Sunday, March 30, 2014

Esoterica VI

More random acts of randomness coming up!

 We start off with an ad for the home video release of Monty Python's The Meaning of Life.  The ad, it must be said, is better than the film.  The group was about to come to an end and the material is not an example of them at their most inspired.
 I like this simply for the rather desperate ad copy more or less begging you to buy or rent the third Porky's movie by selling it as a tasty meal.  Even the pig on the photo looks like he has his doubts. 

 I discovered this gem a few months back while on a bit of a kung fu binge.  In Return of the Tiger, Bruce Lee imitator (though he was good enough to not really need that gimmick) Bruce Li is a government agent looking to take down the drug dealing empire of Paul Smith (Bluto from the Popeye movie though here he is billed as "The Torturer from Midnight Express").  The film probably runs a few minutes longer than it really needs to but Smith is a fun villain, Li is a solid action hero (billed as "The Tiger" as opposed to Bruce Lee being "The Dragon") and the action scenes are quite excellent.

 Great comedy special from 1982 that sees Robin Williams at the height of his comedic skill, though his more recent HBO stuff is more refined.  Here though, he's at his manic peak, improvising wildly, sweating heavily and going off on bizarre riffs like there's no tomorrow (I think he was still on cocaine at the time).  This one never fails to have me in hysterics.

 This might be one of my favorite Star Wars comics.  From the Marvel run of the early 80's, this tale sees Princess Leia looking to purchase some ships only for Darth Vader to turn up with some goons to try and kill one of her comrades (not Luke, Han or Chewbacca but some random guy who has never been seen before or since).  After some twists and turns, both Leia and Vader try and out-con each other with Leia getting her ships and Vader managing to con the princess out of some priceless jewels.  It's a sly, fun bit of storytelling that is quite entertaining.

Let's end with two re-releases of titles from New World Home Video.  Like Media Home Video and Video Treasures, New World had a budget label, in this case Starmaker who would later turn into Anchor Bay Entertainment, one of my favorite DVD distributors.  Starmaker put out a few tapes (partnering with another distributor) under a Collector's Edition Gold Series banner which contained not only the movie but also trailers, TV spots and the occasional batch of interviews.

 I don't have much to say about the movie (when I do the pieces on movies from 1987, it'll be a bit of a chore, this one) but I do find it amusing that even the makers of the tape just said "To hell with it, just put the stuff on the other tapes on this one, nobody will care."

 Hellraiser and its sequel got better treatment though.  Come to think of it, I nearly bought this tape one time.

 That's it for now.  Until next time...

Saturday, March 29, 2014

1988: Honorable Mentions

Let's kick off 1988 with the honorable mentions.  1988 was a fantastic year for film, so much so that it will be one of my longer retrospective pieces.  Actually, 1985 to 1990 will be extra king sized retrospectives, just because of the sheer volume.  We have a lot of ground to cover so let's not fart around...

Gotta have the Best Picture winner here since it didn't make the cut for my top ten.  What can I say?  It's a case where I enjoyed other films more.  Still, Rain Man is a very entertaining, moving drama with top notch work from Dustin Hoffman and for that matter, Tom Cruise. 

Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins star in this funny, entertaining baseball-centric romantic comedy about an older minor league player (played by Costner) and a young up-and-comer played by Robbins who both fall for groupie Sarandon.  Chock full of great moments and sporting a truly hilarious turn from Costner, this is one of the best baseball movies of all time.

Steven Seagal's debut film is a pretty damn good cop thriller directed by Andrew Davis.  Good action and a nice cast help offset the rather hit or miss storytelling.  Funnily enough, it ends up being one of Seagal's five best simply because he only really has about five or six genuinely good movies to his name to begin with.

Tom Hanks scored his first Oscar nomination for this charming comedy about a kid who makes a wish to be big and wakes up as Tom Hanks.  Hanks does good work in his role and Penny Marshall guides the film with a deft comedic touch.  Robert Loggia is also fun in a supporting role.

From the director of Maniac and writer (though not here) Larry Cohen comes this pretty good horror/action film about an unstoppable former cop who comes back from the dead to wreak a terrible revenge on the city officials who set him up and had him killed in prison.  Good cast of B-movie stalwarts such as Tom Atkins, Bruce Campbell and Robert Z'Dar as the killer and some really good action make this an entertaining watch.  The first sequel is even better, though.

One of John Carpenter's better films, this is a sly science fiction flick that has pro wrestler Roddy Piper fighting aliens who have infiltrated society.  Piper is quite good, the action is solid and the film has a rather biting sense of humor it shows through social satire.  The fight scene with Piper and Keith David is also great.

Underrated Wes Craven movie about Bill Pullman looking for a zombie potion in Haiti.  Good acting from Pullman and the late Zakes Mokae as the bad guy make this a fun one to check out.  If you are in the mood for a different sort of zombie movie, this is your best bet.

Wild horror flick from Ken Russell that I reviewed last year for the series.  It's not the most coherent thing on the planet but it's visually imaginative, genuinely entertaining and it's the only movie you will ever see that has Hugh Grant fighting snake monsters with a sword while the new Doctor Who Peter Capaldi kicks ass in a kilt.  It's something you have to see for yourself.

Pretty solid modernization of A Christmas Carol with Bill Murray in the Scrooge part.  A decent blend of horror and sentiment, though the end where the lead finds redemption doesn't quite work as Bill Murray doesn't exactly come off as sincere.  Still, worth a look.

Pretty funny comedy from Keenen Ivory Wayans that spoofs 70's action movies.  Lots of funny gags, though Black Dynamite improved on it 21 years later by simply playing the material straight and getting its laughs that way.

Besides The Thing, this is one of the best remakes of a classic horror movie.  Fun updating of the 1958 story has great, gory f/x and a decent script, aided by a likable cast.  Good stuff.

Solid sequel to the original that has better f/x and a somewhat tighter script.  The thing I really like about it is that it maintains the sort of icky feel the first film had.

I dig this entertaining thriller that features the great Sidney Poitier as an FBI agent after a killer who may be one of several hikers being led by Kirstie Alley through the mountains.  He teams up with her boyfriend, played by Tom Berenger and the end result is a fun meat and potatoes action movie.  It's simple, but sometimes that's best.

Tim Burton;s best film is this wacky ghost comedy that has good work from Geena Davis, Alec Baldwin and Michael Keaton.  Loads of laughs and some nice f/x, aided by the usual great production design Burton films tend to have make this a winner.

I actually sort of love the wild fourth entry in the Freddy Krueger saga.  It's amazingly over the top, probably too silly for its own good and Freddy by this point isn't even close to being scary but it's still a fun ride with great f/x and a typically amusing turn from Robert Englund.  Renny Harlin does a good job directing as well.

This one sort of flew under the radar but it's actually a very enjoyable comedy that pairs up two comedy greats.  John Candy is taking his nice, normal family on vacation in the woods only to have yuppie brother in-law Aykroyd tag along with his brood.  Tons of great moments and some nice chemistry from the leads help the rather predictable story go down easier.  A forgotten gem from John?Hughes who wrote and executive produced the film.

I've written extensively about this one so let's just say that it is quite simply the best Shaft movie never made.

Gotta love this wacky semi-spoof of 50's horror movies that takes the not at all irrational fear of clowns (They're agents of the man-goat, I tell ya'!) and milks that cow for all it;s worth.  The Chiodo Brothers outdid themselves here with a funny comedy with great f/x and a fun script that never wears out its welcome.  John Vernon is especially funny as the obligatory hardheaded cop.

The tagline on the poster speaks for itself.  This is a fun, gory romp with lots of monsters, a fun sense of humor and some great 80's cheese.  Plus, how many films do you know of where Deborah Foreman goes Rambo on a bunch of monsters and tosses a 2'9 butler into the Little Shop of Horrors plant?  If there is more than one, I wanna see it!  Great fun all around.

To end things, we have the first starring role for Jean-Claude van Damme.  Great martial arts tournament film with some great fights, a terrific villainous turn from Bolo Yeung and a nice display of skill from van Damme.  One of the best from Cannon Films.

Coming Soon: 1988 Leftovers

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

From Russia with Love (1963)

The second James Bond film improves on the first and adds a few new twists of its own.  Connery is back as 007, this time going up against SPECTRE in an attempt to get a hold of a Russian decoding machine before they do.  More action, more thrills, this is essentially Alfred Hitchcock on speed, and I mean that in the best way imaginable.  Let's take a closer look.
  • First off, this is probably the one Bond film that sticks the closest to the source material.  Not much changed outside of the ending and there are a few extra characters.
  • Nice fake-out beginning to intro Robert Shaw's assassin, Grant.  Shaw was always a good actor and with Grant, he delivers a nicely creepy, eerily calm psychopath.  Good stuff from the man.
  • The formula for the series is enhanced with the addition of a pre-title sequence and overall, way more action than Dr. No.  While the first film was more of a procedural film for the first half, this one dives headlong into international espionage, grabbing you by the throat and pulling you right into things.  Bond is far more active and the plot in general is more intricate.
  • The script does a fine job of laying out the particulars of the setup and it manages to gives us a pretty huge amount of exposition (nearly a third of the book) within a matter of minutes.  It's lean, efficient storytelling.
  • The setup itself is quietly brilliant.  SPECTRE sets up an obvious trap that entices MI6 and as a result, Bond goes right into the plan.  The great thing is how nobody looks stupid in all of this except for the guy who comes up with it, and even then it's just that he still has the balls to be proud of the plan after Bond more or less blows it all to hell.  A good spy thriller needs to have a relatively airtight script and this one certainly fits the bill.
  • The cast is great with Connery doing fine as Bond, Shaw turning in a great performance and Lotte Lenya doing good work as the villainous Rosa Klebb.  Daniela Bianchi is pretty good as Bond Girl Tatiana though it's rather unfair to grade her performance since her voice, like many in the early films, is dubbed.  Still, she's quite attractive and gets the job done.
  • The best performance, however, is the late Pedro Armendariz in his last performance as Kerim Bey, Bond's contact in Turkey.  Armendariz is likable, charming and funny and when he gets killed in the last half of the movie it's a real blow.
  • Always got a kick out the scene with Tatiana and Klebb.  It's darkly humorous and both actresses play off of each other well.
  • Love the trick suitcase Q gives Bond.  It's nothing too over the top, just functional and practical.
  • Back to Kerim, he and Bond make for a fine comic duo with Bond just following along as the man leads him through the spy game in Turkey, the two actors had a natural chemistry that makes for a very comfortable first half of the movie.
  • The stuff at the gypsy camp sees both actors at their best as well as two good fights in the girl fight (in which it suddenly turns into a 70's Roger Corman produced movie for a minute or two minus the nudity) and the shootout that follows.  Bond begging the two girls in order to settle their dispute is a fantastically funny capper to the sequence.
  • I love how Grant is more or less in the shadows for most of the movie but still fairly constant.  Robert Shaw was always a reliable performer and he exudes menace nicely without any dialogue.
  • The one minor flaw I can find is Bond simply going through his hotel room checking for bugs only with the Bond Theme blaring.  It's a little bit much but in the end, a minor thing.
  • The second half of the film moves along at a great pace with Bond seducing information out of Tania which leads to him stealing the decoding machine.  From there is the best stretch of the film as Bond, Kerim and Tatiana try to get the decoder out on the Orient Express.  From the sobering death of Kerim to the showdown with Grant, it's just a magnificently staged sequence.
  • The scene where Grant boasts about the plan to Bond is a fine bit of acting for Shaw and Connery.  The ensuing fight between the two men is a miracle of violence and editing.
  • Almost as good is the fight with the helicopter that references North by Northwest in an almost Brian DePalma-esque manner and the boat chase as Bond and Tatiana finally escape.
  • The last bit with Klebb is a nice way to end the movie.
 From Russia with Love is a movie I can honestly say I like even more than Goldfinger.  While the third Bond film is iconic, this one is simply a better and more consistent thriller.  Bond is an active presence throughout, the action is fantastic and the acting is top notch all around.  It's become sort of a forgotten gem in the series but it still works fantastically.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

1980: The Best

Let's close out 1980 with a little class, culture and ten great movies.

