Films #99-100: Crossroads (2002) & Burlesque (2010)

film 99 crossroads

Ratings: Crossroads, 2/5; Burlesque, 3/5

“All we have is now, and right now we have each other.”
“I will not be upstaged by some slut with mutant lungs!”

One hundred films watched, finally – and what better way to hit the milestone than to celebrate with a 90s-pop-star-to-movie-star-showdown? Yes, it’s Britney Spears in Crossroads versus Christina Aguilera in Burlesque, with a dash of Cher thrown in for good measure. It goes without saying these are cheesy movies but, despite the suggestively low-to-average ratings, they’re both great fun (if you’re that way inclined, I suppose).

First up: Crossroads. Britney is Lucy, virginal do-gooder and all-round nice girl with some abandonment issues thanks to her mother leaving her as a young child. She and her two childhood friends had buried a time capsule many years ago, but as the years passed, these three best friends have grown up, and grown apart. Lucy’s a smokin’ hot dork, Kit (Zoe Saldana, long before carving a name for herself in some of the biggest movie franchises around) is a rich bitch with mummy issues, and Mimi (Taryn Manning) is pregnant by some loser. But it’s finally their high school prom, and the three temporarily put aside their differences to open the box and remember their hopes and dreams. This, naturally, leads to the three embarking on a road trip to LA in a classic convertible with a handsome older man, Ben (Anson Mount) who may or may not have just been released from jail for murder. It’s a coming of age roadtrip movie – they’re all at the crossroads of their lives, you see?

The film is shoddy, to say the least. The plot makes little or no sense, and the characters react in ways that never consider the big picture: the girls find out that Ben may have killed someone while on their road trip, yet continue to antagonise him at every given moment. They may be freaking out in the motel bathroom that they’re going to be murdered and buried in the desert, but two minutes later they’ve apparently forgotten the entire thing. Mimi is planning on going to LA to compete in a recording contest, but develops stage fright the first second she has to sing in public, and almost instantaneously hands over the mike to Lucy and forgets her dream. Kit oddly switches between stereotypical black girl (saying things like “y’all” and getting shouty when drunk) and prim white rich girl. Lucy is a wallflower, but the second she puts on a denim mini-skirt she suddenly becomes a raunchy, pole-dancing showgirl. Ben has no personality whatsoever, but is generally pleasing to the eye so gets away with throwing tantrums in the desert. He also listens exclusively to heavy metal, but writes the music to one of the soppiest pop songs ever (Britney’s mediocre soulful hit, I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman). This does at least, lead to one of the most cringeworthy moments in the whole movie, when he plays the song to Lucy on a white grand piano, as she does that classic 90s, breathy “na na na na” singalong. Yes, there are plenty of moments to groan through and laugh at.

There’s very little actually good about Crossroads – the acting is perfunctory at best (as the biggest name after Britney, Dan Aykroyd sleepwalks through his role as her dad), the narrative incoherent, and one important scene is marred by the constant disappearance and reappearance of a toothbrush in Mimi’s hair. The biggest problem, however, is that the girls are supposed to be eighteen – and therefore adults – yet look and act like they’re about thirteen. Meanwhile Ben is, admittedly, older, but looks a good ten years older than these teens, making the whole thing more than a little uncomfortable. It’s also a surprisingly dark movie – although the overarching themes are ultra-cheesy (friendship, family, finding yourself, growing up) the individual characters’ stories include parental abandonment, cheating, potential murder and rape, with pregnant Mimi in particular suffering a number of harrowing blows. It adds another layer of awkwardness to the movie, which seems to be confused as to who its target audience is: the tweens who love Britney as a pop star, or the young adults who are her actual age. Consequently, it fails to really appeal to either – but as a nostalgic throwback to a time when double denim was the height of fashion, it’s camp, stupid, unintentionally hilarious, and very entertaining. I’m Not a Girl is still a terrible song though.

