Thursday, June 1, 2017

Electric Boogaloo entertainingly looks back at Cannon Films, the Fyre Festival of indie movie studios

Mathilda May does her impression of me halfway through a Blu-ray of an '80s Cannon Films action movie in a scene from the big-budget 1985 Cannon flick Lifeforce.

This is the sixth of 12 or 13 all-new blog posts that are being posted on a monthly basis until this blog's final post in December 2017. It has taken me since January 2016 to finish writing this post about Cannon Films. I don't know why. Writer's block can really fuck you up sometimes. This is why I can't wait to leave this blog behind so that Accidental Star Trek Cosplay will become my only ongoing blog. After December, the only writer's block I'll have to worry about will be the block that keeps trying to prevent me from finishing my novel manuscript.

You've seen MacGruber, right? Now imagine if MacGruber wasn't a comedy. That's basically what an '80s Cannon Films action movie is like.

MacGruber is a Cannon movie played completely straight, except for a couple of big things: the profane update of MacGruber's old theme song (a tune from his days as an SNL character) and the intentionally offbeat dialogue that comes out of the mouths of Val Kilmer, Kristen Wiig and Will Forte, who weepingly delivers the least dignified and most sob-filled monologue in action movie history ("Just join my team. I'll suck your dick!"). Everyone else in MacGruber, whether the actor is Ryan Phillippe or the late Powers Boothe, is interestingly directed by Lonely Island troupe member Jorma Taccone to take the proceedings completely seriously, including even Maya Rudolph, aside from her silly sex noises while her dead character's ghost bangs MacGruber in a cemetary.

Phillippe and Boothe react to MacGruber's pantsless moment of desperation in the military office as if this were Michael Clayton or Spotlight instead of an Inspector Clouseau flick (or any other farce where everyone, including the straight man, gives a big and broad performance). Their underplayed seriousness actually increases the hilarity quotient of MacGruber's abnormal behavior.

Taccone's movie is a terrific parody of the schlocky Cannon house style, from the strange one-liners that sound like they were written by a 57-year-old Israeli movie producer ("Shut your butt!") to the ultraviolent heroes who, in real life, would be locked up in an insane asylum for their psychotic behavior (see MacGruber's "KFBR392" scene). If you took the dour and unintentionally funny 1986 Cannon movie Cobra, which I never watched until I rented it on YouTube a week ago, and you turned it into a comedy about how the behavior of matchstick-chewing supercop Marion Cobretti, the only person in the world who cuts pieces off his slices of pizza with a pair of scissors, actually looks to the world outside the narcissistic-at-the-time brain of Cobra star/screenwriter Sylvester Stallone, it would probably resemble MacGruber.

The first Deadpool flick makes a Cobra reference I wasn't aware of until Outlaw Vern pointed it out (it's the scene when Ryan Reynolds quips about the matchstick between Gina Carano's lips and wonders aloud if she's a Stallone fan). Taccone and Deadpool screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick all clearly watched Cannon movies like Cobra when they were kids, just like how I was subjected to a few Cannon cheapies as an '80s kid.

One of those movies was 1987's Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold, which was one of Cannon's two attempts to update the then-100-year-old Quatermain novels in the wake of Indiana Jones, and I still remember how dreadful the production values in Lost City of Gold were (it should have been called Lost City of Plastic). Currently streamable on Netflix, Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, an Australian-made 2014 documentary directed by Aussie filmmaker Mark Hartley, is the highly entertaining story of why during the '80s and early '90s, a name like Cannon meant it had to be not-so-good. It's hard to dislike any documentary that devotes five minutes to the lambada movie war of 1990.

Cannon was, of course, embroiled in that vicious war over who could first rush into release a movie about a dirty dancing craze from Brazil that was barely sweeping the nation. Nobody won the war between Warner Bros./Cannon's Lambada and Columbia Pictures/21st Century Film Corporation's The Forbidden Dance. The only winners were quippy film critics who got a kick out of tearing apart terrible movies. For five silly minutes, Electric Boogaloo recounts how obsessed Menahem Golan (pronounced "muh-nawk-um go-lawn"), the aforementioned 50-something Israeli movie producer, was with trying to get The Forbidden Dance completed in time for its spring 1990 release date, while Yoram Globus, one of the producers of Lambada, and his collaborators toiled over their rival project. Golan and Globus were not just former business partners who ran Cannon (into the ground). They also happened to be cousins.

But back when the cousins weren't beefing with each other over who had the superior lambada flick, they were famous in the '80s for their unusual skills as hypemen of their own product (they would lure potential financiers by hastily creating poster art for Cannon movies that didn't exist, as part of what the biz likes to call the "pre-sales" period of a film's development). They were also known for their rather questionable skills as producers of B-movies from various genres.

Early '70s Paramount Pictures head honcho Frank Yablans on the difference between Cannon and Miramax in Electric Boogaloo

And that is why we have Sly's crappy Cannon era.

Ghostbusters visual effects mastermind Richard Edlund, discussing the Golan/Globus approach to American film production

Former Cannon music supervisor Richard Kraft on Golan's unreasonable demands

Under the Golan/Globus regime (the cousins weren't actually the founders of Cannon, which was primarily known for the satirical revenge thriller Joe, a surprise box-office hit in 1970, and the Happy Hooker franchise before Golan and Globus bought the company in 1979), Cannon movies were made fast and cheap, with no regard for quality control and often in the worst working conditions, especially for then-ingénues like Cassandra "Elvira" Peterson and Marina Sirtis, who are both interviewed in Electric Boogaloo. If you thought all those stories Sirtis has recounted about the conversations Star Trek: The Next Generation's male producers would have about her "cosmic cheerleader" character in the first few seasons were bad, wait 'til you hear about the appalling (and Trumpian) ways megalomaniacal director Michael Winner mistreated Sirtis on the sets of Cannon movies.

The Golan/Globus approach to film production was to either continually rip off much superior movies or acquire an aging movie franchise from a more respected production company and then, thanks to the cousins' ineptitude, proceed to strip the franchise of everything that made it beloved in the first place. Co-produced by Brett Ratner (his regular editor Mark Helfrich, who edited the original Predator and every Ratner movie since Money Talks, is one of many interviewees who deliver scathing impressions of Golan's over-enthusiastic and thickly accented voice during the doc), Electric Boogaloo paints a vivid portrait of Golan, the more talkative and outgoing cousin, as an Ed Wood-esque buffoon/tragic figure whose company, after a string of box-office hits starring "the Chucks" (Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris), is brought down by his recklessness with money.

The Fyre Festival of indie movie production companies, Cannon was also brought down by the inability of Golan--who claimed to love American-made escapist movies but was clueless about how to make them work whenever he gave himself the task of directing such a movie--to listen to employees who questioned his artistic decisions, as well as his inability to understand why many creative minds hate rushing through the creative process. "I don't think... that [Golan and Globus] really knew what it was like to love something so much that you were patient and took the time and went through the pain of seeing it through draft after draft after draft, admitting to yourself that it might not be right yet," says interviewee Stephen Tolkin, the screenwriter for the pre-Marvel Studios--and much-maligned--1990 version of Captain America, which was produced by Golan after he left Cannon.

Electric Boogaloo is a cautionary tale about the negative effects of both greed and the need to be first (in the theaters with a Sudden Impact ripoff or a lambada movie, that is), especially when those two things take precedence over the patience and cautiousness that usually go into crafting art or being a storyteller. You wish Sony, the Warner Bros.-run DC Extended Universe and Universal's newly christened (but was actually in existence since 2014) Dark Universe brand would have taken notes from Electric Boogaloo while spending extra millions and rushing like mad to compete with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They all want a successful shared universe like the Marvel Studios one, but they keep forgetting about the patience and care that went into building the MCU.

Golan's inability to listen explains certain things like the most malnourished-looking Superman sequel ever, the jarring presence of a homoerotic whipping scene in a sword-and-sorcery flick for kids (director Gary Goddard's 1987 live-action He-Man movie Masters of the Universe) and the famously tone-deaf depictions of futuristic American counterculture ("Menahem's idea of the future is 2025 Tel Aviv," snarks one of the interviewees) during the 1980 musical The Apple, which Golan directed. The deceased Golan--who looks like Patton Oswalt if the comedian wore one of Albert Finney's toupees from his '80s movies (in fact, if someone ever makes a Golan biopic, Oswalt ought to play him)--also directed 1987's Over the Top, another Cannon flick in which Sylvester Stallone juggled duties as lead actor and screenwriter.

The big-budget Over the Top, a misfire that failed to do for arm wrestling what Major League and Field of Dreams would later do for Midwestern baseball in 1989, is a good example of what happens when Sly doesn't have a talented and thoughtful director like Ryan Coogler in his corner. Golan was neither talented nor thoughtful. (But Golan occasionally had an eye for talent. More on that later.)

Cannon action movies are not worth celebrating. They're overly jingoistic, poorly written pieces of shit full of the worst racial stereotypes ("[Michael] Winner took pleasure out of presenting this world where these grimy, mostly minority ghetto characters would be summarily executed by more refined, more middle-to-upper-class characters," recalls interviewee Alex Winter, who played a thug in one of Winner's Death Wish sequels for Cannon before he starred in the Bill & Ted movies), and these actioners from much less enlightened times (craptioners?) are basically paeans to boring white guys who will save us all.

Fortunately, Electric Boogaloo tries not to bullshit and pretend that the typical '80s Cannon movie was full of any artistic value. The delight the fast-paced doc takes in both compiling largely unflattering anecdotes about Cannon and chronicling the studio's ubiquity during the '80s is pretty infectious.

Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold star Cassandra Peterson recalls a moment on the set that could only happen on a Cannon movie set.

Breakin' editor Mark Helfrich scratches his head over The Last American Virgin's really strange health care clinic montage, which needle-dropped U2's "I Will Follow."

Is Ninja III director Sam Firstenberg aware of the '70s "pinky violence" craze that swept Japan, where the audience was totally into the idea of a female ninja, or is he, like his fellow Israelis from Cannon so often were, on the clueless side?

Olivia d'Abo remembers a key Bo Derek scene from the 1984 Cannon flick Bolero, which co-starred d'Abo.

Cannon movies were among the things I was talked into watching on VHS before I started paying attention to what film critics would write, particularly in alt-weeklies, and before I started to determine my own tastes in films and TV and then think things to myself like "Yo, Johnnie To's a master craftsman" or "Damn, Kathryn Bigelow knows how to make a low-budget B-movie look good." When I was a kid, I just settled for whatever my dad brought home from the video store.

Asian immigrant dads don't read movie reviews. They only pay attention to whatever's cheap. Years before my dad retired and started to develop more discerning tastes in DVDs because he now has a little more time to rent them (he's currently obsessed with the box sets of FX's critically acclaimed The Americans), he used to be the kind of shopper who would see a $5.99 sticker on what he thinks is a three-DVD Bruce Lee box set and then buy it without realizing that those three DVDs star Bruce Li or Breeze Loo, not Bruce Lee. That inability to separate crap from quality was also why quite a few Cannon movies wound up in our family's VCR in the '80s.

One of those Cannon movies was 1988's Bloodsport, which my siblings and I first saw in the multiplex instead of on VHS. Electric Boogaloo's lone flaw is that it doesn't contain a segment on Jean-Claude Van Damme's first hit as an action movie lead, which took place after Van Damme's crazy-looking attempt at being a camera hog during the first Breakin' movie (one of the few '80s Cannon flicks that have aged well), an uncredited appearance in Missing in Action and a villainous role in the 1986 New World Pictures flick No Retreat, No Surrender.

Electric Boogaloo so frequently pokes fun at Golan's lack of good taste that you wish it would also poke fun at its own failure to clear any clips from Bloodsport, the reason for Electric Boogaloo's jarring lack of a segment about the movie that turned "Kumite! Kumite!" into a classic martial arts flick chant. It's like if someone made a doc about the history of Universal from 1912 to the present, and the doc never showed any clips from Jaws.

The shadowy organization that currently owns the rights to Bloodsport--and must have charged Mark Hartley and the Electric Boogaloo staff an arm and a sweeping leg for Bloodsport clips--is clearly the same stingy-ass cabal that prevented the producers of Lady Bloodfight, a recent all-female take on Bloodsport, from calling their B-movie Lady Bloodsport. But Electric Boogaloo was able to afford clips from Asian Canadian director Albert Pyun's not-as-well-remembered Cyborg, a post-apocalyptic Van Damme flick that Cannon originally intended to be a Masters of the Universe sequel, so it focuses on Cyborg instead for the Van Damme portion of the story of Cannon's rise and fall.

Jean-Claude Van Damme in Breakin'

Golan discovered Van Damme back when the Belgian competitive kickboxer waited tables in L.A., and he was impressed with his ability to lift his leg behind his head. His belief that he could make a movie star out of Van Damme was a rare thing Golan--the same guy who once declared that Brooke Shields will win an Oscar for her performance in the Cannon flick Sahara--was able to get right.

But the movie that succeeded in getting audiences beyond the martial arts nerd crowd to notice Van Damme's fighting skills (it also succeeded in hypnotizing straight women and gay men with Van Damme's uncovered backside) still wasn't immune to the Golanian incompetence that infected the journeyman directors who worked for Golan and Globus. There's so much shitty ADR during Bloodsport. At one point, the child actor who's playing a younger version of the JCVD character is seen wearing a San Francisco Giants cap and a New York Giants shirt at the same time, which only happens in the movies, especially shitty, gaffe-filled Cannon movies. The hilarious Bloodsport episode of How Did This Get Made? points out a few moments of classic Cannon movie racism, whether it's any of the footage of an African fighter who jumps around like a monkey or a scene where JCVD's blond journalist love interest says to a pair of Asian businessmen, "You know, I know you're here for the Kumite. There's no other reason you could be here."

Worst of all, Bloodsport is another one of those really annoying "white savior who turns out to be better than everyone else in a field dominated by people of color" movies. The 1988 flick is also emblematic of the eternal problem of sports movies that are compelling during the moments of competition and not-so-compelling outside of competition (exhibit A: 1966's Grand Prix).

But when I was in grade school, I enjoyed the fuck out of Bloodsport, even though I knew the quality of the acting during any of the film's scenes outside the ring was straight out of an episode of Kids Incorporated. I had a Pinoy classmate at the time who was similarly fascinated with this little Cannon movie we saw separately--his very Pinoy last name was Jenkins--and Jenkins' greatest skill was a dead-on impression of Bolo Yeung silently shaking his fists and mouthing "Yaaaaaassss!" at the spectators.

I like Bloodsport way much less now because President Agent Orange considers it one of his favorite movies. Bloodsport is his idea of cinematic excellence. This Cannon white savior movie and the racist demagogue deserve each other.

President Skroob always comes off as a poor person's idea of what he thinks the rich people whom he idolizes are like, which is a lot like how the typical '80s Cannon movie was a lower-class Israeli boor's vision of what he assumed America must have been like. The disgust I felt when I recently learned about 70-Year-Old King Joffrey's admiration of Bloodsport is reminiscent of when I found out that Ferris Bueller's Day Off is Dan Quayle's favorite movie, and it ruined my prior enjoyment of Bueller.

The brutal fight scenes are the only part of Bloodsport that still holds up. If Bloodsport had confined its setting to the Kumite (while still giving the audience a few moments to breathe between fights, unlike how Fuckface Von Clownstick stupidly prefers the movie to be nothing but ass-whuppings from start to finish, so he fast-forwards through it) and gotten rid of certain moments of filler, like the footage of Forest Whitaker chasing around Van Damme or the montages that ripped off the montages from Rocky IV (a Stallone movie that's really just one long 90-minute montage occasionally interrupted by exposition and Paulie's robot), Bloodsport might have been an '80s action masterpiece.

Instead, Bloodsport is this weird cross between an R-rated Rocky IV and a Mentos ad, and Cannon movies always look exactly like Mentos ads.

Except for a bunch of epic facial expressions during Bloodsport's martial arts sequences, Van Damme comes off as stilted and somnambulant in his first box-office hit ("He was so fuckable! He was so sexy, and every time his eyes just were dead, I was like, 'Yes! I love this,'" said comedian Nicole Byer during How Did This Get Made?'s Bloodsport episode). This was decades before Mabrouk El Mechri and Peter Hyams stumbled upon the secret to snapping Van Damme out of somnambulism while directing him in, respectively, 2008's offbeat JCVD, Van Damme's most critically acclaimed movie ever (but JCVD isn't his best movie; Universal Soldier: Regeneration is his best movie), and 2014's Enemies Closer: you just have to give Van Damme a bunch of French dialogue to say. Then that's when Van Damme gives a killer and truly alive performance.

While Electric Boogaloo is forced to basically omit Bloodsport from its narrative (the doc awkwardly flashes just a couple of stills from the 1988 hit before moving on to Cyborg), it doesn't ignore Cannon's brief flirtation with the art house crowd. The studio's unexpected art house phase resulted in idiosyncratic and critically acclaimed works by non-schlocky filmmakers like John Cassavetes and Barbet Schroeder and what has to be the best thing to come out of Cannon in the '80s, director Andrei Konchalovsky's Runaway Train, a riveting thriller that, in 1986, was nominated for three Oscars, including Best Actor (Jon Voight) and Best Supporting Actor (Eric Roberts).

Electric Boogaloo may not be able to convince you to stream any one of the trashy Cannon exploitation flicks that revived Charles Bronson's flagging career or any of the studio's Chuck Norris vehicles, but the doc will definitely get you to seek out (or revisit) Runaway Train, thanks to the aid of enticing clips of Runaway Train's visually striking set pieces and archive footage of a positive review from the late Roger Ebert. The 1985 Konchalovsky film features a love-it-or-hate-it Voight performance that won the actor a Golden Globe (an article by The Parallax Review amusingly describes Voight's Runaway Train performance as "Michael Moriarty doing Hamlet in a dentist's chair" and adds that "It's not a good performance, but it's never boring").

Voight's turn in Runaway Train is the kind of performance where he's brilliant when he's not shouting, like when his character listens to the elaborate hopes and dreams of a young convict who idolizes him, and Voight's pitch-perfect grin is a silent combination of "Motherfucker, you don't know shit" and "I was you once" (and then when it's time for Voight to chew the scenery and get shouty, I don't know, man... Voight's weird voice during those shouting matches brings to mind Ren Hoëk when he delivered the "So we gotta beat it before he lets loose the marmosets on us!" monologue). But whether or not the mush-mouthed acting of Angelina Jolie's Trumputo-worshiping dad grates on the nerves, Runaway Train is a forgotten masterpiece that deserves more shine.

Over at Junta Juleil's Culture Shock, Sean Gill astutely describes Runaway Train as "a brutal meld of Taking of Pelham One Two Three and Bridge on the River Kwai that feels like a shiv to the palm."

Konchalovsky and credited screenwriters Djordje Milicevic, Paul Zindel (the same author behind the junior-high lit class staple The Pigman) and Eddie Bunker (an ex-con-turned-actor who was the inspiration for the underworld fixer character Voight portrayed in Heat) took an unproduced Akira Kurosawa screenplay about a pair of escaped convicts trapped on an out-of-control freight train and somehow managed to keep the screenplay from being tainted by Golan and his cousin's worst excesses as B-movie producers. In the role of the sadistic warden who hunts down the fugitives, John P. Ryan even looks exactly like Toshiro Mifune at his most crazy-eyed at certain points in Runaway Train.

The Konchalovsky film also happens to contain the first screen appearance of badass Machete star Danny Trejo, who was a friend of Bunker's since their days in San Quentin together. Trejo, who was on the Runaway Train set because he was the drug counselor to one of the set's PAs, ended up becoming the boxing coach to Roberts during rehearsals for the film's prison boxing sequence. He earned $320 a day for training Roberts, and that's how you know it was a Cannon movie: because, meanwhile, Steve Railsback's rookie stunt double character received $600 for each of his stunts on the set of the WWI movie in The Stunt Man. The future Desperado scene-stealer impressed Konchalovsky so much that he cast him as the Roberts character's opponent in the ring.

Danny Trejo's screen debut in Runaway Train

Runaway Train is loaded with above-average action (or suspense) sequences both in and out of prison, but unlike Bloodsport or, shit, any other Cannon movie, the film's dialogue rarely sounds like it was rewritten by a 55-year-old sabra. Voight's hardened convict character, the protagonist of Runaway Train, is a deeply broken and badly scarred far cry from Bloodsport/Kickboxer-era JCVD and the Chucks (someday, that would be a nice band name: JCVD and the Chucks). The characters those three action heroes played were one-dimensional protagonists who were glamorized and glorified by Cannon and its stable of journeyman directors like J. Lee Thompson. The Voight character, whose nihilistic actions aboard the train are often opposed and questioned by a sensible railroad worker played by Rebecca De Mornay, doesn't get such glamorous treatment from Konchalovsky, Milicevic, Zindel and Bunker in Runaway Train.

Konchalovsky's film is basically a Kurosawa man-against-the-elements drama that was made by the wrong studio. Runaway Train is the type of existentialist drama you'd expect to open with the Toho logo rather than the Cannon one. Voight delivers to Roberts an intense and self-loathing speech about the realities of life outside the prison yard, and it's the point of the movie when you're like, "This was a Cannon movie?"

Electric Boogaloo, unfortunately, spoils the haunting ending of Runaway Train, but it scores points for trying to spread the word about Konchalovsky's atypical Cannon flick. Not every highlight of the doc is related to either Cannon's sordid reputation, which continues to cause people to underestimate the quality of Runaway Train, or Golan's lack of good taste. My favorite non-Golan-related moment in the doc is simply Richard Chamberlain's dramatic sigh while he tries to be simultaneously tactful and honest about what it was like to co-star with Sharon Stone in King Solomon's Mines and Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold.

Stone was hated by everybody on the Zimbabwe sets of the two Quatermain movies, including the South African crew members. When they heard Stone was about to take a milk bath in the bathtub inside her trailer, the South Africans banded together to take a piss in the tub before she went back to her trailer.

The story of pre-1957 MGM is a story of opulence and good filmmaking craft under the studio system (1957 was, by the way, the year when MGM shut down its prestigious animation department after a 20-year run, as well as the year that then-MGM president Joseph Vogel referred to as "the worst collection of pictures in [MGM's] history"). The story of the Shaw Brothers studio is a story of good filmmaking craft on a low budget.

Chamberlain's exasperated sigh makes me realize the story of Cannon is essentially a story of non-stop exasperated sighs from ordinary professionals who just wanted to get their work done while trying to figure out how to not let their workday be ruined by either a prima donna like Stone, a racist and sexist megalomaniac like Michael Winner, a bunch of budget issues or the man who was the cause of a lot of those budget issues, a spirited but totally inept ideas man who's too stubborn to tell himself, "Yeah, maybe that idea of mine's not such a good idea after all." To the former Cannon employees who were interviewed in Electric Boogaloo (during the doc's closing credits, many of them note that Cannon's mistakes inspired them to not repeat those blunders and to make far better movies), that sort of working environment was the worst. But for the rest of us, it makes for a fascinating and constantly funny doc that's a far more enjoyable movie than 98 percent of the movies its subject prolifically shat out.

This was something that had to have been uttered at some point inside a Cannon Films office or on a Cannon movie set.

It took me a year and a half to write the above blog post. Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, which doesn't take a year and a half to watch, is still streamable on Netflix.

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