"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Sunday, November 28, 2021

The World's Greatest Sinner


Without a doubt, Timothy Agoglia Carey is one of the most eccentric character actors in American cinema. This is a man that was fired from Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) for faking his own kidnapping. One only must see his scene-stealing performances in the likes of the aforementioned film where he breaks down and cries hysterically before a firing squad or in The Killing (1956) where he speaks most of his dialogue while flashing his clenched teeth to witness the wonderful off-kilter choices he made that enhanced the films he was in. Unfortunately, he rarely got to headline a film with The World’s Greatest Sinner (1962), which he starred in, wrote, directed and produced, being one of the rare exceptions. Freed from the constraints of the Hollywood studio system, he created a crudely made, yet fascinating look at the cult of personality.
 
The film begins, appropriately, in bizarre fashion with the title song playing over a black screen and the sound of an explosion segues into the opening credits with classical music playing over the soundtrack inducing wicked tonal whiplash. In a gleefully audacious move, the story is narrated by none other than God (and then, bafflingly, abandons it for the rest of the movie) who introduces us to Clarence Hilliard (Carey) by describing him as “just like any other male the only difference is he wants to be God. And that’s coming right out of the horse’s mouth.”
 
He lives in domestic bliss with his wife Edna (Betty Rowland) and his two children, working as the head of the department of an insurance company. One day, he decides to give everyone the day off which doesn’t sit too well with his boss (Victor Floming). It doesn’t help that Clarence has also been telling potential clients not to get insurance, telling one person not get a funeral policy because, “When you die, your body starts to stink.” Not surprisingly, he gets fired from his job, comes home and tells his wife that he wants to write a book and get into politics (?!).

While he earnestly tells her about his aspirations she falls asleep so he tells his pet horse Rex about a dream he had: “I’m gonna make people live long. I wanna put something into life. I wanna make life be eternal.” These are the seeds for a cult that he plans to start but how will he get people to follow him? One night, he goes to a rock ‘n’ roll concert and observes teenage girls screaming in excitement at and worshipping the lead singer. The next day, Clarence hits the streets, literally, preaching eternal life to anyone who will listen. He wants to make people super human beings, promising, “age won’t exist anymore.”
 
Clarence transforms himself into a rock ‘n’ roll preacher in a show-stopping sequence that evokes Elvis Presley and James Brown in raw energy and showmanship as he sweats, yells and dances with wild abandon. It is a truly astonishing performance to behold. He eventually changes his name to God Hilliard and becomes drunk on power, alienating his earlier followers and even his family. He meets a shady, political fixer whose credentials are that he worked for one of the leading political parties but fell out of favor thanks to “a few jealous underlings” and “got into a few difficulties.” He dazzles Clarence with political doublespeak and tells him, “If you can stir the people’s emotions, you can win.” The first thing he does is get Clarence to drop the rock ‘n’ roll preacher shtick, which he agrees to do by dramatically smashing his guitar over a desk.
 
He is soon running for President of the United States on his eternal life platform. Eventually, his rhetoric changes to that of a fanatical dictator: “We must gird ourselves with an armor of inspiration. We’ll reach them in the big cities! In the small towns! And the crossroads! We’ll weed them out! Any place where there’s people, we’ll get our message to them!” Carey lays on the fascist imagery as Clarence’s followers wear armbands of their party and have their own book documenting Clarence’s manifesto. Soon, he is speaking at larger and larger rallies until he has a crisis of confidence and of faith at the film’s climax.

The making of The World’s Greatest Sinner was almost as wild and unpredictable as the film itself with the inspiration coming from Carey’s desire to shake things up in Hollywood: “I was tired of seeing movies that were supposedly controversial. So I wanted to do something that was really controversial.” He began filming in 1956 in El Monte, California, where he lived, at his home and on the city streets, using locals as extras. This continued sporadically until 1961 on a budget of $100,000 under its original title, Frenzy. While making The Second Time Around (1961), Carey was approached by a young musician by the name of Frank Zappa who complimented his acting. Carey told him, “We have no music for The World’s Greatest Sinner. If you can supply the orchestra and a place to tape it, you have the job.” The aspiring musician composed the score and then went on The Steve Allen Show and said it was “the world’s worst film and all the actors were from skid row.”
 
Filmmaker Dennis Ray Steckler (Incredibly Strange Creatures) also got his start on the film. After several cameramen had been fired during filming, Carey brought Steckler out to Long Beach to shoot scenes of extras watching Carey on stage and then rioting. Steckler later claimed that at while was in a closet loading film, Carey threw a boa constrictor in with him. To top it all off, at the film’s premiere, Carey fired a .38 pistol above the heads of the audience, causing a riot.
 
The World’s Greatest Sinner warns about the dangers of demagogues like Clarence by showing how he whips a large crowd into a blind frenzy showing how they are swept up by his fiery rhetoric. Carey shows how this can be dangerous as his followers riot, destroying property in his name with the camera lingering on a mob of people trashing and turning over a car. He has affairs with multiple women, including a 14-year-old girl. This kind of behavior and these kinds of tactics anticipate T.V. evangelists that became popular in the 1980s and in recent years people with little to no political experience or knowledge getting into office based mostly on their cult of personality and ability to appeal to people’s basest instincts.

What is so incredibly inspiring about The World’s Greatest Sinner is how Carey commits 100% to the wonderfully insane narrative. Imagine if Brad Garrett and Nicolas Cage had a baby and you get Carey. He has the former’s hulking frame with the latter’s bedroom eyes and fearlessness as an actor, not afraid to look ridiculous all in the name of art. The film is shot and edited roughly, almost haphazardly in a non-traditional way with awkward transitions and shifts in tone that is also part of its charm. Carey is not only flaunting Hollywood conventions he is throwing out the rule book as he makes all kinds of odd choices throughout the film, like when Clarence’s boss takes him to his office to reprimand him and it plays over a cacophony of noises so that we can’t hear the dialogue. The screenplay, at times, is truly inspired with such blatantly provocative lines, such as “The biggest liar of mankind is Christ!” This is truly an auteur film – Carey’s magnum opus, a weird and wild film he was somehow able to be unleashed on the world seemingly through sheer force of Carey’s will.
 
