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."


Thursday, December 24, 2015

Cannon Fodder: Invasion U.S.A. (1985)

(R, Cannon Films, 107 mins., theatrical release date: September 27, 1985)

Jesus may have died for our sins, but that's only because nobody yet has considered Chuck Norris for the role.

It's Cannon Fodder, the Christmas edition! And what better way to get holly, jolly horrible than with everyone's favorite yuletide-themed Golan-Globus production...next to Cobra? I think that one was loosely related to December 25, what with that Toys R Us commercial in the background as Cobretti polished his guns.

Look, they can't all be Die Hard or Lethal Weapon, and that's especially true of Invasion U.S.A.

The world clearly needed a hero in 1985, as Sylvester Stallone proved when both John Rambo and Rocky Balboa, once-relatable men, were put on a pedestal and became Saviors of the American Way. But these lone wolves weren't alone. The final quarter of that year blitzed the screens with one-man armies competing for the SAW throne. Arnold Schwarzenegger made a splash or sixty as John Matrix, Commando, in the process introducing his onscreen persona of the wisecracking war machine. Even if you did have a sense of humor, there was no guarantee he would kill you last. Arnie would have the last laugh as you plummeted to your death: "I let him go," he'd say in passing. Truly the jester of this new league of Knights of the Round Table.

Menahem & Yoram carved themselves multiple slices of beefcake in 1985. There was Michael Dudikoff, the American Ninja, to supplant Timothy Van Patten as the pretty boy practitioner of ninjitsu. Richard Chamberlain was our poor population's equivalent of Harrison Ford, swish-buckling his way through the legendary character of Allan Quatermain. And hanging on, as expected, were Cannon's biggest if not brightest stars: Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris, with Death Wish 3 and Missing in Action 2: The Beginning.

But Rocky IV, Commando and Death Wish 3, distributed in conveyor-belt succession during those later months of 1985, all had to follow one of the toughest acts in the history of show business.

"Fuckin' Chuck Norris."

Sorry, Mr. Freeze, but the Ice Age didn't kill the dinosaurs. Chuck Norris did. The Earth only rotates whenever Chuck Norris goes for a jog. Don't be lulled by the beard, because that's where all of the world's supply of nuclear warheads are hidden. And his mustache is more lethal than a shuriken star. They can't even name a street in his honor, because nobody crosses Chuck Norris and lives.

I remember the South Park movie's musical tribute to Brian Boitano as the precursor to the Chuck Norris Facts meme we know today. You know, fan fiction isn't my hobby, but I would love to see a showdown between Chuck Norris and "Bazooka Duke" Phillips from The Critic. Between Chuck's roundhouse kick and Duke's Tomahawk chop, ISIS will be destroyed faster than Rome.

But Chuck Norris didn't become a demigod by accident. He needed the 1980s to gather all the munitions necessary for pop culture supremacy, and in Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, Chuck found his arms dealers. One of the problems with Mark Hartley's Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (and there are problems, Tomatometer be damned) is that everyone's too laughably sincere that Invasion U.S.A. was a pivotal depiction of terrorism on screen. They don't crack a single Chuck Norris Fact, instead trying to legitimize what was simply Chuck Norris' Red Dawn. Such meat and potatoes doesn't need the lumpy gravy.

Invasion U.S.A. exists, regardless, in all its ultra-violent, ultra-patriotic glory as a Doomsday escapist fantasy in which Chuck out-Swayzes Patrick Swayze. It's hard to believe that in the same year, Chuck once tempted credibility with Code of Silence, which grounded Norris in a plausible Chicago environment ravaged by corruption and gang warfare. It delivered a classic fight scene atop a speeding train, boasted several complicated supporting characters and was held together by assured direction from Andrew (Under Siege) Davis.

Code of Silence, alas, has nothing to do with Cannon Films, coming across as a mercenary project in hindsight. Invasion U.S.A. is a demolitionist's funfair, in which Chuck Norris seems to have been operated via crank like a toy soldier, although this particular Nutcracker Suite is conducted with duel UZIs in the place of drumsticks.

What sets Chuck's Matt Hunter (not to be confused with Dudikoff's Matt Hunter from Cannon's later Avenging Force), a retired government operative enjoying the good life in the Florida Everglades, on his Million-in-One-Man March is the return of an archenemy from his past: Mikhail Rostov (Richard Lynch). This is a man Matt was once ordered not to kill by the bureaucrats, but who has now commanded a militia and butchered a boat full of Cubans to acquire a stashed cache of drugs he has now traded in for weapons and transportation. The way Rostov sees it, Americans have become so complacent and decadent that their freedom deserves to be blown up in their face, or better for them to be blown with it.

So in a scene which blatantly reminds you that its director used to work in the slasher genre before Missing in Action changed his fortunes, Rostov's invaders storm the beach at Miami to instigate his plans of an imploding democracy (they shout out random destinations yet never manage to cross the Georgia line). They ship out in rented trucks, black cars and various disguises, all armed to the teeth, and proceed to create bedlam by blasting away at every atypical U.S. environment they can find, from split-level suburban neighborhoods to Latino-populated block parties to a mall filled with Christmas shoppers. Because several of Rostov's men appear as cops and troops, these crimes incite riots and turn the citizens against the authorities.

