I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

The Shadow

a survey of summer movies that just didn’t catch on

(NOTE: I’ve decided to go back to cover two Summer Flings that I regret having skipped.)

July 1, 1994

Look, I can’t say for sure what audiences were yearning for in the summer of ’94, but it might have been a cartoon about lions and it might not have been a super hero movie set in the 1930s, based on a character from serialized radio dramas. Here is yet another entry in my beloved genre of old-timey-super-hero-movie-that-totally-failed-at-the-box-office-but-I-thought-it-was-pretty-good. I suppose THE SHADOW seemed like a more sensible bet than some of them, because it was at least a character with vague name recognition and noir influences like BATMAN (in fact some believe the first Batman story was a rip-off of a Shadow story called “Partners of Peril”).

At first glance The Shadow (Alec Baldwin, THE GETAWAY) does seem like kind of a Batman-esque character. He’s a rich handsome guy named Lamont Cranston who lives a secret life, going out at night as a scary figure, fighting criminals. He doesn’t have a cape, but a black cloak that serves the same purpose, plus a hat and a mask over the mouth and two guns. And hidden in an alley is the entrance to his Batcave-like secret base. (read the rest of this shit…)

Action U.S.A.

tn_actionusa“Come on Carmen, what do you want from me? I’m just trying to do my job protecting a federal witness from being chased by a bunch of assholes who shoot at us every time I turn around!”

ACTION U.S.A. is pretty much the perfect movie title. I mean, who the fuck knows what it means, it doesn’t describe the content of the story in a traditional way, and yet it exactly describes the vibe of the movie (filmed under the title A HANDFUL OF TROUBLE, referring to some diamonds). The movie opens with a long credits scene of a Corvette with a giant engine sticking out the front, Texas license plate “SLEEK 1,” naked lady airbrushed on the hood, speeding down roads. It pulls up to a house, the driver Billy Ray (Rod Shaft) (beer in hand, gun tucked in waistband) takes his girl Carmen (Barri Murphy) inside and they start to go at it on the couch. The director credit is over a shot of the door right before it gets kicked down and two mob thugs (one lookin like Freddy Mercury) come in and drag Billy Ray to the trunk of their car. Then they take him to a helicopter and fly around dangling him by one leg. Carmen drives underneath saying “Oh my god!”

They accidentally drop him in water, he swims ashore and gets in her car for a crazy chase that involves her hanging out the door, Freddie standing up in the sunroof firing his gun, of course some workers on ladders almost getting hit, and a completely full school bus that through some act of God or careful planning has a tow truck set up as a ramp so they can jump over it. The motor home in front of the bus is not so lucky, though, and the bad guys crash through it and explode into flames of awesomeness.

That’s the beginning, and it continues like that. That’s a movie you can call ACTION U.S.A. all right. I would also accept AMERICA T.N.T. or DYNAMITE EAGLE SQUAD. (read the rest of this shit…)

Baby Driver

There’s this baby-faced young man who in fact goes by the handle of Baby (Ansel Elgort, who impressed me as Tommy Ross in the CARRIE remake) and he’s a whiz kid of a getaway driver for armed robberies. He loves listening to music, and uses his favorite songs to inspire and time his driving, which is spectacular. He can maneuver and slide and spin and he is living proof that not everybody followed the disclaimer at the end of TOKYO DRIFT.

(He would’ve been about twelve when it came out, and surely influenced by it during his driver’s exam.)

Some have described this is a musical, which makes some sense. At times it feels like a movie based on the current trailer fad of editing gunshots and other sound effects as percussion playing along with the music.

After they get away, when the gang meets up to split the money, they make Baby go buy the coffee. Here’s one thing they carefully edited out of the trailers: he’s a total dork. In the car, but also at home, or walking in public, he listens to his earbuds and sings along and does little dance moves and shit. The whole walk to and from the coffee shop he seems like he’s on the verge of busting into a full on SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN number. I wonder if they considered casting Moose from the STEP UP sequels in this. (read the rest of this shit…)

Cleopatra Jones

CLEOPATRA JONES is a blaxploitation movie that goes above and beyond the call of duty. It has all the funk, swagger and aspirational badassness that you hope for in the genre, but even more heightened. That’s both literal and figurative; Warner Brothers’ answer to American International’s success with Pam Grier vehicles was to hire the regal 6′ 2″ model Tamara Dobson, teach her some martial arts and have her play an unfuckwithable special agent.

I didn’t notice them specifying which agency she works for, her ID literally just says “SPECIAL AGENT,” with a presidential seal. And we can’t say “secret agent” either because, like James Bond, most people know who she is, and she sure as shit doesn’t try to keep a low profile. Her fashion is flagrantly eye catching and she drives a badass Corvette with mag wheels that says her name on the plates and sometimes spews fire out of the back.

To my knowledge CLEOPATRA JONES is the only blaxploitation movie where the first shot is of a camel. Cleo helicopters into a base in Turkey. She steps out in a fur-lined, hooded cape and walks through rows of leaders gathered to give her a queen’s welcome. She flew in to personally give the order to drop bombs on a poppy field. “That’s right, baby. $30 million worth of shit that ain’t goin into some kid’s veins. Burn it.” (read the rest of this shit…)

The Beguiled (Clint’s version)

I’m excited for the impending release of Sofia Coppola’s new version of THE BEGUILED, but I had never actually seen the 1971 version starring Clint Eastwood, and what am I, an asshole? So I made sure to finally see it.

Right before DIRTY HARRY, Clint and Don Siegel made this one which is less action packed than DIRTY HARRY because Clint is bedridden or hobbling on crutches for the entire movie. Also he’s confined to a girl’s finishing school, and it’s not a DIE HARD type picking-off-terrorists-one-by-one situation either. It’s mostly just flirting.

Clint plays Corporal John McBurney, a.k.a. Johnny, McBee or Mr. Yank, a Union soldier badly wounded on Confederate territory and rescued by 12 year old girl’s school resident Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin, CHARLOTTE’S WEB, THE TOOLBOX MURDERS). Initially headmistress Martha (Geraldine Page, THE RESCUERS, THE POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE) intends to hand him over to the Confederate soldiers who stop by periodically on patrols, but she decides he’ll die in their prison if she doesn’t help him heal first. (read the rest of this shit…)

The Assignment

THE ASSIGNMENT is Walter Hill’s weird new pariah of a movie, a Tale From the Crypt without a Keeper, based on a gimmick that was too challenging to execute properly, even ignoring the current touchiness of the subject matter. It’s much more interesting than good, more of a great acting challenge for Michelle Rodriguez (AVATAR) than a successful vehicle for her talents. Nice try, though.

Here’s what it’s about: ruthless hitman Frank Kitchen is just doing his thing one day, ruthless hitmanning, when he gets jumped and knocked unconscious and later he mysteriously wakes up in a hotel room with a woman’s body. Not, like, in bed with a dead woman. Like, he looks down and he has female genitalia. (read the rest of this shit…)

The Mummy (2017)

There are some things too powerful, too uncontrollable, too dangerous to play around with. Ancient, vanquished forces brought back to life in a world they were never meant for, doomed to fulfill prophecies of disaster. In this case, I’m talking about the 85-year-old Universal Monsters franchise properties, resurrected once more using the fearsome occult invocation “SHARED UNIVERSE REBOOT.”

Of course, most people don’t see this summer’s THE MUMMY as a remake of the 1932 film starring Boris Karloff in a fez, which is in my opinion the least memorable of the Universal Monster introductions. No, they see it as a remake of Stephen Sommers’ frantic, rhythmless action-adventure version from 1999, and they’re not really wrong. This one borrows the idea of a globetrotting adventurer hero, capable but fallible, who teams with a “funny” sidekick and a strong-willed female antiquities expert who he bickers with while exploring some tombs and accidentally unleashes an evil ancient Egyptian royal who has magic powers and a tragic backstory and at one point appears as a giant face in a sandstorm.

But it’s a contemporary version, not only because it takes place in the present day, but because by its imagery and content you can tell it was made after the J-horror wave, and the zombie wave, and James Wan, and years of conflict in Iraq, and most notably THE AVENGERS. So the mummy is pursued not only by our hero Nick Morton (Tom Cruise, THE LAST SAMURAI), but by a secret monster-studying militia called Prodigium, led by Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe, THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS). (read the rest of this shit…)

Aftermath

When we look at Arnold Schwarzenegger, who will turn 70 next month, we can’t help but remember the 20 year old Mr. Universe Arnold Schwarzenegger, or the thirty-something CONAN THE BARBARIAN Arnold Schwarzenegger. When he fearlessly shows an aging, sagging ass and chest getting out of the shower in his new drama AFTERMATH, my mind couldn’t help but flash to his naked arrival in THE TERMINATOR thirty-some years ago. These days he looks like a muscular old dude, but not a machine from the future’s overblown idea of the perfect human body, and there are many people who don’t want to see their action heroes face the inevitability of getting old. They shame him for not permanently retaining his own unattainable body standard. They make hacky jokes about geriatric Expendables and Terminators in nursing homes.

