abusive relationship, but leaves it with the help of Ray, who manages to fight off the possessive and violent John, who skulks off and gets himself arrested after taking it out on a coworker. Months pass, and the relationship deepens, but Ray must also overcome other difficulties if he and Tina are to stay together...

City Dragon is a real bottom-of-the-barrel picture in terms of budget and visual quality, and it does suffer because of this, but also entertains like nothing else! It's a gloriously dated time capsule of the 90s hip-hop culture, shot on video with actors who'd probably never been in a film before (and certainly never were since), with more cheesiness that you can poke a stick at. But the film also has a charming sincerity that makes it a load of fun to watch, beyond just laughing at its faults (of which there are many!).

City Dragon is a hip-hop themed urban martial arts film, and stars the amazingly-named MC Kung Fu in the role of his career. He makes up spur-of-the-moment rhymes, which somehow charm the pants off ladies despite being the cheesiest things imaginable. But then again, confidence is a hell of a superpower, and the chicks do dig creative types, even if they have a few screws loose.

The movie has an irreverent and lighthearted tone, all about these bros who act like they're the coolest thing since sliced bread, but are really incredibly dorky. Iit's doubtful this was intentional, but that's how it goes. It's amusing seeing these tough guys playing such gangsta games as frisbee (hey, don't knock it!).

The dialogue is amusing all round, most of it unintentionally, but some earning a genuine chuckle. There are 'zingers' like "Sugar, you're so sweet, diabetes couldn't stop me from overdosing on you."
"My my my, sweet apple pie. Ain't you got a round backstack on your back!"
"Why you dissin' me when you should be kissin' me?"
"I'm a white nigga, a brotha dipped in vanilla!"
And "You mess with a homeboy, he's ghost, he's toast!".

However, it's not the low budget, or the cheesy hip-hop aesthetic that makes City Dragon truly strange. Those all help, but the really bizarre thing about this film is how a lot of it isn't even a martial arts film, but a romantic drama all about domestic abuse! These moments are surprising in the first act, and do give the movie perhaps a bit too much seriousness that it could handle, but it's a great message, and impressive for such a film!

It's not all positive though. While this is a brave subject matter to tackle, it kinda drags the rest of the movie down. It's hard to enjoy a silly kung fu flick when every few minutes we get a serious moment about spousal abuse. The second half is really where this all comes to the forefront, and City Dragon becomes a full-on drama! The characters are brooding all the time, having miserable lives, and the growing resentment as Ray begins to hate his life makes for a surprisingly depressing watch! Is this the same movie that starred MC Kung Fu, and promised goofy rap-fu shenanigans? I wanna watch him beat up bad guys, not get sexually harassed by a bad boss!

Everything finally comes together in a climax that's all a bit disappointing really. The film has just stopped being fun, and the ending is kinda abrupt.

The acting in City Dragon is often hilariously cheesy or amateur, but alright in places. Stan Derain (alias MC Kung Fu) is a decent lead, and has some charisma, but where he struggles is in more serious moments. He handles some emotional scenes well, but he's bad at anger-enunciating.

The fights here are pretty goofy, but fun, and decently choreographed, although how they happen is often incredibly random, and the presence of a 'baby' in the final battle does pose some problems. For all his silliness, Derain looks genuinely fit, which helps justify his cred as a karate practitioner. My only complaint is that there aren't enough of them. Perhaps the best was when some punks come into Ray's gym and do the unforgiveable-Insult Bruce Lee! Go get 'em, man!

The direction is by co-star Philthy Phil Phillips, whose name is spelt at least 4 different ways during the credits! He certainly is a multitasker, and he seems to do a good job at pointing the camera. Out of its many shortcomings, City Dragon is at least filmed well. Incredibly goofy, but reasonably effective.

The editing is incredibly abrupt, with scenes beginning way too quickly, with no real sense of pacing. The sound work is a little mixed at times too, and certainly low-tech. It seems the crew didn't know how to overlay dialogue over a scene, so when we hear Ray's voice as his conquest reads a letter, Derain is clearly right offscreen reading it out in person.

Overall, City Dragon is a movie you've gotta see to believe. It is hands down the most ridiculous martial arts film from the 90s, and that's saying a lot! It's worth checking out if you're a fan of the ludicrous, although be warned that the movie does disappoint even on those terms much of the time...

Saturday, January 30, 2021

No Retreat, No Surrender (1986)

I've seen a fair few Jean-Claude Van Damme movies by now, but there was a time when I'd seen next to none, and I was eager to make a start. I knew he started out with A-pictures like Bloodsport and Kickboxer, and when I saw the name No Retreat, No Surrender next to them, I foolishly believed it to be an equal. I know, I can hear you laughing from here. 'This film an A-picture? What a dope!' That's not even the half of it though, as this is more than just a run-of-the-mill B-movie...

