Viva Knievel (1977, directed by Gordon Douglas)


Last night, I watched one of the greatest movies of all time, Viva Knievel!

Viva Knievel! starts with the real-life, motorcycle-riding daredevil Evel Knievel breaking into an orphanage in the middle of the night, waking up all the children, and giving each of them their own Evel Knievel action figure.  When one of the kids says, “You actually came!,” Evel replies that he always keeps his word.  Another one of the orphans then throws away his crutches as he announced that he can walk again!

From there, Viva Knievel! only gets better as Evel preaches against drug use, helps his alcoholic mechanic (Gene Kelly) bond with his son, and flirts with a glamorous photojournalist (Lauren Hutton).  Evel was married at the time that Viva Knievel! was produced but his wife and family go unmentioned as Evel, Kelly, and Hutton travel through Mexico, jumping over fire pits, and battling drug dealers.

Evel’s former protegee, Jessie (former child evangelist Marjoe Gortner), has fallen in with a bad crowd and gotten messed up on the same drugs that Evel spends the entire movie preaching against.  An evil drug trafficker (Leslie Nielsen, a few years before Airplane! and The Naked Gun) pressures Jessie to convince Evel to do a dangerous stunt.  The plot is to replace Evel’s trusted mechanic with a crooked mechanic (Cameron Mitchell) who will sabotage the jump.  When Evel dies, he will be shipped back to the U.S. in a coffin and, hidden within the walls of the coffin, will be several kilos of cocaine.  Oh, the irony!  Evel Knievel, America’s number one spokesman against drugs, will be responsible for bringing them into the United States!  Can Evel thwart the nefarious plans of Leslie Nielsen while still finding time to fall in love with Lauren Hutton and break Gene Kelly out of a psychiatric ward?  If anyone can do it, Evel can.

Even Dabney Coleman’s in this movie!

From the start, Viva Knievel! is a vanity project but in the best, most loony and entertaining way possible.  There are many well-known actors in this film and all of them take a backseat to Evel Knievel, whom they all speak of as if he’s a cross between Gary Cooper and Jesus Christ.  Watching this movie, you learn three things: 1) Evel Knievel was high on life but not dope, 2) Evel Knievel always kept his word, and 3) Evel Knievel always wore his helmet.  He even makes sure that Lauren Hutton is wearing one before he takes her for a spin on his motorcycle.  You also learn that Evel Knievel liked to get paid.  He nearly beats up his manager (Red Buttons) when he thinks that he’s been cheated but they’re still friends afterwards because how could anyone turn down a chance to be in Evel’s presence?

There are plenty of stunts and jumps to be seen in Viva Knievel!, though watching Leslie Nielsen play a villain is almost as fun as watching Evel jump over a fire pit.  Judging from his performance here, Evel Knievel probably could have had a film career.  He had a natural screen presence and delivered even the worst dialogue with sincerity.   Unfortunately, three months after Viva Knievel! opened in the United States, Evel attacked a promoter with an aluminum baseball bat and ended up doing 6 months in jail.  Evel said it was because the promoter was spreading lies about him but, regardless, Evel lost most of his sponsorships and his toyline was discontinued.  Viva Knievel! sunk into an obscurity from which it has only recently reemerged.  Viva Knievel! is cheesy fun, a relic of a bygone era.  Watch it, think about whatever problems you may be dealing with in your own life, and then ask yourself, “What would Evel do?”

 

Sex And Drugs And BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (Allied Artists/Woolner Brothers 1964)


cracked rear viewer


Welcome to the weirdly wonderful world of giallo, pioneered by the late Italian maestroMario Bava . Though Bava’s THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (released stateside as EVIL EYE) is considered by connoisseurs the first, it was BLOOD AND BLACK LACE that defined the genre, with its comingling of crime drama, murder mystery, and horror elements coalescing into something truly unique. I hadn’t seen this film in decades before a recent rewatch, and was again dazzled by Bava’s technique. The film has proved to be highly influential in the decades-later slasher genre, yet has its roots set firmly in the past.

The opening sequence is a stunner, as we see the beautiful model Isabelle walking through a woodsy pathway on a dark and stormy night, stalked and then brutally murdered by a faceless, trenchcoated killer. From there, we’re introduced to the remaining cast, members of the haute couture fashion…

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Embracing the Melodrama Part III #1: No Down Payment (dir by Martin Ritt)


Back in 2014 and 2015, I did a series of reviews that I called Embracing the Melodrama, in which I reviewed some of the best (and worst) melodramas ever made.  All together, I reviewed 186 films as a part of Embracing the Melodrama, everything from Sunrise to Reefer Madness to The Towering Inferno to Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction.  I had so much fun doing it that I’ve decided to do it again.

No, don’t worry.  I’m not going to attempt to review 186 films this time.  Instead, for Embracing The Melodrama Part III, I am going to limit myself to reviewing 8 films.  I’ll be posting one Embracing the Melodrama review a day, from now until next Sunday.

Let’s kick things off with 1957’s No Down Payment, a film about life in … THE SUBURBS!

(cue dramatic music)

The suburbs!

Is there any place in America that’s more dramatic?  Is it any wonder that, since the early 50s, films have regularly been using the suburbs as an example of everything that’s apparently wrong with America?  Every year sees at least one major film about how terrible life is in the suburbs.  Last year, for instance, George Clooney directed a film called Suburbicon, which was regularly cited as a possible Oscar contender before it was released and everyone was reminded of the fact that George Clooney is a terrible director.  That said, I can understand why filmmakers continue to be drawn to the suburbs.  Secret affairs.  Dangerous drugs.  Duplicitous children.  Fractured families.  Barbecuing alcoholics.  Undercover occultists.  You can find them all in the suburbs!

No Down Payment opens with David (Jeffrey Hunter) and Jean Martin (Patricia Owens) driving down a California highway and looking at the billboards that dot the landscape.  Every billboard advertises a new community, inviting people to make a new and better life away from the crowded city.  David and Jean smile, amused by how blatant all of the ads are.  That’s when they see the billboard that’s advertising their new home:

Sunrise Hill Estates

A Better Place For Better Living

Soon, David and Jean are moving into their new home and meeting their new neighbors.  It turns out that most of the houses in Sunrise Hill Estates are available for “no down payment” and the majority of the residents are struggling financially.  Though David may look at all of his neighbors and say, “Looks like everybody here is living a wonderful life,” the truth is something far different.

(If David’s line sound a bit too on the nose and obvious, that’s because almost all of the dialogue in No Down Payment was too on the nose and obvious.  As a side note, “on the nose” is an extremely strange expression.)

David’s neighbors include:

Herm Kreitzer (Pat Hingle) and his wife, Betty (Barbara Rush).  Herm owns an appliance store and sits on the town council.  Herm is gruff but likable.  He’s the leader of his neighborhood and he welcomes the Martins with a backyard party.  Herm’s employee, Iko (Aki Aleong), wants to move to Sunrise Hill but no one is willing to give him a reference because he’s not white.

Troy Boone (Cameron Mitchell) and his wife, Leola (Joanne Woodward).  We know that Troy is going to be trouble because he’s played by Cameron Mitchell.  We know that we’re going to like Leola because she’s played by Joanne Woodward.  Troy’s an auto mechanic and a veteran.  He wants to be appointed the chief of police but the town is reluctant to hire him because he doesn’t have a college education.  Leola wants to have a child but Troy says that they can’t even think about that until he has a good job.

And then there’s Jerry Flagg (Tony Randall) and his wife, Isabelle (Sheree North).  Jerry is a used car salesman and he’s also a drunk.  Jerry spends most of the movie hitting on other women and embarrassing Isabelle.  Jerry has no impulse control and, as a result, he’s heavily in debt.  His only hope is that he can convince a family to buy an expensive car that they really don’t need.  When last I checked, that’s what a used car salesman is supposed to do.

The film deals with a lot of issues — prejudice, sexism, economic insecurity — that are still relevant today.  Unfortunately, the film itself is a bit slow and what was shocking in the 50s seems rather jejune today.  Watching the film, you get the feeling that, as with many films of the 50s, all of the interesting stuff is happening off-screen.  That said, the film has an interesting cast.  Jeffrey Hunter and Patricia Owens are a bit dull as the Martins but then you’ve got their neighbors!  Any film that features Cameron Mitchell glowering can’t be all bad but the best performance comes from Tony Randall, who is memorably sleazy and desperate as Jerry Flagg.  For a fun experiment, watch this film right before watching Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?

Tomorrow, we’ll continue to embrace the melodrama with 1961’s Common Law Wife!

A Movie A Day #348: Ride In The Whirlwind (1966, directed by Monte Hellman)


Three cowboys — Vern (Cameron Mitchell), Wes (Jack Nicholson), and Otis (Tom Filer) — are riding their horses across the old west when they come upon a cabin that is inhabited by one-eyed Blind Dick (Harry Dean Stanton) and his friends.  Though they suspect that Dick may be an outlaw, the cowboys accept his offer to stay the night.  The next morning, they wake up to discover that they are surrounded by a posse.  Mistaken for members of Dick’s gang, Vern and Wes go on the run.  Eventually, they find themselves hiding out at the home of Evan (George Mitchell), Catherine (Katherine Squire), and their daughter, Abigail (Millie Perkins).  While Wes and Vern wait for their chance to escape, the posse grows closer and closer.

A minimalistic western with a fatalistic outlook, Ride In The Whirlwind is today best known for being a pre-Easy Rider credit for Jack Nicholson.  Nicholson not only co-produced the film but he also wrote the script.  With that in mind, it’s not surprising that Nicholson not only gets the best lines but that he also comes close to getting the girl.  Of all the roles that Nicholson played before his star-making turn in Easy Rider, Wes probably comes the closest to being what would be considered to be a typical Jack Nicholson role.  Wes is sarcastic, quick with a quip, and alienated by mainstream society (represented here by the relentless posse).  Nicholson gives a confident performance and it is interesting to see him co-starring with some of the same actors, like Harry Dean Stanton, who would continue to be associated with him once he became a star.  Though the film may be dominated by Nicholson, Stanton also makes a strong impression and comes close to stealing the whole movie.

(Also of note is an early appearance by Rupert Crosse.  Years later, Crosse was set to co-star with Nicholson in The Last Detail but his early death led to Otis Young being cast in the role.)

With its dark outlook and anti-establishment theme, Ride In The Whirlwind was before its time and it struggled at the American box office.  (According to Monte Hellman, it was very popular in France.)  It would be another three years before American culture would catch up with Nicholson’s anti-establishment persona and Easy Rider would make him a star.

That’s Blaxploitation! 11: Jim Brown in SLAUGHTER (AIP 1972)


cracked rear viewer

Jim Brown  is one bad mother… no wait, that’s Richard Roundtree as Shaft! Jim Brown is one bad dude as SLAUGHTER, a 1972 Blaxploitation revenge yarn chock full of action. Brown’s imposing physical presence dominates the film, and he doesn’t have to do much in the acting department, ’cause Shakespeare this ain’t – it’s a balls to the wall, slam-bang flick courtesy of action specialist Jack Starrett (RUN ANGEL RUN, CLEOPATRA JONES , RACE WITH THE DEVIL) that doesn’t let up until the last second, resulting in one of the genre’s best.

Ex-Green Beret Slaughter (no first name given) is determined to get the bad guys who blew up his dad’s car, with dad in it! Seems dear ol’ dad was mob connected and knew too much. Slaughter’s reckless abandon in seeking revenge lands him in hot water with Treasury agents, and he’s “persuaded” to assist them in taking down…

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A Movie A Day #286: The Tomb (1986, directed by Fred Olen Ray)


 Sybil Danning is top-billed in The Tomb but she only appears at the very start of the film.  She lands an airplane on a landing strip in the middle of the Egyptian desert and then gets into a gunfight with two archeologists who have robbed a tomb and are now trying to sell off the artifacts.  When one of the archeologists aims his handgun at the plane and pulls the trigger, the plane explodes.  Though Sybil survives the gun fight, that’s it for her in this movie.  Since whatever modern-day audience The Tomb may have is largely going to be made up of nostalgic Sybil Danning fanboys, most people will probably stop watching once it becomes obvious that she is never coming back.

The rest of the movie is about the archeologists selling off the artifacts to greedy collectors like Cameron Mitchell (who spend the entire movie sitting in his office).  This ticks off the ancient Egyptian princess, Nefratis (Michelle Bauer), and she sets off to kill all of the collectors, one-by-one.

Like The Awakening and Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb, The Tomb claims to be based on Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars.   Actually, The Tomb is just an early Fred Olen Ray film, complete with Ray regulars like John Carradine, who gets even less screen time that Danning and Mitchell.  Like most early Ray films, it suffers due to a low budget but Ray’s enthusiastic, never-say-die spirit keeps things moving right along.  With most of the top-billed actors only appearing in a scene or two, the movie belongs to Bauer and she does the most that she can with her role, tearing apart hearts and swearing vengeance with real gusto.

One final note: during the opening credits, The Pharohs, a band that performed while wearing headresses and wrapped in banadages, performs Tutti Frutti.  That almost makes up for Sybil Danning only appearing in 3 minutes of the movie.

Horror on the Lens: Without Warning (dir by Greydon Clark)


For today’s horror on the Shattered Lens, we have 1980’s Without Warning.  

In this horror/sci-fi hybrid, humans are hunted by an alien hunter who uses a variety of weapons and … what was that?  No, we’re not watching Predator.  We’re watching Without Warning.  For the record, Without Warning and Predator may have almost exactly the same plot but Without Warning came out long before Predator.

(Interestingly enough, Kevin Peter Hall played the intergalactic hunter in both films.)

Anyway, Without Warning is probably the best film that Greydon Clark ever directed.  Some would say that’s not saying much but seriously, Without Warning is a surprisingly effective film.  It also has a large cast of guest stars, the majority of whom are killed off within minutes of their first appearance.  That alien takes no prisoners!  (I especially feel sorry for the cub scouts.)

Of course, the main characters are four teenagers.  One of them is played by David Caruso, which I have to admit amuses me to no end.

Enjoy!