Netflix Streaming Theater: Summer Edition

DriveINBecause it’s fun to write capsule entries, time for another schizoid round-up of Netflix streaming viewings. Although the streaming is fine for instant gratification, there’s often format and compression issues, which I’ll address per film when needed. So you know. On with the show:

NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION (1983) – Released at the height of Chevy Chase’s box-office reign, I actually never saw the entirety of this huge archetypal 80’s summer hit until last week. Directed by Harold Ramis with little vision but plenty of his natural SCTV rhythm, this road comedia reflects screenwriter John Hughes’ dark vision of Americana as personified by Chase’s everyman family idiot, Clark Griswald. I think the film’s success was partially due to the wonderful Boris Vallejo fantasy-style poster depicting Chase as a Dad Warrior. I was a voracious reader of National Lampoon’s amoral, hilarious magazine and its sister comix publication, HEAVY METAL, the natural progression from MAD and Marvel; my friends and I relished Hughes’ stories the most, his laugh-out-loud savage tales of suburban angst that never made it to the screen.

VACATION is more gentle, though no less hardcore, and Hughes’ specialty is dysfunctional clans, especially Griswald’s loafing cousin hilariously played (and eventually over-played) by Randy Quaid. The other exceptional cast member is young Anthony Michael Hall, soon to be a Hughes mainstay, as Rusty Griswald, and his comic timing is pitch-perfect here. I’m not being glib when I say that Hall was one of the best comedy actors of the decade. And Chevy Chase is on target, particularly when he tries to bond with Rusty by giving him a sip of cold beer and the great moment when he tells his fatigued family that they are “fucked.” However, I find the film runs of steam when the Griswalds force John Candy to let them have their way in the closed Wally World — endless shots of them on a rollercoaster isn’t a gutbuster.

Still, I enjoy the dim pastel ambiance of VACATION, including the catchy top-ten hit song, “Holiday Road” by Lindsay Buckingham, and Christie Brinkley’s seductive road temptress places the movie in a forever 1980’s context. What’s more interesting is despite the raunchy nature of National Lampoon, the humor here is less gross-oriented than today’s film humor desert of tit and shit gags. John Hughes had a wicked, witty mind, and his classic teen comedies would be an extension of his cynical but perceptive POV. On Netflix streaming, the transfer looks fantastic and is presented better than even NETWORK. Now, everybody sing-along: “Holiday Rooooo-aaaaaad…”

LIVING IN OBLIVION (1995) – Tom DiCillio’s heartfelt, hilarious paen to the perils of the indie film world is in the thin top tier of the Making Movies genre. I’d put this up there alongside Truffuat’s DAY FOR NIGHT (1973), Altman’s THE PLAYER and Christopher Guest’s underappreciated THE BIG PICTURE (1989). An archetypal reflection of the Sundance 90’s, the story deals with life on the lo-budget film set of writer-director Nick Reve and his frustrated attempts to corral crew and talent to achieve his vision. The cast is a delightful ensemble who all worked for free or contributed money. DiCillio accurately pegs the myriad personality types of a film crew, and Catherine Keener brings all her charm as the neurotic lead actress. My favorite crew character is Wolf, Dermot Mulroney’s intense cinematographer. Of course, James LeGros busts out his comic chops and steals the show as Chad Palamino, who DiCillio adamantly denies was based on Brad Pitt. There’s a hilarious bit with Peter Dinklage questioning Nick why all dream scenes must feature midgets. Ultimately, Steve Buscemi carries the film in a nice change of pace role. As for Netflix, the low streaming quality fosters the guerilla film-making feel for this impressive, affectionate satire.

SATURN 3 (1980) –  I saw this somewhat sleazy, sci-fi horror oddity on its opening weekend as I was a geek and the film looked suitably ALIEN-esque for my genre tastes. STARLOG magazine did a phat piece on the troubled film, detailing the loss of director John Barry (not the composer but the production director for BARRY LYNDON and STAR WARS), the exclusion of nudity and bloody scenes and even the re-dubbing of Harvey Keitel (!). SATURN 3’s esteemed producer, musical comedy director Stanley Donen, took over the helms of the film and the result is a strange hybrid indeed. The story centers on Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett Majors, a scientific Adam & Eve stationed on the Saturnian outpost, and the invasion of their space garden by the murderous, psychotic snake, Ketiel. Wishing to covet the cosmic blow-dried Woman, he creates “Hector,” one of the most unique robots in film history, an eight-foot tall walking translucent man replete with colored tubes lining his shell and a serpertine head dotted with two tiny light nodes. Hijinks ensue as Hector assumes his master’s possesive killer personality disorder and goes on a space station rampage ala ALIEN.

One of the last gasps of 70’s melancholy cinematic sci-fi, SATURN 3 is a mixed bag that I still somehow find fascinating. Poor Farrah Fawcett is ill-served here, and not even Donen can help. Kirk Douglas is game as usual, even showing off his nude 62 year-old hard body in a publicized moment. Keitel fares worse, his voice removed (due to its Brooklynese) and stripped of tone. He even has to examine a dog’s rear in a low moment. Yet his stoic, borderline intent comes through in one of his strangest roles. Sadly, one of the scenes cut right before release include Hector taking Keitel’s body apart limb from limb.

