Friday, September 30, 2016

#2,207. 99 Women (1969)

Directed By: Jess Franco

Starring: Maria Schell, Luciana Paluzzi, Mercedes McCambridge

Tag line: "Whisper to your friends you saw it!"

Trivia: Italian cult horror film director Bruno Mattei was hired to shoot 20 minutes of additional hardcore footage, which was then added to a 1974 French x-rated re-release

Now this is more like it!

After being let down by his 1975 flick Women Behind Bars, Jess Franco redeemed himself with 99 Women, a women in prison movie featuring a solid cast and a story with enough twists and turns to keep you entertained.

Though innocent of any crime, Marie (Maria Rohn) is shipped off to a penal colony on a remote island, where she is referred to only as “Prisoner #98”. Nicknamed “The Castle of Death”, this women’s-only penitentiary is run by Warden Thelma Diaz (Mercedes McCambridge), whose harsh approach to discipline has resulted in the deaths of several inmates. Things have gotten so bad, in fact, that the local Governor (Herbert Lom), who also abuses his power by forcing the prisoners have sex with him, has warned Diaz to tone it down, or the Prison Board will have no choice but to get involved.

Sure enough, when one of the Island’s other new arrivals, Inmate #99 (Elisa Montes), dies her first night there, psychologist Leonie Caroll (Maria Schell) is sent in to investigate. Caroll insists that the prisoners be treated with more respect, but for Marie and Natalie, aka #97 (Luciana Paluzzi), it’s too little too late. With the help of fellow convict Rosalie (Valentina Godoy), Marie and #97 manage to escape. But is there truly a way off this island, or is it only a matter of time before the two are tracked down?

Neither 99 Women nor Women Behind Bars is heavy in the skin department; most of the nude scenes in 99 Women are shot in extreme close-up, which conceals quite a bit. What sets the two films apart is their approach.  whereas Women Behind Bars is both complex and boring, 99 Women is briskly paced and always engaging, thanks in large part to its impressive cast. McCambridge is over-the-top but damned entertaining as the fanatical Diaz, while Maria Schell is more subdued but equally as effective as the sympathetic observer trying to make a difference. The animosity that develops between their characters adds another layer to what is already a tension-heavy motion picture.

As the lone male in the main cast, Herbert Lom is sleazy as hell as the Governor who occasionally has his way with the prisoners. One scene in particular, where he leers at Marie and #76 (Rosalba Neri) as they get it on with each other, is downright creepy. As for the inmates, they’re also well-portrayed, especially Maria Rohn as Marie, who garners our sympathy the moment we meet her.

In addition, 99 Women offers up some exciting sequences, including a couple of fight scenes and an escape that has its share of heart-pounding moments (especially when the escapees come face-to-face with the horny convicts from the men’s prison on the other side of the island). More than a good Jess Franco movie, 99 Women is just plain good, and ranks alongside Count Dracula and Venus in Furs as one the director’s better outings.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

#2,206. Orca (1977)

Directed By: Michael Anderson

Starring: Richard Harris, Charlotte Rampling, Will Sampson

Tag line: "Terror just beneath the surface"

Trivia: Richard Harris performed his own stunts for the movie

The opening ten minutes or so of 1977’s Orca are exceptional, and get the movie off to a great start. Following the credits, we meet the title creatures (two of them, to be exact), who seem to be enjoying each others' company as they swim along. While this is happening, researcher Dr. Rachel Bedford (Charlotte Rampling), in full scuba gear, is underwater collecting samples. Suddenly, a great white shark appears, causing her to hide.

Captain Nolan (Richard Harris) and the crew of his fishing boat: Novak (Keenan Wynn), Annie (Bo Derek) and Paul (Peter Hooten); spot the shark’s dorsal fin jutting out of the water, and rush forward to capture it (an aquarium will pay them top dollar for a live shark). Dr. Bedford’s assistant Ken (Robert Carradine), who was waiting in a raft for her to return, warns Captain Nolan (who is armed with a spear gun) that there’s a diver down below.

As a result, Nolan’s first shot misses, and he screams at Dr. Bedford (now on the raft with Ken) for costing him money. The excitement continues when Ken accidentally falls into the water, causing the shark to swim towards him. Just then, an Orca (aka a Killer Whale) darts in and devours the great white, saving Ken and proving, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they are the most dangerous creature in the sea.

This opening has it all: an introduction to the main characters (human and otherwise), beautiful underwater photography, plenty of action, and some high drama. We’re even given a taste of Ennio Morricone’s wonderful score.

It’s too bad the rest of the movie doesn’t live up to these first 10 minutes. In fact, the remaining 82 minutes of Orca suck.

Impressed by what he saw, Nolan decides to switch things up and capture a killer whale instead. Dr. Bedford warns him that Orcas are unique: they have only one mate for life, and, unlike other aquatic creatures, are protective of their young. Still, Nolan presses on, and during his first encounter with a school of killer whales he inadvertently spears a female (he just missed the male, nicking its fin). What’s more, when he wrestles the enormous whale onto his boat he discovers it’s pregnant! Neither mother nor child survives, and a repentant Nolan drops the carcasses into the sea before sheepishly making his way back to dry land.

Yet the ordeal is far from over. By murdering both its mate and child, Nolan has incited the wrath of a particularly ruthless Killer Whale, which will not rest until it has had its revenge. Nolan initially scoffs at the notion that a whale is now hunting him, and ignores the pleas of both Dr. Bradford and Umilak (Will Sampson), a local Native, to take the threat seriously. But before long, Nolan realizes this whale means business, and decides to meet it, mono-et-mono, on the open sea…

Though listed as a horror film, Orca is more likely to make you chuckle, especially when the whale puts its “plan” into motion. For starters, it drives away all the fish, causing the other fisherman to turn on Nolan and his crew (this Orca has obviously studied human behavior, and knows that hitting a fella in the wallet is the best way to piss him off); and at one point the whale stares down Nolan as he’s standing on a pier. As if all that wasn’t ridiculous enough, this very clever (and amazingly agile) whale even manages to cause a pretty big explosion on dry land (I won’t bother explaining how it does this. I doubt you’d believe me if I did). Yet as bad as these scenes are, they pale in comparison to the final showdown, which is also too absurd for words.

Not even the film’s usually-reliable cast can save it. Richard Harris’ Nolan, with his over-the-top Irish brogue and refusal to accept facts that are as plain as the nose on his face, is annoying as hell; and I have no idea why Will Sampson’s character is even in this movie (in most scenes, his Umilak shows up out of the blue, pontificates a little, then immediately disappears. It isn’t until the end that he gets directly involved, and when the chips are down he’s so incredibly ineffective that it actually made me laugh out loud).

It’s quite possible that, as Dr. Bedford says, killer whales are “without challenge the most powerful animals on the globe”, but based on what I saw in Orca, I’d take a great white shark over them every day of the week!

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

#2,205. Nun of That (2009)

Directed By: Richard Griffin

Starring: Sarah Nicklin, Alexandra Cipolla, Shanette Wilson

Tag line: "A blast for you and a blasphemy!"

Trivia: Per the actors and director, the club used as the central location for heaven was freezing cold

I suppose, as a lifelong Catholic, I should be appalled by Richard Griffin’s 2009 film Nun of That. But I’m not. In fact, I loved every minute of this over-the-top, gore-fueled exploitation throwback! 

The Order of the Black Habits, a covert religious organization that converts nuns into assassins, has declared war on organized crime. When one of their own, Sister Envy (Irina Peligrad), is shot dead in a strip club (after killing a dozen or so mobsters), the Order must recruit a new member to take her place, and turns its attention towards Sister Kelly (Sarah Nicklin), whose bad tamper has gotten her into a world of trouble with her current Mother Superior (Scream Queen extraordinaire Debbie Rochon). The only problem is, for her to be properly trained, Sister Kelly has to be sent to Heaven, which is exactly where she goes when fellow nuns Sister Lust (Shanette Wilson), Sister Pride (Alexandra Cipolla), and Sister Gluttony (Ruth Sullivan) surprise her in a dark alley and put a bullet in her chest.

After being introduced to her guardian angel Oscar (Luis Brandon Aponte) as well as Jesus Christ himself (Michael Reed), Sister Kelly begins her training, which includes a lesson in martial arts conducted by Gandhi (John Joseph Gomes) and a speech delivered by Moses (Michael Bilow) about the “loopholes” one might find when studying the Commandments. Now ready for action, Sister Kelly is shipped back to earth with a new name (Sister Wrath) and a mission: to seek out and destroy Momma Rizzo (Rich Tretheway), leader of the local mob. With the help of her compatriots, Sisters Lust, Pride, and Gluttony, Sister Wrath gets down to business, but as she’ll soon discover, Momma Rizzo has a few tricks left up her sleeve, and one very pissed off Jewish hitman named Viper Goldstein (David Lavallee Jr.) on speed-dial. Will Sister Wrath complete her divine task, or will she wind up back in heaven sooner than she thinks?

Nun of That is packed to its breaking point with exploitation goodness, most of which is as funny as it is shocking. The highlights include the opening shootout, in which Sister Envy, after performing a striptease, pulls an Uzi from under her skirt and starts blasting every gangster in sight. Equally as violent is the scene where Sister Kelly, on her way to her new “assignment”, is nearly raped by a trio of punks (George W. Aldrich II, A.J. Paratore and Nathan A. Quattrini), who quickly learn that they picked on the wrong nun. Also fun (and fairly bloody) is a late sequence set at a sisters-only club known as the “Bar Nun”, where the women act more like bikers than brides of Christ. Yet the movie’s most outrageously entertaining moment comes when Sister Kelly first arrives in heaven, at which point Jesus launches into a techno-fueled song and dance routine! I also liked how writer / director Griffin named several characters after cult filmmakers, including gangster Richie Corbucci (Brandon Luis Aponte) and Father O’Bannon (Nolan Kerr).

A low-budget picture, Nun of That does suffer (albeit slightly) from less-than-stellar CG effects (gunshots, blood spatters, etc). On the plus side, though, is the film’s strong cast, which does an exceptional job. Sarah Nicklin makes for a convincing bad-ass, and Shanette Wilson’s Sister Lust delivers some of the movie’s best lines (her “prayer” asking God to send her a man is priceless). Michael Reed (in a dual role as both Jesus and the Devil), Rich Tretheway (in drag, playing Momma Rizzo) and David Lavallee Jr. (as Viper Goldstein) are also excellent. These performances, combined with a steady stream of balls-out action, loads of “WTF” moments, and a cameo by Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman (as the Pope) helped make Nun of That one of the more enjoyable viewing experiences I’ve had in a while.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

#2,204. Mata Hari (1985)

Directed By: Curtis Harrington

Starring: Sylvia Kristel, Christopher Cazenove, Oliver Tobias

Tag line: "A dangerous lover. A treacherous spy. A beautiful seductress"

Trivia: This movie was the final theatrical feature film directed by Curtis Harrington

I continue my trek through the Cannon Films archives with 1985’s Mata Hari, starring Sylvia Kristel as the infamous World War One-era spy / seductress who, during her brief career in espionage, was alleged to have gathered secrets for both the French and German Armies. With Miss Kristel (better known for her roles in the Emmanuelle series) as the lead, it’s no surprise that Mata Hari features lots of nudity and a smattering of softcore sex. Unfortunately, not even a steady stream of naked flesh will be enough to keep you awake through this snooze fest.

An entertainer by trade, Mata Hari, a.k.a. Lady MacLeod (due to her brief marriage to a Dutch military officer) strikes up a friendship with two men she meets in a Paris museum: German Karl von Bayerling (Christopher Casenove) and Frenchman Georges Ladoux (Oliver Tobias). Both will fall in love with the beautiful dancer, but when war breaks out Karl and Ladoux find themselves fighting on opposite sides. Several months later, while traveling by train to Berlin, Mata Hari is accused of murdering a German agent (he was actually killed by an assassin while making love to her) and she's taken into custody. During her interrogation, however, Karl (now a Captain in the army) intercedes on Mata Hari’s behalf, and soon after the two become lovers.

It’s through Karl that Mata Hari meets Fraulein Doktor (Gaye Brown), a psychologist who specializes in espionage. Eventually, Mata Hari, spurred on by Fraulein Doktor, agrees to spy for the Germans. Once back in Paris, however, she has a rendezvous with Ladoux, who convinces her to also report on German activity. Torn between her loyalty to two countries and her love for two soldiers, Mata Hari uses her sexual power over men to learn their secrets, all the while knowing that it won’t be long before one side or the other uncovers the truth about her.

Director Curtis Harrington wastes no time whatsoever in Mata Hari; the opening sequence, a flashback set in Java, features a topless Kristel performing a native dance (which is odd, seeing as all the other dancers are fully clothed), and by the 10 minute mark we witness the first of several sex scenes (the tryst on the Berlin-bound train that landed Mata Hari in hot water). But that’s just a taste of what’s to come. Over the course of Mata Hari, Kristel will sleep with members of both sexes, masturbate in bed (while a peeping tom watches through a keyhole), and attend an orgy, where she gets into a bare-breasted swordfight with a woman who accused the beautiful spy of stealing her man!

The nudity aside, Mata Hari is a stone cold bore, failing as both a historical drama (due in large part to Kristel’s lackluster performance) and a spy thriller (on more than one occasion we lose track of which side Mata Hari is working for at that moment, and those scenes in which she is engaged in espionage aren’t the least bit exciting). Even a brief battle sequence, where Mata Hari is being escorted behind enemy lines, doesn’t amount to very much.

So, if the prospect of seeing Sylvia Kristel in her birthday suit is all you require, then Mata Hari won’t disappoint. But if you need something more than that, I’d recommend checking out 1931’s Mata Hari, starring Greta Garbo. It’s not nearly as erotic as this film, and to be fair is far from Garbo’s best work, but it’s still better than this mess.

Monday, September 26, 2016

#2,203. Breakin' (1984)

Directed By: Joel Silberg

Starring: Lucinda Dickey, Adolfo Quinones, Michael Chambers

Tag line: "Push it to Pop it! Rock it to Lock it! Break it to Make it!"

Trivia: Though uncredited, Jean Claude Van Damme made his first big-screen appearance in this film (as an onlooker at a dance rally)

After watching the excellent documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, I was anxious to once again check out some of that studio’s more popular offerings, many of which I haven’t seen in years. Directed by Joel Silberg, 1984’s Breakin' was one of Cannon’s most successful releases (its 1st week, Breakin’ actually outgrossed John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles, which debuted at the same time), and, what’s more, was credited with launching the decade’s breakdancing craze. I remembered liking this film when I first saw it, but is it actually a good movie, or simply good by Cannon’s standards?

Kelly (Lucinda Dickey) loves to dance, but her dreams of becoming a famous jazz dancer are all but dashed when she refuses the advances of her slimy instructor, Franco (Ben Lokey). Fortunately, her friend Adam (Phineas Newborn III) had recently introduced Kelly to two street dancers: Ozone (Adolfo 'Shabba Doo' Quiñones) and Turbo (Michael 'Boogaloo Shrimp' Chambers). Despite having no experience as a breakdancer, Kelly decides she wants to dedicate her life to learning these amazing moves, and with the help of Ozone and Turbo she’s soon catching on. She even manages to impress her agent, James (Christopher McDonald, in an early screen role), who thinks he can get Kelly, Ozone and Turbo entered in an upcoming dance competition. But will her new partners agree to perform in front of judges who have no idea what street dancing is all about?

Even in the ‘80s, the basic premise of Breakin’ was nothing new: its story of talented kids beating the odds to make it big had been done before (1980’s Fame leaps immediately to mind). In addition, the film fails to dot all its “I”s and cross all its “T”s (we’re led to believe early on that Kelly’s agent James is infatuated with her, but neither this nor Ozone’s perceived fear of competition are ever fully explored). What Breakin’ does have, though, is lots of dancing, some of which is extraordinary. The two dance-offs where Ozone and Turbo face off against Electro Shock (Bruno “Pop & Taco” Falcon, Timothy “Poppin’ Pete” Solomon, and Ana “Lollipop” Sanchez) are entertaining as hell, but the film’s best number starts innocently enough, with Turbo sweeping the sidewalk with a broom (a sequence so packed with energy that I had to watch it twice).

Throw in the big-screen debut of Ice-T (as.. you guessed it… a rapper at a dance club), and you have an ‘80s movie that, while definitely dated, is still a hell of a lot of fun

Sunday, September 25, 2016

#2,202. All Monsters Attack (1969)

Directed By: Ishirô Honda

Starring: Kenji Sahara, Machiko Naka, Tomonori Yazaki

Line from the film: "Godzilla says that I should learn to fight my own battles"

Trivia: Director Ishirô Honda intended the movie to have a somber ending, but was forced to add a more cheerful final sequence

You would think that a Godzilla / Kaiju movie directed by the great Ishirô Honda would be reason to celebrate. Alas, you would be wrong. Instead of the giant monster goodness we’ve come to expect from Toho studios, which, by 1969, had been producing these films for 15 years (starting with 1954’s Gojira), we get, with All Monsters Attack, a morality lesson geared towards young kids.

Now, that alone isn’t enough to sink the picture; Godzilla has always been popular with the kiddies, so building a story around a youngster who turns to giant monsters to solve his problems must have seemed like a good idea at the time. But combine this with the fact that it also borrows most of its fight scenes from earlier films, and you have a movie sure to disappoint even the series’ most die-hard fans.

Left alone most afternoons while his parents are off working, 10-year-old Ichirô (Tomonori Yazaki) passes the time by imagining himself on Monster Island, where he comes face to face with his all-time favorite creature, Godzilla, while also forming a strong friendship with Godzilla’s son Minira (played by Little Man Machen, with the voice provided by Midori Uchiyama). It seems that Ichirô and Minira have the same problem: neither one is particularly good at standing up to bullies. But Ichirô will have a chance to prove his bravery when a pair of bank robbers (Sachio Sakai and Kazuo Suzuki), on the run from the law, kidnap the boy out of fear that he may turn them in (walking through an abandoned building, Ichirô found a driver’s license belonging to one of the crooks, and put it in his pocket). Can the lessons he learned on Monster Island actually help Ichirô in the real world, giving him the strength to take on the lawbreaking duo? Or will the thieves get away scot-free?

From the moment its annoying theme song began (“Kaiju Machi”, sung by its young star Tomonori Yazaki), I had a bad feeling about All Monsters Attack, and it didn’t improve much once the film got underway. My first issue was how the movie handled its monster scenes; unlike most Kaiju flicks, All Monsters Attack takes place in a world where giant monsters are imaginary (Ichirô only encounters them in his dreams). Also, I wasn’t a big fan of Minira, the pint-sized Godzilla offspring who befriends the lead character (the scenes with Minira and Godzilla, as well as Minira’s big fight with the cat-faced Gabara, were ridiculously cloying). As for the giant monster battles, they’re entertaining even if they aren’t new (footage was lifted from 1966’s Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster and ‘67s King Kong Escapes, among others).

The basic lesson of standing up for yourself is timeless (Ichirô is bullied by kids at school, a problem that’s just as prevalent today), and the Monster Island sequences are, for the most part, fun to watch (the exceptions being when Minira joins the fracas). But even if modern youngsters do get a kick out of All Monsters Attack, its general silliness will surely have their parents rolling their eyes through much of the movie.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

#2,201. Creepshow 2 (1987)

Directed By: Michael Gornick

Starring: George Kennedy, Lois Chiles, Domenick John

Tag line: "Good to the last gasp!"

Trivia: One of the segments dropped from this film eventually appeared in 1990's Tales From the Darkside: The Movie)

Like the original Creepshow, Creepshow 2 features the combined talents of two horror titans, George Romero and Stephen King (only this time, instead of directing, Romero’s involvement was limited to writing the screenplay. King provided the original stories, and Michael Gornick was in the director’s chair). And while this latter entry isn’t quite the classic the first film was, it offers a few tense moments that, at the very least, keep things interesting.

With three stories this time instead of five (two were dropped for budgetary reasons, one of which, Cat From Hell, turned up in 1990’s Tales from the Darkside: The Movie), Creepshow 2 kicks things off with Old Chief Woodn’head, in which kindly shopkeeper Ray Spruce (George Kennedy) and his wife Martha (Dorothy Lamour) are robbed at gunpoint by Sam Whitemoon (Holt McCallanny) and his pals Andy (Don Harvey) and “Fatstuff” (David Holbrook). Sam is a Native American who’s grown weary of living in his dusty, dying western town, and is headed to Hollywood in the hopes of becoming a movie star. The original plan was to load up on food and take all the money Ray and Martha had in the cash register, but when a tragic accident occurs, it awakens a creature that had been dormant for years, one that won’t quit until it’s had its revenge on the three would-be crooks.

Next up is The Raft, about a group of friends: Deke (Paul Satterfield), Randy (Daniel Beer), Rachel (Page Hannah), and Laverne (Jeremy Green), who, for kicks, drive to a remote lake and go for a swim. Seeing as its autumn, the water is damn cold, but the real problem arises when the four make their way out to a wooden raft, which is floating in the middle of the lake. It’s then that Randy notices what looks to be an oil slick, which is skimming the water’s surface and heading directly towards them. Only it isn’t oil; in fact, whatever it is, it’s very much alive. And what’s more, it’s hungry!

The final tale, The Hitch-Hiker, introduces us to Annie (Lois Chiles), who, following an evening of adultery with a handsome gigolo (David Beecroft), heads home to her rich husband, fearful that, if she arrives too late, he’ll begin asking questions. As it turns out, though, thinking up an alibi will be the least of Annie’s worries; after dropping her cigarette in the front seat of her car, Annie loses control and accidentally runs over a hitch-hiker (Tom Wright), killing him instantly. In a panic, she drives off just before several other motorists (including a truck driver played by Stephen King himself) arrive on the scene. Fearful that her conscience won’t allow her to forget this terrible ordeal, Annie soon discovers that fate has a way of catching up with you, resulting in a night of terror she won’t soon forget.

Tying the three segments together is an animated framing story, narrated by the “Creep” (voiced by Joe Silver), in which a young boy (Domenick John), while riding his bike back from the post office, is harassed by a gang of bullies, who learn, far too late, that it isn’t wise to pick on someone much smaller, and a lot smarter, than yourself.

I did enjoy, to varying degrees, all three of the main sequences in Creepshow 2. While not particularly frightening, Chief Woodn’head featured some damn fine kill scenes, as well a handful of strong actors (Kennedy and Lamour are predictably good, but it’s Holt McCallanny as the very pissed off Sam Whitemoon who steals the show). Despite some mediocre performances, The Raft did manage to turn the terror dial up a click or two, thanks in large part to its very mysterious “monster”. And like any decent anthology, Creepshow 2 saved the best for last: from the moment Annie runs over that poor guy trying to hitch a ride, The Hitch-Hiker kicks it into high gear, with a few jarring jump scares and some impressive gore (even though Tom Savini was on-hand, playing the “live” version of the Creep, the effects were instead handled by Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero, among others). The film’s lone weakness is its framing story, which, with its sub-par animation and less-than-stellar plotline, never really amounts to much.

1982's Creepshow is my all-time favorite horror anthology, and I’m happy to report that, even though it’s a step down from the awesomeness of the original, Creepshow 2 has its charms as well.

Friday, September 23, 2016

#2,200. Hillbillys in a Haunted House (1967)

Directed By: Jean Yarbrough

Starring: Ferlin Husky, Joi Lansing, Don Bowman

Tag line: "They'll scare your pants off...and give you the chill of your life!"

Trivia: This movie was one of the films listed in the 2004 video The 50 Worst Movies Ever Made

I used to love watching reruns of The Beverly Hillbillies, a ‘60s sitcom about a family from the backwoods who suddenly struck it rich, then moved to the posh California suburb of Beverly Hills. Yet, despite their sudden wealth and new surroundings, the family at the center of it all, the Clampetts, continued to live like hillbillies; Jed (Buddy Ebsen) sometimes wandered into town carrying a shotgun, and Granny (Irene Ryan) spent a fair portion of most episodes in the kitchen, preparing delicacies like Possum Stew. It was your typical “Fish out of Water” scenario, but the fine cast and some top-notch writing managed to turn it into comedy gold.

Spurred on by the success of The Beverly Hillbillies, producer Bernard Woolner (the man behind the 1958 cult classic Attack of the 50 Foot Woman) put together a little film titled The Las Vegas Hillbillys. I haven’t yet seen that movie, but I just now watched its sequel, 1967’s Hillbillys in a Haunted House, the story of a pair of country singers, Woody Wetherby (Ferlin Husky) and Boots Malone (Joi Lansing), who, along with their manager Jeepers (Don Bowman), were headed to a Jamboree in Nashville when a rainstorm forced them to seek shelter. Seeing as they’ve stumbled into a town with no hotel, the three are forced to shack up in the Beaumont Estate, a dilapidated old Southern Plantation that’s supposedly haunted.

What they don’t know is that the house is being used by a spy organization to pass U.S. secrets on to hostile foreign governments. In order to be left alone, these spies: Dr. Hillem (John Carradine), Gregor (Basil Rathbone), Madame Wong (Linda Ho) and Maximillian (Lon Chaney Jr), have rigged the house to make it appear as if its infested with ghosts, all the while conducting their evil transactions in the basement (which also doubles as a torture chamber). With the help of Maximillian’s pet gorilla Anatole (George Barrows in a suit), the spies try to frighten away the new arrivals, only to find that country western singers don’t scare so easily.

Billed as a horror / comedy / musical, Hillbillys in a Haunted House is neither scary nor funny. That leaves the music, and man is there a lot of it! If you’re a Country / Western fan, then this movie will feel like a little slice of heaven for you.

I, however, am not a country / western fan. So, for me, Hillbillys in a Haunted House was absolute hell.

We get our first taste of what’s to come in the opening scene, when the three stars belt out a ditty titled “Jamboree Time” as they cruise down the highway. To be honest, that song didn’t bother me much (it was kinda catchy), but a few tunes were absolute torture, including “Gowns, Gowns, Beautiful Gowns”, which the admittedly bodacious Boots sings after finding the only decent room in the mansion (the entire number is presented as a flashback to olden times, when the Beaumont Estate was a functioning plantation. You know… the carefree days of slavery and the Confederacy. Yikes! Who the hell thought that was a good idea?). There’s even a scene where complete strangers (locals from town wondering why the mansion is suddenly lit up) wander in and pick up a guitar. It was agony!

The good news is that the three horror icons, Carradine, Rathbone and Chaney Jr., have a few decent scenes (Carradine, at his absolute hammiest, is especially entertaining), as does George Barrows in his monkey suit (ironically, Barrows and his gorilla costume also appeared in one of my favorite episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies, 1965’s The Gorilla). As for the three leads, neither Ferlin Husky nor Joi Lansing are what I would call “good” actors, but next to the abysmal Don Bowman, they were Olivier and Hepburn!

To be fair, Hillbillys in a Haunted House isn’t nearly as bad as its reputation would lead you to believe (it was one of the entries in the 2004 video The 50 Worst Movies Ever Made). I personally didn’t like it much, mostly because I don’t enjoy Country / Western music, but thanks to Carradine, Rathbone and Chaney Jr. it’s at least watchable (in spots). And if your idea of paradise is a night at Nashville’s Grand ‘Ole Opry, you might even enjoy this film.

Remember… I said “might”.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

#2,199. Screwballs (1983)

Directed By: Rafal Zielinski

Starring: Peter Keleghan, Kent Deuters, Linda Speciale

Tag line: "The nuts who always score!"

Trivia: Director Rafal Zielinski has said that he approached the film like it was a live action cartoon

Screwballs is a 1983 Canadian teen sex comedy directed by Rafal Zielinski and co-written by Linda Shayne (who, among other things, played Miss Salmon in 1980’s Humanoids from the Deep) and Jim Wynorski (the director of Chopping Mall). Set in the 1960s, the film introduces us to a group of five buddies from Taft & Adams High School (T&A… get it?): ladies’ man Rick McKay (Peter Keleghan); wealthy socialite (and all-around horndog) Brent Van Dusen III (Kent Deuters); transfer student Tim Stevenson (Jim Coburn); nerdy science geek Howie Bates (Alan Deveau); and overweight cafeteria volunteer (not to mention chronic masturbator) Melvin Jerkofski (Jason Warren).

While serving an afternoon in detention (for offenses ranging from fondling the breasts of freshman girls to jerking off in a meat locker), the five pals make a pact that, by the time homecoming rolls around, one of them will have caught a glimpse of Taft & Adams’ resident virgin, Purity Busch (Linda Speciale), in the nude. Even with the school’s uptight principle, Mr. Stuckoff (Donnie Bowes), watching them like a hawk, the quintet try time and again to complete their daunting task, but as the days wear on, it’s clear they’re gonna need a miracle, or at least one hell of an intricate plan, to pull it off.

Unlike Porky’s and Fast Times at Ridgemont High (both of which were released the previous year), Screwballs is a straight-up comedy assault, ignoring things like character development and even its own already-simplistic plot to instead focus on what an ‘80s audience wanted, namely lots of nudity and a plethora of over-the-top sex jokes. That said, the film is far from a laugh-riot. In fact, I think I laughed twice: once when Howie manipulated the school’s hallway mirrors to look up girls skirts as they walked down the stairs, and again when the friends buried one of their own on the beach, in the hopes he’d get a clear view of Purity’s chest while she sunbathed. There are a few other moments here and there that made me smile, but for the most part I had more fun with the ‘80s nostalgia that Screwballs conjured up than I did with the movie itself.

Still, it’s kinda hard to trash a film like Screwballs because it’s so damned earnest; hardly a moment goes by where the movie isn’t trying to make us laugh. Sure, it fails about 90% of the time, but even if you aren’t happy with the results, you gotta admire the effort.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

#2,198. The Centerfold Girls (1974)

Directed By: John Peyser

Starring: Andrew Prine, Jaime Lyn Bauer, Aldo Ray

Tag line: "The most beautiful girls in the world ... some are for loving ... some are for killing!"

Trivia: A fire had broken out at the forest location in Topanga Canyon, CA, that was used for the climax of the film

One thing that 1974's The Centerfold Girls is not is a mystery; from the very first scene, we know exactly who the killer is, and watch as he (Andrew Prine) drags the naked corpse of a pretty young woman across a deserted beach and buries her in an open grave. The girl’s throat has been cut, and her murderer shows no emotion whatsoever as he shovels sand onto her lifeless body. Later on, when the killer returns home, we learn that his victim had once posed nude for a men’s magazine, and to signify he’s finished the task, he cuts her face out of said magazine with a straight razor.

She was Miss January, which means he’s only just begun… 

A top-notch thriller directed by John Peyser, The Centerfold Girls follows this killer as he stalks a trio of potential victims. Jackie (Jaime Lyn Bauer), aka Miss March, works as a nurse, and before heading out of town to interview for a new job she offers to give Linda (Janet Wood), a depressed young woman she’s only just met, a lift. Linda claims that she and her boyfriend had planned a trip to Barstow, but he never showed up, leaving her stranded in the middle of nowhere. But Jackie will soon discover that Linda isn’t what she appears to be, and as a result the next 24 hours will become a living hell for her.

Another model in terrible danger is Miss May, otherwise known as Charly (Jennifer Ashley), who travels to a secluded island with fellow models Glory (Ruthy Ross) and Sandi (Kitty Carl) to pose for yet another skin magazine. Joining them are Melissa (Francine York), who’s running the shoot, as well as photographers Perry (Ray Danton) and Sam (John Denos). Things get a bit tense when Melissa and Perry, who have a history together, start bickering non-stop, but it’s nothing compared to what awaits them all once the sun goes down…

Also on the killer’s list is Vera Porter (Tiffany Bolling), a flight attendant and part-time nude model. After returning home from several days away, Vera finds two dozen yellow roses in her apartment, which her neighbor Patsy (Connie Strickland) says arrived without a card. Moments later, the killer calls, telling Vera the roses were from him, and will look perfect on her grave. Frightened, Vera heads out of town and checks into a remote motel, only to have another two dozen roses show up in her room. It seems that the killer has no intention of quitting until the job is done, but has he met his match in the wily Vera?

For a low-budget thriller, the performances in The Centerfold Girls are quite good, especially Andrew Prine as the psychopath driven to eliminate those women brazen enough to “show their bodies”. As played by Prine, the killer (whose name is Clement Dunne) is clearly turned on by the nude photos (in one scene, he’s sitting naked on his bed while thumbing through the magazine), and the sexual feelings they stir up are too much for him to bear, causing him to lash out at those who arouse his passion.

Yet what’s truly impressive about The Centerfold Girls is how it successfully relates three very unique, yet equally engrossing stories, each centering on a different potential victim. All three girls experience their share of problems, some of which have nothing at all to do with the maniac who is stalking them; the 1st segment, which features Jackie, is, without a doubt, the most tragic of the bunch (what happens to that poor woman over the course of a single day is beyond belief). Each of these tales would have been strong enough to be their own film, and to have them together in a single movie makes for one very intense, wholly satisfying motion picture experience.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

#2,197. Aphrodisiac: The Sexual Secret of Marijuana (1971)

Directed By: Dennis Van Zak

Starring: Billy Curtis, Sandy Dempsey, Suzanne Fields

Line from the film: "This is a cocktail party, a great American tradition"

Trivia: Among the archived footage in this film is that of Lee Harvey Oswald's assassination

Released in 1971, Aphrodisiac: The Sexual Secret of Marijuana is, in part, a 75-minute commercial for marijuana structured as if it were a documentary, with plenty of facts arguing that smoking pot is less harmful than such “accepted” stimuli as cigarettes and alcohol. What’s more, the movie proposes that “grass” has the power to increase your sexual proclivity, but instead of driving this particular point home with statistics or scientific mumbo-jumbo, Aphrodisiac presents a handful of hardcore sex scenes, showing us how couples that “turned on” with marijuana ended up having the best sexual experiences of their lives.

Written and directed by Dennis Van Zak, Aphrodisiac: The Sexual Secret of Marijuana falls back on the results of several state and college-funded studies, including one initiated by Mayor LaGuardia of New York in the late 1930’s, to show that the effects of marijuana do not cause criminal behavior, nor is the drug a “gateway” that leads to heavier narcotics (the movie even asserts that the government crackdown on marijuana paved the way for drugs like heroin to enter the marketplace). Aphrodisiac also provides a brief history of pot (per the film, George Washington grew marijuana at Mount Vernon), saying it’s been around for some 5,000 years, and had been used by doctors for centuries to treat sick patients. And with it being relatively inexpensive, it doesn’t look as if pot, despite being an illegal substance in many states, will be disappearing anytime soon.

But then, all of these facts and figures are nothing more than window-dressing, designed to trick viewers into thinking that they aren’t watching a porno. And that’s really what Aphrodisiac is: a hardcore sex film disguised as a documentary. Before the opening credits, we’re treated to two segments that demonstrate how alcohol and marijuana have differing effects on potential lovers; as one poor housewife discovers, not even oral sex can arouse a drunken stud she meets at a party, while a female fiction writer (Sandy Dempsey) relates how marijuana caused her entire body to tingle, including “a burning sensation” in her vagina. Needless to say, her rendezvous with a handsome stranger was more successful than that of her alcohol-fueled counterpart. We even here from a married couple (Sheldon & Patti Lee) whose love life kicked into high gear when, while on their second honeymoon, the husband fed his wife some pot-filled cookies. And we see every moment of the resulting tryst, from just about every angle!

Aphrodisiac: The Sexual Secret of Marijuana is a hard film to recommend, as either a documentary (without looking into it, I’m guessing many of the “facts” it presents are anything but) or a pornographic movie (the sex scenes, though occasionally steamy, aren’t exactly erotic, and at times are even clumsy). Aphrodisiac is, however, a curiosity in that it’s a product of its era (the early ‘70s), and with its differing perspectives the movie is almost unusual enough to be worth your while. 

The key word, of course, being “almost”.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

#2,196. The Majorettes (1987)

Directed By: Bill Hinzman

Starring: Kevin Kindlin, Terrie Godfrey, Mark V. Jevicky

Tag line: "Sis, Boom, Blood. You're Dead!"

