Cyber Monday: Project Shadowchaser Trilogy

Frank Zagarino dies hard!

Cinemasochism: Black Mangue (2008)

Braindead zombies from Brazil!

The Gweilo Dojo: Furious (1984)

Simon Rhee's bizarre kung fu epic!

Adrenaline Shot: Fire, Ice and Dynamite (1990)

Willy Bogner and Roger Moore stuntfest!

Sci-Fried Theater: Dead Mountaineer's Hotel (1979)

Surreal Russian neo-noir detective epic!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Thomas' De Hart Attack Awards for 2014

Top Dozen Favorite First Time Viewings in 2014:
Welcome to the second annual De Hart Attack awards. This a way to honor the movies that I saw for the first time in 2014 that became instant favorites. While I watch a hell of a lot of movies again (HD makes all the difference sometimes), these are my top butcher baker's dozen of first time outings.

RIGOR MORTIS (2013): Not only one of the best films to come out of Hong Kong in years, but one of the best horror movies to come out of any country in years. Easily my favorite film of 2014.

FIRE, ICE & DYNAMITE (1990): Willy Bogner gives us the thinnest of plots since THE CANNONBALL RUN (1981) as an excuse to have insane professionals do extremely dangerous things in the snow.

DARK COUNTRY (2009): Thomas Jane's truly under-appreciated 3D homage to "The Twilight Zone" and '50s film noir, scuttled by a boneheaded studio who didn't know what to do with it.

TERMINAL CHOICE (1985): Wonderfully sinister Canadian bitch-slap to the medical profession, executed with style and a solid cast.

THE SPY (2013): Maybe it is just because most South Korean movies are so lacking in originality and subtlety that this one caught me by surprise. Like many Seoullywood movies, it is aping a US film, but for once, does it so much better. If only modern Bond films could be this much fun.

GALLANTS (2010): Highly entertaining, tongue-in-cheek tribute to old-school HK martial arts films starring Leung Siu-lung, Chen Kuan-tai and many other old kung fu stars. Done without getting too sentimental or mocking the subject matter, this film hits exactly the right tone and boasts some great old school martial arts fights. Probably the second best thing I've seen out of Hong Kong in a very long time. Of course, that isn't saying much at all.

TALL BLONDE WITH ONE BLACK SHOE (1972): Yes, I know that you are thinking that this is one of those "film class" movies, where the instructor blathers on about how wonderful French cinema is, invariably leading up to yet another monologue on the brilliance of Jean-Luc Godard. Inspite of that, this François Perrin vehicle is an absolute corker of a satire, sending up the conventions of the spy and film noir genres, while throwing out a surprisingly bold visual style. Sure there is some slapstick, but there is plenty of multi-layered wit to balance it out. There is one caveat however: this movie will make you want to see the sequel, RETURN OF THE TALL BLONDE (1974) or god forbid the shot-for-shot Tom Hanks remake THE MAN WITH ONE RED SHOE (1985). Don't do it. It's a trap.

CHINA LAKE MURDERS (1990): Neat, twisted USA Network thriller starring Tom Skerritt as a small town Nevada sheriff and Michael Parks a big city LA motorcycle cop who may have some serious issues to deal with. I can't say much more without giving out spoilers, but the metaphoric game of chess between the two not only makes for a riveting movie, but gives two solid actors a chance to show just how good they are when they are cast in meaty roles.

JODOROWSKY'S DUNE (2014): I weep bitter tears every night over the fact that Jodorowsky couldn't manage to get his ultra-ambitious vision of Frank Herbert's classic novel "Dune" past the pre-production stage. This documentary actually makes things worse. Covering a large amount of of the history of the project, my only gripe is it should have been a full two-hours minimum. The 90 minute running time feels rushed, but is still a great movie about the greatest science fiction film never made.

SUPER HERO TAISEN Z (2013): Absolutely insane Toei mega-mash-up with countless Kamen Riders, Super Sentai and the Space Sheriffs thrown in for good measure. The action moves so fast and so furious that the 90 minute running time seems like 9 minutes. Plot? Oh jeezus, I don't know if I could explain it if I tried. If your only experience with tokusatsu is the cheap and cheerful "Power Rangers" you don't know what you are missing. Warning: This movie is a gateway drug. Video Junkie bears no responsibility for sending you down that rabbit hole.

THE NICKEL RIDE (1974): Nearly flawless, low-key crime movie in the vein of THE FRIENDS OF EDDY COYLE (1973), about a small time fence, Jason Miller, who's business is starting to turn sour and is starting to crack under the pressure of the cops and the mob. Perfect, if unusual, casting choices include John Hillerman and Bo Hopkins as, believe it or not, mafia men.

SPACE PIRATE CAPTAIN HARLOCK (2013): Easily the best computer animated film to come along in years, this readaptation of the manga that was turned into a children's anime and now into a stunning visual feast that dumps the slapstick in favor of dark, mature themes. Well, mostly mature. There is that zero-g shower scene.

DRAGON FIRE (1993): Out of the multitude of BLOODFIST (1989) remakes cranked out by Roger Corman's New Horizons Pictures, this is the top of the heap, eclipsing even the original. Set in a BLADE RUNNER (1982) dystopian future, this tells the BLOODFIST story of a guy who enters and underground martial arts tournament looking for the killer of his brother, but goes completely nuts with the retro-future set dressing, well choreographed action sequences and charismatic stars. Hell, it's even got a cameo by Jim Wynorski as a stri-club announcer, what more could you want?

Worst Films Viewed in 2014:
These are simply the most unentertaining and insipid films I've seen for the first time this year. I know some folks liked some of these, which is fine, you are welcome to them.

