Sunday, December 31, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Number eight in the never-ending STAR WARS saga begun by George Lucas in 1977 (and the ninth feature overall) is neither the OMG-just-as-great-as-EMPIRE classic nor the disaster so many audiences have declared it to be. Written and directed by series newcomer Rian Johnson (BRICK, LOOPER), THE LAST JEDI is flabby at 152 minutes with a second act that could be excised in its entirety without disrupting anything and suffers, as did THE FORCE AWAKENS, from the dire miscasting of one of the Ramones as its primary heavy.

Mark Hamill, who is excellent — I dare say, this may be the performance of his career — is a sight for sore eyes as the hermitic Luke Skywalker, sulking away on a distant island on a distant planet, content to allow the Jedi religion to die out with his own eventual passing. Lighting a dim spark under him is the enthusiastic Rey (Daisy Ridley), who arrives along with pals Chewbacca (Joonas Suotano) and R2-D2 (Jimmy Vee) to convince Luke to help the struggling resistance fight back against the evil First Order, led by the enigmatic and thoroughly uninteresting CGI creation Snoke (Andy Serkis).

Meanwhile, defected stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and lowly maintenance worker Mary Sue (Kelly Marie Tran) launch a mission impossible in a space casino populated by white-collar scumbags to snatch a master thief, but fail due to their own incompetence (would you believe a parking violation?). Back on the big ship, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), intended in costuming and attitude as a ripoff of Han Solo, but lacking the intelligence and personality of Harrison Ford (RIP Han), commits several acts of mutiny against General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and her number two Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) as a smoke screen to stall for Finn’s return.

At Snoke’s side is the petulant Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the son of Solo and Leia and once a Jedi in training who jumped to the Dark Side after a slight breakdown in communication. Unlike the power of Darth Vader in earlier movies, it’s difficult to understand how Ren could command a universe or strike fear in anyone, especially our heroes. As a leader, he’s impetuous, indecisive, uncharismatic — the opposite of David Prowse and James Earl Jones’ Vader in every way — and Driver is, frankly, a drip as an actor.

Outside of Hamill and Ridley, none of the actors makes an impression. Benicio del Toro (THE USUAL SUSPECTS) brings by his standard tics to mumble through a baffling rogue character, and Dern is given so little to work with that her character’s last scene has none of the emotional weight Johnson clearly intended. Worst of all is the brittle, catatonic Fisher, who died almost a full year before release. When she reunites with Hamill, playing her long-lost brother, Fisher dispassionately plays the scene as if hollowing out a grapefruit.

Besides the scenes between Ridley and Hamill, which echo Yoda’s mentorship of Luke in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (still and always STAR WARS’ hallmark), THE LAST JEDI’s highlights are the space battles, which demonstrate a grace seldom seen in computer-generated creations. Granted, by the time of the fourth or fifth space battle, the viewer has grown a bit weary, but the film’s opening attack on a First Order dreadnought packs some bold thrills.

Dialogue, never among the STAR WARS series’ benefits, is weak, dotted with anachronistic slang and uncomfortable profanties that sound incongruous with the eight films that preceded Johnson’s. Craven attempts to sell toys, including “cute” orange penguins on Luke’s planet and a stampede of “horses” (this scene is the film’s worse in terms of effects, proving the computer guys still haven’t learned since Peter Jackson’s execrable attempt in his KING KONG remake), bog down the story. Picking apart the many “huh?” absurdities is a fool’s task in this case, so I’ll just mention the guy who licks the ground and says, “Salt.”

Thursday, December 28, 2017


STARHOPS is notable as one of the few films directed by Barbara Peeters, who worked for Roger Corman as an art director, production manager, second unit director, and even stunt coordinator (!), as well as a screenwriter and director of her own features, including SUMMER SCHOOL TEACHERS and HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP. The latter was not a pleasurable experience for Peeters, who was surprised to see Corman had inserted gratuitous violence and sex shot by a different director behind her back. She moved into episodic television in the early 1980s, but her directing career petered out by mid-decade.

