Sunday, July 30, 2023

The Lost Empire

You know how The Producers is all about a musical that was specifically created to be so bad that it would fail epically and be a massive tax loss? Well, The Lost Empire was apparently also supposed to be so bad it would fail epically and be a massive tax loss, except director Jim Wynorski did his very, very best to create a good movie... that could not be worse if he had tried. 

Black belt? Brown belt?
I don't know--what level is the belt made of sequins with a big glittery buckle on it?

Wynorski would go on to direct over a hundred more movies, most of them under pseudonyms--he was Jay Andrews for Stealth Fighter, Jamie Wagner for Cry of the Winged Serpent, Rob Robertson for Dinocroc vs. Supergator, Tom Popatopulous for The Escort III, Sam Pepperman for Sexy Wives Sinsation and H.R. Blueberry for The Witches of Breastwick. As you can see, he specialized in monster movies and sex movies or, in the case of  The Hills Have Thighs, a combination of the two; 1986's Chopping Mall would be the peak of his career. So, honestly, bad as The Lost Empire is, it's not like things got a whole hell of a lot better over the next thirty years of filmmaking.

The first thing we see in The Lost Empire is two enormous tits. Consider this preparation for the hundreds of enormous tits to come. The camera pulls back to reveal some bimbo trying on a rhinestone necklace in a shop in Chinatown. A red light briefly flashes out of the eye socket of a particularly ugly-ass statue as bimbo and shop owner negotiate an, ahem, deal.

But, suddenly, three ninjas appear! The owner has a three-piece suit and a .45 like true 70s hero... but he is no match for the Party City ninjas and their hypnotic yo-yos of death! Incredibly, the cops arrive within about 15 seconds but they are also no match for the hypnotic yo-yos of death... although one of them does manage to stop the ninjas from stealing the glowing red orb thingy before collapsing to the ground in a heap of pale blue polyester and fake blood. Cue the credits!

After said credits, we get a rather bewildering expository scroll.

Anyway, cut to a bunch of police and cop cars outside a school. Apparently there is a "bunch of terrorists" who are "armed to the teeth" with a bunch of kids hostage and, just like in Uvalde, Texas, the police are afraid to go inside. While school shooting scenarios can be hard to watch, what makes this one easier on the viewer is  that the kids do not seem frightened at all. The little girl having a knife waved in her face seems more sleepy than scared. One of the boys slumps over his desk with the demeanor of a child waiting for a math test to be handed out. All of the actors in The Lost Empire are bad-to-mediocre, but I would particularly like to praise the woodenness of these young thespians for saving  viewers emotional trauma.

See, I told you: Uvalde. Luckily, mysterious, black-clad biker with a badge rolls up and, after a brief briefing, drives straight into the school and starts taking down bad guys. We will notice that, in this movie, bullets not only create bloody holes, but cause the person who is shot to fly through the air.

Oh look, cowboy cop trope does takes off motorcycle helmet to reveal foxy lady trope.
There may be corpses strewn about and a criminal bleeding out a few feet away,
but the helmet removal still merits the
sexy saxophone and a harp!

We also meet foxy maverick lady cop's boyfriend, Mustache Meatball, who is CIA, when she punches him in the nose and then they jump-cut to a sex scene. Just when we begin wondering what the fuck all of this has to do with the opening with the ninjas and the ugly statue and THE EYE OF AVATAR, the phone rings and we find out that police lady's brother was one of the officers hurt and is in the hospital. Thus maverick cop--actually, her name is Angel Wolfe--storms into the hospital wearing a skintight silver lame jumpsuit. One does not expect the sort of professional pantsuits-and-blazers attire seen in Charlie's Angels, but The Lost Empire's commitment to inappropriate outfits is truly remarkable and only just beginning.

Anyway, as he's being whisked into surgery, her brother whispers something about "The devil, he exists!" Like we need to be told that in the age of social media.

Mustache Meatball explains that this is all about some guy named Lee Chuck, known as "Satan's Hatchet Man" (Bruce Norris is an insurance salesman in a Connecticut suburb.)  who is part of pretty much all fo the evil in the world or something.

She goes back to the crime scene to look for clues and THE EYE OF AVATAR jumps into her purse (no, really). Then Charlie Chan (no, really) appears and they all go to dinner. He tells them about THE EYE OF AVATAR... well, actually two eyes. Lee Chuck and this guy named Dr. Sin Do have one....

You do, nitwit! Look in your purse next to the Tampax and Love's Baby Soft!

So, it seems the only way to get on Dr. Sin Do's Island of Doom to look for Lee Chuck and THE EYE OF AVATAR is to answer a want ad. Ah, remember the days of newspaper want ads, when you could flip to the back of the Poughkeepsie Journal and be like, "I need a job. I see opportunities for secretary, sous chef and lady gladiator in some kind of death-battle three-way..."

"They're never told it's a one-way trip."
But... you know it's a one-way trip. How do you know and they don't? 

So, they've got to go to Dr. Sin Do's Island of Doom for the Lee Chuck Memorial Battle to the Death for Ladies Only. Yes, kids, it's Russ Meyer's Enter the Dragon. However, you need to have three women on your Lee Chuck Memorial Battle to the Death team, so Angel Wolfe needs to find two ringers that are interested in a one-way trip to a doom battle on death island--sorry, death battle on doom island.

So, Angel Wolfe, maverick cop, drives her pink Barbie jeep out to the desert, where an old Native American guy is sitting in the middle of Tiger Lily's Neverland camp. He vanishes in a blur of bad FX glitter as Angel throws a feather in the fire in some type of summoning ritual.

And so appears Whitestar, fresh from the 1 a.m. show at the O'Farrell Theater. She is played by Russ Meyer starlet Raven De La Croix, less as mystical Native American then the bemused broad from Queens she actually was. There will be no further reference to her being some kind of spiritual being that is summoned from the ethers.

As seems to be the way in this movie, they head to a nearby restaurant for some exposition as well as more painful puns from Whitestar. 

However, this scene does end with our heroines beating up some creepy rednecks in the parking lot, so that's a plus....

Next they head for an unused warehouse--I mean, women's prison. A prison where all of the women are twenty-three, barefoot and in hot pants... except for the one that gets to wear full dominatrix drag. That would be "Whiplash," played by Angelique Pettyjohn, a Vegas showgirl best known as a green-haired space babe on Star Trek and one of Elvis' girls in Clambake. Nice to see you, ma'am.

So after some whipping and slapping and mud-wrestling and some other girl running up solely to get her top ripped off, the blonde beats Whiplash and is recruited for the mission to the Lee Chuck Memorial Battle to the Death for Ladies Only on Dr. Sin Do's Island of Doom. Surprisingly, they do not talk this over at a picturesque local restaurant, but in a shower. Guess they needed the bare-boob shot more then they needed the discounted craft services....

When the incorrect subtitle reveals an inadvertent truth...

So, our heroines, Angel, Whitestar and, uh, Heather are headed for the Lee Chuck Memorial Battle to the Death for Ladies Only on Dr. Sin Do's Island of Doom. If they win they get $25,000 to split between the three of them, which comes to about $6,500 each after taxes. I guess Angel feels that revenge is priceless and I suppose Heather feels the same way about being let out of prison, but I'm not sure what Whitestar is getting out of this. Kicks? Sticking it to The Man? Free (one-way) airfare and semi-deluxe accommodations? An associate producer credit? Anyway....

Table for three, please. Is the lunch buffet still going on?

So, all the babes dress up in their finest Maybelline and spandex and head out for the Lee Chuck Memorial Battle to the Death for Ladies Only on Dr. Sin Do's Island of Doom. But Angel forgets her purse and THE EYE OF AVATAR in Mustache Meatball's car. Blondes, I tell ya!