Jason Stillwell is an eager martial arts enthusiast, trained in his father's dojo until some mobsters try and force the man into a protection racket, leading him to move the family to Seattle. Jason has a hard time fitting in, making a few rivalries with local fighters, but also makes new friendships. After a terrible day of humiliation, a despondent Jason runs to the grave of his Idol Bruce Lee and begs for help, hoping to have the skills to solve all his problems...

No Retreat, No Surrender is perhaps one of the greatest camp classics of the 1980s martial arts genre.
An Asian-American co-production, it was directed and produced by brothers Corey and Ng See-Yuen, who were often pumping out DTV flicks of varying quality, this being no exception.

This is often accused of ripping off The Karate Kid, but it really doesn't. It tells a fairly standard tale of a typical kid who knows a thing or two about martial arts, but can't quite get it together, and suffers from bullies. If it's all that normal then, what makes No Retreat such an oddity? Well, he is trained by none other than the ghost of Bruce Lee! When I first read that on the back of the DVD before watching, I thought it must be metaphorical, but nope, it is entirely literal. Lee comes back from beyond the grave to instruct youths who need the help. I wonder if he charges, because I'd quite like that, Sensei Lee!

The film is also called a Rocky IV knock-off, and that's harder to defend. It rips that movie off superficially with the presence of a bulking Russian giant working for the criminals, but that's it really. Him vanishing for the bulk of the runtime doesn't really help matters. It makes for a great climax though!

Despite the bad acting rendering them unintentionally hilarious, some of the dialogue is legitimately pretty decent. The occasional line provokes a sincere laugh, and Jason's interactions with his father are very well handled, with Jason actually saying things we viewers wish characters would say more often. "Just because I disagree with you doesn't mean I'm wrong!"

The characters are the biggest focus here, and they carry the movie pretty well. Jason is a likeable hero, with a nice dynamic with those around him. He's got his clashes with his father, friendship with R.J., romance with Kelly, and animosity with the bullies. It's always a pleasure when a character has got this many people to interact with in so many ways. It really puts some meat on their bones. It helps too that he's never a whiny baby, and he becomes a real badass by the end!

Jason's father goes through a good arc too, going from a regular dojo master, to a frightened hypocrite, who has good intentions at heart in protecting his family, but goes about it all the wrong way, even to the point of belittling his son for 'daring' to fight. Dude, you ran a dojo! Cut that shit out! By the last act he learns the error of his ways though, and in a believable way, that doesn't feel too forced. I was confused by where the heck Jason's mother disappears too though! We rarely if ever see her.

R.J. is your typical hip-hop comic relief, and he's a fun addition, if hilariously dated at times. He's endearing too, as we see during his first scene, when he offers to help pack the new family's belongings. It's little things like that that make an otherwise goofy and irreverent character stand out.

Kelly is a nice supporting character and love interest. She shares good chemistry with Jason, which is a good thing considering their first meeting is entirely offscreen! The first time we meet Kelly, the couple are not only already acquainted, they're already sweet on each-other! Oh well, economical storytelling! I like how she always makes her feelings clear. When the bullyish jock Dean is trying to put the moves on her, she tells him flat out that she's not interested, to back off, asking him what the hell he's playing at, etc. At no point is the asshole made out to be wanted or desirable to her.

Bruce Lee's presence is just bizarre, and really wasn't necessary (I can only imagine what Brandon thought about all of this!), but has its moments. His exit is pretty poor though. After Jason accomplishes a special kick, 'Bruce' just buggers off without even saying goodbye! "Ok I've taught you that one move now, I'm leaving. Don't let the door hit you on the way out".

Fat bully Scott is genuinely loathsome, with the filmmakers trying and unfortunately succeeding in making the character so ugly and unappealing through his appearance and his actions that it's almost hard to watch. At least some scenes do support the borderline ludicrous supposition that this obese kid is somehow part of a martial arts class despite being seemingly as out of shape as you can get. If nothing else, he takes hits like a champ!

The main villains are the mobsters, and they're a suitably smarmy bunch. Their main agent is Ivan 'the Russian'. He gets next to no dialogue, and lets his fists do all the talking. He makes for a great final opponent, although you wonder how he even gets away with some of these moves in the ring without being tossed out, or arrested. His ogre-ish personality is built up well, despite the huge gap in his screentime, and it's a pleasure seeing the arrogance get kicked out of him.

The acting is mixed. Some of the performances are hilariously bad, though never boring. For them ost part the cast do a decent enough job. Kurt McKinney is a good lead, carrying the movie well enough, while J.W. Fails makes for an amusing sidekick. Kathie Sileno is a sweet love interest, and very cute, as are all the girls in the movie, matter of fact. Kent Lipham excels at playing a jerk, and having read interviews with him, he is glad he succeeded so well. I'm curious to see him in other roles, to see how much of it is his demeanour, or the direction/writing. Timothy Baker is the worst actor here, but I don't mind, as he gives us some of the funniest moments.

Jean-Claude Van Damme only appears fleetingly, but his scenes are made to count, and he makes for a formidable presence. Lastly, there's 'Bruce Lee', who's not played by one of the usual myriad Lee impersonators such as Bruce Li, Ly, Lai, or Lee Bruce. Instead he's played by Tai Chung Lim, who was most known for his role in the cut-and-paste Game of Death films.

For all No Retreat, No Surrender's deficiencies in its acting, it excels in the martial arts department. There are plenty of great fights, neat moves, and talented performers, and that's not even getting into Jean Claude Van Damme! The most notable thing about this film is that it's his main acting debut!

The overall feel of the movie is swathed in 80s goodness. From the music, to the hairstyles and the fashion. Whether it all earns eyerolls or cheers probably depends on your nostalgia factor, or general opinion of the decade. As for me, it's both! I get a laugh out of it all, but man what I wouldn't give to be living there!

The score here is a nice infusion of east and west, with lots of 80s tunes to enjoy, along with amusingly overdramatic moments. The real highlight is the theme Hold on to the Vision, which makes for a perfect montage, and is terrific in the ending, really selling the moment.

No Retreat, No Surrender certainly has its weaknesses, and hardly compares to bigger budgeted features, but it still has lots of great martial arts, and a unique charm. And compared to some DTV fare it probably looks like gold! Well worth a watch no matter what...

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Drop Dead Fred (1991)

Lizzie Cronin is a meek and subservient young woman. Perpetually browbeated by her mother, her marriage has just ended after her husband had an affair. Returning home, she rediscovers her old music box, and after untaping it, her old imaginary friend comes flying out. As a child, everyone around Lizzie knew about the mischievous and destructive Drop Dead Fred, and now that he's free, he's determined to have fun, and teach the grown-up Lizzie a thing or two...

Originally released to critical dismissal, Drop Dead Fred has always had its fans, and built up a devoted following as the years have gone by. Regarded by critics as just lowbrow trash, I feel the movie is better than that. Whether or not you find it to be obnoxious or grating depends on the person (and your tolerance for Rik Mayall)

The tone of the movie is goofy and irreverent, and on those terms the movie is a success, delivering laughs and amusing setpieces. But besides all that, there's another reason it's resonated with people over the years, and I think that's down to its relateable and adult themes, which the movie presents in a very frank way. It doesn't sugarcoat everything. Lizzie is a woman who grew up in a borderline abusive household, with a mother so oppressive that she basically sought to turn her daughter into a good little robot to marry off, and is furious at any perceived 'failure', such as divorce, losing her job, or 'daring' to be insolent. Because of this, the destructive Fred was actually a blessing for the girl, allowing her some fun and freedom when she was young. Something she has to remember again if she wants to break out of her rut.

The titular character delivers many of the film's laughs and setpieces, as he sashays across the screen. One potential drawback is that he miiiight just be a tad too psychotic for some viewers, with some of his pranks being particularly crazy. One example being the sinking of the houseboat. But at least that's one of the most whimsical scenes of the movie. Plus, Janie's rant to Fred afterwards is great. The only moment I felt went too far was making Lizzie attack the violinist

Lizzie is a good protagonist. Pathetic in some ways, enough to make you yell at the screen. But also likeable, and has enough spirit buried within her that you wanna see her break out of her current situation. Her friend Janie is a fun companion. Levelheaded to a degree, but absolutely loony in other ways. Also if you think about it she's probably no better than Lizzie's asshole ex!

On that note, the film really succeeds in portraying him as an absolute lowdown scumbag. He along with her mother are the film's true villains, and she's given some interesting dimension by the end, and I really like the resolution to that story, with her last outburst earning advice from Lizzie, but not altering her own decision.

Last up is supporting character and love interest Mickey, whose taste in women might be questionable if he views that date with Lizzie as a success, but he's a good dude, and you root for them as a couple.

The moment that I and many others find the most impactful is the ending, which features a surprising change from Fred, and really makes you wonder what all the deal with these 'imaginary' people is all about. It's really great stuff. I think part of what makes this film work so much is that it has such an edge to it that it makes this heartfelt resolution all the more impactful. If the whole movie had've been safe and cheesy, this conclusion probably wouldn't have had any weight to it, but because it holds no punches throughout, it makes it truly effective and cathartic.

The actors all do great. Phoebe Cates, normally playing self-assured and sexy ladies, is great as the very childlike and 'pathetic' Lizzie. Rik Mayall is the complete opposite as Fred. He's clearly having a ball as he chews through the scenery and runs amok. I especially admire his serious turn at the end. He really is the heart and soul of this movie. The rest of the cast do well, including an amusingly batty Carrie Fisher.

The music here is zany and fun. fitting a storybook feel. The effects are amusing too. They can get a bit fake at times. Whether or not this was intentional or not is up for debate (and I'm not prepared to insult the special effects team by making the wrong guess), but they earn a laugh regardless. Or a scream. Seeing Rik Mayall with a pancake head might inspire more terror than mirth.

Drop Dead Fred may not appeal to everyone, but it's worth checking out, and certainly worthy of time and respect...