January 22nd, 2009

FAMILY PLOT (1976) **

Family Plot is Alfred Hitchcock’s last film and although it is a relatively minor entry in the Master’s oeuvre, it still has some value for his die hard fans.  The plot concerns a phony psychic named Blanche (Barbara Harries) who does a reading for an old rich widow that is seeking her long lost nephew.  When the old bag offers her a reward to find the nephew, Blanche along with her chauffeur boyfriend George (Bruce Dern), set out to track him down.  As it turns out, the nephew (William Devane) is a slimy jewel thief that has just kidnapped a bishop with the help of his wife (Karen Black) who has a penchant for wigs and disguises.  When Blanche discovers the bishop's body, she too gets kidnapped and it's up to George to rescue her. 


The set-up is intriguing, but unfortunately Hitchcock spreads the plot (and the characters) too thin.  While the first and last half hours are fun, the middle section of the film is quite flabby and slow moving.  Family Plot would’ve definitely benefited from some tighter editing and a little more showmanship on Hitch’s part as the film is devoid of any show-stopping plot twists or amazing camerawork that Hitchcock is known for.  he energetic performances make it watchable though.  Dern has an “Aw shucks” quality about him that is appealing and Devane is perfectly sleazy as the mustachioed kidnapper.


Dern gets the best line of the movie when he tells Harris, “You’ve got me by the crystal balls!"

NO CONTEST (1994) ****

I can honestly say without a doubt that No Contest is the best Die Hard rip-off ever made and one of the greatest direct-to-video action movies of all time.  We all know that most action films made in the 90’s could’ve been described as “Die Hard in a ______”.  While movies like Under Siege (Die Hard in a Boat), Passenger 57 (Die Hard in a Plane), and Sudden Death (Die Hard in a Hockey Stadium) more or less took their plots seriously, No Contest knows it’s a direct-to-video rip-off and has fun with the premise.  This flick is essentially Die Hard at a Beauty Pageant.  Now just say those words out loud.  “Die Hard at a Beauty Pageant.”  Doesn’t that just bring a smile to your face?


You have to give a lot of credit to director Paul (the ORIGINAL Prom Night) Lynch.  Although the film has the same ingredients as Die Hard (terrorists taking over a building, the hero hides in an air conditioning vent, there’s a lot of talk about “detonators”, the annoying computer hacker, a bunch of people talking on walkie-talkies, an almost indestructible henchman, etc.), No Contest spices up the formula just enough to make everything feel fresh. 


First and most notable is the fact that the hero is a woman.  Shannon Tweed plays Sharon Bell, an action movie heroine described by one character as “Bruce Lee with boobs!” who is the host of the pageant and winds up fighting the terrorists.  Yeah, there were a lot of action movies about kickboxing females in the early 90’s direct-to-video market, but this was the first time someone got the awesome idea to place them in the Die Hard milieu.  Lynch films all the kickboxing action in a tightly knit manner and makes good use of the flick’s limited Canadian budget.


Secondly, what sets the film apart from the other rip-offs was the casting of a major comedian in the villain role.  The criminal mastermind, Oz is portrayed by none other than Andrew “Dice” Clay, who was just getting his feet wet in the direct-to-video market.  Dice Man brings an authority to the role that most villains in these kinds of movies lacked, and his stand-up background is well suited to his character, since most of his dialogue is given to a captive (pun intended) audience.  The casting also works extremely well because Dice’s raunchy stage act made him hated by feminists, and since Sharon Bell seems like a strong minded female, it makes sense that Andrew “Dice” Clay would be her natural enemy.  Dice Man delivered the goods so well in this movie that the big studios took notice and the next year, they cast comedian/monologist Eric Bogosian as the baddie in Under Siege 2 (Die Hard in a Train). 


The third thing the film does differently is that all of the cops are not morons like in Die Hard.  The police chief outside the building actually is fairly competent and relies heavily on the intel provided by one of the contestant’s bodyguards (the always fun to watch Robert Davi, himself a veteran of Die Hard).  Unlike Die Hard, in which the cops created one big clusterfuck, the police force actually siege control of the building and one of the chicks from the bomb squad (Remember in 1994 when EVERY movie had a bomb in it?) turns out to be a hero as well.


The thing that really elevates the film from its direct-to-video trappings are the performances.  Tweed, who was trying to distance herself from all those “Erotic Thrillers”, doesn’t get naked in this one (in fact, NOBODY gets naked in this one), but you don’t really care because you’re too busy wanting her to kick some ass.  She and Davi have some good scenes together and she even gets some funny one-liners too.  Also putting in a fine turn is “Rowdy” Roddy Piper as Ice, Oz’s henchman.  I worship Piper.  He’s hands down the greatest wrestler-turned-actor of all time (and one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet) and he makes the most out of his smallish role. 


