Mar 19 2017

Reading Material: Short Ends 3/19/17

Getting a nightly fix of The Twilight Zone in a syndicated run one summer in the 1980s, I was taught a couple of things: Rod Serling was a frickin’ genius, and not all black-and-white TV is boring. According to TV critic Mark Dawidziak, many more lessons await imparting, which he has detailed in Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone: A Fifth-Dimension Guide to Life, a “heartfelt tribute … wrapped in a self-help book.” Here, Dawidziak has taken 50 common-sense life lessons — such as “Never cry wolf” and “If something looks too good to be true, it probably is” — and discusses them in relation to key TZ episodes (even the one with Talking Tina). While the book is not an episode guide, each chapter could stand alone as a fine essay on one aspect of the game-changing series. Fully illustrated with stills from the shows in question and including “Guest Lessons” from the likes of Leonard Maltin and Mel Brooks, Dawidziak’s syllabus is infinitely more relatable than the likes of Zig Ziglar, but you’d better already be a hardcore TZ fan to gain any value.

By the power of Zeus, Italian Sword and Sandal Films, 1908-1990 is not the definitive book I wanted it to be, mostly because so little of it required actual writing on the part of co-authors Roy Kinnard and Tony Crnkovich. Published by McFarland & Company, the trade paperback does cover what its title promises, with films of the peplum genre arranged alphabetically from Adventurer of Tortuga to Zorro the Rebel, but said coverage is largely rendered irrelevant by the existence of the IMDb, because we get a full list of the cast and crew. Comments from Kinnard and Crnkovich, unfortunately, are limited to a sentence or two, except in the rare case of a game-changer like 1958’s Hercules. Otherwise, their contribution to each entry is scant; for example, for Charge of the Black Lancers, they write in total, “It’s the Poles vs. the Tartars in this action drama, co-produced by Italy’s Royal Film, France’s France-Cinéma Productions, and Yugoslavia’s C.F.S. Košutnjak.” Gripping, no? Although illustrations are bountiful, Italian Sword and Sandal Films is more of a list than a book. I suppose if the apocalypse wipes out the internet, it may serve more purpose.

I want to get lost in Rat Pack Confidential author Shawn Levy’s latest book. Not in the sense of perusing its pages, which I’ve already done, but actually retreating to the world it depicts. Pending the creation of the time machine, I was born too late. The next best thing is the book, Dolce Vita Confidential: Fellini, Loren, Pucci, Paparazzi, and the Swinging High Life of 1950s Rome, and while not exclusively about movies and the men and women who made them (hence the Pucci, as in kaleidoscopic fashion maven Emilio), the cinema arguably did more than high fashion to make the Italian capital a cultural touchstone around the postwar globe; Anita Ekberg’s fountain-cavorting sure saw to that. Part history, part travelogue, all intoxicating, Levy’s multinarrative work vividly recalls a jet-set splendor that, while never can be replicated, at least can be revisited through the film classics that have visually bottled that feeling forever. Or we could always throw an orgy. —Rod Lott

Get them at Amazon.

Mar 16 2017

Up Your Ladder (1979)

Sketchy in all definitions of the word, Up Your Ladder plays like a filmed adaptation of a dirty joke book, but with all the finesse and professionalism of middle schoolers who got hold of Dad’s camcorder while he was out of town. Its floss-thin excuse of a framework for its phalanx of gags is a talking apartment building — no, really! With 138 units, the Villa Elaine has many stories to tell, and the movie’s host is Elaine herself, personified in transparent overlay miniature by Cindy Morgan (in her feature debut, one year before her breakout role as Caddyshack seductress Lacey Underall), whose suspenders-centered outfit greatly diminishes her considerable sex appeal.

Elaine introduces viewers to various tenants past and present (as well as people elsewhere, meaning Up Your Ladder is not even competent enough to stick to its own stupid concept). Then we see their naughty, below-the-Borscht Belt bits play out — many times for no more than one minute, since it doesn’t take that long to reach a punch line. As good an example as any: Inside apartment 319, a bachelor (Rick Dillon, Female Chauvinists) is about to get busy with a hot-to-trot date (Tallie Cochrane, The Centerfold Girls) until she expresses fear she’s been exposed to either VD or TB, but cannot remember which. So naturally, the horny guy places an urgent call to his doctor (Thomas Newman, The Munsters’ Revenge), who advises, “Tell her to run around the room a few times. If she coughs, fuck her.” Hang up, lights out, slide whistle.