THOR: DARK WORLD (2013): Along with IRON MAN 3 (2013), this ranks as my least favorite of Marvel's films and found it even more tedious and uninspired than the first one. I am taking it that writers Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely are under the assumption that nobody foolish enough to go see this has seen any of the STAR WARS films. Granted all of Marvel's output seem to be inclined to rip-off 1983s RETURN OF THE JEDI dogfight scenes (by way of the 1996 film INDEPENDENCE DAY), but this seems to take that source of inspiration one step further. In addition to completely wasting Christopher Eccleston with a thankless role, under a load of Darth Maul make-up, Stellan Skarsgard returns to provide the comic relief, which he should never do again. Then again, at least he keeps his clothes on. I think the best thing about this movie was the fact that the photoshopped poster that replaced Natalie Portman with Tom Hiddleston in Thor's embrace was accidentally used as legitimate advertising in China. Now that's funny.

TORRENTE 4: LETHAL CRISIS (2011): I understand the appeal of bad taste comedies, I actually used to like Santiago Segura and have enjoyed some of his past efforts, but I don't get the TORRENTE films at all. Yes, I understand that a parody of BAD LIEUTENANT (1992) is not a bad idea, but the jokes in TORRENTE 4 take this to extremes that are so low brow, the fact that I'm bitching about them will only make me sound like some PC tree-hugger. Other than a running fart joke, lots of masturbation jokes, homosexual jokes and some pretty shocking racist jokes, there is not much comedy to be had. Then again, is it a joke if you are constantly patronizing black people and calling them "sambo" and "fucking blacks"? They have a scene where Torrente and his cronies "accidentally" break a black guys leg (with the bone jutting out of the leg) in a soccer match and the black guy is so gullible he doesn't realize that his "friends" set him up, while the white guys laugh over his stupidity. During a prison shower scene, Torrente is being eyed by a big black man who is clearly about to rape him. To defend himself, he throws a bar of soap down behind the guy next to him and as the guy bends over to pick it up and we get his bent-over ass complete with hanging brains shoved out of the screen in 3D. Then we cut to the black guy charging like a bull at the exposed man bits. I really would like to find TORRENTE 4 crassly funny, but it's just crass for the sake of being crass. Of course this film broke box office records in Spain when it was released, so what the hell do I know?

NURSE 3D (2013): An intentionally campy neo-slasher film that desperately tries to be edgy by forcing bad puns, ridiculous caricatures, and shameless mugging while desperately trying to push the envelope with lesbian sex and sexual killings. A scantily clad nurse, Abby (the cartoonish looking Paz de la Huerta), swings her hips around a hospital that apparently has no dress code, having sex with anything that moves and killing them afterwards. The exception to the rule is a fellow nurse (Katrina Bowden) who is seduced by Abby, who genuinely likes her at first, and later begins to figure out that Abby is a psychopath. I'm sure if I was 13, I would have loved this movie. It's got full frontal female nudity, buckets of blood and slick, glossy production values. Since I'm not 13, the things that stand out are the completely idiotic attempt at a plot, ill advised CG effects, pointless use of 3D, and de la Huerta's performance which is arguably the worst fumbling attempt at acting in the history of modern cinema. Even if it didn't seem as though she was reading her lines off of a cue card, it would still be put to shame by any FRIDAY THE 13th sequel. NURSE makes JASON TAKES MANHATTAN (1989) seem like Dickensian literature.

SNOWPIERCER (2014): Much like the recent hubub over THE INTERVIEW (2014), this South Korean film is ham-handed dystopian future effort, based on a manga of the same name, got a huge reaction from the public based on what they would not be allowed to see. Here the Weinsteins proposed to release the film at some undetermined date, with a multitude of cuts. So, in other words, business as usual for them. For some reason the bastardization of this particular film, out of the hundreds that they have butchered, caused metaphoric rioting in the streets which eventually caused them to release the film in its untampered form. This meant lots of free publicity and a buzz that wouldn't quit with people who hadn't seen the movie citing it as one of the greatest science fiction films of all time that was being kept from the people by an iron fisted czar. While the public was whipped up into a frenzy of nerd rage, those of us who saw the film via Korean video found it to be nothing more than a paper tiger.
The visuals are bland, the acting is flat and the story-line is not only predictable, but laughable. A group of people are confined to live on a speeding train after global warming turns the earth into a frozen wasteland. The lower classes live in the back of the train eating protein bars and occasionally being punished by having one of their limbs pushed out of a specially made porthole where it instantly freezes and falls off. It's difficult to believe that a) energy would be wasted keeping a train moving for decades when it could be used to power and heat an entire building complex and b) that the designer of this last hope for humanity would engineer special holes in the hull for which corporeal punishment could be meted out. And don't get me started on the protein bars, the origins of which the filmmakers expect you to be horrified by, but are hilariously tame, the preachy politics, the self-indulgently long running time and the trite, cheesy ending. This is a movie, again like THE INTERVIEW, that without the controversy would have come and gone with barely anyone noticing.