Luckily, Hunter survives an attempt on his life by Rostov prior to the carnage and is ready to blast these invaders to Mars.

Invasion U.S.A. makes literal many of the most beloved Chuck Norris jokes we've cracked over the years, even making one of them a plot point. Rostov IS the boogeyman who checks his closet for Chuck Norris. This Commie cretin is reduced to Tony Montana levels of bottomed-out paranoia by Hunter's repeated foiling of his terrorist schemes. One of the more hilarious instances of the "Only a Dream" trope involves Rostov plotting to demolish an ambassador's meeting only for Hunter to execute him, muttering with graven menace "It's time to die."

This thread and many others, not to mention the heroically over-baked action sequences, serve to demonstrate that Invasion U.S.A. is a prime example of the decade's rampant ego-stroking. James Cameron notoriously distanced himself from the politics of Rambo: First Blood Part II, and Stallone's subsequent vehicles Rocky IV and Cobra were also, as much as Invasion U.S.A., reactionary to the point of high camp. With Chuck Norris as a credited screenwriter, not to mention brother Aaron sharing story credit, Invasion U.S.A. is another film where you laugh just to keep from cringing at the right-handed masturbation which dominates the half-cocked proceedings.

So what you get with Invasion U.S.A. is particular sour comic book cruelty where innocent tots placing angels atop a pine tree, young lovers re-enacting From Here to Eternity and hordes of other archetypes are sacrificed with fetish so that we are ready for Chuck to save the day. The viewer breathes a sigh of relief when a church and school bus are spared by Chuck's intervention, which aspires to Bugs Bunny's puckish dastardliness but is too leaden to break Freleng.

And since the country's own armed forces, as well as their press, are incompetents who can't be bothered, this is Chuck Norris' victory and his alone, even during the overpopulated showdown replete with death by rocket launcher. Invasion U.S.A. is Death Wish 3 without the generosity of spirit.

Of all these thankless bit parts, the one that truly stands out in the worst way is newswoman McGuire, acted out by Melissa Prophet in one of those rare abysmal performances which the Golden Raspberry committee inexplicably passed over (really, why pick on Talia Shire?). I suppose Prophet's ball-busting petulance is meant to convey "pluck," but all I could see was Margot Kidder bled of any and all charm. McGuire is a work of harebrained art: she appears at crime scenes taking random photographs which serve no investigative purpose, but still castigates everyone in her company. She even throws bratty obscenities and trash can lid at Hunter after he rescues her.

All the while, Hunter goes about inquiring for Rostov's whereabouts (the dictator frequently hangs back in beer commercial luxury), stopping at a bar/brothel in the proverbial "Wrong Side of Town" to rough up one of Rostov's easily-distracted lackeys. The single inspired moment of Invasion U.S.A. arrives when Hunter threatens one of the chunky bouncers with ideological bluntness: "I'll hit you with so many rights, you'll be begging for a left!"

Sadly though, unlike my critical comrade Jack Sommersby, I can't quite work up a rage-on for director Joseph Zito (The Prowler, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter). When you get right down to it, he's just another in Cannon's stable of hacks, domestic and imported. This is so aggressively a Chuck Norris project that I wonder if Zito even helmed half the movie. Besides, it could have been much worse: Golan & Globus could have pawned this off to Boaz Davidson.

Invasion U.S.A. is a childish regression for everyone involved, especially when re-watching this after Operation Thunderbolt. The nobility and gravity of that one is dearly missed as trucks race through shopping malls in as sad a testament to testosterone as any other prolonged numbing of both brain and butt. Not even the late Richard Lynch, as iconic a B-movie heavy as Klaus Kinski by virtue of his scarred visage (it's scarier than any Tom Savini gore effect), can dignify this nonsense. 

Chuck Norris will carry on, though. You can throw as many veggies at him as you please, he'll just roundhouse kick them into a delicious garden salad and dress it with an entire bottle of Ichor.


Monday, December 21, 2015

Cannon Fodder: Operation Thunderbolt

(PG, Cinema Shares International, 124 mins., theatrical release date: January 27, 1978)

This entry in Cannon Fodder is going to be quite different from the norm, given the last two movies I reviewed were The Apple and Bolero. Let me explain before I launch into the review proper:

1) This is not going to be a film which was released under the Cannon Films label, but rather one of the pivotal movies which Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus produced before they bought Cannon. Consider this their humble beginnings, if you will.

2) Compared to the vast majority of Cannon's 1980s output, which could only be recommended to connoisseurs of trashy movies, this one actually is stepping upscale. Even with Golan himself directing, this is not going to be another Apple or Enter the Ninja. This is far more substantial due to its subject matter and the fact that it was made in their origin country before their "heyday."

3) Finally, this is one of those scant Golan-Globus productions which was nominated for an Academy Award, here for Best Foreign Language Film. Runaway Train picked up a few major nods (Best Actor, Supporting Actor and Film Editing), and a Dutch movie called The Assault that Cannon distributed in 1986 (Golan-Globus didn't produce it) won BFLF, a category in which Golan was nominated thrice more as producer (1964's Sallah, 1972's I Love You Rosa and 1973's The House on Chelouche Street).

