Monday, April 17, 2017

All That Jazz (1979)

Twentieth Century Fox was enjoying a run of critical successes in the late 70s.With titles like Breaking Away, Norma Rae, An Unmarried Woman and Julia, the strobing-lights studio had recaptured some of the glory it hadn’t truly seen since the Daryl Zanuck days. And now it had decided to close out the decade with All That Jazz, Bob Fosse’s semi-autobiography (although I’d argue that it’s far more than “semi”) about a director/choreographer at the end of his rope, and his life. Told in a stream-of-consciousness style, it exposes his womanizing, drug addiction and workaholism as a heart attack, and the angel of death, forces him to confront his final-act demons. Not exactly The Doris Day Show.

But it gleaned mostly positive reviews, and even legendary director Stanley Kubrick has been quoted as calling it the best movie he’d ever seen. And truth be told, he wasn’t too far off the mark – Jazz is actually quite close to being a masterpiece. Sure, some complained of its reminiscence of 8 ½, but that’s sort of like saying Peter Bogdonovich’s What’s Up Doc is just Bringing Up Baby, or that Fatal Attraction is just Play Misty for Me. Or that anything by DePalma is just Hitchcock – just because it’s based on a pre-existing form doesn’t mean it can’t he as good. (It might even be, gasp, better!) All that Jazz doesn’t necessary best Fellini’s masterpiece, but nor is it trying to. In many ways Jazz is darker, more disturbing and sadder, yet filled with some of the most invigorating, original musical numbers I’ve ever seen in film. I’m not surprised Kubrick liked it so much: it holds a generally negative view of human nature yet stands as a beautiful work of art in its own right.

Fosse was burning the candle at both ends in 1974, during his simultaneous editing of Lenny and staging of the Broadway musical Chicago – the harried period depicted in Jazz as Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) shuttles between the editing room and theater stage. Our opening number, “On Broadway,” sets up the auditions for the show, and sets up Gideon’s character: an accomplished choreographer who takes his work very, very seriously – almost to a fault. His love for the dance, and for the women who practice it, has cost him a marriage (to dancer Audrey Paris), and very nearly his current relationship to another dancer, Katie Jagger (Ann Reinking). The problem is, Joe knows how badly he’s managed his life, and he copes with this awareness through myriad of pharmaceuticals, and the hope that someday, perhaps, his work will be good enough. But it never seems to be “good enough.” His only happiness seems to come from his daughter, a dancer as well – and their scenes together are a solace from the turmoil of his personal and professional life.

With mounting pressure from neck-breathing investors, coupled with his not-entirely healthy lifestyle, Joe is admitted into a hospital after suffering a heart attack.
With a prescient knowledge of his impending fate he imagines a conversation with the Angel of Death (Jessica Lange), and fixates on one portion of his film – the comedian’s routine on the Five Stages of Death – as it pertains to the stages he is currently undergoing. As he goes under the knife for open heart surgery, his investors heartlessly consider their profit margins if Joe were to die and they could write the entire show off. He does, but not before he imagines a grand finale to beat the bank: the musical extravaganza “Bye, Bye Life” (variant of “Bye, Bye Love”) with all the loved ones in his life, and co-starring Ben Vereen. The final shot of Joe being zipped up in a body bag gives us the final, disturbing image, as Ethel Merman sings “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” revealing Joe (and Fosse’s) love/hate feelings about his profession, and about his life.

All That Jazz is such a dizzying, emotional rollercoaster ride of a movie that it’s hard to know where to start, except to say that you won’t soon forget it after seeing it. With a razor-sharp, lightening-paced script by Fosse and Robert Alan Aurthor (who died before the film’s release), it puts the viewer to work, shuttling from one musing to another as we must sort out Joe’s inner musings, which follow no particular order. The lynchpin of the whole things is how smart Joe is – so smart that he’s all too aware of how demanding and overbearing he can be. One marvelous scene involves a dance recital with ex-wife: he instructs her movements while she casually discusses his marital misdeeds, which he somewhat rationalizes but never denies. But he may very well be the hardest, and most observant, about himself – no, he harbors no pie-in-the-sky ideal that he can change, even were he to survive his heart attack. “If I don’t make it,” he says to her, “I’m sorry for all the things I’ve done. And if I don’t make it, I’m sorry for all the things I’m gonna do.”

And then there are the dance numbers. They’re phenomenal, particularly he opener and closer, and given added weight for their context. The dancing in Jazz is elegant yet urgent – the dancers dance because, to paraphrase George Ballanchine, they have to dance, and in Joe’s case quite literally so. Ann Reinking, as Joe’s girl, is pitch perfect in her first film role: wide-eyed, foolishly devoted yet made more mature during her experience. My favorite of her numbers – a three-girl routine (with ex-wife and daughter, all the women of his life) in which they say “goodbye,” lamenting that he’s leaving a daughter fatherless owing to his reckless, heedless lifestyle. Again, no apologies, just full transparency, Fosse style.

I don’t really identify with the theater life, certainly not as hardcore as is represented in this movie, but I can identify with Joe’s addictive tendencies and his professional perfectionism. Perhaps it’s this absolutism that makes him a bit rough around the edges, but he’s still a likeable protagonist, despite all his flaws. This is crucial, since we need to care – it’s what the entire movie is anchored on. He represents us, the worst of us, a side we may not wish to acknowledge but must at some point in our lives, before it’s too late. In Joe’s case, he just makes it.

And how can I leave without mentioning Scheider in the lead role as Joe – a smart actor playing a smart character. I don’t know much about Fosse but I’ve the feeling Scheider captures him – every aspect and nuance – down to a T. The way a cigarette is always dangling out of his mouth; the way he exasperatingly rolls his eyes at those editing sessions, fully expecting his film to bomb; the way he tells a chorus dancer he didn’t get the part, with equal parts compassion and tough love. It all feels perfect to me, and I’d be willing to bet that no director in American movies had a better onscreen portrayer than Fosse had with Scheider. He’s just that goddamned good.

