Saturday, August 13, 2016

Graffiti Bridge

(PG-13, Warner Bros. Pictures, 91 mins., theatrical release date: Nov. 2, 1990)

Under the Cherry Moon, Prince's directorial debut from 1986, was a tough movie to evaluate. I can't possibly give the movie any higher than three out of five stars, which is still kinder than anyone who caught it first-run (excepting J. Hoberman). I watched it multiple times in the wake of Prince's passing and struggled to come up with some kind of critical closure. There's a part of me that really admires Prince for playing up both his glamour and humor, as well as championing Jerome Benton, but I felt something close to nothing towards the coupling of Prince and Kristin Scott Thomas. It didn't live up to the standards Prince set as a musician, but I could at least see it as a lark, and it provided more entertainment than I get from most vanity projects.

The term "vanity project" seems like an oxymoron if you watch enough movies in your lifetime. These days, I even take it as given. Aren't all movies "vanity projects" in one way or another? A writer or director clearly has a point-of-view which they are trying to sell a viewer, frivolous or not. It defines the performances, dictates the wide spectrum of aesthetics and is self-important enough to attract financing and marketing to goad someone into a screening. This is how auteur theories start, when you realize a filmmaker is directly selling you his perspective, sometimes often enough that they become themes. To me, it doesn't become damning until a filmmaker's display of ego is devoid of almost all niceties as wit, style, intelligence, empathy, or just plain amusement.

Which brings me to Prince's Graffiti Bridge, his second and final go at movie directing and one in which he branches out to screenwriting. In the wake of Under the Cherry Moon's mass rejection, this was as straightforward a follow-up to Purple Rain as most people wanted from Prince. It's once again centered around musical and romantic competition between a serious artist and a shameless underling, Prince's "The Kid" and Morris Day, Morris Day. The film's soundtrack was again almost single-handedly attributable to Prince. There are return appearances from Jill Jones (this time as a fickle lover who breaks up with The Kid by removing her panties in public), imaginary letters to the father who "took the easy way out" and a ballad-heralding finale ("Still Would Stand All Time"). It would be the safest possible successor to Purple Rain were it not for the existence of Under the Cherry Moon as well as the fact that in 1990, things were much different for Prince in the six years since his cultural dominance.

By order of the Paisley prophet, The Revolution, Prince's backing band, were no more by the end of 1986, as were Morris Day & The Time. Much like Pete Townshend's Lifehouse/Who's Next, an entire concept for an album ("Dream Factory") was abandoned and the resulting song cycle streamlined into what became the brilliant double-LP Sign o' the Times. Prince was ready to throw another curve in the form of The Funk Bible/Black Album, which was infamously recalled a week before release in a drug-induced epiphany of conscience and replaced soon enough with Lovesexy, which The Artist himself considered "a gospel album." But Prince's commercial prospects were diminishing, with lead single "Alphabet St." climbing as high as #8 U.S. in the summer of 1988 and then dropping swiftly. The A-sides to follow ("Glam Slam," "I Wish U Heaven") tanked. Lovesexy eked out mere Gold-certifiable sales by the end of the year.

Prince was falling behind the popular times as 1989 arrived, especially upon the arrival of what was called "new jack swing," a forceful new R&B sound driven by hip-hop technology. Incidentally, it was former Time members Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis who pioneered this sound with Janet Jackson's Control (and later Rhythm Nation 1814), which was taken over the top by genre-defining producer Teddy Riley, particularly through collaborating with Bobby Brown on Don't Be Cruel. Janet and Bobby both made forceful proclamations of independence ("What Have You Done for Me Lately," "My Prerogative") and full-on bangers ("Miss You Much," "Every Little Step") under the new jack swing sound, eclipsing Prince's star in the process.

His rebuttal, as quoted from the opening verse of the first song heard in Graffiti Bridge: "Pardon me for living, but this is my world, too."

This is from the defensive "New Power Generation," one of the few tracks written expressly for Graffiti Bridge and the name of Prince's early 1990s backing group, making their debut here. It's Prince's own "My Prerogative" in sound and attitude, showing that he clearly absorbed the "brand new funk" which he instigated through Minneapolis brethren Jam & Lewis. Issued as the third single of Graffiti Bridge's soundtrack, it trailed in the wake of two more successful predecessors, "Thieves in the Temple" and the Tevin Campbell-sung "Round and Round." These were the other debut compositions Prince wrote, as the remainder of Graffiti Bridge's soundtrack had existed in some form, spanning as far back as 1981's Controversy ("Tick, Tick, Bang") to the aborted "comeback" album for The Time, Corporate World, which, like their past releases, was simply Morris Day singing over Prince's music & lyrics (the actual band wouldn't write/play their own material on record until Corporate World was overhauled to become 1990's Pandemonium).

But Prince's multi-instrumental dominance was already made plain on the evidence of the Purple Rain and Parade soundtracks. Graffiti Bridge is historical in Prince's timeline because it is his one and only filmed screenplay (recall that Purple Rain director Al Magnoli co-wrote it with William Blinn and Under the Cherry Moon was penned by Becky Johnston). Originally written with Madonna in mind in the fall of 1987, the unfortunate star of Shanghai Surprise and Who's That Girl rejected the first draft with outright disgust. After courting Kim Basinger during the Batman blitz, Prince reconfigured the film for Vicki Vale herself, but they separated in early 1990. The shooting script was finalized a month later with a new romantic lead in Ingrid "The Spirit Child" Chavez, Prince's companion/muse for the Lovesexy and co-writer of Madonna's 1991 breathy chart-topper "Justify My Love" opposite Lenny Kravitz, whom Chavez sued for muscling her out of a credit.

More than Prince or Chavez, Graffiti Bridge is perhaps best appreciated as a vehicle for the reassembled original line-up of The Time, Jam & Lewis included. The New Power Generation's B-boy gallery can't help but look anonymous against these flashy funksters, whose sassy party-starters are in direct combat with The Kid's more "spiritual noise." The plot of the movie is your basic bad vs. evil showdown: Morris Day is elevated to Big Boy Caprice-level villainy as owner of the Pandemonium club and shareholder of The Kid's Glam Slam hangout, whose patrons are driven away by the less carnal "Love God" messages in The Kid's jams. As Morris extorts, vandalizes and continually one-ups him, The Kid finds solace in a hard knock seraph named Aura (Chavez) and her equally mystical prolix. "It's just around the corner" is her spectral advice, referring to The Kid's potential for redemption and victory.

Having buried his farcically aggressive Christopher Tracy persona from Under the Cherry Moon, Prince straightens out his curls and stubbles up on his glowering Purple Rain presence. He goes from abnormally charismatic to blankly enigmatic in the process, a narcissistic void best filled with production numbers. Prince gets a couple of great moments, particularly the alleyway gyrations of "Thieves in the Temple" and the desperate lust of "Tick, Tick, Bang," but he serves Morris Day & The Time two annihilators with "Release It" and "Shake" (the latter is not a Sam Cooke cover, but rather the missing link between ? & The Mysterians and The Dust Brothers). The fifth highlight belongs to Tevin Campbell, 13 at the time and previously scouted for Quincy Jones' Back on the Block album. He beat Kris Kross and Another Bad Creation to the punch with a confident delivery of the irresistible "Round and Round" (sadly, Tevin vanishes from the film afterwards). His mom, Melody Cool, played by gospel-soul legend Mavis Staples, finds her own tavern's financial assets coveted by Morris as much as those of the man behind the Clinton Club (guess who!).

With its central conflict involving the owners of four different clubs, Graffiti Bridge lives up to its promise as a musical. The problem is that, compared to the performances in Purple Rain, Prince the director approaches them like generic music videos, complete with rudimentary framing/editing techniques, scads of women dancing in cages (including Robin Power, Morris Day's statuesque girlfriend, who is better flattered in the glow of strobe lights) and egregious lip-synch fails. Despite the combined showman powers of Prince and Morris Day, a majority of their performances tend to fall back on flash at the expense of passion. "Thieves in the Temple" and "Round and Round" prove exceptions by going outside the club milieu, as well as showcasing Prince and Tevin Campbell's respective talents. But as fine as the soundtrack is (even with a lyric like "I'm testing positive for the funk/I'll gladly pee in anybody's cup"), Prince can't get the music to explode off the screen the way Purple Rain did over and over again.

