Monday, July 21, 2014

#1,435. Group Marriage (1973)

Directed By: Stephanie Rothman

Starring: Victoria Vetri, Aimée Eccles, Solomon Sturges

Tag line: "Mutual Mates - Carnal Companions - And the Possibilities Go On...And On...And On"

Trivia: Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto worked as an assistant cameraman on this film

A 1973 sex comedy directed by Stephanie Rothman, Group Marriage is a movie about six people (3 men and 3 women) who share everything. And I do mean everything!

Chris (Aimée Eccles) and her longtime boyfriend Sandor (Solomon Sturges) haven’t been getting along. So, when Chris meets Dennis (Jeff Pomerantz) one afternoon, she invites him home and, later that night, goes to bed with him. At first enraged that Chris had sex with another man, Sandor soon has a change of heart when Dennis asks his beautiful girlfriend, Jan (Victoria Vetri), to join them for dinner. Almost immediately, Sandor falls for Jan, and before long, the couples have become a foursome. But it doesn’t end there. Eventually, two more people enter the mix: professional lifeguard Phil (Zack Taylor) and attorney Elaine (Claudia Jennings). During their time together, these six experience plenty of ups and downs, yet their love for one another remains strong. So strong, in fact, that they contemplate doing something that’s never been done before: a group marriage!

Despite being billed as a sex comedy, Group Marriage isn’t the least bit funny. Not a single joke or insult hits the mark, and the gay neighbors Randy (John McMurtry) and Rodney (Bill Striglos), who keep a close watch on everything that’s going on next door, are flamboyantly over-the-top, which after a while is more distracting than anything. Along with its weak humor, Group Marriage also comes up short in the sex department. The nudity (what little there is) is brief, and a late scene, which shows Phil and Elaine in bed together, is awkward as hell (they spend the entire time massaging each other). Even the performances are bad (Claudia Jennings, who was terrific in Gator Bait and The Unholy Rollers, isn’t even good in this one).

The main characters in Group Marriage may be trying something new, but the movie that tells their story is as ordinary as they come.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

#1,434. British Intelligence (1940)

Directed By: Terry Morse

Starring: Boris Karloff, Margaret Lindsay, Bruce Lester

Line from the film: "These sacrifices we are all making - do you think they will eventually mean something to mankind?"

Trivia: This movie is based on a play, produced by George M. Cohan, that premiered in 1918

Like Tower of London, 1940’s British Intelligence gave audiences a chance to see Boris Karloff in something other than a horror movie. The story of a German spy network operating in England during World War One, British Intelligence is a decent, if somewhat confusing, wartime thriller.

German spy Helene Von Lorbeer (Margaret Lindsey) is sent to England by her superiors, where, posing as a refugee, she becomes a house guest of Arthur Bennett’s (Holmes Herbert), a key official in the British government. Yet Helene isn’t the only spy in the Bennett household; the family’s French butler, Valdar (Karloff), is also one, and he claims to be an associate of Franz Strendler’s, the most notorious German agent in all of Britain. Desperate to apprehend Strendler, Colonel Yates (Leonard Mudie) of British Intelligence contacts Bennett and lets him know his house is a hotbed of spy activity. But are these spies truly working for the enemy, or are they double agents planted by the British to help draw the elusive Strendler out of hiding?

It seems that just about everyone is a spy in British Intelligence. Aside from Helene and Valdar, the Germans have also planted a number of other agents in England, from upper-class businessman Henry Thompson (Lester Matthews), who introduces Helene to the Bennetts, to the neighborhood milkman (Clarence Derwent). Even the secretary at Arthur Bennett’s law firm (played by Louise Brien) is a German spy. To make matters more complex, a few of these so-called spies are actually British double agents who report directly to Colonel Yates! British Intelligence is chock full of so many spies that you sometimes need a scorecard to keep track of them all.

Along with its intricate tale of espionage, British Intelligence also features some thrilling battle sequences (consisting primarily of stock footage). What’s more, the movie, made as the Second World War raged on, waves the flag in our faces on several occasions (Towards the end of the film, Bennett and Yates are talking about war, and during the course of their conversation Yeats laments the fact that there are “maniacs who lust for power” in the world, an obvious reference to Adolph Hitler).

A well-acted thriller, British Intelligence may not be the easiest film to follow, but it does keep you guessing to the very end.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

#1,433. Haunter (2013)

Directed By: Vincenzo Natali

Starring: Abigail Breslin, Peter Outerbridge, Michelle Nolden

Tag line: "Trapped by an evil from her past"

Trivia: This movie premiered at the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival

By all appearances, Lisa Johnson (Abigail Breslin) is a normal teenage girl, living an average suburban life with her parents (Peter Outerbridge and Michelle Nolden) and younger brother (Peter DaCunha). But she knows it’s all a lie. In fact, Lisa has recently become aware that she and her family are re-living the same day over and over again, eating the same food, having the same conversations, and watching he same television shows. What Lisa doesn’t know is why this is happening, or how long it’s been going on. Has she lived this day a dozen times? A thousand? A million? She’s not even sure it’s still 1985.

