Thursday, June 23, 2011

THE HORN SECTION SALUTES: Don Diamond (1921-2011)

Don Diamond (right) with Frank deKova
Very sad news to report from Los Angeles this week, as the Horn Section must blow taps for actor Don Diamond, who passed away Sunday just 15 days after celebrating his 90th birthday.

The son of Russian immigrants, Diamond, who was fluent in Yiddish and Spanish, began his acting career in 1946 after four years of service (and a First Lieutenant commission) in U.S.A.A.C.  He quickly found success on television, co-starring in 3 long-running successes: THE ADVENTURES OF KIT CARSON (1951-55, as El Toro), ZORRO (1957-59, as the beloved Corporal Reyes)...

Don Diamond as Corporal Reyes on ZORRO

...and as Crazy Cat in the show for which he is best remembered, by both the general public and The Horn Section, F TROOP.

It's good ta be the Chief!

Diamond was not a regular when F TROOP premiered on September 14, 1965.  In fact, he didn't make his first appearance until the sixth episode ("Dirge for the Scourge") and was a secondary character, taking a backseat to Hekawi Chief Wild Eagle (Frank deKova) and the elderly medicine man Roaring Chicken (Edward Everett Horton).  But, proving the old axiom that there are no small roles, Diamond made a vivid impression on viewers and within a couple of months was promoted to his rightful position as Wild Eagle's ambitious "Assistant Chief".  Crazy Cat constantly and heartlessly longed for the "sad, sad day" that Wild Eagle would ascend to the "happy hunting ground" and the Hekawis would rally around their energetic new Chief, much to Wild Eagle's chagrin. 

F TROOP subversively parodied most of the cliches of television and motion picture Westerns, and Diamond's contribution was creating a comically high-pitched voice for Crazy Cat, twisting the long-standing and even then tired Hollywood stereotype of the deep-voiced Native American "warrior". 

Diamond's career spanned 41 years until his retirement from acting in 1987.  He was married to wife Luisa from 1966 until his passing.  R.I.P. Mr. Diamond.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Film Review: G.O.R.P.* (1980)

Why the Hell isn't this on DVD yet? Number 63

GORP (1980 American International) Starring Michael Lembeck, Fran Drescher, Dennis Quaid, David Huddleston, Rosanna Arquette, Philip Casnoff, Julius Harris, Debi Richter, Lisa Shure.  Directed by Joseph Ruben.

Lembeck and Casnoff are college students who spend summers working in the mess hall of summer Camp Oskemo, which caters to a Jewish clientele.  While competing for the ladies (virginal Shure and sexually aggressive Drescher) they witness everything we fear goes on inside the kitchen, declare war on tyrannical boss Huddleston, and pull pranks on him, snobbish parents, and snitches.  In order words, yep, wacky hijinks ensue.

The year 1980 was probably the zenith for raunchy "snobs vs. slobs" comedies in ANIMAL HOUSE's aftermath, and that same year saw a number of "summer camp" films hoping to duplicate the grosses of 1979's surprising MEATBALLS.  GORP falls into both categories, and mainly demonstrates why the aforementioned films were so much better their imitators.  The poorly thought out script by Jeffrey Konvitz (his third and last screenplay to date) is the chief culprit, as the writer apparently had no idea what made the films he was emulating successful.

Huddleston lacks any real power to lord over his youthful charges, unlike John Vernon's Dean Wormer.  Vernon could threaten the Deltas with expulsion from college and draft eligibility.  What can Huddleston do?  Fine them when they're being paid peanuts and primarily there to get laid anyway?  Fire them from a summer job they all treat as elective at best?  The Murray-Makepeace relationship balanced the crazy pranks in MEATBALLS with a little heart and also helped give that largely plotless film some structure.  By contrast GORP has literally no mentoring or character growth of any kind, and little motivation beyond libido for much of anything.  We never get to know any of the campers or junior wait staff as anything more than comic props.

In the cases of the camp nurse and the orange haired answer to "Spaz", GORP has some decidedly undeserving recipients of unfunny, mean-spirited humor.  The situations presented are consistently uninvolving.  A good example is a bet between Casnoff and Drescher, with potentially rich comic possibilities from Drescher's side of it.  As LITTLE DARLINGS showed, you can successfully center an entire film around a similar plot point.  Here, the wager is resolved off-screen in less than 10 minutes and the result is quickly forgotten.  Konvitz just moves us on to the next derivative caper.

So, with the lack of a solid opposing force for Lembeck, Casnoff and crew to go against, little nudity (the raunch is mostly limited to toilet humor) and no conflict or characters for the audience to care about, GORP is left to rise or fall exclusively on the value of its gags--and the quality is lacking.  The setpieces all seem to be familiar and done much better elsewhere, right up to the finale in which Quaid somehow appropriates a tank to help demolish Oskemo.  The Faber parade it ain't.

GORP arrived in May 1980 with one claim to historical significance: it was the very last release by American International Pictures.  Michael Lembeck, son of A.I.P. icon Harvey (biker Eric Zon Vipper in seven BEACH PARTY films) was the nominal head of the youthful ensemble, and in a further nod to A.I.P.'s past, the campers screen I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF.   Unfortunately GORP itself was a forgettable swan song for Arkoff's company, and barely met 1/6 of the Arkoff Formula (the last "F"--despite the lack of nudity).

So.....why isn't this on DVD yet?

It doesn't matter whether you're listing "summer camp" movies or grossout comedies:  GORP will be at or near the bottom of either list.  It bombed when it was released in May 1980, and with good reason.

Why it should be on DVD:

Really, the only people likely to be interested would have to be A.I.P. completists, or fans of the young actors (i.e. Arquette) on their way to better things.  Even those in the latter camp would be hard-pressed to find much of interest here though, for if you want to see Quaid or Drescher on the make there are better youth comedies available from the same era: THE SENIORS and HOLLYWOOD KNIGHTS respectively.  In Drescher's case, KNIGHTS was released the same month as GORP.

GORP has been out of circulation for some time but is currently available for streaming at Netflix Instant.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Film Review: WITHOUT WARNING (1980)

"Why the Hell isn't THIS on DVD yet?" -- Number 62


WITHOUT WARNING (1980 Filmways) Starring Martin Landau, Jack Palance, Larry Storch, Cameron Mitchell, Tarah Nutter, Christopher S. Nelson, David Caruso, Neville Brand, Kevin Peter Hall, Ralph Meeker, Sue Ann Langdon, Lynn Thell.  Directed by Greydon Clark.

In a Midwestern forest area, tentacled green bloodsucking creatures about the size of a sponge are ambushing and killing would-be hunters and campers.  Among the victims: gun enthusiast Mitchell, Cub Scout leader Storch, and a teen couple, Thell and Caruso.  After the demise of the daters, their friends Nelson and Nutter seek help in a secluded local diner, but they're only able to come with two strange locals, Palance (as the requisite "creepy gas station owner") and battle scarred Vietnam vet Landau.  The four of them set out to find and destroy the alien(s) behind the gooey, gory attacks.

Barely noticed during its 1980 release, WITHOUT WARNING has developed a devoted cult following in the three decades since, thanks mainly to two factors: its unavailability, and Arnold Schwarzenegger himself crediting the low-budget horror film as an inspiration for his smash PREDATOR.  Operating with only a $150,000 budget, Greydon Clark (JOYSTICKS) nevertheless manages to put together some memorable visuals despite inconsistent pacing. 

It was Clark who suggested the change to the spinning, appendaged attackers (in the original script alien Hall used a bow and arrow) and they provide some gleefully disgusting moments.  When airborne they appear to be spheric, then rectangular.  Finally, when one lands on a windshield we can determine it is pentagonal.  For some reason, their attacks are limited to grown humans, as they let Storch's troop flee the area unharmed while draining only the hapless scoutmaster.  Why?  It's never explained.  Just go with it!

Clark also manages to put together a name cast for the dollars, though Storch, Mitchell, Brand and Meeker probably all spent one day apiece on the set, tops.  As for stars Palance and Landau, few viewers seeing their work here would have thought they were watching two future Academy Award winners.  Palance smiles continuously, Landau stays wide-eyed and tightens his jaw.  Both are shamelessly hammy, and their wild overplaying helps keep things afloat during an extended dull stretch in the second half.

Strangely, WITHOUT WARNING has probably become overrated due to its scarcity at this point.  Practically every film blog out there has covered it in the past few years, including A.V. Club and Film Fanatic.  (Yeah, I'm late to the party.  So sue me.)  While it may not be a high point on anyone's resume (except maybe Clark's) it is more impressive when taking the budget (half of which went for Palance and Landau) and influence into account.  PREDATOR lifted the premise and 7'2" actor Hall (who played the alien in both films) from this little-seen, very silly, sometimes boring, but also pretty funny and fondly remembered little horror flick.

So....why isn't this on DVD?

It's a ridiculous low budget horror film that isn't scary at all and loses momentum halfway through.   Filmways was defunct less than two years later (absorbed into Orion Pictures), which may or may not have impacted the video availability of WITHOUT WARNING, though it probably didn't help.

Why it should be on DVD:

Any time a film this obscure has such devoted advocates, the filmmaker was obviously doing something right.  He was indeed: giving us the aliens and expirations that stick in one's memory, and especially hiring the veteran character actors, who energetically give this flick much of its heft.  Landau!  Palance! The also crazed Mitchell!  The wobbly Meeker!  The legendary Storch, who was the only intentional comic relief ("They were a, uh, bean growing tribe.")!  Not to mention David Caruso making a screen debut he'd probably rather forget.

WITHOUT WARNING made its MGM HD premiere in the summer of 2010 and has been repeated, so that's your channel to schedule check when seeking this one out.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Film Review: subUrbia (1996)

"Why the Hell isn't THIS on DVD yet?" -- Number 61

subUrbia (1996 Sony/Warner Brothers) Starring Giovanni Ribisi, Nicky Katt, Steve Zahn, Jayce Bartok, Parker Posey, Ajay Naidu, Dina Waters (Dina Spybey), Amie Carey, Samia Shoaib.  Directed by Richard Linklater.

Five young adults in fictional Burnfield spend evenings hanging out together, mostly outside the convenience store managed by Shoaib and Naidu.  They're a disparate bunch: Zahn's a fun loving and immature slacker, Katt's a violent and possibly alcoholic ex-military man, and Ribisi's the intelligent cynic finding fault with any form of accomplishment.  Ribisi's girlfriend Carey isn't, and she'd like to leave and pursue her art career.  Recovering addict Waters is the clique's recent addition, and they all await the triumphant return of Bartok, the nerd from high school who found success as a rocker.  In town for a concert, Bartok decides to visit the old gang and brings publicist Posey back home with him.

Boomer Eric Bogosian (TALK RADIO) adapted SUBURBIA from his stage play of the same name which was based on his own experiences in suburban Massachusetts.  However the resulting film is much more identified with its director and the "Gen-X film" subgenre of the Nineties.  As was the case with his earlier cult favorites (SLACKER, DAZED AND CONFUSED) Linklater filmed in Austin, Texas and turned out yet another film taking place over the course of one day, following verbose characters around the city.  However, that's about it for this trilogy's common ground.

Linklater penned the screenplays for SLACKER and DAZED himself and provided insight while largely avoiding the angst that characterized (and has in many cases dated) other 1990's touchstones like REALITY BITES and SINGLES.  Despite its title SLACKER subversively celebrated the resourcefulness and self-sufficiency of its eccentrics, and Linklater makes subtle statements about freedom and individuality in both films (i.e. Randall "Pink" Floyd's refusal to sign the pledge).  But while SUBURBIA's Ribisi pointedly insists that he can do anything he wants, he's all talk, still living in his parents' garage in his mid-twenties.  This is the pessimistic B-side of SLACKER: formerly creative, offbeat youths have hardened into cynical, frustrated underachievers in just a few years.  It is telling that, unlike its Linklater predecessors, SUBURBIA takes place almost entirely after dark.

Bogosian's troubled, high-strung dialogue often doesn't mesh well with  Linklater's laid-back storytelling.  Most of the characters wear out their welcome by the one hour mark, though your mileage may vary on Ribisi's indecent exposure.  We keep expecting an explosion out of this volatile mix, such as Bartok finding out you can't go home again (a la Mellencamp's FALLING FROM GRACE).  Or Posey biting off more than she can chew due to her case of bad-boy syndrome.  Characters tiptoe to the edge several times only to have nothing come of it. 

For a while SUBURBIA is fascinating and avoids the expected.  Unfortunately the overwrought conclusion really detracts from Bogosian's point, verbalized by Naidu: that (in the eyes of an immigrant especially) Ribisi and company are throwing their lives away.  Naidu's words would have been more effective without the literal evidence; ironically, if the film ended with "just another day" in the books (like Linklater's aformentioned screenplays) it could have driven Bogosian's message home more forcefully.  While Naidu's last word may not resonate, he still gets the film's most memorable line, in retort to Zahn's proud announcement that he is moving to L.A. ("They have lots of convenience stores for you to stand in front of.")

Katt (whose character is considerably more intelligent than most of his words and actions) and Zahn (hilarious one moment and exasperating the next) are in particularly fine form; the latter was a holdover from the original stage cast.   SUBURBIA has its perceptive moments, but in the end the whole is less than the sum of its parts and it falls short of the filmmakers' other works.  

So.....why isn't this on DVD yet?

Despite the involvement of Linklater, Bogosian and several up and coming young actors, SUBURBIA was barely a blip at the box office in 1996.  SLACKER was fresh and new in 1991 but "slackers" were fully played out five years later, with the aforementioned BITES and Kevin Smith's CLERKS and MALLRATS among the many films covering this subgenre in the interim.  As is the case with many films arriving late in a particular wave, SUBURBIA has been lost in the shuffle.

With its basically unlikable and often annoying characters (arguably the lone exception is the tentative Waters) and downbeat ending, SUBURBIA isn't that rewatchable.  In fact, it can be a chore to sit through.  By contrast, each viewing of DAZED AND CONFUSED is like visiting an old friend.

Why it should be on DVD:

Okay, it isn't quite the "before they were famous" smorgasboard that DAZED is, but Zahn, Katt and Ribisi were among those headed for bigger things, and cult fave Parker Posey is the Queen of the Indies. 

Potentially interesting extras; ideally, we'd get a commentary from Bogosian and Linklater together, and find out what each thinks of the adaptation fifteen years later. 

SUBURBIA is currently available at Netflix Instant.