Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Great TV Episodes: One Riot, One Ranger

WALKER, TEXAS RANGER
"One Riot, One Ranger"
April 21, 1993
CBS
Writer: Leigh Chapman (as Louise McCarn)
Director: Virgil W. Vogel

Leigh Chapman, the former actress who penned several television episodes and films, including THE OCTAGON for Chuck Norris, wrote the pilot episode of Norris’ first series. A massive CBS hit for nine seasons, WALKER, TEXAS RANGER got off to an uneasy start. The studio, Cannon, went bankrupt after only three episodes had been completed, so CBS had to bankroll the series beginning with its second season.

The two-hour pilot effectively sets the premise, presenting Norris as Cordell Walker, a taciturn half-Native American and Texas Ranger who investigates a series of fatal bank robberies being masterminded by former CIA agent Marshall Teague (ROAD HOUSE). After his partner is killed during one of the robberies, Walker is reluctantly teamed with Clarence Gilyard Jr. (MATLOCK), a young college-educated Ranger who prefers to look before he leaps. In his off-hours, Norris protects a teenage circus performer who is being harassed by the three rednecks who raped her, which allows Chapman to awkwardly lay out Walker’s backstory. Turns out Walker, Texas Ranger and Batman have the same origin.

Credit veteran director Virgil W. Vogel (THE MOLE PEOPLE) for keeping the action moving quickly. With extra time and money lavished on a pilot, Vogel uses Dutch angles and slick camera moves to complement the many fights, chases, and shootouts, ensuring the series’ standing as one of network television’s most violent at the time. Vogel must have relished filming around Dallas-Fort Worth, which had not been seen much on television (DALLAS filmed in Los Angeles).

Sheree J. Wilson (FRATERNITY VACATION) plays beautiful Assistant D.A. Alex Cahill, Walker’s love interest (and eventual wife at the end of Season Eight); Floyd Red Crow Westerman (HIDALGO) is Walker’s Indian uncle Ray; and Gailard Sartain (HEE HAW) plays retired Ranger C.D. Barnes (he was replaced in the series by the older Noble Willingham). Teague played the heavy in six different WALKER episodes, including the 201st and final one in 2001. Released on VHS as ONE RIOT, ONE RANGER.


Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Island Of Dr. Moreau (1977)

The second of three (to date) adaptations of H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel about man messing around in God’s domain by scientifically changing animals into humans. First done as the horrific ISLAND OF LOST SOULS in 1932 and later as the troubled THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU in 1996, this 1977 AIP film is better than its reputation. It isn’t scary, however, and the special makeup effects by John Chambers, Dan Striepeke, and Tom Burman are less believable than their landmark work on the PLANET OF THE APES movies.

Michael York (LOGAN’S RUN) stars as Andrew Braddock, a sailor who is shipwrecked on a remote island in the Pacific. Living there is the mad Dr. Paul Moreau (Burt Lancaster), who experiments on animals while attempting to learn about heredity and find new methods of curing disease. Those experiments have resulted in his test animals mutating into creatures similar to humans that can think like humans. Richard Basehart (RAGE) stands out as their leader, the role played by Bela Lugosi in ISLAND OF LOST SOULS.

Braddock is, of course, horrified. When he protests too much, Moreau captures him and reverses his procedure in an attempt to regress Braddock into a savage. Braddock has also fallen in love with Moreau’s beautiful ward Maria (I, THE JURY femme fatale Barbara Carrera), who knows only life on the island. Carrera is vapid, but the Nicaraguan-born actress is gorgeous with an exotic look, which makes her perfect for her role as written by the GOIN’ SOUTH team of Al Ramrus and John Herman Shaner. York is quite good and sells the transformation scenes. Lancaster basically coasts on pure movie star charisma, and Nigel Davenport (CHARIOTS OF FIRE) is wasted as Moreau’s guilt-ridden assistant Montgomery.

Some of the editing is abrupt, perhaps signalling last-minute cutting by AIP. It is unclear in the final film whether Maria is one of Moreau’s test subjects. Of course, she originally was, but the shots that established it were removed before the film’s release by a studio nervous about any hints of bestiality. The excellent score by Laurence Rosenthal (ROOSTER COGBURN) uses strident strings and brass to create a soundscape reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith’s work on PLANET OF THE APES. Don Taylor (DAMIEN: OMEN II) directed the film in the Virgin Islands, but not particularly well.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Foxy Brown

COFFY was a massive hit, so AIP quickly signed writer/director Jack Hill (SPIDER BABY) and star Pam Grier (SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM) to make a quasi-sequel. An excellent showcase for Grier’s talents, FOXY BROWN allows her to show off a sensitive side, primarily in scenes with Antonio Fargas (CLEOPATRA JONES) as her turncoat brother, as well as be strong and kick ass.

The erudite Hill may not have preferred working in exploitation, but he made this type of low-budget action movie as well as just about any director in the 1970s. He certainly deserves credit for developing Grier’s sassy screen persona (the two worked together four times, including THE BIG DOLL HOUSE and THE BIG BIRD CAGE in the Philippines).

Kicking off with opening titles sending up the Bond movies, with a leather-clad, cleavage-baring Grier bumping and grinding along with Willie Hutch’s theme song, FOXY BROWN proves to be a slicker, sleazier picture than COFFY. Grier’s Foxy Brown is a tough, sexy, aggressive, independent, and intelligent woman set on revenge after kinky druglords, played by Peter Brown (RAPE SQUAD) and Kathryn Loder (the warden in THE BIG DOLL HOUSE), murder her government agent boyfriend (BATTLESTAR GALACTICA’s Terry Carter).

Highlights include a guy getting sliced up by an airplane propeller, Foxy and Juanita Brown (CAGED HEAT) smashing up a lesbian bar (“I got a black belt in bar stools!”), Foxy—while undercover as a prostitute—humiliating a crooked old white judge (Harry Holcombe), Sid Haig’s memorable cameo as a womanizing “airplane driver,” and the “pickle-jar” denouement, a typical example of Hill’s black humor. Hill even provides an extraneous fight scene just to give Bob Minor and his team of black stuntmen a chance to show off.

Loder, a New York stage actress who appeared in only three films, is terrible, but her strange acting style somehow suits Hill’s brash tone. Brown, formerly a regular with William Smith and Neville Brand on LAREDO, bounced between television guest heavies and exploitation films during the 1970s. Grier starred in more AIP movies before deservedly moving into the mainstream, including a guest shot on THE LOVE BOAT. Motown released Hutch’s score as a soundtrack album.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Cherry Falls

Despite a clever premise for a slasher movie, CHERRY FALLS never found a proper audience in the United States. Forced to endure severe cuts to receive an R rating from the MPAA, the film by director Geoffrey Wright (ROMPER STOMPER) bypassed theatrical distribution and made its American debut on — of all places — the USA cable channel. When it first hit DVD, it was on a double-feature disc with a John Ritter TV-movie called TERROR TRACT. A neat little thriller, CHERRY FALLS deserved better treatment, which it finally received as a Scream Factory Blu-ray in 2016.

Written by Ken Selden (WHITE LIES), CHERRY FALLS is set in picturesque Cherry Falls, Virginia, where someone is murdering teenagers. Well, not just any teenagers, just the virgins. To escape the killer’s wrath, the local high school students organize a sex party at an abandoned mansion to get everybody laid.

Meanwhile, one of the virgins, played by Brittany Murphy (CLUELESS), plays amateur sleuth after a close call with the serial killer, thanks to a large plastic shark in the chem lab. By combing through clues and winnowing away the red herrings, she discovers a shocking secret about her father, the local sheriff (THE TERMINATOR’s Michael Biehn), that may solve the mystery.

An interesting spin on the teenage “have sex and die” horror movies then popular in the wake of SCREAM’s massive success, CHERRY FALLS chugs along with clever direction and a game cast that prevent the lurid concept from coming across as tasteless. However, the cuts demanded by the MPAA including the nudity, as well as a gruesome murder seen in the existing picture only in subliminal flash cuts after the fact, remove much of the film’s guts. The film also suffers from a couple of egregious plot holes.

Still, CHERRY FALLS gets a lot of mileage out of the satire in Selden’s screenplay, Murphy’s eccentric turn as Nancy Drew, and Biehn, whose experience playing both heroes and heavies enhances his performance. Although censorship struggles kept Wright’s film out of American theaters, it did play successfully overseas. Wright landed the gig after David Lynch (THE ELEPHANT MAN) and George Armitage (GROSSE POINTE BLANK) turned it down (the studio wanted an arthouse director), but falling behind schedule and over budget and fighting with his cast and cinematographer (DON’T LOOK NOW’s Anthony Richmond, who did a fine job) didn’t endear him to the producers.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Gator

Burt Reynolds, at the time Hollywood’s most popular leading man, picked a safe project for his directing debut. GATOR was the sequel to WHITE LIGHTNING, a United Artists hit that introduced the character of fast-drivin’ good-ol’-boy moonshiner Gator McKlusky, who went undercover with the feds to bust corrupt sheriff Ned Beatty. In the GATOR screenplay once again penned by William W. Norton (BRANNIGAN), McKlusky has a crotchety old pap (John Steadman) and a precocious daughter (Lori Futch), which were meant to humanize his character, but instead make him softer.

Once again, Gator goes undercover to bust a Southern fried bad guy. This time, it’s his old school chum Bama McCall (Jerry Reed), a crime boss who forces teenage girls into prostitution and burns down businesses that won’t pay protection. Reed, a country western musician known for crossover hits “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot” and “Amos Moses,” is surprisingly chilling as McCall, though later roles would lean on his natural upbeat cornpone charm.

GATOR’s tonal swings from dark violence to slapstick humor are difficult to catch up with, and the film’s length and flabby story make the sequel decidedly inferior to WHITE LIGHTNING. Reynolds has an eye for interesting visuals, despite an unfortunate infatuation with the zoom lens. He went on to direct THE END and SHARKY’S MACHINE, which exhibit more confidence.