Then, Lisa begins hearing voices, which are calling her by name. Frightened at first, she eventually tries to contact whoever it is that’s reaching out to her. It’s at this point she receives a visit from the Pale Man (Stephen McHattie), who warns Lisa not to tamper with what she doesn’t understand, and threatens to harm her family if she keeps looking for answers. Desperate to break the cycle, Lisa ignores these warnings and continues her search, contacting a young lady named Olivia (Eleanor Zichy), who is somehow living in the same house as Lisa and her family. But who is this mysterious girl, and what does she want? More importantly, how does the Pale Man figure into all of this?

As evident from the above synopsis, director Vincenzo Natali’s Haunter is as much a mystery as it is a horror film, and while we do learn a few key facts early on (like why Lisa’s family is re-living the same day), the movie is in no hurry to piece everything together, leaving us as perplexed as its main character and wondering how its seemingly elaborate tale (which involves many different people) is going to tie together in the end. Helping to move this engaging story along is the film’s excellent cast. Abigail Breslin, who, as Lisa, has to carry much of the movie on her own, is convincing as both an angst-ridden teen trying to come to terms with her life and a scared girl facing off against an evil she can’t possibly understand. Also strong is the reliable Stephen McHattie as the Pale Man, who, with his sinister smile and cock-sure attitude, appears to be in control of Lisa and her family. As we soon discover, his power extends even further than that.

From the word “go”, Haunter wraps you up in its story, then refuses to let go until all has been revealed. A smart, edgy movie with an exemplary cast, Haunter is independent horror done right.

Friday, July 18, 2014

#1,432. Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)

Directed By: Mel Brooks

Starring: Cary Elwes, Richard Lewis, Roger Rees

Tag line: "The legend had it coming... "

Trivia: Hulk Hogan was offered the part of Little John but he turned it down

In my formative years, I spent a good deal of time watching the films of Mel Brooks. I loved every single movie he directed, from The Producers to History of the World, Part 1 and everything in between, films that, no matter how often I saw them, never lost their ability to make me laugh. Then, in the late ‘80s, things started to change. Most of the cutting edge material that made Brooks’ early pictures so memorable slowly faded away, replaced by a more juvenile brand of comedy that put the focus squarely on slapstick and broad humor. I noticed this shift in style as far back as 1987’s Spaceballs, a very funny movie that I definitely enjoyed, but which sometimes aimed low, going for the obvious joke more often than Brooks ever had before. This trend continued into 1992, when the writer / director made Life Stinks, a comedy / romance co-starring Lesley Anne Warren that I absolutely detest. All at once, I started to wonder if Mel Brooks had finally lost his edge.

So it was with great trepidation that I approached 1993’s Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Brooks’ take on the legend of Robin Hood. Having missed the movie during its theatrical run, I rented the video from my local Blockbuster the day it was released, and sure enough, my worst fears were confirmed. Robin Hood: Men in Tights felt like "Mel Brooks lite", with jokes and situations that, more often than not, fell flat on their face. Full disclosure: I stopped the tape a half hour in, hopped into my car, and returned it to Blockbuster with the intention of never watching it again.

Still, as much as I disliked what I saw, I always felt a slight tinge of regret that I never finished the movie. So, today, I finally set things right, and to my surprise, Robin Hood: Men in Tights is funnier than I thought it would be. I didn’t love it, but I did like it.

While crusading in the Holy Land, Robin of Loxley (Cary Elwes), aka Robin Hood, is captured by the enemy and placed in a Jerusalem prison. With the help of fellow inmate Asneeze (Isaac Hayes), Robin escapes and swims back to England, where he’s reunited with his blind servant Blinkin (Mark Blankfield). Unfortunately for Robin, he returned home just in time to see his family’s castle being repossessed by the bank for failure to pay back taxes. Vowing to regain his family’s belongings, Robin, joined by his new friends Ah-Choo (Dave Chappelle), Little John (Eric Allan Kramer), and Will Scarlet O’Hara (Matthew Porretta), faces off against the tyrannical Sheriff of Rottingham (Roger Rees), a faithful servant of Prince John’s (Richard Lewis). It’s during this time that Robin first meets Marian (Amy Yasbeck), a member of the king’s court, with whom he falls instantly in love. But is romance truly in the cards, or will Robin and his merry men be captured by the Sheriff and thrown in jail?

