Friday, January 29, 2021

Night School

The director of CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG ended his career with the atrocious SEXTETTE (starring a stuffed Mae West) and this minor slasher movie filmed in Boston. Paramount released Ken Hughes' NIGHT SCHOOL on a double bill with the slasher spoof STUDENT BODIES, but you’d be hard-pressed to decide which film is funnier.

NIGHT SCHOOL is certainly the duller, and hardly anyone would remember it if not for its 24-year-old star, Rachel Ward, making her first feature. The English actress quickly appeared in SHARKY’S MACHINE and DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID before THE THORN BIRDS, which aired on ABC a year and a half after NIGHT SCHOOL vanished from theaters, made her a brief household name.

Not much about her performance in NIGHT SCHOOL indicates success in Ward’s future, though she’s certainly beautiful (and isn’t shy about revealing her body). Producer Ruth Avergon also provided the screenplay about a mysterious killer in a leather jacket and motorcycle helmet who decapitates young women and deposits their heads in containers of water. Leonard Mann, usually the star of Italian thrillers (THE HUMANOID), plays the Boston detective in charge of the case. His main suspect is anthropology professor Drew Snyder (AMERICAN HORROR STORY), who is boffing his live-in teaching assistant (Ward).

Hughes, perhaps unsurprisingly for a filmmaker with British classics like CROMWELL and THE TRIAL OF OSCAR WILDE on his resume, seems unsuited for bloody horror and unwilling to get into it. Keeping the murders off-camera lowers the interest of horror fans, but NIGHT SCHOOL is too dull, stiffly acted, and light on characterization for more refined thriller fans. The only suspense is the revelation of the killer’s identity, but Avergon’s script provides too few suspects to make a real game of it. Ward made another cheap horror flick, THE FINAL TERROR, but it didn’t get released until after she was famous. Composer Brad Fiedel (THE TERMINATOR) and director of photography Mark Irwin (SCREAM) also went on to better things.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Red Heat (1988)

Yes, Virginia, there once was a very small window of time in which husky comic actor Jim Belushi (THE PRINCIPAL) was not only a major Hollywood action star, but one who received equal billing with superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger (COMMANDO). Both actors are cast according to type in RED HEAT, a raucous action comedy directed by the man who helped create the genre with 48 HRS.: Walter Hill. It opened at #1 (the same weekend BULL DURHAM and THE GREAT OUTDOORS opened), but was not one of Arnold’s biggest hits. But, hell, neither was THE TERMINATOR.

Schwarzenegger is Ivan Danko, a tight-lipped Moscow cop with a dangerous reputation for kicking bad guy ass, even naked in the snow. Belushi is Art Ritzik, a laidback slob and Chicago cop whose clowning rubs the ultra-serious Danko the wrong way. Their common goal is Viktor Rosta (ACTION JACKSON’s Ed O’Ross), a druglord who escapes Danko’s clutches in Russia, but ends up in Chicago. The two cops tear hell out of half the Windy City in pursuit of Rosta...if they don’t kill each other first!

Action fans eager for a chase or shootout every ten minutes and plenty of smart talk will find RED HEAT worthwhile. The story is more formulaic than might be expected from credited writers Hill, Harry Kleiner (BULLITT), and Troy Kennedy Martin (EDGE OF DARKNESS), but in the steady hands of action craftsman Hill, the film is fast, funny, foul-mouthed, and full of interesting character actors. Peter Boyle (TAXI DRIVER) has the thankless role of Belushi’s boss. Laurence Fishburne (THE MATRIX) shows up as an uptight cop, Gina Gershon (BOUND) is a dancer, Pruitt Taylor Vince (BEAUTIFUL GIRLS) is a hotel clerk, Brion James (BLADE RUNNER) is an informant, and Peter Jason (ARACHNOPHOBIA) is a television host.

In the grand tradition of Sean Connery playing an Irish cop in THE UNTOUCHABLES and a Spaniard in HIGHLANDER, Schwarzenegger makes no effort at a Russian accent. RED HEAT did, however, shoot one day in Moscow’s Red Square — the first American production to do so — so there’s novelty value in seeing Arnold there. If you watch a lot of action movies, you may recognize the bus chase, which the studio sold as stock footage to independent movies that couldn’t afford to shoot their own.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

State And Main

Writer-director David Mamet (GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS) adapts his trademark rat-a-tat-tat style to screwball comedy for this rollicking swipe at Hollywood movie-making. Fast-talking director Walt Price (William H. Macy) and his crew invade sleepy Waterford, Vermont to make a period piece called THE OLD MILL. Problem is there’s no old mill in Waterford anymore (it burned down in 1960—those troublesome teenage arsonists!), so it’s up to first-time screenwriter Joseph White (Philip Seymour Hoffman as the romantic lead) to make some script accommodations.

