MIDNIGHT

year: 1982
cast: Melanie Verlin, Lawrence Tierney, John Amplas, David Marchick
rating: ***1/2

A teenage girl runs away from home, and with good reason. Her overweight, alcoholic policeman step dad tried to rape her, and he’s played by Noir legend Lawrence Tierney, ten years shy from his revamp in Quentin Tarantino’s RESERVOIR DOGS. The girl hitches a ride with two dudes in a van that eventually veers off on a back road – and like any low-budget horror film, this is a very bad mistake for the characters, but heaven to the viewer. Eventually our heroine faces a psychotic hillbilly clan ala TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. Plenty of violent, gory murders served up by makeup guru Tom Savini creates an eerily hellish daytime nightmare – ultimately peaking with a satanic ritual at, you got it, midnight. Despite the anemic budget, and with the exception of Tierney and horror icon John Amplas (along with his psycho siblings), there are a few meager performances, but no matter: Here’s an exploitation that entertains from the bloody beginning to the bloody end.

STAYING ALIVE

year: 1983
cast: John Travolta, Cynthia Rhodes, Finola Hughes
bad movie rating: ***1/2

This is not a John Travolta film. It belongs entirely to writer/director Sylvester Stallone, rehashing the Rocky storyline of a dimwitted diamond-in-the-rough Italian fighting to survive... only in this case it's a dancer, not a boxer, and unlike Rocky, it's a bad movie. Travolta fights to make it from his former struggling strutter to lead dancer in what's perhaps the gayest Broadway musical ever created (named "Satan's Alley," inspired by Sly's "Paradise Alley"). Playing the character he made famous in "Saturday Night Fever", our man's in great shape, but look too thin, gaunt, strung-out. He charms his way into the bed of a beautiful Broadway star (Finola Hughes) who turns the tables and plays him... and there's an overabundance of Travolta getting his just-deserts: the player being played, played to the hilt while he's using his pretty, gullible girlfriend (Cynthia Rhodes) who can't help but to love the handsome devil. Her love for him is even more annoying than his lust for the femme fatale. And eventually, of course, like Rocky, our hero ends up champion of a game he never thought he'd had a chance in to begin with. Overall, it's terrible fun. Terrible yet fun. Terrible. Fun. Terribly fun. 

KILLER FISH

aka: NAKED SUN
year: 1979
cast: Lee Majors, Karen Black
rating: ***

The famously bad low-budget Brazillian import isn't so bad after all. Centers on a group of diamond thieves in South America who, after blowing up a big outpost during the opening credits and nabbing a cache of jewels, hides the goods in a lake that becomes inhabited by killer fish i.e. piranha, all pets of shady millionaire James Franciscus to weed-out any takers. A couple of the thieves are killed attempting a premature recovery and because of this, Lee Majors and Karen Black, both leaders of the heist, are pitted against each other: Black joins with Fransiscus and beautiful Margaux Hemingway, as a fashion model on a location-shoot, beds the Bionic Man. Eventually a boat is stuck in the inhabited lake and the surviving cast attempts to get ashore without becoming piranha burgers. The title body count element ultimately trumped by the Noir aspect that, overseas, is titled Naked Sun... cool, huh? 

THE THRILL KILLERS

year: 1964
cast: Ray Dennis Steckler, Gary Kent, Herb Robins, Joseph Bardo
rating: ****

The best thing about this glorious drive-in exploitation b-movie is its precise combination of two kinds of psychopaths, both acting completely on their own for the same results. One: the lone killer and two: the band of killers. The first is played by director Ray Dennis Steckler i.e. Cash Flagg as Mag Dog Click, a guy who travels around in a car he stole from a family man nice (and dumb) enough to try giving him a ride. Then there's three escaped loonies from the mental ward, the biggest, toughest and most dangerous played by Gary Kent, using wide crazy eyes to full effect... and then some. A happy but ultimately unlucky couple are nightmarishly badgered by the trio; and then another couple, sort of the main characters, deal with the same gang and eventually with the solo act. From the frying pan into the fire back into the pan with flames all around it, this addictive celebration of enthralling violence never lets up.

BLUE CITY

title: BLUE CITY
year: 1986
cast: Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, David Caruso, Scott Wilson, Anita Morris, Paul Winfield
rating: ***1/2

The dark horse Brat Pack outing won a bouquet of Razzie Awards, but for what exactly? It's a decent action/thriller about the son of a beloved slain mayor returning to a Florida town, Blue City, now run (from inside a roadhouse bar) by seedy Scott Wilson. Looking for clues, misunderstood basketball-in-hand bad-boy Nelson gets back in touch with his old drinking buddy David Caruso, now sober, paranoid, and running a fishing boat; and Caruso's pretty sister, Ally Sheedy, the obvious love-interest. It's a colorful Eighties-Style Film Noir with plenty to keep you entertained including fist fights, gun fights, stuff exploding, and a nifty side cast including sexy Anita Morris and the always watchable Paul Winfield. Walter Hill co-wrote the script and in many ways, this feels like his film, although more STREETS OF FIRE than 48 HRS.

AMERICAN BOY

title: AMERICAN BOY: A PROFILE OF STEVEN PRINCE
year: 1978
cast: Steven Prince, George Memmoli, Martin Scorsese, Mardik Martin
rating: ***1/2

Steven Prince, who played the gun-dealing babblemouth "Easy Andy" in the Martin Scorsese classic TAXI DRIVER, has his hour to shine. This, a documentary involving Prince, Scorsese, and actor George Memmoli (the really fat dude in MEAN STREETS and the guy who reluctantly allowed Stallone to ice-skate in ROCKY) sitting around a living room, is really a gloriously-glorified home movie, inserting images of the subject as a child between his bantering - with a more grating voice than Horseshack from WELCOME BACK KOTTER - about drugs, bagels, family members, working for Neil Diamond, and a lice-seeking gorilla. Few of the diatribes are interesting and some seem a bit forced. But it's during the last fifteen minutes, as he shares about killing a man in Arizona by shooting his six times, where things pick-up. The standout tale of madness involves Prince saving an overdosing girl's life by injecting her in the chest with an adrenaline shot while reading instructions on how to do so. Sound familiar? Neil Young's obscure track "Time Fades Away" envelopes the piece nicely.

TRILOGY OF TERROR


title: TRILOGY OF TERROR
year: 1975
cast: Karen Black
creator: Richard Matheson
director: Dan Curtis
rating: ***1/2

Seeing Karen Black play four roles (or rather, three roles and four characters) in a TV-movie showcasing three Night Gallery style stories is a great thing. The first involves an uptight spectacle-wearing college teacher who's seduced by her handsome bad-intention-driven honor student. Without giving away the twist, it's a great episode because Karen's playing someone she's not, and you'll have to watch it a second time to truly get it. The next deals with two sisters: one a crotchety sourpuss, the other a sexy blond. The twist is way too obvious: they're the same person. Blame the writer for this, not Karen, for she plays both roles well. The third and best is what the movie's known for, dealing with Black's character who purchased a foot-high spear-donning Zuni Fetish Doll. If the waist-sash falls off the doll, it comes to life. Guess what falls off the doll? The little bugger chases Karen around the apartment sounding like the Tasmanian Devil on PCP; imagine Animal from the Muppets gone loco. It's beauty and the doll at this point, a battle that doesn't let-up. This is the most entertaining and scariest of the bunch - dealing with a thing you just can't kill that can get you from beneath: the fear of snakes or spiders on hyperdrive. But the first story's where Black's acting (as opposed to reacting) really shines, making it my personal favorite.

GOING HOME

title: GOING HOME
year: 1971
cast: Robert Mitchum, Jan-Michael Vincent, Sally Kirkland
rating: ***

This film centering on a war hero, Robert Mitchum, who violently murders his wife witnessed by his four-year-old son, who's now grown-up in the form of brooding rebel Jan-Michael Vincent, is passably entertaining fare. Mitchum lives with young trailertrash girlfriend Brenda Vaccaro, attempting to steal every scene while Jan-Michael, having just returned home, seems either bent on revenge or forgiveness for his aged yet still tough pop as they hang out bowling and drinking: making up for lost time. The best moments involve jarring situations that seem vividly real but aren't really happening (seen in Vincent's mind) (one being Mitchum destroying a pick-up-truck with a tire iron) or flashbacks viewed in present-time locations ala IN COLD BLOOD. It's an easy-to-watch character-study without much character-development, neither Mitchum or Vincent becoming fully realized or their past fitfully resolved, but it's nice seeing the two steely mavericks together either way.