THE RAID 2: BERANDAL (2014): Knowing that DREDD (2012) actually pre-dated THE RAID (2011) in script form makes one wonder if Gareth Evans had any real talent at all for anything other than directing action sequences. That question is clearly answered in this self-indulgent, rambling, inconsistent imitation of Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese's more recent efforts. Completely dropping any relation to the first film, except for anything other than the main character, Evans slowly drags Rama (Iko Uwais) through a deep cover operation into the gangland. Shot with pretensions of art-house grandeur, the film feels like it was cobbled together from several cable TV show episodes. Lots of slow, cliched scenes in beautiful minimalist environments, ala Scorses, punctuated by hyper-violence with cartoon characters lifted out of KILL BILL (2003) and its plethora of imitators. Clocking in at a punishing 150 minutes, you could easily Weinstein 30-60 minutes out of the movie and no one would ever know the difference. In one scene Rama is attacked by a group of thugs who turn out to be cops. Why? They didn't know he was under-cover. It's not a terrible scene and the action is well choreographed, but it certainly doesn't advance the plot in any way. Fistfuls of non-sequitur scenes are the norm rather than the exception here.
For instance in the middle of his wannabe CASINO (1995), he has a boy friend / girl friend team of 20-something assassins, one who uses a baseball bat to hit hardballs into his targets skulls from a distance, the other a deaf girl who is blind in one eye (but otherwise attractive) and uses two claw-hammers to attack her victims. They both have two very long sequences of them killing random people that serve no purpose whatsoever, except to introduce them as two of the people our hero needs to fight at the very end of the film, like a video game mini-boss. Without the DREDD script to rip-off, it is clear that Evans is left to desperately grab at straws to try to put together a movie.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

December to Dismember: ONE HELL OF A CHRISTMAS (2002)

Back in the early 2000s when DVD and horror were booming, the horror bible Fangoria teamed up with MTI/Bedford Entertainment to dust off their Fangoria Films label.  One of the imprints earliest releases was the Danish film ANGEL OF THE NIGHT (1998).  The debut feature of Chile-born director Shaky González, it was a pretty slick looking vampire film.  It apparently performed well enough for the group that they opted to pick up his second feature, ONE HELL OF A CHRISTMAS (2002).  A kind of EVIL DEAD, HELLRAISER, and PHANTASM wannabe mash up, this sophomore feature saw Shaky on shaky ground (haha!) as he actually regressed and shot this one on video with a budget that won’t get you too excited for something that sounds cool.

The film opens with its HELLRAISER nod in the prologue as Arab merchant Ibrahim (Zlatko Buric) purchases a mysterious box for a man merely described as The Englishman (Pat Kelman).  Promised inside is “a whole lot of magic” and that comes in the form of a single black claw.  This gives us a price negotiation that would make AMERICAN PICKERS proud ($5,000 offered, $20,000 countered, $8,000 offered, $15,000 countered, sold!).  Hey, you can’t expect the guy to pay retail, right?  After the opening credits, we then meet the film’s lead in Carlitos (Tolo Montana), who is just getting out of the joint on a two-year stint.  When being given his personal items, Carlitos checks his wallet and the guard informs him he won’t find any money in there.  Carlitos whips out a picture of his son and says, “This kid is my gold.”  Whoooo, boy, hold on to your seats.  Once outside the prison fences, he finds his friend Mikey (Thure Lindhardt) has forgotten to pick him up.  So he hitchhikes into town, leaves Mikey an angry message, and heads to their old favorite diner.  Amazingly, Mikey has left a cell phone with a waitress there to give to Carlitos when he arrives.  Huh?  How would he even know he would be there? If you haven’t guessed, this film has major scripting problems.  Carlitos calls his buddy and they plan to meet back at his place later.  Heading home in a taxi, our lead just happens to spot his ex-wife and son outside a toy store, where the kid begs for a Cowboy Jack and Wolfie doll.  Carlitos sneaks in after they leave and buys them for him.  Hey, can this movie kick its horror plot into gear now?

So where exactly is Mikey?  He is at the shipyard to score some dope off Ibrahim. All hell breaks loose while Mikey is there as the Englishman shows up demanding the claw back.  Ibrahim objects by saying, “I satisfied three women and you want it back?”  So this claw is like Viagra? Before the Englishman can object, a mysterious man in black (Erik Holmey) shows up and starts ripping off heads. Naturally, the claw soon ends up at the feet of the hiding Mikey and he splits with it.  After all, supernaturally enhanced boners are worth a painful death.  Meanwhile, Carlitos has gotten back to his place and calls his ex-wife so he can talk to his son.  Of course, she treats him like trash and this sends him (and the viewer) to drinking Jack Daniels.  Hey, can this movie please kick its horror plot into gear now?

Drunk as a skunk, our ex-con’s night gets worse when Mikey finally shows up and tells him about the claw and its power. Mikey relays he got the claw and then, via flashback, tells how he snorted some black powder from the claw and then manhandled three baddies looking for Mikey to repay a loan a few hours ago. “This claw is going to make us rich,” Mikey declares before they both start snorting lines of the black powder (off a DVD copy of Gonzalez’s earlier ANGEL OF THE NIGHT, how meta!).  Cranked up on black marching powder, their only recourse is to call a hooker, who Carlitos promptly kills during a blowjob.  Stumbling out of their blur, the two men bury the dead girl’s body in the backyard before Mikey heads off for some important business, leaving Carlitos in charge of the claw.  What is Mikey’s important business?  He is screwing Carlitos’ ex-wife.  Hey, can this movie please, please, pleaaaaaase kick its horror plot into gear now?

My pleas are finally heard as we get the one hell of a Christmas plot kicking in around the 50 minute mark.  Alone in the house, Carlitos grows increasingly paranoid at every thunder crack.  His suspicion is warranted though as a spirit escapes from the claw and enters into the dead body of the hooker buried in the back yard.  Before you can say “I’ll swallow your soul” she is semi-alive and kicking…literally.  Yes, she somehow has kung fu skills now and proceeds to thump Carlitos until he puts a meat cleaver into her forehead.  The spirit departs her body and enters into the 3-foot tall Wolfie stuffed animal. It then proceeds to attack Carlitos before saying, “Join us.”  *long sigh*  When he throws the doll into the wall, the spirit transfers into a Cowboy Jack poster and soon an undead gunslinger is chasing him around the house for a shootout.  Naturally, this all comes to a head as the stranger comes to the house looking for his claw back and takes Carlitos to hell.

Man, I am pretty sure if you look up “missed opportunity” in the dictionary you will find a pic of this film’s poster. Everyone wants to root for a guy named Shaky González, because, dammit, his name is Shaky González.  Sadly, his sophomore feature is too much of a mess to be considered worth recommending.  Partially lensed in the U.S. but mostly shot in Denmark, ONE HELL OF A CHRISTMAS has promise in the last thirty or so minutes. Unfortunately, there is still the hour preceding it.  González is failed by his screenwriter who seems intent on doing a lame Tarantino or Rodriguez petty criminal wannabe scenario for the first sixty minutes.  Who was González’s screenwriter?  Some dude named Shaky González!  Yes, Shaky the director is undermined by Shaky the screenwriter.  If you missed my subtle pleas in the paragraphs above, I was dying for the film’s horror plot to kick in.  Instead, the audience has to endure 3600 seconds of painful family and friend drama with characters they don’t really care about.  This is doubly disappointing because the last thirty minutes displays some truly creative stuff.  There are some nice makeup FX and some inspired touches (like the animated Cowboy Jack coming to life and the journey to hell through a toilet) that warrant a better movie.  The technical aspects don’t help either as the video-cinematography is muddy.  Had this been given a few more script passes and shot on film, ONE HELL OF A CHRISTMAS could have been a Xmas surprise.  As is, it is a big ol’ lump of coal with perhaps something of a little value inside.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

December to Dismember: FEEDERS 2: SLAY BELLS (1998)

It’s Christmas Eve and what better time to kick off our annual looks at some of the oddest flicks with Yuletide spirit.  Having done this for four years now, we’re finding it harder and harder to unearth stuff to cover.  In our years of Xmas flick reviewing, we’ve collectively hit some shocking lows when it comes to horror/sci-fi/action Christmas flicks.  Notice I was genre specific there as I’m sure one of those direct-to-demand “family” Xmas flicks with cats and dogs are bad enough to make you scratch out your eyeballs. We’ve covered the good and we’ve covered the bad.  I guess it is about time we get into the ugly with something like FEEDERS 2: SLAY BELLS (1998).  This, my friends, is going to hurt.

Before this week, I’d never seen a “film” by the Polonia brothers.  I was certainly aware of the oeuvre of the twins, Mark and John, from Pennsylvania, but something in my primal instinct kept me away from their shot-on-video titles like SPLATTER FARM (1987) and SAURIANS (1994).  With their bespectacled and mustached look (surely the envy of hipsters everywhere) the brothers set out to do their own thing in as they made no budget affairs in hometown.  In the mid-1990s, the brothers Polonia teamed up with shot-on-video powerhouse Jon McBride, director of CANNIBAL CAMPOUT (1988), the film that still haunts Tom’s nightmares.  The resulting feature was the alien invasion flick FEEDERS (1996).  If you haven’t seen FEEDERS (and I’m going to assume you are sane and have not), the plot revolves around two buddies – Derek (Jon McBride) and Bennett (John Polonia) – cruising around the Pennsylvania countryside where they encounter a deadly group of carnivorous extra-terrestrials.  The film ends with Derek killing his friend Bennett, who had been cloned by the nasty E.T.s, and running wild on the streets as aliens zap buildings (allowing for demolition footage).  The final shot is a fleet of UFOs heading towards Earth, leaving audiences dreading the idea of a FEEDERS 2.

The sequel picks up with Derek giving a recorded statement about what happened to him.  Who he is giving it to is never established, but it is a rather impassioned plea that more aliens are coming and we must fight them.  Because apparently no one saw the buildings zapped at the end of the first film.   The filmmakers then quickly establish the holiday spirit as we meet Alan (Mark Polonia) and his wife Bernice (Maria Humes) decorating a Christmas tree with their son and daughter (in his capacity as screenwriter, Mark Polonia couldn’t be bothered to give them names).  It’s tough times out there for an insurance agent as evidenced by this dialogue exchange.

Daughter: “When is Santa bringing us presents?”
Bernice: “In about one more day.”
Alan (whispering): “Only if daddy gets paid tomorrow.”

Wait…so you haven’t bought any presents and plan to do your shopping on Christmas Eve? Someone needs to introduce Alan and Bernice to layaway.  That evening Alan is woken up by some strange lights outside his house and sees a UFO.  The craft’s inhabitants beam down and quickly take up residence in Alan’s basement.  However, THE DEADLY SPAWN (1983) this is not as the beasties mainly freak out the family dog and cause the lights to flicker off and on for the film’s first hour.

“I’m the mannnnn in the box!”

Christmas Eve day rolls around and Alan heads into work to for his scrooge of a boss (“I hate Christmas! And you’re not leaving early either.”).  Meanwhile, we get a couple of aliens scurrying around town to attack random folks.  They kill an older lady and her cat, a local priest, and a dude working at a pallet factory. Amusingly, the priest’s scene begins with him reading with it clearly dark outside. After he is killed, Alan drives home in the daylight.  Continuity, schmontinuity!  We also get a loving montage of mom wrapping presents (uh, didn’t Alan say he had no money earlier?) set to blasting synthesizer Christmas music.  I’m pretty sure this music was listed in the recent C.I.A. torture report as one of the things used against terrorists. There is also a goofy scene where the parents go into the basement to get some presents and one of the aliens charges towards them, only to get knocked out after hitting its head on a board.  “What an ugly doll,” Alan quips before throwing it on the floor. Then, in the film’s most dramatic scene, the aliens feast on Lady, the family dog.  Yes, the dog got a name, the kids didn’t.