Dr. Sin Do's Island of Doom!
(You know, if I ever had a bunch of money to waste, I'd get someone to do a big mural in my house
that looked like a cheap movie matte painting of an alien planet or supervillain lair. 
Get a Godzilla costume for me, maybe some shark fins for the cats....)

The ladies get their clothes taken away and are forced to walk in single file while guns are waved at them. They also undergo dental work, pap smears, vaginal steaming and a variety of other questionable med-spa treatments. Yeah, if I signed up for a battle to the death and wound up on a Goop retreat I'd be pissed too.

Then we get the standard "attempted attack by a tarantula while sleeping" trope. Of course, as always, the spider does not succeed but, in a twist, the spider is... well...

Next the girls run and do aerobics in bikinis while a knockoff of the Chariots of Fire theme plays. This goes on for some time... and why shouldn't it? Let us not pretend that there is any reason for the existence of The Lost Empire besides jiggle jiggle jiggle. And tax shelters, of course.

It's pretty much the same scene as backstage at the gentlemen's club,
except without the body glitter.

Anyway, Whitestar gets a special invitation from Dr. Sin Do, who apparently likes to host big-tittied ladies for dinner as well as for tournaments to the death. She puts on her best bra and her worst attitude, rather like me going on a date back in the aughts....

Instead of texting Whitestar that her dog has gotten out and her mom is sick and thus releasing her from her terrible Tinder date, Angel and Heather go off to explore Dr. Sin Do's Island of Doom. They find all the previous contestants in the Lee Chuck Memorial Battle to the Death for Ladies Only drugged and locked in an underground dungeon... pretty much like Enter the Dragon... or Darktown Strutters... or The Forbidden Zone or any of many other movies. What The Lost Empire has that they don't is a gorilla. Well, I mean a P.A. in a gorilla suit...

That's the spirit! The asshole with the gorilla is named "Prager," like the founder of the eponymous bullshit-peddling winger "university," but he is played by an actor with the awesome moniker of "Blackie Dammett," which you are welcome to use the next time you need to anonymously check into a hotel. Apparently in a wild coincidence or just an unwillingness to pay another actor, it's also the  Uvalde cop from the opening. Feel free to wonder if The Lost Empire is actually a The Wizard of Oz-like fantasy where Angel got knocked on the head while trying to rescue the kids and the whole Lee Chuck Memorial Battle to the Death for Ladies Only on Dr. Sin Do's Island of Doom thing is all a dream. Are Whitestar and Heather really just the EMT's treating her concussion...?

In the meantime, Whitestar's date is going really badly.

Mustache Meatball shows up, THE EYE OF AVATAR shows up, the gorilla suit shows up, Hijinks, shenanigans and inept ersatz kung fu battles ensue....

You cheap Phantom of the Opera!
You knockoff Dr. Phibes!
You bullshit Mr. Han!

You say indestructible dematerializing laser canon,
I say cock and balls with the condom half-pulled off.

The Lost Empire is a terrible movie but it does have a lot of things that people enjoy in it. Martial arts battles? Yes! Rogue cops! Yes! Laser canons? Yes! Boobs? Yes! Ancient curses? Yes! Bad puns? Yes! Man in a gorilla suit? Yes! Boobs? Yes! Women in prison? Yes! Native American rituals... sorta? Yes! Boobs? Yes! Undead villains? Yes! Boobs? Yes! Boobs? Yes! BOOBS? YES! YES! YES!

Sunday, February 25, 2018

What a Way to Go

Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, things just don't work out. Sometimes, no matter how much money and starpower you put into a movie, it just doesn't turn out. Such is the trouble with What a Way to Go.

Shirley MacLaine is our lead, with Gene Kelly, Dean Martin, Robert Mitchum AND Paul Newman as her leading men. Screenplay by Comden & Green, costumes by Edith Head, hair by Sydney Guilaroff, jewels by Harry Winston. Yet, somehow, What a Way to Go doesn't quite get there. It wants to be an outrageous, self-mocking comedy, but it's afraid to muss its hair or make any waves. So why watch it then? Well..

Edith Head's career contained many dazzling achievements, from Elizabeth Taylor in a A Place in the Sun to Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard to Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief. In What a Way to Go, Head was, well, given her head--and half a million dollars, which was some serious scratch back in 1964. Shirley MacLaine is attired in a series of fur hats, beaded gowns and marabou pajamas that would knock the most discerning eye out. If you lean back, put some Peggy Lee or Raveonettes on the stereo, pop open a bottle of bubbly and let the fashion show commence, What a Way to Go is far more enjoyable.

So, out opening introduces us to fabulously wealthy widow Shirley, who is trying to give her fortune away to the U.S. government. See, every one of her husbands has gotten rich and then died while she was married to them Since she actually loved her husbands, this is problematic and she thinks she's cursed. We are told the story in flashback as she tells it to a psychiatrist (part of the telling-it-to-your-shrink genre that was popular for a bit.)

Actually, this would be a great film for little girls with all the pink & sparkly & fancy.
Well, little girls who can find the humor in death, anyway.

We start with the young Shirley flouncing around the family home with drawn-on freckles and a giant lollipop. Her mother rants about the importance of "money success money success"--even for what's basically a 90-second role, they got Marx Brother foil Margaret Dumont. We immediately get the heavily parodic tone of the movie, but somehow it feels forced, not funny. Perhaps Frank Tashlin or a Billy Wilder could have gotten it right but, instead, one gets the feeling that What a Way to Go is waiting for a punchline that never comes, which is actually sort of is--it's a comedy with virtually no jokes, just a jokey tone. I mean, if you're already making a comedy predicated on multiple deaths, why are you playing everything else vanilla?

"You turned out real beautiful! You have something to sell!
Take a mother's advice and sell it now!"

(Yes, we're all told this is bad advice. But, frankly, as someone who's been there, I wish i'd sold it when i still looked like a damn Barbie doll. Prince Charming ain't coming, sweet cheeks, and it's better to wind up with something than nothing. If I could go back in time and tell myself one thing, it would be this. So i'm telling you in case you can use it. Or, if find yourself back in time and run into me, pass on the message.)

Here we meet Dean Martin as the town rich asshole--Shirl's boyfriend, even though she hates him. We're supposed to hate Dean, but it's hard to hate Dean. We also get Dick Van Dyke as some kind of general store-owning, Thoreau-reading proto-hippie, who becomes Mr. MacLaine #1.

Her time as Van Dyke's bride is rendered as a silent movie with her as Mabel Normand and him as
Buster Keaton. This conceit of rendering each romance in a different style will continue--Paul Newman's New Wave art film, Robert Mitchum's big-budget epic, Gene Kelly's flashy musical--but it never quite lands. It may be because the film never quite abandon's its own 20th Century Fox production values to embrace those of the style it intends to inhabit.

So Dino insults Dick, so Dick decides to make his general store into Wal-Mart and run local scion Dean out of business. Doing so makes him rich, but deprives Shirley of his company and eventually he dies from counting his money too hard or something...

Sad Shirl arrives in Paris, where she meets boorish beatnik Paul Newman, who is weirdly like some kind of post-millennial hipster with his machines that paint and his being a dick to the locals and his beard. But Shirley is happy in her Parisian garret with her bullet bra and Paul Newman. Who wouldn't be?

(Few invoke as much of a universal "I'd hit that" as young Paul Newman. I still recall sitting in Lucy's bar on Avenue A sometime back in the 90s, watching The Long Hot Summer with my friend Denise and Lucy, the little Ukranian babushka who owned the place. When Paul first appeared shirtless and sweaty, Lucy poured us all a shot of whiskey and we drank to his hotness...)

Anyhow, What a Way to Go. So, Paul Newman become a famous painter (thus giving Edith Head reason to design Shirley some dope outfits that match his paintings and look great with her Anna Karina wig) but this means he has no time for his lady. We're supposed to be charmed by the fact that Shirley wants a man who spends his every waking minute with her but, frankly, it seems kind of clingy and needy... or maybe she's a nymphomaniac and needs a man who has no job but giving her some D every 20 minutes. Add in the fact that she seems to have no personality characteristic besides a love for pretty clothes and the need to latch onto a man (Hey, it's Jupiter Ascending!) and we have a lead character with no character. Which would be fine if it were obscured by a nonstop barrage of jokes, but it's not. Oh, believe me, it's not...

So, anyway, Newman buys it at the hands (brushes? rollers? poky sticks?) of one of his steampunk painting machines (see, told you he was a hipster) but sales of his paintings have left Shirley, once again, a rich widow....

The widow runs across the Millionaire Playboy, played by Robert Mitchum. As always, Mitchum is a welcome presence and he and MacLaine have a nice chemistry--probably because they had it in real life in the form of a multi-year affair... anyway. He's a fabulously wealthy captain of industry.

The "Lush Budgett Production" joke is funny the first or second time. By use #9 they've pretty much torn it and are you seriously telling me that, with all the drunken, bitter, overeducated screeenwriters in Hollywood, you could only come up with ONE pun on a movie mogul's name. Anyway, we do at least get the most magnificently glamorous costumes. Bow down to Edith Head!


So there's that and then there's Mitch and Shirley repeating "Remind me to tell you that I love you" a few dozen times. It is literally a 20-minute sequence that hangs on two jokes repeated over and over again. A large part of the problem with What a Way to Go is that it is one of the most lazily written films ever made--in scenes like this, you get the feeling that Betty Comden and Adolph Green didn't even finish it. The wit that made Singin' in the Rain and Auntie Mame is nowhere here apparent. But, still, the outfits...

Mitchum dies when they go back to the farm he grew up on--he's been fixated on the cow he had as a boy, Melissa, throughout the film. It makes you sorry they didn't include any if the many bestiality jokes Mitchum must've made off-camera. Especially since he dies trying to milk a bull...

Husband number next is Gene Kelly, a struggling hoofer. We get a nice dance number starring Kelly and MacLaine and then some more non-comedy as Kelly, of course, becomes rich and famous. Since his name is Pinky, he demands that everything be painted pink, which leads to some really great lewks, both is set and in costume, if nothing else (and there is pretty much nothing else)...

But, again, we have our lazy screenwriters who come up with no other joke other than "everything's pink!" Kelly becomes an unbearable stereotype of a narcissistic Hollywood star and comes off as an asshole, not a comedian. Maybe because he doesn't have any funny lines. Everything's pink! Geddit? He's a jerk! Geddit? Anyway, he dies too when his fans swamp him Day of the Locust style. So funny!

Which brings us back to the present, and you can guess whether Shirley decides to go with the psychiatrist, go back to a now-broke Dean Martin or strike out on her own to find her own purpose in life beyond obsessive devotion to a man. Well, I'm sure you can guess which one is not happening...

Apparently the first choice for the lead role in What a Way to Go was Marilyn Monroe and one cannot help but thinks she would have been better--MacLaine was a professional dancer and a skilled comedienne, but somehow she didn't have the aptitude for physical comedy nor the innocent deadpan that Monroe possessed. Few played the straight woman as well as she did and if What a Way to Go had let its male leads go to town with a sort of reverse Lorelei Lee at its center... that might have worked. Or Comden & Green could have just gotten off of their asses and written some jokes.

Still, the costumes--72 of them, if you're counting--are to die for. If you own a hair salon or boutique or a bar that does brisk sales in rosé, you should consider putting What a Way to Go on your screens just for the visuals. Just be sure and turn the sound off. No one wants to hear that "remind me to tell you that I love you" joke again....