Sunday, November 26, 2017

Drive (1998)

About as close to a rock-'em-sock-'em Asian action movie as a low-budget American production can get, DRIVE is one of the greatest American martial-arts films ever made. The startling fight sequences staged by director Steve Wang (THE GUYVER) and his stunt coordinator Koichi Sakamoto's Alpha Stunt team are unlike any you’ve seen staged outside of Hong Kong. Presented with grace, humor, and sharp visual wit, DRIVE is a terrific film.

So why haven't you heard of it? The producers took DRIVE away from Wang in post-production, cut several minutes out of it (mostly character stuff that adds humanity to the fighting scenes), commissioned a new electronic score, and bypassed a theatrical release, dumping it straight to cable, VHS, and DVD in 1998. While both the 99-minute U.S. version and Wang's longer original 112-minute cut are wonderful films, the perfect version would be somewhere in between lengthwise and use the more conventional score that Wang commissioned.

DRIVE is set in the near future and stars Mark Dacascos (archvillain Wo Fat on the HAWAII FIVE-0 remake) as Toby Wong, a Chinese man running from his former employers in Hong Kong, the Leung Corporation, which implanted a "bio-engine" into his chest which gives him enhanced speed, strength, and fighting ability. However, he doesn't want it—he was an unwilling experiment—and is journeying to Los Angeles to sell the implant to Leung's main competitor.

On Toby's trail are Leung's squad of assassins, led by Vic Madison (John Pyper-Ferguson, memorable as a comic heavy on THE ADVENTURES OF BRISCO COUNTY, JR.), who are assigned to stop him from reaching L.A. without killing him, since their employer wants the bio-engine in one piece. After escaping a pair of attacks in San Francisco, Toby makes the unlikely acquaintance of Malik Brody (A DIFFERENT WORLD's Kadeem Hardison), a divorced, unemployed songwriter who would rather be almost anywhere but handcuffed to a kung-fu-fighting stranger while bullets, rockets, and explosions whiz past his head.

Toby and Malik run into constant trouble, setting the stage for a series of well-executed martial-arts battles, including one pitting Dacascos against several guys armed with cattle prods and another set in a tacky neon desert bar with an outer space theme, complete with giant rocket ship. Although DRIVE cost only around $4 million, the miniatures and pyrotechnics are skillfully rendered, and the non-stop action is a certain crowd-pleaser.

Dacascos does most of his acting with his feet and fists, but he's a solid leading man, while Hardison, at first difficult to take as a typical wisecracking, loudmouthed comic-relief sidekick, grows on you by the end, where he proves he can pull his own weight. Pyper-Ferguson hams it up well enough to distract you from the fact that his stunt double doesn't look a lot like him. Brittany Murphy (DON'T SAY A WORD) is goofy as a brain-dead teenage nympho with the unlikely name of Deliverance Bodine and the hots for Hardison.

Filmed around Lancaster, California as ROAD TO RUIN, DRIVE is an energetic breath of fresh air in the direct-to-video action realm, and shouldn't be overlooked just because it wasn't deemed "good" enough to play in theaters.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Devil's Partner

Ed Nelson, who went on to play nice guy doctor Mike Rossi on TV’s PEYTON PLACE for five years, plays two roles in this independent horror movie. First, he’s crusty old Pete Jenson, a rotten jackass who makes a deal with the Devil and then drops dead. Then, Nelson shows up as Jensen’s nephew, Nick Richards, who arrives in a small desert town to clean up his uncle’s affair.

Almost immediately, bad things start happening to people, like the kindly gentleman who is poisoned by goat’s milk, the drunk (Byron Foulger) who is trampled by a horse, and handsome gas station owner David Simpson (ROCKY JONES, SPACE RANGER star Richard Crane), who is disfigured when attacked by his dog. When an embittered David grows apart from his sweet girlfriend Nell (Jean Allison), Nick starts moving in. Of course, the twist will come as no surprise, and DEVIL’S PARTNER has little point beyond a series of sinister accidents and the befuddled investigating of the local sheriff (Spencer Carlisle) and town doc (Edgar “Uncle Joe” Buchanan).

