Sunday, August 21, 2016

Hellbound

Cannon planned a wide theatrical release for HELLBOUND, even sending one-sheets and trailers to theaters, but it ended up as Chuck Norris’ first direct-to-video film. It was Chuck’s last film for Cannon, which produced the first three episodes of WALKER, TEXAS RANGER before shuttering. HELLBOUND’s premise is silly but promising: Chuck Norris as a Chicago cop against an 800-year-old minion of Satan named Prosetanos and played — let’s be generous and say “in an arch manner” — by Christopher Neame (DRACULA A.D. 1972) sporting an insane skullet.

Prosetanos escapes the tomb in which King Richard the Lion-Hearted sentenced him 800 years earlier and seeks all nine pieces of a jeweled scepter he needs to rule the world. His murder of a rabbi in the Windy City attracts the attention of detective Frank Shatter (Norris) and his wisecracking partner Jackson (Calvin Levels), who journey to Jerusalem to continue their investigation. Although the film’s first act gives hope of a movie about Chuck Norris kicking the crap out of demons, HELLBOUND is instead a police procedural that, to be fair, culminates in Chuck Norris kicking the crap out of a demon. But it’s too little too late.

Weirdness abounds, above and beyond Chuck Norris fighting a minion of Satan. A bit about street urchins ripping off Jackson’s wallet serves no purpose except killing time, and a running gag about Shatter preventing his partner from eating is just bizarre. Both clash with the tone of an R-rated film with action and gore about Satan’s acolyte ruling the world. I don’t know what to make of the film’s vocal support for a Ross Perot presidency. Sheree J. Wilson, Chuck’s WALKER love interest, appears as an antiquities expert whose contribution is mainly preventing HELLBOUND from being a total sausagefest.

HELLBOUND’s depiction of Chicago on a Jerusalem soundstage is laughable, but once the film’s setting moves to Israel, production values aren’t half bad for a film at this budget level. Editing by Cannon regular Michael Duthie (AVENGING FORCE) and music by Cannon regular George S. Clinton (AMERICAN NINJA 2) are quite good. Director Aaron Norris (Chuck’s brother) and stunt coordinator Mike Norris (Chuck’s son) deliver plenty of karate-kicking, heart-ripping (literally) action. Weaknesses are the performances, particularly Levels’ “ugly American” jive and Neame’s histrionics, and the nonsense script credited to four writers, including Brent Friedman (AMERICAN CYBORG: STEEL WARRIOR) and Donald G. Thompson (THE EVIL).

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Supertrain, "Express To Terror"

SUPERTRAIN remains one of network television’s biggest disasters. When it premiered as a midseason replacement during NBC’s 1978-79 season, SUPERTRAIN was the most expensive series in television history, yet it underwent a massive retooling after its fourth episode and was finally cancelled after only nine episodes aired. Much of the initial cost of the series — reportedly $5 million — went towards constructing the main sets and miniatures representing Supertrain, basically a Love Boat on railroad tracks that could travel across the United States in a day and a half. As a setting for adventure, romance, drama, comedy, and intrigue, Supertrain — and SUPERTRAIN — was a bust.

The two-hour pilot, which was released in syndication and on videocassette as a standalone movie, aired opposite a special two-hour episode of CHARLIE’S ANGELS on ABC, so the competition was afraid of SUPERTRAIN at first. They shouldn’t have been. Produced and directed by television veteran Dan Curtis (THE WINDS OF WAR), the pilot titled “Express to Terror” flashes an early warning sign when it misspells the name of “Special Guest Star” Vicki Lawrence, who had been a regular on the popular CAROL BURNETT SHOW for over a decade.

Guest stars were to be the focus of SUPERTRAIN, as was the case on THE LOVE BOAT and FANTASY ISLAND, two ABC hits being blatantly ripped off (including a scene where the passengers wave goodbye and toss ticker tape at spectators on the platform). EXPRESS TO TERROR’s top-billed guest star is Steve Lawrence, another early warning sign. He plays Mike Post (!), a gambler targeted by a mysterious black-gloved killer. Helping him find the assassin are his best pal Don Meredith (BANJO HACKETT) and ditzy Char Fontane, an actress NBC was really pushing at that time (to no success). George Hamilton, Ron Masak (MURDER, SHE WROTE), Stella Stevens (THE NUTTY PROFESSOR), and Fred Williamson (THAT MAN BOLT) are also in it, but it’s not clear to me who they’re playing.

