DEATH RACE 2050 (2017) ***

To avoid any confusion, I guess I should tell you straight away that Death Race 2050 is a remake/continuation of Roger Corman’s original Death Race 2000. It is not a sequel to the Paul W.S. Anderson remake, or the DTV sequels that were directed by Roel Reine. As with the original, the racers get points for running over pedestrians. There’s a heavy concentration on black humor and social commentary too. While it’s never consistently successful, the movie was a lot more memorable, goofy, and (oddly enough) endearing than I was expecting.

Looking like a cross between Phil Donahue and a Vegas showgirl, Malcolm McDowell presides over the race as the evil Chairman. All the racers have dumb/slightly amusing gimmicks. The Bible Belt religious fanatic Tammy the Terrorist (Anessa Ramsey) bombs the arena before the race in order to jump out ahead on points. Minerva (Folake Olowofoyeku) is a Lady Gaga/Beyonce type of pop star. Jed Perfectus (Burt Grinstead) is a genetically perfect, but sexually confused racer who dresses like Rocky in a shadow cast of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Of course, our hero is Frankenstein (Manu Bennet), the (supposedly) misshapen racer who is so mangled he has to wear a mask. Annie (Marci Miller) is his sexy navigator who may or may not be working with the resistance (headed by Yancy Butler) to sabotage the race.

While the racers’ personas have been updated to fit the time, the feeling of the film is very much in the vein of the original. Another update is the fact that the unemployed population gets to live vicariously through the racers using Virtual Reality headsets. There also is a kind of a Hunger Games vibe here as the sportscasters wear outrageous costumes. The cars thankfully are a throwback to the original and would seem more at home in Wacky Races than in Twisted Metal.

The race scenes are appallingly cheap though. The cars are obviously only going about five miles an hour with the film sped up. They mostly are only seen going down narrow streets with bad CGI greenscreen effects substituting for a lot of the other terrain. The CGI gore also looks a bit cheap, but some of the practical intestines, guts, and severed heads look pretty cool.

The good news is that there are plenty of laughs here. There are New Jersey jokes, as well as jokes about Baltimore (which has now been christened “Upper Shitsville”), and some of the futuristic name dropping is really funny. In one scene, someone swears to “Saint Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson”. Some of the gags are recycled from the original, but there’s enough of a twist on them to make it all work.

Bennett is a gruff hero set in the Frank Grillo/Gerard Butler mold. Although he’s probably the fourth best Frankenstein of the Death Race franchise, he’s not bad. The real surprise here is Marci Miller. She captures the same sexy appeal that made Simone Griffeth so wonderful in the original. She also gets the best line of the movie when she tells Frankenstein, “I’m transmitting your smell to millions of people”

HANGAR 18 (1980) *

Hangar 18 is a sci-fi movie in the vein of Capricorn One. As with that film, it’s more of a conspiracy thriller than a legit space flick. At least this one has actual space flight and aliens.

James Hampton and Gary Collins are astronauts whose ship collides with a UFO. They arrive home and find their story has been completely discredited by the government. Meanwhile, NASA head Darren McGavin is fiddling around with the spacecraft in the titular hangar. Gary and James try to head on over there and find out what’s going on when they are pursued by government agents who want to silence them forever.

The scene where the aliens crash into the ship is pretty cool. One of the astronauts loses their head, literally. The sight of the headless corpse and decapitated head floating around in space is the only worthwhile part of this boring slog. After that, it's all downhill from there.

From then on, our time is split between Hampton and Collins eluding agents and Robert Vaughn trying to keep the lid on things. It doesn't help that a talk show host and Teen Wolf’s dad don't make for very good action heroes. You know it’s bad when the usually interesting Vaughn and McGavin aren’t given anything worthy of their talents.

The worst part is the end when the government orders the hangar bombed. It would've been an okay downbeat ‘70s type of ending, except they chicken out at the last second and give you a happy ending. That would’ve been fine if they actually filmed the damned ending. Instead of filming a resolution to the matter we just hear a narrator say everyone survived the blast and the world now knows about aliens. Weak.

AKA: Invasion Force. AKA: Space Connection.

