Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Anderson Tapes 1971 A Movie A Day Day 91

I remembered this movie extremely well, even though I have not seen it for twenty years. The first time I saw it was on it's release in 1971. Sean Connery appeared in his last "Official" Bond project the same year this came out (Diamonds are Forever). In this movie the character has none of the charm or sophistication of 007. Duke Anderson is a tough burglar, capable of violence but not really prone to it. There is a self righteous speech he gives to the psychologist at the prison on the day that he is released, that indicates he is angry and a bit of a sociopath. From the very beginning though, we see a pretty good relationship with a younger criminal and an old timer, that tells us that though he is a crook, he may not be a bad guy to know. I don't think I saw many movies with my friend Mark Witt. We met at Margarita Elementary School in the 7th grade, and we were good friend until we graduated Alhambra High. I seem to recall going with him to the Alhambra Theater for this film. Although I remember the film quite well I am a little fuzzy on the circumstances.

Sidney Lumet is the director of this movie and he made several excellent crime films in the 1970s. Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico are the best known of these films, both are rightly celebrated. It is unfair that this movie does not have the same reputation. The actor's roles are not as flashy, but the direction of the movie is taut and very much in keeping with the gritty atmosphere of other New York based crime films. Let me point out two illustrations of how this movie reflected a real New York early 70's vibe. The police squad that is asked to enter the building that is the scene of the crime, is shown struggling to get across the rooftops of the building next door. Their climb up a wall is not smooth but rather quite labored. Garrett Morris, who later appeared on the original Saturday Night Live, plays the leader of the team. After he slides down the rope from one building to another, and lands on the roof, he looks down at his hands. The skin on his palms is torn, there is blood and obvious pain on his face. This is not some anonymous SWAT team, that mechanically does their jobs like perfectly programmed robots. These are guys struggling to do the best they can in the situation and not always rising up to the moment gracefully. Another example of the grit that Lumet adds to the movie is a short insert that has nothing to do with the story. I would be really surprised if it was even in the script. Two ambulance attendants are down on the police perimeter getting the ambulance ready if the police raid goes bad. One of them is replacing a pillowcase on a pillow in the ambulance. If you look quickly, you can see that the pillow has a big bloodstain on it. The case will cover that and make the pillow look fresh, but we all know that there is nothing clean and starched about what is going to happen. It's a two or three second shot that tells you this is real.

This is Christopher Walken's first adult role after being a juvenile actor on Broadway and TV. You can tell by watching him that there is something different and compelling about him as an actor. I already wrote that these were not flashy acting roles, this is an ensemble crime drama, but everyone adds some special touches. As they get released from prison, Walken's character talks about wanting to just eat America up it is so great. He has a fun flair with that line. Martin Balsam is in this movie doing a gay character and the stereotyping is something that GLAAD would be all over today. Both Balsam and Connery are wearing toupees,but we are supposed to notice Balsam's character has one on. Alan King plays a mob boss who is financing the teams elaborate holdup, I mentioned Garrett Morris already. Dyan Cannon, is once again the bombshell looker (or in this case hooker) that fills the female part, but it is a small role as well. It should be noted that there is some sexuality but no nudity. It was shot in the discrete style of the early seventies. If you compare it to Sidney Lumet's last movie,"Before the Devil Knows You Are Dead" you will be amazed at the shift in cultural guidelines.

The story is told in a distinct style that in part explains the Title. This crime was being planned and many police agencies should have been able to figure that out. The mob boss is wiretapped by the IRS, the decorator is the subject of an FBI investigation on antique fencing, the girlfriend is being eavesdropped on by her client who hired private investigators to wiretap the apartment he provides her. The Kid played by Walken is being monitored by the Narcotics Bureau in NYC. Of course there is a lot of public electronic video as well. This movie was made in 1971, here we are today talking about some of the same privacy issues and now everybody is watching on-line. In my blog on "The Life of Brian", you will find a link to a web cam at the Chinese Theater. You can look at Tommy Trojan 24 hours a day. So the premise of the story is we hear about all the set up through the surveillance that is going on. Pieces of the puzzle are brought together in an interesting way. The outcome is told in an equally interesting manner. We get a series of flashbacks from interviews done with the victims after the crime is over. Storytelling is very innovative and interesting in the screenplay and shooting of the movie.

All of this came out two years before we had heard of the Watergate Tapes and the famous 18 minute gap. When the feds doing illegal wiretaps here that the character played by Connery is on their tapes, they panic and start ordering the tapes be erased. This was really prophetic,given the way the Watergate investigation went down and the Oval Office tapes robbed Nixon of his legitimacy. Today, with digital recording, the information would end up in so many places, you could never be sure that it was all wiped out. The climax of the film involves a shootout, a brief car chase and crash and some mystery. It happens quick so pay close attention. If you are reading this blog because you are interested in 70's films, you really should see this. It is not well known, but it has all the hallmarks of a classic 70's heist picture. I suggest a double feature with this and the original "Taking of Pellham 123", you will have a great afternoon or evening in the presence of real film makers.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Two Mules For Sister Sara 1970 A Movie A Day Day 90

Alright, one last Clint Eastwood picture before the end of the blog. Clint single handily kept the western alive in the 1970's. Sure there were occasional westerns, but just about every year for the entire decade, there was a Clint Eastwood Western. He started off the decade of the seventies with this Spaghetti Style western, shot not by Sergio Leone, who had made him a star in his man with no name trilogy, but by his American director of choice, Don Siegel. This movie was also shot in the U.S. and Mexico, not in Europe. It has most of the same atmosphere as the Spaghetti Westerns, but with stronger film stock and actors whose lip movement matches the words they are producing. It also has a score by Ennio Morricone, who did the Leone westerns and turns in a nice theme that is irritating because it gets in your head and stays there. Allison did not care much for the "simulated"mule brays that are part of the tune, but I think they are a very nice touch to distinguish this music from some of the other scores that Morricone wrote.

Shirley Maclaine, is still working,and at the time this movie came out, I think she was top billed. When I was eight or nine I had a little crush on the red-headed girl that lived on the corner, Barbara Duffy. I saw this movie when it came out and I was 12, Shirlee Maclaine is cute as can be and very sexy. I never dated a woman with red hair but if Dolores wanted to go all Shirley red, I wouldn't mind for a week or two. The opening scene is probably not supposed to be too sexy, after all the rotten cowboys are about to take advantage of the poor girl, but her red hair and fair skin being substantially exposed, is enough to imprint on a 12 year old. Her politics and personal life are not my cup of tea, but she is a terrific actress who has a very strong on screen persona. The match-up with Clint works very well. He has that steely eyed look, and she uses her pixie like demeanor to bring some warmth to a cowboy performance that would simply be an echo of earlier successes. His humor in the film is much more directed at sexuality issues than the violence that occurs.

For a mainstream, 1970 film, it is pretty violent. There is an execution scene in which the wall behind the prisoner is splattered with blood when the firing squad lets loose. In the big battle scene at the end there are several shots of the damage that might be done by a revolutionary wielding a machete. Although we do not see the human repercussions, this is another western from the time that uses the trope of attacking a train with dynamite. I must have seen that a dozen times in movies that came out from 1969 to 1976. Each film tries to give it a little bit of a twist, here it simply is a plot complication, rather than an integral part of the story. The most gruesome bit of business in the movie is the thing that I remembered best from seeing it the first time. Clint is shot with an arrow that does not come out the back. He has the Sister, carve a groove in the shaft, fill it with gunpowder and then as he lights the powder, she pounds the arrow through his shoulder and out the back. There was some tension, some humor and a little down home remedy all in this scene.

I saw this movie with my father in 1970. I am pretty sure it was just the two of us and I was probably the one who suggested the picture. I have a memory of it playing with a Gregory Peck film from the same period; either "The Chairman" or "Marooned". I know I saw both of them, but I can't quite remember which one was with this movie. I also think we saw this on the west side of L.A., maybe near Venice or the Airport. It isn't of critical importance, it is just a little detail that is in my head and seems to be accurate. As far as I know, my Dad liked the picture. I was doomed to be an Eastwood fan after this. I don't think I had seen any of his other movies before, so this is really my first memory of Clint. Probably not a bad bookend with Gran Torino, nearly forty years later.

