Tuesday, June 29, 2010

"The Spy Who Loved Me" 1977 A Movie a Day Day 29

OK, I'm going to be honest with you. Tonight at midnight, I will be lined up with millions of crazed Twihards seeing Eclipse. My darling wife won't wait and I'm not sure that I want to yet concede that I am too old to be staying up all hours for a movie opening. I enjoy the Twilight movies as much as any man can but they are really the territory of my wife. I would gladly be seeing the new James Bond movie at midnight but dammit there won't be one for at least two more years. So I came home today and took a nap instead of putting in my movie right away. Now, if I tried to watch a film, I'd be a dead man. I stopped writing just now to resolve a whole bunch of those issues related to going to the movie, at this point Dee is in the theater, Amanda is here with me and we will head back over to the Vampires at 11:00.

So in order to keep up with the Movie a Day concept, I am posting about a film I know so well that I feel confident about it without having just seen it. "The Spy Who Loved Me", is our AMAD subject. This film came out in the summer of 1977. Anyone who knows 70's films will tell you that the summer of 77 belonged to only one movie, and this was not it. The funny thing was that this was the biggest Bond success since Thunderball 12 years earlier, and there had been 5 Bond films in that time period. This was Roger Moore's third time out as Bond, and the movie that really established his mark on the franchise. I will be talking about one of his earlier 007 appearances later this summer. Although it might have been overshadowed by one of the biggest cultural phenomena of all time, people still remember this James Bond film.

The first time I saw it was with Dolores at the Twin Theater complex outside of the Cerritos Shopping mall. Inside the mall was a multiplex of six small movie screens but the complex outside was much more a movie going experience because the two theaters held at least 500 people each. Later in the summer we went back and saw the movie there again when Art was home for a short leave. I miss my friend every time a new Bond film comes out because it was such a big part of what brought us together. He read all the books also and after we were friends, we saw every new 007 adventure together. There is a better Art story for Moonraker, which I will save for that posting.

The Spy Who Loved Me had the best pre-title sequence of any of the films up to that point. It climaxed with that fantastic shot of the Union Jack floating across the snow capped mountains of Austria. If you have never seen it, I will not spoil it for you but it kicks the attitude of the film off perfectly. This is spectacular nonsense done with flair and showmanship. The rest of the movie lives up to it. They built a sound stage for the movie to shoot in, which became "the" place to film. It was used for the Superman movie, Spielberg extravaganzas, and of course for that film series that started by overshadowing this James Bond picture. It has burned down twice but has been rebuilt each time and it remains the largest sound stage in the world.

They needed that space for a climatic battle featuring two submarines that are supposed to be contained inside of a supertanker. In essence it turns the formula of these films a little inside out. Instead of trying to penetrate the impregnable fortress of the enemy, Bond and his allies are trying to break out. There is a gun battle, and explosions and the evil villain escaping to be confronted later in the movie. You can tell where all the money spent on production went in this movie. The art design and location shooting is really strong. I don't know if they have a dramatic light show at the Pyramids at night but this movie makes me want to go and find out.

As I said before, this is the Bond that Roger Moore should always consider the gold standard of his seven turns at bat. He looked great in the suits and jackets that are styled in a 70's form but do not look cartoonish today. People often complain that Moore never seemed threatening and dangerous like Sean Connery had. They are right, but as perfect as Connery was as Bond, Moore was for the Bond of his time. The humor was not strained, the quips came easily to him and he was clearly a Brit. There is a good moment though that shows that this Bond is tough and merciless when it suits him. As one of the heavies he has been fighting clings to Bond's tie as he is falling back from the edge of a high balcony, Bond presses the situation to get information. Once he gets what he wants, he swats his tie back, basically killing the bad guy with the back of his hand. That was a bad ass moment that went a long way in establishing some tough guy cred for Roger Moore's version of Bond.

The movies go a little over the top after this outing, and they do come back to earth again, but this is the quintessential James Bond film of the time. At the end of the credit crawl, the 007 movie announced the Return of James Bond in the next film. This movie ended with a promise for "For Your Eyes Only", but the success of that other 1977 film actually caused the producers to renege on their promise and Bond came back in the space based adventure Moonraker. Not hard to guess why they thought that was a good idea. By the way, the British based American actor I mentioned in the Rollerball post last week, has his second biggest part in this movie as the American submarine captain. Shane Rimmer is going to be the answer to a trivia question someday and you will thank me for mentioning this stuff.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Murder By Death 1976 A Movie A Day Day 28

Neil Simon was the biggest comedy writer of the 60s and 70s. He had plays on Broadway, books on the bestseller list and movies opening with his name above the title. What Steven King was to horror stories, Neil Simon was for comedies. His work was not always deep, but sometimes it was poignant and meaningful. He won the Pulitzer prize for one of his plays in the 1980's. So it is inevitable that one of his works turns up on my list for summer movies in the 1970's. Although many of the plays and movies were lighthearted romantic comedies, it is his slapstick work that seemed in tune with the summer seasons of my youth. The first of these movies I've watched this summer is "Murder by Death."

The story is a take-off on every mystery movie cliche from the thirties and forties. Including Charlie Chan, Sam Spade and the Thin Man movies. Throw in a couple of late arrivals like Miss Marple and Herciot Peroit and you have a meal that is much like on of the lines in the film, "lamb stew, a lot of ingredients gone to pot." These characters are all invited to a weekend at a spooky mansion for dinner and a murder. The mystery actually makes no sense at all by the end of the movie, and it is not really supposed to. The whole point is to baffle the audience and divert them with funny dialog and rich performances by the stars. All the actors do a terrific job impersonating the original movie characters, but making them memorable for completely different reasons.

Cast and dialog are the main reasons to see this movie. If you watch the trailer above, you will notice no shortage of star power. Peter Falk and Peter Sellars are dead on and politically incorrect beyond belief. The non-sequiters that Falk's Sam Diamond tosses out are hysterical, but you have to listen for them. Sellar's Sidney Wang could give fortune cookies a boost by comparison to some of his stupid sayings. Everyone is just a gas. I don't remember how much longer David Niven worked, but his light touch and elan were perfectly suited to an English version of Nick Charles. Most of the light comedians of today have him to thank, Hugh Grant may not know it but he steals from Niven in every movie he is in. The only link in the chain that seemed weak to me was James Coco, but I believe it was due to his part being broadly written that makes the performance a little too shrill. By the way, his driver/assistant in the movie is played by a young James Cromwell (Farmer Hogget from Babe).

A special note must be made of the appearance of Truman Capote in the film. He basically plays himself with a different name. Of all his work I only read "In Cold Blood" and I had seen "Breakfast at Tiffanys", but I knew him best as a kid through his appearances on talk shows. He was on Dick Cavett and Merv Griffin's shows quite often I think. He made up stories to share about people he had never even met. If anyone really believes that Errol Flynn and he had a love affair, they never saw an Errol Flynn movie. His high nasally voice was creepy by itself, but put into this silly plot, it stood out like it's own weird joke.

The movie is sometimes a criticism of the sloppy writing that detective stories might sometimes employ. Lionel Twain's rant at the end about characters that appear in the last five pages of a book, or clues that are not revealed to the readers until the climax of the story, sound a little too on point just to be taken as a joke. By the way if you miss the joke in Capote's character's name, you will miss a lot of the clever puns and plays on words that make the movie entertaining. There are other things to recommend it as well, but the writing of the dialog is the key element in the films success.

This movie played at the Hasting Theater in Pasadena, which at the time was a huge stand alone movie house. Later they added some other screens to the complex to make it more profitable, but if you got 1500 people in to see a movie there, I doubt they were losing money, and when I saw it the theater it was packed. Inspired by the success of this work, Neil Simon tackled another spoof based on the same kind of characters a couple of years later. Peter Falk returned as "The Cheap Detective". As I recall, I did not enjoy it as much and was a little let down, but that could be faulty memory. I hope by the end of the current summer blog to be more definitive and add that film to the list here.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Rollerball (1975) A Movie a Day Day 27

I have gone back and forth on this movie just about every time I saw it. The first time was in June 1975 with my friend Dan Hasegawa. I think we saw this without Art because he had just left for the Army. Either that, or Art was still trying to make time with Laura Charca and he did not have time for us. My guess is that if Jaws had not opened a few weeks later, this would have been the big picture of the summer and my favorite movie that year. As it was, I remembered it, but I did not have much loyalty too it. Second viewings reveal a lot of problems with the story and the film making. I still think it is a pretty good movie, but I look at it much more realistically now then I did then.

