Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Great Race

Image result for the great race 1965This one’s about a turn of the century auto race from New York to Paris which really did take place in 1908 (USA got the win after Germany was penalized for deviating from the designated route).  It seems like an insane idea to do something like that today let alone over a hundred years ago.  It also stirs your imagination about what kind of an experience that would be.  Fortunately, somebody knew this would make for an entertaining movie and so here we are.  But the race was only used as a template.  Everything else was made up.  And the filmmakers sure went in a wacky direction.  You should probably file this piece under “Live Action Cartoon”.

In the good guy camp there’s The Great Leslie (Tony Curtis (Winchester ’73)) with his impeccable white outfits, worldly knowledge, sophisticated demeanor, top of the line automobile and perfect teeth that sparkle when he smiles.  In the bad guy camp there’s Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon (Grumpier Old Men)) with his all black attire, mean spirited attitude, propensity to clumsily fail in every endeavor, self-made monstrosity of a racecar and long twirl-y mustache.  Basically he’s a Snidely Whiplash rip off (that character debuted six years earlier).

Image result for the great race 1965 natalie woodNatalie Wood (Miracle of 34th Street) plays a reporter and fierce women’s rights advocate who covers the race from start to finish.  This could’ve been a much stronger character but unfortunately she keeps getting into situations over her head and eventually becomes the typical damsel in distress.  Making this move is a bit of a slap in the face because she bails both The Great Leslie and Professor Fate out of some dicey situations throughout the race and her reward is to get stripped down, tied up and threatened by some eurotrash asshole.

But overall this is an incredibly fun adventure comedy.  And there’s a huge emphasis on both of those parts.  For instance the movie opens with The Great Leslie and Professor Fate trading off daredevil stunts like parachuting out of a hot air balloon and rocketing down a stretch of railroad track at hundreds of miles per hour.  The race itself is filled with colorful settings like the American west, the Antarctic and eastern Europe.  And the two opponents have to overcome adversity around every corner.  Remember this takes place in the early 1900’s so if their car breaks down they have to fix it themselves, rely on their own navigation skills as maps aren’t totally reliable and finding gas is a recurring issue.

Image result for the great race professor fateThe comedy is a different thing.  I mean I love it but not everyone is gonna go for the extremely zany jokes like Professor Fate using a comically large crossbow to shoot at The Great Leslie, or staging a colossal pie fight with everyone getting plastered head to toe in custards and preserves.  All of the jokes are very old timey, even for when the film was made in the mid 60’s.

Every time I go back to this picture it just amazes me how big of a production it is.  The idea is ambitious and luckily we get the full treatment that matches the true scope of the premise.  This sucker is two hours and forty mins long with an overture, an intermission, two musical numbers and the last half hour turns into The Prisoner of Zenda which involves a plot to have Professor Fate impersonate a prince so that evil folks in the regime can gain power.  It’s jam packed with so many mini storylines and grand set pieces and great actors and a fantastic score by Henry Mancini and etc.

Image result for the great race pie fightBlake Edwards did this after making the first two Pink Panther movies back to back so he was on a helluva roll.  His films tend to get a little sidetracked after a while though.  It’s like he gets bored two thirds in, his mind wanders and then suddenly he snaps out of it and realizes he has to wrap this thing up.  But his cartoonish yet dry sense of humor coupled with his straightforward way of filming is something I really dig.  He lets his actors, costumes and sets do all the work.  He’s simply there to make sure everyone is in frame and in focus.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say The Great Race is an acquired taste.  Either you’re gonna enjoy the exaggerated craziness or find it annoying from the first scene.  It’s not really a “just stick with it, trust me” kinda picture.  But in my book this is a tremendous big time Hollywood type film with star power and enormous vision and all that shit that goes into the making of an epic.  It lives up to the title.  This race right here is pretty damn great guys.

Friday, April 6, 2018

No Escape (1994)

Image result for no escape 1994This feels like a gumbo pot full of a bunch of different movies but the one I can pick out most distinctly is Escape From New York.  The general concept of sealing off an entire island and turning it into a prison without your usual cells and guards and tossing in a fresh con with a mean ass loner attitude is the obvious lift.  But there’s different stuff too like the angle of a relatively peaceful village taking in a stranger with a hazy past and warring factions that the protagonist gets in the middle of.  You put all that together and the result ain’t half bad.

