Saturday, April 22, 2017

#2,342. Tarzan the Ape Man (1932)

Directed By: W.S. Van Dyke

Starring: Johnny Weissmuller, Maureen O'Sullivan, Neil Hamilton

Tag line: "He Knew Only The Law Of The Jungle...To Seize What He Wanted"

Trivia: Clark Gable was considered for the role of Tarzan, but was deemed too much of an unknown to play the ape man

Tarzan has been a popular cinematic hero since the days of silent movies, and in my lifetime alone there have been a number of films featuring Edgar Rice Burrough’s famous jungle dweller. The year 1981 saw the release of John Derek’s Tarzan the Ape Man (starring his wife, Bo Derek, as Jane); and Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes hit theaters in 1984. Even Disney threw their hat into the ring with an exceptional 1999 animated musical/adventure, and in 2016 Alexander Skarsgård played the title role in The Legend of Tarzan.

But for those of us who love the classics, Johnny Weissmuller will always be Tarzan, and 1932’s Tarzan the Ape Man marked the first of many times he would portray this iconic character.

Jane Parker (Maureen O’Sullivan) has made the long journey from England to Africa to visit her father James (C. Aubrey Smith), who owns a trading post that borders the jungle. But while Jane is busy taking in the rustic beauty of her new surroundings, dear old dad is trying to raise enough cash to leave Africa once and for all, and with the help of his business partner Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton), he’s concocted a scheme that will net more money than he’s ever had before. In short, James and Harry are undertaking an expedition to find the fabled Elephant Graveyard, a place that, if it exists, will surely house enough ivory to make both of them extremely rich. Against the wishes of Harry and her father, Jane decides to tag along, and together the trio (as well as a handful of servants and guides) make their way deep into the jungle.

Many dangers lie ahead of them, including snakes and crocodiles, but one thing they didn’t expect to see was Tarzan (Weissmuller), who, despite his obvious European lineage, lives among the creatures of the jungle, unable to speak or understand a word of English. Swinging through the trees from vine to vine, Tarzan abducts Jane (the first white woman he’s ever seen) and carries her back to his treetop home. As James and Harry search frantically for her, Jane tries to communicate with her captor, and over time she and Tarzan develop feelings for one another, but will love be enough to keep them together, or will their differences ultimately force them apart?

Tarzan the Ape Man is a top-notch adventure movie; even before the title character hits the screen, there’s excitement aplenty (while traveling down river on makeshift rafts, Jane and her companions encounter angry hippos and hungry crocodiles; and a walk along the side of s sheer cliff nearly costs Jane her life). Once the Ape Man himself enters the picture, the action kicks into high gear, with Tarzan and his pet chimp Cheeta dodging a steady stream of ravenous jungle cats (director Van Dyke recruited a number of real animals for the film, though Tarzan’s ape “family” was mostly men in suits).

Weissmuller may not have been the most charismatic actor ever to play Tarzan, but physically he was perfect for the role (a world-class swimmer, he won gold medals at both the 1924 and 1928 Olympics), and O’Sullivan delivers a spirited performance as Jane (carrying the scenes she shares with Weissmuller on her own). But as well-realized as these two characters are, even they take a back seat to the film’s numerous action scenes, all of which are flawlessly staged (the final sequence, when Tarzan must save Jane and the others from a violent pygmy tribe, is as thrilling as it gets).

The first in what would be a long-running series (12 movies in all), Tarzan the Ape Man is arguably the best adventure film to come out of Hollywood during the pre-code era, and one of the greatest of all-time.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

#2,341. The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975)

Directed By: Gene Wilder

Starring: Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman

Line from the film: "Is this rotten or wonderfully brave?"

Trivia: Apparently, Gene Wilder asked Mel Brooks to direct this picture. Brooks declined, stating that he would find it difficult to direct a screenplay that wasn't his own

Fresh off of Young Frankenstein, Gene Wilder wrote and directed The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, a 1975 comedy that co-starred a trio of Mel Brooks regulars (Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman, and Dom DeLuise). Brooks himself even lent his voice to the production (he utters one line, spoken off-screen, when a character walks through a wrong door). 

Unfortunately, the “Brooks Touch” could only take this film so far; intended as a spoof of a classic mystery, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother is funny in parts, but doesn’t match the sustained hilarity of Mel Brooks’ best work, making it a hit and miss affair (with more misses than hits).

A secret document that Queen Victoria (Susan Field) entrusted to the British Foreign Minister, Redcliff (John Le Mesurier), has been stolen. Instead of tackling the theft himself, renowned detective Sherlock Holmes (Douglas Wilmer) passes the case to his younger brother Sigerson (Wilder), who he hasn’t seen in years. To assist his brother, Sherlock hires Sgt. Orville Stanley Sacker (Feldman), a Scotland Yard detective with a photographic sense of hearing, and together Sacker and Sigerson begin looking for clues, knowing full well that if the document falls into the wrong hands, it could plunge England into a costly war.

Sigerson’s first break in the case comes when actress Jenny Hill (Kahn) pays him a visit. Though she’s clearly a pathological liar, the younger Holmes gathers enough information from Ms. Hill to discover that the document is currently in the hands of Opera singer Eduardo Gambetti (Dom DeLuise), who intends to sell it to none other than Sherlock Holmes’ arch-nemesis Dr. Moriarty (Leo McKern)! Despite the fact he cannot trust her, Sigerson soon falls in love with Ms. Hill, and is determined to protect her at all costs. But how does she figure into this bizarre case? Further still, can Sigerson and Sgt. Sacker retrieve the document before Morairty turns it over to a foreign power?

The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother does have some very funny moments, including Sigerson’s first meeting with Jenny Hill (Madeline Kahn, always a gifted comedienne, is especially good throughout the movie); and Moriarty’s initial attempt to buy the document from Gambetti (DeLuise is so deliciously over-the-top that you can’t help but laugh at his antics). In addition, there’s a horse-drawn carriage chase that has a great payoff, but it’s the big opera scene towards the end that is the film’s most uproarious sequence (Gambetti translated an Italian opera into English, putting his own unique spin on the story, and the result is positively hilarious).

But with its straightforward approach to its central mystery (which is never as well-defined as it should be), The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother doesn’t really work as a spoof (aside from a clever bit at the beginning, Sherlock Holmes and his illustrious sidekick Dr. Watson, played by Thorley Walters, are hardly in the movie at all), and many of the jokes fall flat (a ballroom dance scene late in the film, set moments after Sigerson and Sacker have escaped a deadly trap, drags on a bit too long to be fully effective).

I hate to dismiss the film completely, in part because I remember loving it as a kid (I recorded a sanitized version off of network TV in the ‘80s, so this is actually the first time I’ve seen the movie in its unedited form), but if it’s laughs you’re after, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother is only fitfully successful at delivering them.

Monday, April 17, 2017

#2,340. Lady Frankenstein (1971)

Directed By: Mel Welles

Starring: Joseph Cotten, Rosalba Neri, Paul Muller

Tag line: "Only The Monster She Made Could Satisfy Her Strange Desires!"

Trivia: Rob Zombie sampled a line from this film for his song "Living Dead Girl"

After years of medical training, Tania Frankenstein (Rosalba Neri) returns to her ancestral home, eager to assist her father, the Baron (Joseph Cotten), in his most recent experiment. With the help of his crippled friend (and longtime lab assistant) Charles (Paul Muller), the Baron is ready to show the world that, under the right circumstances, dead tissue can be reanimated. Using cadavers that he purchased from Lynch (Herbert Fux), a professional grave robber, the Baron does, indeed, build a man out of spare parts and bring him to life. Unfortunately, his creation is a hideous monster (Peter Whiteman) that, after murdering the Baron, escapes into the nearby woods.

Distraught over the death of her father, yet at the same time anxious to prove his theories were correct, Nadia sets to work creating a “man” of her own. Learning from the Baron’s mistakes, she intends to use the body of a handsome, backward farm boy named Thomas (Marino Masé) and the brain of her father’s longtime assistant, Charles! But as Nadia toils in the laboratory, The Baron’s monster is busy roaming the countryside, killing villagers and capturing the attention of Constable Harris (Mickey Hargitay). As Harris probes into this very strange case, Nadia draws closer to finishing her grand experiment, but will she actually succeed where her father failed, or is her “man” destined to be as unstable as the monster that is terrorizing the locals?

In the handful of films I’ve seen her in (Jess Franco’s 99 Women, Fernando DiLeo’s Slaughter Hotel), Italian-born actress Rosalba Neri was relegated to supporting roles. In 1971’s Lady Frankenstein, however, she plays Nadia, the lead, and is quite believable as a woman of science hoping to follow in her father’s footsteps. Along with Ms. Neri, Lady Frankenstein co-stars Mickey Hargitay, who, with appearances in Bloody Pit of Horror and Black Magic Rites, was himself no stranger to the cinema’s seedier side, while Joseph Cotten plays the Baron with plenty of gusto, portraying a man of science whose research sets the entire story in motion. Despite an impressive Hollywood track record, which includes Citizen Kane, The Third Man, and Shadow of a Doubt, Mr. Cotten was also an integral part of the Vincent Price vehicle The Abominable Dr. Phibes, and was effective as a scientist (and Barbara Bach’s father) in 1979’s Island of the Fishmen

With a cast like this, you might expect Lady Frankenstein to be just another sleazy European flick, and while it does have a smattering of nudity and a few genuine shocks, this 1971 movie has more in common with Hammer Studio’s classic horror films (Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula) than it does the standard ‘70s exploitation fare.

For one, the set pieces are superb; the lab in which both of the Frankensteins perform their experiments looks as if it was lifted straight out of a 1930’s Universal film, while the castle that serves as their ancestral home is as eerie as it is extravagant. In addition to its sets, Lady Frankenstein relied on several actual locations to move its story along (its exterior scenes reminded me, in a way, of Jean Rollin, who was himself a master at incorporating real locales into his movies).

Lady Frankenstein does have its weaknesses, chief among them the make-up effects (the Baron’s monster, with its protruding eye and scarred face, isn’t as creepy as it could have been). But with its gothic sensibilities, better-than-average production design, and unique approach to the time-honored story of man acting as God, Lady Frankenstein is a step or two above the typical Eurosleaze flick.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

#2,339. White Slave (1985)

Directed By: Mario Gariazzo

Starring: Elvire Audray, Will Gonzales, Dick Campbell

Tag line: "Only one thing kept her alive"

Trivia: This is the first of two movies that adopted the alternate title of Cannibal Holocaust 2

White Slave, a 1985 horror / adventure set in the jungles of South America, was released under a number of different titles, including Amazonia and, in a few European markets, Cannibal Holocaust 2, a blatant attempt to cash in on the notoriety of 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust. While there are, indeed, similarities between this movie and Deodato’s notorious film, White Slave doesn’t contain nearly as many shocks as Cannibal Holocaust, and at times is even a little dull.

Fresh out of boarding school, teenager Catherine Miles (Elvire Audray) decides to spend the summer at the South American rubber plantation owned and operated by her parents. To celebrate her arrival, Catherine’s father takes the family (including Catherine’s Aunt and Uncle) on a boat trip down the Amazon River. The good times are cut short, however, when the group is attacked by what appears to be a tribe of headhunters. Temporarily paralyzed by a poisonous dart, Catherine is eventually taken prisoner, and forced to watch as Umukai (Will Gonzales), a jungle warrior, beheads her mother and father.

Dragged to the headhunter’s village, Catherine is auctioned off to the highest bidder, who claims her as his wife. This doesn’t sit well with Umukai, who has fallen in love with Catherine, and he challenges her new husband to a fight to the death. Umukai is victorious, and over the course of several months tries to win Catherine’s heart. Because of his role in her parents’ demise, Catherine has sworn she will never submit to Umukai, and does everything she can to escape. But was Umukai actually the one who murdered her mother and father, or were they killed by someone else?

In addition to their similar settings (the jungles of South America), Cannibal Holocaust and White Slave are both presented as if they were documentaries; a large chunk of White Slave takes place inside a courtroom, where Catherine, months after her captivity has ended, is standing trial for murder (to explain this further constitute a spoiler). But with its story of a white person being integrated into a primitive tribe, White Slave has more in common with 1972’s Man from Deep River, the 1972 Umberto Lenzi movie that’s credited with kicking off the cannibal subgenre, than it does Cannibal Holocaust. Unfortunately, White Slave has a few too many scenes set in the headhunters’ village, and after a while Catherine’s ordeal begins to lose its potency. Worse still, there are sequences that are downright boring. And while Cannibal Holocaust did a decent job showing how “civilized” people could be more barbaric than so-called “savages”, White Slave’s attempts to do the same fail to hit the mark (a late scene involving a pair of hunters in a helicopter is anything but subtle).

As with most cannibal films from this era, White Slave has its share of extreme content (Elvire Audray is topless during her entire stay with the natives, and the scene in which Catherine’s parents are beheaded is appropriately gruesome), and even features a couple of animal deaths (unlike Cannibal Holocaust, however, the jungle creatures in White Slave are killed not by humans, but by other animals). The movie is also quite beautiful, taking full advantage of its picturesque setting. In the end, though, White Slave is too lethargically paced to be effective, and even with its handful of exciting moments is never as interesting as its predecessors.

Friday, April 14, 2017

#2,338. The Last Days of Disco (1998)

Directed By: Whit Stillman

Starring: Chloë Sevigny, Kate Beckinsale, Chris Eigeman

Tag line: "History is made at night"

Trivia: The disco seen in the movie was actually an old movie theater being renovated in Jersey City, New Jersey

The third in a trilogy, 1998’s The Last Days of Disco is nonetheless the only Whit Stillman film I’ve seen thus far (this movie, as well as 1990’s Metropolitan and 1994's Barcelona, make up what has been deemed the writer / director’s “Doomed Bourgeois in Love” series). And based on what Stillman accomplished with this movie, which features complex, well-rounded characters that are not nearly as mature as they think, it looks as if I’ve been missing out on something special.

By day, college graduates Alice (Chloë Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) work as proofreaders for a prestigious New York publishing company. But when the sun goes down, these two best friends head to New York’s hottest nightclub, where disco music fills the air and many of the city’s most eligible bachelors hang out. Alice, in particular, has the hots for two guys: Tom (Robert Sean Leonard), a lawyer who recently separated from his longtime girlfriend; and Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin), a junior executive at an advertising firm.

Part of Jimmy’s job (as least how he sees it) is to usher his company’s clients to the nightclub and show them a good time. Yet even though he’s friends with Des (Chris Eigeman), one of the club’s managers, Jimmy has been barred by the owner, Bernie (David Thornton), who dislikes people in advertising. Realizing his pal could lose his job, Des continues to sneak Jimmy into the club but learns he himself may be unemployed soon when Josh (Matt Keeslar), an assistant District Attorney, tells Des that Bernie and his nightclub are being investigated for tax evasion and other illegal activities.

Set in the early 1980s, The Last Days of Disco has a great soundtrack that includes some of the period’s biggest hits (“Le Freak” by Chic, “Turn the Beat Around” by Vicki Sue Robinson, Blondie’s “Heart of Glass”, and that perennial disco classic, Alicia Bridges’ “I Love the Nightlife”), and as a result the nightclub scenes have an undeniable energy. But more than a simple homage to a bygone era, The Last Days of Disco is an engrossing character study, throwing the spotlight on a group of well-to-do people who are ultimately very selfish.

Chloe Sevigny delivers an incredibly nuanced performance as Alice, the most down-to-earth of the bunch, who often wonders (along with the rest of us) why she remains friends with the shallow, occasionally cruel Charlotte (much of the so-called “advice” that Charlotte gives Alice, from how to talk to guys to what books they should recommend at work, usually leads to disaster). From early on, it’s clear that Charlotte, played quite well by Beckinsale (in her first American role), is jealous of Alice’s potential, and we sense from the get-go that their friendship isn’t going to last.

Not to be outdone, the male characters in The Last Days of Disco are every bit as self-serving as Charlotte. Tom does eventually hook up with Alice, only to spring the news that he’s reuniting with his girlfriend (but not before giving Alice a going-away present: a venereal disease). Jimmy, who lives in fear of being fired, has no problem putting his buddy Des’s job in jeopardy; at one point, Jimmy and two of his clients don Halloween costumes and sneak into the club. As for Des, he’s a drug addict who dumps women by telling them he’s gay, and while he’s clearly intelligent (his opinions on “Yuppies”, or “Young, upwardly-mobile professionals”, are thought-provoking), he’s also an habitual liar, and has been known to do some very stupid things (he rarely hides the fact he’s using drugs). Josh, who suffered a mental breakdown a few years prior, is more mature than the other guys, yet fails to act when he develops feelings for Alice, choosing instead to sit back and watch as she dates a series of men (including a brief tryst with Des) who aren’t good for her.

Their foibles aside, each and every character in The Last Days of Disco is fascinating in their own right, but most of what makes them so is Stillman’s clever, witty dialogue. Whether it’s Charlotte giving Alice more bad advice, or a debate on the merits (or lack thereof) of Disney’s animated film Lady and the Tramp, Stillman manages to convince us that even the most loathsome, self-absorbed individual can have something interesting to say, 

Across the board, the performances in The Last Days of Disco are top-notch, but it’s Stillman’s script that brings these flawed men and women so convincingly to life.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

#2,337. Terror in the Aisles (1984)

Directed By: Andrew J. Kuehn

Starring: Donald Pleasence, Nancy Allen

Tag line: "It's only a movie, but it's more than enough"

Trivia: The producers had to edit the film in order to avoid an X rating from the MPAA, despite the fact that none of the films featured had received a rating higher than R when they were initially released

As you watch the screen, your heart begins to beat faster. There’s a fluttering in the pit of your stomach. Your throat is dry, your palms damp. Suddenly a chill runs down your spine. You clutch the person next to you

You tell yourself it’s only a movie

Produced in 1984, Terror in the Aisles is a documentary that centers on the horror genre, and features clips from some of the finest fright movies ever made.

Hosted by Donald Pleasance and Nancy Allen (both of whom spend the entire film in a crowded movie theater), Terror in the Aisles covers the gamut, traveling back in time to the early days of horror with scenes from The Wolf Man, Bride of Frankenstein, 1958’s The Fly and Psycho, while also throwing a spotlight on what in 1984 were the genre’s most recent entries (Friday the 13th Part 2, Halloween 2, An American Werewolf in London, The Thing, and Firestarter). In addition to the scares, Terror in the Aisles takes a long, hard look at thrillers; there’s an interview with Alfred Hitchcock in which he discusses the difference between “shock” and “suspense”, as well as clips from such award-winning thrillers as Midnight Express, Klute and Marathon Man

From start to finish, Terror in the Aisles is a loving tribute to cinematic horror, but I have to admit that I was baffled by some of the movies that director Andrew J. Kuehn and his team chose to include. As mentioned above, there’s an extended sequence dedicated to thrillers that focuses primarily on three films: Marathon Man, Nighthawks (a 1981 crime/drama starring Sylvester Stallone and Rutger Hauer) and the underrated Vice Squad. I enjoyed this segment, even if it did feel out of place in a horror documentary, but what really left me scratching my head was the inclusion of a brief scene from Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (and a romantic one at that)!

Also perplexing was the choice of movies used to fill each segment. At one point, Pleasance waxes poetic about the role that Satan has played in a variety of horror films, which is immediately followed by clips from what I consider the “Big Three” of devil films, namely Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and The Omen). But in addition, this segment featured scenes from Jaws, Carrie, and even John Carpenter’s The Thing, all classics in their own right, but in no way Satanic in nature.

Yet as confusing as its segments could be, what bothered me most were some of the clips that the filmmakers selected. In short, they spoil a good number of horror classics, highlighting the final scenes from such movies as Psycho, The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby, ’78’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Halloween 2, and David Cronenberg’s Scanners, just to name a few. Normally, a movie like Terror in the Aisles would be the perfect film to show a new fan of the genre, as a means of introducing him or her to some of horror’s most time-honored motion pictures, but with so many spoilers crammed into its 84-minutes, I’d recommend that novices avoid this documentary completely.

For the rest of us, though, Terror in the Aisles is an entertaining love letter to the best of what horror has to offer, and even with its flaws I found it to be a refreshing, fun-filled walk down memory lane.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

#2,336. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Directed By: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie

Line from the film: "On a daily basis I consume enough drugs to sedate Manhattan, Long Island, and Queens for a month"

Trivia: The actors snorted crushed B vitamins for scenes that involved cocaine

Even at age 70, director Martin Scorsese can turn out a hip, stylish motion picture, and that's exactly what 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street is.

Based on a true story, The Wolf of Wall Street introduces us to Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), who in the 1980’s was an up-and-coming stockbroker, eager to make his mark on Wall Street. Unfortunately, his arrival coincided with the market crash of October 19, 1987, and as a result, his career was seemingly over before it began.

To make ends meet, Jordan accepted a job at a small Long Island brokerage that specialized in penny stocks, and made enough money there to go out on his own. Partnering up with his neighbor Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), Jordan hired old friends and trained them in the fine art of selling penny stocks to rich suckers. Within a few years, Jordan Belfort was back on Wall Street, and his company, Stratton Oakmont, was raking in millions.

Unfortunately, Jordan's rapid success went straight to his head; he and his co-workers regularly invited prostitutes up to the office, and Jordan began experimenting with every drug imaginable, from Quaaludes to cocaine. He divorced his wife Teresa (Cristin Milioti) to marry supermodel Naomi (Margot Robbie), and the wild parties he threw on his custom yacht would have made a college fraternity blush. Before long, all of New York was talking about Jordan Belfort, and his meteoric rise caught the attention of FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), who dug deep enough into Stratton Oakmont’s business practices to put Jordan and his team behind bars for many, many years.

Jordan’s father, Max (Rob Reiner), who also acted as his business manager, begged Jordan to make a deal with the feds that would keep him out of prison. But Jordan Belfort wasn’t about to go quietly into the night, and it would take a series of scandals to bring his reign as “The Wolf of Wall Street” to an end.

As with many of Scorsese’s best works, The Wolf of Wall Street has its share of awesome scenes. An early sequence where Jordan demonstrates to Donnie and the others how to unload a worthless stock on a wealthy client is as funny as it is distasteful, and a speech Jordan delivers to his employees late in the movie, in which he was to announce his retirement (he changes his mind midway through), was dramatic enough to bring a tear to my eye. Yet, for my money, the film’s single greatest sequence has Jordan and Donnie taking outdated Quaaludes by the handful, only to discover later on (and at a very inopportune time) that the pills they believed lost their potency simply had a delayed effect.

From top to bottom, the cast of The Wolf of Wall Street is superb; DiCaprio received a Best Actor nomination for his performance as Jordan Belfort (and, in my opinion, he should have won it), while Jonah Hill breathes enough life into Donnie to take what is essentially a scuzzball character and make him a bit more tolerable. In addition, Margot Robbie is as effective as she is sexy playing Naomi, the woman who stood by Jordan’s side through the ups and downs, while Rob Reiner steals a scene or two as Max, the sole voice of reason in Jordan Belfort’s otherwise chaotic life. Yet the true star of The Wolf of Wall Street is its director, whose highly-stylized approach to the material (swooping cameras, slow-motion, engaging narration, etc.) helped make The Wolf of Wall Street the best movie I’ve seen this decade.

Of course, Martin Scorsese is no stranger to greatness; in each of the previous four decades, he managed to turn out at least one masterpiece. In the ‘70s, it was Taxi Driver, and just as the ‘80s were getting underway he hit us with Raging Bull. Throw in Goodfellas (which kicked off the ‘90s) and The Departed (the 2006 movie that finally netted him an Academy Award), and you have what is already one hell of a filmography.

It’s way too early to close the books on Scorsese in the 2010’s. But even if he fails to deliver at his normal level from here on out, at least he gave us The Wolf of Wall Street, and in so doing has continued what is a truly remarkable streak.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

#2,335. The Final Destination (2009)

Directed By: David R. Ellis

Starring: Nick Zano, Krista Allen, Andrew Fiscella

Tag line: "Just because you know it's happening, doesn't mean you'll see it coming"

Trivia: This is the only Final Destination movie with a sex scene

The fourth movie in the Final Destination series, 2009’s The Final Destination gives us more of the same, only this time the filmmakers felt that showing the deaths and dismemberments in 3-D would be a good idea. It wasn’t, and along with the obligatory shots of things flying towards the screen, The Final Destination features piss-poor CGI and kill scenes that are more ridiculous than they are creative.

A day at the races quickly turns into a nightmare when a violent crash sends vehicles and debris flying into the crowd. Fortunately, a handful of people are able to avoid the disaster when Nick (Bobby Campo), who was attending the race with girlfriend Lori (Shantel VanSanten) and their pals Hunt (Nick Zano) and Janet (Haley Webb), has a premonition of the carnage to come.

But in the days that follow, as the four friends and the others, including a security guard (Mykelti Williamson), a young mother of two (Krista Allen), and a heavy-drinking racist (Justin Welborn) contemplate what might have happened if Nick hadn’t seen the future, death starts catching up with them, and one by one the survivors meet a grisly end.

Nick, who’s continuing premonitions show him bits and pieces of each recurring death, teams up with Lori to try to break the cycle, hoping that, if they save one person from the grim reaper, the rest will be spared. Of course, knowing when and where death will come knocking, and who the next victim will be, isn’t going to be easy, but it’s the only chance they have to stay alive.

As with the three previous films in the series, The Final Destination wastes no time at all, and within the first 10 minutes or so we’re treated to all sorts of bloody violence (courtesy of everything from collapsing walls to engines that fly through the air). The problem is that every kill is rendered via CG, and because the budget didn’t allow for tens of millions of dollars to do it right, there’s not a single death that looks convincing.

Yet what ultimately sinks the film is its convoluted kill scenes. The first three movies had their share of ludicrous kills, but in The Final Destination director David R. Ellis and his team took just about every death sequence five steps too far, setting them up with needless shots (shaky ceiling fans, spilling gas cans, etc) and then making them so outrageously complex that a few actually made me laugh (the first “post-race” kill, which involves a tow truck, is bizarre enough, but compared to what follows it’s downright subtle!)

As silly as they could be at times, I enjoyed the series’ first three movies, but The Final Destination proved to be a major disappointment.

Monday, April 10, 2017

#2,334. Ladyhawke (1985)

Directed By: Richard Donner

Starring: Matthew Broderick, Rutger Hauer, Michelle Pfeiffer

Tag line: "A Magical Mystical Adventure"

Trivia: Rutger Hauer doesn't appear until 15 minutes into the film

Director Richard Donner’s Ladyhawke qualifies as yet another entry in the already-crowded genre of ‘80s fantasy, only this time it’s not magic, dragons, or barbarians that take center stage, but a good old-fashioned love story.

After escaping from the prison at Aquila (and thus avoiding his date with the hangman), pickpocket Phillipe Gaston (Matthew Broderick) travels the countryside, all the while dodging the guards that the Bishop (John Wood) has sent to recapture him. Things look bleak for Gaston when Marquet (Ken Hutchinson), the leader of the guard, finally catches up with him in a small village. It's at this point that Etainne Navarre (Rutger Hauer) intervenes, fighting off Marquet and his men and in the process freeing Gaston from their clutches. A former Captain of the Guard, Navarre is on his way back to Aquila to kill the Bishop, and Gaston (as thanks for saving his life) agrees to act as his squire. During the journey, Gaston notices that Navarre is especially fond of his pet hawk, which never leaves his side.

As the sun begins to set, the two men settle down in an old barn for the night, and as the hours pass, Gaston, unable to sleep, decides to go for a walk. To his horror, he’s attacked by a ferocious wolf, which chases him back to the barn. In a panic, Gaston calls for Navarre, who is nowhere to be found. Instead, a beautiful woman emerges from the darkness, and, to Gaston’s surprise, she quiets the wolf simply by talking to it. Her name is Isabeau (Michelle Pfeiffer), and try as he might, Gaston is unable to find out where she came from.

By sunrise the next morning, Isabeau is gone. Navarre, meanwhile, has returned, and is more resolute than ever to carry out his mission.

What is the connection between Isabeau and Navarre? Why does one disappear during the day and the other at night? Why is Navarre so anxious to kill the Bishop? A perplexed Gaston cannot answer these questions, but remains confident that all will be revealed when he and his mysterious companions finally reach Aquila. 

I probably could have taken this synopsis a bit further, but those who have seen Ladyhawke will understand why I didn't (and everyone who has yet to experience it will be glad I held back).

What I can discuss, though, are the performances. Matthew Broderick is quite good as Gaston, who, along with serving as the comic relief in a number of scenes (his run-in with Marquet is as humorous as it is exciting), proves to be the perfect companion for both Navarre and Isabeau, ready to stand and fight alongside them when the need arises. In addition to Broderick, Leo McKern plays Father Imperius, a priest looking to correct a mistake he made years earlier; and John Wood is deliciously evil as the egomaniacal Bishop, a man of God who occasionally resorts to black magic to get his way. That said, it's Hauer and Pfieffer, both pitch-perfect in their respective roles, who give the film its romantic edge, playing a man and woman dealing with a terrible curse and doing everything they can to end their suffering. It's their story that drives the movie forward and we the audience are drawn into it completely.

Ladyhawke is, indeed, a solid fantasy film (director Donner uses special FX sparingly, relying more on camera tricks to bring this mystical world to life) and also works well as an adventure (I especially liked the scene in which three of the Bishop’s guards storm Father Imperius’ Monastery looking for Gaston and Navarre). But like Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride,, first and foremost, a love story (albeit an unorthodox one), and its romantic moments are sure to bring a smile to your face and a tear to your eye.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

#2,333. Night Shift (1982)

Directed By: Ron Howard

Starring: Henry Winkler, Michael Keaton, Shelley Long

Tag line: "The oldest profession in a new-look comedy"

Trivia: Kevin Costner plays Frat Boy #1 in what was only his second film role ever

I must have seen Night Shift twenty times on cable TV, and it always made me laugh. An early comedy by director Ron Howard, Night Shift gave Michael Keaton his first major film role, and the young actor definitely made the most of it! 

New York City morgue employee Chuck Lumley (Henry Winkler) is one of life’s losers. Pushed around by his weight obsessed fiancée (Gina Hecht), Chuck has also just been demoted to the night shift, putting up no fight at all when he realizes the boss’s nephew (Bobby DiCicco) has been given his old position. To make matters worse, Chuck has to break in a new partner: loud-mouth Bill Blazejowski (Keaton), whose incessant chatter and harebrained schemes turn the normally peaceful morgue into a madhouse.

As Chuck soon discovers, though, he’s not the only one with problems. Sexy prostitute Belinda (Shelley Long), who lives in the apartment next to his, recently lost her longtime pimp (Julius LeFlore), who was murdered by a pair of thugs (Radja Dhola and Richard Belzer). As a result, she and many other “ladies of the evening” have nobody to protect them. Chuck makes the mistake of telling Bill about Belinda’s situation, leading the self-proclaimed “idea man” to suggest that he and Chuck fill the void left by the pimp’s death. In short, Bill proposes that they turn the morgue in an escort service! Yet as outlandish as this idea sounds, Chuck (who is falling in love with Belinda) goes along with it, and before long the two partners are making a boatload of money. But while Bill is having the time of his life, Chuck can't help but wonder what will happen when the law finally catches up with them.

Henry Winkler, better known to audiences as “The Fonz” in the ‘70s sitcom Happy Days, sheds his ultra-cool persona to play Chuck, a timid, painfully shy underdog who, in spite of his many phobias, is a likable guy. Shelley Long, a year or so away from her breakout role as barmaid Diane in Cheers, is equally effective as the hooker who steals Chuck’s heart, and the scenes in which Winkler and Long appear together are among the movie’s best. I also have to give some props to director Ron Howard and screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, who took what could have easily been a sleazy, exploitative story about pimps and prostitutes and turned it into a funny, occasionally endearing motion picture.

But from the moment he steps on-screen, his Walkman blasting The Rolling Stones’ "Jumpin’ Jack Flash", Night Shift belongs to Michael Keaton. As the often frantic Bill Blazejowski, a guy with so many ideas that he has to carry around a tape recorder to remember them all, Keaton is flat-out hilarious, making us laugh at his antics while, at the same time, infusing the character with enough warmth and humanity to ensure he’s the perfect friend for someone like Chuck.

Michael Keaton went on to have a stellar career after Night Shift, starring in such movies as Beetlejuice, 1989’s Batman, and, more recently, a pair of Best Picture winners (Birdman and Spotlight). If you want to see the film that made all this possible, then this ‘80s comedy gem should be the very next one you watch.

Friday, April 7, 2017

#2,332. Weekend Pass (1984)

Directed By: Lawrence Bassoff

Starring: Patrick Houser, Chip McAllister, D.W. Brown

Tag line: "72 Hours of liberty to forget everything the navy taught them"

Trivia: When shown on TV in Germany, this film's title was changed to Come to the Navy, Baby

Weekend Pass, an ‘80s sex comedy about four Navy recruits enjoying a weekend of freedom in Los Angeles, fizzles out way before the final credits roll.

With their training at an end, four Navy seamen are granted a 72-hour pass, and head to Los Angeles for a wild weekend of sex and debauchery. Once they’ve settled in, Webster Adams (Patrick Houser) gets in touch with former college classmate Cindy Hazard (Hilary Shepard) in the hopes she’ll show him a good time. Bunker Hill (Chip McAllister), who grew up in L.A., falls for aerobics instructor Tina (Pamela G. Kay), then spends most of the weekend trying to hook up with her; while Paul Fricker (D.W. Brown), who considers himself a funny guy, arranges to perform a stand-up routine at a popular comedy club. As for Lester Gidley (Peter Ellenstein), he’s working up the nerve to call the niece of his commanding officer, to ask her out on a blind date.

Not everything will go according to plan for these four recruits, but by the time the weekend is over, they’ll have forged a bond of friendship that will likely last forever.

Weekend Pass gets off to a decent start, with the main characters visiting a strip club (Webster makes a bet with the others that he can get the phone number of sexy stripper Tuesday Del Munco, played by Sara Costa, only to fall flat on his face while talking to her). From there, it’s off to Venice Beach to check out some bikini babes (and, apparently, as we see in one of the film’s many montages, play with a few wind-up toys on the boardwalk).

From this point on, though, Weekend Pass is more of a hit and miss affair. I liked the sequence where Bunker Hill, while showing his fellow recruits around the old neighborhood, squares off against Bertram (Grand L. Bush), the new leader of the street gang that Bunker himself once ran with, but an extended scene in which Lester gets a massage from a topless Asian beauty (Cheryl Song) fails to generate a single laugh.

Things go from bad to worse as Weekend Pass progresses; the best part of the comedy club sequence (which drags on way too long) is that if features late comedian Phil Hartman in an early film role (he plays Joe Chicago, the emcee of the club’s amateur night). As for the movie’s finale, which tries to throw some sentimentality into the mix, it is almost painful to watch.

I was shocked to discover that Weekend Pass was a box office hit for Crown International, pulling in just over $21 million during its theatrical run. I wonder if all those people who paid to see this movie felt as cheated by it as I do. A sex comedy with no sex and hardly any laughs, Weekend Pass is a waste of time.

Monday, April 3, 2017

#2,331. Choke Canyon (1986)

Directed By: Charles Bail

Starring: Stephen Collins, Janet Julian, Bo Svenson

Trivia 1: Producer Peter Shepherd makes a cameo in this movie as a scientist in a helicopter

Trivia 2: Courteney Cox, Helen Hunt, and Mariska Hargitay were all considered for the lead female role that ultimately went to Janet Julian

It’s tempting to use words like “ridiculous” and “far-fetched” to describe Choke Canyon (aka On Dangerous Ground), a 1986 sci-fi / action flick directed by Charles Bail. To dismiss it as such, though, would be missing the point entirely. Choke Canyon may be ludicrous and absurd, but you’ll be having too much fun to even care.

Physicist David Lowell (Stephen Collins) is on the verge of an important discovery. After spending months setting up his laboratory in Utah’s Choke Canyon, he’s about to prove that sound waves, with an assist from Haley’s Comet (which is set to pass overhead in a few weeks’ time), can be converted into a clean, renewable energy source.

Of course, if the Pilgrim Corporation has its way, Lowell will never get a chance to complete his experiment. Controlled by millionaire John Pilgrim (Nicholas Pryor), the Pilgrim Corp. is in dire need of a place to “store” (meaning hide) some nuclear waste, and Choke Canyon has been deemed the perfect spot to do so. Pilgrim’s assistant, Brook Alastair (Lance Henriksen), offers Lowell a large sum of money to vacate the canyon immediately, but the stubborn scientist refuses to budge. This forces John Pilgrim and his cronies to resort to more extreme methods of persuasion, and in a night of violence all of Lowell’s hard work goes up in smoke.

With Haley’s Comet a week or so away, Lowell decides to take matters into his own hands, and launches a one-man crusade against the Pilgrim Corporation’s Choke Canyon facility, destroying equipment and planting explosives in every corner of the compound. Lowell tells Pilgrim, in no uncertain terms, that he won’t end the reign of terror until his lab is rebuilt and his equipment replaced. To the company’s surprise, Lowell proves himself a formidable adversary, and not even “The Captain” (Bo Svenson), Pilgrim’s favorite hired gun, can convince the gung-ho physicist to leave the canyon.

Still, despite Lowell’s best efforts, the Pilgrim Corporation won’t yield to his demands. That is, until the desperate scientist receives some help from an unlikely ally: John Pilgrim’s only daughter Vanessa (Janet Julian)! With her in his corner, Lowell has a fighting chance to get what he wants, but with Haley’s Comet drawing closer by the hour, his window of opportunity is closing… and fast!

While watching Choke Canyon, you may find yourself asking a few questions, like “How does a physicist, who graduated from Harvard, transform so easily into an action hero?”, and “Is it really possible to wrap a large cable around an RV without drawing the attention of anyone inside it?” Take my advice: don’t bother looking for answers to these, or any other queries you may pose, because the movie won’t address a single one of them. Hell, Choke Canyon doesn’t even waste any time breaking down Lowell’s sound waves experiment, because ultimately it doesn’t give a damn about it; the clean energy project is nothing more than a device used to turn the film’s lead character into a badass wrecking machine, armed to the teeth with dynamite (where he got it, I have no idea) and with a talent for sneaking around in the dark without being seen (often right under the noses of Pilgrim’s inept guards).

Sure, logic takes a beating throughout Choke Canyon, but its plethora of action sequences more than make up for it. An early scene, when Lowell (on horseback) is being chased through the canyon by two jeeps, ends with a bang (literally); and the aerial stunts that fill up the movie’s final act are truly incredible. Choke Canyon has other strengths as well, including its cast (Stephen Collins is especially good as the heroic lead) and gorgeous cinematography (courtesy of two-time Oscar nominee Dante Spinotti), but it’s the film’s many exciting moments that make it such an entertaining watch.

And if banishing reason and common sense to the back burner for 94 minutes is all that’s required to enjoy Choke Canyon, then I say it’s a small price to pay!

Sunday, April 2, 2017

#2,330. New Year's Evil (1980)

Directed By: Emmett Alston

Starring: Roz Kelly, Kip Niven, Chris Wallace

Tag line: "This New Year's, you're invited to a killer party..."

Trivia: Director Emmett Alston has a Hitchcock style cameo as a bearded camera operator

The seed that John Carpenter planted in 1978 with his horror classic Halloween blossomed in full in 1980, and thanks to movies like Friday the 13th, Prom Night, Terror Train, Maniac and Mother’s Day the slasher subgenre finally came into its own.

The Golan / Globus era at Cannon Films was also just getting started in 1980; having taken control of the company in '79, the infamous duo was still a few years away from making waves in the industry (Enter the Ninja, one of their biggest hits, wasn’t released until 1981, while The Last American Virgin lit up the Box Office in 1982).

New Year’s Evil, a 1980 horror flick produced by Cannon, probably won’t make anyone’s “best slashers of all-time” list, but it can’t be dismissed outright, either.

It’s New Year’s Eve, and Hollywood personality Diane Sullivan (Roz Kelly), who goes by the stage name “Blaze”, is hosting a live musical show that will ring in the New Year in style. But the frivolity is cut short when a caller, identifying himself only as “Evil” (Kip Niven), announces that he plans to kill someone each time the clock strikes midnight in one of country’s four time zones. Taking the caller at his word, Blaze and her manager (Jed Mills) panic and contact the Los Angeles Police Department, who send Lt. Ed Clayton (Chris Wallace) to investigate the threat.

Lt. Clayton tells Blaze not to worry, and that the caller was probably a crackpot looking for attention. He changes his attitude quickly, however, when a report comes in that, at the exact stroke of midnight on the East Coast, a nurse (Jennie Anderson) was stabbed to death at a nearby psychiatric hospital. With time ticking away, Lt. Clayton and the entire police force hit the streets, hoping to prevent the next murder and knowing full well that, in all likelihood, Blaze herself will be killer’s final target. 