 
SOURCES
 
McAbee, Sam. “Carey: Saint of the Underground.” Cashiers du Cinemart. #12. 2001.
 
Murphy, Mike. “Timothy Carey.” Psychotronic. #6. 1990.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Halloween II

 


Rob Zombie’s remake of John Carpenter’s Halloween in 2007 was a financial success prompting the studio to greenlight the inevitable sequel. Enough time had passed after the making of that movie that he had forgotten what a difficult experience it and was willing to go again but this time he would no longer be constrained with having to remake another person’s movie thus allowing him to follow his creative bliss, making a follow-up that was more brutal and refreshingly stranger than the previous movie. The result was Halloween II (2009).
 
After a brief flashback to Michael as a child, recounting a dream he had to his mother (Sheri Moon Zombie), we are brought back to the present with a bloody and battered Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) walking down the middle of the road in a shell-shocked daze after having just fought off and killed Michael Myers (Tyler Mane). Sheriff Brackett (Brad Dourif) catches up to and tries to calm her down. Slam cut to a close-up of her screaming face as she’s wheeled along a hospital corridor on a gurney.
 
Back at the site of the climactic showdown, an unconscious Dr. Sam Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) is also sent off in an ambulance while Michael’s body is carried away as well but when the two inept coroners driving the truck crash into a cow (?!), Michael rises and disappears into the night. At the same moment, Laurie rises from her hospital bed to see her friend Annie (Danielle Harris), another survivor from the encounter with Michael, and Zombie makes a point of lingering on these two young women, their bodies damaged by what happened to them, but those wounds will eventually heal. It is the psychological damage that Zombie is interested in exploring with this movie.


He does pay tribute to the original Halloween II (1981) in the first 20 minutes or so as Michael stalks Laurie through the corridors of the hospital and manages to avoid the obvious error or having a nearly empty building for the two to engage in a prolonged cat-and-mouse game that always rang false by having her quickly escape out into the pouring rain, but oh wait, it was a nightmare and a year has passed since the events depicted in Halloween. It feels like Zombie’s fuck you to the original sequel as if to say don’t we all wish that movie was a nightmare we could forget?
 
Laurie takes pills for pain, anxiety, you name it, still traumatized and living with Brackett and his daughter Annie. It’s a well-played scene as we see these people trying to get on with their lives as best they can considering what they’ve been through. Laurie, especially, is lost in the world. Her parents are dead and Michael’s body was never found, which leaves her frustratingly without closure.
 
Meanwhile, Loomis has bounced back as a flashy television personality, cashing in on what happened a year ago and Zombie re-introduces his character via a super slick tracking show that would make Michael Mann proud, combined with a very Aaron Sorkin-esque walk-and-talk sequence. He’s become a petulant primadonna, which Malcolm McDowell has fun playing to the hilt. The “good” doctor happily cashes in on the fascination with Michael Myers but when someone brings up the possibility of the killer still being alive he loses it and we see the cracks in the façade. He is not above doing an interview in front of the now-abandoned Strode house as he tells his long-suffering assistant, “Bad taste is the petrol that drives the American Dream.”


Halloween II is a more visually interesting movie when we finally see what Michael has been up to all this time, living in an abandoned barn out in the middle of nowhere, killing and eating animals to survive, and having visions of his mother. Initially, it is of her dressed all in white next to a white horse but soon they become more involved. His mother was the only good thing in Michael’s life and once she was gone so were the last vestiges of being human. These visions are beautifully surreal sequences, bizarre tableaus that anticipate what he would delve into to a greater degree with The Lords of Salem (2012), which eschewed gore and violence for atmospheric dread.
 
The movie has the requisite kills that fans have come to expect from the franchise but here it feels as if Zombie is getting them out of the way as he’s more interested in tracking the shattered lives of the main characters than goosing the body count for cheap thrills. We get considerate character beats, such as Sheriff Brackett extolling the virtues of Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou (1965) to Laurie and his daughter who have no idea what he’s talking about. They provide brief moments of levity in an otherwise extremely grim movie.
 
A child of the 1970s, Zombie populates his movie with a bevy of character actors who were stars during that time and so we have Dr. Johnny Fever himself, Howard Hessman as the owner of a cool independent record store that Laurie works in and Margot Kidder as Laurie’s therapist. Despite working for a studio, Zombie still manages to find room for his troupe of favorite actors, such as Richard Brake, Jeff Daniel Phillips and Daniel Roebuck, many of whom get the honor of being brutally dispatched by Michael.
 


This being a Rob Zombie movie and his perchance for all things white trash, he trades in the suburbs of Haddonfield, that we normally associate with the Halloween franchise, for his preferred locales – indie record stores, deserted barns and sleazy strip clubs. He employs a desaturated color palette for this grim movie, saving key moments for splashes of color, such as the aforementioned strip club and the Halloween party Laurie attends – both awash in garish reds.
 
With Loomis’ endless press interviews and book signing gigs, Zombie is showing how infamous crime cases are commodified and exploited by people like Loomis without caring about the damage that has been done and continues with this careless exploitation. It brings out kooky fans and grief-stricken parents of kids killed by Michael that want to vent their anguish and anger on the doctor who has nothing but contempt and indifference for his audience. Laurie continues to unravel, permanently scarred both physically and psychologically by Michael and Loomis’ book only reopens these old wounds.
 
With both of his Halloween movies, Zombie is not interested in making a gimmicky Scream meta slasher movie or an over-the-top kill-happy Friday the 13th movie but instead grounding the franchise mythos in something approximating realism by showing the toll Michael’s bloody rampage takes on Laurie and those close to her. It’s not funny but sad, leaving one drained by the end of the movie, much like Laurie. Characters live with trauma and try to carry on with their lives but Michael won’t let them. People are killed in horrible, painful ways and those that survive are haunted, their lives shattered beyond repair.


Sunday, September 26, 2021

The Steel Helmet


 “The only way to bring the real experience of war to a movie audience is by firing a machine gun above their heads during the screening.” – Samuel Fuller

Hopefully, most of us will never have to experience what it is like to fight in a war. It is a horrifying; dehumanizing experience and the best cinema can do is approximate it. If the filmmaker has seen combat, such as Oliver Stone, it can give the film an authenticity that it might not have otherwise. This is the case with Samuel Fuller, who served as an American infantryman in World War II, and applied his experiences into several of his films, most notably The Steel Helmet (1951) and The Big Red One (1980), however the former was his first war film and had the distinction of being the first one made about the Korean War while it was still ongoing. It was unflinchingly honest in depicting the war and drew criticism from some as “anti-American,” but was widely praised by most critics. It was also a financial success, paving the way for a Hollywood studio contract for Fuller.
 
The filmmaker kicks things off with his trademark provocative opening scene involving a shot of the titular helmet to reveal the man attached to it: Sergeant Zack (Gene Evans). Fuller pulls back to reveal that he’s the only survivor of a platoon whose bodies lie strewn around him, hands tied behind their back, including his own. He crawls towards a knife lying on the ground but someone gets to it first – a young Korean boy (William Chun). He takes the knife and after a tense moment frees Zack. It turns out that the boy is South Korean, smart, friendly and even speaks soldier lingo surprisingly well. Zack is a gruff curmudgeon that, initially, doesn’t want the kid tagging along but the child wears him down by making a convincing argument for his worth. The infantryman begrudgingly allows him to travel with him, nicknaming him Short Round.
 
Fuller immediately establishes the constant peril Zack and Short Round are in when they spot two people worshipping at a makeshift temple that turns out to be enemy soldiers in disguise. Even when fatally wounded, one of them tries to stab Zack only for him to kill them without hesitation. Eventually, they encounter a medic by the name of Thompson (James Edwards), also the lone survivor of a massacred platoon and together they meet up with a squad of soldiers tasked with establishing an observation post at a nearby Buddhist temple. The rest of the film chronicles their attempt to defend it against overwhelming odds.


The screenplay, penned by Fuller, is chock full of his trademark, pulpy, hard-boiled dialogue with such memorable prose such as, “You got nothin’ outside but rice paddies crawlin’ with Commies just waitin’ to slap you between two big hunks of rye bread and wash you down with fish eggs and vodka.” It’s exactly the kind of dialogue you’d expect these grizzled soldiers to say to one another.
 
The film is beautiful shot by Ernest Miller as evident in a moody, atmospheric scene where Zack and the squad of soldiers try to kill two enemy snipers in a fog-enshrouded forest that is also a masterclass in tension as Fuller uses no music, just the sound of gunfire and we see how Zack and another soldier come up with a clever idea to flush out the enemy. This is also evident in the film’s incredible climactic battle scene as wave after wave North Korean soldiers attack the temple the squad is holed up in. It is never confusing what is happening and really manages to capture the heat of battle in an effective way.
 
Gene Evans is perfectly cast as the perpetually scowling Sgt. Zack with a cigar always clenched between his teeth like a live-action Howling Commandos-era Nick Fury. Zack doesn’t seem to like anyone and only gives someone grudging respect when they’ve earned it. This role was early in his career and Evans acts very natural in front of the camera, disappearing effortlessly into the role. He also does an excellent job of bringing Fuller’s colorful, purple prose vividly to life. The actor understands that Zack’s only goal is to stay alive by any means necessary. He’s not interested in making friends, in case they die, hence his gruff exterior. Obviously, Fuller was impressed with Evans work in The Steel Helmet as he went on to cast him several of his other films, most notably, Park Row (1952).
 


One of the more interesting aspects of The Steel Helmet is the notions of race and racism. Initially, Zack sees every Korean as a “gook” until he meets Short Round who quickly corrects him by proudly proclaiming, “I am no gook. I am Korean.” He’s fresh-faced kid sidekick but much more than that as he frees Zack, can recognize the kind of rifle he has, and the ammo required for it. He also helps Zack navigate the territory without a map. In turn, Zack allows him to tag along, instructing him to take a helmet for protection, a rifle, and boots for his feet. Fuller refuses to present the North Koreans as a faceless enemy. This is evident in a scene where a captured major (Harold Fong) is attended to by Thompson and tries to get under his skin by asking him why he serves a country that treats African Americans so poorly. He tries out the same tactic with the Japanese American soldier in the squad (Richard Loo) but it doesn’t work on either of them, whose sense of duty trumps any conflicted feelings they may have for how they are treated back home.
 
The inspiration for The Steel Helmet came from newspaper headlines of the day reporting on the ongoing Korean War. Fuller felt that it was only “natural for me to come up with a tale set in the ongoing conflict, utilizing my own firsthand experience from World War II.” He wanted to debunk the clichés that riddled so many war films in the past. “The confusion and brutality of war, not phony heroism, need to be depicted,” he said.
 
Fuller wanted to make it his way and approached independent producer Robert Lippert who greenlit it after the filmmaker pitched him the story. One of the major Hollywood studios found out Fuller was putting it together and offered to produce it but under the condition that John Wayne play Zack. Fuller balked at this, realizing that if he cast Wayne, he’d be making “a simplistic morality tale,” and wanted his film to look real with the soldiered being “human and deeply flawed.”
 


Fuller worked with a low budget and a tight shooting schedule of only ten days! He had started rehearsals and was only days away from the start of principal photography without an actor to play Zack. One day, Gene Evans and his agent showed up at the production office. Even though he had never been cast in a major role in a movie he told Fuller about serving as an engineer in WWII. Without warning, Fuller tossed an M1 rifle at the actor who caught it and displayed his familiarity with the weapon. Fuller knew he had found his man.
 
Lippert met Evans and after consulting with Fuller approved his casting but days later associate producer William Burke tried to fire Evans, telling him they were going with a more famous actor instead. When Fuller found out he was furious and went to Lippert. He found out that actor Larry Parks was going to testify at the McCarthy hearings and in danger of being blacklisted. The producers figured they could the well-known actor for a cheap price and use the free publicity he was getting from the hearings. Fuller told Lippert that he and Evans were quitting and immediately walked out. That night, Lippert and Fuller talked things over and the next morning he and Evans were on the set filming.
 
Capitalizing on the relevancy of the subject matter, The Steel Helmet was a commercial success. One critic called Fuller a pro-Communist and anti-American. Another said the film was secretly funded by the Russians and Fuller should be interrogated by the Pentagon. The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther wrote, "For an obviously low-budget picture that was shot in a phenomenally short time, Samuel Fuller's metallic The Steel Helmet has some surprisingly good points." Variety magazine wrote, "The Steel Helmet pinpoints the Korean fighting in a grim, hardhitting tale that is excellently told.”
 


Another striking aspect of The Steel Helmet, and arguably much of Fuller’s body of work, is the lack of sentimentality. He’s not afraid to kill off the most beloved character of the film and in doing so reveals Zack’s humanity, that he tries to keep buried, in a rare, poignant moment of self-reflection. Evans handles this moment masterfully through facial expressions before snapping back to his hardened G.I. At the end of the film, exhausted but alive Zack continues on. What other choice does he have? Fuller ends the film with the title card, “There is no end to this story.” A powerful anti-war statement as Fuller acknowledges what few others do – there is no end to violent conflict. There will always be a war somewhere and that is the sad reality of our existence.
 
 
SOURCES
 
Fuller, Samuel. A Third Face. Alfred A. Knopf. 2002.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Lassiter

 


Tom Selleck has had one of the more intriguing what if film careers. If he had been able to get out of his contract for the television show Magnum, P.I. and done Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) who knows how his career would’ve turned out? Instead, he ended up doing a string of entertaining but mostly forgettable fare such as High Road to China (1983), Lassiter (1984), and Runaway (1984) that all underperformed at the box office to one degree or another as people were by and large content to watch him every week on T.V. It wasn’t until the smash hit of Three Men and a Baby (1990) that he had a significant financial success. Of all the movies he did in the early to mid-1980s, Lassiter is the most interesting effort.
 
Set in 1939 London, Selleck plays a high-end jewel thief by the name of Nick Lassiter. The movie begins with the man plying his trade, expertly breaking into a luxurious mansion and stealing expensive jewelry. He almost gets away with it until the lady of the house catches him on the way out. Instead of calling out to her husband, whom she has been bickering with since they arrived home, she lets Lassiter go but not before he helps her get undressed for her bath and the surprising female nudity signals that this won’t be family-friendly PG fare but naughty R-rated fun.
 
When he’s not robing the rich, he’s hobnobbing with them at a swanky nightclub with his beautiful wife Sarah (Jane Seymour) where they exchange unfortunately bland repartee, which is a damn shame as Selleck and Jane Seymour have lovely chemistry together. The next day, Lassiter is picked up by Inspector Becker (Bob Hoskins) and framed for a crime he didn’t commit but is given a chance to go free if he works with FBI agent Peter Breeze (Joe Regalbuto), helping steal $10 million worth of unset diamonds from the German embassy, slowing down their espionage efforts in South America.
 


To do so, Lassiter must get close to the courier, Kari Von Fursten (Lauren Hutton) and her Gestapo bodyguard Max Hofer (Warren Clarke). Breeze describes her as “pretty wild” and we quickly get an idea of just how wild when we see her kill one of her sexual conquests while they’re in bed together, evidently a perverse turn-on for her. Lauren Hutton looks like she’s having fun playing a woman with “unusual appetites,” as one character puts it, and she goes on to describe Shanghai as interesting for its diversions such as “women with animals, drugs, little boys, pleasure and pain.” She certainly looks the part of an elegant Nazi with some weird kinks.
 
Tom Selleck does an excellent job playing a suave jewel thief who is comfortable bantering playfully with a Nazi femme fatale in posh casinos as he is watching down ‘n’ dirty underground boxing matches. He’s also not afraid to get his hands dirty as evident in a scene where he and Max have it out in a bloody brawl at Lassiter’s apartment. This role allows Selleck to show off his leading man chops, demonstrating his capacity for romance with Seymour, action, his athletic prowess with the cat burglar sequence, and even a light comic touch in an amusing scene where he communicates with a Nazi guard only through facial expressions and gestures while wearing a frilly woman’s housecoat, trying not to wake Kari sleeping in the next room.

Jane Seymour is well cast as Selleck’s foil. Sarah enjoys their lifestyle but is not crazy about his current gig and doesn’t understand why they can’t just take off to Rome or parts elsewhere. He tells her, “Someone else dealt the cards, Sarah. I’m just playing them out,” to which she replies, “Well, you’re holding a losing hand now, Nick.” She is a strong-willed person that loves her husband but won’t have her life sent in a direction she doesn’t like and Seymour does a fine job conveying her character’s strength.


The always reliable Ed Lauter is cast refreshingly against type as Smoke, a prolific car thief and Lassiter’s best friend. Known mostly for playing cops and authority figures, he must’ve jumped at the opportunity to sink his teeth into a character on the opposite side of the law. He has an excellent scene with Selleck where Smoke and Lassiter reminisce about the good ol’ days when they bootlegged liquor during Prohibition.
 
Bob Hoskins plays Inspector Becker with his customary gusto. He’s a hard man that knows which pressure points to press with Lassiter but also keeps his personal life separate from his professional one when we see how he reacts to Lassiter paying a house call.
 
Lassiter features workman-like direction from veteran T.V. director Robert Young (Bitter Harvest) that could’ve been done with a little more pizzazz, a rather pedestrian script by David Taylor (Hanky Panky), and an unmemorable score by Ken Thorne (Superman II) that is low-key to the point of being non-existent, which prevents the movie from being something truly special. Instead, it is just pleasantly entertaining – certainly nothing wrong with that. What saves it from being forgettable is the cast who all play their roles admirably.
 


Comparing the diverging career paths that Harrison Ford and Tom Selleck respective careers took it isn’t hard to see why the former had a thriving career full of iconic roles in diverse films while the latter returned to T.V. with renewed success. It’s not just that Ford was the better actor but he also had a better instinct for movie roles. Part of it is being in the right place at the right time and part of it is knowing what works best for your talents and I think Selleck eventually realized that T.V. is where he belonged and the proof is in a show such a Blue Bloods, which he has starred in for 12 seasons and counting. Lassiter, in some respects, typifies his film career – entertaining and full of promise but just falling short of excellence.

