Monday, June 19, 2017

The New Line Files: Leftovers

Note: The film portions of this series will not necessarily always be full reviews nor will I be covering every film distributed by the studio either theatrically or on their home video label. They will also be grouped by things such as genre, theme, actor, etc. rather than chronological order as the story of the studio doesn't really lend itself to that sort of thing.

Besides, pretty much all you need to know about the history part was covered in the intro. Now then, let the show begin! 

The epic stuff will come later as I realized I have to catch up on about a day's worth of footage. With that in mind, we will begin with a quick rundown of some films I've already covered in full or just several times in the past.

Mainly so I don't have to do it later.

 From the middle of my series on Carolco, we begin with this limp spoof of The Exorcist. Part of a distribution partnership with Carolco and Seven Arts, this takes the talents of Leslie Nielsen, Linda Blair and Ned Beatty and wastes them.

 Just covered this a few weeks ago so let's just say that if you want a fun bad movie... This is one.

 I described my frank dislike for this movie way back in the My Favorite Era series. A terrible biddy cop film with an unlikable lead in Bob Hoskins and a wildly varying tone that never decides whether or not it wants to be a comedy or a drama. Just terrible. There is actually a version of this same story from 1992 made in India that sounds a hell of a lot better. The lead is a banker, not a cop. It's more of a murder mystery than anything else and I'd be willing to bet it's a hell of a lot more energetic.

 Jackie Chan's second US debut (I'll look at his early efforts at stateside success at a later date) which I reviewed in the early days of the blog is a solid middle of the road outing for the man. Tons of great action and stunt work, this was a fantastic introduction to the man for US audiences.

Naturally, this is one I've covered to the point of madness, no pun intended. Oh what the hell, pun totally intended! It's good, and that is all.

Lastly, we have one of my favorite Italian Road Warrior cash-ins that New Line handled the US distribution for. It's got lots of action, some cheesy stuff, Fred Williamson with a bow and arrow and George Eastman as the bad guy. In other words, everything you could want from an Italian action movie. I sort of feel like this one (and to be honest, the other films mentioned above apart from Repossessed and Heart Condition) epitomizes the early days of the studio. Done fast and on the cheap, it is a full throated, unapologetic genre piece.

Stay tuned for more!

Friday, June 16, 2017

The New Line Files: Intro

I've looked at long dead companies like Embassy and Carolco and gone through the life, death and rebirth of Orion but here is a deeper look at a studio that still exists... Sort of. Gonna get the history stuff out of the way in the intro here as we have a long road to go down and I really want to focus on the movies.

Started in 1967 by Robert Shaye, New Line has been a plain and simple distributor; a solid indie company churning out horror flicks and comedies by the truckload, a branch of Ted Turner's media empire, a brief period of being huge thanks to a certain trilogy of fantasy films and finally a division of Warner Brothers.

It's sort of funny to think about, but the truth is that for most of its existence, New Line has been more of a high grade B-movie company with most of their hits being horror films (Freddy Krueger anyone?); comedies (Austin Powers, the House Party and Friday franchises) along with scores of action films both theatrically released and DTV (I'll be covering some of those as well). They also bolstered their film library thanks to partnerships with CineTel Films, Castle Rock Entertainment and others. Their blockbuster period really only goes from 1999 into 2003 and even then we're only talking the last two Austin Powers flicks, the Rush Hour films and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Most of their other hits have been sleepers, which I believe is movie industry shorthand for "Really? That made money? Okay then!"

New Line spent its first ten years of existence in the distribution business. Like many companies at the time, the bulk of their product was English dubs of foreign films but right from the start, New Line took a slightly different approach to things. In addition to those films, they also put out a decent number of films from maverick director John Waters as well as handling re-releases of Reefer Madness, Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

 Their output was sparse in the late 70's and early and it wasn't until the release of A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984 that they actually began to achieve a measure of success. Buoyed by the success of the new franchise, they spent the next few years chugging along nicely with a solid if not spectacular array of genre films mixed in with the occasional drama.

 In 1994 they were bought by Ted Turner who would subsequently pair them with Warner Brothers but kept as a separate company two years later (the Time Warner deal in 1996). The films kept coming with some hitting the mark (1994 was a good year to be Jim Carrey and New Line); some getting some critical acclaim and awards (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) and others not doing much of anything at all (more or less everything else) but the real coup would come in 2001 with the Lord of the Rings trilogy. This gave the company a level of success that most companies would kill for but thanks to some shady accounting, said success ended up killing them.

Generally, announcing that the biggest trilogy since the original Star Wars films ended up not making a profit even though they cleaned up at the box office ten times over is a good way to get your ass sued and your company shut down.

In 2008, New Line was merged into Warner Brothers as a sort of extension. They've had several co-productions and some actually pretty good films since but it just isn't the same. New Line at its best was a sort of down and dirty genre picture studio. Its biggest success led to its ultimate downfall. Probably their best period was from the late 80's to the mid 90's as they had the Nightmare on Elm Street films and some other solid flicks. When I think of the company, I think of a sort of grungy mall theater in the early 90's on a hot summer day. The big leagues were sort of an odd fit for them, really.

At the end of the day, New Line found success by sticking to its strengths (mid-budget genre films supported by more serious fare from time to time) and managing to hang around by making smart business decisions when needed (regardless of how the Time Warner merger ended, it started off just fine). That it's still around after fifty years says something.

Well that's enough history for now, stay tuned for the first part of their cinematic output.

Coming Next: The Lord of the Rings and Other Epics

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Quick site update

Just a quick update: I'm pulling the plug on the long form 1995 piece and will instead take some of the films I had in mind on their own. Not sure if I'm going to go in depth on any more years either, though I do plan on taking a look at some other production companies in the future, New Line will probably be the only huge one however.

Stay tuned.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Dark Star (1974)

For post number 500, I thought I'd look at the first offering from my favorite director of all time: John Carpenter. Dark Star is the first feature from him and it is an extension of a 68 minute short film he did at USC, working with Dan O'Bannon who also acts in the film as well. Both men contributed other elements as well with O'Bannon co-writing, editing, production design and special effects work. Carpenter also produced, did production design work and as would become tradition, scored the film. It's a solid, funky debut as well with some funny bits such as the captain trying to talk a bomb out of exploding using philosophy and a nicely bizarre feel that works quite nicely. We also get some nice early camera work that would become a hallmark for John Carpenter movies.

The best stuff is the O'Bannon character dealing with a beach ball alien they've taken aboard that would later partly inspire Alien in 1979. There are bits and pieces that mark it as a student film (the philosophical stuff reminds me of film school when I would roll my eyes at this kind of thing though here it's entertaining) and pacing is a little slack considering it runs only 83 minutes but for the most part, this is a solid sci-fi comedy.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

1995 Deep Dive: March and April

The first two months of 1995 yielded a few solid flicks (with one unheralded classic with In the Mouth of Madness) and the following two months would do the same. Sort of.

March

Not a promising start, mind you, but The Mangler might be the most enjoyably bad Stephen King adaptation, right up there with Graveyard Shift. Ted Levine plays a cop investigating a gruesome accident at an industrial laundry service run by Robert Englund. Naturally, given that this is a horror film based on a Stephen King short story, said accident isn't quite that as it turns out the gigantic laundry folding machine (the titular Mangler) is possessed by a demon and Englund evidently has some sort of deal with it. I think.

The Mangler is one of Tobe Hooper's better films, though given his track record that really isn't much of a compliment. The gore is plentiful and Englund is hilariously over the top as the human antagonist but the plot is simply ridiculous with the Englund subplot coming off as just bizarre. With good reason too as this is just filler to pad out the movie which is a common issue one runs into when adapting a short story for the big screen. In spite of the film's badness, it is still quite watchable. The production design is nice and the gore f/x are top notch. The CGI used for the end is dodgy but even that has a certain charm to it. The Mangler is a fine film to watch late at night with a cold beer and leftover pizza.

