Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Avalanche

AVALANCHE was Roger Corman’s attempt to replicate the success of Irwin Allen’s big-budget disaster movies, such as THE TOWERING INFERNO and THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. Unfortunately, Corman and his executive producer Paul Rapp (THE CURIOUS FEMALE) were working on less than half the budget of Allen’s smash hits. Plus, the genre had pretty well run its course by the time New World released AVALANCHE in August 1978 (it also played at least twice on CBS, so no doubt Corman turned a profit).

Corman’s cost-cutting extended to its all-star cast. Whereas Irwin Allen’s THE SWARM, also released in 1978, boasted big names like Michael Caine, Richard Widmark, Fred MacMurray, Olivia de Havilland, and Henry Fonda among its cast, director Corey Allen (THUNDER AND LIGHTNING) had to make do with Rock Hudson, Mia Farrow, and Robert Forster, Jeanette Nolan, and Barry Primus — capable performers, for sure, but not among 1978’s most highly sought-after movie stars.

Two-time Oscar nominee Gavin Lambert (INSIDE DAISY CLOVER) took his name off the picture after director Allen reportedly futzed with his screenplay, and neither Hudson nor Farrow deigned to promote the movie when it came out. Corey Allen, with the help of second unit director Lewis Teague (ALLIGATOR), did an okay job with the action sequences and stunts on a tight budget, but the visual effects from the studio of Gene Warren (an Oscar winner for THE TIME MACHINE) look phony and cheap. Irwin Allen made you believe a skyscraper was on fire and a cruise ship had capsized, but nobody watching AVALANCHE could possibly be convinced of a snowbound disaster (which didn’t stop Corman for recycling the effects in other movies).

The human characters are scarcely more convincing than the special effects. David Shelby (Hudson), who’s rich, bossy, and controlling, hopes to rekindle a romance with ex-wife Caroline (Farrow) by inviting her to the opening weekend of his swanky new ski resort in the Colorado mountains. She, on the other hand, is turned on by sensitive nature photographer Nick Thorne (Forster), who warns Shelby that his corner-cutting has made the mountain unstable and unsafe.

Guess who gets to say “I told ya so” when a private plane crashes into the mountain and causes the whole damn thing to tumble down upon Shelby’s lodge. The effects may be lame, but AVALANCHE at least delivers a high body count and some laughable scenes, including an exploding ambulance and two skiers whose foreplay consists entirely of snow-sporting jargon. Rock’s lascivious looks at a nubile temptress in his hot tub is his best acting in the movie.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Enemies Closer

Jean-Claude Van Damme was a highlight of THE EXPENDABLES 2, playing the main heavy, a villain named Vilain (heh). Working again with director Peter Hyams, who made TIMECOP and SUDDEN DEATH, the star seems to be having a blast hamming it up as ENEMIES CLOSER’s villain.

Now that Jean-Claude has been taking more self-deprecating roles in films like the comedic WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE and the semi-autobiographical JCVD, it will be exciting to discover what's in store for him as he moves further into the next stage of his career.

Van Damme, first seen in ENEMIES CLOSER wearing a Mountie uniform, sports a wild blond hairstyle and is prone to monologuing about veganism, geese, wild fruit, or nothing in particular. His loosey-goosey performance is by far the highlight of ENEMIES CLOSER. It may even be good enough on its own to make the film worth your while.

Van Damme isn’t the only reason to watch, however. The plot and dialogue are nothing original, but Hyams does well with the tried-and-true premise of two men who don’t like one another, but have to work together to survive against a common enemy.

Tom Everett Scott (THAT THING YOU DO!) plays a park ranger who moved to a remote station near the Canadian border to relax after a tough tour in Afghanistan. Orlando Jones (SLEEPY HOLLOW), one of handfuls of credited producers (as is '80s action king Joel Silver), shows up one night with a shotgun and a promise to kill Scott for supposedly abandoning his brother behind enemy lines.

Just before Jones can get his revenge, he’s interrupted by Van Damme, who appears on the island with a small army of gunmen to retrieve a small plane loaded with heroin that crashed nearby. From there, the film is a little bit DIE HARD, a little bit THE DEFIANT ONES, and a little bit fun.

Hyams, a terrific director of action in movies like CAPRICORN ONE, THE RELIC, THE PRESIDIO, and BUSTING, does a good job staging the fights. He also had expert assistance from his son, John Hyams, who edited ENEMIES CLOSER and has directed some fine direct-to-video pictures himself, including two UNIVERSAL SOLDIER sequels starring Van Damme.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Hercules And The Captive Women

HERCULES AND THE CAPTIVE WOMEN marks the film debut of Reg Park, an English bodybuilder and former Mr. Universe who owned a gymnasium in Johannesburg when producer Achille Piazzi tapped him to be the new Hercules.

Park looks a lot like Steve Reeves, of course, and handles the action sequences just as well. Maybe even better, since director Vittorio Cottafavi makes sure we can see Park doing some hairy stunts. Whether Park can act or not, who knows and who cares (all the actors are dubbed, as usual)?

Androcles (Ettore Manni), the king of Thebes, B.A. Baracuses a reluctant Hercules to bring him on a mission across the seas to find out who is threatening Greece. A storm smashes their ship, and Herc washes ashore on an island, where he fights an awesome lizard-man in a rubber suit (that can morph into a snake, a lion, and a vulture on wires) and rescues a girl (Laura Efrikian). She’s the daughter of Antinea (Fay Spain), the queen of Atlantis, who isn’t that happy to have Ismene returned to her.

Yep, Antinea is an evil queen who keeps trying to sacrifice Ismene, but our heroes keep rescuing the poor thing. Hercules discovers that nasty ol’ Antinea is using the blood of Uranus (just go with it) to transform Atlanteans into super-warriors she can use to conquer the world. Unfortunately, Uranus isn’t perfect—some of the men are instead turned into ugly mutants who are then tossed into a gravel pit to fight over raw meat.

It takes a reel for HERCULES AND THE CAPTIVE WOMEN (there’s only one captive woman—Ismene) to get going, but once Herc reaches Atlantis, the action, Spain’s deliciously mean performance, and the spacious, imaginative sets are a lot of fun. A chariot race through a massive underground chamber is a blast, and the island’s ultimate destruction, though likely embellished with stock footage from another movie, generates big thrills. The lizard-man, actually a god named Proteus, looks phony as hell, but it’s fantastic.

Woolner Brothers bought the Italian production for American release. They cut some scenes, added a new title sequences and Gordon Zahler’s stock musical cues (including recognizable riffs from CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON!), and released it in 1963, two years after it was a hit in Italy. How busy television actress Spain ended up in Rome doing a quickie pepla is a question for the ages.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Five Fingers Of Death

KING BOXER is nothing less than one of the two most important martial arts films of all time (ENTER THE DRAGON is the other). Under its American title of FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH, it was the first Hong Kong kung fu movie to receive a major theatrical release in the U.S.

Because American audiences had never seen anything like it before, KING BOXER made Warner Brothers millions of dollars at the box office and opened the door for other Hollywood studios to import low-budget action movies from Hong Kong, few of which were as skillfully made as KING BOXER, but often as profitable.

The story is simple enough, which probably helped American drive-in audiences follow it, and similar to many other Asian pictures that concentrated on bone-crunching action over plot.

Two rival martial arts schools, one good and one evil, are set to compete in an upcoming tournament. To better their chances of winning, pupils of the bad school ambush their rivals in an attempt to keep them from competing. Impatient hero Chao Chi-hao (Lo Lieh, who teamed with Lee Van Cleef in the Hong Kong/Italy kung fu western THE STRANGER AND THE GUNFIGHTER) gains an advantage when he masters the unstoppable Iron Fist technique. You’ll know it when you see it, because his hand turns red and the soundtrack blares Quincy Jones’ theme from TV’s IRONSIDE!

If KING BOXER isn’t the greatest chopsocky flock Shaw Brothers ever produced, this “martial arts masterpiece,” to quote Warners’ trailer, sure as hell is up there. Terrific photography and music is just icing atop this delicious cake baked by director Jeong Chang-hwa (credited as Cheng Chang Ho in the United States). The action scenes are cartoonish in a good way, like when a fighter invades Chi-hao’s karate school and literally tosses opponents through the walls (or later when the same fighter is thrown through the trunk of a tree!). The fights are first-rate in this thrilling film, anchored by Lo’s charismatic turn.




Saturday, August 30, 2014

Fast Gun

Nobody has ever been fooled by director/producer Cirio H. Santiago’s many attempts to pass off the Philippines as authentic American locations, but then again, he was never one for verisimilitude.

The small California town depicted in FAST GUN is nothing more than unconvincing plywood facades propped up on a short stretch of dirt road in some Manila park. Signs on the “buildings” look the same and have generic names like “Supermart,” “Farm Fresh,” and “Tapes.” No sidewalks or parking lots. Santiago didn’t even spring for glass in the windows, thinking we’d never notice the squares of white cardboard. And because most of the film is set in this town, we get a very good look at the laughable exteriors. At least Santiago blows it all up at the end. But will you still be paying attention?

As with most of Santiago’s output in the 1980s, Roger Corman bankrolled FAST GUN and probably insisted on actors Richard Hill (DEATHSTALKER) and Kaz Garas (THE DEVASTATOR), who had starred in earlier Corman/Santiago productions. Likewise, Robert Dryer (SAVAGE STREETS) was in Santiago’s BEHIND ENEMY LINES. It’s safe to say that the cast, except perhaps for leading lady Brenda Bakke (SOLAR CRISIS), knew what they were getting into — barely controlled chaos, sloppy storytelling, and lots of action.

