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3 A.M.

Good Enough To Make You Wish It Were Better
I learned of "3 a.m." from the documentary "They'll Love Me When I'm Dead," during which it was revealed Orson Welles assisted Gary Graver -- who was Welles' cinematographer for "The Other Side of the Wind" as well as directing "3 a.m." under his Robert McCallum moniker -- in editing one of the scenes for "3 a.m." so Graver could get back to work on "Wind."

That the director of "Citizen Kane" helped edit a hardcore movie is a juicy morsel of gossip, but it's not the sole reason to see this movie. Made at the height of the porno chic era, "3 a.m." plays more like a domestic drama than a sex film, which is to say it's more of an adult film than a trashy porno movie. The axis on which the movie's story turns is Kate (Georgina Spelvin), a spinster living with her sister Elaine (Rhonda Gellard) and who's been carrying on a 15-year affair with Elaine's husband, Mark (Frank Mauro, who resembles a more attractive Jamie Gillis). Then Mark is accidentally killed, leaving Kate trying to keep the surviving family -- including Elaine's "teen" kids Stacey (freckle-faced Clair Dia) and Ronnie (Charles Hopper) -- together and her secrets hidden. And also have sex in the shower with a random hippie chick (Judith Hamilton), who otherwise has nothing to do with the story.

I wasn't surprised to find out that the screenwriter of "3 a.m.," hiding behind the name Tony Trelos, was actually Tony Crechales, who also wrote the lurid drive-in thrillers "Blood Mania" and "Point of Terror" ("Tony Trelos" was even the name of Peter Carpenter's character in "Point of Terror"). Chances are "3 a.m." would've descended into camp, as "Blood Mania" and "Point of Terror" did, had Graver not had such a strong cast. While I wouldn't call a lot of the performers in "3 a.m." actors, most everyone involved delivers an effective performance. The one exception is Spelvin, who turns in a performance worthy of a mainstream movie. She may not have been the prettiest woman in adult film, but Spelvin is far and away its best actress, adept at drama and comedy, as well as being an energetic sexual performer. I can't imagine anyone else in the role of Kate and delivering as nuanced a performance as Spelvin gives here. A special mention should also be made of Sharon Thorpe as Vicki, the sexy neighbor who seduces Ronnie. Though Thorpe's role doesn't require much dramatic range, she's got a natural acting style and ably conveys sexual confidence. Her solo performance, as it were, for Ronnie's benefit is easily one of the movie's best sex scenes -- and I make that observation as a gay man.

But as good as "3 a.m." is, it can't fully overcome the constraints of its genre. There were several instances where I wished the non-sexual scenes were allowed to play out rather than abruptly ending in an effort to get to the next sex scene. Likewise, some of those sex scenes, like Spelvin and Hamilton going at in in the shower, seemed only to exist to fulfill a quota (girl-on-girl scene, check). It is an adult movie after all, so sex scenes for the sake of sex scenes are to be expected, and Spelvin and Hamilton are a lively pairing, but I wish Crechales or Graver could've found a cleverer way to introduce Hamilton other than resorting to a porn cliche. Conversely, enough attention is paid to storytelling that the sex scenes, many of which are either too brief or too repetitive to make much of an impression, get a short shrift. The movie's tagline should be amended to, "A film that will only intermittently turn you on." By the way, that Spelvin-Hamilton shower scene is reportedly the scene Welles helped Graver cut together. To be a fly on the wall during *that* editing session!

Ultimately, with all "3 a.m." has going for it -- strong acting, artful cinematography, a meatier if somewhat soapy story line -- it's only good enough to make you wish it were better. This is no forgotten porn classic, just a better-than-average adult film. Still, I'd seek out "3 a.m." before watching some of Graver's R-rated exploitation trash. Compared to "Texas Lightning," "3 a.m." is "Citizen Kane."

The Transparent Woman

Movie Can't Overcome Its 'Skinemax' Aesthetic
This movie opens with a couple in a bathroom. A man stands at the sink, towel around his waist, touching up his beard with a straight razor. His wife is in the shower, appearing to be in some private reverie as she bathes, director Domiziano Cristopharo capturing this act from all angles. This scene has little bearing on the story other than to establish that the woman is generously endowed and has a well-groomed pubic region. (It should be mentioned here that she's played by former adult movie star Roberta Gemma.) It also gives a clue that she's supposed to be blind, but chances are that detail won't be noticed as Cristopharo is more concerned with capturing the water cascading over her ample bosom.

The opening scene is also something of a misdirect, suggesting this is going to be little more than a spooky soft-core porn movie. If only that were so. After that thorough introduction of Gemma's bod and a cursory flash of her co-star Arian Levanael's butt, the couple -- Anna and Carlo -- move from the city to Carlo's childhood home in the country. While Carlo, a university professor (sure), is at work Anna tries to familiarize herself with her new surroundings with the aid of a phone app that audibly identifies items she photographs. Weird things begin to happen: the landline phones ring, but there is only static on the line when Anna picks up; she bumps into a figure that may or may not have been there; and there's a room that remains locked for some reason. And why is Carlo always getting up in the middle of the night?

Cristopharo is clearly aiming to make an atmospheric thriller with supernatural elements, but his movie can't quite overcome its "Skinemax" aesthetic. Though she's playing a professor's wife, Gemma's often costumed like she's appearing in one of her adult movies (I don't think women wear 6-inch spike heels in their leisure time as often as TV and movies want us to believe). There are a lot of bath and shower scenes to show off the leads' physical attributes, though, interestingly, not a whole lot of sex. The sex scenes we get -- one relatively explicit -- aren't particularly remarkable, which would be forgivable if "The Transparent Woman" otherwise had strong actors and solid script. As physically impressive as Gemma and Levanael are, they don't have the acting chops the story requires. Gemma is actually fairly convincing when she doesn't have to speak, but her line delivery has a third-grader-in-a-school-pageant quality. (Mitigating factor: the movie is in English but Italian is her native language.) Lavanael describes himself on Twitter as a "Yogi, Aerialist, 1000 RYT yoga teacher, photographer, life liver and gatekeeper to the temple of stars." Not included on that list is "actor," and there's a reason for that. As for the script, the dialogue is as stilted as Gemma and Lavanael's delivery of it.

Flawed though it is, I did find "The Transparent Woman" to be reasonably engaging, which is why I really wished it was better than it is. And when I gave up on it being a good movie, I began to hope it would be trashy fun -- there was still time for it to become spooky soft-core porn -- but was again let down. Those looking for an atmospheric thriller/ghost story would do better to instead watch Oz Perkins' "I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House." Those drawn to "The Transparent Woman"'s leads would do better to seek out the movies Gemma made under the name Roberta Missoni and/or follow Levanael on Instagram.


Rocco Tries to Bare His Soul, But Just Shows His D--- Instead
The documentary "Rocco" opens with a close up of Rocco Siffredi's penis. It's an obvious place to start, but it also serves as a summation the entire documentary. No matter how many opportunities directors Thierry Demaizière and Alban Teurlai give the aging porn star to bare his soul, he usually ends up just showing his d--- instead, metaphorically if not always literally.

But Rocco's penis has served him well. His IMDb page lists over 500 "acting credits," dating back to 1986, including a few legit gigs, such as Catherine Breillat's "Anatomy of Hell" and the Italian comedy "Matrimonia a Parigi" ("Rocco" the documentary makes no mention of these forays into "real" movies). It's afforded him fame and fortune, far more than most performers in the adult industry can claim, and for far longer, too. Only Ron Jeremy's career is (ahem) longer, dating back to the late '70s. Yet Rocco, in much better shape in his 50s than Jeremy was in his 30s, thinks it's time to retire from performing. He cites concerns for his teen-age sons, who know what their father does for a living but are, as presented in the documentary, shielded from seeing their father in action. (Their mother, Rosa Caracciolo, was also once a porn star, another detail this documentary makes no mention of.) Mostly, though, he's just tired. To hear him tell it, having a generous endowment and hyperactive sex drive is as much a curse as a blessing. In fact, Rocco pretty much portrays himself as a sex addict, barely able to interact with women outside of sex. Even when grieving the death of his beloved mother Rocco is unable to keep his desires in check: he tells of an encounter with a friend of his mother after his mother's funeral, when he takes out his moneymaker and coerces the woman--a senior citizen, mind you--to fellate him. The story is simultaneously outrageous (it sounds like a scene out of an '70s-era French sex comedy) and unsettling. He's telling the story to illustrate how he's a helpless slave to sex, blithely ignoring that, as he's told it, he forced an old woman to give him a BJ.

There are more graphic examples of Rocco's uneasy relations with women in the industry. At his Budapest-based porn production company, he's charming and even fatherly when chatting with his female performers before putting them in an uncomfortably rough group-sex scene, the kind that leaves women with rug burns on their backsides. (The only sex shown in this movie is of the rough variety.) He's equally charming in Los Angeles when meeting scene partner Abella Danger, then takes her up on an offer to demonstrate her ability to swallow his entire hand. Danger may not be doing anything against her will, but that doesn't make it any easier to watch her, gagging and with tears streaming down her face, as Rocco pushes his entire hand into her mouth.

The co-star Rocco chooses for his final scene is English porn star Kelly Stafford, much to the dismay of his hot-headed cousin and business partner, director Gabriel "Gabby" Galetta, who makes his dislike of the outspoken Stafford plain. One gets the idea that the fact that Stafford speaks at all is an issue in Galetta's eyes. Stafford is a handful, but I liked her for being a confident woman who won't do anything with which she'd be uncomfortable. In other words, she's not the type to let a man shove his hand down her throat just to prove she's compliant.

Though "Rocco" has its moments of levity, like a shot of naked male performers standing outside for a smoke break between takes, or the perplexed faces of crew members at's studios, where Rocco's supposed final scene is being shot, as they listen to Galetta's confusing directions, they are overshadowed by the more depressing aspects of porn the documentary inadvertently exposes. Turns out enacting people's sexual fantasies is as dehumanizing and grueling as working on a factory assembly line. As for Rocco himself, he's personable if a little self-absorbed, not nearly as introspective or sensitive as he'd like us to believe, and his treatment of women is just a tad bit rape-y. Mostly, though, he's a guy who has a big penis.

Lazy Eye

A Potentially Good Movie Trapped in the Body of a Mediocre One
One of the characters in "Lazy Eye," Dean, is a fan of NPR (National Public Radio, the movie's other protagonist, Alex, helpfully spells out for us dolts in the audience). This is used as movie shorthand to give us some insight into Dean as a character. However, writer-director Tim Kirkman doesn't flesh out the character enough to make this trait any more than an empty affectation, akin to leather bound classics being displayed on a bookcase to make someone appear cultured when you know the books have never been cracked. This point is hammered home during one of "Lazy Eye"'s unnecessary flashbacks, in which Dean (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) realizes "Morning Edition" is about to come on and hurries to switch on the radio, a rapturous expression crossing his face as the program's theme music plays. Even Ira Glass would roll his eyes at this scene.

But there are other moments where the characters seem real. Dean is a Los Angeles-based graphic designer in his late 30s who has amblyopia—lazy eye. At the film's opening he's dismayed to learn he'll need trifocals, the new glasses highlighting that he's not getting any younger. He's enjoying a successful career, yet chafes at being bound to his clients' boring ideas. (I particularly liked his railing against "heads in the sky" movie poster designs.) But what's really eating at him is an e-mail received from Alex (Aaron Costa Ganis), an ex-boyfriend from 15 years ago, when he was a New York art student. "Of course I remember you. You broke my f------ heart," is Dean's first response, which he deletes before hitting "send." Instead, he suggests that Alex, a former Wall Street exec now living in New Orleans, come out to visit him at his vacation cabin in Joshua Tree.

The exes reunite and reconnect—literally—within seconds of greeting each other (this sex now-talk later approach mirrors their hook-up 15 years ago, we later find out). After sex the guys talk about old times, the compromises they each made as they got older, and thoughts on the movie "Harold and Maude," the cult comedy discussed as if it's some impenetrable art film. It looks like they might be on the road to rekindling what they had all those years ago in New York. That is, until one character reveals something about himself that changes how the other character—and the audience—regards him. This wouldn't be a problem if Kirkman used it as a jumping off point to further develop the character and the story, but the revelation is never dealt with to a satisfying degree, with lame excuses and justifications taking the place of any real emotional catharsis. We're asked to forgive a character's duplicity because the movie tells us to, not because the forgiveness was earned.

"Lazy Eye" can't totally be written off. Though Kirkman's writing disappoints, his directing seldom falters. The acting is first rate, with Near-Verbrugghe and Costa Ganis exhibiting an easy chemistry. It's the strength of their performances keeps us watching even when the script weakens. Also, Gabe Mayhan's cinematography is gorgeous.

What's so frustrating about "Lazy Eye" is you can see there's potential for a really good—possibly great—movie here, but it's trapped in the body of a mediocre one. It strives to be a more intelligent take on gay relationships and in many instances it is, but there are many more instances where it's clear the film makers haven't done their homework and are just cribbing from Cliff Notes.

After Porn Ends 2

Not Even Skin Deep
The follow-up to "After Porn Ends" might be better titled "Retired Porn Stars Briefly Reminisce." It's not quite as catchy as "After Porn Ends 2," but it's more accurate.

As with the first one, director Bryce Wagoner points his camera at a sampling of retired and semi-retired porn stars from the '70s, '80s, '90s and '00s and lets them tell their stories, most of which are brief and not terribly illuminating. A majority of the subjects fall into two camps: Thanks to porn, my life is GREAT! (Lisa Ann, Brittany Adams, Tabitha Stevens); and: So I made f--- films. What's it to you? (Georgina Spelvin, Ginger Lynn, Johnnie Keyes). Darren James, whose HIV diagnosis shut down (straight) porn production in 2004, has a story that's at once cautionary and inspirational. Chasey Lain, sounding and looking spent, does little more than gripe about the pay split at the Bunny Ranch. The saddest of the bunch is Janine Lindemulder, now living with her mother (or so it's implied), battling depression after a stint in prison for income tax evasion and losing custody of her daughter, and sporting more tattoos than a member of the Yakuza.

If Wagoner's first documentary didn't fully penetrate its subjects, "After Porn Ends 2" doesn't even get skin deep, with much of the documentary playing like a series of "Where Are They Now?" segments on "Entertainment Tonight." Spelvin has offered more insight to the porn business in the interviews she gave for 2005's "Inside Deep Throat," and Lynn (a.k.a. Ginger Lynn Allen), now an abstract painter, would've been better served by an update of her E! "True Hollywood Story" episode. Lisa Ann--who should really consider switching to decaf-- and Adams seem more more into self-promotion than personal revelations. Keyes, now a jazz musician, actually breaks down when recalling his abusive father, but diminishes the poignancy of that moment by making it clear he doesn't have a high opinion of women. Most frustrating is the segment on Lain, who talks about having interests outside of porn, but never revealing what those interests are. Her demeanor also suggests she's gone through some rough patches, but like her other interests, those are kept close to Lain's chest.

A few stray observations are made about racism and misogyny in the industry. Lisa Ann says she was told to avoid interracial scenes because they would hurt her career, advice that she ignored once she was no longer under contract. "All the company owners are secretly racist," she says. The only person to bring up sexism in the industry is a man, Herschel Savage, who says that with the exception of the performers, men in the porn business don't really like women. The women interviewed don't weigh in, preferring to talk about anal sex than sexist a- holes.

Peppered throughout this documentary are brief interviews with current porn stars. Though some appear to understand that performing sex on camera means that later they'll either have to go into business for themselves or, at the very least, move to behind the scene roles in the industry, there are a couple who seem to naively think that they can move on to mainstream careers without their porn careers following them. Someone should check back with them in a few years to see how that goes. That someone, however, should not be Bryce Wagoner.

Voyage of the Rock Aliens

A Step in the Right Direction for Zadora, but Still a Stumble
When Pia Zadora was rising to fame in the early 1980s she was always sold as a coquettish sexpot, from posing nude for Oui magazine to starring as Stacy Keach's teen temptress daughter in "Butterfly." Even her first album, "Pia," had the former Broadway performer heavy-breathing her way through soft pop songs, as if whispering into a lover's ear (until a chorus of back-up singers barges in, drowning her out). It was the career her then-husband Meshulam Riklis wanted for her, not the one that best suited her abilities, the multi- millionaire seemingly over-estimating her acting skill while underestimating her singing chops. That's not to say Pia wasn't complicit in this career plan; I just always got the impression she didn't want to be an international sex symbol as badly as her husband wanted to be married to one. As a result, Pia Zadora was a Hollywood joke before the '80s hit their midway point, with 1983's release of "The Lonely Lady" the punchline.

Things started to turn around by 1985, but before they did there was 1984's barely released musical comedy "Voyage of the Rock Aliens," a last ditch effort to establish Pia as a movie star. It's a step in the right direction for Pia, playing to her strengths — singing and light comedy — rather than trying to present her as a barely-legal seductress. Unfortunately, even though she's stepping in the right direction, the movie she's in stumbles.

"Voyage" is the story of a rock n' roll obsessed aliens (portrayed by the band Rhema) who, after a screening of the video for Pia's duet with Jermaine Jackson, "When the Rain Begins to Fall," beam down from their guitar-shaped spaceship to the town of Speelburgh (insert eye roll here). Speelburgh is known for its toxic beaches, horrible fashion and camera-mugging. Also, there's some sort of beast with rubber- tentacles living in its waters that no one seems to notice. Pia plays Dee Dee, a cherubic high school hottie dating Frankie (Craig Sheffer). Frankie is a leader of the rockabilly band The Pack, though he never once performs with it. And he doesn't want Dee Dee to perform with the band, either. The aliens, dressed like they hail from the planet Chess King, have a hard time fitting in until they introduce the teens of Speelburgh to their synth-heavy, New Wave-ish sound and before you know it they're being invited to play at the Heidi High cotillion. Then the aliens' blond commander ABCD (pronounced "Absid") gets one look at Dee Dee and literally explodes with desire. Once re- assembled, he decides the quickest way to win Dee Dee's heart is to allow her to perform with the aliens.

Also: Michael Berryman escapes from the local Hospital for the Criminally Insane, going on a chainsaw murdering rampage while the late Ruth Gordon pops up from time to time as a clueless sheriff, because why not?

Though "Voyage" is a comedy, it's seldom funny in the way its makers intended (only Alison La Placa, as Dee Dee's best friend, gets any genuine laughs), and not nearly as funny as the drama "The Lonely Lady." There is some fun to be had at Craig Sheffer's expense as he lip-syncs "Nature of the Beast" while slinking around the woods and jabbing his cheekbones at the camera, and Pia's otherworldly fashions (complete with an unflattering side ponytail held in place with a spool) will inspire some embarrassed titters. Still, "Voyage" will produce more groans than guffaws.

And then there's the music. To be fair, there are a few listenable tunes. I liked Rhema's song "21st Century" well enough, and Pia does all right with "When the Rain Begins to Fall" and "Little Bit of Heaven" (both songs hits in Europe), but otherwise the music ranges from forgettable to out-and-out terrible. Though more in her element, the quality of Pia's vocals is often inconsistent. Not helping is "Let's Dance Tonight," a retread of one of Zadora's cheesiest efforts, "Rock it Out," down to pushing the star aside so back-up singers can shout the chorus over and over again (which amounts to shouting the song's title, over and over again). No wonder people were so astonished when she belted out pop standards on the 1985 album "Pia & Phil". As for the dancing, well, it's energetic!

"Voyage" isn't the worst movie in Pia's filmography. It is, however, the worst in many of her co-stars': La Placa, Berryman, Gordon, the band Rhema. Even Sheffer, whose credits include such gems as "Killer Virus" and "Merlin: The Return," probably winces when reminded of his lead role as Pia's bubble-butted boyfriend. Yet "Voyage" retains some charm as harmless, extra-cheesy fun, even if it ultimately fails to live up to its potential as an ahead-of-its-time "Earth Girls Are Easy" and is instead a forerunner to 1989's "Dr. Alien." Then again, "Voyage," "Earth Girls Are Easy" and "Dr. Alien" would make a helluva Bluray triple feature, so feel free to run with that idea, Shout Factory.

King Cobra

A Fair Amount of Skin but Not Enough Meat
The real life murder of Cobra Video owner Bryan Kocis has all the ingredients for a promising movie: sex, greed, betrayal, lonely/sad people, users/abusers, and, of course, homicide, all revolving around a central character who is as manipulative as he is physically alluring-- an homme fatale, as it were. Unfortunately, though it comes close a few times to fulfilling that promise, "King Cobra" ultimately fails to do so.

At the heart of the story is Sean Paul Lockhart (Garrett Clayton), who, after telling his mother he's going to a film making workshop, leaves his home in San Diego to go make a solo video for Cobra under the name Brent Corrigan. Cobra's owner (Christian Slater), re-named Stephen in the movie, is obviously smitten but grudgingly respects Brent's wishes to sleep in the sparsely furnished guest room rather than join the pornographer in his big, luxurious bed. The Internet is quickly smitten by Cobra's very young discovery, too. Realizing he's got a potential gold mine, Stephen offers Brent more money to make hardcore videos, and a star is born.

Among Brent's growing fan base are L.A. rent boy Harlow (Keegan Allen) and his domineering boyfriend/pimp Joe (James Franco). Inspired by Corrigan's success, Joe starts producing videos starring Harlow. The move makes them enough money for Joe to put the down payment on a coveted Dodge Viper (their video company is even called Viper Boyz) for his star, but not the kind of cash they want or, as it's later revealed, need. What would really put them on the map--making them millions!-- is a video featuring Harlow and Brent Corrigan. Fortunately for them, Corrigan is just as greedy, and after an acrimonious split from Cobra Video, gay porn's latest "It" boy is soon spinning into Harlow and Joe's orbit. But it's Harlow and Joe who spin out of control.

"King Cobra" has several effective moments, most belonging to Slater and Allen. As the owner of Cobra Video, Slater's Stephen is is more sad than sleazy. He reveals that he turned to making gay porn after living so many years in the closet, and yet he still hasn't come out to his family. (His sister--played by an unnecessarily cast Molly Ringwald--still tries to set him up with women.) When Stephen finally badgers Brent into having sex with him he's in heaven, but is clearly heartbroken when Brent rebuffs his attempts to cuddle afterwards. Allen's eager-to-please Harlow is equally sad, his relationship with Joe--not to mention his involvement in the sex trade--only deepening the psychic wounds caused by child sexual abuse, not healing them.

And then there's James Franco.

That Franco is in this movie is not much of a surprise: Franco worked with director Justin Kelly before ("I Am Michael"), and "King Cobra" caters to Franco's dual fascinations with homosexuality and pornography. (It's only a matter of time before Franco just gives in to temptation and asks the Falcon Studio Group to put him in one of its videos.) Unfortunately for Kelly, he didn't get Oscar Nominated James Franco. Instead, he got Slumming Soap Opera Guest Star James Franco. Whatever potential "King Cobra" had at being taken seriously is dashed the moment Franco's on screen, the actor apparently thinking Kelly was making a porn parody. To be fair, it's not always clear whether Kelly was trying to make a gay(er)-themed equivalent of "Foxcatcher" or a satire a la "To Die For," but Franco's over-the-top performance is completely wrong in either case.

After Brent reveals he made a few of his early videos before his 18th birthday, a porn producer for a bigger company tells the performer to lay low for a while, mentioning that Traci Lords was able to bounce back from a similar scandal. The Lords reference is fitting for Brent. Like Lords, Brent Corrigan can be a divisive figure in the porn world, viewed as either a kid who persevered despite unfortunate circumstances or a scheming little b--ch. As played by Clayton (much cuter than the real Corrigan, IMO), he's a little bit of both, but mostly he's a quick learner who's not quite as clever as he thinks he is, just lucky.

Likewise, "King Cobra" is not as clever as it thinks it is, but it's not as lucky. Like a lot of movies set in the world of porn ("Rated X," "Lovelace"), it shows some skin but it doesn't have enough meat to satisfy its lurid story. Franco, however, provides plenty of ham.

Basic Instinct 2

Stone Walks Away with a Movie No One in her Right Mind Would Want
The primary reasons for seeing "Basic Instinct 2" are to find out if it's as bad as people say it is and Sharon Stone. Concerning its reputed badness, I have to say "BI2" wasn't nearly as awful as I was expecting, which was a disappointment in itself. Whereas the predecessor gleefully catered to the audience's baser instincts, the sequel tries to pass itself off as a sophisticated psychological thriller, director Michael Caton-Jones doing his best smother the movie's camp potential beneath a blue-tinted English chill.

Fortunately, Sharon Stone cannot be so easily tamed. Having spent much of her career trying to grow as an actress, playing moms and cuckolded wives and death row inmates (yet only getting an Oscar nomination when she played a hooker in "Casino"), Stone, approaching 50 at the time this was made, sets out to prove she's still a sexpot. I'm sure many people would've wished she'd just posed for Playboy instead, but Stone is almost single-handedly responsible for "BI2"'s entertainment value. True, she looks a bit haggard throughout much of the movie, but given her character's fondness for excess – so much so it's a wonder the woman has time to write a grocery list, let alone a trashy potboiler – one should expect her to look a bit rough. Smirking like she's in on the joke, Stone takes over every scene she's in, walking away with a movie no one in her right mind would want. I still hold out hope that there's a trashy prime time soap in the works that has an evil temptress part with Stone's name on it. Just like Joan Collins did in the 1980s and Heather Locklear did in the 1990s, Stone could quite easily revive her flagging career by becoming the prime time vixen of the 2000s. You're welcome, Sharon.

Mother, May I Sleep with Danger?

The Blandest Episode of 'American Horror Story' Ever
I'm sure the executives at Lifetime were proud of themselves when they green-lit the remake of "Mother, May I Sleep with Danger?" "We're letting everyone know we're in on the joke! How cool are we right now?" one of them might have crowed. "And we got James Franco!" another one probably squealed. "Tori and Ivan are also on board, but of course they would be, amiright?" I'll admit I was kind of looking forward to this, too, but there were a few things that made me apprehensive, starting with the the discovery that our heroine would be in the clutches of a lesbian vampire, not a dangerously possessive boyfriend. (Christ, does *everything* have to be about vampires and zombies now?) But what really had me wary was that 2016's "Mother, May I Sleep with Danger?" was, unlike the original, going to be intentionally campy.

I thought the campiness the 1996 original was largely overstated (Lifetime's "Drew Peterson: Untouchable" delivered far more camp thrills for my basic cable dollar). That said, the original "Mother, May I...?" is still a hoot, and it's fun because everyone involved was so earnest. For me, it's that lack of self-awareness that's essential for elevating a movie or TV show from a mere fiasco to a camp classic. When "Valley of the Dolls" was brought to the big screen, the studio thought they were making a hard hitting drama. "Mommie Dearest" was supposed to be Oscar bait. "The Swarm" was meant to be the ultimate disaster movie, instead of just a disaster. But the remake/re- imagining of "Mother, May I...?" is *trying* to be campy from the get-go, and the result is predictably underwhelming.

Most underwhelming of all is James Franco. If ever there's an actor working today who's worthy of being called the New Nicolas Cage, it's Franco, who can deliver Oscar-caliber performances ("127 Hours") and then go bats--t crazy ("Spring Breakers") without breaking a sweat. But like Cage, Franco doesn't always go nuts when we need him to. Just as Cage phoned it in on "Left Behind," Franco, as a director of a college production of "Macbeth," is literally sitting on the sidelines in "Mother, May I...?", doing little more than offering a few winking asides to the TV audience. Tori Spelling, cast as the mother this time out, does what she can to make lightning strike twice, but most of the camp value she brings to the screen has less to do with her performance--which is OK--and more to do with her being Tori Spelling, Reality Show Joke/Tabloid Punching Bag. Ivan Sergei, whose performance as the psycho boyfriend in the original was so much fun, is cast in the more subdued role of a college literature professor.

It should be noted that "Mother, May I...?" is technically proficient, with better acting (notably Leila George, who's sleeping with danger, and Emily Meade, the danger with whom she's sleeping) and better direction by Melanie Aitkenhead (not James Franco, as was reported at one time), than the original. However, the script, by Amber Coney from "the twisted mind of" James Franco, is ho-hum, Franco's mind not nearly twisted enough. At the end of the day, the movie plays like a bland episode of "American Horror Story," with all the gratuitous nudity, over-the-top performances, and bitchy lines that make *that* show fun cut out.

Up the Sandbox

'Sandbox' a Barbra Streisand Film Non-fans Can Appreciate
Barbra Streisand has always been more of a movie star than an actress, which is fine for fans like me but can make her movies difficult for non-fans to enjoy. There are exceptions, of course: "The Main Event," which was just plain insufferable, and "Up the Sandbox," a forgotten gem in the Streisand filmography that even the non-fans can appreciate.

Ironically, Streisand gives her most naturalistic performance in a movie about a housewife who frequently escapes into fantasies, like debating Fidel Castro and joining a band of revolutionaries who blow up the Statue of Liberty. It's also ironic that "Sandbox," the first movie made by Streisand's Barwood Productions, is one of the few times she seems to have checked her ego at the door, more concerned with embodying a character than how she's lit. This was the movie for which she deserved a second Best Actress nomination, even more so than "The Way We Were."

Not only is Streisand's performance more natural, the fantasy elements seem organic in the way director Irvin Kershner introduces them. There are no swirling blurs or harp music, heretofore the usual way filmmakers signified a character was fantasizing. Instead, Margaret does something mundane, like going to her husband's(David Selby) office, but upon seeing he's been chatting with an attractive female colleague decides to voice here suspicions about an affair. The confrontation takes a strange turn and then we learn the scene was all in Margaret's mind. This approach to handling fantasy is so commonplace now that it's even been employed in pornography, but apparently it was enough to confuse audiences when this movie was released with a resounding thud in 1972. (The movie's poorly conceived trailer didn't help.)

Of course, a movie's commercial success has little bearing on its quality and "Up the Sandbox"'s quality is far greater than its box office take. It's not a masterpiece by any stretch — the tone is often spotty and some of the fantasy sequences are a bit silly — but "Up the Sandbox" deserves higher acclaim than it receives. Also appearing in the movie are future sitcom stars Isabel ("The Jeffersons") Sanford as the maid of Margaret's overbearing mother(Jane Hoffman) and Conrad ("Diff'rent Strokes") Bain, as Margaret's bored, chauvinistic gynecologist.

Interior. Leather Bar.

As Fascinating as it is Pointless
I like James Franco as an actor, and he seems like he'd be a cool person to hang out with. It's James Franco the writer/director/artist/poet/musician/provocateur that's a problem for me. Part of it is envy, I'll admit (I wish I had freedom and funding to indulge all MY creative whims), but a larger part of it is I suspect that James Franco the Multifaceted Artist is a total poser.

"Interior. Leather Bar." doesn't dispel my belief that Franco is a poser, but it also re-enforces my belief that he'd be a cool friend. Val Lauren, the actor playing Al Pacino's character from the movie "Cruising," thinks Franco is a cool friend, Franco's involvement the primary reason he's agreed to participate in this project, even as his agent strongly advises him not to (his wife just wants him home in time for dinner). He seems more intrigued by playing a role originated by Pacino than Franco's and co-director Travis Mathews' stated thesis that the leather bars of "Cruising" represent a subculture that's fading away as homosexuals gain greater acceptance in mainstream society. (AIDS might also have had something to do with it but I guess that's too sad. Also: "Cruising" as a gay culture touchstone? Not sure about that.) When Lauren questions James Franco directly about why he thinks the missing 40 minutes from William Friedkin's "Cruising" needs to be explored, Franco says something about needing to confront the world of gay leather bars to challenge fears he has only because he was raised to have them. This seems like something that could be challenged by getting a trial subscription to any one of a number of gay porn sites, or while making all the gay-themed movies he's been a part of ("Milk," "Howl," "The Broken Tower"), but maybe he just wants to be sure he's been thoroughly challenged.

But "Interior. Leather Bar." does more meandering than challenging. Actors, both gay and straight, spend most of their time wondering what's expected of them. Some of wonder if James Franco will be in the movie and if he will get naked (not really and no, respectively). Others wonder just how far they are expected to go. Pretty far, as it turns out: real, non-simulated sex takes place, though it barely makes up five minutes of screen time in the total ten minutes of leather bar footage. Consequently, the movie is labeled porn by some, though I don't think it is. In fact, one sex scene seems realer than most, and you actually sense an emotional connection between the couple involved. Pretty impressive when you consider they've got an audience — including an Oscar-nominated actor — circling them as they get busy on a sofa. It's not a surprise to learn immediately after that the actors are a couple off-screen. Though Lauren seems pretty shell-shocked by the action on set, he compliments the two men, telling them they appear to have a great relationship. For his part, Franco isn't a co-director so much as the project's instigator. Mathews does the bulk of the directing, with Franco shown leaving early, right after watching two dudes have sex. Make of that what you will.

"Interior. Leather Bar." is presented as being the re-creation of the missing 40 minutes from "Cruising," but it's more like a glorified DVD extra accompanying a movie that was never finished. It's strangely fascinating but also frustratingly pointless.


'Empire of the Ants' Not the Nadir of Joan Collins' Career After All
I remember seeing trailers for "Homework" when it was released in 1982, hyping it as an older woman-younger man sex comedy à la "My Tutor," "Private Lessons" or "Class." I didn't want to see it in 1982 but sought it out recently thinking that, if nothing else, it would be fun to watch Joan Collins go into full-on vixen mode and make teen-age boys squirm. And that would be fun were "Homework" made as a Joan Collins vehicle designed to capitalize on/poke fun at her "Dynasty" fame. But it turns out "Homework" was made in 1979, when Collins' career was in a free-fall and she was appearing in movies like "The Stud" and "Empire of the Ants." She may be one of the biggest names in the cast, but not big enough to ensure this turd got distributed… until 1982, when Collins was the queen of prime time.

The actual star of "Homework" is the late Michael Morgan. Morgan, who brings to mind a very young (and less interesting) Owen Wilson, is Tommy, a whiny teen so preoccupied by his virginity that he's failing his classes and needing to see a therapist (Carrie Snodgress, another slumming actress in the cast). Not helping is Sheila (Erin Donovan), the girl to whom Tommy wants to lose his virginity, if he could just get her to stop her obsessive quest to make the swim team. While Sheila swims Tommy and his friend Ralph (Lanny Horn) decide to form a band, The Flies ("The kind on your pants!"). It's the forming of the band, not Tommy getting laid, that is the main driver of "Homework"'s shambling story. Sprinkled throughout the movie are fantasy sequences (the only parts of the movie that appear to be shot in the 1980s) that seem to exist solely to pad the runtime with some extra T&A, using an obvious stand-in for Morgan. Joan Collins plays Sheila's mom, by the way. She spends most of her 15 minutes of screen time reminiscing about her teen years (flashback to the 1950s for more bare breasts!) while her husband takes a shower off camera. A stand-in takes over when Collins' character finally gives in to her awakened desires, a sex scene that would have been anticlimactic, so to speak, even if Collins had done her own nudity. (Though she was not averse to doing nude scenes in other movies, Collins refused to take anything off for "Homework," a choice made because of money rather than modesty, I imagine.)

Despite being totally inept, "Homework" is intermittently entertaining, like a scene in which a class is shown a poorly animated, 1960s-era V.D. scare film. There are also some surprising dark moments, such as when it's revealed that The Flies' drummer is abused by his father. Dan Safran and Maurice Peterson's mess of a screenplay doesn't seem to know which direction to go — teen sex comedy? coming of age dramedy? let's put on a show-style semi-musical? — and director James Beshears only makes things worse. Were this movie a little more tasteless and a lot more memorable it could easily be the "Myra Breckinridge" of teen comedies. Instead, it's a reminder of just how dire things had become for Joan Collins before she joined the cast of "Dynasty."

Vortice mortale

'The Washing Machine' Wears its Dirty Laundry when it Should Take it Off
In first few minutes of "The Washing Machine," Vida (busty Katarzyna Figura) has make up sex with her gangster boyfriend/pimp Yuri (Yorgo Voyagis) in front of an open refrigerator. Watching from the stairs is one of Vida's two sisters she shares the apartment with, Ludmilla (Barbara Ricci). Ludmilla hikes up her nightgown and spreads her legs to give us a perfect view of her white panties. Then she starts playing a triangle (no, that isn't a euphemism), Vida and Yuri seemingly oblivious to her musical accompaniment, until Vida looks over her shoulder to give her sister a knowing smile.

Things get weirder later that night when Ludmilla discovers Yuri's body hacked to pieces and stuffed inside the washing machine (hence the awful English title). Or did she? By the time the police arrive the next morning there is no body, because what's a giallo without a mysteriously disappearing corpse? But Ludmilla and her sisters Vida and Sissy report a murder anyway. Inspector Stacev (Philippe Caroit) dismisses the women as cranks, only to be drawn into conducting an investigation when the sisters contact him separately, alternately trying to seduce him (or flat out forcing themselves on him like Vida does) and tease him with information that might prove Yuri was murdered.

The plot of "The Washing Machine" doesn't withstand close scrutiny and often revelations are made as if screenwriter Luigi Spagnol just thought of them the day of filming (e.g., Ludmilla having a drinking problem, Stacev being into S/M). But with such crazy set pieces as Sissy (Ilaria Borrelli) having sex with Stacev in the middle of a museum while blind students wander around them, who cares?

"The Washing Machine" promises a sleazy good time and almost delivers. Where it disappoints is how it handles its numerous trashy elements. It's not that it goes too far; it often doesn't go far enough. Given that the movie is directed by Ruggero Deodato, the man who gave us "Cannibal Holocaust," it's downright tame. Breasts are exposed every 10 minutes or so, but the numerous sex scenes aren't terribly creative or explicit. The women seldom get totally naked (only Borrelli does full frontal) and the men all have sex completely clothed. There are Shannon Tweed vehicles that push the envelope further than this movie does. Deodato is less restrained with the gory moments, but there are few of those. For me, "The Washing Machine" is summed up in its opening scene: kinky and weird but refusing to take off its underwear.

Into the Night

Elvis Impersonators and Director Cameos Do Not a Memorable Comedy Make
I don't want to make a sweeping generalization and say all movies are doomed the moment an Elvis impersonator is introduced, but it's certainly a warning sign.

In all fairness, Elvis impersonators weren't quite the comedy cliché when "Into the Night" was released that they are now, and even clichés can be funny. Foul-mouthed old women are still comedy gold as far as I'm concerned, and that's been done to death. But the ill-tempered Elvis impersonator in "Into the Night," though well played by Bruce McGill, isn't as funny as he's meant to be. Ditto when Jeff Goldblum and Michelle Pfeiffer take his car, a garish '59 Cadillac with "The King Lives" inscribed on its sides in big gold letters. Nor is it all that funny when members of an Iranian hit squad (featuring "Night"'s director John Landis) spot Goldblum while being fitted for suits and charge out into the street sans pants. I'm sure it was meant to be, but it falls flat. That pretty much sums up the bulk of "Into the Night": it was meant to be funny, but somehow misses the mark.

Most of the humor seems to be of the "inside joke" variety—inside the industry, that is. Though Landis has a few noteworthy actors (Dan Aykroyd, Irene Papas, Richard Farnsworth, Kathryn Harrold) and singers (David Bowie, Carl Perkins) in cameos and bit parts, most of the "special appearances" are from directors: David Cronenberg, Roger Vadim, Paul Mazursky, Amy Heckerling, Paul Bartel, Don Siegel, Jim Henson, Jonathan Lynn and, of course, Landis himself. Make-up artist Rick Baker and screenwriter Waldo Salt also have cameos. Bartel and Mazursky had acted before (though Mazursky is obviously out of practice), so their casting isn't that far-fetched, and Vadim is actually good in his role as one of the villains trying to get some stolen jewels from Pfeiffer. But what's the value of casting writer-director Lawrence Kasdan in a role like Detective #2 other than to amuse industry insiders?

Landis is so preoccupied with putting directors in bit parts that leads Goldblum and Pfeiffer are left to fend for themselves. Goldblum, as a depressed insomniac, is appropriately low key. If only he had better lines. Pfeiffer, in what seems like an early prototype for "the Cameron Diaz Role," elicited a few chuckles from me, though I think her nude scene will likely leave a more lasting impression on viewers — straight men and lesbians, specifically — than her performance. That's still a more lasting impression than the entire movie leaves.

I Melt with You

'Husbands' Meets 'Less than Zero,' only not That Interesting
I watched "I Melt with You" right after I watched "Husbands." On the surface the movies have a lot of similarities, both featuring middle-aged men at a crossroads in their lives, overindulging their Ids in a desperate attempt to relive the good times they left behind when they became responsible adults. But the movies have a lot of differences, too, the chief one being that "Husbands" was written and directed by the acclaimed John Cassavetes; "I Melt with You" was decidedly not.

In "I Melt with You," four friends, all age 44, gather at a rented mansion in Big Sur for their annual reunion. Richard (an over-the-top Thomas Jane) is a failed novelist now teaching high school English; Jonathan (Rob Lowe) is a doctor/drug dealer; Ron (Jeremy Piven) is a money manager dodging the SEC; and Tim (Christian McKay), in what just as easily could have been the "token black friend" role, is defined by his homosexuality and thoughtful demeanor so I guess we don't have to know what he does for a living. Upon the guys' arrival at the vacation manse — which, I should mention, seems more within the actors' price range, not their characters' — the movie becomes "Less than Zero: The Reunion." Their week proceeds thusly:

Get drunk and do coke.

Drink some more and do more coke, plus pop some of those pills that Jonathan brought.

Do donuts in Richard's Porsche while snorting coke.

Do still more coke.

Splash naked in the ocean.

Get drunk and do coke, with some pills to mellow things out.

More cocaine!

Go fishing to come down. Say things like real love "made every day anointed."

Got any more cocaine?

This goes on FOR AN HOUR. No matter how artful director Mark Pellington's camera angles are, no matter how beautiful the lighting, no matter how cool the soundtrack, watching Jane, Lowe, Piven and McKay Hoover up mountains of cocaine and talk about p---y hair gets real tedious real quick. In real life if these guys ingested as much drugs and alcohol as they do in this movie they'd be in an emergency room by the second day of their gathering — or dead. And given how insufferable these guys are we wish they would die. Someone does eventually, though not of an accidental overdose, and when that happens the movie goes from tedious to stupid. This is where I should bring up that Carla Gugino is in this too, as a cop/deus ex machina, but I'm betting she wouldn't be offended if you forgot she's part of this movie.

I didn't exactly like "Husbands" — I thought parts were better than the whole — but I appreciated what Cassavetes was trying to do, not to mention it features some strong acting. There's little to appreciate about "I Melt with You," beyond a good soundtrack and some beautiful cinematography. No, wait — there is one other thing I appreciated about "I Melt with You": after I watched it I had a much higher opinion of "Husbands" — and "Less than Zero."

Ten Violent Women

'10 Violent Women' so Bad it's—Well, Really, it's Just Horrible
There are plenty of directors who could make a crime comedy/women in prison movie as bad as "10 Violent Women," but only Ted V. Mikels could make it a chore to watch.

The titular women (initially eight, not 10) are working as gold miners (seriously) at the movie's opening, but when the one man on the crew detonates some dynamite and almost kills one of the women, they decide, naturally, to turn to crime—"with class"—for easy money. So they rob a jewelry store, though for all their talk of wanting easy money their plan is unnecessarily complex, involving decoys, disguises and one working on the inside (I think; the storytelling is only slightly less murky than the lighting). Usually when robberies have such elaborate set-ups the goal is to make off with the loot without the victim realizing she or he has been ripped off until the thieves are long gone. But apparently that's too stealthy for our violent women, so they end up holding the store owner up at gunpoint anyway, taking his "assistant" (who may—or may not—be one of the violent women) hostage. They ditch their wigs and stolen limo in an alley then, after stopping in a park for a lame water gun fight, our women head for Vegas to fence the stolen goods. Sheila (Sally Alice Gamble) is the one who seems to have some connections, in that she knows a guy who sorta knows another guy, so she arranges to sell the stolen jewels to Leo (Mr. Mikels himself, making a much better impression as an actor than director). When Leo tries to pay the women in bags of cocaine, they attack him and leave with the jewels and cocaine—but not before Sheila finishes him off by stomping her high heeled shoe into his chest.

Besides being the movie's high point, the death by high heels scene is the demarcation line when "10 Violent Women" goes from "so bad it might actually be kind of fun" to "Oh, God, when will this thing be over?" Sheila is the older one of the group (one online reviewer accurately described her as looking like Mrs. Roper on "Three's Company") but she's not the smartest. After getting blitzed on tequila, she approaches two men in a bar and asks if they'd be interested in buying the coke, even though it's so obvious they're cops they might as well be in uniform. In short order: Sheila is killed when resisting arrest, three more girls escape and the remaining four end up in prison, where they join forces with two inmates (so I guess it does add up to 10 violent women after all). The prison sequence should be where we find the movie's moneyshots. But in "10 Violent Women," it's when it becomes a tedious bore, skimping on all the WIP staples: nudity, sex and violence. Only Georgia Morgan as the obligatory sadistic lesbian warden makes much of an impression. A mature woman with a blond pompadour, dragon lady nails and a cigarette-cured rasp, Morgan delivers the movie's best performance and would have been a perfect addition to John Waters' stable of actors. Unfortunately for her, "10 Violent Women" is Morgan's only movie.

Predictably the girls escape, their plan so easily executed you kind of wonder why no one tried breaking out sooner. The movie ends as stupidly as it began, with a twist that's only slightly less ludicrous than a group of women dressed as "Charlie's Angels" rejects working as gold miners in the 1970s.

It wouldn't have taken much to make "10 Violent Women" watchable: replacing a few members of the cast, if not for acting ability then for physical attributes (most of the women are fairly average looking); better lighting (or even just lighting); and more—a lot more—sex, nudity and violence. Some character development and imaginative storytelling would be a nice touch, too. Instead, "10 Violent Women" is a slog, its primary redeeming feature being retroactively making Mikels' earlier work ("Girl in Gold Boots," "The Doll Squad") seem artfully crafted by comparison.

Party Girl

A Film Noir/Romance/Non-Musical Musical Set in a 1930s that Looks Like the 1950s
I wasn't surprised to read that director Nicholas Ray was allowed little creative control of "Party Girl." His sensibilities peek through here and there, but it's more of a MGM film than Nicholas Ray's. The movie is set in the 1930s, but it looks like the 1950s. It's been called a film noir, but it looks like a musical-a musical with no music, though leading lady Cyd Charisse (the titular party girl Vicki) gets a couple dance numbers. A large portion of the movie bogs down on Charisse's relationship with a reluctant mob lawyer (Robert Taylor), at which point "Party Girl" turns into a romantic melodrama. Then in the final act it once again becomes a crime film.

"Party Girl" is fairly gripping when it focuses on its seedier elements - some of the violence is startlingly bloody for its day - but it's hampered by the tonal shifts. The script, as other reviewers have pointed out, has more than a few ludicrous moments, like a "miracle" surgery and some unrealistic beliefs about how the justice system operates. The acting is fairly solid, especially by Taylor and Lee J. Cobb, as mob boss Rico Angelo. John Ireland and Corey Allen also make strong impressions in their roles as sleazy, hot-tempered hoods. For me, the weakest performance is from Charisse. She's beautiful and she's got the legs, but I found her performance a little stilted (according to a review by critic Glenn Erickson, Charisse resisted being directed by Ray). I kept thinking if you dropped the dancing, Ida Lupino or Ray's ex Gloria Grahame would've been more interesting choices for the role of Vicki (though understandably there are reasons why Grahame would never be hired). All and all, "Party Girl" is notable for some effective scenes and performances, but it's one of Nicholas Ray's lesser films.

Tropical Heat

Gives Maryam D'Abo an Opportunity to Feel Like Meryl Streep, at Least
After her maharajah husband is stomped to death by an elephant, Beverly (Maryam D'Abo) goes to Los Angeles to file a $5 million life insurance claim. The insurance adjusters are suspicious (though Beverly should be suspicious of the insurance company given that it appears to do business out of a hotel conference room) and hire P.I. Gravis (Rick Rossovich) to follow Beverly back to India and investigate. Naturally, Beverly and Gravis fall in lust with each other, and naturally, things aren't what they appear. The daughter of the maharajah's elephant trainer (busty Asha Siewkumar) arouses Gravis' suspicions, among other things, but can they uncover the truth before they both end up dead?

It's not every erotic thriller that has a death by elephant at its core, so for that reason alone "Tropical Heat" sets itself apart from other movies in its genre. The India setting is another aspect that makes this direct-to-video thriller unique. But apart from the killer elephant and exotic locale, there's not much in "Tropical Heat" that hasn't been seen before, and that includes D'Abo nude. The movie is further hindered by dialog that sounds as if it was lifted from a Hindi-to-English phrase book and production values reminiscent of a 1980s porn video (albeit one of the higher quality porn videos). D'Abo is a mediocre actress but she's Meryl Streep in comparison to the rest of the cast, whose acting ranges from almost passable (Rossovich, Siewkumar) to second-grader-in-a-school-play (Govind Rao as the coroner; Brian Tracy as head of the insurance company). A call out to Lee Anne Beaman, as a sexy insurance adjuster, whose performance suggests she learned her craft doing ads for singles hotlines on late night TV.

When it comes to the erotic part of this genre exercise, "Tropical Heat" mostly delivers, though director Jag Mundhra has made sexier—and certainly better—movies. Much of the softcore action looks like it would be better appreciated as a series of still photos, which might have been enough for 1993 but isn't likely to satisfy audiences in the Internet age. If you must see any of the leads—D'Abo, Rossovich, Beaman, Siewkumar—nude, "Tropical Heat" is the movie for you. Otherwise, these tropics are only lukewarm.

Cold Sweat

Of All the Shannon Tweed Movies, "Cold Sweat" is One of Them
Though she gets third billing, "Cold Sweat" is unmistakably a Shannon Tweed movie—so much so that the generic title could just as well be changed to "Yet Another Shannon Tweed Erotic Thriller." At first, though, it appears to be the story of a hit man (Ben Cross) wrestling with his career choice. Sure, killing people for cash enables him to provide all the comforts of suburbia his family enjoys, but he's lately become haunted by one of his victims (spunky Lenore Zann), who seems to appear whenever he wants to put some lovin' on his wife. Though he wants to take a break, he agrees to one last hit, arranged by a rollerblading drug dealer (Adam Baldwin) for one of his clients, a floundering businessman (Dave Thomas). Tweed is the businessman's wife, and she's not only banging Baldwin, but also Thomas's business partner (Henry Czerny). It should be noted that in this movie, the impotent hit man is the good guy.

"Cold Sweat"'s story offers enough potential that in more ambitious hands it could be a pretty effective thriller—possibly even a good one—but since it's a Shannon Tweed movie screenwriter Richard Beattie and director Gail Harvey are only interested in fulfilling the bare requirements of such an endeavor. Viewers get an appetizer of those bare requirements in the form of Zann as Cross watches her and her boss go at it, the amorous couple seemingly oblivious to the fact that the office in which they're rutting is essentially a big glass cube. But it's Tweed's body that's "Cold Sweat"'s raison d'être, and the movie soon gets down to the business of displaying it when Tweed takes on Czerny (who's got a better body than one might expect) and then Baldwin within the same day--though not at the same time--in some lively, hard-R sex scenes. While these scenes are titillating, they're probably only going to get people in the mood to surf the Web for some of the hardcore stuff. In short, the sex scenes aren't hot enough to make viewers forgive the movie's mediocrity. However, if fans of Baldwin, who went on to become a member of the Whedonverse in "Firefly" and "Angel," and Czerny, currently in the prime time soap "Revenge," are curious to see *more* of the actors, as it were, this is the movie to watch.

For what it's worth, the acting is OK. Tweed isn't a great actress but she's better than she's given credit for, a fact no doubt attributable to her starring in cheap direct-to-video erotic thrillers like this one. Baldwin, Czerny and Cross—whom I suspect spent his days on the set of this movie staring forlornly into the distance, mumbling: "A decade ago I was the star of 'Chariots of Fire'…"—are all adequate in their roles, no more. Standing out like a sore thumb is Thomas, who is not only unable to make us forget his "SCTV" past, but unwilling to try, turning his role as the heavy into a cartoon. But I guess Thomas' hammy performance doesn't really matter. After all, it's only a Shannon Tweed movie.

Action Jackson

Makes Up in Entertainment Value what it Lacks in Quality
It's at first hard to tell if "Action Jackson" is oblivious to its own ridiculousness or playing up to it, but when Carl Weathers — the titular Jackson — chases a speeding cab on foot and not only catches up with it but actually runs alongside it, I think it's safe to say the filmmakers are well aware of the movie's stupidity. Sure, the plot is routine, the motivations laughable, the one-liners groan inducing, but you get plenty of fist fights, gun fights, car chases, explosions, assassins with near-supernatural abilities (until they meet "Action," of course), and flaming bodies falling from a office towers. Plus: boobies! And d--k jokes. Lots and lots of those. A few highlights: After a cop boasts about his sexual exploits his partner calls b.s., saying "They ought to call your place the House of Whacks." After rehearsing a song, Vanity says to her sugar daddy Peter Dellaplane (Craig T. Nelson), "I expected a standing ovation." The seated Nelson says: "You're getting one."

The story is pretty standard stuff to wrap around explosions and car chases: auto union bigwigs are being bumped off in Detroit, and detective Jericho "Action" Jackson is pretty sure auto magnate Peter Dellaplane is behind it. After overhearing an incriminating phone call Dellaplane's wife (Sharon Stone in her starlet days) runs to Jackson with her concerns, a move that puts a serious crimp in her marriage. Not that the marriage is all that strong, since Dellaplane has Vanity as a mistress. Soon thereafter, Jackson is breaking down Vanity's dressing room door and enlisting her help to get Dellaplane. More explosions and shootouts soon follow, as well as burning bodies, testicles in a jar, racial stereotypes, and a poorly disguised Pontiac Fiero (standing in for Dellaplane's flagship vehicle, the Halley) charging up the stairs of Dellaplane's mansion.

Weathers and Nelson appear to be having the time of their lives, though Nelson is the stronger actor. I prefer Sharon Stone as a manipulative vamp a la "Basic Instinct," but she does a good job with her role as Dellaplane's naïve trophy wife. She's expected only to look pretty, show some skin and act scared, pretty much in that order. Former Prince protégé Vanity was at what turned out to be the peak of her career when she made "Action Jackson," and while she made favorable impressions in the thriller "52 Pick-Up" and the martial arts parody/comedy "The Last Dragon," she's only so-so as the heroin-addicted singer Sydney Ash. She acquits herself well in the few scenes requiring her to be sexy (more boobies!) or tough, and she actually does some of her better singing here, but otherwise her performance is fairly weak. Not helping is a script that tries to force a romance between her and Weathers when there's just no spark between them. Also of note: I've never done heroin, but from what I've read the withdrawal symptoms are pretty excruciating, yet Vanity's character seems to kick the habit in a few hours after suffering no more than a really persistent headache.

Bad as it is, "Action Jackson" ends up being pretty entertaining, only despite its self awareness, not because of it. The people behind "Action Jackson" may be smart enough to know how dumb their movie is, but don't realize that just because they're laughing at their own expense doesn't mean they aren't the butt of the joke.

Concorde Affaire '79

As Cheap, Cheesy Italian-made Action Flicks Go, 'Concorde Affaire '79' isn't Half Bad
It's tempting to call "Concorde Affaire '79" (a.k.a. "Concorde Affair") a rip-off since its title is so close to the hilariously awful "The Concorde: Airport '79," but beyond that the only similarities the movies share is the crashing of their titular plane. They're not even in the same genre, with the Italian-made "Concorde Affaire '79 " more of an action thriller than a disaster movie.

The action kicks off right away when an airline CEO (a bored Joseph Cotten) orders the sabotage a rival's Concorde test flight, causing it to crash in the Caribbean Sea, killing everyone on board. News coverage is routine, but then New York-based freelance journalist Moses Brody (James Franciscus) gets a scoop from his ex-wife—who just happens to run a restaurant in the Antilles—and though she's irritatingly vague he heads to the islands anyway. By the time he arrives his ex is dead and there are thugs trying to kill him. The plot thickens from there, with Brody discovering that there was one survivor of that Concorde crash: Jean (Mimsy Farmer), a flight attendant (because who else was going to get the pilots' coffee?) now being held captive by gangsters who are using her to blackmail Cotten—who pays them as part of "the cost of doing business." Can Brody rescue Jean and escape the gangsters in time to thwart Cotten's sabotage of another Concorde flight out of the U.K.?

Though hardly a great movie, "Concorde Affaire '79" is far better than it has any right to be (and 10 times better than "The Concorde: Airport '79," as other reviewers have noted). It certainly has way more plot than expected though the storytelling is a bit rickety at times. Case in point is Brody acting surprised to discover the exact location of the Concorde wreckage as if this were some big secret. And apparently it is, as it's revealed the gangsters are actually Cotten's henchmen, sent to destroy all traces of the wreckage. Guess the FAA didn't waste too much time investigating plane crashes in the late '70s. Just as rickety is the way director Ruggero ("Cannibal Holocaust") Deodato relies on stock footage for all scenes showing the Concorde in flight. Even worse are the unconvincing miniatures used to represent the plane at the bottom of the sea. Otherwise, Deodato does a competent job in the director's chair, seldom letting the movie's pace drop below a cruising altitude. Incidentally, though helmed by a man known for including liberal amounts of gore, sex and nudity in his other movies, "Concorde Affaire '79" is strictly PG-13, with no sex, little gore and even less skin (Franciscus wearing a Speedo is as close as you'll get to nudity, though at times Farmer's billowing white blouse barely covers her breasts).

Franciscus brings the swagger and rugged charisma a role such as Brody requires (think of him as a half-priced Steve McQueen, or a younger, cheaper Charlton Heston), his performance really elevating the movie's entertainment value. Cotten and Edmund Purdom do little more than wait for their paychecks. Van Johnson, another Hollywood legend, at least invests a little effort in his small part as the pilot of that second doomed Concorde flight. Farmer is under-utilized in a damsel-in-distress role, though she does get to freak out a couple times ("I… CAN'T REMEMBER!"). It also appears Farmer wasn't available for all her scenes as an obvious stand-in is used for Jean's first scenes aboard the test flight. Also look for '70s porn stars Michael Gaunt, Jake Teague and Robert Kerman (a.k.a. R. Bolla) as London air traffic controllers, speaking with dubbed English accents.


A Filmed Rough Draft
"Attraction" has the trappings of a sleazy erotic thriller, but writer-director Russell DeGrazier has loftier goals. He also has a good cast of B-list actors and a bag of fancy camera tricks. What he doesn't have is a fully realized script. "Attraction" has an interesting premise that, had more time been spent on the script in the development stage, might have actually worked. Instead, the movie plays like a filmed rough draft.

Matthew ("Gossip Girl") Settle plays, er, Matthew, an advice columnist for a weekly tabloid as well as host of a call-in radio show, who spends his copious amounts of free time stalking his ex-girlfriend Liz (Gretchen Mol). After a violent confrontation at Liz's apartment, Matthew goes to a bar where he just happens to bump into Liz's good friend, Corey (Samantha Mathis), a struggling actress. More interested in upsetting Liz than pursuing a new relationship, Matt seduces Corey. Meanwhile, Matthew's editor Garrett (Tom Everett Scott) has hooked up with Liz and decides to stalk Matthew to see how he likes it (hint: he doesn't). Good thing Matt does most of his work at home, otherwise all this stalking might create some problems at the workplace.

Things ultimately go too far, as things often do in these sort of movies, but by then we've stopped caring. After a third act reveal that's more WTF? than OMG!, "Attraction" rushes to a finish that leaves you shrugging your shoulders.

Many of the problems with "Attraction" stem from the fact that most of the characters are fairly uninteresting. Only Corey seems remotely likable, and she's really little more than a pawn in a larger game. Another large problem, I think, is telling the story mostly from Matt's point of view, rendering him less a threat than an annoyance. If told more from Liz's perspective—provided Liz was made a more compelling character—"Attraction" could've packed more of a punch. Further dulling the movie's impact are scenes of Matthew explaining his feelings to an off-camera interviewer. Supposedly other character interviews were meant to be included as well but were cut for pacing; if only Matthew's interviews had joined the others on the cutting room floor.

Ultimately, about the only reason to watch this movie would be to see Settle and Mathis naked, but thanks to the Internet even celebrity nudity is not reason enough to sit through "Attraction."

Lord Shango

Better than Expected, but Falls Short of Potential
If you go into "Lord Shango" expecting blaxploitation horror schlock along the lines of "Blacula" or "Sugar Hill," you're going to be disappointed. Once you adjust your expectations, however, you'll be pleasantly surprised.

The movie opens with the baptism ceremony of Billie (Avis McCarther), the teen-age daughter of Jenny (Marlene Clark). Interrupting the ceremony is Billie's voodoo-practicing boyfriend. A struggle ensues with the church elders, who attempt to forcibly baptize the boyfriend, "accidentally" drowning him. Jenny doesn't entirely believe the drowning was accidental, even though her boyfriend Memphis (Wally Taylor) is one of the church elders involved. While Jenny is at her waitress job, Billie is seemingly possessed, writhing on her bed and beckoning for Memphis. Yeah, we know where this going, and once Jenny discovers what went on all hell breaks loose. Billie, ashamed, runs away, while Memphis begs for Jenny's and God's forgiveness. God may forgive, but Jenny doesn't, renouncing Christianity in favor of voodoo, using its rituals to find her daughter and get revenge.

"Lord Shango" actually has a lot in common with "Ganja & Hess," which also starred Clark. Like that movie, "Shango" seems better suited for the art-house than grindhouse. Many of the supernatural elements are implied, and, in some instances, may not be supernatural at all. Fanning the flames is a character named Jabo (Lawrence Cook), the local drunk who may—or may not—be Lord Shango reincarnate. If he has any special power, it's his ability to manipulate by suggesting that some characters face dire consequences, as he does when he plays on Memphis' paranoia, or greater rewards, as he does with Jenny, who seems convinced she knows his "real" identity.

But while "Lord Shango" is far more intelligent than one might expect, it doesn't entirely live up to its potential. For starters, this movie often drowns in its own soundtrack, with music—be it gospel, tribal drums, funk, jazz—blaring in practically EVERY scene, whether it's necessary or not. It's frequently difficult to hear the dialog, and there are many times when the music deflates the tension. The movie could also benefit from some tighter editing (you have to sit through an awful lot of gospel singing and voodoo drumming before the story really kicks into gear) and a more satisfying ending. Having raised our expectations, screenwriter Paul Carter Harrison and director Ray Marsh can't quite meet them.

It's no "Ganja & Hess," but "Lord Shango" is still worth seeking out. The acting, for the most part, is fairly strong, and the story is pretty compelling, even if it's clumsily told.

Hot Ice

Stephen Apostolof's Heist Comedy About as Good as You'd Expect
In the opening of "Hot Ice," a detective arrests Victor (Michael Thayer before he was Max Thayer, and before he put some meat on his bones) and his wife Charlotte (Patti Kelly, all blond hair, toothy smiles and freckled cleavage) for selling phony bonds, only to be foiled when he's pushed into a closet. Charlotte secures the detective inside the closet by placing a folding director's chair beneath the doorknob. Not only is the chair barely sturdy enough for sitting in, it's about five inches below the doorknob. But since this is a Stephen Apostolof (a.k.a. A.C. Stephen) movie, the detective is trapped long enough for our crooks to hop on a plane and escape to the Matterhorn Ski Resort, where "rock star" Diamond Jim is performing. Diamond Jim is called such because he sings while draped in REAL diamonds (he's also what a "Benny & Joon" sequel might look like starring Eric Balfour, but that's beside the point). Victor and Charlotte get wind of the real diamonds—a detail that Diamond Jim's manager is only too happy to share with anyone within earshot—and they know they have to get their hands on that "ice." Though the thieving couple could just drill through the door of the resort's plywood safe, Victor and Charlotte instead hatch a plan that involves sending the resort's manager (Apostolof stock player Forman Shane, billed as Harvey Shain here) on a false errand and Victor seducing the manager's wife, who will have sex with any man except her husband. Hilarity ensues.

Well, it's supposed to. None of director Apostolof's movies have a reputation for being any good, but they are known for having lots of T&A. So what "Hot Ice" lacks in laughs should be more than compensated with lots of nudity and simulated sex, right? As much as that would help, no. Despite having plenty of sexual situations, most involving the manager's wife Danielle (Teresa Parker, who should have been told those facial expressions were neither sexy nor cute), as well as some shapely '70s babes (Mariwin Roberts, Linda Gildersleeve) and popular adult performers (Rick Cassidy, Ric Lutze) in the cast, "Hot Ice" is meant to be an R-rated comedy. In lieu of simulated humping we get Forman Shane chewing scenery like a third rate Harvey Korman and lots of ski footage re-purposed from Apostolof's "The Snow Bunnies." During the movie's few sex scenes Apostolof goes out of his way not to expose too much flesh, usually by zooming in on the dude's back, though he does throw in a scene of spontaneous topless dancing at a cocktail lounge ("Go ahead—take it off!"), a genuinely funny moment, if only because it's so ridiculous.

Ed Wood, Jr. was a frequent collaborator with Apostolof, co-writing scripts for "Fugitive Girls" and "Drop Out Wife" among others, but Wood is credited only as an assistant director for "Hot Ice." Despite some scenes that suggest otherwise, Apostolof said Wood had no hand in writing the script for this movie. Though Apostolof proves he's just as capable of writing a bad script on his own, Wood's input might have made "Hot Ice" a special brand of terrible.

The Paperboy

Social Commentary or Sweaty Hicksploitation? Lee Daniels Can't Decide
Lee Daniels won acclaim and got a couple Oscar nods for his direction of "Precious." But Daniels also directed the ludicrous "Shadowboxer," and it's largely that Daniels—the one who presented Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding, Jr. as incestuous mother-son(!) contract killers and got Stephen Dorff to go full frontal—who's delivering "The Paperboy." But the other Daniels – the Oscar nominated one—sometimes takes over, and it's this struggle between the two Lee Daniels that proves "The Paperboy"'s undoing.

The two most outrageous scenes of "The Paperboy" have gotten the most attention: prisoner groupie Charlotte (Nicole Kidman) and convicted killer Hillary Von Wetter (John Cusack) masturbating in the prison visitors' room in full view of others, including a visibly aroused reporter played by Matthew McConaughey; and Charlotte peeing on the titular paperboy Jack Jansen (Zac Efron, who's pretty good for what it's worth), albeit for completely non-sexual reasons (still, when you have an Oscar winner peeing on the star of "High School Musical," people are going to talk). These scenes happen in the first half of the movie. From there Daniels' grasps at respectability, devoting a little more time to racism and class divisions, as well as tossing in a bit of homosexuality. But Daniels' movie is just hicksploitation at heart, so when Jack shouts a racial slur at his reporter brother's assistant (David Oyelowo) it seems less a commentary on racial tensions of 1968 Florida and more like audience manipulation. Daniels tries to get things bubbling back over the top on the way to a predictably violent conclusion, but the best he can do are a couple "shocking" revelations, a closet full of dusty sex toys, and a rough sex scene between Cusack and Kidman. (Though Efron is frequently in his underwear and Kidman's Charlotte is often just a breath away from peeling off her panties, when the two characters finally hook up Daniels, in a moment of misplaced restraint, cuts away before any flesh is exposed.) "The Paperboy" got its money shots out of the way early, and now the audience just wants to shower and go to sleep.

Somewhere amidst the masturbation, urination and Zac Efron modeling his tighty whities is the story, but what story? At its beginning "The Paperboy" is about proving Hillary was wrongly convicted of killing a racist sheriff, but then starts meandering in different directions, becoming a series of subplots strung together by periodic outrageousness. Guiding us through it all is the Jansen family housekeeper, played by Macy Gray, who narrates as if she's watching the movie with us. Her guidance doesn't help.

Though the stars all ably handle their roles they don't really salvage the movie. Kidman, Cusack and McConaughey could just as easily been replaced with Sharon Stone, Nicolas Cage and, what the hell, Stephen Dorff. In fact, that alternate cast might have helped, turning "The Paperboy" into campy cult classic like "Shadowboxer" instead of a turgid swamp drama. To borrow a line from Entertainment Weekly's review of "Original Sin," "The Paperboy" would be better if it was worse. Instead, it's just bad.

MARKETING SUGGESTION: "The Paperboy" should be included on one of those budget-priced triple feature disks with Nicolas Cage's "Sonny" and Craig Brewer's "Black Snake Moan."

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