THE FOREST

title: THE FOREST
year: 1982
cast: Gary Kent, Corky Pigeon

rating: ***

The set-up to this woodsy body count low budget slasher: the slaying of two couples arriving at the forest... The women first and their boyfriends later... Is merely a platform for something else involving the ghosts of two children and a crazy, cannibalistic father played by director Don Jones's stock actor Gary Kent, who kills, then eats, all females that cross his path. A lot of activity, including a backstory involving the then-normal dad, kids, and a cheating wife, keeps you interested enough to forget it's yet another FRIDAY THE 13th ripoff, but with a unique personality all its own.

SATAN'S SADISTS

year: 1969
cast: Russ Tamblyn, Gary Kent, Richard Dix, Scott Brady, John Bud Cardos
director: Al Adamson
rating: ***

At times feeling like a snuff film on the verge of payoff, other times sublimely embodying exactly what it is: a low-low-budget drive-in odyssey pitting a gang of scruffy bikers, who call themselves SATAN'S SADISTS, against anyone in their path: headlining at an off-highway diner harboring tough guys Gary Kent and Scott Brady . The leader, played by Russ Tamblyn... looking more Phil Spector than Sonny Barger... get violent and his gang rides off and the marine and waitress go after them. For the next hour each Sadist, all uniquely odd and perfectly irritating in their own style (or lack of), gets picked off. But that's not before these ragged mutts enjoy raping unlucky female campers, smoking pot, dropping acid, and being gloriously despicable. After all, it's their movie!

HOT TOMORROWS


title: HOT TOMORROWS
year: 1977
cast: Ken Lerner, Ray Sharkey, Vic Argo, Orson Welles
rating: **

A Gothic WHO'S THAT KNOCKIN' AT MY DOOR has two twenty-something-year-old men, Ken Lerner, who's writing a cathartic novel about his dead aunt, and Ray Sharkey, who's more spontaneous than deep, hanging out and doing close to nothing. They go to a bar where Danny Elfman is singing cabaret, meet Victor Argo and Herve Velechez, then visit a funeral home, have coffee, take a tour, return to the bar, then to a diner, drive around and talk some more... mostly about death; Lerner's obsessed with it and Sharkey doesn't care either way. At the end of the night the two friends part: Lerner writes more about his aunt (we see clips of his characters as he's writing) and gets news Sharkey has died. After which our grimy hero drives around alone, and at this point the film, having lost its catylist, isn't interesting. Not like it ever really was, but at least there was a cozy camaraderie between the two leads. Martin Brest wrote and directed this B&W low-low-budget indie right before hitting mainstream with GOING MY WAY, BEVERLY HILLS COP, MIDNIGHT RUN, and eventually his Waterloo disaster, GIGLI. Orson Welles provides the radio announcer's voice for the cemetery.

LIFE OF THE PARTY

year: 2018
rating: **1/2

There are way too many remakes, especially of Eighties flicks, so Melissa McCarthy and actor/director husband Ben Falcone remade the Rodney Dangerfield classic Back To School and took all the credit — despite having the same basic premise: after a divorce, a parent decides to go to college with her kid. In that case it was a large funny dad and skinny serious son and here it's a fat (though skinny for her) almost-funny woman with a standard-size semi-cute daughter. But Melissa McCarthy trades in her usual blunt and gross self deprecation for a character much too optimistic and cheerful to relate to, or to feel for, providing absolutely no obstacles along the way. A much too easy/breezy comedy with no real laughs. On the plus side, it's a relaxing time-filler delivering 90-minutes of brainless entertainment. That's also what's wrong with LIFE OF THE PARTY, which does live up to its name, several times; party after party; sameness. More a divorced middle-aged mother's fantasy since McCarthy — taking one more year of Anthropology in the same college she dropped out of years earlier — hooks up with a handsome college kid. The only suspense is in the utter disbelief.

RETURN OF THE JEDI

alt title: STAR WARS VI  
year of release: 1983
cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher
rating: ****1/2

Realizing that Lucas, although not the director, was fully in charge of EMPIRE and this: the last of the original trilogy, the more I can see hired director Richard Marquand's input. Being a director of "Eye of the Needle" and other spy thrillers, he adds an particular British element of meticulous, pinpointed, philosophical intrigue and suspense, mostly centered on the lead-up and climax involving Luke Skywalker and Darth Vadar meeting the Emperor in the almost-completed bigger/better Death Star. One shot in particular, now iconic, of an elevator door quickly slides open, revealing Vadar and Skywalker, is a personal favorite moment (image) of the trilogy.

Mark Hamill, better than ever, along with Darth Vadar and IanMcDiarmid as the Emperor owns this one while Harrison "Han Solo" Ford and Carrie "Princess Leia" Fisher provide the working-class action of the B story...

Having landed on the Forest planet of Endor (where lives too-adorably-contrived creatures called Ewoks who, along with overlong expository scenes, slow down the pace until they prove their underdog defense tactics), they have to shut down the Death Star's shields so that Lando, with the aid of Wedge and other pilots, blow up the Death Star... in a dogfight like no other. And the first act, back on Tattoine, in and out of Jabba's Palace, proves that Jim Henson's puppetry does wonder over CGI, a blend of noir and pirate lore kicking things off with a pulpy roar.

MR. LUCKY

year: 1959—1960
cast: John Vivyan, Ross Martin
creator: Blake Edwards
rating: ***1/2

Most episodes of the one-season-wonder television series directed by creature-feature turned BRADY BUNCH director Jack Arnold, the coolest, most surprising aspect of Blake Edward's MR LUCKY is it takes two complete episodes for the story of an honest gambler running a casino on a boat, three miles away from the law's reach, to establish itself (with the boat!), and without being a two-part pilot with a set-up agenda: Like Edwards' PETER GUNN star Craig Stevens, LUCKY lead John Vivyan is a perfectly good-enough actor for the twists and turns to occur around his well-suited charm. Resembling a Cary Grant b-side (or Lloyd Bochner a-side), he's flanked by a faithful sidekick, Andamo, played by Ross Martin, who'd become famous as another faithful second on WILD WILD WEST. With a fickle Spanish accent that hardly matters anyway, he keeps their combined energy fresh and engaging: along with the usual Blake Edwards wallpaper of gorgeous women, often as unpredictable and spontaneous as the mazy plot-lines in which they're caught: the good episodes serious and breezy while the mediocre entries play semi-comedic (as Mancini scores along jovially) upfront. Either way, at 24 minutes per, LUCKY is great bet. 

DRAGNET

year: 1987
cast: Dan Aykroyd, Tom Hanks
rating: ***

Plot involves a group called P.A.G.A.N. who worship the devil and burn buildings and then leave their business cards behind after each scorching. Dan Aykroyd not only gets to ramble in his monotone to his partner Tom Hank's chagrin, but also, like the famous TV series, provides the straight-forward narration throughout. It's a little bit painful for a while - Aykroyd playing the character as someone as annoying as the original Friday seemed to baby boomers, at least until the plot comes together, and Friday gets a love interest (Alexandra Paul), then you actually feel something for the characters. Hanks lands a couple funnier lines, the bad guys become revealed, and the car chases aren't too bad. In no way is this an endorsement to rent or buy this flick, but if you accidently happen on it on cable, it won't kill you like other Aykroyd ventures such as "Loose Cannons", "My Stepmother is an Alien" and the worst film ever made, "Nothing But Trouble".

I FEEL PRETTY

Year: 2018
Cast: Amy Schumer, Lauren Hutton, Michelle Williams
Rating: **1/2

In SHALLOW HAL Jack Black saw all women as beautiful, even and especially ones who weren't. In this copycat, overweight and this time, not-so-proud-of-it Amy Schumer finds herself to be gorgeous, hence I FEEL PRETTY, and basically becomes as confident as a plain looking girl that a plain looking girl with confidence would be in a normal situation, and that Amy is in other movies, like TRAINWRECK. The only acting occurs when her character is so pathetically shy, it just doesn't seem natural so, when the transition occurs, it all seems contrived, forced. That said, it's not bad for a sick day movie to pass the time, and since all girls feel ugly deep down... hence Amy's fame as a younger, partying Melissa McCarthy... Amy's really teaching a two-hour lesson, one so obvious it repeats itself throughout the immensely predictable romantic comedy where the film's sensitive "sweater wearing" nice guy mars what the TRAINWRECK sensitive guy did there, slowing Amy down from the blunt persona that made her... semi-famous.