These movies span the majority of my life, and they celebrate a transition in the way violence is portrayed. A western from the early days focused on the story, and violence was the tool of resolution for conflict. Today, a movie like Clint's last starring performance, shows that violence is the story and what the consequences of that violence can be. Not all the movies that are made these days are infantile views of the world designed just for audience gratification. I do however have to say that I like me a little instant gratification from time to time. Modern revenge stories have replaced the western for the cathartic use of violence, but it is fun to go back and see how they did it in the old days of the cinema. Thanks Clint Eastwood, you have entertained me my entire life and your absence from the screen is a bitter pill that I have to swallow. Gene Hackman, Sean Connery, and Clint Eastwood have all retired from on-screen acting roles, and my world is a lot sadder for it.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The In-Laws 1979 A Movie A Day Day 89

Some movies have fantastic ideas and the premise lends itself to strong remakes. Most people don't realize that "The Maltese Falcon", perhaps the greatest example of hard-boiled detective film-making, was a remake. Humphrey Bogart was not the original Sam Spade, and he was not the first Sam Spade to go in search of the black bird. "A Star is Born" has been remade at least twice and both films were successful, the Judy Garland version is actually the one most people remember, although it is a remake. "King Kong" has been remade twice and while not the classic that the original was, the do overs have been solid. There are of course a lot of miserable failures when it comes to remakes; "Halloween", "The Heartbreak Kid", and "Psycho" are a few recent examples. A few years ago, Michael Douglas and Albert Brooks were featured in a re-make of today's movie. It was critically lambasted and a box office dud. I can't jump all over it because I never saw it. The reason I never saw it is that I had already seen the perfect realization of this movie. Michael Douglas is a fine actor, but he does not have the devil may care charm of Peter Falk. In casting Albert Brooks, they certainly were trying to find an appropriate sardonic replacement for Alan Arkin. Neither of these guys is replaceable, and their chemistry seems like it had to be unique.

The 1979 version of "The In-Laws" has a reputation among film buffs as one of the funniest films of all time. Mind you I said of all time, not just the 1970s. This reputation is well deserved and accurate because of the work of the two leads, and the brilliant script by Andrew Bergman. Bergman is a writer that has been very good (The Freshman) and very bad (Striptease). When he is on, it goes like a hurricane and this movie blows in a good way. There are aside comments that come from both leads that are better than anything in whole entire films.[On working for the CIA]
Vince Ricardo: Are you interested in joining? The benefits are terrific. The trick is not to get killed. That's really the key to the benefit program.][Sheldon: There's no reason to shoot at me, I'm a dentist.] The story gets a little surreal when they arrive at the South American Island nation and the General in charge is nuts, but he has great lines too.

The premise is simple, the parents of the bride and groom are meeting for the first time, and the father of the groom, a CIA operative ends up dragging the father of the bride, a dentist, into a dangerous plot. Of course it is silly, but it is not slapstick type silly. They have funny lines, but they grow out of the situations and personalities of the two characters. This is not like a Naked Gun movie where it is joke,joke,joke,and joke; and then you hope that two thirds of them hit. This movie is funny because the people in the story are funny. Falk is the single-minded but also absent minded spy, who dangerously improvises his missions. Arkin, is a straight-man with the deadpan delivery that makes the lines he is given just kill.

As usual, there are a lot of supporting players in the movie that add to the film in ways that just help it along enough. James Hong, is an actor I may have mentioned before. If you see "Big Trouble in Little China" you will know him, he is also the sympathetic houseman in "Chinatown". Here he has a small part as a charter plane operator, and all of his lines are in Chinese. Still Funny. David Paymer is an Academy Award Nominee, a guy everyone will recognize but few will be able to name. Paymer is a very young version of himself, playing a cab driver that takes good direction when tipped appropriately. Richard Libertini, had a part in another film written by Bergman, "Fletch". In the "In-Laws" he is the dictator with unusual taste in art, and some really strange talent. This is the one place where things seem a bit over the top, but by that point, we are ready to follow these performers everywhere they want to take us.

I have seen the last half of this movie a half dozen times over the years. I don't think I have seen the whole thing since the first time I saw it in theaters, until today. This is the third movie that I have done for the summer blog here that I watched on my ipod. I am running a bit low on the films in my stock for the blog, in fact I have only one left currently in my possession. So I have had to rent from itunes the last two days. I am running a little low on cash until the end of the month, but I think I have found a solution, and since we have only a week or so left we should be in good shape. I wish I had bought "The In-Laws", the DVD it is currently available in has both versions of the film. I would be interested to make the direct comparison now, after having watched the original. Douglas and Brooks could not dodge the bullets shot at them from critics, maybe they just don't know...Serpentine, Shel! Serpentine!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Mr. Majestyk 1974 A Movie A Day Day 88

When Charles Bronson passed away a few years ago, I was sad to notice that it caused barely a ripple in the entertainment press. This was a guy that in the 1960s was in the three greatest action adventure films of the decade. No one else was in both "The Magnificent Seven" and "The Dirty Dozen". In addition he was featured with his Magnificent Seven co-star Steve McQueen in "The Great Escape". He was also in the Sergio Leone classic, "Once Upon a Time in the West". So from an historical point he represented a connection to cinema history that was unparalleled at the time. In the 1970's, Bronson was the go to action star of his day. Bruce Willis will have to make movies for another ten years to come close to the output of Bronson. He was the star of the controversial "Death Wish", which was the focus of more media attention and press in 1974, then any of the so called cutting edge films of today. His passing was noted in a few small articles and a couple of clips. He deserved a retrospective on his career. That may actually be the next blog I start.

This is one of the many mid-level action films he made that populated my teen years. If "The Mechanic" had been a summer film, I would probably have done that film first. I knew the dialogue and plot down pat. I saw it dozens of times, Mr. Majestyk, I probably only saw three or four times. I have not revisited it since those days and it was a pretty good trip to take. The story concerns a melon farmer, who crosses paths with a contract killer, and he has to maneuver the police and the bad guys for the duration of the film. This movie has a high action content but it is not as violent as many of the other Bronson films of the seventies. There is a little bit of a migrant worker story, but you don't get Charles Bronson to deliver a social message, you want someone to kick ass.

Al Letteri plays the killer. He is best known as Solozo, the drug importer than is the sparking point in "The Godfather". He was a big, beefy looking guy with ethnic features and he seemed to get pigeon-holed into heavy parts. He also showed up in the Steve McQueen vehicle "The Getaway". It is maybe somewhat a stretch because he delivers many of his lines with a speech impediment. He sounds like he has a heavy lisp. His character is after Bronson for personal reasons that stem from some of the events in the movie. Sometimes he seems single minded about getting even, and other times, it appears he is rushing to get it out of the way so he can move on. There is not a lot of consistency in the character. His girlfriend shows up but is barely a part of the story, and we wonder what would draw her to him in the first place. Steve Kolso, plays a local thug trying to strong arm Bronson into hiring his picking crews. This guy was in dozens of early 70's movies, usually playing a sneaky bad guy. He plays one of the cops after Kowalski in Vanishing Point.

Most of the tough guy characters that Bronson played had some background that explained why they could be so badass. Mr. Majestyk is supposed to be a former Army Ranger and a Silver Star winner, he has drifted into Colorado, to become a watermelon farmer and all he is concerned about in the movie is getting his crop in. I remember seeing a Dirty Harry movie where killing his partner got him irritated but someone kicking his dog sets him off and the bad guys suffer more for the dog then anything else. Here there is a similar trauma, the thing that most sets off Bronson is the bad guys machine gunning his watermelon crop. That scene is the one thing I remembered best about this movie. The watermelons are exploding all over the warehouse and it just looked cool.Of course there will be a comeuppance. There are a lot of good chases through the mountains and pastures of the farms in the area. The crooks try to free the killer in an attack on the streets of a small town and all kinds of hell breaks loose. When Bronson finally takes a shotgun to the riff raff we are very satisfied with the outcome.