There's also the chemistry problem from Under the Cherry Moon come back to haunt Graffiti Bridge, too. Whereas Kristin Scott Thomas at least proved a game foil for Prince's arrogance, Ingrid Chavez's character is explicitly a plot device, a ponderous pixie as light as the white feather she carries around. Even before the character experiences a clumsily-crafted "noble sacrifice" under the wheels of a runaway Jeep, Aura's attempts to give the movie a New Age gravity is likely to stir cynicism, especially when saddled with Prince's wishy-washy characterization and prattling prose. Put this deficiency next to a one-note Prince performance and the result is more superficial than spiritual.

In all fairness, I do not doubt Prince was genuinely trying to create a soulful but sexy plea for brotherhood and sanctification. And much like Under the Cherry Moon, there are plenty of entertaining moments to be gleaned, especially whenever Morris Day glides onto the screen. He's the callous hotshot elevated to Fool, if you get my drift, fumbling a pose by the Porsche, passing around a jar of hot peppers to test his lackeys' fealty or engaging in a "Dueling Banjos"-scored cash contest with right-hand man Jerome Benton. There's even a gay panic gag which slightly works because of Morris and Jerome's extended bug-eyed awkwardness (only for them to retch the laughter away). These are such crack comic talents, even Kevin Smith can recognize.

But Graffiti Bridge is ultimately Prince's vision, first and foremost, and the flow is treacherous. All of his eccentricities, personality shifts and single-minded visions are aired out in this movie even more than in his two previous vehicles. With its back lot recreation of Minneapolis' Seven Corners and Grease/Can't Stop the Music vet Bill Butler's cinematography, Graffiti Bridge posits a waifish-looking Prince as clubland's Saviour, but it's his boundless gifts as a musician/songwriter rather than his limitations as writer/director/actor that convinces you of such. Thus Graffiti Bridge makes a greater impression as a compilation album than a coherent movie, and once Prince devoted himself full-time to music afterwards, even if it meant crusading against Warner Brothers with "slave" on his cheek, his discography truly became his gospel.

And it is through these equally personal but far more soulful and frisky chapters of Prince's career (yes, that includes Emancipation and The Rainbow Children as well as his post-Musicology public revival) which I best recommend you honor the legacy of Prince. Visit the Tidal store and ride the wave of faith. But seek out Graffiti Bridge at your own peril, for it's enough to test your faith in the existence of angels.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Under the Cherry Moon

(PG-13, Warner Bros. Pictures, 98 mins., theatrical release date: July 2, 1986)

The year is 1986: The Golden Raspberry Awards, in its seventh year of existence since a group of armchair critics declared Can't Stop the Music to be the nadir of 1980, has tabulated its first tie vote. This ceremony, which has since persisted in piggybacking off the Oscars but has proven just as inconsequential as the Golden Globes, seemed to take one good look at the turkey gallery of 1986 and couldn't settle on one "winner." Given how most objective critics at least have a single solitary movie per year to decree their least favorite viewing experience, it seems dodgy that the GRAs would call a draw.

Which one...I mean, two of the year's worst would go neck-and-neck? There were tempting choices, to say the least. Blue City, for instance, was the nail in the coffin for the so-called Brat Pack by virtue of casting Ally Sheedy and Judd Nelson in their most badly-received dual vehicle, although time has not been as kind to St. Elmo's Fire as the Razzie committee was in '85. Why Schumacher & Kurlander weren't creamed with a "Worst Screenplay" nod, I'll never understand.

Maybe Sylvester Stallone, whose Rambo and Rocky sequels were easy Razzie targets the previous year, would come away the victor for the deserving Cobra, an inept attempt at turning the Italian Stallion into the new Dirty Harry from the producers of non-nominee The Apple?

Or what about the dreaded Shanghai Surprise, which was every bit as bad as its reputation when I finally wrote about it?

Hell, maybe John B. Wilson would prank us and spring a dark horse winner? Maximum Overdrive? American Anthem? King Kong Lives? Tai-Pan?

Nope, 1986 was another fish-in-a-barrel year for the Razzies as they unanimously declared both Howard the Duck and Under the Cherry Moon the Worst Movies of 1986. Dino De Laurentiis, you lose again.

But why these two instead of one or the other? Or for that matter, Shanghai Surprise, which unlike Howard the Duck or Under the Cherry Moon has not developed a contrarian cult following and remains as adamantly disliked now as it was then. If it's a question of ego, then George Lucas and Prince would seem small potatoes compared to the combination of Sean Penn and Madonna.

In a word: publicity. The Raspberry committee was well aware of the poor receptions of both in all the various trades and papers, ubiquitous in their flopdom. These were the safest possible bets, and even an institute like the Raspberries took the bait unquestioningly.

The strangest thing about Howard the Duck since its release is that the film has actually been embraced in some horribly nostalgic way. I can't say I have a mental list of the three worst movies I'd single out in 1986, but rest assured that I probably would count Howard the Duck as one of my finalists. It was an affront to the legacy of Steve Gerber's scabrous Marvel comics, a colossal plummet from the brain trusts responsible for American Graffiti and a sad career point for all three principal actors. It was to Lea Thompson what Dirty Grandpa is for her daughter, Zoey Deutch. It was even more regrettable for Tim Robbins than Fraternity Vacation. And though Jeffrey Jones' disgrace as a sex offender remains fresh in my mind, could it be any less queasy-making than the botched interspecies romance between Beverly and Howard?

And Thomas Dolby's soundtrack was clearly a rip-off of what Prince had been doing to perfection ever since 1980.

The news of the passing of Prince Rogers Nelson has left a hole in my heart, to say the least. Of all the 1980s pop icons, from Michael to Cyndi to Madonna and (perhaps) Phil Collins, none of them were ever as consistent as The Artist Forever Known as Prince. From the moment he dressed himself down to a trench coat and bikini briefs on the cover of his Dirty Mind LP at the start of the decade, to the musique-concrete funk of his surprise chart-topper "Batdance," Prince satisfied some major sonic rumbles at the height of his fame. He did so-called "new wave" better with his brazen kinkiness, cross-pollinated genres with the precision of a true wunderkind and always kept people stymied at the growth he demonstrated from one project to another, even when the results were maddening.

Yet in 1986, Prince swept the Golden Raspberries with Worst Actor, Worst Director, Worst Original Song, and a joint Worst Picture for Under the Cherry Moon. Jerome Benton, who survived The Time to be with Prince's Revolution band, emerged scathed with Worst Supporting Actor. Newcomer Kristin Scott Thomas and screenwriter Becky Johnston must have narrowly avoided their respective nominations. In short, all the goodwill Prince gained with Purple Rain came crashing down in a rubble of hubris and gross miscalculation.

But the death of Prince has led me to evaluate both his narrative-based feature directorial efforts, Under the Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge. I carry a monumental reverence and sadness as I go, well aware of Prince's many notorieties and boundless talents. I can declare to the world (or at least those reading this) that there will never be another Prince in our future, no matter how hard Justin Timberlake, Kanye West or others may try. Even though my primary interest is film, I can listen to Prince's records, especially Sign o' the Times, and hear a genius in every groove.

As for the movie, it...doesn't quite suck like many have said. I'd watch Under the Cherry Moon over Howard the Duck or Shanghai Surprise or Cobra every time. The real dilemma is how much of my enjoyment is from vicarious train wreck fascination or simple allegiance to Prince.

Based on the massive cross-promotional popularity of Purple Rain, Prince decided to switch things up several notches cinematically as well as musically. His subsequent LP, 1985's Around the World in a Day, flirted with Beatles-era psychedelic textures and string arrangements. Legend has it that Prince was incubating this sound in his head even before the blockbuster soundtrack to Purple Rain made the rounds. Furthermore, the impetus was a demo tape cut by Wendy Melvoin & Lisa Coleman, paralleling the friction on screen in the movie. That follow-up's "The Ladder" even included a co-writing credit for the real-life paterfamilias John Nelson, who came out to support his estranged son by this time.

Despite Prince's resistance to established promotional means like pre-release singles, concert tours and promo videos, Around the World in a Day spawned a couple of hits, by turns randy ("Raspberry Beret") and skeptical ("Pop Life"), not to mention fan favorites like "Paisley Park" (the name of Prince's distribution label) and "Condition of the Heart." But the teller is the closing track, an eight-minute grind called "Temptation" which morphs from burlesque to damnation in as wild a manner as only Prince can concoct. Imagine "Automatic" from 1999 interjected with the pitch-shifted voice of God which opened that album:

"Oh, silly man. That's not how it works. U have 2 want it for the right reasons."
"I do."
"U don't, now die!"