film 100 burlesque

Next up: Britney’s rival, Christina, in Burlesque. Capitalising on the sudden resurgence of burlesque as a female-empowered, ultra-glamorous performance art, the film sees Ali (Aguilera) packing her things and leaving her small town for the lights and sights of LA – whereas Lucy’s journey ends at the City of Angels, Ali’s begins there. We learn nothing whatsoever about Ali’s homelife – she doesn’t appear to have any family or friends, for example. In LA she tries to make it as a singer-dancer, but isn’t having any luck until she happens upon the outwardly understated Burlesque club (that’s what it’s called, apparently) and instantly falls in love with the razzmatazz and spectacle of the whole thing. Luckily she walks in just as the club’s owner Tess (Cher) is singing a conveniently informative song all about burlesque and what it can offer you. Determined to make it, Ali becomes a waitress at the club, learns all the routines, befriends hunky (possibly gay) bartender/songwriter Jack (Cam Gigandet wearing some guyliner) and waits for her chance. Luckily the club’s lead dancer is an unreliable, spiteful alcoholic, and it’s not long before Ali is saving the day by singing live rather than lipsynching to songs.

Burlesque has one massive, glaring problem: it has almost no burlesque in it. The club is not a bump-and-grind venue, but a cabaret show – the girls don’t take their clothes off, because this is a 12A-rated movie; instead they perform vaguely risqué dance routines to famous songs, while wearing glamorous, moderately revealing showgirl outfits. It’s burlesque for the High School Musical generation – clean cut and harmless, inoffensive but slightly titillating. In many ways, Burlesque is most reminiscent of Coyote Ugly – it follows a very similar storyline and also makes the seedy reality of “making it in Hollywood” seem glamorous and empowering.

Where Burlesque works, however, is in its campness. It seems to embrace this wholeheartedly; it’s like Chicago, but cheesier, with Stanley Tucci stealing the show as Tess’s gay best friend/ right hand man, and Alan Cumming channelling Joel Grey’s compere character in Cabaret. Plus, it’s got gay icon Cher at the helm. She swans around in super high heels and high-cut leotards, sings heartfelt songs without moving a muscle in her face, and looks strangely younger than people twenty years her junior – it’s truly bizarre to think that she was sixty-four in real life! The shame of the movie is that she never gets to sing with Christina. Like her or not, Aguilera’s voice is incredible, and the second she opens her mouth to sing the star quality shines through – she puts Britney to shame, by the way. Meanwhile the songs are frequent – this is far more a musical than Crossroads – and energetic, with the whole movie taking on a far more light-hearted, upbeat tone than Britney’s soul-searching tour de force.

That’s not to say Burlesque is necessarily a good film – there’s plenty that doesn’t make sense. Like Crossroads the screenwriters seem to have a really strange grasp of time: events seem to take weeks, yet actually happen in an evening; others seem to take minutes but span months. Also like Crossroads, it involves the man-candy writing a song for the pop princesses, and like Crossroads the song sounds absolutely nothing like any of the other songs that man either listens to or plays. And, whereas Britney’s Lucy is saccharine sweet, Christina’s Ali is frequently a bit of a brat. But Burlesque works because it has more established actors who are clearly enjoying their roles and embracing the cheesiness, and generally the film feels less overwrought than Crossroads – it’s designed to be fun, and fun it is.

So, in the epic battle between these two former superstars, who comes out on top? Christina’s voice is better, Burlesque‘s narrative is marginally more coherent, the acting better simply because of its self-awareness, and the spectacle is definitely better. It also has one of the most outrageous seduction scenes. Yet Crossroads also has a ridiculous seduction scene, and it’s got Britney’s trademark cute-but-sexy thing working for it, and it’s so stupid and so incoherent, and the songs are pretty dreadful, and the characters equally rubbish… To be honest, it’s a tough call, but together they make for a truly epic double bill.

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Film #98: Track of the Moon Beast (1976)

film 98 track of the moon beast

Rating: 2/5

“Moon rocks? Oh, wow!”