I made the comparison to Bruce Willis earlier. Bronson usually played stoic characters that had their own code. Today, the protagonist is full of quips and comebacks that sound like they could have been written for a sketch comedy show. There is only one such line in this movie, it is set up early on and then it makes up the final confrontation with one of the bad guys. In-between, we had very few lines from the star but plenty of star presense. Bronson made films up until just a few years before his death. They were never as great as the stuff that came out in the 1970's, when Charlie Bronson ruled the matinees and deserved to be the big star that he was.

Friday, August 27, 2010

THANK GOD IT'S FRIDAY 1978 A Movie A day Day 87

1978 was the height of the disco era. In the first three months of the year, the Bee Gees had five top ten songs in the same week. John Travolta was nominated for an Academy Award, and the music was everywhere. Dolores and I were going into our senior year of college and we loved going out, seeing movies, listening to music and eating well. We were not big party people, certainly not in the way people ask today if you party. We went to college parties and enjoyed ourselves but we never learned to dance, I did not drink and neither of us got high. So it is a little strange that we enjoyed this time in the country so much. We listened to Kiss in the car all the time, and went to concerts, but we could not be part of that "Death to Disco" crowd that sometimes came out, because as far as we were concerned it was innocuous fun. Today's movie came out in that summer and I remember seeing it with my beautiful girlfriend, and we were almost certainly wearing polyester, even if we weren't going dancing.

This is the movie that earned an Academy Award for disco music. "Last Dance" is a perfectly good disco song, and Donna Summer is always terrific. When we saw her at the Hollywood Bowl a few years ago, she was still great in her voice and the music always gets people up and moving even if they don't dance. I hate however, that the finest composers of what was labeled "Disco" music, the Brothers Gibb, never received any Oscar mention. Their songs from "Saturday Night Fever" an excellent movie and THE soundtrack of the disco era were ruled ineligible because some elements of the music originated before the contract to do the movie soundtrack was signed. So, three months after the Academy gives it's award for 1977 to the treacle Debbie Boone song, this movie came out. The next year the music guild in the Academy seemed to be trying to make good by giving an award to Paul Jabara's song played at the end of the movie. It's a good thing that most of the guild did not realize he also acted in this film. His role as Carl, the obnoxious near-sighted horn-dog that got locked in the stairwell, almost ruins the movie.

There is really not a plot to the movie, it takes place almost in real time, the hours between 10 pm and 12 am. There are several sets of people that end up at a flashy disco called "The Zoo", and there are little stories behind each one. There are two teen girls trying to win a dance contest, two working girls out looking to find someone they can stand, an older married couple out on their anniversary, and two average guys looking to hook up. Throw in some wanna be singer subplot, a hot funk band, a sleazy club owner and a wiseguy DJ and you have a movie. I suspect that this was really a chance to sell a soundtrack. RSO records had the biggest selling soundtrack in the world with the "Fever" collection. Neil Bogart, the guy that brought us Kiss with his start-up record company, must have eyed that success and thought to himself, "Casablanca Records" can do that too. I never owned the soundtrack to TGIF, but I'm sure they made a bundle.

It is fun to see Jeff Goldblum and Debra Winger in this movie. Neither was well known at the time, and now both have probably faded from the public eye a bit. Goldblum has always been a favorite around our house because if JAWS is our crack, then Jurassic Park is our catnip. Here he plays the disco owner, who apparently sleeps with half the women in the club. His goal this evening is to score with the straight married woman in order to win a bet. Terri Nunn, who later was the lead singer for Berlin, is one of the teen girls. Donna Summer plays, guess what, an aspiring singer. She is actually very good but of course best when the music starts and she is behind the mike.

The whole vibe of the movie is loose. It simply wants to entertain for a couple of hours and sell some music. There is a nice dance number in the parking lot that looks like it must have been pretty athletic to do. I could have lived without the computer dating couple. There is a fair amount of drug use in the movie, which makes it all the more revealing that this is a 1970's film. The casual attitudes toward recreational drugs is reflected in a PG rating for the film. I don't think the rating is wrong, but I do see how the world has changed in some of it's attitudes. To me the best thing about the movie has always been that the reason the teen girls wanted to win the dance contest, was so they could buy Kiss tickets. Rock and Roll All Night you disco lovers.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

THE WILBY CONSPIRACY 1975 A Movie A Day Day 86


This is an interesting movie for a number of historical reasons. The kids growing up today do not live in a world where the majority of the population of South Africa is subjected to harsh and repressive rules imposed by a minority of the population. Apartheid has been gone for almost twenty years now. Nelson Mandela is a revered world figure who served as President of his country after getting out of prison in that same country. Last year the movie Invictus, told the story of South Africa ultimately embracing it's largely white rugby team in a story of reunification. It was a beautiful ideal, but the movie failed in part because it seemed political and most of the young audience today was not exposed to the brutality that existed in South Africa before they were born. They largely lack a context.

The Wilby Conspiracy, provides a kind of context. It is a fictional action story but it is set in a very realistically portrayed 1970's South Africa. In those days, a black man needed a pass to be on the streets, the blacks were largely limited to "reservation" style tribal lands to live. The power of the police to detain, imprison and even kill was unchallenged. Civil disobedience, violence, worldwide political pressure, and finally the inability of those in power to stomach what would be required to keep the system, lead to it's downfall. Wilby is set before the death of activist Steven Bikko, and the revelations that accompanied his death. Sidney Pointier plays a convicted rebel, for whom charges are being dropped after being imprisoned for ten years. His lawyer is a woman that champions reform in South Africa, and she has a boyfriend as she is separated from her husband. The new boyfriend is played by Michael Caine. As the three of them are leaving the prison, police checking passes assault them on the streets and suddenly they find themselves on the run. It turns into a mismatched buddy picture without the humor and instead, surrounded by intrigue and betrayal.

There are many examples of the injustices that people in South Africa suffered illustrated in the movie. The suppression of classes extends to the large Indian community in S.Africa as well. Saeed Jaffry plays an Indian dentist that is involved with the revolutionaries. This same year he co-starred with Michael Caine again in the "Man Who Would Be King". He is good in both performances, but I have loved the Man Who Would Be King for 35 years and Billy Fish is one of the reasons. His associate in this movie is played by Persis Khambatta, the actress featured in the first Star Trek Movie (She has a shaved head there). She later co-stars with Rutger Hauer in Nighthawks, Hauer is in this movie as the pilot ex-husband of Caine's girlfriend lawyer. (Got all that?) By the way, Caine and Hauer are also in the cast together in Batman Begins. This movie is it's own little Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Nicol Williamson, plays the security officer in charge of exploiting the situation to recover lost treasure, or at least that is what it seems.

There are some good lines in the movie and a few solid action scenes. The South African security forces are as villainous as you would expect. Williamson's second in command is a sadistic racist in a position of power that he enjoys exploiting. After humiliating the lawyer with a physical search by a doctor, he uses the notion of an even deeper search as a motivation to break her. The gleam in his eye as he suggests a more painful repeat of a body cavity search is disgusting. If this movie were made five years later, the retribution he receives would have been visualized in a more satisfying manner. Here it is simply conventional. Williamson also deserved different, but I don't want to give too much away. I once gave an extemporaneous speech on Apartheid, defending the Afrikaner position. I was looking to be distinct in the round and hoping to move into another elimination round (it did not work). I must say that I can't disagree with the judges, that it was hard to defend that point of view. I'm sorry I did it, because it really was indefensible. There are double crosses and hidden agendas in the movie throughout it's run. The action used in the final confrontation is visually interesting, but logically stupid.

I think Art and I saw this movie at the Temple Theater, but it could have been the Alhambra. I'm sure it was a double bill but I can't remember what the other feature could have been. This movie is largely forgotten, as illustrated by the fact that the only video on line for it is a TV promo. The trailer on the DVD does a good job of selling this as an action picture. That is not a misleading sales pitch, but the movie was more politically charged and that is missing to a large degree. Oh yeah, there is one really big laugh right at the end of the movie. The usual disclaimer appears saying that this is a work of fiction and does not represent true events in South Africa. I can just hear 18 million black South Africans roaring at that line.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Apocalypse Now 1979 A Movie A Day Day 85

I put his movie off till the end for a couple of reasons; first it has always been difficult to watch because of the hyper psychedelic style it is shot in, and second because my opinion on it changes much like my opinion on Rollerball. Each time I see the movie I have a different impression of it's strengths and weaknesses. I am not sure my comments will be consistent, but they will be honest. There is in fact much to be admired about the film from a technical point of view but the story seems so weighted against American action in Vietnam, that it is difficult to judge outside of the political issues that surround it. Francis Ford Coppola was the greatest film maker of the 1970's. He wrote the Oscar winning screenplay for Patton, he directed the Godfather (considered by many as the greatest film ever made), he co-wrote and directed the Godfather Part 2 (The Greatest Film ever made), wrote and directed the Best picture Nominee, the Conversation, and produced American Graffiti, as well as just about everything on this movie. That is a ten year streak that has not been matched by anyone when it comes to quality. In that context I can render a largely favorable opinion of the movie.

Apocalypse Now opened in the Summer of 1979 at the Cinerama Dome, in an exclusive engagement. One thing that I recall about how exclusive it was is that there were no on-screen credits shown for the movie, not even a title card. The credits were provided to the audience on a brochure that you received in the theater. I can't recall who went with me that first time, it may have been Rusty, my Dad's friend that I have mentioned before. My memory of the second time I saw the movie was much more vivid. Rick Rollino and I had gone Christmas shopping and we were at the Del Almo Mall down in the South Bay. It had been a long day and I think originally we went in to see "10", and maybe we did, but I know we also saw Apocalypse just a day or two before Christmas and I thought it was sort of a strange way to spend a day that close to the holiday. As I recall, our reaction to the movie was very strong and positive at the time. Rick if you read this, maybe you could comment on your memory here.

There are so many beautiful and horrifying moments in the film, that it overcomes some of the pretentiousness it falls into at the end. The opening double exposure of the helicopters and the ceiling fan in Captain Willard's Saigon hotel room is brilliant. The attack on the village by the air cavalry, accompanied by Wagner's Flight of the Valkyrie is spectacular and thrilling in a way that may not have been intended. Robert Duvall is in the movie for fifteen minutes and steals the whole picture. When the Wagner music is playing and the helicopters are attacking, it is really stirring, war with a soundtrack is another one of those clever twists that made the movie distinct. Right after that scene is when things start to go awry. The USO show is shot very effectively and the mayhem and imagery of the lights against the dark of the night and the water is magnetic. The problem is that this is where the ambiguous messages start to get a be pompous. The V.C. idea of a USO show is a cold bowl of rice? The immediate implication is that we are too weak in comparison to have ever had a chance to win. John Milius co-wrote the screenplay, and he may well have contributed to the Nietzsche philosophy lesson. Later when Willard is looking at Kurtz's journal, he comes across the phrase "Drop the Bomb, eliminate them all". If this is an anti-war movie, I guess the strategy is to show that war has to be so ruthless that it can never be waged. Of course that is a lot clearer than what happens in the last forty-five minutes of the picture.

From the time the Captain's boat arrives at the Colonel's camp, until the final resolution, we have an acid trip masquerading as a screenplay. Part of the problem was apparently Marlon Brando showed up so far overweight and so under prepared, that they have to shoot him in half light most of the time and he makes up a lot of the dialogue. Dennis Hopper shows up and was clearly spaced out, and his frenzied improvisational lines are probably quoted by fans of this film in a geek like manner similar to our quoting JAWS or Star Wars. The killing of the water buffalo in these scenes is reportedly real. which makes all the dead bodies and dismembered limbs in the background more disgusting than horrifying. As I listened to the music in the third act, I was reminded of the modern symphony music we heard at Disney concert hall a few years ago. As part of the "Tristan" project, a multi-media presentation accompanied the bleak music, and it sounded like a sustained violin note with images of fog in the background for twenty minutes. This was one of the first movies to use synthesizers for the majority of the score. I looked and the music was done by the director's father, an accomplished musician, but Francis is given a co-credit on the music and my guess is that the repetitive two note bass is his contribution.

I watched this on my laserdisc player and the images were quite good. I imagine the DVD versions are superior to even this. The movie was re-edited for a different version several years ago and called Apocalypse Now Redux. Unlike Lucas with his tinkering on the Star Wars film, Coppola is not claiming this is a definitive version, but just an alternate take on the film. I have yet to see it so maybe a future post will make some comparisons. I am a little worried because my disc player was very temperamental in trying to run this movie. I don't want to pack all my discs up and turn them into crap in the garage, but if I can't keep the player working, I will have to, or try and find a new player. If my laserdisc give out, at least we had one last harrah with a brilliant mess of a movie.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Villain 1979 A Movie A Day Day 84

I have virtually no memory of seeing this in a theater, although it seems unlikely that I would have missed it. I know I saw it on Select TV after we were married and I may even have it recorded on a videotape in a box in the Garage. Those of you not familiar with Select TV, it was an over the air scrambled channel that required a decoder box. Before cable TV was widely available, if you wanted subscriber television in Southern California, you had two choices, On-TV and Select-TV. On-TV had a good choice of sports programming that was part of the package you would buy, but Select had the wider movie choices. It was clearly a different time, because the channels were not scheduled 24 hours a day, and every month you had to program in a code that the company sent you to de-scramble the image. When we were first married, we had to get permission from Mr. Foley, our 83 year old landlord, to put a special antenna on the roof of the apartment building. When cable TV came in, the two companies merged into On-Select. They had a terrific little program guide each month that I always looked forward to. I held on to the guides for twenty five years, and through them out reluctantly just a couple of years ago.

This movie came out three years before Conan the Barbarian and five years before the Terminator. Schwarzenegger was a familiar celebrity, but he was not yet a movie star, so he was not the main selling point of the picture. Kirk Douglas is again a cowboy in one of my blog entries, but this time he is not to be taken seriously. Basically, he plays Wile E. Coyote, to Arnold and Ann Margret's roadrunner. It is essentially a live action cartoon. It must have seemed that the casting of the Austrian Oak as Handsome Stranger, was amusing, but I don't really think it sustains itself. Douglas is funny at times but the timing is often off on the movie and jokes fall flat. There was nothing flat about Ann Margaret, she was still a big star at the time and at the height of her mature beauty stage.

There is a very basic plot about a banker using a bad man to rip off a miner and his daughter. That sets up all the set pieces that occupy the middle of the picture. We go from one disastrous scheme to another, as the villain, Cactus Jack, falls off of mountains, is run over by boulders, and run down by trains. Explosions never work the way he plans them and he never succeeds in slowing down the progress of the miner's daughter "Charming" and the "Handsome Stranger" who is supposed to protect here. The main problem is that as much as Douglas works it, he can't get an exasperated smile or a crooked eyebrow to work the way an animated character like Wile E. Coyote could. The set up of the stunts needs different music, and we need to see something funny during the time that Cactus Jack is puzzling out his next approach. As a consequence the timing always seems off.

In the seventies, Warner Bros. often re-edited together classic cartoons with short bits of new material to try to make a feature length release for kids to watch in theaters. Most of those movies run into the same problem, the repetitiveness of the gags undermines our interest and enjoyment, and the added narrative slows the proceedings down. The makers of the Roger Rabbit cartoons got that everything was about timing, and the six minutes of energy in a single cartoon is a lot more entertaining then a lengthy movie with the jokes repeated. There are many clever ideas in the Villain, but they don't pay off with a big laugh, usually they only earn a slight smile. For example, the real co-star with Douglas is the horse that he rides. "Whiskey" has a mischievous streak, and more facial expression than Schwarzenegger. Try as he might, he can't quite pull off enough of a look to get the joke across as an animated character could.

