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!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015


With the return of the cult icon Hugh Keays-Byrne to international screens as Immortan Joe in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015), we decided to talk about some of his other film roles. You'd think we'd want to talk about some of the great films he has appeared in over the decades like STONE (1974), MAN FROM HONG KONG (1975), CHAIN REACTION (1980), or BLOOD OF HEROES (1989). That would be too easy when there are films like LES PATTERSON on hand. Quite possibly the biggest Aussie disaster since the 1899 destruction of Bathurst by cyclone Mahina.

Native Australian actor and writer Barry Humphries started his career with the creation of the hugely popular comic strip "Barry McKenzie", a biting satire of the ocker mentality (sort of an outback redneck), that turned into a cultural phenomenon which glorified the ockers, much to the chagrin of Humphries. Of course, I'm sure Humphries couldn't have been that irritated with it as it lead to his TV character comedies (Edna Everage being the most well known outside of Oz) and two very funny feature films THE ADVENTURES OF BARRY MCKENZIE (1972) and BARRY MCKENZIE HOLDS HIS OWN (1974), both directed by Bruce Beresford.

A Barry McKenzie strip from November 1966

Apparently Humphries decided that after a long string of successful outings he was done with all that and created a feature film based on his other attack on Aussie culture, Ambassador Les Patterson. I should point out that while some of his work comes off as good natured ribbing, Humphries did not intend them to be. In interviews he has expressed his contempt for Australia and was genuinely hoping to make people angry. Perhaps he finally succeeded in that goal.

After being fed a couple cans of beans in an attempt to sober him up, Australian Ambassador to the United Nations, Sir Les Patterson (Barry Humphries) delivers a drunken speech on the finer points of Oz, saying "we've got more culture than a penicillin factory!" These pearls of wisdom are only interrupted by a massive flatus that conflagrates setting Shiek Mustafa Toul (Garth Meade) ablaze.

While the Prime Minister of Australia, Bob (Paul Jennings), is in the midst of tearing Les a new one, he gets a call from US President Rivers (an uncredited Joan Rivers). Apparently Shiek Toul is the ruler of the small, but pivotal Arabic state that is about to accept help from the Russians to oppress the masses. The US is looking to support a military coup, installing a suave Colonel Richard Godowni (Thaao Penghlis) to the throne and securing the sales of military hardware. To this end, President Rivers demands that Patterson be promoted to the ambassador to Abu Niveah, thus ensuring a catastrophic breakdown that would allow Godowni to take over. A surprisingly complicated set-up for a movie that kicks off with an exploding fart joke.

Of course, upon arrival, Patterson discovers that Toul has plans on torturing him to death and asks if he has any last words, to which Patterson replies "Too right I do! My your balls turn into bicycle wheels and backpedal up your ass!" Much like Patterson's wingtip platform shoes, this Aussie insult was dated in 1987 and was actually used to much funnier effect fifteen years prior in one of Bazza's "authentic folk songs" in first Barry McKenzie film.

The coup is assisted by Godowni's right hand man Inspector Farouk (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who as it turns out is having an affair with the local embassy man (Andrew Clarke) while wearing make-up and tassles. Yep, as George White pointed out during a Facebook discussion of Keays-Byrne's RESISTANCE (1994), this is in fact the way you have never wanted to see him.

After the coup is successful, Patterson runs into a French scientist, Dr. Charles Herpes (Henri Szeps), who has discovered an antidote to an obscure virus that makes people swell up into a mess of squirting pustules before they die. Patterson convinces him that they could make a bundle by infecting the world with the virus and then presenting the antidote to much acclaim... and cash.  Unfortunately this plan is cut short when Godowni secretly makes a pact with the Russians who steal the virus with the plan to destroy America by selling them infected toilet seats. I'm probably making this sound more highbrow than it really is.

Fortunately Herpes has sent the antidote (or as Patterson puts it "the anecdote") to his sister, a drag lounge act in a revolving restaurant. When President Rivers discovers what is going on she shouts "I want Herpes! I wan't Herpes badly!" As if that wasn't funny enough it is actually recycled from a previous scene. I don't think I need to tell you that doing this joke twice doesn't make it any funnier.

Dame Edna is also thrown into the mix, here posing as the leader of a group of feminist housewife emissaries, the "Possums for Peace", when in fact she is an undercover CIA badass. Another good idea handled so clumsily by Humphries, you'd think Tom Brady deflated his balls.