Trivia: This film was also released under the title One By One

Best known as Zombie #1 in George Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead, Bill Hinzman also tried his hand at directing on two separate occasions. Though far from a classic, his 1988 zombie movie FleshEater had its charms, but his first experience as director came one year earlier with The Majorettes, an admittedly late entry in the ‘80s slasher craze that could have been better.

A killer is loose in a small suburb of Pittsburgh, and has set his sights on the local high school’s Majorette squad. As the bodies continue to pile up, private eye Roland Martell (Carl Hetrick), who also happens to be dating Majorette coach Marie Morgan (Mary Jo Limpert), is called in to assist Sheriff Braden (Mark V. Jevisky) in his investigation. 

Their first potential break in the case comes when the school’s star quarterback Jeff (Kevin KIndlin) admits that, a day or two before she was murdered, he overheard the first victim Nicole (Jacqueline Bowman) arguing with known drug dealer Mace Jackson (Tom E. Desrocher). Brought in for questioning, Mace is released soon after when his alibi checks out. Now, along with worrying about the safety of his girlfriend Judy (Sueanne Seamens) and close friend Vicki (Terrie Godfrey), both of whom are Majorettes, Jeff has to keep an eye out for Mace, who has vowed to take revenge against the talented football player for fingering him to the cops as a possible killer.

All the elements are in place for The Majorettes to be an effective slasher film, including a masked psychopath, teenagers in peril, and a few twists and turns that keep us guessing as to who the killer might be. We even get the obligatory kill scenes, but while the violence is on-par with what you’d expect from a low-budget ‘80s slasher, the kills themselves lack tension, making it difficult to care about what’s happening to these poor girls; the initial murder, where Vicki and school photographer Tommy (Colin Martin), have their throats cut in the middle of the woods, never manages to draw us in, and what should have been an unnerving sequence is instead flat and even a little dull, a problem that plagues the movie through much of its run time.

Oddly enough, The Majorettes did grab my attention with some of its subplots, including a few you wouldn’t normally find in a slasher film. Along with a side story in which an evil nurse (Denise Huot) and her mentally challenged son (Harold K. Keller) conspire to steal Vicki’s inheritance, there’s a late showdown between Jeff and Mace Jackson that’s chock full of thrills (turning the film, albeit briefly, into a shoot-‘em-up action extravaganza). While their inclusion is, without a doubt, unusual, they do bring the movie to life.

But as a straight-up horror flick, The Majorettes leaves plenty to be desired.

Friday, September 16, 2016

#2,195. Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (2014)

Directed By: Mark Hartley

Starring: Sam Firstenberg, David Paulsen, Luigi Cozzi

Premiere: The movie had its world debut at the 2014 Melbourne Int'l Film Festival

Trivia: Both Menahem Golan or Yoram Globus turned down offers to be interviewed for this film

To this day, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace ranks as the worst picture I ever saw in a movie theater. A group of us checked it out in the summer of 1987, and while I can’t speak for the others, I went in hoping this film would help me relive a bit of my childhood. I had a great time watching both Superman: The Movie (1978) and Superman II (1980) with a crowd of people (in both instances, the audiences cheered in all the right places), and couldn’t wait to experience yet another entry in this normally-reliable franchise (I wasn’t a big fan of Superman III, but I didn’t hate it).

What we got instead was a smoldering turd, a nearly-unwatchable pile of cinematic dung that had none of the magic of those first two entries. I mean zero. The effects were pathetic, the story was laughable, and nobody had a clue how things work in outer space (I distinctly remember Mariel Hemingway hyperventilating when the baddie dropped her on the surface of the moon. Where she got the air to do so, I have no idea). The movie didn’t just disappoint me; it shit on my memories, and my dislike of it remains as strong today as ever.

So what happened to the Superman series that caused it to go out with a whimper instead of a bang? The answer is simple: the first movies were produced by Warner Brothers, a top-tier Hollywood studio. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was made by Cannon.

Directed by Mark Hartley (the man behind the superior documentary Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation), Electric Boogaloo covers the careers of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, a pair of cousins from Israel who loved movies so much that they decided to make some of their own. After scoring major hits in their home country (Lemon Popsicle, a nudity-laced look at teenage life in Tel Aviv, is still one of that country’s biggest Box Office successes), the two headed to America where, in 1979, they took control of Cannon Films, at the time a small, struggling studio. Putting the focus squarely on B-movies, the duo produced flicks like Enter the Ninja, The Last American Virgin (a U.S. remake of Lemon Popsicle), and Death Wish II. Golan was a filmmaker at heart, and left the financial side of the business to his partner Globus, who many called the more “reasonable” of the two. For a while, their approach worked; throughout the ‘80s, Cannon turned out dozens and dozens of low-budget pictures each and every year, a few of which actually made money.

Some of their films weren’t very good (The Apple was Golan’s attempt to duplicate Ken Russell’s Tommy, and was received so poorly at its premiere that audience members tossed the free soundtrack CDs they were given at the screen), while others were a lot of fun (I’m a fan of the movies they made with Chuck Norris, including Missing in Action and The Delta Force; and the hugely popular Breakin’ is credited with inspiring the decade’s break dancing craze). But Cannon put out more misses than hits, and their reputation as schlockmeisters was well-known throughout Hollywood. In an attempt to make more “respectable” films, they tried teaming with established directors like Franco Zeffirelli and John Cassavetes (I had no idea until watching this documentary that Golan and Globus financed Barbet Schroeder’s Barfly), then turned their attention towards bigger budgeted pictures. Unfortunately, this new way of thinking didn’t jive with the low-budget model that made them a success, and as a result Cannon Films collapsed, causing Golan and Globus to part ways.

As he did with Not Quite Hollywood, Hartley jams as much info into Electric Boogaloo as he possibly can, interviewing writers, producers, editors, and actors who worked for Cannon over the years, then pairing these segments with plenty of movie clips, behind-the-scenes photos and contemporary news coverage of both the studio and the two men behind it. Many of those who agreed to be interviewed didn’t have nice things to say about either Golan or Globus; Bo Derek, who along with her husband John made Bolero for Cannon in 1984, remembers the duo bashing her in the press (based on the dailies, they felt the movie, despite tons of nudity, wasn’t erotic enough), and she even accused Golan and Globus of swiping photos from her bag after a meeting, then using them as publicity stills (Ms. Derek’s animosity towards Cannon was nothing, however, compared to that of another actress, who so loathed the studio that, during her interview segment, she tried to set fire to a video copy of the Cannon movie she appeared in).

But then not everyone was harsh: Robert Forster (co-star of The Delta Force) remembers Golan fondly, calling him one of the best directors he ever worked with; and others (a few of whom were tossing out snide remarks by the dozen) begrudgingly admired Golan’s “grab it by the throat” approach to filmmaking (some of the stories concerning his behind-the-scenes antics are priceless).

