Saturday, April 30, 2011

...All the Marbles (1981, Robert Aldrich)

Part of the 1981 Project

Through a career that spanned thirty years and many diverse genres, director Robert Aldrich exhibited a knack for featuring protagonist that in most other movies would be the heavy or villain, and through their pursuits and without softening their edges, made audiences empathize with their plight and cheer them on. Be they the hardened prisoners taking on their wardens in a football game in The Longest Yard, the reckless determination of hardboiled detective Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly, or the twelve convicted criminals given a top secret mission in The Dirty Dozen, Aldrich frequently places himself firmly on the side of the marginalized. The two female wrestlers (Vicki Frederick and Laurene Landon) at the center of his final film, 1981’s …All the Marbles, are nowhere near as morally questionable as some of Aldrich’s other protagonist. Their scheming and cheapskate manager (who will never dine at a restaurant with cloth napkins) played by Peter Falk at his most Peter Falky, is another story entirely.

Iris and Molly, the tag team wrestling duo who perform under the moniker The California Dolls, are chugging along with little career advancement. Their manager, Harry Sears (Falk) has them traversing the country earning just enough money from their gigs to get them to the next one. Sears is a complex character, over protective of his girls but still willing to reduce their dignity to the point of performing in a carnival’s mud wrestling fight, he’s constantly inventing gimmicks to gain them attention such as dying all the hair on their body the same color. He genuinely cares for Iris and Molly (and actually has an on again off again love affair with Iris) but his own ego and short temper lead them to be ostracized from the community and bigger competition when after an argument over twenty bucks with big time promoter Eddie Cisco (a typical wonderfully sleazy Burt Young) leads Sears to take a baseball bat to Cisco’s Mercedes.

The script by first time screenwriter Mel Frohman (interesting contrast, the director’s last film, the writer’s first) has an aimless episodic air that just takes the Falk and the Dolls from bout to bout with no real driving plot other than the wrestler’s increased frustration at their marginalized status. But you know what, I like it, it’s more of a character than plot driven piece, even if it results in their entry in the final title match, their third bout with the African American duo the Toledo Tigers, just kind of happening. Speaking of which, I am glad that the Toledo Tigers are neither presented as barbaric stereotypes nor politically correct bastions of goodness, rather they are just as fierce competitors as the Dolls, meaning they’ll cheat and sucker punch if it means being crowned the champs.

Aldrich’s direction is sharp. He and cinematographer Joseph F. Biroc (whose career spanned five decades and includes It’s a Wonderful Life and Airplane!) do a great job of establishing short hand for the typical small American towns were the Dolls perform by showing the empty roads and highways, the decaying bridges and ominous factories as well as the dark smoky gymnasiums that serve as the arenas. Even the championship title fight is not in the bright lights of Las Vegas, or even Los Angeles or New York, but rather Reno, which symbolically enough is the self-proclaimed “biggest little city in the world”.

But the strength of the film, and Aldrich’s work come in the final act, the tense final bout between the California Dolls and the Toledo Tigers which Aldrich allows to play out practically in real time (it’s not as long as the match, but the editing is so invisible it feels it). The fierceness of the competitors is brought to a fever pitch and the suspense is heighten by an early reveal that their nemesis, Cisco, has paid off the official to let the Tigers win. The fight turns into pandemonium as it becomes obvious the fix is in, and as a viewer, and one whose generally lukewarm on sports film, I felt myself physically and emotionally invested in the outcome as both tag teams lie, cheat and commit any act necessary (including getting the referee involved in the physicality) to achieve their goal. It’s one hell of a sequence for Aldrich to close out his under heralded, but great career. Aldrich would die two years later in December, 1983.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Posterized: Now Playing April 1981

Another month, another eclectic mix of films. Thirty years ago this month new films from Louis Malle, Frederico Fellini, Joe Dante, Jerry Lewis, John Boorman, Oliver Stone, Abel Ferrera, and George A. Romero opened in theatres in the United States.

So which of these films would be you be lining up for? Of course, the correct answer in Going Ape , even if I have to admit a certain disappointment with the formality of the title, it totally should have been Goin' Ape. Oh well, perfection is an abstract.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Burt in '81: Sharky's Machine

Sharky’s Machine, the third and final film to star Burt Reynolds released in 1981 serves as a contrast to his other two films in many ways. Where Cannonball Run and Paternity were comedic efforts, Sharky’s is a suspenseful action yarn. The other two films were original concepts, whereas Sharky’s Machine is an adaptation of a novel by William Diehl. The most notable difference though is that Burt himself stepped behind the camera and directed the film himself. Oh and one other thing separates it from the other two: Sharky’s Machine is actually good.

Burt is Tom Sharky, an undercover narcotics detective in Atlanta for whom his work is his life. He’s never had a family nor is he in a long term relationship. After a bust goes awry and pedestrians are put in harm’s way by Sharky’s tactics in the taut opening sequence, he is transferred to the vice squad. No longer a lone wolf, Sharky now is part of a team (the titular “machine”) and instead of undercover work and high speed chases, he’s stuck manning petty hooker charges. All of this changes when he’s assigned to track a high class prostitution ring with ties to both politicians and the mob. Surveillance duties lead to an obsessive relationship with the beautiful Dominoe (Rachel Ward) that dramatically parallels both Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Vertigo as well as Otto Preminger’s Laura, and a deadly cat and mouse game with drug addicted mob assassin Billy (Henry Silva).

Any fan of crime films or fiction (which I count myself amongst), or any genre for that matter, is aware there’s a finite number of original concepts or stories to be told, thus placing higher emphasis on unique ways of telling the story or shifting perspectives. So Sharky’s Machine might be full of familiar tropes and may not stand out as an earth shatteringly original story, however, Burt’s directorial prowess is assured and elevates any familiar material. Most impressively in a sequence where he intercuts between Dominoe’s nightly routine, and her secret protector (and admirer) Sharky observing her. Dominoe has infested herself into Sharkey’s psyche, affecting his attitude, routines and even movements. Inspired cinematography by William Fraker and impressive editing by William Gordean and Dennis Virkler, especially for its complex but unflashy nature, depict this transformation in the man, and gives the film and Sharky an interior emptiness that places an important connection with Dominoe which will be exploited by a future attack on the call girl. Further layering of this voyeur symbiosis occurs when its revealed a third party, Billy, has crashed this “relationship” and is also simultaneously watching/coveting her, but with a more sinister intent.

Reynolds, the director, keeps things moving at a brisk pace, with many great suspenseful and action packed set pieces, including an amazing plummet from Atlanta’s Hyatt Regency (not surprising that Reynolds nailed this, he was a major appreciator of the art, often performing his own stunts, playing a stuntman in Hooper and being directed multiple times by Hal Needham who made the transition from the stunt side of filmmaking to directing. This particular stunt was performed by Dar Robinson.) When Dominoe and Sharky finally do meet there’s a strong anti-chemistry between them at first which further displays the falseness of the “relationship” that the detective has mentally manufactured versus the reality of his voyeuristic obsessions. Since a teenager Dominoe has been a prostitute, aTabula rasa for the sexual desires of men, and I like that the film hints that Sharky’s reflected his own image onto her similar to her johns (if anyone has read Diehl’s book I am curious if this subtext is more announced.) Unfortunately, Reynolds the actor is not quite up to the challenge of portraying this complex nature or playing a more dark, noir style protagonist, and his restraint in that department keeps the film in the very good department but not to the level of greatness, and ultimately lessens the impact when the relationship does turn into something concrete.

The rest of the cast does good work. Rachel Ward, making her acting debut, finely alternates from fragile to assured depending on the situation. Character actor and B-movie star Henry Silva, whose dialogue is kept minimal, is a seething ball of drugged-out rage as the muscle who lets out a primordial yelp when murdering. And though some of the cop banter bandied about by “the machine” comes off a bit cliché today, it’s delivered by some great character actors like Bernie Casey, Charles Durning, Brian Keith, and Richard Libertini.

Sharky’s Machine was Burt’s third film as director, he would direct only two more features (1985’s Elmore Leonard’s adaptation Stick was the most immediate follow-up, and his last film as director was 2000’s The Last Producer which I had not heard of until writing this review) as well as some television episodes, mainly for series starring himself or wife at the time, Loni Anderson. It’s too bad because he is more engaged here as a director than as an actor in any of the three films he starred in during 1981. At the time, Burt joked that he made the film as his version of Dirty Harry since his friend Clint Eastwood was having success mining typical Reynolds’ terrain with the “Loose” series. Reynolds and Clint, whose careers actually paralleled each other closely, both starting in television westerns than transitioning to lead roles in Italian Spaghetti Westerns before ultimately becoming huge stars in American film, were two of cinema’s biggest stars of 1981. They would finally co-star together in a feature in 1984’s City Heat. Interestingly, after that point their careers went in divergent paths. Clint maintained his drawing power having several more hits in the mid and late 80’s, the 1990’s and through the first decade of the new millennium. During this period he transitioned from an occasional to full time director (and directed nine films from 2000-09, when he was in his seventies). Burt continued to coast and by the latter half of the decade the quality and success of his films (1987’s Rent-A-Cop is largely considered a career nadir) plummeted. He did have a long running successful sitcom with CBS’ Evening Shade and of course received an Academy Award nomination for his performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (a film he apparently detested the first time he saw it). One wonders how his career would have differed if instead of coasting with his buddies he expended more effort on his legacy or was at least more selective. Perhaps today we may be talking about him as one who had successful shifted from an acting to directing career. Sharky’s Machine certainly shows he had the skills.

For two other takes on the film

Read Leopard13’s review: Friday’s Forgotten Film: Sharky’s Machine

Watch Matt Zoeller Seitz’s video essay on the film

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Burt in '81: Paternity

Part of the 1981 Project

Amongst Burt Reynolds’ acting heroes was the effortlessly charming, always dapper cinema legend Cary Grant. On the surface the two men couldn’t have more contrasting screen legacies: Grant the sophisticate, Reynolds the good ol’ boy, however, look closer and the influence of Grant can be seen in some of Burt’s acting choices, including his two financial disappointments At Long Last Love and Nickelodeon directed by another Grant fanboy, Peter Bogdanovich. Paternity, the second film with Burt in the leading role released in 1981, bears the mark of Reynolds attempting a role better suited for his hero, unfortunately the imaginary version of the film starring Grant is far superior to the actual reality.

Buddy Evans (Burt Reynolds), the directing manager of New York’s Madison Square Garden, is a single 42 year old lothario (and let’s credit Burt for actually playing a character so close to his actual age) who’s struck with a bout of baby fever, a desire which leads him to cut out of important board meetings early to play basketball with the son of his close business confidant (the great character actor Paul Dooley is the father, and a pre Christmas Story Peter Billingsley plays the boy). He decides to search for a woman who will for the right price bear his child and leave him to be the sole parent. Maggie (Beverly D’Angelo), a struggling student with dreams of living in Paris, appears to be the perfect candidate: single, not looking for attachments and in dire need of money. But will genuine emotion stand in the way of the business arrangements? No spoilers, but if you’ve ever seen a romantic comedy, I am guessing you can figure that one out for yourself.

The basic premise for Paternity is ripe for a potentially funny comedy of manners with the unique twist of a man feeling his biological clock ticking. One can see the hilarious and honest comedy that Preston Sturges or Billy Wilder could mine from this premise. Unfortunately, screenwriter Charlie Peters (Three Men and a Little Lady, Hot to Trot, Krippendorf’s Tribe) reduces everything to familiar sitcom beats, such as a scene where Lauren Hutton comes in for a job interview which Reynolds believes is an interview to be the surrogate mother, and well, hilarious Three’s Company style mistaken intention hilarity ensues (or doesn’t actually). Paternity marks the film debut for director David Steinberg who would go on to have a long distinguished career in television, directing episodes of Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm and the Burt Reynolds’ CBS series Evening Shade. Steinberg fills the film with an able supporting cast (besides D’Angelo, Dooley and Billingsley, Norman Fell has a small role as Buddy’s lawyer) but everything else about the film is blandly shot and paced.

Ultimately the film’s major flaw* lies in Reynolds’s lead performance. It’s a tricky role that requires an actor who can remain likable while doing some shitty things, such as in one of the film’s few genuine laugh inducing scenes where Buddy arrives with a date and intoxicated to a Lamaze class. Reynolds has the same blank stare and somnambulist distance of merely line reading as in his performance in Cannonball Run and his character comes across as a disinterested prick. It’s a fine line to balance, and requires a lot from an actor. I think Burt was capable, but was either unengaged or was not pushed by a rookie director. Perhaps George Clooney could pull this role off, or a more classic actor such as Clark Gable, or, you know who’d be really great: Cary Grant.

* SPOILER the other major issue with the film is that Buddy and Maggie’s happy ending as a couple pretty much entails her giving up her lifelong dream to be a (assumedly stay at home) mother to the child of a man twice her age*

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Burt in '81: The Cannonball Run

Part of the 1981 Project

Perhaps the ultimate “they had way more fun filming this than anyone will ever have watching it” film, The Cannonball Run is Burt Reynolds’ attempt at cultivating a Rat Pack approach to one of his starring vehicles, filling the movie with cast and crew members that were either buddies (Dom DeLouise, Terry Bradshaw, Mel Tillis, and director Hal Needham), objects of affection (Adrienne Barbeau), even members of the actual Rat Pack (Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr.). One might applaud Reynolds who was at the time a huge box office star for being a mere cog in an ensemble piece, a modern day It’s A Mad Mad Mad World, but I’d venture to guess it was more due to laziness on his part than anything too altruistic.

A plot synopsis for a film comprised of a series of set pieces seems unnecessary, but here we go: a quirky mixture of comedic stereotypes (beer drinking hillbillies, bra busting hotties in European sports cars, tech savvy Asians) compete in an illegal coast to coast race. Hijinks may or may not ensue (spoiler: they do!). Imagine a live action version of the Hannah-Barbara cartoon Wacky Racers, and surmise expectations accordingly. Obviously cast in the mold of the two Smokey and the Bandits films, which were huge hits, Cannonball Run successfully duplicated not only elements such as the director, comic foil DeLouise and the milieu of car chases when it was released on June 19th, 1981 but also the financial success as it became the sixth highest grossing film of the year. Certainly the stacks were decked in its favor with a cast that not only includes the previously mentioned stars but also Roger Moore (playing himself as a real life James Bond), poster girl Farrah Fawcett, Jamie Farr, and Jackie Chan, who was probably included as a condition of Chinese film studio Golden Harvest, co financier of Cannonball, who were trying to break Chan in America at the time (The Big Brawl, his first film to receive wide American theatrical exhibition was released in 1980).

While it seems silly to be offended or too worked up by Cannonball Run, truthfully the film was a painful watch for me. The script by Brock Yates, who was the editor of Car and Driver Magazine and an actual participant in the race that inspired the film, crafts what is, as mentioned earlier, a series of comic moments with the barest thread. For a film that is pretty much just one long race, it contains no momentum and pretty much stops when the ninety minute mark is reached. Reynolds’, who earned a then tremendous five million dollar salary, somnambulant performance consists primarily of a smug smirk and angered reactions to DeLuise’s “hilarious riffing”. Hal Needham, who got his start as a stunt coordinator before becoming the Michael Winner or J. Lee Thompson to Burt’s Charles Bronson, shows no directorial flair other than a leering emphasis on women’s cleavage and cultural insensitivity (not saying that the film had to be “politically correct” but Jamie Farr in brown face? In 1981? And nobody seems to have any sense that Japan and China are different countries with different languages). Considering his origins, the few actual car chases are too meager in scope. It even takes the film to the final twenty minutes to get Jackie Chan into a scene that displays his martial art skills

Today the film is probably best known for the outtakes that run through the ending credit scroll that were pitch perfectly recreated in an episode of The State and inspired a favorite staple of the films of Jackie Chan. Burt Reynolds, Hal Needham, and a large chunk of the cast would reunite for a sequel in the summer of 1984.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Burt in '81: An Introduction

If you possess a modicum of film knowledge and I were to ask you what were the highest grossing films released in the years 1977 and 1980, I have no doubt you’d correctly guess Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back. However, would you accurately answer if I were to ask you to name the second highest grossing films of those respected years? They were, in fact, Smokey and the Bandit and its sequel (curiously the third, Burt Reynolds-less save for a cameo Smokey and the Bandit 3 was released in 1983, the same year as Return of the Jedi meaning the Star Wars and Smoky trilogy were released in the same exact time span). While the films’ successes could be credited to the CB radio/trucker craze of the 1970s, the combination of stunt based action and comedy, or a colorful supporting cast, the Smokey films were designed as star vehicles for Burt Reynolds, and succeeded on that basis.

Before ascending to leading man status in America, Reynolds spent many years on television westerns playing small roles and really only received lead performances in low budget or European genre films. Everything changed with his powerful performance in John Boorman’s adaptation of James Dickey’s novel Deliverance. Burt played the most rugged of the group of weekend outdoorsmen, and nails the frustration of boiling machismo pushed past its limits.

There’s an image I am sure many have of Reynolds, more often associated with his role in the Smokey and the Bandit films (and here’s the point where I sheepishly admit to having not seen any of the Bandit series), but his career during its peak is much more diverse and interesting than those preconceived perceptions. Sure he played his fair share of Southern gentlemen with an affection for muscle cars, but he also starred in many action films, slapstick comedies, romantic comedies, dramas, and even two old Hollywood throwbacks directed by Peter Bogdanovich. Some of these films were commercial failures, but more often than not, he was able to tread these divergent watters successfully. One could argue that a major factor that attributed to his precipitous fall in stature in the mid-1980s was due to the rise of risk averse specifically branded genre stars in action (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Steven Seagal) and comedies (Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and the Saturday Night Live crew). Though as we will discuss, bad decision making on his part was also at play.

In 1981, however, Burt Reynolds was as big a star that American cinema had to offer. In that year he starred in three different films, each showing a different side of the actor. This week as part of the 1981 Project I will review each of those films.

Here is the schedule:

Tuesday: Cannonball Run

Wednesday: Paternity

Thursday: Sharky’s Machine

Y’all come back now.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Another Day Older and Deeper in Debt

I promise to provide some actual content soon, but for now, in the department of self promotion, let me wish myself, aww screw it, this amazing poster will do the job:
And you know what, I am feeling frisky this year, so let's damn fate, I will eat the shish kebab that John's too afraid to!

Friday, April 8, 2011

A Return and a Cinematic Alphabet

Hello there, sorry for the two week plus hiatus on my blogging duties. My wife, in-laws and I had a nice relaxing trip to Laguna Beach this week and I guess I took a mental vacation a week before that. All my writing efforts went spent towards a screenplay I've been working on and wanted to have a finished first draft completed by the end of March (I am on page 87 and a third act away from that feat 8 days past that deadline. C'est la vie). I did manage to get back to Los Angeles in time to catch one of the final showings of Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair (I recommend this review by Mr. Peel, which pretty much echoes my sentiments) with my good friend Heath (who apparently is blogging again). Hey, at least I left any visitors with many pictures of a beautiful woman in which to ogle.

I have at least four films backlogged for reviews for the 1981 Project, but right now, to ease back into the blogging world (including visiting and commenting on others' sites) I decided to take part in the Cinematic Alphabet meme that was sweeping the cinephile blogging ranks a few weeks ago thanks to the Rupert Pupkin Speaks blog.

This concept is to list your favorite film that starts with each letter of the alphabet. I considered doing that, but then decided that would result in too many Sophie's Choices (but ironically, not the actual film Sophie's Choice, which I have not seen) and thus tried to come up with a hook. First I thought I'd do a cinematic alphabet of films each directed by personal favorite auteurs, then I thought I'd focus in on underrated films, then I considered genres, films I've reviewed or discussed here, and films from 1981. Ultimately, the end result is kind of an amalgam of the first two possibilities. Some of these films are underrated, or at least amongst the particular director's oeuvre, and some are, well fairly rated. Most of these directors I count as my favorites (though not really Q, but he's a favorite actor of mine) but a complete list of personal favorites would find room for Brian DePalma, Francois Truffaut, Joe Dante, John Carpenter, David Lynch, John Ford, David Cronenberg, Francis Ford Coppola, et cetera, et cetera.

So after that convoluted explanation here is my Cinematic Alphabet:

A is for Ace in the Hole (Billy Wilder)

B is for Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick)

C is for California Split (Robert Altman)

D is for Duel (Steven Spielberg)

E is for Elevator to the Gallows (Louis Malle)

F is for For A Few Dollars More (Sergio Leone)...what else do you expect?

G is for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Howard Hawks)

H is for Hard Eight (Paul Thomas Anderson)

I is for In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai)

J is for Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino)

K is for The King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese)

L is for Le Samourai (Jean-Pierre Melville)...I know, it's a bit of a cheat

M is for Miller's Crossing (the Coen brothers)

N is for Night and the City (Jules Dassin)

O is for Out of the Past (Jacques Tourner)

P is for The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen)

Q is for Quick Change (Bill Murray/Howard Franklin)

R is for Rushmore (Wes Anderson)

S is for The Silent Partner (Daryl Duke)

T is for Touch of Evil (Orson Welles)

U is for Underworld USA (Samuel Fuller)

V is for Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock)

W is for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Pedro Almodovar)

X is for X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes (Roger Corman)

Y is for Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa)

Z is for Zodiac (David Fincher)
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