There are some funny songs in the movie including the title track. They repeat the theme quite often and that hurts it's charm a bit. At the end of the movie, there is a sequence where the Cactus Jack character is accelerated in his scenes, mimicking a cartoon character more directly. That actually got a laugh from me but only at the end of the movie. Strother Martin is in the movie, although he has no scenes with Kirk Douglas or Arnold. The one section that he is in does not give him much chance to shine. Jack Elam, the great crooked eyed actor is also wasted as the banker. The funniest performer in the supporting cast is Foster Brooks. He was a comedian whose regular bit consisted of a drunk routine, He does it in the movie to good effect. I never cared much for his act when I saw it on TV, but it worked great in the four or five minutes he was on-screen in this movie. The director was Hal Needham, a stunt coordinator turned director, well known for doing several Burt Reynolds comedy films. Unfortunately, they are not the great Burt comedies, but some of his late seventies outings where he simply mugs for the camera. He was doing a good job on the stunts, and he shot Monument Valley, much like an old cartoon, but there is an energy and pace that makes this picture just sit there. I said SIT there.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Bluebeard 1972 A Movie A Day Day 83

This is a weird movie. Some of the weirdness comes from the European sensibility with which it was made. Much of the weirdness is suggested by the scenario. Contemporary audiences might find it weird because of the pacing and acting styles. The source of the weirdness is the movie however, it is simply a strange piece of storytelling. The film balances between comedy and horror, and never quite succeeds at either. Richard Burton was a movie star and an actor. He had great gifts as witnessed by the multiple Academy Award nominations heaped on him, but he was also a flawed human being. He drank too much, suffered from the melancholia of other Welsh Actors, and could be a world class prick. Today, people see Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and imagine the greatest movie stars in the world married. It is a good story, but Elizabeth Taylor was more beautiful than Angelina, and Richard Burton was more talented than Brad, and they were married to each other twice as often as Bradgelina. Burton needed money like Elvis did, and he took what producers were willing to offer that payed. He had better taste than movies like this and "The Klansmen", but baby needed another diamond. I saw this movie with a guy named Scott Moore. He was a guy I met in algebra class my freshman year of high school. We were pretty good friends for that year, but he found some other people that he fit in with a little better, and we sort of stopped hanging out. His mother was in her late thirties when we met and she was divorced from his dad. She had to work to support him and his brother and sister. She tried to be sort of hip, she drove a Lincoln and dressed in mini-skirts, and she was very permissive with her kids. Which is how a couple of fourteen year olds got tickets to this R rated movie playing on a single screen theater(the El Rey on Main Street in Alhambra) where the ushers would know if you were under age. This may have been playing with another film featuring Richard Burton, based on the book Candy. Candy was a Psychedelic sex novel turned into a movie with a whole bunch of stars in it. It came out in 1968, but as I said before, distributors in those days would find films to match with the current feature to play at the local theaters on a double bill. I suspect that the presence of Mr. Burton in both movies was the reason they were together. Both films are highly sexualized, and the blood pressure of a fourteen year old, seeing them together, would be almost too much to imagine. The movie turns out to be concerned with impotence and an oedipus complex. Burton is a hero of the first world war for the German flying corp. He has injuries that explain the unique color of his beard and why he will not shave, those injuries appear to go much deeper than his face. After the war he meets a woman, falls in love and marries her. She is killed in a hunting accident, and a dozen years later he falls in love with an American entertainer, that he makes his bride. She is terrorized by creepy events at the castle and discovers a large refrigerated room that contains a number of frozen corpses of women. It is then that the Baron recounts his romantic history and we learn his murderous ways. It takes nearly an hour to get to the meat of the story, and the set up is filled with unusual events and scenery. It feels like a Gothic horror piece in the beginning but when we get to the murders, it is more like a bloody Hammer horror film. The color palate of the movie is strange. There is a rich velvety textured wallpaper in the mistress of the houses bedroom. It is blood red, but we see in some of the flashbacks that the same wallpaper in the same room was at one time deep blue. I suppose this is to correspond with Bluebeard's onset of murderous behavior. He also has a fascination with photographing his victims after death, highlighting broad outlines, and turning the image into intricate web based graphic images. The costumes are outlandish, one of his wives has a bright pink outfit that makes her look like a flamingo as he stalks her through the castle. Burton twice wears the most ridiculous purple,lavender set of tails. He looks like a teenager from the 1970s going to a prom. The best thing about the movie, other than the main features I will get to in a second, is the atmospheric music from Ennio Morricone. I am a fan of his work in the Leone westerns, The Mission and my favorite "The Untouchables". Here he provides a creepy theme that sets the tone for the picture and punctuates a number of scenes very effectively. OK, the real attraction of this movie for a kid my age in 1972 was the nudity. Every actress except Raquel Welch is topless at some point in the movie. The nudity is used as titillation to set up the murders and remind us of Blubeard's impotence. OK, it's really there to turn us on, and it did. Joey Heatherton was one of those 1960s stars that was famous for being pretty and being on TV. She could not act, she could dance just a little, but the sheer black wrap that she wore in this movie made an impression that I don't ever think I could forget, even if I wanted to, which I don't. She was hot. The murders were gruesome, but often accompanied with some comic flair. I won't give away the punchlines for most of the deaths, but after hearing Burton relay the circumstances of his relationship with each woman, he does not come across as quite the monster we believed. In a couple of cases he could argue justifiable homicide.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Shaft (1971) A Movie A Day Day 82

After the debacle yesterday, I went out in search of more films for the blog. I have sixteen days left and I was down to three movies. My deleting Shaft and Big Jake, put a dent in the movies that I had lined up. I've managed to add three DVDs to my library for the rest of the blog, and I went and found a copy of Shaft at Big Lots of all places. I had had it in my hands several months ago, but I remembered it was coming on TCM so I did not buy it. Dolores and I went through hundreds of discounted DVDs and managed to find one copy of the original Shaft left. They had one of the other Shaft movies, but it was not a summer release so I won't be covering it for this blog. If you are reading this and are unfamiliar with Shaft, you must never have listened to soul music from the 1970s. The theme from Shaft was one of the biggest hits of the decade.

About ten years ago, Shaft was remade with Samuel Jackson in the title role. I love Sam Jackson, he has gotten me into a lot of films that I might otherwise have skipped, but he is also the Michael Caine of today. In an interview once, Caine was asked about an upcoming movie and why he choose it. The interviewer asked, "What's it about?", and Caine replied, "It's about a million dollars, I'll do it." Sam Jackson plays for pay these days. The Shaft remake was a fine summer action movie, and it is much better produced than the 1971 original, but it none of the social cache and it lacks the biggest selling point in the original film, Richard Roundtree. I know he makes a cameo in the new Shaft, but that does not make up the lack of sex appeal from Jackson. He got the badass part right(...he's a bad mother...) but there is no way Jackson is a sex machine to all the ladies.

Of the three reasons to see the original Shaft, Roundtree is the most important. His role was groundbreaking and he played it with all the verve a guy could muster in a low budget film like this. The movie opens with the money shot, there are things to enjoy later, but the credit scene contains the main element of the movie. Shaft is a confident, sexy black man in a white mans world, but he is not taking crap from anyone. He walks down the streets of Manhattan with his head held high and his shoulders straight. He is not shucking and jiving, there is no slouch with attitude, he knows who he is and dares anyone to disagree. His knee length leather coat and dark yellow turtleneck, sell swagger without him having to do much more than walk in a straight line, but he does do more. In 1971, the idea of a sexual black man as your lead was startling, he has a afternoon tryst with his beautiful girlfriend, and the camera lingers on his backside and her hands. The revolutionary part is that he openly engages in inter-racial sexual athletics. Any woman would find him attractive, he is a sex object for all females not just those of one ethnicity. "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" was only four years earlier and the inter-racial relationship was sold as sanitized by having Sidney Pointer and making him a Doctor. Shaft is picked up by a white girl in a bar, she is clearly the aggressor, and he sends her away when he is done with her like she was a waitress asking if he wanted anything else. If you listen to the end of the trailer, you will hear the announcer proclaim him hotter than Bond, and cooler than Bullet. That is a little hyperbole, but Roundtree does his best to sell it and it works. Eddie Murphy and Denzel Washington as well as Samuel Jackson have Richard Roundtree to thank that Americans can accept a black man as the lead in any kind of picture, not just a social piece. I remember that this was not always the case.

