Monday, October 12, 2020

Only now does it occur to me... THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1963)

Only now does it occur to me... that Dario Argento may have tucked an incredibly subtle homage to his mentor, Mario Bava, within his 1980 film INFERNO. (INFERNO being, perhaps, one of the most Bava-influenced of all the Argentos––its opening setpiece in a flooded manse was even guest-directed by Mario Bava himself.)

First, let's go back to 1963, when Bava was directing the granddaddy of giallos, the Hitchcock-inspired THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, which is still the only giallo I can think of that ends with a joke about a priest accidentally smoking a whole bunch of weed.

Anyway, there's a scene in THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH where our heroine (Letícia Román) sneaks away from home at midnight and into a cab which drops her off at a mysterious rendezvous in Rome
at a spooky building in a deserted plaza with an ominous fountain in the foreground. The cab pulls off and she faces the unknown alone.
At a similar moment, storywise, Argento has one of his three protagonists (the plot of INFERNO follows a sort of "hot potato-protagonist" motif), played by Eleonora Giorgi, take a midnight cab ride to a mysterious rendezvous in Rome
at a spooky building in a deserted plaza with an ominous fountain in the foreground. 
 The cab pulls off and she faces the unknown alone.
I don't think I would have noticed this, had I not watched both THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH and INFERNO within a short span, but it's likely the smallest tip of the hat from pupil to mentor... or perhaps it's something more. Argento fell ill with hepatitis during the making of INFERNO and directed several sequences from his hospital bed. And in addition to the opening setpiece, it is said that some of the second unit work was directed by Mario Bava––so it's possible that this bit is not actually a minor homage by Argento, but, in fact, pure, unadulterated Bava! Yes, I am a giallo nerd.

Monday, October 5, 2020

Only now does it occur to me... THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1999)

Only now does it occur to me... that the most concentrated five minutes of sheer "1990s" ever spat out upon celluloid probably occurs at the beginning of William Malone's (fortieth anniversary) remake of William Castle's THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL.

Within a single, five minute span we have: Geoffrey Rush doing a Vincent Price impersonation (his character is even named Price) and making Beanie Babies (!) references,








"the '90s-personified" singer-songwriter and glasses enthusiast Lisa Loeb as a local reporter interviewing him,







BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER's James "Spike" Marsters as her hapless cameraman,









(oh, did I mention this is set at an amusement park with X-treme rollercoasters?)


 Loeb and Marsters riding an X-treme rollercoaster,









cut to: an early Macintosh PowerBook rocking some clip art,









haunted '90s email which deletes text on its own,








Famke Janssen (GOLDENEYE, ROUNDERS, THE FACULTY, MELROSE PLACE) in a luxurious '90s bubble bath,  discussing her birthday party,








followed by a montage of the party attendees, which include Taye Diggs (GO, HOW STELLA GOT HER GROOVE BACK, ALLY MCBEAL),
























who is waving around a Sharp ViewCam camcorder like she just don't care,

















the latter two actresses of whom, slight hairstyling differences aside, I defy anyone to tell apart. And that's not all! Before the five minutes have elapsed, we meet SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE's Chris Kattan







in a serious (?!) role. And there you have it. I'm not sure there's a more concentrated dose of '90s out there. You might try HACKERS, sure, or REALITY BITES, EMPIRE RECORDS, SPICE WORLD, BIO-DOME, maybe even BATMAN AND ROBIN, perhaps TANK GIRL or THE PHANTOM, but I'm not sure you'll find it.

However, it brings me no joy to also tell you that: the rest of HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL '99 is pretty mediocre.