Other Waterford invaders include leading man Bob Barrenger (Alec Baldwin), whose proclivity for teenage girls got the crew kicked out of their former location; female lead Claire Wellesley (Sarah Jessica Parker), who demands an extra $800,000 to pop her top on camera; and profane producer Marty Rossen (David Paymer). Adjusting to the Hollywood gang’s frantic ways are befuddled mayor Bailey (Charles Durning) and his trophy wife (Patti LuPone); saucy teen Carla (Julia Stiles); and sweet bookstore owner Ann (Rebecca Pidgeon), who falls for Joseph against the wishes of her arrogant lawyer fiance Doug (Clark Gregg).

Although satirizing Hollywood has been done to death on screen (Alan Alda’s SWEET LIBERTY was also about a film crew invading a small New England town), STATE AND MAIN feels fresh due to its razor-sharp dialogue and terrific acting. Macy comes off best as the alternately fawning and ferocious filmmaker, delivering lines like “It’s not a lie. It’s a gift for fiction.” with aplomb. Baldwin has fun sending up his own image, while Hoffman and Pidgeon lend the film its heart. STATE AND MAIN doesn’t seem to come up much in discussions of Mamet’s filmmaking career, making it probably his most underrated feature. “Go, you Huskies.”

Friday, September 25, 2020

Demonstone

R. Lee Ermey (FULL METAL JACKET) is radically cast against type as a foul-mouthed Marine (“I got more pesos in my pocket than a big horse can shit.”), and a visibly drunk Jan-Michael Vincent (WHITE LINE FEVER) is his partner in DEMONSTONE, an action movie with supernatural elements shot in the Philippines.

Director Andrew Prowse’s background as an editor (his credits include THE SIEGE AT FIREBASE GLORIA for director Brian Trenchard Smith, who receives a producing credit here) came in handy when staging DEMONSTONE’s action sequences with stunt coordinator Patrick Statham (LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD). Surprisingly, given the participation of writer Frederick Bailey (SILK) and producer Clark Henderson (ANDROID), as well as the film’s story, tone, and Manila production, Roger Corman had nothing to do with DEMONSTONE. The prolific Charles Fries, who jumped between film (TROOP BEVERLY HILLS) and television (THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES) productions with equal aplomb, was DEMONSTONE’s executive producer and theatrical distributor.

An Australian co-production with producer Antony Ginnane (TURKEY SHOOT), DEMONSTONE puts Ermey and Vincent on the trail of a killer. The suspect is fellow Marine Tony McKee (Pat Skipper, Scully’s brother on THE X-FILES), but the murders are too vicious and gory to have been committed by one person.

The real killer is Sharon (Nancy Everhard, fresh off DEEPSTAR SIX), a television reporter possessed by a long-dead monk who placed a curse on the descendants of the tribal chief who burned him alive. Because said descendant is Belfardo (Joonee Gamboa), a corrupt senator, and the victims are in his circle, the admiral (FOXY BROWN’s Peter Brown) is on Ermey’s back to solve the case. Ermey is probably ad-libbing half of his profanities. Somehow, not a single bamboo hut is blown up. You should watch DEMONSTONE anyway.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Bear Island

Except for Cannon’s little-seen RIVER OF DEATH, released to a handful of theaters in 1989, BEAR ISLAND was the last adaptation of an Alistair MacLean novel to play on the big screen. It was the 13th of MacLean’s novels to be turned into a film (though WHERE EAGLES DARE was written as a novel and a screenplay at the same time), beginning with 1961’s THE GUNS OF NAVARONE. Amazingly, despite MacLean’s enormous popularity during the 1960s and 1970s, he seems to be a forgotten author today. A pity, as his best thrillers still hold up.

Director Don Sharp (THE FACE OF FU MANCHU), who rewrote MacLean’s PUPPET ON A CHAIN screenplay and directed second unit on it, must have thought 1971’s BEAR ISLAND didn’t hold up well. He, along with David Butler (VOYAGE OF THE DAMNED) and Murray Smith (SCHIZO), made a lot of changes in the BEAR ISLAND screenplay. Whereas the novel told the story of moviemakers shooting a production on remote Bear Island, well above the Arctic Circle, the film turns the doctor protagonist Christopher Marlowe into an American named Frank Lansing (Donald Sutherland), one of several United Nations scientists who travel to Bear Island to study climate change.

Everyone seems to be harboring a secret, and some of the scientists are murdered. Lansing, surrounded by snow, ice, and suspicion, investigates and comes to believe the violence has something to do with the abandoned German U-boat base located on Bear Island. And that leads to Lansing’s secret: his late father was the captain of that U-boat during World War II, and family legend is that a cache of Nazi gold is hidden on Bear Island. Well, it’s not all that secret, because it seems everyone on the island is posing as someone else as an excuse to search for the treasure.

Sharp was an effective action director, and his BEAR ISLAND setpieces are the best part of the film. It was not a hit, which is why future MacLean adaptations were scrapped, nor was it critically praised. Second unit director Vic Armstrong (JOSHUA TREE) also contributes to the fine stuntwork. The script takes shortcuts with characterization and throws in an unlikely romance between Lansing and a humorless psychologist played by Vanessa Redgrave, but the actors’ chemistry is as icy as the Bear Island winter. It’s fun to watch the all-star cast, including Richard Widmark (MADIGAN), Christopher Lee (HORROR OF DRACULA), Lloyd Bridges (TV’s SEA HUNT), and Barbara Parkins (VALLEY OF THE DOLLS), wrestle with their accents.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

The Satan Bug

A great cast of character actors and a crackerjack premise for suspense are the highlights of THE SATAN BUG, which is based on Alistair MacLean’s excellent 1962 novel. Transplanting the action from rural England to Los Angeles, screenwriters James Clavell (KING RAT) and Edward Anhalt (THE BOSTON STRANGLER) otherwise stick pretty closely to the book as far as the plot goes. However, the telling of the tale leaves a bit to be desired. Though beautifully photographed by three-time Oscar winner Robert Surtees (BEN-HUR), THE SATAN BUG is dramatically inert with more middle-aged white guys in conservative suits standing around than a GOP convention.

Former government agent Lee Barrett (ROUTE 66 star George Maharis) is recruited by his ex-boss Cavanaugh (Richard Bull) and General Williams (Dana Andrews) to investigate the murder of a scientist and the disappearance of another at top-secret Station Three, where deadly biological agents are developed. Barrett learns the Satan Bug — a virus that could destroy all life on Earth in a couple of months — is missing, probably taken by a madman who will threaten the world with it.

Frank Sutton (GOMER PYLE, USMC) and Edward Asner (LOU GRANT) are heavies working for the villain. Richard Basehart (VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA), Simon Oakland (PSYCHO), John Anderson (5 CARD STUD), Henry Beckman (HERE COME THE BRIDES), Harold Gould (RHODA), and James Hong (CHINATOWN) work at Station Three. Anne Francis (FORBIDDEN PLANET) has little to do, but serves the film as its only female and the only character wearing color.

The talky script fails to generate much excitement, as do the drab Maharis and director John Sturges, otherwise a master director of thrillers (BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, THE GREAT ESCAPE). A sequence with Maharis and two government men (one played by STAR TREK’s James Doohan) trapped in an abandoned shack with a fatal virus packs the movie’s biggest thrill. The climax is a dud, though it offers some gorgeous views of the relatively new Dodger Stadium.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Firepower (1979)

FIREPOWER is a deliriously silly international thriller with an affecting cast of middle-aged movie stars and one of the most absurdly convoluted storylines I’ve ever attempted to decode. At one point, when director Michael Winner (DEATH WISH) and screenwriter Gerald Wilson (THE STONE KILLER) get trapped in a corner, they reach into their rear ends and pull out an exact double of James Coburn’s character, who is never seen or heard from again.

If nothing else, Winner knows how to grab an audience’s interest. Before the main titles have started to unspool, Winner kills off a chemist, the husband of Sophia Loren’s Adele Tasca, in an explosion and then guns down the chemist’s brother and a bunch of hoods at the funeral parlor. It’s an effective formula that works for Winner. When the plot starts to get confusing, blow up something or kill a bunch of guys to wake everybody up.

Adele believes the man responsible for her husband’s murder is the mysterious Karl Stegner, a wealthy recluse in Antigua who’s wanted by American authorities, but can’t be extradited, and nobody knows what the hell he looks like anyway. The Feds, with FBI agent Frank Hull (Vincent Gardenia) in charge, want flower-loving merc Jerry Fanon (Coburn) to go get Stegner, so they bribe retired mobster Sal Hyman (Eli Wallach) to convince Fanon to do the job. See what I mean about convoluted? Why couldn’t Hull just ask Fanon directly? Probably because Sir Lew Grade at ITC wanted to squeeze another star, Wallach, into the production somewhere.

Fanon takes along heist man Catlett (O.J. Simpson) as backup. Neither seems to be the brains of the outfit, as their plan involves setting Stegner’s house on fire and then running inside the abandoned blaze to find clues. The piling on of twists over doublecrosses grows silly after awhile, but FIREPOWER is always watchable for its star power and its harrowing stunt sequences involving airplanes, helicopters, automobiles, boats, bulldozers, whatever it takes. Trying to follow the plot is more effort than it’s worth.