Currently taking 36th place in IMDb’s Bottom 100, Track of the Moon Beast owes much of its reputation to the folks at Mystery Science Theater 3000; it gets barely a mention in the Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, listed as a “non star, ‘we can’t act’” movie. It’s true that the acting leaves much to be desired – the above quote is particularly flat in delivery – and the effects are shoddy, and the story is stupid, but in many ways it’s no better or worse than countless other movies of the time. Indeed, it’s pretty mundane, and there are few moments that really elevate it to anything particularly interesting; this demonstrates just one of the many difficulties in establishing why certain films have gained a reputation, while others have been long-since forgotten.

Chase Cordell is Paul, a mineralogist studying bones in the desert when he is hit in the head by a falling meteor, which causes him to transform into the dreaded moon beast of the title. This causes some concern from his girlfriend Kathy (Donna Leigh Drake – she’s responsible for the worst of the performances, and speaks the above quote) and Paul’s former teacher, Johnny Longbow (Gregorio Sala) who, for some reason, appears to be an expert in everything. It also results in Paul being topless or in his pyjamas for almost the entire movie, as he undergoes tests in hospital and suffers bouts of dizziness while human.

The acting is definitely the film’s weakest point, particularly from Drake. She is, admittedly, not supported by the screenplay – the film appears to take place over a few days, and Kathy and Paul are strangers at the beginning. Yet within mere hours, it appears, they are a long-established couple deeply in love; naturally, Kathy’s biggest concern is the effect this mutation will have on their relationship. Despite this, she seems to flirt uncontrollably with everyone around her – she stands too close, giggles and bats her eyes at inappropriate moments, and is generally completely unbelievable at every given opportunity. She represents the true emotional core of the movie (I suppose this is why her affections for Paul had to be so rapidly induced, so that he has someone other than his teacher to worry about his well-being) but she’s utterly vapid. The rest of the cast don’t fare much better; the best performances come from two flirty college students, who pop up every now and then but are ultimately irrelevant.

The film’s shot in colour, and the budget’s limitations are obvious throughout. The meteor, when it falls and hits Paul, is a quick flash of white across the screen – it clearly goes no where near the actor. The editing is sloppy and perfunctory, bringing a leaden pace to the movie, and the scenes are frequently poorly exposed and shoddily presented. Generally, it’s unremarkable and uninteresting, but the narrative is suitably stupid to add a further layer of badness to the whole production. There’s a strange combination of Native American folklore and science fiction – which at least explains why Johnny Longbow appears to be integral to the police’s investigations into the grisly murders that are taking place when the moon is full.

Considering some of the other horror movies around at the time, Track of the Moon Beast is disappointingly bloodless. When Paul does finally get out of his pyjamas to become the monster, the transformation is underwhelming and the creature itself an unimaginative lizard-man. Cordell has little opportunity to do much with the character, and his performance delivers even less – this being little more than a variation on the classic werewolf story, we should surely feel some sympathy for this unfortunate man, but it’s nigh on impossible. Even the ending is stupid: Paul, realising he’s going to implode at some point, decides to go and quietly remove himself from society and kill himself in the desert so no one else will be harmed. Yet Kathy works out his plan and inexplicably attempts to stop him (she doesn’t have a cure, so basically just stops him from heroically sacrificing himself for the greater good), thus forcing his dear friend Longbow to shoot him with… a longbow… Oh yes, it’s that kind of movie.

The biggest problem I’m having is that, mere days after I watched this, I’m struggling to remember anything about it. I remember it being silly, and reasonably entertaining, but why is causing issues. Does Track of the Moon Beast really deserve such a reputation that it is considered the 36th worst film of all time? Probably not – it sits fairly comfortably alongside the banal output of Al Adamson’s “blood” movies; the main difference is not aesthetic style or narrative content, but the success of MST3K in bringing Moon Beast more widespread attention.

Film #97: The Giant Claw (1957)

film 97 the giant claw

Rating: 2.5/5

“Something, he didn’t know what, but something as big as a Battleship has just flown over and past him.”