But the movie really belongs to the Dice Man.  He gets all of the best lines, including the immortal:  “I don’t get it.  I kill several innocent people, threaten to blow up a building and the police still don’t take me seriously.  Maybe taking over a beauty pageant isn’t the best way to gain respect.”


Lynch and Tweed returned two years later for the limp sequel, Face the Evil (Die Hard in a Museum).


I remember seeing Mystery Science Theater 3000 for the first time when I was about 12 years old, around the time the second season began and it was love at first sight.  If you don’t already know the premise, shame on you.  Basically Dr. Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) puts a temp worker named Mike (Michael J. Nelson) into space and tries to drive him crazy by forcing him to watch bad movies.  To cope, Mike, along with his robot pals Tom Servo (voiced by Kevin Murphy) and Crow (voiced by Beaulieu) make funny wisecracks at the movies’ expense.  I’m telling you now that this review is coming from a die hard fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (or MiSTies, as we are more commonly known), so if you’re one of those people who bemoan the fact that The Movie makes fun of This Island Earth, a film that some consider “a classic”, you can put an egg in your shoe and beat it. 


Mystery Science Theater 3000:  The Movie is slightly different from the series in that the budget is slightly larger and the running time is slighter shorter (an average episode clocks in at about 90 minutes while The Movie is less than 75).  Since the writers chopped about 25 minutes of out This Island Earth’s running time, it greatly reduces the fat of the movie and allows Mike and Co. to make fun of (or “riff”) on only the best scenes.  (Which is a good thing considering some episodes suffer from dry spells where the movie is just too bad to crack wise on.)  The flick is also PG-13, which means that the crew can make more drug references and say “shit” every once and awhile. 


The writers and performers really brought their A game to The Movie and as a result, MST3K:TM is one of their funniest efforts, second only to the infamous Manos:  The Hands of Fate episode, in this humble reviewers opinion.  There are so many good riffs in this one.  The robots make fun of the “Mu-Tant” monster, saying he looks like he’s wearing slacks.  There are a lot of jokes made at the human-looking alien’s foreheads.  We also get some pretty good Gilligan’s Island jabs, which is fitting since the Professor himself, Russell Johnson has a small role in the movie.  The funniest gag (to me anyways) is the Top Gun reference, which literally had me in the floor laughing the first time I saw it.  Since this has only happened to me on a few movies (Blazing Saddles was another), this means that Mystery Science Theater 3000:  The Movie comes with the highest recommendation and you should really watch it NOW.

Mystery Science Theater 3000:  The Movie ranks Number 2 on The Video Vacuum Top Ten for 1996, just below Escape from LA and right above Bottle Rocket.


With This Island Earth being such an integral part to Mystery Science Theater 3000:  The Movie, I feel the need to review it as well, while I’m thinking of it:


THIS ISLAND EARTH  (1955)  ***


Cal (Rex Reason) is a jet flying scientist who almost crashes his plane when it is mysteriously saved by a glowing green aura.  Later, while building some sciency looking thing, he receives instructions through the mail of how to build an “Interociter”, a glorified LCD TV.  We learn that the Interociter building assignment was just a test sent out by the smirking white-haired huge-foreheaded scientist Exeter (Jeff Morrow) to find the brightest scientific minds in the world.  He brings Cal to his secluded ranch where he teams up with a lady scientist named Ruth (Faith Domergue) to work on a top secret project.  They slowly realize that Exeter and his oddly shaped skulled partners are actually aliens who want to invade the Earth and drain it of its uranium.  After the aliens kidnap Cal and Ruth and take them back to their home world, Exeter proves he isn’t all bad and saves them from a big brained “Mu-Tant”.  (“He’s similar to your insects… larger of course.”)  Eventually, he gives them a ride back to Earth before the mortally wounded Exeter crashes his ship into the sea.


Sure, This Island Earth isn’t a “bad” movie per se, but it’s no classic.  Like most Universal Sci-Fi/horror films from the 50’s, it’s not without its charms.  The cheesy effects, goofy looking monsters, and bombastic acting make for a fun time.  It’s these same ingredients that make This Island Earth a prime target for Mike and the ‘bots.  Sure, the film is still perfectly watchable on its own terms, but it’s given a new lease on life courtesy of the trio’s constant commentary.   


Reason and Morrow later teamed up for The Creature Walks Among Us the next year.