The casting of Philadelphia talk show Mike Douglas as an ambitious governor is an interesting gamble that pays off. Jack Weston (THE FOUR SEASONS) is too silly as the federal agent who recruits Gator. Lauren Hutton is a television journalist who romances Gator in a relationship that is pure hokum. GATOR’s best relationship is between Burt and Hal Needham, the stunt coordinator who helped stage the opening speedboat chase (and came within a foot or so of being smushed by a jumping car). Charles Bernstein returns from WHITE LIGHTNING to compose an original score. Reed wrote and performed the cool theme song, “The Ballad of Gator McKlusky.”

Friday, August 04, 2017

White Lightning (1973)

“If you haven’t seen WHITE LIGHTNING, then you haven’t seen Burt Reynolds” cried the one-sheet for this entertaining action flick, which stars Reynolds as Arkansas moonshiner Gator McKlusky. Burt was on his way to becoming the biggest movie star in the U.S. after a decade and a half of TV westerns and cop shows, low-budget and little-seen potboilers, and even an Italian western, NAVAJO JOE, which failed to turn him into the next Clint Eastwood. It was DELIVERANCE, the terrifying adaptation of James Dickey’s best-seller, that turned Reynolds’ career around, and WHITE LIGHTNING was one of his first starring vehicles in its aftermath.

McKlusky, serving a five-year sentence for illegally transporting untaxed whiskey across state lines, is stunned to learn of the death of his younger brother Donnie, to whom Gator wasn’t especially close. Donnie was the first McKlusky to attend college, where he became involved in the protest scene, growing his hair and speaking out against government corruption. Unfortunately, he chose to protest in “the worst county in the world,” redneck Bogen County, Arkansas, which is run by the seemingly benign but actually iron-fisted Sheriff J.C. Connors (Burt’s DELIVERANCE costar Beatty), who has been taking kickbacks from moonshiners for years.

After an escape attempt fails, McKlusky agrees to work undercover for the federal government, getting a job running “shine” while taking notes on the “who’s,” “when’s,” and “where’s” of the illegal whiskey business—a mission that meets with great disapproval from Gator’s own parents, but the only way to bring Connors down. With the help of his outside contact Dude (Matt Clark), a reluctant ally whose broken probation forces him to aid McKlusky, Gator joins up with runner Roy (Bo Hopkins), whose sexy girl Lou (Jennifer Billingsley) takes a “shine” to the charismatic ex-con.

WHITE LIGHTNING is an excellent showcase for Reynolds. Not only does he get to take off his shirt and squeal tires like a good action star should, but he also shows he’s not just a pretty face with considerable charisma. In particular, a scene in which he eavesdrops on the conversation of a group of starry-eyed college students while internally reflecting on his relationship with his late brother, and another in which he learns the truth behind his brother’s death from a teen mother prove Reynolds’ mettle and the script’s surprising complexity.

The fine screenplay by William Norton (BIG BAD MAMA) is a hearty mix of car chases (executed by stunt coordinator Hal Needham), Gothic atmosphere, filial conflict, and even some social commentary. Director Joseph Sargent (THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE) keeps the story moving along at a steady pace, pulling every drop of Southern fried ambiance out of the appropriately grimy locations and assembling a top-notch supporting cast. Sargent also decided wisely to leave in the picture a Needham car stunt that didn’t go quite as planned.

Reynolds’ DELIVERANCE co-star Ned Beatty is too young to play a character who has been the sheriff of Bogen County since Matt Clark was a boy, but he also displays the perfect mix of old-fashioned manners and icy foreboding that makes Connors more than a Clifton James caricature. One can hardly go wrong with Hopkins (THE WILD BUNCH) as a violent nut, and Diane Ladd (RAMBLING ROSE) pops up in a scene with daughter Laura Dern (WILD AT HEART). Quentin Tarantino repurposed segments of Charles Bernstein’s excellent score in KILL BILL and DJANGO UNCHAINED. Three years after WHITE LIGHTNING made a mint for United Artists, Reynolds made his directing debut on GATOR, the inferior sequel.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Two Evil Eyes

Originally intended as an anthology of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations directed by horror legends George Romero (NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD), Dario Argento (SUSPIRIA), Wes Craven (A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET), and John Carpenter (HALLOWEEN), TWO EVIL EYES is a 120-minute film featuring two hour-long stories by Romero and Argento only. To maintain a semblance of continuity, both segments were shot in Pittsburgh using much of the same crew, though considering the Poe tribute that opens the film, it would seem more appropriate to have made it in Baltimore.

In Romero’s “The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar,” Adrienne Barbeau — who worked previously with Carpenter (THE FOG), Craven (SWAMP THING), and Romero (CREEPSHOW) — stars as Jessica Valdemar, a bitchy trophy wife ready for her elderly husband to finally die so she can cash in. The wealthy Ernest Valdemar (Bingo O’Malley) is being manipulated hypnotically by Jessica’s former lover, physician Dr. Hoffman (DARK JUSTICE vigilante Ramy Zada), into signing papers transferring his fortune to her. A ghost story of sorts, the segment turns supernatural when the old man’s soul begins haunting his scheming wife from some sort of limbo. E.G. Marshall (THE DEFENDERS) plays Valdemar’s suspicious attorney. Romero’s anachronistic insistence upon the male characters wearing hats is an oddball choice.

Harvey Keitel (BAD LIEUTENANT) plays Rod Usher (!) in Argento’s “The Black Cat,” which is actually an amalgam of several Poe stories. Death-obsessed beret-sporting crime photographer Usher keeps killing things — cats, young women — and hiding them behind the wall in the closet. No amount of bricks can block the mysterious pounding and cat meows that haunt Usher all day and night. John Amos (DIE HARD 2) plays a cop named Legrand (taken from “The Gold Bug”) investigating the disappearance of Usher’s girlfriend (Madeleine Potter). Martin Balsam (PSYCHO) and Kim Hunter (PLANET OF THE APES) play suspicious neighbors.

Argento’s segment is the more stylish, driven by the director’s characteristic gonzo visual style, but also the duller of the two stories. Strangely, Keitel’s performance is a deadly contrast to Argento’s high-energy camera movements and Pino Donaggio’s glitzy score. He never seems to be into the material, and because he begins the story as an angry jerk, his character arc goes from A to B, rather than A to Z. Barbeau gives TWO EVIL EYES’ best performance in a role benefitting from scripter Romero’s multi-layered lead character. Frankly, neither story is particularly scary, with “Valdemar” tame in the violence and gore departments.

Even though TWO EVIL EYES was the only new horror film opening Halloween weekend of 1991, Taurus Entertainment had cold feet, distributing the film to just a handful of American theaters. Even Cannon’s wheezy Chuck Norris actioner THE HITMAN did better per-screen business than this horror film by two of the genre’s giants.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Hellhole

This sleazy cross between a slasher flick and a women-in-prison shocker should be more entertaining than it actually is, especially considering the screenplay is by CHAINED HEAT’s Aaron Butler. HELLHOLE has naked catfighting in the shower room; mad scientists performing illegal brain surgeries; a dungeon; nude women making out; Coleman-lantern-jawed Robert Z’Dar (MANIAC COP) sniffing poppers; and a ridiculous, out-of-control Ray Sharkey performance competing with a cast of actors with impeccable trash-movie resumes. But with a second writer credited with “additional story and new dialogue” and a third writer with “additional dialogue,” as well as A CLOCKWORK ORANGE cutter Bill Butler brought in as an “editorial consultant,” it’s likely HELLHOLE was indelicately cobbled together by too many cooks.

An obviously high Ray Sharkey (THE IDOLMAKER), who wears three different hair styles in his first three scenes, takes bad-acting honors as Silk, a sleazebag who kills a middle-aged woman and coerces her buxom daughter Susan (‘80s TV’s resident dumb blonde Judy Landers) off a ledge. The fall doesn’t kill her, which is good, but it turns her into an amnesiac, which is bad. Bad for Silk, because his boss Monroe (Martin Beck) wants some McGuffin papers Susan and her mother had hidden away. Monroe pulls strings to get Susan tossed into his private sanitarium for women.

Meanwhile, in what seems like a separate movie, suspicious orderly Ron Stevens (Richard Cox) snoops around “Hellhole,” where violent inmates are taken to be experimented on by gay necro Dr. Fletcher (DEATH RACE 2000’s Mary Woronov) and sexually repressed Dr. Dane (VIVA KNIEVEL’s Marjoe Gortner). These actors at least know how to spice up material that lays flat on the page, which is more than one can say for airhead Landers. Completely empty everywhere except inside her bra, Landers is a woeful heroine stuck inside a woeful story steered by woeful director Pierre de Moro (SAVANNAH SMILES).

While the prudish Landers stays clothed throughout, Russ Meyer’s ex Edy Williams (BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS), then in her forties, leads the parade of actresses willing to pop their tops (and bottoms) for a prestige product like HELLHOLE. Director de Moro also landed ILSA star Dyanne Thorne, MIGHTY JOE YOUNG’s Terry Moore, FROGS’ Lynn Borden, and SAVAGE STREETS’ Carole Ita White to add street cred to his sleaze flick. He was unable to rein in Sharkey, however, who plays the world’s most inept henchman. It’s no wonder he never found those papers.

If HELLHOLE holds any significance (dubious), it’s as the final feature film from executive producer Samuel Z. Arkoff, who released it to theaters under his Arkoff International Pictures banner. The legendary studio head formed American International Pictures with James Nicholson in the 1950s and made it one of Hollywood’s most successful independent companies before selling out to Filmways in 1979.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Last Of The Finest

In the wake of the Iran-Contra scandal came this cops-and-robbers thriller that attempted to draw the audience’s attention to the corruption and double-dealing that infects our national government. Directed by Scotsman John Mackenzie, whose THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY is one of the great political crime dramas, THE LAST OF THE FINEST is enjoyable as a typical bang-bang action movie, but the extra subtext and social commentary give the film zest for more discerning audiences to mull over.

Tough Brian Dennehy (FIRST BLOOD) leads an elite unit of Los Angeles cops on the edge who don’t always go by the book, but get results. You know the type: goofy Bill Paxton (ALIENS), sensitive Jeff Fahey (THE LAWNMOWER MAN), and egghead Joe Pantoliano (MIDNIGHT RUN). The night of a big drug bust, Dennehy’s boss (HARRY O’s old foil Henry Darrow, an expert in projecting both malevolence and benevolence) orders the team to wait for backup, warrants, and probable cause, but that’s for pantywaists. The bust goes bad — drug lord Michael C. Gwynne (THE TERMINAL MAN) torches the evidence during the shootout — and a later clash with Gwynne’s hired killer results in the death of one of Dennehy’s cops. Before the LAPD brass can suspend Dennehy, he quits the force and his loyal colleagues follow suit.

Only pantywaists stop investigating when they lose their badges, so Dennehy and his boys go after Gwynne and his “legitimate businessman” boss Guy Boyd (BODY DOUBLE) on their own time. Not only do they have to keep a major drug investigation hidden from the LAPD, FBI, and DEA, they also become targets after ripping off $22 million of Boyd’s blood money.

Though Fahey is miscast as a Latino, he, Pantoliano, and Paxton share a good chemistry and work well under Dennehy’s leadership. Mackenzie and his writers, including Roger Corman alumnus George Armitage (DARKTOWN STRUTTERS), hammer the political angle too sharply, but the actors sell it. The action scenes and stunts are also sharply portrayed. Originally titled STREET LEGAL and POINT OF IMPACT, THE LAST OF THE FINEST received a halfassed release from Orion in March 1990, when it opened in 14th place.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Crime Zone

Luis Llosa is perhaps Roger Corman’s least talked-about “find.” The Peruvian filmmaker followed this Concorde theatrical release to Hollywood, where he directed SNIPER, THE SPECIALIST, and ANACONDA with major stars.

Corman produced this cheap sci-fi action movie in Lima with top-billed David Carradine, who appears to have put more thought into his performance than he usually did at this point in his exploitation-movie career. The real stars, though, are Peter Nelson, formerly on THE PAPER CHASE, and Sherilyn Fenn (TWO MOON JUNCTION), who landed the role of Audrey Horne on TWIN PEAKS not long after CRIME ZONE opened in theaters. I’m guessing David Lynch wasn’t there opening night.

In the oppressive future, martial law has made major crimes almost extinct. It goes without saying that the government’s totalitarian reign has also mostly wiped out freedom and joy for the 99%. So much so that ex-cop Bone (Nelson) and hooker Helen (Fenn) want to escape to a legendary city where rule is more democratic. Shady Jason (Carradine) offers them the chance to join the 1%, but only if they perform a series of robberies for him first. Jason turns out to have a hidden motive for his recruitment of the two lovers, but it’s doubtful you’ll wait around long enough to discover what it is. It’s dumb anyway.

Murkily lensed by Cusi Barrio (HEROES STAND ALONE), CRIME ZONE is hard to see and hard to sit through, jammed with limited actors emoting on cheap sets. Corman produced it in Peru to take advantage of favorable exchange rates, not the exotic locations. Even the exterior scenes are shot on dark soundstages blandly decorated in smoke and neon. Scripter Daryl Haney (LORDS OF THE DEEP), who was both starring in and writing films for Concorde, created a dystopian world with few consistent rules, which makes it hard to care about what happens to the people who live in it.

On that note, the actors also make it difficult to care about their characters. Carradine is cagey and interesting, but Nelson is a boring dunce, Fenn is fiery but unlikable (though striking as a blonde), and Michael Shaner as Bone’s best pal is the same obnoxious dolt he was in other Corman features. Llosa directed three films for Corman and produced several others before getting his big break on SNIPER. He later returned to producing television shows in Peru.

CRIME ZONE stinks, but anyone who is drawn to see it because of its amazing poster gets a free pass from me.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2

If the business plan was to deliver something longer, louder, and more violent than JOHN WICK, mission accomplished. And — surprise of surprises — CHAPTER 2 is better than JOHN WICK too.

After a stylishly violent prologue of retired assassin John Wick (Keanu Reeves, so immobile he makes Bruce Willis look like Danny Kaye) retrieving his stolen muscle car from cartoonish Russian mobster Tarasov (cartoonish Swedish character actor Peter Stormare), director Chad Stahelski and screenwriter Derek Kolstad — both returning from JOHN WICK — get down to business.

Wick is drawn back into the assassination game by an old acquaintance, Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), who needs John to whack his sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini). After initially refusing — and seeing his house destroyed — Wick takes the assignment, which leads to an Italian version of the assassin-friendly Continental hotel (run by Franco Nero!), a double cross, and a Dick Tracy rogue’s gallery of colorful killers riding Wick’s rear end.

Among the assassins seeking a $7 million bounty on Wick are a blond street musician with a pistol hidden in her violin, a huge Samoan, sexy mute Ares (Australian VJ Ruby Rose), and Gianna’s right hand Cassian (Common), whose casual shootout with silencers in a crowded subway station is a witty highlight. You would be amazed how many freelance hitmen are hanging around New York City.

CHAPTER 2 expands the fascinating universe created in the first film, one in which assassins live by a strict code, trade in their own special currency, and receive assignments via switchboard operators and 1940s typewriters. The world of John Wick is also beautifully photographed in rainbow hues like a four-color comic book. The fact of the matter is that JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 is a better comic book movie than anything released by Marvel Films or DC to date, because Stahelski and Kolstad aren’t afraid to wallow in the genre’s inherent absurdities. John Wick is as much a superhero as Batman is, just with slightly less expensive tools.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Dead Bang

One of the most underrated thrillers in the great director John Frankenheimer’s filmography casts Don Johnson, then hot off MIAMI VICE, as a real-life Los Angeles homicide cop named Jerry Beck. I highly doubt the real Beck, who retired from the LAPD in 1999, was much like the cop depicted in the DEAD BANG screenplay by Robert Foster (KNIGHT RIDER). Johnson’s Beck is a burnout, estranged from his family and co-workers, a poor dresser, lives in a crappy apartment, a drunk who is so hungover Christmas morning that he pukes on a suspect after an exhausting foot chase expertly staged by Frankenheimer and scored by Gary Chang (THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU). He also gets into a lot of fights and shootouts — unquestionably more than the real Jerry Beck did.

On the other hand, cliche Beck may be, but Johnson brings much sympathy and charisma to the role. Adding to his very good star performance is veteran Frankenheimer (THE TRAIN), who breaks no new ground in the crime drama genre, but expertly enhances the tropes in successful pursuit of an above average action picture. Ticket buyers didn’t agree, ignoring DEAD BANG when it opened during a lazy March weekend in 1989 (it opened in fifth place and vanished from theaters in a hurry).

Investigating the murder of a policeman after an L.A. liquor store holdup, Beck chases his prey all the way to Arizona, Oklahoma, and Colorado (all resembling Alberta) when it’s revealed his chief suspect is a member of a white supremacist group based there. Teaming up with a black police chief (WKRP IN CINCINNATI DJ Tim Reid) and a so-straight-he-squeaks FBI agent (a cast-against-type William Forsythe), Beck lays down a series of wisecracks (“You don’t need a gun, Chief, just tell ‘em who you are!”) and shootouts to break up the deranged right-wingers before they can mount a violent defense.

Penelope Ann Miller (THE RELIC) stops by for a one-night stand with Johnson. Her appearance is enigmatically brief, though Miller’s unconvincing performance dissuades you from being disappointed. Bob Balaban (GOSFORD PARK) is rightfully officious as a parole officer pestered by Beck on Christmas morning, and Reid (also in Frankenheimer’s THE FOURTH WAR) brings warmth to a typical sidekick role. Everyone involved, particularly Johnson, Chang and Frankenheimer, works hard to elevate a routine cop meller to a crime thriller with humor, color, and excitement.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

To The Limit

PM Entertainment produced very few sequels, but writer/director Raymond Martino brought back actor Joey Travolta (HOLLYWOOD VICE SQUAD) to reprise his role of ‘Nam vet turned vigilante Frank DaVinci from DAVINCI’S WAR. Sharing star billing with John’s less talented brother is an even less talented actor: Anna Nicole Smith, who bears the indignity of failing miserably in two direct-to-video action movies. In SKYSCRAPER, which reunited Smith and Martino with PM a year later, the former Playmate delivered what I believe to be the worst acting performance by a name actress in a professional Hollywood film ever. Now imagine that times two.

Smith’s acting is as natural as her breasts, which are the first part of her body we see in TO THE LIMIT, enjoying herself in a hot tub instead of getting dressed for DaVinci’s wedding. The only things she pushes to the limit in this movie are her bra and our patience. She never makes it to the wedding, as her boyfriend China Smith (Michael Nouri in a one-day cameo) is blown up in his car at the same time a hit team massacres DaVinci’s new wife (Rebecca Ferratti) on the church steps.

Three months later, DaVinci has mostly recovered from his wounds while hiding out from his attackers in Las Vegas. His support system is a bunch of stereotypical Italian goombah mobsters. Collette (Smith) is also hiding out from China’s killers, and she teams up with Frank in Vegas. LOU GRANT’s Jack Bannon plays the bad guy, a tattooed CIA spook named Jameson who giggles a lot, smokes opium, makes hot women whip him during sex, and shoots out his computer monitor.