We saw it initially at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood on Sunset Blvd. The screen there was curved to accommodate films shot in cinerama, this one was not and it was simply blown up to fit the screen, which it did quite nicely. I don't remember noticing the importance of sound in a movie much before this. Maybe "The Exorcist" impressed me, but I don't think it was the stereo system that did it. This movie on the other hand, is much more impressive seen in a big theater with an immense sound system. At the dome, the opening segment with the Bach toccata was amazing. When the teams did their warm up laps on the Rollerball track, the rumble was impressive. Most of the hits, grunts and crowd noise was enhanced by simple volume. At the end the chant of Jon-na-thon, was almost hypnotic.

It's funny that sound is one of the big things I remember from the movie because it is also one of my biggest criticisms of the film. James Caan appears to have been directed to underplay every scene except the Rollerball matches. I suppose this is to show that he is not a crazed individualist out to take down the system, but just a guy who is really good at his job and doesn't understand why the corporation wants him to stand down. That is the essence of the conflict in the story, but Caan mumbles so much in the film, that it is hard to have a take on what his point of view is. His vocal delivery is low key and in many instances inaudible, and when you can hear him it sounds a little bit like the slow parts of "Smells Like Teen Spirit", where Kurt Cobain is inarticulate and gave Weird Al Yankovic an opportunity at an easy parody.

The look of the film is supposed to be futuristic, the key components of that are the Stadium itself and the architecture of the corporate world they live in. The plastic in the board rooms, and the odd shapes of buildings and hallways, are a quaint effort at a futuristic vision. The other thing that gives it away is the costuming. On the track, the players look like they could be competing in a real game set in the future. Off the track, they look like models from a Sears catalog in 1977. Leisure suits are not futuristic, they were fads. The corporate guys are still wearing suits so that part worked, but the non-executives look like they are dressed for a part in the chorus of a Cher concert. James Caan has the stupidest hat, it looks like a Spanish caballero hat with a ten inch brim. He tosses it into the crowd a couple of times, but every time he changes one of his leisure suits, there is another hat with material to match the suit. Having everything provided by your corporate masters does not guarantee good taste. The element that is accurate about the future is the video display. Big Screens for home viewing, with three alternate views on the top. You can't quite tell what the programs and pictures are recorded on, maybe small tapes, maybe disks but the effect is a lot more accurate than most of the other things in the movie.

The themes of the film are power and individualism. It is never quite clear why Johnathon is such a threat to the corporate order, but that ambiguity works toward making things a lot more ominous and believable. At one point, John Houseman's character explains how the corporations took over when the governments were all bankrupted. Maybe they were anticipating a world where the U.S. would triple it's debt in one year and spend itself twenty trillion dollars in the hole in a very short time. The vision of the corporations as evil overlords would be darker, if everyone on the movie wasn't so beautiful and happy. Hey, there is a side note that suggests that people in the future were medicating themselves into happiness. This looked like a pretty good criticism of the "if it feels good do it" attitude of the times, but I don't think that's what the filmmakers intended.

John Houseman made his last years very comfortable, by playing corporate types like this. In fact Smith Barney, an investment company that I don't even know still exists, built their image on his answer to the question how Smith-Barney customers get their wealth? "They earn it". Ralph Richardson appears in a scene that is basically unnecessary, just a little extra dig at the corporate future. He is as always, charming and there are two or three big laughs in this segment. An actor everyone will recognize but I will bet no one knows by name, plays the Coach-Executive in charge of the Houston team. This may be the biggest part he had in movies, but you will see him in two or three Superman films, at least three James Bond films, and even the first of the Christian Bale Batman movies. His name is Shane Rimmer, he is an American that ended up living in England, so all those movies produced at Sheppardton Studios that needed an actor with an American accent typically sought him out.

Like I said, I run hot and cold on this movie. There have been plenty of times that I thought it was a ponderous and pretentious movie that would benefit from being trimmed by half an hour. There are other times when I look at it and admire the 70's sensibility, that movies ought to be about something. Rollerball is supposed to be about the loss of individualism and the evil of corporate thinking. Or maybe it is about how the citizens will be satisfied with bread and circuses as in Roman times, entertained and distracted by a violent sport while the powers that be control their lives. But if you ask me what it's about I'll tell you it's about two hours.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday A Movie a Day Day 26

This is one of the films on my list that I never saw in a theater. I can't explain how that happened at all, this movie has Lee Marvin, Oliver Reed and Robert Culp as the stars. They are all actors I have enjoyed over the years. What it must have been like on the set with Marvin and Reed together. These two never found the bottom of a bottle. What is especially odd though is that Strother Martin is in it and he has a pretty good part. I must have been involved in something to miss an opportunity like this. You know what, this came out in the bicentennial year and my family was on the road for a month that summer. We went back to Battle Creek, driving across the country. I got to drive a lot because I had my license and my Dad needed to be spelled. I know we listened to Queen "A night at the Opera" and The Blue Oyster Cult on eight track most of the way. Dee and I had just gotten serious about seeing each other and before we left on the trip her mother had passed away and we took my Dad's new car up to the funeral in Bakersfield. It was also an election year and I watched both of the conventions while we were traveling. I remember the speech that President Ford gave and all the hoopla about Reagan maybe being on the ticket with him. We were also on our way to Atlantic City where the Ice Capades was getting their tour ready for the road. We had built several props for the show and Dad was going back as a technical adviser. Dorothy Hamill had just joined the show after her star turn at the winter Olympics and we got a chance to meet her. So, I guess I was a little distracted.

The movie is a comedy with several broad strokes that might be a problem these days. There is not only a white guy playing an Indian, but he is also an English actor to boot. Rape and the clap are the basis of several big punch lines in the movie, and women get popped in the face in a couple of scenes. It was not as crude at the time as it actually plays now. That is a little backwards I suppose, but the problem was not language or nudity or violence, but the way that some of those things were portrayed. If you did not know, "Cathouse Thursday" is the name of the lead female charater played by Kay Lenz, and she is basically trapped in what was euphemistically referred to as White Slavery. She gets the nickname when our drunken Indian (played by a drunken Englishman) steals her and several other girls, he is planning on using them like underwear with the day of the week on it. You can get a good sense of the humor from that set up.

For the first hour, the movie is all over the place. Things happen for no reason, people are connected without really understanding how and there just seems to be a lot of chasing slapstick. It feels like they are stretching to make incidents funny intead of letting them grow out of the characters or the plot. Once we get to the main confrontation between Lee Marvin, Oliver Reed and their former partner played by Robert Culp, things make a little more sense. The movie is set in a very interesting time and place, it is a western but one that takes place after the myths of the west are settling into place. The election of 1908 is in the background and there is a funny campaign song that gets sung by our heroes. They support Taft because they always voted Republican. When it turns out that their traitorous partner is using the Taft campaign as a way to connive his way into office and promote a big prize fight, they start seeing the advantages of William Jennings Bryan.

As I said before, there are a lot of slapstick chases and crude jokes about Indians and their ways. The movie has some charm but it feels like a mess. The clearest part of the story is in the last half hour, but I'm not sure you will sit still and wait for it. There are a number of very clever gags in the film. Strother gets a terrific introduction in a bar scene where he and Lee Marvin turn out to be flimflamming the locals using a rattlesnake. Later there is a bit with a jar full of hornets. Jay plays dirty old man for most of the middle part of the movie, but the characters all yo-yo between wanting revenge and wanting to do right by the girl they end up traveling with.

