December 1st, 2008

WAKE OF THE RED WITCH (1948) ** ½

John Wayne traded out the Wild West desert for the high seas for this wildly uneven but nevertheless entertaining flick.  He plays a grizzled sea captain with a major grudge with a shipping magnate because he stole Wayne’s woman (Gail Russell).  Flashbacks reveal the cat and mouse games they played for Russell’s affections as well as Wayne’s standoff against a hungry giant octopus.

 

Wayne gives a complex and brooding performance that’s one of his best.  The Duke commands the screen during the seafaring scenes where he’s in command of his vessel and is excellent while barking orders out at his men and running a tight ship.  He’s also pretty solid in the romance department too.  And then there’s the scene where Wayne tangles with a giant octopus that is just flat out wonderfully nutty.

 

Wake of the Red Witch is more of a romance movie than an action flick though.  There are a lot a slow lovey dovey passages and doldrums set in whenever Wayne isn’t at sea.  Also the flashbacks are awkwardly paced and irrationally timed. Often the movie will feel like it SHOULD be over and then they hit us with ANOTHER flashback.

 

Whenever director Edward (The Fighting Seabees) Ludwig isn’t hitting us over the head with long winded flashbacks, he does offer up some very cool scenes.  The sinking of Wayne’s boat, The Red Witch is atmospheric and effective and the scenes involving the jungle natives are all well done.  And then, there’s that octopus scene.  No matter what shortcomings the film had, you have to admit that scene rocks.  I mean where else are you going to see John Wayne locked in mortal combat with a giant rubber octopus?

 

By the way, that giant octopus was later stolen by Ed Wood who used it for his immortal classic, Bride of the Monster.

 

Wake of the Red Witch has enough golden octopus fighting to land it at the Number 10 spot on The Video Vacuum’s Top Ten for the year 1948, just below Sorry, Wrong Number.

BRANNIGAN (1975) **

By the time the 70’s rolled around, westerns became passé.  With such hits like Bullitt, The French Connection and Dirty Harry, audiences were relying more on cops and robbers instead of cowboys and Indians for their entertainment needs.  It almost came as no surprise that the biggest cowboy star of them all, John Wayne never quite bridged the gap from westerns to the cop movie genre the way that say, Clint Eastwood did.  The reason why Brannigan and McQ, Wayne’s only forays into the modern cop genre, failed to find an audience was because the movie-gong public so much identified with seeing Wayne out on the plains riding a horse and wearing a ten gallon hat that the sight of him driving around in a sports car and wearing a three piece suit in the present day seemed more than a bit out of place.

 

While seeing Wayne running around shooting criminals in modern times is a bit discombobulating, Brannigan takes that feeling a bit further by taking Wayne even more out of his element and putting him in England of all places.  Wayne plays the title character, a gruff American cop sent to London to pick up a criminal (John Vernon) who jumped bail.  His assignment gets complicated when his quarry gets kidnapped and a shadowy hitman keeps popping up to gun Brannigan down.

 

There are moments when the film threatens to come to life.  We get a tense scene where the bad guys booby trap Wayne’s door (AND toilet!) with a shotgun, a decent car chase in which Wayne jumps the Thames River, as well as a great (albeit brief) fight scene with Brian Glover.  There’s even a good old fashioned barroom brawl that would’ve been right at home in Rio Bravo, except for the fact that it takes place in a British pub while the jukebox plays “Let the Sunshine In”.

 

The movie is essentially a one note joke though.  We’re supposed to find it hilarious that Wayne, playing his usual arrogant, brawny, macho self is mingling around with all of these prissy, well-mannered English people.  It isn’t; and Wayne doesn’t fare very well in his unfamiliar surroundings.  It also doesn’t help that director Douglas Hickox (who had just helmed the classic Vincent Price flick, Theater of Blood) films the proceedings with a flat, routine style and paces the flick in a plodding fashion. 

 

Wayne naturally gets the best line of the movie when he enters a pub and says, “Last time I was in Britain, people were getting bombed in a different way!”

