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The Man Who Sleeps,
and six more movies

Today's major and minor motion picture entertainment is: 
• Don't Look Back (1967)
• Extermination City (2005)
• The Man Who Sleeps (1974)
• Marooned (1969)
• Prisoners of the Lost Universe (1983)
• Rollercoaster (1977)
and • Wrong is Right (1982).

It's mostly a so-so lineup. Dylan is delightful in Don't Look Back, but The Man Who Sleeps (1974) kept me awake and put me to sleep, and it's the best movie I've seen all week.

— — —

Don't Look Back (1967)

This is the definitive documentary about the early years of Bob Dylan's music, when he was popular but not yet an icon.

It opens with the impossibly brilliant flash-card video for "Subterranean Homesick Blues," with Allan Ginsberg and Bob Neuwirth chatting in the background.

That's the absolute high point of the flick, of course, but Don't Look Back is always worth watching while Dylan sings, or while he talks, like the long and fascinating conversation between Dylan and some schmucky reporter who thinks he's Ernie Pyle and Edward R Murrow stitched into the same suit.

It's still interesting but less so when the camera and microphone eavesdrop on a reporter in a phone booth, or a long sequence where Dylan's manager negotiates the fees for his upcoming shows.

There's an amusing scene with Dylan singing on stage but the mike isn't working, and his people are poking through the wiring backstage trying the get the sound back. And some rude idiot is typing while Joan Baez sings a lovely song; the camera pulls back and the idiot is Dylan.

It's very fly-on-the-wall, with no narration; the camera simply rolls and, if we foolishly assume that anyone's themselves with a camera pointed at him, we see Dylan being Dylan. Despite sixty years of hype and a Nobel Prize, early Dylan really is worth a look back.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Extermination City (2005)

The first 23 performers listed in the opening credits are all women, so perhaps we'll see a strong feminist statement here? Turns out, no.

Extermination City opens with a Bible quote, then immediately jumps to a booby woman in the shower. After that, it seems to be all about booby women against MST3000-level robots that ignore the First Law of Robotics: "A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm."

Unexpectedly, the movie is more about the robots than the booby women. I've seen robots of this era before, though, and there weren't enough booby women to hold my attention, so I turned it off about 1/3 of the way through. Should've turned it off earlier.

Verdict: BIG NO.

♦ ♦ ♦  

The Man Who Sleeps (1974)

A man reads a book in his shitty apartment, where the walls are so thin he can hear his neighbor coughing. Then he falls asleep, so perhaps the rest of the movie is a dream. It's equally mundane before and after he falls asleep, so I'm only guessing it's a dream from the movie's title.

The Man Who Sleeps is set in Paris, where the title character "The Man" walks around the city of love, feeling unloved. He thinks existential thoughts, which he never speaks aloud; instead they're narrated by a women, off-screen.

That isn't the movie's set-up or opening scene, that's the entire movie. There's no dialogue and no plot. It's a guided tour of this man's mind, and we never see the guide.

"An amnesiac wandering through the Land of the Blind: wide, empty streets, cold lights, faces without mouths that you would look at without seeing.

"It's as if, beneath the surface of your calm and reassuring history, the good little boy, as if, running beneath the obvious, too obvious, signs of growth and maturity — scribbled graffiti on bathroom doors, certificates, long trousers, the first cigarette, sting of the first shave, alcohol, the key left under the mat for your Saturday night outings, losing your virginity, the baptism of air, the baptism of fire, as if another thread had always been running, ever present but always held at bay, and which is now weaving the familiar fabric of your rediscovered existence, the bare backdrop of your abandoned life, veiled images of this revealed truth, of this resignation so long deferred, of this appeal for calm — hazy lifeless images, over-exposed snap shots, almost white, almost dead, almost already fossilized..."

Maybe you're thinking that The Man Who Sleeps sounds like experimental crap? Experimental, definitely, but it's surprisingly not crap. I've watched it four times in three different ways over the past two days, and it's one excellent film, every way I watch it.

First I watched it as a movie, and was soon mystified, maybe even annoyed, but after a while I was immersed and mesmerized, and the narration felt like a very long but likable un-rhyming poem.

A few days later I ran it again, only as background noise, barely watching it much at all, just listening because it made slightly tidying my room slightly less tedious. And look how clean my room is!

The third time, I watched it as an intentional bedtime story. The movie is entirely made of the soft, kinda boring narration that helps me be a man who sleeps, and it gave me my best night's sleep in weeks.

Not many movies can be do all those different things. Good movies hold your attention, and you wouldn't want to be sweeping or sleeping. Bad movies might put you to sleep, but actually paying attention would be no fun. The Man Who Sleeps does it all, and the fourth time I watched it, I watched it as a movie again, and it was still worth watching.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Marooned (1969)

A severe doublespeak leak has left a 1960s space ship low on oxygen, and all three astronauts will be dead within days if we don't do something damned foolhardy to rescue them.

Gregory Peck plays the mission control guy who's all numbers, and his calculations tell him that a rescue mission is impossible. David Janssen is the hothead who says risks be damned, we have to rescue our astronauts.

"To hell with waiting for a bunch of slide-rule jockeys. We used to fix the airplanes we flew with paperclips. Lets get into our hard suits and fix this bird."

The doomed men in the spaceship are Richard Crenna, James Franciscus, and Gene Hackman, and for Hollywood reasons, their spacecraft seems to be the size of two middle class living rooms.

Lee Grant, Nancy Kovack, and Mariette Hartley play the astronauts' wives, and they're allowed nothing from the script except stereotypical worrying and an "I love you, please don't die" space call for each of them.

It's from John Sturges, who directed The Great Escape, The Magnificent 7, Bad Day at Black Rock, etc, but even with an all-star cast, this is no classic like those.

Hackman is good as the astronaut who's cracking under the stress, but that's no surprise. The surprise is that Peck is do dang droll. Mostly, it's a movie full of characters who exist only to meet the requirements of the script.

The music is annoying; a low bass note played for most of the movie, to imply tension the screen can't provide without it. The orbital shots of Earth are obviously fake, but I don't know why; by 1969 we had actual footage from NASA that could've been spliced in. 

I could go on, believe it, but for all my complaining, Marooned kinda works. It takes itself so damned seriously that eventually you have to take it seriously too.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Prisoners of the Lost Universe (1983)

A mad scientist has a dimensional shift machine or some such, which he jumps thorough. A reporter and a repairman jump through after him, and all three end up in some place or planet that's ever-so-B-movie strange. There's a caveman who grunts, and a green man who speaks every language in the universe, and a herd of angry locals wearing flashing LED sunglasses.

John Saxon is the bad guy, and whether he's playing good or bad he's always enjoyable to watch. Kay Lenz plays the hot blonde reporter, and she gets to be kinda tough, even slugs Saxon, which is fun. Richard Hatch plays the repairman, and he's the star. You might remember him as Captain Apollo on the original Battlestar Gallactica. He's supposed to be a charming rogue here, and he gets away with it, likably.

Prisoners of the Lost Universe is a cheap, sappy sci-fi flick that's barely sci-fi, but it's harmless nonsense. 

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Rollercoaster (1977)

Screenplay by Richard Levinson and William Link. They worked almost exclusively on TV crime shows like Columbo, Ellery Queen, Mannix, and Murder, She Wrote. That's a good pedigree for television, but there's rarely any depth to a commercial TV show — I watched Mannix for years, loved it, but never knew anything about Joe Mannix the man. He was just a handsome dude who solved crimes on TV.

In a movie you expect a smidgen more depth, please, but there's none in Rollercoaster. It was released in theaters, but it should've been a television movie.

It's about a handsome dude (George Segal) who's supposed to be inspecting amusement park rides, but instead he's solving crimes. He'd given the OK to a rollercoaster that blew up shortly thereafter, and he takes it personally. The park's old custodian takes it hard, too, and is then never seen again.

Richard Widmark plays a federal agent brought in to be the park inspector's sidekick in the investigation. He's as tough and brusque as, well, Richard Widmark, yet we never see either Crenna or Widmark figure out that the movie's first rollercoaster wreck was a bomb, not a malfunction.

Timothy Bottoms calls in bomb threats, promising to blow up another rollercoaster unless the park's owners pay him big bucks. As required in all such movies, the bad guy is brilliant, and telepathically knows everything the good guys are up to. It might be more believable with a better bad guy, but Bottoms is only doing an impersonation of Ryan O'Neal.

Henry Fonda is very briefly involved, only for the paycheck, and Helen Hunt plays George Segal's little kid daughter.

The '70s amusement park setting is, well, amusing. The bomb is transistorized, but it ticks for dramatic purposes. When a rollercoaster comes in, it's five minutes before it goes out again. The rollercoaster camerawork works, though, and you'll feel some vertigo as the ride swoops up and around corners and down again, then up.

Music by Lalo Schifrin, and I absolutely love the movie's theme, a riff on calliope music from a traveling show. Love it so much that I've been humming and whistling it ever since I first saw this movie in 19 frickin' 77. That said, some of the movie's tense scenes are scored with "shrieking violins" and nothing but, like they simply hired a violinist and told him/her to play the saw.

The oddest thing here is that the movie's mad-bomber climax takes place at Magic Mountain, the big amusement park near Los Angeles. It's paid product placement, of course, but I'm surprised that they'd buy into a movie that has bombs being planted there.

The band playing at Magic Mountain is Sparks, singing "Big Boy." As they sing, the mad bomber should've been easy to spot and arrest, since he's the only person in the park who's not dancing, but Widmark can't figure that out, either. 

Gotta confess, though, that despite everything wrong with this big, dumb movie, I enjoyed it in the '70s, and enjoyed it again in my recliner this morning.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Wrong is Right (1982)

A prescient satire on the bullshit behind government and media, this is smartly scripted, but clumsily edited — it feels like chunks of the story are gone. A bigger problem is that satire works best when it's subtle, but after a serious start this devolves into almost slapstick. The comedic music calls attention to itself, and becomes annoying.

Sean Connery stars, alongside other big names —  Katharine Ross, G.D. Spradlin, John Saxon, Henry Silva, Leslie Nielsen. Written and directed by Richard Brooks, who made some great flicks — Elmer Gantry, In Cold Blood

This has a lot going for it, and I love the movie's cynicism, but fat swaths of it are simply boring or confusing. I wanted to love Wrong is Right, but the best I can offer is so-so.

Verdict: MAYBE.

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.   

 

14 comments:

  1. Re: Don't Look Back . . .

    Donovan didn't have enough clout to stay off-camera, and Dylan makes him look pretty foolish. All four Beatles came a-calling while the camera was rolling, and they stayed out in the hall until the camera was turned off. Then they came in and visited with Dylan. They had clout.

    Dylan had met the lads on their last tour of the US, and they were reciprocating the visit, but they knew better than to get caught on film with an asshole.

    John

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Never met Mr Zimmerman, but with 60 years of fame and adulation how could he *not* be an asshole?

      Pretty good music, though.

      Big fan of Donovan, since I was about 7.

      Delete
    2. Fair enough, but he was an asshole before he left Hibbing, before he left Saint Paul, after he arrived in New York (claiming to have hitchhiked after taking the Greyhound), and when John Hammond signed him to Columbia Records.

      I bought his first seven albums and enjoyed five or six of them.

      John

      Delete
    3. . . . then ten years of shit, then Blood On the Tracks, then 47 years of shit. Quite a bit of shit for a generational spokesman.

      jtb

      Delete
    4. Jeez, man, I thought you were a fan. Only of the music, not the man, eh. I know nothing really about Mr Dylan's personal side, and knowing nothing works better. Means I can still listen to the music.

      He's no Dylan, but Johnny Rotten is kind of a rotten human, Courtney Love is Courtney Love, and Michael Jackson was a monster.

      Delete
    5. Yeah, Courtney Love comes as close to being a monster as the definition of monster allows. I've read a fair amount about the history of Northwest music, and I've not read about a single person who has one nice thing to say about her.