Friday, July 16, 2021

Air America


There are so many ways a film can go wrong. They can be bungled upon their release, either by poor timing or by a misguided marketing campaign. They can be ruined in post-production by the studio taking it away from the filmmaker and hacking it to pieces. They can be undone during principal photography via circumstances beyond the filmmaker’s control or because they have too much control. Some films can be unmade before they’re even made. This is what happened to Air America (1990). What started as a hard-hitting look at the secretly CIA-run airline that brought in weapons and supplies to anti-communist forces in Indochina during the Vietnam War and was to star Sean Connery and Kevin Costner and directed by Richard Rush, eventually became a feel-good buddy comedy starring Mel Gibson and Robert Downey, Jr. that was more Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) than Platoon (1986), only wackier. Where did it all go wrong?

Like with Good Morning, Vietnam, Air America starts off presenting a misfit group of servicemen, this time pilots, flying secret missions in Laos, often aiding and abetting local General Vang Pao (Burt Kwouk) and his lucrative opium drug trade. Billy Covington (Downey) is the audience surrogate, a maverick civilian pilot who's having trouble holding down a regular gig stateside and is convinced by a recruiter that Air America is his only option left.
The opening sequence of the movie sets the serio-comic tone and demonstrates the wildly mismatched sides at war with each other as we see a large cargo plane get shot down by a peasant with a rifle from extremely long range. It’s an absurd image that is soon offset by a shot of the plane wreckage and the dead pilot lying on the tarmac. The movie then swings back to comedy when CIA agent Rob Diehl (David Marshall Grant) asks veteran pilot Gene Ryack (Gibson) if the man is dead to which he deadpans, “Well, Rob, if he’s not dead, he’s very, very calm.” It is this painfully unfunny dialogue so early on that does not bode well for the rest of the movie.

Fortunately, the movie improves considerably when Billy arrives in country and is introduced to his fellow pilots. He quickly finds out that, as he puts it, "I was always the weirdest guy in the room. Here I'm not in the running." We meet the most interesting part of Air America: the wonderful supporting cast, populated by genre vets like Art LaFleur (The Blob), Ned Eisenberg (The Burning), David Bowe (U.H.F.), and the great Tim Thomerson (Trancers) who all look like they're having a blast playing oddball pilots and all-around degenerates. It is LaFleur that steps up and sells “crazy” dialogue such as, “I’m coming from the dark side of the moon and I’m going back there, too, soon,” because of the way he carries himself in the scene that convincingly puts Billy on edge. It’s a shame that it doesn’t go on longer so that we can meet the rest of these burn-outs.


Instead, the first half of the movie is all set-up, establishing these rag-tag pilots and their eccentric way of doing things, their flying missions (which seems to involve a lot of crashing), and how Major Donald Lemond (Scrubs' Ken Jenkins) and his second-in-command Rob are in cahoots with General Pang while a cavalcade of 1960s hits (except for an atrocious cover of The Doors' "Love Me Two Times" by Aerosmith) plays endlessly on the soundtrack.

Air America is at its best when we see these guys carousing and cutting loose, which sadly, isn't often. We must make due with little bits of business like seeing Babo (Thomerson) as the third wheel on Billy’s orientation flight, or a scene that shows their off-hours antics, drinking and playing mini-golf. Once again, LaFleur takes center stage as Jack gets in Billy’s face and ends up shooting another pilot’s ball in mid-putt. The two almost get into it and we get a glimpse of how cracked these guys are and that they’ve been at this for way too long. Of all the character actors the filmmakers cast as the pilots they must’ve really been impressed with LaFleur and what he was doing daily as he gets most of the screen-time of any of them including a memorable mission Jack flies with Billy where they are shot down during a supply run. There are some decent intense exchanges between the two men as they realize that they’re also transporting a whackload of the General’s opium and must fend for themselves when he arrives to rescue his merchandise and not them. These scenes are so entertaining and fun to watch that it makes you want to see a movie that focuses just on these guys with Billy and Gene as supporting characters instead.

Rob and the Major provide a rare glimpse of the darker movie that could have been when he tells Billy over drinks, “A secret war is the way to go. No reporters, no T.V. You black out the war like a pro football game.” His superior appears and clears things up just in case what he was saying wasn’t obvious enough, that they treat what they do as a business and a war with no difference between them.


It must be said that Downey and Gibson have some nice moments together and it’s not the kooky pilot shtick but a down moment where Gene tells Billy what’s he all about as he tells him, “We’re all a bunch of trouble junkies. We’ve been mainlining danger and adrenaline for so long nothing else gets us off. It’s kind of sick.” He lays all his cards on the table and tells his young friend how things are in a refreshingly honest and direct way that is well-acted by Gibson. This scene also plants the seeds for Gene’s eventual redemption as Billy’s youthful rebel begins to remind him of when he was that age.

For years, Air America was a passion project for filmmaker Richard Rush who was set to make it for Carolco Pictures in 1985 on a $15 million budget based on the book of the same name by Christopher Robbins. His vision had a main character who was a Vietnamese spy that had infiltrated Air America. He had put a lot of work into the screenplay and considered it his finest, even better than the one he wrote for The Stunt Man (1980), which he held in high regard. Rush was interested in casting Sean Connery and the actor came over to the house twice a week for an hour or two reading the script together. They got along quite well and when Rush was fired from the project, Connery immediately quit.

Rush scouted locations in Southeast Asia and began casting for his film. His first choice for Connery’s co-star was Bill Murray but after extended talks he was briefly replaced by Jim Belushi before Kevin Costner showed interest in the project. Rush claims the actor was very interested but he took too long to decide and Good Morning, Vietnam came out and stole their thunder (and the box office). It didn’t help that his asking price had increased and Carolco did not want to pony up the rumored $15 million for both actors. In September 1987, independent film producer Dan Melnick sold his production company to Carolco and took over Air America. It was at this point that the project changed from a gritty expose that Rush has envisioned into a studio blockbuster that Melnick envisioned. He fired Rush and the two leads quickly departed as well. Melnick remembers, “They hadn’t been able to get a good script on it. It couldn’t attract stars. It was just lumbering along.” Rush asked for his script back and Melnick refused, giving the filmmaker back $1 million of his $1.5 million pay-or-play deal. Rush said he felt like the “victim of a hostile takeover.”


Melnick hired screenwriter John Eskow and director Bob Rafelson to take over and they all went to Malaysia and Thailand to scout locations. Malaysia was ruled out, deemed “a repressive society” by Melnick and the team opted for Thailand. When they returned from their trip, a Writer’s Guild strike delayed rewrites on the project. The budget and scope of the movie increased and this necessitated an international movie star. They couldn’t get anyone to commit unless a script was available. Some aspects of Rush’s script survived, such as the dropping of counterfeit money over Laos to destroy the economy and the dropping of oversized condoms as a form of psychological warfare.

To further complicate matters, shooting in Thailand had to take place during the country’s dry season, approximately October through April. Melnick and Rafelson went off to Africa to make Mountains of the Moon (1990) while Eskow returned to work on the script as the strike had ended. Rafelson never came back and he was replaced by Roger Spittiswoode (Under Fire). For the role of Gene, Melnick had originally wanted a veteran actor like Sean Connery or Paul Newman with Mel Gibson eyed to play Billy. Thanks to the success of Lethal Weapon (1987), Gibson was hot at the box office and used his clout to play Gene. A few adjustments to the script were made and Robert Downey, Jr. was cast as Billy.

By several accounts, the production was a challenging one with 15 cameras, three units and 49 separate locations used during the 14 weeks of principal photography in rough conditions on location in Northern Thailand where 200 toilets were installed. At one point, 20 members of the crew were stricken with an unknown flu. The production rented 26 airplanes and helicopters from the Thai military and in one month encountered four serious in-flight emergencies that, in one case, almost resulted in casualties.

The original version was going to be made by Rush and starring Connery and Murray. Can you imagine what that would've been like? Alas, their version was probably too dark and too critical of United States foreign policy to be unleashed on an unsuspecting mainstream moviegoing audience. Once Gibson and Downey, Jr. came on board as the leads, it softened all the edges and you get what was finally released: an easygoing, feature-length sitcom that washes over you.


Almost. The last third of the movie tries to stick to the Good Morning, Vietnam playbook by having Gibson's cynical pilot develop a conscience with the help of Downey and show what the General's drug trade is doing to the local population. Gibson and Downey even get stranded in the dense jungle and must make it back to base just like Robin Williams does in Good Morning, Vietnam! Also, Rob and the Major are antagonists to our heroes much as Bruno Kirby and J.T. Walsh’s characters were in Barry Levinson’s film. You know in a movie like this nothing really bad is going to happen to Gene or Billy and they get to literally fly off into the sunset while a tacked-on epilogue tries to temper things by explaining that the two corrupt U.S. government officials managed to emerge from Laos unscathed, protected from on high to go on being evil S.O.B.s. Air America isn’t an example of a good movie inside of a bad one, trying to get out, but rather a good idea that was tinkered with and a mediocre movie was the end result.


SOURCES

Clarkson, Wensley. Mel Gibson: Man on a Mission. 2015.

Anson, Robert Sam. “Fly the Friendly Skies.” Premiere. September 1990.

Rowlands, Paul. “An Interview with Richard Rush.” Money into Light. November 2017.

Wilson, John M. “The Fine Art of Making the Deal.” Los Angeles Times. May 27, 1990.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Satan's Triangle


People have been fascinated with the enigma that is the Bermuda Triangle for decades. It is a region marked by the Florida coast and the islands of Bermuda and the Bahamas, a “danger zone that seems to swallow ships and planes,” as a vintage episode of the In Search Of… television show from the 1970s aptly described it. It is an area of 60,000 square miles where many planes and ships have mysteriously vanished over the years. Science has tried to explain the phenomenon but compelling anecdotal information endures and continues interest in it.
 
It has been fertile ground for genre movies and T.V., from Airport ’77 (1977) to The Triangle (2005) mini-series. One of the more interesting and unsettling efforts is Satan’s Triangle, a 1975 made-for-T.V. movie starring Kim Novak and Doug McClure and produced by famed entertainer Danny Thomas’ production company. Originally nothing more than a movie-of-the-week, Satan’s Triangle has developed a small cult following over the years of people who have fond memories of seeing it in the ‘70s.
 
The United States Coast Guard receives a distress call from a schooner caught in a terrible storm at sea right in the center of the Bermuda Triangle. Lt. Haig (McClure) and Lt. Comdr. Pagnolini (Michael Conrad) investigate in a rescue helicopter. The two men briefly discuss the Bermuda Triangle with the former being a skeptic and the latter believing that the Devil plays a role. They come across the ship and find a man hanging upside down from the main mast and another man slumped on the forward hatch. The sails are shredded and it looks abandoned.


They try to radio the base but all they get is static. Haig decides to go down to the vessel and investigate. Once aboard, he confirms both men are dead and the one hanging ominously from the mast is priest (Alejandro Rey)! The suspenseful tone is quite effective here as the spooky atmospheric music by Johnny Pate and the wind whistling around the ship set a creepy vibe.
 
Initially, Haig doesn’t find anyone, which only ratchets up the tension including the incredible choppy sea that rocks the boat. When he ventures aft he finds another man, his body hanging in mid-air! He also finds a woman named Eva (Novak) in shock. Haig brings her on deck and they try to get back on the helicopter but the wire on the rescue basket snaps sending them tumbling into the sea. The chopper begins to inexplicably have technical difficulties forcing it to leave. Haig and Eva return to the boat. While waiting for help to return, she recounts the strange happenings on the boat that led to its current state. At this point Satan’s Triangle has sucked us in with this intriguing premise and engaging mystery. How did these men die and only Eva survive?
 
Even in the twilight of her career, Kim Novak casts an alluring presence and her sexy, husky voice warning Haig, “We’re going to die on this boat, you know,” doesn’t sound like the worst thing in the world. After all, who wouldn’t want to be stuck out at sea alone with her? Novak does her best to convey the dread of the situation as Eva stares off into space with a haunted look whenever she recounts what happened to all on board before Haig and his partner showed up. In the flashback sequences she gets to have fun playing the bored, spoiled trophy wife who receives massages from one of the crew members while her older, rich husband Hal (Jim Davis) gets to live out his Ernest Hemingway fantasy by trying to land a huge marlin.


His macho fantasy is interrupted by the ominous sight of a priest floating alone at sea on the wing of plane wreckage. The shot of him adrift at sea is a haunting one as he doesn’t look quite right. There is an air of malevolence about him as opposed to say trauma from surviving a plane crash. As soon as he is brought on board all hell breaks loose starting with a violent storm that engulfs the schooner and frightens the crew so badly that they abandon ship, leaving Hal, Eva and the ship’s captain (Ed Lauter) and the first mate (Titos Vandis) with the priest.
 
Alejandro Rey is eerily effective as the priest whose stoicism and dead eyes are an unsettling combination. Ed Lauter plays another no-nonsense authority figure that he excelled at throughout his career, playing the ship’s captain who is at odds with the rich man obsessed with catching an elusive marlin. Doug McClure is just fine as the male lead who provides a skeptical counterpoint to Eva’s traumatized believer. Initially, he comes off as something of a ladies man and has no problem “comforting” her while they wait for help to arrive but the movie’s dramatic plot twist late on turns his world upside down.
 
Naturally, Eva’s account of what happened leans heavily into the supernatural with a crew member suddenly disappearing without a trace and Hal’s inexplicable corpse hanging suspended in air as she wrestles with her faith in God in the presence of the Devil at the heart of the Bermuda Triangle. Haig, the man of reason, goes through her story and explains the unnatural occurrences in such a way that he has us convinced, lulling us into a sense of complacency and setting us up for the movie’s crazy climax that delivers a deliciously chilling twist with only a look.


Satan’s Triangle is a vintage made-for-T.V. movie with cheap yet well-delivered jolts as it mixes a fascination with the supernatural and the jaded cynicism of the decade that lost its idealism in the 1960s. Ultimately, it delivers the requisite scares in surprisingly effective fashion and is anchored by an engaging performance from Novak who showed that she still had it after all those years, delivering a hell of a gut-punch of an ending.
 
You can watch Satan’s Triangle for free on Youtube.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Above the Law


In the Search of the Last Action Heroes (2019) is a documentary that is both a loving tribute to 1980s action cinema and a lament of the decline of R-rated action movies starring the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme. Remember when Steven Seagal was a lean, mean fighting machine, kicking ass in mainstream Hollywood studio movies? He emerged from seemingly nowhere fully formed, complete with model-starlet wife Kelly Le Brock and a headline-grabbing backstory that involved teaching martial arts in Japan and being recruited by the CIA to participate in top secret missions, all thanks to a boost from legendary power broker cum agent Michael Ovitz who helped engineer his semi-autobiographical Hollywood debut with Above the Law (1988).

Back then Seagal was a breath of fresh air in action cinema. He wasn’t a muscle-bound one-man army like Schwarzenegger and Stallone, but a normal-looking guy that was a master of the martial art Aikido. There was a no-nonsense vibe to his persona that cut against the grain of the wisecracking tough guys that were dominating the box office at the time. All he needed was the right vehicle to showcase his talents and Above the Law was that movie, more than doubling its budget at the box office and launching Seagal’s movie career.
 
Nico Toscani (Seagal) is an ex-CIA agent now Chicago police detective whose past comes back to haunt him when a nasty fellow agent by the name of Kurt Zagon (Henry Silva), who he encountered during his stint in the Vietnam War, helps a Salvadorian drug lord peddle his trade on the streets. Of course, Nico is a bit of a loose cannon, refusing to back down when two FBI agents tell him to leave the drug lord alone. He’s a straight arrow who loves his family, his neighborhood, and city, doing everything in his power to rid it of crime. This involves, at one point, scaring a young cousin straight and helping a local parish priest bring immigrants into the country. It becomes personal, however, when the neighborhood church Nico attends is bombed, wounding countless people including his grandmother and killing the presiding priest.
 

Roughly 13 minutes in we get to see Seagal do his thing as Nico enters a seedy bar looking for his young cousin who has gotten mixed up in drugs. Naturally, all the barflies give him grief and try to start some shit (look for a young Michael Rooker in a cameo), which he quickly finishes in impressive fashion. What catches your eye is not just Seagal’s skills but Andrew Davis’ no-nonsense direction and how he shoots the action, capturing his star in full-body shots so that we see him actually doing these moves with very little editing unlike his more recent fare.
 
Davis handles the action like a pro, mixing it up so we don’t get an endless series of scenes of Seagal beating up guys. We see him using his gun and even hanging onto the roof of a car trying to bust some scumbags. It’s not The French Connection (1971) but it is exciting. There’s also a fantastic foot chase where we see Seagal running and not the usual Hollywood bullshit but him flat-out sprinting in smoothly choreographed tracking shots.

Seagal acquits himself just fine in Above the Law and what he lacks in acting chops he more than makes up for in intensity and confidence in his abilities. It helps that Davis surrounds him with the likes of Pam Grier and a bevy of Chicago character actors such as Ron Dean (The Fugitive), Jack Wallace (Homicide), and Ralph Foody (Home Alone) – most of whom appeared in the director’s previous Chicago-based actioner Code of Silence (1985). They provide local color and help give a real sense of place.

I like the unconventional casting of Grier as Seagal’s long-suffering partner. Instead of going for the stereotypical white guy partner, the filmmakers cast a woman of color and never address it or made a big deal about it. She’s just his partner and a damn good one at that. In a nice touch, the filmmakers make a point of showing Nico and his partner doing the day-to-day grunt work, like pounding the pavement asking locals questions. Unfortunately, a young Sharon Stone doesn’t fare as well, playing the thankless role of Nico’s wife who has very little to do except look adoringly at him when he does something good and frightened when their family is threatened.
 
Above the Law sets up CIA drug traffickers as the bad guys led by the always reliable Henry Silva who bookends the movie as a nasty piece of work that specializes in torture. With his smooth voice and icy intensity, he makes for a chilling villain that enjoys his work a little too much thanks to the actor’s deliciously evil performance. His imposing presence makes Zagon a formidable antagonist for Seagal.
 
When he was a teenager, Steven Seagal moved to Japan in 1968, studied and became an expert in the martial arts known as Aikido, so much so that he was the only Westerner to operate his own dojo there. He claimed that several CIA agents operating in the country became students at his dojo. It has been said that Seagal was subsequently recruited by the agency but in interviews he refused to cite specific missions only saying, “You can say that I lived in Asia for a long time and in Japan I became close to several CIA agents. And you could say that I became an adviser to several CIA agents in the field and, through my friends in the CIA, met many powerful people and did special works and special favors.”

It is telling, however, that at the time of filming director Andrew Davis said, “What we’re really doing here with Steven is making a documentary.” Furthermore, Seagal said, “The whole motivation behind me doing this film was my trying to make up for all the things I’ve seen--and done. I’m tired of seeing us try to destabilize governments, prop up dictators and get involved with drug smugglers and crooks.” We will probably never know if Seagal worked for the CIA but it made for good hype that helped garner interest in the movie.
 
Michael Ovitz, then head of CAA, one of the most powerful talent agencies in Hollywood, was a martial arts aficionado that reportedly studied with Seagal at his West Hollywood based Aikido Ten Shin Dojo. They became friendly and Ovitz felt that Seagal had the raw materials to become a movie star. Then Warner Brothers president Terry Semel remembers Ovitz being Seagal’s biggest fan: “He went far beyond the role of just being Steven’s agent. In fact, with the type of superstar client list Michael has, you wouldn’t normally see him work so closely with a first-time actor.”
 
Ovitz kept insisting to Semel that Seagal had potential to be a movie star. When it came to the studio courting Seagal, he claimed that they felt Clint Eastwood was aging out of the action genre and told the martial artist, “We’d like to see you take his place. We think you can be the next Eastwood.” They gave him a several scripts, told him to pick one and they’d make it. Not surprisingly, Semel’s account differs: “I don’t think it was a matter of anyone replacing Clint. He’s gone far beyond being just an action star.”

Before Warner Brothers greenlit the movie, they wanted to see a demonstration of Seagal’s martial arts prowess. Needless to say, he didn’t disappoint, putting on quite a show with his assistants: “The demonstration was quite miraculous. With just a toss of his hand, Steven would send the other guy flying. I’m no martial-arts expert, but he had the ability to knock these guys up in the air so effortlessly--well, it was pretty astounding,” said Semel. It was enough for the studio to bankroll a $50,000 screen test with Davis shooting several scenes from the screenplay.
 
The nine-week shoot was not without incident. Seagal broke his nose in a scene where Henry Silva accidentally punched him. Seagal went to the hospital, was treated and came back to work. Afterwards, he didn’t blame Silva: “My biggest nightmare is having someone like Henry--whose eyes are bad and isn’t trained in stunts--to be swinging at me. I should have my own people in here, doing the stunts.” In addition, Seagal was not used to the slow pace of the filmmaking process with technical delays and having to compromise in action sequences: “Sometimes I’ll tell Andy (Davis) that a scene isn’t going to work. And sure enough, when we see the dailies, it doesn’t look right. I just feel that I’m being shortchanged, that I’m not getting to show enough great martial-arts action.” The filmmakers were also under the gun to finish before a threatened Director’s Guild strike, which only added to the pressure.
 
Not surprisingly, Above the Law received mostly negative reviews with the exception of Roger Ebert who gave it three out of four stars and said of Seagal, "He does have a strong and particular screen presence. It is obvious he is doing a lot of his own stunts, and some of the fight sequences are impressive and apparently unfaked. He isn’t just a hunk, either." In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote that the movie, "may well rank among the top three or four goofiest bad movies of 1988. The film...is the year's first left-wing right-wing-movie. It's an action melodrama that expresses the sentiments of the lunatic fringe at the political center." The Washington Post's Hal Hinson wrote, "Above the Law, which offers Steven Seagal to the world as a new urban action hero, is woefully short on originality, intelligibility and anything resembling taste. But none of this comes as a surprise. What is surprising is how little invention or energy there is in the movie's action sequences."

In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Michael Wilmington wrote, "Starting in the semi-realistic framework of the ‘70s cop movies, it veers off into ‘80s action movie cloud-cuckoo land: the paranoid one-against-a-hundred clichés of the average Schwarzenegger-Stallone heavy-pectoral snow job." Finally, the Chicago Tribune's Dave Kehr wrote, "The action sequences are sleek and strong enough, but the story that chains them together is too ambitious for its own good. Upstanding liberals both, Davis and Seagal seem distinctly uncomfortable working in a genre as inherently right-wing as the cop thriller, and they`ve tried to salve their consciences by introducing some heavily 'progressive' elements."
 
The commercial success of Above the Law launched Seagal into the action movie star pantheon, kicking off a fantastic run of movies in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. He was paired with solid directors like Davis and John Flynn (Out for Justice), worked with wonderful character actors like Chelcie Ross (Major League) and William Forsythe (Raising Arizona), and worked with decent budgets. Seagal, however, began to believe his own hype and his ego took over. He began making odd choices in movies, exerting too much control, like starring, producing and directing On Deadly Ground (1994), and the quality suffered. Hollywood stopped bankrolling his movies and he became a cautionary tale, a pop culture punchline and downright toxic when allegations of his sordid personal life eclipsed his professional one.
 
Above the Law has a coherent, well-written story wedged between action sequences that deals with political assassinations, international drug cartels and drug money-funded wars – ambitious stuff for an action movie. It’s good to see that the filmmakers cared about such things instead of it being an afterthought to be stitched on. Davis doesn’t try to re-invent the cop movie genre and he doesn’t need to – instead, he expertly fulfills many of its conventions and in entertaining fashion. The movie acts as a showcase for a talented action star and is a fantastic snapshot of an emerging movie star with a promising career ahead of him.
 


SOURCES

Goldstein, Patrick. “Steven Seagal Gets a Shot at Stardom.” Los Angeles Times. February 14, 1988