There is a fun homage to SUSPIRIA with primary colored stained glass falling down to (near) murderous effect:
















And a blink-and-you'll-miss-him cameo by REANIMATOR's own Jeffrey Combs as a mad scientist:


But, anyway. Aside from the 90s nostalgia, there's zero reason to recommend this over the William Castle original, which features everything from acid skeletons to a lesser Mitchum to Vincent Price doing whatever the hell he wants.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Only now does it occur to me... GLORIA (1980)

Only now does it occur to me... that Gena Rowlands truly belongs in the Eastwood-Bronson canon. Her performance in John Cassavetes' GLORIA––as a brassy New Yorker who ends up playing bodyguard to a neighbor kid when his family is massacred by the mob––is majestically badass, as if Bette Davis were cast as Paul Kersey in DEATH WISH. I'd rank it among the best performances in any 80s action-thriller. It's a remarkable role because there's really nothing to compare it to: she's a fifty-something female action star who does most of her badassery while slinging around a oversized grandma purse, wobbling on open-toe Salvation Army heels, and dressed like she's on her way from a halfway house to a librarian's job interview.

Obviously, this is my new favorite thing in the world. Watch her get the upper hand on a mobster in a subway car (who I believe is a young Sonny Landham from PREDATOR and 48 HRS.)

For my money, this actually bests the "Do you feel lucky, punk?" speech from DIRTY HARRY.

All of this is set among a sleazy 1980, pre-Giuliani NYC––from deep in the Bronx to deeper in Queens––a gritty world where Lawrence Tierney's the bartender

young Tom Noonan (MANHUNTER, ROBOCOP 2) is a lanky mob henchman,

and there are bit parts by a desperate Buck Henry (THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, THE GRADUATE)

and a nervous Julie Carmen (probably best known to readers of this site for IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS).

This whole thing is set to a deliciously melodramatic score by Bill Conti (ROCKY, THE KARATE KID). I'd long heard GLORIA written off as a "Cassavetes goes mainstream" sort of project (although Akira Kurosawa ranked it among his favorite films), but it's truly a master's class in acting, as intense as any of his more highly regarded masterpieces (THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE, A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE, etc.), and I can't recommend it enough.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Of Whitesnakes and Witchboards... A Tawny Kitaen Retrospective Concludes

Now that my Tawny Kitaen retrospective has come to a close, here are the links, for posterity:

1. WITCHBOARD (1986, Kevin S. Tenney)


3. BACHELOR PARTY (1984, Neal Israel)

4. CRYSTAL HEART (1986, Gil Bettman)

5. GLORY YEARS (1987, Arthur Allan Seidelman)

6. WHITE HOT (1988, Robby Benson)

And for the completists––fret not, I will happily return to the series one day, once I get my hands on the VHS of the Tawny/Rowdy Roddy Piper actioner DEAD TIDES and the Tawny/Michael Paré marine thriller INSTANT JUSTICE.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Film Review: WHITE HOT (1988, Robby Benson)

White Hotness: Very.
Running Time: 95 minutes.
Tagline: "There's only one place hotter than this."
Best one-liner: "The golden goose... crack! It's the smell of crack!"

WHITE HOT is a cocaine movie. Not in the sense that most 80s movies are, in fact, "cocaine movies," as in creatively and producorially fueled by cocaine––i.e., everything from TWINS to COBRA to A VIEW TO A KILL to TANGO & CASH––no, what I mean to say is that WHITE HOT is actually a movie about cocaine.

Before I delve too deeply into WHITE HOT: some of you know of my troubles reviewing this film; I made it five minutes into my previous viewing before my VHS player ate the tape. Of course, it was of the utmost importance that I complete the final installment of "Of Whitesnakes and Witchboards... a Tawny Kitaen Retrospective" which obviously I could not do without a working copy of WHITE HOT. 

We've made this journey together, from WITCHBOARD to THE LAND OF THE YIK-YAK, we attended a BACHELOR PARTY and relived our GLORY YEARS, and we learned how easy it is to break a CRYSTAL HEART. I couldn't let things go without exploring WHITE HOT, and, not wanting to miss a moment of the film through a bad self-VHS splicing, I obtained a second copy. When I wanted to take my first screen capture, I paused my new tape a few minutes in... and a similar issue occurred––the VHS player was eating this second tape, too! 