This beginning to see the light ("Love is more important than sex. Now I understand") is baked into the courtship plot of Under the Cherry Moon, as Prince was set off on the great thematic push-pull dynamic which would be blown four sides open with Sign o' the Times. His Royal Badness still dressed in flamboyantly sexy ways and celebrated being "in the mood for drawers," but the time had come for making soul connections. Thus Christopher Tracy, Prince's alter ego, ends up compromising his gigolo ways for deeper courtship of 21-year-old heiress Mary Sharon (Kristin Scott Thomas).

Christopher Tracy, not just the pseudonym Prince was credited as on The Bangles' "Manic Monday," is a piano-plinking lothario who sets his lascivious sights on the unsatisfied debutantes of the French Riviera. Flanked by his fellow Miami émigré Tricky (Jerome Benton), Tracy catches wind of the ultimate grift in the figure of Mary, a prim but not-completely-repressed society child worth $50 million. He crashes Mary's birthday gala with seduction in his eyes and dollar signs on his mind, but in patented princess vs. pauper screwball fashion, Tracy antagonizes himself to her immediately. Tracy and Mary will inevitably make up/out in the manner Prince sang about in the pursed-lipped hit single which inaugurated the film, but not without reprisal from her powerful papa Isaac (Steven Berkoff).

Aside from evoking tradition in Becky Johnston's script, where class and gender conflicts are compressed into snappy repartee, Under the Cherry Moon was beget with the kind of production troubles which doom vanity projects from the word "go." Kristin Scott Thomas was scouted in the waning days of pre-production after Madonna and Susannah Melvoin fell through, whereas Terence Stamp quit two weeks into filming and was replaced by Mr. Berkoff. The black-and-white photography was conceived after filming, thus going further against the expectations set by Purple Rain. Perhaps most controversial was the decision to jettison Mary Lambert, who directed the retro-minded video for Madonna's "Material Girl" amongst a couple of her other MTV staples ("Borderline," "Like a Virgin"), and demote her to "creative consultant."

Whatever the sordid details of his ultimate control over the project, at least Prince had some of his work cut out for him. German DP Michael Ballhaus, who would become a regular collaborator of Martin Scorsese's from After Hours to The Departed, makes a paradise of Nice and displays plenty of fluid compositions which make more sense monochromatically. Esteemed production designer Richard Sylbert and returning costume designer Marie France also excel in their contributions to the candle-lit grottos and outré fashions, giving Prince a convincing Valentino-style makeover (it's a better tribute to the idol than Bolero, for damn sure) and fitting Thomas in sparkling flapper wear. And the background score of Prince & The Revolution originals, released as Parade, is a four-star assemblage of stylistic detours swirling in rococo minimalism ("Do U Lie," "Venus de Milo") and transcendent permutations of Prince's finger-snapping pop-funk ("Girls & Boys," "Kiss," "Christopher Tracy's Parade"). By the time it wraps up with the eulogy "Sometimes It Snows in April," even the more ordinary moments ("Life Can Be So Nice," "Anotherloverholenyohead") can be accepted on their own terms.

Alas, Parade remains a tight 41 minutes long whereas Under the Cherry Moon lasts 100 minutes in a journey not as wholly rewarding. To be clear, it is not because Prince moulds it into the opposite of Purple Rain, cutting way back on the musical numbers (the only performance piece, "Girls & Boys," is rendered diegetic through use of a boom box; everything else is laid over) and pushing harder towards goofy comedy as opposed to the gloomy melodramas which dogged The Kid. This is a Bugs Bunny-style cartoon of himself rather than a diminutive Jimmy Dean, and Prince camps it up with gusto whether making "Bela Lugosi eyes" at his landlady or poking at the racial dissimilarities between him and Tricky ("Butterscotch...chocolate"). Jerome Benton is equally refreshing in a more substantial comedic role than as Morris Day's mirror-toting foil ("I'm my own man, just like Liberace!"). And Mary's first lesson in Ebonics ("wrecka stow," which kinda sounds French) is rightly embraced as a show-stopper. 

Purple Rain was tailor-made for Prince's magnetism as a stage performer. There's a reason why the movie ends with three back-to-back songs, benediction demanding an encore. It would seem wise that Under the Cherry Moon instead highlight his boisterous, subversively frisky persona, the kind which appalled AOR-damaged sheep, censorious senators' wives and fuddy-duddy film scribes ("Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?" and "Don't you wanna play?"). Though Tricky later acts as a mouthpiece for divine union, he's dressed up in the same button-studded ensemble Prince used to promote "Kiss."

Prince radiates challenging such sex appeal, and Kristin Scott Thomas puts up an ample fight against Tracy's irritating disarmament whilst looking just as attractive. Which brings me to the one flaw which ultimately undoes Prince's amnesty as an actor: Christopher Tracy and Mary Sharon hardly make an impression as a romantic couple. Yes, we see them make passes over the telephone. They frolic along the beach and make goo-goo eyes at each other. They engage in heavy petting in a payphone. But Prince's direction and Johnston's script never convincingly thaws out either party's defensive personalities to really attain the romantic union Prince seeks as an alternative to lust.

Just like the last time an 80s pop idol tried to anchor a modernized screwball comedy, I must decree that Under the Cherry Moon is no The Sure Thing.

Mary is presented as a carefree soul who casually flashes spectators at her birthday party [side note: one of Mary's friends is played by Pamela Ludwig, a favorite of teen drama specialist Tim Hunter, known for the classics Over the Edge and Tex] and plays drums impromptu. At first, her relatable animosity towards Tracy is equal parts class contempt and mistrust over his intentions. The movie should progress with her desires for love and independence opening her up to Tracy's idea of "fun" and making her less brittle, but it never happens. She stands up for herself in a compelling diatribe to her mother late in the game, but Mary remains a klutzy mix of virginal cipher and upper-crust cookie.

And then there's Prince.

I'm not a big fan of the Pet Sematary movies, and trading in one pop video director for another probably wouldn't mean a wide gulf in quality. But speaking as a cineaste, I think the best director for Prince was virtually anyone but himself. There comes a point when Tracy should tone it down, just as much as Mary, but again, nothing of the sort. This spells disaster for the chemistry between Prince and Thomas, as the one convincing moment of emotional growth is a poem read off screen ("An Honest Man") as Mary lies alone in the grotto. Prince may have been sincere in his studied allusions to Golden Age opposites-attract movies from America and Europe, but here the will is hardly as strong as the flesh.

Which is a shame, because Prince is gracious enough even at his most overheated to allow his fellow performers moments to bare their talent, most beneficially Jerome Benton. When Tracy and Tricky debate their seduction and business rivalries, Benton is endearingly cocky and deflates tension with a solid one-liner. When Tracy is ultimately felled by the Coast Guard, Tricky seems genuinely mournful even when he mutters a recurring, maternal scold. Putting aside any homoerotic accusations against the buddy dynamic between them, Under the Cherry Moon lives up to its potential whenever Prince and Jerome take the screen together.

All in all, it's impossible to take Under the Cherry Moon seriously, which may have been Prince's intention. Whereas Purple Rain preached that "We are gathered here today to get through this thing called life," the philosophy guiding Under the Cherry Moon is that "Life is a parade" (if not a cabaret, Kander/Ebb-style). Removed from 30 years of infamy and in the light of countless re-evaluations of Prince's inimitable legacy, I feel like Under the Cherry Moon's disastrous reputation seems fairly out of proportion. It's never going to be hailed a masterpiece, as the movie goes from laissez faire to lackluster without as much insinuating bravado as Christopher Tracy himself demonstrates.

But as someone who wouldn't have minded if Jerome Benton had a supporting role in a Kid 'n' Play comedy, one who can contextualize the "Kiss" B-side "Love or Money" (the Worst Original Song of 1986, sez the Razzies) as being a test run for the Camille persona Prince made great on "If I Was Your Girlfriend" and just someone who really wishes Prince the same happiness in the afterworld that the end credits here offer (a music video for "Mountains," complete with Sapphic chanteuses Wendy & Lisa, Eric Leeds on the sax and the mighty Dr. Fink), I can't hate Under the Cherry Moon like I do most of the famous fiascoes that come my way.

