Monday, July 31, 2017

Alice Goodbody (1974)

A grungy sex comedy about a busty young woman sleeping her way to stardom, Alice Goodbody has a few elements that are almost respectable. For instance, the running gags are constructed properly, and some of the inside jokes have bite, such as the implied dig at famed costume designer Edith Head. That said, too many of writer-director Tom Scheuer’s zingers fall flat, leading lady Colleen Brennan’s performance is monotonously dippy, and the whole enterprise is inherently sleazy. One day in a Hollywood diner, chipper Alice (played by porn star Brennan, billed as Sharon Kelly) meets Myron (Daniel Kauffman), the “second assistant production manager” on a musical version of Julius Caesar. He offers her a bit part in exchange for a BJ, setting up the central joke that Alice views trading sexual favors as a normal aspect of paying her dues. Even later in the story, after servicing half the crew, she’s still bubbly and friendly. Make your own call whether this is grotesque male fantasy or sly Hollywood satire. Most of the movie comprises sex scenes featuring Alice and eccentric lovers. One guy is a food freak who gets off on sloppy gluttony; another is a narcissist who spends his entire encounter with Alice admiring himself in a mirror. The weirdest scene involves a germaphobe whose pre-coital examination of Alice’s body occasions a POV camera angle from inside her vagina. (It’s not as gross as it sounds, but it’s startling.) The climax of the picture, and the closest Scheuer gets to a real human moment, depicts Alice’s tryst with the movie’s belching, farting, self-loathing slob of a producer—despite Alice’s best efforts to rouse him, he complains that he’s bored by having been overly entitled for too long. It’s not the deepest of moments, but it’s something. As for the Edith Head bit, one of Alice’s lovers is a lesbian costume designer who buries her face in Alice’s skirt during a fitting. Given how gossip about Sapphic inclinations dogged Head for years, the character suggests Scheuer was a steeped in Hollywood lore. Less defensible is the scene of a woman playing “Oh, Susanna” on harmonica. Instead of her mouth, she uses her genitals to play the instrument.

Alice Goodbody: LAME

Sunday, July 30, 2017

1980 Week: Foolin’ Around

          Your ability to enjoy Foolin’ Around depends entirely upon your willingness to accept a young Gary Busey as a romantic lead. Still in the afterglow of his Oscar nomination for The Buddy Holly Story (1978), he’s at the apex of his affability and talent here, so he delivers punchlines well enough and infuses dramatic scenes with real feeling. Yet he’s still Gary Busey, a massive galoot with possibly the world’s largest teeth and more than a little glint of madness in his eyes. Watching him romance delicately pretty Annette O’Toole, it’s difficult not to fear for her safety, especially when they’re making out in the back of a panel van. Still, it’s only fair to attempt watching this movie with 1980 eyes, before the more extreme aspects of Busey’s public persona took root. Directed with his usual indifferent professionalism by Richard T. Heffron, Foolin’ Around is a slick piece of work, benefiting from fine production values, glossy photography, and terrific supporting players.
          The action begins at a college in Minnesota, where Oklahoma boy Wes (Busey) shows up for his first year of studies. Seeking part-time work, he signs up for an science experiment overseen by fellow student Susan (O’Toole), and he falls for her almost instantly. She declines his advances because she’s engaged to golden-boy businessman Whitley (John Calvin), who works for the company founded by Susan’s grandfather, Daggett (Eddie Albert), and operated by her mother, Samantha (Cloris Leachman). Over the course of the story, Wes draws Susan into an affair that threatens her impending marriage. While Samantha tries to prevent Wes from seeing Susan, he finds an advocate in Daggett, who likes Wes’ heartland gumption.
          Not a single frame of Foolin’ Around will surprise anyone who’s ever seen a romantic comedy, but the movie goes down smoothly. Busey is likeably upbeat, O’Toole is wholesomely sexy, sunny tunes performed by Seals and Crofts enliven the soundtrack, the story moves along at a brisk pace, and colorful vignettes add novelty. A young William H. Macy plays a shifty used-book salesman, Albert and Leachman deliver nuanced work despite playing clichéd roles, and Tony Randall gives a weird performance as Samantha’s vulgarity-spewing butler. (Randall seems like he’s in a totally different movie.) Lest all this praise give the wrong impression, Foolin’ Around disappoints as often as not, thanks to insipid physical comedy on the order of crotch hits, a hang-glider ride, and a sequence spoofing Rocky (1976). About the highest praise possible is that its a palatable flick for viewers able to groove with the Busey of it all.

