Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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