Saturday, October 14, 2017

Blade Runner 2049

Better late than never, many BLADE RUNNER fans will tell you. I’m not so sure. The sequel to the 1982 film, which was mostly ignored upon its initial release, but has since become both a cult favorite and an influence on many science fiction filmmakers, is set thirty years later and brings back Harrison Ford, this time in a supporting role, as blade runner and replicant (?) Rick Deckard. If you like your sequels slow, dull, and longer than the origina, jump in with both feet. The screenplay by BLADE RUNNER’s Hampton Fancher and franchise newcomer Michael Green (GREEN LANTERN) starts as a typical but potentially intriguing murder mystery, then gives up on that approach to become a turgid retread of themes from the first movie.

Ryan Gosling (LA LA LAND) stars as K, who definitely is both a blade runner and a replicant. While “retiring” an older model replicant (GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY’s Dave Bautista in a cameo), K discovers what appear to be human bones buried in the yard. The 30-year-old remains are discovered to belong to a replicant that has given birth, something seemingly thought impossible. K’s boss (Robin Wright, following WONDER WOMAN with another curt authority figure) orders him to find the child (who would now be 30 years old) and kill it, as its discovery would destroy world balance (debatable, and anyway, a decision probably over Wright’s pay grade).

K’s path eventually leads to Deckard, now a grizzled old guy (which one would think would throw cold water over any “Deckard is a replicant” theories) hiding out in Las Vegas from goons hired by eccentric jillionaire Niander Wallace (terrible work by SUICIDE SQUAD’s Jared Leto), who somehow has a profitable replicant-building business and a 200-story office building despite having only two employees. One is Luv (Sylvia Hoeks as Sofia Boutella), a kung fu assassin assigned to find Deckard and bring him to Wallace’s compound (which she easily does through K’s stupidity).

A more interesting female character is Joi (Ana de Armas as Alicia Vikander), K’s sex hologram. It’s interesting that BLADE RUNNER 2049’s most human relationship is between replicant K and holographic Joi, and their scenes are the film’s best (and the only ones in which Gosling seems interested). Mostly though, this 164-minute slog by director Denis Villeneuve (ARRIVAL) is a jumble of plot holes, plot contrivances (what’s the deal with the one-eyed replicant resistance leader?), circular dialogue, and smoke and mirrors storytelling that adds up to very little.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Blade Runner

Harrison Ford stars as a “blade runner” named Rick Deckard in this influential science fiction film. Dramatically, this futuristic detective drama penned by Hampton Fancher (THE MIGHTY QUINN) and David Peoples (UNFORGIVEN) is a fizzle with simple plotting, slow pacing, and noticeable plot holes (the most notable being the number of prey assigned to Deckard to capture).

Visually, however, BLADE RUNNER inspired scores of films and television shows, thanks to the dreamy photography of cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth (PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED) and the grimy, lived-in Los Angeles of 2019 designed by Syd Mead and Oscar nominee Lawrence G. Paull (ROMANCING THE STONE). The Asian influence in Paull’s neon cityscape makes sense in a 1982 context, when we were afraid the Japanese were taking over the world, and BLADE RUNNER’s world of overpopulation and flying cars is fascinating and rich in detail (the film’s other Academy Award nomination was for its visual effects). If only it had a story and performances to match.

Ford, who made BLADE RUNNER between RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and RETURN OF THE JEDI, seems bored as Deckard, who is a detective assigned to track down and destroy renegade androids (called “replicants”) led by the nasty Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer, good in a star-making performance). Running neck-and-neck with Ford in the somnambulism department is Sean Young (NO WAY OUT) as another replicant, Rachael, who not only attracts Deckard, but also inspires him to think deeply about his job and the definition of “human.” Director Ridley Scott (ALIEN) puts together a few memorable action scenes, including a clever fight between Deckard and an acrobatic pleasure model played by Daryl Hannah (KILL BILL) and a rainy fight-filled climax carried by Hauer’s charismatic turn.

Based on Philip K. Dick’s DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP?, BLADE RUNNER’s reputation as a narrative mess is justified by the number of times it has been recut and re-released in various forms. At least five different cuts of BLADE RUNNER exist or have existed, including Scott’s “Director’s Cut” and Scott’s “Final Cut.” This review is based on the “Final Cut,” which — among other alterations — removes Ford’s droning Marlowe-style narration, which the actor reportedly hated and deliberately torpedoed during recording. It received a brief 2007 theatrical release and contains violence seen previously in overseas releases, but not in the U.S.

The 1982 theatrical release by Warner Brothers was unsuccessful with critics and the public. It opened the same weekend as THE THING and MEGAFORCE — two major bombs — and just behind E.T. in its third week atop the box office. BLADE RUNNER was out of the top ten three weeks later at a time when films sometimes stayed in theaters for months. BLADE RUNNER 2049 followed in 2017 with Ford reprising Deckard in support of Ryan Gosling (DRIVE) as a blade runner named K.

P.S. Deckard is not a replicant.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Great TV Episodes: 5

77 SUNSET STRIP
"5"
September 20 - October 18, 1963
ABC
Writer: Harry Essex
Producer and Director: William Conrad

77 SUNSET STRIP was one of television's most influential drama series of the late 1950s. Based loosely on the 1947 novel THE DOUBLE TAKE by Roy Huggins and the film GIRL ON THE RUN, written by Marion Hargrove (MAVERICK) and directed by Richard L. Bare (GREEN ACRES) from Huggins' story, 77 SUNSET STRIP was the first and likely the best of Warner Brothers' formula private eye shows for ABC.

Starring Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (later Special Agent Lew Erskine for nine seasons on THE FBI) as Stu Bailey and Roger Smith (young Lon Chaney Jr. in MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES) as Jeff Spencer, 77 SUNSET STRIP was set - duh - along Los Angeles' fabulous Sunset Boulevard. Working of a posh office at Number 77, Bailey and Spencer solved a number of way-out cases, sometimes with the aid of Kookie, the hip parking attendant working at Dean Martin's nightclub next door. Edd Byrnes, who played Kookie, quickly became the show's breakout star and eventually joined Bailey and Smith as a full-fledged private eye.

The series was a smash hit, and ABC and Warner Brothers copied it ad nauseum. HAWAIIAN EYE starred Robert Conrad and Anthony Eisley in Hawaii, BOURBON STREET BEAT starred Richard Long and Andrew Duggan in New Orleans, SURFSIDE 6 starred Troy Donahue and Van Williams in Miami. Of course, none of these shows ever left the Warners backlot. And not all of the copies were private eye shows. THE ALASKANS with Roger Moore and Jeff York was set in Alaska during the 1890 gold rush. They all were basically the same show, to the point where scripts shot for, say, 77 SUNSET STRIP were recycled for another show two or three years later. Just erase the names "Stu" and "Jeff" and type in, say, "Sandy" and "Ken", and you have a "new" SURFSIDE 6 episode.

Ratings eventually waned until 77 was the only show left. To give its sixth season a kickstart, Warners gave it a radical reboot. Everyone but Zimbalist was fired, and Bailey moved into a new office in the Bradbury Building as a solo act. New producers Jack Webb (DRAGNET) and William Conrad (KLONDIKE, which was NBC's ripoff of THE ALASKANS) made the series less glossy and more noirish. While the new approach didn't work -- the series was cancelled after 20 episodes -- it did give 77 a creative shot in the arm.

To begin the sixth season, producer Conrad hired screenwriter Harry Essex (credited with CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, and I, THE JURY) to concoct an ambitious five-part story that Conrad would also direct. The result was "5," which aired on consecutive Fridays in September and October 1963. Loaded with guest stars ranging from Richard Conte and Cesar Romero to Diane McBain and William Shatner, "5" yanks Bailey out of L.A. to New York and even all the way to Israel to solve the case.

"5" opens arrestingly enough with a man dressed as the Devil run down by a car on a wet New York street. The man's brother, an antiquities dealer played by Burgess Meredith (BATMAN's Penguin), hires Bailey to right his sibling's wrongs. With police detective Richard Conte (OCEAN'S 11) working to solve the murder, Bailey's assignment is to take the dead brother's $9000 and "buy Andy's way into heaven" by making amends to those he has wronged over the years.

Essex's dialogue is tough and terse. Zimbalist narrates in first person like Phillip Marlowe. His path takes him to several of Andy's acquaintances, including storekeeper Ed Wynn (MARY POPPINS); finicky landlord Wally Cox (MR. PEEPERS); priest Herbert Marshall (THE FLY), who died a few months later; estranged wife Patricia Rainier (THE DAREDEVIL); angry stable boy William Shatner (STAR TREK); dancer Gene Nelson (OKLAHOMA!); poet Victor Buono (BATMAN's King Tut); and gypsy Peter Lorre (THE RAVEN). Zimbalist does a nice job playing annoyance around all these eccentrics. Even though Huggins was no longer involved with 77, Zimbalist's Bailey has a bit of James Garner's Jim Rockford in him (Huggins co-created THE ROCKFORD FILES with Stephen J. Cannell).

Eventually, Bailey strikes up a friendship with the mysterious blonde who has been following him around (played by THE MINI-SKIRT MOB's Diane McBain), Rainier is found murdered, and Conte puts Bailey on the hook for it. Essex's plot becomes sprawling from here, sending Bailey to Italy, the Netherlands (where he meets with monk Telly Savalas), Paris, and finally Tel Aviv before ending his quest back where he started in the Big Apple.

Conrad goes in for a lot of tight closeups, which is likely a Webb influence. In fact, each episode opens in an arresting fashion with each of that week's guest stars introducing themselves to the audience in tight closeup. Essex hasn't quite enough story for five parts, so Conrad pads "The Conclusion" with Bailey flashing back to various plot points.

As enormously popular as 77 SUNSET STRIP was in its heyday, nothing lasts forever. Webb and Conrad's experiment was a flop with viewers, and ABC cancelled the series before it could finish its sixth season. Everyone made out okay though. Webb brought DRAGNET back to weekly television a few years later, Conrad produced and directed films and starred in CANNON for five seasons, and Zimbalist launched a nine-season run on ABC's THE FBI in 1965.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Gerald's Game

Mike Flanagan, whose thrillers include the ambitious but mediocre OCULUS and the suspenseful HUSH, directed this straight-to-Netflix adaptation of Stephen King’s novel GERALD’S GAME. Exceedingly well cast with Carla Gugino (WATCHMEN) and Bruce Greenwood (THIRTEEN DAYS) atop the bill, Flanagan’s film manages to maintain suspense most of the way, despite the inherent “unfilmability” of King’s story.

An attractive, well-to-do married couple go to their isolated country home for a romantic weekend. The marriage hasn’t been going great, and maybe they can rekindle something. After an expensive dinner, he pops a blue pill, she pops on a brand-new nightie, and they experiment with a sex game involving handcuffs and a rape fantasy. It doesn’t go well. He has a fatal heart attack, and she is left alone, handcuffed to the bed, no phone within reach.

A tour-de-force for Gugino in a role that demands a terrific actress to pull off, GERALD’S GAME is a sharp study of upper-class madness and guilt. Left alone, vulnerable, awaiting a slow death, Gugino’s character, Jessie, confronts her own troubled history via hallucinations in which she speaks not only to her husband Gerald (Greenwood), but also her own unbound double.

Greenwood is up to the task of keeping up with Gugino, and the housebound drama finds room for E.T.’s Henry Thomas and HUSH’s Kate Siegel as Gugino’s parents in flashbacks, as well as Carel Struycken — Lurch in the 1990s ADDAMS FAMILY movies — as...ah, but that would be telling. Flanagan favors long takes and a natural soundscape to heighten the verisimilitude of the scenes, though the score by the Newton Brothers is effective when heard.

Unfortunately, Flanagan and his co-writer Jeff Howard (OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL) can’t sustain the high quality for the full 103 minutes. By remaining faithful to King’s novel, the filmmakers retain the author’s ending, which is at odds with the sophisticated psychological drama leading up to it. It’s unfortunate that Flanagan, who began thinking about making GERALD’S GAME since reading the book as a teenager, was too blind to recognize King’s anti-climax. A serious misstep, for sure, and not helped by the unconvincing makeup effects, but the previous 90 minutes are so strong that the drama earns a place in the upper echelon of films adapted from King properties.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Sworn To Justice

A change of pace for Cynthia Rothrock, SWORN TO JUSTICE casts the kung fu star as a woman with a normal job — a psychologist, albeit one who put herself through school as a martial arts instructor — and gives her emotional drama to play and a steamy sex scene, her first. Debuting director Paul Maslak cut his teeth as a fight coordinator on Don “The Dragon” Wilson movies for Roger Corman with writer/producers Neva Friedann and Robert Easter, who also helped create exploitation favorites THE TOOLBOX MURDERS and SUPERVAN.

Perhaps the only Rothrock movie ever to play at the Newport Beach International Film Festival, SWORN TO JUSTICE finds shrink Janna Dane (Rothrock) returning home one evening to find her sister and her nephew dead on the floor and three masked killers in the house. She fights them and flees by leaping off a balcony and letting some trees break her fall. Somehow, a bump on the head gives her psychic powers — confirmed by doctor Breitenheim (Walter Koenig with a comical German accent) — and decides to use them to track down the killers.

Meanwhile, Janna agrees to be an expert witness at the trial of a psycho cop killer (Brad Dourif), starts a romance with hunky publisher Nicholas (Kurt McKinney of NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER), banters with blind newsstand owner Young (Mako!), and tries to stay ahead of the detective investigating her sister’s murder, Sergeant Briggs (Tony LoBianco), who figures into screenplay writer Easter’s dumb plot twist.

Also in the cast is Max Thayer, who starred with Rothrock in the awesome NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER II. SWORN TO JUSTICE is not as good as their first teaming, though it’s certainly interesting for its supporting cast and for allowing Rothrock to be more feminine than usual between fight scenes. One exposition scene is played with Cynthia stripping down to her lingerie, bosom about to burst from her bra, while LoBianco sneaks a peek.

As if there wasn’t enough going on, Maslak also gives us a chop shop, an unrequited lesbian crush, and a villain keeping his dead brother’s fried corpse on display in his headquarters. Despite so much story, so much Rothrock bare skin, and so much campy acting by LoBianco, SWORN TO JUSTICE doesn’t rise to the top of the direct-to-video ranks, despite one legitimately terrific action scene in a garage.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Trip With The Teacher

Crown International released this R-rated exploitation movie with a double entendre title. TRIP WITH THE TEACHER remains the only feature directed by Earl Barton, a songwriter and choreographer who worked with Elvis on HARUM SCARUM and with many other family friendly stars in television variety shows, including Red Skelton, Danny Thomas, and Edie Adams. Even though TRIP features a cast of sexy women, try taking your eyes off Zalman King as a sadistic biker who torments them.

A quirky leading man in the shortlived ABC series THE YOUNG LAWYERS and in little-seen independent pictures like THE SKI BUM and YOU’VE GOT TO WALK IT LIKE YOU TALK IT OR YOU’LL LOSE THAT BEAT (!), King’s only direction from Barton appears to have been, “Chew the walls. And the floors and the ceilings and anything else not nailed down.” It’s an unhinged turn by either a great actor who believed TRIP WITH THE TEACHER was a ticket to big things and a bad actor who needed more guidance than Earl Barton could provide.

Plot by writer/director/producer Barton finds sexy schoolteacher Brenda Fogarty (FANTASM COMES AGAIN) on a field trip with four sexy students played by Cathy Worthington (Kenny Rogers’ THE GAMBLER telefilms), Dina Ousley (AMERICAN HOT WAX), Jill Voigt (FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2), and Susie Russell. When their short bus breaks down in the Mojave Desert, King, his slightly less evil brother Robert Porter (THE KLANSMAN), and their new traveling companion Robert Gribbin (the serial killer in the hilarious HITCH HIKE TO HELL) waylay the group, kill the punchdrunk bus driver (Jack Driscoll), and take Fogarty and her students to an abandoned house for rape, torture, and humiliation.

A desert motorcycle chase between Porter and Gribben is the film’s major action piece, which is made more exciting by the impression that the actors are doing their own stunts over shaky ground (and actually crashing, a happy accident). TRIP is actually less sleazy than Barton’s premise would indicate, which spares the audience the discomfort of watching Fogarty play a rape scene (but not the brutalization leading up to it). Besides King and Fogarty, who is pretty decent for an actress specializing in softcore cinema, the players are adequate at best, but good enough that you feel sympathy for the good characters who die. The script doesn’t work well. The bikers have no guns and could easily be overpowered by the captors or unable to prevent them from escaping (granted, the girls would be on foot in the middle of the desert).

King later claimed TRIP was the worst film he ever did (debatable) and his favorite role. The budget was a mere $31,000, and the shooting schedule was 13 days. Certainly the laughable library score chosen from Igo Kantor's collection didn’t cost much. Barton wrote the catchy theme that is repeated ad nauseum. Crown certainly got its money’s worth out of TRIP, re-releasing it in theaters and on VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray several times, often under different titles, including DEADLY FIELD TRIP. King gave up acting not many years later for a new career as a producer and director of erotic (R-rated) films, such as WILD ORCHID and TWO MOON JUNCTION, and Showtime’s RED SHOE DIARIES.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Security (2017)

United States marshals (or “U.S.A. Marshals,” as the Bulgarian costume designer hilariously stitched on their useless bulletproof vests) transporting a witness on a dark and stormy night are hijacked by heavily armed and remarkably organized bad guys. All are killed, but the witness, 10-year-old Katherine Mary de la Rocha, makes it on foot to a crappy shopping mall where new security guard Antonio Banderas (DESPERADO) is hating his first night on the job.

It’s impossible to describe the awful work done by the Bulgarian production designers who have never seen an American mall. It’s a third the size of even an average mall (it has to fit on a soundstage), is decorated in an eye-bleeding array of bright colors and phony blown-up stock images of grinning boobs, features stores selling mismatched clothing and furniture that nobody would buy, closes before 9:00 p.m., and somehow justifies the employment of five (!) full-time overnight guards. One is played by the gorgeous Gabriella Wright (THE TRANSPORTER REFUELED), and we all know how many sexy young women work the night shift as security in rundown malls.

In the grand tradition of POINT BLANK — nope, not that one, the straight-to-video one with Mickey Rourke — SECURITY becomes DIE HARD In A Mall when the weird-accented Ben Kingsley (SNEAKERS) shows up looking for the girl. Banderas’ boss (Liam McIntyre) is too dumb to know what’s going on, so Banderas, back in the U.S. a year after three tours in Afghanistan, takes charge. His plan basically involves his untrained and unarmed colleagues using found objects as makeshift weapons and using their knowledge of the janky mall’s geography to their advantage.

SECURITY is dumb as hell, but not so bad that a larger budget and a more talented cast and crew couldn’t have made this script work. Kingsley walks through his generic bad guy part (and no reason he shouldn’t, really), but Banderas, rocking a full beard, takes the film seriously enough to create the film’s only believable or sympathetic character. He also holds his own in a fight with Cung Le (DRAGON EYES). No superfluous flashbacks, no extraneous romantic subplot, just straight action with a few offbeat touches capably handled by director Alain Desrochers (BON COP BAD COP 2).