Saturday, February 21, 2015

One Bad Trip: Otto Preminger's "Skidoo"

The dancing mascot of "Skidoo". Created by credit genius Saul Bass, it's the best bit in the move.

Hi Keeba and hello, movie lovers.

Do you remember the '60's?

According the old saying, if you do remember the '60's, you weren't there (rim shot).

I don't remember the '60's because I was a wee baby. But if the '60's were anything like Otto Preminger's all-star 1968 freak out "Skidoo", I'm glad I missed out.

Conceived as a no-holds-barred culture clash comedy, "Skidoo" was a legendary box-office bomb for writer/producer Preminger, the Richard Burton of filmmakers. Despite his talent, Otto, like Richard, is better known for his many misses than his hits. For every "Laura" or "Anatomy of Murder", there is "Saint Joan", "Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon", "Rosebud", "In Harm's Way", "Hurry Sundown" and "Such Good Friends"--a flick one critic likened to "a closet full of smelly underwear".

Even with that impressive list of flops to his credit, "Skidoo" may be Preminger's ne plus ultra of flop flicks.

It goes like this:

Concerned mother Carol Channing gets hip to her daughter Darlene's (Alexandra Hay) boyfriend Stash (John Philip Law).

Jackie Gleason is "Tough Tony" Banks, a retired mob "torpedo" (hit man), now living as an honest businessman in the California suburbs. Carol Channing is his ditzy wife Flo, who had quite a racy past before they married. Alexandra Hay (of "The Love Machine") is their daughter Darlene--at least, that's what Channing claims.

On a typical evening at home, Tony and Flo are fighting over what to watch on TV. Each armed with a remote control, husband and wife switch back and forth between the channels, cutting between commercials, various movies and even a senate hearing. Fed up, Tony storms into the kitchen to make a snack, only to discover his college-bound daughter sitting in a parked car with (gasp) a hippie!

This gentleman's name is (oh, how telling) Stash (John Philip Law, also of "The Love Machine"). He sports the usual hippie garb of long hair, love beads and a headband. This causes Tony to snarl, "Who's your tailor? Sittin' Bull?" Stash also spouts the usual hippie babble: "You know what I dig? Nothin', man. 'Cause if you can't dig nothin', you can't dig anything. You dig?"

This deeply impresses Darlene, who muses, "If I could be nothing, I could be anything."

Stash also dreams of a world where butterflies are free and there are organic supermarkets on every corner, so no wonder Gleason pops a blood vessel when he learns his daughter is dating this freak.

God (Groucho Marx) calls Tony home: Boy, did he get the wrong number.

Believe it or not, Tony soon has bigger problems than his kid's long-haired beau. He's visited by mobsters Henchy (Cesar Romero) and Angie (Frankie Avalon), who come on behalf of Tony's old mob godfather, simply known as God (played by Groucho Marx in his last film appearance).

It seems God wants Tony to break into Rock Island Federal Pen and rub out stool pigeon "Blue Chips" Packyard (Mickey Rooney), formerly Tony's BFF and Darlene's godfather. At first, Gleason refuses, insisting God released him from mob chores 17 years ago. However, when Tony finds his pal Harry (Arnold Stang) sitting in a car with a bullet through the head, the retired wiseguy glumly goes back to work.

Once inside the joint, Tony meets his cellmates: Leech (Michael Constantine, the principal on "Room 222") and Austin Penelton, known as Professor Fred. Fred, you see, is doing time because he burned his draft card. He's also a technical genius who has renounced technology and eats only brown rice.

Oh, yes, and one more thing: Fred carts around a stack of paper soaked in acid.

 Hmmm, that could cause problems, couldn't it? I mean, if someone accidentally got in to it...

Tony, Leech and Professor Fred share tight quarters in the slammer.

While Tony awaits his instructions, wife Flo is aghast to learn that Darlene, covered head to toe in body paint, has been arrested with Stash and about 30 other long-haired, pot smoking, folk singing hippies. To prevent her daughter from running away with this flower power mob, Channing invites the whole group back to their place. Soon, the Bank's dream house has become a hippie crash pad, complete with sitar music. Of course, the uptight neighbors are fit to be tied, but what else could a mother do?

Still cooling his heels in prison, Tony writes Flo a letter and then licks the envelope. Uh oh! The horrified Fred informs Tony that the paper was soaked in acid. "You mean LSD?" Gleason gulps. Is there any other kind? Soon enough, Tony is on a trip, complete with melting walls, vivid colors, floating heads, imaginary flies to swat at and his room mates shrinking to the size of Smurfs. Gleason sweats, laughs, screams and then asks for a flower. Once the trip is over, Tony has "lost his ego" (according to Fred) and is thus a changed man. That means the hit is off.

Scenes from an acid trip: Tony Banks (Jackie Gleason) freaks out.

So how can Tony escape Rock Island and get back to his family, especially when he learns Darlene is being held captive on God's yacht? (FYI: God lives on a yacht in international waters with his statuesque companion, the insatiable Luna, to escape arrest. George Raft is his captain.)

That's easy. Professor Fred spikes the prison's water and food supply with LSD. The resulting mass freak out is "Skidoo"s showcase sequence. To ensure the artistic integrity of the cinematic trip he was to film, Preminger supposedly dropped acid with Timothy Leary. While you can admire Preminger's commitment to details, I doubt any acid trip resembles the one Otto presents.

 Everybody from the prisoners to the guards to the visiting warden (Burgess Meredith) to the kitchen staff to the phone operators suddenly go bonkers. They sing in slow motion. They form daisy chains. Convict Frank Gorshin ("The Man") sees visions of himself as an angel. The tower guards watch pop-eyed (and so will you) as garbage cans come to life and dance to a Harry Nilsson song. This little musical interlude is called "The Garbage Can Ballet". A sample of the lyrics? "Oh, oh, oh, the great garbage can/Is a tribute to the ingenuity of man/Where corn and tomatoes mix with potatoes/And get thrown together with ham/And succotash and a piece of hash/ Can get together and have a bash..." The ditty ends with the lines, "Life is always equal in the can." Then the Green Bay Packers show up--nude, mind you--except for their helmets and shoulder pads to run a few plays. Meanwhile, Senator Peter Lawford gives his presidential acceptance speech and warden Meredith proclaims the "ideal prison" will teach macrame and modern dance.

Can you dig it?

Do not adjust your set: "Skiddo"s infamous dancing garbage cans prepare to cut a rug. Watch the sequence on "YouTube" if you dare.

While the prison population is tripping the light fantastic, Tony and Fred make their getaway in trash cans tied to helium balloons. Their destination? God's yacht. However, they aren't the only ones. Converging on that very craft is Flo, dressed in a mini skirt and tricornered hat, with a flotilla of hippies.

 "Skidoo! Skidoo! The world can be a better place for you!" warbles Broadway's Dolly Levi. "Skidoo! Skidoo! The number between one and three is two!"

As dopey and embarrassing as this number is, Channing totally throws herself into it. When it's all over, you can't help thinking, "What a pro."

The scene on God's yacht, of course, is total mayhem, with hippies and gangsters fighting, dancing, singing and taking drugs together. Gleason searches for his daughter, runs into wife Flo and the bickering mob couple have make-up sex. Then George Raft marries mobster Angie (Frankie Avalon) to the insatiable Luna--who starts making out with Henchy. A hippie then marries "this brother to this sister", meaning Stash and Darlene. And God? He and Professor Fred have ditched the love-in to sail away in a psychedelic sailboat dressed as Harri Krishna's. Fred offers Groucho a joint, who promptly inhales and then declares, "Mmmm, pumpkin!"

"Skidoo" is all over except for the credits--and you will want to watch the closing credit sequence, because Harry Nilsson sings the name of each and every member of the cast and crew, right down to the lowliest worker on the production staff. Now, the movie is over.

A real wild trip, right?

"23 Skidoo!" Flo and Tony get hip to the swingin' sixties.

Well, that depends.

"Skidoo" wants to be seen as a hip, irreverent, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants comedy. But director Preminger is too much of a tactician and control freak to helm such a free-flowing production. The movie just seems off, from the flat jokes to the usual '60's stereotypes to the kooky musical numbers. It's clear Preminger wanted to show the kids that an old Hollywood hand could groove to the times; any kids who actually saw the flick weren't fooled. Neither, as it turns out, were their parents, because "Skidoo" was one of the decade's biggest bombs.

It was also one of the most obscure box office bombs of the decade. "Skidoo" never appeared on TV, not even on the late, late, late show. When VCRs came out, nobody clamoured for "Skidoo" to make its VHS debut. And it was years before "Skidoo" came out on DVD. Nobody wanted to see this movie ever again--including the people who made it! The only ones to show "Skidoo" any love were dedicated Junk Cinema Lovers, but we are, shall I say, a very particular bunch.

In the end, "Skidoo" seems to prove that the '60's mantra "Don't trust anyone over 30!" was sage advice, at at least in this case.

Therefore movie lovers, until next time, question authority, and SAVE THE MOVIES!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Once More With Feeling! It's "Beastmaster 2:Through The Portal Of Time"!

"Oh, dear, his perm didn't take!" Older, but not necessarily wiser, Dar (Marc Singer) returns for "Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time."

Hey, kids, what's the worst sequel of all time?

"Stayin' Alive"? "Grease 2"? "The Sting, Part 2"? "Return to Peyton Place"? "The Exorcist, Part 2"? "The Godfather, Part 3"? "Ghostbusters, Part 2"? "The Jewel of the Nile"? "King Kong Returns"? "Scarlett"?

Believe it or not, it's none of the above. The worst sequel of all time belongs to "Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time" (1991).

"B2" (as I call it) is the ten years later second serving of "The Beastmaster", the 1981 sword and sorcery flick about an ancient Dr. Doolittle named Dar (Marc Singer in his greatest role EVER) and his quest to avenge the deaths of his family, friends and pet pooch at the hands of the evil Jun army, which was headed by an evil priest named Maax (Rip Torn in the most embarrassing role of his career).

Besides being the beastmaster, Dar is also the long-lost son of King Zed. He doesn't realize this because A) as a baby Dar was kidnapped from his mother's womb and transplanted by an evil witch into a cow's womb, thus ensuring that B) he could be kidnapped and later sacrificed by the evil witch. Baby Dar was saved by a poor farmer who A) also didn't realize Dar was King Zed's son and B) raised him as his own but C) eventually realized Dar had special abilities with critters.

As you can see, "The Beastmaster" had its own lame-brained charms. Unfortunately, "B2" is only lame-brained. That's because, except for Marc Singer and the ferrets, nothing in "Portal of Time" references, revives or continues the saga of Dar and his beastmastering abilities.

Wings Hauser waves his magic wand in "B2". Where is Rip Torn when you need him?

Instead, "B2" gives us--not that we asked for it, mind you--a completely new story that is an unsavory mix of sword and sorcery/time traveling/fish-out-of-water/bad '90's hair/bad '90's rock/and bad F/X that never congeals into anything coherent or entertaining. Instead, it merely stalls and sputters like an over-heated Yugo in rush hour traffic--and manages to make the original flick look good by comparison.

With Rip Torn unavailable because of his character's demise in the first flick, the baddie role in "B2" is taken up by Wings Hauser, a beefy fellow who resembles Sam Kininson, Meatloaf , Kiefer Sutherland  and the Phantom of the Opera all rolled into one.

When we first meet him, Arklon (as the baddie is called) has captured beastmaster Dar and has condemned him to death for, among other things, siding with rebels who want to unseat him and for "practicing witchcraft". Arklon also sneers at Dar's talents with animals. This the despot will regret, especially when he commands his henchmen to chop off Dar's noggin. Why? Because Sharak the eagle will poke Arklon's eye out, Ruh the tiger (no longer black) will slaughter his goons and ferrets Kodo and Podo will release Dar--who will then proceed to stab, hit, punch and kick Arklon's remaining troops in their respective crotches before fleeing into the night.

Our story then shifts to a rag-tag group of rebels out on patrol. When their nominal leader wants to know if Arklon's flunkies are in the vicinity, he calls out, "Bring the witch!" That would be Lyranna (Sarah Douglas), a hip swaying Jennifer Beals-type who can "see" things. The rebel leader warns Lyranna that her "visions" had better be truthful or he'll cut her "black heart out of (her) bosom." This causes the witch to parry back, "Surely such a valiant warrior such as yourself you can think of a better use for my bosom."

 The fellow probably can, except an arrow through his neck ensures he won't be able to act on them.

Suddenly, the poor rebels are beset by Arklon's troops and Arklon himself, who wields a very bizarre weapon indeed: an old fashioned phone receiver. An old fashioned phone receiver that shoots lasers, no less. When all the dust settles, only Lyranna is left standing. Arklon wants her dead, naturally, but the wily witch insists that she knows where the one-eyed Arklon can get his mitts on the ultimate weapon and rule the world unchallenged.

I must interject here and point out that Arkon ALREADY HAS such a weapon and ALREADY IS ruling unchallenged. After all, what could possibly top a phone receiver that shoots lasers?

How about a neutron bomb?

"Is this the set for 'Conan the Barbarian'?" Evil witch Lyranna (Sarah Douglas).

See, Lyranna has discovered a magic portal that leads to 1991 L.A. In her spare time, the witch has been hopping back and forth between dimensions, picking up '90's slang ("You are are so hard to take a meeting with!") and taking stock of US weapon capabilities. Lyranna convinces Arklon that having The Bomb will make him truly the boss of everything and put his laser shooting phone to shame. In return for helping the baddie Arklon snatch the weapon of mass destruction, Lyranna wants to be his queen.

Arklon's queen? "Well, I certainly don't want to be your maid!" Lyranna huffs.

While all this is happening, Dar is tramping around in a swamp. It's there he meets a long-lost relative that resembles a talking tree. This leafy sage tells Dar that he has an elder brother who must be killed or the world will go kaput. Dar pleads with the tree person to identify his bad seed brother, but the relative just stomps off to die. Not very helpful, would you say?

I'm going to interject again and suggest that Dar's unknown bad seed big brother is Arklon. Who's with me?

As if "B2" didn't have enough going on, we are introduced to one final character, an annoying Valley Girl twerp named Jackie Trent (Kari Wuhrer). She crash lands into Beastmaster territory through that magic portal Lyranna is always babbling about. Of course, she is so dumb that she doesn't realize what has happened. Instead, she chirps such lines as "Where is the auto club when you need them?" and "Ever hear of the 'middle of nowhere'? Well, this is it!"

Of course, it's preordained that Jackie will meet up with Dar and still have no idea that she's not in L.A. anymore. She variously thinks the Beastmaster works for the circus or is one of those off-the-grid-loner-types and at one point asks, "Dar, were you raised by wolves?" Even worse than her stupidity is Jackie's constant stream of one-liners. When she and Dar are sitting around a campfire, they hear the howling of "The Lost Hounds" who, explains Dar, "stalk the night, looking for souls to drag down into the abyss."

"Sounds like two guys I met in Tijuana last night," Jackie smirks.

Alien from L.A.: the very annoying Jackie Trent (Kari Wuhrer).

Later, when Dar and Jackie are tramping around in the desert, they come upon soldiers on horseback. "Who are those geeks?" she asks.

They happen to be Arklon's goon squad and they have orders to capture "the outsider", as they call Jackie. This they do, but once the L.A. airhead is dumped on them, Arklon and Lyranna can't stand her anymore than anyone else.

When Lyranna shows Jackie the magic portal, all she can do is coo, "Way rad!" Later, when Arklon demands that Jackie provide him with the necessary info to nab a neutron detonator, she squeals, "I'm loaded with information! I watch 'Jeopardy' every night!"

After enduring several more of these inane bon mots, you can't help but root for Arklon to pistol whip the little jerk.

In final analysis, Kari Wuhrer's performance in "B2" makes Kathy Ireland's performance in "Alien From L.A." look like a masterful piece of nuanced underplaying--and is one of the key reasons why this flick's reputation as an example of cinematic backwash is so richly deserved.

"Let's see, do I have everything? Tiger? Check. Eagle? Check? Ferrets? Check." Dar prepares to save the world.

Of course, it goes without saying that Arklon, and Lyranna will drag Jackie back to L.A. so they can get their nuclear bomb and Dar and his animal buddies will follow in hot pursuit. There will be culture clashes and confrontations, car crashes and sword fights, good will defeat evil, Dar will off Arklon and Jackie will continue to chirp like a demented chipmunk. Finally, our mismatched duo will say goodbye. Dar will return to his world and Jackie will hopefully shut-up.

It's not often that a genuinely bad movie is followed by a sequel that is even worse, but "B2" manages this amazing feat. Of course, many elements were involved in making "B2" so very, very bad: a horrible script, an uneven tone, cheap-o F/X and a truly annoying heroine all played their part.

You also can't forget the acting of the principals, either. As baddie Arklon, Wings Hauser struts about and fondles his long hair, but he's no match for the scenery chewing theatrics of Rip Torn. Sarah Douglas' Lyranna seems as if she wandered over from the set of "Dynasty", as her hair-tossing, nostril-flaring histrionics seem better suited to a night time soap opera than a mixed-up swords and sandals epic. Marc Singer, meanwhile, is still plenty ripped as Dar, but his bleached blonde hair and stringy perm are not flattering. Even though he is the nominal star of the show, Singer's role in the sequel is actually pretty small. As always, the acting honors ultimately go to the critters, but even they seem off their game this time around.

In the final analysis, "Beastmaster2: Through The Portal of Time" is just more proof that sequels to hit movies are just a waste of money--for the producers and the audience. Lightening rarely strikes twice; there is no guarantee that a sequel will recapture the spirit of its predecessor. Sequels are just a cynical ploy to ring cash out of a familiar name.

In the case of "B2", the filmmakers did something even more incredible: they took an already bad movie and made it even worse!

So, until next time, accept only originals, and SAVE THE MOVIES!