Friday, January 19, 2018

Bequest to the Nation (1973)

          It’s not accurate to say that making historical dramas insulates filmmakers from bad reviews, but it’s obvious that critics sometimes tread gingerly when analyzing posh costume pieces laden with unquestionable thematic weight—one never wishes to find oneself in the position of denigrating a piece for mustiness only to later learn that the piece has earned high marks for illuminating some chapter of the past with which the critic was previously unfamiliar. Conversely, occasional overcompensation is a factor, hence the dismaying tendency of some reviewers to dismiss all historical dramas as cheap ploys for accolades. These realities help contextualize Bequest to the Nation, which was made in the UK and released in America as The Nelson Affair. Despite somewhat lurid subject matter, the picture ticks many familiar costume-drama boxes, from high-wattage casting to lofty dialogue, so it’s plainly catnip for the Masterpiece Theater crowd.
          That does not mean, however, that it’s entirely a stuffed-shirt sort of a picture. Thanks largely to Glenda Jackson’s gleefully overwrought performance, Bequest to the Nation is entertaining and even a bit crass. Moreover, it’s only peripherally a history lesson, since the focus of the narrative is an unusual love story. In sum, Bequest to the Nation neither wholly ratifies nor wholly undercuts presumptions associated with its genre, so giving this one a fair shake requires close inspection. Revisiting historical episodes previously depicted in the Vivien Leigh/Laurence Olivier picture That Hamilton Woman (1941), Bequest to the Nation explores the relationship between Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson (Peter Finch), England’s greatest naval commander of the Napoleonic era, and his extramarital lover, Lady Hamilton (Jackson). Despite considerable scandal, Lord Nelson abandoned his wife and took up residence with Lady Hamilton, granting her a sort of title by default even though she was common.
          At the apex of England’s sea battles with Napoleon’s forces, according to the script by Terence Rattigan (who adapted his own play), Lord Nelson withdrew from military service for an extended idyll with Lady Hamilton because she had grown weary of waiting to hear whether Lord Nelson had died in battle. A duel over Lord Nelson’s soul ensues, with Lady Hamilton arguing for civilian life while a sense of duty to country gnaws at Lord Nelson’s conscience. Woven into the narrative is the question of what status Lord Nelson might be able to offer Lady Hamilton should he die in combat, since she doesn’t have the protection of marriage. As is the norm for most films adapted from plays, Bequest to the Nation is intimate and talky, but effectively so; Finch and costars including Michael Jayston and Anthony Quayle speak beautifully, lending the piece old-fashioned luster, while Jackson achieves something closer to alchemy, blending insouciance, wickedness, and vulnerability into a persuasive characterization.
          Although the dialogue tends toward the pretentious (“England has no need of a saint at this point in history, Master Matcham, but they have great need of a hero”), posh cinematography and scoring by, respectively, Gerry Fisher and Michel Legrand, helps the film unfold smoothly. Better still, the piece concludes on a suite of poignant notes rendered vividly by Jackson. Thus it’s wrong to reject Bequest to the Nation out of hand as some safe museum piece, because it’s made of tougher stuff than that, and yet the idiom of the film has the familiar rigidity of entertainment aspiring to literary heft. The ferociousness with which Jackson channels her character’s vulgarity ameliorates the pictures most off-putting impulses.

Bequest to the Nation: GROOVY

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Pacific Inferno (1979)

The challenge when discussing this abysmal WWII saga isn’t explaining why it’s a bad movie, but picking the best examples to illustrate how it’s a bad movie. Perhaps it’s the way the first seven minutes of this brief action flick almost exclusively comprise stock footage. Or perhaps it’s the way the filmmakers regularly disrupt any sense of 1940s verisimilitude by awkwardly interjecting ’70s soul music, such as Edwin Starr’s furious anthem “War.” Or perhaps it’s the way star Jim Brown frequently slips into anachronistic dialogue straight out of a low-rent blaxploitation joint, as when his enlisted-man character berates a racist superior officer thusly: “Now you wait a minute, my man—you do whatever you want to me when we get outta here, but until then, don’t mess with my life!” Set and shot in the Philippines, the discombobulated and dull Pacific Inferno concerns a group of American POWs forced by Japanese captors to dive for sunken treasure. Among many galling logical lapses, the captors somehow have extensive personnel files on their prisoners, hence their discovery that characters played by Brown, Richard Jaeckel, and others are experienced divers. One would laugh at this degree of cinematic ineptitude if Pacific Inferno were sufficiently interesting to provoke any reaction beyond boredom. Better to keep a safe distance and ignore that fact that Brown did this to himself, seeing as how he’s listed as an executive producer. Hopefully he enjoyed some pleasant time in the sun between takes.

Pacific Inferno: SQUARE

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Two People (1973)

          Hating the intimate drama Two People wouldn’t require much effort. The acting by the leading players is vapid, the dialogue epitomizes the silliness of with-it ’70s lingo, and the storyline is trite. Yet Two People has something many similar films from the same period don’t, and that’s grace. Director Robert Wise, taking a break from big-budget epics, focuses on dramatic understatement and visual lyricism. Writer Richard De Roy drives every scene toward moments of quiet human connection. And what about those leading actors, Peter Fonda and Lindsay Wagner? At worst, they’re beautiful blanks onto whom Wise projects the tender emotions of De Roy’s script. At best, they compensate for their shortcomings by performing with great sincerity. Either way, they lend pleasing colors to Wise’s palette, allowing him to render a modest tale grounded in humanism.
          The story begins in Marrakech, where somber American Evan Bonner (Peter Fonda) receives a fateful visitor who arranges for Evan’s travel back to the States. Shortly afterward, American fashion model Dierdre McCluskey (Wagner) spots Evan in a Marrakech restaurant, taking note of his sad-eyed handsomeness. They finally meet on the train leaving town, and over the course of a long journey from the Far East to New York, they learn each others stories. She’s a single mother no longer in love with the child’s father, and he’s an Army deserter who recently surrendered to authorities after three years on the run. That these characters fall in love is no surprise, but delivering the unexpected isn’t the goal of a movie like Two People. Like a bittersweet love song, Two People is all about capturing small moments of intimacy and vulnerability with elegance and taste.
          Fonda’s casting is spot-on, because he brings so much rebel-hero baggage to the screen that he never needs to overstate anything. While any number of actresses could have played Wagner’s role, many of them with more gravitas, the friction between Wagner’s California-girl glow and her character’s wounded cynicism lends interesting dimensionality—Wagner’s out of her depth, but so is Dierdre. (Elevating a handful of scenes is the fine Estelle Parsons, who plays a fashion editor.) Is Two People pretentious? Sure, as when Dierdre spews this sort of dialogue: “I really object to the way you get to me.” And is it superficial? Yes. But beyond that special quality of grace, what redeems Two People is the limited scope of its ambition. Rather than trying to offer a geopolitical treatise, a trap that snared many other ’70s movies about deserters (and draft dodgers), Two People presents only what its title offers. Although anyone who derides this movie has ample reason to do so, those willing to overlook the picture’s weaknesses can discover a gentle viewing experience.

Two People: GROOVY

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

This Stuff’ll Kill Ya! (1971)

Best known for his low-budget gorefests, exploitation-flick guy Herschell Gordon Lewis also made other types of bad movies, ranging from comedies to porno flicks. Like his earlier picture Moonshine Mountain (1964), This Stuff’ll Kill Ya! is a redneck saga about illegal liquor, and Gordon (who wrote, produced, and directed) takes the title somewhat literally. Although the consumption of white lightning doesn’t cause any fatalities, killers prey upon bootleggers, resulting in several gruesome onscreen deaths. As for the plot, it concerns a film-flam man who poses as a preacher and runs a moonshine operation out of a backwoods church. Presented in a dull but quasi-linear fashion, the story tracks the con man’s efforts to intimidate local liquor-store proprietors out of business, to bribe regional law-enforcement officials, and to put on a convincing show as a religious leader. Executed competently, this premise might have coalesced into a decent drive-in diversion. Executed with Gordon’s usual clumsiness and vulgarity, This Stuff’ll Kill Ya! is consistently bizarre, though not in a good way. The ersatz preacher officiates a wedding at which the male guests gang-bang the bride. A woman is stoned. Two people are crucified. Someone’s head gets blown off in a gory close-up. Sigh. Gordon fans may enjoy seeing one of the director’s frequent collaborators, Jeffrey Allen, in the showy part of the preacher (though Allen’s over-acting gets tired quickly), and cinephiles should note this movie contains both the final screen appearance of Golden Age screen star Tim Holt, who plays a G-man, and the first screen appearance of future L.A. Law costar Larry Drake.

This Stuff’ll Kill Ya!: LAME

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Trial of the Catonsville Nine (1972)

          Appraised solely for its political bona fides, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine is impeccable, conveying activist priest Father Daniel Berrigan’s poetic record of his involvement with the illegal destruction of Vietnam-era draft records. Every frame of the picture exudes righteous indignation, and the movie was released at a moment when every voice raised against an unjust war mattered. Seen today, it’s a bit of a slog even though it contains fine work by several terrific actors, especially the great Ed Flanders, who stars as Berrigan. The problem with The Trial of the Catonsville Nine today is that it unfolds as a scattershot expression of rage against the machine—specifically, the American military-industrial complex. Amid glorious speeches are heavy-handed inserts depicting battlefield atrocities and campus protests. It’s all meaningful, but it’s also monotonous and repetitive.
          In 1968, Berrigan and eight other activists snatched hundreds of draft records from an office in Maryland, dragged them to a parking lot, and immolated the records using homemade napalm. The activists remained in place awaiting arrest, hoping their ensuing trial would help draw attention to the antiwar movement. The trial resulted in convictions for all involved, though Berrigan fled, remaining a fugitive until 1970, at which point he was incarcerated for two years. The film opens with a brief dramatization of the crime, then shifts to a stylized courtroom set. Although Berrrigan’s original play was written in verse, the movie employs an alternate script by Saul Levitt, which transposes Berrigan’s text into dramatic scenes. In its best moments, the film has the tension of a proper courtroom drama, alternating heated ethical debates with brazen procedural maneuvers. In its driest moments, the movie becomes a hectoring leftist sermon that portrays the U.S. government as a corrupt empire.
          What redeems the viewing experience, beyond the beauty and passion of Berrigan’s language, is the acting. Flanders conveyed compassion and vulnerability with special grace, so he’s perfect in the leading role. Richard Jordan and Donald Moffat, also deeply humanistic actors, excel as two of Berrigan’s co-conspirators, and William Schallert displays unexpected colors as the trial’s sympathetic judge—what a pleasure to see him in a part this dimensional. It’s also worth noting the behind-the-camera participation of two important figures. Actor Gregory Peck, who does not appear in the film, financed and produced The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, while cinematographer Haskell Wexler, always eager to help an underdog cause, shot the picture.

