Thursday, December 30, 2010

The 1980 Project: My First Two Times

I was bound to have a relationship with cinema before I was even born. The night my mother was in labor with me, she and my father were headed to the drive-in to catch All the President’s Men. I must have decided that yes, I too, would be interested in catching Alan Pakula’s dramatic thriller. After my exit from the cozy confines of my mother’s womb, my parents would continue to go to the drive-in and catch double bills while I slept in the baby seat. The soundtrack to the movies emanating from those little speaker boxes serving as white noise that lulled me into dream land.

The reason I decided to embark on the 1980 Project was simply because it’s the first decade that I was alive and watching films for the entirety of. For those just joining us, the 1980 Project is my attempt to watch (and hopefully review) as many films from 1980 as possible, and then after a year (which is officially ending on December 31st, 2010), move on to 1981, repeat, then 1982, et cetera. My reasoning was not because it’s particularly a great decade for cinema, the 1970’s are easily my favorite decade for film, though I think it gets a bit unfairly maligned for some of the dreck that was successful (Flashdance, Top Gun), what’s interesting about the decade is that while the producer succeeded in grasping control of the medium from the directors after the 70's with an eye towards more easily sellable genre fare, there was a hell of a lot of good genre fare being made by directors at the top of their game who infused their films with commentary and unique sensibilities (Carpenter, Spielberg, Cronenberg to name but a few).
While I can intellectualize my reasoning for this project, ultimately everything comes back to December 1980. That is where and when my first specific memories of theatrically viewing films occurred. I don’t know for sure which I saw first (probably Flash Gordon since it was release a week earlier) but the first two movies I remember seeing theatrically were Flash Gordon and Popeye, I even remember the theatres in which I saw them: Flash Gordon was at the now defunct Century Town & Country, and Popeye the still existent Century 23 (side note: leaving the film through the back exit which provided the sight of seeing behind the screen whilst the credit rolled has always been an early indelible image for me).

Funny enough, I can’t think of two more symbolically appropriate films. They both represent the at times rocky sea change from the period of director focused cinema to producer (and eventually corporation) product that took place in the 80’s. Both films were probably produced with the intention of being aimed at children, but each are directed by idiosyncratic men who had no prior experience with family friendly fare. Flash Gordon with its bright color palate, campy pulp tone and intrusive (awesomely intrusive!) Queen soundtrack seemed like an odd project for British director Mike Hodges, who is most famous for helming the stark and influential Get Carter, a gangster revenge tale. Almost as odd as a big budget live action musical adaptation of the famous Elzie Crisler Segar comic strip by the notorious improvisational iconoclast Robert Altman.

Unsurprisingly neither film were the huge blockbusters there producers (Dino DeLaurentis and Robert Evans respectfully) imagined, although both were moderately successful money earners despite their current reputations. Both have garnered cult fans over the years, Popeye’s followers include writer-director (and admitted Altman fanboy) Paul Thomas Anderson, who wonderfully excerpted the song “He Needs Me” into his 2002 film Punch Drunk Love. While Harry Nilsson’s songs are catchy and Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall as the titular character and his devoted love interest remain serendipitous casting, the film felt like too much of a sludge the last time I gave it a look (about five or so years ago) where Altman’s sensibilities and the commercial aspect of the film never mesh either naturally or even in a sly satirical manner. The runaway production and perceived failure of the film lead Altman to mostly more intimate and theatrical based works for the remainder of the decade. And, I still feel I should give it another shot one of these days..

Flash Gordon, however, which I last saw theatrically as part of Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright’s The Wright Stuff festival at the New Beverly in December of 2007 worked like gang busters. Hodges embraces the comic book and serial origin with the film’s bright visual sensibility, not for nothing was it paired with Mario Bava’s Danger: Diabolik! Aided by a winking and funny script by Lorenzo Semple, Hodges intentionally makes Flash and his gal pal intentionally bland (Matt Jones, the actor playing Flash is dubbed) to subversively ramp up some of the more kinky elements of the proceedings. And while the leads are stiff, a supporting cast featuring fine over the top performances by Max Von Sydow and Timothy Dalton (channeling Errol Flynn), the seductive beauty of Ornella Muti and yes, the choral Queen soundtrack, always keep things at a lively pace.

Since December 1980 I’ve become obsessed with almost every aspect of cinema. The quality of the film being of tantamount importance of course, but I’m always intrigued by more than just that, including the behind the scenes story of what led to the final piece of work, how the film was shaped from conception to release, the advertising (posters, newspaper ads, cross promotional tie-ins and trailers) and even the theatrical experience of watching the film. Other films have had more of an impact emotionally or intellectually, but Flash and Popeye were the first ones to make their mark on me

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The 1980 Project Index

Well, I've reached the end of the road for my three year journey, actually more like five counting my first dipping of toes, into the cinema of the year 1980. The next two (or three) weeks will be dedicated to discussions and lists of trends, my favorite films and performances, even a remembrance of watching cinema in the actual year itself (when I was four years old).

But as the old adage goes, before looking forward, let's look back. Below is the index of all the films (only 33, but most came in the last six months when I revived the project) I've reviewed as part of this project.

Click on the title listed for the review (note: some films were reviewed in posts featuring multiple film reviews, so scrolling may be necessary)

Alligator (Lewis Teague)
Carny (Robert Kaylor)
The Changeling (Peter Medak)
Christmas Evil (Lewis Jackson)
City of the Living Dead (aka Gates of Hell) (Lucio Fulci)
Death Ship (Alvin Rakoff)
Don't Answer the Phone (Robert Hammer)
Fade to Black (Vernon Zimmerman)
Fame (Alan Parker)
The Final Countdown (Don Taylor)
The Fog (John Carpenter)
Forbidden Zone (Richard Elfman)
Gloria (John Cassavettes)
The Gong Show Movie (Chuck Barris)
GORP (Joseph Ruben)
The Great Santini (Lewis John Carlino)
Hopscotch (Ronald Neame)
How to Beat the High Cost of Living (Robert Scheerer)
The Idolmaker (Taylor Hackford)
Inferno (Dario Argento)
Inside Moves (Richard Donner)
The Island (Michael Ritchie)
The Last Metro (Francois Truffaut)
Little Darlings (Ronald F. Maxwell)
The Long Riders (Walter Hill)
Loulou (Maurice Pialat)
Maniac (William Lustig)
Mon Oncle d'Amerique (Alan Resnais)
New Year's Evil (Emmitt Alston)
Night of the Juggler (Robert Butler)
The Octagon (Eric Karson)
Silent Scream (Denny Harris)
Tess (Roman Polanski)
Times Square (Allan Moyle)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Trailer of the Moment: 1980's Anaglyph 3-D: Legacy

Back in 1999 after seeing the forgettable Robert Zemeckis produced remake of William Castle’s cult classic The House on Haunted Hill, I wondered why the filmmakers, probably fully aware of the quality of the endeavor, didn’t try to make the film at least somewhat distinctive by paying homage to the gimmickry of Castle. More specifically, I thought, why not just make it 3-D? At that time it was well over a decade since a widely released American film used the process through the entire film, and heck, in this case at least it would garner some interest in an otherwise direly boring enterprise.

Flash-forward eleven years later and my idle musing turned out to be prophetic. With theatrical exhibition waning Hollywood is choosing to respond not by better quality (silly rabbit) but by embracing the third dimension (and the financial uprise in ticket prices that goes with the process). Today, if you’re releasing a horror film, large scope science fiction or superhero epic and especially a film aimed at children, there’s a 90% chance it will be in 3-D, including several films directed by the aforementioned Robert Zemeckis himself.

While some of these films have grand ambition, call me narrow mindedly old school but the most enjoyable experiences I have had wearing those clunky glasses in the last three years were the throwback horror “throw shit at the screen” stylings of the My Bloody Valentine and Piranha remakes, though even those have some murky cinematography. Screw “immersion” man, I want a detached eyeball flying in my face!

This weekend’s release of Tron: Legacy with its Digital 3-D effects and the inevitable recollection of seeing the original theatrically back in 1982 when the momentary 80’s 3-D boom was in full effect has me in a particularly nostalgic mood. So let’s put on those cardboard glass with the red and blue anaglyph lenses and remember a day when 3-D didn’t mean blue people plugging themselves into trees but rather Star Wars rip-offs, third entries in horror franchises, and, of course, lots and lots of stuff being pointed directly at the camera!

The film that kick started the 80's trend was the Italian western Comin' At Ya, which as a spaghetti western in 1981 and in 3-D, was a double anomaly, but ended up garnering a strong 12 million dollar cume in the US, which is a cool $40 mill when adjusted for inflation. Sadly, I could not locate a trailer online, so enjoy this poster:

About five months after Comin' At Ya's American release, the Charles Band directed horror film Parasite, featuring effects by Stan Winston, hit theatres. Featuring an ensemble cast with future star Demi Moore, Tom Villard (of Popcorn fame) and The Runaways' Cherie Curie, Parasite was able to ride the uniqueness of 3-D and garner $7 million dollars from a $800,00 budget.

Here's the trailer for Parasite which begins with our narrator explicitly promoting the 3-D process and then displays a bunch of parasites jumping out at you, the audience member.

"Be assured Parasite is the most gripping and frightening movie you will ever see...and in 3-D you will be part of the terror!":

You then had your wave of Part 3's.

Friday the 13th part 3 (in 3-D)

"Jason. You can't fight him, you can't stop him, and now you can't even keep him on the screen!"

The next two feature our good pal, Percy Rodrigues, as narrator.

Jaws 3-D,
the trailer of which contains a grand total of zero seconds of actual footage from the film (perhaps for the best).

"And for the first time the terror of Jaws won't stop at the edge of the screen"

Amityville 3-D, this explosive trailer also relies more on Rodrigues' sonorous voice as a selling point rather than actual footage of the film

"A new dimension in the technology of terror!"

Unfortunately, I was deemed too young to watch either of those films at the time by my parents, even though both the Jaws and Amityville sequels were rated PG, so I never had the opportunity to experience them theatrically (I did catch a revival screening of Jaws 3-D in 2002), however, I did see the two fantasy/sci-fi Star Wars rip-off films with really long titles that utilized the process.

Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, which was produced by Ivan Reitman and featured a pre-John Hughes collaboration appearance by Molly Ringwald, was not a success upon it's release, probably due to the not so brilliant decision of having it open five days before Return of the Jedi. The film, which I have absolutely no recollection of, has been released on DVD, however no trailer (or very much footage of any sort for that matter) turned up in my searches, so enjoy the poster that tried to entice people away from the concluding chapter of the Star Wars saga, it's the first movie that puts you in outer space!

Released later that year, August 1983, Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn features a poster that should be instantly familiar to anyone who either read comic books that year or frequented the science fiction aisle of the video store during the decade. Directed by Charles Band, the James Cameron of the 1981-83 3-D craze, Metalstorm would gross a mere $5 million dollars that year, less than Parasite, and by 1984, it seemed the trend was officially dead.

Here's the trailer for Metalstorm featuring lots of items being thrown towards the camera ("...and they will do all of this for you in 3-D!"):

In 1991, New Line Pictures decided the only way to send off the franchise character that built the studio was to take things up a notch, dimensionally speaking. So Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare featured the character's onscreen demise (there would be two more sequels and a remake), which basically was a ten minute sequence, in 3-D, so you had to wait until prompted on screen. Being a teenaged horror fanatic at the time, I saw it opening day, and it was a bit of a let down, cluing me in that my affection for those previously discussed films were merely a factor of nostalgia.

Oddly, while the trailer shows the scene in which the 3-D glasses magically materializes on the protagonist's face, it makes no mention of the gimmick:

In 27 years (which judging from the gap between the original Tron and the sequel is when we can expect the release of the third film, Tron: Trinity) will the current trend have gone obsolete and returned? Will the likes of the Clash of the Titans remake and that owl movie be an obscure footnote comparable to Spacehunter and Metalstorm today? Who knows, look me up and we can discuss it then, I'll be the one with the cardboard glasses.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Holidays as Backdrop: The Silent Partner (1978, Daryl Duke)

The Daryl Duke directed and Curtis Hanson scripted The Silent Partner is one of my favorite "new to me" films I discovered this year. Shot in Canada and featuring a superb world weary performance by Elliot Guild and a great evil turn by Christopher Plummer, the film finely balances suspense, humor, romance, and plight of the middle class worker drone insight, not to mention a severed head scene that would make Tom Savini proud. And much of the first half is set during the holiday season, making it bound to become one of my Christmas perennials. Of course my Christmas favorites have the horror film Black Christmas, also a Canadian film, at the top for what it's worth. And like another Canadian film that was featured on a "Holiday as Backdrop" entry, it combines a mall Santa and firearms. Oh those Canucks!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

NYC in 1980 Double Bill: Times Square and Night of the Juggler

Part of the 1980’s Project

People are generally nostalgic, especially my generation. It’s such a force that people become nostalgic for eras that existed before their birth, witness the water cooler status of a detail orientated television show like Mad Men. Most lovers of art or pop culture tend to have their “If only time machines existed” era that they would love to bear witness to: Paris in the 20’s, the swinging London of the mid 60’s or San Francisco’s 1967 Summer of Love to name some. Personally if I ever found Doc Brown’s DeLorean my destination as I hit 88 mph would be New York circa the mid 70’s to the early 80’s.

My fascination of the era is partially shaped by the gritty look captured on many films of the era, and perhaps it’s a little pretentious for someone with an upbringing in the safe confines of suburbia to be obsessed with a period in the city’s history that was so tumultuous, but fascination and obsession are inexplicable, and out of these circumstances arose great art that stands the test of time, be it in film (Martin Scorsese, the Blaxploitation genre, Sidney Lumet, etc.) art, or music. Of course, the CBGB’s punk rock scene and it’s many varied genres from straightforward (The Ramones) to artier (Talking Heads and Television) to glamorous (Blondie) come to mind, but there also was the advent of dance pop, disco and hip hop. Additionally, you had the Andy Warhol disciples, the Yankees under George Steinbrenner, Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin, the porno and grindhouses of 42nd Street, the Son of Sam, and a general unease which led to a city that seemed a hair away from exploding within itself.

It’s become a cliché to say that a city becomes a character of a given project, be it Baltimore in The Wire or San Francisco in Bullitt (or fill in your own), but it’s an apt description for the following two films which are direct products of their period and city. People often complain of films being dated, but I find such specific snapshots of an era, any era, to be nothing but an attribute.

Times Square (1980, Allan Moyle)

If Little Darlings (my review) and Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains had a child, the result would be director Allan Moyle’s Times Square, an episodic teen girl journey in the seedy underground of the titular New York locale.

Pamela Pearl (Trini Alvarado), is the daughter of a politician who is, appropriately enough, heading a commission to clean up Times Square. After using her as a presumably false example of a youth tainted by the uncouth tourist destination in a public speech, she snaps and makes a scene. Attempting to save face, her father checks her into a mental institution, where the poem writing insular girl meets her polar opposite in the form of her hospital mate, Nicky Marotta (Robin Johnson), a brash authority skewing, punk loving, homeless teenager. After the usual rough beginnings, the two bond, escape from the hospital and support themselves while living underground. In the process, they become folk heroes via a world weary DJ (Tim Curry) who tracks their journey and invites them on the show to taunt the politician father. The two girls instill confidence in the other, Pamela learns to be more independent while Nicky garners the self-confidence to channel her inner demons into art, and becomes the lead singer of a DIY punk band called The Sleez Sisters.

The movie is not plot heavy, which is mostly an attribute since it’s structure mimics the haphazard lifestyle of the duo, but relies on a few too many montage scenes that seem designed to sell the (albeit excellent) soundtrack featuring the likes of Roxy Music, Gary Numan, The Cure, The Cars and Talking Heads. This was a major cause of frustration as producer Robert Stigwood who wanted to push the soundtrack and director Moyle, whose focus was on the storytelling.

A lesbian subplot that would have explained the two girls drifting apart was also removed, as it stands, the film reaches its emotional apex when it becomes apparent that Pamela is just a visitor to this lifestyle while Nicky is bound for either superstardom or a life of being repeatedly in and out of mental institutions and alone. Her state of being mirrored by the stretch of Manhattan streets for which she calls home.

Night of the Juggler (1980, Robert Butler)

Though American by location and production, this Robert Butler directed thriller has a strong 70’s Eurocrime feel to it, sharing with many of those films humor both of the intentional and unintentional kind, a tendency to take things a step further than “good” taste would dictate and a blatant embracing of broad stereotype: here a smorgasbord of New York types get their due, be it Puerto Rican cabbies or boom box toting Bronx African American gangs.

Straddling the line between hard edged thriller and comedy of errors, Juggler concerns the exploits of a divorced ex-cop turned trucker (James Brolin) whose daughter is kidnapped on her birthday. The kidnapper (Cliff Gorman) who has mistaken Brolin’s daughter for the daughter of a successful attorney is so assured of himself, and yes, crazy, that he doesn’t believe it when either she or her dad try to tell him that he’s just a working class mook.

The comedy of errors aspect comes into play early when the daughter is kidnapped in Central Park and a chase ensues. The kidnapper steals a taxi, but gets caught in commuter traffic and a chase on foot follows. Later in the movie, Brolin has evidence stolen and is sidetrack by the corrupt policeman (an appropriately gnarly Dan Heyeda) whose career path Brolin affected in his former life in the police force. It’s pretty much a less comedic (though, still funny) version of the Bill Murray co-directed Quick Change. Symbolically the only people who seem willing to actually assist, or at least not directly stand in the way of, Brolin reunion with his daughter are all women: a stripper, a cab driver and a kennel worker.

Though no impressive visual stylist, Butler keeps things going at a good pace and balances the more intense and comedic moments well, like I said it’s very reminiscent of a Eurocrime thriller, so if that’s a genre you have fondness for, definitely check it out. James Brolin is a solid enough lead, very much an actor of his time and though he may be overshadowed by his more famous wife and more talented son, he possesses both intensity and confidence here, and as evidence from his cameo in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, a sense of humor about himself. Cliff Gorman gives the film it’s more interesting performance as the misguided and mistaken criminal, he performs like an adult caught in perpetual arrested development and employs a whining patois similar to Vincent Gallo. He also pulls off admirably one of the more creepy development, as he becomes overtly smitten with his underage captor.

Much like the New York City of the bygone mid-1970s to the early 1980’s, both of these films seem lost in time. Times Square received a DVD release about a decade ago, but it’s long out of print. I sense a rediscovery is imminent as it’s getting a lot of notice via Zack Carlson’s book dedicated to punks on film Destroy All Movies and I recommend this very in depth and personal review of the film by Devin Faraci at Badass Digest. Night of the Juggler seems less likely to garner a big cult, though I’ve noticed it has its share of admirers amongst certain cinema bloggers. It’s never been released on DVD; I picked up my copy via Cinema de Bizarre, theatrically it was released by Columbia Pictures, so hopefully a company like Blue Underground may get around to a proper aspect ratio digital version one of these days.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Icons of Cool: John Lennon

No need for a explanation, you all know who John Lennon is. Let's celebrate the life of my favorite Beatle who was murdered 30 years ago today.

Not that there needs to be yet another biopic about him, but doesn't he bear a striking resemblance to Daniel Day Lewis in this last picture?

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Holidays As Backdrop: Rabid (1977, David Cronenberg)

WARNING: Do not scroll to the last frame if you are still a child of an impressionable age or work in the North Pole!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Posterized: Now Playing December 1980

After a rather slim release slate in November, December 1980's is massive! Including much Oscar Bait, some good slashers, and many films I have reviewed as part of the 1980's Project. I am hoping to write about this before the end of the year, but either Popeye or Flash Gordon were the first movies I have a memory of seeing theatrically. I was four years old at the time, and don't remember which I saw first, though Flash Gordon opened a week earlier, so that's most likely.

Here's are the films that were playing at theatres near you, and far too, thirty years ago this month, presented in reverse alphabetical order!

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