Travolta, who was also the producer and co-writer, which explains his sex scenes with Smith, wears a New York Giants jacket, though I doubt he bothered to clear the NFL logos. Give Martino the lion’s share of the blame for TO THE LIMIT’s incompetence. The story is complicated and uninvolving, and direction and editing are sloppy (Aprea tells his boys, “I gotta job for you. You’re goin’ to L.A. right now,” and they walk off without knowing what the job is). Of course, being a PM production, the stuntwork is impressive, and so are Smith’s nude scenes. Which are, after all, the reason TO THE LIMIT exists at all.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

If He Hollers, Let Him Go!

The fine black actor Raymond St. Jacques, strong as cop Coffin Ed opposite Godfrey Cambridge in COTTON COMES TO HARLEM, stars in another Chester Himes adaptation. The screenplay, however, written by producer/director Charles Martin (THE ONE MAN JURY), has nothing to do with Himes’ book, and the author is uncredited.

In this obscure Cinerama release, St. Jacques stars as a wrongfully escaped convict who is picked up by crafty Southerner Kevin McCarthy and taken to the mansion that McCarthy shares with his wealthy wife and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS co-star Dana Wynter. McCarthy blackmails St. Jacques into murdering Wynter in exchange for $10,000 and safe passage to Mexico. An honorable, erudite man who knows classical music, St. Jacques refuses, but is propelled by Martin’s overheated screenplay into a series of absurd plot twists and lurid complications good only for providing its cast reasons to overact.

Plainly shot by regular Quinn Martin cinematographer William Spencer (137 episodes of BARNABY JONES, 162 episodes of THE FBI, and an Emmy for TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH), IF HE HOLLERS, LET HIM GO! plays like a particularly warped KRAFT SUSPENSE THEATRE episode with mild swearing and nudity. Indeed, singer Barbara McNair (CHANGE OF HABIT) makes a startling feature debut, performing on camera (and the opening theme song) and stripping down for a love scene with St. Jacques.

Aside from St. Jacques, who is his usual authoritative self, the acting is grade-A hambone all around. McCarthy is particularly crazed, but so is John Russell (LAWMAN) as the local sheriff, Arthur O’Connell (ANATOMY OF A MURDER) as a grandstanding prosecutor, Ann Prentiss (CAPTAIN NICE) as a farm girl who tries to capture St. Jacques, and Royal Dano (TEACHERS) as the father of a dead girl. The film’s biggest drawback is Martin’s flashbacks to St. Jacques’ arrest, trial, and conviction that fill in blanks we don’t really need filled. Martin claimed to have invested $1 million in the picture and chosen the provocative title for maximum exploitation.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Dark Breed

Let there be no doubt in anyone’s mind that director/producer Richard Donner and/or credited writers Jonathan Lemkin, Miles Millar, Alfred Gough, and Channing Gibson saw DARK BREED before beginning production on LETHAL WEAPON 4. Two of this PM Entertainment action picture’s eye-popping setpieces — one with two actors punching each other out in a house being transported on a flatbed truck along a busy highway and another that features the leading man being dragged on, again, a busy highway in a satellite dish by a van — were lifted verbatim for LW4, except Donner combined the two chases into one. One wonders whether DARK BREED director Richard Pepin and stunt coordinator Cole McKay should be flattered or furious.

For that matter, DARK BREED is probably about as good or better than the notoriously rushed LW4 on probably 1/70th of the budget. It isn’t quite on PM Entertainment’s A-list, but it’s a good B. Directed at a rapid clip, DARK BREED is a cheaply made monster movie that emphasizes action over logic, but when the action is this good, who cares about logic? Most of producers Pepin and Joseph Merhi’s money went to McKay’s stunt team for as many car stunts, candy glass, and fire gags as could be squeezed into the 92-minute running time.

Air Force captain Nick Saxon (Jack Scalia) is called to the scene when an American space shuttle crashlands off the Long Beach waterfront. Its six astronauts, including Saxon’s ex-wife Debbie (Donna W. Scott) and his best pal Joe (BREAKING BAD’s Jonathan Banks), have been invaded by alien parasites — purposely, as it turns out. Evil government honcho Cutter (Lance LeGault) sent the oblivious crew into space specifically to be invaded, so they could return to Earth, lay eggs, and be used by Cutter as unstoppable killing machines. And in less than two days, the slimy creatures will have matured enough to burst free of their puny human shells and begin destroying Earth.

Ignore the holes in Richard Preston Jr.’s (HOLOGRAM MAN) screenplay and dig the stylish stunts. Scalia carries the non-action scenes just as well, handling the obligatory character quirks, such as his attachment to an antique pocket watch, in a manner that lends a human touch to the gun battles and explosions, including PM’s signature vehicle-flipping-upside-down-through-a-fireball gag. Michael Taylor’s visual effects are okay, considering the budget, though it’s probably a smart move on Pepin’s part not to allow more than a glimpse of the man-in-a-suit title creature.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

I, the Jury

Though based on the most famous of Mickey Spillane’s many best-sellers, I, THE JURY is in no way a faithful adaptation. It is, however, a terrific action movie with great stunts, creative use of New York locations, and a fun Bill Conti (FOR YOUR EYES ONLY) score. It was a troubled production — director Richard T. Heffron (FUTUREWORLD) replaced screenwriter Larry Cohen (BLACK CAESAR) a week into shooting — but I, THE JURY shows little sign of confusion. Except for its plot, which nobody has ever been able to understand.

One thing is for sure: the Mike Hammer played here by Armand Assante (PROPHECY) isn’t the Hammer of Spillane’s books. This Hammer doesn’t wear a hat or drink alcohol, but he does drive a Camaro and may be Italian. Jack Williams, a private detective who lost an arm saving Hammer’s life in Vietnam, is shot to death in a squalid hotel room. Despite an admonishment by his policeman friend Pat Chambers (Paul Sorvino) to “stay out of it,” Hammer begins tracking the killer.

Hammer’s investigation leads to a shady sex therapy clinic where men and women participate in orgies while doctors in lab coats stand around making notes on clipboards, a dilapidated summer camp where Hammer and his sexy and loyal secretary Velda (MANIAC COP’s Laurene Landon) are beset upon by machine gun-wielding government agents, a “Mama’s boy” psycho killer (Judson Scott, who was in STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN and his own television series, THE PHOENIX, that year) who dresses his female victims as redheads before stripping and mutilating them, a gunrunning New York mobster (comic Alan King), and a CIA plot to brainwash men into murdering suspected terrorists under the guise of a sex crime. Whew.

Needless to say, almost none of this overly complex story is faithful to Spillane’s text (Spillane’s infamous final scene does make the transition to film, however). Loaded to the brim with tawdry sex, ample amounts of female nudity (including twin Playmates Leigh and Lynette Harris), and explosive action sequences, I, THE JURY makes for a complicated if exciting ride, culminating in a country chase, shootout, and fist fight. Assante handles the action very well and possesses a nifty panache with a bon mot. Landon is an appropriately plucky and lovely Velda, and Barbara Carrera (NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN) is unforgettable. Other actors who have portrayed Mike Hammer on film include Ralph Meeker, Darren McGavin, Biff Elliot, Stacy Keach, Kevin Dobson, Rob Estes, and even Spillane himself.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Menace From Outer Space

ROCKY JONES, SPACE RANGER was one of many science fiction shows made for children in the early days of television. Not among the most popular — it was cancelled after just 39 episodes — ROCKY JONES has endured longer than many of its competitors because it was filmed, rather than broadcast live. Also helping it live on was the decision to edit many of its half-hour episodes into movies that could be syndicated in 90-minute timeslots. Although this practice often led to incomprehensible stories (as fans of GEMINI MAN, THE GREEN HORNET, and KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER can tell you), it worked for ROCKY JONES, because many of its episodes were three-parters, as was “Bobby’s Comet,” the shows that became MENACE FROM OUTER SPACE.

Directed by the prolific Hollingsworth Morse (LASSIE) from teleplays by Warren Wilson (THE CISCO KID), the dull MENACE FROM OUTER SPACE stars serial hero Richard Crane (MYSTERIOUS ISLAND) as Rocky, a 22nd century cop who flew around space in a rocketship fighting crime and preventing Earth invasions alongside his sidekick Winky (Scotty Beckett) and his pretty, platonic girl companion Vena (Sally Mansfield). They and little Bobby (Robert Lyden) lift off for one of Jupiter’s moons to find out who is firing deadly missiles at Earth. Turns out it’s evil expatriate Cardos (Nestor Paiva), who has convinced moon leader Zoravac (Walter Coy) that Earthlings are mean and rotten and pass gas in elevators.

Cheap and talky (“The acceleration thrust will be G4 + 6.”), each ROCKY JONES was probably shot in a couple of days. Criticizing the sets and special effects are moot — all the sci-fi series from this era were created on accelerated schedules and paltry budgets — but the script is fair game. Actually, aside from the technobabble, it’s not awful for what it is, which is juvenile space opera made to keep the kiddies quiet for awhile. Crane is good-looking, knows how to throw a punch, and is friendly to kids (and probably pets), making him the perfect face for lunch boxes and decoder rings.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Day Time Ended

No movie has more scenes of people flipping light switches than THE DAY TIME ENDED, executive producer Charles Band’s (very) low-budget take on CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND.

It also has a lot of driving and slow walking, but precious little of anything resembling action or even anything interesting. It isn’t for lack of ambition — Jim Danforth, David Allen, Greg Jein, and other notable effects artists contribute imaginative visuals, but they don’t have the budget to match their ideas. They also don’t have much of a story to back them up, even though four writers contributed to it.