Another female pioneer in exploitation cinema — Stephanie Rothman, who also started with Corman and later ran Dimension Pictures with husband Charles Swartz — wrote the screenplay for STARHOPS and was the original director, but used an on-screen pseudonym after she left the project and her script reportedly radically rewritten. Though STARHOPS was neither a Corman production nor release, several other New World regulars worked on it, including production manager Mike Finnell (producer of ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL), cinematographer Eric Saarinen (EAT MY DUST!), and ubiquitous character actor Dick Miller. Catherine Coulson (TWIN PEAKS’ Log Lady) was on the camera crew, and Steven Zaillian, later the Oscar-winning screenwriter of SCHINDLER’S LIST, edited STARHOPS.

Produced as THE CAR HOPS, but retitled to cash in on STAR WARS, which was still in theaters when STARHOPS premiered in March 1978, Peeters’ film in no way lives up to its fascinating production history. Sexy carhops Angel (FIRECRACKER star Jillian Kesner), Cupcake (Sterling Frazier), and Danielle (Dorothy Buhrman) buy a drive-in burger joint from angry, broke Jerry (Miller) and turn its fortunes around using their sex appeal. Shenanigans abound, until a fatcat oil executive (Al Hopson) wants the L.A. real estate the girls own and sends his wastrel son Norman (not that Paul Ryan) undercover as a carhop to find dirt on them.

A blatant ripoff of New World’s “3 Girls” series, such as Peeters’ SUMMER SCHOOL TEACHERS, STARHOPS not only lacks the action and social commentary of those films, but also their more prurient elements. STARHOPS contains very mild sex and nudity and a post-synced profanity dubbed in by producers to jack up the MPAA’s original PG rating to a tame R. We’ll never know what Rothman’s early drafts were like, but it’s hard to imagine they were less funny than what ended up on the screen.

Like the Corman movies, it’s refreshing to see women protagonists driving the plot, controlling their own destinies, and duping the dopey male characters. Though Kesner was the only star to have a decent Hollywood career, Frazier is also quite good as the group’s Eve Arden. Poor Buhrman, though top-billed, never gets a handle on Danielle’s French accent, and her performances suffers. Peeters filmed entirely on location, particularly around Marina Del Mar, which adds visual interest.

Friday, December 22, 2017

House Of Wax (1953)

A remake of Warner Brothers’ MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, this Vincent Price potboiler is well remembered for two reasons: it was the first color and stereo 3D feature to receive a major studio release (from Warners) and it co-stars a young actor named Charles Buchinsky, who soon after changed his surname to Bronson and became one of the world’s most popular movie stars. HOUSE OF WAX was a very big hit that earned more fans on television and in popular theatrical re-releases in the 1970s and 1980s. Ironically, its director, Andre de Toth (THE BOUNTY HUNTER), had only one eye, and so could not see the 3D effects that excited audiences so.

HOUSE OF WAX was not Price’s first horror movie, but it was such a smash that he rarely appeared in any films except horror for the next forty years of his career. The role of a crazed sculptor who creates wax figures of murderers and other human monsters, played by Lionel Atwill in MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, is a rich one and seems tailormade for Price’s unique acting style. As in the original, Price’s character is a sensitive, talented artist whose museum is destroyed in a fire set by his business partner (Roy Roberts) for the insurance money. It’s a heck of a sequence with Price and Roberts (and their doubles) trading punches among some dangerous looking flames, as immaculate wax figures melt and the building falls apart around them.

Unknown to anyone, Price survived the blaze, albeit with his hands crippled and unable to create new wax figures. He murders Roberts and his fiance (Carolyn Jones, pre-ADDAMS FAMILY), steals the insurance settlement, and opens a new museum with the aid of a deaf-mute partner (Bronson). More unsolved murders follow, which are investigated by cop Frank Lovejoy (THE HITCH-HIKER). Phyllis Kirk (THE THIN MAN on TV with Peter Lawford), playing Jones’ roommate, becomes suspicious when she notices the new museum’s Joan of Arc looks a lot like Jones. Her nosing around leads to her boyfriend’s (THE UNTOUCHABLES’ Paul Picerni) head in a guillotine and an exciting climax set in Price’s laboratory.