Foolin’ Around: FUNKY

Saturday, July 29, 2017

1980 Week: The Exterminator

Offering a glimpse of where action movies were headed in the ’80s—less nuance, more ultraviolence—this borderline incompetent exploitation flick was the second directorial effort from shameless hack James Glickenhaus. Stealing the basic plot of Death Wish (1974) and juicing the material with a crass Vietnam-vet angle, Glickenhaus tells the ugly story of John Eastland, a former soldier who turns vigilante after Mafia thugs paralyze his best friend. Dubbed “The Exterminator” by reporters, John  feeds a villain into an industrial meat grinder, and he leaves a pair of criminals tied up on a garbage heap so they can be eaten alive by rats. Yet the most horrific sequence is a prologue set in Vietnam, during which John and his best friend witness enemy soldiers committing atrocities including beheadings. The idea, presumably, is that “The Exterminator” became a monster because his overseas experience made him that way. But then again, ascribing psychological depth to this movie is unwise, because Glickenhaus—who also wrote the screenplay—seems unfamiliar with the human experience that the rest of us acknowledge as reality. In Glickenhaus’ skewed universe, violence justifies violence, so it’s okay that, for instance, the movie’s antihero murders a guard dog with an electric knife because he’s on a mission to steal money from mobsters. The Exterminator has a fever-dream quality, seeing as how many pieces seem to be missing; the story makes bizarre leaps forward, and it frequently appears Glickenhaus got only two-thirds of the shots needed for each scene. What’s more, whenever The Exterminator veers into a laughable subplot about a cop (Christopher George) romancing a doctor (Samantha Eggar), it’s as if pieces of another bad movie got spliced into Glickenhaus’ vile revenge fantasy. The Exterminator is brisk and eventful, but if this is your idea of a good time at the movies, seek help.

The Exterminator: LAME

Friday, July 28, 2017

1980 Week: Galaxina

Given the cost of creating outer-space special effects, only a handful of low-budget movies were able to draft off the success of Star Wars (1977), which meant that each of these ripoff projects received enough hype to capture the imagination of young moviegoers still high on their trip to a galaxy far, far away. Otherwise, how can one explain cult followings for such genuinely terrible movies as Galaxina? Although primarily marketed as a starring vehicle for Playboy model Dorothy Stratten, who wears sexy outfits but does not appear nude, Galaxina is not erotica. Nor is it an exciting space adventure, though it contains dopey laser fights. Galaxina is primarily a broad comedy, with scenes spoofing (or merely copying) tropes from Alien, Star Trek, and Star Wars. C-list actors Stephen Macht and Avery Schrieber play crewmen aboard an intergalactic patrol vehicle responsible for monitoring space traffic, and Stratten plays the ship’s quasi-sentient robot. Zingers never rise pass the level of schoolyard insults (“If a jackass had both your brains, he’d be a very dumb jackass!”), and sight gags are just as dumb, right down to a schlocky riff on the famous Star Wars cantina scene. As for the story, it’s pointless idiocy about the patrol vehicle encountering outer-space intrigue. Circumstances force Galaxina to leave the vessel and confront villains on a planet resembling the Wild West, only with aliens. There’s also a romance involving Macht’s character, who has the hots for Galaxina. Weirdly, the whole thing has a nocturnal vibe because cinematographer Dean Cundey shrouds images in the same widescreen shadows he brought to several John Carpenter films in the ’70s and ’80s. The movie’s sole redeeming value is Stratten’s sex appeal, but given the ineptitude of her acting, one can only admire her curves for so long.

Galaxina: LAME

Thursday, July 27, 2017

1980 Week: Prom Night & Terror Train

          John Carpenter’s seminal Halloween (1978) cast a long shadow over the 1980s, providing not only the template for the so-called “slasher movie” subgenre but also introducing a new shock-cinema star in Jamie Lee Curtis, the second-generation actress previously stuck in a middling TV career. Although Curtis soon transitioned to a successful run in big- and small-screen comedy, she reached her fright-flick peak during 1980, starring in two shockers and playing a supporting role in Carpenter’s The Fog. Produced in Canada and released in August 1980, Prom Night continues the Halloween trope of setting bloody stories on holidays and/or special occasions. Prom Night also borrows the basic structure of Halloween, with the survivor of a gruesome childhood incident wreaking havoc years later.
          Specifically, the movie begins with an effective prologue of children playing a nasty version of hide-and-seek inside an abandoned school. The game leads to an accidental death. Six years later, the children associated with the incident have become teenagers, and a vengeful killer stalks them on the night of their high-school prom. Prom Night has an attractive look and a fairly rational approach to characterization. Curtis is not only appealing and confident in her leading performance, but she’s also quite sensuous, foreshadowing her ascension to sex-symbol status a few years later. Unfortunately, Prom Night has significant problems. The filmmakers spend a good hour setting up the characters and story, then devolve into repetitive chase scenes and murders. Curtis’ character doesn’t really do anything, at least not until the final showdown, and top-billed actor Leslie Nielsen disappears from the movie about halfway through. One’s ability to enjoy Prom Night also depends on one’s tolerance for disco (Curtis has a big dance number) and for dubious twist endings. All in all, Prom Night is better than the usual slasher fare, but that’s not saying much.
          Released in October 1980 and also produced in Canada, Terror Train is in some ways a quintessential slasher film, simply because it hits so many familiar tropes. The shocking prologue. The confined setting. The endless string of attractive teens who die while attempting to have sex. The weird killer with a twisted agenda and a thing for outlandish costumes. The wizened mentor/protector character played by a familiar Hollywood veteran. And, naturally, the final-girl standoff. It’s all quite dull, except perhaps for the digressive scenes featuring real-life stage magician David Copperfield as an illusionist. The setup goes something like this. One night on a college campus, pranksters led by arrogant med student Doc (Hart Bochner) trick a dweeb named Kenny (Derek McKinnon) into believing he’s about to get lucky with hot coed Alana (Curtis). Instead, Kenny ends up in bed with a corpse. He freaks out so badly that he lands in an asylum.
          Years later, Doc, Alana, and their classmates celebrate their final year in school by hiring a train for a nighttime excursion through snowy wilderness. Carne (Ben Johnson) is their friendly conductor. One by one, partygoers are killed in horrific ways, so Alana realizes that Kenny must have escaped to seek revenge. Set entirely at night, Terror Train has more atmosphere than logic, but the acting is adequate and the finale is exciting. There’s also quite a lot of eye candy. (Watch for future Prince protégé Vanity as a scantily clad coed.) Make no mistake, Terror Train is often grotesque, repetitive, and stupid—but at least it has a fair amount of action.

Prom Night: FUNKY
Terror Train: FUNKY

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

1980 Week: The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu

Representing the undignified final statement of a celebrated career, this painfully unfunny comic adventure was Peter Sellers’ last picture, although outtakes from various films were used to simulate his presence in Trail of the Pink Panther (1982). Whereas Sellers' penultimate movie, Being There (1979), exemplifies artistic restraint, The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu is obnoxious on every level. Based upon Sax Roehmer’s famous pulp character, the picture features Sellers in dual roles as Fu Manchu, an Asian criminal mastermind who has lived to 168 years of age because of a secret formula, and Dennis Nayland Smith, an intrepid Scotland Yard investigator devoted to battling Fu Manchu. When the movie stars, Fu Manchu exhausts his supply of immortality serum, so he arranges outlandish heists to secure ingredients, thereby inadvertently making his whereabouts known to Smith. The product of behind-the-scenes friction—several directors were fired, and Sellers helmed a few scenes by himself—The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu lobs one dud joke after another at the audience, creating pure tedium. The Fu Manchu scenes are offensive because of the way Sellers speaks in a cartoonish accent while wearing “yellow devil” makeup. The Smith scenes are insipid because this movie’s idea of a running joke involves Smith pushing a lawnmower so he can concentrate—even if he’s indoors. Notwithstanding Helen Mirren’s valiant efforts to make her supporting role as Fu Manchu’s consort credible, the movie is painful to watch because nothing connects, right up to the excruciating finale during which Fu Manchu transforms from a fragile old man to a young stud in an Elvis jumpsuit, leading a rock band through an atrocious original song.

The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu: LAME

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

1980 Week: Honeysuckle Rose

          After displaying a naturalistic screen presence in his movie debut, Sydney Pollack’s romantic drama The Electric Horseman (1978), country singer Willie Nelson was given a custom-made leading role in another romantic drama, Honeysuckle Rose, which Pollack produced but did not direct. Once again, Nelson proved he was comfortable on camera, though the role of an easygoing, pot-smoking troubadour did not require him to stretch. The film surrounding Nelson is so frustrating that the best thing to come out of this project was a classic song. “On the Road Again” became a huge crossover hit, earning a Grammy award and an Oscar nomination. Some scenes in Honeysuckle Rose capture the joy of that tune, but those bits are almost always tangential to the main plot, which is trite and unseemly. The movie also suffers for the questionable casting of its two major female roles.
          Nelson plays Buck Bonham, a longhaired Texas singer-songwriter on the verge of achieving national stardom after years of being a regional favorite. (Sound familiar?) Buck is married to sexy blonde Viv (Dyan Cannon), a former singer who gave up life on the road to raise Jamie (Joey Floyd), her son with Buck. Now firmly entrenched in middle age, she’s lost her patience with Buck’s endless declarations that “one of these days” he’ll slow down his touring to spend more time on the Bonham’s sprawling Texas ranch. When Buck’s longtime guitarist, Garland Ramsey (Slim Pickens), announces his retirement, Buck scrambles for a replacement, and Viv unwisely suggests that Buck hire Garland’s seductive 22-year-old daughter, Lily (Amy Irving). To absolutely no one’s surprise, Buck and Lily become lovers on the road, causing friction in the Bonham marriage and damaging Buck’s friendship with Garland.
          There are maybe 80 minutes of real story in Honeysuckle Rose, but the movie drags on for a full two hours. The bloat stems partially from extended performance scenes, but also from such discursions as an endless family-reunion scene and snippets of life on a tour bus. Director Jerry Schtazberg shoots all this stuff beautifully, applying a photographer’s keen eye to scenes that feel casual and spontaneous, but he can’t muster similar creativity for romantic scenes. Nelson’s low-key vibe creates an inherent energy deficiency, and the fact that neither Cannon nor Irving seem remotely believable as Texans introduces falseness into a movie that otherwise boasts plentiful authenticity. Nonetheless, Honeysuckle Rose has its pleasures. Emmylou Harris shows up to sing a number with Nelson, and it’s a treat to see Pickens playing a straight dramatic character. The scenes in which he and Nelson simulate drunken revels are particularly enjoyable.