This hot mess culminates in the revolving restaurant of which the speed has been accidentally ramped up to max by a mischievous koala bear, allowing for food to be smashed into faces and numerous tuxedoed waiters bearing silver trays of food to be comically knocked off their feet. Yep, we are getting a slapstick scene that was running on fumes thirty years prior. Hell, even Mel Brooks subtly mocked the cliche in BLAZING SADDLES thirteen years prior. This setpiece allows for an exchange between Edna and one of her "Possums for Peace" group in which Edna says "I think it is the San Andreas fault!" which gets the reply "I thought it was somebody's fault!" Oh the pain, the pain!

This pre-Austin Powers bumbling Bond satire is mainly just an excuse for a string of quite possibly the most forced humor in the history of cinema. The jokes feel like they were hastily written the morning of the shoot. Some even seem unfinished. In one scene Edna is told she will be put up in "the Hotel Sodom" and she says "like Sodom and Gomorrah?" to which the reply is "not quite." This is followed by a shot of the hotel sign that reads "Hotel Sodom". What happened there? Did Humphries lose the rest of that joke in a poker game or was the punchline the fact that the neon sign reads "Sod Hot" in the background of a later shot?

In one scene, that is possibly the funniest in the entire film, Patterson gives some money to a street beggar, saying "Australian dollars!" The beggar spits on them and says "do you have Mexican?" (ummm, in 1987 everyone knew what a peso is, but whatever). There are a couple of mildly amusing gags, but that is the closest we ever to a clever joke. More importantly he is managing to insult three countries in a single two-line joke, which has to be some sort of record. To be fair Humphries attacks everybody, but just doesn't do it in creative way as he did in BARRY MCKENZIE. For example, the Irish are targeted in a throwaway gag that features a man in thick glasses who puts on a pair of headphones the wrong way. You could use this gag with any nationality and it still wouldn't be particularly funny. If you want to see the Irish skewered, look no further than the UK series FATHER TED (1995), where priests are depicted as lecherous, diseased, alcoholic, dimwitted, vain and greedy, but with a razor-sharp wit.

Even worse, there is a scene in the White House where President Rivers is being shown an image of the virus, to which she says "it's horrible, it's like a little Vincent Price!" Hey, hey, hey! Say what you want about the Irish, but you leave Vincent Price out of this!

Directed by the other downunder George Miller (sometimes credited as T. George Miller), known mostly for TV work, but also credited with THE MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER (1982) and THE NEVERENDING STORY II (1990), does a fair job of presenting the material. Unfortunately with gags that would make an eight year-old groan, it's hardly his fault that the film comes off so poorly. Humphries has expressed embarrassment over this movie in our modern era, but I hope it's not because of the rampant politically incorrect content and more for the fact that this clumsy mess was written by a man whose name was once uttered in the same breath as pommy bastards such as Spike Milligan and Peter Cook.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi Vey!: RESISTANCE (1994)

With MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015) roaring into theaters this weekend, we figured we’d get something post-apocalyptic up for review.  Using our hive mind, Tom and I both ended up watching the Australian film RESISTANCE (1994) on the same evening without mentioning it to each other.  As they say great minds think alike…and apparently ours do too!  What led us both to this film is it was co-directed by Hugh Keays-Byrne, the great Brit-by-birth-Aussie-by-career actor. Keays-Byrne is legendary in the Mad Max universe for his portrayal of the villain Toecutter in the first film and – in one of the coolest casting moves by a director in the last few years – returned to the series as new villain Immortan Joe in FURY ROAD.  So seeing his version of a bleak Australian future was definitely interesting.  The end result was also, uh, interesting.

The film opens with a declaration that “the time is now” and explains how the people are rioting, the country is bankrupt, and martial law is in effect.  The bulk of the film takes place at the isolated Ithaca Flour Mill, run by the seedy (haha) Strickland (Bogdan Koca).  It is harvest time and Natalie (Helen Jones) has returned to her hometown with Wiley (Robyn Nevin) to get a temporary job in the fields/factory.  However, Ithaca forewoman Jean (Lorna Lesley) informs the workers that she only has room for fifteen people versus last year’s fifty, due to Strickland cutting a deal with the government to use prison labor.  This creates a conflict for Jean as well as her husband, Autrey (Sam Toomey), is currently locked up in one of these government work farms.  The dusty town is filled with all kinds of odd characters including Natalie’s family (that lives a tribal, off-the-grid existence) and Peter (Keays-Byrne), a drunk who bootlegs grain alcohol and has a dark political past.

What no one in the town knows is that the Government has passed the “Emergency Powers Act” and soon the place is surrounded by spike strips, huge tanks, a bunch of wet-behind-the-ears soldiers, and some downright bloodthirsty mercenaries.  When Autrey and another local boy escape from the prison camp and are killed by the soldiers, Jean decides she must team up with Natalie to offer a bit of the film’s title.