HOUSE OF WAX repeats the shocking revelation at the end of MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, but while de Toth shoots it with passion, the suspense is leavened by the many scenes of Price in (very good) scarred makeup stalking his victims. It’s likely de Toth expected the audience to be surprised that Price is the killer, but that’s wishful thinking, as there is no doubt Price is the actor beneath the makeup. Crane Wilbur (THE BAT) is credited with adapting the original film, and he does a nice job updating the story with 3D effects that enthralled audiences.

Kirk is both strong and vulnerable, expressing sincere terror in an atmospheric chase scene down damp cobblestone streets. Neither Jones nor Bronson have a lot to do, though both are effective. Less so are Lovejoy, doing the best he can in a standard cop role, and Picerni, all smiles as the bland romantic lead. Bronson made over 100 pictures, but HOUSE OF WAX was his only true horror film. HOUSE OF WAX received a remake of its own in 2005, but director Jaume Collet-Serra (THE SHALLOWS) and his writers ignored its story.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Get Mean

Unlike the first three STRANGER movies produced in Italy by American-born star Tony Anthony, which received generous theatrical releases through MGM, GET MEAN sputtered into grindhouses and drive-ins under the fledgling Cee Note banner. It was also the first of the series to be directed by someone other than Luigi Vanzi, with BLINDMAN’s Ferdinando Baldi taking the helm. Perhaps Anthony’s biggest strength as a producer and writer was his willingness to think outside the box. From A STRANGER IN TOWN to THE STRANGER RETURNS to THE SILENT STRANGER, the movies got, ahem, stranger as they went along, culminating in the flat-out bizarre GET MEAN, which takes place in an alternate 19th century with Moors and Vikings.

As much fantasy as western, the bizarre plot by Anthony, co-star Lloyd Battista (BLINDMAN), and Wolf Lowenthal (COMIN’ AT YA!) finds The Stranger (Anthony) accepting a $50,000 offer to return Princess Elizabeth Maria de Burgos (Spanish actress Diana Lorys of THE TEXICAN) to Spain, where a battle for her kingdom ensues between, yes, Moors and Vikings. The Stranger loses the Princess to the Viking king, but negotiates his way into the warlord’s good graces with the promise of a treasure hidden in a nearby temple.

Co-writer Battista, who played the main heavy opposite Anthony in THE SILENT STRANGER and BLINDMAN, is the Viking lord’s hunchbacked sidekick with a Richard III obsession. Another villain is played by David Dreyer (FUZZ), Anthony’s brother, who gives the kind of performance one might expect from an amateur directed to play “gay” in 1975.

Filmed as the cleverly titled BEAT A DEAD HORSE, GET MEAN is fascinating for many reasons, just one of which being it’s almost subversive that one of these Spanish-lensed westerns should be actually set in Spain for once. No one speaks Spanish, of course. It’s suggested through mysterious silver orbs in the desert that the Stranger has actually traveled through time, but who knows. Anthony brings back the cool four-barreled shotgun from THE STRANGER RETURNS as part of his unusual arsenal, and he spends significant screen time in blackface. A substantial budget allows for large-scale battle scenes and hundreds of extras.

Believe it or not, Anthony wasn’t done with spaghetti westerns. COMIN’ AT YA!, released by Filmways in 1981, was a surprise hit and the biggest 3D smash in America since the 1950s. His 3D follow-up TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS was more Indiana Jones than Clint Eastwood, though no competition to either in box office receipts.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Silent Stranger aka The Stranger In Japan

MGM released the Italian westerns A STRANGER IN TOWN and THE STRANGER RETURNS in the United States in 1967 to good box office. Good enough for the studio to order another sequel from producer Allen Klein, the controversial manager of the Beatles, and producer/writer/star Tony Anthony. Perhaps judging that the eccentricities of the two previous films helped them stand out among the glut of spaghetti westerns filling drive-ins, Anthony, Klein, and director Luigi Vanzi doubled down, sending Anthony’s anti-hero The Stranger to Japan.

As an unconscious tribute to both the Japanese setting and The Stranger’s debt to Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name, THE SILENT STRANGER is a riff on YOJIMBO, which also inspired the plot of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. The Stranger shoots down some bandits attacking a young Japanese man. The dying youth hands him a scroll and begs him to deliver it to Japan, where he will be paid $20,000. Once The Stranger gets there, he finds two opposing factions laying claim to the scroll, which is worth one million U.S. dollars, and plays each against the other to ensure his own hide survives. A nearsighted but nasty American (Lloyd Battista) is aligned with one side and against The Stranger too.

