A Movie A Day #166: Warning Sign (1985, directed by Hal Barwood)


The world might end, again.

There is a laboratory in the middle of the desert.  While everyone thinks that the lab is developing pesticides, it is actually a secret government facility where the scientists have developed a chemical that will turn anyone exposed to it into a homicidal maniac.  While the scientists are celebrating the success of their project, Dr. Tom Schmidt (G.W. Bailey — yes, Captain Harris from the Police Academy movies) steps on a vial and releases the chemical.  The lab locks down and the army (led by Yaphet Kotto) arrives.  The government wants to let the scientists kill each other off but a pregnant security guard (Kathleen Quinlan) is also trapped in the lab and her husband, the county sheriff (Sam Waterston), is determined to get her out.

Warning Sign was blandly directed by Hal Barwood, a longtime associate of both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.  (Barwood wrote the script for Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express and designed the title sequence for Lucas’s THX 1138.)  Barwood tried to take a very Spielbergian approach to Warning Sign, a mistake because successfully imitating Spielberg is easier said than done.  Replace the shark with germs and the ocean with a lab on lock down and Warning Sign is  like Jaws, without any of the suspense or humor.  Sam Waterston’s germaphobic sheriff feels like a knock off of Roy Scheider’s aquaphobic police chief while Jeffrey DeMunn, as an alcoholic scientist, stands in for both Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw.    With the violence and the gore kept to a minimum, this is one of the most tasteful zombie films ever made.  Just compare it to George Romero’s The Crazies (or even the remake) to see how needlessly safe Warning Sign is.

A Movie A Day #165: Big Wednesday (1978, directed by John Milius)


If there is a male bonding hall of fame, Big Wednesday has to be front and center.

This episodic movie follows three legendary surfers over twelve years of change and turmoil.  Jack Barlowe (William Katt) is the straight arrow who keeps the peace.  Leroy “The Masochist” Smith (Gary Busey) is the wild man.  Matt Johnson (Jan-Michael Vincent) is the best surfer of them all but he resents both his fame and the expectation that he should be some sort of role model for the younger kids on the beach.  From 1962 until 1974, the three of them learn about love and responsibility while dealing with cultural turmoil (including, of course, the Vietnam War) and waiting for that one legendary wave.

After writing the screenplays for Dirty Harry and Apocalypse Now and directing The Wind and The Lion and Dillinger, John Milius finally got to make his dream project.  Big Wednesday was based on Milius’s own youth as a California surfer and he has said that all three of the main characters were based on different aspects of his own personality.  Expectations for Big Wednesday were so high that Milius’s friends, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, exchanged percentages points for Star Wars and Close Encounters of  The Third Kind for a point of Big Wednesday.  The deal turned out to be worth millions to Milius but nothing to Lucas and Spielberg because Big Wednesday was a notorious box office flop.  Warner Bros. sold the film as a raunchy comedy, leaving audiences surprised to discover that Big Wednesday was actually, in Milius’s words, a “coming-of-age story with Arthurian overtones.”

I can understand why Big Wednesday may not be for everyone but it is one of my favorite movies.  It is one of the ultimate guy films.  Some of the dialogue and the narration may be overwrought but so are most guys, especially when they’re the same age as the surfers in Big Wednesday.  We all like to imagine that we are heroes in some sort of epic adventure.  The surfing footage is amazing but it is not necessary to be a surfer to relate to the film’s coming-of-age story or its celebration of the enduring bonds of friendship.  Katt, Vincent, and Busey all give great performances.  Considering their later careers, it is good that Big Wednesday is around to remind us of what Gary Busey and Jan-Michael Vincent were capable of at their best, before their promising careers were derailed by drugs and mental illness.  Be sure to also keep an eye out for infamous 70s character actor Joe Spinell as an army psychiatrist, a pre-Nightmare on Elm Street Robert Englund, playing a fellow surfer and providing the film’s narration, and Barbara Hale, playing the patient mother of her real-life son, William Katt.

One final note: At a time when the shameful stereotype of the psycho Vietnam vet was becoming popular and unfairly tarnishing the reputation of real-life vets, Big Wednesday was unique for featuring a character who not only joins the Army but who appears to return as a better person as a result.

