Saturday, June 24, 2023

#2,915. Deadly Embrace (1989) - Linnea Quigley Triple Feature


It features scream queens Linnea Quigley (Graduation Day, Silent Night Deadly Night) and Michelle Bauer (Nightmare Sisters, Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers), but 1989’s Deadly Embrace is not a horror film. This straight-to-video foray directed by David DeCoteau (credited as Ellen Cabot) is instead billed as a drama / thriller.

Well, I got news for you. It isn’t much of a thriller either!

Now a suspect in a double homicide, Chris (Ken Abraham) recounts, via flashback, the events that led to his tragic state of affairs. Hired by wealthy businessman Stewart Moreland (Jan-Michael Vincent) to be his live-in errand boy, Chris soon caught the eye of Moreland’s neglected wife Charlotte (Mindi Miller).

It seems that Moreland had fallen in love with his secretary Dede (Ruth Collins), and intended to divorce Charlotte the first chance he got. Moreland’s lawyer, Evan Weiss (Jack Carter), advised against the split, telling Moreland the unpleasant news that, because he didn’t have Charlotte sign a pre-nuptial agreement, she would be entitled to half his estate once the divorce was finalized.

As Moreland plotted for a way to prevent his wife from capitalizing on their faltering marriage, Charlotte was busy seducing Chris, who is himself in love with his longtime girlfriend, wannabe actress Michelle (Quigley).

It wasn’t long before Chris succumbed to Charlotte’s advances, and everything came to a head when Michelle visited Chris for a few days, causing a jealous Charlotte to take matters into her own hands.

Staying true to form, both Quigley and Bauer (who appears only in fantasy sequences as the “Female Spirit of Sex”) bare it all several times throughout Deadly Embrace, and even Miller (billed here as Ty Randolph) sheds her clothes a few times. The sex scenes are, indeed, erotic, and well-handled by Decoteau. Which is to the movie’s benefit, seeing as half of it is nothing but sex scenes!

As a thriller, though, Deadly Embrace is dead on arrival. Jan-Michael Vincent is limited to a handful of scenes, and his plans to somehow trap his wife, forcing her into an affair with Chris so he can cut her off without a cent, go nowhere (he seems even more inept when you consider the two are already having an affair under his nose). More effective, if only slightly, are the scenes with Miller as the jealous Charlotte, plotting for a way to break up Chris and Michelle so he will be hers. Charlotte even sets up a video camera outside of Chris’s room, shooting through a two-way mirror, that captures their sexual escapades.

It doesn’t hurt that Miller also delivers the film’s best performance, and is convincing as both the heartbroken wife and the alluring temptress. But even with her, the story falters and never truly develops into anything close to a suspenseful thriller.

Skin and sex are the selling points of Deadly Embrace, and with Miller, Quigley, and Bauer in the cast, that would have been enough to draw attention back in 1989. But all three have appeared in better films, both before and after. I recommend seeking them out instead.
Rating: 4.5 out of 10

Saturday, June 17, 2023

#2,914. Old Boyfriends (1979) - John Belushi Double Feature


Old Boyfriends has quite a pedigree. With a script co-written by Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and his brother Leonard, this 1979 film also marked the sole directorial effort of Joan Tewkesbury, longtime collaborator of Robert Altman’s. Tewkesbury was script supervisor on the excellent McCabe & Mrs. Miller before penning the screenplays for Thieves Like Us and Nashville.

And true to form, Old Boyfriends features characteristics of both a gritty Paul Schrader film and a star-studded Robert Altman picture.

California psychologist Dianne Cruise (Talia Shire) goes on a road trip to reconnect with the boyfriends of her past, starting with college sweetheart Jeff Turin (Richard Jordan), who directs commercials for a living. Before long, Dianne and Jeff have rekindled their romance, but just when things seem to be getting serious between the two, Dianne sneaks away and hits the road again.

This time, she is seeking out high school boyfriend Eric Katz (John Belushi), owner of a formal wear business who doubles as a lounge singer. From there, Dianne heads to a small town in Michigan to reunite with her grade school boyfriend, only to be informed by his younger brother Wayne (Keith Carradine) that her old flame was killed a decade earlier in Vietnam.