SMALL TIME CROOKS

Year: 2000
Rating: **1/2

Without giving credit, Woody Allen basically remakes LARCENY INC. where, in that Edward G. Robinson B&W crime-caper, thieves dig from underneath their strategically purchased suitcase store to a bank: The store winds up making more money than they'd have stolen, and Woody changes the business to cookies while SMALL TIME CROOKS plays so with many old movie cliches it seems more a parody than a remake...

Woody shifts from his usual neurotic movie-loving intellectual to a contentedly simple-minded ex con (the biggest stretch is when he thinks Humphrey Bogart's gold seeking SIERRA MADRE set classic is titled TREASURE ISLAND). And he's definitely not alone: Wife Tracey Ullman (the cookie-maker) provides the buried lead, especially during a very abrupt second-act shift as LARCENY morphs into MY FAIR LADY as Hugh Grant plays an intellectual art dealer doubling as a very subtle shyster...

Perhaps too genuine to be genuinely crooked, or all that interesting beyond good looks to fool a street savvy dame, he's constantly holding his proper, pompous tongue, giving loaded etiquette lessons to the new-rich ex-stripper, who has no education and even less taste in clothes, furniture — you name it. And while, overall, SMALL TIME CROOKS is a guilty pleasure, there's genuine heart in director/actress Elaine May as Ullman's kooky cousin...

Whether strolling along waterfront walkways from ANNIE HALL and HANNAH AND HER SISTERS or watching TV while admiring James Cagney's Cody Jarrett for loving his infamous mother — Elaine and Woody have far more chemistry (and funnier one-liners) than the frenzied marrieds, whose HONEYMOONERS banter gets annoying, quick. And good news/bad news: Woody and Elaine returned years later, as a married couple in the Amazon Series, CRISIS IN SIX SCENES. But it made this movie seem like MANHATTAN by comparison, or, more fitting, TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, Woody's first and funniest role as a criminal.

THE L WORD

Year: 2004
cast: Jennifer Beals, Mia Kirschner, Erin Daniels, Malaya Rivera Drew
Rating: ****

A perfectly cast ensemble of different personalities that both clash and connect with an equal balance and, like any soap operatic series it keeps the viewer interested in the characters that are all stuck in the quagmire of maze-like relationship purgatory. The only problem is how political the show can get, targeting only Right Wing Christians when the more-gay-hating Muslim faith is never mentioned (throughout the series are many harsh critiques on President George W. Bush while, ironically, it's also mentioned that The Bush Administration doesn't allow criticism).

The "worst" character is also the most important, at least initially, providing the white rabbit into the wonderland of lesbians... save for Pam Grier, sister of control freak Bette played by Jennifer Beals, in a relationship with a lip-less, whining bisexual named Tina. And they're not the only couple on board. Jenny's married in the first season, and has an affair that brings her into the fray and then, by season two, she becomes the most preachy and, intentionally, pretentious, by the end basically the villain "Joan Collins" of the series, where she's bad on purpose (aided by a cute, sneaky Malaya Rivera Drew, pictured above, on the left, and below).

Alice is the smart ass: providing (albeit whiny and polarizing) not really "comic relief" but a relief of being vulnerable and funny through good (Erin Daniels as a pro tennis player who dies in the third season) and bad relationships (getting dumped by said athlete), all posted on her website. Meanwhile, an androgynous Shane is the token player (but Shane is not butch). A Joan Jett of the Runaways era-looking grunge chick, any and every (outside the group) girls, gay, straight, bisexual, are after her, and it's fun how the more monogamous lesbians react to her wild lifestyle, which is what most people expect them all to live... giving the L WORD a glimpse not just into a lifestyle but into a group of friends that struggle with love and loss without juggling too many cliches.

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