The Williams family’s first night in their new solar-powered desert house coincides with the appearance on Earth of a rare triple supernova. While dad Chris Mitchum (BIG JAKE) is away on business, mom Marcy Lafferty (KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS), grandparents Jim Davis (DALLAS) and Dorothy Malone (PEYTON PLACE), and kids Scott Kolden (SIGMUND AND THE SEA MONSTERS) and Natasha Ryan (THE ENTITY) are awakened by a little green man, glowing lights, and a flying device that can freeze bullets.

Then some prehistoric-looking monsters show up and either fight or mate, I couldn’t tell which. And then a storm whips up and transports the whole house into — I dunno — a time vortex, maybe. The whole movie plays like an eight-year-old boy telling a story. Stuff happens, but nothing happens, if you get my drift. And during all this, the film occasionally cuts away to Mitchum dialing a telephone and trying to buy gas. Riveting.

Aside from a typically sharp score by Richard Band, THE DAY TIME ENDED feels not like a Charles Band production, but one of Robert Emenegger and Allan Sandler’s sci-fi cheapies from the same period. Director John "Bud" Cardos, whose previous picture was the much better KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS, lucked out in landing a leading man like Jim Davis, in between seasons as Big Jock, who could almost make you believe this bunk. Nothing is explained, we never know where the family ends up, and Band denied us the obvious sequel.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Malibu High

Crown International pulled off one of the great bait-and-switch routines with this sleazy crime drama that was advertised as a light-headed teen romp along the lines of MALIBU BEACH, which Crown had just released. Not only is the tantalizing California blonde (‘80s TV actress Mary-Margaret Humes) posing on the one-sheet not in MALIBU HIGH, neither is Malibu. TEEN TERROR, HIGH SCHOOL HITGIRL, and LOVELY BUT DEADLY were early (and accurate) titles under discussion before Crown decided dishonesty would pay off better. And it must have, because MALIBU HIGH played theatrically for several years.

MALIBU HIGH follows Kim (“introducing” Jill Lansing in an amateurish but undeniably go-for-broke lead performance), a tough brunette with bad posture who’s flunking out of school and fighting with her mother. Tired of being pushed around, Kim decides to—what else?—use her to-die-for bod to get ahead, seducing her teachers to score all A’s and turning tricks to earn bread. She gets tired of scoring with dirty old men for only 40% of the take, so she tells pot-dealing pimp Tony (Alex Mann) to get screwed and upgrades to the surprisingly agreeable Lance (Garth Pillsbury from Russ Meyer movies), who not only gives Kim 60% of the take, but also convinces her to become an assassin!

How a typical California teenager graduates from high school hooker to gun-wielding hitwoman is an amazingly delirious path in the hands of clumsy filmmaker Irvin Berwick (HITCH-HIKE TO HELL), who also saddles MALIBU HIGH with one of cinema’s most inappropriate scores. Fights between Kim and her mom are punctuated with the bumper music from SCTV NETWORK 90, while the climactic chase is supported by the theme to THE PEOPLE’S COURT (actually a library cue composed by Alan Tew). Most of the performances are grim, though Lansing, who doesn’t appear to have done anything else, does a decent job, considering she has to carry the entire film—and doubtlessly with little help from her director. They don’t make ‘em like MALIBU HIGH—now or ever—and we’re worse off for it.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Hollywood Vice Squad

Your only opportunity to see milquetoast character actor Marvin Kaplan waving a dildo with his face on it. Director Penelope Spheeris, best known for her DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION rock documentaries (or maybe WAYNE’S WORLD!), took to the streets of Hollywood for this black comic cop flick with an all-star exploitation cast. Producer Sandy Howard also made VICE SQUAD, but this isn’t a sequel, despite its similar episodic structure.

The main throughline is a gender-switched HARDCORE with Trish Van Devere — wife of HARDCORE star George C. Scott — playing a Midwestern mother roaming Hollywood Boulevard in search of her runaway daughter. She doesn’t know her innocent little girl (Robin Wright in her film debut) is a coked-out whore under the thumb of pimp Frank Gorshin!

Meanwhile, Carrie Fisher (three years after RETURN OF THE JEDI) tries to bust some porno filmmakers, Evan Kim (KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE) and Joey Travolta (CAR CRASH) fight a drag queen and a guy on angel dust, Ben Frank (DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE) and H.B. “Tigerman” Haggerty chase mob boss Robert Miano (DONNIE BRASCO), and Leon Isaac Kennedy (BODY AND SOUL) goes undercover as a white slaver. Top-billed Ronny Cox, probably wearing his BEVERLY HILLS COP wardrobe, is their captain.

HOLLYWOOD VICE SQUAD isn’t a straight comedy, though many of its chases and fight scenes are played for humor. Child pornography and white slavery aren’t naturally compatible with slapstick, and neither Spheeris nor writer James Docherty (T.J. HOOKER) have the confidence or experience to pull off the combination. Considering the ragged structure and Fisher’s diminished screen time, it’s likely Spheeris left a lot of footage behind in the editing room. Marquees for ROCKY IV, CLUE, and YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES seen along Hollywood Boulevard indicate HOLLYWOOD VICE SQUAD was still shooting less than three months before it was in theaters!

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Silent Fall

SILENT FALL, a thriller about an autistic boy who witnesses his parents’ bloody murders, is based around the most ridiculous, stupidest, straight out most insane gimmick I think I’ve ever seen in a studio feature set in the real world. It’s unimaginable that anyone involved with this movie, much less director Bruce Beresford, whose work includes DRIVING MISS DAISY and TENDER MERCIES, thought the audience would believe it.

While not giving away the mystery, I’ll tell you what I’m talking about. It turns out that the little boy, Tim Warden (Ben Faulkner), only speaks in impressions. Not like the guy in your dorm who pulled back his hair and did a lame Jack Nicholson, but an absolutely perfect impression that would make Kevin Pollak weep with jealousy. Of course, it isn’t the young actor speaking the lines. Tim’s impressions are the work of talented sound editors, whom I hope had the good sense to crack up while putting words into Faulkner’s mouth.

SILENT FALL is about a murder case in a bucolic Maryland town. A couple is found slaughtered in their bedroom and survived by their teenage daughter Sylvie (Liv Tyler) and son Tim. The local sheriff (J.T. Walsh) calls in a reluctant psychiatrist, Jake Reiner (Richard Dreyfuss), to find out from Tim who the killer is. Reiner gave up treating kids a few years earlier after a boy died in his care and he was tried on a manslaughter charge, of which he was acquitted.

Reiner’s past actually has nothing to do with the story, just one of many misfires in the screenplay by the perpetually tonedeaf Akiva Goldsman (BATMAN & ROBIN). The plot culminates in one of the dumbest, most laughable climaxes ever, which has Dreyfuss both escape a ludicrous death trap and re-enact the murders with convenient narration by Tim. SILENT FALL is terrible, and that’s even before mentioning that it wastes both Linda Hamilton (THE TERMINATOR) and John Lithgow (THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP) in nothing roles. Yes, it’s terrible, but I promise you will get a few bellylaughs out of it.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Random Comic Book Splash Page: Four Color #994


The great Dan Spiegle drew the splash of "Danger Dive," the second story in this SEA HUNT issue of Dell's FOUR COLOR. While it isn't the most exciting page in the world, Spiegle captures star Lloyd Bridges' likeness well, and it does (the writer is unidentified) tie into the hit television series well. It seems like most episodes started with Bridges' frogman Mike Nelson minding his own business just before trouble came calling.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Sweet Sugar

“Her machete isn’t her only weapon!” Movies about sexy women in jungle prisons were big biz in 1972, and Dimension Pictures’ first reaction to New World’s THE BIG DOLL HOUSE and THE BIG BIRD CAGE was SWEET SUGAR. Filmed in Costa Rica by director Michel Levesque (WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS) from a script by THE BIG DOLL HOUSE’s Don Spencer, SWEET SUGAR has a real ace in the hole in the shapely form of star Phyllis Davis, who later became well known for her three seasons backing up private eye Robert Urich on ABC’s VEGA$.

A brassy mixture of intelligence, confidence, and rarely equalled sex appeal, Davis was the Mae West of 1970s exploitation. She played plenty of bit parts in television series like ADAM-12 and THE WILD WILD WEST and movies like THE BIG BOUNCE and Russ Meyer’s BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (testing the sexploitation waters?), but her best roles by far were in SWEET SUGAR and another Dimension WIP (women-in-prison movie), TERMINAL ISLAND. The gloriously perverse SWEET SUGAR gives her the title role: Sugar Bowman, a stacked smartass hooker busted on a trumped-up pot charge who forgoes prison for a two-year stint cutting sugar cane on a Central American plantation.

Sugar not only runs afoul of rival inmate Simone (DETROIT 9000’s Ella Edwards) and brutal guard Burgos (pockmarked Cliff Osmond, memorable in THE FORTUNE COOKIE), but especially the psychotic warden, Doctor John (Angus Duncan), a perverted ascot-wearing physician who performs medical experiments on the prisoners. Of course, Sugar eventually leads a climactic revolt against authorities in a blizzard of bullets and explosions — these pictures generally stuck to a formula — but not before the requisite torture scenes, catfighting scenes, rape scenes, lesbian love scenes (scored with ‘60s lounge music), voodoo scenes (!) and, of course, shower scenes.

Though Spencer’s plot is standard as these things go, its dialogue (“I hope somebody hacks off your hambone!”) and tone are decidedly weird, which works to the film’s benefit. For instance, Doctor John sits on a throne sipping brandy while a woman dangles before him in a bamboo cage over a roaring fire. He hooks up female inmates to a cheap-looking machine (like a car battery charger) that measures their sex drive, and he punishes misbehavers with an army of horny pussycats! With the drive-in market glutted with WIPs, making SWEET SUGAR a bit goofy also makes it one of the genre’s most memorable vehicles. SWEET SUGAR was produced by Dimension’s husband-and-wife team of Charles S. Swartz and Stephanie Rothman, who directed Davis (and Tom Selleck) in TERMINAL ISLAND a year later.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Wonder Woman

DC Comics’ most famous female superhero, Wonder Woman, comes to the big screen in this mediocre adventure directed by MONSTER’s Patty Jenkins. Created by psychologist William Moulton Marston in 1941 and continuously published by DC since, Wonder Woman has previously been depicted on television — most notably by Lynda Carter in a 1970s series — and direct-to-video animated features. Technically, star Gal Gadot (FURIOUS SEVEN) cameoed as Wonder Woman in 2016’s BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, but this WONDER WOMAN is all her own.