It is at exactly at the 39 minute and 20 seconds mark that something kind of magical happens.  Up until this point, the kids have been discussing Santa Claus and his impending visit.  So what do the Polonias do?  They make Santa a character!  Cruising around in his sleigh, Santa (Polonia mainstay Todd Carpenter) is shot down by some aliens in his air space.  Shit…just…got…real!  With a genuinely creative twist, it seems only fitting that the Polonias cut back to Derek and he spends the next 7 minutes telling his story, which allows for a sepia-toned flashback to the first film.  Yes, 7 minutes of a 70 minute movie.  Back at Alan’s place, the battered Santa passes out on an outdoor slide and the aliens figure it is go time.  They sneak up from the basement and, after attacking the Xmas tree, go after Alan and his family.  The kids tell dad they saw Santa outside and Alan figures he has to save him.  Good move as Santa has the ability to teleport and, once inside the house, heads to the North Pole to get a ray gun to zap their alien pests into video effects fade outs.  The moral of the story?  Santa is real and don’t take kindly to aliens messing up his busy schedule.

Having been a forty-year-old Polonia film virgin, I’m not sure if I should be thankful or not that I lost my cherry to their FEEDERS series.  FEEDERS 2 is a particularly rough one as it is almost sadistic in its ineptness.  Remember when you were a kid and would get a hold of a video camera and make movies where you and your friends ran around fighting some kind of monster?  That is basically what this is, but with only slightly more of a script. The idea of Santa Claus whooping ass on screen isn’t exactly anything new.  René Cardona had him fighting the devil himself in SANTA CLAUS (1959) and ol’ Saint Nick had already fought aliens in SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS (1964). However, it is a rather novel concept for the shot-on-video realm, where the finding new ways to hide blood tubing is considered a major achievement. Unfortunately, the Polonias do very little with it and their filmmaking skills are pretty shoddy.  As mentioned earlier, just as Santa works his way into the picture and things pick up, he is summarily forgotten for the McBride flashback which offers nothing to the film but padding.  I kid you not, after he gives us a recap of the events of the first film, McBride just shrugs his shoulders and walks off camera, never to be seen again.  The script is about as anemic as aliens’ tiny little bodies.  Speaking of which, you won’t believe the FX on display here.  The alien dummies from the first film return, but they also inject a new version with heads that look like a tennis ball covered in latex.  The computer effects are only slightly better with computer generated flying saucers that would make Ed Wood proud.  And speaking of Wood, wait until you get a look at the film’s acting.  They say the camera adds ten pounds, right?  Well, the video camera adds even more, causing the performers to slog around almost comatose onscreen under the weight. My favorite bit is when Alan ponders aloud what to get a woman who has everything and Bernice flatly replies, “More” with all the inflection of a zombie demanding brains.  And don’t get me started on Carpenter as Santa, who feels the best vocal inflection is to sound like Pee Wee Herman.  It says something when the best acting is done by the dog.

All that said I still have an odd level of appreciation for the Polonias.  They managed to follow their dream and crank out a bunch of stuff during their two decades working together (sadly, while looking them up, I found out that John passed away unexpectedly in 2008).  I can admire the men, while decrying their efforts right?

Monday, December 22, 2014

Newsploitation: Doing the Box Office Tango for Cash

We are admittedly big fans of Kurt Russell here at Video Junkie.  And we are also begrudgingly fans of Sylvester Stallone.  Well, maybe me more than Tom.  Anyway, back in the ‘80s these guys were action Gods for me, so when it was announced they were teaming up in a film it was going to be action movie heaven, right? What I wanted was “Snake” Plissken battling alongside John Rambo.  What I got was TANGO & CASH, one of the more absurd buddy cop flicks of the ‘80s which celebrates it 25th birthday today.

Telling the simple story of L.A.’s two best cops – rivals Raymond Tango (Stallone) and Gabriel Cash (Russell) – who team up after being framed by a crime boss (Jack Palance), TANGO & CASH is a pretty blatant attempt at the buddy cop comedy formula and for good reason. The previous year had been a big reality check for Stallone.  Reeling from the disappointments of COBRA (1986) and OVER THE TOP (1987), Sly retreated to the land of comfort for him – the sequel.  In this case it was the further adventures of his now superhuman Vietnam vet in RAMBO III (1988).  Unfortunately, American audiences were tired of the character and the film drew a disappointing $53.7 million in the United States (the film still did well overseas).  That summer audiences had turned their back on John Rambo for another John – John McClain.  DIE HARD (1988) proved to be a breakout hit and ended up the highest grossing action film of that year.  Stallone took note of people preferring more “realistic” action scenarios and adjusted his filmography accordingly.

