May 27, 2010

The Naked Cage (1986)

SPRING, 1986. I’m in high school, and three friends and I are deciding on a movie to see at our local mall before heading home. With pickings slim, we opt for an underpromoted women-in-prison flick with an unknown cast: The Naked Cage.

Little did I realize I was buying a ticket to a future installment of Trashterpiece Theatre.


As prison escapee Rita (Christina Whitaker) hitches rides down a quiet two-lane highway, she ends up getting a lift from Willy (John Terlesky), who’s looking for a good time in the stolen car he’s driving. After getting ID’d at a diner by a cop and blowing away the cop and the cook, Rita and Willy hole up in a motel, do some drugs and the horizontal mambo, then plan to rob a bank for getaway money – specifically, the bank where Willy’s estranged wife, the wholesome Michelle (Shari Shattuck), works.

The robbery goes wrong in a hail of gunfire, and ends with Willy, Rita, and Michelle in a violent car crash. Willy is killed, and Michelle is sent to a women’s prison for 3 years because Rita falsely testifies that Michelle was their “inside man” for the attempted heist. As Michelle deals with prison life – including a corrupt (and kinky) warden (Angel Tompkins) and a sleazeball guard named Smiley (Paul Benedict) – someone special is transferred to Michelle’s prison: Rita. And she’s looking to get revenge on Michelle for deliberately crashing their getaway car and sending her back behind bars.


I’ve never been a huge fan of women-in-prison (WIP) films, but they’re a well-followed genre – with books, websites, and blogs dedicated to them. (FYI: Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme’s first film was the 1974 WIP flick Caged Heat.)

Yet even the casual WIP viewer can see that Naked Cage writer/director Paul Nicholas delivers the goods in terms of what these films are known for, and what’s expected of them: Campy dialogue, overdramatic acting, and women-on-women action (in both sex and violence). Yet throughout it all, he also largely succeeds in fleshing out the characters so that we feel (and fear) for the good girls when they’re in danger, and cheer when the bad folks get their comeuppance.

Nicholas also uses plot devices that rise above the WIP genre, including many that rival those of mainstream films (he keeps twists and turns coming at a steady pace). And cinematographer Hal Trussell brings an inventive style to the proceedings with many unique camera angles (the POV of Rita’s return is especially great).

No review of The Naked Cage would be complete without a mention of the tragically delicious ‘80s aspects of the film:
* Rita rocks a cassette Walkman and radical sunglasses while hitchhiking
* The warden’s pleasuredome is awash in neon and Venetian-blind lighting
* There’s more feathered hair than all four of my high school yearbooks

In fact, the soundtrack, lighting, set pieces, and wardrobe all scream late ‘80s cheapie (The Naked Cage was released by the king of ‘80s cheapies, Cannon Films).

You may be shocked – shocked! – to learn that The Naked Cage may not be completely accurate in its portrayal of the criminal justice system. For instance, I don’t think standard women’s prison uniforms in the ‘80s came with the Flashdance off-the-shoulder option, nor do I think they were color-coded based on race (for some reason, the black girls’ uniforms are pink and the white girls’ are blue). And I don’t think that Rita flipping her testimony to the truth (something she promises to do when Michelle has her in a compromising position) would instantly free Michelle.

The Naked Cage is an enjoyable balance of campy sleaziness and solid story structure, with a generous dash of character development. True, it’s exploitative and trashy, but it’s often stylishly executed and well worth watching.

(Unfortunately, The Naked Cage has never had a proper release on DVD. I got my VHS copy on eBay; you can also find sellers on (see below). And with a simple Google search, you’ll find dozens of places where you can buy or download it. Happy hunting, and if I hear of an official DVD release, I’ll post the news here.) UPDATE 10/30/13: The Naked Cage will be available on DVD as part of a 4-movie set from Shout! Factory on December 10. See the Amazon link below.

Where are they now?
  • Shari Shattuck (Michelle) – Following her last acting role in 2000, Shattuck has found a second career as a novelist.
  • Christina Whitaker (Rita) – After a handful of films (including Assault of the Killer Bimbos), Whitaker’s last role was in 1994’s straight-to-video Love Street.
  • John Terlesky (Willy) – Terlesky is now a TV director, recently helming episodes for Army Wives, Castle, and Ugly Betty.
  • Angel Tompkins (Warden) – Tompkins’ last film role was in 1991, but she now does voiceover work and has made several runs for president of the Screen Actors Guild. Earlier in her career, Tompkins often played the sexy bombshell in films like How to Seduce a Woman and The Teacher, and she earned a Golden Globe nod for her role opposite Elliot Gould in 1970’s I Love My Wife.
  • The one Naked Cage actress I thought we’d see more of is Stacey Shaffer, who plays recovering heroin addict Amy. Shaffer brought a significant amount of complexity to a character that, in this kind of film, could have easily been one-dimensional. (Since Naked Cage, Shaffer has done a horror film, bit parts on TV’s Diagnosis Murder, and an acclaimed short film in 2006.)
All screen caps courtesy of Prison Flicks.


Is it suitable for your kids?
Hopefully my above review will already tell you the answer: No. But if you need specific examples:
* Smiley rapes a prisoner and attempts to rape Michelle
* Drug use (cocaine, heroin), including a scene where Willy snorts coke off Rita’s, um, water ices
* The warden gets busy on several occasions (in graphic detail) with a female inmate
* Copious amounts of nudity
* An inmate is smothered to death, and another is electrocuted
* Various beatdowns, shootings, and stabbings, plus an especially nasty scene where an inmate chokes to death on shards of a broken mirror

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
I’m guessing this is one for you to watch alone or with the guys.

The Naked Cage
* Director: Paul Nicholas
* Screenwriter: Paul Nicholas
* Stars: Shari Shattuck, Christina Whitaker, John Terlesky, Angel Tompkins, Paul Benedict, Stacey Shaffer
* MPAA Rating: R (nudity, drug use, profanity, violence)

May 21, 2010

The Spy Next Door (2010)

(The inductee I promised for Trashterpiece Theatre will appear as my next review; I first promised the people behind this film that I’d have a review up by the end of this week.)

IT’S SAFE TO SAY THAT I will never be mistaken for the world’s biggest Jackie Chan fan.

That doesn’t mean I don’t like the man or his movies; I just haven’t seen much of his work. His Shanghai films with Owen Wilson and his Rush Hour trilogy with Chris Tucker passed me by (I’ve been busy raising a family and all that), and I’ve been meaning to get to his supposedly classic Drunken Master films but haven’t done so yet. In fact, my only exposure to Chan on film is his brief cameo in Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon and his completely non-English role in The Cannonball Run, a movie I watched numerous times on HBO as a kid.

Which brings us to Chan’s latest US film (until his Karate Kid remake with Jaden Smith hits theaters next month), The Spy Next Door


Bob Ho (Chan) has been dating his neighbor, single mom Jillian (Amber Valletta) – much to the chagrin of her three kids: 13-year-old Farren (Madeline Carroll), 7-year-old Ian (Will Shadley), and 4-year-old Nora (Alina Foley). They see Bob as a square with an equally lame job as a pen importer. But what Jillian and the kids don’t know is that Bob is actually an international spy, who’s planning to retire after his latest mission, in which he succeeds in capturing Russian baddie Poldark (Magnus Scheving).

When Jillian must leave town to care for her hospitalized father, she puts Bob in charge of her kids – again, much to their chagrin. While the kids are creating all sorts of mayhem to drive Bob crazy, Poldark escapes from custody and plans to destroy the world’s oil supply – causing Bob’s partner at CIA headquarters, Colt (Billy Ray Cyrus) to ask Bob to help with the case for old time’s sake. Bob agrees and tells Colt to send him secret codes linked to Poldark’s oil-destroying formula, but Ian downloads them from Bob's computer to his iPod, thinking they’re files to a rare bootlegged concert. Poldark sends his men to find Bob and the downloaded codes, leaving Bob to run (and fight) for his life, as well as those of the kids.


I find it baffling that The Spy Next Door is not a Disney creation (it was released by Lionsgate), because it feels a great deal like one – as if it could be one of those made-for-Disney-Channel films featuring some of the Mouse House’s up-and-rising tween stars (Ian even makes a Selena Gomez reference).

Much of the dialogue and its delivery are tough to sit through, especially some of the lines coming from the kids. The script (which required three screenwriters) feeds the kids forced jokes with references that no kids their ages would say in real life (especially the overabundance of stilted one-liners given to Shadley; sorry, bud).

Moving from dialogue to dialect: Scheving’s Russian accent for Poldark, as well Katherine Boecher’s as femme fatale Tatiana, are woefully cartoonish. I mean, I half expected Boris and Natasha to show up as co-conspirators.

In terms of the cast: I’m surprised Chan’s struggle with articulate English hasn’t improved in the last 30 years. (Even Schwarzenegger honed his chops over time.) Still, it’s truly amazing to see 55-year-old Chan move during the action sequences (which prompted me to put his two Drunken Master films in my Netflix queue before I began this review). Cyrus does fine as Chan’s sidekick, with his down-home euphemisms and analogies. And Carroll (who’s already an acting veteran at age 14) outperforms Chan and rises above the material on several occasions.

Since my boys are the same age as Ian and Nora, I can appreciate Spy on a certain level. In fact, part of me applauds Bob for putting spy cameras around the house and sticking a tracking device on Nora. And I did laugh at a sequence where Farren and Ian feed Nora spoonfuls of sugar to keep her wired and awake at night in an attempt to drive Bob crazy.

Yet as a dad, I take umbrage with some of the basic, clichéd situations in Spy concerning men and children. Hey, look: It’s a man who can’t cook! And he’s bad with disciplining the kids! It also seems a bit odd that wacky, upbeat music accompanies a scene where Bob loses 4-year-old Nora in a shopping mall. I know this is a comedy, but I defy you to show me a parent who thinks losing their child in a mall would be funny.

Truthfully, I was fighting to stay invested with The Spy Next Door for most of the first hour. But then, a strange thing happened around the 60-minute mark: I realized that the movie wasn’t made for me – it was made for an audience the same age as the kids in the film, or at least the two older ones. Once I used that as a barometer, the rest of Spy became more enjoyable. (The fact that director Brian Levant turns up the action in the third act, highlighting Chan’s degree in ass-kickery, also probably helped.) Yes, I did end up smirking or snickering at a few jokes. And dammit if I didn’t get a little emotionally involved in a scene where the kids may never see Bob again.

I wouldn’t recommend The Spy Next Door as something to watch by yourself or with your significant other. But watch it with the right audience (say, 9- to 12-year-olds), and a fun movie experience could very well take place.

For grown-ups:

For tweens:
Is it suitable for your kids?
The Spy Next Door is rated PG for “action violence and mild rude humor,” a rating which seems appropriate. Here are some examples:
* Gunplay, knifeplay, and fisticuffs
* Mild language (“Don’t B.S. me.”)
* Random name-calling of “nerd,” “geekboy,” and “dork”
* Jokes involving bodily functions and booze (1 each)
* Some mild bullying (resulting in Ian getting a wedgie)
* Poldark sends Tatiana to the kids’ house and demands that there be “no survivors”
* Tatiana spits out teeth after being smacked with a closing door

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
I can’t imagine the appeal The Spy Next Door would have for her as something to watch with you or in her own free time. But like I said, a group viewing with tween-age kids could be fun.

Look, I don't care which one of you did it --
just take down that
butt-ugly painting right now!

The Spy Next Door
* Director: Brian Levant
* Screenwriters: Jonathan Bernstein, James Greer, Gregory Poirier
* Stars: Jackie Chan, Amber Valletta, Billy Ray Cyrus, Magnus Scheving, George Lopez, Madeline Carroll, Will Shadley, Alina Foley
* MPAA Rating: PG (scenes of action violence and mild rude humor)

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May 8, 2010

Is there anybody out there?*

As Alex says in A Clockwork Orange, "appy-polly-lodgies" for the infrequency of reviews.

My new job has been kicking my hind-quarters (and doubled my commute), so it's been tough finding time to watch and review stuff.

However, I promise a new review very soon...a review of a terrific piece of exploitative filmmaking...and the next feature for Trashterpiece Theatre.

* Yes, I used another reference from Pink Floyd: The Wall to acknowledge my lack of reviews. I guess it's because I'm stoked that Roger Waters is touring this fall to play The Wall in its entirety to celebrate its 30th anniversary. Ordered my tickets yesterday, baby!


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