Sunday, January 14, 2018

Eye Of The Eagle II: Inside The Enemy

Carl Franklin, a busy television actor in guest shots and regular gigs on CARIBE and MCCLAIN’S LAW, found time in his schedule to study directing at the AFI Conservatory. Upon graduation, he hooked up with Concorde Pictures head Roger Corman, who hired Franklin to direct his first feature, which turned out to be EYE OF THE EAGLE II. It’s an improvement over EYE OF THE EAGLE in that it has an actual story — Franklin and Dan Gagliasso (NAM ANGELS) take screenplay credit — and first-time director Franklin cares about it.

Literally from the opening shots, it’s clear this is not Cirio Santiago churning out a bunch of shots to make a schedule. While Franklin certainly was shooting quickly to make a schedule, his camera is fluid and his actors appear rehearsed, and no doubt FULL METAL JACKET was a major influence on both the story and shooting style. The result is a strong example of Corman’s general rule that, as long as the requisite sex and violence elements are present and the production remains on time and budget, he will leave the director alone.

Todd Field, who ditched acting to become the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of IN THE BEDROOM and LITTLE CHILDREN, stars in this Vietnam War drama as the sole survivor of a massacre who is sort of rescued by a young Vietnamese woman played by Shirley Tesoro (THE FIGHTER). While he’s recuperating from his injuries, his corrupt commanding officer (Andy Wood, one of THE ANNIHILATORS) kidnaps Tesoro and turns her on to dope and prostitution.

Instead of a revenge movie, which might have been more interesting from an action aspect, Franklin makes Field a passive hero (and a more believable one) who rescues Tesoro and spends the rest of the film getting the hell out of Dodge with Wood and his flunkies right on their tale.

With executive producer Santiago, the director of EYE OF THE EAGLE, presumably keeping a close watch on Corman’s new protege, EYE OF THE EAGLE II is a fine debut for Franklin, who also nicely plays a supporting role as a go-along-to-get-along colonel. While giving his boss the exploitation elements desired (Tesoro does some scenes topless), Franklin turns in a more sensitive film than is usual for the genre. Field isn’t the most commanding leading man, though that plays in his favor to some extent, because his character is not supposed to be a superman like, for instance, star Brett Clark in EYE OF THE EAGLE.

Speaking of, there was an actual sequel to EYE OF THE EAGLE called BEHIND ENEMY LINES, in which Robert Patrick reprised his John Ransom character. Why that film wasn’t called EYE OF THE EAGLE II, only Roger Corman knows. After two more Corman movies, Franklin directed the acclaimed crime films ONE FALSE MOVE and DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS, and earned an Emmy nomination for an episode of HOUSE OF CARDS, making him one of the few mainstream successes from Corman’s Concorde years.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Blood Of Dracula's Castle

Al Adamson had few skills as a filmmaker, but one of his good decisions was using Castle Ranch, an actual stone castle built near Lancaster, California in the 1920s, as a location for BLOOD OF DRACULA’S CASTLE. Thanks in part to the additional production value, Adamson’s eight-day wonder, well shot by Laszlo Kovacs (who did EASY RIDER the same year!), is one of his best, which is to say it’s coherent, not unwatchable, and probably won’t put you to sleep. That’s a big win by Adamson standards.

Gene Shane (HELL’S BLOODY DEVILS) stars as a wiseass fashion photographer who inherits the castle from a late uncle. He takes his model girlfriend Jennifer Bishop (THE MALTESE BIPPY) to look it over, intending to move into it when they get married. Trouble is, the present tenants, middle-aged Alex D’Arcy (HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE) and Paula Raymond (THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS), don’t want to leave. Double trouble: they’re vampires who use butler John Carradine (THE ICE PIRATES), psycho Robert Dix (SATAN’S SADISTS), and mindless hulk Ray Young (BLUE SUNSHINE) to snatch young women and chain them in the cellar for use as a blood buffet. The dungeon is obviously a cheap plywood set at odds with the glamour of the real castle.

They may be in a cheap horror movie, but D’Arcy and Raymond play up their Old Hollywood allure in amusing performances. Dix’s character is so crazy that he takes the time — while being pursued by cops! — to drown a bikini girl he just happens to come across. Though it might have been a kick to see Carradine reprise his HOUSE OF DRACULA role, the fun that the veteran actors are having just hamming up screenwriter Rex Carlton’s (THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE) ridiculous dialogue is infectious to a point.

After all, it’s still an Al Adamson movie that opens with three minutes of Adamson regular Vicki Volante driving and walking while listening to the radio. Crown International released it in drive-ins on a double bill with NIGHTMARE IN WAX, which may be worse. Some prints have extra footage directed by Don Hulette (BREAKER BREAKER) in which Dix’s character is revealed as a werewolf. That must be a real howler.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Ten From Your Show Of Shows

More than sixty years after YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS went off the air, it remains in the conversation when talk turns to the funniest television variety shows of all time. One indication of its high esteem is TEN FROM YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS, a theatrically released film compiling ten of the series’ best sketches.

With a writing staff that included Neil Simon (THE ODD COUPLE), Mel Brooks (BLAZING SADDLES), Mel Tolkin (ALL IN THE FAMILY), Danny Simon (THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW), and Carl Reiner (THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW), YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS aired live for 90 minutes on Saturday nights from 1950 to 1954. It made stars of its four regulars — top dog Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Howard Morris, and Reiner — and won two Emmy Awards for Best Variety Program.

To learn why the show was so popular, TEN FROM YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS is an excellent starter package. Though the series was broadcast live every week from Manhattan, director/producer Max Liebman saved the kinescopes. Back when television networks were interested in their history, NBC would occasionally pull some clips for anniversary shows, but TEN provides the opportunity to see the series’ best sketches in their original form.

Picking a favorite is a tough call, but in the running are Coca’s jealous boyfriend Reiner tussling with innocent bystander (bysitter?) Caesar in a movie theater, leaving poor Sid confused, battered, and nearly naked; Caesar, Coca, Morris, and Reiner as figures on a rotating Bavarian clock that’s a textbook on comic timing; and a brilliant spoof of FROM HERE TO ETERNITY. That none of the actors broke while performing such hilarious material is a testament to their professionalism (in contrast, SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE comics will break if someone crosses their eyes), but “From Here to Obscurity” pushes Coca to her limit.

Caesar and Coca weren’t friends off-stage, but they’re one of television’s great comedy teams, both with marvelously expressive faces and masters of verbal dexterity. After YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS left the air, Reiner and Morris followed Caesar to CAESAR’S HOUR, another live variety show on NBC, while Coca did the one-season THE IMOGENE COCA SHOW.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Getting Even (1986)

Edward Albert (GALAXY OF TERROR) as Lee Horsley stars as Tag Taggar, a millionaire industrialist, helicopter pilot, kung fu expert, and all-around badass with a mustache and Texas twang who in no way resembles Matt Houston. American Distribution Group got GETTING EVEN into some theaters in 1986, but more people saw it on cable and VHS. Unfortunately, no legitimate DVD exists, so this fine action movie remains highly underrated.

Tag infiltrates Afghanistan and rescues a cache of deadly nerve gas, which he brings back to his Dallas lab to study. The feds, in the shapely form of Tag’s former squeeze Paige (DALLAS sexpot Audrey Landers, miscast), wants the nerve gas. So does Tag’s competition: evil rancher Kenderson (the great Joe Don Baker from WALKING TALL), who steals the gas from Tag’s lab and ransoms it for $30 million or else he’ll dump it over downtown Dallas.

Excellent gore makeup, including a juicy face-melting, demonstrate the gas’ effects. Regular doses of intentional humor and impressive stunts lift this Texas production above the bar for independent action movies. The director is Dwight H. Little, who moved on to entertaining action films with bigger budgets, such as RAPID FIRE (Brandon Lee), MARKED FOR DEATH (Steven Seagal), and MURDER AT 1600 (Wesley Snipes), as well as a long career in episodic television (THE PRACTICE, BONES, PRISON BREAK).

GETTING EVEN must have impressed the producers of Little’s later movies, as it demonstrates an ability to put thrilling action sequences on film without a lot of money. With help from veteran stunt coordinator Paul Baxley (Shatner’s double on STAR TREK being just one of his many credits), Little stages some terrific shootouts, chases, explosions, dangerous helicopter stunts, and an impressive finale with Albert crawling around the outside of Reunion Tower. The score by Christopher Young (SPIDER-MAN 3), reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith’s CAPRICORN ONE, is a tremendous asset.

Monday, January 01, 2018

The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

The best of four films (to date) inspired by Paul Gallico’s 1969 novel is the most faithful and the ultimate movie to curl up with on a chilly New Year’s Eve. The story is simple enough: a tsunami overturns a luxury cruise ship during a New Year’s part. The few survivors, mostly strangers to one another, have to work together to reach the “top” of the ship, which is above the surface of the ocean and, hopefully, where rescue crews will be waiting for them.

THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE influenced a decade or more of “disaster movies” — big-budget thrillers with all-star casts trying to survive a major calamity — though one could argue AIRPORT is the genre’s true father. In any case, Irwin Allen, who was then famous for science fiction television, such as LOST IN SPACE and VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, grabbed the football and ran with it, producing THE TOWERING INFERNO, THE SWARM, and WHEN TIME RAN OUT…, while other producers rolled out ROLLERCOASTER, TWO-MINUTE WARNING, THE HINDENBURG, EARTHQUAKE, AVALANCHE, and three AIRPORT sequels, among other disaster flicks, in short order.

While Allen’s THE TOWERING INFERNO is arguably the best of the lot, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE isn’t far behind. Boasting an excellent cast, eight Academy Award nominations, two Oscars (including a special award for its groundbreaking visual effects), a hit theme song (“The Morning After”), and a simple premise given dramatic weight by heavyweight scenarists Stirling Silliphant (IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT) and Wendell Mayes (DEATH WISH), Allen’s pioneering feature holds up decades later. A sequel, BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, followed, as did a made-for-television remake and a big-budget theatrical remake. Nobody remembers them fondly.

Gene Hackman, just off THE FRENCH CONNECTION, heads the excursion as a hip priest, who swears and wears turtlenecks, whose every decision is questioned by overbearing cop Ernest Borgnine (MARTY), who is insecure because his sexy younger wife (Stella Stevens) is an ex-prostitute. Melodramatic personal stories became a staple of the disaster genre. Thankfully THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE doesn’t get bogged down in minutes-killing flashbacks and soap opera antics, though the dialogue and some of the performances are awful.

Other survivors include middle-aged Jewish couple Shelley Winters (an Oscar nominee) and Jack Albertson (CHICO AND THE MAN), pretty teenager Pamela Sue Martin (THE LADY IN RED), waiter Roddy McDowall (CLEOPATRA), haberdasher Red Buttons (SAYONARA), and singer Carol Lynley (RETURN TO PEYTON PLACE). Trying to predict which stars make it to the end of the movie is part of the fun, as director Ronald Neame (METEOR — a notorious disaster-movie bomb) tosses all kinds of obstacles in their path. Why was there never a POSEIDON ADVENTURE video game?

The film’s highlight, aside from the astounding tsunami sequence involving dozens of stunts and thousands of gallons of water poured over the cast, is the portly Winters’ underwater swim of death, which is likely the scene that earned the two-time Oscar winner her fourth (and last) nomination (she lost to Eileen Heckart). John Williams’ Oscar-nominated score keeps the suspense high, and there’s fun in noticing Leslie Nielsen as the Poseidon’s captain, less than a decade before he spoofed the genre as the co-star of AIRPLANE!

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Number eight in the never-ending STAR WARS saga begun by George Lucas in 1977 (and the ninth feature overall) is neither the OMG-just-as-great-as-EMPIRE classic nor the disaster so many audiences have declared it to be. Written and directed by series newcomer Rian Johnson (BRICK, LOOPER), THE LAST JEDI is flabby at 152 minutes with a second act that could be excised in its entirety without disrupting anything and suffers, as did THE FORCE AWAKENS, from the dire miscasting of one of the Ramones as its primary heavy.

Mark Hamill, who is excellent — I dare say, this may be the performance of his career — is a sight for sore eyes as the hermitic Luke Skywalker, sulking away on a distant island on a distant planet, content to allow the Jedi religion to die out with his own eventual passing. Lighting a dim spark under him is the enthusiastic Rey (Daisy Ridley), who arrives along with pals Chewbacca (Joonas Suotano) and R2-D2 (Jimmy Vee) to convince Luke to help the struggling resistance fight back against the evil First Order, led by the enigmatic and thoroughly uninteresting CGI creation Snoke (Andy Serkis).

Meanwhile, defected stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and lowly maintenance worker Mary Sue (Kelly Marie Tran) launch a mission impossible in a space casino populated by white-collar scumbags to snatch a master thief, but fail due to their own incompetence (would you believe a parking violation?). Back on the big ship, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), intended in costuming and attitude as a ripoff of Han Solo, but lacking the intelligence and personality of Harrison Ford (RIP Han), commits several acts of mutiny against General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and her number two Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) as a smoke screen to stall for Finn’s return.

At Snoke’s side is the petulant Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the son of Solo and Leia and once a Jedi in training who jumped to the Dark Side after a slight breakdown in communication. Unlike the power of Darth Vader in earlier movies, it’s difficult to understand how Ren could command a universe or strike fear in anyone, especially our heroes. As a leader, he’s impetuous, indecisive, uncharismatic — the opposite of David Prowse and James Earl Jones’ Vader in every way — and Driver is, frankly, a drip as an actor.

Outside of Hamill and Ridley, none of the actors makes an impression. Benicio del Toro (THE USUAL SUSPECTS) brings by his standard tics to mumble through a baffling rogue character, and Dern is given so little to work with that her character’s last scene has none of the emotional weight Johnson clearly intended. Worst of all is the brittle, catatonic Fisher, who died almost a full year before release. When she reunites with Hamill, playing her long-lost brother, Fisher dispassionately plays the scene as if hollowing out a grapefruit.

Besides the scenes between Ridley and Hamill, which echo Yoda’s mentorship of Luke in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (still and always STAR WARS’ hallmark), THE LAST JEDI’s highlights are the space battles, which demonstrate a grace seldom seen in computer-generated creations. Granted, by the time of the fourth or fifth space battle, the viewer has grown a bit weary, but the film’s opening attack on a First Order dreadnought packs some bold thrills.

Dialogue, never among the STAR WARS series’ benefits, is weak, dotted with anachronistic slang and uncomfortable profanties that sound incongruous with the eight films that preceded Johnson’s. Craven attempts to sell toys, including “cute” orange penguins on Luke’s planet and a stampede of “horses” (this scene is the film’s worse in terms of effects, proving the computer guys still haven’t learned since Peter Jackson’s execrable attempt in his KING KONG remake), bog down the story. Picking apart the many “huh?” absurdities is a fool’s task in this case, so I’ll just mention the guy who licks the ground and says, “Salt.”

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Starhops

STARHOPS is notable as one of the few films directed by Barbara Peeters, who worked for Roger Corman as an art director, production manager, second unit director, and even stunt coordinator (!), as well as a screenwriter and director of her own features, including SUMMER SCHOOL TEACHERS and HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP. The latter was not a pleasurable experience for Peeters, who was surprised to see Corman had inserted gratuitous violence and sex shot by a different director behind her back. She moved into episodic television in the early 1980s, but her directing career petered out by mid-decade.

Another female pioneer in exploitation cinema — Stephanie Rothman, who also started with Corman and later ran Dimension Pictures with husband Charles Swartz — wrote the screenplay for STARHOPS and was the original director, but used an on-screen pseudonym after she left the project and her script reportedly radically rewritten. Though STARHOPS was neither a Corman production nor release, several other New World regulars worked on it, including production manager Mike Finnell (producer of ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL), cinematographer Eric Saarinen (EAT MY DUST!), and ubiquitous character actor Dick Miller. Catherine Coulson (TWIN PEAKS’ Log Lady) was on the camera crew, and Steven Zaillian, later the Oscar-winning screenwriter of SCHINDLER’S LIST, edited STARHOPS.

Produced as THE CAR HOPS, but retitled to cash in on STAR WARS, which was still in theaters when STARHOPS premiered in March 1978, Peeters’ film in no way lives up to its fascinating production history. Sexy carhops Angel (FIRECRACKER star Jillian Kesner), Cupcake (Sterling Frazier), and Danielle (Dorothy Buhrman) buy a drive-in burger joint from angry, broke Jerry (Miller) and turn its fortunes around using their sex appeal. Shenanigans abound, until a fatcat oil executive (Al Hopson) wants the L.A. real estate the girls own and sends his wastrel son Norman (not that Paul Ryan) undercover as a carhop to find dirt on them.

A blatant ripoff of New World’s “3 Girls” series, such as Peeters’ SUMMER SCHOOL TEACHERS, STARHOPS not only lacks the action and social commentary of those films, but also their more prurient elements. STARHOPS contains very mild sex and nudity and a post-synced profanity dubbed in by producers to jack up the MPAA’s original PG rating to a tame R. We’ll never know what Rothman’s early drafts were like, but it’s hard to imagine they were less funny than what ended up on the screen.

Like the Corman movies, it’s refreshing to see women protagonists driving the plot, controlling their own destinies, and duping the dopey male characters. Though Kesner was the only star to have a decent Hollywood career, Frazier is also quite good as the group’s Eve Arden. Poor Buhrman, though top-billed, never gets a handle on Danielle’s French accent, and her performances suffers. Peeters filmed entirely on location, particularly around Marina Del Mar, which adds visual interest.