An atomic-powered train equipped with a gym, a swimming pool, a beauty salon, a movie theater, a disco, and luxury passenger cabins, Supertrain, granted, is an impressive set, even though some of the sets seem improbably large. The script, however, amazingly credited to Oscar winner Earl Wallace (WITNESS) and acclaimed crime novelist Donald Westlake, is awful. When Lawrence and Meredith are trapped in the sauna, they can hear the tinkle of a barbell being lifted outside, yet the weightlifter can’t hear them yelling and pounding on the door. The writers do a horrible job of introducing the characters, not just their names, but also their backstories and relationships with each other. The story is as confusing as the sets are expensive. For some reason, the TV Guide ad from the premiere uses an illustration of Robert Culp as the killer.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Man On A Swing

I like the matter-of-fact approach that director Frank Perry (MOMMIE DEAREST) takes with police chief Lee Tucker’s (Cliff Robertson) murder investigation of a young woman in 1974's MAN ON A SWING.

Perry filmed MAN ON A SWING in an actual small New England city on what appear to be practical sets (the police station is in a dingy basement). He uses long lenses to show his actors in realistic landscapes crowded with extras to emphasize the grounded environment in which the mystery is set.

It also helps the audience put Franklin Wells (Joel Grey) into the proper perspective. Tucker doesn’t investigate many murders, and this one is tricky. Margaret Dawson (Dianne Hull) vanished after buying groceries at a busy shopping center. A day later, she turned up in the center’s parking lot on the floor of her Volkswagen. She had been strangled, but not raped, with a single drop of blood on her bosom.

After encountering a few dead ends, including Maggie’s former boyfriend played by future Buck Rogers Gil Gerard, Tucker receives a phone call from Wells, who claims to be clairvoyant. Wells knows things about the murder that nobody else could have, such as the prescription sunglasses that Tucker found in her purse. He’s also a strange guy who falls into trances (or so he says), fidgets, bounces around the room, and occasionally displays a sharp temper.

Maybe he’s the killer.

David Zelag Goodman (STRAW DOGS) based his screenplay on an actual 1968 case, which was chronicled in THE GIRL ON THE VOLKSWAGEN FLOOR by William Clark, the Ohio journalist who covered it. Barbara Ann Butler’s real-life murder was never officially solved. That conclusion just wouldn’t do for a Paramount drama, so Perry gives us a killer. He also knows how to ratchet up the suspense when he needs to, and MAN ON A SWING is damn creepy in spots.

While Grey (CABARET) has the showier part, to say the least, it’s Robertson (CHARLY) who has the more important job of making us believe that Wells could possibly be psychic. His Lee Tucker is patient, calm, tolerant, but not naive.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Cyborg 2: Glass Shadow

Angelina Jolie starred in CYBORG 2 when she was just 17 years old. For some people, that’s a good enough reason to watch the film. Jack Palance, just six months after winning the Academy Award for CITY SLICKERS, is also in this movie, hamming big time. For some people, that’s a good enough reason to watch CYBORG 2. For most of the world, there is no reason to watch it.

Let’s get this out of the way. Despite flashing clips of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dayle Haddon, this so-called sequel has next to nothing to do with CYBORG and even lies about that film’s plot to better serve its own story. “Filmed entirely on location in Los Angeles County, California,” CYBORG 2 is set in 2087, when the world is run by two rival corporations that manufacture robots. One is in Japan. The other, Pinwheel, is American and operated by sleazy Dunn (Allen Garfield, who dedicated his performance to the late Ray Sharkey).

Pinwheel plans to implant a powerful explosive called Glass Shadow (I dunno) into foxy female cyborgs and then blow up executives of its Japanese rivals, leaving Pinwheel with no competition. The company’s secret weapon is the luscious Cash Reese, played by Jolie, and one can understand how a company that can mass-produce teenage Angelina Jolie sex robots could easily rule the world.

Cash escapes from Pinwheel’s underground lab, however, along with her human karate instructor Colt (Elias Koteas, the guy you hire when Christopher Meloni is unavailable). Pursuing the mismatched duo, who may or may not fall in love with each other, is a bounty hunter named Bench (Billy Drago), whose face fell apart in a losing battle with battery acid five years earlier. While the chase is going on, the mysterious Mercy (Palance, who worked maybe a whole day reading a TelePrompter) pops up intermittently on monitors and television sets to ramble gibberish that’s meant to advise Cash and Colt on their next move.

I’m making the plot sound simple and clear, but, believe me, it isn’t. It hardly makes sense and is bogged down with groggy exposition and droning dialogue credited to director Michael Schroeder (DEAD ON: RELENTLESS II) and writers Ron Yanover and Mark Geldman (THE JUNGLE BOOK). Schroeder’s slow pacing, cheap sets, and unconvincing effects and makeup (partially done by the KNB Group) further bog down CYBORG 2. Even the usually reliable Drago, whose Method mumbling can often be entertaining, seems reaching for a characterization that isn’t on the page and comes across as irritating. The intense Koteas is miscast as a martial artist in an action movie.

As for Angelina Jolie, who performs the first of many nude scenes in her career, she’s obviously well-cast as an vacant sex toy, but was not yet an actress. Instead, she performs with the grace and the awkward detachment of the fashion model that she was at the time. Obviously, she got a lot better at her craft, but it would be nigh impossible to predict from CYBORG 2 the direction her career would go.

Other familiar names, such as Karen Sheperd (AMERICA 3000), Sven-Ole Thorsen (THE RUNNING MAN), Tracey Walter (REPO MAN), Robert Dryer (SAVAGE STREETS), and Richard Hill (DEATHSTALKER), appear in supporting roles to jazz the cult fans. Did this terrible direct-to-video movie make money? Sure did. Schroeder returned a year later with CYBORG 3 with HEAD OF THE CLASS redhead Khrystyne Haje playing Cash.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Suicide Squad

From literally the first frame of SUICIDE SQUAD, you know it’s lazy, unadventurous, by-the-book filmmaking. Writer/director David Ayer (SABOTAGE) opens the film with an on-screen graphic identifying the setting as Louisiana, while the soundtrack plays “House of the Rising Sun,” mandated for every bad film set in Louisiana. Soon after, Ayer cuts to three people sitting at a table, where they spend ten minutes laying out backstory (between sloppy continuity errors) for the characters, complete with on-screen graphics reproducing their resumes — another sign that the director isn’t taxing his creativity.

And if eight credited editors doesn’t signal disaster, a scene where Ayer establishes the circus-like sharpshooter abilities of hitman Deadshot (Will Smith giving the film’s only competent performances), later followed by yet another scene establishing his skills, tells you the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing, even though both hands belong to David Ayer.

This would normally be the place to briefly synopsize the film’s plot, but because SUICIDE SQUAD has none, I’ll jump to the basic premise. Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) conceives the bright idea to put together a squad of evil villains with superpowers and abilities to fight Superman (or a “metahuman” like him) in case Superman ever became a terrorist. Two problems with this stupid premise. First, there is zero chance the B- and C-listers in the Suicide Squad could ever defeat Superman. The second is that the film repeatedly tells Waller that her idea is a stupid one — “These people are uncontrollable!” — and the movie never tells us why it isn’t. Seems like assembling a squad of superheroes, rather than a squad of supervillains, would make a helluva lot more sense.

The Suicide Squad consists of Deadshot, who shoots people; Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), who also shoots people, so no idea what she brings to the table except a wardrobe of wet T-shirt and panties; Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), who throws boomerangs at people; Diablo (Jay Hernandez), who throws fire at people; Katana (Karen Fukuhara), who cuts people with a sword; Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who’s basically a stronger pro wrestler; Slipknot (Adam Beach), cannon fodder; and Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), a soldier and the group’s leader. As mentioned above, no chance these guys could stop Superman from hailing a cab. Some of them receive little flashback origin stories. Some just show up (“Hey, that guy’s called Slipknot.”).

Also in this movie is Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), a witch who exists only to give the squad someone to fight. Her powers and motivations are poorly explained, and it beats me what her endgame is. And there’s the Joker (who has the word “Damaged” tattooed on his forehead in case, you know, we didn’t figure it out), embarrassingly portrayed by Jared Leto (DALLAS BUYERS CLUB) as a brilliant underworld figure who openly hangs out in Gotham City nightclubs, leaving one pondering why Batman lets the madman run around loose. Of the main cast, Leto appears only with Robbie and serves no purpose to the story, but allows Ayer to stretch the running time to a ridiculous 130 minutes.

The film contains no surprises. Everything you think is going to happen does. The soundtrack consists of the same six family-friendly oldies that have been littering bad films for years, and just when you think Ayer surely isn’t hacky enough to include “Spirit in the Sky,” ah, hell no. Outside of Smith’s Deadshot, who could use a movie of his own without rummies pulling him down, the characters behave strictly according to action movie tropes nearly as old as action movies themselves.

Look, you knew SUICIDE SQUAD wasn’t going to be good — if it were, Jai Courtney wouldn’t have been in it — but who could have expected it to be ineptly paced garbage with no exciting action scenes, no innovative visual effects, no adequate performances (save Will Smith), and no visual style? Ayer aims for heavy dramatics during the climax when Smith shouts at Robbie to toss him her gun in slow motion, and all I could think while fighting drowsiness was, “What’s wrong with the two guns you have strapped to your arms?”

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.