The theme song is the second selling point of the movie. Issac Hayes won the Academy Award for Best song for this piece of driving, soulful, energy. His cool deliver of the lyrics sets the tone for the movie. Like I said, the opening title sequence with Roundtree walking through New York and the music playing over the scene, that is what you want most from the movie. The story is not that interesting and there are no other characters that match up with Shaft at all. Charles Coffi is pretty good as a gruff police Lt., who understands Shaft and tries to use him to know what's going on. Shaft would never say they were friends but they appear to treat each other with due deference after they wrestle over status issues. The bad guys are nondescript for the most part, and the women are pretty but not really a part of the proceedings. There are some other pieces of music that try to emphasize the racial tension in the world at this point. None of them is quotable or memorable. There have been other movies where the theme song was influential in shaping our perception of the film and main character, but none have ever done it as well as this piece of music.

Finally, the third reason to see the movie is to get a sense of how the world looked at the time. Physically, the New York streets are very clearly shown. As Shaft travels in a taxi uptown, he passes by theaters playing straight features from Hollywood, right next to porn houses peddling smut on a big marquee for all to know. The clothes of the time are authentic, not exaggerated retelling s of the time, but reflective of what people might wear. Most of all, you get a sense of the tension that exits in racial relationships. Not every white person was hated, but plenty were and deserved to be. Not every black was a revolutionary, but they often felt outside. Outsiders and insiders were the real lines between people, and color was a symptom of that, but not necessarily the cause. Shaft was a big part of the Blaxplotation era, but it was a success with wider audiences as well. It moves a little slow and some of the actors are painfully amateurish, but the lead and the music are worth your hundred minutes. If you don't have the time, treat yourself to the opening five minutes below.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

American Graffiti 1973 A Movie A Day Day 81

Originally, today was going to be "Shaft". I recorded it on the DVR and was all set to transfer it to a DVD, and something was wrong. There was the info slide from the satellite, but no picture. I skipped ahead and there was nothing. I made the assumption that the machine had not got it so I went ahead and deleted what appeared to be an empty file. My default was "Big Jake", but when I went to it, the file looked the same. I again deleted, and then thought to check other HD programs I had recorded. It looked like they were all the same. I was about to call Dish, when I decided to look at the troubleshooting guide on the satellite. They recommended that I shut down the receiver, let it reboot and then check. Ten minutes later everything was there the way it should be, except the two movies that I had recorded for the blog. So now I am a little short on titles because I was a little short on patience. I can hardly get madder at someone else than I do with myself in these kinds of goof ups. I put off my movie, we had lunch, watched some other stuff and then I got back to this task. I needed something that would put me in a good mood. I had been saving this title for the end because it is so special, but today I needed to rescue myself from self loathing, and "American Graffiti" is the perfect prescription.

Eleven years ago it was 1999. "The Sixth Sense" and "American Beauty" were competing for the Academy Award. It hardly seems more then a couple of years to me, although my kids are through high school and college in that time period. The catch phrase for "American Graffiti" was "Where were you in 62?" The movie came out in 1973. Eleven years after the time it was set in. When I saw this movie, I was fifteen, in 62 I would have been four. It is the same short amount of time but for me it felt like forever. It was not the blink of an eye period like between now and 1999. In the eleven years between the 1962 in "American Graffiti" and the time period that I saw it originally, two Kennedy s were assassinated, we had a civil rights revolution, there were riots in a dozen American cities, the Beatles came and conquered the world, we entered and exited the Vietnam war. Even though I was alive in 1962, this movie seemed to be about a place so exotic and so removed from my experience, that there was almost a bit of disconnect at the time. Today as I watched it, I am reminded of how people just a few years older than me might have felt. It isn't alien at all, it just captured the feelings of the world at that moment before the cultural revolution began in earnest here in the U.S.. In 1973, when I saw the movie, it was not nostalgic for me, but I did enjoy the heck out of it and I loved the music.

This blog has been all about nostalgia. I have been trying to convey experiences that I had while growing up. I hope that people who know me, will know me better as a result of reading this project. I have had a chance to exercise some writing and thinking muscles that have been a little rusty. Most of all I have had a chance to write about my favorite subject in the world, movies. It is easy for me to be nostalgic for the films I saw in the 1970s as a grew up because they were a part of my life. What is so amazing about "American Graffiti" is that it makes me nostalgic for a life I never had. There are two films on my project this summer that have had this effect; "The Summer of 42" and "American Graffiti". I think it is pretty clear that a movie has been well written and well crafted, if it makes you miss a time and place that you never had been before. I did a tiny bit of cruising with Don Hayes when we were in High School, but it was never like this one night in today's movie. Every character feels real, all the situations are things that you could imagine being a part of. The fear and ambivalence of Richard Dreyfus's character Curt are so familiar. The idea of leaving home and your friends makes even the great opportunities something to be tentative about. Ron Howard plays Steve, and he is overwhelmed by his love for his girl and the context where he was the King, that his anxiousness to beat it out of town evaporates. Charlie Martin Smith, is so perfect as the awkward, hero worshiping Terry the Toad. Terry is so desperate to be accepted by others, that he never really sees how much of their world he really occupies. The sweetness of his night with Debbie, is tinged with some bitterness over the experiences they share and some of his disappointment, but her final kiss and invitation to call turns Terry into a Prince. Paul LeMat, is the hero in town, with the baddest car and the cool Steve McQueen attitude, before Steve McQueen was the Cooler King.

I have heard people complain about the movie as if it did not have a plot and was just a series of random incidents. The incidents may be random, but only in the way that the dots in a Monet are random. When you pull back and look at them, you get a clearer image of time and place than you would have with a documentary five times as long. In 1962, the world was in front of us, it had the promise of greatness and the shadow of unfamiliarity surrounding it. This movie shows us how every group of kids probably feels about the world, no matter when they grew up. That's why this movie is something to treasure. 1973 films competing for the Best Picture award included "The Sting", "The Exorcist" and "American Graffiti'. Those other two movies are fantastic, "The Exorcist" is still the most frightening movie ever made, and "The Sting" is still the cleverest despite newer rivals like "The Usual Suspects" or "Inception". I think "American Graffiti" is the strongest of the three. It doesn't rely on manipulation of fear, or thinking. It shows us what was in the mirror, no matter when we look. For my money it is the best film George Lucas ever made. "Star Wars" is revolutionary, and maybe the more important film, but Graffiti, is the real kind of storytelling that film makers who are artists aspire to. While Lucas continues to tinker with Star Wars, digitally enhancing this, or manipulating that, he has never to my knowledge, felt the need to go back and fix or improve this movie.

Everyone who writes and talks about this movie, mentions all the future stars that are in it. We have Oscar winners, Richard Dreyfus, and Ron Howard, future Oscar Nominees Kathleen Quinlin, Candy Clark, and Harrison Ford. TV stars Cindy Williams and Mackenzie Phillips, and movie character actor Charlie Martin Smith are all a big part of the movie. Paul LeMat, has had a very successful career, but he should have taken off like a rocket in the seventies. I don't know what happened, and maybe some of it was his own choice, but I would have expected the most out of him when I first saw this movie. This is the third movie this week with Bo Hopkins in it, this was a really good role and he played it with a great deal of menacing and slimy charm. There is a really nice little bit by Wolfman Jack, playing himself, that should give people of today some sense of what radio was like in the early days of Rock and Roll. The other co-star that probably made this movie something special instead of just a teen comedy, is the music. Allison and I were talking the other day about how Quentin Tarantino has a great ear for music. He picks cues from all sorts of movies and plugs those sounds into his own pictures. George Lucas did the same thing here with popular music from the golden days of Rock. He did an amazing job without using a single piece of Elvis material. The way that everyone in the movie is sharing the same soundtrack for their lives is very interesting. They all listen to the same radio station, so they are hearing the same songs, but none of them seems the same. There is rave up rock, rhythm and blues, surf music and novelty songs. Everyone can like the songs they care for most, but at least they have heard the other music. Compare that to today, where music taste is often so narrow that artists with a major cultural impact are often unknown outside of the genre they work in. "American Graffiti" may be a title that has a particular meaning in the hot rod world, I'm not sure, but to me it was always about how the fabric of our experience comes together to show us our own world. The story, actors, events and music make up something far more than scratches on a wall.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Life of Brian (1979) A Movie A Day Day 80

The second Monty Python film on the list, and it is just about as funny as Holy Grail. If you were to compare them exclusively on the quality of production, "Life of Brian" has it all over the earlier film. My only reason for preferring the first film is the memory of seeing it and the reaction that my Dad had to it. This experience was quite a bit different. This movie came out in the late summer of 1979. I was just a week away from starting graduate school and it was hot. Dolores and I went to see this with my Dad's friend Rusty, who I have written about before. I don't think she ever went with he and I to a movie before or after, so it was an easy piece of info for me to retrieve out of my brain. Dee, when you read this please post and tell us if you remember anything about that day yourself.

I think our original plan was to see "Apocalypse Now" at the Cinerama Dome, but we could not get in. It had just opened in a couple theaters in the country, and shows were sold out early. So we cruised on over to the Chinese Theater on Hollywood Blvd., and Life of Brian was starting in just a few minutes. This was the first movie I remember seeing in the new theaters at the Chinese location. Up until that time, the theater had been a stand alone house, it must have seated 1500 easy. The trend was clearly moving to wider releases of pictures and I guess the Mann company, that owned the Chinese at the time, believed it needed to be able to show a greater variety of films to succeed. There are six screens there now (other than the main house) but in 1979, I think there were only two new theaters and Life of Brian was showing in one of them.
Grauman's Chinese Theatre - Live Webcams - Mann Theatres

Everybody remembers the final song in the movie. I recall Dolores, Rusty and I laughing and singing it out in the foyer of the auditorium after the movie was open. I think the Twin Theaters there had just opened that year and we were hanging around a bit to look around. The whistling was something we could not resist and people coming in for the next show must have thought we were idiots. There was a lot of controversy when the movie opened because some religious groups, especially in Great Britain, objected, saying the movie was blasphemous. It is of course not, because Christ is not the subject of the movie, he makes only a small cameo appearance at the beginning. The movie is about fanaticism and the stupidity that drives it. All of which is discussed with the casual British humor that was typical of Python material. The other thing that people will remember about the film is the two minute ride by Brian in the space ship with aliens who are holding their own eyeballs. It made no sense, had nothing to do with the movie, but the image was so striking and it was so out of place that it was funny and memorable.

There are dozens of quotable lines from the movie. My guess is there are people out there that do the whole resolution writing scenes and riff on them over and over. They are quite clever, but it is context that helps make them funny, for me the stuff that sticks out is always the silly material. For instance, the Roman names Maximus Naughtieous and Biggess Dickiss, are completely immature, and as a result, funny no matter when or how you throw them into the conversation. I also get a kick out of the one scene with the Roman centurion, giving Brian a Latin lesson in the middle of the night during an attempt to put up some graffiti. One of my favorite lines from the movie comes when Reg is trying to direct all the supplicants for Brian and he asks all those with devil possession to try and keep the demons under control. John Cleese is so droll it is a marvel.

A few years ago we saw a concert presentation at the Hollywood Bowl, featuring Eric Idle. He was basically doing an expanded set of numbers from Life of Brian, similar to the Spamalot success they had on Broadway. I don't think it quite jelled but there were many amusing moments. We are pulling into the final couple of weeks on this blog and I am enjoying reminiscing about that August in 1979. I was about to be a coach on the Trojan debate Squad, my girlfriend and I were so in love that we would be married in less than a year (and still going strong 30 years later), and my grown up friend who was actually just a big kid, took us to the movie. We may have had lunch at the Hamburger Hamlet across the street, that I don't really remember, but it was likely. Anyway, if you have never seen the "Life of Brian", put it on your list now, because you deserve to have some good memories as well.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

White Lightning (1973) A Movie A Day Day 79

If you would like to appreciate the difference in Burt Reynolds as an actor and Burt Reynolds as a personality, all you need to do is compare this film to the sequel that Reynold directed himself. I have not gone back and looked at my comments on Gator, but it was an entry in the Movie A Day blog several weeks ago. I think I mentioned at the time that I was going to be looking at these out of order. I'm really glad I did, because this film is far superior to the second effort. The same character is played with swaggering machismo (Ma-cheese-mo might be the better term) in Gator. There, Reynolds is amused by everything he does and engages in a huge amount of mugging for the camera. In White Lightning, he plays it straight. The trademark self referential cackle comes out only a couple of times and it is pretty well placed. This is a fine action thriller from the early seventies that plays tightly and makes some sense of the time and place in which it is set.

It was less then ten years before this movie was shot, that three college students were murdered in Mississippi for trying to register black voters. College protesters and malcontents were never appreciated south of the Mason-Dixon line. Today, we might wonder what the fuss was about in the Bob Segar song, "Turn the Page". Did people really get uptight about a haircut and try to provoke fights by impugning a mans masculinity? The answer is yes, and a couple of college kids being ruthlessly murdered for challenging the local sheriff was perfectly believable in 1973. This movie opens with a basically wordless cruel killing. Two guys tied to cinder blocks are towed out on a swamp like lake in a small boat. The sheriff then blows a hole in the boat and calmly rows away with his partner. This set up is going to justify a lot of behavior later in the film by our hero. One of the kids was Gator's "good" brother, and no corrupt local yokel is going to get away with this.

The manner in which the Federal investigation is set up with Gator as informant seems reasonable given the circumstances. This movie is not a police procedural however, and the Feds only make one more brief appearance in the film before the end. Once Gator is out of prison, he easily slips back into his bootlegging ways and fits in with the crooks he is after. Like I said, Reynolds plays it right down the line, he is not invincible, or all knowing, or always the life of a non-existent party. He does trade banter with the sheriff that killed his brother, and although there is humor, you can detect tension and malevolence on both sides during the exchange. The sheriff is played by Ned Beatty, who was in the terrific Reynolds movie Deliverance just the year before. Probably best remembered for three minutes in that movie than the dozens of other great performances he gave over the years, including two Academy Award nominations. He is very good as the self righteous lawman with a mean streak. His rants about the commies and pinko kids are not too different from those of the bootlegger Gator is using to infiltrate the organization.

Bo Hopkins plays the bootlegger that Gator is working for, he was a very relible second lead in movies. Jerry Reed takes his place in later films, and the tone suffers a bit because Reed, while good, was not as strong and Reynolds got away with letting scenes go on by indulging the singer a bit. Hopkins was in yesterdays movie as well, playing one of the deputies in Kirk Douglas Posse. He may be most familiar to any of you out there reading as the member of the Wild Bunch that got left behind in the opening scene or as the leader of the Pharaohs gang in American Graffiti, another 1973 film that I will be looking at soon for this blog site. I mentioned to Allison that Matt Clark, who plays Dude, the federal parolee that gets Gator in, was the same guy who plays the defense secretary in "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai". He was a familiar face in a lot of seventies and eighties films and I thought he was particularly good here as the obviously in over his head federal stooge. Future Academy ward Nominee and Mother of Academy Award Nominee, Diane Ladd has a small part as Dude's wife. By the way she was married to yesterdays co-star Bruce Dern at the time. (It is a small world isn't it?)

There is much to admire about this well paced, tough little picture. As we were listening to it, both Allison and I thought we recognized music cues that had been used elsewhere. She thought it was "Inglorious Basterds" and I thought, "Kill Bill". It turns out we were both right, Tarantino uses musical cues from White Lightning in both films. She did not like the trailer, she thought they were selling it as more of a comedy. I on the other hand think the trailer works quite well, the cheesy tag line that "White Lightning never strikes twice because once is enough" is perfect for the drive-in mentality that this picture also exceeds. Too bad they did not take that advice and skip the second film. It wasn't bad, but it really sullies the memory of this forgotten gem.
I found this ad on line, notice that today's movie was playing at the Gold Cinema in Alhambra.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Posse 1975 A Movie A Day Day 78

I searched all over but I could not find a trailer for this movie. There was not even a trailer on the DVD. This seems odd to me for one major reason, this is one of the few films directed by the great Kirk Douglas. From an historical and cinematic point of view, you would think that in some archive, somewhere, there is the promotional material for this movie. Maybe the studio doesn't control it since it was Produced by Douglas as well. I hate to say it but when he is no longer with us, you can bet there will be a slew of films that finally get the treatment on home video that they deserve.

Today's film is one of the few westerns on the list for A Movie A Day, that does not feature Clint Eastwood or John Wayne. The great movie icon Kirk Douglas, produced and directed this 1975 film, set in Texas during the western period. It may star an old school cowboy, but it has that seventies vibe all over it. There are echos of The Wild Bunch and High Plains Drifter here. It is not as violent or odd as either of those movies, what it is mostly is political. I remember reading reviews at the time that drew parallels to the Watergate scandal at the time. That is a bunch of hyperbole. There is a political theme, and there may be some issues of corruption, but the connection is a stretch. The focus is really about how actions are guided by political image rather than necessity.

The point is made in a somewhat heavy handed way. Douglas is a famous lawman, trying to run down a notorious criminal, for the glory it will cast over him as he stands for the Senate. We are not really given much background on the political situation or the competing interests. It seems like the movie is criticizing law and order candidates as being motivated by votes rather than what is fair or needed. If that is the case, they undercut the idea a bit by showing us that the bad guy really is a bad guy. After escaping the posse at an ambush where his men are killed and burned, he ends up in a nearby town where he kills the guy who betrayed the gang. By the way, he does it Han Solo style, shooting first and through the bottom of the table in front of him. He then kills the local sheriff right on the street when he is confronted. If there was just hype in this campaign, it would not get far. The citizens are outraged and they are powerless. When the Marshall comes into town with his posse, they are thrilled that he is there, and when he returns with the killer as his captive, they rejoice and it seems that he will clearly be their choice for Senator.

Things are not always as they seem however. When your bad guy is played by Bruce Dern, you can expect something special. Dern is one of those guys that was a pretty solid star in the seventies but never broke out to the big time as a leading man. Part of that may be the baggage he carried as the prairie scum in the movie The Cowboys, where his character shoots John Wayne in the back. Here he is not a sniveling bully like in the Wayne picture, he is a cunning and manipulative gang boss. He has a lot of charm for a guy that everyone knows should hang, but it plays friendly, disguising his plan, and waiting for a chance to turn the tables.

There is some standard western material here. There is a chase, gunfights and horses doing some dangerous stunt work. There are some very distinct moments as well. There is a long sequence of escape from the Marshall's special train, that turns the roles around on the posse. Visually, the image of a flaming box car traveling backwards across the mountains, through the tunnels and back into the town, is terrifically inventive. We have seen the train incidents in other movies; The Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy, and a host of others. This movie follows the train after the explosions not just up to them. While the pace of the movie seems a little clunky in other spots, Douglas and his stunt coordinator, along with the cinematographer, did a great job capturing the events as they unfold in this section.

Ultimately, the false image of the Posse as dedicated lawmen is undermined by practical economic issues. Loyalty is not a trait of the candidate and it foments the ultimate problem he faces. Everybody is corruptible according to this film, and the Marshall is corrupted by manipulating his image. There is a lot of license taken with how things play out. The local citizens are not always depicted as real people, they change their attitudes and behaviors capriciously. The posse is not given enough screen time to say if their actions really fit in with the circumstances. The bi-play between the two leads is really what makes the movie work and both Kirk Douglas and Bruce Dern sell their parts here. This is a western with a message, it is an interesting but largely forgotten picture. It deserves to be seen by more people, but it is not quite as sharp and incisive as it wants to be.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974) A Movie A Day Day 77

When Quentin Tarantino brought us Deathproof a few years back, it was an opportunity to see the face off those of us from the seventies were denied. The 1971 Challenger vs. the 1969 Charger. His film provided the showdown between the cars featured in two of the big car chase films from the early 1970s; Vanishing Point and Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. Each of these movies featured supercharged automobiles on cross country chases. There is mayhem, destruction of police cars galore, and nihilistic endings for each picture. Deathproof solves the puzzle of the negative resolutions of both films, and let's us glory in the chase. There was a lot that irritated me about the Tarantino movie, but once the cars were on the road the movie was perfection. This film has some of the same problems, when not in the chase, it is terrible. Even when the chases are going on though, Dirty Mary,Crazy Larry is held back from the pack by major problems. Instead of being a delight it is a drudge, punctuated occasionally by some good live action car stunts.

The movie starts with disdainful attitude as Larry, played by Peter Fonda, crawls out of bed with Mary, Susan George and proceeds to show off for his partner by making a series of not so clever jokes. The partner, a sulking guy played by an actor I never heard from again, is not amused and he replies with equally lame lines in a verbal pissing contest that no one in the audience will enjoy. It get worse however, because as unclever as these two are, they are sparkling wits in comparison to Mary. Her repartee is annoying and it is delivered in a style that is even more annoying. These are the main characters folks, and if you watch this you get to spend an hour and forty minutes in their company. It is enough to give you a headache.

You might think it's going to be OK, because maybe the story will pull you in and the characters will have something that makes us root for them. No Chance. In Vanishing Point we have Kowaslski, a unfairly disgraced cop, running his car across the country to win a bet that he can deliver it within the proscribed time. He never hurt anyone and is sympathetic although a little pig-headed. The two guys in this movie are a car racing team down on their luck, who decide to steal a bundle of cash, by kidnapping the wife and child of a grocery store manager, holding them hostage, and threatening bodily harm against the preteen daughter. Mary joins them inadvertently and thrills at the mayhem that follows. She is as reckless and dangerous as they are, and late in the film, when she moralizes about how indifferent Larry was in a car crash, it is the most hypocritical character change you can imagine. The Sheriff that is pursuing them is played by Vic Morrow, and he is supposed to be an unconventional, rebellious kind of cop. The problem is that we see no motive and he and his boss exchange unpleasantries with nearly the same frequency as the crooks. The only sympathetic characters in the movie are the victims of the kidnapping, the Dad is played by Roddy MacDowell for no particular reason. He has a couple of scenes and then is out of the picture.

So if the plot is lame, the characters are annoying, and there is no rooting interest, what's left? Easy, car chases. These are non-CGI, real action stunts, put together by a group of professionals to thrill us. The spectacle is pretty satisfying. There are jumps and close calls and crashes that appear every few minutes to give us a reason to stay for the film. I mentioned in an earlier posting that drive-in movie fare was usually just involving enough to avoid interrupting the petting and foreplay that would go on in the cars in the theater. This movie is perfect for that. When the cars are not moving, you make your own action, and then you pause every few minutes and watch the action on the screen. There is an excellent chase by a helicopter in the last part of the film, some of the camera work is really fine, and the chopper pilot must have been really good for what he was asked to do. I had a hard time getting the irony out of my head that Vic Morrow was in the chopper chasing the people on the ground. Those of you unaware of the history of Vic Morrow, should wait to look it up until after you see the movie. Once you know, I suspect it will knock around in your head and distract you as well.

I really wish I could say I saw this at a drive-in with a girl. The memory would be a lot sweeter. I did see it at a drive-in, but not with a girl, instead I saw it with my buddy Don Hayes. The one really great thing about that was that Don's Mom had a 1969 Dodge Charger, and I'm not sure but there is a good chance that was the car we were in when we saw this disappointing movie. Vanishing Point is the pinnacle of 70's car chase movie, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry is a poor imitation that is for completists only.