Jun 12 2017

Sweet Sugar (1972)

Elation turns to frustration when a prostitute named Sugar is sentenced to the plantation, in the Cain-raising Sweet Sugar. In a role similar to her star(let) turn in the following year’s Terminal Island, the lovely Phyllis Davis pours every bit of her seductive curves and salacious charm into the role, making the women-in-prison picture a superior example of the exploitation-staple subgenre.

Set up for a marijuana bust in Costa Rica, Sugar is thrown into jail. Rather than face a year or more behind bars while waiting for her sure-to-be-unfair trial, she opts for the alternative punishment of a two-year stint cutting sugar cane under the unforgiving sun. She and her fellow conscripted cuties (including Detroit 9000’s Ella Edwards as the film’s good-enough simulation of Pam Grier) use their rented machetes and feminine wiles in numerous attempts to overpower the men and make a run for the border.

Virtually every character with testicles — the literal kind, mind you — is a villain, none more so than the wackadoodle scientist Dr. John (Angus Duncan, How to Seduce a Woman), whose twisted experiments include some sort of orgasm machine that Sugar short-circuits and a drug he injects into cats to turn them ferociously feral, upon which they are hurled by the guards toward the caged women.

From Werewolves on Wheels steerer Michel Levesque and The Big Doll House scripter Don Spencer, Sweet Sugar has far more going for it than the average WIP entry, most notably a subplot involving voodoo rituals conducted by the Afro-sporting male prisoner Mojo (Timothy Brown, The Dynamite Brothers). But make no mistake: All it really needed to work was the underappreciated Davis, who balances playing delectable and devious by practically erasing the line that separates the two. The camera loves her even more than the hormone-raging guards trying to win her favor. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Jun 7 2017

The Mummy (2017)

Seeing green (with envy) at the massive success Marvel Studios has had with its shared cinematic universe, Universal Pictures announced that audiences can look forward to seeing its classic movie monsters intersect across a “Dark Universe” of reboots, starting not with 2014’s Dracula Untold, which would have been logical (and, at $70 million, relatively cheap), but this summer’s creaky, extra-pricey, been-there-done-that The Mummy. It smacks of a high concept on a low boil.

Well, you gotta start somewhere.

And for screenwriter-turned-director Alex Kurtzman, “somewhere” is more or less 1999’s The Mummy, whose flashback prologue this film apes, but gender-flips, making the bandaged bandit a woman (Sofia Boutella, Kingsman: The Secret Service) with double the necessary retinas, hieroglyphs for facial tattoos and a wicked kiss of death. She and her curse are awakened — or rather, unleashed — when asshole adventurer Nick Morton (Tom Cruise, Jack Reacher) dares muck with Ahmanet’s tomb, accidentally discovered buried beneath the Persian desert. Lucky for Nick, doing so saves his life when he perishes in a plane crash, only to reanimate himself while nude in a body bag on the morgue slab.

Don’t ask questions; the movie makes only a minimal effort at grasping coherence. It does what little it can get away with just enough to set up the bulk of the pic, which is Nick and his fetching one-night-stand of a foil (Annabelle Wallis, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword) literally running from Ahmanet, her zombie posse and an array of spiders, rats and exploding glass. Midway through, they meet Dr. Jekyll (Russell Crowe, The Nice Guys), for no other reason than to introduce a character for future Dark Universe installments; Jekyll is this franchise’s Nick Fury, but with zero employee-engagement skills.

While not quite the total train wreck so many have expected for months, this Mummy is no better than the worst among the Brendan Fraser-led trilogy or its Dwayne Johnson spin-off, The Scorpion King. Those pics’ feel-good, Indiana Jones-inspired flair has been jettisoned for an approach that leans in toward horror without fully committing. Whatever usual care Cruise takes to pick his projects was asleep at the E-meter the day he signed on the dotted line for this flat phantasmagoria; among supernatural elements, he clearly is out of his comfort zone, and it shows in a performance sapped of charm. Not being able to rely on him as an anchor, the film falters (even when the effects impress), most glaringly with an ending that is so laughably wretched, it does the cringing for you. Haste indeed made waste. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Jun 6 2017

Reading Material: Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American ’70s

Entire books have been written about the revolutionary wave of American cinema in the 1970s — most notably Peter Biskind’s seminal Easy Riders, Raging Bulls — but New York-based journalist Charles Taylor isn’t interested in rehashing those stories of the walloping impact and lasting legacy of The Godfather, Jaws, et al. Instead, he casts his critical eye to the pictures that fell through the decade’s cracks, curating for delicate dissection 15 choice B movies — some forgotten, others still admired, all sharing “an air of disreputability.”

The slim, comfy volume that results, Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American ’70s, is the year’s most rewarding film read thus far.

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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 29 2017

Great White (1981)

Among all the Jaws imitators to have surfaced from international waters, Italy’s Great White is unique: It is the only one to be sued out of the marketplace by the litigious Universal Studios for being too much of a carbon copy. Okay, so in hindsight, maybe it wasn’t the brightest idea to send Vic Morrow to wardrobe as if he were going to a Halloween ball as Robert Shaw’s salty shark hunter Quint.

Milking his Irish accent so hard, Morrow plays grizzled second fiddle to clean-cut James Franciscus (The Cat o’ Nine Tails) in the Roy Scheider family-man role and publicly theorizes that the toothed beast may be “crazed.” The appearance of (B-roll of) this shark threatens to ruin their coastal town’s upcoming windsurfing competition, which is such a big deal that is the radio station DJ talks about local surfers between stacks of platter the way other markets do traffic and weather. Yes, it’s That Big, and the mayor (Joshua Sinclair, Lady Frankenstein), who may as well be named Murray Hamilton, isn’t about to let a few bloody stumps disrupt the economically rewarding festivities.

The longer Great White (aka The Last Shark) goes on, the more you can sense members of the Uni legal team drooling on a draft of the injunction. Whereas Steven Spielberg had the iconic score of John Williams working in his favor, Enzo G. Castellari (Cold Eyes of Fear) is saddled with the discordant theme of what sounds like a seal choking as it passes gas. Whereas Spielberg relied upon that rarely working but terrifyingly lifelike shark, Castellari has to get by on a mix of stock footage, a rigid model and, best/worst of all, a barely moving head that might have been “borrowed” from Universal’s famed tram ride.

To be fair, Castellari does have one thing Spielberg’s classic does not: a shot of a corpse-stiff dummy rocketing into the sky as the shark bursts from the water like a geyser. So phony it’s funny, the bit dared me not to replay it thrice. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.