Archive for August, 2008

FOOLIN’ AROUND

August 30, 2008

(USA, 1980, Richard T. Heffron)

FOOLIN' AROUND

Made in the wake of his Oscar nominated performance in THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY, FOOLIN’ AROUND is an interesting curiosity: a film with Gary Busey in the lead. The film’s box office failure may serve to explain why Busey was soon relegated back to supporting parts (the film was released the same year he starred as a psychotic clown opposite Jodie Foster and the Band’s Robbie Robertson in the even more curious CARNY). The man best known for his star turn as Buddy Holly, his defiance of motorcycle helmet laws, and for being a general lunatic (who once snorted cocaine off of his dog) stars as a hard-working rural Okie named Wes. Wes heads to college up north and promptly falls for the beautiful heiress on campus (Annette O’Toole) who, predictably, is already engaged to be married to some rich asshole.

While the premise is hackneyed, the execution is strictly by-the-books. The film’s charm rests solely on Busey’s performance. His idiosyncratic quirkiness and easygoing goofiness is so ideally suited to play the lead in a romantic comedy that it’s a shame this is the only one he made. FOOLIN’ AROUND never takes itself too seriously, but its broad physical comedy and sitcom-style antics is more slapstick than screwball (lots of pratfalls, mishaps and a few too many getting-hit-in-the-balls jokes). A suitably ridiculous finale (involving a wiener mobile chase and a hanglider) plays like the THE GRADUATE on LSD. Seals and Crofts provide the yacht rock soundtrack, and a young William H. Macy, in one of his first film appearances, pops up as a book salesman.

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THE TERMINAL MAN: the best Michael Crichton adaptation

August 29, 2008

(USA, 1974, Mike Hodges)

TERMINAL MAN

GET CARTER’s Mike Hodges produced, directed, and adapted for the screen this clinical sci-fi thriller based on the novel by Michael Crichton. THE TERMINAL MAN was an odd career move for Hodges, and, after this one flopped, he wouldn’t turn up again until six years later with the even more inexplicable FLASH GORDON (in the interim he was fired from DAMIEN: OMEN II). Though the film pales in comparison with his masterpiece GET CARTER, Hodges’s direction is absolutely brilliant and helps transcend the routine source material. Like almost all films based on Michael Crichton novels, THE TERMINAL MAN suffers from its source, but this is without a doubt the best adaptation of his work (I find both WESTWORLD and THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN grossly overrated). Sadly, it’s also one of his least known. 

THE TERMINAL MAN is one of the rarest things — a genuine Hollywood art film. It’s also one of the coldest and most unfeeling studio films this side of Kubrick, with a slow, creeping sense of horror reminiscent of both 2001 and THE SHINING. It’s a work of science-phobia where a brilliant computer scientist gets a microcomputer implanted into his brain to prevent the violent seizures he is suffering from as a result of a head injury. Needless to say, things go horribly awry and the cure is worse than the disease. While, like all of Crichton’s work, plot development is clearly signposted, Hodges defiantly eschews audience expectations. This may be why critical consensus labeled the film dull. Instead of a standard thriller, Hodges is more interested in creating a dystopian near future through a heavily stylized atmosphere that is so deliberately stilted that it is practically suffocating. Every shot is off-centered and oddly-framed on incredibly stark, white sets. With the notable exception of CALIFORNIA SPLIT, I’ve never been too impressed by George Segal, but as the lead, he gives a fantastic performance. An underrated film that as of the present date still hasn’t seen the light of day of DVD.

NIGHTMARE ALLEY: film noir in a freak show

August 29, 2008

 

(USA, 1947, Edmund Goulding)

NIGHTMARE ALLEY

NIGHTMARE ALLEY is carnivalesque noir — a freak show phantasmagoria in which no one is safe from their past. Guilt, fate and social status conspire against those who dream too large. Swashbuckling leading man Tyrone Power tried to escape being typecast in epic costume dramas and paid for it when this one flopped. But it was a brave choice and this is the best I’ve seen him — his good looks and charisma are perfectly suited to his role as a magnetic mentalist — a carnival sideshow performer who longs to hit the big time. The first half of the film plays like a Jim Thompson novel set in a freak show — an ambitious con artist learning the graft. The second part twists into less charted territories as Power hits the hotel lounge circuit and makes it big in the big city; transforming along the way from a two-bit parlor tricks hustler into a phony spiritualist. He spouts his psychobabble gospel with true religious fervor, while hatching a scheme with a sultry psychoanalyst who gives him dirt on her high society patients so he can con them out of their money. This added dimension (both anti-religion and anti-psychiatry) makes it one of the most cynical and fascinating noirs.

