“Bad” Movies I Love (for Brian Saur)

Straight to Hell (1987)

Straight to Hell (1987): Norwood (Sy Richardson, center) confesses to his pals Simms (Joe Strummer, left) and Willy (Dick Rude, right) that he loves them.

My last post in December was inspired by and dedicated to Mark Johnston of the now defunct Shocking Videos. Shortly afterward I cut together a video to celebrate the twentieth anniversary reissuing of John Zorn’s Elegy, and then began writing a review of Microcinema’s DVD release of Highway Patrolman (1991). But I couldn’t concentrate when it came time to working on the latter. I suddenly became overwhelmed with new ideas for a screenplay I’ve been developing for quite a few years now, and so I just decided to resume working on it. Almost immediately, I was provided by a mutual friend with a talented new artist to handle the illustrations and storyboards, and the project quickly got bigger and better than ever.

What went wrong? Frankly, the story got too big. There are so many scenes and characters which seem to belong to different kinds of movies that I have yet to find a satisfactory way to sew it all together, without having to reconstruct it as a mini-series. Perhaps it needs to be, although I’m still not convinced of that yet.

So, upon having been inspired by the music in a video directed by Aki Kaurismäki back in November, along with discovering that cartoonist Vaughn Bodé performed his most famous character’s voice in a fashion similar to W.C. Fields’ (as does a leading character in a Western I cooked up early last year), and being recently offered the opportunity to contribute to a series of posts on a favorite film-related website, I’ve decided, despite months of reluctance, to shelve The Superkiller for a third time and do something both fun and which could be quickly done.

I first stumbled across Brian Saur’s Rupert Pupkin Speaks (named after Robert De Niro’s character in The King of Comedy) a few years ago while searching for a movie poster. I clearly remember being instantly taken by his series of lists consisting of an expansive appreciation for different grades of film—an eclectic mix which I also enjoy—and so I quickly saved it to my Favorites folder and have been going back there ever since. Brian may be the online maestro of compiling film lists consisting of both classic and cult titles; some widely respected, others less so. What I’ve always found particularly interesting about some of those less popular works is that even when they suffer from a lack of quality or simply just fail to be appreciated with the general public, there are so many of them with good ideas beneath the surface. And Brian’s website is a fellow film enthusiast’s resourceful guide (as were the books and Psychotronic Video magazine edited by Michael J. Weldon before him), which leads toward obtaining more unique film experiences than even by those to be found written by the more popular film critics; which isn’t a call for completely dismissing them.

Since June 12th, Rupert Pupkin Speaks began a series of posts written by special guests titled “Bad” Movies We Love. As the title suggests with the quotation marks, the author’s task is to list and comment on any reasonable amount of movie titles that are either poorly crafted or heavily  flawed and/or generally frowned upon, but which he or she finds entertainment value in. (The first one was appropriately written by Brian.)

I’ve had the great pleasure this year of briefly communicating with Brian, along with many other interesting cinephiles and bloggers on Twitter. And during one of these brief exchanges he offered me the chance to contribute to the series, which resulted in my becoming obnoxiously happy amongst friends and family, as my head swam with images of one movie I’ve been saving commenting on here.

Straight to Hell (1987)

“Strangers, Frank.” From left to right. Spider Stacy, Fox Harris (in the background), Shane MacGowan, Sue Kiel, Biff Yeager, and Elvis Costello.

What is it I love about Straight To Hell so much that made me hang it on my muse’s wall? I’m delighted to say that you’ll find my thoughts on that film, and three others I chose to talk about, at Rupert Pupkin Speaks. But I’d like to add here that now that Brian has prompted me to discuss this 1987 movie months before I planned to do so, I’ve decided it’s time to dive into the Western screenplay I outlined early last year before my first post on My Kind of Story; and which I honestly thought was going to be the first writing project I was going to tackle then.

Named after the Mexican restaurant in my last story, Bandit Country is to be an homage to Straight to Hell, as well as to cartoonist Vaughn Bodé. Having said that, the actual idea for this humorous adventure came to me after my first viewings of Dirty Little Billy (1972) and Mixed Blood (1985), which is why I’ve written about them.

One of my favorite plots in film history can be found in director Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (1984). If there’s one story I wish I could have written, it’s that one. I love a story that can be both fun and inspiring with a treasure chest full of ideas to play with. (I should note that the title for my own project actually came from a line by actor Walter Huston in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.) While Bandit Country may not be as urgent or as epic in scope as The Superkiller, it’s got the themes I’m most interested in that I’ve yet to see explored.

I’ll be back soon for a few more commentaries. After that, Bandit Country “is where [I’ll] be going”. Hope you enjoy my post on Brian’s website, as well as the links provided below. Glad to be back.

Links:

Mixed Blood and the Music of Paul Morrissey’s Gangsters

The only movie images displayed in Rodney Harvey’s tragic E! True Hollywood Story I never forgot—when I saw it in 1999—belonged to Mixed Blood (1984), his film debut. I wasn’t familiar with anything from his filmography at the time, although I had seen Salsa (1988) as a kid. And it wasn’t until early January of this year that I finally got around to realizing the quality of his work.

I must have seen Paul Morrissey’s Blood for Dracula (1974) not long after watching that documentary, because about that time was when I got myself a Laserdisc player. (It was also the first Laserdisc that I bought for a friend.) Blood for Dracula (1974) is one of my favorite black comedies, which I tend to revisit year after year. It’s the only tale of the Count where he has to drink virgin blood in order to survive—which he has a hard time trying to find—and where his adversary is a communist. Actors Udo Kier and Joe Dallesandro are unforgettable in their roles, as is Arno Juerging as Anton (Dracula’s servant). But it’s writer/director Morrissey’s dialogue and style that gives it its unique flavor.