I still had some problems with the opening moments of Robin Hood Men in Tights; aside from a rather dated rap sequence, Brooks throws in a brief scene spoofing the Home Alone movies that goes nowhere. On the plus side, Cary Elwes, who was so good as the swashbuckling hero in The Princess Bride, makes for a perfect Robin Hood, and many of the film’s musical numbers are well executed, including "Men in Tights", a tune written by Brooks himself. And while the humor does occasionally come across as juvenile (during an archery competition, Robin fires an arrow that defies the laws of both physics and gravity), there’s plenty here for adults to enjoy as well (Brooks’ cameo in the movie, playing Rabbi Tuckman, is outshined only by Dom DeLuise, who, in his brief appearance as Don Giovanni, does a Marlon Brando impersonation that’s positively hilarious).

In the end, I was glad I got to finish Robin Hood: Men on Tights, a movie that, despite its flaws, gave me a few good laughs.

But nothing…. Nothing… can get me to watch Dracula: Dead and Loving it. That’s where I draw the line!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

#1,431. Moonraker (1979)

Directed By: Lewis Gilbert

Starring: Roger Moore, Lois Chiles, Michael Lonsdale

Tag line: "Outer space now belongs to 007"

Trivia: This movie marked the 1st time the modern space shuttle was featured in a motion picture

Moonraker was the first Bond movie I ever saw on the big screen, and to be honest it bored me to tears. Going into it expecting to see space battles galore (thanks, in part, to the film’s ambitious ad campaign), the movie proved a major disappointment for this nine-year-old. Watching it again today, I still think Moonraker falls short of the mark, but at least this time around it managed to hold my attention.

While on its way to England, A U.S. manufactured space shuttle is hijacked, then flown to an unknown location. In his effort to track it down, MI6’s James Bond (Roger Moore) travels to San Francisco, where he visits Drax Industries, the company that built the shuttle. When a talk with its owner, billionaire Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale), leaves 007 with more questions than answers, he delves into the matter a bit further, discovering along the way that a CIA operative named Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles), who’s posing as an astronaut in training, is also searching for the lost shuttle. With the help of Drax’s personal assistant, Corrine Dufour (Corrine Clery), Bond uncovers information that leads him first to Venice, and then Rio de Janeiro, where he learns that Drax, who was most certainly behind the hijacking, is putting a scheme in motion that, if successful, could result in mass murder on a global scale.

As originally planned, 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me was going to be followed by For Your Eyes Only. Hoping to capitalize on the Sci-Fi craze of the late ‘70s, producer Albert Broccoli instead switched things up by shoehorning Moonraker into the rotation, taking Bond someplace he’s never been before: Outer Space. Sure enough, the movie contains several nods to the era’s science fiction films, from laser rifles (a la Star Wars) to the keypad on a security door, which plays a tune that anyone familiar with Close Encounters of the Third Kind will recognize immediately. In keeping with the spirit of the era’s sci-fi offerings, Moonraker is effects heavy (a battle between dozens of U.S. astronauts and Drax’s cronies that takes place in the cold recesses of space is well executed), and as set pieces go, Drax’s elaborate space station is among the best in the entire series.

Moonraker also boasts some impressive gadgetry, with “Q” (Desmond Llewellyn) giving Bond such nifty items as an explosives-laced watch and a safe-cracking device that employs X-ray technology to get the job done. Bond is even presented with not one, but two special-issue boats, each with its own set of features. The first, disguised as a Gondola, is the weakest of the pair (Bond uses this to run from assassins chasing him through the canals of Venice, finally escaping when he transforms the Gondola into a car and drives away). The second boat, however, which 007 has with him in Rio, is equipped with mines, torpedoes, and a built-in hang glider (which, at a key moment, comes in handy). Aside from the epic battle in space, this particular boat chase is the movie’s best action sequence.

Unfortunately, the film’s story plays second fiddle to the action and special effects. Bond’s investigation into Drax’s earth-bound activities seldom goes anywhere; while in Venice, 007 swings by a glass manufacturing plant (the name of which appeared on a blueprint in Drax’s office), only to do absolutely nothing once he gets there. The performances are also a problem. Marking his fourth turn as James Bond, Roger Moore was finally beginning to show his age (he was 51 when Moonraker was made) and as a result, the hand-to-hand fight scenes are flat and. at times, almost embarrassing to watch. Also lacking in energy are the two Bond girls: Holly Goodhead (the main squeeze) and Corrine Dufour (the sacrificial lamb), both of whom are pretty, but lifeless. Not even the villains are interesting. Michael Lonsdale seems bored as Drax, and his chief henchman in the first half of the film, a martial arts specialist named Chang (Toshirô Suga), feels like a leftover from You Only Live Twice. Only Richard Kiel’s Jaws, making his second appearance in a Bond picture (following The Spy Who Loved Me), comes across as truly menacing.

