April 21st, 2008

MATA HARI (1985) * ½

Mata Hari is the kind of movie I’d watch when I was ten years old on Skinamax at 1:45 AM with the sound turned down low so it wouldn’t wake my parents up.  Sadly, to fully enjoy this movie, it probably would’ve been a lot better if I was still ten years old and/or never known the touch of a woman.  


The premise is ideal for a Skinamax classic:  Sylvia Kristel, Emmanuelle herself, stars as Mata Hari, the world famous globe trotting and bed hopping spy.  Even though Kristel was well past her prime by the time she made this, her body still wasn’t too shabby and she gets naked on several occasions during the film.   


The problem isn’t an over the hill Kristel; it’s the direction of Curtis (Ruby) Harrington.  Apparently Harrington was under the impression that the audience actually wanted to see a legitimate movie based on the life of Mata Hari and not a rehashed version of Emmanuelle that you’d catch at 1:45 AM on Skinamax while your parents were asleep.  Harrington loads this cinematic piñata with too many fucking Masterpiece Theater scenes of costume drama mamas going on about who knows what and not enough softcore boning. 


The movie simply has too much plot to qualify it as a Skinamax classic.  The screenwriting is as sloppy as Hell as we’re never quite sure WHO Mata’s spying for and why.  The plot is confusing enough but when all the locations look exactly the same, it’s hard to tell where the heck the action is taking place.  Kristel’s “spying” ability is equally dubious.  Consider the scene where she takes five minutes to decode a “top secret” message, then reads it OUT LOUD!  Some spy she was. 


But you’re not watching this flick to see her spying prowess; you’re watching it to see Sylvia knock the boots.  In that respect, Mata Hari marginally succeeds.  She’s naked a lot in this flick, but most of her sex scenes are too brief and aren’t very titillating.  There is ONE classic scene that almost makes this flick worth recommending and that’s the topless swordfight scene.  Yes, there is a scene in this movie where Kristel and another hussy take their tops off and duel.  Yes, it’s pretty inventive and one of a kind.  (I’ve seen dozens of topless kickboxing scenes in a movie but never topless swordfighting.)  Unfortunately the fight was choreographed by a chimpanzee with multiple scoliosis and was edited by a blind aardvark so don’t expect it to be remotely rousing or arousing. 


It’s no Emmanuelle, Joys of a Woman, but if you’re in the mood for a crappy episode of Masterpiece Theater with a few titties in it, by all means, this is the flick for you.     

SHELL SHOCK (1964) ½ *


When I was in high school, I helped a buddy of mine make a war movie based on All Quiet on the Western Front.  All we had was a camera, a handful of uniforms and props and some ketchup for blood.  We shot that thing in one hour and I bet you anything our movie was more realistic than this turd. 


The story has two orphaned brothers, Johnny (Carl Crowe) and Gil (Frank Leo) joining the Army during WWII.  During a battle, Johnny gets a bad case of shell shock and even though he’s mind is that of a Fruit Roll-Up, his CO (Beach Dickerson from tons of Corman movies) sends him and Gil out on a dangerous mission.  Johnny goes bonkers for half the picture until the duo meets a hermetic family living in the plains of “Italy”.  After being shown a little TLC, Johnny’s quickly cured of his affliction and finally does something semi-heroic.


I like WWII pictures about as much as the next guy.  I like low budget movies as much as the next guy too.  BUT… this low budget WWII movie is the fucking pits.  The budget was so low on this thing that never once are you convinced that the soldiers are in Italy because the whole movie looks like it was shot on somebody’s ranch in California.  The performances are hideous and what passes for “action” in this flick wouldn't have cut it in a Coleman Francis movie.  The movie peters along at a snail’s pace and is too boring for the human mind to conceptualize. 


If you think “War is Hell”, you’re wrong.  Watching this movie about war is Hell. 

AKA:  82nd Marines Attack.



Roger Corman, in his usual thrifty fashion, filmed this as the third of three back to back to back films he produced in Puerto Rico.  The fact that he initially only set out to make two films should give you an idea of the quality of this flick.   


Moe and Ken (Richard Devon and Ron Kennedy) are two American GI’s who have just fought the titular battle in the South Pacific.  When the battle is over, they hang out in a cave, smoke cigarettes and chit chat about their lives.  While in hiding, they manage to pick off the remaining “Jap” soldiers that occupy the island.  After all the Japs are killed Ken says, “You know what this means?  We don’t have to whisper anymore!”  All alone, the two soldiers grow beards, start bickering incessantly and are soon at each others throats.


Corman produced this low budget war movie but didn’t have enough money to actually show the “war”.  Because of the shoestring budget, most of the action takes place off screen and the battle of the title is never shown.  Corman’s done better with less before, but even his ingenuity at cutting budgetary corners can’t disguise the fact that this is essential a two character play, and not a very good one at that. 


A lot of the problem has to do with the non-existent budget, but director Joel Rapp has to shoulder a lot of the blame.  Rapp only did one other movie in his short lived directing career; High School Big Shot, a movie so bad that it ended up on Mystery Science Theater.  While Big Shot had some unintentional laughs, there is nothing much fun about this flick.  It’s turgid and slow moving and pretty much just plain sucks.  It only runs an hour long, but it feels like two. 


The other films Corman made alongside this one were The Creature from the Haunted Sea and The Last Woman on Earth. 

RAW DEAL (1986) ***


There are three kinds of Arnold Schwarzenegger flicks:  The classics (Terminator, Predator, Commando, etc.), the comedies (Twins, Junior, Batman and Robin, etc.), and the ones that fall somewhere in between.  Raw Deal lands squarely in the latter category. 


Arnold plays a disgraced cigar smoking CIA agent named Kaminski who now works as a small town sheriff.  After the death of his son, the head of the CIA (Darren McGavin from A Christmas Story) hires Arnold to infiltrate the Chicago Mob and tear it apart from the inside out.  First he blows up a warehouse, then he busts up an underground casino, drives a tow truck through an Italian restaurant, and breaks some bones in drag club.  When McGavin gets paralyzed, Arnie packs his suitcase to the gills with semi-automatic weapons and goes out for some Austrian fried justice. 


Remember that montage in Commando when Arnold gathered his weapons together?  Well this one lasts a full two minutes!    


Anyway, once Arnold grabs enough guns to singlehandedly arm a South American revolution, he cranks up The Rolling Stones and starts blowing away the Italian scum of the universe. 


Okay, so the action isn’t nearly up to par with Total Recall and it isn’t quite as funny as Kindergarten Cop, but it’s still pretty great.  If anything, Raw Deal marks the first time in screen history when Arnold actually tried to “act”.  If you blink you’ll miss it.  It’s the scene where Arnold is mercilessly hounded by his alcoholic wife who throws a birthday cake at him.  You may know Arnold from playing musclebound barbarians, indestructible commandos and cyborgs from the future, but trust me; you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Arnold playing a henpecked husband who says things like, “You shouldn’t drink and bake!”


You want to talk dramatic skills, let’s talk dramatic skills.  Let’s talk about the incredible ending where the paralyzed McGavin is miraculously able to walk.  It’s one of the greatest achievements in Schwarzenegger’s career, if not in the entire history of filmmaking.  (“You don’t have to walk!  You just have to try like Hell!”)  Not many actors can go from mowing down dozens of Mafioso with an assault rifle to PERFORMING CHRIST-LIKE MIRACLES and make it look CONVINCING. 


Arnold also gets to flex his English muscles a bit in the scene where he says, “He molested, murdered, and mutilated her!”


If Raw Deal has an Achilles Heel, it’s the lack of a strong villain.  Arnold was always at his best when locking horns with a worthy adversary.  We’ve seen Arnold tangle with intergalactic alien hunters, liquid metal robots, and psychotic game show killers brandishing flamethrowers, so it comes as a bit of a letdown in Raw Deal when Arnold squares off against… old crusty gangsters.  I’m sorry but after seeing Arnold battle a giant snake in Conan, seeing him go against the geezer from Superman IV is a bit anticlimactic. 