Believe it or not, Russell wasn’t the original choice for Gabriel Cash in this film.  In Variety on January 30, 1989, it was announced that Patrick Swayze would be playing the role opposite Stallone. However, that quickly changed and come February Russell had been cast in the film, which was initially called THE SETUP.  I’m not sure Swayze would have been good as a smartass cop, but the choices being made on this Peter Guber-Jon Peters produced flick weren’t the most sound, just look at who they chose as director.  Andrey Konchalovskiy (credited on the film as Andrei Konchalovsky) signed onto the project in April 1989 and was about as wrong for the project as you could imagine.  Sure, he had made RUNAWAY TRAIN (1985) but his film previous to TANGO & CASH was the tiny drama HOMER AND EDDIE (1989) starring Whoopi Goldberg and Jim Belushi as a con woman and retarded guy, respectively, on a road trip.  And in the months before signing on, he had directed an opera.  Yes, truly someone you want doing a $50 million dollar action picture. TANGO & CASH began filming in June 1989 and – surprise, surprise – the Russian director quickly found himself in over his head.  So much so that Variety ran a headline on August 28 screaming: “Konchalovsky Replaced by Magnoli on TANGO” (Konchalovsky has always contended he asked to be released from the film).  Magnoli was one Albert Magnoli, who had previously had a hit for Warner Bros. with PURPLE RAIN (1984).  Jesus, can anyone get an action director on this damn pic?  Anyway, major reshoots took place in September and early October 1989.

Amazingly, TANGO & CASH did make it to theaters on its planned December 22 release date.  The film opened in second place with a haul of $6.6 million that weekend (it was unable to unseat the month old CHRISTMAS VACATION [1989], but did debut better than Spielberg’s ALWAYS [1989]).  In total, the film made $63,408,614 in the United States, which paled in comparison to the flick Guber & Peters had earlier that year from Warner Bros. studio.  Some little flick called BATMAN (1989).  It did prove to be the biggest hit for Stallone's box office “dark” period from 1986-1993 though.  On the bright side, the film ended up establishing Russell as an action star.  Sure, we loved him in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) and BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986) but those hadn’t produced big numbers.  So if TANGO & CASH did anything, it helped establish Russell as legit in the eyes of the mainstream public; he would follow up with big hits like BACKDRAFT (1991), TOMBSTONE (1993), and STARGATE (1994).  Amusingly, another film semi-related to this action epic came out on Christmas day in limited release.  Yes, Konchalovskiy’s low budget HOMER AND EDDIE hit a few theaters three days after his $50 plus million dollar blockbuster unspooled on 1,400 screens nationwide.  In my best Jack Palance voice: “Tango…and Cash…Homer…and Eddie.”  The mind boggles.

On a final note, I still find TANGO & CASH to be guilty pleasure.  It is so over-the-top that you can’t help but enjoy it.  The one place the film did score was in the cult actor casting department.  In addition to Palance as the lead bad guy, you also had supporting roles by James Hong, Brion James, Michael J. Pollard, Geoffrey Lewis, and Clint Howard.  And the prison thugs included Robert Z’Dar (off whom Stallone makes a funny Schwarzenegger put down), Billy Blanks, and Benny “The Jet” Urquidez.  Not bad at all.

Yes, this is from the actual movie:

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Newsploitation: BREAKIN' in 2 the Box Office

It seemed like only a matter of time that we would hit a Cannon film in box office anniversary series.  What better one to start with than BREAKIN’ 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO (1984), which opened thirty years ago on December 21, 1984.  Break dancing was a craze sweeping the United States back in the early ‘80s and it was only a matter of time before Hollywood was poppin’ and lockin’ on the fad.  The first U.S. film to feature the dancing was Charles Ahearn’s WILD STYLE (1983), a New York City lensed low budget film about a graffiti artist.  The first “big” film was Cannon’s BREAKIN’ (1984).

The common story behind the film’s genesis is that Cannon co-owner Menahem Golan was told about the dance style and he knew he had to make a film about the country’s latest dance fad.  Especially since it was being co-opted by white kids!  I’m of a different school of thought and think Golan read that producer Aaron Russo (TRADING PLACES) announced in Variety in October 1983 that he was making a film called BREAK DANCING.  My theory is further bolstered by Cannon initially advertising their film as BREAKDANCIN’ and then BREAKDANCE before settling on their final title.  Filmed in Phoenix in February and March of 1984, the film had an amazingly fast postproduction period, hitting theaters on May 4, 1984 via MGM.  It debuted in the top spot and beat out newcomers like SIXTEEN CANDLES, HARDBODIES, and THE BOUNTY.  All in all, the film earned $38 million in the U.S. that summer and ended up being MGM’s second highest grosser that year and the 18th highest grossing U.S. movie overall.

Naturally, with their first big hit, the Go Go boys threw a sequel into production right away.  Hell, they were so sure of success that the sequel was announced in the end credits of the first film.  The sequel began filming in L.A. in July 1984 with all of the principal players returning.  Cannon actually afforded director Sam Firstenberg a bit more of an extended postproduction time, but had set a firm release date for the Christmas season.  No longer partnered with MGM, they got the film to come out via TriStar on December 21, 1984 on just over 700 screens (early reports in Variety promised a rollout on over 1,000 screens). Despite getting their sequel into theaters just seven months after the original, the company found themselves doing the headspin as the trend had already died out.  The film opened in tenth pace, behind newcomers such as PROTOCOL, JOHNNY DANGEROUSLY, and a re-release of PINOCCHIO (making one wonder if this pushed Golan and Globus to announce PINOCCHIO: THE ROBOT the following year).  The film still made $15 million total in America, but it was a sharp drop from the year’s earlier success.  To make matters worse, on December 10, 1984 – eleven days before the sequel’s release – Variety reported that original BREAKIN’ producers David Zito and Allen DeBevoise were suing Cannon for “allegedly not paying them their full share of the profits.”  No further information can be found on this lawsuit, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say they didn’t get paid.

