Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Death Race 2050

Roger Corman remakes DEATH RACE 2000, a black comic action classic he produced for director Paul Bartel in 1975. Unlike the recent “remakes” (titled DEATH RACE, DEATH RACE 2, and DEATH RACE 3), DEATH RACE 2050 brings back the one thing everybody remembers about Bartel’s film, which is the conceit of earning points for every pedestrian who is run over and killed. Playing Frankenstein, the David Carradine role, for director G.J. Echternkamp (FRANK AND CINDY) and his co-writer Matt Yamashita (SHARKTOPUS VS. PTERACUDA) is the charmless Manu Bennett (THE HOBBIT).

There is also a touch of HUNGER GAMES in the picture, which is to be expected considering Corman’s fast-buck reputation. The most prominent evidence is Malcolm McDowell’s...shall we say, flamboyant?...turn as The Chairman, whom the actor plays as a combination of Caesar Flickerman and Donald Trump. He’s having more fun than anyone watching this movie. The only other actor whose performance rises above “competent” is soap star Marci Miller, who projects humor and sex appeal as Frankenstein’s partner without pressing it.

Though DEATH RACE 2050 goes so far as to repeat specific gags from the original film, everything about it is worse: acting, script, costumes, even the cars are less individualistic. Remarkably, the visual effects are worse. It’s unclear if the actors spent more than a day outside, since the whole race is created by technicians with mice. Exciting car stunts? Not here. CGI explosions and phony green-screen scenery outside the drivers’ windows? Plenty.

Occasionally, a joke will land, most of them as captions identifying the locations (learning the new Washington, D.C. was formerly called Dubai is a good one). The humor in Bartel’s film wasn’t subtle, but it was witty. Echternkamp abandons any pretense of wit in favor of broad jabs at easy targets, often culminating in a bloody body part falling from the sky. And Corman’s star falling along with it.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Savage Beach

By the time he made SAVAGE BEACH, writer/director Andy Sidaris had his perfect formula for escapist adventure down pat: gorgeous women (always nude or scantily clad), handsome guys, Hawaiian beaches and palm trees, guns, gadgets, explosions, tongue-in-cheek humor, suggestive dialogue, and a slick production that belied its low budget.

Beginning with his third, MALIBU EXPRESS (a remake of STACEY, his first film), Sidaris’ movies flow across the same universe with characters and relatives of characters popping up from picture to picture. While casting actors to play the same characters in several films made sense in terms of continuity, Sidaris also had the confusing habit of bringing back actors to play different characters. So, for instance, John Aprea (MATT HOUSTON) would get killed off as the main heavy in PICASSO TRIGGER, but return as a good guy in SAVAGE BEACH.

SAVAGE BEACH marks the third screen teaming of Playmates Dona Speir (as Donna) and Hope Marie Carlton (as Taryn), undercover DEA agents posing as cargo pilots in Hawaii. Their assignment is to deliver emergency serum 1500 miles through a storm to sick children on an island in the South Pacific. On their return trip to Molokai (and just after putting the plane on autopilot so they can change out of their wet clothes), Donna and Taryn make a forced landing on an uncharted island.

Uncharted, but busy. Not only is it home to a Japanese soldier who believes World War II is still a thing (and killed Taryn’s father!), but also there lies a cache of Philippine gold stolen by the Japanese, which a bunch of guys — both good and bad — coincidentally picked this exact time to chase. As usual, Sidaris’ screenplay is ridiculously confusing, though one wants to give him the benefit of the doubt that the confusion is part of the joke. As is casting a pre-porn Teri Weigel (CHEERLEADER CAMP) as a political revolutionary.

Speir stuck around for more Sidaris flicks, but the adorable Carlton bolted, which was a blow to both her career (SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE III was no step up) and Sidaris’ followups. While neither starlet was believable as a government agent (nor were they supposed to be), they were both competent actresses with disparate personalities that meshed well. Sidaris found new partners for Speir, but none matched Carlton’s appeal.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Jigsaw Murders

Concorde actually got this crime cheapie into a few theaters. Star Chad Everett even plugged it and another Roger Corman production, HEROES STAND ALONE, on a segment of SUPER PASSWORD, though not using the current titles.

The film needed all the help it could get, even from daytime television audiences, because THE JIGSAW MURDERS is an uninspiring crime drama with laughable police procedure, unconvincing performances, and slackly directed action. Considering its subject matter, director Jag Mundhra (NIGHT EYES) would have been better off including more sleazy content, which would have been both appropriate and more entertaining.

Everett, a big shot on MEDICAL CENTER more than a decade earlier, is Joe DaVonzo, a drunken L.A. homicide detective estranged from his model daughter Kathy (BLAME IT ON RIO’s Michelle Johnson) because he disapproves of the nudie photos in her portfolio. He and his rookie partner Elliot Greenfield (soap star Michael Sabatino) are assigned a case involving a Jane Doe (played in photographs by Michelle Bauer) whose assorted body parts are popping up around town. With very little mystery to hook the audience, the cops soon discover her identity, which leads them to her suspected killer, a pervy photographer named Ace Mosley (Eli Rich). The killer’s motive and psychological profile are pretty shaky in Allen Ury’s screenplay, which concentrates on DaVonzo’s obsession with putting Mosley away and his return to the bottom of a bottle when his incompetence allows the psycho to go free.

Everett may have considered THE JIGSAW MURDERS a comeback vehicle, but the flimsy story lets him down. One can see why the veteran leading man would have been attracted to the role, which allows him to cry, crack jokes, act drunk, play domestic drama, and be a cool action star. Never a versatile performer, Everett comes off better than Rich (LOCK UP), whose over-the-top line readings indicate why his career never took off. Jag Mundhra’s sledgehammer direction reaches its peak with a hilariously overwrought crosscutting between a worked-up Everett, drinking and tossing his whiskey glass through his television screen, and Rich masturbating to slides of Michelle Bauer.

Besides Yaphet Kotto’s one day’s work as a jovial coroner who, yes, eats on the job and a brief bit by Brinke Stevens (SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE) as a nude model, THE JIGSAW MURDERS presents little of interest. Not even jigsaw “murders,” as the damn movie only gives us one (the film was shot under the title JIGSAW). Not a great year for Chad Everett, as HEROES STAND ALONE received as little attention as THE JIGSAW MURDERS, if not less, and his ABC pilot, THUNDERBOAT ROW, failed to get picked up by the network.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Fear City

The New York Knifer roams the scuzzy streets of the Big Apple, carving up strippers represented by talent agents Tom Berenger (PLATOON) and Jack Scalia, starring in his first film after mild success as a television leading man. Multiple cases of exotic dancers catching the blue flu coincide with news of their colleagues being butchered, and Berenger and Scalia may go broke unless bigoted cops Billy Dee Williams (LADY SINGS THE BLUES) and Daniel Faraldo (I, THE JURY) catch the killer. Finally, after Scalia is kung fu’ed by the serial killer and lapses into a coma, Berenger goes hunting with the backing of mobster Rossano Brazzi (SOUTH PACIFIC) and rival agent Jan Murray (WHO KILLED TEDDY BEAR).

FEAR CITY sat on the shelf nearly 18 months after principal photography until independent distributor Chevy Chase Distribution (no connection to the actor) dropped it into theaters nationwide. Directed by Abel Ferrara, then known for pornography and violent horror movies, FEAR CITY features more sleaze, violence, and nudity than 20th Century Fox, which partially backed the production, was comfortable with. What Fox expected from a director with Ferrara’s resume may be lost to history, but there is little doubt he gave them just what he promised. FEAR CITY is strong stuff for sure, but it’s also a tough, gritty thriller with an excellent cast and an eye-opening view of 42nd Street in all its grindhouse glory.

Scalia, who starred in several television series, including the notorious TEQUILA & BONETTI, without any of them being a hit, shows off a modicum of big-screen charisma and easily holds his own opposite his more experienced co-lead. Berenger gets more to do, however, including pine for his ex-girlfriend, a bisexual stripper played by Melanie Griffith (also in the sexy BODY DOUBLE), who does love scenes with Rae Dawn Chong (TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE: THE MOVIE). Great mugs like Michael V. Gazzo (SUDDEN IMPACT) and Joe Santos (THE ROCKFORD FILES) appear, as do gorgeous women like Janet Julian (HUMONGOUS), Ola Ray (10 TO MIDNIGHT), and EXTREME PREJUDICE’s Maria Conchita Alonso in her U.S. film debut.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

The Laughing Policeman

Best known as a comedic character actor (he won an Oscar for THE FORTUNE COOKIE), Walter Matthau’s gruff, hangdog stage demeanor were perfectly suited to the tough, gritty milieu of urban cops and criminals, particularly when dark humor was involved. THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE and CHARLEY VARRICK are ‘70s crime classics, but THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN is no slouch. It’s an absorbing mystery directed by Stuart Rosenberg (COOL HAND LUKE) that offers an outstanding supporting cast for Matthau to play with. Robert Altman seems to have been an influence on Rosenberg, who amps the realism by casting actors who don’t look like movie stars and having them talk over each other.

Eight people are slaughtered on a San Francisco city bus by a black-gloved individual using a “grease gun.” Leading the investigation is Lieutenant Jake Martin (Matthau), who is nonplussed to discover one of the victims is his partner, Dave Evans, who was supposed to have been on vacation. A visit to Dave’s girlfriend Kay (Cathy Lee Crosby) reveals that Evans was secretly working one of Jake’s cold cases. Jake, who’s having problems at home (he and his wife sleep in separate rooms, and his 15-year-old son goes to porn theaters), is teamed up with a loquacious new partner, Leo Larsen, played charismatically by Bruce Dern (THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS).

Also in the cast are Lou Gossett Jr. (AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN), Val Avery (BLACK CAESAR), Anthony Zerbe (HARRY O), Joanna Cassidy (BLADE RUNNER), Albert Paulsen (THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE), Matt Clark (WHITE LIGHTNING), Gregory Sierra (BARNEY MILLER), Clifton James (Sgt. Pepper in the 007 films), Paul Koslo (MR. MAJESTYK), and Leigh French (THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR). The performances are quite good, particularly Gossett’s black sharpie, cool as a cucumber on the streets. Matthau’s taciturn mumbling and Dern’s motormouth charm is a winning combination.

Tom Rickman, later to write COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER and DEAD POETS SOCIETY, adapted one of Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall’s Swedish police procedurals about detective Martin Beck. Rickman’s dialogue is very good, and he and Rosenberg do a decent job constructing a complicated plot without over-explaining it to the audience. The bus massacre that opens the picture is marvelously suspenseful, and Rosenberg’s handling of the other action sequences is equally tactful.

Monday, January 02, 2017

What I Watched and Read in 2016

I watched 332 movies last year, which is down from 2015's total of 350. I also read 99 books, just up from last year's total of 98. And I watched 677 television episodes, which is up from last year's 625. So basically, more television, fewer movies.

The best movies I saw for the first time last year (in no particular order):
THE EXECUTIONER PART II
A CONSPIRACY OF FAITH and THE ABSENT ONE
THE HATEFUL EIGHT
TREMORS
EX MACHINA
TRIANGLE
THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1991)
UNDER FIRE
YOU'RE NEXT and THE GUEST
THE NARROW MARGIN (1952)
BLOOD FATHER
TOUGH AND DEADLY
THE GHOST BREAKERS
SECONDS
SHADOW OF A DOUBT

Honorable Mentions:
THE REVENANT
BRIDGE OF SPIES
THE CONTENDER
NATIONAL LAMPOON: DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD
MOON
TURBO KID
THE NICE GUYS
SEEKING JUSTICE
FUGITIVE FAMILY
CLOSE RANGE
CAT BALLOU
HARD TARGET 2
THE NIGHT CALLER
THAT'S SEXPLOITATION!
PROJECT A
THE HOUSE OF FEAR
SABOTEUR
MITT
THE MAGNETIC MONSTER
BACK IN ACTION
WOLFCOP
CHRISTINE (2016)
ONE BODY TOO MANY
THE MAD EXECUTIONERS
HUSH (2016)
WOLF LAKE

Worst 2016 Releases (That I Saw):
SUICIDE SQUAD
I AM WRATH
PHANTASM: RAVAGER
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN
GHOSTBUSTERS

Of the 99 books I read, 92 of them were first-time reads. A few recommendations by genre:
Crime Drama:
APRIL EVIL by John D. MacDonald
RECOIL by Brian Garfield
CATSPAW ORDEAL by Edward S. Aarons
CLANDESTINE by James Ellroy

Biography:
ARE YOU ANYBODY?: AN ACTOR'S LIFE by Bradford Dillman
QUIZMASTER: THE LIFE AND TIMES AND FUN AND GAMES OF BILL CULLEN by Adam Nedeff
HOPE: ENTERTAINER OF THE CENTURY by Richard Zoglin

Film/Television:
BRONSON'S LOOSE AGAIN!: ON THE SET WITH CHARLES BRONSON by Paul Talbot
THE CREATURE CHRONICLES: EXPLORING THE BLACK LAGOON TRILOGY by Tom Weaver
SHOOTING STAR by Maurice Zolotow
THAT'S NOT FUNNY, THAT'S SICK: THE NATIONAL LAMPOON AND THE COMEDY INSURGENTS WHO CAPTURED THE MAINSTREAM by Ellin Stein
THE COMEDIANS: DRUNKS, THIEVES, SCOUNDRELS AND THE HISTORY OF AMERICAN COMEDY by Kliph Nesteroff
THE FIFTY-YEAR MISSION: THE FIRST 25 YEARS by Edward Gross & Mark A. Altman

Sports:
GOING LONG: THE WILD 10-YEAR SAGA OF THE RENEGADE AMERICAN FOOTBALL LEAGUE IN THE WORDS OF THOSE WHO LIVED IT by Jeff Miller
MAD DUCKS AND BEARS by George Plimpton

Some classic television series I sampled for the first time last year:
THE RANGE RIDER
CAPTAIN GALLANT OF THE FOREIGN LEGION
THE ADVENTURES OF FU MANCHU
WHIRLYBIRDS
HONG KONG
RIPCORD
THE LLOYD BRIDGES SHOW
BRENNER
HEY LANDLORD!
EYE GUESS
THE GLEN CAMPBELL GOODTIME HOUR
DEATH VALLEY DAYS
SAYS WHO?
ALL ABOUT FACES
CHASE
MATT HELM
THE STARLAND VOCAL BAND SHOW
SIDEKICKS
LEGWORK
THE HIGHWAYMAN
THE MIND OF THE MARRIED MAN
LUCKY LOUIE

I finished binge-watching THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and THE BOB NEWHART SHOW near the end of the year. I'm currently working on LAW & ORDER (that should take me a couple of years at least) and BARNABY JONES (which goes down as smoothly as a glass of warm milk before bed).


Friday, December 30, 2016

Wolf Lake (1980)

It’s hard not to compare this outdoor thriller with Columbia’s OPEN SEASON, the Peter Fonda film. Both are obscure productions about middle-aged men on a hunting excursion into Canada who stalk a younger man and woman as prey. WOLF LAKE, written and directed by western veteran Burt Kennedy (SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF), is the better film with better defined characters and a more proficient layering of mood upon the action.

Rod Steiger (IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT), who never wore a toupee that didn’t look like a dust bunny swept from behind his basement’s water heater, plays a war veteran who brings along Marine buddies Richard Herd (ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN), Jerry Hardin (THE HOT SPOT), and Paul Mantee (ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS) on his annual vacation into the wilderness. Residing in the next cabin are bearded David Huffman (BLOOD BEACH) and his girlfriend Robin Mattson (BONNIE’S KIDS).

Put off by Huffman’s beard and the discovery that the young couple are living together and unmarried, the conservative Steiger, whose son died in Vietnam, blows off steam by giving the kids a hard time. But when he also learns Huffman is an Army deserter, the harassment grows meaner and uglier, pushing the pacifist Huffman into a STRAW DOGS scenario in which violence can only be countered with greater violence.

While WOLF LAKE, symbolically set in the bicentennial year of 1976, makes clear that Steiger and his buddies are the villains, Kennedy takes care to let both sides make their case. Huffman is no coward, but left Vietnam after witnessing horrific atrocities that made him question his and his country’s role in the war. Steiger, too often an unconvincing ham, is slightly more restrained than usual and completely believable as his rage boils over into psychosis.

Kennedy asks the audience to swallow a lot. Sure, Steiger’s character is tumbling into madness, but Hardin, Mantee, and Herd seem to be playing decent guys, and their sudden transformation into drooling rapists is hard to believe. Kennedy makes up for any minor plot discrepancies with a thrilling third act that finally lapses into cliche. Huffman, a drip of a leading man in BLOOD BEACH, is more effective here, easily holding his own with the blustery Steiger in their scenes together.

Open Season (1974)

Filmed in Spain, Italy, and England’s Pinewood Studios, this frustrating Spanish production is yet another riff on THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME. It’s skillfully made by director Peter Collinson (THE ITALIAN JOB) and there’s no doubting the cast’s exploitation credentials, but OPEN SEASON never really comes together.

A major flaw is William Holden’s brief scene near the beginning. You know perfectly well Collinson didn’t fly in Holden for a minor role any actor could have played, so a part of your brain is constantly distracted “when is Holden coming back.” When he does return in what’s supposed to be a plot twist, you aren’t surprised at all.

Also known as THE RECON GAME, Collinson’s thriller stars Peter Fonda (EASY RIDER), John Philip Law (DANGER: DIABOLIK), and Richard Lynch (THE SEVEN-UPS) as childhood buddies and ‘Nam vets who get away from their suburban homes, families, and lifestyles for two weeks every year by taking a hunting trip deep into the Canadian forest. As younger men, they escaped prosecution on a gang rape and, ever since, have used their annual getaways to overindulge in liquor, women, and debauchery.

More disturbingly, these perpetually giggling sociopaths have become bored with hunting regular game, so have spiced up the sport by tracking people instead. This year’s victims are Cornelia Sharpe (BUSTING) and Alberto de Mendoza (HORROR EXPRESS), a couple cheating on their respective spouses. To its credit, OPEN SEASON portrays sadism in an interesting manner, casually and understated. While the kidnappers are cruel murderers, they aren’t slobbering monsters or bug-eyed psychos, which makes the quiet psychological terror they inflict on Sharpe and de Mendoza more chilling.

Too lethargic and chatty to work as proper exploitation, however, OPEN SEASON offers fine work by Lynch, who would tumble into heavy roles in low-budget pictures and episodic television that were below him, though he always gave his all. Writers Liz Charles-Williams and David Osborn, who adapted Osborn’s novel THE ALL-AMERICANS, also penned two ‘60s Bulldog Drummond thrillers. Their screenplay serves up too many questions that go unanswered, and the tacked-on finale (apparently only seen in some prints) is a cop out.