The pacing also gets particularly sluggish about ¾ of the way through, but Arnold’s unmatched charisma carries the flick.  (I especially liked the scene where Arnold gets shot by a bad guy and keeps right on going, which just goes to show that he doesn’t have to play a cyborg from the future in order to get riddled with bullets and not feel it.)  There’s also a handful of familiar faces like Ed (Death Wish 3) Lauter, Joe (Sword and the Sorcerer) Regalbuto and Robert (Licence to Kill) Davi sprinkled here and there to help keep you watching. 


Like any good Arnold movie, this one is brimming with awesome, highly quotable dialogue, my favorite being, “Who do you think I look like, Dirty Harry?”  Thank co-screenwriter Sergio Donati, the man who wrote Screamers, The Chosen and Orca for typing up lines like:  “If you’re the best there is, the wheel would’ve never been invented!”, “You know what I like about bedrooms?  You can always find a bed in there!”, and “I hope you’re not your mother’s only child!”


Director John Irvin later directed the similarly themed Next of Kin.


AKA:  Triple Identity. 

ERASER (1996) ****


Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as a government agent working with the Witness Protection Agency who “erases” his clients’ identities.  His latest assignment is a corporate whistle blower (Vanessa Williams) who has the goods on some top secret high tech weaponry.  These weapons are so technologically advanced that they have x-ray scopes that can see through buildings and have the firepower necessary (the bullets can travel at the speed of light) to go through said buildings and hit their targets. 


If you’re the kind of person who wonders just how in the heck bullets can be fired at the speed of light, Eraser may not be the movie for you. 


Before too long, Arnold is double crossed by his crooked superior (James Caan) into disclosing Williams’ whereabouts and has to jump out of an airplane without the benefit of a parachute to save her.  Along the way Arnold blows away dozens of people with a very big gun and causes untold millions in property damage in the process.    


Eraser is kind of an unsung classic.  When everyone talks Arnold flicks, they always neglect to bring up Eraser.  No one ever mentions the scene where Arnold dresses up like a ninja and kung fus people like Sho Kosugi.  Nobody ever talks about the scene where a parachuting Arnold plays chicken with a speeding airplane and WINS.  No one ever recollects the scene where Arnie uses a SWAT member as a human shield before pulling the pins on his grenade, tossing him into an elevator and blowing up a half dozen bad guys.  And does anyone remember the great scene where Arnold bursts through the floorboards and guns down a bunch of baddies?  Sadly, no. 


Like most of Arnold’s work, all the action scenes are thoroughly implausible, but their sheer nuttiness is what makes them work.  (Remember those bullets that can move at the speed of light?  Well, Arnold is somehow able to duck and jump out of the way of those bullets.  Does this mean Arnold can move faster than the speed of light?  You’re damn skippy it does.)


Director Chuck (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3:  Dream Warriors) Russell keeps things moving fast and furious and only occasionally lets things slow down for stuff like “plot” and “drama”. 


But oh what dramatics we got in this flick.  The scene where Arnold sits by the fireplace and tells Williams, ”Who you are is in HERE.  And no one can take that away from you!“ is some of the most heart tugging shit the man’s done since the “Oh my God, I can walk again!” ending from Raw Deal. 


Speaking of Raw Deal, this flick also features a great Arnold in a drag club scene too. 


The colorful supporting cast includes James Coburn, James Cromwell and Robert Pastorelli as Schwarzenegger’s comic relief Mafia sidekick. 


Sure it’s no Commando, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t one Hell of an entertaining action flick.  It’s got Arnold blowing things up for two hours and saying funny shit afterwards like “You’ve just been erased!” and “They caught the train!”  The best line of the movie though comes during the awesome scene where Arnie blows away a vicious alligator and quips, “You’re luggage!”