The Stunt Man, and six more movies

Cyborg (1989)

The Neverending
Film Festival

This is an early-career Jean-Claude Van Damme action flick. I've seen several JCVD movies of this era, and usually enjoyed them, so it's surprising how dull this one is, and occasionally how gruesome. It has the only crucifixion scenes (yes, plural) I can recall from any non-Biblical movies. 

Cyborg is set after the apocalypse, when there's not much left but cockroaches, savages, victims, and pretty young white women. Apparently, females who aren't pretty, young, and white don't survive into the future. They're all very pretty, though, so there's that, and that's probably the reason I didn't click it off.

Surprisingly, the titular cyborg isn't JCVD, but one of the pretty women, rescued by Mr VD in the first few minutes. Another surprise, and an improvement over the genre norm, is that some of the pretty women are allowed to fight back against the bad guys, not merely scream and hope to be rescued.

Still, the bad guy here has all the depth and characterization of a 6-year-old kid playing monsters in the back yard. Growl! Argh! Growl again! Probably I'm wrong, but the only non-grunting dialogue I remember from the main bad guy is that once, toward the end, he shouted, "Fucker!"

The story is relentlessly uninteresting, and a few of the pretty young white women looked so much like each other that I had difficulty telling them apart. Mr VD is as good as possible under the circumstances, but there's not much of a movie around him.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦

The Johnstown Flood (1926)

More than 2,200 people were killed in a capitalist mass murder in 1889, when an unregulated, millionaire-owned dam — already well-known as dangerous –- collapsed and flooded the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

This movie builds a soap opera around the town, about one woman loved by two men. And it works. It's a good movie.

The capitalist aspect isn't totally ignored, and Janet Gaynor steals the flood in a supporting role that made her a star (and very nearly the hero).

There's a bit of mild antisemitism, and a future all-star cast appearing as unbilled extras, including Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, and Carole Lombard. The special effects rendering of the titular flood is remarkable. You'll wish you were wearing a life jacket.

It's a pity that this movie seems to be available only in a shitty, soundless print. I enjoyed The Johnstown Flood, but suspect that with the imagery restored and a musical score it would've been far better. 

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

The Stunt Man (1980)

The inimitable Peter O'Toole plays Eli Cross, a completely daft film director who's lost his stunt man. Steve Railsback plays Cameron, a skittish and nervous young man on the run. Though he has no experience in stuntwork, Cameron is shanghaied into impersonating the movie's missing stunt man, solving a problem for both Cameron and Cross. 

"And besides," says Cross, "I've fallen madly in love with the dark side of your nature."

From there the movie literally floats, swirls, and spins into a behind-the-scenes battle of unspoken words, switching at random from reality to surreality to 'movie reality'. Cross keeps asking for more and more impossible stuntwork from Cameron, and Cameron spars back but has to do what he's told, because what choice does he have? If he's not "the stunt man," he'll be arrested.

Barbara Hershey is the leading lady, in both the film and the film within the film. In keeping with the rest of the flick, she's delightfully indecipherable as a woman who's mysterious and contradictory. 

The Stunt Man is based on a novel by noted sci-fi writer Paul Brodeur. It's joyously absurd, and a grand time for anyone who likes or loves the movies. Whenever I rewatch it, I wish I could see it on a double bill with the movie they're making in the movie.

"If there's anything to say, it's best to slip it in while they're all laughing and crying and jerking off at all the sex and violence."

There's an interesting story behind The Stunt Man, too. This was the first instance I knew of (though now I know that it's always been fairly common in Hollywood) where a studio finished making a film — and a fairly big-budget film at that — and then shelved it.

Why? Everyone agreed that it was a fine film, but it's weird, elusive to categorization. It's almost a comedy, but also definitely not, and nobody could figure out how to market it, so 20th Century Fox simply gave up, wrote it off, and moved on to the next movie.

Seattle cinema-owner Randy Finley heard about it, arranged a screening, and loved it. He booked it in his beautiful Guild 45th Theater, where with discreet ads and then thunderous word of mouth, the movie became a local hit. After that, it was nationally distributed with some success, though not as much as it deserved.

I saw it at the Guild in 1980, and fell in love with the movie and maybe the girl I saw it with, so yeah, thumbs up for The Stunt Man.

It's not a perfect movie, though. To my aluminum ear, the musical score is slapsticky and repetitive. And every time I've seen it, Railsback has seemed a little stilted, not like a man being forced to do stuntwork, but like an actor in a role that's a few inches beyond his reach.

That's OK, though, because the story is delirious, the script is perfect, and O'Toole is so fabulously right as the madman director. It's one of his greatest performances.

"Once the action starts, no matter what happens, keep film rolling. We must have this shot. I therefore order that no camera shall jam, and no cloud pass before the sun."

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

The Swarm (1978)

The buzz on this movie is not good. Bees have ruined a family's picnic, downed a helicopter, and killed everyone at a US Air Force base.

Michael Caine and Richard Widmark scream conversations instead of talking, for no real reason. Also present for roll call: Richard Chamberlain, Olivia de Havilland, Patty Duke, Henry Fonda, Lee Grant, Ben Johnson, Fred MacMurray, Slim Pickens, Katherine Ross, and eternally unsmiling Bradford Dillman. 

It's an uninteresting mess, it lasts more than two and a half hours, and nobody's having any fun, and that —not the bees — is the problem. If you're telling a preposterous story, there needs to be a sense of humor somewhere in the mix, but the only laugh is accidental, and more stupid than funny. It's this, in the closing credits:

"The African killer bee portrayed in this film bears absolutely no relationship to the industrious, hard-working American honey bee to which we are all indebted for pollinating vital crops that feed our nation."

Guess they had to placate the honey-bees in the ticket-buying audience.

Verdict: BIG NO.

♦ ♦ ♦  

The UFO Incident (1975)

This is not really about a UFO incident, but about hypnotherapy sessions, wherein the practitioner (Bernard Hughes) listens to the repressed, stolen, or imagined memories of a married couple, Barney and Betty Hill (James Earl Jones, Estelle Parsons). Famous for their claims to have been abducted by aliens, they're trying to remember the details of their purported 1961 close encounter with extraterrestrials.

I am certain there's intelligent life on other planets, but far less certain that Barney and Betty Hill were abducted. The evidence here is not convincing, at least not to me. Seems more likely that they were a couple of lovable nuts.

This is supposed to be a movie review, though, so is the movie worth watching? Depends on what you're looking for.

It's a very strange movie, made for TV, with both Jones and Parsons given great leeway to swing for the bleachers and overact their hearts out. That's kinda fun to watch, but as a movie it's meh.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Vanishing Point (1971)

The title was familiar to me, and quite often that's all it takes to get me to watch an old movie. If I've heard of it, that means the movie's reputation has held up for years and years, so it's gotta have something worthwhile, right?

Uh, not this time. Vanishing Point is about a man (Barry Newman) who's made a bet that he can drive his super-souped-up car to San Francisco in a very short time. That's the plot.

I don't like cars, and despise fast, loud cars, and the people who drive them. A movie about a guy driving a loud car fast is simply of no interest to me.

There are many scenes of Newman driving his car fast, sometimes being pursued by cops, always accompanied by rock'n'roll on the soundtrack. And yeah, there's more going on than that, but not much. Driving a car fast is the essence of Vanishing Point. It's The Cannonball Run, with more boobs but without any comedy.

There's also a subplot with Cleavon Little as a very blackspeaking radio DJ, but I've never heard such heavy blackspeak on the radio and very rarely in real life, so it plays like an offensive stereotype.

Verdict: BIG NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Wobblies (1979)

This is a documentary about the early days of the Industrial Workers of the World, wherein I finally learned why its members are called "Wobblies." Says here, the IWW had lots of Chinese immigrant members, who had trouble pronouncing the W's, and said "I wobbly wobbly" instead.

Founded in 1905 by Big Bill Haywood, Eugene Debs, and Mother Jones, the IWW was the first union to welcome black, Asian, and white workers as equals. The Wobblies were always radical, and were sneered at by big business, small business, and other unions, and of course persecuted by police. Too damned radical, was the official line.

"The cops tried to hit us, and then we hit 'em back."

The film is very informative, interviewing lots of old-timers, the members who were there when the billy clubs were swung and union members were beaten and jailed.

What these people lived through is amazing, what they accomplished and what they tried to accomplish. That so much has been lost since then — the IWW almost entirely gone, other unions with such little power, the corporations almost completely in control, with no meaningful oversight or opposition — is a tragedy.

Now I'm gonna say this, and you'll call me a spoilsport, but: There's way, way too much singing in this movie. I've heard these union songs before, and they're swell, but a little goes a long way. Hearing another union/solidarity hymn every few minutes for an hour and a half? I would rather hear more interviews, less singing. 

Halfway through the documentary, I started fast-forwarding whenever they started singing.