I hadn’t seen No Escape since it came out and expectations were very low going in because no one ever talks about it and I was skeptical of how hacky the concept was going to come off.  But it turns out I started diggin’ it almost immediately.  After some initial cheap B sci-fi movie sets and effects depicting what the dystopian future of 2022 will be like (your usual dust storms, giant floating holographic heads and metallic boxy trains whizzing around on a single rail track) things really start to pick up.  The first half hour is nonstop with Robbins (Ray Liotta (Hannibal)) defying evil warden Michael Lerner (Radioland Murders) and then getting shipped off to the remote atoll to fend for himself.  When he arrives he’s faced with the two opposing gangs that have their own little territory.  Marek (Stuart Wilson (Lethal Weapon 3)) is the leader of the ruthless barbaric gang and the Father (Lance Henriksen (Dog Day Afternoon)) is the leader of the good forget-the-past-let’s-start-over gang.  Robbins doesn’t want to have anything to do with either side, he just wants off the damn island.

The action is alright, not great.  There aren’t any badass “holy shit” kinda moments but Liotta is convincing as a mystery man with a military background that can break your neck in an instant if he chooses.  There’s a psychotic and even suicidal edge to Robbins that makes the performance and the movie as a whole go down easier.  I would totally watch another installment with this stoic character who doesn’t say much and lets his actions speak for themselves.

Image result for no escape 1994 lance henriksenThe non-action stuff is surprisingly strong though.  Henriksen is a gem as always in this nurturing mentor role.  The wisdom and humanity the Father is trying to infuse into his community of cons is genuinely inspiring.  The speech he gives during a funeral for his fallen comrades after a devastating night raid by Marek is particularly beautiful.

Speaking of Marek I want to like this guy but he makes it difficult.  He’s just a little too lame.  Stuart Wilson’s a cool actor but he plays the character all sophisticated by using haughty language, sporting a well groomed beard (although with long semi-dreaded hair) and smiles a helluva lot showing off those perfect white teeth.  In order to make this villain appear edgier they gave him these pins that go through the bridge of his nose and dressed him in black junky battle armor.  The attempt to make him blend more with his crazed followers, who have sharpened teeth or are covered from head to toe in black mud, doesn’t work.  The filmmakers clearly didn’t know what they wanted and they ended up with an unsuccessful clash of ideas.  Although admittedly it’s sort of interesting to see this cultured brute type tried out because it’s hard to tell on paper if that would come together.  Perhaps in the right instance it still can but this film provides unconvincing evidence.  Oh well.

Image result for no escape 1994This was directed by Martin Campbell and he’s a bit underrated in my opinion.  Sure he made the notoriously terrible Green Lantern but he also did what are considered to be the two best James Bond movies ever made, GoldenEye and Casino Royale.  And that’s fine (not really a big Bond fan) but the one piece of his that stands out for me is The Mask of Zorro.  It’s such a kickass action adventure extravaganza and if you haven’t seen it in a while you should seriously consider re-upping.  And with all this under his belt and more (Vertical Limit, Edge of Darkness) he’s rarely brought up.  That’s weird to me.

On No Escape Campbell turns in a solid effort.  He may not have a discernable style (perhaps a reason why no one discuses him) but he does know how to handle his action/character development balance.  And if he has a trademark it’s that he manages to make what you’re watching feel important.  I wanted to see Robbins succeed and for the word to get out about the unthinkable shit that’s going on in the prison and on the island.  The world needs to know!

So this picture is pretty fun in my opinion.  There’s plenty to like here and even the shit that doesn’t work gives you a little something to think about.

Thursday, March 22, 2018


Image result for cujo 1983
The killer dog movie is a funny genre.  Both funny haha and funny strange.  There aren’t a ton of these pictures and almost none are held in high regard.  On the humorous end it’s harder to take a killer dog seriously compared to a killer human.  On the strange end it’s also difficult to have your film revolve around a murderous canine because how do you make a dog as nuanced as a human character?  They can only do so much which limits the material you have to work with.  Basically you have two types of killer dogs, ones that are reality based and supernatural beasts.  From what I gather these movies tend to be reality based and Cujo is no exception.

Man oh man, back in the day Cujo was THE killer dog.  Not just killer dog picture but killer dog period.  Any unruly dog that showed up in movies and TV would get called Cujo as a joke and everyone got the reference.  You don’t hear it anymore though and haven’t in a pretty long while now that I think about it.  So because of the huge presence in pop culture when I grew up, and because it took me too damn long to get to it, my hopes were set pretty high.  This is a legendary mutt we’re talking about here.

Well there were more than a few surprises.  To start with this is more like two movies in one.  The first half is about Donna (Dee Wallace (The Lords of Salem)) cheating on her loving husband Vic (Daniel Hugh Kelly (The Good Son)).  We never find out why or get details on the backgrounds of any of the characters for that matter.  I like Vic’s storyline though.  You see he’s under stress because his marketing campaign for a line of sugary cereal aimed at kids is going sideways due to the shit causing internal hemorrhaging.  Yikes!  So at least he has other stuff on his plate besides being angry about his wife’s affair.  Donna and Vic put on a brave front for their seven year old son Tad (Danny Pintauro (Who’s the Boss?)) because they don’t want him to know what’s going on.  Plus he’s got his own issues worrying about fuckin’ asshole monsters in his closet.

Meanwhile outside of town there’s this other less well-to-do family with a St. Bernard named Cujo.  The father is a mechanic and Vic goes to him to get his fancy car repaired.  It’s on the mailman’s recommendation who says he does good work and won’t charge an arm and a leg so why not, right?  And I guess Vic and Donna were satisfied because later on they take in Donna’s car to be fixed too.

Image result for cujo 1983You’re probably wondering what any of this shit has to do with a homicidal hound.  Well it turns out Cujo has contracted rabies from a bat and suddenly he ain’t looking so good.  His hearing is ultra sensitive so loud noises like a phone ringing drive him crazy, he becomes intensely aggressive towards everyone and his appearance is a mess.  He’s slobbering more and looks like he’s been rolling around in mud.

The second half of the movie involves Donna and Tad going to the mechanic to patch up her car but some of the family members have been wiped out by Cujo and some have gone away to visit relatives (sorry, you’ll have to watch to find out the fate of each person).  Vic isn’t around either.  He’s on a business trip to save the big account and to think about where he stands on his marriage.  Unfortunately Donna’s car completely breaks down stranding these two at the mechanic’s house in the middle of nowhere.  Ok, it’s Cujo time.

One of the coolest things in the film is mother and son aren’t even afforded the luxury of being stuck at a stranger’s house.  Instead they get trapped inside their tiny Ford Pinto with Cujo jumping back and forth between waiting patiently for them to make a move and attacking the vehicle periodically to try to break through.

As this scenario drags on everyone involved gets worn down exponentially.  Cujo appears more gnarly by the minute.  At the end he’s totally filthy and has so much goddamn fluid coming out of his face he almost looks like an alien creature.  And Donna and Tad go without food, water and respite from the sweltering heat for days.  Tad ends up having dreadful seizures and Donna becomes somewhat delirious.

The performances are incredible, especially Dee Wallace who goes through a full spectrum of emotions throughout the ordeal.  The parts where she’s pounced on by Cujo are genuinely frightening and when she finally gets to her breaking point she becomes one imposing motherfucker who will do whatever she needs to save herself and her son.

Image result for cujo 1983I can see why this piece stuck in people’s memories.  The neat high concept horror of the second half is really fantastic.  It was interesting to see how the film was going to use the limited space and resources available to the characters.  And of course you’re faced with the physical and psychological toll this is taking on everyone.  There are so many pictures out there that use the trapped-in-a-confined-space idea but most come off too gimmicky and/or the performances aren’t strong enough which is perhaps the most essential component to pulling off a play-like movie with a small ensemble cast.  If those performances stink the whole thing’s gonna flounder.  But this is a clear cut above.  I think they pulled it off pretty perfectly here.

There’s also the unique and thought provoking idea of having the villain be a rabid dog.  The animal wasn’t trained to be an attack dog by humans or is possessed by an evil spirit or anything.  Cujo does all this bad horrific shit because he’s sick.  He got a disease through no fault of his own (I think sticking your head in a rabbit warren and being bit by a rabies infested bat is fairly innocent) and now he’s a raging maniac slaughtering people at every turn.  He doesn’t want to be this way.  He can’t help it.  This has got to be one of the most sympathetic bad guys of all time.  I mean what did this fuckin’ dog ever do to deserve this?  Goddamn do I feel bad for the poor little guy.

Image result for cujo 1983 posterNow I haven’t seen every killer dog movie out there but this must be the best of the bunch.  It’s not only a smart idea with wonderful execution but it does everything you want it to do.  And just thinking quickly about it there are probably only two other killer dog pictures out there that are worth your time.  White Dog (which came out a year before Cujo actually) is about a racist dog and it’s a fascinating avenue to explore but it’s not really a horror film.  The other is Man’s Best Friend starring Lance Henriksen (Hard Target, Appaloosa).  It’s about a genetically modified super dog that swallows cats whole, pees acid and somehow knows how to cut the brakes on your car!  It’s a fun silly picture and I recommend it.

But getting back to Cujo, initially while watching I was worried because the first forty five mins really is a separate story unto itself.  Yes, you definitely need proper setup but it feels padded to bring the running time up to 90 mins.  However, once the killer dog stuff starts it’s smooth sailing.  You just need to have patience.

Oh shit, one last thing.  Jan de Bont (Die Hard, Black Rain) shot this but it’s really only during the Cujo shit (naturally) that you start to notice his brilliant handiwork.  I wonder if he got the gig based on his stint on Roar where he got right in the middle of filming dozens of lions and tigers (and almost got fucking scalped in the process).  I guess whoever hired him figured he could probably handle a dog.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Collision Course

Image result for collision course 1989When you think Jay Leno you think action star, right?  Sure you do.  You think smooth operator who can pick up chicks by turning on that macho charm.  You think tough guy who can take down a whole gang of real nasty bastards.  That’s why he was the perfect choice to play Detective Tony Costas in the urban cop drama Collision Course.

Ok fine, we all know that was a load of shit.  Jay Leno isn’t synonymous with anything I listed in that last paragraph.  Yet here he is, the lead in a movie about a hard boiled Detroit cop who plays by his own rules, seeks to avenge the death of his junkyard night watchman friend, teams up with a cop from Japan (Pat Morita (Honeymoon in Vegas)) who he has culture clashes with and all of that other boiler plate shit in almost every fuckin’ action film from the 80’s.  He pulls his gun at the drop of a hat, he gets into a motorcycle chase as well as a car chase, he fights with his superior, he has an unbelievably messy disgusting apartment with empty fast food boxes everywhere, he hits up a bottle of booze after a hard day at work and etc.  I mean Jay Leno fuckin’ kills people in this thing.

However, as intriguing as that may sound the picture itself is unremarkable.  You’ve seen it all before and done way better.  The movie this is trying to emulate the most is Beverly Hills Cop but Running Scared also comes to mind.  Both star comedians (Eddie Murphy in the former and Billy Crystal in the later) as wisecracking cops who are really damn good at their jobs.  They may seem like unmanageable goofballs but they get results through determination, doing illegal shit like breaking and entering and stupidly constantly putting themselves in serious danger.

Image result for collision course 1989 car chaseThere really isn’t a ton to say about this piece.  The whole thing feels like it’s on autopilot with no one aspect standing out even a little.  The fact that Pat Morita gets one measly brief mention from me and I’m only now bringing up Chris Sarandon (Fright Night) as the incredibly bland villain and weirdo Tom Noonan (The Monster Squad) as his number two should show you how uninteresting this movie is.  Even these fine actors who are usually entertaining to watch couldn’t do much with the material.

I was hoping for better because some of director Lewis Teague’s other work is kinda fun like The Jewel of the Nile, Cat’s Eye and the notorious Cujo.  But it comes off too low grade.  The action isn’t very well done or inventive, the jokes aren’t funny and the story is whatever (a rich businessman steals a Japanese supercharger that he wants to use in his new cars).

If you’re one of those people who think all action movies are dumb or that anyone can do one then Collision Course will probably cement your stance.  At the same time you could use it as a counterargument to say that it really does take a lot of effort and natural charisma to craft a badass character and film.  Jay Leno doesn’t work as a cool crime fighting ass kicker.  He can’t back his shit up like say Eddie Murphy actually kinda could.  Look, Leno isn’t the worst actor but you can totally tell they tried their best to save his performance in editing.  The camera doesn’t hold on him for more than a few seconds before cutting away.  That must’ve been how long he could keep it together before fucking up.