Finally released on DVD as part of a Sam Katzman Collection, The Giant Claw is notorious for its monster, described as a “bird as big as a battleship” in the film, and an “extraterrestrial turkey” by everyone watching it. As a result of this alien invader, the film has made it (rather appropriately) into the Son of Golden Turkey Awards, the Medveds’ sequel to their infamous Golden Turkey Awards – unfortunately it doesn’t win the the award it’s been nominated for, the Most Laughable Concept for an Outer Space Invader, with that dubious honour going to the carpet monsters in The Creeping Terror instead.

Despite containing some of the classic “bad movie” elements, The Giant Claw is more kitsch than terrible. The voice-over narration that introduces the story is typically emphatic and serious in tone, discussing – as so many of them do – scientific progress and the implications such progress has. Once the world was big, the narrator tells us, but now “the farthest corner of the Earth is as close as a pushbutton.” Fully engaged in scientific development, we are then introduced to our hero, an engineer, Mitch McAfee (Jeff Morrow) who is conducting special radar tests when he encounters a UFO (in the truest sense of the word) that, inexplicably, doesn’t appear on the radar. Needless to say, no one believes him, but as more pilots begin reporting unidentified objects before disappearing off the face of the earth, eventually the officials are forced to take notice.

There is a bit of a paradox at play in The Giant Claw. The UFO itself remains out of view for quite a long time – when it appears, it’s shown in blurry swooshes as it rushes across the screen, too fast to see. This effectively keeps the viewer guessing – like so many movie monsters, the anticipation is often more scary or impressive than the final reveal (Cloverfield, I’m looking at you). The film’s fairly low budget too, so this is an economical and pragmatic decision to make. However, the problem arises when the alien is finally revealed. By not showing it immediately, the anticipation grows and, inevitably, the creature not only fails to live up to expectations (if you’re looking for something genuinely imposing, that is) but shatters those expectations in an instant. After several attacks on buildings, planes, and farmsteads, this UFO, with the strength, speed and appearance of a “battleship” turns out to be a giant turkey-creature – a shoddily-made puppet with the most wonderfully comic Villain expression. Even now, I don’t know who’s got a better static evil expression, this or It from It Conquered the World: both have pantomime eyebrows and manic, unblinking eyes; they’re both a joy to look at, but neither are even remotely scary.

The story itself is fairly generic – along with Mitch, his mathematician girlfriend Sally (Mara Corday) and some other men in uniform attempt to stop the bird, which transpires to have travelled across galaxies somehow to lay its eggs on Earth. The creature is actually quite sympathetic, despite its ridiculous features, primarily because the humans are unpleasantly trigger happy. They take great pleasure in destroying the poor bird’s eggs, and there are no attempts to communicate with it (I know that sounds silly, given its appearance, but perhaps it’s an incredibly intelligent animal – they usually try communicating with the human-shaped aliens). Meanwhile, the bird, in its rage, destroys lots of places with the power of recycled footage taken from far better 50s sci-fi movies (The War of the Worlds, It Came From Beneath the Sea, Earth Vs The Flying Saucers) and ends up ripping off King Kong as it tries to turn the Empire State Building into its new home.

The film is, apart from the monster, no better or worse than any of the other movies of the time – and, in truth, many of the beasts in these “creature features” were daft. To be fair, The Giant Claw‘s concept is rather barmy, but it’s a fun movie as a result. There’s a real pleasure to be gained from witnessing that bird, with its comically angry face, swooping down to swallow up some hapless people. Morrow, who had battled far more impressive opponents in other movies (This Island Earth, The Creature Walks Among Us) reported that none of the cast knew what they were reacting to during filming – they were just told to look terrified, and were assured that the alien would be an indomitable foe. Unfortunately, the production ran out of money and the result, immortalised forever more on screen, is one of the most entertaining monsters around.

