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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Cult Classics Revisited, Special "Movies Michael Caine Hates" Edition: ASHANTI (1979) and THE ISLAND (1980)




By his own admission, two-time Academy Award winner Michael Caine has done horrible things for money. He was infamously unable to accept in person his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 1986's HANNAH AND HER SISTERS because he was stuck in the Bahamas shooting the atrocious JAWS: THE REVENGE, of which Caine once said "I have never seen it, but by all accounts, it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific." From the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, Caine developed a reputation for being a bit of a sell-out who would do anything if the price was right, thanks largely to junk like THE SWARM (1978), BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1979), THE HAND (1981), JAWS: THE REVENGE (1987), and his over-the-top performance as the villain in director/star Steven Seagal's misfired vanity project ON DEADLY GROUND (1994). But it wasn't all garbage: aside from his HANNAH AND HER SISTERS Oscar win (the first of two), DRESSED TO KILL (1980), EDUCATING RITA (1983), MONA LISA (1986), THE FOURTH PROTOCOL (1987) and THE WHISTLE BLOWER (also 1987) were critical favorites, with EDUCATING RITA getting Caine the third of his six (so far) Oscar nominations.


A never-before-published photo of Michael Caine being offered the
starring roles in ASHANTI and THE ISLAND

Caine said around the mid-1990s that he had enough money and would only be doing quality projects from then on and he's more or less stuck to it (it's interesting that his change in attitude came about after being directed by Seagal), with his Oscar win for THE CIDER HOUSE RULES (1999), an Oscar-nominated starring turn in THE QUIET AMERICAN (2002), his work for Christopher Nolan (the DARK KNIGHT trilogy, THE PRESTIGE, INCEPTION), and his powerful performance in the British vigilante thriller HARRY BROWN (2010).  Caine will be 80 this March and shows no signs of slowing down, and as his work in this year's THE DARK KNIGHT RISES showed, he's as vital a screen presence as he was in ALFIE back in 1966.  A career that spans half a century is bound to have peaks and valleys, but perhaps his 1970s/1980s reputation as a hack actor whose film projects seemed to be dictated primarily by how nice of a working vacation they would provide stems from Caine being so self-deprecating about it.  Really, his hits-to-bombs ratio was no worse than any other busy actor in that period.  Caine has been particularly critical of some of his films between 1978 and 1981, and two films from that era have just been released on Blu-ray:  the 1979 modern-day slave-trading epic ASHANTI, and the high seas horrors of 1980's THE ISLAND.


You know it's a 1970s all-star cast with
the classic "faces in boxes" poster design.
ASHANTI
(Switzerland - 1979)

Directed by Richard Fleischer. Written by Stephen Geller. Cast: Michael Caine, Peter Ustinov, Kabir Bedi, Beverly Johnson, Omar Sharif, Rex Harrison, William Holden, Winston Ntshona, Zia Mohyeddin, Akosua Busia, Eric Pohlmann, Marne Maitland, Johnny Sekka, Jean-Luc Bideau. (R, 117 mins)

At various times, Caine has referred to ASHANTI as either "the worst" or "the third worst" movie he's ever made (he's also cited, apparently depending on his mood, either THE SWARM or 1968's THE MAGUS as his other worsts).  It's really not bad at all, and Caine's feelings about the film may have more to do with its troubled production.  Producer Georges-Alain Vuille fired original director Richard C. Sarafian (VANISHING POINT) at some point during production and replaced him with Richard Fleischer.  Fleischer was an experienced journeyman who had a reputation as a guy who got the job done on time and on budget, and whose long career found him helming films as varied as 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954), FANTASTIC VOYAGE (1966), THE BOSTON STRANGLER (1968), SOYLENT GREEN (1973), MANDINGO (1975), AMITYVILLE 3-D (1983) and RED SONJA (1985), among many others.   Caine stars as Dr. David Linderby, on a humanitarian mission vaccinating villages in remote parts of Africa.  When Linderby's wife and colleague Anansa (Beverly Johnson), who was part of the nearby Ashanti tribe in her childhood, is abducted by nefarious Arab slave dealer Suleiman (Peter Ustinov), he finds the authorities unwilling to intervene. Through a human rights activist (Rex Harrison), Linderby meets up with Malik (Kabir Bedi), whose wife and children were abducted and killed by Suleiman years earlier, and the two are off in hot pursuit of the slave dealer, who is planning on Anansa netting him a retirement-sized payday when he sells her to top client Prince Hassan (Omar Sharif).