Jazz is a musical for the ages, but it is an unsparing one. And Fosse is unsparing of himself, confessing, revealing everything as if it were his penance. He would go on to direct one more film, 1983’s Star 80 (another ill-fated subject), before succumbing, as he predicted, to a heart attack in Washington D.C. in 1987. But Jazz, for me, is his swan song – a fitting coda to a legendary, underrated career.

Rating:  ****

And P.S…. Only ONE movie left to cover 1980 – 1985. Are they kidding me???

Friday, April 7, 2017

Alien (1979)

In the wake of Star Wars’ unprecedented and unexpected success, every studio in Hollywood suddenly saw green in outer space – and countless execs and agents tried to figure out how they could set their projects in the heavens. Most of them started coming out in 1979, two years after Wars’ release. In that year we got: Moonraker (Bond in space), The Black Hole (Disney in space), Meteor (disaster film in space) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (the long awaited film adaption, finally greenlit after Wars).

And then there was Alien, originally a shelved screenplay by Michael O’Bannon until Fox showed interest after the box office return of its very own Wars. Now that sci-fi in space was cool again, why not horror in space; it could cross-pollinate both Jaws and Wars, the two biggest hits of all time? Fox’s not-too-risky gamble paid off; Alien raked in 80 million in ticket sales and garnered two Oscar nominations. To date, four sequels have been produced, with one on the way, making it Fox’s second-biggest sci-fi franchise. Not too shabby.

And me? Billed with the tagline “In space, no one can hear you scream,” and with a hard-R MPAA rating, I was positively forbidden from catching the flick in theaters. And even on home video, I never caught up with it until well after I had already seen its sequel, James Cameron’s Aliens, in 1986. My reaction? Meh, not particularly scary, but feeling somehow that maybe I was missing something. Then again, in the 2000’s, I screened it again (on DVD this time), with roughly the same reaction. Finally, I just now saw it again for this blog…. and, despite perhaps a bit more admiration for its ahead-of-its time art direction and science-seriousness, I didn’t change my opinion much. I just don’t get its enormous appeal.

The Nostromo, a commercial space freighter on its way home from a mining job, receives a distress signal coming from a desolate planet. The ship’s crew of seven is eager to get home, but captain Dallas (Tom Skerrit) and officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) believe they should check it out. A search party discovers some weird, fossilized remains of what looks like an alien, and one member, Kane (John Hurt), gets the shock of his lifetime when a clearly alive alien jumps out and sucks itself on his face. They bring him back aboard the ship, against Ripley’s orders but permitted by increasingly untrustworthy science officer Ash (Ian Holm), and that’s when the sh**t hits the fan.

Completely unable to get the slimy sucker off Kane’s face, and hindered by the fact that its blood can burns its way through anything, including two floors of the ship, they write the man off for dead. But soon they discover he’s recovered – with his former parasite assumedly dead on the floor – all ready to chow down at breakfast with the rest of the crew. You know what happens next if you know anything about the movie: from out of Kane’s belly comes a little baby alien, the spawn of their lil’ intruder, and it slithers off into the ship, ready to grow and knock off every human on board. Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) is the first to go, followed by Dallas. And Ash? Turns out he’s the company’s android, under direct orders to bring the alien home, unharmed, with the crew rendered expendable. Ripley manages to smash him up real good, before realizing that the only way to defeat this bad alien mo-fo is to self-destruct the ship. Looks like she’s alone, as two others (Yaphet Koto and Veronica Cartwright) are now dogmeat, but as she ejects with a shuttle she realizes the alien is still with her; she carbon freezes the cretin and kicks it offboard to be done with it once and for all.

There is much to respect about Alien. In many ways, it’s far less dated than its space-age counterpart, Star Wars, owing to its seriousness about sci-fi. The crew of this ship speaks with a futuristic authority; no histrionics here there’s no time. And in the world of Alien space is a matter to be treated with the utmost solemnity (although one could argue that it hardly helps them given the circumstances). Director Ridley Scott makes this verisimilitude work to his advantage; his hyperrealism and underdirection of actors (better than Lucas’) gives the horror that befalls them that much more shock. These are real astronauts, just doing job, and why couldn’t a vicious, stowaway alien also do the same to us?

Scott also does a fine job with his art direction of the ship. This is clearly a man who finds technology beautiful – he lingers lovingly on shots of computers and light, his camera crawls stealthily through the caverns of the Nostromo, taking in all the whirring and beeping and flashing. You can almost smell the equipment. And its this kind of beautification that gives the film its suspense – it’s in the absence of action that Alien is at its best. We wait and wait and wait for the worst to happen after the alien affixes himself to Kane. This is going to be bad, very bad. Hitchcock would be proud.

But yet, it’s around this time when Alien shows its cards, ad they’re not particularly good ones. Once we hit the stomach-popping scene and the critter is on the loose, the film turns, essentially, into a slasher film. One by one the humans go down, and the only real surprise is the revelation of Ash’s robotdom. And worse yet…. I never really found the alien that terrifying. Sorry. He just doesn’t scare me very much. I don’t exactly think he looks realistic – I think it has something to do with the two heads- is it an alien inside an alien? When he pops out he resembles a cheesy stick puppet, and letter he just looks like a guy in a suit. And it’s never exactly clear how he kills people; there’s a lot of quick editing and a shot of a fist plunging through flesh. Is that it? This was the same problem I had with Cameron’s sequel, and if a director as masterful as he can’t make this dude scary, it must be an error with the character itself.

And though, as I mentioned, Scott is skilled at developing character credibility, he’s not so expert at fleshing them out. I certainly could have used more backstory for at least a few of them. But Scott prefers to keep his hardware, and the alien, at center stage, and while, as I mentioned, it’s perhaps ahead of its time in this regard, it’s also a harbinger of the steelier, more soulless action-adventure flicks that clang-clanged their way into the 80s and 90s. By the time the alien starts eviscerating everyone, we’re not too jolted, certainly more inured than 1979 audiences. This stuff holds up, but only because we’re so used to its metallic imitators.

I called Alien a slasher movie, and there’s no greater evidence of that than the final double-ending in which the alien returns when thought dead. The whole sequence is nothing but a tack-on (added last-minute by Scott), and does nothing but exploit a tired gimmick. Anything else that might have worked in Aliens is undermined by that ridiculous ending, even if we do get to see Sigourney Weaver in a tank top and panties.

Bottom line: culturally significant, but never one of my personal faves. Oh, and BTW: my Fox Collection copy is mismarked – it’s Aliens, not the original. Too minor, and too late, to send back.

Rating:  ***

Monday, April 3, 2017

Norma Rae (1979)

(Before I start, I’m just noticing that they skipped 1978, and thus one of my favorite all-time films, Fox An Unmarried Woman. But I’m also noticing that it appears to be out of print, given Amazon’s astronomically high price for a few used copies, and so I’ll cut the Fox Collection a break.)

 I first saw Norma Rae back we got our first VCR, a top-loading Syvania, back in Christmas of 1982. Back then there was only one video rental place in town (where we got the VCR), but it was all the way in Vineland – too distance-prohibitive for regular film rentals. So it was with great enthusiasm they one opened right in our own hamlet of Millville. And that’s when, starting in April, we rented movies like they were going out of style (which they would, some twenty years later).

My parents got Norma Rae to watch when our aunt and uncle came over for dinner. Perhaps a odd choice for a fun night at the movies, but you have to remember that we were early on the VCR bandwagon, so seeing any movie, uncut, whenever you wanted and with no commercials, was a hell of a novelty. It would have been a success, too, were it not for a major technical glitch. Our TV was a bit on the old side, and it didn’t completely mesh with the new VCR. So we had to constantly adjust the set’s vertical hold; in other words, every two minutes or so the picture would annoyingly flip up, like an unsprocketed film frame, requiring us to monkey around in the back to fix it.

But no matter – a film rental was still a big deal, and when I saw it alone the next day, I found it quite interesting. I had only the scarcest understanding of labor unions, but I got enough to follow the story. And eve better, it whetted my appetite for the subject. In high school I even did a paper on Samuel Gompers and the AFL/CIO, and perhaps it even sowed the seeds for my current support of fair labor representation, collective bargaining and socialism in general. And to think it all started with the Flying Nun.

And now, having seen it some 35 years later, I can see it through more mature eyes, and my review is pretty simple: it’s a wonderful film. I know, it’s probably in bad form for a critic to use such simple superlatives, but it’s the most apt word I know for a movie that it’s all the notes just right. It’s got a top-notch screenplay, literate and complex without compromising its rural-American authenticity. It’s keeps up just the right tone – melancholy and stark without being cheerless. And it features characters that you not only like very much but also want to succeed at any cost. Norma’s protagonists are sharp and smart without being cynical – a far cry from any hipper-than-thou progressives you’d find in today’s movies. These folk are real, as really as the backroads where they live and the mills where they work.

But Norma Rae is really two films. The first is the labor union story – about how a representative comes down to an unnamed Southern town, and tries to convince the workers at a textile mill that they are getting the royal screw from their employers and need representation pronto. That’s the part I got when I was twelve, but the other part – the love story – I completely missed. No, it’s not the love story between Norma and her husband, Sonny, but rather the unrequited love story between her and the Jewish union rep from New York, Reuben. Both sides work perfectly in concert to deliver a potent polemic without neglecting the human element, for it’s people who drive causes in the first place.

Norma is, after all, a single Southern woman, with kids from two different dads, one deceased. But she’s unapologetic with her romances, including one, ill-fated, with a married man (she does call it off), until she meets Sonny (Beau Bridges) and marries him, more out of convenience, as he is also a single parent. But it’s her work that causes her the greatest duress these days – the local textile mill, where she toils with the weaving machines, and where both her parents are worked down to the bone. She pays little mind to a NY union rep, Reuben, who attempts to unionize the shop.

That all changes when she gradually gets enough of the harrowing working conditions, long hours and little pay. After her mother develops hearing problems, and her father ails from a heart condition (he ultimately dies after his foreman ignores his heart attack), she joins the cause. Soon Norma and Reuben, although from different worlds, devlop a close friendship, but it takes a toil on her own friendships with the others, not to mention her marriage to Sonny, who doesn’t truly understand what she’s fighting for. Things come to a head when Norma is harassed by the bosses, and then stands atop a table, holding high a cardboard sign with “Union” written in big letters. One by one each machine goes silent – indicative that enough people support her to vote in favor of unionization. Norma makes peace with her children – admitting to them her checkered past before her detractors do – and says goodbye to Reuben with a handshake, even though he will be “in her head” for a long time.

As I mentioned earlier, it really is this relationship that drives the movie. It’s a classic city mouse/country mouse formula, but what aches so much about their unrequited love is that, under other circumstances, they’d be a perfect fit – she’s just as intellectually curious as he is. But they’re separated not just by geography but by class. Their final handshake has all the pathos of The Way We Were’s finale: if things had just gone differently, if only, if only…. A film now would ratchet up that sexual tension so it hammers us, but Norma keeps it effectually subtle, and in the process makes it even more sexual.

And this all really brings us back to Sally Field’s Oscar-winning, Oscar-deserving performance in the title role. It’s more than just a heroic female role – she rides a very tricky balance here between being a political mouthpiece, delivering speechworthy sentiment and delightfully handcrafted dialogue, and putting forth a realistic portrait of an actual rural woman. This is something so difficult that very few actresses pull it off  (look at Julia Robert’s overpraised performance in Erin Brocovich, performing every scene like she were gaming for a Oscar, which she actually received).

And if Fields character is a feminist, then she’s an authentic, risky, feminist, or at least risky for its time. I’m referring specifically to her promiscuity, a doubled-standarded aspect of feminism still controversial to this day. But for her it’s just a matter of course, almost as if the rest of urban America hasn’t caught up with her proto-liberation. Sure, women are subservient, in the Bible-belt culture of patriarchism, but (wink-wink) we know how it really goes.

“It Goes Like It Goes” (how’s that for a segue?) is the perfect theme song for Norma – it encapsulates the sadness, the pathos – the struggle of decades of generations in a labor-oppressed backland with its mournful orchestration. But the song’s main lyric, “Maybe what’s good gets a little bit better, and maybe what’s bad gets gone,” belies that, nd signals a hope for the future – a future embodied by Norma, who sacrificed her life, her marriage, her love – for that future. That’s why her conversation with her kids at the end is just as significant a coda as that vote.

Bits and pieces: I love the way that the film shows machines in operation – it’s not just window dressing for the polemic. And though most of the heavies are one-note, I still believe them, stiff collars and wide ties and all. And this is a film that really shows us the climate – It’s summer, goddamned it, and everyone has underarm sweat stains (including Norma) and soaked shirts.

In short, I love this film. And it’s a true affection, too, not just respect. Funny, I think if there were no technical glitches, my aunt and uncle would’ve enjoyed this film, like I do now. Like Roger Ebert said, any good movie should be enjoyable because you’re watching quality cinema. Rog… I agree.

And BTW, this comes at the peak of 1978-82, my favorite era in American cinema. I wish I could go back.
Oh, and I forgot…. Ron Luebman was ROBBED of an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor as Rueben. He is magnificent – just as good as Field.

See it, see it, see it!

Rating:  ****

Friday, March 31, 2017

Star Wars (1977)!/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/display_600/image.jpg

That’s right, just Star Wars. Not Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope. Back then, when I first saw it, in 1978, it was just those simple two words that adorned the marquis of the theater that showed it, those two words which splashed across the movie poster which advertised it, and two words that emblazoned the packages of nearly every single toy I would receive for the next three years. Spare, simple – magical.

It’s safe to say that no singular film had the biggest impact on my life the way Star Wars did, and I know that millions of others can say the same thing. My childhood, in fact, can be neatly bisected in this way – before SW and after. Yes, I saw movies before SW, but back then all children’s entertainment could be summarized in one word: Disney. With very few exceptions, that was it – all she wrote – others need not apply. But mind you, you could subsist on a diet of Disney and still be a frequent filmgoer. In addition to the new animated features they were constantly reviving he old, and multiple times (I think I saw Bambi around five times this way). And the there was Disney live action, which generally ran the gamut from good to acceptable to atrociously awful. Of course, I knew no better; what other movies could I compare them to? And, actually, they come out looking pretty good compare to the drecked hat gets churned out nowadays.

So when I first heard about this must-see film named Star Wars, my appetite changed. My first exosure was actually not until the year after the film’s release, 1978, when I was at the back of the school bus in the Spring and someone showed me a few Star Wars Topps trading cards (one of the SW first products to be marketed). I was hooked, yet having no idea what this was really all about. That summer when they rereleased SW I begged my parents to take me. Free me from the shackles of Donald Duck and Tinkerbelle, I implored. Let me see a grown-up movie! (And it was, back hen, Star Wars had yet to become the stuff of childhood.) They finally relented and we al went to the Shore Mall Drive-In, where I sat in the back seat, breathlessly taking it all in. On time wasn’t enough, especially since I really didn’t get any of the plot, so Dad too k me to see it again at the College Twin in Glassboro. (I remember we had to kill two hours because the first show was sold out.) This time, with the help of Dad’s built-in Spark Notes, I got more of it plotwise, and it was even better.

And then the toys came. And the posters, ad the cards, and the books, and the magazines, and the comics, and the records, and the models, and the T-shirts, and the lunch kettles. I kept everything, even tissue boxes. When the second set of action figures came out, in 1979, I was a full-fledged aficionado, and when The Empire Strikes Back unspooled in 1980, I was right there, on opening day, with no intention of missing the boat this time. No longer a fetus with sneakers. And besides soaking up the Star Wars universe, I savored all sorts of different movies now, mainly sci-fi but also action adventure, comedy and drama, some of it more mature, like Airplane! Oh sure, I still attended Disney films (The North Avenue Irregulars is still one of my faves), but now I discovered there was another cinematic world out there, and it was worth waiting for.

When you understand  Star Wars’ placement in the postwar pop-cultural landscape, you start to realize how much different things would have been without it. In the 40s and 50s, sci-fi in the movies was primarily represented by serials – weekly film installments of space heroes and their galactic exploits. Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Space Raiders, Commander Cody led the pack, readily devoured by bug-eyed eight-year-olds who’d spent the entire day in the dark. And then, in the 50s, producers realized sci-hi had metaphoric value, and thrillers like The Day the Earth Stood Still (also in this collection) taught a cautionary lesson about our own hair-trigger xenophobia, fueled by Cold War paranoia and distrust.

When the 60s rolled around, the U.S. was as militaristic as ever, but now with the Mercury and Appollo space programs, out space didn’t seem quite so mysterious anymore. The decade’s landmark sci-fi epic, 2001, A Space Odyssey, was a meditative look at our own place in the universe, tracing the evolution of humankind and connecting it to another great leap: space exploration. It was a perfect fit for a disillusioned generation trying to make sense of the chaos surrounding it, and if not they could always “drop out” to the stargate sequence and smoke some pretty serious weed.

But the late 60s and 70s was no time for fun, at least not at the movies. The New Hollywood movement was ready to make statements, not money, and sobering parables like Midnight Cowboy as well as antiwar black comedies like M*A*S*H were the ones that connected. What few sci-releases there were – Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Trumbull’s Silent Running were hardly what you would call pick-me-up’s. Who could celebrate with the Mi-Lai massacre and Presidential corruption on the 6:00 news?

Ready to put Vietnam and Watergate behind them, audiences by the mid 70s were primed for lighter although no less durable entertainment. (The mass success of blockbusters Jaws and Rocky was evidence of this.) But audiences were more sci-fi savvy now; postmodern culture now included cerebral works by Issac Assimov and Ray Bradbury, and comic books had suddenly become more detailed, more complex. How to achieve this balance?

Only one man knew how: George Lucas. He intuitively realized that such a film could be made, even if no studio in Hollywood, save Fox, did. Star Wars opened on May 25th 1977, and the genre, or Hollywood for that matter would never be the same again. Hordes of moviegoers, most young adults, bought their ticket went in, came out, and saw it all over again. Lines formed in front of theaters al across the country – it was exactly what we wanted, what we needed. Lucas’s space opera had it all – archetypal plot, spectacular characters, mind-boggling/never-before seen special effects… and the creation of an entire other-worldly universe, with completely different words, dialects, objects, organisms ad environments. But not ideas, and not emotions. Those were the same.

I hadn’t seen Star Wars in a while before viewing it again for this blog. The last time was probably the 1997 Special Edition rerelease, which is the version here. There’s probably no need for a lengthy synopsis – we all know the story. A rebellion, led by Princess Leia, has been fighting the evil empire, led by Darth Vader. Her recent victory has provided her with secret plans to the Death Star, the Empire’s ace in the hole, a space station capable of destroying a planet. When Darth captures her ship, she sends the plans with R2-D2 and C3PO to the desert planet of Tatooine, where Luke Skywalker, a farmboy who dreams of being a fighter pilot, finds the droids and delivers them to their intended recipient: aged wizard Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi. Ben is a Jedi Knight who informs Luke that his father was killed by Darth, and that he needs the boy’s help to fight the Empire. Luke resists, until he discovers the death f his aunt and uncle at the hands of Vader’s stormtroopers. They find a pilot, Han Solo, and his first mate, Chewbacca, to take them to Leia’s home planet of Alderran, where their plans can assist the rebels.

But Darth, now Leia’s captor, has decided to test the Death Star’s power by destroying Alderran, and so Luke and his crew discover nothing but asteroid field. Worse yet, they get pulled to the Death Star by a powerful tractor beam; inside they rescue Leia, almost die in a garbage compactor and disable the beam, but Ben faces off against Vader, Jedi to Jedi, with light sabers, and dies in defeat. They all escape in their ship The Millennium Falcon, and land on the rebel base, the fourth moon of Yavin. Luke suits up and gets in his X-Wing, along with his squadron, to attempt to destroy the Death Star by firing proton torpedoes into the station’s Achilles heel, an exhaust shaft which leads all the way into its center. After most of his comrades perish, Luke uses the force to succeed, although Darth, having gone out in his own Tie Fighter, survives. Han who had originally said he’d take the reward money and run, returns to help Luke and now attends the medal ceremony with Luke and Chewie – all heroes in their victory over, but not destruction of, the Empire.

So, first things first: Fox decided to include the 1997 Special Edition version of this film, meaning it has brand-new CGI effects, mostly in the form of new characters in the Mos Eisley scene and juiced-up explosions of Alderran and the Death Star (adding a nuclear “ring” to it). We also get a entirely new scene involving Jabba the Hit , using an old scene Lucas kept, anticipating future technology. The thing is: we don’t need it; Jabba is best left offscreen and to be waited for (until Return of the Jedi); he feels to nice with such a too-early introduction. (And besides that he would’ve killed Solo.) And speaking of killing, what can I say about the smoothing down of Solo’s mercenerial rough edges by having him shoot Greedo only in self defense? Horrible, but I guess enough ink’s been spilled on that topic already.

And it also looks like Lucas “cleaned-up” the whole thing with his digital wizardry too. I don’t have a side by side, but I’m sure he erased matte lines, made cleaner cuts here and there, and maybe even sped up certain scenes for a slicker look. And that I’m adamantly against – it makes me uncertain of what were actually 70s effectsand what were 90s embellishments. Part of the genius of Star Wars was how it advanced technology using models and specially-built motion cameras to make the spaceships move. An how hey did all that pre-CGI simply astounds me. And quite frankly, it looks better than any CGI effects could manage, and that’s because these models and space settings look real, like they’re lived in, not unlike our own universe.

And that brings me to my main observation, seeing it after all these years. Lucas managed to ride a wonderful balance between taking us to this fantastic universe, with all its gadgets and creatures and associated nomenclature, and ensuring that a strong sense of humanism is maintained. These human, and even nonhuman characters, act like people – we feel Luke’s yearning to get off his farm planet as he stands on a dune and watches the dual sunset. We can get behind Han Solo’s hotrod mentality as he takes pride in his beat-up spacecraft. We understand Leia’s spunky individualism, preferring loyalty to her cause over betrothal to a prince. Sure there are the prosaic dronings about the Imperial Senate and a lot of obligatory talk about the republic and the old days of the galaxy. But it’s followed up with more down-to-earth discourse of a more identifiable nature. Lucas knew this from his work on the character-driven American Graffiti, and then apparently forgot it when he started up the series again in 1999.

Credit must also go to John Williams’ score for humanizing these characters too. He has a theme for every character, and every setting, in the film, from Luke’s wistful yearnings to Darth Vader’s Imperial forces to the diminutive Jawas and their scavenging ways. It gives us an emotional connection to the fantastical goings-on, and it warms the film up in a way that so many sci-fi flicks, before and after, failed to do.

One other thing I noticed, and it has to do with a selection from this set about two installments ago. I recall going to Star Wars back I the 70s, and being part of a party atmosphere. News reports also reveal how audiences would chorally boo Darth Vader when he entered, cheer the Death Star blowing up, and laugh hysterically at the droids’ hijacks. Well, thid=s all comes from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and its legacy of audience participation. This was partially the reason Wars audiences went back over and over, much like they did with horror. The days of strictly formal filmgoing, with the straight-backed seats and insistence on dead silence, were over now. 70s audiences interacted with their entertainment, in a way that sort of died out in the 80s. It was a beautiful window.

I could go on and on and on – it’s such a groundbreaking watershed that reams could be spent on its analysis, both personal and academic. But I’ll stop here – any other musing on the film can be found in this article, which I wrote back when the magazine Entertainment Weekly compiled a list of the 100 greatest movie moments of all time. (Wars wasn’t #1, hence the article.)

I can’t possibly imagine anyone who hasn’t already seen it, but if you’re one of the few, run, don’t walk, to your nearest screen. Consider it your indoctrination into another world, and my world, and he world of millions of others. All of us who were never the same after seeing it for the first time.

May the force be with you.

Rating:  ****

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Omen (1976)

The Exorcist changed everything.

So much so that I consider it the first modern horror movie, if for no other reason than the fact that it was the first horror flick ever made that can still scare the living shit out of me. Don’t believe me? Rent it, buy, it stream it – just watch it again, late at night, with all the lights turned out, alone. You’ll need weeks of therapy after.

Before that of course we had the Universal monster movies. Still fun, to be sure, but hardly scary anymore, let’s be honest. And then there were those Hammer films of the 50s and 60s, but although they were finely made, handsomely mounted productions, they were more creepy than actually terrifying. The closest precursor Exorcist had both in chills and topic matter was Rosemary’s Baby, but that movie has aged horribly – not even remotely scary anymore, perhaps in part because Exorcist itself raised the bar on demonic children flicks. Well, Exorcist and this one, The Omen, and spawns of Satan would never be the same again.

Actually The Omen was but one of many Exorcist imitators to come out in the mid 70s, but it quickly set itself apart from the pack with a surprise B.O. take of 61 million. The reason is pretty obvious: it’s scary as hell, and you don’t have all the lights turned off either. I can remember seeing the edited version on ABC sometime I the 80s, requiring the temporary suspension of my 10:00PM bedtime curfew. The film was the talk of all sixth graders the next day at school, with particular emphasis on the ending, and how we would’ve DEFINITELY done things differently if we were the Gregory Peck character.

And now, seeing it al these years later, I can safely attest that it’s still just as scary, but now I can better ascertain why. The reason lies in the depiction of this hapless couple, Kathryn and Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck and Lee Remick). Although he’s of elevated status – a U.S. ambassador to Great Britain – they’re a normal, everyday couple trying to have what most couples want: a “normal” healthy child. And we like them, too, as they are very much in love and want so much to love their child. I this is the key to great horror: set up a normal, everyday situation with empathetic people, so that when all hell breaks loose, you have an investment at stake. This is also why one of my other favorite horror flicks, Poltergeist, worked so well. And sure, there’s plenty of Biblical quoting and religious mumbo jumbo thrown in for authenticity, but at its heart are the people.

And credit must go to director Richard Donner and screenwriter David Seltzer (the first major film for both) for allowing the intensity to build gradually, instead of walloping the audience too soon at once. Filmmakers knew how to do this back then, as the guiding hand of Hitchcock was still omnipresent. I haven’t seen the Omen remake but I’m willing to wager it commits just that sin, as so many modern writers are too insecure with their stories, thinning that audiences are too impatient to wait too long for their thrills.

So the story is pretty familiar to most by now. Diplomat Robert Thorn rushes to be with his wife, Kathy, as she give birth at an Italian hospital, only to learn it was stillborn. He is convinced by the doctor to adopt a child born at just the same time, and he decides not to tell his wife, who’d been longing for a child of her own for years. Along with the news of his promotion to U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, the Thorns not seem to have the perfect life, and they move into an idyllic mansion shortly thereafter.

But things don’t stay quite so idyllic. Their son, Damien, now five, has been acting, shall we say, a bit strangely. When he goes to a zoo, the animals either go nuts or run away. He’s freaks out whenever he goes near a church, and so plans to take him to a wedding fall apart fast. And even more shocking, his young nanny hangs herself from a rooftop right in front of his birthday party and all its attendees. (The cut to the clown was priceless.) The new nanny, Mrs. Baylock, seems a bit off kilter too, and we learn of her plans to protect him at whatever cost. And her demonic dog helps out too.

So Robert figures out pretty soon that something’s he matter with this kid. A priest visits him, begging him to accept Christ entirely, and to visit some dude in Italy for some unknown reason. A photographer, Keith Jennings, also warns him about his son, but Robert isn’t entirely convinced until the Little Devil runs his mommy off a ledge with his tricycle, causing her miscarriage, something foretold by the priest. Now the two men trudge off to Rome, where it al started, to get down to the truth. They unearth Damien’s biological mom, who was a jackal, and Robert’s stillborn child, who was murdered by Damien so they could switch places.

Now Robert knows his boy is the Antichrist, so he gets the daggers he needs to kill him and heads back home (Oh, and Keith is accidentally beheaded when he offers to do the stabbing himself.) After discovering the 666 on the boys head, he grabs him and drives him to the church, killing Baylock in the process. But dear old Dad just can’t do the deed fast enough; British bobbies shoot him when they see him raise the dagger. At his parents’ funeral, Damien, now the ward of the U.S. President, turns around and looks at us, smiling. Evil wins, again…

And now, having done thus synopsis, I see another reason why this is all so affecting. It’s damned sad, as everyone bites the dust in this one. I suppose if you’ve not seen his before you might harbor some hope that at least the photog could live. But no; when you go up against the devil, you’d better expect mass casualties.

And it’s tragic in the other sense, too – the Sophoclean/Shakespearean sense. Roert Thorn is indeed a tragic hero – well-born, of noble birth, nowhere to go but down, yet entirely sympathetic. And most importantly, he chooses his fate in the beginning, when he agrees to the baby switching. His moment of realization? Several oments, but I like the moment when the doctor tells him his wife doesn’t think the baby’s hers. And Robert knows she’s right, but can’t say. And he knows he f**ked up. Royally.

Can’t end this review without praising the actors for fleshing out those characters. Peck, back on the Fox collection after a run in the late-forties (Twelve O’clock High, Gentleman’s Agreement) is stellar here, putting us inside the head of this well-meaning but ultimately ill-advised individual. Back then, horror didn’t shy aay from the emotional ramifications of death, and the scene in which Peck gets the news of his wife’s death demonstrates that. His slow, building-up tears are a reminder that beyond the fire-and-brimstone topic matter we have frail, vulnerable people. People who’ve adopted the devil, to be sure, but people nonetheless. And no one registers shock like Lee Remick; her look of horror is permanently etched into my visual memory. (Apparently, at least in the baboon scene, that shock is real. Check out the trivia section on the imdb.)

Bloody good show. A classic for the ages, horror or otherwise.

Rating:  ****

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
When I was a kid, I couldn’t figure out why I had ads at the back of my comic books for posters of old B&W movie stars. Alongside of Farrah and Travolta and Star Wars were W.C. Fields, the Three Stooges and Bogie. And even on TV shows like All in the Family you had Mike and Gloria Stivic dressed up as the Marx Brothers to attend a screening of Duck Soup. I recently saw an old Dick Cavett show, from 1971, which shed some light on my confusion. He had Bette Davis as a guest, and before bringing out his star he entertained some trivia questions pertaining to her films. The studio audience, comprised mainly of female college students, was getting every single one correct.

So recently I asked a woman, at about the age where she could’ve been in that audience, why the appeal of old film stars for the counterculture youth of he late 60s and early 70s. She told me, simply, that college students, as is in their nature, stayed up late at night. Every dorm had at least one TV set, but since there was no cable back then, the only thing to watch post-midnight were old movies. So classic stars of the silver-screen’s golden age became cult heroes. “Fay Wray had her own fan club,” she told me. “King Kong, which was out of copyright and could be shown without license, was mandatory viewing.”

So, of course, the collegiate subculture gravitated toward the old schlocky horror/sci-fi movies, a perfect fit for the sly subversives who could yell back at the screen in campy delight. But as the mainstream media embraced those kids, now young adults in the post-Vietnam/Watergate mid-seventies, no one tapped into their ironic appreciation of old movies. At least not until Richard O’Brien, his finger firmly on their pulse, created a rick opera that celebrated it on all cylinders. His Rocky Horror Picture Show was enough of a cult phenomenon to warrant movie adaptation. But even the Fox execs who greenlit it weren’t sure how big a cult following the film could attract. After all, there had never really been a self-conscious cult film that worked before. Why should there be now?

It didn’t take long for their doubt to disappear. The Rocky Horror Picture Show quickly became, not just a cult movie, but the cult movie. Midnight showings of it continued for weeks, months, and years in all major cities, and even in suburban and rural theaters. In my own sleepy town of Vineland, NJ, a quadriplex unspooled it at the tradition time of 12AM on Saturdays well into the early 80s. How do I know? I was a boy in the local theatrical production of The Music Man, and after Sat. rehearsals, as I prepared to go home to a belated bed, most of the adult actors changed clothes into the weirdest (and curiously kinky) outfits I’d ever seen and headed out into their respective vehicles to engage in their weekly viewing/reenactment of Rocky. I knew what it was because one of the actresses secretly showed me a photo book of the film. I loved it  - it looked like so much fun to my 11-year-old sensibilities – but someone else whisked it away from me, admonishingly. I guess in was inappropriate, I thought. But I’ll be damned if I knew why.

So, another story before I get to my review: flash forward six year to my freshman year at NYU, and one of the first thing my newfound cronies and I did was to see a RHPS at the 8th Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village, the theater where it apparently all began. The attendees were expectedly dressed in all manner of outlandish attire, and we, as newbies, were directed to sit in the front row. This is because we were to be part of the 20-minute pre-show; after the emcee did a spiel and lip synched to “Barbra Ann,” he called attention to us and encouraged the audience to “gang bang” us, since we were “virgins.” (It basically amounted to him yelling FUCK YOU to each of us, at which point we had to sit down immediately.) Before long the film began, and every audience member, as I had expected, yelled reactions, chorally, back to the screen in between dialogue. By the time it was al over, I knew I had experienced something. I’m not sure what, but it was something.

I think I liked the film. It was hard to tell, given I could scarcely hear whatever the speakers had to offer. I know I liked the music, and I know I was reasonably entertained for at least the first half of the film, before it turned into something totally incomprehensible. But again, that could be because of the audience. It was clear this was a ritual – a weekly event for the creatures of the subculture to come out and raise their arms to worship all things culturally anomalous. And on that basis I loved it. It was almost cathartic for me, and in a way voyeuristic, like I was watching an anthropological experiment.

And them I was invited to return the next week, as was the custom if you wanted to be a regular.  I wasn’t sure, but I thought I’d try it on for size. Sure the craziness was there, and the antics, but it was pretty much the same. (I think I even picked up some of the lines you were supposed to yell back.) Then I was informed that to really get the experience, I had to return yet again, and on that third visit, I was supremely bored. It’s the same thing every week! Am I missing something?

Apparently I was. RHPS kept up its momentum for at least 20 years as a midnight circuit show before it was finally released to video, essentially ending its run in theaters (although there are still scattered showings here and about). And while I as always intrigued by and enjoying of its festivity, something inside me needed to appraise the film itself.  Upon its video release I was somewhat preoccupied, and never caught up with it later on. But now, thanks to the Fox collection I can watch it sedately, without noisemakers and wiseacres squirting me with water.

Brad and Janet are newlyweds, heading back to Transylvania to reunite with their mentor, Dr. Everett Scott, but along the way their car breaks down, and they must enter a dark, foreboding castle. Greeted by an odd fiend, Riff Raff, they promptly make the acquaintance of Dr. Frank N, Furter, a transvestite bisexual who, emulating Frankenstein, is constructing a perfect male specimen, presumably for is own sexual gratification (and betrothal?). He also proceeds to seduce both Brad and Janet, and spontaneously kills an intruder, a biker named Eddie. Dr. Scott, wheelchair bound, shows up to announce that he is (was) Eddie’s dad, but is discredited by Frank as an alien visitation quack.

So from here on, I’m ASSUMING the following: Scott has come up with a way of converting live matter to dead, so Frank takes that science and converts him, Brad and Janet to statues. Then, he reanimates them to perform a show, dressing them in the same S&M garb that he wears. Then Frank does a solo, after Riff Raff and one of the girls return as aliens (were they aliens all along?), where he gets all profound, sans makeup. But Riff shoots him anyway, and the “specimen” tries to save him, to no avail, drowning in the water below the RKO tower. I think the aliens return home, with Brad and Janet crawling around in dirt.

So I probably got most of this last part wrong, as RHPS fans would promptly correct, but I sure as shootin’ did my best. I was right back in the 80s – Rocky’s second half really does fall apart, lost in a sea of incomprehensiveness, but what makes it so glaringly obvious is the fact that there’s no good songs after the midway point either (I clock Touch Me, at the 50-minute mark, as the last). And that, quite honestly, is the appeal of the show – O’Brien’s song score until that point is the best that rock opera gets, from the drowsily meditative “Science Fiction Double Feature” to the supreme square “Dammit Janet” to the omnipresent “Time Warp” to the film’s best track “Sweet Transvestite.” It’s also a great ode to 50s rock, also a part of Boomer lore, and a major part of the previous year’s would-be cult hit Phantom of the Paradise. We hear Rocky’s songs every Halloween, for good reason. It’s wonderful music, its  cult appeal notwithstanding.

But the element that makes the whole thing so edgy is its kinky sexuality. The film is loaded with androgynous, gay, lesbian and bisexual themes, pushing the envelope as far as they could for a studio film in 1975, and it’s definitely for this reason that the MPAA slapped it with an R rating. I was actually surprised at how far they went with this, proving that perhaps a little music helps the sale. No doubt mainstream America saw it more as a carnival show than serious polemic on deviant sexuality, but there are plenty of symbolic moments (such as “I’m Going Home”) that forecast the gay movement of the 80s and 90s, making it more culturally significant than meets the eye.

So how do we look at this? On balance, it’s indispensible as America pop culture. And if you don’t buy that, the soundtrack and the wondrous sight of Susan Sarandon’s breasts (she’s in underwear for nearly the entire film) should help convince. O’Brien self-indulgently loses control of his dynamo halfway through (the way he would after the first ten minutes of the unofficial sequel, Shock Treatment), but if you accept that it makes no sense, as the way his legions of fans did, then you should be good.

But that’s kinda hard for me. Watching it at home, alone. Without someone spraying me in the face with water.

So that’s why I have two ratings for this one:

Alone Rating:  ****

At a Rocky Horror Picture Show Show:  ****

There, that should work for both venues.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Young Frankenstein (1974)

Before I start this review, I’d like to say that I’m worried. After this title, there are only seven titles left in the 1961-85 volume of this DVD collection, and we’re still on 1974. I’m nearly certain we’ll get Star Wars (Darth Vader’s on the cover), and I’d be pretty shocked if they didn’t include Alien and The Omen (I’m intentionally not finding out what they include for the sake of surprise.) So that just leaves four films covering eleven years! Yeah, I know the early 80s weren’t kind to Fox, but I’m gonna pretty miffed if they don’t have titles like The Verdict, Norma Rae, Romancing the Stone or Cocoon. We’ll see what happens, but I’m sure I’ll be disappointed with some choices of either inclusion or omission, particularly with the third volume. Just how I am, I guess.

And now the movie. I mean, what can be said about Young Frankenstein that hasn’t been already? Almost immediately after release considered a comic masterpiece, written and directed by Mel Brooks, the same year he put out another genre destroyer, Blazing Saddles, firmly establishing the man as the preeminent film spoofer, a title he’d hold onto until Airplane! and its writers, the Zucker Brothers, took the baton. And ever since it’s been enshrined in the pantheon of American comedy, even inspiring a musical some thirty years later. I think the AFI has it pretty close to the top of its Greatest Comedies list, too.

So a description of the plot – the grandson of Victor Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) returns to Transylvania to continue his elder’s work, which happens to be nothing less than the creation of a monster (Peter Boyle) – is really quite beside the point. What has kept up is classic status are the memories of its fans, who can recall individual scenes and lines with an eye-gleaming, film-loving joy. So who am I not to follow suit? Here are some of my faves:

·   The classic rotating bookcase scene, where Victor implores Greta (Teri Garr, fabulously underrated here) to “Put the candle back!” and oush against the case with all of her might to free him. Great cut just before he gets squashed makes this hilarious.

·   The running gag in which any utterance of Frau Blucher’s name elicits the whinnying of offscreen horses. And no, Blucher is not German for glue; it’s just a satire of the way animals in old horror films seemed to have the gift of detecting evil before the humans.

·   When Wilder insists on being shut in a room with the monster, giving direct orders NOT TO LET HIM OUT! Of course, all just as setup for his frantic exhortations to the opposite. And no one plays frantic like Gene Wilder.

·   The classic blind man scene with an unbilled Gene Hackman (a direct parody of the same scene in the original Frankenstein – how can anyone take that scene seriously again?) 

·   The “Did you make a yummy sound?” scene at breakfast.

·   Any scene with Madeleine Kahn, as Wilder’s fiancĂ©. She’s always beautiful, charming and supremely funny. And not just in this film.

So the bottom line: the film has laughs aplenty, and right there it passes the Roger Ebert test of “If I laughed, I have to give it thumbs-up.” While I don’t normally agree with that rule – it always struck me as the equivalent of “If I jumped, I have to like a horror movie; immediate, visceral reactions aren’t all that a successful movie has to elicit – I’ll apply it to Young Frankenstein, for a few reasons. Those laughs are in the context of a fine, beautifully crafted homage to the Universal monster movies of the 30s. The tone is pitch perfect, no matter how crass the humor gets (not very), and the replication is flawless. Thanks to the cinematography, I’ve never since seen a movie look as close to its target, with the possible exception of This Is Spinal Tap. And so, while the jokes generally work, they’re also in the service of cinematic fineness, and not just as empty punchlines without much of a point.

And speaking of the humor, I’d also like to make an observation. Sure, this is a Mel Brooks movie, but it doesn’t really have the broad, bawdy jokes and sight gags of Blazing Saddles or his later High Anxiety and History of the World. That’s because he co-wrote the screenplay and screen story with Gene Wilder, who actually spearheaded the project in the first place, and so there’s a gentler, more understated feel to this effort. Indeed, a good portion of this film doesn’t feel like Brooks at all, more like Wilder’s later film parodies like The World’s Greatest Lover and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother. I think that’s why some Brooks fans eschew Frankenstein, and find it unfunny. It’s funny all right, but for a kinder, gentler audience. And certainly the ones familiar with the old films he’s satirizing.

But like all Brooks’ comedies, there’s a classic-Hollywood-style musical number near the end, and here it takes the form of the classic duo, “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” Gotta love Brooks’ love of movie musicals, and his ability to work them into almost any film he does.

The rest of Brooks films were with Fox, but I don’t think any others will appear in this collection, though I’d love to see Anxiety or History represented. Oh, well. I’ll say goodbye to Mel now, or at least until I do a canon blog and cover his entire oevre. Could happen.

Rating:  ****

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