10. Friday the 13th

This one has to be on the list just for sheer historical importance.  While Halloween started the slasher movie craze in 1978, Friday the 13th pushed it into high gear and truly set the template for the sub-genre.  A gritty little movie directed by Sean Cunningham, it tells the tale of a bunch of doomed camp counselors who run afoul of a mad killer in the woods when they look to re-open a long defunct summer camp.  The acting isn't much to write home about unless you feel every Kevin Bacon performance is the greatest ever, it's not even close to being scary (even the big jump scare at the end doesn't quite hold up) but the Tom Savini f/x work is still top notch and the overall mood is quite effective.  Betsy Palmer is also fine as the deranged killer.  Like the others in the series, it's essentially harmlessly cheesy fun.

9. Used Cars

I get a huge charge out of this quite funny Robert Zemeckis comedy starring Kurt Russell as a used car salesman hoping to get into politics while also keeping his dealership afloat.  The usual wacky stuff ensues with Kurt and his accomplices played by Gerrit Graham and Frank McCrae going to all possible lengths to ensure Jack Warden as the scummy rival Roy L. Fuchs (Warden also plays Fuchs car salesman brother Luke whose death sets the plot in motion) doesn't get control of the lot.  Warden is quite funny in his role and Deborah Harmon is also solid as Luke's estranged daughter who gets into the plot as well.  Zemeckis keeps thing moving at a decent clip and even the huge stunt laden finale as the good guys (relatively good, at least) try to fit a mile of cars on their lot has some really funny moments.  Al Lewis is also pretty funny in a small role as a judge.  I recommend getting the DVD too, the commentary with Zemeckis and Russell is fantastic.

8. Raging Bull

On a more serious track, we have one of Martin Scorsese's finest achievements.  The story of boxer Jake LaMotta (Robert DeNiro) is not exactly easy to watch at times but it is certainly powerfully acted and constructed.  DeNiro is awesome as the tormented boxer and Cathy Moriarty and Joe Pesci hold their own just fine as his wife and brother respectively.  The film is beautifully shot in black and white and the boxing scenes are some of the finest you will see outside of a Rocky movie. To be fair, though, nothing in any of the Rocky movies will make you flinch as much as the stuff on display here.  Not even Ivan Drago beating Apollo Creed to death in the fourth one.  For the sake of full disclosure, I only saw this once and decided that was enough times for me but that does not diminish the power and quality of the film.

7. The Shining

It may not be the "perfect horror movie" or "ultimate horror movie" but Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of the Stephen King novel is one of the best King adaptations out there (And yes, I know that's not saying a lot).  Blessed with some wonderfully creepy camera work (that tracking shot of the kid on the bike is one of those things that is even scarier when you know exactly what will happen) and a fantastically over the top (though wrong for the character if you go by the book) performance from Jack Nicholson that is both hilarious and chilling at the same time.  The overall tone might be a little too mechanical, but it still delivers its scares just fine.

6. Airplane

From horror we go right back to humor with the fantastic comedy Airplane!  Chock full of gags that come at a mile a minute and blessed with a great cast of performers who play the material absolutely straight, this is quite simply one of the funniest films of all time.  You really can't say much more than that about this one, really.  It, like Friday the 13th defined a sub-genre.

5. Flash Gordon

This makes it to the top five just for the sheer joy it brings me whenever I watch it.  Loaded to the gills with cheesy goodness, it's sheer pulpy enjoyment in the best way.  Max von Sydow is great as Ming the Merciless, Brian Blessed and Timothy Dalton are fun in their roles and it's just endlessly watchable.

4. Caddyshack

No best of 1980 list would be complete without this wonderfully funny gem of a comedy.  Featuring an 80's comedy all-star team in Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Ted Knight and Rodney Dangerfield with the late Harold Ramis directing, Caddyshack is still one of the most enjoyable of the big 80's comedies.  The plot just sort of hangs there while the gags come fast and furious and while Dangerfield is a force of nature, Bill Murray is even more of one as far as I'm concerned.  Just a great, great movie.