Jack Stieger (Hill, who later ghostwrote Pete Rose’s autobiography) is a badass cop who can blow up any aircraft with just three shots of his revolver. He and deputy Cowboy (Morgan Strickland) are the only law in Granite Lake, where violent arms thieves led by Nelson (Dryer) are hiding out after ripping off Army bases (that are oddly manned by Filipino soldiers). Local rich guy Jessup (Ken Metcalfe), the mayor (Anthony East), Garas, and half the U.S. Army are in on it. When Jack gets too close, the mayor takes his badge.

The plan backfires, because it means Jack is no longer tied to rules and legalities when he goes all vigilante on their asses. FAST GUNS is impossible to take seriously because of its rickety nature. Instead of springing for cheap metal badges, the cops have yellow stars sewed to their shirts. The dubbing was probably performed by secretaries and staff in Corman’s office. FAST GUN is barely 70 minutes long and probably half of it is action — clumsily staged as it may be — so it’s worth laughing at. Not the highest recommendation, but Santiago was directing an average of three films per year at this time, so what response was he expecting?

Friday, August 29, 2014

Cave In!

Irwin Allen was pretty much done as the “Master of Disaster” by the time he produced this made-for-TV tripe in 1979, the same year he made BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. NBC waited four years to finally air it, and who cared about Irwin Allen in 1983? CAVE IN! got worse ratings than reruns of THE JEFFERSONS, NEWHART, and TRAPPER JOHN, M.D. on CBS.

Allen and director Georg Fenady (EMERGENCY!), perhaps suspecting it was a dud, kicks off CAVE IN! in media res with a car chase scored wacka-wacka-style by Richard LaSalle. Psycho killer James Olson (MOON ZERO TWO) escapes the fuzz on his tail and slips away into a cave played by Bronson Caverns on the outside and a phony-looking Warner Brothers soundstage set on the inside. Oh, and the cave is covered in phosphorous of various colors to explain how everyone can see each other.

Buried within are park ranger Dennis Cole (FELONY SQUAD), state senator Susan Sullivan (CASTLE), a cop (Leslie Nielsen) mourning his dead partner, Nielsen’s wife Julie Sommars (THE GOVERNOR AND J.J.), hectoring professor Ray Milland (playing the same barking asshat he played every day in the 1970s), and Milland’s wallflower daughter Sheila Larken (THE YOUNG LAWYERS).

All get melodramatic flashbacks, de rigeur for the disaster genre, as though anything else in their lives could be as interesting as getting trapped in a cave. William Bryant and Lonny Chapman play crusty park rangers who...well, I was going to say “work to help from the surface,” but they don’t really do anything except open a gate and keep an ambulance on standby. Don’t bother to guess who lives and who dies.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Heat (1987)

Undoubtedly one of Burt Reynolds’ worst experiences as a filmmaker, HEAT had to be finished by Jerry Jameson (AIRPORT ‘77) after director Dick Richards (FAREWELL, MY LOVELY) got into a fistfight with Reynolds on the set (Richards later returned, got hurt, and left the production again). Richards wasn’t even the original director--Robert Altman was. As many as three other directors may have worked on the picture too.

Based on a novel by Academy Award winner William Goldman (ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN), who also wrote the screenplay, HEAT should have been so much better than it is, but it’s tough to make a good movie when the star and director are punching each other in the face. It was also the beginning of Burt’s downhill slide as a leading man, and so HEAT feels small like a B-movie. It also feels shapeless and aimless, as though many scenes that would have held the story together were never shot. Which wouldn’t surprise me, considering the backstage woes.

Goldman creates parallel stories for Nick Escalante, the Las Vegas “chaperone” played by Reynolds and nicknamed “Mex.” Neither story is for high stakes. If you believe that a film should be about the biggest day in its protagonist’s life, Mex must be a dull boy. One story has him getting payback on a cocky young son (Neill Barry) of a Mafioso who roughed up his young hooker friend Holly (Karen Young). The same night he ends up in a warehouse throwing down with a bunch of Barry’s boys, Mex also teaches rich wimp Cyrus (Peter MacNicol) how to be a tough guy.

Diana Scarwid pops in for a nothing role as a blackjack dealer, and Howard Hesseman is very good as a shyster attorney who shares an office with Mex. Both add considerably to the film, which doesn’t appear to know how to use them. Reynolds is just as terrific as he ever was, aging gracefully into a role that calls for a worldweariness that he hadn’t had to play up to that point in his career. Burt was still a movie star. It wasn’t his fault the pictures got small.