Never ones to be deterred, the Cannon Group announced RAPPIN’ for the following year and tried to repeat their success, right down to the rushed schedule (Variety, March 6, 1985: “Featuring prominent practitioners of the rapping musical phenomenon, pic is planned to follow pattern of last year's BREAKIN’, and be released in 1,200 theaters May 4 after a whirlwind production schedule.”)  It came out in 1,500 theaters on May 10, 1985 and promptly bombed.  As it stands, ELECTRIC BOOGLAOO became a cult film and the film’s subtitle subsequently became a pop culture catchphrase with folks worldwide ascribing its absurdness to any sequel.  Tell me you’ve never heard someone describe a second entry in a series with that title and I’ll call you a liar.  Like a guy doing the backspin, this ironic usage came full circle with director Mark Hartley using it for the title of his documentary on Cannon, the highly entertaining ELECTRIC BOOGALOO: THE WILD, UNTOLD STORY OF CANNON FILMS (2014).

Friday, December 19, 2014

Superham Cinema: SAMURAI (1979)

As incredible as it may seem to the young 'uns today, the late '70s had it's own comic book media blitz. Our generation had not only some badass Underoos, and TV series' such as "The Incredible Hulk" (1978), "Wonder Woman" (1974) and "Spider-Man" (courtesy of the 1971 kids show "The Electric Company"), but we also got some made for TV movies, such as the doomed-from-the-start CBS adaptation, DR. STRANGE (1978). Setting aside Peter Hooten's leaden performance, I can't even imagine how the pitch meetings went for that, and how they could even think about pulling off the cosmic acid trip that is "Doctor Strange". The mind boggles.

To reiterate what I've said in the past, TV movies are an interesting breed. They tend to be completely budget starved and as a result they are often forced to be creative in the screenwriting department. Also, name actors who are past their prime tend to show up regularly and sometimes they are willing to take more risks in the story. Stuff that might not have much of a fighting chance in cinemas could do good business on TV, particularly due to the fact that home video was not only far too expensive for the average person and the major studios at the time were so against the idea that it became a massive legal battle with the intent of preventing the public from even owning a VCR, much less licensing their movies out to a video format. So if you wanted to watch a movie at home, you couldn't make it a Blockbuster night.

If you roll all of that up into a big fat sushi roll of death, you have SAMURAI, an ABC TV movie that dares to challenge my assertion that you cannot make a bad movie in San Francisco.

In the Marina near Fisherman's Wharf, some no-goodniks are attempting to... well, it's not clear what they are attempting to do, but it's definitely no good! Fortunately for the cougars of the Marina district, an unmasked avenger shows up out of nowhere clad in a black karate gi and a red headband! He's going to attack them with the power of the mystical martial arts, or make sashimi out of them with the katana at his side, right? Nope. He's going to grab a fire hose and, this is true, spray them all into a fishing net and then drop them in the ocean. Marina bros can sleep easy tonight, Samurai-Man is on the job! Actually he isn't called "Samurai-Man", he actually has no super name, though his identity is somehow secret in spite of the fact that he doesn't wear a mask.

During the daylight hours our chinpira hosing hero is none other than county prosecutor Lee Toshido Cantrell (Joe Penny). Cantrell was born in Japan and is the son of a Japanese-American businessman and a proper Japanese mother, yet for some reason looks rather like an Italian. Anybody know what the milk man looked like?

Since he grew up in Japan and is of Asian descent he of course knows karate, kenpo and bushido. As his father tells him, bushido is the code of "a warrior who pledges undying loyalty to the defense of those unable to defend themselves." Uhhh, first off, by most accounts, bushido's main attributes are loyalty, honor, frugality and marital arts, and second, that is a really odd motto for a county prosecutor. His old man is clearly the life of the party and he goes around in his kimono intoning pearls of ancient Japanese wisdom like "every land has only two laws... right and wrong." Yeah, thanks for the talk pops, gotta go fight crime now.

After the cops stumble across a bunch of roughnecks who appear to be breaking into a warehouse, they find them sitting in a truck drinking whiskey saying that the reason that they are there is because it was a good place to party. Oh, and the explosives in the truck are from a construction job. Cantrell, being the sharpest wakizashi in the belt, catches a whiff of a rat and it isn't too long before he discovers that the evil Horizon corporation wants to gentrify an unnamed area of SF by running people out of their businesses and homes and creating a glittering new shopping center.

The president of Horizon is one Amory Bryson (Charles Cioffi), an ice-cold exec who prefers to work in the shadows. Literally, as Bryson works at night with massive office lit by a solitary desklamp. To aid him in his nefarious doings is his right hand man, Harold Tigner (Geoffrey Lewis), who feels that the best way to run the indigent crumbsuckers out of town is to hire a group of disenfranchised ex-military commandos to make the most clumsy attacks possible. Instead of simply throwing a molotov or two in an old Jewish man's warehouse, they actually break in a second time, run detcord all around the inside of the building, completely oblivious to the street-smart 9 year old kid who is witnessing it.

Yes, this movie features two of '70s TVs most favorite characters, who are presumably the target demographic of cranky old Jewish men and precocious kids in hospital beds. Of course we also have the '70s staple of cops that refuse to believe a far-fetched story that is actually true, high-tech corporate security systems (oooh, a palm-reader!), and a low-speed chase between a Mercury and a Lincoln through the city streets. While the revs are kept pretty low, it is still pretty entertaining seeing those giant, multi-ton boats wallow around corners and crash over the hills. After taking a particularly hard slam into the crest of a hill you can clearly see all of the fluids hemorrhaging out of the car like pasta draining on spaghetti night.

Somehow Cantrell manages to win a case against Horizon to get the plans for the shopping center temporarily blocked. We never see how he achieves this Miracle on McAllister Street, but he does. This makes Bryson so mad, that he decides it is time to break out his super-secret weapon that he has been developing in the basement of his office building, a machine that will send out sonic waves that will cause an earthquake within a seven or eight block radius. Sell it to the military, oh no, no, no. Bryson has bigger plans! He's going to use it to clear a path for a mall. Uhhhh, yeah. Dare to dream my friend, dare to dream.