But in the shadowy and fatalistic realm of noir, predestination reigns and those who rise too high are swatted back down to the depths from which they arose. It’s a dark and mordant portrayal of those living on the margins. Like the best noirs, not one scene is wasted — it’s tight, taut, and densely layered. Directed with pinpoint precision by Edmund Goulding (who made a name for himself with more lavish films like GRAND HOTEL) and crisply adapted by Jules Furthman (who also had a hand in RIO BRAVO and THE BIG SLEEP) from the novel by William Lindsay Gresham (a writer with an obsession for the carnival who committed suicide in 1962 after his wife ran off to London and shacked up with C.S. Lewis, whom she eventually married), NIGHTMARE ALLEY is bleak and cruel with a twisted ironic sensibility. Ever wanted to become a circus geek? NIGHTMARE ALLEY shows you how.

CONVOY: the greatest trucker film

August 29, 2008

(USA, 1978, Sam Peckinpah)

CONVOY

CONVOY is simultaneously Sam Peckinpah’s most perplexing and most casual effort, a post-SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT trucker chase flick, not merely inspired by, but based on the lyrics to a hit song describing the CB radio fad of the late ‘70s. Outlaw country maverick Kris Kristofferson is perfectly cast as “Rubber Duck,” an outlaw country maverick truck driver who finds himself on the run from the law, specifically, his arch-nemesis, a corrupt small-town sheriff named Lyle (Ernest Borgnine). With the help of a few friends and fellow truckers, he forms a huge convoy that barrels down the interstate, evading the feds while achieving folk hero status. Ali MacGraw goes along for the ride as a sexy photographer that Rubber Duck picks up on the way.

In the hands of a lesser talent, CONVOY would have quickly descended into sub-SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT chase film idiocy. The premise is slight, but the film is also better than it deserves to be thanks to Peckinpah’s directorial bravura. Peckinpah serves up a cartoonish vision of populist resistance and redneck revolt, while casually tossing in several surprisingly astute observations about trucker culture and working class solidarity. And then there are sporadic flashes of Peckinpah’s brilliance: not only beautifully choreographed action sequences but moments of genuine beauty. In one such sequence, as the convoy hurtles through a dirt road, lifting plumes of dust in the air, the filmmaking achieves a poetic, even balletic grace; adjectives that would never otherwise be used to describe a trucker action film. Unfortunately, the final act literally loses momentum as the film falls apart once the trucks stop moving. Peckinpah seemingly lost interest in the film’s silly plot as he reportedly descended into a haze of drug and alcohol abuse (James Coburn was brought in to help direct as an infirm Peckinpah languished in his trailer). But even if it is Peckinpah’s worst film, which it is widely reputed to be with the exception of his final film, THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND, I’ll take Peckinpah’s worst over most directors’ best. For whatever it’s worth, CONVOY may be the best trucker movie ever. It was also, surprisingly, the highest grossing film of Peckinpah’s career at a time when his substance abuse was making him increasingly unhireable in Hollywood.

The Agonizingly Slow Death of the Montreal World Film Festival

August 28, 2008

I first attended the Montreal World Film Festival in 1998 when I visited the city with my ex-girlfriend for a labor day weekend excursion from New York. At the time, I didn’t know that Montreal would become my home. I started graduate school in Montreal the next year and arrived just in time for the start of the festival. I purchased a 30 ticket pass for something like 120 dollars, a price that seemed ridiculously cheap for a film festival (I had gone to the New York Film Festival the previous year and paid something like $15 a ticket).  For the next ten days, I saw an average of three films a day.  Luckily, graduate school hadn’t started so I had free time. The selection was vast yet erratic with an emphasis on quantity over quality. Even in its prime, it made for a mixed bag but that was part of the excitement. One could not only catch some of the eagerly anticipated Fall films months prior to their release dates but also unearth a hidden gem that would sadly never find distribution and fall through the cracks. I went back every year but each year the festival declined in quality. It was not just the case that there was less star power; there were less quality films to be seen. Not only did the eagerly anticipated Fall films all decide on Toronto instead, the hidden gems also became harder to find.

