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:  ****

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

To be quite honest, I was more than a bit surprised by the inclusion of this film in Fox’s 75th Anniversary Collection. Sure, I had heard of it, knew of it, am thoroughly familiar with he canon of its director, Brian DePalma, whom I admire very much, particularly for his early work. But Phantom always seemed to me to be a small, esoteric cult film – hardly of the caliber represented by nearly every other selection in this set.

So I approached this film with some incredulity; my only familiarity with it came in the form of Paul Williams song score. I adore Williams; he is one of my top-five all-time favorite songwriters, and his compositions for this film are astoundingly beautiful. I’d bought the CD soundtrack years ago, and hummed along to every tune with gusto and fervor, the kind of gusto and fervor you only reserve for inside the car. You know what I mean.

So along with the incredulity came excitement. I was jazzed to finally hear these songs I context. But there was one thing I wasn’t ready for.

Phantom of the Paradise is a completely f**ked-up movie.

And I mean that in the most admiring way. I really do. Because as f**ked up as it is, it’s also probably just as brilliant. DePalma has written a challging, quick-as-a-whip script, and his ability to pick fresh and original hots, as well as bold theatrical techiques, keeps the ball rolling from start to finish. The film challenges the viewer; there are times even when the story is so brisk yet clockworky that I wasn’t 100% sure where I was during a few moments. But De Palma lets you catch up during the musical numbers (which are fantastic), and one thing is for sure: the film is never dull. And you can absolutely say that about any De Palma film from the 60s and 70s, an era during which he was in his absolute prime.

Phantom of he Paradise can best be described as a demented pairing of Phantom of the Opera and the story of Dr. Faustus, you know, the story of a dude who sells his soul to the evil for immortality. That individual takes the form of a record producer named Swan (Paul Williams), owner of a music club for which he needs a constant supply of audience-attracting music. That isn’t happening with the retro-50s group The Juicy Fruits, but when he hears William Finley singing his own composition, a musicalization of the Faust story, he’s interested. He swipes Finley’s work, “auditions” a bevy of beauties to sing it, and finally picks a shy but talented girl named Phoenix. Finley likes her too, but Swan, along with his assistant Arnold Philbin, banishes Finley from any future associations by framing him with drugs and sending him to prison, where his teeth are knocked out. Finley escapes, but gets his face burned and disfigured in the process, leading him to do the only sensible thing: don a weird, metallic bird-like mask and black cape and ensure that Phoenix sing his music using whatever means necessary.

But after the Phantom’s attempt to sabotage a show with a car bomb fails, Swan confronts the masked man and offers a deal: signs your soul over (in blood) and Swan will perform his Faust cantata respectfully, and with Phoenix in the lead. But Swan just as quickly enlists the nightmare glam-rocker Beef to perform instead; when the Phantom fries Beef onstage, Phoenix steps quickly steps in, to a rousing audience reception. Swan now has a headliner – and a lover – and a very jealous Phantom attempts suicide after spying, but Swan informs his that death isn’t possible as it violates the contract; as long as Swan lives, so does they both. Moments before a staged (or not) wedding between Swan and Phoenix (who signed over her voice in her own pact), the Phantom discovers that Swan himself had sold his soul to the Dark Lord for immortality as long as the tapes which recorded the agreement are safe. But the Phantom burns them, hen kills Swan, and himself in the process.

If this wedding finale is at once blisteringly rocking, bloody and freakishly bizarre, then it perfectly represents the underlying tone and vibe of the entire movie. And all the while a sort of indie-film spirit pervades, what with all the ragged edits and gonzo camerawork. But somehow it all gibes remarkably well, once you settle into it. It cheekily sends up he rock of the 50s with several campy but respectful numbers, while at the same time embracing the then-current trend of nightmare-glam, represented mostly by the performance art of Alice Cooper and Black Sabbath. And, of course, since it’s De Palma we get plenty of wacky horror (replete with Psycho homage) that alternates between elegiac and genuinely shocking.

If all of this sounds familiar, it’s probably because it also describes the far more familiar Rocky Horror Picture Show, which Fox would release the following year (it could be the next selection). But somehow that one took, and became the cult classic Phantom no doubt was hoping for. Of course, the question persists: why? I think it’s likely because Rocky is more carefree – it has a communal quality about it, and is edgy just to a point. Phantom is downright dangerous; it’s only moments of solace come during Williams’ songs; their beauty often transcends the ugliness that surround them.

If the film has any flaw, it’s just that – a slight disconnect between some of the songs and their nightmarish context. But others fit nicely in, particularly the concert numbers, and they feel positively electric, just like a blaring concert would’ve felt like in 1974, back when they had no noise restrictions, but better-written music.

I also think of Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage, another campy, iconoclastic work from the 70s with hallucinogenic rock mixed with 50s tribute. This could be a whole sub-genre of music in and of itself.

By and large, great fun, but be prepared for a real freakshow. A freakshow still freaky after 43 years. That’s how it is with a great writer/director.

Rating:  ***1/2

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

By the early 70s, Hollywood needed a new setting for one of its favorite genres: adventure. WWII had pretty much dried up, and with Vietnam raging out of control no one was in the mood for war anyway. The Western had been dead for years, even with its late-60s shot in the arm administered by Sergio Leone. And we were still years away from the Spielberg-Lucas blockbusters of the late 70s. But producer Irwin Allen had a firm finger on the moveigoing pulse, and somehow sensed that the postwar era of heightened technology and industry brought with it a great public neurosis about its safety. We were building skyscapers a mile high and developing jet airlines that could travels thousands of miles in a few hours, but what if something went wrong? Something minor, very minor, in the age of yore, but now having potentially disastrous consequecences. And there it was – a new genre was born. The Disaster genre.

Allen’s first big hit of his new species was The Poseidon Adventure, and yes, I have a story to start with (I told you: no eye rolling). I first saw the film at the ripe old age of eight or so, on the CBS _______ Night Movie, and was white knuckled from beginning to end. I was so engrossed I’m sure I begged on hand a knee my parents to waive the traditional 9PM curfew and let me stay up ‘till 11 so I could see how these guys got rescued, or even – gasp! – if they got rescued. I’m not sure if I got any considerable sleep that night but I know one thing: the movie stayed in mu hed for weeks thereafter. Sure, it was a movie; I knew that. But somehow reason like that doesn’t help when you go on vacation to Lewes, Delaware, and your method of travel: the Cape May ferry. I think I stayed inside the cabin the entire time.

But the reason I was terrified then (and to a lesser degree now) is the same reason the film made 84.5 million at the box office – it struck a nerve. Ocean liners and mammoth cruise ships were sailing the seas with increased frequency, facilitated by advances in steam power and cheaper fuel. But, again, what if? What if a disaster the scope of Titanic occurred? Allen makes that all-too-possible scenario a terrifying reality with Poseidon – he even makes his hell very specific, very detailed, turning the boat upside-down, so that the survivors had to navigate a topsy-turvy armageddon in order to find their salvation. Yes we get action shots of the boat flipping and indoor scenes of crushed furniture, but we also get very real images of frightened passengers falling, screaming, dying.

Of course, it’s all Captain Leslie Neilson’s fault, or more accurately, the owner’s – a Greek tycoon who insists on running the liner at full speed to save money. But it’s risky; the S.S. Poseidon, on its final voyage from New York to Athens, is top heavy, and Neilson’s attempts to take on ballast are met with threats of his demotion. And so, just minutes after the New Year’s countdown, an enormous tidal wave capsizes the ship. The crew, which were all on the desk, immediately perishes; a few dozen revelers in the main dining area survive the wave, but a rebellious, help-yourself-first reverend Frank Scott (Gene Hackman) sees that the only way to survive is to move up the ship, to the propeller vent where the steel is only ½” thick, and he convinces nine others to join him as the rest stubbornly drown when the dining room now becomes submerged. The other nine are:

·   Mike Rogo (Ernest Borgnine), a retired cop, and hotheaded husband of…
·   Linda Rogo (Stella Stevens), a somewhart crass but beautiful former prostitute, afraid of being recognized by former johns.
·   James Martin (Red Buttons) a sensitive, sensible, health-conscious man who acts as protector of…
·   Nonnie (Carol Lynley), fragile lounge singer, traumatized by the death of her brother, fellow musician
·   Manny Rosen (Jack Albertson), elderly, affable husband of…
·   Belle Rosen (Shelley Winters), portly, sentimental woman who believes in love.
·   Acres (Roddy McDowall), an injured waiter
·   Susan Shelby (Pamela Sue Martin), a young woman meeting her parents in Greece, along with…
·   Robin Shelby (Eric Shea), her 12-year-old brother.

Once inside the ship’s labyrinth of vents, hallways, shafts and ladders, our fearless band meets with one obstacle after another. When they move up a slowly submerging vertical tunnel, Acres falls and is lost. They meet another group of survivors moving toward the bow, but Frank is convinced they must find the engine room in the opposite direction – his naysayers give him fifteen minutes to prove its location. He finds it, but it requires everyone to swim underwater for a good minute or so, and this is where Belle sacrificially suffers a heart attack and dies.

The propeller shaft is now in perfect view, but they must now perilously walk a metal grid to access it, hovering perilously over blazing-hot water. A sudden jolt sends Linda to her death, and when Frank is forced to shut off a steam valve after a pipe is ruptured, he meets his maker as well. Rogo leads the others to the shaft and bangs on the hull, where rescuers hear them and get them safely aboard a helicopter.

In the 45 years since its release, The Poseidon Adventure has achieved classic status, although it must be admitted that in some circles it’s considered a cult classic. In some ways, time has not been kind to the epic, particularly in its blatant sexism in having only the women (except Winters) remove part of their clothing for easier travel throughout the ship. And yeah, some of the dialogue is not exactly hard-boiled, especially by today’s hipper-than-thou standards. And we can’t quite overlook the presence of Leslie Neilson, who, no matter what pre-Airplane! role he played, will always be perceived as Lt. Frank Drebin from the Naked Gun films.

But in many ways Poseidon is dateless, and actually comes up looking better than most modern-day action flicks, disaster or otherwise. Look, for example, at the 2006 remake, in which digital technology and advanced editing techniques did little to improve upon the original. In fact, all those bells and whistles actually detracted from the original’s sense of carefully executed suspense; credit director Ronald Neame for building up the disaster so artfully, and then coming wit a series of credible obstacles to keep the narrative moving, so it doesn’t simply come off as a sinking ship flick. Only one other director in my mind has done so with equal success: James Camerson, whose Titanic utilized all parts of his vessel with the same resourcefulness.

And there’s something else Poseidon has that few other modern films can manage. In the half-hour or so before the wave hits, we are introduced to no less than twelve major people, and the tight script delineates their characters so well that we feel like we know them personally, quirks, qualities, warts and all. This is essential for any movie, but for a disaster flick, it’s indispensible; that way if the character dies, you care, and if the character lives, you care. How have contemporary writers lost their way to the point that this kind of exposition is such a lost art? Hell, even the Love Boat scribes knew it – every line of dialogue on that show served only one function – to get us to differentiate, and care about, that character. That, quite frankly, is why the Poseidon remake… sucked.

And there’s another reason to admire it. Poseidon, like any other example of its ilk, features a boatload (pun intended) of deaths. Not just the four major ones, but the “supporting” deaths that occurred before the band of ten made its voyage. And each and every one of those deaths was treated meaningfully. They were treated with respect, emotion, a warm embrace by a loved one…. and time. They weren’t rushed through the Disaster Film conveyer belt. They mattered, just as much as they would in a great war film or a tearerker. And that surprised me, watching the film after all these years. And, quite frankly, it took me aback; so many modern films even shy away from death, not really knowing how to deal with it. Here’s how: you treat it like you would the death of your own loved one. Easy fix; next, please.

There’s probably more I could propound upon, but I’ll stop here – it’s just a wonderfully, nail-biting film, whether you’re 12 or 90. Let me just comment on the DVD while we’re here. This edition came out in 2006 to capitalize on the remake, and it has two great special features. One is an audio commentary by Stevens, Sue Martin and Lynley – three of the four female stars – and it adds a fun, x-chromosomal bent to the proceedings. You get some gossipy, intimate backstory, along with some fun fashion facts most commentaries would shy away from. And then there’s a “Follow the Adventure” feature in which, at periodic intervals throughout the film, you can go to a map to see where the characters are on the ship at that point, as well as which ones kicked the bucket. Easily one of the best DVD features I’ve seen in a long time.

So much for my effort to keep it short. Just go see it if you haven’t. End of story.

Rating:  ****

Friday, March 3, 2017

The French Connection (1971)

I have to admit holding a grudge against this movie for most of my life. during my college years, I saw Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, and since the it has remained one of my all-time favorite and respected films. But The French Connection won that year’s Best Picture Oscar, and any appreciation I might’ve had for it would inevitably be dulled by its stealing of cinema’s greatest prize from a flat-out masterpiece. So I eventually saw Connection, liked it, but just deemed it another crime-drama, albeit a well-directed, well-written one.

How wrong I was. The French Connection is not a crime-drama; it is the crime-drama. It changed all the rules, and invented even more. Yeah, I sound like a broken record, but I can only imagine what it must have been like to see this movie for the first time back in 1971, when you’d been raised on Dragnet and private-eye pablum and knew only about drug-trafficking from the 6:00 news. Connection was about as gritty and realistic as you could get back then, and if time has desensitized us all so it no longer shocks us, it’s done nothing to mitigate its efficacy.

Its influence is immeasurable. Before Connection, cops and crime in American movies played it safe, with prettified sets, bloodless violence literal and otherwise) and a depiction of the law about as strictly defined as you could get (Bullitt comes to mind as one of the few exceptions). After Connection, and its 61-million take at the BO, scores of films tried to match its success, ranging from B-movie quickies to modern-day classics like Death Wish, The Conversation and Serpico. And on TV, the effect was even larger: the gritty cop show became a TV staple, replacing the Western as the tube drama of choice, and lasting all the way up until the 80s when the nighttime soap assumed the throne.

But what so many imitators didn’t get was that Connection protagonist Popeye Doyle was the screen’s first antihero cop, at leas in the sense of traditional role-playing (Dirty Harry would come out later that year). More accurately, he was a regular Joe, a narcotics officer whose only function in life is to catch the bad guys. End of story. He’s not there to be liked or to work well with others, or to shoot his assailants neatly in the chest or give up a car chase when it gets too risky. No, he nabs drug dealers, shoots them in the back (real-life cops protrsted) and if he needs to be a loose cannon to do so (another first), so be it. And just like real cops, he quips and jokes in quirky phrases (“Do you pick your feet in Poughkipsee?”) in the process.

And Director William Friedkin belied so many filmic conventions in order to attain this heightened realism. He shot in actual New York locations, evidently on city streets as regular, non-actors walked by, given their occasional glances at the camera. With no steadicam yet, much of the mobile work is shaky and jolting, especially in POV chase shots. And he disrupted narrative conventions, too, placing his “climactic” train chase about a half hour from the end of the film, following it with a decidedly anticlimactic scene of an all-night car stakeout. But perhaps the biggest affront to the classic cop paradigm comes at the end, when Dolyle tracks the head bad guy into a crematorium, shoots and kills a fellow cop by mistake, and lets the culprit get away. Actually this last part we don’t see; it’s revealed to us, coldly, in an end-title epilogue, in which we also learn of Doyle and his partner’s transfer out of narcotics. Not exactly The Naked City.

Poor Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, a NY narcotics cop with an, ahem, unorthodox approach to his job. Sure he gets the two-bit dealers here and there but it’s all milk – in other words, not worth his time of day. But when he and his partner, Cloudy get some info o a potential collar, ad then track that dude down to a nightclub along with his significant other, Popeye gets a hunch. They solicit their boss for a wire to learn more about Sal, a grocery store owner who, along with his girl, seem to be a lot wealthier than their livelihood could possibly provide. Eavesdropping on the man, they find out he’s connected with Weincock, infamous lawyer of the drug underworld, and now there’s definitely gotta be something big.

All the while, we’ve also been following events in France, so we already know what that something big is. Alain Charnier, mega druglord, has planned to smuggle 32 million dollars worth of heroin into the US through the star of French TV star Henri Devereaux. With protection by a skilled hitman named Nicoli, they figure they’ve got it made when the car clears and now they just have to hope the deal with Sal and Weincock goes down. It doesn’t, at least not yet: the latter, knowing they’re being tracked, cautiously wants to wait until things cool off. Nicoli attempts to kill Doyle, but after an intense chase through Brooklyn gets plugged himself. And then finally – the car! Doyle and Cloudy spot it, impound it, and take it apart, ultimately finding heroin in the rocker panels before allowing Charnier to take it back. Of course, it’s a setup for a bust so the can get everyone. And they do, almost: Sal goes down, but Charnier gets away (Doyle mistakenly kills a fellow fed, the wirer, who never liked Doyle because he’d always blamed him for his partner’s death). End cards reveal Weinstock got off on a technicality, and that Popeye and Cloudy got transferred to another division.

As I’ve said before on his blog, this era in America movies is my era. The “New Hollywood” movement, which ran from about 1965 to 1977 or ’78 or so, is a golden age for me: an era in American movies of new freedoms, bold ideas and immense talents, and before special/digital effects, political correctness and the Blockbuster Mentality took over, crushing this new spirit. I dread to think of how this film would be made today – its treatment of minorities (black, Jewish, Hispanics) would certainly be cleaned up, and its action scenes would be glossier more spectacular, although certainly no more gripping.

[Case in point – there’s a scene during the car deconstruction when the exasperated mechanic tells Doyle, “I’ve taken apart everything except the rocker panels!” A lesser (more recent) film would either do a slow closeup of a silent, knowing Doyle, maybe with a swelling score – and then cut to the heroin. But Friedkin wisely keeps it real, with Doyle angrily saying, “Dammit, what are they?” angry he hadn’t been told earlier. Sharp, real writing, and true to character.]

Connection epitomizes the New Hollywood spirit; in addition to the aforementioned realism it creates solid, indelible characters full of depth and breadth. And their dialogue is so sharp and natural it makes you smile just listening to it. (In ways it reminded me of how Tarantno put a new spin on the language of crime figures, 20 years later.)

But in 1971, crime flicks would never be the same again. And thank God for that.

Rating:  ****

P.S.: Oh, and that famous car chase? Brilliant. Anyone who’s driven under those tracks in Brooklyn, barely missing those middle-of-the-road posts at regular speed, knows what I’m talking about.

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