Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Ice Cream Man + Disconnected

(R, A-Pix Entertainment, 86 mins., video release date: May 9,1995)

(R, Generic Films, , 84 mins., video release date: July 1984)

Vinegar Syndrome's triumphant release of Liquid Sky in its first genuine digital video incarnation (Arrow Video, eat your heart out) was one of three Black Friday 2017 exclusives at their online store. I've procured copies of the other two after being wowed by Slava Tsukerman's cult film, and while the movies are nowhere near as essential as Liquid Sky, Vinegar Syndrome have issued them with similar TLC and are a boutique label to adore for their efforts.

To be true, neither Norman Apstein's ICE CREAM MAN nor Gorman Bechard's DISCONNECTED are particularly cosmic discoveries. The former not only has the misfortune of being reissued following Andy Muschietti's successful adaptation of the adolescent chapters of Stephen King's It, but is also the sole skin-proof effort from porn stalwart Norman Paul Apstein. The latter is a student film from the future director of Psychos in Love, whose acquisition by Vinegar Syndrome has allowed Disconnected the luxury of escaping the obscurity to which it has long been confined. 

Ice Cream Man presents Clint Howard in his first headline role since 1982's Evilspeak, when he was in his early 20s and already settling into his storied career as the king of the celebrity sibling B-actors. This was undoubtedly the ironic thought process when MTV bestowed upon Clint their Lifetime Achievement Award at their 1998 movie-based ceremony, but it happily backfired thanks to Clint's sincere acceptance speech. He was in the same pantheon as Godzilla, Chewbacca and Jason Voorhees, but also Jackie Chan, Richard "Shaft" Roundtree and The Three Stooges. The joke forever deflated, Clint Howard was instead allowed his rightful legacy as a genre icon.

And Ice Cream Man, which made its "world television premiere" the following year on TNT's MonsterVision with drive-in critic Joe Bob Briggs (a.k.a. John Bloom), is a better showcase for Clint's oddball charisma than the revenge fantasy of Evilspeak. Although his hairline receded faster than Phil Collins, his facial features hardened to perfection in adulthood. Squinty-eyed and scowling, Clint resembles a baby-faced Larry Drake. He also blew his vocal cords in preparation for each take, the resulting rasp a wonderfully OTT counterpart to his deranged countenance. He goes all the way so as to deliver such lines as "Not every day is a happy, happy, happy day" with the respect they deserve. When he digresses towards soft-shoe shuffling and grisly puppetry, Clint is still no less the proper combination of diabolical and entertaining.

Norman Apstein (of the Edward Penishands series, which is no joke) and screenwriters David (The Wedding Crashers) Dobkin and Sven (one-flick wonder) Davison are less assured in their method than Clint. Story creator Dobkin may have intended a sick-humored Pied Piper update for the Spielberg Generation, but at least Clint Howard can claim biological rights to his derivations from brother Ron. The child's eye perspective of the story is muddled, to say the least, with hackneyed parent drama (fundamentalism and infidelity) and conflicting characterizations of the titular menace. It may do wonders for Clint Howard's range to go from affectionately retarded loner to wisecracking novelty maniac, but it robs the film of any believable danger.

It's ludicrous from the get-go, as little Gregory Tudor finds his neighborhood ice cream vendor gunned down for reasons undefined and is placed in psychiatric care at Wishing Well, a Funland for the criminally insane where Gregory's prescribed alternating doses of brain-freezing treats and mind-altering drugs. Released under the custody of Nurse Wharton (Olivia Hussey, who is certifiably ageless), Clint Howard's Gregory resumes the practice of the late Butch Brickle while adding a secret ingredient in his hand-picked hard pack which draws the flies and cockroaches to nestle in the containers. Woe onto thee who ask for a cherry on top.

This sounds like it should be a hoot, with the toy piano jingle heralding the unpacking of icky delights for the local brats, particularly the four which form The Rocketeers. When one of them, the brainy Small Paul (Macaulay clone Mikey LeBeau), is abducted by the friendless Gregory, the remaining trio (Justin Isfeld of American Pie semi-fame as Johnny, voiceover pro Anndi McAfee as Heather, JoJo Adams plus obvious pillow padding as the husky Tuna) try to obtain proof of Gregory's malevolence as a pair of detectives (Jan-Michael Vincent, Lee Majors Jr.) follow a hunch which leads back to the supposedly harmless ex-inmate. But Apstein, who was initially chasing a PG-13 rating even with three severed heads and a joke involving a dead tramp's diaphragm, is insufficiently sordid despite his adults-only past.