The sets are fairly cool, definitely ALIEN inspired, and the special effects are generally sub-par, which might have changed under John Barry’s direction. Probably the most successful element of the film are Hector The Killer Robot and Keitel’s space helmet, a beautiful piece of black ergonomic design and the only production item Stanley Donen said he kept for himself. Elmer Bernstein’s score is not one of his best, but fits the nature of this unusual film. As for the viewing quality, despite being filmed in 1:85 35mm and blown up to 70mm, the US DVD release was a pathetic bare-bones full-screen version which is the one available on Netflix. There are anamorphic versions out there, which I leave you to find on your own…

THE ICE PIRATES (1984) – This movie is what Harlan Ellison would call “Enormous Dumb.” Is this the first time a movie robot was kicked in the crotch and shits nuts and bolts? Hopefully the last time. Robert Urich stars in his one big break as the titular pirate who scams the galaxy looking for that rare substance, water. The script is all over the place and goes for comedy when people aren’t dying. Anjelica Huston manages to keep her dignity as a bad-ass pirate and there’s a few funny moments. The whole thing is so ED that you can’t get mad. Ah, the 80’s….

SWASHBUCKLER (1976) – Speaking of pirates, I vividly recall the ads and posters for this adventure-comedy starring Robert Shaw and I thought it high time I saw this thing in the hopes it might be a fun film treasure. Alas, the Netflix non-widescreen version looked awful and after the opening rescue of James Earl Jones, shot like a poor-man’s Richard Lester, I gave up. Two pirate movies in one month might be one too much. If somebody out there has anything to add, please do.

SLAP SHOT (1977) – And speaking of ICE PIRATES…Next to THE HUSTLER this is my favorite Paul Newman film. I recall the controversy over the script’s salty language (that hurt the box office!), courtesy of writer Nancy Dowd, who nails the obscene gutter talk of boys in action. Directed with low key flair by George Roy Hill, the story is simple yet very 1970’s: a losing boorish hockey team led by Reggie Dunlop (Newman) finds itself at the dead end of a tax write off just as their violent antics are delivering fans. Michael Ontkean is the star hockey player, but repulsed at the Coach’s desire to win at any bloody cost. He clearly has the least funny part in this hilarious fuckin’ film.

Made today, SLAP SHOT would be a huge hit and considered another entry in pain and humiliation comedy ghetto, except that Dowd is a terrific writer and the movie isn’t overtly cruel to its wayward likable heroes. Only Lindsay Crouse as Ontkean’s dour angry wife is painted too abstract. Everybody knows how great the Hasnson Brothers are so there’s no need to dwell, but it’s also great when Newman engages with then. He lets them steal scenes but his craggy responses to their boyish exuberance steals them right back. As for the racous game scenes, Hill directs the hockey action with the right hybrid of verite and choreography.

One intersting subtext of SLAP SHOT are the homosexual taunts and homosexual panic. I think Dowd might have understood this aspect more than most men, and the film treads the line (I still don’t like Newman’s final rejoinder to the team owner about her son) but the nice moment with Melinda Dillon as the coach’s bi-sexual girlfriend opens his eyes to not giving a damn. When an opponent tells him, “Dunlop you suck cock,” the coach shrugs and says, “All I can get.” And here he gets to deliver what I think is the funniest line of his career. The whole ensemble of pros and amatuers work great together, and even Strother Martin has a nice role as the team’s weasly manager. No wonder Paul Newman said Reggie Dunlop was one of his favorite roles and SLAP SHOT the best time he ever had making a film. The Netflix streaming version is decent, but the system kept getting interrupted, leading to major Newman pixelvision. Stick with the DVD.

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5 Responses to “Netflix Streaming Theater: Summer Edition”

  1. I saw “Swashbuckler” as a sneak preview attached to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Family Plot”. “Swashbuckler” is not bad and is a real throwback to the 1940’s pirate adventures with a great who’s who of the 1970’s cast. This was a year before “Star Wars” so it was still something of an anomaly at that time as we were still in the throes of the great “New Hollywood” era.

  2. christian Says:

    The cast is indeed 70’s prime, and a beat before STAR WARS would re-energize adventure films. I’ll check it out again on a better copy.

  3. BTW, I just watched the Criterion edition of “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” (Robert Mitchum, Peter Boyle & Alex Rocco) & wow is that a perfect piece of ’70’s noir. Bleak doesn’t begin to sum it up. I would love to see it on the big screen over at the New Beverly. A Paramount release! In this (endless) Summer of the Big Bang, it seems surreal that Hollywood routinely put out those kinds of films in the 1970’s & that (a few) people would go and see them.

  4. christian Says:

    I saw TFOEC at the Egyptian last year and it was very cool in my favorite lo-key 70’s way. Yates was a pretty sharp director too and great with ambiance. Those were the golden days of unique little films.

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