Penned by one-and-done screenwriter Laura Jean Mathews and actor Stanley Clemens, who replaced Leo Gorcey in the Bowery Boys movies after Gorcey retired, DEVIL’S PARTNER was directed by Charles R. Rondeau. After making four low-budget features, Rondeau permanently left features for television and made hundreds of episodes of shows ranging from BATMAN to BJ AND THE BEAR. His television work is undistinguished, but he probably cared more about this film, which is competently directed and occasionally chilling.

Nelson, who played dozens of heavies in episodic guest shots, is convincingly menacing and friendly, whichever the scene calls for. He got a nice “And Introducing” credit, even though he had already acted in several films, some for Roger Corman. Speaking of, Filmgroup, an independent company owned by producer brothers Gene and Roger Corman, released DEVIL’S PARTNER in 1961 — three years after it was made — to play on a double bill with CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA, which Roger directed.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Superman (1978)

Though Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s comic book creation had been seen on film many times before — in serials, in cartoons, in George Reeve’s iconic television portrayal — for the first time, Superman was exciting, relatable, and believable. In SUPERMAN, directed by THE OMEN’s Richard Donner, you finally believed a man can fly.

Warner Brothers’ epic blockbuster, which ran more than three hours in its 1981 ABC prime-time airing, boasts a screenplay by five Hollywood heavyweights — Robert Benton (KRAMER VS. KRAMER), married team David (BONNIE AND CLYDE) and Leslie Newman, novelist Mario Puzo (THE GODFATHER), and Tom Mankiewicz (LIVE AND LET DIE), whose father Joseph wrote and directed ALL ABOUT EVE. The film mostly soars on the star-making performance of unknown Christopher Reeve, whose boyish charm encapsulates the false milquetoast bumbling of Clark Kent and the witty confidence of the World’s Mightiest Mortal.

While SUPERMAN suffers from juvenile comic relief and weak plotting — mostly due to producer Ilya Salkind, Alexander Salkind, and Pierre Spengler’s choice to shoot it and its sequel simultaneously, which led to furious reshooting and re-editing to get SUPERMAN into theaters before SUPERMAN II was finished — it’s a glorious adventure film with Oscar-winning visual effects and an outstanding Oscar-nominated score by John Williams that ranks with STAR WARS as the finest of his career.

Donner lets the film unfold at a comfortable pace, beginning on the planet Krypton, where Jor-El (Marlon Brando) and Lara (Susannah York) place their baby boy Kal-El into a rocket and shoot him to Earth just before their home explodes. Found by Kansas farmers Jonathan (an affecting Glenn Ford) and Martha Kent (Phyllis Thaxter) and adopted as their son Clark, Kal (played as a teenager by Jeff East) is reared with Midwestern values. As a young adult, Reeve’s Clark moves to Metropolis and joins the staff of the Daily Planet, working alongside aggressive reporter Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) and copy boy Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure) for martinet editor Perry White (Jackie Cooper).

It takes awhile for the plot to kick in after Donner’s successful scene-setting and world-building, but he thankfully has the nimble acting skills of the great Gene Hackman (THE FRENCH CONNECTION) to introduce it. Hackman’s delightfully sinister Lex Luthor’s plan to become a rich man involves destroying California with a nuclear missile, which will make his previously worthless desert property the United States’ new West Coast. Aiding Luthor are bumbling assistant Otis (Ned Beatty) and sexy moll Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine), whose conscience will be Luthor’s downfall.