The first big hit of 1995, Outbreak is a well made, entertaining, but predictable thriller from director Wolfgang Petersen about a viral outbreak that Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo have to try and contain. While the film sort of falls into the standard thriller tropes (military conspiracy, estranged couple working together, races against time), the cast and overall pacing make it a fun ride. The cast is solid as one would expect with names like Dustin Hoffman, Morgan Freeman and Donald Sutherland (though his status as human antagonist can be seen from the other side of the galaxy) on hand. What really helps the film, along is the pacing as Petersen, always a good guy when it comes to thrillers, grabs the audience by the throat from the start and plows them through the narrative fast enough to keep you in suspense but not so much that you stop giving a crap. Granted, the cliches come in fast and hard but the film is just enjoyable enough for one to overlook that.

Based on an English comic series, Tank Girl is a quirky, interesting sci-fi action comedy that stars Lori Petty as our hero, Malcolm McDowell as the bad guy and rapper Ice-T as a mutant kangaroo.

Yeah.

The story takes place in a desolate future almost entirely without water. What little there is is controlled by Water and Power, led by McDowell in his usual over the top bad guy role. The film has an energetic, infectiously eclectic style to it, mixing in animated bits here and there along with a pretty nice soundtrack and a funky sense of humor though the effect is somewhat muted due to the predictable path the story takes. Has there ever been a post-apocalyptic action film that makes a point to mention it hasn't rained for a long time that didn't end with it finally raining? That aside, Rachel Talalay does a nice job directing here, she also helmed the sixth Nightmare on Elm Street film.

Petty and McDowell are solid in their roles and Naomi Watts is decent in an early role and while the film runs a little too long, it's still a fun excursion if you want something a little different. Which is sort of a given when you have mutant kangaroos in your movie.

April

As tends to be the case in the world of film, there often are films released in a calendar year with similar themes or stories. Here we have the first of two films dealing with historical Scottish warriors fighting for justice in films that take the usual liberties with the real story one generally should expect. Rob Roy stars Liam Neeson in the title role, a landowner who gets in debt to some English noblemen and after his property is destroyed and his wife raped, goes off looking for vengeance. In other words, it's a Liam Neeson action movie fifteen years before he became known for doing them. Unlike the film we will be covering in the next installment, Rob Roy goes for a more intimate epic feel with more of an emphasis on character than spectacle. Good acting is the main course for this particular cinematic meal and while Neeson is good, as are John Hurt and Jessica Lange as evil nobleman and love interest respectively, the real star turn comes from Tim Roth as a foppish yet utterly deadly swordsman who sets off the feud with Rob Roy. Overall, a perfectly solid epic.

A great turn from Nicolas Cage as the psychotic bad guy is the best (and probably only) reason to watch this thriller from director Barbet Schroeder. David Caruso stars (he quite NYPD Blue for films which wasn't the best life decision ever made) as an ex-con who gets drawn into a sting operation on a deranged criminal after said criminal kills his cousin. Caruso is okay but as noted, the real star of the show is Nicolas Cage as the amusingly named Little Junior Brown. Cage goes for the gusto as usual, giving us a sometimes funny, sometimes frightening but always interesting (if not quite believable) bad guy who handily walks off with the whole damn movie. Samuel L. Jackson is also good as the cop in charge of the case and while the plot is probably a little too complex for its own good, Cage's performance still resonates quite nicely.

While Ice-T was playing a mutant kangaroo in Tank Girl, fellow rapper Ice Cube was co-writing and starring in this amiable comedy about a young man trying to keep his friend from getting beaten up or worse by the neighborhood drug dealer as well as contending with the neighborhood bully. Friday is a basic, low key stoner comedy with some very funny moments (mainly from John Witherspoon as the main character's father) and a nice, laid back energy. Ice Cube is a likable protagonist and Chris Tucker is funny as his friend. "Tiny" Lister is also solid as the bully. It's a good comedy, not much else I can say really.

John Carpenter's second film of 1995 is not as good as his first. His second remake (The Thing is still his best overall flick for me), Village of the Damned, sadly marks the beginning of the downturn for him in my view. While he made less than enthralling films before this (Memoirs of an Invisible Man, this sees him on auto-pilot as he gives us a very nice bit of location shooting (a nicely spooky northern California small town)and some interesting casting (Kirstie Alley as a government type and Christopher Reeve in his last role before his tragic accident) but apart from that he just tells the same story again. Contrast this with The Thing where he chose to adapt the novel rather than simply rehashing the 1951 version. I think he wasn't really into this one and it shows.

March and April continued the trend of solid but not overwhelmingly great movies in 1995. There was some good stuff (Friday, mainly) but there was also a lot of stuff that was just sort of there.

Coming soon: The summer kicks off for 1995!

Monday, May 1, 2017

Esoterica XVIII: Marvel Mania!

Been digging into the Marvel Comics vaults lately, here are some of the gems I've dug up.

Finally got around to reading this Marvel take on J.R.R. Tolkien style fantasy and the results are... Well, sort of lame. Things get off to a good start in the comic pictured above as a young elf named Tyndall is tossed out of his village by dwarfs who see him as a bringer of evil (they all live on a planet called Weirdworld where things are, well you can guess from the name of the place) to stop a dark force only for him to discover a female elf he falls in love with and together with another dwarf named Mud-Butt (because he tends to get knocked on his ass into the mud a lot), they go off on a series of adventures trying to stave off various evil wizards and the like.

After the good start, there are three multi-issue stories of varying quality (one of which was delayed from its original 1979 writing to 1986, long after the other stories had been published) with somewhat repetitious stories (wizards are like cockroaches in this damn series which is to be expected but still) and less than enthralling characters as Tyndall comes off like Luke Skywalker if he was just naive and whiny with no charm (there is a fine line between charmingly naive and just really stupid) and Velanna, the female elf is only interesting in the last arc where she is controlled by the bad guy while Mud-Butt is probably the best, mainly because I could see Sean Connery voicing him if it was an animated film.

Apart from that, the art is quite nice with a blend of standard comics art to begin with, leading to some very nice painted art for the later stories that only occasionally looks like the painting on the back of that skeevy looking van you pass on the highway every now and then and end up guessing with your friends as to whether or not the driver had just killed his latest victim or was taking said victim back to his home to kill there.

Not a great series but I am glad I read it, if for nothing else other than that van joke.

 In the 70's, the Comics code was scaled back to the degree where horror comics could roar back to life. Marvel took up the cause with a slew of titles including this short-lived version of the classic Frankenstein Monster. Running 18 issues (plus several appearances in some of their black and white comics along with other monsters), this gives us an intermittently fun and often repetitious saga as the creature goes from town to town in search of his creator and being chased by the standard angry mob of torch wielding villagers.

There are some inspired gems though as Frankie goes up against Dracula himself followed by a confrontation with the last living Frankenstein and his huge, grotesque Russian henchman Ivan. A shift forward to modern times sort of works but apart from the requisite appearance in Marvel Team-Up with Spider-Man, the big guy sort of just peters out.

 After a bit of a wait, the rest of John Byrne's run on The Sensational She-Hulk has finally been released in trade paperback. I really dig the blend of humor and action in this book as it's a nice breath of fresh air for the period (the book ran from 1989 to 1994) which tended to be mired in darkness and grit just for the sake of it.

 
Pictured above is one of the lesser Spider-Man villains. The White Rabbit is a very rich, very insane woman who popped up every now and then to provide a modest threat (and I am being quite generous here), even teaming up with another incompetent Spidey villain known as The Walrus. Sadly, none of those issues have been collected in a trade paperback format. God only knows where it would fit, maybe a 'Most Hilarious Villains of Marvel' set. Actually, I'd pay a reasonable MSRP to see that!

Lastly, we have one of my true "holy grails" when it comes to comics. I love horror comics and Steve Gerber's work on Man-Thing is a great blend of 70's Marvel social awareness with good old fashioned EC horror. We get our muck-encrusted hero; tons of evil folks being burnt alive (fear causes the monster immense pain which can only be soothed by burning the cause of said pain to death), one story that is pure 70's (in that most of the characters are repulsively unlikable and almost everybody dies) and there is also a deranged super villain assassin called The Foolkiller who is one of the more berserk and crazy creations Steve Gerber ever made. And that's counting Howard the Duck!

I recommend you try and seek out all the titles I mentioned in this post. They might not wow you, but you won;t be bored.

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Dirty Harry Chronicles: Magnum Force (1973)

 

At long last, I'm finally getting around to continuing my look at the Dirty Harry films. I covered the first one a while back and now I fully intend to get through the other four.

The second entry in the Dirty Harry series is my favorite of the five. The action is great, the story is interesting (courtesy of writers John Milius and Michael Cimino) and the cast is entertainingly eclectic. Let's take a closer look.
  • I love the plot conceit of the maverick cop going up against a death squad inside the SFPD. It works both as a sort of thumbing of the nose to the critics of the first movie (as in "No, these guys are frigging fascists! Our guy is just an asshole.") and on a more base level, as an action movie story.
  • I like how the film, like many 70's action films, takes the time to tell its story. Clint isn't seen for the first ten minutes and this gives us time to set up the vigilante squad rather nicely. I also enjoy how instead of being snarling loons with badges, they are well mannered and soft-spoken loons, two of whom are played by future TV stars Robert Urich and David Soul as well as Tim Matheson. They are quite brilliant villains. In a way, they are creepier than Andy Robinson in the first film, simply because their evil is more subtle. This contrasts quite nicely with what vicious killers they are as the bloodshed is ramped up a bit here. The film ends up being more violent than the first and quite a bit more brutal as well. I don't think it was entirely necessary but it certainly has an effect.
  •  The real gem in the supporting cast is Hal Holbrook, however. Not sure if this was the first time he ended up being the surprise villain but it sure as hell wouldn't be the last. He does some pretty nice work here, at first being the standard authority figure who has to put up with Callahan but once he is revealed as the villain, he adopts the same soft-spoken manner the killer cops have and the effect is rather chilling.
  • The rest of the cast is fine with Felton Perry making the most of his role as Harry's latest partner and Mitchell Ryan is effective as a red herring Harry at first suspects might be the killer cop.
  • The film also rather neatly sidesteps the usual criticism these films tend to get (not that the critics were stopped by it) by simply being a fun, over the top action film with less overt political content. There's a little (this is a 70's action movie, after all) but for the most part, it's just something to cut away too between action scenes.
  • The action is quite nice as well with  Harry's obligatory "stopping a crime" scene taking place on an airplane being hijacked. Harry poses as the pilot here and the end result is about what you would expect. We even get a second one twenty minutes later as Perry is menaced during a robbery. The other action highlight is the climax which sees Harry pick off the death squad one at a time before confronting Holbrook. It's a solid climax and ends the film on a solid note.
  • Harry is more or less the same as he was in the first film which is probably good as the similarities between him and the bad guys makes the film work as well as it does. Clint is good as usual, especially when politely turning down an offer to join the bad guys. The way he bluntly states his moral code at the end is quite nice as well.
 Magnum Force is a solid, entertaining sequel that packs in the action and humor with a solid plot and some good performances. It builds on stuff we saw in the first film and in general is a little better paced (much as I like the first one, the park scene goes on for maybe a beat too much). Sadly, the following three films would not be as good as the first two (in one case, not even close), but that is a tale for another day.

About Me

I've been a huge fan of action, horror and comedy for as long as I can remember.