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.

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