Aug 9 2017

Freeway (1988)

In Steve Martin’s seriocomic L.A. Story, there exists a once-buzzy scene played for laughs that may leave today’s young viewer wondering what the big deal was: various Angelenos exchanging gunfire as they drove down the highway. See, kids, in the late 1980s, long before our nation found the courage to kill our co-workers at the office like we do today, we shot people anonymously, from car to car. Guess you had to be there.

In terms of timeliness, filmmaker Francis Delia was there, with Freeway, the kind of quick and cheap newsploitation thriller studios no longer bother to make.

Darlanne Fluegel (To Live and Die in L.A.) is the morose Sunny, still an emotional wreck after witnessing her himbo physician hub fatally take a bullet to the skull from a passing motorist one night. With the killer still at large and aggressively active, Sunny feels the police detective assigned to the case (Michael Callan, Leprechaun 3) isn’t doing enough to put an end to the maniac’s four-wheeled reign of terror. For Chrissake, the fully loaded loon even makes a habit of spewing Book o’ Revelation babble by calling into a live AM radio show hosted by the not coincedentally named Dr. Lazarus (comedian Richard Belzer, The Groove Tube).

Then a director of music videos by Starship and “Weird Al” Yankovic, Delia teases the killer’s identity for much of Freeway‘s stretch, but no self-respecting genre junkie drawn to this kind of A/V smack will fall for the use of James Russo (Beverly Hills Cop) as a red herring — not with the sky-high billing of Billy Drago in the credits! Ever since Drago’s evil, pasty-white perf as Frank Nitti in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables the year prior, the poor guy was typecast as the craziest of crazies — much like Clint Howard (Evilspeak), who cameos as a Yet Another Creepy Guy.

Drago’s typecasting is not without justification; he plays bad very well. Thus, the nasty little thriller works well, too, with a modicum of fuss and one foot on the pedal, headed toward tawdry, thrifty suspense. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Jul 22 2017

Out of the Dark (1988)

As if a serial-killer thriller in which the targets are phone-sex workers weren’t ludicrous enough, Out of the Dark went one further by making said killer a former circus clown named Bobo.

And that, my friends, is why I miss the ’80s. Sigh …

The L.A.-based Suite Nothings is the dial-a-gasm operation in question, run by the blowsy, Jolt Cola-swilling Ruth (Karen Black, Airport 1975). For a reason that’s not really a reason once All Is Revealed at the end, her employees start to get killed after leaving the two-bit office for the night. First to go (unfortunately enough, because she’s strikingly beautiful) is a naive blonde (former Playboy centerfold Karen Witter, Popcorn) who meets Bobo in the park and plays invisible baseball with him until he cracks her on the noggin with a very real bat. Bobo commits his murders in full clown mask and while dancing jigs. The effect is bizarre, to say the least.

The investigating lieutenant (Tracey Walter, 1989’s Batman) suspects the girls’ headshot photographer, Kevin (Cameron Dye, Fraternity Vacation), but he’s the boyfriend of adorable Sweet Nothings employee Kristi (Lynn Danielson, Ghoulies IV). Besides, there’s that drunken photographer (Geoffrey Lewis, The Lawnmower Man) making threats because he’s jealous of Kev’s success. And how about that creepy CPA (Bud Cort, 1987’s Bates Motel) in the same building as Suite Nothings who tries to get close to the ladies …

While Bobo-hunting around a cheap motel, Kevin tells Kristi, “You have to think of this as an adventure in sleaze,” and that advice holds true for the viewer. Full of boobs and blood, Out of the Dark is exactly the kind of un-PC exercise in watching pretty girls die that revolted critics, yet churned many a rental dollar. For a flick this sordid, writer/director Michael Schroeder (Cyborg 2) sure assembled one hell of a cast! Aside from those previously mentioned, the B-movie all-star team includes bits by Tab Hunter (Grease 2), Lainie Kazan (The Delta Force), Divine (John Waters’ muse in his final role) and executive producer Paul Bartel (Chopping Mall), in a wig that makes him look like a bloated Chris Elliott. This one’s not for the humorless, although somehow, Bobo antics aside, it is played arrow-straight. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Jun 15 2017

47 Meters Down (2017)

Two things you should know about 47 Meters Down:
1. It was one week away from debuting on home video when it was picked up for a theatrical release.
2. One meter equals roughly 3.28 feet. Not being raised on the metric system, I had to Google that. It would have been helpful to know.

Nursing a broken heart, Lisa (Mandy Moore, Saved!) takes her younger, more liberated sister (Claire Holt, Messengers 2: The Scarecrow) with her to vacation in Mexico. Over fruity drinks, a couple of local studs (Jason X’s Yani Gellman and Scream: The TV Series’ Santiago Segura) cajole the girls into going shark-sighting with them the next day. Doing so entails donning scuba gear inside a metal cage lowered a few meters below the ocean’s surface. From the ship, captained by a gringo (Matthew Modine, TV’s Stranger Things), buckets of chum are dumped illegally to attract sharks to see. That method works — a little too well, when the winch snaps loose and the sisters are sent to the ocean floor, some 47 met– oh, you know?

As with similar minimalist shark thrillers Open Water and The Shallows, this is one of those high-concept films where the premise is so simple, one wonders how an entire feature can be squeezed from the tube. Director and co-writer Johannes Roberts (The Other Side of the Door) somehow manages. His bag of tricks may not be original — a cage door that gets caught, the ever-present deadline of expiring air tanks — but they work just enough to notch the movie over to the side of fun. It’s a crowd-pleaser, to be sure … if that crowd is full of viewers who are easily swayed and led around like, well, sharks to chum.

Gorgeous underwater photography, sharks that don’t look fake, a running time under 90 minutes and genial performances from Holt and Moore combine to combat the fact that 47 Meters Down lacks the intensity with which it should be waterlogged. Roberts delivers one showstopper of a shot I won’t spoil — it involves a flare — and stops just shy of an ending that would enrage audiences like nothing since The Mist. No flourish, however, earns Roberts the right to slap his name as a possessive above the title, as seen in the opening credits. Get at least one classic under your scuba belt first. —Rod Lott

May 30 2017

Escape (1971)

Cameron Steele (Christopher George, Mortuary) is a famous escape artist who can get outta anything … but couldn’t get into a weekly time slot, unfortunately. From director John Llewellyn Moxey (Horror Hotel), the made-for-TV movie Escape may be a “failed” pilot for what should have been a series, but it is a damn fine hour and a half of, um, escapism.

Now a private dick who lives above a bar catering to magicians, Steele takes a $25K gig to find Dr. Henry Walding (William Windom, She’s Having a Baby), a scientist who has gone missing — and whose lab has been torched — after cracking the code toward creation of a game-changing virus. As feared by Walding’s estranged daughter in the fashion industry (Marlyn Mason, Fifteen and Pregnant), the doc indeed has been kidnapped. As feared by no one, however, the culprit is Walding’s own brother, Charles (John Vernon, Killer Klowns from Outer Space), which is totally weird since he’s supposed to be deceased!

Charles is holding Henry captive, wishing to use his brother’s breakthrough for nefarious purposes. But the “why” is less important than the “where”: the Happyland amusement park! Yes, in order to spring Henry from captivity, Steele must navigate a funhouse laden with tricks and traps, which is where the telefilm lives up to the wonder promised by its way-out opening credits, scored by Mission: Impossible maestro Lalo Schifrin. In fact, Escape plays like an episode of M:I unfolding within a maze of mirrors — never a bad thing.

Serving up bonus kicks are members of the kitchen-sink supporting cast, including former Bowery Boy Huntz Hall, prime-past Oscar winner Gloria Grahame (The Bad and the Beautiful) and, as Steele’s associate, comedian Avery Schreiber (Loose Shoes) in a rare straight role — well, straight if we’re using his Doritos ads as the benchmark. —Rod Lott

May 22 2017

The Firm (1993)

If you’ve ever wanted to see someone kick the ever-lovin’ crap out of Wilford Brimley while he’s down on the ground — and let’s face it, we all have at one point in our lives — then why don’t you just go right ahead and move The Firm to the top of your queue.

We tend to forget there was a time when legal thrillers were actually Academy Award-chasing, taut courtroom explorations of a usually broken legal system, stylistically told in such a legalese-driven, attention-demanding way where viewers, no matter how bored, collectively waited on the edge of their bench for a jury-read verdict in the last 15 minutes so nerve-wracking you’d think it was their mama up for murder one; TL;DR, remember movies like The Verdict, … And Justice for All or From the Hip?

In the early 1990s, however, much like a young Michael Bay with LegalZoom gift certificate, that all changed when along came best-selling wunderkind John Grisham, an author whose works of idealist first-year Southern lawyers taking on a judicial system for dummies in very stupid (but thoroughly entertaining) works like The Pelican Brief, The Client, A Time to Kill and Christmas with the Kranks were adapted for films in a rapid succession not seen since the great Stephen King boom of the mid-’80s, dumbing down a subgenre that has never since recovered.

The best of these cinematic legal briefs, in my opinion, was the 1993 adaptation of The Firm — not to be confused with the best-selling series of booty-enhancement exercise videos, unfortunately — starring Tom Cruise as a super-driven hotshot fresh out of law school (and harnessing unexplained Olympic-level gymnastic abilities for reasons never offered) as he takes a job with a shadowy law firm made up of some of the most aged Caucasian actors Hollywood had to offer, including Gene Hackman, Hal Holbrook and the aforementioned Brimley as the oatmeal-lovin’ head of security. I’m pretty sure I saw Statler and Waldorf in one of the sweeping long shots, but that could just be the Mandela Effect.

When a well-meaning business trip to the Cayman Islands leads to Cruise seeing some clearly marked and easy-to-read files he apparently wasn’t meant to see, things get pretty complicated as he tries to figure out a way to turn everything over to the feds without being disbarred or have the mafia (obligatory Paul Sorvino cameo) cap him. When a short-lived, mostly cognizant Gary Busey enters the picture, things get mildly confusing, what with all the switcheroos and double-dealing and subplots about overbilling, many scenes of which are still parodied today, as of late by an extremely irritating M&M’s ad that plays before most movie trailers.

With a very strong cast, including the mannish-jawed, Southern-style bold ’n’ saucy combo of Holly Hunter and Jeanne Tripplehorn, Ed Harris as an impatient spook and an out-of-place David Strathairn as a supposedly hardened convict, perhaps the most memorable character is Saw’s Tobin Bell as the law firm’s hitman, a role made even creepier by him sporting an albino mullet, apparently from the Rutger Hauer for Men signature hairpiece collection.

Director Sydney Pollack (Tootsie) does a great job of crafting a tense, paranoid thriller based around the dumbest of conceits, but with a smirking Cruise in control and a cast of fermented gravitas, it surprisingly still holds up almost 25 years later, with enough turns and twists to keep anyone from yelling “Objection!” to their television, no one in particular listening. Apparently they made a sequel to this, in the form of a TV series, but I’ll be damned if I ever heard about it. Case closed. — Louis Fowler

Get it at Amazon.