I know, I know: Groan. And that’s just the first sketch!

If you choose to subject yourself to Up Yours (its alternate title), grit your molars and steel yourself for a prudish woman (Joe Dante regular Belinda Balaski, Amazon Women on the Moon) harangued by obscene phone calls; for a bedridden old man (Michael Pataki, The Bat People) who, thinking himself a vampire, bites butts; for a busty manicurist (Ilsa herself, Dyanne Thorne) applying for a barbershop job; for a nude tap dancer (Odette Wyler, aka The Boob Tube’s Becky Sharpe) who, uh, tap dances nude; for a chesty medical patient afraid to undress (Jill Jacobson, Nurse Sherri); for a compulsive masturbator (didn’t catch his name — does it matter?); and for a very hungry husband (Chuck McCann, Hamburger: The Motion Picture) whose wife forgot to buy groceries, so he eats a can of dog food out of desperation.

Wondering where the sex might be in that last setup? It’s in McCann’s character fatally attempting to lick his own testicles — blessedly offscreen, and for that, we are thankful. Too bad that doesn’t extend to the rest of this atrocity, so unfunny it’s an enemy of comedy. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Mar 15 2017

The Ambushers (1967)

Matt Helm adventure No. 3, The Ambushers, finds the ever-sassy, always-sauced spy (Rat Pack crooner Dean Martin) ordered by Intelligence Counter Espionage (ICE) to retrieve the federal government’s super-secret, experimental flying saucer, which has been hijacked. One José Ortega (Albert Salmi, Caddyshack), a millionaire beer magnate, and his precious, all-powerful, matter-moving laser beam are to blame. Luckily for the film, Ortega and the U.S. UFO are located in Acapulco, so what’s a secret agent to do? An assignment’s an assignment, and Matt unconvincingly goes undercover as a fashion photographer.

Accompanying Matt are his alcohol-soaked bloodstream and fellow ICE agent Sheila Sommers. As played by Janice Rule (The Swimmer), Sheila is homelier than the Helm series’ average above-average female foil; compared to forbearing curve-bearers Stella Stevens in The Silencers or Ann-Margret in Murderers’ Row, the stick-like Rule looks like a PTA mom — okay, so a PTA mom who hasn’t given up on joie de vivre, but still, Rule’s casting as eye candy is eyebrow-raising curious. The Ambushers is, after all, a movie whose opening credits serve as a proto-MTV video for Hugo Montenegro’s catchy, teeny-bopper tune about how hot and sexy those hot and sexy girls are in their hot and sexy bikinis. Plus, every woman wants to bed Matt, and he, every woman.

The Ambushers’ cavalier attitude toward coupling makes a subplot of Sheila’s extra-icky and bothersome: When Ortega zapped the saucer out of the sky and onto his turf, Sheila was its pilot … and he raped her into a shadow of her former self. Still shell-shocked from the trauma, she harbors personal reasons to end Ortega’s reign.

Folks, The Ambushers is a comedy. At no point does director Henry Levin (The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm) allow anything to alter the sunshine-and-lollipops mood of the picture (and, by extension, the four-pic series as a whole). But brush all those thoughts aside so we get back to the brass tacks of our businessman/rapist: He has plans to auction the spacecraft to the highest bidder, currently “an Oriental gentleman whose name I cannot pronounce.” Oh, boy. Given those Breakfast at Tiffany’s times, I’m half-surprised Levin and screenwriter Herbert Baker (The Girl Can’t Help It) didn’t Go There and name the $100 million bidder Commander Chow Mein or something.

Sexism, racism, other -isms: all par for the course (coarse?) of that era of pop culture. Through the eyes and ears of today, these elements smart … and yet do not completely ruin the fun, of which the movie offers plenty, right down to a roller-coaster of a climactic chase. The Ambushers is a flick of literal bullet bras, killer maracas, melting belt buckles, insta-tents, giant beer bottles, beer-barrel bowling, magic bartending, deadly fezzes, funny cigarettes (not the kind laced with THC, mind you), sultry Senta Berger (The Quiller Memorandum) and constant jokes at the expense of women having bumps and folds that men do not — hee-haw! —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Mar 14 2017

Seedpeople (1992)

Before the video store went to seed, Charles Band made a mint in the early 1990s when he shifted focus from putting his low-budget horror and sci-fi movies in theaters and instead created them directly for the VHS rental market. Under the Full Moon label, these films capitalized heavily on their own brand, cultivating a rabid fanbase and presaging the DVD experience by tacking a behind-the-scenes “VideoZone” onto the tapes. Among those early titles: Puppetmaster, Subspecies, Dollman and Seedpeople.

Containing jussssst enough of a touch of Invasion of the Body Snatchers to not get sued, Seedpeople is told almost entirely in flashbacks by geologist Tom Baines (Sam Hennings, Indecent Behavior III) from the confines of his hospital bed to an inquisitive FBI agent (an uncredited Michael Gregory, Eraser). His story begins with a return visit to his tiny hometown of Comet Valley, where his old girlfriend (Andrea Roth, Dark Places) runs a bed-and-breakfast and dates the asshole sheriff (Dane Witherspoon, Asteroid). Tom’s arrival happens to coincide with alien plant life from outer space taking root there, the seeds of which turn people into mindless drones — Seedpeople, I propose — and sprout monsters.

Designed by John Carl Buechler (Ghoulies Go to College), three distinct creatures exist in the narrative, probably because Band loves his action figures: Sailor, a flying tick-like thing; Tumbler, a rolling ball of hair; and Shooter, a Weeble Wobble that walks on its arms. (It’s best not to ask questions.) While as chintzy-looking as any of the cut-rate critters Paul Blaisdell created for Roger Corman in the drive-in days, at least they are practical and share the frame with actors. They’re not so much scary as they are, well, leaky.

However, the most memorable scenes — both of them — involve not these beasties, but the flowering plant from which they came: When poked, it splooges all over one guy, and later covers an old farmer in Corn Pops shortly after he says, “What in the ding-dong-heck-a-muh-doodle-hell is that?” It’s Seedpeople, old timer! Witless yet harmless, it’s a patch of hydroponic hysterics tended by the fun-to-say Peter Manoogian (The Dungeonmaster), a staple of the Band payroll, such as it is. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Mar 13 2017

Three for the Road (1987)

As any child of the ’80s, I always have had and always will have a soft spot for the films of John Hughes. Who doesn’t, right? But as much as I appreciated his output, for some reason I always found myself drawn even more to the Hughes-esque rip-offs of the time: the Morgan Stewart’s Coming Homes, the Fresh Horses and the Secret Admirers that were always on either constant HBO rotation or frequently rented VHS tapes in our house, with the mostly forgotten road-trip dramedy Three for the Road an almost daily watch, for some odd reason.

While I’m sure all of us have those movies that we look back on and ask, “What was I thinking?” — Lord knows I have my fair share — Three for the Road is particularly perplexing because it’s not particularly funny and it’s not particularly dramatic; it’s just particularly there, a rote plot designed to cash in on the available bankability of its three stars without knowing (or caring) what to do with them.

Brat Pack bad boy Charlie Sheen (Hot Shots!) stars as congressional aide good boy Paul Tracy, who, in order to get in good graces with Sen. Kitteridge (Raymond J. Berry, who practically reprised this role nearly 30 years later in The Purge: Anarchy) escorts the politician’s poodle-haired daughter, Robin (a woefully abrasive Kerri Green, The Goonies), across the country to an insane asylum or something. Along for the ride is party animal/apparent writer T.S. (the woefully miscast Alan Ruck, Young Guns II), who believes this’ll make great material for a book, and brings along his typewriter to show the audience this.

Along the way, this trio does everything possible to destroy any type of cinematic goodwill it built up in films like Lucas and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, especially Green, who is forced to eat with her feet at one point because she’s a free spirit that no one understands, except for the wound-tight Paul, of course, which initiates some sort of questionable romantic angle, considering she’s 15 in the film and I’m pretty sure he’s around 25. Then again, that’s Washington, D.C., for you, am I right? Punditry!

Directed by Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend’s B.W.L. Norton, Three for the Road was a massive bomb and did a good job of destroying the careers of perpetual hangdog Ruck and teen crush Green (but let’s be honest: If it wasn’t this film, it would’ve been the next one), while Sheen escapes mostly unscathed, simply because at least he had the foresight to “act” aloof throughout the entire 90-minute running time. Production company The Vista Organization would later go on to make such other Fowler faves as Dudes, Maid to Order and Russkies, all of which I’m pretty sure are just as terrible. —Louis Fowler

Get it at Amazon.