A massive box office hit — forty years later, it still ranked among the Top 50 domestic grosses of all time — and beloved by audiences of all ages, thanks in no small measure to Reeve’s relatable Superman and the remarkable flying effects, SUPERMAN led to three sequels starring Reeve, as well as the spinoff SUPERGIRL, which starred Helen Slater (THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN) as Superman’s Kryptonian cousin. Since 1987’s abysmal SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE, Hollywood has brought Superman to life several times on the small and large screens, but never with the same sense of wonder and excitement as Donner’s 1978 classic.

The Slave Market Of Mucar

Until I found this paperback in a Chicago used book store, I had no idea a series of prose novels starring Lee Falk's legendary comic strip hero The Phantom even existed. It turns out Avon published fifteen Phantom novels from 1972 to 1975. Falk himself wrote five of them with ghosts (who didn't receive cover credit) penning the remaining ten.

The second book, THE SLAVE MARKET OF MUCAR, was written by Basil Copper, whose career includes a lot of horror and crime fiction. It isn't an original story. Falk originally wrote "The Slave Market of Mucar" as a story arc in the daily newspaper strip that Sy Barry was then drawing. As a matter of fact, "Mucar" was Barry's debut on the PHANTOM strip. It ran 25 weeks in newspapers across the U.S. from August 21st, 1961 to February 10th, 1962. So it probably seemed fresh to readers when Avon presented it in prose form in 1972.

The Phantom is summoned to Bengalla by the local Jungle Patrol commander, Colonel Weeks. It seems dozens of prisoners have recently escaped (in smaller bunches) from the local prison run by Warden Saldan. Not only have none been recaptured, but none have ever been seen again. Weeks' attempt to place an undercover man, Slingsby, in the prison backfires, and Saldan is uncooperative. Well, of course. Because he and his chief guard, Larsen, are tricking the prisoners into escaping, only to recapture them immediately and transport them to Mucar to be sold as slaves. Surprisingly, there's a large market for male slaves, though you would think females would be more valuable. Or perhaps Falk didn't want to get into anything so sordid.

The Phantom (also the star of a 1996 film starring Billy Zane) recruits Slingsby as backup, along with his pet wolf Devil, who gets an incredibly heroic showdown against a pair of nasty mastiffs. The Phantom goes undercover in the Mucar slave market (mask and all) to rescue the latest batch of prisoners and seal Saldan's fate, which he does with a masterful sting operation worth of the IMF.

Copper's writing isn't flashy, but it's great storytelling. I suspect he didn't deviate much from the original Falk/Barry storyline, delivering a straightforward story of desert heroics and adventure. The Phantom doesn't come off as a fully rounded character, though with 35 years of history behind him at the time this book was published, perhaps it was expected that most readers would be familiar with the character. A lot of what we learn about the Phantom is through the eyes of Slingsby and Weeks, who considering The Ghost Who Walks something of a demigod.

Avon's painted cover is pretty great.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Last Embrace

Jonathan Demme (MELVIN AND HOWARD) directed this Niagara Falls-set thriller in the Hitchcock mold. It even has a chase up a bell tower like VERTIGO. Roy Scheider (JAWS) stars, and he is terrific, but his co-star Janet Margolin (TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN) is even better in a difficult role well-written by David Shaber (THE WARRIORS). Margolin died of cancer in 1993 — she was only 50 — and was one of many actresses of her generation who were talented, pretty, offbeat, and never received their rightful due.

Scheider plays an American spy who suffered a breakdown after the murder of his wife and spent three months in a sanitarium. He grows ever more suspicious and paranoid, first when his employers refuse to assign him a new mission, later when he receives a note written in Hebrew signed by the “Avenger of Blood.” He thinks the government may be trying to kill him, and maybe it is. Shaber’s plot, based on a Murray Teigh Bloom novel, is complex in tried-and-true spy-movie fashion, and many characters are not whom they seem. Margolin, a graduate student who moved into Scheider’s apartment while he was away, could be one of them.