ASHANTI was part of the short-lived "slave trading" exploitation craze brought about by the trash classic MANDINGO (I hope that's not what got Fleischer the gig) and its offshoots, like the 1976 sequel DRUM, and the 1978 German ripoff SLAVERS.  The classic TV miniseries ROOTS (1977) gave the subgenre some much-needed respectability and ASHANTI falls somewhere in between.  It has some occasionally lurid moments, such as some gratuitous Johnson nudity and Suleiman's depraved henchman Ansok (Winston Ntshona) having a thing for little boys and being warned by Suleiman to "Be gentle...I'm not into selling damaged goods!" but never ventures into the territory of, say, EMANUELLE AND THE WHITE SLAVE TRADE (1978).  A Swiss production, shot in Kenya, Israel, and Sicily with a mostly Italian crew, ASHANTI looks fantastic on Severin's new Blu-ray, framed at 2.35:1.  The big-name cast seems to be going through the motions, with Caine mostly looking bored, a bloodshot-eyed Harrison mostly looking drunk, and a glassy-eyed Sharif looking like he's been on an all-night bridge jag.  William Holden turns up for two scenes as a mercenary helicopter pilot who agrees to help Linderby and almost instantly gets killed for his trouble.  Ustinov hams it up pretty mercilessly, and only busy Bollywood fixture Bedi (best known as Louis Jourdan's henchman in the 007 film OCTOPUSSY), then a young actor trying to make it big, seems to be fully invested in the film.  There's some signs of the problematic shoot, such as occasionally choppy editing, Johnson sounding dubbed (she was fired about 2/3 of the way through filming), and the filmmakers apparently forgetting about Sharif's character.  The Blu-ray features an interview with Johnson, who seems like a nice lady with many fond memories of the production (pregnant at the time of filming, she named her daughter Anansa after her character) but some of her stories have more than a slight whiff of bullshit, and she too frequently uses the forum to bash her philandering ex-husband.  Michael Melvoin's score sounds like it belongs in a 1979 Aaron Spelling TV show, and Jimmy Chambers' closing credits tune "Don't Lose the Feeling" screams "last call at the Regal Beagle."  While no classic, ASHANTI is never dull, looks great, and at least has some hammy and/or intoxicated actors to keep things lively, and it's hardly the worst thing Caine has done.  ASHANTI opened in the US in April 1979 and flopped, and Caine had his other 1979 dud BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE in theaters just a month later.







THE ISLAND
(US - 1980)

Directed by Michael Ritchie. Written by Peter Benchley. Cast: Michael Caine, David Warner, Angela Punch McGregor, Jeffrey Frank, Frank Middlemass, Colin Jeavons, Don Henderson, Dudley Sutton, Zakes Mokae, Brad Sullivan, Reg Evans. (R, 114 mins)

After BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, Caine was back with more nautical nonsense in the summer of 1980 with THE ISLAND.  Written by JAWS author Peter Benchley, who adapted his novel, and filmed in Antigua and the Bahamas, THE ISLAND has to rank as one of the most batshit major-studio summer releases of the 1980s. Benchley was big business after the game-changing JAWS in 1975, so much so that 1977's THE DEEP became a huge blockbuster--due entirely to Jacqueline Bisset's skimpy swimwear--despite no one liking it (it's boring as hell;  I'm 0-for-3 at trying to make it all the way through--have you ever met a fan of THE DEEP?).  Perhaps anticipating another DEEP-like snoozer, audiences stayed away from THE ISLAND, and coupled with blistering reviews from critics, it ended up being a major box office disappointment and Benchley never again had a novel adapted for the big screen (though BEAST and CREATURE became a pair of TV miniseries).  Nobody associated with THE ISLAND really liked it, but it's developed a huge cult following over the last 30 years.

Caine is NYC journalist Blair Maynard, traveling to Florida with his son Justin (Jeffrey Frank) to investigate reports of disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle (a popular film and TV subject in the late '70s).  Chartering a cargo plane to the distant island of Navidad, the Maynards are eventually abducted by a crazed band of inbred buccaneers led by John David Nau (an anorexic-looking David Warner).  Justin is tortured and brainwashed into believing he's Nau's son, and Maynard is forced to "make the beast with two backs" with fertile buccaneer babe Beth (Angela Punch McGregor) in order to plant the seed for a family tree that actually forks.  The whole thing is as crazy as it sounds and has "cult movie" written all over it.  It's no wonder audiences expecting JAWS soundly rejected it.


Parts of THE ISLAND are so ridiculous that it's easy to mistake it for a comedy at times: huge 1980 Michael Caine glasses;  the over-the-top gore; the utterly berserk machine-gun climax (SPOILER) that has to be seen to be believed;  the completely inappropriate score by Ennio Morricone during grim and violent scenes that's more suited for a grand, swashbuckling adventure;  a guy in super-tight shorts having a kung-fu freakout; gratuitous buccaneer nutsack; stunningly inept day-for-night shots; and one hilariously sloppy shot of Maynard running that's obviously not Caine and no effort seems to have been made to hide it.  Universal had director Michael Ritchie (THE BAD NEWS BEARS, FLETCH) under the gun to get this completed in time for summer 1980 and at times, it's all too obvious.  THE ISLAND is a pretty bad movie, but it's a great bad movie.  Like in a "they really thought this would be a commercial summer hit?!" kind of way.  Every few minutes, something awesome happens thanks largely to a terrific cast of very game British character actors (Frank Middlemass, Colin Jeavons, Dudley Sutton, Reg Evans, and Don Henderson being the standouts) who are having a blast even if Caine isn't.  I don't know how THE ISLAND got made, but I'm glad it did.  This is guilty pleasure insanity at its guiltiest.

Uh...yeah.  Not Michael Caine.  Not even close.

Shout! Factory's Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, part of their new "Scream Factory" horror line, presents the film in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen.  No extras, not even a trailer.  Ritchie died in 2001 and  Benchley in 2006, and they probably knew better than to request an interview with Caine.  But come on...David Warner wasn't available?   It's awesome that THE ISLAND is on Blu-ray, but the backstory of this mind-boggler needs to be told.



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