Honeysuckle Rose: FUNKY

Monday, July 24, 2017

1980 Week: A Change of Seasons & The Last Married Couple in America & Loving Couples

          Turns out Blake Edwards’ hit sex comedy 10 (1979) presaged a string of Hollywood movies exploring the angst of middle-aged white men who consider marriage and success so inhibiting they must reaffirm their identities with extramarital sex, all under the guise of “finding themselves.” Yes, this is Me Decade entitlement taken to an absurd extreme—adultery as personal growth. Films about midlife crises were nothing new, of course, but something about this group of pictures reflects a collective reaction to body blows inflicted upon the institution of marriage during the Sexual Revolution. In fact, many of these flicks directly question the relevance of lifelong monogamous relationships. Yet despite all their with-it posturing, these pictures are also moralistic and old-fashioned. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
          Cowritten by Love Story’s Erich Segal, A Change of Seasons begins on a lurid note—nubile coed Lindsey Rutledge (Bo Derek) repeatedly emerges from the bubbling water of a hot tub, her long hair flailing and her pert breasts glistening in slow motion. What better illustration of the fantasy element coursing through this subgenre’s veins? The fellow in the hot tub with Bo is graying college professor Adam Evans (Anthony Hopkins). Later, Adam’s wife, Karyn (Shirley MacLaine), correctly guesses that he’s having an affair. He seems perplexed that she’s upset, offering idiotic remarks such as the following: “Men are different—our needs are more baroque.” Karyn responds by taking a lover of her own, freespirited handyman Pete Lachapelle (Michael Brandon). The two couples take a vacation together, and the trip is staged like a watered-down version of French farce, complete with the surprise appearances of new characters at awkward moments. Notwithstanding the spicy opening sequence, A Change of Seasons is all talk, with the cast spewing endless psychobabble about Oedipal issues and such, and the quasi-feminist ending is but one of many false notes. Costar Mary Beth Hurt lands a few jokes as the flummoxed daughter of philandering parents, and Brandon has a nice moment of pathos revealing his character’s overwrought backstory, but A Change of Seasons is ultimately just a lot of navel-gazing superficiality set to sickly-sweet music by Henry Mancini and a slew of awful songs. A baroque-en record, if you will.
          The Last Married Couple in America proceeds from a stronger comic premise and mostly avoids melodrama, but it’s not much better as a cinematic experience. George Segal and Natalie Wood play Jeff and Mari Thompson, an affluent Los Angeles couple who, as the title suggests, become exceptions to the rule as all of their friends divorce. Predictably, Jeff and Mari stray from each other, although the reasons why are neither clear nor convincing. After all, they’re still so hot for each other that at one point, they get hassled by police for making out in their car. Apparently the issue has to do with boredom, peer pressure, and the fact that Jeff has become a fuddy-duddy—somewhat hard to believe seeing as how he married an artist. (Mari is a sculptor.) In a sign of the movie’s desperation to generate hard-punchline jokes, the filmmakers include a pointless subplot about Walter (Dom DeLuise), a friend of the Thompsons who becomes a porn star. This leads to a “wild” party featuring adult-film actors and hookers, but rarely will you witness a tamer depiction of debauchery. Only the bits with Bob Dishy as a sleazy lawyer who seduces divorcées are amusing, simply because Dishy commits so wholeheartedly to his role.
          Loving Couples has echoes of A Change of Seasons, and not just because Shirley MacLaine costars—it’s another story about spouses attempting to accommodate each other’s infidelities. This time, the wife is the first to wander. In the opening scene, Dr. Evelyn Kirby (MacLaine) rides a horse and catches the eye of young stud Greg Plunkett (Stephen Collins) as he drives alongside a horse trail. He crashes his car but suffers only minor injuries, so his recovery provides an opportunity for wooing Evelyn. After these two begin sleeping together, Greg’s hot girlfriend, Stephanie Beck (Susan Sarandon), breaks the news to Evelyn’s husband, self-absorbed Dr. Walter Kirby (James Coburn). Naturally, Walter responds by commencing a fling with Stephanie. Once the truth outs, the Kirbys separate and move in with their young lovers. Complications ensue. Featuring a threadbare storyline and noxious montages, Loving Couples is perhaps the most cynical of these films, playing the destruction of relationships for lighthearted humor.
          Quite frankly, however, there’s a bit of nihilism in all of these pictures. By abandoning their principles for cheap thrills, the spouses in these films embrace a sort of spiritual nothingness. In that sense, perhaps even more disquieting than asking what these films say about their era is asking whether the filmmakers recognized the obligation—or even the opportunity—to make any sort of statement whatsoever. One more sign, perhaps, that it was just as well the ’70s were over. As a footnote, while it’s tempting to lump the 1980 Canada/U.S. coproduction Middle Age Crazy into the same category as these pictures, Middle Age Crazy casts a wider thematic net, treating adultery as a symptom of rampant consumerism. Even though it’s a weak film, Middle Age Crazy is a damn sight more thoughtful than any of these vapid flicks.

A Change of Seasons: FUNKY
The Last Married Couple in America: FUNKY
Loving Couples: FUNKY

Sunday, July 23, 2017

1980 Week: The Kidnapping of the President

          An enjoyable blast of formulaic escapism with the slightest touch of camp, thanks to the presence of leading man William Shatner, The Kidnapping of the President is a Canada/US coproduction about exactly what the title suggests. While visiting Toronto, the American commander-in-chief is captured by a terrorist and dragged into an armored van laden with explosives, so an intrepid Secret Service agent—Shatner, naturally—must outwit the resourceful terrorist and rescue the president. Directed in workmanlike fashion by George Mendeluk, the picture offers virtually nothing in the way of character development and political relevance, so the only glimmers of humanity stem from exchanges between the imprisoned president and his anguished wife. That said, the makers of The Kidnapping of the President clearly knew what sort of picture they were making. This is a straightforward potboiler with a cardboard hero, one-dimensional villains, and a foregone conclusion, so those who like unexpected twists in their storytelling should seek their pleasures elsewhere.
          Jerry O’Connor (Shatner) is second-in-command of the security detail protecting amiable President Adam Scott (Hal Holbrook). Ahead of a diplomatic trip to Toronto, O’Connor learns that a violent South American terrorist, Roberto Assanti (Miguel Fernandes), is on the move, so O’Connor counsels the president to limit public exposure. Meanwhile, the film shows Assanti meticulously planning his big scheme, which involves a booby-trapped van. Upon reaching Toronto, the president works a crowd in an outdoor plaza, so Assanti manages to handcuff himself to the commander-in-chief. He then reveals a vest filled with dynamite, allowing him to move the president into the van. This scenario is clever, and notwithstanding the predictable race-against-time climax, the means by which O’Connor and his compatriots address the situation are fairly credible. Still, this is larky stuff, especially with the weak subplot involving a morally compromised vice president (Van Johnson) and his Lady Macbeth-ish wife (Ava Gardner). The best scenes involve Shatner channeling his signature over-the-top intensity and Holbrook demonstrating his avuncular charm. The picture also gets a welcome shot of eccentricity from Maury Chakin’s supporting turn as one of the terrorist’s accomplices.

The Kidnapping of the President: FUNKY

Saturday, July 22, 2017

1980 Week: Herbie Goes Bananas

The silly Walt Disney Productions franchise that began with The Love Bug (1968) ground to a halt with this enervated installment, which was the final big-screen appearance of sentient VW Bug “Herbie” until the 1997 remake of The Love Bug. In Herbie Goes Bananas, the titular car is bequeathed to Pete (Stephen W. Burns), whom we’re told is the nephew of the character played in previous flicks by Dean Jones. For convoluted reasons, Pete must travel to Mexico so he can retrieve Herbie from storage. Traveling with his buddy D.J. (Charles Martin Smith), Pete falls victim to Paco (Joaquin Garay III), a street urchin who steals Pete’s wallet. The plot also involves a trio of criminals seeking to rob gold from an Incan ruin, as well as D.J.’s horny aunt Louise (Cloris Leachman), who Pete to marry her nerdy niece Melissa (Elyssa Davalos). There’s even room in the storyline for bumbling seaman Captain Blythe (Harvey Korman), who endures Louise’s manic sexual overtures. Improbably, Herbie ties these disparate characters together. Most of the picture depicts Herbie’s adventures with Paco, hence a montage set to a ghastly song about friendship. In a typically overwrought sequence, Herbie zooms through the cargo hold of Blythe’s ship while trying to free Paco from a cage, causing so much damage that Blythe buries Herbie at sea. Later, Herbie surfaces in the Panama Canal, then reunites with his buddy Paco. Yeesh. The comedy vets in the cast strain to make slaptsick bits and verbal gags work, and the pros playing the villains (Richard Jaeckel, Alex Rocco, John Vernon) strive for Keystone Kops-style choreographed ineptitude, but Herbie Goes Bananas is all about bombarding the audience with changes of scenery, familiar faces, and FX, as if spectacle can compensate for the lack of a proper storyline.

Herbie Goes Bananas: LAME

Friday, July 21, 2017

1980 Week: The Last Flight of Noah’s Ark

Nineteen-eighty was something of an annus horribilis for Walt Disney Productions, since the company didn’t release a new animated film and the best Disney could muster in terms of live action was the middling supernatural flick The Watcher in the Woods. On one wretched day, June 27, the company released both the execrable sequel Herbie Goes Bananas and the pointless adventure film The Last Flight of Noah’s Ark. Starring Elliot Gould, The Last Flight of Noah’s Ark is an animal picture in which animals are barely featured, a kiddie movie in which children are incidental, a romantic movie without spark, a comedy without laughs, and an action picture without thrills. Notwithstanding impressive production values and some moody cinematography by Charles F. Wheeler, the movie has virtually nothing to offer. As for the plot, it’s so silly that it’s nearly a parody of Disney’s live-action style. Down-on-his-luck pilot Noah Dugan (Gould) takes a job flying a World War II-era B-29 to a remote island on behalf of a French-Canadian missionary, Bernadette (Geneviève Bujold), who plans to deliver livestock to a remote settlement. Two children, one of whom is played by ’70s/’80s child star Ricky Schroeder, stow away on the plane. A mishap causes the plane to drift off course and run out of fuel just in time for a crash landing on a tiny Pacific island, the sole occupants of which are two Japanese soldiers who believe World War II is still underway. The dramatic possibilities of this set-up are discarded almost immediately, because one of the Japanese soldiers speaks English, Bernadette easily persuades them the war is over, and then everybody collaborates on an escape plan. In lieu of excitement, The Last Flight of Noah’s Ark offers schmaltz, complete with a theme song so precious it will make your ears bleed. (Sample lyrics: “If I were a tree, you’d be my roots—we’d grow together.”) It’s a wonder this flight wasn’t equipped with airsick bags.

The Last Flight of Noah’s Ark: LAME

Thursday, July 20, 2017

1980 Week: The Apple

          Highly entertaining documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (2014) explores, in part, the cultural dissonance that resulted whenever Cannon’s founders, Israelis Menaham Golan and Yoram Globus, attempted to create movies for the international market without realizing how idiomatically they approached storytelling. As a small example of this nuance, consider a moment in the batshit-crazy musical The Apple, which Golan directed. Entering a messy apartment, a landlady exclaims: “What happened in here, a pogrom?” Or consider The Apple itself, a staggeringly wrong-headed epic using a story about the disco-era music business as an allegory for the fall of Adam and Eve from God’s grace. Yes, the apple at the heart of the story—represented, per the film’s bigger-is-better aesthetic, by a gigantic prop the size of a watermelon—is a symbol of man’s eternal sin.
          Don’t get the idea, however, that The Apple is purely high-minded, because the picture also contains one of the filthiest original songs ever composed for a motion picture. That’s how it goes with The Apple, and that’s how it went with most of the terrible movies that Golan and Globus unleashed on the world during their decades-long reign of cinematic terror. More than just bad taste, chintzy budgets, and grade-Z actors, the Cannon Films brand was synonymous with misguided storytelling. The Apple is perhaps the apex of Cannon leaving human reality behind to venture into parts unknown.
          Set in the future, the film imagines a bizarre scenario wherein a music-publishing company becomes the dominant political force in the world, controlling the economy through the popularity of its rock stars. Naturally, the head of the publishing company, Boogaloo (Vladek Sheybal), is the devil figure in this parable. His victims are the story’s Adam and Eve characters, sensitive and wholesome singer-songwriters Alphie (George Gilmour) and Bibi (Catherine Mary Stewart), who hail from the random location of Moosejaw, Canada. When the story begins, Alphie and Bibi try performing their ballad about love, “The Universal Melody,” during Univsion’s famous song contest. (In real life, the contest introduced the world to ABBA, so there’s that.) Boogaloo tampers with speakers during the duo’s performance, ensuring that his prefab band wins the contest. Then Boogaloo tempts Alphie and Bibi with the promise of a recording contract. Bibi accepts the offer—a moment dramatized by a dream sequence set in hell, complete with the aforementioned giant apple—but Alphie does not.
          Thereafter, the movie tracks Bibi’s degrading transformation into a slutty pop star. Meanwhile, Alphie mopes about the cost of integrity. Eventually, Boogaloo decrees that everyone in the world must wear a “BIM sticker,” emblematic of his publishing company’s brand name, or else risk arrest. Alphie gets pulled into Boogaloo’s seductive web, only to help Bibi escape so they can find God—excuse me, “Mr. Topps” (Joss Ackland)—hiding in a hippie commune. It’s all much weirder than it sounds, and the whole thing is presented like a bad ’70s TV special: think shiny costumes, sexualized dance numbers, and star filters. The most staggering moment involves the original song “Coming,” a tune cooed by one of Boogaloo’s acolytes—a sexy African-American chanteuse—on the occasion of luring Alphie into bed. As she writhes atop Alphie, she moans these lyrics: “Make it harder and harder and faster and faster, and when you think you can’t keep it up, I’ll take you deeper and deeper and tighter and tighter, and drain every drop of your love.”
          Is it hot in here, or is it just me?
          Golan and his collaborators employ seemingly every musical style imaginable, as if the notion of a guiding aesthetic never occurred to them; The Apple has ballet, tap, reggae, and more. Adding to the weirdness is the international cast. Stewart, appearing in her first film, is an actual Canadian who sounds like she’s from the American heartland, while Gilmour, who never appeared in another film, sounds indecipherably European. Playing the devil character is a Polish actor who sounds Israeli, and playing the God character is an English actor who sounds German. Plus, for every song that’s more or less palatable—despite its salaciousness, “Coming” is catchy—there’s a tune that punishes the eardrums. It’s best to avoid deciphering The Apple, instead letting the monumental vulgarity wash over you. If you’re a real masochist, try watching this one alongside 1980’s other misbegotten disco epics, Can’t Stop the Music and Xanadu.

The Apple: FREAKY

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

1980 Week: Ruckus

          Essentially a dunderheaded precursor to First Blood (1982), this silly action picture falls midway through the cycle of ’70s and ’80s movies about PTSD-addled Vietnam veterans, both in terms of chronological release and quality. Written and directed by onetime stuntman Max Kleven, Ruckus avoids the sleazy extremes of some PTSD flicks, because it doesn’t edge into kinky sex stuff or linger on violence. Unfortunately, by taking the genteel approach, Ruckus ends up seeming cartoonish, a problem exacerbated by Kleven’s genuinely terrible screenplay. Characters in Kleven’s world do things simply because they’re convenient for the story, or because some similar character took a similar action in another movie. Nothing here rings true. Kleven’s direction isn’t much better than his writing, and he regularly slips into unintentional goofiness, as during the spectacularly dumb dirt-bike scene (more on that later). In the first-time filmmaker’s defense, he did not land top-shelf actors for the leading roles. He got Dirk Benedict and Linda Blair.
          The story starts the usual way, with a drifter ambling into a small town. Locals hassle him simply because he’s different. The drifter is Kyle Hanson (Benedict), who for reasons that are never explained has thick mud caked onto his face. While eating lunch at a roadside stand, Kyle encounters Sam Bellows (Ben Johnson), a rich guy whose son is an MIA soldier. This explains why Kyle finds a receptive audience when, later, he breaks into Sam’s home and meets Sam’s voluptuous daughter-in-law, Jenny (Blair). She helps Kyle hide from the locals who are chasing him. Eventually, Ruckus becomes a weird survival story because Kyle occupies a small island and uses guerilla tactics, martial arts, and stolen explosives to rebel invaders.
          None of this makes sense, but Kleven bombards viewers with colorful images. At his worst, he loses his grip on what should be a serious tone—witness the bizarre spectacle of Jenny and Kyle doing coordinated dirt-bike jumps in slow-motion as if they’re Mr. and Mrs. Evel Knievel. Benedict is quite bad, too big in unhinged scenes and too small in quiet scenes, while Blair is blandly sweet and Johnson phones in a non-performance. Only Richard Farnsworth, playing a seen-it-all sheriff, hits the right notes. Incidentally, it’s fun to survey the film’s various posters, seeing as how this picture was marketed as everything from a laugh-a-minute lark to an ultraviolent shoot-’em-up. Alternate titles include Big Ruckus in a Small Town, Eat My Smoke, The Loner, and Ruckus in Madoc County.

Ruckus: FUNKY

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

1980 Week: Carny

          Picture, if you dare, the disturbing images that open Carny. Gary Busey, in all his glorious weirdness, sits in a dark room before a mirror, a single light illuminating his face from above, as he applies black, red, and white clown makeup, all the while bulging his eyes and baring his gigantic teeth to test the progress of his transformation. Insinuating music underscores the scene. And that’s how it is with Carny—strange and unpleasant things happen without much context. At varying points, Carny is funny, humane, insightful, sexy, and terrifying. Yet the film is also dull, pointless, and sloppy. Is it a horror movie about violent drifters who work in traveling carnivals? Is it a low-rent romantic triangle involving two grown men battling over the affections of a teenager? Is it a melodrama about outsider artists facing irrelevance thanks to shifting social mores? The answer to each of those questions is yes—but Carny is a disappointment nonetheless, because the film is made conventionally as to require a strong central storyline, which it lacks.
          One can’t help but wonder whether producer, cowriter, and leading man Robbie Robertson—a genuine rock star known for his tenure as the Band’s guitarist and principal songwriter—imagined collaborating on this film with his friend Martin Scorsese. Although Carny exists way outside Scorsese’s preferred urban-crime milieu, surely Scorsese would have known how to wrangle the film’s ideas and textures into a coherent script. Clearly, Robertson did not. At its core, Carny spins a dishearteningly simple yarn. When the Great American Carnival rolls into a small town, 18-year-old waitress Donna (Jodie Foster) becomes infatuated with Frankie (Busey), a “geek” who spends his nights inside a cage above a water tank, taunting rubes so they’ll pay to dunk him. Donna leaves home to, as the saying goes, run away with the circus. This causes friction with Frankie’s best friend, Patch (Robertson), the carnival’s fixer. (He breaks up fights and pays bribes to officials in towns the carnival visits.) The movie also has about a dozen subplots, some of which receive no more than a moment or two of screen time, and eventually the Donna business turns sordid when she becomes a dancer in the carny’s girlie show.
          There’s a lot of everything in Carny, as evidenced by the massive supporting cast: Elisha Cook Jr., Meg Foster, Kenneth MacMillan, Bill McKinney, Tim Thomerson, Fred Ward, Craig Wasson, and more. The film also bursts with special people portraying sideshow performers. All of these characters wander through engrossing vignettes, so the plot sometimes feels like an interruption. Not helping matters is Alex North’s truly awful musical score, which turns unhelpfully comedic during dark moments. You’d think Robertson would have at least gotten the music right in his capacity as producer, especially since his acting is naturalistic but forgettable. Busey is unhinged whenever he’s in geek mode, and he brings surprising tenderness to quiet scenes. Foster, meanwhile, delivers an atypically indifferent performance, but she’s quite beguiling  here—as in her other 1980 film, Foxes, Foster seemed determined to demonstrate after a three-year screen hiatus that she was no longer a juvenile.

Carny: FUNKY

Monday, July 17, 2017

1980 Week: Stir Crazy

          After Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder scored as a comedy team in the 1976 farce Silver Streak, a reunion was inevitable. As directed by the venerable Sidney Poitier, Stir Crazy emulates certain elements of the Silver Streak formula—but it never quite matches the earlier film’s frenetic energy. Worse, Stir Crazy bungles a romantic subplot, which is problematic since the sparks between Wilder and leading lady Jill Clayburgh were a big part of Silver Streak’s appeal. Yet the biggest shortcoming of Stir Crazy is the fact that Pryor and Wilder are separated for long stretches of screen time. Whenever the actors are together, Stir Crazy vibrates with good-natured silliness, and whenever they aren’t, the movie gets mired in the humdrum machinations of its contrived plotting.
          The movie begins in New York, where wannabe actor Harry (Pryor) and wannabe playwright Skip (Wilder) work, respectively, as a store detective and a waiter. Both men get fired on the same day, so ultra-optimistic Skip proposes they relocate to Hollywood. Car trouble stands them in Arizona, at which point Skip offers another dopey suggestion—he and Harry don bird costumes to perform a musical number inside a bank as part of a promotional event. Later, two criminals steal the costumes and rob the bank, thereby framing Harry and Skip for the crime. Up to this point, about 30 minutes into the movie, things are going well—the gags are weak but plentiful, and the plotting approaches a farcical level of lunacy. But then our intrepid heroes get thrown into prison, which brings the fast-moving narrative to a screeching halt. Once behind bars, Harry and Skip have predictable (and occasionally offensive) encounters with stereotypical characters including a gigantic serial killer, a tough gang leader, and a queeny homosexual. Meanwhile, Warden Beatty (Barry Corbin) improbably discovers that Skip has natural talents as a bull rider (!), so he orders Skip to perform in a corrupt prison rodeo. (Shades of 1974’s The Longest Yard.)
          Flashes of amusement emerge during the picture’s fleshy middle, such as physical-comedy bits of Pryor and Wilder trying to fit into a miniscule prison cell, but the overall vibe is needlessly heavy and tiresome. By the time the movie grinds toward its bland conclusion, Stir Crazy becomes an elaborate prison-break saga with virtually zero laughs. On the plus side, the picture’s technical execution is impeccable, and the best moments in Pryor’s and Wilder’s performances are highly enjoyable. After Stir Crazy, the actors reunited twice more, for See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) and Another You (1991), both of which tarnished the legacy of a once-promising screen pairing.

Stir Crazy: FUNKY