The Trial of the Catonsville Nine: FUNKY

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Kongi’s Harvest (1970)

          For a brief period in the early ’70s, actor Ossie Davis pursued a sideline career as a feature-film director, generating a handful of socially conscious projects with questionable storytelling and uneven performances. His behind-the-camera aptitude never quite rose to the sophistication of his politics, but each of the features he helmed is interesting to some degree. Arguably the most problematic of Davis’ directorial endeavors is Kongi’s Harvest, the first movie ever made in Nigeria by a predominantly Nigerian crew. Adapted from a significant play by  Wole Soyinka and completed in 1970, the film didn’t reach American screens until 1973, and one gets the impression lots of post-production tinkering happened along the way.
          As in Soyinka’s play, the story takes place in a fictional African nation. Kongi (played by Soyinka) is a military strongman who seized control in a coup, deposing beloved King Oba Danlola (Rasidi Onikoyi), whom Kongi holds prisoner in a heavily guarded compound. As the occasion of an important annual harvest festival nears, Kongi schemes to receive the gift of the first yam, because doing so represents his ascension to the godlike status of the nation’s rightful ruler. Naturally, King Oba and his supporters resist Kongi’s plan, so as the story progresses, Kongi becomes more and more unhinged—desperation compels him to blackmail King Oba by threatening mass executions of political prisoners unless King Oba consents for Kongi to receive the yam.
          The intense narrative was particularly topical at the time the film was made, and as the recent fall of Robert Mugabe indicates, it’s not as if the blight of brutal dictatorships has left the African continent. Alas, good intentions don’t always make for good movies, which is where Kongi’s Harvest hits difficulties. Davis assembled a large cast of Nigerian actors for the movie, and some are smoother on camera than others. Soyinka dominates, churning through maniacal lectures and tantrums with such intensity that his passion for satirizing dictators is palpable. Nonetheless, some of the Kongi scenes are so over-the-top as to seem cartoonish, and Davis’ directorial hand isn’t sufficiently assured to fold farcical elements into the bleak narrative. Occasionally, Kongi’s Harvest feels like a compendium of footage from two or three different directors’ interpretations of the same material.
          Not helping matters are clumsy onscreen appearances by Davis, who shows up at random intervals to deliver narration directly into the camera. (Davis also provides the voice for a few news broadcasts and radio announcements.) Perhaps most troubling of all is the ending, which is considerably different than that of the original play—whereas the stage version ends on a note of grim absurdity, Davis’ move signs off with something much more conventional and heavy-handed.

Kongi’s Harvest: FUNKY

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Marco (1973)

Another failed attempt at extending their success to the big screen, musical fantasy Marco was produced by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr., beloved for their stop-motion Christmas specials of the ’60s and ’70s. Marco offers a weird riff on the lore of 12th-century explorer Marco Polo, played here lifelessly by Desi Arnaz Jr. The picture opens in the court of Mongol king Kublai Khan (Zero Mostel), and the central premise is that Marco’s father asks Khan to punish Marco for being irresponsible. Khan mischievously tasks Marco with spending a day in the king’s court, all the while begging Marco to marry one of Khan’s many daughters. Eventually Marco and his would-be betrothed venture beyond the castle to search for whale oil in a desert. Even setting aside the bizarre and episodic plot, Marco is tough to endure. Arnaz is terrible, Mostel screams most of his dialogue, and leading lady Cie Cie Win, as the butch Princess Aigarn, is charmless. (Totally wasted is the great comic actor Jack Weston, who plays Marco’s uncle and sings a dumb song about inventing spaghetti.) The production values of castle scenes are okay, but for no discernible reason, one fantasy scene is presented in the familiar Rankin-Bass style of cutesy puppets and stop-motion animation. And then there’s the issue of the songs—the awful, grating, stupid songs. Some are sickly-sweet, some are offensive with regard to gender and race, and all are interminable. Strangest of them is Aigarn’s recurring theme, “By Damn,” repurposed every time she articulates a strong emotion. Especially when she performs the song while stripping off her clothes to protest Khan’s insistence that she dress in a more feminine manner, “By Damn” does not belong in a G-rated kiddie flick. And for those who might argue that Aigarn’s characterization as a willful warrior woman is the movie’s most interesting and progressive element, watch out for the cringe-inducing way her storyline resolves. Like everything else in Marco, it’s just wrong.

