Friday, February 28, 2014

The Worst Unintentionally Bad Song from an '80s Movie

     My vote, hands down, would have to go to the sappy Rhythm of Life by Hugh Harris at the sappy end of Uncle Buck (1989). Despite the cornball Hughesian finale, replete with bizarro closeups and the patented freeze frame of John Candy smiling (oh, the humanity), the song that's playing features an over produced, unintelligible singer (Harris, I presume?) who sounds like he could be trying to pass a kidney stone.

I picked this one over Eddy Grant's deliciously awful Romancing the Stone (which almost tied for first place) because I actually have found myself sitting through Uncle Buck just to hear this song play at the end; to see if maybe I'm being a trifle hard on it. Turns out, my feelings never change. And I've seen Uncle Buck A LOT as a result. I'm sure many of you out there may disagree or wonder: how could this perfectly innocuous little ditty be any worse than the rap from Ghostbusters II, or any number of more obviously awful melodic misfires?

The truth is, it probably isn't actually as bad a song as many other candidates out there, but I just can't stand this particular ending. Even my cat gets up and leaves the room every time it's on. I don't think any song could have saved it. Well, maybe Death or Glory by The Clash, or Led Zeppelin's The Immigrant Song. What ending wouldn't benefit from either of those?

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Neglected Works of Burt Reynolds

     Although he will forever be instantly associated with Deliverance (1972), The Longest Yard (1974) and Smokey and the Bandit (1977), a film that Alfred Hitchock once mused was his favorite movie, Burt Reynolds was once at the absolute fulcrum point of the Hollywood celebrity stratum. He used this hard earned place at the zenith of the movie industry to nurture into fruition some truly better than average projects. Today we'll be looking briefly at three of Burt Reynolds' all-time best and seldom examined films.

The End (1978)
Before Reynolds' moderately successful yet forgettable stuntman trifle Hooper (1978), he fought hard to get this self-directed opus about suicidal depressives made. No studio would touch the little black comedy that not only pokes its stick at the health care system but also the Catholic Church. Fortunately, he was able to get many of his Hollywood pals to make cameo appearances (Sally Field, Strother Martin, David Steinberg, Joanne Woodward, Norman Fell, Myrna Loy, Pat O'Brien, Robby Benson, Kristy McNichol, Carl Reiner and James Best), insuring that the million and a half budgeted project finally got a green light. Reynolds is front and center the whole show and his natural charm (even when trying to off himself) and comic timing really shine through. You can tell he really relished playing the part of a neurotic, but he wasn't by far the craziest nut in the loony bin. The film really hums thanks to a truly wacked-out supporting performance courtesy of Dom DeLuise. Their hilarious scenes together more than make up for a slightly disjointed and uneven ride. This is one of those films that you love despite any glaring flaws. It was a true labor of love for its director/star. And what a theme song by Paul Williams.

Starting Over (1979)
Director Alan J. Pakula had already made Klute (1971), The Parallax View (1974) and All the President's Men (1976) before turning his politically salient viewfinder to this sweet natured little romantic comedy adapted and co-produced by James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, 1983). Reynolds plays a straight-laced lonely guy, looking for love in the wake of a failed relationship, and ultimately having the greatest panic attack scene in a department store ever captured on film. There are two other central roles in the film played effortlessly by Jill Clayburgh (as the quirky nursery school teacher Burt was meant to be with all along) and Candice Bergen (as his ex who exorcises most of her marital demons with some dubious songwriting skills). Clayburgh is nothing less than adorable (sometimes annoyingly so) throughout the film, but Bergen elevates the typical rom-com trappings to something quite different. She scores in several scenes evolving from the outwardly confident partner of the threesome to the near heights of emotional derangement. The song she writes and performs for Reynolds' character with hopes to win him back is a true show-stopper. Charles Durning also lends great support as Reynolds' protective brother.

Sharky's Machine (1981)
Reynolds directed this seemingly standard issue cop thriller at the tail end of his unprecedented reign of superstar popularity. For the most part, it's a by-the-book pulpy police saga, based on the breakout novel of the same name by author William Diehl. Reynolds plays Sharky, a no nonsense cop who loves women as much as talking trash with his cadre of law enforcement cronies. It is this particular ensemble of actors that distinguishes the film from just another pedestrian police procedural or Dirty Harry ripoff. Sure, there are the tongue-in-cheek riffs on the standard issue heavies (even a ninja or two) but it's the banter and interplay amongst the good guys that we remember most. Charles Durning, Brian Keith, Earl Holliman, Richard Libertini and Bernie Casey collectively knock this one out of the park. Rachel Ward as Dominoe provides the alluring eye candy and Henry Silva battles Vittorio Gassman for the slimiest villain on Earth award. It also happens to have one of the best soundtracks of the 1980s; a song score featuring the likes of: Sarah Vaughan, Julie London, Peggy Lee, Chet Baker and the classic tune Street Life performed by underrated jazz queen Randy Crawford. Tarantino even stole that particular tune for his own pulpy crime tale Jackie Brown (1997). But Reynolds did it first, and better.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Tell Him About the Twinkie

Harold Ramis as Dr. Egon Spengler in Ghostbusters (1984)
     Harold Ramis (1944 - 2014) was directly responsible for the corruption of my youth. I mean that in the most sincere and appreciative way. The films that he wrote, directed and starred in had such a lasting effect on me that it's almost impossible to imagine what the world was like before they existed. In that idyllic time - parents, teachers, bosses and even weather men were merely authoritarians or benign automatons, no reason to not be trusted. Ramis taught me that they were just regular people too. Fucked up like the rest of us.

Of the seminal films Ramis wrote or co-wrote: National Lampoon's Animal House (1978), Meatballs (1979), Caddyshack (1980), Stripes (1981), Ghostbusters (1984), Back to School (1986) and Groundhog Day (1993), most are considered modern American classics. Animal House and Ghostbusters being iconoclastic works of art. Groundhog Day, perhaps his greatest singular film as writer/director, could have belonged to the repertoire of Frank Capra, or Ernst Lubitsch. It could be argued that this run of raunchy comedy hits was the last great wave of comedy film to emerge since the Screwball Era.

And of course there was National Lampoon's Vacation (1979), which Ramis directed (adding his own dialog) from a script by the late, great John Hughes. I still quote the scenes with his fellow SCTV veteran and colleague John Candy nearly every other day: "Rusty, may I call you Rusty? I had a bad experience on this ride once." In fact, what Ramis film isn't habitually quotable? Quoting Ghostbusters is akin to a rite of passage with most people from my generation. I must admit, I even find myself quoting lesser Ramis efforts on occasion: Club Paradise (1986), Multiplicity (1996) and even Analyze This (1999).

I guess most of us just took him for granted, not really acknowledging his presence behind so many of these great movies. It's sad to think of the world now without him. I know that sounds a bit melodramatic. I mean, it's not like I knew the man personally, but his work had such a profound effect in shaping my psyche. The sardonic heroes of his films always seemed to me adults who refused to grow up or take orders. What is Bill Murray's Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters if he isn't Peter Pan crossed with James Dean or Jack Kerouac? Even Clark Griswold, haplessly battling his own delusions.

These were my movie idols growing up. Though some of them may seem less like scientists and more like game show hosts to me now, I can't help but see a little bit of each of them whenever I look in the mirror: Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz, Egon Spengler, Clark Griswold, Bluto Blutarsky, Otter, Boone, Pinto, Flounder, D-Day, Ty Webb, Carl Spackler, Al Czervik, Danny Noonan, Tripper Harrison, John Winger, Sergeant Hulka, Phil Connors and Thornton Melon. Now I know why I'm the poster boy for therapy.

I think often about Groundhog Day. How Murray's character Phil spends literally hundreds of years reliving the same day before he finally gets just 15 or so hours right. I think of what Ramis was trying to tell us, beneath all the funny stuff. How fortunate we are to have just one lifetime to work it all out. Thanks for all the role models, Mr. Ramis. And thanks for telling us about the Twinkie too.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Zeus of Modern Horror

Terence Fisher
(1904 - 1980)
     For many, the name Terence Fisher will hardly register, but for fans of classic horror and especially the English Gothic horror and fantasy films of the '50s, '60s and '70s he was one of the all-time greats. No less a major British director than Alfred Hitchcock or Carol Reed, Fisher's films breathed new life into the already derivative world of monsters and madmen capitalized upon after the first wave of Universal horror films from the '30s and '40s.

Fisher was the first to do them extensively and exclusively in breathtaking color, and to add a dimension of feminine sensuality and sexiness to the heavily male-dominated proceedings. His films were no exploitation fare, although they were regarded as such by some critics at the time. They were true literary adaptations first and foremost with the utmost respect for character and origin, even if the plot-lines were often completely overhauled. Often wrongly described as a great technician rather than simply a great filmmaker, Fisher's films forever changed the way in which horror was perceived as well as produced.

above: Peter Cushing in Fisher's The Curse of Frankenstein (1957); Hammer's first Gothic fantasy film

Synonymous with the name Hammer, the studio that produced most of his greatest works, the last twenty or so films he directed can rightly be described as classics, minor or otherwise. Films like: The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula (1958), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), The Mummy (1959) and The Gorgon (1964), all of them for Hammer and featuring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, are each perfect examples of how he refreshed and revolutionized an entire genre.

Fisher directing Peter Cushing and
Veronica Carlson in Hammer's
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969)
Since passing away in 1980, it's hard to believe there was a time when Fisher was not viewed as an important filmmaker, even as the films he once made were being elevated to such lofty heights. Those films didn't just direct themselves. Whether it was a sci-fi or film noir, a film for Gainsborough or Hammer, it didn't matter. Fisher always found a way to seduce his audience into the spell he was casting. My favorite of all his iconic works will always be The Devil Rides Out (1968), an adaptation of the Dennis Wheatley novel, and perhaps the greatest fantasy film about magick and the occult ever devised. 

Fisher directing Christopher Lee
in The Devil Rides Out (1968)
He viewed the horror or Gothic fantasy film as a fairy tale world for adults, where good must always triumph over evil in the end, even if the same evil that gets vanquished somehow returns again in the next sequel. What's truly amazing is the speed and efficiency for which he was known to work, often wrapping up one film in a matter of weeks and then moving on directly to the next; same sets redressed with the same actors and crew. Yet, surprisingly none of his films feel stale or imitative.

It's a testament to the work of a true genius. Today he would have celebrated his 110th birthday. Like the immortal literary and mythological characters he so often returned to, his legacy still lives on. Happy birthday, Mr. Fisher.

 above: Christopher Lee in Fisher's Dracula (1958) aka Horror of Dracula in the US
Milk and Cookies and a Divorce

     Sandwiched in between the controversial Cruising (1980) and pop culture classic Scarface (1983), Al Pacino made the warm and gooey, family-friendly comedy about marital infidelity and deadbeat parenting Author! Author! (1982) directed by Arthur Hiller.

Pacino plays a New York City playwright juggling the impending premiere of his new Broadway production with a weak second act, an overbearing producer (Alan King), a new director (Bob Dishy), a lusty leading lady (Dyan Cannon), an unfaithful wife (Tuesday Weld) and a brood of five precocious kids, only one of which is his own biologically.

The scenario feels more like the set-up of a Woody Allen movie with Pacino taking on the lead neurotic crossed with the Lucille Ball comedy Yours, Mine and Ours (1968). At several points in the film, Pacino places his hands on his head and declares: "I'm so depressed". Apparently a lot of critics were by this film too. It was not well received. The word "dud" often springs to mind whenever it comes up.

The fact is, the film is not bad. Pacino very clearly enjoyed playing the part of the surrogate father to his wife's pack of abandoned cubs. The arguments in the film between husband and wife, offspring and parents, have a true ring to them. It's palpable the way his wife gets furious at him for sleeping with the new leading lady in his play, after she herself has admitted her own presently ongoing infidelity (he is after all her fourth husband, I believe?). Of course, it's hypocritical; but real.

It's also real the way the film looks at how kids approaching puberty look at the adults in their lives as examples for what they are soon to become. No wonder our world is in the state it's in today. Pacino's character Ivan tries to be a good parent to his kids, and for the most part, he is a stellar one. Maybe too good. The main problem with the film is the way it handles the absent mother, played by Weld.

Her character, Gloria, is a one-dimensional nut-job (who absentmindedly puts silverware in the fridge) who sails into bitchy waters on one too many occasions. She reminds me of an adulterous version of Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People (1980), except she actually loves her kids, or so she claims. For what it's worth, Weld tries to make the most of it. The other problem with the film is the way in which the play within the film is presented. We are never told what the play is about, what the problem with the second act is, or even what the title "English With Tears" is supposed to mean.

Yet, all of these issues are brought up in nearly every scene. It would be like having all the characters in the movie Lincoln (2012) working to resolve the issue of slavery, but without mentioning what the amendment they were debating was for or about; only that it was important. The only thing we learn in Author! Author! is that the play is a comedy.

Apparently, that's all we're really supposed to learn about the film too. It's a serious story presented in comic mode, just like the Pacino character says about his play in the film. Fortunately, the comedy is so toned down, as is Pacino's performance, that a great deal of subtlety and nuance really does manage to shine through. I enjoyed the recurring joke about how Ivan can't tie a necktie, and the way he fumbles with a telephone while trying to work at his typewriter.

above: Pacino with Elva Josephson, Eric Gurry, Ari Meyers, B.J. Barrie and Benjamin H. Carlin

Although Gloria's motivations remain mostly unknown (all we really learn about her is that she likes to get married and have lots of kids; this is actually said by her in the film) the Pacino character is truly devoted to his kids, and wants his play to be a success so that he can provide for them. He even forsakes his own happiness with another woman for his convictions. It's a noble, if not transparent characterization.

The bottom line is, none of the kids biological parents want anything to do with them. There is a minor subplot involving Gloria's two young girls whose father only agrees to let them come stay with him so he can avoid paying child support. Pacino's character knows that if he doesn't step in, they will have no other place to go, especially since their mother is up in Gloucester working on husband number five. But it's what any good person with a three bedroom brownstone would do, isn't it?

By far, the most embarrassing thing about Hiller's film, is the original song: Comin' Home to You (Is Like Comin' Home to Milk and Cookies) with music by Dave Grusin (On Golden Pond) and lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman (Never Say Never Again). The quicker we move on from that, the better.

Pacino allegedly did not get along well with director Arthur Hiller (The Hospital, 1971; Silver Streak, 1976; The In-Laws, 1979) and stated as much publicly. He did however enjoy working with the child actors in the film, who range from mildly annoying on occasion to genuinely sincere. The autobiographical screenplay was written by dramatist Israel Horovitz, who Pacino had worked with before in 1968's The Indian Wants the Bronx, for which both men won Obie awards.

Dyan Cannon was originally cast as the bitchy wife Gloria but eventually accepted the role of the loony actress Alice Detroit who almost steals Pacino's heart; if it didn't already belong exclusively to those darn kids. Above all else, Author! Author! is a great New York story. The city itself plays a very strong supporting part in the film, much like it did in the similarly styled but more satisfying Dudley Moore film Arthur (1981) and virtually all of Woody Allen's films up to the 2000s.

Perhaps it's a guilty pleasure for this movie watcher, or maybe I just have a soft spot for any film in which Al Pacino doesn't play a caricature of himself. I like the movie, warts and all, but it's no Picasso.