The bonus music videos featured on the DVD helped to sway my opinion, since there were no other extras to be found besides the theatrical trailer. The video for the bona-fide classic "Kiss" remains a cheeky blast, with Prince writhing in tight black pants with a veiled dancer in black lingerie, all the while Wendy Melvoin struggles to play straight woman. The other clips are also quite joyful, from a color-corrected re-edit of "Mountains" to a scorching live version of "Anotherloverholenyohead" taped from Detroit (incidentally, the show was held on Prince's 28th birthday as part of the Revolution's soon-to-be-final tour). But the odd gem out is "Girls & Boys," which works in footage of the entire, extended band this time around and ends on a sublimely ridiculous note courtesy of...who else, Jerome Benton.

If the ghost of Prince were to haunt Jerome ("Boo!"), I can only hope that the latter's reaction remains no less than ham slam. Thank you, man.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films

(R, 106 mins., Warner Home Video, premiere date: September 19, 2014)

This may not be so much a review as me finally throwing my arms up and just deciding to end this project once and for all. And good riddance.

After enduring eleven Cannon Films for the express purpose of this series, scrapping one previously familiar title (Going Steady, the abysmal sequel to Lemon Popsicle) and two freshly-watched disasters (the Lou Ferrigno Hercules vehicles), I got burned out. This was the second feature aside from my Diane Franklin retrospective which I completely walked away from. Maybe I should've focused on something else like before, and I tried, but there was once again a wave of depression that left me uninspired and exhausted.

Besides, Ain't It Cool News already beat me to the punch, title and all. And I'm just not that kind of a geek, to be honest.

But I was gathering thoughts about Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films in my apathy. So maybe this is the right time to wrap this up and put a bow on this once and for all.

First thing I noticed was that the subtitle of this is a blatant echo of Mark Hartley's previous sizzle reel documentary, Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation. This particular "wild, untold story" felt like such when I first watched it on DVD, exposing me to a lot of movies (Snapshot, Nightmares, Alvin Purple, Barry McKenzie, Stone, Stunt Rock, Pacific Banana, Felicity, etc. etc.) that completely bypassed my radar. This was an entire geographical subgenre of exploitation filmmaking that I originally wondered in my review, "Where was Joe Bob Briggs when these were playing the drive-ins?"

Cannon Films, however, was a studio based in America and aimed directly at this market. So they already cultivated an infamy which was talked about in the press and trades of the time, with Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus taking regular drubbings for their steady stream of shite cinema. Even at the dawn of my writer's ambitions during those videocassette days, Golan-Globus were burned in my brain as the schlock factory to rival Charles Band and Lloyd Kaufman/Michael Herz. I even knew they were Israelis and that Golan's first name had a distinctive "ack" syllable.

What separates Not Quite Hollywood from Electric Boogaloo definitively for me is that the former was more consistently passionate and pleasurable about Hartley's homebrewed underbelly of cinema. The New Wave, as Barry Humphries laments, meant that Australia suddenly needed to project an "image" outside of Peter Weir's penchant for little girls walking through rocks. A more proletariat alternative suddenly manifested itself in the Ocker T&A comedies, the nitro-burning dementia of their action movies and the collected works of producer Tony Ginnane. This attention to context, which addresses respectability with a hatchet to the warbles, gave you a sense of the stakes Australian cinema was confronting and how it shook loose of its white robes.

Electric Boogaloo could've used a briefing on what was cooking back in Tel Aviv prior to the one-two slap of Operation Thunderbolt and Lemon Popsicle. Menahem Golan was the first Israeli producer to get an Oscar nomination back in 1964 for Sallah Shabati, starring Chaim Topol (Fiddler on the Roof) as a likeable louse contriving get-rich-quick schemes to afford public housing in the newly-minted Israel. With cousin Yoram Globus in tow, the duo garnered a couple more successful submissions if not victors with Moshé Mizrahi's I Love You Rosa (1972) and The House on Chelouche Street (1973), the latter nominated in the same year a Dutchman named Paul Verhoeven was making his name known with a film called Turkish Delight.

Aside from Israel's early acclaim, there was a bizarre juggling of tones which accommodated both broad slapstick and melodrama. In 1971 Sallah director Ephraim Kishon released another Oscar-nominated project, The Policeman, produced by neither Golan or Globus. The titular officer, Constable Azulai, engages in tomfoolery which would predate Police Academy as much as Lemon Popsicle foretold Porky's, but he's forbidden to act on a love affair with a vivacious prostitute nor can he prevent impending ejection from the police squad, despite an arranged arrest and due promotion to sergeant. Golan & Globus must have taken a cue from The Policeman's surprisingly defeated ending because they mirrored it in both Operation Thunderbolt and Lemon Popsicle (that film's hopeless Benji is a cross between Hermie from Summer of ‘42 and The Policeman).

Hartley's Cannon expose, with a boost from exec producer Brett Ratner, doesn't really broach either of these juicy topics, instead taking a cue from Sweet's "Action" and quadrupling down on the boundless cheap thrills that were their specialty as the Go-Go Boys crossed overseas, having purchased the U.S. studio who distributed a few of Golan's productions. Electric Boogaloo tells you what to expect once Golan unscrupulously tossed his newborn child into a horse-drawn wagon for a dangerous stunt, proceeding to deluge you with a generation's worth of B-movie mania, roughly chronological in order but stopping cold every once in a while to dish further dirt on the Golan-Globus business model.

For the first few years under Cannon's new ownership, the studio produced and distributed a gross amount of films piggybacking on trends, lowbrow mores and diminished celebrity. The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood, the third in a trilogy tethered to both periods of Cannon Films, found Martine Beswick not too pleased with both the gratuitous orgy inserts and seeing a clear parallel between the sabotage of the plot and the practices of her producers. Schizoid, New Year's Evil and X-Ray (Hospital Massacre) aimed at the post-Friday the 13th audience with bloodshed and nudity. Lady Chatterley's Lover, a proposed "new marriage" between erotica legend Sylvia Kristel and her Emmanuelle director Just Jaeckin, initially began with a script that was a glorified porno but became wannabe literary. Sylvia's luck didn't improve with Mata Hari, as she struggled with both acting and alcoholism.

The Golan-Globus partnership, forceful and efficient as it was in pursuing what by many accounts was a very sincere passion, sadly didn't wash with those early efforts at breaking into the American market. Golan craved good stories, production values and star power to compete with Hollywood, but The Apple, Death Wish II and The Last American Virgin, all boiled down to their essences herein, weren't rich in any of those aspects.

Referred to by historian David Del Valle as "the Mount Everest of bad musicals" (even using the movie's artwork for the cover of his Lost Horizons Beneath the Hollywood Sign), The Apple was as "bold" as it was culturally tone-deaf. Catherine Mary Stewart, the folksy ingénue Bibi, is self-effacing in her recollections of the project, which proved Golan wrong in his insistence that this was going to be the next Ken Russell's Tommy. Listening to Golan muse on the afterlife "beyond E.T." against the split-screen clips of the climactic deliverance would be charming if The Apple clearly wasn't a pitiful misfire by "a man in advance of his time."

A similar strain occurs in discussion of The Last American Virgin, Boaz Davidson's retread of his own Lemon Popsicle with new wave hairdos, outfits and music. Not a lot of real insight emerges from the time spent covering this film, the only takeaway being that the teenage crowd who saw this post-Porky's were unprepared for the downer conclusion which is still treated as the be-all-end-all of what is a pretty sleazy movie. Hearing one participant chuckle over the cross-cutting between Diane Franklin's character being knifed for abortion and a pizza getting sliced really doesn't help (it cannot ever match Quentin Tarantino's WTF fascination with Fair Game from Not Quite Hollywood). Franklin is the sole cast member interviewed, oddly enough, but only given about 20 seconds of sheer redundancy.

Between Davidson smugly asserting that Golan & Globus were not part of any "Hollywood bullshit" and Del Valle bluntly stating that they were never accepted in the first place, it becomes obvious throughout the trajectory and sound bites assembled that the Go-Go Boys yearned for a prestige they were too boorish and penny-pinching to attain. But oh, how they tried! Starting with Death Wish II and ending with Superman IV, they stumbled onto properties of varying quality which they put their stamp on. Death Wish II bowdlerized David Engelbach's script for a graphic retread of the original at the satisfaction of returning director Michael Winner. But it did revive Charles Bronson's fallen star enough that Golan-Globus capitalized on his vigilante persona for two more Death Wish sequels and a series of lurid one-offs (10 to Midnight, Messenger of Death, Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects).

