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Featured DVD Review: MGM MOD Wave 16

July 20th, 2012

Mr. Wong in Chinatown - Buy from Amazon
Sixpack Annie - Buy from Amazon
Lisa - Buy from Amazon
Boris & Natasha: The Movie - Buy from Amazon

In June, MGM released their latest wave of MOD titles. MOD, or Made on Demand, has been used to release countless films recently that one could generously describe as third-tier releases. These are films that would probably otherwise be forgotten. For the latest selection, I grabbed some dice and let random chance decide what films I would review (mostly). The lucky films were Mr. Wong in Chinatown, Sixpack Annie, Lisa, and Boris and Natasha: The Movie. (That last film I picked intentionally, because I'm a fan of the original cartoon.) So, were these dice rolls lucky and did I get some good movies to check out? Or should I avoid casinos during craps night?

Mr. Wong in Chinatown - Buy from Amazon

Boris Karloff stars as Mr. James Lee Wong... ugh. Okay, I'm going to forgive the film for casting a white guy in the role of an Asian, because in 1939, this was common place. Hopefully the movie doesn't portray him in a stereotypical way.

The film begins with a lady (Lotus Long) coming to see Mr. Wong. Mr. Wong is a private eye, and a respected one. When she refuses to give her name, she is told to wait in the front hall, but before Mr. Wong can see to her, she is hit by a poisoned dart. She manages to write "Captain J" on a piece of paper before she dies. It's not much to go on. He immediately calls the police, specifically Captain Bill Street (Grant Withers). While they begin to investigate, Roberta 'Bobbie' Logan (Marjorie Reynolds) sneaks into Mr. Wong's place and starts poking around. She's a reporter and is looking for a major scoop. She does prove to be a little useful right away, as she knows who the victim is: The Princess Lin Hwa. She recently came over from China on a boat called Maid of the Orient, whose captained by Captain Jaime. They immediately head to the boat to question the Captain. He says he doesn't know what's going on, but clearly he has something to hide and when the cops leave, he accuses his partner, Jackson, Captain Jackson, of killing the princess, although Jackson seems surprised that the princess is dead.

Mr. Wong and Captain Street go to continue their investigation, leaving Bobbie Logan handcuffed to a chair in Mr. Wong's place. However, she beats them to where the princess' place, only to be knocked unconscious for her trouble. Here they talk to Lin Hwa's Maid / confidant, and a Chinese dwarf (Angelo Rossitto) who also happens to be mute. He is helpful, despite the language barrier, and describes a man who came to the princess's room and ruffled through her papers. He appears to be the same man who knocked out Bobbie. However, he too acts suspiciously immediately after the cops leave.

Mr. Wong goes to a confident, the Tong Chief (Richard Loo) and learns the princess was in America to buy airplanes for her brother in China. The airplanes are needed to fight the Japanese military, which is invading China in the early stages of World War II. Mr. Wong continues to to looking into these matters, interviewing Lin Hwa's banker and eventually Captain Jackson, but the more he looks into things, the more the body count climbs.

Fortunately, while this is a case of Whitewashed Casting, Boris Karloff portrayal of Mr. Wong is actually pretty good. He doesn't come across as a bad stereotype, he doesn't offer any lame fortune cookie sayings, he doesn't speak in broken English with a bad accent. The mystery is well done with plenty of clues and red herrings, although it is a little slow. The side characters are good. I especially like Marjorie Reynolds as Bobbie Logan. Her character isn't a damsel in distress. In fact, her quick thinking saves Mr. Wong at one point. The slow pace prevents the film from reaching its potential, even at 71 minutes long, it feels padded, but it is worth checking out.

The Extras

There are no extras on this DVD, or indeed any of the DVDs on this list.

Sixpack Annie - Buy from Amazon

The film begins in a small town called Titwillow, with Sixpack Annie Bodine (Lindsay Bloom) and friend Mary Lou Carter (Jana Bellan) heading off to work, getting into a race, and nearly running over the local sheriff, Sheriff Waters (Joe Higgins). They work at the diner owned by their Aunt Tess (Danna Hansen). The diner is home to the usual strange crowd, a cheap pratfall, and, oh my god, is that Bruce Boxleitner? I guess movie careers have to start somewhere. Aunt Tess is in trouble. She owes $5,000 to the bank and there's no where she can go for money. I'm not surprised she's in trouble, her only customers are two old men who do nothing but say bad jokes throughout the movie, and a traveling sales man (Stubby Kaye) who is more interested in selling than buying. Annie suggests borrowing it from her sister, Flora (Louisa Moritz), who is living in Miami and doing quite well for herself. Aunt Tess refuses to take charity. That night Annie and Booby Joe have a run-in with the Sheriff, for skinny dipping, who is more interested in marrying Annie than arresting her.