The flavorful cast also includes David Warner as Heather's preacher dad, David Naughton & Sandahl Bergman as Tuna's splintered parents and a few more less accomplished but familiar names from the realms of sports, TV and Apstein's true vocation. But despite their efforts as well as those of the principal child performers, Ice Cream Man is still curiously soupy. Vinegar Syndrome's DVD includes the actual MonsterVision "Summer School" broadcast of Ice Cream Man, with Joe Bob Briggs interviewing Clint Howard during commercial breaks. TNT's work was cut out for them, given editor André Vaillancourt's frequent use of fade-to-black scene transitions which also suggests Apstein may have been shooting straight for cable.

Thankfully, Clint Howard has one or two scenes above marginal interest. There's a moment where Gregory visits the grave of his fallen hero and tries to pay respects with the most appetizing ice cream cone on show throughout the entire movie. His feelings get hurt upon hearing (to himself) Butch Brickle's spirit as well as those of his cemetery neighbors: "You guys having a party?" Howard elevates the material with his hearty good humor (ahem) even as the writers fail to ply him with a decent catchphrase; I groaned twice when he opened his mouth during the abduction of Tuna.

Still, for all its low-cal silliness, Ice Cream Man landed a minor cult following, one which sadly wasn't enough to warrant a proposed sequel in a 2014 Kickstarter campaign. Disconnected was a strictly regional effort filmed in Waterbury, Connecticut (budget: $40,000; camera: Bolex 16mm) and soon relegated to the kind of VHS rental shops its main character works at. She is Alicia (Frances Raines), a lonely young woman whose life devolves into a low-budget horror film, to borrow an observation from a different character. An elderly stranger vanishes mysteriously from her apartment after he's invited in, but eventually her mind plays greater tricks on her. Alicia has dumped her boyfriend of two years, Mike (Carl Koch), under suspicion of cheating on her with her twin sister Barbara Ann (Raines), who has been long been sabotaging Alicia's love life. Since then, she's been inundated with what seem to be prank calls bombarding her with shrill white noise.

There's also a sex maniac on the loose, which might explain those creepy calls, but who actually turns up in person at Alicia's job asking for a date. He's Franklin (Mark Walker), the kind of introvert who is likely to exclaim "see ya, bye" as one word instead of three. But we see the threat he poses her when he butchers a pick-up to the tune of XTC's "Complicated Game," of all songs. The movie begins and ends with Aussie rock legends Hunters & Collectors' 1982 single "Talking to a Stranger" (also heard in Brian Trenchard-Smith's Dead End Drive-In from 1986) for bonus alt rock cred, and future Hollywood composer/album producer Jon Brion appears with power-pop outfit The Excerpts (whose "You Don't Love Me" plays throughout) after the smartest guy in the room name-drops Talking Heads and Elvis Costello. And if you own Haysi Fantayzee's eternally oddball Battle Hyms for Children Singing LP, guess which cut ends up used as a tool of seduction in Disconnected (it isn't "John Wayne Is Big Leggy").

Given that Gorman Bechard would go on to direct Color Me Obsessed, a fan's-eye view of Minneapolis cult rockers The Replacements (surely one of my all-time favorite bands), these aren't hollow hipster throwaways. In fact, they seem as off-kilter as the film's narrative, which is part slasher cash-in, part ghost story and part psychological study. There's even time out for a police procedural, with Psychos in Love lead/co-writer Carmine Capobianco addressing the camera in a precursor to the Woody Allen flourishes of that future bad taste treat. Bechard edits these strands together for all the maximum disorientation his shoestring budget can afford, which isn't very much. He gooses up the soundtrack with enough screeches and portentous sound effects as compensation.

Mark Walker, a veteran of Canadian productions who previously starred in Cronenberg's Rabid, is suitably creepy even in agonizingly long takes of dialogue. But the real draw for '80s exploitation experts is Frances Raines (Claude's niece) in her only lead role, which also happens to be a double. Best known for The Mutilator and a handful of porn purveyor Tim Kincaid's schlock (Breeders yes, Robot Holocaust no), Raines is groomed by Bechard as the '80s B-movie answer to a Hitchcock heroine rather than your standard "final girl." As Alicia, Raines handles the ambiguously disorienting material with reactive aplomb, whereas Barbara Ann allows her to dolly up her voice, curl her hair and enthusiastically deliver some of the requisite nudity.