In 1983, Cannon truly began to reflect the kind of "so bad it's good" cult appreciation which justifies the "wild" side of the subtitle. Following their international success of Enter the Ninja (listen for Franco Nero) and Revenge of the Ninja (with a story ad-libbed by Golan when the original movie died in the editing room), Ninja III: The Domination introduced Lucinda Dickey in a nutso fusion of Flashdance and The Exorcist, with a dead ninja in the Pazuzu role.

As in-house music supervisor Richard Kraft puts it, Golan was fond of "the intersection of ideas that should never meet each other." The Apple, Ninja III and the Brooke Shields fiasco Sahara share this dubious honor. Yet he really had Oscar gold in his starry eyes. It wasn't going to happen, though, with the kind of films Cannon were knocking out under their distribution deal with MGM. Suddenly, Golan commissioned a kids-friendly version of Hercules from Luigi Cozzi (out with the banana-sucking, in with the grizzlies hurled into the cosmos) that outdoes Starcrash in the field of anti-special effects. Golan's own Over the Brooklyn Bridge (a.k.a. My Darling Shiksa) was an ethnic dramedy which sank to the bottom of the East River. To make up for the lack of titillation, we got the deal-breaking disaster Bolero. To make up for the lack of financial clout, along came the shrewdly-conceived Breakin'.

Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films tries to balance an appreciation of Golan and Globus' supposedly maverick sensibilities with a candid understanding of the many times they shot themselves in their feet. From the rushed production of Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo to the misunderstood casting dictum which landed Sharon Stone in King Solomon's Mines to the botched family film Going Bananas, which Golan was insane enough to pitch to the orangutan from Every Which Way But Loose, Electric Boogaloo is ripe with absurdities and contradictions.

The only times Cannon lived up to their movie-loving sensibilities was in courting truly iconoclastic artists who could call their bluff to make the passion projects which haven't dated as poorly as their predominantly lesser oeuvre: John Cassavetes' Love Streams; Barbet Schroeder's Barfly; Andrei Konchalovsky's Runaway Train; Franco Zeffirelli's Otello. The once-disgraced Endless Love director himself is tearfully happy of his movie and the faith of his producers.

In between those rare moments of legitimacy, though, Cannon became a conveyor belt for cheesy movies both real and imagined. Entire film budgets were spent on publicity at Cannes and in Variety to promote and pitch as many ideas as they and their art department could sell. There were press releases for unscripted projects. Gunga Din! Who's in the Closet?! It Ate Cleveland! Charles Bronson is The Golem! Not that the ones that did get made were any good, as they lacked the patience and time to edit their films into coherent stories, and Golan's stream-of-consciousness notion of creativity was hackneyed. They could still distribute movies at an average of one per week.

But there was only so much magic in Chuck Norris' beard to keep The Cannon Group in the black. As Hartley's doco burns its calories on Lifeforce, Death Wish 3 and The Delta Force, eventually the big-spending cousins' bravado worked to suck them dry. They would lose $90 million in one fiscal year, and the movies that were supposed to push them into the mainstream (Over the Top, Superman IV: The Quest for PeaceMasters of the Universe) instead morphed into box-office bombs. A lot of defected blame and compromised principles are laid bare, although only some bad decisions (hiring an Italian money man as a partner despite his criminal past) were more lamentable than others.

Electric Boogaloo's success as a documentary ultimately depends upon one's fondness for Cannon Films. Even though Hartley's fast-paced editing (with assistance from Jamie Blanks and Sara Edwards) fits in with Not Quite Hollywood and Machete Maidens Unleashed, I wouldn't recommend you stock your Netflix queue with Golan-Globus productions, as many don't really live up to the tales being told. The structure is more scattershot and repetitive than previously, and it has a lot to do with the formulaic conventions of Cannon films as well as the limited amount of titles on show (no 52 Pick-Up, Oscar-winner The Assault, Street Smart, Tough Guys Don't Dance, Firewalker, Making the Grade, any of the myriad Lemon Popsicle sequels and spin-offs). Their mid-80s action movies usually ended with a lead bad guy dispatched by rocket launcher and the cheesecake they loaded into their sexy stuff were too stoically tawdry to be turn-ons. Those Filipino and Aussie equivalents were way more spirited in their crassness.

The roster of interviewees is also a bit more unwieldy and given to making similar points. Because Golan and Globus, in their patented style, declined to participate so they could tell their own story on the fly, archive footage and photos of them are essentially overwhelmed by the caricatured perspectives of others. Also absent is a wild card talking head on par with Tarantino or John Landis, who could either champion these movies or call bullshit. Alex Winter (Death Wish 3) comes the closest in poking at the pretensions of Menahem Golan, Charles Bronson and Michael Winner, as well as articulating the "wild carnival" atmosphere of Cannon's working conditions. Bo Derek holds nothing back about just how lowdown her producers were during the events of Bolero. Robert Forster (The Delta Force) sticks his neck out for Golan with greater conviction than others within the company. There's also Cassandra Peterson, Laurene Landon, Molly Ringwald, Marina Sirtis, Shabba Doo, Boogaloo Shrimp, William Stout, and multiple accessory Tobe Hooper, whose reputation sank in tandem with Cannon's (watch the "It Runs in the Family" featurette on the Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 special edition for the real skinny on how Golan-Globus had their way with this proposed black comedy turned "red comedy").

There's little room for earned poignancy by the time the movie wraps up with Golan and Globus' unamicable split, which saw them struggling to make their own Lambada knock-offs that eventually played theatres simultaneously. What you get is one more zesty story in this cautionary tale which is often deliriously bitter, occasionally riotous yet ultimately trifling.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Cannon Fodder: Mata Hari (1985)

(R, Cannon Films, 108 mins., theatrical release date: September 1985)

"Bolero 2: Emmanuelle 4.5." That is my pet name for Mata Hari.

The last time I reviewed a shameless softcore period piece starring an over-the-hill sex symbol, I felt like giving up on The Cannon Group entirely. There's only so much idiocy and bad judgment one can take from Golan & Globus before you rue the day you decided to investigate their track record for yourself. And the next time I revisit Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, I'm going to wince from the experiences of watching Bolero, The Apple and now Mata Hari uncontrollably.

With Bo Derek no longer interested in keeping ties with Cannon, the tacky twosome turned to her Dutch doppelganger, Sylvia Kristel, to satiate their opportunism. In the wake of 1981's Lady Chatterley's Lover, which reunited her with the director who stripped her to fame back in 1974...well, that D.H. Lawrence adaptation didn't get released in America until May 1982. Preceding Lady Chatterley's Lover theatrically was Kristel's appearance in the movie which kicked down the doors for glut of teenage sex movies to come, Private Lessons.

The multilingual model with the 164 I.Q. went Hollywood as the duplicitous French servant who romances/titillates a 15-year-old rich boy. Private Lessons was a sleeper hit even with Kristel being body-doubled, thus the European embodiment of adult-minded erotica became another oversexed pawn in a more disreputable liaison. Kristel's popularity encouraged Louisa Moritz, Joan Collins and Jacqueline Bisset to also act out variations on this cougar cliché. By the time a real movie of quality, Risky Business, arrived to put its predecessors to shame, Kristel came full circle with a "special appearance" as a sex education teacher in Private School.

As I mentioned previously, Cannon thought about making a follow-up to The Last American Virgin which would've had Kristel getting conquered by the three boors. It never happened, mainly because I would imagine the idea of Lawrence Monoson finding solace in Sylvia Kristel's bosom would've been a straight-up copy of Private Lessons. And we already had that with My Tutor and They're Playing with Fire, the latter starring Eric "Philly" Brown himself opposite Cannon regular Sybil Danning.

Instead, in 1985, Hot Chili became Virgin's unofficial sequel by virtue of having Joe Rubbo and Louisa Mortiz star in it (as well as plagiarism from all of the previous Lemon Popsicle movies). Sylvia Kristel, meanwhile, found herself in a more typical refuge for aging if bankable screen sirens working under Golan-Globus: The Out-of-Costume Drama.

The legend of Mata Hari, the sensual entertainer who was tried and executed for enemy espionage during WWI, became the basis for Kristel's second Cannon vehicle. Whereas Bolero invoked and sullied the prestige of silent film star Rudolph Valentino, Mata Hari makes hash of a role which was previously handled by Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich (see Dishonored) and Jeanne Moreau. Poor Kristel may look beautiful in the buff, director Curtis Harrington pitching in a handful of titillating diversions from the mind games surrounding Lady MacLeod. But she cannot command the screen in any other manner besides undressed, and this '70s sex kitten is reduced to a dust bunny in the 1980s.

There's no tragedy in the unraveling of how Mata Hari is played by both the French and German armies at the moment their top commanders catch her eye in a museum. There's nothing to invest in the estranged friendship between these sporting rivals, Karl von Bayerling (Christopher Cazenove) and Georges Ladoux (Oliver Tobias). And any chance for engaging with the various assassinations, mutinies and counterattacks is thrown way off balance by both a sloppy script and the film's awareness of its own sexploitative sensationalism.

So when Mata Hari makes love to a solider on the train to Berlin, they are rudely interrupted by a poison blow dart landing in the stranger's back. Her interrogations lead her to cross paths with nefarious Fraulein Doktor (Gaye Brown), who specializes in psychological manipulation at the cost of Mata Hari's romantic interests with von Bayerling. The disgraced dancer is then pinballed between working for von Bayerling and Ladoux, all the while antsy viewers anticipate the latest flash of skin from Kristel, whether it be from masturbating in the bathtub (replete with keyhole-peeping imbeciles) or a topless fencing bout against a spitfire contessa.

By the time Mata Hari has been row-boated to Java by the amorous von Bayerling, learns about the magic of invisible ink and makes her way across German battlefields to rescue her mortally wounded paramour, Fraulein Doktor has constructed a time-bomb which Mata Hari races to defuse. Of course, she is captured by the French and awaits her inevitable martyrdom in the firing line. Yet the plotline is overstuffed and so portentous that it stomps all over any chances for tension or pathos. What should be a resonant conclusion turns out to be one more bogus filmmaking choice, which is nothing new in the dumpster files of Golan-Globus.

Despite his renown in independent horror circles, Curtis Harrington wound up on the opposite side of the coin compared to Tobe Hooper. Whereas the Texas Chainsaw Massacre auteur invested his trio of Cannon productions with all manner of perverse idiosyncrasies, Harrington (Queen of Blood, What's the Matter with Helen?, Ruby) fails to liven up the movie enough to distract viewers from the locked-down locations (Budapest badly doubling for all European locales) and perfunctory cinematography (by Cannon regular David Gurfinkel of The Apple and Revenge of the Ninja). Under his auspice, Harrington gives Mata Hari a chintzy look which is not helped by the unwieldy performances and the undependable plot.

I mostly concluded that Mata Hari was basically a romance novel heroine writ mythical, torn between two lovers and helpless against the dogs of war. Take out the erotica and all that's left is but a Stephenie Meyer prototype. If you want a shorter, sexier take on this material, watch the middle vignette of Second Time Lucky instead.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Cannon Fodder: Revenge of the Ninja

(R, Cannon Films/MGM/UA, 90 mins., theatrical release date: September 16, 1983)

"Eureka!" After reviewing six movies for this Cannon Films series, I've struck crude.

Yes, Golan & Globus have a deathless reputation for vulgarity, and I'm not going to deny that much of what I've seen has been excruciating. But the part of me that can appreciate entertaining trash, including a couple of Tobe Hooper's mid-1980s work-for-hire projects bankrolled by Cannon, enjoys Revenge of the Ninja for what it is. I think I've found my first official "guilty pleasure" of the bunch.

And boy, should I feel ashamed, because Revenge of the Ninja is a doozy with a capital F.

In case you don't know, Menahem Golan himself directed 1981's Enter the Ninja, which clearly wanted to be a B-movie introduction to the ancient Japanese practice of ninjitsu. Going back to the DVD commentary for 42nd Street Forever, Volume 3: Exploitation Explosion, which I previously invoked in The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood, schlock scholar Chris Poggiali mentions that it was originally called "Dance of Death" and was a self-scripted vehicle for Mike Stone, a martial arts icon on the level of Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee. The production was shut down and everyone, including Stone and director Boaz Davidson, were fired, and Golan hired Italian superstar Franco Nero to take over the lead role (Stone was re-hired to be Nero's stuntman).

Even with the combined star power of Nero, British sex symbol Susan George and American journeyman Christopher George, all three of them were officially slumming by 1981. Enter the Ninja instead broke through Sho Kosugi, a Tokyo-born black belt who officially became the "Master" of his practice and the lynchpin of Cannon's entire series of Ninja action quickies, the second of which is Revenge of the Ninja.

Cannon, of course, were not the first to adapt intense physical combat for the grindhouses of the world. Warner Bros. imported The Shaw Brothers with 1973's Five Fingers of Death and also distributed Enter the Dragon, both kicking off the chop-socky craze which sent shock waves throughout low-budget cinema. By 1985, Cannon were grooming Michael Dudikoff as the "American Ninja" and Dragon director Robert Clouse directed Gymkata for the Warners, which incidentally turned out to resemble what would happen if Enter the Ninja was made for a major studio.

In Golan's dreary film, Kosugi took a supporting role as Hasegawa, the arch-enemy of Nero's noble Cole ("He is NO NINJA!") who would be hired by Christopher George's Venarius to assassinate the heroes. These foes were color-coordinated to match their personalities of "white ninja" and "black ninja." Naturally, Hasegawa is vanquished and Cole achieves vengeance for the murder of his war buddy Frank Landers.

Sam Firstenberg, who was the other assistant director on Operation Thunderbolt besides Davidson to become an in-house director for Cannon in the 1980s, takes the reins here and delivers the relentless fighting and skewering which Golan tamed for Enter the Ninja. Revenge of the Ninja is beginning-to-end violent in that vicariously seedy manner which may not make the critics rave (and I'm feeling pretty half-hearted on this, myself), but gets the job done for boisterous patrons of all-night Sonny Chiba marathons.

Yes, this is a movie which Christian Slater's Tarantino-born action nerd from True Romance might love.

The setup is "Lone Wolf & Cub at Utah": after his family is gruesomely ambushed on his sacred family cottage, noble ninja Cho Osaki (Kosugi) spirits his mother (Grace Oshita) and newborn son Kane away to Salt Lake City (which I suppose is meant to double for L.A. based on the bear flag) at the behest of his friend Braden (Arthur Roberts). Cho hangs up his swords and shurikens to open a doll museum, unaware that his business partner Braden will eventually be smuggling heroin inside these trinkets with intent to unload for Eye-talian mob boss Caifano (Mario Gallo). Or at least until Caifano stiffs Braden on a full payment in advance and orders his goombah squad to intimidate Braden away from shopping around.

Incensed, Braden calls upon his extensive ninjitsu studies to declare war on Caifano's crew, assassinating picnicking henchmen and one-eyed informants with the same tools Cho has sworn off. Lt. Dime (Virgil Frye) and martial arts-trained officer Dave Hatcher (Keith Vitali) try to persuade Cho into helping them crack the case, but it will naturally take a few shady twists of fate, including the kidnapping of Kane (now a kindergartener played by Sho's real-life son, Kane Kosugi), to snap Cho out of his pacifism and confront Braden in a one-on-one battle: "Only a ninja can stop a ninja."

Cannon productions have gained cult renown for being brazenly ludicrous, and Sam Firstenberg is responsible for many of these "highlights," including Ninja III: The Domination and Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo. Revenge of the Ninja doesn't skimp on the insanity, from the violent prologue which lingers over the massacre of women and children to a pair of hilarious fight scenes pitting Braden's blonde moll, Catherine (Ashley Ferrare), against the father-and-son Osakis. The first, in which she attempts to seduce Master Cho, prompts this glorious exchange:

Cho: "If you want to work out, you forgot to wear pants."
Cathy: "You really think I forgot?"

Later on, after Braden activates the hypnotic eyes of his metal mask, Cathy is forced to capture Kane, who resists with instinctive force. This leads to plenty of cartwheels, high kicks and even a staff duel between them, with lots of chuckle-inducing abuse aimed towards Kane. He wins the battle with help from a concealed blade, sparing Cathy's life, but she carries him off to Braden, regardless, like an irate market patron carting off her colicky child.

To list further outlandishness would risk spoiling the entire movie (there are two gangs of Benetton bullies who oppose the Osakis), as Firstenberg tries to spare us any dull moments. Knowing he has a bona-fide craftsman in Sho Kosugi, Revenge of the Ninja is pumped full of risky stunts and sparring contests. There are tawdrier elements thrown in for spice, such as the slasher-style murder of Caifano's nephew and his girlfriend as they screw in a hot tub (they are killed in such a position that it would require a jackhammer to separate them), but Revenge of the Ninja is at its best throwing Kosugi into stamina-siphoning danger whenever the threadbare plot threatens to hit a patch.