I do love the Wobblies, though. Used to be one, and might still be — I was a member when I lived in Frisco, and seem to recall paying for a lifetime membership, but I've moved around a lot and haven't heard from the IWW in decades. If we're ever in touch again, I do hope they don't sing.

Verdict: YES.


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There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twentyplex, you're missing out.

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Top illustration by Jeff Meyer. No talking once the lights dim. Real butter, not that fake crap, on the popcorn. I try to make these reviews spoiler-free, but sometimes screw up, sorry. Piracy is not a victimless crime. Click any image to enlarge. Comments & conversations invited.   



  1. It's been many years since I've seen "The Stunt Man", but I remember thinking, This is the way movies should be made. It's just crazy enough. I'll have to find it and watch it again. Thanks for the review.


    1. I never much know whether anyone gives a hoot about the movies except me, so thanks for that, and I hope you re-enjoy it.

      Any chance you also saw it at the Guild in Seattle?

    2. By coincidence, there was, in the 1980s (and maybe beyond) a Guild Theater in Tacoma on 6th Avenue. I might have seen it there. The Guild started as a porn house (on a commercial street, but in a residential neighborhood), then became a porn/art house (I saw "I Am Curious Yellow" there), then was an art house for a while. It was a typical mixed use neighborhood theater: nothing fancy, old popcorn. It faded away and is now some kind of retail/wholesale store.

      And I must have been too young to get the point of "I Am Curious, Yellow. I think I still am. Never saw IAC, Blue.


    3. Guild seems like a weird name for a theater, so they were probably related. My memory links the best movies to the theater where I saw them, and at the Guild 45th I saw Brazil, Thelma & Louise, and of course The Stunt Man, and probably a hundred others... long ago, when movies happened in theaters.

      I also found IACY confusing. As I recall -- been a long time -- I wanted to see boobies, but the movie was kinda political. Probably I'd love it at my age, so maybe I'll try it again.

    4. There were Guild theaters all over the country in the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s. San Francisco, New York, Chicago -- probably 100 of them. Every one I came across was either an independent or part of a local chain of theaters with different names.

      Yes, I occasionally have spare time. Why do you ask?


    5. The one in Seattle had comfy seats, great popcorn, and only on-street parking so you'd best take the bus, and you know I always did.

      My dream job would be representing the Lollipop Guild.

    6. Well lord knows they need representation.

      The one in Tacoma had sticky floors. I think I only saw Yellow there, which was post-porn. The Guild was, at the time, a slightly downscale suburban one-screen theater. This was before theaters had eighteen screens, or even two. I don't know why multi-screen theaters annoy me, but they always have.


    7. It's Durwood's fault.

      Edward Dubinsky was a stage actor and vaudeville performer, along with his brothers Maurice and Barney, touring and gaining modest fame as the Dubinsky Brothers. When he grew frustrated at sporadic bookings, Ed Dubinsky leased the Regent Theater in downtown Kansas City in 1920, giving his troupe a home theater.

      From this beginning, Dubinsky (who later changed his name to Durwood) came to own several theaters in the Kansas City area. His son, Stanley H. Durwood, took over the family business in 1945, and is generally credited with inventing the multi-screen movie theater.

      The younger Durwood said his inspiration came one evening in 1962, while tallying ticket sales at the Roxy Theater in downtown Kansas City, which was at the time drawing small crowds for an Abbott & Costello movie. "I thought, if we could just run another so-so picture up in the balcony, we'd double our gross."

      At several of his movie palaces Durwood split the auditorium into two smaller auditoriums, and in 1963 he opened the first theater designed and constructed as a multiplex, the Parkway Twin on the Missouri-Kansas state line in Kansas City. His company built the first four-screen complex in 1966, and two years later the Durwood Theaters chain (then 12 movie houses and drive-in theaters with 22 screens) was reorganized and re-named American Multi-Cinema, now AMC Entertainment.

      Of course, I agree with you, John. The single-screen theaters had class. The multiplexes are McDonald's with movies.

    8. Just a slight reworking of something I wrote years ago, but it seemed apropos. I've never been to a multiplex, even the fanciest and best, that felt as appealing and comfy for movie-watching as even the blandest single-screen theater.

  2. do you watch all those movies you review?
    i asked you once but as a comment and so never
    checked back to see your answer...

    1. I mention that I eat a lot of ice cream, so someone asks "Are you kidding?" And OK, I can see that.

      I review a lot of movies, and people keep asking me (you're at least the third) whether I actually watch them? That seems weird.

      Yes, I watch the movies I review, and also watch movies I don't bother reviewing.


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