Thursday, April 27, 2017

Jungle Moon Men (1955)

When producer Sam Katzman no longer owned the film rights to King Features’ Jungle Jim character, he just changed the name of the leading character played by Johnny Weissmuller to “Johnny Weissmuller” and kept churning out the movies. It didn’t affect Weissmuller’s performance at all nor probably Columbia’s box office profits. Katzman and serial director Charles S. Gould (THE GREAT ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN KIDD) shot JUNGLE MOON MEN in a week, and after thirteen Jungle Jim pictures (and one “Johnny Weissmuller”), the template was firmly established.

JUNGLE MOON MEN is as much H. Rider Haggard than it is Alex Raymond. Johnny (Weissmuller) agrees to guide Ellen Marsten (Jean Byron, later the mom on THE PATTY DUKE SHOW), an Egyptologist, deep into the jungle to find a native tribe called the Baku. It just so happens that Nolimo (Michael Granger) approaches Johnny the same day to help him find his son Marro (Ben Chapman, one of the Creatures from the Black Lagoon), who has been kidnapped by the so-called “Moon Men,” who just happen to live in — wait for it — the Baku.

Ellen’s boyfriend Bob Prentice (Bill Henry) joins the expedition, while unscrupulous guide Santo (Myron Healey), whom Johnny hates, tags along behind in an effort to find diamonds he believes the Moon Men have. The Moon Men are pygmies, including Billy Curtis in not one of his most dignified roles (Weissmuller repels the whole tribe simply by lifting the kicking Curtis off the ground), and worship the sun-worshipping Oma (Helen Stanton), who captures the team and demands that Bob marry her and become her high priest.

People loved Johnny Weissmuller, which is the only reason the Jungle Jim series (which JUNGLE MOON MEN should be considered a part of) ran as long as it did. In fact, at the same time he was doing the “Johnny Weissmuller” films, he was also starring as Jungle Jim in a syndicated television series. I doubt the kids were confused. Nor will you be by JUNGLE MOON MEN’s simple story, which weaves elements of SHE into the jungle B-picture template. Performed and produced adequately enough for kiddie matinees, this was Johnny’s next-to-last feature before retiring.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Random Comic Book Splash Page: Four Color #819


Mickey Mouse took center stage in the 819th issue of Dell's perennial FOUR COLOR comic book. Cover-dated July 1957, the first story in WALT DISNEY'S MICKEY MOUSE IN MAGIC LAND was written by George Crenshaw and drawn by Jack Bradbury, who does a nice job on this page.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Charley Varrick

Part of Walter Matthau’s unofficial trilogy of crime dramas, which also includes THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN and THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE, CHARLEY VARRICK is terrific. Matthau’s Varrick is a murderer and bank robber who sets up his partner to be tortured and killed by the Mafia and bangs a mobster’s secretary (Felicia Farr) two days after his wife (Jacqueline Scott) is shot to death in front of him. But I’ll be damned if you don’t like the guy anyway and root for him to successfully fake his death and escape with $765,000 in mob money.

Not that Charley expected such a haul. Knocking off a small-town New Mexico bank with his wife, their partner Harman (Andy Robinson, just off DIRTY HARRY), and another man who is killed at the scene, Charley expects a windfall of a few thousand dollars — not three-quarters of a million. He immediately figures out the bank must be a drop for dirty Syndicate money, and sure enough, Reno hood Maynard Boyle (the great John Vernon) arrives at the bank to find out what happened and enlist pipe-smoking assassin Molly (Joe Don Baker) to retrieve the cash. Norman Fell (BULLITT), Sheree North (THE SHOOTIST), William Schallert (THE PATTY DUKE SHOW), and Benson Fong (OUR MAN FLINT) imbue their characters with the proper authority or pathos necessary to give them a history.

Matthau is the star, but Vernon is also wonderful in the way he dominates his scenes. One standout, set in a cow pasture, is a conversation in which Vernon explains to bank manager Woodrow Parfrey (also in DIRTY HARRY, as was Vernon) how their bosses will likely come after Parfrey “with pliers and a blowtorch.” It’s captured in a single take by director Don Siegel, who may have improvised another wonderful moment with Vernon pushing a little girl on a swing, basking for a few moments in the innocence of youth he lost long ago when he turned to a life of crime.

Don Siegel, the director of DIRTY HARRY (ah), also helmed CHARLEY VARRICK in his characteristic lean style with nary a wasted frame or movement. He and Michael Butler (JAWS 2), making his debut as a director of photography, capture the practical Nevada locations, sometimes with a sweeping crane to grab every detail. The taut script by Howard Rodman (COOGAN’S BLUFF) and Dean Riesner (DIRTY HARRY) is based on a novel by western author John Henry Reese, and the evocative score is composed by Lalo Schifrin (DIRTY HARRY).

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Ocean's Eleven (1960)

One of the coolest movies ever made, this all-star home movie was the first film to star the Rat Pack, Frank Sinatra’s posse who spent more time drinking, singing, carousing, and playing golf than they did acting. The thin story is credited to four writers, including science fiction legend George Clayton Johnson (TWILIGHT ZONE) and KISS OF DEATH’s Charles Lederer, and was directed by Lewis Milestone, who won two Oscars during Hollywood’s Golden Age.

OCEAN’S ELEVEN is a caper flick about a plan to rob five Las Vegas casinos simultaneously on New Year’s Eve. Danny Ocean (Sinatra) recruits ten members of his World War II paratroop unit to pull the caper, including just-in-from-Hawaii singer Sam Harmon (Dean Martin), garbage man Josh Howard (Sammy Davis Jr.), and wealthy mama’s boy Jimmy Foster (Peter Lawford). Pace is not this movie’s greatest asset, and its first hour is basically just Ocean getting the whole gang together.

Danny is visited by his estranged wife (Angie Dickinson), who is cool to the idea of their reconciliation. Foster is dismayed by his mother’s impending sixth marriage to hood Duke Santos (Cesar Romero). Tony Bergdorf (Richard Conte), upon learning he’s got “the Big Casino,” needs the loot from the caper to make sure his son is provided for after his death. Meanwhile, Martin and Davis sing, Sinatra and Lawford get messages, everyone wears V-neck sweaters, and characters stand around a lot just drinking Scotch and smoking cigarettes patiently while waiting for their next line.

No question about it—OCEAN’S ELEVEN is as empty as Dino’s liquor cabinet on New Year’s Day, but it’s hard not to be seduced by the insouciant charms of the stars. After performing onstage in the evenings and partying ‘til the wee hours of the morning, the Pack wasn’t in the mood for much complexity in their film, so Milestone basically stands them in front of the set, points his camera in their direction, and gets it all in one—heck, maybe occasionally two—takes. Much of the dialogue seems gleaned from their nightclub act.

Strangely, the film doesn’t feel as freewheeling as other vanity shows—like, say, CANNONBALL RUN, which is loose and sloppy between car stunts and face-slappings. In contrast, OCEAN’S ELEVEN emits a laidback quality — fitting, considering its stars — but its technical proficiency works against it. A film this bright, colorful, and well-staged ought to have more to its core than boozy indifference.

However, OCEAN’S ELEVEN is difficult to dislike. The stars are almost always fun, especially when they’re screwing around together, and look at who’s backing them up: Joey Bishop, Shirley MacLaine, Red Skelton, George Raft, Norman Fell, Akim Tamiroff, Buddy Lester, Joan Staley, Pinky Lee, Hoot Gibson, even Henry Silva. The songs, like Davis’ “E-O-Eleven,” by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen are catchy, and Dean’s “Ain’t That A Kick in the Head” is a jaunty classic (Steven Soderbergh, who directed the 2001 remake, used it in his ultracool crime flick OUT OF SIGHT). It all closes on a surprisingly downbeat twist, which, combined with a clever final shot, manages to leave you with a weightier taste than the movie probably earns. Ring-a-ding-ding.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

The Mask Of Fu Manchu

Boris Karloff may seem miscast to today’s eyes as Sax Rohmer’s Chinese supervillain, who first appeared in 1912’s THE MYSTERY OF DR. FU-MANCHU, but this marvelously campy (and sleazy) slice of pulp fiction is a terrific movie.

MGM spared little expense on this “A-picture,” showering THE MASK OF FU MANCHU with lavish sets, props, special effects, and production values. And because it was produced before studios paid much attention to the dreaded Motion PIcture Production Code, MASK rings with brutality, racism, jingoism, and overtones of sadomasochism. What a terrific adventure.

Karloff and Myrna Loy as Fu’s horny daughter Fah Lo See are so delightfully evil that MASK tends to suffer a bit when director Charles Brabin cuts away from their lair. Fu Manchu’s glee while torturing archaeologist Barton (Lawrence Grant) under a giant bell, rubbing grapes across the starved man’s lips and pouring salt water down his throat, ranks among Karloff’s best moments. And Loy’s sensual reaction to the hero, tied up, helpless, and shirtless, is quite unlike her fast-talking debutante in THE THIN MAN.

Fu kidnaps Barton to find out where Genghis Khan is buried. Legend has it that Genghis Khan’s golden mask and scimitar, when charged with electricity, will enable Fu Manchu to lead an army that will conquer the world. Out to find the tomb on the edge of the Gobi Desert before Fu can are Nayland Smith (Lewis Stone), archaeologist Von Berg (Jean Hersholt — yes, the guy with the Oscar named after him), Barton’s daughter Sheila (Karen Morley), and her fiance Terry Granville (Charles Starrett, soon to be the Durango Kid).