Film #96: Not Quite Hollywood (2008)

film 96 not quite hollywood

Rating: 3.5/5

Mark Hartley’s documentary, a unashamed fanboy look at Ozploitation movies, is fast-paced and frantic, and it’s a lot of fun. As someone who enjoys a good exploitation movie (here I’m using the term to describe the lurid 1970’s movies, filled with sex, gore and fast cars, rather than the classical exploitation films like Reefer Madness or Maniac) but knows little about the output from down under (Braindead is probably the closest I’ve come), Not Quite Hollywood plays out like a “best of” – it’s the kind of movie you feel you should watch with a pen and paper, just so you can make note of all the films to find on DVD later. Luckily for us, I’m pretty sure we have The Howling III: The Marsupials as part of a cheap double feature, but there were plenty more mentioned that looked just as ridiculous, and just as entertaining.

Among the various talking heads, mainly industry people who speak with both fondness and enthusiasm for their past lives, Hartley’s biggest name (for non-Australian audiences, at least) is easily Quentin Tarantino. He’s not listed as “filmmaker” or “director” but as “fan”, and he plays his role to perfection. Whether you’re a fan of Tarantino himself or not will probably influence your reaction to his segments – he drops bits of his own knowledge in, but mostly he comes across as someone emphatically trying to prove that he’s part of the gang. As a “fan” the anecdotes he details are the least interesting – it’s far more fun (and informative) to hear the stories from the people actually involved in the movies – but he does at least provide some context, and a recognisable face.

It is the films themselves who are the stars of the documentary, however. Hartley breaks up his narrative with sections focusing on specific strands of Ozploitation – the nudie pictures, the gore films, the racing movies. The general attitude running throughout is most definitely one of appreciation, with a healthy dollop of nostalgia thrown in for good measure: these were low-budget movies, made at a time when the Australian film industry was still a fledgling trying to find its place in the world, and for every Picnic at Hanging Rock, there were fifteen Turkey Shoot‘s being made to muddy the waters. It was a time of limited regulations, when stunt men risked their lives on a daily basis and women stood full frontal on screen and, while the rose-tinted glasses are definitely on, it’s difficult to not be slightly shocked at the hazardous working conditions rife in the 1970s. Even those involved must be quite surprised at how few deaths there were, considering what was going on.

While the films themselves are undeniably fun, compiled together in rapidly edited “best of” montages, Not Quite Hollywood starts to outstay its welcome a little bit. Perhaps it’s the obvious fan-nature of the movie that starts to grate – it’s interesting and informative, but at times feels a bit directionless, throwing another sequence of explosions and screaming women in rather than going beyond the surface. Evidently, while Ozploitation is not well known, there were a huge amount of films to emerge at the time, and Hartley seems to be trying to fit them all in, without really going into much detail about any of them. It is a fast movie, and it’s easy to be distracted by yet another reel of spectacle but, without my pen and paper at hand, the countless movies I saw clips of – the films I wanted to hunt down and watch in their entirety – have all blurred together to make one giant, mostly naked, slightly seedy, bloody, violent, apocalyptic road movie that only exists in montage. In fact, perhaps watching compilation videos of all the best bits of these films is actually the best way to watch them – surely I’ll be disappointed now, if I watched them; surely they’d never live up to the breakneck speed and apparently constant insanity that Hartley suggests?

After Not Quite Hollywood, Hartley went on to shoot the superbly titled Machete Maidens Unleashed!, another documentary, with the same formula (talking head segments interspersed with numerous movie montages), this time focusing on the American exploitation films shot in the Philippines. This is an area I’m more familiar with – Roger Corman shot several films there, as did Al Adamson and Eddie Romero – and the documentary was more fun for me as a result. However, my knowledge of the “Blood” series (Brides of Blood, Mad Doctor of Blood Island, etc) means that I am all too aware of the fact that many of these movies are slow, shoddy, and dull – until the few moments of outlandish stupidity. Is Ozploitation the same? If it is, Not Quite Hollywood does a good job at hiding this fact. And maybe really all you can do is watch the movies themselves to find out – if you do, I’m sure Hartley would consider his job done.