At its peak, the Montreal World Film Festival was an accessible and affordable film festival that actually catered to filmgoers. It wasn’t about big stars, red carpet premieres, or high profile Oscar bait. Those days are long gone and the festival’s decline has now reached tragic proportions. Responsibility for the film festival’s spectacular decline clearly rests in the hands of Serge Losique, the festival’s founder and president. Evidently, he’s an egomaniacal tyrant who rules his festival with an iron fist. Concerted efforts to wrest control of the festival from him by yanking government funding failed, a battle that culminated in the spectacular flop of the counter-programmed New Montreal FilmFest in 2006. The failure of that festival was a shame. Since Losique could not be vanquished, the Montreal World Film Festival now continues unabated (government funding even increased this year) but with severely diminished returns. Its survival now appears to have been a pyrrhic victory. The festival’s reputation is permanently in tatters and what was once a world class film festival is now the joke of the film community. From the half-assed catalogue riddled with grammatical errors and film descriptions that cut-off mid-sentence to theaters half-filled at best, even the people working for the festival who are forced to greet the listless audiences at the start of each screening with a lackluster announcement of “bon cinema” seem embarrassed to be there. The problem is not simply that there are so few films worth going to although Losique’s incapacity to assemble a decent lineup is undoubtedly the underlying cause. A film festival is not only about films but about atmosphere, and the Montreal World Film Festival is a festival utterly devoid of any excitement or enthusiasm. In other words, the MWFF is a festival that lacks everything that makes a festival festive. The public money that goes to the event is a complete and utter waste. Just because they can’t euthanize the FFM doesn’t mean they can’t pull the plug. After all, there’s a difference between killing and letting die.

CHRISTINE: the killer car movie that could

August 28, 2008

(USA, 1983, John Carpenter)

Christine

Without a doubt, the best ‘killer car movie’; CHRISTINE explores the male American obsession with the automobile. Although his work declined in the 1990s, John Carpenter is the last of an almost extinct breed: a modern master of the subversive B movie and an unapologetic maker of intelligent and unpretentious genre films. In tackling Stephen King’s novel, he understood that on screen cars aren’t exactly scary – the only inanimate objects that can elicit terror on screen are ones that have been anthropomorthized. Yet he resists the temptation to play the flimsy premise for laughs. On the other hand, in his directorial debut MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE, Stephen King hung a green goblin mask over a truck grill to make his machine more menacing. The results were a feeble attempt at comedy horror; King has not directed since. Carpenter takes the silly source material seriously and turns his film into an interesting character study and bizarre love triangle between man, woman, and automobile.

An awkward, bullied teen (well played by future director Keith Gordon) becomes obsessed with Christine, a dilapidated old car he buys cheap and meticulously restores. The teen is transformed by car ownership although the film’s fairly simple message is that in the end your beloved possessions own you. Their relationship is symbiotic: he needs Christine just as much as Christine needs him. With her, he gains self-confidence, becomes popular and even begins dating the prettiest girl in town. But his social transformation from misfit to cool kid elicits a price as Christine turns out to be a jealous and murderous lover. Part of an initial wave of artistically successful King adaptations (CARRIE, THE SHINING, and THE DEAD ZONE) before they started going downhill fast (FIRESTARTER, SILVER BULLET, and CAT’S EYE).

Breathless: the most perverse American remake ever made

August 26, 2008

(USA, 1983, Jim McBride)

Rule number one of the remake: don’t touch a classic. Classics generally can’t be improved upon and the results are at best redundant, if not outright risible. Even with due consideration of CITY OF ANGELS desecration of WINGS OF DESIRE, Gus Van Sant’s misbegotten PSYCHO, or Michael Haneke’s bafflingly pointless shot-for-shot remake of his own film, BREATHLESS is without a doubt the most perverse American remake ever made, but only those who completely misunderstand Godard’s original would consider it a sacrilege. While it’s easy to see why snobbish critics were horrified by the film’s gaucheness when it was originally released, Jim McBride’s film anticipates Quentin Tarantino’s Americanization of Godard’s Franco-fication of American popular culture (not unlike THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN reclaiming the Western setting from Kurosawa’s THE SEVEN SAMURAI). No wonder Tarantino claims to love the film. Like Tarantino, McBride not only liberally quotes from Godard (the original working title was A BOUT DE SOUFFLE MADE IN THE USA) but also makes references to the original noirs Godard was riffing on — towards the end of the film, our two protagonists-on-the-run wander into a movie theater playing GUN CRAZY. Not just empty homage, McBride also nicely captures the hip existential nihilism of Godard’s debut.

Sure, unlike the original, it’s no landmark in film history that permanently altered cinematic vocabulary. But it’s still a lot of fun. Richard Gere is the best I’ve seen him — he’s perfectly cast as the rockabilly-loving, Jerry Lee Lewis-obsessed, Silver Surfer-reading car thief who lives in the moment and whose penis appears to flap around in every other frame. The film also captures the garish and sleazy charms of Los Angeles and is surprisingly faithful to the source material. On the downside is the female lead; the inexpressive and inert Valerie Kaprisky is utterly devoid of Jean Seberg’s charms. McBride also fucks up the ending, but give the film a chance before treating it like the bad joke it’s now considered. It’s surprisingly well-directed from someone whose once-promising career sputtered in the 1990s and never recovered (his most recent feature-length is a made-for-VH1 Meatloaf biopic). After BREATHLESS, McBride went on to direct the underrated THE BIG EASY, the 1987 Cajun neo-noir that anticipated the revival of that genre in the 1990s. His Jerry Lee Lewis fixation would later yield 1989 biopic GREAT BALLS OF FIRE! (which anticipated RAY and WALK THE LINE). Today, McBride might still be best known to cinephiles for his first film, DAVID HOLZMAN’S DIARY, one of the first mockumentaries.

TED AND VENUS: Bud Cort’s lost paean to HAROLD AND MAUDE

August 25, 2008

(USA, 1991, Bud Cort)
TED AND VENUS

HAROLD AND MAUDE was initially trashed by critics and ignored by audiences before it went on to become the beloved cult classic that it is today, so why not give a second (or first) look at Bud Cort’s directorial debut, TED AND VENUS? Upon its 1991 direct-to-video release, it was dismissed by critics who uniformly compared the film unfavorably with HAROLD AND MAUDE. The irony is that these critics would have probably been the same ones disparaging that film if they had been around then. It’s fitting that many of the negative comments made by critics about HAROLD AND MAUDE upon its initial release mirror those made about TED AND VENUS — unsympathetic protagonist, lack of character motivation, too weird, too self-consciously quirky, etc. Or, to quote the Variety review, “HAROLD AND MAUDE has all the fun and gaiety of a burning orphanage.” And the resemblances between HAROLD AND MAUDE and TED AND VENUS, besides the obvious reference in the title’s male first name and female first name pairing, are not merely superficial. There’s a good reason why Cort dedicated TED AND VENUS to Ruth Gordon, Hal Ashby, and Colin Higgins — respectively, the co-star, director, and screenwriter of the film that was both a blessing and a curse for Cort.

What makes TED AND VENUS interesting is exactly what critics of the film objected to: how it sets up expectations only to completely obliterate them. I didn’t like the first half-hour of TED AND VENUS, but, in hindsight, I only disliked it because I was expecting what followed to be a far more formulaic film. Cort plays Ted, a mentally unstable poet living in 1974’s bohemian Venice, California. His only friend is the womanizing Max (played by James Brolin in one of his best performances). One day, Ted falls passionately in love with Linda (Kim Adams), a beautiful, kind-hearted social worker with a loutish boyfriend. At first, Ted’s advances charm her, but as he becomes more persistent in his attempts to win her affections, she becomes increasingly frightened by him (he begins stalking her and making obscene phone calls at all hours). No, it’s not your formulaic romantic comedy but, I expected it to be from the first half hour which has all the trappings of said genre. Cort leads you to believe that TED AND VENUS will be a trite and tiresome love-against-all-odds romantic comedy in which opposites attract and two extremely different people fall in love with each other in spite of their differences. A film in which the endless persistence of the lovelorn protagonist who refuses to take no for an answer and pursues his love interest with a single-minded, burning obsession wins the object of his affection’s heart. Instead, Cort savages this premise by depicting this obsessional behavior for what it is: not the signs of an endearing romantic but the actions of a mentally unstable individual. A fine line exists between a hopeless romantic and a restraining order. It’s completely dependent upon whether the viewer is inclined to feel sympathy for Ted or simply be repelled by him. Most would probably find him revolting, but I had mixed feelings towards him. What is so unexpected is that Cort refuses to glamorize his behavior. Unlike most films about unstable individuals, Cort refuses to make his character pitiful or endearing. He explores the creepier and darker side of romantic obsession, depicting Ted’s unrequited love as hopeless delusion. This is a brave, genre-defying move considering TED AND VENUS is a romantic comedy (just look at the video box cover). This is a scenario usually reserved for horror movies.

That said, the film has its share of problems. The tone is too uneven, a number of scenes simply don’t work, and Kim Adams (starring as Venus) is not a good enough actress for the part. Though possessing requisite model good looks, her acting is so stiff and awkward that it becomes even harder to rationalize Ted’s obsession for her. For the rest of the cast, Cort evidently called in some favors to friends and admirers as the film features a parade of cameos including Woody Harrelson, Carol Kane, Rhea Perlman, Vincent Schiavelli, Gena Rowlands, Martin Mull, and Dr. Timothy Leary. But Cort is the heart and soul of the film. As Ted, Cort gives a wonderful performance that makes me sad that he hasn’t been in more leading roles. Today, the dictates of youth rule over talent. Cort’s performance in TED AND VENUS is as good as his career-making role in HAROLD AND MAUDE. Ted is an even more challenging role, and Cort captures the instability of Ted’s behavior perfectly — one minute, he’s the shy, lovelorn romantic; the next moment, he’s rattling off a litany of obscene activities that he wants to perform on his cherished Venus. Cort brings Ted to life, turning him into a real person, warts and all. Though he still has the cherubic face and piercing eyes of his youth, Cort has grown as an actor. He brings to the role a complexity that provides no easy explanations to Ted’s behavior. It is tempting to see Ted as a grown-up Harold. If so, the youthful hope and optimism of HAROLD AND MAUDE has turned into melancholy and resignation. Harold had Maude to pierce through his lonely and isolated existence and show him that life is worth living. Ted, on the other hand, found his reason for living, only to find that she wants nothing to do with him.

THE LAST AMERICAN VIRGIN

August 25, 2008

(USA, 1982, Boaz Davidson)
LAV

A 1980s teenage sex comedy that plays as a tearjerker? THE LAST AMERICAN VIRGIN is PORKY’S made by Douglas Sirk as a teenager’s quest to lose his virginity is imagined as a Great American Tragedy. It had long been the Holy Grail of the genre — beaten-up longbox video copies regularly fetched 30 dollars plus on Ebay before the film was finally released on DVD. Attempting to cash in on the ’80s teen sex craze, Israeli movie moguls Golan and Globus brought Boaz Davidson to Hollywood to remake their local smash hit LEMON POPSICLE for American audiences, resetting it from the deserts of 1950s Israel to the deserts of 1980s Los Angeles. The 1979 feature LEMON POPSICLE, which eventually spawned seven sequels, was ripped off by PORKY’s (although it was a rip off of AMERICAN GRAFFITI), so going Hollywood was a justified attempt to cash in (even if the film, unlike PORKY’s was a box office failure). The virtually non-stop soundtrack features numerous New Wave classics including Devo, The Cars, U2, the Police, and its recurring-to-the-point-of-nausea love coda, REO “Speedwagon’s Keep on Lovin’ You.” But unlike any of its ilk this side of FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, the film manages to strike a balance between the pains of uncontrollable teenage lust and the pains of unrequited teenage love. Gross-out sex antics featuring dick-measuring contests, offensively caricatured Latina nymphomaniacs and crab-infested, surly hookers are interspersed with a bizarre love triangle in which our hero Gary (Lawrence Monoson) falls for the new girl in school (Diane Franklin — better known as Monique in BETTER OFF DEAD) who in turn falls for his best friend Rick (Steve Antin). Dramatic complications ensue, culminating in the most emotionally devastating finale of any American film of its era (yes, including TERMS OF ENDEARMENT). Teenage agony and awkwardness has rarely been so wonderfully captured on film.

TRIVIA: As heteronormative as the film is (as is the entire genre), it’s interesting to note that Antin, the actor playing the film’s macho ladies man (better known for his role as Troy in THE GOONIES) eventually came out of the closet and is now an executive producer on the Pussycat Dolls reality television show (and a former boyfriend of David Geffen). Whether one can read anything into his performance from that tidbit remains to be seen (also of note that Antin played one of the rapists in THE ACCUSED.

California Dreaming

August 23, 2008

(USA, 1979, John D. Hancock)

If you’ve seen one surf film from the late ’70s, it’s probably BIG WEDNESDAY, John Milius’ pretentious epic that envisioned surfers as modern zen samurai. Although CALIFORNIA DREAMING lacks the new age machismo I found distasteful in that aforementioned film, it also lacks a decent script. Ned Wynn (descendant of the Wynn acting clan whose best known achievement to date is a memoir of growing up in Hollywood and is still a struggling screenwriter and apparently right-wing Republican), wrote the script, and while he may know the territory, having played “Beach Boy” in BEACH BLANKET BINGO, BIKINI BEACH, and HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI, he doesn’t know how to write a script. T.T. (nicely played by Dennis Christopher of BREAKING AWAY fame) arrives in California from Chicago to play his recently deceased brother’s jazz music by the California ocean that the departed loved. He is soon taken in by a veteran beachcomber (Seymour Cassel) who shows him the ropes as he adapts to California beach culture. Glynnis O’Connor and a pre-Charlie’s Angels Tanya Roberts play two bikini beach bunnies. What follows is as shallow as the beach culture the film ostensibly criticizes as our newcomer learns valuable life lessons. By the time the film inexplicably shifts into melodrama at the end, I had already lost interest. Cassel’s performance is the best thing in the film. Director Hancock is probably best known for his 1971 minor horror classic, LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH.