Monday, July 30, 2012

Blood Out Of A Sock

TWILIGHT’s screenplay by director Robert Benton (KRAMER VS. KRAMER) and Richard Russo (THE ICE HARVEST) may play as nothing special to mystery fans, but it’s a real joy to see a veteran cast at this level tear into it.

Benton and star Paul Newman had previously teamed to make NOBODY’S FOOL, for which Newman received a Best Actor Oscar nomination, and he plays a similarly aimless character here. I suppose there’s a little bit of Lew Harper, whom Newman portrayed in 1966’s HARPER (an adaptation of a Ross Macdonald Lew Archer novel), in it too.

Harry Ross (Newman) is a private eye and ex-cop who lives in a Hollywood mansion with Catherine (Susan Sarandon) and Jack Ames (Gene Hackman), two movie stars of the 1970s. Harry did a job for the Ameses two years earlier, bringing back their teenage daughter Melanie (20-year-old Reese Witherspoon, who appears topless) from Mexico and getting shot in the groin in the process. His relationship with the Ameses is interestingly rendered. He is friendly with his landlords, who let him live rent-free (perhaps out of guilt because of his injury), yet it’s clear the rundown Harry is considered an employee.

Jack, suffering from cancer that leaves him with less than two years to live, asks Harry to run an errand for him: to deliver an envelope to a woman. As with all good pulp fiction, Harry arrives at the address to find the house empty except for an elderly ex-cop shot dead and an army of cops eager to arrest him. It all leads to adultery, dark secrets, blackmail, and new twists in the twenty-year-old disappearance of Catherine’s first husband.

James Garner (THE ROCKFORD FILES) adds to the star wattage as an old friend of both Jack Ames and Ross. Surprisingly, Newman had never co-starred in a film with Hackman, Garner, or Sarandon, which makes TWILIGHT a special treat, despite its derivative story. Cast also includes Stockard Channing, John Spencer (THE WEST WING), Margo Martindale (an Emmy winner for JUSTIFIED), Liev Schrieber, Giancarlo Esposito, and M. Emmet Walsh.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Delta Force 2: Operation Stranglehold

Cannon was on its last legs when it produced this desperate sequel to one of its biggest hits. It was titled DELTA FORCE 2: OPERATION STRANGLEHOLD in its brief theatrical run in 1990, but has since been retitled DELTA FORCE 2: THE COLOMBIAN CONNECTION on television and home video. MGM released it in over 900 theaters, but audiences had tired of Chuck Norris as quickly as they had embraced him just a few years before. The DELTA FORCE sequel opened in 11th place the same weekend DARKMAN debuted at number one.

Norris returns as Colonel Scott McCoy, who helps DEA agent Page (Richard Jaeckel) bring down a ruthless South American druglord named Ramon Cota (Billy Drago), who has a gas chamber in his house. DELTA FORCE 2 is an eminently watchable action picture, despite its box office failure, armed with fights, big explosions, and hilariously disparate acting styles (RUNAWAY TRAIN’s John P. Ryan is acting big enough for three movies, which is fair because Norris is acting for one-third of one). It’s also shockingly mean-spirited—Cota kills a baby (off camera) so he can smuggle cocaine inside its corpse.

Aaron Norris, directing his third Cannon picture, and second unit director Dean Ferrandini assemble some exciting action sequences, including a helicopter/limousine chase, a skydiving freefall, and a climactic assault upon Cota’s mountain fortress, which is guarded by dozens of goons wielding machine guns and a few missile-launching choppers. What scenery Drago doesn’t chew is eagerly pounced upon by Ryan, who is hilarious as McCoy’s superior officer. Chuck says even fewer words than usual, but his feet and fists do plenty of talking.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Spy Trap

Popular Library's second MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE tie-in novel is distinctively inferior to the first. Likely, it's due to Walter Wager, under his pseudonym of John Tiger, not writing it. The credited author is Max Walker, who may or may not be a real person.

CODE NAME: JUDAS' biggest problem is that it isn't much like the television series. It contains a car chase, shootouts, fistfights--all action stables that were not generally part of the TV show's repertoire. It was an extremely action-packed series, but not an especially violent one. There was violence, of course, even an occasional chase or punchout, but not as depicted by Walker.

JUDAS does open with Jim Phelps (played by cover model Peter Graves in the series) listening to a taped message and choosing his Impossible Missions Force team from dossiers. The plot takes the IMF to Geneva to find an assassin named Atlas before a group of enemy agents does. Atlas' main characterization is that he has no nose, which leads to a scene, of course, of someone pulling his face nose off.

The book also spends too much time with Phelps, forgetting that the best M:I episodes showed the team working together. Outside of Phelps and Cinnamon Carter's guise as a nightclub singer, Rollin Hand, Barney Collier, and Willy Armitage have painfully little to do.

If you're a spy fan looking for a quick read (126 pages), this 1968 novel may do the trick, but I wouldn't recommend it to MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE fans.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Slappers Of Women And Torturers Of Old Men

The Internet Movie Database claims a 1968 release date for this Crown International film, but I’m not so sure. THEY SAVED HITLER'S BRAIN is really the 1963 turkey MADMEN OF MANDORAS with almost a half-hour of newly shot footage tacked to the beginning, probably to stretch the picture to a two-hour television timeslot.

The protracted prologue could have been filmed in 1968, judging from the hair and fashions, but it seems more likely it happened in the early 1970s. Don Hulette (BREAKER! BREAKER!), the director of the new footage (but credited only with providing “additional music”), makes little attempt to match the MANDORAS film directed by David Bradley (TWELVE TO THE MOON), except for the laughable inclusion of an Eisenhower portrait in a government office.

The opening finds government agents Vic and Toni (after the requisite “I didn’t know you were a woman” kneeslapper common to ‘50s/’60s genre cinema) investigating the murder of Dr. Bernard, the developer of G-Gas, a super nerve gas that can fell an elephant in seconds. Hulette stages the killing by having Bernard leave a top-secret government lab and get into his car, which is hilariously parked at a nearby filling station (!), just so Hulette can cut in stock footage of a different exploding car from who knows what other movie.

The actors portraying these characters are either uncredited or buried in the titles, so I won’t even guess who plays them. Doesn’t matter much anyway, because Toni and Vic, who are terrible at their jobs, are knocked off quickly, and THE MADMEN OF MANDORAS gets underway. It’s easy to differentiate between the two directors’ work (a couple of Bradley’s scenes are cut into the prologue), because MANDORAS was shot by A-list cinematographer Stanley Cortez (THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS) and really looks nice.

Looks nice, but is still inept filmmaking, though the story is irresistible by fans of trashy pulp fiction. Another government agent, Phil Day (Walter Stocker), and his wife Kathy (Audrey Caire) travel to the South American country of Mandoras to find Kathy’s father, Professor Coleman (John Holland), who is the only man able to create a G-Gas antidote. They discover Nazis (“slappers of women and torturers of old men”) are planning to use the nerve gas to conquer the world and are still following the one and only Adolf Hitler (Bill Freed), whose head has been removed from his body and kept alive in a cake holder. Sometimes the Ratzis take him for a drive. He finally blows up in Bronson Canyon. This film would be amazing if it weren’t so dull.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Delta Force

One of Cannon’s biggest hits teamed the studio’s biggest star—Chuck Norris—at the height of his big-screen popularity with Oscar-winning action icon Lee Marvin (THE DIRTY DOZEN) in the last film of his career.

Producer Yoram Globus and producer/director Menahem Golan cast this right-wing comic book like an Irwin Allen disaster movie with an all-star roster of fading movies stars in supporting roles. As Sandra Bernhard once asked David Letterman, “Where else can you see Hanna Schygulla co-starring with Chuck Norris?”

Filmed in Golan’s home country of Israel, his and James Bruner’s screenplay bears similarities to the hijack of TWA Flight 847 a year earlier and the raid at Entebbe Airport in 1976. Lebanese terrorists led by Abdul (Robert Forster, JACKIE BROWN) take over an Athens-to-Rome passenger jet and order the pilot (PART II WALKING TALL’s Bo Svenson) to fly it to Beirut. Colonel Nick Alexander (Marvin, looking like a Ramona Fradon drawing), leader of the U.S. Army’s great fighting force, recruits disgruntled retired Major Scott McCoy (Norris) to assist in the Delta Force’s rescue operation. The terrorists are well organized and have spread out the hostages in three different locations, including a dungeon in downtown Beirut.

Rarely has a film been both so terrible and so good in its individual parts. Golan’s revisionist fantasy is hilariously shameless in its jingoism. Americans are awesome, and everybody else sucks. A Russian passenger rambles to priest George Kennedy (you can’t rip off AIRPORT without hiring George Kennedy) for two minutes about how much he loves living in the United States. The anti-Arab prejudice is appalling, and its anti-Washington sentiments echo those of Cannon’s Vietnam wish-fulfillment action films like MISSING IN ACTION and P.O.W. THE ESCAPE.

Yet THE DELTA FORCE is undeniably well-made. Golan gives the action an aura of scope and international intrigue. After setting up the conflicts and characters in the first hour, the director goes nuts in the second with a series of crisply photographed and edited action sequences specially designed to fit into Norris’ wheelhouse, complete with scripted quips. The explosions are big, and the stunts are exciting. Who better than Marvin to bark orders and take out an important bad guy with a well-aimed head shot? There’s no denying THE DELTA FORCE’s status as a crackerjack action vehicle.

The swarthy terrorists are portrayed as one-dimensional monsters, yet Forster brings an intensity to his role as the dedicated mastermind that forces you to take his cartoon villain seriously. Although the casting seems ripe for HOLLYWOOD SQUARES jokes, none of the veterans is sleepwalking. Martin Balsam (DEATH WISH 3), Shelley Winters (THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE), Joey Bishop (OCEAN’S 11), Lainie Kazan (MY FAVORITE YEAR), Susan Strasberg (PSYCH-OUT), a young Kim Delaney (NYPD BLUE), and Schygulla (THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN) join Kennedy and Svenson as on-board hostages and turn in effective work. Robert Vaughn (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN) does yeoman duty as a general sending the Delta Force into action. Alan Silvestri (BACK TO THE FUTURE) composed the cheesy synthesized score, which admittedly includes a catchy theme. Norris returned as McCoy in 1990 with DELTA FORCE 2: OPERATION STRANGLEHOLD.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Watery Grave

I really liked the initial Attar the Merman adventure, ATTAR'S REVENGE, and the second one, WAR OF NERVES, also published in 1975, may be even better. Unfortunately, Joe Haldeman, the acclaimed science fiction author who hated writing them under the name Robert Graham, gave up the series after these two quickies.

Attar was reared on an island off the coast of Australia where lies Aquatic Research Associates, Limited, a foundation operated by marine biologist Wallace Hamilton and funded by millionaire John Tucker. An expert in linguistics and mortal combat, Attar is able to breathe underwater, thanks to Hamilton's operation that gave him (and his late sister Essence) gills.

Attar's mission this time is to save the Atlantic Ocean from destruction at the hands of a madman named Rasputin, who has discovered a cache of nerve gas dumped in the Caribbean and plans to explode a bomb and disperse the gas unless the United States pays a ransom. On the case is Attar, as well as his brother Victor (Tucker adopted many children at birth and trained them similarly to Attar, though only Attar has gills) and his pet killer whale Grampus. And if that isn't awesome enough, know that Attar and Grampus share a telepathic bond so that they can "speak" to each other.

WAR OF NERVES is a great, pulpy read with an exciting plot and intriguing characters. It has plenty of action and violence, though nothing too graphic. The relationship between Attar and Grampus is weird, but seems normal within Haldeman's framework. The author adds tension to their relationship when Grampus rescues Attar at sea by grabbing the young man's leg with his mouth and discovers he likes the taste of human flesh.

Haldeman also tosses in a twist involving the plot's true villain and a pretty sweet finale involving Attar and his party's invasion of the baddie's Haitian stronghold. Both Attar the Merman adventures are fun, brisk, and exciting, and it's a shame Pocket Books never did others. Considering Haldeman wrote them under a pseudonym and prolific packager Lyle Kenyon Engel, one wonders why they didn't continue with a new author.

Friday, July 06, 2012

A Little Lighthouse Keeping

The less you know about SH! THE OCTOPUS going in, the better it works. That said, even after several viewings of this fast-paced comic mystery from Warner Brothers, I’m not tired of it.

As original and goddamned crazy as it seems, SH! THE OCTOPUS (one of cinema’s great titles) is actually a remake of the play and the film THE GORILLA, except with an octopus (natch). It definitely isn’t admired by everyone, but I love the film’s chaotic energy, striking camerawork, amusing performances by hams Hugh Herbert and Allen Jenkins, and—most of all—one of the craziest damned plots on record.

By the by, don’t bother following the plot too closely. Just allow its dreamlike qualities to soak over you, much like the thunderbumper splashing down on bumbling detectives Kelly (Herbert), whose wife is expecting a baby any minute, and Dempsey (Jenkins) the night they’re summoned to a mysterious lighthouse. What do they find there? How about a bloody corpse hanging from the top, a hook-handed old salt appropriately named Captain Hook (George Rosener), an enemy submarine, poison gas, and a multitude of secret passages and trapdoors?

And, oh yes, a giant octopus with impossibly long tentacles that emerge from the lighthouse’s hidden panels to snatch unsuspecting victims. Screenwriter George Bricker ensures that a good number of strangers just happen to drop by an abandoned lighthouse during a torrential storm to serve as cannon fodder for the murder and mayhem happening under Dempsey’s and Kelly’s clumsy noses. Almost nobody turns out to be who he or she initially claims, and although nothing in Bricker’s densely packed plot seems to make any sense, rest assured all will be explained in the twist ending.

SH! THE OCTOPUS is just straight-out fun, not to be taken the least big seriously. The cast approaches the material with exactly the right spirit, and director William McGann (who never directed another horror movie) demonstrates deft comic timing, particularly an explosion that buttons the third act. The movie is just 54 minutes long and is so frenetic that another second may well have unraveled the whole thing.