As it was with my recent viewing of The Man with the Golden Gun, a second watch of Moonraker proved more entertaining than the first, but not quite entertaining enough to mask its flaws. Like Golden Gun, Moonraker ranks as one of the weaker films in the series.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

#1,430. Horror Island (1941)

Directed By: George Waggner

Starring: Dick Foran, Leo Carrillo, Peggy Moran

Line from the movie: "Don't be frightened, folks. It's just Morgan's ghost. He resents our coming here"

Trivia: Universal released this film on March 28, 1941, only 25 days after shooting began (on March 3rd)

On the run from his creditors, ship’s captain Bill Martin (Dick Foran) is desperately searching for a get-rich-quick scheme to solve his financial woes. Enter Tobias Clump (Leo Carrillo), a peg-legged sailor who’s found a treasure map, one suggesting there’s buried treasure on Morgan’s Island, a small parcel of land Martin owns. With his faithful sidekick, Stuff Oliver (Fuzzy Knight), in tow, Martin drags Tobias to the office of Professor Quinley (Hubart Cavanaugh), an expert at topography, to determine if the map is genuine. Alas, the Professor tells the trio the map is a forgery, but that doesn’t prevent Martin from trying to cash in on it by launching his very own “Treasure Hunt” business, charging people $50 to search for riches on Morgan’s Island while, at the same time, giving them a tour of what he claims is an authentic haunted mansion. Several individuals sign up for the adventure, including socialite Wendy Creighton (Peggy Moran); Martin’s cousin George (John Eldredge); and a variety of others, all hoping to find a treasure that will make them wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. But to the group’s dismay, a mysterious cloaked figure, who they all refer to as “The Phantom” (Foy Van Dolsen), has also come to Morgan’s Island, and is willing to do whatever it takes to frighten them away.

Despite the fact it has the word “horror” in its title, and features a house that’s supposedly haunted, Horror Island is a much better mystery than it is a fright flick. The first night Martin and the others are on the island, one of the guests, a gangster named Rod (Ralf Harolde), is gunned down, presumably by the Phantom. But then, several scenes later, something happens that causes you to wonder if it really was the Phantom who committed this heinous crime, or someone else entirety. Horror Island even tosses a few plot twists into the mix, just to keep you on your toes (the final reveal took me completely by surprise).

So while it may fall short of being a horror film, Horror Island is nonetheless a fun mystery / thriller that will have you guessing to the very end.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

#1,429. All-American Co-Ed (1941)

Directed By: LeRoy Prinz

Starring: Frances Langford, Johnny Downs, Marjorie Woodworth


Trivia: This film marked the first credited screen performance of actor Alan Hale, Jr.

As a publicity stunt, the all-girls Agricultural College Mar Brynn, on the advice of their press agent (Harry Langdon), decides to offer scholarships to a dozen beautiful women, all of whom will then participate in a musical pageant. What they don’t know is that the fraternity of a rival school plans to disrupt the proceedings by dressing one of their members (Johnny Downs) up as a woman and entering him for consideration of one of the scholarships. Sure enough, this imposter is chosen, but has a change of heart when he falls in love with Virginia (Frances Langford), the pretty niece of Mar Brynn’s President (Esther Dale).

All-American Co-Ed is a fairly unspectacular film, with musical numbers that aren’t particularly memorable and a story that isn’t all that funny. In fact, the best thing about the movie is its cast and crew. Director LeRoy Prinz previously worked as a choreographer, and was nominated three times for an Academy Award for Best Dance Direction (including two nominations in 1936 for All the King’s Horses and The Big Broadcast of 1936). In addition, Hal Roach, Jr., whose father was responsible for bringing comedians like Harold Lloyd and Laurel & Hardy to the big screen, helped write the story; while prolific composer Edward Ward handled the film’s score (and received an Academy award nomination for his troubles). Not to be outdone, the cast of All-American Co-Ed also has a few recognizable names, including silent comedian Harry Langdon (in one of his last roles) and Alan Hale Jr., future Captain of the S.S. Minnow in ‘60s television show Gilligan’s Island, in what would be his first credited screen appearance. Aside from these two, All-American Co-Ed features Kent Rogers, who, up to that point, had worked primarily in cartoons, providing the voices for such well-known characters as Woody Woodpecker and Looney Tunes’ Beaky Buzzard. Rogers even got to show off his vocal talents in this movie, impersonating a number of celebrities (though, in my opinion, his Gary Cooper left something to be desired).

So even if All-American Co-Ed falls short as a musical / comedy, its prolific cast and crew make it, at the very least, a cinematic curiosity.