Monday, May 22, 2017

The Hollywood Knights


THE HOLLYWOOD KNIGHTS
(R, Columbia Pictures, 91 mins., theatrical release date: May 16, 1980)

As long as there are cars and girls to be romanticized, there will always be a place for filmmakers to wax nostalgic about their high school nights spent cruising the metropolitan strip looking for action and adventure. The benchmark example remains George Lucas' American Graffiti, which was both entertaining and expressionistic in following four Modesto seniors' last tastes of adolescent freedom. We will need sewers, too, which is appropriate in the case of THE HOLLYWOOD KNIGHTS

Having built enough of a fan base among after-hours HBO aficionados and suckers for low-hanging slapstick, Columbia/Tri-Star overcame music licensing issues for The Hollywood Knights' initial DVD release in 2000. That Universal Studios managed to put Bob Zemeckis' I Wanna Hold Your Hand on plastic four years after seems a grave injustice.

Writer/director Floyd Mutrux pleads naiveté several times in the audio commentary track (exclusive to the DVD, not on the Blu-Ray release) when he shares ideas that are blatant cribs from American Graffiti and its ilk, from the disc jockey-as-Greek chorus device to the peeping tomfoolery of horn dogs from on high to the sobering depiction of society's fall from grace after the 1950s. But what Mutrux hasn't done with The Hollywood Knights is allow it Lucas' sense of levity, nor turned the period setting into a kitschy cartoon a la Grease, nor went for John Landis' droll burlesque which made Animal House its own trendsetter.

Instead, The Hollywood Knights, cult following be damned, is exactly what it is to the naked eye: the inbred bastard offspring of all three established blockbusters. And in 1980, too, where comedy fans could look forward to Airplane! and Used Cars and The Blues Brothers and Caddyshack and Stir Crazy and 9 to 5 and Private Benjamin. In what stunted brain does The Hollywood Knights share a pedestal with these films, let alone its exalted forebears?

Aping George Lucas' patchwork plotting but adding the kind of gratuitous vulgarity which made it more pliant to the easily amused, Mutrux comes nowhere near close to capturing the spirit of ‘65. He clearly wishes he it were ‘56 instead. The three years of history that existed between Lucas and Mutrux's respective settings doesn't exist, and the soundtrack doesn't even scratch the surface of what I'd imagine listening to the radio in 1965 would be. For one, the only hit song of that year heard in The Hollywood Knights is "Wooly Bully," which was the Year-End #1 song of 1965 and also heard in More American Graffiti. Except for a couple nods to The Supremes, there's little of the Motown sound. No British Invasion at all, no Dylan or McGuire, no Tom Jones, no Righteous Brothers, not even the deathless likes of "I Got You Babe," "I Got You (I Feel Good), "(What a) Wonderful World," "Hang on Sloopy," or even "The Name Game."

He does use "Little Darling" by The Diamonds, in the exact same way American Graffiti did. Maybe Mutrux should've set it in 1964 given that "Baby Love," "Rag Doll," "Goin' Out of My Head," and an a cappella rendition of "Under the Boardwalk" represent the lion's share of a single year's chartbusters. The point is that Mutrux could care less about the ostensible year this takes place in, and that I might be stalling from having to describe the many other ways this movie bombs.

The gist of the movie is that the title posse are into cars and girls, which means that the news of their beloved hangout, a drive-in diner named Tubby's, being closed the day after Halloween at the behest of the Beverly Hills Residents Association will not do. Mutrux doesn't even do thing one with the possibilities of October 31. Where are the costume parties, trick-or-treaters, jack o'-lanterns, fucking anything to make me believe in Halloween?!

Anyway, Tubby's is set to be torn down by the richies, so The Hollywood Knights, a completely anonymous bunch led by the wannabe mythical Newbomb Turk, decide to pull a few pranks at various societal gatherings in between pit stops at their beloved diner and other negligible run-ins with ladies, lawmen and lame-os. Because none of these jokers has any conceivable personality, their appeal lives and dies with their front man. As played by Robert Wuhl in his first movie, Newbomb Turk is as boring as he is boorish. You'd never guess he would be ready for prime time someday (cf: Arli$$) based on Mutrux's film, where Wuhl is the very poor man's John Belushi (lesser than John DiSanti from 1979's King Frat) crossed with an equally broke schmuck's Bill Murray (he's not even Steve Guttenberg).

Turk's most inspired act of sabotage is to kidnap an obese nerd (Stuart Pankin) and, in the place of the scheduled magic act during a pep rally, scream and fart a rendition of "Volare." And Wuhl's not even the least bit funny doing that. It's as if he‘s trying too hard at something Belushi could cruise with. Not that Mutrux writes anything for Wuhl on the level of "Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?!" The sophomoric comedy is mostly visual, and Mutrux bungles every one of them, including several gags that would thrive in the late 1990s under better directors. Mutrux even rips off National Lampoon magazine's own high school satire during the aforementioned rally. And Turk's other fast ones involve the oldest of standbys, from flaming dog doo to peeing in the punch to ogling/spying on numerous girls to what we will call Chekhov's Pie Wagon.

"But wait, Johnny! What about Tony Danza and Michelle Pfeiffer, who are clearly the stars of this movie based on the DVD cover art?"

I'd pity whoever would say that, because neither of them are in the film for even a quarter of the time as Robert Wuhl is. They do appear onscreen together in a pitiful clone of the Ronny Howard/Cindy Williams subplot from American Graffiti, in which Danza's Duke chafes at Pfeiffer's Suzie Q wanting to escape the boring life of a car hop for a shot at acting. It's as obligatory as their names, as is another Knight's plight (Gary Graham's Jimmy) concerning his one-way ticket to Vietnam. Given how Pfeiffer was Mutrux's choice of leading lady when he was in talks to direct Urban Cowboy, it's astonishing how little she has to do with the movie.

Fran Drescher makes more of an impression than Pfeiffer, but this is the same year she starred in Gorp. So her main function is to prattle away with her two girlfriends while they undress in the unwanted company of the Knights. Although the two attempt to get it on later in the flick, it was never clear if Drescher's Sally is Turk's squeeze. Anyway, the future Bobbi Flekman is just as squandered here as Pfeiffer is.

Am I missing something? Well, Gailard Sartain and Sandy Helberg (another one who went on to Spinal Tap? And Joyce Hyser is in this, too?!) are incompetent patrolmen who incur the wrath of the Hollywood Knights by towing the car belonging to Turk's brother. Leigh French and Richard Schaal are two of the evil hoi polloi who can't keep from engaging in illicit sex in broad nighttime. Did I mention that the Knights are like the T-Birds crossed with the Delta Tau Chi fraternity except I can't remember a single one besides the three who are the most prominently hackneyed?

The Hollywood Knights is non-stop raunchy exploitation too cluttered and clumsy to enjoy on a basic level. It can't even climax with a convincing bang like Animal House given how tasteless it is even looking past the puerile humor, because it is such an unabashed rip-off of American Graffiti. Funny that Columbia Pictures were one of the many big studios who spurned George Lucas on his way to the top, only to greenlight this travesty. "And here I sit, sucking on brown Popsicles."


Thursday, May 18, 2017

Pirates of Silcon Valley + American Mary + Dancin' - It's On!


PIRATES OF SILICON VALLEY
(TV-14, Turner Network Television, 95 mins., broadcast premiere date: June 20, 1999)

A made-for-TNT, Y2k-era precursor to The Founder given how ‘80s survivor Anthony Michael Hall reinvents the passive yet playful geek persona honed from his John Hughes partnerships while assimilating the malevolence of his best known role of the 1990s, the varsity bully from Edward Scissorhands. Channeling Microsoft mastermind Bill Gates, Hall is as awkward as ever ("You must have really great bandwidth" is his pathetic seduction line at a roller rink) but resting on a hot wellspring of aggressive subterfuge. Gates is even introduced as the new Big Brother for another seething entrepreneur, Apple's Steve Jobs (Noah Wyle), who begins by addressing the camera in the manner of Michael Keaton's Ray Kroc. It is revealed that Jobs is speaking to Ridley Scott (J.G. Hertzler), the director of Apple's Orwellian Super Bowl ad.

Writer/director Martyn Burke splits his superficial if fairly agreeable docudrama (based on Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine's Fire in the Valley) between the evenly competitive Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, their prickly, isolating ascendancies mitigated by good-humored layman's testimony from their respective right hands, moral compass Steve Wozniak (Joey Slotnick) and morally deficient Steve Ballmer (John DiMaggio, the second Bender to be playing foil to Hall). The Berkeley-educated Jobs goes from acid-tripping boy guru to capitalist emperor, blithely ruthless in matters both personal and professional. The hapless geek standing in Jobs' shadow, Harvard grad Gates hustles to outsmart IBM (a common enemy) and ultimately Apple in the same way Jobs himself got the best of Xerox. As Pirates of Silicon Valley progresses, their power dynamic shifts, the once-charismatic Jobs ("Better to be a pirate than join the Navy") now a wayward cipher and Gates the clever parasite holding the royal flush.

Burke energizes the starboard-storming ironies with wit (Hall's delirious comic energy negotiating with Albuquerque factory man Gailard Sartain and a couple of airport ticket counters) and a couple solid musical cues (The Guess Who and The Police, not so much the overworked Moody Blues). But whatever psychological acumen he could've afforded the script instead falls upon his actors, expert impersonators of the impersonal. The unflattering portrayal of Steve Jobs as a wannabe Jim Morrison does enable the saucer-eyed Wyle to overact cockily like he was soliciting membership in the Brat Pack rather than detonating his fame as Dr. John Carter. Even in his subtler moments, which hint at a lost optimism amidst the rampant petulance, Wyle isn't as entertainingly heated as Hall. Gates gets the loot and Jobs walks the plank, where Martyn Burke awaits to chew the flesh clean off his bones.




AMERICAN MARY
(R, XLrator Media, 103 mins., limited release date: May 31, 2013)

Canadian ravens Jen & Sylvia Soska, a.k.a. the Twisted Twins, pull themselves up by their jet black back-straps for this heady extreme horror follow-up to 2009's Dead Hooker in a Trunk. Surgeon-in-training Mary Mason (Katharine "Ginger Snaps" Isabelle) goes from suturing literal turkeys to figurative ones when, having fallen behind on her student loan payments, she stumbles upon the lucrative "body modification" craze. A man-size Betty Boop named Beatress (Tristan Risk) cajoles Mary into performing an operation on her equally plasticine friend, Ruby Realgirl (Paula Lindberg), who yearns for the asexual physicality of a Barbie doll. That success leads Mary to cultivate a hardcore portfolio as well as enact revenge on the side after her med school professors take brutal advantage of her.

The Soska Sisters simultaneously pervert and subvert the mad doctor trope by virtue of Isabelle's poised performance and the outlandish subculture they advocate. Once she cuts herself off from the debasing rigors of academia, Mary finds a bizarre renewal of agency in the inundation of misfits who willfully request split tongues, implanted horns and, in the case of the Soskas themselves as German siblings, an elaborate act of Siamese oneness. Isabelle's busty physique is frequently on show (specifically to taunt Antonio Cupo's desensitized strip club owner), a Kraut "slasher" jovially namedrops Mengele and the gleaming array of saws are laid out fetishistically (Eli Roth gets a dedication, although this is more perceptible in the manner of a Sam Raimi/Wes Craven showdown). Still, Mary is a unique anti-heroine in a genre which frowns upon objective female identification outside of the whimpering, hysterical Final Girl U.

Mary's criminal nature does result in some routine torture and milquetoast investigation (the only male voice of reason is a kind-hearted bouncer who values Mary's knack for transmogrification), and the third act suffers from copious plot strands which fail to take. "Ave Maria" is thematically co-opted (it sure beats the silly "Bloody Mary" tag the clientele bestows upon Mary), yet American Mary sputters on its operatic take-off despite Katharine Isabelle's final moment of gory pathos. But exploitation movie sketchiness is inherently a bitch to overcome. At their wickedest and funniest, the Soska Sisters are ennobled by the proud legacies of David Cronenberg or Clive Barker. The extreme horror genre could stand for more kinky reveries in the style of those veteran Nightbreeders, and the Soskas show potential for transcending grisly provocation in favor of psychological squeamishness and gleefully outré dark comedy. And unlike Eli Roth, who as of 2017 has regressed to self-parody (The Green Inferno) while the Soskas settled for plug-in proficiency (See No Evil 2, Hellevator), there's still potential in Jen & Sylvia.




DANCIN' - IT'S ON!
(PG. Medallion Releasing, 89 mins., theatrical release date: October 30, 2015)

"Want a pickle?" Schlock City's doddering Davids have nothing left to offer compared to the Twisted Twins. Dancin' - It's On! unites David Winters (Thrashin') and late screenwriter David A. Prior (Deadly Prey) for a youthsploitation danceateria that was miraculously declared the Worst Film of 2015 by Brad "The Cinema Snob" Jones, beating out such faith-based madness as Old Fashioned and War Room. It's also a vehicle for two victors of TV's Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance?, paired off a la Justin & Kelly as romantic leads who make the amateur Latino youths of Boaz Davidson's Salsa look like Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey. Never you mind the vapid, derivative plot; like Salsa and From Justin to Kelly, there's nothing to feel here.

Jennifer August (an awkward Julianne Hough replicant named Witney Carson) is Winters' millennial Baby, grudgingly spending her summer vacation in infomercial-scenic Panama City, where even the dump trucks are painted hot pink, to visit her estranged father (Gary Daniels) at his Hit Parade Hotel. The staff includes a sad-faced mime for a shuttle accessory, desk clerks who quote Shakespeare while holding the room key to 2B, some Dr. Seuss refugee on stilts, and "The Captain" (Russell Ferguson), a dreadlocked doorman who pops, locks and drops bon mots. There's even impersonators of Rhett and Scarlett so that Jenn can namedrop "her favorite movie" with less enthusiasm than she demonstrates on the floor, which I'm afraid is terminal. Wandering the lobby, she meets both Danny (Matt Marr), the weaselly bellhop whom her father has arranged to be her guide/boyfriend, and Ken (Chehon Wespi-Tschopp, that's not my head hitting the keyboard), the dishwashing dreamer who captures her fancy.

Advertised/pawned off as a successor to Dirty Dancing, High School Musical and The Karate Kid(?), what Captain A-Rab (who takes a supporting role as an instructor with a Tragic Past) hath truly wrought is a less accomplished mockbuster of Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo! Say what you will about Sam Firstenberg's Crayola-bright gift to rubberneckers, but it was far more reverent of musical tradition, coaxed an infectious community theatre spirit and didn't lean on chintzy wipe transitions. The niceties of film-making have so completely eluded Winters to the degree where one worries if he's in the throes of Alzheimer's: "guerilla" camera angles from yards away made sense if you stole shots from the Cote d'Azur (as in The Last Horror Film), but it's death for a dance movie. With a minor exception for the hammy Ferguson as the Magical Negro, every other performance stiffs colossally, transparently ADR-ed dialogue sounding listless enough to match the forgettable faces. And not a single cliché sleeps all the way up to the Big Competition complete with Go Ahead, Kiss Her!

Save for some slick, silly moves in the opening credits when Ken is putting a literal spin on his busboy vocation, even the dancing is beyond perfunctory. They're diluted even further by cut-rate, montage-minded pop, some voiced by Harry Styles and Katy Perry imitators, and all boasting laughably on-the-nose lyrics ("I'll sleep with a snake in my bed/Just to prove I love ya"). If ever a party needed to be crashed by Tommy Hook and the Daggers, it's Dancin' - It's On! It's garbage.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Zarth Arn of the Rawr: The Return of MST3k, Part 3


NOOOOOOOW...

Here's a little story I've got to tell
About three space cowboys you know so well!
It started way back at Moon 13
With RED ROCK! LBJ! And me, CROW T!


EPISODE 5: THE BEAST OF HOLLOW MOUNTAIN

[ed. note: In case you were wondering, the LBJ stands for "Lost Back Jack"]

Brief plot synopsis: An American rustler in Mehico learns that the natives' superstition about the cursed swampland isn't just sandeces. And this is after he romances his enemy's fiancee, loses a boy's alcoholic papa and makes an offer to Don Pedro he can't refuse.

Blazing Fossils, can it be true?! This Mexican-American production, filmed concurrently in both languages, is the Reptilicus of the ooooold west!

Or at least it would be had The Beast of Hollow Mountain not delayed the monster's appearance by a good solid hour. The stop-motion Allosaurus we do get must bide its time as the plot concerns gringo rancher Jimmy Ryan (Guy Madison) and the many complications surrounding his cattle farm. There's a bitter rival, Enrique (Eduardo Noriega), who wants to covet Jimmy's land/livestock and keep his beloved, betrothed Sarita (Patricia Medina) away from the Gary Cooper cosplayer. There's little Panchito (Mario Navarro) and his widowed father Pancho (Pasqual Garcia Pena), whom Jimmy employs as ranch hands when 3/4 of his team are spooked away. Also, it keeps Pancho away from the cerveza and tequila.

The esteemed King Kong animator Willis O'Brien was not participating hands-on here, but this story credit was another stepping stone towards a long-gestating idea which his protégé Ray Harryhausen finally realized with The Valley of Gwangi (1969). Curiously, the creature both O'Brien and Harryhausen conceptualized resembled more of a Tyrannosaurus than an Allosaurus. So The Beast of Hollow Mountain could be possibly christened an Allsyranosaurus.

Unlike Reptilicus or Avalanche, this movie does a good enough job of character development and setting up suspense as to why Jimmy's cows are dwindling in numbers. Filmed in the 2.35:1 'Scope ratio, the Mexican plains are as vivid as something out of a Leone film. Guy Madison is a stalwart lead, with the gorgeous Ms. Medina and Carlos Rivas, who plays Jimmy's right hand Felipe, making admirable impressions (do note that Rivas and Navarro would return for The Black Scorpion, and producer Edward Nassour supervised the FX on Lost Continent). All these positives doesn't stave off the antsy anticipation of the title attraction. The arrival of the claymation creation proves more unwieldy and cruder than Reptilicus (again, confer Lost Continent), and the diminished budget does not assure a breathtaking horseback chase between Jimmy and the stampeding beast. The high point is when the frightened cattle charge into town as the abidingly petty Eduardo comes gunning for Jimmy and the beast corners Sarita and Panchito inside a shack. It's a surplus of action to make up for the constantly arid forward momentum.

The experience here is considerably less trying than that of Cry Wilderness or Avalanche, whose protractions were much less smoother. And it is another credit to Shout! Factory that they've licensed another pleasant schlock surprise, although the next episode I will cover might outdo all their other donations. But I recommend Bill Warren's book Keep Watching the Skies! for more context than I can provide as to this film's lukewarm reception.

As for the episode, this is the second in a row to make a nod to Better Off Dead (Jonah has to be diehard fan), this time during the monster attack. Jonah makes a running gag out of the Stones' "Beast of Burden," there are numerous rewrites of the theme to Mel Brooks' western comedy and a call back to Eegah! which is used twice (look out for The Touch of Satan). Even the classic Joel-era version of the "MST3k Love Theme" is good for a couple of inspired references. The geography throws the SoL crew for a loop or two, particularly the jungle noises in the Mexican marsh and Crow convinced one building resembles Machu Picchu. I also noticed jokes involving Seinfeld, both Night of the Living Dead AND The Return of the Living Dead, Rev. Jim Jones, and countless TV shows invoked whenever a character is distracted.

The bizarrely drawn archetypes and confrontations do wring non-stop laughs once Jonah Heston and friends drop the first remark. Jimmy and Enrique duke it out in public, demolishing a marketplace in the process, a moment of wide-eyed silence allowing for Jonah to quip: "I never realized your eyes were so beautiful!" Crow gets in a couple of zingers upon the monster's big reveal, wanting to file a suit for misrepresentation of the term "beast" and putting Panchito at a musical crossroads, forced between the "scary brass" of doom and the "gentle, beckoning flutes." His ill-fated father is taken as an oracle of the Most Interesting Man in the World gone to pot, and Jimmy's imperialist undercarriage is given a stuttering, slashing send-up to the point where Crow mounts a horse and rides alongside him to say "Up yours!"

Also watch out for a reference to a "hat that is just begging to be filled with salsa." During the next couple episodes, a classic Forrester subterfuge will make itself clear if it hasn't come to you by now.

Host segments include Servo's mock-fashion show, a couple classic Joel-style discussions between Jonah and the bots (on the topics of monster movie screenplays and the need to liven up existing films with ravenous thunder lizards) and a corker of a folk dance sequence.

Another plus of this episode is increasing confidence in the voice work from Baron Vaughn and Hampton Yount. I especially thought Vaughn as Servo was starting to come up with some knockabout impressions of nature show hosts and trailer narrators, and both he and Yount were experimenting with the more gravelly registers of their vocals. Jonah Ray has also stepped up his game in establishing a rapport with his co-stars, as well as getting in a few spontaneous-sounding chuckles ("Is he expecting to hydroplane over the water?").


EPISODE 6: STARCRASH

Brief plot synopsis: "Starcrash. A convoluted trek into the dangerously cost-efficient astronomy of a man who does not exist..." Stella Star (Caroline Munro) is a shapely but steely intergalactic smuggler who evades capture and hard labor by accepting a mission from the Emperor of the First Circle of the Universe (Christopher Plummer) to track down his missing son, Simon (David Hasselhoff), and stop the dastardly Count Zarth Arn (Joe Spinell) from blowing up the solar system.

A while ago, I tried to pursue a mini-retrospective of Cannon Films on the eve of reviewing Electric Boogaloo, Mark Hartley's clip-heavy documentary about the legacy of Golan-Globus. The trouble with watching 10 of their productions back-to-back is that, even if a couple manage to cheap thrill you into submission, the result is akin to Morgan Spurlock's disastrous diet of McDonald's. I felt my brain disintegrate into a viscous black substance which dripped out my ears and caused me to reconsider/regret the whole endeavor. Fearing for my own health, I couldn't finish what I started and just proceeded directly to Electric Boogaloo.

I mention this because one of the reviews I scrapped was Luigi "Lewis Coates" Cozzi's sci-fi revival of Hercules, clearly more in the vein of his earlier Starcrash than any of the vintage peplum movies Joel Hodgson/Robinson watched.