Bechard provides a couple of twists in the mundane murder plot, from the lecherous and rude customer who ends up dating Barbara Ann to the resolution of Alicia and Franklin's sex scene. There's still only so much he can do with the means at his disposal, as when the sun is glaring right onto the camera lens for a good 45 seconds or his lifelessly static shots even during the police's showdown with Franklin. Making allowances for the shift in plot nearly an hour into this 84-minute feature debut, there are still points in the movie which drag in the familiar style of most outré, student-directed micro movies. What virtues Disconnected possesses are mostly in music and minutiae: the cutaway to a Groucho Marx doll, the posters on Alicia's living room walls (one, naturally, for Hitchcock's The Trouble with Harry), a second Hunters & Collectors track played on the radio, the DJ announcing Cheapskate Records selling X's More Fun in the New World album for $5.99 before queuing "the #1 song in the country," The Excerpts' "Death in Small Doses," to soundtrack Alicia's weepy relapse back into isolated terror.

What both Ice Cream Man and Disconnected have going for them in the long run are their eccentricities, from Clint Howard's dominating performance to the bizarre if well-scored mulligan stew of horror tropes Gorman Bechard cooks up. Vinegar Syndrome have given both films renewed purpose on Blu-Ray with 2k transfers, sourced from original negatives, that bury all previous tape and disc presentations. Ice Cream Man has its share of gauzy lighting but is also presented with a clarity and attention to detail which belies whatever statements I made about it being worthy of a cable TV creation. This 1.85:1 widescreen image is consistently as cool as its confectionary namesake. Disconnected, digitally scanned from "16mm vault elements," can't help but look hazier, grainier and more dated by comparison. But rescued from full-frame purgatory as it is, there is much to admire about Frances Raines' luminous looks and dresses. Flesh tones are actually solid all around, and there are plenty of rich colors outside of Carmine Capobianco's Hawaiian shirts.

Ice Cream Man has an equally above-average DTS-HD 2.0 audio mix, whereas Disconnected is pitched at monaural 1.0 with all its limitations on display, especially in regards to speech and song cues (not hearing XTC and Hunters & Collectors in glorious stereo is a crying shame). Luckily, each package has their proper bounty of bonuses. Bechard & Capobianco reunite for Disconnected's audio commentary track as well as provide individual video testimonies. Capobianco, who comes across as a cuddlier Joe Spinell, seems to retain pictographic memory of the locations as well as a jovial presence which complements Bechard, whose recollections have become fuzzier with age. The biggest surprise is the inclusion of Bechard's initial foray into documentary filmmaking, the hour-long Twenty Questions (1987), as well as footage from its premiere at the 2017 New Haven Film Festival. In it, a diverse group of Waterbury citizens attempt to answer intimate questions from 20 flash cards, surrounded by magazines and TV sets which air sensational clips from Bechard's own filmography. One visual artist is as stumped as anyone having to simply name five books: "The Great Gatsby...is that a book?"

As for Ice Cream Man, you can watch the movie as it was aired on TNT's MonsterVision (clocking in at two hours even with minor copyright-minded edits), with Clint Howard dishing out amiable anecdotes as well as fielding Joe Bob's questions about past glories in Evilspeak and The Wraith. It's interesting to note that only a couple instances of gore had to be censored, specifically the disposal of a dog. Howard also appears in a contemporary interview, as do Norman Apstein (who passably handles the audio commentary gig) and producer David Goldstein. All three are candidly critical of the movie and/or the pressures of the production, especially Goldstein. His seven-minute piece is so full of disgust that Clint Howard, who also provided set photos for a stills gallery, is allowed to be the hero for the first time since I saw him on MTV.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Flatliners (2017)

(PG-13, Columbia Pictures, 109 mins., theatrical release date: Sept. 29, 2017)

Did you know that when you die, apparently your spirit leaves your body and swoops down the same CG cityscape as seen in the current HBO Feature Presentation bumper. That's all there is to learn from the 2017 revival of the previously-discussed Flatliners. I'm not fond of Joel Schumacher's 1990 brood feast in an everlasting way, but at least it once played on HBO with a minute-long introduction (in SPACE!) which earns its nostalgia. There are no specs rosy enough to make the new model seem appealing now let alone in 2044.

Schumacher had been a fickle, flippant filmmaker throughout the entire 1980s (following the "hip" ensemble dramedy St. Elmo's Fire with the "hip" ensemble horromedy The Lost Boys), whereas Niels Arden Oplev at least has the original 2009 adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to his credit. But it hasn't been a good year for Tomas (Let the Right One In) Alfredson let alone Oplev, on top of everything else you can think of going wrong in 2017. Screenwriter Ben Ripley adapts Peter Filardi's original story, but he's not at Source Code efficiency this time. Despite his user friendly surname, Ripley is slumming it in a dimwitted regression to the DTV half of the Species saga he began with.

