Cinemax Friday: Sworn to Justice (1997, directed by Paul Maslak)


Janna (Cynthia Rothrock) is a psychologist who is also a martial arts expert.  One night, she comes home to discover that her sister and her nephew have been murdered and that the killers are still in the house!  Though Janna manages to fight off the attackers, she also gets a nasty bump to the head.  Weeks later, after she’s gotten out of the hospital and she’s ready to get back to work, she discovers that she now has ESP!

All Janna has to do is touch someone or hold something in her hand and she has visions of the past and sometimes the present.  (She has those special ESP powers that do whatever needs to be done at the moment.)  When she finds her sister’s brooch, she flashes back to the night of the attack and sees the faces of the men who attacked her sister.  Using her newfound power, Janna sets out to get revenge.

But even as she tracks down the thugs who killed her sister, Janna still does not know the identity of the person who ordered the hit.  She just knows that he’s known as “The Man.”  Could he have something to do with the arrogant cop killer (Brad Dourif!) for whom Janna is serving as an expert defense witness?  Or could The Man by the publisher (Kurt McKinny) with whom Janna is having a steamy affair?  (This was a late night Cinemax film, after all.)  Or could it be the detective (Tony Lo Bianco) who is supposed to be investigating her sister’s death?

As far as Cynthia Rothrock martial arts films are concerned, Sworn to Justice is pretty good.  Rothrock was not only a force to be reckoned with in fight scenes but, as this film shows, she was a likable actress, too.  For the most part, she’s able to hold her own even when acting opposite seasoned scene stealers like Brad Dourif, Tony Lo Bianco, Mako, and even Walter Koenig, who plays Janna’s mentor with an outrageous German accent.  While the film’s fight scenes are just as good as you would expect from a Cynthia Rothrock fick, the ESP twist adds just the right amount of weirdness to keep Sworn to Justice from coming across as just another low-budget martial arts film.  The film doesn’t take itself too seriously.  Even while she’s getting revenge for their deaths, Janna never seems to be that broken up over the deaths of her sister and her nephew.  At worse, she’s seems to be annoyed by the inconvenience of it all.  It’s just something else that she has to find the time to deal with.

There are a few scenes that are so darkly lit that it’s almost impossible to see what’s happening but then there are other scenes, like the one where Janna shows off her favorite martial arts moves to her new boyfriend, that work surprisingly well.  This is a 90s production all the way, which means a saxophone-scored sex scenes and synthesizer-scored action scenes.  Sworn to Justice is a good Cynthia Rothrock film, even if most audiences will end up figuring out the identity of The Man long before she does.

 

A Movie A Day #250: Taking Care of Business (1990, directed by Arthur Hiller)


Jimmy Dworski (Jim Belushi) is a convicted car thief who only has a few days left in his criminal sentence but still decides to break out of prison so he can go see the Cubs play in the World Series.  Spencer Barnes (Charles Grodin) is an uptight ad executive who needs to learn how to relax and have a good time.  When Spencer loses his organizer, Jimmy finds it.  Before you can say “The prince and the pauper,” Jimmy has access to all of Spencer’s money and the mansion that Spencer is supposed to be staying at over the weekend.  While Spencer tries to survive on the streets and track down his organizer, Jimmy is living it up, spending money, impressing a Japanese businessman (Mako), romancing the boss’s daughter, and taking care of business.

Made in the uncertain period between the end of the culture of 80s materialism and the start of the 90s indie boom, Taking Care of Business is a rip-off of Trading Places that came out six years too late to be effective.  Everything that needs to be known about Jimmy and Spencer is apparentl from the minute that Charles Grodin’s and Jim Belushi’s names appear in the credits.  Grodin was usually the best when it came to playing uptight yuppies but he seems bored in Taking Care of Business.  Belushi mugs through his role, overplaying his character’s blue collar roots.  The movie builds up to a huge confrontation between Belushi and Grodin but it never really delivers, instead devolving into a predictable buddy comedy, complete with a trip to Wrigley Field and an elaborate plan to sneak Belushi back into prison before the warden (Hector Elizondo) discovers that he’s been gone for the weekend.  Taking Care of Business has a few laughs but it’s never as good as the BTO song.