CORVETTE SUMMER (1978) **

The year after he starred in the mega-hit Star Wars, Mark Hamill headlined this lame comedy playing a high school grease monkey who rescues a Corvette Stingray from a junkyard and pimps his ride into a fast racing machine.  When someone steals his beloved car, Mark joins forces with a hooker-in-training (Annie Potts) and heads for Las Vegas to find it.  Middling teenage high jinks ensue.

 

Corvette Summer had the recipe for a good old fashioned Good Ol’ Boy road comedy.  Boy Loves Car.  Boy Loses Car.  Boy Meets Hooker.  Boy Falls in Love.  Boy Gets Car Back.  Unfortunately the flick is half baked, sluggishly paced and not very funny to boot.

 

The early scenes of teenagers cruising up and down Van Nuys Boulevard are reminiscent of those in George Lucas’ American Graffiti, which makes sense since director Matthew Robbins worked closely with Lucas on his first film, THX-1138.  These scenes aren’t nearly as much fun as the ones found in that flick and feel more like leftovers from a Crown International movie than anything else.  At any rate, Corvette Summer does provide a halfway decent look at Vegas in the late 70’s.

 

As much as I love him as Luke Skywalker, I have to admit that without the benefit of a lightsaber, Mark Hamill isn’t much of an actor and has all the screen presence of a Tauntaun.  Potts is even worse and her whiny nasally drawl will get on your damn nerves PDQ.  There is a great cameo by Dick Miller that’s too brief to be of much use.  Fans of the cult classic Laserblast will have fun spotting that film’s star Kim Milford in a supporting role as the leader of the car theft ring. 

 

AKA:  The Hot One.

BACK TO SCHOOL (1986) ****

Caddyshack remains my favorite movie that Rodney Dangerfield was in but Back to School is my all time Rodney Dangerfield movie.  Even though he was great in Caddyshack, Dangerfield had to share the screen with Bill Murray and Chevy Chase and never really got a chance to truly grab the spotlight.  In his next film, Easy Money, Dangerfield gave another terrific performance and even though he was the star, the material wasn’t quite up to snuff with his manic persona.  With Back to School the writing was razor sharp, Dangerfield was at the top of his game, and he never fails to make the audience laugh with his unending parade of hilarious one-liners.  (“She gave great headache!”)

 

The plot (like it matters) has Dangerfield playing a millionaire entrepreneur (he owns a chain of Tall and Fat Clothing Stores) who keeps his son (Keith Gordon) from dropping out of college by enrolling himself.  Dangerfield parties it up and throws his money around a lot (He hires Kurt Vonnegut to write his paper on Kurt Vonnegut.) but eventually he has to start studying if he wants to stay in school.  He also finds time to romance his foxy literature professor (Sally Kellerman) and helps win the big diving meet.

 

Back to School is a quintessential 80’s movie and a perfect vehicle for Rodney.  You also get some great music from Oingo Boingo (“Dead Man’s Party”) and an awesome supporting turn by a young Robert Downey, Jr. in there as well.  There’s also a hilarious cameo by Sam Kinison who does his patented screaming shtick for maximum laughs.  But the movie though really belongs to Rodney.  While he may have claimed for years that he “got no respect”, this movie is such a classic that I have nothing but respect for the man.  Dangerfield has so many great lines in this flick that I had a hard time whittling the list down to just five of them.  Here without further ado, is the TOP FIVE RODNEY LINES FROM BACK TO SCHOOL: 

 

5.  “Why don’t you call me sometime when you have no class!”

 

4.  “Maybe you can help me straighten out my Longfellow!”

 

3.  “The best thing about kids is making them!”

 

2.  “You look like the poster boy for birth control!”

 

1.  “What’s a bath without bubbles?  Bubbles get over here!”

 

Back to School has enough belly laughs to earn its rightful spot at Number 8 on The Video Vacuum Top Ten of the Year for 1986 sandwiched in between Top Gun and House.