Flesh for Frankenstein (1973) was to be the only other Morrissey flick I would see until years later, when I spotted Mixed Blood available for instant streaming through my rental provider. And it wasn’t until that moment that I became aware that the one memorable Rodney Harvey film I had seen clips of long ago was directed by the same talent behind Blood for Dracula.

Four minutes into it, when all of a sudden I heard Willie Colón’s Che Che Cole kick in with a tracking shot of Rita La Punta (played brilliantly by Marília Pêra) leading her Maceteros into their rival gang’s turf, I had a smile on my face that stayed there predominantly throughout the picture.

According to Morrissey, the impetus for the film—which discloses its setting—came from a New York Times article, which regarded the drug trade going on in vacant buildings in New York’s Lower East Side. Having the opportunity to work with his “favorite actress of all time” (Marília Pêra), Morrissey next had to decide upon how best to use her. Drawing inspiration from Pépé Le Moko (1937), he chose to tell the story of a Brazilian woman (La Punta, or “the Spike”) who runs a gang of underage kids that hustles drugs and tries to drive off her competition (the Master Dancers).

Were it not for the perfectly hand-picked, relatively unknowns Morrissey discovered (with a little help from his casting agent), the film might have been completely overbalanced by Marília Pêra of Brazil’s 1981 masterpiece Pixote. She’s a powerhouse of an actress.

Rita La Punta: Get on clothes. And put on some clean underwear. Suppose they took you to prison with this dirty underwear.

Had it not been for the backing out of a Brazilian soccer player, who was to play her son, the character rewritten especially for the irreplaceable Cuban Mariel refugee Richard Ulacia (Thiago) would not have given the film what it needed to make it whole. Morrissey loves people with accents in his films, and Richard’s is priceless. He was a good sport for putting up with having his character rewritten and treated as mentally challenged, because of his manner of speech. Rodney Harvey plays Jose, his right-hand man.

After a meeting between a corrupt police official and a local crime boss (Hector), along with an outsider German supplying drugs to both the Master Dancers and the Macateros, a decision is made to intervene into their troublemaking, potential war.

The German’s female companion (Carol), upon meeting Thiago, stirs the pot even more by posing a threat to La Punta’s grasp on her son, as well as arousing his interest in leaving his confined environment. Even though, she’s just having teen-like fun with him.

Thiago: You like Thiago?

Carol: Thiago, I think your mother has the wrong idea about us.

Thiago: You stay with me. You belong to the chief.

Carol: You mean like in the jungle?

Thiago: Don’t make fun of me. I don’t like it.

If things aren’t messy enough, a mid-teen (Comanche) has come to town seeking revenge against Thiago for crippling his brother. He manages to sneak his way into the Maceteros gang as a spy for the Dancers, despite Thiago’s strong distrust of him.

I tend to dislike it when a film uses the same song(s) more than once, but the use of Mixed Blood’s outstanding soundtrack is exceptional (links provided below). The Hector Lavoe tracks are outstanding, and Jose Gallardo’s Amanecer is particularly beautiful. But when I heard Wilfredo Vargas’ El Africano during a family party, just before a major shootout occurs, I was texting my brother and a couple of friends about the film, eager to share the experience.

Having grown up in my mom’s record shop, and having had the enormous pleasure of working in the record distribution industry, I received a great deal of exposure to a large variety of music; many things I might not have ever gone on to appreciate on my own. Including the music of New York-based Fania Records, where many of these recording artists rose to stardom. Although I was born and raised in South Florida, I tended to overlook my Hispanic heritage and culture throughout my youth. Once I began to take advantage of my second language, I discovered a gateway to enjoying other cultures which would allow anyone to broaden their perspective on life and the many roads of experience there are to travel. This film reminded me of those feelings, by mixing different groups on one turf and allowing us to laugh along with all of our petty human dramas and small-minded greediness. It’s a memorable period piece, with plenty to offer in entertainment, as well as for those of us studying storytelling techniques.

Richard Ulacia as Thiago, Marília Pêra as Rita La Punta, and Rodney Harvey as Jose.

Soundtrack Listing:

  • Amanecer composed by Jose Gallardo, performed by Mongo Santamaria.
  • Che Che Cole composed by Willie Colón, sung by Hector Lavoe.
  • Noche De Farra composed by Armando M. Dwalff, performed by Hector Lavoe.
  • Songoro Consongo composed by E. Grenet and N. Guillen, performed by Hector Lavoe.
  • El Africano composed by Calixto Ochoa, performed by Wilfredo Vargas. (My favorite.)
  • Tico-Tico music by Z. Abreu, words by A. Oliveira, performed by Marília Pêra.

Geraldine Smith as Toni (left), a prostitute working for La Punta. Thiago (right), captured by the Dancers.

Linda Kerridge as Carol (left), and Pedro Sanchez as Comanche (right).

Ulrich Berr as “The German” (left), and Marcelino Rivera as Hector (right).

Angel David as “Juan the Bullet” (seated), leader of the Master Dancers.

Photograph References:

  • All of the images posted above and more can be found on Image Entertainment’s DVD Special Features: Production Gallery with Commentary by Director Paul Morrissey.