3. John Carpenter's The Fog

John Carpenter's follow-up to Halloween is a gorgeously shot, atmospheric little ghost story with a fantastic cast (Adrienne Barbeau, Tom Atkins, Hal Holbrook and Jamie Lee Curtis in the same film?  Jesus!), a fun story and a lightning-quick pace that never lets up.  This is one of the films that really made me a true movie buff.

2. The Long Good Friday

I absolutely love this underrated gem of a gangster movie.  Bob Hoskins is terrific as mobster Harold Shaund, as is Helen Mirren as his lover.  The plot is nicely inventive and Hoskins really holds the film together, pulling off something truly wonderful in the last scene without even uttering a word,.  Any other year this would be the top spot.

1. The Empire Strikes Back

The second Star Wars epic is quite simply as close as a film can get to being perfect.  Impeccably constructed, well-acted and featuring some great f/x, it gives any fan of the original all they could ever ask for while also whetting the appetite for the third movie.  It's just a monumental piece of cinema.

1980 got the decade off to an awesome start with tons of great films, some of which have become iconic.  It's a tough act to follow, but damn it if it doesn't happen at least a few times.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

1980: The Worst/Guilty Pleasure

Doubling up here because there are only three for my worst list and one huge guilty pleasure.

The Worst

Really, really, really disappointing film based on the wild life and times of journalist Hunter S. Thompson.  Bill Murray is cast as the man himself (a fine bit of casting that Bill went overboard with) and Peter Boyle is his traveling companion.  Not much of a plot to be found and not much in the way of laughs either.

Few things are worse than bad comedies (a fact proven by my worst of the year list consisting of three comedies) and the only reason this isn't my pick for worst of the year is that there is something even more putrid.  This film, however, is a crass bit of unfunny garbage starring the late Doroth7y Stratten as an android on a ship of incompetents looking for a priceless artifact.  Bad comedy, a nothing plot, even the admittedly nice Chris Walas f/x aren't enough to save this one.

Here it is, the worst of the worst of 1980.  The first Smokey and the Bandit was an enjoyable enough comedy with some nice stunts, good work from Burt Reynolds, Sally Field and Jackie Gleason and a rather deft touch by director Hal Needham.  The sequel though, takes the stuff that worked for the first movie and tosses it out in favor of Burt acting like a self-centered jerk, some bad comedy with an elephant, some dull stunts and absolutely no point whatsoever.  Even Gleason and Dom Deluise (struggling manfully with a one-note Italian accent as a joke for his character) aren't enough to save this one from being one of the most obnoxious things I've ever sat through.

Guilty Pleasure
This really should be on the worst list but for some ungodly reason, I find myself digging the hell out of the Cheech and Chong movies.  The first one was okay but this and the one that came after it were both directed by Tommy Chong and as a result, are two of the most bizarrely disjointed movies I have ever seen.  In the case of this one, it is a true stoner comedy in every sense with a barely lucid plot about the two guys dealing with angry neighbors (who have a point really since their house is a hellhole and they might be two of the worst neighbors on the history of film) as well as trying to sell weed.  Cheech pulls off two roles here, playing his usual role as well as his Texan cousin Red.  Paul Reubens is also on hand here as an obnoxious desk clerk and Michael Winslow cameos, doing his usual sound effects stuff.  The latter half of the film has Red and Chong going around town getting into mischief while Cheech tries to get laid.  It's not deep comedy (to be honest, the film is just weird) and Chong isn't much of a director but in spite of myself, I end up laughing enough to say give this a look.  Don't do it sober though, that's the sort of thing only a guy like me can pull off.

Up next, we get the good stuff...

1980: Honorable Mentions

1980 was a really great year for film.  While there was still some of the grit left over from the 70's (mainly in the low budget arena), the higher budgeted films were becoming more spectacular.  The laughs were bigger, the screams were bigger and the thrills were bigger.  Let's start with the stuff that was almost good enough for the top ten but not quite.

