Friday, July 29, 2016

Assault On Paradise aka Ransom aka Maniac! (1977)

Roger Corman tried like hell to get this Arizona-lensed action movie to catch on with audiences. New World released it as ASSAULT ON PARADISE, RANSOM, THE TOWN THAT CRIED TERROR, and MANIAC!, apparently to little success under any title. Frankly, if drive-in audiences weren’t interested in something called ASSAULT ON PARADISE with a boozy cast including Oliver Reed (THE THREE MUSKETEERS), Stuart Whitman (RUBY), Jim Mitchum (TRACKDOWN), and John Ireland (THE SWISS CONSPIRACY), probably nothing could save it.

A killer (MR. MAJESTYK’s Paul Koslo) plants a couple of arrows in a couple of cops and leaves a ransom note at the police station demanding $1 million or the local millionaires are gonna be skewered too. Instead of leaving it to weasly police chief Ireland to deal with, crooked rich guy Whitman hires mercenary Reed to find the shooter and kill him. Despite a tight deadline of 3:00 p.m. the next day, Reed’s first move is to drink Scotch and a tequila sunrise at a bar and hit it and quit it with superfluous reporter Deborah Raffin (DEATH WISH 3).

Reed, who has bullied local guide Mitchum into helping, manages to lose Koslo at the drop site, and the revelation that greedy Whitman has substituted blank paper for the million bucks means more millionaires are gonna feel the sting of Koslo’s crossbow. Koslo, who dons Native American war paint in front of a photo of Lee Harvey Oswald before going on killing sprees, is revealed to be a former athlete who failed the Olympic tryouts. What isn’t revealed is why he has such a mad-on for Whitman. One problem with the film is that Whitman and Reed are not likable enough to root for and Mitchum not interesting enough.

Director Richard Compton earned his exploitation-movie credentials with the dark soldiers-back-from-Nam flick WELCOME HOME, SOLDIER BOYS followed by the classic MACON COUNTY LINE and its more-or-less sequel RETURN TO MACON COUNTY. A stalk-and-shoot set in Whitman’s mansion showcases some effective shots, and the action scenes in general show pep. Almost as much as the out-of-his-mind Reed, who bulls his way through this china shop in search of his next drink. Don Ellis (THE FRENCH CONNECTION) papers over the plot holes with a gonzo music score, and Roger McGuinn’s closing theme song, “Victor’s Theme: Shoot Him,” is hilarious.

When Corman re-released the film as MANIAC!, he and post-production supervisor Miller Drake, who directed a new prologue for SCREAMERS, tacked on a prologue that has nothing to do with the rest of the film that shows a gunman in a creepy clown mask (Corman couldn’t get Koslo back for reshoots) gunning down a couple necking in a convertible. Despite the steamy sex and attention-getting gore, MANIAC! went out with ASSAULT ON PARADISE’s original PG rating. It’s likely the MPAA never saw this cut of the film.

Kill Them All And Come Back Alone

In addition to boasting one of the toughest movie titles of all time, this Italian western directed by action specialist Enzo G. Castellari (THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS) is a total blast from start to finish. KILL THEM ALL AND COME BACK ALONE (which is a line actually spoken in the film) is the only spaghetti western to star Chuck Connors, an American TV regular (THE RIFLEMAN, BRANDED, COWBOY IN AFRICA) who may have gone overseas to duplicate RAWHIDE star Clint Eastwood’s big-screen success.

Connors has the perfect face for Italian westerns, so perhaps he was just too busy in Hollywood to make others. He plays the Peter Graves/Lee Marvin role, named Clyde MacKay, in this riff on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and THE DIRTY DOZEN.

Captain Lynch (Frank Wolff) of the Confederacy has a mission for MacKay and his ragtag squad of ruffians, all of whom have a particular specialty. The blond Kid (Alberto Dell’Aqua) is an athlete and an acrobat. The half-Mexican/half-Indian Blade (Ken Wood, who played the superhero Superargo in two films) is expert with knives. Hoagy (Franco Citti) works with a bolo. Deker (Leo Anchoriz) uses a bazooka shaped like a banjo. Strongman Bogard (Hercules Cortes) looks like Dan Blocker.

Their mission (Wolff reminds MacKay that if he and his men are captured, the Confederates will disavow any knowledge of their actions) is to infiltrate a Union stronghold and make off with $1 million in gold. The catch is that the coins are disguised as sticks of dynamite and scattered among real dynamite stored in a Union compound atop an imposing hill. One misplaced shot could destroy the treasure. Of course, with that much money on the table, you can guess that not everyone’s mind is strictly on the mission they’re assigned to carry out.

Fans of Italian cinema are familiar with Castellari’s skills at creating action scenes, and KILL THEM ALL… is practically nothing but. With Connors’ toothy grin as anchor, Castellari varies the action from small-scale barroom brawls to massive setpieces involving explosions and dozens of extras in the Spanish desert. He even opens the film in media res with Connors’ team showing off their specialties in a precredits sequence that effectively introduces the stars.

If you’re looking for gun battles, fistfights, and stunts for their own sake without pesky subtext or symbolism getting in the way, KILL THEM ALL AND COME BACK ALONE is the perfect romp.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Star Trek Beyond

The good news about STAR TREK BEYOND is that it’s as good as this series of STAR TREK adventures produced by J.J. Abrams (STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS) is going to get. The bad news is that it’s as good as this series is going to get.

Light on human drama, literary allusions, and social and political commentary — aspects of the 1960s television series that made it popular enough for Paramount to continue making STAR TREK films fifty years later — STAR TREK BEYOND is not STAR TREK exactly. However, it is a moderately entertaining action/adventure film that, to its credit, retains the humanism and progressive ideals introduced to television audiences by Gene Roddenberry in 1966.

Aside from Chris Pine (JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT), whose screen intensity matches those of his blue eyes in the iconic role of Captain James T. Kirk (originally played by William Shatner, natch), the new U.S.S. Enterprise cast assembled by Abrams for 2009’s STAR TREK (the execrable STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS followed in 2013) deliver impressions, rather than full performances. They can hardly be blamed, as the screenplay by Simon Pegg (who plays chief engineer Scotty) and Doug Jung (TV’s DARK BLUE) doesn’t give them much to play outside of standard action beats.

Zachary Quinto (TV’s HEROES) as emotionless (sometimes) Mr. Spock and Karl Urban (DREDD) as crusty Dr. McCoy do a nice job of channeling Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley, though making two films together, rather than 79 episodes of television, prevents them from sharing the sharp chemistry the script wishes to convey. Same goes for Quinto and Pine, who try to convince us that Spock and Kirk are a “great team” and best friends, even though they barely tolerated each other in the first two movies.

Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, communications officer Uhura (Zoe Saldana), navigator Chekov (Anton Yelchin, who died in a tragic accident shortly before the film’s release), helmsman Sulu (John Cho), and the rest of the crew meet trouble in outer space in the form of Krell, an angry alien who wants to destroy a Starfleet base because...well, Pegg and Jung are a little vague. Hopes that Krell’s motivations would become clear by the third act or that we would learn more about him are dashed, as director Justin Lin, fresh from several THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS movies, moves the plot along too fast and too furious to be bothered with evolving any relationships, including the spotty romance between Spock and Uhura.

Krell is played by Idris Elba (BEASTS OF NO NATION), who is so bogged down by rubber makeup and false teeth that spoil his diction that he’s unable to give a performance. The makeup does all the emoting. A more successful addition to STAR TREK BEYOND is Sofia Boutella, the razor-legged assassin of KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE, giving an electric performance as Jaylah, a tough, smart alien stranded on the same planet as Kirk and crew after Krell destroys their beloved Enterprise. Few action cliches are left unturned, and Urban actually has to say “The fear of death is what keeps us alive” without puking.

If you had to guess which cast member wrote the film, no doubt you would guess Pegg, who gives himself the best lines and a solo subplot with Jaylah apart from the other regular cast. Editing is sloppy — shore leave at the starbase seems to last about ten minutes, and Sulu and Uhura begin a scene escaping from a cell we didn’t know they were in. The starbase itself seems imaginatively conceived, but Lin never gives a chance to get a good look at it, even though the climax is set there. Costumes are eye-pleasing and faithful to the original show, though the zippers would make Roddenberry freak out if he were alive to see them. Michael Giacchino (THE INCREDIBLES) provides a decent score (his third straight STAR TREK), and the late Leonard Nimoy’s death just prior to production is given a classy nod. The film is dedicated to him and Yelchin.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Ghostbusters (2016)

At last, a GHOSTBUSTERS movie that supplies all the queef jokes that were sadly missing from the 1984 original. Given their blessing by original stars Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd, as well as original director Ivan Reitman, all of whom profit from the success of this movie, the new GHOSTBUSTERS plows uncharted territory by making the busters of ghosts women.

Unlike the anarchic original film, which was scripted with surprises by Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, the new GHOSTBUSTERS is entirely predictable and creatively lazy. Everyone remembers the Stay-Puft marshmallow man from the original — one of film comedy’s most delightful and subversive reveals. Contrast that reveal with the big bad in the remake, which you’ll see coming an hour ahead.

Melissa McCarthy (IDENTITY THIEF) and SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE cast members past and present Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, and Kate McKinnon are the new ghostbusters in a screenplay by THE HEAT’s Katie Dippold and director Paul Feig that follows the basic structure of the original and finds time to shoehorn in mostly unsuccessful cameos by the original cast (the late Ramis, to whom the remake is dedicated, receives the classiest hat tip). Outside of occasionally witty visual effects and a scene-stealing turn by McKinnon as the gadget-happy ghostbuster named Holtzmann, very little of it is amusing. Chris Hemsworth, demonstrating why he rarely is cast in comedies, is the busters’ himbo secretary, a role that would spawn a hundred thinkpieces if the gender were switched. Andy Garcia (THE GODFATHER PART III) takes no billing as cinema’s 2588th foolish mayor, which spawns a timely JAWS joke.

But back to McKinnon. Of the main cast, only she is aware that the script is barely funny. Very little of what she says is funny on the face of it. But listen to her quirky line deliveries, watch the way she gestures or how she reacts to the craziness with a demented smile. She’s a little of the old Bill Murray and quite a bit of Harpo Marx (she even wears an unusual blond hairdo). Her performance is so out of step with McCarthy’s mugging, Wiig’s bumbling, and Jones’ yelling (her “feets, don’t fail me now” subway worker would spawn a thousand thinkpieces if the gender were switched) that one wonders whether the whole picture should have been structured like an absurdist Marx Brothers vehicle. McKinnon is as good in GHOSTBUSTERS as Kristen’s wig is bad.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Gridlocked

Here’s that ripoff of THE HARD WAY you didn’t know you wanted. Remember, the one with cigar store Indian Dominic Purcell (LEGENDS OF TOMORROW) replacing unpredictable, mercurial James Woods and who-the-hell-is-this-guy Cody Hackman, who worked with director Allan Ungar on an MMA action film, as the charming Michael J. Fox? Sure, that ripoff. And guess what? Stephen Lang (AVATAR) is the bad guy in both films! To quote a different Michael J. Fox movie, “Heavy.”

GRIDLOCKED isn’t exactly a comedy, but it has a sense of humor that occasionally clashes with nasty violence. I wouldn’t mind seeing this script performed by more charismatic stars than Purcell and Hackman, but they’re all we have. So the mismatched team of immature, irreverent bad-boy movie star Hackman (no relation to Gene) and gruff, humorless tough-guy cop Purcell — who, of course, aren’t getting along — pay a late-night visit to Purcell’s former colleagues at a SWAT facility forty miles from Manhattan (why a SWAT headquarters is way out in the cornfields, I have no idea). Bad timing, as the building is attacked by bad guys led by Lang (who is very good) and Vinnie Jones (EUROTRIP), ridiculously cast as a New York City cop.

With Hackman’s company putting up the production budget, GRIDLOCKED sticks pretty much indoors in a bland concrete warehouse somewhere in Toronto (some actors’ accents are distracting). What’s odd is there’s no reason for Hackman to be in it. After the first act, the film becomes a typical ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 knockoff with good cops fending off bad cops in a police station, and the relationship between Hackman and Purcell becomes superfluous. The action scenes are performed better than in most films of this ilk, and Lang is a strong antagonist. Hackman, who wears a continuously dopey look on his face, and Purcell — perpetually dyspeptic — aren’t exactly the Sunshine Boys, but thrown into the lively old-school action, GRIDLOCKED’ll do as a quickie Redbox rental. Believe it or not, one actor is named James A. Woods.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Mission Mars

Another cheap science fiction movie by the director who made SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS? What could go wrong (I ask sarcastically)?

Well, we could start with the cloying ballad sung by Sturg Pardalis (!) that opens 1968's MISSION MARS — a gurgling mess that definitely does not put the audience in the mood for thrilling space opera. Aside from the song, the film’s first ten minutes consist only of grainy NASA stock footage and three (!) different scenes of astronaut wives sobbing to the heroes how much they’ll miss them. Again, not exactly setting the stage for adventure.

Appropriately for a movie co-written by Aubrey Wisberg, who penned bad ‘50s monster movies like CAPTIVE WOMEN and THE NEANDERTHAL MAN, MISSION MARS feels woefully outdated for a 1968 release, rehashing story points and characterization from films more than a decade old and failing to freshen them for an audience that would watch Americans walk on the moon a year later. The astronauts grimacing during liftoff? Check. Meteor storm? Check. Walking on Mars with a glass shield over their space helmets that doesn’t connect to their suits? Yep. Amateurish special effects shots haplessly recycled? Of course.

At least MISSION MARS didn’t hurt the careers of its two big stars. Darren McGavin, best known as night stalker Kolchak, continued a busy career as a TV guest star and occasional leading man of note. And Nick Adams was already dead by the time MISSION MARS was released, though it can be argued the film was no step down from his previous star turns in MONSTER ZERO and FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD (it is though). The rest of the cast seems to be local Florida actors (director Nicholas Webster lensed the movie at Miami’s Studio City) or perhaps friends of the director.

Mike Blaiswick (McGavin) leads a three-man crew, including geologist Grant (Adams) and pilot Duncan (George DeVries), on an eighteen-month round trip to Mars on the rocket Mars One. By the time they actually touch down to begin Act Three, you may have already drifted off. If you’re still watching, however, you’ll get to see the film’s only touches of imagination. Mars is replicated through cardboard STAR TREK-style stages (though without Gerald Perry Finnerman’s evocative lighting) and phony tabletop miniatures (usually the same two shots shown over and over). The first thing Webster does when the movie gets there is shoot interminable scenes of the astronauts filling balloons.

However. Are you still hanging in there? Finally, something happens. Grant encounters a dead cosmonaut, still standing and frozen solid. (“Can you get him back to the ship?” McGavin asks. How Adams is able to carry a frozen corpse that distance, we’ll never know.) Blaiswick and Duncan encounter real live Martians, which are cheaply constructed, but at least unusual-looking creatures that shoot beams from stalks. In the film’s one genuinely unsettling moment, a creature burns the eyes out of one of the astronauts and magnetically drags his corpse into a mysterious sphere.

That part aside, MISSION MARS is a terrible movie, sunk by a script with too few ideas and a production with too little money to make those ideas pay off. McGavin and Adams, pros both, play the danger straight, probably not knowing how silly the menaces they were pretending to react to would look on the screen.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Mutilator

“By sword/by pick/by axe/bye bye!” If nothing else, THE MUTILATOR, an independent slasher movie produced in North Carolina by writer/director Buddy Cooper, must be lauded for its clever marketing tagline. Shot as FALL BREAK on a 29-day shooting schedule and $650,000 budget by a first-timer with no experience in filmmaking, THE MUTILATOR begins bizarrely and a bit sloppily with a little boy accidentally blowing away his mother (characters played by Cooper’s son and wife) with his dad’s shotgun.

Fast forward about a decade later and Ed (Matt Mitler) is a college student bored on fall break. When Dad (Jack Chatham) calls and demands Ed come down and close up the family beach condo for winter, Ed brings five school pals along for what they hope to be a fun vacation of sex and drinking and sex. It turns into a not-so-fun vacation of drownings and slashings and decapitations with grisly makeup effects by Mark Shostrom (EVIL DEAD II), Anthony Showe (CHOPPING MALL), and Ed Ferrell (THE SUPERNATURALS). The killer’s identity is no mystery and revealed early, unfortunately removing some suspense from the film. It’s Ed Senior, whose nights are plagued by disturbing nightmares of murdering his son as a little boy.

Cooper is an odd duck. Some of his shots are artfully composed, yet his opening titles play over an inappropriately upbeat theme song that sounds like it’s from a sitcom ABC cancelled after four weeks. On the whole, Cooper’s direction is quite poor with pacing and generating excitement not in his skill set. The actors are terrible at best and obnoxious at worst, though that’s hardly unusual for a horror film or any film by an amateur. Cooper at least knew what his core audience wanted to see, delivering a bit of female nudity and so much gore that the MPAA later demanded cuts to receive an R for its extended theatrical release.

To no one’s surprise, none of the cast members had spectacular careers, though Mitler had a starring role in the unbelievable New York science fiction movie BREEDERS. Ben Moore from Herschell Gordon Lewis’ 1960s films appears as a cop who meets a gruesome ending. Bill Hitchcock’s Ralph, the film’s ersatz comic relief, ranks among the most loathsome characters ever seen in a horror movie, and that includes the serial killers. Cooper, who returned to running the family motel business in Atlantic Beach, North Carolina, never directed another film.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

It says a lot about THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE’s reputation that Hollywood has remade it twice, even though it isn’t the most well-known ‘70s thriller among casual filmgoers. Its plot may be standard heist stuff, but the clever screenplay by CHARADE’s Peter Stone, based on a Morton Freedgood (as John Godey) novel, isn’t at all standard, peppering the sharp dialogue and crystal-clear characterizations with cynical humor (“Screw the passengers! What the hell do they expect for their lousy 35 cents — to live forever?”). Joseph Sargent’s direction is crisp and tight, making certain not to waste a frame on anything that doesn’t contribute to telling the story.

New York City Transit Authority Lieutenant Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau, who did this after CHARLEY VARRICK and THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN) is having a bad afternoon. After giving a guided tour of the subway system to four visiting Japanese dignitaries who (he believes) don’t speak English, Garber returns to his station to discover a subway car containing 18 hostages—the Pelham 123—has been hijacked by four machine-gun-toting terrorists, including case-of-the-sniffles-carrying Mr. Green (Martin Balsam), hotheaded ex-mobster Mr. Grey (Hector Elizondo), and ice-cold former mercenary Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw).

Mr. Blue, the group’s leader, allows Garber one hour to deliver $1 million in old fifties and hundies, or he’ll begin killing a John Rocker nightmare of diverse hostages, which includes a jive-talking black man, a couple of screaming kids, an Hispanic woman who definitely doesn’t understand English, an undercover policeman, some hippies, and an old Jew. John Rocker would definitely not enjoy this ride.

Harried civil servants routinely rant, curse, and scream at each other, and their tension turns to apoplexy when Mr. Blue and crew toss a monkey wrench into their daily routine. Many of the jabs at The System and New York’s political structure are broad, but the fine cast of character actors makes them work. Matthau is completely believable as a dedicated cop trying to match wits with an adversary much smarter and deadlier than the muggers and pushers he usually deals with in the subway. His work is equaled by Shaw, who leaves no doubt Mr. Blue will do exactly as he says he’ll do if his instructions are not followed to the letter.

Actual New York City locations are well used. Although a disclaimer at the end claims the NYC Transit Authority did not participate in the making of PELHAM, it’s clear that Sargent (JAWS: THE REVENGE) would not have been able to create the tense atmosphere that he does without using real subway cars and tunnels. Cinematographer Owen Roizman (THE FRENCH CONNECTION) handles the dark, dank underground photography quite well, while David Shire’s funky musical score contributes to the film’s gritty feel. And who can deny PELHAM boasts one of the greatest final shots in film history?

The supporting cast also includes future FAMILY star James Broderick, Earl Hindman (later to be Tim Allen’s half-hidden neighbor on HOME IMPROVEMENT), Dick O’Neill, Kenneth McMillan, Doris Roberts (EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND), the solid black presence Julius Harris (LIVE AND LET DIE) as a police inspector (Matthau, upon meeting Harris for the first time after speaking to him over the radio, stammers, “Er, I thought you were a, uh, taller person, oh, hell, I don’t know what I thought.”), Jerry Stiller (very funny as Matthau’s partner), Sal Viscuso, and a nice bit by Tony Roberts as the deputy mayor.