My queue runneth over.
GAMES (1968) – Get yer Forgotten Films ON with this too-long-unavailable cult thriller from Curtis Harrington, starring James Caan, Katherine Ross and Simone Signoret as a triad of New York eccentrics involved in psychological shenanigans (it would make a great double-bill with ROSEMARY’S BABY). Said to be loosely based on Dennis Hopper and his wife, Brooke Heywood, during their 1960’s pop-art heyday, GAMES is one of those films I remember always playing on TV at 3 a.m; I never saw more than a few seconds — if I was up that late I was watching THE BLACK SCORPION. I’m glad I finally had the chance to view this nifty slice of late 60’s stylish paranoia obviously influenced by DIABOLIQUE (1962) that should have launched Roger Corman graduate Harrington into a bigger career. I refuse to give away too much of the plot, which basically revolves around the appearance of a mysterious female psychic (Signoret) at the fancy apartment of Caan and Ross, who love to play edgy, morbid games of shock and surprise. Let’s just say they all get more than they bargain for. It’s great to see the legendary Signoret in wry action while Katherine Ross is at her sexiest and James Caan is surprisingly effective (and don’t forget Don Stroud). Sadly, Netflix presents only a cropped version here, which is a real shame since William Fraker’s crisp, colorful Techniscope 2.35:1 cinematography is a highlight, but it’s still a vibrant print and given its US scarcity, worth viewing. As fun and spooky as a midnite seance — the film even works in the fantastic organ cue from THE GHOST & MR. CHICKEN — Curtis Harrington’s GAMES deserves a serious rediscovery.
THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977) – Yes, Netflix has added some Bond, James Bond to the Instant Watch, and better sill, in sparkling HD for titles yet to be released on Blu-Ray such as OCTOPUSSY and ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE. It actually took me some years to sit through the entirety of this 007 adventure that re-ignited the public and solidified Roger Moore for a new generation in the role. No doubt that most fans and critics consider TSWLM the best Moore alongside FOR YOUR EYES ONLY. Even cranky John Simon relished the film, or more precisely, luscious Barbara Bach as the object of the titular spy. Directed by Lewis Gilbert with a more expansive and expensive scope, the Christopher Wood/Richard Maibaum script plays it serious and romantic for the most part (though Ian Fleming contractually demanded the unique first-person female POV plot for TSWLM be jettisoned for screen adaptation), bringing to mind the earlier Connery films. Richard Kiel as Jaws became the most popular series henchman next to Oddjob, and the Carly Simon theme song, well, you know. Claude Renoir’s (yep) cinematography is lush and exotic — due to his failing eyesight, Stanley Kubrick himself lit the famous submarine soundstage (thanks to Ken Adams). I’m not a huge fan of the Marvin Hamlisch disco score but I like the theme music for the well-staged action scenes. Derek Medding’s miniatures are awesome, particularly Stromberg’s underwater hideaway. Overall, a golden Bond entry, quite stunning in Panavision HD. Imagine if Steven Spielberg had directed this as intended.
YONGARY, MONSTER FROM THE DEEP (1967) – I recall seeing this Korean attempt at their own Godzilla film on late-night TV, and even then I knew it was an inferior knock-off. Netflix has a beautiful widescreen remaster and it was fun to revisit YONGARY and appreciate it a little more. Basically the story of a creature unleashed by atomic radiation, Yongary pops up to wreck havoc through Korea, replete with effects by imported Toho artisans, which is why the creature and its destructive reign come straight out of an episode of ULTRAMAN. This is a wacky, almost nonsensical effort that features Yongary dancing and incredibly, a bleeding rectal death. In other words, a must-see.