Written by Allan Heinberg, a veteran of television soaps (PARTY OF FIVE, GREY’S ANATOMY), the plot plops Princess Diana into World War I, where she hooks up with dashing spy Steve Trevor (STAR TREK’s Chris Pine, game as the sidekick) and his flustery secretary Etta Candy (Lucy Davis as Hermione Baddeley) to fight the Germans. The plot is something something about poison gas developed by dull German villains Ludendorff (Danny Huston, likely the ninth or tenth name on the list of potential hires) and scarred scientist Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya, doing her best with an undercooked role).

Because the action scenes are completely concocted by Dew-doing dudes with keyboards and mice, it’s impossible to say how well Gadot performs in them, but she looks great in the suit (an important first step for these pictures) and presents a believable, sincere, likable hero for which to root. Likewise Pine, turning in career best work in a period haircut few stars of his generation could pull off. He and Gadot are a charming couple that provide WONDER WOMAN with enough goodwill to partially forgive the dull parts, which is basically everything comic-booky. The climax is a confusing melange of cartoons shooting electricity at each other without explaining why or how.

Connie Nielsen (THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE) and Robin Wright (THE PRINCESS BRIDE) appear as sisters Queen Hippolyta and General Antiope, respectively, who raise young Diana on Paradise Island, hidden from the world by an invisible shield that proves remarkably easy to penetrate. Early scenes of Diana training as an Amazon warrior are familiar, but well handled by Jenkins, as are all scenes between Gadot and Pine, as their characters not only fall in love, but also in mutual respect as both people and soldiers.

Monday, June 05, 2017

The Sisterhood

Another post-apocalyptic action flick by prolific Philippines director Cirio H. Santiago (WHEELS OF FIRE), THE SISTERHOOD offers Cirio’s trademark brand of cheap action, even cheaper sets, and completely senseless scripting. It opens with a pair of women in a swordfight against a handful of male warriors, which is fine, until one of the women distracts her opponent by shooting beams from her eyes (!) and causing a rockslide. I don’t know about you, but if I could fire explosive beams from my eyes, I wouldn’t dirty my hands in close combat.

The chick with the eye beams is Alee (Rebecca Holden, the redhead from KNIGHT RIDER). She and her partner Vera (Barbara Hooper), who can use her hands for healing, belong to the Sisterhood, a free-ranging female group of warriors that ride across the wilderness fighting for peace. Though there’s something relaxing about Santiago’s familiar filmmaking (I swear he must have shot twenty pictures in this same damned rock quarry), this one rambles too much. Santiago’s action movies, though frequently inept, are rarely dull, but THE SISTERHOOD presents no new ideas and features too little action. It gets amusing near the end, after the Sisterhood finds a long-buried U.S. missile silo stocked with Soviet weapons and a Filipino attack vehicle, which the two are easily able to operate.

One of approximately one zillion cheap drive-in pictures Santiago churned out for U.S. release by Roger Corman, THE SISTERHOOD features a screenplay by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver, who crapped out more scripts for Concorde, including HEROES STAND ALONE, THE TERROR WITHIN, DUNE WARRIORS, and SAIGON COMMANDOS. Taking into consideration that the difference between Santiago’s best film and his worst is very thin, THE SISTERHOOD definitely lays near the bottom of the pack. Bond girl Lynn-Holly Johnson (FOR YOUR EYES ONLY) co-stars with charisma hole Chuck Wagner (AUTOMAN) as the chief heavy.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Deadly Dreams

One of Roger Corman’s least heralded contributions to Hollywood is allowing women directors to make films just as cheap, exploitative, and dumb as male directors sometimes do. Kristine Peterson made her directing debut with this thriller released by Corman’s Concorde Pictures that focuses on the frequently sweaty bare torso of the supremely unlikable Mitchell Anderson (DOOGIE HOWSER, M.D.).

Poor chain-smoking Anderson has a lot of nightmares about a killer with a shotgun and a wolf mask chasing him through the bleak woods. That this actually sorta happened to him when he was ten years old (the killer murdered his parents right in front of him) has made Anderson understandably neurotic.

His stoner pal Thom Babbes (also the film’s screenwriter) and his older brother Xander Berkeley (24) are fairly worthless, leaving him to turn to his new girlfriend Juliette Cummins (FRIDAY THE 13TH: A NEW BEGINNING) when he needs to be talked down from another bad dream. Or are they dreams? Are Anderson’s visions of a wolf-masked killer actually real? Could somebody be trying to gaslight Anderson to get his inheritance? Is this an unimaginative direct-to-video thriller?

Anderson doesn’t seem to be into his sex scene with a topless Cummins, but maybe he’s just dizzy from Peterson spinning the bed around on a platform. That’s about as visually stylish as DEADLY DREAMS gets, despite a title that predicts fantasy. At least the dream sequences allow Peterson to kill her cast members over and over, though the gore factor barely tips into R territory. It also gives us 32 shots of Anderson sitting up in bed screaming. May as well get in all the cliches.

Frankly, there just isn’t much of a story here. With only four characters to play with — none of them likable — and a weak story, Peterson needs something to generate interest. A couple of outrageous third-act plot twists are a good start, but one is predictable (like really predictable) and the other is stupid. Cummins isn’t bad here, and she’s sexy as hell. Corman gave Peterson another chance to direct BODY CHEMISTRY, which was a major Concorde hit. Her biggest film was CRITTERS 3 for New Line.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Swinging Barmaids

Despite the sexy title and an advertising campaign stating that the title maids enjoy “big tips” and let the “customer come first,” THE SWINGING BARMAIDS is actually a crime drama, albeit a skeevy one. From director Gus Trikonis and producer Ed Carlin, who also made NASHVILLE GIRL, MOONSHINE COUNTY EXPRESS, THE STUDENT BODY, and THE EVIL together, this film was released by Premiere Releasing Organization as a follow-up to the similar THE MANHANDLERS and MAMA’S DIRTY GIRLS.

Television guest star Bruce Watson (he was in the first STAR TREK ever telecast) tears into his role as misogynist serial killer Tom Brady (!), who travels across the country, donning (laughable) disguises and murdering (hot) cocktail waitresses. He also enjoys arranging their nude corpses and taking photos of them. Now in Los Angeles, his latest victims are the ladies of the Swing-A-Ling, where he scores a gig as a bouncer. Fresh meat includes Susie (Katie Saylor, star of TV’s FANTASTIC JOURNEY), Marie (Renie Radich, seen in THREE THE HARD WAY), and Jenny (Laura Hippe, a Scientologist who committed suicide in 1986). In charge of the case is police detective Harry White, played by the great drive-in star William Smith (BLACK SAMSON), who usually played the psycho in these types of films.

Brady’s scheme to work at the Ring-A-Ding, which is packed with sexy barmaids, is pretty clever, as it allows him to listen in on the girls’ plans to catch the killer. Undoubtedly, working two days on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and ADAM-12 episodes didn’t allow Watson to cut loose, so he takes advantage of the R rating and Griffith’s sleazebag character to engage in some bonkers acting. Watson really isn’t that good, but in the context of this film, he’s pretty great, particularly when he gets angry listening to the barmaids insult a killer he proudly claims is some sort of criminal mastermind.

Written by the often witty Charles B. Griffith (LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS), THE SWINGING BARMAIDS has a steady slew of crowdpleasingly graphic murders, some nudity, and clever dialogue, but the story could have used more work. Watson is first seen wearing an (obvious) fake blond wig and beard, yet witnesses describe him as having dark hair. Later, a witness tells White the suspect was driving a green Kawasaki, but the police bulletin asks officers to be on the lookout for a Honda.

Still, Trikonis delivers a decent body count and thoughtfully directs Watson to rip off the women’s tops before killing them. The actors appear to be doing most of their stunts. One victim is Dyanne Thorne, just before she became a drive-in queen as Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS. Also appearing is bad comic Dick Yarmy, Don Adams’ lookalike brother, playing a bad comic. Motion Picture Marketing later released THE SWINGING BARMAIDS as EAGER BEAVERS.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Return Of Count Yorga

Robert Quarry became a short-lived horror movie star and an AIP contract player in the early 1970s on the basis of his two COUNT YORGA movies, which were shot on low budgets by director Bob Kelljan (SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM) and producer Michael Macready. Macready’s father, well-known character actor George Macready (coming off a long run as bitter old town patriarch Martin Peyton on TV’s PEYTON PLACE), narrated COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE and plays a professor in this sequel, his final film. George died in 1973.

Screenwriters Kelljan and Yvonne Wilder skip over any troublesome explanation of how Yorga (Quarry) and his scarred brute assistant Brudah (Edward Walsh) escaped clear deaths in VAMPIRE. Yorga, Brudah, and a harem of undead vamps in negligees move into a Bay Area mansion near an orphanage run by Reverend Thomas (Tom Toner). While attending an orphanage fundraiser, Yorga falls for a pretty young teacher, Cynthia (Mariette Hartley). That night, he sends his vampire harem to slaughter Cynthia’s family (yes, this was in theaters two years after the Manson murders) and bring her back to his place, where he hypnotizes her into believing she was the victim of a car crash. She soon comes to realize, however, she’s a prisoner of Count Yorga’s, rather than a guest, and seeks to escape, while her psychiatrist fiancĂ© (Roger Perry, who played a different hero in VAMPIRE) and a pair of comic relief cops attempt a rescue.

Although solidly directed by Kelljan, sharply photographed by Bill Butler (JAWS), and crisply edited by Fabien Tjordmann (an Emmy winner for STAR TREK), THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA doesn’t quite work. The story by Kelljan and Yvonne Wilder (who also portrays a mute teacher in the film) is extremely thin—there’s a lot of wandering around labyrinthine hallways and through doorways—and some plotholes may have you scratching your head (like why don’t the cops use their crosses to fight off the vamps?). The parts that do work, however, work exceedingly well. The final third, which mainly consists of the rescue attempt, is scary and exciting, and Kelljan consistently spices the film with enough intriguing camera angles and directorial touches to add to the film’s visual luster.

Quarry is excellent as one of modern cinema’s great bloodsuckers—regal, intense, and witty. He starred in other horror films, such as THE DEATHMASTER, but was never as good in anything as he was as Count Yorga. Hartley is too old to play the ingĂ©nue, but is fine otherwise. Perry, a likable actor in many light television parts, pulls off the difficult task of making his underdeveloped character someone to root for. Comic actors Rudy DeLuca (a frequent Mel Brooks collaborator) and Craig T. Nelson (his film debut!) as the cops are fun, wisely finding the right level of humor without going too far. One wonders whether the movie might have been better without Perry and letting DeLuca and Nelson carry the heroics.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Prescription: Murder

When actor Peter Falk first donned Lieutenant Columbo’s rumpled raincoat for this Universal TV-movie in 1968, who could have known that he would still be wearing that same raincoat in 2003, when the last COLUMBO episode/movie aired.

Adapted by Richard Levinson and William Link from their own play, which starred character actor Thomas Mitchell as Columbo, PRESCRIPTION: MURDER sets the formula for nearly every Columbo adventure yet to come, most importantly by squaring the slovenly detective off against a real smoothie, his opposite in style, played perfectly by Gene Barry (BURKE’S LAW). Barry, who never made a return appearance to the COLUMBO-verse, is the quintessential Columbo villain—suave, urbane, cold, clever, and arrogant. In other words, the perfect foil for Falk, whose rumpled appearance, absentmindedness, short stature, and acute politeness masked an intelligence and an eye for details that always led to the killer’s demise.

Psychiatrist Ray Flemming (Barry) thinks he’s committed the perfect murder. By strangling his wife Carol (Nina Foch) in their penthouse apartment and recruiting his young mistress, actress Joan Hudson (Katherine Justice), to pose as Carol during a staged argument that results in “Carol” refusing to accompany him on a flight to Acapulco, Flemming has a perfect alibi when his wife’s corpse is found a few days later. Witnesses saw Carol stalk off the airplane prior to takeoff, and the waters off the Mexican coast are ideal for dumping the expensive items “stolen” by the robber who will be blamed for Carol’s death. MURDER also sets the COLUMBO formula by showing the killer’s preparation and deed in great detail. Falk doesn’t enter until the second act, after Levinson and Link provide a good hard look at Flemming’s elaborate plan in which he appears to leave no clues to his guilt.

However, there is no such thing as the “perfect murder.” Columbo becomes a bit of a pest, stopping by Flemming’s home and office at all hours, asking questions that seem inconsequential until he has no doubt of the doctor’s guilt. The fun is in the cat-and-mouse aspect of Levinson and Link’s teleplay, where Columbo knows his adversary is guilty, and Flemming knows that Columbo knows, yet without proof, what can the detective do? The two parry with each other over bourbon, talking about hypothetical murders, Barry’s cool charm meshing with Falk’s puppy-dog determination. The actors have excellent chemistry, and the grudging respect that the two characters have for each other, even as one tries to jail the other for murder, is quite clear in the performances.

If there is a weakness, it would be in Richard Irving’s direction, which does a poor job of masking MURDER’s stage origins. Too many scenes consist of actors awkwardly standing together facing the camera, rather than each other, and the sets are built with only three walls, resulting in little variety to cinematographer Ray Rennahan’s camera angles. Falk still had not quite found his character. Columbo shouting and losing his temper, showy though it may be, would later be terribly out of character for the always-in-control sleuth he would become.

Even though PRESCRIPTION: MURDER was a ratings success, Universal didn’t make a follow-up for three years. 1971’s RANSOM FOR A DEAD MAN, guest-starring Lee Grant as a rare female COLUMBO killer, served as a backdoor pilot for the series, which took up one spoke of the NBC SUNDAY MYSTERY MOVIE wheel for seven seasons, airing every month or so in 90- or 120-minute episodes. In 1989, COLUMBO returned to television as part of the ABC MYSTERY MOVIE on Saturday nights, along with Burt Reynolds as B.L. STRYKER, Telly Savalas as KOJAK, and others. COLUMBO was the only show to survive, as Falk continued making two-hour movies with the character through 2003’s COLUMBO LIKES THE NIGHTLIFE.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Silent Rage

With slasher movies all the rage, Columbia enlisted chopsocky star Chuck Norris for this action-oriented horror film influenced by the Frankenstein legend. That director Michael Miller (JACKSON COUNTY JAIL) opens SILENT RAGE with a three-and-a-half-minute tracking shot cribbed from HALLOWEEN’s iconic prologue can’t be a coincidence. Miller’s opening is an attention getter for sure, as hulking Brian Libby (THE OCTAGON) goes postal with an axe on his landlords, engages town sheriff Norris (FORCED VENGEANCE) in an exhaustive fight, snaps his handcuffs, kicks a police car door off its hinges, and finally collapses in a hail of bloody gunfire.

With Libby presumed dead, Norris can concentrate on making time with hospital administrator Toni Kalem (THE WANDERERS), whose shrink brother Ron Silver (TIMECOP) is working with scientists Steven Keats (THE GUMBALL RALLY) and William Finley (PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE) in an illegal life-rejuvenation experiment. Against Silver’s wishes, Keats injects Libby’s corpse with a full dose of their new drug, which brings the man back to life with the unfortunate side effect of turning him into an invulnerable killing machine. Basically, SILENT RAGE is CHUCK NORRIS MEETS FRANKENSTEIN with occasional karate fights.

Miller uses long takes, practical locations in the Dallas, Texas area, and interesting camera movement to inject life into the non-action scenes, which effectively builds suspense and realism, but also showcases Norris’ deficiencies as an actor. He looks uncomfortable in his love scenes with Kalem and the dialogue scenes with fat, stupid deputy Stephen Furst (ANIMAL HOUSE), which are played for lame comic relief. The screenplay by Joseph Fraley (GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK) has its fair share of inconsistencies, but excellent performances by Silver, Keats, and Finley provide dimension to their mad scientist roles that help paper over any holes.

While SILENT RAGE falls confidently into the horror/slasher genre, it works effectively as an action vehicle for Norris. The grueling climax between Chuck and the zombified Libby is a corker, but the film’s highlight is a midpoint barroom brawl between Norris and a couple dozen bikers. With more nudity and gore than expected in a Chuck Norris movie — Finley’s demise is especially grisly — SILENT RAGE checks all the exploitation boxes. Peter Bernstein (BOLERO) and Mark Goldenberg (TEEN WOLF TOO) compose a good score, though Miller mostly underscores the fight scenes with pure sound effects for maximum realism.

Oddly, Miller’s next film, also released in 1982, NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CLASS REUNION, was a spoof of slasher movies. In a strange career turn, Miller moved into television and cranked out a series of romances based on the mushy novels of Danielle Steel, Judith Krantz, and Barbara Taylor Bradford. Norris did FORCED VENGEANCE next, though it was his later movies for Cannon that make him a household name.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Around The World Under The Sea

TV impresario Ivan Tors produced AROUND THE WORLD UNDER THE SEA for MGM, so it’s no surprise to see stars from his hit shows SEA HUNT (Lloyd Bridges), FLIPPER (Brian Kelly), and DAKTARI (Marshall Thompson). In addition, screenwriters Arthur Weiss and Art Arthur also penned scripts for those shows, as well as VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, making them perfectly suited for this dramatically inert hokum.

These are the continuing adventures of the Hydronaut, an atomic-powered submarine assigned to circumvent the Earth planting earthquake sensors on the ocean floor. In addition to Doctors Standish (Bridges), Mosby (Kelly), and Hillyard (Thompson), the ship carries Dr. Volker (David McCallum, then on THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.), crusty rabbit whisperer Stahl (Keenan Wynn), and Dr. Hanford (GOLDFINGER’s golden girl Shirley Eaton), whose rear end should receive separate billing, as often as director Andrew Marton (CRACK IN THE WORLD) points his camera at it.

Even though the characters are adults and professionals, the mere presence of a woman on the ship turns them into bickering juveniles, which doesn’t bode well for their survival chances against underwater volcanoes and deadly eels. Hell, McCallum (he and Wynn give the liveliest performances) drives the sub right into a damn rock wall because he’s so distracted by Eaton’s hotness.

Actually, the film’s biggest problem is its lack of suspense. Weiss and Arthur’s screenplay is heavy on talk, light on action, and Marton is unable to wring much excitement out of the few opportunities to do so. The thin characters and bright colors lead one to believe children were Tors’ prime audience for AROUND THE WORLD UNDER THE SEA. It has little for adults beyond the virtues of Miss Eaton and the novelty of Lloyd, still trim in tight shorts, skin-diving in color. Marton shot at Tors’ Miami studio with Ricou Browning and Ben Chapman, both Black Lagoon creatures, on the crew.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Night Patrol

An unfunny comedy is the worst type of film, and NIGHT PATROL is the worst of that type of film. Tasteless, idiotic, foul, and witless, this R-rated abomination spins gags about urination, defecation, sperm banks, dope, homosexuality, blackface, rape, and “The Dyke Van Dick Show” that are so bad, even 12-year-olds will be offended. When you see a sign announcing a cockfight, you know you’re about to see two naked guys in an alley pounding their torsos together. Thank your lucky stars it’s only 85 minutes long.

Convicted of writing the screenplay are star Murray Langston, better known as THE GONG SHOW’s Unknown Comic (he wore a paper bag over his head and told deliberately awful jokes); William A. Levey, director of the execrable BLACKENSTEIN; pornographer Bill Osco (the X-rated ALICE IN WONDERLAND); and Jackie Kong, Osco’s wife who also produced NIGHT PATROL with Osco and directed it. To her credit, Kong is one of a handful of Asian-American women to direct mainstream Hollywood features. That she was so bad at directing (THE BEING and BLOOD DINER are other Kong films) perhaps shouldn’t be held against her, but then again, she directed NIGHT PATROL.

The ostensible plot finds bumbling patrolman Melvin White (Langston) struggling to balance working the night shift and breaking into show business with his Unknown Comic standup act. Linda Blair (SAVAGE STREETS) grabs top billing as Melvin’s romantic interest Sue Perman (groan), GONG SHOW panelist Jaye P. Morgan is Melvin’s new agent, Pat Paulsen (THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR) is Melvin’s womanizing new partner, Jack Riley (THE BOB NEWHART SHOW) is Melvin’s shrink, and Billy Barty (UNDER THE RAINBOW) craps his dignity right down the bowl playing Melvin’s flatulent boss.

NIGHT PATROL’s strangest obsession is dubbing characters with incongruent voices, such as Pat Morita’s rape victim with a little girl’s voice. Oddly, Langston is dubbed by a different actor when wearing the Unknown Comic bag. The clumsy post-production shenanigans (some actors’ names are misspelled in the credits) and the (tame) bloopers that play at the end lead one to wonder if NIGHT PATROL was originally an Unknown Comic movie that was retooled as an ensemble piece that would rip off POLICE ACADEMY. It’s weird that anyone believed Langston and Paulsen posing as black pimps would be funnier.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Jungle Moon Men (1955)

When producer Sam Katzman no longer owned the film rights to King Features’ Jungle Jim character, he just changed the name of the leading character played by Johnny Weissmuller to “Johnny Weissmuller” and kept churning out the movies. It didn’t affect Weissmuller’s performance at all nor probably Columbia’s box office profits. Katzman and serial director Charles S. Gould (THE GREAT ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN KIDD) shot JUNGLE MOON MEN in a week, and after thirteen Jungle Jim pictures (and one “Johnny Weissmuller”), the template was firmly established.

JUNGLE MOON MEN is as much H. Rider Haggard than it is Alex Raymond. Johnny (Weissmuller) agrees to guide Ellen Marsten (Jean Byron, later the mom on THE PATTY DUKE SHOW), an Egyptologist, deep into the jungle to find a native tribe called the Baku. It just so happens that Nolimo (Michael Granger) approaches Johnny the same day to help him find his son Marro (Ben Chapman, one of the Creatures from the Black Lagoon), who has been kidnapped by the so-called “Moon Men,” who just happen to live in — wait for it — the Baku.

Ellen’s boyfriend Bob Prentice (Bill Henry) joins the expedition, while unscrupulous guide Santo (Myron Healey), whom Johnny hates, tags along behind in an effort to find diamonds he believes the Moon Men have. The Moon Men are pygmies, including Billy Curtis in not one of his most dignified roles (Weissmuller repels the whole tribe simply by lifting the kicking Curtis off the ground), and worship the sun-worshipping Oma (Helen Stanton), who captures the team and demands that Bob marry her and become her high priest.

People loved Johnny Weissmuller, which is the only reason the Jungle Jim series (which JUNGLE MOON MEN should be considered a part of) ran as long as it did. In fact, at the same time he was doing the “Johnny Weissmuller” films, he was also starring as Jungle Jim in a syndicated television series. I doubt the kids were confused. Nor will you be by JUNGLE MOON MEN’s simple story, which weaves elements of SHE into the jungle B-picture template. Performed and produced adequately enough for kiddie matinees, this was Johnny’s next-to-last feature before retiring.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Random Comic Book Splash Page: Four Color #819


Mickey Mouse took center stage in the 819th issue of Dell's perennial FOUR COLOR comic book. Cover-dated July 1957, the first story in WALT DISNEY'S MICKEY MOUSE IN MAGIC LAND was written by George Crenshaw and drawn by Jack Bradbury, who does a nice job on this page.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Charley Varrick

Part of Walter Matthau’s unofficial trilogy of crime dramas, which also includes THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN and THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE, CHARLEY VARRICK is terrific. Matthau’s Varrick is a murderer and bank robber who sets up his partner to be tortured and killed by the Mafia and bangs a mobster’s secretary (Felicia Farr) two days after his wife (Jacqueline Scott) is shot to death in front of him. But I’ll be damned if you don’t like the guy anyway and root for him to successfully fake his death and escape with $765,000 in mob money.

Not that Charley expected such a haul. Knocking off a small-town New Mexico bank with his wife, their partner Harman (Andy Robinson, just off DIRTY HARRY), and another man who is killed at the scene, Charley expects a windfall of a few thousand dollars — not three-quarters of a million. He immediately figures out the bank must be a drop for dirty Syndicate money, and sure enough, Reno hood Maynard Boyle (the great John Vernon) arrives at the bank to find out what happened and enlist pipe-smoking assassin Molly (Joe Don Baker) to retrieve the cash. Norman Fell (BULLITT), Sheree North (THE SHOOTIST), William Schallert (THE PATTY DUKE SHOW), and Benson Fong (OUR MAN FLINT) imbue their characters with the proper authority or pathos necessary to give them a history.

Matthau is the star, but Vernon is also wonderful in the way he dominates his scenes. One standout, set in a cow pasture, is a conversation in which Vernon explains to bank manager Woodrow Parfrey (also in DIRTY HARRY, as was Vernon) how their bosses will likely come after Parfrey “with pliers and a blowtorch.” It’s captured in a single take by director Don Siegel, who may have improvised another wonderful moment with Vernon pushing a little girl on a swing, basking for a few moments in the innocence of youth he lost long ago when he turned to a life of crime.

Don Siegel, the director of DIRTY HARRY (ah), also helmed CHARLEY VARRICK in his characteristic lean style with nary a wasted frame or movement. He and Michael Butler (JAWS 2), making his debut as a director of photography, capture the practical Nevada locations, sometimes with a sweeping crane to grab every detail. The taut script by Howard Rodman (COOGAN’S BLUFF) and Dean Riesner (DIRTY HARRY) is based on a novel by western author John Henry Reese, and the evocative score is composed by Lalo Schifrin (DIRTY HARRY).

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Ocean's Eleven (1960)

One of the coolest movies ever made, this all-star home movie was the first film to star the Rat Pack, Frank Sinatra’s posse who spent more time drinking, singing, carousing, and playing golf than they did acting. The thin story is credited to four writers, including science fiction legend George Clayton Johnson (TWILIGHT ZONE) and KISS OF DEATH’s Charles Lederer, and was directed by Lewis Milestone, who won two Oscars during Hollywood’s Golden Age.

OCEAN’S ELEVEN is a caper flick about a plan to rob five Las Vegas casinos simultaneously on New Year’s Eve. Danny Ocean (Sinatra) recruits ten members of his World War II paratroop unit to pull the caper, including just-in-from-Hawaii singer Sam Harmon (Dean Martin), garbage man Josh Howard (Sammy Davis Jr.), and wealthy mama’s boy Jimmy Foster (Peter Lawford). Pace is not this movie’s greatest asset, and its first hour is basically just Ocean getting the whole gang together.

Danny is visited by his estranged wife (Angie Dickinson), who is cool to the idea of their reconciliation. Foster is dismayed by his mother’s impending sixth marriage to hood Duke Santos (Cesar Romero). Tony Bergdorf (Richard Conte), upon learning he’s got “the Big Casino,” needs the loot from the caper to make sure his son is provided for after his death. Meanwhile, Martin and Davis sing, Sinatra and Lawford get messages, everyone wears V-neck sweaters, and characters stand around a lot just drinking Scotch and smoking cigarettes patiently while waiting for their next line.

No question about it—OCEAN’S ELEVEN is as empty as Dino’s liquor cabinet on New Year’s Day, but it’s hard not to be seduced by the insouciant charms of the stars. After performing onstage in the evenings and partying ‘til the wee hours of the morning, the Pack wasn’t in the mood for much complexity in their film, so Milestone basically stands them in front of the set, points his camera in their direction, and gets it all in one—heck, maybe occasionally two—takes. Much of the dialogue seems gleaned from their nightclub act.

Strangely, the film doesn’t feel as freewheeling as other vanity shows—like, say, CANNONBALL RUN, which is loose and sloppy between car stunts and face-slappings. In contrast, OCEAN’S ELEVEN emits a laidback quality — fitting, considering its stars — but its technical proficiency works against it. A film this bright, colorful, and well-staged ought to have more to its core than boozy indifference.

However, OCEAN’S ELEVEN is difficult to dislike. The stars are almost always fun, especially when they’re screwing around together, and look at who’s backing them up: Joey Bishop, Shirley MacLaine, Red Skelton, George Raft, Norman Fell, Akim Tamiroff, Buddy Lester, Joan Staley, Pinky Lee, Hoot Gibson, even Henry Silva. The songs, like Davis’ “E-O-Eleven,” by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen are catchy, and Dean’s “Ain’t That A Kick in the Head” is a jaunty classic (Steven Soderbergh, who directed the 2001 remake, used it in his ultracool crime flick OUT OF SIGHT). It all closes on a surprisingly downbeat twist, which, combined with a clever final shot, manages to leave you with a weightier taste than the movie probably earns. Ring-a-ding-ding.