Friday, May 30, 2008

"American Strays"

When I watched the trailer for this one, I thought to myself, “what hath Quentin Tarantino wrought?”

Then I found a review of “American Strays” from 13 years ago, in the New York Times of all places, that asked the same question.

The answer was more relevant back then of course. For about 8 to 10 years, there were several lackluster Tarantino-inspired tongue-in-cheek/let’s talk about pop culture/gory shoot-em-up’s in the wake of “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction.”

In those days, many a movie review either started or ended with the line, “yet another talky, bloody, darkly humorous Tarantino knock-off”… or words to that effect.

I stand in the minority in my opinion of Tarantino. Quite frankly, I consider him the Emperor’s New Clothes. Not that he ever hid that from interviewers. When he came on the scene he revealed point-blank that his career was the result of being influenced by the films he watched working in the video store and being a pop culture geek, and he merely decided to combine the two. I just don’t think he’s ever been terribly original at doing that, despite the almost universally glowing press he receives. He’s been a kid in a candy store, allowed to make his pastiches, and that’s all well and good. Deep inside, I suspect he’s laughing at the absurdity of the accolades.

At the same time, he’s probably not anxious for anyone to discover the naked truth. Over the years in re-watching “Pulp Fiction,” that truth became more and more evident to me. That film is a film remembered for moments, characterizations and especially conversations. But as “film” – telling a story using a visual medium to its fullest extent – it’s actually pretty lacking on repeated viewings. Much better for me was the film that preceded it, “Reservoir Dogs” – but even that one was better as an example of interesting dialogue and characterization than of “story.” The story just careens to a nihilistic anti-ending. And the most engaging idea in the story, of a gang who is set up by their leader so they don’t really know one another (in “Dogs” they are given code names), is lifted from the much superior film noir classic “Kansas City Confidential” (in which the dupes are given masks to hide their identities) from 1952.

Of all the videos he watched in his shop, it appears film noir was the genre Tarantino watched most. Clearly he found his main inspiration in film noir as well as films with characters chatting about pop culture (two of the most famous being the “Bonanza” discussion in “Tin Men” and that little prologue in the “Twilight Zone” movie with Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks playing “name that TV theme song” – including “Bonanza”) and the profanity-laced-and-blood-soaked exploitation and mob movies from the ‘70s and ‘80s.

What these films have in common is the “reference” factor. Not just the obvious example of characters literally referencing pop culture in dialogue, but also films referencing other films in style and tone. The exploitation movies were famous for that. And how many mob movies have we discussed here that all reference one another? Even film noir, one of the greatest of all genres, was one of references. It was a combination of German Expressionist films, rough and tumble detective mysteries and intensely violent gangster movies. So we have Tarantino making copies of copies. And what happens when you go to the photocopy machine and make copies of copies? Your image gets diluted with every generation removed from the original.

Which brings us back to “American Strays.” One look at the trailer and it’s evident that it’s a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy, many generations removed from the original. I’m sure there were some critics and viewers who were just fine with it when it came out, but I wonder how they’d feel watching it now?

The film, unlike most Late Nite Landfill fare is filled with familiar faces. There are two returning Landfill veterans: Luke Perry and James Russo. Kewpie doll-cum-femme fatale Jennifer Tilly adds a little spice to the proceedings, while the legendary Carol Kane and the clueless-character expert Patrick Warburton (aka “Puddy” from “Seinfeld”) lend their own special brands of lunacy. There’s also the ubiquitous actor/apartheid foe John Savage; everyone’s favorite comic relief mob henchman the late Joe Viterelli; and Sam J. Jones, square-jawed star of “Flash Gordon.” Also on hand are two actors The Phantom has actually met: the late (and highly underrated) Brion James, best known as the replicant Leon in “Blade Runner” and Eric Roberts, who’s done a ton of great work in B-movies although he was once “the next big thing” in films like “Star 80” and “The Pope of Greenwich Village.” The Phantom had pleasant experiences meeting both genial stars.

Last but not least, this film was originally distributed by the now-defunct A-Pix. For them to handle a film like this was a bit of an anomaly. They were much better known for direct-to-video horror schlock like “Uncle Sam” and “Jack Frost” (the scary killer snowman version; not the scarier “I-used-to-be-your-dad-now-I’m-a-creepy-snowman” Michael Keaton family film version… by the way, you can click here to read a brilliant article comparing the two “Frosts” by my friend and loyal Landfill reader William C.Martell). Heck, they were probably even more well known for the packaging those DVD’s came in – both “Sam” and “Frost” had “lenticular” covers where the title characters would appear to go from benign to monstrous as you walked down the aisle. Spending an hour and a half in the video store tracking these clever cover images with your eyes may actually be preferable to watching “American Strays.”

View the trailer here:

Or watch the entire movie on WABC-TV Channel 7 on Saturday, May 31st, 2008 at 11:35 PM... if you dare!

No comments: