Monday, March 27, 2017

1995 Deep Dive: Intro and January/February

From 2012 to 2014, I had a series called My Favorite Era that was a true labor of love for me. It covered films from 1975 to 1994 and as far as projects go, it was a tiring experience in the best possible way. I've done a few other large scale things for the site recently (my looks at dead film companies) but with this new series, I'm looking to cover some years from the second half of the 90's as well as take a somewhat deeper dive into some years I have already covered (1991 for example). Now I did some top ten posts for those years and the following fourteen or so, but to be frank those pieces suck. Badly.

For this series, my plan is to take each year one or two months at a time, depending on the number of releases that catch my interest (as usual, not reviewing everything, just the stuff that catches my eye). I'll examine a few films per post and at the end of each year, I'll post some totals and summarize my thoughts and maybe throw in some extra goodies along the way.

Let's begin with 1995 and the first two dump months (fittingly enough, we are about to discuss some crap), January and February. I've always felt 1995 was a rather mediocre year for films (part of my point in doing these is to revisit things to see just how full of it I may or may not be). It lacks the sheer quality of 1990, the consistency of 1992 to 1994 and the eccentric strangeness that was 1991 (seriously, Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare might have ended up on my top ten if not for that documentary on the making of Apocalypse Now). But enough prelude, let's get to the flicks!


 Fittingly enough, we begin with what I consider to be one of the best films of the year... Which should give you an idea of the journey we will be going on here. I absolutely love the Tales From the Crypt TV show and Demon Knight does a pretty damn great job of replicating the overall feel of the series. William Sadler plays a mysterious stranger trying to keep a mystical key out of the hands of a demon played wonderfully by Billy Zane. He ends up at a dilapidated hotel out in the middle of nowhere with some future victims/heroes and the ensuing demon siege is just one enthusiastically gory set piece after another. Ernest Dickerson does a fine job of directing things and keeps the pace fast and brutal (this is seriously one of the goriest horror films of the decade) while also throwing in some truly funny moments (Thomas Haden Church is funny as the obligatory guy who is disagreeable just for the sake of being a prick). Damn shame the sequel isn't anywhere near as good but what can you do?

Ellen Barkin is the seductive second in command at a shadowy firm called The Toolshed that specializes in blackmail and other dirty tricks and Laurence Fishburne is an ex CIA operative who ends up working and falling for her in a plot to killer her boss, played by Frank Langella whilst at the same time, trying to buy off a State Supreme Court judge in order to get a favorable ruling in a case one of their clients is embroiled in. It's at that point that things get... Well, complicated.

I know, from that first sentence you would think it was straightforward as hell. Right?

I love a good, twisty thriller and Bad Company is a solid enough effort with a quietly fantastic cast (everybody plays it cool except for the sex scenes); some really nice production design and an intriguing story that essentially takes a stack of despicable people and sets them against one another at random. Performances, as I said, are quite good with Fishburne and Barkin giving us two really, really slimy baddies, Langella putting in his usual professional job and Gia Carides doing pretty well as the mistress of the aforementioned judge who comes up with a rather improbable but ultimately successful plan for revenge.

The film isn't perfect though, there are probably one or two more twists than the plot really needs and the road to the climax sort of drags a bit before the grimly satisfying conclusion. The involvement of the CIA is a key part of the story but it ends up being sort of a red herring as the real issue ends up being Fishburne vs. Barkin which to be fair, is far more interesting.

Bad Company wasn't given much of a chance and it got mostly poor reviews (though Roger Ebert liked it), but I think it's worth a look for fans of film noir. On an amusing side note, Touchstone Pictures released this in January of 1995 and seven years later released an action movie with the same title starring Chris Rock and Anthony Hopkins. This one is way better.

Amazingly enough, after the colossal cluster gang bang that was Highlander II: The Quickening, there managed to be a third film (to say nothing of the fourth and fifth films plus the syndicated TV series which had been airing since 1992 and its spin-off and the anime sequel), Highlander III: The Final Dimension. It's also been called Highlander III: The Sorcerer, Highlander III: The Final Conflict, Highlander III: The Magician and just plain old Highlander III. Personally, I'd go for Highlander III: What the Hell For? but that's just me.

Christopher Lambert is back (I could easily call this post "Chris and Larry Get Paid" given how often Mr. Lambert and Mr. Fishburne show up here) as the immortal Connor Macleod, going up against an evil sorcerer named Kane, played with hammy (though not really good) relish by Mario van Peebles. If you've seen the first movie, you've pretty much seen this one with the only difference being there is no Sean Connery on-hand to make the exposition mildly plausible. It's also not dull and boring like this one is as even the hammy villain that van Peebles gives us seems uninspired, though the bit where he tries to eat a condom, not knowing what it's for (he's been entombed for 400 years after the fifteen minute prologue) is mildly amusing.

Does the film do anything right? Well, it isn't quite as amazingly bad as the second film, though it's also not as hilarious to watch. In fact it outright ignores the second film which was good but going the loose remake route wasn't the right choice to make either. Mako is okay in his small cameo in the beginning, but then again he's always good so that's sort of a meaningless statement to make. About the nicest thing I can say in its favor is that it fits the profile for a dump month release just fine.

Highlander III is a needless, cheap looking, lazy rehash of a sequel with no reason to exist.


I've already reviewed this one pretty thoroughly but it's one of those films I never really get sick of talking about. John Carpenter really hit it out of the ballpark with this one, creating a creepy, moody bit of mind-screw cinema with an impressive cast (Sam Neill and Jurgen Prochnow are great and even Charlton Heston makes an impact in his two scenes); a nice score and some really neat f/x from KNB. It's a damn shame this didn't strike box office gold. Maybe making its original September, 1994 release date would have helped.

Not quite as good though still not bad) is this Sam Raimi western that stars Sharon Stone as the nameless loner with a troubled past and Gene Hackman as the bad guy she's gunning for. You could say she's in an unforgiving mood when it comes to him... Hey, I'm not the one who cast the guy as another western villain after Unforgiven!

Stone enters a quick draw tournament in the town Hackman rules with an iron fist and really, that's about as complex as the plot gets (though that doesn't stop it from throwing in a few twists here and there) as Stone duels against a variety of colorful characters, along with an old member of Hackman's gang who's become a priest played by Russell Crowe and a cocky young man played by Leonardo DiCaprio who turns out to be Hackman's son. While the cast is good enough, it can be said that most coast by on just sheer talent as the script is pretty predictable and paint-by-numbers, at least just from a writing standpoint.

When the film is focusing on the duels, it's actually pretty solid as Raimi was still in his flashy showoff mode that made the Evil Dead films such a hoot. Hackman is solid as usual (though I would have preferred Lance Henriksen in the role as opposed to the smaller part he has), Crowe and DiCaprio are decent enough and even Stone does well for herself. The only cast member I'm not big on is Pat Hingle but that's more annoyance at his other work I've seen (he tends to ham it up rather badly at times and his Commissioner Gordon is just depressing to watch these days) than anything else.

The stuff between the gunfighting is sort of just there but fortunately, it's mostly action and Raimi does a great job of making each fight different. The Quick and The Dead isn't a perfect movie, but it is a fun way to kill 105 minutes.

Proving once again that there is no profession he can't make cool, Sean Connery stars as an anti-death penalty Harvard professor who gets drawn into a murder case down in Florida in this rather mediocre legal thriller. Connery plays Paul Armstrong who is asked to try and help stop the execution of a Cornell University graduate for rape and murder. Based on a novel, it has the usual twists and turns one expects from a film like this. Connery's family ends up in peril, things aren't quite what they appear to be at first, just about every cliche that can be ticked off gets its due ticking. We even get a Hannibal Lecter-esque prisoner on death row played by Ed Harris (the actor, not me of course) who plays a role in the story and really it's generally not a good sign when the character who is way out in left field in terms of the actor's performance (Harris leaves no piece of scenery unchewed) and detracts from the story is also the best part. Even Laurence Fishburne as a no-nonsense cop isn't enough to make this one really engaging. The twists seem poorly thought out (how Connery's wife fits into the plot is quite stupid) and  haphazardly executed. That's just the kiss of death for a thriller.

Finally, we have another Christopher Lambert vehicle as Chris (don't think he ever had a cool nickname like The Muscles from Brussells, he was just sort of there) plays a businessman who ends up pissing off a bunch of ninjas when he witness the murder of a prostitute he's met, played by Joan Chen. He is nursed back to health (takes most of the film, actually) by a samurai who has a grudge against the main ninja and it all gets very bloody before the end.

Lambert is okay (the film goes the smart route and just says he's an American businessman as opposed to how most Jean-Claude van Damme films go through convulsions trying to explain the accent) and Joan Chen is wasted but John Lone is solid as the main ninja. The action is good too but the film is generally too long (110 minutes is a bit much for a film like this) and honestly if this were done by Cannon in the mid-80's, it probably would be at least cheesy "so bad it's good" fun. A lack of humor really hurts this one.

1995 got off to a surprisingly solid start with a few decent flicks released. In the Mouth of Madness and The Quick and The Dead are solid, as is Demon Knight and Bad Company is probably worth checking out at least once. The bad stuff is mostly forgettable with nothing standing out as particularly egregious.

Next up, March and April.

Monday, March 20, 2017

From Avco to Dino: DEG

After purchasing the theatrical division of Embassy Pictures, Dino DeLaurentiis was essentially manning an unmanned army. Whilst unable to get in on the last few Embassy releases or any of the stuff Nelson Entertainment was involved in, he was able to purchase some land in Wilmington, North Carolina (where his production of Firestarter had been filmed, hence his inspiration for the location) and set up a studio there, DEG.

The studio was short-lived and succumbed rather swiftly to bankruptcy, but it did manage to eke out an interesting slate of movies. Sort of.

First off was this quick attempt to cash in on the success and burgeoning popularity of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Dino managed to get him to make one last film for him. Better than Red Sonja (yeah, there's a challenge) but not as good as the two Conan films (whatever faults the second film has, it's still better than this one), Raw Deal is an agreeably cheesy time waster but honestly, you're probably going to opt for something else if you're craving some old school Arnie. For an earlier take from me, click here.

One of many films released during this period based on a line of toys, this is one I have no plans on ever watching for any reason.

I reviewed this part of my My Favorite Era series and it's still one of the best junk food movies I have ever seen. Is it good? No, not especially. Do I wish Stephen King had directed at least one more time? Absolutely!

This one was a dud at the box office but it's a watchable enough late 80's animated film. The animation style is pretty solid considering the time period, voice acting is good and the soundtrack is quite good. If nothing else, it's better than the live action films.

Flashy Michael Mann adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon (later adapted again in 2002) with a good cast, typically 80's style from Mann and a solid climax set to Iron Butterfly. Not a great film, but a decent enough one in the franchise that is surpassed only by The Silence of the Lambs.

Controversial David Lynch movie that is about as close to a straightforward narrative as you are likely to get from the man (with the exception of The Elephant Man and his 1997 film The Straight Story) as Kyle MacLachlan plays a young man in a small town drawn into a murder mystery involving sadism, sex and Dennis Hopper in one possibly his most insane performance. It's not an especially easy film to watch but if you can stomach it, it's rather engrossing.

Fairly obscure film from Albert Pyun that barely got a release.

Charles Martin Smith directed this tale of a young heavy metal fan haunted by his undead idol, a deranged musician who killed himself and is now able to influence others. There was a spate of rock and roll themed horror films that came out around this time, and this is not one of the better ones.

Loose adaptation of a James Clavell that failed to reach the popularity that the Shogun miniseries did earlier in the decade.

Pro Wrestling and Hal Needham meet in this wild comedy starring Dirk Benedict (of The A-Team) as a sleazy promoter who gets involved in wrestling and rock music. Several pro wrestlers appear in this film, most notably the late Rowdy Roddy Piper and the film faced some release issues as well as problems during production, resulting in it being released straight to video.

Well reviewed dark comedy about three sisters in the deep south who get together and confront their pasts. Yeah, it's a chick flick.

Appropriately enough, this king-sized sequel to Dino's version of King Kong is a king-sized flop. Bad acting, an amazingly stupid script and dodgy f/x sink this one like a rock. Just awful.

The next two, I honestly have nothing to talk about. By this point, DEG was  beginning to look like a lost cause as a bad 1986 gave way to an even worse 1987, though there a few bright spots.

After two poor outings, DEG had, if not exactly financial success, than at least an artistic one as Evil Dead 2 is probably the best thing associated with them. More than enough words have been written about how great this one is so I will just add  nod of agreement and move along.

This is probably what really did the studio in as not only did you have a movie sponsored by a trash bag company (which is tempting fate in ways beyond even my imagination), you also had an accompanying cash prize for potential viewers... From a company that was already in deep financial doo-doo. The fact that it's a rather limp rip-off of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World didn't help matters much either.

This is probably the last genuinely fantastic movie DEG made. Lance Henriksen stars as the leader of a pack of modern vampires who stalk the American southwest. Great performances across the board plus nice f/x and solid direction from Kathryn Bigelow make this a real treat.

The latter part of 1987 was where the wheels really came off. DEG was losing money and the last year and a half or so would see one or two decent flicks buried with delays, poor reviews and even worse box office returns. Dino would end up resigning from the company in early 1988. honestly, not many of their films from this period are worth mentioning apart from a couple which I will highlight.

 A case where DEG went uncredited due to their bankruptcy (this happened with several movies, including one which ended up with Orion funnily enough), Shakedown is a solid action film from James Glickenhaus that stars Peter Weller as an idealistic public defender who gets drawn into a police corruption case. Sam Elliot is a tough cop who helps him out and while the story is fairly pedestrian, the action scenes are quite spectacular.

 This is one that I always wanted to see just based on the VHS sleeve but never got the chance to. Shadoe Stevens is a touch Texas State Trooper who quite to become a mercenary as well as bake cookies. Yet another DEG release that ended up going right to the video store, this is an agreeably wacky action comedy and with a better script, it might have been an actual good one.

Stan Winston made his directorial debut with this solid little monster movie that stars Lance Henriksen as a grieving father who carelessly lets a monstrous demon loose to avenge his dead son, only for grave consequences to reveal themselves as events unfold. Good acting from Henriksen and a rather cool monster make this one a fun viewing.

I covered this in my Orion series but it bears mentioning that initially, it was with DEG. It was one of many films that ended up being delayed (including the really bad Jay Leno/Pat Morita action comedy Collision Course which I will be sparing you) with the last of them coming out in 1992.

An unqualified disaster, DEG essentially ended Dino's tenure as a major producer. Dino continued making movies until 2007 with some ending up pretty good (Breakdown) and others being the last three Hannibal Lecter films. He had one hell of a career regardless of how you feel about his movies.

And that wraps it up for this series., Hope you enjoyed it.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

From Avco to Dino: Catching up with Dino

Before we get into what happened after Dino DeLaurentiis took over film production for what was left of Embassy, let's do a brief (by my standards) primer on the man. This was initially going to be a series based solely on the man's work but as noted in the first part of the series, Embassy and Dino sort of flow into each other nicely. I also love the irony of writing a lavish (yet cheesy in a way) epic about a producer known for epic, yet cheesy cinematic extravagance.

Dino was, for whatever his faults in the realms of taste were, a man who loved making movies... and money... which he loved to spend on more movies.

Starting off in Italy, he first gained fame by producing several of Federico Fellini's films before moving onto more epic fare. Literally.