This time I was patient. I, paused it, took it apart, and managed to extract the tape and wind it tautly without breaking the ribbon, though it was mangled. From that point forward, I realized that my screen captures would have to be taken with my phone, in motion, as the tape played. This issue has never plagued me in my years of VHS viewing, so I'm inclined to blame the maker of the tape itself, who probably used some low-grade magnetic ribbon incapable of withstanding a "pause." The maker in question is Academy Entertainment, a fifth- or sixth-tier VHS distributor, whose flagship titles included David Bowie in THE LINGUINI INCIDENT, the WITCHCRAFT series, MANIAC COP 3, and KILLER WORKOUT. So, listen up, Academy Entertainment: that's intended as a shot across the bow––the likes of Media Home Entertainment and Vestron Video eat your lunch!

 Anyway, on to WHITE HOT. The cocaine movie to end all cocaine movies, I guess.











Should we call this "cocaine wearing a statement bow?" I suppose.


Is WHITE HOT good? WHITE HOT is not good. But we're not necessarily here to see a "good" movie. We're here to weigh in on whether WHITE HOT allows Tawny Kitaen to live up to her potential.












But before we get to that, some housekeeping. It's not at Tommy Wiseau-levels, and I definitely thought of THE FORCE WITHIN more than once, but this is a vanity project. It stars Robby Benson, and it is directed by Robby Benson. It is devoted to making Robby Benson look "edgy."













Robby Benson is not edgy. He is a child actor who starred in movies about figure skating and private tutoring. Lacking an ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK/Kurt Russell-style opportunity for badass reinvention, he decided to pave his own way, directing himself in a movie where he traffics cocaine, has Tawny Kitaen for a girlfriend, and shows his ass with considerable elan.










In this scene, Robby Benson smokes crack. "I need the edge at my racquetball game." If he wanted to shed the child actor image, he probably shouldn't have directed himself in an afterschool special!

The plot involves typical yuppie Robby Benson falling in with a bad element. His coke dealer Butchie (Kevin Gray), who is kind of a "poor man's Lou Diamond Phillips meets poor man's Val Kilmer,"










is under fire from an opposing mafia gang, led by Danny Aiello (who, let's face it, is the second-biggest box office draw here, after Tawny)












and because Butchie bears a certain resemblance to Robby B, he asks Robby, in bad faith, to take over his coke business for a couple weeks while Butchie is "out of town." The idea is that the mob will assassinate Robby B and think they've taken out Butchie. Robby B is soon way in over his head, slinging coke like an amateur and unknowingly acting as a decoy for mob assassins. As my wife remarked, "It's kinda like TRUE ROMANCE meets KAGEMUSHA." Yeah, exactly.

Along the way, this brings us such sights as a recumbent Danny Aiello, lounging in a lustrous robe while an aspirant Broadway singer belts "Big Spender," 











bowtie-wearing henchman and character actor Mark Margolis, two decades before he would make his name in the fictionalized drug trade as Hector "Tio" Salamanca in BREAKING BAD,










Tony Sirico ("Paulie Walnuts" on THE SOPRANOS) as an Aiello thug (maybe we should start thinking of WHITE HOT as a farm system for beloved/infamous criminals in the prestige television era),












and the underrated Sally Kirkland (not pictured––damn, the scene went by too fast!––why was she even in this?) as a random drug addict.

This movie might be best defined by two things: freebasing and slap bass. Speaking of which, the low-rent NEVERENDING STORY-inspired soundtrack by Nile Rodgers gives the proceedings the feel of a half-remembered dream. The pop soundtrack, too, is actually pretty great. There are about three tracks played over and over, recycled at least six times throughout the movie. One of them is a complete rip-off of Janet Jackson's "Nasty" (a track called "Do It Up" by Mike Rogers), which I obviously endorse.

Anyway, enough ancillary material: let's get to Tawny Kitaen. Her character is basically "Melanie Griffith in WORKING GIRL" meets "Jennifer Connolly in REQUIEM FOR A DREAM."







Essentially, her character, as written, exists to let Robby Benson's character off the hook. "His girlfriend's the one with the real coke problem, not Robby," says the screenplay. "It's her desire for cocaine which drives him to do erratic and terrible things." Oookay. I'm calling bullshit on that one. It's a two-way street, Benson, and I'm not letting you thrown Tawny under the bus!













Kinda "urban pirate" meets "Milan fashion week."


However, I'm definitely here for the scenes where Tawny wears the latest in adventurous, silken yuppie fashions 










and tries to get her friends to try crack as if she's a Mary Kay saleswoman pushing the latest cream blush. I have, on many occasions, voiced my approval of Tawny's statement bows, and I gotta say that the combo of coke and crack addiction has apparently sabotaged her statement bow game––now it's just a l'il regular bow!







I wonder if that's an artistic choice the director made. (Probably not!) She's also got some rad berets––sort of a proto-BLOSSOM, "Blossom & Six" vibe––



until her addiction gets so bad she has to cheat on Robby Benson... for crack!











It leads to a solid photo shoot, though

Then Robby, too, spirals into addiction and nothingness, and this is where it starts to turn into "Act III of GOODFELLAS done as an ABC afterschool special," with everything doused in Ray Liotta-esque coke laughter and paranoia. (No helicopters, though.)









Tawny gets a nice "Stella! Stella!" moment, calling for Robby from the balcony 




after he's had enough of her cheating ways, apparently. Then she betrays him, tries to steal his cash, runs him down in a car (things are starting to improve!), but then dies ignominiously in a car bombing, which really took the wind out of my sails. (Sorry 'bout the spoilers, but it'd be a miracle if you found a working copy of this film anyway.)

Before you can say "Take 'im to Staten Island and get rid of 'im!" the chickens come home to roost; Danny Aiello is rubbed out by Butchie, and Robby Benson and his new sidekick (Aiello's character's nephew) come to take revenge on Butchie by force-feeding him cocaine until he dies. 



















To be fair, this is the most "cocaine" way to end this motion picture and I therefore must applaud it.

In the end, as far as Tawny goes, she gets to be a fashion bomb throughout, flaunting hints of star power between mediocre scenes of mediocre dudes talking 'bout drugs in unfurnished rooms. Her character is definitely scapegoated by a narrative more interested in fluffing The Benson Factor, but as usual, she does what she can, with an undeniable joie de vivre. Which, maybe that's a bummer of a note to end the Tawny Kitaen retrospective on, but wait––there's more.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that I received a communique from Tawny Kitaen during the course of this retrospective. She wanted everyone to know that "I hope you get everything that I used to be embarrassed about... David Geffen's right-hand man called me Yoko Ono, I was so embarrassed back then... and then as I got older and realized that the success of [Whitesnake] had a little bit to do with the videos and what I brought to it, and it made me feel really, really good. So I guess if I had any words of wisdom, there's this old Jewish adage, and it goes: 'When you grow up, I wish employees on you.' So John Kalodner, an employee of David Geffen gave a perspective on me that was true, but he was trying to hurt me at the same time... he didn't know that years later his words would come back to haunt him in everything that I do, when I have to talk about my experience, and that was being the Yoko Ono of Whitesnake, so I hope you can throw that into your blog."

Perhaps this is the best note to end the retrospective on: we've seen six films here, some of them good, some decent, and some bad, but Tawny's charisma has been a consistent baseline throughout. Whether or not history chooses to remember her as "The Yoko Ono of Whitesnake" or, much less likely, "The Scapegoat of WHITE HOT," the ridiculousness of the insult––if it is indeed even such––can be worn as a badge of pride, because in each of these films, many of which are baldly sexist and/or underwritten, she brings much more to the part than is expected of her. Whether as a style icon, a screen presence, or as a skillful actor, she rises above the material. So here's your benediction: "Tawny rises above."