Fuck ’em. They’re wrong. Arnold in his late ’60s is still Ah-nold, but now with a little Charles Bronson, a little Clint Eastwood, a little former governor of California who’s paying for his mistakes but making the best of it. I like his old man action movies, especially SABOTAGE, and I hope he doesn’t give up on them. If there was a constitutional amendment that allowed him to run for president my main concern would be that we wouldn’t get any more of those. But I’m also impressed that he’s doing small dramas like AFTERMATH and MAGGIE, where he shows that yes, a guy with muscles and a thick accent can still do a very good, very emotional acting performance. (read the rest of this shit…)

Batman & Robin (20th Anniversary Ice-travaganza)

BATMAN & ROBIN is 20 years cold, and CHILLED TO PERFECTION!

“There’s nobody else to blame but me. I could have said, ‘No, I’m not going to do it.’ I just hope whenever I see a list of the worst movies ever made, we’re not on it. I didn’t do a good job. George did. Chris did. Uma is brilliant in it. Arnold is Arnold.” –Joel Schumacher to Variety, 2014

a survey of summer movies that just didn’t catch on

It was June 20, 1997, and I thought BATMAN & ROBIN was the stupidest, most tasteless, worst big budget movie ever made. After the wholesale awfulness of BATMAN FOREVER went over well with audiences willing to sanction its buffoonery, Warner Brothers allowed director Joel Schumacher to go full Schumacher for the next one. It’s the same admirable, director-friendly approach that led to Tim Burton’s BATMAN RETURNS, and the bean counters would come to regret it once again. Schumacher’s purest artistic vision is like the aftermath of a rainbow sherbet fight in the costume storage warehouse for an ice skating troupe. He keeps the moody Elliot Goldenthal score and themes of mourning and vengeance, but buries them in a day-glo fantasia of overacting, bad puns, fetishistic rubber costumes and theme park stunt show style super hero battles. For me it became Exhibit A in any argument against the “It’s Not Supposed To Be Shakespeare/Check Your Brain At the Door” school of summer blockbuster permissiveness.

I wasn’t wrong. But twenty years later to the day, after many truly great summer movies, some of them even starring Batman, it’s easier for me to appreciate the uniqueness of BATMAN & ROBIN – the outrageously tacky designs, the subversively in-your-face homoeroticism, the laugh-out-loud ludicrousness of the plot and dialogue and settings and action, and especially the spectacle of Arnold Schwarzenegger in a bulky metal costume and glittery blue makeup as Mr. Freeze, playing like a simultaneous parody of over-the-top Batman villains, blockbuster excess and his own penchant for groan-worthy one-liners. He makes more than two dozen ice or cold related cracks without losing his boyish, gap-toothed Arnold charm.

Today I am prepared to admit that I own BATMAN & ROBIN on Blu-Ray. And have watched it twice in that format. And on purpose.

Ah shit, you guys. I like this stupid movie now. (read the rest of this shit…)

The Frighteners

a survey of summer movies that just didn’t catch on

It was July 19, 1996, and there were four new movies in theaters: the action movie with Laurence Fishburne, the genie movie with Shaquille O’Neal, the clone movie with Michael Keaton, and the ghost movie with Michael J. Fox. That last one did the best of the batch, but more people went to see previous releases INDEPENDENCE DAY, PHENOMENON, COURAGE UNDER FIRE and THE NUTTY PROFESSOR.

Not that surprising. Normal people didn’t know what the hell THE FRIGHTENERS was, or have any reason to give it much thought. Universal couldn’t make that big a deal about BACK TO THE FUTURE’s Marty McFly reuniting with Robert Zemeckis (as a producer) because it’s not that kind of movie. Whiz bang special effects movie, yeah, but rated-R, with some grossness and disturbing flashbacks to a realistic spree killing. Like the one we looked at last week, WOLF, there was no McDonalds tie-in (although the skeletal face imprint on the movie poster would’ve looked cool coming out of the side of those glass mugs!). (read the rest of this shit…)