Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Downhill Racer (1969)

Directed by Michael Ritchie. Michael Ritchie went on to direct one of my favorite movies, 1976's "The Bad News Bears," but long before that had a very weird directorial style -- sort of documentarian. Really unnecessarily documentarian. To the point of begging a documentary on his subject. He did a pair of movies with Robert Redford, "Downhill Racer" and in 1972 "The Candidate," the first about a pro skier and the latter about a guy who runs for Senator in California. He succeeded with this style in 1975's beauty pageant comic drama, "Smile." It's tempting to accuse him of needing Robert Altman to have made his masterpiece "Nashville" that same year to see how to do it in order to make "Smile" but obviously the two movies were made at the same time, so it wouldn't be fair.

The point is that "Downhill Racer" is not a tremendous success here. Depending on your mood, I'd say it takes a relaxed pace and is a quiet film, though there is a fine line between that and just being goddamn boring. True to the style, Redford is very good and playing this arrogant and self-centered character in an understated and realistic way -- never over the top or cinematically evil, but this means we don't get a hell of a lot to sink our teeth into. When absurdly hot ski groupie Camilla Sparv gets the best of him we get excited simply because something on the screen has happened; this is not the best situation to find yourself in as a film goer.

The best thing about the movie is Gene Hackman, but not because he's particularly good. He plays "Eugene Claire," the wonderfully Canadian named, tough-talking, "what-the-hell-were-you-doing-up-there?" manager. He has a lot of yelling tantrums. He gives pep talks. He's basically a movie cliche, and it's great! It's just what this dead fish of a movie needs.

This Michael Ritchie is weird because after "The Bad News Bears," a brilliant satire on the death of the American dream, it's as if he lost his mind. In '81 he was the uncredited director of "Student Bodies," really a fine, if characteristically understated (and now dated) satire of evolution of contemporary horror films. After that he started cranking out star-driven Hollywood dog shit: "Fletch" (1985), "Wildcats" (1986), "The Golden Child" (1986), even the TV movie "The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom" in (1993).

Hollywood is rough, man.

For Singles Only (1968)

Directed by Arthur Dreifuss. There's no way in hell I can beat the two-word review of this on IMDB that reads "trashy timewaster" without either providing some genuine information or at least posing some relevant questions.

This is quite simply a fantastic film that will leave you baffled. Why does this light piece of fluff include a violent rape scene about two-thirds of the way through? Did someone in Hollywood think all of this mediocrity would somehow mathematically combine to more than the sum of its parts? How many of the hot actresses in this did Milton Berle shock with his famously massive schlong?

Milton Berle does a competent job here reading cue cards and mugging for the camera in three scenes placed strategically at the beginning, middle and end of the picture. This was probably done to spread out his appearance and make it seem longer, though I prefer to look at it as only having to take Berle in small doses.

One reason I was sold on this movie was because of John Saxon, one of the most instantly recognizable faces in film/TV cursed with the least recognizable name. You think you don't know John Saxon, but don't you know this guy?

I thought so. He'd show up on "Fantasy Island" and "The Love Boat" once a season and be on his merry way, and people shouldn't forget (though it's far too late to prevent it) that he co-starred with Bruce Lee in "Enter the Dragon."

But in "For Singles Only" John Saxon doesn't seem to know any martial arts or that might have come in handy in the brutal rape scene I'm warning you about for the second time. The other reasons I was sold on this movie were hot '60s chicks, which if you know me -- and why would you be reading this if you didn't -- you know I'm a sucker for. This movie includes Lana Wood (gorgeous sister to Natalie Wood, Playboy model and terrible actress) as well as Mary Ann Mobley, who if you don't know from your collection of Miss America memorabilia (1959), you remember from celebrity game show panels of the '70s:

When this movie was released, the New York Times review said of its producer, Sam Katzman, "only an elderly movie producer living in southern California could remain alive and yet be so dead to the meaning of the world around him."

Ridiculous! Here's the plot: John Saxon plays Bret Hendley an apparently non-Jewish young man about to be kicked out of grad school because he's got money problems. Saxon was 33 when he made this but I think he's supposed to be a lot younger. Anyway, his buddies in the swinging singles apartment where they all live bet him all the money he needs that he can't bed down the new cutie down the hall whose given all the boys the brush off. Ladies' Man Bret takes that bet -- but wouldn't you know? He falls in love with the lady!

I won't spoil any of the surprises that follow, and before you go thinking I'm sarcastically implying that a movie like this has none to offer, let me remind you one more time of the horrible, brutal rape that shows up inexplicably in this otherwise very light romantic comedy! Not to mention the appearance by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band! I swear I am not shitting you!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Terror on the Beach (1973)

Directed by Paul Wendkos. Poor Susan Dey. Her acting career just consisted of being abused. When she wasn't pretending to sing and play the Fender Rhodes on the "Partridge Family," she was thrown in prison in 1975's "Cage Without a Key" or in this movie terrorized by dune buggy-crazed beach thugs. And goodness knows throughout it all she didn't allow herself a square meal.

So yeah, this is essentially a biker movie without the bikes. The ruffians drive dune buggies, don't ask why. But the movie is less about Susan Dey unfortunately and more about her ineffectual goofy dad, played by Dennis Weaver, and how he eventually finds his center and stands up to these assholes in the last ten minutes of the flick. The other 80 minutes is pretty standard biker movie fare, where they bully the family and you wish something else would happen.

I'll say this -- great vehicles. I love these early '70s dune buggies and especially the tricked out camper van that the Dennis Weavers are driving around in. It's got the pop-top roof and the booth-style table. I love that stuff. Otherwise, I can't believe I sat through this.

Cage Without a Key (1975)

Directed Buzz Kulik. I need to show somebody this movie, or at least about ten seconds of this movie. Because while I was able to verify on the Internet that this is indeed a TV movie, and the sound is not great on the copy I have, I could swear that in one scene this woman asks a guy, "Did she tell you to fuck off?" which to me seemed peculiar for a TV movie from 1975.

I'll tell you what does not seem peculiar for this TV movie. It's AWESOME! You'd expect nothing less from director Buzz Kulik, the director of "Bad Ronald," the greatest TV movie ever. If Alfred Hitchcock was the Master of Suspense then Buzz Kulik was the Master of Bad Ronald. "Cage Without a Key" was his follow-up to "Bad Ronald" and while it's not a sequel, it's almost as if he is metaphysically channeling Ronald's journey to prison at the end of that film by showing a completely unrelated character going to prison in a completely unrelated story.

Confusing the question for me as to whether this is a TV movie is that it came to me titled "Imprisoned Women" (see image icon above), which in it's own way is a much better title. In this movie there are many imprisoned women, who are indeed stored in cells not unlike cages but, in the interest of accuracy seem unquestionably to operate quite reasonably with keys even if the women are not provided access to the keys. Being imprisoned and all.

Anyway. Susan Dey is the imprisoned woman of central interest here and I'm not sure why it is not until my 40s that I've realized just how good looking she was. A little too skinny, but what a beauty. The demands on her acting in this particular flick change with the three acts. In act one she is naive and foolish. Act two involves a lot of crying and carrying on as she assimilates with imprisonment. In act three, she becomes hardened because society has failed her. It's all very distressing, except for the part about her being quite fetching.

I won't ruin the ending, although if you see a lot of movies from this period, you probably know what happens to an African-American when whitey go and be friends.

Fanboys (2008)

Directed by Kyle Newman. I would like to know the story behind why the release of this film got delayed over and over because that's usually the mark of a serious stinker, and while this is hardly a classic of any kind, it's certainly not a stinker and is in fact, very much my kind of movie. I love a teen comedy, especially one with a road trip plot, a good heart and good actors, and "Fanboys" has all of that.

Some time ago I wrote about "Sex Drive" and this is as good as that. The only thing that might have made me not like "Fanboys" is that its plot is about a group of "Star Wars" fans and the plot is full of sly winks and obscure references to "Star Wars" movies and fans and that sort of stuff is lost on me. I'm also conflicted on whether it detracts from the film or if it's not the filmmaker's fault that this important, fun part of the film is lost on me so I should just shut up. I'm willing to give the benefit of doubt and say nothing more about that.

"Fanboys" has a nice premise. The story takes place a few months prior to the release of "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace." A group of charming but geeky, 20-something, life-long "Star Wars" pals plan and execute a sort of "Make a Wish" mission on behalf of one of the group. As the young man dies of cancer, they work together to break into George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch to find and view a print of the movie the friend will unquestionably not live long enough to see.

Hilarity ensues, their is not too much "Star Wars" bullshit for people who will not find that sort of foolishness funny, and the ending of the movie does not pussy out on its premise. A great comedy.

The Wave (1981)

Directed by Alexander Grasshoff. This won an Emmy at a time when I think it you just got an Emmy if you scared the living fuck out of people. If you made a TV movie that suggested that the Russians might drop the bomb before the next commercial break, you got an Emmy. If you made a TV movie that suggested your tap water was flammable, you got an Emmy.

"The Wave" was Based On A True Story, which one of the more meaningless phrases around. History teacher Burt Ross proposes a school club called "The Wave" that promotes power, discipline and superiority. Through subtle passive aggression he promotes recruitment through high pressure.

His goal is to illustrate the climate of 1930s Germany to his students. However, they are apparently too dumb to see the connection and so starved for any kind of organization and structure in their lives that they LOVE IT! Eventually though, he herds them all into a gymnasium and says shame on you, you stupid kids, that's just how Hitler convinced all the dumb Nazis to kill Jews and what are you, like a bunch of wild Nazis and what if I had asked you to kill Jews, would you have just done that? You can just imagine if a teacher tried this today. Damn, these days if a teacher bring peanuts to class they get tarred and feathered.

Either this Burt Ross is a complete creep or this is the most poorly set up screenplay I've seen in a long time. To justify the second act, in which Ross introduces the Wave, shouldn't the kids NOT QUITE GET the proliferation of Nazi power? Shouldn't they question the likelihood of the widespread acceptance of the Final Solution? Wouldn't that somehow justify an experiment as daring as the Wave? BUT NO! When Ross explains the execution of Jews, Gays, gypsies, blacks, the disabled, and several other religions, the high school kids are appropriately horrified and seem in no way incredulous. So why traumatize them? It makes no sense.

Yet "The Wave" seems to be a classic of some sort, despite it barely airing. I could not verify this, but I have heard that it aired only once or twice on US TV because it was ultimately deemed too intense. Well, Stan in the "South Park" movie may have said it best when he asked, "Dude, what the fuck is wrong with German people?" Germany re-made this crazy thing just last year as "Die Welle," though I'll bet that's a lot better than "The Wave: The Musical," which I apologize for writing off without listening to even though I could download the whole thing for free at TheWaveTheMusical.com.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Rolling Thunder (1977)

Directed by John Flynn. Revenge movies are very simple but not very easy. The plot is always the same but it is hard to make work. For the movie to succeed, we need to want revenge as badly as the film's main character -- but what should we feel once the hero gets his revenge? There are wooden-headed films about nothing more than the satisfaction that comes with settling a grudge and more complicated ones that consider whether vengeance comes with the price of lowering oneself to the level of one's enemy.

I like the idea that either way the hero of a revenge movie makes a sacrifice on behalf of the audience. They sacrifice their soul so that the audience may feel cathartic satisfaction without paying the price of malice.

As a movie "Rolling Thunder" works it manages to have it every which way. William Devane plays Major Charles Rane, a late-70s Hollywood boilerplate Vietnam POW -- psychologically scarred, physically wounded, alternately sneered at and condescended to by society. As if things couldn't get any worse, his wife and kid get murdered when their house is robbed by Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane, who also pushes his hand down a garbage disposal.

Major Rane spends the rest of the movie running around Mexico, somehow a lot more physically agile than he was before the robbery, finding the killers one-by-one using methods never made perfectly clear and exacting extremely satisfying revenge with the help of a hot chick played by Linda Haynes and fellow disenfranchised vet Tommy Lee Jones.

There's a nice 'we're all guilty" angle to it all because in the end, Major Rane and his buddy finally feel at home in post-war civilization again as killing machines, which we turned them into, so really it's our own fault. They got their revenge and they feel at home again. Major Rane can't get his family back, but at least he has his sanity. And the revenge film genre is far healthier than it is in the hands of Sylvester Stallone.

Freebie and the Bean (1974)

Directed by Richard Rush. This is pretty much the Rosetta Stone of buddy-cop comic action dramas and there must be some very specific reason it is not available on DVD, but I don't know what it is. I had hoped to learn the reason when an interview with director Richard Rush turned up in a recent issue of Shock Cinema magazine, but that didn't come up.

What did come up was that -- according to Rush -- James Caan and Alan Arkin were complete primadonna assholes who refused to get along during much of the film's making. The reason that's so interesting is that the only thing that makes this flick work is what is apparently the illusion of tremendous chemistry between its two stars.

There's not a hell of a lot of plot and the script is hardly meaty. But the delivery between Caan and Arkin is awesome. It's fast and sharp. Everything here depends on character. The story takes place in a dirty contemporary San Francisco where a corrupt police force is an accepted assumption and not particularly frowned upon. Caan's "Freebie" wants only to increase his piece of the action by graduating to the vice squad. Arkin's "Bean" is an Hispanic (Robert Heyges may or may not have been an alternate choice for the role) family man who, despite his skills as a cop and detective, is unable to confirm whether his wife is cheating on him.

As part of their work day, Freebie and Bean are quite comfortable beating information out of people, shooting through and driving over bystanders, and ignoring due process rights. Also, this movie is from 1974, so homosexuals are portrayed as mincing freaks incapable of socialization.

But Caan and Arkin are remarkable and that's why this is worth seeking out.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Mallrats (1995)

Directed by Kevin Smith. Seeing "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" made me want to see "Mallrats" again. A word of caution about renting "Mallrats;" there are a couple of editions of this out there and they present vastly different films.

The "Tenth Anniversary Extended Edition" should probably be avoided. It's a director's cut of sorts that adds about a half-hour to the movie. It also includes director Kevin Smith introducing the film. He explains eloquently and amusingly why the long cut is inferior and unnecessary and he is very, very right.

This long cut calls attention to Kevin Smith's youth as a director. Not enough coverage was shot in dialog; sometimes scenes run so long without a break in the shot it feels like a camera was just pointed at a play onstage. The pacing is weird; it takes forever for these mallrats to get to the damn mall. Overall, the length suggests lack of self-confidence; while scenes with Smith's own Silent Bob character (alongside Jason Mewes) are the liveliest in the film, these are brief (actually the perfect length) compared to scenes with other actors, whose work Smith may have felt unnecessarily more attached to.

One more point about this "Tenth Anniversary Extended Edition." Most of the material in this cut can be seen on the original DVD's extended scenes tracks, etc. Additionally, while the original DVD includes Smith's always enlightening and funny director commentary, the anniversary edition does not. The commentary on the original "Mallrats" DVD includes insight into the film's financing, production, marketing, box office performance and plenty of gossip about the personal lives of everyone involved. Leaving the commentary off the anniversary disc is enough reason to not get that edition.

If you like Kevin Smith's movies and the genre he paid tribute to here, "Mallrats" is a great movie. Though because the teen romance comedy is by its nature a studio genre, its length and pacing may have actually benefited from studio interference prior to its release.

Paul Blart: Mall Cop (2009)

Directed by Steve Carr. I generally think it's ungrounded when comedians accuse each other of stealing jokes. If you're all in the business of looking out for the funny stuff of life, you're probably going to run across similar observations. Also, similar jokes are bound to show up because a lot of joke writing is filling in the numbers to algebraic formulas. Comedians essentially hit us with very sophisticated, much smarter versions of knock-knock/who's-there, good-news/bad-news and so on.

The reason I bring this up is because at least five years ago, two screenwriter friends of mine told me about their current project, a script called "Mall Cop." I have a running joke with one of them, Rob, where I pitch him the most ridiculous titles I can ("Rollerblade Academy," "Project: Cheerleader," "The Envelope Lickers") and yell at him, "C'mon, it writes itself!" In this case, they came to me with "Mall Cop" and said it wrote itself: a man-child may still live with his mother and get by as a shopping mall security guard, but his whole life changes when terrorists take over the mall -- and he is everyone's only hope.

This is exactly the plot of "Paul Blart: Mall Cop," though a comedy of this sort is based on an algebraic formula; you fill in the numbers and it calculates itself. It's a pretty good idea, so somebody else was bound to have it.

Yet I consider "Paul Blart" a massive triumph for my friends and I would like to use this space to congratulate Arthur Lizie and Rob Hallworth on this big screen accomplishment. They did not write "Paul Blart," which is credited to its star, Kevin James, with Nick Bakay. However, Hollywood is so full of heartbreaking stories of lost financing, ambivalent studios, celebrity politics, legal problems and sheer competition that very few screenwriters ever see their work make it to the theaters.

Still it's the same damn thing as their movie and there it is on the silver screen without them having to do a damn thing. I'd bet you could find plenty of embattled screenwriters in Hollywood that would say it might be worth getting to see one's work on the screen even if it meant not being involved in the project.

Now, if only somebody would make "Project: Cheerleader."

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Django (1966)

Directed by Sergio Corbucci. Anybody who tells you the best western ever is something with Clint Eastwood in it is wrong for a few reasons. The first is that I'd be willing to bet that even Clint Eastwood would say that this movie is better than anything he is in. The second is that this movie has one of the best reveals I can remember seeing in a movie. It's a moment you won't see coming, will never forget and would be a sin to spoil.

A third reason is that this movie has a scene intense enough that Quentin Tarantino stole it -- which may not be saying much because he steals tons of stuff, but this particular scene ended up being one of the more talked about scenes of its year. It's the scene in "Reservoir Dogs" when Mr. Blonde cuts off Officer Nash's ear. In "Django," General Rodriguez cuts off a man's ear for being nosy and listening to conversations he should not.

Django himself is a mythic figure. He travels dragging a coffin, it is unclear whether his values are material or spiritual, whether he strikes deals spontaneously or meticulously, whether he believes himself to be cursed or on a mission of redemption.

The story reveals insights into these questions bit by bit, though the mystery is most of the fun. This is the king of the westerns, so it does not need to play by the rules. And like so many great films about spirituality and sin and redemption, you needn't have worked so hard, the answers were there from the opening shot.

The Yakuza (1974)

Directed by Sydney Pollack. This is a weird movie because a lot of people don't know about it but there's a lot of reasons to check it out. In general, Yakuza (Japanese mafia) films from Japan are a major genre and this is a U.S. take on it, though what's particularly well done about it is that it's not just some parasitic exploitation of the Japanese phenomenon. This is an original story of Yakuza business politics that involves an American who gets in the way a little, and helps a little.

It's also interesting because it's more than 30 years old. If it were made these days, some asshole like Vin Diesel would either turn the Yakuza upside-down and do everything his way or exist as some Yakuza fixture, condescendingly defending the honor of the Japanese against a bunch of horrible racists.

Instead here, Robert Mitchum struggles with an unfamiliar mob culture that happens to exist in another culture. This was Paul Schraeder's breakout screenplay, the script that eventually partnered him with Martin Scorcese for "Taxi Driver" (1976) and "Raging Bull" (1980).

The story is complex but takes place in a Japan on the verge of reaching its massive post-war economic success in the early '70s. There is significant awareness of finding the right balance between Eastern and Western cultural values and a fear of losing Japan's classic identity amid its contemporary identity.

The film takes its time to establish all this, but in the second half there is a lot of action and the third act has some intensely rewarding character development and plot resolution. Really. No, I mean really.

Anyway, you should see this.

Marley and Me (2008)

Directed by David Frankel. I have to admit that this was better than I was expecting it to me. Going into it I was aware of two things: first, that it would go for a lot of cheap, cute dog-based emotional appeal and second, that it would make a play for depth by killing off the dog. I doubt I am spoiling anything for you by confirming that both of these things happened.

I'll admit that I did not particularly dread the dog-based shamelessness of this movie because I sort of like cute dogs and do not as a general habit bother much with cute dog movies. So I have room for this sort of thing. Also, while I am baffled by the country's fascination with Jennifer Aniston, I do not as a general habit bother with her any more than cute dogs, despite finding her at least as cute and thus also have room for her in a movie of this sort.

But the real point is that I was surprised to find that this movie was not so much about the cute dog or the cute girl as the man who was played by Owen Wilson, whose as an actor is not what you could call rangey but fits the clearly deliberate design of the rest of the film's casting, which was to be as appealing as possible in a screamingly caucasian sort of way.

So the movie is actually about the sacrifices a man makes in his career, friendships, lusts and even certain loves, all in order to cultivate and maintain the most critical loves of his life. Like most American popcorn movies, even though this is not communicated in a particularly sophisticated way it is generally entertaining and there is one stabbing.