And while I agree that Cannon, under Golan and Globus, made more than their share of turkeys, there’s also something quite endearing about the two men, whose love of movies inspired nearly every aspect of their lives. As a film fanatic myself, I recognize the love they put into their productions (even the bad ones), and admire the hell out of them for doing things on their own terms. Ridicule them if you must, but Golan, Globus, and Cannon were an integral part of the 1980s, and regardless of whether or not people give them credit for changing the cinematic landscape during that decade, that’s exactly what they did.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

#2,194. Wide Open (1974)

Directed By: Gustav Wiklund

Starring: Kent-Arne Dahlgren, Solveig Andersson, Gunilla Larsson

AKA: "In the Netherlands this film was released as Loose Morals in Sweden"

Trivia: Per the director, Christina Lindberg demanded 1,500 Krona a day to do this film. As a result, they could only afford her for 2 days, so her role was substantially reduced

One look at the DVD cover, and I knew I had to see Wide Open. It’s no secret that I absolutely adore Christina Lindberg, who I consider to be one of the most gorgeous women in the history of the cinema, and the prospect of seeing another of her films was an appealing one. 

So, imagine my disappointment when I realized that, despite her nude body emblazoned on the DVD packaging, she was barely in this damn movie at all!

Taxi driver Paul (Kent-Arne Dahlgren) lives with his girlfriend Marianne (Solveig Andersson). After a run-in with his drunken father (Åke Fridell) at the race track, Paul brings the old man home, only to surprise Marianne, who at the time was walking around in the nude. Marianne agrees to let Paul’s dad sleep there for the night, but reminds Paul that he agreed to accompany her to a party later that evening, which will be screening a film that starred her little sister Beryl (Gunilla Larsson). Alas, the screening doesn’t go well at all (though Paul did get lucky with a random blonde in a back room), and a dejected Beryl decides that, like Paul’s dad, she’s going to crash at Marianne’s place for a few days.

The next morning, Marianne flies out of town on business, leaving Paul and Beryl on their own (by this point, his father has sobered up and gone home). While out looking for a job, Beryl runs into Eva (Lindberg), a fashion model whose specialty is posing in the buff. On a whim, Beryl tags along with Eva to her photo shoot, and ends up posing for some nudes herself. 

Well, her pics were obviously a hit, because a few days later Beryl is contacted by a man offering her a job that pays more than she’s ever earned before. With things looking up for her, Beryl and Paul decide to pay a visit to Beryl’s new friend Eva, who lives with her boyfriend Peter (Leif Ahrle). After the four agree to do a little partner swapping, Beryl heads out for cigarettes and is accidentally locked out of the apartment.

In what appears to be an act of kindness, a passerby referred to in the credits only as Mr. X (Jan-Olof Rydqvist) offers the stranded Beryl a lift to his place, saying she can sleep in his spare room for the night. His true intentions soon become apparent, however, when, after Beryl settles in, Mr. X bursts into the room and attacks her with a whip (the guy was a lot kinkier than he looked). To escape, Beryl runs from Mr. X’s house and, in her haste, picks up the wrong coat. It isn’t until later on that she realizes the fur coat she grabbed had packets of illegal drugs sewn into it. Needless to say, Mr. X wants the coat back, and sends his buffoon henchman (Tor Isedal) to track down Beryl (he never did get her name) and do whatever is necessary to retrieve what is rightfully his.

That’s a hell of a lot of plot for a soft-core sex comedy, and Wide Open is far too intricate for its own good (I didn’t even touch on the fact that, aside from Marianne and the blonde at the party, Paul is also having sex with Beryl and Eva on a regular basis). Even more perplexing are the seemingly random moments that director Wiklund includes from time to time; in one scene, a naked Eva is being roused out of bed by her boyfriend Peter, and in the very next she’s doing the nasty with Paul in a stable, with no explanation how either of them got there!

The icing on the cake, though, is the character of Paul, the slob who has sex with every beauty in this movie. Simply put, he’s a mean-hearted bastard from start to finish, insulting the girls every chance he gets and sleeping with first one and then the other, sometimes in the same night (the award for “Biggest Prick of the Film”, however, goes to Peter, who, in one bizarre sequence, kicks Eva right on her bare ass, knocking the poor girl to the ground). While Wide Open does deliver on its promise of nudity (including Lindberg, who, in her few short scenes, is rarely dressed), there’s not much else to it that’s worth noting.

Even if Christina Lindberg had a bigger role in Wide Open, I doubt I would have liked it very much; the film is far too scatterbrained and more than a little misogynistic. But because they drew me into watching this mess with the promise that she was its star, I kinda loathe this movie right now.

Of course, that feeling will eventually dissipate. Even if it did steer me wrong, I can’t stay mad at Christina Lindberg forever!

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

#2,193. The Ice Pirates (1984)

Directed By: Stewart Raffill

Starring: Robert Urich, Mary Crosby, Michael D. Roberts

Tag line: "See A Totally Spaced Adventure!"

Trivia: According to a crew member, this film's entire sound team was fired mid-production and replaced without explanation

A 1984 sci-fi / comedy / adventure, writer-director Stewart Raffill’s The Ice Pirates has a great cast and a few fun scenes, but never comes together as it should.

The known universe is controlled by a tyrannical group known as the Knights Templar, and the most valuable substance isn’t gold or jewels, but water. The Templars jealously guard the water supply for the entire region, fighting off any and all pirates who try to steal from their reserves. Jason (Robert Urich) is the captain of one such pirate vessel, and along with his crew, which includes Roscoe (Michael D. Roberts), Zeno (Ron Perlman), and Maida (Angelica Huston), he infiltrates a Templar space cruiser to pilfer as much ice as he can. To his surprise, this particular ship is also carrying the Princess Karina (Mary Crosby). Ignoring the protests of his crew, Jason kidnaps the Princess in order to demand a large ransom for her return. But instead, he and Roscoe are captured and sentenced to life on a slave planet, where, upon their arrival, they will be immediately castrated.

Fortunately for them, Princess Karina herself comes to their rescue; not only does she prevent their castration, but she also helps Jason and Roscoe escape. In return, the Princess asks Jason and his crew, as well as their new friend Killjoy (John Matuszak), a fellow prisoner who also managed to escape, to help her track down her father, who disappeared while searching for the fabled “Seventh Planet”. Rumored to contain enough water to end the current drought, the “Seventh Planet” lies just beyond a rift in space, and all who approach it find themselves at the mercy of its time-altering powers. But with the promise of more water than they’ve ever seen, Jason gladly agrees to the Princess’s request, and sets off in search of a planet that, by some accounts, might not even exist.

The Ice Pirates features an excellent cast: Robert Urich is fine as the captain, and Michael D. Roberts makes for a good first mate (his Roscoe is also something of an electronics whiz, working on all the ship’s robots to ensure they’re in tip-top shape). However, it’s the supporting players, an admittedly odd mix, who really draw your attention. Angelica Huston, a scant 2 years away from her Oscar win for Prizzi’s Honor, is both bad-ass and sexy as the no-nonsense Maida, while Mr. Hellboy himself, Ron Perlman, gives it his all in what was only his second big-screen appearance (his first being 1981’s Quest for Fire). In addition, former NFL star John Matuszak is both funny and convincing as the sly Killjoy, who, despite being sentenced to the slave planet along with Jason and Roscoe, was never in as much danger as our heroes (from the moment we meet him, it’s obvious Killjoy is one crafty devil). Hollywood legend John Carradine pops up in a brief cameo as well, playing the aged commander of the Knights Templar.

I also enjoyed the film’s action scenes, which borrowed heavily from the swashbuckler era, a la Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood; characters swing from hanging wires as if they were ropes or vines, and fight each other not with lasers, but swords (even the Knights Templar dress as if it was the Middle Ages, wearing chain mail and battle helmets). 