Kenneth Strickfaden, who created the impressive futuristic electrical gizmos for FRANKENSTEIN, does the same here and even doubles Karloff in some shots. Much of the incendiary dialogue was censored for television broadcasts, but was later restored for home video. Unless you’re really squeamish, MASK’s mixture of hidden caves, secret doors, ripe dialogue, kinky torture, subversive sex, spiders and snakes, awesome death traps, and exotic locale should delight the adventure lover in you.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Heavy Metal

Influenced as much by Second City and National Lampoon as the comic magazine that bears its name, HEAVY METAL is a crude, loud, misogynist, and violent animated film for adults that is a rollicking good time. Yes, in the case of HEAVY METAL, those adjectives are positives.

Seemingly designed for midnight crowds under the influence, the R-rated science fiction fantasy boasts a rockin’ soundtrack that includes Devo, Journey, Blue Oyster Cult, Cheap Trick, Nazareth, Grand Funk, Black Sabbath, and Sammy Hagar, who performs the title song. MEATBALLS writers Dan Goldberg and Len Blum scripted an anthology based on HEAVY METAL stories and built around a deadly green orb called the Loc-Nar and voiced by a curiously Percy Rodriguez (PEYTON PLACE), who was voicing virtually every horror movie trailer at the time.

Segments include “Harry Canyon” with Richard Romanus (MEAN STREETS) as a futuristic noir cabbie, “Den” with John Candy (SPLASH) as a teenage nerd who is transformed into a muscular hero in an alternate universe (reminiscent of Jeffrey Lord’s Blade novels), “Captain Sternn” with Eugene Levy (AMERICAN PIE) as a lantern-jawed space jockey standing trial on a space station, “B-17” pitting World War II bombers against zombies, “”So Beautiful and So Dangerous” about a Pentagon secretary abducted by cokehead aliens Levy, Candy, and Harold Ramis (STRIPES), and the terrific “Taarna” (possibly an influence on AEON FLUX) about a beautiful Amazon who fights barbarians astride a flying dinosaur.

Comic book artist/writers Richard Corben, Angus McKie, Dan O’Bannon, and Berni Wrightson contributed some of the HEAVY METAL stories adapted by Goldberg and Blum. Ivan Reitman (GHOSTBUSTERS) produced the Columbia release in Montreal on a budget reported between $7.5 million and $10 million, and National Lampoon art director Michael Gross was the production designer. In addition to the hard rock songs, the thrilling score is composed by THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN’s Elmer Bernstein, giving the outrageous horror, sci-fi, and fantasy sequences — particularly “Taarna,” which has little dialogue — a rich soundscape to match. A limp sequel, HEAVY METAL 2000, built around pinup model Julie Strain, was produced years later.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Storm Trooper

Carol Alt once wore a bikini on the cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. She graduated to an undistinguished career in independent movies, both in Hollywood and in Italy, including this direct-to-video action movie directed by Jim Wynorski. And there’s no doubting it’s a Wynorski movie when the first scene is guys with guns running into L.A.’s Department of Water and Power — a Wynorski staple location.

Another way to identify STORM TROOPER as a Wynorski joint: the cast. Many of the director’s repertory company is here: John Terlesky (DEATHSTALKER II) as Guy With Shotgun, Ross Hagen (HARD BOUNTY) as Goon Driving Semi, Arthur Roberts (NOT OF THIS EARTH) as Evil General, Tim Abell (RAPTOR) as Douchebag Cop, Melissa Brasselle (RANGERS) as Butch Soldier, Jay Richardson (MUNCHIE) as Other Evil General. And the plot is similar to Wynorski’s THE ASSAULT (which Brasselle wrote).

Alt is an abused wife who kills afore-mentioned Douchebag Cop husband at exactly the same time an amnesiac arrives on her doorstep. Pursuing him are Roberts’ soldiers, which include Zach Galligan (GREMLINS), Rick Hill (DEATHSTALKER), and Corey Feldman (THE GOONIES) in an eyepatch. Alt and the amnesiac (John Laughlin) fight back while the dead husband lounges in the bathtub. It takes forever for Wynorski to reveal the big twist, which is that Laughlin is a robot.

Whatever. That Laughlin is a robot has no bearing on the story, which would have played out the same way if he were a whole man. This sloppiness runs throughout the production. Characters crash through windows with no glass in them. The ground shows no signs of a recent thunderstorm. Alt is saddled with memories of a dead son that have no impact on the plot or her arc. STORM TROOPER is unexceptional, though some will get a kick out of the cult actors, even the ones who are miscast.