Dianne learns from the boys’ mother (Bethel Leslie) that, ever since his older brother’s death, Wayne has withdrawn from the world. Dianne offers to help Wayne any way she can, but is she in the right state of mind to take on such a challenge?

Following a cryptic opening scene, in which a car careens out of control and smashes into a concrete wall (an event that isn’t explained until late in the film), we join Dianne already on her journey, and though she is clearly the lead of Old Boyfriends, Shire plays the character very close to the vest, making her an enigma whose motivations remain a mystery through much of the movie.

Why is she seeking out her former boyfriends?  My initial thought, especially during her rendezvous with Jeff, was that Dianne wanted to see if any sparks remained between she and them, but when she abandons Jeff (wonderfully played by Richard Jordan), with whom she had, indeed, become romantically involved again, to instead visit Eric, a guy who humiliated her in high school, Dianne’s reasons, indeed her very mental state, become suspect.

Jeff, not wanting to lose Dianne again, hires a private investigator, played by Buck Henry, to track her down. It is only through Jeff’s delving into Dianne’s life (scenes that are crosscut with those of Dianne on the road) that we understand her motives.

Like many of Schrader’s films, Old Boyfriends treads into some dark territory, including revenge and mental illness, and does so in a way that can, at times, be jarring. That said, I feel it was Tewkesbury’s collaborations with Robert Altman that had the biggest impact on this movie, namely the film’s all-star cast, and how every single performer gets their moment in the sun, regardless of how small the part. Buck Henry’s single scene as the investigator proves more than a simple cameo; he flirts with his secretary (Brenda King), leading us to believe their relationship goes well beyond business. Also turning up briefly are Gerrit Graham (as a hapless actor in one of Jeff’s commercials), John Houseman (as a stuffy psychiatrist), and P.J. Soles, playing a very small but significant part towards the end of the movie. Even John Belushi’s Eric, easily the film’s most loathsome character, gets to belt out a few tunes, including Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock, which Belushi would also sing a year later in The Blues Brothers.

An occasionally bleak film with a perplexing lead that also works as a vehicle for its ensemble cast, Old Boyfriends proved a fascinating merger of Schrader and Altman, and is a movie well worth checking out.
Rating: 8 out of 10

Saturday, June 10, 2023

#2,913. Goin' South (1978) - John Belushi Double Feature


Jack Nicholson both starred in and directed the 1978 comedy / western Goin’ South, and surrounded himself with a hell of a cast. Too bad he didn’t know what to do with them.

Standing on the gallows, moments away from being hanged as a horse thief, Henry Moon (Nicholson) is “claimed” by Julia Tate (Mary Steenbergen), who intends to make the outlaw her husband. Since the Civil War killed off most of the men in this Texas border town, a law has been on the books saying that any convict whose crimes fall short of murder could be chosen by - and immediately married to - a single woman. The situation doesn’t sit well with Deputy Towfield (Christopher Lloyd), who not only wanted to see Moon swing, but also had his eye on Julia!

Grateful that she saved him from hanging, and smitten with her beauty, Moon believes he’s entered into the perfect arrangement. But Julia has other plans. Instead of wedded bliss, Moon is put to work in a potential gold mine that sits on his new wife’s property, and what’s more, is ordered to sleep in the barn. It’s Julia’s hope that they will strike gold before Mr. Polty (Gerald H. Reynolds), a top man with the railroad, runs her off her land.

Undeterred, Moon continues to put the moves on Julia, but the reappearance of his old gang (Jeff Morris, Danny DeVito, Veronica Cartwright and Tracey Walter), as well as a surprising turn of events, may ruin any chance he has of actually winning the heart of his new bride.

In addition to the actors listed above, John Belushi, fresh off his career-making role in Animal House, appears as Hector, a Mexican deputy; while Richard Bradford (as the sheriff), Ed Begley Jr. (as a former criminal who was also “saved” by marriage), and even Lin Shaye (as one of the ladies who showed interest in Moon before Julia did) turn up in minor roles.