      While she is evil, Dylan is complicated. Only someone who knows absolutely nothing about music would doubt his genius. It is not rare, especially in the arts, for genius to visit one when he/she is young and depart prior to age 35. That happened to Dylan, and he is keenly aware of it. His (circa) 2002 interview with Ed Bradley bares Dylan's need to perform without the muse, and how he, more or less, deals with it.

      Cyndi Lauper, whose music I rather like wrote a song called "Money Changes Everything". It damn sure does.

      sleep well, brother,

      John

      Delete
    6. Just to be historically/factually accurate, "Money Changes Everything" was not written by Cyndi Lauper, though she covered it. It was written by a man named Tom Gray who was in a band called The Brains. It appeared on their self-titled debut album for Mercury Records in 1980, several years before Lauper made it a hit.

      Delete
    7. Always loved Lauper. She's still making pretty good music. I bought some mp3s off a recent album of hers a few years ago. It's probably the last music I'll buy, as that was just before I figured out how to swipe and torrent and lost my scruples about doing so. But she's never come close to topping her first album, She's So Unusual.

      Delete
    8. Just to be even more historically accurate: Tom Gray and the Brains released a single of Money Changes Everything on either their own label (most likely) or a small indy in 1978.

      In terms of pure cultural impact and sales, She's So Unusual was Lauper's most successful album by far. I know nothing, though, about how good or bad her successive albums have been. I'd like to think they're all pretty good, as I like her. But if likable people and good intentions made for great albums, there'd we thousands more great albums and fewer mediocre ones. -- Arden

      Delete
    9. Arden, thanks for the correction. I somehow missed The Brains entirely. I mean that in every way possible.

      best,

      John

      Delete
    10. No Brains here, either.

      If you're gonna do a remake of a movie or a cover of a song, you gotta make it better, and Ms Lauper did that.

      Delete
    11. Before I got the facts wrong on "Money Changes Everything", I was making a point about Dylan. I just finished a book about the recording sessions for Blood On the Tracks (1974, released in 1975). Everybody knows the story of Al Kooper and the recording of three marvelous albums in 14 months (1964, 1965). So a small point here is that Dylan surrounded himself with terrific musicians after his first album, and these innovative studio guys made Dylan's very good lyrics sound brilliant.

      Blood On the Tracks is one of the best albums recorded in the rock age. Dylan recorded it in New York, the recording was imperfect because Dylan treated his studio musicians like employees instead of collaborators, and he rerecorded half of it quietly in Minneapolis with musicians his brother David recruited. Dylan, at David's behest, treated these musicians as partners. Dylan's little brother saved BOTT from Dylan, and managed to put together a masterpiece of an album. No question that Dylan wrote these brilliant songs in the first place, but he really had a hard time working with people who played better than he did.

      After BOTT, Dylan's muse took the Greyhound to parts unknown. The next 47 years of Dylan's career was odd: virtually every live performance was a sellout, and he never wrote another compelling song.

      John

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    12. Money and comfort is the culprit. This assessment is fueled entirely by ignorance, but the best art comes from being hungry. Dylan hasn't known hunger in a long time, and maybe doesn't remember it.

      It's the difference between hungry George Lucas in the 1970s making three very good Star Wars films, and billionaire George Lucas twenty years later dropping three hot turds and saying they're Star Wars too.

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    13. Just to be clear: don't believe Dylan's mythologies. He grew up in a middle class home with a fairly stern father and an adoring mother. He got three squares a day. The day he hit New York, Dave Van Ronk and wife fed him until the women took over. I know he's thin, but that's from squeezing his wallet. Dylan wrote and recorded thirty good songs, maybe a few more. That's quite an accomplishment. And, to me, he had an agreeable voice. That's a gift. He was a way-above average guitar player and an adequate piano player. John Hammond signed Dylan to Columbia within a year of his arrival, and he was a fairly hot property before he signed. So Dylan lived for a year or so with a fairly low income. Other than that, he's been comfortable, then rich, and now wealthy, but never hungry.

      John

      Delete

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