Made one year before NBCs ratings-smashing miniseries adaptation of James Clavell's epic East-meets-West novel "Shogun", SAMURAI didn't have the wave of popularity that SHOGUN created for samurai pop-culture in the west. It might have been able to create its own wave but, as you may have noticed from my plot synopsis, for a movie about a lawyer moonlighting as a crime-stopping martial-arts hero, there is very little of either. As much as legal dramas were popular in the '70s, veteran TV writer Jerry Ludwig, chooses not to have any scenes of Cantrell rocking the courtroom aside from a brief scene in the beginning where he meets a friend from law school in what is clearly meant to be the set-up for a recurring character. As if that wasn't bad enough, Ludwig also keeps the vigilante/superhero action to a minimum with a few quick bursts of action sprinkled through the last half of the film.

The double edged sword here is that Ludwig tries to pack as much pop-culture themes into one script, which is cool, but it doesn't leave enough time for many of them to be interesting. We get some brief cliched scenes of martial arts training and meditation and the very end of a legal case, but mostly we get a lot of Cantrell talking to kids, flirting with the daughter of the warehouse owner, talking to the cops who don't want to hear his hair-brained theories and so on. Even worse veteran TV director Lee H. Katzin shoots these scenes utterly flat and Joe Penny is so utterly miscast that even James Garner would have been more convincing Japanese vigilante. Ok, maybe not, but it sure as hell would have been more fun. That is not to say that SAMURAI is without entertainment value. Even though Lewis is sadly wasted as a corporate yes-man, there are enough absurdities, such as Cioffi's stunning hairpiece and embarrassing attempts at white-fu (yes, I just said "Charles Cioffi" and "martial arts" in the same sentence) to keep the undiscriminating reasonably entertained.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Newsploitation: A Science Fiction Triple Feature for the Ages

One of the fun things about looking at the box office results of old is finding out that some of your own personal favorites went head-to-head.  Nowhere is this better shown than in the cinematic weekend beginning on December 14, 1984.  Of the four major studio releases opening on that day thirty years ago, three of them turned out to be sci-fi films.  Even more amazing, all three grew into sci-fi classics of one way or another and they still see talk and screenings today.  The triple threat was David Lynch’s DUNE, Michael Crichton’s RUNAWAY, and John Carpenter’s STARMAN.  Yeah, ‘twas a good weekend to be a sci-fi geek.

Popular lore has always pegged Lynch’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel as a huge box office flop; however that is not the case.  Of the three films that weekend, DUNE opening in the highest position and came in second place with $6,025,091.  A project in development for over a decade (we totally suggest you watch the amazing documentary JODOROWSKY’S DUNE [2013], which covers director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempt to make the film in the 1970s), DUNE grossed $30,925,690 in the United States so it is probably safe to say it doubled that in foreign markets. That should have covered producers Dino and Raffaella De Laurentiis’ investment of $40 million. Unfortunately, the film ended up being a victim of the dreaded comparison to some other space opera series called STAR WARS.  Fact is if your sci-fi epic wasn’t making the $200+ million that the Lucasfilm trilogy was raking in throughout U.S. theaters, you were considered a bomb.  As it stands, DUNE did alright and, despite its director wanting his name taken off it, its reputation and following has only grown over the last thirty years.

The weakest performer of the three films that weekend was RUNAWAY.  Writer-director Crichton’s fifth theatrical feature, this one featured hot TV star Tom Selleck as a future cop who has to take on the malicious robots of villain Gene Simmons.  TriStar got this one into 720 theaters (half of what the box office champ BEVERLY HILLS COP [1984] was still showing in) and it ended up coming in seventh place with a haul of $1,198,279.  This one stuck around the least at just over four weeks and ended up with a final tally of $6,770,587. It was another stark reminder for Selleck that his transition from the small screen to the big one wasn’t going to go smoothly and it was a far cry from the box office of LASSITER (1984), which had earned $17 million when released in February of the same year. Ultimately, RUNAWAY would find its audience on home video and cable.  It has grown to be a cult favorite and it all holds up extremely well in viewings three decades removed.  Well, except for Gene Simmons’ hair.

The middle child of our triplets ended up being Columbia’s STARMAN, which tells the story of an alien answering NASA’s Voyager invitation and heading to explore Earth (and specifically America) in a few days journey.  With Jeff Bridges as the alien and Nancy Allen as his guide, STARMAN proved to be a departure for director John Carpenter, who was getting pigeonholed as only a horror director. The film opened in sixth place with a total of $2,872,022.  Of the three features, this one had the longest legs and good word of mouth kept it playing until February 1985 where it settled with a domestic gross of $28,744,356.  Surprisingly, this would end up being Carpenter’s highest grossing film of the 1980s.  Even more surprising, Jeff Bridges saw his amazing lead performance nominated for an Academy Award, a true rarity for science fiction film. While he lost to F. Murray Abraham from AMADEUS (1984), it proved to be the first of three nominations for Best Actor (he’d previously been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for THE LAST PICTURE SHOW [1971] and THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT [1974]).  He would eventually win the prize for CRAZY HEART (2009).

It is kind of wild to find out those three films I loved as a kid all came out on the same day. Of the three, I only got to see STARMAN in the theater so it is my favorite.  But it is cool to know that three such distinct voices all got there wildly different sci-fi films into theaters, a feat that surely wouldn’t happened today.  December 14, 1984 – a day that will live in science fiction film infamy.