Plagued with stormy weather, Vanzi uses the Japanese setting to strong effect, as it provides a unique backdrop for the typical spaghetti trappings (swords replace guns in some action scenes). MGM’s generous budget allowed for more extras, elaborate sets, and another evocative Stelvio Cipriani score. The typhoons may have been a frustrating problem for Vanzi and Anthony, but the rain looks great on film. If the filmmakers’ intent was to do something original in a well-worn genre, they succeeded, while still providing crowd-pleasing scoops of violence. Anthony is a stiff performer, but he gives the amoral Stranger an underdog quality that puts the audience on his side.

Though lensed in Japan in 1968, legal wranglings and studio politics prevented MGM from releasing it in America until 1975, by which time who gave a damn about spaghetti westerns or Tony Anthony. Cut (sometimes awkwardly) to achieve a PG rating, THE SILENT STRANGER popped up under several titles, including THE STRANGER IN JAPAN, SAMURAI ON A HORSE, and THE HORSEMAN AND THE SAMURAI. In the meantime, Anthony and Battista teamed up again as rivals in BLINDMAN, which co-starred Klein’s client Ringo Starr as a Mexican bandit.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

The Stranger Returns

Star Tony Anthony, who also contributed the story, returns—just like the title says—in this sequel to A STRANGER IN TOWN. Like the first film, THE STRANGER RETURNS was released in the U.S. by MGM in 1968, just four months after the original. While influenced by Sergio Leone’s westerns with Clint Eastwood, director Luigi Vanzi and Anthony add more humor and vulnerability to the leading character (he uses a pink parasol to keep the sun’s rays at bay), making him easy to root for, even when he’s acting like a scoundrel.

The Stranger poses as a murdered postal inspector to track a large gang of bandits led by the vicious En Plein (Dan Vadis, then a European star from many muscleman epics). The killers dry-gulched a stagecoach crew and made off with the entire rig, thought to be carrying a strongbox filled with gold. In actuality, the stagecoach is made of gold, which is a heckuva target for The Stranger and his nose for money. The bounty hunter teams up with a batty old preacher (Marco Guglielmi) with a pocketful of fireworks, who provides The Stranger with a super-cool weapon: a rotating four-barreled shotgun!

Starting with Stelvio Cipriani’s awesome score, THE STRANGER RETURNS is the most consistently entertaining of the four-film STRANGER series. Vanzi shoots the violent climax with some wit, as The Stranger invades the bandits’ town and blows them away one at a time. As usual, he takes plenty of physical punishment before laying some smack down on the baddies, who are well led by the sneering Vadis, somewhat leaner than his days making Italian sword-and-sandal pictures like SPARTACUS AND THE TEN GLADIATORS and HERCULES THE INVINCIBLE. Interesting is the unearthly vibe Vanzi and Cipriani provide for the golden stagecoach, really playing up its status as an oddball plot point.

Anthony moved on to THE STRANGER IN JAPAN, but legal problems kept it out of the United States until 1975, by which time spaghetti westerns were passé. However, he made another Italian western during that time, BLINDMAN with Ringo Starr, and teamed up again with Ringo (as producer) for the unusual COMETOGETHER, which had nothing to do with the Beatles.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

A Stranger In Town

West Virginia-born Tony Anthony (née Roger Pettito) was a struggling actor in bit parts before he moved to Europe and found great success as the star of several so-called “spaghetti westerns”—Italian productions usually filmed on Roman soundstages and in the Spanish desert. A STRANGER IN TOWN, which was actually shot entirely in Italy, received a major theatrical release in the U.S. in 1968 by MGM and made enough money worldwide to bring Anthony back for three sequels.

The plot is simple and a bit reminiscent of Sergio Leone’s A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, which is no coincidence. A Bounty Hunter With No Name (aka The Stranger, played by Anthony) rides into the tiny Mexican village of Cerro Gordo, where he ingratiates himself with bandits led by Aguila (Frank Wolff), who plans to impersonate Mexican soldiers and hijack two sacks of gold from the United States Army. The heist is successful, but a doublecross and a nearly fatal beating set up the blood-soaked climax staged by director Luigi Vanzi (THE STRANGER RETURNS) on the Cinecitta backlot. There is hardly any dialogue, and it’s ironic that one of the sequels — a chattier film than this one — was titled THE SILENT STRANGER.