The next day, she and Aunt Tess see the banker, and the situation is dire. They have just seven days to come up with the money, or they will lose the diner. It's desperate times, so Annie and Mary Lou decide to head to Miami to get the money from Flora. It's either that or Annie could marry Sheriff Waters. When they get to Miami, they find out Flora isn't as rich as she let on. She's living in a tiny apartment and is "between sugar daddies", but has a lot of "gentlemen friends". Now Annie needs to find a sugar daddy of her own.

The best things you can say about Sixpack Annie is that its two leads, Lindsay Bloom and Jana Bellan, have a lot of charm. I would like to see them in a movie that is actually good. This film is full of corny jokes, weak plot, sexual innuendos, etc., and it is clearly there to tease more than titillate. Stubby Kaye and several other talented comedians are in the film, slumming it, but even they can't save most of the jokes. This is low expectation cinema aimed at people looking for bad jokes and a little nudity. Maybe that was enough when you were going to the drive-in in the 1970s, but today there are a lot better options for both.

Lisa - Buy from Amazon

The first, and only, film of the four that is currently in our database. Is that a good sign?

The film begins with a man, Richard, lighting a number of candles and pouring some wine. It's not a romantic gesture, as Richard is a serial killer, dubbed the Candlelight Killer because he sets up these romantic scenes, before raping and killing his victims.

We are then introduced to the titular Lisa Holland, a typical high school student. She and her friend, Wendy Marks (Tanya Fenmore), talk about crushes (Lisa is in love with Tom Petty). They dress-up to look a little older than are. Obsessing over older men, they jump in front of a car so they can take a picture of the cute driver. Okay, maybe she's not exactly typical. Her mother, Katherine, runs a florist shop and is, to be blunt, she's over protective. For instance, she won't let Lisa date till she's 16, she doesn't like it when Lisa goes to the store after dark, she tells Lisa to bring mace when she does. As a result, Lisa is determined to break a few more rules. Lisa and Wendy have gotten really good and stalking their crushes by calling local DMVs. Lisa pretends to be an adult whose car has been hit and asks for information on the driver based on the license plate and uses that information to get their names and phone numbers to prank call them. It's a good plan and for the most part it is simply harmless fun.

However, that changes one day when Lisa literally bumps into Richard as he's coming out of the home of his latest victim. Of course Lisa doesn't know who he is or what he does, but after Richard flirts with her a bit, she becomes obsessed with him. Using her usual techniques, she gets his number and begins calling him. At first Richard is a little amused, because now he's the one being stalked, but as the conversations get more personal, he becomes obsessed with Lisa and decides to track her down.

That's about as far as we can go without getting into spoiler territory. I had pretty low expectations going into the movie. After all, most of the MOD releases are pretty weak. However, Lisa isn't a bad movie. It does have a few flaws that hold it back, mainly the pacing. It is quite slow at times, but not in a way that build suspense, which is a problem for a thriller. Also, it's quite tame for a film about a serial killer, so if you are looking for a bloody time, look elsewhere. On the plus side, the writing and acting are better than average for a film like this. Staci Keanan has to carry a lot of the film and is able to be a believable as a teenager, even though her actions are a little on the crazy side. Her character thinks she's smarter and more mature than she really is, which is what gets her into trouble. But while her actions are ill-advised, they are not Teenage Slasher stupid and make sense given what she knows. At one point, she tries to set her mom up on a date, thinking that if her mom is dating, she will also be allowed to date. But who should her mom date? The guy she's been spending a lot of time on the phone with. That kind of action will make the audience go, "No! Don't do that." But not say, "You are so stupid. You deserve to die." The climactic ending is well done and is a good pay-off for a the 80-minute build-up.

Overall, it is solid way to spend an evening.