When the trailer for MST3k: The Return debuted, I was able to parse out one movie aside from Reptilicus (whose poster is glimpsed in the Kingachrome tube as Joel...I mean, Ardy proclaims "Movie in the hole!"), and that was Starcrash, whose cult reputation precedes and truly supercedes it. Shout! Factory's Blu-Ray release of the film alone has two audio commentarties by ultra-mega-über fan Stephen Romano, an extensive 73-minute interview with Elizabeth Hurley precursor Caroline Munro, a shorter but wildly enthusiastic discussion with Mr. Cozzi, various and sundry outtakes, a downloadable PDI-formatted script, and tons of production stills.

Munro and frequent screen antagonist Joe Spinell would reunite twice for Bill Lustig's notorious Maniac and Space Mutiny director David Winters' The Last Horror Film. Starcrash was released in the U.S. by none other than Roger Corman's New World Pictures, and Joe Dante edited the trailer as his final assignment for the company. Christopher Plummer wrote off his appearance in Starcrash as an opportunity to vacation in Rome, much like Michael Caine for Blame it on Rio and Jaws: The Revenge. And while Marjoe Gortner's star was fading, David Hasselhoff's was beginning to rise.

This post-Star Wars stab at low-budget opportunism does establish itself not just as a derivation of George Lucas' behemoth, but of a handful of other fantasy cornerstones including Jason and the Argonauts, Forbidden Planet, Flash Gordon (Zarth Arn's cut-rate Ming the Merciless) and, most certainly in the women's costume department, Barbarella. Not only is Caroline Munro decked out in provocative black leather combat lingerie, but there's an Amazonian tribe in midriff-baring, cleavage-enhancing Roman warrior ensembles. By comparison, the only thing revealing about the men are their perms and pretty boy cheekbones. Marjoe Gortner, playing the all-powerful sidekick Akton, bears more than a passing resemblance to Timothy Van Patten, and a dolled-up Hasselhoff is certainly lacking any of Mark Hamill or Harrison Ford's grit. 

Starcrash is a fool's bounty of sci-fi tropes and tried-and-true story beats. Idealistic renegade heroes, noble diplomat, cackling despot, alien turncoat, interplanetary confrontations with cavemen and sword-wielding robots known as "golems," a comic relief cyborg with a cornpone voice...all of these plus a finale straight out of Star Wars itself, the Death Star recycled in the shape of a claw. Throw in laughable dubbed voices for the British Ms. Munro (fresh from playing the exotic villainess in The Spy Who Loved Me, note Bond movie composer John Barry's credit in Starcrash) and the Noo Yawrka Joe Spinell (Rocky Balboa's bookie), Cozzi's candy-colored and painfully chintzy faux pas passing themselves off as scope and enough awkwardly protracted and or circularly-composed blunders, and Starcrash may not be an "important work of art," to echo Romano's niche-minded pretensions, but it's so beautifully bad as to make Ed Wood shed a tear in his/her grave.

And it works galactic wonders with the renewed MST3k treatment.

The last episode featured a writing credit from Kate Micucci, one half of Garfunkel & Oates, whereas Starcrash boasts three names from the classic MST3k seasons: Paul Chaplin, Bill Corbett and Mary Jo Pehl. I can imagine Pehl came up with the internal dialogue of Stella Star's erotic fantasy involving Akton while Corbett and/or Chaplin wrote Elle to be the disbelieving swain (I also wonder if Corbett came up with the Slim Goodbody riff). This particular tangent is given a thorough airing, complete with the dreaded "friend zone" for the robot companion. A lot of Andrew "Dice" Clay impersonations find their way into this one, and Akton is mistaken for Dee Snider, Gene Wilder and Barbra Streisand. Of all the easter eggs for fans, the one I'd like to point out involves Mike's red hot invention from The Starfighters. My hat rocketed off the top of my head when I heard it.

There's plenty of hover skirt action for Tom Servo, including a bit I'm surprised Gypsy and Tom didn't attempt during Avalanche. Stella's such a beacon of glamour that Servo and Jonah, who whips out a camera for the occasion, act like fashion shoot photographers. The bots lust after a giant golem with chrome breasts, then proceed to get on Jonah's case when he himself is turned on by Stella romping through the sand in sexy self-defense. Not that their robot pride isn't tested: when their "metallic beloved" is destroyed by Stella's starship, Crow is so disdainful he tries to exit the theater on a Biblical reference, and Tom follows suit until human casualties arrive seconds later. And just like Crow's bad puns during Gamera once drove Joel into tearing off his arm and lobbing it to the floor, a similar fate befalls Servo during Starcrash's final act.

Jonah waxes lyrical again, this time in regards to Marjoe Gortner's likeness of William Katt, and even jams a Beach Boys-style acoustic surf ditty about hopping in a complete stranger's UFO. Servo gets a spiffy Star Wars-themed overhaul for the invention exchange before Lucasfilm's legal department muscles in ("They said they'd smash my globe!"). Crow reaches back into his writerly ambitions to come up with a space adventure screenplay inspired by a certain board game as much as Starcrash. And Jonah gets to playact as both a hilariously pathetic Akton and a nitrous-addled Zarth Arn on separate wraparounds. And there's a hotshot venture capitalist named Freak Masterstroke who touches base with Kinga and Max, guest-played by the titular star of a famous show referenced in the previous episode. 

The Beast of Hollow Mountain might be the better episode next to Starcrash, despite all of the tempting trimmings I just mentioned. The chemistry between Jonah and the robot companions as well as the overall quality of the film give off casual vibes, whereas Starcrash takes a decidedly antagonistic turn in the reactions towards the movie and within the trio. But at least they're engaging with both films rather than ironically pushing back against it with their wisecracks. Hence the frustration of waiting for the monster to show up in one and the understanding that a mock commercial for die-cast Starcrash fleet figurines can drive a mug crazy if pushed past the limit.

With six episodes down and eight to go, my next installment will take on another Hercules-themed episode, headlined not by Steve Reeves or Alan Steel but by Jayne Mansfield(?!), as well as an Amicus production that might just be the dog's meat, if you've seen it.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

I Love You to Death


I LOVE YOU TO DEATH
(PG-13, Tri-Star Pictures, 97 mins., theatrical release date: Apr. 6, 1990)

Aside from Marisa Tomei, Kevin Kline is one of the last Oscar recipients I can think of to be rewarded for his comedic prowess. In 1989, he won Best Supporting Actor as the blustery Otto from A Fish Called Wanda, where he breathed lustily from Jamie Lee Curtis' boot, insulted the "so superior" British every opportunity he could and gulped down Michael Palin's beloved aquarium, fin by fin. An impulsive, imperialist cad whose self-delusional claims of great intellect where debunked by his shapely partner-in-crime Curtis, Kline's portrayal of Otto remains the high mark for unctuous invention in the farcical game.

Kline's first role since nabbing that trophy doubles down on Otto's buffoonish machismo. I Love You to Death, which reunited him with director Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill, Silverado) and paired him with River Phoenix (whose performance in Running on Empty was also in the running when Kline won), casts him as Joey Boca, a swarthy pizzeria owner who is introduced confessing to a priest his sin of adultery, committed twice in one week. Or was it four times with two women? But what about the four women last week? Best to round it off at a dozen give or take a couple of times, which he makes up promptly by bedding both Victoria Jackson and Phoebe Cates (Kline's wife in an uncredited cameo).

Joey Boca sees neither harm nor foul in his indiscretions, simply an extension of the American dream which finds him at one point a good-natured family man and the next a lusty hedonist. "I'm a man," he tells Jackson's Lacey in a post-coital rationalization, "I got a lotta hormones in my body." His wife, Rosalie (Tracey Ullman), is dutiful and headstrong in her own way, but in denial herself. To her, Joey's merely flirting, despite the concern of smitten pizzeria co-worker Devo Nod (Phoenix), who catches Joey on the phone with a mistress, fondling pizza dough with all the sensuality he reserves for female flesh.