Kosugi's stoic demeanor is easily the most interesting aspect of the film acting-wise, as is the perverted glee of Professor Toru Tanaka as he piles on Cathy. The rest of the cast is either blandly competent or outright amateurish between physical feats.

Because this is a case of Israeli opportunists seizing upon Japanese culture, Revenge of the Ninja isn't as cartoonish as Shogun Assassin or The Story of Ricky, which are even bloodier and ballsier distillations of individual honor. Firstenberg is aware that he's making a glorified comic book of an action movie, but there's still a leaden quality to characterization and plot progression that demands more ingenuity than he and writer James R. Silke can manage.

This is still an improvement over Enter the Ninja, though, on the basis of its liveliness, if not its aesthetics. This is a movie where young and old, American and Oriental, male and female, black, white and Latino, are counted on to raise a kung fu fist. Sho ‘nuff!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Cannon Fodder: Making the Grade + Hot Chili

(R, Cannon Films, 104 mins., theatrical release date: May 18, 1984)

(R, Cannon Films, 86 mins., released in August 1985)

Now here's a movie which you won't find discussed in Mark Hartley's Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films. Actually, I've seen two of them, and they're both thudding attempts by Golan-Globus to cater illicitly to the pubescent teenybopper set. They're both very loosely based on their earlier The Last American Virgin, and they were just as day-late and dollar-short, too.

Why Making the Grade isn't included in Electric Boogaloo, even in a passing two-second interval, is astounding. Another relic of Cannon's disastrous association with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, you'd think Hartley would've paid this one a little more mind since the topic was broached. This one also spawned the careers of Judd Nelson, just a year before his induction into the Brat Pack, and Andrew Clay Silverstein, whose character is named "Diceman" as an omen of his later notoriety.

Yes, this was the film that gave you Andrew "Dice" Clay. Reactions may vary, but suffice to say there are no naughty nursery rhymes anywhere in the film. Perhaps if there were, Hartley and Brett Ratner would've jumped on that opportunity. God knows my image of Ratner is hardly different to that of the Diceman.

Besides, if you're going to make a shrine to the Eighties, then what better clip to highlight than Clay's show-stopping goof on a jazzercising John Travolta? Even without Frank Stallone on the soundtrack, that moment is golden. What, were the makers of Electric Boogaloo afraid they'd play up the kitsch too much?

Initially titled "The Last American Preppie" in a bald attempt to capitalize on that Boaz Davidson job, despite neither him nor any of the cast (physical or musical) returning to the fold, Making the Grade is another bog-standard row between the stuffy rich and the snazzy poor of our educational system. You've seen this done many, many times, whether you were there in '84 or not. There comes a point where you as a filmgoer feel like one of these sub-Animal House underachievers, being held back so as to endure the same canned anarchy and tedious characterizations over and over again without ever feeling like you've learned a damn thing.

Dana Olsen, the sitcom writer who'd go on to pen The 'Burbs, assumes the poor man's Bill Murray position as Palmer Woodrow III, the living embodiment of both snob AND slob. Smarmily secure in his own arrested development and the shame it brings his wealthy family, Palmer's flunked out of six boarding schools in three years and is threatened with losing his inheritance if he doesn't graduate his senior year at Hoover Academy. Rather than cancel his semester overseas, Palmer buys himself an impostor when he meets Eddie Keaton (Judd Nelson), a youthful hustler running away from $3,700 in gambling debts.

So it's off to Preppie High for Eddie, where he confronts the atypical melee of boors and bores. There's the geeky roommate (Carey Scott) who is also Palmer's best friend, agreeing to mentor Eddie for a healthy lump sum. There's principal antagonist/king of the campus Bif (Scott McGinnis) and his would-be girlfriend/founder's daughter Tracey (Jonna Lee), who fancies Eddie for his salt-of-the-gutter charisma. There's a ragtag faculty comprised of hapless dean Mr. Harriman (Gordon Jump), corpulent lacrosse coach Wordman (Walter Olkewicz) and memory-deprived Professor Mueller (Ray Hill). And finally, there's the neurotic fat kid known only as Blimp (Daniel Schneider), socially awkward and severely overemphasized.

Dorian Walker, whose only other directing credit was the campy Teen Witch ("Top that!"), can't even be counted on to give this movie a serviceable flow. The movie seems to shuffle its scenarios, conforming to the episodic ordinariness of its genre with brazen apathy. Chestnuts like the school social, the loud party and the "romantic" sex scene just seem plopped in to satisfy the producers' demands, and screenwriter/producer Gene (Treasure of the Four Crowns) Quintano strains to adapt them to the then-current vogue. More often than not, it's just dead silly, like when Eddie shows off his Breakin' prowess (note that the only black person in the cast is Palmer's sassy maid) as the live band launches from a limp cover of "My Sharona" to a song by Reflex, the one-hit wonders behind "The Politics of Dancing," despite not having a synthesizer player! (Imagine Reeves Nevo & The Cinch from Fast Times at Ridgemont High suddenly turning into A Flock of Seagulls.)

The result is as schizophrenic as expected of a Golan-Globus exploitation, yet crushingly formulaic and half-baked. What may work in a fast-paced action movie like Ninja III: The Domination becomes stultifying in a teen movie, and this movie's constant switching of gears from raucous (the return appearance of Palmer, which may as well suggest surrender) to proselytizing (Eddie's inexplicable personality shift into a stereotypical Ivy League killjoy) registers as incompetence. The only plus here is that Nelson, Olsen and Clay do not want for one-liners: "I don't even know you and you're breakin'my heart," Eddie raps at Tracey, before admitting "I've only felt that way about Pia Zadora." But despite all of their combined sarcasms, Making the Grade uses the cheapest of primer to paint by numbers.

One of the major idiosyncrasies of Cannon Films is that they were inches ahead of the game (Breakin') and miles behind the curve, as Making the Grade demonstrates. You'd think that the previous year's Risky Business and the concurrently-released Sixteen Candles would've refined Cannon's coarse stance on teen movies. But Quintano is on the same mean streak as his predecessors in the teensploitation field. He thinks it's charming to hear Coach Wordman, who is introduced in the presence of trashy women, speak contemptibly of wallflowers as "woof-woofs" and "dogs." He falls back on Blimp being humiliated by Aryans with argyles or, at the height of condescension, stuffing his face at the commencement ceremony. Even the wanton nudity reeks of arch disdain, which in this film is the dominant style of humor.

At least The Last American Virgin had the brevity of a 90-minute runtime, whereas Making the Grade is a veritable cramming session at 100 minutes. Despite the lack of chemistry between Nelson and Olsen, the credits suggest Palmer and Eddie would return for a sequel, "Tourista." This never officially happened, nor did a planned sequel to Virgin which would've had the male leads cross paths with Cannon regular Sylvia Kristel (Lady Chatterley's Lover, Mata Hari) in an exotic locale, but I believe Golan & Globus followed-up both movies in spirit with William Sachs' phenomenally worthless Hot Chili.

Since three of the four main players from Virgin went on, like Judd Nelson, to way better things in 1985 (Monoson in Mask, Antin in The Goonies, Franklin in Better Off Dead opposite Dan "Blimp" Schneider), Hot Chili's only encore appearance is from perennial third-wheeler Joe Rubbo. And since the premise involves four boys' summer vacation to Mexico, it's as close to "Tourista" as Cannon would ever get.

The big problem here is that whatever marginal graces Davidson's cult favorite possessed, in performance and photography, are completely lost here. All that's left are the tackiness and tastelessness.

WASP-ish hero Ricky (Charles Schillaci in his only movie credit), buddy Jason (Allan Kayser, the bully from Night of the Creeps) and bickering nebbishes Arney (Rubbo) & Stanley (Chuck Hemingway, who appeared in My Science Project and Neon Maniacs before dying young in 1996) arrive south of the border on a work program at a resort hotel, the Tropicana Cabana. Though the manager, Esteban (Jerry Lazarus), is a soul-sapping dictator, they have high hopes to indulge their yen for sex and booze which are immediately stoked by the presence of another degraded Virgin alumnus, Louisa Moritz, here squeaking like Betty Boop as she struts about in nothing but an apron.