DARLING (1965) – It’s taken me a long time to viddy this archetypal Sick Soul Of The Swinging 60’s hit that introduced the world to Julie Christie and John Schlesinger. So thank the fates that Netflix has a lovely print and it’s easy to see how DARLING became a cause celebre upon release with a striking scene of a poor African child’s face on a wall being covered by a fashion advertisement. Schlesinger is an interesting director, another stylish British cousin to Richard Lester and Tony Richardson, with his emphasis on metaphoric composition and quick editing, one of the primal tics of 60’s film-making. Sometimes his satirical points are easy and obvious but in the case of DARLING, he was aiming at a fresh pop target: the empty drive of a beautiful young model who’ll do anything to advance her status. Shot in slick fashion magazine black and white by Ken Higgins, the film certainly is one of the time capsules of the era, making London seem like the most fab, gear place in the world, luv. With an Academy Award-winning, witty, bitchy script by that witty bitch, Frederic Raphael (TWO FOR THE ROAD; EYES WIDE SHUT), the story bops from kitchen-sink flat to jet-set decadence, a milieu suited to a chameleon like Christie’s Diana Scott. It’s easy to see why she became such an instant star and Best Actress winner with her sexy, confused, expressive, manipulative performance. Dirk Bogarde as her suffering beau and Laurence Harvey as her amoral angel complete the swinging triangle. Whatever its faults, DARLING is a key brick in the architecture of the cinematic decade and thus required viewing.
MR. SATURDAY NIGHT (1992) – Although this film is oft-used as a punchline, count me in as one of its biggest fans. If the script probed a little deeper, this would be one of the few movies to really examine the nature of early show business and the odd nature of talent to sabotage itself. Billy Crystal has always been a wonderful character actor and he gets a chance to play a real character here, Buddy Young, Jr. — the amalgamation of every Catskills comic who made good (or bad, in his case). Co-written with Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, the film is directed by Crystal with a lot of style and verve, especially a nice tracking shot through the backstage of a variety show. The script is surprisingly dark and only Crystal’s innate show business sentimentality keeps it from transcending its roots. There are nice supporting bits from Jerry Orbach, Ron Silver and Helen Hunt as an agent trying to revive Buddy’s career. The old-school comic cameos are terrific, especially Jerry Lewis and Buddy trading insults in a great moment at the Friar’s Club. David Paymer received a deserved Best Supporting Actor nomination for his sad, thankless, understanding role as Buddy’s unfulfilled brother/manager. If only for Paymer’s heartbreaking performance and the special insight Crystal brings to an important ethnic facet of American comedy, MR. SATURDAY NIGHT deserves kudos. And Saul and Elaine Bass titles! Yowza!
SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE (1978) – Strangely (or not so if you know my odd film-watching habits) I finally sat through the entirety of this comic book epic as presented in glorious HD on Netflix. Sure, I’ve seen sections of the film and know its story, and I’m a big fan of SUPERMAN II, which I saw at a preview screening for newspaper boys and girls in a packed theater — the most excited American audience I’ve ever witnessed as my peers literally were standing up and cheering all through it. So you might wonder how I missed this big fantasy release in the afterglow of STAR WARS and other geekasms of the period. Well, I never liked Superman. He was boring. If you’re that strong, what’s the dilemma? And since the art and stories never appealed to me, except for when Jack “King” Kirby took over “Superman’s Pal: Jimmy Olsen” for a memorable run, I just wasn’t excited. I was aware of Marlon Brando’s record fee of 3 million for his cameo and the buzz around the unknown Christopher Reeve cast as the Man Of Steel along with John Williams hired to orchestrate the soundtrack…but for whatever reason, that wasn’t enough to get me to the theater when it opened HUGE in 1978. And after finally seeing it whole, I can say without reservation that’s it’s half of a terrific film and the other half a 70’s disaster film writ comic book. Richard Donner nails the opening scenes, particularly Clark Kent’s Kansas origins, with widescreen skies and mythic longing. Reeve is of course the greatest casting coup in the history of the superhero genre and so iconic is his sincere, funny and touching performance that it took me awhile to sadly recall he was no longer Earthbound. Gene Hackman is an amusing Lex Luthor, but his scenes are pitched too comically for him to manifest a real threat; he was better served as the conniving right-hand man to General Zod in the sequel. Margot Kidder is a fantastic Lois Lane, a combo of strength and spunk with some sex appeal, and a great foil to Clark Kent’s attempt to woo her. As for Jimmy Olsen, Marc McClure is a perfect eager fit. The score is grand, instantly iconic, the sets and visuals are spectacular and by the climax, you feel grateful that the world has such an angel of purity and power overlooking us. Sure, I believed a man can fly.