A Movie A Day #157: Pacific Heights (1990, directed by John Schlesinger)


Michael Keaton is the tenant from Hell in Pacific Heights.

In San Francisco, Patty (Melanie Griffith) and Drake (Matthew Modine) have just bought an old and expensive house that they can not really afford.  In order to keep from going broke, they rent out two downstairs apartments.  One apartment is rented by a nice Japanese couple.  The other apartment is rented by Carter Hayes (Michael Keaton).  Carter convinces Patty and Drake not to check his credit by promising to pay the 6 months rent up front.  The money, he tells them, is coming via wire transfer.

The money never arrives but Carter does.  Once he moves into the apartment, Carter changes the locks so that no one but him can get in.  At all hours of the day and night, he can be heard hammering and drilling inside the apartment.  Even worse, he releases cockroaches throughout the building.  When Drake demands that Carter leave, the police back up Carter.  After goading Drake into attacking him, Carter gets a restraining order.  Drake is kicked out of his home, leaving Patty alone with their dangerous tenant.

Pacific Heights is the ultimate upper middle class nightmare: Buy a house that you can not really afford and then end up with a tenant who trashes the place to such an extent that the property value goes down.  As a thriller, Pacific Heights would be better if Drake and Patty weren’t so unlikable.  (When this movie was first made, people like Patty and Drake were known as yuppies.)  Much like Drake’s house, the entire movie is stolen by Michael Keaton’s performance as Carter Hayes.  Carter was not an easy role to play because not only did he have to be so convincingly charming that it was believable that he could rent an apartment just by promising a wire payment but he also had to be so crazy that no one would doubt that he would deliberately infest a house with cockroaches.  Michael Keaton has not played many bad guys in his career but his performance as Carter Hayes knocked it out of the park.

One final note: Keep an eye out for former Hitchcock muse (and Melanie Griffith’s mother) Tippi Hedren, playing another one of Carter’s potential victims.  Her cameo here is better than her cameo in In The Cold of the Night.

 

A Movie A Day #37: The Challenge (1970, directed by Alan Smithee)


A U.S. spy satellite has crashed onto an uninhabited island in the Pacific Ocean.  Both the United States and an unnamed communist country (described as being “a fifth-rate China,” but obviously meant as a stand-in for not only China but North Korea and North Vietnam as well) have both lay claim to the satellite.  To prevent a possible war, the two countries agree to a compromise.  One American and one communist will be dropped off on the island and will fight to the death.  The survivor gets the satellite.  The communists send the disciplined Yuro (Mako).  The American select Jacob Galley (Darren McGavin), a grizzled Vietnam veteran-turned-mercenary.  Jacob is armed with the latest advancements in weaponry, including a double-barreled sub-machine gun.  Yuro is armed mostly with his wits and an endless supply of booby traps.  Jacob and Yuro fight to a stand still, growing to respect each other even as each tries to kill the other.  However, both countries are willing to cheat to win the challenge.

Originally made for television, this is one of the many films to have been credited to Alan Smithee, the pseudonym that directors used to use whenever they felt that the finished film, usually because of studio interference, did not properly represent their vision.  According to the imdb, The Challenge was actually directed by veteran television directed George McGowan, whose other credits includes episodes of shows like Fantasy Island, Starsky and Hutch, and Charlie’s Angels.  I am surprised that McGowan chose to take his name off of The Challenge because, for a television movie, it’s not bad.  The Vietnam analogy is laid on a little thick but the action is exciting and both McGavin and Mako give excellent performances as the two very different combatants.

The Challenge can be viewed on YouTube.  Keep an eye out for a very young Sam Elliott, in the role of America’s insurance policy.

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Everybody Goes Home!: P.O.W. The Escape (1986, directed by Gideon Amir)


Pow_the_escape_posterP.O.W. films were all the rage in the 1980s.  For a country just starting to get back its confidence, refighting the Vietnam War onscreen was a way to deal with the lingering trauma of that conflict.  In Rambo: First Blood Part II, Sylvester Stallone asked, “Do we get to win this time?” and for a while, the answer was yes.  By sending action stars like Stallone and Chuck Norris to rescue American soldiers still being held captive in Asia, we would win this time (if only in our dreams).