Hot Chili basically goes through the dopily titillating motions from this point onward. Ricky takes music lessons from a naked cellist (Bea Fiedler). Stanley carries a snooty guest's luggage all around the hotel, even ending up in a bullfighting ring, while the film is sped up a la Benny Hill and cartoon sound effects augment the chipmunk voices. Tawny blonde veteran Taaffe O'Connell brandishes a dildo in Ricky's face, claiming it's something "all boys want." And then she and the boys straight-up rehash the Carmela gangbang from Virgin, complete with Rubbo's apprehensive face and the unwanted appearance of an irate lover.

And the less said about Ricky's letters-to-mother narration, the better.

Skinny dipping, strobe lights, dressing in drag, belching, meat thermometers in delicate areas, breasts toppling out of their dresses, under-the-table foot penetration. Hot Chili is a compilation of the Lemon Popsicle series' greatest hits, and calls into question why company man Boaz Davidson didn't demand a writing credit opposite William Sachs and Menahem Golan given how many derivations are on display. All that's missing is his smug chauvinist moralizing.

Even if you despised The Last American Virgin, you'll miss the compositional skill of Adam Greenberg, the fresh-faced casting of Lawrence Monoson & Diane Franklin and the fluke assemblage of simpering CHR staples. All Hot Chili serves you are four bland actors on auto-pilot, predominantly revolting mise en scène and one patronizing, puerile gag after another. Not even as flavorful as store-brand mayonnaise let alone cayenne peppers.

This is perhaps the worst movie Sachs has ever commanded, even more dire than The Incredible Melting Man and Galaxina. Hot Chili is only recommended to completists of either Cannon Films or Joe Rubbo, and even they will wish for a Palmer Woodrow III to provide the snarky commentary Hot Chili truly craves. Mark Hartley was right to let this one rot in peace.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Cannon Fodder: The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood

(R, Cannon Films, 88 mins., theatrical release date: June 4, 1980)

[Morgan Spurlock, eat your heart out on a sesame seed bun with special sauce. Five movies into my retrospective series Cannon Fodder and I can feel my brain turning into porridge. The goal is to write at least five more reviews, give or take Electric Boogaloo: The Wild Untold Story of Cannon Films, but this is now officially the masochistic thing I've ever done!]

Ever heard the Cinderella story about the Dutch ex-secretary who became the belle of the balls?

Before Heidi Fleiss, there was Xaviera Hollander, the infamous "Happy Hooker" who came to manage her own brothel after becoming the go-to prostitute of late 1960s New York. In the wake of her deportation to Toronto, Hollander released an autobiography which was voraciously frank about her many sexcapades. She then became an advice columnist for Penthouse ("Call Me Madam") for roughly three decades, before finally spending her golden years in Amsterdam running a bed-and-breakfast.

The real life story of Hollander is so fascinatingly risqué and free-spirited that when The Happy Hooker became a bestseller, it was only natural that enterprising film producers wanted to option her tell-all for show business. It took one failed X-rated effort from Larry Spangler, notoriously sued by both Hollander and the Disney empire (listen to the 42nd Street Forever Volume 3 DVD commentary on The Life and Times of Xaveria Hollander), before there was a legitimate version of The Happy Hooker for the cinemas, released in 1975 and starring Lynn Redgrave in the title role.

Incidentally, the same year saw the actual Xaveria Hollander make her screen debut in Al Waxman's My Pleasure Is My Business, which, based on the write-up from Canuxploitation, seemed to inform the future sequels to The Happy Hooker. The first, The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington, borrowed the thread of Waxman's film, wherein a prudish government latches onto Hollander as a scapegoat for their own indiscretions. Hollander proves herself a heroic "liberator" when the CIA coerces her into putting the make on a sheik, but much of what has come before is reliably Seventies broad comedy light on coherence but big on T&A.

You can understand why Lynn Redgrave wouldn't be interested in reprising her role, so Joey Heatherton filled in and wound up fitting in with the renewed emphasis on trash. But then came The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood, which recast Xaviera Hollander for a second time and once again landed a performer who bore no physical resemblance to either Hollander or her previous onscreen avatars. She was Martine Beswick, best known for her appearances in two Connery-era 007 vehicles (From Russia with Love, Thunderball) as well as wrestling Raquel Welch, the both of them immortally clad in animal fur underwear, in One Million Years B.C. (advanced studies include the Spaghetti western A Bullet for the General and Oliver Stone's debut oddity Seizure).

Happy Hooker ‘80 also marked a more important baton-passing than the presence of Beswick, as Cannon Films were under new ownership by this point. Yes, Golan-Globus took time out from the teenage soft-porn of Boaz Davidson's Lemon Popsicle "saga" to renew Cannon's flagship series of adults-only erotica. Not that the result was any less juvenile.

The perverse thing about early '80s sex comedies was that they didn't become trendy again until they were targeted specifically at teenagers. Suddenly, the older generation passed down their well-worn memories of coitus interruptus and other related shenanigans to a gullible new demographic and were reaping fool's gold in the process. The antics of Porky's and its subsequent cash-ins were already tapped dry by the time The Hollywood Knights came right out and ripped off both American Graffiti and Animal House in one fell swoop, but that sure didn't matter once the inundation of Privates and Virgins and Classes took hold.

Take Private School for example, in which the horndogs were so desperate they resorted to drag costumes to enter the girls' dormitory. Nowadays, the scene is remembered purely for Betsy Russell's striptease more than any comedic genius on part of the writers and director. The benchmark for this type of cross-dressing farce is, of course, Some Like It Hot, where Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon went incognito as girlie musicians so they wouldn't be offed by gangsters. When Billy Wilder directed Some Like It Hot back in the era of the Hays Code, this contrivance was a lot less sniggering and relied on joint sophistication in performance, dialogue, cinematography, and wardrobe/make-up to make the jokes come naturally. The magic would later be diluted by bumbling opportunists who bought into the whole "girls as pastries" credo without so much as a lick of authentic talent.

The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood, released roughly two years before Porky's, rehashes the same shtick, although Jack's own son, Chris Lemmon, dodges that bullet. Here, aged hams Adam West and Richard Deacon are forced into posing as ladies due to a practical joke which has left them, to pilfer another cliché, sans clothing. They are amorously pursued by a drunken coot who rides the elevator and spurs one of them into throwing an ill-fated punch. The scenario plays out as more embarrassing for West and Deacon, though, than for their characters, because the filmmakers have severely let them down.

That's essentially what this movie is: 85 minutes of dignity-damaging disappointments. And those three Ds are heavier than any of the breasts on show, including Martine Beswick's.

Full disclosure: I fell asleep halfway through watching this movie the first time around. In retrospect, I should've stopped there. When a movie peaks early with a cameo by Dick "I'm more than just a goddamn porn name" Miller as a randy policeman whom the Knapp Commission couldn't tame, there's really nowhere left to go but Dreamland. I can just imagine Dick Miller playing the hippie Jesus of The Apple, the land-grubbing Venarius from Enter the Ninja (sorry, Christopher George) and the cackling pharmacy clerk from The Last American Virgin, and I'm laughing. Boy, am I laughing.

I instead must wake up to find Phil Silvers in a gold wheelchair reciting lines like "Let bygones be spilled milk" as if they were off cue. Sgt. Bilko, missing in action. Seriously, my Dick Miller parallel universe is way more hilarious and fantastical than anything in The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood.

Silvers plays W.B. Warkoff (geddit?), the ass-slapping mogul from the salad days of Robert Lippert with his eyes on translating Xaviera Hollander's bestseller into blockbuster cinema. Good luck picturing that based on the ensuing dullness.

Our Madam intercepts the news and flies off to Tinseltown to ensure they don't make a botch of her story in the same manner as...well, you know who.

She meets with unscrupulous producers Lionel Lamely (Mr. West) and Joseph Rottman (Mr. Deacon), the former Playboy-ing (boing?) his way into Hollander's sensual graces despite conniving with a bitchy actress to sabotage the project. Madam is mistaken for a whore, and instead pairs off with idealistic Robby Rottman (Lemmon Popsicle!) to go indie. She amasses a budget with a little help from her stable of sultries, but that dastardly Warkoff has a few more tricks up his sleeve.

Will the film ever get made?

Can Xaviera deliver to it Warkoff in time for premiere night and collect the $5 million promised her?

Will you be amazed when a packed house doesn't audibly groan in unison after watching a preview of The Apple?

Shall I stop right now and focus on something else, like Revenge of the Ninja or Making the Grade?

Find out next time whether or not Cannon continues to blow  Same bad-time, same bad-channel. Or at least until we all forget to remember the phrase "Bouncy, bouncy."