The movie is Operation Thunderbolt (Mivtsa Yonatan), named after the Israeli military's nighttime maneuver which rescued over a hundred of their citizens from a Ugandan airport. The events circa July 4, 1976 were dramatized in two American TV movies released prior, Victory at Entebbe and Raid on Entebbe. Golan's film, however, boasted the support of the Israeli government, with a few in the cabinet making unbilled archival-seeming walk-ons, and Air Force, whose Hercules crafts were prominently displayed. His version was also the only of the Entebbe dramas to incorporate actual troops/captives from the ordeal, as well as weave in existing newsreel footage from on the ground.

What you get here is basically The Delta Force without all the jingoism (well...they left plenty in here, but I'll get to that), ridiculous action and "Airport '86" stunt-casting.

That later Golan film, of course, was loosely based on a recent hijacking crisis. In fact, based on the IMDb trivia page, it may have seemed that The Delta Force was shaping up to be to Operation Thunderbolt what The Last American Virgin is to Lemon Popsicle, retelling the same story but with a contemporary hook catering to Stateside audiences. That didn't exactly happen, blessedly, but The Delta Force hit much of Thunderbolt's beats, regardless, from the sweltering atmosphere of the hostages' dilemma to the victorious ending which involves the overlooked sacrifice of one particular soldier.

This pre-Cannon production also benefits from a gritty docudrama approach to the material, giving the true-life story a natural propulsion without too many questionable leaps in chronology or characterization. A lot of the tension leading up to the raid involves not just the predicament of the endangered Hebrews, but also the decision by the Israeli Prime Minister to forge ahead with the rescue project commandeered by Colonel Yonatan Netanyahu (Yehoram Gaon), the younger brother of future government leader Benjamin. This is one of the rare movies where the main characters don't spring into action mid-film because of the risk assessment and hesitation of the army's superiors. Golan actually creates an urgent mood which suggests he had real talent as a director which he may have taken for granted, or more likely was avalanched by his own crudities.

The plot begins in Athens, Greece via a connecting flight to Paris from Tel Aviv, humanizing the passengers in the simplest possible way as families bid their traveling kin weepy goodbyes. Although, to be honest, I think the only genuine emotion seems to be shown towards a dog named Bobo. The villains, about to board the same Air France jet, concoct a bogus power failure which allows them to smuggle their concealed arms aboard without suspicion. This coalition of Arab and German menaces, who take over the plane twenty minutes after takeoff, are led by Wilfried Böse, played with fanatical charisma by Klaus Kinski.

Kinski would later appear in Cannon's slasher obscurity Schizoid as a seedy therapist whose patients are being systematically butchered with scissors. If you ask me, his ghost also haunts Richard Lynch's performance as Rostov from Invasion U.S.A., but I might save that thought for later. The volatile Kraut performer was known for taking B-roles in non-Herzog trivialities such as these Golan-Globus products, but there's a structure to his performance that the movie fails to level, although Golan and Co. give it their best.

Böse, a self-described "freedom fighter" revolting against West German money being used to covet Palestine, is unusually diplomatic and collected for such a blatant heavy. He only fires his automatic in the air as crowd control (we never see him butcher anybody), tries to avoid profiling when a passenger claims his name is "Cohan" and is less brutish in his methods of interrogation and coercion than his comrades. Kinski is so restrained that he makes his two weakest foils, Sybil Danning and Mark Heath, come off as amateurs.

Danning is relegated to a harsh Ice Queen archetype, glowering behind unflattering, oversized shades. Her performance is so rote, even hard-up camp junkies would do better revisiting Chained Heat or Howling II to get their fix. But at least she doesn't commit as egregious a sin as Heath, who burlesques Idi Amin Dada to the breaking point where he directly invokes Hitler in his vocal inflection. Not even Kinski and Danning stoop that low. Even though I haven't seen either the other two Entebbe films in order to compare their portrayals of Amin (putting the Oscar-validated Forest Whitaker aside, of course), Heath allows both the late Julius Harris and the still-living Yaphet Kotto easy resting.

I truly believe Mark Heath may have cursed Operation Thunderbolt's chances of winning that foreign movie Oscar just as Norbit did for Eddie Murphy's esteemed performance for Dreamgirls.

Even with its honorable intentions, no-frills pacing and grasps at authenticity (an error involving a black Mercedes did blow the soldiers' cover), Operation Thunderbolt labors under the same fatal flaws which have given Golan-Globus movies a uniformly bad name. Firstly, the film is horrendously unsubtle. There are too many indignant references made to the Nazi genocide of WWII within and without Entebbe, and Golan shamelessly zooms in twice upon a concentration camp tattoo. These simply don't wash. Golan dilutes what is meant to be a "political issue" into cheapjack Anti-Semitism by calling repeated attention to another horrifying, shameful event which has nothing to do with the motives of these terrorists.

Not only was the real-life Wilfried Böse indignant about being referred to as a "Nazi," but one of the actual survivors would go on record to rebuke the hostage situation as purely discriminatory against the Jewish people.

Golan does engender a righteous anger in visual terms, and it's hard to deny the torment faced by the Israelis. But the film is dogged by a kind of noble prejudice that is principally no different from anything Cannon made with Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris. Arabs, Ugandans, Germans, and the French are routinely caricatured and mocked for their callousness; meanwhile, Golan takes a moment to show a woman digging for her British passport from between her legs. Such frequent chasms of taste are poison in the movie's heady brew.