The poster tag line may have been too prophetic for this movie. I did not choose to leave them out on purpose, but the movie is pretty forgettable.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot 1974 A Movie A Day Day 25

In 1974, I was 16 and generally able to make a lot of choices for myself. My parents had enough problems with my older brother, that they chose not to bring the hammer down on me for much. In truth I was such a goody two shoes they didn't have much to worry about and they knew it. I was movie crazy and I would go whenever the chance afforded itself. This was one of those opportunities I took advantage of. I'm sure it pissed my Dad off because I went with his friend Rusty to the show for the day. Rusty is a guy I mentioned before. He was only a few years older than my brother, and he basically wanted to grow up and be a magician. Specifically, he thought my Dad was the best act he had seen and wanted to emulate him. I don't know how serious he was because I never saw him practice and the one show I ever saw him perform, he needed more practice. Rusty had the same bug I did, he loved going to the movies. He was in one of the craft unions in Hollywood, and worked on TV sets as a carpenter. This meant he had money and he could indulge his whims. While, I was one of those whims. He would call and ask if I wanted to see a show and off we went. Most of the time my Dad shrugged it off, but when we would disappear into the theater for the whole day, he would blow his stack when I got home. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot was a movie I saw on one of those days. We may have gone to five films that day. I know we finished with a double feature that includes "Dogs" and "Cutthroats Nine", but we started the day at the Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Blvd. with this Clint Eastwood action film.

At first it appears that Clint is a hunted preacher, lucky to escape a crazed killer, but of course it turns out more complicated than that. As I was watching this film today, I was surprised at how little of the first half I remembered. The opening was not in my head at all. I thought Clint picked up Jeff Bridges character as a hitchhiker, it is almost exactly the opposite. There are some bits of character development that I did not recall at all, and the whole interlude with the two girls (one of them Catherine Bach) was just a haze. It actually takes almost an hour to get to the main point of the plot. This is a heist film and Clint was part of a gang that committed a big robbery. They decide to repeat the crime because the money from the first heist disappeared. The tools that are used in the crime account for Clint's moniker in the film "The Thunderbolt". The planning of the heist and set up of events is actually done very effectively. You get enough detail to know what has to go right, but there are also a number of things that can go wrong.

Once again there are a whole stream of character actors in this movie that appear in other Eastwood films. Geoffrey Lewis of course, and he is a comic foil instead of just playing the heavy. Bill McKinney has a brief bit as a lunitic driver who gives the main characters a ride. Burton Gillian, a stunt guy that was in a lot of westerns (although none that I know of with Clint) has a small part as a coworker of Clints' at a welding job. He is probably best remembered as the nasty but stupid cowboy from Blazing Saddles, he was Slim Picken's number two. I also saw Gary Busey in this movie as a coworker with Jeff Bridges. If this was not his first movie, it was close to it. This movie was written and directed by Michael Cimino, who's next picture would win the Academy Award, "The Deer Hunter". The third picture he made brought an end to the success that he had had. "Heaven's Gate" ended up destroying not only his career but United Artists Studio. While he was making his four hour western, the studio honchos were very nervous about the time and money. Cimino reportedly used Clint as a tool in his persuasive bag of tricks. He would tell anyone who doubted his ability to shoot efficiently to check with Clint. I don't know if they ever did, but that cache does him no good nowadays.

The movie looks great, most of it was shot in Idaho and Montana. This may be why Cimino wanted to film there, (and get the studio to subsidize his ranch at the same time). There is a chase scene through the gorgeous Snake River Canyon. The two leads end up leaving on a ferry ride down the river which is a chance for them and us to marvel at the beautiful background. The small town feel of the locations is really accurate. The diner, the bar and the drive-in, all feel like real places that people in that part of the world would encounter. This is why location shooting is important, the back lot at Universal or Warner's can't do this as well.

Jeff Bridges is actually a co-star if not the star of the picture. He received an Academy Award nomination in the best supporting actor category. How they figure that is not clear, he has as many lines and scenes as Clint does, and his story arc is the central point of the movie. His character'"Lightfoot" has a great walk on introduction, coming out of a field in the middle of nowhere wearing leather pants. It is clear he is the rock star of the film. I thought that his character's resolution was unnecessary, but it probably accounted for 80% of the support he got for his nomination. This is a very smooth, good looking heist picture with some great characters. It has some nice twists and there is even a Paul William's song to go with it. It is a little strange that Clint keeps telling Bridges that he is about 10 years too late to be connecting with him. Clint, was an international sex symbol at this time and his virility was used to sell a lot of movies. I just find it funny that he was playing the old man card in 1974, thirty-five years before he decided he was too old to be playing romantic leads any more.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Rollercoaster - 1977 A Movie A Day Day 24

Here is a movie that had one thing going for it in the theaters that could apparently not be reproduced for home viewing, Sensurround! This was a sound system that used an ultra low frequency bass set of speakers to actually vibrate the theater during key scenes in the film. Imagine going beyond 3-D, or Smell-o-rama, this is almost certainly part of the concept that was being parodied in the film Kentucky Fried Movie, our first Movie-A-Day. Sensurround was actually created for the movie "Earthquake" a few years earlier. The process was only used in three theatrical films, Earthquake,Midway and Rollercoaster. This movie was it's final bow. The process did receive a technical Academy Award, but I guess competing sound systems ultimately made the process less economically viable. I actually saw the three films made with Sensurround in theaters. I thought it only made sense in Earthquake.

Other than the special effect, this was a very typical Universal release in the summer of 1977. I am not exactly sure what it was about Universal Films in those days, but they often looked like they were lit for television rather than the movies. The film stock seems a little flat. The colors are fine but there is no richness or texture to the images. I was always able to pick these movies out because of this look. Also, there was a very stock set of players in the movie. They were all pros but they seemed to be thrown in as background in studio's movies, much like a set that you would see repeatedly used. Harry Guardino, Richard Widmark, William Prince were in dozens of Universal movies and played similar parts in other studio efforts as well. Before "On Golden Pond" Henry Fonda spent the last fifteen years of his career, popping up in bit parts on Universal titles. This allowed them to bill a movie star, but one that was not the lead, that they did not have to pay much and was usually in the film for only a couple of scenes.

Rollercoaster is an attempt to combine a suspense thriller with a disaster picture. The opening actually works pretty well up until the actual catastrophe. The effect of the first disaster is created on stage with live action, life sized dolls, and some speed-ed up film sequences. They are satisfactory, but they look really creaky by comparison to things that were being done a couple of years later. Star Wars actually uses some similar techniques but worked so much better. The work was professional but it looked better suited to a less expensive TV production. Before the coaster accident, there is a long suspense segment with the villain eying his target, getting into place, victims and near victims changing places. The climax is a letdown. After that it becomes a fairly standard cat and mouse game between the cops and George Segal's safety inspector on one side, and a very clever criminal on the other.

The use of Magic Mountain for the final confrontation works well, the park had not been overexposed at that point, the Revolution Roller Coaster is very photogenic, and there is some good background imagery. The roller coaster sequences are shot very effectively, the nighttime accident at the beginning does not afford the same visual impact as the wide screen day lit ride at the end. They probably copied the idea from "This is Cinerama" but it looks exciting from your seat even if you are not in a car on the coaster tracks.

There are a few interesting casting points in the background that I had forgotten about. Charlie Tuna, who is a well know DJ from the 70s up through today, has a part playing himself at the opening of the Revolution. Gary Franklin, was a radio reporter who played a radio reporter. If you don't remember, a couple of years after this came out, he was the movie critic on L.A. CBS affiliate, where he quickly became widely know for his One to Ten point scale. When he move to KABC Tv a few years after that, he had a ten year run as one of the most powerful film critics in the country. Siskel and Ebert eventually became the gold standard, but Franklin was always distinctive and very opinionated. Helen Hunt has a part as Segal's daughter, in a red herring appearance at the park during the climax. I think I also spotted Craig Wasson and Steve Guttenberg in the cast.