It’s a fabulous collection of stars, but Goin’ South wasn’t the finest hour for any of them. Nicholson plays Moon far too broadly, and we understand why Julia seldom looks at him as anything more than a hired hand. He never once feels like a romantic lead, which makes the scenes in which Julia does cozy up to him unconvincing. Steenbergen, making her screen debut as the virginal Julia, fares slightly better (though as mentioned, she and Nicholson have no chemistry), while Lloyd’s hot-headed sheriff and Cartwright’s curly-haired outlaw steal their respective scenes (Cartwright plays Hermine, Moon’s former love interest, who is none too pleased he has shacked up with Julia). Alas, both DeVito and Belushi get little screen time, and are wasted in what could have otherwise been interesting roles. The issue with the characters filters down to the story as well, which never gels, feeling more like some interesting yet unrelated vignettes strung together haphazardly.

I don’t mean to dismiss Goin’ South completely. There are some good moments in the movie, including the hanging fiasco at the beginning as well as a fun scene in which Moon and Towfield sit down in a bar to have a chat. The setting is also pretty cool (the film was shot on-location in Durango, Mexico), and while their relationship mostly falls flat, Nicholson and Steenbergen don’t fumble it entirely (they have a few good scenes together in the mine, including one that begins with a freak hail storm).

But with this cast, and Nicholson at the helm, I was hoping for a lot more.
Rating: 5.5 out of 10

Saturday, June 3, 2023

#2,912. Miracle Mile (1988) - Thrillers of the '80s and '90s


What an intense experience Miracle Mile is! What a gloriously exciting and captivating motion picture! I am late to the party; this is the first time I’ve seen writer / director Steve De Jarnatt’s 1988 tale of love set against a coming apocalypse, and it blew me away!

While touring the La Brea Tar Pits, Harry (Anthony Edwards) meets Julie (Mare Winningham), and it isn’t long before the two are deeply in love.

One night, the power goes out at Harry’s hotel, and because his alarm never went off, he over-sleeps and misses his third date with Julie. Despite it being almost 4 am, Harry rushes to the coffee shop where Julie works, only to find she has gone home.

But fate is about to rear its ugly head. Stepping outside to call Julie from a phone booth to explain what happened, Harry is surprised when the phone suddenly rings, and he decides to answer it. The voice on the other end, believing he is talking to his father, claims to be a soldier in a North Dakota Nuclear silo, and starts shouting that the country is at war. The missiles have been launched, and Los Angeles has about an hour before it will be obliterated.

Not sure whether to believe the call or not, Harry tells the late-night patrons of the coffee shop, one of whom is Landa (Denise Crosby), who has connections in Washington D.C. Making a few calls on her mobile phone, Landa corroborates that something is, indeed, going down (many government officials have already left the country), and arranges for everyone in the coffee shop to get out of town on a private jet.

Desperate to save Julie and her grandparents (John Agar and Lou Hancock), Harry breaks away from the group and heads for Julie’s apartment. Landa has a helicopter, filled with life-sustaining supplies, set to land on top of the Mutual Benefit building. Realizing the clock is ticking, Harry’s plan is to get Julie and her grandparents to that building before 5 am so they can hitch a ride to the airport and fly to safety.

And thus begins one of the most nerve-racking thrillers I have seen in some time.

Armed with a gun belonging to Fred (Robert DoQui), the coffee shop’s owner, Harry flags down a car and threatens to shoot unless the driver, Wilson (Mykelti Williamson), takes him first to Julie, then the helicopter landing pad. Of course, once Harry tells Wilson why he’s so anxious to get out of L.A., Wilson says he has to save his sister, and eventually leaves Harry in the lurch (but not before a jaw-dropping confrontation between the two and a couple of unsuspecting cops at a gas station).

Aided by Tangerine Dream’s incredibly effective score, Miracle Mile gets more intense with each passing scene, and will have you poised on the edge of your seat for the duration. There were moments I was literally yelling at my screen, telling Harry to get a move on.

And my guess is your reaction will be about the same. Though it supposedly plays out in real-time, far too much transpires in the 45-50 minutes before the shit hits the fan, and we simply don’t believe everything could have happened within that allotted time.

But while the believable passage of time may not be the film’s strongest suit, it is also its only weakness. Edwards and Winningham generate tons of chemistry, and we fully believe their love story, which means we’re as invested in seeing them stay together as the characters themselves. Throw in about a half-dozen “WTF” moments, some deep drama, and a final act you won’t soon forget, and you have a motion picture that, even with the Cold War now over, will frighten the hell out of you!
Rating: 9 out of 10