P.O.W.: The Escape (also known as Behind Enemy Lines and Attack Force ‘Nam) is one of the many P.O.W. films that was produced by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus during their legendary time at Cannon Films.  In place of their usual star, Chuck Norris, P.O.W.: The Escape stars David Carradine as Col. James Cooper.  Cooper is a U.S. Airborne commando who, in 1973, is sent to North Vietnam on a special missions to rescue the soldiers behind held in a POW camp.

Why has Cooper been selected for this mission?

As one officer puts it, “Aside from being the best, he’s got one rule and it’s never been broken.  Everybody goes home!”

When the rescue mission goes awry, Cooper is himself captured and sent to the POW camp.  He gets his fellow prisoners back into fighting shape and, when the cowardly Sparks (Charles R. Floyd) challenges his leadership, Cooper reminds him of who the senior officer in charge is.  When the camp commandant, Vinh (Mako), offers to help Cooper escape in return for Cooper helping Vinh reach the United States, Cooper simply responds with his name, rank, and serial number.  When Vinh threatens to kill the prisoners unless Cooper helps him, Cooper agrees on one condition: “Everybody goes home!”

When Sgt. Johnston (played by perennial action sidekick, Steve James) learns of the plan, he argues that “Everybody goes home is a slogan, not a religion!”

“Speak for yourself,” Cooper replies.

Even, if like Sparks, they betray you and run off with a cache of gold, the religion of Everybody Goes Home means that no one gets left behind.  Even if it means having to trek through the jungle and going over a waterfall in a canoe, everybody goes home.  That is something that Sparks only comes to realize as he watches a prostitute undress and starts to have flashbacks to earlier scenes in the movie.  Suddenly, Sparks understands that everybody goes home and it gives him an opportunity for some last minute redemption.

Even though it is not as well-known as Missing in Action or First Blood Part II, POW: The Escape is enjoyably mindless entertainment in the legendary Cannon style.  As the world’s least likely paratrooper, David Carradine gets to show off some sweet kung fu moves.  By the end of the movie, Carradine is literally wearing an American flag.  Nothing about POW: The Escape is subtle but what’s important is that “Everybody goes home!”

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Embracing the Melodrama Part II #100: Pearl Harbor (dir by Michael Bay)


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“And then all this happened…”

Nurse Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale) in Pearl Harbor (2001)

The “this” that Evelyn Johnson is referring to is the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  You know, the date will live in infamy.  The attack that caused the United States to enter World War II and, as a result, eventually led to collapse of the Axis Powers.  The attack that left over 2,000 men died and 1,178 wounded.  That attack.

In the 2001 film Pearl Harbor, that attack is just one of the many complications in the romance between Danny (Ben Affleck), his best friend Rafe (Josh Hartnett), and Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale).  The other complications include Danny briefly being listed as dead, Danny being dyslexic before anyone knew what dyslexia was (and yet, later, he’s still seen reading and writing letters with absolutely no trouble, almost as if the filmmakers forgot they had made such a big deal about him not being able to do so), and the fact that Rafe really, really likes Evelyn.  Of course, the main complication to their romance is that this is a Michael Bay film and he won’t stop moving the camera long enough for anyone to have a genuine emotion.

I imagine that Pearl Harbor was an attempt to duplicate the success of Titanic, by setting an extremely predictable love story against the backdrop of a real-life historical tragedy.  Say what you will about Titanic (and there are certain lines in that film that, when I rehear them today, make me cringe), Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet had genuine chemistry.  None of that chemistry is present in Pearl Harbor.  You don’t believe, for a second, that Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett are lifelong friends.  You don’t believe that Kate Beckinsale is torn between the two of them.  Instead, you just feel like you’re watching three actors who are struggling to give a performance when they’re being directed by a director who is more interested in blowing people up than in getting to know them.

Continuing the Titanic comparison, Pearl Harbor‘s script absolutely sucks.  Along with that line about “all this” happening, there’s also a scene where Franklin D. Roosevelt (Jon Voight) reacts to his cabinet’s skepticism by rising to his feet and announcing that if he, a man famously crippled by polio and confined to a wheelchair, can stand up, then America can win a war.

I’ve actually been to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.  I have gone to the USS Arizona Memorial.  I have stood and stared down at the remains of the ship resting below the surface of the ocean.  It’s an awe-inspiring and humbling site, one that leaves you very aware that over a thousand men lost their lives when the Arizona sank.

I have also seen the wall which lists the name of everyone who was killed during the attack on Pearl Harbor and until you’ve actually been there and you’ve seen it with your own eyes, you really can’t understand just how overwhelming it all is.  The picture below was taken by my sister, Erin.

Pearl Harbor 2003If you want to pay tribute to those who lost their lives at Pearl Harbor, going to the Arizona Memorial is a good start.  But avoid Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor at all costs.

Lisa Watches An Oscar Nominee: The Sand Pebbles (dir by Robert Wise)


The_Sand_Pebbles_film_posterAfter watching Witness For The Prosecution, I continued TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar by watching the 1966 Best Picture nominee, The Sand Pebbles.

Considering that The Sand Pebbles is close to four hours long, it’s interesting how little there is to really say about it.  Taking place in 1926, The Sand Pebbles follows the crew of the USS San Pablo, a gunboat that patrols the Yangtze River in China.  The San Pablo is there to protect American business interests, which are in particular danger because China is caught up in a communist revolution.  For the most part, the crew of the San Pablo are portrayed as being lazy and racist.  They have little interest in understanding the culture of the people around them and they use Chinese laborer to do the work on the boat.

When Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) is transferred to the San Pablo, he upsets his fellow crewmen by insisting on working in the ship’s engine room himself, the fear being that if Holman is willing to work then the rest of them will be expected to work as well.  The ship’s commander, Lt. Collins (Richard Crenna), views Holman as being a threat to morale and starts to make plans to get Holman off of his boat.  But, first, the boat is going to have to get out of China…

The Sand Pebbles is an episodic film and some of those episodes are more interesting than others.  Typically, an episode will start out positively and then end with some sudden tragedy.  For instance, Holman trains one laborer (Mako) to be a boxer and then watches as he beats the most racist crewman on the ship.  However, just a few minutes later, the laborer is captured and savagely tortured by the communists and Holman is forced to perform a mercy killing.

In another subplot, Holman’s only friend, Frenchy (Richard Attenborough), marries a local prostitute (Emmanuelle Arsan, who would later write an autobiography that would serve as the basis for a very different type of film).  However, in order to see his wife, Frenchy has to continually swim to shore in the middle of the night.  Frenchy soon develops pneumonia and dies while his wife is dragged off and apparently executed.

And finally, Holman strikes up a romance with Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen), an innocent missionary.  However, when her arrogant and naive boss, Jameson (Larry Gates), refuses to leave the country despite the revolution, the San Pablo is ordered to rescue them.  This, of course, leads to a final battle with the communists which leaves a good deal of the cast dead.

As I watched The Sand Pebbles, my main impression was that it was an extremely long movie.  The film’s climatic battle was exciting and Steve McQueen (not to be confused with the director of 12 Years A Slave and Shame) gave a good performance but otherwise, the film often seemed to drag.  While the movie’s theme of Americans struggling (and failing) to understand another country’s culture had a definite resonance, The Sand Pebbles did not seem to be quite sure what it truly wanted to say about it.

Let’s face it — over 500 films have been nominated for best picture.  And, while a good deal of them hold up surprisingly well and are still entertaining to watch, there’s also a handful like The Sand Pebbles, ambitious films that never quite reached their potential but were probably nominated because they seemed like the type of epic film that should be nominated.  Many of these films were nominated and a few even won.

However, in the case of The Sand Pebbles, a nomination would have to be enough.  That year, the Oscar for Best Picture was won by A Man For All Seasons.