With most of the early kills occurring off-screen, and featuring very little gore (we don’t see blood until the second murder, and even then it’s only a smattering), New Year’s Evil might prove frustrating for die-hard slasher fans. As a thriller, though, the film is a bit more successful (a late sequence involving an elevator will have you on the edge of your seat); and it presents a different sort of mystery than what we’re used to seeing (we see the murderer’s face almost immediately, but have no idea who he is).

I also liked how the movie toyed with the killer’s modus operandi; at one point, while stalking a potential victim, he has an unfortunate run-in with a biker gang that threatens to disrupt his schedule. As for the big reveal at the end, it was effective (if not a total surprise), and some of the music featured throughout the film wasn’t half bad (I especially enjoyed the title song performed by Shadow).

Both Cannon and the slasher subgenre would produce better movies in the days to come, but as an early entry for both, New Year’s Evil is decent enough to at least warrant some attention.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

#2,329. Fire and Ice (1983)

Directed By: Ralph Bakshi

Starring: Randy Norton, Cynthia Leake, Steve Sandor

Tag line: "The end of mankind as we know it"

Trivia: Over a thousand background paintings were done for this film

Having already directed Wizards and The Lord of the Rings, Ralph Bakshi once again returned to the realm of fantasy with 1983’s Fire and Ice, and with a little help from his friends created an amazing world chock full of magic, violence, and thrills aplenty.

Queen Juliana (voiced by Susan Tyrrell) and her son Nekron (Stephen Mendel) are the evil rulers of the northern kingdom of Icepeak, and have been slowly advancing southward in an attempt to conquer the entire region. Their main adversary is King Jarol (Leo Gordon) of Firekeep, who has thus far refused to surrender. Hoping to weaken Jarol’s resolve, Queen Juliana sends her subhuman army to kidnap Jarol’s only daughter Teegra (Maggie Roswell), who, if all goes well, will eventually become Nekron’s bride.

But before the subhumans can return to Icepeak with their captive, Teegra escapes, and during her travels encounters a warrior named Larn (William Ostrander), whose entire village was destroyed by Nekron’s army. Larn promises to help Teegra make her way home, but there are many dangers ahead of them, and the subhumans are very close behind… 

To assist with the overall look of Fire and Ice, Bakshi joined forces with artist Frank Frazetta, a specialist in the sci-fi and fantasy genres whose work has appeared in a variety of comic books and even a few album covers (he also dabbled in movie posters; it was Frazetta who designed the awesome poster for Clint Eastwood’s 1977 film The Gauntlet). Along with his work as Costume Designer, Frazetta was a producer on Fire and Ice, and even helped Bakshi flesh out the film’s very colorful characters.

In addition to Frazetta’s artistic involvement, the script for Fire and Ice was penned by Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway, both of whom had written for Marvel comics (it was Thomas who introduced Conan the Barbarian to American readers). The contributions of these three, along with Bakshi’s patented rotoscoping technique (the action was first shot with real actors in black & white, then traced over by the animators), resulted in what I consider one of the most imaginative animated films to emerge from the 1980s.

Unfortunately, audiences at the time didn’t see things my way; budgeted at $1.2 million, Fire and Ice took in a measly $760,000 at the U.S. Box Office. It’s a shame, really, because Fire and Ice featured such a rich universe that it could have easily spawned a series of films. Alas, it wasn’t to be, but at least we have this movie to enjoy over and over again.

Filled with wonder and excitement, Fire and Ice is, hand-down, my favorite Ralph Bakshi picture.

Friday, March 31, 2017

#2,328. Tomboy (1985)

Directed By: Herb Freed

Starring: Betsy Russell, Gerard Christopher, Kristi Somers

Tag line: "It's not just a man's world anymore"

Trivia: Kristi Somers wore her own dress in this film

Tomasina “Tommy” Boyd (Betsy Russell) isn’t just another pretty face. For one, she loves sports, and was quite the ballplayer in her younger days (the film opens with a flashback of Tommy hitting an inside-the-park home run during a little league game). Now all grown up, Tommy still plays basketball, but dedicates most of her time to her true passion: cars! See, Tommy is one hell of an auto mechanic (her boss Chester, played by Richard Erdman, says she’s the best he’s ever seen). Seville (Kristi Somers), Tommy’s closest friend, tries her damnedest to get Tommy to go to parties and act like a regular girl, but to no avail. That all changes, however, when Tommy meets her idol, race car driver Randy Starr (Gerald Christopher), who she’s had a crush on for years.

These days, Randy works for millionaire playboy Ernie Leeds Jr. (Eric Douglas), owner of what many insiders say is the fastest race car in the city. With Randy as his lead driver, Ernie hopes to win the Daytona 500. But instead of focusing on his career, Randy has been spending time with Tommy, and before long the two are an item. Their relationship hits the rocks, however, when Tommy tells Earl (Philip Sterling),the Leeds family’s top investor, that she’s built a car even faster than Ernie’s, and to prove it she challenges Randy (who says no girl can beat him on the track) to a race. Will Tommy’s big chance to show what she’s made of cause her to lose the only guy she’s ever loved?

If nothing else, I give 1985's Tomboy points for originality; not many ‘80s sex comedies featured an independent woman in the lead role, and while she may not be the best actress you’ll ever see, Betsy Russell is extremely likable as Tommy. In fact, aside from Tommy and her boss Chester, the rest of the characters in Tomboy aren’t worth a damn. Though a loyal friend, Seville is a gold digger, ready to hop into bed with any guy who can further her career, and for a time she even hooks up with Ernie Leeds Jr. in the hopes he’ll finance a TV pilot she wants to star in. There are moments when we like Randy, Tommy’s love interest, but he’s also a male chauvinist; minutes after Tommy shows up at a party at Ernie’s mansion, she walks in on Randy and his friends, who are watching a porno movie. Disgusted, Tommy storms out, and when Randy catches up to her, instead of apologizing, he tells Tommy she needs to learn some “social graces”.

Worst of all is Ernie Leeds Jr., who is such a prick in almost every scene that I kept hoping someone would knock some sense into him (preferably with a crowbar). At the party Tommy attends, Ernie isn’t so much the host as he is a pimp, setting pretty (and often topless) young women up with influential (and lecherous) middle-aged men. This, combined with the way he talks to his own girlfriend (he tosses insults at her while she’s doing his nails, for Christ’s sake), makes Ernie Leeds Jr. one of the most contemptible characters ever to grace this sort of film (and for an ‘80s sex comedy, that’s saying something).