Another blow to the movie's painstaking credibility is the unavoidable corniness of the pro-military theme. Jerusalem-born Yehoram Gaon, a multi-media superstar of the Israeli arts, plays the upstanding hero Yonatan as compellingly as the amoral Kinski. You can still tell he's fulfilling a well-worn cliché from the very first moment he interacts with his fiancée. Declaring his allegiance to the Army over his yen for schooling, Yonatan reads Alistair MacLean and quotes JFK before the impending attack. A born leader or so it seems, but Golan doesn't construct a single training montage worthy of Yonatan's intellect, the opening simulation rendered ludicrous through recycled footage of two grunts darting toward the camera and opening fire. All the while, the sweep of Dov Seltzer's Morricone-style theme song is further diminished by the ridiculous sound of a jaw harp.

Put mildly, this is not The Guns of Navarone, which must have made quite an impact on Golan & Globus seeing how they lured J. Lee Thompson, already busted down to exploitation by the dawn of the 1980s, into a workmanlike late career of lurid Charles Bronson swill (10 to Midnight, Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects) and imitation adventure gruel (King Solomon's Mines, Firewalker).

And yet, Operation Thunderbolt is nowhere near as worthless as what one would expect from the Cannon cousins. It's got two solid performances (Gaon and Kinski), lots of palpable hysteria and a rousing, if ultimately somber, re-enactment of the famous raid. The movie earns its ambiguously victorious finale in a way that Lemon Popsicle doesn't, chiefly because there is more scope to the proceedings and color to the characters. Despite its biases and hypocrisies, Menahem Golan, for once in his directing career, has made a movie that is less of a tank and more of an ATV.

Golan would only get stupider and sillier from here, as would his assistant directors Boaz (Going Bananas) Davidson and Sam (Ninja III: The Domination) Firstenberg. It's amazing to think that Cannon were responsible for a halfway-decent movie that didn't involve lowering your standards, especially as I ponder the cosmic karate kick that is my next entry.

I'm talking 100% grade-U.S. of A. Chuck steak, served raw in a minotaur's skull.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Cannon Fodder: Bolero (1984)

(NR, Cannon Films, 105 mins., theatrical release date: August 31, 1984)

[Welcome back to Cannon Fodder, a series devoted to my endurance of a handful of films produced by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, who were Hebrew National yet far from kosher. This is honey-drenched foreplay to precede my review of Mark Hartley's well-received Cannon doco Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films. Last time, I took a willing bite of The Apple, which at least was spirited in its stupidity. All I can say here is that, "This is a low, Bo..."]

In 1984, Cannon Films hooked and crooked their way to an original breakthrough in the film scene, releasing the Breakin' movies to a wide audience and thus getting a pop 'n' lock on the hip-hop/dance vehicle.

Unfortunately, between those youth-oriented highs lay the adults-only Bolero, one of Menahem Golan & Yoram Globus' all-time greatest follies.

In another attempt to profit high by aiming low, our Israeli anti-heroes turned to actor-turned-auteur John Derek and his wife Bo Derek. Not only was Cathleen Collins infamously less than half John's age, but John discovered her as a teenager whilst he was still wed to Linda Evans in the early 1970s. After they wed in mid-decade, Cathleen went by the stage name of "Bo" Derek and was debuting in Orca: The Killer Whale, followed by her iconic role as the mysterious object of desire in Blake Edwards' 10.

The Dereks remained passionate lovers until John's death in 1998, with husband working hard to preserve the sex symbol status of his wife in the pages of Playboy and on the silver screen. Unfortunately, the projects they concocted were transparently opportunistic and incredibly tasteless. 1981's Tarzan, the Ape Man was the first strike, followed mere months later by their eight-years-old, Greece-located pet project Fantasies. 

Bolero was the film which effectively told both John and Bo Derek "You're out!"

That was their fate despite a massive media-hyped controversy over Bolero's distribution and lack of an official MPAA rating. Cannon were producing under the MGM banner for a brief time (the sleeper success of Breakin' was one of the results), but Bolero was bad enough for Frank Yablans to demand a legal escape clause from the studio's contract with Cannon (apparently, it didn't extend to home video distribution). Golan & Globus decided to release it themselves, but John Derek, who was pressured by his producers to make the film more "erotic" than the Dereks already intended, didn't present this film to the MPAA for fear of getting the scarlet X. Instead, Bolero went out unrated, with many theaters having to impose the "no one under 17" rule themselves.

The Dereks and Menahem Golan took blows to each other in the press, with Bo claiming that her private collection of on-set photographs were stolen by the studio and copyrighted as publicity stills. The producers were ashamed of the project so much, they wanted ownership on Mr. & Mrs. Derek's ranch as compensation. Whatever the beef between these clashing egos, Bolero made a quick recoup of its budget after two weeks but then tapered out and stalled at roughly $9 million domestic gross. The film's petering profits as well as its deluge of negative reviews guaranteed a sweep at the coming Golden Raspberries, winning six out of nine nominations.

But time has a way of redeeming even the most abortive artifact of its time, right? 

NO!!! It doesn't!

I was reminded of that when I watched The Apple, and now it's even more applicable to Bolero. To paraphrase a Freudian adage, sometimes a fiasco is just a fiasco.