After more films in Italy, Dino decided to head stateside to make films in America and after some collaborations with Charles Bronson (including the first Death Wish) among other films, he made his own big splash in 1976...

Note that I said it was a big splash. I didn't say jack about it being any damn good! I've written about this a few times before and it is still one of my favorite bad movies (though Orca is still better). Just as Dino is one of my favorite producers of bad movies. When the man was good, he was good. When he was bad, weirdly enough, in a twisted sort of way, he was even better.

Dino parlayed the success of King Kong '76 (financial, though some critics liked it) into more movies for Paramount which had handled American distribution for a lot of his international output as well as his early American efforts.

Much as I love this one, I'm frigging done with writing about it. I'd rather be eaten by an Orca at this point than write another word about the movie. Besides, I can't top either my review which can be found on the site or the one Liz did over at And You Call Yourself a Scientist?

This was the bomb that broke the camel's back as far as Paramount went and after this, Dino teamed up with Universal for a while, though he also went back to Paramount from time to time (most notably with The Dead Zone). A disaster film in more ways than one, this is an overblown love story mixed with tropical storms, sordid plot twists and bad acting. For all the grisly details, I'll direct you once more to And You Call Yourself a Scientist?.

Dino spent the majority of the first half of the 80's churning out entertaining genre films that sometimes ended up cheesy classics like Flash Gordon...
Stepping stones for guys like Arnold Schwarzenegger...

And sometimes, unbridled WTF cinema.
You know you're in for something special when the acres of exposition needed to make this adaptation of the Frank Herbert novel coherent for general audiences starts off with Virginia Madsen narrating things on screen (at one point she fades out and back in because she 'forgot' to add some details) and then gives us more or less a slideshow presentation of the planets involved in the plot before getting down to business to say nothing of more exposition.

Dune is exactly what most of its detractors call it. Overblown, confusing and repulsive in parts. It is also visually fascinating, wonderfully cast (I even like Sting, bad acting and all) and directed rather nicely by David Lynch who struggled manfully to make something coherent out of the mess that is the script. It's not really a great movie, or even an especially good one but like Zardoz (one of my other favorite wacko sci-fi flicks), I find it a fascinating viewing experience. In fact, I sort of love the damn thing.

Dino's other go-to was Stephen King adaptations. I've already given you a taste of The Dead Zone as well as this adequate anthology but there's so much more to see...

Okay, there's what I'm about to talk about, another film for the next segment and Firestarter which I already covered. But still!

The lone werewolf movie on Stephen King's resume, this sports an interesting cast and some decent gore effects though the werewolf design by Carlo Rambaldi leaves a little to be desired. Still, this is a cheesily enjoyable little horror flick. Not essential viewing, but pleasant enough.

Lastly, we have the third film Arnie did for Dino, another sword and sorcery flick only this time The Austrian Oak plays second fiddle to Brigitte Nielsen (in her acting debut which proves to just horrendously wooden) stars as the title character, a warrior woman looking to avenge the deaths of her family at the hands of an evil sorceress played here by Sandahl Bergman. Arnold is okay as Lord Kalidor (though let's face it, he's supposed to be Conan no matter what the damn film says) and the film would have been an acceptable time waster if it had just been him and Red Sonja hacking their way through bad guys.

Sadly, the film finds it necessary to burden everyone including the viewers with some odious comic relief in the form of a child prince played by Ernie Reyes Jr. and his bodyguard, played by Paul Smith. Smith is fine on his own (the man can do intimidating and comic stuff with equal skill) but the annoying kid sidekick angle just grates on the nerves. There are some cool elements here and there (some nice production design in the form of some cool matte paintings and the action is decent enough) but the acting and story are terrible and the film just flat out doesn't work. It kind of makes one appreciate Conan the Destroyer just a little more.

While all this was going on, Dino was making some deals and acquiring the film production division of Embassy Pictures. The end result would be a short lived but halfway decent (as in two of the four years DEG existed were good) run of films that will end this series. But that is a tale for another day.

From Avco to Dino: Farewell Embassy. Hello Dino!

To finish off the Embassy section of this series, we're taking 1982-1986 in one fell swoop. In 1982, Embassy was purchased by Norman Lear and Jerry Perenchio who dropped the Avco and beefed up the TV division by adding in the shows they were already producing (like The Jeffersons which ran for way longer than you might guess, 1975 to 1985) and also creating a home video division. This would last until, coincidentally, 1985.

The lineup of films from that period? Well, it exists. Honestly, the last few years for Embassy yielded better small screen efforts (and I do consider renting Phantasm, The Howling and Escape from New York for a Saturday night to count towards that) with shows like Silver Spoons and Who's the Boss? becoming successful. The films ended up being mostly forgettable genre efforts with only a few standing out as actually good.

As with the last part of this series, we're not covering everything but showcasing all of the poster art. Because mid-80's poster art was still pretty awesome.

Sleazy action flick with Wings Hauser in a memorably over the top role the the main bad guy, a sadistic pimp.

One of my all time favorites and probably the last great thing from Embassy. I've reviewed this a few times elsewhere but it still bears repeating that this is one of the best DC Comics adaptations that doesn't have Batman in it. Granted that says more about the relative quality of the Superman franchise past the first film than anything else but still! Ask me to name my top 5 DC Comics adaptations and you're gonna get The Dark Knight, the first Superman movie, unless I'm feeling like something horror in which case Constantine gets the nod, Batman, Batman Returns and this one.

I have a weakness for old school Charles Band films and this one, coming at the tail end of the 80's 3-D craze, has Demi Moore in an early role, trying to fend off ravenous parasites in poor 3-D. I'm guessing she leaves this out of any career retrospective things she might be asked to do.

A bad knock-off of The Blue Lagoon, which was already pretty bad in its own right.

Cheesy slasher film that for years was only available in a murky VHS print. It has since been remastered, though that probably doesn't help the quality of the actual film that much.

Cold War shoot-em-up that sees Ken Wahl going up against those dastardly Commies as they try to nuke oil fields in Saudi Arabia.

Always wanted to check this one out, if nothing else the poster is cool and Scott Glenn is always a fun actor to watch.

Hit teen sex comedy with the future stars of Charles in Charge.

Predictable sex comedy notable only for an early role for Tom Cruise the same year the much better Risky Business came out.

Notable Ingmar Bergman film. It's... Well, it's long. Got good reviews, though.

Wings Hauser is the good guy here in this standard 80's action flick that sees him as a former cop gunning for a serial killer. Wings is fun to watch.

Caught a bit of this on late night TV recently. It's an interesting musical comedy about a New
Year's Eve concert at a small theater.

The last classic from Embassy is this brilliantly funny mockumentary about a struggling heavy metal group. Slyly directed by Rob Reiner, this has tons of funny bits and a great cast. Good stuff.

Gary Busey got good reviews for his portrayal of legendary college football coach Bear Bryant in this biopic.

In 1985, Embassy was sold to Coca-Cola and this is really where the TV division takes over as it would outlast the film division with hits like Married... with Children. The film division would eventually peter out (Six films left to at the very least look at the poster since the films themselves aren't too hot. Though the one above got good notices) and the company would be spread out between several other companies by 1986.

The last release of 1985 for Embassy, this is an adaptation of the hit Broadway musical and stars Michael Douglas.

Poorly mishandled Sam Raimi film as studio interference kept him from making the film as he thought it should be made.

The company managed to survive and thrive for an impressive amount of time with a nice stack of legit great films to their name and many others. While the TV division of Embassy continued to do just fine, this was the end for their film production. Their home video division became Nelson Entertainment which was eventually taken over by New Line which is another story for another day. 

Their theatrical release division, however, went to Italian producer Dino DeLaurentiis and well, I think you can guess what the next part of this series will be.

Coming Soon: Catching Up with Dino

About Me

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