A Movie A Day #164: Split Decisions (1988, directed by David Drury)


Craig Sheffer seeks symbolic revenge and Gene Hackman picks up a paycheck in Split Decisions!

Ray McGuinn (Jeff Fahey) is a contender.  Ever since he let his father’s gym and signed with a sleazy boxing promoter, Ray has been waiting for his title shot.  His father, an ex-boxer turned trainer named Dan (Gene Hackman), has never forgiven Ray for leaving him.  Meanwhile, his younger brother — an amateur boxer and Olympic aspirant named Eddie (Craig Sheffer) — worships Ray and is overjoyed when Ray returns to the old neighborhood to fight “The Snake” Pedroza (Eddie Velez).  But then Ray is told that if he doesn’t throw the fight, he’ll never get a shot at a title bout.  When Ray refuses, The Snake and a group of thugs are sent to change his mind and Ray gets tossed out of a window.

Eddie is determined to avenge his brother’s death.  Does he do it by turning vigilante and tracking down the men who murdered his brother?  No, he turns pro and takes his brother’s place in the boxing ring!  Dan reluctantly trains him and Eddie enters the ring, looking for symbolic justice.  Symbolic justice just doesn’t have the same impact as Charles Bronson-style justice.

The idea of a barely known amateur turning professional and getting a chance to fight a contender feels just as implausible here as it did in Creed.  The difference is that Creed was a great movie so it did not matter if it was implausible.  To put it gently, Split Decisions is no Creed.  The boxing scenes are uninspired and even the training montage feels tired.  Look at Craig Sheffer run down the street while generic 80s music plays in the background.  Watch him spar in the ring.  Listen to Gene Hackman shout, “You’re dragging your ass out there!”  In the late 80s, Gene Hackman could have played a role like Dan in his sleep and he proves it by doing so here.  Underweight pretty boy Craig Sheffer is actually less convincing as a boxer than Damon Wayans was in The Great White Hype.

Split Decisions is another boxing movie that should have taken Duke’s advice.

Marlowe at the Movies Returns!: Bogie & Bacall in THE BIG SLEEP (Warner Brothers 1946)


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It’s been a long time since we last visited with Raymond Chandler’s fictional “knight-errant”, PI Philip Marlowe. Way too long, so let’s take a look at THE BIG SLEEP, starring Humphrey Bogart as the definitive screen Marlowe. This 1946 Howard Hawks film was a follow-up to 1944’s hit TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, which introduced audiences (and Bogie) to luscious Lauren Bacall . The pair was dynamite together onscreen, and off as well, marrying a year later. Their May/December romance was one of Hollywood’s greatest love stories, lasting until Bogart’s death from cancer in 1957.

For me to try and explain the plot here would be futile, as it takes more twists and turns than a “Balinese belly dancer”. Marlowe is hired by elderly General Sternwood, whose sexy young daughter Carmen is being blackmailed. The General’s other daughter Vivien, a sexy divorcee, is also in trouble. This takes Our Man Marlowe…

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A Movie A Day #163: Captain America II: Death Too Soon (1979, directed by Ivan Nagy)


America’s most patriotic beach bum is back!

The infamous international terrorist, Miguel (Christopher Lee), is demanding millions of dollars from the U.S. government.  If he doesn’t get his cash, Miguel will unleash a formula that causes rapid aging.  Who else can stop him but Captain America (Reb Brown)?  While Cap searches for Miguel in a small town that appears to be full of bullies, comely single mothers, and children in desperate need of a father figure, Doctors Simon Mills (Len Birman) and Wendy Day (Connie Sellecca) search for a way to reverse the aging process.

This is the second of two pilots that were produced in 1979 in an attempt to start a weekly Captain America television series.  This Captain America had little in common with his comic book counterpart.  In the two pilots, Steve Rogers was a laid back beach bum who drove a Chevy Van and owned a really groovy, red, white, and blue motorcycle.  Having recently gotten out of the army, Steve would have been just as happy to spend his time sketching the beach as saving the world from HYDRA.  Whenever he put on the costume of Captain America, he carried a transparent shield that was supposed to be bullet proof but which looked like it was made out of flimsy plastic.  In Captain America II: Death Too Soon, Cap uses his shield to protect himself from a wild dog and the shield literally bends when the dog jumps against it.  Reb Brown played Cap in both pilots and, while he was more likable than Matt Salinger, he was no Chris Evans.

Still, the presence of both Christopher Lee and Connie Sellecca help to make the second pilot a marginal improvement on the first one.  The second pilot is almost good enough to make the case that, if not for that damn transparent shield, a weekly Captain America television series would not have been that bad.  It was not to be, of course.  It would be over 30 years before a movie finally got both Captain America and his shield right.

A Movie A Day #162: Captain America (1979, directed by Rod Holcomb)


Captain America drives a Chevy Van!

In this attempt to turn one of Marvel’s first heroes into a weekly television star, Steve Rogers (Reb Brown) is a laid back 70s dude who has just gotten out of the Marines.  He owns a van (“a mellow set of wheels”) and he just wants to drive around America, drawing pictures, and doing his own thing.  Doctors Simon Mills (Len Birman) and Wendy Day (Heather Menzies) want Steve to follow in his father’s footsteps and get injected with the super powered FLAG formula.  Steve is just not interested.  The only Captain America that he’s interested in emulating is Peter Fonda in Easy Rider.  “I just want to kick back and find out who I am,” Steve says.

Steve does not really have a choice, though.  Evil billionaire Lou Brackett (Steve Forrest) wants the FLAG formula and attempts to have Steve killed.  In order to save Steve’s life, Dr. Mills injects Steve with the FLAG formula.  Not only does Steve now have super strength but, in the style of Col. Steve Austin, he now has super vision and super hearing.  To help Steve in his new life as crime-fighting super hero who will “stand up for the little guy,” Dr. Mills modifies both Steve’s Chevy Van and his motorcycle.  He also gives Steve a bulletproof shield.  Vibrainium is never mentioned and, for some reason, the shield is transparent, which makes it look like its made out of plastic.  At first, Steve wears his father’s old costume but then he designs a new one.  A super hero has to have super threads.

This was the first of two pilots for a proposed Captain America television series.  Unlike both The Incredible Hulk and The Amazing Spider-Man, Captain America never made it past the pilot stage.  Like many early comic book adaptations, Captain America‘s first pilot makes the mistake of straying too far from its comic book origins.  Instead of being an almost comically old-fashioned, straight arrow patriot, this Steve Rogers is a beach bum who gets his own groovy, bass-heavy soundtrack while riding his motorcycle up and down the coast.  Forget about the Red Skull, Baron Zemo, the Secret Empire, the Serpent Squad, or any of Captain America’s other regular enemies.  This Captain America specializes in more conventional, less interesting menaces.

Reb Brown is okay as this film’s version of Steve Rogers but there is nothing that makes the character special.  He’s just a big guy wearing a silly costume and carrying a transparent shield.  With his new origin story and his modified powers, this Captain America has more in common with The Bionic Man than Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s original character.

The van’s cool, though.

Captain America’s Bitchin’ Van

Criminally Underrated: George C. Scott in BANK SHOT (United Artists 1974)


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I’m a big fan of the novels and short stories of Edgar Award-winning writer Donald E. Westlake , named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. His comic-laced crime capers featuring master planner Dortmunder were well suited for films and the first book in the series, THE HOT ROCK, was filmed by Peter Yates in 1972 with Robert Redford as the mastermind. Two years later came BANK SHOT, the second Dortmunder novel, starring George C. Scott but changing the character’s name to Walter Ballentine due to legal issues. Dortmunder or Ballentine, BANK SHOT is a zany film with a fine cast of actors that deserves another look.

Ballentine is doing life in Warden “Bulldog” Streiger’s maximum security prison, but when his shady “lawyer” and confidant Al G. Karp visits with an idea for a new “shot”, the hardened criminal makes his escape. Karp needs Ballentine’s expertise to plan the robbery of Mission Bell…

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