Though an odd choice for a western anti-hero — he isn’t particularly charismatic, but he pulls off grubby well — Anthony somehow manages to be likable, even while doing unsavory acts on-screen. He’s good with self-effacing humor (granted, not so much in A STRANGER IN TOWN than in the sequels), and plays the underdog well, which likely explains his popularity. Certainly A STRANGER IN TOWN lacks the typical Hollywood gloss, even though it was produced by Beatles manager Allen Klein.

Sergio Leone not only influenced the plot, credited to Warren Garfield (THE HIGH CHAPARRAL) and Giuseppe Mangione (SUGAR COLT), but also Vanzi’s deliberate pacing. Anthony slowly wanders the town of Cerro Gordo (“fat hill” — also a small town in downstate Illinois), but when the action comes, it’s exciting and well choreographed. Benedetto Ghiglia’s oddball score isn’t exactly what you would call melodic, but it fits Vanzi’s weird vibe, and you’ll be humming the theme out of repetition, if not affection.

Anthony had a strong hand in his movie career, contributing the story for his next movie, THE STRANGER RETURNS, and producing and writing THE SILENT STRANGER, an unusual western set in Japan that didn’t see release in the United States until 1975. Anthony also served as producer and star of BLINDMAN (a spaghetti western riff on Japan’s popular Zatoichi character) and COMIN’ AT YA!, a 3D western that was a surprise hit and kicked off a mini-resurgence of 3D cheapies (such as FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 3 and JAWS 3-D) in 1982. Also in there was GET MEAN, the fourth and final Stranger story.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

The Keep

The second film directed by Michael Mann is also his most obscure, sandwiched between the very good THIEF (1981) and MANHUNTER (1986). THE KEEP is Mann’s lone horror film, and is based on a best seller by F. Paul Wilson, who disliked Mann’s film as much as most audiences and critics did. A troubled production plagued by reshoots, cost overruns, and Mann’s indecision, THE KEEP was a flop for Paramount. Everyone seems to like the Tangerine Dream score though.

Nazis commanded by Jurgen Prochnow (DAS BOOT) occupy a keep located in the Carpathians in 1941. The caretaker (W. Morgan Sheppard) warns Prochnow that nobody spends the night inside the keep, which is protected by 108 nickel crosses embedded in its stone walls. Prochnow ignores the caretaker’s warnings, but notes the walls appear to be constructed to keep something in, not prevent someone from entering. Several Germans are killed, and cruel SS man Gabriel Byrne (MILLER’S CROSSING) arrives to take command and murder some villagers in retaliation.

Byrne brings in Jewish professor Ian McKellen (X-MEN) and McKellen’s daughter Alberta Watson (THE SOLDIER) from a concentration camp to investigate. Periodically, screenwriter/director Mann cuts to top-billed Scott Glenn (THE RIGHT STUFF) riding a motorcycle. More Germans are killed, including two who are attempting to rape Watson. She’s rescued by what appears to be a talking eight-foot skull-faced Golem with glowing eyes that is surrounded by smoke.

Perhaps Mann’s original three-hour version made sense, but Paramount’s mandated 96-minute cut is frankly incomprehensible. This is best illustrated in the scene in which Glenn arrives in the village, doesn’t identify himself or his reasons for coming, and one scene later is on the floor in an acrobatic both-sides-sitting-up sex scene with Watson. Surely, Mann shot some footage of Glenn and Watson actually, you know, interacting before making love, which otherwise makes no sense in context.

Though THE KEEP flails in its storytelling and acting (this may be McKellen’s only poor screen performance), it is nonetheless watchable. The Welsh locations and sets designed on London soundstages are striking, and who can resist Scott Glenn and a monster in a rubber suit shooting animated death rays at each other? As pretentious as it is choppy and packed with too many shots of people wandering around in slow motion, THE KEEP is an interesting failure and an unusual anomaly in Michael Mann’s filmography.