This dual desecration of Rudolph Valentino and Maurice Ravel's funeral plots replaces the silent film era's unspoken campiness with a deluge of head-slapping exchanges that don't deserve to be printed on old-timey title cards (which John Derek actually does!). And despite being named after the composition which soundtracked Bo's nudity in 10, Ravel is nowhere to be heard, the dishonor going to guest conductor Elmer Bernstein, whose son Peter scored every other piece of music outside of the love scenes. Try as he may, Elmer B. is no better suited to orchestrating endless soft-core set pieces than John Williams is, and the climax (so to speak) visually and sonically conveys "eerie" more than "extasy," which is actually spelled out in neon as a beacon amongst egregiously-used dry ice fog.

A running joke involving this grammatical error is genuinely contrived to endear the viewer to Bo Derek, who I steadfastly refuse to acknowledge even plays a character here. In a vanity project as relentless as Bolero, she isn't virginal young Lida MacGillvery, a supposed bonnie lass with a Yank accent who graduates from an English prep school so she can inherit her father's fortune and put it towards a Euro-peon vacation. There is no plot involving this hormonal vacuum of higher education having saved herself for passionate intercourse with a dark, handsome stranger straight out of a Valentino non-talkie. There are no million barrels of wine, hookahs of opium, underage nudie shots, or castrating bulls.

No, Bolero is Bo and John Derek's celluloid passport to Morocco and Spain, with the most rudimentary attempt at an Emmanuelle sex fantasy to frame it. This is Bo Derek at her most unbearable as she one-ups Olivia Newton-John, who convinced more playing a liberated high school sweetheart in Grease than Derek does here as a wide-eyed ingénue. This is two stuporous scenes of simulated sex buttressed by bad comedy and even worse melodrama. This is, like a lot of Cannon's output, too much of a smug slog to provoke the kind of titters which stick out more than the titties, two of which, need I remind you, belong to a 14-year-old!!

Don't let this "European sensibilities" bullshit justification (I've heard it used to excuse Cannon's Lemon Popsicle movies, and it's flimsier than Bo's costumes) distract from the undisputed truth that Bolero is the pinnacle of pretentious crassness. It is not entertaining, it's certainly not erotic, and it's not even worth 1000 words of cathartic dissertation.

So, Bo Derek as "Mac" has her romantic ideals dashed when the sheik of her fancy (Greg Bensen) turns out to be an Oxford-poet pretty boy who can't hold his smoke and sinks into narcolepsy. Whoop-de-har. Then she locks onto a dreamy rejoneador, Angel (Andrea Occhipinti), who shows mercy by not slaying his charges to the public's disinterest. He doesn't sell toros, but vinos. He's also an in-demand stud, with both a feisty ginger-haired suitor and his "gypsy shadow," Paloma (Olivia d'Abo...14-year-olds, Dude), clamoring for Angel's pene.

"Mac" uses her daddy's trust fund to essentially buy her way into entitled ecstasy...oh, I'm sorry, "extasy." She gets deflowered, we get demeaned. But that's not enough, so Angel has to sever a nerve ending in his nether, giving "Mac" all the motivation to goad Angel back into potency: "Don't take it out on me just because you got cute with a damn bull!"

By film's end, you'll have accrued all the earnest agony needed to wish that wily mammal has made it impossible for these two to procreate for the rest of their lives.

Not even Mark Hartley could condense this movie in such a bite-sized way as to make Bolero any more salvageable.

Never mind the pitiful attention to period details ("As Time Goes By" is played on piano in a casbah: written in 1931; associated with a beloved movie released in 1942; having fuckall to do with the 1920s), the ludicrous tonal shifts (the dejected Sheik hunts down "Mac" and has her kidnapped apropos of nothing, with an equally pathetic resolution) or the fact that Bo comes across as perpetually silly rather than sensuous, even in the over-ballyhooed sex scenes.

What really awards Bolero the all-time booby prize is the writing and direction of John Derek. He was a lecherous photographer masquerading as a legit fillmmaker. There is no evidence in Bolero, in his handling of dialogue, performances and scenery, that John D. could achieve at all the pure whimsy which would've helped make this film even the teensiest bit easier to take. He has no flair for editing, as Bolero boasts many of the single worst transitions, montages and abuses of slow-mo in any major motion picture. He makes his wife come across as glassy-eyed imbecile rather than a living centerfold. He likes to throw in fully naked 14-year-olds for spice (the more age-appropriate Ana Obregon, for the most part, keeps her clothes ON as brunette BFF Catalina, who puts the sniggering make on "Mac's" Scottish attorney). And he makes one want to walk inside the movie not to covet his lusty S.O., but to instead put the valiant George Kennedy, as long-suffering chauffeur Cotton, out of his misery, Old Yeller-style.

Good for George that he gets to woo Angel's maid, though. Maybe we can put him down after his conquest, like Jason Voorhees would. At least he can die with joy and some sliver of dignity. 

Bolero, meanwhile, deserves every disgrace, the epitome of exhibitionism at its most exhausting. I wouldn't even recommend it to the video voyeurs who would be most satisfied from easy access to the money shots.

I don't even want to devote another precious sentence except "Good riddance."

Monday, December 7, 2015

Cannon Fodder: The Apple (1980)

(PG, Cannon Films, 86 mins., theatrical release date: November 21, 1980)

[Welcome to Cannon Fodder, in which I endure a handful of "classics" from the Golan-Globus production team in advance of my review of Mark Hartley's Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films. I will tackle as many different movies from various points in the duo's timeline, from the early success of Operation Thunderbolt to the infamous Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. We begin with one of the early Cannon efforts, and the first of many in the "so bad it's good" legacy they've achieved. "It's an actual, actual, actual desire..."]

I broke down 40 minutes into The Apple, when Barbarella's vocally-deficient kid sister tried to belt a raucous anthem about America's need for "speeeeeeeeeeed." My palate needed cleansing, therefore I went to YouTube and pulled up a popular clip from Teen Witch.

You know what I'm talking about...

"Top That," with its Beastly Boys and pathetic ideal of adolescent cool, is still a better number than anything in The Apple.

I shouldn't have to write a review on The Apple. The comparison should speak for itself, but The Apple is low-hanging fruit in a sequined thong.

Menahem (remember to pronounce it as Mun-Ackum) Golan and Yoram Globus had just bought Cannon Films at this time, and it looks like they wasted few precious moments cementing their legacy as the ghastliest, gaudiest production company to ever schmuck up the cinemas.

The story was originally conceived as an epic Hebrew musical theater production by Coby and Iris Recht. Overhauled by Golan himself as writer/director, The Apple ended up another in the late 1970s spate of opulent disco cash-ins, released the same year as Xanadu and Can't Stop the Music. Disco Demolition Night was a year old by the time The Apple played, and with the exception of Olivia Newton-John's songs from Xanadu, this trio of turkeys drove America further into the arms of AOR. We as a nation went from the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever to Hi Infidelity so capriciously.

Obviously, it didn't help that the premiere screening of The Apple at the El Capitan turned into Comiskey Park 2. Audience members who were given complimentary vinyl versions of the soundtrack album eventually started hurling them at the screen. Menahem Golan was apparently suicidal over the movie's poor reception back in Europe, but recovered soon enough so that the world was given such questionable gifts to film-going as Death Wish II, The Last American Virgin and his own Enter the Ninja.

To quote the main villain of The Apple, "Nostalgia is always dangerous." What better explanation is there for why The (Rotten) Apple has rode such a wave of retroactive awe that it washed up in my shores?

Set a decade after the Orwellian boiling point that was 1984, The Apple pillages from established junk culture in both popular music and movie musicals yet harbors loftier ambitions beyond its cavalcade of gold lamé, vampire teeth and repeated crimes against the earlobe.

In a future where pop music rules society, the 1994 Worldvision Song Contest is the stage for an Old Testament-copped struggle between good vs. evil. The latter is represented by Satanic agent Mr. Boogalow (Vladek Sheybal) and his assistant Shake (Ray Shell, the Meshach Taylor of his era), as well as their hedonistic star singers Dandi & Pandi (Alan Love, Grace Kennedy). Opposing this fey foursome are Alphie & Bibi (George Gilmour, Catherine Mary Stewart), lovey-dovey folkies from Moose Jaw, Canada. After nearly causing an upset which Mr. Boogalow and Shake manage to suppress, these beaten babes are enticed to join Boogalow's circus of glam and ham. Alphie is deterred by apparitions of Eden-style temptation as he tries to sign the contract, but Bibi bites easy and hard, becoming Boogalow's latest protégé and driving Alphie to destitution.

As the mindless masses fall under the spell of Boogalow International Music and their pop-rock propaganda, Alphie soon finds salvation in a commune of hippies (led by Joss Ackland in a role more worthy of regret than De Nomolos from Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey) and is joined by lapsed disco dolly Bibi. When Mr. Boogalow tracks them down and demands Bibi's arrest for reneging on her contract, a power greater than the Devil himself arrives in a gold Rolls ("Marc Almond! No?! BOOO!!!") to take the teens to their final destination.

Catherine Mary Stewart, looking in the film for all the world like a young Kelly Clarkson (while the equally underperforming Gilmour, in his only credit, arrives as Warren Beatty), talked about how Golan aspired to be "better than Ken Russell," but The Apple isn't so much Tommy. For all its kitsch, Golan never once has Stewart writhe sensually in a flood of creamed vegetables. No, it's apt to see The Apple instead as a Godspell-Phantom of the Paradise hybrid knock-off with more transvestites than The Rocky Horror Picture Show and less infectious tunes.

A friend of mine who's married to an online critic (who, incidentally, gave this film a sincere rave, the lunatic) knows musician friends who bought The Apple as industry satire, mocking a machine so prefab and crass that the only way out is through unwavering integrity and a pinch of divine intervention. While I see things in The Apple which could support their enthusiasm, there are more dead-bang jokes in Phantom of the Paradise and This Is Spinal Tap. The height of intentional wit in The Apple is to parachute in Miriam Margolyes as Alphie's Bubbe-esque landlady, a bit of comic relief that cannot light the menorah once followed by the infamous "National Bim Hour" montage, a fitting prelude to the hospital dance-a-thon in Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo.

More than any Biblical pretense or bizness lampoonery, what The Apple is really about is, naturally, music. This 86-minute film has about an hour's worth of production numbers, songs written exclusively for the film by musician Coby Recht and lyricists Iris Yotvat & George S. Clinton, the latter a Cannon employee not to be confused with the leader of Parliament/Funkadelic. Nigel Lythgoe choreographed the dance moves, and would go on to fulfill one of The Apple's half-baked prophecies as executive producer of American Idol.

Unfortunately, every moment in which The Apple breaks into song-and-dance stops the movie cold. Like Robert Christgau reviewing David Bowie's over-the-top singing on Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), if the awfulness of the music here is supposed to be a joke, it's not worth the pain. Lyrics are awkwardly crammed into subpar melodies, for one. Aside from the futility to make a hook out of the phrase "Life is nothing but show business in 1994," the opening number "(Do the) BIM" has a chorus constantly drilled into your skull which threatens that "BIM's on the way." I heard "BIM's the only way," although they could have been also singing "BIM's Yahweh." The point is there are tons more non-rhyming, repetitive blunders meant to condescend to refugees of the current vapid pop scene.

The music of The Apple is processed late 1970s cheese all the way ("Hey, hey, hey!!!"), flavorless slices of imitation Supertramp, Bonnie Tyler and The Carpenters (where's Paul "Swan" Williams when you really need him?) to garnish your Bim Burger (I'm not making that up, there is an actual restaurant in the movie which sells those). The Karen & Richard connection applies to Alphie & Bibi, whose own showcase songs are no less cringe-inducing than Boogelow's blooze. Their utopian schmaltzfest "(Love) The Universal Melody" doesn't convince at the start, but the duo's nadir is the mopey rock ballad "Cry for Me" ("Where has all the pity gone?"), a song which makes REO Speedwagon sound like Big Brother & The Holding Company.

There is a weird novelty to a couple of these abortions, it must be said. Never has a synthetic doo-wop duet (call it "Since I Don't Have ‘Since I Don't Have You' ") been voiced by a deathless Roger Daltrey clone and the dim ingénue he has just drugged. Never has a barnacle of a cod reggae song been mangled by a thick-accented Machiavellian who gloats into the ear of his pretty puppet. And if you wanted something to put the "o" in solo but were just too bashful to admit you owned "More, More, More" by the Andrea True Connection, well, The Apple has another thing "Coming." 

The Apple is one of those movies impossible to NOT make sound like a majestic monument of manure. This is a film in which the heroine is allowed the easiest possible escape all because Pandi has fucked the BIM away (and is subsequently slapped by the sissy black guy). One where an extra with a hoser accent yells at the heroes to "Go back to Moose Jaw!" One in which you could deduce major penis envy from its creator stemming from being denied entry into Studio 54. But given the combined non-efforts of the terrible music, the ridiculous dancing (BIM's prime directive is to pull no punches against the oxygen) and Menahem Golan's pedestrian sense of style, my first viewing of this was arduous.

It only got worse the second time I watched.

My nutty suspicion about the Israelis of Cannon is that as filmmakers, they were such fine producers. I will elaborate further as I go along, but suffice to say that Golan is genuine in his lack of finesse. The Apple is over rather quickly and has a sliver of showmanship important to the success of any musical, but there are Italian Road Warrior wannabes which are filmed more proficiently and look more believably dystopian.

And hippies, Mr. Golan? Seriously?!


Monday, November 30, 2015

Roadside Prophets

(R, Fine Line Features, 96 mins., theatrical release date: April 3, 1992)

Stranded at the intersection of Easy Rider and Repo Man is where you'll find Roadside Prophets, a cross-generational shaggy dog story which fires all of its guns at once yet never explodes into space.

Abbe Wool, co-writer of Alex Cox's sophomore gem Sid & Nancy, makes her feature debut here and is clearly bucking for a quirky social satire on the level of Cox's earlier film, which was simultaneously one of the funniest and most far-out movies of its decade. She doesn't quite reproduce Cox's outsider wit and cohesion, leaving Roadside Prophets to eat the dust of that intergalactic '64 Chevy Malibu.

Compared to the last tragically hip indie project on my reviewing log, Inside Monkey Zetterland, Wool's film is not without some welcome detours.

First and foremost is the casting of John Doe and Adam Horovitz, respectively of X and the Beastie Boys. As a devout fan of both acts, these punk rock icons carry their personalities from the stage to screen with integrity. Doe seems to be inhabiting the working class zero he once drawled about in "The Have Nots," the closing track from his flagship band's 1982 album Under the Big Black Sun. Meanwhile, the ever-adenoidal Horovitz is playing the fool in a broad reprisal of the troubled teen role with which he made his acting debut in 1989's Lost Angels.

Doe is literally an average Joe, as in Joe Mosely, whose Harley chopper is the only thing that gets him through life as a factory employee still paying thousands in alimony. Joe's used to the routine of cold coffee and hazardous conditions after six years of slaving, but has mercy on first-day coworker Dave Coleman (David Anthony Marshall). The two immediate friends ride out to a strip joint for refreshment, but Dave is distracted by an arcade machine which just as promptly ends their union.

Joe takes it upon himself to have the deceased Dave cremated and embark on a pilgrimage to what he misconstrues as the Nevada town of El Dorado, home of Dave's favorite casino. With the help of a faceless personnel clerk, Angie, who pesters him for a date in exchange for covering up his absence from work, Joe hits the road but keeps running afoul of a reckless boy who walks across rooftops with Roman candles in his hands, trailing Joe every mile of the journey.

The kid is Sam (Horovitz), an orphan on a mission of his own which involves lodging only at Motel 9 rest stops, ostensibly as a company inspector. Joe reluctantly accepts Sam's shadowy companionship after the youth buys a vintage Triumph Bonneville. En route to El Dorado, the duo meet a host of aged counterculture oddballs, from a farmer who philosophizes about "transcendent reality" (Timothy Leary) to a dine-and-dash bandit who claims to be "Symbionese" (John Cusack) to a hookah-smoking hermit interested in martyred Roman gladiators who were actually "Utopian saints" (David Carradine).

Other, more on-the-level strangers include a gas-n-sip owner (Arlo Guthrie) well-versed in prehistoric fish, a hotel-managing Negro (Harry Caesar) who bemoans a life not fully lived whilst sharing a bottle of Wild Turkey with Joe, and a soulful erotic dancer named Labia Mirage (Jennifer Balgobin) who is working her way to the Yukon.

These assorted outsiders seem to be byproducts of halcyon revolutions, what with the stunt-casting of people like Dr. Leary and Mr. Guthrie as well as Abbe Wool's penchant for ribbing the slogans and scenes they stand for. John Cusack's character, Caspar, is introduced in a '50s-themed greasy spoon which the green-eared Sam takes at face value as an incredible simulation instead of the tacky nostalgia totem it is. Caspar winks through his eye patch when he announces his nationality and, after pigging out on a 12-course meal, he bolts for the exit screaming "Free food for the poor!"

Those who loudly and proudly announce that they stand for something, man, turn out to be some degree of overbearing eccentric, whether it be the isolated, interracial radical couple (Bill Cobbs as Oscar, Lin Shaye as Celeste) with an incorrigible sense of gallows humor over their wasting away from cancer and AIDS or the authority figures (Barton Heyman as a sheriff, Stephen Tobolowsky as a park ranger) who are laughably hyper-responsible. Meanwhile, the middle-aged Don Quixote and the adolescent Sancho Panza roam towards their uncertain destination, and if they don't quite make it as father/son surrogates, at least they'll be drinking buddies by the time they get to Ely.

Wool's film falters often as a comedy, particularly in handling the dim-witted apathy of Sam, whose knowledge of past presidents is gained from magazine covers but whose frequent dismissal of the rogues gallery as "insane" seems too weak to be humorous. It's tough to also forgive the repetitive nature of the episodic script, even though allowances must be made given its road-bound genre. The supporting characters keep piling up to the degree where you wish Ms. Wool would've allotted Joe and Sam some time to stop and smell the cactus flowers.

Such a reprieve would be welcome because, unlike Inside Monkey Zetterland or (even worse) Wild Hogs, Abbe Wool doesn't fixate on her navel or go for the low in comedy. This is essentially a playful, humanistic reversal of Easy Rider that has a Zen-like core. Though she sets up expectations to knock them down (turns out Dave may have been chemically-impaired about the whole "getting lucky" endorsement), Wool's smart enough to make a ruggedly handsome straight man of John Doe (previously seen in Road House and Great Balls of Fire); the X-man can fire off a laconic quip to rival Hugh Jackman. And if you're in the right mood and can sense the self-deprecation behind the King Ad-Rock's bravado (he can do the Jerry Lewis, after all), Mr. Horovitz is appealing company, too.

Jennifer Balgobin, who played the petty thief/lover Debbi in Repo Man, makes a welcome reappearance alongside such fellow Cox repertoire players as Biff Yeager (the barkeep at Shipwreck Joey's), Patti Tippo (as the casino cashier) and Dick Rude (Duke from Repo Man, here playing in a lounge act alongside Manny Chevrolet and Flea).

As for the cameo appearances, a glowering David Carradine makes the richest impression as a forest friar. It's no surprise to see John Cusack in these surroundings, as it's his propensity to juggle loony character work with more accessible projects (Tapeheads preceded his career-defining role in Say Anything), and he's the most live-wire of the kooky cast. But the walk-ons from Timothy Leary and Arlo Guthrie are over before you register them, thus less successfully handled.

Wool plants better existential jokes in the margins of scenes, like a droll newscast on a militant mailman who letter bombs Planned Parenthood clients ("Long live the unborn!") or a ghostly golf gang consisting of accident-prone leathernecks, that bolster the movie's basic philosophy of freewheeling tolerance. John Doe wails it himself in the opening credits number, "Beer, Gas, Ride Forever": "Why can't people get together?"

(Other artists on the soundtrack are, naturally, Doe's X-wife Exene Cervenka and The Beastie Boys. Also included are The Pogues and Pray For Rain, who both contributed to the score for Sid & Nancy, as well a couple other Repo Man vets).

Another asset of Wool's is DP Tom Richmond, who does for the expansive Southwest deserts and city streets what he did for the snowy war fields in A Midnight Clear. The movie may or may not be serious in reviving the spirit of '69, but Richmond's lens captures a mythos of its own.

This makes it all the smoother for Roadside Prophets to be admired as a character-friendly dramedy that, despite its allegorical anemia, is mildly entertaining for another "life's a journey" morality fable.