The real problem with Tomboy, though, is its script; the movie meanders from one scene to the next, as if it was searching for a story to latch onto, but coming up empty. In one sequence, Tommy sits and watches Seville’s dance audition, then follows her into the shower afterwards, where Seville (naked, of course) insults her dance partner's manhood (as uncomfortable as the dialogue is in this scene, it’s nothing compared to the cringe-inducing payoff). A later sequence involving two leather-clad hoods in a sports car goes absolutely nowhere; and I have a feeling the whole point of the motorbike race between Tommy and Randy (which takes place early on at Ernie’s estate) was to get Betsy Russell’s top off (Tommy falls into the water, and quickly sheds her wet T-shirt). For a large portion of its runtime, Tomboy feels like a series of unrelated moments strung together to make a feature-length film, and it isn’t until the last 20 minutes or so that the movie finally finds its legs.

With its strong lead character and Betsy Russell’s almost cherubic performance, I really wanted to like Tomboy. But in the end, there simply wasn’t enough meat on its bones, and as a result I cannot recommend it.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

#2,327. Climb It, Tarzan! (2011)

Directed By: Jared Masters

Starring: Corsica Wilson, Maura Murphy, Nicole Marie White

Tag line: "Scandals from a turned on generation"

Trivia: This film featured an all-female cast

Co-writer / director Jared Masters’ love letter to the softcore sexploitation films of the ‘60s and early ‘70s, Climb It, Tarzan features, according to the DVD cover, “a vast, all-female cast of over 50 budding starlets”. To be honest, I didn’t count how many actresses were in Climb It, Tarzan, but the “all-female cast” claim is 100% true. There is not a single guy in this entire movie!

You know what else is missing from Climb It, Tarzan? A cohesive story.

Set in the swinging ‘60s, Climb it, Tarzan tells the tale of Paula (Jennicka Andersson), a lesbian photographer specializing in “salacious” photographs who uses her position to lure young women into her studio. Whenever one of her subjects tickles her fancy, Paula knocks the poor girl out with chloroform, and then shoots photos of her in compromising positions. Her newest model is Ginger (Jamie Devitt), a happy-go-lucky sweetheart whose wealthy parents recently passed away. With the will tied up in legal red tape, Ginger and her older sister Janet (Jessica Hichborn) have no choice but to hold down jobs to make ends meet. Ginger has pinned all her hopes on her modeling career, while Janet agrees to work as a go-go dancer for Dolores (Jennifer Preston), who owns a strip club.

Paula, Ginger, and Janet might be the main characters in Climb It, Tarzan, but their exploits are in no way the film’s singular focus. Over the course of the movie, we also meet drug dealers Darlene (Claire Kim) and Wanda (Ingrid Franklin), who introduce Ginger and her friend Lila (Aliza Podwol) to LSD (during their ensuing “trip”, Ginger and Lila steal hundreds of dollars’ worth of drugs from Darlene and Wanda, who then spend a good portion of the film plotting their revenge). Renee (Maura Murphy) is a socialite who hosts a swinging party at her posh estate, and Tina (Olivia Curtis) is a model with a bad attitude who, unlike the others, has no problem taking her clothes off for Paula.

Oh, and to ensure that Climb It, Tarzan has just the right amount of nudity, there’s a scene where Sheryl (Madison Liddy) changes into a bikini, and another in which Gay (Alejandra Bursik-Cervantes) takes a bath. That’s a grand total of 11 “starlets”, meaning there are still 39 more scattered throughout the movie! As for the performances, they range from mediocre to pretty bad (and, truth be told, “mediocre” is being generous).

Yet, despite all this, Climb It, Tarzan is an effective homage to the softcore movies of yesteryear, which were themselves thin on plot and heavy on female flesh. And while the film's ‘60s setting wasn’t the most convincing, I give director Masters credit for doing his best to recreate the time period (via costumes, some vintage cars, and about a dozen rotary telephones) on what must have been a very limited budget. In addition, I spotted posters for a number of skin flicks hanging in the background (including 1962’s The Female and 1967’s The Naked World of Harrison Marks), yet another nod to a cinematic era that the filmmakers obviously hold dear.

While I wouldn’t go so far as to say Climb It, Tarzan is the definitive tribute to ‘60s sleaze, its heart is definitely in the right place.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

#2,326. The Edge of Seventeen (2016)

Directed By: Kelly Fremon Craig

Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Haley Lu Richardson, Blake Jenner

Tag line: "You're only young once... is it over yet?"

Trivia: Kelly Fremon Craig's Directorial Debut

In the 2010 remake of True Grit, Hailee Steinfeld showed the world that, even at the age of 13, she was a very talented actress.

Thanks to writer / director Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen, Ms. Steinfeld has proven that True Grit was no fluke. With wit and charm to spare, she takes what would have otherwise been a so-so coming-of-age comedy/drama and transforms it into something quite special.

Nadine Franklin (Steinfeld) has never felt comfortable in her own skin. It doesn’t help that her older brother Darian (Blake Jenner) is the most popular kid in school, or that her widowed mother (Kyra Sedgwick) is too busy with work and new boyfriends to notice her daughter has an inferiority complex. Even Nadine’s favorite teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), doesn’t seem to care about her troubles. In fact, the only bright spot in poor Nadine’s life has been her best friend Krista (Kaley Lu Richardson). Ever since grade school, the two girls have been inseparable, and the times they’ve spent together have been the happiest that Nadine has ever known.

That all changes, however, when Krista gets herself a new boyfriend: Darian! All at once, Nadine feels as if her life is spiraling out of control, and she has no idea how to put it back on-track.

Teenage insecurity has been a hot cinematic topic since the 1980s (John Hughes became the spokesman for an entire generation with movies like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Pretty in Pink), and Hollywood has been churning out one teen drama after another ever since. Story-wise, there’s not much that separates The Edge of Seventeen from the plethora of movies that preceded it. What does set this 2016 film apart from the others is its star, Hailee Steinfeld.

Though painted as an outcast from the very first scene, we feel an immediate connection with Nadine Franklin, and Steinfeld’s quirky, almost frantic performance is the reason why. In the hands of a lesser actress, Nadine would have come across as a whiny, obnoxious brat; she argues frequently with her brother and mother, and is prone to bouts of self-pity (“I had the worst thought”, she says at one point. “I have to spend the rest of my life with myself”). Thanks to Steinfeld, what might have been annoying is instead endearing. We sympathize with Nadine’s plight, and laugh at her acerbic observations (the various scenes in which she interacts with Harrelson’s Mr. Bruner are pure gold). There were even times throughout The Edge of Seventeen when I wished I could talk directly to Nadine. I wanted to tell her she’ll be okay, that she should forget about Nick (Alexander Calvert), the “bad boy” she has a crush on, and instead hook up with the awkwardly shy Erwin (Hayden Szeto), whose feelings for her were genuine. I enjoyed every moment I spent in Nadine’s company, and it’s because of Steinfeld that I found the character so engaging.

For those of you wondering who the next great American actress might be, check out True Grit and The Edge of Seventeen. It’s probably a bit early to rank her up there with Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and Meryl Streep, but if Ms. Steinfeld continues on this same path, odds are she’ll be standing on-stage, thanking the Academy in the very near future.

And if there's any justice in Tinseltown, she will do so more than once.