Marco: LAME

Friday, January 12, 2018

Sharks’ Treasure (1975)

          American culture changed so profoundly—and so quickly—in the late ’60s and early ’70s that it’s often fascinating to discover artifacts demonstrating attempts by aging artists to update their styles. Cornel Wilde, who became a movie star in the ’50s and later branched into producing and directing films, was well into the twilight of his career when he made Sharks’ Treasure, a strange hybrid of contemporary exploitation-flick tropes and old-fashioned adventure. Wilde avoids coarse language and seems hesitant showing bloodshed and nudity, but he delves wholeheartedly into a subplot predicated upon implied homosexuality. And while the general aesthetic of the picture is so rudimentary and unattractive it looks like any other drive-in trash from the ’70s, Wilde’s old-timey taste manifests in the lone original song, which he composed—first played over a treasure-hunting montage, the cornball tune “Money, Money” seems like it was extracted from some Busby Berkeley musical of the 1930s.
          The plot is sufficiently contrived and pulpy to ensure watchability in all but the dullest scenes. In the tropics, eager young dude Ron (John Neilson) approaches cranky boat captain Jim (Wilde) with a proposal to visit a spot where Ron found a gold coin. Research leads Jim to believe that Ron happened upon the location of sunken treasure, so Jim agrees to lead a salvage mission. Joining them are cocksure diver Ben (Yaphet Kotto) and his simple-minded pal, Larry (David Canary). Meanwhile, authorities chase after several escaped convicts, led by homicidal creep Lobo (Cliff Osmond). After a long sequence of Jim’s crew collecting treasure from shark-infested waters, Lobo’s gang shows up to hijack the boat.
          To Wilde’s minor credit, the resolution of this storyline isn’t entirely a foregone conclusion, and the body count is fairly high, so Sharks’ Treasure isn’t without, well, teeth. That said, some mighty strange things happen along the way. Lobo is obsessed with his prison bitch, Juanito (David Gillam), whom Lobo forces to wear drag at one point, and the capper to their subplot is weirdly poignant. Clearly proud of his taut physique, Wilde spends most of the movie in tiny swim trunks and performs an exhibition of one-armed pushups. In the movie’s funniest non sequitur, the film cuts for no particular reason to a shot of Jim intently reading a book called Doomsday between salvage dives. If that was meant as foreshadowing, then it perfectly illustrates the clumsiness of Wilde’s artless filmmaking. If not, it’s one more wrong note in a movie full of them.

Sharks’ Treasure: FUNKY

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Land of No Return (1978)

When listing actors who are synonymous with macho adventure, we cite such formidable fellows as Kirk Douglas, Gary Cooper, and John Wayne. We generally don’t mention Mel Tormé, the doughy crooner and occasional actor. Yet Land of No Return, a low-budget family film featuring Tormé’s last starring role in a feature, is a wilderness saga about one man battling for survival amid the frozen peaks of the Rocky Mountains in Utah. Despite being alone onscreen for most of the picture’s running time, Tormé is never more than serviceable here, and he’s such a fleshy urbanite that it stretches believability when he withstands endless suffering. Therefore, questions abound, chief among them this one: Why was Tormé hired for this project? Even William Shatner, who appears onscreen for about 10 minutes in a supporting role, would have been a more sensible choice. Anyway, Tormé plays Zak O’Brien, the animal trainer for a successful TV show featuring an eagle and a wolf. Flying in his private plane with his two superstar animals, Zak crashes and then hides out in caves and forests while slowly working his way back toward civilization. The trained eagle, whom he calls Caesar, is his only companion, so Tormé spends a whole lot of the movie talking to himself—that is, when he isn’t digging into his seemingly bottomless suitcase filled with ugly plaid sports jackets to bundle against the cold. Although Land of No Return is dull and enervated and schlocky, there’s ultimately not much purpose beating up a picture like this one—viewers who can’t resist the compulsion to seek out a cheaply made nature saga starring the man known as “The Velvet Fog” have only themselves to blame.

Land of No Return: LAME

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970) & Creatures the World Forgot (1971)

          Never willing to let a viable franchise go fallow, UK’s Hammer Films generated three successors to its ridiculous hit One Million Years B.C. (1966), otherwise known as “that movie with Raquel Welch in a fur bikini.” First came Slave Girls a/k/a Prehistoric Women (1967), a sexed-up jungle adventure, and then came When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth. (Like One Million Years B.C., this film pretends dinosaurs and humans once coexisted.) In When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, cavewoman Sanna (Victoria Vetri) escapes a murderous sun-worshipping tribe. Rescued by members of a fishing tribe, she gets caught in the middle as the two tribes battle each other. Amid the primitive-human drama are several episodes of violent dinosaur action, plus a cutesy subplot in which Sanna befriends and tames a dinosaur. Despite the inherently stupid premise, an issue plaguing nearly all of Hammer’s cave-babe pictures, the script for When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth aspires to literary qualities. Among other things, the filmmakers created a new language so characters could communicate consistently instead of just grunting.
          For the most part, the plot is easy to follow, no small achievement given the absence of English except for a bit of narration. Additionally, the monster scenes look pretty good. Although the great stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen only worked on the first picture in this cycle, those who continued his work did him proud, so the creature design in When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth is credible and the monsters’ movements are fairly smooth. (One scene uses the old trick of pasting fins onto real lizards.) Naturally, the performances are not the strong point, since most of the actors were cast for physical beauty, and of course it’s absurd that all the women have perfect grooming—a more appropriate title would have been When Estheticians Ruled the Earth. Nonetheless, solid craftsmanship makes the lurid costuming and nostalgic stop-motion effects more or less palatable.
          Unexpectedly, Hammers fourth and final cave-babe saga is a respectable movie, in some ways a precursor to the acclaimed Quest for Fire (1981). Like that picture, Creatures the World Forgot imagines the daily lives of prehistoric humans in a relatively grounded way. Although the picture still has plenty of titillation, the primary focus is on the difficulties early man faced while trying to master communication and socialization. One suspects the picture sprang from writer/producer Michael Carreras’ imagination rather than extensive research, but nothing in the film is overtly silly—a huge change from earlier films in the cycle. Telling a complex story sprawling over two generations, and presented without any English-language dialogue or narration, the movie tracks the ascension of Mak (Brian O’Shaughnessy) to leadership of his tribe, and later the adventures of his adopted son when a fresh battle for leadership arises. Shooting mostly on real locations, lots of parched deserts and rocky hills, Carreras and director Don Chaffey do a tidy job of world-building, sketching a culture rooted in mysticism and patriarchy. Men battle for dominance, women suffer the lusts of savages, and noble souls earn loyalty even as craven types gather supporters through fear.
           The myriad fight scenes are exciting, with thrilling stunt work performed by half-naked actors, and the romantic bonds that form between characters are fairly convincing. Interestingly, even though Hammer elected to quit teasing audiences with sexy costumes by actually featuring topless cavewomen in Creatures the World Forgot, the company avoided casting its usual buxom starlets, so the presence of exposed skin is less distracting than the cleavage in earlier cave-babe flicks. Creatures the World Forgot is far from perfect, thanks to bumps including the terrible bear suit a stunt performer wears during an animal attack inside a cave, and the plot is ultimately a classier riff on the same hokum that permeated the other movies in the cycle. But if it’s possible to imagine a Hammer cave-babe picture that one can watch without feeling ashamed, this is the one—a noble swan song for an ignoble franchise.

When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth: FUNKY
Creatures the World Forgot: FUNKY

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

1980 Week: A Glimpse at 1981—Part Four of Four

Continuing from yesterday’s post . . .
As should be evident by now, 1981 was a formative year for me as a young movie fan. I turned 12 that year, and for various reasons my father and my older brother and I saw a lot of movies in theaters, which I supplemented with fare from Cinemax and HBO because home video had not yet achieved mainstream popularity. Although I’d gone mad for movies previously, catching Star Wars seven times in theaters and seeing The Muppet Movie every day for a week when it played the local second-run house, 1981 was the year when I started to get a sense of the men and women behind the scenes. In fact, the following year literally changed my life, because I decided to become a filmmaker while sitting in a theater and realizing that one individual was responsible for overseeing all the creative choices on Blade Runner. That’s why I’ve got a soft spot for pictures from 1981, even some of the bad ones. And, man, were there bad ones.
Billy Wilder burned his glorious career to a crisp with the flop comedy Buddy, Buddy, which has exactly none of Wilder’s signature spark. Ringo Starr made a pathetic play for above-the-title movie stardom in the would-be laughfest Caveman, costarring Dennis Quaid. Bill Cosby and Elliot Gould teamed up for the lifeless supernatural comedy The Devil and Max Devlin. John Schlesinger, of all people, directed a dud comedy—are you sensing a trend here?—called Honky Tonk Freeway. Another movie paving the path to box-office oblivion with unfunny jokes was The Incredible Shrinking Woman, starring Lily Tomlin. Venerable cinematographer William A. Franker directed the doomed Western adventure The Legend of the Lone Ranger, in which himbo leading man Klinton Spillsbury gives such a vacant performance that all his lines were dubbed by James Keach. Faye Dunaway’s histrionic acting as child-abusing screen queen Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest helped the catchphrase “No more wire hangers!” enter the camp lexicon.
Burt Reynolds plays a dude who hires a surrogate mother in Paternity, the sexual politics of which were already antiquated by the time the film was released. Similarly, Ryan O’Neal’s turn as a cad of a fashion designer who sparks a craze for assless jeans in So Fine did not win him any fans with the Ms. Magazine crowd. Yet perhaps the movie that did the least for feminism in 1981 was Tarzan, the Ape Man, in which Bo Derek’s mostly nude performance as Tarzan’s gal Jane overshadows everything else, up to and including Richard Harris’ blustery turn as her father. Chevy Chase’s run as box-office star hit a major speedbump with Under the Rainbow, an offensive farce about the little people who played Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. Also tripping various cultural-sensitivity alarms was George Hamilton’s star turn as Zorro, the Gay Blade.
Special note should be made of an obscure movie called Roar, which was fleetingly released in 1981 but gained larger notoriety during a 2015 re-release. Starring Tippi Hedren and her daughter Melanie Griffith, the picture grew out of Hedren’s and then-husband Noel Marshall’s affinity for hanging out with fully grown jungle cats, so members of the cast and crew suffered dozens of horrible injuries during filming. Also deserving of mention is Peter Bogdanovich’s labored romantic comedy They All Laughed, which tanked during its original release but subsequently gained a small following. Beyond containing one of Audrey Hepburn’s last performances, the picture includes the final screen appearance of Bodganovich’s onetime companion Dorothy Stratten, the former Playboy model who was murdered during post-production.
Finally, no period of cinema is without its guilty pleasures, and, in fact, many of the titles previously mentioned are undoubtedly beloved by many people with the special affection one has for objects of secret shame. I must confess my fascination with three movies, two of which are awful and one of which is so derivative that legal action should have ensued. Made in Canada, the bizarre postapocalyptic saga The Last Chase stars Lee Majors as a onetime competitive driver who pulls his racecar out of storage in order to zoom across America—even though the world’s gasoline supply has been exhausted, resulting in cars being outlawed. Burgess Meredith plays an old coot whom the government sends to pursue Majors in an antique fighter jet, and My Bodyguard’s Chris Makepeace plays the mischievous hacker/pyromaniac who accompanies Majors.  The movie’s even more insipid than it sounds, but every few years, I watch a few scenes hoping the movie will again trigger the joy it gave me as a 12-year-old, when I devoured the picture in repeated HBO/Cinemax viewings. The experiment doesn’t work. It never will.
Another guilty pleasure, albeit one that I’ve happily outgrown, is Nighthawks, a violent cop movie starring Sylvester Stallone at his most laughably intense and Billy Dee Williams at his most enjoyably suave. The picture is elevated by Rutger Hauer’s seductive turn as an international terrorist wreaking havoc in New York City, and Nighthawks climaxes with a shot of Stallone wearing—well, it’s better if you discover that for yourself. Prepare to guffaw.
Written and directed by Peter Hyams, the sci-fi thriller Outland was another HBO/Cinemax fave back in the day. Starring Sean Connery at his beardy, prickly best, it’s High Noon in space. Literally. Hyams transposes the plot of the 1952 Gary Cooper classic into an outer-space milieu, employing production design shamelessly influenced by Alien (1979). Yet even with a sturdy plot, logic takes a backseat to flashy imagery. For instance, why do the movies thugs use shotguns in space? Because it looks cool, that’s why! Yes, the image-is-everything ’80s had well and truly begun—even though Hyams’ casting of Frances Sternhagen as the compadre/conscience of Connery’s character represents a throwback to the beautiful ’70s ideal of casting unglamorous actors simply because of their prodigious talent. Plus, Peter Boyle, as the bad guy, plays space-age golf. Maybe the anything-goes ’70s weren’t really over, after all.

Monday, January 8, 2018

1980 Week: A Glimpse at 1981—Part Three of Four

                Continuing from yesterday’s post . . .
16. Reds. Warren Beatty’s magnum opus (at least so far) is one of the unlikeliest studio releases of all time—an epic romance about an American who left the U.S. to write about the Russian Revolution, eventually becoming such a proud champion of the U.S.S.R. that he was buried in the Kremlin. Interspersed with documentary-style interviews featuring real-life radicals and other “witnesses” of Reed’s era, Beatty’s sprawling movie focuses, in part, on a romantic triangle comprising Reed, playwright Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson), and American radical Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton). Reds is such a big, challenging film that it netted Beatty an Oscar as Best Director. For those who lamented that Beatty spent too much of the ’70s making lightweight escapism, Reds was a validation of his artistic and political bona fides.
17. The Road Warrior. Elevating Mel Gibson from promising young actor to full-fledged movie star, George Miller’s relentless sequel to his own Mad Max (1979) paired terrifying stunt work with wicked camera moves and wild art direction to create a thrill ride for the ages. Watching Gibson’s loner hero battle his way across a postapocalyptic landscape in which cars are both instruments of death and instruments of salvation, viewers were pulled into a fully imagined fantasy realm. With all due respect to the acclaimed 2015 installment Mad Max: Fury Road, every episode in this series must bow down before the stylish savagery of The Road Warrior.
18. Sharky’s Machine. Yet another of my all-time faves, again purely because of attitude and style. Oh, and Rachel Ward, too. Atoning for the sins of his other 1981 movies, Burt Reynolds directs and stars in this exciting, funny, gritty crime saga about a cop who falls in love with a prostitute while trying to take down a crime lord. The setup is full of clichés, but William A. Fraker’s alternately glossy and shadowy cinematography sets the ideal stage for vivid acting by Bernie Casey, Charles Durning, John Fiedler, Vittorio Gassman, Earl Holliman, Brian Keith, Richard Libertini, Hari Rhodes, and Henry Silva. Backstory: After Clint Eastwood started making rowdy comedies, Eastwood’s buddy Reynolds said he’d get revenge for the invasion of his cinematic turf by making “Dirty Harry in Atlanta.” Reynolds is wonderfully emotional and tough throughout Sharky’s Machine, even during the wobbly love scenes, and leading lady Ward, in her big-budget Hollywood debut, is ravishing.
19. S.O.B. Taking a break from Pink Panther movies and sex comedies, Blake Edwards crafted a vicious satire about Hollywood, assembling a polished cast headed by William Holden and Edwards’ wife, Julie Andrews. Supporting players, all wonderful, include Larry Hagman, Richard Mulligan, Robert Preston, Robert Vaughn, Robert Webber (so many Roberts!), and others. Mulligan plays an auteur director who goes insane while making a super-expensive musical about sexual themes—shades of One from the Heart—while Andrews, spoofing her own image, plays a goody-two-shoes actress who does a topless scene in order to change her public perception. (Cover your eyes if the prospect of seeing a disrobed Mary Poppins sounds traumatizing.) Although S.O.B. is crude and sometimes stupid, it captures something depressing and timeless about the avarice at the heart of the film industry.
20. Southern Comfort. Is it damning with faint praise to call Walter Hill’s swampy thriller the best Deliverance ripoff ever made? So be it. The stories share the same DNA but move in different directions, and Southern Comfort doubles as a Vietnam allegory. National Guardsmen doing exercises in the Bayou get into more trouble than they can handle when they enter a remote area and imprudently provoke the locals. Bloodshed ensues. Hill was at the height of his stylistic powers here, employing great taste in actors (Powers Boothe, Keith Carradine, Peter Coyote, Fred Ward) and collaborators (Ry Cooder’s score sets the mood perfectly). Even though the story relies upon way too many dubious contrivances, Southern Comfort revels in its own B-movie pulpiness.
21. Superman II. Technically a 1980 movie, Superman II didn’t reach U.S. screens until 1981 because of an oddly protracted release pattern. Funny, romantic, spectacular, and thrilling, the movie went through a famously torturous development process. Initially, director Richard Donner shot scenes for Superman II while making Superman (1978). When a ballooning budget compelled the producers to ditch their two-movies-at-once scheme, the sequel was left unfinished. By the time production resumed, Donner was replaced with Richard Lester, a specialist at manufacturing lighthearted escapism. Behind-the-scenes labor pains notwithstanding, Christopher Reeve excels as both bumbling Clark Kent and stalwart Superman, while Margot Kidder evokes ’30s screwball heroines as Lois Lane, and Terence Stamp makes an inedible impression as a certain Kryptonian supervillain. Kneel before Zod!
22. Taps. Like The Dogs of War, this elegantly made drama is thematically closer to the hand-wringing military stories of the ’70s than it is to the shoot-first/ask-questions-later muck of the Norris/Schwarzenegger/Stallone era. Timothy Hutton plays a cadet who leads his fellow students in an armed takeover of their military academy after the institution is threatened with closure. Tom Cruise and Sean Penn give powerhouse performances as his cohorts, and George C. Scott—subtly riffing on his iconic performance as Patton (1970)—plays their influential commandant. Raising profound questions about America’s war machine while spiraling inevitably toward tragedy, Taps was a crucial proving ground for three of the best young actors in ’80s Hollywood.
23. Tattoo. While Tattoo is not Bruce Dern’s best movie by a long shot, it may well be the ultimate “Dernsie,” a term of endearment coined by Jack Nicholson to describe the eccentric flourishes that Dern adds to his roles. In Tattoo, the singular actor plays a deranged man who becomes obsessed with a beautiful woman and then, in what he perceives as an act of love, kidnaps her, sedates her, and tattoos nearly her entire body, transforming her into a living work of art. Proving how deeply this movie is a holdover of ’70s cinematic extremes, the woman eventually learns to appreciate her captor’s twisted affection—sort of. Suffice to say it doesn’t end well. Tattoo never achieves believability, but Dern’s performance is colorful, fearless, and strangely moving.
24. Thief. The third of my all-time favorite movies released in 1981, Michael Mann’s first theatrical feature is a stylish hybrid. Part Walter Hill-esque minimalistic actioner and part Cassavetes-ish character study, the picture stars James Caan as a professional robber who unwisely accepts the too-good-to-be-true offer of pulling one last job before retiring with his new lady, played with believable grit by Tuesday Weld. The long-lens images of methodical criminal activity are hypnotic when matched with Tangerine Dream’s pulsating score, and the supporting turns by Willie Nelson and Robert Prosky are perfect. Idiosyncratic, sensitive, and tough, Thief continues Mann’s lifelong study of the criminal mind, a body of work stretching from the humane TV movie The Jericho Mile (1979) to the jaw-dropping epic Heat (1995) and beyond.
25. Time Bandits. Who knew a genuine auteur was lurking inside the revered UK comedy troupe Monty Python? And who knew he was American? After codirecting the amazing Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and helming the iffy Jabberwocky (1977) by himself, animator-turned-filmmaker Terry Gilliam came into his own with this brilliantly imaginative story about diminutive scamps who steal a map containing the locations of holes in time, putting them in the middle of a battle between figures representing God and the devil. Filled with eye-popping images, splendid actors, and wild humor, Time Bandits achieves a singular mixture of cerebral and lowbrow elements.
“A Glimpse at 1981” concludes tomorrow . . .

Sunday, January 7, 2018

1980 Week: A Glimpse at 1981—Part Two of Four

Continuing from yesterday’s post . . .
6. Escape from New York. On a personal note, John Carpenter’s sci-fi action/thriller is one of my favorite movies of all time, simply because of its attitude and style. I’ve watched it dozens of times, and it never gets old for me. The fuck-you swagger of Kurt Russell’s performance as soldier-turned-thief-turned-convict-turned-savior Snake Plissken. The ethereal waves of Carpenter’s and Alan Howarth’s synth-driven score. The inspired notion of a future Manhattan transformed into a maximum-security prison—trust me, if you visited New York City around 1980, that didn’t seem like a stretch. The wild supporting cast: Adrienne Barbeau, Ernest Borgnine, Isaac Hayes, Donald Pleasence, Lee Van Cleef. The larky plot about Air Force One crashing in New York and prisoners taking the president hostage. If you’ve got any criticisms about Escape from New York, they may be legit, but I don’t want to hear ’em.
7. The Final Conflict. Subsequently rechristened Omen III: The Final Conflict to cement is association with the ’70s movies about a youthful antichrist, this franchise-killer jumps ahead in time to imagine Damien Thorne as an adult poised for the presidency. Featuring scenes that border on the ridiculous, such as Damien delivering a monologue to the statue of Christ he keeps in his attic, the big-budget shocker also includes several memorably gruesome death scenes. One involves a very messy suicide, and another involves an iron—the kind one uses to press clothes—making contact with a victim’s face. Even babies get butchered in The Final Conflict, and there’s a trope of kinky sex just for good measure. Although leading man Sam Neill is good as a charismatic devil, the movie falters by taking itself seriously. Still, it’s memorably extreme.
8. For Your Eyes Only. James Bond enters the ’80s with what should have been a return to form after the sci-fi silliness of 1979’s Moonraker, but the combination of a rapidly aging leading man (Roger Moore) and a turgid storyline make for one of 007’s least interesting adventures. As for the leading ladies, exquisitely beautiful Frenchwoman Carole Bouquet is better seen than heard in this film, while crass American Lynn Holly Johnson is better neither seen nor heard. Only the first 10 minutes, featuring a great stunt sequence and the sole onscreen performance of a 007 theme song during the opening credits—hey there, breathtaking Scottish thrush Sheena Easton!—have license to thrill.
9. Heavy Metal. Launched in 1977, Heavy Metal was a stoner mag with a twist, featuring adult-oriented fantasy/sci-fi stories in comic-book form. Ironically, the movie based upon the magazine is as much a corporate product as it is a counterculture artifact. Produced by Ivan Reitman, the animated movie features several trippy short films, some comedic and some dramatic, in tandem with a barrage of rock songs. Therefore, even as the bizarre onscreen content reflects druggy excess and nerdy wet dreams (cartoon nude scenes?!!), tunes by Cheap Trick, Sammy Hagar, Stevie Nicks and others blast through the speakers in order to sell copies of the soundtrack album. That’s the sad story of the ’70s giving way to the ’80s—the revolution will be monetized.
10. History of the World, Part I. “It’s good to be the king.” “Virgins, put on your ‘no entry’ signs!” “I give you these 15 . . . 10 Commandments!” So many gags in Mel Brooks’ anthology comedy about various historical periods connect that it’s easy to forget the movie is wildly uneven. Eschewing the straight-through narratives of his previous spoofs, Brooks opts for sketches, and he suffers for the lack of an emotional hook. Still, some of Brooks’ best actors are here (Madeline Kahn, Harvey Korman, Cloris Leachman) and dancer-turned-actor Gregory Hines—also wonderful in the 1981 lycanthropy flick Wolfen—is effortlessly charming. History of the World Part I contains many of Brooks’ lamest jokes, as evidenced by a predilection for cheap scatological one-liners, but it also contains one of his most sublime sequences: “The Inquisition, what a show!”
11-12. Neighbors & Stripes. One of these movies is justifiably forgotten, and the other is justifiably beloved. What they share is a link to Saturday Night Live, and a passing of the torch from the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players to their generations of successors. Neighbors was John Belushi’s last—and worst—movie, inexplicably casting the heavyset wild man as a straight-laced suburbanite and his regular screen partner, Dan Aykroyd, in a zany role more suited to Belushi’s talents. The story imagines a middle-class nightmare, with a lunatic taking residence next door to an everyman, and virtually nothing in the movie works. Conversely, even the dumbest stuff in Stripes plays like gangbusters, which is why the movie helped transform second-wave SNL cast member Bill Murray into a movie star. Playing a sarcastic slacker who joins the military, Murray leads a comedic charge alongside John Candy, Warren Oates, and Harold Ramis. Non sequitur gags—such as suggesting that an ice-cream scoop can be used as a sex toy—explain why Murray was, is, and always will be the quintessential postmodern smartass.
13. One from the Heart. The rollercoaster that is Francis Ford Coppola’s career went off the tracks with this extravagant flop, which has its admirers despite being laughably pretentious. An overwrought musical about dreamy losers, the picture stars Frederick Forrest, Teri Garr, and a luminous Nastassja Kinski, although the real main attraction is the visual wizardry that Coppola conjures with cinematographers Ronald Victor Garcia and Vittorio Storaro. Shooting entirely on soundstages—and directing by remote from his video-wired trailer, dubbed the “Silverfish”—Coppola revels in elaborate lighting, sweeping camera moves, and tunes croaked by eccentric balladeer Tom Waits. The epitome of misguided directorial excess, it’s a tiny movie made on a gigantic scale. Like another needlessly downbeat and ornate musical, Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977), One from the Heart helped staunch the largesse afforded New Hollywood auteurs.
14. Polyester. After spending the ’70s exploring the outer reaches of bad taste in a series of X-rated comedies with gleefully disgusting content, Baltimore indie filmmaker John Waters began his slow creep toward the mainstream with this comparatively restrained satire of suburban values. Yet he hadn’t totally lost his edge, because Polyester stars Waters’ favorite leading actor—300-pound drag queen Divine—and the picture was released in “Odoroama,” meaning viewers were given scratch-and-sniff cards matching cue numbers that appeared onscreen. Even if he’d moved beyond actually showing excrement onscreen, Waters contented himself by making theatergoers inhale fabricated flatulence.
15. Raiders of the Lost Ark. When this project was announced, the notion of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg teaming up to make an action-adventure movie was like hearing about the formation of a rock-music supergroup. Expectations were huge, so the risk of disappointing fans was even bigger. Amazingly, the filmmakers gene-spliced old archetypes to create an instantly iconic character, swashbuckling archaeologist Indiana Jones, and with the help of screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, they conjured one of the most entertaining films ever made. From its breathtaking action sequences to its warm comedy, Raiders is pure cinematic pleasure. Additionally, the picture gave Harrison Ford his ideal role, putting the roguish charm he brought to Star Wars (1977) front and center. Best of all, Raiders feels totally genuine because it’s powered by boyish enthusiasm.
“A Glimpse at 1981” continues tomorrow . . .