Intended as an homage to thrillers of the 1940s, LAST EMBRACE is at least as interested in the romance between Scheider and Margolin as it is the spy plot, and despite a significant age difference, the actors are believable. Charles Napier, who usually only had great roles in Russ Meyer (SUPERVIXENS) and Demme (HANDLE WITH CARE) pictures, makes a strong impression as Scheider’s brother-in-law and would-be assassin. Other wonderful character actors — John Glover (52 PICK-UP), Mandy Patinkin (THE PRINCESS BRIDE), Joe Spinell (TAXI DRIVER), Christopher Walken (THE DEER HUNTER), David Margulies (GHOSTBUSTERS) — contribute to Demme’s mysterious vibe.

If you get tired of keeping track of the plot’s many puzzle pieces, enjoy the visuals by Demme and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (PHILADELPHIA), who keeps the camera moving almost constantly. Napier’s tailing of Scheider in Central Park and later in a cemetery are directed with visual wit, and an elegiac shot of Scheider slumped on a bench at sunset with the New York City skyline in the background says more than one thousand words. And let’s not forget the tense finale with what Vincent Canby called “yellow penguins.” Miklos Rozsa, who scored SPELLBOUND for Hitchcock, does the same here for Demme in the great tradition of Bernard Herrmann.

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Babysitter (2017)

What do you do when you’re 12 years old, and the hot babysitter you’re in love with who really gets you turns out to be a blood-drinking Satan worshipper? Hey, we’ve all been there, and now it’s time for young Cole (Judah Lewis) to figure it out for himself in THE BABYSITTER, a new film now streaming on Netflix.

It sucks when you think you’re old enough to stay alone while Mom (Leslie Bibb) and Dad (Ken Marino) are gone for the weekend. But you could do worse than Bee (Samara Weaving), who watches BILLY JACK with you and thinks you’re cool for a kid, staying with you. Until she invites some friends over to jam knives into a nerd’s head and guzzle his blood. No, you cannot really do a whole helluva lot worse.

A gore-soaked horror picture with humor directed by, of all people, McG, demoted from big-time action pictures (CHARLIE’S ANGELS, TERMINATOR SALVATION) to low-budget straight-to-Netflix fare, THE BABYSITTER is the germ of a good idea written by Brian Duffield (INSURGENT), but the screenplay needed more work. When Cole has the chance to escape, he runs upstairs instead of the open front door next to him. And I’m to believe a police car with flashing cherries parked outside a suburban house at midnight, not to mention screams, explosions, and gunshots, wouldn’t attract even one neighbor’s attention? The killers don’t even draw the curtains before murdering three people.

Some of THE BABYSITTER is funny — a lot of it coming from the narcissistic stud played by Robbie Amell (THE DUFF) — and some of the kill scenes are cleverly conceived. How much of it trips your trigger will depend on your tolerance for McG’s more juvenile instincts. Both Lewis and Weaving do a nice job establishing their characters’ friendship, which is key to selling their conflict later, as silly as it is.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

The Last Of Sheila

This intricate and wicked tale of gamesmanship and murder is the brainchild of composer Stephen Sondheim (A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM) and PSYCHO star Anthony Perkins, who loved puzzles and mysteries and decided to write one. THE LAST OF SHEILA is a true delight for mystery fans that is played with great wit by an all-star cast.

One year after his wife Sheila was killed in a hit-and-run accident, wealthy film producer Clinton (James Coburn) invites six of his Hollywood friends to spend a week on his yacht in the South of France. He suspects one of them of being Sheila’s murderer, and arranges an elaborate game designed to reveal his or her identity.

Each of the six is given a “secret”—an informer, a shoplifter, a homosexual, etc. The object is for each player to discover everyone else’s secret, one per night, in a series of dress-up hide-and-seek scenarios, including one in a spooky abandoned abbey. It doesn’t take long for some of the players to deduce Clinton’s ultimate goal, and when he is also murdered, the pieces slowly begin to snap together.

The six players are down-and-out screenwriter Tom (Richard Benjamin) and his wife Lee (Joan Hackett); Philip (James Mason), a lowly director of TV commercials; wisecracking talent agent Christine (Dyan Cannon); and starlet Alice (Raquel Welch) and her shady manager-husband Anthony (Ian McShane). All have something to hide, secrets that become exposed in the manner of a classic Agatha Christie drawing-room mystery, as the Hollywood sophisticates pour themselves drinks and react to news that would shock a normal person with an urbane elan.

Of course, one key to a successful mystery is that the pieces must logically fit together with a bare minimum of holes (if any), and Sondheim and Perkins have their plot wrapped pretty tightly. Clues are dropped with regular rapidity — even the damn title is a clue — so THE LAST OF SHEILA is as much a game as it is a film. Herbert Ross (THE TURNING POINT) directs his stars with a light touch in the south of France, with only Welch’s usual stiffness out of place among heavyweights like Coburn and Mason.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

The Severed Arm

THE SEVERED ARM is a gruesome horror film that anticipates many more famous slasher pics, such as HALLOWEEN (with its use of killer POV shots), FRIDAY THE 13TH (individuals picked off one by one by a madman waving a sharp object), and WHEN A STRANGER CALLS ("the caller is inside the house"). I'm not saying those films were influenced by THE SEVERED ARM or director Thomas Alderman (COED DORM) invented these genre staples, but their presence does add interest.

Six men are trapped inside a cave. Three weeks pass without any of them eating a speck of food, and their water supply has just dried up. Associate producer David G. Cannon, playing a television writer, suggests they draw lots and the winners amputate and eat one of the loser's limbs to stay alive. Ray Dannis (THE CORPSE GRINDERS) is the unlucky loser, and he goes mad as a result. The other five men tell the authorities Dannis’ arm was crushed in the cave-in and had to be amputated to save his life.

Five years later, back in civilization, Cannon, detective Paul Carr (TRUCK STOP WOMEN), disc jockey Marvin Kaplan (IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD), contractor Vince Martorano (THE CANDY SNATCHERS), and physician John Crawford (THE ENFORCER) are stalked by a killer with a hatchet. Is it the same person who hacked the arm off a corpse and mailed it to Cannon? Has Dannis left the mental hospital to gain revenge on the men who drove him there?

Top-billed Deborah Walley (BEACH BLANKET BINGO) plays Dannis’ daughter, who teams up with Cannon and Carr to find the killer before he finds them first. Though Walley doesn’t believe her father could be a murderer, she is game to serve as bait to help the men capture him...or whomever. Though shot on a low budget, THE SEVERED ARM is a decent little thriller, thanks to Alderman’s capable handling of the camera and the gruesome premise. Cannon, whose screen credits are scant, isn’t strong enough to play the co-lead, but as a whole, the ensemble plays well enough. The cast is good enough to convince you they would embrace cannibalism, which is vital in selling the plot.

THE SEVERED ARM is never quite as lurid as its title suggests — it has little gore, despite the R rating. While it doesn’t waste film with extraneous material, it also has little else to offer besides stalk-and-chop scenes, as Carr’s investigation has little heft. The electronic score by Phillan Bishop (MESSIAH OF EVIL) is effective, and Alderman manages to build to an effectively sick climax. Writer Marc B. Ray (SCREAM BLOODY MURDER) sold producer Gary Adelman the story for $100! Walley, a former Gidget and star of AIP Beach Party movies, made BENJI a year later and then basically retired from acting at age 33.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Murder On The Orient Express (1974)

Sidney Lumet (SERPICO) directed this lavishly cast and produced mystery based on Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. It was an enormous hit in both the United States and Great Britain and earned six Academy Award nominations, winning for Ingrid Bergman’s turn as the devout Scandinavian Greta Ohlsson (her third Oscar after GASLIGHT and ANASTASIA). Albert Finney (SHOOT THE MOON) has the plum role of Christie’s famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, first seen in print in 1920.

One of several passengers traveling about the Orient Express from Istanbul to London, Poirot takes charge when one of them, a retired American businessman named Ratchett (Richard Widmark), is murdered in his bed. A classic locked room mystery — Ratchett’s door is chained from the inside — Poirot sets about solving it through interviews with the suspects, who include young couple Michael York (THE THREE MUSKETEERS) and Jacqueline Bisset (THE DEEP), military man Sean Connery (DR. NO), Ratchett’s mother-obsessed male secretary Anthony Perkins (PSYCHO) and butler John Gielgud (ARTHUR), loud American Lauren Bacall (KEY LARGO), and teacher Vanessa Redgrave (JULIA), among others.

To say more about the story would be criminal, though many of the passengers have a remarkable connection to a horrible crime committed five years earlier, when a little girl was kidnapped from her Long Island home and later murdered. The Oscar-nominated screenplay by Paul Dehn (THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD) plays fair with the clues, though the movie’s pleasures come as much from the juicy performances as the plot. The actors play to the rafters, as fitting the heightened storyline, with Finney’s flashy Oscar-nominated Poirot a total joy. Other nominations went to Tony Walton’s costumes, Geoffrey Unsworth’s photography, and Richard Rodney Bennett’s original score.

Christie saw the film and liked it, which was not often the case with adaptations of her work. CBS did a television version with Alfred Molina (BOOGIE NIGHTS) as Poirot in 2001, and Kenneth Branagh (HENRY V) directed and starred in a big-budget theatrical remake in 2017.

Friday, November 03, 2017

An Eye For An Eye (1981)

Released by Avco Embassy in 1981, AN EYE FOR AN EYE is one of Chuck Norris’ better pre-Cannon outings. It makes good use of its star’s unique skills set by staging several exciting fight scenes and surrounding Norris with a very capable supporting cast. Best of all is its climax, which leans into James Bond territory for a budget-busting shootout between cops and bad guys on the lawn of a swanky hillside estate. Outside of the finale, director Steve Carver (Norris’ LONE WOLF MCQUADE) doesn’t use San Francisco to its fullest, oddly enough.

Norris was churning out a film a year at the time, progressively adding scale and more accomplished co-stars in a consistent bid for mainstream success. He was still known primarily as a martial artist or “chopsocky” star when AN EYE FOR AN EYE came out, but by the time he struck gold at Cannon, he was just as likely to use an Uzi as his feet.

San Francisco cop Sean Kane (Norris) watches his partner Dave Pierce (Terry Kiser, WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S) get murdered in an ambush. Dave’s girlfriend Heather, a television reporter (the very good Rosalind Chao, still acting on television three decades later), is killed by the same gang. Quitting the force under pressure from his boss (SHAFT’s Richard Roundtree, adding class to a stereotypical role), Kane goes about tracking down Dave’s killer on his own.

Kane finds support from his martial arts instructor James (THE SAND PEBBLES’ Mako), as well as Heather (Maggie Cooper), Linda’s co-worker at the TV station. The criminal conspiracy surrounding Dave’s death leads all the way to Linda and Heather’s boss: Morgan Canfield (the great Christopher Lee), the head of a global heroin smuggling ring.

It gives little away to reveal Canfield as the mysterious druglord — hell, he’s played by Christopher Lee, isn’t he? Though the plotting by writers William Gray (PROM NIGHT) and James Bruner (MISSING IN ACTION) is typical television crime drama fare, the story is strong enough to hold together Carver’s action scenes and give the fine supporting cast something to do. Mako is entertaining in a comic relief role, Matt Clark (WHITE LIGHTNING) is reliably solid in another cliché cop part, and Mel Novak and Stuart Pankin are colorful criminals. The exception is TV actress Cooper (SPACE ACADEMY), who’s wooden despite her special “Introducing” billing and just as awkward in the romantic scenes as Norris is.