Alas, the comedic sequences in The Ice Pirates, most of which revolve around robots and droids, never really click (unlike most sci-fi flicks, the robots in this movie are bungling idiots, and tend to fall apart rather easily). Worse yet is the film’s structure, which, to put it plainly, is far too chaotic. Once the quest for the Seventh Planet begins, the movie isn’t so much a straightforward narrative as it is a series of random scenes, some of which feel as if they were forced in with a crowbar (though definitely cool, an entire sequence set on a desert planet does nothing to move the story forward, and could have easily been left on the cutting room floor).

It’s a shame, too, because The Ice Pirates had a fun, low-budget ‘80s vibe to it, and sometimes that alone is enough for me to enjoy a movie. In the case of this film, though, not even a truckload of nostalgia could save it from mediocrity.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

#2,192. Point Break (1991)

Directed By: Kathryn Bigelow

Starring: Patrick Swayze, Keanu Reeves, Gary Busey

Tag line: "27 banks in three years - anything to catch the perfect wave!"

Trivia: Keanu Reeves, who learned to surf for his role, still surfs as a hobby to this day

I’m sure I’m not the first person to call 1991’s Point Break an adrenaline rush, but that’s exactly what this movie is. On second thought, I take that back: a well-paced thriller with a top-notch cast and a dozen or so great action scenes, Point Break is not just an adrenaline rush… it’s the adrenaline rush.

Rookie FBI agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) has been assigned to the Bureau’s Los Angeles branch, where he’s teamed with seasoned veteran Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey). Their first case as partners is to track down a gang of bank robbers known as the “Ex-Presidents” (because they wear masks of former US presidents Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Lyndon B. Johnson). Over the past 3 years, the Ex-Presidents have ripped off two dozen or so L.A. banks, stealing only the money in the cash drawers and making sure they’re in and out in 90 seconds flat. Despite having very few clues to go on, Agent Pappas believes the crooks are surfers, and are using their ill-gotten gains to keep them afloat during the summer months (every robbery has thus far occurred between June and October).

Against the better judgment of his direct superior, Agent Ben Harp (John C. McGinley), Johnny goes undercover, posing as a wannabe surfer, in the hopes it will help he and Pappas figure out the identities of each of the “Ex-Presidents”. After coaxing Tyler Endicott (Lori Petty) to give him surf lessons, Johnny is introduced to Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), a surfer / amateur philosopher who, along with his friends (James LeGros, John Philbin, Bojesse Christopher), enjoys living life on the edge, doing everything from surfing at night to skydiving. For Bodhi, surfing is more than a sport: it’s a religion, and before long Johnny finds himself admiring his new buddy’s outlook on life. But when all signs point to the fact that Bodhi and his gang are the bank robbers he’s looking for, Johnny must decide where his loyalties lie: with the Bureau, or with his friends.

Director Kathryn Bigelow keeps the thrills coming fast and furious, loading Point Break with a number of electrifying sequences. The surfing footage, much of which plays out in slow-motion, is plenty intense on its own, but in addition the film gives us everything from car chases and shoot-outs to extreme sports (one of my favorite sequences is when Bodhi and his pals introduce Johnny to skydiving). As shot by Bigelow, even the bank robbery scenes (most of which end as abruptly as they begin) are jam-packed with excitement.

The cast is beyond superb. Gary Busey is at his manic best as Johnny’s oft-unhinged partner, and while Lori Petty may not look like a surfer (what with her slight frame and short black hair), she represents the ladies well, holding her own in what is an otherwise all-male production. As for the film’s lead characters, Keanu Reeves is spot-on as FBI Agent Johnny Utah, but it’s Patrick Swayze as Bodhi who steals the show. A complex individual, Bodhi is on a never-ending search for the ultimate thrill, yet at the same time is the film’s most spiritual character (while sitting around a beach campfire with his compatriots, Bodhi gets all philosophical, saying what they’re doing isn’t for the money, but “to show those guys that are inching their way on the freeways in their metal coffins that the human spirit is still alive”). As brave as he is intelligent, Swayze’s Bodhi is arguably one of the most likable villains in cinematic history, and we can’t help but root for him a little.

I like Point Break a bit more each time I see it, and thanks in large part to the work of its great cast and crew, it ranks as one of the seminal action films of the 1990s.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

#2,191. Dumb & Dumber (1994)

Directed By: Peter Farrelly, Bobby Farrelly

Starring: Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels, Lauren Holly

Tag line: "What the one doesn't have, the other is missing"

Trivia: Harry and Lloyd are named after silent comedy star Harold Lloyd

In the 1990s, the Farrelly Brothers (aka Bobby and Peter) turned out a trio of uproariously funny comedies. My favorite of the bunch is 1996’s Kingpin, but ‘98s There’s Something About Mary had its moments as well (Matt Dillon delivers a line in that movie that had me laughing out loud for about five minutes). 

Released in 1994, Dumb & Dumber is the film that started it all for the Farrellys, and as debuts go, it’s a doozy. But the jokes and general insanity are only a fraction of the film’s magic; ultimately, it’s the teaming of Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels that made Dumb & Dumber the cult classic it remains to this day.

Best friends Lloyd Christmas (Carrey) and Harry Dunne (Daniels) are two of life’s losers. Aside from living in a shabby apartment, each is out of work, leaving them with no money to pay the gas bill. 

As far as Lloyd is concerned, though, things are starting to look up; before he was fired from his job as a limo driver, he shuttled beautiful socialite Mary Swanson (Lauren Holly) to the airport and fell instantly in love with her. Lloyd even grabbed a piece of luggage that Miss Swanson left behind, and seeing as both his and Harry's schedules are wide open at the moment, Lloyd recommends that the two of them drive cross-country to Aspen, Colorado, to return this bag to her.

What Lloyd doesn’t realize is that the luggage Mary Swanson dropped actually contains ransom money, and two criminals (Mike Starr and Karen Duffy) were about to grab it before Lloyd swooped in. Hoping to retrieve the ransom, the crooks also head west, prepared to employ whatever means necessary to get the money back from our two "heroes".

Dumb & Dumber has more than its share of laugh-out-loud moments. Lloyd’s daydream, in which he imagines how Mary will react to seeing her case again, is comedy gold, though for me the funniest scene comes late in the movie, when a playful snowball fight between two characters escalates into an all-out war.

Of course, some of the film’s better sequences might have fallen flat had it not been for its two stars. Already a box-office sensation thanks to Ace Ventura Pet Detective and The Mask, Jim Carrey continued his winning streak as the dimwitted Lloyd, who, despite his eternal optimism, has a bit of a mean streak, which rears its ugly head several times during the movie (including one very memorable sequence involving a powerful laxative). This, combined with his unique facial expressions (not to mention the chipped tooth, an actual injury from his childhood), allowed Carrey to once again deliver the goods.

Normally appearing in more serious films (Terms of Endearment) as well as light comedies (The Purple Rose of Cairo), Jeff Daniels proved in Dumb & Dumber that he was just as adept at gross-out humor as his co-star. Though not nearly as manic as Lloyd, Harry still has a knack for making a mess of things (the scene where he loses his job with a dog grooming service sets the tone for his character), and Daniels’ stoic performance is the perfect counter-balance for Carrey’s unbridled madness.

While their output in the new millennium has been hit and miss, the Farrellys captured lightning in a bottle with their first three movies, and Dumb & Dumber is the film that got the comedy ball rolling.