BOXCAR BERTHA (1972) – Martin Scorcese’s second film after WHO’S THAT KNOCKING ON MY DOOR (1967) was done under the exploitation auspices of Roger Corman at a time when AIP was the premiere breeding ground for the 70’s generation of film-makers. Corman wanted a loose sequel to BLOODY MAMA (starring Robert DeNiro) and gave Scorcese 600,000 for a 1930’s sex and violence crime picture. Based on the fictional account of a female train rider and robber in the depression era, the loose story could have been a durable mythic saga, but with the confines of script and budget, the film doesn’t hold together as a narrative. But that’s okay as Scorcese gives it such a unique style that it’s always interesting to watch, especially the uber-cool gunplay. Barbara Hershey is wonderfully relaxed and likeable as the titular character, though she’s a tad too free-spirit with little of the toughness a gun-toting robber would need on the tracks. David Carrading gives one of his best performances as a union organizer turned reluctant gang leader; given the right script and director, Carradine was always a terrific actor. It’s also nice to see him square off against John Carradine in his most substantial role of the decade. Bernie Casey and Barry Primus add to the thespic flavor. While the plot falls apart at the melodramatic end, there’s a unique preview of Scorcese’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST… I love the story of when he showed the film to John Cassavettes, the actor/director said, “Marty, you’ve just spent a whole year of your life making a piece of shit. It’s a good picture, but you’re better than the people who make this kind of movie. Don’t get hooked into the exploitation market, just try and do something different.”
THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW (1992-97) – Unarguably one of the masterpieces of television, the influence of this show continues to this day, where verite, non-laugh-tracked, awkward comedy reigns. The series brilliantly splits between the two worlds of Carson-esque talk show host Larry Sanders: his constructed fantasy and the backstage reality. Created by Garry Shandling as the logical follow-up to his meta IT’S THE GARRY SHANDLING SHOW, and with career-defining support from Rip Torn as Artie, the ass-kicking, protective producer and Jeffrey Tambor as clueless side-kick, Hank Kingsley, THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW is one of the wittiest, incisive looks at the entrails of show business from all sides. The series is merciless in its portrait of the neurotic Sanders and his television family, in the process allowing a bonanza of stars to play unflattering portraits of themselves. The jealousies and trivialities of the industry are a common theme, as Sanders tries to find some sort of zen acceptance of his talk show role. Yet the self-loathing is buttressed by comedy and compassion without excess sentimentality. And Rip Torn as Artie! What a magnificent part for the volatile character actor — we all wish we had an Artie beside us kicking ass. There are so many memorable moments and episodes that I couldn’t begin to list them here, so I’ll pick the funniest to me: when Hank decides to do a one-man show, he attempts to sing “Spinning Wheel” without the expensive horns, filling the void with his voice: “Ride a painted pony, let the spinning wheel…Waaahh.” I’m laughing already. You can see all six seasons on Netflix now and it’s been wonderful to revisit one of my top three favorite series ever. The razor-sharp writing still takes my breath away. I had a chance to meet Garry Shandling at the Austin Film Festival in 2004 where he was being honored for the show and when I asked him if he starts a script with a character or a situation, he began his thoughtful reply with, “It’s about the evolution of a man.” His commitment to truth was apparent and given the thematic wit of THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW, apropos. Hey now!
ME AND ORSON (2008) – Richard Linklater is the American Bresson, and he keeps growing as a director to my mind. This hard-nosed, affectionate look back at a young actor’s brief tutelage under Orson Welles at the height of his 1937 Mercury Theatre fame perfectly fits Linklater’s honest, laconic style. Based on Robert Kaplow’s novel, with a literate, sensitive script by Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo, Jr., and starring Zac Efron (just fine) as the eager actor, Claire Danes (terrific) as an honest, driven assistant, and of course, Christian McKay in a fun, expert performance as Welles — I could pretty much watch McKay play the charismatic, towering, tempermental director all day. James Tupper does a fantastic Joseph Cotten and Eddie Marsen is a wonderful John Houseman. Linklater knows how to stage naturalistic scenes using stylized dialogue without anachronisms. The period details are not shoved in your face, but textured as the drive-ins of DAZED AND CONFUSED. For any lover of film or theatre weaved within a factual fantasy, this is a worthwhile treat.