Full disclosure: I needed the fast-forward button on my DVD player to keep me from death by boredom. Flatliners runs a grueling two hours thanks to protracted, derivative scenes of creeping terror but still manages graceless transitions and a dearth of investment. Oprev and Ripley ignored the notion that flatlining creates the kind of rush which one character suggests should be bottled and sold as a "club drug." Theirs is instead a sleepy-time depressant you swig once the party's over.

Kiefer Sutherland re-emerges from Schumacher's gothic amber playing not the older version of ringleader Nelson Wright, but instead an inconsequential cameo as the movie's Dr. House, "Woolfson." It's Ellen Page as Courtney Holmes who assumes Nelson's obsession with the afterlife nine years after drowning her kid sister Tessa in a texting-while-driving wreckage. Courtney strong-arms second year womanizer Jamie (James Norton) and the fearfully studious Sophia (Kiersey Clemons) into assisting her two-minute demise. The Oliver Platt-like outsider is Diego Luna's morally assertive yet mischievous Ray, and our Julia Roberts manqué is the woeful Nina Dobrev as Marlo.

Working in the basement of their hospital in order to take advantage of a functioning MRI machine, they competitively stop their hearts by lowering their body temperature via a cooling jacket and receiving a fatal hit from the defibrillator. Courtney claims that her astral projection was actually "a little sexual," but good luck sensing this based on the screensaver visuals Oprev preserves. The carnality is strictly TV-PG, as Sophia has a vigorous if ridiculous tryst with Jamie and moony Ray confesses his love to Marlo. Save for Ray, the resurrected med students tap into repressed mental faculties whether it's book knowledge or bread recipes or, in the 25-year-old Sophia's case, standing up to her mother, who demands she Win At All Costs.

Sure enough, they also dredge up their guiltiest secrets in the form of vengeful apparitions. Courtney is haunted by the Samara-style ghost of her sibling. Player Jamie, instead of being shamed by all of his conquests a la Billy Baldwin, is pestered by one long-lost lover he deserted upon impregnating. And in a racial inverse of Kevin Bacon's sin, it's black Sophia who humiliated a smarter schoolmate by hacking and dissembling her naked photos. This entails the same quest for forgiveness as before, but only after one of them is flatlined permanently by his/her demon.

The urgency of their predicament is euthanized by the deadening ways in which they go about killing themselves and then celebrate their complicated resuscitations with slow-mo hedonism before their interminable torment by Paranormal Activity spooks. Flatliners has no soul to lose. Without visuals worthy of Jan de Bont's breathtaking cinematography from the original, the numbing cycle instead comes on like probable outtakes from Platinum Dunes' A Nightmare on Elm Street 2. Schumacher, for all his flaws, was at least wittily portentous and filmed the original's crises of conscience with variety and elegance. Oprev's Flatliners has no identity of its own away from the most crushingly familiar of "quiet...quiet...BANG!" exploitation.

Even more so than the original, there is a airbrushed vacancy to the characters' games of one-upsmanship and their ability to function as promising healers. Though Courtney and Jamie come out of the experience with amazing powers of diagnosing rare diseases and administering life-saving drugs, I didn't feel the overriding sense of real, irresponsible danger in these egotistic tests. There's no mortality to their madness, and whatever invigoration they get from playing chicken with death doesn't seem worth the possibility of brain damage or psychological instability or terminal malpractice.

Flatliners flits from one half-assed conceptual triviality to another, freed from gravity just like its cast during those out-of-body experiences. Not since posing as Kitty Pryde for disgraced hack Brett Ratner has Ellen Page been so egregiously squandered. Diego Luna (has it already been 16 years since Y Tu Mamá También?) and Kiersey Clemons (a comedic charmer as seen in Neighbors 2) have too proven themselves overqualified for this tedium, which is more than can be said for small screen ciphers Nina Dobrev and James Norton. The work Oplev and Ripley have done could've been accomplished by any slumming work-for-hires toiling under the Screen Gems banner. There's nothing exquisitely tricky or emotional to make their Flatliners come alive, just 110 minutes which transition into rigor mortis early on and never lets up. It's the kind of stiff which you don't so much as review as perform an autopsy on. And with so many people trying to look on the bright side of a downer year, the sooner we bag and tag Flatliners '17, the better.