That Rosalie will discover the truth about Joey's routine plumbing excursions is unavoidable, but her thirst for revenge in the aftermath, deciding on murder as a suitable punishment on the advice of her tabloid junkie of a Mama Nadja (Joan Plowright), is a little less predictable. Joey is too full of life and marinara sauce for a first-degree consummation of "'til death do us part."

As scripted by John Kostmayer, I Love You to Death was inspired by the well-publicized case of Frances Toto from Allentown, PA, whose five unsuccessful attempts on her oafish hubby Tony's life were quickly forgiven by the husband, who went so far as to raise the $50,000 bail money to keep his family together. Though Frances was prosecuted and jailed for four years, they stuck together after her release and remain, to this day, a happy couple.

Kostmayer and Kasdan translate this incredible true story as a combination of ethnic comedy and black comic farce which could be pitched as "Moonstruck on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown." But the result is far shaggier than either Jewison or Almodovar demonstrated, the zippy energy expected of screwball comedies traded in for the appeal of the various characters and their respective performances. Luckily for Kasdan, he's assembled a surplus of talent to keep the picture going even when the proceedings threaten to peter out.

Opposite the physically robust and carefully caricatured Kline, the equally talented Tracey Ullman opts for a warmer characterization of the cuckolded Rosalie. It's a valiantly humanized effort on her part, as there's nothing particularly funny about the epiphany Rosalie experiences while stopping at the library and her subsequent breakdown in a restroom. She's also an effective median given that Ullman is flanked by the loud presences of clown Kline and joker Joan, and not just in a particularly funny bilingual argument between Joey and Nadja during a public dinner.

Ullman's dedicated personification teases out the black comedy with ease. As scorned as she is, she hopelessly loves Joey enough to opt for a painless way out for her paramour.

Joan Plowright, meanwhile, lives up to her surname as Rosalie's mom, a feisty crone who just has to listen to Johnny Mathis when asked to put on a record to drown out a gunshot and inaugurates the first attempted hit on Joey with a family friend, paying him in cookies and speaking like the Serbian Marla Brando. The favor is accepted by the reluctant assassin, who bumbles into Joey's backyard with a baseball bat and ill-fitting Abe Lincoln mask and just as swiftly chickens out.

Just as inept in their services are Devo, too sensitive to fire a pistol despite having a brother in the Marines, and the supposed pros he hires to finish the job, lowlife cousins Harlan and Marlon James. While River Phoenix is comically spacey as Devo, William Hurt (another of Kasdan's good luck charms) and Keanu Reeves go even farther out there as the druggie James boys, dimwitted and amusingly unkempt casualties of their respective generations. Their banter is marked with pregnant pauses, slow-on-the-uptake realizations and general imbecility. They can't even locate Joey's heart without remembering, and then butchering, the Pledge of Allegiance.

Even Miriam Margolyes, who as Mama Boca arrives late in the game to beat Joey into shame, makes her single minute onscreen an uproarious delight.

The combined talents of this ensemble, all of whom are precise players (even Keanu Reeves, who is as smart being stupid here as Ted Logan), works strange magic onto the screenplay, which draws out the madcap murder games like it was simmering a pot full of spaghetti sauce to a roiling bubble, with Kline stumbling in as flesh-and-blood punchline. It's not particularly accommodating to certain character motivations, and the somnolent pacing isn't rewarded by much of a finale, which departs drastically from the facts of the Toto case for a rousing reconciliation.

And yet Kline remains sublime even when Joey is dosed with two bottles of barbiturates and takes a bullet clear through his chest. It just makes him all the more genial, in a bizarre way, as he offers Harlan & Marlon cheese and crackers with a pale, bleary face. Even when his Italian accent is laid on so thick that you'd expect him to suggest breadsticks, Kline is a physical marvel throughout the movie. Just the way he acts with his hinder is enough to put Jim Carrey to shame.

Kasdan and Kostmayer go lax with the pacing in ways that grossly simplify what should have been a crackerjack comedy of unreliable manners, their conclusion aiming too hard at achieving audience goodwill. If you don't get as much of a kick out of Hurt and Reeves like I do, their shenanigans will slow the procession down even as Ullman's and Plowright's energies barrel on. I Love You to Death has a piping hot ensemble yet a curiously undercooked slab of dough supporting them. Still, it got zestier laughs out of me than most of the retro comedies I've endured, so maybe it will come full circle in the future. Mama Nadja says it best: “I like you once. Maybe someday I like you again."


Private School


PRIVATE SCHOOL
(R, Universal Pictures, 89 mins., theatrical release date: July 29, 1983)

In my review of Mischief, a passing reference was made to a movie called Private School. For some godforsaken reason, I chose to revisit it in the hopes that I didn't have to use a two-word review that could sum up whatever appeal the movie had, which in '80s teen sex comedies tend to be as flimsy as the women's garments. And now I feel safe in dispatching this one with my original blunt, no-frills description:

Privates, Cool!

Thanks for your time, I'll be here all week. Don't forget to tip the concierge and happy trails.

Maybe Mischief really was a passion project for Noel Black, because nothing in Privates, Cool...I'm sorry, Private School indicates a genuine filmmaking effort from all involved. Based on what I read in old newspaper clippings, this isn't even Noel Black's baby at all. Instead, you can place/blame whatever auteur tendencies are to be gleaned on the producer, Tel Aviv-born R. Ben Efraim. After making a mint on Private Lessons, this one-man Golan-Globus wannabe reportedly market-researched the hell out of his follow-up, going so far as to cater to "live teenage audiences" directly. To quote Universal Pictures' press kit, as relayed by Skip Sheffield of the Boca Raton News, Efraim deployed "the most sophisticated principles of testing and evaluation in all phases of production."

Yeah, right. Fancy terms for condescension aren't endearing to me even if I want nothing more than a 50-minute sizzle reel of T&A padded out for box-office legitimacy. Hardbodies had more of a sense of humor in its advertising blitz than this, not to mention better dialogue and direction.

For all I know, the motherfucker who produced Mitchell may as well have been influenced by his fellow Israelis when Lemon Popsicle was breaking big in Hebrew Land, which of course led to The Last American Virgin. Private School is a retread of that low landmark rather than the Sylvia Kristel-is-My Tutor antics of Efraim's previous smash, only without the clinical attention paid to the act of intercourse, not to mention the subsequent abortion and betrayal. Efraim apparently willed into being a transparent ogling party, and based on the high volume of female flesh on show, I doubt he reached out to adolescent girls one whit.

All you need to know about Efraim's legitimacy can be summed up by his three most outstanding credits which followed: Private Resort, Private Lessons 2, Private Lessons: Another Story. I'm sure a scientific cross-section of Skinemax viewers helped him fulfill that potential.

The only thing Privates...Private School has going for it is song which heralds the opening credits, Harry Nilsson's "You're Breaking My Heart." Ten years prior, the rakish iconoclast who popularized such couplets as "Everybody's talkin' at me/I don't hear a word they're sayin,'" "I can't live/If living is without you" and "You put de lime in de coconut/You drank 'em bot' up" reacted to romantic disappointment in a decidedly profane yet pithy act of subversion, with George Harrison's slide guitar egging him on. Such a gloriously rude anthem makes an ideal choice to kick off some Animal House-worthy antics, but Private School never proves as inspired as that one solitary musical cue.

(Rick Springfield, The Stray Cats, Bow Wow Wow, Trio, and Vanity 6 are the other name attractions on the soundtrack, with Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs' "Li'l Red Riding Hood" the sole oldie.)