Image result for collision course 1989And hey, I don’t begrudge Leno for trying out something different because you never know how things will turn out.  He couldn’t have guessed that in a few short years the Tonight Show gig would come along and change his career forever.  I guess an action film was just one of the avenues he was exploring at the time.  It wasn’t in the cards for him to be the next big thing in the genre and after re-watching this one that’s probably for the best.

This buddy cop picture is a mere curiosity now.  It’s all about the weirdness of Leno cast in the hero role.  It seems only to exist to give your friend a confused look on their face.  “Jay Leno did an 80’s action movie?”  Yea, he did.  It’s not as bad as you think (or hope) it is but it damn sure ain’t good.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The Visitor (aka Stridulum)

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If you want a serious Exorcist knock off with a sci-fi twist then look no further.  You got a little brat named Katy (Paige Conner) who was born evil due to possessing some sort of genetic material passed down to her from a malicious alien.  Her mother, Barbara (Joanne Nail (Switchblade Sisters)), has the ability to birth these demonic fuckers so a secret society of aliens or alien sympathizers (it’s not clear which) get wind of this and want her to have more kids.  Lance Henriksen (Stone Cold, The Terminator) is recruited on a years long operation to woo Barbara and to try to mate.  Meanwhile Barbara isn’t aware of any of this and seems like a normal person that just happens to have this bizarre DNA inside her.

It’s a cool story even if the inspiration behind it is totally obvious.  Conner as Katy does a great job acting like such an asshole towards everyone and is able to pull off the innocent one moment tear your face off the next shift like a pro.  But she doesn’t physically change appearance like Regan does and it’s unclear if she has supernatural powers.  In the scene where we’re introduced to her she sits courtside at a basketball game and maybe triggers an explosion at the rim of the basket just as the opposing team is about to dunk to win the game.  Katy never shows off anything like this type of ability again so who knows?

Aside from the plot this is an infamous midnight movie more for the whacked out visuals and some interesting casting choices.  The film opens with what appears to be a showdown between our hero and a cloaked figure that turns out to be Katy on a barren alien planet with a swirling liquid sky, a windy snowstorm and a gigantic bright yellow sun.  Nothing is said, they only stare each other down.  Later when our hero comes to Earth (Atlanta to be specific) to setup shop he picks a skyscraper rooftop and his helpers construct rectangular silk cubes in a triangular pattern and he likes to have nighttime sessions of staring at the rooftop while runway lights and a broad green beam strobes on it and makes oscillating noises.  You know, trippy shit.

Image result for the visitor 1979

Image result for the visitor 1979

Most of the picture isn’t like that though.  It’s more about Katy causing trouble like accidentally shooting her mother in the back causing her to be paralyzed from the waist down.  There’s also a detective (Glenn Ford (The Big Heat, 3:10 to Yuma)) and our hero looking for ways to stop her from hurting more people.

And you’re probably wondering by now who is this hero guy?  Well we’ve put it off long enough.  It’s none other than acclaimed director John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen, Key Largo, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Man Who Would Be King).  He had done plenty of acting before, probably most famously as the villain in Chinatown, but it’s still so weird to see him in a B sci-fi film.  He was 73 at the time and has wise presence but the thing is he doesn’t actually do a whole lot so they could’ve cast any number of people in the role and it would’ve turned out the same.

Image result for the visitor 1979The other odd person to pop up is fuckin’ Sam Peckinpah (writer/director: The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia).  This one is stranger because he didn’t really do acting.  In here he only has one scene as Barbara’s husband who she goes to seeking an abortion.

The Visitor isn’t as dark as The Exorcist tone wise but there are perhaps creepier notions that it floats.  For instance at one point Barbara gets impregnated without her knowledge.  There’s also the plot point of carrying on a sham relationship with someone for over seven goddamn years (!) for the sole purpose of creating a demonic offspring.  That’s pretty abhorrent behavior if you ask me.

So as you can tell from everything I’ve tried to explain in this review the movie doesn’t convey the clearest storytelling.  There are more than a few head scratching moments.  And yea, it’s kind of a peculiar mix of shit (like the kickass instrumental funk soundtrack which I almost forgot to mention) but hey, it’s certainly entertaining and a decent time in my opinion.