A HERO’S TEARS (1979) **

A masseur is unhappy in his profession. He’s growing tired of massaging fat guys for little pay. When some customers give him some lip, he starts an all-out brawl in the bathhouse. He quits his job and offers to be a tubby guy’s bodyguard. A hitman comes to kill him and when the masseur sees how badass he is, he lets the fat guy be killed so he can pledge allegiance to the assassin. The masseur winds up going to jail, but eventually escapes with the help of the assassin. Their friendship grows when the masseur meets the hitman’s blind sister. He then agrees to help him get enough money for an operation to make her see again.

A Hero’s Tears has a good rhythm early on. The bathhouse fight is full of guys in tighty-whities getting their asses kicked accompanied by comic sound effects and shots of them landing on each other in compromising positions. As far as comic relief fight scenes go, it’s pretty funny. The novel setting also helps make it stand out from similar comic scenes and it actually contains a laugh or two.

I also appreciated the fact that our hero is more or less a coward. The way he threw the fat guy under the bus was good for a laugh. Sadly, once he begins hanging out with the assassin, the whole thing slows down to a crawl. The stuff with the blind sister is equally sluggish. After that, the movie never recovers.

Some fights scenes have lots of blood and others contain plenty of explosions and smoke bombs. However, nothing can really top that bathhouse scene. Although the fights in the third act are decent (I dug the bit where the assassin chopped a guy’s hand off), they pale in comparison to the opening sequence. It’s not terrible or anything, it’s just that no matter how hard it tries, A Hero’s Tears is never is able to duplicate the momentum (or fun) of the first act.

IT CAME FROM THE THRIFT STORE: EAGLE VS. SILVER FOX (1983) ** ½

FullSizeR (7)

The awesome “King Bootmaster” Jang Lee (Ring of Death) Hwang stars as the evil Silver Fox. He orders the death of a group of men on a raft. The lone survivor manages to float downstream where he is rescued by a kind, but sickly monk. He nurses him back to health and teaches him Kung Fu. After his master’s death, our hero then teams up with a female pickpocket and a crotchety old man (who calls everyone “whippersnappers”) to aid him in his quest for revenge.

Although Hwang played the character of Silver Fox in the Secret Rivals series, it doesn’t appear that he’s playing the same Silver Fox in this one. Since the flick was directed by Godfrey Ho, we can probably assume that he was just cashing in on the name. Speaking of Ho, this is the third Godrey Ho film I’ve watched for this column (after Fist of Golden Monkey and Incredible Shaolin Thunderkick), which makes him the unofficial King of the Thrift Store movies.

Ho gives us a lot of flashbacks, which makes the plot play out a in a more interesting fashion than if it was played straightforward. It’s still not enough to keep it from bogging down during the dialogue sequences. There’s a decent amount of action, and while it’s good as far as Ho is concerned, it never really (pardon the pun) kicks into gear either.

We do get some quality fights though. I liked the fight in the restaurant where our hero throws food in people’s mouths, rips their hair out, and tosses a guy UP the bannister of a staircase. The mean old guy also gets a good training scene where he keeps hitting the pickpocket lady in the face with a spoonful of rice. The best training sequence though comes when our hero uses a scissor kick to chop a tree down. These moments help to keep the flick from being just another Kung Fu flick, but ultimately it’s missing the WTF magic of Ho’s zaniest stuff.

AKA: Eagle Silver Fox. AKA: Flying Martial Arts.

Next time on It Came from the Thrift Store: Fantastic Dinosaurs of the Movies!

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016) ****

As a habit, I try to post my Top Ten Films of the Year list in January or February to give myself a chance to see everything before I set my list in stone. Wouldn’t you know it, days after doing so; I wind up seeing a movie that surely would’ve had a spot on the list had I saw it sooner. Isn’t it always the way?

Manchester by the Sea is a sad, depressing movie that is often exhilarating to watch solely based on just how much sad and depressing stuff happens. I know that seems odd, but hear me out. We’ve all had hard times. I don’t presume to have it as rough as Casey Affleck has it in this flick, nor would I wish what he goes through in this film on my worst enemy. There is a string of unfortunate circumstances that befalls Affleck’s character that is so awful that it gets to a point where you just have to laugh. In life, you have to play the hand you’re dealt. Many of us would take one look at his hand and fold immediately. Affleck hangs in there though. For a while at least.

I don’t want to spoil just how bad he has it, because the way writer/director Kevin Lonergan reveals his past (courtesy of abrupt flashbacks that sometimes interrupt the action) is one of the best parts of the movie. Some might not like this sort of style, but the skillful way Lonergan holds back vital information from the audience, only to spring everything on them at once is really something. While I can’t say I teared up or anything, I can say I walked away with a lump in my throat.

The gist of things is that Affleck’s brother (Kyle Chandler) dies and names him guardian to his teenage son (Lucas Hedges). They don’t exactly hit it off because they don’t have a lot in common. Getting his brother’s affairs in order is the last thing he wanted to do, and being chained to his nephew is another burden he didn’t need. However, they try to make the best of the situation.

I haven’t lost anyone close to me, so I can’t really say how my grief process works. What I can say is that Manchester by the Sea could almost be used as a training film for dealing with the loss of a loved one. Not only do you get to see some great acting and gorgeous cinematography, you get a step by step guideline about what to do when someone you love dies. You’ve got to call the funeral home, inform loved ones, and visit lawyer offices. Again, this sounds like the most depressing movie in the world, but the notes that Lonergan hits are equally funny as they are poignant.

Seriously, I’ve laughed harder during this movie than I have most comedies I’ve seen this year. It’s not because it’s particularly hilarious, but rather that it’s so true to life that you either have to laugh, or cry, I suppose. The dynamic between Affleck and Hedges is particularly great. Hedges’ character isn’t a bad kid. He’s just a dude trying to get a nut. He sees the arrival of his uncle as a serious damper on his quest to get laid.

I’m not even going to tell you the best parts of the movie. I’d rather you to discover those for yourself. Just know that you’ll probably want a Kleenex or two by the end.

I will get a bit spoiler-ish in this last paragraph, so go ahead and stop reading if you want to go in completely cold to the movie. What I loved is that Casey’s character, Lee doesn’t change in the end. We’ve all seen films like this where the sad sack loser changes his ways and learns a lesson. That moment never comes and the flick ends essentially as it began. What matters is that he TRIED to hang in there. In the end, Lee, as he always does, winds up pushing people away. Affleck deserved the Oscar (although to me, Ryan Gosling should’ve won for The Nice Guys) because no matter how down and out Lee becomes, you still feel for him. That’s a testament to not only Affleck’s acting, but to Lonergan’s writing and directing.

THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE (1967) ***

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was director Roger Corman’s first film for a major studio. I know people give him a lot of shit for his low budget movies, but this really shows what he was capable of when given a decent script, a healthy budget, and some fine actors. While far from perfect, there are several engrossing scenes and Corman’s almost obsessive attention to detail makes it stand out from the rest of the pack.

It’s a gangster picture that chronicles the rivalry between Al Capone (Jason Robards) and Bugs Moran (Ralph Meeker). When tensions come to a boil, Capone plans to murder Moran. Although he misses his target, he guns down several of Moran’s men. It doesn’t seem like much of an ending, but the narrator (Paul Frees) tells us that this senseless loss of life led to a public outcry, which in turn led to a crackdown on mobsters, so there was a happy ending in there somewhere after all.

Corman uses some interesting techniques to keep the story rolling. Whenever things feel like they’re going to get bogged down with a lot talk, Frees busts in and tells us an unending stream of facts about the various gangsters in the room. It works, mostly because the narration is done in a fun, tongue-in-cheek manner, but also because it gives the flick a cool docudrama feel. Even though the structure is heavy on flashbacks, Corman manages to pull it off nicely. There’s always something happening on screen and the while not all the flashbacks were vital to the plot, they at least lend some flourish to the characters.

Although the plot may twiddle its thumbs a bit too much here and there, the cast keeps you fully engaged. Jason Robards is somewhat miscast as Al Capone, but he does exude a modicum of authority. He gets plenty of scenes where he gets to yell and slam his fist on the dinner table and he seems to be having fun chewing the scenery. George Segal is a bit hard to buy as a tough-talking gangster. While he’s more at home playing the easygoing Everyman, he equips himself as well as can be expected here. Ralph Meeker fares better as Moran. While he isn’t painted as an out-and-out hero, he at least doesn’t overact as much as Robards.

It’s the supporting cast that really grabs you. It’s a veritable who’s who of B movie favorites and Corman’s All-Star players. There’s Bruce Dern, Jack Nicholson, Dick Miller, Jonathan Haze, Dick Bakaylan, Joe Turkel, John Agar, Alex D’Arcy, Alex Rocco, and Charles Dierkop, just to name a few. So even if you find the avalanche of factual data, rapid-fire narration, and constant flashbacks a bit much; you can always entertain yourself by seeing which lovable character actor will show up next.

RETRIBUTION (1987) *

Dennis Lipscomb stars as a meek artist who tries to commit suicide by jumping off the roof of his apartment building. The paramedics are able to bring him back to life and he awakens possessed by the soul of a killer. He also discovers he has odd psychic powers as he makes people's nose bleed, causes coffee cups to spill, and instigates a bus crash. When Lipscomb is asleep, the killer takes over his body and sends him out to get revenge on the people who killed him.

In one scene, he causes a woman to cut her guts out. In another, he telepathically puts a guy in side of beef and sends through a meat slicer. Finally, he forces a mechanic to blowtorch his own hand off before squishing his face with a cherry picker.

There’s an OK idea for a movie in there. Somewhere. Maybe. The big thing is the running time. It’s 107 minutes long. Cut about a half hour of fat away from the picture and you might have something. (The meeting with the Rastafarian voodoo priest could’ve been chucked and no one would’ve noticed.) Then again, you’d still be stuck with Lipscomb’s terrible performance, so probably not. At least it might’ve helped with the leaden pacing.

Director Guy (The Stepfather 3) Magar does offer up a solid opening scene as people in Halloween masks stand around gawking while Lipscomb jumps off the roof. There is almost no dialogue during this sequence, and on its own, might’ve made for an interesting short film. However, the rest of the film is clunky, cheesy, and dull.

Lipscomb is a total wienie in this movie. When he’s not an annoying nerd, he tries to act scary while possessed. All he really does though is grin maniacally and open his green glowing eyes real wide. He’s pretty stupid looking. It’s kinda funny seeing Hoyt Axton as a cop, although he wasn’t in it nearly enough for my liking. The best performance came from Suzanne (Return of the Living Dead 2) Snyder as Lipscomb’s hooker girlfriend. She’s the only bright spot in this otherwise boring, long-winded and forgettable mess.

MR. NO LEGS (1979) ** ½

D’Angelo (Lloyd Bochner) is a ruthless kingpin that rules the drug trade in Florida with an iron fist. He uses Lou (Ted Vollrath), a tough, wheelchair-bound enforcer for muscle. Lou doesn’t have legs, but he does have a gadget-filled wheelchair that would make 007 envious. Ken (Luke Halpin from Shock Waves) is one of his underlings. When his girlfriend finds out he’s been dealing, he kills her. Lou makes it look like a drug overdose by giving her corpse an injection before killing Ken. Two cops (Richard Jaeckel and Ron Slinker) investigate her murder and decide to bring down D’Angelo’s organization once and for all.

Not only does Mr. No Legs have the allure of seeing the world’s first double-amputee black belt, Ted Vollrath, it’s also worth checking out just because it was directed by Ricou Browning. That’s right, The Creature from the Black Lagoon stayed on dry land just long enough to make himself a low budget action movie. Something tells me he would’ve done better staying underwater. (He also directed episodes of Flipper, which also starred Halpin.)

Mr. No Legs feels cheap in just about every way. Even with big name stars like Richard Jaeckel, John Agar (also in Return of the Creature), and Rance Howard, it still feels like a homegrown low budget action movie. Imagine if William Grefe directed a warped episode of Dragnet and that might give you an idea of what to expect.

The character of Lou is pretty cool. His wheelchair has shotguns hidden in its armrests and compartments that store Ninja stars. The problem is he's not in it nearly enough. It’s mostly about Jaeckel’s investigation, and has less to do with Mr. No Legs running rampant (sorry, bad choice of words). Jaeckel is quite good, but even he can’t carry the entire film.

Despite an erratic pace and being burdened with some unnecessary subplots, Mr. No Legs does occasionally spark to life. There’s a great barroom brawl scene that includes transvestites, cat fights, midgets, and Kung Fu. I also dug the scene in which Slinker goes toe to toe with a sword-slinging henchman.

The movie really belongs to Vollrath who proves he can be just as deadly out of his wheelchair. The scene in which he fights someone and hits them in the face with his... uh... nether regions is a sight to behold. Whenever Vollrath's front and center, the flick is enjoyable in a Crippled Masters meets Miami Connection kind of way. It’s just a shame that the scenes without him are nowhere near as entertaining.

Browning’s staging is just on this side of competent. If he was any worse, Mr. No Legs might have skated by on pure camp alone. As it is, there are a few So-Bad-It’s-Good moments, yet there aren’t enough of them to make it a Grade Z classic. Old pros like Jaeckel and Agar lend the film a touch of class, but the non-professionals in the cast are often good for a laugh. (I admit I cracked up when Slinker’s foreign girlfriend said, “No mo' clock an' daggah stuff!")

Browning does do a good job during the final car chase sequence. Sure, it runs on a bit too long and could’ve benefitted from tighter editing. Still, it features cars jumping bridges, and going through trailers, cardboard boxes, and giant blocks of ice (a cinema first, I believe). So it's got that going for it, I guess.

AKA: Destructor. AKA: The Amazing Mr. No Legs. AKA: Gun Fighter.

FIVE SUPERFIGHTERS (1979) ***

A man in black pajamas goes around the countryside "correcting" people's Kung Fu. (That is to say he kicks their ass.) When he beats up an old Kung Fu master, his three students vow revenge. They go their separate ways and each find new masters to teach them the skills necessary to defeat the man in black.

Five Superfighters ain’t great, but I’ll say this for it: Hardly five minutes goes by in which a Kung Fu fight doesn't break out. While the fights themselves aren't exactly mind-blowing or anything, they occur with such regularity that it's easy to forgive the sequences that are marred by unfunny comic relief or clumsy staging.

The first act in particular is full of fights. The second act adds several training sequences into the mix while still not skimping on the Kung Fu. The finale is action-packed, but by the time it finally rolls around, you might feel a bit numb from it all.

All of this certainly isn’t boring. While the film is action-packed, the action itself isn’t quite an exemplary representative of the genre. Still, it’s hard to hate a movie that has more fighting than talking. That in itself is worthy of praise. I just wish the fights themselves were real showstoppers instead of placeholders. Since The Video Vacuum motto has always been “quantity over quality”, I can’t give this any less than ***.

KOOK’S TOUR (1970) **

Kook’s Tour was originally intended as a television special starring The Three Stooges. Unfortunately, Larry suffered a stroke and the film was instead shopped to collectors in the early days of consumer video. While it’s fun to see The Stooges in their final film together, it’s more of a curiosity item than a must-see. Even die-hard Stooges fans will probably get restless during the slow stretches.

The Stooges get tired of poking each other in the eyes and decide to retire. They load up on supplies and take their camper around to various fishing spots in the American wilderness. Both Moe and Curly Joe easily catch a bunch of fish, but poor Larry can't even catch a break.

The gang is noticeably older and slower on the draw. Because of that, there aren’t a lot of physical gags. Their wordplay is rather weak too. We do get a funny bit where Larry rigs a camera up in the woods to photograph some wildlife and winds up getting a picture of a couple necking. It’s The Stooges’ pet dog Moose who steals the show though. In fact, he winds up getting more laughs than they do.

The stuff with the Stooges is OK. Although they are far past their prime, they still seem game. However, the nature stuff is pretty dull. The running time is less than an hour long, but because the second half is really heavy on the travelogue footage (mostly to hide Larry’s absence), it feels much longer. Still, as a swan song to a beloved team, it could’ve been a lot worse.