Instead, we get a trite series of conflicts between boys and girls, young and old, all of them tedious louts. The female students of Cherryvale Academy defy their repressed headmistress, get peeped at by the male students of Freemount Academy and everyone unites for a PTA pool party where a limousine loudspeaker broadcasts some salacious distraction. Alleged scribes Dan Greenburg & Suzanne O'Malley rehash way too many exhausted clichés under the pompous notion of "fun" (the one hurdle these prurient '80s teen romps constantly trip over). The imbecilic anarchy unwittingly becomes its own form of fascism.

There's a sex education class presided over by a listless Sylvia Kristel, whose juvenile name is the only designation of any laughter, not that it delivers. There's Ray Walston making a fool of himself in ways Amy Heckerling deigned not to do. There's the unbilled Martin Mull as a jabbering drugstore clerk who complicates a routine over-the-counter request for condoms (they were available on the shelves in the early '80s, for Christ's sake!). There's lanky Matthew Modine as Jim in love with Phoebe Cates' Christine, plotting out a romantic weekend of virginal conjugation (Cates gets to play innocent and sing, but her presence is just another bust). And, of course, there's Betsy Russell as Jordan, the class exhibitionist out to wreck things for the happy couple when she's not being pestered by Jim's buddy, Bubba (Michael Zorek), who appears to be hitting it off nicely with Christine's rebellious friend Betsy (Kathleen Wilhoite) whenever he's not sating his excruciating voyeurism.

Yes, the spank-tacular sight of Betsy Russell on horseback with her blouse open is meant to be an act of sabotage, an attempt to lure Jim all for herself with those teacup nipples. But what to make of a scene later when Jordan corners loverboy himself after he turns up as part of a drag-dressing stunt with Bubba and dork Roy (Jonathan Prince)? Vamping and undressing and raising the thermostat to drive him crazy, you'd think she'd make the most of what would appear to be having Jim delivered on a silver platter. Nah, it never gets amusingly bitchy or erotic, just leery and lame. Jordan's a dim bimbo in such a constant state of undress that when she's supposed to be truly humiliated, it never registers.

Good for sales of Vaseline, though!

Porky's and Mischief sure look like perfect 10s compared to the mindless, endless, useless peek-a-boo of Privates, Cool. Flunk this shit.


Monday, May 8, 2017

Netflix and Chill...of the Future! The Return of MST3k, Part 2


Huzzah again!

The first couple episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return sold me on the strength of Jonah Ray's captive Everynerd, the quirkiness of their featured movies and the rat-a-tat barrage of riffs courtesy of the new writing team. I forgot to mention the overhauled movie sign countdown, which includes bedroom and maintenance rooms, as well as the fact that Joel "Movie in the Hole" Hodgson himself plays the keeper of the liquid media Kinga Forrester has patented, Kingachrome. But enough about those, here are my impressions of Episodes 200(!) and 201, which are, respectively, another quirky sci-fi project from the 1960s and a star-studded nadir of the disaster movie genre from the 1970s. 

EPISODE 3: THE TIME TRAVELERS

Brief plot synopsis: A trio of scientists at a university, as well as a gawky lackey, are stranded in a post-apocalyptic future after stepping through a time portal. Evading hostile mutant troglodytes, they end up in an underground bunker populated by a few remaining humans and their troop of androids. But the chances of survival for both factions start to dwindle.

Ib Melchior may have gotten the shaft more than once in his career. His name was on the screenplay for Reptilicus, but that was primarily a bad experience for Sidney Pink. Melchior, meanwhile, once wrote a screenplay called "Space Family Robinson" which Irwin Allen nicked without accrediting and turned into the beloved Lost in Space TV series. Yes, the very program which inspired Joel Hodgson's surname during his tenure on MST3k was the brainchild of Mr. Melchior, and he essentially got screwed out of the show's legacy. And from what I've heard, FX artist David Hewitt made 1967's Journey to the Center of Time specifically to film his own version of Melchior's The Time Travelers, whose story he co-wrote.

Besides giving Allen another opportunistic "brainstorm" (cf: The Time Tunnel), Hewitt also incorporated footage from Melchior's The Time Travelers into his later film, as well as another title familiar to MST3k history: 1952's non-Chuck Norris vehicle Invasion U.S.A. Melchior took all these plagiarisms in stride to continue making a living, but time has vindicated him as being a talent of some merit. 

The Time Travelers is most beloved for the way it ends, its team of present-day scientists having returned home after a disastrous trip 107 years into the future only to find their options terminally limited. As the movie opens, they inadvertently full-power their way into not just conjuring up images of the world-to-be, but also stepping into this impending alternate Earth. This revelation is discovered by the odd man out among the techies, wisecracking nebbish Danny McKee (Steve Franken), who has been sent by his superiors at the front office to cut off their juice box. Dr. Erik von Steiner (Preston Foster), Steve Connors (Philip Carey) and Carol White (Merry Anders) follow Danny, but the warp is unstable and implodes, thus setting up the conflict between them and the occupants of this radiated future world, which apparently includes Devo in their "Freedom of Choice" make-up.

No, those are the robots. Must be Kraftwerk instead.

The music-based riffs here skew more contemporary hipster than old MST3k, which loved name-dropping Tom Waits and The Replacements as well. Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, Electric Six, Joanna Newsom, and EDM in general all get brought up for chuckles, and the TV/movie references are also up-to-date, the most esoteric being 1986's Heavy Metal Parking Lot. Crow imagines Carol being transformed into "a Furiosa-style killing machine" out of Mad Max: Fury Road. Jonah looks at the static-flickering window of time and thinks out loud "Tim & Eric got really abstract." There are also hilarious references to more old-school geek pleasures like Planet of the Apes, Super Mario Bros., Star Wars, and Looney Tunes. 

The Time Travelers, with its 2071 chic augmented by lumichord-scored rec rooms and horizontally correct, upright tanning booths (the latter drives Crow & hover-skirted Servo mad with lust), actually does have a decent production design worthy of vintage Star Trek. The first part of the movie has solid pacing, and a great introduction to the bunker council presided by Dr. Varno (veteran John Hoyt, here looking like the lovechild of Rutger Hauer and Susan Powter as Crow puts it). We learn that the possibility of a new solar system supports human life in the presence of extra-distant planet Alpha Centauri Four. The point when Danny takes the tour of the android-building facilities and falls for eyeball handler Reena (Delores Wells, Playmate of the Month, June 1960) puts a wrinkle in the space-time flow, as do the exposition and vignette-based content which follows.

Thankfully, it does yield some priceless back-and-forth between Jonah and Tom Servo, who is not only unimpressed with the in-camera trick of a detached 'droid head but also indignant at the belief that damaged parts are reconstituted as flower pots for Goodwill. Crow mostly uses it as a chance for a Jim J. Bullock-style Anthony Daniels impersonation, but he comes up with the best new term for a cyborg's pubic region. The many sardonic jokes lobbed at Danny's expense improve upon the appearance of the bumbling Petersen from Reptilicus, especially when a sentient robo-hand latches onto Danny's hinder. Just as potent are the potshots taken at Dr. Varno and his "vacillating sexuality."

Host segments include a live time portal safety demonstration, Servo & Crow taking a bat to Jonah's various new robotic creations and head writer Elliott Kalan & Joel Hodgson playing intergalactic Butabi brothers who turn up on rocket #9. Also, watch for Tom Servo's observation of Forrest J. Ackerman, which isn't a joke and marks Forry's second appearance in an MST3k experiment besides playing the park victim in Future War.

Even though it can get silly and draggy between the crackerjack opening and the fatalistic finale, The Time Travelers thus far emerges as the most proficient movie this Kickstarted MST3k: The Return has mocked, with echoes of the theatrically-distributed riff on This Island Earth. And between the consistent hilarity of the jokes, which take off into delirious sub-textual tangents, and between-movie sketches ("We're scientifically testing the limits of physical pleasure"), I have to say MST3k: The Return keeps getting better with each episode. I'll let Kinga Forrester have her 200th episode "legacy dollars."

(I also just realized that Gypsy's puppeteer is Tim Blaney, of all people, whom you may recognize as the voices of both Johnny Five and Frank the Pug. More input coming up.) 


EPISODE 4: AVALANCHE

Brief plot synopsis: Rock Hudson and Mia Farrow do the McClane-Gennero tango, only instead of a terrorist takeover of Nakatomi Plaza, a massive landslide of snow descends upon Rock's posh resort. With Robert Forster as the photographer whose premonitions go unheeded, Jeanette Nolan as Rock's dotty mother Caroline and...Danny from the last movie! NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!

Damn it, Steve Franken! I guess this really isn't an Irwin Allen movie, after all. This film's director, Corey Allen, is of no relation to the mogul of all-star destruction behind The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. If Corey Allen is remembered for one thing, it's as Jimmy Dean's chicken race foe from Rebel Without a Cause. Instead, Roger Corman produced this, a pricey flop for his New World Pictures even after being scaled down from its initial budget of $6.5 million. Despite Allen's previous job for Roger directing Thunder and Lightning, it was the upstart team of Joe Dante and John Sayles who got all the glory when Piranha outperformed Avalanche within the same month.

This, of course, led to Alligator, which was a better use of Robert Forster than Avalanche is, even if there was no Mia Farrow for him to seduce.

Although the first three episodes of MST3k: The Return restore Joel Hodgson's simple charms, Avalanche harkens back to one of the very best elements the of the entire Mike Nelson era: the closing credits riff-a-palooza. Remember the chick flick insult contest between Mike and Crow during Alien from L.A.? The pop song powwow which capped Werewolf? The bots' elaborate coda of humiliation and alcoholism which picks up where Soultaker left off?

Avalanche seizes upon that tradition with gusto, although I'm not referring to the actual final moments in the theater. The new MST3k team abandons ship once the end credits begin rolling, which is disappointing given how Cry Wilderness goes out on an inspirational C&W ballad as ripe for disassembly as the boogie rock theme from that other Joe Don Baker classic, Final Justice ("Pass the gravy now!"). Jonah and the bots brainstorm several TripAdvisor reviews in the last stretch, which is good as far as it goes, but it's a host segment 65 minutes into the episode which perked me up considerably and reminded me of those classic Mike Nelson credit cookies.

Jonah, Crow and Servo decide to poke overdue fun at the trend of "hybrid B-movies," that peculiar breed of Asylum productions which combine natural disasters like shark attacks and tornadoes to peddle "deliberately stupid junk disguised as sincere, heartfelt junk." The kind of movies which curry Twitter favor by stunt casting scores of mostly has-been pop icons, a trick no more sophisticated than the Friedberg/Seltzer "parody" mold of association-over-satire. Even RiffTrax has fallen for them on more than one occasion, never once discriminating between Sharktopus vs. Pteracuda and, say, Godzilla vs. Megalon.

The Satellite of Love won't get fooled again. Jonah and pals decide to copyright as many possible hybrid movies as they can, from Snowcano and Volcanosaurus Rex to Mecha Flood vs. Clone Snake. Pushing the joke even further out there, Kinga and Max smell conspiracy on Jonah's end ("He must have hacked our video plumbing!") and try to come up with some of their own to save their profiteering posteriors. 

Avalanche also contains the first musical number since Jonah's Kaiju Rap from Reptilicus, with Felicia Day, Patton Oswalt and special guest N-i- -at-ic- Ha--is (would you like to solve the puzzle?) bridging the gap between long-distance love ballad and unrequited torch song, the latter given to Oswalt, who shines in this episode more than he does in the previous episodes. He truly lives up to Max's would-be name of "TV's Son of TV's Frank," from his excitable reaction to the bots' Mad Men re-enactment to the way he belabors a joke during the Mads' contribution to the invention exchange, the Don LaFont-aine 3000.

There's really nothing worth discussing about Avalanche in itself besides the fact that star attractions Rock Hudson and Mia Farrow are curiously uncharismatic leads, that the supporting players are basically more of an unfortunate inspiration for the Roland Emmerich movies to come (there's both a skiing and an ice-skating contest to contend with) and you can tell that Corman slashed the budget down to $1.7 million whenever the unconvincing catastrophe of the title arrives. Also for an MST3k episode, the language is considerably racier and the Shadowrama comes into shrewd use during some brief nudity (remember the umbrella gag from City Limits?).

Among the choice riffs include another callback, this time to Sidehackers, in the non sequiturs Jonah and friends lob as play-by-play commentary during a nervous figure skater's (Peggy Browne) fleeting moment of glory before the avalanche. You can bet there's a Better Off Dead reference thrown in the mix, too. A disco dinner party ("It's like a '70s kitchen got up and danced!") is ripe for wisecracks from the Baked Alaskas on down to the suggestive banter. And it all wraps up in another showcase for the SOL's resident femme bot, a la "Gypsy Rose Me," named after one of Jeannette Nolan's catchphrases from the movie.

So with four episodes down, I have to say that The Time Travelers is my favorite thus far, although the other three have plenty of inspired and delirious moments to keep them above average. I'll be digging into the first appearance of Caroline Munro in the next rundown, real rocket fuel for this Santa Claus, and also along the way we'll get a medieval fantasy that's like The Final Sacrifice at the Ren Fair, a bizarre "family film" from another infamous B-mogul, a long-awaited Christmas episode, and the bittersweet season finale. Until then...


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Lords of Discipline




THE LORDS OF DISCIPLINE
(R, Paramount Pictures, 102 mins., theatrical release date: Feb. 18, 1983)


Donald "Pat" Conroy passed away last year, leaving behind a beloved literary back catalog which was reliable for prestige filmic adaptations (The Great Santini, The Prince of Tides). This year, Bill Paxton died far younger, his colorful legacy as a character actor including such nostalgic totem poles like Aliens, Weird Science, Twister, and my personal favorite, Near Dark. And here I am to talk about the movie version of Conroy's 1980 novel The Lords of Discipline, with Paxton in a supporting role. I would like to take a moment before this review to honor both men.

Pat Conroy's second fictional tome and subsequent film version continues a theme of The Great Santini, that of achieving manhood in the face of brutal tradition and Deep South dysfunction. Whereas Santini was inspired by the familial ties that bind, specifically the strained relationship between Conroy and his father Donald Sr. (a decorated veteran of Korean War whose Marine pride morphed into a bleak form of paternal torture), The Lords of Discipline focused on Conroy's schooling at Charleston, SC's military academy The Citadel.

For this particular translation, screenwriters Thomas Pope and Lloyd Fonvielle seize upon the senior year shame Conroy had based upon the knowledge of corrupt power plays involving senior cadets which began in 1907 at a renowned military college. The Lords of Discipline takes celluloid form as a conspiracy-based thriller about a form of intramural horror which takes idealistic would-be soldiers and intimidates them into lifelong trauma at best.

Ben Meecham of Santini sought to overcome a form of generational cruelty, whereas Will McLean tries to persevere faced with institutionalized savagery. David Keith aces the lead role of Will following supporting work in The Great Santini, in which he played the racist tormentor Red, as well as An Officer and a Gentleman. The scene is 1964 at the Carolina Military Institute, where English major Will arrives for his graduate year in good-humored style, reuniting with his three roommates and close friends. One of them, Tradd (Mitchell Lichtenstein), is an effete yet cultured confidante who trusts Will enough to give him a spare key to his family mansion and an anytime welcome. Another is Pignetti (Rick Rossovich), a bull-necked bruiser who's a real puppy dog on the inside, making a grand entrance by roughing up one freshman "knob" for the sin of talking vulgar about his sweetheart Teresa, and right to her framed photograph.

Will also meets again with his salty but dignified mentor Col. "Bear" Berrineau (Robert Prosky), who is still molding the military brat by assigning Will a debt-repaying operation he is hesitant to accept. Turns out a stringy African-American boy named Pearce (Mark Breland) has damned the color lines and arrived at the Institute, which is bound to shake up the hornet's nest among the student body. Bear entrusts Will, who refuses to fall in line with the rigorous abuse of his peers even on Hell Night, to ensure Pearce is given a fair shake as a knob, running interference if necessary.

What Will soon discovers is that a Klan-like cabal of roughnecks known mythically as "The Ten" are plotting to drive Pearce out of the academy by any means necessary, be it bodily harm or even murder. And if he's to take a stand, chances are it means questioning his loyalty to the brass ring on both his finger as well as that which is in command of the school. 

The Lords of Discipline bears the liberal-minded hallmarks of an Alan Parker melodrama (Mississippi Burning, Midnight Express), but the director here is fellow Brit Franc Roddam, who made a simplistically affecting coming-of-age tale out of Pete Townshend's rock opera Quadrophenia. Working with both an American cast and subject matter (although filmed in Brighton because no U.S. school was flattered by the location scouting), there is an outsider's sense of sensationalism which stands in stark comparison to the rawer slice-of-life elements in Quadrophenia.

For the first half, Roddam actually excels in depicting the testosterone-mad atmosphere of dominance which is a military academy. The film opens with one solitary freshman (Matt "Max Headroom" Frewer) running toward the quad and getting berated by three of the most unctuous student taskmasters in the senior class, among them future space grunts Michael Biehn as Alexander and "Wild" Bill Paxton himself (that's seriously how he's credited here) as Gilbreath. These same junior martinets later force Pearce to do pull-ups whilst training a sword at his scrotum (all bids are closed at that point as to who at least half of The Ten really are). In between these are some well-acted and colorfully-written camaraderie between Will and his more even-minded if prejudiced roomies, the background a symphony of drill sergeants operating the ringers.

The story that develops inevitably requires Will to confront not just The Ten, but also the complacency and callousness of his friends and teachers. On the one end is Col. Berrineau, who owns up to his virulent racism but in no uncertain terms keeps faithful to the code of honor in which all men are equal in the need for defending America. Less tolerant than even the Bear is boyish Tradd, who plays Mozart in his study to the consternation of his manlier-than-thou father, but who speaks in the haughty, bigoted tones of a plantation owner. Even after The Ten drives a white student, a frail butterball named Poteete (Malcolm Danare), to suicide, Tradd shrugs off the tragedy with the indifference of a Southern Belle out to lunch.

Poteete's shell-shocked demise is even glossed over by the headmaster, Gen. Durrell (G.D. Spradlin), as an accident during "parachute descent" exercises. The senior class and their commandants turn up with candles outside the door of Poteete's parents and ease their grief with a rousing choral rendition of "Dixieland," all the while the victimized Pearce lays in his bunker without as much hope for peace as his dead roommate.

Will convinces Tradd, Pignetti and paisan pal Santoro (John Lavachielli) to help him get to the bottom of things, which places a strain on their close-quarters friendship. But once Will witnesses the awful truth for himself about "the hole" (The Ten's secretive house of pain), the insularity of the environment suddenly chokes the narrative and compounds logistical flaws in a hamfisted attempt to sanctify a battle between white knights and black masks. Even though the shameful developments continue in Will's pursuit of justice, they don't really bear the gravitational weight of one student's loss and another's silent suffering, never mind acknowledging any kind of wider world outside the barracks.

Chalk it up to simple-minded screenwriting misconduct on the part of Pope & Fonvielle, because Franc Roddam at least tries to make the proceedings as urgent and unsettling as he possibly can. He knows how to capture eerie dichotomies, like when Pearce confides to Will within shouting distance of their enemies in the church, lifting his shirt to reveal the numbers "1-0" carved into his back. The performances he coaxes from David Keith, Rick Rossovich and Robert Prosky in particular are grounded above and beyond the call of duty, alleviating the hysteria with some badly-needed humor (a sidelined Judge Reinhold also makes a likeable wiseass as Macabbee). Mark Breland and Malcolm Danare suffer well as the whipping boys, whilst Mitchell Lichtenstein, Michael Biehn and Bill Paxton do the Gestapo routine with gusto, although Lichtenstein's Tradd is betrayed by the script to be a whiny turncoat instead of a genuinely conflicted insider.

In terms of cast and filmmaker, The Lords of Discipline never accrues enough demerits to merit the dreaded Walk of Shame one of Will's friends has to endure. Still, this amiably disturbing if unbalanced period piece never fires off all of its 21 guns.

Finally, seven trivial thoughts in the wake of my first screening:

1) Judge Reinhold, fresh off Fast Times at Ridgemont High, makes for one all-American booger ("I always knew you were corn-holing your roommate, you little pissant!"). Funny seeing him and Paxton together knowing they both were called into active duty in the wartime video for Pat Benatar's "Shadows of the Night." I still recommend Vice Versa, screw whatever the man who made Yoga Hosers has to say.

2) Biehn, Paxton and Rossovich would regularly work together again in various groupings. The trio would reunite in The Terminator and Navy Seals, whereas the six-time team of Paxton & Rossovich tie into my Diane Franklin retrospective by virtue of Deadly Lessons, the TV movie released in the same year as The Lords of Discipline.

3) Malcolm Danare is kind of an unsung hero among chubby 1980s personalities, even more so than Joe Rubbo. Danare played a literal heavy in Christine from '83 (with Robert Prosky, who also later starred in Gremlins 2), and even had a minor role in the blockbuster Flashdance, but gave his best performance as the know-it-all Caesar in the hidden gem Heaven Help Us a couple years later. He must have gotten along well with David Keith, who remembered Danare for his directorial debut with The Curse (1987), where Danare played Wil Wheaton's wicked stepbrother.

4) According to his IMDb bio, Rossovich is "considered one of the nicest people to work with, and a devoted family man." I'll miss him eventually as much as I do Paxton, if that's any indication, as well as for his role opposite Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah in Roxanne. Watch out for him in Top Gun and Streets of Fire.

5) Mitchell "Tradd" Lichtenstein went on to play a closeted Vietnam soldier in Robert Altman's filmed play of Streamers, co-starring Matthew Modine and David Alan Grier. In 2007, he made like a lot of frustrated actors and crossed over into writing/directing with the vagina dentata goof Teeth. He also directed Parker Posey, Demi Moore and Ellen Barkin in 2009's less-acclaimed Happy Tears. Still more imaginative and provocative than Steven Antin.

6) Mark Breland is of course known as the former World Welterweight Champion with five Golden Gloves and a great pro boxer record of 35-3-1, including 25 knock-out victories. He rolls with the punches as Pearce, but I think he could take out his white co-stars flawlessly, even Gilbreath and Pignetti.

7) Franc Roddam's mainstream career took a sharp nosedive in 1985 after he reteamed with Gordon "Ace Face" Sumner and one of the writers of the Lords of Discipline script for The Bride (Sting, Stangk, Stunk!). In the aftermath of the overlooked War Party and the pretty vacant K2 (with Michael Biehn in the lead), he's now content with a long career as writer for the Masterchef TV franchise. At least I'll always have the Criterion release of Quadrophenia to remind me of his (and Sting's) former glory.