Feb 8 2016

Hollywood Vice Squad (1986)

hollywoodvicePenelope Spheeris’ Hollywood Vice Squad is not a sequel to Gary Sherman’s Vice Squad of four years prior. Guess no one bothered to tell Spheeris or Hollywood Vice Squad, because the movie sure plays like one, if lighter, fluffier and with 100 percent more Travolta! Sure, it’s Joey Travolta, yet the stat still stands.

After a title card promises we are about to see stories “based on actual cases” undertaken by “one of the most unusual police organizations in the country,” the film introduces its cop characters at a quick clip, almost as an afterthought. Its semblant spine is built upon a concerned Midwestern mom (Trish Van Devere, Messenger of Death) coming to Tinseltown to plea for the help of LAPD Capt. Jensen (Ronny Cox, Deliverance) in locating her daughter (The Princess Bride herself, Robin Wright, pre-Penn and in her mo-pic debut). Unbeknownst to Mom, the girl’s become a smack-addicted hooker under the employ of the town’s most fearsome pimp, logically portrayed by Frank Gorshin, aka The Riddler to TV’s Batman.

hollywoodvice1Meanwhile, the token black cop (Leon Isaac Kennedy, Penitentiary) goes undercover as a rival pimp; the token female cop (Carrie Fisher, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) is hungry for action and itching to bust her friendly neighborhood pornographer, whom she believes is using underage studs in his homemade productions; and the token Asian cop (Evan Kim, The Dead Pool) and the token Italian cop (the aforementioned Travolta, To the Limit) partner up and have all sorts of crazy adventures. There are many others, but these head the most prominent of seemingly a dozen subplots between which Spheeris’ film leaps.

Scenes of action — usually involving vehicular pursuit and inconsequential to story — hold Hollywood Vice Squad together like transparent tape. The seams of the episodic approach show, yet Spheeris (Wayne’s World) seems not to care. And nor do I, when the results are this entertaining. (Watch for the cameraman in the back of a car during an alleyway scuffle — you won’t have to watch very hard!) The quite-a-cast movie is as rough around the edges as her acclaimed Decline of Western Civilization trilogy of punk/metal documentaries and certainly as fascinated with colorful characters — some may call them “freaks” — for whom phrases like “only in Hollywood” were coined.

Set on the streets, so authentic you can smell them (starting with the Church of Scientology’s neon sign), the movie works as crime exploitation and as a time capsule of mid-1980s El Lay. Serving as markers are the Sunset Strip’s various theater marquees, luring patrons to see Rocky IV, Invasion U.S.A., Clue, Spies Like Us and Bodacious Ta-Tas. Only in Hollywood. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Feb 7 2016

Reading Material: Short Ends 2/7/16

wecanbewhoweareJust a Hair shy of 800 pages, We Can Be Who We Are: Movie Musicals from the 1970’s is a brick. Available in hardback and paperback, the BearManor Media release by Lee Gambin is nothing if not a giant love letter to the cinema’s arguably most experimental decade of that once-sacrosanct genre. Going year by year, Gambin dives deep into each and (one assumes) every film that either is a full-fledged musical or dependent upon music; from those rated G to those rated X, he examines them with one eye toward history, one eye toward criticism and both ears toward their tunes. All the obvious titles are here, but what makes the book special is the inclusion of the lesser-knowns and obscurities, such as Son of Dracula (with Harry Nilsson and Ringo Starr), The First Nudie Musical, White Pop Jesus and assorted nuggets from the world of prime-time TV (e.g. The Paul Lynde Halloween Special). With the occasional doozy à la “Racquel Welch,” spelling is the author’s second greatest enemy, bested only by a tendency to let his interviews read as transcripts in need of a good trimming. Then again, when someone pours as much passion onto the pages as Gambin has here, I can understand his desire to impart as much here’s-what-happened knowledge as the spine glue allows.

movienighttriviaAs bright and colorful as its cartoon-concessions cover, Movie Night Trivia would work as a gift to a film-loving friend, but why not you, too? Across half a dozen categories, Robb Pearlman (with true-or-false assistance from Shane Carley) has written 400 questions to test your knowledge of yesteryear’s classics, today’s blockbusters and a bunch in between. These “brain-benders” range from easy (“Name Chuck Noland’s quiet, yet faithful, friend from 2000’s Cast Away”; it’s even multiple-choice) to hard (“Name the two races that join together when The Dark Crystal is restored”) to arguably misleading/not entirely factual (“Hitting theaters between 1998’s Star Trek: Insurrection and Star Trek: Nemesis [2002], _____ is often called the best Star Trek movie ever made” — the answer is Galaxy Quest; “never made” would be playing fair). Skill level be damned, the Cider Mill Press paperback is a visual treat, with many items getting their own well-designed, full-bleed page featuring photography from the flick in question. It’d make a killer app.

draculafaqClearly, Bruce Scivally has done his homework for Dracula FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Count from Transylvania. While the trade paperback touches upon the vampire’s literary roots and subsequent stage adaptations, it’s the prince of darkness’ numerous incarnations in the movies — reverent and irreverent, Universal and Hammer — that form the book’s focus. The most satisfying aspect of this is how these sections read like miniature making-of articles on the films, whether John Badham’s Dracula, Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula or the comedy Love at First Bite. Television runs a distant second focus, with looks at various comic books, Drac-influenced music and merchandise bringing up the rear, all illustrated with a wealth of photos and poster art. Being of the opinion that vampires don’t sparkle, I could do without the entire chapter devoted to The Twilight Saga; still, in the end, Dracula FAQ proves one of the very best entries from Backbeat Books’ ongoing FAQ line of pop-culture crash courses. Other recent titles tackle The Twilight Zone and TV finales; coming up are Rocky Horror and M*A*S*H.

horrorsubgenreHorror Films by Subgenre: A Viewer’s Guide is a rather drab title that doesn’t exactly get the saliva flowin’. Hiding behind it, however, is a fun work of reference presented uniquely. Spouses Chris Vander Kaay and Kathleen Fernandez-Vander Kaay have chopped and divided the world of fright flicks into 75 distinct categories of That Which Scares You, whether animal attacks, environmental disasters, invisible beings, serial killers, old folks, puppets, carnivals, tools, twins — you get the idea. And if you don’t, well, therein lay the book’s purpose: introducing the reader to a very specific type of terror. Each chapter begins with a brief essay about that subgenre, followed by the meat: reviews of three or four movies that Team Vander Kaay believes are among the best representations of that subject vs. the best quality. Part of the fun of reaching each is predicting which movies they might cover; while you’re apt to guess at least one correctly, they throw in their fair share of left-field choices, too. While you could flip only to those subgenres that interest you, the McFarland & Company trade paperback is also perfectly readable as a front-to-back experience. If horror isn’t your thing, perhaps one of McFarland’s several other serious-minded film texts of the season may be: Tim Burton: Essays on the Films, A Galaxy Here and Now: Historical and Cultural Readings of Star Wars and Wizards vs. Muggles: Essays on Identity and the Harry Potter Universe, to name just three. —Rod Lott

Get them at Amazon.

Feb 4 2016

Schoolgirls in Chains (1973)

schoolgirlschainsNot much occurs in the pedestrian and paltry Schoolgirls in Chains beyond what the title promises, and even that is a misnomer. I get it, though: Sexploitation is sexploitation, which requires salable sizzle, and “schoolgirl” tickles a particular — and particularly popular — fetish. Like Troma’s infamous Mother’s Day seven years later, this feature from The Love Butcher director Don Jones centers on two adult brothers who live a screwed-up existence with their screwy mother in a home just middle-of-nowhere enough to be ideal for their peculiar method of entertaining members of the opposite sex.

Frank (Gary Kent, Jones’ The Forest) is the brains of the Barrows boys; the mentally challenged John (John Parker, The Mighty Gorga), the brawn. Through automotive mishaps and what have you, the brothers nab the nubile, take them home and chain ’em up in the cellar with the others. On occasion, John likes to play doctor with them, whereas Frank has little patience for games — he just out-and-out rapes. Jones’ choice to score this grimy scene with romantic sax music is all the more troubling.

schoolgirlschains1Equally as troubling is the film’s highlight: a flashback in which Mother (Greta Gaylord) ruins Frank’s chances at marriage by telling his fiancée that while he used to wet the bed, he now just gets her wet in bed. Translation: incest. We can’t place all the blame on Mrs. Barrows, however, because in the same scene, when she asks her son for a massage to relieve the pain she’s having, he complies; the “pain” is in her breasts. I know women like to see how their husband-to-be treats his mama, but this? It’s a red flag that sews, raises and waves itself.

Yep, kids, SiC (!) is one of “those” kinds of movies, but it takes all kinds to make the world go ’round. It takes a village! —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Feb 3 2016

Heist (2015)

heistSix long years after organizing the underrated action film The Tournament, Scott Mann finally plants his ass in the director’s chair again to deliver another underrated action film in Heist. Although deprived of originality, it’s kinda great.

A loyal, longtime dealer at a riverboat casino, Vaughn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, The Losers) is in quite a pickle: His little girl is in the hospital receiving treatment for a life-threatening ailment, but all that is about to stop because he can’t afford to pay. After going to his gruff boss, Pope (Robert De Niro, not far removed from his Sam “Ace” Rothstein character in Martin Scorsese’s Casino), to ask for a $300,000 loan that promptly is turned down, Vaughn does the only thing he feels he can do: Rob Pope’s place. Teaming with an opportunistic security guard (Dave Bautista, Guardians of the Galaxy), Vaughn uses his access code to gain entrance to the vault — and thereby $3 million of laundered dough. Help yourself.

heist1As happens in heist films, the heist doesn’t go quite as planned, sending the crew scrambling with gunfire at their heels until they hop aboard and hijack a city bus full of innocent civilians. Thus, with an hour left, Heist becomes Speed, minus the mph gimmick. As the wheels on the bus go ’round and ’round, all through the town, Vaughn and company are chased by Pope’s right-hand man (a believably imposing Morris Chestnut, The Call) and the cops, including a sympathetic officer played stiffly by Haywire’s Gina Carano, a former MMA fighter.

One looks at the pace and polish of Heist and thinks, “Why not give Mann the next Fast and Furious sequel?” His action scenes are alive and cut in a way that keeps them easy to follow — a huge difference in today’s marketplace, as is a lead performance as solid as Morgan’s. The ending is as predictable as any, yet detonates a few surprises to get there — the most shocking being the charm and humor brought to the pic’s second half by Saved by the Bell vet Mark-Paul Gosselaar, of all people! It’s like the part was written for Ryan Reynolds, but they couldn’t afford him once De Niro boarded ship, so they “settled” for this former teen TV heartthrob. Against all expectations, he steals his scenes and is terrific. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Feb 2 2016

One-Sheet Shenanigans: Misconduct


Family Business (1989) vs. Misconduct (2016)