Clint's first film for the decade is this good natured, rather sweet comedy about a former New Jersey shoe salesman turned leader of a traveling wild west sideshow.  Clint turns in a nice performance as does the rest of the cast and the overall effect is one of laid back whimsy.  Definitely one of his unheralded gems.
Walter Hill's entertaining western seems at first a little too gimmicky for its own good with real life brothers playing the members of the Cole-Younger gang but it ends up being a nicely effective western with good work from the entire cast, especially James and Stacey Keach as Frank and Jesse James.

An enjoyable comedy with a great trio of comedic performances from the leads and a nice turn from Dabney Coleman as the boss of the three women who decide to get even with him.  Funny stuff.

Pretty damn great thriller starring Steve Railsback as a troubled Vietnam vet (Aren't they all in the movies?) roped into becoming a movie stuntman by director Peter O'Toole in an awesomely demonic performance.  This never got the due it deserved during its initial release but eventually it has become something of a cult favorite.  Given how amazing O'Toole is here, it's not hard to see why.

Interesting but ultimately too slow Canadian thriller about a young woman who goes to live with her grandmother who harbors a dark secret.  Good work from Kate Hawtry as the elderly maniac and Lesleh Donaldson as the young woman plus a nicely over the top ending make this one worth watching at least once though.

Very good, typically wild Ken Russell film about a scientist played by William Hurt who is doing experiments that end up sending him up and down the evolutionary ladder.  Hallucinatory f/x, some great Dick Smith f/x and a solid cast make this one of the better horror films of the year though the ending doesn't quite work.

Battle Beyond the Stars is a fantastically enjoyable sci-fi take on The Magnificent Seven.  Blessed with a great cast, f/x and a nice James Horner score, this Roger Corman production is one of the best films made in the wake of Star Wars' massive success.

Immensely amusing, over the top comedy musical that is still probably the best film based on an SNL sketch.  Great musical numbers, fun work from Belushi and Aykroyd and two of the best car chases ever captured on film.
Great dark horror comedy with a great performance from Rory Calhoun and a rousing chainsaw duel finale.

Solid little horror flick about an alligator in the sewers of New York that eats a bunch of people.  Fun cast with Henry Silva and Robert Forster; a clever John Sayles script, good direction from Lewis Teague and some nice gore make this one a pleasant diversion.

Fun Italian horror film about a bunch of alien spores that make people explode when they get into contact with them.  Some flashy gore and a rather neat monster at the end, plus a fun Ian McCulloch performance make this early Cannon Films pickup a fun ride.

This might the the most amazingly tasteless thing Roger Corman has ever produced.  A sordid, gory tale of a small fishing village besieged  by mutant fish men who kill men and rape women.  Tons of gore and nudity, a fun cast and really, the balls it took to even make the damn thing the way they did earns it a spot on the list.

It's not as good as it could have been but this Chuck Norris/Lee Van Cleef ninja movie is still worth watching if only for the last twenty minutes or so.  Chuck vs. ninjas is essentially all the plot we get and while the film is too slow, it does pick up at the end with a nicely chaotic finale.

Tom Savini's f/x and Joe Spinell's grimy performance are the only reasons to watch this nasty, thoroughly sleazy slasher flick but those two reasons alone make the film work to a certain degree.  Spinell provides one of the most uncomfortable portrayals of a psycho killer ever and Savini delivers some creative no holds barred gore.  A grindhouse classic, though watching it is difficult as hell.

Lucio Fulci delivers another gory ride to hell with this enjoyably gross, sort of cheesy film about the gates of hell being opened up and all the bad stuff that occurs as a result.  Some eye-catching gore scenes make this one stand out, though the director would do better the next year with The Beyond.

Jamie Lee Curtis is solid in this reasonably inventive slasher film set on a train.  Not really all that scary but Curtis is always a welcome sight and the killer changing disguises (it's a costume party) is a nice touch.

We end with the sequel to Clint Eastwood's 1978 shockingly good Every Which Way But LooseAny Which Way You Can is just as much of a fun romp as the first one, though it lacks the introspective stuff Clint tends to throw into his stuff.  Still, any film that ends with a twenty minute fight between Clint and biker movie vet William Smith is worth my time.

That's it for the best of the rest, coming soon is a dip into the mucky end of the pool.

About Me

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