One of the problems with the film is I unfairly went into it with the Mad Max series in mind.  This was obviously helped by the VHS cover (see above) which depicts a tattoo-clad woman sporting an AK-47 seemingly ready to deliver some justice and seeing Aussie legend Grant Page listed as the stunt coordinator.  Unfortunately, this is a bit more Sad Max than Mad Max.  If you are waiting for the moment where the people rise up and take it to their military oppressors, you’ll be waiting a long time as that doesn’t happen until the 90 minute mark and lasts all of five minutes.  Such delayed pathos doesn’t really help when you keep thinking something is about to go off.  For example, after Autrey is killed, I thought that Jean was going to go off. Instead she decides to just go back to work and then pack up after she gets fired.  Later she illegally reclaims his body and the military stomps down to his funeral pyre…to politely ask a soldier to point out who stole the body and then do nothing.  It is a film that just doesn’t seem to get going, which is a shame as there are lots of fertile ideas.  For example, Peter’s activist past is brought up and you get the feeling he was tortured, but the filmmakers never delve into it (or even continue on with his story once he is identified by the Government).  It definitely has a us-versus-them mentality, but sometimes things are a bit too on the nose (like when someone screams at the military guys “fuckin’ animals, fuckin’ terrorists!”).  I assume the script was partially improvised as the final screen credit goes to The Macau Collective.  What the film does do pretty well is creating this little town and the characters that inhabit it.  That might just be down to casting regular folks who play themselves, but that works well.  Another aspect where the film is really stunning is the widescreen cinematography by Sally Bongers.  Sadly, the VHS copy I watched is full screen.  To make it hurt even more, the tape opens with a widescreen trailer that showcases the film’s gorgeous look in capturing these desolate locations.

What is interesting is watching the film and trying to imagine it as a prequel to MAD MAX (1979).  When I looked at it that way, it was kind of interesting.  The George Miller universe is open to literally millions of pre-energy crisis stories and it isn’t hard to imagine a scenario like this going down in the lead up to Miller’s dystopian future.  Adding to that is the fact that Keays-Byrne cast several of his co-stars from MAD MAX (1979) in supporting roles.  This hits home the best when we have Vincent Gil – who co-starred in MAD MAX (1979) as The Nightrider – as a gun-happy mercenary named Bull.  It’s not hard (and kind of fun) to imagine this character as a pre-war version of (or maybe the father of) his earlier character, creating a scenario to show how he became the lawless gear-head.  At the same time, doing that is a complete disservice to this film as it is not an action packed spectacle like Miller’s films.  There is one chase scene and a couple of big stunts.  As it stands, it is for Mad Max fans curious about Keays-Byrne behind the camera and Aussie film completists only. Hey, wait, that is us (said in unison 3000 miles apart).

Monday, May 11, 2015

Newsploitation: Go to the Head of the CLASS OF 1999

Today’s box office birthday is a mind bender as it reminds me all about time.  Remember when 1999 seemed like such a futuristic date?  Well, we’re sixteen years past that now.  And even more wild is we are now twenty-five years past the release of Mark Lester’s CLASS OF 1999 (1990), the kick ass sci-fi flick that promised man would be battling machine in that year.

A in-spirit-sequel to Lester’s own CLASS OF 1984 (1982), the follow-up took the idea of out of control teens to its futuristic extreme, resulting in a film the Lester described as “WESTWORLD (1973) meets BLACKBOARD JUNGLE (1955).”  The man hired to write it was C. Courtney Joyner, who had already built a sterling genre resume with Jeff Burr’s THE OFFSPRING (1987) and Renny Harlin’s PRISON (1987).  As is often the case in Hollywood, a series of other writers including Abby Wool and splatterpunk writing team John Skipp & Craig Spector worked on it.  As Joyner told Fangoria, “Mark had me do the final draft. So I was rewriting Abby’s rewrite of my rewrite of Skipp & Spector’s rewrite of my script. That’s Hollywood.”   In the end Joyner retains sole screen credit.  The project was officially announced at the American Film Market in February 1988 and was one of Veston’s bigger productions during this period with a budget of $5 million under their newly formed Lightning Pictures banner.

Production began in Seattle, Washington in November 1988 with a cast led by Bradley Gregg and Traci Lin as kind of the Romero and Juliet in a gang wasteland.  Lester also assembled an amazing supporting cast including Stacy Keach (sporting a white wig and contact lenses) and former delinquent Droog Malcolm McDowell (now in charge of delinquents).  Best of all was the trio of Patrick Kilpatrick, Pam Grier, and John P. Ryan as the futuristic robot teachers.  On the technical side, Lester had the great Mark Irwin as cinematographer, Paul Baxley coordinating the hair-raising stunts, gore FX from Rick Stratton, and robot FX supervised by Eric Allard.  It all combined into one explosive package that still holds up today.  Well, except for some of the outfits worn by the punks.  You weren’t wearing tie-dyed tights in ’99?

Unfortunately for Lester’s film, the wheels were about to fall off of Vestron. According to a Variety article on March 15, 1989, the company survived a tumultuous 1986-87 and had a great year in 1988; they drew in a net income of $20.6 million dollars (thanks mostly to the success of DIRTY DANCING [1987] and YOUNG GUNS [1988], the latter which came out via 20th Century Fox but Vestron handled foreign markets and VHS). Just over a month later, an article appeared mentioning that Vestron had hired Merrill Lynch to find investors.  Uh oh.  After that, a negative Vestron story seemed to be a daily occurrence.  A June 1989 headline read “Vestron Expected to Close Pic Wing, Pinkslip Staff.”  In August 1989 they sold their video store chain imaginatively called The Video Store to Supermarket Video and also were denied a $100 million dollar loan.  Not surprisingly, they posted huge 2nd and 3rd quarter losses and by December 1989 they were selling off everything to reduce debt.

Naturally titles in production for Vestron at the time like CLASS suffered greatly. Vestron had originally scheduled the film for a theatrical release on October 6, 1989, but that fell to the wayside with the company in such financial straits.  Lester’s sci-fi sequel was actually a bit lucky in that it was picked up rather quickly (other genre titles caught up in this downfall included Stan Winston’s UPWORLD [aka A GNOME NAMED GNORM] and Anthony Hickox’s SUNDOWN, both of which would sit on the shelf for years).  On March 14, 1990, a Variety article announced that CLASS OF 1999 had been acquired by Taurus Entertainment Company and they planned a theatrical release for the film.  That was the good news.  The bad news was Taurus had seemingly no footprint in the distribution market.  Previous to CLASS their biggest release was BEST OF THE BEST (1989), which they got out on 600 screens to make a total of $1.7 million.  Taurus eventually released the film in 320 locations on May 11, 1990.  With such limited exposure, it did not fare well its opening weekend and came in 13th place with a haul of $767,620. However, it should be noted that the film had the second highest per-screen average that weekend in the top fifteen outside of no. 1 title PRETTY WOMAN (1990).  Had Vestron lived on they probably would have gotten CLASS out onto at least 1,000 screens and it would have done better.  CLASS did stick around for a few weeks and continued to draw in viewers, ending with a final tally of $2,459,895 in the U.S.  This made it Taurus’ biggest grosser…and their final theatrical release.

Where CLASS OF 1999 really took off was on the home video market, which is where I first got to see it.  The film proved popular enough that Cinetel felt the need to make CLASS OF 1999 II: THE SUBSTITUTE (1994).  Unfortunately, even if it is directed by veteran stunt coordinator Spiro Razatos, this sequel is a crushing disappointment when compared to CLASS OF 1999.  

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Newsploitation: STICK (1985) in the Box Office Mud!

Today’s box office birthday is an odd one because it is a film that should have kicked major ass both on the screen and at the box office.   Unfortunately the ‘80s crime flick STICK (1985) ended up getting stuck in a bunch of behind-the-scenes mishaps and executive decisions that resulted in a damaged film.  And the only person it seemed to hurt was the star, Burt Reynolds.

In early February 1983 it was announced in trade papers that Universal and Jennings Lang Productions had picked up the screen rights to Elmore Leonard’s forthcoming novel STICK with the author signed on to adapt the screenplay.  On July 27, 1983 it was announced in Daily Variety that Burt Reynolds had signed on to star in and direct the adaptation.  This was big news for Reynolds fans as it marked the actor’s return to straight action after the comedies THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS (1982), BEST FRIENDS (1982), STROKER ACE (1983), and THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN (1983).  It was also great news in that he was returning to the director’s chair after his hard hitting action flick SHARKEY’S MACHINE (1981). Unfortunately, STICK would end up being somewhat of a cursed production.

The actor slots filled up and were announced in September 1983 with a October 1983 start date in Florida penciled in.  Interestingly, one tiny blurb mentioned that Richard Benjamin – who would go on to direct Reynolds in his very next feature, CITY HEAT (1984) – turned down a role in the film.  Filming began on October 3, 1983 and disaster struck almost immediately. On Thursday, October 6, Reynolds was filming a scene with stuntman Dar Robinson and got accidentally shot in his right eye by wadding from the blanks in the gun. Reynolds was airlifted by a helicopter to a local hospital and, luckily, it didn’t do any permanent damage.  A few weeks later an even bigger disaster struck on another Thursday as a camera crane collapsed and fell on three crew members while shooting in Fort Lauderdale on November 10, 1983.  Luckily, all three – including one who was initially listed in critical condition – survived. Despite the mishaps, it was announced in Variety in December 1983 that Reynolds had completed production and come in three days ahead of schedule.

STICK was originally scheduled for an August 17, 1984 release date.  However, it became quickly apparent the film would not meet that date due to Reynolds’ health problems.  He had started filming CITY HEAT in April 1984 and was hit in the face with a chair on the first day of filming.  This, combined with suffering from TMJ, led Reynolds on a series of doctor and dentist visits which ended with him becoming addicted to painkillers.  (Oddly, Reynolds covers this part of his life in detail in his autobiography MY LIFE, but makes not a single mention of making STICK).  Also, apparently Universal execs didn’t like the film (uh, did they not read the script they approved?) and wanted major changes.  Writer Joseph Stinson was brought on to add new material.  In late August 1984 it was made official as Universal announced STICK would be moved to 1985 and that Reynolds would do some reshoots, which took place in November and December 1984.  Fans interested in alternate footage can see the original ending here.

To make matters worse, Elmore Leonard spoke badly about the film publically leading up to its release.  STICK eventually reached theaters on April 26, 1985.  It debuted in the top spot with a haul of $3,358,299, just barely ahead of the weekend’s only other new release, JUST ONE OF THE GUYS (1985). In the end, the film made just $8,489,518 which was bad considering the $20+ million budget.  It also paled in comparison to what Reynolds – who had been a huge box office draw since 1977 – was earning in other films in the early '80s (BEST FRIENDS and WHOREHOUSE were big hits).  Because of the film’s trouble production, STICK is now often associated as the film that marked the beginning of Reynolds’ decline at the box office (actually, THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN underperformed before this).  As it stands, it did mark a downturn in his popularity as an action hero, but resulted in an interesting period of five or so years with films like this, HEAT (1986), and MALONE (1987).  It wasn’t until turning back to comedy with EVENING SHADE on TV that Reynolds again became a box office hit, albeit of a smaller variety with COP AND A HALF (1993).

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Whodoo Voodoo: MARLEY'S REVENGE (1989)

We love us some regional exploitation flicks here at Video Junkie, especially if they came out in the ‘70s and ‘80s.  There is something so damn endearing about folks outside of Hollywood trying to emulate big blockbusters (and the films are bereft of the wink-wink-nod-nod self referential “we’re intentionally making a bad movie” stuff you see in 99.9999998% of regional stuff today).  One of the hotbeds during that era was my downstairs neighbor, North Carolina.  Businessman Earl Owensby set about trying to create a Hollywood of the East in Shelby, North Carolina and I’d like to think his success pushed director Jet Eller to make MARLEY’S REVENGE: THE MONSTER MOVIE (1989).

The film opens with two cocaine smugglers on the run from a couple of good ol’ boys definitely meaning some harm.  Apparently they took Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” program to its logical end and kill anyone dealing drugs in their neck of the woods.  You know they are serious because one guy sports a Blue Oyster Cult t-shirt.  Such vigilantism is soon to be bad news for pals Alan (Donnie Broom) and Gary (Alvin Johnson).  These roommates are planning to smuggle Gary’s aunt and uncle in from Haiti.  Now last time I checked going from Haiti to North Carolina is kinda roundabouts for human smuggling, but whatever.  Alan and Gary are good guys, as evidenced by the TRANCERS (1984) poster on their wall.  Well, Alan might be a bit of a tool as he is obsessed with a comic book character named Africa Dan.

Anyway, with $6,000 bucks and a CB radio, the boys are able to facilitate this illegal immigration.  Unfortunately for them, our local vigilantes are listening on the CB and when they hear dollars and delivery point they just assume it is another cocaine deal that they must blow up.  Our leads show up at the first rendezvous point, Mr. Ed’s Lounge (no talking horse in sight), and meet up with their contact, who looks like Kurt Russell in THE THING (1982).

Also sticking their nose into this business are the local sheriff and the local newspaper reporter.  Yep, lot o’ locals in this place.  The redneck vigilante group follows our two guys to the second rendezvous point and, naturally, takes them hostage.  But not before they show them the dead Kurt Russell look-a-like to show they mean business.  Everyone travels by boat to the island drop off point where the bumbling vigilantes – who are being assisted by the sheriff, whose family was apparently killed by drug dealers – find out these guys aren’t coke dealers after all.  So how do they attempt to get out of this mess?  Eh, just kill everyone and bury them.  Hey, you can’t expect genius in a group where someone is nicknamed Tater. When the aunt is shot in the head, Uncle Marley resorts to some of his Haitian voodoo to bring forth his titular revenge.  Not only does he cause the dozens of buried victims to rise from their graves, but he summons up some 14-foot tall alligator-skeleton looking thing.  This is even more bad news for innocent Alan and Gary as the living dead gut munchers don’t know good from bad.  If only Alan idolized some comic book hero who could show him the way to survive.

MARLEY’S REVENGE was a total video roulette grab for me and was a bit of a surprise.  Any film that has rednecks dealing death within the first two minutes is going to get my attention.  Throw in TRANCERS (1984) and I WAS A TEENAGE ZOMBIE (1987) posters and I’m emailing Tom within seconds saying, “Score!”  Note to self: I should always watch at least fifteen minutes before declaring something as worthy of praise. Truth be told, this flick plays like two different films mashed together.  Writer-director Jet Eller (props for the awesome name alone) spends the first fifty or so minutes doing a reaaaaaaaaaaaally long set up for something could be realized in ten minutes.  Once the film gets to the island though and the zombies pop up, the film is actually kind of fun.  Sure, it has that same kind of logic your home movies that you shot as a teen had (for example, the reporter is only in the equation to show up with an extra boat before he is killed), but the two leads give their all when they have to run through the woods dodging zombies and monsters.  The big monster is actually kind of cool looking too, an effectively realized prop for a low budget horror movie.  The film also works as a great time capsule of ‘80s North Carolina, effectively capturing it as I remember it.  Well, except I never got to hang out in Mr. Ed’s Lounge.  If you can make it through the first fifty minutes, there is a little fun to be had in MARLEY’S REVENGE.  And a little fun is all we really need nowadays.  

Monday, April 20, 2015

Deadly Farce: THE BIG SWEAT (1991)

You may think it odd that someone so familiar with picking through the refuse of a cinematic trash heap would have the sense enough to walk on the other side of the street whenever Ulli Lommel strolls by. Well at least, you'd think it odd if you haven't seen anything he's done other than BOOGEYMAN, I guess. So it was by sheer brute force that Will managed to strap me into a CLOCKWORK ORANGE chair and torture me into watching THE BIG SWEAT. The interrogation went something like this:
WW: "Hey, I'm getting an Ulli Lommel movie with chase scenes by H.B. Haliki, want a copy?"
TS: "Shit yeah! Gimme!"
I'm pretty sure this turn of events was planned ahead of time (Lommel is crafty like that) and inspired the tag line "How much can one man take?"

Shot on film, in spite of looking like video, with production values ranging from "deeply impoverished" to "clinical starvation", SWEAT opens with a car chase with a yellow 1972 Mustang Fastback. Pretty sweet for an Ulli Lommel movie right? Hold that thought.

Following several minutes of video burned credits on a black background, we find Marco (Steven Molone) freshly released from the Tehachapi state maximum security prison and walking down a dirt road. Apparently it is a long way back to his mother's house (he's a good Italian boy), and we have to see every single step of it. Nearly 8 minutes of the first 15 are of Marco walking in what appears to be different outfits even though they are supposed to be taking place within a single afternoon! Finally he makes a phone call to his previous partner in crime Eddie (Kevin McBride) who takes him to see his mom who lives on a ranch. As if this wasn't exciting enough, we get his probably 10 years older mom deliver a peppy speech about his astrology chart. Yes, Lommel (who also scripted) managed to find something even less entertaining than a string of lengthy walking sequences.

In spite of his mother's admonitions, the freshly sprung Marco quickly finds that Eddie has a plan to stick it to the... I mean, Eddie has a plan to rob a bank and frame-up the stetson-wearing crime boss Joe Rinks (Peter Sherayko) who let Marco take the fall for a previous job, leaving him to do six hard in the slams. Meanwhile unorthodox FBI agent Troudou (Robert Z'Dar) is champing at the bit to take down Rinks and figured the best place to start is by asking Marco to testify against him. Described by his Fed boss as "a man who will play with your mind, instead of that John Wayne routine," Troudou tracks Marco to a bar (an abandoned strip-club with unopened liquor bottles placed in front of the camera) where he tries to use what he perceives to be snappy patter to charm Marco into giving up Rinks. When Marco stubbornly refuses Troudou rolls his eyes and says "Marco, Marco, Marco, this is worse than begging for pussy!" Yep, that's how he gets into your head, man, by implying that he's trying to fuck you. ...or it's just some random dialogue that Lommel made up on the spot. I don't know.

As it turns out Marco and Eddie's can't-fail plan is to, with the help of a bank teller, bust in to the bank in broad daylight, through the front doors, with no masks, in their own clothes, demanding the money and walking right back out the front door. Yes, at least several seconds of planning went into this heist. I know what you are thinking: "How is this supposed to set up Rinks to take the fall?" Not a clue. Honestly, I'm pretty sure Lommel had no idea either and probably forgot about that twist when he was making shit up the day of shooting.

After jumping in their unseen getaway car we get some of that amazing H.B. Haliki chase footage that a Variety magazine writer indicated was the best part of the movie. Check out this review, from someone who works for the movie industry's biggest trade paper, that actually implies that this is a real movie.

Click to enlarge.

Of course I loved the chase sequence too, but I liked it much more back when it was in a film called GONE IN 60 SECONDS (1974). Literally the next 30-40 minutes of THE BIG SWEAT is footage taken from the final chase scene in Haliki's original classic. As if editing 1991 shots of drivers sweating and jerking the wheels of their cars into 1974 filmstock footage of the classic chase sequence wasn't bad enough, Lommel actually proves that he just doesn't care by editing a shot of young black-haired Marco behind the wheel, and cutting to an exterior shot with Haliki sticking his curly-blond, sunglass' wearing head out of the car window! Even Bruno Mattei wouldn't have been that sloppy. Think about that one.

I should also point out that while all of this is going on, it's Troudou's partner Barsky (David Rushing) who is doing the all of the chasing while Troudou is messing with Marco's mind, doing what he would least expect: Sitting in his sports car in the middle of a parking lot. No, really. When Barsky desperately tries to get some back up from his boss, all he gets is a new hole in his ass. His boss screams to get off his back, and that he doesn't want to hear about some petty $2 million bank robbery when he is in the middle of a $2 billion drug bust, which appears to have been perpetrated by three guys in a house that is under construction. This minor misjudgment allows Marco, Eddy and their girlfriends (one of whom is the bank teller) to make for Mexico.

A full year of living south of the boarder later, Eddie's girlfriend becomes furious with him for (I'm not making this up) not coming out of the bathroom while he is in the middle of bombing the porcelain bowl. So mad is she in fact, that she splits back to the US of A and promptly rats him and Marco out to the Feds. Honestly that is about the least far-fetched thing in this film. Of course the feds swarm their mansion (aka the weight room at a desert ranch hotel) and arrest them all while engaged in a game of ping-pong. Seriously, like you wouldn't be doing the same thing if you had $2 million in Mexico. Well, except for Eddie, who is still parked on the john when the Feds bust him! Damn dude. Did you give it a name?

Of course we have to have a little epilogue where Troudou shows up and tries again to get Marco to testify against Rinks and promises to let Marco, Eddie and the girls off the hook if he just will turn states evidence against Rinks. Apparently, nobody has to go through channels to make a deal. Everyone laughs and we cut to a dramatic burning black and white photo of Rinks, except... are we supposed to see the matches at the bottom of the screen?

This ramshackle mess of a movie is so bad that while I was taking notes my pen died. It had just had enough and couldn't take any more. First there are the plot holes that are so big that they aren't even plot holes, so much as holes that have some plot attached to them. Then we have Z'Dar delivering some of the most ludicrous lines imaginable with the zeal of a Ren Fair nerd quoting Monty Python. At one point another character tells him "you are like a cartoon", which means Lommel was aiming for comedy and simply missed the toilet entirely.

Aside from the alleged script (if you choose to believe that there was one) the movie is pretty stunning simply for its total lack of budget or technical expertise. There are absolutely no action sequences other than the purloined Haliki footage, the sets are non-existent with conversations happening literally on the side of the highway, in sheds and in parking lots, the mic is not baffled so you can hear wind hitting the pickup, the white balance is frequently off leading to a completely inconsistent look for different scenes, and yet somehow Lommel ended up laughing all the way to the bank. The man is a genius.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Newsploitation: Ernest Goes to the Box Office

Ever since I started these whole Box Office Birthday posts (much to Tom’s chagrin) I been hitting films that had an indelible impact on the worldwide movie going public.  Quite a few are things I loved as a kid but eventually grew out of (like the ELM STREET and FRIDAY THE 13th series).  Today’s B.O.B., however, is something I will always hold a torch for and will defend with the highest of non-snarky banter, knowhutimean. Twenty-five years ago today saw the release of ERNEST GOES TO JAIL (1990), the crowning achievement of this ostensibly made-for-kids series.

Jim Varney was a genius.  If you do not agree with this statement, please turn around and show yourself out our cyber-door.  A classically trained actor from Kentucky, Varney did theater and even toiled around Hollywood for some sitcom work in the late ‘70s.  It wasn’t until 1980 – when he was back in the South – that his career path was set. Hooking up with director John Cherry III, Varney shot a commercial featuring a character he had come up named Ernest, a sort of quintessential nagging redneck know-it-all.  The regional commercial was well received and soon Varney and Cherry were shootings dozens of commercials featuring the character Ernest P. Worrell, who was always talking to his unseen friend Vern.  Rumor has it Ernest caught the attention of Disney brass at a car racing event where iconic characters such as Mickey Mouse and Goofy got outshined by everyman Ernest when he showed up.