CADDYSHACK 2 (1988) – This is easily one of the worst comedies of all time and as such, deserves some sort of viewing. I love that the producers figured Jackie Mason, fresh off his Broadway one-man show success, would be the natural heir to Rodney Dangerfield. Why, just let Mason loose in a room full of elites and watch the consumate Catskills performer enchant the totally awesome kids! Mason is a real horrorshow here, and since he’s morphed into a reactionary idiot who likes to rail against Hollywood, he needs to be reminded of the year he prostrated himself to its false idolatry. Plus, his scenes are soundtracked by the archetypal Yamaha DX7 synth, drums and sequencer, a veritable Hot Tub Time Machine From Hell. And if Mason is one of the most charmless leads in film history, I don’t know what to make of the otherwise brilliant Dan Ackroyd and his anti-comedic performance as a para-military nut with a grating, high-pitched voice that I still hear in my head from the 1988 trailer as he points to an arrow wound in his ass: “Will you suck out the poison?” I have respect for director Allan Arkush, so he’s off the hook as nobody could save this limp PG script by Harold Ramis, who didn’t want to do it at all. The sole humorous thing here besides the belief this would work as a PG sequel, is Chevy Chase, reprising his role as Ty Webb. He’s a welcome respite and though he strolls through the film, he steals every scene. Except for the ass-poison moment. If you haven’t gleaned it yet, this is a staggeringly awful film that I demand you watch. Oh yes, and about that fucking gopher…
JACK, THE GIANT KILLER (1962) – Legend has it that after Ray Harryhausen allowed teen-age protege Jim Danforth to hang out and watch him do his stop-motion magic, producer Edward Small — who had passed on the hugely successful THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD — hired the young genius to replicate Harryhausen’s creations in a derivative effort called JACK THE GIANT KILLER. Small went so far as to cast Kerwin Matthews as the heroic title character and Torin Thatcher as the evil magician, Pendragon; Nathan Juran was even brought on to direct, this time with far less flair and magic. Judi Meredith as Princess Elaine is quite fetching and rather good, especially since she gets to play a wicked version of herself in an awesome demonic purple outfit and make-up. Don Beddoe plays the rhyming leprechaun Imp adding to the kitchen sink quality of the screenplay. Still, despite the obvious comparisons to Harryhausen’s fantasy masterpiece, JTGK has the virtue of Jim Danforth’s burgeoning yet impressive skills as a stop motion maestro in his own right, combined with his superior matte paintings. The various creatures lack the textured realism of Harryhausen’s monster crew, though the two-headed giant used parts of the actual KING KONG armature and Danforth’s animation is excellent under the circumstances — he’s easily one of the greatest practitioners of the art, bringing a smoothness to the action that sometimes rivals Harryhausen (as in WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH). There are some charming scenes, such as the Princess “dancing” with a humanoid doll, and there are a lot of monsters here, so there’s never a dull stop-motion moment. The widescreen print is excellent and highly recommended for a Saturday afternoon.
AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE (2009) – Here’s a recent documentary right up my back alley. A lively, if incomplete, history of “grindhouse” cinema, born of sweat and exploitation to be screened on 42nd Street and Hollywood Boulevard or other urban jungles. Directed by Elijah Drenner, narrated by good ol’ Robert Forster (not running from his own memorable dip into the genres) with a panopoly of talking heads, from the avuncular John Landis and encyclopedic Joe Dante to supercool Allison Anders along with bloggers like Kim Morgan. Not to mention those directly involved in the films like H.G. Lewis, Jack Hill, Larry Cohen, David Hess and more. It’d be nice to see other experts like John Waters and Michael Weldon, but there’s plenty o’ detail on the carny roots of the exploitation genre, far on the edge of Hollywood. Featuring lots of cool clips across the class and budget spectrum and broken up in sections on sex, drugs, violence, horror, etc. For cinephiles, grindhouse films acted as the rebel bastards of the industry, breaking all the codes before the major studios could or would and influencing generations of better filmmakers. I could pretty much watch this kind of material in clips, full-length or documentary form on an endless loop, and any film with a glimpse of the New Beverly comes with my highest recommendation. AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE is presented in HD, so you can relish every speck on the grimy, eye-popping screen.