The band Sparks, appears in a concert sequence during the Magic Mountain scenes. I did not remember they were in this at all, and it is sort of funny because in 1983, Dolores and I along with Kathy and Art, went to a special event night at Magic Mountain, and Sparks was the featured act. I actually saw the movie at the Garfield Theater, down on the corner of Garfield and Valley. The speaker set up took out a large number of seats, but that was a huge movie house that probably seated 600 to 800 people. Quite a change from the elegant but small (200 seats) theaters of today. It's is an old fashioned movie, that felt old fashioned when I saw it in 1977.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Grease 1978 A Movie A DayDay 23

Grease is the word!!! There is nothing to dislike about this movie as long as you know something about it going in. There are a lot more crude references than you will probably remember, but that simply illustrates how joyful and fun the movie actually is, it blots out some of the crassness. This was a movie that was done inexpensively but very well, they had minimum expectations for it. RSO, the record company that was expanding into the movie business, expected Sgt. Pepper to be their big film of the summer. When this movie was first filming, John Travolta was not a movie star, he was just a well know and popular TV personality. Then lightning struck, because six months before the movie opened, Travolta exploded onto the screen in Saturday Night Fever, and was nominated for an Academy Award. So when they looked at their movie then, things started looking a lot more promising. It was for years the most successful movie musical ever. Watching it again makes you understand all over again.

I must have seen this movie dozens of times. We watched it a lot when the girls were younger and everybody knows the songs. In a few weeks there is actually a revival release planned with karaoke lyrics added so the audience can sing along. I wonder how shocked people will be when they realize they rhyme the word "shit" with "tit" in the Greased Lightning number. There are also some vague reference to oral sex and erections, but again, no one really pays much attention. There is a pretty dark theme at one point about teen pregnancy, but it blows over quickly and all is well at Rydell High. It is a testament to the performers and the production that the audience feels cheerful during the movie and not offended. The movie is rated PG, but if your kids are the kind that want to know what everyone is talking about all of the time, you might want to wait until they are a little older to show it to them. Most kids just like the dancing and singing and except for the one number I mentioned above, it is all pretty tame.

Dolores and I were looking forward to the Sgt Pepper movie when this came out but we were still thrilled when we saw this. I know we went to the theater at least twice to see it. The first time was at the Vogue Theater in Hollywood and the second time was in the mall at Del Amo in Cerritos. We saw a lot of summer movies at that mall, it was not really a great theater but it was close to her house in Norwalk and there was a matinee price. This movie came out the same summer as Jaws 2 and we may have seen them in back to back weekends. The soundtrack was ubiquitous that summer, spawning two or three number one hits, (Including the Barry Gibb penned Title Track sung by Frankie Valli). Ultimately, I would say it was the summer film of that year that everything else was measured by.

Travolta and Olivia Newton John were a little old for the parts but not so much that it took you out of the movie, and they are both really attractive as personalities here. We love the West Wing and Amanda gets a kick out of seeing First Lady Abbey Bartlet as Rizzo the slutty Pink Lady at Rydell. The staging of the dance scenes is done really well at venues that initially do not scream "Musical Dance Number ". The boys versus the girls version of Summer Loving is done on the bleachers of a high school football field and on the outdoor lunch tables. These were not flashy or glossy set ups, and as a result you pay more attention to the characters and the dancing. If you do not see Grease in a wide-screen format, you will lose about 60% of the charm in this sequence. Late in the film there are two other scenes staged in non-theatrical venues that still work like gangbusters. Travola's lover's lament at the drive-in is cleverly shown in front of the Drive-in Movie screen showing the intermission countdown. He is back-lit by the light from the projector in some shots and it is a triumph of staging.(The complete intermission countdown crawl is embedded below). Finally, a cheap carnival setting is used for the climax of the film. It also works well, there is a lot of energy in the dancing and the music is infectious.

There was a period of time after this movie came out (1981-1988) that Travolta was scorned by a lot of people. I seem to remember Tom Hollihan referring to him as John Revolta. Of course he established a lot of cred and returned for a ten tear dominance at the box office after Pulp Fiction. He is still in high demand today and I'll bet a lot of the good will and positive feeling people have toward him are a relut of their fond memories of Danny Zucko in Grease.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Rescuers 1977 A Movie A Day Day 22

Once upon a time, all my movie viewing at home was done on an amazing invention called a laserdisc player. These discs were 12" the same size as a vinyl LP. Many people these days imagine that this large and clunky process was problematic, but nothing could be further from the truth. Laserdiscs are elegant and the artwork for the packaging puts most DVDs to shame. The Laserdisc pioneered the notion of special editions, deleted material, feature archive, trailers and second audio soundtracks years before the smaller DVD came along. The movie I watched today is from my collection of over six hundred laserdiscs that I acquired between 1990 and 2008. I have transfered many to DVD, but this one I watched on my still functioning laser disc player.

The Rescuers was one of Disney's 1970s features that showed how the animation styles had grown tired and stilted. The drawings of contemporary cites, buses and buildings, look flat and uninteresting. The characters move well enough but with one or two exceptions, the degree of attention paid to the animated performance was not up to snuff. The songs are cute but not memorable in any way. I am not saying this movie was a failure, it just shows how the studio had reached the end of the line. There were two or three features that followed this one, before "The Little Mermaid" revitalized the feature animation business.

The script from the Rescuers may have followed the book closely, I don't know, but it does seem that we jump from one scene to another without much reason or rhythm. The plot is OK, but it is very dreary from the beginning, and is actually quite grim for most of the movie. In the sequel, there was another grim scenario but it was made much more appealing by spectacular vistas and flying sequences. Disney's latest traditionally drawn "Princess and the Frog" owes a lot in art design to the Rescuers. The two Alligator characters are templates for the gator in the recent film. The bayou setting has many of the same kinds of smokey images in both films. The southern accents in the Rescuers are much more comic in nature than accurate. It fed a stereotype of slow taking, lazy thinking southerners that I suspect people today would find offensive. Speaking of offensive, there is an element in the Rescuers that you would never see in a politically correct movie produced in the current environment. One of the minor characters makes his own alcohol and then consumes it to comic effect. Later in the movie another character is heroically revived by taking a big swig of this moonshine and everyone celebrates how it helps save the day. Can you imagine such a sequence from a kid's movie today? The studio would be pilloried by social and parents groups for selling the idea that alcohol has any redeeming features. If this movie were being rated today, instead of a G rating it would probably get a PG-13 for drug and alcohol use.

The voice actors were especially well cast and that makes up for some of the un-inventive animation. Bob Newhart is perfectly cast as the timid voiced but brave hearted Bernard. Eva Gabor is exotic and winsome as Bianca. They reprised their characters in the sequel as well. I was frustrated while watching the movie, trying to place the voice actor who played Mr. Snoops. I recognized the voice from the past but I could not quite put my finger on it. I finally cheated and looked on IMDB and it turned out to be Joe Flynn. He played the fussy and officious Captain Binghamton on McHale's Navy. He did a dozen other Disney movies I'm sure. He died just a few days after finishing the voice work on this movie, which did not come out until three years after his death.

There is a lot to recommend in the movie, but it has very little life and older kids are likely to get bored because there is really not action or comedy for a long stretch at the beginning of the movie. Dolores was working at Disneyland the summer this movie came out, we did not get any discount but I remember merchandise and displays in the Main Street shops that featured the film. If you had a pleasant memory of the movie and want to share it with your child, it would be alright. Just don't expect the awe that comes with later Disney efforts or the classics from before Walt's death.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Sssssss (1973) A Movie a Day Day 21

As many of you are aware, Strother Martin was my mother's cousin. He lived with her family for a period of time when he was going to college and they were pretty close. When I was growing up in the 1960's I remember going to his home with Helen out in Agoura Hills for dinner on several occasions. One time when we were out there we visited a Animal Rescue Ranch, it might be the one Tippi Hedren ran but I'm not sure. I do know that as a kid I didn't like the baked beans Helen served one night and she told me to skip the next dinner. I was embarrassed because I was rude to my Mom's family. Helen seemed to forgive me though because later on as an adult, I was always greeted warmly when she came to my parent's place for dinner after Strother (Jay to all of us) had passed away. I know the date of his death because it was the night before my wedding. My Mom did not tell us, and I was so busy that I did not even realize they had not made it down for the service. I found out reading the paper a couple of days into our honeymoon and immediately called home. Mom said she did not want it to overshadow the day so she had just kept quiet. I was to discover over the years that she was pretty good at that kind of thing.

Sssssss, is one of the few starring roles Jay had in the movies. It was a B-type picture, but I am happy to point out that the producers were Zanuck/Brown, who two years later would create the greatest adventure/action picture of all time, (If you don't know,I'm not going to tell you). A couple of years before, he also starred in a low budget horror film called the Brotherhood of Satan. Brotherhood was not a summer release so it will not make this blog, but I am proud to stand up for Sssssss, as a good example of a 1970's style horror film. There are limited special effects, some good make-up, a creepy concept and some fine performers. Those things can go a long way in entertaining people. Cynical modern audiences might scoff at some of the visual concepts or plot points, a remake of this movie would feature CGI to a ridiculous degree. That is when the idea and the actors would become less important to telling a story.

Jay plays Dr. Stoner, an expert on snake venom and snakes. He is involved in some secretive research. The opening of the film, is a very creepy scene that features two good actors and a sound effect on the audio track that will give you nightmares, and you will see nothing. The story then sets up a couple of revenge plot elements and lays the foundation for some slow building ickyness. If snakes creep you out, this would make a good double feature with "Snakes on a Plane". You will see how effects and concept don't always make a movie better, sometime it is just different. Anyway, Dr. Stoner and his daughter run a research lab, and they do a venom milking show as a way to raise money. The new lab assistant from the University is given injections to help protect him from snake bite, or so he thinks.

The actors are all competent. Dirk Bendict plays the new assistant. He has some whiny moments because of the thing that happens to him, but he also gets to chase the girl in the lake naked. This was a sexy scene that is cleverly covered up by key placement of tree branches and leaves in the foreground. I don't remember that from when the film played in theaters, and I can' imagine any reason why it would be added later, except for TV showings. I was fifteen when the movie came out, so I probably imagined a lot more than was actually there. I remember thinking that the girl played by Heather Menzies was very attractive. She comes across very nerd like in the movie, so she may not have hit the spot for everyone, but she was my cup of tea at the time. I may be biased, but I thought Strother was great. He plays the role with the right amount of sympathy, sadness and crazy as a loon goofiness. There is a nice scene where he is reading Walt Whitman to a snake, and he is slightly drunk. It comes off as a little weird but also kind of sweet. The snake is his closest friend, and when bad things happen, he plays out the part like a geek based Charles Bronson. Richard Shull, another well known character actor, plays Dr. Stoner's nemesis, and he is pretty good at being pompous. The comeuppance he gets is disturbing with just one or two camera shots. This would be an unnecessary CGI shot today, good for shock value and laughs but not adding to the horror. This movie played on a double bill with "The Boy who Cried Werewolf", a movie I remember not at all. This was one of the final examples of a studio booking two films together. Double features continued for another 15 years, but the movies were put together by the theater management rather than the distributor.

The resolution of the movie is a little abrupt, but it coveys a strong horror response in one of our lead characters. It is definitely a 70's style shot and cut, designed to leave the audience aghast. The movie is not a world beater, but it has enough creeps and a fine performance from the star to justify seeing it. Jay was a nice man and an excellent actor. He died too young and he would have been great in some 80's movies also. He worked with Paul Newman a half dozen times, and John Wayne about the same. Most people will remember him from the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke, where he utters the famous line"What we've got here is a failure to communicate". His costars in this movie are not as famous, but one of them is a King. (Cobra that is.)

[This Poster is on my wall right now]

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Summer of '42 1971 A Movie a Day Day 20

Was there ever a woman so longed for as Jennifer O'Neil in "the Summer of 42"? She was the epitome of beauty, grace and idealized love. Not just for the main character in the movie, but for all the men in the audience watching. She is seen early on in the film from afar, and in the last twenty minutes barely speaks a word, but her character is imprinted on every scene in the movie, including those that are comic and that she is not a part of. Our hero "Hermie" can't get her out of his head and neither can we. The casting agent that put her in this film should have received an award. This was a very effective performance, but it was a match between image and actress that makes the the movie work.

Gary Grimes, the actor that plays Hermie had some other parts in early 70's movies, but his performance here is really delicate and spot on, and he was really just a kid. Jerry Houser, who plays Hermie's best friend Oscy, has had a successful voice over career and still works. Neither will probably ever match the nuanced and comical work they did in this movie. The film came out in 1971 and I remember it well because it was a big hit and was playing in the theater in Crestline, Ca., the summer that my family performed for three months in a tent at Lake Gregory. I had always thought the movie was based on a book, but it is one of those rare cases where the book was based on the screenplay, became a bestseller before the movie came out, and made the author a bundle in two distinct ways. It is a memoir, so much of the story is supposedly based on the life of the author.

When I was in high school, I did an speech interpretation, using a section of the book , for my training at the Western Forensic Institute. I don't think I ever used it in competition myself, but I know I lent my interp to Bill Gross and Leo Mohr, for them to use as a duo interpretation when we were in college. My debate partner Rick and I, did Twinkle, Twinkle Killer Kane and they did the Summer of 42. Everybody seemed to get a kick out of the four of us "serious" debaters doing oral interpretation. If there is a list of the funniest pieces of business in the cultural atmosphere in the early 70's, right next to Monty Python's Knight's of Nee, would be the episode from the film where Hermie goes to the pharmacy to buy condoms. Watching it tonight, I was worried that it would not come across very well, times have changed so much. Amanda was cracking up however, so the point still seems to be funny, even if schools are passing out condoms at lunch these days. The movie is set of course in 1942 and the main characters are the same age as my parents would have been in that same year. I sometimes feel that I can see my folks when they were growing up because of this movie and a film set in the same time period called "Racing with the Moon". The clothes and music and cars and wartime background, are visualized very realistically, and the kids act like kids might have in that time period, not precocious transplants from contemporary times. Every outfit Jennifer O'Neil wears in this movie is sexy, without being flashy. People wore clothes everyday, that were fashionable but also elegant. Kids did dress down, but when they dressed up you knew it.

The music from this movie may be the most romantic tune ever created for a movie. I will include a link for you below, but it has images from the movie that you might want to wait to look at until after you have seen the movie yourself. Oh yeah, you should see the movie, It is a sweet meditation on the key moments in our lives. Those moments are not the same for everyone, but there is a point when you can say, after this I was different. The experience shared in this movie is a romantic one, but for anyone of us it could be unique; your first car, losing a job, changing schools, finding a new best friend. The movie is very tender and discrete in handling the coming of age story. The mood that permeated our family room afterward was somber. Amanda asked me if I had seen Jules and Jim because she felt very much the same at the end of that movie. I had not looked at this movie in twenty-five years or more, but I remembered it almost word for word. I guess it made quite an impression on me. I think everyone else will be impressed as well.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

"Lifeguard" 1976 A Movie a Day Day 19

For all my friends from Torrance, here's one for you. This movie was filmed at the beach in your hometown. Maybe you will recognize it or maybe even better, you will remember them doing the filming and have some comments to post about that. I looked all over the place for a trailer for the movie and could not find one. Even the DVD does not provide a trailer. Also, it appears that prior releases of the film on home video and television have left out the original songs that were written by Paul Williams for the movie. The above clip contains the most effective use of the song in the movie and it gives you a much better sense of what the tone of the film is then the poster which you will find below.

There is only one reason to see the movie, and that is Sam Elliot. Not that there isn't a pretty good slice of life story and that it is done poorly. Quite the opposite is true, but the selling point and the whole reason the movie matters is Sam Elliot as the star. This guy should have been the biggest movie star in the world. He is not necessarily a great actor but he has charisma to burn, and frankly is better looking than just about anybody you or I ever met. There is a line in the movie where his character is discussing with an old girlfriend, some options he has, and she reassures him by saying, "You could always get everyone to like you", truer words about a character were never spoken. He is not always admirable in the movie. He casts aside a sexy blond he has been sleeping with pretty casually, and he gets involved with a girl who is underage. Still, despite the fact he is a scoundrel, he is a likable one that we understand.
This is a low key movie. There are only a couple of memorable events that you hang a story on, most of it is character based and very quiet. Elliot's character Rick, is facing a fork in the road. How long can he go on doing a job like his, and feeling like life has not passed him by? There is a very good sequence set at his 15th High School Reunion, that gives us a chance to see how conflicted he is about being a lifeguard, when the rest of his classmates appear to be more accomplished. Of course if you watch the first fifteen minutes of the movie, you will understand his dilemma because his job is great. He gets to go to the beach everyday, watch gorgeous women in skimpy swimsuits, work on a fantastic tan, and then go home and have beautiful women throw themselves at him. Is he refusing to grow up or has he grown up and no one else recognizes it?

There was only one scene that seemed a little false to me. He goes home and has dinner with his parents. They seem to have a very good relationship and there is a lot of warmth. Over the course of the dinner, his brother's research and new job are mentioned and his dad suddenly jumps on him about his lifestyle. Based on what came earlier, it just seemed like a plot point, not something that grew out of the story or character. A similar shift in tone occurs when he goes to interview for a job selling Porsche s, only here the switch in attitude better fits the situation and the character.

The movie is only an hour and thirty seven minutes, but it is a leisurely trip. I can't imagine this movie being made today by a major studio. Even independent films are more focused on plot than a character study like this. From the poster you can tell the studio was selling this as a comedy, and there are a few funny lines (Watch Rick at the bar, talking to a blond receptionist who doesn't get any of his jokes), but if you go into this expecting a sex comedy, you will be disappointed. It is a drama about a man, faced with his own questions about his life. Maybe all of us can see ourselves in this situation, wondering what it all adds up to and hoping that we are going to be OK. I know when I see myself confronting those questions however, I'd feel a lot better if I looked like Sam Elliot.

The Mackintosh Man 1973 A Movie a Day Day 18

Well, I've been out of town a couple of days so I have fallen a little behind on the blog. Vegas is great for a couple of days and then it is time to get out and that's what we did. While I was there, I did do a little experiment related to this blog. The only copies of this movie I could find where old VHS tapes that were marked up substantially or were being auctioned, so I might not be able to get my hands on it. I checked i-tunes however, and it is available there for purchase or rent. Since I would not be able to transfer it to a DVD anyway, I decided I would rent it. This is the first time I've rented on i-tunes. I have some movies that I bought, but I was not familiar with how the whole process worked. You get access for a month but the minute you start watching your movie a clock starts running and your rental expires in 24 hours. I took this movie with me to Vegas, and I thought since it was on the i-pod that the 24hour limit might not matter. I was wrong on that count, the i-pod indicated a countdown had begun, there is even a little warning when you start so if you want to wait longer you can. So this is the first movie I have rented for the project, the first digital rental I have ever done, and the first movie for this project that I watched on a really small screen.

This is a thriller from John Huston, that I'll bet most people have not seen, in fact there are probably a lot of you out there that have never even heard of it. I don't recall any reviews from the time the movie came out, and I don't know how successful it was. Most of us nowadays are used to seeing box office returns being reported on every Monday morning. Prior to E.T., most box office was only know widely in the film industry. Occasionally a movie like the Godfather, Goldfinger, Jaws or Star Wars became a cultural phenomenon, and then there would be press coverage. Clearly this movie does not fall into that category, so it's level of artistic and financial success are something you would have to dig up. Like a great many of the movies on this list, it is of it's time, and reflects the world of the 1970. Most of it is set in London, but there are sequences in Ireland and Malta as well. Because it deals with thieves, spies, and prison in a realistic way, there is not much of the glamor left over from the mod 60's here. In fact, there is a nice sense of the oppressiveness that wore out the English political scene in the 70's.

I could not remember but two things from this film before I re saw it; the prisoner's clothing for the high risk prisoners was distinguished by bright yellow graphic patterns and that the gun Paul Newman uses toward the end of the movie was an automatic that looked pretty distinct and weird to me. If you look at the trailer above, you will see how the gun is used to create a memorable graphic for the movie.

This is probably why I remembered the gun, because I remembered the poster. The plot of the movie is actually quite complicated, and that makes the tag line "whoever he is, he's not what you think" pretty accurate. In my head, this would sit on a shelf with another movie on my list, that I have not seen since it opened, "The Black Windmill" with Michael Caine. They are both blurry spy thrillers from the 70's that featured actors I would usually be willing to go see. The Mackintosh Man features a pairing of Paul Newman and James Mason nearly 10 years before their film "The Verdict". I haven't looked to see if they did any more films together, both were nominated for Academy Awards for the Verdict. This current movie was not an award type of film, but there was good suspense and some unique elements that are worth seeing it for. I want to make particular note of the music score by Maurice Jarre, it is elegant and haunting in a manner very similar to "The Third Man", a comparison that I'm sure was not accidental. Just a couple of years later, Jarre would score Huston's masterpiece, "The Man Who Would Be King".

Since this blog is not just about movie reviews, but also an attempt to help me avoid forgetting everything that makes me who I am (as well as letting my kids pass on stories when I am gone), I will mention one last thing about the movie going experience. I opened a closet with skeletons I did not know would be there when I mentioned that I saw this with a date, a girl I am not currently married to. This made my wife very irritable, I guess I was not supposed to exist as a romantic character in any context other then our own. I have thought of Robin, the ice-skater from Granada Hills maybe a half dozen times over the last 37 years, you would think I took her out last night from the stink eye Dolores gave me when I told her about this. My suggestion to everyone else, write a memoir for your kids, but don't let anyone see it until after you are dead, otherwise that point might come earlier than you expect.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


The Planet of the Apes Series is really an attempt to cash in on the success of the original movie, in the cheapest manner possible. The follow up movies are really done in a style that was more befitting television rather than film. In fact by 1975 I think, there was a television series based on the concept. It lasted only one season so it appeared that the story had run it's course, at least as far as the audience was concerned. This is not to say that the movies that came after were worthless, but they were unnecessary and sometimes kind of weird.

I actually saw this movie on a triple bill in 1973 I think. That was another one of the differences between movie going as a kid and the way we experience movies today. Since there were no video releases, studios could either sell their material to play on TV or they could find other ways to exploit them. Re-releases are most well know as the tool that Disney used to generate cash on a regular basis. Every seven years or so, they would take out one of their classic animation films, and play it in movie theaters. This was also done with the James Bond films. The first time I saw a Bond film was on a double bill and a second release (From Russia With Love and Thunderball). I had seen the original Planet of the Apes when it first came out, and I was it with my family. I saw the trailer for the movie at the Rialto Theater in South Pasadena. I don't remember what it was playing with, and I don't recall where we went to see it, I do remember being blown away by the ending.

I am pretty sure that I did not see the second "Apes" film when it first came out, and I don't know how long it took to put all three together on one bill. Almost all movies in those days played as double features. Typically a new release was paired with a film that was a few months older. The addition of a third film was somewhat unique, and I know I went with a friend, because there was no way my family would have been able to sit through three movies. (I loved going into the theater in early afternoon and coming out in the dark, of course I am a bit of a freak like that). I do know that I saw the three films playing in Pasadena. I thought there was a big movie house on Colorado between the United Artists and the State, but it just might have been the UA that I went to.

"Escape" is a reversal of the original film. The humans are in charge and the Apes are out of place and can talk. This probably seemed like a clever twist on the original movie, and saved a lot on building new sets, since you could film around town and the setting was contemporary. You can add a lot of fish out of water sequences, and it sets up the rest of the series in a somewhat logical fashion. The opening revelation of the Apes returning to Earth in the 1970's is a good visual sequence set on a beach, but once we get past the opening, things progress much too quickly to be very believable. Sal Mineo, an actor with an Academy Award nomination from Rebel Without a Cause, plays Dr. Milo, the Ape visitor that is killed ten minutes into the movie. This was his last feature role, he was murdered in 1976. So his last movie role you don't even get to see his face. After the death of their colleague, the other two Apes end up in a series of comic scenes based on sexual stereotypes and the world at the time. It is hard to believe that the government would decide to put up these Ape visitors from the future at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, much less send them shopping and to cocktail parties, but that is what happens.

The villain of the movie is the science adviser to the President. In truth, he has a legitimate concern for future events. By the end of the movie however he has become so self righteous and single minded that he is pretty loathsome. I thought the President was well played by an actor I remember liking from a lot of things in the 60's and 70s, William Windom. He may have the best written part in the movie, he comes across as smart, conscientious and politically savvy. The President has not ordered the elimination of the Apes, but the advisory committee he appointed is largely responsible. The President actually is sympathetic to the apes situation, and even though they have no scenes together, conveys a general feeling of what the world opinion about this situation might really be. On the other hand, the committee is played for laughs at first and then they become the heavies that enable the science adviser to act.

Bradford Dillman plays the supportive veterinarian, who tries to assist our heroes through the political events and then their escape. This might be the only sympathetic role he ever played. In most of the movies and TV shows I saw him in, he was the heavy or the slimy political hack. Roddy McDowell reprises his role from the first film, and I believe is in all of the following movies as well. I'm not sure why he was replaced in the second movie, but the character was nearly invisible in that film so it did not matter. His soft voice and genteel manner is one of the selling points for making us sympathetic to the apes in the first place. The movie is not great but of the five films, it is in the middle both in production and quality of the story.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

North Dallas Forty (1979) A Movie a Day Day 16

This was a movie I saw late in the summer of 1979. The subject is football but not so much the game as the business of the game. I'm not sure that I like it as well as I thought I did. Part of the reason is that the movie is sold as a comedy, and while there are several amusing bits, the majority of the film appears to be a criticism of the game. I'll add that it was not a very focused criticism.

Nick Nolte and Mac Davis are the hot shot stars of the Dallas football team. They drink , smoke pot, and generally carouse with the other players on the team. For some reason Nick Nolte's character thinks better of himself than this. He is supposed to be an outsider, because he does not toe the company line. It is not clear what the team wants from him that he sees as being untrue to himself. His closest friend on the team, the quarterback played by Mac Davis, pretty much does things the same way he does, and nobody seems to be upset about that. As far as you can see, Nolte's character follows the directions of the coach and performs on the field. This movie is apparently based on a book that was a loose expose of the Dallas Cowboy organization. If Mac Davis is supposed to be a stand in for Dandy Don Meredith, then Roger Staubach is not the man he claimed to be, or he ought to sue. The episode in the film that contains the biggest laughs, focuses on a story involving the religious married rookie quarterback,being involved in a disgusting sexual peccadillo. The tag line for the poster about waiting for the Weird stuff comes from this story.

The movie is two hours and it has 15 minutes, at best, worth of funny. What it does have going for it is a locker room view of the professional game. The supporting characters feel real, even the ones that engage in some outrageous stunts. The two offensive line men are slightly crazed and seem like exaggerations, but it never goes to the point of parody. On game day their ritual is one of the most real things in the movie. Another thing that is real, or at least feels real, is the way the players are manipulated by the coaches to get the most out of them. My guess is that this was true at the time the movie was being made.

Here is the problem with the movie in a contemporary context. The players today have much greater power, the league does not treat the injuries of star players or others lightly. The mechanical approach that the coach takes in the movie, is a big part of the game today, but instead of the game suffering for it, the quality of play has improved. Maybe the guys in the old days were tougher but they were not faster, or stronger or more professional than the NFL players of today. If Nolte's character took that damn cigarette out of his mouth occasionally, and took the workouts a bit more seriously, he would not need as many pills and shots as he takes in the movie. The character played by Bo Svenson is supposed to be hopped up on steroids, that would account for his rage and the sexual frustration he shows at the party. However, the word "steroid " is never used, and all he gets are B-12 shots. Maybe we are supposed to see thru this, but since every other argument against the game is spelled out in big letters to get the message across, it seems strange that they pull their punches here. This movie wants to have it both ways. It wants us to root for the team, see the player perform, and then afterward, we are supposed to dismiss all of this as something childish. The girlfriend that Nolte's character gets involved with is a good illustration of this. She is an outsider at the wild party, who holds the players in disdain (Justified in this scene but not others), she points out all the problems that her boyfriend has with his body, but appreciates the play he makes in the big game at the end. She is a plot device to allow Nolte to work off of and verbalize his criticism so we can hear it out loud.

There is a lot that is fine in this movie, the atmosphere of professional football in the 1970's is probably right on. The characters, when they are not advancing the point of view of the message, are real. G.D. Spradlin,a familiar character actor from the time (he should have played Darrel Gates in a movie about the LAPD) does a very good job as a coach that knows what it takes to win in the league, even if talent is only part of the game. The character Nolte plays, wants to be judged only on his talent, but the game is planning, adjustment, strategy, study, hard work. The coach conveys that he know talent, but what never seems to get into our protagonist's head is that there are other people that are part of the game too. I think my recently retired colleague Bob Phelan, would appreciate the coaches point of view. "Hey Nick, You're Not the Center of the Universe."

Monday, June 14, 2010

Futureworld 1976 A Movie a Day Day 15

Spoiler Warning!!! if you watch the Trailer Before the Movie, Some Secrets Are Revealed, the same goes for the poster image.

I got to this one a little late in the day. One of the reasons I picked it was I thought it would be relatively brief. It was just over two hours so my memory is clearly fuzzy on this one. This was an August 1976 release, so it is possible that I saw it with Dolores but that seems less likely than I saw it with someone else. It might even have been a movie I saw with my friend on the USC Debate team, Jon Cassanelli. We hung out a lot during this summer, getting ready for the next year of debate.I was at his house in North Hollywood a lot that summer. We sat at a partner desk and did research, typed briefs and tried to stay cool. The main reason I think he must have been the person I saw it with, was that it was the kind of film he would like. It is not very serious, had some fun lines and bits of business and I think we may have gone to a multiplex in the valley in search of better air conditioning.

This is a sequel to the more well known "Westworld". The rights must have belonged to someone not at MGM, because this is an American International film. They were famous for drive in exploitation and cheap European dubbed cinema. While this is clearly not a high budget production, they get a lot of bang for their buck. There is a clever sequence involving holographic chess, that is a year before the scene in Star Wars on the Millennium Falcon. The special effects are not amazing as they were in Star Wars but the concept is well executed and it fits with some of the other material in this section of the film pretty well. Most of their money probably went to Yul Bryner, to get him to come back and play the role of the iconic robot gunman from the original film. He is only in the movie for one five minute scene, and it is a dream sequence that has nothing to do with the story except it showcases the machine that the bad guys can use to get all of your personal information. There is probably a reason that the female character has a sex fantasy related to the gunslinger, but it is not really explained. Early in the movie a comic character, who disappears after the first half of the movie, talks about robot sex and even asks our heroine if she is going to try it. This may be the source of the dream, but it gets Yul Bryner in the movie and allows the filmmakers to use his image in the advertising.

If you watch the trailer or see the movie poster, you will know the secret plot of the movie much sooner than necessary. Amanda had not seen either and while we were watching, she was creeped out by a couple of the things that are going on and she was in suspense as the story unfolded. She did not know where things were headed and it kept her in the movie. Another thing that might have helped is that she has not seen all those other films from the 1970s where there is a conspiracy to do something terrible and political and the journalists are the Hero (Capricorn One, The Parallax View among others.) So this movie does march out a bunch of familiar tropes from that time period. After the stuff that happened in the 60s and 70s, everyone was a little paranoid and looking for trouble. I hope we have gotten over that, but I still see those 911 truthers selling books and see people posting on news sites about the space program that deny the moon landings. I guess paranoia isn't going to disappear, but it is less part of the popular culture than it once was.

There have been attempts over the years to re-make Westworld. In fact, I think there was a script and pre-production and casting but the green-light went red. Arnold was going to play the gunslinger, and that might have worked because although he does not look much like a cowboy, the robot part fits him well and he has no lines. Futureworld is not likely to get remade, although it is not a bad idea. It was not a big hit, it has largely been forgotten, and there are technical advances that would make it a very interesting movie. As I said earlier, they did get a lot out of what they spent. The film does not look cheap, but there are very limited effects. I did think that unlike the original Westworld, the things to do in the differnt parts of the Delos Park this time, seemed more intriguing.

Blythe Danner is the female lead and she looks very much like her daughter, Gweneth Paltrow in a couple of scenes. Her big dream sequence is sexy without having much sex in it, and she carries off the showdown she has at the end pretty well. Peter Fonda is OK, but fairly standard issue. After the clunky opening set up of the mystery, he settles in nicely. There are not a lot of movies that end with a middle finger being slung at the antagonists, but along with Easy Rider, Peter Fonda is in two of them. Arthur Hill, who seemed like he lived at my house in the 1970s because he was on so many TV programs and movies, plays a pretty familiar genial on the surface but not very trustworthy otherwise character. Hal Holbrook could easily have replaced him and I would not notice. They must have auditioned for the same roles all the time in the 70s. Also in the film is Stuart Margolin, a TV actor that showed up in movies pretty regularly. If you ever watched the Rockford Files, he played Angel, Rockford's weaselly friend. He is also well cast for his part.

This is another one of those high concept science fiction movies from the 1970s, that existed before the term high concept was widely used a few years later. It is not as great as Soylent Green or Capricorn One, but it will entertain you for a couple of hours and that's what Westworld and Futureworld are all about (just remember that the people you watch this with are not sex robots waiting to entertain you after the feature).

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Rocky II 1979 A Movie a Day Day 14

This time I want to start with a story about the movie going experience instead of the movie itself. This is one of the few things in my life that I am ashamed of, rather than just embarrassed. I went to see this movie twice on opening day. The first time was with Dan and Art, and we went in the afternoon and had a great time. Here is the part I don't like to admit, we then picked up Dolores and Kathy, and took them out for the evening, and we did not tell them we had already seen the movie. I'm not sure why we did this, except that we suspected they would not be interested in going if we had already gone, and we wanted to experience their reaction to the movie. It was a lousy thing to do, to keep this from them. On the way out of the movie, one of us finally announced that we had gone that afternoon, and all hell broke loose. It was some kind of violation that in retrospect seems obvious, but at the time probably appeared to be inoffensive. I'm not sure if Kathy ever recovered from this, and we had weird episodes at the movies with her on many subsequent occasions.

I know I apologized to Dee, and I have never done anything like this since. I have done plenty of other stupid things related to movie going, including seeing a movie or two that she wanted to go to without her. That was usually a result of my not realizing her goal in the situation, it has never been a deliberate deception. By the way, Dolores, once again I am sorry.

Now to the movie itself. I have read other comments suggesting that the Rocky sequels are all unnecessary. I would have been perfectly fine if they had not happened because I agree, there was nothing to fix in the original. The first Rocky is perfection. It was the little movie that could and did win us over. There were no big stars or expectations, just the strength of the story and the passion of the writer/creator of the character. Over the years, Stallone probably got a bad rap for many of the choices he made. Some of the acting roles he took just did not work, and some of the films he directed, although successful, were not very good. That having been said, Rocky 2 represents the qualities of the underdog he was and it is true to the character he created. After the success of the original Rocky, Stallone made a couple of duds and it looked like his career might flame out. He had enough cache left however to leverage himself the directors role on this movie as well as star and writer.I think he acquitted himself very well.

My memory of the original LA Times review was that they thought it did not seem true to his character, some of the things he does in the movie. I think that is exactly the point. Rocky needs to figure out who he is. That he created a name for himself in the first fight with Apollo Creed, doesn't mean he knows how to handle his life and new notoriety. In a contemporary version of this story there would have to be a couple of violent confrontations and cruel teasing to get him back in the ring. There is a bit of psychological manipulation, but most of the motivation to fight comes from the fact that this is how he finally defined himself. He does not get back into the ring with Creed because he has been called chicken, but because he defined himself as a man by being a fighter and taking care of Adrian. When he no longer fights, he has a hard time doing the one other thing that defined him.

The movie starts off by repeating the last few minutes of the previous film. There is a lot of positive emotion in that, and it is dangerous, because you remind the audience of their high expectations. The final outcome however is earned because what goes on during the middle part of the film is a reminder of why we loved these characters in the first place. It is manipulative, but guess what, that is what a good director does. He finds the right buttons to push so that you will care about the story and be satisfied that you took the trip. There is not a betrayal of the first film by the second. It is a different story,with a different outcome but with the same honest circumstance we began with in the first movie. The biggest theft of a movies well earned love with characters, came in the opening of Alien 3. That movie flushed the preceding movie down the toilet and said,"let's start it over by kicking the audience in the teeth." Rocky 2 doesn't make that mistake. Of course it can't live up to the first time, that movie came out of nowhere. Just as a second kiss or date is an extension of the relationship you started, it will not have the same electricity. Does that render it worthless? I'll tell you what, I've kissed my wife a thousand times since the first electric touch of our lips. It has not always been the same, but they are all worth something and they don't make the first time meaningless. The slogan in the trailer captures the true nature of the movie; "His whole life was a million to one shot" (the original tagline for Rocky), "Now he shows he's one in a million." It fits but yet it is different. Just like the movie itself.

High Plains Drifter 1973 A Movie a Day Day13

We just got back from the Yenny's where we had a great visit with our friends and a wonderful meal. Rick and Mary were on their way to Ontario to pick up Jimmy, so they stopped and had dinner with us as well. I reminded them about this blog and if they don't bother to bookmark it and read it on a regular basis, the next entries will be less friendly. All of this fits in with the theme of today's movie "High Plains Drifter". A vengeful spirit finds cruel ways to extract justice from a town that ignored the desperate pleas of their last lawman. Ok, I'm not a Marshall and no one is whipping me to death, but I am flogging this blog so give it some attention or I will haunt you.

Clint Eastwood is the star of at least a half dozen films on my summer blog list, this is the first one that he is featured in that I got to. I was a little annoyed to hear that Sam and Nate had not seen "Dirty Harry", and Ellie came in after the Rollino's left and did not even know what "Dirty Harry" was. Now let's get this straight, Clint Eastwood has been a movie star for twice as long as any of these kids have been alive, and It is just Un-American not to have seen Clint in his most iconic role. However, since it was not available at Blockbuster at a price the young Yenny boys could afford, I will give them some credit if they see this movie this summer. Other than Harry Callahan, Clint is best known for his westerns. "High Plains Drifter" was Clint's third directorial effort and it is a western that is substantially different from the Italian films he made in the 1960s. Although it might at first appear that the character of a nameless gunfighter is not too far from the Sergio Leone epics, the truth is this movie is a lot more twisted and the protagonist, a lot less sympathetic or heroic. In fact, this is actually a ghost story masquerading as a western. As the movie goes on, it gets creepier and crueler, and most of us would hope not to have a vengeful wraith like this after us.

A town is deeply afraid of three violent criminals that are set to be freed from the penitentiary. Their hired gunslingers are killed and they turn to the man responsible for leaving them in this situation. It turn out that this is not a remake of High Noon, with Clint in the Gary Cooper role. Instead, this movie is more like "The Haunting", where the innocent are few and the guilty are punished. The town of course has a secret, and none of the townsfolk are blameless in the back-story. Clint's character gets away with mentally torturing the towns people, stealing from them in the most obnoxious ways, and even getting away with rape. Still as the history of the story is told you don't take much pity on the residents of Lago. When the town gets relabeled "HELL", it is literally true. I may have already given away more of the story than I should, but you oldtimers who have seen it won't care and if any one has yet to see it, there are still a lot of key things I have left out. The trailer at the top of the page is actually pretty effective at setting up the movie and not giving anything away. The supernatural twist is left out entirely, but I think you will enjoy the movie more if you are spooked a little from the beginning.

There are a bunch of familiar faces in the cast. Anthony James appears as one of the merciless outlaws, his is a face you will recognize from a dozen places. He usually plays a sniveling heavy,he has a gaunt, greasy look that filled that bill in most of his movies. Early in his career, he played the killer in "In the Heat of the Night", and his last movie before retiring from acting was "Unforgiven" where he played "Skinny" the owner of the billiards parlor that makes the mistake of decorating his saloon with the body of Clint's friend. Not a bad pair of films to bookend your career. Geoffrey Lewis plays another of the killers, and he must have been in every movie Clint made in the 1970s. His daughter is the actress Juliette Lewis. There are several other faces that will pop up in Clint films over the next twenty years. Everyone one in the movie is just fine, and the whole town plays chicken quite convincingly. The only brave souls are the little person that becomes sheriff/mayor of the town and the current sheriff.They might be considered brave because they parade around a target for the rest of the town's men to practice shooting at, and none of these guys could hit the broad side of a barn with a shotgun. The two sheriffs could have been drilled during target practice.

For at least a year, Dan Hasegawa, Art Franz and I would accuse anyone who couldn't hear us of having "pigshit" in their ears because of a line in this movie. When you are fifteen, saying "pigshit" seemed cool. Clearly it was not and that might explain why none of us had a date to take to the prom in high school. Well, live and learn.