Boris & Natasha: The Movie - Buy from Amazon

A live action adaptation of the old Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoon, but one that focuses on the famous bad guys, Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale, played by Dave Thomas and Sally Kellerman, respectively. The film begins with a narrator telling us what has happened since the last episode, and since the last episode was in the 1960s, that's a lot. The short run down is that the Cold War is over, but the only nation still fighting is Pottsylvania, which is under the rule of Fearless Leader (Christopher Neame). Fearless Leader has learned of a time-reversal chip created by Professor Anton Paulovitch and has fetched his number one agent to retrieve it, Agent X. Agent X will need a decoy to find Professor Paulovitch, so he won't blow his cover. Someone loyal, but dumb and expendable. Boris and Natasha!

At the moment, Boris and Natasha are in an undisclosed part of the Middle East having just stolen a gem encrusted egg from Colonel Gorda and after a daring, and close escape, they are contacted by the Fearless Leader. Their mission is to pretend to be defectors, go to the United States, and find Professor Paulovitch. Their "escape" from Pottsylvania doesn't go as smoothly as Fearless Leader had hoped, but eventually they make it to the United States. They are put through a number of tests by the head of defections, Sheldon Kaufman, to prove they are genuine. The tests are inconclusive. As he puts it, they are either brilliant, or incredibly stupid. One of his underlings, Willie (Larry Cedar), figures they should let them in the United States, because they might be a useful source of information.

With the first leg of their mission done, they set about their second leg, finding Professor Paulovitch. Boris and Natasha head to Kalishak, an ex-assassin who has turned to selling information. But before they can get to Kalishak, they have to get passed two of the most tenacious of spies, their nosy neighbors, Toots and Harve (John Calvin). When they meet with Kalishak, who is uses his cover as a shoe shiner to meet clandestinely, their reputations have proceeded them... that's not a good thing. Kalishak mocks the pair, but when they ask about the professor, he becomes very serious and tells them they are over their heads. When Boris demands answers, Kalishak, gives him a shoeshine and tells him to search his soul for the answer. Sadly, that's the last thing he says, as he's killed by a potato hand grenade. It takes the pair a day to figure out that what Kalishak meant was, "search your soles". He wrote a clue on the bottom of Boris's shoe.

This clue leads to a photographer, Sal Manelli (Anthony Newley), but before they can meet Sal, Natasha is discovered by José Eber. Don't know who José Eber is? He was a really famous hairstylist when this movie came out. He promises to make Natasha a famous fashion model, which could be a way for her and Boris to meet Sal Manelli, but when Natasha starts to enjoy the fame, it puts her partnership with Boris in jeopardy. However, since Boris never treated her like an equal partner, he's just as guilty of driving her away.

This is a good place to stop the plot synopsis for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the plot kind of loses its way for the next 20 minutes or so. Secondly, when it gets back on track, we really hit unacceptable spoiler territory. Boris & Natasha has a very similar sense of humor to Rocky & Bullwinkle, but it is not quite as funny. The Narrator is spot-on helping move the plot forward while tell numerous jokes. The time-reversal microchip is similar to many of the goofy inventions from the original cartoon. Although it should have had a sillier name, like Hushaboom. And the climactic reveal with nearly every single character in the movie returning for a big surprise twist fits very well with the tone of the cartoon. Also, there's a lot of very funny people in the film, including a trio of SCTV alumni. On the downside, the humor is not quite as witty and the timing is not as sharp. Pacing overall is a little uneven, especially the part with Natasha. Finally, for much of the film, it's too grounded in reality and it lacks the zaniness of the original series. It is funny enough to be worth watching, but I'm still waiting for a Rocky & Bullwinkle movie that really does the cartoon justice. At its best, Boris & Natasha comes very close, certainly much closer than either Dudley Do-Right or The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle. Unfortunately, both of those films bombed, so I don't think we will get another chance for a long, long time.

The Verdict

Of the four films on this list, three are worth checking out. Mr. Wong in Chinatown has pacing issues and probably could have been cut down to a really good episode of a TV show, but the DVD is worth a rental. Sixpack Annie really only has titillation going for it, and quite frankly, you can find enough of that on the internet that you can skip the DVD. Lisa is arguably the best out of the group and the DVD is worth checking out. Boris & Natasha: The Movie is a film with cult appeal for fans of the original cartoon and for some the DVD might be worth picking up. But if you didn't like the original cartoon, this one won't change your mind.

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Filed under: Video Review, Lisa, Boris & Natasha: The Movie, Sixpack Annie, Mr. Wong in Chinatown