Whatever the true story, the trio of Varney, Cherry, and Worrell – along with writer Coke Sams – soon found themselves making movies for Disney/Buena Vista.  The first release ERNEST GOES TO CAMP (1987) arrived in the summer of 1987 and proved to be a modest hit (earning over $23 million in the U.S. off a $3 million dollar budget).  It was profitable enough that ERNEST SAVES CHRISTMAS (1988) arrived a year and a half later in November 1988 with nearly double the budget.  It again made a decent amount of money ($28 million in the U.S., making it the highest grossing of the theatrical Ernest films) so a third film was obviously a no-brainer. Working from a script by Charlie Cohen (with uncredited rewriting by Coke Sams), the Ernest filmmakers decided to create their wildest entry yet and send loveable Ernest into the big house.  They also fashioned a scenario that allowed Varney to show his range with the age old doppelganger plotline.

Production started in September 1989 in Nashville, Tennessee.  Cherry and Varney had worked so much together that by this point Ernest was a well oiled machine.  While Cherry had shown some visual flair in the previous two films, JAIL took it to a whole different level. Essentially, the director took the battered-but-impervious Ernest to its logical extreme and made him a live action cartoon.  Look no further than this small snippet from the “Ernest gets magnetic” scene to see an example of this:

The visual style and editing there is so off the charts, ending up looking like an Ernest movie directed by Sam Raimi.  Cherry also indulged himself in the lighting and costume department, creating a surreal looking jail with guards having exaggerated shoulder pads.  Of course, this is only enhanced by the Varney’s comedic skills and JAIL offers him the best showcase throughout the series as he plays Ernest, the villain Mr. Nash, and even dusts off his Auntie Nelda character (take that, Tyler Perry!).  He is supported by nice turns by Gailard Sartain (as the insane bank security guard), Bill Byrge (as his silent partner, Bobby), Randall “Tex” Cobb (as a high top sporting convict), and even Charles Napier (as the evil warden).

ERNEST GOES TO JAIL opened on just over 1900 screens the weekend of April 6, 1990.  While it only came in third place, it was the highest grossing new release that week – outshining the horror-thriller THE FIRST POWER, the comedy I LOVE YOU TO DEATH, and John Waters’ CRY-BABY.  It made $6,143,372, which was just a hair under what CAMP made its opening weekend.  Eventually it made just over $25 million in the U.S. during its two month run, making it the second highest gross Ernest film behind CHRISTMAS.  It also marked the end of Ernest being in the $20+ million club as the fourth film ERNEST SCARED STUPID (1991) would earn just $14 million and be the last Buena Vista release for the character.  Ernest would live on in five more sequels before the character was quietly put to rest when Varney discovered he had lung cancer (he passed away in February 2000 at the age of 50).  As it stands, ERNEST GOES TO JAIL is an achievement and the jewel of the series for me.  So much so that I can look past the fact that it was connected to our living Ernest P. Worrell embodiment, George W. Bush.  No, seriously.  

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Newsploitation: Robert Z'Dar RIP (1950-2015)

It is probably bad form to do a write up on a death on April 1st, but most folks already know that Robert Z’Dar passed away this week at the age of 64. News broke yesterday that the veteran character actor passed away on March 30 in Florida due to cardiac arrest. Perhaps fittingly, Z’Dar had been in the Sunshine State to do a film convention before being admitted to the hospital. Even more fittingly, according to a friend, he still made a few hours for fans despite being in very poor health and was talking about his upcoming shoot for SAMURAI COP 2 on his deathbed.

Z’Dar was one of those guys you never forgot, yet I can’t recall what the first film I ever saw him in was.  Looking at his extensive filmography, I’d wager it was CHERRY 2000 (1987).  Of course, the film that cemented him for me (and a lot of folks) was the first MANIAC COP (1988) movie. After that it seemed like Z’Dar was popping up everywhere.  I can still remember seeing TANGO & CASH (1989) theatrically and getting excited when I saw him as a prisoner.  Yeah, I get excited easily.

For a guy who started his movie career late in life (he didn’t start until well into his 30s), Z’Dar made up for lost time.  In the end he ended up doing over 100 films in his thirty years in the business.  Some were fantastic, some were good, some were bad, and some were made by Scott Shaw and Donald Jackson.  Being Video Junkies, a lot of those films passed before our eyes.  While every film may not have been good, I don’t think I can say I ever saw a terrible Z’Dar performance.  He gave his all in any role and was truly one of a kind.  Here are the reviews of films featuring Z'Dar we've done: